How things change! Millions patriotically recall the well know phrase... "Lest We Forget," annually. But back in Britain the government of many months ago, along with their bureaucrats ruled that this hero of 1915 no longer was entitled to be remembered whilst hundreds of others, so qualified, were. Worse yet, twenty others were also being thought to be excluded. But when the dust settled that number further increased to 175.
This incredible oversight in the initial planning was less of an oversight for the people of Britain. They spoke out to end this injustice. And Oh!, how they spoke out!
As a result of the backlash the British Government agreed to again remembered Rex and 175 more... including 70 Canadians. There will be even more to get the same honour, in plans yet to unfold.
Rex's story begins with him being born at Darjeeling in the Himalayan district of the state of West Bangal, India. His parents moved about a lot with various missions and in his early teens Rex received a college education in Britain. He then took an apprenticeship in the Merchant Marines and later worked with the British-Indian Steam Navigation Company. When the Great War broke out Rex was in Canada taking further education. He immediately sailed for England and soon found himelf enlisted in the Royal Navy Air Service.
While Rex was in the midst of about a dozen solo flights, operating out of an airfield near Calais France,(#2 in map below) the Germans were experimenting with dreaded airships. Some of these were almost the size of a ball field... hundreds of feet in length and carrying upwards of 100,000 cubic feet of highly inflamable hydrogen to keep them afloat. They could simply sail with the wind currents and fly quite high, above that of most conventional warplanes of the day. Since radar was yet to be invented, and ground cannons could not be elevated to the height needed, an enemy airship could operate with safety from their enemy below. They would drop bombs... by hand... and then use ballast to quickly rise for yet mor esafety. This had terribble morale effdects below. Worse yet, the German practice of the day was becoming most indiscriminate. It was the dropping of bombs, not on strategic targets, but on the helpless citizens, and bringing a whole new panic from the skies over Britain.
On May 21 1915 the first of these Zeppelin airships sailed high over London (#1 in map below) and dropped its bombs leaving a trail of panic in the streets, massive damage, fires and injuries to the civilian population. When the job was done, because it was so high up, it simply made a swoop back into German occupied Belgium from whence it came. As it sailed over the area of Dunkirk (#3 on map below) its commander dropped some rather brazen cards to the populace below. Its printed message was... "You English, we have come and we will come again soon to kill or cure."
By June 7th Sub Lieutenant Reginald (Rex) Warneford had flown about a dozen solo flights. But that night would be his most important. And it almost was his last. It would be a night flight... his first ever. The mission of the four planes asigned was to attack one of the home bases of the Zeppelins at Berchem, just outside of Antwerp and some 50 km north of Brussels. (up and to the right of the arrow marked #5 and showing Ghent, in the map below)
As he approached Rex discovered this was the German airship known as LZ-37 and based out of Gontrode. (#6 on map above.) Operators of the four heavy machine guns from the gondolas saw him coming and started to blast away with their heavy machine guns. He of course veared off to avoid being hit. The balloon immediately climbed from the 7000 ft elevation to about 13,000. Spending the next two hours following from a distance, Rex slowly managed to gain some height and was maintaining it when the balloon started to drop back down to the 7000 ft level near Ghent and probably to make a break through the clouds to descend back to its home base.
Rex now had to come up with a plan to destroy the balloon. He did not have any machine guns. But he did have a revolver. Not much help no doubt! And a carbine riffle..but all its ammunition was gone. And he of course had his bombs. Six of them weighing 20 pounds each. Since he was behind.. and now ABOVE the balloon, he had the advantage. The enemy's weaponry was BELOW the balloon and of no use for an attack from directly above. So Rex decided to shut off his engine to slow the plane down... drift over the airship and drop all his bombs. So he did so with most missing the target. But one didn't and the resulting explosion was devestating to all concerned. It blasted the enemy airship to pieces with parts going in all directions.
Twenty-seven of the twenty eight on board were instantly killed. One lived to jump at the 200 ft level and crashed into a roof of a nunnery near Gontrode, smashed through and landed in an unoccupied bed..and LIVED. So did Rex. By the skin of his teeth. He knew that as soon as any explosion happened he had to get the heck away as fast as possible. But with the engine off, and the concussion of the air impact on his plane so quick, he would later state.. "it lifted my machine and turned it over."
Finally getting it back on keel, Rex found that the controls were damaged from the impact caused by the massive impact of the air. With little in the way of control he managed to bring the plane down to a crash landing some 35 miles into German occupied territory near Priz Nez, on the outscirts of Brussels. (marked with the arrow #7 above) There some French smpathizers were stunned to see Rex climb out of the plane and as surprised to see that the only thing wrong was a separated fuel line which he rigged up using a piece of the tubing from his cigarette holder. The Frenchmen gave his some gas and his original plan to set the plane on fire was abbandoned. Managing to pull on the propellor several times without getting sucked into it, he got the engine going and the plane started to take off with him running along side and finally managing to swing into it. As that happen the Germans searching for him exited a break in the treeline, saw him and started shooting, but it was too late. He was by then airborne and flying back into history. .
But Rex wasn't finished yet. More about his expoits on Sunday.