Back in France after his leave, on 12th July 1917 Mannock shot down a DFW twin-seat reconnaissance aircraft near Avion. He wrote in his diary:
The bus crashed south of Avion. 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 interesting also was a 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 mens’ legs sticking through the sides with puttees and boots still on – bits of bones and skulls with the hair peeling off. This sort of thing, together with the strong graveyard stench and the dead and mangled body of the pilot (an NCO) combined to upset me for days.
His squadron commander, Major Tilney had recommended Mannock for a Military Cross and when it was awarded, many of the pilots in the squadron were unhappy. Their resentment turned to anger when Mannock was made a flight commander and promoted over them to captain. Tilney recognised a rare talent in the Irishman and saw that he brought courage and leadership to the squadron. Throughout the summer of 1917 Mannock began to silence his most bitter critics with a string of aggressive victories in the air and by the September he had fifteen kills to his credit. He also thumbed his nose at those who had called him a coward, by having the propeller boss and nacelle of his aircraft painted bright yellow.
His battle tactics had matured into a careful and ruthless stalking of the enemy. He encouraged and looked after new pilots, explaining his mantra to them: Gentlemen, always above, seldom on the same level and never underneath. He insisted that combat should only be joined when one had a clear, numerical advantage, attacking from an advantageous position and staying in formation until the attack was joined. These were the same tactics used by the Germans Boelcke and Richthofen and these tactics worked. Young and inexperienced pilots were too precious a commodity to be squandered in undisciplined melees, where they were often picked off. He warned them to turn immediately if they were attacked and not dive away, which was an invitation to a quick death.
Also he stressed the importance of conserving ammunition and only open fire at close range, like the Polish pilots during the Battle of Britain. Once they had used up their rounds, they were defenceless. Beware of the Hun who fires in short bursts. If he fires long bursts, you can bet your bottom dollar he’s windy and probably a beginner. Fight him like hell. He should be easy meat.
An experienced pilot put Mannock’s success down to: …his extraordinarily fine deflection shooting once he was engaged. In an air fight most people try to get behind the other man to get an easier shot, and where fighter verses fighter, you can’t be shot at, Mannock was able to hit them at an angle. By the end of 1917 No 40 Squadron was equipped with the more powerful SE5s and Mannock was sent home on leave to recoup and for reassignment.
The S.E.5 was a far more robust and powerful aircraft in comparison with the Nieuport Scout and carried two guns. A .303 calibre Lewis gun was mounted on the top wing, positioned to fire outside the propeller arc. The weapon was drum-fed and could be pulled down to replenish the magazine. It could also be adjusted, in flight, to fire vertically at an enemy that was positioned above. The other was a belt–fed Vickers machine gun, also of .303 calibre which was mounted on top of the fuselage over the engine and its cowling. The weapon’s fire could pass through the propeller arc by virtue of interrupter gear. The 200 horse power Hispano-Suiza 8 engine was troublesome but the machine could reach 118 mph at 10,000 ft in level flight.
On Tilney’s recommendation Mannock was to be rested for three months and he grew bored of flying FE2s at the wireless experimental station at Biggin Hill. He accosted General Henderson at the RFC Club in London and demanded that he be returned to a front line squadron and the comradeship he was missing. The general agreed and posted him as a flight commander to a newly forming fighter squadron that was due to go to the Western Front, No 74 Squadron based at London Colney. This was a very different squadron to the one Mannock had first joined in April 1917. These pilots weren’t from public schools, there were Americans, New Zealanders and Australians Major Keith Caldwell, known as “Grid” had flown with Billy Bishop and made no secret that he believed the Canadian had faked and lied about the raid on the enemy airfield, for which he was awarded the VC. The squadron flew its SE5s to France in March 1918, itching for a fight with the Huns. On 1st April 1918 the RFC and the Royal Naval Air Service became the Royal Air Force not that that changed much for the pilots on the front line squadrons.
While Mannock was patient and nurtured the new pilots, he had no time for pilots who wouldn’t listen to him or who drifted out of formation through fear. He would follow them and put a burst of gunfire over their upper wing. Those who “flunked it” in combat were swiftly got rid of. A newly arrived 2nd Lieutenant had been with the squadron for two days, when he reported to “Grid,” saying that he couldn’t do the job and was suffering from “nerves.” Mannock tore the wings off his tunic and he was returned to England the same day. This was now the height of the German Spring Offensive and they were doing battle with the Fokker Triplanes and Albatros of the flying circuses. Mannock destroyed two of the Albertros on 12th April 1918, one in the morning and one in the afternoon.
Despite his initial insularity, Mannock as a flight commander developed into a popular and gregarious pilot, much respected by his peers and new pilots to the squadron. But he was starting to be plagued with nightmares, most of them having the same theme, that he was in a burning aircraft, spinning towards the earth and being burned alive. It was a fairly common dream among airmen of both sides. The strain he was under became evident, after a monumental air battle at dusk on 26th May. Thirty British aircraft from two squadrons fought with around forty German aircraft. According to a fellow pilot called Ira Jones, it was after this combat than Mannock began to show signs of nerves. A burning German aircraft past him closely as it went down in flames and Mannock said to Jones: “God I’ll blow my brains out rather than go down roasting.” He wrote in his diary:
A burning machine is a glorious, yet most revolting sight to the victor. To watch a machine burst into flames once its petrol tanks have been pierced by incendiary bullets is a ghastly, hypnotising sight. At first a tiny flame peeps out of the tank… Then it gets bigger and bigger as it licks its way along the length and breadth of the machine. And finally all that can be seen is a large ball of fire, enveloping in its terrifying embrace, what was a few minutes before a beautiful bird of wood and metal flown by probably a virtuous youth who loved flying and life.
