First Blood for 92

 

The terrible conflict now known as the First World War had raged for three years when No 92 Squadron was formed as a Canadian unit of the Royal Flying Corps, at London Colney in Hertfordshire on 1st September 1917.
This is the story of how this little Canadian unit contributed to the allies’ cause by helping to bring an end to the war.  Then how, in the Second World War, the Squadron was to become the top scoring fighter squadron in the Battle of Britain, the Desert Air Force, and indeed throughout the entire war.  Then later how the Squadron adapted to the more sophisticated aircraft of the modern Royal Air Force.

Back in 1917, under the command of Captain P.A.O. Leask, the Squadron began training on such aircraft, now almost legendary, as SE5As, Sopwith Pups, SPAD single-seat scouts and AVRO 504s.  The question of a suitable Squadron emblem was very soon solved by choosing the Maple leaf from their native country.  The Maple leaf still exists in the Squadron badge today.
   
After two weeks at Colney the Squadron moved to Chattis Hill in Hampshire where training commenced and the first fatality occurred. Second Lieutenant Willie Rhodes Bailey was killed on 19 January when, according to a letter from Captain Leask, who said that Willie "was flying very low at the time of the accident. He had just done a "roll" when the machine commenced to spin and he had not height enough to get it out before striking the ground.". On 23rd March 1918 the squadron moved to Tangmere in West Sussex. Here the Squadron met their new commanding officer, Major A.E. Coningham DSO MC, a New Zealander, who was to lead them through the remainder of the war.  In World War Two, No 92 was to fly and fight as part of the Desert Air Force commanded by the same man, Air Vice-Marshal Sir Arthur ‘Mary’ Coningham, KCB DSO MC DFC AFC RAF.

By 2nd July 1918 the Squadron was declared operational and with a full complement of SE5As they moved to France, via Lympne and Marquise to Bray-Dunes, arriving there on the 4th. The next week was spent flying ‘practise patrols’ and viewing the front line from Nieuport to Dixmude and Ypres, then Operational flying patrols started on 12th July. 

One must remember that the aerial chivalry associated with the First World War had ended by 1918.  At the beginning of the war aviators accepted their allies and enemies alike as members of a noble knighthood.  Indeed, life was very pleasant for airborne soldiers in 1914.  Flights over hostile territory were gay interludes as enemy pilots waved airily to each other.  Neither side had capacity for much else.  Aircraft were unarmed but the pilots wore side arms, mostly to indicate that they were in military service.  Every aviator enjoyed the full time service of a mechanic and a personal batman and everyone was quartered in safety at least twenty miles behind the lines.  The German pilots were treated especially well.  When stationed in occupied France they chose whichever chateau or well-stocked Inn they fancied.  In fact pilots were exposed to much more inconvenience than danger in 1914.  Since motor oil coagulated to the consistency of grease in cold weather, non-congealing castor oil was substituted as an engine lubricant and the fumes belched directly from the engine into the aviator’s face.  An hour of such inhalation had the same effect on human plumbing as several tablespoons of the cathartic.

The Royal Flying Corps in 1914 consisted of thirty obsolete sporting aircraft.  They had flown across the English Channel and landed near Amiens on 13 August.  Two weeks later they forced down their first enemy aircraft, in a manner similar to cowboys hemming in a runaway steer. Captain H.D. Harvey-Kelly accompanied by two aircraft of his squadron, was flying high on routine patrol when he noticed a German aircraft flying several thousand feet below.  Alerting his two pilots, Harvey-Kelly dived towards his quarry. Afraid that the wild Englishman would crash into him, the German dived earthwards.  As he levelled off, a glance over his shoulder warned him that Harvey-Kelly was above and behind him.  The two other British pilots quickly grasped the tactic and flanked the German forcing him to land.  Before his plane rolled to a stop, the terrified pilot jumped out and disappeared into a wooded area.  After burning his aircraft the Britons flew back to base and shared their manoeuvre with their comrades.  The Royal Flying Corps repeated this tactic against other enemy aircraft until machine guns were installed on aircraft.

One day in September 1914 a pilot decided that war was a grim battle, drew his pistol, and fired at a passing enemy aircraft instead of waving.  Shortly thereafter French observers in two-seater planes began toting rifles, but strong winds and the bone-shaking engine vibrations drastically impaired their accuracy.  Other observers carried bricks to fling at a German propeller, even at the pilot.  Some were armed with containers of flechettes; pencil sized steel arrows, to drop on enemy aviators.  By all accounts these were more successfully employed in dart games.

Small bombs and hand grenades were tried with limited success but, as bomb sights were unheard of, the pilot or his observer dropped the missile over the side aiming by eye.  No allowance was made for speed or crosswind and results were appalling.  Out of 141 bombing raids made on railway depots to paralyse troop movements, only three were successful.

Parachutes were used by balloon observers but not by aviators or their observers.  Cockpits were too small to allow parachutes and no one thought of designing an aircraft with enough room for them!  If a damaged aircraft could not glide safely to the ground, the pilot would usually die in the wreckage.  If their aircraft was on fire pilots would usually jump to their death rather than be burned alive.  To protect themselves against bullets from low flying enemy aircraft or ground troops, aviators sat on cast iron stove lids.

