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A Working-Class Hero, Part 4: A Hero’s Legacy

London Royal Air Force memorial

At the crack of dawn on July 26, 1918, two S.E.5a scout planes of 85 Squadron took off from Saint-Omer aerodrome and flew east over the trenches. The pilots of the two aircraft could hardly have been more dissimilar in terms of experience. Donald Inglis, a stocky Kiwi, was a nervous newcomer with just a few prior sorties under his belt and as yet no victories to his credit. His flight leader and squadron commander, meanwhile, had recently claimed the title of Britain’s ace of aces, with 60 victories to show for many months of combat duty. He, of course, was Major Edward “Mick” Mannock.

Had he not been such a mess of frayed nerve endings, Mannock would have found 85 Squadron, a well-respected veteran unit, almost uniquely congenial to a man of his background and political disposition. It was an unusually egalitarian, even multicultural outfit, including in its ranks Brits, Aussies, Kiwis, Afrikaners, and even three American volunteers, all from many different social strata. The squadron’s composition was a sign of one of the too-few positive attributes of war, its tendency to show up fine distinctions of class and culture for the artificialities they really are. Few to none of Mannock’s charges could be bothered to worry overmuch about the circumstances of their new leader’s birth or the implications of his Irish accent. He was now simply their own Major Mannock, one of the most respected fighting airmen at the front.

Yet even as they respected him, they also found plenty of cause to worry about him — and thus, he being after all their leader, plenty of cause to worry about themselves. While Mannock had arrived in their mess hall on July 5 preaching the same gospel he had preached to 74 Squadron — about the importance of teamwork, discipline, and sound tactics as opposed to individual heroism — his conduct in the air had almost immediately begun to violate his own rules. He threw flights he was leading into battle when the odds or the positioning of his planes relative to the enemy’s called for making discretion the better part of valor, and he evinced an alarming new tendency to follow his kills all the way down to ground level in order to watch them crash, thereby giving up the precious advantage of height and leaving himself vulnerable to other enemy planes that might be lurking in the clouds above as well as small-arms fire coming up from below.

Most of his new squadron mates came to attribute his increasing foolhardiness, which was almost starting to look like a death wish, in one way or another to the death of his friend and rival ace James McCudden on July 9. Some said that Mannock’s frenzy to kill as many Germans as possible was an expression of his grief and anger at the loss. Others of a more cynical bent said that the death of McCudden with 57 victories to his credit gave Mannock a concrete, static goal to strive for in running up his own total. His eagerness to follow each kill down to its bloody end, they claimed, reflected his desire to fix an exact position of the crash so that he would stand the best possible chance of seeing the victory confirmed and thus added to his personal tally. But whatever his motivations or the needless dangers to which he exposed himself and others, he continued the torrid pace of his previous tour of duty. He matched and then surpassed McCudden’s total on the banner day of July 20, when he racked up his 57th, 58th, and 59th victories.

By this morning in question of July 26, the attempted German breakout of the previous spring had exhausted itself without achieving its objective, and now the inevitable Allied counteroffensive was beginning, aided by the hundreds of thousands of fresh-faced American soldiers now pouring into France. The activities of the Allied air forces were, as always, closely tied to the efforts of the armies on the ground. In support of the counteroffensive, they prowled the front in the ever larger formations allowed by the buzzing home-front factories and air schools, looking to down the outnumbered and exhausted remnants of Germany’s air force.

Unusually, however, Mannock and Inglis were flying all alone on this particular morning. As was his wont with new pilots, Mannock had promised Inglis that he would help him “break his duck” — i.e., help him score his first kill. The two of them were thus doing a bit of freelancing to the side of their squadron’s normal responsibilities, looking for a stray German plane or observation balloon that would serve their purpose while the rest of 85 Squadron slept in.

Most of the flight was uneventful. They explored as far into German airspace as they dared — their planes carried only enough fuel for about two and a half hours of flight — and then turned for home without having found any victims. But then, coming back toward the line of the front, Mannock shocked Inglis with a sudden turn and a dive to swoop down upon a two-man German observation craft that his companion had yet to even spot when Mannock’s guns began to bark. Mannock took out the German gunner with cold surgical precision, then banked away, signaling his companion to finish off their now-helpless quarry. A nervous Inglis waited too long to open fire and then waited too long to cut away, very nearly ramming the German plane from behind even as its fuel tank exploded. Still, he got the job done in the end; the hapless observation plane turned into a “flamer” for which the two pilots would share credit, marking Mannock’s 61st victory and Inglis’s very first.

Inglis thought that ought to be that, but, as usual these days, Mannock had other ideas. He followed their burning victim down through its death spiral of many thousands of feet, until it smashed into the ground just on the German side of the front. Not knowing what else to do, Inglis followed his leader down to a height of less than 100 feet, whereupon a hail of fire erupted from the ground, arcing up toward the two vulnerable planes. Dodging frantically and trying to regain some altitude, Inglis saw a tiny flicker of orange flame erupt from the fuselage of Mannock’s S.E.5a, turning into a bright contrail trailing out behind it as Mannock, still apparently alive and in control, managed to steady his plane and tear toward the Allied side of the front, evidently hoping to manage a crash landing over friendly territory.

He didn’t make it. His plane’s nose dipped and it veered into a slow right turn, making two lazy circles before it smashed into the ground. A line of flame arced along the ground, digging a new furrow into the scarred landscape. Inglis was so fixated on the sight that he very nearly suffered the same fate; he came to himself to realize that his plane was still being riddled by gunfire from somewhere below him, and that raw fuel was pouring into his lap out of a hole in the tank. He dashed for home, landing safely back at Saint-Omer, where he leaped out of his plane, covered in fuel and with tears streaming down his face, shouting incoherently, “They’ve shot him down!” Only gradually did the others make sense of what he was trying to tell them: Mick Mannock, their squadron commander of all of three weeks, was dead at the grand old age (for a World War I fighter pilot) of 31.

The aftermath of Mannock’s death was marked by none of the ceremony that had accompanied the death of the Red Baron. Unlike Manfred von Richthofen’s plane, Mannock’s scout bore no distinguishing marks, looking for all the world like just another anonymous S.E.5a. It had come to rest behind the German lines, and the soldiers who buried whatever remained of Mannock’s body in an unmarked grave never had an inkling that they were burying one of the greatest aces of the war. Because the location where they buried him was never recorded and his body was thus never recovered, we don’t know whether he made good on his promise to shoot himself at the last instant rather than allow himself to be burned alive, or whether he did indeed end up suffering the fate about which he’d had so many nightmares.

Even the British side paid surprisingly little attention to Mannock’s death. This was partly due to an official policy, noble in its way, that had been instituted after the press had elevated Albert Ball into one of the foremost heroes of the war. The war in the air, went the official line, was a team effort, and it wouldn’t do to unduly celebrate any of the individuals who fought it. While an exception had been allowed for the morale-boosting Canadian ace Billy Bishop, the British command otherwise hewed to this rule quite seriously.

And so the various squadrons posted up and down the Allied side of the front toasted him one last time with more or less feeling, and that was that. The war went on in the form of the great Allied offensive that finally succeeded in breaking through the German lines, sending the German armies into full-blown retreat and ending hostilities well before Christmas. Mannock would have needed to survive just a few more months of combat — and with the odds increasingly in his favor at that — to have become one of the war’s relatively few surviving aces. And yet one senses, given the condition he was in by the time of his death, that it might just as well have been a few more years.

Only after the war was over did Mannock begin to get some of the public acclamation that was his due. Ira Jones, still his greatest fan, lobbied relentlessly that his idol, the top-scoring British ace of the war, ought to be awarded Britain’s highest military honor, the Victoria Cross. It seemed to him the only fair thing to do; after all, the same honor had already been given to Billy Bishop, James McCudden, and Albert Ball. But if further impetus was needed to pressure the bureaucracy into action, Jones wasn’t above doing a little fudging. By being extremely generous in awarding “possible” kills, he was able to elevate Mannock’s victory count to a “probable” 73 — not coincidentally exactly one more than Billy Bishop, whose own total Jones, like so many others, regarded as highly questionable. Jones managed to find an ally for his cause in none other than Winston Churchill, and Mannock was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross on July 18, 1919. Mannock’s entire family, including his loathed father, now living in a bigamous relationship with a new wife and all too eager to claim kinship with the son he had physically abused and then abandoned, came to the ceremony. But thankfully, Mannock’s big brother Patrick was the one to take actual possession of the medal.

In the years that followed, the story of Mick Mannock, fighter ace, was elevated by hagiographers into a tale of duty, honor, and plucky English courage perfect for a generation of schoolboys raised on Biggles. While Mannock’s story may have lacked some of the flash and color that clung to that of the steely Red Baron or the tender boy ace Albert Ball, as the acknowledged British ace of aces he certainly had the numbers to support his claim to a place in the pantheon of British military heroism. In an effort to give his story that little something extra, the hagiographers invented the legend of “the ace with one eye.” Mannock, they decided on the basis of scant evidence, had accomplished all he had in the air while being blind in one eye, thanks to the amoebic infection he had contracted during his boyhood in India. Such was his burning desire to fight for the British crown in the air, the place where he felt he could do the most good, that he had kept the condition hidden from virtually everyone. Inevitably, it was Ira Jones who laid it on thickest of all in his popular 1934 biography King of Airfighters, inventing treacly speeches for his idealized Mannock that would never have passed the lips of the rough-hewn working-class man of reality. (“Don’t forget that when you see that tiny spark come out of my S.E.,” Mannock supposedly told him near the end, “it will kindle a flame which will act as a torch to guide the future air defenders of the Empire along the path of duty.”)

All of which is at one level fair enough. We need our heroes; we even need our myths. At another level, though, the real world is not a Biggles novel, and shrouding Mick Mannock so relentlessly in Union Jacks and Rule Britannias can only serve to diminish the real man behind the myth. At bottom, his story is inspiring because it is so messy, not in spite of it. The darker, more disturbing aspects of it — his oft-expressed hatred of the entire German race, his struggles to reconcile personal glory with the demands of the war effort as a whole — are the shades and nuances that identify him as a real human being rather than a walking, talking Royal Air Force recruitment poster. Like all of us, he had his demons. The fact that he accomplished so much in spite of them only serves to amplify those achievements, not to diminish them.

Through all their cheap patriotic sentiment, the Ira Joneses of the world avoid asking the really hard questions about the social inequalities against which Mannock struggled for much longer than he fought the Germans, the inequalities which to the very end of his life conspired to deny him much of the credit that was his due. And then, of course, there are the hard questions about the war that killed him. In that war’s aftermath, some — most notably his old friend and fellow socialist Jim Eyles — speculated about what Mannock, a man of so much complexity and capability, might have gone on to had he lived. Would he have, as Eyles liked to believe, taken a more active role in politics than ever, possibly entering the fray himself as a candidate for office? What might he have accomplished for the working classes had he done so? Because of the war — because of a senseless, useless war that, unlike its sequel, in no way needed to be fought — we’ll never know. Multiply Mannock’s wasted potential by the millions of others whose lives were similarly ended too soon, and you begin to gain an appreciation for the real tragedy of war.

Mannock’s fame, such as it was, peaked in the 1930s following the publication of Jones’s book. With the onset of the Second World War and Winston Churchill’s “few” of Battle of Britain fame, British schoolboys found themselves new aviator heroes to admire, even though no British ace of that or any subsequent war would ever equal Mannock’s victory tally. By the 1950s Mannock was already fading into obscurity, a name known only to aviation buffs and military-history fans. Today very few people indeed would recognize his name.

Still, in the interregnum between then and now there was one other tribute — a tribute that was never explicitly labeled as such, yet one that got in its own flawed way to some of the nuance of Mannock’s story that Ira Jones and his flag-waving contemporaries had missed…

In 1989, more than seventy years after Mick Mannock’s S.E.5a went down in flames, Bob Jacob, head of the American computer-game developer Cinemaware, called John Cutter, one of his most reliable designers and producers, into his office to assign him his next project. Jacob, who almost always personally chose the topics of his company’s trademark “interactive movies,” had decided that Cinemaware ought to make a sort of cinematic flight simulator set during World War I. As usual, he had drawn his inspiration from an old movie, but this time he had in lieu of his usual beloved B-movie fare fixated on a big-budget blockbuster of bygone years: William Wellman’s 1927 silent classic Wings, the first movie to win the newly minted Academy Award for Best Picture. Many actual veterans of the First World War had been recruited for the film, to perform the flying sequences in the actual aircraft they had flown into battle; the aerial footage that resulted remains some of the most incredible ever filmed. Because Wings, like many movies of its era, had a somewhat doubtful copyright status, it should be safe to crib from it even more than was Cinemaware’s usual wont, to the extent of blatantly appropriating its title alongside its spirit of aerial derring-do. Beyond that, Jacob, who was always more interested in the big picture than the details of Cinemaware’s productions, would leave it up to Cutter.

For his part, Cutter was rather taken aback by this turn of events, wondering just how many times he would be expected to channel Jacob’s personal passions instead of his own. He had just finished bringing another of Jacob’s ideas to fruition, a game starring the old vaudeville comedy troupe The Three Stooges. Now he was being asked to make a game based on yet another subject he knew nothing about and frankly wasn’t all that interested in. But needs must. So, figuring he had to start somewhere, he made his way down to the local library to do some reading on World War I in the air. “What incredible stories I read that afternoon!” he later remembered. “They were personal accounts of unbelievable courage and dedication — reflections of man’s indomitable spirit struggling valiantly against his enemies, the elements, and the dangers of an infant technology.” In the space of those few hours in the reading stacks, he went from a man with a job to do and little more to a man on a mission. The cinematic take on the air war of Wings the movie, sometimes spectacular though it was, faded into the background in favor of the real stories of the men who had flown and fought all those years ago. The end result would be unique in the Cinemaware catalog, otherwise made up of blatantly artificial third-hand pastiches of history filtered through this or that cinematic inspiration. Cutter’s Wings, by contrast, would demonstrate a willingness to engage with the real stuff of history.

Cutter found the real-world document that came to hover over the project, giving it much of its form and tone, when he visited the archives of the San Diego Aerospace Museum to further his research. Said document was a slim volume, published briefly in facsimile form by a small British press in 1966, called The Personal Diary of “Mick” Mannock. It was exactly what the title said it was: a diary kept by Mannock between April 1, 1917, the date he arrived in France as a shaky greenhorn pilot, and September 5, 1917, by which time he had found ways to cope with the terrors of airborne warfare and was beginning to make his name as an up-and-coming ace to be reckoned with.

