Finding Mannock

In case you’re wondering where the S&G has been of late, the answer is somewhere between October 1917 and July 1918. It’s been a protracted stay but well worth the making.

In the spirit of those times, therefore, feel free to enjoy a documentary made by the BBC in 2009, based upon the rather excellent book Aces Falling by popular historian Peter Hart. It’s a little bit schmaltzy in places and frankly re-enactors gazing meaningfully into the camera can make one a bit queasy at times but all in all it does Hart’s work, and that of Joshua Levine, some justice. Plus it’s always nice to see the Shuttleworth Collection’s S.E.5a aloft…

The most important point raised by the film, and about which nothing has continued to happen, is the pressing need to formally identify the body of the aviator ‘Known unto God’ that has lain in Row F, Grave 12 of Laventie Military Cemetery since 1920.

Edward Mannock was a unique individual, a gifted tactician and, quite possibly, the most successful Allied fighter pilot of the Great War. As one of only 19 airmen of the Great War to hold the Victoria Cross, any opportunity for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to right a very obvious wrong can and must be taken before the centenary of Mannock’s death.

Mannock’s body was retrieved and buried by the Germans some 300 metres away from Butter Lane near Pacault Wood. The body of the airman in Row F, Grave 12 was exhumed from a grave 300 metres away from Butter Lane near Pacault Wood.

The German Army’s very precise record of where they buried the body does not tally exactly with the location where the CWG first found him, which has been the major reason cited as to why no further investigation has been carried out. But then the CWG was using a British trench map. By using a German trench map of the same area, the description given takes you pretty much to the original grave site.

The body exhumed in 1920 had no identification about it. The Germans took all of Mannock’s personal effects and identification from his body before burial, which were eventually returned to his family.

Modern science is a wonderful thing. It helped identify King Richard III where he lay beneath a municipal car park in Leicester some 527 years after he fell. To the best of the S&G’s knowledge there should be sufficient living relatives of Mannock to be able to get a DNA profile, exhume the airman in Row F, Grave 12 and confirm, one way or another, who he is.

Only two other candidates remain; these being Sopwith Camel pilots shot down a couple of months before Mannock. Neither of these men deserves to remain nameless any more than Mannock, although the evidence linking them to the German grave at Butter Lane is circumstantial at best.

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The evidence all points to this being Edward Mannock’s grave. Let’s have a definitive answer.

There are other clues to be found, no doubt. For one thing, accounts from local history state that the British aircraft that crashed by Butter Lane was there until 11 November 1918, after which it was pretty swiftly tipped into a shell hole and covered over. Perhaps removable parts were taken as trophies but a dial, a plate and certainly a Hispano-Suiza engine would make itself fairly obvious to ground surveying equipment.

For all that, there might not be any need to go and find any remnants of S.E.5a serial E1295. For the body in Row F, Grave 12 to be that of Mannock, it needs to be the remains of a gangling six-footer who stood out a mile from most of his fellow aviators. In addition, the aircraft was well alight when it crashed and Mannock’s dread fear of burning caused him to keep his Webley service revolver readily to hand in order to end the agony. Even after 100 years, the sort of damage that a .455 bullet does to a skull is clear to see.

‘Mick’ Mannock led by example. He cherished the lives of his men and gave them every possible chance to see the peace that he was convinced would not be his to savour. Yet he flew on, staring his horror of being set alight full in the face until the nightmares became a reality.

He died alone, afraid and practically unheralded. Yes, it would cost money but it would be worth more than 100 of the self-serving commemorations that this country has organised to mark the centenary of the Great War. Worth more than a wild goose chase across Asia looking for buried Spitfires. Worth more than pulling the unrecognisable hulk of a Dornier out of the Goodwin Sands for even the slightest chance to give this most human of heroes back his own name.

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London’s flying past

One seldom thinks of central London as a focal point for aviation. There’s London City Airport, plus the interminable political blathering about where the next major runway should be built to service the city and, for schoolchildren, an occasional visit to the Royal Air Force Museum, Science Museum or Imperial War Museum.

Yet in fact a brisk stroll takes one through what was, a century or so ago, the white hot crucible in which British military aviation was organised – and from the Armistice onwards the peacetime air network would be established that so preoccupies our airport planners of today.

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The Palace of Westminster is a fairly good landmark to get started

For the sake of argument, let’s start at the Houses of Parliament. Indeed, let’s start under Big Ben – if you can fight your way through the seemingly endless turf war between Japanese tourists with their selfie sticks and East European pickpockets – then you’ll soon arrive at the statue of the pioneering politician of air power, Winston Churchill. In his role as First Lord of the Admiralty, Churchill showed uncommon vision for the potential of early aviation as a tool of reconnaissance and offensive bombing – resulting in the Royal Naval Air Service being significantly stronger and lighter on its feet than the army’s Royal Flying Corps.

Now head up Parliament Street to the Cenotaph and the beautiful facades of Whitehall abound. Keep going past Downing Street to Horse Guards Parade and there the magnificent War Office building stands opposite, from where the Royal Flying Corps was ultimately managed.

