one of eleven

Please note I am not an expert on old aircrafts or the Royal Flying Corps. For many years I believed what I had been told, the obelisk marked the spot where an airship from Cardington crashed killing all on board. I could find no information on the internet or find any books that told of any event until I found a small paperback book written by Richard Whitmore's "Hertfordshire Headlines" published 1978 The book was no longer in print but was listed at a Hitchin second hand bookshop. This gave most of the information below, I even contacted RAF Hendon to see if they held any data on the crash. The information I received after 29 days was not what I expected from Peter Elliott Senior Keeper, Department of Research & Information Services, Royal Air Force Museum. Quote:

"Thank you for your enquiry. I'm afraid that we are unable to throw any more light on Captain Hamilton, apart from the fact that he was serving in the Worcestershire Regiment, apparently attached to the RFC. There is a plaque to him in the regimental chapel in Worcester Cathedral."

While they did not have any  information of the first pilot to die on active service the web site did list a crash of the 10th September at Wolvercote, Oxford. Below is what I found out about the granite obelisk.

In the county of Hertfordshire is the village of Willian. If you drive from Willian to Wymondley you will see a small granite obelisk set back on the grass verge on your left, Inscribed  are the words: In Memory of Captain Hamilton and Lieut Wyness Stuart of the Royal Flying Corps who lost their lives whilst serving in the newly formed Royal Flying Corps as aviators on Friday 6th September 1912.  So what did happen?

On that day just after 06:00Hrs on a gusty morning Captain Patrick Hamilton of No. 3 Squadron under orders took his Mono winged Deperdussin into the air from a field near Wallingford in Berkshire.  Flying conditions were not ideal but they were not the worst Captain Hamilton had encountered, he had survived two crashes. Seated in front muffled up in the wicker seat was Lieutenant Atholl Wyness-Stuart, the observer. There was also a second aircraft piloted by Major Brooke Popham Officer Commanding of the Battalion's Aeroplane Company who was flying a much faster bi-plane. The three Army officers who were fascinated by the exciting prospects of powered flight, had left their regiments to join the fledgling ranks of the Royal Flying Corps that had only been formed on the 13th April 1912 Constituted by Royal warrant along with a naval wing and a training school wing. The outcome of the manoeuvres were awaited with great interest by the generals in Whitehall.

The mono winged Deperdussin aircraft had been made under licence from a wealthy French silk merchant Armand Deperdussin who had  founded his aircraft-building company Société pour les Appareils Deperdussin (SPAD) at Betheny near Reims, in 1910. The aircraft was a single-seat monoplane but the Royal Flying Corps wanted a place to put an observer so they had extended the single seater without increasing the size of the 119-kW (160hp) Gnôme rotary engine.

Captain Patrick Hamilton had already had a narrow escape from death while flying in America, when his aircraft crashed after being sucked into an air pocket. In fact, the three men were flying at a time when there was still much to be learned about aviation and when many still held doubts about its potential. Since there was as yet no aeronautical language, motoring terms were frequently applied to these new vehicles of the air. The control column was 'the steering wheel', the metal engine casing or cowling was 'the bonnet' and airfields were known, daintily, as 'alighting grounds'. Aviators of this time had no standard flying kit beyond an assortment of leather coats and jerkins, breeches and leather caps which had been designed originally for the pioneer motorists and motor-cyclists.

The manoeuvres taking place in eastern England that autumn had been organised on an impressive scale. There were a total of 75,000 regular soldiers and reservists taking part in a mock battle in which Blue Force was defending London against the Red Force invaders who had landed on the east coast. Captain Hamilton and Major Brooke Popham were on reconnaissance for the defenders. As their aircraft reached the Hertfordshire border the three men waved and Brooke Popham in his faster bi-plane broke away to make for his own reconnaissance area. That moment was the last time he saw his two colleagues alive. When he touched down at the rendezvous point at Willian later that morning, he learned that Captain Hamilton and Lieutenant Wyness-Stuart were lying dead beneath the wreckage of their aircraft, barely a mile away.

