Aircraft of the First World War: A tour of the Grahame-White Factory at the RAF Museum London

By Richard Moss | 15 January 2015

A tour of the aeroplanes in the new First World War in the Air Gallery at the Royal Air Force Museum with Head of Collections, Ian Thirsk


a photo of a man standing in front of the propellers of a World War I aeroplane
Ian Thirsk, Head of Collections at the RAF Museum with the Royal Aircraft Factory R.E.8© Photo Richard Moss
There seem to be countless aircraft vying for the attention when you enter the First World War in the Air Gallery. Recently opened in the historic Claude Grahame-White Factory at Hendon, the RAF Museum's newest gallery space is home to a collection of period aircraft that ranks as one the best of its type in the world.

The impressive display tells a story of human bravery and rapid technological innovation via aircraft, objects and ephemera in a way that marks a new but successful departure for the museum, but its stock-in-trade remains a collection of iconic aircraft with redolent names like Fokker, Avro and Sopwith.

And it is a lesser known aircraft and one of the most eye-catching, which is a particular favourite of the RAF Museum’s Head of Collections, Ian Thirsk.

Royal Aircraft Factory F.E.2b

a photo of a biplane with two compartments in a forward cockpit
Royal Aircraft Factory FE2b© Richard Moss
Thirsk may have overseen the hanging and display of one of the best collections of original and recreated First World War aircraft you are likely to encounter, but the F.E.2b, hung high and painted in black with a payload of bombs racked beneath its wings, is he says, “special”. 

“It’s my favourite,” he admits, “we have brought it back from the dead really. It’s such an important aircraft for the collection and it is one of the key aircraft in the whole exhibition.”

Introduced to the skies over the Western front in late 1915 as a two-seat fighter escort for unarmed patrols over enemy lines, the aircraft soon fell prey to the new Fokker and Albatross German fighters and in 1916 it was converted to a night bomber.

The F.E.2b here carries the markings A6526, an aircraft that served in three squadrons before it was written off after hitting a shell hole during a forced landing on a bombing sortie on October 8 1918.

It is, as Thirsk explains, “part reproduction, part original”.

The fuselage is an original spare that was never finished off and later discovered in the Royal Aircraft Factory near Lowestoft. The museum managed to get hold of some original drawings and the aeroplane was built over a 15 – 20 year period by John McKenzie, a master craftsman and aircraft builder based in Southampton.

“It was a type that was absent from the world’s collections,” he says proudly, “and we’ve managed to bring it back to life again.”

With its gun pointing over the edge of the forward gunner’s cockpit you get the feeling that the F.E.2b would not be the easiest thing to hang on to in the middle of a dogfight. And all of this without parachutes, which for pilots and aircrew, were only developed towards the end of the war.

“There was some concern that if you gave them parachutes they might just jump out,” says Thirsk. “That’s the way the war was fought.”

Beneath it is a restored WWI landing beacon, a rare survivor lovingly reconditioned by RAF Museum volunteers. The beacon would have been used to guide the pilots of the F.E.2.b night bomber back into the airfield.

Royal Aircraft Factory R.E.8

a photo of a two-seater aeroplane seen from the rear
Royal Aircraft Factory R.E.8© Richard Moss
One of the most important aspects of the air war of the First World War was spotting for the guns, and the R.E.8 biplane, nicknamed the ‘Harry Tate’ after a popular musical hall comedian, was one of the flying machines pressed into service for this dangerous task.

The replica, in No. 9 Squadron colours, was built in 2011 in New Zealand by The Vintage Aviator Ltd using an original RE.8 rudder, wing and fuselage parts held by the RAF Museum as patterns. The vintage recreation has flown extensively in both New Zealand and the UK. 

Another aircraft designed originally as a fighter, it was, says Thirsk, “a very stable aeroplane”.

“It was ideal for taking photographs for observation, but that of course restricted it in terms of maneuverability and it was picked off quite heavily by the Albatross and the Fokker Triplanes.

“The loss rate for crew flying the plane was incredibly high. It was a very dangerous job, without parachutes, flying in all weathers, in freezing cold over the lines with minimal protection.”

The arrival of the most widely used British reconnaissance aircraft of the latter stages of the war coincided with the period in April 1917 of German air superiority known as "Bloody April". Allied aircrews flying planes like the R.E.8 in support of the Battle of Arras suffered a loss rate four times higher than their German adversaries in the Imperial German Air Service (or Luftstreitkräfte).

