RFC Structure in France

Research Notes

When No. 35 Squadron mobilised to France in January 1917, the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) in France consisted of a Headquarters Wing with:

  • Aeroplane Supply Depot
  • Aircraft Depot
  • Engine Repair Shops
  • Brigades

Chart showing structure of RFC in France
[Courtesy of Mike Meech (Original Source not known)]

Each Brigade consisted of :

  • An Army Wing, consisting of a variable number of squadrons
  • A Corps Wing, consisting normally of one squadron per Corps in the Army
  • A Balloon Wing, consisting normally of one balloon company per Corps in the Army
  • An Army Aircraft Park (a mobile depot of stores and spare parts).

Each Brigade was allotted to a specific army (eg 1st Brigade to I Army, 2nd Brigade to II Army).

Chart showing structure of “Brigades”

The role of the Army Wing was as follows:

  • Offensive action against the enemy’s aircraft
  • Offensive action against troops and vulnerable points in the Army reconnaissance area, as allotted by General Headquarters
  • Medium distance reconnaissance and photography

The role of the Corps Wing was as follows:

  • Location of hostile batteries
  • Observation of artillery fire
  • Contact Patrol work
  • Close reconnaissance and photography
  • Offensive action against vulnerable points in the Army reconnaissance area

The role of the Balloon Wing was as follows:

  • Location of hostile batteries
  • Observation of artillery fire
  • Close reconnaissance

Squadrons within each wing were organised into three flights, with each flight consisting of 6 to 8 aircraft.

Attachment to the Cavalry Corps

RESEARCH NOTES

In December 1916, the squadron was advised that it would be attached to the Cavalry Corps when it mobilised to France in January 1917.

A letter was sent to HQ, Training Brigade asking for instructions on “co-operation between Cavalry and Aeroplanes” and these were duly received.

To assist with training, five observers from the Cavalry Corp (Swire, Curtis, Barne, Lawrence-Smith and Royston) were sent to Narborough to work with the squadron on operational techniques.

011

An extract from the instructions sent to the squadron on co-operation between Cavalry and Aeroplanes [Courtesy of Mike Meech]

Mobilisation to France

RESEARCH NOTES

35 Squadron leaving Narborough for France

On 18th January 1917, the squadron left Narborough Aerodrome and headed for Portsmouth.

The following extract is taken from an account of this journey entitled “The tale of the wanderings of 35 Squadron RFC from their aerodrome at Narborough, Norfolk, to Hesdin in the Land of France”.

“A dull cold cheerless morning with snow still lying on the ground. One of those unpleasant days, when by all the rules of the game, it ought to thaw properly and get done with it, but doesn’t. By the light of one candle and with almost freezing water a most imperfect shave is consummated and by 6.45 am one is in the mess eating a hasty breakfast and paying a more than exorbitant mess bill.

A rapid walk up to the aerodrome helps to restore circulation partially. The last of the Active Service Pay Books and one mobilisation blanket are just being doled out to the men. The remainder are busy starting up their lorries and fixing on their equipment.

Between 7.15 am and 7.45 am the C.O. walks rapidly round inspecting the men who are drawn up by their lorries.

At 7.45 am the 9 Crossley Light Tenders and their attendant P & M motorcycles and sidecars move off.

At 7.55 it is discovered that the second lorry has been started without filling up the radiator. The engine is stopped before any damage has been done and by 8.05 am the radiator has been filled and the engine restarted.

The convoy has been marshalled in order and files past the mess at 8.20 am. This is lucky because I have a bet with a certain Flight Commander that we shall do so before 8.30 am.

In such a manner did we start our long journey to the coast.”

Personnel and equipment were loaded onto the “SS Huntsland” at Portsmouth, which then set sail for Rouen (via Le Havre).

Huntsland-02

On arrival at Rouen, the convoy disembarked and travelled to the aerodrome at St André-aux-Bois, arriving on 3rd February 1917.

The squadron’s three flights of Armstrong-Whitworth FK8 (18 aircraft) were flown out from Narborough on 25th January 1917 and after a short stay at the RFC holding camp at St Omer (26th January to 3rd February) they joined the squadron personnel at St André-aux-Bois.

With the arrival of the squadron aircraft at St André-aux-Bois, personnel were able to resume their daily routine of :

  • Aircraft and Equipment Tests
  • Ground and Flying Training

1917 WebPage

Extract from Squadron Record Book

Air Crew Training (WWI)

RESEARCH NOTES

BACKGROUND

Training in the RFC evolved as technology and techniques changed and attitudes towards the lower classes improved. 

