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Durkin, Phillippo and Smith – Early 6 Squadron Aviators

This is the story of three 6 Squadron officers whose destinies became intertwined on the Western Front during 1917.  


Frank Vivian Durkin was serving as a 2nd Lieutenant with the 2/7th Worcester Regiment (TF) when he became attached to the Royal Flying Corps in early 1916 and trained as an observer in England. After qualifying he was posted to 6 Squadron on the Western Front as a flying officer / observer, arriving on the 28th October 1916. At that time 6 Squadron was sharing Abeele Aerodrome (located near Poperinghe, Belgium) with 41 Squadron and was operating several variants of the two-seater reconnaissance/bomber, the Royal Aircraft Factory BE2. The six aircraft of ‘C’ Flight were temporarily operating out of Droglandt, six miles NW of Abeele, leaving twelve BE2s to fly from 6 Squadron’s main base. Fortunately for Vivian Durkin, he was one of the first Royal Flying Corps observers to receive extensive training in England before being posted to a front-line squadron, as before October 1916 many observers ran the risk of receiving much of their training ‘in the field’.


The first month on active service provided Durkin with an insight as to the difficulties serving on a front-line squadron. The weather was cold and wet, with many days too foggy for flying operation. On one of the few clear nights, the aerodrome was bombed by a German aircraft and on another occasion there was a gas attack. Nevertheless, aircraft from 6 Squadron were able to carry out successful artillery observation missions as well as the bombing of enemy targets; both types of operation giving Durkin invaluable experience.


Durkin flew with several pilots, including his flight commander, Captain Sidney Philip Smith. In March 1917 the first batch of the new Royal Aircraft Factory RE8s arrived to replace the ageing BE2s. As the weather improved with spring, 6 Squadron concentrated on Artillery Co-operation missions and in the last two weeks of May 1917 its aircrew amassed more than 950 operational flying hours, a record for the squadron, equivalent to eighteen aircraft flying four hours every day.


The first day of the Battle of Messines (7th June 1917) proved to be a difficult day for 6 Squadron, with two aircraft destroyed, four officers killed, one taken as POW and three badly injured. One of the men killed that day was Lt Arthur James Cecil Eyre Phillippo, though details surrounding his death remained a mystery for more than a century until, in 2022, I read a post on the Great War Forum that the WW1 medals and bronze Memorial Death Plaque of Philip Smith had been sold at an eBay auction for £8,000 in 2016. Included in the sale were two letters (one written by Philip Smith and the other by Vivian Durkin), the contents of which shed light on Phillippo and Durkin’s last flight. Even today, it is quite likely that Phillippo’s descendants are unaware as to how and where he died.


The official records show that Durkin and his pilot, Arthur ‘Galipot’ Phillippo, left Abeele aerodrome at 3:50 pm on the 7th June 1917, bound for a photo reconnaissance mission. Flying to the west of Ypres in strong and gusty winds, their RE8 A4210 was attacked by four Albatros fighters. After a brief battle, during which the RE8 was peppered with machine gun bullets, observers at an English battery near Kruisstraat reported that the RE8 went into a spin over Vlammertinge and crashed inside enemy territory east of the village of Hollebeke. Frank Durkin survived the crash but was taken as prisoner of war and held in captivity in Germany until the 14th December 1918 when he was repatriated to England via the port of Hull. Both he and Phillippo were initially reported as missing in action, but Phillippo’s status remained as “MIA” until a year after the end of the war (London Gazette 9th October 1919) when the Germans reported that his body lay in the Menen Communal Cemetery, only ten miles east of where he and Durkin crashed. However, the details as to how, when and where Phillippo met his death remained a mystery. Having read the two letters it is likely that Phillippo died of his injuries in a nearby German field hospital the day after the crash, 8th June 1917.


The link between Smith and Phillippo is that they both flew with Durkin on operations when they served with 6 Squadron. When Smith received severe bullet wounds to his right foot in May 1917 and was shipped back to England on the Hospital Ship St Denis, Durkin was paired with Phillippo. Smith recuperated for ten months in England before he was fit enough to return to active duty in France, this time posted to 46 Squadron on the 6th March 1918 as a fighter pilot, flying a Sopwith Camel. While recovering in England, Smith received a reply to a letter he had written to his old friend Vivian Durkin, who was being held in the Holzminden POW camp in Germany. In the letter, written in January 1918, Durkin asks for cigarettes and takes the opportunity of explaining exactly what had happened that fateful day in June 1917 when he and Phillippo were shot down. The letter from Durkin was included with a letter from Smith to his parents when he wrote to them in March 1918 and both letters remained in the possession of the Smith family along with ‘Phil’ Smith’s other personal effects until were sold off at auction in 2016.


The letter from Smith would be the last his parents would receive from him as it was written only eleven days before he was shot down in flames during a low patrol near Villers-Bretonneux on the 6th April 1918 whilst flying Sopwith Camel D6491. His nemesis was none other than Baron von Richthofen flying a Fokker DR1. Smith was listed as “Missing in Action” on the 9th May 1918. His death was eventually acknowledged by the British authorities but his body was never found. As a result, Smith’s name is honoured on the Arras Flying Services Memorial. It is ironic that after almost a year recuperating from what was classified as a ‘severe’ injury, enough to put a lesser man out of the war, Philip Smith would lose his life only one month after returning to active duty with a new squadron. His role during the last month of his life was to fly dangerous low level missions against the German army along the 3rd Army Front. On two occasions flying different Sopwith Camels, his aircraft was damaged so much by ground fire that when he arrived back at the aerodrome it was officially declared a wreck and “struck off charge”. Such was the bravery of the man.


