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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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The delusions of Walter Biheller

In January 1918, a British flying officer turned up in the Hague, telling an unbelievable story: that he was the leader of a band of pilots who dropped off aeroplanes for use by aviators escaping from prisoner-of-war camps in Germany. He had passed papers to one such prisoner, then escaped dressed as a German officer, in a German Albatross fighter, which he had crashed in Holland. The story was unbelievable because it was untrue, one of the delusions that Walter Biheller told as his mental state collapsed.

Walter Biheller's Royal Aero Club Certificate photo, 1917

Walter Biheller’s Royal Aero Club Certificate photo, 1917

The officer who arrived in Holland initially called himself J.W. Brent, an escaped British prisoner of war – writing back under that name to the War Office. The next week he admitted that he was in fact Captain Biheller, and he had in fact visited the man Brent to help him escape. This too was untrue; Biheller was only a Second Lietuenant and had never visited this supposed prisoner in Germany.

The real Walter Biheller was born in London in November 1895, the only son of Simon Biheller and his wife Elsie, who lived in Compayne Gardens, Hampstead. Simon was a glass and china merchant, born Sifred Biheller in Vienna but later naturalised as a British citizen. Simon was wealthy enough to send his son to school at St Paul’s, where he joined the Officer Training Corps in September 1914. In April 1917 he joined the Royal Flying Corps; that summer he was commissioned and trained as a pilot, qualifying in September. After reacting badly to a high-level flight and suffering a ‘nervous attack’, he was declared unfit for general service and assigned to home service duties and was sent to 42 (Training) Squadron at Wye aerodrome. In January 1918, he was declared fit for general service again.

Although he was apparently a very good pilot and a good instructor, Biheller was keen to get to France now that the was fit again. He soon began to tell people that he had already been at the Front and fed them stories about his supposed active service record and heroism. Arriving at 42 Squadron, he promoted himself to Captain (apparently believed, since the new rank appears on his medical inspection records). While he told people that he had been out to France as a pilot and lost close friends there, he also began to show signs of depression. This may have been seen as an effect of active service, perhaps in reality it was his desire for (or perhaps fear of) active service at the Front that caused it.

On 17 January, he went to London to meet his father. At lunch at the Charing Cross Hotel, Biheller showed his father a Colt revolver he had just bought, and showed off his new medal ribbons – describing how he had saved a French airman from a burning aeroplane the previous summer at Northolt aerodrome, and gone back to rescue despatches the man was carrying. For this action, he had supposedly earned the Military Cross and the French Medalle Militaire (the photo above shows him wearing the ribbons of these medals).

A few days later, after breakfast one morning, Biheller took off in a Sopwith Camel from Wye Aerodrome, supposedly (and oddly, given his medical history) for a high-flight test and disappeared.

He was next seen, posing as Brent, in Holland. He sent a message back to the War Office as Brent, then corrected it the next day as ‘Captain’ Biheller. He then told his fellow officers in the Hague his fantastic tale of flying aeroplanes out to prisoners of war and picking up the latest models of German aeroplanes back to the UK. When they picked holes in his story, he gave flimsy excuses (mainly involving the destruction of anything that might have been useful corroborating evidence in the wreck of his aeroplane).

Walter's telegram to Simon Biheller, January 1918

Walter’s telegram to Simon Biheller at his business address in January 1918

That first week in Holland, he was seen to be acting strangely. He told a number of additional tales, including having been captured by the Germans when serving as an officer in the (regular) British Army at the Front early in the war, having killed the prison commander, stolen his uniform and escaped back to the British lines. He also told stories of his daring and gallantry, all told in a convincing manner but apparently not believed by his fellow internees.

After telling people that he was being followed, one day he went out in a civilian suit, stating that he was going to Germany for the weekend. On his return he claimed to have visited a prisoner of war camp in Germany, dressed as a German officer. He fainted on his return, and was found to be carrying German papers, although these turned out to be innocuous sections of newspapers.

The other officers who lived with him during his initial stay at the house of John Harker in the Hague, felt that he was ‘a harmless lunatic’ whose brain had been affected by his crash. Other than the lies he told them, he was found to be an intelligent and humorous companion. They felt he genuinely believed the stories he told them.

Over the following months, after leaving Harker’s house, Biheller’s mental state collapsed. And his worried father – in touch with the Dutch doctors – appealed for his repatriation. When he was returned to Britain later in 1918, Walter Biheller was sent to the Maudsley Hospital and then to the Highfield Hospital in Golders Green. In September, he was sent home on leave and passed into the treatment of Harley Street doctors.

