100 EXERCISE CENTURY UNBOUNDED Years of aviation excellence with 8 Squadron
To celebrate 100 years since the formation of 8 Squadron, a group of personnel organised a road trip which would follow the history of 8 Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps’ throughout WW1.
Known as ‘Exercise Century Unbounded’ (tying the Squadron’s motto to the event), the trip would focus on enhancing our knowledge of air power’s influence on the course of WW1, specifically in the British sectors of the Western Front. Embedded within the trip was a team of 5 cyclists, also from 8 Squadron, who undertook the challenge of cycling from RAF Waddington to St Omer, France, in support of the RAF Benevolent Fund.
Starting in the early hours of Saturday 4 July, Flight Lieutenants Jason Dark and Howard Leach, Chief Technician Michael Thompson (Tommo), Sergeant Adam Wallace and Corporal Gary Westwood (ably supported by the navigationally challenged Senior Aircraftsman Matt Wright and the author as the van drivers), set off to a rare but glorious summer’s day for the first leg to Milton Keynes. Each of the riders took it in turns to plan the routes; the first few stages were navigated by Tommo, but it wasn’t long until the cyclists were led astray by the support team, leading to a re-assessment of the navigation strategy. Being mindful to stay away from the main roads, the team chose to battle the undulating Lincolnshire countryside B roads (and some C), completing 104 miles to Milton Keynes. The first day, bar a few punctures, was completed successfully.
The cycling team failed to live up to their image of clean living health freaks when they were spotted tucking into a cream tea at the Heathrow Hilton. Heathrow never featured in the history of 8 Squadron, but 5-star hotels have been a constant theme, so it was appropriate that the group called in for a break!
The first major event in the itinerary for the road trip was a visit to Brooklands Museum. Originally an airfield before it became associated with cars, Brooklands was the site of the formation of 8 Squadron on 1 January 1915. When the Royal Flying Corps was formed it was given a mandate to form 8 flying squadrons. At the outbreak of WWI, 7 of these peacetime squadrons had been formed and the order was given to form the eighth. The Squadron was only based at Brooklands for a short period before moving to Gosport, from where it would deploy on operations in early April 1915.
The group moved to Folkestone to cross the channel, but took the opportunity to look at the role of the Gothas & Zeppelins and the birth of strategic bombing, near to Tontain Street. This was followed by a visit to Hawkinge Airfield to study the characters of this new type of warfare, and how the strategy of its use developed. As there were disruptions at the Channel Tunnel, both parties set off early to keep on schedule and avoid delays to the programme. This went without a hitch, other than the support vehicle missing the junction (twice) and being turned around again by the local Police, who had enforced a diversion due to the extensive backlog of freight lorry drivers caused by Operation Stack.
The next stage saw the groups move to St Omer Airfield, the logistical hub of WW1 air power, a temporary home for 8 Squadron, and considered by many as the spiritual home of the Royal Flying Corps. The cycling team had been joined by Squadron Leader Kev Simpson on his Trek ‘boneshaker’ who, to his credit, managed to keep in visual range of the group for about 50 miles, before deciding that the comfort of the support vehicle was a far more efficient way of spending his time. Today’s theme for study surrounded the need for mobility around the Western Front, in order to reduce the impact of the short endurance of the aircraft typical of the period. With no further presentations for the day, the teams split again. Leaving later than expected, and with light quickly fading, the cyclists pressed on and arrived in Arras just before midnight.
To give the aching limbs of the cycling team a rest, who had already covered in excess of 350 miles (or 49 for Squadron Leader Simpson), there then followed a non-cycle day. This allowed all to visit the numerous sites around the Somme battlefields, including the surrounding cemeteries and memorial sites. In complete contrast to the poignancy of the Somme sites, our route coincided with a Tour de France stage passing through the small village of Albert. Ahead of the Tour de France peloton, a horde of commercial vehicles passed the crowds, launching (literally in some cases) freebies to the assembled masses. Have you ever seen a group of lads fighting over freebies ranging from carrier bags, key-rings, washing machine tablets and face masks, being thrown from the tour caravans? It wasn’t pretty. (I must stress that no children were hurt in the malaise!)
Both groups left Arras and headed back to St Omer, via the Vimy Memorial and Mericourt, to examine the action which led to the Royal Air Force’s first Victoria Cross. This was awarded to Captain (later Air Commodore) Freddie West of 8 Squadron. On 12 August 1918 Captain West and his observer, Lieutenant Haslam, were engaged by German fighters. Despite receiving wounds which would ultimately lead to the amputation of his leg, Captain West continued to attack. After a forced landing he insisted on passing on intelligence of enemy artillery positions before receiving medical attention.
After 5 gruelling days of heat, sweat, hills and more hills (to the delight of Tommo), the cycling team was on its last stage of their challenge. They were coming to their finishing point back at St Omer, where an 8 Squadron Wreath was laid at the memorial.
The cyclists then joined the rest of the group in the vehicles to head back to the UK. The final stop for the ride was at Duxford Air Museum, the concluding segment being based on 8 Squadron and the end of the war. Each member of the road trip provided a summary of what they had learnt over the past few days. The cycling team had completed their challenge, covering 415 miles and raising in excess of £1000 for the RAF Benevolent Fund. The team would like to give a big ‘thank you’ to High 5 Sports Nutrition, who provided us with nutritional drinks and supplements, and also to Imp Sport who provided the shirts at cost-price, with the additional customised logos. Finally, thanks to Flight Lieutenant Craig Harding for organising the whole event.
8 Squadron, 1915-2015.
Uspiam et Passim.