‘The Three-Week Subaltern’ or Pilot

Many legends have sprung up since the First World War. Among the most prevalent are those which say that the life expectation of a subaltern in a front-line infantry battalion or of a pilot in a frontline fighter squadron was only three weeks. While it is true that both groups of men suffered severe losses, the ‘three-week life expectation’ is an exaggeration. The reader may be interested in actual figures from one average infantry battalion and from an R.F.C./R.A.F. squadron.

The history of an infantry brigade in the 17th (Northern) Division contains an appendix giving the names of every officer who served in three of the brigade’s four original battalions. The first battalion listed is the 10th West Yorks, an early New Army battalion which served with its division on the Western Front continuously from its arrival in France in August 1915 until the Armistice. The battalion took part in the Battle of the Somme in 1916, the Battles of Arras and Passchendaele (Third Ypres) in 1917, and the March Retreat and the Final Advance in 1918. There is no reason to believe that this was not a typical Western Front battalion during more than three years of fighting.

The officers’ details in the brigade history give the date of joining the battalion, the date of the final departure from the battalion and the reason for that departure. There is one unfortunate omission: temporary absences because of light wounds or for other reasons are not noted. To allow for this, all subalterns remaining with the battalion for more than two years have had twelve months deducted from their service to allow for such temporary absences, and those remaining between one and two years have had six months deducted. It is believed that these deductions err on the generous side.

It was found that 174 officers joined the battalion as lieutenants or second lieutenants. After the allowances for temporary absence had been made, it was found that the average subaltern spent not three weeks but 6.17 months of front-line service with the battalion before becoming a casualty or leaving for some other reason. Furthermore, only one in five of these subalterns was actually killed, and almost half left the battalion unhurt. The following table shows the circumstances in which their service with the battalion ended.

Killed     37 (21.3%)

Wounded            48 (27.6%)

Prisoners             6 (3.4%)

Other reasons     83 (47.7%)

The ‘wounded’ total does not include those slightly wounded subalterns who returned to the battalion. The ‘other reasons’ include transfer to other units – usually trench-mortar, machine-gun, tank or flying units – those officers returned to England for various reasons, and those still with the unit at the Armistice. The shortest stay was by Second Lieutenant H. Banks, who arrived at the battalion on 23 August 1918 and was killed four days later near Flers, on the old Somme battlefield, during the final advance of the British Expeditionary Force.

Although these figures debunk the ‘three-week subaltern’ legend, it should not be forgotten that the figure of 174 subalterns serving with the 10th West Yorks during its period of thirty-eight months service on the Western Front shows that the battalion had to replace its original complement of junior officers six times.


Details for length of service of pilots joining a front-line fighter squadron are also available. This is No. 56 Squadron, which served on the Western Front from April 1917 until the end of the war, except for a very short period when it was withdrawn to England at the height of the German Gotha bomber attacks on London. The squadron flew S.E.5a single-seat fighters and, again, there is no reason to believe that it was other than an average fighter squadron during that part of the war which saw the greater part of the war’s air fighting; this squadron did, however, miss the worst of the spring 1917 air battles, when the R.F.C.’s aircraft were so inferior to those of the Germans and when excessive British casualties were suffered.

A total of 109 pilots were included in the survey; a further small number, who were transferred to other squadrons almost as soon as they arrived or who were returned home, presumably as unsuitable for front-line flying duties, have been omitted. There were no temporary absences among the 109 pilots, and their average stay with the squadron worked out at ten weeks and five days. The reasons for departure were as follows.

Killed     45(41.3%)

Wounded            17(15.6%)

Prisoners             31(28.4%)

To home establishment   16(14.7%)

The shortest stay was by an American, Lieutenant J. N. Offut, who was killed two days after his arrival.

It can be seen from these figures that, although the ‘three-week pilot’ is a myth, life for a fighter pilot was considerably more hazardous than for the junior infantry officer.

It would be interesting to see figures for equivalent German units. It is probable that neither their infantry-officer nor their fighter-pilot casualty rate would have been so high as that of the British. German infantry officers were not exposed to danger as frequently as their British counterparts because German senior N.C.O.s carried out many of the duties that British subalterns performed. The German fighter pilots fought mostly within their own lines and the prevailing westerly wind prevented many a British pilot in a damaged aircraft from returning to safety.


B.E.2 Part I

By the end of January 1912, B.E.1 had been joined by a sister ship that was identical in every way to B.E.1 except that it was powered by a Renault engine. The engine mounting tubes were slightly longer so that it was mounted slightly further forwards, moving the centre of gravity and reducing the tail heaviness. Also, it was fitted with a four-blade propeller. This turned at half-engine speed as, in the Renault design, was mounted on an extensive of the camshaft drive rather than directly on the crankshaft.

The new machine was designated B.E.2, not because it was a new design, but simply to denote it as the second machine built in the B Class. Only later, when the design entered volume production did B.E.2 become a type classification since the drawings issued to manufacturers bore that designation, although O’Gorman in his diary referred to the new machine as a ‘Military Biplane of the B.E.1 Type’, logically considering the earlier machine as the prototype.

B.E.2 was never passed off as being anything but a new machine, copied from B.E.1., without any ‘reconstruction’ ruse to account for its existence. However, permission to build it appears to have only been obtained retrospectively, for as late as 26January 1912 when it was virtually complete, O’Gorman included it a memo to the War Office entitled ‘Suggested Aeroplanes for Construction’.

De Havilland took B.E.2 up for its initial flight at 11.00 am on 1 February making a total of four flights, including one with F. M. Green, the Factory’s chief engineer, as a passenger, covering a total of twenty miles and noting that it seemed faster than its predecessor. The new machine performed perfectly without the need for any modification, all the necessary development work having been done with B.E.1. Although from then on, de Havilland largely concentrated his efforts on the new machine, leaving flying of B.E.1 to his new assistant, E. W. Copeland Perry. B.E.2 was later described by Flight magazine as being:

One of the neatest biplanes ever built, and one moreover that impresses the engineering sense with an immediate satisfaction in the quality of the design.

The same article also stated:

…it is difficult to describe in words the precise quality of the design that calls forth the admiration of the engineer, and it is certainly not in any way due to the smart finish of superficial details, although the workmanship is excellent, the hand of the experimenter is on it still. The fact remains, that for a well designed tractor biplane, the B.E.2 of the R.A.F. is hard to beat, and some points in it may well be worth copying by those in search of Army orders.

On 5 February, B.E.2 was proudly shown to members of the Advisory Committee for Aeronautics who were paying a visit to the Royal Aircraft Factory. De Havilland made numerous short flights in it during the next few weeks, not to carry out specific tests, but to give air experience to senior Factory design staff. Towards the end of February, de Havilland, accompanied by Green, flew it to Brooklands attracting further favourable comments from the press, Flight magazine commenting:

…unfortunately it was, in two senses, a flying visit, for the machine departed before everyone had a chance to examine it. It did, however, create a very favourable impression, its finish, workmanship, and climbing power leaving all being considered praiseworthy.

Without having to hand B.E.2 over to the Air Battalion or the Royal Flying Corps, the Factory made the most of their aeroplane. It was retained at Farnborough and became the subject of a number of tests and trials.

In March, it was fitted with a wireless transmitter developed by Mr R. Widdington, aerials for which were fixed along the leading edges of the wings. Trials began on 26 March when four flights were made before the apparatus broke down. With the wireless repaired, tests resumed and continued until 11 April with a number of different operators, its signals being clearly received at ranges of two miles. During these experiments, B.E.2 took part in the first wireless-controlled artillery shoot, shaping the way for its future role.

By 22 April, B.E.2 had flown over twenty hours, covering 1,350 miles and the engine was replaced with another Renault, up-rated to 70 hp by increasing the bore from 90 to 96 mm. This, unusually for the Factory, had been purchased new, demonstrating just how important the B.E.2 was considered to be. Although 23 lbs heavier, the new engine was otherwise little different from its predecessor, the only changes to the installation were a slightly taller air scoop and the exhaust pipes re-routed to run outside the fuselage. Although brackets were provided for them, there is no evidence that the silencers, which had caused so much interest on B.E.1, were fitted to its sister ship. The engine change was completed on 28 April when de Havilland took it up for a brief test flight finding everything satisfactory.

The extra power was to prove useful for the next experiment in which B.E.2 was fitted with floats. On 11 May, de Havilland flew it to Fleet Pond, the largest body of water in the area, and the floats that had been brought by road were fitted. After some adjustments to the machine’s balance, and to cope with the shallowness of the pond, a take-off was made towards evening and the machine flew successfully. However, the floats, and possibly the aeroplane, were damaged during the landing and B.E.2 was left in situ for repairs, Perry flying it back to Farnborough on 14 May. The experiment had proved its point and there were no further attempts to fit the B.E.2 with floats although trials continued with other types.

During the next few weeks, B.E.2 was flown to test a thrust meter, and on 31 May, flew with a tension meter fitted to the warp wires, collecting experimental data to aid the Factory’s programme of research all of which was later published by the Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. Later the same day, de Havilland, flying solo, climbed to over 6,000 feet in just fifteen minutes, probably the greatest height the type had thus far obtained. B.E.2 was also used to test an accelerometer and the ‘Trajectograph’, an instrument designed by the Factory for use in the forthcoming Aeroplane Competition that combined an altimeter with a timing device and so measured glide angle.

Many of these trials were reported not only in aviation magazines but in the national press as the following paragraph from The Times for 4 June illustrates:

An experiment in bomb dropping was carried out at Farnborough last evening by Mr de Havilland, of the Army (sic) Aircraft Factory. The ‘bomb’ carried was an ordinary ringed square weight of 112lb, which was suspended by a trigger hook to the chassis of Army biplane B.E.2. Mr de Havilland detached the weight at a height of about 200 feet. The release had no perceptible effect upon the flight or equilibrium of the biplane.

On 19 June, in a brief departure from his official duties, de Havilland took his wife for a brief joyride in B.E.2, the first time she had flown. What greater endorsement of the comfort and safety of the design, and of its designer’s confidence in it could there have possibly been?

