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Surviving the Skies
A Night Bomber Pilot in the Great War
By Joe Bamford
The History PressCopyright © 2012 Joe Bamford
All rights reserved.
For King and Country
Stephen Wynn Vickers was born on 9 October 1896 at 22 Roland Terrace, Hunslet, near Leeds, into a middle-class family whose main occupation was teaching. When he was just six years old his father, Joseph, was promoted to headmaster at a church school over 40 miles away, across the Pennines in Wilmslow, Cheshire. Within a short while, however, he was appointed to an even better position as the headmaster of Great Moor School in Stockport.
To begin with the family lived on Buxton Road, Great Moor, but soon they moved to a larger property that was more befitting the family's new circumstances. By that time the Vickers family comprised six children, three daughters and three sons, with Stephen, who was known to the family as Wynn, being the oldest of all of them. The new family home was called 'Ivy Nook' and it was situated on Bramhall Moor Lane in the affluent suburb of Hazel Grove, 2 miles south-east of Stockport.
Originally known as 'Bullocks Smithy' and named after John Bullock, who had owned the land during the sixteenth century, the village was officially renamed Hazel Grove in 1835. During the census of 1901 Hazel Grove had a population of 7,934 and there is no doubt that those who lived there were generally regarded as being wealthy, with greater status than those who lived in other local towns. In local folklore it was even claimed that Hazel Grove was the only place around Stockport where the tram lines were polished, although this was probably something of an urban myth born out of a sense of snobbery and local humour.
Wynn was educated at Great Moor School where his father was the headmaster, but nepotism played no part in his upbringing and he was not given any special treatment. It is claimed that Wynn's father encouraged him to study hard just like any other pupil and in 1906 the fruits of his efforts were rewarded when he attained a scholarship to attend Stockport Grammar School. Wynn's father was not only a teacher but an influential member of the community, a point highlighted by the fact that he was also a senior member of the Masonic Lodge.
The young Wynn Vickers certainly had an inquiring mind and an aptitude to understand developments that were taking place in the fields of technology, engineering and powered flight. Various flying experiments with both gliders and powered flight took place in the immediate area around where he lived, and some of the trials and experiments involved a certain Alliott Verdon Roe, who lived only a short distance away from Stockport on Liverpool Road, Eccles.
A.V. Roe's activities were well reported in the press, particularly details of what was claimed to be the first powered flight by an Englishman in his Roe 1 machine on 8 June 1908 at Brooklands. Unfortunately there were no official witnesses to confirm Roe's achievement, a flight or 'hop' of just 75ft, and it was not considered worthy of recognition. Despite the dispute about whether or not he was the first Englishman to fly, he still he went on to influence a whole generation of young men like Wynn, who had become smitten by flying and had caught the 'aviation bug'.
One such person was John Alcock, who also came from Manchester and lived close by in Chorlton. In 1919 he was to hit the headlines when, together with Arthur Brown, they became the first airmen to fly across the Atlantic. There were also a number of record-breaking flights that might have come to the attention of the young Wynn Vickers, such as that made by Louis Paulhan on 28 April 1910, who landed just a short distance away to the north-west of Hazel Grove in Didsbury, and where a blue commemorative plaque now marks the landing site between 25–27 Paulhan Road.
Paulhan was awarded Lord Northcliffe's prize of £10,000 for becoming the first pilot to fly from London to Manchester, with only a single stop along the way. In Didsbury huge crowds awaited the arrival of Paulhan and his competitor, Claude Grahame-White, and when the Frenchman's Farman biplane landed it was surrounded by hundreds of enthusiastic people.
Other local events concerning aviation also attracted popular attention and the following month, in May 1910, a Roe Triplane (manufactured by Alliott Verdon Roe) was displayed at the Manchester Industrial Exhibition in Rusholme. The exhibit won a gold medal and in September the same venue was used for what might have been every young boy's dream, a model aeroplane show that was organised by the Manchester Aero Club.
