Pioneers in the sky – Aviation in the First World War

At the outbreak of the First World War few people believed that aircraft would play a major role in the conflict. Hot air balloons had been used for observation and reconnaissance for almost 100 years and it was thought aircraft would serve a similar purpose. As the war developed the race for superior air power began, shaping the history of human flight as we know it. Alongside the Royal Naval Air Service, the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) grew from a force of a few hundred aeroplanes in 1914 into a huge, independent air arm of thousands of combat and support aircraft.

Pilots, observers and aircrews risked their lives testing the new technology to its limits. Deployed above the battlefields, often beyond the call of duty, they suffered the previously unknown effects of altitude, G-forces and freezing temperatures. Later, they also faced great personal danger presented by enemy guns and combat fighters. In this guest blog post, Charlotte Czyzyk from Imperial War Museum tells the story of the First World War in the air.

The Royal Flying Corps, the aviation branch of the British Army, began its life as an ‘eye in the air’, reporting on the positioning of enemy forces which in turn helped the troops on the ground through the production of maps. This year, we pay tribute to the aviators of the First World War with the Aviation £2 coin. The design depicts the two crew members of a RE 8 aircraft, the pilot aiming to keep the plane steady as the camera operator captures photographs of the trenches below.

The photographic equipment was cumbersome and in open cockpits, the crew would have faced extreme altitude and weather conditions. As officer Charles James Chabot recalled:

Taking the photographs was a very pleasant job in the summer time but in the winter, not very funny … your hand was so cold that over and over again I’ve known my hand to lose the plate as I took it out of the camera. I’ve known myself to cry with numbness and pain in my hand and exasperation at losing repeated photographs that I’ve been trying to get … with tears freezing on the side of my face in the cold blast off the propeller.

BRITISH AIRCRAFT OF THE FIRST WORLD WAR (Q 69322) Royal Aircraft Factory R.E.8 two-seat reconnaissance and bomber biplane. Copyright: © IWM

Reconnaissance missions also faced attack from enemy aircraft, and fighter forces were developed in response – they initially carried hand weapons before progressing to machine guns. The so-called ‘dog fights’ in the air were bitter clashes between some of the most skilled and daring pilots of the day, such as ‘air ace’ Albert Ball who won a Victoria Cross and the famous German ‘Red Baron’ Von Richthofen. Both of these men were celebrated as heroes after sacrificing their lives in action, which sadly was a fate met by many other pilots of the day. Mechanical failure and accidents were also another major risk which air crews faced.

The worst period for the British Royal Flying Corps was in spring 1917, known as ‘Bloody April’. However, by the time the Royal Air Force was created a year later, Allied forces had taken control of the skies, which played a key role in the final road to victory in November 1918. Over the course of the war more than 9,000 members of the British and Commonwealth flying services died. The edge lettering of this new commemorative coin remembers the first aviators who sacrificed their lives in the race for the skies, remembering the days of the war when ‘The Sky Rained Heroes’.

It was also during the First World War that civilians at home in Britain came under attack from the air for the first time. The first attacks came from Zeppelin airships, and from 1917 German Gotha aircraft were also used to bomb key areas such as cities, factories and ports. On 13 June 1917 162 people were killed during a daylight air raid over London – this included 4 employees of The Royal Mint, whose workshops were hit. Fighter planes were sent out to combat the enemy, mirroring the war in the air at the front lines. By May 1918 the threat of Gotha bombers had effectively ended thanks to the improvements in anti-aircraft responses.

Today we pay tribute to all those affected by aerial warfare, both in the skies and on the ground. Share your stories with us on Lives of the First World War, to help us to remember the contributions and sacrifices made 100 years ago.

The Aviation £2 is the £2 fourth coin in our First World War Centenary Series, this follows the 2014 Outbreak £2 coin, the 2015 Royal Navy £2 and the 2016 Army £2, available in Gold ProofSilver Proof PiedfortSilver Proof and Brilliant Uncirculated. There will also be the chance to find this in your pocket as circulating versions will be released into circulation at Duxford Air Show this weekend! Let us know if you find it on your #CoinHunt on our FacebookTwitter and Instagram pages.

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