Norfolk’s WWI Fighter Ace

Fearless, ruthless and uncommonly lucky, Norwich schoolboy Philip Fletcher Fullard DSO, MC, AFC was one of the greatest fighter aces of the First World War. Relatively unknown and overshadowed by the likes of Ball, Bishop and McCudden, Philip Fullard was one of the highest scoring fighter pilots of WW1 being credited with a final score of 46. Many would have considered this score on it’s own a remarkable achievement, but what made it even more so was the fact that he achieved it in just six months, a period which included leave and a bout of sick leave. However his run of victories was finally brought to an end, not by an enemy bullet, but by a football injury acquired during a match just three days before the start of the battle of Cambrai in November 1917.

Norfolk Ace (Philip F Fullard)

Fullard was born on the 27th May 1897 at Merton Hall Road, Wimbledon, Surrey to parents Annie and Thomas Fletcher. The family moved to Norwich sometime after 1901 where Philip Fullard was educated at the Norwich Grammar School – later to be renamed Norwich School. Fullard developed an active enthusiasm for sport while at school, captaining both the hockey and football teams. It has been rumoured that whilst at school, or shortly afterwards, he played for the Norwich City Football Club reserve team; subsequent enquiries indicated that the Club have no record of Fullard playing for them.

He enlisted in the British Army in 1915 and, initially, served with the Royal Irish Fusiliers.  As with many other ultimately successful airmen Fullard sought and received a transfer to the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) in 1916, receiving training at the School of Aeronautics at Oxford and then at Netheravon and Upavon.  He received his pilot’s certificate in the December of that year and went on to initially serve with the RFC in the capacity of flight instructor at Upavon. Fullard finally, in April 1917, achieved his desire for active combat with a posting to 1 Squadron on the Western Front in , the month of the highly successful Allied attack at Vimy Ridge.

 At 20 and just two years out of school, he was already a combat veteran whose lethal record of success belied his boyish features. In a whirlwind five months tour on the Western Front, the prize-winning Norfolk scholar was becoming one of the rising stars of the Royal Flying Corps with 28 victories to his name and a Military Cross and Bar to add to his academic and sporting achievements.

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Since joining No 1 Squadron at Bailleul in May 1917 as an already accomplished pilot with a penchant for performing stunts his career trajectory had been upward all the way until one day in September 1917 an act of folly very nearly proved fatal. It resulted in Fullard damaging blood vessels in one eye while out flying, brought on by his frustration of experiencing a fruitless chase above the war-torn battlefield in his Nieuport Scout, At that moment, he decided to make up for the lack of adrenalin-charged excitement with a little test of his own – as he explained:

“……..I thought that for an experiment I would see what would happen if a Nieuport was put out of control with the engine full on, so, letting go the controls, I waited. The machine fell 12,000 feet in a diving spin at great speed, when suddenly I felt an intense pain in my head and found I could see nothing at all. I thought I had been shot, and, managing to make the machine fly level at a slow speed and, after what seemed a long time, I began to see very indistinctly with one eye the blurred outline of white objects. I picked out the white cross on the aerodrome and landed safely, still in great pain in the eyeballs and quite blind in one eye………”

The resulting temporary blindness kept him away from the fray for much of the next month and it was this self-inflicted near-disaster which accounted for the presence, for the first time among his flying kit, of a pair of goggles. Until that spectacular brush with catastrophe, he had preferred to fly his wind-buffeted, open cockpit fighter, without any protection for his eyes and preferring nothing to hinder his sight of the enemy.

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 Close encounter: Fullard poses in the cockpit of a captured German Albatros fighter. Picture Steve Snelling collection.

Though not of his choosing, the change to his flying face attire made no difference to his run of success in the warring skies above the embattled troops slogging their way across the Flanders bog below. The bitter fighting around Passchendaele showed no sign of letting up as Philip Fletcher Fullard made his way back to his fighter squadron after a month’s enforced rest.

He lost no time in continuing his amassing of a highly impressive aerial victory tally. During the four weeks following his return at the end of September 1917 he was as consistent and courageous as ever, equalling his best monthly return of his short combat career with five enemy aircraft destroyed, six shot down ‘out of control’ and an observation balloon ‘deflated’. All 40 of his overall total score of successes were achieved between May and November 1917. It was a performance which confirmed his status as one of the leading ‘aces’ of the British air services and would help to make him the highest-scoring Englishman to survive the First World War – flying Nieuport aircraft to great effect.

Norfolk Ace ( Fullard's Nieuport - Replica)
Nieuport 17/23 Scout Replica in the markings B’3459 of Captain Philip Fletcher Fullard No.1 Sqn RFC Bailleul Aerodrome September 1917. Fullard shot down 17 enemy aircraft in this aircraft. Photographed at IWM Duxford. Source http://www.airmuseumsuk.org/

Such was his prowess that he briefly gained celebrity status when a reluctant high command bowed to media pressure and identified him, together with the legendary James McCudden, as one of the nation’s ‘Air Stars’.

