Doctoral candidate David Spruce talks to me about his research into Recruiting and Training the Royal Flying Corps during the Great War.

Three photographic images of the Royal Flying Corps: an airship, a biplane, and a Air Mechanic in uniform. The other image is of a Union Flag and a RFC flag angled to the left and right respectively, their flagstaffs crossed. Between the flags is the winged badge and motto of the RFC. © IWM Art.IWM PST 0553

David Spruce looks at the recruitment and training methods used by the fledgling Royal Flying Corps. David gained an MA in British History and the First World War from the Wolverhampton University. His dissertation, ‘The Development of British Air Power on the Western Front to the end of 1915: An analysis of the technological, procedural, and tactical developments of the Royal Flying Corps’ was a 2020 winner of the Royal Air Force Museum Masters Prize. His dissertation will be published in Cross & Cockade in 2021.

He is now pursuing a PhD on the Royal Flying Corps.


Tom Thorpe (TT) : This will be our last episode this month. As we take our usual annual summer break. We will return on the 6th of September with normal service.

But on today's podcast. I talked to David Spruce who's a doctoral candidate at the University of Wolverhampton. David is examining the training and recruitment of Royal Flying Corps Personnel during the First World War.He spoke to me from his home in Shropshire.

Welcome to the dispatches podcast. Could you start by telling us about yourself and how you became interested in the Great War? 

David Spruce (DS) : Well, thank you for having me. I have come to military history, a little late. I worked in Commerce and Industry for around 25 years. Then I had a complete epiphany and a complete change by running a small holding with pigs, sheep etc. And the latter gave me the chance to study something I was actually interested in. So, how do I come to have an interest in military history? I supposed like many people, it was my father who got me into it at an early age. We tramped many miles on the West Front from the Channel Ports to the Meuse-Argonne and back again, I guess. He always said he wanted me to be interested in the Great War and not obsessed. So, I'm afraid I've let him down there because I've just finished an MA in Britain in the First World War. And now I'm researching it for a PhD.

TT: So can you tell us what your PhD is about?

DS: I can, the current title is ‘Recruiting training in the Royal Flying Corps : finding and preparing the men who would fight Britain's war in the air’. So, there are two parts: recruitment and training. Obviously, they're intrinsically linked. If you want a good functioning service, so I'm looking at the ‘how’: how did the RFC and the Royal Flying Corps find its men? How did it train them? And then who they were - where do they come from? What were their backgrounds? Why did they join the Flying Service? Etc. And most importantly, of all in fact, is probably, how did the people change? How did the process change? Yes, but how do people change? Was the recruit of 1918 anything like the recruit of 1914 and were they trained differently later in the war. 

TT: Why do you think this research is important? 

DS: Well, there hasn’t really been a study of  the men of the Flying Corps, so in that respect, it's new ground.

The historiography of the first world war in the air, is still dominated by the so-called ‘flying ace fighter pilots’, as we would probably know them today. In 1918, for example, only 8% of the men of the Royal Flying Corps or the RAF as it had become by then were actually pilots or observers, so only 8% of the men would have been in an aircraft. So, who on earth were the other 92%? 

And if I give you one example of just how the historiography has come to dominate by the age - James McCudden VC, probably the most famous pilot in the Royal Flying Corps actually started his career as an air mechanic and was one of the few pilots to work his way through the ranks to become an officer and a pilot he wrote his memoir in 1917 and he did that with the help of two people, one who was a journalist - the mother of one of his best friends and the other was a gentleman called C.G. Grey who was the editor of an important periodical back then called ‘The Aeroplane’. Now McCudden unfortunately died early in 1918 and it was left to the Grey to publish his memoir for him and Grey removed all of the anecdotes and most of the information related to McCudden’s early career as a mechanic because he quite simply didn't believe the public would be interested in any of that stuff and left it very much about his days as a fighter pilot.  So that gives you some indication of how the historiography comes to be dominated by such tails. And finally, I want to express what I believe are some stereotypes and myths that continue to be attached to the Flying Corps. 

TT: Let's start with some of those myths and legends around the RFC and things about ‘the 20-minute errs’ and ‘half of all pilots being killed in training’. Is there any truth to these myths? 

DP: You've got it, I mean in general, large parts of the historiography contain caricatures. You’ve only really got to think of Lord Flashheart in Blackadder IV and you're probably hitting the bill, they're portrayed as posh public school boys, they've got a penchant for fox hunting, most of them were teenagers, barely out of their schools. They're sent to fight with very few flying hours, and as you just said, training was deadly. There were claims in the historiography, that in the UK alone it killed more than half of its pilots in training.

