Patrick Bishop
Photo of Patrick Bishop


Chapter 1
Sportsmen and Butchers

In the summer of 1940 the art of air fighting was only twenty-six years old. In that time, aeroplanes had moved from the extreme periphery to the centre of modern warfare. The invention of aircraft made air wars inevitable. Innovators moved with depressing speed to fit guns to flying machines. The air shows at Hendon, Brooklands and Rheims held before the First World War emphasized the potential destructive power of the thing they were celebrating, with aviators dropping flour bombs on the outlines of warships traced in chalk on the ground. Writers frightened readers with stories of airships bombarding cities, a prophecy whose accuracy was soon to be confirmed.

WW2: A soldier in sits and thinks

For the military, though, it was the information-gathering potential of aeroplanes that first attracted interest. The first aircraft were used as observation platforms. In the war game played in September 1912 at the annual British army manoeuvres, Red Force and Blue Force were each equipped with a supporting air component. Early on, two airborne officers from Blue Force spotted a concentration of opposition troops and correctly guessed their direction. The information helped their side to win.

The victorious commander, Lieutenant-General Sir James Grierson, drew an important conclusion from the exercise. ‘So long as hostile aircraft are hovering over one’s troops,’ he wrote, ‘all movements are likely to be seen and reported. Therefore the first step in war will be to get rid of hostile aircraft.’1

This was how combat in the air was to develop in the four years of the Great War. The essential role of aeroplanes was to lift the roof off the battlefield, allowing commanders to peer into the enemy’s territory, detecting his movements and trying to divine his intentions. At the same time, spotters hovering perilously over the front lines helped to direct the artillery barrages that occupied much of the effort of both sides.

The rival pilots, from the outset, tried to kill each other. One of the first recorded encounters took place on 25 August 1914. Lieutenant C. E. C. Rabagliati of the Royal Flying Corps was cruising with an observer on a reconnaissance mission over northern France when they came across a lone German aeroplane. Rabagliati’s aircraft was unarmed, but he had with him a .303 service rifle. The German carried a Mauser pistol, fitted with a wooden shoulder stock. The two machines approached each other and circled, coming within feet of colliding. Rabagliati fired a hundred rounds without success. Then, he reported afterwards, ‘to my intense joy, I saw the German pilot fall forward on his joystick and the machine tipped up and went down’.2

Such encounters were to be repeated thousands of times in the following years. Technological advances, accelerated by the demands of warfare, meant that the aircraft became faster, more nimble and more sturdy, and the weapons they carried more deadly. But the purpose of aerial fighting remained the same. No bomber heavy enough to make a signifi- cant difference on the battlefield or in the rear had emerged by the end of the war. The main function of military flying remained observing the enemy, and trying to prevent the enemy from observing you.

These activities grew to be increasingly important as the war progressed. The RFC went to France with sixty-two aircraft. In April 1918 it became, together with the Navy’s air arm, a service in its own right, the Royal Air Force. It finished the war with 1,799 aeroplanes. This transformation was presided over by a particularly forceful and energetic commander, Hugh Trenchard. There were others who played a crucial part in the creation of a separate air force, but Trenchard’s passion made him stand out. He became known as ‘The Father of the RAF’, a label he claimed to detest. The designation had some truth in it, though. He loved the air force with the fierce love of a father; a Victorian father who would not flinch from sending his boy to his death if duty demanded it.

Trenchard combined nineteenth-century mores with a twentiethcentury appreciation of the new. He was born on 3 February 1873 in the West Country, and had a difficult childhood. His sister died of diphtheria, his solicitor father was bankrupted and he failed several attempts to enter military schools before scraping a commission as a second-lieutenant in the Royal Scots Fusiliers and being posted to India. He spent the first decade of the new century in southern and western Africa. In October 1900 he was shot in the chest while trying to capture Boers and was expected to die. Trenchard, who ‘hated sick people’, pulled through, recovering in characteristic fashion by hurtling down the Cresta run at St Moritz.

