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WG Heighton, shooting down a German aeroplane

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.

An RGA Lewis Gunner at Monchy-le-Preux, 18 March 1918. Is it Gunner Heighton? Image© IWM (Q 10748)

An RGA Lewis Gunner at Monchy-le-Preux, 18 March 1918. Is it Gunner Heighton? Image© IWM (Q 10748)

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.

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Posted by on 10 April 2015 in Ordinary Londoners

 

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SA Gabriel, an unusual hospital death

When we read about the bravery of nurses in air raids, it can be easy to underestimate the danger they were in. These raids on hospitals could be enormously destructive, and of course the patients were often immobile in the face of that danger. The coolness and bravery of the nurses must have been a real benefit. One of those who could not be saved, though, was Stewart Arkcoll Gabriel.

From de Ruvigny's Roll of Honour

(From de Ruvigny’s Roll of Honour)

Stewart Arkcoll Gabriel was born in June 1878, the son of merchant James Sutcliffe Gabriel (who owned and ran a wharf) and his wife Susan (nee Arkcoll), the middle son and one of six children. The Gabriels lived in a large house on Leigham Court Road in Streatham. By 1901, Stewart Gabriel, still living at home, was working for his father. In 1905, Stewart was granted the freedom of the City of London as the son of an existing freeman in the Company of Goldsmiths.

In 1906, Stewart Gabriel married Elsie Dorothy Thornton in Forest Gate. By 1914, though, Stewart they were living in Epsom, Surrey, with their daughter Judith Ashley Gabriel (born in July 1913). In March 1915, Stewart enlisted in the army, giving his profession as Dog Breeder.

Gabriel was not at home in the army, though. After reporting for duty in Woolwich on 16 March, he lasted only another week before being discharged as not likely to become an efficient soldier. He had been very specific about the terms of his enlistment – he was to serve at home only and insisted that he should be put to work in shipping, to suit his experience as a civilian. Instead, he was sent to No. 2 Remounts Depot in the Army Service Corps, even though – as he wrote on 23 March “I knew next to nothing about horses.”

His entry on de Ruvigny’s Roll of Honour states that his defective eyesight meant that he could serve. In fact, the army doctors thought his eyesight (although poor) was good enough for service. He was rejected anyway in March 1915 and returned to civilian life.

He was eventually conscripted in November 1916 and sent into the Royal Garrison Artillery – not exactly the kind of job he had been after in 1915 and certainly not one that would keep him at home in England.

After going out to the front in April 1917, he was wounded but soon returned to his unit – 76th Siege Battery RGA. The Battery served around Ypres during the Third Battle there, now better known as Passchendaele.

A few weeks into the battle, Gabriel was gassed and sent off to a Casualty Clearing Station at Dozinghem, near Poperinge in Belgium. On the night of 21/22 August, the CCS was attacked in an air raid. As the Matron-in-chief recorded in her diary (on the excellent Scarlet Finders website):

47 Casualty Clearing Station bombed: Miss Roy, QAIMNS, Sister-in-Charge to say that her Station had been bombed last night, several bombs falling near the lines for walking cases and several of them were injured; one of the Sisters, Miss W. M. Hawkins, TFNS, was injured in the left thigh and would be evacuated to the Base by the next Ambulance train with 4 other Sisters suffering from shock. Altogether there were about 50 casualties, 12 of whom have died, including one RAMC orderly.

One of those 12 fatalities was Stewart Arkcol Gabriel. He was buried at the local military cemetery, one of over three thousand British and Empire casualties buried there. The Epsom and Ewell History Explorer website has a photo of his headstone at Dozinghem. Elsie Dorothy Gabriel lived another 30 years, until October 1948; their daughter Judith married in 1940 and lived until 1986.

Gabriel’s story is unusual both for the manner of his (brief) early period in the army and for the manner of his death. In the end though, he was just one of the many men who were conscripted in 1916-18 and left their families behind, and sadly one of those men who never returned.

 
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Posted by on 12 March 2013 in Ordinary Londoners, War Dead

 

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