The War in the Air: A View from the Ground

Aerial Reconnaissance photograph of trenches c1917

We’re very grateful to Deb Fisher, Secretary of the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship for allowing us to publish this article here, which we know you will all enjoy.


There will be many people reading this article who know a lot more than I do about aeroplanes and, indeed, about the First World War. All I intend to do here is to examine the origins of the Royal Air Force during that war in the light of fictional representations, specifically the BBC’s drama series Wings, first shown in 1977-78 and now available on DVD, and the autobiographical novel Winged Victory by V M Yeates, written in 1934 and still regarded as one of the great literary classics generated by the war.

There is not much poetry about the war in the air. In fact there is not much literature on the subject all told.  Those writers who did fly in World War I included W E Johns (best known for his “Biggles” series) and Cecil Lewis, author of Sagittarius Rising. One of the very few notable poets among their  number was the aristocratic Maurice Baring,  whose elegy to his close friend Auberon Herbert, Captain Lord Lucas (killed in 1916), entitled In Memoriam A.H., is more akin to the patriotic early war poetry of Brooke and Grenfell than to the work of any of the better-known Great War poets.

When the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship received a query on this subject a few months ago, the best the combined brains of the committee could come up with was W B Yeats’s An Irish Airman foresees his death, a magnificent poem which, however, says more about Irish nationalism than it does about the technicalities of flying. Echoing the Irish Airman of the poem, the hero of Wings, Sussex blacksmith Alan Farmer, tells a clique of pacifists that his reason for joining the Royal Flying Corps (as it then was) has nothing to do with patriotism but is purely because he wants to fly.

Nor is it easy for Alan to get into the RFC, an organisation which prefers upper-class ex-cavalry officers like his friend Charles Gaylion, even though Alan is an experienced mechanic who has seen his own father killed in the crash of a plane Alan had helped him restore. Wings is set in 1915, and the contrast with the events of Winged Victory, which take place in 1918, is immediately obvious. Whereas Alan Farmer and his fellow pilots are faced with bureaucratic indifference in their struggle against the Germans’ superior machines, Tom Cundall, the main protagonist in Yeates’s novel, finds the German war planes increasingly absent from the skies above the front line. They simply cannot compete with the Sopwith Camel and other planes developed by British engineers in the course of the war.

That doesn’t mean that Cundall has it easy, as he finds himself suffering increasingly from what he calls “wind-up” – in other words, fear. Dick Bravington, the experienced “observer” who partners Alan Farmer, warns Alan on his first venture over enemy lines: “You’ll get the wind up, you know”. “Well, we’re all scared, aren’t we?” admits Alan matter-of-factly, when being unfairly court-martialled for cowardice a few episodes later. Neither Alan nor Tom Cundall is afraid of flying or even of crashing. What they do fear is being shot down in flames. Alan pretends his Lewis gun has jammed rather than finish off an enemy pilot after the gunner has been put out of action. Cundall, too, lacks the killer instinct that has enabled his flight leader, the Canadian pilot Mac, to bring down countless “Huns”; the squadron keeps a tally of the German planes it shoots down, and a pilot can be credited with a quarter, or even one-eighth, of a “kill”, depending how many others are involved in the action.

Wings was noted in its time for the realism of its aerial scenes. Curiously, whilst the location filming works extremely well, the indoor scenes suffer from stagey sets and often from wooden acting – especially, I’m sorry to say, on the part of the few female characters. There is, however, a touching performance from veteran British TV actor John Hallam, as Alan’s Uncle Harry, a man invalided out of the infantry after losing his arm and now trying to come to terms with his disability. British viewers will recognise a number of other familiar faces: Anthony Andrews, Simon Cadell and Tim Pigott-Smith are among those future stars with very small roles in the series. By coincidence, three of the main actors were from acting dynasties. David Troughton, who plays Bravington, is the son of former “Doctor Who” Patrick Troughton. Nicholas Jones, playing volatile flight commander Captain Triggers, is the son of 1930s British film star Griffith Jones and the brother of Gemma Jones. Finally, Tim Woodward, who plays Alan Farmer, is the son of Edward Woodward – and it is an amazing performance from Woodward junior, then in his early twenties, who has a far bigger role than anyone else and plays it to perfection; it is difficult to understand why his reputation as an actor has never come to equal his father’s. A few years later, he followed up his role in Wings by starring as a squadron leader in ITV’s Second World War aviation series, Piece of Cake (based on a 1983 novel by Derek Robinson).

