Remembrance of the Somme

 

It is 30 years since the S&G witnessed this remarkable documentary about the Somme. Presented by Rumpole himself, the brilliant Leo McKern, it does what documentaries seldom do these days: presents the facts and lets the emotion of the situation speak for itself. On this day of remembrance it is well worth an hour of your time.

The story of the Newfoundlanders at Beaumont Hamel is, for me, the stand-out tale. Two years after first watching this documentary, my father and I travelled the length of the Western Front by car. In the old trenches at Beaumont Hamel I felt something underfoot and lifted it out of the grass. It was a .303 bullet case, trodden on many decades earlier and filled with wet earth. Today it remains in pride of place in the S&G’s memento case – pictured above.

At 7:28am tomorrow, the UK will hold a national two minute silence to mark the moment the first wave of soldiers went over the top in the Battle of the Somme.

It will follow the King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery firing guns from Parliament Square for 100 seconds and a reading in Westminster Abbey. Whistles will be blown to mark the end of the two minute silence after the 7:30am chimes of Big Ben.

A National Commemorative Service will also take place at Manchester Cathedral and will be followed by a people’s procession through Manchester to Heaton Park. Hopefully these events will be worthy of a commemoration of such magnitude.

Across all the affected countries – Germany, France, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, Bermuda, Africa, China – commemorations will also no doubt be held. Long should we all remember.

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Spending the weekend with Albert Ball

For a multitude of reasons, much of this weekend was taken up with old aeroplanes and the men who flew them, not least Captain Albert Ball VC, DSO & two bars, MC – the dashing young ‘ace’ who captivated Britain in the dark days of 1916-17.

With such a title and decorations to his name, one could be forgiven for thinking that this was a career soldier with enormous battle experience – but the Royal Flying Corps wasn’t quite like that. Ball was barely 20 years of age when he sprang to fame.

The eldest son of a Nottingham politician, Ball was not a gifted academic but made best use of his passion for internal combustion and his natural sporting prowess. The war granted him an opportunity to do something really exciting with both these skills – to fly aeroplanes and shoot down enemy machines, which for many months he relished.

His preferred method of attacking aircraft was either to dive into the middle of a formation where the enemy gunners were afraid to fire for fear of hitting one of their own aircraft, or to approach from below and fire upwards before his prey even knew he was there. Ball usually flew bare-headed and alone, undaunted by taking on odds of ten-or-more-to-one.

He was also rather a handsome young chap, and apparently made the most of every opportunity that opened up for him among the eligible ladies of England. It turns out that as detailed a diary was kept of his conquests on leave as of his victories in the air – and that his antics were something of which his father vigorously disapproved.

“I have fooled two girls that you know of, and of course I have made heaps of other girls think I liked them that you don’t know of,” Ball confessed in a letter to his father.”I really do feel a bit of a rotter, but I really mean to stop now – in fact I will try.”

Evidently, this was one battle that young Albert could not win.

One of Ball’s private diary entries recounted his father sharing a compartment on the train with a young lady and, in the course of their conversation, the Royal Flying Corps came up – something upon which the girl had quite a bit to say. When Ball Sr. asked how she came to know so much about the air war, she said proudly: “I’ve just spent the weekend with Albert Ball.”

The stolid sepia images that are left to us, and Albert’s more widely-known correspondence (dashed as it is with liberal amounts of ‘absolutely ripping’ this and ‘topping little’ that), portray a world far removed from our own times. And yet there was colour aplenty, and vibrancy and mischief – the sort of thing that makes history all the more entertaining.

The centenary of air power

In 2016 there will be many anniversaries to be marked in what is the centenary of one of the busiest and most tragic years of the First World War. One consistent theme through the year is the fact that it marks 100 years since military aviation came of age and was organised along clear lines of aircraft design, production and front-line tactical use.

When Europe descended into war in the summer of 1914, the sole purpose of aircraft was to act as a forward scout, observing the enemy’s movements and reporting back to their masters, whether on land or sea. From this limited brief, individual enterprise was then primarily responsible for increasing that scope of services to the bombing of selected targets and the interception and destruction of enemy aircraft.

Until 1916, the primary aircraft were observation machines designed for the purpose of reconnaissance, with a few faster ‘scout’ type aircraft being fitted with machine guns in an effort to shoot the enemy’s machines down. But then in 1916 a diverse array of specialised aircraft types was conceived, designed and built at an utterly phenomenal pace, identifying and fulfilling the same roles that air forces have performed from that day to this.

