The air aces of World War I — like the Red Baron — left a rich mythology that persists to the present day. But the man who was, perhaps, Britain's best pilot, remains little known.
Photographs of Mick Mannock, Britain's highest-scoring fighter pilot from World War I, are surprisingly rare. Before his death Mannock had just completed an extraordinary run of success, shooting down 20 German planes that May — four of them in one day — and winning the Distinguished Service Order (one below the Victoria Cross) not once but three times in little over a month.
But all was not right with this ace in his last days. The inspirational hero of both his squadron and the RAF was struggling to control his nerves, nerves which were tearing him apart. From his personal diary held at the RAF Museum in London it's clear that Mannock had been wrestling with his emotions from the moment he first went into action just over a year earlier.
"Feeling nervy and ill during the last week. Afraid I'm breaking up."
So bad were the terrors that in his early days of flying some of his fellow pilots on the Western Front believed that Mannock was "windy", in other words, a coward. A sympathetic commanding officer gave him a chance, and over the following months Mannock was able to suppress his fears and start shooting down enemy aircraft. With the "kills" came the awards for gallantry.
Flying aircraft in World War I was a shockingly dangerous profession. Of the 14,000 airmen killed in that war, well over half lost their lives in training. On an early patrol over France one of the bottom wings of Mannock's Nieuport bi-plane suddenly broke off in flight. Mannock managed to land the aircraft, extraordinarily lucky to have survived.
But what Mannock — and many other pilots — feared most, was going down in flames, without a parachute, and burning to death. For this reason he carried a revolver in his cockpit, vowing that if his plane did catch fire he would shoot himself, before the flames devoured him.
Mannock developed his own macabre way of conquering his nerves. Not dissimilar to the Captain Flashheart character played by Rik Mayall in Blackadder Goes Forth, Mannock too could be loud and brash.
"Flamerinoes boys! Sizzle sizzle wonk," he would announce as he burst into the mess regaling all of how he had sent some unfortunate "Hun" airman down in flames. And when in April 1918 various members of his squadron raised their glasses to the recently killed Manfred von Richthofen — the Red Baron — Mannock refused with the words "I hope the bastard burnt all the way down".
|Mannock (Far Left) with the Pilots of 74 Squadron
And yet behind this brash exterior was a deeply sensitive man. Born into a working-class military family Mannock was not the typical young public school airman associated with World War I movies. He was a committed socialist and at 29 he was much older than his fellow pilots. But Mannock was also a man of contradictions. He hated Germans with a vengeance, possibly because he was so badly treated by the Turks when he was interned by them earlier in the war.
Yet despite this, when he rushed out to inspect the remains of a German plane he had just shot down and found one of the airmen dead inside, he recorded in his diary: "I felt exactly like a murderer." In little over 12 months Mannock amassed 73 victories, confirming him as Britain's highest scoring pilot of the First World War and yet today, outside aviation circles, virtually no one has heard of him.
Part of the explanation is that unlike Germany, which promoted their air heroes such as the Red Baron, Britain had a policy of keeping their pilots identities firmly under wraps, preferring the idea that it was a team effort and not all about the individual. The effect was that while photos and stories of the Red Baron were splashed over newspapers around the world, in Britain Mannock, or "Captain X" as the press referred to him, was virtually unknown.
By the early summer of 1918 the air war had reached its savage climax and Mick Mannock's nerves had returned. A friend witnessed Mannock on leave, sobbing and trembling violently, saliva and tears having soaked his collar and shirt. And despite all this, Mannock's sense of duty meant that he returned to France to face whatever came his way. On the morning of 26 July while out on patrol he downed his last German aircraft, but made the fatal error of flying low to observe the kill and it was then that his aircraft was hit by German ground fire.
Mannock's aircraft was last seen going down in flames. His nightmare had been realised. It is not known if he was able to use the revolver he always carried with him.
Sources: BBC and Spartacus Websites