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The Mystery of Phillippo, Durkin and Smith

The first day of the Battle of Messines was a difficult day for 6 Squadron, with two aircraft destroyed, four officers killed, one taken as POW and three badly injured. The exact fate of one of the pilots who gave his life on that day, Lt Arthur Phillippo, has remained a mystery until last month (July 2022), when I read on a WW1 forum that the WW1 medals and bronze Memorial Death Plaque of a fellow 6 Squadron pilot, Capt Sydney Philip Smith, had been sold at an eBay auction for 8,000 pounds in 2016. Included in that particular lot were two letters, the contents of which have shed light on the circumstances leading up to the death of Phillippo, more than a century later.

The official records show that Lt Arthur Phillippo and his observer, Lt Frank V Durkin, 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 (Serial A4210) was attacked by four Albatros fighters. After a brief battle, observers at an English battery near Kruisstraat reported that the RE8 went into a spin and crashed in enemy territory east of the village of Hollebeke, over Vlammertinge. Frank Durkin survived the crash but was taken as prisoner of war and held in captivity until the 14th December 1918 when he was repatriated to England. Both men were initially reported as MIA, but Phillippo’s status was eventually accepted as KIA when the Germans reported that he had been buried at what later became known as the Menen Communal Cemetery, ten miles east of Hollebeke. As to exactly how Phillippo met his death was not divulged.

The link between Capt ‘Phil’ Smith and Lt Phillippo is that they both flew with Lt Durkin on operations when they served with 6 Squadron, though Smith was shipped back to England with severe bullet wounds to his right foot in May 1917, one month prior to Phillippo’s death. Smith recuperated for ten months before he was fit enough to return to active duty in France, this time as a fighter pilot in 46 Squadron, 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 Smith’s letter 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 sold off at auction.

Sadly, 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 - by none other than Baron von Richthofen flying a Fokker DR1. Though Smith’s death was eventually acknowledged by the British authorities, his body was never found and his 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, Phil Smith would lose his life only one month after returning to active duty.

The two letters provide an insight into the life of an operational pilot during WW1 and I have attached below images of the originals as well as copies of the text. I have also attached a photograph of the crashed RE8 flown by Durkin and Phillippo. Note that the propeller was not spinning when the aircraft hit 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 (not H6) 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

Letter from Captain Phil Smith of 6 Squadron to his parents 26/03/1918
Letter from Captain Phil Smith of 6 Squadron to his parents 26/03/1918

Letter from Lieutenant Frank Durkin to Captain Phil Smith
Letter from Lieutenant Frank Vivian Durkin to Captain Phil Smith

Crash of RE8 A4210 - Lts Alfred Phillippo and Frank Durkin of 6 Squadron
Crash of RE8 A4210 - Lts Alfred Phillippo and Frank Durkin of 6 Squadron



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