Reginald ‘Rex’ Warneford VC
As a boy growing up in India, REGINALD WARNEFORD had no conventional schooling. His father was a chief engineer extending the railway system throughout the sub-continent who taught him the law of the jungle; to read the moon and stars across the wide Indian night skies; to be able to study cloud formations. Rex rode on the footplates of the service engines, rode the work elephants and hunted tigers. He enjoyed a wonderful life that all came to an end when his parents separated, his mother re-married, and Rex and his possessions were shipped by P&O steamer to live with his grandfather, the Rev. Thomas Warneford, at Satley Rectory on the wild moors of County Durham in England and to begin his education.
His grandfather was anxious that Rex should be able to look after himself and to have a good start. So for his education he chose King Edward VI School for a number of reasons: the Headmaster, the Rev.Cornwell Robertson, was a personal friend, the school was small with not many boarders, and he considered the atmosphere ‘homely. ’Rex arrived in Stratford-upon-Avon in January 1901 as a Choral Scholar. At Satley his grandfather had invited him to sing in the church choir. He had a clear, true voice, became friends with the other boys, and enjoyed the church services.
Although behind the other boys at KES in Latin, Greek and History, he excelled at anything he could do with his hands such as carpentry, physics and engineering, and had an aptitude for Mathematics. He made friends with the other boys, who included Richard Gale (who was to have a distinguished military career), Edgar Cranmer (who became a member of the Royal Engineers Signals Service, and in 1918 received the German message asking for an Armistice), fellow boarders Henry Fox and Edward Culverwell who were awarded the MC during the Great War, Victor Hyatt and Geoffrey Donaldson. The boys thought Rex ‘a character and a bit of a lad’, and the masters appeared to have liked him although finding him ‘individualistic.’ Rules were strict. All boys had to wear their black jackets and dark trousers, and their black boots had to be clean. Hair was cut short and caps had to be worn whenever a boy was out of school. For Rex there were a good many encounters, but he came out of them well, and showed capability of looking after himself ‘in a scrimmage.’ Not a particular enthusiast for football played on cold, wet fields, he enjoyed renting a punt on the Avon, taking long walks on his own in the Warwickshire countryside, or going to the railway station and goods yards.
The Headmaster, Cornwell Robertson, remembered that Rex was ‘always ready to stand alone, although no one loved companionship more. He did not crave for school distinctions and prizes, nor did he get any. He was made of different stuff altogether. The charm of Warneford was his sweet smile which was the index of a very generous and warm heart, and an utter absence of selfishness.’
When his grandfather in Satley became ill, Rex went during the school holidays to his aunt in Ealing. Although she was kind to him he was not happy, and as there were no more funds for his education in Stratford, it was decided that he should return to India, and was apprenticed to the British India Steam Navigation Company. He was with them for eight years before joining the P&O Orient Line.
Back once more in England at the beginning of 1915, and unable to join the Royal Navy as he wished, Rex Warneford enlisted in 24th Battalion (2nd Sportsmen’s) Royal Fusiliers (City of London Regiment), but within a month was transferred to the new Royal Naval Air Service. The main concern of the Service was the defence of Britain and the area around the coast from sea and air attack.
He was accepted by the RNAS as a probationary pilot at face value. Passing a stiff medical examination, he was successfully assessed for above average intelligence, iron nerves, and initiative, and sent to Hendon for instruction in basic flying to obtain the Royal Aero Club Aviator’s Certificate.
In her book Warneford VC , Mary Gibson, Rex’s second cousin wrote: ‘His Instructor at Hendon was Flight Lieutenant Warren Merriam who was one of the pre-war pioneer airmen and a great war-time flying instructor. (He ) thought very highly of Rex as a pilot and felt he was a born Aviator, having rapidly mastered the art of flying, and being quite fearless.’ His principal fault was over-confidence. Showing his ability to the Officer Commanding Naval Air Stations, although greatly impressed, the Commander remarked: ‘This youngster will either do big things or kill himself.’
