On the formation of the Military Wing of the Royal Flying Corps by Royal Warrant in April, 1912, seven aeroplane squadrons were authorised. By August 1913 stations for five squadrons of the Military Wing had been provided as follows:
1 Squadron at Farnborough
2 Squadrons at Netheravon
1 Squadron at Montrose
1 Squadron at Orfordness
To provide for the seven aeroplane squadrons legislated for by the Royal Warrant, the location of two more aeroplane squadrons had to be decided on.
Sites were selected as follows:
1 station on the coast in the S.E. corner of England
1 station either on the East Coast of England between the Humber and the Tyne or on the coast of Ireland.
Finding a suitable site in Ireland proved to be difficult and by January 1914, Grange Camp Field was selected as a site, and it was suggested that if other alternative accommodation could be found for the occupants of Fort Grange or Rowner, it would dispose with the necessity of building barracks, provided that the quarters vacated within the forts would be sufficient to accommodate the personnel of an R.F.C. Squadron.
It was agreed therefore in February 1914 that the units of the Royal Garrison Artillery stationed in these forts should be moved to other forts on the Portsdown Hill, thus leaving Forts Grange and Rowner available to the Royal Flying Corps, but it was considered that suitable accommodation could be found for the Royal Flying Corps at Fort Grange after extensive alterations had been carried out.
The Chief Engineer at Portsmouth was advised at the beginning of July 1914, that the R.F.C. were going into camp outside Fort Rowner and could remain there for the next two or three months, and he was asked to make every effort to hasten the work at Fort Grange and in the meantime to suit the convenience of the R.F.C. as far as possible in regard to handing over different portions of the accommodation when completed. It was not until March 1915, however, that the appropriation of services in connection with Fort Grange were completed.
In the June of 1914 following training on Salisbury plain for the Military Wing of the R.F.C. Number 5 Squadron (formed from a flight detached from Number 3 Squadron at Netheravon in July 1913) moved to Fort Grange at Gosport. The Squadron gradually settled down in their tents, and machines flew almost daily as far as Salisbury Plain, Farnborough and Shoreham, and the construction of permanent sheds and workshops commenced. It was considered that the new station would be an excellent one from every point of view.
War was declared on the 4 th. August – on the 5th. the Squadron began to mobilise. Additional pilots had been posted, some for duty as such and others for duty as observers. 2nd. Lieutenant L.A. Strange, Royal Flying Corps, Special Reserve, noted:
There was glorious weather during those first weeks of August, 1914. In the warm evenings we used to sit up on the top of Fort Grange, where we had our quarters alongside the aerodrome, and listen to the transports going down the Solent from Southampton in an endless stream. It was the British Expeditionary Force on its way to France at a time when the military critics in the press were debating whether our share in the war would be a purely naval one or whether there was any possibility of our sending a small force to the continent during its latter stages. Everything was ready. Machines, lorries, mechanics, and pilots only waited for the word to move, but for three whole days we were kept mad with impatience while we waited for it to come. At last our marching orders arrived; an hour later the Squadron’s vehicles moved out of Fort Grange on their way to Southampton accompanied by the cheers of those they left behind them.
On the 14th. August, 1914, in an assortment of Henri Farmans and Avro 504’s the Squadron left Gosport for Dover, en route to France; to take its place as part of the first organised national force to fly to a war overseas.
On the departure of No.5 Squadron, Gosport remained unoccupied for two months. In addition to Gosport, the aerodromes at Netheravon, Montrose and Dover were also vacant. There were no units to fill these aerodromes and the enlisting and training of pilots sufficient for the creation of new squadrons, after the wastage in the field had been made good, was a matter of great importance. At the end of September 1914 however permission had been obtained by the Admiralty to make temporary use of Fort Grange for a Flying Station for the training of a Naval Aeroplane Squadron.
By the beginning of 1915 the R.F.C. at home consisted of
1. The Central Flying School
2. The Administrative Wing, Farnborough.
3. 4th. Wing at Netheravon.
