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So Few
The Immortal Record of the Royal Air Force by David Masters (1942)

In the ever-changing kaleidoscope of war the gallant deeds of the Royal Air Force shine out against the sombre background like beacons which light up to the world the strength and fortitude and courage of the people of Britain and the British Empire. Fine deeds follow each other in such swift succession that almost before one has been noted there is another to supersede it—flashes of heroism infused with something of the speed of the aircraft in which these modem crusaders fly, deeds that demand judgments so quick that life or death may depend upon the physical actions of a split second, a spiritual calm that the gravest danger and the greatest odds cannot shake, an endurance that does not falter so long as life exists.

The moving finger of the printing press writes its glowing tributes in a few words, and having writ, moves on, and what is written to-day is forgotten in the new splendour of the deeds of to-morrow. Consequently I have striven to place on more permanent record a few of the actions of the R.A.F. which have aroused the admiration of free peoples wherever they may be, and the following pages should reveal something of the spirit animating the airmen who are risking their lives against the much-vaunted German air force in order to save our civilization, a civilization which has been built up slowly and laboriously over the centuries, to a large extent on British inventions and ideals. These young men who fly unafraid through darkness and storm, who mount at dawn through the lowering clouds until they emerge miles above the earth out in the clear sunshine, are modern knights of chivalry, carrying on a greater crusade than mankind has ever known; they spring from all classes of the population in Britain and the Empire, bus conductors, shop assistants, clerks, aristocrats, insurance agents, farmers, electricians, engineers, men of all creeds, but they are the same breed, running true to type in the face of danger.

Man for man they have proved themselves to be better than the Germans. Is this mere chance, depending on better aircraft, and are the better aircraft due to chance, or are there scientific reasons for them? The men of Britain who created the British Empire were the same stock who brought about the industrial and mechanical revolution; they were the inventors of the steam engine, the railway, all the marvellous machines that spin and weave and do a multitude of other things; they were the men who learned to handle engines a generation or two before the rest of the world whom they taught; and as they had a generation or two start over other peoples, is it surprising if their sons prove a little more adept than the Germans at handling these modern engines of the air? The past accomplishments of the British race may provide the answer.

Then the people of Britain are a seafaring race, they have been used to fighting with the seas for centuries, finding their way in little ships and big all over the globe to far distant points, marking the rocks and shoals on their maps and avoiding them. Thus they have not only learned to navigate in the most accurate manner, but they have learned to be self-reliant, to act and think quickly in the face of the perils of the sea. These are qualities which have enabled the mariners of England to find their way about the oceans are the very qualities which enable men to become supreme in the air and find their way in the dark to distant places, pin-point a factory on the map and bomb it to destruction. Looked at broadly, there is not such a great difference between sailing the sea and sailing the skies, and the best seamen should also turn out to be the best airmen.

Nor must I forget that other quality which has so baffled the continental nations and sadly misled them into misunderstanding the British people. I refer to the individualism of the race. The British people are a nation of individuals who prefer to go their own way and do what they like with their own lives. All they ask is to be left alone, and so long as their neighbours do not interfere with them they will not interfere with their neighbours. They air their views in the most outspoken way and will argue and bicker until the foreigner may think the dissension within the nation is so great that the slightest thing will start a civil war. But what the continental peoples unfortunately overlook is the fact that the political freedom so long enjoyed by the British people has bred in them a good-natured tolerance which serves as an effective mask for some of the finer qualities of human nature, a strong courage that may be concealed with a joke, a cold anger against cruelty, and other attributes which become manifest only in times of grave national danger. Tendentious in peace and tenacious in war would be one way of describing the British peoples, whose anger is so hard to rouse and so difficult to subdue.

Is it surprising that a nation of individuals who regard the sea as their heritage and who taught the world how to create and use machines should breed a dominant race of airmen? The Royal Air Force in smashing the German air attack on Great Britain in September, 1940, has supplied the answer. To me it seems obvious that a nation in which individualism has been encouraged for generations should provide a finer air force than the nation in which the initiative of the people has been crushed into following their leader like slaves, learning to do everything at the word of command, relying upon orders and not upon themselves. Nothing can be freer than the aeroplane in the sky. Once the pilot has taken off, he is the captain of his ship and his own soul, and I maintain that in no other sphere is it possible for individualism and initiative to shine so brilliantly.

As for the better aircraft, the Spitfires and Hurricanes and Defiants and Hampdens and Whitleys and Wellingtons, not to mention their secret successors, they offer no surprise to those familiar with the inherent engineering genius of the British race. These aircraft are the direct answer to the question asked by many people in the days of the Schneider Trophy races—“What is the good of them?”

