Bedales 1909-1917, Royal Flying Corps, Royal Air Force

Ellis Lynn Doncaster was born on 14 March 1899, in Sheffield where his father was in business as a steel merchant.1 On the evidence of the Mill Lane War Memorial, and a signature preserved in the Bedales Memorial Book2, he seems to have been known as Lynn to his family, so I shall refer to him by that name.

Lynn’s first home was in a prosperous suburb on the western side of Sheffield, where he lived with his mother and father, and two domestic staff. By the time of the 1911 Census, the family was living in Surbiton, in Surrey. Lynn’s father now described himself as an “Automobile Agent & Engineer”.3 Later they moved to Steep, and lived in the fine Arts and Crafts house called Garden Hill, near the junction of Island Farm Lane with Ashford Lane.4

Both Lynn and his younger sister Kitty attended Bedales, each joining the Junior School around the age of 10.5 Lynn made his mark on the school principally as an artist and craftsman. Like many a Bedalian then and now, he seized the opportunity to try his hand at a wide variety of artistic disciplines. The pages of the Record and the Chronicle testify to his ingenuity at making theatrical props and painting scenery; his flair for architectural drawing, model-making and surveying; his fine carpentry, calligraphy and engraving; his piano recitals and his prize work as a book illustrator.

One of his many prizes was awarded for a model house. “Doncaster has turned his fertile brain to consider practical architecture, and has constructed what he calls a doll's house, fitted complete with oak beamed ceilings, oak panelling, fireplaces, ranges, tiles, carpets, staircases, windows, door, and, last but not least, rose trees—all thoroughly well made.” Evidently it was “a real triumph of artistic finger-work, pleasing in design, delicate and refined in workmanship, minutely complete in structure and finish, and finished with an artistry which made even grown-ups envious of its ultimate owner.”6

Another prize was awarded for a garden which he designed and cultivated, “which is a model of a miniature landscape garden, most pleasing for its perfect neatness, its dainty arrangement and colouring all the year round.”7 Perhaps this accomplishment owes something to family influence. Lynn’s parents’ house in Steep was set in gardens laid out by the celebrated architect and designer Inigo Triggs8, and Lynn’s father was himself a respected horticulturalist.9 It is poignant to think that Triggs designed not only the garden in which young Lynn grew up, but also the war memorial on which his name is now inscribed.10

Another of his creative ventures was as founder member of a Dyeing Group, which in Autumn term 1914 “took up the work under the sign of the ‘Weld, Woad, and Madder’”, three traditional English dye-plants. “The first part of the term was spent solely on experimenting with different fabrics and dyes. We also collected large quantities of privet, elder, dogwood and sloe berries and blackberries …. We at last started on our first order, which was some ties for a gentleman in Petersfield. They were a tremendous success, and after that other orders flowed in."11 This interest was one that Lynn shared with his sister Kitty, who in later life was a professional spinner, dyer and handloom weaver. For a time she studied these arts as a member of the artistic community at Ditchling, later running her own business in the New Forest.12

Writing after his death, the editor of the Chronicle remembered Lynn as “An artist and craftsman of the greatest promise, he set a standard by his work which it will be hard to reach, and England will miss his seeing eye and sure hand in the time of reconstruction. Of his good work few could fail to be aware; to those who knew him best, the beauty of his character remains a shining light.”13

An artist and craftsman of the greatest promise ... England will miss his seeing eye and sure hand in the time of reconstruction

 

Attaining the age of eighteen during his eighth year at the school, Lynn progressed straight from Bedales to war service. He signed his Attestation papers four weeks before his eighteenth birthday, and on 16 April 1917 was enlisted as a Private in the 34th Training Battalion. In May, Lynn applied for a Temporary Commission, specifying a preference for the Royal Flying Corps. Mr Badley signed to certify his good moral character. Evidently his application was successful.14

In August 1917, Lynn was posted to No.1 Officer Cadet Wing, based at Denham Aerodrome in Buckinghamshire, to commence his training. Following fitness and vision tests he was found permanently unfit to be a pilot but, after some minor treatment, fit to be an observer.15

