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Portal's World War I experience, 1915-1918.


Charles Frederick Portal, later 1st Viscount of Hungerford (1893-1971), had just completed his second year at Christ Church, Oxford, when World War I began. A keen motorcyclist, having represented Oxford University against Cambridge in a motorcycling contest in May 1914, he enlisted in the Royal Engineers as a dispatch rider, was commissioned a few weeks later, and transferred to the Royal Flying Corps in 1915. He went on to fly hundreds of missions and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Military Cross. A lieutenant colonel commanding a training wing at the end of the war, he opted to remain in the Royal Air Force. From 1940 to 1945, Portal was Chief of Air Staff, that is, professional head of the Royal Air Force, and a key member of the Chiefs of Staff Committee advising Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

The following account of his World War I flying experiences was written as an essay while he was attending the first staff course at the Royal Air Force's new Staff College at Andover in 1922-1923; it is preserved in The National Archives at Kew, London (AIR 1/2386/228/11/1).

On joining the Royal Flying Corps in July 1915 I was posted to No. 3 Squadron, (Morane Parasol) then stationed at Auchel and working with the 1st Corps. My military experience was confined to Dispatch Riding and the simpler side of the work of Corps Signals. I had never been in an aeroplane nor had I seen a Lewis Gun. I knew the Morse Code well, and was fairly competent to read a map and find my way about on the ground.

I had only the vaguest idea what my new duties would be. I had seen aeroplanes signalling with coloured lights and lamps in the artillery and I had seen a Morane blown up on the ground by the bombs which it was going to drop on the lines. I had a vague idea of the uses of reconnaissance.

I knew nothing whatever of squadron organisation.

On joining the squadron I was posted to A Flight, where I met Captain Hubbard, who had just come out to command the flight. He told me--

That I was to be his observer:

That he had never flown over the lines.

That I must find out how to work a Lewis Gun.

That we would do the early Tactical

Reconnaissance the day after tomorrow.

After I had spent several hour's on the Lewis Gun I was told that the Morane could not carry it and me and in consequence I always went up with a stripped rifle and 100 rounds of .303.

During the next day I was taught the Artillery Code by another observer; and on the third morning Hubbard and I set out for the early Tactical Reconnaissance. Not having been up before, I soon lost my way, but he showed me the Foret de Nieppe and after that I managed to keep my bearings all right. I tried to count the trucks in the various stations over which we flew, but I was interrupted a good deal by the engine missing and by A.A. fire of which I was very much afraid. After losing our way and coming down to 3,000 feet over Lille, we returned home.

At the time it did not appear strange that a reconnaissance should be performed by a pilot who had only once before flown the type of aeroplane used (and wrecked it) and had never been over the objective on any other part of the enemy's lines, accompanied by an observer who had never been in the air at all. It now seems that there must have been a considerable shortage of personnel.

All the pilots in No. 3 Squadron treated the Morane Parasol with very great respect. One gathered that the chances of death by misadventure on the aerodrome were infinitely greater than by enemy action. Hubbard was an excellent pilot and never gave his observer any cause for anxiety.

There was absolutely no attempt to instruct the newly joined officers in squadron duties. Except that I had to sleep in the office about once in three weeks I don't remember doing any other work besides flying. Everything else was called "hot-air" and was left to the Sergt. Major and the Orderly Room clerk. So far as one could see, the Flight Commander's administrative work consisted of an "orderly room" about every three days and an inspection of Flight Stores about every week. Everything seemed to run perfectly.

After I had done a few reconnaissances I was told that I must learn to do artillery work as Gower, the flight artillery pilot was going on leave and Hubbard said he didn't think he could do the "buzzing" as well as fly the Morane.

I was therefore given half an hour's" lecture by Gower and one "demonstration" shoot with 6? Howitzers and was then made to do a shoot with 9.2? Howitzers while Gower flew the machine. One shoot was moderately successful, and I was then put on artillery work with Hubbard as pilot.

