EXERCISE 56 in France
On 3 Dec 2012 members of 56(R) Squadron left RAF Waddington for Northern France (via London Colney), to follow in the footsteps of the Squadron’s first deployment following its formation in June 1916.
56(F) Squadron was one of the most celebrated fighting squadrons of WW1, formed from handpicked air and ground crews, specifically to combat the Richthofen Wing over the skies of Northern France. The Staff Ride (SR) to France presented an excellent opportunity to research and celebrate this rich history, to examine how the Squadron deployed in the early days of aviation and to learn about some of the very brave Airmen who served on the Squadron. Specifically the SR retraced the route of the Squadron’s deployment and focussed on its two Victoria Cross (VC) winners; Captain Albert Ball and Major James McCudden. Each participant on the SR gave 30-45 min presentations at each location and compared the challenges of the Royal Flying Corp (RFC) in 1917 with those of today.
On 7 April 1917 the newly formed 56(F) Sqn deployed to France from London Colney. This is a familiar site being just off the M25 by South Mimms services and adjacent to the Arsenal FC training ground. The first stop, to refuel, was in St Omer, a main logistics hub for the RFC during WWI. The deployments of Squadrons to France were fraught with danger and 56(F) Squadron was the first to ever successfully reach St Omer without losing a single aircraft. The SR started at London Colney, from where this successful deployment departed in April 1917. Now a farm field, the participants discussed the challenges of the deployment whilst avoiding the busy traffic. As the ride had neglected to stop at South Mimms services, due respect was offered at the Arsenal FC training facility adjacent. One of the major themes that arose was the difficulty in navigation that the deployment faced as the fundamental aids of today such as GPS, were obviously not available at the time, and inertial navigation systems were not fitted to the Squadron SE5A aircraft. Navigation was primarily conducted by using reference features on the ground, with the canals of Northern France pointing the way to St Omer. Other challenges included the many mechanical problems with the new SE5A aircraft, with the 56(F) Squadron engineers implementing many modifications to correct faults such as faulty firing mechanism, engine overheating and poor cockpit visibility. Modern procurement has, of course, learnt from these lessons….
St Omer was the centre of a huge logistics operation and home to what was known as the Aircraft Park. A staggering amount of repair and assembly work was conducted there that enabled the RFC to continue to operate despite shocking aircraft losses at the Somme and Ypres. The Staff Ride stopped briefly at St Omer airfield to discuss logistics and its criticality to any war effort.
Following St Omer, the Squadron moved on to Estrée Blanche airfield from which 56(F) Squadron began operations in 1917. Many famous 56 Squadron alumni flew from here including Ball, Rhys-Davids and Lewis; supporting the British Army in various roles such as artillery spotting. Only green fields are there today, but it was easy to see how this flat landscape presented an ideal staging post for the Squadron.
Captain Ball crashed at Annœullin on 7 May 1917, only one month after arriving on 56(F) Squadron, having followed Lothar Von Richthofen into a cloud in one of the major engagements between 56 and the Richthofen Wing. Many accounts (including that of Cecil Lewis in Sagittarius Rising) state that this was not as a result of enemy action; many have asked how did such an accomplished aviator crash? What is clear from many accounts is that Ball felt the pressure to perform; he was the RFC’s star aviator of the time and was taking ever increasing risks as time went on. This is perhaps reflected in an extract from his VC citation which details both the number of engagements over a short period as well as his willingness to engage enemy aircraft against the odds:
“For most conspicuous and consistent bravery from the 25th of April to the 6th of May, 1917, during which period Captain Ball took part in twenty-six combats in the air and destroyed eleven hostile aeroplanes, drove down two out of control, and forced several others to land.
In these combats Captain Ball, flying alone, on one occasion fought six hostile machines, twice he fought five and once four”.
The Staff Ride then moved on to investigate Major James McCudden, another VC recipient, who enjoyed an incredibly successful tour on 56(F) Squadron, accounting for 51 German aircraft. McCudden was in many ways the polar opposite to Ball; he always engaged when he had the advantage, flying many solo sorties at maximum altitude, seeking out lone German 2 seat aircraft. At the time little was known then of the physiological effects of frequent exposure to cold and altitude. Following his tour he was appointed OC of 60 Sqn and flew to France to his new Squadron. He became disoriented and landed at Auxi-le-Château in order to ask for directions on 9 July 1918. Shortly following take off, Major McCudden crashed at Auxi-le-Château having lost control of his aircraft. Participants discussed the possible human factors that contributed to this crash, which was certainly out of character for the meticulously minded pilot.
Also of great interest was the relative grandeur of the resting places of these 2 great aviators. Captain Ball is celebrated by the local community at Annœullin; a college in the town is named after him. The crash site also has a monument to Ball, as the field was bought by his father following his death. In comparison, McCudden has a rather austere resting place in Wavans Cemetery not far from his crash site and nothing to mark the place of his passing. And this too is better than many Airmen, whose bodies were never found or could not be positively identified such as Arthur Rhys-Davids and, the most prolific British ace of WW1, Mick Mannock.
In addition to the Sqn historical sites, the Staff Ride visited Vimy Ridge, taking advantage of the opportunity to explore a significant historical battle site. This visit was particularly apposite as our Canadian Exchange Officer Captain Neils Roggenkamp was one of the Squadron members on the trip.
The Staff Ride was treated to a guided tour of the strategically crucial Vimy Ridge, where the undulating land still shows the scars of the artillery bombardment from all those years ago. Once the British began to prepare their plan of attack at Arras, which was to begin in early April 1917, the main worry for the high command was how to concentrate a large number of troops near to the front without arousing the suspicions of the enemy. Anxious to avoid a repeat of the slaughter inflicted on the Allied troops in the battles of Verdun and the Somme the previous year, the British general staff had an innovative plan whereby New Zealand engineers would create a vast underground network of tunnels through which the troops could come up in front of the German front line without having to face the deadly machine gun fire of no man’s land. The Staff Ride was delighted to be offered a rare opportunity to take a guided tour of what is left of these tunnels.
The importance of retaining the Squadron ethos and trumpeting our proud history cannot be overstated. This staff ride addressed that very issue by bringing to life events in our early history and rejuvenating esprit de corps amongst the current members of 56(R) Squadron. It must be emphasised that despite having to endure French hospitality, cuisine and wine, an excellent time was had by all.
Flight Sergeant Mark Fellows