1917 HP O/400s

During May and June 1917, the Squadron received eight more Handley Pages from England to replace the Short bombers. The Squadron strength now stood at 18 aircraft, 10 in one flight and 8 in the other. The new aircraft were O/400s, a development of the old O/100s.

Handley Page O/400 bomber D8345 of No.7 RNAS about to land

As one of the first "all Handley-Page squadrons", No.7 was something of a showpiece and was frequently inspected by officers of the Allied High Command. Early in June, the Squadron was honoured by a visit from the King and Queen of Belgium, both of whom flew in Squadron aircraft. Their pilot was Squadron Commander J T Babington DSO, a new arrival on the Squadron, who was to take command from Squadron Commander Allsop at the end of the month. (Sqn Cdr John Babington, had been CO of RNAS Manston and was in charge of the Handley Page Training Flight (also known as the 'Handley Page Squadron') which by the end of 1916 had been set up at Manston to receive and prepare ex-factory HP 0/100s for France and to train their aircrew).

In July 1917, the establishment of Handley Page squadrons was reduced to 10 aircraft and to meet this change, the flight of 8 aircraft was removed to the other side of the airfield to form No.7A Squadron. It continued, however, to be controlled by No.7 Squadron until December 1917, when it was renumbered No.14 Squadron RNAS (later No.214 Squadron RAF) and became an independent unit.

On 31 July 1917, the Battle of Ypres commenced and from then until mid-November, when the battle ended, the Allies waged a vigorous and unremitting air offensive in support of the Army. The RNAS squadrons, including Nos.7 and 7a, kept up constant day and night attacks on enemy airfields and coastal targets. They also bombed railway stations, junctions and depots in an attempt to isolate the battlefield. This was one of the earliest examples of the use of aircraft in the interdiction role. On the night of 16 August, Nos.7 and 7a Squadrons made their most successful night attack. In support of the British Army's attack at Lanemarck, they raided the Thourout railway junction and ammunition dumps with 14 aircraft, all of which found and bombed the target. Nine tons of bombs were dropped, ranging from 65 to 250 pounds. Explosions were still taking place 90 minutes after the last aircraft left the target area and the fires were visible from behind the British trenches.

During this autumn of 1917, the Flanders RNAS Command reached the peak of its bombing power. Attacks such as the one on Thourout became commonplace and the tonnage of bombs increased to an average of 6 tons per raid during September. Between the nights of 2 and 4 September, Nos. 7 and 7a Squadrons dropped over 16 tons of bombs on the Bruges docks alone. The amount of destruction achieved by these raids is perhaps best shown by the importance attached by the German High Command to the elimination of the Dunkirk Command.

From September, the towns and airfields of the Dunkirk Command were subjected to nightly attacks from land, sea and air. So intense were these attacks that the RNAS Aircraft Depot was forced to decentralise into a series of sub-depots and parks. Severe though these raids were, they completely failed in their main aim of curtailing Allied bombing. Not only did Allied bombing increase but the scope of targets was widened.

A good example of this fortitude was the attempted attack on Cologne by a single aircraft of No.7 Squadron on 20 October 1917. Piloted by Flight Sub-Lieutenant R G G Gardner, this aircraft encountered extremely bad weather about halfway to the target and was forced down to 2,500 feet. At Duren, some 20 miles from Cologne, the aircraft was down to 2,000 feet and the bad weather was worsening steadily with cloud and heavy rain. Just then the crew sighted a well-lit factory 3 miles east of Duren and Gardner decided to attack it instead of finding Cologne. Twelve 112 pound bombs were dropped and eleven fell within the factory walls, the twelfth falling in the road outside. The homeward journey was made under even worse weather conditions and for two and a half hours the crew were unable to see the ground at all. They crossed the trenches at 2,000 feet, under heavy fire from the ground, and finally landed successfully on Droelandt aerodrome, despite its small size and the complete absence of landing lights. By the time they landed the crew had been in the air for seven and a half hours and had covered some 400 miles, over mainly unknown territory.

From November 1917 until February 1918, very few sorties were flown because of unfavourable weather and bad airfield conditions. Squadron Commander Babington was succeeded by Squadron Commander H A Buss on 1 January 1918 but he too was posted shortly afterwards and was replaced by Squadron Commander H Stanley-Adams DSC on 20 February 1918.

Returning from a night attack on 18 February 1918, Flight Lieutenant E R Barker achieved the rare Bomber distinction of shooting down an enemy fighter. The attacking aircraft was an Albatross D5 Scout, a formidable fighter, but Barker's observer, Flight Sub-Lieutenant F H Hudson calmly waited until the German Scout was about 20 feet below and 50 feet ahead of him, having completed its first pass, and then fired a burst from the front gun into the enemy's front fuselage. The Scout appeared to stall and, after a second burst, nose-dived apparently out of control.

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