‘Mick’ Mannock VC – the Irish fighter Ace of WW1

Edward ‘Mick’ Mannock VC, DSO (two-bars) MC (& bar)

Mick Mannock was born at Ballincolling Barracks in County Cork on 24 May 1887. His mother had grown up in a nearby village and his father was a corporal serving with the Scots Greys and was stationed at Ballincolling.

Shortly after moving to England his father became a violent drunk and later stole the small amount of money the family had saved and disappeared. As a teenager Mick took a number of low paid jobs to support his family and it is thought his mother later persuaded him to learn a trade: in 1911 Edward ‘Mick’ Mannock is listed as a trainee telegraph engineer.

The family was always in a desperate need of money so after finishing his training he worked in Constantinople (Istanbul) supervising the laying of telephone cables and regularly sent money to his mother living in England.  In 1914, when war was declared he was still in Constantinople and was interned. After several failed escapes he was repatriated after a prisoner exchange and in 1916 returned to England and joined the Royal Flying Corp (RFC).

Like James McCudden VC who later become his best friend, Mick found himself surrounded by public school educated social elites who looked down on his working-class background and many were vocally hostile regarding his lowly social status. As far as they were concerned only gentlemen should be aviators and these prejudices were identical to those experienced by James McCudden who was also from a working-class background.

After qualifying as a pilot and joining an operational squadron in France for a while he was shunned by the majority of pilots from privileged backgrounds and spent most of his time alone and without friends.  Over a short period of time his popularity and respect for him increasingly grew after consistently showing his bravery during dogfights and his skills in aerial combat which he started to pass onto other pilots.

London Gazette, 17 September 1917, for the award of the Military Cross (MC), T / 2nd Lieutenant Edward Mannock Royal Flying Corp

For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. In the course of many combats he has driven off a large number of enemy machines, and has forced down three balloons, showing a very fine offensive spirit and great fearlessness in attacking the enemy at close range and low altitudes under heavy fire from the ground.

After destroying the balloon mentioned in the citation he wrote in his diary:

“My fuselage had bullet holes in it, one very near my head and the wings were more or less riddled. I don’t want to go through such an experience again”

His diary shows an emotional man with a complex personality who used his diary to write down thoughts and feelings he could never share.

During the Great War pilots did not wear parachutes because it would encourage them to abandon their aircraft! Apart from having no means of escape, aircraft of the period were made of combustible materials which meant a small fire would often quickly develop into an inferno. Consequently, during a dog fight it was common to either see a pilot and gunner trapped inside their burning aircraft or leaping to their deaths and it was the fear of burning to death which always weighed heavily on Mick Mannock’s mind.

During every mission Mannock displayed remarkable bravery and was eventually awarded the country’s highest awards, but surprisingly his Diary shows he was constantly petrified.  He recorded his frequent nightmares of seeing himself burning to death during a dogfight and always took his service revolver with him so he could shoot himself in the head at the first sign of a flame. Today he would undoubtedly be diagnosed as suffering from PTSD, but not only did he hide his fears those around him only saw his bravery.   

His fear of burning to death and his nightmares increased after seeing 23-year-old 2nd Lieutenant Frederik Rook plummeting to death in a ball of flames and he later said in his diary:

That’s the way they’re going to get me in the end- flames and finish.

He would not allow anyone to know his great fear and frequent nightmares and apart from being respected for his bravery Mannock was widely known for his sense of humour, for looking after the men under his command and helping them develop as fighter pilots. They were also not aware every time he lost a man, he went to his room to grieve and only allowed the men to see him after he had composed himself.

After shooting down a two-seater aircraft over the British lines he drove out to examine the wreck. On his return he told his men the pilot was dead with three neat bullet holes in the head and the gunner survived.   As always, his true thoughts were never discussed and only written in his diary.  On this occasion he wrote, “I found their mascot which was a small dog, dead on the observer’s seat, and I felt like a murderer.”

London Gazette, 18 October 1917, awarded a Bar to the Military Cross (MC), T / 2nd Lieutenant Edward Mannock MC – RFC

For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He has destroyed several hostile machines and driven others down out of control. On one occasion he attacked a formation of five enemy machines single-handed and shot one down out of control. On another occasion, while engaged with an enemy machine, he was attacked by two others, one of which he forced to the ground. He has consistently shown great courage and initiative.

Whilst on leave in England Mannock discovered his mother had become an alcoholic and his sister was working as a prostitute and being unable to cope, he returned to his squadron. Several months later he was told his best friend James McCudden VC had been killed, and after this the entries in his diary became increasingly darker and more fatalistic but he still kept his thoughts to himself.

His diary shows he was convinced he would die in a burning aircraft and the nightmares continued but so did his awards for bravery.

London Gazette, 16 September 1918, awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO), T / 2nd Lieutenant Edward Mannock MC – RFC

For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty during recent operations. In seven days, while leading patrols and in general engagements, he destroyed seven enemy machines, bringing his total in all to 30. His leadership, dash and courage were of the highest order.

