History In The Making – Part 3
British military aviation was developed in 1878 by an officer of the Royal Engineers when he designed and built a balloon with a hydrogen lifting system. The idea had been based upon the use of tethered observation balloons used during the American civil war. The British government had considered balloons for use in war in 1862 but this was never funded. It was seen unnecessary during more peaceful times.
But once the first ballon had been built and tested in 1878 the formation of the first balloon unit within the Royal Engineers was formed and the first military use was during the Boer War in 1899 being used primarily for observation since they could fly above the battlefields without the fear of being shot down.
RE Balloon Unit Boer War
It wasn’t until the First World War that Britain came under attack from the air and once again this was from the development of ballon technology. This was an action which put civilians in the firing line for the very first time but something that realisitically would never go away from then on during events of war.
In 1914 despite the growing issues in the Balkan States and the real expectation a war of some kind was looming, Britain was ill-prepared to deal with the threat from enemy airships and aircraft. Defence of the British mainland was focused mainly on guarding the coastline rather than its airspace.
Lt Col Billy Bishop VC. One of the RFC’s aces of WW1
The airplane had only been in existence since the Wright Brothers experimental flights around 1900 but had come a long way in the 14 years leading up to the start of World War I.
In terms of military aircraft based on the airplane the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) was formed in 1912. By the start of the War the RFC were operating 113 aircraft compared to 246 that the German Luftwaffe had. Most of the British air support had been deployed to France as this was seen as the battle area rather than the British mainland. As such few aircraft remained to defend Britain against an air attack.
The first aerial threat to Britain came from German’s giant airships, the Zeppelins. At 11,000 feet, Zeppelins could turn off their engines, drifting silently to carry out surprise attacks. Successive damaging attacks from the giant airships in 1915 and 1916 caused public outcry.
To counter the threat, street lights were dimmed and improved anti-aircraft weapons and searchlights were mobilised to spot the threats. Some RFC and Royal Naval Air Service squadrons were recalled with the defence of the mainland being switched from anti-aircraft guns to airplanes. Improved incendiary ammunition for aircraft was developed in order to bring down the airships which proved successful.
But in June 1917, the first air raid on Britain by huge Gotha bomber aircraft took place. To meet this latest threat, new tactics in aerial combat were developed. Wireless communication, coupled with sophisticated observation and reporting of enemy movements, enabled RFC fighters to be dispatched to meet the bombers. Anti-aircraft fire and barrage balloons also deployed to force enemy aircraft higher, compromising their bombing accuracy.
The giant Gotha bomber with full ground crew
By May 1918, over 60 Gothas had been destroyed and the aerial threat to Britain was effectively over.
Many of our relatives would have experienced the early blitzes by the Zeppelins and German bombing raids. And mnany woukd have been part of the defence forces. My grandfather, Talieson Davies, enlisted into the Royal Garrison Artillery in December 1915 and in 1917 transferred to the RFC where he served with them in France until the end of the war.
If any of your relatives served with the Flying Corps or were involved with defending the British coastline against air attacks please let us know.