TEMPLER FAMILY

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THE BEGINNINGS
OF THE ROYAL AIR FORCE

Those who fear, or pretend to fear, that England may witness a revolution like the French Revolution of the eighteenth century or the Russian Revolution of the twentieth century would be well advised to compose their minds by the study of English history. That history, in all its parts, shows the passion of the English people for continuity of development. The first care of the practical Englishman who desires change is to find some precedent, which may serve to give to change the authority of ancient usage. Our laws have always been administered in this spirit; we are willing to accept, and even to hasten, change, if we can show that the change is no real change, but is only a reversion to an older practice, or a development of an established law. It was a saying of King Alphonso of Aragon that among the many things which in this life men possess or desire all the rest are baubles compared with old wood to burn, old wine to drink, old friends to converse with, and old books to read. The English people are of a like mind; what they most care for is old customs to cherish. The very rebels of England are careful to find an honourable pedigree for their rebellion, and to invoke the support of their forefathers. A revolution based only on theory, a system warranted only by thought, will never come home to Englishmen.

The national love for continuity of development is well seen in the history of the genesis of the national air force. The whole of that force, aeroplanes, airships, kite balloons, and the rest, must be affiliated to a certain small balloon detachment of the Royal Engineers at Chatham. Little by little, very slowly and gradually at first, while only the balloon was in question, with amazing rapidity later, when the aeroplane and the airship came into being and were needed for the war, that single experimental unit of the Royal Engineers grew and transformed itself into a vast independent organization. Names and uniforms, constitutions and regulations, were altered so often that the whole change might seem to be an orgy of official frivolity if it were not remembered that the powers brought within reach of man by the new science were increasing at an even greater speed. But there was no breach of continuity; the process was a process of growth; the new was added, and the old was not abolished.

From the days of the Montgolfiers for more than a century the value of the balloon in war was a matter of debate and question and experiment. At the battle of Fleurus, in 1794, the triumphant French republican army used a captive balloon, chiefly, perhaps, as a symbol and token of the new era of science and liberty. Balloons were used in the Peninsular Campaign, but Napoleon's greatest achievements owed nothing to observation from the air. Even in the American Civil War, where the Federals certainly derived some advantage from their use, balloons were criticized and ridiculed more than they were feared. In Great Britain military experiments with balloons began at Woolwich Arsenal in 1878. In the following year Captain R. P. Lee, of the Royal Engineers, reporting on the work done at the arsenal, stated that they had a thoroughly sound and reliable fleet of five balloons, and a few trained officers and men, competent to undertake their management. One of these balloons accompanied the troops on manoeuvre at the Easter Volunteer Review at Brighton. Captain H. Elsdale, of the Royal Engineers, who was in charge of the party, took part in the final march past; he was in the car of the balloon at a height of two hundred and fifty feet, while Captain J. L. B. Templer, a militia officer, managed the transport on the ground. A balloon section was present at the Aldershot manoeuvres both in 1880 and in 1882; it was judged a success, and instructions were issued in the autumn of 1882 that the Balloon Equipment Store, as the establishment at Woolwich was called, should be removed to the School of Military Engineering at Chatham, where a small balloon factory, depot, and school of instruction was established in 1883. The practice with the balloons was under the charge of Major Lee, and in that year Major Templer came to Chatham to carry out certain experiments in the manufacture of balloons. He brought with him a family of the name of Weinling, to construct balloons on a system devised by himself. The fabric of the balloons was the internal membrane of the lower intestine of the ox, sometimes called gold-beater's skin. The Weinling family had a secret, or what they believed to be a secret, for the secure joining together of the pieces of this skin. As they held for some time an unchallenged monopoly in the manufacture of aircraft for the British Empire, they have earned the right to a niche in the temple of Fame. They were five in number--Mrs. Weinling and her elder son Fred, who were the first to arrive at Chatham, her two daughters, Mary Anne and Eugene, and a younger son Willie, who was about eighteen years old and was subject to fits. Their work was carried on not without interruption. In November 1883 Major Templer wrote a letter to the president of the Royal Engineer Committee, stating that he was delayed in the completion of the skin balloon by the principal workman having been sentenced to three months' imprisonment for an assault on the police. As the Weinling family were the only persons who had ever worked in skin-balloon manufacture, and as he himself was the only other person acquainted with the art, Major Templer asked and obtained leave to have two sappers trained to the work. But this new departure led before long to further troubles. The family were very jealous of their secret, and when the balloon factory began to be enlarged it was only with the greatest difficulty that the members of the family could be induced to give instruction to other workers.

