Lieutenant Graham Price - 6 Squadron Royal Air Force
The eldest of seven children, three boys and four girls, Graham Price was born in 1888 to James and Martha Price. He attended the Elmfield College (a Primitive Methodist College) in York from 1901 to 1904, during which time he was an active member of the Young People’s Christian Endeavour Society. After leaving college, he developed a reputation as a quiet and conscientious man in business affairs, displaying both courtesy and gentlemanly manners. Over the next ten years, Graham distinguished himself as a competitive trials rider, winning numerous medals and even receiving offers from leading manufacturers to ride overseas. In 1914 alone, he won two gold medals for long-distance races, riding his 5 hp Bat motorcycle.
When war was declared, Graham enlisted as a despatch rider in the Royal Engineers and was sent overseas in early October 1914 as part of the British Expeditionary Force. For the next twelve months, Graham survived all manner of dangers, from taking part in the retreat at Mons to being affected by gas in the trenches when the Germans overran Hill 60. Holding the rank of corporal, he eventually became the oldest despatch rider in IV Division HQ and the last of the original seventeen motorcyclists who joined IV Division. To give an example of how dangerous it was to be a despatch rider during the Great War, delivering messages across terrain that was constantly being shelled and almost unrecognisable, in the month of May 1915, Graham required four replacement motorcycles in a single week as well as losing five of his fellow despatch riders who were killed over a ten day period. Several times during 1915, Graham requested to be considered for a commission in the Royal Flying Corps as an observer, but with many changes in leadership within IV Division, it wasn’t until the end of September that he was interviewed by Major Gordon S Shephard, the commanding officer of 6 Squadron. Having made a positive impression on Major Shephard, Corporal Graham Price was immediately sent back to England for observer training.
Graham Price returned to the Western Front on the 11th November 1915 as a 2nd Lieutenant on probation, joining 6 Squadron at Abeele as a junior observer in ‘C’ Flight to complete the active service part of his training and be awarded the ‘single wing’, of a fully-qualified observer. Such was his proficiency that within the first month at 6 Squadron, Graham had flown on numerous missions in FE2a two-seater fighters and later in several BE2c reconnaissance / bombers. It was in a BE2c on the 6th December 1915 that Graham Price was the first observer to use wireless for transmitting messages to the ground in helping the allied artillery range on to enemy targets. Graham’s skills as an observer and his effectiveness in firing a Lewis machine gun in action quickly earned him the reputation as being a formidable opponent to any German scout pilot wishing to interfere with his mission and he created a record in the squadron by participating in fifteen aerial engagements with the enemy. The importance of his skills were quickly recognised and immediately prior to Christmas 1915 he was transferred to ‘A’ Flight to replace the senior observer who had been injured in a flying accident. In his new role, Graham became responsible for training new observers as well as taking part in numerous artillery observation and contact patrol missions with several different pilots. On the 7th February, he was promoted to Flying Officer, giving him equal status and pay to that of a pilot while he waited impatiently to be sent home to England for pilot training. However, due to an extreme shortage of experienced observers at that time, he was informed by his commanding officer, Major Reginald Mills, that his request to become a pilot would not be actioned for at least three months.
Just before noon on the 9th March 1916, four weeks before he was due to go home on leave, Graham Price left on an artillery observation mission from the snow-covered aerodrome at Abeele. His pilot that day was Lt George Fincham, a man he knew well and a very experienced pilot he had crewed as an observer on many occasions, including his very first offensive mission as a probationer back in December 1915. George Fincham had qualified as a pilot in August 1915 and 6 Squadron was his first and only posting. Mid-way through the mission, whilst flying over Kruisstraat at eight thousand feet, their BE2c Serial No: 4181 was attacked by a Fokker ‘Eindecker’ scout. After a fierce aerial battle that lasted fifteen minutes, Graham Price was struck in the chest by enemy bullets and died instantly. George Fincham was also wounded and, with the aircraft badly damaged, he had no choice but to dive towards the ground in an attempt to escape from the enemy scout. From eyewitness accounts, the aircraft crashed close to a British battery to the north of Dickebusch Lake and was completely destroyed by fire, with the bodies of both men still inside the wreckage.
