The strange and baffling case of the switched aeroplanes; or, Even when using New Mathematics, 4112 never equals 5878: The tall tale of the Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2 of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, part 2

The Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2 of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, Ottawa, Ontario, February 2009. Wikipedia.

Ahh, you are back. What a pleasant surprise. Would I be correct in assuming that you wish to see (read?) the second and final part of this article on the Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2 of the fantabulastic Canada Aviation and Space Museum of Ottawa, Ontario? Wunderbar!

The story of that particular example of the B.E.2 began in England, in the factory of British & Colonial Aeroplane Company Limited, as most of Europe was busy tearing itself to pieces during the First World War. Completed in late 1915 or early 1916, for use by the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) of the British Army, this aeroplane left Bristol, England, and was flown to Saint-Omer, in northern France, near Calais and Dunkerque, as well as near the border with Belgium and the trenches which had spread, like some malignant disease, from the English Channel to the Swiss border during the summer of 1914.

The B.E.2, which carried the RFC registration number 5878, left Saint-Omer in late July or early August 1916 and made its way south, to an aircraft depot near Candas, France, where it was formally taken on strength by the RFC, in early August. More specifically, the B.E.2 was taken on strength by No. 7 Squadron, RFC, a unit heavily involved in the Battle of the Somme, one of the largest and bloodiest battles of the First World War.

A joint operation which involved the British Army as the main force and the French Armée de terre in a supporting role, the Battle of the Somme, named after the French river around which the fighting took place, had begun on 1 July. Designed as a knockout blow which would bring about the defeat of the German Empire, this battle turned into yet another battle of attrition. The fighting, and dying, and maiming, went on until November, when the weather got bad.

For many, the Battle of the Somme came to epitomise the futility of the First World War – a widely held opinion during the interwar years. Worse still, from the 1960s onward, disparaging comparisons were made between the soldiers and generals of the British Army. The former were lions led by donkeys. Such an expression was / is quite unfair. Few if any people had predicted the trench warfare which had pushed aside the war of movement of the first days and weeks of the conflict. The British generals may have been baffled by this new type of warfare, all generals of the time were, but they were far from indifferent to the suffering of the men in the trenches.

Even so, by the time the Battle of the Somme ended, more than a million German, French and British / Commonwealth soldiers had been killed or grievously injured, or else had vanished without a trace. And yes, the number of people injured or killed on both sides was about the same. All in all, the British Army unit which penetrated the furthest behind the German lines walked no more than 12 kilometres (7.5 miles). It was a long, long way to Berlin. It was a long way to go, if I may be permitted to paraphrase the very popular 1912 British song It’s a Long, Long Way to Tipperary, but back to our story – and the aeroplane of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum.

The crews of the B.E.2s of No. 7 Squadron, which included at least one Canadian, Edward James Watkins of Toronto, Ontario, flew countless observation and bombing missions during the Battle of the Somme. They did the best they could but the German defences were simply too strong.

Unlike many B.E.2s of No. 7 Squadron, the museum’s aeroplane survived the Battle of the Somme.

During the winter of 1916-17, the crews of this unit may, I repeat may, have been involved in operations against the Siegfriedstellung or, as the British called it, the Hindenburg Line, a 160 or so kilometre (100 or so miles) long fortified line in occupied France named after field marshal Paul Ludwig Hans Anton von Beneckendorff und von Hindenburg, supreme commander of the Deutsches Heer.

Second Lieutenant William Wilson Cowan was at the control of the B.E.2 which carried the RFC registration number 5878 when he crashed during take off in April 1917. Tragically, this British pilot was killed. He was only 24 years old. The aeroplane itself was damaged so severely that it was written off. Its engine was probably removed at that point and sent to the aircraft depot near Candas. The airframe, on the other hand, was crated for salvage and shipped to England.

And yes, April 1917 was / is often referred to as Bloody April (bloody April / blinking April?). You see, the British Army began an offensive at Arras, France, early in the month, in conjunction with a French offensive further south. RFC units were heavily involved in that offensive, conducting countless close air support, reconnaissance, observation and bombing missions over and behind German lines.

