At the dawn of aerial combat in WWI, the Royal Flying Corps was operating at the edge of the envelope. Many Royal Flying Corps airmen later joined the Royal Air Forces Association – and told truly hair-raising tales of how they served the nation.

“Just do the best you can,”  Was the only instruction given to Ted Street as he climbed into the observer’s seat on the second day of the war.

Royal Flying Corps Ted Street

Ted Street during WWI.

With guns not yet fitted to aircraft, Street – formerly an award-winning marksman with the Coldstream Guards – sat with a .303 rifle across his knees, 10 rounds of ammunition and two rifle grenades.

Hearing the stories of pilots in the Royal Flying Corps during the early part of WWI can often evoke images of the old Wild West. The technology was unproven, and the role aircraft were to play was uncertain. 6,000 feet over Mons, Street spotted a German aircraft and instructed his pilot to engage with it.

Poking his rifle through a hole in the fuselage, Street found himself looking directly down the barrel of a rifle held by a German airman attempting the very same thing. Shots were exchanged, though when Street tried a rifle grenade he was nearly knocked out by the recoil.

One bullet hit the target however, and the German spiralled out of control and crashed in a field. This was Britain’s first ever air-to-air victory, for which Ted Street was awarded the French Medaille Militaire.

Brian Baker found himself as much thwarted by the rudimentary technology of air-to-air combat as by the enemy themselves.

“I had a Smith-Wesson revolver in the pilot’s seat, and the observer, who sat in front, had a rifle across his knee,” remembered Baker. “That was the total armament against the [Germans’] machine gun… and if we carried bombs we had to leave the observer behind!”

Royal Flying Corps aircraft were eventually provided with machine guns, though their placement and use could be cumbersome.

“The main problem when shooting forward was not to shoot off your own propeller,” Baker continued. “If he [the observer] wanted to have a go at something on our tail he put the tripod on top of the fuselage behind him. This meant the pilot, sitting behind, was virtually staring down the barrel. Fortunately it was about a foot above his head. Even so, the concussion of the bullets firing was rather like somebody tapping you on the head with a hammer.”

A week after Ted Street’s exploits with the .303 rifle, Eric Bentley Beauman was likewise expected to do the best he could when charged with being London’s sole defence against air attack. As a qualified pilot, at the war’s outset he was called-up and sent to Eastchurch, reporting to the commanding officer upon his arrival.

“Can you fly a Caudron?” the CO asked.

“No sir,” Beauman replied.

“Do you know your way to Hendon?”

“No sir.”

“Very well,” the CO concluded. “At dawn tomorrow you will fly a Caudron to Hendon.”

Having made it to Hendon with only one forced landing along the way, Beauman again reported to the officer in charge:

“You are now the defence of London from air attack,” the officer said.

“But I haven’t any observer or armament. What can I do if a Zeppelin does come over?” Beauman asked.

“I leave that to you,” was the reply.

Aerial combat

Perhaps the most famous character of the 1914-18 air war was the German Manfred von Richthofen, better known as the ‘Red Baron’. Richthofen’s aircraft was a distinctive pillar-box red, and the aircraft under his command – all flown by picked airmen and painted according to their fancy – became known as the ‘flying circus’. It wasn’t only the colouring that lent the circus its name. Richthofen’s unit regularly travelled to wherever the fighting was fiercest, spending a few days or weeks in one sector before decamping to the next. It is therefore not surprising that so many Royal Flying Corps pilots experienced first-hand how devastating an encounter with the flying circus could be.

After his first combat tour, Brian Baker was sent back to the UK as an instructor. He would not be there for long:

“Early in 1917 I was sent back into active service in a batch of replacements,” recalled Baker. “Many of our pilots had fallen victim to the Richthofen ‘circus’… by then his exploits had made him a household name in Britain… On a number of occasions I was what was known as ‘bait’ for [fighter ace William Avery] Bishop… That meant going out early in the morning to attract the Richthofen circus. Bishop would sit up in the sun waiting and watching and, when they turned up to have a go at me, he pounced. I must admit I always prayed he’d pounce quickly enough, because the circus were pretty hot.”

