JAMES MCCUDDEN, WORKING-CLASS SUPERMAN

RAF SE5a Hispano Suiza B4891 James McCudden 56 Squadron

A Morane Parasol of No. 3 Squadron took off from Auchel for a long recco flight to Valenciennes on 15 December 1915. The crew, Second Lieutenant Charles Edward Tudor-Jones, observer, and pilot Second Lieutenant Alan Victor Hobbs, aged twenty-one, knew full well that the Fokker Eindecker was causing havoc way beyond its relatively small numbers. The flyers’ mission was to count the rolling stock at the railway station; this intelligence would help staff officers locate a German army that seemed to have disappeared.

Aircraft and crew failed to return. Next day, German wireless announced Leutnant Immelmann’s seventh kill, a British monoplane over Valenciennes.

Major Ludlow-Hewitt, later Air Chief Marshal Sir Edgar Ludlow-Hewitt GCB, GBE, CMG, DSO, MC, chief of Bomber Command in 1940 but now officer commanding No. 3 Squadron, announced a new tactic. This railway information was still required by HQ so they would go in force to get it. Captain Harvey-Kelly would lead with Lieutenant Portal as observer (later Chief of the Air Staff, Marshal of the Royal Air Force Charles Frederick Algernon Portal, 1st Viscount Portal of Hungerford, KG, GCB, OM, DSO and Bar, MC). Lieutenant Mealing would fly with Lieutenant Cleaver, and Lieutenant Saunders with Sergeant McCudden. Saunders would later transfer to No. 1 Squadron and, as Captain R A Saunders MC, be killed in March 1916 at the age of twenty-one. His observer was the future British super-ace James ‘Mac’ McCudden, fifty-seven victories.

Immelmann was flying the line between Lille and Lens. He seemed always to be there, waiting, high in the sky, ready to pounce. To combat him specifically, Ludlow-Hewitt had ordered the three crews to fly in formation, the first time they’d done such a thing.

The weather was poor and they had to wait for three days before they could go, on the clear, frosty morning of 19 December. They crossed the lines over the Bois du Biez at 7,500 feet and, a few miles east of there, after sailing through some fairly accurate archie, they saw the hawk, a black dot far above them.

It dived on the middle of the three Moranes and got in some good shots but Lieutenant Mealing turned and avoided the worst. Now the Fokker, for that’s what it was, turned too and came at the third aircraft, nose to nose, firing through its propeller. McCudden had to stand up with his Lewis gun to his shoulder, to fire over his prop and carry on firing as the Fokker flew up, past and away.

It reappeared, climbing up under their tail, but McCudden saw it. Saunders veered as the observer fired, as he said, ‘half a drum of Lewis’. The Fokker turned off, climbed to 300 feet above the intended prey, and began another dive. McCudden was expecting him and fired a long burst; the German pulled out immediately. He held off again, 500 feet distant, where he stayed while the three RFC crews flew over Valenciennes and gathered the information they wanted. Immelmann (they were sure it was The Professor) did a few aerobatics at a safe distance, then glided down to his home base at Douai, presumably out of petrol.

There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that the Fokker had been Immelmann’s, and this changed their views, previously and universally held, that if Immelmann came across you, you were a dead duck. We might wonder why they didn’t think it was Boelcke, who had six victories by this point and was also well known in the small aerial world of the Western Front.

That same afternoon, McCudden was up again, sketching German trenches with the CO, Major Ludlow-Hewitt, when a Fokker dived on them. Once more Mac fired from the shoulder and put the German off. There was a bit of a flying display as Immelmann, sitting high in his seat and dressed in black, tried to get on the Parasol’s tail, but he couldn’t manage it and flew away. McCudden: ‘All I can say is that to my mind he (Immelmann) would not fight when the odds were even.’

Life went on into the new year, flying every day that the weather allowed, and on 19 January McCudden was observing with Lieutenant Harold Johnson on a reconnaissance, when he was surprised to see a German two-seater biplane coming up fast behind; surprised because, apart from the Fokker, the Morane was thought to be as fast as anything the Germans had. Possibly the machine was one of the new LVG C2 or C3, with a much more powerful engine than its predecessor.

McCudden tried a few long-range shots with his rifle and got ready with his Lewis when the German got within 200 yards. Firing, the machine gun jammed after two rounds, so he swapped back to the rifle. The German flew alongside then turned away, as he did so giving his observer a good shot with a machine gun that didn’t jam. Holes appeared in the Morane’s wings while McCudden used up his ammunition to no avail. Twice more the German came in, while McCudden desperately extracted bullets for his rifle, one at a time from the jammed Lewis. More holes appeared as Johnson flew as fast as he could towards their own lines, where the German left them.

Coming in to land, some shell cases lodged under the joystick but Johnson cleared the obstruction in time to glide in safely.

