In the summer of 1915, the solution to effectively arming an aeroplane was finally found in the invention of a device that would prevent the gun firing whenever a propeller blade was in a bullet’s path. This, it was realised, could be achieved by fitting a cam to the propeller shaft that would control the firing mechanism and stop the gun firing as the propeller blade came in line with the gun’s muzzle.
Although both the British and French had made abortive attempts to create such a device, it was the Dutchman, Antony Fokker, who first perfected it and was working for Germany. Fortunately for the Allies, the new monoplane, fitted with its deadly forward-firing machine gun, was brought into service in very small numbers spread along the whole front. It proved to be highly effective as Allied pilots initially believed that they were safe from attack when the enemy was behind them. Before Fokker’s invention, aircrew casualties had been largely caused by ground fire, both anti-aircraft and small arms or mechanical failure. Air combat losses were now a danger, and although the number of machines lost in combat remained small, it created a considerable stir amongst the Allies. The press began to write about the ‘Fokker Scourge’ and the British crews, with their grim humour, considered themselves and their machines to be ‘Fokker Fodder’.
The pilots of the new German fighters became national heroes, their successes and combat scores reported in the national newspapers. First among them was Max Immelman who became known as ‘The Eagle of Lille’ followed by Oswald Boelcke who wrote the rules of air combat for future pilots to follow. On 5 January 1916, Boelcke spotted two B.E.2cs from 2 Squadron and closed in hoping for his seventh victory that would bring his score level with Immelman’s. He attacked the rearmost machine, 1734, damaging its controls and wounding both 2nd Lt W. E. Somervill and Lt G. C. Formilli, so causing the machine to crash. Boelcke visited his victims in hospital, bringing them newspapers and a photograph of their crashed machine.
Although taken as a percentage of the number in service – several other types of machines suffered higher losses – crews of the B.E.2 seemed particularly vulnerable as it was the type in service in the greatest numbers and its occupants spent their time in action observing enemy movements than searching the skies for enemy fighters.
However, the latest enemy machines were not invincible nor their pilots always keen to engage in combat once the initial element of surprise had been lost. An alert crew had a good chance of fending off an attack as the following extract from the official weekly summary of the Royal Flying Corp’s work in the field, known affectionately as ‘Comic Cuts’, shows:
RFC Communiqué No.20 – 11th November 1915
2nd Lt. Allcock and 1 AM Bowes, 2 Sqn in a B.E.2c escort to a reconnaissance machine, were attacked by a Fokker which dived underneath them opening fire at 300 ft. range. Lt Allcock turned and from the back mounting fired half a drum at the Fokker which cleared off.
As well as the single-seat Fokkers, the new German two-seat Albatros and Aviatik aeroplanes had to be feared. With their observers who had now moved to the rear cockpit and armed with a swivel-mounted machine gun, these aeroplanes could be flown quite aggressively when the occasion demanded.
Naturally, the Royal Flying Corps would have liked to be equipped with an aeroplane better designed for fighting, and in the autumn of 1915, requested that they be provided with a two-seat machine that was capable of defending itself. However, they accepted that until such a machine was available, they would have to carry on and do their best with what they had. Orders were therefore given that machines on reconnaissance missions should be escorted, albeit by other aeroplanes of the same poorly-armed type. Critics suggested that the escort machines were more of a sacrifice than a benefit. One such critic was C. G. Grey, editor of The Aeroplane magazine, who had long been opposed to the very existence of the Royal Aircraft Factory. Grey frequently voiced his opinion that aircraft design and manufacture should be left entirely in the hands of private enterprise (which placed advertisements in his magazine where the Factory did not) who were typically quick to condemn the B.E.2c.
A more outspoken critic was Noel Pemberton Billing. Born in 1881, Billing was an adventurer as colourful as the heroes of popular fiction. He ran away to sea at the age of fourteen, ended up in South Africa and, still underage, joined the Natal Mounted Police. He fought and was twice wounded in the Boer War after which he returned to England and opened a petrol station at Kingston-on-Thames. Well before its time, it failed as many of his business ventures would and he returned to South Africa for a while. In 1909, he attempted to launch an aviation colony at Fambridge in Essex, but this too was premature and failed to attract sufficient interest to make it viable. Billing’s interest in aviation continued and in 1913 he bet Frederick Handley Page that he could obtain his pilot’s wings on the same day that he first sat in an aeroplane. Handley Page accepted the bet and Billing, starting his first lesson just after dawn, passed the simple test before breakfast. Billing founded a company making seaplanes and, he reasoned, since a craft that operated on and under the water was a submarine, one that operated on and over the water should be ‘supermarine’. The legendary name was therefore born and he later sold the company to his works manager, Mr Scott-Paine.
