Saturday, 26 May 2012
They have all gone now but I was lucky enough to meet two pilots who fought in fragile aircraft above the battlefields in World War One. Sir Tom Armstrong was a gentle man in every sense of the word. A musicologist, he was the chief adjudicator at the International Eisteddfod in Llangollen. He was an erudite man, not only in music but in literature; the father of Lord Armstrong, Margaret Thatcher’s Cabinet Secretary famed for coining the phrase “economical with the truth” at the Australian Spy Trial. Except that he didn’t. It was coined by an 18th century politician, Edmund Burke.
Sir Thomas hated the war. When I met him in 1979 he was still haunted by the occasion he dropped a bomb over the side of his aircraft. “I remember it every day,” he confessed. “All the people I must have killed.”
Wing Commander Gwillym H. Lewis DFC loved the war. At 18 and barely out of school he was a pilot with 32 Squadron RFC. He shot down twelve German fighters, won his DFC and was officially declared an Ace before his 19th birthday..
He was 97 when we met and still enjoying a distinguished career in the City. He had just published “Wings over the Somme”, largely made up of the letters he wrote home from France. It describes that hazardous time when pilots expected to be killed within a month of joining their squadron. I know of no better account. Within eight weeks of joining, nine of his flight of twelve men had been shot down. He was responsible for two of the ten enemy planes they had downed. His letters show that he loved the war and loathed the “Hun”. He was so keen to join that he paid £100 for four hours’ flying training which included a near death experience when he got into a tail spin and dropped from 3,000 feet to twenty feet at 120 miles an hour (twice the normal flying speed which was 60 mph) in an aircraft in which the fuselage from wing to tail consisted of uncovered wooden struts.
He flew from the flying school to France to join his squadron, landing at Folkestone on the way for a jolly lunch at the Metropole. He was reprimanded after his first dogfight in which the Hun escaped for not getting close enough to down him. Within a year he was promoted to Flight Commander and at the end of the war had, uniquely, not lost a novice pilot, although he was in almost daily combat.
He wrote home: “The war is a jolly jape. Dogfights are great fun. Odds of 6 to 1. Nothing to worry about.”
He had no respect for the Hun who were afraid of the SDH2 his squadron flew. He wrote: “It has practically scared them off the Front. Occasionally they manage to steal over at 15,000 feet but even then they hesitate whether to dive on a DH if he happens to be below them.”
Baron von Richthofen was the best known of the German Aces but Lewis had no time for him: ”We are all quite bucked that Richthofen is under the soil. Shot down by a Camel while attacking an RE 8. Never admired him very much as he was such a boaster. I don’t think the Huns were very fond of him either.”
Neither was he too keen on the French.
“A more dirty crowd of people it is impossible to imagine... And the children wash only when they grow out of their clothes and have to take them off.”
I met a third ex-pilot. He was the son of a Wrexham carpenter who retired as an Air Vice-Marshal. He was Sir Frederick Rosier, who said modestly: “When I had Fighter Command...” So he seemed the best man to ask what made an “Ace”.
“They have the gift of being able to see the whole sky at a glance,” he told me.
Great place for pilots, Wrexham. Another local man, David Lord, won the VC for action dropping supplies from his DC3 at Arnhem.
READER KEN ASHTON writes...
I dreamt last night it was 2052 and village correspondent for the Bugle, Harry Hadenough, was at the Leveson inquiry being scrutinised by the non-prosecuting prosecutor.
'How did you come by the bowling results in the summer of 2012?'
'I think I found them on the bar at the Dog & Duck.'
'Did you buy the secretary a drink?'
'Yes - pint of the usual.'
'Was it usual to treat club officials to a drink?'
'And is it true to say you gave a free copy of the local paper to PC Snodgrass, the village bobby?'
'Yes. I gave him one every week.'
'Was this in return for privileged police information?'
'Well, he did give me accident details and local crime stuff.'
'Would you concede that this is the murky side of local journalism? Corrupting a police officer, buying drinks for club officials?
You've been invited to a few games of footie with your mates, staying at posh hotels, food and digs paid for. But because you've been a bit naughty, you can only sit and watch the first couple of games, though you can do a bit of jogging with the lads. And you get paid.
Most Sunday League footballers would snatch your hand off with a big grin, but apparently Wayne Rooney gets the blues and needs Gary Neville to nursemaid him.
It's a funny old world.