Britain’s First World War flying aces

The cult of the First World War flying ace was embodied in Germany’s Red Baron. But two of the greatest aces to struggle for supremacy over the trenches were in Britain’s Royal Flying Corps, reveals historian Peter Hart...
 
This article first appeared in the March 2009 issue of BBC History Magazine
The British flying ace James McCudden was credited with 57 victories and was awa
Most people have heard of Manfred von Richthofen, the dreaded Red Baron, scourge of the skies in the Great War. But Britain had her own heroes – men now largely forgotten in our modern age. Aces whose successes were marked by a trail of shattered German aircraft. The greatest of these were James McCudden and Edward Mannock. 
 
The Royal Flying Corps had only been founded in 1912 and just 63 aircraft had crossed over to France when the First World War started in August 1914. In retrospect it is amazing how quickly the RFC matured. The original function of aircraft had been one of reconnaissance – a pilot and an observer with his notebook. Once trench lines developed aircraft became the only method of finding out what was going on behind the German front line. Soon cameras were taken up in the aircraft and the humble notebook was abandoned in favour of glass-plate photographs that exposed the location of German gun batteries, machine gun posts and dugouts. 
 
But photographs were only the start. For, using a wireless, aircraft could provide the corrections to range artillery shells directly onto targets that were invisible from the ground. The implications were to be far-reaching, for no army could allow enemy aircraft that freedom above their lines. By 1915 both sides had developed the first scout aircraft designed to shoot down reconnaissance aircraft. Thus began the battle for control of the skies. 
 
The cult of the ‘ace’ – men who had shot down more than five enemy aircraft – soon developed in Germany and France. Their eye-catching exploits offered hope that even in the mechanised slaughter of the First World War an individual could make a difference. The British did not publicise their aces, but by 1918 two British pilots had carved out a great reputation among their peers: James ‘Jimmy’ McCudden and Edward ‘Mick’ Mannock. 
 
Edward Mannock was born in 1887, into a working class family. In his youth he developed firm Socialist views. While contract working in Turkey he was interned on the outbreak of war in 1914; he was later released due to ill health. On recovery he was commissioned and joined the RFC in 1916. He served with the 40th, 74th, and 85th Squadrons on the Western Front, 1917–18.
 
James McCudden was born 28 March 1895 into a working class army family. He joined the Royal Engineers as boy bugler in 1910 but transferred to the Royal Flying Corps as an engine fitter in 1913. He was commissioned in January 1917. He served with the 3rd, 29th and 56th Squadrons on the Western Front, 1914–18. Jimmy McCudden was an ordinary air mechanic when the war started, but was all too soon a witness to a tragedy that would eerily presage his own death just four years later.
 
"We heard the engine stop and following that the awful crash, which once heard is never forgotten. I ran for half a mile and found the machine in a small copse of firs, so I got over the fence and pulled the wreckage away from the occupants, and found them both dead. I shall never forget that morning at about half past six: kneeling by poor Keith Barlow and looking at the rising sun, then again at poor Barlow and wondering if war was going to be like this always"
 
When McCudden got out to the Western Front his keenness made him a natural to be taken up as an observer in the two-seater reconnaissance aircraft. Soon he was promoted to sergeant and had a memorable clash with the German ace Max Immelmann, flying the deadly Fokker Monoplane. 
 
"The Fokker had by now turned and was coming towards our machine, nose on, slightly above. I stood up, with my Lewis gun to the shoulder, and fired as he passed over our right wing. He carried on flying in the opposite direction until he was lost to view. It was assumed that the Fokker pilot was most likely Immelmann. I was very thankful indeed to return from this outing. I had imagined that once Immelmann in his Fokker saw us there was not much chance for us. However, we live and learn"
 

The men of 1 Squadron RAF pose with their SE5a monoplanes. The role of airmen was transformed during the First World War. (Cody Images)

 

Highly-strung

 
In July 1916 McCudden came home to learn to fly and qualified as a sergeant pilot, to be sent out flying DH2 scouts. He duly claimed five victories before returning to England as an instructor in February 1917. Among his pupils was Mick Mannock, who at 28 was older than most pilots. An intelligent, highly-strung individual, Mannock was torn by deep-seated fears and had great difficulty in scoring his first kill. 
 
Right from the start, Mannock believed that air fighting was a science demanding relentless practice. Once he shot down his first German aircraft, he seemed to relax and was soon scoring on a regular basis. His success was based on diligent preparation, a healthy dose of restraining caution, careful stalking and an understanding of the importance of pilots working together. Lieutenant Ira Jones remembered.
 
"Suddenly his machine would rock violently, a signal that he was about to attack – but where were the enemy? His companions could not see them, although he was pointing in their direction. Another signal and his SE5 would dive to the attack. A quick half roll, and there beneath him would be the enemy formation flying serenely along – the result a complete surprise attack"
 
In all his teaching Mannock was a great believer in one simple maxim: “Gentlemen, always above; seldom on the same level; never underneath.”
 
Altitude was vital in aerial fighting. After McCudden’s stint as a flying instructor he returned to the fray as a flight commander, flying the new SE5a scout with 56 Squadron in 1917. He was now the complete fighter pilot: his natural flying talents and accurate shooting augmented by an absolute attention to detail in checking every detail of his aircraft and machine guns. His professionalism was demonstrated in his pragmatic approach to the business of aerial warfare. He had no time for knight errantry.
 
