WW1 Royal Naval Air Service VC Hero honoured in Centenary tributes
Flight Sub Lieutenant Reginald Warneford, the first naval aviator to be awarded the Victoria Cross, was honoured today, a hundred years after his daring mile-high, moonlight dual with a German airship over Ghent, Belgium on 7 June 1915 when he attacked and completely destroyed the Zeppelin LZ37 in mid-air.
It was an extraordinarily courageous and resourceful attack during which Warneford pushed his Morane-Saulnier type L monoplane to the limit, climbing above the Zeppelin to 11,000 feet and then diving steeply on top of the airship. He got himself into position perfectly to drop four 20Ib bombs directly on target, spectacularly setting the airship on fire from end to end.
In the terrific explosion that followed Warneford’s machine was flipped upside down and tossed out of control. Recovering while in a precipitous dive, Warneford landed behind enemy lines, feverishly conducted running repairs, fixing a fuel leak with his cigarette holder and after considerable difficulty in starting his engine single-handed, took off again before he could be captured. Despite having to find his way back in thick fog he returned unhurt to his base the following morning.
Almost immediately King George V awarded him the Victoria Cross. The threat to London from the German airships was a cause of grave concern and Warneford was acclaimed as a national hero.
“Warneford’s astonishing feat of airmanship, conspicuous bravery and initiative in chasing and taking on an airship in a small monoplane is almost inconceivable” said Sue Eagles, Campaign Director for the Fly Navy Heritage Trust.
“It is a real boy’s own story! Flying a very basic aeroplane in the dark would have been extremely challenging. Combat flying was in its adolescence at best, while combat flying at night was not even in its infancy. As if bursting the airship, being flung upside down, righted in the air and forced to descend into enemy territory was not remarkable enough - only the most imaginative film producer would then have allowed our hero to succeed in restarting his engine, take off again from a field in the early hours and return home in time for breakfast!”
“Warneford’s fearlessness, his pioneering spirit and innovative approach in overcoming difficulties whatever the odds was typical of the young naval aviators of the Royal Naval Air Service,” continued Sue. They fought with great distinction and valour on all fronts during WW1 and the same spirit to fight and win carries forward to the Fleet Air Arm today.”
Tragically, ten days after his award of the Victoria Cross, Warneford was killed in a flying accident and was buried with full military honours in Brompton Cemetery, London. Today’s Centenary events included a service of remembrance at Brompton Cemetery where Captain Andy Harris Royal Navy laid a wreath.
A service was also held in Warneford’s home town Exmouth, Devon which was attended by members of the Warneford family and included a Royal Navy flypast by a Merlin helicopter and Chipmunk from the Royal Navy Historic Flight. A third service was held at Highworth near Swindon where Warneford went to school.
Speaking in his address at Brompton Cemetery, Commodore Chris Palmer CBE spoke of the importance of preserving and promoting the nation’s naval aviation heritage and the qualities that set Warneford apart, earning him the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth Forces.