100 years ago…
It all began with the British Army manoeuvres in 1913 that were to be of unprecedented size and scope…
The main plan was to exercise the logistics support services, as the horse-drawn wagons of the Army Service Corps were in the process of being replaced with motor vehicles. The Army wanted to know whether a single main road could carry the motorised traffic necessary to support two divisions. A fluid scenario was essential and the enemy, ‘Whiteland’ forces, consisting of a small cavalry screen. They would retreat northwards, across Buckinghamshire, in the direction of Nuneaton pursued by the main ‘Brownland’ army made up of three divisions. To assemble the necessary forces in the vicinity of Aylesbury, divisional manoeuvres were held between 11 and 19 September 1913.
The first phase of the exercise deployment ended on 19 September and the time had come for the separate Divisions to coalesce into whole armies. The troops were to be given 3 days rest, encamped on private estates across mid-Buckinghamshire, while the staffs reorganised. The arrival of the two armies, made up of some 50,000 troops, with 14,000 horses, artillery and hundreds of supply wagons, made an enormous impression on the local populace. It is hardly surprising that their lines of march and camp sites were the objects of enormous curiosity and all who could got out to enjoy the spectacle.
On the Halton estate Mr Alfred de Rothschild welcomed the troops with open arms. These included a brigade of Guards, battalions of the Black Watch and Munster Fusiliers and a battery of field artillery. Not content to merely allow them onto his land, he had hired marquees and caterers to ensure their every comfort. The military authorities had rejected his offer to provide all meals for the troops but this failed to deter him from supplementing their rations on a most generous scale. On three successive evenings 3,000 soldiers were given a high tea of hot pies, cold meats, bread and butter, washed down with tea, beer and mineral waters. Indeed, the beer was served by the quart and Lt Allen noted that, hot from the long march, the troops did it ample justice. It is no wonder that their host was received with hearty cheering when he visited the mess tent!
After its successful debut in the 1912 manoeuvres, when its aircraft had played a crucial role in detecting every move of the opponent’s forces for whichever side they were supporting, the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) was expected to play a full part in the proceedings. The airships of 1 Squadron and the aircraft of 4 and 5 Squadrons were to support the ‘Whiteland’ army while 3 Squadron was allocated to ‘Brownland’. The new corps had few precedents to follow and preparations were protracted and involved. Commander of 3 Squadron RFC was Major Robert “Brookham” Brooke-Popham. A shortage of manpower had to be overcome to allocate a pilot and observer to each aircraft and appoint an adjutant and transport officer. This was accomplished by the loan of personnel who had been given up to facilitate the formation of 5 Squadron and the diversion to ground duties of Lts Allen and Christie. Aircraft were to be prepared and the undersides of the wings marked to facilitate recognition from the ground. This was long before the now familiar RAF ‘roundel’ was introduced and the under-wing area had to be divided into five equal areas, the outer and centre of which were to be painted black (a reversal of which became the D-Day markings for Allied aircraft in the Second World War). Transport had to be brought up to the approved scale of tenders, lorries, mobile workshops and motorcycles. Tents were to be assembled, for men and aircraft servicing, and special weather-proof canvas covers for cockpits, engines and propellers were to be made by the tailor because tents for overnight storage of aircraft were not deemed necessary by the authorities.
“Brookham” received a confidential briefing on the plans and was authorised to reconnoitre the area of operations to identify suitable landing grounds. These were required to be at least 200 yards square without stones or ridges and furrows and with hedges no more than five feet high. If higher obstacles were found the length was to be extended by a distance equivalent to 12 times the extra height or 1:12 gradient (these days for higher performance machines the minimum used is 1:20 for up to an 800 metre runway. Having served in the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry for many years “Brookham” knew most of the landowners in the area well and could command hospitality wherever he went. Travelling in the taxi, hired by the Army for the purpose, he would drop in and accept the meal that was invariably offered. His Adjutant, who accompanied him, found this proceeding extremely difficult. His leader rarely told him of his plans and almost invariably fell asleep after coffee, leaving Allen to carry on a polite conversation with his hosts.