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The Nieuport 17 was one of the first of a new breed of aircraft to emerge in 1916

Between New Year and the summer of 1916, ‘scout’ aircraft evolved into the thoroughbred fighter and this was deployed in dedicated squadrons whose existence was purely to attack enemy aircraft. Despite the rise of the fighter, the standard two-seat military aircraft design remained the most numerous of all the types in service, but was sub-divided into pure reconnaissance machinery, light bombers and the first generation of multi-role strike aircraft.

Fighters made for good propaganda – with the scores of individual units and, more importantly, their leading pilots – becoming an obsession on both sides of the lines. Germany had already enshrined its first ‘aces’ Max Immelman and Oswald Bölcke as heroes of the age, and their achievements inspired other young men to follow them.

Soon Britain would be cheering Albert Ball to the echo and France would fall under the spell of Georges Guynemer, but there was of course the thorny problem of how to bring news of the death of these supposed supermen. Georges Boillot, the lion of Peugeot’s pre-war Grand Prix team and one of the early French aces would be killed in May, his compatriot Jean Navarre would be invalided out of the front line a month later. Max Immelman would die in June, followed by Bölcke in October.

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Georges Guynemer was one of the ‘superstar’ pilots to emerge in 1916

While the headlines and newsreels were dominated by the dashing single-seater pilots, still greater significance was the appearance of the first strategic bombers – heavyweights designed to carry the maximum destructive payload for the furthest distance. From the start of the year when bombs were being dropped by hand onto enemy troop emplacements and aircraft sheds, both sides on the Western Front had the fundamental capability to reach the capital cities of their respective enemies and reduce areas of them to rubble.

Designing individual aircraft types and then producing them in volume was one half of the equation. So too was the production line of young men to fly and fight in these machines, resulting in a giant leap forward in aircrew training in order to fulfil the new roles and to plug the gaps in front-line squadrons that would inevitably occur as the air war grew more effective at killing these magnificent men in their flying machines.

The first records of how many men were to be required to fly these aircraft began in July 1916, and over the course of the next six months it was shown that the inclusive total of killed and missing was 419 men, which represented one casualty per 206 hours flown by the RFC. The number of men in the air would increase, as would the number and frequency of losses, in line with the growth of the combatants’ air services.

A thumbnail sketch of what happened in each month of 1916 now follows. In the course of the next 11 months or so, the S&G will be returning to some of the aircraft, airmen and stories of the time to commemorate this most remarkable year in the history of mankind.

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The perspective of war on the land and in the air changed forever in 1916

January

  • Requirement for large scale night flying instruction recognised by British Air Ministry to counter the threat of Zeppelin raids on London and other UK targets
  • Nieuport 17 fighter prototype flies
  • Junkers J.I all-metal monoplane fighter prototype flies
L31-and-Peter-Strasser-1916.

In Britain, early 1916 was spent worrying about Zeppelin raids on the home front

February (Battle of Verdun begins)

  • Germany commissions squadrons consisting purely of single-seat scouts tasked with shooting down enemy aircraft – the first fighter squadrons
  • Airco DH.2 fighter enters service with the Royal Flying Corps – Britain’s first dedicated interceptor
  • Sopwith 1½ Strutter light bomber reaches Royal Naval Air Service squadrons in France
  • Sopwith Pup fighter prototype flies

March

  • Royal Flying Corps establishes the first Home Defence squadrons around London
  • Nieuport 17 fighter reaches Armée de l’Air squadrons in France
  • Fokker D.II fighter reaches German Air Service squadrons in France

April

  • Royal Flying Corps aircraft fly supplies to the besieged city of Kut in eastern Iraq – the first airlift in military history
  • Spad S.VII fighter prototype flies
  • Gotha G.II heavy bomber prototype flies
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Gotha’s new series of heavy bombers would bring terror from afar

May (Battle of Jutland)

  • Sopwith Pup fighter reaches Royal Naval Air Service squadrons in France
  • Sopwith Triplane fighter prototype flies

June (Battle of Mecca)

  • Royal Flying Corps conducts intensive reconnaissance of the Somme valley in France and targets German observation balloons and aircraft which might be able to capture information about preparations for the coming assault
  • Royal Aircraft Factory RE8 reconnaissance prototype flies

July (Battle of the Somme begins)