Nevertheless, in the course of a year, several balloons were made, of three sizes, the largest size having ten thousand cubic feet of capacity, and the smaller sizes seven thousand and four thousand five hundred cubic feet. When, in the autumn of 1884, an expedition was sent to Bechuanaland under Sir Charles Warren, to expel the filibusters who had raided the territory, to pacificate the country, and to reinstate the natives, a balloon detachment under Major Elsdale and Captain F. C. Trollope, of the Grenadier Guards, attached to the Royal Engineers, was included in the expedition. They took with them in the detachment three balloons, and a staff consisting of fifteen non-commissioned officers and men. There was no fighting. At Mafeking, which was then a native village, it was found that owing to the elevation above sea-level neither of the two smaller balloons had lift enough to raise a man into the air, and that the largest balloon could take up only one observer. A native chief, Montsiou by name, went up a short distance in the balloon. The remark that he made serves to show the value of aircraft in impressing primitive peoples. 'If the first white men', he said, 'who came into this country had brought a thing like that, and having gone up in it before our eyes, had then come down and demanded that we should worship and serve them, we would have done so. The English have indeed great power.' The chief was right. For any nation to which is entrusted the policing and administration of large tracts of uncivilized country, an air force, civil and military, is an instrument of great power.

Balloons were used again on active service in the following year, 1885, in the Soudan. A small detachment, under Major Templer with Lieutenant R. J. H. L. MacKenzie, of the Royal Engineers, and nine non-commissioned officers and sappers, accompanied the expeditionary force. The best of the material had been sent to Bechuanaland, so the equipment was very imperfect, but ascents made in a balloon of one of the smaller types, at El Teb and Tamai, and elsewhere, proved useful for reconnaissance.

On the return of these two expeditions no attempt was made to keep up a regular balloon section. What was done must for the most part be credited to the energy of those few officers who believed in the future of balloons. Majors Elsdale and Templer ran the factory for building balloons and making hydrogen, and a few non-commissioned officers, trained in balloon work, were held on the strength of depot companies. Most of the practice, in observation of gunfire and the like, was carried out with captive balloons; the few trips adventured in free balloons were undertaken only when the gas had so deteriorated that the balloon had not lift enough for captive work. Major Elsdale did what he could to improve equipment, and urged that two or three officers should be appointed to give their whole time to balloons and to form the nucleus of a balloon corps. He is himself remembered for his pioneer experiments in aerial photography; he sent up cameras attached to small free balloons, with a clockwork apparatus which exposed the plates at regular intervals and which finally ripped the balloon to bring it to earth again. Major Templer, for his part, took a house at Lidsing, about four miles from Chatham and the same distance from Maidstone, and, in 1887, started a small summer training camp for balloon work in one of the fields adjoining his house. Lieutenants G. E. Phillips and C. F. Close, of the Royal Engineers, attended this camp, which was held again in the following years. In 1889 Lieutenants B. R. Ward and H. B. Jones, also of the Royal Engineers, joined it, and the authorities were soon faced with the necessity of coming to a decision whether balloons should be introduced as a definite part of the service. In that year Lieutenant-General Sir Evelyn Wood was in command of the Aldershot Division; he arranged for a balloon detachment, consisting of Lieutenants Ward and Jones, Sergeant-Major Wise, and some thirty non-commissioned officers and men, to be sent to Aldershot early in the summer to take part in the annual manoeuvres. The experiment was a success. The balloons operated with a force which marched out from Aldershot against a flying column of the enemy encamped near the Frensham ponds. A fortunate piece of observation work is believed to have won Sir Evelyn Wood's favour for the new arm. The balloons were asked to answer the question, 'Has the enemy any outposts in rear of his camp?' Lieutenant Ward made an ascent, and though it was getting dusk and the country was not very open, he was able to see the enemy placing pickets round his camp on the nearer side, but could detect no movement beyond the camp. He reported that there were no outposts in rear of the camp; and a night attack sent out from Aldershot was a complete success.