Improved tactics in late summer 1917 - and planes and like the S.E.5.a and Sopwith Camel - eventually restored parity and Allied air superiority, but its unpopularity with aircrews (many inexperienced pilots lost their lives due to its tendency to spin) and with civil pilots after the war meant there are few surviving examples. Only two originals remain; one at Imperial War Museum Duxford and one in Belgium.

Albatross D.Va

A photo of a German biplane with a light wooden fuselage
Albatros D.Va© Richard Moss
One of the German planes stalking the R.E.8 was the Albatross D.Va, an advanced design in terms of aircraft construction, here representing an aircraft flown on the Western Front by the fighter squadron Jasta 61 in 1918.

“Clinker built, like a boat, it has a very clean, streamlined form and was extremely advanced for its time,” says Thirsk. “Performance wasn’t quite so high as they’d expected as it was quite heavy, but nevertheless it was an incredibly effective aeroplane. The Red Baron was flying these at the beginning of his career. It was a very well respected machine.”

Built in large numbers, it had a few technical problems including structural failure in the lower wing and in 1918 prolonged diving in D.V aircraft was banned.

“The engine [a Mercedes D.III] is an original from our reserve collection at Stafford. I would call this plane and the RE8 not a reproduction but rather a late series production,” says Thirsk unassumingly. “They really are faithful to the original construction techniques and materials.”

Climbing into the cockpit you get a fleeting sense of what the pilot experienced, with the engine surprisingly exposed beyond a rudimentary dashboard. A little-known fact of this proximity was the laxative effect of the engine oil, which had pilots scurrying quickly for the facilities upon landing. 

Fokker D.VII

a photo of a single seat biplane with mottled camouflage suspended from a hangar ceiling
Albatros D.VII© Richard Moss
A more advanced fighter – certainly on the German side – was the Fokker D.VII, which the Museum has set in a swooping position near the rear of the former factory as though it had just burst through the walls of the first floor factory office behind. 

Another revolutionary design, it introduced a steel tube fuselage structure which was fabric covered as opposed to the wooden framed fighters that preceded it, and it became one of the outstanding fighters of the First World War. Designed to win back German air superiority in 1918, Herman Goering, later Head of Hitler’s Luftwaffe, was an early D.VII ace.

“It had no bracing wires,” says Thirsk, “the wing was strong enough not to require those. It was strong, fast and very, very maneuverable.” With its distinctive mottled camouflage, the fighter was so feared it became the only German plane impounded and taken to Allied side by the French at the end of the war.

This aircraft was built in 1918 in what is now Poland and left in Ostend by the retreating Germans. It was used by the Belgians until 1931 before being acquired by the English collector Richard Nash in 1937.

“I would say it ranks among the best fighters of the War,” says Thirsk, “certainly on a par with the Sopwith Camel.”

Sopwith F.1 Camel

a photo of a biplane with roundels suspended in a hangar
The Sopwith Camel© Richard Moss
Facing the Fokker on the Allied side, the Sopwith Camel and the S.E.5.a were, says Thirsk, “like the Hurricane and the Spitfire of their day”.

Perhaps befitting its fame the Camel, which took its name from the hump over the breeches of the two machine guns, has been strung high above all the other exhibits and the most famous Allied fighter of the First World War certainly looks fit for purpose. Yet for a few inexperienced pilots it was notoriously difficult to fly.

Like most aeroplanes of the First World War the engine had a radial configuration of cylinders that rotated around a stationary crankshaft. 

“Its rotary engine meant you got tremendous gyroscopic force, you could easily go into a spin and it killed a few pilots in training,” explains Thirsk. “But in the hands of an experienced flyer it was deadly; the twin synchronised machine guns of the Camel shot down more enemy aircraft than any other Allied fighter of the First World War and helped tip the balance in air superiority back towards the Allies.” 

The aircraft was probably built by Boulton and Paul at Norwich and sold as war surplus. It briefly flew in 1923 before becoming part of the Richard Nash collection. It was restored at Heathrow Airport between 1958 and 1962.

Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5a

a photo of an aeroplane with a square radiator
Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5a© Richard Moss
Sitting rather more humbly on the ground beneath it, the S.E.5a with its distinctive square radiator behind its propeller, was flown by some of the leading British fighter pilots including Beauchamp Proctor, Bishop, Mannock and McCudden.

