Perhaps heroism runs in families. The McCudden family of Brompton seem to prove that theory.
The four sons of William “Little Mac” McCudden all served their country with distinction All died young. Their father, a retired sergeant-major died during an act of chivalry on a train. One son won a Military Cross; another was a pioneer flier; the most famous, James, won the Military Medal, Distinguished Service Order and Bar, Military Cross and Bar — and Victoria Cross.
Not long before his death in 1918 at 23, James Thomas Byford McCudden was feted as Britain’s greatest air ace — and became subject of a row between Gillingham and Chatham councils over who should honour him.
William McCudden, a Catholic Ulsterman enlisted in the Royal Engineers as a bugler boy in 1879. At the age of 16 he saved a child from drowning in Hamilton harbour, Bermuda, and was awarded the Royal Humane Society’s Bronze medal. Little Mac returned to Brompton Barracks and in 1890 married Amelia Byford, whose father Thomas was landlord of the Shipwrights Arms nearby. Their children, William, Mary, James, John, Kathleen and Maurice arrived between 1891.
McCudden retired from the army in 1907 and went to work as a clerk for the Amy Service Corps at Sheerness. It was at nearby Eastchurch aerodrome that young Bill and Jimmy became interested in flying.
Bill joined the Royal Engineers and soon was posted to the aeroplane section before transferring the Royal Flying Corps in May 1912. Young James also joined the Royal Engineers, became a marksman, and then joined the Royal Flying Corps.
His first day, at Farnborough on 9 May, 1913, went badly. He had been told to practise swinging the propeller, but little realising that somebody had left the engine on, the plane started and crashed into the station commander’s car. He lost a fortnight’s pay and gained a week in the cells. But he survived the ignominy and both brothers were with No 3 squadron when the First World War broke out in August, 1914, and both flew on raids. Bill’s experience meant he was soon chosen to instruct the many would-be pilots in the growing service and on May 1, 1915, he was giving a lesson at Gosport, near Portsmouth, when a carburettor flooded, causing his Bleriot plane to lurch. He tried to clear the problem by going into a nose dive, but crashed.
He died in hospital at 11 that night. He was buried in Chatham Cemetery with full military honours. Jimmy, meanwhile, had been promoted to sergeant but his flying career seemed stalled because he was considered too valuable as a mechanic. Eventually, he was accepted for pilot training in January, 1916, and by August, 1917, joined No 56 Squadron — considered by many the most successful of the Great War. In the next seven months he recorded 52 kills, and possibly another 20.
On two occasions, he shot down four enemy planes in a day. His skill and heroism earned him two DSOs and two MCs. In January 1918 the War Office, under pressure from Fleet Street, named Captain McCudden as the top British air ace. In February, 1918, he was appointed an instructor; two months later came through the news that he had been awarded the Victoria Cross. The citation in the London Gazette (see below) makes stirring reading.
Sadly, the award caused a municipal squabble between Chatham and Gillingham councils — both wanting to claim the boy from Brompton as their own and confer upon him the freedom of the borough. McCudden settled the quarrel by saying he was a friend of Chatham but belonged to Gillingham. Tragically, he would receive the freedom of neither. On 9 July, 1918, McCudden, now a major, flew across the Channel to join No 60 Squadron. After putting down in Auxi-le-Chateau, he took off, but the plane stalled and crashed into woods nearby. He was buried the next day in Wavans. His medals are on display at the Royal Engineers Museum, Gillingham.
His brother John Anthony has been killed over German lines four months before; his remaining brother Maurice — a flight assistant with the Royal Aircraft Factory died from an abdominal illness, aged 34, in 1933. Their father died in July 1920. Little Mac, travelling on a train from Waterloo, got up to offer his seat to a woman and fell through an open door into the path of an oncoming engine.
So much heroism, so much bad luck.
Fitting tribute by heroes’ mother
A former town clerk of Chatham adds an interesting footnote to the heroic and tragic family.
Rowland Newnes, who was town clerk of Chatham 1946-61 and then town clerk Gillingham until 1966, writes: “When I returned to Britain at the end of the North African Campaign in 1943 I was attached, for some time, to the United States Army Air Corps at their base at Ridgewell in Essex, as a liaison officer.
“On one bombing raid while I was there (which was before the advent of the Mustang long-range fighter), 18 aircraft set off to bomb the Schweinfurt ball-bearing factory in Germany but only one returned. So many aircraft, and more than 1,000 aircrew were lost from Ridgewell that after the end of the war a memorial to them was put up there by colleagues.
“So, when my wife and I were in Washington DC some years after the war, we decided to pay our respects at Arlington cemetery. After witnessing the changing of the guard at the tomb of the American Unknown Soldier, we went to look in the memorial hall nearby.
“There, to our surprise, was a photograph of the McCudden brothers’ mother. She had attended in 1922 the ceremony of the burial of the Unknown Warrior as a representative of the Mothers of Britain.” Thank you, Mr Newnes. How right that the mother of so many heroes should be at that ceremony.
Fine words for the dead crackshot
Here is the citation for James McCudden published in the London Gazette on 2 April, 1918:
“For most conspicuous bravery, exceptional perseverance, and a very high devotion to duty. Captain McCudden has at the present time accounted for 54 enemy aeroplanes. “Of these, 42 have been destroyed, 19 of them on our side of the lines. Only 12 out of the 54 have been driven down out of control. On two occasions, he had totally destroyed 4 two-seater enemy aeroplanes on the same day, and on the last occasion all four machines were destroyed in the space of one hour and thirty minutes. While in his present squadron, he has participated in 78 offensive patrols, and in nearly every case has been the leader.
“On at least 30 occasions, whilst with the same squadron, he has crossed the lines alone, either in pursuit or in quest of enemy aeroplanes.
“The following incidents are examples of the work he has done recently: on 23 December 1917, when leading his patrol, eight enemy aeroplanes were attacked between 1430 and 1550 and of these two were shot down by Captain McCudden in our lines; on the morning of the same day, he left the ground at 1050 and encountered four enemy aeroplanes and of these he shot two down; on 30 January 1918, he, single-handed, attacked five enemy scouts, as a result of which two were destroyed.
“On this occasion, he only returned home when the enemy scouts had been driven Far East; his Lewis gun ammunition was all finished and the belt of his Vickers gun had broken.
“As a patrol leader he has at all times shown the utmost gallantry and skill, not only in the manner in which he has attacked and destroyed the enemy, but in the way he has, during several aerial fights, protected the newer members of his flight, thus keeping down their casualties to a minimum.
“This officer is considered, by the record he has made, by his fearlessness, and by the great service which he has rendered to his country, deserving of the very highest honour.”