Warneford completed his training and was briefly posted to No. 2 Squadron RNAS Eastchurch on the desolate aerodrome on the Isle of Sheppey. His rather wild and over-confident reputation had preceded him but his lack of orthodox discipline was compensated by his flying abilities, and he was sent out to join No. 1 Squadron RNAS at St. Pol in France on May 7 1915.
The Squadron was instructed by the Admiralty to carry out patrols, to bomb submarine bases, railway yards and troop concentrations and to prevent Zeppelins and aircraft operating from bases in Belgium for raids on England.
Following Rex’s first coastal reconnaissance flight during which he pursued a German aircraft, firing at it with his rifle, his Commanding Officer noted that ‘Warneford had no fear of anything and my task from then on was to try to keep him alive as long as possible to do as much damage to the Germans as he could.’ Any German aircraft was a challenge to him, and ‘he gave chase like a St. Bernard after a rat.’ He became known as the ‘Wild Hawk.’
He was allotted a Morane Saulnier L monoplane with the roving commission to attack German observation aircraft. The Morane had an elegant if unconventional design, just over twenty-two feet long, with a thirty six feet nine inches wing span and an 80 hp engine. Known as the ‘Parasol’ and rather feminine, the aircraft and the special duties suited Warneford perfectly.
In her book, Mary Gibson wrote: ‘The aircraft provided for Rex was one of the first to be fitted with a machine gun firing forward through the arc of the two- bladed propeller which was protected by metal deflector plates. The Morane was also able to carry six 20 lb Hales bombs which could explode on impact.’ This was a vast improvement from having to throw them out by hand.
Following the successful Zeppelin attack over London at the end of May 1915, the Germans made plans for further raids by a number of naval and military airships on Sunday June 6. Rising from Berchem Ste Agathe in the north-west of Brussels, the airship LZ37 – 521 feet long and powered by four 210hp engines giving a top speed of fifty miles an hour, it carried a ton and a quarter of bombs and its armament comprised four machine guns. Heading towards England, LZ37 soon ran into thick fog over the Channel and decided to turn about and return to Belgium. German radio signals had been intercepted and Warneford was ordered to find and destroy the airship. In the early hours of Monday morning he located LZ37 south of Bruges.
Although possessing superior speed, Warneford’s Morane had a slow rate of climb, and a lack of armament robbed it of complete fighting superiority. So Rex decided to hold back and wait. With dawn breaking, the Zeppelin was heading east at 10,000 feet. Rising to 11,000 feet, Rex made a sweeping dive above the airship and released his six bombs.
The explosion engulfed the airship in flames and the currents of hot air swirled past the Morane causing it to spin over and over, and only his safety harness saved Rex from being thrown from the aeroplane.
A commemorative poem written by Henry Chappell includes the lines:
She flames and bursts with a thunder roar,
And the stunning blast upflung
Smites on the Vengeance, turns him o’er
Till head to earth is hung:
The whirlwind violence of the explosion broke the joint on the petrol pipe of the Morane, and Rex had to land some thirty miles behind enemy lines and quickly repair the damage With the mist lifting and only a small quantity of petrol in the reserve tank, Warneford desperately restarted the engine and the Morane climbed just as he was spotted by a German patrol.
Landing with his fuel virtually gone at Cap Griz Nez, he was given petrol by French soldiers, and continued back to his base at St.Pol where he gave his report and promptly fell asleep for eight hours.
News of the destruction of the Zeppelin, that had crashed on a convent in Ghent, ‘flashed around the world.’ Warneford’s photograph and the story of his attack on the airship appeared on the front pages of every newspaper. ‘The attention of the world,’ wrote the Manchester Guardian, ‘that has been almost bewildered by bravery, that has seen the highest instances of individual daring turned into the commonplace of a newspaper, was gripped at once. Men everywhere were thrilled by the sudden realization of an episode of aerial warfare which had hitherto only been seen in the works of imaginative writers. ’The British Government seized upon Rex’s gallantry as a way to boost the morale of a very depressed public following the military reverses earlier in the year. They instructed ‘To keep Warneford on the ground for as long as his value as propaganda was fully exploited.’