If the new exciting era of aviation did not immediately influence Wynn Vickers' future military career, then the Scouting movement certainly did. Formed in 1907 by Lord Robert Baden-Powell with the aim of giving young men the qualities of leadership, comradeship and responsibility, the Scouting movement was at that time closely akin to the military.
Wynn joined the Scouts when he was only thirteen years old and he was one of the original members of the Davenport Patrol that was founded by Mr Keith Nixon. When Mr Nixon moved away from the area the Davenport Scouts were disbanded, but Wynn, who was by then a Second Class Scout, joined St George's, 3rd Stockport Troop. Over the next few years Stephen obtained his First Class Scout Badge and the King's Scout Badge, and at the age of eighteen he received his Assistant Scout Master's Warrant.
After completing a foundation course at Stockport Grammar School, Wynn continued his education at Owens' College, Manchester. It had been founded in 1851 as a result of a legacy left by John Owens, the son of Owen Owens who was the owner of a cotton mill in Flintshire. When John Owens died in 1846 he left £96,942 for a college to be established specifically for the 'instruction of young men'.
Initially, the college was based in the home of philanthropist Richard Cobden, but in 1873 it moved to larger premises in Oxford Road. It was eventually to become one of the founding institutions of Manchester University and after 1880 it was known as the 'Victoria University of Manchester'. The aim was for Owens' College to become a 'Centre of Intelligence', specialising in teaching Edwardian principles of knowledge that were generally based upon German culture and its understanding of science and philosophy.
Wynn was awarded the University Scholarship by members of the Hallam Trust and in 1913 he passed his entrance examination to join the Civil Service, although he did not take up a position and continued in education. He later joined the ranks of Manchester University's Officer Training Corps (OTC), which had been formed in 1898 and had been originally called the 'Owens' College Company'. It later became known as the Volunteer Rifle Company, but in 1908, after the Territorial Force (Territorial Army from 1920) was formed, it became known as the Officer Training Corps.
It cost five shillings for the privilege of joining this elite force and cadets had to enrol for a minimum of two years. By 1914 the Manchester OTC had an establishment of 270 cadets, who were trained in the use of rifles and other firearms by veterans from the 6th Volunteer Manchester Regiment, based at Stalybridge. The skills that Wynn learned as part of this military organisation gave him a number of advantages over his fellow officers in the months and years ahead.
While the main summer camp of the Manchester University OTC was being held on Salisbury Plain, Wynn went off on a joint Scout and OTC camp at Abersoch in Wales. The training camp in Wales lasted six weeks, during which time, on 8 August, war was declared with Germany. As soon as the camp broke up, Wynn made his way to the main depot of the Cheshire Regiment at Chester Castle, where he offered his services and collected his enlistment papers. On the train on his way back to Stockport, Wynn was fortunate enough to meet up with his former Scout Master, Mr Nixon, who had founded the Davenport Scout Troop. Mr Nixon also happened to be a Justice of the Peace and he not only offered to sign Wynn's enlistment papers, but to give him a glowing reference as well.
As soon as it became clear that war was about to be declared, the commanding officer of the Manchester OTC, Major Sir Thomas Holland, called for volunteers to join the Colours. As a result of his call to arms, 95 per cent of the cadets offered their services immediately and, as a consequence, most of them were destined to become officers and 'leaders of men'. By October 1914, 240 of the Manchester cadets had been commissioned directly into the various local regiments and a small number directly into the RFC.
Wynn's application to join the Army was processed very quickly and the warrant that authorised him to hold the King's Commission was signed on 14 September by the commander of the 4th Division, General Sir Henry Seymour Rawlinson GCVO, KCB, KCMG, who would go on to command the British First and Fourth armies in France and become one of the finest field commanders of the Great War. Stephen Wynn Vickers became Second Lieutenant Vickers with immediate effect and was posted to the 11th Battalion of the Cheshire regiment on 19 September 1914.
