6 February 2018:
A World War One fighter pilot, shot down above the Western Front a hundred years ago today, is to be saluted at a special service to honour the fifty brave men of Aldenham, Hertfordshire who died during The Great War.
On Sunday, February 11, church volunteer Stan Robinson has organised a commemorative service at Aldenham’s St. John the Baptist Church, to mark the centenary of the death of Second Lieutenant Peter Francis Kent, shot down in flames on 6 February 1918.
For decades, the story behind a plaque in the Church, in memory of the young Royal Flying Corps (RFC) officer of No 3 Squadron, has remained a bit of a mystery. But with the help of former RAF Group Captain Michael Peaker and others, Stan has painstakingly pieced together Kent’s brief life story, while trying to trace his family.
As this year also marks the 100th anniversary of the formation of the Royal Air Force – established on 1 April 1918 by the amalgamation of the RFC and the Royal Naval Air Service – the church service has a special significance and will welcome two special guests and the Standard of No 3 Squadron.
Those attending will include Air Commodore The Viscount Hugh Trenchard RAF, who is the Deputy Lord Lieutenant of Hertfordshire and grandson of the founding father and Marshal of the RAF, 1st Viscount Trenchard; and Peter Alderson, the son of Lieutenant A.G.D. ’Grey’ Alderson, who flew alongside Peter Kent that day. Peter Alderson has been invited to join the Aldenham bellringers on that morning, before the service. Three of the Church’s bell ringers lost their lives in WW1.
The congregation will hear how, on the afternoon of February 6, 1918, Lt.Alderson, Lt. William Dennett and 2nd Lt. Kent – led by Captain Charles Sutton – in their F1 Sopwith Camel aeroplanes, engaged six German Albatross aircraft in a deadly dogfight.
It is a story typical of the daily battle for air supremacy along the Western Front that claimed the lives of thousands of Allied pilots during the Great War. When war broke out, the aeroplane had only been in existence for a decade and they were still made of wood, canvas, wire and glue. But what held these flimsy aircraft and their pilots together was a special bond and, very often, a very close friendship.
Years later, ‘Grey’ Alderson would pay a lasting and personal tribute to Peter Kent, by naming his son after him.Today, Peter Alderson recalls that his father only ever had two pictures on his dressing table, one of his parents and the other of Peter Kent.
Peter Alderson also recalls his father saying that one of the first things he did when he returned home from France in December 1918, was to visit to Mr and Mrs Kent in Aldenham. There, he was presented with a photograph of the plaque they had placed in the Church.
In November 1932, ‘Grey’ Alderson, writing in Popular Flying magazine, recalled how at three o’clock on the afternoon of Wednesday, February 6 1918, he was “..sitting by the fire in the mess with two other officers [Dennett and Kent] when an orderly entered to tell us that we were wanted in the Squadron Office immediately.
“There, the CO[Commanding Officer, Major Richard Raymond-Barker MC] informed us that the Richthofen Circus was out and an offensive patrol had been called for from Headquarters. We were the only pilots available and we had to go. The Circus was a Squadron of picked German pilots, led by Baron von Richthofen, which roamed the Front working wherever they were most needed.”
Running to the aircraft hangar and slipping quickly into their flying suits, the three young Allied pilots and their flight commander, were soon airborne heading north-west in their regulation diamond formation. At that time, noted Alderson, No 3 Squadron patrolled the section of front between Arras and St Quentin from their base at Warloy, east of Albert.
But now, as Alderson later wrote, two and half miles above the Western Front, still dressed in their carpet slippers and stockings – for they had wasted no time in putting on their field boots – the urgency of the scramble was all too apparent. Once over the Lines, in enemy territory, they spotted six German Albatross aircraft 1,500 feet above them, painted in vivid colours to instil fear into their foe.
According to Lt. Alderson’s account, the Squadron’s own war diaries and a letter written to Peter Kent’s father by Major Raymond-Barker MC, Lt. Dennett was forced to turn back with engine trouble before he had even reached the British and German lines.