The intense creative effort which drove Rolls-Royce engineers to design an aero-engine that was more power- ful and lighter in weight than any the world had ever known and which induced R. J. Mitchell to design his Supermarine of incredible speed in order to win an international sporting event furnished invaluable scientific data. The engineers learned how to use new light alloys such as duralumin in their engines, the designers learned how to streamline their aircraft in order to increase speed, finding out that a single wire exposed to the pressure of the air could reduce the speed by several miles an hour, and the Air Ministry learned how to train men to fly safely at speeds of 400 miles an hour and more. Who dares to question the value of the Schneider Trophy races now? The knowledge then gained enabled the aircraft to be designed which prevented the Germans from destroying London by their fleets of bombers. It was Mitchell who designed the Spitfire, and future historians may state with some degree of truth that when Great Britain won the Schneider Trophy she really won the war which saved Civilization. Nor should we forget another sporting event, the race to Australia in 1934, which also yielded important results that influenced the design of long-distance aircraft, for the gruelling tests imposed on the retractable undercarriage indicated its worth in increasing the speed of aircraft, when once the mechanical difficulties were overcome.

We know to-day that the millions spent in building the experimental airships R. 100 and R. 101 were not entirely wasted, as so many critics thought when the tragic disaster to R. 101 brought the British Government’s airship programme to an end, for, quite apart from the development of the heavy oil engine, it was while engaged on the technical work of these airships that Dr. Wallis invented the geodetic method of construction which is now employed in building many of our heavy bombers. “The strength is phenomenal,” said an expert to me while I examined a Wellington. Designed for the framework of airships, the geodetic method of construction has been modified to serve equally well for aeroplanes, and thanks to this invention many a bomber which has been so shot about that the experts have marvelled at it holding together has been able to reach its base and, after repair, carry on the fight against the enemy at a time when bombers were of more importance than armies.

Although I have long recognized the danger of the German menace, the ultimate triumph of Great Britain and the British Empire was to me never in doubt. I did not know the size of Goering’s air force, nor did I underestimate its striking power. But I gained confidence in the fact that it was the first of the modern air forces to be brought into being, and it was therefore the oldest. When Hitler decided to bomb the world into submission or destruction, Goering’s air force was four or five years old in design, and it must have been on the way to obsolescence when considered in the light of the technical improvements of the past few years. Against this I set the fact that the delay in re-equip- ping the Royal Air Force made it the most up-to-date air force in the world. Its diminutive size, due to the blindness of politicians and statesmen, was deplorable, but its quality was unsurpassed. It would be ungenerous to the Air Council and to the technical staff of the Air Ministry to under-rate the difficult problems they had to solve in the days of peace. They had to select the right moment for putting aircraft into production and the right types to produce. Too early a decision would have provided aircraft which might have been bettered, and by waiting too long they might have had the finest aircraft in the world on the drawing board and none in the air. They did their best in difficult circumstances, and mankind may remember with gratitude that the selected types possessed sufficient superiority to defeat the main German air attacks in the Battle of London. Even these types were probably on the drawing board five years or more ago, and considering that I sat in aircraft with power-operated turrets about that time, I have reason to believe in the British ability to produce something a little better than the German best.

The fine quality of British workmanship, which derives from the longest engineering experience enjoyed by any nation, has played no small part in nullifying the German air attack, for it has prevented many aircraft from falling to pieces in the air and their crews from dying. The superior training given to pilots and crews of the Royal Air Force has also proved its worth.

The very love of sport, for which the young men of Britain and the Empire have so often been taken to task, is another factor making for air supremacy. Rowing and football and cricket have for generations been helping to develop in men of British stock the team spirit which enables them to combine all their talents and energies to achieve victory for their side; they have learned to rely on each other and call out the best in each ther during the crisis of a race or game, and this team spirit, bred in the British race by generations of forbears, was seen at its zenith in the squadrons of Spitfires and Hurricanes which defeated the German air force at Dunkirk and Dover and in the Battle of Britain.

This same spirit is of prime importance to the crews of the British bombers who fly for long hours in the dark over enemy territory, for each man knows full well that in a crisis he can depend upon the other members of the crew to back him to the end. Some bomber crews have taken part in thirty-five or more operations together; they formed teams whose loyalty and friendship grew so strong that they knew each would carry out his duty without faltering so long as it was humanly possible. “When he went, it broke up our team,” the captain of a bomber once remarked, just as a rugby player might remark on the loss of a famous wing or three-quarter.

