On the 10th August 1914 I stood to attention as my RFC wings were clipped on the left side of my uniform tunic. Col. Sebastian Hunter-Fellows shook my hand.
“My sincere congratulations Sergeant Dowling, it’s a pleasure having you join us. Good luck old chap!”
I saluted him, sort of about turned and went to join Jonnie who had this serious look on his handsome face. He, like me had mixed feelings about becoming a very small part of a very small and untried military force, but mainly about an unknown and uncertain future for both of us and millions more throughout the world.
I would be going to Larkhill airdrome in Wiltshire when ordered to collect my BE2 and after getting to know her for a couple of days, I would fly to an airfield at Dunkirk, refuel and then take off for St. Omer where the British GHQ was being established and once there, I would wait again for my orders.
Neither Jonnie nor I wanted to go to Larkhill together so instead I would fly to Farnborough, pick up another pilot then fly to the airfield. He would return our BE2 back for Jonnie to collect later.
It was a terrible time for both of us and without saying so I could not wait to be called. Our personal life was non-existent and all we could do was to cuddle and kiss.
We were at breakfast when a footman came in to tell Jonnie that Sebastian was on his way to see both of us. We looked at one another and both knew I was on my way. It was the 21st August 1914.
All three of us were sitting in the drawing room again. Sebastian told us I was to fly to Larkhill in two days’ time and then handed me a thick envelope.
“Albert when you get to GHQ you will meet a Captain Smithers. He is aware you are arriving but does not know much about you personally. This will give him all I need to tell him. He is a good chap although very quiet but he knows his stuff and I am sure you and he will get on very well, just be aware you have to prove yourself to him, he is rather particular about who is under his command, but I already know he will take to you very quickly. You are not privy to anything written in that, it is for him and other officers only.”
After wishing me good luck he was gone. Jonnie and I went back to bed and just clung on. I had some pretty bad days prior to my 15th birthday but nothing like this one. The day after tomorrow would be even worse.
We were sitting in my lounge when he handed me a package.
“I want you to have this and carry it at all times please Albert.”
I opened it and found an American Colt 45 in its holster. I tried to make fun of it but failed miserably.
“Is this to shoot myself or a German?” In fact I suddenly realised it could be either.
I went to say goodbye to my father which was another dreadful time and after being told to look after myself I could not wait to get back to Jonnie and his bed.
We did not sleep well that night.
The BE2 was outside and Jonnie and I back in the hanger but neither of us able to say one word, but I had to.
“Jonnie, I have to go otherwise I never will.”
We kissed one more time and we went out, he helped me strap in with all four hands shaking.
“I won’t say goodbye Albert, just take my love with you and please come home safe and sound my dearest man.”
I was choked up and watched him go to the front to wait for startup.
With the engine running at idle I waved the chocks away and looked at Jonnie standing to my left looking absolutely forlorn, I knew how he felt. I waved one last time and opened the throttle wide. I took off and then set my course straight to Farnborough, I could not do a flyover.
I could write a whole book about the next few days but I won’t. I will just squash it into a brief mention.
I met a mechanic who could not believe I was an RFC pilot being so young and had come to pick my aircraft up and test fly it for two days, but after I had he changed his mind a bit.
I had my first experience of flying over water and nearly pooed myself hoping I would not end up in the channel and if I did, I and my war would be over before it started.
After refuelling at Dunkirk I finally landed at St. Omer which would become my home for the next year, not that I knew it then of course.
I taxied to a hangar and switched off.
“And who the fuck are you!?”
I was looking at a Staff Sargent who looked at my three stripes and knew he could talk to me like that.
And greetings to you mate, lovely to see you. I didn’t say it out loud of course. “I am Sargent Dowling and have to report to Captain Smithers do you know where he is?”
“One I don’t know where he is and two I don’t know WHO he is!”
Great start Albert! I found out later he knew exactly who the Captain was and it seemed did not like newcomers.
“I will find him myself in that case. Do you mind if I leave this here?”
“Leave it where you fucking want, I’m not touching it till someone tells me to and it won’t be you sonny.”
Eventually I was taken to my commanding officer’s office by a Corporal. Captain Smithers seemed a bit short of words when I told him who I was, he just stared at me and waved me to a chair. Before sitting I handed him Sebastian’s letter of introduction. I sat and watched him as he opened the envelope and read it contents, twice. He put it down and stared at me.
“Well, according to this you are the very fellow the entire British army have been waiting for Dowling.” Sarcastic bugger. He rang a bell and the corporal came in.
“Corporal Smith I want you to find accommodation for this man and locate his trunk by the time we get back and when I have finished watching him with my feet firmly on the ground, give him all the information about where he eats and all that stuff.”