The diary is, it must be said, a rather underwhelming document at first glance. Those who hope for exciting accounts of aerial jousts must be as disappointed as those who hope for rigorous psychological self-analysis. Mannock was no poet, and certainly not conscious of writing for any posterity other than himself. His diary is just that, a personal diary, filled with terse reminders of what happened on this or that day. And even on those terms, it covers the barest fraction of Mannock’s combat career, ending when he had scored just 11 of his eventual 61 victories and before he had really begun to implement the policies of aerial teamwork and unit discipline that would, over and above his personal victory tally, be his most important contribution to the British war effort. Yet when you spend more time with the diary your interest only grows, despite or perhaps because of its sketchy, underwritten prose. You begin to pick up on the rhythms of this strange life, with its horrors always lurking suppressed just below the surface. In bare sentences here and there, you learn about champagne blowouts, brawls in the mess hall, accidents and mishaps in the air and on the ground, alongside the relentless litany of fallen comrades. (“Poor old Pendor is missing since Wednesday, as also is Cullen. I hope both are alright. Poor old Bond is gone and I see that they have awarded him a posthumous D.S.O. Cold comfort!”)


Mannock’s diary, at first so underwhelming but then so fascinating, inspired the unique structure of Cutter’s game: a sort of epistolary novel in interactive form. Through hundreds of diary entries of its own, written by a screenwriter named Ken Goldstein, Wings tells the story of the air war on the Western Front, spanning from March 2, 1916, the dawn of the classic era of World War I dogfighting, through November 10, 1918, the very end of the war. In between the diary entries, you fly missions which reflect, as well as possible within the boundaries of the game’s very limited scope of interactive possibility, the events swirling around the squadron to which you belong. You strafe enemy ground emplacements and convoys; you bomb enemy camps and aerodromes; you go after enemy observation balloons. But most of all, you dogfight — you dogfight a lot, hundreds of times as you work your way through those hundreds of diary entries. The pilot whose actions you guide climbs the rungs of the ace leader board as together you shoot down enemy planes. He also collects medals and promotions, and his skills in the disciplines of “flying,” “mechanics,” “shooting,” and “stamina” improve, CRPG-fashion, as he practices them.

I have to acknowledge right now that Wings is by many standards not a very good game at all. Optimistically labelled a flight simulator by Cinemaware, it’s far from worthy of that label by most people’s standards. Instead it’s a collection of fairly simplistic action games whose appeal isn’t helped all that much by the fact that you have to play them so many times; no prior Cinemaware game took anywhere near as long to play through as this one, and few had a bag of tricks quite so limited. The dogfighting game, the one you’ll spend by far the most time with, might just be the least compelling of all; it feels too slow running on a stock 68000-based Commodore Amiga (the only platform for which the game was released), yet seems to run too fast on an upgraded 68020-based machine.

Strafing a German train...

Strafing a German train…

Even the case for the diary’s literary worth can be all too easily overstated. There’s enough empty rah!-rah! sentiment therein to make Ira Jones proud, alongside the occasional factual howler, like the mechanic with your British squadron who dreams of opening an auto-repair shop back home in Vermont after the war (in the meantime, he goes to bed each night dreaming about driving his father’s Model T Ford). Yet redeeming the whole are a succession of interesting characters and touching vignettes, many of them transplanted, with names changed and situations altered to a greater or lesser degree, out of the diary of the game’s patron saint Mick Mannock. For instance, B.W. Keymer, 40 Squadron’s earthy chaplain who did so much to help Mannock overcome his rocky start in the mess hall, takes the form in the game of a chaplain named “Holy Joe” who is likewise more concerned with helping his charges make it through another day of war than he is with standing on conventional religious ceremony.

Very early on, a captured German says that his comrades’ intention is to “bleed France white,” a disturbingly evocative phrase that was actually uttered by German General Erich von Falkenhayn as a justification for the carnage of the Battle of Verdun. Already here the horror of war is beginning to sneak in around all the exhortations to martial glory. Disillusion soon begins to affect our pilot and scribe as well.

July 13, 1916:

Patrolling Verdun this morning. I’m starting to realize how much the trenches are haunting me. I’ve got friends out there rotting in the musty earth, and the war is still no closer to ending than the day I volunteered. With all the military brilliance on our payroll, someone must know how to break the stalemate.

The diary reaches a fever pitch during the most desperate month of the war for the Royal Flying Corps: that Bloody April of 1917, the month of Mick Mannock’s baptism by fire. During this period in particular, Wings is willing to depict a side of war that we too seldom see in videogames.

April 12, 1917:

Farrah’s mole reports that the Germans have indeed changed their fighting strategy. Richthofen’s Jagdstaffel 11 has been expanded into what’s being called a “Jagdgeschwader,” a fighter wing. Three separate Jagdstaffeln of murderous planes are now at his beck and call.

Farrah says we should ignore this and fly today’s patrol as if nothing has changed. That would require a blindfold.

April 14, 1917:

No one here wants to fly. The Richthofen Geschwader is at peak performance. They’re pummeling us even worse than in the days of the Fokker Scourge. While Holy Joe is trying desperately to hold morale together, Farrah is stone cold and has ordered me and three others to patrol Arras at dawn. I think our C.O. is losing perspective. At the very least, he is losing the respect of his men.

April 16, 1917:

In all the mayhem our dog Barkley cowers at night alone. Each day, he loses another friendly hand to pat his head, to scratch behind his ears, to slip him tidbits under the table. Poor Barkley. Poor us.

April 24, 1917:

Some good news. Due to the valiant efforts of the Canadian troops, the British have taken Vimy Ridge! I wish I could report similar victory in the skies. It seems this bloody month will never end, that Richthofen has gained the edge in air superiority. Pilots across the front are weary and losing faith in Wing HQ. We need success on today’s patrol over Douai or our nerve may be forever shattered.

April 27, 1917:

Blood! Blood everywhere! The men are begging not to go up. Each time a sortie is dispatched someone returns grumbling, “That dirty butcher Farrah!” Just as French soldiers have begun to mutiny, we’ve considered rising up against our C.O. When he assigned four of us to patrol Arras after breakfast, I heard someone grumble, “Why doesn’t he just carve us up with a meat cleaver?”

April 29, 1917:

As our troops reclaim territory vacated by the enemy for the Hindenburg Line, we have little to celebrate. Before the Huns left, they leveled buildings, blocked roads, and contaminated water bins. General Ludendorff has served his nation well. He makes me sick.

Those of us at Amiens still willing to fly will patrol Ostend this afternoon. We can only hope the Flying Circus is on a coffee break.

April 30, 1917:

Responding to threats of mutiny, Farrah took heart and told us last night how much he hates to send young pilots like us to our deaths.

May 2, 1917:

Holy Joe has been doing all he can to get more wheelchairs here. With a shortage of hospital beds throughout the Allied camps, Amiens has been turned into an emergency treatment center. All around us there are countless soldiers with hideous stumps in place of their limbs. I’m left feeling queasy, jittery, ever the more wary of today’s patrol to Cambrai.

May 7, 1917:

Strange murmurings around camp. For the first time, pilots are quietly admitting they’re afraid. With Bloody April fresh in our minds, it’s suddenly become very realistic that we could die up there. We see death every day, but now we believe it can really happen to us. With five of us off to patrol Lille this afternoon, we all know it’s unlikely that we’ll all come back.

May 11, 1917:

Tremendous sorrow in writing tonight’s entry. The great British pilot Albert Ball is reported to be dead. Some say he was shot down by the Baron’s brother, Lothar. Others allege that he just disappeared into a cloud after being hit by gunfire from a church tower. I will think of him as I fly tomorrow’s patrol over Douai, praying I won’t die in a similar shroud of mystery.

One of Wings‘s most brilliant rhetorical devices is also its most chilling. When your pilot gets shot down and killed, the game doesn’t end. You rather simply create a new pilot to plunge back into the fray right where you left off — another replacement greenhorn dispatched to the front to plug the hole of another man’s death. Only when it’s all over, when you’ve played through the entire two and a half years of the diary with however many pilots that’s taken, do you see a final scroll of honor, listing each pilot along with his dates of birth and death. It looks, I presume by intention, like one of the many plaintive memorials to the war dead found in towns and villages throughout Britain.

One other way that Wings shows the toll of war is via your squadron's role call of casualties and new arrivals.

One other way that Wings shows the toll of war is via your squadron’s relentless roll call of casualties and new arrivals. Unless you’re ridiculously good, your own pilots will show up here on more than one occasion before you make it through the entire two and a half years of war which the game portrays.

With its interactive parts being so simplistic and repetitive, Wings must rise or fall in you the player’s estimation entirely on the basis of whether and to what extent the diary passages and the other background rhetorical flourishes manage to move you. In a sense, this was an old story for Cinemaware by the time of Wings, one reaching all the way back to the company’s breakthrough interactive movie Defender of the Crown. In Wings, however, the gilding on the lily of game play evinces a degree of humanity — a degree of soul — to which no other alleged “flight simulator” has ever even aspired.

Those other flight simulators define realism as getting all the knobs and switches right, making sure all the engines and airfoils and weaponry are in place and accounted for. Spectrum Holobyte’s Falcon, the king of the hardcore military flight simulators at the time that Cinemaware was working on Wings, came with a manual of more than 150 pages which read like a university engineering text (by the time of Falcon 3.0 in 1991, it would reach a downright Gygaxian 250 pages). Wings was a reaction against that aesthetic. Instead of building a game out of exhaustive technical detail, with no thought whatsoever given to the fragile human being ensconced there in the cockpit in the midst of it all, John Cutter asked what it was like to really be there as a pilot on the Western Front during World War I — asked what, speaking more generally, it really means to be a soldier at war. Michael Bate, a game designer for Accolade during the 1980s, called this approach “aesthetic simulation” — i.e., historical realism achieved not through technical minutiae but through texture and verisimilitude. The aesthetic simulation of Wings is a very different sort of simulation than the technical simulation of Falcon, but is, I would argue, no less worthy of the label for all that. At the end of his manual, Cutter wrote that “I can only pray that Wings will be remembered for its ability to educate and entertain, and not as a glorification of war.” In a medium that so often seems to do little but glorify war and others forms of violence, that stands out as a noble sentiment indeed. War, Wings tells us, has consequences. If the game never achieves more than a fraction of what it aspires to accomplish, that fact at least justifies a certain admiration.

And Wings also is well worth admiring as a loving final memorial to our old friend Major Edward “Eddie/Paddy/Pat/Jerry/Murphy/Mickey/Mick” Corringham Mannock, who is in turn a man worth admiring not because the things he did were easy for him but because they were hard, not because he was an unalloyed good person but because he aspired to be that person. Unlike Albert Ball, Mannock goes unmentioned in Wings‘s diary; this makes a degree of sense if one considers you the player to be to some extent playing the role of Britain’s diary-keeping ace of aces. On the date of his death, however, the game does see fit to give us an unusually lyrical diary passage. I like to believe that this isn’t a coincidence, that it’s intended as a final subtle tribute.

July 26, 1918:

Yesterday I was reminded of what a magical experience it is to fly. As I practiced turning through the soft white clouds, I experienced the sheer joy of defying gravity. The tapering horizon, the mountainous landscape, even patches of the shell-weary fields held fragments of beauty. I dreamed of flying endless hours in peaceful skies.

May all our own skies evermore be peaceful.

(Sources: In addition to those listed in the first article in this series, The One of March 1990, Matt Barton’s interviews with John Cutter and Bob Jacob, and “…and a Prayer: The Making of Wings” on Kaiju Pop!

Wings is available for purchase today in two forms. You can buy the original version shown in the movie and screenshots above in a package with most of Cinemaware’s other games, or you can buy a recent quite impressive remastered version. The remaster is likely to strike modern buyers as far more playable than the original, and is probably the version of choice for all but hardcore historians like yours truly.)


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A Working-Class Hero, Part 3: Ace and Tactician

A British S.E.5a literally shoots a German Fokker to pieces.

A British S.E.5a shoots a German Fokker to pieces high above the front.

What makes a hero? Is a hero a cool cucumber who feels no fear, who charges into peril without giving a thought to life and limb? Or is a hero someone who quakes with terror but charges in anyway? I know which side I come down on. There are stories from the Second World War’s Battle of Britain of exhausted British pilots — Winston Churchill’s storied “few” — who were so petrified at the prospect of going up to meet the German attackers yet again that they literally had to be carried out to their planes and strapped into the cockpits, shaking, with tears streaming down their faces. Yet somehow, finally, they found the strength to enter the maelstrom again. If you ask me, courage isn’t the opposite of fear. Courage is rather feeling terrified but doing it anyway.

Edward “Mick” Mannock would never truly banish his fear, for fear, like addiction, is something one can never eradicate; one can only overcome it on an ad hoc, day-to-day basis. Yet Mannock would, like Churchill’s few, find a way to do his part despite his fear. This being a real rather than a Hollywood story, there is no single watershed moment we can point to and say that this marks the instant when he was transformed from a quivering greenhorn into a steel-eyed veteran. Instead there is a whole series of gradual steps. Mannock himself would come to regard May 9, 1917, when he returned to his aerodrome in such a state that his commanding officer took him off active duty for a short time, as being of some significance, marking as it did a crossroads where he faced a choice between accepting the shame of a transfer back to the home front or continuing to struggle with his raw terror in the air; he chose, of course, the latter. And it’s certainly tempting to mark June 7 on the calendar as well, the day that Mannock downed a German Albatros — his first official victory over an enemy airplane. (“My man gave me an easy mark,” he wrote in his diary. “I was only ten yards away from him — on top so I couldn’t miss! A beautifully coloured insect he was — red, blue, green, and yellow. I let him have 60 rounds at that range, so there wasn’t much left of him. I saw him going spinning and slipping down from 14,000 [feet]. Rough luck, but it’s war, and they’re Huns.”) Still, the process really was most of all a very gradual one. As Mannock grew less erratic in the air, and as he simply continued to live far beyond the normal life expectancy of a new scout pilot, his comrades in 40 Squadron slowly let go of their early judgments of him and accepted him into the life of the mess hall. And that acceptance in turn helped him to control his fear, a virtuous circle that transformed him in time into one of the squadron’s reliable old hands.

As Mannock was allowed to join in with the life of the squadron’s core, he joined them in the many coping mechanisms that soldiers at war develop. Rather amusingly, he was first encouraged to let his hair down by one B.W. Keymer, the squadron’s unusually earthy and thoroughly beloved chaplain, who understood and accepted that young men have needs of the flesh as well as the spirit. Keymer told Mannock that he should abandon his lingering resentments of class and politics to join the others on their drinking excursions into Saint-Omer. Meanwhile, through the example of his patronage, the good chaplain helped to convince others in the squadron to accept Mannock into their own good graces. In time, Mannock became one of the lives of the party at 40 Squadron, always willing to join in with whatever horseplay was afoot. One of the squadron’s favorite airborne pranks was astoundingly cruel really, but such are the ways of war: Mannock and his mates loved to swoop down out of the sun on unsuspecting friendly observation planes, just like they were Germans on the attack. From his diary:

Amused ourselves by dodging about the low clouds and frightening the engine out of sundry crawling “quirks” doing artillery work. Great sport. You come down vertically at approx. 160 mph on a poor unsuspecting observer and bank away to the right or left when almost cutting off his tail. You can almost hear him gasp.

