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Machines of the RNAS and the RFC at the Beginning of the War of 1914-18


Sopwith Tabloid aeroplane






























WHEN THE ROYAL FLYING CORPS went to France during the war, four Sopwith Tabloid machines - one of which is illustrated above - were among the aeroplanes sent out to form an Aircraft Park from which replacements could be drawn. The Tabloids, which were fitted with 80 horse-power Gnome engines, were transported in cases. The speed of these single-seater tractor biplanes was 92 miles an hour at sea level. The remainder of the machines for the Aircraft Park were flown to France.




THE Royal Naval Air Service and the Royal Flying Corps were using in 1914 aeroplanes both of home and of foreign origin. At that time, although there were numerous aircraft builders in Great Britain, there were few manufacturers of aero engines. The aircraft of both Services were, therefore, powered almost exclusively by engines manufactured on the Continent. Most of the engines were designed and built in France.


At the beginning of the war of 1914-1918 both flying Services were in a chrysalis stage, for aviation had not yet emerged as an effective arm. Admiralty and War Office departments responsible for the two air Services, the officers commanding units and the pilots themselves were all feeling their way towards the development of naval and military aviation. No one could lay down hard and fast rules for the air.


Aircraft were not classified - as they are now - into bombers, fighters, Army cooperation or torpedo-spotter reconnaissance aeroplanes. Designers had not reached any definite conclusions about the general outline of aeroplanes. There were biplanes fitted with the engine arranged to turn a pusher airscrew between the tail booms. There were monoplanes and biplanes with the engine mounted in the fuselage nose to drive a tractor airscrew.


The complete aircraft complement of the RNAS was like that of an experimental station. The RNAS had a greater assortment of aeroplanes than the RFC. This was scarcely an operational advantage in war, although it helped to strengthen the aircraft industry. Shortly before the war the Navy was experimenting with the carriage of torpedoes, guns and bombs in RNAS aeroplanes, but progress was slow. The aeroplanes of the RFC were all frail, slow and unarmed; they were no different from aircraft used for sporting and instructional flying. Aerial photography and radio communication between the aeroplane and the ground had not passed the stage of experiment. RFC pilots, trained to the traditions of the Army, looked upon their aeroplanes as the eyes of the Army.


When the war broke out, the air Services of Great Britain owned a heterogeneous, collection of unrelated and largely unsuitable aeroplanes. They had swiftly to be arranged in units most convenient for the organizations that they had to serve. The British air units were then the squadron, the sub-unit and the flight. This classification has survived both in the Royal Air Force and in the Fleet Air Arm.


When reviewing the early types of war aeroplanes it is necessary, to avoid confusion, to consider the two Services separately. There was considerable difference between them, not only in equipment, but also in method of use.


In the opening days of the war the RNAS owned forty landplanes and thirty-one seaplanes, made by thirteen different constructors. These seventy-one aeroplanes included thirty-three different types (counting a different engine as a variant type). The eighteen different types of engine were built by six different makers - Anzani, Austro-Daimler, Gnome, Mercedes, Renault and Salmson (Canton-Unne).


There were thirteen different makes of landplanes. Eleven were biplanes - the Avro, B.E.2, Bristol, Caudron, DFW, Henri Farman, Maurice Farman, R.E.5, Short, Sopwith and Vickers. Two makes, the Bleriot and the Deperdussin, were monoplanes. The seaplanes will be dealt with in a later chapter.


By the end of 1914 the war needs of naval aviation had gone far to curtail the earlier multiplicity of types. The principal landplanes then flying were the Avro, Bristol, Henri Farman, Maurice Farman, Grahame-White Box-Kite, Morane-Saulnier and Sopwith Tabloid.