In December, a medical board concluded that Walter Biheller was suffering from ‘dementia praecox’ – a severe mental disorder that was said to affect cognition rather than mood. It was related to the (not then well-established) condition of schizophrenia. A few months earlier, the War Office had decided that there his case was not one that warranted a court-martial (despite the theft and destruction of an aeroplane), presumably because Biheller was not deemed to be responsible for his actions.

Another medical board in January described a potentially long gestation for Biheller’s illness: “Manifestations of nervousness since early childhood. Precocious and interested as a you.” They also described the pitiful state to which he had declined since January 1918:

“interned as P[risoner] of War in Holand. At that time apparently fairly normal. Subsequently developed functional deafness, aphemia, blindness and became very negativistic. […] Now Negativism. Does not talk […], but makes articulatory movements. Does not hear or see. Frets, gesticulates, grimaces. Physical debility. Pains in L[eft] temple.”

In June 1919, Simon Biheller appealed for the military to release his son – who had been at home since September but was officially still a serviceman. His civilian doctor felt that release from the RAF would be a first step towards a cure. The RAF had no objections, and Walter Biheller’s service record ends at this point in August 1919.

A few bits of information about Biheller emerge from the years after 1919, though. In the 1920s, he lived with his parents at 19 Frognal Lane, Hampstead. In 1927, he married fellow an Austrian-born woman named Hertha Hedwig Paula Louise Stölzle (see p. 5 of this pdf). In the early 1930s, the couple are recorded as living at 5 Albert Terrace, Regent’s Park (next to Primrose Hill). When his father died in Germany in 1932, he inherited the family’s commercial property at 70-71 Chiswell Street, Finsbury. Not long afterwards, though, Walter Biheller died – on 27 December 1932 at the German Hospital in Dalston. How he died, and whether it was linked to his illness, is not clear. Hertha remarried a few years later and lived until the 1990s.

Walter Biheller’s story is a sad reminder of the havoc that mental illness can play on the mind of an outwardly healthy young person. Whether it was exacerbated by his altitude sickness or his frustrated desire to get out to the front, or it emerged during 1918 of its own accord, the illness severely affected this young man, making him tell (and apparently believe) wild stories and to disappear across to Holland in an effort to live them out. Combat stress can cause men to break down, but it does not take something to violent as combat to break a person’s mind.

 
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Posted by on 6 April 2013 in Ordinary Londoners

 

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Arthur Newland, observer ace

After the Royal Air Force was formed in April 1918, four new medals were created: the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Distinguished Flying Medal, for officers and medal respectively who distinguished themselves in action against the enemy, and the Air Force Cross and Medal for courage and dedication other than in the face of the enemy. One Londoner earned the DFM twice as an observer ace who shot down 22 German aircraft in 1918: Arthur Newland.

The Distinguished Flying Medal (the other side showed the King's head)

The Distinguished Flying Medal (the other side showed the King’s head)

Arthur Newland’s record as an observer-gunner is outstanding. After arriving in France on 19 March 1918, weeks before the formation of the RAF, he qualified as an observer on May 19th – the day that he got his second aerial victory!

Flying with the American Iaccaci brothers as his pilots in the Bristol Fighters of No 20 Squadron, Newland became an ‘ace’ by the end of May, having shot down more than five enemy aircraft. His six victory came on 31 May and his ninth on 30 June, all but one having been German fighter aircraft.

These early victories earned him the Distinguished Flying Medal, which was awarded to him in August. The citation (published on 21 September) read:

He is an excellent shot, and has done remarkably well as an observer, gaining the confidence of the pilots with whom he has served. He has personally assisted in shooting down five enemy aeroplanes.

Paul Iaccaci was awarded the DFC on the same day for destroying six enemy aircraft, of which he had personally shot down two, his observers (including Newland) the other four.

Bristol_F2B_D8096_flying_1

Bristol Fighter

August 1918 marked the beginning of the end of the war, at least in hindsight. The Allies launched the campaign in France and Flanders that brought the Armistice within a hundred days.

August was also a peak period for Arthur Newland the marksman observer, although flying with different pilots. From 14 to 22 August, he shot down six more enemy fighters, including three on the 21st alone (although two were shared victories with other crews).

Again, he was rewarded for this stunning display, the citation of his second DFM reading:

This non-commissioned officer sets a splendid example of courage, skill and determination to the other non-commissioned officers of his squadron. During the month of August he crashed six enemy machines.