Early in the war, observers had been recruited direct from the infantry, and learned the job largely through trial and error. By 1918, it was recognised that they needed a host of technical skills to perform their duties effectively, and the training had been put on a proper professional footing.16

Accordingly, Lynn spent the next nine months at a number of training establishments. The syllabus included wireless communications, reconnaissance and aerial photography, artillery spotting and, above all, the Lewis machine gun. Lynn would have learned not only to shoot the Lewis gun effectively, but also how to maintain it in all conditions, and to deal with any kind of stoppage single-handedly during disorientating aerobatic manoeuvres.17

Even training was a hazardous business during these early years of military aviation. Many volunteers were killed in accidents, including some of the other Bedalians commemorated on this website. For Lynn, when he was finally posted to an operational Squadron in May 1918, the eccentricities of his Commanding Officer did nothing to minimise those dangers. In the words of an official history of 107 Squadron, compiled shortly after the war:

“It is customary, when a squadron first proceeds overseas, to simply learn the country over which they are to operate and finish their formation practice and perfect themselves in the use of their guns for two or three weeks. Captain Dore, who was perhaps the best D.H.9 pilot in France, was not satisfied with such a tame method of training and he led the squadron, on more than one occasion, over the Hun lines, although no official raids were ordered. On the first unofficial trip over the lines Captain Dore, in order to test the nerves of the pilots following, dived to within 500 feet of the Hun lines on the way home.18

107 Squadron was a brand new formation; Lynn one of the founding officers. They flew the Airco D.H.9, a two-seater biplane with a forward-facing pilot and a rear-facing observer, both in open cockpits. Their main role was daylight bombing. Lynn’s tasks as observer included releasing the bombload on target, communications, and defending the aircraft with the Lewis gun. As was normal practice, Lynn formed a team with one particular pilot. His habitual flying companion, whom he partnered on almost every sortie, was 20 year old Lt. James Gaukroger from Cheshire.19

Operations against the enemy began on 30 June. Initially, the Squadron was tasked with bombing infrastructure targets behind enemy lines, especially the railway network, sometimes other transport facilities, ammunition dumps or accommodation. At first they flew from Drionville Aerodrome against targets near the French/Belgian border, later moving to Chailly, to attack targets near Reims. Crossing the enemy lines at, typically, around 13,000 feet, Lynn and his comrades were not much hindered by resistance from the ground, but they were vulnerable to attack from the air. Lt. Hand became the Squadron’s first casualty on 9 July, when his formation was intercepted by German fighter during a bombing raid. An observer, like Lynn, Percival Hand brought down one of the attacking Fokkers with his Lewis gun before being shot dead himself. Nine days later, Lynn’s aircraft was one of five which completed their bomb release before engaging a flight of ten German fighters. All survived.20

Judging by modern standards, the accuracy and effectiveness of these raids was limited. The bombing reports more often record that explosions were observed “near” the target, rather than on the target, although on 24 July, Lynn claimed a direct hit on the railway near Fismes, and reported seeing a fire burning on the railway sidings. The squadron’s greatest success during these early operations was a raid on the ammunition dumps near Saponay, on 21 July. Comrades at their base aerodrome “over twenty miles away … could see the reflection of the explosions and fire going on all evening”.21

On 3 August, the Squadron moved to a new base - at Écoivres, near St Pol - and to a very different intensity of aerial warfare. The German Spring Offensive having been contained, at this time the Allied commanders were preparing what they hoped would be a decisive blow against the German front east of Amiens. After a few days practicing formation flying, for the benefit of new pilots and observers joining them from training, 107 Squadron was ready to play its part.22

The 8 August was a pivotal day in the history of the First World War. It marked the beginning of the Battle of Amiens, and hence the start of what was to be known as the Hundred Days Offensive that ended the war. General Ludendorff, the German joint supreme commander, later called this “the black day of the German Army”. Appalled by the scale of his losses, by 14 August he was advocating that the Axis Powers should open peace negotiations.23