That much was certainly true, along with his character traits which went unmentioned at the time but contributed to Fullard’s remarkable record as a fighter pilot, namely his: fearlessness, ruthlessness and self-confidence bordering on arrogance which, when allied to his supreme mastery of his flying machine, made him the most formidable of adversaries. Interviewed years later when he was in his 80s, his past self confidence, and probable arrogance showed through once more when he scoffed at the romanticised image of the first war in the air as a courtly joust between devil-may-care aviators portrayed as latter-day knights.

“I don’t think it existed,” he declared. “You couldn’t have operated like that……”. Clearly, his approach to aerial combat was also decidedly unsentimental. “I just felt I wanted to survive,” he said, “and the best way of doing that was to kill the other fellow.” By way of an example he recalled an early morning clash that took place some 2,000 feet above the shell-churned wilderness in October 1917 and at the height of the Passchendaele offensive. Having manoeuvred close beneath the tail of an enemy two-seater, he proceeded to shoot it up “properly”, as he put it. With the rear gunner seemingly silenced and the aircraft at his mercy, he then decided to change the ‘drum’ on his machine-gun which entailed him having to hold the joystick with his knees while he fumbled to replenish his ammunition. “Suddenly, the observer in the machine that I thought I had dealt with………came to life again and fairly shot me up properly”…….”The burst of fire ripped through my flying coat, punctured the oil tank, ignited a supply of Verey lights and, as I turned to look, tore off my goggles *#!”. Fullard’s reaction was anything but chivalrous. “I had no qualms about going down again and shooting him to pieces,” he said. “I mean, I wasn’t going to be insulted in that way……..I shot him down and he was seen to fall in flames quite close to the lines.”

The combat over Moorslede which resulted in his 37th aerial victory also illustrated another – arguably the most valuable if intangible of all – of his many virtues as a fighter pilot – it was his extraordinary good fortune. He was not one to carry a “good luck token” on any of his sorties and it was his enviable claim to fame within the squadron that he never lost anybody “who was flying with me in any formation, whether it was six, 12 or two aircraft”……..“As to my own machines,” he recalled, “I changed……two or three times because they were shot up but I was never shot down. Including the eye thing, I had to come down five times for one reason or another…….twice just behind the lines. Once, upside down and once, in a shell-hole…… and I don’t think I ruined machines except on one or two of these occasions.”

However, his greatest stroke of luck came not in the air but on the ground. On November 17, 1917 he suffered a compound fracture of his right leg while playing football for his squadron against a team from an army battalion resting nearby. The 20-year-old patrol leader, who had escaped serious injury in countless combats during 250 hours of flying over the battle zone, was carried off to hospital never to return to front-line action.

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Norfolk’s ace: Philip Fullard DSO, MC and Bar recovering hospital following the football injury that probably saved his life. Picture Steve Snelling collection.

“This happened immediately before the Cambrai offensive,” he later wrote, “so that I was very hurriedly evacuated to England to make room for the expected casualties…….Perhaps owing to this hasty move, my leg refused to set properly and, after seven attempts had been made, it was eventually plated more than a month after the fracture.”

The injury denied him the opportunity to add to his score of 46 victories, all of them achieved with No 1 Squadron within the space of a little under five months, but in all probability saved his life. Whereas many another great aces fell victim to the unrelenting strain of combat in the final year of the war, Philip Fullard recovered, albeit slowly, to take on the less glamorous but less hazardous role of an area flying examining officer. His venturesome war ended in Yorkshire as a 21-year-old major with a Distinguished Service Order, a Military Cross and Bar and just one big regret – that he had not been awarded the Victoria Cross for which he had been cited in the autumn of 1917 when his flying career was at its zenith. Though other awards came his way during a distinguished career spanning more than three decades the absence of the VC was to rankle with Fullard for many years after the First World war was over. Speaking about it in the late 1970s, Norfolk’s most successful fighter ace, still remembered being shown a copy of the rejected recommendation after it had been returned to the squadron adjutant. Scrawled across it in crayon was the brigade commander’s comment:

“Make him get some more.”

Despite Fullard’s disappointment at the time, he still elected to remain with the Royal Air Force, eventually reaching Air Commodore rank and serving once again during the Second World War (including a period as Duty Air Commodore at HQ Fighter Command); he eventually retired on 20 November 1946 at the age of 49.

Fullard, who won both the Distinguished Service Order and the Military Cross (with Bar) in 1917 and was in later years awarded the CBE, died on 24 April 1984 at the age of 86.

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THE END

5th Battalion Norfolk Regiment – The True Story

This article is designed to tell the true story of what happened to the 1/5th Battalion Norfolk Regiment on 12th August 1915 at Kuchuck Anafarta Ova, Gallipoli, during World War One. Supported by recent research, it dispels many of the myths attached to the battalion including ‘disappearing into a cloud of smoke‘.

5th Norfolks (Memorial Window)
A detail from a memorial window at the church at Aldburgh. Depicting the regimental badge, it commemorates the men who died in the Suvla Bay operations at Gallipoli. From the Broads Marshman collection. – To continue……..

The first myth is that the 5/Norfolks were called the ‘Sandringham Battalion’ but this is not correct. It is incorrect because it recruited from all over North Norfolk, with companies being raised by towns as far apart as Great Yarmouth and Dereham. In fact what was known as ‘E’ Company (The Sandringham Company) ceased to exist on February 8th 1915, when during a major reform they converted to a 4 company battalion, merging with C Company to become ‘King’s Company’.

