WWI in the Air – Corps Origins

RAF Museum London

On Thursday 4th December 2014 the RAF Museum at Hendon opened its doors to World War I in the Air, commemorating those who fought the air battle in the Great War. From something over 2,000 at the war’s beginning there were over 300,000 serving personnel by 1918. Manufacturing and support activities are featured in the exhibition and offer a reminder of the still wider involvement particularly in this part of North London with its factories, pageants and displays from before the war’s start. Friends of the Intelligence Corps Museum member Lester Hillman, armed with camera and sharp pencil, was there amongst the first dozen visitors and here he explores Corps links.

Father of the Royal Air Force

Tribute is given to the “father” of the Royal Air Force Lt Gen Sir David Henderson KCB., KCVO, DSO., LLD. Born in 1862 this Director of Military Intelligence 1900-1902 qualified as a pilot in 1911, at 49 becoming the world’s then oldest pilot. In 1907 he published The Art of Reconnaissance which by 1914, in its third edition, included an aerial dimension. Brigadier Henderson was the first Commander of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and led it in the early years of the war.

On Tuesday 2nd December 2014, in his role as Patron of the RAF Museum, HRH Prince Philip (Colonel in Chief of the Corps), formally opened the new WWI gallery. Fourteen aircraft, German and British, training aircraft, specialist reconnaissance, fighter and other air frames fill the exhibition hall. Hands- on displays and maps which come alive are positioned amongst the aircraft. Support equipment, vehicles and display cabinets help chart the story. A gramophone in a wooden hut belts out popular ballads of the day evoking airfield life. All this is housed within the historic Claude Grahame White Factory adding an unique contemporary resonance.

Lens in Focus

One image shows a Mobile Photographic Laboratory developed in 1915 by the RFC Experimental Photographic Section. With a staff of six a lorry mounted unit deployed into the field able to develop, print and interpret imagery. Across the hall a light table highlights an area of Lens, South West of Lille, in 1917. The annotated map with image overlays reveals a landscape transformed by three years of war. There are transparencies readily to hand offering visitors a chance to match up images.

Lens in the spotlight

The Museum is open daily 10am – 6pm. The exhibition, as with the rest of the Museum, is free to attend although car parking charges now apply. Elsewhere temporary exhibitions and events on other subjects take place and WWI in the Air will also evolve over the coming years. Research in the archive can be arranged by appointment.

Lester Hillman

6 December 2014

Footnote: Lester flew in gliders from RAF Hendon 50 years ago when it was home to 617 Glider School. This note has drawn upon The Western Front From The Air by Nicholas C Watkis published 1999 by Sutton Publishing Ltd with a paperback third edition in 2013 from Spellmount, The History Press imprint. Nicholas Watkis, as an ICA Regional Secretary, will be familiar to many members of the Corps and those with RAFVR/RAuxAF Service.