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Aircrew opinions on Aerial Reconnaissance

Recently as part of the Museum’s Research Programme we hosted an international conference where I presented a paper exploring aircrew accounts of aerial reconnaissance on the Western Front during the First World War. Below you can read a summary of my research.

Opinions are influenced by many factors, especially the individual’s background and experience. A result of this is that aircrew opinions are likely to change as their experience of war increases. Experiences are open to interpretation and as a result of their different backgrounds and attitudes; individuals are likely to form unique opinions from the same experiences. It is also important to note that there may be factors affecting aircrew opinions which are not apparent from the documents as the aircrew chose not to record them.

Aerial reconnaissance was in its infancy during 1914; however as it was the sole purpose of the Royal Flying Corps, its importance was readily recognised by the aircrew involved. Lt William Read a pilot with 3 Squadron records in his diary on 20th August that:

“A good deal of reconnaissance has been done … and some important information obtained.”

Royal Aero Club certificate of William Ronald Read, 1913.

Lt Phillip Joubert de la Fetre, also a pilot with 3 Squadron, recounts how during manoeuvres in 1913, he dropped a reconnaissance report on army headquarters and it was ignored but in September 1914 when he dropped a similar message on a marching column everyone rushed towards it. This suggests that although aerial reconnaissance was still developing, and despite the lack of pre-war recognition of its value, commanders were now coming to recognise its usefulness. The recognition by aircrew that their aerial reconnaissance work was valued is important as it suggests that they would have been more likely to experiment with new techniques to gather more detailed or accurate information as they felt it was worthwhile.

Lt Philip Bennet Joubert de la Ferte is third from left.

Recognition of the importance of the information acquired by aerial reconnaissance became increasingly relevant as the dangers faced by aircrew increased. Without this motivation there would have been a risk that operational efficiency would have decreased significantly as anti-aircraft artillery improved in range and the gunners improved their accuracy. As early as 16 September, Read records:

“…When we were 4000 feet over Vailly the Germans opened fire on us with anti-aircraft guns and they made surprisingly good shooting…”

Read also records on 30 September his dissatisfaction with the lack of Allied anti-aircraft artillery as the

“… miserable pom-pom … is no use for putting the fear of God into one, in the way that Archibald does.”

Drawing by Squadron Commander R.S. Dallas DSC, 1917 showing Triplane under anti-aircraft fire, entitled: That feeling - another thousand revs wouldn't do me any harm, 1917 .

By 1915, anti-aircraft fire had become a much greater threat than in 1914. Fear of the expanding range of anti-aircraft fire caused aircrew to fly higher to avoid it but increased height led to difficulties in observation. 2Lt Francis Adams a pilot with 7 Squadron, records on 21 April 1915, a debate regarding operational height:

“The Colonel has suggested – through the O.C. that the height at which reconnaissances are being carried out is excessive. He suggests that for satisfactory observation height should not exceed 7000 feet. Personally I think that height should be granted by conditions.”

On 14 June, Adams records an error in reconnaissance which he attributes to excessive operational height:

“A report had been received this morning that some hundreds of large gas cylinders had been collected … and we were sent out to confirm this … keeping under 8000 feet. No cylinders were seen but only transport wagons. It is probable the previous observer … had been too high to identify these.”

Royal Aero Club certificate of Francis Percy Adams, 1913.

Some pilots such as 2Lt William Sholto Douglas, originally an observer but then a pilot with 8 Squadron, found that low flying resulted in a decrease in the amount of hits achieved by anti-aircraft gunners.

“As I could not get above 1500 feet, I rather expected to be shot down from the ground on the way back. But although heavily fired at, the machine was only hit once or twice. Other pilots were having similar experiences, and it was recognised that the dangers of flying low over enemy A.A. … were not so serious as had been anticipated.”

Experiences like this one described by Douglas, encouraged aircrew to use low flying tactics whilst carrying out reconnaissance flights, thus negating the problem created by their earlier fear of anti-aircraft fire. Their experiences were able to change their opinions and improve efficiency.

Aircrew soon began to report a developing threat from enemy aircraft. Douglas records that increasing numbers of Fokker aircraft combined with more experienced pilots led to more Allied aircraft being lost in aerial combat. Allied pilots took it upon themselves to develop tactics for dealing with enemy aircraft. A tactic partially developed by Douglas, concerned what to do when returning from a long reconnaissance when low on fuel and attacked by several enemy aircraft.

