A pilots' war




 The Royal Flying Corps in France 1914-18

Map of British area of operations

At the commencement of the war Britain had some 113 aircraft in military service. The French Aviation Service had 160 aircraft and the German air force 246. By the end of the war each side was deploying thousands of aircraft.

When the RFC deployed to France in 1914 it comprised some four Squadrons (No.s 2,3,4 and 5) with 12 aircraft each, which together with aircraft in depots, gave a total strength of 63 aircraft supported by 900 men. The aircraft were a mixture of BE2’s (No 2 & 4 Sqns), Bleriot monoplanes & Farmans (No 3 Sqn) and Farmans, Avro 504s & BE8s (No 5 Sqn).

By September 1915 and the Battle of Loos, the strength had increased to 12 Squadrons and 161 aircraft. By the time of the first Battle of the Somme, July 1916, there were 27 Squadrons (12 pilots each) with 421 aircraft plus a further 216 in depots. The RFC expansion plan for 1916, to take the front line strength to 32 Squadrons with 18-20 pilots each by September, was almost achieved with 31 squadrons deployed.

The expansion of the RFC took place against the background of high attrition rates. The statistics for the 2nd quarter of 1916 provide a good illustration of this in a period of steady state operation prior to the Somme offensive.

 1916 April-June
Total aircraft wastage : 198 

    of which -
    134 through accidents
    33 through deterioration
    31 through enemy action


Pilot training increased dramatically from 1915 to 1916 to   meet the RFCs expansion programme.

Pilot Training Effort

 May 1915  11 Training Stations, 234 pilots in training   

 Mar 1916  15 Training Stations, 963 pilots in training with 10 further stations under construction.

The statistics for air operations during the first Battle of the Somme demonstrate the magnitude of  "air power" deployed, compared to the initial RFC deployment which had undertaken reconnaissance and artillery observation:

RFC machines destroyed, lost or damaged 782
RFC pilots, 308 killed, wounded or missing (out of a total of 426)
Enemy aircraft destroyed 164
Enemy aircraft driven down 205
Bombs dropped 17,600 (292 tons)
Recce photographs taken 19,000
Targets registered 8,612

At the second Battle of the Somme, the German offensive of  21 March 1918, the RFC lost 1,000 aircraft in four weeks. German bombing and shelling of RFC airfields contributing significantly to these losses. By this stage of the war, aircraft production was able to keep pace with these losses. German Western Front losses in this period were 659 aircraft.

As the war turned against the Germans through 1918, RAF losses continued at a high level. In August, 847 aircraft were lost and on one day alone (8 August), 100 aircraft were lost.

In the final stage of the war the RAF had a front line strength of 1,782 aircraft, the French over 3,000 and the Americans 740. German aircraft strength had peaked in March 1918  at over 4,000 aircraft.


The Great War in the Air,  John H Morrow, Jr

The Airman’s War 1914-18, Peter H Liddle

Aces High, Alan Clark