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The trembling ace

Mick Mannock

By John Hayes Fisher

The air aces of World War I - like the Red Baron - left a rich mythology that persists to the present day. But the man who was, perhaps, Britain's best pilot, remains little known.

A 90-year-old photo album discovered recently in northern France, reveals possibly the last picture of Britain's "highest scoring" fighter pilot from World War I.

It's an innocent photograph. A highly decorated RAF pilot poses for the camera, his arm gently resting on the shoulder of a local French child standing in front of him.

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And yet look into the face of the airman and you see the drawn expression of a man haunted by his experience of battle.

Within days of this picture being taken the pilot - Major Edward "Mick" Mannock VC - would be dead.

Photographs of Mannock, Britain's highest scoring fighter pilot from World War I, are surprisingly rare. This new one has come to light when researchers recently stumbled across an old album belonging to a French farmer whose land was being used by the RAF in the summer of 1918.

Mannock had just completed an extraordinary run of success shooting down 20 German planes that May - four of them in one day - and winning the Distinguished Service Order (one below the Victoria Cross) not once but three times in little over a month.

Last known image of Mick Mannock, courtesy of Robin Vansemmortier Collection

But all was not right with this ace. The inspirational hero of both his squadron and the RAF was struggling to control his nerves, nerves which were tearing him apart.

From his personal diary held at the RAF Museum in London it's clear that Mannock had been wrestling with his emotions from the moment he first went into action just over a year earlier.

"Feeling nervy and ill during the last week. Afraid I'm breaking up."

So bad were the terrors that in his early days of flying some of his fellow pilots on the Western Front believed that Mannock was "windy", in other words, a coward.

A sympathetic commanding officer gave him a chance and over the following months Mannock was able to suppress his fears and start shooting down enemy aircraft. With the "kills" came the awards for gallantry.

Flamerinoes boys! Sizzle sizzle wonk
Mannock's words after a confirmed kill

Flying aircraft in World War I was a shockingly dangerous profession. Of the 14,000 airmen killed in that war, well over half lost their lives in training.

On an early patrol over France one of the bottom wings of Mannock's Nieuport bi-plane suddenly broke off in flight. Mannock managed to land the aircraft, extraordinarily lucky to have survived.

But what Mannock - and many other pilots - feared most, was going down in flames, without a parachute, and burning to death. For this reason he carried a revolver in his cockpit, vowing that if his plane did catch fire he would shoot himself, before the flames devoured him.

Perils of being a WWI flying ace

Mannock developed his own macabre way of conquering his nerves. Not dissimilar to the Captain Flashheart character played by Rik Mayall in Blackadder Goes Forth, Mannock too could be loud and brash.

"Flamerinoes boys! Sizzle sizzle wonk," he would announce as he burst into the mess regaling all of how he had sent some unfortunate "Hun" airman down in flames.

And when in April 1918 various members of his squadron raised their glasses to the recently killed Manfred von Richthofen - the Red Baron - Mannock refused with the words "I hope the bastard burnt all the way down".

Manfred von Richthofen
The Red Baron was feted, his British rivals were not

And yet behind this brash exterior was a deeply sensitive man. Born into a working class military family Mannock was not the typical young public school airman associated with World War I movies. He was a committed socialist and at 29 he was much older than his fellow pilots.

But Mannock was also a man of contradictions. He hated Germans with a vengeance, possibly because he was so badly treated by the Turks - Germany's WWI ally - when he was interned by them earlier in the war.

Yet despite this, when he rushed out to inspect the remains of a German plane he had just shot down and found one of the airmen dead inside, he recorded in his diary: "I felt exactly like a murderer."

In little over 12 months Mannock amassed 73 victories, confirming him as Britain's highest scoring pilot of the First World War and yet today, outside aviation circles, virtually no-one has heard of him.

Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron: Germany's star pilot, propaganda icon and the most famous of all the aces
Albert Ball: Leading British and indeed Allied ace at time of death in 1917
Adolphe Pegoud: Frenchman and first pilot to be called an ace
Rene Fonck: Top Allied ace by number of victories

Part of the explanation is that unlike Germany who promoted their air heroes such as the Red Baron, Britain had a policy of keeping their pilots identities firmly under wraps, preferring the idea that it was a team effort and not all about the individual.

The effect was that while photos and stories of the Red Baron were splashed over newspapers around the world, in Britain Mannock, or "Captain X" as the press referred to him, was virtually unknown.

By the early summer of 1918 the air war had reached its savage climax and Mick Mannock's nerves had returned. A friend witnessed Mannock on leave, sobbing and trembling violently, saliva and tears having soaked his collar and shirt.

And despite all this, Mannock's sense of duty meant that he returned to France to face whatever came his way.

On the morning of 26 July while out on patrol he downed his last German aircraft, but made the fatal error of flying low to observe the kill and it was then that his aircraft was hit by German ground fire.

Mannock's aircraft was last seen going down in flames. His nightmare had been realised. It is not known if he was able to use the revolver he always carried with him.

Send us your comments using the form below.

Edward "Mick" Mannock, flight commander of 74 "Tiger" squadron was downed on the 26th July 1918. There is a stone plaque commemorating his life on a wall in Canterbury Cathedral. It's not generally realised that he was blind in one eye, having bluffed his way through the medical by memorising the chart. Ira Jones wrote the definitive account of the early days in his book "Tiger Squadron" which is still available in print although some 30+ years old
Jack G

Mannock lived in Wellingborough with his mother, who had been deserted by her husband. As the article states, he feared being burnt alive if his aeroplane caught fire. In those days British airmen were not allowed parachutes. The reason given, was insulting to the aviators of the RFC, as the army commanders thought that aircrew would use their parachutes to escape, rather than remain in their aircraft to fight.

The Air Training Corps squadron at Wellingborough is named, 198 (Mannock)Squadron in his honour, and his name is inscribed on the Aviators Monument in the War Graves Cemetery in Arras, in northern France. This monument holds the names of all the British aviators whose bodies were never found. Biographies of Major Mannock have been written, but I do not know of a recent one.
Barry Smart, Macaon, France

I read about Mick Mannock years ago and find his story one of the more interesting of the pilots from that period. The 73 kills may have been overstated (officially nearer 50 I believe) to put him one ahead of Canadian ace Billy Bishop (who is credited with 72). Nevertheless, an amazing guy who inspired devotion in his subordinates and was a brilliant flight leader. Not the only pilot to be understated at that time either - look at the way McCudden (another high scoring British ace) was buried compared to the pomp that surrounded Richthofen's - scandalous really.
PJBN, Abingdon, UK

What those airmen had was utter bravery. To have to get into one of those aircraft and fly was enough in itself but to know that you were going to try your damnedest to shoot another person down or be shot down yourself needed sheer guts.

That was different from the other situations where action takes place within massed troops and suddenly there is need in front of ones companions to show outstanding bravery. We may all be called upon to show outstanding bravery at some particular moment, but I fear most of us would be found wanting.
Brian Kelly, Rotherham England

Such a sad story. This young man was incredibly brave to face down his obviously horrendous fears and fly into danger day after day. I drink to his memory, but not to the "donkey" generals of the Royal Flying Corps who refused to give parachutes to their flyers in case they showed "lack of moral fibre" in battle - shame on all of them.
Rob, Tangmere, England

A truly brave man, to quote Euripides "a coward turns away, but a brave man's choice is danger". Bravery is facing things that are truly fearful. It always irks me to hear our fabulously wealthy sports stars, or people with illness described as heroes.
M Kelly, Darlington

As usual you Brits seem to forget all about the Canadians in the (then) RFC. I certainly see no mention of Billy Bishop, the highest surviving ace (and some claim overall). A shame its all forgotten so easily.
Peter Burrowes, Grand Bend, Ont., Canada

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