Ross’ project was funded via Gateways to the First World War, an AHRC Funded WW1 Engagement Centre. The joy of this project was that it was locally focused. The Chichester News also featured the project in detail, remarking on technology, training and personal histories.
When the United States entered the war in April 1917 the need to expand their armed services was matched by a pressing issue of modernisation. Whilst the army and the navy could be developed, the nation had fallen behind Britain, France, Italy and Germany in one key area: aviation. Over the course of their engagement in the First World War, new aeroplane designs, engines and services were created that brought American aviation up to speed and sparked a new era of fascination for flight in the post-war era.
This wartime development of military aviation in the United States can be traced to the factories and flight schools that were developed after 1917. Workshops that had been making automobiles, were quick to produce the famous, powerful ‘Liberty’ engine that could outperform its European competitors. American universities and colleges also began training students as the US Government realised the enormous gulf between themselves and their new allies. The Aviation Section, Signal Corps, of the United States Army expanded rapidly with an extensive recruitment drive.
However, the site of these advances in aviation were also located in the American aerodromes that began to be constructed in Italy, France and Britain. These military bases enabled the United States to share knowledge, training and tactics with their allies in arrangements that set the basis of international military alliances during the twentieth century. Contracts were signed between the allies and manufacturers which provides materials and land.
It was the Handley Page Agreement of January 1918 that brought Americans to Sussex. This would offer access to a new development in aviation technology: the Handley Page Bomber. This huge machine, with a wing-span of over 20 metres, was designed to conduct raids into enemy territory. It was regarded as a key part of the development of the United States’s arsenal. The agreement enabled:
“…assembling Handley Page machines in the United Kingdom, of which all the component parts have been manufactured in the United States, and for providing thirty Handley Page Squadrons to be entirely at the disposal of the Commander in Chief of the United States Army in Europe.”
This was a highly ambitious plan. Construction and shipment of the parts were to commence immediately with the following targets:
- May 1918: 50 aeroplanes with 125 Liberty motors
- June 1918: 100 aeroplanes with 250 Liberty motors
- July 1918: 160 aeroplanes with 400 Liberty motors
The parts would be shipped to a factory in Oldham from the United States and then delivered to training bases in Sussex. Five sites were selected for aerodromes but only Ford, Rustington and Tangmere were constructed with hangars, classrooms and barracks in place by August 1918. Individuals were assigned duties at these locations but delays in manufacturing meant that none of the Handley Page Bombers ever arrived. Instead, pilots, navigators and ground crew trained on two smaller aircraft:
- Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2
- Airco DH.4 (De Havilland)
A strict regime of training was set out at these bases. Many of the pilots had been avid aviators before the war and the thrill of this new and precarious technology attracted the free-spirited and brave. Therefore, instruction focused on discouraging any techniques unsuitable for military purposes:
“All pilots are warned that “stunting” over hangars, diving over troops, transports, camps, villages or towns is expressly forbidden.”
The arrival of Americans in Sussex was warmly received by local residents and social events were arranged to welcome the newcomers whilst baseball games and music shows were used to develop good relationships with locals. An ‘American Club’ was founded in North Pallant, Chichester, in the summer of 1918 to make servicemen feel at home and romantic relationships saw a few local Sussex women go to the United States after the war.
This was a period of experimentation and aviation was a very dangerous area of military development. As such, a number of American aviators sadly lost their lives at the aerodromes in Sussex. For example, Second Lieutenant Carlton Merrill Bliss (1895-1918) from Massachusetts, died at Tangmere in November 1918, in a crash probably caused by a malfunctioning control. He was buried at Brookwood American Military Cemetery in Surrey.
Whilst the aerodromes in Sussex were quickly decommissioned in November 1918, the legacy of the expansion of American aviation can be witnessed in the interwar development of the United States Air Force as the Signal Corps was found to be insufficient. This history highlights how the conflict can be measured in the physical construction of factories, aerodromes and military capabilities, but also the social relationships that were formed between people away from the front who would never have met save for the conditions of wartime.