Saturday, 24 May 2014

Remembering a Great War hero: Flight Sgt Thomas Mottershead VC

Regular readers of this blog will know that among the many aspects of socio-cultural history that interest me World War I looms large - and in particular the aerial warfare of that period.  I make no secret of my continued enjoyment of the Biggles series of books nor that my Great War library is heavily stacked in the favour of aeronautics.  Posts about this and other aspects of the First World War are therefore naturally littered throughout this blog - and long may that continue!

Thomas Mottershead VC statue appeal website launched

It'll continue right now, in fact, with another tale of selfless heroism in the skies above the trenches and the current attempts to honour one of the airmen involved.  The story of Flight Sergeant Thomas Mottershead was brought to my attention recently by one of the people involved in getting him recognised and I'm glad, since it has made me aware of another brave pilot and a further fascinating and poignant episode in that four-year conflict.

Thomas Mottershead hailed from Widnes (then in Lancashire, now part of Cheshire), where he was born on the 11th January 1890 at number 6 Vine Street.  By the beginning of 1914 things were looking very rosy for 24-year-old Tom Mottershead who, like many young men of his generation at the end of the Edwardian era, was a fit and athletic chap who played football for his local league side and was also a Bible reader at his local parish church.  In February he married a young girl from nearby Birkenhead named Lillian Bree, the two of them setting up their own home in Widnes.  A keen engineer, educated at the local technical school and apprenticed at Widnes' main employer the United Alkali Company, Mottershead had begun working at the Birkenhead shipyards in the summer of 1914 before moving to Portsmouth Naval Dockyard in August.   With war declared on the 4th Mottershead enlisted six days later on the 10th, immediately joining the fledgling Royal Flying Corps as an air mechanic.

By June of 1916 Mottershead had been promoted to sergeant, returned to England for pilot training and awarded his "wings".  In July 1916 he was sent to 25 Squadron, based at Auchel in northern France and flying FE2b fighter-bombers, where he took part in the Battle of the Somme.  By October he had been made Acting Flight Sergeant and moved to 20 Squadron, piloting FE2ds.

The FE2-series of aircraft were what is known as "pusher" types - that is, the engine was mounted at the back, pushing the aeroplane along.  This was the British answer to the problem of firing a machine-gun forwards without hitting the propellor, a problem which had long ago been solved by the Germans with their Fokker "synchronisation gear" but which took us a little longer to perfect.  With the engine behind the pilot/observer and a "bathtub"-style cockpit, a wide field of fire was possible - except, of course, towards the rear!  Observers and pilots of FEs were able to fire back over the top wing, but it was a very precarious undertaking (and don't forget the pilot would most likely be throwing the machine all over the place at the same time!).  Pilots would take some small crumb of comfort in the thought that any bullets coming from behind would (hopefully!) be stopped by the engine and not them.

Although reportedly a somewhat cumbersome and unwieldy aeroplane to fly, the FE's weight was an advantage inasmuch as the airframe could take a fair bit of punishment.  Its layout was put to good use in the event of attack by hostile fighters; pilots would form what was known as a "defensive circle", flying round in an aerial "follow-my-leader" - all the while trying to get closer to the Allied lines and safety.  In this way each aircraft covered the rear blind spot of the next, making attack very difficult.

By the beginning of 1917, when Flt. Sgt. Mottershead - recently awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal - had returned from Christmas leave, the FE was completely outclassed by German fighters.  Nevertheless the FE2ds that he flew at 25 Squadron continued to see service until the middle of the year, when they were largely replaced by the Bristol F2.b Fighter, with the earlier FE2b variant actually surviving until the end of the war as a night bomber.

One of the other flaws of the FE's design was the location of the fuel tank: directly underneath the pilot's seat.  It was this that was to prove fatal for Thomas Mottershead when, on the morning of Sunday 7th January 1917 he took off Clairmarais with his observer Lieutenant William E. Gower on a contact patrol (observing and reporting troop movements).  They were attacked by a Leutnant Walter Göttsch from Jasta 8, flying the far more manoeuvrable Albatros fighter.  Göttsch quickly scored hits on Mottershead's FE2d, including puncturing the fuel tank.  In spite of frantic signals from Gower, Mottershead was not able to turn off the fuel feed quickly enough and the petrol tank burst into flames.  It was every pilot's worst nightmare and despite his observer's best efforts with a fire extinguisher Mottershead was quickly engulfed in flames.  Even in the middle of all this he did his best to try to land the aircraft safely behind Allied lines.  Unfortunately the undercarriage had been damaged and collapsed on landing causing the aeroplane to flip over ("turn turtle"), throwing Gower clear but trapping Mottershead beneath the wreckage of the cockpit.  Nearby British troops were able to save the unconscious Gower and, eventually, Mottershead too - who, amazingly, was still conscious.  Removed to the nearest Casualty Clearing Station he sadly succumbed to his wounds five days later on the 12th.  He was buried the following day at Ballieul Cemetery, " of the bravest men who had ever fallen in war..." according to the words of his commanding officer.

Exactly one month later, Mottershead was posthumously awarded the highest military honour in the British Armed Forces - the Victoria Cross.  His widow accepted the medal from King George V in Hyde Park on the 7th June 1917, in the company of Lt. Gower.  Flight Sergeant Thomas Mottershead has the distinction of being the only non-commissioned officer (i.e. an enlisted man, a corporal, sergeant etc.) in the Royal Flying Corps to have received a VC during the war.

Now a local committee of interested parties has set up an appeal fund to help properly honour Thomas Mottershead and all those who fought and died in the Great War.  In an admirable display of civic pride they hope to be able to erect a statue of the pilot in Widnes' Victoria Park in time for the centenary of his death, in January 2017.  Local government and business are involved and as the supporters quite rightly point out, it is important that the sacrifices of men like Tom Mottershead are remembered - especially in this centenary year of the war's beginning - and someone with as unique a record as he certainly deserves to be commemorated.  The website contains a wealth of information - I wish them the best of luck with their appeal and feel sure we will be reading of the statue's unveiling in a little less than 3 years' time.


  1. Thank you for the very intersting post. More must be done so we do not loose the memory of the honorable airmen, soldiers, and sailors (and ladies) of both WWI and WWII. It is good that some are working to honor those to whom we owe our existance and freedom.

  2. Hi,
    I wish to thank you for publishing this article about Tom Mottershead V.C. D.C.M. His statue will be unveiled on the 1/4/2018. The centenary of the formation of the R.A.F. from the R.F.C. & R.N.A.S. His Granddaughter, Cynthia now lives in Queensland Australia, whom I am in daily contact with.

    Secretary & Founder of the Sgt. Thomas Mottershead statue appeal.
    Todger Jones statue appeal founder.

    1. A Blue Plaque will be unveiled on the 17th January 2017, the date of his birthday, 17/1/1892, The Plaque will be attached to 6 Vine street Widnes, the place of his birth.


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