The corporal saluted and went out.
“Corporal Smith is a fine fellow and knows more about this place than the rest of us put together. Right Dowling let’s see if you are as good as this letter tells me you are.”
Five minutes later we were standing by my aircraft and the Captain talking to the same Staff Sargent who welcomed me earlier. After they had a mumbled conversation I was told to get in. ”
You will carry out four landings and I want to see how you get out of a spin and stall. Startup Dowling.”
He stood aside and would watch me for the next half hour.
A mechanic swung the prop and my engine burst into life, I then took off, flew one circuit and then the first of my four landings but leaving the last until I had carried out the spin and stall. Both those went well I and lined up for my final landing. Captain Smither’s would have known I was far too high as I got over the landing area but a slide slip did the trick and I made a three-point landing. I taxied to the hanger and switched off and just sat there waiting.
“Quite good, let me introduce you to the Staff Sargent, Dowling.
“This is Staff Sargent Stafford and he and his men look after all of our aircraft and will now include yours. You will be expected to assist them under the orders of the Staff Sargent, do you understand?”
“Perfectly sir and it will be an honour working under your orders Staff Sargent.” Two can be sarcastic.
“Just don’t get in the way, boy!” It was so nice to be with this lot and I was getting a tad pissed off!
“Dowling, tomorrow, report to me and we will go through a few things you need to know about, any questions?”
He was about to turn round and walk off.
“Actually, there is something I would like to ask, SIR!”
“And that is?”
“Everyone I have met so far are correctly called by rank and officers called “sir,” But I am called DOWLING! I hold the rank of Sargent and I think it is in order for me to be addressed by MY rank even though you think of me as no more than a piece of crap? ” I looked at Staff Sargent Stafford. “Whatever you call me it won’t be “boy” or “sonny anymore. My name is Albert just in case I am allowed to be called that.” I turned back to the captain. “Thank you SIR for your time.” There was a long pause as my words sank in.
“Very well put Sargent Dowling, I hope that clears the matter up.” He finally walked off.
“Right, well Sargent Dowling perhaps we can get your aircraft in the hanger, I will get the boys to help.” Well at least a bad start turned out to be a better one.
The corporal took me up one flight of stars, along a short corridor and opened a door leading into a small room and saw my trunk on the single bed.
“That’s the best I can do Sarge, the shit house and bathroom is two doors down. Next to your hanger is the Sargent’s mess. This place is still being organised but if you want anything just let me know.”
“Thanks very much, am I allowed to call you by our first name? I’m Albert.”
“And I’m Peter.”
That man would help me settle in and help me to get over my homesickness because that’s what it was. I helped myself as well by absorbing myself into working in the hanger but also fly as often as I could to keep my hand in.
After a miserable night’s sleep I got up and went for breakfast which was the start of getting to know some of the other Sargent’s most of whom could not believe how young I was, but I found out that Staff Sargent Stafford had said some kind words. None of them knew why I was there and I began to wonder as well as after two weeks I had still not flown anyone or anything into Belgium!
My second meeting the day after I got to St. Omer was somewhat different and I was to find out just how good Capt. Smithers was as he took me through my role and we both studied reports as they came in and also possible landing sites but just had to wait for orders from above.
Then three weeks to the day I got my first flight and that was to take a dozen pigeons to a field some 10 miles behind where it was thought the Germans were. If I got them there the information being flown back could be invaluable. Well I certainly hoped so!
It was 17:00 and getting darker by the minute, my take off time was to be 18:00 and was due to meet those waiting for me around 19:00. The Captain and I had studied the route, weather and landing point. I had it all logged into my head but would have the maps as well with all the wind directions and strengths pencilled in. We estimated the round flight should take no more than two and a half hours and I should land back between 20:30 and 21:00.
“If I’m not back by then you can assume I am in trouble sir.”
I went to my BE2 and checked the two compasses, torch and spare batteries. Then went back to my room to get into flying suit and strap my Colt on. I had fired off six rounds with Jonnie and missed everything, even him!
By now Fred Stafford and I had dropped calling one another by rank and in fact because I was found to be more than useful on the mechanical side I had become part of his team and friendships were beginning to develop.
“She is all ready to go Albert. We will be out lighting the lamps by 20:00, have a good flight.”
I thanked him and climbed in to begin the startup. My passengers were about to shit themselves as the Gnome burst into life! I waved the chocks away and my first wartime flight began. I was now a proper pilot of the RFC and certainly the youngest!
I convinced myself that this was just another training flight and try to block out that I would be flying over enemy-held territory. I was fairly sure I would not be fired on as at that time there was nothing to alert them that I was there in the first place, they would not even know if it was one of their own! But, they could phone other areas and tell them an unidentified aircraft had flown over and that is why I had planned a route that would mean I would have to alter course quite a few times rather than a direct flight.