He was tall, bony, with mournful eyes that seemed to search for faults and slights. His personality was similarly angular: quarrelsome, morose and dissatisfied, ill at ease in the genial atmosphere of mess and gymkhana club. By 1912 it was clear that his career was going nowhere. He was approaching forty, unmarried and not much loved. His salvation came in a letter from one of his few friends, Captain Eustace Loraine, who was learning to fly at the RFC aviation school on Salisbury Plain. ‘You’ve no idea what you’re missing,’ Loraine wrote excitedly. ‘Come and see men crawling like ants.’3

Trenchard was not a natural pilot. His tall, long-legged frame looked ridiculous crammed into the narrow seats of the primitive Ble´riots and Farmans that were used to give instruction to trainees. What fascinated him was not flying itself, but its potential. He sensed he had finally made his rendezvous with destiny and joined the RFC. Three years later, in August 1915, he became its commander.

Trenchard tried to make the RFC indispensable, straining to satisfy every demand made on it by the army no matter how unreasonable, or how limited his resources. The aim was to obtain and maintain control of the air over the trenches. The balance of power shifted constantly as the technological and tactical advantage swung back and forth between the sides. The level of fighting was kept high. The RFC’s main business was reconnaissance. Trenchard decided early on that the best way of defending the spotter aircraft and ensuring a steady flow of intelligence to the army was to go on the offensive, reaching over the lines into enemy air space. This was, at best, a logical response to the threedimensional nature of aerial warfare in which there were no fixed lines to defend and to wait for the enemy to attack was to cede a moral advantage. At times, though, it could seem like an echo of the numb thinking of the terrestrial generals, who, literally stuck in the mud, threw more and more troops into futile attacks because they could think of nothing better to do.

Trenchard did not hesitate to sacrifice men to fulfil the RFC’s obligations to the army and maintain the momentum of aggression. The losses among pilots during the great offensives of 1916 and 1917 came close, in proportionate terms, to matching those on the ground. During the Battle of the Somme pilots were in the air for five or six hours a day. The gaps were often filled by novices coming straight from flying school. Cecil Lewis, eighteen years old, was asked by a senior officer when he arrived at No. 1 Aircraft Depot at St Omer how many hours’ flying experience he had.

‘Fourteen hours.’

‘Fourteen! It’s absolutely disgraceful to send pilots overseas with so little flying. You don’t stand a chance . . . Another fifty hours and you might be quite decent; but fourteen! My God, it’s murder.’4

The aeroplanes which carried the war to the Germans became known as fighters. The machines were constantly being refined and improved. These efforts produced steady rather than startling increases in performance. The Bristol Scout, in service in 1915, had a top speed of 86.5 m.p.h. at 10,000 feet, to which level it could climb in twenty-one minutes. The Sopwith Camel, one of the most ubiquitous types in the closing stages of the war, could in ten minutes reach 10,000 feet, where it could travel at 112 m.p.h. Aircraft armaments similarly became heavier and more accurate as interrupter devices were refined to allow bullets to pass through the arc of the propeller. Fighter pilots came to exemplify the character and spirit of the new air force, even though their role was essentially secondary. They were a godsend to propagandists charged with conjuring romance out of the horror of mechanized warfare. They operated in the clean medium of the air, detached from the vileness of the trenches. The nature of their work made it inevitable that they would be linked to an older, nobler fighting tradition. Some aviators believed this themselves, at least at the beginning. ‘To be alone,’ wrote Cecil Lewis, fresh from flying school, ‘to have your life in your own hands, to use your own skill, single-handed against the enemy. It was like the lists in the Middle Ages, the only sphere in modern warfare where a man saw his adversary and faced him in mortal combat, the only sphere where there was still chivalry and honour.’5

What was true was that to be a successful fighter pilot required different qualities from those that made a good infantry officer. In the air you were on your own. The business was entirely new. There was no one to teach it, no textbooks to refer to. To survive, the pilot had to make his own decisions and develop his own tactics. The new air service attracted men who were independent-minded, adventurous, often unusual, sometimes to the point of eccentricity. Among the first to emerge on the British side was Albert Ball, in whom the values of the playing field jostled unhappily with the neurosis of the battlefield. Ball was brought up in a middle-class home in Nottingham where his father hauled himself up the class ladder, starting his working life as a plumber and ending up mayor of the city. He was educated at a local fee-paying school, founded to promote Anglican principles and a sense of patriotic duty. There were cold baths, perpetual exercise and an emphasis on technology.

