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Gibb Mapplebeck: early aviator and escaper

The war experiences of ‘Gibb’ Mapplebeck sound more like something from a Biggles-type adventure novel than a year in the life of a young man from Liverpool. By the end of August 1915, he was buried in Streatham churchyard, but he had already been injured in aerial combat, carried out the RFC’s first battlefield reconnaissance and escaped capture behind enemy lines.

Gilbert William Mapplebeck was born in Liverpool on 26 August 1892 and joined the Special Reserve of the King’s (Liverpool) Regiment as an officer in 1912. That year applied to transfer to the newly-formed Royal Flying Corps, to which he was attached (officially remaining a Liverpool Regiment officer). In January 1913, he qualified as a pilot at Hendon, earning Royal Aero Club Certificate number 386.

G.W. Mapplebeck's Royal Aero Club Certificate photo

G.W. Mapplebeck’s Royal Aero Club Certificate photo 

A few months later, this young pilot – apparently a bit of a daredevil, prone to stunt flying – suffered his first flying injury. In June 1913, he was thrown from an aeroplane (presumably while landing or taking off) at Upavon in Wiltshire and fractured his skull. He recovered, though: by October was fit to return to duty and in December he was appointed as a Flying Officer.

In August 1914, he was mobilised, with the rest of the armed forces, for the war in Europe. His first months at war were certainly incident-filled.

On 19 August, Mapplebeck and Philip Joubert carried out the first aerial reconnaissance ever by RFC airmen. Michael O’Connor quotes Mapplebeck’s account of the flight in his book Airfields and Airmen – Cambrai:

At 8 o’clock on the morning of the 19th Aug, I and my machine were both ready. At 8.15 Joubert (who was going in the Bleriot) and I were sent for by General Henderson, who told us each our particular jobs. Joubert was to go straight to Brain l’Allend(sic) via Nivelles, I was to go to Gembloux near Namur. He was to be over friendly territory and look out for Belgians, and I was to look for advanced German cavalry. […]

Using large scale map, followed Bleriot.. I did not pick up my position on the map, so I depended on Bleriot’s pilot for correct route, intending to branch off on arriving at Nivelles. Missed Nivelles, arrived at a large town (I was at 3,000 feet & in clouds) but could not place it on map. (on my return I discovered this had been Brussels.) I flew to the other side of the town, turned round and steered S.S.E. I then took out the small scale map and picked up my position at OTTIGNIES and soon found GEMBLOUX. After being in cloud I made a wide circle round it, being in clouds part of the time, but only saw a small body of cavalry about a mile in length moving faster than a walk in a south easterly direction. At this time I was at 3,400 [feet] and was just turning a little further south when I was enveloped in clouds. I flew on for about 5 miles, and then descended about 300 feet out of the clouds and saw Namur. I then turned west and passed CHARLEROI, & altered my course a little south. I missed MAUBEUGE, flew on for about 15 miles after realizing that I had missed it and landed at WASSIGNY (near Le Cateau) at 11.30 am, and flew back, landing at MAUBERGE at 12.0”

If Mapplebeck’s journey sounds haphazard, so too was Joubert’s. He got lost near Mons, landed and was fed by a local functionary at Tournai, then ran out of fuel and landed near Courtrai. There the locals were less hospitable and he was unable to identify himself as an ally until a Belfast linen manufacturer came to his rescue and confirmed that he was English. Eventually, he too got back to Maubeuge and the two officers gave their reports to General Henderson, the commander of the RFC, who personally delivered them to General Headquarters. (Some pages from Mapplebeck’s account appear on the RAF Museum’s blog, here).

BE2a (Bleriot) aeroplane of the type flown by Joubert and Mapplebeck in August 1914 (note Union Flag on the tail rather than the tricolour used later)

BE2a (Bleriot) aeroplane of the type flown by Joubert in August 1914 (note Union Flag on the tail rather than the tricolour used later)

During the battle of Mons a few days later, Mapplebeck was again in action, flying over Belgium trying to keep track of where the British front line was. And on 25 August, he dropped a hand-grenade onto a German aircraft as it was landing – although he wasn’t able to tell whether he had done much damage (the machine overturned, but that may have because of the bad ground it was landing on)

A month later, Mapplebeck found himself in combat. On 22 September, he returned from combat with a German two-seater having been hit in the thighs, groin and stomach by gunfire while flying at 6,000 feet. His local newspaper, the Liverpool Echo, reported that he still “managed to reach the British lines, being unconscious when he landed and his machine being filled with his blood”. Joshua Levine notes one aspect of his injury: “Unfortunately, he happened to be carrying loose change in his pocket and the force of the bullet drove a twenty-five cent piece into his groin, slicing away the tip of his penis”. His comrades found this wound rather entertaining; it’s probably safe to say that Mapplebeck did not.

