Britain’s first military aviation fatality
At the end of February 1913, following a government decision to operate twelve devoted military airbases for the Royal Flying Corps, five aircraft from Farnborough landed at Montrose, following a 450 mile journey undertaken in stages over the previous 13 days. Although the airfield was moved four miles north, at the beginning of 1914, Montrose became the first operational military airfield in the United Kingdom, on the orders of Lord of the Admiralty, Sir Winston Churchill.
The first squadron, No 2 Squadron RFC were stationed in Montrose, primarily forming a training school for pilots under the command of Major Charles James Burke, who had gained his flying certificate in France in 1910 in a Farman Biplane, and subsequently worked at the Army’s Balloon School. The Hangars which were erected at Montrose came to be known as Major Burke’s sheds.
From the time it became operational, Montrose was associated with flight training, to provide experienced airmen to first the Royal Flying Corps and later the Royal Air Force. In its early years, there were many accidents resulting in the injury and death of many pilots, and on occasion ground crew. The first official military aviation fatality occurred shortly after the opening of the airfield, in its original position at Upper Dysart, when Lieutenant Desmond Arthur, an Irish pilot, was doing an ordinary run to Lunan Bay in his BE2 biplane. Lt Arthur had joined No. 2 Sqn only a few weeks before, on April 17th.
On May 27th at around 7.30 am, Lieutenant Arthur was mid-flight, when the right wing suddenly snapped off, plunging the aircraft to the ground from its altitude of 2500 ft. Lieutenant Arthur died immediately on impact, his body was thrown 160 yards away from the wreckage. He is buried alongside the many other fatalities that Montrose was to produce over the subsequent years, in Sleepyhillock Cemetery close to the airfield.
The Government ordered an inquiry into the incident, during which time allegations of damage occurring to the spur of the right wing of Arthur’s aircraft were raised. This damage was stated to have occurred prior to the transfer of the BE2 from Farnborough and hastily repaired to prevent discovery, by an unnamed mechanic and covered up. Secretary of State for War, Colonel John Seely, refused to acknowledge this damage, and the fatal incident was instead attributed to Pilot error. Seely would later become famous for his cavalry adventures with his horse, Warrior, about whom the film War Horse, was based upon nearly a hundred years later.
It was following this verdict of pilot fault that reports began into sightings of a ghostly airman, soon claimed to be that of Desmond Arthur. Many airmen admitted to seeing the figure in and around the Officers Mess particularly. Such was the regular occurrence of the sightings that many pilots and crew would refuse to enter the Mess, some requested transfer from Montrose. Arthur’s friend, CG Grey, an editor of an aviation publication gave Arthur’s name to the spirit, claiming he was unhappy with receiving the blame for the air crash which killed him. Possibly as a response to the pressure from these sightings, a new investigation was opened later in 1916, which validated the damage to the aircraft and subsequent poor repair. Blame was removed from Arthur, and the ghostly airman was last reported at the end of 1916.
Arthur wasn’t the only ghost to be attributed to Montrose, paranormal sightings are said to be extremely prevalent in and around the airfield, which now exists as Montrose Air Station Heritage Centre. Montrose as a result has been named as probably the most haunted airfield in Britain. Amongst the spooky goings on, there have been numerous sightings of various airmen, a long-dead radio that suddenly sparks into life and plays music, and Churchill’s famous speeches and a ghostly aircraft or two that fly invisibly but audibly over the airfield.
In 1914, following the outbreak of the Great War, Burke was given command of the second wing of the RFC, comprising No’s 5 and 6 squadrons, with his Headquarters being in Saint-Omer. After recruiting for RFC Canada, and commanding the central Flying school in 1916, Burke re-joined his old Army regiment, the Royal Irish, and later whilst commanding a battalion of the East Lancashire Regiment, he was killed in action in 1917 at Arras.
Following the outbreak of war, No 2 squadron also moved to France, led by Lieutenant Hubert Dunsterville Harvey-Kelly who was officially the first RFC pilot to land in France. Harvey-Kelly was shot down, and died of wounds in a German Hospital in 1917. In 1915 whilst serving in France, 2nd Lieutenant William Barnard Rhodes- Moorhouse, No 2 Sqn, became the first Royal Flying Corps Pilot to receive the Victoria Cross after dropping a 100lb bomb on a strategic railway junction, and coming under fire. Despite being seriously wounded, Rhodes-Moorhouse refused to be taken for treatment until he had made his report. He died the next day. His son William who was less than a year old when his father died, later joined the RAF, serving under 601 Sqn. In 1940 during the Battle of Britain, William was shot down and killed over Kent.
Following the merger of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service in April 1918 to become the Royal Air Force, a young aircraft mechanic from the former RNAS, spent some time attached to No 2 Sqn on its return from France, although not at Montrose. His name was Henry Allingham. He would subsequently become the world’s oldest man, last surviving founder member of the RAF and one of the last surviving military veterans of the Great War.
Visitors to RAF Montrose today can see the Heritage Centre, with displays for many aspects of the airfield’s life, including an exhibition on the hauntings of Desmond Arthur and his fellow spooky airmen. The 1913 hangars and sheds are still in place, although no longer within the permitted area of the visitors centre, and parts of the perimeter track of the airfield can still be seen. A visit to the local cemetery of Sleepyhillock which holds the war graves of 124 airmen and crew killed whilst serving at RAF Montrose during the first and second world wars will demonstrate exactly what a risky business learning to fly was in the days before parachutes and ejection seats, and the years that followed. Several other non-CWGC graves for military airmen also exist within the cemetery, including that of Lt Arthur, as he was killed during peacetime, before the advent of the “War Graves Commission”. On May 27th 2013, a wreath was laid on the grave of Lt Arthur, in commemoration of his service and that of the other military aviators who served – and died- in the process of establishing the RAF as we know it today.