Like tens of thousands of other young men, he joined up as soon as he was able, and was posted to the infantry. Frustrated at the delay in being sent to the front he took private flying lessons to improve his chances of entering the RFC. Ball fell instantly in love with flying, despite the hazards. ‘It is rotten to see the smashes,’ he wrote in one of his frequent letters home. ‘Yesterday a ripping boy had a smash and when we got up to him he was nearly dead. He had a two-inch piece of wood right through his head and died this morning.’ He added, without apparent irony, that he would be ‘pleased to take you up any time you wish’, if his parents felt like a flip.6

He arrived in France, now a lieutenant in the RFC, in time for the great Somme offensive. He flew a French Nieuport, one of the new generation of single-seater scouts. His methods marked him out immediately. He would fly straight into packs of enemy aircraft, getting in as close as he could, firing off a Lewis gun at point-blank range, breaking off an inconclusive attack only to change the ammunition drum and bore in again. It was simple, effective and desperately dangerous. He would return from sorties with his machine shredded by enemy fire. On the ground his behaviour struck his fellow officers as odd. At his first base, Savy Aubigny aerodrome, north-west of Arras, he turned down a billet in the village, preferring first a tent, then a wooden hut he built for himself at the edge of the airfield, two miles from the squadron mess. He sent home for packets of seeds to plant marrows, lettuce, carrots, cress and flowers. He spent hours in the hangars, chatting with the riggers and fitters, making constant adjustments to his aeroplane to improve its capabilities, yet he seemed less interested in flying for its own sake than as a means of fighting. The camaraderie of the mess held little interest for him. Nor did women.

His main relaxation was the violin, which he would play after dinner while walking around a red magnesium flare. Another fellow pilot, Roderic Hill, described him sitting outside his hut, playing his gramophone and brooding. ‘He had but one idea: that was to kill as many Huns as possible, and he gave effect to it with a swiftness and certainty that seemed to most of us uncanny. He nearly always went out alone; in fact he would not let anyone fly with him, and was intolerant of proffered assistance.’7

For all his oddness, he was respected. A young New Zealander pilot, Keith Caldwell, saw him as ‘a hero . . . and he looked the part too; young, alert, ruddy complexion, dark hair and eyes. He was supposed to be a ‘‘loner’’, but we found him to be friendly . . . One felt that it could only be a matter of time before he ‘‘bought it’’, as he was shot about so often.’8

Looking now at the photographs of Ball, at the thick, glossy hair and the black eyes set in the taut, uncreased skin, one senses fatalism behind the easy smile. Almost from the beginning the mild bragging in the letters home is matched by disgust at what duty had led him into. By the end of August he was yearning for home. ‘I do so want to leave all this beastly killing for a time,’ he sighed in a letter.9 Yet even when complaining of nerves he would still take every possible opportunity to get airborne. In October his superiors ordered him back to England for a rest and a new posting as an instructor. He was already famous, the most successful pilot in the RFC, with an MC, DSO and bar. The prime minister, Lloyd George, invited him to breakfast. He went to Buckingham Palace, where King George V presented him with his medals.

Despite the peace and the nearness to family that he had yearned for when in France, he was restless and unhappy and soon agitating to go back. The pressure worked. In February he was posted to 56 Squadron, which was being formed as an elite unit to fly the new SE5 fighters against the best of the German air force. While waiting he fell in love, with an eighteen-year-old florist called Flora Young, who an old friend had brought with him when he drove over to visit him at the base. The attraction was instantaneous. He offered to take her up in an aeroplane and she gamely accepted. That night he was writing to thank her for ‘the topping day I have had with you. I am simply full of joy to have met you.’10 On 7 April 1917 the squadron left England. Ball’s tour was supposed to be for a month only. He sent daily letters to Flora detailing his successes and setting himself a target. Once he had overtaken the German champion Oswald Boelcke, he would come home.

