The First British Fighter Pilots

During the summer of 1912 the British Army based at home in Britain conducted their annual military exercises to hone skills and test new techniques. As normal, two opposing forces were assembled to “fight” each other designated Blue Force and Red Force but in 1912 both sides were given an air component from the Royal Flying Corps (RFC). The RFC was barely out of the womb having been formed on April 13th of that year and the small cadre of pilots were keen to show their stuff. With the aircraft themselves being very primitive the only real mission they could carry out was reconnaissance and so the pilots went about tracking the “enemy” forces as they made their way to the battlefield. This gave an unparalleled view of the tactical situation to the opposing generals whose orders were given based on the intelligence the new-fangled machines offered. In fact, it was an aeroplane that allowed Blue Force to defeat Red Force when a Blue aircraft spotted a concentration of enemy troops and reported them back to the Blue Force commander, Lieutenant-General Sir James Grierson. Grierson was therefore able to meet them on more favourable terms for his own side which led to his men’s success.

Despite this there was still a lot of scepticism in the Army about the importance of military aircraft in the wake of the exercise, especially amongst officers assigned to Red Force, but Grierson immediately recognised both the advantages and the dangers they brought to the battlefield. With remarkable foresight he wrote of the aircraft’s role in the future;

So long as hostile aircraft are hovering over one’s troops all movements are likely to be seen and reported. Therefore, the first step in war will be to get rid of hostile aircraft.

Wright flyer machine gun

Wright brothers with their armed Military Flyer (Wright-Borthers.org)

Unwittingly, Grierson had in a sense made some of the first comments on the importance of control of the air above the battlefield before the term “air superiority” came in to common usage. In America, Britain, France and Germany experiments were already being carried out to arm aircraft for combat with even the Wright Brothers themselves suggesting a machine gun could be fitted to their revolutionary Wright Flyer – the very first true aeroplane! However, the experiments were still largely experimental when Archduke Franz Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was assassinated in Sarajevo on 28th June 1914 sparking World War I. Thus the armies of Entente (Britain and France) met the Germans and Austro-Hungarians with aircraft carrying out their vital reconnaissance role and just like in 1912 they were proving very good at it.

The need to take down enemy fliers was obvious and some airmen became obsessed with finding ways to do just that. Some pilots in the field experimented with all kinds of possible methods to deprive the enemy of the advantages of flight the most legendary of which was the grappling hook method whereby one plane would attempt to snag the wings of an enemy plane as it passed over it. While almost comical now, the aim of bringing down enemy fliers was no joke to these men and the first aircraft to be deliberately brought down by another in combat was actually the result of a ramming by a Russian pilot on 8th September 1918 of an Austrian reconnaissance plane.

The obvious answer of course was to take a gun up and shoot the enemy plane to either disable its engine or kill its pilot but this brought a whole host of problems with it since the machines were not suited to combat or carrying heavy weapons. As a stop-gap measure pilots and their observers carried pistols and rifles with which to shoot at any enemy planes they may encounter while carrying out their reconnaissance duties. This was an extremely difficult task for even the best shot. The aircraft were hardly stable gun platforms and the target aircraft was often manoeuvring in three dimensions and returning fire with their own rifles.

It would be two Frenchmen who would be credited with the first air-to-air victory using aerial gunnery. On 5th October 1914, Joseph Frantz and his observer Louis Quenault flying a Voisin LA fitted with a machine gun attacked a German reconnaissance plane sending it crashing to the ground. The French machine was hardly suited to the fighter role and the weight of the crew and the gun severely restricted performance but true air combat had, somewhat clumsily, been born.

The Royal Flying Corps were already well in to developing the first dedicated fighter aircraft in the shape of the Vickers FB ‘Gun Carrier’, a pusher-plane with a machine gun mounted in the nose but it would not be ready for deployment to France until mid-1915. In the meantime, the RFC’s reconnaissance planes such as the Royal Aircraft Factory BE.2 and the Avro 504 had to rely on the observer firing the standard infantry weapon, the Lee-Enfield .303 bolt action rifle, at any enemy planes they might encounter. The comparatively small number of aircraft available to both sides in the early days of the war meant that there were few encounters and when there were it would often end with both sides running out of rifle rounds and then resorting to waving as they both turned for home.

