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The Roy brothers: fighting for King and Emperor

Millions of Indians served in the British Indian army in the centuries of British rule over the subcontinent. There were also a small number of Indian-born men in London during the Great War who joined the British forces and served alongside white British servicemen. Two of them were Paresh Lal Roy and his younger brother Indra Lal Roy, who became the first Indian fighter ace.

Lolita Roy and her six children were all born in Calcutta but lived in London from 1901. Her husband Piera Lal Roy was the director of public prosecutions in Calcutta. In 1911, Lolita and the children lived at 77 Brook Green, West London.  The eldest daughter, Leilavati, was 22 years old and married, Lolita’s other daughters were Miravati and Hiravati. The sons all appear to have been educated at St Paul’s School: Paresh Lal, Indra Lal and Lolit Kumar. By 1914, they had moved to 15 Glazeby Road before moving on again in October 1915 to 67 Fitz-George Avenue in Kensington.

Lolita Roy and her six children, listed in the 1911 census at their home at 77 Brook Green, N1

Lolita Roy and her six children, listed in the 1911 census at their home at 77 Brook Green, W

On 21 December 1914, Paresh Lal Roy enlisted in the reserve battalion of the upper-class Honourable Artillery Company, signing up for overseas service immediately. After a few months of training, he left for the front, arriving with the 1st battalion on 1 May 1915, joining 3rd Division. The unit subsequently served as Headquarters troops, as well as serving in the Royal Naval Division (63rd Division) from July 1916 to June 1917.  Other than a note that he was wounded in action on 24 May, but was not hospitalised, and that he was sick for a week in August 1917, there is little information in his service record about his war service in the HAC.

Indra Lal Roy

Indra Lal Roy

Meanwhile, Indra Lal Roy was serving in the school cadet force at St Paul’s.  In April 1917 he left school and joined the Royal Flying Corps. During the months he spent in training he was commissioned the British Army, as a Second Lieutenant in the Royal Flying Corps. As we’ve seen in the cases of G.E.K. Bemand and Walter Tull, non-white men were not strictly allowed to become officers in the army. However, Roy was able to be commissioned; Flight magazine described him as

one of a band of young Indians studying here who, precluded until recently from any chance of obtaining commissions in the Army, found scope for striking a blow for the Empire in the new arm of our forces.

Roy was not the first of these young men who became flying officers. Hardutt Singh Malik, a student at Oxford at the outbreak of war, campaigned to be commissioned in the Royal Flying Corps. Eventually he was given an honorary commission in April 1917 and went to the front in June. Malik served in 62 and 28 Squadron and was credited with two victories.

Following his training and commission, Indra Lal Roy joined the elite 56 Squadron. He was not particularly successful as one of their SE5a pilots, though, and after being injured a crash in that winter he was sent home (accounts vary about whether this was November or December or even early 1918). He had further training back in the UK before being sent back out to the front and joining 40 Squadron (now part of the Royal Air Force) in June 1918, this time as a temporary Lieutenant.

An SE5a fighter

An SE5a fighter

This time, he was extremely successful. During two weeks from 6 to 19 July 1918, he shot down ten enemy aircraft in just over 170 hours of flying. Flying SE5a  number B180, he shot down three German aircraft on 8 July and two each on the 13th and 15th. This was an incredible run of success, perhaps unique. Indra Lal Roy became the first Indian fighter ace.

On 22 July, though Roy successful streak came to an end and he was shot down during a dogfight with Fokker DVIIs from Jasta 29.  He did not return from his mission, but his fate was unknown. It was not until 18 September that it was officially assumed that he had been killed in action.  In the end his body was found, identified and buried in Estevelles Communal Cemetery in France.

Just three days after he was officially declared dead, Roy was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his bravery and skill in those weeks in July:

A very gallant and determined officer, who in thirteen days accounted for nine enemy machines. In these several engagements he has displayed remarkable skill and daring, on more than one occasion accounting for two machines in one patrol.

At the same time, Paresh Lal Roy was seeking to follow his younger brother’s lead and join the Royal Air Force. At the end of September, he was transferred home from the HAC to become a cadet in the RAF. He had not qualified by the end of the war and was discharged in early 1919.

Lt. Indra Lal Roy DFC and Pte Paresh Lal Roy were Indian-born British subjects, living in London. Like many of their contemporaries who remained in India, they joined up to fight in the war and they both served on the Western Front.  Indra was an exceptional example, both for getting a commission in the RFC and RAF and for the skill he displayed that earned him a gallantry medal. Paresh served in the army from 1914 to 1918 and survived the war; he appears to have returned to India and become a prominent amateur boxer (as well as a traffic superintendent).

Sources:

Census records 1901 and 1911

P.L. Roy’s service record

Wikipedia entry on P.L. Roy

National Archives page on I.L. Roy including his service record

The Aerodrome page on I.L. Roy

Dictionary of National Biography entry on I.L. Roy

Flight magazine obituary of I.L Roy

 
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Posted by on 9 October 2013 in Award-winners

 

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A flock of Gothas – 7 July 1917

The apparent ease with which London could be attacked by bombers was a cause of anger embarrassment for the authorities and anger among the population. The July 7th attacks were a prime example of this.  By 1917, the German Zeppelins had been replaced by Gotha bombers, which were again able to spread terror and destruction around the capital.