Many of the aeroplanes used by the RFC were no match for the fighter pilots of the air service of the Deutsches Heer, the Luftstreitkräfte, and their fighter planes, however. As a result, RFC squadrons performing said close air support, reconnaissance, observation and bombing missions suffered appalling losses.

This tragic period was highlighted precisely a century later, in April 2017, in a very successful and popular mobile game launched by the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, Ace Academy: Skies of Fury. (Hello, EG!)

And no, by the time the Battle of Arras ended, in mid May, neither the British nor the French forces had managed to punch through the German lines. Worse still, feeling betrayed by the overoptimism shown by the commander in chief of the Armée de terre, general Robert Georges Nivelles, and exhausted / infuriated by 3 years of seemingly useless bloodshed, more than half of said Armée de terre mutinied.

The French high command and government were stunned. They imposed a total news blackout on these events and set out to put down the mutinies, hoping not to add fuel to the fire in the process. About 50 soldiers were executed by firing squads and 500 more saw their death sentence commuted by the French president, Henri Poincaré, and / or the new commander in chief of the Armée de terre, general Henri Philippe Benoni Omer Joseph Pétain, a character mentioned several times in our blog / bulletin / thingee since October 2019.

Dismissed in May, perhaps in part as a sop to his soldiers, Nivelles was made commander of the French ground forces in North Africa in November. Public memory has not been very kind to this intelligent and combative officer, but back to our story.

Once the crate containing the airframe of the B.E.2 reached England, it appeared that someone decided to have said airframe repaired, to help alleviate a shortage of training airplanes. Whether or not the B.E.2 was actually used to train RFC pilots in the air or mechanics on the ground, if it was used at all, is unclear.

Weeks, then months went by without knowledge of the whereabouts of the B.E.2 which carried the registration number 5878.

What is clear, however, was that rumour had it that a night fighting B.E.2 flown by a famous British pilot, Second Lieutenant Frederick “Fred” Sowrey, was to be sent to the United States in early 1918, as a part of an exhibition of war trophies whose aim was to raise funds for the hospitals of the RFC. Said exhibition may have been held in New York City, New York – and elsewhere.

Now, before we go any further, yours truly sincerely believes that a digression is in order. I do not like to digress any more than you like to see me do it, but such is life.

During the night of 23-24 September 1916, 3 pilots from an RFC night fighting squadron were patrolling the skies to the east of London. In the distance, thanks to the searchlights operated by the British Army, they saw one of the 11 rigid airships of the Kaiserliche Marine attacking England that night. Of the 3 pilots, Sowrey was by far the closest to that airship, the Type R Zeppelin L32.

Sowrey opened fire on the L32 as the latter was making its way back to base after dropping its bombs. He set the hydrogen-filled giant ablaze. None of the 22 crew members survived the ensuing crash. At the risk of crossing the bounds of horror, I must note that some crew members, including the L32’s commanding officer, jumped from the falling airship without a parachute, preferring that end to being burned alive.

Heavy and still somewhat unreliable, parachutes were not carried during combat missions in order to carry more bombs or fuel.

And no, there was precious little that was romantic about the war in the air between 1914 and 1918, but back to our train of thought.

It so happened that, since the summer of 1916, Canada’s Dominion Archivist had been trying to gather war trophies of various types that could be displayed in Ottawa, in a national war museum the federal government might decide to set up at some point. Arthur George Doughty’s unofficial mission was officialised by Canada’s Privy Council in October 1917 when he was made Controller of War Trophies.

In January 1918, Gustave Lanctôt, a high-ranking employee of the Public Archives of Canada, Doughty’s assistant no less, contacted the United Kingdom’s recently formed Air Ministry to ask if, when the exhibition of war trophies came to an end, the B.E.2 night fighting airplane flown by Sowrey could be donated to Canada’s future war museum. The British authorities gave their blessing to this request. Oddly enough, Sowrey seemingly had no link to Canada whatsoever.

