Early Days – World War I – 1915-1920
The Birth of No 8 Squadron
With several of the many and varied duties of the Royal Flying Corps in the First World War, there will ever be associated the names of individuals who achieved distinction. In some instances this association can be extended beyond the individual and applied to whole squadrons, not only for the excellence of their work – as in this all squadrons are equal – but for their pioneering efforts in that branch of the work which fell to their lot. For example: home defence is practically synonymous with No 39 Sqn. The same may be said of wireless work and 9 Sqn, whilst aerial co-operation with tanks in action is linked inevitably with no 8 Sqn. This duty, however, the Sqn was not called upon to perform until the final year of the war, it having up to that time carried out all the duties of a corps squadron.
The circumstances surrounding the formation of No 8 Squadron are of interest. When the Royal Flying Corps was formed in May 1912, provision was made for eight squadrons, of which seven were either in being or in the process of formation at the outbreak of war. On mobilisation however, practically the whole strength of the RFC was concentrated into four squadrons, Nos 2, 3, 4, and 5 – the vanguard of the British Air Force to go overseas. Next, No 6 Sqn was completed, followed by Nos 1 and 7. Approval to proceed with No 8 Sqn was given on the 14th October 1914, and although formed in time of war the birth of the Squadron at Brooklands on the 1st April 1915 completed the peace establishment of the Flying Corps.
No 8 Sqn’s first commander was Major LEO Charlton, DSO. This officer had already seen service in France having served as a flight commander in No 3 Sqn and carried out valuable reconnaissance work during the retreat from Mons. He commanded No 8 Sqn until succeeded by Major ACH MacLean in August 1915.
On the 6th April 1915, the Squadron moved to Fort Grange, Gosport, where nine days later with the nucleus of No 13 Sqn under training it came under the newly formed 5th Wing. This wing Major Charlton also commanded until proceeding to France with his Squadron.
8 Sqn Moves to France
|No 8 Squadron Arrives.
BE2c Lands on route to St Omar, France. April 1915
The first BE 2c’s with which the Squadron was equipped were allocated towards the end of January and on reaching its establishment of twelve machines the Squadron was ordered overseas to bring the wings abroad up to a strength of three squadrons each. On the 15th April 1915, eight machines arrived safely at St Omer. Of the remaining four, one was wrecked at Gosport, two crashed at Folkstone, and one, which developed engine trouble, came down at Dover for repairs. Transport and personnel left a few days later, and by the 25th April the whole squadron was assembled at St Omer and came under the orders of OC 3rd Wing on the following day. No 8 was the first Squadron to arrive overseas wholly equipped with BE 2c’s.
|The First Sqn Casualty.
Lt Polehampton is killed in action at the Battle of Loos – 25 April 1915.
Eight Squadron was engaged in the perilous work of strategical reconnaissance and special GHQ missions. There were casualties in an early raid with 20lb bombs, aimed at disrupting rail communications between Ghent and the Ypres salient. Some of the planes, says the official history, “either lost their way or else their bombs failed to leave the improvised racks.” Within a fortnight of arrival in France, the six remaining BE2c’s were transferred to Abeele to make up the strength of the 2nd Wing, with 5 and 6 Squadrons.
Towards the end of the battle of Loos in October 1915 in which 8 Sqn, now commanded by Major LEO MacLean and consisting of 13 BE2c’s and a couple of Bristol Scouts, was based on Marieux as part of 3rd Wing, the Fokker monoplanes began to inflict losses. Attacked by two at once, Observer Cpl E Jones shot down one and the other at once turned tail.
But on 11 November, a raid on Bellenglise aerodrome miscarried in bad weather, and two of the Squadron’s planes, burdened with a full bomb load and no observer, did not return. At the end of December an escort plane was pursued by four Fokkers near Cambrai but fought its way to safety, forced down at one time to within 15 feet of the ground before crossing the lines at 800 feet to land safely in a field near Arras.
|The Somme Trenches.