Built in neo-Baroque style to the tune of £1.2 million, the building was completed in 1906 and featured 1,000 rooms on seven floors connected by two-and-a-half miles of corridors. It was from here that wars were fought and won, occasionally fought and lost – and much of the Empire was policed until 1968. The building was sold on 1 March 2016 for more than £350M, on a long 250 year lease, to the Hinduja Group and OHL Developments for conversion to a luxury hotel and residential apartments.

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The War Office – about to enter conversion to a hotel and residential development

Keep going just a little further and Admiralty Arch appears, with it Admiralty House and all the pomp of the Senior Service that is laid out like a challenge before anyone wishing to travel up the Mall. From here Churchill set about ensuring that the ground was made fertile for developing the first verdant shoots of a modern air force – while the dullards at the War Office retained their faith in horses in the face of mechanised slaughter.

Just like the War Office, Admiralty Arch has already been sold off for transformation into an hotel. The questions raised in parliament about how security for the many state and sporting occasions that run through Whitehall each year, let alone that of the Royal Family down the road, is to be maintained by hoteliers in the face of increased insurgency has never really been answered. But then Whitehall has suffered from more than its fair share of fatheads over the years – as we shall see…

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The buildings around Admiralty Arch were a hive of air-minded activity when Churchill was First Sea Lord. Today it is a Spanish-owned hotel.

From the Admiralty, head up The Strand and there is a large run of shops lying in wait before reaching the Savoy Hotel. The shops stand at street level beneath an imposing facade that was once the frontage of the Hotel Cecil – one of the more remarkable buildings in London.

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The Hotel Cecil was designed in the late 1880s by architects Perry & Reed in a sympathetic ‘Wrennaissance’ style for what was a fantastical barn of a building that would, in its day, be the largest hotel in Europe.

This 900-room leviathan was the pet project of notorious politician, financier, property developer and fraudster, Jabez Balfour. Balfour decreed that the Cecil should be “an abiding memorial of my enterprise” – although a rather more permanent memorial was the penury of the people who had invested in his schemes. The extent of Balfour’s embezzlement – a cool £8.4 million in 1895! – was uncovered during the Cecil’s six-year build.

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The magnificent facade of the Hotel Cecil still dominates The Strand

In a colourful turn of events, Balfour went bankrupt and fled to Argentina, where he was pursued and apprehended by Scotland Yard, brought back to London and sentenced to 14 years of penal servitude. The Cecil was sold for a relatively paltry £1.5 million and the proceeds were redistributed among Balfour’s impoverished investors. The hotel’s construction carried on – although not all of the materials were as grand as had been hoped – but Balfour’s abiding memorial appeared set to remain a white elephant.

Despite recruiting such luminaries of the era as ‘Smiler’ the renowned Indian curry chef or M. Coste, one of the greatest chefs of the late Victorian era, the gargantuan hotel was a commercial black hole. It was therefore fortunate for the owners that war broke out in 1914 and suddenly a pressing need was found to quarter staff and administer the conflict.

In 1916, the increasing importance of the war in the air, combined with the profligacy and wanton disruption that the rivalry between the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service was causing meant that an Air Board should be formed to manage the quarrelling air services in a contained space. In January 1917 it was decided that the space in question should be the Hotel Cecil.

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To the rear, the Hotel Cecil (and the Savoy Hotel next door) fronted the Victoria Embankment

The deep-rooted and bloody-minded rivalry between the two air arms carried on unabated, leading to claims that the occupants of the Hotel Cecil were ‘actively interfering’ with the running of the war. This in turn led to a nickname for their palatial residence: Bolo House, named after the celebrated French traitor, Bolo Pasha.

To digress – Bolo’s conviction was for a remarkable plot in which he was alleged to have travelled to America in order to receive laundered German funds with which he purchased Le Journal newspaper and began printing German propaganda. The evidence, such as it was, could only be described as circumstantial. Bolo’s firing squad was, however, utterly unequivocal.

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The Savoy still looks out over the Victoria Embankment

Back to London, then, and one significant ‘plus’ for men of the air divisions was that if they were required to work in the Cecil they would be quartered next door in the sumptuous Savoy Hotel. Many celebrated airmen of all allied nations, including Eddie Rickenbacker, found themselves enjoying the hospitality of the Savoy, although the Silvertown explosion on 19 January 1917 caused many of the windows to be blown in upon the hapless occupants.

It took the bombing of London in broad daylight by long-range German aircraft to force change upon the Bolo House, brought about by the wave of public outrage against Britain’s inefficient defences against attack. While the administrative work went on that would create a united and independent Royal Air Force, the first ever plotting room was created in the bowels of the hotel in order to marshal defending fighters against incoming arial raiders in a precursor to the famous system employed during the Battle of Britain in 1940.

