James McCudden VC the working-class fighter pilot of WW1

James McCudden (VC, DSO & Bar, MC &Bar, MM) brief extracts from his memoirs ‘Flying Fury’ published 1918

James McCudden was born on 28 March 1895 to an Irish family living in Gillingham Kent England. His family had a long tradition of serving in the British military and at the time of his birth his father was a corporal with the Royal Engineers.  In 1910, at the age of 15 James enlisted into the Royal Engineers and served as a bugler.   

In 1913 James decided to transfer to the Royal Flying Corp (RFC) and like his older brother William who was already serving in this new branch of the army James decided to follow his lead and train as an aircraft mechanic.  After becoming a qualified mechanic, he was promoted to corporal.

After war was declared in 1914 James was sent to France with 3 Squadron and first saw combat whilst flying as an observer armed with a Le Enfield rifle in November 1914. At the age of 20 he was promoted to sergeant and a month later was informed his older brother William had been killed in a flying accident and his younger brother Anthony had recently enlisted into the army.

Sergeant James McCadden then applied to become a pilot but was told he was too important as an aircraft fitter and could not be spared. During this period social class was considered more important than ability and to be considered suitable for pilot training the applicant was expected to have been educated at public school and be from a ‘respectable’ family. McCadden was rejected because he was working class, and this made him unsuitable for a position reserved for gentlemen!

Newly promoted Flight Sergeant McCudden on leave in London with his sister Mary.

When there were no aircrafts in need of repair or servicing, James flew as an observer and in a letter to his mother described seeing his first enemy aircraft.

 “It came over us like a flash, with the black crosses on his fuselage as plain as daylight. I managed to get off half a dozen rounds at him as he passed.”

Whilst flying with his commanding officer their plane was attacked by a German fighter and McCudden stood up in the cockpit firing his Lewis Gun. Due to his dogged determination during this action his commanding officer made him a full-time observer, and this caused resentment among some officers because of McCadden’s lowly working-class background.

During his new role as observer James McCadden continued showing the same determination to bravely fight off enemy aircraft and in January 1916, against the protests from some social elites, his application to become a pilot was finally approved, he was  promoted to flight sergeant and returned to England for pilot training.

After qualifying as a pilot, he returned to France and served with 20 Squadron and flew a two-seat F.E.2bs. A month later he was posted to 29 Squadron which were equipped with the Airco D.H.2, a rotary-powered pusher. This was “a very cold little machine,” McCudden remembered, “as the pilot had to sit in a small nacelle with the engine a long way back…no warmth from it at all.” During one patrol he recalled being “so intensely cold and miserable that I did not trouble to look around at all to see whether any Huns were behind me or not; in fact, I did not care whether I was shot down or not.”

FE
Arco DHR

It is not known what aircraft he was flying on 6 September when he attacked a German two-seater aircraft over Houthem-Gheluwe in Belgium. He later wrote in his journal, “Closing to 400 yards, I opened fire. I fired one drum of Lewis at him, and he continued to go down while I changed drums. I then got off another drum and still got no reply from the enemy gunner, but the German was going down more steeply now….” This was his first recorded kill.

He also described a dog fight where he made a mistake and was almost killed. He and a   German pilot came at each other head-on at high speed whilst firing their machine guns.

 “I now did a silly thing. I put my engine off and dived, but not straight… I could hear his bullets coming far to close to be healthy. Although the German hit my aircraft twice… if the German pilot had been a little skilful, I think he would have got me.”

This and other near fatal mistakes McCadden called “little incidents” and said they caused him to be very furious with himself and he devoted time to what he called the science and training of air warfare. He spent time aligning his guns and made modifications to his aircraft to improve its performance.

Albatros

After a dogfight with a German fighter pilot flying an Albatros which was far more superior than the British and French aircraft he wrote in his journal.

