An Irish Airman Foresees his Death
I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public man, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.
W. B. Yeats – 1865-1939
The aircrews of the First World War enjoyed a life that seemed far removed from the privations of the forward lines of trenches, with the snipers, artillery barrages and gas attacks. But for countless airmen, theirs was a solitary existence and for many, their mental degeneration was reflected in their letters home, or their distress and rather odd or erratic behaviour was recognised by their families, whilst home on leave. A classic case in point is Major “Mick” Mannock, whose descent into mental illness could be a case study into the corrosive effects of combat stress. Mannock was a self-educated, half-Irish Catholic from a working class background. This is not an essay on the Edwardian class system or a lefty rant at the class struggle, but his background was a major factor in his career and ultimate death. Unlike Albert Ball or Bishop, Mannock’s exploits were largely unknown by the general public, until well after the war. And yet he was one of the war’s most high scoring pilots and an ace, credited with shooting down over sixty enemy aircraft.
Edward Mannock was born on 24th May 1887 in Cork in Ireland, although this is disputed. Edward was the youngest of three and his father Edward senior was an ex-soldier who served with distinction during the Anglo-Egyptian War and they moved to Ireland when his father left the Army. Mannock’s father Edward senior became bored with civilian life, re-enlisted and was moved with his family to Meerut in India. It was there that Mannock junior contracted malaria which nearly killed him.
Young Mannock became a keen sports fan, angler and a good target shooter with an air rifle, firing at targets rather than live prey. He also played the violin and other instruments which made him somewhat of an all-rounder. On the outbreak of the Boer War, Mannock senior fought with the 5th Dragoon Guards in South Africa, while the family remained in India. After this war Mannock senior moved the family to Canterbury in England and two months after arriving, he abandoned his family and took all their savings with him.
Edward helped to support the family by doing menial jobs, but was pressurised by his mother to join his brother in the National Telephone Company where he became an engineer. He moved to Wellingborough in 1911 and joined the Territorial Army, serving with the Royal Army Medical Corps. He became interested in politics and admired Kier Hardie, becoming Secretary of the Wellingborough Independent Labour Party. Although he staunchly supported the British Empire, Mannock sympathised with Irish Home Rule.
In February 1914 Mannock left Wellingborough and boarded a tramp steamer from Tilbury to Constantinople, to take up a position as a telephone and telegraph mechanic in the Societe Ottomane des Telephones (Ottoman Telephone Exchange). Although war was likely, Turkey maintained neutrality, although anti British sentiment was high. In October 1914 Turkey allied itself with the central powers of the German Empire and Austria-Hungary and Mannock was interned. He was poorly treated in prison and his health declined, caused by dysentery. Mannock forged an escape route from his cell by squeezing his emaciated body out through the window of his cell and raided the Turkish Army food depot in an adjacent building. He was discovered and locked in a concrete box for two weeks and close to death, was repatriated in 1st April 1915. During two-month journey home via Bulgaria and Greece, he contracted malaria again and arrived home in a severely weakened state.
He must have been made of tough stuff, because on 22nd May 1915, Mannock reported for duty with the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) as his pre-war rank of sergeant. On 25 May he was assigned to the 3rd company, second battalion Home Countries Field Ambulance Service. Upon joining, he found that he must attend German wounded as well as British and French; something which he found distasteful. He also noted a degree of apathy within his company and believed that the men carried out the drills in a half-hearted manned, lacking enthusiasm for winning the war. Mannock requested an interview with his commanding officer and applied for a transfer to the Royal Engineers (RE) as an officer cadet. While he was waiting for the transfer he was promoted to Sergeant Major and finally moved to the RE in March 1916.
Mannock was concerned that his working class background and poor education would put him at a disadvantage, so he threw himself into his work. His insular behaviour was considered odd by his fellow officer cadets who considered the Irishman to be aloof and aggressive and he in turn was contemptuous of their disinterest in the war and obsession with quality tailoring to improve their chances with the girls. (Mannock’s views). He grew tired of what he considered to be their banal conversations and lethargy and looked to leave the RE. By now his superiors may have thought him to be rather precious and he knew that a second transfer would be likely to jeopardise his chances of becoming a commissioned officer.
At the suggestion of a friend he decided to join the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) although he was worried his age and physical and physical condition would go against him. Mannock read up on everything he could find regarding the war in the air and came across and article about a man who would have a profound effect on him, Albert Ball. In June 1916 Mannock was Gazetted as Second Lieutenant and on 14th August he arrived at the No 1 School of Military Aeronautics in Reading. He wrote in his diary at the time: “Now for the Boche! I’m going to become a scout pilot like Ball. Watch me. I wonder what fate has in store for me.” Mannock would always have problems with his landings, but in the air he was a natural fighter pilot. At the school of aerial fighting at Joyce Green near Dartford, Mannock was trained in the rigours of the violent manoeuvres required in air combat. One of his instructors was the newly-commissioned Lieutenant James McCudden who had become an Ace in France by shooting down his fifth German aircraft.
