The brave things that people did and were honoured for in the Great War varied enormously, even within air warfare they ranged from Arthur Newland’s mastery as an observer-gunner to the good work of J.H. Dollittle and his comrades in working under fire in March 1915.
John Henry Dollittle was born on 1 April 1891 and had a disrupted childhood. He was the eldest of three children of John Charles Dollittle and his wife Miriam Francis Alice Dollittle, who lived in a single room at 17 Charles Street (now Charleston Street), a relatively well-off street in Walworth on the Booth maps that soon became overcrowded and the population poorer during the Dollittle’s time there. John Dollittle senior was employed as a plate man in 1895 when John junior and his brother George Frederick (b. 1895) and sister Florence Lilian (b. 1892) were all baptised in 1895 at St John’s Church in Walworth. John senior died in 1899 at the age of 38. By 1901, Miriam was working as a machinist to support the family, now one of three families living at 37 Henshaw Street. John junior was not living there, though: he had been sent in 1900 to live at Spurgeon’s Orphanage in Stockwell, returning home in March 1905.
In 1908, John junior joined the Blackheath Aero Club and soon went to work for Gamages making model aeroplanes for sale. By 1911, times seem to have been better for the Dollittles, all three children being listed in the census as being employed: John as a book collector for a wholesale newsagent, Florence as an assistant bookbinder, and 15-year-old George as an office clerk. They lived in the Guinness Buildings on Brandon St, Walworth, the first development of housing built by philanthropist Sir Edward Guinness (similar to the Peabody Estates built around the same time).
John’s interest in aeroplanes continued and he was a member of the South Eastern Model Aeroplane Club, based in Brockley. A Flight magazine report of the branch’s meetings in February and March 1914 lists Dollittle as an inventive member, demonstrating a large model monoplane with a five-cylinder steam-powered engine. The website Historic Wings has reproduced the plans of a model aircraft built by Dollittle and a fellow club member in 1913 on its blog.
It was not only model aircraft that interested this young man, so too did real aircraft. In 1909, he joined the Territorial Army, becoming a sapper (private) in the London Balloon Company of the Royal Engineers. The unit trained with the regular ballooning unit, which formed the basis of the Royal Flying Corps in 1912. In 1911, Dollittle and other NCOs and men of the unit were taken up in an aeroplane for the first time, by none other than Geoffrey de Havilland in one of his aircraft. Dollittle wrote a pseudonymous account of the event for Flight magazine. In 1913, John’s four-year engagement with the territorial balloonists came to an end.
When war came the next year, it must has seemed the obvious choice for Dollittle to join the Royal Flying Corps, which he did in January 1915. His brother George also joined up, enlisting in the Somerset Light Infantry in November 1914 and arriving in France in September 1915. Second-class air mechanic 2761 J.H. Dollittle was sent to France much more quickly though, presumably because he already knew his way around an aeroplane – he arrived there on 24 January 1915.
On March 10th, an RFC aeroplane was forced to land close to the front line. Dollittle and three other 2/AMs were sent out under Corporal S.C. Griggs to undertake repairs. They worked through the night under heavy shell-fire and got the aeroplane back into working order, so that it was able to take off again in the morning.
For their hard work, the five RFC men were awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal:
Dollittle continued to serve in the RFC/RAF for the rest of the war, becoming a corporal in 1915 and a sergeant in May 1916. In 1917, he was serving with 46 Squadron, a fighter squadron then based at Sutton’s Farm in Essex as part of the defence of London from Zeppelin and bomber aeroplane attacks. His brother George was severely wounded in the chest during the battle of the Somme in 1916 but, apparently against expectations, survived his wounds.
On Christmas Day 1917, John Dollittle (now serving with 46 Squadron in France) was again rewarded for his bravery. His Flight Commander announced that he and two other men were being awarded the Military Medal. Like his DCM two and a half years earlier, John’s award was earned through his work salvaging aeroplanes under fire.
Until late 1917, John appears to have remained unscathed despite his bravery under fire (something to which ground crew more generally were not often subjected). In November 1917, though, he was sent back to the UK suffering the effects of gas.
In August 1918 he suffered a much more severe injury. At that point, aeroplanes had to be started by hand by swinging the propeller. Undertaking this routine duty on a Sopwith Camel on 5 August 1918, Dollittle was struck on the arm by the propeller. Within ten days he was being treated back in England, treatment that went on for years – and in 1920 his arm was amputated
While he was in hospital, John had met Georgina Kendrick (a former wartime employee in Vickers aeroplane factory), whom he married in 1919. John was discharged from the Royal Air Force in late 1920 and ran a radio shop in Guildford and later Aldershot. He died in 1970, having raised three children with Ruby, one of whom was killed in action as a fighter pilot during the Korean War.
War could wrench men from their homes and force them into unexpected new roles. For others it was an opportunity to work on their passions. John Henry Dollittle was one of those whom the war allowed to make his passion and skill in avation into a job and a patriotic duty.
Many thanks to Gillian Dollittle so sending me a copy of her book on the family’s history, which includes a chapter on John Henry Dollittle DCM MM.