The wartime diaries of an RFC Officer

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(Continued from the February issue) 

The summer of 1916 saw our aristocratic young Guards Officer, seconded to the Royal Flying Corps, whom I shall identify as X, as keen on motoring as ever. Having tuned-up his 1914 Adler and having had a ride in a new Calthorpe light-car driven by a girl-friend, we find him starting off from Cambridgeshire at ten o’clock with two young ladies in the Adler and arriving in London in time for lunch. After tea at the Bachelor’s Club, presumably without the girls, X went to the War Office for a short time and then took one of the girls back to Harrow in a Scripps-Booth. 

Earlier, when unravelling these old diaries, I have questioned whether the garage in London where X so frequently called, and where exciting cars like the Itala were kept, was an RFC establishment. This is confirmed by an entry for June 14th, when X wrote “Again a very dull day. Went to RFC garage and saw about Adler. . . One wonders where this garage was, during those war-torn years? That evening X was helping his father to entertain friends at the Soldiers Club. On the same day X had been offered the post of Wing-Adjutant to the Northern Aircraft Depot, this new posting to start in five days time, which he celebrated by dining at the Ritz with his family, after which they had a box at Daly’s, for “Happy Days”. 

More time was now spent at the RFC garage, getting the Adler ready and X had his teeth attended to by a West-End dentist. The social round was uninterrupted, however, but getting home from seeing “Romance” at Daly’s with his fiancée, X found a message awaiting him, telling him to report at once that Saturday to the War Office. There he was informed that his posting was to Upavon. This was apparently regarded as urgent, because on the Sunday, after attending Mass with his mother, a Staff Crossley came round and took X to Harrow, where he stayed with his girl until it was time to return to London for lunch with his father at Prince’s, after which he motored to Reading and caught a train, being met at his destination by another Staff-car. On the Monday X reported at 8.30 a.m. to Major Todd in the CFS Orderly Room and was then very busy, taking over. It must have been a blow when, after he had gone all round the establishment with the Sergeant-Major, X was told after lunch the next day by a Col. Maclean, who had just turned up, that his new posting would only be temporary, because the previous Adjutant was coming back! X immediately wrote to Col. Warner at the WO, before strolling round the aerodrome that evening with Major Todd. 

All was well for the time being, though, because the late Adjutant, Major McEwan, left and the Itala arrived in the care of Tollerton (X’s batman?), who was sent off to find his quarters. That day’s entry, for June 21st, concludes: “Car had been running very well and looked very nice indeed. Finished work about 7 and pushed off in the Itala to Newbury and dined with Lady James, and had a very cheery dinner, and after motored back and got to bed soon after eleven o’clock.” X’s new duties did not tire him unduly, it seems, for the next day, after being in the Orderly Room by 8.30 a.m. (“. . . got things more or less going. . . .”), and not finishing until about 7 o’clock, he then went off to Bath with a Major Landon, in the Itala with Tollerton driving, to dine, go to a theatre, drink at the Empire, and return to Upavon after one o’clock the next morning, after a very cheery evening and “a topping run back”. Thus the life of a young flying-man, down at remote Upavon in the year 1916. . . .

The routine continued, starting at 8.30 every morning, and X must now have felt he wanted to resume his flying, because he took Tollerton up for a twenty-minute joy-ride in BE2c No. 5395, with a 70 h.p. Renault engine. This was followed on a Sunday in June as X and Capt. Grenfell, work being over by 12.30, getting out a BE2c in which they flew to Bournemouth. “Had topping flight and had lunch at the Royal Bath Hotel. Went on sea-front. Started back after tea and got back about 5.30.” From X’s Log Book I see that his first flight lasted 20 minutes, as the diary states, being done at 2,700 feet in a north-westerly wind, force-ten, and that Capt. Grenfell did the flying to Bournemouth and back, the machine being No. 4168 and the outward flight occupying 55 minutes, the wind unchanged, the height 6,500 feet. Coming back took 45 minutes, at 2,500 feet: perhaps they flew lower, because the route was now known to them and there was more confidence that they wouldn’t have to force-land. So pleased was X that he took his own machine, No. 5395, up that evening for a twenty-minute flip with a pupil. 

