The War-Time Diaries of an RFC Officer

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The first serialised-instalments of this Diary appeared in Lord Montagu of Beaulieu’s late-lamented V& V Magazine. Due to a change of policy, their continuation was rejected by its successor. Because I consider this rare period material far too valuable and interesting, to both motoring and aviation enthusiasts, to discard, I am continuing the series in Motor Sport. The diaries came to light under unusual circumstances and I consider it best that the diarist, now deceased, should remain anonymous, although I know his identity. His father was a Baronet and he succeeded to the title. He had a great love of cars and motoring, as these first-war diaries reveal; after the Armistice he did a good deal of motor-racing.

The diaries opened in 1912, when the young aristocrat was racing his motorcycles at seaside cycle-tracks, but also at Brooklands. He worked for a time for the Benz Company in London’s Brompton Road, and then became enthralled with flying, acquiring a Deperdussin monoplane early in 1912. This was taken by road to Southwold, re-assembled, and flown by a friend. The diarist later joined the Deperdussin School at Hendon and “took his Ticket” at the CFS at Upavon in 1915, on a Maurice Farman biplane. As a 2nd-Lieut, in the Irish Guards he joined the RFC and began flying BE2s, instructing on these machines at Netheravon. At the time his personal cars included a 1914 14/18 h.p. Adler, and a Napier. His condensed Diary was discontinued, I believe, in spite of pleading by Lord Montagu for its continuation, at the stage where this young pilot had just been posted to No. 21 Squadron, RFC. It gives me much pleasure to be able to resume them. — Ed.

The year is 1915. the month is September. The young Flying-Officer has left the CFS at Upavon with 32 hr. 36 min. total flying time, and is about to be posted to No. 21 Squadron at Netheravon. (Incidentally, his experience consisted of 8 hr. 8 min, on Maurice Farman biplanes, either as a pilot or passenger, plus 13 hr. 54 min. in BEs, of which 8 hr. 59 min. was solo flying.) After going to Wellington Barracks, to try for a spot of sick-leave, X (as I intend to call the Officer) picked up a girl-friend and lunched at Harrods before leaving London for his new posting. At Netheravon he reported to the CO, Col. Webb-Brown and to the Wing Adjutant, Capt. Walker. at 5.30 p.m. — “Then went and got settled in. Pretty dud. No machines”. It was the same next day. Rising at 8.30, X had breakfast and went to the Flight. “Awful machines and everything frightfully dud. Enough to depress a cat. Feeling absolutely bored stiff.” However, he had his Napier with him, so he went over to the CFS in it to look up old friends.

The next day was better, as X went up several times in an Armstrong-Whitworth BE2c (No. 5331) taking a Lt. Pethybridge as passenger, and flying a pupil, Lt. Scott, to the CFS. This was the machine allocated to X, and he gave landing and “spirals” instruction on it, to several pupils and also gave his father a five minute flip at 500 feet round the aerodrome. “Dad liked joy-ride”. Incidentally, the Baronet had arrived in his De Dion Bouton. X was now in charge of the pupils, who were mostly young Lieutenants. He “got several off” and would dine in jolly company at the CFS. Before September was out he had had his first flight in a “Bloater” (BE8a) with 80 h.p. Gnome engine — “rather liked it”. [These BE8s were also known as “Harry Tates”. — Ed.] At other times different Air Mechanics were taken up in the BE. At weekends X would drive to Basingstoke in the Napier and take the train to London. There was “Shell Out” to see at the Comedy; X knew one of the girls appearing in it. They would then dine with CFS friends at Macpharlane’s. It is interesting that X’s mother went to the cinema, at this period of the war, and that when X motored from Netheravon to Salisbury there was a theatre there — “Came out at half-time as it was so dud”.

It does not say much for No. 21 Squadron at this time that the diary entry for Sept. 28th says “Machines all showed signs of various troubles. Worked hard on them all,” and the next day, “All machines still hors de combat. Worked very late. All engines pulling very dud. Stayed right on until 8.30 in the evening with Waddam and others. Nothing finished however. Fed up with the damn things”. Eventually we read, “At last got one machine going, thanks to Rice. All the engines are pretty dud”. It was the faithful AW BE2c. and X took a Lt. Handford up in it on Observation Duty, before attending a dinner at the CFS, with Vernon as host. They had “quite a cheery time”, afterwards ragging about in the anteroom, before Mills drove them home in the Napier.