 

The second myth has to be covered by considering a number of claims:

  1. A dispatch by Sir Ian Hamilton reported, ‘But the Colonel, with sixteen officers and 250 men, still kept pushing on, driving the enemy before them. … Nothing more was ever seen or heard of any of them. They charged into the forest and were lost to sight or sound. Not one of them ever came back.’
  2. When the 50th Anniversary of Gallipoli came round in 1965, references to the Sandringham Company, Battalion and Regiment first started to emerge when three New Zealand veterans claimed to have seen a British regiment marching up a sunken road to be swallowed up in a cloud.
  3. This led to other theories that they had been kidnapped by aliens who had landed in flying saucers and a book and TV adaptation depicted a highly charged new solution to the mysteries, suggesting they had been executed by the Turks.

We know that a number of the Norfolks managed to advance 1400 yards to a sunken road before stopping and awaiting the rest of the battalion. Second Lieutenant Fawkes commanded this small group and he was ordered to press on by the C.O. Colonel Proctor-Beauchamp. Virtually all of them were taken down when they bunched up in a gap covered by a machine gun.

A small element of the Norfolks managed to reach a small vineyard and another element managed to get to a group of small cottages where they were joined by Colonel Proctor-Beauchamp and the Adjutant. Beauchamp was seen by Private S T Smith to say ‘Hound them out boys!’ It was the last time he was seen alive and probably the last order he ever gave.

It was here that the surviving officers managed to take stock of what had happened and Major W Barton and Lieutenant Evelyn Beck led the survivors back to friendly lines when it became dark. And the mystery was, in fact, cleared up by the press very early on.

Private C. Bullimore
Private 1432, Cecil Ernest Bullimore, killed in action on 12th August 1915

The local papers initially reported the loss of 5th Norfolk officers on 28th August 1915 and accounts from men who were there were published soon after, especially in the Yarmouth Mercury and the Lynn News. One article dated 27th August 1915 noted:

‘It is with the deepest regret that we publish the list of missing officers of the 5th (Territorial) Battalion of the Norfolk Regiment. At the time of going to press, no further information is available than the bare fact that they are missing.’

Hamilton’s dispatch did not appear until 6th January 1916 and on 7th January 1916 the Eastern Daily Press reported, ‘SANDRINGHAM MEN DISAPPEAR.’ The article went on to state that 16 officers and 250 men pushed deep into enemy lines and ‘…were lost from sight and sound. None of them ever came back.’ This directly quoted Hamilton’s after action report.

But on 15th February 1916 the Lynn News reported that one officer was now recovering from wounds in a hospital as a prisoner of the Turks in Constantinople and noted:

‘This news of Capt. Coxon will come as a relief to not only his friends but also to those who are still awaiting news of other officers and men of the 5th Norfolks. It is obvious that an officer in hospital would have greater opportunities for writing home to his friends than others who were not wounded but are prisoners of war.

Captain Coxon

And there is this excellent article printed in the Lynn News from a survivor:

‘I did not see anything of the missing officers after I got lost. I heard the Colonel call out when we approached the huts I have referred to, but I did not see him then. I did not hear him again afterwards. During the attack I did not see anything of Capt Pattrick. I did not see any wood into which the officers and men could have disappeared, and I certainly did not see them charge into a wood: in fact the Norfolks did not charge as far as my knowledge goes. I know absolutely nothing about how the officers and men disappeared. At first, like others, I thought that the officers and men who are now reported missing had returned to other trenches but later I found that this was not the case. I inquired a lot about them but all I could find out was that they had disappeared-vanished. We could only come to the conclusion that they had advanced too far, had been captured and made prisoners of war. We knew that some of the men had been killed and others been wounded, so it did not seem at all unlikely that these others had been captured by the enemy. I heard no news about the 5th Norfolks charging into a wood until I came home.’

Private Sidney Pooley 1/5th Norfolk Regiment.

As with countless engagements in World War One, the bodies of the men who fell that day did not have the luxury of a burial detail. In fact, they lay where they fell until 1919 when the battalion’s Chaplin the Reverend Pierrepoint Edwards found them and reported at the time:

‘We have found the 5th Norfolks – there were 180 in all; 122 Norfolk and a few Hants and Suffolks with 2/4th Cheshires. We could only identify two – Privates Barnaby and Carter. They were scattered over an area of about one square mile, at a distance of at least 800 yards behind the Turkish front line. Many of them had evidently been killed in a farm, as a local Turk, who owns the place, told us that when he came back he found the farm covered with the decomposing bodies of British soldiers, which he threw into a small ravine. The whole thing quite bears out the original theory that they did not go very far on, but got mopped up one by one, all except the ones who got into the farm.’

And the actual casualty list, recorded between 12th and 31st August 1915, is 11 Officers and 151 Other Ranks killed. This total comes from a database called ‘Soldiers Died in the Great War’.

Supported by recent research, this article may perhaps help to clarify what actually happened to the 5th Battalion Norfolk Regiment and acknowledges their bravery and tenacity in the face of an extremely determined enemy.

By Steve Smith.