And soon after the dogfight began, Captain Sutton – their flight commander – had disappeared too, with his tail plane badly damaged. According to the Squadron’s war diary for that day, Sutton had reported that the wheel of a German aeroplane had “..knocked into my fin, sending me down in a spin..” But not before Sutton got a burst of fifty rounds into one German aircraft at a range of just ten yards and his gun jammed. Miraculously, Sutton managed to return to Warloy.
Back in the dogfight, Alderson wrote, “..two of us were now left to cope with the six ‘planes of the Circus..” Against all the odds, the two remaining Camels shot down one Albatross, then another. Alderson was then shot up and down he went, unconscious and out of control.
According to Peter Alderson, his father’s plane came down in a tree and this is what saved him from a horrifying crash. German soldiers recovered and captured him and he didn’t regain consciousness until some time later, when he woke to find himself in an enemy field hospital.
But the last of the four, 2nd Lt Peter Francis Kent, was not so lucky. He went down in flames, shot down north of Remy, after making – it is believed – his first ‘kill’ of the war.
The Squadron diary for that day notes that numerous eye witnesses at three different antiaircraft batteries, reported that “.. these two [Alderson and Kent] put up a magnificent fight against odds of 3 to 1, sending one Enemy Aircraft down in flames and another down absolutely out of control, and a third which left the combat in a damaged condition. Soon after that our two machines were downed, one going down in flames…”.
But Peter Kent was dead, he was just 19 years of age and, by all accounts, he shouldn’t have been in France at all.
Records suggest Kent joined No 3 Squadron in Warloy on December 9, 1917 on a six-week attachment from the School of Special Flying in Gosport, Hampshire. Even at his young age, he was a respected instructor.
By February 1918, Kent should have been home but, like millions of others, he wanted to do his bit for King and Country. The life expectancy of an Allied pilot serving in France at that time was – according to Lieutenant Alderson – just three weeks.
Peter Kent’s body was recovered and buried by the Germans at Lecluse, east of Arras and later moved to the Commonwealth War Graves’ Honourable Artillery Company Cemetery at Ecoust-St.Mein, where it remains today.
Initially, Peter’s father was told by telegram that his son was missing. News of Peter’s death first came as a result of an enquiry he had made to The Red Cross and was later confirmed by the War Office. Amazingly, in 1920, Peter’s cigarette holder in a case was returned to his father by the German government, through diplomatic channels.
Three of five surviving condolence letters written to Peter’s father, were penned by Major Raymond-Barker MC, No 3 Squadron’s commanding officer, a flying ace in his own right.
The letters are moving and touching, from one so young – he was 23 – and, particularly poignant, since Raymond-Barker would die in similar circumstances some weeks later, at the hands of the Red Baron himself.
But perhaps the final words in memory of Peter Francis Kent should come from ‘Grey’ Alderson who flew with Kent that day.
In his book,‘The First World War in the Air 1914-1918’, Alderson wrote: “I do not know how long the fight lasted and it is impossible to recall every movement, but the following account was written by an Archie [anti-aircraft] gunner at the front who witnessed it:
‘One Hun was sent down in flames by the remaining two Camels, shortly followed by a second. Then one of our two went down, shot out of control. Our remaining machine went down in flames’.”
‘Grey’ Alderson added:“ Such a one-sided fight could end only one way in the long run. Red, blue and orange machines flashed alternatively across my sights… Round and round we tore in an ever decreasing circle as each pilot strove to get “on the tail’ of an enemy machine.
“The Germans were using explosive bullets, one of which shattered my right leg and broke the rudder-bar with an impact resembling that of a sledge-hammer. As the second Hun burst into flames, I lost consciousness.
“There were many wonderful escapes from death during the war, but surely none more remarkable than my own. From a height of 13,000 feet my ‘plane fell, completely out of control, diving, zooming, turning over and over, plunging headlong to earth, me unconscious in the cock-pit and the engine full-on.
“Five out of nine, and three down in flames. It was a fight against impossible odds and only by Divine Providence am I able to place on record these few details of one of the fiercest aerial combats of the whole war”.