In 1917, with the First World War three years old, the British War Cabinet decided to more than double the number of squadrons of the Royal Flying Corps to 200. 103 Squadron was formed on the 1st September 1917 with the role of a day bomber unit under the command of Major T Maxwell-Scott at Beaulieu in Hampshire, England. The nucleus of the Squadron came from 16 TS with a variety of different training aircraft on strength and the squadron started to work up to operational readiness. The embryo 103 Squadron then moved to Old Sarum, Wiltshire, England on the 8th September 1917 and continued intensive training.
Maxwell-Scott was succeeded as Squadron CO by Major W A S Rough on the 1st February 1918 and he was in turn succeeded by Major E N Fuller on the 26th March 1918. Fuller was a very experienced airman having obtained his flying certificate in 1912. Under his command the crews commenced further intensive programmes of dive bombing, air to ground firing and formation flying.
The Squadron was equipped with the DH9 on the 19th March 1918. This aircraft was a two seater single engined bi-plane day bomber and was a development of the successful DH4. Unfortunately the performance of the DH9 was below expectations largely due to the indifferent Puma engine.
103 Squadron DH9
The long awaited move to France came on the 12th May 1918 and the Squadron flew across the Channel to their new base at Serny on the Western Front. The unit was attached to 80 Wing of the 10th Brigade under the overall command of General Ludlow-Hewitt and was tasked with day bombing and reconnaissance operations. Fighter escort was provided for the bombing raids but if the fighters were engaged over the front then the DH 9s had to look after themselves for the remainder of the trip. Fighter cover was in always in short supply and the Germans developed a tactic of engaging the escorting fighters on the way to the target and then having further fighter squadrons available to attack the bombers in the target area.
At the beginning of June No 103 Sqdn transferred to IX Brigade (effectively the RAF mobile force) and went to Fourneuil on the French front in the build up to the Battle of Matz. This followed a request from General Foch on 29 May for air reinforcements on the French front, anticipating a German offensive, IX Brigade deployed most of its squadrons plus 103 Sqdn and the 2 Wing HQ's to the Beauvais area arriving on 3 June. IX Brigade came under the command of Commandant L Picard, air commander of the French group of reserve armies.
Amongst the first crews to fly operations was Lieutenant E A Windridge and his Observer, 2nd Lieutenant V W Allen. On the afternoon of the 20th May 1918 they flew a bombing raid to Seclin and were attacked by eight German Albatross fighters. Lieutenant Allen fired about 100 rounds at the attackers which broke off the engagement. The same day Captain Stubbs and 2nd Lieutenant Dance claimed a German kite observation balloon destroyed which was the first aerial victory by the Squadron.
Two days later the same crew were en route for a bombing raid on Douai when they were attacked by five enemy aircraft, reported to be Albatross DVs. Lieutenant Allen returned fire and hit the leader who went down out of control. The others broke off and Windridge and Allen managed to get back to base in spite of engine troubles. This was the first German aircraft claimed as destroyed in combat by the Squadron.
The first 103 Squadron operational loss was on the 5th June 1918 when Captain Turner and his Observer, 2nd Lieutenant Webb, failed to return from a bombing attack on Roye. The Squadron was involved in a combat with large numbers of German aircraft near Warsy/Liglieres. Turner’s machine was seen going down in glide with four enemy aircraft on his tail and to crash in a wood. On the same day Aircraftsman Second Class W Horton of 103 Squadron died, presumably due to accident or illness although it could have been due to a German night bombing raid on the airfield.
Squadron morale suffered during period. There were doubts as to the success of the raids and the crews felt they were not getting adequate fighter escort. In addition there was criticism of the DH 9 and its inadequate Puma engine. The minimum safe height to cross the front line was considered to be 12,000ft and, with a heavy bomb load, this meant a very long and cold climb with the possibility of engine trouble.
Attempts were made to improve the performance of the Puma engine by enlarging the carburettor air intake pipes and altering the mixture controls. These made a slight improvement but overall the DH 9 was still thought of as unreliable.
IX Brigade returned to the British front on 21st June and were rejoined there by Nos 25 and 62 Sqdns. No 103 Sqdn returned to their previous airfield at Serny and transferred from 9th Wing to 51st Wing (Nos 98, 103, & 107 Sqdns), IX Brigade, on 25 June, before returning to the command of X Brigade on 15 July.
