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James Byford McCudden, VC

A Fearless Fighter who Rapidly Rose from Bugler to Major and who Shot Down Fifty-Seven Aeroplanes



MAJOR J. B. McCUDDEN, joined the Royal Flying Corps in 1913. As a pilot he specialized in making surprise attacks on enemy aircraft and fourteen of the aeroplanes he shot down were accounted for in four flying days. On one occasion he was shot down himself but was uninjured. He was killed in an air accident in 1918 when returning to his squadron in France.

PEOPLE marvel at those business men who rise from the ranks to become captains of industry; at the newspaper seller who becomes the proprietor of many powerful newspapers; at the office boy who rises to the position of chairman. It is certain, however, that no career in business or industry has been more striking than that of Major James Byford McCudden in the Royal Flying Corps.

His rise from an unknown bugler to one of the greatest air fighters of the war of 1914-18, with the rank of Major, wearing almost every military decoration his country could bestow upon him, was truly amazing in its swiftness and certainty. His career was compressed within a period of a little over five years, from 1913, when he joined the Royal Flying Corps, to 1918, when he was killed in an air accident when returning to his squadron in France.

In all McCudden was officially credited with having shot down fifty-seven enemy aeroplanes. Fourteen of these he accounted for in four flying days. Once he was shot down himself but without being injured. His victories were due to careful thought and training. His experience as a mechanic made him an expert on engines and his aeroplane was kept in especially good condition. Moreover, he never tired of practising his shooting. He specialized in what he called “stalking  enemy aeroplanes, so as to surprise them when he delivered his attack.

On one occasion McCudden was able to capture a German aeroplane intact by virtually shepherding it over to the British side of the lines after he had wounded the pilot. He had led his patrol over Bourlon Wood, near Cambrai, and after an indecisive engagement with several Albatrosses he saw a group of seven two-seater aeroplanes.

With his usual accuracy of shooting, McCudden scored a hit on one of the two-seaters at the first burst and the machine began to glide down, emitting clouds of steam. McCudden now flew east of the machine and, as he describes the incident in his book, Five Years in the Royal Flying Corps, “turned him off west”.

The German then landed on the British side of the lines near Havrin court. During the combat, however, McCudden had not gone entirely free and the enemy gunner had hit the radiator of his engine with what he said was an explosive bullet. McCudden also was forced to land, and he decided to land alongside the aeroplane he had brought down.

As his aeroplane rolled to a standstill, the wheels ran into a small shell-hole and the machine turned on to its nose. McCudden got out and went over to where the German had landed. He found the pilot having a tourniquet applied to his arm, for he was severely wounded. The pilot died on the way to hospital, but the gunner was unhurt. Probably the most remarkable fight McCudden had was with the great German pilot Werner Voss, who was flying a Fokker triplane. It was remarkable in that Voss fought single-handed with six British S.E.5s, one manned by McCudden. It was a tremendous battle and McCudden afterwards expressed his unstinted admiration for Voss, telling the other members of his squadron that he was the bravest German he had ever engaged in aerial combat.

During the fight the machines passed so close to one another that McCudden caught a glimpse of the German pilot’s face. When, after the German machine had been brought down, the British pilots returned to their aerodrome, there was much speculation as to the identity of the pilot.

Richthofen, Wolff and Voss were all mentioned. Then a telegram arrived from Wing headquarters saying that the dead pilot had been found wearing the Boelcke collar and the Ordre pour le Merite - the highest German decoration - and that his name was Werner Voss.

On another occasion McCudden attacked a two-seater German machine. He obtained a firing position and held it for a long time. He tried to head the German machine west as he had done the other, but the German would not respond and McCudden used much ammunition on him. The machine finally crashed.

It was shortly after this experience that McCudden shot down four German aeroplanes in a day. Three fell within the British lines.

Probably McCudden was the best fighting machine the Royal Flying Corps had produced, for in combat his moves were all made skilfully and thoughtfully. His theory was that a fighting pilot, to be of the greatest use to his country, should bring down enemy machines, but should avoid accepting too great a risk of being brought down himself. When once combat was joined, however, no one fought with greater fearlessness.

You can

“Captain Albert Ball VC”


“Evolution of the Fighter”


“William Robinson VC”

on this website.