The Lost Sandringhams!

The men of E Company had grown up together, playing cricket for the same village team, chasing the same girls and drinking in the same pubs and inns. And now, as members of the 5th Territorial Battalion the Royal Norfolk Regiment, they were about to go to war together.

It was during the hot August of 1914 when groups of friends, team-mates and work colleagues  from across Britain eagerly enlisted to fight the Bosch. But what the soldiers of E Company, 5th Territorial Battalion the Royal Norfolk Regiment, had in common was something rather unusual: they all belonged to the staff of the Royal Estate at Sandringham.

Sandringham WKPD
Sandringham House

The company had been formed in 1908 at the personal request of their employer, King Edward VII. He asked Frank Beck, his land agent to undertake the task. This he did, recruiting more than 100 part-time soldiers or territorials.

As was the custom in the territorial battalions of the day, military rank was dictated by social class. Members of the local gentry like Frank Beck and his two nephews became the officers. The estate’s foremen, butlers, head gamekeepers and head gardeners were the NCOs. The farm labourers, grooms and household servants made up the rank and file.

What happened to the Sandringhams during the disastrous Dardanelles campaign in the middle of their very first battle, on the afternoon of August 12, 1915? One minute the men, led by their commanding officer, Sir Horace Proctor-Beauchamp, were charging bravely against the Turkish enemy. The next they had disappeared. Their bodies were never found. There were no survivors. They did not turn up as prisoners of war. – They simply vanished!

King George V at the FrontGeneral Sir Ian Hamilton, the British Commander-in-Chief in Gallipoli, appeared as puzzled as everyone else. He reported: ‘there happened a very mysterious thing’. Explaining that during the attack, the Norfolks had drawn somewhat ahead of the rest of the British line’. He went on ‘The fighting grew hotter, and the ground became more wooded and broken.’ But Colonel Beauchamp with 16 officers and 250 men, ‘still kept pushing on, driving the enemy before him.’ ‘Among these ardent souls was part of a fine company enlisted from the King’s Sandringham estates. Nothing more was ever seen or heard of any of them. They charged into the forest and were lost to sight and sound. Not one of them ever came back.’ Their families had nothing to go on but rumours and a vague official telegram stating that their loved ones had been ‘reported missing’.

King George V could gain no further information other than that the Sandringhams had conducted themselves with ‘ardour and dash’. Queen Alexandra made inquiries via the American ambassador in Constantinople to discover whether any of the missing men might be in Turkish prisoner-of-war camps. Grieving families contacted the Red Cross and placed messages in the papers, hoping for news of their sons and husbands from returning comrades. But all to no avail.

So what really happened to men of Sandringham?

The Events…

Along with thousands of other troops, the 5th Battalion of the Norfolk Regiment had set sail from Liverpool on July 30, 1915, aboard the luxury liner Aquitania.

At 54, Captain Beck need not have led his men to war. But despite his age, he was determined to do so.

‘I formed them,’ he said bravely, ‘How could I leave them now? The lads will expect me to go with them; besides I promised their wives and children I would look after them’.

5th Norfolks (Memorial Window)
A detail from a memorial window at the church at Aldburgh. Depicting the regimental badge, it commemorates the men who died in the Suvla Bay operations at Gallipoli. From the Broads Marshman collection. – To continue……..

The battalion landed at Suvla Bay on August 10, in the thick of the fighting, and was immediately ordered inland.

Officers and men were being continually shot down, not only by rifle fire from the enemy in front of them, but by snipers.

The climate was broiling by day and freezing at night. Men were already suffering from dysentery and from the side-effects of inoculations and seasick tablets administered during the voyage. There was a desperate lack of water – two pints were supposed to last each man three days.

Then, on August 12, just two days after they had arrived in this arid, hostile land, the 5th Battalion was told it was to attack that afternoon. The orders were confused. Some thought the plan was to clear away the enemy’s forward positions in preparation for the main British assault. Others believed their target was the village of Anafarta Saga on the ridge ahead of them. The officers were handed maps, which they soon discovered did not even show the area they were supposed to be attacking.

Having been in the baking sun all day the inexperienced troops were thirsty and scared – and now they were to launch a major assault on a well-armed enemy in broad daylight and with little cover. Only Private George Carr, a 14-year-old Norfolk lad, was to survive the bloodshed of that afternoon. Exhausted by the battle, he was saved by a stretcher-bearer called Herbert Saul, a pacifist who refused to carry a rifle on principle.

Great War CC

At 4.15-pm whistles blew and the Norfolks began to advance, led by Colonel Beauchamp, waving his cane and shouting: ‘On the Norfolks, on.’ Captain Beck was at the head of the Sandringhams. Even though they were still a mile-and-a-half from the Turkish positions, the order to fix bayonets and to advance at the double was given. The slaughter began immediately as the Turkish artillery trained in on the advancing British soldiers. By the time the Norfolks reached the enemy lines they were already exhausted.

A desperate battle ensued, officers and men being cut down all around by snipers hidden in the trees. Everywhere officers and men of the battalion were dying. A shell landed close to Frank Beck. He was last seen sitting under a tree with his head on one side, either dead or simply too tired to continue.In the midst of the bloodshed, Colonel Beauchamp continued to advance through a wood towards the Turks’ main positions, leading a band of 16 officers and 250 men. Among them were the Sandringhams.