Myths don't have to equal lies and falsehoods of course. They often contain a smidgen of truth, but the nuances got lost along the way. And that's certainly the case for the Flying Corps. So yes, recruitment-wise, in the early days of Flying Corps was made up exclusively of army officers, and they did contain a number of public school boys. Is that surprising? Well, if you think back then you had to pay for your Flying Certificate before you could qualify as a pilot - and in today's money, that would be something like 10,000 pounds. So you take our £10,000 bet on whether you're going to be able to join the Flying Corps. So already you're talking about a fairly exclusive hobby, because not many people in those days were going to be able to afford a £10,000 punt on whether they're going to go into the Flying Corps. And let's not forget flying was a very complicated, risky and physically demanding business. So if you were an Edwardian recruitment officer, where were you going to start? It's probably not crazy that it would start with the public schools and universities. But, the start of the war is being seen as the whole of the war - and new pilot recruits later would bear little resemblance to the pilots of the early days. 

If I give you one example of a gentleman by the name of Clement Gilliat from Lincolnshire. Clement was a young man from Lincolnshire, he wrote on his application form  that he was a farmer / butcher. Well, even that stretching the shot of someone who claimed or worked in his father's very small dairy farm as a dairyman, so it gives you some by 1918, just have followed the officer recruit to come and have far removed they were from the idea that they were all public school boys.

A lot of these come from memoirs, and what we have to remember when we read any memoir is that attitudes change depending when the memoir was written and simplistically speaking, the closer you get to the war or close to the war, when the book was written, the more positive experiences are and the further you get away the worse they become.

Another is a pilot called Norman Macmillan who wrote his biography called ‘Into the Blue’. Now, he wrote the first edition of this in 1929. Broadly speaking it's both a positive book and a positive experience of his flying experiences. He liked the lead instructors, they do a good job in trying circumstances and he was well trained. Now McMillan reissued his autobiography ‘Into the Blue’ in 1969. So now, with 40 years of hindsight behind him, he wrote a very different account. He removed any of positivity with regard to his training and his instructors on this, which gives just one example of how dangerous it can be to rely on first-hand accounts - depending on when they've been written and we touched on the point about how dangerous training was, the idea that more than half pilots were killed during the training comes from a book by Denis Winter written in the early 1980s. Now, the problem with this statistic is first of all - it is wrong. The answer is ‘no’, ‘50% of pilots’ were not killed in training, probably close to half that number is the truth, but Winter point has been quoted repeatedly even by some well known reputable historians even to this day, which is part of the problem, part of why I'm researching this topic.

TT: Which leads me into an embarrassing situation because I actually have done exactly what you said. So dealing aside my admission of guilt … What sort of methodologies are you going to use to get over some of the problems that you raised in your last answer?

DS: I'm going to use a mix of techniques: first the recruitment and training systems need to be documented and analyzed and secondly, the lives and backgrounds of the men needs to be explored. So to do that, I've got a wish list of well over a thousand archival files to study. Most of them are in the National Archives from the RAF Museum, but also in the Imperial War Museum and the Liddle Collection up in Leeds. So the sooner the archives open, the better for me. These include around 250 pilot logbooks. So why are they important? Well, they give me a list of, or details of flying hours, by pilots by year of the war. So I'll be able to accurately tell you how many hours the pilots had before they were sent over the lines to attack the Germans - and that will tell us whether it is a myth or not that they were sent to the front with very few flying hours. With regard to the men I put together a sample of around 2,000 men of all ranks across all years. Again, where were they from? What do they do? What were their family background and where possible, what were their motivations for joining the service. So we'll get a much rounder idea of who the Royal Flying Corps actually were. 

TT: Let's start with the Royal Flying Corps. What was it? When was it created? And what was its size by the outbreak of war in August 1914. 

DS: It is fair to say that as soon as man could fly, the military possibilities of flight were clear, balloons had been used in the Boer War - in the early part of the 20th century. But the first time an aircraft was used in anger was by the Italians in Tripoli in 1911 and aircraft were then being used in the Balkan Wars in 1912 and 1913.

Britain lagged behind its rivals in this pre-war period, in terms of flight. We were obsessed with an invasion threat, this was in some way stoked by Lord Northcliffe who was an influential figure in the press back then. And Britain really adopted a wait-and-see approach with regards flight - and that's not to suggest that it was necessarily wrong. Richard Haldane who's probably best known for his army reforms was also in charge of putting together the air service back then and his belief was it was wrong to go out and buy as many foreign planes as we possibly could, because obsolescence had become or was going to become a serious issue. So what he did instead was in April 1911, the air battalions within the Army was created, initially had 14 officers and a 176 other ranks, but political pressure, continued to pile up and following a subcommittee of the Imperial Defence Committee Report in November 1911 recommendations were made to create a separate Air Service - one with a military wing a naval wing, an aircraft battery and a central flying school to train those pilots. And this became a reality in April 1912 by Royal Warrant. And in May 1912 the Air Battalion from the Army, became the military wing of the Royal Flying Corps.