On 7 July 1917, London was attacked by 22 Gotha bombers, which arrived over the east coast, formed up over Epping Forest and proceeded to bomb the East End and the City of London – in all 57 people were killed. The raid caused great anger about the lack of proper warnings and the lack of effective defences. It prompted another big anti-German riot, just as the sinking of the Lusitania had sparked off the mass rioting and looting in May 1915.

There were many different experiences of the raid.  This post will take a brief look at three of them:

First there were the observers – the people who watched the air but were not directly affected. In the air raids of the Great War, there were a great number of these – partly because the scale of the physical destruction was limited and because many people remained out in the street during these raids.  In the 7 July 1917 raid, many people assumed that the raiders were actually British aircraft until the bombs actually started falling.

Those watching saw something that looked like a flock of birds. Georgina Lee described it in her diary ‘as I turned into Berkeley Gardens the report [i.e. sound] of a gun rattled through the air followed by another and another. Looking skywards I saw a sight I shall never forget. Coming towards me from the north east, like huge brown birds, was a flock of aeroplanes.’

"The raiders, owing to their great height, had the appearance of a flock of birds" (Times History of the War)

“The raiders, owing to their great height, had the appearance of a flock of birds” (Times History of the War)

In their report of it the Times told its readers:

As a spectacle, the raid was the most thrilling that London has seen since the air attacks began. Every phase could be followed from points many miles away without the aid of glasses [i.e. binoculars or a telescope], and hundreds of thousands of people watched the approach of the squadron, the dropping of the bombs, the shelling of the German aeroplanes [by anti-aircraft guns] and the eventual retreat

A Daylight Raid On London, 7th July 1917: Seen from the roof of the Royal College of Science with the Brompton Oratory in the foreground - by Norman G Arnold (C) IWM

A Daylight Raid On London, 7th July 1917: Seen from the roof of the Royal College of Science with the Brompton Oratory in the foreground – by Norman G Arnold (C) IWM

The second experience is that of those on the receiving end of the raid:

Damage to buildings on St Pancras Road after the raid (C) IWM

Damage to buildings on St Pancras Road after the raid (C) IWM

Neil Hanson (in his book The First Blitz) quotes a number of eyewitnesses who saw their houses and neighbourhood buildings destroyed. One report he quotes comes from the account given by an a lad working in an office near Tower Hill, who witnessed the effect of a bomb that fell a hundred yards from his office building. A described:

a blinding flash, a chaos of breaking glass, and the air thick-yellow dust and fumes. Five men had been struck by bomb fragments and a boy of my own age, also hit, died in the afternoon. Outside was a terrible sight, the horses twisted and mangled (the carts had disappeared except for a few burning bits of debris), the front of the office next door, which had caught the full force, blown clean away.  They brought into our building people from the ruins there and I helped to carry them – it was a relief to do something. All the unfortunates had ghastly wounds. I had never seen a dead man before and I was too dazed to realise until afterwards that they must have been stone dead. A fireman, with his axe, put the last horse out of its anguish. The curious thing is that I did not hear the bomb at all and yet I was quite deaf for three days.

Another building that was hit was the General Post Office building in St Martin-le-Grand, the roof of which was set of fire (see IWM picture here).

The General Post Office after the raid (c) IWM

The General Post Office after the raid (c) IWM

The third experience is that of the airmen who struggled – largely in vain – to fight off the raiders. Ninety-five British aircraft were apparently sent up to tackle the Gothas.  The aircraft (including James McCudden the great air ace) and the anti-aircraft guns together had little impact, only managing to bring down one of the enemy machines before they escaped over the Channel The British aircraft followed them there and continued their attack but without any further success. The British, however, lost at least two aircraft and three young airmen.

Among those British airmen were JER Young and CC Taylor, who together chased the Gothas out to sea but were brought down either by the combined fire of the Gothas’ gunners or by British anti-aircraft gunfire, depending whose reports you believe.

Capt John ER Young, RFC. (Daily Mirror 13/7/17)

2nd Lt John ER Young, RFC. (Daily Mirror 13/7/17)

John ER Young, the pilot, grew up in Streatham and went to the Grammar School there before going to work at the British Bank of Northern Commerce. He joined the Artists’ Rifles in the ranks in June 1916 and was commissioned as an officer in the Royal Flying Corps in February 1917.  His body was not pulled from his crashed aeroplane before it sank, so his headstone in Southend cemetery was placed ‘in memory of’ the pilot, with an inscription noting that his body was not recovered. His observer was Cyril C Taylor, whose body was recovered from the wreck and he was buried in West Hamstead Cemetery on 14 July – suggesting that he too was a Londoner, who died in defence of his home.

