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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Oxford vs. Cambridge in the air

Please forgive the anachronism – the song came six years after these events – but throughout writing this piece, The Varsity Drag has been tootling through the old grey matter. It needs to be exorcised, so press play and read on…

And so back we go to 1921, when a large number of undergraduates had previously served in the armed forces – particularly during the last climactic year of the Great War. After surviving such excitements, the prospect of peacetime was a trifle drab – especially for the former airmen whose time had been spent fighting the German Imperial Air Service at up to four miles above the earth.

Undoubtedly the excitement and comradeship of war coloured how these young men felt about studying the Classics and preparing for life in boardrooms, the Bar or the diplomatic service. In an effort to restore some of their former glories, therefore, an Oxford student and erstwhile test pilot, A.R. Boeree, decided to organise a University Air Race to rival the long-standing Boat Race as an outlet for the rivalry between the dark blue scholars of Oxford and their pale blue counterparts at Cambridge.

To join either of the teams, the requirement was to have more than 1,000 hours logged as a pilot. In total six pilots from each university signed up to take part, of whom three would race and three would be held in reserve. Meanwhile the Varsity Air Race was incorporated within the programme of the 1921 Aerial Derby at Hendon, with the Royal Aero Club providing the students with sufficient funds to hire eight decommissioned S E.5a fighters for the event.

The going rate to buy an airworthy war surplus S.E.5a was around £5 at the time. Although they were only hired, the university colours were applied to the aircraft – dark blue for Oxford and pale blue for Cambridge. A prize fund of £400 was also established – most of which came from Shell, which also provided the fuel.

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Oxford University pilots watch their Cambridge counterparts in action – note that the aircraft has been completely repainted

From the few available photographs it appears that one of the Oxford aircraft was completely repainted in dark blue and had white walls painted on its tyres. Another Oxford aircraft had almost the whole of the top wing painted blue aside from the centre section and the fuselage from the cockpit backwards was also freshly painted in the same shade.

The Cambridge squad would appear to have spent less time on the appearance of its aircraft – splashing light blue on the nose, tail and wheels but leaving the rest of their S.E.5s in their wartime olive brown and cream livery. Instead, the Cambridge pilots focused rather more on practising their tactics for the race.

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A pastel of one of the Cambridge S.E.5as ‘borrowed’ from Nigel Hamlin Wright – all rights his

A shortened version of the main Aerial Derby course was chosen, measuring around 43 miles and running in a triangle from Hendon to Epping and Hertford and back. Three laps of the course was the decided length of the race.

Race day was Saturday 16 June and it delivered scorching hot conditions and a near-cloudless sky. The six competing aircraft were lined up at 2.30 p.m. with Oxford represented by Boeree (Oriel College), Pring (New) and Hurley (Keeble) while Cambridge had Francis (Caius), Philcox (Caius) and Muir (St. Catherine’s).

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The full course of the 1921 Aerial Derby, from which the Varsity runners used only the 4th and 5th Turning Points

The Oxford trio took an early lead by thundering off at tree-top height, while the Cambridge contingent climbed as hard as they could to find cooler air where the 220 hp Wolseley Viper engines would produce more get-up-and-go. The early running was made by Pring’s machine for Oxford but soon Cambridge’s tactic of going for height paid off and Philcox took the lead halfway round the second lap.

On the final lap, Pring’s Wolseley Viper began to struggle and he was eventually forced to find a suitable field near Epping after the fault with his ignition proved terminal. The result was 1-2-3 for Cambridge with Hurley fourth and Boeree, whose idea the race was, coming home last.

It was widely hoped that the University Air Race would become an annual fixture to rival the Boat Race as a social fixture for the two great universities. Sadly, Oxford was never as keen as Cambridge on aviation in the first place and, with Boeree departing, the idea was shelved.

Within 18 months, all of the S.E.5a aircraft would be scrapped and the whole affair lost in the mists of time. Of rather more success was the Varsity Speed Trials for students with a passion for fast motoring. In due course, this latter event would see the likes of future Grand Prix star Dick Seaman take part, continuing the heady spirit in which the Air Race had been created.

Popular Mechanics covers Savage S.E.5a

When Major Savage’s stunning new sky-writing aircraft took to the skies over New York  it caused a sensation. Hard on the heels of eager advertisers looking to book their own mile-high branding in the sky there came the media wanting to know all about these British innovators – among them Popular Mechanics magazine, which leaves us with a little more detail on the aircraft…

The Savage S.E.5a was covered in depth by Popular Mechanics

The Savage S.E.5a was covered in depth by Popular Mechanics

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

Western Front Warbirds #1

Aircraft of the 1914-18 war were far from durable. The survival of any at all after a century is something of a marvel, so let’s celebrate their ongoing existence – and those faithfully rebuilt, restored and replicated examples as well. It’s all a long way from Biggles and from Snoopy’s imaginary battles with the Red Baron…

The RAF Museum's FE2b - as good as a new one

The RAF Museum’s FE2b – as good as a new one

Our first survivor is this Royal Aircraft Factory FE2b, a type which flew as fighter, bomber and reconnaissance aircraft from 1916-18. It’s quite a work of art and features heavily in Derek Robinson’s brilliant tale of the Battle of the Somme, War Story.

This particular aircraft never saw action… indeed it took 90 years to build! The bathtub-like nacelle which holds the engine amidships and the crew of two out in front was built in early 1918 by Richard Garrett & Sons near Lowestoft, but was never delivered. Instead it sat around the factory until 1976 when it was donated to the RAF.

In the late 1980s the search began for original components to finally, belatedly build this FE2b into a complete aircraft, gaining an engine and ancillaries by the mid-1990s but then work ground to a halt. Finally in 2007 the 90% complete aircraft was sent off to Retrotech near Hastings and assembled, the gaps filled in and she was given the markings of A6526, which flew night bomber operations with 58, 102 and 148 squadrons in 1917-18.

Of course while all this was going on, Peter Jackson built two of them from scratch, using original Beardmore engines and as many original components as he could find!

For more information on the RAF Museum, visit the site.