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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.