At this time there was no squadron artillery officer, but there was a Brigade Liaison officer who occasionally came round to talk over the shoots. The observers visited the batteries fairly frequently, but most of the shoots went off without a hitch (owing to the small number of aeroplanes working at one time and to the efficiency of the operators), and the "conference" was generally confined to mutual congratulations.

The "Counter-Battery" organisation had not then been perfected, and there was very little attempt at co-ordinated work. The squadron commander, working with the Heavy Artillery Brigade, did most of the work of allocating targets to flights and batteries.


Individual pilots often arranged to bombard a target of their own selection with a battery which they regarded and referred to as "their own" without any reference to higher authority. Many pilots had special signals agreed with the battery, and frequently remarks calculated to encourage our gunners or exasperate the enemy were sent down "in clear".

The work of a pilot or observer at that time was not very heavy. To make two flights in a day was most unusual, except during "battle periods". Clouds at 4,000 feet or under were considered a bar to all artillery or reconnaissance work.

As a rule a pilot did one reconnaissance or one artillery observation flight per day. Flights seldom exceeded 2 hours.

An accident while on leave caused me to miss the battle of Loos, but when I returned after it very few changes had taken place. The appearance of the Fokker (1) had somewhat startled the B.E. squadrons in the neighbourhood, but the Morane, with the observer behind, was considered quite able to defend itself. This it should certainly have been able to do, but only provided the observer understood his Lewis Gun. Most observers were very vague about the clearing of stoppages, and in time a Morane was shot down by Immelmann (2) over Valenciennes.

After this it was decided to send 3 Moranes together on the Valciennes reconnaissance. I was one of the observer, and prevailed upon my pilot (Harvey-Kelly (3)) to let me take a Lewis Gun instead of my rifle.

No arrangements were made for "formation" but it was agreed that if one Morane was attacked the other two would come to its help. We crossed the lines with Mealing at about 10,000 feet, Harvey-Kelly a little behind him at 8,000 feet and Saunders further behind at 6,000 feet (he could get no higher owing to McCudden's (4) load of ammunition).

Immelmann duly appeared at 11,000 feet and attacked the top Morane. Both the others were unable to help, but fortunately the observer beat him off.

Pilots at that time seemed very unwilling to fly anywhere near another machine. If we had adopted the modern "formation" I am convinced that Immelmann would not have attacked at all, but evidently it was considered unsafe to fly within several hundred yards of anyone else.

Shortly after Christmas 19151 was sent home to England to learn to fly, and reported to Castle Bromwich. Comparing this station with the modern instructional Establishment one is very much struck by the extraordinary ignorance which prevailed among 60% of the instructors. Morale among the pupils was correspondingly low, and although there were very few serious accidents it cannot be said that the instruction was good. Every instructor taught in a different way. Some were very good but others were disgracefully bad. Often their pupils performed better than they did after a few hours' so-called instruction.

After taking my 'ticket' I was sent to Netheravon, where 'moral' among the pupils was, on the whole, worse than at Castle Bromwich, though the instructors were very much better. There had been several bad accidents in which people had been killed, and certain senior officers refused to fly certain types of aeroplane. This had a very bad effect on the pupils.

I was posted to No. 60 Squadron, Gosport, in May 1916, having applied to fly Moranes. The whole atmosphere of the station was quite different from the other two stations at which I had been. Everyone was keen on flying, and thanks to Smith-Barry (5), recently joined pilots had a very good chance of learning the real principles of safe flying both from precept and example.

I flew out to France on May 26th, and on June 16th the squadron arrived at Vert Galand and was placed in the G.H.Q. Wing.

Our duties consisted of long reconnaissance and close offensive patrols, four aeroplanes generally flying together. The formation was not worthy of the name, as no one cared about flying less than 100 yards from another pilot. In this squadron an attempt was made to have one flight of biplanes and two of monoplanes. I do not know the reason for this, but it was not satisfactory from the biplane pilot's point of view. The monoplanes were purely fighters, but were neither so fast nor capable of going so high as the biplanes. When escorts were attempted the uselessness of a single-seater for close escort work was shown. Shortly after I left the squadron it was made homogenous, and a little later was equipped with Nieuport Scouts. In July 1916 I was posted to No. 3 Squadron to command a flight, and found the squadron in the middle of the first stage of the Somme battle.