The official history of the RFC shows “Some of the instructors had seen active service in France, and all were veterans in aviation. Of the pupils a certain number were regular officers, but the majority were civilians of promise. There were lectures on engines, aeroplanes, wireless telegraphy, meteorology, tactics and organisation. The pupil was first taken up as a passenger, and the method of using the controls was demonstrated to him. He was then allowed to attempt flight for himself, either on a machine fitted with dual controls or with the watchful instructor on the pounce to save him from dangerous mistakes. The training was almost wholly directed to producing airworthiness in the pupil. The various activities which had developed at the front, such as artillery observation, fighting and bombing, had no counterpart as yet in the training establishment. Most of the pupils were eager to fly and to get to France so viewed workshop instruction as a necessary evil. Most of the instructors were unable to answer the questions of a pupil interested in the science of aviation. They knew, and taught, that when a machine is steeply banked the rudder and elevator appear to exchange functions, so that the rudder directs the machine up or down and the elevator turns it to this side or that, but they could not explain the reason for this mystery. Nor could they explain why in a fog or cloud the compass of an aeroplane is suddenly possessed of a devil, and begins to- spin round. But although they were not all well versed in technical knowledge and theory, they were all
fit to teach the most important lesson ~ the lesson of confidence, resource and initiative.”

The following is a summary of the training process for pilots and observers which was being introduced in 1916 when No. 35 Squadron started working up to operational readiness.

“Trade” Training (Pilots)

Having received basic flying instruction at one of the RFC Schools, pilots were “attached” to a squadron that was working up to operational readiness to receive “higher instruction in aviation”.

Whilst “attached”, they received Ground Training in subjects such as engines, aeroplanes, wireless telegraphy, meteorology, tactics and organisation and Flying Training, where they were encouraged to gain air experience by flying at night and in bad weather and by practising landings, bomb dropping and flying in formation.

Having completed their training, they were required to take Graduation Exams A and B in order to earn their wings and earn promotion to Flying Officer.

Certificate A was a written examination which covered subjects such as the theory of flight, RFC organisation and artillery co-operation procedures Certificate B was a practical exam covering subjects such as aero-engines, rigging, Morse and machine guns.

Having qualified, some were taken on strength of the squadron, others were posted to other operational squadrons

“Trade” Training (Observers)

In 1916, the RFC introduced a formal training programme for Observers (prior to this very little training had been offered to those volunteering to take on this role).

The programme started with a four week Ground Training course at Reading or Oxford covering subjects such as Aeroplanes, Artillery Work, Photography, The Lewis Gun and Signalling (*)

(*) Aeroplanes (Types of aeroplanes, Theory of Flight, Aero-engines, Instruments) / Artillery Work (Artillery Observation, Troop Formations, Reconnaissance, Bombs and Bombing, Aerial Fighting, Photography) / The Lewis Gun / Signalling (Wireless, Signalling (Morse)) / Miscellaneous (Map Reading, Meteorology, Astronomy, Military Law)

This was followed by an attachment to a squadron that was working up to operational readiness for “instruction in aerial observation” (primarily to gain practical flying experience). Whilst on attachment, a further 3 week course was undertaken at Brooklands (Wireless) and/or Hythe (Aerial Gunnery)

Qualification was achieved when a trainee observer:

  • knew the Lewis Gun thoroughly
  • could use the RFC camera successfully
  • could send and receive by wireless at the rate of 6 x 5 letter words a minute with 98% accuracy
  • knew the method of co-operation between aeroplanes and artillery thoroughly
  • had carried out two reconnaissance flights or had ranged batteries on at least two occasions

Having qualified, some were taken on strength of the squadron, others were posted to other operational squadrons

Operational Training / Conversion Training (Pilots and Observers)

Having been posted to an Operational Squadron, Pilots and Observers needed to be trained in operational techniques (such as firing from an aeroplane and fighting in the air) and in how to carry out the various types of patrols and shoots as set out in the document “Co-operation of Aircraft with Artillery”

Instruction Leaflet Index

Furthermore, as all previous training had been carried out in “training” aircraft, they had to be trained to fly the “service type” aircraft that they would be using when they mobilised to France; this was known as “conversion training”


TRAINING WITH 35 SQUADRON IN THE UK (JANUARY 1916 to JANUARY 1917)

“Trade” Training (Trainee Pilots and Observers)

Trainee Pilots and Observers were attached to the squadron to receive “higher instruction in aviation” and “instruction in aerial observation” respectively.