4. 5th. Wing (in formation) comprising No. 8 Squadron, with the nucleus of No. 13 Squadron at Gosport.
No. 8 Squadron, which was formed at Brooklands on the 1st. January, 1915, moved to Fort Grange 6 days later and by the 10th. January, had thrown off a nucleus to form No. 13 Squadron R.F.C., which was considered as existing as a separate squadron from that day. By the 13th. January, No. 8 Squadron, together with the nucleus of No. 13 Squadron under training, came under the orders of the newly formed 5th. Wing which had its headquarters at Fort Grange and was commanded by Major L.E.O. Charlton, the commanding officer of No. 8 Squadron, who continued to command both formations until No. 8 Squadron proceeded overseas. The first B.E. 2 C’s with which No. 8 Squadron was to be equipped were allotted towards the end of January.
On the 1st. February 1915, No. 17 Squadron was formed at Gosport and together with Nos. 8 and 13 Squadrons it came under the orders of the 5th. Wing. The squadrons settled down to their training programme which consisted of lectures, signalling., musketry, squad drill, engine instruction, Lewis gun, reconnaissance, packing transport, map-reading, flying and the multitudinous duties to render them fit for service in the field. The flying training at this time was still very elementary in character. The main part of the pupil’s business was to learn to fly with safety and when he could do this he was passed out to the squadrons.
No. 8 Squadron reached its establishment of 12 machines early in April and was ordered overseas. On 15th. April 8 machines arrived safely at St. Omer. Of the remaining 4, one was wrecked at Gosport, two crashed at Folkestone and one came down at Dover, with engine trouble. Transport and personnel left a few days later. No. 8 was the first squadron to arrive overseas wholly equipped with B.E. 2 C’s.
On the departure of No. 8 Squadron to France the 5th Wing consisted of Nos. 13 and 17 squadrons until May 1915, when No. 14 Squadron, which had been formed at Shoreham in February, 1915, moved to Hounslow and came under the orders of the 5th. Wing. The addition of this squadron brought the strength of the Wing up to a three squadron formation.
In August 1915, a proposal was submitted to the Southern Command that additional accommodation for personnel of the R.F.C. was required and as the ground between Forts Grange and Rowner formed a large aerodrome with a capacity greater than the R.F.C. units at Fort Grange could take advantage of it was suggested that Fort Rowner might also be utilised to accommodate additional units of the Royal Flying Corps, thus securing further accommodation without the expense of provisioning a new aerodrome. There was no objection to this proposal provided that other accommodation could be found for the units of the Royal Garrison Artillery stationed at Fort Rowner, and it was eventually agreed to move the artillery units into the Portland Garrison and Fort Brockhurst. These moves were completed by the 24th. September 1915 and Fort Rowner was placed at the disposal of the R.F.C. from that date.
At about this time, in consequence of the increase in the number of stations and training units in the Administrative Wing, it was realised that this Command was too large for one Wing Commander to control, and in order to relieve the situation it was decided that units of the R.F.C. at Birmingham would come under the Wing Commander at Netheravon, and the R.F.C. Units at Shoreham under the Wing Commander at Fort Grange. Under this redistribution No. 3 Reserve Aeroplane Squadron at Shoreham came under the command of the 5th. Wing Fort Grange on the 10th. August, 1915. At the end of August 1915, the Administrative Wing were informed that the formation of six squadrons (Nos. 19, 20, 21, 22, 23 and 24) should be proceeded with at once. Three of these squadrons were formed by the 5th. Wing. No. 22 Squadron was formed from a nucleus flight of No. 13 Squadron on 1st. September, 1915 and took over the accommodation at Fort Rowner, which at that time was in process of being handed over to the R.F.C. No. 23 Squadron, formed from a nucleus flight of No. 14 Squadron on 1st. September, 1915, was located at Fort Grange. The third squadron authorised to be formed by the 5th. Wing was No. 24 and this squadron was formed at Hounslow on 1st. September, 1915 from a nucleus supplied by No. 17 Squadron at Fort Grange. The three squadrons mentioned were brought into being, therefore, during the Fokker era, and it was the intention to equip them, after the initial training period, with machines capable of fighting and observation work.
