The Wartime Diaries of an RFC Officer

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(continued from September issue)

AT THE beginning of August 1917, the writer of these diaries, whom I am calling X, had been motoring about in a 1915 Rolls-Royce and he then spent a night at Joyce Green, before going by train (“Had awful journey”) to Wye, where he inspected a RFC Squadron. The social round was scarcely interrupted; X bought four tickets for “Wanted, A Husband” but no-one went. He spent some time at the Mercedes Company in London and working on cars at his home garage. One Thursday he got the Metallurgique and the Fiat from the former premises and he, Capt. Ripley and his friend Gerald went in the Metallurgique, accompanied by Tollerton and a girl in the Fiat, to Newmarket, starting at tea-time— “Had a wonderful run toward the end. Did 15 miles in 12 mins.”. X was bound for Thetford the next day, lunching at the aerodrome and going on to Harling Road, where he had tea with Orton and inspected the Squadrons.

That trip concluded with Capt. Ripley leaving for Hendon on a Triumph, X and Gerald going to Cambridge in the Metallurgique, and their girl friends in the afore-mentioned Herbert, where they swam, watched by the men. After that Gerald left for York but X and the girls went after dinner over to Cambridge again, to see a loyal play and stay at the Varsity Arms Hotel. On the Sunday X motored over to Wigton to see a Col. Barrett, returning to Newmarket in time for lunch, after which “Tollerton took the Met. back”. X left the following day for London in the Fiat, arriving by 11.30 a.m. Lunches, dinners, plays and dances passed the time when X was not inspecting Squadrons at Hounslow or was “at the Group, or to the Brigade seeing the General”.

Such visits, and inspecting the Squadrons at Hendon did not interfere with dressing for dinner, dining, for instance, at the Savoy, and then going to the Alhambra and on afterwards to a dance. More serious occasions concerned “getting Hughie Happell a Flight”, at Hounslow, and seeing the Squadrons there.

X had not abandoned flying, because for August 19th, 1917, there is a diary entry for that Sunday reading: “Got up early meaning to fly to Newmarket but weather looked too dud. So started off in green Rolls and got there in time for lunch. Spent the whole day there and messed about with the old boat in the moat. After dinner started back and got home just after 2. Very dark night indeed”. Such was motoring in a Rolls-Royce 63 years ago. . . .

It was not apparently all fun and driving, because X was often very busy, either at his office, at Dover, where he went by train, and at Croydon, and after such visits he might confer with Col. Warner and then dine with Tom Lithgow and Count Zborowski. X had to see another Medical Board at this time and he was frequently in the company of the young Zborowski. However, there were also occasions like the fancy-dress ball on the Isle of Wight, after they had collected the fancy costumes from the Group and driven down to Portsmouth in the trusty Fiat. This was possible no doubt because X was on sick leave; he would drive the Fiat to Chichester, or take it to Cowes via Southampton, for parties at “Seaview”. It is interesting to find that driving about the Island, over to Ryde for example, and getting a boat back to the mainland, presented no difficulties inspite of the war, apart from one boat being very late, and that the old Fiat could get from Southampton to London in about four hours, including stopping for tea in Basingstoke.

All this came to an end when X was examined by Sir Alfred Fripp and sent to No. 1 London General Hospital. Or it might have ended, for anyone but X. Because he managed to get out and see Red Cross cars at Tooting and then dine at the Hyde Park Grill. However, one entry reads: “In this ruddy hospital. Bored stiff. Did nothing and tried to get out but no luck. No-body seemed to know anything about me. Kept in bed all day .. . Awfully tired of this horrible prison.” X’s mother and fiancee came to see him. He was examined by a Dr. Atkinson who found nothing wrong but would not let him get up “and to cap it all stopped me seeing visitors”. Even his fiancee and his mother were refused — “This place is Hell”.

