The Wartime Diaries of an RFC Officer

Before I resume these diaries of “Flying-Officer X” (as I shall call the young aristocrat who so painstakingly compiled them all those years ago, although, in fact, there was apparently no such rank among pilots, until the RAF was formed), we must not be too hard on him for the quantity of petrol he used motoring about during the dark days of war, because there was no rationing of fuel, even for civilians, until the middle of 1916, although certain types of users were given priority, although even this was left to the garages to observe. So, with the price of a gallon at from 2/- (10p) to 2/10d (14p) there need not have been much curb on “X”, who was in uniform, had his “wings up”, and worked for the War Office.

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We left him, although on sick leave from the RFC, trying to borrow a BE2c in which to fly up to Newmarket, where his fiancée lived, from London. In the event an entry says: “Too bad a day to fly . . raining, etc., so went to WO as usual. . . .” After which X went to the garage and fixed up the Adler, and later took out the Itala and did odd jobs on that car. The weather that Spring of 1916 had been mostly glorious but on a Sunday in May when Tollerton — X’s batman perhaps? — took out a Rolls-Royce and X went to Box Hill in it with Ronnie Wilson (to whom the car belonged) and Connie Guy, it was “a horribly rainy day”. But this did not prevent them trom lunching, before returning home for tea at X’s London flat. There was then dinner at Ciro’s, where X was joined by other friends, and eventually he drove one of them to Caterham (perhaps to the Guards’ Depot?) in the Adler. X got to bed at 4.30 a.m.

The social-round continued unabated, with an Austin used for some of the London commuting. When it was necessary to take a young lady back to school a Daimler was hired, on a Tuesday when X lunched his father and friends at the Ritz, had dinner with this gentleman and Lady Mainwaring at the Carlton, after tea at his fiat, after which X went on to the Gaiety Theatre and the Bachelors Club. Food, as well as petrol, was plentiful… Ignoring all the details of this fascinating and incessant social life, X used the Itala again, and chose for himself a room at “the new WO”. Indeed, the Itala was proving useful, as Tollerton would “bring it round” and it was used to motor down to Harrow one Saturday with Betty Pigott, for the purpose of collecting a school-girl and taking her back to London. On the way back the Itala was run into by a van and its radiator burst. But this did not prevent X from seeing “Half Past Eight” at the Comedy Theatre with two girl friends (“rotten show”), seeing his doctor at the RFC hospital, having a sing-song in the drawing room of the family’s town-house after dinner, and then changing into evening-clothes for Ronnie Wilson’s dance at the Grafton Galleries, to which X took Mary Dodson — “Great show, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Got home 9.30 and went to bed”…

Ignoring some of the high-pressure dining and wining, we find X taking the school-girl back to Harrow in a taxi, on a day of visits to his usual haunts, so that he missed an intended train to Harrogate and travelled on the midnight one) arriving after “a horrible journey” at 6.30 a.m. and going on foot to the Majestic, X had obviously been ordered to the Yorkshire Spa-town to “take the cure”. It will be remembered that X had been invalided out of acfive service in France because of rheumatism. Sleeping until lunchtime on the first day there, he later saw Dr. David Brown, before dining at the hotel. The following day, after a chat with Major Powell in the Winter Gardens, X fixed up the times for attending the Baths, often taking his first before breakfast. Incidentally, Tollerton must have travelled up to Yorkshire, which again gives the impression that he may have been X’s batman, for he was then sent off to Grimsby on leave. Perhaps he drove the Adler up, as X was soon using this in Harrogate, the aforesaid sale either having fallen through, or maybe this was another car of the same make, probably the 1914 14/18 h.p. car he had used since 1915. X was pretty depressed at this time but it was not all “taking the waters” (or not that son of water, anyway!), because Gerald Howard and Harrison called in on their way to Catterick and dined and went to a concert with X.

In fact, the ever-restless X was off to Catterick with his two friends, the Adler accompanying their car. He looked round the sheds, after lunching with Major Mansfield, and then drove the Adler back to Harrogate with another chap, had tea, and went for his Bath. The cure, in fact, lasted only four days on this occasion and after some treatment that morning X went back to London on the 4.41 train, a journey lasting nearly five hours. It is now May, 1916. Back in town X got new brake drums for the Adler, went to the RFC garage and to the War Office, where he had to see about a chap who had been killed, and for those interested in the theatre it is worth mentioning that he saw “The Boomerang” at the Queen’s Theatre and “Toto” at the Apollo.

It is possible that petrol was becoming more difficult to obtain, or it could be that the Adler was still “in dock”, as X used she train to go to Maidenhead for tea at the Guard’s Club with a girl one Sunday and took the train again on the Monday, back to the medicos in Harrogate. In between having Baths in the Pump Room and at the Sulphur Wells X “messed about with some other fellows” — possibly this treatment was being used frequently for military invalids, at this time? They would change for dinner at the Hotel and find ways of amusing themselves, such as driving the Adler to Leeds to see a show. But X must have been getting better, because he went for walks and one day they heard that Major Mansfield was going to fly over. X duly went up “to the Common” (The Stray?) and met Gerald Howard there. The Major arrived, with two other machines, and all went to the hotel for lunch, after which they saw the aeroplanes leave, Learworth in one of them.