At the outbreak of war, Billing joined the Royal Navy Air Service and was involved in planning the famous bombing raid on the airship sheds at Friedrichshafen on Lake Constance. Billing was to later resign his commission in order to stand for Parliament as an independent. Although defeated on his first attempt at Mile End on 10March 1916, he won the seat for East Hertfordshire, styling himself as the first ‘Air Member’ although several existing MPs had debated knowledgeably on aeronautical matters for some years previously.
Billing was not long in making his presence felt and, during a debate on the air services on 22 March, made a long and accusatory speech condemning the administration of the Royal Flying Corps. He called for the amalgamation of the two separate air services into a single force during which he shocked the house with the following statement:
I do not intend to deal with the colossal blunders of the Royal Flying Corps, but I might refer briefly to the hundreds, nay thousands, of machines which they have ordered, and which have been referred to by our pilots at the front as Fokker Fodder with regard to which every one of our pilots when he stepped into them if he got back it would be more by luck and his own skill than any mechanical assistance he got from the people who provided him with the machine.
I do not wish to touch a dramatic note, but if I did I would suggest that a number of our gallant officers in the Royal Flying Corps had been rather murdered than killed.
Mr Tennant, Under Secretary of State for War, replying on behalf of the Government, explained that they were well aware of the situation and required no such language to make them realise the importance of the matter. He stated that the air services were efficient and doing good work, and that they were being expanded and updated as fast as the aeroplanes could be turned out. He concluded by stating that the word ‘murder’ ought not to have been used and that the application of it was untrue. Billing immediately rose to say:
I repeat the statement, and if the hon. gentleman wishes to challenge that statement I will produce such evidence that will shock this house.
He sat down amidst a clamour of cries of ‘Do it now!’ and was challenged to produce his evidence. On 28March, Billing responded to the challenge by stating that the Under Secretary for War should have made a ‘…dignified and complete denial of my charges, instead of replying to the one dramatic note struck on the question of our pilots being rather murdered than killed’. He continued by again stating that pilots were being asked to accomplish tasks of which their machines were incapable, adding the following statement:
If the officials who were responsible for deciding the types of machines in which our officers were to take to the air failed either by ignorance, intrigue, or incompetence to provide them with the best machines that this country could produce they were guilty of a crime for which only a fastidious mind could fail to find a crime.
He then read out passages from a series of letters mostly from the fathers of young airmen complaining about engine failures, poorly sited aerodromes and the ‘dud’ aeroplanes they were obliged to fly while in training. He continued his attack upon the B.E.2c and its makeshift armament stating that:
…our machines are dispatched to France, in most cases, as aeroplanes only. On their arrival the local squadron smiths did their best to convert them into weapons of war. A gun is stuck here and a bomb is hung on there. The performance of the machine loses 10 to 20 per cent of its efficiency. For example the official speed of a B.E.2c was something less than eighty miles an hour. That in all conscience was low enough when that machine was called upon to fight a Fokker, or other German machine, with a speed of 110 miles an hour whereas by the time it had been turned into this travesty of a weapon of war its speed was reduced to about 68 miles an hour.
Billing then proceeded to read out a long list of pilots killed by engine failure, flying accidents and similar incidents including a few who had died in action. He asked the house to imagine being a pilot flying over enemy lines, unarmed and knowing that his machine was only capable of 72 mph, to be attacked by a faster aeroplane with two guns, one firing ahead and one astern. Billing asked them to picture how an observer must feel, flying at a height of up to 10,000 feet, with his pilot shot dead with the understanding that he must eventually crash to his death simply because the officials did not provide dual controls that might have saved his life. He concluded his speech by saying:
It is frequently difficult even in law, to draw a hard and fast line between murder and manslaughter or, again, between manslaughter and an accident caused by criminal negligence. When this negligence was caused by the official folly of those in high places, coupled with entire ignorance of the technique which, in this instance, could alone preserve human life, official folly became criminal negligence, and when the death of a man ensued the line between such official folly and murder was purely a matter for a man’s own conscience.