For some time it was a routine of testing machines, a BE8a and another AW BE2c, testing engines, taking photographs and practising wireless-communication from BE2c No. 5330. One assignment was to fly to the CFS in a BE8a, seeing about an AW machine and “doing odd jobs for the Major”. X managed first to have a drink with his friend Busk, and made sure of returning for lunch, but “Had engine trouble, and a very bumpy and sloppy flight back. Not at all pleased”. There was the compensation, however, of dining with X’s former Instructor and his wife, X taking a Major Ritchie along with him. A Saturday in October was spent in the sheds cleaning up the machines until lunch-time, as it was too rainy for flying, after which X took Pethybridge, Grantham and Sandemann in the Napier to Bath, where they saw the first house of the revue “Splash Me” and left to dine at the Empire. Some idea of the motoring that was possible to a Flying Officer in war-time was obtained when one reads of X and these friends driving one Sunday after Church Parade to Newbury for lunch, returning to Netheravon by 5 o’clock, and then driving to Bournemouth to dine, before returning that day to No. 21 Squadron.

That little jaunt necessitated taking the Napier to the village the next day to get it washed, both machines being out of action. (Presumably X means the two aeroplanes he used). The next day he got a camera rigged on 5330 and set off for Newbury with Pethybridge via Burbage and Hungerford, to take pictures. Landing on Newbury race-course, X’s father picked them up and took them off home to dine. They returned in very bumpy conditions, at 5,000 feet, the flying occupying a total of two hours — a nice cameo of RFC activities in 1915. Especially as after four flights in two different BEs, to test engines and wireless, X and a party motored to Bath to see “The Dollar Princess” and “had a grand old rag, dined at the Pump Room and drove back all merry and bright . . .”

However, it wasn’t all fun and games, as X got Pethybridge off on his cross-country in BE 5330, which involved driving the Napier some 30 miles across Salisbury Plain to Tilstead to retrieve the BE the next day! As variants on trips to Bath, they would drive to Cambridge, staying at “The Bull”. There is an entry: “. . . got at ‘loggerheads’ with police about our lights”, followed by “My grandmother, Isobella Lady X, died”.

Around this time X had logged the 10 hours at Netheravon to qualify as his “cross-country”. The family bereavement permitted some leave, and as the Napier had been “smashed up” at Staines when X was making one of his late returns to his Squadron, he looked at cars at Lane’s when next he was in London, after seeing his tailor’s, Welsh & Jefferies, abut a tunic and lunching with his father at the Ritz. It was then time to dress for dinner before going to see “Bric-a-Brac” at the Palace Theatre with a girl. The only reminder that a war was going on was when X has to report to Col. Proby, Irish Guards, about extended leave for the aforesaid funeral (“He was perfectly charming”), a happening which did not deter X from going that day to tea at Fuller’s with a girl-friend, then on to a cinema, after which they dined at the London house in Ennismore Gardens; before seeing a performance of “The Scarlet Pimpernel”. The war came closer, however, when the theatre was “bombed by zeppelins and knocked in, but we all got home alright.” The gay life! Next day there was the damage done by the zepps to see, tea to be taken at Rumplemeyer’s and a box at the Coliseum. For a while for the first time since before the war X was without a car, having to get a lift in “Smith’s Hispano Suiza” when he wanted to catch the Reading train to London.

Back at Netheravon there was a flight in BE5331 to try the wireless but “the aerial dropped off. Went up to 4,000 feet and came down in spirals”. One pilot arrived in an old Henri Farman and later in a BE2c, X “zoomed over the troops” in 5331, and there is mention of “getting in a broken-down Curtiss” (Presumably an American Curtiss Jenny — later it is mentioned that “the Curtisses were doing a lot of flying). There was some night flying for X in 5330, before he went in the Hispano Suiza as far as Staines, to pick up the Napier, which had been repaired. The next day both cars were driven to Brighton, from London, starting at 5.30. They put up at the Metropole. The run back was completed by 6 o’clock, starting after lunch, but a car from Daimler Hire was used by X to get him to the aerodrome through the night, arriving at 5 a.m.

