Recalling the bravery of Britain’s most decorated Great War pilot, Edward “Mick” Mannock, to mark the centenary of the RAF on April 1

  • 24 March, 2018
  • Bravery
  • Medals

Published in the Daily Express on 24 March 2018.

Major Edward “Mick” Mannock

WHEN the RAF was formed a century ago Edward “Mick” Mannock had already been terrorising German pilots in the skies for the best part of a year.

With his ruthless streak and hatred of the enemy, combined with his skill in the air and being a fine shot, he had built up a formidable reputation for his bravery.

Yet in a highly dangerous role, in which the life expectancy of pilots was often measured in only days or weeks, how much longer could Mannock survive?

Would his fraying nerves enable him to carry on flying or was he already close to breaking point?

“Mick” Manock was an unlikely wartime hero. Born in Brighton, Sussex, on May 24, 1887, he was one of five children. His father was a tough Irishman who was a corporal in the 2nd Dragoons, Royal Scots Greys.

As a child “Mick”, who got his nick name from his Irish roots, was an avid reader but he suffered from a severe astigmatism in his left eye. Incredibly, given his later achievements as a pilot, he suffered from impaired vision in the eye for the rest of his life.

When he was aged 13 his wayward father abandoned the family and young Mick was forced to leave school and undertake a series of menial jobs. Eventually, along with his brother Patrick, he worked for the National Telephone Company.

Mannock was 27 and had moved to Turkey to work as a telephone engineer when the Great War broke out in August 1914.

When Turkey entered the war on Germany’s side he and some other British workers were imprisoned. In jail he sang patriotic British songs and received regular beatings from the Turkish guards for his impertinence.

And when he tried to escape he was put in solitary con finement. His health deteriorated but eventually the American consulate secured his release. Back in Britain, Mannock was initially listed as “unfit for military duties” but he had become obsessed with “destroying Germans”.

Before going to Turkey he had first served briefly in the Territorial unit of the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) and in July 1915 he rejoined the unit as a sergeant.

On April 1, 1916 Mannock was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in the Royal Engineers. Then a chance meeting with an old friend led to a discussion about flying and in August 1916, 2nd Lieutenant Mannock trans ferred to the No 1 School of Military Aeronautics at Reading, going on to qualify as a pilot in November.

Posted to France in April 1917 he joined his first operational unit: 40 Squadron. Despite being badly shaken by anti -aircraft fire on his first sortie he was determined to succeed and won respect from his peers when he pulled his damaged Nieuport Scout (a single -seater French fighter) out of a “terminal” dive during a practice flight.

On May 7, 1917 he claimed his first success when he and five others shot down a kite balloon – a manned, gas filled balloon used for reconnaissance – behind German lines.

On September 17, 1917 Mannock was awarded the Military Cross (MC) for his bravery and the next month, on October 18, he was awarded a Bar to his MC for further courage. He was also becoming a better team player.

Mannock had his last day with 40 Squadron on January 1, 1918 when he recorded his 21st official “kill”. He next served from March 1918 with 74 (Tiger) Squadron, which was then forming with the new, robust SE5a fighter.

He returned to France with the squadron on March 30. Two days later the RAF was created by merging the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service.

Flying, it should be remembered, was still in its infancy: the first powered flight by the Wright brothers had taken place as recently as December 1903.

In May 1918 Mannock was reduced to tears by the death of fellow pilot, Lieutenant Henry E Dolan, who had been his most promising protégé.

Afterwards his comrades noticed a new bloodlust and one “kill” was described by Ira Jones, a fellow -pilot, as “a remarkable exhibition of cruel, calculated Hun -strafing”.

However, amid all the success, Mannock remained a realist, never taking off without his revolver: “To finish myself off as soon as I see the first sign of flames.”

In May 1918 too he learned he had been awarded the DSO. A Bar to this award followed later the same month, although neither decoration was for mally announced in The London Gazette until September.

In June when home on leave Mannock was promoted to major and chosen to succeed Major “Billy” Bishop VC in command of 85 Squad ron. On his arrival Mannock reinvig orated the squadron, introducing new tactics and greater teamwork.

However Jim Eyles, a close friend, noticed that before he left Britain for his new posting Mannock’s nerves seemed frayed.

Eyles later said: “Gone was the old sparkle we knew so well, gone was the incessant wit. I could see him wringing his hands together to conceal the shaking and twitching and then he would leave the room when it became impossible for him to control it.”

On another occasion Mannock started crying uncontrollably, although he later dismissed it as just “a bit of nerves”.

On July 24, 1918 he told his friend Ira Jones by telephone: “I’ve caught up with [Billy] Bishop’s score now – 72 [including unofficial “kills”].”

Around 5am, two days later, Mannock, flying alongside Lieutenant Donald Inglis, made his final “kill” above French skies. He considered this to be his 73rd (which would have made him Britain’s highest-scoring fighter ace of the war) but his official confirmed tally was 61.

Disregarding his own strict rule Mannock then made a couple of low passes over the wreckage of his victim, leading the inexperienced Inglis into a storm of small-gun fire.

As they zig-zagged away, Inglis noticed a small bluish flame on his major’s engine cowling and then the left wing of Mannock’s aircraft fell away and he plunged into a death spin. Mannock had died aged 31.

Exactly what happened to Mannock is a mystery. He was buried in an unmarked grave by a German soldier, who also returned Mannock’s identity discs, notebooks and personal effects to his family through the Red Cross.

His identity discs are displayed alongside his VC, which is now part of my gallantry medal collection. It may be that he jumped clear or he may even have fulfilled his pledge to shoot himself at the first sign of flames, falling dead from his machine.

By the time of his demise Mannock had been awarded his third DSO but this too, along with his earlier awards, was only “gazetted” after his death.

After the war it was decided that Mannock’s incredible and sustained courage had still not been fully recognised. After much lobbying, largely by those who had served with and under him, The London Gazette announced his VC on July 18, 1919, nearly a year after his death.

IT CONCLUDED: “This highly distinguished officer, during the whole of his career in the Royal Air Force, was an outstanding example of fearless courage, remarkable skill, devotion to duty and self-sacrifice, which has never been surpassed.”

Major “Mick” Mannock VC, DSO & two Bars, MC & Bar remains a true RAF legend and his courage, like that of his fellow airmen, must never be forgotten.

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