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19 & 20 July 2017

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№ 36


19 July 2017

Hammer Price:

A superb Pilot and Observer family group:

The well-documented Great War Observer’s M.C. group of four awarded to 2nd Lieutenant T. A. M. S. Lewis, Royal Flying Corps, late Royal Fusiliers and Royal West Kents, who shared in the destruction of several enemy aircraft, including that flown by the famous German ace Leutnant Karl Emil Schafer: his M.C. was an immediate award for bringing down two enemy aircraft on 27 July 1917, when he was ‘severely wounded but continued to work his gun lying on his back’

Military Cross, G.V.R., the reverse privately engraved, ‘2nd Lt. T. A. M. Lewis, 20th Sqdn. R.F.C., July 27th 1917’; 1914-15 Star (1136 Pte. T. A. M. S. Lewis. R. Fus.); British War and Victory Medals (2 Lieut. T. A. M. S. R.F.C.), mounted as worn, good very fine or better

The Great War campaign group of three awarded to 2nd Lieutenant G. T. W. Burkett, M.C., Royal Flying Corps, Lewis’s Australian pilot who was decorated for the same action on 27 July 1917, and who was also wounded: it was during a subsequent hospital visit that he was introduced to Lewis’s sister Charlotte, whom he afterwards married

Star (4346 Gnr. G. T. W. Burkett. 1/A.D.A.C.); British War and Victory Medals (2 Lieut. G. T. W. Burkett. R.F.C.), good very fine or better (lot) £6000-7000

Provenance: DNW, June 2005.

London Gazette 26 September 1917:

‘For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. Whilst acting as Observer his patrol engaged a superior force of enemy scouts. His pilot was wounded, but they continued to fight, destroying one enemy machine. He was then severely wounded, but continued to work his gun lying on his back. By this means they were able to destroy a second enemy machine. Afterwards, when returning to our lines with their machine badly damaged, he and his pilot drove off two machines which were pursuing them, having displayed the greatest gallantry and presence of mind.’

Thomas Archibald Mitford Stuart “Tam” Lewis originally enlisted in the Royal Fusiliers and served in the 19th Battalion out in France during the winter of 1915-16, a period of active service that is well recorded - like his Royal Flying Corps days - in his letters home to his mother, and in his pocket diary (see below). In contrast to the famous Christmas truce period of 1914-15, Lewis states that his Battalion saw-in the New Year under heavy fire - ‘At 11 ‘o’clock, which is the German midnight, they opened fire with rifles and machine-guns and we received a hail of lead over our heads, such as we had never had before. This went on for 10 or 12 minutes and then ceased and all was quiet’. But as described in another of his letters home, written in February 1916, other dangers were ever present:

‘I had a narrow escape from a sniper’s bullet while on sentry duty. It hit a sand bag by my head and scattered the dirt in my face. Another time, just after I had passed along a communication trench, a big shell landed but did not explode, just on top of the trench and threw lots of debris into it ... ’

Subsequently commissioned into the Royal West Kent Regiment as a 2nd Lieutenant in August 1916, he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps, trained as an Observer and, in March 1917, joined No. 20 Squadron, then operating out of St. Marie-Cappel in F.E.2Ds: it was not to be long before he discovered the true meaning of the Squadron’s motto “Action Not Words”, a motto that ideally suited the Royal Flying Corps’ highest scoring scout unit, and, no doubt, prompted him to carry his pocket edition of the Testamant in his ‘left hand pocket over my heart, and my brandy flask in the other’. By mid-April, or certainly according to a letter sent home to his mother, Lewis was showing all the signs of being an enthusiastic combat airman, a tendency displayed by many aircrew before the true horrors of protracted active service became apparent:

‘I still love flying, dear, its simply glorious, the only annoying part is when on a job having to dodge Archie and scrap Fritz. I have done exactly 50 hours out here now, 35 of those being over the Lines and have been in nine scraps of varying intensity, not so bad for just over a month ... the more I see of the trenches the more thankful I am to be above instead of in them, so buck up, dear, this is the best life possible out here ...’