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The plaque is almost correct – it was the first night raid by German aeroplanes

The German bombing campaign was also nearly the end of the Hotel Cecil, as on the night of 4/5 September the bombers came back for their first nocturnal sortie and managed to plant a 50 kg bomb virtually on the doorstep. The bomb itself landed beside Cleopatra’s Needle on the Victoria Embankment, onto which the rear entrance of both the Hotel Cecil and the Savoy faced.

The blast did kill and maim – a passing tram was caught in the blast, killing the driver and two passengers while blowing the conductor out onto the street.  Today the site is clearly seen by the shrapnel damage that remains upon Cleopatra’s Needle and the Sphinx.

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As for the Hotel Cecil, it served out the war as the birthplace of the Royal Air Force and remained on governmental duties until 1921, when it was used to house the Palestine Arab delegation which arrived to protest the British mandate on the region. The site was then demolished in 1930 – save for the grand facade on The Strand – in order to make way for the beautiful art deco Shell-Mex House which presides over the Victoria Embankment to this day – Shell having provided every drop of aviation fuel used by the allies from 1914 to the end of 1917.

In 1961, after the official separation of Shell and BP, Shell moved its head office to the 27-storey leviathan on the South Bank of the river where it remains to this day. Shell-Mex House was disposed of in the 1990s and today it is known as 80 Strand, home of businesses as diverse as Penguin Books, the Nectar loyalty card and PricewaterhouseCoopers. A small green plaque was erected on the back gate in 2008 commemorating its status as the location where the Royal Air Force was founded.

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The art deco frontage of Shell-Mex House (left) replaced the Hotel Cecil in 1930 to become a major landmark on the Thames, viewed from the bomb-damaged Sphinx

Walking back along the Victoria Embankment towards the Houses of Parliament, a golden eagle soon rises up overhead. This is the memorial erected immediately after the Great War in honour of the fallen airmen whose fate, in almost every instance, was in part decided within the buildings along the route of this stroll around the city.

The golden eagle sits atop an orb, around which a sash is wrapped carrying all the signs of the zodiac. Upon the pedestal, the inscription reads:

In memory of all ranks of the Royal Naval Air Service, Royal Flying Corps, Royal Air Force and those air forces from every part of the British Empire who gave their lives in winning victory for their King and country, 1914 – 1918.

There is also a quotation from Exodus 19: I bear you on eagles’ wings and brought you unto myself. 

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A further inscription was added in remembrance of those men and women of the air forces of every part of the British Commonwealth and Empire who gave their lives in World War 2, although this rather beautiful tribute has long since been overtaken by bigger-budget productions elsewhere, such as the magnificent Bomber Command Memorial in Green Park.

Just before reaching the end of this little walk around the crucible of British aviation, another of those modern memorials stands – that dedicated to the Battle of Britain in 1940. Just a few hundred metres from Westminster station, this low, flat block has the most ornate brass relief that makes an ideal spot to stop and tick off the places seen.

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The Battle of Britain memorial on Victoria Embankment

Westminster and Whitehall are so very ‘pomp and circumstance’ that it is hard to credit the emergence of modern air warfare to buildings more closely associated with Trafalgar and the creation of of the British Empire. Yet it is perhaps an even greater leap to now think of these majestic buildings being turned into foreign-owned hotels for those guests who may be tired of life at the Savoy – or may indeed have something other than tourism in mind for their visit.

Meanwhile, this little patch of London is ripe with myriad stories. Far too many to write in a blog post, a book or even a trilogy. Tripping over them is the ideal way to spend an hour or so messing about by the river…

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Shell-Mex House (centre) and The Savoy standing shoulder-to-shoulder behind Cleopatra’s Needle

More World War 1 aviation for the 2015 season

An exciting airshow season is ahead with much to savour for fans of World War 1 aviation. Last year the national home of airworthy vintage aircraft, the Shuttleworth Collection, was quite rightly focused on the return of its De Havilland DH.88 Comet Grosvenor House to the skies after more than two decades, marking the 80th anniversary of her win in the Macrobertson Air Race but in 2015 it looks like biplanes are in pole position.

This year the Collection’s unique selection of First World War aircraft at its Old Warden home will be bolstered with a reproduction Sopwith Camel, complete with a period Clerget 130hp rotary engine. Originally built in 2001 by Northern Aeroplane Workshops, the Shuttleworth Collection engineers have been beavering away getting it ready for display appearances later in 2015 wearing the markings of the Ruston Proctor-built D1851 when flown in 1918 by 70 Squadron, RAF.

'Ikanopit' is sure to be a hit - and a handful to fly!

‘Ikanopit’ is sure to be a hit – and a handful to fly!

Carrying the legend ‘Ikanopit’ (I can hop it!), the original D1851, in the hands of Lieutenant W. Gowan, survived a mid-air collision with its squadron mate D1796 flown by Lieutenant S. Rochford. Its reproduction will make an extremely welcome addition to the Shuttleworth shows this year, where it will doubtless fly alongside the collection’s original Sopwith Pup – although a three-ship formation with the reproduction Sopwith Triplane is still some time off as the damage from the latter’s landing accident last year is repaired.