On the 24th June the Squadron took part in an experimental daylight bombing campaign against German railway targets between La Bassée and Ypres. The purpose of this was to delay and disrupt German reinforcements and supplies arriving at the Front. Losses on these operations were light but the results inconclusive.
Louis A Strange
In June 1918 Lieutenant Colonel L A Strange DSO MC ( pictured above ) took over command of 80 Wing. He was a most experienced pilot with a strong character and he immediately made a powerful impression on the Squadron.
Strange set about rebuilding morale and devised new tactics whereby the height at which the bombers would cross the front lines was reduced to 6000ft. This height was easily within the capabilities of the DH 9 and meant the reduction of the flying time by about an hour. Crews were instructed that once they were over the lines they were to commence a shallow dive to the target. This added an extra 20 mph to their speed. Bombs were to be released over the target at a height of 2000ft which improved accuracy significantly. The return flights were made in tight formation with the aircraft, now without their bomb load and half of their fuel, able to climb easily.
One ex 103 pilot later commented that, after shedding the bomb load, the DH 9 with a good gunner was capable of quite a lot of fighting. It was possible to tight turn a Fokker DVII into a full power stall and the DH 9 could be looped quite well and tightly.
In August Lieutenant Colonel Strange decided to strike at the German air force directly. On the 16th August 1918 he detailed 65 aircraft of the Wing to attack the German airfield at Haubourdin. 88 and 92 Squadrons acted as fighter cover. 4 Squadron started the attack diving on to the airfield and releasing their bombs amongst the aircraft and buildings on the ground. 2 Squadron and 103 Squadron followed releasing their bombs at low level.
Many buildings on the airfield were hit and an ammunition dump was blown up. A nearby railway station was also attacked with German troops machine gunned and a train brought to a standstill in a cloud of steam. On an adjacent road an enemy troop column was strafed causing considerable casualties. Strange observed the effects from above and noted the destruction of over 30 enemy aircraft on the ground. The Wing returned to their base without having sustained a single casualty.
The following morning the Wing was in action again. This time the attack was the German airfield at Lomme. The target was heavily defended by anti aircraft guns. The Wing suffered little damage from anti aircraft fire but some aircraft were badly knocked about by the blast from their own bombs which were dropped from as low as 50ft.
Several hangers and buildings on the airfield were hit and set on fire.
103 Squadron DH9 in flight
In another attack on the same target, this time from higher altitude, four aircraft from the Squadron were attacked by eight Pfaltz fighters. Captain Sparks held his fire until one of the attackers closed to within 40 yards and then opened fire. The fighter shot up vertically into the air and then fell away out of control. It was seen to crash soon after and was confirmed by Lieutenant Poole.
On the 30th August 1918 the DH 9 of Captain Stubbs and Lieutenant Dance flying a reconnaissance mission were attacked on the German side of the front line by no less than 20 enemy aircraft. Stubbs was able to shoot at the fighters with his front gun and one was seen to fall out of control. Dance was able to keep the others at long range by firing bursts from his Lewis gun. The enemy fighters finally broke off their attack and Stubbs and Dance were able to make it back to base.
On the same day Lieutenant G B Hett and 2nd Lieutenant C E Eddy were flying a similar reconnaissance mission. Unfortunately they were having trouble with their camera which had jammed and started to return to base. In the distance they spotted a formation of enemy fighters which turned out to be Fokker Triplanes. These came into attack and Eddy was wounded in the thigh but continued to return fire shooting down two of the attackers. Despite damage to the aircraft Hett was able to fly the DH 9 back to base.
From September to the Armistice 103 Squadron was heavily engaged in harassing the retreating German Armies and took a heavy toll. Major Fuller was replaced as Squadron CO by Major M H B Nethersole on the 21st September 1918 and proved a most determined commander.
The Squadron moved to a new base at Floringhem on the 21st October 1918 and moved again to Ronchin on the 26th October 1918.
On the 30th October 1918 the Squadron, led by Captain Dodds, attacked targets near Orcq, Tournai, Belgium from 14,000ft. On turning for home the formation was attacked by ten enemy fighters. In the ensuing combats two enemy aircraft were seen to go down out of control although they were not seen to crash. The DH 9 of Sergeant McNeil and his Observer failed to return to base and they were posted missing.
