Sometimes listening to YouTube while writing has its advantages. I have just come across the following documentary from 1987 on the experience of the Royal Flying Corps during the First World War. It was produce by HTV West, narrated by Barrie Payne and written by Steve Matthews.
Its title is taken from Prime Minister David Lloyd George‘s comment in the House of Commons on 29 October 1917 when he described aerial combat in romantic terms and helped encapsulate the prominent view, one that is quite erroneous, that pilots were ‘Knights of Air. Lloyd George used terms such as the ‘knighthood of this war’ and that they ‘recall the old legends of chivalry’. This is was not the reality of air warfare during the First World War. Despite its detached character, pilots could be brutal in their determination and the offensive nature of the tactics used by the RFC in particular led to high casualty rates amongst pilots and observers.
I was surprised at the quality of this documentary. It does an admirable job of explaining the problems inherent with such an immature technology that was feeling its way to a developed conception of how it could be used in war. The documentary does a good job of explaining problems concerning training as well as why aerial combat emerged in the early phase of the war. It also begins to explain how and why air power became central to the conduct of war in 1918.
However, its greatest value lies in the interviews with veterans who in the 1980s were still with us. This is something that historians now examining the First World War no longer have access to and we have to rely on these sources and similar oral interviews conducted by many institutions including the Imperial War Museum. We have much to thank the foresight of these institutions and oral historians such as Peter Hart for conducting these invaluable sources. Several of the key veterans interviewed included Air Commodore Ferdinand West VC, Wing Commander Gwilym Lewis DFC, the Right Honourable Lord Balfour of Inchyre MC and Bar, and Leonard ‘Tich’ Rochford DSC and Bar, DFC.
Each veteran offers a personal perspective of the war and West’s is particularly interesting for me as he describes the action that won him his VC. At the time of his award, he was serving with No. 8 Squadron RAF that was commanded by Major Trafford Leigh-Mallory. West recognized Leigh-Mallory as one of the men around whom the newly formed RAF was built. Balfour is also an interesting witness, as he would later go on to be Under-Secretary of State for Air between 1938 and 1944. Both West and Balfour produced recollections of their involvement with air power. Balfour published An Airman Marches: Early Flying Adventures (1933) and Wings Over Westminster (1973) while West oversaw the production of a biography entitled Winged Diplomat (1962) that was written by P.R. Reid.