Belfast Telegraph

Guy Warner: Remembering those daring young Ulster men in their flying machines

Following the success of his book about a Belfast man who was one of the world's first aircraft carrier pilots, historian Guy Warner is now seeking information on 14 pilots who are commemorated on an RAF mural in the city

RNAS and RAF airmen on HMS Furious, 1918
RNAS and RAF airmen on HMS Furious, 1918
A DH2 aircraft

A few years ago I had a telephone call from my good friend and fellow historian Ernie Cromie. He told me that he had been contacted by a man by the name of John McCleery, who suggested that he might have some material of interest to us. We called on John a few days later and he produced a battered tin trunk in which was a treasure trove of unique archive material pertaining to the deeds of John's father Jack in the First World War.

Jack was born in Belfast in 1898 and had a lively, gregarious and fun-loving nature. As I studied this remarkable collection, including more than 150 letters, his wartime diaries, several volumes of photographs, the bulk of which had never been published, as well as textbooks and notebooks, I came to the conclusion that this was a book waiting to be written.

My aim was to set Jack's story, as one of the world's first aircraft carrier pilots, in its context, showing how the Royal Navy, beginning from scratch, worked out how to launch aircraft from ships at sea, how to arm and equip them to play an effective part in fleet operations and, most difficult of all, how to land safely back onto a moving, pitching and rolling ship at the end of a sortie.

Jack's ship was the Royal Navy's first aircraft carrier HMS Furious, the most technologically innovative and advanced naval aviation platform of its day. It played a vital part in this dangerous and challenging process.

I visited the Fleet Air Arm Museum at Yeovilton in Somerset, discovering an unpublished handwritten manuscript - Notes On HMS Furious 1917-18 - and then the National Archive at Kew, where the ship's logs were held. I also read around the subject extensively. At the book's heart were Jack's words, his innermost joys, fears and heartaches as revealed in his diary entries, and the slightly contrasting version supplied to his parents in his letters, no doubt toned down to stop them worrying about him.

One of the most fascinating items in Jack's trunk was a little book he had bought in 1916. Its title was Hints For Flight Sub-Lieutenants Royal Naval Air Service by Flight Lieutenant. It was a practical guide for junior officers.

It began with "A Little Friendly Advice - making a good start is half the battle, don't be too self-satisfied." It continued with tips on behaviour in the wardroom and good manners: "A golden rule is, when in doubt, to salute, and pay respect." How to conduct oneself taking a parade: "If you make your men move on the last sound of the word of command, you will have no difficulty in getting them smart." How to handle the men: "Only a bad officer has trouble with his men."

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Probationary Flight Officer Jack McCleery RNAS in 1916
Probationary Flight Officer Jack McCleery RNAS in 1916

It concluded: "Last, but by no means least, do not ever be seen in uniform with anyone that you would not like to introduce to your own people or your Commanding Officer. Nothing will do the Air Service or yourself more harm than this."

So, in due course, I wrote World War One Aircraft Carrier Pioneer: The Story And Diaries Of Captain Jack McCleery RNAS/RAF, which was published by Pen & Sword Books. Since then I have given talks on Jack's life in many venues, including, most memorably on board HMS Caroline. A further high point came in 2018 with the screening on BBC1 NI and BBC 4 of Captain Jack And The Furious Few, a documentary based on the book.

Jack's father John wrote a remarkably prophetic letter to his son at boarding school on July 11, 1912. It read: My dear old Jack,

I was greatly interested in your nice long letter which I got yesterday. It was very well put together and your bicycle tour was very well described. If you take care, and give some thought to it, you ought to turn out a very good letter writer indeed, and believe me that is something worth striving for, for there are not many can write a really interesting description or narrative. Perhaps you might be able afterwards to write something more enduring, who knows? Have you ever yet had a wish to do something for your country? Now good bye for the present, dear boy. God take care of you. Your loving father,

JO McCleery

On the outbreak of war in 1914 the mood of the country was well summarised in the Belfast Telegraph.