For a first flight I was lucky, good weather, light winds and a clear night with a three-quarter moon, the only worry I had was would there be anyone on the ground to signal me to land? I calculated I was just five minutes away. I dropped lower and could see enough to tell me I had found the site, but no signal. I circled the field two more times and thought I would give it two more then bugger off back.
dot dash, dot dash, dot dash, meaning morse code for the letter “A.”
dot dash dash dash, dot dash dash dash, dot dash dash dash, meaning morse code for the letter “J.”
My choice of letters and for me meaning Albert and Jonnie.
Five torch lights came on in a straight line to help me line up and land and as soon as I touched down they went off. I taxied to the end of the field, turned round and stopped. Several men were on me in a flash and they took the pigeons out but the one who seemed to be in charge was shouting at me.
“Get off quickly my friend the Hun are only three miles, thank you but hurry.”
I handed over a thick folder and he put a leather briefcase in the front cockpit and waved me away. I was back up in under five minutes and as soon as I was clear I climbed as fast as the BE2 would allow and hoped the Germans had not found the landing site. As it turned out, they didn’t and we used it four more times.
Sometime before I got to St. Omer I saw the kerosene lamps burning and thanked Fred for lighting them a little earlier than expected. It was 19:50
I landed and taxied to the hanger then switched off and just sat there until Fred got to me.
“Went well then Albert?”
“Yes Fred, much better than I could hope for.”
“Well done! Now get a mug down you.”
“What about getting the aircraft back in the hangar?”
“You have already done your work, now it’s our turn. I don’t mean to be rude young Albert, but fuck off and that’s an order, Sargent!”
I slept well that night.
The next morning I gave a full report to the Captain and then reported to the hangar for a day’s work with the lads, I was now definitely one of them.
So, that’s it. No more full reports of every flight I was to take, I have my log books anyway to remind me of all them and there were many. Over the next six months I carried out over 50 flights carrying more pigeons, messages, personnel, weapons and ammunition and supplies. On every return flight I bought back a huge amount of information for the intelligence people and apparently all very useful not that I was given any details. I got promoted to Staff Sargent and took the piss out of Fred for not getting promoted himself, then two weeks later he became a Sargent Major and it was his turn to take the piss out of me!
“YOU call ME sir from now on BOY!”
“Can I say fuck off sir instead?”
Fred thought about that for some time rubbing his chin as he did.
“NO! Now you fuck off!”
I did, laughing my head off as I went
Yes I was settled in my work. Jonnie and I would write every week but we could not say anything we wanted to because you could only write postcards which could be read by anyone. I didn’t even know what he was doing except he always wrote from Penton Manor which told me he was still at home and not in France.
The news coming in from all directions was bad and thousands were dying, on both sides, but mostly British and French. I realised I was fortunate in that I only flew at night and therefore more or less out of sight. All I had to really worry about was having an engine failure and a forced landing behind enemy lines. I always carried my own pigeon to release if I did have a problem giving my position, not that anyone could come and find me, but at least they would know I could be out of the war and therefore Jonnie as well, as he would be notified, him being my next of kin.
Another two months went by and even more flights into Belgium, another 15 of them and in all different locations.
It was now April 1915 and I was now 18. Jonnie had sent me a card which was lovely to get.
I was in the hangar working on an engine on this particular day that was to change things a bit. Peter Smith came running in shouting my name.
“What’s up Pete you shit yourself again?”
“No Staff but you will if you don’t get to your room, clean up and get into a decent uniform and you only got an hour.”
“I haven’t got a decent uniform it’s still waiting for an iron to turn up, anyway why?”
“There is an officer come to see you. Fucking General or somefink. Come on, you shave and bath and I will iron your uniform.”
“Shave? I don’t shave yet, not like you hairy farts!”
“Fucking schoolboys!” That was Fred of course
Fifty minutes later I was told to sit and wait in a reception room and as I had no idea what this was all about, I worried!
The door opened and a Lieutenant told me to come in.
“Hat on please.”
I followed him into this huge room furnished like no other I had ever seen, not even at the manor, but when I saw Colonel Hunter-Fellows standing there I was more than taken aback. I came to attention and saluted him, he did not have his hat on so nodded at me instead. Captain Smithers and three other officers were also there all looking at me! Why?
The Colonel came forward and we shook hands and took me by surprise when he spoke.
“It’s very nice to meet you again Albert!”
He, a Colonel calling ME by my first name in front of these officers! I looked at them and they were smiling at me, Fuck, I’m going to get raped!