Short of aeroplanes and unwilling to wait to see the outcome of the Military Aeroplane competition, the War Office placed orders for three Avro biplanes, four Flanders monoplanes and four examples of the B.E.2. However, the B.E.2s were ordered not from the Royal Aircraft Factory, but from Messrs Vickers Ltd. who were well established as armament contractors with the Factory providing all necessary drawings to ensure that these contractor-built machines would be identical to the original. With the competition over, further orders were placed with a number of contractors for additional examples of the type. Therefore, B.E.2 came to designate a type rather than an individual machine, although only the original ever bore the designation on its rudder.

Production examples were fitted with a 70-hp Renault engine with the taller air scoop and exhausts which ran outside the fuselage, turning down and back to discharge behind and below the rear cockpit. No silencers were fitted, probably because experience had shown that the ‘chatter’ of the engine’s roller bearings, if not louder than the exhaust, could be heard further away.

Early examples had unequal span wings of NPL3a aerofoil section, set at an angle of incidence of four-and-a-half degrees, but these were changed from early 1913 to RAF6. This was developed when it was discovered that the rear spar of the original section had a factor of safety lower than that possible for the main spar and lower than the designers at the Royal Aircraft Factory thought appropriate. The new aerofoil section not only overcame this problem, having spars of equal strength, but when set an angle of incidence of three-and-a-half degrees, gave the same lift with a slight reduction in drag, marginally enhancing performance.

The teardrop-shaped gravity tank, which in early models was suspended below the upper centre section, was eliminated and replaced with a tank mounted within decking at the rear of the engine as introduced in the erstwhile B.E.6. The main tank remained under the front seat with a hand pump provided to maintain pressure if necessary. The ignition switch, a simple household type brass-domed light switch, was mounted outside the pilot’s cockpit on the port side where it could be clearly seen by the mechanic swinging the propeller. An ‘Elliot Bros.’ instrument board comprising a column-type air speed indicator rather like a thermometer, a revolutions counter and altimeter was mounted on a board under the decking between the cockpits.

In order to maintain the existence of the fledgling aircraft industry and encourage its growth – or so the War Office believed – small orders were placed with a wide number of contractors including W. G. Armstrong Whitworth and Co., Vickers and the Coventry Ordnance Works. These were better established as armaments contractors than aeroplane manufacturers, although the British & Colonial Aeroplane Company and Handley Page Ltd. also secured orders.

Modification of the original B.E.2 continued throughout its career. By December 1912, it had been fitted with decking behind the engine as introduced in B.E.6, improving the passenger’s comfort. It was, at one point, fitted with a spade-shaped tailplane, increasing its area from thirty-four square feet to fifty-four. Fitting this necessitated shortening the rear fuselage decking by one bay and although, with the experiment concluded, the original, smaller, tailplane was replaced but the shortened decking was retained, becoming a distinguished feature of the machine. Its wheels were covered with fabric to improve streamlining and increase side area, an innovation that was quickly adopted for almost all aeroplanes in service.

At this point, B.E.2 disappears from the Royal Aircraft Factory records as an individual machine, further experiments being conducted on a machine with the serial number 601, the first of a batch of numbers assigned to the Royal Aircraft Factory. From photographic evidence, B.E.2 appears to have suffered an accident on 11 December 1913, but with the Factory’s occasionally obscure record keeping, it is unclear whether the original machine was rebuilt or 601 was a new machine.

However, it is possible that the serial number, although assigned earlier, did not appear on the machine until March 1914 when the rudder was replaced by a new component. This was as a result of problems with rudders bending under stress as later described in the following memo distributed by the Royal Aircraft Factory to all units operating the type:

It has been found with B.E.2 type aeroplanes that when doing extremely sharp turns, or when flying under extreme weather conditions, the rudders become slightly bent. This has never in any way caused any inconvenience to the pilot, but it is thought that, by straightening , the rudder could eventually become damaged. Accordingly the rudders and rudder post of all B.E.s are being strengthened.

The problem led to the type being briefly grounded awaiting the new rudders. At a conference on 26 March, it was agreed the type was safe to fly provided that rudders that might have been bent and re-straightened were immediately replaced in case they had been weakened by the process. By June, it had still not been possible to replace the rudders of all B.E.2s in service and pressure was put on all contractors in order to speed up delivery. In March 1914, it was decided to replace a few of the wooden members, which had been formally made from ash, with similar components of spruce. This was done as the quality of ash varies considerably and, although theoretically stronger than spruce in practice, there was often little or no difference in actual compressive strength. Spruce was also lighter. Several squadron commanders complained that the spruce members occasionally appeared to have pockets of ‘half dried gum’ and expressed concern that they would be weakened by this. Both the Aeronautical Inspection Directorate and the Royal Aircraft Factory responded with assurances that fibres would be continuous around the gum pocket and the components had a factor of safety of between eight and nine, so a little loss of strength could be tolerated. Development of the pneumatic undercarriage that O’Gorman had included in his list of desirable features before B.E.1 was even completed was also undertaken. The first example, modelled on the undercarriage of a contemporary Breguet, was fitted to 206 in October 1912, the machine built as B.E.6 which was in service with 2 Squadron.

This unit was also based at Farnborough so the efficiency of the new undercarriage could be tested under service conditions and yet still be monitored by the Factory. This undercarriage incorporated a single central skid, ending in a spoon-like projection at its forward end. Its work over, it was replaced by a standard twin-skid wooden chassis when the machine was overhauled the following spring.

An oleo undercarriage of a different design, with hook-like steel skids projecting forwards, was fitted for a time and remained in place while the machine was used to conduct other experiments. The final design of oleo undercarriage – with a central nose wheel serving the same function as the skids fitted to early designs – was also tested on a B.E.2, but found its true home on the larger F.E.2b and the twin-skid unit remained the standard undercarriage for early B.E.2s. This design, in which retained the axle that was bound in place with rubber shock cord to provide an element of springing, was less efficient than the oleo types but far lighter and easy to maintain.

At the end of 1913, crew comfort was improved by the introduction of new fuselage decking with smaller cockpit cut-outs which offered better protection from the elements. This new model, designated B.E.2b, also introduced exposed control cables simplifying inspection and maintenance in the field. No further orders for the B.E.2a were placed and only a limited number of the improved machine were manufactured as something even better was on the way.

O’Gorman, who had expanded the Royal Aircraft Factory to better carry out its research role, frequently recruited graduates from Cambridge University dedicated to such subjects as physics, chemistry and metallurgy. One such student was Edward Teshmaker Busk who had obtained first-class honours in mechanical engineering in 1907, and after a period working in the electrical industry, joined the physics department in June 1912. Busk made a special study of aeroplane stability, carrying out a number of experiments, chiefly with the B.E.2, in order to test his theories. Before he joined the Factory, he had learned to fly at the Aeronautical Syndicate School at Hendon and was able to conduct his own test flights. At the time, stability was considered to be a highly desirable quality for an aeroplane to possess. In an unstable aeroplane, the pilot must, like the rider of a unicycle, be constantly adjusting the balance of his mount, whereas the pilot of a machine that is inherently stable can take his hands off the controls from time to time to do other things. For example, in a military aeroplane, stability would allow the pilot to look around and note troop movements. Lateral stability, as was already known, could be achieved by introducing dihedral by placing the wings at a small angle above the horizontal so as to form a shallow vee. Then, should a gust tip the machine up at one side, the down-going wing would automatically generate lift and so right the machine. Stability in pitch could be achieved by having the tail, not as a lifting surface but as a stabilising one, set at the correct angle to provide a similar righting moment in pitch to that created laterally by dihedral. The elegant tailplane, in whose upper surface O’Gorman had chosen to retain some curvature, i.e. to create lift, was replaced with a plain surface, rectangular in plan and mounted directly on the top longerons, and braced from a kingpost mounted above the rear fuselage. This new stabilising surface was designated T3 or ‘Tailplane No. 3’, the large and small curved surfaces previously fitted designated T1 and T2 retrospectively. This new tailplane, T3, provided the righting moment Busk needed to achieve longitudinal stability.

Directional stability was another matter and while Busk knew that the solution lay in having a sufficient vertical surface, he had first to establish how best to arrange it. A vertical tail would provide an answer but was it the best or only answer? He first tried modifying the interplane struts, increasing width at their upper ends so as to provide an additional vertical surface close to the machine’s centre of pressure. In another experiment, triangular fins with vertical leading edges were fixed above the centre section struts and the machine flown by Busk to collect data on their effectiveness before deciding that a vertical tail fin was, after all, the best option.

The Royal Aircraft Factory was still a research facility and how many of these experiments were expected to be adopted for use and how many were conducted to see what happened is unclear. But Busk had experimented enough to discover that all he needed to design was a truly stable aeroplane without resorting to the excessive sweepback or similar oddities other designers had thought necessary. His first creation was the R.E.1 (Reconnaissance Experimental No. 1) whose inherent stability caused a sensation, especially when flown ‘hands off’ before the King and Queen.

He then turned all that he had learned upon the B.E.2 by creating the inherently stable B.E.2c. It was completed at the end of May 1914 by modifying 602, which had then flown for forty-four hours. The fuselage of the new design was similar to that of the B.E.2b, the tailplane replaced with a rectangular surface comparable to the T3, but mounted midway between the upper and lower longerons and wire braced from the rudder post. A triangular fin was added ahead of the rudder. The wings had a redesigned tip profile and were staggered, the lower moving back twenty-four inches with the lower longerons of the forward fuselage modified to provide attachments in the new locations. The wings were still rigged in two bays, but new struts of increased chord were introduced and the wings rigged with three degrees of dihedral. Ailerons were fitted to all four wings, replacing the warping of earlier versions, improving lateral control and allowing the introduction of cross bracing between the interplane struts, thus increasing strength. Later, streamlined wires were introduced that replaced the standard cable, thereby finally completing the list of features O’Gorman had sought to include from the start.

De Havilland’s design had been refined into its definitive version, although it was now a very different aeroplane from the one he first flew in December 1911. It was frequently demonstrated by flying ‘hands off’, sometimes for a considerable time. Pilots were impressed but found flying it so strange after machines that required constant attention to the controls they nicknamed it ‘Stability Jane’, and later, ‘The Quirk’.


