Royal Flying Corps Kit Bag
My passion has always been open cockpit bi-plane flying, this has entailed dragging myself out in all seasons, not just the warmer summer months to fly. Being at one with the elements and the view from the cockpit, spectacular scenery framed by the aerofoils, the noise from the engine and wind whistling through the struts and bracing wires all extremely rewarding.
However, the stark reality is not as romantic, 100 mph slipstream tearing at your goggles, engine oil in your face, cold penetrating your every extremity the higher you go, the engine noise invading your senses. You must be dedicated to want to fly in all seasons, al-fresco.
It was no hobby for those who flew on active service during World War 1, choice was not a luxury they possessed, operational necessity dictating their need to fly. I can only imagine the problems faced by the first Royal Flying Corps pilots and observers who met the challenges of early aviation in open cockpit machines. Not only flying and navigating, but also fighting for survival in this raw unforgiving theatre of war, battling archie (anti-aircraft) and machine gun fire from enemy aircraft.
Aircraft and engine serviceability were not great, the risk of being shot down by the enemy either by ground fire or by fighter was high. On top of this coping with the invasion of the senses, unpleasant smell and taste of oil on your face from the aircraft engine, tossed about by the turbulence and extreme cold all in all lead to a rather unpleasant experience. Altogether a far cry from the romantic notion of open cockpit flying we have now, but for many, better than the reality of trench warfare.
In my mind the early pilots and observers were like explorers, pioneers blazing the trail for military aviation, battling against adversity. What makes these men so special is that like the explorer they not only had the elements and exhaustion to battle, but they also had additional risks from the fact that aviation was at this stage still experimental and still developing out of necessity.
For those who mastered the air and made it their element, they had to learn on the job, testing and understanding the limits of their aircraft and gaining new skills. This included finding ways of keeping warm and alert whilst flying and adapting and adopting kit that was available at the time. It was clear that the pilot who remained alert and focused would have the upper hand in combat. Keeping warm not just a creature comfort but that extra alertness meant the odds of surviving increased on long or high-altitude sorties.
Dressing to survive is now the norm for today’s military aviators and even for pilots flying light aircraft over water or inhospitable terrain. The human factors side of aviation now also better understood. The role of fatigue with regards safety and its contribution to accidents for example and lack of oxygen at altitude leading to hypoxia amongst others.
Parachutes, life jackets, hearing protection and immersions suits all developed over the past century of aviation now readily available. However back in the early days of aviation pre-world war 1, pilots had no real concept of the environment and what they were up against, only a comparison with the automobile or motorcycle, maybe needing gloves to protect your hands from the elements and some goggles to stop dust and grit getting in your eyes. Articles were provided in the early ‘Flight’ magazine on flying clothing and many adverts sprang up from a developing industry of private purchase options for jackets, goggles and helmets.
Early flights would be short hops, low level and low speed, often ending in a controlled crash or sometimes uncontrolled! Little or no wind would be preferable for a safe sortie and good visibility. The intrepid aviator thought that a tweed jacket, flat cap and goggles would be enough protection for their flights, indeed many photos exist showing pilots aviating with little or no thought about personal kit and safety. The idea of human factors, the role of protective clothing and pilot ability\skill and survival rates not even a concern at this stage, merely the art of flying and it was an art form at this time more than a science.
Indeed Duncan Grinnell Milne an RFC pilot of the first war wrote “in aviation, a friend of mine was wont to say there is as much art as science” he goes on to say “and with aeronautics, in its earlier stages, art often seemed to be marching ahead of science that was in its infancy and waiting for the pilots whose progressive discoveries, be it said, were frequently the result of accident”. (1) The development of flying equipment was born out of necessity.
As aircraft developed, speeds and range increased, aircraft performance meant the ability to climb higher and this meant facing more extreme cold, lack of oxygen and more exposure to the weather conditions for longer. Towards the end of 1917-1918 the ceiling and range of the new varieties of aircraft had increased. The Sopwith Pup had enough fuel for a 3-hour duration and a ceiling of just over 17,000 ft and the Spad IV managed 18,000 ft. Patrols were flying regularly at 10 to 15,000ft and above with outside air temperatures often at -35 o C or lower. (2)
Some thought had to be given to the protection of the aviator as aircraft developed and the role of the aircraft moved from a new hobby to one of reconnaissance and then a fighting machine. The risks increased, and the frailty of its pilot also needed to be considered.
Early on, before the establishment of the RFC, during the days of the Air Battalion of the Royal Engineers, there had been some thought about the choice of suitable clothing for officers employed on aeronautical work and the costs associated with it.
Although some kit was available, many engaged in such duties during this time and after the establishment of the Royal Flying Corps looked to the automobile clothing manufacturers for some protective wears. Stores such as, such as Burberrys, Gamage’s, Dunhill, Robinson & Cleaver and Gieves amongst others who were producing aviators’ combination suits, fleece-lined boots, specialised goggles, rainproof gauntlets and leather coats.