Eventually, the Colonel was spotted, standing with another officer in a farm on the far side of the wood. ‘Now boys,’ he shouted, ‘ we’ve got the village. Let’s hold it.’ That was the last anyone saw or heard of Beauchamp, or any of his men, including the Sandringhams. They had all disappeared, amid the smoke and flying bullets, never to be seen again.

Queen AlexandriaIn 1918 when the war had ended, the War Graves Commission searched the Gallipoli battlefields. Of the 36,000 Commonwealth servicemen who died in the campaign, 13,000 rested in unidentified graves, another 14,000 bodies were simply never found. During one of these searches a Norfolks regimental cap badge was found buried in the sand along with the corpses of a number of soldiers. The find was reported to the Rev Charles Pierre-Point Edwards, MC, who was in Gallipoli on a War Office mission to find out what had happened to the 5th Norfolks. It was likely that he had been sent there by Queen Alexandra.

Edwards’ examination of the area where the badge had been found uncovered the remains of 180 bodies; 122 of them were identifiable from their shoulder flashes as men of the 5th Norfolks. The bodies had been found scattered over an area of one square mile, to the rear of the Turkish front line ‘lying most thickly round the ruins of a small farm’. This, Edwards concluded, was probably the farm at which Colonel Beauchamp had last been seen. The surrounding area was wooded, the only area in the Suvla vicinity that matched with General Hamilton’s description of a forest.

Four years later came news from Turkey of a gold fob-watch, looted from the body of a British officer in Gallipoli. It was Frank Beck’s. The watch was later presented to Margeretta Beck, Frank’s daughter, on her wedding day.

And so it is here that the story of the Vanished Battalion might have ended.

The Mystery…

Many years later, in April 1965, at the 50th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings, a former New Zealand sapper called Frederick Reichardt issued an extraordinary testimony. Supported by three other veterans, Reichardt claimed to have witnessed the supernatural disappearance of the 5th Norfolks in August 1915.

According to Reichardt, on the afternoon in question he and his comrades had watched a formation of ‘six or eight’ loaf-shaped clouds hovering over the area where the Norfolks were pressing home their attack. Into one of these low lying clouds marched the advancing battalion. An hour or so later, the cloud ‘very unobtrusively’ rose and joined the other clouds overhead and sailed off, leaving no trace of the soldiers behind them.

All the Kings Men (amazon)This strange story first appeared in a New Zealand publication. Despite its unreliable provenance and inconsistencies (Reichardt got the wrong date, the wrong battalion and the wrong location), this version of events captured popular imagination at that time. More recent and detailed research for a BBC television documentary in 1991 called “All the King’s Men.” suggested that Reichardt’s story of the battalion-lifting cloud may have been a little confused. More significantly the BBC research unearthed two new important items of evidence.

The first piece of new evidence was an account of a conversation with the Rev Pierre-Point Edwards some years after the war, which revealed an extraordinary detail he omitted from his official report about the fate of the 5th Norfolks – namely, that every one of the bodies he found had been shot in the head.

It was known that the Turks did not like taking prisoners. This was confirmed by the second piece of evidence, which told the story of Arthur Webber, who fought with the Yarmouth Company of the 5th Norfolks during the battle of August 12, 1915.

According to his sister in-law, Arthur was shot in the face. As he lay injured on the ground, he heard the Turkish soldiers shooting and bayoneting the wounded and the prisoners around him. Only the intervention of a German officer saved his life. His comrades were all executed on the spot.

Arthur Webber died in 1969, aged 86, still with the Turkish sniper’s bullet in his head.

Can the true fate of the 5th Battalion now be more fully explained?

In that after their bold dash through the wood on the 12th of August…

Colonel Beauchamp and the Sandringhams were overwhelmed by their Turkish enemies…

They were either captured or they surrendered…

The Turks took no prisoners…

So they were butchered…and buried.

Is this what became of the Vanished Battalion?

By Ben Johnson

Update: Steve Smith, author of ‘And They Loved Not Their Lives Unto Death: The History of Worstead and Westwick’s War Memorial and War Dead’, has written an article “5th Battalion Norfolk Regiment – The True Story” which is reproduced on this site – it may shed some light on the fate of the Vanished Battalion.

Touching the Face of God!

For about 30 months during WW1, the names of Robert Leckie and South Denes at Yarmouth were intrinsically linked. He, a Scottish born Canadian pilot and South Denes being the site of the Royal Naval Air Station (RNAS) from where Leckie and some 30 aircraft and air crew played an exceptional roll in keeping the enemy at bay. Whilst at South Denes, Robert Leckie set course to become a highly decorated officer and later, when the war had ended, was to carve out a distinguished career in military flying. As for Great Yarmouth’s RNAS station, she was destined to be all but forgotten and long wiped off the map. Here’s their story:

Yarmouth (RNAS)
Arial view of the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) station at South Denes, Yarmouth, Norfolk UK.