Operational Training (Qualified Pilots and Observers)

Qualified Pilots and Observers were posted to the squadron to receive Operational Training and Conversion Training

As 35 Squadron had been designated as a Corps Squadron, they were trained to “provide medium and short distance aerial reconnaissance for one of the British Army Corps Commands”. The role included:

  • Location of Hostile Batteries
  • Observation of Artillery Fire
  • Contact Patrol Work
  • Close Reconnaissance and Photography
  • Offensive action against vulnerable points in the Army reconnaissance area

Conversion Training was carried out using the squadron’s allocated “service” aircraft, the Armstrong Whitworth FK8

In December 1916, the squadron was advised that it would be attached to the Cavalry Corps when it mobilised to France. As a result, specialist training in “co-operation between Cavalry and Aeroplanes” was undertaken, in conjunction with representatives from the Cavalry Corps

Continuation Training (Qualified Pilots and Observers)

Qualified Pilots and Observers continued to receive Ground and Flying Training in their respective “trades”, both onsite and offsite, with training exercises being carried out on a regular basis.


TRAINING WITH 35 SQUADRON IN FRANCE (JANUARY 1917 to APRIL 1917)

Operational Training with the Cavalry Corps (Qualified Pilots and Observers)

Qualified Pilots and Observer continued with their specialist training in “co-operation between Cavalry and Aeroplanes”, in conjunction with representatives from the Cavalry Corps.

Continuation Training (Qualified Pilots and Observers)

Qualified Pilots and Observers continued to receive Ground and Flying Training in their respective “trades”, both onsite and offsite, with training exercises being carried out on a regular basis.


TRAINING IN FRANCE (FROM APRIL 1917)

Operational / Continuation Training (Qualified Pilots and Observers)

In April 1917, the squadron became operational as a Corps Squadron.

Qualified Pilots and Observers continued with their Operational / Continuation Training, with training exercises being carried out on a regular basis

The squadron’s Record Book shows its personnel undertaking the following training flights: Aerial Combat, Aerial Gunnery, Aerodrome Reconnaissance, Artillery Patrol, Cavalry Contact, Cavalry Co-Operation, Cavalry Scheme, Contact Patrol, Duration, Fighting Duty, Formation, Lamp and Panel Reading, Landing / Force Landing, Line Reconnaissance, Message Dropping, Photography, Practice Shoots, Reconnaissance, Signalling, Tank Reconnaissance, Wireless Practice

Command Structure (WWI)

RESEARCH NOTES

Royal_Flying_Corps_cap_badge

February 1916 to January 1917

No 35. Squadron was formed in February 1916 as “a Corps Squadron, capable of providing medium and short distance aerial reconnaissance for one of the Army Corps”.

At that time, the Royal Flying Corps was expanding rapidly and its structure was being adapted to cope with the increasing number of squadrons.

In the UK, a series of “Brigades” had been formed, each consisting of a number of “Wings” with each of these consisting of a number of “Squadrons”.

In May 1916, the UK “Wings” were reconfigured on a regional basis under the command of VI Brigade, which subsequently was renamed Training Brigade (20/07/1916)

As a result of the various changes, No. 35 Squadron came under the command of the following Wings / Brigades whilst it was training and working up to operational readiness from February 1916 to January 1917:

  • As at 03/02/1916: 6th Wing, VI Brigade RFC
  • As at 01/05/1916: 7th Wing, VI Brigade RFC
  • As at 20/07/1916: 7th Wing, Training Brigade RFC

January 1917 to 1919

When No. 35 Squadron mobilised to France in January 1917, the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) in France consisted of a Headquarters Wing with:

  • Aeroplane Supply Depot
  • Aircraft Depot
  • Engine Repair Shops
  • Brigades

Chart showing structure of RFC in France
[Courtesy of Mike Meech (Original Source not known)]

Each Brigade consisted of :

  • An Army Wing, consisting of a variable number of squadrons
  • A Corps Wing, normally consisting of one squadron per Corps in the Army
  • A Balloon Wing, normally consisting of one balloon company per Corps in the Army
  • An Army Aircraft Park (a mobile depot of stores and spare parts).

Each Brigade was allotted to a specific army (eg 1st Brigade to I Army, 2nd Brigade to II Army).

Chart showing structure of “Brigades”

No. 35 Squadron came under the command of the following Wings / Brigades whilst it was mobilised to France:

  • 7th Wing, Training Brigade (UK)
  • January 1917: HQ, RFC (France) (Attached to the Cavalry Corps [III Army])
  • xx/xx/1917: 12th Corps Wing, 3rd Brigade, RFC (Attached to the Cavalry Corps [III Army])
  • 09/03/1918: 15th Corps Wing, 5th Brigade, RFC (Attached to the 19th Corps [IV Army])
  • 05/04/1918: 15th Corps Wing, 5th Brigade, RFC (Attached to the 3rd Corps [IV Army])
  • 06/10/1918: 15th Corps Wing, 5th Brigade, RFC (Attached to the 13th Corps [IV Army])
  • 10/11/1918: 5th Brigade, RFC Advanced Force [Bethell’s Force])
  • xx/xx/1919: 91st Wing