With regard to the question of home defence during 1915, Gosport came under the Anti-aircraft defences of Portsmouth and instructions were laid down by the General Staff, Portsmouth, which outlined the separate duties to be performed by the units under their command.
Anti-Aircraft Defences, Portsmouth Local rules to be observed by the R.F.C. at Fort Grange Aerodrome.
(1) On reports being received that enemy airships are travelling in the direction of Portsmouth and have reached any point within 35 miles radius of the town the 0.C. R.F.C. will order an aeroplane, suitably armed, to at once leave the ground and climb to a height of at least 8,000 feet.
(2) The machine will stay aloft for 1½ hours and will patrol in the vicinity of the aerodrome, Fort Grange, till the pilot sights an airship or receives notification from the ground that an airship is sighted.
(3) By night, in order to ensure that the presence of an airship seen from the ground shall be notified to the pilot in the aeroplane, 6 single white service rockets with 12 magnesium stars will be fired at one minute intervals from this area station, the search beams from which (with others) are being kept on the airship.
(4) H.M.S. ‘Vernon’ Central Station will, in every instance fire 6 rockets at one minute intervals on picking up, or receiving an airship, in her search-beams.
(5) The Area stations for firing succession of rockets will be Monckton, Brockhurst, Hilsea and Lumps. The four stations command the four quarters or areas of the A.A.C. Defence. An area station will fire the 6 rockets if the enemy airship is illuminated by the lights of the area before being taken up by the lights of H.M.S. ‘Vernon’.
(6) A.A.C. Gun detachments will be ordered to “cease fire” immediately a friendly aeroplane is seen in the vicinity of the airship.
The 5th. Wing at Gosport were detailed to provide 7 B.E.2C’s with pilots to be distributed between the four stations mentioned above. On Zeppelins approaching London each of the grounds would be informed as to the sending up of machines. Pilots were to patrol in the vicinity of their aerodrome for 1½ hours at 8,000 ft. unless hostile aircraft were sighted in which case they were to take the necessary steps to engage them.
At Gosport the 5th. Wing Headquarters together with Nos. 14 which had moved to Gosport from Hounslow in the August, and 17 Squadrons began preparations for their departure to Egypt.
The duties of the 5th. Wing were taken over by the 7th. Wing, which was formed on the 1st. November, 1915 at Dover and comprised the F.R.C. units at Gosport, Shoreham and Brooklands. This wing moved to Fort Grange on the departure of the 5th. Wing during the first week of November. The three squadrons formed in September 1915, under the 5th. Wing (Nos. 22, 23 and 24) had by November 1915 in turn thrown off nucleus flights to form new squadrons, and accordingly Nos, 28 and 29 squadrons were formed at Forts Rowner and Grange with effect from 7th. November 1915 from the supernumerary flights of Nos. 22 and 23 Squadrons respectively, and were provisionally attached to the parent squadrons for pay and rations. No. 24 squadron, the other squadron of the Wing located at Hounslow, had also thrown off its supernumerary flights on 5th. November, to form No. 27 Squadron, but it was decided as and from the 5th. November to form No.27 Squadron, but it was decided as and from 5 November that Nos 24 and 27 Squadrons should be transferred from the 7th Wing to the 6th Wing. A further change however took place in December 1915. On 13 December the units at Northolt (Nos 4 and 11 Reserve Aeroplane Squadrons) came under the command of the 7th Wing. Two days later No 16 Reserve Aeroplane Squadron was formed at Beaulieu and also came under the command of 7th Wing. At the end of December, therefore, the composition of the 7th Wing was as follows:
No 22, 23, 28, 29 Gosport
No 2 Reserve Brooklands
3 Reserve Shoreham
4 Reserve Northolt
11 Reserve Northolt
16 Reserve Northolt
The beginning of 1916 found Gosport, then, with 4 Service Squadrons busy working up. Aircraft being used at this time for training purposes until front-line aircraft were received were:
Bleriot 2 Strutter 80 hp Gnome
Curtiss 2 Strutter 90 hp Curtiss
Martinsyde Scout 80 hp Gnome
BE 2C 70 hp Renault
Maurice Farmans 70 hp Gnome
Henri Farmans 70 hph Gnome
Bristol Scout 80 hp Gnome
Avro 2 Strutters 80 hp Gnome
Caudrons 80 hp Gnome
The next Squadron to leave Gosport was No. 29. This Squadron, which had only been formed in November, 1915 prepared for its departure immediately its period of training was over. It further had the distinction of being the second single—seater fighter squadron to proceed overseas equipped with D.H.2 pusher machines with 100 h.p. Monosoupape engines. On the 25th. March, 1916, 10 D.H.2’s left Gosport for Dover, where the remaining two machines were to arrive from Hendon. During the flight from Gosport, however, the machines had the misfortune to run into a snowstorm, with the result that only four reached Dover. Six machines had forced landings, four being crashed whilst two officers were injured. The two machines from Hendon arrived safely and later four continued their flight to St. Omer where one machine crashed on landing. The bad luck of the Squadron continued. The transport of the personnel of the Squadron which left Gosport on the 16th. March, was detained at Rouen by an outbreak of measles.
