The wartime diaries of an RFC officer

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(Continued from the March issue) 

We have reached the period when X, as I am calling the young Guards Officer who had been seconded to the Royal Flying Corps, to preserve his anonymity, had been posted to Thetford, not far from his fiancée’s home, to take over a Flight, in the summer of 1916. The notorious Battle of the Somme was about to commence, across the Channel.

It was on a Sunday in the middle of July that X took the Flight over. After lunch he was sufficiently confident that things were working smoothly to get the Itala out and drive to Norwich with Capt. Richard, the Officer Commanding Mansfield. They experienced three punctures on those war-torn roads but got back to the aerodrome in time for dinner. The new week commenced with X taking-up BE2c No. 4099 with Cpl. Clegg as passenger, in the morning and then waiting for the weather to improve, until after lunch he set off for Southwold in this machine, with 1st Air Mechanic Cole in the observer’s seat. They were accompanied by Beanlands and Castle in another BE2c and, after flying at 1,500 ft. for some 40 minutes, they landed on the Common, so that X could visit his friends the Girlings. This was no doubt all very jolly, especially as during the early evening X was able to give Maurice Dukes a joy-ride of a quarter-of-an-hour at 1,000 ft., taking in St. Felix’ girls-school on the way, and Burnlands did the same for Cooper. (Remembering how thrilling people found an aeroplane flight in the 1920s, and even in the 1930s, this must have been quite an experience in the middle of the war, in a primitive BE2c). Alas, although the pilots started back for Thetford, rain intruded, after they had been struggling for five minutes at 700 ft., so they returned and spent the night at Southwold.

Early the next morning X flew back to Thetford but, losing his way, the return flight occupied 65-minutes, the BE2c climbing to 1,600 ft. for what I suppose was a direct distance of some 37 miles. Nevertheless, X landed back before breakfast. The day proved to be a very fine one, so at 12.30 p.m. X was off again, in the same aeroplane, to have lunch and tea at his fiancée’s house, going via Bury St. Edmunds, accompanied by other BEs, containing Beanlands, Castle and Gilley. For this trip X climbed to 4,000 ft. and was there in 35 minutes. He returned to Newmarket in the evening, at 2,000 ft., landing on the racecourse, which took 15 minutes, and then was back at Thetford after another 20 minute flight at 4,500 ft. Presumably as a precaution against mechanical failure he took Cole with him. The reason for the interrupted flight on the way back was so that X could meet his father and Lady James. Certainly a case of using a BE us an aerial runabout! They were back in time for dinner at which Dalziel turned up with the Adler.

The day following this X was confined to his duties until after tea, as the new CO had arrived at Thetford, a Capt. Wyllis, who had to be shown round. But in the evening X took Dalziel and then Petch, both Lieutenants, up for a 20-minute joy-ride at 1,000 ft. in No. 4099, which was dearly X’s personal BE. That evening, too, X, Mansfield, Beanlands and Gilley went off to Norwich in the Itala and inspite of another burst tyre, arrived there in time for dinner, and a visit to the Hippodrome, after which they motored back. What a picture of RFC Officers in a fast car this conjures up! Incidentally, the names I am including are of real people and it will be interesting to see whether any of them write in about those distant days, if any of them are still alive, or have relatives who remember them. The aerodrome at Thetford, famous for the Burrell traction-engines, no longer exists as it did in 1916 but there is the Anglia base at Norwich and an RAF airfield at Coltishall. 

So life went on up at Thetford. X would be very busy seeing that the machines were put into good order but might find time to entertain his father, the Baronet, who would come over for lunch at the aerodrome in the Itala, after which Tollerton might drive him back, later taking a party of friends to Newmarket in the car to dine with his father at the Rutland Arms. After about a week X had all the machines at Thetford ready to fly and they “had the BE12 out and (it) was flown by Gilley, Castle, and Beanlands”. One July Friday X spent the morning preparing the aeroplanes and in the afternoon “went out to Roundham landing-ground with my lot”. The Saturday morning was spent preparing the machines and “. . . after lunch at 2.15 we started off in four BE2cs for Southwold and got there all right. Left mechanics on the Common, and we walked up to the girls school where we stayed for tea and after played tip-and-run.” A thrill for the schoolgirls, with all those RFC pilots, one imagines! X also went to see his friends the Girlings and “they flew back to Thetford and all arrived A1”.

The outward flight to Southwold took 55-minutes, the return only 35-minutes. This time X flew BE No. 2474 and took Cole, now promoted to Corporal, as his passenger. The average speed of the return flight was at perhaps better than 60 mph! 

If the weather turned nasty X would go to his Flight and wash things out for the rest of the day, leaving him time for some more motoring and the social round. There is mention of “hurrying up work on the Adler”, presumably in the Flight workshops, and of using Studebaker and Talbot staff cars. When X had difficulty in telephoning the War Office from Thetford aerodrome (!) he was driven in the former to Newmarket to get a train to London — it sounds as if this was an open car, as X had “to get clean” before going to the WO. Afterwards he took the opportunity of lunching at Princes with his friends Pat Pigott, Guy Edwards and Hedges and of going for a walk with his fiancée, before catching the 5.32 p.m. train back to Thetford, arriving in time to dine at The Bell, with Beanlands. 

