British military aviation 1862-1912

Early military ballooning

Military aeronautics in Britain originated with the Royal Engineers.

As early as 1862, Lieutenant George Grover with a personal interest in ballooning approached the War Office with a proposal; that the British Army should investigate the use of the balloon as a platform for reconnaissance and observation. The War Office reaction was cool but it did allow Grover and Captain F. Beaumont to conduct balloon trials at Aldershot with the assistance of the pioneer civilian balloonist Henry Coxwell.

It was to be another fifteen years before the first official experiments with balloons were conducted in 1878 by the Balloon Equipment Store at the Woolwich Arsenal. Captain James L.B. Templer an officer in the Middlesex Militia and a keen amateur balloonist designed its first balloon. 'Pioneer',with its capacity of 10,000 cubic feet of hydrogen was constructed for just £71, and is considered to represent the birth of the British air arm.

Military ballooning slowly became established. Balloons were deployed to South Africa in 1884 and to Sudan in 1885 with limited success. In 1889 a balloon detachment took part in the Army Manoeuvres at Aldershot. It was so successful that a Balloon Section of the Royal Engineers was established under Lieutenant H.B. Jones in 1890. Its work and personnel were supported by a balloon factory and school.

The Army's largest deployment of captive balloons took place during the Boer War (1899-1902) in South Africa. They achieved moderate success, although severe shortcomings were highlighted; they could only be used in very favourable weather, deployment was slow, inflation could take up to 10 hours and the balloons were difficult to transport. Nevertheless, the balloon had proved its worth and as a result of this it was decided that the Balloon Section should be expanded.

The development of powered flight in the early 1900s saw the balloon become rapidly marginalised but not obsolete. As a reflection of the changes brought about by the new technology the Balloon Section Royal Engineers became the Air Battalion of the Royal Engineers and the Balloon Factory was restyled the Army Aircraft Factory during 1911.

The Boer War

The first large scale use of balloons by British forces took place during the Boer War in 1899 when three balloon sections were despatched to South Africa. No. 1 Section under Captain H.B. Jones arrived in Cape Town on 22 November with 3 officers, 34 NCOs and other ranks, three wagons, eleven balloons and equipment for the generation and storage of hydrogen.

On 5 December the section was ordered north to make observations on the front line in time for Lord Methuen's attack at the Battle of Magersfontein. Methuen was impatient however and did not wait for the balloons to arrive. He committed his forces without making a proper reconnaissance of the Boer positions, with disastrous results. If he had waited a day the balloon observations could have changed the battle's outcome. As it was, the balloon was operated during the battle: Lord Methuen mentioned in his despatch to the London Gazette that

'Captain Jones, Royal Engineers, and Lieutenant Grubb were with the balloon section, and gave me valuable information during the day. I learnt from this source, at about 12 noon, that the enemy were receiving large reinforcements from Abuttsdam and from Spytfontein.'

The unit diary offers a first-hand record of the Section's involvement. It notes that the enemy position'was so well taken up that it was impossible to locate it or to estimate the number of the enemy. About 2pm the wind freshened too much for observing'. The diary goes on to note that on 15 December 'Lord Methuen stated that he considered the reports sent from balloon while up in the camp as most valuable & gave the Officer Commanding Balloon Section free hand to make ascents at all times within the outpost line.'

The Section then moved up with General Sir Redvers Buller's forces for use in what became known as the Battle of Tugela Heights, in an effort to relieve the besieged town of Ladysmith. The diary records on 26 February

'Ascended at dawn & made other sketches of position to keep, photos taken. In afternoon the balloon directed fire of 3 field batteries on the river banks. Signalling directed from balloon to guns observed about 6 hours during day. Rifle fire from Boer trenches was very heavy at the balloon & she was hit..'

An Australian officer serving with the Boers noted in 1902

'The Boers took a dislike to the balloons; they had artillery superior for the most part to, and better served than, that of the English; they had telegraphic and heliographic apparatus; but the balloons were a symbol of a scientific superiority of the English which seriously disquieted them.'

Two days later Ladysmith was relieved, ending a siege of 118 days in which approximately 3000 British soldiers had died.

The Section then participated in the advance on Pretoria, making ascents in an effort to try and locate Boer positions. The diary notes on 27 May just a week before Pretoria fell that

'the balloon was emptied, she had been full 22 days and marched 165 miles from the Vet River'.