Long before his defiant speeches helped rally a country at risk from the Nazi menace in World War II, Winston Churchill played a key role in establishing an earlier barrier to German invaders – one in which Great Yarmouth had a vital role to play. Churchill was responsible for the setting up of Great Yarmouth’s Royal Naval Air Station (RNAS) at South Denes as part of a national network of stations founded in 1912 to run alongside the new Royal Flying Corps. These stations were charged to counter the perceived growing German menace and their main “naval” role (ignoring the service’s direct field “support” of the Royal Flying Corp) was fleet reconnaissance, patrolling coasts for enemy ships and submarines and attacking enemy coastal territory. It would, during its time, systematically search thousands of square miles of the North Sea for enemy aircraft of any kind and U-boats.

At Yarmouth the site chosen for a regional RNAS station was on the South Denes, an area outside the town’s walls which had had a variety of uses over the centuries, from cattle grazing to public hangings, horse racing to a place for fishermen to dry their nets. It took a little while but the Admiralty eventually earmarked this area after having searched for over a year for suitable land where hydro-aeroplanes could be handled and launched. Gradually, the site witnessed the arrival of concrete hard-standings, service buildings, hangars and slipways.

Commissioned on April 13 1913, the Yarmouth Station grew rapidly, taking on civilians later that year who would be responsible for the care, maintenance and repair of machinery; they would also act as chauffeurs, storekeepers or telephone operators. Then in 1914 came seven officers, two warrant officers, 29 ratings and three pensioners to play their part on one of only eight airfields in Britain, ready-built to combat aerial threats. Interestedly, naval terms would apply; personnel not living on-site were called ‘The Ship’s Company’ and would be treated well, with free transport between their lodgings and the base. As for the public, they were forbidden to approach the site when aircraft movements were likely, but could visit the planes on Sunday afternoons if no ‘emergency’ was declared.

When fully operational, the Yarmouth Station’s 30 planes would go on to fill its potential for combating raids by airborne Zeppelins, spotting German surface raiders and playing a major part in submarine detection. Unlike some RNAS stations, Yarmouth was now equipped to act as both a land and a flying boat base with seaplanes initially launched by trolleys. Later, two slipways of heavy sleepers pinned to beach-driven piles were built, one at each end and intentionally placed opposite aircraft sheds, to aid arriving and departing aircraft. The base was also supported by additional landing ground facilities at satellite bases in Norfolk at Bacton, Burgh Castle, Holt (Bayfield) and Sedgeford, plus Aldeburgh and Covehithe in Suffolk. At the time, the Admiralty had also planned to take over Hickling Broad and use it as a reserve flying boat base and contractors duly built a concrete slipway, but this was never completed. In the event, Hickling was only used during the war for two emergency landings, but a separate arrangement allowed seaplanes destined for Yarmouth to land on the calmer waters of the broad if the sea were too rough. That arrangement is still in force!

Yarmouth (Gnome)
The first arrival at South Denes was a standard military biplane, which flew in from Hendon on May 31 1915. It was the 100hp Gnome, described as a ‘floating machine’. Normally a two-seater for a pilot at the front and rear observer, a third person could also squeeze into the rear but in practice that rarely would happen.

Yarmouth (Attack Plaque).jpgA stark reminder of what Yarmouth was up against was when the town became the victim of the first-ever aerial attack on the UK by a Zeppelin airship; this was during the early evening of January 19 1915 when two townsfolk were killed. The South Denes planes, just a mile or two away, were unable to intercept because they could not match the airship’s cruising height. The Station would have to wait until November 27 1916 for its first success when a Zeppelin was shot down over the sea near Lowestoft, the date of which coming close to the moment when Robert Leckie arrived at the station and yet to make his mark and be known as one of “the Zeppelin killers from Canada”.

Robert Leckie

Robert Leckie was born in Glasgow on 16 April 1890 into a family of weavers who emigrated to Canada. When old enough, Leckie was initially commissioned into the 1st Central Ontario Regiment, and in late 1915 paid 600 Canadian Dollars to begin flying training at the Curtiss Flying School on Toronto Island. However, he had completed only three hours of training in the Curtiss Model F. flying boat at Hanlan’s Point, when the school was forced to close. At the urging of Sir Charles Kingsmill, the Chief of the Canadian Naval staff, the Royal Navy agreed to accept half of the class and Leckie was sent to England. On 6 December 1915, he was commissioned as a probationary temporary flight sub-lieutenant in the Royal

Yarmouth (Curtiss_F_floatplane)
A Curtiss Model F. Flying Boat

Naval Air Service, and posted to Royal Navy Air Station Chingford, for training. On 10 May 1916, having accumulated 33 hours and 3 minutes flying time, he was granted a Royal Aero Club Aviator’s Certificate and was then sent to RNAS Felixstowe for further training in flying boats. He was confirmed in his rank of flight sub-lieutenant in June, and in August was posted to RNAS Great Yarmouth situated at South Denes.

14 May 1917: Leckie’s First Success.

On 26 April 1917 the Admiralty put a new tracking system in place to detect Zeppelins. As Zeppelins patrolled, their courses were methodically plotted by the British wireless interception stations and, if they approached within 150 miles of the English Coast, their position, course, and speed were communicated direct to one or more of the East Coast flying-boat bases. Local commanders then had discretion to send out aircraft – keeping them up to date with the Zeppelin’s position by wireless.