Graham Price and George Fincham, aged twenty-eight and twenty-five respectively, were taken to the No: 10 Casualty Clearing Station at Remi Siding and then buried side by side in the nearby Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery, three miles from Abeele aerodrome.
As a poignant post-script, in a letter to his father a month before his death, Graham Price wrote:
“I anticipate at any rate another two years of war and very much doubt that both of us [Graham’s brother Bert was a serving officer in the British army] will come through; so if by any chance something should happen to one of us, you must not take it to heart too much and grieve, but I feel sure you would both bear it bravely and be proud to have given a son to the Country.”
The following is the letter of condolence written by the commanding officer of 6 Squadron, Major Reginald Mills, to Graham Price’s father.
Extract from ‘For God, England & Ethel’ © Steve Buster Johnson 2009
Three quarters of the way to the target and once again caught in the mid of enemy anti-aircraft fire, Graham Price had a clear view of the enemy gun emplacement. He raised his right arm as a signal to his pilot who once again turned the aircraft around. As soon as they were on their way back to the battery they were working with, Graham took hold of the Morse key and transmitted the ‘G’ firing code, repeating it several times. Watching the end howitzer, a puff of smoke erupted from the gun’s barrel after a few seconds and he turned around in his seat to look towards the target, some four thousand yards to the east. At his signal, George Fincham turned the BE2c to the left, steering the aircraft across the path of the shell and towards the target. As he waited for the shell to hit the ground, Graham counted off the seconds with the aid of the pocket watch strapped to his arm.
He had reached a count of thirty two when the machine was pushed violently downwards as if hit by a huge invisible force, rocking from side to side as the pilot struggled to bring it back on to an even keel. Eight seconds later an explosion erupted on the ground two miles ahead, at precisely the correct range but slightly to the left of the target. A huge plume of earth rose into the sky, creating a ripple in the ground mist that spread out from the explosion like a stone dropped in still water.
“We cut that a bit fine,” Graham shouted. “That must have been the shell coming down over our heads. Next time we’d better go closer to the target and a little more off the line of fire.”
“Keep your eyes on the explosion,” his pilot shouted back. “I’ll fly towards the target a little longer this time so you can get an accurate correction.”
The shock wave of the near miss had dislodged the disc from his map, so Graham had to reposition it in order to work out the appropriate correction. After estimating where the shell had struck, he wrote ‘B12’ on the notepad strapped to his other leg, signifying that the shell had burst between fifty and one hundred yards to the north, or left, of the target.
Graham was about to instruct his pilot to turn the machine around when he was knocked sideways by the force of a nearby explosion. Looking over the side he spotted several large holes in the fabric of the lower port plane, each hole ragged and with burnt edges. The aircraft was rocked by a second explosion, though this time the shell burst was fifty yards to the left and slightly behind their position. He heard a slap on the side of the cockpit and turned around to face the pilot.
“I think we’re through the worst of it, Graham. Have you worked out the correction?”
“Yes, I have. You can make the turn now.”
The aircraft lurched again as yet another anti-aircraft shell exploded nearby. Before Graham could brace himself, he was pushed down in his seat, experiencing three times the force of gravity as George pulled the aircraft into a tight climbing turn to the right, before pointing the machine back towards the safety of the lines. When the German anti-aircraft guns stopped firing, Graham realised they were safe until the next run. Peering over the side he tried to gauge the severity of the wing damage. Though a significant portion of fabric was missing from the lower wing, as far as he could tell no bracing or control wires had been broken.
“It looks worse than it is, George. I can’t see any broken wires.”
“All right, Graham, let’s press on. I’ll run back towards the battery whilst you send them the correction. Let me know when you’ve sent the message so I can be ready to make the turn as soon as the gun fires again. That way we can save time.”
“I’ve just sent the signal so it won’t be long now.”
The aircraft was at about the same position where it had almost been struck by the first shell when the howitzer fired again.
“OK, I can see the smoke, George. Let’s go back into Hunland.”
