ROYAL FLYING CORPS By Alistair Smith – Reviewed by Mark Barnes


By Alistair Smith
Published by Pen & Sword
ISBN 978 1 84884: 889 4

Review by Mark Barnes for War History Online

Invisible hands struggle, but fail to stop me typing the inevitable words telling you this is another gem in the Images of War series.

This highly entertaining volume put together by Alistair Smith is a compendium of four photograph albums depicting aspects of the lives of four men serving in the RFC and they offer us a window into a service which continues to enthral, through it’s many aces such as Mannock, Ball or Barker; through it’s combat pioneers such as Lanoe Hawker and the much admired William Leefe Robinson and via it’s skewed history; the ‘twenty minuters’ of Blackadder fame.  There is something about the RFC. You can learn so much from classic modern histories such as Peter Hart’s ‘Bloody April’ and ‘Aces Falling’ to bring you close to the men who fought and died in startling fashion and numbers in the climatic period of the air war; and I’ve only recently reviewed ‘The First Blitz’ revealing the frustrations and tragedies of the men trying to defend the airspace over Britain from German incursions by airship and bomber fleet. England’s easterly cemeteries are dotted with the graves of young flyers who had lonely scary deaths trying to keep the Hun out. Some have no known grave at all.

Alistair Smith’s book takes us, first, to Tangmere and a varied collection showing captured, tidy and crashed aircraft, grinning aircrew and other interesting scenes. The original owner of the album is not revealed, but some of his chums are. He must have been a pilot or an airman at least.  One of the most unusual images appears to show the Gotha bomber brought down at Frien’s Farm at Wickford in Essex in January, 1918; or so the author believes. I am less sure. I have access to two newspaper archive negatives of the crash site in which all three crewmen perished and the aircraft is virtually destroyed, unlike the example revealed here. That aside, the variety of images in this section is outstanding.  The next chapter takes us to Canada and flight training for the RFC. The rarity of this subject alone makes this book a joy. We see a combination of aircraft – Avro 504s and Curtiss Jennies in varying states of woe; plus airmen of various ranks with their friends at work and at play. It is a short but sweet gathering and I love it.

Next we have the album of an airman named W Richards, who learned his craft in 1917. This is a truly personal album, with the people, places and events in part of his life. We see chums, family, cars, wrecks of planes, bits of camp life and all the things that would impress a young aviator who was handy with a Box Brownie. It is wonderful stuff. It reeks of history and if you either collect RFC stuff or re-enact their history, there is much to reference here, I shouldn’t wonder.

The final section is, once again, brief. But it takes us to Fambridge on the River Crouch in Essex; an ignored place in history where pioneering work was done by the RFC using seaplanes. Alistair Smith’s excellent text record’s the importance, too, of the home defence squadrons in the area at Stow Maries and Rochford. The former is now being restored back to its original glory as the country’s only Great War fighter aerodrome. Things are progressing at a pace and you will soon be able to see it as it looked in 1917 with reproduction fighter aircraft on site. It is an inspirational project.

So, as if you didn’t know it; I am more than happy to report we have a little beauty on our hands for under fifteen quid.  They keep on coming.

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Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes is a longstanding friend of WHO, providing features, photography and reviews. He has contributed to The Times of London and other publications. He is the author of The Liberation of Europe (pub 2016) and If War Should Come due later in 2020.