WWI: Royal Navy Air Service: Archibald Britton Wyles (1887-1941) – RNAS Service Number F38863 – – RNAS Service Duration 18.9.1917 – 27.7.1919

Around fifteen-years-ago, a friend of mine who worked as a Civil Servant in the British Government, accessed the online National Archives and discovered that the WWI War Record of my paternal Great Grandfather – Archibald Britton Wyles – who was the last of my direct relatives to be born in the picturesque Northamptonshire village of Duddington (a place the ‘Wyles’ family had inhabited for around five-hundred-years and probably longer). As child he trained as a groom (with his father) serving the local gentry – but when motor-cars began to take the place of horses – his father became a ‘chauffeur’ at nearby Uppingham. This new career involved not only ‘driving’ the owner of the vehicle around, but also included learning how motor worked and how to repair it when and if it broke-down. Like the essential horsemanship skills required for ‘grooming’ – these may have been the ‘modern’ skills that Archibald’s father – John Thomas – also conveyed to him, so that this early exposure to ‘car mechanics’ may well have been the inspiration for his later military service. Whatever the case, Archibald left for Birmingham around 1905 (when he was eighteen-years-old) seeking new employment and experiences in life. He acquired a job working in a Department Store working as a ‘Draper’s Assistant’ learning how to sell fabric and sewing equipment and other similar paraphernalia.

War Record of Archibald Britton Wyles Discovered in the National Archives!

He married Helen Edwards (my great grand mother) in 1910 and they soon had a son – Joesph Wyles (c. 1914) together – before my grandfather – Alfred Gregory Wyles was born in 1916. On September 28th, 1917, at the age of thirty-years-old, Archibald Britton Wyles decided to join the ‘Royal Navy Air Service’ (RNAS) which was an experimental military unit involving the (then) novel idea of landing, storing and launching fighter-planes from the decks of stationary or moving Royal Navy ships! The RNAS had previously been famous at the beginning of WWI due to a special ‘Armoured Car’ Section (later ‘Division’) developed and Commanded for a time by the politician Winston Churchill (as ‘First Lord of the Admiralty’) – where it operated within France and Belgium. This blasé approach to use of the early motor-vehicles for modern warfare my well have attracted Archibald Britton Wyles into joining the RNAS on September 18th, 1917. He trained in and around London on what appear to be various moored Royal Navy ships that were used for various duties – including defending the skies against German air-raids (although we are not certain as to his actual duties). Whilst still serving in 1918, his wife – Helen Wyles – passed away (on the 30th January) during the terrible ‘flu’ pandemic that struck the Western world at that time.

A Transcribed Version of the War Record

I have included her Death Certificate as the Coroner had the decency to write that my grandfather could not be present because he was serving in the ‘RNAS’ (I am told he was probably refused ‘leave’ due to the war situation – as German destroyers had bombarded Yarmouth in Norfolk on January 14th, 1918). During his military Service in WWI, Archibald Britton Wyles served aboard four separate ships – the HMS President, the HMS President II, the HMS Rohampton, and the HMS President V – and held three distinct ranks recorded as ‘ACII’, ‘ACI’ and ‘CI’. Deciphering these ranks has taken me time but it appears that the RNAS operated a dual training system whereby the middle and upper-classes recruits trained as high-ranking Officers who learned how to take-off and land, ‘fly’ and ‘fight’ using the old WWI-era biplanes (constructed mostly of wood, paper, fabric, string and glue set around a heavy metal engine and the required machine-guns) – whereas working-class recruits (like my great grandfather) trained as an ‘Air Mechanic’ learning how to strip, construct and repair the engines of these by-plane, and how to strip, construct and repair the operating machine-guns (often co-ordinating the rather improbable idea that a burst of machine gun rounds could, with the right setting of tempo and timing, actually ‘fire through the gaps’ offered by a spinning propeller, without those bullets touching the propeller at any time! Another skill of the ‘Air Mechanic’ also involved the proper maintenance of the fuselage of the biplanes in question, so as to ensure the highest standards of aerodynamic combat ability available at the time. Anyone who has been lucky enough to see up close an old by-plane in one of the UK’s air museums will understand just how precarious such a ‘balanced’ efficiency was for these very delicate martial machines!