The accident rate was inevitable as these aviators were learning on the job, but the rewards great. A number recognised the possible benefits of having some head protection as in a crash the pilot had many wires, braces and struts with which to knock ones self-senseless! Some pilots looked towards head protection available for motorcycles and the use of a helmet was favoured by some. Those who found them cumbersome could choose to fly with a leather helmet only or just a balaclava.
Early manufacturers of specific aviation helmets included products by Dunhill’s in England and Roold in Paris. One that is also often seen in early photos includes a helmet developed by Mr Warren from Hendon which, with its excellent shock-absorbing qualities, was widely used by pilots in the training schools.
Prior to the Royal Flying Corps, the Royal Engineers had developed an Air Battalion which had operated with balloons, and the first fixed wing aircraft. On the 13 April 1912 the King Issued a Royal Warrant for a new service and the battalion was replaced with the Royal Flying Corps which had both a military wing and a naval wing with a joint Central Flying School. The uniform adopted for the military wing at this time was khaki, officers would be seconded from existing regiments and they initially retained their uniforms, only adding RFC pilot’s wings to stand them out. The naval wing under the title of the RFC was not popular and this was to become the Royal Naval Air Service from the 1st July 1914 and is not discussed in this book.
For NCO and rank and file men enlisting in the RFC the service dress was the new approved maternity tunic although images show that the1902 pattern service dress was also retained (see scale of provisions). For officers this style of maternity or plastron fronted jacket was subsequently adopted soon after, and jodhpurs, breeches or trousers worn with boots. RFC cap badges and collar badges were developed and shoulder titles for the enlisted and NCO aircrew. After the birth of the RAF in 1918 a specific uniform style develops for the air arm with its blue colour and RAF badges that are the forerunner of the uniform, we know today but throughout WW1 the colour was Khaki for operational use.
At the start of the War in 1914, the use of the aircraft as a military tool was initially recognised as being of benefit for reconnaissance, being able to see troop concentrations, fortifications, artillery, stores etc. It is clear that the formal issue of clothing specifically for flying was limited and often adapted from motoring garments used by Army drivers and despatch riders, these were offered to the newly formed Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service pilots.
However, there was some equipment on offer as issue which is listed in the scale of provision of 1914(see appendix) which included, weatherproof coats, goggles, gauntlets, leather boots and leather caps. Aircrew still had the option to purchase their own clothing and commercial companies continued to develop their motoring ranges into more specialised flying clothing.
As the war progressed the exposure of the aircrew became starkly apparent with pilots suffering frostbite and chill blains and the RFC looked to develop better kit for their aviators.
The 1915 RFC training manual lists the clothing expected to be worn by the aircrew as ‘two pairs of thick long drawers, a woollen waistcoat, a British ‘warm coat’ with a waterproof oilskin over it, a cap with ear pads, two balaclavas, a flying helmet, goggles, a warm scarf, and two pairs of socks and gloves’. (3)
The idea of using layering to keep in body heat was by now well established and it would be important for the aircrew to dress only immediately before each sortie to prevent them sweating as the excess perspiration would then freeze at altitude. Some first and accounts as well as official scale of provisions help to work out what became available and when. One such account that’s useful is from a soldier who transferred to the RFC just after the Somme offensive in 1916.
An often-overlooked fact is that many gunners and observers transferred to the RFC for duty with little or no experience, issued flying kit and taken up for air experience whilst in the front line with training on the job. For that very reason, I have included uniforms of both officers, NCO and air mechanic rank, all of whom could have been employed on aerial duties during the First World War.
One such gunner who had previously served in the trenches with the Northants Yeomanry who found himself in just such a position was Arthur Whitehouse (later awarded the Military Medal) who on arrival at his squadron witnessed at close hand an aircraft hit the ground minus its wings, killing its pilot: -
‘you the new aerial gunner…. Whitehouse…. No 1785, 3rd/1st Northants Yeomanry?’ someone barked at me. ‘Yes Sergeant……… did you see that officer out there ….. killed?’
‘your new number will be 78563. Second class Ack Emma now, not trooper, lad. Remember that. And for God’s sake, don’t go pullin chaps out of crashes like that agayne. You’re posted for flying you know. You’’ll get a vertical gust doin’ things like that. Ere… ere’s yer flyin-kit…. Over ‘ere…. Come on…. One ‘elmet, a bit dirty. Flying coat, leather, one. Goggles, flying, one; and you’d better clean them up a bit lad. That’s blood on there…. Mister Aslett stopped one in the napper, the other day….. observer, yer know. They all come unstuck…. Nah then, flying boots, one pair, knee length; gloves, leather one pair….’ (4)
This first-hand account also helps to give an idea of what sort of kit was being issued in the line to those seconded to the RFC in its hours of need for additional crew. As the aircraft became more capable and the operational heights increased it was quite clear work needed to be put into providing better thermally insulated kit for the aircrew.