Interestingly, Lanctôt was also able to secure several pieces of German rigid airships, both large and small. Whether or not any of said pieces came from L32, the airship shot down by Sowrey, is unclear.

The catch with Lanctôt’s request was that, while Sowrey went on to have an honourable career in the RFC and, from April 1918 onward, the Royal Air Force, his aeroplane, which carried the registration number 4112, was either destroyed or scrapped at some point after September 1916.

Thus, when Lanctôt asked that this B.E.2 be donated to Canada, the War Trophies Committee of the British War Office would not have been in a position to accommodate him, said committee having sent the B.E.2 which carried the registration number 5878 instead of Sowrey’s aeroplane. Mind you, it is also possible that the committee really thought that the B.E.2 on display in the United States was Sowrey’s machine. In any event, the aeroplane which eventually made its way to Canada, in 1919, was the B.E.2 which carried the registration number 5878. And yes, my easily confused reading friend, that flying machine is the one whose story you have just read.

Whether or not anyone in Canada noticed this substitution is unclear. This being said (typed?), it looks as if no alarm bell rang.

It is worth noting that the B.E.2 and many other war trophies were displayed at the 1919 edition of the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto. By then, it had neither an engine nor a propeller.

Once the exhibition in the United States closed its doors, the B.E.2 fell within the purview of the War Trophies Disposal Board. Stored in Ottawa until late 1935 or early 1936, in the annex of the building which housed the Public Archives of Canada, the so-called trophy building, it was reassembled and put on display at the Aeronautical Museum opened in Ottawa, in 1937, under the auspices of the Associate Committee on Aeronautical Research of the National Research Council, a very well-known organisation mentioned several times on our blog / bulletin / thingee since July 2018.

Prior to going on display, the B.E.2 was repaired and repainted by the staff of a Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) aircraft depot located in Ottawa. By then, the following sentence was stenciled on its fuselage: “This machine flown by Lt. Sowrey brought down a Zeppelin on Sept. 23rd 1916.” Whether or not these words were applied on the aeroplane at that time or earlier is unclear. And yes, there are several unclear aspects to this story.

In any event, the onset of the Second World War, in September 1939, led to the closure of the Aeronautical Museum at some point in 1940. The B.E.2 was put back in storage somewhere in Ottawa.

The staff of an RCAF repair depot located in Trenton, Ontario, repaired / restored and recovered the B.E.2 in 1957-58. Said staff presumably used that opportunity to install the engine donated in 1958 by the Science Museum of London, England, to which a (depot-made?) propeller was attached.

It should be noted, however, that the author of the 1961 letter to the editor referenced at the beginning of the first part of this article mentioned that the engine had in fact been loaned by the Imperial War Museum of London – an intriguing discrepancy. This information was seemingly given to H.J. “Titch” Jenkins of Ottawa by the curator of the Canadian War Museum, in Ottawa, Lee F. Murray.

In any event, the B.E.2 went on display at the Canadian War Museum in 1959. Although technically added, around 1965, to the National Aeronautical Collection, as the collection of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum was known back then, it remained on display in the Canadian War Museum until 1988 or so.

Ironically, the British Air Ministry donated the propeller of Sowrey’s long gone B.E.2 to that national museum in 1962. In the late 1950s, Sowrey himself had donated this item, the aeroplane’s machine gun and some small pieces of the L32 to the Air Ministry. He died in October 1968 at the age of 75.

The restoration staff of the National Aviation Museum, as the Canada Aviation and Space Museum was known back then, began to work on the B.E.2 in 1988. It was as part of this work that these people discovered that the aeroplane they were working on was not the one piloted by Sowrey in 1916. In other words, it was not the B.E.2 which carried the RFC registration number 4112. It was, as you know by now, my reading friend, the B.E.2 which carried the RFC registration number 5878.

The restoration of the B.E.2 was completed in 1995. It was seemingly put on display in 1999 but was returned to storage in 2014.

And that is pretty much it for today. See ya later.

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Rénald Fortier