No. 22 Squadron were also under orders to move at this period. This squadron was equipped with F.E. 2b machines, but their first new machine only arrived on the 9th. March, 1916, three weeks prior to proceeding overseas. The nucleus flight thrown off by No. 22 Squadron formed No.45 Squadron which came into existence at Fort Grange with effect from the 1st. March, 1916. By the 23rd. March, the newly formed squadron possessed 4 machines of its own.
1 Martinsyde Scout.
2 Bristol Scouts
The formation of another squadron, No. 41, was commenced in April. Owing to the shortage of pilots the need for additional reserve or training squadrons became urgent, so much so that certain service squadrons in the process of formation were converted into training squadrons. No. 41 in particular, was reconstituted as No. 27 Reserve Squadron at Gosport on the 22nd. May 1916 to carry out the preliminary training of pilots. No. 1 Reserve Squadron was formed at, or moved to, Gosport. It carried out the preliminary training of pilots. Officers under training at this time at Gosport did their elementary training on B.E. 2c’s F.E’s and 80 h.p. Avros and then advanced onto Moranes, Bleriots, Bristol Scouts and Martinsydes. The instructors were nearly all pre-war R.F.C. pilots. On the 30th. April, 1916, No. 60 Squadron commenced to form from No. 1 Reserve Squadron.
A redistribution of the wings on the Home Establishment was sanctioned in April, 1916 to take effect from 1st. May, 1916. The 7th. Wing, which had been stationed at Gosport since November 1915, moved to Norwich on the 1st. May, 1916. The headquarters of the 6th. Wing were at Dover and as no other wing had been transferred to Gosport to replace the 7th. Wing, it was decided that the units at the station should come under the command of Major F.F. Waldron, who took over dual command of the station and 60 Squadron on the 1st. May, 1916. On the 25th. May, less than a month from the date of its foundation, the personnel of 60 Squadron embarked for France. On the 8th. June, No. 56 Squadron under the command of Major E.L. Gossage, D.S.O., M.C. was formed at Fort Rowner from a nucleus supplied by No. 28 Squadron, moving in July, 1916, to London Colney. It will be recalled that No. 41 Squadron, formed in April, was converted into No. 27 Reserve Squadron in May, 1916. Early in. July, 1916, however, No. 41 was reformed at Fort Rowner and commenced equipping and training for overseas.
Gosport did not remain long without a wing. On the 9th. August, the 17th. Wing was formed at Fort Grange and comprised the undermentioned units:
No.s 28, 40 and 41 Squadrons from Gosport.
No.s 1, 3, 16 and 27 Reserve Squadrons from Shoreham Beaulieu and Gosport.
On the formation of this Wing the station headquarters, formed to fill the gap after the 7th. Wing departed, ceased to exist as such as the units at Gosport were then administered direct by the 17th. Wing from their headquarters at Fort Grange.
