Home Naval & Air War The Aces Major 'Mick' Mannock, VC :Top Scoring British Flying Ace in the Great War

Major 'Mick' Mannock, VC :Top Scoring British Flying Ace in the Great War

mick-mannockIntroduction

Major Edward Corringham (Mick) Mannock, VC*, DSO and 2 Bars**, MC and Bar***, (hereafter ECM) )is today often acclaimed by the public as the top scoring British flying ace of the Western Front and, coincidentally, the Great War. After the Great War, his final score of victories was established as 73 (but more about that later). The British military establishment in the Great War did not officially endorse any 'ace' status system****.

N.B.
*VC = The Victoria Cross medal.
**DSO and 2 Bars = Distinguished Service Order medal. Apart from the original award of this decoration, ECM received two further awards of the same medal as indicated by the term 2 Bars. The Bar(s) is/are represented by a distinctive metal bar(s) attached to the original medal ribbon.
*** MC and Bar = Military Cross medal. A Bar was also awarded to ECM for this medal.
**** It was the French Aéronautique Militaire that first introduced the 'ace' culture in 1915 in honour of Adolphe Pégoud - one of their top pilots - who was the first to shoot down five enemy aircraft. The German Army Air Service soon followed with a threshold of 10 victories. Also the Germans instituted the practice of awarding the Pour la Mérite (The Blue Max), their highest award for gallantry, for 8 aerial victories; later raised to 16. Both countries blatantly exploited the system for propaganda purposes and as a boost to morale. Consequently, the prominent French and German aces became household names whose careers were avidly followed by the Press and public alike, and even in the United Kingdom. The only British fighter pilot to have anything approaching this exposure during the Great War was Captain Albert Ball, RFC. VC (posthumously), DSO with two Bars, MC, Croix de Guerre and Légion de Honneur.

During the Great War, the closest the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS)/Royal Flying Corps (RFC)/Royal Air Force (RAF) came to giving some recognition to the status of 'flying ace' was after 1916, when an automatic award of a MC was awarded to a pilot to whom five officially certified victories had been credited.

There was no centralised RNAS/RFC/RAF system of recording aerial victories; records were kept at the battlefield level - usual by the Brigade HQ - so co-ordination of the records was not always good. Also, many aerial battles took place over enemy territory and victories were not always verifiable. As in all military award systems, luck, chance and being in the right place at the right time, all played a considerable part.
Notwithstanding the reluctance of British military establishment to publicise the ace system, during the Great War, using the British criteria for a flying ace, 785 RNAS /RFC/RAF pilots qualified for this sobriquet: the Germans, with their higher threshold, had 364 and the French rather fewer - 158 - at the same threshold as the British.

Early biography
As we shall see, ECM's war in the air closely resembles in many ways that of the German flying ace Baron Manfred von Richthofen (The Red Baron). But their social backgrounds could not have been more different. Whilst Richthofen was from the Prussian upper classes, ECM was the son of Edward Mannock, a Scottish corporal in the Royal Scots Regiment, and an English mother, Julia.

ECM. was born on the 24th May 1887 at Ballincollig, County Cork, Ireland. His father was posted to the Curragh. As the son of a Regular Army soldier, ECM travelled a lot, including a stint in India in the 1890's.

When ECM was 12 years old, his father returned from the Boer War and was demobilised but deserted his wife and four children, leaving them in dire straits. Accordingly, ECM had to leave school for a series of jobs including, in 1911, one with the National Telephone Company - part of the Post Office - in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, England. Whilst living in Wellingborough, he lodged for most of the time with James Eyles and his wife who, after the war, provided a very positive character reference.

In 1907, aged 20, ECM joined the Labour Party and became a confirmed and fervent Socialist and an articulate speaker for the cause. In 1913 he became the Secretary of the Wellingborough Independent Labour Party and was instrumental in its establishment as the dominant political party in the town.

The last of the pre-war jobs he had was that of an engineer/inspector on the telephone cable laying operations at Constantinople, Turkey for the British National Telephone Company.