The German Emperor was present at these same manoeuvres, and a march past on the Fox Hills was organized for his benefit. The balloon detachment was ordered to take part in it. Balloons, being an unrecognized part of the army, were not hampered by any of those regulations which prescribe the etiquette to be observed on formal occasions. Lieutenant Ward, who was in command of the detachment, resolved that he would march past in the air, at an altitude of about three hundred feet, in a balloon attached to the balloon wagon. The weather was fine and calm, and the balloon sailed by in state, with the result that the spectators all gazed upwards and had not a glance to spare for the horse artillery, the cavalry, or any other arm of the service.

Sir Evelyn Wood reported favourably on the use of balloons, and in 1890 a balloon section was introduced into the British army as a unit of the Royal Engineers. The question of a site for the depot caused some delay. Opinion favoured Aldershot, but the General Officer Commanding objected that Aldershot should be reserved for military training. Major Templer was in favour of Lidsing, where for several years he had carried on at his own costs. In the result the depot moved to Aldershot, and having taken over a piece of very soft ground at South Farnborough, near the canal, began to erect sheds. The contractor for a balloon shed was nearly ruined by the expense of making foundations. So things fluctuated; the factory remained at Chatham, and the depot and section, after a summer spent at Aldershot, collected at Chatham again for the winter of 1890-1. In 1892 a definite move was made to Aldershot, which continued thereafter to be the centre for balloon work. In 1894 the balloon factory, under the superintendence of Colonel Templer, was fully established at South Farnborough. Finally, in 1905, a new and better site was found for it in the same neighbourhood, and by successive additions to the sheds and workshops then erected the present Royal Aircraft Establishment came into being. Some difficulty is presented to the historian by the chameleon changes of official nomenclature, which disguise a real identity and continuity. The Balloon Equipment Store at Woolwich became the untitled factory at Chatham, which in its turn became the balloon factory at South Farnborough. In 1908 it was decorated, and became His Majesty's Balloon Factory; a little later it was named the Army Aircraft Factory; and, later again, in 1912, the Royal Aircraft Factory. So it continued until far through the war, when, its initials being required for the newly-welded Royal Air Force, it was renamed yet again, and was called the Royal Aircraft Establishment. These changes in nomenclature were, of course, office-made, and have none of the significance that attaches to the history of popular names. But the Royal Aircraft Establishment itself was a natural growth, and derives, without break, from the unofficial establishment of balloons at Woolwich.