With the increasing exchange of rifle and pistol fire, some Allied pilots began to mount machine guns.  As no one had yet devised a means of firing bullets through a whirling propeller machine guns were installed on the upper wing of bi-planes, or carried at the front of the pusher type aircraft which had the propellers in the rear.  Often the heavy weight of a Lewis machine gun kept an Allied plane from gaining the altitude that an unarmed aircraft was capable of.  German pilots soon learned to ignore Allied aircraft on which no machine guns were visible and to keep ahead of, and above, those showing signs of weapons.   

In 1915 both sides were producing new and improved aircraft designed exclusively for military use.  It was a process of action and reaction in which each invention was countered by a defensive or offensive development to neutralise the new advantage.  The French designed the first system for firing through an aircraft’s propeller and for a few weeks the Germans were perplexed.  They suffered the loss of six aircraft before the French pilot, Roland Garros, had engine trouble and landed behind the enemy lines.  Before he could burn his aircraft, and the secret of his through-propeller firing Hotchkiss gun, the German soldiers leapt on him.  His American invented gun, mounted in front of the cockpit, was aimed directly towards the wooden propeller.  The blades facing the gun’s muzzle were protected by wedge shaped steel plates, deflecting those bullets which struck the propeller.  This invention was almost as hazardous to the pilot as to his enemies for ricocheting bullets might have smashed into the engine or the pilot. 

The Germans ordered the young Dutchman, Anthony Fokker, to duplicate the French invention, giving him a time limit of 48 hours in which to do so.  Not only did Fokker and his mechanics duplicate it, they bettered it, and within the prescribed time limit they developed the synchronised machine gun that was able to fire through the propeller arc without hitting the blades.  His invention incorporated a system of cams that allowed the weapon to fire only when the propeller was not aligned with the gun.

To prevent their new invention falling into Allied hands the German pilots were forbidden to fly anywhere near the front lines.  But an aviator in his Fokker E-1 monoplane, fitted with Fokker’s new gun, lost his way in fog and landed in Allied territory.  Like Garros he was captured before he had time to burn his aircraft, thus the Allies received the secret that was to make the SE5As of No 92 Squadron one of the most feared fighter aircraft of the First World War.

The SE5A was a single seat scout, one of the best known in the war.  It was fitted with a 200 horse power Wolseley Viper engine which gave it a maximum speed of 132 miles per hour.  It could climb to a height of 10,000 feet in 11 ½ minutes and had a ceiling of 20,000 feet.  When loaded, the aircraft weighed 2,048 lbs.  The SE5A was faster than the French Spads and Nieuports, though less manoeuvrable than the Nieuport.  Although it was unable to turn with the DVII (probably the best German scout in wide use at the end of the war), because of its firepower, speed and high ceiling the SE5A, together with the Camel, enabled the Allies to regain air superiority in 1918.

Contrasting the performance of Grinnell-Milne’s 1915 BE2C, which carried two airmen and one machine gun, with the two machine guns (Vickers and Lewis) and high performance of the one-seater SE5A one can measure the technical progress achieved between 1915 and 1917.
The flying patrols mounted by 92 Squadron continued along the front line from 12 to 17 July 1918, their purpose being to intercept and shoot down any enemy aircraft met whilst flying over Allied Territory.  However, during these patrols there were no encounters with the enemy so the Squadron was ordered to mount Offensive Patrols.  The first Offensive Patrol was launched on 18th July 1918.  This involved crossing the Front line in an endeavour to bring down enemy aircraft or to shoot up any likely looking targets on the ground.  It was at this stage that, for the first time, the log book recalls any damage to our aircraft other than accidents during takeoff or on one occasion when the ‘Machine tipped on nose whilst being taken out of the shed by Officers’.  On Offensive Patrols the aircraft were vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire from the ground forces and on the Squadron’s first such patrol of six aircraft led by ‘A’ Flight Commander, Captain James Robb, Lieutenant Philcox’s aircraft received a shot through the main spar and Lieutenants Harveyson and Good both had engine trouble.

The wood and fabric constitution of the First World War flying machine did not suffer from the technical problems of today’s sophisticated jets, and the Ground Crew of No 92 Squadron were able to patch up all the machines and have them flying again the following morning.  This included changing the right hand bottom plane of machine number 6862. 
On the following day, a Friday, the Squadron moved from Bray-Dunes to Drionville, except for Lieutenant Harveyson who crashed after fifteen minutes flying time at Berques, writing off his aircraft.  He caught up with the rest of 92 in time for their next Offensive Patrol on Monday morning.  However, his luck didn’t change and after a Five a.m. take off, while crossing the enemy lines his aircraft was hit, shot through the leading edge.  He stayed with the formation and landed with them at seven o’clock to discover that another right hand bottom plane was required, this time for No 1887.  Any supplier will admit that the spares situation in those days was a lot more flexible than it is today.

 

Later on the Monday evening 22 July, Captain Robb and his ‘Number Two’, Lieutenant C.M. Holbrook, took off at six p.m. for a two hour sortie.  They flew across the Front lines and met their first Hun machine, a Pfaltz fighter.  After a brief ‘Dog Fight’ Captain Robb closed in for the kill, firing until the enemy aircraft disintegrated in front of him.  Later he became Air Chief Marshal Sir James Robb GCB KBE DSO DFC AFC RAF and Commander-in-Chief of RAF Fighter Command from 1945 to 1947.  He had in the words of communiqué No 17 ‘Scored First Blood for 92 Squadron’.
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