This was to be the last major action that No. 1 Balloon Section would be involved in. The section advanced with the 11th Division in the Eastern Transvaal until August, when its transport was withdrawn and the men transferred to other units. The diary records for 2 and 3 August that

'In the evening [we] received orders to hand over all oxen and transport generally to O/C Transport;… paraded at 5.30am & took stores and fittings off ox wagon. O/C 5" guns sent over for 10 oxen & he was given 10 of the best. 16 were put in the ox wagon and in all a total of 94 were handed over.'

The balloon sections now found themselves more or less redundant and were ordered home in November 1900. This was largely as a result of the Boers changing their tactics and undertaking guerrilla warfare having realised that they would be unable to beat a colonial army in conventional continental warfare.


Despite proving to be a useful tool in reconnaissance the limitations in balloon deployment led to experimentation with other airborne vehicles.

Experiments with man-lifting kites were conducted by Captain B.F.S. Baden-Powell (brother of Lord Baden-Powell, the scout movement founder) from 1893. As a result of this a kite section within the Royal Engineers was formed the following year.

The kite had certain advantages over the balloon. It could fly in winds of up to 50mph. It also did not rely on gas and the associated gas generating equipment. It consequently required less of a wagon train to operate in the field.

Man-lifting kites were soon championed by the flamboyant American showman Mr Samuel Franklin Cody who would become a prominent pioneer in early British aviation. Cody had made his name appearing in Wild West shows in America. He arrived in Britain in 1890 with his show 'The Klondyke Nugget'. It was toward the end of the decade that Cody started experimenting with kites. By 1901 he was sufficiently confident to approach the War Office but he was met with little interest.

The Admiralty however were intrigued by the kite's potential for reconnaissance. During a trial, Cody was flying at 800 feet from the rear of HMS Seahorse when the ship turned down wind. The kite collapsed and Cody had to be rescued from the sea. Undeterred the Admiralty proceeded with its order for kites.

In June 1904 Cody was invited to demonstrate his man-lifting 'war kite' to the Army at Aldershot.The series of demonstrations were so successful in winds exceeding 40 mph that Colonel John E. Capper, Officer Commanding the Balloon Section, Royal Engineers wrote in his report to the War Office that

'I cannot speak too strongly as to the excellence of these kites as regards their design and ability to perform what Mr Cody claims for them. The man-lifting kites will take a man into the air to practically any required height, and will keep him steady there so that he can observe. No other kites that I have read or heard of can approach them in sturdiness and security combined with lifting power'

In response the Army placed an order for three kites for observations and signals. Cody was also appointed Chief Instructor in Kiting.

Cody's kite worked on a series of lifter kites, the number dependent on the wind strength, until the operating officer felt that there was enough pull on the winch to raise a man in the passenger-carrying basket.The basket could then be moved up and down the line by altering the angle of the kite.

Despite never being used operationally kites remained in use with both the Navy and Army up until the beginning of the First World War. The Army List of August 1914 includes a Kite Section of the RFC stationed at South Farnborough. The Section however was disbanded shortly afterwards.


With the development of the internal combustion engine the possibilities in linking the engine to flight were quickly recognised. The Brazilian Alberto Santos-Dumont had been experimenting with petrol engine driven airships since 1898. In 1900, Count von Zeppelin launched his first airship, the LZ1, powered by two Daimler engines. In light of the limitations of balloons, such experiments with dirigibles (being power steered or directional airships) interested those 'air-minded' individuals in the British Forces.

In January 1902 Col James Templer of the Balloon Section, Royal Engineers visited Santos-Dumont in Paris and compiled a report on his (non-rigid) airships. He recommended to the War Office that research should be undertaken. Consent was given to experiment with non-rigid airships, but progress was slow and the construction of Britain's first airship, the 55,000 cubic feet 'Nulli Secundus' did not begin until 1904. It did not fly until 1907, seven years after the first Zeppelin flight.

The first long distance flight by 'Nulli Secundus' was made on 5 October 1907, with Col John Capper and Mr Samuel Cody flying from Farnborough to London. She flew over the city and circled the dome of St Pauls. The airship then turned south to return to Farnborough but increasing wind in excess of 16mph meant that she was unable to do so and she was moored at Crystal Palace. A few days later her skin was slashed to prevent her from slipping her moorings in high winds. In stark contrast in Germany the Zeppelin LZ4, at over 400 feet in length and with a cubic capacity ten times that of 'Nulli Secundus', had just completed a voyage of ten hours covering 240 miles.

A second smaller airship named 'Baby' was built, making her maiden flight in May 1909. The airship however suffered from engine and stability problems so she was rebuilt, enlarged and renamed 'Beta'.

