WW1 - At the Front

The order to move was given 31 March 1917.  Captain Henry Meintjes (South Africa) went with the Advance Party to St Omer, France, on 3 April, followed by Lieutenant Maurice Alfred Kay and 2nd Lieutenant Thomas Bertrand Marson (Recording Officer and author of Scarlet and Khaki) on 5 April.  The remainder of the Squadron followed on 7/8 April, the pilots being:

Major RG Blomfield, DSO (Australia)
Captain A Ball, DSO MC Lieutenant CA Lewis, MC
Lieutenant LM BarlowLieutenant HMT Lehmann, MC
Lieutenant RM Chaworth-MustersLieutenant JO Leach
Lieutenant RTC Hoidge (Canada) Lieutenant GJC Maxwell
Lieutenant CRW KnightLieutenant WB Melville
Lieutenant KJ Knaggs Lieutenant AFP Rhys-Davids

After resolving initial issues with the S.E.5 (on 10 Apr, thirteen of the aircraft were unserviceable), the Squadron joined 9th Wing and moved to Vert Galant on 20 April 1917 to support the 2nd phase of the Second Battle of Arras.  It conducted its first missions on 22 April, with orders for two sorties of six aircraft to patrol the Lievin-Moreuil line for 2 1/2 hrs each, though with the following condition: "On no account will an S.E.5 cross the lines under any circumstances."  Though probably not a very popular precaution with the pilots, it was likely a wise one given the inexperience of many of the pilots and the newness of the machines they were flying.  The arrival in theatre of Manfred von Richthofen and his Flying Circus in March and the resulting Bloody April was likely a large impetus for the precaution.  However, the Squadron did not remain on the sidelines for long; the next day, Captain Ball, flying a Nieuport Scout, engaged five German aircraft and earned his 32nd victory.

This was the first of many Squadron victories.  It was rumoured that the German opposition referred to the Squadron as the 'Anti-Richthofen Squadron'.  This was in no small part due to that initial cadre of pilots that first came to France, half of which would become aces within 56 Squadron and would account for 119 of the Squadron's 427 victories:

Reginald Hoidge - 27Gerald Maxwell - 26
Arthur Rhys-David - 25Leonard Barlow - 20
Albert Ball - 13Cecil Lewis - 8

The Squadron's top ace was Captain James McCudden, who arrived on 15 August 1917.  Aside from scoring 51 of his 57 victories with Squadron, he would inculcate an element of teamwork and tactics into the rising stars of 56.  In addition to those listed above, this included 10+ aces Richard Maybery, Geoffrey Bowman, Cyril Crowe, Henry Burden, Maurice Mealing, William Irwin and Trevor Durrant.

The Squadron suffered its first casualty on 30 April, with the loss of Lieutenant Maurice Alfred Kay.  Further losses followed a week later, on 7 May, this time including Captain Albert Ball and Lieutenant Roger Michael Chaworth-Musters.  Captain Ball was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.  By the end of the war, the Squadron would lose forty pilots in action, four killed in accidents, have twenty-four wounded and thirty-one taken prisoner.

On 31 May 1917, the Squadron moved north to Estrée-Blanche/Liettres to support the British Second Army in the upcoming Battle of Messines.  In the lead-up to the battle, the Squadron conducted offensive patrols behind the lines from La Bassee Canal to Hermies, in the main to prevent enemy observation of battle preparations.  On 4 June, 2nd Lieutenant Rhys-Davids shot down the German aircraft known as the Pink Lady.  This was the first of two victories by Rhys-Davids against a notable opponent.  The second came on 23 September 1917, when Lieutenant Werner Vos engaged a group of 56 Squadron pilots, including McCudden and Rhys-Davids.  After ten minutes, during which he hit all with bullets, this renowned pilot finally succumbed with the victory credited to Rhys-Davids.  The Battle of Messines saw the Squadron engage in ground attack, using their guns to strafe sheds, vehicles and troops.

On 13 June, the Germans conducted a daring aerial attack against London, using their new Gotha G.IV bomber.  Given the high level of injury and death inflicted, 56 Squadron was selected to return to England to augment the home defence while UK-based Squadrons were readied and trained for the purpose.  To that end, the Squadron moved to Bekesbourne on 21 June.  After 10 days of no further raids by the enemy, the Squadron returned to Estrée-Blanche.  Two days after their departure, the German raids recommenced.

