The First World War was the first conflict in which aviation played a major role.
At first, balloons, aircraft and airships were used for reconnaissance and dropping bombs. Increasingly, aerial duels were fought to gain air superiority.
This was despite the fact that the aeroplane had only been demonstrated eleven years earlier in America in 1903 by the Wright brothers. Initially the usefulness of heavier-than-air machines had been met with scepticism from Britain’s army and navy.
Royal Naval Air Service mechanics. IWM Q73557
At the outbreak of the war in August 1914 the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) had 146 officers and around 100 aircraft. The Royal Navy Air Service (RNAS) had over 700 personnel, 93 aircraft, two balloons and six airships.
One hundred years ago today (1 April 1918) the two rivals merged to form the Royal Air Force (RAF) under the control of the new Air Ministry.
By the end of the war November 1918, the Royal Air Force had grown in strength to 27,000 officers and 260,000 other personnel operating more than 22,000 aircraft. But the casualty rate was very high: 14,166, of whom around 9000 died or were missing in action. A further estimated 8,000 were killed in training accidents.
Royal Flying Corps Officers. IWM Q8068.
In commemoration of their bravery and sacrifice, Historic England is newly listing eleven memorials associated with the air war – eight to individual aviators – and upgrading three others.
The memorials help tell Britain’s wartime aviation story: Aviation Memorials
St Saviour’s War Memorial, Southwark, Borough High Street, London. Bronze figure and carved reliefs by sculptor Philip Lindsey Clark. He was severely wounded in the First World War and intended the memorial to ‘express the same dogged determination and unconquerable spirit displayed by all branches of our forces on land, on the seas, and in the air.’ Unveiled 16 November 1922. Upgraded to Grade II* © Historic England/DP182994.
St Saviour’s War Memorial, Southwark, Borough High Street, London (detail) © Historic England/DP182991. The stone plinth topped by a crouching bronze infantryman, is decorated with carved reliefs that include a naval battle scene and one of aerial combat. This highly detailed dog fight among the clouds between British and enemy aircraft symbolises a revolution in aerial warfare – fighter aircraft
Image of bi-plane in gunsights © IWM Q70307. In 1915, the Dutch aircraft manufacturer, Anthony Fokker who was working for the Germans, perfected the ability for a machine-gun to be synchronised with, and fire through, the aircraft’s propeller. It was soon adopted by all combatants.
A crew member of an RNAS airship about to drop a bomb from the rear cockpit of the gondola. Image © IWM Q67695. In the early days of aerial warfare, pilots – who flew in open cockpits, heavily muffled against the cold – had improvised by dropping bombs over the side, throwing grenades at the enemy while flying, or by using their pistols or rifles.
Bootle War Memorial, Kings Gardens, Stanley Road, Bootle, Sefton, Merseyside. Bootle War Memorial, Kings Gardens, Stanley Road, Bootle, Merseyside (detail pf airman). Bronze figures sculpted by Joseph Hermon Cawthra. Upgraded to Grade II* Historic England/DP175405
Unveiling of the memorial 15 October 1922. Image courtesy Hugh Hollinghurst/Liverpool Echo. The heroic lifesize bronze figures of this memorial are strikingly symbolic. The mother and child represent the motherland and the future generations of the then British Empire, guarded by the three great fighting forces – army, navy and air force – which protected the country during the First World War. The inclusion of the highly detailed figure of the airman – pulling on his gloves while looking skyward – is relatively uncommon on war memorials and indicates the growing importance of the air services during the conflict.
Royal Air Force Memorial, Victoria Embankment, London. Architect Sir Reginald Blomfeld. Bronze sculpture by Sir William Reid Dick. Unveiled 16 July 1922. Upgraded to Grade II*. © Historic England/DP182974. This is the national RAF memorial. Its enormous gilded bronze eagle with wings outretched – symbol of the RAF – stands on a zodiacal globe on a tall plinth, looking across the River Thames towards France. At the top of the plinth are the words ‘Per ardua ad astra’ (Through adversity to the stars). This was originally the RFC’s motto and has been the RAF’s since its foundation 100 years ago. The main inscription reads: ‘IN MEMORY OF ALL RANKS OF THE ROYAL NAVAL AIR SERVICE, ROYAL FLYING CORPS, ROYAL AIR FORCE AND THOSE AIR FORCES FROM EVERY PART OF THE BRITISH EMPIRE, WHO GAVE THEIR LIVES IN WINNING VICTORY FOR THEIR KING AND COUNTRY 1914-18. I BARE YOU ON EAGLES WINGS AND BROUGHT YOU UNTO MYSELF.’ Exodus 19:4
Aviators’ Memorial, Eastchurch, Kent. Unveiled 25 July 1955. Newly listed at Grade II. Image © Historic England. This memorial, with its central figure of Zeus god of thunder, marks the outstanding impact of the Royal Aero Club – based at Eastchurch and Leysdown Flying Grounds – on the development of aviation in Britain. It features representational reliefs of early aircraft, the names of pioneering and celebrated early aviators, designers and constructors connected to the site and a carved bust of an aviator fully dressed in flying gear.