The availability of aircraft was also an issue. At this early stage in the history of flying the serious production of airframes in any quantity was confined to a few French pioneer constructors. The Royal Aircraft Factory (known confusingly as the RAF) at Farnborough was experimenting with its early designs and other British makers were also only at the development stage, or were building French models under license in small numbers. Thus the RFC was forced to use what it could get, using a great variety of types with considerable problems in maintaining serviceability. Eventually, 3 Squadron managed to field 11 of the 12 machines expected. They were a typical mix for the time: 4 Henry Farman F 20s, 4 Bleriots and 3 different Bleriot Experimental types from the Royal Aircraft Factory: a BE 2a, a BE 3 and a BE 4.
The Henry Farman was a two-seat pusher biplane built in France by one of a pair of English brothers, Henry and Maurice. Their aircraft followed the principles of the Wright brothers’ designs but with a nacelle to protect the crew, aileron control in place of wing-warping and the removal of the forward elevator on most models. Slow, stable and easy to fly, their products were to be used in considerable numbers for initial training before and throughout WW I.
The Bleriots were tractor monoplanes very similar to the machine in which Louis Bleriot had crossed the channel in 1909. However, the 23 hp Anzani engine in his original machine had been replaced with a 50 hp Gnome rotary in the single seaters and 70 and 80 hp Gnomes in the two seaters. Also the tail plane and elevator had been redesigned and the tail wheel replaced with a skid (to aid stopping in an era prior to the introduction of wheel brakes!). Although extremely popular for air races and widely used by European air forces for reconnaissance and bombing it was to be relegated rapidly to the training role and then to obscurity once serious hostilities started.
Rather more advanced in design were the three Royal Aircraft Factory ‘Bleriot Experimentals” or B.E.s. The “Bleriot” referred to Bleriot’s tractor design with the propeller at the front and not who designed it. The B.E.2 made its maiden flight on 1 February 1912, with Geoffrey de Havilland at the controls. He appears to have judged it entirely satisfactory as built, for no modifications are recorded to have been required. This is not altogether surprising when it is remembered that all the necessary development work had effectively been carried out during the testing of the B.E.1. On Friday 17 May 12 de Havilland flew the B.E.2 before the King and Queen in company with some other machines, as part of His Majesty’s official review of the armed forces, and on the 31st he climbed it to 6,050ft in 15 minutes. The B.E.2 flew throughout World War One, mostly as a reconnaissance platform, and some 3,500 B.E.2s were built by over 20 different manufacturers to the Royal Aircraft Factory designs. The B.E.3 and B.E.4 were not so successful and were never put into significant production.
For the RFC’s aircraft Mr Rothschild had provided a field from which the sheep had been cleared on the other side of the Tring Road from the main encampment. This is the site on which the Maitland Parade Square and barrack blocks were to be built during the 1920s. It conformed to the official RFC size requirements but, being close under the ridge of the Chilterns and sloping downwards to the West, access from the air was not easy. Pilots coming in to land were faced with the options of landing uphill, with the prevailing wind, or of approaching from the South along the side of the hills and turning into wind to land down hill with only a tail-skid as a brake. Fortunately, their aircraft was capable of landing in very short spaces but the fact that the permanent airfield of what was to become RAF Halton was established a mile away to the North is hardly surprising. On this sloping pasture the ground crew, under the direction of the adjutant and the transport officer, erected the tents, identified the centre of the landing ground with a large white cross of American Cloth and marked its perimeter with yellow flags. They then settled down to await the arrival of the aircraft while enjoying three meals a day provided by their host.
