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Tun San: London’s Burmese Great War hero

Britain’s effort in the Great War was really an imperial effort. Locally-raised forces travelled from across the Empire to fight in Europe, the Middle East and East Africa. As we have seen, there were also men from across the Empire – and elsewhere – serving in the British units of the Armed Forces. One of these was Tun San, a Burmese man based in Richmond who became a war hero.

Tun San was born in Burma (now Myanmar) in 1888; his father Tun Aung Gyaw lived in the Mawlee Quarter of Akyab (now Sittwe), Burma.* Tun San attested for the army in Kingston-upon-Thames on 10 December 1915, giving his address as 12 St John’s Road, Richmond (although his family name was presumably Tun, he appears in army records as T. San) and his correspondence address as the Burma Society, St Peter’s Square, Hammersmith. Presumably he was living in Richmond at the time but it was not his permanent home; he appears to have given his profession as clerk and as student, so possibly he was studying in London at the time.

At the time Burma was part of the “Indian Empire”, the largest part of Britain’s possessions in Asia. According to the 1911 census, Tun San would have been one of around 3,200 Indian-born people in Surrey at the time, under 0.1% of the population (the 12,000 Indian-born people in London being 0.28% of the population). It is worth bearing in mind that many of those thousands would have been white men and women born in India: the children of soldiers, traders, travellers and administrators. London was relatively cosmopolitan compared to the rest of the UK, with a larger proportion of its population being of Asian or African descent, but the general population was overwhelmingly white. As we have seen, Londoners born in other parts of the Empire did join the British armed forces, including Lal Roy, the Indian pilot who earned the Military Cross, and GEK Bemand, the Jamaican-born artillery officer who died in 1916. Tun San was another of these young men.

Tun San joined the army on 20 January 1916, becoming a private in the East Surrey Regiment. Seven months later, he was posted to the Machine Gun Corps and its Motor section – the forerunner to the Tank Corps. September 1916 had seen the first ever use of armoured fighting vehicles – which the British authorities nicknamed ‘tanks’ – so Tun San and his comrades were at the cutting edge of military technology. On official paperwork his role is listed as ‘1st driver mech’.

Part of Tun San's service record

Part of Tun San’s service record

After nine months of training, he was sent to France and on 30 July 1917 he joined “F” Battalion. He appears to have still been serving with them when the tanks went into action at Cambrai in November – the biggest tank action in history up to that point.

The attack at Cambrai began on 20 November. The infantry were supported by 350 tanks in the offensive against the German ‘Hindenburg Line’.  ‘F’ Battalion attacked south of Cambrai: on 21 November they were part of the successful attack at Marcoing and pushed on towards Rumilly; the next day they continued their attack. The Germans held the attackers off at Rumilly and the offensive ground to a halt. The attack was a great success for the British and news of the advance was greeted with the ringing of bells across the UK (including at St Paul’s) – but the victory did not last long, with a German counter-attack a week later taking back virtually all of the captured territory.

An F Squadron tank at Rumilly. Was it San's tank? (From With the Tanks 1916-1918: Memoirs of a British Tank Commander in the Great War By W.H.L Watson)

An F Battalion tank at Rumilly. Was it Private San’s tank? (From With the Tanks 1916-1918: Memoirs of a British Tank Commander in the Great War
By W.H.L Watson)

 

Tun San was in the thick of the action near Rumilly and was wounded in the hand while he was in his tank on 22 November, with shrapnel injuring his left thumb and fingers. He was captured by the Germans on the same day. Unfortunately, I don’t know which tank he was in. The photo above shows tank FW1, which seems to have been the only one lost by F Battalion in the offensive, so perhaps that was his vehicle. Official news of his capture was received in January 1918 and he remained in German hands for the rest of the war, before being repatriated straight after the Armistice – he was back in Britain before Christmas.

Tun San did not hang around in Britain for very long after the war. He was demobilised in May 1919 and returned to Burma during the summer. His address there is given as Deputy Superintendent of Police in Thayetmyo (or Thayet, a coastal district). Sometime that summer, though, he would have heard that he had been awarded the Military Medal. Sadly, most awards of the MM during and immediately after the war do not give an account of the action for which it was earned – his name simply appears in the list of recipients in the London Gazette on 20 August 1919. We do know that it was earned for bravery in action, because that was what entitled people to earn the medal; perhaps it was for his actions at Rumilly. He received his actual medal early in 1920. I don’t know how Tun San’s life panned out after 1920, save that he was Deputy Superintendent of Police in Tavoy (now Dawei) in 1931.