In July 1914, just before the Great War began, Turkey had signed a Defensive Alliance with the Central Powers (i.e. Germany/Austria and Hungary), and at the outbreak of war ECM was interned under very poor conditions. He escaped, but was recaptured and then fell seriously ill. As the illness was both serious and prolonged, the Turks repatriated him in April1915.

On ECM's return to the UK, and reasonable fitness, he joined the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC). ECM was enrolled despite his suffering from a vision defect, incurred when he was 10 years old during his father's posting to India. This left him virtually blind in the left eye (trachoma?). He soon attained the rank of Sergeant Major but, in March 1916, he transferred to the Royal Engineers (Signals) as an officer cadet - no doubt his work in telephones served him well here - and he was soon commissioned with the rank of Second Lieutenant.

In August 1916, enthused by reports of the exploits of the 20 years old flying ace Albert Ball, ECM applied for pilot training with the RFC and was accepted. There remains the question of how he could pass the stringent eye-tests that were required for pilot training. Perhaps his time in the RAMC had equipped him with the knowledge of the sequence of the letters on the 'sight board', or maybe the RFC's desperate need at the time for pilots encouraged a rather a laissez-faire attitude on the part of the RFC medical board. In any event, in August 1916 he reported to the School of Military Aeronautics at Reading, in Southern England.

ECM successfully completed his pilot training in February 1916, with his instructors considering him to be a cautious but natural pilot.

Early flying career
Posted as a Flying Officer, ECM's initial operational experience was far from troublefree. On his first flight he let his AirCo DH pusher bi-plane go into a spin, at the relatively low altitude of 1,000 feet and only narrowly avoided an early termination of his flying career.

Slowly, he gained air-hours and a feel for aerial combat, and was soon (31st March 1917) transferred to an operational squadron - RFC's 40th - flying the French Nieuport 17 aircraft. The squadron's pilots included the aforementioned famous and renowned Captain Albert Ball, who was to fall victim to a German aircraft in a fiercely fought dogfight the very next day.

Upon his arrival at 40 Squadron, ECM found his initial reception was uninspiring and his senior officers openly queried whether his then rather cautious approach to air combat showed 'a lack of fighting spirit'. ECM also confessed to his friends that, quite reasonably in his view, he was also rather frightened. Moreover, his working class background and rather abrasive and self-possessed attitude did not recommend him to his middle and upper class fellow officers.

It took a month before ECM had his first success - a German observation balloon - on the 7th May 1917. But a head wound received in a dogfight soon put him out action and he was repatriated to the UK for treatment and convalescence. He found his family's circumstances to be particularly distressing and asked to be sent back to the Western Front. The RFC, desperate for experienced pilots, returned him to duty in July 1917. He was promoted to Captain on the 22nd July 1917 and made Flight Commander.

ECM's fear of aerial combat, if not entirely dispelled, was firmly under control, and he began to gain victory after victory. On the 16th August 1917 he claimed four aircraft in one day: two were shot down, the other two collided trying to avoid his attack.

On the 17th September 1917 his award of the Military Cross (MC) was gazetted, followed by a Bar on 18th October 1917.

Mannock's modus operandi in the air war
At this junction it is perhaps worthwhile to digress a little and try to understand ECM's philosophy of aerial warfare, and how he set about training himself over time for his role as a durable fighter pilot.

Indeed, one could also title this section, ECM's modus vivendi; such was his relentless determination to beat the odds in the murderous venue in the air.

Uncannily, like Richthofen, ECM, in the light of his own operational experience, developed similar personal rules of aerial warfare:

