The wartime diaries of an RFC Officer

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Continued from the April issue 

We left the young Flying Officer X standing-by at Thetford aerodrome until 4 a.m. because there had been a report that zeppelins were over England on the night of August 8th/9th, 1916. Not surprisingly he got up late the following morning but then went up to the sheds and did one or two small jobs, before flying alone over to Rowdham in BE12 No. 6160. The flight, which was to inspect the state of the landing ground, took 25 minutes, at 2,500 feet behind the 140 h.p. RAF engine, including returning in time for lunch. It was then time to see “old Beanlands” off to Sedgeford in X’s Adler two-seater which had served him faithfully for some time. The diary entry continues: “Am now here by myself and bored stiff”. However, the CO, Capt. Wyllie, went with X in a staff-car to Rowdham, presumably following up his officer’s report on conditions there. Back for tea, after which the CO took up an FE and X took up the new BE12, 6161, which he flew for half-an-hour at 6,500 feet, until its RAF engine gave out and he had to bring it down in the marshes just outside the aerodrome, which he did without breaking anything. Just before that X had been up in BE2c No. 4203, for two short, low flips round the landing ground, with two different passengers, and both times the engine had been mis-firing badly, so it had been quite a day. Perhaps to restore his nerve, ten minutes after the forced-landing in the aforesaid BE12 X took the CO up for a flip at 500 feet round the aerodrome in the BE2c, with its engine still running badly. . . 

The day after this, which dawned very hot, X was busy in the Flight sheds all the morning but was still finding it “beastly dull” on his own. In the afternoon he returned to his Flight office and wrote several letters. He was then asked to take up the ailing BE2c No. 4203, which he was able to pass as serviceable after testing it for quarter-of-an-hour at 1,600 feet, accompanied by 2nd Air Mechanic Scott. X spent the time after dinner alone with his CO, as all the other officers had gone off to the boxing tournament. The next day it was work as usual but, with everything packed up, X was able to give a “hun” (? — a soldier, whose rank was that of Lieutenant) a joy-ride lasting 25 minutes in that same BE2c, climbing to 1,800 feet. He then departed in the Adler, which he must have had sent back, to friends nearby, where he spent the night, meeting “old Beanlands” and “having a good old slack time”.

Using the train to get to London, X resumed his customary high-pressure social life, and it is of note that in this anxious summer of 1916, at the height of the War, theatres and cinemas were still open. A friend of X’s, Dalziel, had to “crash off to his camp”, so he bought the Adler for £120, after they had returned to Newmarket by train and driven it down to London. X had meanwhile sea his doctor, Dr. Swann, and had been granted ten days sick-leave, some of which he spent having lunch with his father at their house, Howards, near Newbury, and with his mother in Buxton — “Find Buxton too deadly for words”. X dined there, with his family, at the Empire Hotel.

But the young pilot was getting restless, in spite of going by train with his father to stay with a Mrs. Bentley in Market Harborough, where he “spent rest of evening messing about with Esmé Bentley, quite a nice little thing, and after dinner made a noise on the piano”. He was off alone by train for London early the next morning, where he lunched at Prince’s, went and saw a Berliet, and after dressing for dinner, he and his friends “gravitated about and joined the Mansfields at Ciro’s, which was fairly amusing”. The Savoy, the Berkeley Grill and the Carlton now received more of X’s patronage, General Salmond, RFC among the diners, until it was time to en-train for Herne Bay, where they stayed at the Dolphin Hotel. Having seen his future fiancée off to the isle of Wight X went for walks with Esmé Bentley, listened to the band, and dressed for dinner with General Cavendish, but “was bored stiff”. He was soon writing to Tollerton (his Flight Mechanic — see accompanying photograph), who had taken the RFC Itala to London. X had received a further ten days’ sick leave, most of which he seems to have spent with his new-found friend Esmé, with whom he walked to the Queens Hotel to see a children’s beauty contest and dance on the pier — “Extraordinarily amusing and we were intensely amused”. Some of the kids in the contest came to bathe, go out in a boat, and to a tea-shop the next day. X then took the 4.50 boat to the mainland. The Matron of the RFC Home at Freshwater, a Mrs. Marinden, had been among the many guests X and his family had entertained while at the sea-side, as it seems that X was to convalesce on the Isle of Wight. 

He later made fresh contact with the War Office and looked at an Austin car. Granted a month’s extension of his sick-leave, X spent some of it on the Isle of Wight, with the usual round of dances and socialising. Cars seem to have been forgotten for a while, although the Matron took them out in hers. Back in London — “tried on new field boots” — X looked at an Austin landaulette with his mother. It was brought round by Tollerton after lunch so that they could go to Rumplemeyers in it and have tea with Lady Torphicon. It was now September 1916. X spent a morning looking at cars with Tollerton, and in the afternoon went to a motor-sale and to the RFC garage, and then to look at “zeppelin relics” at Adastral House. 