At 5.30 p.m. on Monday, 7 May, he lead a squadron of SE5s on an offensive sweep aimed at seeking out enemy fighters, believed to be led by the German ace Manfred von Richthofen, who were operating in the Arras area. Cecil Lewis described the chocolate-coloured fighters flying into a ‘May evening . . . heavy with threatening masses of cumulus cloud, majestic skyscrapes, solid-looking as snow mountains, fraught with caves and valleys, rifts and ravines’.11 Suddenly, high over the Cambrai–Douai road, out of these clouds came the Albatross D111 scouts they were looking for. Richthofen was not among the pilots, but his brother Lothar was. The formations rounded on each other in a confused meˆle´e of individual combats. Lewis described how Ball ‘flew straight into the white face of an enormous cloud. I followed. But when I came out the other side, he was nowhere to be seen.’ Four German officers on the ground heard aircraft engines and looked up to see Ball’s machine slip out from low cloud upside down with its propeller stopped and trailing black smoke. It disappeared behind a stand of trees and crashed into a shoulder of farmland. By the time the officers reached the wreckage a young Frenchwoman had pulled the pilot clear. There were no marks on the fresh features, but Ball was dead.

Lothar von Richthofen claimed the victory, though no one on the British side believed him. The most likely explanation was that Ball became disoriented inside the cloud – a common hazard – and emerged to find he was flying upside down too low and too late to correct the error.

‘The mess was very quiet that night,’ Lewis wrote. They held a singsong in a nearby barn to try and raise morale. The squadron band played and the men sang the hits of the time: ‘There’s a Long, Long Trail’, ‘Way Down upon the Swanee River’, ‘Pack Up Your Troubles’. Then Lewis sang the Robert Louis Stevenson ‘Requiem’.

Under the wide and starry sky, Dig the grave and let me lie. Glad did I live and gladly die, And I laid me down with a will. A month after Ball’s death the London Gazette announced the award of a posthumous VC, noting that ‘in all Captain Ball has destroyed forty-three German aeroplanes and one balloon and has always displayed most exceptional courage, determination and skill’.

A new hero was already emerging from the ranks of the RFC by the time of Ball’s demise, a man of very different background and character. Edward ‘Mick’ Mannock had been in France for just over five weeks when Ball crashed. He knew all about him. Ball’s exploits, read about in the newspapers, had been one of the reasons he had applied to transfer to the RFC from the Royal Engineers. By the time he arrived at the main depot in St Omer he was already twenty-seven, oldish to be a pilot. He had reached the air force by an erratic route. He was born on 21 May 1889 to Irish parents. His father had been a non-commissioned officer in the Second Inniskilling Dragoons, who drank, beat his wife and disappeared, leaving her with two sons and two daughters who she brought up in poverty in Canterbury. Mannock left school at fourteen to work as a clerk. His hard early life converted him to socialism and throughout his military career he enjoyed alarming conventional comrades with his views about class and privilege. He was also an Irish nationalist. When the war came he was working as a labour supervisor in Turkey with a cable-laying company. He was interned until the Red Cross intervened, returned to England and, with his technical background, ended up in the Royal Engineers with an ambition to be a tunnelling officer. But the training bored him and he was irritated by his fellow officers and their talk of cricket, girls and dances. No one was sorry when he applied for the RFC and went off to learn to fly, managing to bluff his way through the medical despite being blind in one eye from a childhood illness.

By the summer of 1917 the brief period of air superiority the RFC had enjoyed during the Somme offensive, when it had been operating with greater numbers of aircraft and using better tactics, was over. Once again the Germans had taken the technological lead with a new breed of Albatros aircraft grouped into Jagdgeschwaders tasked with achieving control of the sky in whichever sectors commanders selected. Richthofen lead Jagdgeschwader 1. The leading pilots painted their machines in glaring colours – blood red for Richthofen – and decorated them with ancient symbols and devices, including the swastika, which had yet to lose its innocence. Some advertised their identity in huge letters on the top wing. One had inscribed underneath his name, Kennscht mi noch? – ‘Don’t you remember me?’