“I heard a terrific clack, bang, crash, rip behind me, and found a Hun was firing from about ten yards in the rear, and his guns seemed to be firing in my very ears.”  McCadden escaped by doing a half-roll. After landing safely he counted 24 bullet holes in his shredded plane.

The same day he was involved in what he described as a rough dog fight with a very skilful fighter pilot. Only much later was his opponent identified as Lieutenant Manfred von Richthofen, who apparently claimed him as his 15th victim after McCudden spun down 9,200 feet to escape the legendary Red Baron.

On 1 January 1917 after eight months of combat, flying 115 air patrols and shooting down five enemy aircraft McCudden was commissioned second lieutenant and awarded the Military Cross. In June he was promoted to captain and posted to Joyce Green Airfield at Long Reach, near Dartford and was an instructor teaching German tactics. Here he met Edward Mannock and they became close friends. Both were from working-class Irish backgrounds; both were fighting the social barriers of the period and Mannock like James McCudden would later become a highly decorated fighter pilot. To his surprised he also found himself training his younger brother Anthony.

Apart from teaching pilots McCudden was also flying air defence patrols over London looking out for Zeppelin bombers, but he was eager to return to France. After his request to return to the front was approved, he joined 66 Squadron and developed his tactic of flying on lone patrols at 15000 feet or more (without oxygen!) to hunt for German aircraft and other targets.  On 21 July he was serving with 56 Squadron flying a SE5 when he shot down another German aircraft during a dogfight.

In the middle of August, he was given command of B Flight 56 Squadron and flew a S.E.5a, McCudden wrote that he “liked the machine immensely…  it was far superior to the enemy because of its top speed of 126 mph, great strength, its diving and zooming powers, and its splendid view. Apart from this, it was a most warm, comfortable and easy machine to fly.”

On his first day with the squadron instead of having breakfast MacCudden spent time aligning his guns and sights. An aircraft mechanic recalled, “he must have fired the best part of a thousand rounds from each gun before he was satisfied”.  When McCudden came into the mess for lunch some of the officers booed him after mistaking his professionalism for showing off and some continued to look down on him because of his working-class roots and questioned why he had been made a flight commander while others more socially superior had not been promoted.

Undeterred by the social snobbery McCudden continually modified his aircraft to maximize its performance. He had a Sopwith Camel joystick installed, which he believed enabled him to fire his guns more accurately. He also shortened the exhaust pipes and later had a spinner taken from a German aircraft he had shot down fitted to his aircraft to streamline the stub nose. This was painted red so his men could identify him in the air.

To fly higher he made alterations to the wings and had its engine fitted with high compression pistons to allow it to fly at 20000 feet. But he found that flying at that height for too long resulted in headaches, faintness and exhaustion due to a combination of oxygen starvation and the start of hyperthermia.

From December 1917 to March 1918 he shot down a further 32 aircrafts.

On 18 August 1917, McCudden shot down an Albatros D.V that had attacked him head-on, this was his eighth kill. He shot down another the next day and on the evening of the 20th, after he positioned himself 50 yards behind the aircraft and fired bursts into it from both guns the German fighter caught fire and went down. He wrote in his journal, “That was my first Hun in flame… As soon as I saw it, I thought, poor devil and really felt sick….”

McCudden also took part in what some historians consider one of the most famous dog fights during the war. On 23 September he led B Flight against German ace Lieutenant Werner Voss who was flying a Fokker F.1 triplane. Within ten minutes from the start of a vicious dogfight Voss had shot up seven British fighters before he was shot down and killed by Rhys Davis, McCudden wrote, “As long as I live, I shall never forget my admiration for Voss… his flying was wonderful, his courage magnificent. “A month later Rhys Davis was shot down and killed.

In his journals James McCadden documented the horrors he witnessed. For instance, on 27 September after firing at an aircraft it burst into flames over the British trenches he later wrote, “The plane rolled over, he watched in horror as the enemy gunner either jumped or fell out and saw him following the machine down, twirling round and round, all arms and legs, truly a ghastly sight.”