“If you fly straight for home, you are likely to be shot down, presenting as you do an easy target to the enemy scouts: your gunner can perhaps deal with one, but not with two or three diving at once. If on the other hand you start turning and dodging, you will never get back at all, as you will have to go on flying in circles until your petrol runs out. Some of us … suggested that it would be best to come down to within … ten feet of the ground and fly back at that height.”

Douglas’s opinion that low flying could be the solution to this problem was based on his previous experience. He would have an opportunity to test this tactic on 29 December 1915 when returning from a long reconnaissance.

“…Child, my observer, downed one Hun. We fought three for half-an-hour. Petrol began to run low and sump was hit, so relying on the stability of B.E.2c against Fokkers, came down in a steep spiral to 10 feet. Came back … just over the trees. Fokkers left us a mile from the lines.”

Clearly Douglas’s operational experience had allowed him to develop an effective tactic which could be disseminated and used by all aircrew in similar situations. This mission resulted in both Douglas and Child being awarded the Military Cross.

Capt William Sholto Douglas in 1916.

Increasing losses as a result of enemy aircraft prompted the order that all reconnaissances over the lines should be accompanied by at least one other aircraft. This would later develop into fighter escorts for reconnaissance machines. Douglas recorded the initial resistance of aircrew to this change in procedure.

“Whenever … our work took us far behind enemy lines, two machines were always sent out for mutual protection. This practice … at first roused a certain amount of opposition among us pilots.”

The pilots argued that by sending out two aircraft the risk of one being lost was greater than sending out one; however experience soon changed their opinions as demonstrated by the numerous complaints recorded in 1916 and 1917 when escort aircraft were not available to support reconnaissance.

Both anti-aircraft and enemy aircraft activity resulted in aircrew and aircraft losses which unsurprisingly had psychological effects on the aircrew. Lt Gerald Jamieson a pilot with 16 Squadron, for example records that his “Nerves are in a terrible state” after his observer dies from wounds sustained during aerial combat. However, although Jamieson is affected by the death of his observer it does not appear to impact on his operational efficiency as he is flying the next day.

The mental state of aircrew was not only affected by losses, the rate of operations also appears to have caused psychological strain. Adams records on 24 April 1915 that “Life is becoming somewhat strenuous” after four reconnaissance flights in four days; he only began flying in France on 16 April. The intensity of operations indicates that reconnaissance information was highly valued by commanders thus suggesting that they are likely to encourage any recommendations to improve the accuracy or level of detail gathered.

Accidents and near misses also increase aircrew stress levels. Lt Charles Smart a pilot with 5 Squadron, reports being affected by fear after a near miss on 4 March 1917. He and his observer are flying approximately six miles beyond the German lines when they are hit by anti-aircraft fire.

“…the machine was lifted bodily about twenty feet into the air, a shower of wood splinters flew into my face, streams of petrol squirted all over me up to my waist and a cupboard fixed in the pilot’s seat above my feet fell down on to my left foot and partially jammed the rudder. … I was frightened to death …”

Smart records that throughout the flight back to his airfield he was “all the time in fear and trembling should the machine catch fire”. Somewhat ironically his inexperienced observer did not notice that anything had happened to the aircraft at all. This perhaps reflects that the observer, potentially due to lack of experience is in a more positive state of mind and is less aware of danger as a result.

Lt Charles Smart's diary entry on 4 March 1917.Lt Charles Smart's diary entry on 4 March 1917.

Lt Charles Smart's diary entry on 4 March 1917.Lt Charles Smart's diary entry on 4 March 1917.

Lack of confidence is another psychological factor which affects aircrew efficiency and opinion. The importance of this was recognised by Royal Flying Corps commanders and recorded in a letter from RFC HQ on 22 May 1916.

“…the General Officer Commanding wishes you to gradually increase the distances of the reconnaissances … but not to go to distant points … until Squadrons have gained confidence in their ability…”

It was not just a lack of confidence in their own ability that affected aircrew morale. A lack of confidence in their equipment also had a negative effect. Douglas records this in January 1917 when 43 Squadron was dispatched to France equipped with obsolete aircraft.

“If the pilots of a squadron feel that their machines are inferior to those of the enemy the morale of that squadron is diminished…”

Obsolete aircraft provided yet another opportunity for aircrew to use their experiences to develop new tactics. Douglas writes of the aircrew of 25 Squadron who developed a ‘tail chasing formation’ which allowed each aircraft to be protected by at least one of its companions. The circle they formed would then be spiralled back towards the Allied lines.