Two beautiful Sopwith scouts will star in 2015

Two beautiful Sopwith scouts will star in 2015

Also currently at Old Warden is a Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5a, which is ultimately going to join the WW1 Aviation Heritage Trust (WAHT), based at Bicester Heritage in Oxfordshire. Last year the Bicester group took the WW1 scene by storm with a pair of Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2e aircraft and is following up with three new additions, of which the S.E.5a is the first arrival.

Pictured behind Shuttleworth's genuine ex-Savage S.E.5 a is WAHT's new replica

Pictured behind Shuttleworth’s genuine ex-Savage S.E.5 a is WAHT’s new replica

Still to arrive in the UK are WAHT’s other two new attractions: a reproduction Albatros D.Va and a muscular little Sopwith Snipe reproduction, both of which hail from Peter Jackson’s Vintage Aviator company in New Zealand. The Albatros,  was recently air tested by the legendary Kermit Weeks prior to disassembly and freighting halfway around the world. The flying schedule for the year includes a display at the Shuttleworth Collection and an appearance at the Goodwood Revival.

WAHT's Albatros gets an air test from Kermit Weeks

WAHT’s Albatros gets an air test from Kermit Weeks

WAHT has now opened a funding campaign to raise the £11,200 it needs to reassemble the newcomers when they arrive in Britain – details of which can be found at the trust’s website.

A Great War hero: Part 5 – grand finale

In March 1918, three Nieuport 28 scouts of the 94th Aero Squadron became the first American aircraft to fly over the enemy lines on the Western Front. Leading them was Major Raoul Lufbery, with 16 confirmed victories in air combat. In formation with him were two rookie pilots: Doug Campbell and Eddie Rickenbacker.

Gervais Raoul Lufbery - the experienced commander of 94th Aero Squadron

Gervais Raoul Lufbery – the experienced commander of the 94th Aero Squadron

In fact seven American volunteers flying with the French and the British had already achieved the five victories required to ‘make ace’ – but all previous scores were annulled upon the creation of America’s own air arm.

As commander of the 94th Aero Squadron, Lufbery – whose parents emigrated from France when he was six years old – found himself in command of a bunch of raw recruits. The majority of them were fresh-faced college boys… but then there was Rickenbacker. The square peg in a round hole.

‘Rick’ detested the privileged backgrounds and sense of superiority exuded by his fellow pilots – most of whom he had given hell to in training, when he was detailed to manage the logistics and maintenance of the flying school. He named them the ‘million dollar guard’ and – out of his hearing – they joked that he was a German agent.

Rickenbacker stands amid some of the 'million dollar guard' for an awkward photo

Rickenbacker stands amid some of the ‘million dollar guard’ for an awkward photo

For all their wealth and privilege, the other pilots resented Rickenbacker’s pre-war fame and his clear enjoyment of celebrity status. He was regarded as uncouth, domineering and profane – and undoubtedly for good reason.

Rickenbacker approached the job of being a fighter pilot like a tradesman. While the collegiate around him would often indulge in horseplay, the off-duty Rickenbacker spent his time on the ground working on his aircraft, checking its guns and obsessively scrutinising his ammunition for faulty rounds.

By doing so his aim was not only to survive, but also to create the best chance of shooting down enemy machines. As a racing driver he had not won a major prize but as an airman he could yet join the ranks of Guynemer, Richthofen and Ball as a hero – and all the wealth and privilege it might bring him in peacetime.

Although Lufbery scored a victory on 12 April it remained unconfirmed, thus the first enemy aircraft to officially fall to American guns was claimed by Douglas Campbell two days later. It would be another 15 days before Rickenbacker managed to get a claim recognized – a Pfalz D.III shared with another 94th Aero Squadron pilot, the Harvard-educated writer James Norman Hall, who would later write the swashbuckling classic, Mutiny on the Bounty.

James Norman Hall's Nieuport 28 on the field

James Norman Hall’s Nieuport 28 – in which he helped Rickenbacker get blooded

Rickenbacker later admitted that he was spraying bullets all around the vicinity of the doomed machine and, perhaps, the more experienced Hall – a Lafayette Escadrille veteran – had done the lion’s share. Nevertheless, Rickenbacker’s relentless approach meant that soon he was scoring regularly and in contention to become America’s first ‘ace’.

One man who was out of the running for that title was Raoul Lufbery who, like so many of the old hands, was to fall in the final months of the war. The legend went that on 19 May Lufbery’s aircraft caught fire during low-level combat over his own airfield and, having climbed onto the wing in desperation, he fell, wreathed in flame, to his death. That’s certainly the version that Rickenbacker’s memoirs preferred.

In fact, Lufbery’s aircraft is believed to have hit turbulence after he had undone his straps to fix a jammed machine gun and he was simply thrown out of the cockpit. Not an uncommon fate, as it turns out – although perhaps too ignominious for so great a warrior.

Rickenbacker (left) and Kenneth Marr flank America's first official air ace: Douglas Campbell

Rickenbacker (left) and Kenneth Marr flank Douglas Campbell

Lufbery’s demise meant that Harvard-educated Douglas Campbell was the only man standing between Rickenbacker and the title of ‘ace’. On 28 May the two men patrolled together and brought down an Albatros two-seater, which, through a clerical error, was credited to Rickenbacker alone.

