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'Lions Led By Donkeys' 

Sir David Henderson
(1862 - 1921)
KCB KCVO DSO. GOC Royal Flying Corps
Glasgow University, RMC Sandhurst psc
Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders

David Henderson is one of the most under-estimated British soldiers of the Great War. He made fundamental contributions in two areas. The first area was military intelligence. He was Staff Captain (Intelligence) at Army HQ in the Sudan (December 1897-July 1898) and Director of Military Intelligence in the South African War (1901-2). His studies of Field Intelligence: Its Principles and Practice (1904) and The Art of Reconnaissance (1907) consolidated his reputation as the British Army’s leading authority on tactical intelligence. The second area was military aviation. Henderson learned to fly in 1911 at the age of 49: he was the world’s oldest pilot. He was appointed Director-General of Military Aeronautics in 1913 and assumed command of the Royal Flying Corps in the field on the outbreak of war. Henderson’s combination of interests and expertise ensured that the fledgling RFC would, from the outset, play a leading part in intelligence gathering and reconnaissance, to the great advantage of the BEF. 

Henderson returned to London as Director-General of Military Aeronautics in February 1916. In 1917 he was seconded to General Jan Christian Smuts, who had been charged with reporting on Britain’s air policy in the light of German fixed bombing attacks on British cities. Henderson’s views were vital in the foundation of the Royal Air Force and he largely wrote the ‘Smuts Report’. He has the major claim to being Father of the Royal Air Force, though his contribution has been unfairly overshadowed by that of Sir Hugh Trenchard. After the war Henderson became Director-General of the League of Red Cross Societies in Geneva, where he died in 1921, aged only 59. He was an intelligent, far-sighted and innovative soldier. His only son, Captain I H D Henderson MC, was killed in 1918 while commanding a squadron of the RFC, aged 21.

John Bourne
Centre for First World War Studies

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