The UK’s war effort took all sorts: men and women from all walks of life and from all around the world – primarily from around the British Empire. Tun San was one of from the furthest reaches of the Empire who served in Britain’s armed forces, not only that but doing it with great distinction, being wounded and captured and earning the Military Medal.

 

*Apologies for any bad spelling of Burmese names and places – a combination of early-twentieth century transliteration and handwriting, and my own lack of knowledge of the region, means that I have probably made mistakes.

 

Sources:

 

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Posted by on 24 November 2015 in Award-winners

 

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Frank Thomas Rapps: heroism, chance and a bloody nose

Chance and luck had a big impact on whether those serving in or near the front lines survived the Great War. No matter whether someone was a hero, a coward or somewhere in-between, a chance occurrence could kill or injure them, or save them by taking them away from the front line. Frank Thomas Rapps was a war hero but suffered accidents that kept him away from the front for much of the war.

Frank Thomas Rapps was born in Bromley in 1890, the son of shop manager Thomas and his wife Nellie. By 1911, he was a clerk boarding with a family in Deptford. Like his brother, Percy, he was a clerk for the National Telephone Company (from 1912 he worked for the London Telephone Service). In 1914, he was living in Mitcham, Surrey, and he joined the army at the beginning of the war. Unlike Percy, who we met in a previous blog post and who was injured playing football, Frank Rapps was injured in more obviously military activities.

Corporal F.T. Rapps, Daily Mirror 24 June 1916

Corporal F.T. Rapps, Daily Mirror 24 June 1916

He joined the 15th Battalion of the London Regiment, the Civil Service Rifles, at Somerset House on 28 August 1914 and went out to France with them in March 1915, as part of the 47th (2nd London) Division. In November he transferred to the 140th Brigade’s Machine Gun Corps unit (i.e. part of 140th Brigade, the one that the Civil Service Rifles were in). By the summer of 1916, Frank Rapps was a Corporal.

On 8 August 1916, Rapps was awarded the Military Medal. At the end of June, The Daily Mirror reported on the forthcoming award and noted that “A few months before war broke out he played football on the fields on which he has since fought the Huns.” Clearly he and his brother shared a fondness for playing football. It’s not clear when or how he earned the medal. The brigade were involved in the battle at Vimy in May 1916, so it is most likely that he earned the medal (which was only awarded for battlefield bravery) there, in a battle that a modern history of the Civil Service Rifles describes as a ‘disaster’.

A few weeks later, on 25 August 1916, the machine-gunners were near Franvillers being trained in using hand grenades. After an hour of throwing dummy grenades (i.e. the metal casings without explosives), the instructor called a halt – at precisely the moment that Private Jim Rutledge threw a dummy grenade. Corporal Rapps looked round to see who had called out and, despite shouts of alarm from Rutledge and others, did not get out of the way of the dummy grenade, which hit him in the face, breaking his nose. He was immediately treated by medics of the 4th London Field Ambulance (attached to the 47th Division) and then sent on to No 34 (West Lancashire) Casualty Clearing station at Vecquemont. He was then sent back to the UK.

After recovering from his injuries and being posted to the depot battalion at Winchester, Rapp applied to become an officer in early 1917. After officer training at Bisley, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Machine Gun Corps in July and posted to their 62nd Battalion. He arrived back in France on 14 January 1918.

In February 1918, Rapps and his men were helping to fend off German raids at Gavrille/Gavrelle in the Arras sector. A medical board report picks up his story:

“while enemy was raiding [the British] trenches, this officer scratched the bridge of his nose with barbed wire. It was dressed the same day he did not go sick. The wound did not heal and on 8th March he was sent to hospital when he states incision was needed on bridge of nose and then he was transferred to England.”

He left Calais on 24 March, just as the German Spring Offensive was pushing British forces back over the land captured at great cost in 1916 and 1917. Back in England he was treated at Worsley Hall in Manchester and was operated on by a nasal specialist for a defective septum. By May, the wounds had healed and he was able to breathe through his nose as normal. He was graded at C1 level of fitness (not fit enough for overseas service). A later medical board heard that he suffered from “attacks of epistaxes” after blowing his nose hard: he suffered from bad nosebleeds. The May medical board awarded him three weeks’ leave and he was ordered to the MGC depot at Grantham. A series of medical boards assessed that he would be fit again within three months. By the end of 1918, he was serving at the RAF’s school of armament at Uxbridge and was a temporary Lieutenant. He was discharged from the army in 1920.