Much to Campbell’s chagrin, ‘Rick’ never attempted to correct the mistake. Nevertheless it was Campbell who, on 31 May, was officially credited with being the first American to reach five victories. He would score only one more before a bullet wound in the back saw him miss all but the few final days of the war.

In his book Fighting the Flying Circus, Rickenbacker was generous in his praise of Campbell’s contribution. No doubt there were wry smiles all round when, in conclusion, Rickenbacker wrote: “In reality Douglas Campbell’s victories total seven, but for one which was downed to my certain knowledge he never received any official confirmation.”

Rickenbacker had himself ‘made ace’ by the time that Campbell was invalided back to the USA – but his own score would also remain at six until September. A chronic ear infection took ‘Rick’ off the squadron strength for almost three months and, when he returned to action, the 94th was a very different unit – not least because the Nieuports had been traded in for Spad S.XIII machines.

Rickenbacker adored the fast, strong V8-engined fighter. In the space of six weeks, he was credited with destroying five observation balloons and 15 aircraft at the helm of his Spad – of which 13 were the superb Fokker D.VII fighter.

Complete with star-spangled wheels, Rickenbacker scored 20 kills in his Spad 'old number 1'

Complete with star-spangled wheels, Rickenbacker scored 20 kills in Spad ‘old number 1’

The other pilots who had previously detested him at first begrudgingly indulged him and then even began to warm to him, while he rose to become first flight commander and, later, Captain and commanding officer. He could be insufferable, profane and egocentric – but he got results.

During this period another American pilot, Merian C. Cooper, entered the fray. Cooper was a cinematographer who would later create the ‘creature feature’ genre with Chang (1927) and, most famously, King Kong (1933). But in 1918 he helped create Eddie Rickenbacker’s star appeal by filming from the rear seat while Jimmy Meissner flew an Airco DH4 bomber as a camera plane (its cockpit rigged up to look like a Spad from the camera’s viewpoint).

Completing the formation was a captured Hanover two-seater that was usually employed for air-to-air practice. Two 94th Squadron stalwarts, Reed Chambers and Thorn Taylor, piled gleefully aboard the Hanover to play the roles of a devilish Hun crew for Cooper’s camera.

The trio then staged a fight and successfully filmed it – although the formation drifted over the lines, attracting plenty of unwanted attention! A segment of the film can be seen below, with Rickenbacker looping and wheeling his Spad, dubbed ‘Old Number 1’, around the ‘Huns’.

While building his legend, ‘Captain Eddie’ was determined to lead by example: he ordered incessant practice and instruction for his men and did his level best to ensure that the 94th Aero Squadron would go down in history as one of the elite fighting units of the war. He was hard on the men, but insisted that nothing he asked was a job he would not willingly do himself – and proved this time and again.

At the end of the war, Rickenbacker returned to the USA as the people’s champion with 26 confirmed victories and the Medal of Honor, seven Distinguished Service Crosses, the Légion d’honneur and Croix de Guerre glittering on his breast. He would go on to live a life of extraordinary success, crushing failure and superhuman courage – but always in the guise of ‘Captain Eddie – Ace of Aces’.

The 94th Aero Squadron returned as the embodiment of Yankee-Doodle brilliance; with its fleet of Spad fighters resplendent in an array of star-spangled, candy-striped and lightning-flashed personal liveries that made Richthofen’s Flying Circus appear positively frumpy.

94th veteran Reed Chambers with his completely star-spangled Spad

94th veteran Reed Chambers with his completely star-spangled Spad in peacetime

Today when we look at photos of Captain Edward Vernon Rickenbacker, we see the splay-legged stance, flashing grin and devilish eyebrows. He is the embodiment of the great action hero – primarily because it was this image that he sought to portray.

There are tens of millions of extraordinary stories from that conflict. What’s truly remarkable is that Eddie Rickenbacker himself so successfully stage managed his own story to reach out to millions. Rickenbacker wanted to be an icon: the embodiment of a unique ‘up-and-at-‘em’ attitude that he believed should be the cornerstone of society.

By any measure he succeeded.

The commemorations to mark 100 years since the start of World War 1 have now passed. Each centenary that follows over the next four years at Ypres, Gallipoli, Verdun, the Somme and elsewhere – will have its fair share of myth and reality to choose from as we continue to honour those stories.

As ‘Captain Eddie’ has long shown: there is value in both.

'Captain Eddie' of the 94th

‘Captain Eddie’ of the 94th

A Great War hero: Part 4 – ‘Fast Eddie’ gets his wings

On 6 April 1917, the United States of America decided to join the Allies in the Great War against the empires of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey. From that moment, celebrated racer Eddie Rickenbacker was going to war – and he was determined to do so in the guise of a dashing fighter pilot.