Avro 504

Avro 504 (Ed Coates)

That changed on 25th August 1914. No.5 Squadron RFC was operating Avro 504s from an airfield at La Cateau in Northern France and amongst their number was Second Lieutenant C. W. Wilson and Lieutenant Euan Rabagliati. On this particular day, news fed back to La Cateau that a German aircraft, a Taube, had been spotted by ground forces to the south of the airfield. The squadron’s commanding officer, Major John Higgins, ordered Wilson and Rabagliati to take off in their Avro 504 and go after it. The terms “scramble” or “Quick Reaction Alert” had not yet been brought in to existence within British military aviation but this sudden launching of aircraft to intercept an enemy machine was very much in that spirit. The aircraft lifted off with Rabagliati in the observer’s seat armed with his Lee-Enfield and over one hundred rounds of ammunition.

Taube aeroplane

Taube aeroplane (commons.wikimedia)

Proceeding south towards the last known position of the Taube, the two British airmen must have known that their chances of shooting down the German plane were slim to say nothing of finding it in the first place; once airborne they were out of contact with the observers on the ground who first spotted the aircraft. Their Avro 504 chugged its way south with both men scouring the sky with their eyes looking for the unique shape of the German-built Taube and soon they spotted their bird-like quarry soaring almost majestically over the British side of the lines. Given the slow speeds of the two aircraft (less than 80mph) any attempt to sneak up on the German was futile and it was not long before the solitary pilot spotted the British biplane coming towards him.

The first dogfight between a British and German aircraft was about to begin.

The German pilot was no beginner and knew enough that he lacked the speed to outrun the 504 and if he flew straight and level then he would make himself a tempting target for Rabagliati with the rifle. He therefore took out his Mauser pistol fitted with a wooden stock and turned in to the direction of the British aircraft. The two planes began circling each other like two lions battling to be the alpha of their pride while both the German and Rabagliati exchanged fire with their respective handheld weapons. A pattern was set whereby the two aircraft flew in tight circles to keep the other from getting a clear shot while exchanging fire as the distance closed and reloading as the distance opened. At more than one point, in the heat of the fight, the two planes came unnervingly close to colliding but even at this distance hitting one another was frustratingly difficult and after expending nearly all his ammunition Rabagliati knew he only had a few shots left before they would have to disengage.

Then suddenly, after discharging yet another .303 round at the German with the hefty rifle the German aircraft pitched upwards before the nose dipped forward. Rabagliati saw that the pilot, having been hit by one of his rounds, had slumped forwards on his controls sending the Taube in to its final descent to Earth. It crashed ahead of an advancing British infantry unit which rushed to the scene of the crash and confirmed the pilot was dead. As such Rabagliati is credited as scoring the first British air-to-air victory but it had been a close call; an ammunition check upon his return to La Cateau showed he had astonishingly fired over 100 rounds with his bolt action rifle during the battle.

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8 responses to “The First British Fighter Pilots

  1. Pingback: Defence of the Realm – Royal Air Force | Defence of the Realm

  2. Pingback: Defence of the Realm – Army | Defence of the Realm

  3. An astonishing account. The ‘camaraderie’ that existed between the ‘gentlemen of the skies’ was something to behold. Can you imagine that today! It’s a wonder anyone ever shot an enemy plane down at all in those early days, especially using rifles and pistols.

    Liked by 2 people

    • In my first draft of this I included a whole paragraph about the camaraderie but it didn’t quite fit because this was about killing an enemy. The fact is that yes there was this feeling of gentlemen fliers at first but there were those who recognised early on that they were the enemy.

      BBC’s Wings in season 1 approaches this brilliantly with some pilots saying they should do everything they can to kill enemy pilots while others see it as just not sporting.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Excellent account Tony. It’s easy for us to have a wry smile whilst reading about early attempts at air combat, but these guys literally had nothing to measure their experiences against. Using pistols and rifles in an aircraft travelling at least 80mph would have been extremely difficult – not to mention hazardous, but you have to admire their tenacious spirit and esprit de corps.

    Liked by 1 person

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