On the 1st. August, ‘A’ Flight of No. 40 Squadron under the command of Major. R. Loraine, left Gosport for France. ‘B’ and ‘C’ flights followed on the 19th. August.The Squadron was equipped with F.E. 8’s pusher biplanes.
No. 41 Squadron, under the command of Major J.H.A. Landon D.S.O., completed its training on Vickers Fighters and De Haviland scouts. The first F.E. 8 arrived in the Squadron on the 9th. September, and a month later had its full establishment of 19 machines.
On the 15th. October, the squadron flew overseas, and with the exception of two aircraft, which made forced landings, all others arrived safely at St. Omer. No further change took place in the units at Gosport during the remainder of 1916. The only Service Squadron stationed at Gosport at this period was No. 28. In March, 1916, No. 28 Squadron became part of the anti-aircraft defensive organisation, the squadron being made responsible for the defence of the Southern Counties. In June 1916, on the formation of the 16th. Wing (Home Defence Wing) No. 28 was remustered as a service squadron.
The Portsmouth district was raided on the night of the 25th. September, 1916 and as this was the first and only occasion on which a Zeppelin visited Portsmouth harbour and vicinity. There is no record of any attempted attack on the airship by aircraft from Gosport.
On the 1st. November,1916, No. 78 Home Defence squadron was formed under the command of H.A. Van Ryneveld M.C. with headquarters at Hove. Flights were distributed at Gosport, Netheravon, Chiddington and Causeway.
On the 1st. February, 1917, a new Reserve Squadron – No.59 was formed at Fort Rowner from a nucleus flight supplied by No. 28 Squadron. This Squadron moved to Yatesbury in April or May 1917. Another Reserve Squadron, No. 62 was formed, from a nucleus supplied by No. 1 Reserve Squadron, on 1st. May. On being completed it moved to Yatesbury on the 10th. May 1917.
A reorganisation of the training units in the United Kingdom was in process from May 1917. On the 31st. May, 1917 it was notified that the nomenclature of a ‘Reserve Squadron’ would be altered to that of a ‘Training Squadron’. In May and June 1917 five new additional Wings (26 to 30 inclusive) joined the Training Brigade and a general redistribution of existing units, consequent upon the formation of these new Wings, took Place. At the beginning of August the 17th. Wing Headquarters moved from Gosport to Beaulieu. This move was coincident with a proposal from the Training Brigade that a School of Special Flying should be formed at Gosport. The composition of the 17th. Wing at the time of its move was:
17th. Wing Headquarters Gosport
No.1. Training Squadron Gosport
On the departure of the wing, therefore, only three training squadrons remained at Gosport, Nos, 1, 27 and 55. At the end of July sanction was requested that Nos. 1, 27 and 55 Training Squadrons should go temporarily into abeyance with effect from 2nd. August and at the same time approval be given for the formation of a School of Special Flying, to be formed out of the personnel of the three above mentioned Squadrons, less the nucleus flights which had been formed from them. It was further suggested that this School of Special Flying should be treated as one of the new Training Depot Stations sanctioned on the 6th. July, 1917. On the 29th. July, 1917 sanction. was given to the proposal to form the School of Special Flying by the absorption of Nos. 1, 27 and 55 Training Squadrons.
Until the end of 1914 the Central Flying School undertook all instruction. However, with the rapid expansion of the R.F.C. it was soon clear that they could not cope, so that, early in 1915, each Wing became responsible for the training of its own pilots. Instruction was most elementary, the pupils main business was to learn to fly with safety. In December, 1916 new regulations under which a pilot would be required to qualify were drawn up.
The most arresting feature in the development of flying training was the establishment of the Gosport School of Special Flying. The creator of this school was Major R.R. Smith-Barry, an officer of forceful personality. He was no stranger to Gosport, because he went to France with No. 5 Squadron in the August 1914 and later took command, in France, of No. 60 Squadron, at that time one of the few fighting squadrons in the R.F.C. in which he had served as a Flight Commander since its formation at Gosport in April 1916. He was back in England in December 1916 with experience of the development of air fighting on the Western Front, and he was given command of No. 1 Reserve Squadron at Gosport. While he commanded No. 1 Reserve Squadron, Smith-Barry developed his ideas and began to gather around him an efficient group of instructors. Lt. Col. G. Phillipi M.C., relates how he had been sent down to Gosport to join Smith-Barry. He found him in a small uncomfortable house in Gosport on a cold winter day at the beginning of 1917.