Copies of telegrams sent to his mother in Mapplebeck’s army service record show that he was sent to a hospital in Braisne by 8 October and then on to the Astoria Hospital in Paris a few days later. By late November, his condition was said to be improving and on 11 December he was transferred to a Red Cross Convalescent Hospital for officers. After a stay in another such home, he was discharged on 2 February 1915. By this date, Mapplebeck had been awarded the Distinguished Service Order (gazetted 18 February 1915); he had also been promoted to Lieutenant (back-dated to October) and was mentioned in despatches in October 1914.

Within weeks of leaving hospital, he was back in action again. On March 11th he took part in what was apparently in the first ever night-time aeroplane raid. Along with Captain Barton and Lieutenant Warrand (each in separate aircraft), he set out to bomb a German wireless station at Lille. Mapplebeck and Warrand were both shot down behind enemy lines. The Liverpool Echo reported that, after destroying his aeroplane, which the Germans soon found:

“Captain Mapplebeck lay for three days in a wood, living only on chocolate which he had carried, and then found shelter for a day in an empty house. Later, he made friends with some strangers and afterwards, steadily steered a course for Holland, it being impossible to get to our own lines in France. He loitered in Lille, only to tear down the proclamation which the German commandant had posted respecting himself and a comrade. He won through to Dutch territory and, still passing himself off as a French peasant, got to London on April 4, reporting himself to Farnborough on the same day.”

One particular ‘friend’ known to have helped Mapplebeck to escape was Camille Eugene Jacquet, a tradesman from Lille. Later that year, the German Governor of Lille posted a notice that Jacquet and three others were to be shot on 22 September “for having hidden the English aviator who came down at Wattignies on March 11th last; for having lodged him, and for having made his passage through France easy, so that he was able to rejoin the enemy’s lines; for having kept and helped members of the enemy’s armies, and who after their stay in Lille or suburbs, got them away into France.”

According to a website about a road named after Jacquet, a (or the) pilot that he and his daughter helped to escape in March 1915 flew over Lille a few months later and dropped an insulting message for the governor, which probably didn’t help matters for the captured escape committee! (At least that’s what google translate seems to say that the website says)

On 15 January 1916, General Joffre, the French commander-in-chief, issued an Order of the Day honouring Jacquet for his work in concealing French soldiers and helping them to escape. (Flight magazine, 1916)

Mapplebeck, however, did not make it to September 1915. In June, he was posted to No 2 Reserve Air Squadron and in August he was at Joyce Green, near Dartford, carrying out flight tests. On 24 August – just over a year after his first wartime escapades – Mapplebeck was flying a Morane aeroplane at Joyce Green – after taking off he climbed to 80 feet and then entered a sharp right-hand turn. The aeroplane stalled and spun ground into the ground. Mapplebeck was killed. Like Perry and Parfitt’s deaths in 1914, this crash was highlighted by Noel Pemberton-Billing in Parliament and investigated in 1916. Billing claimed that the pilot was killed in an aeroplane condemned by the French air force and due to some problem with the safety belt. The investigation concluded that the type of machine had indeed largely been taken out of use by the French. It would have been negligent to put an inexperienced pilot in such a machine, they said, but Mapplebeck was an ‘expert’ so it was not negligent; the crash was, they concluded, caused by ‘an unfortunate error of judgment on the pilot’s part’.

And so ended a colourful, early-war flying career. He may not have achieved the aerial victories and public plaudits of a James McCudden or Albert Ball, but Mapplebeck was one of the exciting characters who made up the early Royal Flying Corps.

Other sources:

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Posted by on 18 August 2015 in Award-winners

 

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William Wedgwood Benn, MP and war hero

There has been talk recently about the new Viscount Stansgate seeking to enter the House of Lords. His father, Tony Benn, famously resigned his peerage in the 1960s after the first Viscount Stansgate died. William Wedgwood Benn, the first Viscount Stansgate was more than just a politician – he was a bona vide hero of the Great War.

William Wedgwood Benn was born in Hackney in 1877, the son of publisher and politician Sir John Williams Benn and Elizabeth (nee Pickstone), who was distantly related to the Wedgwood pottery family. Benn was elected as Liberal MP for St George’s (made up of Wapping and St George’s in the East), for which his father had been MP in 1892-95 (Sir John was MP for Devonport in Plymouth 1904-10); the younger Benn became a party whip in the House of Commons from 1910.

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography describes his extraordinary war experiences after leaving behind the more conventional charity-organising work that an MP aged nearly 30 would be expected to undertake in wartime:

“In 1912 he successfully organized relief of suffering during the dock strike and two years later, when war broke out, he became chairman of the organizing committee of the National Relief Fund.