On 7 June Mannock was helping to escort a bombing mission over Lille when ‘we met Huns. My man gave me an easy mark. I was only ten yards away from him so I couldn’t miss! A beautifully coloured insect he was – red, blue, green and yellow. I let him have sixty rounds at that range, so there wasn’t much left of him. I saw him go spinning and slipping down from fourteen thousand. Rough luck but it’s war and they’re Huns.’ On 19 August he ran into one of the leading German pilots, Leutnant von Bartrap, a holder of the Iron Cross. ‘He came over for one of our balloons . . . and I cut him off going back . . . The scrap took place at two thousand feet up, well within view of the whole front. And the cheers! It took me five minutes to get him to go down and I had to shoot him before he would land. I was very pleased that I did not kill him.’12

On other occasions he was less considerate. Caldwell remembered watching Mannock chasing a German two-seater trying to reach the safety of its own lines. ‘The Hun crashed but not badly, and most people would have been content with this – but not Mick Mannock. He dived half a dozen times at the machine, spraying bullets at the pilot and observer, who were still showing signs of life . . . On being questioned as to his wild behaviour after we had landed, he heatedly replied, ‘‘the swines are better dead – no prisoners for me!’’ ’13

Mannock was full of such contradictions, mixing vindictiveness with bouts of remorse. He seemed to genuinely enjoy air fighting, writing about it unabashedly as ‘fun’ and ‘sport’ in the manner of the day. But he also worried constantly that he was going to crack up. Towards the end he became convinced his death would be a fiery one. It was a common sight to see an aeroplane plunging earthwards, trailing an oily wake of smoke. Fifty-five of eighty machines shot down by Richthofen were registered as gebrannt (burned). On most aircraft the fuel tank was fitted in the nose, close to the engine. In the event of fire the backwash from the propeller blew the flames into the pilot seated behind. Once an aircraft was alight there was no escape. Efficient parachutes existed but pilots were not allowed to have them. The staff view was that possession of a parachute might weaken a pilot’s nerve when in difficulties so that he abandoned his valuable aeroplane before he had to. Anyway, one general reasoned, aeroplanes went down so swiftly there was really no time to jump.14

Mannock carried a revolver in the cockpit ‘to finish myself as soon as I see the first sign of flames’.15 The sight of his victims catching fire upset him – ‘a horrible sight and made me feel sick’, he confided to his diary after shooting down a BFW biplane on 5 September. But he referred to the victory in the mess as ‘my first flamerino’.16 ‘Flamerinoes’ became an obsession. One day after shooting down his fourth German in twentyfour hours he arrived back in high spirits. ‘He bounced into the mess shouting: ‘‘All tickets please! Please pass right down the car. Flamerinoes – four! Sizzle-sizzle wonk!’’ ’17 It seemed to be a case of making light of that which he most feared. In London on leave in June 1918 he fell sick with influenza and spent several days in bed in the RFC club, unable to sleep because of the nightmares of burning aircraft that swamped in every time he closed his eyes. He visited friends in Northamptonshire. When he talked about his experiences he subsided into tears and said he wanted to die.

He returned to France as commander of 85 Squadron. On the evening of July 25 he bumped into a friend from 74 Squadron, Lieutenant Ira Jones, who asked him how he was feeling. ‘I don’t feel I shall last much longer, Taffy old lad,’ he replied. ‘If I’m killed I shall be in good company. You watch yourself. Don’t go following any Huns too low or you’ll join the sizzle brigade with me.’18

The following day he set off at dawn with a novice pilot, Lieutenant Donald Inglis, who had yet to shoot anything down, to show him how it was done. They ran into a two-seater over the German lines. Mannock began shooting, apparently killing the observer, and left the coup de graˆce for his pupil, who set it on fire. Instead of climbing away as his own rules demanded, Mannock turned back over the burning aircraft, flying at only 200 feet. Inglis ‘saw a flame come out of the right hand side of his machine after which he apparently went down out of control. I went into a spiral down to fifty feet and saw the machine go straight into the ground and burn.’19

Mannock’s self-prophecy had been fulfilled. The bullets that brought him down appear to have come from the ground, a danger he had constantly warned against. He was credited with destroying seventy-four German aircraft by the time he died, nearly reaching the eighty victims recorded by his German opposite number, Richthofen.

