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Formation of The Squadron

Manned heavier than air flight was barely seven years old when the British Army began to take serious note of the possibilities and advantages of an air arm. For some years various officers had been involved in the “sport” of flying, but by 1910, with the pastime strongly established, some came to see the aeroplane as something more than a toy.

During the autumn manoeuvres of 1910 on Salisbury Plain, the first experiments into scouting and observation by aeroplanes were carried out, and eventually the Air Battalion of the Royal Engineers was formed on 1 April 1911. The Battalion consisted of the Headquarters and No. 1 (Airship) Coy at Farnborough, with No. 2 (Aeroplane) Coy at Larkhill.

Eventually however, the Air Battalion was disbanded, and the Royal Flying Corps was formed in its stead. Under the command of Brigadier General David Henderson, the RFC was a small unit, and was not intended to become the efficient air arm into which it evolved.

Formed on 13 May 1912, the RFC was composed of a Military Wing, a Naval Wing and a Central Flying School (up until then, all pilots had paid for their own flying tuition at Brooklands). Command of the Military wing was given to Captain F.H. Sykes, with the first adjutant being Lt B.H. Barrington-Kennett of the Grenadier Guards. The two Companies of the Air Battalion became “squadrons” in the new jargon of the RFC. The Airship Coy became No. 1 Squadron, and the Aeroplane Coy became No. 3 Sqn. No. 2 Sqn was formed from a nucleus of aeroplane pilots attached to the Airship Coy.

This has led to interminable squabbling amongst the three senior squadrons of the RAF as to who was first. No. 4 Sqn has no part in these arguments, as it was formed four months later, as part of the planned expansion of the RFC Military Wing, which was intended to have a complement of just seven squadrons.

A nucleus of personnel were provided by B Flt of No. 2 Sqn, and No. 4 Sqn was officially formed at Farnborough on 16 September 1912. This new squadron was placed under the command of Major George Hebden Raleigh, an Australian serving in the Essex Regiment. Raleigh had been born on 30 June 1878 in Melbourne, and had joined the British Army as a Second Lieutenant on 15 November 1899, right at the start of the Boer War. The Essex Regiment was heavily involved in the battles that occurred, and Raleigh gained a most distinguished service record. He was part of the Kimberley Relief Force under Sir John French, and was seriously wounded in a bayonet charge at Dreifontein.

Raleigh recovered however, and returned to his Regiment in time for the operations in the Transvaal and served with honour until the war’s end, being awarded the Queen’s Medal with six clasps and the King’s Medal with two clasps for his distinguished service.

After promotion to Captain in January 1908, Raleigh was posted to the 1st Battalion, serving in Burma, India and on the Northwest frontier, in what is now Afghanistan. When posted back to the UK, Raleigh showed an interest in aircraft, learning to fly in his spare time and gaining his flying certificate in a Bristol biplane on 12 March 1912 at Brooklands, and so was attached to the Air Battalion of the Royal Engineers. Having served as part of No. 2 Sqn, Raleigh found himself with the unenviable task of commanding a front line flying squadron with only three people in the world who had any experience in such matters. Nevertheless, Raleigh set to with a will and the Squadron was prepared for its duties in a remarkably short time.


By the end of the year No. 4 Sqn possessed its full complement of aircraft; five Breguets and a Cody Military, but was partially re- equipped later on with BE.2s and Maurice Farmans.

The Breguets, universally called “Coffee Pots”, were a strange aircraft. Control was not by the usual method of separate movable ailerons, but by a method of wing warping and spring-loaded variable incidence.

There were problems of course; in flight, sudden gusts could overcome the tension of the springs and the aircraft would temporarily become uncontrollable, or the springs would become overstressed and tire, refusing to return the wing to its normal incidence.

Lt Playfair

Most of what we know of the early history of 4 Sqn comes from the reminiscences of Lt P.H.L. Playfair in an interview with Flight magazine in 1950: “I was posted to No. 4 Squadron when it was formed by throwing off a flight from No.2 Squadron, which latter squadron I joined on being seconded to the RFC from the Royal Field Artillery in August, 1912. The unit was then equipped with BE.2As and Breguets – the latter a strange aircraft, which to the best of my recollection, had three marked eccentricities: wheel steering; a very flexible warping wing, so that while taking off there was no control until flying speed was reached; and a 100 h.p. Monosoupape engine, in which the intake was through the crankshaft and up through the piston heads. To follow its later career, it went to the bad completely after it was fitted with a stationary engine; in fact, I think I am right in saying that hardly one escaped crashing on the delivery flight to Farnborough.” Playfair was in fact badly injured in the crash of one of these aircraft, flown by Lt Chinnery.

The BE.2 was to become the mainstay of No. 4 Sqn operations for the next four years as in fact it was for the RFC as a whole. Designed by Geoffrey de Havilland at the Royal Aircraft Factory, Farnborough, it was a large ungainly machine, with a maximum speed of just 70 m.p.h., and was incapable of flying above 10,000 ft, but it possessed exceptionally stable flying qualities, and in fact was an excellent platform from which the squadron could carry out its duties. All the aircraft operated by the Squadron were unpainted, the fabric-covered areas being left in their natural colours, and the familiar red, white and blue roundel was not yet applied, the Union Flag being utilised in its stead.


