War history: Did the Red Baron shoot down Suffolk pilot?

A picture from July, 1923. The grave is now maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The Tidswell family funds the work. Renovation works were carried out in 1995. A picture from July, 1923. The grave is now maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The Tidswell family funds the work. Renovation works were carried out in 1995.

Monday, February 17, 2014
1:59 PM

The war in the skies was a precarious business… especially if you were caught in a dogfight with ruthlessly ambitious German ace Manfred von Richthofen. Mike Peters historian with Galloway Travel, reports on a Suffolk link with the notorious Red Baron

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Last week, I had a call from a lady in Needham Market who had an envelope of old photographs, including a postcard portrait: a British Army officer from the First World War. It set me off on an unexpected trail that was to lead to the Royal Flying Corps in the skies over the Somme and finally to the nemesis of many British aviators – Baron Manfred von Richtofen… The Red Baron.

The postcard was a portrait of Cecil Robert Tidswell. Born in England on November 22, 1880, he was the son of Mr and Mrs RH Tidswell, of Bosmere Hall in Needham Market.

He was educated at Harrow between 1894 and 1898. He spent time in the militia before transferring to the Regular Army, initially as an officer in the King’s Royal Rifle Corps and then in August, 1901, in the infantry of the 1st Royal Dragoons. He was shipped to South Africa for the Boer War. Cecil qualified for five separate campaign clasps on his South Africa medal.

He sailed with his regiment for India, and was promoted to captain in 1910. At the outbreak of war in Europe, the Dragoons were ordered to France; they landed in France on November 7, 1914. During the winter, Cecil decided the cavalry would have little role in the war. He made the decision to transfer to the fledgling Royal Flying Corps. In January, 1916, he returned to England for leave and further training, and qualified as a captain (flying officer) on June 2, 1916. Eight days later he was appointed as a flight commander in 19 Squadron at Filton, near Bristol.

In one of his letters home he gives an insight into how flimsy were the early aircraft operated by the RFC. “Yesterday we were grounded because the wind blew the plane backwards.”

The aircraft were BE12s, a new single-seat version of the two-seat BE2.

The BE12s had a longer range and a more powerful engine than their predecessor. The cockpit vacated by the observer was now filled with a much larger fuel tank. However, aircraft technology was developing rapidly and, as a single-seater with no observer to warn of enemy fighters, or to operate defensive armament, the BE12 was vulnerable. The in-built stability also reduced agility and manoeuvrability.

If he realised there were flaws in the BE12 he did not voice any concerns to his family; he was enthusiastic about the new type in letters home: “Our machines are the latest production of the Royal Aircraft Factory, and are supposed to do over 100 miles an hour and climb 6,000 feet in 10 minutes.

“The machine gun fires through the propeller the same as the ‘Fokkers’, so they ought to be very nice machines to fight. They are absolutely stable and will fly ‘hands off’, they are fitted with bomb-racks, wireless, cameras and every sort of gadget.”

In July, 1916, 19 Squadron deployed to France. The Somme offensive was well underway, the sides waging a struggle for control of the air over the battlefields. The squadron was kept busy on a mixture of tasks that included dropping propaganda leaflets, reconnaissance and bombing raids.

The threats of German aircraft and mechanical failure were ever present, but they were not the only hazards. Anti-aircraft fire from specialist gun batteries on the ground known as “Archie” were posing an ever-increasing threat.

Cecil was involved in a skirmish with German aircraft on August 11 and again the next day. He wrote a detailed account of the second combat in a letter home. “We had quite stirring times again on Sunday. We went on an offensive patrol after tea and got properly strafed over Bapaume.

“I had gone over there to drop some letters and was wondering why we were being ‘Archied’ at all, the reason being that there were a lot of their own machines up which came for us.

“I first saw one of ours having a scrap down below me and was diving down to lend a hand when I heard a machine gun quite close to me. For some time I couldn’t quite make out where he was, and then suddenly spotted a biplane about 200 yards off to my right, with the observer having a nice pot shot at me.

“As soon as I turned towards them they went off with me in hot pursuit. I had him well in the sights of my gun and got about fifty rounds in before he disappeared under my machine. I don’t think they fired a shot at me once I went for them, so I hope that I have done in the observer... My engine again showed signs of giving out so I went quickest and best for the lines, and, after waiting around for the others a bit, came home. When I landed I found one carburettor had been smashed by a bullet, so the engine did rather well to get me home; there was also a bullet through the back of my seat, which had torn a big hole in the cushion I have in the small of my back, and another one in the one I was sitting on.