One does have to wonder why no one ever got a nose full of machine-gun fire for his trouble…

But most of the squadron’s hijinks took place on the ground. Inevitably, alcohol became a key coping mechanism. Frederick Powell, one of Mannock’s squadron mates:

The centre of the squadron seemed to be in the bar. When you think of the tensions they lived through day to day — they would come in in the evening and ask about their best friend, “Where’s old George?” “Oh, he bought it this afternoon!” “Oh, heavens!” The gloom would come, the morale would die, and the reaction was immediate: “Well, come on, chaps, what are you going to have?” That was the sort of spirit that kept you going, and although people are against alcohol I think that it played a magnificent part in keeping up morale.

Coupled with the drink were other coping mechanisms of a more aggressive character. Games of rugby, sometimes played indoors right there in the mess hall, could get very rough indeed, yielding black eyes and broken fingers. Political discussions, in which Mannock was as strident as ever in advocating his socialist worldview, sometimes degenerated into brawls. Mannock and another flyer, a Second Lieutenant de Burgh, took to beating the sod out of one another as a matter of course on nearly a nightly basis. De Burgh:

Mannock was very keen on boxing, and as I had done a good deal [of it], we often used to blow off steam by having a set-to in the mess. It fact, it used to be a stock event, if the evening was livening up, for Mannock and me to have a round or two — and he nearly always said, “Let’s hit it out,” and we used to have a good slog at one another. I think, on the whole, that I used to get more than I gave, as he had the height of me and a slightly longer reach, but I had him at footwork.

The bad feelings engendered by the more violent nightly episodes seldom persisted beyond the alcoholic haze that did so much to create them. Living under almost unbelievable tension, knowing each successive flight had a good chance of being their last, the pilots were simply doing what they needed to to get through each successive day.

Mannock’s greatest fear was the same as that of many other pilots: to go down in what was called with typical forced jocularity a “flamer.” In an airplane made from a wooden frame covered with doped fabric, with a thin unarmored tank filled with many gallons of fuel, an aerial conflagration was never more than a single stray bullet away. Many pilots of stricken aircraft chose to jump to their deaths — parachutes were nonexistent prior to some German experiments very late in the war — rather than be burned alive with their planes. Mannock himself always carried a revolver up with him; “I’ll blow my brains out rather than go down roasting,” he said. To cope with this greatest fear, he indulged in elaborate black humor that made even many of his squadron mates, whose own humor was hardly of the most sensitive stripe, a bit queasy. The German aircraft that he shot down in flames he called “sizzlers” or “flamerinos.” He would describe their endings with a pyromaniac’s glee, finishing on a note of near-hysteria, whereupon he might turn to one of his comrades and suddenly burst out, in a jarringly high and strangled voice, “That’s what will happen to you on the next patrol, my lad.” The squadron would, remembered one pilot, dutifully “roar with laughter,” but it was uncomfortable laughter, its tone all wrong. “He is getting obsessed with this form of death,” thought one of them. “It is getting on his nerves.”

For all that Mannock loved to loudly and proudly proclaim his hatred of Germans, the killing he did in the air quite clearly affected him as much as did his constant fear for his own life. This was the other side of the supposedly glorious, chivalrous war in the air. The folks on the home front who tallied up the latest victory counts and ranked the aces failed to understand that war is not sport but rather a brutal exercise in kill or be killed. On July 13, after scoring his fourth victory, over a German two-man observation plane — he killed the pilot, but the observer somehow survived the crash — Mannock ventured into the trenches on foot for the first time to inspect his handiwork. While his diary describes the event with typical terseness, it can’t entirely disguise the effect the experience had on him.

I hurried out at the first opportunity and found the observer being tended by the local M.O., and I gathered a few souvenirs, although the infantry had the first pick. The machine was completely smashed, and rather interesting also was the little black-and-tan terrier — dead — in the observer’s seat. I felt exactly like a murderer. The journey to the trenches was rather nauseating — dead men’s legs sticking through the sides with putties and boots still on — bits of bones and skulls with the hair peeling off, and tons of equipment and clothing lying about. This sort of thing, together with the strong graveyard stench and the dead and mangled body of the pilot (an N.C.O.), combined to upset me for a few days.

This earliest incarnation of aerial warfare was an unnervingly intimate affair; it was often possible to hear the screams of pilots and crew as they were burned alive. Mannock’s attitude toward the killing he engaged in was, like so many things about this complex man, contradictory, swinging between manic glee at the death of another of the hated Huns and the guilt of, as he himself expresses it in the diary passage above, committing murder. On September 4, he shot down another flamer, killing both the pilot and the observer; it marked his eleventh victory. “He went down in flames, pieces of wing and tail, etc., dropping away from the wreck,” he wrote in his diary. “It was a horrible sight and made me feel sick.” He ventured out to the trenches to try to locate this kill as well, an act that now seemed to be becoming a compulsion for him. This time, however, he failed in his quest to examine his gruesome handiwork — probably, one has to think, for the best. While other aces were somehow able to fool themselves into believing they were destroying only machines, not men, Mannock was unable to delude himself in this way. At some level he seemed to revel in the knowledge that he was a mass killer, even as the same knowledge rent his psyche daily.

Months after his eleventh kill, a plaintive message that had been dropped over the front reached him while on leave in London.

I lost my friend Fritz Frech. He fell between Vimy and Lieven. His respectable and unlucky parents beg you to give any news of his fate. Is he dead? At what place found he his last rest? Please to throw several letters that we may found one. Thank before.

His friend, K. L.

P.S. If it is possible, please a letter to the parents:
Mr. Frech
Pr. Vord Vorstadt 48/52

The Fritz Frech in question had been the observer in the plane Mannock had shot down and watched burn up on September 4. Mannock did indeed write to the parents, explaining that their son was dead but sparing them the full details of how he had met his end at their correspondent’s own hands. If only such small human mercies could outweigh the horrors of war.

Despite those ongoing horrors of war, things were, relatively speaking, looking up for Mannock as 1917 entered its second half. On July 19, in an event that surprised him as much as anyone, he was awarded the Military Cross for his “conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty,” despite having yet to score his coveted fifth kill and thus win the designation of ace (he would not accomplish that feat until August 5). In truth, such awards were being handed out with rather shocking liberality as a morale-boosting hedge against the enormous casualties among the airmen, but Mannock was nevertheless duly proud of the honor. Shortly after, he was promoted to a patrol leader with 40 Squadron. In less than three months, he had gone from faceless cannon fodder to mistrusted shirker to respected veteran in the eyes of his squadron mates. Such was the war in the air, where lifetimes were often measured in days.

But even that ugliest of statistics was starting to look better. By the fall, the average lifespan of a new British scout pilot on the Western Front had extended from the mere days of Bloody April to a downright generous ten weeks. This welcome development could be credited to a number of causes. The Arras offensive had, like all of the offensives before it, long since petered out into stalemate, and the fighting in the air had grown slightly less intense as well as a result. British standards of flight training were also improving, with more attention paid to the crucial skill of aerial gunnery and with trainees finally being given a reasonable amount of time in the sorts of aircraft they would actually be flying into battle at the front.

The Sopwith Camel

The Sopwith Camel

Yet the biggest cause of the improving British fortunes of war was the arrival of two new aircraft that at last proved a match for the dreaded German Albatros scouts. The Sopwith Camel, destined to become the most iconic airplane of the entire war thanks largely to a certain cartoon dog, was indeed a dogfighter’s dream. Extraordinarily maneuverable, it could do things in the air that literally no other plane could do. But it was also notoriously tricky to fly; the torque from its rotary engine, combined with its deceptively heavy tail, killed dozens if not hundreds of green pilots, who inadvertently slammed a wing or the tail into the ground on takeoff or landing or threw the plane into a hopeless spin when practicing aerobatics. “It was always teetering on being out of control,” writes the military historian Peter Hart of the Camel — and that was a good thing, for “if the pilot barely knew what was happening how could his opponent?”

The Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5a

The Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5a

The other new British plane is less famous than the Sopwith Camel, but in reality played an even more important role in swaying the balance of power in the air. Certainly it was much better suited to a no-nonsense aerial tactician of the sort that Mannock was rapidly becoming. The Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5a wasn’t the purist pilot’s plane that the Sopwith Camel was. It was heavier on the controls and a bit lumbering really; if the Camel could turn on a dime, the S.E.5a needed at least a quarter. On the other hand, it could fly faster than the Camel, could climb faster and higher, and could take more punishment. It was also as forgiving of new pilots as the Camel was dangerous, and offered a wonderfully stable platform for its potent armaments, which consisted of the traditional British Lewis machine gun mounted on the upper wing along with, at long last, a Vickers mounted on the cowl of the fuselage, synchronized to fire between the propeller blades. The two guns were operated by one trigger, and were angled to intersect on a sweet spot about 100 yards ahead — or the pilot could aim and fire the Lewis manually for, for instance, raking the underside of an enemy aircraft that had on him the crucial advantage of height. Mannock would wind up scoring 46 of his eventual 61 victories in an S.E.5a. It was ideally suited for his favored tactic of swooping down on a German formation at high speed, raking it with gunfire from medium range, then using the kinetic energy of the dive to zoom back up into the sun for another go if necessary.

Still, Mannock’s relationship with the S.E.5a started out decidedly rocky. When 40 Squadron received the new aircraft as replacements for their trusty old Nieuport 17s some weeks before Christmas, they found them still beset with teething problems. Their water-cooled piston engines — much more complex than the air-cooled rotaries found on the Nieuports — were chronically unreliable, and, more than two years after the Germans had perfected their machine-gun synchronizer technology, the British were still struggling with theirs; the cowl-mounted gun could shoot off the propeller if something went wrong, leading many pilots to refuse to use it at all when over enemy lines. Mannock ranted bitterly about the S.E.5a to any superior who would listen, demanding fruitlessly that 40 Squadron be given back their Nieuports. He would manage to score just one victory in an S.E.5a in this the final stretch of his first tour at the front.

Nevertheless, when Mannock left 40 Squadron in January of 1918 he left as, in the words of fellow flier Gwilym Lewis, “the hero of the squadron,” with 16 official victories to his credit.

He came on to form having been older than most of us and a more mature man. He had given great, deep thought to the fighting and had re-orientated his mental attitudes, which was necessary for a top fighter pilot. He had got his confidence and he had thought out the way he was going to tackle things. He became a very good friend of mine, and I owed a lot to him that he was so friendly. I was unnecessarily reserved, and he liked to give people nicknames — he called me “Noisy”! He was a lot of fun.

As a pilot and a fighter, Mannock was the polar opposite of the impulsive Albert Ball, who despite having been killed in May of 1917 still remained Britain’s most famous ace by far. Loath though he doubtless would have been to acknowledge the similarity, the ace Mannock most resembled was none other than Manfred von Richthofen — the legendary Red Baron, the greatest of all the German aces and, indeed, the greatest of the entire war. Like Mannock, Richthofen devoted much effort to codifying a system of rules for aerial combat as a disciplined team effort, leaving to the romantics who celebrated his achievements all the stirring poetics about jousting “knights of the air.” It would be no great exaggeration to say that the serious study of aerial combat as a tactical discipline unto itself really begins with these two men. The axioms they developed were often amazingly similar. Mannock, for instance, had learned after one or two early misfortunes the importance of checking his weaponry over thoroughly before flying into battle, and pounded this theme home relentlessly with his charges after being given command of his own flight. Here is Richthofen on the same subject:

It is the pilot and not the ordnance officer or the mechanic who is responsible for the faultless performance of his guns. Machine-gun jams do not exist! If they do occur, it is the pilot whom I blame. The pilot should personally examine his ammunition and its loading into the belt to ensure that the length of each round is consistent with that of the others. He has to find time to do this during bad weather or in good weather at night. A machine gun that fires well is better than an engine that runs well.

Both men regarded “stunt pilots,” those who placed their faith in reflexes and fancy maneuvers rather than sound tactics, with near contempt. Richthofen said that he “paid considerably less attention to flying ability” than he did to tactics and gunnery: “I shot down my first twenty whilst flying itself caused me the greatest trouble.” Both men were thoroughgoing pragmatists, willing to engage in battle only when the odds in terms of numbers and position were in their favor, and willing to break off any engagement rather than bring undue risks upon themselves. Most of all, both men were great leaders and teachers. Already during his first tour, Mannock was noted for his patience with the new fliers who came under his charge; his own rocky first weeks with 40 Squadron gave him much empathy for these greenhorns’ plight. He would place them in relatively sheltered positions during their first flights and work to indoctrinate them into his teamwork-oriented, “no individual heroes” approach. Similarly, Richthofen could at times sound more like a fussy schoolmarm than a dashing fighter ace:

It is important and instructive that a discussion be held immediately after each Jagdgeschwader flight. During this everything should be discussed from takeoff to landing and whatever had happened during the flight should be talked through. Questions from individuals can be most useful in explaining things.

If it’s difficult to reconcile Mannock the patient teacher and cerebral tactician with the hooligan who liked to beat people bloody in a bar every night, count it up as yet one more contradictory aspect of this hopelessly contradictory man.

By this time, seasoning a new squadron with two or three combat veterans had become standard practice in the Royal Flying Corps. Thus, after some weeks of much-deserved leave, Mannock was sent to join the brand new 74 Squadron in England. The commander of the squadron, a tough Kiwi named Keith Caldwell, deferred greatly to him, treating him almost as his equal in the chain of command. It was a golden opportunity for Mannock to indoctrinate a mass of unformed clay into his theories of air combat. This he proceeded to do over the several weeks prior to his return to the front with his new squadron, driving home easily remembered rules of thumb like “always above; seldom on the same level; never underneath.” He wasn’t unwilling to use occasional tough love on his skittish charges; a pilot who broke formation might be terrified by a burst of live machine-gun fire, deployed by Mannock to get his attention and force him back into position.

Among the fliers he instructed was one Ira Jones, who would go on to write the most famous biography of Mannock, albeit one so drowning in Jones’s unabashed hero worship that it’s sometimes more interesting as a psychological study of its author than it is for its ostensible subject. Here, for instance, is Jones’s breathless description of his first impression of his squadron’s new flight leader:

His tall, lean figure; his weather-beaten face with its deep-set Celtic blue eyes; his modesty in dress and manner appealed to me, and immediately, like all the other pupils, I came under his spell. He had a dominating personality, which radiated itself on all those around. Whatever he said or did compelled attention. It was obvious that he was a born leader of men.

Aided by Caldwell’s strict discipline and Mannock’s tactical mastery, along with the latest iteration of the S.E.5a, from which the Royal Aircraft Factory had finally shaken out the bugs, 74 Squadron would be a remarkably successful combat unit, losing very few pilots in proportion to the kills they scored against the Germans.

A squadron of S.E.5a scouts on the flight line.

A squadron of S.E.5a scouts on the flight line.