When mobilization was ordered four squadrons of the RFC - Nos. 2, 3, 4 and 5 - were hurriedly equipped to go to France. Before they proceeded overseas an attempt was made to standardize the flying equipment for each squadron, but the mixed collection of types and the small numbers of aeroplanes owned by the RFC enabled this to be done only in two instances. No. 2 and No. 4 Squadrons were fully equipped with the B.E.2, described below.


No. 3 Squadron was a mixed unit using Bleriot monoplanes and Henri Farman biplanes, both fitted with 80 horse-power Gnome engines. No. 5 Squadron had three different types of biplane, the Henri Farman, the Avro 179 and the B.E.8, all fitted with 80 horse-power Gnome engines.

For Reconnaissance Only


An Aircraft Park went overseas as well. It had four Sopwith Tabloid, three B.E.8 and three Henri Farman aeroplanes, all fitted with 80 horsepower Gnome engines, and nine B.E.2 aeroplanes and one B.E.2c, having 70 horse-power Renault engines.


The Sopwith Tabloids went overseas in cases. About 50 per cent of the other machines were used to bring squadrons up to strength before dispatch; the remainder were flown across the Channel to the Aircraft Park in France. When the Royal Flying Corps took the field in France the Home establishment was virtually denuded of every serviceable aeroplane considered to be of any value for war purposes. The Maurice Farmans were thought unsuitable for war purposes and were left behind to act as training types. They generally served this purpose from 1914 to 1917, though some RFC squadrons used them.


At first the RFC aeroplanes were used almost entirely for reconnaissance duties. But for their flights the battle of Mons, Belgium (August 22-23, 1914), might have developed otherwise than it did.


The aeroplanes were not offensive weapons in themselves. Their crews carried perhaps a rifle or a revolver for defence if they were forced to land, and some carried darts which were thought to be suitable for dropping from the air. The darts were about the size and length of an ordinary pencil, finely pointed and fluted. The idea was that they would penetrate anything which they hit. The likelihood, however, of their doing any damage was remote. There was no such thing as air war. The aeroplanes were used as scouts acting on behalf of military formations on the ground.


Before the end of 1914 a few other types of aeroplane had been added to those in use by the RFC. They were the Bristol Scout (80 horse-power Gnome), the Caudron (80 horse-power Gnome), the Morane Scout (80 horsepower Le Rhone) and the R.E.5 (120 horse-power Beardmore Austro-Daimler). Not long before the war began William Beardmore & Co, Ltd, had arranged to build, under licence, the Austro-Daimler engines in Great Britain. About two of these engines had been assembled when war was declared.


THE STABILITY OF THE B.E.2c was remarkable




THE STABILITY OF THE B.E.2c was remarkable. It was possible to take off in this machine by steering with the rudder and not touching the control column at all. The B.E.2c was used by the RFC for reconnaissance work, and by the RFC and the RNAS for anti-Zeppelin patrols. A 70 horse-power Renault engine was first fitted, but later a 90-100 horsepower RAF engine was used which gave the machine a top speed of 72 miles an hour.






This brief review of the air situation at the beginning of war in 1914 is a necessary prelude to the detailed consideration of the types of aeroplanes that were first used. The Avro 179 (1914-15) was a two-seater tractor biplane fitted with an 80 horse-power Gnome seven-cylinder air-cooled rotary engine. It had large enough tanks to fly for four hours and it had a speed of 62 miles an hour at 6,500 feet. It was used by the RNAS and by Nos. 1, 3 and 5 Squadrons, RFC. Three RNAS Avros, each carrying four 20-lb bombs, attacked the Zeppelin sheds at Friedrichshafen, Germany, on November 21, 1914. They were flown by Squadron Commander E. F. Briggs, Flight Commander J. T. Babington and Flight Lieutenant S. V. Sippe. Briggs was shot down. The other two returned safely. From Belfort, in eastern France, the out-and-back journey (about 250 miles) took three hours fifty-five minutes. The RFC used the Avro 179 as a general-purpose type.


