The officers of the RFC comprised two categories: full time Army officers who had transferred from their Army units, and the Special Reserve, so-called 'civilian pilots' who could be called-up in an emergency. All were required to have undertaken privately-funded flying training and have obtained a Royal Aero Club certificate before secondment/entry to the RFC. If accepted into the RFC a nominal £75 was refunded to pay for the cost of instruction. They would then undertake further instruction at the Central Flying School before transfer to the Reserve Aeroplane Squadron (a pool of new and spare pilots) and on to an operational squadron.
To meet the shortage of trained pilots at the start of the war all of the members of the RFC Special Reserve were called up and the recruitment of new pilots speeded up. Many of the pilots from No.s 6 and 7 squadrons were transferred to the mobilizing squadrons. No.7 squadron was temporarily disbanded and No.s 1 and 6 squadrons effectively dissolved into the Reserve Aeroplane Squadron.
Some of the Army officers had many years of military experience and some had served during the Boar war. They represented a diverse range of regiments. They included old-Etonians and members of the aristocracy as well as career military men.
Most Special Reserve pilots had little military experience although several had become famous in air races and 'stunting' before the war. They included designer Geoffrey de Havilland who subsequently designed many RFC and post war aircraft, and BC Hucks, famous for his 'loop the loop' exploits. However all of the early wartime casualties were to be pilots of the Special Reserve.
All of the NCO's who departed with the RFC had transferred from Army units but as the war progressed the majority became 'direct entry' recruits to the RFC.
The initial plan was for all 4 squadrons (totalling 48 aircraft) to fly to Dover on the 4th day of mobilization (August 12th) and to cross to France the following day. The 24 spare aircraft for the Aircraft Park would be crated and shipped via Southampton together with a headquarters and the rest of the ground parties from each squadron, other than that of No.2 squadron, who would sail from Glasgow.
In the event it was found that there were sufficient spare pilots to fly most of the aircraft to France, including those of the Aircraft Park. The exceptions were 4 Sopwith Tabloids, as few pilots had experience with this type and as a single seater there were greater risks associated with sending them by air. There were also concerns about the strength of the undercarriage, and consequently these were the only aircraft to be sent by sea in cases.
It was subsequently realised that the Dover landing ground above the castle at St Margaret at Cliffe was not going to have sufficient space for all four squadrons and the Aircraft Park. Consequently the plan was amended for No.5 squadron to delay their departure by 2 days, so as to arrive at Dover the day after the departure of the main force and leave for France on the 15th. (The official history gives the reason for the delay as a number of accidents, but these did not occur until after departure).
Originally all the machines were to be two-seaters and would carry a mechanic as passenger to deal with mechanical problems en route. In the event a sole single-seat Bleriot Parasol joined the fleet in addition to the four Sopwith Tabloids sent by sea.
In some cases the choice of passenger was to cause some disquiet. A couple of pilots were assigned another officer as passenger, which they considered to be 'dead weight', one pilot was given an aircraft mechanic of such weight and proportions as to make takeoff questionable, and one mechanic got drunk en route and had to be arrested upon arrival.
On the 7th August Capt Reilly of No.4 squadron ferried B.E.2a 474 (one of the machines transferred from the Central Flying School) to Eastchurch, stopping at Dover en route. On arrival at Eastchurch he reported that there was insufficient overnight shed accommodation for the aircraft of the first 3 squadrons and the Aircraft Park. It was important for the fabric covered aircraft to be kept under cover, as rain or moisture could significantly increase the weight of the aircraft, despite the varnish that had been applied over the doped fabric. The aircraft had a poor performance on a good day, and the additional weight of a passenger and kit would make weight a critical factor. Consequently No.4 squadron decided to fly directly across the Channel from Eastchurch and not stop at Dover (contrary to the official plaque at Dover that commemorates the event).
An advance Headquarters party departed by sea before the main force in order to establish the landing ground at Amiens in France. This comprised Capt WGH Salmond, Major CAH Longcroft, and Temp Lt Maurice Baring (according to the official history an intelligence officer temporarily attached to the RFC, but in reality appointed Temporary Lt in the Special Reserve on the 5th August 1914) who left for France on the 11th August.
In addition a flight of 3 aircraft, equipped with wireless, would leave with the main force. Nominally attached to No.4 squadron this flight left from Eastchurch. The wireless flight initially comprised Capt C Darbyshire, Lt BT James and Lt DS Lewis, all of whom who had pioneered the use of wireless in aircraft. In the event Capt Darbyshire reported sick and so was replaced at the last moment by Lt SCW Smith. Darbyshire resigned his commission in October 1914, presumably due to his age.
