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William Barnard Rhodes-Moorhouse, VC

Second Lieutenant William Barnard Rhodes-Moorhouse was the first pilot to win the Victoria Cross


William Barnard Rhodes-Moorhouse VC

RHODES-MOORHOUSE learned to fly before the war of 1914-18 and received his pilot’s certificate in 1911. He joined the Royal Flying Corps in August 1914. He died in March 1915 of wounds received during a bombing raid in which he won the Victoria Cross. Before the war he had made the first Channel crossing with two passengers.

IT IN the days when the aeroplane was still relatively uncertain in its movements and dangerous to handle, Second Lieutenant William Barnard Rhodes-Moorhouse made a heroic bombing attack. This attack would have been considered notable even at the end of the war of 1914-18, when the scope and power of aircraft on active service were better understood and more widely known.

It is important, when reviewing the deed that gave Rhodes-Moorhouse the first Victoria Cross won in the air, to remember that it occurred early in 1915. Compared with the feats of those who came later it may seem less sensational, but when it is viewed in its right perspective it is seen to be a supreme example of devotion to duty.

After the severe fighting at Hill 60, to the south of the Ypres Salient, in the confusion and nerviness which followed the first German gas attack, orders were given for aircraft to bomb the railway trucks and the infantry reserves behind the lines. The object was to prevent the Germans from taking advantage of the demoralizing effects of the surprise use of gas.

A great deal depended upon the success of those bombing operations. Yet the aircraft, if they are contrasted with the machines which are used today, or even with those used later in the war, seemed frail and were able to take only a small load. Pilots to do the work were selected from No. 2 Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps, stationed at Merville, near Hazebrouck.

Among those pilots was a man of twenty-eight years of age, married, and with considerable experience of flying behind him. He had received his pilot’s certificate in 1911 and he had been actively engaged on pioneer flying ever since he had come down from Cambridge.

This man was Rhodes-Moorhouse, who had joined the squadron on March 20, 1915, about a month before his last action. Knowing how much depended upon the success of the raid, Rhodes-Moorhouse determined to accept every risk to ensure that his bombing took effect. His aeroplane carried a 100-lb. bomb and his objective was near Courtrai Station. After having crossed the lines, he was received with heavy machine-gun and rifle fire. But he came steadily lower and lower as he approached his objective. The rifle fire and machine-gun fire went home and he was badly wounded. He came so low that those who were firing at him from the Courtrai belfry were almost on the same level.

He dropped his bomb and turned for home. In spite of his wounds he managed to reach his aerodrome at Merville and to land there. He died of his wounds next day. It was a great and a tragic achievement and in some sense it seemed to fit the character of the man that Rhodes-Moorhouse should have been the first to win the Victoria Cross in the air.

For his was the pioneering spirit. He had taken up flying in the early days, while most people still doubted whether it was practicable, and, a little later he had made the first cross-Channel

flight with two passengers. He had thus shown his inclination to look ahead and to be the first to undertake new feats calling for special skill and courage.

Rhodes-Moorhouse enlisted in the Royal Flying Corps in August 1914. He must thus be placed with that small band of pioneer aviators who took their special experience and offered it for the service of the country at the earliest possible moment.

It was found afterwards that Rhodes-Moorhouse had succeeded with his raid and that his 100-lb. bomb had fallen on the railway, west of the station. This confirmed the report which he insisted on making out when he had returned to his aerodrome and before he collapsed.

The machine was a B.E. When this bombing feat is discussed it must be remembered that the aeroplanes of the time were relatively slow, and therefore a fairly easy target for ground gunners.

Devotion to duty was shown by scores of pilots in the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service. Rhodes-Moorhouse was one of the first of this band. He refused to be turned back by heavy fire that greeted him as he made his way towards Courtrai in his slow biplane. He came down so low that he could not miss. In spite of his terrible wounds, he determined to get back and, having succeeded in landing, he insisted in making out his official report while his life was ebbing. These things are eloquent of the great spirit which inspired him and which fully merited the highest award there is for courage and devotion to duty.

This feat of Rhodes-Moorhouse was the first attempt to perform a low-flying raid. Later the low-flying raid was regarded — as it still is regarded today — as one of the most effective and most difficult forms to counter. Rhodes-Moorhouse flew low so that he could obtain the highest possible accuracy with his bomb; later pilots flew low with the additional object of avoiding anti-aircraft fire. Even with modern bomb sights the low-flying raid pioneered by this pilot still seems likely to obtain the highest accuracy, and it is therefore still one of the most important kinds of raid.

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