The Wartime Diaries of an RFC Officer

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(continued from the December issue)

In February 1918 “X”, the Flying Officer concerned, had bought the famous racing Austin “Pearley” for £100 and had on loan from Dewis, the then-Manager of the London Mercedes Company, a Napier, which was for sale. A certificate for four days leave gave X a chance to think about buying vehicles, perhaps with a view to trading when the terrible war had ended. He wrote to the LCC cancelling the numbers for the Mercedes Allweather and went in the Napier to inspect Red Cross vehicles at the Tooting depot and on to Palmer’s sale, where “Tollerton bought several motor bikes” . (This suggests that my former assumption that Palmer’s had become a Red Cross depot may not have been correct). The longish runs (considering that this was in the winter of 1918) continued, such as a party driving from London to Eastbourne in two cars, X and girls in the Napier, the others in “Berties Merk”. X found Eastbourne “a rotten place” but appeased himself by lunching with his party at the Grand Hotel and, after Dalzial had left by train, having a cheery if bad dinner and “a hell of a rag” in their rooms.

Then it was on to Brighton, staying at the Grand but lunching and dining at the Metropole, until X felt much better for his leave. The Technical Officer from Shoreham came to dine and after they had “got rid of Bertie and the Merk”, that gentleman having been unpleasantly drunk on more than one occasion, X went over to Shoreham in the rain in the Napier and “crashed into the bridge near the Aerodrome and broke hood and screen, etc.” X was able to get an extension of his leave, and inspected transport at Ford, near Littlehampton. There followed motoring fun, driving “the old De Dion about the sea-front and motoring over to Haywards Heath in the Fiat”. There were Shows to see, like “The Yellow Ticket” and X “painted up the engine of the De Dion”, which was then driven to Haywards Heath, where Tollerton came along in the Fiat, and he afterwards “drove old De Dion up to London, without trouble”. Later the Fiat got X back to London on a snowy February evening in about a couple of hours.

The next ploy was to go with Archie de Pass in the ex-racing Austin to Newman’s Sporting Cars Ltd., on a very cold morning and leave it there for sale, at £225. (In view of the controversy as to when the term “sports-car” came into being, this early use of the name for a motor business, presumably run by George Newman, later to race Salmsons, etc., is of significance). From there the two went in the Fiat to Newmarket, the faithful Tollerton going with them in the little De Dion Bouton. They reached Hatfield for lunch but did not get in until dinner-time because they had wasted some time at Baldock waiting for the De Dion to arrive — it had broken an inlet valve at Royston. Nothing daunted, on the Saturday, Archie and X left after lunch in the Fiat, to Royston, put a new valve in the De Dion’s engine, and then towed it back to Newmarket, via Cambridge, still arriving in time for dinner, “and a little sing-song”. Sunday was spent, with Tollerton, overhauling the De Dion, which involved taking the body off and cleaning down the chassis. Archie preferred to walk the dogs.

The next day, apart from being vetted by Dr. Wilkins, it was much the same, doing work on the De Dion. Then it was X’s 25th birthday, celebrated by Tollerton “taking it out and messing about with the De Dion and, after lunch, getting it going awfully well”. Some of the party then went into Newmarket in the trusty Fiat. Someone called Andrew commenced to build a new body for the De Dion and X and Archie used the Hillman. They also went shouting pigeons — “coo-birds” — and X wrote to the White Cross Insurance Co., about his accident with the Napier. They had a punt on the moat. The Fiat would be used for X to get to Thetford, from where a Staff Crossley, which he drove himself, took him on to Harling Road. Archie went down with malaria. The farming scene included X making a rabbit pen for his fiancee and going to a sale to buy a hen house. But all good times come to an end; at 7.30 one Tuesday morning X and Tollerton started back for London in the Fiat, arriving after four hours, including attending to two punctures.

At this time, in March 1918, X was scarcely able to move for an abcess, and was granted three weeks extra sick-leave and three months’ light duties. He was in much pain and had to go to bed at Newmarket after driving there in the Fiat with Col. Shelmedine, whom one of the girls later drove to Duxford in the Napier, which Tollerton had driven up. The Fiat was in frequent use for local journeys and X was innoculated, presumably in anticipation of going overseas. It was at this time that X’s interest in breeding rare poultry started. After further work on it and it was painted, the De Dion was “going awfully well”. Tea was taken one afternoon with Lady Wilton. The Napier and a Rudge motorcycle were taken to Burrell’s Garage in Bury to be auctioned. On April Fool’s Day, 1918, the Doctor and his little girl came over in his Ford, and a party crammed into the Fiat for a picnic at Thetford — “Went all over Aerodrome”. While there, X saw Bill Finnes and Orton. Tollerton was then “sent off by train”, preparatory to X motoring down to London in the Fiat in 3 1/2 hours. There were visits to the Air Board and the Brigade and Gen. W. Warner offered X a job in Birmingham with Longcroft. That day the long-serving Fiat was involved in a serious crash — “Gerald was driving and he ran into a lamp standard and smashed car completely and was badly hurt himself and Elsie got cut a bit too. Took him in ambulance to RFC Hospital, Hampstead. Not much hurt myself”.

Next day X took a taxi to Highbury to see Elsie, “who was quite cheery but has a nasty eye”, and later they all went down to Hampstead to see Gerald, “who is getting on well”. The Austin was thus pressed into service, although it was in Cummings’ Rover that they went to see the luckless Gerald, only to find he was in a fever hospital. Up at Newmarket the Calthorpe had reappeared, meeting X at the station. It was now time to attend the Bury auction, to which Tollerton had taken the Austin. “But not a bid worth mentioning, so brought whole lot home, in the following manner: Kathleen (X’s fiancee) drove De Dion, Olga the Calthorpe, myself and Mrs H the Austin, Mr. H (the fiancee’s father) and Mrs M the Napier and Tollerton the Rudge m/c”. Quite a little cavalcade for wartime 1918! They were joined for tea by Hartley on his 7 h.p. Indian and sidecar.