Where Mannock and Ball manifested in their own separate ways certain facets of Britishness, Manfred von Richthofen was, to the point of caricature, a paradigm of Prussian maleness. He explained himself with jovial arrogance in an autobiography, The Red Air Fighter, which appeared in 1917. The von Richthofens were aristocrats, though not particularly martial ones. Manfred joined the 1st Regiment of Uhlans after cadet school and was twenty-two when the war broke out. Stationed on a quiet sector of the Western Front, he got bored and applied to join the flying service. After a mere fortnight’s training he was sent to Russia, flying as an observer. By March 1916 he had qualified as a pilot and began operating over Verdun before being transferred back to Russia, where, he confessed, ‘It gave me tremendous pleasure bombing those fellows from above’.20

Richthofen impressed Boelcke, who was on a visit to the Eastern Front looking for candidates for the new Jasta fighter units, and brought him back to the West. On 17 September 1916 he claimed his first English victim, flying in ‘a large machine painted in dark colours. Apparently he was no beginner, for he knew exactly that his last hour had arrived at the moment I got at the back of him.’ Richthofen was ‘animated by a single thought: ‘‘the man in front of me must come down whatever happens’’. At last a favourable moment arrived. My opponent had apparently lost sight of me. Instead of twisting and turning he flew straight along. In a fraction of a second I was at his back with my excellent machine. I gave a short burst with my machine-gun. I had gone so close that I was afraid I might dash into the Englishman. Suddenly I nearly yelled with joy, for the propeller of the enemy machine had stopped turning. Hurrah! I had shot his engine to pieces.’

He had also mortally wounded the two occupants. Richthofen ‘honoured the fallen enemy by placing a stone on his beautiful grave’.21 So Richthofen’s memoir continues, like the reminiscences of some grotesque big-game hunter, constantly noting his score, always on the lookout for opportunities to increase the bag. He was a ‘sportsman’ by nature rather than a ‘butcher’. ‘When I have shot down an Englishman, my hunting passion is satisfied for a quarter of an hour,’ he wrote. ‘Therefore I do not succeed in shooting two Englishmen in succession. If one of them comes down I have the feeling of complete satisfaction. Only much later have I overcome my instinct and have become a butcher.’ As a sportsman he was keen on trophies and the mess of his ‘Flying Circus’ was hung with the debris of his victims’ aircraft. It was a habit he shared with Mannock, another inveterate crash-site scavenger. In keeping with the hunter’s philosophy, he admired his prey and had strong ideas about what quarry was worthy of him. Between the ‘French tricksters’ and ‘those daring fellows, the English’, he preferred the English, though he believed that frequently what the latter took to be bravery ‘can only be described as stupidity’. Richthofen, of course, subscribed to the courtly view of air fighting – ‘the last vestige of knightly individual combat’. But he was sensible about how it should be practised. ‘The great thing in air fighting is that the decisive factor does not lie in trick flying but solely in the personal ability and energy of the aviator. A flying man may be able to loop and do all the tricks imaginable and yet he may not succeed in shooting down a single enemy. In my opinion, the aggressive spirit is everything.’22 It was an observation that was to prove equally valid when the two sides met again in the air twenty-three years later.

Richthofen’s caution meant that in a long fighting career he sustained only one injury before the end. It came on 21 April 1918 when his red Fokker triplane crashed into a beet field at Vaux-sur-Somme. As with Mannock and Ball, the exact circumstances of his death are confused.

The credit for it was contested. Captain Roy Brown of 209 Squadron plausibly claimed to have been shooting at Richthofen when he went in. So, too, did an Australian machine-gun battery in the vicinity. The body was removed from the wreckage and taken to Poulainville airfield fifteen kilometres away. Richthofen was laid out in a hangar on a strip of corrugated metal, staring upwards, in unconscious imitation of the effigy of a medieval knight. In the night soldiers and airmen came in and rifled his pockets for souvenirs.

The notion of ‘aces’ placed Richthofen, Mannock, Ball and perhaps a dozen others at the pinnacle of their weird profession. Beneath them were thousands of other aviators who, though mostly anonymous, none the less regarded themselves as special. The faces that look back from the old RFC photographs are bold and open. The men have modern looks and modern smiles. Unlike the army types, whose stilted sepia portraits require an effort of imagination to bring to life, you can visualize the flesh and blood. The images pulse with confidence. Unorthodox, even louche, though the pilots seemed to the military establishment, the ethos of the RFC was public school. Cecil Lewis, on applying to join, was interviewed by a staff officer, Lord Hugh Cecil.