  • Royal Flying Corps provides 105 aircraft in the front line supporting the July 1 assault with artillery observation, reconnaissance and ground attack missions
  • Royal Flying Corps begins detailed measurement of the casualties suffered to measure training requirements and tactics
  • Fokker D.I fighter reaches German Air Service squadrons in France
  • Albatros D.II fighter approved for service use and begins equipping fighter squadrons
  • Fokker D.III fighter prototype flies
  • Felixtowe F2 flying boat prototype flies
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The Albatros D.II placed attacking speed over dogfighting manoeuvrability

August (Battle of Doberdò)

  • Royal Aircraft Factory BE12 reconnaissance aircraft reaches Royal Flying Corps squadrons in France
  • Spad S.VII fighter reaches Armée de l’Air squadrons in France
  • Gotha G.II heavy bomber reaches German Air Service squadrons in the Balkans
  • Airco DH.4 bomber prototype flies

September

  • Manfred von Richthofen, the future ‘Red Baron’, scores his first victory in air combat
  • Gotha G.III heavy bomber reaches German Air Service squadrons in the Balkans
  • Fokker D.III fighter reaches German Air Service squadrons in France
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Manfred von Richthofen (right) inspects a captured Airco DH.2

October

  • Bristol F.2B multi-role fighter prototype flies

November (Battle of the Somme ends)

  • German Air Service forms ‘England Squadron’ of Gotha heavy bombers for the purpose of attacking London with large-scale bombing raids
  • Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5 fighter prototype flies
  • Albatros D.I fighter enters service with German Air Service squadrons in France
  • Royal Aircraft Factory RE8 reconnaissance aircraft enters service with Royal Flying Corps squadrons in France

December (Battle of Verdun ends)

  • Sopwith Triplane fighter reaches Royal Naval Air Service squadrons in France
  • Handley Page 0/100 heavy bomber enters service with Royal Naval Air Service squadrons in France
  • Sopwith Camel fighter prototype flies
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The first of the mighty S.E.5 fighters

Many anniversaries are to be planned, commemorations made and aircraft flown – including a Scottish-built Sopwith 1½ Strutter recreation and the return of the Sopwith Triplane to flying duties for the Shuttleworth Collection after its 2014 landing accident. Much to see and do, particularly at Old Warden in the UK and, doubtless, Peter Jackson’s brilliant facilities in New Zealand. And of course at all the commemorations planned this year. We will do our best to keep you up-to-date on what’s happening.

Hispano-Suiza: kings of engineering

As the 19th Century drew to a close, the automobile was a thing of wonder that preoccupied many brilliant minds in Europe and North America. Among those who saw an opportunity was a Spanish artillery captain named Emilio de la Cuadra. He began to work primarily on electric-powered machinery using batteries from a Swiss engineer based in Barcelona, Carlos Vellino. It was very soon clear, however, that electric cars had issues in terms of range and practicality that did not afflict their internal combustion-powered rivals.

As a result of this, de la Cuadra began looking into a gasoline-electric hybrid solution. The problem was that the batteries were unwieldy and the engines were poor, leading Vellino to engage a fellow countryman – a watchmaker who had turned his attentions towards internal combustion, by the name of Marc Birkigt.

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La Cuadra developed a hybrid operating like a 21st Century car

The first engine that Birkigt produced for the La Cuadra motor company was a hybrid, with an electric motor whose charge was maintained by a single-cylinder internal combustion unit. At its unveiling the car broke down, however, which was a mortal blow to the company. With de la Cuadra and Vellino’s coffers empty, their creditors moved in for the kill during 1901.

The company ended up in the ownership of one J. Castro – of whom little is known, barring his good sense in retaining Birkigt, despite the failure of his hybrid. With de la Cuadra out of the picture a new name was required for the business, and to reflect its Spanish-Swiss heritage the name Hispano-Suiza was settled upon.

Birkigt built a four-cylinder internal combustion-powered car that worked very well but, in J. Castro’s efforts to make money, the company priced its products out of reach. By 1904, the business had run aground once again.

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J. Castro tried and failed – but gave Hispano-Suiza its name

Birkigt then reached into his own pocket to save Hispano-Suiza, while attracting investment from a successful industrialist called Don Damian Mateu. Two new Hispano-Suiza cars were revealed at the 1906 Paris Motor Salon – both effectively the Castro-era four-cylinder models of 3.8 and 7.4 litres respectively. The young King Alfonso XIII ordered the first of many Hispano-Suiza models that he would come to own and additional funds were raised by selling off shares in 500 peseta chunks.

