Orders, Decorations, Medals and Militaria (23 September 2011)

Date of Auction: 23rd September 2011

Sold for £5,800

Estimate: £4,000 - £5,000

The rare Great War “balloonatic’s” D.F.M. group of four awarded to Sergeant P. G. Phillips, Royal Air Force: twice compelled to take to his parachute, he completed 150 hours in the air and was accordingly entitled to wear the Observer’s half-wing Brevet

Distinguished Flying Medal, G.V.R. (33443 Sergt. Mech. Phillips, P. G., R.A.F.); British War and Victory Medals (33443 Sgt. P. G. Phillips, R.A.F.); Special Constabulary Long Service, G.VI.R., 1st issue (Percy Phillips), together with his Altimeter, by Ross, London, the first with slack suspension bar, otherwise generally good very fine (6) £4000-5000

Footnote

Approximately 105 George V, uncrowned head D.F.Ms issued 1918-30.

D.F.M. London Gazette 1 January 1919. The original recommendation states:

‘This N.C.O. is a first rate Observer who has done exceptionally good work in the air this Summer. He has frequently been shelled in the air, and has helped to locate and neutralise the gun whenever possible. He has shown the utmost devotion to duty, and has been of the greatest value to his section in every way. He has done over 150 hours in the air, and made two parachute descents.’

Percival George Phillips, a native of East Ham, enlisted in the Royal Flying Corps in June 1916 and was trained as a field-telephone operator prior to joining No. 47 Balloon Section on the Western Front, a component of 2nd Balloon Wing, Royal Flying Corps. He was advanced to Sergeant Mechanic in October 1917 but was re-mustered as a Private 1st Class on the strength of the newly established Royal Air Force in April 1918.

A brief but illuminating summary of the trials and tribulations of the “Balloonatics” is to be found in the introduction to Alan Morris’ definitive history of the same title:

‘Perceiving their elongated brownish-grey skins the Allies eschewed the technical description of ‘gasbag, stabilised, captive’. To them kite-balloons were ‘sausages’, although, as the comically somnolent appearance belied their true nature, the Germans’ drachen (dragon) was more apt. Generals knew them as observation-balloons, and the Teddy Bears ensconsed in wicker cages beneath the bellies were agents of the Great War’s most devastating weapon - heavy artillery.

Throughout the obscene struggle these observers were to be the only men who could speak from the air, the only ones who might disregard - in any military sense - the seasons, the elements, and even time itself. At any given moment during the final phase 300 of them would be signposting the newcomer’s path to hell.

Nevertheless, to accomplish these feats they were placed in the position of goats staked out as tiger-bait, and when the luck ran out - as in 1918 it often did after half a day’s work - their end could be even more gruesome.

Nor did success necessarily win plaundits. Too frequently their efforts were discounted, even derided, by comrades. Hybrids, neither aviators nor artillerymen, they endured the demands and discomforts of both occupations yet remained isolated from such benefits as might accrue from belonging to the ‘established’ body of either Service.

Consequently they came of a rare and peculiar breed, sustained by their belief that, through proxy, their deadliness equalled that of any aeroplane or submarine; and by the highest form of individual courage.

Oddities in the first conflict of Mechanical Man, kite-balloon observers earned, but could never hope to receive, a completely dignified salute. When at last a tribute was paid it was a compound of amusement, rough reflection, and incredulous admiration.

Those employed to destroy them called them “The Balloonatics”. ’