In 1899 the South African War began. Four balloon sections took an active part in the campaign. The first section, commanded by Captain H. B. Jones, operated with the troops under Lord Methuen, and proved its value at the battle of Magersfontein. The second section, commanded by Major G. M. Heath, was with Sir George White throughout the siege of Ladysmith. An improvised section, commanded by Captain G. E. Phillips, was raised at Cape Town, and joined Sir Redvers Buller's force at Frere Camp, for the relief of Ladysmith. The regular third section, commanded by Lieutenant R. D. B. Blakeney, embarked for South Africa early in 1900, and joined the Tenth Division at Kimberley. It is not easy to make a just estimate of the value of the balloons in this war. Some commanding officers were prejudiced against them, and the difficulties and miscarriages which are inevitable in the use of a new instrument did nothing to remove the prejudice. The steel tubes in which the hydrogen was compressed were cumbrous and heavy to transport. The artillery were not trained to make the fullest use of the balloons; the system of signalling by flags was very imperfect; and the signallers in the air often failed to attract the attention of those with the guns. For all that, the balloons proved their value. The Ladysmith balloon did good service in directing fire during the battle of Lombard's Kop, and, more generally, in reporting on the Boer positions. Later on in the siege it was impossible to get gas, and the balloons fell out of use. At Magersfontein it was by observation from the air that the howitzer batteries got the range of the enemy's ponies concealed in a gully, and accounted for more than two hundred of them. On the 26th of February 1900 an officer in a balloon reported on General Cronje's main position at Paardeberg, and the report was of value in directing the attack on the position.

These operations put a heavy strain on the factory. Its normal output of one balloon a month was increased during the war to two balloons a month, and new buildings at a cost of more than four thousand pounds were proposed in 1900, and approved by the Aldershot Command. Even during the South African War there were other calls on the factory. In the summer of 1900 a balloon section, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel J. R. Macdonald, was embarked for China; in the following year the factory supplied two balloons and stores for the Antarctic Expedition of Captain Scott. These demands interfered with experimental activities, which when the war was ended, and especially when the new factory was built in 1905, were renewed with great zest. As early as January 1902 Colonel Templer, having visited Paris to report on the doings of M. Santos Dumont, recommended that experiments with dirigible balloons should be carried out at once, but received from the War Office the reply that the estimates for the year, which, apart from these experiments, amounted to £12,000, must be cut down to half that sum. Nevertheless from time to time grants were obtained for the construction of elongated balloons, for a complete wireless telegraphy equipment, and, in 1903, for a dirigible balloon. The factory was a small place, but it was full of energy. In 1904 experiments were carried out with man-lifting kites, with photography from the air, with signalling devices, with mechanical apparatus for hauling down the balloons, and finally with petrol motors. It must always stand to the credit of those who were in charge of the factory that when the new era came, revolutionizing all the conditions, and when, not many years later, the Great War made its sudden and enormous demands, they rose to the occasion. Up to May 1906 Colonel Templer was superintendent of the balloon factory. He was succeeded by Colonel J. E. Capper, who held the position till October 1909. During these early years the balloon factory and balloon school, though nominally separate, were under the same control. The chief point of difference was that the factory employed some civilians, whereas the school was wholly in the hands of the military. Mr. Haldane decided to separate them, and in 1909 appointed Mr. Mervyn O'Gorman superintendent of the balloon factory, while Colonel Capper, who was succeeded within a year by Major Sir Alexander Bannerman, Bart., took over the command of the balloon school. Colonel Capper was a firm believer in the future of the aeroplane, and a true prophet. In a lecture on military ballooning, delivered at the Royal United Service Institution in 1906, just before he was appointed superintendent of the balloon factory, he concluded with a forecast. 'There is another and far more important phase of aerial locomotion,' he said, 'which in the near future may probably have to be reckoned with.... In a few years we may expect to see men moving swiftly through the air on simple surfaces, just as a gliding bird moves.... Such machines will move very rapidly, probably never less than twenty and up to a hundred miles per hour; nothing but the heaviest storms will stop them. They will be small and difficult to hit, and very difficult to damage, and their range of operations will be very large.' Colonel Capper acted on this belief, and during his time at the factory did what he could with meagre funds to encourage aviation. The policy which, in the spring of 1908, he recommended to the War Office was to buy any practicable machines that offered themselves in the market, and at the same time not to relax effort at the factory. The attempts of Lieutenant Dunne and Mr. Cody to construct an efficient aeroplane seemed hopeful, and the factory took them under its wing. Lieutenant Dunne worked at Blair Atholl from 1907 onward, and Mr. Cody, in the winter of 1907-8, began to construct his machine at Farnborough. In the autumn of 1908 the Hon. C. S. Rolls offered to bring to Farnborough a biplane of the Farman-Delagrange type, and to experiment with it on behalf of the Government, in return for the necessary shed accommodation. The acceptance of this proposal had been authorized when an accident to Mr. Cody, caused by want of space, discredited the fitness of the factory ground for aeroplane work, and the arrangement with Mr. Rolls was deferred. He renewed his proposal in the spring of 1909, this time with the offer of a Wright machine, and he had established himself at Farnborough, when his death, at the Bournemouth meeting of 1910, cut short a career of brilliant promise, for Mr. Rolls was not only one of the best of practical aviators, but was alert in all that concerned the science of his craft. At the factory the experiments of Mr. Cody and Lieutenant Dunne were supported and continued, but progress was slow and uncertain, and when, early in 1909, the two machines between them had involved an expense of something like £2,500, further experiments with them were abandoned for a time. Their performance did not seem to warrant a large national outlay, and the bulk of Colonel Capper's work was devoted to what seemed the more promising task of supplying airships for the army. The earliest of these had been designed by Colonel Templer, and two envelopes of gold-beater's skin were ready by 1904, but the cost of making them had been so great that further progress on the ship was arrested until 1907. In September of that year the first British army airship, the Nulli Secundus, sausage-shaped, about a hundred and twenty feet long and less than thirty feet in diameter, took the air and passed successfully through its trials. It was driven by an Antoinette engine of from forty to fifty horse-power, and attained a speed of about sixteen miles an hour.