He sat down to cries of ‘Hear, hear’ and the debate continued to deal with other aspects of the nation’s aerial defence including the poor provision of anti-aircraft guns against raiding Zeppelins.
Tennant, when he rose to respond, dealt first with the question of anti-aircraft guns before tackling Billing’s accusation. He stated that the enemy’s ‘new trick’ had given them a certain advantage. However, their tactics were now being adequately met and that reconnaissance, despite the difficult conditions, was being carried out entirely to the satisfaction of the Commander in Chief. He added that ‘…fighting in the air continued with no advantage to the enemy’ and aeroplane research and manufacturing was rapidly increasing. After attempting to reassure the house that the situation was nowhere near as bad as painted by Billing and that the majority of aerial missions were completed without incident, Tennant went on to promise that he would ask the prime minister to set up an independent enquiry to investigate the matter.
Lt Gen. Sir David Henderson, who as Director General of Military Aeronautics was responsible for equipment and management of the Royal Flying Corps, had listened to the debate from the public gallery. He not only gave his full support to the enquiry but immediately offered Tennant his resignation, although this was refused until the result of the enquiry was known. On 30 March, the Army Council announced that a Committee of Enquiry would indeed be held:
To enquire and report whether, within the resources placed by the War Office at the disposal of the Royal Aircraft Factory and the limits imposed by War Office orders, the organisation and management of the factory are efficient, and to give the Army Council the benefit of their suggestions on any points of the interior administration of the factory which seem to them capable of improvement.
The committee was to be chaired by Mr Richard Burbidge, General Manager and later Managing Director of the famous department store Harrods. Other members were Sir Charles Parsons, H. F. Donaldson and R. H. Griffith (Secretary). The Committee set to work with commendable dispatch and witnesses included Lt Gen. Sir David Henderson and members of his staff, Mervyn O’Gorman, Mr Heckstall Smith, Assistant Superintendent of the Royal Aircraft Factory, and various members of the Factory staff. Billing was far from satisfied and continued his campaign of complaints against the conduct of the aerial war. On 2 May, he again asked the house whether a decision had been made to not send further B.E.2cs to France. The inevitable reply was that there was no machine available that was superior to the B.E.2c although several were currently under development following a request the previous autumn by the Royal Flying Corp for a machine that could defend itself.
Eventually, Billing’s pressure on the Government had the desired effect and a second Committee of Enquiry was announced, this time under the chairmanship of a high court judge, Sir Clement Bailhache. The enquiry was to examine the administration and command of the Royal Flying Corps with particular reference to charges made both in Parliament and elsewhere, and to make any recommendations for improvement.
Meanwhile, the Burbidge Committee completed its investigation into the efficiency of the Royal Aircraft Factory and on 12 May, published its report in which it recorded the functions, staffing levels and expenditure of the Royal Aircraft Factory. It noted that since the outbreak of war, the Factory had built a total of seventy-seven aeroplanes including experimental prototypes while private industry had to date supplied over 2,120.
The report also explained the process by which new designs were submitted, as a draft, for approval by the War Office before detailed drawings were prepared, the process taking from six to nine months from the original concept to the commencement of manufacture. The enquiry had found the administrative processes ‘extremely elaborate’ and recorded that delays to production had occurred due to occasional errors in drawings for which the Royal Aircraft Factory was responsible. In conclusion, the report stated that an experimental organisation such as the Royal Aircraft Factory was needed to exist and that the standards of efficiency required by the War Office was being met and noted:
We do not consider that the competition of the Royal Aircraft Factory with the trade should, if reasonably administered, be the cause of any detrimental friction or trade feeling.
Also, the committee believed that salaries paid to senior staff were too low and went on to suggest ways in which it thought the Factory’s output might be increased. This report, with the omission of certain figures that may have been valuable to the enemy, was published by His Majesty’s Stationery Office as paper Cd8191, priced 1½d, on 19July 1916. It seems doubtful that Billing would have been satisfied by it. Although no blame was attached to the Royal Aircraft Factory or its management, O’Gorman’s contract as superintendent was not renewed. In late August 1916, O’Gorman left the company and was replaced on 21September by Henry Fowler, formerly an engineer with Midland Railway. A number of senior staff also left, although whether out of loyalty to O’Gorman or in search of the higher salaries mentioned in the report is unclear.
