Peter Berresford Ellis gets beneath the British-generated myth surrounding the exploits of first world war fighter pilot Edward ‘Mick’ Mannock and finds a complex and contradictory Irishman committed to Home Rule and socialism
DURING The first world war (1914-18) thirty-eight of the Royal Flying Corps’ top ‘fighter aces’ were Irish. Yet the names of Standish Conn O’Grady, Paddy Langan-Byrne, Joe Callaghan, Eddy Hartigan, Cochran Patrick, came to mean nothing to an Ireland fighting for its independence.
The Royal Flying Corps’ top ‘ace’, credited with 73 enemy aircraft destroyed, was Major Edward ‘Mick’ Mannock, who was killed in action near Lillers, France, on 26 July 1918. At thirty-one years of age, the recipient of the Victoria Cross (VC), the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) and the Military Cross (MC), he had been old for a fighter pilot.
Mannock has been claimed as ‘English’ and his birthplace is often given as the military barracks in Aldershot. He has been mythologised and demonised and even ignored. One biographer, admitting that Mannock was born in Ireland, summed him up in these words: “As a working class, rough socialist, he was unsuitable for exploitation by the English propaganda machine and his staunch unionism made his memory unsuitable for celebration in Ireland. The truth must not be forgotten, he was an obsessive racist man of hate, but he was also a loyal, committed leader who loved and was loved by his many friends.”
It is an unfair summary of a very complex personality. He was not a unionist and his ‘racism’ was reserved for enemies met in combat and shaped by his experiences both as a prisoner as well as in action.
‘Mick’ Mannock was born in Ballincollig, Co. Cork, on May 24, 1887, of Catholic parents. His father, also Edward, was a corporal in the British army, a hard-drinking man with a selfish streak who was to abandoned his wife and children when ‘Mick’ was only twelve years old.
Julia O’Sullivan married Edward Mannock in Cork. ‘Mick’ was the youngest of three — he had a sister Jess and a brother Patrick. The family initially followed the corporal to postings at The Curragh and in Dublin. During a stay in India, where his father was serving at the time, ‘Mick’, then ten years old, suffered an amoebic infestation which caused temporarily blindness. Eyesight problems were to dog him for the rest of his life.
After being abandoned, Mrs Mannock took her family to Wellingborough, Northamptonshire. At the age of twelve young ‘Mick’ was able to secure a job with the Post Office.
It is not known how he managed to educate himself, but by 1911 he was working in the engineering department of the Post Office in Wellingborough. He had become a convinced socialist and an active member of the Independent Labour Party (ILP). By the age of twenty, he had been elected secretary of the Wellingborough ILP.
Contrary to some of the stories later put out about him, ‘Mick’ was proud of his Irish ancestry and was a staunch supporter of the movement for Irish self-government. He took the ILP’s line at the time that this was best in the form of ‘Home Rule’.
In February, 1914, ‘Mick’ was in Istanbul, Turkey, laying telephone cables. On 2 November , 1914, when Turkey allied itself with Germany and entered the war against the Allies, ‘Mick’ was interned. He was badly treated and the experience became the triggering point of his hatred of the Turks, the Germans and all their allies.
In ill health, the Turks believed him to be dying, ‘Mick’ was repatriated in an exchange of prisoners in 1915.
His determination caused him to regain his health and join the Royal Army Medical Corps. In 1916 he secured a commission in the Royal Engineers, signal section, in Stratford. This implied that his self-education had been of a good standard in the class ridden British army of the day.
Not content, ‘Mick’ applied to transfer to the Royal Flying Corps and passed his flying tests. The weakness in his eye was later mythologised so that the legend of the ‘one-eyed air ace’ was born. Mannock’s medical records show that this was without foundation.
On 31 March 1917, Mannock was sent to join 40 Squadron on the western front. One of his new comrades, lieutenant Blaxland, wrote: “He seemed a boorish know-all and we all felt that the quicker he got amongst the Huns, the better that would show him how little he knew.”
Mannock panicked in his first air combat. It taught him a lesson and he settled down to study aerial combat. On 17 June he shot down his first enemy aircraft. It was not long before he was awarded the Military Cross and promoted to acting captain and flight commander.
Captain W E Johns, an Royal Flying Corps pilot who was later to become the famous author and creator of the immortal air-pilot character ‘Biggles’, wrote: “Irish by birth, he displayed all the impetuosity of the Irish. He was, of course, a fearless fighter. He was also a brilliant leader and exponent of the air combat tactics of his time.”
Given command of ‘A’ Flight in 40 Squadron, one of ‘Mick’s’ pilots was another Irish air ace, George McElroy DFC (Distinguished Flying Cross), MC from Donnybrook, Dublin. He had transferred from the Royal Irish Regiment.
McElroy was to be shot down and killed a few days after Mannock, having been accredited with the destruction of 46 enemy aircraft.
In January, 1918, Mannock had so distinguished himself that he was given 30 day’s leave and two months of home service away from the front. Mannock was not one to tolerate what he saw as ‘idleness’. He agitated to be returned to the combat zone.
Eventually he was put in command of 74 (Training) Squadron in London in order to prepare it for a posting to France.