On the 5th of October the ship flew from Farnborough to London, circled round St. Paul's Cathedral, manoeuvred over the grounds at Buckingham Palace, and, on her return journey, as she could make no headway against the wind, descended in the centre of the cycle-track at the Crystal Palace, having been in the air for three and a half hours. Five days later, to avoid damage by a squall, the ship was deflated, packed up, and returned to Farnborough by road. Colonel Capper, influenced doubtless by the success of the Lebaudy airship in France, decided to rebuild Nulli Secundus as a semi-rigid, but funds were short, and work could not be commenced on her until the following year. In the reconstruction every possible portion of the original ship was ingeniously utilized. The reconstructed ship was taken out for her first trial in the air on the 24th of July 1908. During this flight of four miles, lasting eighteen minutes, she suffered various mishaps. After two more short flights she was deflated at the end of August, and the career of the Nulli Secundus was ended. Another smaller and fish-shaped airship, nicknamed the Baby, was put in hand during the autumn of 1908, but was not completed until the following spring. To enable her to carry a more powerful engine the Baby was enlarged by cutting the envelope in half and introducing a wide belt of gold-beater's skin in the middle. Rechristened the Beta, she was ready for flight at the end of May, and on the 3rd of June 1910 made a successful night-flight from Farnborough to London and back, covering a distance of about seventy miles in just over four hours.