It would appear that an ‘Air Mechanic’ serving within the RNAS would be referred to as an ‘Air Mechanic’ (long-hand) in a number of externally viewable Royal Navy official documents (so as to distinguish him from a ‘flyer’ who was invariably a fully fledged ‘Officer’), but would also be referred to as an ‘Aircraftman’ (and by the short-hand designations of ‘AC’ and ‘C’) in official (internal) Royal Navy documentation. Invariably added to these designations were the ‘Class’ or ‘Level’ of the rank held, as can be clearly seen within the RNAS War Record of Archibald Britton Wyles – who entered the RNAS at the lowest rank of ‘Aircraftman’ 2nd Class (ACII). The next promotion in the RNAS should have been to the (temporary) rank of ‘Aircraftman’ Acting 1st Class (ACI – Acting) – but Archibald Britton Wyles appears to have been promoted straight to the rank of ‘Aircraftman’ 1st Class (ACI) – and then he experienced an unseal promotion side-ways into the ‘Administrative Rank’ of ‘Clerk’ 1st Class. I suspect that Archibald Britton Wyles chose to train as an ‘Air Mechanic’ in the RNAS due to his early exposure to motor-cars in Uppingham – and in reality should acquired have the RNAS ranks of ‘Air Mechanic’ 2nd Class, ‘Air Mechanic’ Acting 1st Class and ‘Air Mechanic’ 1st Class – the reality of which turned-out slightly differently as he appears to have caught the eye of an Officer who ensured he was promoted into a more administrative role.

Archibald Britton Wyles May Have Been attracted by This Type of ‘Dynamic’ Photograph – Britain’s New Flying Services – WW1 – A British naval pilot models the new Air Service uniform at the start of the First World War. Date: 1914.

Interestingly, whilst researching RNAS casualties during WWI, I found records of a number of ‘Air Mechanics’ who were ‘Killed in Action’ during WWI, often as the result of ‘drowning’ after the Royal Navy ships they were serving upon were sunk by German U-Boat or Naval actions (occasionally, RNAS personnel would also be recorded as dying by ‘enemy fire’ or be recorded as dying of ‘illness’ or ‘injury’, etc). On every occasion, however, ‘Air Mechanics’ are always recorded as ‘Air Mechanics’ (in long-hand) so as to distinguish their loss from ‘fighter-pilots’ who often died whilst operating their biplanes in all kinds of situations (including direct combat) – and are invariably referred to by their proper ‘Officer’ ranks (in other words, those acting as fighter-pilots were NOT ordinary enlisted men). It would seem, rather illogically, that an ‘Air Mechanic’ in the RNAS was also designated as an ‘Aircraftman’ – even though such working-class recruits were never allowed to fly the very aeroplanes they worked so hard to keep airborne! As matters transpired, Archibald Britton Wyles was demobilised on July 27th, 1919 – after serving one-year, ten-months and nine-days. A number of sources agree that the RNAS merged with the ‘Royal Flying corps’ (RFC) previously associated with the British Army – and formed the ‘Royal Airforce’ (RAF) on April 1st, 1918. It is further agreed that anyone still serving in the former RNAS after the 1.4. 1918 were automatically recategorized as being members of the RAF and that their War Records (as of after the 1.4.1918) were then viewed as no longer belonging to the Royal Navy, but to the RAF! Although this might well be the case, there is no mention of this transition within my great grandfather’s War Record – as he appears to have joined the RNAS in 1917 and left the RNAS in 1919!

Helen Wyles Passes Away During Early 1918

Update: RAF Museum Emails (25/26.11.2021) 

From: Andrew Dennis <Andrew.Dennis@rafmuseum.org> 

To:Adrian Chan-Wyles PhD <chandao@fastmail.fm> 

Subject: FW: Research: Royal Navy Air Service (1917-1919) 

Date: Thursday, 25 November 2021 12:47 

Dear Sir, 

Thank you for your reply, ACII and ACI refer to Aircraft-hand (or ‘Aircraftsman’) second and first class respectively, although in the RNAS they were usually termed ‘Aircraft Mechanic’.  I believe that CI refers to the rank of Clerk 1st Class. 

Yours sincerely, 

The Collections Enquiry Team 

Royal Air Force Museum London 

T: 020 8358 4873 

www.rafmuseum.org 

If travelling to our London site and using SatNAV please use the postcode: NW9 5QW 

From: Andrew Dennis <Andrew.Dennis@rafmuseum.org> 

To: Adrian Chan-Wyles PhD <chandao@fastmail.fm> 

Subject: RE: FW: Research: Royal Navy Air Service (1917-1919) 

Date: Friday, 26 November 2021 06:45 

Dear Sir, 

Thank you for your reply, I am sorry to say I do not know the locations of HMS President II & V, I suggest that the National Museum of the Royal Navy should be able to assist you with this. 

I cannot say for certain what medals your great grandfather would have been awarded due to different eligibility criteria. However, as I understand it for the Royal Navy there was no requirement to serve overseas as there was in the army and RAF to qualify for the British War Medal.  If he qualified for the War Medal, he also would have been eligible for the Victory Medal.  Only one War Medal and Victory Medal were issued.  To confirm his medal eligibility, I would contact the Medals Office. 

There was no requirement at this time to take an individual’s photographs. 

Regards 

Andrew Dennis 

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