GWENT'S GREAT WAR: The men who took the fight to the skies

A DH4, like that which Leslie Simmonds and James Glendinning flew in. (8678803)

An observer demonstrates how the guns of an FE2b are aimed and fired. James Wynn would have had to do this to defend his aircraft. (8678805)

German ace Fritz Rumey, who shot down Leslie Simmonds' aircraft. He is seen here wearing his Blue Max medal (at his collar). (8678807)

Pontypool miner-turned air observer/gunner, James Henry Wynn. Picture from the Pontypool Free Press. (8678813)

Newport airman Leslie Simmonds (8678825)

First published in News by

AS the war on the Western Front became bogged down in the horror of trench warfare, many sought to escape the stalemate only to find a different kind of terror in the air.

During the darkest days of the air war over the Western Front in 1917-18, an airman’s life expectancy was 11 days.

Their aircraft would often be kept aloft by what would power a small motorbike today. And if their fragile craft, largely made of wood and fabric, fell from the sky, the hapless aircrew would have no parachute to save them.

It was into this new, but terrifying form of warfare that a few brave Monmouthshire men went.

They came from all walks of life. Some were from well-to-do families – one was the son of the mayor of Newport another the only son of an Abergavenny doctor.

Yet the county could also boast a sergeant pilot from Abertillery and an observer from Pontypool who both swapped life in the dark of a coal mine for the freedom of the skies with the Royal Flying Corps.

Air Mechanic 2nd Class, James Henry Wynn of Pontypool enlisted quickly on November 1st, 1914. He left New Pits, Hafodrynys to join the 2nd Monmouthshires and in February 1915, was drafted to France. He joined the RFC in Feb 1917 and was based at Bertangles where his pilot, another Monmouthshire man and ex-miner, was Sergeant Tom Whiteman from Abertillery.

Whiteman had gained his Aviators’ Certificate, enabling him to fly, on 6 October 1916 and so was unusual in having survived so long. This alone would have made him stand out in the 18th Squadron, but as a Sergeant pilot and former miner, he would have made a most unusual airman. The fact that he was paired with a flyer, another ex-miner at that from down the road, surely made this team exceptional.

They flew the FE2b - a spindly-looking fighter-bomber with a 250hp engine which took 43 minutes to climb to 15,000 feet.

It was at least well-armed, with a pair of Lewis guns firing forward, and another one or two guns which could fire to the rear of the aircraft.

Initially an effective fighter, by autumn 1916, the arrival of more modern German aircraft such as the Albatros meant that the FE2b was outperformed and by April 1917, it had began to be withdrawn from offensive patrols. This was to be too late for our flying miners.

They took off on 30 April 1917, the month that was to be known as ‘Bloody April’ such was the toll taken in British aircraft.

Tasked with photographing enemy positions, they came under attack about 12 miles over the enemy lines.

That day saw a change in German tactics with flights combined as a massed fighting formation. The group which confronted Whiteman and Wynne for the first time that morning came to be known as 'Richthofen's Flying Circus'. Led by Manfred von Richthofen, the infamous Red Baron, they would go on to shoot down hundreds of British aircraft.

Among the flyers ranged against them was Hans Klein, one of Germany’s top aces. He had only claimed his first kill at the start of April, but by this point he had downed seven.

Air Mechanic Wynn gave “a good account of himself" firing his Lewis guns when he was hit in the hand and his machine gun jammed.

Wynn’s bravery is best explained by an observer who explained how the FE2b's guns were aimed: "When you stood up to shoot all of you from the knees up was exposed to the elements. There was no belt to hold you. Only your grip on the gun and the sides of the nacelle [body] stood between you and eternity.” To fire to the rear the observer had to stand on the edge of the nacelle, exposing almost all their body.

Wynn's efforts were to no avail as another bullet hit Whiteman under the left ear before smashing some of his teeth and becoming lodged under his right eye.

Blinded for some minutes, Whiteman managed to flying towards the British lines. He took the craft down from 12,000 feet to 2,000 feet, where they were met by furious ground fire from the German side.

With some of his vision returned, Whiteman somehow managed to put the machine down at Ribecourt. The undercarriage collapsed but the plane came to a stop.

The aircraft was riddled with bullet holes, the frame and tail were “badly shot through” according to a crash report and the engine too was peppered. It seemed Whiteman had performed a miracle, bringing himself and Wynn back safely.