To give you some idea of the size. In April 1912, there were only 200 certificates in existence. So only 200 men had been granted permission to fly as trained pilots. Now, of those 200, 112 were private citizens and 20 of them were foreigners, including some Germans, believe it or not. So only 54 were army officers. So that gives you an idea of just how tiny the pool was for potential pilots when the Royal Flying Corps was formed. And by August 1914, so the year the war started, we had 146 officers and just over a thousand other ranks. So still tiny in relative terms. 

TT: How did this organisation change by the end of the First World War? 

DS: Well by the end of the war, the RAF, the Royal Air Force being formed and that came about in April 1918 by the merger of the Military Wing and the Naval Wing to become a new independent service. By November 1918 we now had 291,000 men of all ranks. So we are talking about over a thousand fold increase in numbers in only four years of war. So a significant, a really, really significant increase. Only 25,000 to 30,000 of these men were officers - so there's some equivalent you can make between officers and pilots, so you’re talking about 25,000 pilots. You then have another 17,000 cadets - so that's men who are going through their flying training when the war ended. But that still leaves you with 250,000  others, non-commissioned officers and men of other ranks. So, who are these men of the other ranks? Well, they are mechanics, they are riggers,armourers,they are tinsmiths and  blacksmiths, sailmakers, and drivers. So the tradesmen of the other ranks and it is this latter group, which has really been ignored by the historiography. 

TT: What were the challenges in recruiting such a large force that expanded so rapidly? 

DS: Well, you’re not recruiting in a situation which is in isolation. The Army wanted officers, the Army wanted technical men. The munitions industry, of course, also wanted the latter quite significantly too. There's also an expectation in August 1914 that this was going to be a short war which had two important connotations for the Royal flying Corps. First of all, the men and the aircraft - almost all of the men in the aircraft of the Royal Flying Corps were sent to France in August 1914. The implication of that is there was nothing left behind on which to form a training base. And secondly, a number of men, and we don't know how many technical men, were lost to the trenches as recruiters in 1914 just signed up men willy-nilly, so does this matter? Well, pilot wise, no, until about 1916. Memoirs are full of disappointment, expressed by would-be pilots being kept waiting by the Royal flying Corps or just simply turned away. And the reason for this is that losses, in the first two years of the war, were quite tiny, really only 13 flying men died in 1914 and only 86  died in 1915. So they were lulled into something of a false sense of security that they really had enough pilots and didn't need to worry too much about recruiting them. 

But in 1916, these numbers would swell to over 500 and by 1917 we'd lost over 2,000 men who were killed in action during flying. So the system really had to expand very quickly and very quickly in the last three years of the war. So how did they go around it ? Well, they continue to recruit pilots from the army; there were men who were bored with infantry life. There were many who got fed up with the mud and the conditions and thought life would be better in the sky - and a small but sizable minority were signed up from the wounded, so men who would seem stuck off as unfit for service in the infantry were welcomed with open arms by the Royal Flying Corps. There are men like Mccudden who came through the ranks and later in the war, certainly. And by 1918 direct recruitment had become a tool that the Royal Flying Corps used for their pilots - and with regard to the men of the trades and the ranks, direct treatment seems to have been the predominant source throughout the war - newspaper advertisements rran consistently, And there was the novel use of Cinema. The Royal Flying Corps made a number of films through the war, which would then be presented in theatre halls by officers or NCOs and men would come to the recruiting officers and they would attempt to sign up the men there and then having watched an interesting and jolly film about the Corps.

TT: And certainly one of these myths in Ireland, where I'm based, is that a lot of Irish men were recruited into your is certainly 1917-1918 because it wasn't the British Army. And obviously there were lots of negative associations to the British army, especially amongst the majority Catholic population. Is there any truth in that?

DS: I don't know too much about the details specifically about the Irish. But yes - there is this distinction that the Royal Flying Corps were not army. There was a different approach to discipline. That's not to say they were indisciplined. But certainly they liked to think of themselves as a different breed, if you like from the Army itself. And it is true that there were a number of officers. I don't think that is necessarily the case just in the latter years of the war, certainly amongst the first officers, who went to France in 1914 are a number of Irishmen. Numbers who are in fact from big Irish aristocratic families in Ireland. 

So the Flying Corps was already seen as a ‘noble pursuit’, from the start of the war and certainly that was encouraged in Ireland in latter years, you do see a recruitment in Irish papers in Dublin, for example, looking for  RFC pilots, perhaps more so than you do in some of the English newspapers - so yes, I think there probably is a little bit of truth in that. 

TT: Obviously connected with recruitment is the issue of training. So what sort of challenges to the RFC stroke? RAF face with training. This new sort of huge expanding bunch of recruits that they've managed to get into their service. 

