The Wartime Diaries of an RFC Officer

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Continued from the August issue

Towards the end of May 1917, as was recorded last month, X, as I am calling the writer these diaries, was leading his usual social whirl in London, lunching for instance with Dewis of Mercedes and Count Zborowski, and was using a trusty Fiat tourer. For this car he picked up six cans of petrol (12 gallons, presumably), and drove in it from London to Newmarket in three hours, being met by his fiancee in the aforesaid Babe Peugeot he had bought her, and by her parents in their Calthorpe. At this time, after relaxing by watching tennis and going on the river, X went off to tow Lord Wilton’s Austro-Daimler back to Newmarket, getting in just before dusk. Then there was a bathing party at Southwold, to which they went in the Fiat and the Calthorpe, changing round several times on the way, and the latter car carrying three people, which suggests that it may have been one of the larger models, perhaps a 12/15 bhp or the 80×150 mm 15.9 hp model. On the return run they called in at Scole, “but missed Ronnie” who was the owner of the big ltala.

The following day the Fiat was driven over to Norwich for a dinner party at the Royal Hotel and this time the Itala’s owner was contacted at Scole, and later they went to a show at the Hippodrome, being joined by “old Smith”, who had been in X’s Flight at Netheravon. X was under the doctor again, so was able to take a holiday, and he would “get the car out” — a somewhat period description — for drives to Southwold, Lowestoft, Oulton and Norwich, seeing a performance of “The Three Musketeers” one night, written off by X as “a very poor show indeed”. The diary for 1917 continues in this vein for a time, about local runs, X using the Bebe Peugeot to go into Newmarket on one of them and generally “messing about with the cars”. To get back to London was a simple evening journey in the Fiat.

A more war-like note is sounded after X’s return to London, because after seeing Col Warner to get some more leave he was interviewed by Col Hogg and sent on a job to Portsmouth, although this lasted only for a couple of days, X travelling down by train with a Capt Foot. Even in Portsmouth he was able to dine with friends, as his father was there doing something at the hospital until he left for France. X certainly seems to have had things nicely tied up; only days later he motored down to Maidenhead in his Fiat with Col Hogg and they stayed the night “at Mrs P’s house by the river” and went out in an electric launch. The day after that they got up early, leaving at 7.30 in the Fiat so that Col Hogg could be at the War Office by 9.15 — the war was still going on! X, the indefatigable motorist, simply went home, “packed up some more toggs”, and drove to Cricklewood to pick up an uncle and aunt and drive them to Cambridge, collecting his fiancee at Shelford and lunching at the Uruversity Arms, all by 1.30 pm. They then drove on to Newmarket in time for tea.

What I take to have been X’s fiancee’s birthday was cause for “a great Birthday dinner party” after tennis and trying to “punt a half tub round the moat— Olga and I both tippled in, after tea” — the house was, I believe, called “The Moat” and presumably the moat was full . . . Even on that day there is a motoring flavour to the diaries: “. . . put speedometer on Peugeot for Jane, . .”. Many more local runs took place in the early summer of 1917 before X drove back to London, taking 23/4 hours, where he went to Eastern Group and later reported to the War Office, at 5 pm. There was a scheme to be got out, at the office, before lunching with Col Hogg and Mrs Platt at the United Services Club, seeing Ernest Pollack at the House of Cornrnons, dining at Princes with Barrington-White (of the big Fiat!) and seeing a show at the Chelsea Palace.

The entry for June 13th refers to a big air raid on London, by 15 machines; several bombs dropped in East End. This did not deter X from trying every source to find Tollerton. who was required to report to X, and having lunch at the Ritz with Col Mills — “a wonderful lunch” — prior to going to Hendon with General Pitcher to “work on transport”, after which X was driven home by General Caddell in time for a dinner party and visit to “Within the Lines”. It appears that X’s new task was to Inspect Squadron transport, as one day he lunched with Reggie Mills and then went down to Hounslow with him “and did a Squadron there”, which still left time to motor on down to Amersham to dine with Col Hogg and Mrs Platt and go to the Clancarty’s dance — “Quite good fun, but dud dance”. The following day X went down to London Colney “and did a Squadron there”, with a Capt Rowe. After lunch at home he then took Tollerton to Cobham to fetch a 16/20 hp Wolseley touring car, which he worked on after dinner.

