I am out of the closet (or should that be the crypt?) as a self-proclaimed taphophile. Graveyards have long held a fascination for me and many hours over my fifty plus years have been spent in cemeteries both here in the United Kingdom and across Europe.

On occasion, on my forays into these tranquil spaces, a particular grave will pique my curiosity. This may be for a variety of reasons, an association with local history, an intriguing epitaph or a family connection.... it doesn't take much. The online availability of censuses, official registries and newspaper archives have in recent years made it possible to learn something more about the lives lived by those remembered only as fading names carved in stone. These resources provide an opportunity to put 'flesh on old bones' as the turn of phrase goes, hence the title of this blog 'Beyond the Grave'.

If anyone reading these posts has anything to add please feel free to contact me at adrianandrews@myyahoo.com.

Friday 15 September 2023

Remembering J.E.R. Young and C. C. Taylor 37 (Home Defence) Squadron, Royal Flying Corps Killed in Action on 7th July 1917

As mentioned in the previous post, two airmen of 37 (HD) Squadron were killed in action against the enemy. Second Lieutenant John Edward Rostron Young and Air Mechanic Second Class Cyril Charles Taylor lost their lives when engaging a large force of Gotha bombers during a daylight raid on Saturday 7th July 1917. Both men died in the same aircraft, a Sopwith 1 1/2 Strutter 2-seater. Taylor was the observer and Young the pilot. This aircraft was one of many that were sent up from several aerodromes across Essex and Kent (nearly 100 machines were reported were reported as attempting to engage the enemy aircraft). Planes from all three sections of 37 (HD) Squadron (A Flight (Rochford), B Flight (Stow Maries) and C Flight (Goldhanger)) were airborne that morning. Young and Taylor's aircraft took of from Rochford on the fateful morning.

The raiders on that day consisted of 22 Gotha bombers, a huge force participating in a second attack on the capital. 

A Gotha heavy bomber

The fate of the two young airmen's Sopwith is described in the following contemporary newspaper report that appeared in the 13th July 1917 edition of the Streatham News, Balham and Tooting News and Borough of Wandsworth Chronicle.

What rather surprised me about this account was the level of detail provided to the father of the pilot, John Young, that alluded to the fact that at the time that his strickened aircraft plummeted into the sea, poor John's body would have been 'riddled with bullets'. My guess is that these words, provided to grieving parents, in a letter from the young officer's Commanding Officer would have been intended to convey the fact that in the face of such overwhelming enemy fire power, John Young's death would have been quick, clean and painless. That a newspaper printed such detail is perhaps more surprising given the potential negative impact that such detailed reporting could have on the readership. Note also that the reporting journalist refers to the account being that of a 'thrilling story of a young Streatham airman’s attack...'. I'd like to think that after more than a century of warfare subsequent to The Great War, modern writers would steer clear of Victor comic book style reporting. But that is just my opinion. 

Streatham News, Balham and Tooting News and Borough of Wandsworth Chronicle
13th July 1917

It is with feelings of profound and justifiable pride, tempered unfortunately by keen and sincere regret that so noble and gallant an officer should have won renown at the expense of his life, that our readers will read the following thrilling story of a young Streatham airman’s attack on a whole squadron of enemy airmen.

The Spartan fortitude and unselfish patriotism with which the sorely bereaved father of so heroic a son has braced himself to pen a modest tribute to his boy, and at the same time a brave and inspiriting message of emulation, will, we are sure, make a strong appeal to the sympathy and respect of all who read his introductory letter as follows:-

SIR, - At a time like the present, when the feeling of insecurity and indignation regarding our foul enemy and his infernal methods runs strong in the City and elsewhere, the circumstances attending the death last Saturday, the 7th inst., of my dear son, 2nd Lieut. John E. R. Young, R.F.C., in the performance of his duty, will be read with interest and – speaking for myself at any rate – with profound gratitude. The enclosed letter I received today from the Commander of his squadron, entirely unsolicited, will serve to assure us all that our splendid boys, who from their point of view have the privilege, have also the will and the pluck to put up noble efforts for our protection and for the defeat of the vilest enemy in all history.

Many other equally brave boys have been taken from this district, and I should not intrude upon the public with a personal letter regarding my poor son were it not that I think that it will be appreciated and do good at this time. Believing, as I do, that we have lots of the same material, and that my son was just one of many willing to face certain death in order to help stamp out the enemies of civilization, the subjoined letter from my son’s commander may help to inspire confidence and the hope that our defences will soon be complete and the enemy’s atrocious methods frustrated. – Your, etc..


76 Mitcham Lane, Streatham.
July 10th, 1917


A Town in Essex


It is with the deepest regret and sympathy that I have to write and inform you of your son’s death, which took place on Saturday during enemy aircraft attack on this country.