After lunch, the same pilot went up again with a different observer, stalled his Morane soon after take-off and crashed. The observer was injured but recovered; Lieutenant Johnson was killed. Flying was a dangerous business.

James McCudden, with an English mother and Irish father, left school at 14, became a Post Office messenger boy and, as soon as he turned fifteen in 1910, joined the Royal Engineers like his father. Dad was a sergeant major; son was a boy bugler, but elder brother William joined the Royal Flying Corps Military Wing and qualified as a sergeant pilot with No. 3 Squadron. Young James gave up bugling, trained as a mechanic and, posted to 3 Squadron at Netheravon, was soon scrounging a few unofficial flights with his brother.

Air Mechanic First Class McCudden went to France with No. 3 as the war began and was soon Sergeant McCudden. The death of brother William in a flying accident on 12 May 1915 deeply affected James but made him more determined than ever to play a significant role in this war. He volunteered for observer duties and had only a few trips in the summer as top mechanics were rarer than volunteer observers, but began flying regularly in the November. His devotion to duty and his observer adventures with Immelmann earned him the Croix de Guerre and, two days after his flight with Lieutenant Johnson, a posting to pilot training.

At Gosport, the first weeks of novice classes must have been a frustrating time for someone who knew all about aircraft and how they worked, could take one to pieces and put it back together, had flown many times over enemy lines and had had close encounters with the infamous Professor. Still, he had to go through the motions before taking to the air at last, on 22 February 1916, in a Farman F20, and qualifying by 16 April.

Even then the frustration continued. He had impressed his instructors so much that, instead of a posting to France, he had one as an instructor himself, and didn’t get back to the war until June, with 20 Squadron flying FE2B on offensive patrols and photo-reconnaissance, then to 29 Squadron flying the Airco DH2 fighter under the command of his old acquaintance Mr Conran, now a major. McCudden, still a sergeant, had his first victory on 9 September, when he shot down a two-seater.

Although in continuous action, sufficient to win him the Military Medal, his next kill didn’t come until the new year. Now in the officers’ mess as a second lieutenant, he was shot down himself, unhurt, on 23 January, and scored his second two-seater three days later. Over the next three weeks he had three more, one shared, before being brought home to instruct. Of this time, he said: ‘I always wish I had had the advantage of a public school. After I joined the officers’ mess I often felt ill at ease when the chaps were talking about things I didn’t understand.’

In June and July of 1917, besides teaching, he also flew a Sopwith Pup, his first tractor fighter, in defensive sorties around London looking for German bombers.

His fighter-pilot career began in earnest in August 1917 when, as a captain and flight commander, he transferred to the much admired 56 Squadron, lately the home of famous ace Albert Ball VC (q.v.), flying the best fighter in the air at that time, the SE5A.

The first version of that machine, Scout Experimental 5, mainly designed by Henry Folland, was felt to be underpowered, by an unreliable engine, with an unreliable Vickers interruptor gear firing through the prop. The future author and BBC founder Cecil Lewis, said ‘The SE5 as they turned it out was an abortion; it was the pilots of 56 Squadron who turned it into a practical fighter.’ Lewis obviously played his part in that, shooting down eight German aircraft in six weeks in said abortion, equipment unique to 56 Squadron.

Albert Ball, SE5 test pilot: ‘The SE5 has turned out a dud. It’s a great shame, for everybody expects such a lot from them. It is a rotten machine.’ Having previously claimed thirty-two victories, the great majority in his favourite Nieuport 17, Ball had eleven such in the SE5A between 23 April and 5 May 1917. Not bad for a rotten machine.

The improved SE5A, with bigger engine, was the fastest thing around, at almost 140mph in level flight and sturdy enough to take a lot more in a dive. Pilots found it easier to fly than the Sopwith Camel and it was the better machine at high altitude. James McCudden later wrote: ‘It was very fine to be in a machine that was faster than the Huns, and to know that one could run away just as things got too hot.’

With Ball dead, one of many on that squadron, and the SE5A proving itself, McCudden arrived to begin a fearsome series of kills, seven of the Albatros D5 in a row, and seventeen more assorted enemies.

Christmas time, 1917: while Biggles was stealing his turkey, history was being made in the freezing weather over St Quentin, home of 56 Squadron.

Having knocked down a DFW two-seater and damaged another on 22 December, Captain James McCudden took off on the 23rd at 10.30 hours in his SE5A, modified to his instructions so that he could climb faster and higher than specified. When flying as the lone hunter, he would get his height and hang around, waiting for German two-seaters to come a-photographing or nosing generally over the western, Entente side of the lines.

His first dish of the day was an LVG, tootling along. He waited until it was well into Entente territory, dived down, got behind, put in a short burst and saw steam and water issuing forth as the German descended gently to the east, back to his own country. The observer stood up, waving in apparent surrender, but the pilot persisted in heading homewards despite McCudden trying to push him west.