  • Practice hard at aerial gunnery to improve accuracy and learn the art of deflection shooting. (This is a skill whereby the attacker shoots for the place where the moving enemy will be when the rounds strike. How ECM achieved his mastery at deflection shooting without stereoscopic vision provided by good vision in both eyes is a mystery in itself.)
  • Calibrate your own guns. He considered good shooting to be even more important than good flying.
  • Get as close to the enemy as possible before opening fire: ECM claimed that 10 yards was the optimum range, be it a 'snap-shot' (a brief pressing of the trigger) or 'tracking shot' (a sustained burst as the enemy plane moved across the sights).
  • Always try to attack from below and behind the enemy aircraft.
  • Aim for the pilot and disable him; continue to fire until a 'kill' is certain.
    (ECM is known to have continued firing at downed enemy pilots).
  • Never get involved in mêlées. Stay at the periphery of the action until a clear target is in sight. Attack the single target swiftly from below and behind and withdraw immediately. Search for another suitable target.
  • Always retain the most reliable aircraft and the best mechanics for your own use. (Inevitably, this had the unfortunate consequence that novice flyers would get the worst of both categories, further reducing their survival chances).
  • Unless circumstances truly warrant it, never fly alone.
  • Never fly close to the ground.
  • And by no means least, follow the fighter pilot's creed: continually scan the sky at all points of the compass, even when engaged in combat; particularly to the rear and into the sun; in short, 'Beware of the Hun in the Sun'.

Later flying career
By the end of 1917, ECM's squadron had been re-equipped with one of the best British fighters of the war - the SE-5a - an aircraft that was both fast and manoeuvrable. This bi-plane aircraft was to become ECM's most successful fighting machine.

In January 1918, ECM's victories had risen to16 and in February he became Flight Commander of the new RAF's 74 Squadron based at St. Omer, in Northern France. By March 1918, his victories totalled 23, using his strategy of multiple aircraft 'fighting units' (somewhat like Richthofen's 'Flying Circuses') rather than the lone ranging single aircraft approach.

ECM was promoted to Major in June 1918, On the 3rd July 1918 he took over the command of 85 Squadron from his rival, the Canadian ace Major 'Willy' Bishop. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) - gazetted 16th September 1918 - to which two Bars were added.

By July 1918, ECM's personal score had risen to 59 - almost all with his trusted SE-5a bi-plane. But the strain was beginning to tell. He became physically ill before each operational flight, developed hand tremors and became obsessed with being shot down in flames and having to choose between jumping to his death, or being burnt alive. He is reported to have said, "They will never burn me." Part of his concern was caused by the refusal of the RNAS/RFC/RAF to issue parachutes to its pilots whilst the Germans did so; although from 1916 British balloon observers were so equipped. The reason given by the RNAS/RFC/RAF for forbidding parachutes for aircraft pilots (and any crew) was "… the presence of such an apparatus might impair the fighting spirit of pilots and cause them to abandon machines which otherwise might be returned to base and be repaired." The words of desk-bound heroes personified! Scores of British airmen were condemned to a cruel and unnecessary death by this idiotic decision.

When on operations, ECM began to carry a loaded pistol with him to rapidly despatch himself should the need arise. He also mentioned his belief that he would not see the coming of peace, but kept flying and destroying enemy aircraft, often more than one in a single day.

His reputation as an outstanding RFC/RAF commander and a fighter pilot, who led by example, was firmly established, but his exceptional concern for the welfare and training of his junior officers was to lead to his downfall.

The nemesis
ECM freely acknowledged the guidance and instruction he had received from his early commanders and trainers - he often spoke about the invaluable guidance that the ace pilot Captain James Cullen had given to him. ECM went out of his way to provide his neophyte Flying Officers with practical guidance and training-time in the air. One of his particular protégés was a New Zealander, Lieutenant Donald Inglis.

On the 26th July 1918, ECM and Inglis set off on another operational flight. Near Lestrem, France, they shot down an enemy aircraft, with ECM setting up the aircraft and Inglis finishing if off. They then set course for home. On the return flight they encountered another enemy aircraft over Paquet Wood, near Lilliers, France, and also destroyed it. Quite out of character, ECM circled low twice over the burning wreck, accompanied by Inglis. Both were hit by machine gun fire from the ground. ECM's aircraft went into a nose down, right-handed, bank and crashed in flames, whilst Inglis managed to struggle back to his own lines.

ECM was 31 years of age. His aircraft crashed beyond enemy lines and his body was recovered and given a ceremonial burial by the Germans. However, it was not retrieved from the battlefield after the war, and he was listed amongst the Missing. It is not known if he used his pistol on himself, as he had vowed.

