Book Review: Early Aviation in Ireland 1909-1914

“Pioneers, Showmen and the RFC – Early Aviation in Ireland 1909-1914” written by Guy Warner and published by Colourpoint, £16, is an enthralling read and a fantastic representation on the very early years of aviation in Ireland.  Much detailed research has obviously gone into its construction and the result is a very engaging read for any aviation enthusiast looking for detailed history of those early days.

The book is well illustrated with many rare and probably never before seen pictures and interview notes, newspaper articles and journal entries.

Guy Warner has filled this book with terrific stories of the Irish aviation pioneers and catalogued the many significant struggles that they faced such as the susceptibility to adverse weather, unreliability of the technology, poor landing conditions, varying piloting skills, all of which lead to very much elevated levels of risk.

Some things never change but today our understanding of forecasting and the intricacies of aerodynamics coupled with structures flying training courses removes much of the unknown which then was a constant companion for the early aviators. For example I was struck by the story of the first attempt to cross the Irish Sea by air by Mr Robert Lorraine, a distinguished veteran of the Boer War. Not a naturally talented pilot he sought this record for himself but omitted making any plan before taking off. Guy tells us that when asked if Lorraine was a lunatic or a hero, his mechanic replied that ‘he was a bit of both in turn, and sometimes both at once’! So Lorraine basically started his engine in Wales, climbed to 4000ft and set off to the west for Ireland with NO Naval escort below him or any preparatory work being done on his aircraft. This all understandably ended badly and after six engine failures during the crossing he ditched within swimming distance of the Bailey Lighthouse on Howth Head.

He joined the RFC at the outbreak of the War in 1914 but after crashing two aircraft in training he was deployed to France by the RFC as an observer. On 22 November 1914 he was engaged in artillery spotting and slipping once more into lunatic mode, he dropped a message to the German anti-aircraft gunners which said ‘Keep your eye in we’ll be back in the afternoon.’! Lorraine and his pilot duly showed up after lunch and the Germans obliged by putting a round through Lorraine’s back! In his own words ‘I tried to continue but found that details were utterly beyond me, So I asked Corbett-Wilson to go back to our landing ground telling him I was hit. Then as there was nothing else to do I fainted!’ Indeed.

The deployment of first military aircraft of the RFC to visit to Ireland is well covered and illuminates a little-known event which, given its timing, was a world military first in its own right. No 2 Squadron RFC planned in detail prior to their crossing of the Irish Sea in 1913. They reconnoitred landing sites in Ulster and throughout the country before setting off. They ensured that there was a battleship beneath them during their crossing and pre-deployed stores, spares and men to Ireland. They corresponded with the War Office, Irish Command, The Director of Military Training, and the Officer Commanding the RFC at Farnborough.

They learnt many lessons about air power application, one being not to fly below 3000ft for fear of being brought down by musketry.

I’ll leave the last words to the Late Sergeant-Major Patrick Joseph Aherne of the 1st Leinster Regiment who penned the following after he had observed No.2 Squadron aircraft in the Divisional exercises that year:

“The part played by aviation calls for a word on its effects on the conditions of modern warfare. Will the same conditions prevail amongst air belligerents as exist with fighting bodies on terra firma? Will they endeavour to destroy or capture each other? Or will aviators be non-combatants? Not the latter certainly. The deduction, therefore, is that the army which possess the best and most up-to-date aeroplanes and dirigibles (airships) in the next war will have incalculable advantages over others not so provided.

It’s a great book, read it – Brigadier-General Paul Fry GOC Air Corps.