For the people of North Hertfordshire, flying machines were very much a cause of wonder and excitement; when one passed overhead, which was rarely, work stopped, housewives ran to their windows and small boys jumped on their bicycles to pedal off furiously in vain pursuit. Consequently, when Captain Hamilton brought his Deperdussin monoplane over Stevenage and began his descent over the villages towards Willian alighting ground, hundreds of eyes were upon him. There were many, therefore, who witnessed with horror the deaths of the two men. Because there were so many witnesses it was some time before a full and accurate picture of the last moments of the Deperdussin and its crew was completed.

Nearly all estimated that the aircraft was at about six hundred feet when the trouble began. Some claimed to have seen one of the aviators fall from the aircraft to his death some time before the machine began its final dive. One said it 'plummeted to earth like a dart', another that it 'fluttered to the ground like a bird shot on the wing'. However, most agreed that the 60hp Gnôme rotary engine, capable of producing speeds of 70 knots, was giving the pilot trouble well before the crash dive. It was clear, too, that - for some reason - the port wing folded and collapsed while the pilot, his engine having cut out, was desperately trying to reduce height for an emergency landing at Willian. Instead, his aircraft virtually disintegrated in mid-air and fell 500 feet to plunge into a thick hedge at the bottom of a meadow belonging to Mr Walter Brett, landlord of the George and Dragon public house at 19 High Street, Graveley. 'I saw the aircraft wobbling about,' Mr Brett was to tell the coroner later. 'It dipped and then came a report like a gun: Then the aircraft seemed to collapse altogether. I was too horrified to look any more ... I ran down and found the officers lying with the machine on top of them.' Both had died immediately upon impact.

Captain Hamilton at the wheel of the Deperdussin with a French Army Aviator a week before the crash that would end the life of Captain HamiltonThe Daily Mirror reported on the front page "Terrible air fatality at the manoeuvres: Two British officers dashed to death near Hitchin yesterday. click here to view page This was not the first recorded air crash fatality in the newly formed RFC but Capt. Patrick Hamilton and Lieutenant Atholl Wyness-Stuart were the first servicemen to die in a military aircraft while under military orders thus became first pilots to die on active service. The deaths were sadly the prelude to a number of disasters which clouded the first year of the RFC.  Lieutenant E. H. Hotchkiss and Lieutenant C. A. Bettington were taking part in similar manoeuvres in a Bristol Coanda monoplane which crashed at Wolvercote, Oxford some four days later on the 10th September. Both had died in the crash. The War Office placed a ban on The Royal Flying Corps flying monoplanes, this came into force on the 12th September 1912. It would be many years before a Monoplane would take to the air with the fledgling air force.

Although it was not until the 1914-18 war that these early aircraft were developed into proper fighting machines, the War Office had recognised their possible usefulness as a means of aerial observation, replacing the balloons and baskets and man lifting kites used during the Boer War. Preliminary trials on Salisbury Plain a few weeks earlier had proved that aircraft could be used to great advantage to spot enemy positions and troop movements and to drop messages to their own troops in the forward lines. Now the time had come to test these 'air scouts' and their flying machines in a large-scale battle situation. This was the mission of the three aviators as their little aircraft set off on a north-easterly course for the fifty-mile flight to North Hertfordshire and the war games.

While villagers and servicemen were working to remove the bodies from the wreckage, news of the sensational crash spread like wildfire. Sightseers came from miles around, lured by the fascinating horror of this new kind of disaster. They saw the shrouded bodies carried to the horse-drawn ambulance that conveyed them to a mortuary next to St Saviour's Church in Hitchin. Some began searching the crash area and making off with pieces of the wreckage as souvenirs; the steering wheel of the Deperdussin eventually vanished this way and the curio-hunters almost prevented the investigators from discovering the cause of the crash - almost, but not quite.

Fortunately it was an official who found the small length of connecting rod, fractured at both ends, lying two hundred yards from where most of the Deperdussin had fallen. Thus, at the inquest, Hamilton's flight commander and the works manager of British Deperdussin were between them able to supply enough evidence for the jury to be satisfied that it was a mechanical fault and not pilot error or bad flying conditions that had caused the crash. Speculation before the inquest had suggested that with the wind that day gusting up to 40 knots, it had been too dangerous for the aviators and that they should never have taken off; but Major Brooke Popham said both Captain Hamilton and his aircraft had flown safely in far worse conditions than had existed that Friday.