Suddenly Hispano-Suiza was moving fast. Patents on the four-cylinder cars were sold to companies in Switzerland and Italy, while opulent six-cylinder models were readied in 1907. The company grew as fast as its reputation and range of products, with a talented young Italian engineer by the name of Paolo Zuccarelli joining Birkigt’s technical team from the minor marque of Florentia.

Zuccarelli pushed on with the development of small capacity ‘voiturette’ cars and with nudging Hispano-Suiza into the greatest shop window of them all: motor sport.

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Paolo Zuccarelli became the leading light for Hispano-Suiza in motor sport

The factory built cars, called the 45CR, featured 2.4-litre engines developing 45 horsepower from what was then the standard configuration of a ‘T-head’ sidevalve with intake valves are on one side of the engine block and the exhaust valves on the other. The cars made their debut at the 1909 Copa Catalunya, with Zuccarelli driving the lead entry and an Italian mechanic named Ravelli alongside him. Two more cars were entered for Louis Pilleverdier / Castanera and Louis Derny / Reus.

The race was over 13 laps of a course of closed roads measuring 28 km and the Hispano-Suiza entry was impeccably turned out under Birkigt’s watchful eye and with Isidoro de Salazar, the company marketing manager, in tow. Pilleverdier finished fourth but the other two cars both retired with broken crankshafts – not before Zuccarelli had led a significant portion of the race, however.

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The Hispano-Suiza 45CR – a racing car par excellence

A few weeks later the Hispanos returned to action in the Coupe des Voiturettes in Boulogne, in which the trio finished fifth, sixth and seventh. The team grew in experience and confidence through successive races into 1910, with the main competition coming from the French entries of Libor, designed by a brilliant young engineer called Ernest Henry, and the Lion-Peugeot of the Frères Peugeot company.

The latter team relied heavily on a brilliant Italian driver by the name of Giosue Giuppone. At the 1910 Coupe de l’Auto, all three of the major teams – Libor, Peugeot and Hispano-Suiza – used 3.0-litre four-cylinder T-head engines and were very evenly matched. Giuppone’s story ended when he encountered two cyclists making their way around the course during the race, one of whom darted across to seek cover on the left hand side of the road.

Despite throttling back the engine and braking hard, Giuppone clipped the bicycle, which was thrown into the ditch, while the Peugeot went into a lurid spin and threw Giuppone and his mechanic Péan out into the road. The mechanic was uninjured but Giuppone landed on his head, suffering a fractured skull that was to prove fatal.

The race was won by Paolo Zuccarelli’s Hispano-Suiza, marking the team’s first international victory. The second Peugeot followed him home, driven by Georges Boillot, while Pilleverdier’s Hispano-Suiza finished third. The event was filmed for posterity, with Zuccarelli’s drive attracting significant renown for the Hispano-Suiza marque.

Much was to change as a result of the 1910 Coupe de l’Auto. Boillot established himself as Peugeot’s new team leader and Zuccarelli was recruited to join him, with another fine driver/engineer called Jules Goux completing the line-up. The ‘superteam’ was completed when Ernest Henry became Peugeot’s technical mastermind.

Hispano-Suiza retired from competition – but the success of the 45CR led to demand for production versions of the car. The result has become regarded as the first purpose-built sports car: the Hispano-Suiza Alphonso XIII, named after the Spanish king (who added one to his ever-increasing fleet). This dapper little car with its race-winning pedigree caused a sensation, and Birkigt’s expansion of the Hispano-Suiza marque continued apace.

New factories were built in the Parisian suburbs of Levallois-Perret and, later, Bois-Colombes. Hispano-Suiza assumed dual nationality – French and Spanish. The range of cars also made their way across the English Channel, with a service depot opening in Fulham and a showroom in Shaftesbury Avenue.

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The world’s first sports car: Hispano-Suiza Alphonso XIII

In motor sport circles there was considerable ill-feeling directed towards Peugeot, which had begun to dominate the greatest races on both sides of the Atlantic using engine designs that many believed were ‘stolen’ from Hispano-Suiza by Zuccarelli. Yet such concerns were soon to be trampled into the dirt by the headlong rush into World War 1.

Hispano-Suiza became a prized asset for France, building trucks and aircraft engines. Traditionally, aircraft engines were manufactured by machining separate steel cylinders and then bolting these assemblies directly to the crankcase. Birkigt believed that it would be much more effective to make the block from a single piece of cast aluminium, into which thin steel liners were secured.

Manufacturing an engine in this way simplified construction and resulted in a lighter, yet stronger more durable engine that was capable of significantly more power than its predecessors. Thus was born his V8 ‘monobloc’ engine, one of the most significant advances in achieving air superiority over the Western Front and beyond.