It was about this time that Lewis was credited with his first air-to-air combat success, following a dogfight fought on 29 April, with 2nd Lieutenant Smart at the controls. Again in a letter sent home to his mother, he described his sense of elation:

‘ ... I have at last realised my ambition and bagged a Hun. We were returning this evening from a raid and on the way back were attacked by umpteen Huns, more than double our own number ... We were fighting for half an hour and were glad to get back safely being rather exhausted ... Well we had quite a vigorous and exciting time, at one time with three Huns on my tail ... They did some quite good shooting as we found a number of bullet holes in the machine ... Though I fired a lot at about six of them I saw no result ... [but] ... When we got back we were told by the pilot and Observer of another bus that they had seen us send a Hun down which crashed in No Man’s Land ... ’

Another enemy scout was driven down by him and his pilot on 23 May, when No. 20 mixed with seven Albatros scouts, and on 26 May, in an engagement between 15 Albatros scouts and eight aircraft of No. 20 and ten from No. 1 Squadrons, Lewis, with Captain H. G. White as his pilot, accounted for yet another ‘driven down out of control’. Throughout much of this period, however, he actually served as Captain H. L. Satchell’s Observer, although from time to time he also accompanied Lieutenants Boucher and Hay, both ex-Royal West Kent Territorials and ‘quite nice men’.

Around 6 p.m. on the evening of 5 June 1917, No. 20 encountered about 15 Albatros scouts over the Ypres-Menin road and in the ensuing combat Satchell and Lewis were credited with bringing down the famous enemy ace Karl Emil Schafer, late of Richthofen’s
Jasta 11 and a holder of the “Blue Max”. The latter ‘showed great skill and persistence’, but eventually after a quarter of an hour locked in close combat, his aircraft was hit by a burst of fire from Lewis’s gun ‘at very close range’ and burst into flames, its wings being seen to fall off before it hit the ground.

In mid-July Lewis “paired up” with an Australian pilot, 2nd Lieutenant “Tom” Burkett, and on the 20th of the month they were forced to return early from their patrol ‘owing to being affected by an A.A. gas shell’.

Then on 27 July 1917, having lured a force of Albatros DVs into action over Menin, Burkett and Lewis achieved two confirmed victories, but not without cost, their own aircraft being damaged and both men wounded, Lewis severely. As recounted in his M.C. citation, he had displayed extraordinary bravery, continuing to fire his gun while lying down on his back. So, too, Burkett, who managed to ward off the attention of two more enemy scouts and bring home their crippled aircraft to an emergency landing at No. 1 Squadron’s aerodrome, where it was seen to be ‘badly shot about’. So was Lewis, who was fortunate to be attended to by a Doctor within two hours - ‘There’s no phosphorous in the wound now, the Doc. got it all out while it was smoking’.

Lewis wrote to his mother two days later to tell her that he had ‘got a Blighty one in the left leg in what was probably the great air battle of the war’. But as it transpired, his condition was far worse than his reported ‘I am going on alright’, even though he had written to her in resolute terms on 2 August:

‘It is in the left leg on the inside of the knee, the bones are not broken but are chipped a bit and being in a joint it will be a difficult and slow job to heal, and it is unlikely that I shall be able to bend the leg properly again, so shall always have a stiff leg I suppose. Well that is better than having no leg ... ’

Tragically, however, as revealed by an official telegram home on 24 September, he was indeed about to suffer the loss of his infected leg: ‘Regret amputation considered necessary. Doctor hopeful’. On the following day it was reported that his operation had been completed successfully and his condition was ‘favourable’, while some three weeks later he was still ‘seriously ill but improved’, but by 24 October he was well enough to be evacuated home in the hospital ship
St. George, aboard which he endured ‘a very rough passage’. Packed-off to Lady Northcliffe’s Hospital in Grosvenor Crescent, London, he wrote to his mother on the 27th:

‘Dear old Lord French came here yesterday and shook hands with us all. He was very concerned and sympathetic about my leg but I assured him it didn’t worry me at all, as the false limbs are so good nowadays and they had saved my life in taking it off ...’