B.E.2 Part II

On 9 June 1914, Major W. S. Brancker, officer in charge of Royal Flying Corps supplies, flew from Farnborough in the prototype B.E.2c. After take-off, Brancker climbed to 2,000 feet, set course for Salisbury Plain and was then flown ‘hands off’ for the duration of the journey with slight adjustments of the rudder to maintain course. Brancker, who was almost proud of his indifferent skills as a pilot, was duly impressed and passed the time writing a reconnaissance report on the countryside over which he flew. The purpose of his visit and reason for making it in 602 is unrecorded, but whatever it was for, it was brief as Brancker returned to Farnborough the same afternoon.

Major Burke was evidently absent when the B.E.2c made its brief visit to Netheravon but heard all about it from his crews and, on 16 June, sent the following request to Royal Flying Corps headquarters:

I understand that it is possible to convert the existing B.E.2’s into the type of machine which is inherently stable and which, I believe, is to be called B.E.2c. As we are returning to Montrose at the beginning of next month, I should be very glad if I could do so, with some men thoroughly trained on the new machine. I would therefore be glad if you could consider whether I might convert an existing B.E. of my Squadron into a B.E.2c while we are here.

The request was supported by Burke’s superior, Lt Col F. H. Sykes, and forwarded to the Director General of Military Aeronautics who left it to O’Gorman to explain that a conversion was possible. However, the resulting machine would not be a B.E.2c and that the matter was being discussed at the War Office, but that the wide-scale adoption of the new type seemed likely. Although Burke requested to be issued a B.E.2c before his return north, none were available and had to make do with a promise to issue the type as soon as possible. Probably as a result of this exchange of correspondence, B.E.2c 602, returned to Netheravon on 19 June, again flown by Brancker, remaining there until 26 June to give service pilots an opportunity to familiarise themselves with the new machine. On the return journey to Farnborough it was piloted be Lt Sheppard (Royal Navy).

On 1 July, Burke closed the exchange with the following report:

With reference to the new type of machine which has been called B.E.2c, I have to report that this machine was flown by all the experienced pilots of my Squadron. The result of the trial was to show that, as far as we could see, the machine is inherently more stable than any other type, and in other respects presented no peculiar features. I was informed of several ideas as to peculiarities but they were not borne out by our experience.

602 was to spend time with 3 Squadron in July and 4 Squadron in August so that the crews could gain valuable experience with it before being returned to the Aircraft Park. Meanwhile, the Royal Flying Corps would have to soldier on with their existing B.E.2as. The B.E.2b would only begin to enter service in August and production of the B.E.2c would not follow until the next year.

When the Royal Flying Corps mobilised for war it was able to field just four complete squadrons: Nos 2, 3, 4 and 5. No. 1 was still in the process of converting from airships and No. 6, although formed some months earlier, was incomplete. Of these, both No. 2 and No. 4 were fully equipped with the B.E.2, No. 3 flew a mixture of Bleriot monoplanes and Henri Farman pushers while No. 4 had Avros, Farmans and a flight of B.E.8s. The Aircraft Park, which supplied replacement machines to the squadrons, had three Farmans, four Sopwiths, nine B.E.2as and the prototype B.E.2c in stock. Therefore, not only was the B.E.2 the most numerous single type, it represented more than half the Royal Flying Corp’s effective strength. No. 6, when it too arrived in France, was equipped with eight B.E.2as and four Henri Farmans, increasing the ratio further. That not one of these aeroplanes was armed was not considered in any way remarkable.

The first four squadrons flew to France on 13 August, the first aeroplane to land being B.E.2a, 327, of 2 Squadron, piloted by Capt. F. Waldron. A few days later, a Bleriot of 3 Squadron piloted by Lt Joubert de la Ferte and 4 Squadron’s Lt G. W. Mapplebecke in a B.E.2, carried out the Royal Flying Corp’s first reconnaissance mission of the war.

B.E.2c, 602, was crated and shipped for its trip to France and confusion arose as to its identity, therefore when assembled it was renumbered 807. On 2September, the B.E.2c was issued to 2 Squadron therefore fulfilling the promise made to Major Burke. However, it was later discovered that this serial number had been allocated to another machine. In October, the B.E.2c was renumbered once more, this time as 1807. New squadrons arrived in France as soon as they could be formed, many of them equipped with the B.E.2, the stable platform best suited to the needs of time. The Bleriots, Farmans and other miscellaneous designs with which the pre-war Royal Flying Corps had been equipped were phased out and relegated to a training role, leaving the B.E.2 as the only pre-war design in large scale service. Production of the B.E.2c was increased with orders placed for batches of twenty or more at a time and new manufacturers were added to the lists of those building the aeroplane to cope with increasing demand.

At first it was a war of movement for which the Royal Flying Corps had been trained, mainly reconnaissance searching the countryside for enemy troops and reporting their position. But as the trench lines formed and the war changed to that of bloody attrition, the role of the aircraft also transformed. The new reconnaissance role involved studying areas behind the German lines for evidence of increased activity that might indicate a forthcoming attack. Also, artillery observation became more important, reporting the fall of shot as the big guns sought to destroy the enemy’s own artillery, stores and soldiers.

Bombing was a new task for the B.E.2c. Although bombsights were nonexistent and the bombs puny, the crews used enthusiasm and ingenuity to make up for what they lacked in equipment.

On 26 May 1915, 2nd Lt William Rhodes-Moorhouse was sent in B.E.2b, 687, to bomb the railway at Courtrai, hoping to disable the tracks that would slow the flow of reinforcements reaching the Battle of Neuve Chapelle. Flying solo, Rhodes-Moorhouse dropped his 112 lbs bomb at 300 feet as to ensure accuracy and managed to hit and damage the tracks. However, at such a low height, he was subjected to a barrage of small arms fire and was shot in the stomach, hand and thigh. Rather than landing to seek medical attention, Rhodes-Moorhouse returned to his squadron at Estaires to report his success and prevent another pilot being sent to repeat the attack. Although rushed to a field hospital, he died of his wounds the following day and was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for his courageous self-sacrifice.

Following the loss of the prototype B.E.2c, 601, the Royal Aircraft Factory adopted an early production example, 1749, which was built by Vickers and completed just before the end of 1914 as a test vehicle for its continued development of the design. By 7 January 1915, it was fitted with a new and simplified undercarriage of the type that was to become the norm for almost all aeroplanes throughout the next decade. This comprised two inverted wooden vees with an axle fixed within their apexes and bound in place with thirty-eight feet of 3/8 rubber shock cord.

The next improvement was the installation of a 90-hp RAF1a engine in place of the Renault with which the machine had been built. New exhausts were fitted which discharged above the centre section to prevent exhaust gases finding their way into the cockpits, and the sump was enclosed in a neat cowling, improving both its appearance and streamlining. The cable bracing was replaced with more streamlined ‘Rafwires’ which were swaged to a lenticular section and threaded at the ends to allow adjustment. The pilot was now provided with an instrument panel to which were fitted a dial-type air speed indicator, altimeter, revolutions counter, compass, clinometer and a watch, the latter detachable and a highly-prized souvenir.

These improvements not only changed the appearance of the machine but so affected its flying characteristics. In May 1915, when the first B.E.2c powered by the RAF1a arrived in France, a brief document was prepared and printed by Harrison & Sons on behalf of Her Majesty’s Stationary Office (HMSO) for distribution to the pilots in all squadrons operating the B.E.2. It read:

A Note for Flyers of B.E.2c Aeroplanes fitted with RAF1a Engines, V type Undercarriages and Rafwires.

1) ADJUSTMENT; The aeroplane should be so adjusted so that it is in trim when flying at “cruising” speed – from 65 to 70 miles per hour. At this speed the machine will then fly without the controls.

2) REVOLUTIONS ON THE GROUND; On the ground, the engine revolutions should be between 1,480 and 1,520 per min.; but under no circumstance should this, or any other engine, be allowed to run at full throttle until after it has warmed up, and the oil is circulating freely throughout the engine. This will require at least 10 minutes slow running.

3) CLIMBING SPEEDS; With full tanks and passenger, the best climbing speed is about 55 miles per hour, and the engine revolutions at this speed should be 1,600 per min. During a test made by the Aeronautical Inspection Department, a climb of 6,000 ft in 13 mins 35 secs, may be obtained; and on service at least 6,000 ft in 16 mins may be expected.

4) MAXIMUM SPEED; At the maximum speed of the aeroplane, when flying at a low altitude, the engine revolutions will approximate to 1,850 ft per min; but at this speed, the fuel consumption will reach 9 gallons of petrol per hour, and if the maximum time in the air is desired the normal engine revolutions of 1,600 per min should be maintained.

5) LANDING SPEED; The landing speed is much the same as with the Renault engined B.E.2c – about 40 to 41 miles per hour, but there is a strong tendency for flyers to alight at too high a speed until they become accustomed to flying this machine, owing to its higher normal speed, 80.6 miles per hour on an Aeronautical Inspection Department test, or 87 miles per hour under service conditions. It should be noted that the gliding angle of this machine is finer than that of the old B.E.’s.

6) FUEL CONSUMPTION; the petrol consumption at the normal engine speed of 1,600 revs per min is 7¼ gallons per hour; but this will vary with the elevation at which the flight is made, being somewhat reduced as height is increased.

The leaflet then continued with a four-page description of the construction, operation and maintenance of the engine, and concluded with the following advice on flying the machine, reinforcing the advice previously given:

Open throttle full, and the motor should run 1,800 revs per min when climbing. When sufficient height has been reached, throttle the motor so that the revolutions are about 1,600. This is the intended normal speed of the motor and, flying level at 1,600 revs per min, the consumption of petrol will not exceed 7½ gallons an hour and will probably be 6½ gallons. If extra speed is required the motor may be accelerated to 1,800 revs per min, but the petrol will be increased to 9 gallons per hour, or a little more if flying low.

The B.E.2c crews, with the fatalistic humour that characterised the First World War, composed their own note on their mounts in the form of the following poem:

The Pilot’s Psalm

The B.E.2c is my bus, therefore I shall want.

He maketh me to come down in green pastures,

He leadeth me where I will not go.

He maketh me to be sick, he leadeth me astray on all cross-country flights.

Yea, though I fly over no-man’s land where mine enemies would encompass me about I fear much evil, for thou art with me.

Thy joystick and thy prop discomfort me,

Thou prepares a crash for me in the presence of mine enemies,

Thy RAF anointed me with oil,

Thy tank leaked badly,

Surely to goodness thou shalt not follow me all the days of my life

Or I shall dwell in the House of Colney Hatch forever.

