Masters of the Skies

  • 31 March, 2018
  • Bravery
  • Medals

Published in the Daily Express on 31 March 2018.

Lieutenant William Barnard Rhodes-Moorhouse

It should never be forgotten that when the Royal Air Force was formed on April 1 1918, powered flight, in general, and aerial combat, in particular, were in their infancy.

On a windswept beach in North Carolina, man’s first powered flight had been achieved by the Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur, on December 17, 1903. Their aircraft had bumbled along some 20 feet off the ground for a flight lasting just 59 seconds and 852 feet.

So when the First World War broke out in August 1914 – less than 11 years later – it is hardly surprising that military experts on both sides saw the war-time benefits of aircraft as distinctly limited.

Indeed the aeroplane, along with the air balloon, was initially considered useful only as a method of reconnaissance, which is exactly how the two sides used them in the early months of the 1914-18 conflict.

At the start of the Great War, Britain had 113 military aircraft, its ally France had 160 in the French Aviation Service, while their enemy Germany, with its German Air Service, had 246.

For some time, pilots from opposing sides used to wave at each other as they passed in opposite directions in the skies, high above the Western Front, all going about their reconnaissance work largely undisturbed.

It was not long, however, before young, aggressive airmen within the various air services started taking revolvers, grenades and, eventually, light-machine guns into their cockpits. In two-seater aircraft, the pilot often flew the plane while his observer took pot shots at the enemy.

By the spring of 1915, aerial combats were escalating as more aircraft from both sides in the conflict began to see the value of fighter planes. At this point, both the Army and the Royal Navy had their own aircraft through the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) respectively.

Unsurprisingly, flying these earlier aircraft, particularly those that fired machine guns close to or even through their own propellers, was extremely dangerous. Furthermore, the early pilots did not have the luxury of parachutes.

Nevertheless, many Army personnel, including those who had tired of life in the trenches, volunteered for the new flying roles, even though the life expectancy of pilots could often be measured in just months or weeks – or, occasionally, even days.

Just as some soldiers and Navy personnel showed exceptional bravery, and were decorated accordingly, numerous British airmen displayed outstanding bravery in the skies and they too were recognised for their gallantry.

Eventually, during the whole of the Great War, 19 airmen were awarded the Victoria Cross (VC), Britain and the Commonwealth’s most prestigious decoration for bravery in the face of the enemy.

Inevitably there were some moving stories of bravery in the air: none more so that the story of Second Lieutenant William Rhodes- Moorhouse, the first airman to be awarded the VC.

On April 26 1915, the RFC was ordered to bomb the enemy’s railway network to prevent German reinforcements from reaching the frontline. Rhodes-Moorhouse was instructed to bomb the railway line at Courtrai – one of three targets for four aircraft.

To guarantee a direct hit, he came down to 300 feet before dropping his 100 lbs bomb and was inevitably greeted with a volley of machine-gun and rifle fire from the heavily-defended position.

Bullets perforated his aircraft and smashed into his thigh. Wounded and in great pain, he had two options: to land behind enemy lines, get urgent medical treatment and become a Prisoner of War (PoW), or to try to limp back to his home base in his plane, with his useful intelligence.

Rhodes-Moorhouse chose the latter option and received further injuries from enemy ground-fire as he made his way back to his base at Merville. There, he made an emergency landing but he died from his injuries the next day, aged 27.

It later emerged that, faced with a perilous mission that he was highly unlikely to survive, he had written a “first and final letter” to his infant son, William Jnr. Rhodes-Moorhouse’s VC was announced on May 22 1915, while General Sir John French, the British commander, said the pilot had been responsible for “the most important bomb dropped during the war so far”. Today I feel privileged to be the custodian of Rhodes-Moorhouse’s medal group, which is part of my 212-strong VC collection, the largest in the world.

As young men took to the skies in Sopwith Camels and other aircraft, there were early dogfights between rival pilots and they soon began to keep records of their victories, or “kills”. Those pilots who successfully shot down five or more enemy aircraft became known as “aces” and, as their total of “kills” grew, so too did their fame.

By early 1916, aircraft were becoming more sophisticated and the RFC had succeeded in gaining a clear air supremacy by the start of the Battle of the Somme in July of that year. In total, the RFC had 421 aircraft, along with 14 balloon and four kite-balloon squadrons.

As the war progressed, aircraft were used increasingly to bomb targets and for other offensive purposes. During the final year of the war, planes were deployed to strafe enemy infantry and emplacements, and for the strategic bombing of military airfields, along with German industrial and transportation facilities.

As already stated, the RAF was formally created on April 1 1918 through the amalgamation of the RFC and RNAS. It was to be controlled by a new Air Ministry.

It would not be true to say that the RAF won the war for Britain and its allies: that would not give sufficient credit to the efforts and sacrifices of the Army and the Royal Navy.

However, it would be true to say that the war could not have been won without the RAF. The days immediately before and after the creation of the RAF saw the German’s “Spring Offensive”, lasting from March 21 to July 18 1918. This was the major enemy push to defeat the Allies before the mighty United States of America could fully deploy its resources in Europe.

Time and again, and right up to the closing battles of the war, the RAF played a crucial role in both defending Allied soldiers on the ground and then supporting major ground offensives.

By the end of the Great War on November 11 1918, military experts were totally convinced of the merits of aerial power. The future of the RAF was secure and, within a year of the war ending, the “junior service”, as it is known because of its late arrival on the scene, had 4,000 combat aircraft and 114,00 personnel. Today the RAF remains the world’s oldest independent air force.

During the past century, most notably during the Battle of Britain in 1940 and when it fought in every major theatre of the Second World War, the RAF has repeatedly shown its worth. This weekend, on the centenary of its formation, I urge everyone to pay tribute to all those who have served in the RAF with such distinction for 100 years.

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