After the war, Rapps moved back to Mitcham and in April 1922 he rejoined the London Telephone Service as a clerk officer. He married a Marion Broughton Wright in Camberwell in late 1926. They lived in Surrey until at least 1945. By the time of his death in 1963, Rapps was living in Hampshire; Marion had died a few years earlier, so Frank’s estate went to David Wright, a commercial artist (and presumably a relative of Marion’s)

This brave Londoner somehow managed to be put out of action twice by accidental injuries to his nose. After being rewarded for his bravery in 1916, he was injured in training and missed the Battle of the Somme – and remained at home throughout the doomed Third Battle of Ypres in 1917. Back at the front and in action in February 1918, he was accidentally injured again and missed the whole of the rest of the war. Just one example of how chance and luck could play a major part in a soldier’s service and survival in 1914-1918.

 

Sources:

  • Long, Long Trail
  • FT Rapps service record (National Archives)
  • Daily Mirror 24/6/1916
  • Jill Knight, The Civil Service Rifles in the Great War
 
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Posted by on 16 October 2014 in Award-winners, Ordinary Londoners

 

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FP Hewkley – gallant signaller

Among the thousands of men who fought in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in the Great War were many recent émigrés from the UK, including young Londoners who had gone out to the Dominion in the years before 1914.  One of these was Francis Paget Hewkley, who left London for Australia in June 1912 and wound up at Gallipoli before being killed in action on the Western Front.

Francis Paget Hewkley MM (from de Ruvigny's roll of honour)

Francis Paget Hewkley MM (from de Ruvigny’s roll of honour)

Hewkley was born in Stoke Newington in March 1894, the son of medical practitioner Dr Frank Hewkley and his wife Dorothy. He was still in education in 1911; he attended the Merchant Taylors’ School and served in their Officer Training Corps. He was then living with his parents and sister in a large house (with 6 servants) in Lower Seymour Street, Marylebone, W1; the next year he left all that behind to work as a clerk for the Bank of Australia in Western Australia. He was about 5’6” tall, with fair hair.

He enlisted in the AIF in late August 1914 and trained as a signaller in Melbourne. He was part of the 1st Division when it left Australia on 20 October 1914. After arriving in Egypt in November, the Division – including Hewkley – were part of the first landing at Gallipoli. Hewkley served throughout the campaign, arriving back in Egypt in January 1916. While on the peninsula, he contributed a few drawings  to Charles Bean’s ‘ANZAC book‘:

One of Hewkley's drawings for the ANZAC Book

One of Hewkley’s drawings for the ANZAC Book

Another of Hewkley's drawings

Another of Hewkley’s drawings

In early 1916, a new 4th Division of the AIF was formed and went on the Western Front. Hewkley was one of their signallers. The Division arrived in France in June 1916 and saw its first actions in the Battle of the Somme, at Pozieres.  Hewkley was by then 2nd Corporal (equivalent to lance corporal) and showed great bravery in the front line in early September 1916, for which he was awarded the Military Medal. His citation reads:

During 3rd, 4th and 5th September 2nd/Cpl Hewkley showed great gallantry and devotion to duty in mending and laying telephone lines from POZIERES to Battalions [in the Division]. During the night 3rd and 4th […] he went out 4 times and mended breaks in telephone lines under very heavy fire.

In late June 1917, the Division took part in the attack on Zonnebeke Ridge, with the signallers maintaining the communications – mending and laying lines to keep the infantry, artillery and commanders in touch.

On the first day of that attack (26 June), Hewkley – now a sergeant – was wounded by a shell fragment near ‘Tokio Ridge’ just in front of Zonnebeke (visible at the back of this photo). As he was being brought to a dressing station, he was hit by another shell (according to some reports, this shell killed his stretcher bearers) and was taken to No. 2 Canadian Casualty Clearing Station at Remy, where he died 8 hours later from wounds to his left shoulder and skull. He was buried in nearby Lijssenthoek military cemetery. His parent’s outlived him, their only son, and he is also commemorated on their shared headstone in Brockley and Ladywell Cemetery in South London, near their postwar home in Wickham Road, Brockley.

