Category Archives: RFC

9 May 1918 – “Landing Impossible”

This evening around 2205, Rfa 501 sent off four of its giant Zeppelin-Staaken machines (R.VI 26/16, R.VI 29/16, R.VI 32/16 and R.VI 39/16) to attack Dover.

However poor weather soon resulted in the mission being cancelled and they were ordered to attack the alternative targets of Calais and Dunkirk. The prevailing north-west wind was considered favourable because the aircraft, flying into the wind, would be able to anticipate oncoming bad weather. The aircraft were ordered to return immediately if a fog warning was received by wireless.

R 32 and R 39 dropped their bombs on Dunkirk when they received a message warning that fog over the airfield was increasing. They headed back at once, but the two other aircraft carried on as they were just a short distance from their target, Calais.

R32 and R39 arrived over their airfield just before 0100. The airfield signalled by wireless: ‘Cloud height 100 metres, Brussels clear visibility.’

Both aircraft decided to risk the landing rather than divert to Brussels. However, fog soon covered the airfield. The landing beacons could be seen from above, but it was not possible to see them from within the fog bank.

R32 was flying towards these when it hit a row of trees 700 metres short of the field and crashed. The explosion of an unreleased bomb and remaining fuel completely destroyed the R32 and killed nearly all its crew. The R39, as it emerged from the fog, flew directly between the two beacons at the edge of the airfield and barely rolled to a safe stop at the end of the runway, within inches of a ditch. The first Rfa 501 learned of the crash was when a badly-injured crew member stumbled across the airfield.

At 0130 hours, R 26 and R 29 arrived over the airfield. They received a wireless message saying “Landing impossible, clouds 100 metres high, Ghistelles clear for landing.” A further message, at 0150 hours said ‘Land at Ghistelles, otherwise use parachute.’

In spite of these orders, the R26 and R29 decided to land. The R 26 flew into the ground and burned killing the crew, except one mechanic.

R29 made an approach along the edge of the fog bank, using its landing lights to avoid flying into the ground. As it was impossible to locate the airfield under the fog layer, the R 29 climbed over it using its gyro-compass. Having picked up the beacons and under the impression that the cloud bank was still at 100 metres, R 29 attempted a glide approach. In the clouds the aircraft turned 60-80° to starboard in spite of the pilots’ efforts to the contrary and lost its course. Suddenly, at the bottom of the cloud layer, the pilots saw tree tops. They immediately opened up the engines to pull the aircraft into a climb, but it was too late. The landing gear caught the tree tops, pulling the fuselage down into the trees. Although the fuel tanks burst, the R29 did not catch fire, thanks to the pilot who shut-off the ignition of the engines and motor-dynamo. Four were killed and a mechanic was seriously injured.

It’s not known exactly who was on each aircraft, but the following were killed:

  • Ernst Rungwer
  • Uffz Heinrich Wäsche
  • Mechanic
  • Walter Grüneberg,
  • Alois Langner
  • Richard Oberländer
  • Fritz Pfeifer
  • Wilhelm Pier
  • Lothar Friedrich
  • Uffz. Josef Belz
  • Gefr. Paul Schnigge
  • Flg. Julius Winand
  • Fritz Wieter
  • Wilhelm Landwehrmann
  • Karl Freund
  • Alfred Bröske

6 May 1918 – US Insignia

The RFC in general had frowned upon garish markings unlike their German counterparts. Squadrons could be identified by those in the know as many squadrons had markings on the fuselage such as lines, chevrons and zigzags. The RFC were quite obsessive about secrecy to the extent that shortly before the German March offensive, Squadrons were forced to change their markings to try and confuse the Germans.

The RNAS had a more lenient policy as is evident in the coloured stripes of 10 Squadron RNAS and the black aircraft of 8 Squadron.

Their new allies, the USA, now have their own air forces in France, and they clearly do not share the British retiscence. 94 Aero Squadron has its hat in the ring, and and the 95 Aero Squadron the kicking mule.