In early 1915, Mr Samuel Hiscocks, the Royal Aircraft Factory’s assistant superintendent, had made a trip to France, visiting squadrons operating Factory-designed machines and reported as follows:

Nos. 2 and 6 Squadrons mentioned that the B.E.2c with the 70 hp Renault when getting away from the ground or just alighting in a strong cross wind tended to turn down wind. This is more noticeable with the B.E.2c than with the B.E.2a and B.E.2b machines owing to the smaller reserve of power. With the B.E.2c’s having the RAF1 engine this tendency should not be so noticeable, as the reserve of power will be increased nearly 100 per cent.

Immediately upon Hiscocks’ return to Farnborough, an investigation was made by the Factory’s chief test pilot, Frank Goodden. No Renault-powered machine was available and Goodden carried out the test in a B.E.2c powered by an RAF1a, presumably 1749. He took-off in a southerly direction, at right angles to a strong wind blowing from the west, and during the take-off run the machine was blown to the east. After take-off, Goodden turned into the wind and at 500 feet found that the machine virtually stood still when flying at its lowest speed and therefore concluded that the wind speed, at that height, was about 35-40 mph. Goodden reported that a very long run had been necessary to take-off safely and that, in a machine more heavily loaded or powered by the Renault engine instead of the RAF1a, it would have been quite dangerous. Goodden found no tendency to turn away from the wind, but rather the reverse, the machine on the ground showing tendency to turn into wind that he had had to correct with the rudder. On 7May, O’Gorman forwarded this report to the War Office together with praise for Goodden’s bravery in carrying out the trials. He also added that the difficulty arose from the choice of bad flying grounds and that, with properly chosen airfields, the necessity for taking-off crosswind should not arise. O’Gorman further suggested that the following advice be issued to pilots:

Getting Off in a Side Wind.

Pilots should remember that for getting off in a side wind a very much longer run is necessary. The following is the method of procedure recommended;-

(1). When starting rudder hard to prevent aeroplane turning into wind.

(2). As the aeroplane gathers speed ease off rudder. Keep the aeroplane straight.

(3). As the aeroplane gets off bank gently and turn into the wind as soon as possible.

While this advice to pilots helped them to operate the B.E.2c, engineers at the Royal Aircraft Factory were aware that the type was capable of improvement, especially in top speed and rate of climb. Both could be improved by an increase in engine power and so attempts were made to get more out of the RAF1. A new version, its compression ratio increased, was developed and bench tested at an output of 105 hp at 1,800 rev/min; however, cooling and reliability were both adversely affected by the modification and it did not go into production. Another version, the RAF1b – in which the bore was increased from 100 to 105 mm, increasing its displacement to 9.7 litres – gave a similar increase in power, but cooling, which was marginal in the standard engine, was again an issue. A supercharged version was also developed and when fitted to a B.E.2c, its climb was improved from 8,500 in thirty-six minutes to 11,500 feet in a similar time. Despite this improvement, it was not adopted for mass production, largely due to the inevitable delay to output that it would cause.

If the 90-hp engine were to be retained, as seemed most likely, solutions to the improvements in speed and climb initially appeared mutually exclusive. The top speed could be increased by reducing the area of the wings, but this would adversely affect the rate of climb and result in an increase in landing speed. While climb could be improved by an increase in wing area, this would create additional drag and reduce the maximum speed. The answer was a more efficient wing, one that would increase lift and yet reduce drag. The Factory had, in conjunction with the National Physical Laboratory, been experimenting with new wing sections for some time but none had proved superior to that already in use, i.e. a section based on RAF6 but with an increased under camber.

In the summer of 1915, a breakthrough was made with RAF14 that offered a distinct improvement with an increase in lift and a reduction in drag. Tests were moved out of the laboratory for full-scale trials with the new section given to the workshops on 19 August 1915. It was necessary to modify the section slightly to simplify manufacture, which delayed completion, but the change fortunately had little adverse effect on performance.

Fitted with wings of the new section, the top speed of the B.E.2c increased by 4 mph, and although not a significant increase, was useful and would have required an additional 14 hp to achieve with the previous wing section. Climb was less easy to assess, an accurate measurement requiring numerous tests in differing weathers, but a simple climb to 6,000 feet in a machine fitted with the original wings took fifteen minutes; a similarly powered B.E.2c fitted with the new wings took just fourteen minutes to reach the same height. Tests flights were undertaken by two Royal Aircraft Factory pilots, Frank Goodden and William Stutt, and neither could detect any difference in either landing or stalling speeds. These improvements in performance could be obtained by the simple expedient of issuing new drawings and wings of RAF14 section were therefore substituted for all B.E.2s from that point on.

Meanwhile, 1749’s career as a test vehicle continued, and in June 1915, was fitted with an improved Rouzet wireless set, development of which was one of the many areas of aeroplane design investigated by the Royal Aircraft Factory’s scientists. Wireless development was later conducted by a separate unit within the Royal Flying Corps based in Hounslow and then relocated to Biggin Hill in Kent where the airfield’s hilltop location improved the range obtained. The robust oleo undercarriage adopted for the big pusher F.E.2b was also experimentally fitted to a B.E.2c, but reduced performance without offering any significant improvement in landing.

Bristol-built 1688 was another machine adopted by the Royal Aircraft Factory as a test vehicle. By June 1915, it had been fitted with an oleo undercarriage and later with a larger, balanced rudder. Its upper centre section was, at one time, covered with transparent cellon dope in an attempt to improve the pilot’s upward view. In December 1915, it was used to test the Factory’s new low-level bombsight developed by R. H. Mayo and was later used to test the Fiery Grapnel, a device invented for use against Zeppelins. This device comprised a pair of hooks fitted on the end of a cable and towed behind the aeroplane with the intention of attaching itself to the enemy airship whereupon the cable would break and the device explode, igniting escaping hydrogen gas. Like many weird ideas for weaponry, it was not adopted.

Another experiment intended as defence against Zeppelins was the Airship Plane in which a B.E.2c was suspended beneath an SS-class non-rigid airship envelope, replacing the car. The idea being that the ensemble could stay aloft until a raiding Zeppelin was sighted whereupon the crew would release the envelope and fly off to attack. Initial trials were made at Kingsnorth in August 1915, the device piloted by Flt Cmdr W. C. Hicks, but control problems meant that no release was made and the Airship Plane landed intact. A further trial was made on 21 February 1916 using B.E.2c, 989, and with the idea’s instigators, Cmdr N. F. Unwin and Sqn Cmdr deC. W. P. Ireland, in the cockpits. However, at about 4,000 feet, a sudden loss of pressure in the envelope caused the forward suspension wires to release the nose of the B.E.2c that dropped down breaking the remaining wires. As it fell, the aeroplane’s controls were damaged and the B.E.2c dived in a sideslip. During the violent manoeuvre, Ireland was thrown out and fell into the River Medway and drowned, the doomed B.E.2c crashing near Strood railway station, killing Unwin. The experiment was promptly discontinued, and although a revised proposal using a manned rigid airship was eventually successful, the B.E.2c had no further involvement.

In an attempt to steepen the B.E.2c’s angle of glide and so facilitate landing in small, constricted fields, the Factory’s physics department devised an early form of airbrake. The struts could be turned at right angles, so presenting their broad face to the airflow and therefore creating additional drag. B.E.2c, 4550, a production machine built by G & J. Weir, was modified in December 1915 and the idea tested with the trials concluding on 9 January 1916. The results, as described in ‘H’ Department’s Report No. 917, were that an additional resistance of 61 lbs at 100 feet per second was achieved that steepened the glide angle at 60 mph from 1 in 6.5 without the brakes, to 1 in 5.6 with them operated. This improvement was not considered sufficient to justify the complication of the mechanism required to achieve it and the idea was scrapped. The same aeroplane was employed to test the action of gyroscopes in a series of experiments in connection with the development of an automatic pilot, but the device, although offering very promising results, was not sufficiently developed for adoption at the time. Another production machine, 4721, which had seen service with 24 Squadron and at the School of Aerial Gunnery, was, towards the end of 1916, fitted with floats manufactured by the well-known boat builders S. E. Saunders of Cowes and successfully test flown from Loch Doon. The main float was a single box-like structure and was attached to the skid of the machine’s early pattern undercarriage in what appears to have been a repetition of an experiment first carried out in 1912. More sophisticated floats had been developed and the reason for the trial has not been discovered.

B.E.2 Part III

Development of the B.E.2 continued and by October 1915, a new variant, the B.E.2d, had been developed incorporating dual controls. In order to accommodate the rudder cables and torque tube connecting the two control columns, the main petrol tank, which in earlier variants had been located under the observer’s seat, was replaced by an additional tank in the decking between the cockpits and a blister-shaped gravity tank under the upper port wing. The capacity of the existing gravity tank in the decking behind the engine was increased from fourteen to nineteen gallons, bringing the overall capacity up from thirty-two to forty-one gallons, providing a useful increase in range and endurance. The rigging notes for the type included the provision of an additional six feet of shock cord to each wheel to cope with the additional weight of fuel. However, these changes had an adverse effect on the machine’s unspectacular rate of climb, almost doubling the time taken to reach 6,000 feet. Although over 650 B.E.2ds were ordered, only a small number found their way to France, the majority serving with training units where their dual controls were an advantage and poor rate of climb no great handicap.

Research indicated that under extreme conditions the existing fin might be of insufficient area to prevent an involuntary spin developing. Most pilots held this manoeuvre in dread as the recovery procedure, although simple, was not then on the syllabus at flight training schools. Experiments were conducted with a number of fins of increased area, these experiments later being fully described in a confidential paper presented by O’Gorman to the Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. B.E.2c, 1688, which was retained at Farnborough as a test vehicle, was fitted with several experimental fins of differing surface areas to evaluate their effect and the most effective selected.

In January 1916, B.E.2c, 2026, was fitted with the proposed new fin having a curved leading edge that increased its surface area from five square feet to eight and was sent to the Depot at St Omer for evaluation. Service pilots confirmed that it improved directional control and, most importantly, helped prevent incipient spins. The new fin was therefore adopted and fitted to all machines completed from then on as well as many that were in service. 2026 served with 12 Squadron, but on 16 May, crashed while landing and although repaired was not considered fit for further service and was returned to England to serve as a trainer.