The need for another car having become acute, X saw about a Berliet and in the early evening of a September day drove it up to Newmarket from London, taking a girl with him and also Tollerton, who put up in a village — “a topping run”. That week-end the corn was being cut and X and his friends went ratting and then rabbiting, with the dogs. The newly-acquired Berliet was serving well, for runs to and from London while X was in Newmarket, and for local journeys. The run to town could be done very comfortably between mid-afternoon and dinner. In the count, X would attend shoots, weed rose-beds, and generally fit in with whatever was happening. The car was in frequent use on the run to and from London, doing it on one occasion in 3½ hours, although it was halted on Newmarket Heath while its occupants watched the last race. Tollerton was usually present. 

It looks as if X was to be out of the RFC for some time (he actually resumed flying in the summer of 1918) because on September 17th 1916 he went to Adastral House and saw Lyons and Frances about having the Berliet struck off the War Office strength and the next day he got his petrol-licence and a new accumulator for the Berlier from Smith’s. It was also necessary to see Storey at the RFC garage to settle these matters and presumably to release Tollerton, while the Itala’s gears were also seen to. This did not in any way interfere with X’s socialising, and theatre-going; “Some”, at the Vaudeville, is described as a show that “wasn’t really bad”. It seems as if X may have damaged the Itala’s gearbox while using it privately and that he had to square the WO over this. He was then free to indulge in some motor-coping, looking at cars with a Mrs. Tate and finally selling her an Imperial car from the Mercedes Company. (There were seven cars of this make but this one was possibly a large American touring car.) X seems to have collected his commission from the Mercedes Co. on his way home, and then he celebrated by having supper at the Savoy with George Robey. 

The next day X went back to the Mercedes Co. and bought a 40 h.p. Austin with Vanden Plas cabriolet body, for £150, and he then spent the entire afternoon cleaning it up. Tollerton was in on this and X got a man to help him, at the garage at No. 15 Ennismore Mews which X was renting for £1 a week, by the month. The day after was a Sunday and X attended 10 o’clock Mass and then motored down to Chesham in the Austin, to lunch with Lady Chesham, General Salmond, and Esmé Bentley. The week following began with X messing about with his cars, having tea with a large party of friends at the Piccadilly Hotel, doing a cinema afterwards, and taking in “Chu Chin Chow” at His Majesty’s Theatre after dining at home. The war intrudes slightly here, because they left the theatre early, as X “heard a zeppelin coming.” . . . 

Work on the cars kept X busy when he wasn’t lunching with his doctor, driving in the Berlier to a Convent to collect some young children whom he took to see “Razzle Dazzle”, home to tea, and then to Harrod’s to buy them flowers, before taking them back to school in the Austin — a kind of wartime charity work one supposes! After lunch at the Ritz with his father and Lady James the next day, X dismisses “Her Husband’s Wife” at the New Theatre as “a rotten show”. Apart from acting as best man at his doctor’s wedding X was now spending more time in his garage, tuning up the Austin and washing down the Berliet, etc. He notes that “his friend Ronnie was working on the Itala.” They got it going and after changing for lunch at the Hyde Park Hotel they drove in it to Harrow, to take one of X’s schoolgirl pals out to tea. The lulls was later driven from Rawling’s to Peckham and the Austin was used to pick up Mrs. Tate and drive her to her place at Chippenham, near Newmarket, which was a run lasting from after lunch until dinner-time. Up at the farm X would feed the animals and he and a girl-friend would attend the races, on one occasion clearing £21 between them. X also worked on the gearbox of one of the cars. He was now back on light-duty after another Medical Board and had been truer Col. Warner and Major Durey at the WO about his next posting. Back in London, X went to see Lady Mexborough’s Rolls-Royce, which he drove around when not using the Berliet. He invited Lt. Robinson, VC, to dine with him, and used the 40 h.p. Austin to take the ladies to Drury Lane to see “Dr. Anna” (X’s comment was “The best of luck!”) and then to dine at the Savoy. . . .

The War Office had X in harness again by the early October of 1916, however. He did work for Col. Beaty, “but not more than I could help”, interspersed with lunch at the Berkeley, the Ritz, the Savoy, or the Cecil. Unity (was this Unity Mitford?) was taken to her theatre, and Mills now comes into the picture. He had a 90 h.p. Daimler — which sounds as if it was one of the big poppet-valve racing cars — kept at the RFC garage, in which he and X motored one Saturday down to Eastbourne, staying for the dance at the Grand Hotel. On the Sunday they began the return journey at 9 o’clock, had two tyre bursts and ran over a dog, but were lunching in Prince’s grill-room by 1.45. Not content with the morning’s drive, X got his Berliet out and went to Harrow to bring his girl-friend back to tea, taking her home afterwards. The Itala, which X must presumably have acquired, was now sold, for £189. One Monday X was required to take four French officers, including the O/C the French Flying Corps, down to Farnborough, to be shown over the Royal Aircraft Factory by Col. Collier. A closed RFC Crossley came for them and General Branker met the party, lunch being taken in the RAF mess. As relaxation, Mills and X had been to Brighton and back the previous Sunday, in the Big Daimler. . . .

(To be continued)