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William Barnard Rhodes-Moorhouse

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William Barnard Rhodes-Moorhouse (1887-1915), VC awarded the first Victoria Cross in the air.

He was born in London on 26 September 1887 and died of his wounds in France on 27 January 1915 follows.

Will Rhodes-Moorhouse was the eldest son of Edward Moorhouse and Mary Ann, the part Maori daughter of William Barnard Rhodes who was one of the founders of the colony of New Zealand. Will’s parents settled in England in 1884 and he was brought up mainly in Northamptonshire with a brother and two sisters.

As a small boy Will became mad about machines of all kinds though he was particularly keen on steam engines and locomotive sets purchased from the Bassett-Lowke factory in Northampton. He was a natural mechanic but never shone at school; he left Harrow needing to attend a crammer before going up to Cambridge University where he never quite fitted in.

Will had begun his craze for speed on motorcycles but then he and his student friends raced cars on the open road.

He was soon involved in aviation, learning to fly at Huntingdon where he teamed up with James Radley, another pioneer aviator.

1910 Rhodes-Moorhouse and Radley took a Gnome-engined Bleriot “barnstorming” across the USA to compete for money and fame in the newly popular aero-meetings. They ended up in San Francisco winning the £1,000 Harbour Prize and where Will was the first to fly through the Golden Gate.[1]

Together adley and Moorhouse built the Radley-Moorhouse monoplane which resembled the familiar Bleriot type. In this aircraft Will gained considerable experience and became one of the top cross-country pilots of his time.

In 1911 he came 2nd in the Aerial Derby race around London. He also made the first cargo flight, carrying Barrats boots from Northampton to Hendon. At about this time it is thought he demonstrated the first tail slides and possibly even a loop.

By now Will and Linda Morritt, a great friend of his sister Anne, were in love. She was also fearless and accompanied Will on several risky enterprises including a winter sports holiday in St Moritz where Will mastered the Cresta Run and she joined in on Lord Carberry’s six “man” bobsleigh!

1912 He married Linda Morritt in the Spring of 1912 and for their honeymoon they went to Belgium to take delivery of a Breguet machine which Will hoped to enter for the Salisbury Plain military flying trails. The Breguet, with a 70hp Canton-Unnee engine, was a great load carrier and, with a reporter from the London Evening News, they set off for England to make the first Channel flight carrying two passengers. Unfortunately Will was forced to crash land in extremely turbulent weather near Ashford but the flight made a big news story. The strength of the Breguet saved them but Linda suffered a miscarriage not long after and Will stopped flying to concentrate on motor racing and rallying. He was a regular competitot at Brooklands with his faithful mechanic, Tookey, and took part, with Radley, in the Monte Carlo rally driving a Rolls-Royce.

1914 His only son Willie was born in March 1914. Meanwhile the family had bought Parnham House, Beaminster, Dorset a beautiful Tudor Manor, to be his and Linda’s future home. Upon the outbreak of war he immediately joined the RFC as a 2nd Lt at the age of 27.

Because of his flying accidents Will had a complete set of false teeth and there was an absurd rule that no one could fly in the RFC so “handicapped”! He therefore went as officer in charge of a section at the Farnborough factory which accepted and tested Renault engines for the BE series of aircraft. However, on the quiet, Will got himself flying again by Christmas 1914, initially at Brooklands but then in BE machines at Farnborough.

In February 1915 he delivered a Parasol Bleriot No 576 to St. Omer and in March, such was the need for pilots, that he flew out a BE2c No 1657 and joined No 2 Squadron RFC at Merville commanded by Major T I Webb-Bowen. His flight commander was Maurice Blake. Will started operational flying immediately, usually flying BE2a No 492, spending the rest of March and most of April doing recce patrols, artillery spotting and photography, frequently recording in his log the incidence of “Archie”. Ivor Lloyd, recently graduated from Sandhurst, was regularly his observer and described how they chased enemy aircraft, getting so close they could fire their revolvers at the pilots.

The 2nd Battle of Ypres had now started and German reinforcements were routed through the railway junction at Courtrai 35 miles beyond the front line. When Trenchard assigned this target to be bombed by No 2 squadron Will took on the task. In his last letter to Linda, only to be read on his death, he described how he would have to carry out the attack very low to ensure hitting the target “. . . . I am off on a trip from which I don’t expect to return but which I hope will shorten the war a bit. I shall probably be blown up by my own bomb or, if not, killed by rifle fire.” He also left a letter addressed to “Sonny”, full of good advice for his son to read on his 21st birthday.

BE2a No 492 was being repaired from shrapnel damage so he selected BE2b No 687, “a good climber”, and he took off solo at 3.05pm April 26th carrying a 100lb bomb. On reaching Courtrai he ignored Maurice Blake’s advice to bomb from altitude and flew down to below 300ft through a hail of machine gunfire from a church tower and from hundreds of rifles. A shell drove the seat into his left thigh also tearing part of it away. At the same time a piece of shrapnel took off three fingers from his right hand so, to release the bomb, he had to let go of the stick and lean right over to activate the mechanism with his left hand. The explosion of his bomb then very nearly sent the aeroplane out of control. His left leg was now useless so he only had his left hand and right leg to fly the machine, added to which the seat was so shattered that it sagged forward into the controls.

At this point he could have landed immediately and saved his life but he judged it more important to return and report the success of his mission and in any case he was determined not to let the Germans have his machine. He was so faint now that he decided to fly very low to keep up speed to re-cross the lines as quickly as possible. Probably while he was crossing the Ypres battlefield he was hit by a bullet which ripped through his abdomen and came to rest just under the skin over the ribs of his left side: this proved to be the fatal wound.

In his diary Maurice Blake described Will’s arrival at Merville “ . . . about 4.12pm saw an aeroplane flying very low on other side of river, when it turned to land machine was only 30ft high. It was Moorhouse and he switched on engine and cleared hedge on other bank and made perfect landing on top ground. Webb-Bowen and I went to machine and we found poor old Moorhouse was badly hit. Sent for stretcher and cut anti-drift wires. He said he felt as if his stomach was shot out of him”. Before he died the next afternoon he said to Blake “It’s strange dying Blake old boy - unlike anything one has ever done before, like one’s first solo flight”.

After hearing he had earned an immediate DSO he was awarded posthumously the first Victoria Cross ever won in the air. This was Gazetted 23rd May 1915. In making the award the authorities had no knowledge of his letter foretelling so exactly what he was to face and little idea of the professionalism and great experience he drew upon or that the Nation had lost a pilot and engineer who could have in years to come contributed so much more to aviation than this suicidal exploit.

Exceptionally and at his own request his body was allowed back to England and he was buried in specially consecrated ground on top of a hill overlooking Parnham House were he and Linda had planned to build a cottage.

In 1991 his surviving relatives decided that the VC Medal Group, impossible to display to the public for being too valuable, should be sold and the proceeds converted into a Charitable Trust to support activities in aviation of which Will would have approved. The Guinness Book of Records of 1992 confirmed that Will’s VC and campaign medals fetched the highest price ever paid for a medal group. The W B Rhodes-Moorhouse VC Trust currently provides flying and engineering scholarships through The Air League.


See Also

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Sources of Information

  1. Rhodes-Moorhouse did not have his aero licence when he went with Radley to the USA. contrary to his wife declaring that he had flown under the Golden Gate bridge; it was not built until 1937