RAF Museum, Hendon

Battle For The Skies

12th December 2014

A new permanent exhibition at the RAF Museum, Hendon, explores what it was really like to be involved in military aviation during the First World War.

Jack Watkins went to the opening.

Coverage of the centenary of the start of the First World War has primarily concentrated on trench warfare and on those who lost their lives on the Western Front. The battle for the skies is often ignored, which is not entirely surprising, since air flight was still in its infancy at the time. You get a switch of focus at the RAF Museum in Hendon, though, where the new First World War exhibition explores the growing role of air power during the conflict.
The location for this couldn’t be better. Hendon deserves more recognition as the ‘cradle of aviation’, playing a key role from the occasion in 1862 when Henry Coxwell managed to fly in a balloon, landing in nearby Mill Hill, to the opeining of Claude Graham-White’s flying school in Hendon itself in 1911. With the onset of war, Graham-White established an aircraft factory to build aeroplanes, and it is in one of the enormous old factory buildings (now Listed Grade II) that the new exhibition is mounted.

You walk in via the old Watch Office, past an impressively large electronic control panel, originally installed at the former Aerodrome Road entrance, which Graham-White made sure all important visitors got to see; he delighted in showing off how much electricity this complex, ultra-modern at the time, was using. Near a small room showing a film introducing early flight and Hendon’s contribution, is the first of many antique or reconstructed airplanes, a bonny little Blériot XXVII single seat monoplane, ‘built for speed’. It’s reckoned that aviator Blériot, a friend and rival of Graham-White’s, may have constructed it himself during his summer holidays in 1911.

Then it’s in to the main hall for the hard stuff. What the exhibition very cleverly manages is to show how this Cinderella pastime, the plaything of millionaires, quickly became a very serious undertaking as the War progressed, and to examine the many challenges which needed to be overcome.

Imagine being a pilot for instance, learning to coordinate hand and feet movements in the cockpit, overcoming the challenge of flying at night, and operating the pump at regular intervals to keep up the fuel pressure, while continually keeping an eye out on the skies all around you for enemy fighters. No wonder the observer became a key partner, not only being used to photograph enemy positions on the ground below, but also operating the machine gun when the plane came under attack.

And you had to learn to deal with the cold, as well as the enemy. Pre-war, most flying had been done in fair weather, during daylight hours. At the outbreak of hostilities, only one specialist item, a thigh-length jacket, was provided, with airmen expected to purchase their own garments. Gradually, specialist clothing came in, including helmets, goggles, fug boots and the Sidcot Suit. This was a combination suit incorporating a weather-resistant outer covering, multiple under-layers and a fur fabric lining, acting to trap air and insulate the wearer. You weren’t so lucky if you were handed another ‘special’ design – an electrically heated suit, which may have appealed but sometimes short-circuited and left the wearer with nasty burns.

It was the age of trial and error and, in some areas, expertise was lacking. It wasn’t just that early planes weren’t always reliable, resulting in unexpected crashes. Medical treatment was still groping its way forward, too. When a plane crashed in No Man’s Land in October 1917, its pilot Lieutenant Charles Wickenden was recorded as ‘NYDN: Not Yet Diagnosed Nervous’, the report stating: ‘He appears tremulous and a little dazed. There was a tremor of hands and some loss of memory.’ It is likely that this was an early example of what we now call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Some of the aircraft on show in the exhibition hall distinguished themselves to the extent that their names are now etched in the history books, however. The Sopwith F.1 Camel, for instance, while difficult to fly well and capable of killing a cavalier pilot, was the highest scoring British fighter plane between 1914-18. The Sopwith Triplane is worth seeking out, too, partly for its local interest. With a design so successful that it spurred the Germans to develop their Fokker Dr1s (used by the Red Baron), the surviving Triplane here used to fly in the Hendon air pageants in the 1930s. And a composite Avro504K bears the fuselage of a plane which found new use in the 1920s and ’30s by giving joyrides over Sussex.

In 1914, 2,073 people served in the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service. By 1918, there were 313,161 men and women serving in the RAF, newly formed via the merger of the previous two services. And 9,349 people in the air services died during the course of those four years. The potency of air power, once undervalued by military planners, would never be overlooked again.

There are few enough visitor attractions in north London, but the RAF Museum truly is one to enjoy, catering for all levels of interest with a variety of installations, including a spectacular animated dogfight. And while the Museum seems to have gone from strength to strength over the last decade or so, the story of early aviation has tended to be overshadowed by exhibits from later decades. The new exhibition, funded in part by a grant of almost £1m from the Heritage Lottery Fund, is not only a timely amplification of the subject, but a reminder of the important role Hendon and its people played in the development of air power. ‘The conquest of the air will prove, ultimately, to be man’s greatest and most glorious triumph. What the railways have done for nations, airways will do for the world,’ wrote Claude Graham-White in 1914. This show ensures that the legacy of his contribution to that conquest will long be remembered.

Admission Free. More details: www.rafmuseum.org

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