Geraint opened the meeting by welcoming everyone and reminding members that next month we are due to have a walk around Llandegley. The plan is to meet here at the Thomas Shop for coffee at 10.00 a.m. and then travel up to Llandegley where Shirley will lead the walk.
There will be no Meeting in August and our next Meeting will be on 2nd September when Judy Dennison will give a talk on Llanbadarn Fawr School.
Geraint was both excited and amused to help Ray in the last few weeks with an enormous box of diverse papers relating to Jim Smout’s life and interests. Ray had been given them and Geraint was trying to help sort them. They related to 3 facets of Jim’s life:
- His Family life
- His relationship to the Roman Catholic Church
- His life as a Signalman
Geraint remembers Jim very fondly as a man who went out of his way to help other people. He remembers his ringing around the country to try and find a lost handbag for a lady; and then there was the instance of a tortoise on the level crossing. Jim stopped the train to have the tortoise moved to one side; but then they could not find it. A year later, possibly the same tortoise, well they thought it was, was found by his children. They tried to return it to the original owners, but they were happy for the children to have it! All happy in the end.
Geraint then asked Shirley to take centre stage and to talk about a subject she had known nothing about.
Main Topic: The Insall Family and the early history of the Royal Flying Corps
Shirley started by apologising to any experts who might be present as she has done her best to research something that she had never expected to be exploring. She was not sure if it was a ‘divine intervention’ but on a wet day she and her family had a change of plan and decided to go to the Bristol Aerospace Exhibition at Filton to see Concorde.
This to her astonishment included an amazing exhibition of very old and pioneer planes. Suddenly some of the things that she had been reading about, which had made little sense, became clear. Shirley had been reading about how in the very early days of flight they used linseed, dope and very basic materials. This meant little to her until she saw the aircraft at Filton and saw how the canvas (dope) and other materials were used in making the Bristol Boxkite.
Her second divine intervention came on a trip to Tesco when she found a second hand book on the History of the RAF. – It transpired that the divine intervention had come through Elizabeth who had given the book to Tesco. This helped her to get a good understanding of the history before tackling the book written by John Algernon Insall – Observer.
In her talk Shirley decided that it would be best to cover the history of the Royal Flying Corps first and then introduce the Insall family and their contribution to that history at the end.
‘Don’t fly too close to the sun’ was the refrain that heralded Icarus’s attempt at flying. This led to disaster as far as Icarus was concerned but did not halt the aspirations of mankind to take to the air. There were even Biblical references to Elijah and Elisha relating to flight. It was not however until the developments of the first airship in 1852, leading to the use of the German Zeppelin in the First World War, and then the internal combustion engine 1859, that things really began to progress.
Flight as we have come to know it took a major step forward when the Wright Brothers, on 17th December 1903, took to the air for all of 12 seconds, getting up to 59 seconds with practice. This was the first sustained, controlled, powered flight in an aircraft that was heavier than air. It took place in Kitty Hawk, Carolina. Wilbur and Orville invented a wing warping system that generated lift and manoeuvrability and after a long period of trials with gliders their first flight was witnessed by only three people; a coastguard, a local business man and a boy from the village.
While in 1908 the British Government were banning experiments with flight, in France Henri Farman and Louis Bleriot were collaborating with Wilbur Wright. In 1909 Bleriot flew across the Channel from Calais to Dover in 37minutes.
The British Government’s decision did not last long and in 1910 Brooklands motor racing track, through its owner, made room for a runway in the middle of the track. This first aerodrome had sheds for Sopworth, Vickers, and Whites. By 1914 they had a school for pilots and they trained more pilots than anywhere else in the country.