"My system was to always attack the Hun at his disadvantage if possible, and if I were attacked at my disadvantage I usually broke off the combat, for in my opinion the Hun in the air must be beaten at his own game, which is cunning. I think that the correct way to wage war is to down as many as possible of the enemy at the least risk, expense and casualties to one’s own side"
 
He became an effective flight commander and his score mounted.
 

 
British flying ace James McCudden. (Cody Images)
 

Aces falling

 
As 1917 came to a close both McCudden and Mannock were approaching their peak. But 1918 would contain more air fighting than the rest of the First World War. Gradually swamped by the scale of the fighting, the great aces on both sides fell one by one.
 
In January and February the mechanical skills Jimmy McCudden gained during his years as an engine fitter added a whole new dimension to the menace he posed to high-flying German reconnaissance aircraft. He supercharged his SE5 scout to reach over 20,000 feet despite the intense cold and lack of oxygen. 
 
"I saw a Hun LVG two-seater running away east, opened the throttle of the high compression Hispano and I overtook just as though he was going backwards. I quickly got into position and presented him with a very excellent burst from both guns, and he went down in a vertical nose dive, and then past vertical onto his back. The enemy gunner shot out of the machine, for all the world like a stone out of a catapult, and the unfortunate rascal seemed all arms and legs"
 
Shortly afterwards McCudden was again posted back home as an instructor. He was awarded the Victoria Cross and lionised by London society. Just four months later, he was promoted and sent out to command 60 Squadron in France. Flying out from England in his brand new SE5, he landed at the airfield of Auxi-le-Chateau to get directions.
 
On  9 July 1918, as McCudden's aircraft took off and banked the engine stuttered and it crashed nose down into a nearby wood. Ground crew ran to the scene of the crash but found McCudden thrown out and lying beside one of the wings. He never regained consciousness and died the same day. One of the most deadly British aces of the war was dead, probably killed by a malfunctioning carburettor, his career stalled at 57 victories. He was just 23 years old. 
 
Mick Mannock took McCudden’s death very badly. By this time Mannock was a man coming to the end of his tether. He had always used humour to disguise his own jangling nerves, laughing away his fears, but in the course of this he developed a macabre mania for describing the consequences of being shot down in flames, as witnessed by Lieutenant Ira Jones:
 
"Whenever he sends one down in flames he comes dancing into the mess, whooping and hallooing, 'Flamerinoes, boys! Sizzle, sizzle, wonk!' He describes the feelings of the poor old Hun, going into the minutest details. Having 
finished in a frenzy of fiendish glee, he will turn to one of us and say, laughing, 'That’s what will happen to you on your next patrol, my lad!'"
 
His fears were such that he began to carry a loaded pistol in the cockpit in case his aircraft caught fire – there were no parachutes.
 
 
An illustration of the incident over the German trenches that resulted in the death of Major Edward ‘Mick’ Mannock. (Royal Air Force Museum)

 

Premonitions of death

 
Mannock was evidently suffering from combat fatigue and he should have been sent home. On his last leave he had been more than usually moody, convinced he would be killed, and a friend Jim Eyles reported physical reactions that illustrated the strain he was under. 
 
"He started to tremble violently. This grew into a convulsive straining. He cried uncontrollably, muttering something that I could not make out. His face, when he lifted it, was a terrible sight. Saliva and tears were running down his face; he couldn’t stop it. His collar and shirt front were soaked through. He smiled weakly at me when he saw me watching and tried to make light of it; he would not talk about it at all"
 
Yet his patriotic duty beckoned him still, and on his return from leave he was promoted to major and posted to take command of 85 Squadron. He at once began to hammer his men into a deadly fighting force, but he was taking more and more risks himself as his judgement deteriorated under the pressure. 
 
Finally, on 26 July, Mick Mannock took Douglas Inglis, a young New Zealand pilot, up on a dawn patrol to try and get him a first victory. 
 
"A quick turn and a dive, and there was Mick shooting up a Hun two-seater. He must have got the observer, as when he pulled up and I came in underneath him I didn’t see the Hun shooting. I flushed the Hun’s petrol tank and just missed ramming his tail as it came up when the Hun’s nose dropped. Falling in behind Mick again we did a couple of circles round the burning wreck"
 
From the ground Private Edward Naulls saw the two aircraft flying low. 
 
"I watch fascinated as tracer bullets from a German machine gun post enter Mannock’s engine just behind the cowling; there is a swift tongue of flame followed by belching black smoke and Mannock’s machine falls away helplessly to hit the ground not far from his victim"
 
It all happened so quickly, but sure enough Mannock was dead – dying amid the very flames he had so feared. It was traditional for pilots to try and hold a defiant party, but Ira Jones found it a miserable affair.
 
"It was a difficult business. The thought of Mick’s charred body not many miles away haunted us and dampened our spirits. There was more drinking than usual on these occasions; we tried to sing, but it was painfully obvious that it was forced"
 
Britain’s two greatest aces and genuine working class heroes – Jimmy McCudden and Mick Mannock – were dead. Mannock was awarded the VC, DSO and 2 Bars, MC and Bar. He would be awarded a posthumous VC in 1919. He has no known grave and the search to locate it still goes on. His final score was 73 victories. McCudden was awarded the VC, DSO & Bar, MC and Bar, MM. He is officially credited with 57 victories.
 
They deserved recognition just as much as Richthofen, and after the war they were both much lauded. Their fame seemed for a while imperishable, but they are now forgotten heroes. We should remember them. 
 
Peter Hart is an oral historian at the Imperial War Museum Sound Archive, and historical adviser to Timewatch. He is the author of Aces Falling: War Above the Trenches, 1918 (Phoenix, 2008). 
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