Both he and Mr Fritz Koolhoven, of British Deperdussin, agreed that the cause of the crash was the fracture of the connecting rod, used to operate the exhaust valves of the engine. Having broken away, the rod thrashed about inside for several minutes eventually causing a large section of the engine bonnet to break away; this, in turn, flew back, cutting through one of the main wire struts supporting the port wing. The wing then began to vibrate violently and it was only a matter of minutes before the wooden structure folded and collapsed completely. 'After such a breakage,' Mr Koolhoven commented, 'it would be quite impossible to fly the machine.'

Superintendent George Reed, head of the Hitchin Police division, confirmed that a large piece of the engine bonnet was found three hundred yards from the crash point, adding that it was almost certainly this big object falling through the air just prior to the crash dive which led some witnesses to assume mistakenly that one of the airmen had fallen out. Major Brooke Popham revealed the irony that the aeroplane in which the two officers died had, only a few weeks earlier, won a £2,000 prize when flown by a Frenchman during the trials and competitions on Salisbury Plain. Captain Hamilton, he said, had flown this machine for only three hours, but was used to similar machines. The jury returned a verdict of accidental death and paid tribute to the valour of the aviators. To view a copy of the Public Safety and Accidents Investigation Committee report.

The Graveley air disaster which brought home to the public with brutal suddenness the fact that the young men pioneering military aviation were engaged in an occupation that contained far more danger than glamour. Inevitably Hamilton and Wyness-Stuart, who were both aged 30, were accorded a hero's funeral.

Hundreds of townspeople and villagers turned out and lined the roads up to St Saviour's Church in Radcliffe Road, Hitchin. The church was completely filled by family mourners and members of the Armed Services, they could only stand outside in silence, hoping to catch a few words of the eloquent tributes and the hymn that had been composed especially for the event:

'Direct with thine all-seeing eye
Watch each dread journey through the sky;
Through every storm and danger zone,
Bring each brave pilot safely home.'

The airmen's coffins, borne by comrades of the Royal Flying Corps, were carried out to the gun-carriages; a military band, playing a funeral lament, led the cortege to Hitchin railway station past crowds lining the road ten deep in places. From Hitchin, the coffins were taken to different parts of England for private burial - Captain Hamilton's, at his mother's request, to Hythe in Kent, Lieutenant Wyness-Stuart's, accompanied by his young widow, to Wells in Somerset.

Photo taken 07/07/2007

Photo taken 20/11/1912

That week in Hitchin a memorial fund was opened and a stone-mason put to work, and in the last week of September a large crowd gathered once again near the field where the Deperdussin had crashed. The small granite obelisk, bearing the names of the aviators, was erected - not in the meadow where they had died - but half a mile away by the side of the road that runs between Willian and Wymondley. Captain Hamilton's mother laid a wreath of chrysanthemums upon it and his flight commander made a short speech after which the uniforms of the dead Officers were buried under the memorial stone obelisk.

'Some people,' said Major Brooke Popham, 'may think a memorial stone a waste of money and that it would have been more profitable to give it to the hospital or some local charity. I beg to differ. We should be a poor nation without recollections of noble deeds and heroic deaths to inspire us. The careless child and the weary wayfarer will pass along this road, look at this stone, read this inscription and realise that they, too, have a duty to perform. They will know that patriotism it not an empty word and that Englishmen are still ready to lay down their lives in the service of their country.'

Two years later, events in Europe proved only too well how right the major was in fact he was to serve in both world wars and be the first RAF officer to be appointed Commander-in-Chief of a joint command during a major world war. He gained the rank of Air Chief Marshal.

A fully restored 1910 single seater Deperdussin Monoplane can be seen at the Shuttleworth Collection at Old Warden which has the Deperdussin listed in its flying display. The conditions have to be right for this aircraft to fly. The aircraft stared in the film "Those Magnificent Men and their Flying Machines"

Lastly an article written in 1913 by Miss Ethel Hamilton, sister of the late Capt. Patrick Hamilton. click here

Last edited 03/08/2010 21:34:30

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