According to The Aerodrome.com, Newland was one of only two airmen to earn a second DFM during the Great War (i.e. a bar to his original honour). In September, again flying with Paul Iaccaci he added a further seven victories to his tally – all of them Fokker DVII fighters.

In early October, though, Newlands began to suffer from ‘flying sickness’ and was sent to a hospital at Wimeraux on the coast, and then on to Hampstead to recover. He never returned to the front, although he stayed in the RAF until early 1920, when he was – naturally enough – assigned the trade of ‘aerial gunner’. He was demobilised in July 1920, still suffering from his flying sickness.

Contrary to what the otherwise excellent The Aerodrome website says (which is repeated on Wikipedia and even in a book on Bristol Fighter aces), Newland was not in his thirties when he fought his aerial battles. He was born in January 1899, the eldest son of Frederick and Sarah Newland of Enfield; he was a fresh-faced, dark-haired lad, standing 5’ 10” tall. Frederick Newland worked as a machine hand at the Royal Small Arms Factory – as did Arthur’s Enfield namesake Arthur Ernest Newland, with whom other websites seem to have conflated the real observer ace.

Arthur Newland may well have worked at the RSAF as well, but since he was only 12 at the time of the 1911 census, I do not know for sure. He was living at 32 Elmhurst Road with his parents when he joined up at the age of 18 on 16 March 1917, although they moved to 73 Turkey Street by the summer of 1918. After a year’s training, Newland arrived in France on 19 March 1918. After his discharge in 1920, he was awarded a £40 gratuity for his wartime awards, £20 for each.

As a civilian again, Newland returned to his parents’ home in Enfield, before marrying Olive Keene in 1929 and moving back to Elmhurst Road. Later in the thirties they moved to 21 Sedcote Road, where they lived into the 1960s. Arthur Newland DFM & bar died in 1973, in Enfield.

Observer Sergeant Arthur Newland flourished as an observer gunner in his half year on the Western Front. He was clearly an excellent marksman with the Lewis gun (or guns, it seems to have varied) used by an observer in the Bristol Fighter. Other-ranks observer gunners are not the airmen we picture when we imagine Great War flying aces, but there were a large number of them who became aces, especially in the latter stages of the war.

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The Aerodrome.com’s page on Newland, although inaccurate on his pre-military life, is an excellent source of information about his victories and awards for bravery – as it is more generally for the other Great War aces.

 
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Posted by on 3 April 2013 in Award-winners, Ordinary Londoners

 

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The birth of the Royal Air Force

Ninety-five years ago today, Britain acquired a new armed force with the creation of the Royal Air Force.

The origins of the Royal Air Force lie in the increasingly-effective German air raids of 1917 and worries that the army’s Royal Flying Corps and the navy’s Royal Naval Air Service were competing for scarce resources. South African general Jan Christian Smuts was brought in by the British War Cabinet to review the nation’s air power position. The Smuts report recommended, among other things, the creation of an Air Council and an air service independent of the army and navy.

Following the passage of the Air Force Constitution Act in November 1917 (debates on which included an unsuccessful attempt by pilot and notable scoundrel Noel Pemberton Billing to name the new force the ‘Imperial Air Force’), the new force came into being on 1 April 1918 with a strength of over 20,000 aircraft and 300,000 personnel, including the Women’s Royal Air Force. The new force had its headquarters at the Hotel Cecil on the Strand.

Plaque marking the original headquarters of the RAF on the Strand

Plaque marking the original headquarters of the RAF on the Strand

The First Chief of Air Staff – the head of the RAF – was Sir Hugh Trenchard, who later became the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. He is known as the father of the RAF, although really his pivotal role was in keeping the force intact and independent in the early 1920s.

John Salmond, the first commander of the RAF in the field (photo from 1913)

John Salmond, the first commander of the RAF in the field (photo from 1912)

The RAF’s first commander in the field (i.e. on the Western Front) was a Londoner named John Salmond. It is characteristic of the youth of military aviation and most of its personnel that Salmond was only 36 when he became the commander of the RFC in the field (and then from April 1918, the RAF). Oddly he had been granted his flying certificate on 13 August 1913, the same day as Trenchard and the same day as William McCudden from Chatham, the first of three McCudden boys who served as pilots in the war – William’s younger brother James earned the VC, DSO, MC and MM before his death in 1918 (William had earlier died in a flying accident).