The next morning McCadden shot the wings off an aircraft and its pilot also tumbled out and fell to his death. Moments later another German aircraft came towards him but suddenly broke off his attack.

McCudden explained when attacking a two-seater aircraft, he would be high above them before diving and pulling up underneath their tail section, which blocked the observer’s field of fire. Many victims died in a sudden hail of bullets, not knowing what had hit them. He usually tried to kill the observer first to silence his gun, then went after the pilot or engine. “I cannot describe the satisfaction,” he mused, “which one experiences after bringing a good stalk to a successful conclusion.”

In December McCudden destroyed 14 aircrafts during dog fights. On the 23rd he destroyed four enemy aircraft in one day.  During one dog fight in under 30 minutes he shot the wing off a Rumpler flying at 16,000 feet, he then turned his attention to another aircraft which during his attack caught fire and then attacked another at 9,000 feet which exploded in flames.

These dog fights were very close and personal and McCudden said in his journal after one fight his windscreen was spattered with German blood.

James McCudden was now a national hero and his photograph was appearing on the front pages of newspapers and after another double victory his score reached 46 and this further increased his hero status.

Apart from not liking public attention he was deeply concerned his young brother might feel compelled to take unnecessary risks to support the famous family name. In late February 1918 he flew to his brother Anthony’s squadron to tell him not to recklessly take chances. After gaining five kills during aerial combat Anthony was killed a month later. James McCudden had now lost his two brothers and his father to the war.

Later in February McCudden shot down a further 11 aircraft. One of these aircraft is known to have been flown by Corporal Julius Kaiser who fell or jumped to his death after it burst into flames. Later that day he shot down another Albatros, his score was now 54 and by the end of the month he had 57 confirmed kills.

James McCudden, popularly called Mac, was now respected by the pilots under his command who came from so-called ‘respected’ families. Under his command and guidance the flight had a total score of 123 kills and had only lost four pilots.  This was seen as testimony to his outstanding leadership.

After receiving orders to return to England to train pilots the squadron gave him a farewell dinner. The next day, the man who had previously been written off for being working class was entertained by generals and was presented with a silver model of an S.E.5a.

Shortly after being awarded the Victoria Cross James McCudden wrote his book ‘Flying Fury’ and in late June was promoted to major and given command of 60 Squadron.

On the morning of 9 July James, the only surviving male member of the McCudden family, said goodbye to his mother and sister Mary in London and ask them to look after a small box containing his medals. Later that afternoon he crossed the channel in his new S.E.5a to take command of 60 Squadron.  

Aware the German front line may have changed during his time in England after reaching France James decided to land at the British airfield at Auxi-le- Chateau and ask them to mark his map with the British and German lines. After landing and having his map marked with the relevant information and being given useful intelligence from other pilots, he took off to continue his journey.

Eyewitnesses at the airfield remember his aircraft was in a steep climbing turn when they suddenly heard the engine cut-out before it crashed into nearby woods. He was found unconscious near the wrecked aircraft and was suffering from head injuries. Although he was quickly rushed to a field hospital 23-year-old James McCudden died that evening and was buried at Wavens.

Pilots and the British public were shocked to hear James McCudden who was one of Britain’s most decorated pilots and had survived many dogfights had been killed in an accident. 

Several months before his death James McCudden wrote in his journal

 “It seems to me that the very best fellows are always those who are killed…. Sometimes one sits and thinks, ‘Oh, this damned war and its cursed tragedies. After all, I suppose it is to be, and we cannot alter destiny.”

 Suggested further readings: James McCudden Flying Fury

Alex Revell (McCudden expert) Victoria Cross: WWI Airmen and Their Aircraft

 Alex Revell, High in the Empty Blue: The History of 56 Squadron RFC/RAF 1916-1920; and James McCudden VC.

Author: Alan Malcher

Military historian and defence commentator

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