A First for No 44 Squadron and the Birth of Bombers

Before World War I, major conflicts between nations were two-dimensional affairs carried out on land and sea and the barrier provided by the English Channel kept the UK civilian population at arms length from the conflicts. Their counterparts on the Continent were less fortunate, and battles often swept over and around them. The advent of the aircraft added a third dimension to warfare, and the Germans were the first to use aircraft to attack the civilian heartland of the enemy. The Channel and our naval presence therein was no barrier to the German’s new strategy of strategic offensive air power and in World War I the inhabitants of London and other major cities became targets. The first German air raids were carried out by Zeppelin airships. The initial attacks caused relatively small amounts of damage and the outcry that the attacks sparked in Parliament was more a reflection of the fact that the civilian population was now vulnerable to attack. The outcome was a big increase in home defence spending, including money for home defence squadrons for the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and on the 24th July 1916, No 44 Squadron formed at Hainault Farm, near Ilford, Essex.  The Squadron was equipped with Sopwith 11/2 Strutters from July to September 1917. They were antique two-seat fighters, unfit for the Squadron’s task of helping to defend London. The Squadron was soon re-equipped with Sopwith Camel aircraft that were much more capable.

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Sopwith 11/2 Strutter

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Sopwith Camel Night Fighter

The initial German raids were carried out in daylight, but in a foretaste of the tactics of World War II, the attacks soon became predominately night attacks and, in addition the Zeppelins, were replaced by more capable fixed wing bomber aircraft. No 44 Squadron had started life as a Day Fighter Squadron, but with the German’s change of tactics, it became a Night Fighter Squadron. Most of the pilots had never flown at night and the conversion to night flying was the aviation equivalent of ‘Physician heal thyself’. Inevitably, there were accidents. The Squadron’s Camels were modified for night fighting. They were given navigation lights for night flying, and two Lewis guns were mounted on the centre section of the top wing of the bi-planes. The guns could fire forwards over the propeller or upwards to 45 degrees. The cockpit was moved rearwards so the pilot could reload the guns. The modifications allowed the guns to be fired without affecting the pilot's night vision, and enabled the use of new, more effective incendiary ammunition.

In those long ago days before radar, the pilots had to rely on their eyes to locate the enemy aircraft. The fighters flew barrier patrols across the routes that it was thought the enemy would follow but flying in the dark, very few of the German aircraft were ever spotted. Night was the bombers’ friend. On Monday 28th January 1918, the defenders’ luck changed. A German Gotha GV was spotted.

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Gotha GV

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The Gotha crash site

The GV(5) was the latest in a line of Gotha bombers. It was powered by 2 engines and had a maximum speed of 87 mph, a range of 522 miles, and could carry 14 x 60lb bombs externally. It also carried 2 machine guns for self defence. Two pilots from No 44 Squadron scored the very first ever night combat victory when they shot down the Gotha. The two pilots were Captain G H Hackwill, a flight commander on No 44 Squadron, and Lieutenant C C Banks. Both pilots were awarded the Military Cross. The citation in the London Gazette stated, “For conspicuous gallantry displayed when they engaged and shot down a Gotha raiding London. During the engagement, which lasted a considerable time, they were continually under fire from the enemy machine.” The action took place at about 10,000 feet and the Gotha was shot down in flames near Wickford, Essex. The bodies of the three German crewmen were recovered from the wreckage, but only Lieutenant Fredrick Von Thomson could be identified. All three were given a military funeral.

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George Hackwill

Both of the No 44 Squadron pilots went on to become aces and both survived the War. George Henry Hackwill was born in Langtree, North Devon and before the War he was working for the National Provincial Bank. In the early days of the War he served in the Somerset Light Infantry before transferring to the RFC in mid-1915. He scored 9 aerial victories and the other 8 were in France with Nos 22 and 54 Squadrons. George Hackwill retired from what was by then the RAF on 15th April 1919. It is interesting to note that a man who had served on the Squadron that would be given the name ‘Rhodesia’, emigrated to Southern Rhodesia. In his 48th year, on the 27th August 1940, he was elected at a by-election to the Rhodesian Legislative Assembly as the member for Lomagundi District. He represented the United Party, and he was re-elected to the Assembly in the 1946 and 1948 general elections. He died on 4th July 1954.
Charles Chaplin Banks, known as Sandy, had 13 victories. He served on No 44 Squadron from 1916 to 1918 and the other 12 victories were in France, serving with No 43 Squadron in 1918. He was awarded the DFC on the 9th April 1918. Banks was born on the 17th December 1893 in Hampstead, London. His father, also named Charles, owned and taught at the Arnold House Preparatory School in Llanddulas, Wales. In 1914, Charles junior was a cadet in the Oxford University Contingent, Senior Division, Officers’ Training Corps, from whence he went on to be commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers in December 1914. His younger brother Arthur also served with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers and was killed in action on the 22nd June 1916, aged 20. He is buried in the Gorre British and Indian Cemetery, Pas de Calais. Four months after the death of his younger brother, Charles transferred to the RFC. Charles Banks suffered another grievous loss in World War II. His son Flt Sgt Arthur Banks GC, a fighter pilot like his father, was shot down on 20th December 1944 and executed by the enemy; he was 21. An extract from Wikipedia about Charles’ son Arthur is at the end of this article. Charles Banks died on the 21st December 1971.

