Historian remembers the brave souls who took to the WW1 skies

An Avro 504 First World War fighter plane
An Avro 504 First World War fighter plane

Ask Norman Franks how many books he has written on his specialist subject of military aviation and he is hard-put for an answer.

Eventually, he says he believes he has around 160 titles to his credit – with several more works in the course of preparation. The Bexhillian is acknowledged as one of the nation’s leading experts in his field.

That is why Bexhill Museum was fortunate to have him as guest speaker in the latest of their lecture series.

Norman’s subject was First World War aviation.

Norman has the gift of making putting over a specialist subject in layman’s terms. His easily-accessible address began with the Wright Brothers achieving man’s first powered flight in 1903 – initially a mere 120 feet.

Eleven years later on the eve of war, aviation was still primitive. Britain had only 179 planes and the Royal Flying Corps was merely an Army regiment.

Generals believed that aircraft would be of no use in war. But this was like no previous war. The fighting became bogged down in trench warfare; a continuous line stretching from the Channel coast to Switzerland.

Cavalry was denied its historical role of reconnaissance. Aircraft offered an alternative, scouting over enemy lines, photographing fortifications and troop movements and directing artillery fire.

To counter this each side began to develop aircraft capable of shooting down the enemy’s planes.

What began with pistols and rifles soon incorporated the machine gun.

But where to fit the weapon? The natural place was firing forward. But this jeopardised the propeller. One solution in designs such as the FE2b and Vickers Gunbus was to mount engine and propeller behind the pilot. “Pusher” aircraft could fire forwards but lacked rearward defence.

Slides shown in the second half of the programme showed observers standing in their open positions in the nose of the aircraft to fire backwards over the upper wing.

French ace Roland Garros achieved brief success by mounting a forward-firing machine gun in a tractor (frontally-engined) plane and protecting the propeller with crude deflector plates.

But the secret of his success was discovered when Garros was downed. Dutch designer Anthony Fokker had offered his services to both Britain and France but was rejected. Germany benefited as a result. Fokker’s engineers developed synchronization gear which interrupted a machine gun at the precise moment when a propeller blade crossed its line of fire.

Though a mediocre design in itself, his Eindecker (monoplane) was the source of the “Fokker Scourge” as synchronisation cost many allied airmen their lives.

The pace of development quickened. Germany produced designs such as the Halberstad and Pfalz, France the Nieuport series and SPAD and Britain the Sopwith Pup, Triplane and Camel and the SE5a.

The war produced its aerial aces – Boelcke, Immelmann and von Richthofen (the “Red Baron” in his all-red Fokker Triplane) for Germany; France the likes of Guynemer and Britain Ball, McCudden and Mannock.

But the “scoring” system for aerial victories was curious and included “out of control” which might signal a crafty escape manoeuvre rather than destruction.

An often wryly witty yet comprehensive account took in the battle against observation balloons and airships, early rocket projectiles and the reluctance of both sides (Germany allowed them in the final year of the war) to equip aircrew with parachutes.

Frail, wood and fabric aircraft lacking amour protection swiftly became flaming torches if hit by enemy fire.

any of the brave men who fought above the First World War’s trenches sought a swift end by jumping to their deaths rather than the agony of immolation. Such heroism deserves to be placed on record through the researches of such writers as Norman Franks.

The next museum lecture will be given by Andrew Jepson who will talk about the remarkable adventures of Charles Thomas and a Napier car driven twice around the world.

The lecture is at St Augustine’s Church Hall, St Augustine’s Drive off Cooden Drive, at 2:30 pm Wednesday 15th. £4 [£3 for members] includes refreshments.