The main force departing from Dover on the 13th August thus comprised No.2 squadron, No.3 squadron, and the Aircraft Park. Two flights of No.4 squadron plus the wireless flight left from Eastchurch on the 13th, leaving behind the Maurice Farmans of 'C' Flight. No.5 squadron departed from Dover on the 15th.
The landing ground at Dover came under the command of Capt HCT Dowding who would later become famous during World War 2 as leader of Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain.
In the early days of August officers returned from leave and reported for duty. Daily Routine Orders for the 5th August included a major redistribution of officers between the squadrons.
The following days saw frenetic activity as new aircraft were collected from various airfields and delivered to the mobilizing squadrons. 20 aircraft from the Central Flying School were flown from Upavon and handed to the Military Wing at Farnborough. These comprised 7 BE2a, 5 Henry Farman, 5 Maurice Farman, 1 Bleriot, 1 Morane and an impressed Avro.
16 privately owned aircraft were impressed into service with the military wing, and the Navy acquired further private aircraft. These were a motley collection of early Avro, Bleriot, Bristol, Sopwith, Morane and Farman types for which the RFC paid between £600 and £1000 each. Some went to the Central Flying School to compensate for the transfer of operational types to the Military Wing. Special Reservist BC Hucks (famous for his pre-war 'loop the loop' displays) contributed three Bleriot and two more came from the Bleriot School. One of these was a Bleriot Parasol or 'high visibility' machine (allotted serial 616), with a raised wing giving the pilot a better view. This was to be the only single seater machine to fly across the Channel. This aircraft was collected by Lt Conran from Farnborough and created a major disappointment for his mechanic, Sgt James TB McCudden, who had been looking forward to travelling as passenger with Conran. McCudden consequently travelled by sea to France but later became a pilot and one of the great aces of the war. He died in an accident in July 1918 whilst collecting a new SE5a aircraft.
The private purchases included one of only four privately owned pre-war Avro 504 aircraft (allotted serial 489). It was owned by Yorkshire-based Dr MG Christie and was presumably purchased following a famous pre-war air race, dubbed the 'Roses' air race, between the prototype Manchester-built Avro 504 (flown by FP Raynham and with Humphrey V Roe as passenger) and a Leeds-built Blackburn aircraft (flown by Harold Blackburn with owner Dr Christie as passenger) in 1913. The Blackburn was the marginal winner but Blackburn and Christie were obviously suitably impressed enough for Christie to buy an Avro 504. Although initially transferred from the CFS to the Military Wing this aircraft remained in the UK and returned to the CFS.
One Bleriot sported an early RFC camouflage scheme: it had 'Daily Mail' emblazoned under the wings in large letters!
Many vehicles were also requisitioned from private owners and these were assembled in Hyde Park (Regents Park per the official history). These included vehicles acquired from Maples, OK sauce, Elizabeth Lazenby and other firms.
Many carried the advertising slogan of their owners and were painted in bright colours: The OK sauce ammunition lorry was painted bright red with 'the worlds appetizer' emblazoned in gold on the side. This proved useful in helping pilots identify their ground crews from the air!
The aircraft allotted to the Expeditionary Force were all overhauled and in many cases the fabric was removed and replaced. It was no doubt during this process that the serials were mis-painted on two of the ex-CFS Henry Farmans, 455 becoming '355' and 456 becoming '356'. These aircraft were subsequently recorded on returns with the incorrect serial until '355' crashed and the mistake was discovered.
The aircraft carried no formal national markings other than a small black serial number on the tail. Each aircraft was fabric covered with Irish linen, which was clear doped and then varnished.
Revolvers and pouch
1 piece chocolate
1 packet soup
Water bottle with hot water or tea
Notebook and pencil
Spare pair of goggles
No.s 2 and 3 squadrons assembled at Dover on the 12th August before crossing the Channel the following day with the Aircraft Park and wireless flight. No.2 Squadron initially flew from their base at Montrose in Scotland to Farnborough, before leaving for Dover. No 3 Squadron flew from Netheravon to Dover. No.4 Squadron flew directly across the Channel to France on the 13th August. No.5 Squadron arrived at Dover on the 14th August from their home at Gosport and crossed the Channel on the 15th.
No.2 squadron left Montrose for Farnborough on the 3rd August. Although experienced by now in long distance flying, a brief summary of the flight will give some idea of the difficulties involved.