Photograph taken from an 8 Sqn BE2 just before the offensive 22 June 1916.
When the infantry attack was launched on the Somme in July 1916, the eighteen aircraft of 8 Squadron, together with a kite balloon section, were responsible for the air co-operation against the Gommecourt salient. It is recorded that:
“The attacking troops had red flares, which they were to light for the information of the air observers. No flares were seen from the aeroplanes over this corps, and observers found that the only way to get information was to have a close look at the men from a height from which it was possible to detect the colour of their uniforms.”
“This meant flying through the storm of the barrage, and the aircraft were often tossed about in the disturbed air like surf riding corks. It meant, too, unpleasant ground fire when the troops, which were being inspected from a low height, proved to be wearing grey instead of Khaki.”
“These risks, however, were lightly undertaken and, although by the end of the day three of the contact aeroplanes had been so shot about by rifle and machine gun fire that they were no longer serviceable, no low-flying aircraft was lost. One pilot on the way back from the lines in the afternoon to drop a message, hit and spun down the cable of a balloon�� The aeroplane was partly wrecked but the pilot and his observer were uninjured.”
RFC strategy was to put the German air service on the defensive by threats to his own rail communications, attacks on bomb and ammunition dumps, and by seeking out the enemy’s planes far over his own lines. Typical of the escapes chronicled of the scorched and blasted days at the end of July is that of an 8 Sqn bomber, hit on the return journey by anti-aircraft fire, landing in flames behind the British trenches, where its destruction was completed by enemy artillery, while the pilot somehow escaped with minor burns. The Squadron, quartered about this time at Bellevue, now consisted of 18 BE2’s under Major PHL Playfair.
Improvements in wireless communication led the army council to adopt (in March 1917) Major-General Trenchard’s proposal to raise the number of planes in each Corps Squadron from 18 to 24, and 8 Sqn was thus augmented in preparation for the spring offensive. In the Battle of Arras the following month, the Squadron, based on Soncamp, was doing contact patrol work, flying up to 4,000 yards behind the Hindenburg Line to get photographs.
In the March 1918 fighting, 8 and other Squadrons suffered casualties from the great numbers of low-flying German aeroplanes, but the regimental history of the German 120th Regiment records that it was under heavy British artillery fire “directed with marvelous accuracy by their airmen” – of 8 Squadron. It was an 8 Sqn airman who brought back news three days later of the fall of Clery; and on that day Haig in a special order declared, “We are again at a crisis in the war”.
The turn of the tide finally came with the Amiens offensive in July 1918, where 8 Squadron, consisting of 18 Armstrong Whitworth FK8’s under Major TL Leigh-Mallory, was mainly responsible for tactical co-operation with the Tank Corps. This was a difficult business, for it was found that talk from the air could be heard inside a tank only under the most favourable conditions, and only so long as the aeroplane was within a quarter of a mile of the tank and at a height not greater than 500 feet. Disc signalling was tried instead.
On 8th August, Capt FMF West of 8 Squadron made a crash-landing on a fog bound aerodrome, but after attention at a casualty clearing station he and his observer Lt JAG Haslam, insisted on returning to their Sqn. Next day their engine was shot out of action from the ground in a low-flying attack and they got back to the British lines only with great difficulty. On the following day Capt West’s left leg was smashed by an explosive bullet when his aircraft was attacked at close range by an enemy fighter. Lt Haslam, also wounded, maintained a good fire and the pilot managed to achieve a good landing behind allied lines earning the coveted Victoria Cross.
The War’s End
At the end of September, 8 Squadron and the tanks were in the area of the Australian Corps that formed the spearhead of the attack that finally captured the Hindenburg line. By the end of the war, in November 1918, 8 Squadron had provided continuous operations from the Battle of Loos in 1915. On 20th January 1920 the Sqn was disbanded but before the year was out it had been re-formed for operations in Mesopotamia.