While many of the major powers in Europe embraced these new flying machines the British Government were still reluctant to embrace aviation. In 1910 a frustrated Royal Field Officer tried to demonstrate their importance to the defence of the Realm when he flew a Bristol aircraft over army manoeuvres. For his efforts he was reprimanded for spooking the horses. Despite political procrastination attitudes did begin to change and with the potential of war on the horizon the British Aeronautical Service was created in 1911. It had a Military Wing, a Naval Wing, a Central Flying School, and a Royal Aircraft Factory. The new service was given Royal approval in 1912 and the Royal Flying Corps was formed as the military wing of the British Army. Its motto was: Per Ardua ad Astra – Through Adversity to the Stars.
With the outbreak of war in 1914 the Royal Flying Corps expanded dramatically under the leadership of their notable Commanders Sir David Henderson and Hugh Trenchard. From 1 squadron in 1914 they had 5 squadrons in 1918. In 1914 they had 105 Officers and 63 aeroplanes. They had biplanes and monoplanes that had been adapted for use and a general-purpose plane such as the BE2 had a top speed of 70 m.p.h.
By the end of the war the planes were being purpose built and included SE Fighter:
The SE Fighter was powered by a 200hp engine and could fly at 138 m.p.h. The other big change during the war was that in the early planes the propeller faced backwards and pushed the aircraft, whereas they changed to a ‘tractor’ layout where the propeller faced forward and pulled the plane.
The primary function of the aircraft at the beginning of the war was reconnaissance, no guns were mounted on the planes, and it was only the crew who carried guns and rifles. Planes at this stage were not used to carry bombs. The planes flew over the battle field to see what was going on and reported back to inform battle planes. They were often fired at by the enemy leading to the need to change the insignia as the Union Jack proved difficult to identify and planes could be shot at by their own ground troops.
As the war progressed pilots got drawn in fights with enemy pilots, guns were mounted on the aircraft and bombs began to be dropped on enemy installation. Aircraft were not the decisive actors in WW1 that they would prove to be in future conflicts but the shape of things to come had emerged.
A new industry emerged to improve and manufacture more and better planes. More women became employed, mainly women who had been in domestic service, and they proved to be quick and accurate workers. The materials used in making the planes was very basic: wooden trusses overlaid with linen. They used Sitka Spruce, Ash, Douglas Fir, all of which were cheap and available. Linen production went up threefold in Ireland. The linen was ‘doped’ with cellulose nitrate to shrink the fabric but about 180 yards were needed for each plane. This would last for just 12 flights.
Photography was a whole new concept in relation to warfare and its introduction was quite controversial. Some Officers expressed the view that it was “an ungentlemanly into the private affairs, breaching the unwritten code of chivalry in warfare.” The enemy had no such inhibitions when they launched the first gas attack at Ypres in April 1915.
Initially there were no specialist cameras that could take vertical and oblique photographs.
The development of the A-Type camera was a major step forward but by 1917 they had gone on to the L-Type and the photographer just had to press a trigger for the exposure to be taken automatically.
A School of Photography was established at Farnborough where expert personnel were trained in printing plates, enlarging prints, showing lantern slides, preparing maps, and maintaining the cameras. The real skill was in interpreting the photographs for military use. With developing skills, they were able to identify battery positions, mortar and machine emplacements, wire, sniper posts, headquarters, tracks of troops, and many other factors to assist the war effort.
Radio was well established before the war and the transmission of Morse Code was by this stage in common use, the Marconi Transmitter fitted into an aircraft could send a Morse signal to the ground, and with the technological advances in radio reliable voice communication was also possible. Planes had operators with portable transmitters that could quickly warn ground troops of enemy positions and gas attacks.
Planes quickly moved from being lumbering artillery spotters with no weapons to becoming more robust structures manned by Fighter Pilots. Guns were mounted on the fuselage that used a ‘synchronization gear system’ to fire between the propellers.
Frontline pilots soon devised ways of dropping bombs by hand over the side of the plane and by 1915 bomb racks were fitted which could be released by pulling s cable in the cockpit. Bombing raids on ground troops became increasingly hazardous as troops learned the art of deflection shooting at slow moving planes.
