In 2015 the British government voted to extend the Royal Air Force’s campaign against the so-called Islamic State terrorist group by bombing targets in Syria. The pilots of the Panavia Tornado GR.4s and Eurofighter Typhoon FGR.4s probably had little thought to the fact that in doing so they were continuing a 101 year-long story of British forces using aeroplanes to conduct a war.
The story begins – as do so many stories of modern, mechanised warfare – in the First World War. On August 4th 1914 Great Britain declared war on Germany following the violation of Belgium neutrality by German troops in their attack on France. To help repel the Germans the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was raised which included four squadrons of the British Army’s Royal Flying Corps (RFC) operating an assortment of aeroplanes. Three of the squadrons comprising around 60 aircraft crossed the English Channel on August 13th 1914; an impressive feat when you consider that it had barely been five years since Louis Blériot had made the first crossing by a heavier-than-air flying machine.
Even before they left Britain the RFC was reminded how dangerous flying was in itself during those very early days to say nothing of encountering the enemy. An aircraft flying to Dover to join the rest of the RFC before attempting the crossing crashed killing both its pilot Lt. Robert R. Skene and Air Mechanic Ray Barlow. As the BEF began their march towards Maubeuge in north east France the RFC took off and arrived there almost two full days before the first British troops arrived. Their journey had been anything but uninteresting however as the French infantry in the area proved somewhat trigger-happy taking pot-shots at the unmarked British aircraft. Their lesson learned, the RFC squadrons quickly took to painting crude Union Jack flags on the underside of their wings which went some way to reducing the risk but didn’t eliminate it (it would be another year before roundels appeared on aircraft).
Despite the hazards posed by both hostile and friendly fire the RFC was set to fly its first operational sortie of the war on August 19th 1914. The mission had two separate objectives and would be flown by two aircraft departing together and then going about their own tasks upon reaching Nievelles. From No.3 Squadron RFC, Captain would fly his Blériot Monoplane to Nievelles-Gnappe to report on the condition and disposition of Belgian forces in the area. In the early days of the war there was little information feeding back to the BEF in France about how well the Belgians were repelling the Germans. The second aircraft, a Royal Aircraft Factory BE2 flown by Lieutenant Gilbert Mappleback of No.4 Squadron RFC, was tasked to confirm the suspicion that German cavalry were operating in the vicinity of Gembloux in central Belgium.
Given the need to save weight and thus reduce the fuel consumption to increase range the decision was taken that both pilots should fly without observers; a rather contentious decision at the time within the squadrons. At 0930hrs the two aircraft bounced their way in to unfriendly looking skies that was blanketed with thick clouds. The two aircraft chugged their way through the skies together on their way to Nievelles where the plan was for them to separate on to their individual tasks. The reason for flying part of the mission together was so if one aircraft crashed or was shot down then the remaining pilot could report his position.
It was not to be however. The low cloud enveloped the two aircraft several times and before long the two RFC pilots realised that they had lost sight of one another. Nevertheless, they pressed on but keeping the BE2 flying and navigating by himself, Lieutenant Mappleback soon became lost and found himself flying over a very large town. He didn’t know it at the time but the town was actually Brussels. Tootling along for a short while longer he eventually found enough landmarks to ascertain his position and proceeded to his objective at Gembloux. Shortly after beginning his reconnoitre of the area he spotted a small pocket of enemy cavalry and recorded their position noting that they were moving south-east away from the allied lines; they were possibly returning from their own more traditional horseback reconnaissance mission.
Mappleback then turned his aircraft for Maubeuge but the cloud was getting lower and lower forcing him to eventually drop down to just 300ft in order to keep sight of his navigational markers. Eventually he reached the town of Namur and took to following the La Sambre river back to Maubeuge. He would become so intent on following the river that he actually flew passed Maubeuge and on to Le Cateau where he put the aircraft down in order to get his bearings fixed before attempting to fly back to Maubeurge. He arrived back at his base at close to midday to report the position of the enemy cavalry. His report was not the news the General staff were hoping for but his mission was at least a success.
While Mappleback was hunting German cavalry at Gembloux, Joubert in his Blériot Monoplane was having an extremely difficult time navigating to Nievelles-Gnappe. With such heavy cloud constantly causing him to lose sight of the ground Joubert found his position on the map through a break in the cloud and resorted to flying primarily by his compass. The lightweight frame of the Blériot saw Joubert being blown off course and after two hours of wandering around the Belgian countryside he eventually landed near the Belgian Army barracks at Tournai. The Commandant of the barracks, fascinated with the English flier, proceeded to invite him to dine with his men where they made polite conversation but Joubert learned little of the Belgian disposition from him as was his objective.
Having finished dining, Joubert took off at around midday and once again got lost. After another two hours of trying to find his way in the low cloud and poor weather he spotted the medieval Belgian city of Courtrai where he again landed hoping to secure some petrol for his Blériot. The local Gendarmerie (police) were suspicious of the flier however and attempted to arrest him until he was able to convince them he was an RFC pilot. The local population helped with gathering enough fuel for his aircraft to take off again and the Gendarmerie pointed him in the direction of the Belgian Flying Corps headquarters at Louvain, east of Brussels. This was too far away for him to contemplate flying and therefore he elected to return to Maubeuge via La Cateau. He and his aircraft arrived rather sullenly at 1730hrs.
It was hardly a successful first day. Nevertheless, it laid the groundwork for more successful future operations and before long the aircraft would become an integral part of the battlefield adding a third dimension to military planning. The importance of the aircraft would finally be fully recognised on April 1st 1918 when the RFC became absorbed in to the Royal Air Force, the world’s first air arm independent of both Army and Royal Navy.
Philip Joubert de la Ferté would survive the war and remain in the RAF eventually rising to the rank of Air Marshall leading Coastal Command during World War II and receiving a knighthood. Lieutenant Gilbert Mappleback would later be awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for carrying out an attack on a German convoy of vehicles by hurling small hand held bombs on top of them. He returned to Britain in April 1915 and assisted in testing at Farnborough. On August 25th 1915 he was killed when the Morane Saulinier Type N “Bullet” he was flying crashed.