The squadron left in bad weather and the fleet was soon scattered across Scotland and northern England. Capt Todd was forced to land at Carnoustie but managed to reach Berwick by night. Capt Dawes landed at St. Andrews but reached York before nightfall. Maj Burke, Lt Corballis, Lt Martyn and Lt Freeman landed at St. Andrews, and Maj Burke continued to Pitscottie the same day. Lt Dawes and Lt Rodwell reached Berwick, but Lt Rodwell damaged his undercarriage, and similarly Lt Harvey-Kelly damaged the undercarriage of BE2a 347 at Kettering. Capt Waldron reached Newark but had to land due to engine trouble.
The following day Capt Waldron and Lt Dawes arrived at South Farnborough. Capt Dawes descended at Newark and damaged his undercarriage. Lt Harvey-Kelly abandoned 347 for the ground crew to recover and transport to Farnborough for repair (this aircraft passed to the Reserve Aeroplane Squadron at Farnborough after repair and never went to France, contrary to many published accounts). Lt Harvey-Kelly returned to Pitscottie to take over the machine of Maj Burke, who had proceeded to Farnborough by train. Lt Corballis, Lt Martyn and Lt Freeman were detained at St. Andrews by strong winds. Capt Todd reached Henley but was forced to land with engine trouble.
On the 5th August Lt Van der Spuy arrived at South Farnborough with the men who were surplus to requirements. 7 additional BE2a machines were handed to the squadron: 234 and 348 from No.6 Sq, and 466, 468, 469, 471 and 475 from the Central Flying Schoool.
Capt Todd and Capt Dawes arrived at Farnborough in the afternoon. Lt Corballis made it to Edinburgh and Lts Martyn and Freeman to Berwick. Lt Rodwell struggled to reach Acklington with an engine running badly. Capt Dawes had his undercarriage repaired at Newark, flying through a bad storm en route.
At Farnborough on the 6th August Lt Geoffrey de Havilland demonstrated how to drop bombs and fire a rifle from an aircraft.
On the 7th August Lt Corballis, Lt Freeman and Lt Martyn arrived at Farnborough. Capt Waldron (with AM Skerritt as passenger), Lt Marsh (AM Spallen), Lt Noel (AM Harris) and Lt Harvey-Kelly (AM Hobson) left Farnborough for Dover.
The 8th August saw the departure of the transport from Montrose under Lt Spence, arriving at Princes Dock, Glasgow in the evening. The following morning the ground crew and baggage arrived under Capt Burdett. One of the lorries caught fire at Glasgow docks, but the fire was quickly extinguished. All embarked on the SS 'Dogra' on the 12th August, arriving at Boulogne on the 15th and continuing to Mauberge by train.
On the 10th August Lt Freeman was given some practice on the BE2a and deemed competent to take a machine to France. Capt Dawes left by train to take charge of the landing ground at Dover. Maj Longcroft left for France. Lt Harvey-Kelly, Lt Noel and Lt Marsh carried out coast reconnaissance at Dover.
Capt Ross-Hume, Lt Martyn and Lt Corballis left Farnborough for Dover. Maj Burke also left but encountered a coast haze and so descended at Shorncliffe in the evening. He arrived at Dover the following day.
The last to arrive at Dover was Lt Freeman on the 12th.
No.3 suffered a tragedy on departure from Netheravon for Dover on the 12th August. 2Lt RR Skene, with 331 AM1 RK Barlow as passenger, took off in Bleriot 260 and immediately turned back for adjustments. Upon taking off again they suffered engine problems. As James McCudden relates in his book 'Flying Fury - Five Years in the Royal Flying Corps': 'I noticed the machine flying very tail low, until it was lost to view behind our shed up at about 80 feet. We then heard the engine stop and following that the awful crash, which once heard is never forgotten'. Skene and Barlow were killed instantly.
The rest of No.3 Squadron got as far as Dover without mishap, but on landing BE2a 348 piloted by South African pilot Lt EC Emmett sideslipped and was wrecked, injuring passenger AM Collett. It was noted by the OC of the RFC that Emmett 'will not make a good pilot'. He was transferred to the South African Aviation Corps where he later reached high office.
A number of aircraft suffered technical problems. Lt DE Stodart of No.5 Sq remained at Farnborough after BE2a 241 suffered mechanical problems. The aircraft finally crossed the Channel on the 7th November with Geoffrey de Havilland at the controls. Lt Stodart subsequently travelled to Dover to ferry BE2a 396 across to France. This aircraft had needed maintenance upon arrival at Dover and so had not crossed with the main fleet. Stodart set out alone on the 25th August but after getting half way across the Channel he had to turn back due to bad weather. He reported that 'it was very difficult to see the aerodrome from 150 feet'. His third attempt to join the Expeditionary Force came on the 27th, climbing to 3000ft but having to descend to 300ft over the sea as he was 'unable to see whether over land or water at a greater height'.