One factor in the overwhelming success of the Allies’ offensive was their fast-growing ability to coordinate their forces in an all-arms attack: infantry, artillery, tanks and air power. During the Battle of Amiens, Allied aircraft carried out offensive patrols, artillery spotting, infantry support and reconnaissance roles.24

For 107 Squadron, this meant attacking at a lower altitude, and against much more serious resistance. Arguably, the D.H.9 was not well suited to this role. Although reasonably well armed, it was considerably slower and less manoeuvrable than the enemy aircraft likely to be encountered.25 The day began with a dawn bombing raid on Harbonnières, behind the enemy lines, with every available aircraft taking part. Lynn dropped two 112lb bombs on a military encampment, and fired 400 rounds at targets along the road and at an anti-aircraft battery.26

Later in the day, with the German front line crumbling and units falling back, it became an urgent necessity to cut the bridges over the Somme, to the rear of the disintegrating German line. This would prevent reinforcements joining the battle. It would also prevent retreat; effectively capturing tens of thousands of prisoners with all their equipment. The General Officer Commanding the RAF in the Field immediately cancelled all his existing orders, and directed that the bridges must be destroyed at all costs.27

At 107 Squadron, “word came through that every effort must be made to destroy Brie Bridge”.28

The few of us who were left sat down and at mess that night cried like children as we looked around at the vacant chairs

 

This was an extremely hazardous operation for several reasons. Firstly, the strategic importance of the bridges was equally obvious to the Germans, and they were well protected by anti-aircraft batteries. Secondly, poor visibility earlier in the day had greatly assisted the initial assault by tanks, but it had severely curtailed efforts to damage enemy airfields nearby.29 Thirdly, the raid was to be carried out in “a blinding rainstorm”. The Squadron History records that therefore, although cutting the bridges was of paramount importance, the authorities nevertheless ordered that 107s raid on Brie was for volunteers only.30 One can only speculate about whether Lynn considered his options. All that can be said is that at 1.05pm he took off with his comrades, in one of five aircraft forming the second wave of the attack.31

Another 107 Squadron Observer, Lt. George Coles, describes what he saw during the raid:

“We set off at 1.30pm and crossed at 4,000 feet only. We immediately ran into a terrific barrage of anti-aircraft shells. We reached the bridge at 2.15 and went low and dropped our bombs amongst thousands of retreating Germans camped around the bridgehead awaiting their turn to cross. We then went down to about 100 feet and machine gunned the troops. I have never before seen such a charnel house of dead and dying. We must have killed hundreds. Having done our job we made formation for the return flight, midst a perfect inferno of antiaircraft fire. One machine containing Gaukrodger [sic] and Doncaster was hit and went down in flames. Both were killed. On landing I found ten shrapnel holes in my wings.”32

The following day, 107 Squadron was ordered to resume the attack on the bridge at Brie. This time, the opposition was even fiercer. Each flight in turn tried to press home the attack, but the odds were against them. In total, 107 Squadron lost nine aircraft in the attack on Brie.33

“The few of us who were left sat down and at mess that night cried like children as we looked around at the vacant chairs. In two days we lost fourteen men out of a complement of twenty-seven. As I write the names of my late comrades, it is hard to believe they are dead. With me, they set out in possession of life and glorious health – within an hour or so they were charred and mangled remains. This is War!”34

By Ian Douglas


I gratefully acknowledge my debt to David Erskine-Hill’s invaluable Steep War Memorial 1914-1918: A Biographical Roll of Honour, cited below, not least for making me aware of the book by Peter Hart which helped explain the context and significance of Lynn Doncaster’s final sorties.

