Years of Combat

William Sholto Douglas

Collins, London, 1963

I read this book as part of my research into the life and times of Gordon Shephard, who was the most senior RFC or RAF officer killed in WWI (and indeed the book does have information on him).

William Sholto Douglas was in the RFC from the early days of WWI. Subsequently, he served in various senior command posts in the RAF in WWII starting off as deputy chief of the air staff, and was commander of the British zone in occupied Germany after WWII. He became the first Baron Douglas of Kirtleside in 1948 after his retirement from the RAF.

For all his Scottish ancestry, Sholto Douglas was the product of very upper class English education. This rather posh background does come across in writing style of the book, and needs to be put up with in order to get to the very interesting personal account of the early days of the RFC, and eventually the RAF. Incidentally, in WWII his upper class disdain for Americans stopped him from being given a senior appointment in a theatre where the supreme commander was American.

In WWI, he started off as a 2nd lieutenant in the RFA and transferred to the RFC in January 1915, after a disagreement with his commanding officer. He became operational on the Western Front in August 1915, starting off as an air observer. Throughout the war, the bulk of the RFC’s work was air reconnaissance and artillery spotting, even though it is the fighter pilots who became famous. Later on in the war, air attacks on ground targets were more feasible but the weapons loads of the planes were a few pounds.

The main hazard to life and limb in the early days of WWI was the planes themselves. They were very fragile and had to be handled with extreme care. A key issue until late in the war was the low power of the engines available. So, the Farman plane took an hour and a half to reach 4000 feet, but on other days would not even reach that altitude. (It was a “pusher” with the propeller at the rear.) Later on, the radial engines of planes such as the Sopwith 1 ½ strutter and the V12 of the Bristol Fighter were major improvements, along with the ability to fire forwards through the propeller.

The planes themselves were made of wood with fabric covering which was “doped”, that is treated with a lacquer solution to stiffen the cloth. (In fact, it was nitrocellulose which would not have helped in the event of a fire). If that had not been properly applied, the cloth could flap and tear, probably causing an accident. There were no flaps at the edge of the wings – instead the whole wing was twisted, known as wing warping. The wooden frame could break in aerial manoeuvres, again almost certainly causing a crash. Sholto Douglas recalls seeing Mick Mannock managing to land a Nieuport after the lower wing had broken away – a tribute to Mannock’s considerable talent. The crash which killed Gordon Shephard in 1918 seems to have been another instance of the plane breaking up in the air, but this time with fatal results.

Sholto Douglas recalls his encounters with Immelman, Boelcke, von Richthofen and Goering. Indeed, much later he read Boelcke’s account of an encounter that Sholto Douglas had with him and Immelmann in December 1915. Boelcke believed that they had killed Sholto Douglas’ observer, Child, but in fact he had been thrown about so much in the encounter that he was thrown over in the aircraft and was violently sick, vomiting over Sholto Douglas in the rear seat! The RFC aircraft did not have any forward firing guns until 1916, apart from inefficient “pusher” configuration planes. With Douglas’ planes of this era, the observer sat in the front seat and the pilot in the rear. The observer had to fire his Lewis gun backwards, over the pilot’s head, which was useful if they were being pursued but not otherwise. There were also no parachutes, as supposedly a reliable parachute had not yet been invented. This was a lie from the high command, as Sholto Douglas recalls with righteous indignation, as parachutes were available well before WWI.   The “idea” was to stop crews recklessly abandoning their aircraft.

As well as being vomited over by one’s colleagues, the crew would get a face full of flies, especially at low altitude, and be dosed with oil vapour from the engine. The engine oil of the era was castor oil, so there could be unfortunate effects on the digestive system of the crew.

In the book, the author recalls the somewhat bizarre early careers of those who became leaders of the RAF. Trenchard was serving as a Lt Col in the Royal Scots Fusiliers and learnt to fly in his late 30s. Arthur Harris was a bugler in the 1st Rhodesian Regiment and served the first few months of the war in German West Africa. Arthur Tedder was in the colonial civil service in Fiji. Peter Portal started the war as a motorcycle despatch rider. Keith Park was a Kiwi who served in Gallipoli as an NCO. Hugh Dowding was a Scot and had been a captain in the RGA who had learned to fly in 1913 at the age of 31. He transferred to the RFC on the outbreak of WWI.

After the end of WWI, Sholto Douglas left the RAF and worked for Handley Page as a test pilot. He was offered a financial job through family contacts by the famous banker JP Morgan but a chance encounter with “Boom” Trenchard saw him return to the RAF in 1920.

An interesting side issue is that Sholto Douglas’ father was Director of the National Gallery in Dublin during WWI, where Sholto Douglas visited him. In the summer of 1917, he was asked to reconnoitre appropriate sites for airfields in Ireland, and claims the credit for the creation of Aldergrove outside Belfast and Baldonnell near Dublin, both still in use today. He recalls landing his plane in Phoenix Park in Dublin outside what is now the president’s residence, as of course there was no airfield yet in use. He recounts that, if he turned up to recce a site by car in his military uniform, the “corner boys” would jeer and throw stones, but if he arrived by plane and landed in a field, everybody was ecstatically happy to see him! Clearly, it pays to arrive in style.

After retiring from the RAF, Sholto Douglas became chairman of British Airways, as we know it today, in 1949. He died in 1969.

This book is out of print, so if you want to read it you will have to track it down in a secondhand bookshop, online or otherwise. It is certainly an interesting account of the WWI era in the air.