They would need to be. The front to which Mannock returned with his new squadron on March 30, 1918, was a very different place from the one he had left, thanks to two titanic political events of the previous year. One had been the declaration of war by the United States upon Germany and its allies; the other had been the Russian Revolution, following which the government of the new Russian Soviet Republic had signed peace terms with Germany. The army of the United States, still a sleeping giant on the world stage just waking up to its own potential, had been very nearly nonexistent prior to the declaration of war. It would take the Americans more than a year to train, equip, and ship enough soldiers across the Atlantic to make a significant difference in Western Europe. Once that happened, however, the jig would be up; Germany couldn’t hope to continue to hold the front against the combined armies of France, Britain, and the United States. The German commanders believed, logically enough, that they stood just one chance: to shift all of their forces from the old Eastern Front to the Western and throw absolutely everything they had against the Allies during that spring of 1918, in the hope of breaking through and sweeping to the coast in these last few precious weeks before American forces began to arrive en masse. This, then, was the desperate battleground that 74 Squadron flew into.

When the squadron flew into action for the first time on April 12, the young Ira Jones, much like the Mannock of almost exactly one year earlier, performed poorly and returned to the aerodrome in a very bad way.

The feeling of safety produced an amazing reaction of fear, the intensity of which was terrific. Suddenly I experienced a physical and moral depression which produced cowardice. I suddenly felt I was totally unsuited to air fighting and that I would never be persuaded to fly over the lines again. For quite five minutes I shivered and shook.

Departing markedly from the treatment his old squadron mates had meted out to him in the same situation, Mannock quietly pulled Jones aside and told him about his own early struggles, sharing some tips on how he had learned to manage his fear and thus how Jones might as well. Jones’s ardent lifelong hero-worship of Mannock seems to date from this exchange — and understandably so. Motivated perhaps as much by his horror of disappointing his hero as by anything else, Jones soon rounded into one of the squadron’s steady hands.

Jones’s story was hardly unique. Mannock was brilliant at motivating and instilling confidence in new fliers in general. A favorite technique was to “break the duck” of a hesitant newcomer by taking out the gunner of a German observation craft himself, then signaling the greenhorn to finish the job and thus come away with his first victory. Doing so wasn’t quite the sacrifice that it might first appear; the rules for scoring the war in the air stipulated that every pilot who helped to bring down an enemy airplane received credit for that victory, meaning Mannock could feel free to spread the wealth around without sacrificing his own tally. Nevertheless, it was a generous act, even as it was also a rather macabre act — but, again, such are the ways of war.

Caldwell and Mannock molded their squadron into a disciplined fighting unit the equal of the Red Baron’s dreaded “Flying Circus.” Jones:

He [Mannock] not only mystified and surprised the enemy, but also the formations he led. Once over the lines, he would commence flying in a never-ending series of zigzags, never straight for more than a few seconds. Was it not by flying straight for long periods that formation leaders were caught napping?

Suddenly his machine would rock violently, a signal that he was about to attack. But where was the enemy? His companions could not see them, although he was pointing in their direction. Another signal and his SE would dive to the attack. A quick half-roll, and there beneath him would be the enemy formation flying serenely along, the enemy leader with his eyes no doubt glued to the west. The result [was] a complete surprise attack.

Mannock would take the leader if possible in order to give his pilots coming down behind him a better chance of an easy shot at someone before the formation split up and the dogfight began. Having commenced the fight with the tactical advantage of height in his favour, Mannock would adopt dive-and-zoom tactics in order to retain the initiative.

Thanks not least to Mannock, 74 Squadron was one of the happiest on the front, even if that happiness was always tinged with the usual unnatural mania, always shadowed by the stress and terror it worked so diligently to cover up. Jones again:

Mannock was always full of pranks. His favourite one was to enter a comrade’s hut in the early hours of the morning after returning from a “night out”. He would enter, usually accompanied by Caldwell, who would be carrying a jug of water. Once inside, Mannock would pretend that he had wined and dined too well, and would make gurgling noises as if he was going to be sick. As each retching noise was made, Caldwell would splash an appropriate amount of water on the wooden floor. The poor lad asleep would suddenly wake up and jump out of bed to the accompaniment of roars of laughter as his legs would be splashed with the remaining water.

Despite the emphasis on teamwork in the air, Mannock’s personal victory count soared during this his second tour of duty — as incontrovertible a proof as any of just how effective his tactics really were. In barely two months, he increased his tally from 16 to 52, an astonishing run that often saw him shooting down multiple German aircraft on a single day or even a single patrol. His pace during this period was unequaled during any similar stretch of time by any other ace of the war. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order on May 24, then the same medal again just two weeks later after destroying eight German aircraft in five days.

British soldiers carry souvenirs away from the wreckage of Manfred von Richthofen's airplane.

British soldiers carry souvenirs away from the wreckage of Manfred von Richthofen’s airplane.

Given the doctrine he preached to his pilots, one might think that Mannock would have been uninterested in his personal tally and the personal glory that went with it. But, once again, to do so would be to underestimate the complexity of this endlessly complex and contradictory man. On April 21, 1918, shortly after Mannock’s return to the front, a gunner on the ground shot down Manfred von Richthofen largely by luck, firing a bullet toward his Fokker Triplane that pierced his heart and lungs, killing him almost instantly. When the pilots in 74 Squadron’s mess hall that night proposed a toast to their fallen nemesis, Mannock merely scowled and said, “I hope he roasted the whole way down!” He now had a static target to strive for: Richthofen had tallied 80 victories. First, however, he would need to oust his old friend and rival James McCudden, currently back in England with 57 victories to his name. Ominously, he wrote home that he intended to beat all the other aces’ tallies or to “die in the attempt.” Did he, a working-class man, want so desperately to unseat the Red Baron — who, as evidenced by his nickname, was a member of the Prussian aristocracy — as a comeuppance to the class system that had so often used him so badly? We can only speculate.

The British buried Richthofen with full military honors, and even dropped pictures of his grave behind German lines. Mannock, needless to say, wasn't susceptible to such sentimentality.

The British buried Richthofen with full military honors, and even dropped pictures of his grave behind German lines. Mannock, needless to say, wasn’t susceptible to such sentimentality.

By June, the final frenzied German attack on the ground had largely exhausted itself. It had been a near thing on multiple occasions, with the Allied lines buckling at times far more than than they had in all the previous years of war. Still, the Germans had never quite managed to achieve the full-on breach for which they had died in so many thousands. Now, with fresh American troops at last beginning to pour into France to take up the fray against the battered German armies, the war could only end one way; it was merely a question of when. For the first time, the soldiers and aviators on the front could realistically look forward to the prospect of peace in the near future.

And yet Mannock, still the picture of leadership and camaraderie on one level, was falling apart on another. Increasingly obsessed with his victory count even as the terror and guilt he constantly felt threatened always to master him, he was caught in a downward spiral from which he didn’t know how to extricate himself. His obsession with going down in a “sizzler” became more pronounced than ever; even the starry-eyed Ira Jones had to admit that his hero was “getting very peculiar about the whole business.” He took to asking the other pilots, “Are you ready to die for your country today? Will you have it in flames or in pieces?” Even more disturbingly, he began to abandon some of his own tactical dicta. On June 16, for example, he initiated an attack on a German formation that outnumbered his flight by three to one, a clear violation of everything he had always taught his charges; he shot down two planes that day, but the rest of his pilots felt lucky just to escape with their lives. Premonitions of death began to creep more and more into his correspondence. He wrote to his old friend and mentor Jim Eyles:

Things are getting a bit intense just lately and I don’t quite know how long my nerves will last out. I am rather old now, as airmen go, for air fighting. Still, one hopes for the best. These times are so horrible that occasionally I feel that life is not worth hanging on to myself, but “hope springs eternal in the human breast”.

On June 21, Mannock was informed that he was to assume command of 85 Squadron, another unit at the front. He would now be given the rank of Major, a remarkable ascent for a working-class man less than three years removed from the Territorial Forces. His new squadron was another very effective unit; it had lately been commanded by Billy Bishop, a Canadian who with 72 victories to his credit would go down into history as the ace of aces of all the British Commonwealth airmen. That said, Bishop’s actual tally may well have been much lower. There is reason to believe that, eager to inspire the fighting men of the Commonwealth, British commanders may have deliberately inflated his victory count; some historians are willing to credit him with as few as 27 real, confirmable victories. Regardless, Bishop was considered to be of huge symbolic importance. For this reason, he had been withdrawn from active duty; witnessing what a blow to German public morale the death of the Red Baron had been, there was concern about the potential fallout if Bishop should be killed in action. But about Mannock, who despite his achievements remained peculiarly obscure among all but the airmen actually at the front, there was no similar concern. Thus the expendable Mannock was to inherit Commonwealth hero Bishop’s command.

Canadian Billy Bishop, the British Commonwealth's alleged ace of aces, who probably wasn't the conscious fraud some have claimed he was but who may very well have benefited from a less than rigorous kill-verification process in light of his immense propaganda value.

Canadian Billy Bishop, the British Commonwealth’s alleged ace of aces, who probably wasn’t the conscious fraud some have claimed he was but who may very well have benefited from a less than rigorous kill-verification process in light of his immense propaganda value.

Before he took over 85 Squadron, Mannock was granted the small mercy of two weeks’ leave back in England. He repaired to the town of Wellingborough, where he had enjoyed the most peaceful three years of his life living under the roof of Jim Eyles — a stretch that must truly have felt like another lifetime to him by this point. Eyles was as shocked by the version of “Pat” Mannock who knocked on his door on this summer day in 1918 as he had been by the one who had returned sick and malnourished from a Turkish prison three years before. To judge by Eyles’s description, Mannock may have been in the throes of a full-blown nervous breakdown by this point; his hands and body trembled constantly. One day Eyles came upon him unaware, standing in the house’s cozy little kitchen:

He cried uncontrollably, muttering something that I could not make out. His face, when he lifted it, was a terrible sight. Saliva and tears were running down his face; he couldn’t stop it. His collar and shirt front were soaked through. He smiled weakly at me when he saw me watching and tried to make light of it. He would not talk about it at all.

Eyles would later say that, although they didn’t express it in words, the two old friends shared a mutual understanding that this would be the last time they would be together. There was “something very final about it” when the two shook hands on the last morning of Mannock’s leave and Eyles’s old companion in socialism and cricket set off down the garden path, just as he had done hundreds of times before while working as a rigger for the National Telephone Company right there in Wellingborough. But, alas, the job to which he was returning today was a far more deadly business. Hadn’t he done enough for his country? Apparently not. He was in a state of complete psychic collapse, yet the powers that were in England still didn’t respect him enough that anybody had bothered to notice. Again — for the last time this time — Major Edward “Eddie/Paddy/Pat/Jerry/Murphy/Mickey/Mick” Corringham Mannock was going to war.

(Sources: The same as the first article in this series.)


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A Working-Class Hero, Part 2: Bloody April

The grim reality of war in the trenches.

The grim reality of war in the trenches.

The real impact that airplanes had on the course of World War I was very limited in contrast to the wars that were still to come. That press and public latched onto the exploits of the airmen so eagerly was largely down to the sheer ugliness of the war on the ground, which proved notably lacking in the martial glory and strategic derring-do everyone had anticipated when the armies had first marched off to battle.

After the initial German advance into France was finally halted in late 1914, the ground war devolved into a static slaughter the likes of which no one had ever imagined it could become, for the very good reason that the world had never seen anything like it. The situation was born of the fatal combination of weapons of mass destruction with primitive command-and-control systems that made it impossible to use them in the service of anything other than the most indiscriminate, random killing. Heavy artillery had a disconcerting tendency to wipe out friendly rather than enemy forces, while poison-gas attacks, one of the most truly horrifying technologies of warfare ever invented, consisted during World War I of nothing more than opening huge tanks of the stuff when the wind was blowing toward the enemy lines and hoping it didn’t shift direction for a few hours. “Strategy” on the Western Front devolved into one side or the other getting antsy from time to time and launching a massive frontal assault at one spot or another along the line, leading to the gruesome spectacle of soldiers with rifles climbing laboriously over barbed wire in the face of hundreds of machine guns, while the generals stood behind them hoping the enemy would run out of bullets before their side ran out of men. Occasionally, at the cost of thousands or tens of thousands of lives, the enemy lines might bend a little under the onslaught, but they never broke.

With no real strategic gains to which to point, the generals were left to justify each successive bloodbath by waving vaguely at the effect it might be having on the enemy’s morale, or, bringing things down to the final brutal arbiter, claiming to have just possibly managed to kill slightly more enemy than friendly soldiers. Here, for instance, is what the British General John Charteris had to say in 1916 to justify the otherwise inconclusive Battle of the Somme — a battle which began with the bloodiest single day in the history of British arms and wound up killing or maiming more than 1 million men in all.

There is deterioration in the morale of the German Army in this battle, although people at home will not recognize it. Surrenders are more ready than they were at the beginning. Though far from being demoralised as an army, the Germans are not nearly so formidable a fighting machine as they were at the beginning of the battle. Our New Army has shown itself to be as good as the German Army. The battle is over and we shall not know the actual effect it has had on the Germans for many a long day, but it has certainly done all, and more, than we hoped for when we began. It stopped the Verdun attack. It collected a great weight of the German Army opposite us, and then broke it. It prevented the Germans hammering Russia, and it has undoubtedly worn down the German resistance to a great extent.

The years of war still to come would beg to differ with almost every one of even these tepid assessments. In this new inflationary era of warfare, 1 million casualties bought very, very little.

The Somme in 1916, looking like a scene out of Dante.

The Somme in 1916, looking like a scene out of Dante.

In the face of all this ugliness, the air war alone seemed like the clean, noble sort of war the public had expected going into this thing. Not for nothing did the metaphors that were applied to it always reach back to the eras of knights or gladiators — to allegedly cleaner, nobler eras of warfare. “They are the knighthood of this war, without fear and without reproach,” enthused British Prime Minister David Lloyd-George about the aviators, “and they recall the legendary days of chivalry, not merely by the daring of their exploits, but by the nobility of their spirit.” (What, one has to ask, of the thousand acts of quieter heroism that occurred among ordinary soldiers every hour inside the trenches on both sides? Had they no “nobility of spirit?” Even in war, the hierarchies of class remained as strong as ever.) Journalists covering the front began to tally up official “victory counts” for the pilots, with 5 victories making any individual pilot an ace, and thus worthy of closer observation as an up-and-comer. The ultimate honor was to become the ace of aces, the pilot with more victories than any other. The latest tallies were printed in newspapers, to be eagerly perused over the home-front breakfast table the way that peacetime readers might turn to the horse-race results or the latest cricket scores. The most successful aces became veritable celebrities, complete with adoring fan bases. As Edward Mannock was transferring to the air corps, baby-faced Albert Ball, the first of the great British aces and to this day still the best remembered, was much in the news for his exploits. Not yet 21 years old, he presented the very picture of modest, chivalrous young British manhood. “I only scrap because it is my duty,” he said. “Nothing makes me feel more rotten than to see them go down, but you see it is either them or me, so I must do my best to make it a case of them.”

