Thursday, July 26, 2018

I got another one down

Edward Corringham ‘Mick’ Mannock, a top British fighter pilot in the First World War (the most remarkable fighter ace of all time according to some), died in combat a century ago today. He was much honoured during his short flying career, and was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. He remains a popular war hero figure, such that the centenary of his death is being marked in Dublin (he was half Irish and a fervent nationalist) and in Brighton, the place of his birth. He left behind a diary of his last year which colourfully and enthusiastically describes his many battle exploits.

Mannock was born at Preston Barracks in Brighton in 1887 to an Irish mother and English father serving in the British Army. He had a rather unsettled childhood, with a spell in India, when he was rather sickly and lost vision in one eye. When the family finally settled in Canterbury, his father abandoned his wife and children. Mannock attended a local school, where he enjoyed sports; he also liked playing the violin. On leaving school, he joined the National Telephone Company, and moved to Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, in 1911 to work with the company’s engineering division. He came to be a local activist in socialist politics, a great admirer of Keir Hardie, and the Secretary of the Wellingborough Independent Labour Party in 1912. He was also a fervent supporter of Irish nationalism.

In 1914, Mannock travelled to Turkey where he picked up work as a labour supervisor with the English Telephone Company. However, with the outbreak of the war, he was interned in Turkish prisons until the Red Cross managed to get him released. He only just survived a tortuous journey home by way of the Middle East. He joined the Royal Engineers, then the Royal Army Medical Corps, and finally, in 1916, the Royal Flying Corps, being assigned to No. 40 Squadron. He proved to be a highly skilled fighter pilot, commanding first No 74  Squadron and then No 85 Squadron, achieving a near record number of aerial victories (61). However, he was killed in a dogfight too close to the ground on 26 July 1918. By then, he had been honoured with the Military Cross twice, and the Distinguished Service Order three times. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. There is a surprising amount of information about Mannock available online, at Wikipedia, VC Online, History Net, The Telegraph, or the BBC for example.

At least a couple of events are taking place to mark the centenary of Mannock’s death - a memorial service in Dublin (see Cork News), and the placing of a plaque in Brighton, just down the road from where I am writing this (see Brighton & Hove Council, Brighton Argus). From March 1917, when Mannock was first posted to France, he kept a diary. This was lost for nearly half a century until unearthed by Mannock’s biographer, Frederick Oughton (Ace With One Eye: the life and combats of Major Edward Mannock, 1963). Oughton went on to edit the diary, which was published in 1966 by Nevill Spearman as The Personal Diary of Major Edward ‘Mick’ Mannock.

Oughton’s biographical sketch begins as follows: ‘[Edward ‘Mick’ Mannock, the most remarkable, and in some ways the most ignored fighter ace of all time, was not a literary man. He was rough-cultured and self-nurtured in the way that a piece of rock which has been chamfered by the weather is cultured. He had inner strength and a sensitivity which several times came into conflict to destroy him. He was a rebel and, as the leading combat pilot during his short life, he knew fear.’ Here are several extracts from the diary.

3 April 1917
‘Rose at 8. The eternal coffee and omelettes. Really the hens must be on war work. Tried to find the office again and subsequently managed to do so. Instructions to proceed to aerodrome. Met Lemon, Dunlop and Kimball on the way. Was catechised and placed in the School - on Bristols Scouts. Censored.’

20 April 1917
‘Too tired or lazy for the last five days to keep up the diary. Went over the lines again on the 16th but nothing exciting except a few ‘Archie’ greetings. 17th, 18th were rotten days and nothing doing in the way of flying. Went to Aire on 17th and 19th to see Dunlop. There’s a hope that he’ll pull through. Went to St Omer on the 18th for a break. Met Hooper and several others of the old school.

On the 19th did some gun practice and in one dive from two thousand my right bottom plane broke and fell clean away. Managed to right the machine after desperate efforts with the ‘joy stick’ and landed slowly and safely about half a mile away from aerodrome. Such a thing has never happened before where the pilot has not been killed or injured by the fall.

Another ‘rag’ in the mess on the night of the 19th. Boxed with de Burgh. Crocked my knee and arm. Old McKechnie’s farewell night as he’s proceeding home tomorrow morning. Great doings. Returned to bed at 2 a.m. and to be called at 5.30. Went to St Omer by side car at 6 p.m. to fetch a new machine, feeling like a wet rag. Mouth felt like the bottom of a parrot cage. However, felt better after the drive, and brought the old ‘bus’ back O.K. in eight minutes. Some travelling. Had four letters today, from Bright, Paddy, Jessie and Cambridge, so I look forward to a busy evening. I hear from Buddy M that Jim Ranson is somewhere near, in the 58 Division. Must look him up.

Over the lines today on Parry’s bus. Engine cut out three times. Wind up. Now I can understand what a tremendous strain to the nervous system active service flying is. However cool a man may be there must always be more or less of a tension on the nerves under such trying conditions. When it is considered that seven out of ten forced landings are practically ‘write offs’, and 50 per cent are cases where the pilot is injured, one can quite understand the strain of the whole business.

Tip I’ve picked up: If forced to land in Hunland, strike well inside the lines. Don’t land near the trenches but well back. The trench dwellers are not noted for their chivalry.’

16 June 1917
‘Yesterday had to see the Doctor again about my eye. Had some more cocaine and he extracted another piece of steel from the membrane. No flying for me again today. Captain Keen got a Hun last night in flames over Vitry. Awfully hot weather. Went to Lilies with the padre today. Brought plenty of tobacco back and strawberries and cherries for the mess. Nothing doing in the air line today at all.

Expect my leave in about three weeks’ time. Roll on! I think I’ve got prickly heat rash breaking out on my face - never handsome at the best of times! Don’t sleep very well o’night. My sins probably!

Captain Napier came back today although he’s still not quite fit.’

5 September 1917
‘The end of a fairly hard day. Went over to Petit Vimy and Thelus in a side-car this morning in an endeavour to pick up some relics of the last victim, downed yesterday afternoon in flames. Regret that nothing remained of the machine. I met this unfortunate DFW at about ten thousand feet over Avion coming south-west, and I was travelling south-east. I couldn’t recognize the black crosses readily (he was about three hundred yards away and about five hundred feet above me) so I turned my tail towards him and went in the same direction, thinking that if he were British, he wouldn’t take any notice of me, and if a Hun, I felt sure he would put his nose down and have a shot (thinking I hadn’t seen him). The ruse worked beautifully. His nose went down (pointing at me) and I immediately whipped round, dived and ‘zoomed’ up behind him, before you could say ‘Knife’. He tried to turn, but he was much too slow for the Nieuport. I got in about fifty rounds in short bursts whilst on the turn, and he went down in flames, pieces of wing and tail, etc. dropping away from the wreck. It was a horrible sight and made me feel sick. He fell down in our own lines, and I followed to the ground, although I didn’t land. The boys gave me a great ovation.

The same morning I got another one down east of Lens, confirmed by the A.A. people. Captain Keen had previously engaged it, but broke of [sic] combat in order to renew ammunition drum. I got quite close up and let him have a full drum, and he went nose down east. Owing to the haze, I couldn’t see him crash.

Prior to that - at 9.40 a.m. I had a beautiful running fight with another two-seater at seventeen thousand feet from Bruay to east of Lens. This one got away notwithstanding the fact that I fired.’

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