Armistice 100: Honouring the tragic heroes of the Royal Flying Corps

British aircraft flying in formation during the First World War.
British aircraft flying in formation during the First World War.

Today Dorothy Ramser marks the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day by saluting the South Tyneside men who took to the skies to defend their country during the First World War – and paid with their lives.

Second Lieutenant John William Purvis, of the Royal Flying Corps, died aged 29 on May 2, 1917, and is buried in Harton Cemetery.

He was the son of William, a train driver, and Martha Purvis, of Vine Street, Tyne Dock, and was formerly a motor engineer.

On the morning of his death, John had flown his aircraft alone for half an hour from 12th Flying School, Thetford, and had made five good landings. Then after his breakfast he took off again – but never returned.

Later that day the aeroplane was found wrecked in a wood.

John originally joined the Army Service Corps on August 7, 1914, and transferred to the Royal Flying Corps three years later, where he was commissioned as an officer.

He had served in the Expeditionary Force in France and was awarded three medals for his army service.

Second Lieutenant William Havery Russell was killed on October 6, 1918, aged just 19 years old.

His parents (he was their eldest son) were William, a sea captain, and Isabella Mary Russell, who lived in Ashley Road in South Shields.

He too is buried in Harton Cemetery, with the simple epitaph requested by his family “Thy Will Be Done”.

William left his job as an apprentice fitter at Middle Dock & Engineering Co. Ltd. where he’d worked since May, 1914.

He died flying the Farman Experimental 2, a de Havilland aircraft, which operated as a bomber and a fighter.

His casualty card states the crash, which happened at Stonehenge, was due to the engine stalling and the pilot being unable to recover from the resulting spin.

Second Lieutenant Hugh Cecil McDonald was born on May 6, 1899, and was serving in 42 Squadron when he died on June 24, 1918, aged 19.

He was the son of Robert and Rose McDonald, of Hedworth Lane, Boldon Colliery. He is buried in Aire Communal Cemetery, Pas de Calais, France.

He enlisted in the Royal Flying Corps in 1917 and became a Flying Officer on December 23 of that year.

His aircraft crashed on June 23 while he was serving in France when, on a sortie to observe enemy artillery, his aircraft went into a spin and he died in hospital of wounds the day after.

Private 1st Class Frederick Lees, of the Royal Flying Corps, 35th Balloon Section, was killed aged 19 on June 7, 1918, and is buried in Berles Cemetery, also in the Pas de Calais, France.

His parents, John and Ruth Lees lived at Whitehall Street, Tyne Dock.

The Balloon Section of the airforce operated kite balloons, which were tethered to the ground and featured a suspended basket underneath for a spotter to observe enemy movements across the front.

Both sides went to great lengths to destroy the others balloons, so they were regular targets of artillery shelling.

Frederick’s medical record states that he was gassed on August 9, 1917, and spent time in hospital at Etaples.

Another of their sons, John William Lees, a private in the Royal Army Medical Corps, was drowned, aged 34, on May 4, 1917, when his troopship the SS Transylvania was torpedoed twice by U-Boat U63 approaching the Gulf of Genoa.

Second Lieutenant Joseph Finnigan, was an Observer in 205 Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps and was killed in a de Havilland DH4, aged 19, on May 18, 1918, in France.

Sadly his body was never found, but his name is on the Arras Flying Services Memorial.

His parents were Joseph and Mary Arme Finnigan, of Randolph Street, Jarrow.

Joseph had been a clerk at Palmers and was an old boy of St Bede’s school, in Jarrow, and an altar server at St Bede’s Church.

An observer’s role was to relay the position of enemy formations, via Morse code, to the army on the ground as well as spot threatening enemy aircraft.

On May 18 his pilot, Lieut Hatton Charles Ronayne Conron, took off in their De Havilland to bomb Chaulnes railway station.

They were last seen flying near Aubercourt, between the lines – a dangerous position where you’d be prone to be attacked.

Joseph would have had a rifle or machine gun to defend the plane against enemy aircraft, but it would be useless against anti-aircraft guns from the ground and flak bursting all around them.

Lieutenant Charles William Dick, of the Royal Flying Corps, was killed on November 9, 1918, aged 23. He was the son of James and Margaret Dick.

The incident that resulted in Charles’ death happened on January 29, 1918, whilst at 18 Wing Flying School, when once again, the engine of the aircraft failed and he attempted to land in a field, but crashed into a hedge.

His injuries must have been severe, but he lingered on in hospital for nine months. He is buried in Edinburgh Dean Cemetery.

Second Lieutenant Fred Hall, of 18th Squadron and the Dorsetshire Regiment, was killed, aged 20, on September 22, 1916.

He was flying a Farman Experimental FE2b, made by de Havilland. His Observer was Lt. B.F. Randall, and whilst they were on a photographic reconnaissance mission, they were hit by anti-aircraft fire.

Fred was wounded and fell unconscious and Lt Randall took over the controls and landed the aircraft near British lines at Ginchy on the Somme.

Sadly Fred died on the way to hospital. He is buried in Guillemont Road Cemetery on the Somme.

Second Lieutenant Thomas Finkall Blair, aged 22, was killed on April 6, 1918.

His aircraft stalled on a turn and went into a spinning nose dive at Stamford.

Second Lieutenant James Norman Mitchell, an Observer of 62 Squadron, was killed at the age of just 18, on August 12, 1918. His aircraft was a Bristol F2b Fighter.

On August 10 he and his pilot Lieut. Archibald Bernard Cort, aged 20, were tasked with escorting a raid on Peronne when they attacked six German planes about to attack the Allied’s bombers.

Two German planes were driven down, spiralling out of control, and one Fokker bi-plane, which was attacking from above, was shot down.

Tragically, on August 12, James and Archibald were shot down in flames. They are buried in Hem Farm Military Cemetery in Hem-Monacu, the Somme, France.

Before the war James was a clerk. The epitaph requested by his parents Mr and Mrs Thomas Mitchell, of the Salutation Hotel, Tynemouth, reads: “The harvest is the end of the world and the reapers are the angels.”

James’ elder brother, Thomas Stanley Mitchell, was a driver in 86th Brigade Royal Field artillery.

He was killed during the third battle of Ypres on August 18, 1917, and is buried (with the epitaph “Until the day breaks”) in The Huts Cemetery, in Ypres, Belgium.

Their brother Cecil Leslie Mitchell joined the Royal Navy on June 4, 1914, and served until 1920.

Their father was a retired Detective Chief Inspector of Police.

* Dorothy completes her tribute to South Tyneside’s heroic flyers on Monday.