Those daring young men in their flying machines

A BE2c aircraft was used by the Royal Flying Corps from 1912 to 1919
A BE2c aircraft was used by the Royal Flying Corps from 1912 to 1919

The Great War was not just fought in the trenches, nor at sea. In the sky, above the battlefields, young men fought in deadly aerial combat, writes John Duncan (Newbattle at War).

Sitting in their fragile aircraft, cold and often frightened, theirs was a brutal and often short war.

The Royal Flying Corps did not issue its pilots with parachutes. For some the stark and horrifying choice was to remain in a burning aircraft or plunge over the side to your death.

The Royal Flying Corps drew its airmen from the Army for most of the war. Men volunteered for this glamorous but extremely dangerous role.

Amongst those to volunteer was Ian Gilmour Cameron, the son of a doctor from Loanhead, himself an ex-military man, having been a Surgeon Major with Lothians and Border Horse.

Ian was fit young lad and had attended the Edinburgh Academy where he was a full back for the 1st XV for two seasons. He was also a member of the Army Cadets.

On leaving school, Ian decided on a career in the military and attended the Royal Military College at Sandhurst. He was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Cameron Highlanders and went to France in January 1916. However, the lure of flying was too strong for him and he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps where he trained as an aerial observer and bomb operator and was posted to 12 Squadron.

In November 1916 the Battle of the Somme was drawing to close. However, there was to be a last push by the 51st Highland Division to take the stronghold of Beaumont Hamel.

Supporting this action 12 Squadron was to fly reconnaissance patrols in their slow and cumbersome BE2c aircraft. These unloved machines were death traps for their crews and had acquired the unfortunate nickname of Fokker Fodder, after the German fighters that hunted them.

Gilmour had successfully learned to fly out of necessity as when the BE2c was used on bombing raids it could not carry two people due to the weight of the bombs. On November 9, 1916, Ian was piloting one such aircraft, bombed up and part of a flight of 30 bombers and fighters, their target was a sugar factory at Vraucourt near Bapaume. On their way to the target, however, they were spotted by the fighters of the Geman fighter Squadrons Jasta 1 & 2.

Diving down on their prey the Fokkers cut through the shield of escorting fighters and latched on to the bombers. Bullets ripped into the fuselage of Ian’s aircraft and one bullet struck him in the head. Mortally wounded he plunged earthwards but was able to crash land his plane. He was pulled alive from the wreckage but passed away from his wounds at a nearby Casualty Clearing Station.

Aged just 19, he was shot down by the German war ace Baron von Richthofen, better known as the Red Baron. His eighth kill in fact. After the engagement Richthofen was awarded the Saxe-Coburg Gotha medal or the ‘Blue Max’.

John Darg Laing lived in Eskbank with his mother. As a young man he attended Loretto School where he was a fine sportsman, particularly at golf where he excelled. Like Ian Cameron he was also a member of the schools Cadet Force and when he left school in 1916 he enlisted in the Army and trained as an artillery officer at the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich.

It appeared that he had a promising military career ahead of him when he sustained a bad injury to his knee. He was examined by a Medical Board and declared as unfit for military service.

Crestfallen at not being able to fight for his country he learned to fly and presented himself to the Royal Flying Corps, arguing that his knee injury would not be a hindrance to him seated in the cockpit of an aeroplane.

They agreed and after flight training he was attached to Number 12 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps which flew the excellent French fighter the Spad 7. It was the match of most German aircraft in the right hands.

On October 24, 1917, John was on patrol in the Arras area. It appears he may have seen a German aircraft down a British Observation Balloon and pursued it. His pursuit took him over the German lines towards Linselles.

His decision proved to be fatal. Based at Linselles were the aircraft of Jasta 36. Laings’s aircraft did not return. He was posted missing, later presumed dead.

It was found out after the war that he had been shot down by the Ace Lieutenant Walter von Bülow-Bothkamp.

John Darg Laing was 19. He was buried by the Germans in the cemetery at Linselles.