Meanwhile, the judicial enquiry into the Royal Flying Corps held its first meeting at Westminster Hall on 16 May under the direction of its chairman, Mr Justice Bailhache. Other members present were Mr J. H. Balfour Browne, KC; Mr J. G. Butcher, KC, MP; Mr Edward Short, KC; Sir Charles Parsons, FRS (who had also been a member of the Burbidge Committee); Mr Charles Bright FRS; and Mr Cotes Preedy (Secretary). Little progress was made that day as Billing refused to attend as requested to present his allegations, including the charge of murder to the enquiry. As he explained in a lengthy letter to the press, his allegations had been made against the high command of both the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service and would therefore state his case to an enquiry into the Royal Flying Corps only. He also stated that he did not consider that a committee composed of a judge, three lawyers, a retired civil engineer and an expert on steam turbines could ‘…come to any useful conclusions on so technical a subject’. However, when the committee met the following week to hear evidence from other witnesses including Mr Joynson-Hicks MP who had been a critic of government policy on aviation for many years, Billing eventually turned up.
Joynson-Hicks stated that since the introduction of the Fokker, the Allies no longer possessed ‘mastery of the air’. He also pointed out that official advice to pilots on how to meet the new foe included the words: ‘The Fokker, when in action, seeks by exercise of its superior speed and climbing power, to obtain a position above its enemy.’ He claimed that this proved that the Fokker was faster than the B.E.2c, a fact that had never been denied.
Lord Montague, who was interviewed on 11 June, began by saying that he considered the Royal Aircraft Factory to be wasteful and inefficient, but was interrupted by the chairman who reminded him that the enquiry was into the management of the Royal Flying Corps, not the Factory. However, Lord Montague continued by stating that pilfering by Factory staff was commonplace and an individual with ‘big pockets’ had stolen enough parts to build an engine. Lord Montague was again reminded by the chairman to adhere to evidence relative to the committee’s terms of reference. A number of witnesses from the industry were also heard, one of whom, Mr Algernon Berriman, chief engineer at the Daimler Company, stated:
The RAF engine and the B.E.2c may have their defects, but they form a combination that has been instrumental in enabling the Royal Flying Corps to perform valuable service in France.
When finally called upon, Billing repeated his accusation that those responsible for providing aeroplanes to the Royal Flying Corps had failed, either by intrigue or incompetence, to provide the best machines available. He went on to give details of numerous cases in which pilots had died while flying the B.E.2. These included both the fatal crash of Edward Busk while test flying at Farnborough and that of Desmond Arthur in 1913 due to a faulty repair. He attempted to read out a letter from the father of a pilot killed while flying at Gallipoli, but was stopped when it was pointed out that the Royal Flying Corps did not operate in the Dardanelles and the aeroplane must have been a navy machine and therefore outside the scope of the enquiry. Billing’s evidence, much of it equally irrelevant, continued for several days until members of the committee grew visibly tired of him. He appeared to be able to provide little or no hard evidence to support his accusations of intrigue or incompetence and presented each of his incidents with the assumption that, since the machine had crashed, it must have been faulty.
The committee sat through June and into July 1916 hearing evidence from fifty-four witnesses in public although information believed sensitive and of use to the enemy was taken in private. Deliberating upon the mass of statements took time and their final report was not made public until December. It dealt at length with the difficulties experienced in setting up a new branch of the armed forces and in foreseeing how it would develop and assessing what equipment would be needed and in what quantities. The Royal Aircraft Factory, the report stated, should be judged by its greatest achievement, the B.E.2c, which was aerodynamically sound and capable of being mass produced by companies that had never previously built aeroplanes. The report concluded:
No one could complain if Mr Pemberton Billing had asked for these cases to be enquired into to ascertain whether the death of these men could have been prevented. But, based upon these incidents, a charge of criminal negligence, or of murder, is an abuse of language and entirely unjustified.
Thus the high command of the Royal Flying Corps was exonerated, although it was to be merely a temporary reprieve. Public reaction to aerial attacks on London the following summer led to further enquiries into the management and operation of both The Royal Flying Corps and Royal Navy Air Service, and their amalgamation from 1 April 1918 into a single service, the Royal Air Force. Cleared of any blame but with its reputation tarnished by the accusations made about it, the B.E.2 remained in production and service. Its greatest trial was yet to come.