51 Sqn History Corner: Origins

In this edition, Sgt Phil Howle of the Sqn Heritage Team, looks back to the very beginnings of 51 Sqn:

In 1916, there was a growing threat from the German Zeppelins, a number of fighter squadrons were established to counter the airships. So it was that 105 years ago, on 15th May 1916, 51 Home Defence Squadron RFC was formed at RAF Mousehold Heath on the outskirts of Norwich. The headquarters of the Squadron moved around during the war but always remained in Norfolk, one of eight squadrons assigned to attack the Zeppelins as they approached the UK coast. Starting out with the B.E.2c, the squadron progressed through a variety of different aircraft before eventually receiving the F.E.2b (pictured). The F.E.2b was piloted from the rear seat, with an observer in the front seat who also had a machine gun fitted to the front of his cockpit. Later versions, such as the one seen here, fitted an additional machine gun for the pilot. The crews however found this second gun was better used for rear defence, with the observer standing on the rim of his cockpit, with no parachute or harness, and firing back over the head of the pilot.
The primary method of attacking the Zeppelin was to fly above it and then drop a Ranken Dart, which can be seen pictured. This dart would fall point down, with the tip piercing the skin of the airship. As the dart penetrated through the skin, the spring-loaded vanes on the side would be forced upwards as they catch on the fabric, and then detonate a small charge contained within the tube. Throughout the war the squadron had a number of close encounters with Zeppelins but didn’t manage to down any. Despite this, by simply providing a credible defence, the threat of the German air raids never grew into anything substantial.
On the 1st April 1918, the formation of the Royal Air Force meant that 51 Home Defence Sqn RFC officially became 51 Squadron Royal Air Force, and so was one of the very first fighter squadrons of the RAF. Happy 105th Birthday, 51 Squadron.