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Marc Birkigt (left) and colleagues with a ‘monobloc’ V8 engine

The enormous potential of the single overhead camshaft ‘monobloc’ V8 was finally revealed when if was fitted to the SPAD S.VII fighter, which reached front-line squadrons in the late summer of 1916. It was faster and more rugged than any other type on the front line, and was to seal the legend of France’s leading ‘ace’ Georges Guynemer.

The SPAD series was developed right through to the end of the war, by which time the Hispano-Suiza was pumping out 220 hp in the last of the S.XIII fighters to see service, piloted by men such as Eddie Rickenbacker. The versatility of the engine also allowed for the construction of a small number of S.XII models that featured a Hotchkiss cannon mounded between the two cylinder heads and firing through the propeller boss. When it worked, the effect on the wood-and-canvas aircraft of the time was astonishing.

In Britain the best-known recipient of Birkigt’s engine was the Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5, which in many of the later S.E.5a models featured a modified version of the ‘Hisso’ engine built under licence in the UK: the Wolseley Viper. The S.E.5s were used as high-performance, high-altitude interceptors working in tandem with vast fleets of Sopwith Camel fighters flying below – the equivalent of the Spitfire and Hurricane during World War 2. Operating together in vast fleets, they did much to sweep the German Air Service out of the skies.

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Georges Guynemer’s SPAD S.VII on public display, 1918

Hispano-Suiza returned to car production in peacetime, with a new series of cars powered by a smaller V6 design based upon Birkigt’s wartime ‘monobloc’. Hispano-Suiza became the byword for performance and innovation, and licences for Birkigt’s engineering were much in demand from prestige car manufacturers world-wide. Even Rolls-Royce used a number of Hispano-Suiza patents through the 1920s and 1930s, such as servo-assisted brakes for all four wheels.

The sleek, elegant lines of the Hispano-Suiza coupés by stylists such as Hibbard & Darrin and D’Ieteren between the wars were groundbreaking, and directly influenced the competition from Mercedes-Benz, Delahaye and other prestige marques. Most often they would be crowned by the radiator emblem of a stork in flight with its wings dipped, the emblem of Escadrille 3 of the 12th Combat Group: Georges Guynemer’s squadron.

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Style et luxe: the Hispano-Suiza stork adorned some amazing engineering

This high summer was not to last, however. Birkigt was among the Hispano-Suiza holders to receive lawsuits from the French authorities in the early 1930s, who decided that the money paid for the tens of thousands of ‘monobloc’ engines in the war was effectively profiteering.

Lawyers settled that argument, but with the rise of a Spanish republic Hispano-Suiza’s longest-serving patron, King Alfonso XIII, fled into exile. The firm’s celebrated factories became a state holding for the construction of military trucks and aircraft engines. No more of its sumptuous cars would ever be seen.

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Hispano-Suiza went out on a high: 1938 Dubonnet Xenia coupé

In 1938 the story of Hispano-Suiza, the builder and innovator of automotive excellence, came to an end. Never again would it take leadership in aviation technology either. Marc Birkigt lived on until 1953 and his legacy remains that hint of Hispano-Suiza that resides in the best automotive engineering of today – both in luxury cars and utilitarian hybrids.

Once or twice attempts have been made to revive Hispano-Suiza as a modern brand. Thank God none have yet succeeded. It was a truly unique chapter in engineering history.

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A modified Audi R8 is the latest attempt to relaunch Hispano-Suiza cars

A Great War hero: Part 3 – an English adventure

By late 1916, ambitious young Eddie Rickenbacher had risen from a teenage manual labourer to become a celebrated racing driver going by the name of Edward Vernon Rickenbacker. What he needed more than anything was to win a race of international standing – ideally the Indianapolis 500 – but to do so he needed European technology.

The Great War had enveloped continental Europe, but even in these dark days the desire of European manufacturers to go racing burned brightly. In America the great French marque Peugeot was cleaning up in the hands of its British-Italian driver Dario Resta, while the mighty German Mercedes was also a feature at Indianapolis.

British-Italian racer Dario Resta was Peugeot's star in America

British-Italian racer Dario Resta was Peugeot’s star in America

Britain’s leading team was Sunbeam – a major threat to the established marques before the war. Under the guidance of its French leader, Louis Coatalen, Sunbeam had developed a car that offered Eddie Rickenbacker the hope of beating Peugeot at Indianapolis – a car that the ambitious driver craved.

