Wales

Most people know the name Manfred von Richtofen, the famous Red Baron. Those who are particularly interested in the history of World War One will also probably know about British pilots such as Mick Mannock and Jimmy McCudden. But not many will know the story of Captain Benjamin Thomas MC who died in October 1918.

Benjamin Thomas came from the west Wales town of Pembroke Dock; he was born at and lived in 71 Gwyther Street. These days Gwyther Street is a quiet residential road running from north to south across the town. The road is wide - like many of the streets of the town - supposedly to allow access for men and machinery into the Royal Naval Dockyard.

Gwyther Street, however, is a backwater and no materials or machinery ever trundled up this road. It is wide simply to add grandeur and dignity to a town which in the middle years of the 19th century was preening itself as one of the fastest growing and most important places in Wales. The closure of the dockyard and years of Depression lay some way in the future.

Benjamin Thomas was preparing to join the teaching profession when war broke out in August 1914. He was 24 years old and had already completed his basic education. The war changed everything.

Thomas immediately obtained a commission in the 9th Battalion, Welsh Regiment and by the summer of 1916 was serving with his regiment in France. That August, during the Battle of the Somme, he was awarded the Military Cross for gallantry. During a German attack he was instrumental in holding an exposed flank and then organising a counter attack.

Like many young men Thomas had become interested in flying. Every day he saw the flimsy fighters and bombers wheeling and diving in the sky above the trenches and resolved that this was something he would like to do. Consequently, he applied for a transfer to the Royal Flying Corps, the predecessor of the RAF, and in September 1917 was accepted.

After a period of training he was posted to No 11 Squadron in France, a unit that was flying the powerful two seater Bristol Fighters. By now it was early 1918 and the war in the air had become a violent and vicious affair. The Red Baron had been shot down and killed only a few months before and in August Thomas suffered a similar accident.

His aeroplane was hit by anti-aircraft fire - "Archie" as the British pilots called it - and Thomas was forced to crash land behind British lines. He escaped injury and was soon back in the air.

Benjamin Thomas, along with his observer Lt WT Barnes, was credited with three "kills," two of them during the same patrol. His combat report for 16 September 1918 reads as follows:

"My observer spotted a single EA diving down onto one of our machines. He opened fire ... after a short burst the EA fell in a slow spin and was seen to crash near a small clump of trees north of Cambrai."

(from the Paul Kemp Archive)

There was more to come as Thomas himself now opened fire:

"We then encountered a large formation of EA scouts above us and to the east. I noticed two Fokkers detached from their formation and much lower. I picked one out and fired about 100 rounds at an approximate range of 150 yards. The EA immediately went down out of control and was seen to crash just south of Cambrai." (from the Paul Kemp Archive)

Less than a month later Benjamin Thomas was killed at 8.45am on 4 October when returning from the Dawn Patrol. His plane collided with another aircraft - flown by fellow Welshman Lt DR Phillips - and both machines fell to earth.

Benjamin Thomas, like many of the early air fighters, is now a forgotten man. But without him, and others like him, the war could not have been won and the Royal Air Force would not have developed into one of the most formidable fighting forces in the world.

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