In October, when over £2 million had already been raised, Benn answered an inner call and resigned this post to apply for active service. Despite his short stature, he secured a commission in the Middlesex yeomanry. He took part in the fierce fighting on the heights above Suvla Bay in August 1915, during the Gallipoli campaign, and later became an observer with the Royal Naval Air Service; he participated in the pinpoint bombing of the Baghdad railway. Among his other exploits was to be rescued from a sinking aeroplane in the Mediterranean, and to be aboard an improvised aircraft-carrier sunk by shore batteries at Castelorizo. He also commanded a party of French sailors in guerrilla activities against the Turks and served in authorized privateering in the Red Sea, before returning to Britain to qualify as a pilot.”

William Wedgwood Benn as a new pilot, 1917 (from his Royal Aero Club certificate)

William Wedgwood Benn as a new pilot, 1917 (from his Royal Aero Club certificate)

When David Lloyd George replaced H.H. Asquith as Prime Minister in late 1916, Benn was offered the job of Chief Whip (a pivotal behind-the-scenes role in Government), but he turned it down – apparently because he did not trust David Lloyd George. Although he was 40 years old – much older than most wartime trainee pilots, who were generally in their late teens or early twenties – Benn went through his training and became an operational pilot. Much of his work still as an observer.

He then went out to Italy, where he earned a string of medals for bravery and good service. In 1917, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. Working with the Italian army, he and another British pilot organised and carried out the first parachute drop of a secret service agent over enemy lines. The story is told in Robert Kershaw’s book Sky Men:

“In mid-1918 an old Savoia-Pomlio SP4 biplane piloted by two British fliers, Lieutenant Colonel W Barker and Captain William Wedgwood Benn, flew over the Piave River in darkness. Fixed searchlight beams guided them towards the approaching Austrian lines. Nervously sitting in the back with a brave face was Italian agent Allessandro Tandura, attached to a black-canopy Guardian Angel parachute fixed to an iron frame beneath the undercarriage. To drop accurately on targets in total darkness, Wedgwood Benn explained: ‘We arranged that the agent should sit in a cockpit on a trap-door hinged at the sides and opening in the middle. This floor was held in place by bolts controlled by a rope connected with the observer’s seat. The result was that it was the observer who decided when the bolt was to be drawn and the agent, waiting presumably with some qualms, at the right moment found himself suddenly with nothing under him and thus launched into the future.’

“Several attempts with dummies had taken place and the uneasy Tandura was instructed to fold his arms on nearing the objective. His predicament was closely akin to the hangman’s drop. Wedgwood Benn dryly added: ‘with little required of the agent other than exceptional fortitude, it was not thought necessary to train him in the art of parachuting. Two hand-dropped bombs were lobbed out to aid deception. Barker, piloting the aircraft, gave the signal and slowed to stalling speed, while Wedgewood Benn jerked the trap-door handle: ‘I pull, and wait. No jerk, no apparent result. The bolts have stuck” I pull again. The wire slacks with a rush, the machine shivers and resumes its course. For good or ill, Tandura is gone.’

“Tandura survived the experience and successfully completed his mission.”

In September 1918, Benn was awarded the new gallantry medal for bravery in the air, the Distinguished Flying Cross. The citation reads:

“A gallant observer of exceptional ability. After setting out on a bombing raid, the Scout machines assigned to act as an escort became separated, and it then became necessary for the bombing planes to proceed on their task without support. Captain Benn’s machine took the lead, followed by three other bombers, and succeeded in dropping his bombs (direct hits) on an enemy aerodrome. On the return journey the bombing machines were attacked by several enemy scouts, which were eventually driven away. Recently, this officer organised and carried out a special flight by night over the enemy’s lines, under most difficult circumstances, with conspicuous success. He has at all times set a splendid example of courage”

In November 1918, he was awarded the Italian Bronze Medal for Military Valour. As well as this and his British awards, he also earned the Italian War Cross and the French Croix de Guerre and was made a chevalier of the Légion d’honneur. By the Armistice, Benn had served in all three of Britain’s armed forces: the Middlesex Yeomanry in the army, the Royal Naval Air Service, and the newly-formed Royal Air Force.

Capt Wedgewood Benn DSO DFC

Capt Wedgewood Benn DSO DFC

In December 1918, there was another election (delayed by the war since 1915 and called quickly by Lloyd George after the Armistice). Benn, still not keen on Lloyd George, stood as a non-Coalition Liberal in Leith, Scotland, after the boundary reforms of 1918 had abolished his St George’s seat. He remained a Liberal MP until 1927 when he left the party; as a Labour MP he was Secretary of State for India in 1929-31. Although out of Parliament from 1931, he won a by-election in 1937. He rejoined the RAF in 1940 and was made an Air Commodore, he was also made a Viscount in 1942 to increase the number of Labour peers in the (predominantly Conservative) House of Lords. As Viscount Stansgate he worked on planning the reconstruction of Italy and after the 1945 he became Secretary of State for Air before being reshuffled out of that post the next year.

