Born in Hampshire on December 30th, 1890 into a well-know and respected military family, Lanoe George Hawker attended first Stubbington House School, and then from the age of eleven, Dartmouth’s Royal Navy College. Despite being an intelligent boy and a keen sportsman, his academic grades proved disappointing as a career in the Navy seemed unlikely. Instead Hawker enrolled at Woolwich Royal Military Academy before enlisting as an officer cadet in the Royal Engineers.
After seeing a film about the Wright Flyer in 1910, Hawker, a keen inventor and dabbler in all thing engineering, developed an interest in aviation, and after gaining his flying certificate at his own expense in 1913, asked for a transfer to the Royal Flying Corps which was granted following his promotion to 1st Lieutenant with 33rd Fortress.
On 1st August 1914 just three days prior to Britain’s joining the outbreak of the Great War, Hawker entered the Central Flying School at Upavon. Two months later, Hawker found himself with the rank of Captain in France with 6 squadron RFC in an Henri Farman. Shortly afterwards, his squadron converted to the BE 2c, Hawker flew successful reconnaissance missions over German lines into 1915. On one such flight, Hawker was shot at and wounded by ground level gunfire, however not seriously enough to ground him for long.
In April 1915, Hawker flew in at low level and attacked a German Zeppelin shed, by dropping hang grenades from his cockpit, using a tethered airship as cover, being awarded the DSO for his actions. A few weeks later, Hawker took part in an airborne attack during the 2nd Battle of Ypres, being wounded quite badly in the foot again from ground fire. He refused to be grounded for the injury to be addressed until the battle was over, instead being carried to and from his aircraft.
Following treatment in hospital for his injury, Hawker returned to 6 Squadron and was transferred to a Bristol Scout which with help from a fellow engineer and later ace-pilot, Ernest Elton managed to fit and modify a Lewis gun mount to the aircraft which allowed him to shoot clear of the propellers. Further work from Hawker enabled several alternative mounts to be designed and built.
On July 25th 1915, Hawker flying over Passchendaele took on three German aircraft, putting a full drum of bullets into one until it spun to the ground, drove another into the ground and attacked a third at a height of 10000 feet causing it to burst into flames and crash. Two German crew were killed in this action.
For his actions, Hawker was awarded the Victoria Cross, only the third military aviator to achieve the medal, following in the wake of William Rhodes-Moorhouse, VC, 2 squadron RFC (April 1915 – Posthumously) and Reginald Warneford VC, 1 squadron, RNAS (June 1915). It was later argued that his achievement was overshadowed by other arguably more notable actions of valour, more befitting the award, however in the context of aircraft of the day and their capabilities, his action is easily upheld as over and above the normal.
Lanoe Hawker went on to achieve seven overall aircraft “Kills” earning him the title of Ace. He was also instrumental in the design and implementation of a variety of modifications enabling Lewis guns to be fitted to evolving early aircraft. Hawker’s designs were not limited to mounts, however, he also designed fur lined thigh boots for pilots, the Prideaux disintegrating link machine-gun belt feed and fabric protective tips for wooden propellers amongst other things.
In 1916, Hawker was promoted to the rank of Major, and given command of 24 squadron. Stationed at Hounslow Heath. The squadron were given the Airco DH2, a dubious single seater aircraft which had already claimed two fatalities and a reputation for spinning. Hawker took the aircraft up over the airfield and demonstrated a series of spins to his watching command, before exiting each safely. After landing he talked his airmen through exactly how to exit each spin. His squadron then received their orders to return to the Front near to the Somme.
On November 23rd 1916, following an RFC policy banning flight commanders from operational sorties, which Hawker somewhat disregarded, he took off after lunch with ‘A’ flight, led by Captain J O Andrews, when they encountered two enemy aircraft and launched an attack. Suddenly spotting above a larger flight of German aircraft, Andrews made the decision to disengage, but then spotted Hawker engaging an enemy Albatross. Attempting to reach Hawker, Andrews drew fire from their support which put his engine out of action, and was forced to retreat using his wing, Lt. Saundby as cover.
Hawker, now isolated from the rest of his Flight, continued his dog-fight, but the German Albatross outmanoeuvred and outgunned the DH2. Hawker realising he was losing this engagement, and running low on fuel, made the decision to break off and head for Allied lines. The German pilot hit his guns and let a volley of several rounds fly towards the retreating British pilot, until his gun jammed. A bullet from the last burst found its target and hit Hawker in the back of the head, killing him instantly, his aircraft spun and crashed just 50 yards short of the British line near Bapaume.
German grenadiers on the ground later buried Hawkers body close to the spot where he crashed, 230 metres away from Luisenhof Farm at the side of the road. His grave was subsequently lost. Hawker is named on the Arras Flying Services Memorial for airmen with no known grave, the German pilot who claimed the kill as his 11th, Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron, took Hawker’s Lewis gun as a souvenir.
On a sad note, Hawker’s family living in France at the outbreak of World War 2 were forced to leave behind their possessions after the 1940 fall of France in their escape. When they returned after the war, they found all their belongings had been stolen, including Hawker’s VC. It was later re-issued in 1960 and is on display at the RAF Museum, Hendon. In recent years a permanent memorial has been built close to the crash site of Lanoe Hawker, in the vicinity of his lost grave.