DS: The biggest issue is that you're not training in the static world - you're doing this during a technological and a tactical revolution. So the aircraft of 1918, for example, the Bristol Fighter has very little in common with a Maurice Shorthorn of 1914 other than, hopefully, they both could take to the air. So, this has become more complicated for your tradesmen to maintain but this extra power now means that you have more actions, more aggressive actions that can be taken by the pilot. So aerobatics is now possible, which is important for your fighter pilot and the aircraft viability as a bombing machine. And in terms of being able to operate, some sort of ground cooperation is revolutionized. Now, this means therefore that you're having to train for a very different set of requirements throughout the war. And it's never ending, never ending in terms of how it's changing to never static. 

And another challenge they face is finding instructors. Often they would keep the best new pilots back from training courses to become pilots with new recruits. Now the issue there of course is that these guys have got no skills - no experience either. So the Royal Flying Corps often sent pilots back home to act as trainers. 

Now, the historiography has been hijacked, this, as an example of this brutal organization which took officers away from their rest, burnt out officers from the front and sent them home to train. Well, actually this was already a policy - and it was designed quite sensibly to rotate pilots from the front through the training, back to the front and through the training. You think about it. What they're doing is ‘rotating best practice’ back into their training facilities as they go. 

So pilots were bringing home experience, giving it to new recruits as trainers and then going back out again to France themselves. But how do they overcome what is certainly a massive challenge? Well, the answer simply is pragmatism; they continue to change their approach through the war. For example, they open schools with military aeronautics, introduce class based training, first. New examinations were introduced, qualifications got harder, minimum hours increased as the war went on - and new specialist schools, things like fighting schools, bombing schools, navigation schools, photography schools were introduced where specialisms could be trained to the men depending on what service they were going into in the Flying Corps. And new locations became increasingly important - Canada in particular within the dominions was a very important source of pilots and had a very significant training and establishment there. And Facilities also mirrored in the Middle East. So that best practice could be shared in that theater too. 

And a good idea with regard to training was a good idea, regardless of where it came from. So Robert Smith Barry,  often seen as Saviour of the British pilot system, came along in 1917 and was given the Flying School at Gosport to manage. Now. He had two very good ideas. First one was that we've been far too conservative with how we trained our pilots and he encouraged them to throw their planes around in the sky - and encouraged the trainers to make sure their trainees did. So with the belief that when they got to France, the best way to have confidence in both themselves, and the machine was to have having done it in training

And he also had the idea which seems quite obvious to us today, but wasn't back then of training the trainer. So, coming up with a set, a separate set of criteria, for trainers themselves to follow so that people received a standardized set of training. Now, the reason I say he’s  seen as the man who saved training is that Smith-Barry as an individual is quite an interesting chap. He's a Maverick. He fell out with just about everyone he came across - his Superior officers. And he was ...  quite simply not a man who would have been able to roll new processes across such a large organization that the RFC was becoming. So there's a story there that's been lost in the historiography of actually how Smith-Barry came to be seen as one of the saviours of pilot training and that's something I'm going to get into. 

With regard to the ranks and how they were trained. 

Well, these guys learned on the job. They would learn from their superior officers. But also they were occasionally sent out to classroom-based training. So the Regent Street Polytechnic, which is now part of the University of Westminster, trained nearly a thousand air mechanics in the theory of magnetos - the electric system that allows you to start an aircraft and also riggers went to lass to learn the theory of flight, which is probably a good idea because if you've got someone who's about to send a pilot officer, it's quite nice to know that they actually know why an aircraft stays in the air. So there is a mix of the two, the ground based stuff of classroom based training and learning on the job.

TT: In your opinion, how successful was the RFC /  RAF in actually recruiting and training its personnel to meet its requirements on the battlefield?  

DS: Well, if we put it this way, by 1918, the Royal Flying Corps and the RAF as it had now became part of a successful combined arms operations that won the war. They had achieved a thousand fold increase in numbers and by 1918 we were out producing the Germans in terms of men and machines. In our training, yes, we did see a pretty impressive process of improvement, but were mistakes made ? Almost certainly. And wouldn't it have been better in hindsight ? Possibly but in my opinion only by changing elements of strategy outside of their control. You’ve got to remember that we're administering a system in a paper-based world. So even tracking individuals and levels of competence would have been an enormous challenge. So, I feel that they did a quite incredible job, and they're in a very unprecedented situation, they faced a unique challenge in the First World War. So, yes, I would say, so short. Answer to your question. They were successful in recruiting and training. 

David is interested in memoirs you may have of relatives who served in the RFC/RAF. He can be followed on Twitter > @sprucey_1969 

A veteran remembers

In this short clip from a 3 hours of recordings veteran Jack Wilson MM (from Shotely Bridge, County Durham) spoke to his grandson Jonathan Vernon in 1991

In his own words: John Arthur Wilson MM, MGC to RAF talks about his training at RAF Hastings in 1918.