“Albert it gives me great pleasure to present to you with the Military Medal for your outstanding work over these past months. Congratulations Albert.”
He handed me a small presentation box with the silver medal and the vertical red white and blue strips. I looked back at the Colonel not quite believing what was happening. We shook hands.
“Thank you sir.”
My head was all over the place. For fucks sake I was only doing my job! Col Hunter-Fellows had not finished.
“Albert I am sending you home in a week’s time for two weeks but when you return you will join 55 squadron who fly BE2A’s and carry out aerial photography and other tasks. You will have two weeks leave and the reason you are not going straight away is that you need time to get used to the officers’ mess, again congratulations Second Lieutenant Dowling!”
That did it, I was now officially buggered up! “WHAT!? ME A FUC… Oh shit!” ”
The room went crazy laughing and I could only try to join in. They all came over and shook hands.
“Well done Albert and I really mean that and thank you for your work.”
“You must have had a lot to do with all this sir?”
“I am just delighted I got it right Albert but after reading the Colonel’s letter it was just a matter of time. See you in the mess, I want to introduce you to your bar bill!”
There was one thing on my mind and only the Colonel could help.
“Sir would you know if Lord Penton is still at the Manor?”
“Yes he is, do you want to phone him?”
“Bloody sure I… Oh sorry, messed up again!”
“Just relax Albert, you are to go to the officers clothing store and get fitted out and have that ribbon sewn on. We will meet in Stewart’s office at, say 17:00? That do?”
“Thank you sir and you sir.”
“It’s Stewart from now on Albert.”
Peter Smith took me to the clothing store and an hour later I left dressed as 2nd Lieutenant Albert Dowling MM. Oh fuck I told myself, let’s get this over with… and have a bit of fun at the same time. I walked to the hangar and stood just inside it.
“SARGENT MAJOR STANFORD! Where the FUCK are you!?”
“What do you want you little fucking… HELL! Albert? What have they done to you!?”
It took some time to tell them all about what had happened and that I was going home and then back to join 55, but I was relieved we were still calling one another by first names. After the last handshake, I left to make a phone call.
I got to Stewart’s office and found both him and the Colonel there.
“Right my boy, Jonnie is waiting for your call but first I need to fill you in about his situation.”
“If you will excuse me sir I have things to do.”
“Thank you Stewart, very thoughtful of you.” He went out and I took my hat off and sat down.
“Albert they won’t let Jonnie fly in Europe because if he were captured the Hun would claim him as a prize and they would certainly hold him in case one of their own is captured. So he is now a test pilot but will still fly with home defence squadrons, when we get some that is. The Hun have begun to bomb us. He is quite safe even though he crashed last month but no damage except to the aircraft. Now, I’m off, the line is open for you dear man. After your call which can be only for ten minutes come to the mess, you need to get used to it.”
He left and I picked the phone up and got an operator straight away.
“Yes Jonnie it’s me!”
“Oh my goodness thank God you are safe, how are you? Oh and I have been told about the MM and your promotion, very well done!”
“I’m fine and Jonnie have you been told I am coming home in a week’s time for two weeks?”
“NO!” Oh my word that is wonderful, there is so much to catch up!”
We laughed knowing exactly what the catching up entailed.
That bloody week had two extra days in it or so it seemed as it went by so slowly but finally I was on my way having said goodbye to many friends. I was going to miss them all.
Oh, the officers’ mess? Yeah it was fine and met some really nice people and name-dropping Lord Jonathan Penton and Sir William de Paris helped a lot as well!
I had left on the Wednesday and after many hours I was finally steaming into Farnborough station and met by Mister Hicks.
“Welcome home Albert, my you look smart! Congratulations Lieutenant!”
“Second Lieutenant actually Mister Hicks but thank you.”
“Let’s get you home, there is a rather over-excited Lord of the Manor waiting for you Albert.”
My word they must all know about Jonnie and me!
I went through the double front doors and my father was sitting there waiting for me. We came together and shook hands.
“Welcome home Albert. His Lordship thought that I should greet you first, but you need to go upstairs and quickly, we will meet and talk soon I hope.”
“Thank you Mathew, of course we will meet very soon.”
My father smiled at me then went towards the kitchens. I stood alone looking at all that was familiar to me and then to the stairs and ran up them and then walked to the oak door and opened it. I stepped inside and there he was standing there in all his handsome beauty. I took my hat off and let it fall to the floor, two seconds later we were in a grip so strong it could not be broken by anyone.
“Welcome home Albert.” Jonnie sobbed.
“Good to be home Jonnie.” I sobbed back.
Feedback is the only payment our authors get!
Please take a moment to email the author if you enjoyed the story