Your son, as you know, had only been in my squadron a short time, but quite long enough for me to realize what a very efficient and gallant officer he was, and what a tremendous loss he is to me. He had absolutely the heart of a lion, and he was a very good pilot.

Your son has been up on every raid of late, and has always managed to get in contact with the enemy machine. The last raid, which unfortunately resulted in his death, shows what a very gallant officer we have lost. Almost single-handed he he flew straight into the middle of the 22 machines and both he and his observer at once opened fire. All the enemy machines opened fire also, so he was horribly outnumbered. The volume of fire to which he was subjected to was too awful for words. (To give you a rough idea. There were 22 machines. Each machine had four guns. Each gun was firing about 400 rounds per minute). Your son never hesitated in the slightest. He flew straight on until, as I should imagine, he must have been riddled with bullets. The machine then put its nose right up in the air and fell over and went spinning down into the sea from 14,000 feet. The machine sank so quickly that it was, I regret, impossible to save your son’s body, he was so badly entangled with wires etc. H.M.S. ___________ rushed to the spot as soon as possible but only arrived in time to pick up your son’s observer, who, I regret to state, is also dead. He was wounded six times and had a double fracture of the skull.

I cannot speak too highly of the magnificent behaviour of your son, all that I can say is that he was a most gallant officer, and I am proud to think that he was in my command. 

I hope that you and your family will accept my sincerest sympathy of all his brother officers, in your great loss. ---- Yours sincerely,

___________, Major.

Sec. Lieut. John Edward Rostron Young, who was 19 ½ years of age, was educated at Streatham Grammar School.

John is memorialised in Southend-On-Sea's (North Road) Cemetery.

(Photo: Jacqui Roberts)


But let us not forget the other 37 (HD) Squadron fatality on that day, John's observer, Air Mechanic Second Class Cyril Charles Taylor. 

I have no other newspaper references concerning the death of Cyril other than the mention the recovery of his fatally wounded body from the sea by the Royal Navy vessel. So the information that follows are the result of research by the Stow Maries' volunteers.

Cyril was born in June 1897 in the Hampstead area of North London. Prior to joining up he worked as an apprentice plumber. In uniform he served a year as a bandsman with the 3/9th Middlesex Regiment, prior to enlisting with the Royal Flying Corps on 8th March 1916. 

Although the date of his being stationed with 37 (HD) Squadron is not known it is believed that me may have been part of the unit's orchestra. As described by his Commanding Officer, Cyril's body was recovered from the crash site with terrible injuries. The recovering vessel has been identified as H.M.S. Wolfe.

Cyril's body was returned to North London and he lies in Hampstead Cemetery. Cyril was 20 years of age.

Air Mechanic Second Class Cyril Charles Taylor

Both John and Cyril are commemorated side by side on the Stow Maries memorial to the fallen of 37 (HD) Squadron.

There is a footnote to this story that for obvious reasons was not raised at the time of Mr Young's correspondence with the Streatham News. It has been postulated that Second Lieutenant's Young's Sopwith was not downed in a hail of Gotha machine gun fire but rather by a shell fired by a Royal Navy vessel, an early example of so-called 'friendly fire'. 

A thread on the excellent The Great War (1914-1918) Forum concerning the response to the 7th July 1917 Gotha raid on London gives a number of reasons why this may be so: 
  • The Gothas were at a height of at least 14,000 feet and Young would not have attained this height until 10 to 15 minutes after the Gothas had crossed the coast (making a crash into the sea impossible).
  • No 37 (HD) Squadron personnel reported a colleague going down.
  • Young’s aircraft fell near the Maplin lightship and observers on the ship believed that it had been hit by an AA shell burst.
  • A signal of “obscure origin” amongst the day’s reports mentioned a belief that a shell had shot down a defending aircraft.
  • A 37 (HD) Squadron pilot reported that the AA fire had been a considerable hindrance.
  • The Germans reported just one defending aircraft being shot down, presumably Salmon (the other British fatality in the raid). Second Lieutenant W.G. Salmon of No. 63 Training Squadron took off in a Sopwith Scout from Dartford Aerodrome.
  • General Henderson reported to CIGS on 14 July that the RFC could not continue to take the risk of being shot down by our own guns while attacking the enemy.
With approaching 100 British fighter aircraft and 22 Gotha bombers blazing at each other, not to mention the skyward projectiles being launched from vessels below, the situation as viewed from sea level or the air must have been bewildering to say the least. 

With the passage of 105 years since this early 'dogfight' over the Essex/Kent coast it is highly unlikely that the true fate of Young's Sopwith will ever be known. But, 105 years down the line such detail is rather irrelevant, a detail in one of many thousands of Great War unknowns. The important fact that is as clear today as it was on 7th July 1917 is that the young men of 37 (HD) Squadron were prepared to tackle superior hostile airborne forces against great odds in order to protect the civilian population of London and the coastal towns of the East Coast. Many paid the ultimate price.

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