The B.E.2 (1914-15) was designed and built at the Royal Aircraft Factory at Farnborough, Hampshire. It was fitted with an eight-cylinder Renault Y-shaped air-cooled stationary engine of 70 horse-power. It carried a crew of two and could reach 65 miles an hour at 6,500 feet. It was used by the RNAS and by Nos. 2, 4, 6 and 9 Squadrons, RFC, as a general-purpose type. The B.E.2c (1914-17), also designed and built at Farnborough, was fitted first with a 70 horse-power Renault engine and later with the 90-100 horse-power RAF 1a engine designed at Farnborough. This was an eight-cylinder V-shaped air-cooled stationary engine. The aeroplane was a two-seater and was remarkable for its stability. It was possible to take off by opening the throttle and steering with the rudder, without touching the control column at all. The pilot sat in the rear seat and the observer in the front seat between the upper and lower wings.

The “Bloater”


The B.E.2e was used in the RFC for corps reconnaissance work and, fitted with the RAF 1a engine, could reach 72 miles an hour at 6,500 feet. Its service ceiling was 10,000 feet and duration of flight three and a quarter hours. It was used in RFC Squadrons Nos. 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 12, 13, 15, 16 and 21. The RNAS and RFC used it, in addition, for anti-Zeppelin patrols.


Another type designed and built at Farnborough was the B.E.8 (1914-15), commonly known as the “Bloater”. This was a two-seater tractor biplane with an 80 horse-power Gnome engine, and could reach 70 miles an hour at sea level. It was used as a general purpose type by RFC Squadrons Nos. 1, 3, 5 and 6.


The Bleriot (1914) was a two-seater fitted with an 80 horse-power Gnome engine. This tractor monoplane had a top speed of 66 miles an hour at sea level. The RNAS had only one Bleriot at the outbreak of war. The RFC used this type in Squadrons Nos. 3, 5, 6, 9 and 16 for general purpose duties.


The Bristol Scout (1914-16) was one of the earliest single-seater military aeroplanes. As its name implies, this little biplane was intended to be a speedy scouting plane, not a fighter. The term “scout” became current and was often applied to single-seater fighters, even in the later years of the war.


The early Bristol Scout had an 80 horse-power Gnome engine and could reach 89 miles an hour at 6,500 feet. It had a flight duration of two and a half hours and a service ceiling of 15,500 feet. It was used by Nos. 6, 8 and 16 Squadrons, RFC. The later model mounted an 80 horse-power Le Rhone nine-cylinder rotary air-cooled engine which gave it a speed of 86½ miles an hour at 10,000 feet. It was used by RFC Squadrons Nos. 1, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 13, 15, 18, 21 and 25, and by the RNAS.


The RE5 was a TWO-SEATER TRACTOR BIPLANE which was used as a day bomber and for reconnaissance work































A TWO-SEATER TRACTOR BIPLANE which was used as a day bomber and for reconnaissance work. Built by the Royal Aircraft Factory at Farnborough, Hampshire, it was known as the R.E.5. The engine was a 120 horse-power Beardmore Austro-Daimler, which gave the aircraft a speed of 78 miles an hour at sea level. Machines of this type were used by Squadrons Nos. 2, 7 and 16 of the Royal Flying Corps.



The Caudron (1914-15) two-seater tractor biplane was fitted with an 80 horse-power Gnome or an 80 horse-power Le Rhone. With the first engine its speed was 66 and with the second engine 71 miles an hour at sea level. The machine had a flight duration of four hours and a service ceiling of 10,000 feet. Used by RFC Squadrons Nos. 1, 4 and 5, this aeroplane had all the characteristics of pusher design except for the engine position in the nose of the nacelle. It was used for general purpose duties.