John Moore-Brabazon in his Voisin ‘Bird of Passage’ aircraft in which he made the first flight in Britain by a British pilot at Leysdown, Kent. Image: Public Domain. The aerodrome was the location of many early British aviation ‘firsts’, including the first controlled flight by aircraft by John Moore-Brabazon in 1909 – the first person in Britain to qualify as a pilot. The Short Brothers built the first aircraft factory on site. It was also the first RNAS station, with Winston Churchill learning to fly at the aerodrome and Royal Aero Club founding member, Charles Rolls (of Rolls Royce fame), and other innovators trialling their new flying machines here.
Catterick Camp and Aerodrome War Memorial, Catterick, North Yorkshire. Catterick Camp and Aerodrome War Memorial, Catterick, North Yorkshire. Newly listed at Grade II. © Historic England/DP175400. This calvary cross memorial – probably erected not long after the end of the First World War – honours the officers and men from both the army camp to the west of the village, and the RFC Catterick airfield to the south. This was opened in 1914 and operated for pilot training and home defence duties for the north-east of England. It was one of the oldest military airfields in the world. With the creation of the RAF on 1 April 1918 it became known as RAF Catterick.
Memorials to pilots killed in accidents and combat
Captain Eric Fox Pitt Lubbock’s Sopwith Camel Memorial, High Elms Country Park, London Borough of Bromley. Newly listed at Grade II. Image courtesy of the Lubbock family archive. Captain Lubbock, a RFC pilot, was killed in action when his Sopwith Camel bi-plane was shot down over Belgium on 11 March 1917. His grieving mother commissioned a stone replica of his plane to be erected as his memorial in the family graveyard at High Elms, Bromley, London.
War Memorial, St Matthew’s church, Oxhey, Hertfordshire. Newly listed at Grade II. Image © Historic England/DP219511 This memorial cross commemorates the local men who fell in the First World War. It includes the name of Flight Sub Lieutenant Reginald Alexander John Warneford VC. He was a RNAS pilot noted for his skill and aggression in the air, specialising in intercepting German airships and attempting to shoot them down before they could carry out air raids on Britain. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for destroying the enemy’s LZ37 airship over Ghent, Belgium 7 June 1915.
Hamilton and Wyness obelisk, Willian, Hertfordshire. Unveiled 27 November 1912. Newly listed at Grade II. © Historic England/DP219473. This memorial obelisk marks the deaths of RFC pilot Captain Patrick Hamilton and his reconnaissance observer Lieutenant Athole Wyness Stuart. They died on 6 September 1912 following engine failure on their way back to land at Willian. The men’s uniforms were reputedly buried beneath the memorial. It is thought to be the first British public monument to individual RFC servicemen.
RFC bi-plane crashed on a hangar’s roof © IWM Q72914.
Captain Henry Clifford Stroud© IWM HU11872
An observer from an observation balloon descending by parachute © IWM Q27522. In terms of aerial safety, parachutes had been around since before the the war when they were used for stunts. During the war they were issued to observers who conducted rennaissance from observation balloons, as they were vulnerable to artillery fire. In 1915 the parachute inventor, Evered Calthrop, offered the RFC his patented parachute. However the RFC and the air authorities did not supply them as it was felt pilots might be tempted to abandon their aircraft in an emergency, rather than continue with their mission.
Reconnaissance image of German trenches near Thiepval, France © IWM HU91107.
Flight Sub Lieutenant Reginald Alexander John Warneford VC. Public Domain.
Captain Henry Stroud memorial. Image © Terry Joyce. Around 1920, Wilson erected two memorials marking the spots where the pilots were found – 250 metres apart. It is believed each memorial originally included a propellor from the two aircraft, as Jean later referred to the ‘propellor memorials’ in a letter published in a local magazine in January 1960. The Kynoch propellor is missing and the Stroud one is a replica – the original having been stolen and twice replaced.
Captain Lubbock’s plaque. Image © Historic England/DP182996. When the family sold their estate in the 1930’s, the gravestones were moved and Captain Lubbock’s plane disappeared. Decades later, a vigilant member of the public spotted the memorial in a stonemason’s yard in Wiltshire. The mason refused to relinquish it, but eventually the plane was put up for auction and the family bought it back for £8,000. The restored memorial was re-sited in 2010 near its original location in what is now High Elms Country Park.
Warneford memorial plaque, St Michaels’ church, Highworth, Wiltshire © Historic England/DP218226.
Flight Sub Lieutenant Reginald Warneford tomb, Brompton Cemetery, London (detail). Listed Grade II. The carved stone relief is probably the earliest depiction of aerial warfare on a public memorial © Jerry Young. Warneford died 17 June 1915 when a bi-plane he was delivering broke apart in the air over Buc aerodrome near Paris. His body was repatriated and buried in Brompton Cemetery, London.