With 79 victories to his name, on 20 April 1918 Richthofen once again led his flying circus against a flight of Royal Flying Corps aircraft, singling out the machine of Rhodesia-born David ‘Tommy’ Lewis:

“We met head-on, firing our Vickers and Spandau machine-guns at one another,” recalled Lewis. “A real dog-fight developed… A few seconds later I saw Major Barker’s ‘plane explode.” Another aircraft passed below Lewis, and he opened fire. “As I was firing I heard the staccato of machine-gun bullets striking behind me. I turned to look into the blue goggles of Richthofen.” Lewis then attempted evasive action, but to no avail. “Struts were splintering wildly on my ‘plane, the compass shattered and the liquid poured over me. My goggles went over the side, the elastic cut by a bullet where it joined the frame. I had a bullet through my right sleeve and one through my trouser at the knee. I heard the roar of flames, smelled petrol, and knew I was on fire.”

Lewis survived the subsequent crash-landing with only minor burns. “Before flying off, the Red Baron waved”, he said. “I was taken prisoner.” The next morning the Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen, was himself shot down and killed. Tommy Lewis had been his final victim.

Royal Flying Corps

Tommy Lewis beside his Royal Flying Corps aircraft, named ‘Rhodesia’ for the place of his birth.

Of course, the flying circus were not the only aircraft the German air force could call on, and every encounter with an enemy aiming for your destruction was potentially fatal.

“The closest call I had was when a bullet from a rear gunner zipped across the top of my head and dug a groove in my leather flying helmet,” stated Brian Baker. “I felt as if someone had hit me with a brick and, in fact, I blacked out. Fortunately I must have come round within seconds… I don’t think my observer even realised what had happened.”

Surviving the odds

Though dogfighting aircraft may be the primary image conjured up when thinking of the dangers of flight during WWI, the threat from the ground was equally real.

Having served on the Western Front with the army, survived Vimy Ridge, the Somme and the attack which breached the Hindenburg Line, Leslie Pargeter was determined to escape the trenches and “see the end of the war or the end of the world with the Royal Flying Corps.”

Royal Flying Corps Leslie Pargeter

Leslie Pargeter – once again in uniform in 1948.

In August 1918, Pargeter’s aircraft was hit by anti-aircraft fire, which tore a large hole in the fuel tank on the top wing. With petrol spilling out onto the engine, he climbed out of the observer’s seat, along the bottom wing, and stuffed his glove into the hole. He stayed in that precarious position until only moments before the aircraft finally touched down at the airfield.

Three weeks later, while strafing troops at low-level, machine-gun bullets tore into his aircraft and again punctured the petrol tank. Pargeter once more climbed out onto the wing, took off his gloves and plugged as many holes as possible with his fingers. Though covered in aviation fuel, he managed to save just enough for the aircraft to get home, with the engine cutting out only seconds before landing. These two actions saw him become one of the first airmen to be awarded the DFC.

Flying at high altitude with rudimentary (if any) oxygen masks could also pose grave risks. While on aerial photography flights, Brian Baker remembered the problems of working at 20,000 feet:

“Breathing wasn’t such a problem for the pilot because he didn’t have to move around using up energy. But the poor photographer was up and down all the time removing exposed plates and reloading the camera. It wasn’t unusual to glance round and find him crumpled in an unconscious heap. The only remedy was to dive as fast as possible to around 10,000 feet, when he usually regained consciousness. It could be a bit frightening.”

The weather also took its toll, especially in open cockpits. During one flight in December 1914, Ted Street was caught in extreme bad weather. His face was temporarily paralysed by frost which permanently damaged his hearing. Unfit for further flying, he became a ground instructor.