 London Gazette, 16 September 1918 {sic}, awarded a Bar to the Distinguished Service Order (DSO), T / 2nd Lieutenant (T / Captain) Edward Mannock DSO, MC – RFC

For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. In company with one other Scout this officer attacked eight enemy aeroplanes, shooting down one in flames. The next day, when leading his Flight, he engaged eight enemy aeroplanes, destroying three himself. The same week he led his patrol against six enemy Albatros all in flames, but later, meeting with five Scouts, had great difficulty in getting back, his machine being much shot about, but he destroyed one. Two days later, he shot down another two-seater in flames. Eight machines in five days – a fine feat of marksmanship and determination to get to close quarters. As a Patrol leader he is unequalled.

London Gazette, 3 August 1918, awarded a second Bar to the Distinguished Service Order (DSO), Lieutenant (T /Captain) Edward Mannock DSO, MC – RFC

This officer has now accounted for 48 enemy machines. His success is due to wonderful shooting and a determination to get to close quarters; to attain this he displays most skilful leadership and unfailing courage. These characteristics were markedly shown on a recent occasion when he attacked six hostile Scouts, three of which he brought down. Later on, the same day he attached a two-seater, which crashed into a tree.

By July Mannock is known to have shot down 76 enemy aircraft. This does not include aircraft which were not confirmed or those he deliberately crippled to allow new pilots to shoot down.

Also, in July the squadron received a new pilot, this was a New Zealander named Donald Inglis who was fresh from flying school and had no combat experience. As with all new pilots Maddox warned him to never fly low and avoid the temptation to fly low to examine a machine they had shot down because they would be in range of enemy ground fire. To allow a pilot to obtain their first victory and gain confidence they flew their first operation with Maddox who looked for an enemy aircraft to cripple and leave for the new pilot to finish off. On 26 July they took off in search for an enemy aircraft for Donald Inglis to shoot down.

After coming across a two-seater German aircraft Mannock killed the gunner before signalling to Inglis to finish off the aircraft which he did with a long burst of machine gun fire, they then watched the aircraft spiralling out of control towards the ground.  Mannock then broke his own rule – he followed the aircraft down and came within range of enemy ground fire and was hit by a massive volley of machine gun and rifle fire. His engine was hit and caught fire. During a BBC documentary Inglis told BBC Timeline:

After shooting down the aircraft I fell in behind Mick again. We made a couple of circles around the burning wreck and then made for home. I saw Mick start to kick his rudder, I then saw flames come out of his machine, it grew bigger and bigger. Mick was no longer kicking his rudder. His nose dropped slightly, and he went into a slow right-hand turn and hit the ground in a burst of flames. I circled about 20 feet but could not see him and things were getting hot {gun fire}. I made for home and managed to reach our outposts with a punctured fuel tank… Poor Mick … The bloody bastards had shot my major down in flames. 

For the award of the Victoria Cross

London Gazette, 18 July 1919, Over France, 17 June 1918 – 26 July 1918, Captain (Acting Major) Edward Mannock DSO, MC – 85 Squadron, Royal Air Force.

On the 17th June 1918, he attacked a Halberstadt machine near Armentieres and destroyed it from a height of 8,000 feet. On the 7th July 1918, near Doulieu, he attacked and destroyed one Fokker ( red-bodied ) machine, which went vertically into the ground from a height of 1,500 feet. Shortly afterwards he ascended 1,000 feet and attacked another Fokker biplane, firing 60 rounds into it, which produced an immediate spin, resulting, it is believed, in a crash. On the 14th July 1918, near Merville, he attacked and crashed a Fokker from 7,000 feet, and brought a two-seater down damaged. On the 19th July 1918, near Merville, he fired 80 rounds into an Albatross two-seater, which went to the ground in flames. On the 20th July 1918, East of La Bassee, he attacked and crashed an enemy two-seater from a height of 10,000 feet. About an hour afterwards he attacked at 8,000 feet a Fokker biplane near Steenwercke and drove it down out of control, emitting smoke. On the 22nd July 1918, near Armentieres, he destroyed an enemy triplane from a height of 10,000 feet. Major Mannock was awarded the undermentioned distinctions for his previous combats in the air in France and Flanders.

Edward Mannock died on the 26th July 1918. Having shot down an Albatross whilst flying with a new member of the squadron, he was hit by a massive volley of ground fire. His aircraft caught fire and crashed behind German lines near Lillers, France. An unidentified airman is buried in the Laventie British Cemetery, France, and it is believed this could be Edward Mannock.

Mick Mannock always remained deeply hurt and resented the way his father had deserted the family and stole their savings and said in his will he should not receive any of his belongings. Surprisingly, his father was invited to Buckingham Palace to receive the posthumous award of his son’s Victoria Cross.  Within a few weeks he had sold the VC and other medals for £5. In later years the RAF Museum took possession of the medals awarded to Mick Mannock and these are on display at their museum in Hendon.

Author: Alan Malcher

Military historian and defence commentator

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