Today in Parliament William Anderson MP asked the Under-Secretary of State for War
“whether he has now received a Report as to the circumstances in which aeroplanes circled over Coventry and dropped leaflets containing an article which had appeared in a London newspaper; who authorised these proceedings and who paid for the leaflets; and whether the use of Government aeroplanes for this purpose was sanctioned by the War Office?”
Sir James MacPherson answered:
“The distribution of these leaflets from aeroplanes was made at the suggestion in his private capacity of an officer serving in London who is also member of this House. He paid for the leaflets at his sole expense, the newspaper making no contribution to the cost. The use of Government aeroplanes was authorised by the authorities of the Royal Flying Corps, but special flights were not made for the purpose. They were distributed during a testing trip.”
The leaflets in question had been dropped on Coventry on 2 and 3 December. Coventry was at the time an important centre for aircraft production and on 26 November 1917, 50,000 industrial workers throughout the city had gone out on strike essentially over management’s refusal to recognise and negotiate with shop stewards. Mediation attempts failed and then came the leaflets.
A simple message was dropped on 2 December saying:
“Make the Machines! We will Fly them!
Aeroplanes are going to Win the War!
The following day appeared a reprint of an article ‘What the Coventry strike means’ written by Boyd Cable in The Times – a nom-de-plume of a RFC officer, Captain Edward Andrew Ewart, He set out the effect of the strike in terms of its effects on the battlefield:
“We know that the Germans are straining every nerve to equal or exceed our aeroplane production this winter. If they can beat us in this, next year their machines will be able fly constantly over our lines, reconnoitre, photograph, gain full knowledge of troop movements, locate battery positions, and by air observation direct the fire of their guns on our trenches, our communications, our batteries, and our ammunition dumps […] it will mean that we in the line next year must expect find flights of Germans regularly patrolling for anything up to 50 miles behind our lines (as we now do behind theirs), reconnoitring, swooping down and pouring machine-gun fire on men in billets or rest-camps or marching on the roads, bombing day after day towns and villages and railheads and ammunition dumps (as we now bomb theirs). Our attacks will have to be made without the enormous advantage we have held all this year of superior counter-battery work; our infantry will go over the top in the face of a tornado of shell-fire because our airmen will have lost the power to fly over the enemy batteries and direct our guns’ fire on them and silence them, will have to fight through in the teeth of the murderous fire of thousands of machine-guns secure in their concrete pill-boxes because of the same loss of our artillery, observation and destroying power […] All this must happen if we lose our present air superiority, and we must lose our air superiority if the present strike continues.”
In a later exchange, Major H. K. Newton, the Deputy Assistant Director of Supplies and Transport for Eastern Command was named as the member of the house who had paid for the leaflets. Given that Coventry wasn’t in his area of command this seems difficult to beleive. It seems likely that Ewart was behind the whole thing as, whilst he was indeed an RFC officer, he was not a pilot and in fact worked in the Aircraft Production Department’s Propaganda Branch who’s main aim was to raise morale amongst workers by demonstrating the value of their products to the conduct of the war.
As to the identity of the pilots carrying out the drop, they were never identified but they are likely to have been pilots from nearly Radford Aerodrome which had been taken over by the RFC as No 1 Aircraft Acceptance Park.
The following day the strikers went back to work, though whether the leaflets had any impact in this is hard to say.
More detail on this incident is available on Airminded,