The employment of the B.E.2c in a ground attack role, especially during the Battle of the Somme, inevitably led to aircraft being lost to small arms fire from the ground. Perhaps to avoid further accusations that crews were being sent to war in inadequate aeroplanes, a scheme was devised where the forward fuselage was fitted with sheet steel armour plate from the nose to the rear of the pilot’s cockpit. The slab-sided armour, which did nothing to improve the machine’s streamlining, weighed around 440 lbs and seriously handicapped the machine’s performance. Nonetheless, at least fifteen machines were fitted with the armour and saw service on the Western Front. 2028, which had originally been built by Sir Armstrong, Whitworth & Co. Ltd., was with 6 Squadron by 9 September 1916 as an armoured machine. 2122 went to 8 Squadron and at least one example served with 15 Squadron, remaining in service until the spring of 1917 carrying out ground attack and special reconnaissance missions. Other examples known to have been fitted with armour include 2713-2716 and 4093.

Ongoing research at Farnborough revealed that wings with outwardly raked tips were, at the speeds at which aeroplanes then operated, considerably more efficient than any other wing tip shape. Similarly, it was known if wings were superimposed as in a biplane, each affected the efficiency of the other reducing lift and increasing induced drag. Yet the ideal arrangement, the monoplane, if employing the shallow aerofoil sections of the day, required so much additional bracing to maintain rigidity that any aerodynamic advantage was lost. The best compromise was to reduce the span of the lower wing, eliminating struts and wires, and to increase the span of the upper wings, bracing the overhang from kingposts.

A new variant, the B.E.2e, was designed with a new, smaller horizontal tail and with wings following the new arrangement, the span of the upper wing increased by four feet and that of the lower wing reduced by six feet. The wings were rigged at a constant angle of incidence without any washout as the new raked tips were thought sufficient to prevent wing tip stalling. The ply covering to the top and bottom of the fuselage was eliminated and wire bracing substituted. Some fuselage members were changed from ash to steel tube, principally to alleviate problems experienced in obtaining sufficient supplies of good quality ash.

In February 1916, B.E.2c, 4111, was test flown fitted with the new wings and the improvement in both speed and climb was quite dramatic. Lateral control was considered to be ‘very much better’ and landing ‘more easy’. The prototype was first tested fitted with an experimental up-rated RAF1b engine, achieving a top speed of 97 mph, boosting expectations of its improved performance. Since it was decided that this engine was not to be put into production, 4111 was fitted with a standard production 90-hp RAF1a (No. 22971/WD1009). Thus powered, the B.E.2e was 10 mph faster than the B.E.2c and this, together with the improvements in handling, was more than sufficient to ensure that it was put into production as soon as possible. Not only were a total of 1,000 examples placed on order with various contractors, but instructions were given to those building the B.E.2c and B.E.2d to fit the improved wings and tailplane. However, when the completed machines were received, complications arose for it was realised that manufacturers were producing three different machines. All had the same wings and tail surfaces, and looked very similar, but each had a different fuselage. To simplify the matter, especially when it came to the ordering of spares, it was therefore decided that the designation B.E.2e would apply only to those machines built entirely to the new design. Those that had originally been ordered as B.E.2c with the original fuselage would be designated B.E.2f and those with the B.E.2d fuselage would be known as the B.E.2g. Around 200 of each variant were eventually produced. The new wings were viewed with some suspicion, pilots wrongly thinking them structural unsound and a rumour circulated that the extensions would be damaged by violent manoeuvres. Experience proved this to be untrue and confidence in the new type returned.

B.E.10 was designed to carry out similar duties to the B.E.2 and had a deeper fuselage built around a framework of steel tubes. Four were ordered from the British & Colonial Aeroplane Company, but the order was cancelled when it was decided to concentrate on the B.E.2c. B.E.11 never progressed beyond the concept stage and no details of it survive. B.E.12 was a high-speed, single-seat scout conceived in the summer of 1915 and created by the conversion of 1697, the last of a batch of Renault-powered B.E.2cs built by British & Colonial. It was fitted with an RAF4a engine, a twelve-cylinder development of the RAF1 design developing 140 hp, the modifications to the engine mounts and increased fuel tank capacity taking up space created by the elimination of the front cockpit. Its first flight was made on 28 July 1915 and production examples began to arrive in service by the beginning of 1916. Although as vulnerable as the B.E.2c upon which it was based, the B.E.12 did good work both on long-range reconnaissance missions and as a bomber. Some were fitted with a forward-firing machine gun once a suitable synchronisation gear had been developed but were never intended as fighters, the stability inherited from the B.E.2 reducing their speed of manoeuvre.

The B.E.12 was still in production when the B.E.2e was introduced and was also fitted with the new wings to become the B.E.12a, its performance being similarly improved. The B.E.2 even managed to contribute to its own replacement, both aeroplanes which eventually superseded the B.E.2c employed B.E.2c components in their original form. The Bristol F2a, from which the famous Bristol Fighter was developed, first flew on 9 September 1916 fitted with the wings of a B.E.2d. At the time, the company was building the wings under contract although purpose-designed wings were substituted before the type was fully developed for production.

Designed by John Kenworthy, the Royal Aircraft Factory’s proposal for a B.E.2 replacement employed the same wings and horizontal tail surfaces as the B.E.2e, mated with a completely new fuselage and powered by the 140-hp RAF4a V12 engine. It was armed with a forward-firing machine gun, synchronised to fire through the propeller disc and with a swivel-mounted gun for the observer. It might easily have been given a designation in the B.E. series but was named the Reconnaissance Experimental No. 8 or R.E.8. Over 4,000 were built, eventually replacing the B.E.2 for all front line duties in Europe.

A number of alternative engines were also fitted at various times to the B.E.2 series. Some Royal Navy Air Service machines were fitted with the Curtiss OX5, a water-cooled V8 of similar size and power to the RAF1a, the air scoop replaced by a neat curved cowling and a car-type frontal radiator to address engine cooling. Performance was similar to that of the standard B.E.2c. A few Royal Navy Air Service B.E.2s were fitted with the 75-hp inline six-cylinder Rolls-Royce ‘Hawk’, again with a frontal radiator. A number of B.E.2 fuselages were employed without wings or tail surfaces as airship cars.

Several B.E.2cs were fitted experimentally with examples of the Hispano-Suiza engine. Of alloy construction with its cylinders cast on blocks instead of individually as in previous designs, it developed 150 hp from a mass not dissimilar to that of the RAF1a. Daimler-built 2599 was tested with a Hispano engine in March 1916 and, the following month, flown to the Central Flying School at Upavon for evaluation. Reports on its performance were favourable, but production of the Hispano engine and developments thereof could never keep pace with demand. Its use was largely restricted to aeroplanes such as the S.E.5 and Sopwith Dolphin, which had been designed around it, and no alternative engine was available without major modification to their design. None were ever made available for such obsolescent designs as the B.E.2.

However, 2599 retained its Hispano engine for a while and was fitted with a number of alternative radiator installations to find the most effective method of cooling, before moving on to experiments with superchargers.

At least one example, 4122, was fitted with an experimental variable pitch propeller developed by the Royal Aircraft Factory. Although successful, it was not considered necessary at the time, especially in view of its weight and additional complications.


Designed at a time when there was little difference between a military and sporting aeroplane, and when the duties of a military aeroplane were unclear, the B.E.1 and B.E.2 were intended to be efficient flying machines. No thought was given to them being armed, nor was it considered that their role would ever require it.

At the outbreak of war, aeroplanes of both sides flew reconnaissance and observation missions unarmed, and if by chance another aeroplane was seen, crews would wave to each other in a friendly fashion. But such gentlemanly conduct could not last for long and observers began to take pistols and rifles with them to take aim at an enemy aeroplane that came within range. The observer in the B.E.2 had been placed, as was common practice, in the forward cockpit at the centre of gravity so that the machine’s trim was unaffected were it to be flown solo. This position, surrounded by struts and wires with the propeller in front and wings to each side above and below, restricted his field of fire. It was therefore normal for the pilot to position his aeroplane so that the enemy machine was to his forward quarter where his observer had the best chance of a well-aimed shot. Even so, it was by no means uncommon for the observer to hit a part of his own machine.

The B.E.2’s first aggressive role was as a bomber in which capacity it was usual to carry either four 20 lbs bombs in racks under the lower wings or a 112 lbs bomb in a cradle beneath the fuselage. The bomb release was achieved by pulling a cable. If the machine was flown solo, a greater weight of bombs could be carried, especially if the range was short and the petrol tanks did not need to be completely filled. An accurate and dependable bombsight had yet to be devised, and the accuracy of the bombing depended as much upon luck as the skill of the pilot.

Armaments intended for use against balloons and airships included Le Prieur rockets which were fired electrically from tubes fitted to the outer interplane struts. Aiming was mostly down to luck but a number of observation balloons were destroyed. Efforts to mount a machine gun began after the introduction of the B.E.2c whose more powerful engine allowed additional weight to be carried. The gun chosen was the American-designed Lewis that weighed about 27 lbs not including the ammunition drum that held fifty rounds. The first mounting comprised a bracket on the fuselage side carrying a socket into which a pin, clamped to the gun at its centre of gravity, was placed so that the gun could be swivelled as needed to take aim. This was known colloquially as the candlestick mounting and appears to have been created, ad hoc, by squadron mechanics. This device allowed the user to fire both forwards and backwards, and gave a reasonable field of fire albeit at the risk of hitting his own machine.

The first official design for a gun mount, the No. 1 Mk.1, was a modified version of the same concept, but placed the mount on a front centre section strut and afforded both elevation and traverse. A modified version that could be folded flat against the fuselage side when not in use was designated No. 1 Mk.2. In either case, only one gun was normally carried and the observer was expected to move it from one side to the other as demanded. The candlestick mount was also occasionally fitted further back, allowing the pilot to use the gun when the machine was flown solo, the gun muzzle often being secured by wires to give a fixed line of fire. Similarly, the No. 1 mount, if fixed to the rear centre section strut, could be used by the pilot to fire forwards within the limited field of fire available to him.