Albert Ball, who broke all the rules and got away with it for quite some time thanks to sheer skill. He preferred to attack from below rather than above, preferred to prowl alone rather than as part of a flight. Mannock would spend much time later in the war trying to break would-be Albert Balls of their delusions of single-handed heroism.

Albert Ball, who broke all the rules and got away with it for quite some time thanks to his sheer skill as both a pilot and a gunner. He preferred to attack from below rather than above, preferred to prowl alone rather than as part of a flight. Mannock would spend much time later in the war trying to disabuse would-be Albert Balls of their delusions of single-handed heroism.

Mannock would prove a very different sort of air fighter than the famously reckless Ball, who is known on at least one or two occasions to have thrown himself into battle alone against six German planes. Certainly Mannock didn’t enter into the Royal Air Corps with any particularly romantic notions about it, even if he did write in his diary upon his acceptance that he would “strive to become a scout pilot like Ball.” He was simply seeking a way to do some good — and to kill some Germans, which he defined as largely the same thing.

Although the war as a whole was half over by the time Mannock learned to fly, what would come to be regarded as the classic era of World War I dogfighting, subject of countless future books, movies, and games, was really just beginning. When the war had started in 1914, the air forces of the various combatants had consisted of no more than a few dozens or hundreds of rickety unarmed planes. Little thought had been given to the prospect of aerial combat; it was dangerous enough just trying to fly one of the things from Point A to Point B. The airplane was rather regarded as the ultimate reconnaissance tool, even better than the observation balloons armies had been using for years. United by the shared brotherhood of flight, the pilots for the opposing sides, who might very well know each other given how tiny the world of pre-war aviation had been, would blithely wave to one another when they happened to meet on their reconnaissance rounds and continue on their way. Only as casualties mounted and true hatred between the combatants began to set in did it begin to occur to pilots that it might be a good idea to prevent the aviators for the other side from returning home with a cockpit full of valuable information on the positioning of friendly forces. Thus many fliers took to carrying pistols or rifles up with them and taking potshots at enemy planes. Others started carrying up bags of bricks and chucking them at the enemy. But it’s doubtful whether any airplane ever managed to down another using such crude methods; nor were the heavy, slow, two-man observation craft themselves all that suited for aerial jousting. Clearly something better was needed if the war truly was to be taken into the sky. The era of the so-called “scout” plane — the name is a misnomer if ever there was one; its goal was not to “scout” anything but to shoot down enemy reconnaissance planes — was nigh.

A French Nieuport biplane with machine gun mounted, less than ideally, above the pilot.

A French Nieuport biplane with machine gun mounted, less than ideally, above the pilot.

Almost from the beginning, it had been clear that the ideal weapon of airborne war would be a machine gun mounted directly in front of the pilot, so that he could, to borrow the parlance of a later era, simply point his plane in an enemy’s direction and shoot. But the obvious problem with that was the propeller in the nose of the plane; it would be shot to splinters long before the pilot could hope to down an enemy. One possibility might be to mount the gun in the nose of a “pusher” aircraft — an aircraft in which, like in the original Wright brothers’ plane, the propeller “pushed” the airplane through the air from behind rather than “pulling” it along from in front. (Just such a design was the De Havilland DH.2, the only single-seater Mannock got a chance to fly before being posted to the front.) But the pusher configuration was inefficient and aerodynamically awkward, for which reasons it was already passing into aeronautical history; certainly it was hardly possible to build a fast and maneuverable would-be fighter plane using it. The best compromise anyone could come up with for a “tractor” aircraft — a plane with the propeller located in the nose of the fuselage — was to mount the machine gun above the pilot’s head, on the upper wing of a biplane. That way the bullets would fly over the propeller — but that way also meant that aerial gunnery became much more difficult, as the pilot had to reach over his head to fire a gun whose bullets would fly above his plane’s arc of flight.

Roland Garros's propeller, complete with bullet deflectors.

Roland Garros’s propeller, complete with bullet deflectors.

In April of 1915, a French pilot named Roland Garros briefly terrorized the Western Front with a rather hair-raising solution to the problem of the nose-mounted machine gun in a tractor plane: he bolted heavy metal plates to the propeller blades of his little Morane monoplane, in the hope that they would deflect away those bullets that struck them. It worked, after a fashion, despite the ever-present danger of the force of the bullets’ impact eventually breaking the propeller, or of a bullet ricocheting into the engine, or for that matter into the pilot’s face — risks which do much to explain why no other Allied pilots proved willing to implement Garros’s scheme. Still, Garros managed to shoot down a few German planes with the setup before being forced down himself and taken prisoner. His captured plane was given to Anthony Fokker, a Dutch aeronautical engineer working for the Germans, with orders to come up with something similar. What he actually did come up with was something much, much better.

A Fokker Eindecker ("monoplane") of the sort which, equipped with the first synchronizer gear, terrorized the Allies on the Western Front during the fall of 1915.

A Fokker Eindecker (“monoplane”) of the sort which, equipped with the first synchronizer gear, terrorized the Allies on the Western Front during the fall of 1915 despite being a mediocre performer in all respects other than gunnery.

Fokker devised a system of gears that would prevent the machine gun from firing during those instants when a propeller blade was directly in front of the muzzle. It was far from foolproof — especially during the early months, hapless pilots could and did occasionally shoot off their own propellers when the mechanism slipped a gear — but Fokker’s invention set the pattern that would hold true for all of the remaining years of the air war: that of a constant game of technological one-upsmanship. Introduced on the Western Front late in the summer of 1915, the synchronizer gear led to a period of absolute German dominance of the skies that Allied pilots came to call the “Fokker Scourge.”

In a telling measure of just how unexceptional the Fokker Eindekker really was, it was a two-man pusher, the Royal Aircraft Factory F.E. 2B, that ended the Fokker Scourge and briefly tipped the scales in favor of the Allies even as they still struggled to perfect a reliable synchronizer gear. Still, the F.E. 2B would be the last effective fighter of its type. The future belonged to the "tractors."

In a telling measure of just how unexceptional the Fokker Eindecker really was, it was a two-man pusher, the Royal Aircraft Factory F.E. 2B, that ended the Fokker Scourge and briefly tipped the scales in favor of the Allies again even as they still struggled to perfect a reliable synchronizer gear of their own. Still, the F.E. 2B would be the last effective aircraft of its type. The future belonged to the “tractors.”

The tide of the air war ebbed and flowed throughout 1916, but by early 1917 the Allied forces were once again clearly getting the worst of it. Indeed, Mannock arrived just in time for the month destined to go down in infamy as “Bloody April.”

An Albatros D.III, the scourge of Bloody April, seen from above -- the only angle from which any Allied pilot wanted to see one, if he had to see one at all.

An Albatros D.III, the scourge of Bloody April, seen from above — the only angle from which any Allied pilot wanted to see one, if he had to see one at all.

It was a case of quality over quantity. To support the latest fruitless British offensive, near the village of Arras, France, the Royal Flying Corps could field 754 aircraft, 385 of them scouts. The Germans had just 264 airplanes on that section of the front, 114 of them scouts. But offsetting the three-to-one advantage the British enjoyed in sheer numbers was the technical superiority of the German planes and pilots. The latest German Albatros scouts were faster and tougher than anything the British could muster, and could climb much higher thanks to their high-compression engines — a critical advantage in air combat, where he who enjoys the advantage of height most often enjoys victory. Just as critically, they were armed with not one but two synchronized Spandau machine guns mounted on the cowl, capable of unleashing a devastating barrage of 1600 rounds per minute. The British, by contrast, had yet to perfect a foolproof synchronizer gear of their own. Their French-built Nieuport scouts — the plane the newly arrived Mannock would fly into battle — were equipped only with a single Lewis machine gun mounted above the wing. In addition to having to aim the thing in the middle of a dogfight without losing control of his airplane or being shot up by someone else — no mean feat in itself — the pilot had to constantly change out ammunition drums that held just 47 rounds each. This was the heyday of the German Jagdstaffeln (“hunting squadrons”), or “Jastas,” which ranged freely across the front at altitudes the Allied planes couldn’t dream of reaching. From their lofty perches, the German Albatroses could swoop down out of the sun and destroy their enemies before they even knew what was happening. The most feared of all the Jastas was Jasta 11, commanded by Manfred von Richthofen — the Red Baron, greatest ace of them all. He and his cohorts were always identifiable by the blood-red paint jobs their aircraft sported in arrogant defiance of the usual drab military color scheme.

The Red Baron (center) with some of his fellow Flying Circus performers.

The Red Baron (center) with some of his squadron mates. This picture was sold as a postcard in Germany, where Richthofen was celebrated as his era’s equivalent of a rock star.

The consequences for the men of the Royal Flying Corps were horrendous. As airmen were killed, they were replaced by sketchily trained greenhorns, often with less than 25 hours of total flying time, and with no real instruction whatsoever in the rapidly evolving wiles of airborne warfare. Little better than cannon fodder for the Jastas, after going down in flames they were replaced by still more hastily trained and activated new recruits. The vicious circle came fully to a head in Bloody April. That April of 1917, the British lost 275 aircraft, leading to the death of 207 men and the wounding of 214 more. Set against the carnage taking place in and around the trenches, these numbers may have been minuscule, but in relation to the relatively tiny numbers who took part in the war in the air they were staggering. One out of every three airplanes the British had on-hand at the beginning of April had been shot down by the end of the month; another airman was killed for every 92 hours of total flying time by British airplanes as a whole. April of 1917, Mannock’s baptism by fire, was the absolute most dangerous time of the entire war to be a British flyer.

Major-General Hugh Trenchard, the man in charge of Britain’s air war on the Western Front, had an inflexible strategy for dealing with the psychological fallout of casualties. It was best summed up by the oft-repeated maxim “no empty chairs at breakfast.” The fallen were not to be mourned or even acknowledged. Instead the possessions of a fallen airman were quickly whisked out of his room to make space for his replacement, who would likely arrive within hours from a pool of fresh faces waiting in the town of Saint-Omer, a staging area located just across the English Channel. Mannock spent just a few days there waiting for a spot to open up — i.e., waiting for someone to die, a wait that never took long — before being sent on April 6 to 40 Squadron, posted near the village of Bruay, west of the town of Lens.

Most soldiers who go to war have the comfort of doing so as a group, with the same people with whom they have trained and prepared for months. Not so Mannock and the other fledgling flyers arriving in France to plug the holes made by the relentless Albatros patrols. They went to war alone. The experience of one Second Lieutenant Geoffrey Hopkins, who somewhat unusually was posted directly from Britain to 22 Squadron, likely mirrors that of Mannock in most other respects.

I travelled by the ordinary leave train from Victoria to Dover and thence by ship to Boulogne, where we arrived about dark. Everybody else disembarking there seemed to know exactly what to do and where to go, but I had no idea whatsoever and stood by my camp kit and valise, feeling rather lost. Some kindly soul, who had perhaps had the same experience himself at an earlier date, asked me where I was going and, when I told him, advised me to report to the RTO (Railway Transport Officer). He laughed when I naively asked him what an RTO was! The RTO said, “Oh, yes, 22 Squadron, RFC. They’ll pick you up at Amiens railway station. You can catch a train early in the morning. The squadron is at a place called Bertangles.”

Next day an RFC corporal met me on the platform at Amiens station, took my kit to a Crossley tender outside, and drove me to a bar where, he said, I would find some other officers from the squadron. I found them there having a drink before returning to the aerodrome. I was introduced all round and we had a drink before setting off. We had a very crowded and noisy drive back. They belonged to C Flight and told me that I’d been posted to B Flight, where they dropped me at the mess, on a very cold night with thick snow on the ground. The first person I met on going into the mess was Gladstone, who had joined up with me from school. He introduced me to the others there, told me that the commanding officer and our flight commander were not there that night, and I should report in the morning. After something to eat and drink, I was shown my billet. This was a farmhouse in the village, my room being a sort of cubbyhole off the main living room with a bunk bed containing a pallisasse, filled with straw. I have no recollection of any bathing or sanitary arrangements — I don’t suppose there were any — but have vivid memories of how cold it was.

The veterans who made up the core of a squadron weren’t in the habit of being overly welcoming to the wide-eyed newcomers who were constantly washing up in their mess hall. It was a matter of emotional self-protection; the life expectancy of the average greenhorn at that time was measured in days rather than weeks or months, so there was little to be gained and much to be lost from forming bonds destined so quickly to be rent. If a pilot managed to stay alive for a few weeks, seemed to have a real knack for combat flying, then and only then would his relationship with his comrades deepen beyond the most cursory of formalities. It made for a cold reception indeed for many an already disoriented, uncertain young man.

For his part, Mannock had an unusually difficult time integrating into the life of 40 Squadron. For one thing, the man he was replacing was not another faceless, barely-remembered greenhorn, but rather a well-liked veteran who had finally met his match; Mannock’s presence in his bunk and in his chair at breakfast was a constant reminder of the old boon companion he was replacing. Mannock’s other problem was more typical of him. Determined as ever to assert himself and not to be cowed by his alleged betters, he overdid it, creating a very unfavorable first impression, as remembered by a fellow flier who betrays traces of the same old class snobbery that had dogged Mannock throughout his life:

His manner, speech, and familiarity were not liked. He seemed too cocky for his experience, which was nil. His arrival at the unit was not the best way to start. New men took their time and listened to the more experienced hands; Mannock was the complete opposite. He offered ideas about everything: how the war was going, how it should be fought, the role of scout pilots, what was wrong or right with our machines. Most men in his position, by that I mean a man from his background [emphasis mine] and with his lack of fighting experience, would have shut up and earned their place in the mess.

New fliers arrived at the front in a state of unpreparedness that must strike us today as extraordinary. With modern, combat-worthy aircraft virtually all earmarked to the front to replace the endless stream of losses, the airplanes the new arrivals had flown in training were wildly different from those they would be expected to fly into combat. Mannock had never before in his life flown a Nieuport 17, the nimble but rather under-powered and under-gunned French scout with which 40 Squadron was equipped. For that matter, he had flown a single-seat “tractor” aircraft of any sort for the first time only after arriving in France, when he was allowed a few practice flights in an obsolete Bristol Scout at Saint-Omer while waiting for his final posting. And trainees like Mannock had been given virtually no instruction in the vital discipline of aerial gunnery — a discipline whose mastery was made all the more vital by the awkward over-wing Lewis machine guns on the Nieuports that made every shot an exercise in deflection shooting.