1. Bedales School Roll: Biographical Summary and Analysis, ed. Basil L. Gimson (Petersfield: The Bedales Society, 1952); 1901 Census — The National Archives (TNA): RG13/4350, folio 131v, page 2.
2. Bedales Memorial Library, Bedales School: 1914-1918 (unpublished memorial book).
3. 1911 Census — TNA: RG14/3540 Sch 124.
4. Officer’s Service Record —TNA: WO 339/110399, ‘Application for Admission to an Officer Cadet Unit …’ signed 15 May 1917.
5. Bedales School Roll
6. The Bedales Record, No.25, 1912-1913, pp.11, 53.
7. The Bedales Record, No.25, 1912-1913, p.12.
8. Hampshire Gardens Trust, Garden Hill (2012), http://research.hgt.org.uk/item/garden-hill/ [accessed 7 August 2018]
9. Hampshire Gardens Trust, Byways (2015), http://research.hgt.org.uk/item/byways/ [accessed 7 August 2018].
10. David Erskine-Hill, Steep War Memorial 1914-1918: A Biographical Roll of Honour (Petersfield: David Erskine-Hill, 2017) p.vi
11. Bedales Chronicle, 8(3), 13 December 1914, p.25.
12. Bedales School Roll 1952.
13. Bedales Chronicle, 11(6), January 1919, p.6.
14. Officer’s Service Record —TNA: WO 339/110399
15. Ibid.
16. Peter Hart, Aces Falling: War Above the Trenches, 1918 (London: Phoenix, 2008) p.22.
17. Air Officer’s Service Record — TNA: AIR 76/137/75; Hart, pp.22-27.
18. History of No.107 Squadron — TNA: AIR 1/176/15/203/1, p.1.
19. History of No.107 Squadron — TNA: AIR 1/176/15/203/1; 107 Squadron Record Book, June 1918 – March 1919 — TNA: AIR 1/1849/204/211/8
20. History of No.107 Squadron — TNA: AIR 1/176/15/203/1; 107 Squadron Record Book, June 1918 – March 1919 — TNA: AIR 1/1849/204/211/8; 107 Squadron Bomb Dropping Reports June-November 1918 — TNA: AIR 1/1848/204/211/3
21. History of No.107 Squadron — TNA: AIR 1/176/15/203/1; 107 Squadron Bomb Dropping Reports June-November 1918 — TNA: AIR 1/1848/204/211/3
22. 107 Squadron Record Book, June 1918 – March 1919 — TNA: AIR 1/1849/204/211/8; Hart, pp.205-211.
23. C.R.M.F. Cruttwell, A History of the Great War 1914-1918 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1934) p.550; Martin Gilbert, First World War (London: Weidefeld and Nicolson, 1994) pp.450-451.
24. Hart, Chapter 10 passim; James McWilliams and R. James Steel, Amiens: Dawn of Victory (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2001) pp.262-263.
25. History of No.107 Squadron — TNA: AIR 1/176/15/203/1, p.5.
26. 107 Squadron Bomb Dropping Reports June-November 1918 — TNA: AIR 1/1848/204/211/3
27. Hart, p.217
28. History of No.107 Squadron — TNA: AIR 1/176/15/203/1, p.2.
29. Hart, pp.217-219; McWilliams and Steel, p.262.
30. History of No.107 Squadron — TNA: AIR 1/176/15/203/1, p.2.
31. 107 Squadron Record Book, June 1918 – March 1919 — TNA: AIR 1/1849/204/211/8
32. Hart, pp.217-218, quoting Imperial War Museum (IWM): Documents.12601 (Private papers of 2nd Lieutenant G.T. Coles). I must confess a doubt as to the reliability of Lt. Coles’ testimony at this point, since the all contemporary squadron records cited above indicate that he did not take part in the raid on Brie on the afternoon of 8th August, from which Gaukroger and Doncaster failed to return. According to the IWM cataloguer, this account was written in 1934, albeit with the assistance of contemporary diary entries. I wonder whether Lt. Coles may have inadvertently mingled his own memories of similar raids together with his comrades’ accounts of what happened on 8th. On the other hand, I’m unable to say with certainty that the squadron records are complete and accurate. They appear to provide mutual corroboration — e.g. the bomb dropping report corroborating the squadron record book – but it may be that these documents are not independent of one another. On balance, I have decided to accept Coles’ account for the present purposes, but hope to shed further light on the apparent anomaly when I have the chance to examine his manuscript.
33. Hart, p.222.
34. Hart, p.222-223, quoting Coles.