‘So you were at Oundle?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Under the great Sanderson?’

‘Er – yes, sir.’

‘Play any games?’

‘Yes, sir. I got my school colours at fives, and I captained the house on the river . . .’

‘Fives, you say? You should have a good eye, then.’

After a brief discussion as to whether his six foot three inches would be a major handicap, Lewis was in.23

But there were plenty of pilots who knew nothing of the school close or the college eight. James McCudden, one of the RFC’s greatest pilots, started his career as a boy bugler in the Royal Engineers before transferring to the RFC as a mechanic. Once inside, though, class was always waiting to pounce. John Grider, an American serving with 85 Squadron, recounted how his fellow pilots objected to having McCudden as their commanding officer, ‘because he was once a Tommy and his father was a sergeant-major in the old army. I couldn’t see that that was anything against him but the English have great ideas of caste.’24 The technical ability that flying demanded meant that the RFC could not afford to be exclusive, even though some of the attitudes struck by the pilots seemed in the spirit of a cavalry regiment of another, more raffish time.

The airmen liked alcohol and women, though there were notable exceptions. Ball was teetotal, and had no girlfriend until his meeting with Flora. Mannock drank little and seems to have shown a courtly restraint towards females. Like Ball, he was planning marriage before his death, to a Sister Flanagan who was nursing in France. For Lewis and many like him, though, the bar and the brothel provided fun and relief after the appalling strain. Their playful attitude was summed up in a 1915 drinking song, describing the finale to a day in which the squadron has only narrowly escaped a mauling by an Albatros Jasta.

But safely at the ’drome once more, we feel quite gay and bright. We’ll take a car to Amiens and have dinner there tonight. We’ll swank along the boulevards and meet the girls of France. To hell with the Army Medical! We’ll take our ruddy chance! In the cafe´s of Amiens there seemed to be a large supply of young women happy to entertain Allied pilots who were undeterred by the risk of a dose of clap. Then, as later, wings on a tunic exercised a strong attraction, as Lewis discovered (describing the incident rather coyly in the third person) when he removed his greatcoat after returning with an eighteen-year-old to her room and its vast black iron-and-brass bed.

‘Ah! Tu es pilote! Que j’aime les pilotes!’


‘Yais! Yais!’ she imitated, deftly catching a handful of his hair and tugging at it. ‘Tue es beau, tu sais.’ She was on his knee again, and under her open blouse the hollow of her young shoulder seemed infinite in its promise.25

Squadrons would lay on spectacular ‘drunks’ at which the participants sucked on a sponge soaked in a cocktail of whisky and champagne, mixed in a bucket. It was drinking to forget. Insouciance was obligatory. Each death in Mannock’s diary is recorded in the same carefully offhand way – ‘poor old Shaw went West’, ‘We’ve lost poor old Davis’, etc. Trenchard had a policy of ‘no empty chairs at breakfast’ to discourage brooding, replacing pilots instantly, often with greenhorns who were themselves propelled straight to death. During the bad times, the mess at nightfall could be a very melancholy place.

In such an atmosphere you grew fatalistic, and as time went by and left you unscathed, like a batsman who has played himself in, you began to take liberties with the bowling, [Lewis wrote]. You took unnecessary risks, you volunteered for dangerous jobs, you provoked enemy aircraft to attack you. You were invulnerable: nothing could touch you. Then, when one of the old hands, as seemingly invulnerable as yourself, went West, you suddenly got cold feet. It wasn’t possible to be sure – even of yourself. At this stage it required most courage to go on – a sort of plodding fatalism, a determination, a cold-blooded effort of will. And always alone! No friends right and left, no crowd morale.26

Crack-ups were routine. Pilots got to recognize the signs in each other and were sympathetic. Mannock, who was hard on anyone he suspected of hanging back, was kindly towards those he saw were reaching the end of their tether, and in contrast to the trenches a certain humanity seems to have guided posting policy so the bad cases were sent to less arduous duties.

