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Remembered Today:

Percentage of Aircrew killed within the first few weeks of posting to a Western Front squadron


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What percentage of total aircrew losses in frontline squadrons (accidents and operations) occurred within the first three-four weeks of an individual's arrival on the Western Front?


Most books suggest this was the most dangerous period of an airman's operational flying career, but has any analytical work been undertaken to confirm this with hard data?


I looked through Henshaw's excellent work (TSTB2) but could not find anything on this specific topic, though given the volume of material there may have missed it.



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Hi Grid,

Thanks for the comments about my Book, The Sky Their Battlefield II. It is a good question you raise, but I have never seen anything on the subject, in terms of proper study or research. You can imagine - it would take an enormous amount of work to establish arrival dates of all those individuals, in order to do the calculations. And then, I suspect, as there are so many varieties of service, of what was happening at arrival time, your prior experience, of what aircraft you found yourself in - each would create quite a span of options. An overall figure wouldn't necessarily describe many actual individuals.

There are anecdotal comments about the subject, but some of the "just three weeks life expectancy" etc are hugely blown out of the water with some relatively quick and basic maths - which I've done!

All the Best,


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Trevor is quite right. Before any analysis could be made you'd have to spend a lifetime sitting at The National Archives trying to compile lists of names, dates and postings: to put it kindly, the contents of the boxes there could do with cataloguing properly. Even the wonderful lists at airhistory.org offer only a sketchy idea of actual deployments, and alternative spellings mean that names which appear to be a different person could actually be the same person duplicated.


Some newcomers to front-line squadrons were given a fair amount of time to familiarize themselves with the local unit, machines, terrain, landmarks, etc. - Cecil Lewis wrote that he had ten days at the Front with his first squadron before he was sent on an operational sortie - whereas some had no such introduction at all. Many were delivered to a depot like St Omer where they awaited deployment: you'd need to consult squadron records to see who joined which squadron at the Front on what date.


And squadron records themselves are not always sufficient: 60 Squadron, despite being the subject of much research, lost several months' records due to a fire in the office in November 1916. In my biography of Captain DV Armstrong I have exhibited on page 60 a reproduction of the actual note of losses that caused the squadron to be withdrawn from the Front in early August 1916 with only four out of eighteen pilots listed as 'OK' (8 killed, 5 wounded, 1 missing). This was after eight weeks at the Front, but of course it was the height of the battle of the Somme.


Remember, too, that flying an aeroplane (especially in the early war years) was heavily weather- and maintenance-dependent. You might fly your first sortie one week and not get airborne again for several days due to any number of reasons including poor visibility, or illness/injury, or your machine could be grounded due to engine or airframe problems. All such days withdrawn from operations are going to skew any analysis of time-frames of personnel losses.  As will how the term 'loss' itself is defined. 

Regards, Annette


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You could also look at the other side, The Germans were throwing young poorly trained men into the air in the last year of the war, and being shot down in large numbers.


Much like the last year of the WWII when the same Germans and even Japanese Airmen were getting the same.


We had some hard times during the war, 1916 and 1917, but never the same, near the bottom of the barrel, the Germans got to or even the Japs in the WWII.



Edited by stevebecker
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There’s also the fact, alluded to by Annette, that flying was (and continued to be for many years) inherently dangerous, irrespective of other people trying to kill you. I suppose that a better statistic than time-with-squadron, no easier to compile, might be mortality rate per 100 hours’ operational flying (and even some of that would be without enemy contact).

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I discuss many of these things in my book, The Sky Their Battlefield II, in particular in the Appendices in the new Accidents Addendum. In Appendix 9 I looked at Accidents on the Western Front - how many "walked away", and compared this with the situation of where the enemy was involved. A rather startling set of statistics came out of this, as far as I was concerned. I took the 13,900 separate Casualty Reports for the RFC, RNAS, AFC, and RAF that I had researched for my Entries in the Western Front Section, and found that just over 8000 of these had no involvement of the enemy. A remarkable total of 6,678 of these described or inferred that the airmen walked away, with no noted injury. Only 17% of accidents on the Western Front involved any injury or death to the personnel.

Bear in mind, that if you were flying at the Front, you were trained and would have a level of experience. You had been taught how to make emergency landings, to maximise your chances of survival, and the crashes were mostly at low to "low-ish" speed, in a relatively light machine. The statistics prove how true what I've just written, was.

You walked away from 4 out of 5 accident crashes and damage on the Western Front... but in stark contrast, if the Enemy was involved, 74% of the Casualty Reports of this type involved some form of injury, wounding, death (or imprisonment). Barely 1 in 5 walked away then.

This was one of the most interesting finds I made, in writing my book. In the same Appendix, I then looked at all these ratios for about 30-40 different Allied aircraft. You didn't want to be in a Sopwith Triplane in a crash... though there weren't many of them. SE5as were "fairly kind" to you (just over 1 in 10 accidents involving injury or casualty).

It's all in my book.


Edited by fetubi
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I copied the log book of a relative who was pilot of RE8s on artillery observation latter part of 1917.


On his last flight in UK he managed to crash on landing.

He was then posted to France, having accumulated 45 hrs solo.

Within 4 days of arriving at his squadron in Proven, Sep 1917, now on his 5th flight in F&F he noted- attacked by 2 Albatross scouts. machine a write-off.

He had another serious enough crash a month later but went on to survive the next 10 months accumulating some 250 hours of war flying before returning to UK to instruct.

The 2 incidents I mention above are covered by casualty cards but there were numerous incidents along the way which are not.

I've always assumed he was a lucky man; useful now to see your stats to put it in context, Trevor.




PS his observers also survived!



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