Major Nethersole was to lead the Squadron in an attack on the German airfield at Roubaix later that afternoon. With his Observer, Lieutenant Corey, Nethersole dropped his bombs between 2 hangers. one was demolished and two enemy aircraft were destroyed. Later Corey shot down a Fokker DVII. Major Nethersole was awarded the DSO for his leadership on this highly successful operation. Several other German fighters were either shot down or seen to go down out of control in the combats with various Squadron aircraft that followed.
In the last days of the war the Squadron was heavily engaged in attacking German airfields, railway stations, transport, and retreating troop columns with little or no opposition. Captain A E Thomas ( pictured above ) was a prominent formation leader at this time
On the 10th November 1918 the Squadron took part in their last operation of the war. The Wing sent over 100 aircraft to attack enemy troop columns and railway transport which was carried out with great success.
The following day the Squadron received the signal that hostilities were to cease from 11.00 am that day and no machines were to cross East of the balloon lines.
At the base there was much joy amongst the 103 Squadron personnel at the news of victory and that the war was over and there much relief amongst the survivors that they had been spared and some sorrow for those who did not make it.
This was however the period of the Great Spanish Flu Pandemic which claimed tens of millions of lives world wide and huge numbers succumbed both at home and on mainland Europe, mainly between 1918 and 1920. An alarming feature of this pandemic was that it mostly killed young adults, with 99% of pandemic influenza deaths occurring in people under 65, and more than half in young adults 20 to 40 years old. This was unusual since influenza is normally most deadly to the very young (under age 2) and the very old (over age 70). Men in military service were particularly vulnerable living in often harsh conditions and in close proximity. Another alarming feature was the speed at which it spread. Doubtless 103 Squadron suffered their share of victims.
During the next few months the Squadron could relax. Other units were visited, some joy riding undertaken. The crews collected several German aircraft and flew these over the base in mock dog fights and several visits were made to targets they had bombed so that they could get a close look at their handiwork.
The Squadron received a special visitor shortly after the Armistice with the unexpected arrival of His Royal Highness the Duke of York who stayed for some time mixing with the crews and asking many questions.
On the 29th January 1919 80 Wing disbanded and 103 Squadron moved to Maisoncelle. Here they participated in the introduction of the first air mail service between Germany, France and Britain with 120 Squadron and 57 Squadron. 120 Squadron picked up the mail at Lymphe in England and flew it to Maisoncelle. 103 Squadron flew it on to Morville in the Ardennes and 57 Squadron completed the final leg to Cologne in Germany and visa versa. The weather conditions during the winter were poor and the crews were forced to fly at low level below cloud following the roads. It was standard practise to fly to the right of the poplar trees that lined the roads to avoid collisions with any aircraft coming the other way. The last mail run was flown on the 12th March 1919 and the Squadron returned to England and flew to Shotwick on the 26th March. It was disbanded there on the 1st October 1919.
During its two year existence 103 Squadron had become a very effective day bomber and reconnaissance unit participating in many successful operations and also had acquitted itself very well in combat against enemy fighters.
The Reckoning –12th May 1918 to 10th November 1918.
103 Sq. Sorties detailed – Unknown but almost certainly approaching or even over 1000.
Aircraft lost. 16 failed to return. 9 Crashed or Damaged Beyond Repair including 3 on non operational flights.
Aircrew casualties. Killed 23. Missing Nil. POW/Wounded/Injured and Died in Captivity one. POW/Wounded/Injured 5. POW 7. Wounded/Injured but safe 8. One died of illness. ( Possibly Spanish flu epidemic )
Given the intensity of the operations and claimed inadequacies of the aircraft these figures are not excessive. The numbers of POWs, wounded or otherwise, is of interest and proportionally much higher when compared to total fatalities than in WW2. The high number of wounded/injured, POW or otherwise, is significant.
Ground crew casualties. Fatalities 5. Three on the 5th June 1918. Cause unknown. 2 RAF and one RAMC attached to 103 Sq. Plus 2 who died after the Armistice possbly in the Spanish Flu epidemic.
Honours and Awards.
Major Michael H B Nethersole DSO
DSO - Major Michael Henry Braddon Nethersole.
Captain Roy Edward Dodds DFC
DFC - Lt. Joel Gordon Hirst Chrispin, Lt. (A/Capt) John Austin-Sparks, Captain Roy Edward Dodds, Lt. Geoffrey Bruce Hett, 2nd Lt. (Hon. Lt) Frank Masterman Loly, Captain John Stevenson Stubbs,
DFM - Sgt. Mech. Ernest James William Watkinson.
Croix de Guerre avec Palme - Sgt. Leonard Cecil Ovens.