It called for drastic action. X wrote to his mother and the doctor arrived with Major Drysdale, RAMC, and they were going to see the C/O and try to get X out for a bit. On September 4/5th, 1917, there was an air-raid during the night. X was seen again by the doctors, who promised he could leave in a week or ten days time. Visitors were again permitted, X eventually got up, and was allowed in the garden. He had been reading “39 Steps”. But the faithful Fiat had been returned to the Park Motor Co., at Wilton’s

The outcome was that X was granted six months unfit for General and Home Service, to do only light duties for the following three weeks. He celebrated coming out of hospital by having his hair cut and taking a train to Newmarket, where he spent the evening working on the Herbert, which was being used for local runs, to Cambridge, etc. It was used for a lighthearted race against Gerald in a Hillman. The little car may have been an oddity but it sufficed for journeys between Newmarket and London and back. Tyre trouble was experienced when going to Thetford to inspect the aerodrome and on a foggy drive back to Newmarket with Tollerton. But X had his eye on a Napier. X inspected the aerodrome at Sedgford and painted the Napier, in which he, his mother and Tollerton later drove to Brighton. While there X inspected a Squadron at Shoreham, borrowed an Austin for a local ten-mile drive, and then got into the Napier to return to London. He went to bed for two hours after dinner — a wise precaution, as he was going on to Lou Zborowski’s dance, — “Had a great cheerio and got home about 6.30 a.m, and went to bed again”. Zborowski would have been years of age at that time.

Up in Cambridgeshire the Herbert was used for odd jobs, such as talking Tollerton to collect a Ford which had been hired from Crisswell’s (where X obtained his tyres) for Lithgow and which the Air Mechanic drove to London. But the little Herbert was game for doing the run down to London in 2 3/4 hours, “a topping run”, perhaps influenced because X had his fiancee with him and it was a glorious late-September day. But the car had odd jobs done on it from time to time, to keep it in order.

In October 1917 we find X driving down to Canterbury with Zborowski in his 40/50 h,p. Mercedes limousine. They had dinner and played billiards until midnight, and the next morning Zborowski motored X into Canterbury so that he could catch the 12.25 train back to town, after they had looked at some cars.

It seems that X was now using a Daimler, for some more long runs, hampered on one of them by carburetter trouble.

Although the war was in progress there was a motor-sale at Bury which X attended with Litchfield. He was having a cabriolet body put on the Napier, while he had worked until midnight one day, on the Herbert, which was still game for the Newmarket-London haul. The friendship with Zborowski was evidently ripening, because X dined with the young Count at Prince’s and afterwards showed him round his garage. The Daimler was shown to a Canadian Officer, the car having been collected from Tooting with the help of Tollerton, probably from Palmer’s well-known premises; they were agent for the Bedelia, amotd other makes. It was now October but X still drove up and down between London and Newmarket to see his girl, starting off one Sunday in a Sizaire but when it burst a tyre having to substitute the Napier chassis, — “Got there about 6.30. Very cold”. Nevertheless, the return journey, with his friend Gerald, was accomplished on the Monday on that Napier chassis, in time for lunch, and the Sizaire was then shown to B. C. Hucks, presumably the famous pilot.

X would give Hucks breakfast at Ennismore Gardens, lunch and dine with Col. Shelmedine, and see “Arelette” in the everdng, prior to having a drink with Zborowski, who had a flat in town, as well as the house near Canterbury. There had been a search for a suitable body for the Napier, and eventually one was found at Moss & Son, and X decided to have it. The Daimler was being used for runs such as out to Northholt and then on up to Newmarket, and on to Thetford next day, Tollerton being seen on the way soldiering on in the little Herbert, so he was picked up and taken on to Thetford. Dr. Wilkins had been driving tbe Daimler and he was shown the body for the Napier. From the place where X stayed, neat Newmarket, he noted on October 19th, 1917, “Zeppelins came over the house and I heard one ever so plainly”. He had now promoted Tollerton to Acting Sergeant. X would drive in the Daimler to Harling Road, work there, and take a Staff Crossley back to Newmarket, writing reports in the evening for dispatch by Segt. Mansfield. X had much RFC work to occupy him at Narborough too, but going out there the Daimler’s radiator burst, so he had to be driven back by Tollerton in a Staff Crossley. If dining at the Bachelors Club with Capt. Channcey, GSO-2nd to the Brigade and dining and having a smoking evening at home with Capt. Law: GSO-3rd. to the Brigade, is anything to go by, X was well thought of in the Irish Guards. (To be continued)

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