This time the pilot made a hard turn to starboard with the wings of the BE2c becoming almost vertical. Counting out the seconds, Graham was forced back in his seat, the wooden shelf holding the telegraph key pressing painfully into his right arm as he twisted around to keep the target in sight. After a count of forty one, he spotted another explosion on the ground. This time it was more than just a single column of earth that was thrown into the sky. The initial shell blast was followed by yet more explosions, each one larger than the first, and a huge cloud of black smoke rose hundreds of feet into the air.
“By jove, we’ve scored a direct hit in two,” he shouted excitedly. “Just look at those fireworks!”
Coming within range of the German anti-aircraft guns again, the aircraft was buffeted by a series of blasts. Pieces of fragmented shell whizzed through the air all around, some of them penetrating the left side of the fuselage and burning holes in the fabric covering.
“Don’t wait around any longer, George. Head back towards the battery and I’ll transmit the ‘OK’ signal on the way. They won’t need to fire again on these coordinates.”
“Rightio. Hold on to your horses while I get us out of here.”
It took another hour for the two airmen to successfully range the batteries on to the next two targets though both targets were destroyed without further mishap. The third objective proved the most difficult. Marked as a supply dump and positioned next to a crossroads it should have been an easy target, but the intensity of the anti- aircraft gunfire in the area made George unwilling to risk taking the aircraft as close as his observer would have liked. It took five aiming corrections before the four friendly howitzers obliterated the supply dump as well as a large section of the crossroads. With one remaining target, George was anxious to complete the mission and return to Abeele, as they had been in the air for two and a half hours and were running low on fuel. He cut back the throttle to reduce the speed and wind noise so that he could more easily communicate with his observer.
“We must press on as we’re low on petrol and I don’t want to risk having to land on the wrong side of the lines. The holes in the wing aren’t helping either.”
“I’ve not seen our escorts for a while, George. Would you climb higher on the way back to the battery so I can get a better look at what’s around?”
“I’ll see what I can do, but I can’t promise anything. I’m not sure how badly we’re damaged and I don’t want to chance my arm.”
“Do what’s best, you’re the pilot. I’m transmitting to say we’re ready for the final target. Tell me if you want to call it a day and I’ll send them the CI instead.”
“Let’s try at least one run. We’re right over Zillebeke so it won’t take us long to get back to the battery from here. The lookout can probably see us already if he’s using his binoculars.”
“Our time’s almost up so we might even overlap with the machine that’s next up. Let me test the Lewis before I send the message.”
“Right you are, Graham.”
With the aircraft in a steady climb on a direct heading towards the battery, Graham stowed his maps and unbuckled his waist belt before turning around and kneeling on his seat so that he could make ready the Lewis machine gun. Having checked the magazine, he swung the gun through the safe arc of fire and fired off a dozen practice rounds. He smiled at his friend, though he doubted the pilot could see his expression behind the large goggles and close-fitting balaclava that they were both wearing. Sitting in the rear cockpit, George Fincham instinctively flinched at the sound of the machine gun, the muzzle only inches from his face, and he waited until it had stopped before he tried to say anything.
“I’ll keep an eye out while you send your message, Graham. There’s a speck in the distance, about two miles away. It’s a lot higher than we are and it’s coming towards us from the west, so I’d put my money on it being the machine that’s relieving us.”
“I hope they’ll be as lucky as we’ve been today.”
“We’re not home yet,” George replied, but his words were lost in the wind.
The speck grew closer, decreasing in height as it approached. Within a few seconds what had at first appeared as a small black dot quickly grew into the shape of an aircraft. George looked intently at the oncoming machine, its image blurred by the single spinning propeller. Lowering the nose of the BE2 momentarily to get a clearer view, he sensed there was something odd about the silhouette. It only took him a few moments to identify the aircraft as a monoplane. Knowing of no such allied aircraft operating in the area, he quickly realised that it had to be a Fokker scout and that they were directly in its path, unable to return fire as their only weapon was pointing in the opposite direction. At a range of five hundred yards the enemy aircraft was attacking in a steep dive. As it came closer, he saw flashes of light erupt from the muzzle of the centrally mounted machine gun as the German pilot came at them.