McCudden was another pilot from humble origins and like Mannock was half-Irish, his father had too been a soldier, although unlike Mannock, his home life had been happy. He had faced the same problems as his pupil in becoming a “Temporary Gentlemen,” in Edwardian Officers’ Messes. He confided in Mannock: “After I joined the Officers’ Mess I often felt ill at ease when chaps are talking about things I don’t understand.” Because their backgrounds were so similar, the two became friends.
Mannock left Joyce Green and joined No 40 Squadron RFC, based at an aerodrome in the Bethune coal fields and flying the Nieuport Scout aircraft. He arrived to the thunder of guns as the Arras and Vimy Ridge offensive was underway. It was April 1917 and during the height of “Bloody April” when the RFC was taking one of its worst poundings of the First World War. The battlefields were littered with wrecked RFC aircraft and the new arrivals were struggling to master their new and more powerful aircraft. The life expectancy of an RFC Subaltern had shrunk to eleven days. That of an Infantry Subaltern was six weeks.
The experienced pilots of 40 Squadron had difficulty in fathoming this latest lamb to the slaughter. Mannock made the mistake of sitting in the chair of one of the most popular members of the squadron who had died that day. He asked intrusive questions on his first day and voiced crass opinions on the role of scout pilots and how best to defeat the Germans. He was immediately considered to be working class, semi-educated and tactless. He was a marked man. However, Mannock was more mature and worldly wise than many of the young pilots, into whose cosy common room he had arrived. Mannock was older than his RFC peers and had already experienced the brutalities of warfare. He hid his hatred of the Turks by throwing himself into training, but he was short tempered.
His first few weeks on 40 Squadron were more unnerving than he could ever have imagined. He wrote in his diary: “Over the lines today the engine cut out three times. Wind up. Now I can understand what a tremendous strain to the nervous system active service flying is. However cool a man may be a more or less tension on the nerves. When it is considered that seven out of ten forced landings are “write-offs” and 50 per-cent are cases when the pilot is injured, one can quite understand the strain of the whole business.”
He was lucky not to have been killed in his first week, when his entire lower right wing peeled away in mid-air. With commendable flying skill he prevented the aircraft from plummeting down in a spin and crash landed in a ploughed field. He was also flying low to support Canadian troops storming Vimy Ridge and found ground fire to be a terrifying experience. He hated the fact the Nieuport only had one gun mounted above the upper wing, while the German Albatross had two that were fired through the propeller. He knew he couldn’t last long in such a flimsy and under armed aircraft. One day he was ambushed by three German fighters, his gun jammed and he was forced to evade, running for home at ultra-low level. He later wrote: “A very disagreeable experience. My gun jammed. Aldis (the telescopic gun sight) oiled up and my engine failed at the crucial moment… I landed with my knees shaking and my nerves all torn to bits.”
Mannock was terrified every time he went up, but he was determined to conquer his fear and to survive. He was shocked at how air combat effected his nerves and the high loss rate among his fellow pilots, in what he saw as chaotically ill-disciplined air battles. He became so cautious on patrols that during the forty hours flying in his first three weeks, he hadn’t made a single kill, something his critical fellow pilots had noted and pointed out. Word spread that the unpopular Irishman had cold feet and was plain yellow. They also disliked his permanently dishevelled appearance and oil-stained uniform. Mannock knew he was unpopular but he fought the battle with his fear in secret and alone. This was all rather unfair given that some young pilots took months to achieve a kill and his unpopularity was more to do with his background than lack of kills.
Despite his growing experience Mannock remained outside the circle of friends in the squadron because of his apparent and initial lack of effort and success. He withdrew from their company and concentrated on improving. He spent considerable time at the air-to-air gunnery range, learning the art of deflection shooting and the drills required to coax the best from the Lewis gun on its Foster mount above the upper wing, particularly how to quickly change the ammunition drums. Alone, his nervousness disappeared and he made friends and acquaintances, but mostly outside the squadron. However, being a loner cuts an individual off from the support structure of the mess and fellow officers.
Mannock finally gained a kill by shooting down an observation balloon on 7th May 1917. It was a hated and dangerous operation as attacking aircraft were exposed to ground fire on the approach, during the attack and the climb out. The flight commander was shot down and all the returning aircraft were riddled with holes. While shooting down the balloon had redeemed him in the eyes of his fellow pilots, he needed a second kill. This came a month later when he shot down an Albatross and wrote in his diary: “A beautifully coloured insect. He was red, blue, green and yellow. I saw him going spinning and slipping down from fourteen thousand. Rough luck, but it’s war and they’re Huns.” The second kill brought no relief to his nerves: “Feeling nervy and ill during the last week. Afraid I’m breaking up.”
On 7 June he shot down an Albatros D.III for his second victory and on the 9 June claimed a reconnaissance aircraft and an Albatros D.V but did not received credit. Mannock required several painful operations to remove grit from his eyes, following a forced landing and was sent home on leave to convalesce from the operations and nervous exhaustion. He stayed with his mother who was living in Birmingham and was shocked to find she had become an alcoholic, so whisky-sodden it was difficult to understand anything she said. The marriages of his two sisters were also on the rocks and Jessie his sister is rumoured to have dabbled in prostitution to make ends meet. Feeling miserable and disheartened, Mannock went to Wellingborough and stayed with the family of a man who had become his surrogate father, Jim Eyles.
(2012). No Empty Chairs. London: Phoenix.
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