A Bristol F2b fighter
A Bristol F2b fighter
An SE5 fighter

"We go to war to save honour, reputation, good name and respect. This war is due to German aggressiveness. We must teach the Kaiser a lesson. We did not want this war and stayed out of it for as long as we decently could. Through no wish or part of our own we find ourselves engaged in the greatest struggle the world has ever known."

Jack's was a remarkable story, but he was by no means the only airman of the Great War 1914-18 born in Ulster. The extensive research of a Dublin-based historian, my friend Joe Gleeson, has revealed that 6,500 Irishmen and women joined the flying services as pilots, observers, engineers, mechanics, drivers and in other support roles. More than half came from the nine counties of Ulster.

I have listed below brief details of 14 airmen from the province who flew into action in the First World War with the Royal Flying Corps, Royal Naval Air Service and Royal Air Force. They are commemorated on the RAF100 mural, which is on the Donegall Road, just beside the entrance to the City Hospital.

I now need the help of the descendants of these exceptional characters, or indeed any others who I have not listed, to have a look for any memorabilia, letters, diaries and photographs they might have and so shed further light on their lives before, during and after their flying careers.

Can you help tell stories of these 14 knights of the air?

Lieutenant Colonel Charles James Burke DSO (1881/ 1882-1917).

Born: Armagh. Commanding Officer of No 2 Squadron as a BE2a (reconnaissance aircraft) pilot. Killed in action on 9/4/17, the first day of the Battle of Arras, while commanding a battalion of the East Lancashire Regiment.

Captain Sydney Edward Cowan, MC and two bars (1897-1916)

Born: Downpatrick. Killed in action on 27/11/16 with No. 29 Squadron. DH2 (fighter) pilot with seven victories.

Captain Robert Frederick Lea Dickey RNAS, DSC and two bars, French bravery award the Croix de Guerre (1895-c1959)

Born: Londonderry. Three or four victories. Felixstowe F2a (flying boat) pilot.

Captain Edward Gribben MC (1890-not known)

Born: Cultra, Co Down. Five victories. Sopwith Camel (fighter) pilot.

Captain Victor Henry Huston MC (1890-1941)

Born: Duncairn, Belfast. Six victories. FE2b (fighter) pilot.

Captain Oscar Aloysius Heron DFC, C de G (1896-1933)

Born: Armagh. Thirteen victories. Sopwith Camel (fighter) pilot.

Lieutenant Forde Leathley MC (1896-1982)

Born: Trillick, Co Tyrone. Eight victories (observer in a FE2d fighter/bomber).

Flight Lieutenant George McCormack (1896-1928)

Born: Ormeau, Belfast. Five victories. Bristol F2b fighter pilot.

Lieutenant Robert McLaughlin DFC (1896-not known)

Born: Cromac, Belfast. Six victories. Sopwith Camel (fighter) pilot.

Air Mechanic Thomas Proctor (1888-1918)

Born: Lurgan. Killed in action on 27/9/18 with No. 88 Squadron. Five victories. Bristol F2b fighter pilot.

Lieutenant Alfred Stanley Mills DFC (1897-not known)

Born: Woodvale, Belfast. Fifteen victories. Bristol F2b fighter pilot

Captain Leslie Vernon Porter (1881-1916)

Born: Cullion, Co Derry. Killed in action on 22/10/16 with 45 Squadron. Sopwith Strutter (reconnaissance/bomber aircraft) pilot.

Flight Commander Guy William Price RNAS, DSC and bar (1895-1918)

Born: Rostrevor, Co Down. Killed in action on 18/2/18 with No. 8 Naval Air Squadron. Twelve victories. Sopwith Camel (fighter) pilot.

Captain Walter Alexander Tyrell MC (1898-1918)

Born: Crumlin Road, Belfast. Killed in action on 9/6/18 with No. 32 Squadron. Capt Tyrell had 17 victories. DH5/SE5 (fighter) pilot.

  • Guy Warner can be contacted at the following e-mail address:

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