Hewkley's gravestone in Belgium, from lijssenthoek.be

Hewkley’s gravestone in Belgium, from lijssenthoek.be

One of those who wrote words of comfort to Hewkley’s parents after his death was Sir Robert Baden-Powell, who had apparently met Hewkley through his time spent at the Scouts’ Farm at Buckhurst Place in Kent. BP wrote:

I remember your boy so well at Buckhurst Farm, and know he was a universal favourite there. He has left behind an example of service and self-sacrifice which will be an inspiration to the Boy Scouts who knew him in carrying out their duty -as he did- at no matter what personal cost

Francis Paget Hewkley really did do his duty to the end, with great bravery even at the cost of his own life.

Sources:

De Ruvigny’s Roll of Honour

Australian War Memorial records:

Embarkation roll

Medal citation

Red Cross Wounded and Missing records

War diaries

Regimental Rogue page on Canadian medical units

Attestation papers on Lijssenthoek website

 
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Posted by on 24 August 2013 in Award-winners, Ordinary Londoners

 

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Albert Mason: A brave, blinded war hero

In June 1917, a large crowd gathered for a ceremony in Hyde Park where the King awarded medals to hundreds of men and women.  George V paused during the ceremony for a longer chat than usual with one London veteran, Albert James Mason, who had been blinded during the Battle of the Somme the previous autumn.

The crowd that gathered in Hyde Park on 3 June 1917 saw over 300 servicemen and 12 women awarded medals for gallantry and good work during the war, along with 50 relatives of those who had died since or during their actions.

Towards the end of the ceremony, once the order of precedence had reached the Military Medal. As the Times (4/6/1917) described it:

A murmur ran through the round…, for an orderly was leading a blind man to the King’s presence. It was Corporal Albert Mason, in mufti, for he is a soldier no longer, but he won the Military Medal when in the London Regiment. He was halted in front of the King, who spoke to him for some time and reached down and grasped the wounded man’s hand.

Albert Mason being led up to meet the King and receive his MM from the King (Illustrated London News, 9/6/1917)

Albert Mason being led up to meet the King and receive his MM from the King (Illustrated London News, 9/6/1917)

The scene was a far cry from the battlefields of France, where Mason had earned his medal and suffered his wounds the year before.  He had enlisted as a 19-year-old on 1 September 1914, at the peak of the recruiting boom, joining the Civil Service Rifles.  His address was recorded as the Central London YMCA (the original YMCA) on Tottenham Court Road, but his widowed mother lived in Pietermaritzburg in South Africa; it is not clear whether he was a South African in London or his parents had moved to Natal before the war.

Mason soon took the Imperial Service oath and joined the battalion of his unit that was due to go to France, the 1/15th Battaltion of the London Regiment.  For some reason, he remained in the UK for a year while the unit was in France, only joining them on the Western Front in March 1916.

That summer, he was part of that unit during the Battle of the Somme, serving in the 47th (2nd London) Division.  It is not clear when or for what he was awarded the Military Medal.  Although it was not formally awarded until December 1916, the divisional history and his service record give the date as 9 October 1916.  Mason was promoted to Corporal on 15 September 1916, the first day of the battle of Flers-Courcelette, which saw the first use of and where the Civil Service Rifles were in the heart of the battle at High Wood.  It may be that actions on that day earned him both his promotion and his medal.  Supported by the tanks, the infantry were to attack the German lines without the benefit of a preliminary artillery bombardment, but the Civil Service Rifles found that their tanks were held up and arrived after the attack started. They and their London Division comrades were held up in no-man’s land, suffering casualties all the time, until additional bombardments cleared the German defences and the Londoners broke through to take High Wood – an objective that the British had been trying to take since July. The Battalion, and the Division, had suffered an enormous number of casualties in the attack; by the time they withdrew from the front line on 20 September the Battalion had lost 15 officers and 365 other ranks.

The landscape around High Wood (on the right) before the battle of Fler Courcelette (c)IWM

The landscape around High Wood (on the right) before the battle of Fler Courcelette (c)IWM

Overall the attack was successful, in the context of the Battle of the Somme, but it was still a horrendous experience for the men involved. Jill Knight’s excellent book The Civil Service Rifles in the Great War quotes M.J. ‘Paddy’ Guiton, an Irishman who served in the battalion (having been a clerk in the London County Council  Education department, living is Islington before the war:

I saw men torn to fragments by the near explosions of bombs and – worse than any sight – I heard the agnoised cries and shrieks of men in mortal pain…

We don’t know whether Mason earned his Military Medal at High Wood, or a few weeks later when he was blinded.  The battalion had been filled up with hundreds of new reinforcements (which may explain Mason’s promotion, as a relatively old hand in the unit) and attacked the Butte de Warlencourt. In the afternoon of 7 October, the Division attacked the Butte, under heavy enemy bombardment, while the British ‘creeping bombardment’ crept on too quickly and the infantrymen were left behind. The attack was a failure.

