Winged Sabres - One of the RFC’s Most Decorated Squadrons, Robert A. Sellwood

Winged Sabres - One of the RFC’s Most Decorated Squadrons, Robert A. Sellwood

The main aim here is to reconstruct the lost squadron record books from 1916 and 1918, to provide a complete detailed account of the history of No.20 Squadron during the First World War.

The bulk of the book is made up of a day by day, fight by fight account of the squadron’s experiences. For each fight the author has attempted to match the claims and losses recorded by the British and Germans to try and provide as accurate as possible a record of the real losses on each side. However this isn’t an easy task. Most German unit records are now lost, but casualty reports have survived. However it isn’t always possible to connect the casualties to a particular fight. The same is true for the British in 1916 and 1918, although the author has been able to plenty of details for those years as well. The two sides didn’t record victories in the same way, partly because the British were often fighting over the German side of the lines, and thus chose to accept ‘driven away’ victories as well as the sort of clear cut victory more familiar to us.

However we do also get sections that put the fighting in context, relating the aerial battles to the fighting on the ground, or looking at how changes in aircraft or organisation on the two sides changed the fighting.

For the first half of its war the squadron was equipped with the RAF F.E.2, which despite being a pusher type actually proved to be the equal of the Fokker Eindeckers, and wasn’t entirely outclassed by later German aircraft, as its robust construction allowed it to soak up quite a bit of damage.

The squadron then moved onto the two seat Bristol Fighter, one of the best aircraft of the First World War. However it took the squadron some time to get used to the new aircraft, which needed to be operated in a rather different way to the F.E.2 to take full advantage of its combination of agility, fixed forward firing guns and an armed observer.

One thing that does emerge from the description of many of these fights is that the aircraft on both sides weren’t quite as lethal as their more heavily armed Second World War successors. There are frequent descriptions of fights in which dozens of German aircraft were encountered but the entire formation of British fighters escape intact (and vica-versa). These fabric covered aircraft often proved capable of absorbing a lot of damage and still staying in the air, unless they were set on fire or the pilot killed. To put this in context, in ‘Bloody April’ of 1916 the RFC lost around 200 pilots killed. During the battle of Britain the RAF lost over 1,500 dead in nearly four months, or around 375 per month. At the same time as Bloody April the army suffered over 150,000 casualties during the battle of Arras, so one can understand why the high command wasn’t overly concerned by the scale of RFC loses!

1 - Beginnings - January 1916
2 - Learning to Fight - February 1916
3 - Holding the Line - March/ April 1916
4 - Chivalrous Combats - May/ June 1916
5 - Triumphs and Tragedies - July 1916
6 - First Aces - August/ September 1916
7 - Eclipse of the Eindeckers - October/ December 1916
8 - The Way to Glory - January 1917
9 - Advantage ‘Albatrii’ - February/ March 1917
10 - ‘Bloody April’ 1917
11 - Towards Messines - February/ March 1917
12 - Aces High - June 1917
13 - Aces Low - July 1917
14 - Third Ypres - August 1917
15 - Ugly Duckling Swan-Song - September 1917
16 - Passchendaele: October/ November 1917
17 - Winter War 1 - November/ December 1917
18 - Winter War 2 - January/ February 1918
19 - Backs to the Wall - March/ April 1918
20 - Aerial Combat Crescendo - May 1918
21 - A New Fokker - June 1918
22 - Turning Point - July 1918
23 - Amiens - August 1918
24 - The Somme - September 1918
25 - To the Bitter End - October/ November 1918

Author: Robert A. Sellwood
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 344
Publisher: Pen & Sword Aviation
Year: 2018

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