He landed north of Etaples to enquire his location, and again at Amiens. Finding all the other machines had left he proceeded to Bierville and spent the night with French troops. The following day he landed at Rouen to refuel and finally on to Le Havre to end an epic journey.
No.5 Squadron suffered various mishaps on their journey to Dover from Gosport on the 14th August. Capt GI Carmichael broke the struts on Henry Farman 350 while taxying out, and caught the train to Dover. He flew a spare BE8a machine across the Channel the following day.
Lt RO Abercrombie wrecked Henry Farman 284 at Shoreham and Lt HF Glanville also damaged Henry Farman 294 at Shoreham. Both crossed the Channel by sea on the 20th August to join the Expeditionary Force. Lt HleM Brock suffered a broken inlet valve at Salmer north of Shoreham and had to return to Shoreham for repairs. He flew the aircraft across the Channel on the 17th August.
The Navy were responsible for guarding the British coast. As rumours spread about spies, mysterious vessels and potential zeppelin raids the Navy realised that they could utilise the aircraft the RFC intended to leave behind as unsuitable for war purposes. The Navy asked the RFC to mount patrols along the east coast of Britain.
One patrol would utilize the aircraft of C Flt, 4Sq who would patrol from North Foreland to Dungeness using 6 Maurice Farman machines. These aircraft would fly from Netheravon to be based at Dover after the Expeditionary Force had left for France. They would be assisted by the Naval Airships 'Astr a Torres' and 'Parseval'.
Farmans 464 and 610 arrived at Dover late on the 13th August and 450, 472 and 478 the next day. 476 made a forced landing near Dover and damaged the undercarriage. An attempt to fly the aircraft to the airfield on the 16th resulted in the machine again suffering engine problems resulting in a forced landing in a turnip field. The aircraft was successfully flown to Dover the following day. Farman 472 was wrecked by Lt Barrington-Kennett whilst landing at Dover on August 21st. It was repaired on site and returned to Farnborough on 4th September.
The pilots undertaking the patrols were Capt Wallace, Lt Humphreys, Lt Turner, Lt Barton, Lt Chinnery, and Lt Barrington-Kennett. On 21st August they were told to relax the patrols, and spent the following days painting a camouflage scheme on the aircraft, probably the first instance of RFC aircraft appearing in camouflage. On 26th August Maurice Farman 465 was flown from Farnborough by Capt MacDonnell to enhance the flight. This was fitted with a Maxim gun which was tested at Hythe ranges on the 29th August.
A rather more ambitious patrol would cover the area from the River Humber to Kinnaird Head in Scotland, led by Capt Stopford and Geoffrey de Havilland using four 50hp Bleriot single seat aircraft. De Havilland set out by air from Farnborough in mid August and the 3 remaining aircraft were sent by road to the Armstrong Whitworth works at Gosforth (Newcastle), to be erected and flown from the company airfield.
Two of the Bleriots (323 and 297) were subsequently diverted to Montrose in Scotland and De Havilland patrolled from there with Sgt Carr. They also requisitioned an ageing Maurice Farman (serial 214) which had been left at Montrose by the departing No.2 squadron, and this was flown by Lt Marks and Sgt Porter. Capt Stopford and Sgt Dunn patrolled from Newcastle using the remaining two Bleriots.
The futility of the patrols was soon realised and the exercise abandoned after a couple of weeks.
The patrols are noteworthy however as being the first operational use of non-officer pilots. Sgt Pilots Dunn, Porter and Carr all participating in the venture.
1372 Sgt Pilot FG Dunn had received Aero Club Certificate 728 in January 1914 and assisted Capt Stopford at Newcastle. He later joined the Expeditionary Force in France, ferrying Bleriot 681 across the Channel on the 5th October 1914. He joined No.3 Squadron and was commissioned in April 1915, being promoted to Captain in December 1915.
1370 Sgt Pilot RH Carr had been granted Aero Club certificate 504 in June 1913 and was well known as a pre-war competition pilot for Grahame-White. He travelled to Montrose with Geoffrey de Havilland. He subsequently joined No.3 Squadron in France. Commissioned in April 1915, he won the DCM in June 1915. Promoted to Captain in December 1915 and later becoming Major, he was awarded the Air Force Cross in November 1918.
254 Sgt Pilot EE Porter was granted Aero Club Certicate 549 in July 1913 and went to Montrose with the patrol, flying as passenger in the Maurice Farman flown by Lt Marks. He left for France with No.6 Squadron in October 1914 and was mentioned in despatches in June 1916, receiving the DCM the same month. He was commissioned in March 1917 and awarded the MBE in August 1919. He committed suicide on board SS Varsova as it headed for Karachi on 19 May 1927.