Surrender leading to escape was not part of the etiquette, so McCudden put in another burst of fire and watched the LVG dive out of control and crash just inside its own lines.

That fight had brought the British ace down to 6,000 feet, so he climbed back up again and spotted a Rumpler. This would not have been the common-or-garden Rumpler, the C1, which had a service ceiling of 16,500 feet, but the more advanced and unusual C4, which could reach 20,000 feet. It was said to fly well at that height although we can’t imagine the pilot would like it much, or for long, in an open cockpit with no oxygen. Below that, McCudden was his enemy’s equal.

In this case, the German fled with McCudden close behind. In defence, the Rumpler had to swerve to allow the gunner to fire without hitting his own tail, which slowed it down, allowing McCudden to come right in and shoot, removing both starboard wings.

This happened less than an hour after the LVG and was victim number thirty for McCudden. He saw two more LVG, attacked them without success and, low on petrol, went home for lunch.

Leading his patrol out in the afternoon, as they were making their height he spotted a Rumpler, chased it, caught it and sent it down in a spiral. After an inconclusive battle between the patrol and a group of Albatros V-strutters, McCudden saw an LVG being fired on by archie. A signal from him stopped the archie and allowed him to fire instead, which resulted in the German flying sideways with the observer hanging on and trying to climb into the pilot’s cockpit. The aircraft stalled, went into a spin, and fluttered down in autumn-leaf fashion, smashing into a train on a temporary light railway, knocking several trucks off the rails.

That was fourteen in December, including four totally destroyed in one day by one man. According to the RFC communiqué, that was the first time such a feat had been accomplished, which was true, to a point. Six months before, Raymond Collishaw (q.v.) had shot down four on 15 June in his Sopwith Tripehound, but they were not all confirmed destroyed and he was RNAS.

McCudden would do it again next year, on 8 February 1918, three destroyed and one captured, only to be outdone on 24 March 1918 by Captain John Lightfoot Trollope of 43 Squadron, aged twenty, in a Sopwith Camel, who shot down six in one day. This news would have affected McCudden not at all, unlike the notice he had of his younger brother’s death in action. John McCudden MC, eight victories, had been shot down by Leutnant Ulrich Neckel (thirty victories), on 28 February 1918 but was not badly hurt. Flying again in his SE5A, he was killed on 18 March, becoming the first victim of Leutnant Hans Joachim Wolff (ten victories, killed 16 May 1918).

James Thomas Byford McCudden DSO and Bar, MC and Bar, MM, Croix de Guerre, was sent home on 5 March 1918 as the top-scoring British ace with fifty-seven enemies confirmed defeated, and went to instruct at the aerial combat school in Scotland.

McCudden was being useful to the cause at fighter school but he always felt he could be more useful at the Front. A posting to France, for which he constantly agitated, would also get him away from the newspapers. He was called the ‘Superman of the Air’ by The News of the World, and how he hated it: ‘I see the papers are making a fuss again about the ordinary things one does. Why, that’s our work. Why fuss about it? I’m so tired of this limelight business. If only one could be left alone a bit more, and not so much of the hero about it.’

His wish was soon granted and, as Major McCudden, OC 60 Squadron, he set off for France in a new SE5A on 9 July 1918, and landed at an airfield at Auxi-le-Château, a small farming town not far from Abbeville. His destination, HQ 60 Squadron, was by a tiny hamlet five miles further on called Boffles, too small to be found easily. McCudden sought directions, took off as soon as he had them, and crashed inside two minutes.

His death was reported in The Times thus:

The whole Air Service is in great grief at the loss of Major McCudden. His death was due to an inexplicable accident. He was on his way from Scotland to take up a new command, and flew over from England in his favourite single-seater. He landed successfully at one aerodrome in northern France, where he had business, and, after a short stay set off again to join his squadron. While he was still only a few hundred feet from the ground his machine sideslipped and crashed among trees in the neighbourhood of the aerodrome. He was killed instantly.

The official record of his victories is 45 enemy aeroplanes brought down and 13 driven down. The quality of his flying was cool and deliberate judgment. He would manoeuvre patiently for position and keep it with astonishing skill and pertinacity till his enemy was shot down. No. man worked harder to make and maintain esprit de corps in his squadron. It was the squadron’s record, not his own, that he chiefly cared for.

All true, almost. ‘Where he had business’ was nothing more than asking the way to Boffles, and he suffered a fractured skull in his crash, dying that night. His final accredited total of victories remained at fifty-seven.

Whether cause of death was pilot error, engine failure or a combination of the two, we shall never know. Witnesses said he made a sharp climbing turn, put the machine in a roll, lost height and went in.

Panicking error in a pilot like him is surely unlikely. His coolness and patience were legendary. He was certainly not a show-off and would never have tried to put on a circus trick. We must lean towards the conclusion that a serious fault in a new machine suddenly put him in a situation not even he could retrieve.

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