It was typical, one supposes, of the life at Upavon. The Itala was used to take a party of Officers to Salisbury after dinner one night, to attend a performance at the Hippodrome, after which they went for a drive and found themselves obliged to stay the night in Amesbury, X not getting back to the CPS until 5 a.m., to sleep for a couple of hours before his daily duties commenced. The same day, in the late evening, X took up Lt. Fay, the CFS Assistant Equipment Officer, for a quarter-of-an-hour’s flight in BE2c Na. 1676, at 500 feet round the aerodrome in the quiet south-westerly breeze. X was working very hard some days, which did not prevent him having a celebration when Todd was promoted to the rank of Colonel, with “Lucky” Landon, after supper one Wednesday — it ended, “. . . fairly well oiled”. 

When the problem of getting rooms for X’s girl-friends arose, he went with Blatherwick in the latter’s Prince Henry Vauxhall to Eversley and when that failed, X went off again in a Crossley tender to Pewsey, booking his guests in at the Phoenix Hotel. Tollerton had returned from leave, so the Itala was used to fetch the girls from Pewsey the next day, so that they could watch the flying (no secrecy at the war-time CFS, apparently), with X performing for 15 minutes in BE2c No. 4168 with a Sgt. Baker as passenger — the good life?

The Itala was still being used for local runs of a social nature and when it wasn’t available X and Landon would press into service a Daimler Staff-car. The Itala would be used, for example, to fetch X’s fiancée to watch the flying, after which there would perhaps be a champagne supper for quite a large party in X’s room, and when it was time for his “little lady” to leave, who took her to London but Tollerton, and the Itala? To off-set his loneliness and depression that day X flew to near-by Netheravon in the Staff-BE2c No. 4168, taking 2nd Lt. Elphinstone along and landing at the other aerodrome, which entailed being aloft for half-an-hour, flying at 1,500 feet. . . . 

No doubt all the work put in by X at Upavon was to ensure that sufficient machines were serviceable for the urgent training of new pilots destined for the Western Front. However, he was soon told that Guest was to take his place as Adjutant and that he was to become O/C Instruction. So, with Landon, it was off to Devizes in a Staff Daimler, that evening tor a haircut, before “getting Oscar Guest into the Adjutancy” the next morning. After dinner that day, it was reported that an RE-7 was down somewhere near Andover, so X took Sgt. Baker up in the Staff-BE2c to look for it, spotting from 3,500 feet. The new Adjutant had a Rolls-Royce, in which he and X drove to Swindon and had lunch at Marlborough, one wet day after X had been “. . . very busy all the morning dodging between the Orderly Room and the O/C Workshops”. He also worked hard at getting O/C instructions into shape, only to be told within four days of his new appointment that it was going to Adams, who had been previously earmarked for the job! 

However, X continued to work hard, according to the diary entries, on instructing at A-flight, taking the Renault-engined BE2c No. 7144 up quite late one evening and after that being flown in an RAF-powered BE2c by Col. Maclean to his house, “Littlecott”, after which X flew the machine back in the dusk. As usual, the wind blew from the NW. That same evening X went “with Fry, Hawkins and Barker to Salisbury in the Staff Daimler” for a show at the Hippodrome, which must have been very much a “second house,” although they returned quite early. There was also the occasion, before X left Upavon, when he had Capt. Lyons and Lt. George Frechville to lunch and afterwards took the latter up for a joy-ride in 7144, before leaving for London in the Lieutenant’s Itala, a run lasting 4½, hours, including stopping for dinner in Reading. The other Itala, with Tollerton in charge, had left earlier, carrying X’s luggage. 

Back among the bright lights (or the 1916 black-out?) X had his Adler, which he was buying by instalments from Morgan’s, the agents, brought round, and he went in it to the War Office to get his position sorted out. He also used it one day to go to Harrow and Uxbridge with his fiancée and, after dining at the Carlton, his love of the theatre took him to see a performance of “Razzle Dazzle”. The Adler was then used for a run to Litchfield, and on to Upavon to settle up X’s affairs. There is now a clue to the Itala having been an open-bodied car, as on an occasion when X was using it to take his fiancée back to Harrow (where I believe she was still at school) it was abandoned half-way in favour of a taxi, due to the rain. The Adler had been sent to a coachbuilders, it seems with the intention of selling it, and X having been posted to Thetford (near his fiancée’s home) to take over a Flight in July 1916. He drove there, via Harrow, in the Itala.

(To be continued)

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