His Headmaster at King Edward VI School wrote ‘I am very glad there has come this way such a supreme test of coolness and unselfish daring. Equally, it caused me no surprise whatsoever to learn that he had grasped it,’ recalling his ‘independence of spirit.’
On June 8, a telegram was sent from Buckingham Palace: ‘I heartily congratulate you upon your splendid achievement of yesterday in which you single handedly destroyed an enemy Zeppelin. I have much satisfaction in conferring upon you the Victoria Cross for this gallant act. GEORGE R.I.’ Before going to London to receive the award from the King, Warneford was ordered to Paris to receive the Chevalier de la Legion D’Honneur with its automatic companion, the Croix de Guerre’ that had been recommended by General Joffre.
Lionised by the French crowds in a manner that made him uncomfortable, it is reported that Rex became very introspective and ‘to have lost touch with reality.’ With a friend he spoke of his life in India, his schooldays in Stratford and his grandfather. ‘Bringing down the LZ37 was just routine and over in a flash. But building a railway, that was something.’
Warneford was ordered to return to duty, with instructions to fly a new Henry Farman F27 biplane for the squadron after giving it an acceptance test at Buc aerodrome outside Paris on Thursday June 17. An American newspaper correspondent was given permission to be a passenger during the test. At 2000 feet the plane went into a spin, the tail snapped off and caught the propeller, and at about 700 feet the plane turned upside down. Neither Warneford nor his passenger were strapped in, and they were thrown out and fell to the ground. The American died at once, but Warneford died on his arrival at hospital. ‘He who defied the storm’ wrote Paris Soir, ‘has been killed by a breeze.’
The newspaper obituaries were extravagant, and people’s sympathies were whipped up to near hysteria. News of Warneford’s death encouraged the recruiting drive, particularly where the sergeant appealed ‘not to let young Warneford be the last of the heroes of the Sportsman’s Battalion.’
It was decided to hold a public funeral, and the crowd outside Brompton Cemetery in London was ‘dense and deep.’ Rex’s mother and family mourners, officers representing the Admiralty, the RNAS, the Royal Flying Corps and the Armoured Car Section of the Naval Air Reserve attended the service in the chapel. He was buried very near to ‘his beloved grandfather, the Rev. Thomas Warneford.’ None of Rex’s squadron at St. Pol or the engineer who had always serviced his plane was given permission to attend.
Aluminium fragments from the Zeppelin began to circulate in Ghent, and one of these became a paperweight on the desk of the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill. Smaller pieces were fashioned into rings.
A memorial paid by donations from readers of The Daily Express is the site of Rex Warneford’s grave. As a result of public subscriptions, there are further memorials in Brompton Oratory, a Warneford Chapel in St. Michael’s and All Saints Church in Highworth, Wiltshire, and in Oxhey in Hertfordshire. Some schools were named in his memory. His mother sent his photograph to the Headmaster at King Edward VI School, the Rev. Cecil Knight, who later had it framed and displayed with miniatures of all Warneford’s medals in Big School, where it has remained to the present day. He is commemorated in Memorial Library in the School, and in 2007 his name was finally added to the memorial in the Garden of Remembrance in Stratford-upon-Avon.
A First Day cover stamp was issued on January 21 1973 from 201 Squadron Royal Air Force in Guernsey. Envelopes bearing the illustration of Warneford’s Morane-Saulnier L were flown in a Nimrod Mk 1 from RAF St. Mawgan to RAF Kinloss.
In the years since the end of the First World War, the interest in Rex Warneford has not diminished, with collectable cigarette cards, portraits, postcards, watercolours and oil paintings of his engagement with the Zeppelin, and construction kits of his aeroplane.
Whilst at the School Speech Day held in the Town Hall in 1919, the Guest Speaker, the Rev. Robert de Courcy Laffan – who had been Headmaster between 1885 and 1895 – eulogised Rex Warneford as ‘a fine flower of that chivalry of the air which corresponds in the present day with the knight-errant of the legends of old, the men who went out seeking to right the wrongs of the world, counting their own lives nothing in the doing of it.’