It should be noted that the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) was restructured when the Royal Air Force (RAF) was formed on 1st April 1918

Orders of Battle

The following information, which has been extracted from “Order of Battle of the British Armies in France (including Lines of Communication Units)” shows the structure of the RFC / RAF in France during 1917 and 1918. (All images are © Crown Copyright)

27th January 1917

27-01-1917

3rd March 1917

03-03-1917

14th April 1917

14-04-1917

1st July 1917

01-07-1917

1st August 1917

01-08-1917

16th September 1917

16-09-1917

9th November 1917

09-11-1917

22nd December 1917

22-12-1917

February 1918

02-1918

French / Belgium Aerodrome (WWI)

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is estrees-mess-1.jpg

The following provides a list of aerodrome utilised by the squadron whilst it was mobilised to France, along with the movement dates

1917

  • 03/02/1917: Reformed at St André-aux-Bois
  • 05/04/1917: Moved to Savy
  • 13/05/1917: Moved to Villers-Bretonneux
  • 23/05/1917: Moved to Mons-en-Chaussee
  • 13/07/1917: Moved to Savy
  • 19/08/1917: Moved to La Gorgue
  • 05/10/1917: Moved to La Lovie (Poperinge)
  • 17/10/1917: Moved to Bruay
  • 07/11/1917: Moved to Estrees-en-Chaussee

1918

  • Estrees-en-Chaussée
  • 22/03/1918: Moved to Chipilly
  • 24/03/1918: Moved to Poulainville
  • 28/03/1918: Moved to Abbeville
  • 05/04/1918: Moved to Poulainville
  • 04/05/1918: Moved to Villers-Bocage (Flesselles)
  • 05/09/1918: Moved to Suzanne
  • 15/09/1918: Moved to Moislains
  • 06/10/1918: Moved to Longavesnes
  • 17/10/1918: Moved to Elincourt
  • 10/11/1918: Moved to Flaumont
  • 11/11/1918: Moved to Grand Fayt
  • 13/11/1918: Moved to Elincourt
  • 29/11/1918: Moved to La Bellevue

1919

  • La Bellevue
  • 19/01/1919: Moved to St Marie-Cappel
  • 03/03/1919: Moved back to UK

Photo Gallery


RFC Corps Squadron (WWI)

RESEARCH NOTES

Instruction Leaflet Cover

The squadron was classified as a “Corps Squadron, tasked with providing medium and short distance aerial reconnaissance for one of the British Army Corps Commands”.

This entailed undertaking patrols aimed at observing and photographing enemy defences, troop movements and the effects of artillery fire (as set out in the document “Co-operation of Aircraft with Artillery”).

Each squadron within the Corps Wing of an RFC Brigade was allotted to a specific Army Corps.

As a guide (as situations varied throughout the war) a squadron consisted of three flights of eight aircraft, with two flights wholly employed on counter-battery work (each with their own flight area) and one on trench bombardment, reconnaissance and contact patrol.

Logistically, an average of five squadron aircraft could be in the air at any one time, with the aim being to keep at least one in the air throughout the hours of daylight.

Primary duties included:

  • location of hostile batteries
  • observation of artillery fire
  • contact and counterattack patrol work
  • close reconnaissance and photography
  • offensive action against vulnerable points in the Army reconnaissance area

Other duties included supply dropping, bombing and smoke screen production

The squadron’s Record Book shows participation in the following types of patrols:

  • Artillery Patrol
  • Artillery Observation
  • Photography
  • Contact Patrol
  • Defensive Patrol
  • Offensive Patrol
  • Destructive Shoot
  • Line Patrol
  • Trench Registration
  • Balloon Patrol
  • Reconnaissance
  • Bombing

Presentation Aircraft (WWI)

RESEARCH NOTES

Both public and private money was utilised to fund the war effort and appeals for private funding were made in the UK and in the British Commonwealth.

A “price list” for the various aircraft types was drawn up which showed that donations of a particular sum would entitle the donor to have their name inscribed on a randomly selected production aircraft of that type.

Aircraft utilised by No. 35 Squadron which carried donor markings included:

  • Royal Aircraft Factory BE2c 2661 [Baroda No.3]
  • Royal Aircraft Factory BE2c 2531 [‘Punjab No.23 Kamal’]
  • Armstrong-Whitworth FK8 B5767 [Punjab 36 Derajat]
  • Royal Aircraft Factory BE2c 2664 [Raghunath Aeroplane Goldinganj]
  • Armstrong-Whitworth FK8 B255 [Malaya No. 3 “The Alma Baker’]
  • Royal Aircraft Factory FE2b 5229 [Punjab 9 Kalsia]
presentation-aircraft

Royal Aircraft Factory FE2b 5229 (Punjab 9 Kalsia)
[Source: Narborough History Society]