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RFC Headquarters

On the outbreak of the First World War, four RFC squadrons (2, 3, 4 and 5 Squadron equipped with a wide range of aircraft types) had flown to France to join the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). Assigned to the General Headquarters (GHQ), the RFC provided reconnaissance during the critical first few months of the war as the Germans sought to outmanoeuvre the British and French Armies. The fluid military situation meant that HQ RFC and its four squadrons moved repeatedly, closely following the GHQ as the fighting edged north towards the Channel ports. Eventually, on the evening of Monday 8 October 1914, HQ RFC arrived at St Omer and took up residence in a small chateau. The squadrons arrived over the next few days, together with the recently formed HQ Wireless Telegraphy Unit. These aircraft supplemented by 6 Squadron – newly arrived from England with a mixture of BE2s, Bleriots and BE8s – would comprise the RFC’s frontline strength until spring 1915.

HQ RFC was a modest affair, initially comprising some eight staff officers under the command of Brigadier-General Sir David Henderson, GOC RFC. Even so, the accommodation proved extremely cramped, the few rooms having to double as both offices and bedrooms. Maurice Baring’s diary provides a vivid picture of the work of the Headquarters during this initial period together with an affectionate account of the personalities involved. 'We arrived at St Omer at 8.30 and took up our residence in a small chateau on the hill between the town and the aerodrome. We didn’t expect to stay there long, so no real steps were taken to make ourselves comfortable at the start. The chateau was a modern stucco building, red and white. Downstairs there were two drawing rooms, and one bedroom, and a small sitting room. The small sitting room was Colonel Sykes’ office. One of the drawing rooms was made into an anteroom, the other into an office. The bedroom downstairs was Brooke-Popham’s. Upstairs General Henderson had one big bedroom and a small office. Salmond, Barrington-Kennett and I shared a second, Murat had a third and the fourth was to be occupied by other members of the staff”. As it transpired, the Headquarters remained at St Omer until 1916 and returned again in 1917, occupying the same small chateau throughout – leased from its owner at a rental of 20 francs per day.

St-Omer rapidly became the RFC’s airhead in France. It was the destination for the majority of squadrons deploying to the Western Front. This, together with the ferrying of replacement and time-expired aircraft and depot test flying made for a very active airfield. Over the course of the war many thousands of aircraft were ferried between England and France – a total of 3,226 in 1917 and 6,217 in 1918. Given the vagaries of the weather and the rudimentary navigation of the time, the journey was never without its hazards – the deployment of 29 Squadron from Gosport to St Omer in March 1916, resulting in the loss of 14 DH2s en-route, was probably the most spectacular example of the difficulties that could arise. The direct route lay between Dover / Folkestone and Cap Gris-Nez, some 21 miles. When squadrons deployed it was usual for them to fly their aircraft on a southeasterly heading across the Channel, aiming to reach the French coast between Cap Blanc-Nez and Calais and then follow the canals south to St Omer. Groundcrew – including observers – and transport would travel by sea to Le Havre, Rouen or Boulogne, normally only rejoining their pilots and aircraft at their operational airfield. Individual pilots joining the RFC in France reported to the Pilots’ Pool at St Omer pending allocation to a squadron. The first step for all newly arrived aircrew was to obtain a billeting allocation from HQ RFC – generally in St Omer itself as the messes around the airfield were invariably full. For many RFC personnel this was their first time overseas and thus St Omer came to symbolise all that was new or different whether it was the cooking, the size of the bed covers or the washing arrangements!

The sudden influx of military personnel and the increasing demand for both temporary and permanent accommodation caused serious difficulties in the town and the surrounding villages. Maurice Baring records numerous incidents in the early part of the war relating to billeting problems. On one occasion he mentions how he ended a sharp discussion with the Mayor of Longuenesse by holding up a German ten-pfenning piece he had found on the drawing-room floor – only to be chased after by a gendarme who insisted that the Mayor was not a German spy. Another, more humorous incident involved the arrival of two old ladies at HQ RFC with a complaint about the behaviour of two officers billeted with them. They would only speak to General Trenchard since it was a matter of ‘grave indelicatesse’. Eventually it transpired that the officers concerned had had the temerity to wash their socks in the kitchen sink.

As the RFC’s strength grew so did the size of the headquarters. Although it remained sufficiently small to be able to deploy forward as the operational situation demanded, it’s role grew in importance as the number of squadrons increased, notably between October 1915 and July 1916 when the frontline strength grew from just over 100 to more than 400 aircraft. With the decentralisation of the RFC into brigades and wings, with effect from 30 January 1916, it became necessary to re-organise the headquarters on a higher basis. Up to then responsibility for technical issues had been a subsidiary duty of Lieutenant-Colonel H.R.M. Brooke-Popham, GSO1. The expansion in the front line and increase in operational tempo generated a host of engineering and administrative issues that necessitated a new establishment – organised on the basis of a corps staff – that provided for a Deputy Adjutant and Quarter Master General. Robert Brooke-Popham was appointed to this new post, in the rank of brigadier-general, from 12 March 1916. An experienced staff officer, Lieutenant-Colonel P.W. Game was found to take over the operational side of the HQ.

HQ RFC’s day to day activities encompassed responsibility for the management of the units in the field, as well as the higher strategic direction of the RFC in France, including liaison with GHQ and the French Aviation Service. This necessitated, in addition to technical specialists, intelligence, medical, photography, supply and transport staffs as well as dedicated liaison officers. As the intensity of the air war grew, so did the number of forms and the volume of paperwork to be handled, including the production – from the middle of 1915 – of a weekly communiqué describing RFC operations on the Western Front (familiarly known as Comic Cuts).

Sir David Henderson remained in command of the RFC until 19 August 1915 when he returned to the War Office being replaced by Colonel H.M. Trenchard who was promoted to brigadier-general on 25 August 1915 and major-general on 24 March 1916. Hugh Trenchard was to remain GOC until December 1917, commanding the RFC through the great battles of the Somme and Third Ypres. Both of these offensives involved moving the headquarters temporarily from St Omer to bring it closer to the operational area.

In closing this section, it is worth noting that St Omer, as a major garrison and centre of British military activity, attracted numerous visitors throughout the war. This included the Royal Family who first visited HQ RFC and the airfield on 4 December 1914, when King George and the Prince of Wales arrived as part of a tour of the Western Front. Later visits included that by Queen Mary on 5 July 1917 when, in the company of GOC RFC, she reviewed aircraft at the Depôt and witnessed a flying display. A photographer was evidently on hand as a famous series of still photographs has recorded the event for posterity.

Donations

Each year since its unveiling in 2004, Cross & Cockade International pay the Commonwealth War Graves Commission a four figure sum to maintain the British Air Services Memorial at St Omer. A small donation from you will help to keep it 'fit for heroes'

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