At this time the D.H.6 (90 h.p. RAF engine) tractor was about to replace the Avro as a training machine, but Major Smith-Barry demonstrated that the dual-control Avro was undoubtedly the best aeroplane for training in aerobatics, which was of vital importance for a fighter pilot in action. He was greatly helped by the production of the Avro with the 100 h.p. Monosoupape engine which proved very suitable for every kind of manoeuvre in the air.
When the first Air Council was formed in January, 1918, one of its first tasks was to reorganise the training systems of the naval and military air services in consequence of their amalgamation. The guiding principle was that nothing should be done which might interfere with the supply of trained personnel to meet the needs of the fighting service.
Perhaps the most important of the efforts made to remodel the training system was the issue to all instructors of a comprehensive manual dealing fully with the methods of Flying Instruction. This booklet a model of its kind, was based on the principles developed at the Gosport School.
Esprit de corps in the school was of a very high standard. The instructional staff of the school had been hand-picked by Smith-Barry. They were all good but several were past- masters in the art of flying. When Smith-Barry was promoted to a General and had to leave his beloved school he sent a telegram to Headquarters after receipt of his instructions,
“Am reporting for duty. Smith-Barry. General.”
The next day, having fallen out with the higher powers, a telegram was received at Gosport.
“Am returning for duty. Smith-Barry. Colonel”.
Just prior to the amalgamation of the R.F.C. and R.N.A.S. in April, 1918, it was decided that all higher training squadrons were to be converted into ‘all through’ training squadrons. In these squadrons the instructor retained his own pupils under his charge throughout the whole course of their instruction in flying i.e., up to the time when the pupil was transferred to a finishing school or overseas. The Gosport method of instruction was considered of paramount importance in connection with this system. It was laid down that whether instructors came from overseas, or were provided from pupils trained in a squadron, it was of equal importance firstly, that they went through the Gosport course of flying before being employed as instructors.
A further reorganisation of the home units took place on the formation of the Royal Air Force on 1st. April, 1918 when Great Britain was divided into five Areas. Thus ended the use of Grange by the R.F.C. and a new era opened when Grange continued to be used by Smith-Barry and his School.
A change in nomenclature with regard to the School of Special Flying took place on the 15th. May, 1918, when the School became known as No. 1 School of Special Flying, a second school having been formed at Redcar, known as No.2 School of Special Flying.
William Law Rennie was a corporal in the Royal Engineers stationed at Karachi. In 1911 an air battalion of the R.E. was formed and he applied for it. Initially it was formed with 14 officers and 150 other ranks. Officers could be selected from any branch of the service whereas other ranks were selected from the Corps of Royal Engineers. This became the Royal Flying Corps in 1912. He was posted to Fort Grange in Gosport just after the beginning of the First World War. Fort Grange was the HQ of R.F.C. Station No.2. He stayed there throughout the War achieving the rank of Regimental Sergeant Major W.O. Class 1 on 2nd May 1917. In March 1918 he became a Lieutenant in the R.F.C.on the list of Extra Regimentally Employed officers. In this photograph Lieutenant William Law Rennie is wearing the unusual uniform of an RAF Officer in 1918. The khaki uniform is the first RAF service dress uniform prior to the blue issue. His rank is Second Lieutenant, indicated by the single bar on each side of his cap badge (worn by Second Lieutenants and Lieutenants) and the gold eagle on his jacket lower sleeve – gold lace bands around the cuff to indicate rank started with Lieutenant. He has a Long Service Good Conduct bar above his left pocket.
A History of Gosport Airfield: The Gosport Diaries – yet to be published.
All photographs come from the author’s collection except where indicated.