The Cheshire Regiment, which was the oldest of all the county regiments in the British Army, had a fine tradition and history going back to 1688 when it had been formed on the Wirral by Henry, Duke of Norfolk, to resist any attempts by James II to take back the throne. It was then known as the 22nd Regiment of Foot and it was not until 1782 that it was named the Cheshire Regiment.
At the outbreak of the First World War the Cheshire Regiment consisted of just two regular battalions, but with a third held in reserve. The 1st Battalion was based in Ireland, with the 2nd Battalion stationed at Jubbulpore in India, before it was recalled back home and sent to France in January 1915. The 1st Battalion followed it to France in August 1915 and it was the part of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) that was ordered to cover the retreat of the 5th Division. On 23 August the battalion was involved in some heavy fighting at the Battle of Mons and out of a force of twenty-seven officers and 924 men, only seven officers and 200 men answered the roll call the next day.
A small number of men from the ranks of the 1st Battalion, including three officers and fifteen non-commissioned officers (NCOs), were lucky enough to be retained in England and they were sent to the main depot at Chester. This small contingent of regulars formed the nucleus of the organisation that was responsible for training thousands of new recruits in the Cheshire Regiment.
The 11th Battalion was formed at Chester Castle on 17 September 1914 under the command of General Dyas and the recruits were sent to Codford Camp at Codford St Mary, situated a few miles to the north-west of Salisbury. In the years before the First World War most regiments in the regular army were made up of just two battalions, with the first normally being involved in the fighting and the second used to train the recruits. Once they were fully trained, soldiers were normally posted to the first 1st battalion that was serving overseas in India or the Far East. The mass recruiting programme of the First World War changed all this and, as Second Lieutenant Vickers soon discovered, there were not enough regular soldiers around to pass on their skills, experience and knowledge.
When he arrived at Codford Camp, Vickers soon discovered that most of the men lacked the most basic military skills that would help them to become an efficient fighting force. There were only a handful of men who had any knowledge of military procedures and it was not just those amongst the ranks that had to be trained, but the officers as well. The Battalion Diary records the fact that, with the exception of a single soldier who had previously served as a marine, Second Lieutenant Vickers was the only officer with any experience at all of drill and firearms.
At nineteen years old, Vickers found himself actively involved in the training of men who for the most part were much older and more worldly-wise than he was. His job was made worse by the fact that many of the recruits were angry because of the bad conditions that they had had to endure since joining up. There was a shortage of food, uniforms and tents and as a result they often went hungry and were forced to sleep out in the open. At this point most recruits were still wearing their civilian clothes that had became more ragged and dirty as each day went by. Many of them were fed up and the bad conditions and lack of organisation in the training programme only exacerbated the situation.
When a neighbouring battalion threatened to desert, further trouble was only narrowly avoided in the 11th Battalion when a Lieutenant Hill issued extra beer rations and persuaded the men to appoint a spokesman to air their grievances. The following day General Dyas consulted Lord Kitchener about the deteriorating situation at Codford, and the 11th Battalion was quickly moved away from the area and transferred to Bournemouth.
On 24 November, just over two months after being commissioned, Second Lieutenant Vickers was promoted to the substantive rank of lieutenant. At Bournemouth the 11th Battalion began its training programme and the troubles of the past were quickly forgotten. The men were given lectures and talks by officers who had served in France, many of whom had been wounded before being repatriated to England. There continued to be shortages of equipment, however, and rifles were in such short supply that the men had to be issued with ancient muskets that they had to use for both drill and target practice. The battalion remained in Bournemouth until April 1915 and, after having made many good friends in the town, Lieutenant Vickers was sorry to leave.
When the 11th Battalion marched out of Bournemouth for the last time on 20 April, Lieutenant Vickers was photographed at the head of the column, proudly wearing his officer's sword on his right hip. He later had the photo turned into a postcard and sent it to his young sister, Muriel, who, although she had been christened Clara Muriel, was known in the family as Claire. Ten-year-old Claire was the youngest of his three sisters, with eighteen-year-old Mary the eldest, while Kathleen was eleven years old. Claire was only just recovering from an illness and her older brother probably wanted to console her as well as amuse her:
I was very sorry to hear you had been in bed. Don't I look big on the photo. It was taken as we marched out of Bournemouth. If you look carefully you will see my sword tucked away under my arm.
