Today, Major-General Hugh Trenchard, Commanding Royal Flying Corps In the Field issued a general memorandum on aerial fighting. The document is not a definitive tactical statement but starts with a potted history of developments to date (glossing over long periods of German technical superiority) before offering some general tactical advice on general formations and the issues to be considered. It does however stress that formation flying needs to be planned and practiced.
H.Q. R.F.C. Memorandum of December 1917
The great changes that have taken place since the beginning of the war in aerial fighting make a study of what further progress is likely to be made during the next twelve months of great importance.
Before considering this it would be of value to review the different phases through which aerial warfare has gone up to the present with a view to seeing what further developments may be expected.
In August 1914 the four original squadrons that landed in France were composed of twelve machines each, armed with rifles and revolvers, a machine being detailed for any of the following duties, reconnaissance, artillery work or fighting, no machine specializing in any one role.
Machines worked independently and were able to carry out their work without an escort, as the enemy was using his machines in the same manner.
Up to the end of 1914 no great advance was made; one or two machines appeared fitted with a Lewis Gun on a mounting generally designed by the observer to suit himself. Early in 1915 the enemy commenced carrying out reconnaissance work and bombing behind our lines with single machines, which necessitated scouts being employed to attack them. Here, for the first time, are machines seen used solely for fighting.
During the spring of 1915 further developments took place, it being found necessary to differentiate between the duties of machines by detailing some permanently for artillery work, some for long distance reconnaissance, and some for fighting. The practice, however, of sending out machines singly without an escort still remained in force.
It was at this time that the first sign of offensive tactics by us appeared, single machines being sent over the enemy’s lines with the definite object of seeking out and fighting any hostile machines encountered.
During the summer of 1915 the practice of employing different machines for different duties continued, but owing to the momentary success of the Fokker attacking our machines when working independently, it was found necessary to make the fighting machines work in conjunction with the reconnaissance machines, or in other words to send an escort of a fighting machine whose sole duty it was to keep hostile machines away from the reconnaissance or artillery machine.
A little later an escort of one machine was proved to be insufficient, so two were detailed; the fighting scout also found that more than one machine working together had a better chance of bringing a combat to a decisive end and they, in their turn, commenced working in pairs.
After a short period it was discovered that by using signals, machines working in pairs could effectively work together and this led to the employment of three or four machines in formation, with successful results.
Thus at the beginning of 1916 formation flying, which brought about one of the most drastic changes in aerial fighting, crept in. By this time single-seater squadrons were formed, as owing to the speed, rate of climb, and facility of manoeuvre, the scout proved itself more suitable for offensive action than the two-seater.
Until the summer of 1917 formation flying consisted of from three to six fighting machines working independently on the same front, and it is obvious to anyone looking into the near future that the next development will be the co-operation of these formations with each other.
It is certain that until telephonic communication between machines is perfected the number of machines in formation commanded by one man must be kept down to a maximum of six, and it is probable that, even when telephonic communication develops, the greatest number of machines commanded by one man will still remain the same. By this it is not meant that formations will not be able to work together; on the contrary it is certain that this is the next problem to be solved.
In the infantry a force advancing consists of a main body with advanced, rear, and flank guards. In the air the third dimension makes flank and rearguards unnecessary, the ‘above guard’ being able to perform the duties of both.
This is undoubtedly best carried out by placing the rearmost formation slightly above the main body, either directly behind or echeloned to a flank. The main body consisting of one or more formations will carry out the offensive fighting, the ‘above guard’ remaining intact to protect them from surprise attacks.
When a force in open warfare is carrying out an offensive action the troops of the main body must feel that they will not be surprised from the flanks or rear; similarly, the pilots in the main body must feel secure against surprise attacks from above.
The following purely paper scheme is suggested, not to lay down the law, but to open up a train of thought in the right direction. Suppose a formation consisting of three sub-formations, each consisting of six machines under the command of a Flight Commander, the whole commanded by a Squadron Commander. It must be noted that this suggestion
cannot be carried out until squadrons are increased to 24 machines so as to allow for those under repair.
‘A’ Flight might be ordered to fly across the lines at from 12,000 to 14,000 feet, ‘B’ Flight flying 2,000 feet above this and 800 to 1,000 yards behind, while the ‘above guard’, consisting of ‘C Flight, would fly at a height of 18,000 feet and directly in the rear, or in rear and slightly to a flank, of ‘B’ Flight.
At once the question arises with which sub-formation is the Commander to fly? Without doubt with the ‘above guard’, for from there the Squadron Commander can watch the progress of the fight and keep his reserve or ‘above guard’ in hand.
The action to be taken by the various sub-formations under different circumstances would be as follows:
If ‘A’ Flight encounters any number of machines up to four, they would attack them and should succeed in driving down or dispersing them, ‘B’ and ‘C Flights taking no part in the fight.
If ‘A’ Flight is attacked by superior numbers, or encounters 10 or 12 hostile machines, the second Flight would join in the combat by diving down thus they must keep a sufficient height above ‘A’ Flight to enable them to overtake the leading Flight by diving. At the end of a fight, if successful, the sub-formation would rejoin formation in their respective places. If, however, the two Flights cannot drive away the hostile formation, a portion of the rearguard would have to go down to their assistance, but two machines must be left above. However much height the two leading sub-formations lose, the four reinforcing machines should never go right down, though they might go to 6,000 or 8,000 feet, the remaining two keeping a good height unless the German machines come between them and the other four.
If the pilots of ‘A’ and ‘B’ Flights had the slightest doubt as to the ‘above guard’ not being above them, their confidence would be shaken and their fighting value halved.
Again, a superior formation of hostile machines might leave ‘A’ Flight above and attack ‘B’ Flight. In this case ‘above guard’ would not go to its assistance, but ‘B’ Flight would reinforce itself by diving in front of and underneath ‘A’ Flight.
Formations consisting of three sub-formations have been discussed, but is that all that may be expected? When the number of squadrons increases it is certain that squadrons will be found co-operating with each other, forming a force consisting of two or three sub-formations. Until telephonic communication is perfected these formations would have definite orders beforehand as to their route and the landmarks over which prearranged wheeling would be done.
Of course, in addition to the above formations, sub-formations of six machines working independently would be necessary for patrolling and attacking the enemy within four to eight miles of the lines, in order to destroy isolated enemy machines. If large formations as above were sent out to-morrow the suggested organization would prove of little value and all combats would develop into ‘dog fights’, but it is certain that large formations will come and the side which thinks furthest ahead, worries out the details, and puts them into practice will have a very big advantage over the other.
From what I have heard of the success of one particular squadron (which has not been very long in this country) in formation flying of 18 machines after continuous practice, I am confident that if once Squadron Commanders take the matter up under the guidance of the Wing and Brigade Commanders we shall be the side that has this advantage.
My point in bringing up this question is not to lay down definite drill but to impress upon all the principles on which formation fighting should
The following points require thinking out
(1) In what formation are the machines of the sub-formation to fly?
(2) How many sub-formations should a formation consist of?
(3) In what formation is the formation to fly ?
(4) With what sub-formation is the Commander to fly?
(5) What are the duties of the various sub-formations, especially the ‘above guard’ ?
(6) The co-operation of different types of machines in the same formation.
(7) The co-operation between different formations.
(Sgd.) H. Trenchard,
Commanding, Royal Flying Corps,
In the Field,
In the Field.
18th December 1917.