“Of the other three machines two got knocked about by ‘Archie’ and are still under repair, and another has not returned. He was one of the nicest men in my flight, but I think he must be alright as the German wireless said ‘A British machine was forced to land east of Bapaume’. So I hope that it was only his engine that was knocked out.”

As it turned out, the Germans later listed the pilot, Second Lieutenant C Green, as a prisoner of war.

Over the coming weeks Cecil and the squadron flew constantly, only bad weather or unserviceable aircraft allowing pilots any respite. The rate of attrition increased. The German Army was reorganising its air arm and re-equipping it with potent new aircraft. The initiative was swinging in favour of the Germans. By early October, Cecil was one of a few remaining survivors from the original squadron that crossed the English Channel early in July.

On October 16, 1916, he led a formation of eight BE12 aircraft on a mission behind German lines. The targets were the rail station at Hermies and an airfield.

The eight aircraft took off from Fienvillers at 1425 hours; the weather that day was ideal for flying, recorded as fine with occasional cloud. Although one of the British machines turned back with engine trouble, the attack was pressed home and bombs dropped. With their task complete, the seven aircraft were free to turn back over no man’s land and head for the relative safety of the British lines.

Unfortunately, at 1700 hours the British formation was spotted, and then attacked by five German fighters.

The slow-moving BE12s were no match for their faster and more manoeuvrable opponents. The intercepting German pilots were flying the very latest in fighter technology. Sleek and shark-like in appearance, the Albatross was vastly superior to the BE12 in every way.

Not only that, these pilots belonged to Jasta 2, one of the elite squadrons of the German Air Service. Legendary fighter ace Oswald Boelcke led the attackers.

Among them, flying a red Albatross, was a fairly new but promising pilot keen to score his fifth kill. In the coming months his score and fame would surpass even that of his squadron commander. The name was Baron Manfred von Richtofen, the infamous Red Baron.

Chaos descended with the Albatross DIII fighters diving into the vulnerable British aircraft. This was the last time Captain Tidswell was seen alive.

Sadly, neither he nor Second Lieutenant John Thompson escaped the dogfight; both were shot down and crashed in flames.

Von Richtofen claimed Thompson’s aircraft as his fifth kill, making the Prussian aristocrat an ace. He visited the wreck of the BE12 to cut the serial number out of the fabric of the fuselage as a trophy, a macabre hunter’s habit he would maintain throughout his career.

To this day it is not known who shot down Cecil Tidswell. Initially Jasta 2 credited his aircraft to von Richtofen, but he does not appear on the official list of 80 kills attributed to the Red Baron.

Tellingly, von Richtofen did not search out the wreck of Tidswell’s aircraft to take his customary trophy. His report was concise. “Together with four planes I singled out above Bertincourt an enemy squadron at 2,800 metres altitude. After 350 shots I brought down an enemy plane. Plane crashed to the ground, smashed. Motor can probably be secured.”

Major RM Rodwell wrote to Cecil’s parents at Bosmere Hall. “We all feel his loss, and I heavily, because he was the senior flight commander and my right hand man; he was a great asset to the squadron and to the mess, and in another month he would probably have been promoted to Squadron Commander.”

His father had all the letters from France printed and bound into a single volume. Each member of the family, including Cecil’s six sisters, received a copy.

The London Gazette recorded the reading of Cecil’s last will and testament at the offices of Hayward & Son solicitors of Needham Market on March 1, 1918.

In 1919, three months after the end of the war, Mr Tidswell wrote to the Imperial War Graves Commission and requested that Cecil’s body should remain where the German Army had buried him.

He did not want Cecil moved to one of the new war cemeteries being established in the Somme region.

Later, the Tidswell family bought the plot of land containing the grave outside Etricourt. The cross erected by the Germans was replaced with a British cross and a fence and memorial added.

Some years later, agreement was reached between the family and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and the site is now maintained by the commission.

Cecil’s grave remains unique on the Western Front in that he rests alone where the German Army buried him. It is literally a corner of a foreign field that, thanks to his family and the CWGC, will be forever England.

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