But sterner things were in the offing. Vernon was posted to the Dardenelles. X was expecting to go overseas and to please his mother had had his photograph taken by Barnett’s and had written numerous goodbye letters. No. 21 Squadron was inspected by General Higgins, RFC, on a day when X was “tuning up the Mitchell”. [This could refer to a possible replacement for the Napier. Mitchell made big four-cylinder cars which might well have appealed to X, who had worked for the Benz Co. and been out in their big racing cars. — Ed.]. He continued to test machines of another kind in the sky above Salisbury Plain, and it is evident from his log-book that a passenger would almost always go on such flights in spite of the risks, these passengers ranging from 1st Air Mechanics to Lieutenants. There was more night flying for X — “landed in the dark, A1” — after which he “slept through the whole show” when a party visited the local theatre in Southampton. Petrol must have been plentiful!

At the end of October comes the entry “Lovely morning. Machines buzzing about. Went up in AW 5330 again to try engine for 15 minutes. Took Corporal Smith as passenger. More night flying,” which paints a brief picture of Netheravon on one October morning in the second year of the war. It is apparent that the Napier is still in use, but X was now working on “Barrington-Kennett’s old Darracq”, taking its body off, and he had the Mitchell’s engine and axle taken down at the same time and used a 90 h.p. Napier for a trip to Bristol to see an actress friend performing in “Betty”. All this was a prelude to X going overseas.

Indeed, the big Napier belonged to a pilot called Johnson and in November he and X drove it to Farnborough, to collect two RAF-powered BE2c machines and fly them to France. X’s father lunched him before he took-off. Bad weather forced him to return in 1676 to the RAF (as it then was) but his friend pressed on and made Folkestone. X went back to London for the night, collecting his Napier on the way and taking it to Napier’s at Acton. He caught the 7.40 train to Farnborough the next morning and took up BE2e No. 4100 but he, and Ashby who was to have gone over in another machine, found the weather too bad and X turned back after 20 minutes. On November 5th he tried again, taking the same train down. This time X climbed to 5,000 feet but flew into fog at Dorking, where the engine packed up. He had been up for 50 minutes and got down safely in a ploughed field. Mrs. Richards, in whose field he had landed, gave him lunch, the mechanics having been wired for. They hadn’t arrived by 6.30 p.m., so X returned to London. On the Saturday X took a train to Dorking and Mrs. Richards sent her car for him. The BE2c No. 4100 had been put right, so X set off again, taking with him an Air Mechanic who had presumably been guarding the aeroplane. The tolerant Mrs. Richards saw her hedge cut down to provide more room for the take-off. Now comes the period touch: “Got to Shoreham, lost way in fog and took wrong railway-line. Landed there and had lunch, and started off to Folkestone again along the coast, via Brighton, Hastings, Eastbourne, Dungeness, Hythe and Folkestone. Landed there and put machine away and then went down to Pavillion Hotel and saw two aunts and then went back to Hotel and dined with Capt. Nicholson, the CO at Folkestone.” So far, the war wasn’t too strenuous! Except that X had been flying the primitive biplane in winter for 3 1/2 hours, mostly at 7,000 feet.

Next day, a Sunday, he left at 11 a.m. crossed the Channel at 11,000 feet, “engine pulling well”, in 11 minutes and arrived safely at St. Omer. He lunched with Capt. Bettington. The intention had been that X should ferry back an old BE2c (“the last with 70 h.p. Renault engine in France”) but after three-quarters-of-an-hour at 1,500 feet (the time taken for the outward flight) that engine had had enough and X had to turn back near Calais and return to St. Omer. It was then a case of a train to Boulogne, where X shared a room with a Capt. Fitzgerald (surely the person who ran one of X’s big racing cars, after the war?). The entry next day says: “Beastly journey getting back. Couldn’t get on night steamers, etc.” On the day crossing X met several other ferry pilots. From London he went home, picked up his mother and father and dined at the Hyde Park Grill, thus celebrating his first crossing of the Channel for the RFC. (To be continued)

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