56 (Reserve) Squadron Visit

Actions of the past reveal lessons for the future

56(Reserve) Squadron has a rich and varied history and one that is an enduring source of pride for all those that serve there. World War I Victoria Cross recipients Captain Albert Ball and Captain James McCudden are two members of the Squadron to have gained historical prominence. Less well known outside of the Squadron but whose contribution was equally important was Sergeant William Sanfrid Appleton (RAF Service Number 16156). A visit to the Squadron by a number of his family acted as a timely reminder to all that the principles and ideals held dear in 1916 remain highly relevant today.

From its inception on 8 June 1916, 56 Squadron has been closely aligned with the introduction of newly procured equipment. March 1917 saw the Squadron bring the Royal Aircraft Factory’s new Scout Experimental (SE) 5 fighter/scout into service and, a month later, test the aircraft in combat after being deployed to the Western Front. The SE5 quickly established itself as an extremely stable and forgiving aircraft, perfectly suited to the many novice pilots serving on the Front at that time. Armed with a wing mounted Lewis gun and a synchronised .303 inch Vickers machine gun, the aircraft’s inherent stability made it an ideal firing platform. However, the new hydraulic-link Constantinesco Interrupter Gear (known as the CC gear), which timed the firing of the machine gun to miss the wooden propeller blades, was poorly fabricated and proved somewhat unreliable. Many aircraft returned from patrol with their propeller blades shot through.

Having been detailed to take charge of the CC gear for 56 Squadron, Sergeant Appleton quickly became familiar with its workings. Thanks to his undoubted engineering prowess, coupled with an unerring determination to both maximise the aircraft’s potential and enhance the pilot’s chance of returning to base, he set about implementing various adjustments to the gear’s construction. The changes he introduced immediately heralded a significant improvement in propeller life. This was borne out in October 1918 when No.3 Brigade reported that whilst 12 Wing achieved 1 propeller written off per 10,500 rounds fired, 13 Wing (including 56 and its sister squadrons) achieved 1 propeller per 22,900 rounds fired. The report noted that, “This reflects great credit on the N.C.O.’s and gearmen responsible for timing machines”.

For his tireless work, Sergeant Appleton was initially recommended for the Medaille Militaire but bureaucratic problems meant that sadly this award was never bestowed. He did, however, receive the Meritorious Service Medal, becoming the only member of the Squadron to be awarded this medal during the Great War.

On 21 November 2011 the current OC 56(Reserve) Squadron, Wing Commander Noz Lyle, hosted Sergeant Appleton’s daughter, Stella Humm, his grandsons Ray Humm and Michael Appleton and granddaughter Mary Parfitt during a visit to the Squadron. As well as inspecting various pieces of memorabilia that detail Sergeant Appleton’s contribution to 56 Squadron’s war effort, they enjoyed a presentation from Master Aircrew Panda Hyams on the Squadron’s history from its formation to the present day. Finally, as a mark of appreciation, Wing Commander Lyle presented Stella with a picture detailing her father’s history and achievements on the Squadron. It was heart warming for them to see that Sergeant Appleton’s memory remains revered within the Squadron and, despite both the passing years and the many technological advancements made in that time, that William’s approach would still find favour in the modern air force. Indeed, as 56(Reserve) Squadron in their current role of Test and Evaluation look to optimize the UK’s Joint Air Command and Control and Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance capabilities the attributes shown by Sergeant Appleton and his colleagues remain an essential part of the Squadron ethos.

Thanks are due to Mr Lew Paterson or providing the historical detail contained within the article and RAF Waddington Photographic Section for the visit photographs.

By Flight Lieutenant Adcock and Master Air Crew Hyams

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