Despite their rather crude appearance, the gun mounts could be used to good effect. On 19 September 1915, 2nd Lt Harold Medlicott of 2 Squadron with 2nd Lt Gilbert as his observer, were carrying out an artillery observation near Lens when they spotted an enemy two-seater. They positioned themselves to attack opening fire with a Lewis gun on the left-hand mounting from 100 yards. After a full drum had been fired, the Albatros caught fire, but Gilbert fired a second drum to make sure. Medlicott seems to have attacked every enemy aircraft he saw and after several inconclusive combats with Lt Rice as his observer, scored again on 11October with the front seat occupied by Lt Russel. Their victim was another Albatros two-seater that was shot down near Sailly-sue-Lys where the crew was taken prisoner. Medlicott also invented a mount in which the socket to carry the gun was attached to a bar between the front centre section struts and arranged so as to slide along as required. Thus a single gun could be fired to either forward quarter without the need to change mounts. This, although often referred to by the name of its creator, was officially designated gun mount No. 2 Mk.1. A wire guard was often used to restrict the travel of the gun’s muzzle and so prevent the user shooting his own propeller. The No. 2 Mk.2 and Mk.3 were minor refinements of the original design and did not change its basic concept or improve its effectiveness.

Captain L. A. Strange of 12 Squadron invented what was probably the most sophisticated mount of all. This comprised a swivelling pillar fixed between the cockpits with a toothed quadrant allowing the gun to be held in place at various angles of elevation. It could be employed by the observer to fire to the rear or by the pilot to fire forwards with equal facility. This was officially adopted as the No. 4 Mk.1 mount but was almost always referred to by its inventor’s name.

The No. 10 Mk.1 or ‘Goalpost’ was a frame fitted between the cockpits onto which the Lewis gun could be mounted to allow the observer, by turning in his seat or even kneeling on it, to fire directly to the rear. Since the muzzle of the gun was located over the pilot’s head, it must have been rather disconcerting to use, but did provide an effective defence against an attack from above and behind.

Despite the wide choice of gun mounts available, a number of machines remained unarmed in front line service. With the exception of the No. 4 and later versions of No. 2, these machine gun mountings were noted as obsolete in a training manual issued in July 1916, but continued in service throughout the war.

The ideal solution to arming an aeroplane, especially one flown solo, was to fix the machine gun to the front. However, the problem in a tractor design was to prevent bullets from hitting the propeller and pusher aeroplanes were deemed too slow to catch their prey. In the spring of 1915, a bizarre effort was made to combine the aerodynamic efficiency of a tractor design with the forward field of fire afforded by a pusher. Drawings were completed in June and a modification of B.E.2c, 1700, commenced. The observer’s cockpit was eliminated and the engine moved back, positioning the propeller fifteen inches ahead of the upper wing. The centre section struts were splayed outwards to clear the engine cylinder, a new broader centre section increasing the span to over forty feet. A plywood nacelle to house the observer was mounted on an extension of the propeller shaft, supported by struts added to the undercarriage and braced by wires to prevent it rotating.

The ingenious B.E.9, despite many favourable reports, failed to provide a viable solution to the problem of providing a forward-firing gun.

Modifications were completed by 13 August and the modified B.E.2c, now designated B.E.9, was flown to Netheravon for service evaluation on 25 August. The forward view was considered ‘excellent’ and the field of fire ‘better than any other seen here’. It was, however, criticised for its lack of dual control and on 31 August returned to the Royal Aircraft Factory for this to be provided. On 11 September, it was flown to France so that front line pilots and observers could operate it and offer their opinions. It spent time with several different squadrons, was flown over the lines and on 13 October, engaged in a brief and inconclusive encounter with a enemy machine while being flown by Lt Glen of 8 Squadron.

Reviews were at best mixed. The forward view and field of fire were generally praised but the lack of communication between the crew was seen as a problem. So, too, was the observer’s prospect for survival in the event of a landing on its nose as the B.E.2c was prone to do so on soft ground. The adoption was not recommended and the aeroplane returned to Farnborough on 9 January 1916. Although it now appears remarkable that no attempt was made to reverse the crew positions to place the observer in the back seat where he would have a clear field of fire against an attack from the rear, there was no superior substitute for what was already in use. Such a move would not have significantly improved the observers field of fire to the rear – at least until the invention of the synchronisation gear to allow a gun to fire forwards through the propeller disc – and rendered the machine virtually defenceless against a foe dead ahead.



POSITIONS AT KRONSTADT, 1855 A major British fleet was sent to the Baltic Sea during the Crimean War, but the outclassed Russians, based at Kronstadt off St Petersburg, refused to engage in battle. As a result, the British were able to engage coastal targets, notably Sveaborg, the fort that guarded the approach to Helsinki, although not to inflict decisive damage. The Russians mobilized large number of steam-powered gunboats with heavy pivot guns to defend Kronstadt. It was to be attacked by British naval aircraft during the Russian Civil War. The map shows the positions at Kronstadt on 1 June 1855.

The blockade of all the Russian ports in the Gulfs of Livonia, Finland and Bothnia had been formally effected by Sir Charles Napier before the French arrived and was officially notified in the London Gazette on 16 June. Napier had delayed his advance up the Gulf of Finland partly to await the arrival of the French contingent and partly because of major difficulties placed in his way – not the least of which were the dense fogs lasting days on end and the Russian removal of the channel buoys, beacons and lights which had served as landmarks along dangerous coastlines.

With the French acting in concert, Napier took up a position in Baro Sound just within the entrance to the Gulf of Finland, about 12 miles from Sveaborg and 15 from Reval. By the end of June there was a combined fleet of no less than 51 warships, comprising 28 ships-of-the-line, 5 first-class frigates and 18 steamers anchored in the sound; such a fleet, carrying about 2,700 large-calibre guns and 30,000 seamen and marines, had never been seen in the Baltic.

Apart from a ‘simple’ blockade of the outlets of the Baltic north of Denmark, to cripple Russia’s import and export trade and to prevent the Russian Baltic Fleet from operating against the British and French coasts, there were several obvious targets for Anglo-French naval attacks – if the right forces had been available. Any number of towns, ports and coastal fortifications could have been hit – Viborg, Abo, Pernau, Nystad and others were open to attack and some indeed were ‘visited’ in 1854 and 1855. But the main focuses of serious operations were easily identified – Reval, Sveaborg, Kronstadt and Bomarsund. Reval on the coast of what was then Courland and Sveaborg (once known as ‘the Gibraltar of the north’) both served as ‘flank defences’ to the approaches to Kronstadt and were home to ships of the Russian Baltic Fleet. There were hopes that they could be ‘neutralised’ by direct attack and no doubt public opinion in Britain expected news of an early assault on at least some of these enemy bases. In fact, three major targets, Reval, Sveaborg and Kronstadt, though frequently reconnoitred and ‘watched’, were protected by such formidable defences that Napier in the end simply could not contemplate a serious attack on any one of them with the fleet under his command, lacking the sort of mortar and gunboats he would need for coastal operations and almost entirely without adequate military force to follow up any successful naval attack.

Nevertheless, some major action had at least to be considered. During the last week in June the allied commanders decided on an advance in strength into the Gulf of Finland towards Kronstadt. A massively fortified island that constituted the main defence of St Petersburg and its approaches, Kronstadt was the main base of the Russian Baltic Fleet. This famous stronghold – island, town, harbour and fortress – lies in the Bay of Constadt, 31 miles from St Petersburg and was surrounded by a series of heavily fortified outcrops and islets apart from those defences actually sited on the island itself. Kronstadt was not only the main station of the Baltic Fleet but was also the outer harbour of St Petersburg and all vessels en route to the capital were searched here, their cargoes sealed and trans-shipment made to vessels intending to ascend the Neva. Kronstadt had three harbours – an outer one for warships, an inner one for merchant shipping and a large dockyard for fitting and repairing vessels. The town looked more like a military depot and arsenal than a commercial port, dominated by buildings and fortifications belonging to the Imperial navy. A range of fortresses, such as Fort Alexander and Fort Constantine, dominated the southern side of the island, whilst the northern side was equally defended by forts and redoubts, in addition to six or seven batteries on the mole. These works were begun by Peter the Great but had been constantly added to and strengthened over succeeding generations. Not only were the town and harbour defended by massive granite batteries, but every islet and passage was equally covered so that any enemy vessel attempting to sail up to St Petersburg from the north or south of the island would have to pass within range of at least two arrays of batteries. Furthermore, the 6 miles between the island and the mainland were so broken up by inlets, shoals and mud banks that the navigable channels were narrow and any approach difficult. The Russians had converted some of the small islets into strong gun positions and had even built forts on piles driven into the mud, defending the approaches from all directions. It was believed that up to 1,500 large-calibre guns, besides those carried on the Russian fleet, protected the island ands its seaways.

When the fleet was within 10 miles of the island, three small paddle-frigates, Lightning, Bulldog and Magicienne, were sent ahead to sound and reconnoitre more closely, and especially to search for any mines (‘infernal machines’) or submarine explosives, which reports (correctly) claimed the Russians had planted in the approaches. Following at a short distance to offer protection were three larger warships, Imperieuse, Arrogant and Desperate. No ‘infernal machines’ were encountered on this occasion but the reconnoitring vessels approached Kronstadt near enough to see its formidable array of granite batteries and pick out the large fleet sheltered within the harbour. The Baltic Fleet’s Surveying Officer, Captain Bartholomew James Sulivan in the lightly armed survey vessel Lightning, had orders from the hydrographer Sir Francis Beaufort ‘to assist with the important operations of the Baltic Fleet by making such skilful and rapid reconnaissance as well as by occasional hydrographic surveys wherever it may be considered necessary’, and – interestingly – to make everything ‘more or less subservient to the great object of improving our charts’. He reported that Kronstadt was too well protected to risk attacking without, as Sulivan said, the use of a significant number of mortar vessels, which Napier’s fleet did not possess. He counted no less than 17 ‘sail-of- the-line’ warships ‘moored outside the basin’, with 3 smaller vessels and 6 steamers nearby and a host of other armed ships around the island.

Although the main element of the Russian fleet within the harbour caused no problems and made no attempt to sally out and offer battle, it was simply not possible for allied ships to approach near enough to carry out a thorough examination, let alone actually try to force a passage. Napier and his subordinates rapidly agreed that to take on Kronstadt or attempt to bypass its defences was quite beyond their powers – no matter what uninformed opinion in the British press might claim, already growing critical of the lack of a major victory. Admiral Napier, as the man on the spot and responsible to the nation for the safety of his fleet, wisely declined to take on Kronstadt and the Admiralty concurred in his decision.