The output of the factory was small, almost insignificant, compared with the efforts being made by foreign nations. Colonel Capper preferred not to attempt the construction of rigid airships till more was known of them. The Zeppelins were the only reputed success, and no Zeppelin, at that time, had succeeded in making a forced landing without damage to the ship. But the output of the factory is no true measure of the progress made. The officers in charge worked with an eye to the future. Early in 1906 a proposal was put forward by Brevet Colonel J. D. Fullerton, Royal Engineers, and was warmly supported by Colonel Templer, for the appointment of a committee consisting of military officers, aeronauts, mechanical engineers, and naval representatives, to investigate the whole question of aeronautics. A modified form of this proposal was put forward three years later, in 1909, by Mr. Haldane, then Secretary of State for War. He invited Lord Rayleigh and Dr. Richard Glazebrook, the chairman and the director of the National Physical Laboratory, to confer with him, and asked them to prepare for his consideration a scheme which should secure the co-operation of the laboratory with the services, thus providing scientific inquiry with opportunities for full-scale experiment. A scheme was drafted; it was discussed and approved at a conference held in the room of the First Lord of the Admiralty, and was submitted to the Prime Minister, Mr. Asquith, who took action on it, and appointed 'The Advisory Committee for 'Aeronautics', under the presidency of Lord Rayleigh. Seven of its ten members were Fellows of the Royal Society. The chairman was Dr. Glazebrook. The Army was represented by Major-General Sir Charles Hadden, the Navy by Captain R. H. S. Bacon, the Meteorological Office by Dr. W. N. Shaw. The other members were Mr. Horace Darwin, Sir George Greenhill, Mr. F. W. Lanchester, Mr. H. R. A. Mallock, and Professor J. E. Petavel. To these, soon after, were added Mr. Mervyn O'Gorman, when he took over the charge of the balloon factory, and Captain Murray F. Sueter, R.N., who deserves not a little credit for his early and persistent efforts to foster aeronautics in the navy. The great value of this committee was that it brought together the various bodies concerned with aeronautics, and combined their efforts. In particular, it gave to the new science the highly skilled services of the National Physical Laboratory, which organized at Teddington a new department, with elaborate plant, for the investigation of aeronautical questions. From this time onward the National Physical Laboratory worked in the closest co-operation with the balloon factory. Mathematical and physical investigations were continuously carried on at the laboratory, and improvements suggested by these researches were put to the practical test at the factory. Questions of air resistance, of the stresses and strains on materials, of the best shape for the wing of an aeroplane and the best fabric for the envelope of an airship--these and scores of other problems were systematically and patiently attacked. There were no theatrically quick results, but the work done laid a firm and broad base for all subsequent success. Hasty popular criticism is apt to measure the value of scientific advice by the tale of things done, and to overlook the credit that belongs to it for things prevented. The science of aeronautics in the year 1909 was in a very difficult and uncertain stage of its early development; any mistakes in laying the foundations of a national air force would not only have involved the nation in much useless expense, but would have imperilled the whole structure. Delay and caution are seldom popular, but they are often wise. Those who are stung by the accusation of sloth are likely to do something foolish in a hurry. Nothing is more remarkable in the history of our aeronautical development than its comparative freedom from costly mistakes. This freedom was attained by a happy conjunction of theory and practice, of the laboratory and the factory. The speculative conclusions of the merely theoretical man had to undergo the test of action in the rain and the wind. The notions and fancies of the merely practical man were subjected to the criticism of those who could tell him why he was wrong. The rapid growth in power and efficiency of the British air force owed much to the labours of those who befriended it before it was born, and who, when it was confronted with the organized science of all the German universities, endowed it with the means of rising to a position of vantage.

The same sort of credit belongs to the conduct of the balloon factory under Mr. Mervyn O'Gorman, who had charge of it during that very crucial period from the autumn of 1909 to the summer of 1916. When he took over the factory he found at Farnborough one small machine shop, one shed for making balloons, and one airship shed. The workers were about a hundred in number, fifty men and fifty women. Seven years later, when Lieutenant-Colonel O'Gorman was appointed to the Air Board as consulting engineer to the Director-General of Military Aeronautics, the hundred had swollen to four thousand six hundred, and the buildings situated on the forest land of Farnborough had increased and multiplied out of all recognition. This development was made necessary by the war, but it would have been impossible but for the foresight which directed the operations of the period before the war. The factory, working in close co-operation with the Advisory Committee and the National Physical Laboratory, very early became the chief centre for experimental aviation with full-sized machines. Systematic and rapid advance was hardly to be hoped for from unaided private initiative. Many private makers of machines were zealous and public-spirited, but there was no considerable private demand for aeroplanes, and a firm of manufacturers cannot carry on at a loss. Poor though it was in resources, and very meagrely supported by Government grants, the factory was what the country had to depend on; and it rose to its opportunities.