The launching and mooring of airships was labour intensive and sometimes problematical. An early RFC recruit, Boy Frederick L. Burns witnessed the launch of 'Beta' and recorded his impressions in his memoir.

'Beta' would have a longer and more successful career than 'Nulli Secundus'. In June 1910,'Beta' piloted by Col Capper conducted a return night flight to London from Farnborough. It also participated in the Army Manoeuvres of that year.

In January 1911 she was used in the first demonstration of wireless telegraphy from a British airship when Major Lefroy made and received wireless communication with a ground station. He reported limited success when the

'Petrol pipe on engine burst when half-a-mile from Balloon Factory. I at once informed ASX (Aldershot W/T Station) of this and told him to try and get me now that the engine was not running. He at once started up and I got very loud signals and read: 'All your signals good, but….' And then the engine was off again so I lost the rest. Quite impossible to hear signals (when engine running so close) without any special device such as a sound proof helmet – could not even hear the test buzzer and barely hear the spark gap'

By May 1911 the Navy's first rigid airship, the 'Mayfly' had been built. Unfortunately she was wrecked in September before ever flying and all naval experimental work ceased. However, the rapid development of German airships meant that the Admiralty refocused its efforts in developing and constructing airships.

Three more airships would be built by the Army with the last, 'Eta', completed in August 1913 but shortly after this the Royal Navy was assigned control of airship development. It was also decided at this time that No.1 Squadron (RFC), formerly No.1 Company (Airships) of the Air Battalion would transfer to the Navy, which effectively ended the Army's involvement with airships.

Heavier-than-air flying

Following developments using kites and gliders, the Balloon Factory encouraged experiments with machines to enable heavier-than-air flying to take place. Samuel Cody at Farnborough and Lieutenant J.W. Dunne at Blair Athol were developing powered gliders. Cody is largely recognised as the first man to conduct sustained powered flight in Britain. On 16 October 1908, his British Army Aeroplane No.1 took off at Laffan’s Plain and covered a distance of approximately 1400 feet before crashing.

Early military experiments with aeroplanes were severely curtailed in 1909 when The Committee for Imperial Defence decided to cut the £2,500 aeroplane budget. They were not convinced that aeroplanes had a future and chose instead to focus efforts on proven lighter-than-air flying.  Despite a lack of funds and Government support, research continued and indeed by May, Richard Haldane, Secretary of State for Air, in a dramatic change in attitude to air power was announcing in the House of Commons that he had appointed a special committee

‘for the superintendence of the investigations of the National Physical Laboratory and for general advice on scientific problems arising in connection with the work of the Admiralty and War Office in aerial constitution and navigation’.

This led to the formation of the Advisory Committee for Aeronautics which represented a huge step forward in the Government’s attitude towards aircraft.

In the same year, Captain J.D.B. Fulton became the first serving officer in HM Forces to obtain a Royal Aero Club certificate acknowledging his ability to fly an aircraft. Other officers, including Captain Bertram Dickson flew their personal aircraft at the Army Manoeuvres of 1910. In a further demonstration of a change in attitude the War Office announced in October 1910 that the Balloon Factory’s scope of activity would be broadened out to include opportunities for ‘aeroplaning as well as ballooning’.


Unlike the United Kingdom other European powers were actively developing their air arms. This worried many in the UK, and a more proactive approach was pursued, by among others, the newspaper magnate Lord Northcliffe. As early as 1909, the tradition of the Daily Mail sponsoring and offering cash prizes for feats in aviation had begun. Louis Bleriot for example was the recipient of £500 when he became the first aviator to fly across the English Channel.

Concerned that Britain was being left behind in the field of aeronautics these air-minded individuals, such as Claude Grahame-White, vigorously campaigned for the War Office to establish an aeroplane wing. Flying demonstrations were organised to highlight the potential use of aircraft to Parliament representatives.

Slowly the Government realised that progress in aviation, particularly in aircraft design and use, could no longer be ignored.

This change of heart is best expressed by the Chief of the General Staff Field Marshal Sir William Nicholson who had sat on the committee that had ceased funding for further aircraft development. He wrote

'It is of importance that we should push on with the practical study of the military use of air-craft in the field…. Even with the present types of dirigibles and aeroplanes other nations have already made considerable progress in this training and in view of the fact that air-craft will undoubtedly be used in the next war, whenever it may come, we cannot afford to delay the matter.'