His fear was increasing and began to affect his flying, resulting in him making more crash landings and the landings had always been Mannock’s weakness. He wrote to Jim Eyles in Wellingborough: I am well but feeling the strain slightly. To his sister Jess he wrote a more shocking letter: Things are getting a bit intense just lately and I don’t quite know how long my nerves will hold out. I am rather old now, as airmen go, for fighting… These times are so horrible that occasionally I feel that life is not worth hanging onto myself – but “hope springs eternal in the human breast.” I had thoughts of getting married, but…?
He managed to maintain a clinical ruthlessness while in the air and he was now openly pursuing victories to compete with other aces and his score was in the forties. He was awarded the DSO and the mess celebrated by throwing a drunken party during which Mannock fully participated in the drunken reverie. But as his tally rose into the fifties, many faces had disappeared round the dinner table, to be replaced by young, expectant faces who looked on their flight commander as a talisman. The squadron lost three pilots in twenty-four hours and Mannock went to his room and wept. According to Jones, his sobs could be heard throughout the night. He became increasingly angry with pilots who broke the formation rules and who wavered in combat. One newcomer who avoided combat, not only had his wings torn off by Mannock, he ordered them to be replaced with a yellow patch.
He was now showing open hatred of the German pilots and he struggled to control his emotions as the stress corroded his reason. Jones wrote: Mick who gets most of his Huns in flames, is getting very peculiar over the business. Whenever he sends one down in flames he comes dancing into the mess, whooping and halloing: “Flamerinos, boys! Sizzle, sizzle, wonk.” Other pilots noticed his cruelty in combat. One of the new pilots flying with Mannock, saw this appalling ruthlessness first hand. Mannock shot down a German two-seat observation aircraft which crashed, but then seeing the pilot and observer were still alive, he made several passes, strafing the wreck.
In mid-June 1918 Mannock went home on leave and stayed with the Eyles. They were shocked at his physical and mental deterioration, constantly breaking down in front of them, weeping and shaking uncontrollably and mumbling incoherently. Then he caught influenza, which was sweeping the country, but he still returned to France and the Eyles knew with certainty that he wouldn’t be coming back. The truth was that Mannock was a trembling wreck and should have been admitted to the RAF’s Hampstead Hospital, but nobody suggested that he should go there and he was determined to carry on.
In the first week of July 1918 assumed command of No 85 Squadron at St Omer in France. He was given a warm welcome by the pilots, who had earlier rejected McCudden because of his working class background. As a squadron commander he wasn’t expected to fly, but that wasn’t Mannock’s style and he led the squadron to a number of early victories. On the 9th of July he received the devastating news that his friend James McCudden had been killed, not in combat but an accident while taking off. Even though he hadn’t been killed by the Germans in combat, McCudden’s death seemed to intensify Mannock’s hatred of the Germans. He would place his squadron in an advantageous position, then go charging off on his own to seek and destroy the Huns.
By now he was obsessed with going down in flames and instructed the pilots: “One day they’ll get you like that, my lad… Don’t forget to blow your brains out.” A new pilot a New Zealander Donald Inglis was in fact a twenty-five-year-old veteran from the Gallipoli campaign who had been awarded the DCM as a gunner, was approached by his squadron commander.
“Have you got a Hun yet, Kiwi?”
“No, sir, not yet.”
“Well come out with me and we’ll get one.”
They went to their aircraft, but Inglis’ elevator control was jammed and they decided to try again in the morning. That night Mannock asked to see Jones who asked how he was. Mannock put his arms on his shoulders and said in a broken voice:
“Old lad, If I shall be killed I will be in good company. I feel I have done my duty.”
The following morning the 26th July 1918, Mannock and Inglis flew under low cloud, almost at ground level. They found a solitary two-seat LVG reconnaissance aircraft that headed for the German lines and Mannock climbed to swoop down and killed the gunner. Then Inglis went in and put a burst into the LVG at close range, which caught fire and crashed. Mannock and Inglis circled the burning wreckage and then headed back towards the British lines. Both aircraft flying at around 200 feet were hit by machinegun fire from the ground. A small flame began to flicker along Mannock’s aeroplane, which went into a slow, right-hand turn as the flames increased in intensity. It hit the ground and burst into a mass of flame. Inglis was hit again, covered in petrol from the tank and he crash landed five yards in front of trenches held by Welsh troops. They went out to rescue the hysterical Inglis who broke down in the trenches.
“The bloody bastards have shot my major down in flames.”
Mannock had made the mistake he told his pilots not to do; he stayed too close to the ground for too long. The Germans who recovered his body noted that it had not been consumed by fire and there was no evidence that he had shot himself. The Germans buried him with respect but no honours and despite extensive searches after the war, his grave has never been found. His tunic notebook, slightly charred, were returned to England via the Red Cross. Because he was scarcely known outside the Air Force, his death received little national attention.
Ira Jones campaigned hard after his death for his bravery in the face of such crushing fear should be recognised with the award of the VC, which was duly Gazetted in 1919. Despite his son’s loathing of him, Corporal Mannock Senior received the VC and his other medals on behalf of his son. When his brother Patrick later tried to track down the medals, they were found in the possession of a woman his father had illegally married. It turned out he deserted her too and Patrick brought the lot for £5.
Major Edward “Mick” Mannock was credited with shooting down sixty-one enemy aircraft. The true total was probably higher because Mannock credited other pilots with his kills. The study of a quiet, thoughtful man driven to become a sadistic killer by combat stress is a harrowing insight into the affects long periods of combat has on the human mind. This was well known at the time and perhaps somebody should have had the courage to say to Mannock, “Enough is enough.”
© Blown Periphery 2019
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