After an examination of the area the allied fleet returned to Baro Sound early in July 1854, remaining at anchor for some days whilst the commanders discussed the probabilities for and against the success of any great enterprise. Whilst they worried over the possibility of attacks against major targets like Kronstadt or Sveaborg, detached squadrons continued to carry out the rest of Napier’s brief in the Gulfs of Finland, Riga and Bothnia – to ‘watch’ enemy ports in case Russian warships emerged to offer battle, to stop, search and if necessary seize enemy merchant ships breaching the blockade and, where possible, to harass enemy positions ashore.

If Kronstadt, Sveaborg and Reval were deemed to be beyond reach, attention had to fall on the capture of Bomarsund on the Åland Islands as at least a potentially achievable goal and one suggested in Napier’s original orders. In contrast to the other three Russian bases, Bomarsund, a fortress complex guarding an impressive potential harbour, was vulnerable; as it was still under construction it was likely to be incomplete and undermanned and did not have any element of the Russian fleet nearby to support its defence.

There was huge and publicly expressed disappointment in Britain that if Sveaborg and Kronstadt had proved to be too formidable, the allies could have taken or bombarded Riga or Reval or Abo. On the other hand, some commentators argued that the advantages resulting from the campaign should not be ignored. Many contended that the force placed at Napier’s disposal was both too strong and too weak – too strong to tempt the Russian fleet to emerge and risk an open engagement but too weak to capture or destroy Kronstadt or Sveaborg. During the campaign, Napier felt he was hampered by contradictions in the Admiralty’s instructions and especially by the attitude of the First Lord, Sir James Graham. In fact some of the Naval Lords seemed to react more to adverse coverage in the British press than to Napier’s assessments on the spot and relations between them deteriorated badly. Not one to mince words or submit to what he felt to be unwonted criticism, Napier sealed his professional fate by frequently adopting what was called a ‘disrespectful’ tone in some of his dispatches, which the Admiralty disliked. On his return in December 1854, ‘where disappointment was loudly expressed at the small results of the naval campaign’, he was ordered to haul down his flag, told that his command was terminated and placed on half-pay. It is noticeable that none of Napier’s flag officers of the 1854 campaign was allowed to return to the Baltic in 1855, the new fleet being given to Admiral the Hon. Richard Saunders Dundas, then the Second Sea Lord.

The Admiralty attempted to make Napier a scapegoat for what British public and press opinion perceived to be the failure of the campaign but it is interesting that although there were many who had criticised and carped at Napier’s actions, some of the leading officers of the Baltic Fleet maintained that his strategy had been wise and that the faults lay with the Admiralty themselves. In the end, though lacking any major dramatic action apart from the capture of Bomarsund, Napier had achieved something. His ships had effectively neutralised (though not destroyed) the Imperial Baltic Fleet, preventing the deployment of additional warships outside the Baltic and perhaps even to the Black Sea. He had maintained through all weathers a successful blockade which had disrupted Russian trade, fishing and supply routes and had demonstrated the allies’ ability to attack at will targets like ports, shipyards and stores and the corresponding inability of the Russians to defend their own coastlines. In addition, Russian land forces in their thousands had been held along the Baltic shores in anticipation of allied landings and were thus prevented from reinforcing the Russian Army in the Crimea or elsewhere. Also, Napier’s constant emphasis on training had welded the fleet’s personnel into a much more competent force for the coming campaign and not a single ship had been lost. One result of all this was that even Sir James Graham, who really had become Sir Charles Napier’s enemy, recognised that new types of warship were needed for the planned Baltic campaign of 1855. In October 1854, a programme of construction was put into action which would produce five new blockships and no less than twenty new gunboats. These would enable Napier’s successor, Admiral Richard Dundas, to contemplate an attack on the fortresses of the Baltic in 1855 with some hope of success.


The perceived failure of the allied expedition to the Baltic in 1854 – if indeed it was actually a failure – led to acrimony in Britain and the removal of its commander, Admiral Sir Charles Napier. But it did at least force their Lordships at the Admiralty to reconsider the aims and needs of the naval force for the campaign season of 1855. It was becoming clear that the old sailing ‘wooden walls’ and even the larger screw warships, powerful as they were, were not the right sort of vessel for the coasts and waters of the Baltic or for the operations being planned there. Attacks on harbours and strongly defended installations required a more manoeuvrable but powerfully armed fleet which could deliver overwhelming firepower against static land targets, not just enemy warships. Consideration would also have to be given to the carrying of sizeable land forces for possible operations ashore.

The Admiralty announced in February 1855 that no sailing warships of any kind would be sent to the Baltic in the new season, experience having shown that ‘the mixture of screw and sailing ships was not conducive to the interests of the service’; the new Baltic Fleet would consist only of steamers, twenty of which would be ready for service within two months. In particular, it was expected that in 1855 there would be a greater degree of planning and concerted action than seemed to be the case in 1854. A correspondent in the United Service Gazette wrote: ‘The general subject of complaint last year in the Baltic was that no plan of operation appeared to have been determined upon. From Kiel the fleet went to Kioge. They went up the Gulf of Finland and came down again – they buzzed about everywhere without fixing anywhere and they did not take Bomarsund until it was nearly time to conclude the campaign.’ The writer went on to urge attacks on the fortresses of the Baltic since ‘the most complete plans and drawings of the chief Russian fortresses are in the possession of our government’. It seems that the Emperor Napoleon III was equally anxious that some degree of proper planning should go into the new campaign – he understood that the French navy would play second fiddle to the British, but nevertheless thought that Britain’s reputation had suffered (‘terribly shaken by the nullity of our campaign in the Baltic last year’) and urged that thorough planning must be in place. Interestingly, the French reduced their Baltic contingent in 1855, perhaps in view of the strength of the British fleet and considering that their greatest efforts were needed in the Crimea.

The result in Britain at least was the creation of a new Baltic Fleet for 1855. There were to be over 100 vessels comprising only steam-powered ships, both screw and paddle, many of them smaller, faster vessels of shallower draught capable of operating in the waters of estuaries and rivers. But, in stark contrast to that which had set off so hopefully a year before, the impressive new fleet that sailed from Spithead on 4 April 1855 did so without any great show or pageantry; it left simply as a fighting force with a job to do and with no ceremony or public celebration. It was a powerful fleet:

The Baltic Fleet this year is in all respects much stronger than the last; it has more steam power, more guns, a new class of gun-boats and floating batteries, adapted for creeks and shoals and – what more than anything else marks a resolution to do something – a new commander . . . We certainly had wished that after last year’s experience we should have less of such floating castles as the Duke of Wellington and the Royal George and rather more of the gun-boats and other small craft on which we must mainly rely in our offensive operations

The ‘new commander’ was Rear Admiral Richard Saunders Dundas.



Since the total blockade maintained in 1854 was to be resumed, the 1855 campaign season began with the dispatch of an ‘advanced squadron’ under Captain Rundle Watson (in Imperieuse) on 20 March, which reached the Baltic in mid-April and formally declared a renewed blockade on the 17th. At much the same time, most of the larger warships of Dundas’ fleet were passing through the Kattegat, heading for anchorage at Kiel, where they concentrated on 13 April. Most of the fleet remained there for nearly a month, waiting for the last of the solid winter ice to recede, but Dundas finally left Kiel on 2–3 May with twenty ships, joining the advanced squadron at Gothland on the 7th. Whilst the main fleet then proceeded to Nargen Island, opposite Reval, which became Dundas’ advanced base, smaller squadrons were deployed as in 1854 to range around the Baltic – to reconnoitre Sveaborg, Riga, Kronstadt, the Åland Islands and Hängo Head, to blockade the Gulfs of Riga and Finland and the coast of Courland and to intercept enemy trading vessels. Although the fleet at Nargen was in easy reach of Reval, any thought of an attack on the town was quickly abandoned, given that its defences had been massively strengthened over the winter. The truth is that the Russians had used the winter very well, not only to strengthen or fortify many of their previously undefended smaller ports but to deploy large forces of infantry, guns and cavalry at strategic points along the Baltic shores to fend off possible allied landings. Allied landing parties were to find a much warmer reception in 1855 than they had in 1854.

The French squadron under Rear Admiral Andre Penaud joined on 1 June when Dundas was reconnoitring Russia’s great Baltic base at Kronstadt, which was clearly the most important potential target of allied efforts in 1855. Dundas had over thirty vessels off Kronstadt in June and repeated reconnaissance picked out at least twenty-eight Russian warships at anchor in the harbour. But they showed no signs of coming out to give battle and the allies, despite long discussions on the possibility and method of an attack, really saw no hope of success with a naval assault. Similarly, Dundas himself, having personally reconnoitred Kronstadt in Merlin, reached the conclusion that ‘no serious attack appears to me to be practicable with the means at my disposal’. As at Reval, Sveaborg and other Baltic ports, the tranquility of winter had allowed a significant strengthening of the port’s defences and outer approaches, which included submarine piles and the novel deployment of two sorts of underwater mines (or ‘infernal machines’) which were a largely unknown and much-feared weapon. If Kronstadt had been considered unassailable in 1854, it was equally so in 1855. A completely different sort of naval force was required even to consider the attempt – one with a mass of small gun and mortar vessels and with a significant landing force. As a result of the experiences in the Baltic in 1855 (see below), ‘The Great Armament’ of 1855–6 set out to rectify this need and eventually produced the necessary type of vessels in large numbers, but in the campaign season of 1855 they were simply not available. The case was quickly closed: however closely Kronstadt might be ‘watched’ over the rest of the season, it could not be attacked by sea in 1855.

Bombardment of Sveaborg.

At 7.00am on the 9th the bombardment began, employing the moored mortar boats, a French sandbag battery on a rocky outcrop and the gunboats. The gunboat flotilla, wheeling round in large circles to bring their few heavy guns to bear, was under the command of Commodore Hon. F.T. Pelham. The gunboats and sandbag battery fired nearly horizontally against the forts, whilst the 12-inch and 13-inch mortars fired at a high elevation, over the other ships, so that their shells, about thirty an hour, dropped into the interior of the defences or between them and Helsingfors, to destroy magazines, ships stores and buildings. The largest island and seat of the governor, East Svarto, was somewhat sheltered by Vargon but could nevertheless be hit by highangled dropping fire. Some of the larger warships cruised to the east and west, to distract the attention of troops and batteries visible on shore.