William Wedgwood Been died in 1960. His two eldest sons had served as pilots in the Second World War: Michael, the eldest and therefore the heir to the peerage, earned the DFC but died of wounds in 1944. Tony therefore became the heir and helped to change the constitution by refusing to take his seat in the House of Lords as the Second Viscount Stansgate after his father’s death in 1960. Tony Benn had been MP for Bristol South East for ten years and the voters there re-elected him despite the fact that he was disqualified from sitting in the Commons. The man who came second (Conservative Malcolm St Clair) took the seat and promised to give it up if Benn was able to disclaim his peerage; Benn did so after the Peerage Act 1963 allowed him to, and St Clair gave up his seat to Benn by resigning to prompt a by-election.

Now that Tony Benn has died, his eldest son (Stephen) is the Third Viscount Stansgate but is not currently a member of the House of Lords. Ninety-two hereditary peers are entitled to sit in the House, alongside the more numerous Life Peers; hereditary peers are replaced through by-elections when they die, so Stansgate may have a wait on his hands to replace one of the two Labour hereditaries currently in the House.

William Wedgwood Benn had an extraordinary Great War. He could have stayed at home and helped to steer vital legislation through the House of Commons as a whip and later as Chief Whip, but instead he served in all three armed forces and earned a staggering array of medals for his bravery and good work.

 

Sources:

Oxford DNB

Biography on Spartacus

Wikipedia

 
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Posted by on 14 July 2014 in Award-winners, Famous People

 

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Commander Buckle: a hero’s grave restored

Today, a campaign to restore the grave of a London Great War hero comes to its end with a service at the Grave of Commander A.W. Buckle, who was repeatedly decorated for gallantry
while serving as the commander of the Anson Battalion, Royal Naval Division.

Archibald Walter Buckle was a London schoolteacher. When war was declared in 1914, he was away on his honeymoon, but cut it short to join his unit in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. He was commissioned as an officer after serving at Antwerp during the German advance through Belgium in 1914.

He was sent to the Western Front again in 1916, when the Royal Naval Division (naval officers and men fighting as infantry) was deployed there towards the end of the year. He served his distinction in the battles of Arras and Third Ypres (Passchendaele), the German Spring Offensive and the Hundred Days campaign that brought the Allies victory in 1918. By the end of the war he had risen to be the commanding officer of the Anson Battalion.

Commander A.W. Buckle DSO

In the last few years of the war, Buckle earned the Distinguished Service Order four times. This medal was awarded to senior field officers (such as battalion commanders like Buckle) for bravery, leadership and other good work. He was said to have been recommended for the Victoria Cross, but really earning four DSOs is just as impressive – showing repeated bravery and leadership rather than a single act to earned the higher award.

Commander Buckle’s story is told in greater depth on other websites, such as an extensive biography on the Friends of Brockley and Ladywell Cemetery website, as well as his obituary and a contemporary account by a comrade.

1st bar, July 1918 (after first award in March).

T./Lt.-Cmdr. Archibald  Walter Buckle, D.S.O., R.N.D., R.N.V.R. For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty when in command of a battalion. He repelled the enemy’s attack, organised a counter-attack, and drove the enemy completely out of the menaced area. It was largely due to his courage, initiative and leadership that this important success was obtained.

2nd bar: January 1919

T./Comdr. Archibald Walter Buckle, D.S.O., Anson Bn., R.N.D., R.N.V.R. For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. When the progress of the brigade at a critical moment was checked by machine-gun fire, he went forward himself with his battalion staff, reorganised his battalion and led it forward on to commanding ground, seriously threatening the enemy’s retreat. The success of the operation was largely due to his courage and fine leadership.  

3rd bar: October 1919

T./Comdr. Archibald Walter Buckle, D.S.O., Anson Bn., R.N.D., R.N.V.R. During the fighting round Niergnies on 8th October, 1918, he showed great courage and powers of leadership. After the enemy had counter-attacked and succeeded in entering our lines, he seized an enemy antitank rifle and engaged three hostile tanks with it and drove them off. He then rallied men of various units in his neighbourhood and led them forward to the positions whence they had been forced. Throughout he did excellent work.

Buckle returned from the war to Brockley and to his job as a teacher, becoming headmaster master of the council school in New Road, Rotherhithe. He suffered from his war wounds though, and his premature death in 1927 from bronchialpneumonia through osteomyelitiswas judged to have have been accelerated by his war wounds.

Commander Buckle was a London war hero. According to his obituary, ‘Mr Winston Churchillhas referred to Buckle as one of the “salamanders born in the furnace,” who survived “to lead,to command, and to preserve the sacred continuity”.’ Today his grave has been restored as a mark of respect and his story has become public knowledge again

 
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Posted by on 14 October 2012 in Award-winners, Ordinary Londoners

 

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