Part 8: The war at sea and in the air

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In this series of 12 articles, Rugby historian Nigel Stanley traces the part played by thousands of Rugby’s men, women and children in the Great War, saluting over 1400 local men and Rugby School old boys who lost their lives in the war.

Part 8: The war at sea and in the air

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The war at sea from 1914-1918 threatened Britain’s survival. German submarines (U-boats) targeted and sank over 2,000 merchant ships on which Britain relied for food and other imports. This led to strict food rationing in Britain. Over 20 sailors born in Rugby were awarded medals for service in the merchant navy. Rugby’s losses at sea were light, but still poignant. Percy Hefford, born in Rugby, was a 2nd officer on the SS Lusitania, the passenger liner sunk by a German torpedo off Ireland in 1915 with the loss of 1200 lives, including many Americans. Walter Gurney of Cambridge Street was amongst those lost with Lord Kitchener, when HMS Hampshire sank in 1916. In 1917, telegraphist W J Salisbury from Clifton Road, aged just 18, went down on the trawler Evangel, sunk off Milford Haven by German U-boat UC48.

Many Rugby men served in the Royal Navy, including over 50 from the BTH factory. In November 1914 the battleship HMS Bulwark, anchored off Kent, exploded accidentally with the loss of 736 men including Walter Pearce of Dunchurch and stoker F S Edmans from Rugby. In contrast to U-boats, the main battleships of the German navy seldom ventured out of port during the war, except in May 1916 when they clashed with the Royal Navy at the Battle of Jutland in the North Sea. Harry Cooper of King Street, Rugby, aged just 17, was killed in the battle when his ship, HMS Defence, exploded and sank with the loss of all 900 men on board. The same fate befell Benjamin Palmer, 17, of New Bilton, when HMS Black Prince exploded at Jutland and sank with the loss of all 850 men.

War in the air also involved Rugby men. The Royal Flying Corps (RFC) was the air force of the British Army, formed in 1912 alongside the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS). The two combined as the RAF in 1918. 20 BTH employees served as pilots, and another 20 as mechanics. One local air ace was Captain Leslie Satchell, who had attended Lawrence Sheriff and Rugby School. He shot down seven German planes in 1917 and survived the war. Another pilot, commemorated on Rugby’s war memorial, was the RFC and RAF air ace Major Arthur Willan Keen MC, who had also attended Rugby School, and was credited with shooting down 14 German planes. He survived various crashes, but died from burns after a crash in France in 1918, aged just 24. Other Rugby pilots lost in action included Flight Lt W H Peberdy, a Sheriff old boy whose plane disappeared in 1917, and 2nd Lt K H Willard in Belgium in 1917, aged just 19. He had grown up in a Bilton Road townhouse with a German governess. A striking feature of the air war was the frequency of flying accidents and the young age of most pilots. A notable exception, aged 41, was Lt Ivan Hart-Davis of the RFC. An insurance broker in Albert Street and a leading light in Rugby scouting before the war, Hart-Davis was a famous motor-cyclist and holder of the record time from John O’Groats to Land’s End, 886 miles in 29 hours 12 mins. This could not be done legally with a national speed limit of only 20 mph. He died of crash injuries on a flight in 1917 and was buried at Southam.

Rugby’s local airfield: RFC Lilbourne

One of the most important airfields in the Midlands was set up by Ivan Hart-Davis, on the site which later became Rugby Radio Station in the 1920s. The airfield was mainly in Hillmorton but named RFC Lilbourne. Aircraft hangars and workshops were built in 1913, and the airfield was home to various training and operational flying squadrons from 1915 to 1920. The pilots’ barracks and offices were built near the main road, now the A5. By 1918 the airfield was also the home of the Midland Area Flying Instructors’ School. The skies over Hillmorton and Clifton were the scene of pilots and aircraft, such as Sopwith Camels, diving from height and looping-the-loop, and there were dozens of crashes, several of them fatal. Four aircraft were damaged in one day on 29th October 1917. Col. R H Austin-Sparks had been a keen sportsman before the war, and was wounded while flying over Ypres in 1915. Now in command of the RAF Midland Area, he was killed in August 1918 when his plane nose-dived, crashed and burst into flames on the airfield. He was buried in Clifton churchyard, as were Canadian 2nd Lt J D Reid, whose plane broke in half during a vertical dive, and Australian 2nd Lt R O Sherar, who was looping and rolling in corkscrew fashion but plunged into the ground. Other RAF losses at Lilbourne in 1918 included 2nd Lt Douglas Little from Vicarage Road, Rugby, and flight cadet P F Watson (aged 18), both buried in Rugby’s Clifton Road cemetery. Air Mechanic Smith died when his engine cut out on a joy-ride.

German ‘Zeppelin’ airships never attacked Rugby during the war, but they sometimes flew over Warwickshire. On 31st January 1916, nine Zeppelins were sent by the German Navy to bomb Liverpool. Poor weather, poor navigation and mechanical problems scattered the aircraft across the English Midlands. 22 British planes took off to hunt the raiders, but failed to find them in thick fog, and 16 of the planes were damaged on landing. Several towns were bombed during the air-raid, including Walsall, Dudley, Tipton, and Derby. A total of 61 people were killed and 101 injured. Further raids took place on Birmingham in October 1917 and April 1918, when Zeppelin L60 came under anti-aircraft fire near Coventry. These air-raids were bad enough, but they were a small foretaste of much worse to come in World War Two.