This heavy bombardment was returned with great resolution by the defenders but before long the whole line of defences was being pounded by thickly falling shells and shot and hit by falling fragments of buildings, roofs and burning timbers. Dundas recorded that about 10.00 o’clock in the forenoon, fires began to be observed in the different buildings and a heavy explosion took place on the Island of Sargon [Vargon], which was followed by a second an hour later. A third and far more important explosion occurred about noon on the Island of Gustavsvard, inflicting much damage upon the defences of the enemy and tending to greatly slacken the fire from that direction . . . [there were] continued fresh conflagrations which spread extensively on the Island of Sargon.

In the campaign season of 1854, Admiral Napier had on several occasions considered an attack on Sveaborg (and perhaps on Helsingfors) and had the islands reconnoitred and ‘watched’. But, to the consternation of many of his younger subordinates, he refused to be drawn into what he regarded as a futile attack; he did not believe his firepower great enough to reduce the forts, he did not have mortar or gun vessels that could do serious damage and he had no land forces to operate ashore if the forts fell. His brief from Sir James Graham at the Admiralty was, after all, very clear – he was not to endanger his fleet on desperate enterprises against fixed defences. In the campaign season of 1855, the situation was somewhat different. Since the Admiralty had at least learned something from the omissions of 1854, the new Baltic Fleet under Admiral Dundas was better equipped to take on some of the fortifications that had been beyond Napier’s capacity in 1854. In particular, he had powerful gunboats and a number of mortar vessels capable of heavy bombardment with some hope of doing damage. The allied attack on Sveaborg in 1855 was to be the largest purely naval operation in the Baltic but the allied fleet did not, however, carry anything in the form of significant land forces to serve ashore, so any attack could never be more than a demonstration of allied naval might. It could do whatever damage it liked at long range, but it could not seize or permanently hold the forts or operate on shore from them. The Russians, for their part, clearly believed that although no attack on Sveaborg had been made in 1854, there was every likelihood that a new, more powerful fleet would make an attempt in 1855.

Leaving Admiral Sir Robert Baynes with a squadron to blockade Kronstadt, Admiral Dundas assembled at Nargen a fleet of 22 steamers, 16 gunboats and 16 mortar vessels, carrying an armament of the largest ordnance used in naval warfare up to that time. They were joined by a French contingent under Rear Admiral Penaud in Tourville. Once extra supplies of ammunition had been received from England, the admirals agreed their plans and steamed from Nargen for Sveaborg, where they brought their vessels into battle array on 8 August. In his dispatches Dundas stated that by erecting batteries on every advantageous position (including the shore around Helsingfors, which was heavily defended) the Russians had so commanded all the approaches to the harbour that he abandoned any intention of making a general attack, limiting his operations to a naval bombardment of the islands and the destruction of any fortresses and arsenals that could be reached by mortar shells and gunfire. The plan for the bombardment was largely adopted from that written in 1854 by Captain B.J. Sulivan of Lightning; he now commanded the larger Merlin but in the event was not allowed to exercise overall command of the attack and was in fact angered by suggested changes to his plan. It was difficult to find suitable positions for the long line of 16 British and 5 French mortar vessels amid the rocks and islets, but ultimately these boats, towed to into position by steamers, were ranged in a curved line facing the island defences at a range of 3,300 yards and 4 lighter mortars were placed on the islet of Otterhall. The larger warships – Magicienne, Vulture, Euryalus and Dragon – were 400 yards behind them ranged in line. Operating in front of all of these, closer to the actual defences at a range of about 2,500 yards, were the French and British gunboats. The rest of the allied fleet lay at anchor further to the rear of the battle lines between the islets of Skogsholm and Skogskar.

As night arrived, the gunboats withdrew and the fleet’s smaller boats, armed with rockets, took over, firing into the forts throughout the night so that the interior of Sveaborg’s defences was engulfed in a spectacular sheet of flame, filling the air with masses of smoke. Early in the morning of 10 August, some adjustments having been made in the line of mortar boats, the full-scale bombardment recommenced. Once again, columns of smoke and flashes of flame lit up the sky and the depots on East Svarto were soon seen to be in flames. Again, the firing continued all day so that, as Admiral Penaud recorded in his dispatch to the French government, Sveaborg looked like ‘a vast fiery furnace’ so numerous were the fires and explosions of magazines, storehouses, barracks and other buildings. As before, the attack was continued through the night by rocket boats. It was clear by dawn the next day that just about everything – short of a landing and occupation – that could be achieved by naval firepower had been done.

In Helsingfors, the local population, many of whom had crowded onto high points to watch the action, now prepared to flee the city, certain that an allied landing would follow. But as the ships could not penetrate further into the intricate channels between the islands, the allies brought operations to a close and no further action ensued. The attack had used, it was estimated, over 100 tons of gunpowder and 5,000 tons of iron shot and shell in 48 hours. Nevertheless, the actual seaward defences of the forts and batteries seemed comparatively undamaged and the admirals could only point to the destruction of property within the interior as proof of the success of their operations. Considering that the mortars and guns fired at an average distance of more than 2 miles from their targets, it was no great surprise that the stone forts were so little damaged.

One unusual feature of this action was that the larger ships were virtually spectators, since the admirals did not want to risk them in close action; their crews, agog with excitement at the sight of the burning forts, could only envy those in the mortar boats and gunboats and could do nothing but run up the rigging to get a view and shout and cheer whenever a good shot from the gunboats struck the forts or a shell from the mortar boats burst within the defences. Some of the larger ships – the Cornwallis, Hastings, Amphion, Arrogant, Cossack and Cruiser – did manage to put some shots into the forts, especially one at Sandhamn, 6 miles from the main action but the smaller boats did most of the work. The bombardment of Sveaborg was yet another example of the value of heavily armed, lighter-draught, manoeuvrable ships rather than the old line-of-battle heavyweights.

When the great effect of the gun and mortar boats was made public in England, Sir Charles Napier wrote to the newspapers, demanding as an act of justice that his operations in 1854 should be judged in the light of the action of 1855: this seemed no more than fair, seeing that he had neither gunboats nor mortar boats and could not have done what Dundas was able to do. The letter he had written to the Admiralty on the 12 June 1854 – over a year before Dundas’ attack – is worthy of notice:

The only successful manner of attacking Sveaborg that I can see . . . is by fitting out a great number of gun-boats carrying one gun with a long range, and placing them west of Sveaborg and south of Helsingfors; every shell from them would tell somewhere, and perhaps not five per cent. from the enemy would take effect; back them by the fleet to relieve the men, and in the course of the summer Sveaborg would be reduced to ashes, and Helsingfors also, if it was thought proper.

A French report, printed in the Moniteur, stated that during the 2 days’ bombardment of Sveaborg, the allied fleet destroyed 2 powder magazines, 2 shell magazines, a flax and rope storehouse, 2 granaries filled with corn and flour, a pitch manufactory, a medicine store, the house and office of the governor general and 17 private houses. Besides this, a 3-decker and 18 other Russian vessels were more or less damaged by shot and shell, whilst 2,000 Russians were killed or wounded. Not surprisingly, the Russian papers produced rather different statistics and their accounts of the damage, related in various European newspapers and in official Russian reports, naturally varied enormously; some reported immense damage and loss of life, whilst others belittled the ‘insignificant’ damage and long-term effects of the allied action and claimed serious loss in the enemy fleet. One dispatch, published in the Invalide Russe, claimed that the allied fleet numbered no less than 80 vessels of various kinds and that their marines had been prevented from landing on the island of Drumso; that the excellent fire of the defenders’ artillery caused great damage and loss to the gunboats that came within range; that 1 battery sent such a volley against 2 screw steamers, as to compel them to retreat, 1 towing the other; that although the fire of the allies was tremendous, resulting from 21,000 projectiles thrown during 2 days, and although many conflagrations and explosions occurred, the damage done to the main fortresses and to the batteries in general was insignificant and, finally, that the loss of men was by no means severe, comprising 65 killed and 201 wounded. In the end, it has to be assumed that no accurate picture of the damage done or casualties sustained by the defenders could really be established.

Remarkably – and again largely because of the range – there was little damage to the allied vessels and few casualties. The gunboats had steamed round slowly in a wide circle, firing first their bow gun, then their midship gun and reloading both whilst completing the rest of their circuit; the Russian gunners simply could not take accurate aim at such continually moving targets and hardly a ship was hit. The mortar vessels, which were moored and thus more or less stationary, suffered rather more damage but much of this was simply from the sheer rate of their own fire which severely damaged the new mortars; several burst36 after firing literally dozens of rounds and many others were temporarily put out of use by overheating or the risk of fracture. But remarkably not a single sailor was killed throughout the allied fleet during two days of continuous firing, though several suffered minor wounds and burns or injury from the premature bursting of rockets.

The flotilla of steam gunboats, nicknamed the ‘Mosquito Squadron’, really did demonstrate its power and worth here for the first time in a significant action. The result was spectacular. The Admiralty became so convinced that these small, light boats represented the future of naval operations against fixed land targets that they immediately embarked on the mass construction of gun and mortar vessels. In a radical building programme over the winter of 1855 – really nothing less a than the rapid construction of a massive new fleet in what became known as ‘The Great Armament’ – over 200 new gunboats, 11 armoured floating batteries and 100 mortar vessels and rafts were laid down to be ready for use in 1856. A huge strain was placed on Thames-side construction yards (for example, at Blackwall where many of the Dapper class were laid down), so that on the whole private tenders were taken for the basic building of the ships whilst the official or royal dockyards were employed for finishing – equipping them with engines and armament. New steam battleships were also prepared (for example, Conqueror). The ultimate target of all this activity would no doubt have been the mighty defences of Kronstadt itself, but as the war ended before the new fleets could be deployed in 1856, they were never tested. Only a ‘flying squadron’ of steam frigates and two new battleships, Caesar and Majestic, reached the Baltic for what would have been the campaign season of 1856. In fact, the end of the Russian war saw a rapid return to pre-war Anglo-French tensions and naval rivalry which required, from Britain’s point of view, the construction of larger steam battleships and frigates, rather than a host of small gunboats.

Fokker Fodder

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.