Today, Brigadier General Foulois, Chief if the US Air Service, established a policy authorizing creation of emblems for aviation units, and ordered all squadrons to create an official insignia to be painted on each side of an airplane fuselage:

“The squadron will design their own insignia during the period of organizational training. The design must be submitted to the Chief of Air Service, AEF, for approval. The design should be simple enough to be recognizable from a distance.”

22 April 1918 – The Red Baron’s funeral

In line with the mores of the time, Manfred Von Richthofen was given a full military funeral by the  British Forces. There was no douby an element of propaganda in the respectiful approach and the cermony was both photographed and filmed. At the same time there was also a mutual respect between airmen which is amply demonstrated in the way enemy airmen were treated by their foes in the opposing air forces.

The service was conducted by men from 3 Squadron Australian Flying Corps and other local Australian Forces. Fitters with the Squadron made a coffin and a zinc plate for the lid as well as fashioning a cross and nameplate. Representatives and wreaths from other Squadrons were also present. There was apparently some ill feeling between the RAF and the Australian ground forces who were both claiming the victory. Nevertheless the funeral was conducted in a sombre and respectiful fashion, including a military salute.

The appreciation was not shared by the local French who apparently vandalised the grave during the night. A stern warning from Sir John Monash, the Australian commander to the local mayor prevented any further issues.

Photographs of the funeral were subsequently dropped over the German lines.

Some additional discussion of the event by Australian Screen is here. More photos are available at the Australian War Memorial.

1 April 1918 – RAF

Today the Royal Air Force finally came into being as a separate Service, independent of the British Army and Royal Navy – the first time that any country had formed an entirely separate and independent air force. The RAF was the most powerful air force in the world with more than 290,000 personnel and nearly 23,000 aircraft. At the time of the merger, the RNAS had 55,066 personnel and 2,949 aircraft. At the same time the Women’s RAF was also formed.

In reality, very little changed for those in service. They remained in the same units, wearing the same uniforms, flying the same aircraft. It would take time for new traditions to form.

The only real noticeable change was that the Naval units were renumbered. Naval Squadrons 1 to 17 serving in France were renumbered 201-217.

The two wings serving abroad were also renumbered. 2 Wing RNAS in the Eastern Mediterranean became 220-223 Squadrons. 6 Wing RNAS in Italy became 224-227 Squadrons. It wasn’t until later (at various times between May and August 1918 that the former RNAS stations in England were designated as Squadrons, becoming 228-272 Squadrons.

31 March 1918 – Untiring Exertions

On the eve of the foundation of the Royal Air Force, the exhausted pilots of the RFC and RNAS could take something of a breather. The intense fighting of the last 10 days had finally died down and worsening weather over the last few days had seen aerial activity decrease.

The British had lost 478 aircraft since 21 March and for the first time a significant number of these were attributed to ground fire on aircraft carrying out ground assault missions (84 during the whole of March- the largest of the war). This reflected the new defensive tactics that the air forces were eventually able to put into place, and the desperate nature of the situation.

It is probably a step to far to say that the air forces saved the British Army but but Australian Official History has the following to say:

”…the untiring exertions of the airmen in delaying the enemy’s reserves, and throwing his whole transport system out of gear, which enabled the Allied infantry to succeed.”

In the end, the Germans failed to take their strategic objectives of Amiens and Arras and the area taken though large (1200 square miles), was mainly undefendable due to the ravages of three previous years of war.

The cost of the battle meant that Germans were not able to mount another major offensive again, and the chance to win the war before the arrival of fresh American troops and equipment was gone. In their last days, the RFC and RNAS had made a decisive contribution to the eventual victory.

28 March 1918 – 43 Squadron mauled

The German armies launched a fresh assault in the Arras area which up to now had held firm. It did again, thanks to a combination of clear weather and the ability of the RFC to finally put in place the defensive plans it had devised.

The squadrons that had flown south to assist now returned to the First Army area to assist with ground attack and artillery calling the main missions.

Once again the RFC suffered multiple casualties across many squadrons. 43 Squadron, operating in the Arras to Albert area were in the thick of the action that morning, claiming six enemy aircraft and two balloons but also suffering six casualties.