Curtiss H-12 ‘Large America’ in RNAS service, c.1917

Soon after dawn on the 14 May 1917, in misty weather, news was received of a Zeppelin near the Terschelling Light Vessel. A Curtiss H12 ‘Large America’, manned by Flight Lieutenant Christopher John Galpin, Flight Sub-Lieutenant Robert Leckie, Chief Petty Officer Vernon Frank Whatling, and Air Mechanic J Laycock, was sent out from Yarmouth. As pilot, Galpin took off from South Denes at 03.30 a.m. in poor weather with heavy rain and low cloud. After eighty miles, the flying-boat shut down the wireless to lessen the chances of discovery. At 04.45am, the weather cleared as the aircraft approached the Dutch island of Texel, then further on, crew spotted the Terschelling Light Vessel and at 04.48 the Zeppelin L 22 came into view at a distance of about 10–15 miles. Immediately, the Curtiss increased speed and gained height, and Leckie took over the controls as Galpin manned the twin Lewis guns mounted in the bow.

Yarmouth (L22 Hit)
The Destruction of the L.22 Zeppelin

Leckie managed to approach to within half a mile before his Curtiss was spotted and the Zeppelin attempted to take evasive action but as events turned out, it was too late. Leckie made a skilful approach and dived on the Zeppelin until he was twenty feet below and fifty feet to starboard of her gondolas. Galpin then opened fire from the two Lewis guns in the forward cock-pit, but after a burst of fire both guns jammed, one after the other. Leckie turned the aircraft away and an attempt was made to clear the guns, however, no second attack was necessary. As the flying-boat turned, the L22 Zeppelin began to glow and within seconds she was falling in flames. Her skeleton plunged upright into the sea, leaving no trace in the dawning light save a mound of black ash on the surface of the water. The Curtiss returned to South Denes base by 7:50 a.m and they found only two bullet holes, in the left upper wing and the hull amidships, where the Germans had returned fire. In his Report to the Commander of Yarmouth RNAS, Galpin stated “……..I would submit to your notice that the success of the attack was due to the good judgment and skill of Flt Sub Lt Leckie…….” On 22 June, Leckie was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his part in downing the L 22; on 30 June, Leckie was promoted to flight lieutenant.

A publicity shot of the crew and their  Curtiss H12

Leckie’s Subsequent Successes.

The next success for Leckie was at 10.35 a.m. on 5 September 1917, again flying a Curtiss H-12 from South Denes, under Squadron Commander Vincent Nicholl. They were accompanied by a de Havillan DH.4 biplane, and were again heading for Terschelling. However, they were only part-way to their destination when they unexpectedly encountered the Zeppelins L 44 and L 46 accompanied by support ships. The British aircrafts were hit by enemy fire, but pressed their attack on the L 44. Nicholl noted several hits on the Zeppelin from his guns, but it did not catch fire. Leckie then turned the aircraft to attack the L 46, but it had turned rapidly away and was out of range, as was the L 44 by the time he turned back. Both British aircraft had been hit, and the DH.4’s engine soon failed. The Curtiss had also been hit in one engine and one wing was badly damaged.

Yarmouth (DH4)1
De Havillan DH.4 Biplane

The DH.4 was forced to ditch into the sea, and Nicholl ordered Leckie to put the aircraft down to rescue the two crew. However, now with six men aboard, damaged, and in heavy seas Leckie was unable to take off again. Some 75 miles from the English coast, the aircraft began to taxi towards home. Their radio was waterlogged, but they did have four homing pigeons. Nicholl attached messages to the birds giving their position and course and sent them off at intervals. After four hours the aircraft ran out of fuel, and began to drift, so they improvised a sea anchor from empty fuel cans to steady it. That night the damaged wing tip broke off, and each man then had to spend two hours at a time outside balanced on the opposite wing to keep the broken wing from filling with water and dragging the aircraft under.

After three days at sea, the six men were suffering badly with no food and only two gallons of drinking water, gained from draining the radiators of their water-cooled engines. Finally, at dawn on 8 September, as search operations were about to be called off, one of the pigeons was found dead, from exhaustion, by the coastguard station at Walcot, barely 20 miles north of the RNAS base at South Denes. Shortly after midday Leckie and crew were rescued by the torpedo gunboat HMS Halcyon. As for the pigeon, it would not be forgotten. The bird was preserved and kept in the officers’ mess at RNAS Yarmouth until the base closed after the war; later it would find a home at the RAF Museum Hendon where it is now on display. A brass plate on the display case bears the inscription “A very gallant gentleman”.On 31 December 1917 Leckie was appointed to flight commander.

Yarmouth (Pigeon)
“A very gallant gentleman”.

While on patrol on 20 February 1918, Leckie, now a flight commander, spotted an enemy submarine on the surface and attacked it with bombs, seeing one strike the vessel as it dived, leaving a large oil slick. Leckie was subsequently awarded the Distinguished Service Order on 17 May 1918, only to learn much later that he had not actually sunk it.