Although the German bombing attacks on the UK made little impact on the outcome of the War, they made a big impact on political decisions and in particular, the provision of home defence. By the end of 1916, there were 17,340 officers and men employed in the anti-aircraft services in the UK and 12 RFC squadrons of 200 officers, 2,000 other ranks and 110 aircraft. The number of air raids increased through 1916 and 1917 until the Prime Minister, Lloyd George, decided that more effective action was needed to counter attacks. He tasked General Smuts to study and report on the overall air situation. The air defence of the UK was unsatisfactory and many aircrew operating on the Western Front in Europe felt that they just flew about being shot at by anti-aircraft guns from both sides and by German fighters.

General Smuts produced his report in August 1917. He recommended a Commander-in-Chief for the defence of London to control and coordinate the fighter squadrons, anti-aircraft guns, balloon barrage and the observers. The RFC and Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) operated as independent entities with little or no cooperation or coordination of their activities. Smuts recommended the amalgamation of the RFC and RNAS into a new legally constituted air service. All admirals and generals did not applaud his proposals but the Government accepted them. On the 1st April 1918, the two flying services were amalgamated; the Royal Air Force was born and put under the control of its own ministry, the Air Ministry.

General Smuts also saw clearly the potential for the use of air power in future conflicts and he wrote in the report, “Air power can be used as an independent means of war operations. Nobody that witnessed the attack on London on 7 July 1917 could have any doubt on that point. Unlike artillery, an air fleet can conduct extensive operations far from, and independently of, both Army and Navy. As far as can at present be foreseen, there is absolutely no limit to the scale of its future independent war use. And the day may not be far off when aerial operations with their devastation of enemy lands and destruction of industrial and populous centres on a vast scale, may become the principle operations of war, to which older forms of military operations may become secondary and subordinate.”

General Trenchard was the Commander-in-Chief of the RFC in France and he was thinking on similar lines to General Smuts. General Trenchard had made a recommendation for the formation of a strategic bomber force to penetrate deep into Germany. His recommendation was also accepted and a strategic bomber force, named the Independent Air Force, was formed in 1918. The War finished before it could be used to much effect.

The thoughts of Generals Smuts and Trenchard came to fruition in 1937 with the formation of Bomber Command, the UK’s strategic bomber force. The lessons on the employment of air power gleaned in the Great War were also not lost on one of No 44 Squadron’s Commanding Officers during that War, Major A T Harris. As Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, Commander-in-Chief Bomber Command, he exercised command of the massive strategic bomber offensive of World War II, to which his old Squadron made a major contribution.

Much has been written about Bomber Command and the strategic bomber offensive and it is illuminating to read a German perspective provided by Albert Speer, who was the Minister of Armaments and War Production in
 Nazi Germany during most of World War II .

In ‘Spandau: The Secret Diaries’, Speer wrote, “The real importance of the air war consisted in the fact that it opened a second front long before the invasion of Europe. That front was the skies over Germany. The fleets of bombers might appear at any time over any large German city or important factory. The unpredictability of the attacks made this front gigantic; every square metre of the territory we controlled was a kind of front line. Defence against air attacks required the production of thousands of anti-aircraft guns, the stockpiling of tremendous quantities of ammunition all over the country and holding in readiness hundreds of thousands of soldiers, who in addition had to stay in position by their guns, often totally inactive, for months at a time.

As far as I can judge from the accounts I have read, no one has yet seen that this was the greatest lost battle on the German side. The losses from the retreats in Russia, or from the surrender of Stalingrad, were considerably less. Moreover, the nearly 20,000 anti-aircraft guns stationed in the homeland could almost have doubled the anti-tank defences on the Eastern Front.” Those who sowed the wind reaped the whirlwind.

Flight Sergeant Arthur Banks

Banks enlisted in the
 Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve in 1942 and become a member of 112 Squadron, Desert Air Force. On 29 August 1944, three weeks into his active service with 112 Squadron, he was shot down over northern Italy whilst undertaking an armed reconnaissance operation in a Mustang. He tried to reach the Allied lines and made contact with a partisan group (the Boccato group). During the following months he "became an outstanding figure, advising and encouraging them in action against the enemy”.

In December 1944, an attempt to cross to Allied territory was planned to enable resupplying of the partisans to take place, but the group Banks was with was betrayed and captured by German forces.  He was tortured by German authorities and then by the Italian militia over a period of several days, but Banks remained silent. He was then stripped, doused in petrol and set alight before being thrown, weighted down, into the River Po. He managed to survive and swam to the river bank, where he was recaptured by the Brigate Nere (Italian fascists) and shot in the head.  Initially buried in a communal dung-heap by his captors, Banks is now buried at the Argenta Gap War Cemetery. There is also a commemoration stone for Banks at the War Memorial in Llanddulas.

He was awarded the
 George Cross posthumously for his "courage and endurance", with his conduct being described as "at all times, in keeping with the highest traditions of the Service, even in the face of most brutal and inhuman treatment."  Notice of the award was published in the London Gazette on 5 November 1946. e Cross was presented to his father by King George VI.

His captors were tried by a War Crimes Tribunal and were imprisoned for between 4 and 20 years; the one who directed his torture was shot after being captured by Italians.
  The man who murdered Arthur Banks was Lieutenant Turati. Turati had been a member of the infamous Brigate Nere. Postwar, Ian Bell, Nazi hunter, captured Turati at his home in Italy.

According to the
 Central Registry of War Criminals and Security Suspects (CROWCASS), other Italians, most of them members of the fascist Black Brigades, may have been involved in crimes against British soldiers at the same time and in the same area.

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