The determination demonstrated by aircrew in developing new tactics to deal with obsolete equipment also showed when they had to deal with equipment failure. Adams records a reconnaissance on 20 May 1915, after several abortive attempts due to issues with the engine in his aircraft:

“Again the engine ran very badly. Being absolutely tired of turning back without finishing our work we kept on – neither of us daring to discuss our fears! We returned safely but 3 hours with a dud engine is a great strain.”

Although Adams is concerned by the potential of his engine failing and having to make a forced landing behind enemy lines, he is so frustrated by the mechanical failure that he and his observer continue with their reconnaissance in spite of the risk. This also reflects that he recognises the value of reconnaissance.

It was not just engine or armament failures that could prevent a reconnaissance from being successful. After the introduction of aerial cameras, a camera failure could prevent a reconnaissance. Smart records a camera failure on 20 May 1917:

“My camera went dud and I did not get a single picture, most annoying to go over the line and risk your life for no result.”

Three days later another camera failure prompts him to record that he “told the photographic sergeant that he had better learn to fly and then go up and do the job himself.”

Smart is evidently frustrated by repeated camera failures as it leads to him having to make multiple flights, often over the lines to get the photographs he has been ordered to procure. The risk of camera failure resulted in the continued use of visual reconnaissance until the Armistice.

Despite the annoyances caused to aircrew by camera failures; it was the aircrew themselves who first used cameras to support reconnaissance. The first use of cameras for reconnaissance over the Western Front was unofficial; the aircrew believed that photographs would help them produce more accurate and detailed reconnaissance reports. An opinion which experience would prove to be correct.

Close up of Armstrong Whitworth FK.3 showing pilot and observer with two types of aerial cameras.

The development of photographic reconnaissance, despite initial scepticism from some senior officers, was driven by aircrew opinions of its potential to record detailed and accurate information. The development of the technology and tactics used to capture aerial photographs was also led by the aircrew themselves as they knew what the operational demands on the equipment and the aircrew using it were. Maj Charles Campbell, a pilot and one of the originators of aerial photography reported the importance of this in a letter on 25 April 1917:

“The scientific and chemical knowledge at the disposal of the originators of photography in the Royal Flying Corps, combined with their experience in the field, has enabled them to gain a very close grip on their subject, the best proofs of which is that all the cameras … have been produced entirely by ourselves.”

The value of the camera to support visual reconnaissance was quickly recognised by aircrew as reports reinforced by photographs could be proved to be accurate. Capt Paul Maltby, a pilot with 15 Squadron, records an incident on 1 July 1916 when his visual reconnaissance report was not believed, but was later proved to be correct:

“They wouldn’t believe me when I said the whole front line with the exception of the Quadrilateral was in German hands. This has proved since to be correct.”

It was also found that some camouflaged positions or buildings were more apparent on photographs than to visual observers, thus making the combined use of photographic and visual reconnaissance more necessary. Sgt Maj Fredrick Laws, a prewar pioneer of aerial photography who flew as an observer on several occasions, records this in a lecture that he delivered after the war:

“In attempting to render objects … invisible to the eye and camera it will be found impossible to accomplish both at the same time. Camouflage invisible to the eye is usually visible to the camera and vice versa.”

Sgt Maj Fredrick Victor Laws, circa 1914.

In 1918 the French General Anthoine stated that:

“Whenever possible visual observation should be confirmed by photographs of the most important stations flown over”

This statement suggests that experience has changed the opinions of commanders as well as those of the aircrew involved.

We can see from the accounts considered that some of the opinions of aircrew are affected by the development of new tactics such as formation flying. It also appears that some aircrew opinions can lead to the development of new tactics such as low flying to avoid enemy aircraft and to the implementation of new technology such as cameras. Other opinions such as reactions to stress and loss, although they do affect operational efficiency do not appear to have a significant relationship to the development of tactics or technology.

About the Author

Belinda Day: Assistant Curator

I have been part of the Curatorial team at the Royal Air Force Museum, London, since 2012, having previously worked as part of the Access and Learning team. My role as an assistant curator includes answering enquiries from the public, academics and Royal Air Force personnel, receiving and cataloguing the kind donations of historical material given to us, writing and developing exhibitions and facilitating access to the archive collections for staff and visitors alike.