Tag Archives: manufacturing

Over Here: American Aviation during the First World War

Handley Page Aircraft, between ca. 1915 and ca. 1920. Picture courtesy of Library of Congress http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ggb2006002611/                                                           Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.print

In this latest Guest Blog, Professor Ross Wilson, from Chichester University, talks about the visiting US forces that were present in West Sussex and their aviation contribution during WW1.

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

Aerial photograph of Ford Aerodrome in 1918, courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Collections: The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. “View of Ford Aerodrome taken from the air. Ford [] Aerodrome, Sussex England, Oct. 23, 1918.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1860 – 1920. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47d9-b379-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
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.”

Picture Courtesy of Library of Congress: By Louis D Fancher 1844-1944.  A poster for recruiting for the Aviation Section, Signal Corps “Over there! Skilled workers On the ground behind the lines” – In the Air Service / / Louis Fancher. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/93502849/

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.

Brookwood American Military Cemetery in Surrey – Photograph Courtesy of Professor Ross Wilson

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.


Aircraft built in Lincoln – the home of the tank

In this guest blog, Dan Ellin considers the places and people behind aircraft of the First World War which were built in a city better known for producing tanks.

In the history of warfare and the Great War, the city of Lincoln has become synonymous with the tank. In 1915 William Tritton, the managing director of William Foster & Co and Major Walter Wilson first began drawing designs of was to become the tank in a room in a local hotel. After unsuccessful trials of ‘Little Willie’, ‘Mother’ the prototype of the Mark 1 tank was tested at Burton Park on the outskirts of Lincoln in January 1916. Shortly afterwards the first 100 tanks were ordered, and tanks were first used in on the Western front in September 1916. Tanks were built in William Foster & Co’s Tritton works in Lincoln, but the city’s other engineering firms also played important parts in the war effort. Ruston, Proctor & Co., Robey & Co. and Clayton and Shuttleworth were all involved in aircraft production, with one in fourteen British aircraft being made in Lincoln during the war. The city was one of the top five aircraft manufacturing centres of the Great War with over 5,000 aircraft being constructed in the city’s factories which employed around 6,000 men and women on aircraft work.

Image 1. 1000th Camel at Ruston works.
1000th Sopwith Camel made by Rustons in the factory with workers in the foreground. Image from John Wallis & Charles Parker, Aircraft made in Lincoln, (Lincoln: SLHA, 2000).

Ruston Proctor & Co. LTD.

First contracted to build B.E.2c aircraft in 1915, Ruston and Proctor built over 2,000 aircraft and more than 3,000 engines in purpose built factory buildings in the Boultham area of the city. The firm was the country’s largest supplier of engines and employed more than 3,000 men and women in aircraft production.

Towards the end of 1915 the company began building the far superior ‘Sopwith 1 ½ strutter’ aircraft, and in 1917, the famous ‘Sopwith Camel’. The Camel was the highest scoring fighter of the war and it took its name from the hump over the two machine guns in front of the pilot. Rustons built the majority of the 5,500 Camels manufactured during the war; by November 1918 the Lincoln firm had completed 1,600. The thousandth model off the assembly line was painted in an Egyptian winged sun theme and used for publicity.


Image 2. Robey Peters fighting machine
Peters in the gun nacelle of the prototype Robey Peters fighting machine. John Wallis & Charles Parker, Aircraft made in Lincoln, (Lincoln: SLHA, 2000)

Robey & Co. LTD.

Between 1915 and 1919 Robey & Co. built aircraft for the Admiralty, but were unusual in that they also designed, built and flew prototypes of their own aircraft. The firm began with sub-contracted orders to build the ‘Sopwith Gunbus’, a pusher biplane with the engine to the rear of the aircraft, and later ‘Short 184 Seaplanes’. At peak production they produced one seaplane a day.

The first aircraft Robey designed and built was a single seater scout biplane. The prototype was sent to Hendon, but was never tested as the Gnome rotary engine the designer had hoped to use was not delivered. The company’s most successful prototype, the ‘Robey Peters Fighting Machine’ also never went into production, but two were built and tested. It was intended that the aircraft would be used by the Navy for anti Zeppelin and U-boat patrols. It was a single engine aircraft with a crew of three, the pilot, and two gunners. The gunners were to sit in separate plywood nacelles in the wings. The port nacelle was to be armed with a Lewis gun and thirty rounds of ammunition, while the starboard nacelle was fitted with a seven foot long recoilless Davis gun and ten rounds of 2lb ammunition. The second prototype was intended to be armed with two Davis guns.

Robey Peters Fighting Machine 1 plan. Image from John Wallis & Charles Parker, Aircraft made in Lincoln, (Lincoln: SLHA, 2000).
Robey Peters Fighting Machine 1 plan. Image from John Wallis & Charles Parker, Aircraft made in Lincoln, (Lincoln: SLHA, 2000).

The first prototype flew from Bracebridge Heath near Lincoln in September 1916. Its first flight, a circuit of the airfield was successful, but it overturned on its second flight. On its third test three days later, the engine overheated, the plane caught fire and crashed causing £50 damage to a hospital building. In April 1917 the second prototype stalled on takeoff and crashed on the edge of the airfield.

Robey Peters Fighting Machine 2 plan. John Wallis & Charles Parker, Aircraft made in Lincoln, (Lincoln: SLHA, 2000)
Robey Peters Fighting Machine 2 plan. John Wallis & Charles Parker, Aircraft made in Lincoln, (Lincoln: SLHA, 2000)
Handley Page 0/400 Bomber and Clayton & Shuttleworth workers. Image from John Wallis & Charles Parker, Aircraft made in Lincoln, (Lincoln: SLHA, 2000).
Handley Page 0/400 Bomber and Clayton & Shuttleworth workers. Image from John Wallis & Charles Parker, Aircraft made in Lincoln, (Lincoln: SLHA, 2000).

Clayton & Shuttleworth LTD.

The company built aircraft on its 100 acre site on the East side of the city. They first built parts for Admiralty airships, but in 1916 they received orders to build the ‘Sopwith Triplane’ and in 1917 ‘Sopwith Camels’. Lincoln’s long association with bomber aircraft arguably began in 1916 when Clayton and Shuttleworth were given an order to produce ‘Handley Page 0/400’ bombers. Prisoners of war were used to build new aircraft shops in which the aircraft were assembled three abreast. The Handley Page 0/400 could carry the 1,650lb (748kg) bomb, the heaviest bomb used by the British during the war and they were so large they had to be flown directly from the factory’s ‘Handley Page field.’ In September 1918 a force of forty Handley Page 0/400s bombed targets in the Saar region of Germany. An order for ‘Vickers Vimy’ bombers was cancelled after the armistice when only three machines had been completed.

Aircraft built in the city were delivered to ‘No.4 Aircraft Acceptance Park’ on Lincoln’s West Common. The landing ground, impractically built on the hillside, overlooked the William Foster’s Tritton works where the first tanks were manufactured, and was only a mile south of the tanks testing ground. William Tritton has been commemorated by ‘Tritton road’ built in the 1970s. Although some industry remains in Lincoln, the Robeys works is now a builders’ merchant and there is an out of town shopping centre along Tritton road where much of Rustons aircraft industry was located. Much of Lincoln’s aircraft manufacturing industry has been forgotten.

Copyright for images in this post remains with the Society for Lincolnshire History and Archaeology.