Egton Bridge Cross, Egton Bridge, North Yorkshire known locally as Swinsty Cross). Erected early 1929. Newly listed at Grade II. © Historic England/DP175396. On 15 April 1917, Probationary Flying Officer Francis Titcomb took off from Redcar aerodrome on his first RNAS solo training flight. Disoriented in snow clouds over the moors, he crashed near Egton Bridge. Local found him in the wreckage and carried him to a nearby farm, where he died from his injuries. The memorial cross was erected close to the crash site on the moors. Titcomb was buried in Brompton Cemetery, London. Early in the war it was common for pilots to fly solo after no more than one hour’s tuition. But a new training curriculum – the ‘Gosport System’ based on classroom theory and dual control flying – was fully introduced towards the end of 1917. This halved pilot fatalities.
RFC recruitment poster from 1913 © IWM PST 0553. Hamilton and Wyness typified the new RFC – founded only 6 months earlier: men who had trained themselves in aviation, transferred to the RFC from Army regiments, and who died as a result of a common cause in the early days of flight – engine trouble. The memorial is an important reminder of how untested the new science of aviation was prior to the outbreak of the First World War.
Alexander Bruce Kynoch portrait © War Memorials Trust
Captain Alexander Kynoch memorial. Newly listed at Grade II. © Terry Joyce. On the night of 7 March 1918, RFC Captains Alexander Kynoch and Henry Stroud set off respectively from Stow Maries and Rochford airfields, Essex on their way to intercept a German Gotha bomber that was heading for London. They fatally collided in mid-air around midnight and crashed in fields at nearby Rawreth. The local farmer, William Wilson, and his sister Jean were first on the scene.
McCudden War Memorial and grave, Maidstone Road Cemetery, Chatham, Kent. Newly listed at Grade II. © Historic England/DP177798. This monument is an important symbol of the role of the RFC in the war and the sacrifices of its pilots. It is dedicated to the four McCudden brothers – RFC pilots William, James and John, and RAF test flight engineer Maurice.
James McCudden’s memorial inscription. © Historic England/DP177805. James McCudden downed fifty-seven enemy aircraft and became the most decorated British pilot of the war, with medals for bravery including the Victoria Cross (one of 11 awarded to the RFC), Distinguished Flying Order and the French Croix de Guerre. He died of his injuries 9 July 1918, aged 23, when his aircraft developed an engine fault on the way to France and crashed. He is buried at the Commonwealth War Grave Commission’s Wavans Cemetery in France.
Obituary © Times Newspapers Limited.
Captain Albert Ball VC memorial, Nottingham Castle, Nottingham. (Detail of his S.E.5 aeroplane – one of the most successful fighter aircraft of the First World War, along with the Sopwith Camel). Sculpture by Henry Poole. © Historic England/DP068349. The exploits of the McCudden brothers in the First World War, and other air aces (pilots who achieved 5 ‘kills’), such as Captain Albert Ball VC, were celebrated in the national newspapers. Initially the RFC did not publicise their exploits. But public demand for heroes led to this being abandoned as publicity raised morale within the service and on the home front.
Captain William Leefe Robinson Memorial, Cuffley, Herfordshire. Newly listed at Grade II. Unveiled 9 June 1921. Image © Historic England Captain Leefe Robinson VC, a RFC pilot, became a national hero when he downed the German airship SL11 on 3 September 1916. Raids from such airships had been causing panic and fear among the public. Leefe Robinson used newly developed incendiary ammunition to set the Zeppelin on fire. In the past, bullets had passed harmlessly through the skin of airships. The new bullets exploded within and ignited the flammable hydrogen gas. The Zeppelin crashed in flames behind The Plough pub at Cuffley.
The remains of German airship SL11. Image © Derek Revell. It was the first successful destruction of an airship over Britain and Leefe Robinson was awarded the Victoria Cross. The airship wreckage was rapidly scavanged by souvenir hunters who wanted a memento of his outstanding feat.
Contemporary postcard illustrating the airship falling to earth. Image © Wayne Cocroft.
Captain William Leefe Robinson Memorial, Cuffley, Hertfordshire (detail). The inscription includes the words: ‘…he attacked an enemy airship…and sent it crashing to the ground a flaming wreck…’ © Historic England/DP219492 Leefe Robinson was shot down over France 6 April 1917 and taken prisoner-of-war. Repatriated December 1918, he died 31 December 1918 in the global flu pandemic.
Second World War memorials
Wickenby RAF Memorial, Wickenby Airport, Lincolnshire. Sculpture by Margarita Wood. ). Dedicated 6 September 1981. Newly listed at Grade II. © Historic England/DP219515 This Second World War memorial – located at the entrance to the airport – commemorates the 1,080 aircrew of 12 and 626 Bomber Command squadrons who lost their lives in bombing raids on Germany and during the liberation of occupied Europe.
Wickenby RAF Memorial, RAF Wickenby, Lincolnshire (detail of Icarus sculpture). © Historic England/DP219519. The bronze figure, with its broken latticework wings, is based on the mythical Icarus who wore wings to try and escape from Crete, but who fell to earth after flying too close to the sun. The framework of the sculptural wings is symbolic of the airframes of Lancaster and Wellington aircraft that flew wartime missions from the airfield.