The veterans of 40 Squadron may have been cool to newcomers, but a sense of fair play demanded that they at least give the fledglings a chance to put in a bit of practice flying and shooting in a Nieuport before being sent out over the front. Mannock was allowed about a week to do what he could to prepare himself. Gunnery practice involved laying a sheet of brightly-colored fabric of about six feet by six feet on the ground to serve as the target. Pilots would then dive toward it and take their shots, an exercise that would in theory force them to master the art of maintaining control of their aircraft while also manipulating the Lewis gun. It was damnably tricky. One William Bond, who arrived at 40 Squadron a few weeks before Mannock, later recalled being disappointed to learn after his first attempt that he’d managed to hit the target with just one shot out of 97. When he expressed his disappointment, the man in charge of the target range told him he had been the first in the last five days to hit the target at all.

Inevitably, some wiped out on the target range, wounding or killing themselves before they ever met an enemy airplane. Second Lieutenant Gordon Taylor of 66 Squadron describes an all too typical accident:

Pilots dived individually on a ground target near the aerodrome, firing their guns at the outline of a German aircraft laid out on the grass. I was watching a [Sopwith] Pup dive on this target only a day or two after we arrived. He was coming down steeply with engine on, firing, but holding his dive beyond the time when he should have started to pull out. I was in agony, trying to will him out of the dive before it was too late. He must have realised his mistake, seen the ground coming up, and pulled back too heavily on the stick. With a ridiculously harmless sound, like a child’s balloon bursting, the aeroplane disintegrated. The fuselage dived straight into the ground with the crunching noise of somebody treading on a matchbox. Tattered fragments of wing followed it, fluttering slowly to earth. The silence which settled over the scene was appalling.

Mannock’s career as a combat pilot very nearly ended before it began on the same tragic note. Pulling out of a dive at the end of a run, his right lower wing literally came off, pulling right out of the fuselage, the result of yet another problem that plagued the Allied pilots in their struggle against the Germans: the often terrible build quality of their airplanes, which were thrown together in haste in jerry-rigged factories to meet the constant demand for replacements. In what even his many detractors had to admit was a fine bit of flying, Mannock managed to bring his plane in upright for a crash landing that he escaped without injury. In his diary, he claimed that he was told he was the first pilot ever to manage such a feat.

On April 17, Mannock’s practice period, such as it was, was declared finished, and he made his first combat sortie over the front that evening. Herbert Ellis, another green pilot who had arrived at 40 Squadron at about the same time as Mannock, had turned heads that very morning by shooting down a German plane on his own first sortie. As William Bond later told the story, Ellis accomplished this feat largely by accident, after getting lost in the clouds and losing all contact with the other two planes that formed his flight: “He searched around for some time, not knowing at all where he was, and then suddenly a Hun two-seater came out of a cloud and flew at him. Ellis fired promptly and saw the Hun turn over, go down spinning, and crash to the ground.” Such were the fortunes of war. Mannock’s own debut would be far less auspicious.

No pilot ever forgot his first glimpse of the front, a sight of a devastation so complete as to be surreal, like flying above the surface of the moon. A pilot named Marcus Kaizer described (or perhaps failed to describe) it thus:

There was not a house left standing — just as if a big steamroller had passed over them. As we went further east, the shell holes in the ground grew more numerous until we reached the zone where each hole literally touches four or five others. I cannot describe the appearance of this to you — there were billions and all full of water. The whole looked like a wet sponge — hardly a tree or house visible.

An antiaircraft gun.

An antiaircraft gun.

As Mannock, flying in formation with five other Nieuports, was struggling to comprehend what he saw below, a German antiaircraft, or “Archie,” barrage began against them. Like so many other technologies of modern war, antiaircraft gunnery was in its infancy during the First World War, as gunners struggled to adapt to this strange new need to hit targets above them in the sky. Accuracy, at least when firing at planes at reasonably high altitude, was far from good, a fact that veteran pilots came to understand very well. In general, they simply ignored the Archie fire and continued on their way, trusting to the odds against the one-in-a-thousand lucky shellburst that might actually do them harm. For a newcomer like Mannock, however, all those bombs bursting in air around his airplane were profoundly unnerving. They caused him to commit the worst sin possible in the eyes of his peers: he panicked — “I did some stunts quite inadvertently” with “feelings very funny,” he wrote laconically in his diary that night — careening wildly out of formation in the hope of getting away from the barrage. When he regained his self-control, he found he had no idea where the rest of his patrol was. At last he blundered back to his aerodrome, alone in his ignominy. His comrades, who had already marked him for a blowhard in the officers’ mess, now began to see him as untrustworthy in the air as well — quite possibly a coward. That impression would only harden in the days to come.

The famous but indefinitely attributed description of war as “months of boredom punctuated by moments of extreme terror” dates from the First World War. In the case of fliers as well as their trench-bound counterparts, the months of boredom also encompassed enormous physical discomfort. It’s difficult indeed to overemphasize how taxing combat flying during World War I really was on the bodies of those who engaged in it. Mannock and his comrades typically patrolled the front at altitudes approaching 20,000 feet, right at the limit of what their Nieuports could manage, thereby to minimize one of the principal advantages enjoyed by the Germans: the fact that their aircraft could climb still higher. At that height, whether in winter or summer, the air was biting cold and terribly thin. A typical patrol began at dawn, the pilots emerging from the mess with as much protection from the cold as they could contrive. One Flight Lieutenant Robert Compston:

We were muffled up to the eyes and wore fleece-lined thigh boots drawn up over a fleece- or fur-lined Sidcot suit, a fur-lined helmet complete with chin guard and goggles with a strip of fur around them. Any parts of bare skin left open to the air were well-coated with whale oil to prevent frostbite. For our hands we found that an ordinary pair of silk gloves, if put on warm and then covered with the ordinary leather gauntlet gloves, retained enough heat for the whole patrol.

The dawn quiet of the aerodrome would ring out with the coughs and backfires of engines springing reluctantly to life. Flight Commander Colin Mackenzie:

All pilots should be in their machines five minutes before the time of starting, the engines having been previously tested by the petty officer of the flight. When all engines are ticking over and the petty officer signals to the leader that all the engines are running satisfactorily, the flight leader leaves the ground; the remaining four machines, if head to wind, should get off in thirty seconds, the order of getting off corresponding to each machine’s position in the formation.

Once all airborne, the flight would form up and set off for the front line, climbing all the while in the encroaching light of dawn into ever cooler and thinner air, straining for every bit of the precious altitude that could spell the difference between life and death. Compston:

While gaining height we saw away on our starboard beam a dark mass, which we knew to be the town of Arras, while the silvery, twisting thread straggling eastward showed us the River Scarpe. An occasional bursting shell and some Very lights betrayed the whereabouts of the lines, while a star shell threw into clear relief the chalky contour of the Hindenburg Line. Rudely we disturbed that quiet hour before the dawn.

A Nieuport 17 on patrol.

A Nieuport 17 on patrol.

This was flying at its most elemental, flying in a way that few modern pilots have ever known it. Up there in their rickety little open-cockpit aircraft, they felt like they could reach out a hand and touch the vault of heaven. If they could forget for a moment the grinding cold, the shortness of breath and pain in their heads and extremities brought about by oxygen deprivation, and the gnawing awareness that enemy aircraft could be lurking almost anywhere, they could appreciate the stunning beauty that surrounded them. Lieutenant George Kay:

These April clouds are perfectly clearly defined, and are like great mountains and castles of snow. You are sailing along in the sparkling sun under a clear blue sky and underneath is a fluffy white carpet.

Unfortunately, dwelling on the beauty of the scene was an excellent way to get yourself killed. Any one of those fluffy clouds could hide the Red Baron and his mates. The tension was unbearable, almost worse than the minute or two of chaos and terror that followed when the dreaded thing did finally happen, when German aircraft swept down out of the clouds or out of the sun. Lieutenant Cecil Lewis:

Our eyes were continually focusing, looking, craning our heads round, moving all the time looking for those black specks which would mean enemy aircraft at a great distance. Between clouds we would not be able to see the ground or only parts of it which would sort of slide into view like a magic-lantern screen far, far beneath. Clinging close together, about twenty or thirty yards between each machine, swaying, looking at our neighbors, setting ourselves just right so that we were all in position.

Contrary to myth and legend, extended dogfights, those much-vaunted extended aerial duels between these knights of the air, were quite rare. Mostly death came swiftly and unannounced; many a casualty of the war in the air literally never knew what hit him. The emotional toll of this life of overarching, eminently justified paranoia was staggering, while the physical toll it took was almost equally enormous. Spending several hours each day in a condition of oxygen deprivation brought on constant headaches and constant fatigue. Mannock wrote home to Jim Eyles that “I always feel tired and sleepy, and I can lie down and sleep anywhere at any time.” The oil and unburned fuel thrown off by the engine got into the skin and hair and was almost impossible to scrub out, while the quantities of the same noxious stuff which every pilot inadvertently inhaled led to persistent stomach cramps and diarrhea.

High-strung by temperament, Mannock didn’t cope very well with the strain — not ever really, and certainly not in his first weeks at the front. “Now I can understand,” he wrote in his diary, “what a tremendous strain to the nervous system active service flying is.” Unlike the majority of his peers, he survived as his first days turned into his first weeks at the front. But he didn’t acquit himself with any particular glory in so doing; while it’s true that he managed not to get shot down, it’s also true that he didn’t come close to shooting down anyone from the other side. Many of his comrades grew more than ever to see him, rightly or wrongly, as a shirker, the sort of flier who by some happenstance always seemed to be elsewhere when the going got really tough. When he turned for home early once or twice from particularly dangerous patrols due to what he claimed to be engine problems, it was viewed with great suspicion. George Lloyd, a fellow flier who arrived at 40 Squadron very shortly after Mannock:

Mannock was not actually called yellow, but many secret murmurings of an unsavoury nature reached my ears. I was told that he had shot down one single Hun out of control [Mannock was never officially credited with even this kill], and that he showed signs of being over-careful during engagements. He was further accused of being continually in the air practising gunnery, as a pretence of keenness. In other words, the innuendo was that he was suffering from cold feet.

Skeptical of the motivation behind it though Lloyd is, his comment about Mannock’s habit of constant gunnery practice points I think to something important. Even as he undoubtedly struggled to master his very real terror, Mannock was also at some level studying the nature of air combat, looking for ways to get better at it. It was perhaps every bit as much for this reason as any other that he seemed to hold himself apart from the fray; he was studying the field of battle before he threw himself into it. The polar opposite of a natural pilot and intuitive warrior like the famed Albert Ball, Mannock’s was, despite his relative lack of education, a very analytic mind. Nothing about fighting in the air seemed to come to him easily, but, once finally learned, lessons were never forgotten.

Take, for instance, this incident, which he wrote about in his diary on May 3:

Two mornings ago, C Flight escorted four Sopwiths on a photography stunt to Douai Aerodrome, Captain Keen, the new commander, leading. We were attacked from above over Douai. I tried my gun before going over the German lines, only to find that it was jammed, so I went over with a revolver only. A Hun in a beautiful yellow and green bus attacked me from behind. I wheeled round on him and howled like a dervish (although of course he couldn’t hear me), whereat he made off towards old Parry and attacked him, with me following, for the moral effect! Another one (a brown speckled one) attacked a Sopwith, and Keen blew the pilot to pieces and the Hun went spinning down from 12,000 feet to earth. Unfortunately, the Sopwith had been hit, and went down too, and there was I, a passenger, absolutely helpless, not having a gun, an easy prey for any of them, and they hadn’t the grit to close. Eventually they broke away, and then their Archie gunners got on the job and we had a hell of a time. At times, I wondered if I had a tailplane or not, they were so near. We came back over Arras with the three remaining Sopwiths, and excellent photos, and two vacant chairs at the Sopwith squadron mess! What is the good of it all?

Forced bravado aside (“they hadn’t the grit to close…”), a very shaken Mannock learned from this incident and one or two others like it to check his weapon personally before taking off. He would laboriously go over the gun itself and over each drum of ammunition, bullet by bullet, trusting no one else with the task out of the simple logic that no one else could possibly consider it as important as he, that no one else could possibly be guaranteed to do it as thoroughly as he would.

A German "Drachen" (literally "dragon"), or observation balloon, about to go aloft.

A German “Drachen” (literally “kite”), or observation balloon, about to go aloft.

On May 7, Mannock and five companions attacked six German observation balloons hovering just above the front lines, a frenzied exercise that entailed screaming barely ten feet above the trenches at full throttle hoping not to be hit by the rifles and machine guns cannoning around them, then raking the balloons from below with their Lewis guns as they passed under them. Mannock managed to take one of them out in a blossom of flames before sprinting madly for home, his machine riddled with bullet holes and his nerves in an equally frazzled state. His was the only plane to make it back for a proper landing at the aerodrome. “I don’t want to go through such an experience again,” he wrote in his diary. The event marked his first kill in two senses. It was his first official tally as a pilot  — and it was the first time he could definitively know that he had killed at least one other human being.

On the very same day, Albert Ball, who had now tallied 44 official victories, was shot down and killed, possibly by the Red Baron’s brother Lothar von Richthofen, whilst, as was his wont, prowling the front recklessly all alone. A torch had been passed, although it would be a long time before anyone realized it. Certainly anyone who had told Mannock’s squadron mates that the unstable, untrustworthy, uncouth big “Irishman” in their mess would someday replace the fallen hero Ball as Britain’s leading ace would have been roundly jeered. Mannock seemed anything but destined for glory. Just two days later on May 9, after another inconclusive engagement which raised the eyebrows of his squadron mates, he wrote in his diary how he had landed “with my knees shaking and my nerves all torn to bits. All my courage seems to have gone.” His commanding officer, showing more sympathy than would have most of Mannock’s other fellow fliers, took him briefly off active duty, judging him to be in no condition to fly at all, much less to fly and fight.

And yet, little by little, in a process that would require months yet to reach any sort of fruition, the worm was turning. Mannock the shirker was soon to become Mannock the reliable old hand, and waiting in the wings was Mannock the ace.

(Sources: The same as the first article in this series.)


Posted by on November 25, 2016 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction


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A Working-Class Hero, Part 1: Proletariat, Prisoner, and Pilot

You may wonder what on earth the following is doing on “a history of computer entertainment.” If so, please trust that the meaning behind my madness will become clear in the course of the next few articles. In the meantime, I hope you’ll enjoy getting away, just for a little while, from computers and games and business machinations involving them to an earlier time that was even more fraught and no less fascinating.


Edward Mannock, Great Britain’s ace of aces of World War I and of all time, was also a man of a bewildering number of names. He wasn’t even born as Edward Mannock, but rather as Edward Corringham.

His father, another Edward Mannock, was the black sheep of an otherwise respectable middle-class London family. In 1878, in debt and likely in trouble with the law, he joined the army as an enlisted soldier, an occupation that was considered so ignoble at the time that his family begged him to assume an alias. Thus he became Edward Corringham, and it was as Corporal Edward Corringham that he married an Irish girl named Julia Sullivan in 1883 in Ballincollig, Ireland, the village at which his regiment was stationed. Four children, two boys and two girls, followed, the family moving all the while around Ireland and England behind Edward’s regiment. Young Edward, the third of the children, was born on May 21, 1888, in Brighton, England. Despite being born in England to an English father, the boy would always self-identify as at least as much Irish as English. That identity came complete with his mother’s brogue, an accent he may have actively cultivated as an act of defiance against his cruel drunkard of an English father.