Whatever their personal dreads, the pilots were always grateful they were not on the ground. They looked down at the ‘poor little maggoty men’ toiling in the churned and polluted earth below and blessed their luck. From time to time, they saw the lines at close quarters and the reality was sickeningly brought home. The 20th of July 1917 was a bad day for Mannock. Having shot down a two-seater, he went to inspect the wreckage and discovered a ‘little black and tan terrier – dead – in the observer’s seat. I felt exactly like a murderer. The journey to the trenches was rather nauseating – dead men’s legs sticking through the sides with putties and boots still on – bits of bones and skulls with the hair peeling off, and tons of equipment and clothing lying about. This sort of thing, together with the strong graveyard stench and the dead and mangled body of the pilot (an NCO), combined to upset me for a few days.’27

By the last two years of the war, whatever faint notions of nobility and romance may have clung to the business of air fighting had faded. The headlong style of Ball had given way to cold stalking tactics. The general slowness of the aircraft and the narrowness of the speed margins meant that the attacker approached gradually, leaving plenty of time to reflect on what he was doing as he overhauled his prey.

The most successful pilots spent hours synchronizing their guns and sights. McCudden would seek out the sluggish two-seaters on reconnaissance and, taking great care not to be seen, approach slowly to attack from the blind spot behind the enemy plane, finishing the job with a single carefully aimed burst. ‘My system was always to attack the Hun at his disadvantage if possible,’ he wrote before his death in a crash.28 Mannock dinned into his pilots a basic rule of survival: always above; seldom on the same level; never underneath. The huge tactical advantage of invisibility, gained by having the sun at your back, was quickly understood by both sides, but all light conditions carried their advantages and disadvantages. Allied pilots would lurk in the dusk falling in the east to catch Germans on their way home.

Richthofen, despite his fantasies of knightly combat, made sure he had every advantage possible when he went out to deliver death, protected by his fellow pilots when the odds were in the German favour, allowing him to attack without fear of ambush and breaking off if he felt his opponent was getting the upper hand.

It was all a long way from Rabagliati’s gentlemanly airborne duel in August 1914. Yet when the end came the survivors felt a sort of regret at the passing of what they already saw as aerial warfare’s heroic era. Cecil Lewis was in a village near Ypres when the news of the Armistice came through. ‘So it was over. I confess to a feeling of anticlimax . . . when you have been living a certain kind of life for four years, living as part of a single-minded and united effort, its sudden cessation leaves your roots in the air, baffled and, for the moment, disgruntled. But the readjustment was rapid and soon we began to explore the possibilities of peace. Where should we go? What should we do?’29


Find Out More


  • Biggin Hill: South East London
  • RAF Museum, Hendon:Grahame Park Way, North London
  • RAF College,Cranwell: nr Sleaford, Lincs
  • Halton Apprentice School: Royal Air Force Halton,Aylesbury,HP22 5PG
  • The Kent Battle of Britain Museum: Hawkinge, nr Folkestone
  • The Imperial War Museum: Lambeth Road, London, SE1 6HZ


  • Reach for the Sky, 1956 (starring Kenneth Moore as real-life pilot Douglas Bader, who overcame the loss of both legs to return to his fighter plane)
  • The First of the Few, 1942, Leslie Howard (director, producer, star) Tells the story of R. J.Mitchell, designer of the Spitfire. Leslie Howard was killed in a plane crash shortly after completing the film.


    Historical resource site featuring documents and articles. Detailed commentaries on the different planes used in the conflict provide pictures, blueprints, pilots’ impressions and technical specifications.
    An official site cataloguing official reports, including never before seen daily instalments of Fighter Command’s Operational Diaries. Various other resources, such as maps and lists of all units and stations, cover the strategic gamut of the battle – acting as an interesting foil to Patrick Bishop’s more personal, pilotoriented account.
    A general historical site providing information on personnel and squadrons as well as a day-byday breakdown of the fighting.
    The Imperial War Museum’s introductory site gives clear, short introductions to the major tactical, operational and chronological features of the battle.
    The Kent Battle of Britain Museum’s website.
    A repository of nevercompleted German fighter plane designs from the Second World War by Messerschmit, Mercedes-Benz and others. Some of these are remarkably similar to more modern implementations, featuring swing-wings, jet engines and Stealth-style delta wings.
    Features many resources for study of the Battle of Britain, including book reviews.
    The website of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, who give regular airshows using Hurricanes, Spitfires and other planes used in the Battle.

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