Netheravon and the start of Army Cooperation

In June 1913, No. 4 Sqn moved to Netheravon, which it shared with No. 3 Sqn, creating a partnership that has lasted to this day, and began practice flights in reconnaissance and artillery co-operation roles, flying more than fifty thousand miles during the course of the year.

A great part of the work of the Squadron was experimental. Various duties were assigned by the Corps Headquarters and that of No. 4 Sqn was to develop the art of night flying with special reference to landing field location in the dark. These were mostly carried out by Captain G.S. Shephard of the Royal Fusiliers. The first method tested was with electric lights fitted to the aircraft, but towards the end of 1913 trials were commenced with Muller parachute flares. It was found that if the aircraft released a flare at 1,500 ft and another at 800 ft, the aircraft could descend faster than the flares, and so land with the light coming from above. The methods developed by the Squadron were adopted as standard procedure by the RFC and were laid down in the RFC(MW) Training Manual, remaining unmodified all the way through the Great War.

During this time tentative trials were carried out with wireless sets for artillery co-operation. The success of these is due to two pioneers; Lieutenants D.S. Lewis and B.T. James, both of the Royal Engineers. Such was the success of the trials that a separate Wireless Flight was formed comprising of these two officers and Lt S.C.W. Smith of the East Surrey Regiment.

The numbers of personnel on the Squadron had greatly expanded and frequent parades were held. These showed a plethora of different uniforms, both British and Commonwealth.

The RFC was the only one of the fledgeling air services to have its own uniform. This was a high-necked double-breasted jacket with no exposed buttons. Worn with a swagger cane, breeches, boots and puttees, the uniform was intended to be worn when flying or working on aircraft, as the lack of exposed buttons would reduce the chances of it snagging on rigging wires and suchlike. On active duty, side arms were carried; the service issue Webley revolver was the recommended weapon for all ranks but again officers were allowed their own choice of pistol, provided that it would take the standard service 0.455 inch ammunition.

Known as the “maternity jacket” this uniform was compulsory only for other ranks; officers could wear that of their parent regiment, although many wore RFC uniform when actually flying, for the reasons related above.

The Squadron at this time listed amongst its ranks many who would gain great distinction in their exploits, most usually leading to their deaths.

In June 1914, the entire military wing of the Royal Flying Corps was detached to Netheravon for a month’s combined training at a “concentration camp” (to use the phrase in its true military sense). The camp lasted until the middle of July, when No. 4 Sqn began to prepare for manoeuvres with the Army.

New Pilots

Immediately after the move, the Squadron began to expand, with new members posted in and other prospective pilots being given a few flights. One of these was Lt Gilbert Mapplebeck, who was to become one of the leading lights of 4 Sqn during the early part of the Great War. Mapplebeck was nineteen years old when he was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Special Reserve of Officers in 1911. The following year he took a course of flying with the British Deperdussin Aeroplane Co Ltd and received Royal Aero Club certificate No. 386. After being commissioned as a full time officer in the Liverpool Regiment, he was posted to the CFS at Upavon, where he got his hands on a visiting 4 Sqn Farman. He promptly crashed this aircraft, but was fortunately uninjured.

Despite the crash, Mapplebeck was recommended for service in the Military Wing of the RFC, and was posted onto the strength of 4 Sqn.

Taking great delight in his new found profession, Mapplebeck set out to explore the limits of his BE.2, with a few feats of bravado. Having flown the aircraft to its ceiling of 10,000 ft and made several long distance flights, he decided to experiment with aerobatics, a practice which was frowned upon. Eventually, to his joy, he managed to loop the aircraft, but unfortunately was spotted, by none other than Major Raleigh himself. Raleigh was unimpressed with this display of youthful exuberance and circulated a letter stating “The Commanding Officer wishes it to be made clear to all Officers, WO, NCO and AM Pilots that no attempts at “looping” are to be made. Please acknowledge receipt here on…..” Mapplebeck was incensed. In a letter to his mother he complained, “I think it an awful cheek to say attempt”.

Nevertheless, Mapplebeck was adjudged to be one of the better pilots and Playfair, now recovered from his injuries, was assigned as his observer.

The concentration camp culminated in participation of a review of troops by General Smith-Dorrien and his staff. This was a musketry salute by infantry followed by hussars, lancers and field artillery passing in front of the general, who was on horseback. These were followed by a fly past in line ahead by the RFC Military Wing, each aircraft dipping as it passed the saluting base. Once again, Mapplebeck brought himself to his superiors attention. He dipped his machine very low, and it was remarked afterwards that it had very nearly taken the general’s hat off! Meanwhile, in Eastern Europe, events were happening that were to change the face of the world for ever. In Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, the Habsburg heir Archduke Franz Ferdinand, had been murdered by a young malcontent, Gavrilo Princeps. The rulers of Austria-Hungary blamed Serbia for the murder, an allegation which was totally unfounded, and looked for ways to gain reparation. They turned for approval to their old ally, Germany, who advised them to take a hard line against the Serbs, also promising support if Russia should back Serbia. A small “Balkan quarrel” very quickly became something more serious.