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Gibb Mapplebeck: early aviator and escaper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other sources:

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Posted by on 18 August 2015 in Award-winners

 

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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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