2nd AM Cyril C Taylor, RFC (D Mirror 14/7/17)

2nd AM Cyril C Taylor, RFC (D Mirror 14/7/17)

All in all, the event highlighted the exposure of London to raids by aeroplanes after the Zeppelins had been fought off in 1916. The expulsion of the capitals few remaining Germans was demanded by angry crowds.  More practically, better defences and better warning systems were also demanded – the warning devices seen in a previous post on this blog largely came in the weeks after the 7 July 1917 air raid.

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Quotations from Home Fires Burning: diary of Georgina Lee (ed Royndon) and First Blitz by Neil Hanson (which also tells the story and context of the raid well).

 
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Posted by on 7 July 2013 in Air Raid, Events, Ordinary Londoners

 

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SH Quicke fought the Red Baron

Manfred von Richthofen was credited with the most ‘victories’ of any Great War fighter ace, bringing down 80 allied aircraft between September 1916 and April 1918. Londoner Flight Sergeant S.H. Quicke faced him at least twice and perished in the Red Baron’s 29th victory.

F/Sgt Sidney Herbert Quicke

F/Sgt Sidney Herbert Quicke

Sidney Herbert Quicke was born in September 1889, the son of Devon-born stained-glass painter Alfred and Londoner Annie Quicke. In 1891, they were living, along with Sidney’s elder sister Alice and brother Alfred and their maternal grandmother Maria Edwards in Alma Street, St Pancras. In 1896, Alfred died at the age of 35 and Annie took in work at home to bring in more money, aided by her elder children once they were old enough to work (i.e. over 12 years old).

By 1911, Annie had remarried; three of her children (including Florence, born in the early ’90s) were each working, and they lived with Annie and with their step-father, Henry Rea at 36 Struan Villas, East Finchley. Sidney was a motor-car driver at a chemical works (Alfred junior was, intriguingly, a playing-card maker).

In 1913, Sidney joined the Royal Flying Corps, which had been formed the year before. He went to France almost as soon as the war started, arriving with No 4 Squadron on 12 August 1914.

By March 1916, he had qualified as an observer, but – clearly showing a great aptitude for his work – he soon became a pilot. He was awarded Royal Aero Club Certificate number 3890 in November 1916 and became an RFC sergeant pilot shortly afterwards.

Having joined 16 Squadron, Quicke was in the air on 6 March 1917 on an artillery observation mission near Vimy when he witnessed Richthofen’s 24th aerial victory, over another 16 Squadron aeroplane in which G.M. Gosset-Bibby and G.J.O. Brichta died.

Just as they saw their comrades’ aircraft spinning to the ground, Quicke and his observer (Captain L.E. Claremont) heard the guns of an enemy fighter. Soon two Halberstadts were upon them: one white and one red. The red one swept round behind them and fired, damaging struts and an aileron, before being driven off by 70 rounds fired by Claremont. They had survived a brush with the Red Baron.

Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron

Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron

Quicke’s luck did not last much longer though. Just over a fortnight later, he was again up in the air near Vimy with an officer as his observer, 2nd Lt W.J. Lidsey from Oxfordshire.

Richthofen’s combat report sums up the encounter from the German’s perspective:

Message came through that enemy planes had been seen at 1,000 metres altitude in spite of bad weather and strong east wind. I went up by myself intending to bring down an infantry or artillery flyer.
After one hour I spotted at 800 metres a large number of artillery flyers beyond the lines. They sometimes approached our front, but never passed it. After several vain attempts I managed, half hidden by clouds, to take one of these BEs by surprise and to attack him at 600 metres, one kilometre beyond our lines.
The adversary made the mistake of flying in a straight line when he tried to evade me, and thus he was just a wink too long in my fire (500 shots). Suddenly he made two uncontrolled curves and dashed, smoking, into the ground. The plane was completely ruined; it fell in section F.3

The aircraft crashed behind the British lines, but the crew could not be saved. The pilot, Sidney Herbert Quicke, was already dead (either from the combat or from the crash) when he was pulled from the wreckage; Lidsey was still alive but severely wounded and died the next day. Quicke was buried in Bruay Communal Cemetery Extension; Lidsey in Aubigny Communal Cemetery, presumably having been died at one of the nearby casualty clearing stations.

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Note: the details of Quicke’s encounters with Richthofen (including the combat report) are taken from the book Under the guns of the Red Baron by Franks, Giblin and McCrery. It is an exhaustive resource about the men who were defeated in battle by the Red Baron, as well as about the two times that he was shot down.

 
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Posted by on 18 April 2013 in Famous People, 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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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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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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Percy Edward Gayer: safety in music

When we read of men overseas in the armed forces, we tend to assume that they were all risking their lives all of the time.  Even the infantry spent much of their time in training or in reserves. Some men were much more fortunate, being stationed miles from the battlefields. Sergeant P.E. Gayer was one of them, combining being a musician with service in the Royal Flying Corps to stay well away from danger.

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Posted by on 18 February 2012 in Ordinary Londoners

 

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