According to the account in the local newspapers, the first aircraft they saw on the Wednesday 17 September 1913 did not touch down. It appeared and made a detailed reconnaissance of the landing ground before disappearing over Coombe Hill. It was followed on the afternoon of Thursday 18 September 1913 by the four aircraft of ‘B’ Flight, under the command of Captain Herbert all landing in the designated area. Unfortunately the identity of the first to land has eluded the reporters of the event. The rest flew in during the following 2 days, the first to land being recorded as the Bleriot of Lt Joubert de la Ferte, at 1.30 pm on the Friday. Half an hour later the excitement of the occasion was heightened dramatically, if unintentionally, by Lt Wadham. Misjudging his final approach, his Bleriot overshot the landing area, narrowly missed some spectators and ended up in the hedge beside the Wendover-Tring road. Fortunately he and his mechanic, AM 1 Bowyer, were uninjured and the only damage to the aircraft was a broken propeller – Halton’s first aircraft accident.
We should remember, at this point, that these events took place a mere 5 years after the first flight in Britain and that the vast majority of the population would never have seen an aeroplane. The chance to feast their eyes on this new technology at first hand provoked great excitement. Rope barriers — guarded by two policeman and the estates’ 12 game-keepers — had to be erected to control the crowds of onlookers, who were present in greatest force on Sunday when they were very disappointed that the poor weather prevented flying. Sympathetic to their curiosity, Major Brooke-Popham arranged to have aircraft parked where they could be seen and allowed generous access to the local press who reported on every aspect of the manoeuvres in great detail. Meanwhile, his officers were entertained to a special performance of Mr Rothschild’s private miniature circus, with their host acting as ringmaster.
On Monday 22 September the day dawned foggy and reconnaissance sorties could only be launched after 11 am. In spite of this, the early morning was enlivened considerably by the emergence from the mist of the airship Delta which was observing for the ‘Whiteland’ forces. A Henry Farman, which happened to be airborne at the time, headed straight for the enemy and a Bleriot and a BE took off quickly to intercept. In the space of six minutes these latter were able to fly around and climb above the interloper, allowing 3 Squadron to claim that they could have destroyed it, had they been armed for the purpose. This event was seen as having great military significance and provoked considerable discussion after the manoeuvres. The fact that an airship had reconnoitred successfully, in conditions which had grounded heavier-than-air machines, suggested a potential which was not to be borne out by later events. Nor was the opinion of the general staff, published in The Times on 4 October, that Delta would have driven the aeroplanes off, because ‘she was a steadier platform’, prove to be sound. However, the final word on this matter must go to Captain Allen, who takes 3 Squadron’s side but adds: ‘Whether of course a Zeppelin could have been so easy to tackle is another matter’.
The manoeuvres were judged a success. It said so in The Times and also in the final report, signed off by no less than the King. The former had stated that ‘Our Flying Corps can now be reported competent to supply this information and it has consequently justified its existence and its cost’. Even more important than these opinions was to be that of Sir John French, who had gained considerable confidence in the RFC’s ability. A year later, as commander of the British Expeditionary Force in France, he was to use the results of the RFC’s reconnaissance flights, the first of which was done by 3 Squadron’s Lt Joubert, to make the moves that would contain the German advance and save Paris.
These events in 1913 were to be followed by Lord Trenchard’s apprentice scheme, some 50,000+ of them in 155 entries from 1920 to 1993, augmented by vast numbers of other trainees on shorter courses, especially during World War II. Today RAF Halton is the home of recruit and non-technical ground training. It celebrates the 100th anniversary of its first encounter with the Royal Flying Corps, which went on to form half of the modern RAF in 1918. How appropriate it is that this first landing at RAF Halton should be during a training exercise — the British Army manoeuvres of 1913.
But this type of interesting history does not cease throughout the century. The origins of recreational light aviation and gliding are rooted at RAF Halton. There have been visits by Nazi test pilots prior to World War 2, landings on the grass by Vulcan bombers and Comet airliners, the first ever operational rotary wing squadron during World War 2, the crash landing of a highly-classified US special operations aircraft in 1944 and human powered flight during its long history. Some of the most influential names in aviation are connected in whole or part to RAF Halton, some went on to design the jet engine whilst others provided the inspiration and know how to build the Colditz glider. RAF Halton has a connection to all of the main advances in aviation over the past century and is set to continue for some time to come with its current activities.