But as the craft came to a halt, Whiteman found his observer too was riddled with bullet holes.

Wynn later died of his wounds. He was 23.

Despite making a landing, Klein added Whiteman and Wynn’s craft to his list of kills.

His parents were sent tribute to Wynn’s skill, calling him: "a very good gunner observer" saying he had "done fine work here". They added: "He is missed very much by all in his squadron, as he was such a game, cheerful little fellow". He is buried at Grevillers cemetery near Arras.

Sergeant Whiteman was discharged from the RFC on 10 August 1917 as a result of his wounds.

The RFC was continually savaged by the Germans with their superior machines and tactics.

In July 1917, the entire aircrew of 57 Squadron was killed, wounded or missing in action. To mark this turbulent time, a Phoenix rising from the flames of a fire was adopted as the squadron’s emblem.

It was into this reborn unit that two more flyers from Monmouthshire were thrown into battle.

As the FE2b was pensioned off, RFC airmen welcomed new, more powerful machines which promised to even the odds they faced.

The only son of Dr and Mrs Glendinning of Abergavenny, flyer 2nd Lieutenant James Graham Glendinning would see action in the new DH4. A more conventional-looking craft, it was more powerful, faster and could climb higher than the FE2b. As an observer he didn’t have to take his life in his hands to fire his guns.

He had joined his home unit, the 3rd Battalion, Monmouthshire Regiment in April 1916, seeing six months' service in the trenches.

By September 1917 he was at Ste-Marie-Chappelle airfield in another part of northern France having transferred to the Royal Flying Corps.

He and his pilot 2Lt JT Orrell took off on one of these missions at 10.10am on December 2 1917 and headed for enemy positions.

They did not return. Both were later reported by the Germans as killed. They were both 20-years-old and Glendinning had lasted less than four months as a flyer, surviving longer in the trenches.

The roll of honour at his school, Epsom College tells of the "deep regret" at the news he had been killed. It spoke of the "sincere affection" which ran through all the tributes to this "happy and kind" man.

Like Glendinning, Leslie Simmonds was a son of middle-class Monmouthshire. His father was the mayor of Newport in 1912-13 and ran a chain of provision merchants with shops on Chepstow Road, Caerleon Road, Shaftesbury Street, Stow Hill and Caerleon.

The adventurous spirit which saw him take to the skies also saw him leave the comforts of life at their home on Lawrence Hill in Newport to work on the railways in Argentina before the war.

By the time Simmonds reached the front, British air power was wielded by one arm - the Royal Air Force, which was formed in April 1918 as the army’s Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service merged.

It was with the RAF that Simmonds joined his unit, 57 Squadron in northern France on August 18 1918.

The following month was another one of high losses for British and known as 'Black September'. On the 16th Simmonds took off with his pilot, the South African 2nd Lt Julian Ferreira.

Facing them that day would be one of the most deadly fliers the Germans had. Leutnant Fritz Rumey was awarded the famed Blue Max medal in July 1918 for shooting down 29 enemy aircraft.

Simmonds and Ferreira were to become Rumey's 35th ‘kill’. In his agile Fokker DVII, he got the better of them in their solid DH4. The machine was "seen to fall badly out of control" and believed "last seen going down in flames" one mile east of Marcoing near Arras at around noon. The report given of him left "but a minimum of hope that he and his pilot would escape with their lives."

Some vestiges of civilised behaviour held between airmen on both sides. Although the days when these 'knights of the air' would salute as they flew past each other had gone, they would exchange messages enquiring about airmen shot down in the hope of confirming if they were dead or alive.

This Simmonds' squadron did for him and his pilot. The Argus reported Simmonds' commander's hope that that they had cheated death. He assured them that "all possible inquiries are being made and his parents and their many friends still hope they may hear he is alive though a prisoner of war."

September continued in this black vein for both sides. More RAF airmen were killed, with Rumey chalking up his 45th victory on 26 Sept 1918. It was to be his last. Although the Germans were equipped with parachutes, his failed to open after he had bailed out.

Leslie has no known grave but is remembered along with hundreds of other airmen on the Arras Flying Memorial.

Those flyers remembered elsewhere tend to be small in number. While the roll call of dead in the trenches and at sea is long, often, like on the memorial gates to Pontypool Park, they are in ones or twos.

While the volume of their sacrifice may be smaller than those who served elsewhere, that made by Monmouthshire’s few airmen was every bit as valiant.

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