In the interim, of course, Lewis had discovered that he was to be awarded the M.C. - ‘I was awfully surprised and really don’t see what we did more than anyone else would have done ... I am supposed to be addressed “M.C.” after my name on letters’ - news that clearly thrilled his family and friends, but ‘I wish people didn’t make such a fuss about an M.C. Really, I shall soon be too nervous to come home if I’ve got to face what they say in their letters’. Later still, he reflected upon the injustices of the honours system:

‘ ... This is a brutal war. I see in
The Times of Mon. 4 names of fellows I knew ... the last is poor old Solly of 20 and he was, like Hay, a Flight Commander and was killed on Augt. 11th. If anyone deserved a decoration it was he and he ought to have got a D.S.O. instead of which they continually overlooked him as they have Capt. Satchell, C Flight Commander. I feel an awful cad getting an M.C. when such fellows much more deserving don’t ... ’

After the War, Lewis settled in Kent, and, according to one of several accompanying newspaper cuttings, he became the first C.O. of the Folkestone Squadron of the Air Defence Cadet Corps, when it became part of the Air Training Corps in 1941. Later still he served as a committee member of the unit under its new title, No. 99 Squadron (Folkestone) A.T.C. Lewis died at Hythe in 1960.

George Thomas W. “Tom” Burkett, Lewis’s pilot in the momentous action of 27 July 1917, was gazetted for his M.C. on the very same day as his gallant Observer:

‘For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. With his patrol he engaged a superior force of enemy machines, and although wounded early in the engagement, continued to fight. He brought down two hostile machines and drove off two more whilst returning to our lines with his own machine badly damaged. In spite of this, however, he succeeded in making a good landing. He displayed splendid dash and coolness under very trying circumstances.’

From Lewis’s correspondence it is possible to chart Burkett’s path of recovery from a base hospital in France back to London Hospital No. 3 at Wandsworth - ‘Burkett seems to be doing well, his wound was quite slight really’. As stated above, at some point during his hospitalisation he was visited by Lewis’s sister, Charlotte, a meeting that led to their marriage. Burkett died in Cumberland in 1952.

Sold with an important series of original (and occasionally transcribed) wartime correspondence (approximately 60 letters and several postcards), mainly from Lewis to his mother and covering the period November 1915, when he first arrived in France with the Royal Fusiliers, right through to 1919, with in fact the vast majority dating from his long period of hospitalisation and accordingly providing a moving personal record of his struggle for survival, but often, too, with news of old squadron friends and commentary on his M.C. (see sample extracts in above biographical entry), many in their original dated envelopes with “Passed Field Censor” red stamps; two letters from Assistant Matron C. R. Townend at No. 8 General Hospital at Rouen, one addressed to the recipient’s mother and the other to his aunt, and both warning of his grave condition (‘ ... he had a gunshot wound in the knee ... we are hoping to save the leg, but, at present, I cannot say definitely how things will go. He had an operation on the knee yesterday and, unfortunately, a haemorrhage today ... I daresay he will make light of his condition but he is very seriously ill ...’); a poignant package of documents (tickets, Aliens Restriction Forms, etc.) relating to several journeys undertaken by Lewis’s mother to France to visit him in hospital, and evidence too of his sister Charlotte having made a similar journey in late September 1917; together with four War Office telegrams reporting on Lewis’s developing condition following the action on 27 July 1917, and several more sent home by his mother during her visits to him in France; his “Active Service Diary” with often detailed entries for the period 13 November 1915 to 16 January 1916; and a framed oil painting of the M.C. action by the aviation artist Barry Weekley.