Childhood recollections from Swavesey 1914 - 1918

By F.C.Wood B.A. Cantab

Part 3 - The death of a pilot


Another aeroplane episode happened during the war while 1 was at School. It started with a crashed plane and ended in an unsavoury occurrence of hysterical souvenir hunting and vandalism. In those early days of flying the Royal Flying Corps was a race apart and it enjoyed a good deal of freedom from the rigid disciplinary rules and tradition that obtained in the Army and Royal Navy. It was a usual practice for a pilot to do a routine solo flying in the course of which, if time and distance allowed, he would make his home town or village an objective. When he arrived there he would give a demonstration of flying and aerobatics especially 'looping-the-loop' to his admiring family and friends down below.There were official reprimands if the practice was reported but it seldom happened. Flying was such a novel feature that it verged on the miraculous.One such pilot was doing aerial stunts over his native village of Over.Unfortunately things went wrong and the plane crashed in farmland between Over and Willingham the pilot being killed. People converged on the crash and even while the dead pilot was still in his cockpit began to pull off bits of the smashed Plane as souvenirs.The news spread around, people began to arrive in hordes and to ensure an easier acquisition of material, many people came provided with hacksaws spanners hatchets, and all manner of tools.In an incredibly short space of time they dismembered that plane as completely as a pack of hyenas working on a carcass.People set off home - including some 1 saw in Swavesey - laden with such items as the propeller, instruments, landing wheels, portions of wings and fuselage, accumulators and so forth. There was such a scandal that the Chief Constable in Cambridge sent out a directive that every particle of that plane had to be handed in to the local village constables by a set date, after which summonses would be served on anyone not complying. All of us at School knew of this. Now,1 had acquired by barter, a small piece of wing fabric, a two inch square of 'doped' canvas. I got it from Stanley Culpin for twenty marbles. My mother on hearing of the police edict, conscientiously set off with this material to our village policeman, P.C. Breed. He accepted it with due gravity and said that although it was insignificant, the Chief Constable's wrath was such that he had insisted that everything had to be sent in.

N.B. The writers wife told him that this incident was not a Swavesey prerogative. During the same war years a similiar type of plane force-landed on Worthing beach one afternoon. The plane was considerably damaged, but the pilot was unhurt and went off to the town to arrange for action to be taken by the RFC. This was deferred until the following morning as it was now getting dark. The next day the repair team arrived to find that the plane had been taken to bits by souvenir hunters. The authorities did nothing. One person known to my wife had the propeller hung in his home as a souvenir for years afterwards.

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