In the winter of 1916 a small breakthrough was made with what really was the first flying suit as written about by Dr. Graham Rood of the Farnborough Air Sciences Trust
‘the first significant stride was made to providing effective protection for the pilot and this arrived from the brain of Sidney Cotton, an RNAS pilot with No.8 Squadron. Cotton had been working on his own aircraft when a ‘scramble’ was called and providing effective protection for the pilot and this arrived from the brain of Sidney Cotton, an RNAS pilot with No.8 Squadron. Cotton had been working on his own aircraft when a ‘scramble’ was called, and he flew in his dirty overalls for an hour or so and upon landing found that, unlike his fellow pilots who were shivering from the cold, he was quite unaffected. Having thought through this effect, he realised that it was the oil and grease soaked into the overalls that had retained the body heat. Picking up on the idea, he took leave and travelled to London, to Robinson & Cleaver, where he had a flying suit made for him to his design. The suit had three layers, a thin lining of fur, a layer of airproof silk, and an outside layer of light Burberry material, all made into a one-piece suit, just like his overalls. Robinson & Cleaver were asked to register the design on behalf of Cotton and the flying suit took its name from the inventor and was called the Sidcot suit (Sidney Cotton). By late 1917, tests had shown that the Sidcot Flying Suit No 5 was regarded by pilots as the most suitable for operational use. Consequently, the manufacturers of the suit, Robinson & Cleaver, were asked to produce 250 suits per week, just fourteen days after the order. Deliveries were later expected to reach 1,000 per week just four weeks after the initial order. By December 1917 the orders for leather flying coats, some 3,000, were cancelled in favour of the Sidcot suit’. (5)
Some steps were also being taken to introduce electrically heated waistcoat, gloves and boots, they were complimentary to the other kit not replacements for them. However, they were not that successful and caused burns or the wires to the elements broke as they were fragile and therefore the item was often useless.
Hypoxia when flying above 10,000 feet was an ever-present problem with flying at increased altitudes. Oxygen supplies and helmets to take an oxygen mask didn’t come in until late in the war and in August 1918 when the Air Board had issued a specification for the Mk 1 Helmet with wireless telephony and fittings for an oxygen mask. However, these were not popular with many aircrews and the early masks suffered with the exhaled moisture freezing up on the face and restricting oxygen flow.
Goggles would often fog up or become frosted and some chose not to fly with them due to the lack of peripheral vision. Some development of goggles by the RFC/RAF took place in 1918 but most were adopted from civilian patterns.
Fire was the aircrews biggest fear and to a degree the leather helmets, goggles made of triplex and leather flying coats gave a degree of protection, but the aircrew were still not issued parachutes which would have saved the lives of many. Sadly, many took to carrying pistols, not for self-defence but with which to take their own lives rather than face being burned to death. Some investigation into fire rated flying clothing was experimented with but during the tests the poor victim suffered burns through the flying suit material and this was abandoned.
I have enjoyed researching this project but what became apparent and that the reader must understand is that evidence I have collated and relied on is from photographs, limited first-hand accounts which talk about equipment and documentation, records available in the National Archives as well as established texts. These sources are at times contradictory to say the least and a definitive text is hard to pin down. Certainly, from photographs which are our best source of information it’s clear that there was a wide variety of kit used either private purchase, adapted, adopted or issued.
It has been hard to give a definitive answer in some circumstance and therefor the kit bag is intended to be illustrative of the type of flying equipment and service uniforms used by the Royal Flying Corps pilot and observer from the inauguration in 1912 through the birth of the Royal Air Force on the 1st April 1918 until wars end. I have not covered the RAF in detail as this merits another volume in its own right but I have added a chapter to cover the transitional uniform and period to the end of the war.
I have listed and given examples of type of uniforms, badges and equipment used by the enlisted man, NCO and officer aircrews of the RFC on day to day duties which are also shown with example period photos. I have kept the uniforms to examples worn on duty or used for aviation, not mess dress and full dress.
So, the guide can only give an indication of the type of flying kit worn. This passage from Into the Blue by Norman Macmillan a pilot with 45 squadron in April 1917 illustrates the variety available. He comments specifically on the arrival of his new commanding officer taking in the scene in the mess on his arrival;
‘He looked around the room at the faces intent upon his, all of them countenances of men used to the chances of flight, to the crack and the woof of Archie, to the crackle of machine guns about their ears. They were dressed in motley garb; regimental tunics, RFC tunics, sweaters; silk scarves, woolly scarves; leather flying coats wound tight about them, buttoned up, or falling loose, sheepskin thigh boots, knee length flying boots, slacks and shoes, or breeches and puttees. (6)
This extract says it all about the variety of kit and the problem at hand trying to give a definitive guide, so it is aimed as a useful handy reference and is backed up by period photographs and adverts, with pilot’s first-hand accounts to assist all those who collect, re-enact, model or just have a general interest in the subject matter. Also, I have not specifically covered the role and equipment of the brave RFC balloon observers or crew of airships in this edition but have mentioned some of their kit where appropriate. The topic is vast and some of the equipment very rare to find or photograph so please take this as an illustrative guide to the topic as it is meant.
© Copyright Mark Hillier