It is sad that the ten months Philip Smith’s spent with 6 Squadron, during which time he rose to the rank of Captain and flight commander, have never been recognised, no doubt due to the fact that the extended time he spent recuperating meant he would be allocated to another squadron when he was deemed capable of flying again. It is interesting to note that he was sent to a fighter squadron flying the idiosyncratic and unforgiving Sopwith Camel when it would have made more sense for him to be posted to an artillery-cooperation squadron flying the familiar RE8. My theory is that his badly compromised right foot would have caused him a problem operating the right rudder of most aircraft but the Sopwith Camel (with the huge gyroscopic influence of its rotary engine) required left rudder for both left and right turns with only a light additional touch of the right rudder for right-hand turns. By the time of his death, Captain Philip Smith was officially an "Ace", with the downing of five enemy aircraft to his credit.


Vivian Durkin remained with the RAF until the 28th April 1919 when, according to the London Gazette, he was transferred to the Unemployment List. He married later that year in Dorking Surrey to Teresa Paterson. During WW2 he was a lieutenant in the Hampshire Regiment and died aged 58 in 1955.


I have attached below transcriptions and copies of the two letters as well as a photograph of the crashed RE8 flown by Durkin and Phillippo. It is clear that the propeller was not spinning when the aircraft hit the ground, so it was the “Dead stick” landing as described by Durkin in his letter to Smith, a difficult feat in a damaged aircraft, with only the rudimentary controls in the rear cockpit to guide it to the ground.

Lager No. 728, Holzminden.  January 23rd 1918


Dear old Smith,


Heaps of thanks for your letter of Dec 6th 1917.  I was awfully delighted to get it, and to know how you were.  Well now as to explaining things.  I don’t quite know how to put things, as we have to be very careful what we say.  Phillippo & I had just finished our job, when he said “how many photos have I taken”? So I looked at indicator when “tut-tut-tut,” could not see them at first, (meanwhile Galipot was turning and diving all over the shop) then 3 enemy machines came into sight, all three must have had a pot at us, because I heard them hit all over the show.  Then they buzzed off.


So I turned and shouted, “they’ve gone,” by this time the buzz was spinning, nothing happened, so I repeated, this time poor old Galipot had fallen right forward.  So I stuck my stick in and grabbed the “cotton-reel” shut-off engine and shoved stick forward.  She came out of it beautifully, when all of a sudden crash, went into spinning again and nothing that I did would alter it.  Then I happened to catch sight of elevator wire flapping behind in the wind.  Of course all was over, so I thought.


Remember nothing more till someone was hauling me out of machine.  The tail was completely broken off.  They took me to a dressing station and sometime after Galipot came in on a stretcher with an awful wound in his left leg and altogether looking ghastly.  The only words he said to me were “Hullo old chap how are you”?  Then he lost consciousness.  We stayed there about an hour, and were moved to another bigger d.s. [dressing station] on a horse ambulance.  Galipot was removed to a motor ambulance, and that is the last I saw or heard of him.  A German orderly came back to where I was and said “my friends leg was kaput” meaning amputated.  As for myself I was twisted inside and left leg nearly crushed.  Have made enquiries about him but have heard nothing whatever neither has Mrs Phillippo.  I fear the worst.  I don’t think there is anything you can send me thanks.  Oh yes, some cigarettes.  It is really awfully good of you.  Cheero.  Best of luck and better luck than we had. 


Yrs.  Sincerely,


F. Vivian Durkin




Dear Mother and Dad


I really have got an excuse for not having written before as there’s quite a war on at present; and the weather being so extraordinarily fine has meant us being up in the air all day long.  I’ve more or less settled down at 46. It is a crack Sqdn. with a priceless lot of fellows.


I’ve had more thrills in the last week than I ever had in the whole 10 months with 6, as this is a most extraordinary battle.  Afraid I can’t give you any details but I’m keeping a faithful record in my log book.  The number of Huns one sees massed behind their lines is really amazing – just like a swarm of flies crawling along the ground as far as you can see.  That’s the impression you get from the air, and its absolute sheer weight of numbers that has made us withdraw, but their casualties from our bombs and machine gun fire from the air above must be enormous, as they’re so thick, you can’t help hitting them.  (I hope the Censor won’t object to all this information.)


I received boots – breeches but am badly in need of that leather coat.  Afraid the ferry pilot idea is impracticable, as even if it gets to France unless its flown direct to the Sqd. which it never is, it would stick at same depot for weeks.  So the M.F.O. [Military Forwarding Office] is the only way.


Got a letter from Durkin the observer prisoner in January, in which he asks if I can send him some cigarettes.  Could you send 500 each of Turkish and Virginia (3 Castles)? I enclose letter – he had a wonderful escape apparently. 


Patrol just going up, so goodbye.


Yr. lovg. Son


Love to Evelyn

Crash of RE8 A4210 on the 7th June 1917 - Pilot Lt Arthur Phillippo Observer Lt Vivian Durkin 6 Squadron
Crash of RE8 A4210 on the 7th June 1917 - Pilot Lt Arthur Phillippo Observer Lt Vivian Durkin 6 Squadron

Letter from POW Lt Vivian Durkin to Captain Philip Smith 23rd January 1918, explaining how Lt Arthur Phillippo died
Letter from POW Lt Vivian Durkin to Captain Philip Smith 23rd January 1918, explaining how Lt Arthur Phillippo died

Letter from Captain Philip Smith to his parents, dated 26th March 1918, asking them to send cigarettes to his POW friend Lt Vivian Durkin 6 Squadron RAF
Letter from Captain Philip Smith to his parents, dated 26th March 1918, asking them to send cigarettes to his POW friend Lt Vivian Durkin 6 Squadron RAF

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Steve Johnson
Steve Johnson
Apr 24

See also news story on Captain Sidney Philip Smith in a crash early in his career

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