In 1891, his father was discharged from the army, and the family reverted to his old surname of Mannock, with young Edward taking Corringham as his middle name for old times’ sake. Moving back to London in the hope of being accepted back into the respectable Mannock family’s good graces, they found nothing of the kind on offer. On the contrary, the other Mannocks were all too willing to visit the father’s sins upon his children, continuing to disown them all completely. Edward the elder had difficulty finding steady work, both due to the disrepute in which an ex-soldier was held and his own fondness for drink, and the £40 severance he had been awarded at the end of his service quickly evaporated. By the end of eighteen months, the family was living in horrid squalor and poverty, abused daily one and all by the man of the house, who took his frustration out on his wife and children with fists and kicks.

With no other prospects on offer, Edward the elder rejoined the army, enlisting with a regiment that was about to be shipped off to India. Once again, wife and children duly followed him to this latest posting. Life there was a little better; the family, not even considered on the level of the servant class back in England, could actually afford a servant of their own in India. With the economic stresses now eased, some of the physical abuse slackened, although it would never entirely go away.

It was in India, in these much improved if hardly luxurious conditions, that young Edward, now typically called “Eddie,” passed most of his childhood. In the beginning, he was a rather sickly boy, a result of the malnutrition, unsanitary conditions, and constant abuse that had marked his old life back in England. He contracted a serious amoebic infection in his eyes, which blinded him completely for as long as a fortnight.[1]Generations of hagiographers would later claim that the infection left Mannock’s vision out of his left eye permanently impaired if not destroyed entirely, thus giving rise to the legend of “the ace with one eye,” a story worthy of a Biggles novel. Manly lad that he was, the accounts claim, he never revealed his handicap to any but those who were closest to him out of a horror of being pitied. Instead he worked for hours on end to find ways to compensate when, for instance, playing cricket (a sport at which he was actually quite accomplished). Thus did the hagiographers neatly sidestep the fact that the vast majority of those who remembered Mannock remembered absolutely nothing of note about his vision, other than perhaps an unusually intense stare when he talked with them.

Similarly, the hagiographers claimed that he managed to pass at least three eye exams with ease prior to becoming a pilot by using a photographic memory that is in evidence nowhere else in his life’s story to memorize the optical chart. As it happens, one Lieutenant Gilbert Preston, who had lost his left eye as a ground soldier at Gallipoli before deciding to sign on with the Royal Flying Corps, tried to fool the doctor in exactly the same way Mannock is claimed to have done. It didn’t work out terribly well for him:

I thought that I had fooled the doctor, because after I had read the reading board with my right eye, he turned me to the window and said, “Tell me what you see out of the window.” I knew that I would have to come back to reading the eye chart, so I memorised all of the lines on the board. When I finished describing what I had seen out the window, he swung me around, and covered my right eye and said, “Will you continue reading the eye chart?” I knew what was coming, so I started to “read” the board. Suddenly he said, “You’re blind in that eye, aren’t you?” I said, “Oh no, not quite.” He told me, “Uncover your right eye and look again at the chart.” While I had been looking out the window, and unknown to me, he had turned the chart over and the only single letter on that chart was the letter “E.” I was heartsick as I thought my own chances were non-existent. He then announced, “Don’t take it too much to heart, because I have orders to send you to the Flying Corps – whether you can see or not!” To my disappointment he informed me that I could not qualify as a pilot and that I would go to France as an observer.

So, the stories of Edward Mannock as “the ace with one eye” are all, needless to say, almost certainly complete bunk. Nor are they necessary for casting him in the role of hero; his story is plenty heroic without them.
But in time he grew into an active boy with a keen interest in sports of all types.

Eddie received a reasonably good primary-school education in India via a local Jesuit mission. In 1899, his father sailed with his regiment to South Africa to take part in the Boer Wars while his wife and children were left to await his return in India. He wound up spending three years in South Africa, at one point actually volunteering to join another regiment and remain there rather than return to his family — as sure an indication as any of just how estranged he really was from them. At last, in 1902 he was shipped back to Canterbury, England, without ever returning to India at all; his wife was left to book her own passage with her children to join him.

Eddie was 14 upon their return. With virtually no memory of England, he had to acclimate himself to life in Canterbury, which was not yet the tourist trap it is today, just a rather anonymous English market town surrounding a grand cathedral. Then, within a few months of the family’s arrival, his father walked out on them for the last time. Father and son would never see each other again.

Any thought of further schooling for Eddie must now be forgotten. With no other means of support, the entire family had to go to work. For years, Eddie worked menial jobs. His first was that of a grocer’s boy, schlepping crates full of food around the town. Later he worked as a barber’s boy, sweeping floors, washing hair, and mixing vats full of shaving soap. Both jobs offered only long hours of the most stultifying labor for the most meager of wages, but needs must.

But meanwhile his older brother Patrick had had a stroke of luck. The best educated of the family thanks to his having come to the good offices of the Jesuits in India at an older age than his little brother, he found employment as an accounting clerk at the National Telephone Company. When another opening came up some time later, he was able to secure it for the now 20-year-old Eddie. This really was an extraordinary stroke of luck by most people’s measure. A clerk’s job offered relatively reasonable working hours spent indoors in an office, sitting relatively comfortably behind a desk. At the end of 45 years or so, it even offered the relative security of a modest pension. For a young man of Eddie Mannock’s social standing, this was about the most he could reasonably hope for in life. No, the work itself wasn’t especially exciting, but what work open to him was? The vast majority of young men in his position would have accepted the job gratefully and remained there for the rest of their working life. Indeed, Patrick Mannock did precisely this. Eddie, however, accepted it only with some reluctance, and almost immediately started looking for a way out.

Eddie Mannock was developing into an ambitious man who refused to accept that this seeming best lot in life offered him by the Edwardian class system was the only one possible. Well over his childhood sickliness, he was now a strong young man who, while hardly well-educated, had a certain native mechanical intelligence that made him very good at solving practical problems of many descriptions. He played cricket at every opportunity, loved to fish, and loved to tinker with engines and electricity whenever given the opportunity. He joined the Territorial Force, the forerunner to the modern British Army Reserve, where he drilled regularly with his cavalry unit, becoming quite a good horseman.

From the beginning, the circumscribed indoor life of an accounting clerk rankled. Better, he thought, to be at the scene of the action, rigging cable out in the field as a linesman for the same National Telephone Company that now employed him as an office worker. At last, after some three years behind a desk, he asked for a transfer to the field, thus stating his willingness to forgo his cushy office job for a much more difficult and dangerous life of physical labor. Everyone thought he was crazy, but his request was finally granted.

To take up his new duties, Mannock was transferred to the village of Wellingborough in the East Midlands. His fellow workers there, taking note of his Irish brogue, rechristened him “Paddy.” Products of the working class just as he was, they accepted with equanimity his radical politics, which he didn’t hesitate to share with them. At some point during his years in Canterbury, you see, Edward Mannock had become a committed socialist.

It should be noted that most of the policies for which Mannock argued, so radical in the context of Edwardian England, have thanks to the steady march of progress long since become accepted baseline standards by even many conservative Western politicians. He wanted universal suffrage for all, regardless of class, sex, race, income, or land ownership (or lack thereof). He wanted, if not necessarily to abolish the nobility and the monarchy, at least to strip them of political power. He wanted a livable minimum wage, a ceiling to the number of hours one could be expected to work per day and per week, and the abolition of child labor. He wanted a progressive tax system to redistribute the nation’s wealth more equally, but he was certainly no full-blown Marxist. His socialism didn’t even imply any particular discomfort with the notion of a British Empire, or the notion of taking up arms to defend it, as shown by his enthusiastic continuing participation in the Territorial Force. Likewise, he remained, while not overly religious by any means, a member of the Catholic Church. Even his views on the age-old question of Ireland, with its inflamed passions on both sides, sound oddly moderated today. Despite his proud Irish ancestry, he was in favor only of Home Rule — the creation of a separate Irish Parliament that would be able to adjudicate many questions of domestic politics for itself — rather than a fully independent Ireland.

The three years Mannock spent in Wellingborough were good ones, perhaps the best of his short life. The work was every bit as difficult and dangerous as had been advertised, but he found it suited his need for physical activity and his tinkerer’s instinct alike. Soon after his arrival, he met Jim Eyles, the manager of a small foundry in town which made pipes and gutters. Typically enough for Mannock the avid cricketer, they met at a cricket match. Eyles was playing, Mannock was only watching, but the former had a boil on his neck that was giving him all kinds of problems, and so the latter offered to bat for him. He was out for a duck, but the two struck up a conversation and, soon, a friendship which grew so close that Eyles asked Mannock if he’d like to move in with him and his wife and son. Mannock became known around the Eyles household, the first version of a comfortable family life he had ever known, by the slightly more dignified sobriquet of “Pat” rather than “Paddy.”

He regarded Eyles, who shared his political views, as a mentor and a father figure, a role the latter was more than happy to play. Eyles encouraged him to read the books found in the family library, which helped to give his socialism, previously a patchwork of good intentions and intuitive beliefs, the framework of a coherent political ideology. The two would sit up well into the night after the rest of the family had retired, discussing the ideas therein along with all the latest political news. And with Eyles’s encouragement Mannock’s socialism began to go beyond mere talk: he helped to found a branch of the socialist Independent Labour Party right there in Wellingborough. Passionate, idealistic, and articulate in his rough-hewn way, he might, Eyles began to think, have a real future in politics.

Nevertheless, a certain endemic restlessness that seemed always to exist at the root of Mannock’s character began in time to reassert itself. He sought adventure, wanted to make his way in the world outside of provincial England. He considered trying to become a diamond miner in South Africa or a plantation owner in the West Indies, but in the end he settled on the slightly more sober scheme of continuing his current trade in Turkey. The “sick man of Europe” though the Ottoman Empire may have been for decades if not centuries, its government was still doing its feeble best to modernize. Of late, these efforts had come to include the construction of a telephone network. It seemed the perfect opportunity for an ambitious man of Mannock’s talents. Thus one bleak winter day a melancholy Eyles family walked him to the local train station to begin the first stage of a long journey to the edge of the fabled Orient.

Mannock’s new life in Turkey could hardly have started out better. He showed up at the offices of the National Telephone Company in Constantinople, which was responsible for installing the new telephone network, showed his credentials, and was immediately offered a job as a rigging foreman. Placed in charge of others for the first time in his life, Mannock showed a knack for leadership, even though those he was leading were Turks with whom he could barely communicate thanks to the language barrier. He proved himself an eminently capable man on a project where capable men were sorely needed, and moved up quickly in his superiors’ estimation, being handed more and more responsibility. When not working, he lived, like virtually all of the British expatriates in Constantinople, in a small enclave with the air of a country club, where opportunities for swimming, rowing, riding, and playing tennis, croquet, and of course his beloved cricket were abundant. All told, it made for a fine life for the vigorous young man, who was now going by  the nickname of “Murphy,” yet another name given him in tribute to his Irish heritage. The only problem was the date: the 27-year-old Edward “Eddie/Paddy/Pat/Murphy” Corringham Mannock had arrived in Constantinople in February of 1914. A war that absolutely no one saw coming was soon to engulf much of Europe and the world.

Why should anyone have been thinking about war as the lovely spring of 1914 turned into the most bucolic summer anyone could remember? There hadn’t been a truly major, extended war in Western or Central Europe since Napoleon’s final defeat back in 1815. The intervening century had been on the whole the most peaceful in recorded European history, marked only by a handful of brief conflicts that had ended with fairly minimal casualties, along with more extended but remote proxy wars like the Crimean War and the Boer Wars in which Mannock’s father had fought. Historians of later times would be able to identify all sorts of plausible reasons to call the Europe of 1914 a “powder keg”: an entangling system of ill-considered alliances all but guaranteed to turn local conflicts into continent-spanning ones; the rising tide of nationalism and its less pleasant little brother militarism; the decrepit dysfunction of the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Czarist Russia; the destabilization that resulted from dynamic young Germany sitting right next to all these staid old men; a nostalgic glorification of the wars of old, and with it a feeling that, with Europe not having had a really good war in such a long while, perhaps now was a good time for one; a desire on the part of many nations to try out all the modern military hardware they’d been so busily accumulating. But none of these feel terribly satisfying as a real reason to wage war. The greatest tragedy of the First World War must be that it was waged for very little concrete reason at all.

The Turks had been drifting closer to Germany for years. Indeed, they had quite the crush on the younger power. They struggled with mixed results to remodel their ragtag military in the German Army’s hyper-disciplined image, and their commanders and statesmen affected the side whiskers favored by the German general staff. The prospect of using Germany to inflict revenge for past slights upon Greece and Russia, their two most longstanding ethnic enemies, held immense appeal. When the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Francis Ferdinand by a Serbian nationalist caused the dominoes to begin to fall in Europe that summer of 1914, Mannock wrote home that “things [are] very serious here. War in the air. Great anti-British feelings displayed by the people.” Still, Turkey remained at least ostensibly neutral through that fateful summer and for some time thereafter, leaving the little expatriated community in Constantinople in an uncomfortable limbo. Certainly for Mannock, who was moving up so quickly, forgoing his life in Turkey must have felt like a bitter pill to swallow. So, like many of his fellows, he cooled his heels. If it held true to recent form, this latest European war would be a quick, clean one, after which everyone could settle down again and concentrate on the jobs they’d come to Turkey to do. And if the government of Turkey did begin to make a clear public shift in the direction of Germany, there should still be time to get out before war was declared.

He was wrong on both counts. Referencing a list of recent grievances against Britain in particular, the Ottoman Empire unexpectedly declared war on Britain, France, and Russia on October 29. Mannock and his fellow Britons were immediately interned.

Actually, “interned” is far too soft a verb to use. While the women and children were treated comparatively gently and soon sent home, the men were thrown in prison, where they lived under the most appalling conditions; not for nothing has the term “Turkish prison” become such a cliché in reference to man’s inhumanity to man. Eyewitness accounts of Mannock during this period are somewhat sketchy, but they describe a man who repeatedly defied the guards, and in return was subjected to beatings, starvation, and solitary confinement even more extreme than that endured by the other prisoners. He came to be regarded as a leader and a role model by his comrades, many of whom were older and more frail than he. One of them later described him as “our philosopher, friend, and guide”: “He was always cheery and helpful, and kept the men ‘British’ all through.” He dug a hole under the fence surrounding the prison, which he used not to attempt to escape but to make nighttime journeys to a nearby black market, returning with food to supplement the prisoners’ meager daily ration of black bread and water. For the first time in his life, he showed himself capable of genuine heroism. In a different, perhaps better world, we might admire him more for what he did during these five desperate months than for what he would later accomplish in the cockpit of an airplane.