Despite the fact that he was a confident and mature young man, Lieutenant Vickers was still very close to his family. Now, as a soldier, he faced a very uncertain future and this must have strengthened the bond between them, particularly with his younger sister. She, together with the rest of the family, must have dreaded the prospect of their brother going to fight in France and what might happen to him once he was on the battlefield.
From Bournemouth the 11th Battalion moved to Flowerdown Camp in Wiltshire, where it became part of II Corps and Lieutenant Vickers was appointed as the officer in command of signals. His duties involved organising training courses in signalling and instructing the men in the use of semaphore and Morse code. Vickers was probably in his element, as he had experience of such things from his time in the Scouts and the OTC and he was very knowledgeable about the latest methods of signalling and communication.
He also used the semaphore characters in a rather novel and strange way when communicating with his family, again especially with his youngest sister. It seems that she was always plotting schemes to look after her big brother's interest, and on at least one occasion she wrote to him using semaphore characters. In the letter Claire asked her brother if he would send her a handkerchief, but demanded that it should be one that he had recently used and carried about his person. Claire's intention was to send the handkerchief to a clairvoyant who lived in Weymouth, she being a lady who claimed that she could tell her brother's future from the very feel of an object that had been close to him. What Lieutenant Vickers thought about his sister's idea we do not know, but Claire was obviously excited by communicating with him in what was effectively their own secret language. If the clairvoyant had genuinely read Vickers' future and told him what she had predicted, he may not have been too keen to hear about it!
As the 11th Battalion prepared to leave for Aldershot and its final training programme before embarking for France, in May 1915 divisional manoeuvres were held at Flowerdown Camp. Just a few weeks later on 14 June, and while he was at Aldershot, Lieutenant Vickers received the devastating news of his father's death. He had died that same day and, at the age of forty-nine, his death was somewhat unexpected to say the least. With an overseas posting to France imminent, the immediate welfare of his family must have been his greatest concern. He was granted immediate compassionate leave and allowed to travel north for his father's funeral.
Joseph Vickers was buried at St Thomas' Parish church, Norbury, Hazel Grove, on 18 June and although his funeral was a very sombre occasion, it was also a grand and impressive event. It was attended by hundreds of local people, including many of Mr Vickers' former pupils from Great Moor School. Over 200 children were present, with the girls being dressed in white and displaying black sashes, while all the boys wore straw hats and displayed black armlets. There were large contingents of mourners from the Freemasons Lodge where Joseph Vickers had been a senior figure, and there were also representatives and mourners from the Headmaster's Association and the National Union of Teachers.
Mr Vickers' coffin, along with senior members of the family, was carried on a Windsor carriage and as the cortège approached Norbury Parish church the flag was flown at half-mast. The main party consisted of Lieutenant Vickers, his mother Annie, brothers Frank and Noel, and sisters Mary, Kathleen and Claire. They were closely followed by the other parties of mourners who were carried to the church in another six carriages. Following a traditional Church of England service, which was read by the Reverend G.N. Wilmer, the Reverend Forbes gave a Masonic address at the grave side.
Excerpted from Surviving the Skies by Joe Bamford. Copyright © 2012 Joe Bamford. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
1. For King and Country,
2. Up in the Clouds,
3. A Founding Member,
4. Into the Fray,
5. Enemy Airfields and the Gotha Threat,
6. Bureaucracy and Secrecy,
7. The Hardships of Winter,
8. New Year, New Airfields,
9. A Storm from the East,
10. A New Era Begins,
11. Final Sorties,
12. The Home Establishment,
13. 48 Wing,
14. The Spanish Grippe,
15. Of Those Who Served,
16. 101 Squadron Ninety Years On: A Day at Brize Norton,