“Eindecker!” he screamed as he pushed the throttle wide open. Forcing the aircraft into a violent left hand turn, he tried to manoeuvre into a position where his observer would be able to fire upon their attacker. Without warning, the steep turn developed into a spiral dive as the damaged fabric tore away from the wing ribs. He struggled to regain control and gradually brought the aircraft out of the dive. Looking around to check their position he discovered that they were flying in an easterly direction, back towards the German lines. With the aircraft finally back under control, he gradually increased the throttle so that he could gain height yet minimise the strain on the damaged wing surface.
“I think he overshot us,” George shouted into the slipstream, hoping his observer would hear him. “See if you can spot him as I turn back towards our lines. With God’s help we can still make it home, Graham.”
This time he banked the machine in the opposite direction. He briefly looked out over the side of the cockpit to get his bearings and saw the outline of Zillebeke Lake come into view immediately below. Knowing they were only minutes away from Abeele, he quickly reassured himself that there should be sufficient fuel to make it home, provided the wing held out. His thoughts were interrupted by the deafening sound of his observer’s Lewis gun. He quickly glanced behind but could not see anything. Between bursts of gunfire his observer was trying to tell him something, but the only words he could understand were, ‘Immelmann turn’. These two words were enough for George to realise that they were in grave danger. The enemy pilot must have zoomed up into a loop, rolled his machine over at the top of the loop and was now in a perfect position for making another attack, but this time from behind. Having already crossed over the British lines, there was still a good chance the enemy would break off the attack and leave them in peace.
The firing stopped and he watched as Graham removed the spent drum of ammunition and dropped it on to the floor the cockpit. Just as the observer reached out over the side to take a new drum of ammunition from the storage rack, George felt a searing pain in his back and left arm. At exactly the same moment, he noticed three blood-encircled bullet holes appear in the Triplex windscreen directly in front of him and his observer jerk backwards as if tackled by an invisible rugby opponent, his hands simultaneously letting go of the Lewis gun and the new drum of ammunition. Caught in the slipstream, the heavy drum scraped down the side of the fuselage before striking the tailplane and punching a neat hole through the vertical fin. Unable to reach into the front cockpit, George watched as his observer slid to the floor with arms outstretched, the back of his head striking the instrument panel as he fell. The aircraft slowed as if it had encountered a sudden head wind and with no-one manning it, the Lewis gun spun around in random circular movements as the aeroplane faltered in the sky. Smoke began to pour out of the engine and the whole machine vibrated violently as pieces of wood flew off the propeller, striking the fuselage in a hailstorm of splinters.
“I’m shutting it down, Graham,” George shouted, praying that his friend was still alive. Switching off the electrics, he looked for a suitable place to land.
“The engine’s been hit and the propeller’s shattered, so there’s no chance of reaching the airfield I’m afraid. Hold on old chap, I’ll do my best for you.”
George grappled with the controls using his right hand and both feet, his left arm hanging useless by his side. The control stick felt warm and sticky in his grasp. With all the strength he could muster, he tried to maintain an even descent in order to give them at least a chance of making a successful landing. As he did so he fought to remain conscious, but all he wanted to do was close his eyes. He had no idea where the enemy scout was and didn’t really care, knowing that he had no strength to turn around in his seat even if he wanted to. Waves of pain and nausea swept over him and every time he relaxed his grip on the controls, his peripheral vision closed in so that it seemed as if he was looking through the wrong end of a telescope. Somehow the shattered machine held together, testimony to its designers, as it descended in tight circles towards a large field where cows were grazing. It left behind it a trail of dense grey smoke the shape of a giant corkscrew, visible all around to hundreds of allied soldiers who had watched the conflict from the relative safety of their trenches with a detached sense of interest and sympathy. Using the last of his strength, George pulled back on the control stick as the ground rushed towards them.
“Almost there Graham, almost there,” he murmured.
The stricken machine slowly came out of the dive, stalled momentarily in mid-air before rolling over on to its back and plunging vertically into the ground.