Less glamorous and less well-known perhaps, but in terms of Allied air power, it was a very important machine with an inline Hispano-Suiza V-8 in line piston engine

“This was a very fast aeroplane, very manoeuvrable, very effective and well respected by the Germans,” says Thirsk of an original example which was built in 1918 in Birmingham and that flew with the RAF Occupation Forces in Germany in 1919.  

“There’s not a lot between this and the Camel. The S.E.5.a was easier to fly; a more benign and friendly plane and it had two Vickers 303 machine guns. It’s quite a machine.”  

“After the war this one was used by a company called Savage skywriting who were based at Hendon. They had six of these with smoke canisters in the back so they could write things in the sky. That’s why it survived.”

Sopwith 5F.1 Dolphin

a photo of a bi-plane seen from behind
Sopwith 5F.1 Dolphin C3988 seen from the rear port side. Note the backward stagger of the wings to give the pilot a better view.© Photo Richard Moss
A stride away, facing the great green hangar doors of the Graham White factory, sits the Sopwith Dolphin; another step change in fighter design for the Allies and a further unique acquisition for the museum.

“I keep saying they are all very, very special, but this one is especially so, there aren’t any of these left anywhere in the world,” says Thirsk of a plane which has once again been brought back to life using rare original parts.

A composite reconstruction with original tail surfaces, fuselage frame parts and nose cowlings from three separate aircraft, its identity comes from the original Sopwith-built rear fuselage section dating to 1918.

“It was the RAF’s first multi-gun fighter. It had two machine guns above the wing area and two firing through the propeller you could also put two below the wings if you wanted to.

“It also has a very curious backward stagger to the wing, designed to give the pilot a better view. In the conventional fighters like the Sopwith Camel the view was blocked by the top wing. They felt that if they were to anchor the top wing backwards you would improve the view for the pilot,” explains Thirsk.

“It put the centre of gravity out, so they had to modify the design for that, but it was quite an effective aeroplane – very high performance. The engine let it down in many ways, it wasn’t as good as it could have been, but it could fly very fast and climb very high.

“Coming after the Camel, the Dolphin was very much the cutting edge technology of the day. It had the radiators on the side of the fuselage and a liquid cooled inline engine too, as opposed to a rotary engine, which was a departure from normal Sopwith Practice.”

Vickers F.B.5 Gunbus

a photo taken from below of a biplane with a rear propeller and steel fuselage
Vickers FB5© Richard Moss
Hovering above this advanced machine, the Vickers F.B.5 Gunbus, a “pusher” aircraft with a boom mounted tail and the propeller behind the crew in an alloy covered nacelle, seems a very primitive aircraft.

Apart from perfectly illustrating the rapid evolution in technology and design during the First World War, it's one of handful of planes on display here for which the RAF pejorative, “kite”, seems wholly appropriate.

Yet it was, in fact, the world’s first operational fighter aircraft. Going into service with No 6 Squadron RFC in November 1914, it was armed with a single pivot mounted .303 Lewis Gun fired by an observer sitting in a very shallow and exposed area, in the front.

Needless to say, it's hard to even contemplate taking to the air in this flying tin bath and firing and being fired upon while hanging on for grim life.

“It gave him a good field of fire”, observes Thirsk of the precarious forward position in an aircraft which, by the end of 1915, was mainly used as a trainer.

“This example was built by the Royal Aeronautical Society in 1965 using an original Gnome Monosoupape nine-cylinder rotary engine.”

Perhaps most remarkably this working replica flew regularly until a final flight at the RAF 50th Anniversary Royal Review at RAF Abingdon on June 14 1968. 

Caudron G.3

a photo of a biplane with a single propeller and short barrel like fuselage
Caudron G3© Richard Moss
But there is an even more primitive looking plane in the collection; the Caudron G.3, which was used mainly as a training and observation aeroplane. And despite its appearance, it built up a reputation among pilots as a tough and reliable little aircraft. 

The French-built plane served with both the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service, who used it to supplement the inadequate supplies of aircraft from Great Britain. As well as for training the RFC used it for reconnaissance and even fitted it with light guns and bombs for ground attack operations.   

“It’s a very weird looking plane, it really is a kite,” concedes Thirsk. “You just stuck it into the wind and flew in it.

“This example was built in 1916 and served with the Belgian Air Force. It was acquired by the collector Richard Nash in the late 1930s and flown as a private aeroplane.”

Probably built in 1916, the tough little plane also served as a civil aircraft from 1921 to 1936, when it flew to the UK and appeared at various air shows including the 1936 Hendon Pageant. 

Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2b

A photo of a biplane suspended in a hangar
The Vickers FB5 Gun Bus© Richard Moss
By comparison the BE.2.b was a much more robust two-seater aircraft used for reconnaissance, bombing and training.

“The observer sitting in the back with his map and his drawings, flying over enemy lines, would draw down what he could see” says Thirsk. “It was a very stable aeroplane so it was ideal for that purpose but it became what was known as 'Fokker fodder' and was destroyed in very large numbers."

It did have some basic armament, (although this model would have taken to the skies with a rifle or pistol in the cockpit) but the early models were unarmed.

“It’s another gem of the collection,” says Thirsk, “and was built from scratch by a designer called John McKenzie to the original drawings at the former RAF Museum facility at Cardington between 1983 and 1988.” 

Incorporating some original B.E.2.a fittings and a correct original propeller, the replica carries the markings of an aircraft piloted by 2nd Lt William Bernard Rhodes-Moorhouse who was awarded a Victoria Cross for an attack on Courtrai Railway Station at Cambrai, on April 26 1915.

Flying B.E.2.b No 687 and dropping a 100lb bomb, Rhodes-Moorhouse was fatally wounded by ground fire but managed to fly home. His VC was the first awarded for an aerial action.

Sopwith Triplane

a photo of a triplane with RAF roundels on its fuselage
Sopwith Triplane © Richard Moss
“These weren’t manufactured in huge numbers but they made a big impact on the war and redressed air superiority of for the Allies,” says Thirsk of the Sopwith Triplane, a beautiful single seat scout, which boasted phenomenal rates of climb and roll.

“Its three wings gave it very high lift performance and it was very manoeuvrable. It outclassed the Albatross fighter and the Germans were inspired by it, so they produced the Fokker Dr.I, the Fokker Triplane, which is what the Red Baron was flying when he was shot down on April 21 1918.

Armed with a single synchronised Vickers machine gun (although a handful were built with double machine guns) the revolutionary plane saw action with the Royal Naval Air Service in the winter of 1916-1917. It was however a relatively brief combat service record for the Triplane, which was soon eclipsed by the Sopwith Camel as the fighter of choice for both the RNAS and the RFC. 

One of only two originals left in the world - there’s a reproduction at the Shuttleworth Collection, which they fly regularly and which famously crashed on landing during a summer airshow in 2014.

This triplane was rescued from a dump at RAF Cardington in 1936 and flown in pageants at Hendon in 1936-7. It was almost lost again after the war but was rescued once again and restored.

Bristol F.2b Fighter

a photo of a biplane with steel forward fuselage
Bristol F.2b Fighter© Richard Moss
“This one was one of the most effective First World War aircraft we had,” says Thirsk of the ‘Brisfit’, a fighter reconnaissance aircraft with a rear gunner.

“When it first went into service they didn’t really fly it the way it should have been flown.

"It’s very maneuverable and very fast but it was flown straight and level like a bomber aircraft, so initially they were being struck down in large numbers. But they realised they needed to change and use it like a (single seat) fighter, and when they did that it started to really redress the balance and it shot down quite a lot of aeroplanes."

Despite being a two-seater the Brisfit, with its forward firing Vickers machine gun and ring mounted Lewis Gun in the observer’s rear cockpit, could hold its own against enemy single seat fighters and it served to the end of the war and into the 1930s.

“You couldn’t out dive one of these things, it was the fastest diving aeroplane of the First World War with a Rolls Royce Falcon engine, a very early example of a Rolls Royce inline engine which was then developed into the Eagle and the Kestrel and then of course the Merlin for the Spitfire.”

With an original fuselage frame that came from one place and the wings from another, the composite reconstruction, displayed here with the starboard wing and fuselage structure revealed, the aircraft represents the aircraft flown by Captian W.F.J Harvey and captain D.E. Waight of No. 22 Squadron operating from Agincourt airfield on July 1 1918.

The First World War in the Air exhibition is open 10am - 6pm, seven days a week. Admission is free. See www.rafmuseum.org.uk/london/

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

More on this story:

RAF Museum hits all the right notes with new First World War in the Air gallery

RAF Museum's Sopwith Camel "flies" again as First World War gallery takes shape

Sharp-shooting and the recklessness of youth: The story of the RAF Museum's Sopwith Camel

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I have been before and will go again very soon.It is without doubt a fantastic museum section and not to be missed. I so love the photos of both men and women manufacturing the parts ( wing ribs and such )I have the necessary skills to construct a full size replica and am giving it much thought.
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