On 1 April 1918, the Royal Naval Air Service was merged with the Army’s Royal Flying Corps to form the Royal Air Force, and Leckie transferred to the new service with the rank of lieutenant (temporary captain) whilst remaining at South Denes. By the 8th of April he was promoted to the temporary rank of major.

Yarmouth (Felixstowe F2 seaplane)
A Felixstowe F.2A Flying Boat

On 4 June 1918 Leckie led an offensive patrol of four Felixstowe F.2 A flying boats and a Curtiss H.12 towards the Haaks Light Vessel off the Dutch coast. They saw no enemy aircraft until one of the F.2A’s was forced down with a broken fuel feed-pipe. At that moment, five enemy seaplanes appeared, but seemed more interested in attacking the crippled F2 as it taxied towards to the Dutch coast where the crew eventually burned their aircraft before being interned. Then more German seaplanes then appeared and Leckie promptly led his small force into a head on attack; a dogfight ensued which lasted for 40 minutes. Despite further mechanical difficulties with two other F2A’s, necessitating further makeshift repairs while in the middle of the action, two German aircraft were shot down. In addition, four were badly damaged causing the Germans to break off the action, for the loss of one F.2A and the Curtiss – its crew to survive but interned by the Dutch; one man was killed. Leckie’s force returned to South Denes where, in his report, Leckie was to bitterly remark “…..these operations were robbed of complete success entirely through faulty petrol pipes…… It is obvious that our greatest foes are not the enemy……”

Yarmouth (Peter Strasser)
Peter Strasser

Two months later Leckie was involved in arguably his most famous sortie. It took place on the afternoon of 5 August 1918 after a squadron of five Zeppelins had taken off from Friedrichshafen for the east coast of England and a night raid against Norwich, Boston and the Humber Estuary. The leading airship, L 70, commanded by Johann von Lossnitzer, had on board Peter Strasser, chief commander of the German Imperial Navy Zeppelins, the main force operating bombing campaigns from 1915 to 1917. He, together with everyone else on board, were unaware of what was in store for them and their aircraft; they were probably also unaware that the airship squadron had been spotted while out at sea by the Lenman Tail lightship which signalled its course and position to the Admiralty who then passed the details on to South Denes for action.

Yarmouth (Airco_DH-4)
De Havilland DH.4

The first to respond to this notification was Major Egbert “Bertie” Cadbury, (member of the Cadbury family) who raced to the only aircraft available, a DH.4, and jumped into the pilot’s seat while Leckie, who was close behind, occupied the observer/gunner’s position. After about an hour they spotted the L 70 and attacked, with Leckie firing eighty rounds of incendiary bullets into her. Fire rapidly consumed the airship as it plummeted into the sea just north of Wells-next-the-Sea on the Norfolk coast. None of the 23 men aboard survived. Cadbury and Leckie and another pilot, Lieutenant Ralph Edmund Keys, then attacked and damaged another Zeppelin, which promptly turned tail and headed for home. This was to be the last airship raid over Great Britain. As for the three combatants, they each received the Distinguished Flying Cross for their actions.

Yarmouth (zeppelin L70)
Robert Leckie destroys Zeppellin L.70 off Wells-Next-To-Sea, Norfolk

A few days later, on 11 August 1918 Leckie took part in another operation over the North Sea. Zeppelins often shadowed British naval ships, while carefully operating at higher altitudes than anti-aircraft guns or flying boats could achieve, and out of range of land based aircraft, so the Harwich Light Cruiser Force set out with a Sopwith Camel lashed to a decked lighter towed by the destroyer HMS Redoubt. When Leckie’s reconnaissance flight reported an approaching Zeppelin, the Redoubt steamed at full speed into the wind, allowing the Camel’s pilot Lieutenant Culley to take off with only a five-yard run. Culley climbed to 18,800 feet, approached the L 53 out of the sun, and attacked with his twin Lewis guns, setting the airship on fire.

As the war entered its final months, the RNAS was absorbed into the newly formed RAF and on 20 August 1918 Leckie was appointed commander of the newly formed No. 228 Squadron, flying the Curtis H-12 and Felixstowe F.2A out of Great Yarmouth. Within three months the Armistice brought the fighting to an end and on 31 March 1919 Robert Leckie said his farewells to South Denes when he retired from the RAF to pursue a career in a variety of military flying roles. He died in 1975.

Yarmouth (Leckie)3
Air Marshal Robert Leckie, CB, DSO, DSC, DFC, CD (16 April 1890 – 31 March 1975)

As for the Yarmouth Station, it lasted until late in 1920 whilst most RNAS sites – including Burgh Castle, Sedgeford, Holt, Aldeburgh and Covehithe closed by September 1919. South Denes was then used for commercial flights until the 1930s when the area became the South Denes Camping and Caravan site. New buildings were constructed and one former station building was to remain even beyond closure of the camp site in 1990. Then a new era began and any trace of what had gone before was finally buried by thousands of tons of sand, stone and concrete to form Yarmouth’s new Outer Harbour complex.

Yarmouth (RNAS Plaque)

In June 2009, Yarmouth’s Royal Naval Air Station was recognised with the unveiling of a plaque in honour of the men who protected the nation from the Kaiser’s air force and navy. This is outside 25 Regent Street, the RNAS regional headquarters from 1913 to 1920.

THE END