WILLIAM Rhodes-Moorhouse, of Parnham House in Beaminster, was the first airman to be awarded the VC and few stories that lie behind Britain’s most prestigious gallantry medal could be more moving.
Not only had he written a ‘first and final letter’ to his recently born son, but he had also written a late postscript to it in which he predicted his death on the day of his final flight – a perilous mission from which he knew he was highly unlikely to return.
Rhodes-Moorhouse was born in London on September 26, 1887. His family were great adventurers. His grandfather, William Barnard Rhodes, became one of the first Englishmen to arrive in New Zealand in July 1836, having left his native Yorkshire.
Rhodes was helped by his three brothers to amass a fortune – £750,000 – from farming and other business interests.
This was an enormous sum of money at the time and was eventually inherited by his half-Maori adopted daughter, Mary Ann, after he died.
She married a New Zealander, Edward Moorhouse, with whom she had four children, and their family was raised in England.
Will, the couple’s eldest son – a robust boy with fair hair and green eyes – was educated at Harrow, where he developed a taste for speed and an interest in the workings of the internal combustion engine.
After school, he went to Trinity College, Cambridge, but here he neglected his studies for his love of engineering and his passion for racing motorcycles and cars.
By the time he was in his early twenties, Rhodes-Moorhouse was fascinated with the new ‘sport’ of flying.
He paid for flying lessons and became a pioneer airman, attracting large crowds when he flew from Huntingdon airfield, Cambridgeshire, at a time when a man in flight was still a sensational spectacle.
With a friend, James Radley, he even produced a variation of the Bleriot XI aircraft – the Radley-Moorhouse monoplane.
He travelled to the US in 1911, where he piloted a 50-horsepower Gnome-engined Bleriot to victory in numerous airspeed contests, thereby earning thousands of dollars in prize money.
He continued to fly competitively on his return to Britain, ending his peacetime flying career with a record-breaking, cross-Channel flight in 1912, which took place shortly after he married his wife, Linda, a school friend of his sister.
When war was declared, he volunteered for the RFC and joined 2 Squadron at Merville, France, on March 21, 1915.
His squadron flew the Farnborough-designed Bleriot-Experimental (BE) 2a and 2b, which were sturdy aircraft but had a maximum speed of just 70mph at ground level. Rhodes-Moorhouse soon had his baptism of German anti-aircraft fire at 7,500 feet over Lille.
His logbook recorded that the top centre section of his aircraft was hit by a shell on March 29.
By April 16 he was performing numerous highly dangerous missions. During one 95-minute reconnaissance, his aircraft’s wings and bracing wire were hit by shrapnel.
His service did not go unnoticed by his superiors and he was recommended for promotion to substantive lieutenant.
The Germans conducted their first gas attack on Allied troops on April 22, 1915, and for the next four days they took the initiative in battles in and around St Julien and Ypres.
On April 26, the RFC was ordered to bomb the enemy’s railway network. Rhodes-Moorhouse was sent to bomb the railway junction at Courtrai.
He took off alone from Merville at 3.05pm having been asked to drop his 100lb bomb from just below cloud level.
However, after making the 32-mile flight, he dropped right down to 300 feet to ensure a direct hit.
He was greeted with a volley of rifle and machine-gun fire, and, when he was directly over the target, a burst of machine-gun fire perforated his aircraft’s fuselage and smashed into his thigh.
At the same time, fragments from his own bomb ripped through the wings and tailplane.
Rhodes-Moorhouse, badly wounded and in great pain, had two options: land behind enemy lines, receive urgent medical attention and become a prisoner of war; or try to limp back to his home airbase.
Choosing the latter option, he dropped a further 200 feet to gain speed and encountered heavy fire from the ground. This led to two further wounds to his hand and abdomen.
Nevertheless, he steered the aircraft towards his base, crossing the Allied lines over some Indian troops who looked up in awe and later asked for details of his sortie to be translated into Hindustani.
Just three days later, the daily bulletin to the troops stated that Rhodes-Moorhouse’s mission had been a total success and ‘would appear worthy to be ranked among the most heroic stories of the world’s history’.
At 4.12pm, eyewitnesses saw Rhodes-Moorhouse’s badly damaged aircraft approaching at a low height.
He just cleared a hedge, switched off the engine and made a perfect landing. Two officers lifted him from the battered aircraft, which had 95 bullet and shrapnel holes.
Rhodes-Moorhouse was taken to a nearby office, where he insisted on filing his report while his wounds were tended.
He was then moved to a casualty clearing station in Merville, where it was discovered that a bullet had ripped his stomach to pieces. He was given painkillers but it soon became apparent that he was dying.
Rhodes-Moorhouse showed his flight commander, Maurice Blake, a photograph of his wife and son, and asked him to write to them and his mother.
He said if he was awarded a Military Cross, it should go to his wife.
After dozing briefly, he revealed: “It’s strange dying, Blake, old boy – unlike anything one has ever done before, like one’s first solo flight.”
Just after 1pm, he received Holy Communion and a note arrived telling him he had been recommended for the Distinguished Service Order (DSO). At 2.25pm on April 27, with a letter from his wife and his friend Blake at his side, Rhodes-Moorhouse died, aged 27.
Back in Britain, he was instantly acclaimed as a hero.
The Daily Mail noted: “Such endurance is enough to make all of us ashamed of ever again complaining of any pain. He was one of those who have never ‘done their bit’ ’till they have done the impossible.”
A squadron observer, Sholto Douglas, later Marshal of the RAF the 1st Baron Douglas of Kirtleside, wrote a letter of condolence to the pilot’s widow: “I do hope such courage will be recognised with a DSO although we all think a VC would be none too great a reward for such pluck and endurance.”
But it was Blake’s lobbying that secured the VC, and very swiftly, Rhodes-Moorhouse’s award, for ‘most conspicuous bravery’, was announced on May 22, 1915.
At the time, General Sir John French, the British commander, said the pilot had been responsible for ‘the most important bomb dropped during the war so far’.
Before his mission, Rhodes-Moorhouse had written several letters to his family, to be sent to them in the event of his death.
One particularly touching one was to his four-month-old son Willie, in which he expressed his love and affection for his wife.
He urged his son always to seek the advice of his mother and hoped he would be an engineer.
He also urged him to ‘keep up your position as a landowner and a gentleman’ (the family had acquired the 16th-century Parnham House and its estate near Beaminster, Dorset, before the war). There was a poignant and astute postscript which read: “I am off on a trip from which I don’t expect to return but which I hope will shorten the war a bit.
“I shall probably be blown up by my own bomb or if not killed by rifle fire.”
The footnote to this tragic story is that Rhodes-Moorhouse’s son went on to become a Battle of Britain pilot and actually served, from May, 1940, at Merville, France, where his father had been killed in action 25 years earlier.
After claiming 12 combat victories and being awarded the DFC, Willie Rhodes-Moorhouse’s Hurricane was shot down in a dogfight over Kent on September 6, 1940.
The body of the young officer, who died at 25, was later interred beside his father.
William Rhodes-Moorhouse’s story is featured in Heroes of the Skies by Michael Ashcroft,
published by Headline. Royalties to RAF Benevolent Fund