On 8 October, Mason was evacuated away from the unit with a gunshot wound in the right eye – probably either a bullet or a piece or shrapnel.  After medical treatment at the front, he was transferred back to the UK at the start of November, and was discharged on medical grounds and with an excellent character reference in January 1917.  Sadly, this is where his record ends so we do not know where he went or what he did after being awarded his Military Medal for bravery in the field.

Albert Mason was just one of the Londoners flung into battle in the Battle of the Somme in 1916. His unit suffered heavily in both the successful attack on High Wood and the failed attempt to take the Butte de Warlencourt. In one (or both) of those two battles, Mason performed with remarkable bravery.  Within days, though, he was blinded and his military career was over.

Sources:

Illustrated London News (6/6/1917) and Times (4/6/1917)

The Civil Service Rifles in the Great War by Jill Knight – an excellent book, which I used for the descriptions of the battalions actions in 1916.

 
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Posted by on 11 August 2013 in Award-winners, Ordinary Londoners

 

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Harry Fusao O’Hara: Japanese Fighter Pilot, 1918

If British people think of Japanese fighter pilots, they probably think of the Second World War and the Zero long-range fighter aircraft, or even kamikaze. They certainly do not think of a young man in a Royal Air Force biplane. But Harry Fusao O’Hara was a Japanese fighter pilot, flying with the RAF in 1918.

Harry Fusao O’Hara was born in Tokyo in 1891. As a treaty partner of the UK, Japan joined the Allies early in the war; O’Hara, though, seems to have decided to fight for the British rather than his homeland. First, he served in the Indian Army in the 34th Sikh Pioneers, the pioneer unit of the 3rd (Lahore) Division, which served on the Western Front in 1914 and moved to Mesopotamia in August 1915. It is not clear whether O’Hara served at the front with the SIkhs. Instead of going to Mesopotamia, though, O’Hara joined the Middlesex Regiment in December 1915 and did then go out to France, arriving on Christmas Eve.

In August 1916, O’Hara was wounded in action. Although the records do not detail his actions, he was awarded the Military Medal in January 1917 and, when inspected by a Royal Flying Corps doctor, he was found to have shrapnel scars on his left arm, chest, left shoulder, right arm and right thigh. He had clearly – as the phrase goes – been through the wars.

Harry Fusao O'Hara's flying certificate photo, 1917

Harry Fusao O’Hara’s flying certificate photo, 1917

In March 1917, O’Hara transferred to the RFC as a 2nd-class air mechanic (the basic rank for RFC men – equivalent to his rank of private in the Middlesex Regiment).  He was soon undergoing flying training, though, and living in London at 25 Fitzroy Square, a boarding-house run by Jukicki Ikuine, another Japanese man living in London. In 1911 Ikuine and his English wife had run a boarding-house entirely populated by Japanese men (servants, cooks and waiters), so perhaps his properties were a standard place for Japanese men to board.

O’Hara qualified as a pilot on 21 July 1917 at the London and Provincial flying school in Edgeware, and was immediately promoted to Sergeant by the RFC.  It is not clear where he was stationed between then and March 1918, when he was posted from France to the No 1 School of Military Aeronautics (in Reading), but at some point he became engaged to Norfolk-born Muriel M McDonald. They married in Lewisham in September 1917.

No 1 Squadron with their SE5As and dog

In 1918, Sgt O’Hara went out to the front again to join No 1 Squadron RFC/RAF. Quite what his commanders and comrades made of this Japanese man with an Irish name we will never know.  Given his proven bravery and obvious technical capability shown by gaining his flying certificate, it seems likely that his race held O’Hara back from becoming an officer. Nonetheless, the RFC and RAF accepted sergeant-pilots and O’Hara was able – again – to fight for Britain in France and Flanders.

On 1 June 1918, O’Hara was again wounded and sent to hospital. This time he suffered a gun-shot wound in his jaw.  Two weeks later (after treatment in Boulogne) he was back in England and sent to Queen’s Hospital in Sidcup, which specialised in facial reconstructive surgery. He was granted a month’s furlough in both September 1918 and April 1919, effectively leaving the RAF during the latter before being discharged officially a year later. He was awarded a war pension of 19s 3d per week from November 1919.