The sporting instincts bred in Canadians and Australians and New Zealanders and South Africans have been still further quickened by the environment in which they have lived. The open spaces have given the young Empire builders a special sense of direction, have added a keenness to their vision which enables them to see and shoot just a fraction of a second quicker than the foe; breaking new lands to the plough, opening up mines, tending cattle and sheep, growing crops too numerous to mention, such occupations have made them strong and wiry and given them extra quick mental and physical reactions, coupled with the bold and vigorous outlook that is fostered by the new lands they are creating overseas. When all these natural abilities and attributes have been scientifically trained for the air, is it unreasonable to infer that the young men blessed with such characteristics may excel?

In team games, which have long been part of the national life of Britain and the Empire, the young men have matched themselves against their opponents so often that in a few generations they have developed a response to friendly rivalry that has become habitual. This innate desire to pit their strength and skill against that of their rivals is invaluable in air fighting, when two men may meet in single combat as did the knights in the tourneys of old, although the Germans have displayed the reverse of knightly qualities and the fighters of the Royal Air Force have seldom met the enemy on equal terms. The fighter pilots of Britain have considered odds of five to one as reasonable; they have not hesitated to face ten and twenty and thirty to one; and there have been instances where lone pilots have swooped like peregrine falcons out of the sun to attack forty or fifty enemy aircraft.

Their valour is awe-inspiring, and I count it a privilege to write with first-hand knowledge of these flying crusaders who are fighting a holy war to preserve Christendom and the lives and liberties of earth-bound mortals. They are the flower of Great Britain and the British Empire, selected in the most scientific manner for the posts of honour which they have covered with so much glory. None but the best will do, and those who achieve their desire of becoming pilots and navigators and gunners and wireless operators in the Royal Air Force are in fact the finest specimens of young manhood who walk the earth, young men whose physical fitness, nervous control, mental alertness and swift muscular reactions make them fit to command and man the giant bombers and handle the darting fighters; they are the knights of the air whose prowess and sacrifice will conjure a new and nobler order out of the ruins created by Hitler and Mussolini.

Behind them, training them, directing their bombing and fighting operations, backing their youthful ardour with mature experience, stand the men of the previous generation, keen-eyed, mentally alert, the flush of health on their cheeks, with hair greying above the ears and thoughtful lines on their lean faces, men who in the last war were emulating the deeds of the fighter and bomber pilots of to-day in order to bring about the downfall of Germany in 1918. These were the men who first won for Great Britain the supremacy of the air. In the intervening yean they have used their knowledge and energy in creating an air force to win back freedom for humanity. One day the full story may be told of their heart-breaking task, of the obstacles which they overcame when blind-eyed politicians deliberately sacrificed the dominating air power of Great Britain and all but flung away the British Empire because they were afraid to tell the nation the truth that Germany was re-arming to avenge the defeat of 1918. The Right Hon. Mr. Winston Churchill was one of the foremost to point out the danger and urge the nation to meet it in those days of November, 1936, and earlier, but unfortunately his wise counsel was disregarded.

My own warnings date much farther back. When men and newspapers in Britain were ridiculing the idea of flying, I knew that the Wrights had accomplished the miracle of flight, and a keen study of the rapid developments made me realize that what Wilbur and Orville Wright expected to be one of the biggest blessings ever conferred on mankind might unhappily turn out to be a curse. The manner in which the Germans started to incorporate the aeroplane and airship into their military machine so preoccupied me that in 1912 I wrote about this new air menace and emphasized the danger of London being bombed by the Germans. I went so far as to urge the government of that day to create a strong air force, on the lines of a programme which I formulated, to augment the forty or so experimental aero- planes and the thirty-eight or forty trained pilots then possessed by the army and navy.

“The sum of £1,000,000 expended as indicated would provide us with the basis of an aerial fleet,” I wrote. “At the present time we are helpless. Surely a great country like ours can afford the money. After all, it is a small price to pay for peace. We must remember that the country which rules the air comes within measurable distance of ruling the earth and sea.”

The British Governments which came to power after that dire conflict chose to ignore this lesson which was proved up to the hilt in 1914-1918.

What Germany failed to do in the last war she has plotted to do in this, and it is heartening to see the Royal Air Force carrying out the operations by which they have countered and defeated the worst that the German air force has so far been able to accomplish. What could be more interesting than to watch the bomber captains and crews flock into the briefing room like eager school- boys, crowding round the giant map to see which course and target the newly-stretched tape indicated before they settled at their desks to receive their individual maps and instructions on how to locate the target, the weather they might expect, where they should encounter opposition and many other things which need not be specified? Or to observe the captains and crews climb into their gigantic bombers and fly off at regular intervals into the dusk on their systematic estruction of the German oil and power plants and munition factories and railways and docks? The speed and efficiency with which the Fighter Command goes into action and sends the fighters climbing to meet the enemy as the closely-linked ground defences come into play can be appreciated only by the onlooker; and few things can be so inspiring as the sight of a giant Sunderland flying-boat of the Coastal Command starting on one of those long reconnaissances which have done so much to unmask the moves of the enemy at sea, while the keen eyes which have guarded the convoys from aloft have occasionally been lucky enough to detect and hunt down a German submarine or rescue some of the helpless victims of the U-boats.