At Estrée-Blanche, the Squadron continued build on its fierce reputation, conducting patrols of the Roulers-Issegham-Courtrai-Menin area and emerging victorious though often grossly outnumbered.  On 31 July, the Third Battle of Ypres (Battle of Passchaendale) began.  In addition to patrols against German aircraft and bomber escort, the Squadron again took on the role of ground attack.  On the first day, Lieutenant R.A. Maybery conducted a particularly aggressive attack against an enemy aerodrome at Heule:

After shaking off pursuit by two hostile aircraft, "He zoomed up to 200 feet and began to circle to the aerodrome.  He dropped three successive bombs on sheds, all of which exploded and seemed to find their mark.  A fourth bomb, which failed to release over the aerodrome, was dropped over Heule station between a goods train and shed.  He then returned to the aerodrome and after silencing machine gunners, he shot up some sheds from a very low height; at one time his wheels actually touched the ground.  He next proceeded to Cuerne aerodrome nearby which he likewise shot up.  Next he machine-gunned some troops on the ground.  His attention was then drawn to an enemy fighter at about 500 feet just below the clouds.  He thereupon zoomed up to engage it, and soon after saw it crash." [taken from AIR 27/527, Operations Record Book 1916-1939, p12].

The Third Battle of Ypres raged on for over three months, during which the Squadron victory count steadily mounted.  This included three aircraft brought down by Lieutenant LM Barlow in the same day on 25 September.  Of course, 56 Squadron suffered its own losses, including the terrible loss of Lieutenant Rhys-Davids, last scene in aerial combat near Roulers, on 27 October 1917.  Major Blomfield, promoted to Wing Commander, left the Squadron 29 October.

Now under the command of New Zealander Major Rainsford Balcombe-Brown, MC, the next move for the Squadron was on 18 November to Laviéville to support the Battle of Cambrai.  Again, the pilots engaged in a mix of aerial combat and ground attack.  The Squadron stayed in Lavieville after the unsuccessful conclusion of this battle, continuing their fierce efforts against the German aircraft and ground troops.  December was a banner month for Capt McCudden, with thirteen victories.  On 23 December, he crashed four hostiles in the same day, a first for the RAF.  December also saw the loss of ace Captain Maybery, who died whilst sending his opponent down in flames on the 19th.

In January, the Squadron moved to Baizieux.  On 5 March 1918, Capt McCudden was posted back to England, where he was promoted to Major and awarded the Victoria Cross.  Sadly, he crashed on 9 July 1918 in an accident whilst flying to France to take over command of 60 Squadron.  On 21 March, the German forces began a great offensive towards Amiens quickly regaining territory lost to the Allied Forces in 1916.  In face of this onslaught, 56 Squadron did its part to harass German ground troops, protect bombers and deal with enemy fighters.  At the end of March, the Squadron was forced to move to Valheureux.  Over the next four months, the Squadron conducted air-to-air patrols whilst the Allied Forces planned for their next and final offensive.  Major Euan James Leslie Warren Gilchrist, MC, DFC, took over command of the Squadron 5 May 1918 due to the loss of Major Balcombe-Brown on the 2nd.

On 8 August, the Allied ground offensive began with the Battle of Amiens.  Leading up to this, 56 Squadron with the other squadrons of 3rd Brigade was tasked with ground attack.  On 1 August, 3 and 56 Squadrons attacked Epiney aerodrome, dropping one hundred and four 25-pound bombs and expending over ten thousand bullets.  This fierce attack resulted in 6 hangars and 16 aircraft being set on fire, amongst other damage inflicted.  All of this was captured in 48 photographs taken during the attack.  The remainder of the war saw the Squadron follow the ground offensive eastward, with moves to Lechelle, Esne and La Targette.  Missions continued to include a combination of air-to-air and ground attack.

On 22 November, with the end of the war, the Squadron moved to Béthencourt, thence back to the Narborough, UK, on 15 February 1919.  Captain Duncan Grinnell-Milne, DFC, had taken over command 17 December due to illness by Major Gilchrist.  On 22 January 1920, within a month of their move to Bircham Newton, the Squadron disbanded.

Continue to: Inter-war Years

Information taken from Operations Records available at the National Archives, the raf.mod.uk website and, with kind permission, the 56(R) Squadron archives. UK Crown copyright.