Sadly, the hospital records on O’Hara are incomplete, only covering a return visit to Sidcup in 1923-24 to have a new set of dentures fitted – presumably to replace those made after his injury in 1918.  The photos of his face don’t show the severe wounding experienced by other Sidcup patients (like HR Lumley), so it looks like he was one of the lucky ones among facial wounding victims.

Harry and Muriel O’Hara lived on in London after the war, first of all at 39 Thornford Road, near Lewisham Park, and later at 32 Pemberton Gardens, Islington.  In the early 1920s, Harry worked teaching Japanese at SOAS, but otherwise little record of their life remains. The National Army Museum’s collection includes a cigarette box given by O’Hara to a former officer of the 34th Sikh Pioneers in 1932 “in memory of World War One”, so he obviously maintained some links with his wartime comrades.

When war came again, Harry O’Hara became an enemy alien after Britain declared war on Japan in December 1941; so too did Muriel under the laws of the day, whereby a woman automatically held her husband’s nationality.  She reclaimed her British nationality in 1944, but he apparently remained Japanese.  There is no record of his having been interned, so hopefully this decorated and repeatedly-wounded war hero of the Great War was allowed to live on in peace (from the authorities at least) in his house in Islington.  Harry Fusao O’Hara died in Hampstead in 1951.

A nation’s wartime armed forces really take all sorts.  The RFC and RAF included men from across the Britain’s Empire, dominions and other allied and friendly nations.  Harry Fusao O’Hara may well be unique, though, as a Japanese fighter pilot on the Western Front.

___________________________

Archive sources:

National Archives: AIR 79/1/1 RAF service record of Harry Fasao O’Hara

The Papers of Harold D. Gilles at the Archives of the Royal College of Surgeons of England: Ref. ADDMSS622, Box 26, Sgt H O’Hara: ID 1541

 
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Posted by on 23 April 2013 in Award-winners, Ordinary Londoners

 

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John Henry Dollittle, aviation enthusiast

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

John Henry Dollittle

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:

A quintette of RFC DCMs (Flight 2/7/15)

A quintette of RFC DCMs (Flight 2/7/15)

(from Flight magazine)

The DCM citation (Flight 4/6/15)

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.

 
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Posted by on 12 April 2013 in Award-winners, Ordinary Londoners

 

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Mary Bushby Stubbs, saving French lives

British women played an increasing part in the war effort as the Great War went on. It was not just British forces that benefitted from their contribution. Mary Bushby Stubbs served with the British and the French, and was decorated by both for her bravery in the field.

Mary Bushby Stubbs MM (image from the IWM Women at War archive)

In her book, Within The Year After, Betty Adler recounts Stubbs’s story:

I want to tell you about these English Fany girls for they are one of the joys of my motoring in Belgium. F. A. N. Y. stands for First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, an organization of English war workers, that saw some of the foremost of the women’s service in the war. There is Mary Bushby Stubbs, such a pretty, blue-eyed Irish girl, whose home is in London, and she drove the car to Louvain. She had enlisted in the beginning of the war as a Red Cross Nursing Aid, but contracted a septic throat from nursing poisonous wounds — some of the wounded had gone for five days before they could reach the hospitals, she told me. Forbidden to nurse, she entered the Yeomanry motor car driving service and was sent to Chalons sur Marne in February, 1917. She drove an ambulance during the battle on the Chemin du Dames, was in the drive of Chalons and at Epernay. She has the Croix de Guerre, has one citation from the Chemin du Dames and one for the time they bombed the hospital at Chalons.

“We lived on the rations of the French soldiers and often we were hungry,” she told me, once. “Their rations were black bread, black coffee, horse meat and beans.” She was one of the motor girls chosen to run the cars that brought the prisoners back from Germany after the armistice and had many thrilling mo-
ments.

Stubbs was awarded the Military Medal for her gallantry. The citation (London Gazette 19/10/18) is vague about exactly when the events took place but presumably it was for the air raid on Chalon, to which Adler referred:

For gallantry and devotion to duty during an enemy air raid. Miss Stubbs was detailed to evacuate a hospital. While her car was waiting to be loaded a bomb dropped within 30 yards. The stretcher-bearers, who had been loading a car immediately in front, ran for protection to dug-outs, calling to Miss Stubbs to do the same. She, however, regardless of her own safety, stayed in the open with two wounded and helpless patients to help and reassure them. She finally got them unloaded and to a place of safety. During the unloading a second bomb fell on the hospital.

 
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Posted by on 10 January 2013 in Award-winners, Women

 

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