In February 1911 this change in attitude to aviation was demonstrated when it was announced that the Balloon Section, School and Factory were to be replaced.The Balloon Section and School were to become the Air Battalion of the Corps of Royal Engineers and the Balloon Factory restyled as the Army Aircraft Factory.

Meanwhile the Admiralty and the Royal Navy were also experimenting with aeroplanes and the training of these early naval flyers would take place at Eastchurch in Kent.

The Air Battalion

The Air Battalion was established on 1 April 1911 with the duty of creating a body of expert airmen and for working out how the Army should adopt air power.

Service with the Air Battalion was not seen as a career in itself but rather as an extension of the training of a Royal Engineer. Officers wishing to join the Battalion had first to obtain their Royal Aero Club certificate at their own expense. As an incentive for those eager to join and learn to fly, the War Office would refund them the £75 private tuition fee upon gaining their certificate.

Recruits also had to have 'experience of aeronautics, good map-reading, and field sketching, not less than two years' service, a good aptitude for mechanics and [to be]a good sailor.'

At the time of its formation, the Battalion's 14 officers and 176 other ranks were commanded by Major Alexander Bannerman with its headquarters at Farnborough.

No. 1 Company, commanded by Captain E.M. Maitland was also based at Farnborough, and was to be responsible for airships, balloons and kites.

No. 2 Company, commanded by Captain J.D.B. Fulton, was based at Larkhill focused on aeroplanes. This was the first formation in the British Army devoted to heavier-than-air flying and was operating on a small scale. By August 1911 the aeroplane company had nine aircraft.

Early naval flyers

In March 1911 the pioneer aviator Mr Frank McClean lent the Royal Navy two Short aircraft so that potential naval aviators could learn to fly.

The Admiralty sought four unmarried volunteer officers, to be trained by the well-known civilian pioneer aviator Mr George Cockburn, who had offered his time at no cost to the Admiralty. In addition to flying instruction the officers would receive technical training at the Short Brothers factory also based at Eastchurch.

The four officers selected from the 200 volunteers were Lieutenant C.R Samson, Lieutenant A.M Longmore, Lieutenant R. Gregory of the Royal Navy and Lieutenant E.L Gerrard of the Royal Marine Light Infantry. They arrived at Eastchurch in March 1911 and quickly obtained their Royal Aero Club certificates; Samson and Longmore on 2 April; Gerrard and Gregory on 1 May. Gregory notes in his flying diary

'Between March 15th and about April 10th did passenger flights with Mr Cockburn, in order to get accustomed to handling the controls. The duration of (total) all passenger flights was 1 ½ hours & distance covered about 60 miles. The passenger flights were very much hampered by bad weather, there being intervals of as much as 10 days, on which no flying was possible. Made first flight (straight) by myself on April 22nd. A first circular flight on April 26th and qualified as pilot under 1911 rules at 4.15 am on Monday 1st May 1911'.

In his first solo he flew 2 miles covering '1st 300 yards along ground, then open throttle full up and flew to tip of ground at almost 10 to 15 feet. Felt very uncomfortable about landings and general control'.

Having obtained his certificate Gregory undertook numerous flights, building up his flying knowledge and competence. Early visitors to the flying school included Prince Louis (later Lord Mountbatten of Burma) and Princess Louise of Battenberg, who visited in June 1911. Prince Louis paying particular interest to the aeroplanes as reported in Flight magazine

'The Prince expressed a wish to have a closer view of an aeroplane starting. This evolution was entrusted to Lieut Gregory, who got into the air nicely after a run of some 20 yards, and continued a gradual ascent up to 500ft.' The Prince and Princess would visit Eastchurch again with Princess Harry of Prussia in late July. This time the Royal visitors were treated to flights in the aircraft.

Flying however was soon to stop as Gregory records with some exasperation on 28 August

'This being the last day of Eastchurch Naval Aviation Course, scheme has had to be abandoned temporarily. After midnight both machines belonging to Mr McCLean pending their purchase etc etc by the Admiralty: so here endeth the 1st Naval Aviation Course.'

Encouraged by the lessons learnt from the first course, however the Admiralty responded quickly and by the end of December, they had purchased two machines from Mr McClean, agreed a lease for the aerodrome at Eastchurch and established a Naval Flying School there. This action was possibly spurred by the findings of the Submarine Committee which had been sitting since April 1911. It had received submissions that aircraft could prove useful in anti-submarine operations.