I felt very keenly my utter ignorance of all administrative and technical matters, but with a great deal of help from my Squadron Commander (Harvey-Kelly) I managed to keep the flight going.

I found that a good many changes in the methods of work had been made during the last nine months.

It was now considered possible to do artillery work at about 2,000 feet. Since the introduction of the "Counter-Battery Office" with its fixed daily programme of work, there was no chance for a pilot to carry out shoot after shoot with his "pet" battery at targets which took his fancy. Pilots could no longer encourage their own artillery or taunt that of their enemy by messages in clear. 'Directional' sending had to be observed, or jamming resulted.

I believe now that too many aeroplanes were using wireless on the Somme for the best results to be obtained. Central wireless stations and artillery liaison officers did not give the service (in setting right a "shoot" which was going wrong) that the pilot of 1918 came to expect. Pilots were generally very careless in their sending, and were apt to take it as a matter of course that a certain number of their shoots would be failures.

Contact patrol was done at very low heights (500-1,000 feet) at this time, and two or three Moranes were hit by our own shells.

During the whole of the battle of the Somme the German pilots were very enterprising. As their aeroplanes were a good deal faster than most of ours it was very difficult to get a chance of fighting them.

Their A.A. fire, on the other hand, was very accurate as a rule. Corps Squadron (6) aeroplanes seemed very often to escape the attentions of A.A. batteries, probably owing to our having directed fire on to them rather often when they were in action.

One battery in the Bastion at Bapaume shot so badly that he was carefully preserved from shell fire lest a better shot might replace him.

By the end of the German retreat to the Hindenburg line it had become the fashion for pilots to do very much more flying than they were thought capable of before. Several pilots in my flight did over six hours per day for more than a week during the fighting round Bullecourt and Queant without feeling any ill effects.

By the spring of 1917 the organisation of counter-battery work was very much improved. The central wireless station had been greatly developed, wireless methods had improved, and the greatest care was taken by Squadron and Wing Commanders to investigate the causes of unsuccessful shoots with the utmost thoroughness. The use of "ringed" photos of targets had been adopted by all pilots as an aide to accurate observation. All pilots and observers were expected to know a great deal about gunnery and to keep in close touch with artillery officers. The increase in efficiency which these developments brought about was astonishing. Between August 20th and October 20th 1916 I attempted 52 shoots with our batteries. Of these 25 were successful and 27 unsuccessful. Between March 16th and May 16th 1917 out of 59 shoots 53 were successful and 6 unsuccessful. It was the same with all our pilots.
 The chief causes of early failure were--
 Wireless trouble.
 Unwillingness of batteries to shoot when E.A.
 were visible.
 Want of liaison with artillery.
 Want of perseverance on the part of the pilot
 and lack of a central wireless station.

In May 1917 I was sent to command No. 16 Squadron, which had had a very bad time during the Vimy fighting, losing about fifty officers in two months. The squadron had just been equipped with R.E.8s, and I found them very comfortable and steady after a Morane, but very much less easy to see out of. I still think that the ideal Corps Reconnaissance aeroplane is a parasol monoplane.

Up to this time I had no training at all in administrative duties; I knew nothing beyond my flying duties, and I set myself to the task of trying to run the ground work of the squadron as well as its work in the air, and I also tried to maintain touch with the Corps Staff, Heavy Artillery and some of the batteries.

I very soon discovered that I was doing none of these things well and saw that either the ground work or the air work must be left to someone else. I had a very good recording officer, but no experienced flight commander so I decided to confine myself entirely to the operational side of the work.