Through the autumn of 1916, Coatalen and Rickenbacker worked to piece together a deal for the following season. To seal the deal, Rickenbacker would have to travel to England.

Before boarding in New York for his passage across the Atlantic, Rickenbacker closed out the 1916 racing season. While preparing for an event at Riverside, he chanced across an airfield, where he was greeted by the celebrated pioneering designer, Glenn Martin.

Martin was pleased to give a celebrity racing driver a ride in his latest creation – which took all Eddie’s courage to accept – and before long it would prove to be a pivotal moment.

In the meantime, Eddie’s next priority was reaching England. The documentation was organised but, unwittingly, he encountered two gentlemen on the voyage who took an interest in his Germanic surname. It turned out that they were British police, who arrested Rickenbacker as soon as they landed in Liverpool, a few days before Christmas 1916.

During his detention, Rickenbacker was stripped and his skin was rubbed with lemon juice and acid to check for invisible ink before he was presented with a thick dossier of ‘evidence’ to prove that he was in fact an agent of the Kaiser.

The whole thing was so ludicrous that, instead of getting mad, I treated it as a joke,‘ he later recalled.

In fact, part of the joke was that the ‘dossier’ was based upon press information from Mack Sennett’s race team dating back to 1914 which claimed that Eddie was, in fact, Baron Reichenbacher – a wayward young Prussian aristocrat. The farce went on for several days until Rickenbacker talked his captors into speaking to Louis Coatalen, and almost immediately he was allowed to continue on his way to London.

Louis Coatalen wanted Eddie Rickenbacker to win honours for Sunbeam

Louis Coatalen wanted Eddie Rickenbacker to win honours for Sunbeam

Coatalen had arranged for Rickenbacker to stay at the celebrated Savoy Hotel, where he was initially barred entry and fingerprinted at the local police station. Even after he was admitted to the building, this former gang member from Columbus, Ohio had no grounding in British manners, etiquette or vocabulary and thus found himself ostracised by staff and guests alike – during which time he developed a profound and lifelong Anglophobia.

He felt much more at home on his weekly visits to the Sunbeam factory in Wolverhampton – although it was frankly preposterous that he, as an alien national, was allowed access to such an important military facility, distracting one of the foremost engineers in Britain’s war effort.

The Ministry of Munitions had ordered all available resources to be dedicated towards war work – and Sunbeam’s factory was expanding rapidly in order to build ever-greater numbers of staff cars ambulances, motorcycles, trucks, aircraft engines and airframes.

A Sunbeam Ambulance on the Western Front

A Sunbeam ambulance on the Western Front

As a result, Louis Coatalen, was working round-the-clock on a range of powerplants such as the V8 Arab and V12 Cossack aero engines, the air-cooled Spartan and diesel-fuelled Pathan. Yet he was also entertaining this brash American interloper and dedicating vital resources towards winning at Indianapolis.

It was small wonder, perhaps, that Rickenbacker was not universally admired in Wolverhampton. Sunbeam may have been the great racing name in Britain before the war – but all that belonged to a different world of peace and prosperity.

Sopwith Cuckoo torpedo bomber with Sunbeam Arab engine

Sopwith Cuckoo torpedo bomber with Sunbeam Arab engine

In the course of nearly two months of living and working in England, Rickenbacker grew accustomed to the war. Virtually all his peers were wearing khaki and the skies – particularly over London – were alive with the movement of aircraft. He was even permitted to visit Brooklands, the world’s first permanent race track but currently the major centre of design and production of prototype aircraft.

The winter of 1916-17 was a time of relative quiet on the battlefield. The two great offensives on the Western Front in 1916, at Verdun and the Somme, had killed, maimed or simply lost almost two million men. It would take time to replenish losses like that, thus the air war provided the main talking points during Rickenbacker’s stay.

Foremost in Rickenbacker’s line of sight was the story of the Lafayette Escadrille – a French fighter unit formed of American volunteers. They had been in action since the previous spring and was beginning to take a serious toll on the enemy, reaching 57 ‘kills’ by February 1917.

Britain had a new hero in the cherubic-looking Albert Ball, who was fêted at every turn throughout Rickenbacker’s stay. Newspapers were also full of the exploits of French hero Georges Guynemer as well as stories of the emergence of an astounding enemy pilot flying a scarlet-painted fighter – the mysterious ‘Red Baron’.

