The Royal Aircraft Factory R.E.8 was a British two-seat biplane reconnaissance and bomber aircraft of the First World War. Intended as a replacement for the vulnerable B.E.2, the R.E.8 was much more difficult to fly, and was regarded with great suspicion at first in the Royal Flying Corps. Although eventually it gave reasonably satisfactory service, it was never an outstanding combat aircraft. In spite of this, the R.E.8 served as the standard British reconnaissance and artillery spotting aircraft from mid-1917 to the end of the war, serving alongside the rather more popular Armstrong Whitworth F.K.8. Over 4,000 R.E.8s were eventually produced and they served in most theatres including Italy, Russia, Palestine and Mesopotamia, as well as the Western Front.
Design and development
The first of two prototype R.E.8s (Reconnaissance Experimental 8) flew on 17 June 1916. The new type was specifically designed to overcome the drawbacks of the B.E.2 - it had a more powerful motor, giving an improved performance, in particular a heavier payload. It was also much better armed, with a synchronised forward-firing .303-in Vickers machine gun and one or two Lewis guns on a Scarff ring in the observer's cockpit. It was (intentionally) less stable than the B.E.2, although modifications had to be made to improve stability before it could gain acceptance by pilots used to the B.E.2e - making the production version a good platform for artillery spotting but giving it little chance of out-manoeuvring enemy fighters.
Most R.E.8s were powered by the 150 hp (112 kW) Royal Aircraft Factory 4a air-cooled 12-cylinder inline engine though some received the 200 hp (149 kW) RAF 4d engine and others had an Hispano-Suiza engine. A supply shortage of Hispano-Suiza engines, as well as the Rolls-Royce aero engines, such as the Falcon, prevented any upgrade of the R.E.8's powerplant. The engine was installed so that the propeller inclined upwards to improve the takeoff and landing run. This produced a "broken back" appearance to the fuselage, and an illusion that the tail sloped upwards. As with most RAF engine installations, the twin exhausts protruded over the upper wing to carry the fumes clear of the crew. As with the B.E.2e, the long extensions on the upper wing were reputed to be liable to collapse if the aircraft was dived too sharply.
Eventually 4,077 R.E.8s were produced with a further 353 on order cancelled at the end of the war. In addition to the Royal Aircraft Factory, the R.E.8 was produced by six other companies including Austin Motors, Standard Motors, Siddeley-Deasy and Coventry Ordnance Works.
The first production aircraft reached France in November 1916. Initially, pilots converting from the B.E.2e had problems with the R.E.8's more sensitive controls, resulting in a number of accidents, and the new type was grounded while a larger tailfin was designed. The modified type proved more acceptable, but early service was most inauspicious. On 13 April 1917, a patrol of six R.E.8s from No. 59 Squadron RFC was met by aircraft from Jasta 11 and all the R.E.8s were shot down within five minutes.
The casualty rate in R.E.8 squadrons dropped from the levels of "Bloody April", largely as a result of improved pilot training and tactics. Although never a popular aeroplane, it was, however, reasonably satisfactory for the tasks demanded of it, and was even regarded with some affection, gaining the rhyming slang nickname "Harry Tate" (after a popular music hall artist of the time).
The R.E.8 equipped 18 Royal Flying Corps squadrons in 1917 and 19 squadrons in 1918. Belgium was the only country other than Britain (and her Dominions) to operate the R.E.8, receiving 22 in July 1917.
By November 1918, the R.E.8 was regarded as completely obsolete, and surviving examples were quickly retired after the armistice. Only two survive today. The restoration of R.E.8 F3556 at the Imperial War Museum Duxford was completed in 2004. This aircraft, built by Daimler, had arrived in France on Armistice Day. The other surviving R.E.8 is in Brussels, Belgium, and is one of the few examples to have a Hispano-Suiza engine.
Published - July 2009
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