Cecil Frederick King

2nd Lieutenant Cecil Frederick King claimed an Albatross shot down and crashed in his Sopwith Camel (D1777) before being wounded and forced to return home.

Lieutenant Robert Johnstone Owen claimed one Albatross and a balloon in his Sopwith Camel (C8259) but was the shot down and taken prisoner by Leunant Rudolph Heins from Jasta 56.

John Lightfoot Trollope

Heins then also claimed Lieutenant Walter James Prier in Sopwith Camel D6404. Prier also claimed an enemy shot down, though he was taken prisoner.

Captain John Lightfoot Trollope MC claimed 2 enemy aircraft and a balloon before being shot down in his Sopwith Camel (C8270) by Leutnant Victor von Rautter from Jasta 4. He crashed behind enemy lines and sustained a very serious wound to his left arm that required amputation of his hand. He was taken prisoner, and later had his arm amputated after his repatriation. On the 24th of March Trollope had claimed seven enemy aircraft shot down.


Charles Roland Massdorp

2nd Lieutenant Harold Towns Adams was seen to force down an Albatross in Sopwith Camel (C8267) before being shot down and killed by Leutnant Fritz Rumey of Jasta 5.

Finally, 2nd Lieutenant Charles Roland Maasdorp was shot down and killed by Leutnant Ernst Udet from Jasta 11. Udet later wrote about the combat (though Maasdorp was in fact South African):

It was because of Richthofen’s prejudice for flamers that I rather hated to report my 22nd victory. Mine had been a clear-cut win, and all that; still, my man did not come down in flames. As to the fight, you may judge for yourself.

My opponent was an Australian, Lieut. C. R. Maasdorp of Squadron 47 R.F.C., and the date was sometime in March, 1918. The action took place in the morning above a road leading from Albert to Raume. Maasdorp was flying a Sopwith Camel and I had my Fokker DR-1 (149-17). The fight started at an altitude of 1600 feet.

Both of us apparently decided to attack at the same time, but I managed to get slightly the better position and went at a him from a downward curve which forced him gradually lower. At 600 feet, we both a leveled out and went at each other full speed ahead, with both of our guns spitting bullets. Each of us held to our course. I knew one of us was going to get it. Down below I could see Courcelette and Thiepval.

Several shots tore through the wings of my machine and I could hear others singing through the air around me.

Shooting head-on at a plane is tricky business. The thing is to get the other man to waver to one side or the other and then you can get him. Maasdorp must have known that. I could tell that he was an experienced flier. He kept right on coming.

Flying is largely a matter of nerve. The man who can stick it out the longest wins. This scrap was really a duel of nerves. In the end I won; Maasdorp shifted his course ever so slightly. In the same instant I got him. His Camel turned completely over and with her engines still roaring in defiance, dove squarely into the middle of a big shell crater.

I descended several minutes later and went up to inspect the crash. I found that one of my bullets had gone cleanly through his head, killing him instantly. That’s why his machine somersaulted so suddenly. There was a dead man at the controls.

27 March 1918 – Drummond pushes his luck

Out in Palestine this morning, Captain Peter Roy Maxwell Drummond DSO MC in his Nieuport 17 (B3597) and another pilot from 111 Squadron RFC had scrambled to intercept a Rumpler patrolling over Jaffa.

They chased it back to its aerodrome at Tul Ker am, and Drummond believed he had wounded its observer. At this point, six Albatros fighters arrived from the north and began a dogfight with Drummond in which he shot two of them down – making it three claims in one day.

However, the combat was too hot as he only had a single machine-gun and then his engine started to pack in. He was forced down and eventually spun and landed on the German aerodrome.

Drummond in his Nieuport

He was about to give himself up when his engine caught again and he decided to make a break for it. Flying only a few feet above the ground he gained half a mile on the enemy fighters before they realised what he had done. He eventually reached the lines, despite landing another four times in enemy territory owing to his battered engine and the effects of intense ground fire which he suffered for most of his trip home.

He was subsequently awarded a Bar to his DSO.