After much negotiation, largely undertaken by the American ambassador to Turkey on behalf of the British government, an exchange of British and Turkish nationals was finally worked out. On April 1, 1915, Mannock and his fellow prisoners were released — only to be packed on board a train for a long, circuitous journey across the Balkans that proved as physically trying as life in prison had been. Reaching Greece at last, they sailed for home. Upon Mannock’s return to Wellingborough, Jim Eyles was shocked at the appearance of his surrogate prodigal son. He looked, Eyles would later say, “an absolute mess,” still wracked by dysentery and malaria from his time in prison and quite possibly pneumonia from exposure to the elements on the long journey home.

Still a strong young man at bottom, Mannock would recover physically from the Turkish nightmare. But in another sense he was changed forever. He had become a very bitter man, his idealistic enthusiasm for the international socialist movement now exchanged for a darker, more violent worldview. He reserved his greatest hatred not for the Turks but for the Germans; manifesting the casual racism of the times, he regarded them as the Turks’ masters, and thus the true cause of all his recent suffering. What with his connections to international socialism, Mannock must have known at some intellectual level that Germany as a whole was no more of a political piece than was Britain, that there were plenty inside the country, even plenty fighting on the front lines, who lamented the reactionary militarism of the Kaiser and the war that was being fought in its name. But somehow none of that seemed to register anymore. Germans were a scourge, an affront to everything Mannock and his fellow socialists believed in. He wanted not just to make the world safe for socialism; he wanted to kill Germans.

This darkness in Mannock’s character, which would only grow more pronounced with time, is something his biographers and hagiographers alike have always struggled to come to terms with. Certainly it’s tempting to put on one’s psychologist’s hat, to speculate on whether in hating Germans so rabidly he was sublimating the frustration and rage of a lifetime over the course of which, no matter how capable he proved himself or how nobly he conducted himself, he must always be looked down upon by his alleged betters in the strict Edwardian class hierarchy, must always be condescended to and made subtly to understand that he could never truly be of the class of men who were so happy to make use of his talents. Then again, maybe a cigar really is just a cigar in this case. It certainly wasn’t unusual for even ardent socialists to support the British war effort wholeheartedly. For each of them who elected to endure ridicule by sitting out the war, sometimes in prison, as a conscientious objector, several more went to war willingly, convinced both that the war was worth fighting on its own merits to combat German militarism and that, having fought and won it for their alleged betters, the British working classes would have to be rewarded with new opportunity and equality.  It would only be after the war was over, when new opportunity and equality most conspicuously failed to materialize, that the British left’s view of the war would harden into that of a colossal, pointless, criminal sham perpetuated by the ruling classes upon the working men who fought and died in it.

In this sense, then, Mannock was fairly unexceptional among his creed in eagerly rejoining the Territorial Force just as soon as his health would allow, well before mandatory conscription, the inevitable result of the casualties the volunteer army was sustaining, went into effect in 1916. He was assigned to an ambulatory force which drilled in England for months on end without ever getting sent to the front. This situation rankled Mannock deeply, as did the very notion of serving in a noncombatant role. In November of 1915, now fully recovered physically from his ordeal in Turkey, he applied for a transfer and an officer’s commission with the Royal Engineers; he thought, rightly, that they would be pleased to have a man of his practical experience with rigging and wiring. He told Eyles that his ultimate goal was to join the so-called “tunneling” forces. One of the dirtiest and deadliest jobs on the front, tunneling meant literally digging tunnels from friendly trenches under those of the enemy and planting explosives there. It seldom worked out all that well; in keeping with so many aspects of trench warfare, the whole enterprise tended to take on a farcical, blackly comic tone, with the tunnelers often winding up in the completely wrong place and blowing up nothing more than a few trees, or blowing themselves up with the touchy explosives of the era long before they made it to enemy lines. Nevertheless, the notion struck a chord with Mannock’s sheer bloody-mindedness. “Blow the bastards up!” he told Eyles. “The higher they go and the more pieces they come down [in], the better.”

Transferred to a newly established Royal Engineers unit in Bedfordshire in early 1916 and commissioned as an officer, Mannock, who for some reason was now going by the nickname of “Jerry,” found himself in a social environment very different from that he had known as a Territorial. Here, in this unit that had accepted him at all only due to his practical experience as a telephone rigger, he was surrounded by much younger men — Mannock was now pushing thirty — from the upper classes. They didn’t take any better to his gruff working-class manners than they did to his forthrightly radical politics; ditto his Irish brogue, especially when the Easter Rising began that April. They didn’t know whether he committed so many social faux pas because he didn’t know any better, because he didn’t care, or because he was actively tweaking them — but, increasingly, they began to suspect the last. And for good reason: Mannock judged most of his comrades to be the worst sort of drones of the English class system, shirkers who had used their family connections to win a posting to the Royal Engineers in the hope that the long period of training that must precede transfer to the front would let the war get finished before they had to take part in it. Having joined the unit for precisely the opposite reason, he was a man apart in the officers’ mess in this as in so many other ways.

When he learned upon completing several months of basic training that he might have to spend another full year training to become a tunneler — news that must have struck his comrades as wonderful — Mannock applied yet again for a transfer, this time to the air corps; absurdly counter-intuitive as it strikes us today, it actually took far less time to learn how to fly an airplane in those days than it did to learn how to dig tunnels and blow stuff up. His unit’s commander, perhaps weary of this capable but confrontational socialist firebrand who was constantly disrupting life in his officers’ mess, pushed this latest transfer request through. After passing the various medical and psychological exams, Mannock began aviator ground school in Reading in August of 1916.

Ground school filled about two months, during which Mannock and his fellow trainees were expected the learn the details of eight different types of aircraft engines. Other subjects included “General Flying,” “Aircraft Rigging,” “Theory of Flight,” “Bombs,” “Instruments,” “Morse Signalling,” and “Artillery Cooperation.” As the last two subjects attest, the real value of the airplanes of the time — the only roles in which they would make a really significant contribution during the war — was as the ultimate reconnaissance platform, taking photographs of the enemy lines and rear areas and guiding artillery barrages in real time. All of the exploits of the renowned “knights of the air,” the great fighter aces who were followed so eagerly by press and public, surrounded and perhaps too often obscured this real purpose. Aerial observation was therefore considered a skill that one and all needed to learn. Ground school included a rather fascinating early interactive simulator to help them do just that, as described by one Second Lieutenant Frederick Ortweiler:

In a large room, laid out on the floor was a model of the Ypres Salient and re-entrant by Messines, made exactly as it would be seen from an aeroplane 8000 to 10,000 feet up. With a squared map it was possible to pick out all the various roads, etc., and we were given practice in picking out points on the map. Then, by a system of little lights in the model, we were made to imagine that a battery was firing on a target and we were correcting. We would first be shown the target by having it lit up; then a flash would appear as the battery fired and another where the shot fell. Then we would have to send corrections over the buzzer till an “OK” was registered and the shoot finished.

Wars, if they go on long enough, produce a social leveling effect. The Royal Flying Corps, strictly the domain of “gentlemen” early on, was broadening by necessity to admit men like Mannock, who made up for in practical skills what they lacked in breeding. The class blending produced inevitable conflicts of the sort with which Mannock was all too familiar by now. A simpering gentleman named Dudley McKergow sniffed:

There are some perfectly appalling people here now. Their intonation is terrible and you can pick out hairdressers, Jews who would sell tobacco, the typical shop attendant, the comic-turn man at the very provincial show, and the greasy mechanic type. These are the class of fellows from cadet school — hardly one of them has any pretence of being a gentleman. There are still a very good crowd of observers and we keep to ourselves.

Mannock, of course, did nothing to make himself more palatable to the Dudley McKergows around him; he was as unashamed of his accent as he was of his political opinions. On the front, at least, the snobbery would fade somewhat in the face of the more elemental realities of life and death.

A Maurice Farman biplane

A Maurice Farman biplane

After ground school, it was off to Hendon Airfield in North London for flight school. It’s difficult to fully convey today how new and wondrous the very idea of powered flight was in those days, quite apart from any applicability as a tool of war. It had, after all, been barely a decade since the Wright brothers first flew at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. A body of best practices for the teaching of new pilots was still all but nonexistent. The standard training aircraft were Maurice Farman biplanes, ungainly contraptions dating from before the war that looked hardly more airworthy than the original Wright brothers glider. They flew about the same as they looked, slewing sluggishly through the sky. Still, they responded so slowly to the controls that it was difficult to get into irreversible trouble with them, and they proved surprisingly durable when the trainees bounced them down hard on runways or taxied them into trees. The Farmans were equipped with dual controls for the trainee and his instructor, but the engine sitting directly behind them both was so loud that spoken communication was impossible. If an instructor felt he absolutely had to say something to his pupil, his only way of doing so was to turn the engine off for a moment — a risky procedure, as an engine once switched off wasn’t always guaranteed to start back up again.

What with the short and sketchy ground-school curriculum that preceded each trainee’s first flight, the job of the instructors could sometimes be almost as perilous as that of the front-line pilots. Indeed, some took to calling their trainees “Huns” (the universal British appellation for the Germans) because they considered the scariest of them every bit as dangerous as any German ace. Many of the very worst of the trainees — the ones who most needed instruction — were pushed through having barely taken the controls at all, simply because the harried instructors lacked the time or patience to correct their failings. Plenty of these hapless fledglings wound up killing themselves in routine exercises before they ever made it to the front. Those who did survive that long could look forward to a life expectancy even shorter than that of the average greenhorn on the front.

What Mannock made of the whole confused process has not been recorded. However, given the yeoman work he would later do in systematizing the art of air combat into something approaching a science, he must have been fairly appalled at the chaos. Regardless, he was certainly among the better fledglings of his class, proving himself an able pilot if not quite a superb one, his native mechanical aptitude serving him well yet again. He was good enough that upon earning his “ticket” — his pilot’s license — and beginning to fly solo, he was earmarked for posting to a “scout,” or fighter, squadron rather than being relegated to a slower, heavier observation plane along with the less promising pilots. Problem was, actual scout aircraft were in short supply. He therefore spent some months after his training was supposedly finished being moved rather aimlessly around England, making occasional flights in obsolete De Havilland DH.2s. He seethed at each new domestic posting and dreamed of the day when he would finally get to go to the front. In the meantime this man of many names at last acquired the sobriquet by which he would go down in history: he became known as “Mick” or sometimes “Mickey” among his jittery fellow fledglings, yet one more tribute to his Irishness.

De Havilland DH.2

De Havilland DH.2

In March of 1917, at the end of this period of impatient waiting, the veteran ace James McCudden, who would come to be credited with 57 victories, second most of any British pilot of the war, spent some time giving Mannock and his fellow inexperienced pilots some final instruction before the long-awaited posting to the front came. This encounter between Britain’s eventual ace of aces and the runner-up led to one of the most famous stories about Mannock — famous despite or perhaps because the incident is so atypical of him. One day, McCudden told his charges that it was impossible to pull an airplane out of a spin that began below 2000 feet in time to avoid hitting the ground. The next day, Mannock threw his DH.2 into a spin at just 1500 feet. If he had hoped to prove McCudden wrong, he didn’t quite succeed: he managed to regain just enough control to plunk his plane roughly down on its wheels directly in front of the Vickers Ammunition Factory, yards away from rows and rows of sheds stuffed full of high explosives. Mannock insisted to his livid superiors that the whole thing had been an accident, which may very well have been true; unlike so many of his fellow aces, he would never acquire a reputation for heedless daredevilry. McCudden, however, was convinced that the “impetuous young Irishman” — McCudden was about to turn 22, while Mannock was almost 30, making the description rather rich — had done it deliberately to show him up.

Although the two men would never fly into battle together, they would cross paths regularly over the fifteen months or so each had left to live. During this time they would build a friendship but also a marked rivalry, only to die within three weeks of one another. For now, though, for the older but much, much greener of the pair, training days were finally over. On April 1, 1917 — two years to the day after he had been released from a Turkish prison — Second Lieutenant Edward “Eddie/Paddy/Pat/Jerry/Murphy/Mickey/Mick” Corringham Mannock arrived at St. Omer, France, for final posting to an active-duty squadron on the front lines. At long last, he was going to war.

(Sources for this article and those that follow in this series: Mick Mannock, Fighter Pilot by Adrian Smith; The Personal Diary of ‘Mick’ Mannock, introduced and annotated by Frederick Oughton; The Knighted Skies by Edward Jablonski; The American Heritage History of World War I by S.L.A. Marshall; Aces Falling by Peter Hart; Bloody April by Peter Hart; King of Airfighters by Ira Jones; Mount of Aces by Paul R. Hare; Winged Victory by V.M. Yeates; The First World War by John Keegan; A Short History of World War I by James L. Stokesbury.)


1 Generations of hagiographers would later claim that the infection left Mannock’s vision out of his left eye permanently impaired if not destroyed entirely, thus giving rise to the legend of “the ace with one eye,” a story worthy of a Biggles novel. Manly lad that he was, the accounts claim, he never revealed his handicap to any but those who were closest to him out of a horror of being pitied. Instead he worked for hours on end to find ways to compensate when, for instance, playing cricket (a sport at which he was actually quite accomplished). Thus did the hagiographers neatly sidestep the fact that the vast majority of those who remembered Mannock remembered absolutely nothing of note about his vision, other than perhaps an unusually intense stare when he talked with them.

Similarly, the hagiographers claimed that he managed to pass at least three eye exams with ease prior to becoming a pilot by using a photographic memory that is in evidence nowhere else in his life’s story to memorize the optical chart. As it happens, one Lieutenant Gilbert Preston, who had lost his left eye as a ground soldier at Gallipoli before deciding to sign on with the Royal Flying Corps, tried to fool the doctor in exactly the same way Mannock is claimed to have done. It didn’t work out terribly well for him:

I thought that I had fooled the doctor, because after I had read the reading board with my right eye, he turned me to the window and said, “Tell me what you see out of the window.” I knew that I would have to come back to reading the eye chart, so I memorised all of the lines on the board. When I finished describing what I had seen out the window, he swung me around, and covered my right eye and said, “Will you continue reading the eye chart?” I knew what was coming, so I started to “read” the board. Suddenly he said, “You’re blind in that eye, aren’t you?” I said, “Oh no, not quite.” He told me, “Uncover your right eye and look again at the chart.” While I had been looking out the window, and unknown to me, he had turned the chart over and the only single letter on that chart was the letter “E.” I was heartsick as I thought my own chances were non-existent. He then announced, “Don’t take it too much to heart, because I have orders to send you to the Flying Corps – whether you can see or not!” To my disappointment he informed me that I could not qualify as a pilot and that I would go to France as an observer.

So, the stories of Edward Mannock as “the ace with one eye” are all, needless to say, almost certainly complete bunk. Nor are they necessary for casting him in the role of hero; his story is plenty heroic without them.


Posted by on November 18, 2016 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction


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