On Empire Day, with the new Daylight Saving Scheme in force, X drove over to Catterick aerodrome after lunch and “had a Maurice out and gave several joy-rides”. This refers to a Maurice Farman Longhorn biplane. X saw the CO and fixed up the pupils and machines he was to fly, from Catterick with No. 14 Reserve-A Squadron. He had a busy initiation, flying for four hours between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m., instructing pupils in a north-easterly wind at from 500 to 1,000 ft., and also giving flights to Tollerton, Eckel, and Gerald Howard. X dined in the Mess with Mansfield and Eckel — ” . . . and after had several Barley Waters and motored back very late. Had a perfect drive back and the Adler ran awfully well… No-one presumably thought it funny that a British Instructor, teaching young pilots to kill Germans, was using a German car. . . . A net day gave X a respite from flying, although Mansfield came over to lunch in a Staff Crossley, and afterwards X altered the seats of the Adler. The following day began with doubtful weather, so X amused himself by going for a walk and playing billiards with Eckel, but after tea he set off for Cattcrick and in the evening “did quite a lot of instructing on a Maurice Farman”. This was a Longhorn, which was up for two hours, between 6.30 p.m. and 8.30 p.m., at the same height as before. It was again dinner in the Mess and back to Harrogate by 10.30 p.m., for drinks with friends. The same pattern was followed on the Saturday, when the machine was up for 2 hours, including a cross-country flight with Howard, getting up to 2,500 ft. After which there was time to attend the aerodrome dance. Most of the flying was done in the evening, for three hours one Monday, going up to 3,000 ft. in an old Longhorn, and for relaxation the Officers would arrive in the Crossley to dance to the gramophone. At this time another Medical Board passed X as unfit for Active Service and he was put on two months’ light-duty. This had entailed motoring over to York. X celebrated by going to a local theatre with a Mrs. Robertson who had a box there but it was a “rotten show”. The result of the medical did not mean that X was no longer permitted to fly. Indeed, having sent Tollerton off on five days’ leave, X went to Catterick, filled his car up with petrol, and drew a leather coat from the stores. After another Bath he left for London on the midday train.

After changing, he went to the WO to see Col. Cormack and Capt. Lyons, and later saw Col. and Mrs. Warner, about the chance of a new job. The old social whirl was quickly resumed. Diary entries refer to seeing Minty More and Betty Barnes in “Happy Day” at Daly’s. and Doris Cory in “de Bathe” (I imagine of the theatre family; “Pop” Cory was to hire one of X’s Brooklands. racing cars after the war and have an alarming experience when riding as the passenger in it), and meeting Joe and Charlie Childs, the latter the jockey who had won the Derby and the Oaks, at his father’s flat. “Another tyre” had been drawn from the RFC garage, then it was hack to Harrogate by train. There life continued much as before. X was able to take a Needle Bath with his fiancee in the Pump Room and Howard, and his Adjutant. Cox, would come to dine. The weather in early June in Yorkshire was terrible but one evening the wind dropped, so X was able to go up from Catterick for 1 1/2-hours in the Longhorn, giving flights to Howard, Cox, Thompson, Tollerton and his pupils. (I quote names, because, somewhere, these may stir a few memories.)

After the Adler’s “steering had been put right” it was in considerable use, between Harrogate and Catterick and to Leeds, and then on to Newmarket. When X wasn’t driving he was enjoying very cheery dances (“all merry and tight”) and “a real good old pub crawl”, the latter at Huntingdon, on the way to Newmarket, after driving to Barnsley before breakfast and on via Grantham. X won about 18/- in a lottery. Resuming his journey after tea, he reached Newmarket in time to dine there and then pushed off for London in the faithful Adler. stopping for the night at Baldock. Leaving at 6.30 a.m., X arrived in London about midday, cleaned up, lunched with his mother and friends, and then set off back to Newmarket with a lady passenger at 4.30 p.m., dining at the “Rutland Arms” en route. Maybe not surprisingly, practically the whole of the Monday was occupied with tuning-up the Adler. But in the evening one of the girls “drove me into Newmarket in the little new Calthorpe. Had a very cheery evening and all the ladies dressed up for the dance and were excellent”.

Soon afterwards, X was posted to the CFS at Upavon, as a Wing-Adjutant.

(To be continued.)

V-E-V Odds & Ends:— Plans are going ahead for the 75th Anniversary of Shelsley Walsh hill-climb this year. At the combined MAC/VSCC Meeting there, it is hoped to bases number of appropriate pre-1914 cars present, and to celebrate the Alvis Register’s Diamond Jubilee there is to be a special Alvis section of the car park. On the Humber front, we learn from the Humber Register’s newsletter that one of the very rare arca 1919 3½ h.p. Humber flat-twin motorcycles is being restored in Warwickshire, that a 9/20 Humber two-seater has turned up in rough condition in Scotland, and that a 1927 Brainsby-bodied Humber saloon is in process of restoration. The Fiat Register won the 1979 Inter-Register Contest. We hear that Phil Diffey has acquired an Albatross, presumably not the one in a Denbigh garage. In New Zealand a 1924 14 h.p. Standard “Warwick” tourer is in use again, after a nine-year rebuild.

The Eastern Daily Press (cutting sent to us by a reader) had a touching story last year about what is thought to have been the first car in Foulsham, Norfolk, believed to have been a Decauville owned by a Dr. Wolf, the year being quoted as 1909— the car was Registered CL 551. It seems that the motoring doctor went off for a spin but collided with another car withing minutes of setting off, the driver of which had up to then always had the roads in that area entirely to himself. . . . The photograph of the car was on one of several glass-plates found in a garage which still exists in the main street of Foulsham. The 1980 International Bugatti Rally will be organised by the Bugatti Club Nederland, the provisional dates being June 1st-5th. It happens to the best of us! The picture with an article about “Cars With a Fine Pedigree” which appeared in the Liverpool Daily Post last December was captioned as depicting an early Series-1 Morris Eight, but showed a GP Bugatti! The AGM of the VSCC takes place in London on March 5th. Early American vintage tourers that took part in the VCC of New Zealand’s Oil Can Rally included an Ajax and and Essex. — W.B.