As well as interviews with modern day pilots and engineers of these historic aircraft I also wanted to focus in on the people who flew these aircraft while still in service. Sadly of course in a number of cases the opportunity to interview is no longer available, but where possible I have tried to delve into the archives and find out as much as I can about those who flew.
Frederick Dudley Travers is the next historical pilot I wanted to look at. Travers was almost an ace twice over in the first world war and has the impressive claim to fame of being the only ace flying the Bristol M1C monoplane, it was this fact which drew my attention to his story, as the Bristol was something of an underdog during the conflict, but all may not have been as it seemed.
Born in York on the 15th February 1897, Travers became interested, like so many do, in aviation during his school days peering through the fence at Hedon at the early aircraft of the time. Travers started his personal journey towards the air when he joined the Hertfordshire Yeomary, part of the territorial force. On the first of January 1916, he graduated from the officer training corps with the rank of Second Lieutenant. He was promoted to Lieutenant in 1917, and on the 17th April he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps.
Flight training was carried out in Egypt and Travers went solo in just two and half hours! It is highly likely that Travers’ training would have been carried out at the RFC training station of Aboukir, which was established in November 1916, this base was responsible not only for training British pilots, but also local cadets, gunners and observers. Photographs from Aboukir and the surrounding bases from the period show BE2 and Avro 504 aircraft as being common place so it is likely Travers would have trained on these.
His first posting would be to 17 Squadron in Macedonia, part of No. 6 wing, which incorporated 17,47 and 150 Squadrons. Here he initially flew the BE12, a single seat fighter version of the earlier BE2 observation aircraft, fitted with the same engine as the RE8. Travers’ first victory came on the 19th December 1917, flying a BE12, he forced an Albatros D.III out of control until it crashed.
By May 1918 Travers had moved over to 150 squadron and the much improved RAF SE5a and, after months had passed since the first he notched up two further kills that month, on the 15th and 18th respectively, the aircraft downed were an Albatros D.V and a DFW Reconnaissance aircraft. Both of these May Victories were shared. The D.V, shared with Gerald Gordon Bell and the DFW, with Ascheson Goulding.
On the 1st of June, Travers, along with two other airmen, engaged 12 enemy aircraft, between them they managed to down four, driving the rest away against daunting odds. Travers destroyed an Albatros D.V himself over Solonika, placing him on the brink of becoming an ace.
Travers later received the Distinguished Flying Cross as a result of this engagement, due to his bravery The following was written in the London Gazette on the 3rd of September describing Travers as: “A gallant and able officer who has displayed on many occasions boldness in attack, never hesitating to engage in the enemy as the opportunity occurs.”
Though a number of sources state, including the excellent collection of WW1 ace profiles, “Above The Trenches“, that all of Travers September victories were in the Bristol M1c, there is one account with differs:
A handwritten combat report, from the RAF Museum, found here by Travers gives an account of an encounter on the 4th September 1918 at 10:55, which details the driving down of a German Rolland aircraft.
Travers encountered the machine whilst returning from an escort mission. What is interesting in this report is that the aircraft being flown is reported as RAF SE5a 4176, rather than, as cited elsewhere Bristol M1c C4976.
Here is where some confusion seems to have come about. This report clearly shows that Travers was flying an SE5a for this encounter.
This “find” got me thinking, first of all I wanted to make sure this particular claim was correct, as it would of course mean Travers certainly wasn’t an ace on the M1C, but may still have had 4 kills. I got in contact with the RAF museum who confirmed that this record was correct.
With this information in mind I felt it would be interesting to head up to the National Archives and have a look at some of the documents myself. Having never visited the archives before I have to say it was remarkable. I was able to find maintenance records for 150 squadron during the latter part of the war. These showed which aircraft flew on which day and who was flying them, though they gave no information on any victories claimed.
This was followed by a good few hours carefully going through these records seeing if I could find any record connecting Travers and the Bristol. From flicking back from the records of 1919 it became apparent that Travers was commander of B flight, each of their day cards bore his signature on the bottom right hand corner. Another fact that became apparent looking through these is that there were no M1Cs available for Travers to fly at this stage. The only example of the monoplane on the squadron was part of A flight.
Going through to find each of the victories revealed the same information, Travers had been flying SE5a 4176 on every occasion. This came as some surprise as it seemed strange that such an error could have occurred in the available records but the picture became a little clearer.
In September of 1918, around the same time as a number of Travers victories, a pilot by the name of Cavers had a number of victories in a Bristol M1c, three in fact, so it is quite possible that the names have gotten mixed up in the fog of time.
I later returned to the archive and managed to get hold of some typed combat reports, these all confirmed the above findings that Travers was flying the same SE5 on each occasion, and that Cavers gained success in the M1c.
While this does change Travers’ own story a little and I did hesitate in putting this article together, it makes him no less of a hero or a great pilot, in fact claiming 8 victories in an SE5a is a huge achievement in itself. The accounts of Travers remaining kills stay the same however, all but the aircraft type matched up in the combat reports.
On September 2nd 1918 Travers claimed a shared victory over an LVG reconnaissance aircraft, providing him with the crucial 5th kill, making him an ace.
Travers final four kills of the war all came in September that year, downing two Albatros D.Vs a Fokker D.VII and an unknown reconnaissance aircraft on the 3rd, 4th and 16th of the month.
Below are some notes on the Combat Report from the 4th September 1918:
The combat altitude is cited as being from 10,000 feet down to 50! In this encounter Travers engaged the enemy aircraft and followed the aircraft in a spiral dive, firing off bursts form the machine guns at intervals, in the end the enemy machine was forced to the ground, after which Travers notes the enemy pilot running across a field.
After the war:
Ending the war with an impressive tally of 9 kills, Travers was given the temporary rank of flying officer on the 5th December 1919, before moving onto an RAF reserve rank in 1922. He remained in this reserve role until 1940 achieving the rank of Flight Lieutenant.
During the inter war years Travers kept flying in the Civilian world, becoming an air taxi pilot and on the 20th Feburary 1924 he was welcomed as a member of the Royal Aero Club. In 1926 he joined Imperial Airways, piloting their flying boats and pioneering their service to Egypt In the same year.
As World War II arrived Travers continued with his Flying Boat career flying to and from West Africa and India, achieving 2 million air miles by 1942. In 1945 Travers performed the impressive task of ferrying a Shorts Sunderland down to Buenos Aires. On the 24th March 1947 Travers carried out his last passenger carrying flight, arriving at Poole Harbour in the Shorts S.26 Golden Hind flying boat, at the time the largest of its kind. It is fitting that this final flight, much like Travers first, began in Egypt.
In May 1947 Travers retired from flying, having clocked up 19,100 hours and, impressively never had an accident! A newspaper clipping, from the Aberdeen Journal, from the day after his final commercial flight reads “2,750,000 Air Miles Without an Accident.” Quite the impressive career! Travers commented himself in the newspaper:
“My flights…have been accident free, I’ve never had an accident, never crashed and never had a single passenger injured.”
Words of a proud man, and rightly so, retiring from flying aged 50, Travers had a relatively short thirty year flying career, but he certainly achieved a great deal in this time.
Going from a fighter ace in the Great War to an air travel pioneer without racking up an accident along the way is no mean feat.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my take on his story.