Welsh Air Aces of World War One

Tuesday 14 September 2010, 16:06

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice

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Most people know the name of the Red Baron, Manfred von Richtofen. He was the greatest "ace" of World War One, a conflict where young men took to the air in flimsy, canvas machines and where a pilot's life expectancy could be measured in weeks rather than months.

Richtofen destroyed 80 Allied aircraft before he, too, was eventually shot down and killed.

Wales also had many fliers in the war, people whose names are now long forgotten. They may not have enjoyed the celebrity of Richtofen but, like him, they were brave and fearless. And, like him, they all have stories needing to be told.

One of them, Lieutenant T Rees, who came from Cardiff, had a more than passing involvement with von Richtofen - he was actually the Red Baron's first victim.

Rees was acting as observer for his friend L B F Morris on 17 September 1916 when their old and out-dated reconnaissance plane was spotted by Richtofen.

Despite the best efforts of the Red Baron, Rees kept him at bay for quite some time, loosing off bursts of machine gun fire whenever he came in range. It was an uneven contest, however, as superior speed and manoeuvrability eventually gave Richtofen a chance.

Richtofen attacked from below the British aircraft, Rees was wounded and slumped to the floor of his cockpit. The British plane was now helpless and, after several more attacks, crashed behind German lines.

Richtofen landed to find some souvenirs amongst the wreckage. He himself wrote that Lt Rees was still alive in the wreck. However, as he lifted Rees from the smashed aircraft the young Welshman opened his eyes and, with a smile, died. Richtofen never forgot the courage of his first victim.

Arthur Rhys Davids was the son of a Welshman, even though he had been born in South London. A dashing and brave pilot, he joined the Royal Flying Corps in August 1916 and won the DFC (and Bar) and the MC before he and his aeroplane just disappeared on 27 October 1917.

Before that, however, he had managed to score many victories in aerial combat, one of them being over the great German ace Werner Voss - a man many considered to be braver and a better pilot than the great Manfred von Richtofen.

Wales' highest scoring ace of World War One was Ira "Taffy" Jones. He was born just outside St Clears in April 1896 and joined the RFC in June 1915, first as an observer/gunner and then as a pilot. After training he was posted to No 74 Squadron where he fought alongside the legendary Mick Mannock.

"Taffy" Jones scored 37 victories, six of them coming in an 11-day period in 1918, a feat that earned him the DFC. And yet, Jones was not a great pilot. He often crashed on landing, a problem caused by poor depth perception; he had been lucky even to pass the medical to get into the RFC.

Jones stayed on in what had now become the RAF once the war finished, retiring in 1936 after a career that had lasted 21 years - not bad when most of the men he had fought with had been killed long before. In 1939 Jones rejoined the RAF and flew again in World War Two, a truly indomitable and remarkable figure.

He was not just a fighter pilot. He wrote one of the great books about World War One flying, "King of the Air Fighter," the life of Mick Mannock. He unveiled the war memorial in the main street of St Clears and there is a tablet about this remarkable man alongside the memorial on that site. He died, after falling down the stairs at his home, on 20 August 1966, the last of the Welsh aces.

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    Comment number 1.

    Thanks for the blog. I stopped in St Clears a few years ago, for fish and chips, when I was driving west. I saw the memorial and the plaque they have there to Ira Jones. It's nice to put some "flesh on the bones," so to speak, to find out more about the man. I wonder if there are any more memorials to WW1 flyers? I don't know of any but perhaps you do.

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    Comment number 2.

    A sudden thought came to me the other day as I was putting the finishing touches to a book about World War One. There is, to my knowledge, no great poetry by the flyers of WW1 - plenty from the trenches but none from the sky above. Or have I missed it somewhere?

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    Comment number 3.

    As soon as I read Phil's comment I realized that indeed it must be true that there were so many soldier poets of WW1 (not least Owen, Sassoon and Rosenberg, but many others) and none I can think of among the airmen. The only apparent exception of course is a poem by a non-combatant, WB Yeats' wonderful re-construction, An Irish Airman Foresees His Death.
    Might the reason for this sparsity be found in the massively frenetic nature of the airmen's lives? Might there have been, even amidst the horror of trench warfare, long stretches of boredom between battles for the trench troops, whereas many airmen were going on ops almost nightly?

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    Comment number 4.

    The anthology of World War I poetry "Up the Line to Death" features a poet called Jeffery Day - I didn't know this myself, but the information was given me by Meg Crane, Chair of the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship. Meg also comments: "A pity the Yeats "Irish Airman" poem wasn't actually written by Major Robert Gregory". I vaguely knew this poem, which begins "I know that I shall meet my fate
    Somewhere among the clouds above;
    but I don't see why it shouldn't be valid as World War I poetry. There's an interesting discussion of it at another website: http://www.thebeckoning.com/poetry/yeats/yeats.html Yeats wrote it in 1918, in honour of Major Gregory, the son of his friend Lady Gregory, so it is certainly inspired by the events of the war.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 5.

    After reading Deb's comment I looked up Jeffrey Day in the "Up the Line to Death" anthology. From the one poem given here he doesn't seen half bad as a poet, perhaps not in the Owen or Sassoon mould but better than many. I particularly liked the lines at the start of the second verse:-
    "My turning wing inclines towards the ground;
    The ground itself glides up with graceful swing
    and at the plane's far tip twirls slowly round,
    then drops from sight again neneath the wing"
    That's quite simple, in a way, but it catches the moment and the idea of flight. Do you know where I can find more of his work?

 

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