Enemy aircraft destroyed. From 1st July to 11th Nov 1918 103 Sqdn aircrew claimed a total of 50 enemy aircraft destroyed. That is a good effort and, even if exaggerated somewhat, indicates that the DH9 was still a capable machine for a bomber which was able to defend itself if required. Captain J S Stubbs was the leading 103 Sq ace with 11 credited victims. This will include victims shot down by his Observer and also shared with other crews. However it is still an impressive total.
103 Sqn WW1 Roll of Honour
This Roll proved rather a tricky list to compile due to the lack of detailed records.
However it is not bad even so. I have included the bombing details where known and also brief details of the fate of those concerned.
Above - Lt Carl Hastings Heebner RAF – Killed in action – 24/09/1918
Killed – 28 - including 3 ground crew from unknown cause
Missing – 7 – Commemorated on Arras Flying Services Memorial
Died of injuries or possibly illness – 1 – Buried in UK.
POW/Died of wounds – 1 – Buried in Germany
POW - 7
POW/Wounded - 7
Wounded but safe – at least 6
Died after war – 2 – Both ground crew. Possibly due to Spanish flu pandemic which was rampant at that time
Aircraft known to have been lost – 17 lost on operations and 2 damaged beyond repair due to accidents. Also at least 3 in training accidents. There are probably others damaged beyond repair due to battle damage or accident where there were no fatalities, wounded or injuries. In due course I will look into that.
Losses whilst training at Old Sarum
14/01/1918 – Training – DH9 – A7755 – Stalled and side slipped on downwind forced landing – Pilot killed.
2Lt Lyman Holden Cunningham RFC – Pilot – 21 - Son of the late Frederic G. and Lila T. Cunningham of New York City, U.S.A. - Chilton Foliat St Mary Churchyard, Wiltshire.
08/02/1918 – Training – Armstrong Whitworth F.K.8 – B1497 - Tail cut off in mid air collision with AW F.K.8 B3348 - Pilot and passenger killed
2Lt Tom Martindale Speechly RFC/5th Reserve Cavalry Regiment – Pilot – 20 - 103 Sqn – Son of Tom Burge Speechly and Jessie Speechly of Uttoxeter, Staffs - Salisbury London Road Cemetery, Wiltshire
AM 2nd Class Walter Greenhalgh RFC – Passenger – 26 - Son of John and Priscilla Greenhalgh of 9, Hollingreave Rd., Burnley – Burnley Cemetery.
26/03/1918 – Training - DH9 - C6107 – Engine failed. Aircraft stalled and crashed. Pilot mortally injured. Passenger killed outright
Cpl Leslie Norman Witley RFC – Passenger – 103 Sqn/98 Sqn - Son of Mrs. Mary Witley of Hill St., Hunstanton – Hunstanton St Mary Churchyard, Norfolk.
28/03/1918 – Training - DH9 - C6107 – Engine failed. Aircraft stalled and crashed. Pilot mortally injured. Passenger killed outright
2Lt Robert Charles Bark RFC – Pilot – 103 Sqn – City of London Cemetery and Crematorium, London
05/06/1918 – All ground crew and reason for fatalities unknown. Probably accidental. 3 killed.
Pte Lawrence Alfred Atkinson RAMC - 27 – 103 Sqn - Son of Walter and Edith Ann Atkinson; husband of Jesse Ellen Atkinson of 34, Mayville Avenue, Scarborough, Beauvais Communal Cemetery, France
AM2 William Smith Rankin RAF – 25 – 103 Sqn - Son of William Rankin and Euphemia Smith Rankin, of Maryhill, Glasgow; husband of Maud Graham Rankin of 22, Canning Place, Glasgow – Marissel French National Cemetery, France.
AM2 W Horton RAF – 27 – 103 Sqn - Son of Frederick and Fanny Horton, of 117, Taylor St, Bradford, Manchester - Marissel French National Cemetery, France.
2Lt William Holland Cole RAF – Pilot – 18 – 103 Sqn - Only son of Emma Cole, of Hill Crest, Clent, Stourbridge, Worcs and the late Joseph Cole, Stourbridge – Arras Flying Services Memorial, France
Sgt Sydney Hookway MM RAF – Observer - 24 – 103 Sqn - Son of Mrs. E. A. Palmer, of 21, Reform St, Barnstable, Devon - Arras Flying Services Memorial, France
16/09/1918 – Fives - DH9 – C2200 – FTR - Combat and forced landed. 2 POW both wounded.