Albert Ball was a hero in Britain for his daredevil exploits in the air

Albert Ball was a hero in Britain for his daredevil exploits in the air

In a war where lives were lost and shattered in anonymous millions, the allure of these gloriously individual ‘aces’ was clear to see. They certainly left their mark on the American interloper, who spoke openly of a growing desire to join the battle in the sky.

Rickenbacker’s curious English existence came to an end in February 1917. To start with, Germany announced its intention to attack all shipping in the Atlantic irrespective of nationality. Second, a plot was revealed whereby the German government had promised support to Mexico if it went to war with the USA over its disputed border territories.

When this was discovered, diplomatic relations between America and Germany were severed forthwith while US nationals were recalled from Europe. That included racing drivers.

After doing his best to finalise his plans with Coatalen and ensure that the Sunbeams could and would follow him to Indianapolis that May, Eddie Rickenbacker caught the last ship leaving Liverpool for the USA.

However, all the plans and notes that he had made with Sunbeam over the previous two months were confiscated by the British secret service – and he would never get to the Indianapolis 500 in one of the British cars.

American volunteer pilots in the Lafayette Escadrille - and their pet lions - made headline

American volunteer pilots in the Lafayette Escadrille – and their pet lions – made headlines

Upon his return to the USA, Rickenbacker began pursuing another goal: to lead a group of American racing drivers into battle – and to do so in the sky. If Eddie Rickenbacker couldn’t win glory on the racetrack, then he was going to go all-out to be an ‘ace’ and a star of the greatest competition of all.

His aim was to gather 50 drivers and turn them into pilots for a new Lafayette Escadrille – but by the time that America finally declared war, in April 1917, he was still nowhere close to getting his plan approved.

The war would soon come to Eddie Rickenbacker, but even for one as driven him, that war was too big a beast to come to him on his terms.

A Great War hero: Part 2 – call me Rickenbacker

After learning his trade as the protégé of pioneering automobile constructor and racing driver Lee Frayer, at the start of 1912, the 21-year-old Eddie Rickenbacher elected to become a professional racer.

Throughout 1912 and 1913 his bread and butter was earned on dirt tracks and board ovals at county fairs and anywhere else that paid a buck for driving fast. Or, for that matter, driving slowly – a particular favourite of the crowds being a contest to see who could go slowest and finish last without stalling the car.

County fair races brought out the crowds

County fair races brought out the crowds across America

When they weren’t racing, Eddie and his fellow drivers worked as handimen, mechanics and salesmen. Anything they could do to bring in the money they needed to get to the next racetrack and go at it – a travelling troupe of gladiators.

It was a risky business for competitors and fans alike and disaster was never far away. In mid-1913 an incident at an event in Mason City, Iowa, saw Reichenbacher’s car hit spectators at an unlicenced motor race. As a result his licence was revoked until the start of 1914.

After cooling his heels for several months, Eddie reappeared in California during February 1914 amid the most bizarre circumstances.

Mack Sennett, movie star and proprietor of the Keystone movie studios, was an enthusiastic patron of American motor sport. He owned and ran a Fiat grand prix car that he had entered in the 1914 Vanderbilt Cup Qualification Race in Santa Monica.

Mack Sennett's Keystone movies ruled the world

Mack Sennett’s Keystone movies ruled the world

During practice tragedy struck Sennett’s team when the big Fiat, driven by Dave Lewis, went out of control and ended up in the crowd. Six spectators were injured, among whom was the 69-year-old Civil War veteran, Louis G. Smith.

Mr. Smith succumbed to his injuries and the Fiat was deemed too badly damaged to start the race – but Sennett was determined to win the greatest road race in America, so he invested in a year-old Mason racing car, which was entered for a new and apparently rather colourful replacement driver.

According to Sennett’s inventive press information, the man at the wheel was called ‘Baron Reichenbacher’. He was described as: ‘A young Prussian nobleman who had fallen victim to the deadly Bacillus Motorus. Crazed by a lust for speed, he had absconded from the Vienna Military Institute in a stolen Mercedes. Expelled from the institute and disinherited by his father, he went to America to enter the AAA tour…’

It was, of course, hokum worthy of one of Sennett’s two-reel slapstick adventures. The ‘Baron’ was none other than Eddie, but his starring role was not to last: unexpectedly heavy rainfall caused the race to be delayed for several days, in which time both Dave Lewis and the big Fiat were returned to active duty.

Not only that, but Sennett convinced the race organisers to allow him to film the race for a new comedy feature – Mabel at the Wheel.

