Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, October 13, 2022

Fighting Airmen of Two World Wars—Part 2 of 4: British Fighter Pilots

[Editor's note:  This series is being presented on each of the Thursdays during October 2022. MH]

By Adrian Roberts

Part 1 of this series looked at some German airmen who saw combat in both World Wars. The remaining parts will deal with some well-known Allied airmen. The RAF was stricter than the Germans about the age limits of combat fliers, so the definition of combat in the following examples will be broader.  Part 2 looks at some who were RAF fighter pilots.

Stanley Vincent was the only Allied pilot who is believed to have shot down aircraft in both wars. He was born in 1897, learned to fly at Brooklands in 1915, and was posted to 60 Squadron RFC. He scored the first victory for this squadron, in July 1916, when he shot down an LVG two-seater while flying the very unstable Morane Type N “Bullet”. He brought down two more enemy aircraft before being posted back to the UK in March 1917 as an instructor. He was then hospitalized for seven months after a crash but helped develop the systematic methods of flying training that have been in use ever since. 

He remained in the RAF between the wars, and during the Battle of Britain, as a group captain (for Americans, this is equivalent to a navy captain or army colonel) he was the station commander of the Fighter Command airfield at Northolt. He insisted on flying a Hurricane on operations, which was outside of his duties. He flew most of his sorties alone, so his actual score of enemy aircraft destroyed is unclear, but his citation for the Distinguished Flying Cross states: “…up to the end of September 1940, he has made some dozen sorties alone….he met 15 Dornier 215’s and turned them back, damaging one.  [On another occasion], he destroyed one of a large enemy formation, and created so much confusion that another Messerschmitt 109 was shot down by its own side….” 

Later in the war, he was lucky to escape from Singapore before its surrender. He retired as an air vice-marshal (a two-star rank) and died in 1976.

James Ira “Taffy” Jones was a proud Welshman, born in 1896. He joined the Royal Flying Corps, first as a ground wireless operator then as an air observer in BE2c aircraft, dropping his Lewis gun overboard on one occasion. He was commissioned and learned to fly in  October 1917 and flew SE5a scouts with 74 “Tiger” Squadron, scoring 37 victories in three months from May 1918, making him the highest-scoring Welsh ace. Unfortunately he is said to have crashed 28 of his own aeroplanes! He idolized his first CO, the ace Edward (Mick) Mannock, and wrote his biography, King of Air Fighters

He retired in 1936 but served again in WWII, as a wing commander (lt-col equivalent) commanding various training units. During the Battle of Britain, he was so enraged at the sight of German bombers seemingly unscathed that he jumped into a Hawker Henley, a two-seat version of the Hurricane that was only ever used as a target tug, and intercepted a Junkers 88 but being unarmed could only fire his Verey pistol at it. 

During 1941 he unofficially flew in several operations over France in Spitfires with Tiger Squadron, though he found that air combat had changed a lot since 1918, as he describes it in one of his books as “bloody fast fighting!” He died in 1960 after falling off his roof while fixing his TV aerial.

Sydney Carlin was another 74 Squadron ace flying the SE5a. Born in 1889, he enlisted in the 18th Royal Hussars at the outbreak of war, and was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal while still a lance corporal. He was then commissioned, and while leading a Royal Engineers detachment, he lost his lower left leg at Delville Wood in August 1916. It seems that the only way that he could get back into a combat role was to join the RFC and learn to fly. Maybe it was thought that airmen didn’t need to walk; the Australian ace Frank Alberry had also lost a leg before joining the RFC (and had also been awarded the DCM, at Pozières). Carlin, now nicknamed “Timbertoes,” scored ten aerial victories, including five balloons from June to September, but was then shot down and became a POW. He returned to civilian life after the war but like many others found it difficult to settle and spent the inter-war years living in different parts of the empire, mainly Kenya.

He returned to the UK at the outbreak of WWII, and despite his disability and his age of 50, he managed to rejoin the RAF and train as an air gunner. He flew with 151 squadron in Defiant turret night-fighters, based at RAF Wittering. He also unofficially flew a few operations as a tail gunner in Wellington bombers. On 9 May 1941, Wittering was attacked by a lone Junkers 88. Sources differ as to the precise circumstances, but what is certain is that Carlin was heading out to his aircraft rather than taking cover when he was caught in a bomb blast and killed. 

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