In the messes of Royal Air Force stations all over the British Isles may be found modem knights of chivalry whose deeds will ring down the ages and become immortal. They are a modest breed, boyish, clear-eyed, in perfect health mentally and physically, who seldom talk about the deeds which earned the ribbons on their tunics. They are the generation whose flights and fights and self-sacrifice are playing so noble a part in frustrating Hitler and Mussolini and in saving for the future the most treasured blessings which have evolved from the past.

They may be seen in the ante-room of any Royal Air Force station before lunch, smoking a cigarette and drinking a tankard of English ale. They are of all types and sizes—tall and short, blue-eyed, and brown-eyed, dark and fair, with an occasional red head among them, and just as an onlooker concludes that the one thing they have in common is a slender body, a Hercules will stroll in to disprove the theory. When they are starting on operations a subtle change seems to take place in them. Authority rings in their voices, responsibility sits in their calm eyes. The young faces are the same, yet different, touched with a new air of command and quiet confidence. Imperceptibly it slips away on their return and the quiet banter begins again.

Around the cream-coloured walls, found in most messes, are placed cosy settees and chairs, with numerous small tables, at one of which an officer may be working out a game of patience, at another a pair of opponents may be poring intently over a chessboard. There is usually a table full of newspapers and periodicals which enable the officers to pass the time between lectures and flying operations, while one or two blue-clad figures may be busy at the writing tables, penning letters, as little groups stand about smoking and discussing service affairs. The ever-popular shove-ha’penny board is seldom without two keen players pitting their skill against each other, and rising and falling against the hum of conversation is generally the sound of the wireless.

For a brief spell after lunch some of them have a quiet nap in their easy chairs, others laze and chat in a semicircle before the fire. And in a lull in the general conversation a voice may remark: “I was stooging round at ten thousand when the searchlights suddenly switched on and all the guns opened up at once, as though they had been waiting for me” And just when the listener expects to hear what happened, the conversation rises again and drowns the rest of the story.

As is to be expected, incidents grave and gay and witty remarks abound. An officer, trying out some tobacco which another officer had blended for himself, puffed away for a few moments. “I like it!” he said. “What is it?”

“It’s Rubicon mixed with navy cut,” was the reply.

Swift as lightning came the retort from a bystander: “He’s crossed the rubicon!”

Despite the intensity of the struggle in which the Royal Air Force is engaged, the pilots and crews still retain their sense of humour. One wintry day when the drive leading to a distant headquarters was covered with snow and ice, a wing commander wheeling a bicycle was held up by the sentry, who demanded his pass. Conditions underfoot and overhead were foul, and it was by no means the sort of day on which anyone would cheerfully stop to take off gloves and feel for things in one’s pockets. However, the wing commander produced a card and pointed to the front of it.

In the most business-like manner the sentry took it, scrutinized it and handed it back completely satisfied. “Thank you, sir,” he said, saluting smartly.

“That’s not my identity card,” said the wing commander dryly. “That’s my petrol coupon.” He flicked open the card, to the front of which he had attached his petrol coupon to avoid losing it. “That’s my identity card. Now perhaps you’ll know me in future!” And with a cheery grin he pushed his bicycle through the snow to headquarters.

It remains to be added that no trouble has been pared to ensure the accuracy of these pages which reflect the glory of the Royal Air Force. It may be taken that they are as authentic as any pages of official history.

Naturally there have been difficulties in obtaining the detailed information embodied in this book. The pilots of the Royal Air Force are known to impose upon themselves strict rules regarding the personal communicadon of their heroic deeds. I am, therefore, all the more grateful to the Air Ministry and their fellow officers and airmen whose assistance has enabled me to write these enduring records.

David Masters

Download this book, So Few, in pdf format

Issued during the quarter ending 31st March 1920 (pdf)

Handbook on the British Army
Issued by the US to explain how the British Army and Air Force works

The War in the Air
Being the Story of The part played in the Great War by the Royal Air Force
Volume 1 by Walter Raleigh (1922)
Volume 2 by H. A. Jones (1928)

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