Skipping the eternal social round that these nevertheless fascinating wartime diaries recount, and noting that thunder and rain prevented X from visiting Squadrons one Saturday in June, so that he saw “Chu Chin Chou” again instead, we find that he was able to take his girl with him when inspecting a Squadron at Shoreham, to which he motored, in time to lunch at the Metropole, getting back at about 8.30 in the evening. So much motoring! Indeed, after a morning at the office our tenacious Flying Officer set off for Cambridge with his fiancee in the afternoon, burst two tyres, went back to get two spares, and select again at 8.30 p.m., arriving at 10.45 pm. This tyre trouble persisted the next day, after X had mended one puncture, on a miserable run to Hunstanton. At this timee X was paying visits to Hounslow, Northolt and Croydon, but with time for the habitual parties, at one of which cut his hand on  glass, requiring a visit to the doctor before dining with Lord and Lady Middleton at Portland Place — I am including names to set the scene and see if they refresh any memories. . . .

After acting as best-man at a London wedding X was off again to Newmarket, this time in a Rolls-Royce. This car was used for Squadron inspections in Norfolk, but there was time for a bathing party with Major and Mrs Orton and friends, after lunch at the Bell at Thetford, from whence the Rolls got back to London from Cambridge in 21/2 hours. Back in town, X went to Cummings’ sale and bought a Sizaire for £8 10, Squadron inspections still occupied much of X’s time, both in the London area, when he lunched with the Wing Engineer Officer Sinclair and his wife and saw Jillings of the Wing, and at Sedgford and at Narborough, where there were three Squadrons to do. It appears that X was now using a Rolls-Royce two-seater for which Dewis wanted £550. X gave a number of trial runs on it to possible customers, including a Major Williams. It looks as if X, who had spent a week-end bathing on the Isle of Wight, had no car for a time, because he took trains when inspecting Squadrons at Dover and at Wye, near Ashford. where he lunched with the Squadron Commander. There is a note indicating that London was short of taxis in 1917, and a mention of lunching at her house with Gaby Destys and the blind Cecil Langton.

In spite of these repetitive entries in X’s diaries, I find it interesting that 63 years ago his cars proved so dependable. For instance, using the 20/30 hp Fiat again, he was able to leave his beloved Newmarket after picking roses for his mother and having breakfast and drop an elderly aunt at Selfridges comfortably in time for lunch, after which X went off to Croydon on duty, returning to Kensington by 6.30 pm, although admittedly he then worked on the car for 21/2 hours and it also seems to have been at Litchfield’s, possibly for servicing. The Belgian Minister in London was given a trial run in the Rolls-Royce by Tollerton at this time, and then the Fiat was off again to Norfolk, where X filled it with 16 gallons of petrol at the aerodrome and was lent an Air-Mechanic to supplement Tolleron’s work on the Austro, which was “getting on well”. The Fiat was then employed for Squadron inspections at Wyton and Scampton. In London, in his motor trade hat, X lunched with Phil Paddon, went to the Mercedes Company to fix up a La Buire for Hedges, saw Harrods about the Bebe Peugeot, and took a Singer light-car on trial from Dewis, selling the latter to Cummings for £240 and buying a New Herbert light car for £275, a discount of £25.

This entry is very interesting, because the New Herbert was a rare car at anytime. It is not to he confused with the HE made by the Herbert Engineering Co of Reading. which did not make its debut until 1920. The Herbert was a car assembled by Herbert Smith in a mews garage off Albany Street in NW London. He used 11.9 hp Stirling engines, but the prototype apparently had an SUP engine, and this could well be the car X had obtained. It was courageous of Mr. Smith to start making cars during the war! But his venture appears to have lasted only from 1916 to 1917. X was obviously well placed to have heard of the little concern, in his dealings about London. After the purchase of this unusual car Tollerton drove it up to Newmarket the same day. X going up to Cambridge by the 4.50 train to collect the Fiat. His girl met him and they motored to Shelford to get a Triumph motorcycle from Crissold’s. which X rode home while his young bride-to-be drove the Fiat.

After inspection of a Squadron at Norwich, X had ten gallons of petrol put in the Fiat (petrol was now, it seems, sufficiently scarce to warrant such diary entries!), and the next day he left it at Sedgford aerodrome to have the “engine taken down, and the carbon cleaned out and the valves ground-in.” More bathing parties, a meeting with Major Jackson who had been at the Central Flying School with X, and it was time to drive the Fiat and the Austro-Daimler down to London. where the latter was sold for £300. There is now mention of an “old Fiat racer” which was shown to someone called Bumble but sold soon afterwards to Litchfield’s, for £80. (Could this be the famous “Mephistophiles”, discovered under a dust sheet in London after the war by John Duff, Between leaving his girl at the Hyde Park Hotel and “doing” three Squadrons at Northolt, X would be back in time to dine at Prince’s and go on to the Coliseum afterwards.

During that wet early August of 1917. X sold Barrington-White an Hispano Suiza for £600 and he immediately went to Plantes and bought his girl a £320 pearl necklace. — WB.

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