Finally, the aircraft themselves could fail, as Brian Baker discovered during one memorable flight. Using a captured German bomber, Baker would fly over allied searchlights and listening posts to give them practice with enemy twin-engine aircraft.

“I was flying it one day with some lads in the back, ostensibly showing them the ropes,” said Baker. “It was dreadfully boring for them and, unknown to me they had started a game of rummy to pass the time. It came to an abrupt end when one of the propellers flew off.”

The hasty crash-landing in a nearby field resulted – miraculously – in no casualties.

Evening the odds

Taking stock of the equipment they had to work with, and determined to learn from the lessons that the air war had so far taught them, it is unsurprising that some airmen set about evening the odds.

In 1916, at a time when only one machine-gun was the norm, Charles Chabot set about constructing a multi-gun platform for his aircraft while stationed in Mesopotamia. “The only thing to do was make the perishing device myself,” concluded Chabot when official interest was found to be lacking. After salvaging the required parts, his BE2c aircraft – weighed down with five Lewis guns mounted between the wheels – took to the sky. Though sluggish, it was manoeuvrable, so Chabot tried a short burst of the guns.

“The result was absolutely glorious,” he recalled. “There was no sudden stalling of the machine, as gloomy mess-mates had predicted, and no guns fell off. There was just the most heartening noise one could possibly imagine and a very useful-looking [strike] pattern on the surface of the river.

“I emptied my five drums in a lovely long burst of all-hell-let-loose such as had never come out of the sky before,” he said. “This was undoubtedly one of the biggest moments of my young life. I felt it was epoch-making and it was certainly all my own work, every nut and bolt of it.”

Landing back at the aerodrome, the fanfare Chabot had imagined for his return was in reality one very irate CO. As bad luck would have it, at the exact time he had been blasting the River Tigris with ear-shattering bursts of gunfire the army’s cavalry contingent had been on their way to water their horses. The noise had caused a stampede, and resulted in the entire campaign being temporarily without cavalry. The Officer Commanding Royal Flying Corps Mesopotamia had also received an enormous dressing-down from Army HQ.

Royal Flying Corps - chabot's guns

Charles Chabot’s BE2c with Lewis gun platform. Only four of the five guns were mounted at the time this photograph was taken.

Needless to say, the gun platform was dismantled and returned to the armoury. “I’ve never seen a CO so angry!” Chabot said.

While those pushing the limits of the possible in today’s RAF are the heirs to this pioneering spirit, the experiences of those who served at the dawn of aerial warfare are unique in aviation history. In 1950, Ted Street took to the skies for the first time since his wartime exploits. His verdict on the flight?  “Pretty tame compared with those early ones.”

About the airmen

Brian Baker committed his memories to paper for Air Mail in 1972/3, and was by then known as Air Marshal Sir Brian Baker DSO MC AFC. He was an RAF Association life member and served on the Scottish Area Council.

Eric Bentley Beauman gave his story to Air Mail in 1975, while a member of the Association’s City of Westminster Branch.

Charles Chabot (pictured above over France, 1915, taken by his observer, Riddley, just as Chabot spots a German aircraft chasing them. Riddley had removed the Lewis gun to take the picture) served in Britain, France and Mesopotamia, and survived several crashes before becoming a life member of the Association at the age of 80.

D G ‘Tommy’ Lewis was president of the Association’s Salisbury Branch in 1972 when his experience with the Red Baron was published in Air Mail.

Leslie Pargeter began working for the Association in 1957. The exploits of this modest and unassuming man finally came to light in 1959, when his story was published in Air Mail. He retired from his job at the Association in 1972 after 15 years of service, though he remained an active member of the Richmond (Surrey) Branch.

Ted Street featured in Air Mail in 1958 while vice-president of the Association’s Brighton and Hove Branch.

Air Mail

This article first appeared in Air Mail’s April-June 2021 issue. To receive Air Mail, which is the RAF Association’s quarterly members’ magazine, become a member  and opt for Air Mail as part of your membership. 

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