We have heard stories about pilots who were shot down, like Sidney Herbert Quicke shot down by the Red Baron, or John Young and Cyril Taylor, who died fighting bombers over London. Others showed bravery in the air and survived, like CRL Falcy. This week, the story of a man who shot down a German aeroplane from the ground: William George Heighton.
William George Heighton was born in 1887 in Sussex. By the time of the Great War he was married and living in London; he and his wife Eva Amy (nee Collyer) lived in West Hampstead and had no children. Heighton worked as a policeman.
When the Derby Scheme came along in late 1915 as a way of prompting men to join up by asking them to volunteer to be conscripted, Heighton was one of many who signed up – putting pen to paper on 16 November in Hampstead. He was called up over a year and a half later, in July 1917, joining the Royal Garrison Artillery. After a stint in hospital, he was sent to the Western Front in December.
By mid-February 1918, Heighton was a gunner in 163 Siege Battery, RGA. This was armed with 6-inch howitzers, but Heighton was no ordinary gunner – he was a Lewis Gunner. Instead of firing the looping shells of a howitzer on to German trenches and defences, his role was to protect his battery and their comrades from attack by enemy aircraft.
In March 1918, the Germans launched their Spring Offensive, their last attempt to break the Allies in the West before American reinforcements could arrive in large numbers. The initial attack was stunningly successful.
A few days later, a flight of German aeroplanes British troops around 163 Siege Battery. Heighton’s account says that five or six aeroplanes were using their machine guns to attack the British reserve trenches when he fired on those aeroplanes. He brought one of them down and the others fled back over the German lines. Heighton was applauded as a hero. His commanding officer, Major McWatt, told him that he should be commended for his bravery and a few infantry officer wtinesses shook his hand to congratulate him for his actions.
Before Heighton could hear any more about any commendation, though, he was taken prisoner. As the German advance continued, he was captured at Monchy-le-Preux on 29 March. He had clearly been an attentive letter-writer, because his wife wrote to the War Office looking for information on 15 April, saying, “Could you please send me any news of my husband I have now heard from him since the 26th Match – until this date I have always heard so frequently – but have not even had a field card.”
A month later, Eva had heard from her husband, who had written to her that he was being held in Cassell in Germany. She continued to write to the War Office for more information, though, so obviously she did not hear much from him. It seems as though he was ill during the last months of the war, when he was held in Limburg. He was quickly repatriated after the war, arriving in Hull on the first day of 1919.
Back in civilian life, Heighton wondered whether anything had come of the promise of a commendation. In fact, he hadn’t even received his service medals, let alone anything in recognition of shooting down that aeroplane.
In September 1921, he wrote off to the officer responsible for RGA records, but they could not find any record of the incident. The National Archives only holds 163 Siege Battery’s war diary to up February 1918, so perhaps the March record was lost during the German attacks in which Heighton was captured. In December, Heighton acknowledged receipt of his campaign medals: the British War Medal and the Victory Medal.
It doesn’t look as though William George Heighton was ever rewarded officially for shooting down a German aeroplane, but doing so was quite an achievement – and driving away the remaining aircraft attacking British forces must have been a relief to his comrades.