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London Colney WW1

LONDON COLNEY: Military aerodrome (Also known as COLNEY STREET)

Military users: RFC (Royal Flying Corps) & RAF (Royal Air Force)

39 HD [Home Defence]  Sqdn    (Royal Aircraft Factory BE.2 & BE.12) 

44 [Home Defence] Sqdn   (Sopwith Camels)

54 Sqdn   (Royal Aircraft Factory BE.2Cs, Avro 504s & Sopwith Pups….probably?)

56 Sqdn  (Royal Aircraft Factory SE.5)
Note: 56 Squadron were stationed here whilst forming up and flew the SE.5, the predecessor to the much better SE.5a. They departed for France on the 7th April 1917.

92 HD [Home Defence)  Sqdn    (Royal Aircraft Factory SE.5a)

Training Squadron Station & Training Depot Station    1916 to 1919

Location: Roughly S of London Colney village, E of Colney Street, just W of the B5378 and SW of J.22 on the M25

Period of operation:  1916 to 1919

Site area:  212 acres      960 x 914


NOTES: For a long time I thought this site must surely have been RADLETT, (which opened in 1929 of course by Handley Page for their new and second factory), but it now appears to have been a totally separate site W of the A5 (A5183) whereas RADLETT was E of the A5.

The SE.5  was heralded as being one of the top WW1 fighters. Ostensibly fully tested and fit for combat duties one of the first examples was collected by the ‘ace’ Albert Ball. In his excellent book Fighter Heroes Of WW1 Joshua Levine gives this account by Hubert Charles, an engineer with 56 Squadron: “We hadn’t seen an SE5, and Albert Ball went and fetched the first one, and when he was flying it around, before he landed, everybody simply couldn’t believe that this was the new SE5 Fighter. The thing looked hopeless. It was hopelessly slow, it didn’t want to do any aerobatics, when it landed it was boiling, and after it landed, the paint was sticky on the outside of the cylinder block. The very first thing I did was to take the radiator off and we fitted it with a wire mesh filter bag, in the header tank, so that if any more paint came out from the water jacket, it couldn’t block the radiator. And we washed the water jackets of the engines out and put the radiator back, and from then on, the engine ran without boiling.”

There is much to learn from this account. Obviously this ‘so called’ advanced fighter didn’t have a temperature gauge for the coolant, and presumably not even an engine oil pressure gauge? Also, although regarded as an ‘ace’ pilot Albert Ball does not appear to have realised his engine was in some distress, (possibly fairly close to seizing up), and yet he still attempted some aerobatic manoeuvres. This shows, I would say, a quite remarkable lack of sympathy for the basic mechanics of his aircraft. And surely, the lack of engine performance must have indicated something was going seriously wrong?

“And one by one, we went through the obvious faults on the SE5. For example, in some circumstances, if you filled the oil tank to the top, it promptly bust! (I’m surprised this was a surprise to an engineer). So we vented the thing into the crank case. Our aim was simply to get the aeroplanes to fly to France with their engines, controls, and Lewis guns working. We could leave the Vickers guns and interrupter gears until France.”

Whichever way you look at it the SE.5 as delivered was far from tested and fit for purpose. In fact Albert Ball had the factory-fitted windscreen removed and visited Trenchard to ask permission to keep flying his Nieuport 17. It would be very unfair to be too critical, but this story does illustrate how little was known and had been learnt despite three years of intensive combat experience. If you compare the ‘learning curve’ just twenty years later in WW2 the difference is utterly astonishing – but – I still reckon that feedback avenues from aircrews was still woefully inadequate?

In his wonderful and now clasic book, Sagittaruis Rising, Cecil Lewis tells us this story about the SE.5: "I came over St Omer at about five thousand feet and saw a back-staggered scout circling the aerodrome. I turned to have a look. When I came close, I saw it was one of the new Sopwith Dolphins. I plunged down on to its tail as a challenge for a scrap. This new SE I was flying would be more than a match for anything in the sky."

"The reader will not take it amiss if I say that by this time I was a fairly comptetent pilot. I could do every stunt then invented with ease and style. I admitted none to be my superior in the handling of an aeroplane. So I confess I dived on the Dolphin with the intention of showing him just how an aeroplane should be flown in a fight, sitting on his tail for a bit, and then, when it was quite obvious I had killed him ten times over, comiung up alongside, waving him a gracious good-bye and proceeding to my aerodrome."

"But it didn't work out a bit like that. The Dolphin had a better performance than I realized. He was up in a climbing turn and on my tail in a flash. I half rolled out of the way, he was still there. I sat in a tight climbing spiral, he sat in a tighter one. I tried to climb above him, he climbed faster. Every dodge I had ever learnt I tried on him; but he just sat there on my tail, for all the world as if I had been towing him behind me. Who was the fellow anyway? What was it coming to when the test pilots at Aircraft Depots could put it over a crack pilot of 56?" (My note - this was a reference to 56 Squadron)

"This would have to be looked into. The Dolphin shut off and dropped on to the carpet. I followed. We jumped out of our machines. I seemed to recognise the spare figure crossing towards me. He lifted his goggles. It was Patrick!  (My note: Patrick had been one of his instructors). 'Well, Lewis,' he said, as we shook hands, laughing, 'still learning to fly?'

This rings so many bells for me. Years ago I generally managed to come across to seasoned pilots as being reasonably competent, and was often congratulated by them. And then I would fly with someone who could do things so incredibly well that I then realised that I actually had no idea. Happy memories.

When the SE.5a came on the scene with a 200hp Hispano-Suiza engine replacing the original 150hp unit, this aircraft was transformed. I certainly would not like to get involved in the argument as to which was the best British WW1 fighter, but the SE.5a was certainly a contender.





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