Lt Gregory was also aware of the submarine threat. In May the Fleet was to be reviewed by the King at Weymouth. The Navy, keen to demonstrate their newly acquired aeroplanes, despatched their four pilots to Weymouth. Gregory, Gerrard and Longmore were to demonstrate their aircraft above the Royal Yacht; Gregory wrote

'On approaching the R Yacht there was a submarine of the "C" type on the surface, as I wished to further prove the value of aeroplanes, I made a vol plane dive from 700 feet to within 30 feet of her periscope, when I put my engine on again, circled the yacht and flew round the fleet.

I have been accused of being spectacular in this matter, but the submarine and the aeroplane are analogous to the cormorant and the herring. And I hope further experiments will prove this to be so.

The day before, Gregory had also demonstrated the potential for using aeroplanes to attack ships when he dropped a bomb in front of the King

'There was no bomb dropping sight and the whole thing had to be done by eye. My orders were to drop it in the vicinity of the Royal Yacht so that the King could see, and from a height of not more than 300ft.

There is no doubt at all that it was unfair to expect this old biplane to carry such a weight. In the four mile flight, trying hard as I could I only got to 200-250 feet approx. I crossed the breakwaters at about 250 and flying parallel to the Royal Yacht and the breakwater – I pulled the releasing lever and then turned round to see if I could see my splash, but as I saw no splash I knew the bomb had not gone. I made the complete circle and pulled the lever, till I wrenched it off. The bomb then dropped and fell with (what I am told by eyewitnesses) a tremendous splash in the northern entrance to Portland and exactly in the middle.

The machine got a perceptible 'wobble' as the bomb left. But I was head into the wind and had her head down in a dive, at the moment of releasing - so I did not anticipate much danger of capsizing. Machine felt very lively in the air after releasing this bomb. For myself, I was also greatly relieved. Having achieved three things:

1) Releasing the heaviest weight that has ever been dropped in the world from a heavier than air machine
2) Proving that aeroplanes can carry heavy weight & release them without danger of capsizing
3) I had dropped the bomb where H Majesty could see the whole thing, & with (no) damage to anybody.'

Another notable feat took place during the Royal Review when Samson became the first man to take off from a moving ship. Lt Gregory was due to make this notable first as he recalls

'embarked my machine in launch & towed off to Hibernia & hoisted in place on rail – all ready for flying off.

It was expected that Hibernia would put to sea with the fleet & I should get off the rail under weigh with the fleet.

However – we received no signal all day and the fleet having returned to Weymouth. Cmdr Samson told me, the day's work was finished so I went ashore. On arriving at Weymouth I saw my machine landing at Lodman.

Cmdr Samson had taken her off during my absence, as he had gone on board flagship after I left and asked for further orders, & was told that we had been forgotten and that the manoeuvre could take place immediately. So in my absence he acted for me.'

The flying demonstrated at the Royal Review highlighted the potential capabilities which aeroplanes would have in any future conflict and three of the first four pilots were to have distinguished careers in the Naval Wing of the RFC followed by the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) when it was formed in 1914 and when they transferred to the RAF from 1 April 1918. Both Gregory and Samson were members of the sub-committee of the Committee for Imperial Defence that recommended the formation of the RFC.

War clouds gather

In December 1911 the tension growing among the major European powers led the British Government to ask the Committee for Imperial Defence to investigate the state of naval and military aviation and how best to create an effective air force.

The Committee reviewed the state of Britain's air arms and roundly condemned them in comparison with other European powers, stating that

"France already possesses about 250 efficient military aeroplanes, and 150 qualified military and 80 civilian flying men, in addition to several airships: Germany possesses 20 or 30 military aeroplanes and there are in addition from 100-120 aeroplanes belonging to civilians in the country: there are besides some 20 airships in Germany: Italy possesses about 22 military aeroplanes….In contrast to this, Great Britain possesses less than a dozen efficient aeroplanes, and only two small airships, to meet the combined requirements of the naval and military services in time of war."

The recommendation was that Britain should establish a dedicated flying corps to consist of a Naval and a Military Wing, together with a Central Flying School, for the training of both Army and Navy pilots, and a Reserve.

The recommendations were duly accepted and 50 years after Lt Grover had first approached the War Office, King George V signed the Royal Warrant establishing the Royal Flying Corps on 13 April 1912.

The Air Battalion would be absorbed by this Corps by May and form the nucleus of the Military Wing. The naval aviators at Eastchurch would provide the core of the Naval Wing. The Central Flying School would be situated on Salisbury Plain and the Army Aircraft Factory would be re-designated the Royal Aircraft Factory.