Do not be fooled into thinking that the film entitled Winged Victory is based on V M Yeates’s novel: it is an American film adapted from a play by Moss Hart and is set in the Second World War. In many ways, I’m glad that there is no film of Yeates’s book, as it would be difficult to replicate on celluloid his brilliant prose descriptions of aerial combat. Tom Cundall (the author’s alter ego) is not a sentimental man, but his experience of war leads him from high spirits to the blackest depression. He is at his happiest when flying, and is capable of daring exploits that test his machine to the full, but only when there is no fighting to be done. The exhilaration that takes him through the most hair-raising situations is generally succeeded by horror and hopelessness as he recognises the enormity of the ordeal he has just survived.

Although it is well attested that the life of a pilot in the First World War was a short but glorious one, the casualties among the RFC were on average no higher than those in the infantry (depending, of course, on how you measure casualties). There is also some justification for Cundall’s observation that “the war in the air wasn’t such a bad war, after all”. The air crews do not venture into the trenches except occasionally when they crash-land.  An episode of Wings shows Charles Gaylion having to take shelter in a dugout along with a shell-shocked officer and his equally traumatised unit. When told to shake hands with “the company mascot” – a severed arm – Gaylion promptly faints. After Tom Cundall’s fellow-pilot, the experienced and normally placid Franklin, is forced to spend a few hours hiding in a shell-hole in no man’s land, the ordeal affects him so badly that, as soon as he returns to base, he immediately sets out again to bomb the German battery responsible, returning in such a state that he has to be hospitalised.

As for living conditions, the air crews are lodged in relatively comfortable huts, well behind the front line. They are of course mostly members of the officer class (Alan Farmer is automatically promoted to sergeant when he completes his pilot training), but they could not have expected to live as well in the trenches, regardless of rank. Cundall’s colleagues celebrate any major success, promotion or other important event with a “binge” – an exceptional dinner, with plenty of alcohol available.  To read Winged Victory, one might be excused for thinking that First World War pilots spent most of their flying time heavily hung over. Charles Gaylion also drinks heavily; his sister Kate tells Alan that it is to cover his fear.  “Don’t have engine trouble!” warns an unsympathetic major as Charles sets out on another dangerous mission.

One of the things that struck me most (as someone with a major phobia about flying) about both portrayals of First World War pilots was the ease with which they were able to take off and land on any reasonably flat surface. On assignment to his base, Alan Farmer is congratulated by his new commanding officer on having crashed “only once” during training. Crashes were not necessarily fatal or even serious: Tom Cundall crashes four times in the space of as many days, emerging with barely a scratch. Pilots were not issued with parachutes until 1918, and then only on the German side. It may be cynical to suggest that the lack of urgency in developing an effective parachute had something to do with the fact that the RFC could not afford to lose planes and preferred their pilots to attempt an emergency landing rather than to abandon the plane.

The pilots of the First World War did not fly at the kind of altitudes we are used to hearing about when we take a jumbo jet across the Atlantic, nor at a comparable speed. They had no pressurised cabins (in fact, they had no cabins at all) or supplemental oxygen supply to allow them to fly safely at heights greater than 10,000 feet. They had no G-suits to prevent them losing consciousness as a result of gravitational forces – indeed, it was only as a result of such episodes during the war that the phenomenon was recognised. Early in the war, enemy planes could fly higher and faster; by 1918, the British planes had the upper hand, but pilots were reluctant to go above 20,000 feet. Flying into the sun was desperately dangerous, as was flying in cloud. Although Captain Triggers orders his pilots to fly in cloud wherever possible so as to gain practice at hiding from the enemy, Lt Cundall experiences a terrifying disorientation while out joy-riding in cloudy conditions. Flying low – a necessity on bombing missions – was even more dangerous, not only because of “Archie” (the mocking nickname for German anti-aircraft fire) but because of the risk of meeting enemy aircraft and coming within range of machine-guns.