I still think that it is impossible for a Corps L Squadron Commander in stationary warfare to carry out all his duties properly unless he is a superman. He must know his squadron area better than any of his pilots or observers do, so that he can check their reports and observations. He must observe occasionally for enemy batteries in his area, so as to check their methods and appreciate the difficulties which his officers are sure to encounter with some of them. Besides this he must be constantly in touch with the C.B.S.O. H.A. Group (7) commander and Corps I Staff. Add to this his administrative duties, attending conferences, writing orders, reading intelligence, looking after his officers, men and aeroplanes and you have more than 24 hours' work per day.

During the last months of 1917 and for the rest of the period of static warfare, the methods of cooperation were made almost perfect. The last 61 shoots which I observed for, between 1st January 1918 and 27th May 1918 were all successful.

About January 1918 the principle of using wireless receiving sets in Bristol Fighters for long-range observations was started, but the system was not really successful until the Bristol's had been withdrawn from the Corps Squadrons (which had each been allotted one) and centralised in the "Army Flights". This confirms the view that good results ate not obtained with a squadron having more than one type of aeroplane.

During 1918 night bombing by moonlight was ordered. All the pilots enjoyed it, and it was considered a "soft job" compared with work by day, but I doubt whether pilots can be fairly expected to work by night and day for any length of time--or mechanics either for that matter.

I made several attempts to range batteries by night, and most of them were successful, but even at the full moon one had to know the country intimately to succeed.

I was posted to England in June 1918.

Almost all my work with the R.F.C. and R.A.F. has consisted of Army Co-operation, and as this forms the subject of my lecture on December 15th I propose to deal with it more fully then.

(Sgd.) C.F.A. Portal

Squadron Leader.


September 1922.


(1.) The Fokker E.1, the first purpose-built interceptor to enter service, made a considerable impact in the summer of 1915. The B.E. 2, the first type to be made standard in the Royal Flying Corps before the war, had the observer's cockpit in front of the pilot's, which made it difficult for the observer to fire at an enemy approaching from the rear.

(2.) Max Immelmann (1890-1916), the German Luft-streitkrafte's first fighter ace.

(3.) Hubert Dunsterville Harvey-Kelly (1891-1917) gained the first ever British victory in aerial combat when on August 25, 1914 he forced down a German Taube by flying at it aggressively in his B.E. 2.

(4.) James Thomas Byford McCudden (1895-1918) afterwards an outstanding fighter pilot, with 57 aerial victories to his credit by February 2, 1918; recipient of the V.C., D.S.O. and bar, M.C. and bar and M.M., In 1915 he was still flying as an observer, and was not yet commissioned.

(5.) Robert Smith-Barry (1886-1949) as a squadron C.O. on one occasion dealt with accumulated "bumph" by burning down the squadron office. From January 1917 onward flying training in the R.F.C. was revolutionized under his direction.

(6.) Squadrons allocated to artillery spotting were assigned to individual corps; fighter units were at the disposition of army H.Q.s.

(7.) Counter Battery Staff Officer--Heavy Artillery Group.

(8.) It is not quite clear what Portal meant by "long-range observation." If he means the organizational separation of tactical and strategic reconnaissance units that was standard in 1939, it had not really evolved by 1918. If he means artillery spotting more than a dozen miles behind the lines, it is slightly odd that anyone should have ever thought of assigning aircraft for this duty to corps squadrons as the ultra-long-range guns--often naval guns on railway mountings--were under the control of army H.Q.s

Since completing his PhD at Cambridge, England, Arnold D. Harvey has taught at universities in Italy, France, and Germany. He is the author of Collision of Empires: Britain in Three Wars, 1793-1945 (1992), A Muse of Fire: Literature, Art, and War (1998), Arnhem (2001), and Body Politic: Political Metaphor and Political Violence (2007). Dr. Harvey has contributed to the RUSI Journal, and published articles on air warfare in several journals, including Air Power History, "Bombing and the Air War on the Italian Front, 1915-1918." [Fall 2000]
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Title Annotation:Charles Frederick Portal
Author:Harvey, Arnold D.
Publication:Air Power History
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Dec 22, 2009
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