Salmond had commanded No 3 Squadron RFC when they went to France in 1914 (the squadron with which James McCudden was then a mechanic). Through the war, he alternated between roles commanding forces at the front and organising training back in the UK before being appointed to the War Council in December 1917 and then being appointed General Officer Commanding the RFC in the Field in January 1918. He later became Chief of the Air Staff, in 1930.

The new RAF was given a new uniform to distinguish it from the army and navy, but since it had to be purchased, most existing officers carried on wearing their old RFC and RNAS uniforms. New recruits wore the new RAF blue, though, which was rumoured to have been made from material meant for Imperial Russian troops but made surplus by the 1917 revolution.

Dormer

Frank Hyde Dormer, a former RFC observer from Wandsworth, in his new uniform as an RAF pilot in 1918. He saw active service as a pilot in Italy (his logboks as held by the IWM)

The uniforms were not quite what we are used to seeing from the Second World War or the modern RAF, the blue was lighter and the uniform a slightly different design. Colour photos of the 1918 uniform can be seen on the Brit Air Force website, while Flight magazine showed the new uniforms in its pages early in 1918.

New RAF uniform (Flight magazine 28/3/1918)

New RAF uniform (Flight magazine 28/3/1918)

So, Happy 95th Birthday to the Royal Air Force.

 
 

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Those moustachioed men in their flying machines

A slightly more frivolous post than normal, today – but it is for a good cause. We are now a week into Movember, meaning that many men (including yours truly) are growing moustaches to raise money for testicular and prostate cancer charities. You can sponsor my moustache here.

In honour of Movember, here are some moustachioed Londoners of the Great War. They had moustaches of different shapes and sizes; all of them were pilots in the Royal Flying Corps.

2nd Lt John Lovell Dashwood

John Lovell Dashwood was born in London in 1891 and lived in Maidenhead, working as an English lecturer. He gained a commission in the Royal Flying Corps in late 1915 and qualified as a pilot in February 1916. Bizarrely, he then left the RFC and moved to the Canadian Infantry, joining the 58th battalion in July 1916. He was killed in actionat Vimy Ridge in April 1917 and was posthumously awarded the Military Cross in June 1917 for “conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty when in command of a raiding party. He personally made prisoners two groups of the enemy and carried in several wounded men under heavy fire. He displayed great gallantry throughout.” (Oddly there is an academic article about Dashwood, but it is behind a paywall so I don’t know what exactly it says.)

Sgt Alfred Robert May

Alfred Robert May was born in Woolwich in 1891 and joined the Royal Flying Corps in 1912. He was serving as a serjeant in No 3 squadron when he qualified as a pilot on 4 August 1914. I don’t know what he did during the war, but he was still around in 1914, when he was promoted from Warrant Officer to temporary Flying Officer in the RAF.

Lt. Victor Osborne Rees

Victor Osborne Rees was a 25-year-old living in Balham in 1912 when he was commissioned as an officer in the 23rd Battlaion of the London Regiment (a territorial regiment). He qualified as a pilot in October 1915. By 1921, he was a Squadron Leader and was awarded the OBE, and he retired as a Group Captain in 1935.

2nd Lt. Gerard Octavius Rooney

Gerard Octavius Rooney was born in 1889 in Clapham (the youngest child of Robert Rooney) and qualified as a pilot while he was an officer in the Royal Irish Fusiliers. In 1918, he was living in Wandsworth and he survived the war – indeed to lived until 1986.

Sgt-Major Frederick Henry Unwin

Frederick Henry Unwin was born in 1882 and, like May, was already in No 3 squadron RFC when he qualified as a pilot the day before the war began in August 1914. In 1919 he was a Major and was awarded the OBE and was later promoted to Wing Commander before retiring in 1932.

Richard Upton

Last but by no means least, Richard Upton also qualified as a pilot in August 1914. He was a master mariner at the time, but went on to join the RFC as a serjeant. He was serving with No 10 Squadron in May 1915 when he died of pneumonia. He is buried in Streatham Cemetery.

 
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Posted by on 8 November 2012 in Award-winners, Ordinary Londoners

 

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London’s air defences

The defence of London from aerial attack is in the news this week. A group of tenants in East London is protesting about stationing of anti-air missiles on their block of flats during the Olympics. Ninety-five years ago, London was encircled by air defences for the first time – guarding against a much more obvious aerial threat: the German Gotha bombers.

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Posted by on 10 July 2012 in Air Raid

 

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