The Two Great Working-Class Irish Aces Both Died in July
During the same month America lost one of its most well-known pilots, England lost two of its greatest aces, both working-class socialist Irishmen, James McCudden, and his student and friend Edward "Mick" Mannock.
James McCudden started in the air service as a mechanic, but was also an observer and gunner before becoming a pilot. Like other major names in aviation such as Glenn Curtiss and Ernst Udet, he was also known for his interest in motorcycles. One brother was killed in a flying accident in 1915, another became an ace but was killed in March 1918. (He had a third brother, too young for the war, who only lived to 1931.)
McCudden became an instructor within days of becoming a pilot, and he studied his own near-misses to learn what to do better the next time. Like many of the great aces late in the war, he was very careful with his own machinery, tinkering constantly with his aircraft to maximize its performance. He also became a careful stalker and hunter. "I think that the correct way to wage war is to down as many as possible of the enemy at the least risk, expense and casualties to one’s own side.”
McCudden may have been recorded as the Red Baron's 15th victim, and he led the squadron that shot down Werner Voss. By April 1918, he was the most decorated pilot in the RAF. He was unwillingly sent back to England to be an instructor in the spring of 1918, and wrote a book between March and July. He was promoted to major and sent back to France to command a squadron. Leaving England July 9th, McCudden was killed that same day in France in an aircraft accident where his engine stalled. He is officially credited with 57 victories.
Mannock was a student of McCudden's, exceeding his records but not by much. He became Britain's most decorated Great War pilot, despite being from a dysfunctional low-class family abandoned by his father, and being a socialist. He had trouble seeing out of one eye and was very opinionated. (One lieutenant said, "Most men in his position, by that I mean a man with his background, would have shut up.") At the beginning of the war he was in Turkey and imprisoned with other Britons, but was released on the assumption that a sick man with eye problems couldn't do much damage.
Mannock started flying out of admiration for England's then-leading ace, Albert Ball. He was known for going after multiple aircraft - and succeeding. Not only a great ace, he was best known for being a great leader, teaching his men the best practices of air warfare. He came up with his own rules for air warfarecomparable to the Dicta Boelcke, and was part of the movement away from dogfighting toward organized flights, squadrons, and wings. A squadron leader said he was "the most skillful patrol leader in World War I".
Mannock's hatred for Germans was well-known. In a contrast to the chivalry that still existed in 1918, Mannock would not join in a toast to the Red Baron even when the Red Baron was killed. However, Mannock himself would not survive much longer.
On his last leave, a friend said, "On one occasion we were sitting in the front talking quietly when his eyes fell to the floor, and he started to tremble violently. He cried uncontrollably. His face, when he lifted it, was a terrible sight. Later he told me that it had just been a 'bit of nerves' and that he felt better for a good cry. He was in no condition to return to France, but in those days such things were not taken into account."
On July 26th Mannock was killed when his engine caught fire after probably being shot. He was guiding Lieutenant Inglis, a pilot new to combat; this was the dangerous situation that had also led to the Red Baron's death three months before.
Inglis later said, "Mick fired at a two-seater. He must have got the observer, as the Hun stopped shooting. I fired and hit the Hun's petrol-tank. Falling in behind Mick again, we did a couple of turns over the burning wreck and then made for home. We were fairly low, then I saw a flame come out of the side of his machine; it grew bigger and bigger. He went into a slow right-hand turn, about twice, and hit the ground in a burst of flame."
Mannock received the Victoria Cross posthumously; it was given to his father who then apparently sold it. However, many of his medals were recovered by Lord Ashcroft. Mannock is officially credited with 61 victories.
Links About McCudden and Mannock
- The Comprehensive Guide to the Victoria and George Cross: James Thomas Byford McCudden, Edward Corringham 'Mick' Mannock
- James McCudden: The Perfect Soldier
- Flying Fury: Five Years in the Royal Flying Corps
- Scanned-in obituary of James McCudden
- Military Historian Lord Ashcroft Recalls the Bravery of RAF Pilot 'Mick' Mannock
- Mick Mannock (Spartacus Educational)
- Mick Mannock: The Genius Above the Western Front