On the whole the pilots were from privileged backgrounds, some of the mechanics did become pilots, and if anyone happened to have any previous experience of flying, however little, they were also directed towards being a pilot. The living conditions for the pilots was somewhat above those of the other services. They ate and drank well, the latter possibly accounting for over 50% of the 14,000 pilots lost during WW1, most of these during training. Death and loss were all around the pilots leading to a certain desensitisation and they just moved into someone else’s seat at the table when death occurred. They would routinely carry a pistol as this was considered to offer a better alternative to being burned to death. Parachutes were not used by the service as there was a concern that this might give rise to a wave of cowardice.
The concept of Aces amongst the enemy pilots with pilots like the Red Dragon becoming folk heroes. The British Pilots did take on the idea and any pilot who shot down 5 enemy planes was considered to be an Ace. One such Ace was Gilbert Insall, the brother of Algernon John Insall who came to live in Llandegley. Gilbert appeared on the Ace Cigarette Cards:
Gilbert was awarded the VC and the MC. At one point during the war he was captured and imprisoned. He made, what was described as a ‘miraculous escape’. He was then shot down and badly injured over enemy lines, and in a set of circumstances that led to a coincidence of war, he was taken to a military hospital and while he was on a stretcher one of the stretcher bearers recognised him. The Stretcher Bearer had been a member of a hockey team from Germany who had come to Paris before the war and had played against Gilbert.
Algernon John Insall (Jack)
It was Jack Insall who promoted our interest in the Royal Flying Corps, he was not a native of this area and only came to live in Llandegley, with his family, in the 1960’s. Jack with his wife Mary and son Malcolm moved into Church House.
Jack was actually born in France. His father had moved to Paris and had developed a thriving Dentistry Practice in the city. Jack, his older brother Gilbert, younger brother Cecil, and his sister Esme, were all born in Paris. Gilbert and Jack enjoyed cycling and would regularly cycle out to an airfield on the edge of Paris where Louis Bleriot and Maurice Farman were experimenting with their new flying machines. On one occasion the boys were treated to a trip in one of the planes.
Educated in Paris both boys went on to University at the Sorbonne and they were very aware of the growing tensions across Europe as Germany were responsible for several acts of aggression before, on 28th June 1914 the Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated, triggering a full-scale invasion of France in the August. Dr Insall and his family became acutely aware that being British nationals could be hazardous and they managed to get places on the last boat leaving for Britain. Hoping that tensions would quickly die down Dr Insall was shocked to discover, the next morning, written up on a blackboard, while still on the boat, that Britain were at war with Germany.
On their arrival in Britain both Gilbert and Jack joined up, enlisting in The Royal Fusiliers ‘University and Public Schools Brigade’ and began their military training. During the Spring of 1915 an Officer read out an urgent appeal for volunteers to join the Royal Flying Corps. Their Platoon Commander had become aware that Gilbert and Jack had had ‘flying experience’, albeit a couple of pleasure flights that lasted about 10 minutes, and encouraged them to volunteer. Three weeks later they were at Brooklands where they were no longer Privates in the army but 2nd Lieutenants in the Flying Corps. From Brooklands they went to Netheravon where Jack’s training progressed well but after a bad landing, when he badly gashed his knee, he developed a phobia in relation to landing. Jack decided that he would modify his training to become an Observer rather than a Pilot. This role was no less dangerous as he still went up with a Plane and he would be responsible for: compass bearings; spotting troop movements; communications; photography; and operating machine guns.
Jack chronicled his exploits and these have been published in a book: ‘Observer’. He was involved in hundreds of missions some of which were extremely dangerous. The Observer has been an important source for the history of the Royal Flying Corps. In it he recalls nearly falling out of a plane while taking photographs, and the dark days when the Fokker Eindecker planes with their synchronised, or interrupter, shooting method were a real challenge for the British planes.
