A tribute to heroes of the skies
My book Heroes of the Skies "is largely based on my collection of more than 80 groups of gallantry and service medals to airmen that span nearly a century, from the First World War to the present day. It has also been written to mark the 100th anniversary of the Royal Flying Corps, the forerunner to the RAF".
Who were these heroes? William Barnard Rhodes-Moorhouse was one.
William Rhodes-Moorhouse was the first airman to be awarded the VC and few stories that lie behind Britain’s most illustrious gallantry medal can have been more moving. For not only had Rhodes-Moorhouse written a “first and final letter” to his recently born son, but he had also written a late postscript to it in which he predicted his death on the day of his final flight – a perilous mission from which he knew he was highly unlikely to return.
Rhodes-Moorhouse was born in London on September 26, 1887. By the time he was in his early twenties, he was fascinated with the new sport of flying. He paid for flying lessons and became a pioneer airman, attracting large crowds when he flew from Huntingdon airfield, Cambridgeshire, at a time when a man in flight was still a sensational spectacle.
When war was declared, he volunteered for the RFC even though he had not flown for two-and-a-half years. With a shortage of experienced pilots on the Western Front, Rhodes-Moorhouse joined 2 Squadron at Merville, France, on March 21, 1915. His squadron flew the Farnborough-designed Blériot-Experimental (BE) 2a and 2b, which were sturdy aircraft but had a maximum speed of just 70mph at ground level.
Rhodes-Moorhouse began with some familiarisation sorties but soon had his baptism of German anti-aircraft fire at 7,500 feet over Lille. His pilot’s logbook recorded that the top centre section of his aircraft was hit by a shell on March 29. Four days later he wrote to his wife, Linda, describing the sound of anti-aircraft fire as “first a whistle, then a noise like a terrific cough”.
On April 26, the RFC was ordered to bomb the enemy’s railway network to prevent reinforcements reaching the front lines. Rhodes-Moorhouse, who had been due some much-deserved leave, was sent to bomb the railway junction at Courtrai – one of three targets for four aircraft. He took off alone from Merville at 3.05pm, having been asked to drop his 100lb bomb from just below cloud level. However, after making the 32-mile flight, he dropped right down to 300 feet to ensure a direct hit. He was greeted with a volley of rifle and machine-gun fire, and when he was directly over the target a burst of machine-gun fire perforated his aircraft’s fuselage and smashed into his thigh. At the same time, fragments from his own bomb ripped through the wings and tailplane.
Rhodes-Moorhouse, badly wounded and in great pain, had two options: land behind enemy lines, receive urgent medical attention and become a prisoner-of-war; or try to limp back to his home airbase with his aircraft and valuable intelligence. Choosing the latter option, he dropped a further 200 feet to gain some extra speed and again encountered heavy fire from the ground. This led to two further wounds to his hand and abdomen. Nevertheless, he steered the aircraft towards his base.
At 4.12pm, witnesses saw Rhodes-Moorhouse’s badly damaged aircraft approaching at a low height. He just cleared a hedge, switched off the engine and made a perfect landing. Two officers lifted him from the battered aircraft, which had 95 bullet and shrapnel holes.
Rhodes-Moorhouse was taken to a nearby office, where he insisted on filing his report while his wounds were tended. He was then moved to a casualty clearing station in Merville, where it was discovered that a bullet had ripped his stomach to pieces. At 2.25pm on April 27, with a recent letter from his wife resting on his pillow and his friend and flight-commander Maurice Blake at his side, Rhodes-Moorhouse died. He was 27.
Before his mission, Rhodes-Moorhouse had written several letters to his family, to be sent to them in the event of his death. One particularly touching one was to his four-month-old son, Willie. He urged his son always to seek the advice of his mother and hoped he would be an engineer and obtain “a useful knowledge of machinery in all forms”. Then, with an affectionate farewell, Rhodes-Moorhouse signed what he described as his “first and last letter” to his son.
The footnote to this tragic story is that Rhodes-Moorhouse’s son went on to become a Battle of Britain pilot and actually served, from May 1940, at Merville, where his father had been killed in action 25 years earlier. After claiming 12 combat victories and being awarded the DFC, Willie Rhodes-Moorhouse’s Hurricane was shot down in a dogfight over Kent on September 6, 1940. The body of the young officer, who died aged 25, was recovered and his ashes were later interred beside his father at the family’s Parnham House estate in Dorset.
William Barnard Rhodes-Moorhouse
Rank: 2nd Lieutenant (promoted posthumously to Lieutenant), Unit: Royal Flying Corps (RFC), Decoration: Victoria Cross (VC), Gazetted: May 22, 1915