Visiting Captain Ball

This week saw the S&G in the sleepy village of Annœullin in the Pas de Calais, paying a visit to a key figure in the archives – and one set to appear several more times in the weeks and months ahead – Captain Albert Ball.

It had been 28 years since last calling in on the good Captain (the passage of time being rather less marked upon Annœullin than upon oneself). Ball’s grave remained in impeccable condition, standing tall among the simple crosses that fill the rest of the German military cemetery in the village.

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It is 99 years since Ball’s last flight and the discussion over how he ended up inverted in a shallow dive over the fields of this little corner of the Pas de Calais continues to ebb and flow. Indeed, it’s simmering along rather excitably at present; with a few metaphorical low blows and beard tweaks being exchanged between historians.

Of course, whether he was shot down by Lothar von Richthofen – or anyone else, for that matter – became of little consequence to Ball himself from the moment that he hit the ground. Unless his S.E.5 suffered a structural failure, it is highly doubtful that even Ball knew the real cause of his demise.

Photographing the grave was not a problem but, sadly, reaching the surviving marker of the two laid down at the crash site by Ball’s distraught father, Albert Sr., proved impossible. These photos show the closest that could be achieved.

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To the best of the S&G’s knowledge, Albert Ball Sr. bought the field in which his son died in order to lay the stones that marked where the wreckage lay. With the markers in place – it has never been clear what happened to the second marker – the land has been worked continuously since the Armistice. Despite the agricultural setting it was possible, in 1988, to walk right up to the remaining stone.

As can be seen in the pictures, no such path exists today. For those interested in the inscription, this ‘borrowed’ image might clarify what lies out amid the greenery:

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A quick scout around upon returning to Blighty revealed that, yes, the land was bought by Albert Ball Sr.

On the assumption that nobody in the family has since sold the land back, it can hardly have been the intention that visitors should be deterred from venturing near the marker by an impenetrable army of lettuce.

Of interest was a story in the news for staff at RAF Waddington, where 56(R) Squadron – Ball’s unit of 1917 – is now based. A sergeant with the unit recounted travelling to Annœullin in 2014 for an Armistice commemoration, saying:

‘The next morning the party travelled to the town hall of Annœullin for a meeting with the Mayor and other local dignitaries. As well as discussing our participation in the Armistice parade, we also talked about the future of the field where Captain Ball crashed. Purchased by his father after the Great War, the local population has been maintaining the site ever since. It is envisaged by the local council that a permanent footpath and fence should be erected to preserve the site, and 56(R) Squadron will help facilitate the negotiations between the council and Ball family.’

Of course it is not going to be a high priority for public spending in Annœullin, and the intransigence of French farmers is the stuff of legend, but perhaps for the 100th anniversary of Ball’s last flight such a path could be inaugurated. Such a path might honour not only the loss of the man but also the determination of a bereft father that his son should never be forgotten.

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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.

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.