The Great War in the Air

The Sunbeam Car and Sunbeam-Coatalen Aircraft Engines.
In 1917, with the Great War still raging, a 24hp Sunbeam has brought these naval officers to watch seaplanes powered by Sunbeam-Coatalen aero engines. – The artist, GH Davis, was well known for his military paintings.

See below for some more examples.

Formation Flying, 1918

The great air battles of the later stages of the war were won by skilful combination.  This picture shows a British raiding squadron closing up when attacked by large numbers of the enemy.  The leaders are stalling their machines slightly so as to let the laggards creep up and so present a solid mass of fire to the enemy.

(From the painting specially made for this volume by G.H. Davis.)


The above picture and text are taken from The Great War in the Air (Vol 4) by Edgar Middleton (late R.N.A.S. and R.A.F.)  [My father, AR Weyer, was an officer cadet in the fledgling RAF in late 1918 – although not finally commissioned until rejoining the RAF VR at the start of WWII – and he bought a copy of this history shortly after it was published in 1920.]

The RAF squadron shown is equipped with the Airco DH.9A light bomber of which nearly 2000 were built.

GH Davis (1881 – 1963) George Horace Davis worked as a freelance artist and served with distinction with both the Royal Flying Corps and subsequently the RAF.  He used his experience during the Great War to create portrayals of aerial combat, some of which were published in The Great War in the Air and also The Sphere. In 1923 he joined the staff of The Illustrated London News and, for the next forty years until his death, pioneered and specialised in detailed cut away drawings of aircraft, ships and vehicles.


A Duel in the Air.  

The British biplane is shown crossing below the German, and firing from the “blind spot” where the enemy cannot hit him. The bullets from the British machine have got home in the engine of the German plane.

(From a painting specially made for this volume by G.H. Davis.)


The above picture and text are taken from The Great War in the Air (Vol 2). The picture shows a Bristol F.2B fighter firing on a German Albatros two seater. The observer can be seen firing his .303 Lewis Gun mounted on a Scarff ring which allowed both swivelling and elevation thus affording easy fire in any direction. The Bristol fighter, often known as the Brisfit, was highly successful and by the end of the war well over 1500 were in service.

Most Bristol fighters were powered by Rolls-Royce Falcon III engines which delivered 275hp but shortage of supply led to alternatives being tried.

Wikipedia states that: “The Bristol Type 15 was fitted with a 200 hp Sunbeam Arab engine. In expectation of a reduction in performance with the less powerful engine, it was planned to supply the Arab-powered Fighters to the “corps” reconnaissance squadrons, reserving Falcon powered examples for fighter-reconnaissance operations. The Arab engine was to be fitted to fighters produced by sub-contractors under licence, while Bristol-built fighters would continue to use the Falcon engine. Unfortunately, the Arab engine proved to be problematic; it was found to suffer from serious weaknesses in cylinder and crank-chamber design that led, among other faults, to chronic and severe vibration, while the cooling system also required repeated modification. As a result, the “Arab Bristol” was never to become a viable combination, in spite of prolonged development. A few Arab-engined Bristols were at the front late in the war.”

Pictures like these would have been very much part of the active memory of many people living during the post war Sunbeam era.

Colin Weyer