X was able to have his fiancée at the aerodrome while he got Flight work done, and send her home in the Itala, driven by the faithful Tollerton. One afternoon saw X, with Cole, embarking on a 90-minute round flight to Newmarket, where they stayed about an hour with X’s fiancée’s parents, then going on the Rowdham aerodrome, where X put down, before returning, in BE No. 2474. That day was rounded off by being collected in the Staff-Talbot to dine with Motor Mechanics — “fine people and had a hectic evening”. The next day’s diary entry reads: “Getting over the overnight’s. Feeling too horribly dud for words. However, got better during the day and the weather A1.” So X went up to the sheds “and Capt. Wyatt and another fellow called Gardner came and after took them as passengers”. X was using his own machine. Gillet joined in, with a mechanic, and they went to Rowdham and then on to the fellow’s camp at Elvedon, before returning to Thetford where, after dinner, X went to the Boxing Competition and then saw Col. Broad and Willie Reed, Babington, etc. mobilised for night flying.

By now the Adler was practically finished and X went to Mildenhall to see a Mrs. Robertson, and got back for a bathe in the river. He was “messing about generally” but about 11.30 that night (July 28th, 1916) was called out because zeppelins were reported over the Eastern counties. Beanlands was called out as well, and at 2 a.m. they went up to try to intercept but the fog came up and after 40-minutes they came back, X wrecking his BE (No. 2474) on landing. He had been alone, and had ascended to 5,000 ft. 

The entry after the zeppelin hunt reads: “Feeling very sore, stiff, and dud. Head hurting rather. Got up in time for lunch.” However, a drive over to his fiancée’s in the hula with Tollerton at the wheel, the run to Newmarket taking about an hour, cheered things up, and in the early evening X returned and arrived “all mellow”. But he went to bed feeling “very dud”. Perhaps because of the accident he was given three days leave and he and Beanlands made plans for a holiday with the girls, who had been over several times to watch the flying, using the Adler. The Itala was commandeered for a tourney to Portsmouth, a maid having been sent ahead with the luggage. The war-time journey is interesting. They had “a lovely run” to Godalming, where they stopped for lunch, having arrived with the maid in London the previous day. The 4.30 boat was caught to Ryde and then they motored to Seaview and put up at the Pier Hotel. August 1916 had turned out very hot and bathing parties and trying their hand at shrimping passed the time, while they also walked in the woods and had a look at an old house where X’s parents had lived some 15 years before. Some idea of how effective the old Itala was can be formed from the return journey. The party didn’t start back until one-o’clock one Thursday, motoring to Ryde, lunching, and catching the 2 o’clock boat to Portsmouth. Yet they were in London for tea and at 8.45 p.m., after X had been to the family’s London mansion to see his mother, they drove off to Newmarket, which took only 2¾ hours, for the 73 or more night miles. There was apparently much work for X to occupy himself with, on his return. He used his Adler to take the CO to the station, when some of the pilots were going to London by train to collect new machines. and he went over to Rowdham, which was then a new aerodrome, on which the sheds were being erected.

August 7th is an interesting entry, because X lunched with Vandervell (surely the person who raced Nortons and Talbots at Brooklands after the war, and eventually built the Vanwalls?), went to Elvedon to see the first tanks (“quite wonderful water-carts”) and after tea “had the BE12 out and tried it for the first time and bummed round the aerodrome”. In fact, this was no. 6160 (built by the Standard Motor Company) with a 140 h.p. RAF engine, flown in the dusk for a quarter-of-an-hour at 1,200 ft., and X “liked it very much”. This was soon after this development of the BE2c for trying to defeat the scourge of the Fokkers had been sent out to France. The new BE proved ineffective as a fighter and was to be withdrawn from the field by September 1916, and used for bombing duties. At the time when X first flew one it was no doubt thought very necessary that pilots should become conversant with it. It is interesting, too, that X refers to the engine of this new Scout as of 140 h.p., when officially the rating was 150 h.p.

After pranging his personal BE2c X had test-flown another, No. 4203, with an air-mechanic and then with 2nd Lt. Kempster, and it looks as if on the second occasion he had been encouraged to practise his landings, which he had done for 20-minutes, from 1,500 ft.

However, it was the BE12 to which he now turned, flying the same one on four occasions the day after he had first tried it. Before breakfast he flew over to Newmarket in it to have that meal with his father at “College Leaders”, by Machall Place. This seems to have taken about as long as the BE2cs used to take, as the flight lasted 20-minutes, at 1,500 ft., the return journey, including going to the night landing-ground at Kirtling and flying over his fiancée’s house, occupying 25-minutes, at 2,000 ft After tea X was accompanied by Beanlands on another BE12 when he flew to his fiancée’s place and this time “put down”, for a second tea. That flight look the same time, now up to 3,500 ft. They flew back in the evening, after going to Kirtling, in half-an-hour, at 2,500 ft. to find zepps. reported, so that they had to stand-by until four a.m.

(To be continued.)