Yet on that historic day America’s army air service numbered exactly 65 officers, of whom 26 were pilots, plus just over a thousand non-commissioned ranks and civilian support staff. To compound matters, its naval air service was a fraction of that size.

Orville Wright bestrode American aviation up to 1917

Orville Wright bestrode American aviation up to 1917

Gearing up for war would therefore be a large, costly and convoluted job – not least because aircraft manufacture in the USA was a political and litigious minefield.

Having successfully convinced the world that they were the first men to achieve powered flight, the Wright brothers had patented so many basic aircraft components in the USA that only a handful of aircraft manufacturers existed. Wilbur Wright may have died in 1912, but his brother Orville fought hard enough for the pair of them to keep their name at the forefront.

If one wished to design and build flying machines in the USA, therefore, the prerequisite was sufficient backing to pay for the inevitable legal fees resulting from Orville Wright’s patent claims. The result was a stagnant industry incapable of producing an aircraft as modern as those in action over the Western Front.

While the bureaucrats got to work on unravelling that particular nightmare, General John J. Pershing was appointed as commander of the American Expeditionary Force. Pershing began to piece together a command team to cross the Atlantic, and among their number was a staff driver put forward for the job by the American Automobile Association – and that driver was Eddie Rickenbacker.

General Pershing - with his car in the background

General Pershing – with his car in the background

A coincidence? Not entirely. For one thing, the British secret service had informed the American government of its suspicions that the former Eddie Reichenbacher was an agent of the Kaiser. Doubtless this ‘dodgy dossier’ played a small part in Pershing’s approval of Rickenbacker as one of his team – to underline that the US military’s business was nobody’s but its own.

It also cannot have escaped Pershing’s notice that Rickenbacker had enjoyed very recent access to the heart of Britain’s industrial war machine. Through his relationship with Louis Coatalen at Sunbeam and his trips to the aircraft development centres at Brooklands through the winter of 1916-17, Rickenbacker had been given extraordinary access to aeronautical developments.

The most important beneficiary of this knowledge would be America’s leading proponent of air power, Lieutenant-Colonel Billy Mitchell. He was already in France working hard to build the networks that he would need to train and equip American pilots for duty – and Pershing, who had used aircraft in his pursuit of Pancho Villa in the Mexican borders, wanted to give him every assistance.

Rickenbacker the humble chauffeur still made front page news

Rickenbacker the humble chauffeur still made front page news

The unlikely role of General Pershing’s chauffeur did not sit easily with ‘Rick’. The dour, disciplinarian career soldier and the vigorously self-promoting racing driver were an odd couple.

On one occasion, when Pershing was travelling with the commander of the French army, Marshal Pétain, Rickenbacker attempted to beat a train to a level crossing – risking two invaluable military leaders and proving that the main requirements to be a professional racer are a brain the size of a pea and an ego the size of Kansas.

Pershing palmed Rickenbacker off on Mitchell at the soonest opportunity. Together they travelled the Front, visiting both front-line squadrons and commanding officers discussing tactics, strategic requirements and supplies of aircraft.

They also encountered journalists from publications such as l’Auto, to whom Rickenbacker gave good copy as he insisted that he would soon be flying fighters and shooting down Huns. At this time Rickenbacker encountered James E. Miller, a racing fan who was establishing the first American flying schools in France, and soon Mitchell agreed to transfer Rickenbacker to the role of his engineering officer.

Billy Mitchell - the man who created America's first air force

Billy Mitchell – the man who created America’s first air force

By the summer of 1917 a total of 47 candidate pilots had arrived from the USA for basic flight training in France. In addition the Lafayette Escadrille of American volunteers was absorbed, bringing a total of 93 highly experienced airmen to bolster Mitchell’s fledgling air force.

In the autumn a fresh draft of recruits arrived for training and finally Rickenbacker was permitted to join them. It was not simply a case of granting permission – the maximum age for trainee pilots was 25, so officially two years were deducted from Rickenbacker’s age that were seldom, if ever, replaced in subsequent histories.

Despite the occasional accident he survived 17 days of intensive flight training that took him from a complete novice hopping around the airfield in a clipped-wing ‘penguin’ airframe to a licenced, brevet-wearing pilot.

All the more remarkably, Rickenbacker kept up a stream of correspondence throughout his training to influential contacts back in the USA. Indeed, he even wrote press releases, which is why the Los Angeles Examiner cheerfully reported that his progress ‘was remarkably fast because of his skill with the motor and speed-sense.’

This was not immediately followed by glorious battle, however. Instead Rickenbacker went back to his engineering officer’s job, where his unfinished education and brash manner contrasted sharply with the wealthy college boys who formed the majority of the trainees. He called them the ‘Million Dollar Guard’ and made their lives as miserable as any drill sergeant could have done.

This behaviour caught up with Rickenbacker when, in January 1918, his bosses relented and sent him to gunnery school in preparation for front line flying. Rickenbacker was stationed with and flying alongside the very same young men that he had only recently been terrorising… to mutual chagrin.