Even in the manner of his death, ECM had closely mirrored that of von Richthofen's.

On the 18th July 1919, ECM was awarded a posthumous VC for…. 'an outstanding example of fearless courage, remarkable skill, devotion to duty, and self-sacrifice which has never been surpassed'. His VC citation (18th July 1919) gives the total number of his victories as 50.

Although in his will ECM disowned his father, Edward Snr. emerged as the next of kin to collect Mannock's VC from King George V at Buckingham Palace in July 1919. Shortly afterwards all Mannock's medals - including the VC - were sold for £5. By exceptional good fortune, the medals now reside in the safe custody of the Curator of the Royal Airforce Museum, Hendon, London, England and can be viewed by the general public as part of the RFC/RAF's VC medal collections.

In memoriam
It is not much appreciated today, but at the Armistice in 1918 the deeds of 'Mick' Mannock (and most of the other British fighter aces) were hardly known outside the members of the RNAS/RFC/RAF. The British High Command was not overly concerned with promoting the recognition of the efforts and successes of the individual soldier or junior officer: although their own deeds would appear in good time in their selectively crafted memoirs.

Accordingly, the only official memorial to ECM is at the Arras Flying Services Memorial to the Missing on the Boulevard du General de Gaulle, Flaubourg d'Amiens, Arras, Pas de Calais, France. Here is located a colonnade with, as a central monument, the Royal Flying Services Memorial that records the 1,000 RNAS/RFC/RAF missing on the Western Front, including, a panel dedicated to Major E. C. Mannock, VC.

However, there is also a little known public memorial in his former hometown, Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, England. The memorial is in the form of a road named after him on a post-Second War council estate built by the then Labour Government. As elsewhere in the country, most of these council houses are now owner occupied - grace a Mrs Thatcher's 1980 - 90's governments. The former rather utilitarian estate is now a composite of the individual owner-occupiers tastes and has a much more varied, prosperous and salubrious air.

Postscriptum
The total victories accredited to pilots of the Great War have always been a cause of great debate. This is particularly so with regard to Major Mannock who is credited by some with the highest number of RFC victories (73); just one more than the Canadian, Lieutenant Colonel. William (Billy) Bishop. Bishop was also awarded the VC, and survived the war.

The issue is also complicated by the fact that shared victories were often awarded to two, or even more, pilots who participated in a particular victory. So the total individual victories were often somewhat obscured by those that were shared. The successful downing of balloons and airships also counted equally in the tally of victories.

Given his prominence as the oft quoted highest scoring RFC flying ace, ECM's record has received a particularly stringent forensic study, e.g. Shores, Franks and Guest, in Above the Trenches, 1990. These authors state that ECM only claimed, in writing, 51 victories and that the true number, based on the official records, was even less at only 47; significantly less than Bishop's 72. However, there are reports that ECM regularly 'gave' his victories to other pilots, or just didn't bother to claim them at all. It is also claimed that ECM freely 'shared' his victories with other pilots, but this would not affect his personal score of victories since, as per the standard RNAS/RFC/RAF practice, both he and the 'sharer(s)' would be credited with a full victory.

Other authoritative sources quote evidence to maintain that Mannock's score was 61, and this seems to be becoming the more generally accepted figure. In any event, any of these putative scores represents a remarkable personal total for just 14 months of aerial combat.

Comment
As is often the case in research into the Great War, many of the facts recorded here are disputed, or challenged, in the considerable literary output that ECM's flying career has generated and continues to generate in the absence of any memoirs. Apart from the everlasting dispute about the total number of his aerial victories, various accounts differ on his place of birth - Ireland or England (Aldershot or Brighton) - the details of his death, and even what happened to his medals. One learned professor has even raised doubts concerning whether he had really suffered from bad vision.

The foregoing is, therefore, a brief distillation of what seem to the author to be the most authoritative versions of ECM's biographical details and background material.

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Last Updated ( Tuesday, 08 July 2008 17:28 )  

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