The cardinal rule that pilots operated to was ‘Go into the attack – whenever you see the Hun, no matter where he is, be he alone or accompanied – go for him and shoot him down’.
He talks fondly of the loss of his comrades, amongst them Albert Ball, a British flying Ace.
Albert Ball was from more humble stock than many of his comrades. He preferred to live in a bell tent and tend his garden, rather than having high class quarters.
Jack described some of the crashes he witnessed and how a plane could be reduced to a heap of dust and debris in a matter of seconds. In 1916 Jack was promoted to an RFC administrative post on the Somme. Seeing the filth, death and deprivation that soldiers faced was quite an eye opener for Jack. Nobody who was in France at the Somme would ever forget it.
Jack was seriously injured while at the Somme. A box of faulty ammunition exploded when it fell off a table in his office. He was rushed to a field hospital where the Colonel in Charge told the New Zealand Medical Officer to whip out Jack’s injured eye and throw it away. The MO from New Zealand begged to try and save the eye. Jack describes how, despite having none of the right equipment he removed the eye between his fingers and thumb, secured it with a pair of pliers, and trimmed away the protruding bits from the iris with nail scissors, and then pressed the eye back into position and bandaged him up. Jack never saw the New Zealander again but remembers his extraordinary kindness at a time when there were so many deserving casualties from the battlefield for the MO to attend to.
Jack’s younger brother Cecil, after working for the Red Cross helping misplaced persons, joined the RFC in 1918, just before the end of the war. His parents and sister returned to Paris where Dr Insall re-established his dentistry practice. His mother and sister also did work for the Red Cross.
Jack continued to work for the RFC and then the RAF and was pensioned out in 1927. During WW2 he had a desk job and was a founder member of the Imperial War Museum with special responsibility for aircraft exhibits.
While he was working at the museum, he met many people who told him stories of their war time experiences. One of the visitors was a quiet little man whose experience was very closely related to Jack’s experience as an Observer. His name was Richard Hesketh of the Thornton Pickard Photographic Manufacturing Company. At the beginning of 1915 it had already become evident that the cameras being used by the Observers were inadequate. Richard, a civilian, was summoned to London from Altringham, in Cheshire, on a Friday in February 1915 to meet with the senior officers from the Photographic Department of the RFC. Discussions took place as to the requirements of a purpose-built camera for aerial photography. At midday Mr Hesketh sent a telegram to Altringham for a car to meet him at the station, and for two Works Foremen to be at his house. They discussed the design implications until dawn the next day. Shortly after 9 a.m. modifications were being made to the first prototype, and production began. Within 3 days the finished camera was in London. Minor modifications were needed so this delayed production slightly, but by Saturday, just one week later, the camera was being used over France.
Jack Insall was recognised as an authority in aeronautical history and he wrote widely for the technical press. When he and his family came to Llandegley in the sixties he enjoyed fishing and wrote for a fishing magazine. When he died in 1972, he was buried in Llandegley Churchyard.
John Abberley knew Jack very well. He described him as a lovely neighbour.
Shirley had been at school with Jack’s son Malcolm and in a twist of fate Shirley’s house in Penybont is the one that Malcolm and her mother moved to after Jack died. Malcolm was a draughtsman and was described as very bright but something of a recluse.
When Shirley did some research on her house, she discovered that Jack had drawn up plans for a house that was never built. A more modest bungalow was built after Jack died. Shirley had to do extensive renovations to the bungalow and in the process found some rather posh silver spoons that had been used for stirring paint.
Geraint, who lives next door to Shirley had been involved in helping to shut down the house after Malcolm died, he did not find the spoons. Malcolm was a single gentleman so it was all a bit sad shutting up the house.
Geraint thanked Shirley for a wonderful talk that explained quite clearly how ‘Penybont had won the war!!!’
Geraint asked members to think about topics for next year’s programme as we will need to be planning it in the coming months. In the plan he felt that it would be important to think of a topic for Shirley that ‘she knows nothing about’!!!