Rickenbacker stands amid some of the 'million dollar guard' for an awkward photo

Rickenbacker (centre) with the ‘million dollar guard’ in a candidly awkward photo

Two ‘pursuit’ units had been established with single-seat fighters sourced from France: the 94th and 95th Aero Squadrons. In March 1918 Rickenbacker would join the former, whose Nieuport scouts were branded with a star spangled hat sitting within a circle – letting the enemy know that Uncle Sam had truly thrown his hat into the ring.

The 94th was initially commanded by Raoul Lufbery, the veteran hero of the Lafayette Escadrille. Although he had been flying and fighting over the Front since 1915, and amassed 16 victories in combat, when Lufbery led the first American patrol over enemy lines on 6 March he did so on a level footing with the two rookies in his care: Douglas Campbell and Eddie Rickenbacker.

Gervais Raoul Lufbery - the experienced commander

Gervais Raoul Lufbery – the experienced commander

The victories accumulated by American pilots in other services were effectively annulled. This meant that there would be a race to become the first official American ace fighter pilot of the war – and Rickenbacker had his eyes on the prize.

Major Savage’s Sky-Writing Aeroplane

One of the very few genuine S.E.5a fighters left in the world is this one, which has been dangling from the rafters of the Science Museum in London since 1939. But a fighter with no guns and a civilian livery always has a tale to tell…

A unique survivor: the Science Museum’s SE5a

In the days immediately before World War 1 an accidental discovery was made: if low viscosity oil inadvertently found its way into a hot exhaust it would vapourize, creating a vast and dense cloud of white smoke without any real detriment to the aircraft. In these early days of flight, any such discovery was investigated for its possible usefulness in war – in this case smoke signals to ground troops or a defensive ‘fog’ to confuse attackers.

An aspiring aviation engineer at the time was one John Clifford* Savage, born in 1891 and apprenticed to Claude Grahame-White in 1909. Savage had a flair for the theatrical and broke off his engineering career in order to become manager and agent to B.C. Hucks, the first Englishman to loop the loop.

It was not until the early days of hard-won peace that the idea of making smoke trails was revived. During the war, Savage had been a lieutenant in the wartime Royal Naval Flying Service, rising to become a major in the new Royal Air Force, but with the onset of peace he was wondering what to do with his future.

He tried his hand at being a journalist, writing for Flight magazine under the nom-de-plume of Oiseau Bleu but that lacked a certain je ne sais quoi

By 1921  ‘Mad Jack’ Savage had revisited the idea of producing smoke and experimented with making first shapes and then letters in the air… and the art of  skywriting was born.The entrepreneurial airman went in search of an aircraft fit for the job, and settled on the Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5a.

G-EBIB is a reminder of Savage’s entrepreneurial skill

This was not the most agile fighter of the war but unlike the Sopwith Camel it had a Wolseley Viper V8 engine that was easy to fix and which had a capacious pair of exhaust pipes. In addition they were in plentiful supply – more than 2500 of them had been sitting around since the end of the war and were available to buy at what amounted to pocket money prices.

Savage snaffled up 33 of these unwanted old fighters and converted them to his bespoke skywriting specification at his Hendon premises. When selling his services in later years, Savage declared that, as a wartime fighter, the S.E.5a was ‘designed and built to be eight times stronger than is needed to endure the stresses of sky-writing’.

The rechristened ‘Savage Wolseley S.E.5a’ had extended exhaust pipes that linked together through a hole cut in the tail and, suitably lagged with asbestos, this modification acted as the nib in Savage’s aerial pen. The smoke-generating oil was stored in front of the cockpit where the machine gun previously sat and delivered by a new control on the instrument panel while the pilot’s headrest was removed in order to give him a better rearward view of his handiwork. Finally the old drab camouflage of dark olive upper surfaces and cream linen below was replaced by an all-over silver finish.

The Savage Wolsley SE5a sky-writer

Savage’s inventiveness caused a sensation when his skywriting S.E.5a made its very public debut at the 1922 Epsom Derby. A bumper crowd for one of the biggest racing weekends of the year was enthralled as the silver speck 10,000 feet above them spelt out DAILY MAIL in vast white letters which, the newspaper later claimed, was ‘the greatest single development in outdoor advertising’ and that ‘everyone within an area of a hundred square miles – and there were millions – gazed spellbound at this fascinating sight.’

It was certainly a smash. Among those in the VIP enclosure at Epsom was none other than the leading novelist of the day, Virginia Woolfe, who used the occasion as the opening segment in her next book, Mrs. Dalloway.

Flushed with this success, Savage shipped one of his aircraft to the USA. With another ex-RAF pilot, Cyril Turner, at the controls, Savage’s S.E.5a carefully wrote ‘HELLO USA’ in the sky above New York. The following day the silver speck reappeared, writing: ‘CALL VANDERBILT 7100’. The number put potential advertisers through to the hotel where Savage was staying – and the demand for his $1000 service was insatiable.

