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.
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).
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.
- National Archives Officer service files AIR, WO
- The Great War Forum
- Flight magazine
- Michael O’Connor, Airfields and Airmen – Cambrai
- Joshua Levine, On a Wing and a Prayer
- Liverpool Echo, World War I: Liverpool’s Gilbert ‘Gibb’ Mapplebeck was a true daredevil of the skies