Wings was conceived and mostly written by Barry Thomas, a screenwriter who was involved in the creation of several other major BBC series, including The Onedin Line and Z Cars. He and his co-writers show that they have researched the subject carefully, assisted by aircraft enthusiasts who provided the convincing special effects. Moreover, the series conveys the human stories – the psychological suffering, the dysfunctional families, and the social mores of the time – in a believable and non-melodramatic way.

Winged Victory, on the other hand, was the work of Victor Maslin Yeates, a man who certainly knew what he was talking about. Yeates flew with distinction, with both the RFC and RAF (as it became on 1st April 1918). To underline the relative “safety” of flying in a small plane, Yeates was shot down twice without lasting damage, and flew a total of 248 hours over a two-year period. He did, however, die at the age of 37, suffering from tuberculosis, in the very year the book was published. It was his knowledge of impending death that caused him to want to record his reflections on the subject of the war and his responses to being in the front line.

One of Yeates’ closest friends was the writer Henry Williamson, who served in the infantry during the First World War and later toyed with Fascism. It was Williamson who arranged for the book to be published (changing the title from Aircraft over Chaulnes), did some serious editing of the content, wrote the preface, and is immortalised as one of Cundall’s fellow-pilots, “Williamson”, who constantly argues with Cundall about the politics of the war. Another admirer of the novel was T E Lawrence, who reviewed it a year before his own death, calling it “the finest book on men and war I have ever read”.

Tom Cundall is no angel, and at one point expresses the view that it is his duty to father as many children as possible, regardless of the fact that he is not married. However, when his friend Seddon, a married man who lives for his family, is shot down over the German lines, Cundall suffers pangs of conscience. While on leave, he goes to visit the slums in an effort to convince himself that he is “not a jingo”.

The novel does not, however, have a strong “plot”. It concerns itself primarily with the pilots’ daily routine and the psychological effects of their experiences. Boredom alternates with terror and high spirits in almost equal proportions. The author does not comment directly on the airmen’s state of mind, but leaves the message to be conveyed through Tom Cundall’s eyes and thoughts.

“A Fokker triplane had been shot down and seen to crash: it did not matter that it had been a tiny blue-grey translucent thing above them, shaped like its plan; then had come suddenly large and colourless out of the sun-dazzle, its tiers of wings showing in frontal elevation, alarming with gun-flashes and the streak of tracers from it, shining silver and green as it came close, and dulling into whitish grey as it went down in a steep jerking dive; that the projection of its course against the background of earth was deceptive, and it was impossible to guess where it would crash, appearing to move in an irregular arc, first going miles away east, then in a continuously steepening path to curve more and more back towards and underneath them, fading with distance from its proper shape into a moving mark, falling long after it looked about to crash, its movement looking then more like a slow horizontal one than an almost vertical dive; stopping suddenly and unexpectedly, a broken spread of wings on the ground, just discernible.”

The First World War was certainly a formative period in the history of flying and was an event that led to so many technological developments that it would be difficult to get the full picture from reading any work of fiction or watching a film or TV series. If you want to know more about the subject, I recommend both the works mentioned in this article, but there are many others worthy of notice, such as the 1976 film Aces High (itself loosely based on the play Journey’s End, but with the events transferred from the infantry to the RFC). The classic French film of 1937, La Grand Illusion, concentrates mainly on the experiences of aviators as prisoners of war.  The 1966 film The Blue Max gives a view from the German side.

In terms of reading matter, the “Biggles” books were not written for an adult audience; thus, whilst they may be accurate in purely technical terms, they are now considered old-fashioned and non-PC and are mostly out of print.

Deb Fisher