2Lt V Mercer-Smith - POW/Wounded.
Sgt J Hamilton – POW/Wounded
C2200 in which Mercer-Smith and Hamilton force landed
16/09/1918 – Fives - DH9 – C6192 – FTR - AA victim and crashed. 2 missing
2Lt Sidney Hirst RAF – Pilot – 23 – 103 Sqn - Son of Sidney and Fanny Hirst, of Eastgate, Forest Rd., Moseley, Birmingham - Arras Flying Services Memorial, France
Lt John Meiron Hughes RAF and 4th Bn South Lancashire Regt – Observer – 21 – 103 Sqn - Son of Thomas Isfryn Hughes and Catherine Hughes, of Garth, Portmadoc, Caernarvonshire - Arras Flying Services Memorial, France
16/09/1918 – Fives - DH9 – D3254 – FTR - Combat and force landed. 1 killed and 1 POW
Cptn F A Ayrton – Pilot – POW
2Lt Beavan Pendleton Jenkins RAF - Observer – 18 – 103 Sqn - POW/Died of Wounds - Son of George Henry and Lillian Beatrice Bessie Jenkins, of 262, Friern Rd., East Dulwich, London – Cologne Southern Cemetery, Germany.
25/10/1918 – Non operational - DH9 - E631 - Killed in crash. Thought to be routine transit flight. 1 killed and 1 died of injuries
Sgt Mech William Harold White RAF/3rd Bn Yorkshire Regiment - Pilot – 20 – 103 Sqn - Son of Sidney William and Elizabeth White, of 15, Broomfield Crescent, Headingley, Leeds – Cambrin Military Cemetery, France.
26/10/1918 – DH9 – E631 - Injured in crash on 25th October 1918 ( see above ) and died the following day.
26/10/1918 – Cpl Mech O H Armitage RAF – 103 Sqn – Cambrin Military Cemetery, France
30/10/1918 – Rebaix - DH9 – D5749 – FTR - Combat. Aircraft force landed. 1 POW/Wounded and 1 POW
Sgt Mech Cyril Stanley Silvester – Pilot – POW/Wounded.
2Lt H Langdale – Observer – POW
30/10/1918 – Rebaix - DH9 – D7249 – Combat. Aircraft returned to base. Observer died of wounds
2Lt J J Nicholls RAF – Observer – 24 – Son of Benjamin and Constance Nicholls, of 8, Yarlside Rd., Barrow-in-Furness – Lille Southern Cemetery, France
01/11/1918 – Reconnaissance - DH9 – D484 – FTR - Combat. Aircraft force landed. 2 POW both wounded
09/11/1918 – Details unknown. 1 killed or possibly died in accident or of illness.
2Lt Cyril George Harding – Observer – Son of Mr. F. S. Harding of 19 Church House Stone – Died of Injuries – Stone All Saints Churchyard.
10/11/1918 – Details unknown. 1 killed or possibly died due to accident or illness.
AMIII George Stanley McMillan RAF – 20 – 103 Sqn - Son of James and Margaret McMillan of 87, Bedford Rd, Bootle, Liverpool – Lille Southern Cemetery, France.
Post war deaths probably due to Spanish flu pandemic rampant across Europe at that time.
01/03/1919 – AM1 Henry Frank Leslie Gibbons RAF – 103 Sqn – Golders Green Crematorium
14/03/1919 – AC1 E A Groome RAF – 19 – 103 Sqn - Son of Edward E. and Edith E. Groome, of "The Dene", Harrop Rd., Hale, Cheshire.
Accident deaths in crash whilst undertaking a mail run to Cologne.
08/06/1919 - Lt William Nichol Wilson RAF – Pilot – 103 Sqn – Belgrade Cemetery, Belgium
08/06/1919 – Lt G G Bannerman RAF – Observer – 103 Sqn - Belgrade Cemetery, Belgium.
There is some doubt about the details of this as other sources give varying information
Compiled by David Fell. Photo courtesy of the Canadian Virtual War Memorial.
Much of the information for this item was taken from the book Black Swan. A History of 103 Squadron by Finn, The Sky Their Battlefield by Henshaw and The DH4/DH9 File by Sturtivant and Page. Also Patrick of airwarone.org.uk for information from his own research and excellent web site. Also Tim Cornish for the data regarding the Old Sarum casualties