Lieutenant General Commanding David Y Henderson, Sir

Biography of Lieutenant General Commanding David Y Henderson, Sir

David Henderson was born in Glasgow on 11th August 1862. His father David was one of four brothers who built a shipping dynasty on the Clyde. All of them had been brought up as seamen and David commanded the troopship Clyde during the Crimean War. Later, while he and his youngest brother William became shipbuilders and engineers (David and William Henderson & Co), their brothers Thomas and John became ship-owners (the Anchor Line).

Although many of the younger members of this highly successful family made their careers in shipping, David Henderson Junior's path lay in another direction. He would have a very distinguished career as a soldier and later an airman of whom a strong case could be made that he was the "father of the Royal Air Force".

David matriculated at the University of Glasgow in 1877, aged just fifteen, to study engineering subjects in the Arts Faculty. At that time his family address was at 10 Crown Terrace. He remained at the university until the session 1880-1881, when he was recorded as entering the Senior classes in Civil Engineering and Mechanics, and in Office and Field Work in Engineering. He studied under Professor James Thomson, who had held the Chair since his appointment in 1873.

Queen Victoria established the Chair itself in 1840, although there was not yet a separate Faculty of Engineering (established 1923). Among David's fellow students was another son of Glasgow's shipbuilding elite, Robert Barclay Curle. For whatever reason, David did not graduate, but chose instead to go on to Sandhurst. In 1883 he joined the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and began a military career which took him to South Africa, China, Ceylon and, nearer home, the battlefields of France.

David Henderson was an experienced soldier by the time the First World War broke out. He served in the Sudan and in the South African War, where he was besieged at Ladysmith, and wounded in an attempt to destroy enemy guns. His personal courage and professionalism were rewarded by being Mentioned in Despatches (MID) and by promotion to Lieutenant-Colonel. Already it was becoming clear that he had particular talents in military intelligence.

From 1900 to 1902 he served as director of military intelligence under Lord Kitchener and brought a new scientific approach to gathering and collating information. For his work in the war he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) in 1902. He published two important manuals, Field Intelligence: Its Principles and Practice (1904) and Reconnaissance (1907).

David Henderson went on to make two great contributions to victory in the Great War. His interest and experience in intelligence remained central, but was now combined with a fresh enthusiasm for flying. In 1911, at the age of 49, he learned to fly and became the country's oldest pilot. The Royal Flying Corps was established in 1912. Henderson saw its potential from the beginning and was instrumental in developing its role in gathering information on German troop positions to pass to the British Expeditionary Force.

In 1914 he went to France to take command of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), but his energies were split between that service and his workload in military aeronautics, so that in August 1915 he handed over command of the RFC to Brigadier-General Hugh Trenchard. He continued to fight for the autonomy of the RFC, however, and worked hard to ensure that it was neither swallowed up in the army nor damaged by rivalries with the fledgling Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) in a competition for resources.

In 1917 the Cabinet agreed to a plan, attributed to General Christian Smuts but understood as having been largely written by David Henderson who had been seconded to the General to advise him on the air war. On the basis of the 'Smuts Report' the RFC and the RNAS were amalgamated to become the Royal Air Force on 1st April 1918. Although Hugh Trenchard is often given the credit, David Henderson may stake a claim to being the Father of the RAF.

David Henderson had married in 1895. He and his wife Henrietta, daughter of Henry Robert Dundas, had one son. Captain Ian Henderson was killed in a flying accident in June 1918. After the war David Henderson still had important public roles. In October 1918 he served as a military counsellor in Paris during peace negotiations.

After the peace, he went to Geneva to organise the league of Red Cross Societies. He was frequently honoured, created Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath (KCB) in 1914 and Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order (KCVO) in 1919. On 24th June 1920, he returned to the University of Glasgow, this time to receive an Honorary LLD. Sir David Henderson died in Geneva on 17th August 1921. His brilliant career was reflected in his name being the first on Glasgow University's Roll of Honour.



Lieutenant General Commanding David Y Henderson, Sir
Rank: Lieutenant General Commanding
Regiment: Royal Flying Corps
Degree: LLD
Awards: Mentioned in Despatches, Distinguished Service Order (DSO)
Comments: N/A
Note/Press Clipping: N/A
Photo ID: N/A


University of Glasgow Registry and Faculty Records

Richard A. Smith, 'Sir David Henderson' Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004)

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