It was agreed that he was an excellent teacher with a sense of humour. In one celebrated episode he led his squadron in bombing a rival RFC squadron HQ with 200 oranges. They returned the compliment bombing Mannock’s headquarters with 200 bananas.
He was always concerned for the safety of his men. He told his pilots that they should always ‘sight your own guns. The armourer doesn’t have to do the fighting.’
By April, 1918, Mannock led his squadron to the Front at St Omer in France. On his first patrol, he shot down another enemy aircraft but claimed the entire squadron should take the credit.
One of Mannock’s most promising students was yet another Irish pilot from Dublin, Henry Dolan, who had shot down seven enemy aircraft, In May, Dolan himself was shot down in flames. Mannock usually suppressed his emotions but it is said he became violently drunk that night.
He had a deep fear of burning aircraft and always said that he would shoot himself with the pistol he carried rather than perish in that way. “They’ll never burn me,” he told fellow pilots.
In June he was promoted to major and sent on home leave. He wept openly as he left the 74 Squadron. The strain of combat flying, tension, aggravated by ‘flu’ did not help but he refused to rest. Reluctantly, his superiors gave him command of 85 Squadron.
Life expectancy was short for fighter pilots. His friends were being killed every day. On July 9, 1918, Mannock heard that another friend, James McCudden, had been shot down and killed. Major McCudden was only 22 years old.
Like Mannock his father had been an Irish non-commissioned officer. McCudden had been born in Kent but, again like Mannock, considered himself Irish. He was the recipient of the VC, DSO, MC, Military Medal (MM) and the Croix de Guerre (France). He had accounted for 51 enemy aircraft.
McCudden’s young brother, lieutenant ‘Jack’ McCudden MC of 84 Squadron had been shot down and killed on 18 March 1918. He had been 21 years old and had accounted for eight enemy aircraft before he met his end.
Mannock went on a week of ‘rampage’ and destruction. He wrote in his last letter home: “I feel that life is not worth hanging on to — had hopes of getting married but ...” The death of McCudden certainly had a profound affect on him. Ruthlessness took hold of him. He told one friend after machine-gunning the crew of a German aircraft having forced it to crash: “The swines are better dead — no prisoners.” At the same time, a conviction of his own forthcoming death seized him.
On 22 July, a squadron comrade remarked: “They’ll have the red carpet out for you after the war, Mick.”. Mannock replied: “There won’t be any ‘after the war’ for me.” On 26 July, Mannock took an Irish-New Zealander, lieutenant Donald Inglis, with him on a routine patrol. They encountered two German aircraft and destroyed them. Inglis then described what happened:
“Falling in behind Mick again, we made a couple of circles around the burning wreck (of the second German aircraft) and then made for home. I saw Mick start to kick his rudder, then saw a flame come out of his machine; it grew bigger and bigger. Mick was no longer kicking his rudder. His nose dropped slightly and he went into a slow right-hand turn and hit the ground in a burst of flame.
“I circled at about twenty feet but could not see him, and as things were getting hot, made for home and managed to reach our outposts with a punctured fuel tank. Poor Mick .. the bloody bastards had shot my major down in flames.”
Did Mannock suffer the flaming death that he had long feared or did he use his pistol? Who had shot him down? The combat reports and consensus agreed it was a lucky burst of anti-aircraft fire.
Mannock, in spite of the war, had not ceased to advocate socialism. He had an abiding faith that the Labour Party in Britain would secure its promise of social justice for everyone and help Ireland to achieve self-government.
Certainly, Mannock’s name was conjured in Britain by the Labour Party in the December, 1918, general election and his biographer Dr Adrian Smith believed that Mannock’s time as secretary of the Wellingborough ILP led to a specific gain of a local Labour seat in that election.
Unfortunately the Northamptonshire Labour Club seems to have lost all its archives although there is a civil commemoration for Mannock there as well as the annual commemoration (curiously) in the Anglican Canterbury Cathedral.
It was not until the 1930s that certain members of the Labour Party began to foster myths about a Mannock, the myth of a ‘lost Labour leader’, and play up his ruthless attitude to waging war as a warning against appeasement of Nazi Germany.
Dr Adrian Smith, of the University of Southampton, in his book Mick Mannock, Fighter Pilot: Myth, Life and Politics (Palgrave) has pointed out that it is ironic that Mannock was built up as the English ‘ace of aces’. All his comrades and contemporaries knew Mannock had pride in his Irish ancestry and knew of his staunch advocating of self-government for Ireland.
However, even with an understanding of his personal experiences as the source of Mannock’s hatred of his enemies, one does wonder how he reconciled his previous pre-war socialist international proletarian solidarity with that later ruthlessness. Probably it was simply war that changed him,
Today, Mick Mannock has been mythologised as an archetypal ‘English hero’ in countless novels, films and plays, as either himself or in thinly disguised form. His socialism and his Irish nationalism are conveniently forgotten.
A new paperback edition of Ralph Barker’s A Brief History of The Royal Flying Corps in WW1 (Robinson, £9.99) was pubilshed in Spring 2001.
Connolly Publications Ltd, 244 Gray's Inn Road, London, WC1X 8JR
Copyright © 2002 Peter Berresford Ellis