On 19th June, 1919, The Daily Mirror published this photo with the caption:
A practice at Kenley Aerodrome of the RAF, who are to take part in this year’s Tournament at Olympia.
Sadly, no further details were given, so why was this strange photo of a tipped-up bi-plane considered important enough to be printed in the Daily Mirror, one of the most successful papers of the day?
The Royal Tournament was a competitive military pageant that took place from 1880 until 1999, excluding the two World Wars. In 1919, it was held from 26th June – 12th July, having been postponed from May because Olympia wasn’t available. 1919 was a particularly significant year because it was the first Royal Tournament to be held since the armistice and drew a capacity crowd, raising £8000 in entertainment tax alone, as well as a handsome sum for service charities.
The centre-piece was a re-enactment of trench warfare – “going over the top” complete with tanks, which must have been a strange experience for the 500 men taking part, many of whom would have been Great War veterans.
Female service personnel were included for the first time in the Tournament’s history, with the Womens’ services going head-to-head in a driving and wheel changing competition.
This was also the year when the newly-formed Royal Air Force made its Tournament debut. They didn’t appear to excel in the traditional, sabre, foil and bayonet contests, but had more success in the Tug-Of-War, with No.5 Stores Depot, R.A.F., Earl’s Court, beating H.M.S. Erebus two pulls to nil, on 5th July.
This brings us to RAF Kenley’s contribution to proceedings, which was certainly overshadowed by other performances, notably the French cavalry. Indeed, there seems to have been some confusion in the Press about how the RAF were going to display anything at all, with the “Lichfield Mercury” speculating that they might try something, “in the nature of first aid to a falling aeroplane, if something of the kind can be safely managed within the arena.”
However, the RAF had other ideas – perhaps crashing aeroplanes didn’t make for great publicity – because on 12th July, “The West Bridgford Advertiser” reported:
Of the more spectacular events are to be mentioned the assembling and dismounting of an aeroplane by members of the Royal Air Force. The idea in this case is that the call has been received whilst the ‘plane is being conveyed along the road. The lorry is stopped, the machine assembled, and then dismantled, re-packed and off the lorry goes again. At the time of our visit the machine was assembled in 2 min. 30sec. and dismantled in 2 min. 5sec.
This sounds like just the thing for the personnel of RAF Kenley which had its origins as No.7 Air Acceptance Park, tasked with the assembly and testing of aircraft before they were ferried to squadrons in France.
Surprisingly, the aircraft in the photo is a German Fokker D.VII, one of the outstanding aeroplanes of WWI. This formidable fighter was so admired by the Allied Powers that the Armistice agreement specified that all D.VIIs had to be surrendered, so the D.VII in the photo is probably one of these captured aircraft.
On the face of it, a German aircraft seems like a strange choice for this public demonstration of the RAF’s skills. However, the clever design of the D.VII, which required no bracing wires between the upper and lower wings, made it a natural choice for a quick assembly challenge.
So perhaps that solves the mystery of what our Kenley lads were practicing for in the Daily Mirror photo – one of the first appearances by the Royal Air Force in a Royal Tournament, a significant step in legitimising the fledging service in the eyes of the British public.