Sennett's Fiat stars in Mabel at the Wheel

Sennett’s Fiat stars in Mabel at the Wheel

Nevertheless, Eddie was back racing once again – this time for the princely sum of $3 per week plus his share of any spoils – for a team run by two German-born brothers from Iowa who had been instrumental in designing Mason racing cars and were busy setting up their own team. They were August and Frederick Duesenberg.

The Duesenberg brothers made Eddie their racing team manager as well as their leading driver. Their next race would be the 1914 Indianapolis 500 in which Eddie finished tenth, collecting a purse of $1,400.

'Fast Eddie' at the wheel of the Duesenberg brothers' entry for the 1914 Indianapolis 500

‘Fast Eddie’ at the wheel of the Duesenberg brothers’ entry for the 1914 Indianapolis 500

Five weeks later, in Sioux City, Eddie Rickenbacher won his first race, collecting $10,000 for his trouble and becoming one of the stars of American motor sport. Star status appealed to the young racer, who began to cultivate his celebrity. Stories were told that he had set speed records in the mighty Blitzen Benz during 1912 – fabrications that Eddie never troubled to deny.

He also gave himself a new name, entering first as E.V. Rickenbacher (not having been given a middle name by his parents, Eddie chose the letter ‘V’ for its impact and, later, settled on ‘Vernon’ as his chosen name). In mid-1915 he completed the transformation by changing his surname to Rickenbacker.

By this time, Eddie had parted company with the Duesenbergs, whose racing successes, while, impressive, did nothing for their finances. Instead he chose to drive for the current giants of European motor racing: Peugeot. Having won Italy’s Targa Florio and the Grand Prix in France, the rakish blue cars were now aiming for American glory – and Rickenbacker wanted to be the man to give it to them.

Part of Eddie’s decision was influenced by the fact that the Peugeot team favoured racing on the open road. ‘I always preferred the challenge and variety of road racing to going around and around like a ball on a string,’ he later said.

The roads were dusty and unpaved while the cars were faster, more powerful and noisier than anything Eddie had previously encountered. He was in love with the thrill of racing but also wary of its inherent danger, and so in order to stay in touch with his riding mechanic, Eddie fashioned facemasks which featured a rudimentary intercom.

Eddie Rickenbacker and mechanic demonstrating his intercom design

Eddie Rickenbacker and mechanic demonstrating his intercom design

‘You didn’t win races because you had more guts,’ he said later. ‘You won because you knew how to take the turns and baby your engine. It wasn’t all just shut your eyes and grit your teeth.’

The facemasks worked but were not a spectacular success. Neither was Eddie’s time with Peugeot spectacularly successful – or long lived. The cars were beautiful and technically brilliant, but needed fine tuning and patience that, perhaps, their American keepers lacked.

Furthermore, it was clear to Rickenbacker the star that American race fans wanted to see American drivers racing to victory in American machines. The final nail in Peugeot’s coffin for Rickenbacker was that Europe had become embroiled in war, and there was no guarantee that cars or parts would be readily available.

Once again he jumped ship – this time joining the home-grown Prest-O-Lite team alongside Barney Oldfield and Bill Carlson, racing Maxwell cars. The irony was that Eddie’s seat at Peugeot was filled by the Italian-British driver Dario Resta, who proceeded to win virtually every major race in America – much to Eddie’s chagrin.

The Prest-O-Lite Maxwell ready for the 1915 Indy 500

The Prest-O-Lite Maxwell ready for the 1915 Indy 500

Nevertheless, the Maxwell years brought Eddie Reichenbacker his greatest successes and unprecedented wealth – earning $80,000 in 1916, when he was ranked fourth overall by the American Automobile Association.

He also effectively ran the team – including the discipline of its staff and a series of secret signals to be carried on boards held up from the pit lane. The team triumphed in local and regional events, but at Indianapolis and the other major events its cars were outclassed.

It was clear that to fulfil his ambitions, he needed the sophisticated engineering of a European car. Although near the peak of his profession in American racing, Rickenbacker needed a major title to cement his reputation and earning power – and, while American fans might prefer to see him win  in American machinery, he would have to be pragmatic about it.

Thus, in the winter of 1916, Rickenbacker opened dialogue with Louis Coatalen, the French design genius who had turned the British marque, Sunbeam, into a major sporting force before the outbreak of war. Coatalen had developed a 5-litre six-cylinder racing engine that was ideal for Indianapolis but currently gathering dust – opening an extraordinary chapter in the life of ‘Fast Eddie’.