The London run was done by the Napier, Austin, and the Indian as far as Cambridge. In April the Rudge was sold for £12 and the Napier to Messrs. John Nodes for £325. That called for a dinner party at Prince’s and X bought a pug. He also took his girl to see the “awfully good” play “Nothing But The Truth”, at the Savoy Theatre. There is an entry which reads “After, met Col. Jarrott and drove him home”. The social life of London-town! Later they saw “By Pigeon Post” at the Garrick and Archie and X “went car-coping”, finally buying a 1912 16/20 h.p. Sunbeam from Dewis for £220, “on the usual terms”. Capt. Keller was taken to see the Austin. Shopping at Selfridge’s and seeing “Flora” at the Prince of Wales Theatre occupied some of X’s time. But it was good luck for a bulldog and a Yorkshire terrier which X and his fiancee bought from the Dog’s Home and immediately walked in the Park. Raper’s Rolls-Royce was now sold to Dewis for £1,000, maybe a sign that the war was fizzling out, but they “were not paid for it” in spite of waiting all day. X went to Birmingham with his mother, by train, putting up at the Grand Hotel and reporting “to the Area” where he found absolutely nothing to do. After reporting to two Generals he packed up and took the train home — a busy war!

The Sunbeam was now being used for the usual Stag runs, and X was under observation by Guy’s Hospital — “had some more bugs made”. The Sunbeam punctured near London and a new tyre was put on — “cleaned brass on the car”. X had been under a specialist, Dr. Quintin Chalmers and at the E. Training Brigade asked for and was granted Lt. Woodyat, his Thetford Technical Officer, by Col. Shelmedine. X was now posted to the Birmingham Training Division (the Area) and the old Sunbeam would take him up there from London in under four hours. Tollerton was at the Stores Park and X was Orderly Officer “so did not have any lunch”. Col. Wiseman would come and dine, X having found a house at 13, Francis Road, — “got everything in swimming order”. X’s fiancee managed to be in Birmingham at this time, for week-ends. X went over to Manchester, meeting Col. Jarrot and Capt. Hodgson at the Air Ministry. They went over to Manchester race-course in a Crossley and later over the Crossley works “which was most interesting”. They took lunch at the Midland Hotel. (Jarrott was the great British pioneer racing driver who was a partner with Letts in selling Crossley and other cars. One wonders whether, in readiness for the final drive of 1918 on the Western Front, the RFC was increasing its transport fleet, which would have been mainly Crossley?).

Anyway, X went off the next day in Crossley landaulette No. 7502 (presumably its RFC number) to looker garages in Leamington for the Area. He then attended a “Court of Engineering in Birmingham re a Balloon Battery”, before a dinner party and cards session with “Hetherington, Perrin and Major Birch” X had an office in York House, Leamington for the supposes for RFC work, and used his Sunbeam to drive from there to Newmarket and back, socially, one such run at night occupying five hours to Birmingham — “Had magnificent run both ways”.

X was obviously displeased with his job and after a row with Hetherington saw the General to get things settled. Meanwhile he drove about in the Sunbeam and in Staff Crossleys and one entry says: “Got up early and motored over to Leamington in Mack’s little Frennay car”. (This was no doubt a Frenay, brought out in Liege only just before war broke out, using a small four-cylinder Ballot engine. It was intended to establish it here, and X’s friend Macklewaine must somehow have got hold of one).

At this time X was anxious to get back to the Air Ministry, and flying. He went to the Coventry A.A.P. and saw Capt. Hunter from the Norwich “A” Repair Section and drove later in the Austin to Castle Bromwich “to see the Big Handley Page Aeroplanes”. These were probably the four-engined V 1500s, intended, too late, for the bombing of Berlin. Incidentally, he then picked his mother up, which sounds as if the ex-racing Austin “Pearley” now had a touring body, especially as a later entry reads: Sold Austin to Col. Hetherington for £125. Chassis and lamps only. Am keeping the body”.

Alter a few jobs on it the 1912 Sunbeam was running well. X found himself busy in the Midlands but hated his job. Sometimes he rode the Triumph motorcycle to work and frequently lunched at the Clarendon Hotel. He seems to have had his own cook at this time, but paid her off with £5. Dr. Hartley-Banting was now seeing X but he was well enough to go to the Childrens’ Hospital with Lady X to give the little patients oranges. By June 1918 X saw another Medical Board and was given 14 days sick-leave but was passed fit for flying! So it was back to London in the Sunbeam, where X tried a Straker-Squire and a Metallurgique, both two-seaters, at the Mercedes Co., and kept “the sporting Straker”; perhaps more suited to a pilot than a six-year-old Sunbeam? He went up to Newmarket in it, where his engagement was announced by his fiancee’s father, X’s father having left for France. The Straker-Squire had to have its axle stripped after the run there and X sent Rawson by train to London for a new crown-wheel. Tollerton had left his Triumph at Cambridge, so X rode this home. It was June 1918 and X had fixed up his return to No. 1 Group, RFC, with the rank of Flight-Commander, which was celebrated by lunching at the Ritz with his mother, Lady X, and Col. Ryan, after which X took a train to Newmarket and helped Kerry and Dawson with the Straker Squire. We are about to return to some flying. . . — W.B.

(To be continued)