Savage’s business thrived on both sides of the Atlantic. His 33 fighter aircraft were equipped with air-to-ground radio in order for him to give personal instructions to the men at the controls while they laboured away. The biggest European success for Savage’s skywriters came in 1928 when he was employed by German pharmaceutical company Henkel to promote its Persil brand of detergents. The response was swift and impressive.

Persil was Savage's biggest European client

Persil was Savage’s biggest European client

The Persil script stood an heroic 1.5km tall at the ‘P’ and ‘l’ and 1km tall for the ‘ersi’. The six letters stretched fully 7km across the skyline and 45 million cubic feet of smoke had to be generated in order to make the letters. The pilots also had to fly their route in reverse to make sure that it could be read from below, requiring them to rehearse the complex aerobatic moves until they became second nature:

The map for a Persil skywriter

The map for a Persil skywriter

The campaign was such a success that in many European countries a cloudless sky was called a ‘Persil sky’ right up until the 1960s. Whenever there was a sunny afternoon from the North Sea to the Mediterranean, people still half expected a flashing silver dot to appear and make its magical graffiti above them.

Savage stayed in business until 1939, although the fleet of S.E.5a’s grew tired and old and Savage invented a night time alternative to using smoke when he created a searchlight advertising beam to display words and logos – doubtless a great inspiration to the creators of Batman! One by one the old fighters were pensioned off – usually going to a breaker’s yard, but not always.

In 1934 two of his aircraft, registered G-EBIA and G-EBIC went to new homes- their first stops on a journey which today sees them, resplendent in their wartime specification, as mainstays of the RAF Museum, Hendon and The Shuttleworth Collection at Old Warden – although more of them later.

By 1 June 1939 only one aircraft was left in Savage’s keeping, so he sat down with what might well have been his last sheet of headed paper and dispatched the following note to the Science Museum in South Kensington:

Dear sir,

I have one genuine War time S.E.5a aeroplane left out of a considerable number I used to own.

I really cannot remember whether the Museum has a specimen of this really rather historic type of aeroplane, and if it has not I will be only too pleased to present to the Museum the machine to which I have referred above.

Yours faithfully

J.C. Savage

Savage offers his last S.E.5a to posterity

Savage offers his last S.E.5a to posterity

This kind offer was of course accepted, and so G-EBIB has been preserved intact, not only as an example of this legendary fighter of World War 1 but also as an icon of the advertising industry. As for Major Savage, he had already added another invention to his CV – the crop spraying aeroplane, which found tremendous use in the USA and Australia in particular.

As war approached he redoubled his efforts in developing the searchlight technology which, although outlawed in Britain, had proved to be hugely lucrative in the Americas. Founding Savage and Parsons Ltd as a pure engineering firm, he developed an array of sound locators and searchlights, including the Leigh Light anti-submarine technology, which was to prove vital in World War 2.

Jack Savage died in September 1945 safe in the knowledge that his life’s work had been worthwhile and mourned by almost the entire global aviation fraternity. Of the six genuine S.E.5a aircraft still in existence, three are ex-Savage and while the silver example which hangs in the shadowy reaches of the Science Museum might not be the most enticing at first glance, it might well be worth a second look…

*corrected 17/10/15

Ruston’s Wings of Horus

Ruston Proctor was a Lincolnshire-based manufacturer of steam engines which rose to prominence through the late 19th Century – just like its near neighbour, Clayton & Shuttleworth. As the production of aircraft grew in importance and volume during World War 1, both of these industrial giants turned from producing traction engines and threshing machines to the new-fangled world of aviation – with a raft of government contracts, principally to build the famous Sopwith Camel scout.

The completion of Ruston’s 1000th Camel was felt to warrant some celebration, with the result that this aircraft, serial number B7380,  was delivered on 25 January 1918 wearing an astonishing and unique livery.

Wings of Horus: the famous Ruston Camel

Wings of Horus: the famous Ruston Camel

B7380 was christened Wings of Horus due to the British passion for Egyptology which had been embraced to the fullest by Colonel J.S. Ruston. Thanks in no small part to Colonel Ruston’s great knowledge of hieroglyphs, the representation of the Horus as Heru-Behutet fitted the character of the Camel perfectly: this being an ancient god who wrought ‘such violence that [his enemies] became dazed, and could neither see where they were going, nor hear, the result of this being that they slew each other, and in a very short time they were all dead.’

During early February of 1918, B7380 toured Britain while being used as a ‘flying advert’ to promote the sale of war bonds. By the end of the month, however, she was delivered to France – remarkably still wearing her exotic colour scheme! Rather than despoil such a work of art by overpainting it in the muddy ‘PC10’ camouflage that adorned front line machines, this very special Camel was sent back to Britain where it is believed she served out the war with a training unit.

Although no colour photographs were taken of the aircraft at the time, detailed records were kept by Ruston Proctor on the design and its colours. As a result these contemporary photographs have been tinted with the correct shades to show this magnificent creation to best effect:

Wings of Horus as she would have appeared in early 1918

Wings of Horus as she would have appeared in early 1918

After returning from France little is known of the Camel's ultimate fate

After returning from France little is known of the Camel’s ultimate fate