The Henri Farman (1914) was a pusher biplane fitted with an 80 horsepower Gnome engine. It carried two in a little nacelle in front of the wings. Its speed was 60 miles an hour at sea level. It was used by the RNAS and by RFC Squadrons Nos. 3, 5 and 6, for general purpose duties. A later model, the “All-Steel” Henri Farman, fitted with a 140 horse-power Salmson (Canton-Unne) radial engine gave 90 miles an hour at 6,500 feet and 88 miles an hour at 10,000 feet. Its flight duration was four hours. It was used in 1915 and 1916, but did not form the basic equipment of any squadron.


The Maurice Farman (1914-17) was made in two types, both fitted with the 70 horse-power Renault engine. It was a pusher biplane with the propeller turning between the tail booms; the crew were carried in a nacelle which projected in front of the wings. It had a speed of 66 miles an hour at ground level and a flight duration of three and three-quarter hours. It was used in Nos. 4, 9 and 16 Squadrons, RFC.


The two types of Maurice Farman were nicknamed “Longhorn” and “Shorthorn”. The Longhorn had a forward elevator mounted on outriggers in front of the main planes, which operated in conjunction with the elevator mounted behind the tailplane. The Shorthorn did not have this forward elevator, but two skids that formed part of the main frame of the undercarriage projected in front of the wings. Mainly used for training purposes, these aircraft were flown by almost all the early pilots of the RFC, not being superseded until 1917. Both types were two-seaters. The pupil occupied the front seat.


Influence of French Design


The Morane Scout (1914-16) was a little single-seater tractor monoplane. Like the Bristol, it was merely a scout. It was fitted with an 80 horse-power and later with a 110 horse-power Le Rhone rotary air-cooled engine. It had a flight duration of one and three-quarter hours. With the bigger engine it had a speed of 102½ miles an hour at 6,500 feet and 96 miles an hour at 10,000 feet. Its service ceiling was 13,000 feet. It was used by No. 4 Squadron, RFC.


The R.E.5 (1914-15) was a two-seater tractor biplane designed and built by the Royal Aircraft Factory at Farnborough. It was used as a day bomber and reconnaissance aeroplane. Equipped with the 120 horse-power Beardmore Austro-Daimler engine, it had a speed of 78 miles an hour at sea level. The R.E.5 was used by Nos. 2, 7 and 16 Squadrons, RFC.


The Sopwith Tabloid (1914) was a single-seater tractor biplane scout, fitted with an 80 hp Gnome rotary engine. It was unarmed, had a speed of 92 mph at sea level, and was used by the RNAS and by No. 3 Squadron, RFC.


The aeroplanes described in this chapter were in use before real fighting in the air began. But the Morane and Bristol Scouts were eventually fitted with a machine-gun and so became single-seater fighting scouts.


The dates given in parenthesis after the name of each aeroplane denote the period of its active service use during the war, except for the Maurice Farman, where the dates show the period of service as training aeroplanes.


The Royal Flying Corps depended greatly upon the French aircraft industry in the early days of the war. The first engines were exclusively French. Then, in the period under review, came the RAF 1a and the Beardmore engines, the first virtually a British Renault and the other a British Austro-Daimler.


As the use of the air arm developed, it became necessary to design and build aeroplanes specially for particular duties. Types that succeeded those described in this chapter fall properly into certain categories, such as fighter, bomber and reconnaissance machine. Later chapters will, therefore, deal with the later types by category, thus showing the evolution of each class of aeroplane from the beginnings of military types to the point reached by this trend of development at the end of the war in 1918.




















THREE AVROS OF THE RNAS flew from Belfort, in eastern France, to Friedrichshafen, Germany, on November 21, 1914. This photograph shows two of the machines before the start. Each Avro carried four 20-lb bombs and the pilots of the aircraft attacked the Zeppelin sheds at Friedrichshafen. One of the aeroplanes was shot down but the other two returned safely. The out-and-back journey of 250 miles took three hours fifty-five minutes.


[From Part 18, published 5 July 1938]


This is the first article in the series Aeroplanes of the Great War.



Aeroplanes of the Great War - 1