Category Archives: Tactical Developments

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.


27 February 1918 – Mixed messages

Lord John French, as Commander-in-Chief, Home Forces, wrote another report back in January 1918 on the defence of London for the War Cabinet which they considered today.

Sir Henry Wilson, who had succeeded Sir William Robertson as Chief of the Imperial General Staff a few days before, wrote an accompanying memorandum, in which he recommended that, in view of the importance of maintaining the morale of the capital of the Empire, home defence requirements for anti-aircraft guns should be given precedence over the demands of the British Expeditionary Force.

On the other hand, because of the great importance of superiority in the air in the battle which it was anticipated would begin before long on the Western front, the Royal Flying Corps in France should continue to have precedence over home defence for aeroplanes.

These recommendations received the approval of the War Cabinet.

15 January 1918 – Administrative Wing abolished

There was no flying on the Western Front today due to poor weather.

Back in England, an Army Order issued today announced the abolition of the Administrative Wing of the RFC. The Administrative Wing was created at the outbreak of war to manage the RFCs affairs away from the front, and in particular the recruitment and training of new recruits.

In its place, a Reserve Depot, Royal Flying Corps, is to be formed, which will deal with the training of recruits for the RFC. The Officer in charge Royal Flying Corps Records would, in addition to his other duties, be responsible for the final approval of recruits and for the transfer of rank and file to the Royal Flying Corps.

18 December 1917 – “Development of Aerial Fighting”

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

be practised.

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,

H.Q., R.F.C.,

In the Field.

18th December 1917.

30 November 1917 – “The moral effect”

In response to the moderate British successes over the last 10 days, the Germans launched counter-attacks to retake some of the lost ground around Cambrai.

Perhaps they have been studying the British tactics as the counter-attacks were accompanied by low flying aircraft carrying out ground attacks.

In the northern part of the attack, German infantry, closely supported by low-flying aircraft, assaulted from Masnieres to Vendhuille. The weakest link in this part of the British front was the Banteux ravine which the Germans took by 0800. By 0900 Gouzeaucourt had fallen and a position of considerable gravity had arisen. Metz-en-Couture, through which ran the only good road to the Bourlon salient, was threatened, and the Third Army was faced with possible disaster. The enemy, however, was robbed of the full fruits of his initial surprise by the stand made by the 29th Division at Masnieres, and by the desperate resistance offered by local reserves outside Gouzeaucourt. The resistance gave time for a counter-attack to be organized, and this made by the 3 Guards at noon, led to the recapture of Gouzeaucourt and to some progress being made along the Quentin ridge In the afternoon, tanks, which had been preparing to away from the battle area for refit, turned back to Gouzeaucourt and helped to hold the captured ground.

The counter-attacks were assisted by ten DH5s from 68(Australian) Squadron which attacked the German troops with bombs and machine-gun, German troops in the open. By the evening, the British line along this section of the front had been reconstituted.

The southern part of the attack achieved a tactical surprise, despite being expected. This was partly due to mist which obscured the German build up from aircraft. Then, the infantry assault was preceded by only a short bombardment and by intensive and widespread attacks by low-flying German aircraft which not only bewildered the defending troops, but also forced them to keep their heads down so that many of them did not see the approach of the German infantry,

A later enquiry into the success of the German attacks noted:

“These aeroplanes came over in considerable numbers at the time of the assault and flew at altitudes which have been described by witnesses as being lower than 100 feet,firing their machine-guns into our infantry both in the front-line trenches and in rearward positions. The moral effect ofthis was very great and no doubt tendedto facilitate the enemy’s success. Our men did not seem to know what to do to minimize the moral effect of these’low-flying machines. Witnesses stated that fire on them produced no result.”

20th October 1917 – Massive attacks

It has been four months since the German Air Service adopted the concept of the Jagdgeschwader, a larger formation than the Squadron which could be brought to bear on important sections of the front.

On the British side, Lieutenant-Colonel Felton Vesey Holt, commanding the Twenty-second (Army) Wing, had, in consultation with his squadron commanders, devised a scheme earlier in the year for the periodical employment of the maximum fighting strength of the Wing in ‘drives’ over the German back areas. The idea was to ‘net’ as many enemy airmen as possible, and the scheme was, therefore, only to be put into force if and when the German air service was sufficiently active to warrant an operation on such a scale. In the end, the scheme was not put into effect.

Today however, the RFC adopted many of the features in a raid on Rumbeke aerodrome. 45 aeroplanes took part, including 11 Sopwith Camels from 70 Squadron each carrying two 25-lb. bombs, 8 Camels from the same squadron in close escort; 19 Camels from 28 Squadron supporting from the rear to attack German aircraft which left the griound; and seven SPADs from 23 Squadron to act as a high offensive patrol to cover the whole operation.

The attack was successful. Twenty-two bombs were dropped from a height of four hundred feet : some of them fell among aeroplanes lined up on the landing ground, and blew one of them to pieces ; another bomb burst inside a hangar, but the remainder fell just by the hangars and sheds. The bombing pilots then flew about the aerodrome firing at the personnel and into the hangars and buildings. This machine-gun attack was made at an average height of about twenty feet.

Meanwhile, the escorting pilots of 70 Squadron and the patrol of 28 Squadron were having many combats within sight of the aerodrome.

Four German single-seaters were shot down out of control by the former and three by the latter. The operation was rounded off by machine-gun attacks, on the homeward journey, on troops playing games, on horse-transport, and on a troop train, into the windows of which a pilot of 70 Squadron fired from a height of fifty feet. Two aeroplanes of 70 Squadron were lost. These were 2nd Lieutenant Frederick Burt Farquharson in B2370 and Captain John Robert Wilson in B6352. Farquharson was taken prisoner but Wilson was killed. There were no other British casualties as a result of the raid.

Frederick Burt Farqaharson was an American who had joined the RFC through Canada. He went on to be a professor of Civil Engineering at Washington University specialising in aerodynamics and was one of those tasked with the investigation of the vertical oscillations on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge shortly before its collapse in 1940. He appears in the famous film of the bridge before its collapse.

The War diary of John Robert Wilson is also available.

28 August 1917 – No low flying for the DH4

The Airco DH4 has been in service since January 1917, and has been proving popular with crews. However there is a severe shortage of the Rolls Royce Eagle engines which power it such that the RFC and RNAS are struggling to keep up with the requirements of existing squadrons never mind equipping any new ones. .

The engine issue is exacerbated by the problem that the engines have to be returned to Rolls Royce for repair and they do not have the capacity to repair damaged engines and build new engines at the rates required.

Rolls Royce have also refused to allow other manufacturers to make the engines as they fear a loss in quality.

Government inaction has further exacerbated the problem. Rolls Royce had proposed in the autumn of 1916 to set up a repair factory with government assistance but this has been repeatedly delayed until finally being agreed by the Air Board in July 1917. The factory is in the process of being set up but is not yet operational. The Government also recently took over the Clement Talbot Company to carry out repairs under Rolls Royce supervision, but again it will be many months before this is operational.

The end result of all this prevarication on the part of the Air Board is that the respective air service headquarters have had to issue orders that DH4s on the Western Front must carry out bombing missions below 15,000 feet to reduce the chances of being intercepted by the enemy and in turn to reduces losses and damage.