Orders, Decorations, Medals and Militaria (13 January 2021)

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Date of Auction: 13th January 2021

Withdrawn

Estimate: £3,000 - £4,000

The important and historic Great War Trio to Lieutenant Tom Rees, Royal Welsh Fusiliers, attached to No. 11 Squadron Royal Flying Corps, killed in aerial combat and the first official victim of the legendary ‘Red Baron’ Manfred von Richthofen

1914-15 Star (Lieut. T. Rees, R.W. Fus.); British War and Victory Medals (Lieut. T. Rees.) nearly extremely fine (3) £3,000-£4,000

Footnote

Provenance: Dix Noonan Webb, December 1999, when sold together with Memorial Plaque and comprehensive research.

A significant event in aerial combat history is contained within the terse Royal Flying Corps account of a sortie on Sunday, 17 September 1916: ‘A bombing raid carried out by machines of the 3rd Brigade was heavily engaged by about 20 hostile machines on its return from Marcoing Station... Four machines of No. 11 Squadron and two of No. 12 Squadron, which took part in the raid, did not return.’

At about 11 o’clock on the morning of Sunday, the 17th September 1916, the master aerial tactician, Hauptmann Oswald Boelcke of Jasta 2, was leading a patrol with five of his promising young pilots, all flying newly delivered Albatros DII’s, when he spotted two formations of aircraft, fourteen machines in all. One of these young pilots was none other than Manfred von Richthofen, who was about to make his debut as the greatest ace of the First World War.

The two formations spotted by Boelcke were in fact eight BE2c’s of No. 12 Squadron R.F.C., on a bombing mission with an escort of six FE2b’s of No. 11 Squadron R.F.C. The BE2c’s were each loaded with one 112lb bomb and four 20lb bombs, destined for Marcoing railway station, well behind the German lines. Boelcke did not lead directly into the attack, for the enemy machines were on their outward journey and time was on his side. He put his first rule into effect - try to secure advantage before attacking. Climbing, he gave his formation the advantage of height, enabling them to close in swiftly by diving when the moment for attack came. The he circled round, placing his group between the sun and the enemy formation and followed the British machines. Puffs of smoke rose from Marcoing station and at least one railway wagon was ablaze after the BE2c’s had dropped their bombs. Inevitably the British airmen, pilots and observers alike, wary as they were, made frequent downward glances to ascertain the damage the bombs had wreaked. It was the moment Boelcke had chosen to attack.

They dived, each with a particular enemy machine in mind. Richthofen chose to attack one of the FE2b’s, thinking it to be a Vickers fighter, a type which he had been instructed how to tackle. He remembered Boelcke’s advice not to open fire until the range was close and the enemy machine well in the sights. When within fifty yards he fired at the FE from behind, but both the pilot, Second Lieutenant L. B. F. Morris, and the observer, Lieutenant T. Rees, were experienced airmen and they immediately took defensive action. Rees stood up in his cockpit and fired back over the top wing, whilst Morris circled or banked the machine from side to side whenever Richthofen was in the aircraft’s blind spot, below and behind, where Rees could not fire for fear of shooting the tail of his own machine.

Richthofen broke off the fight, dived into a cloud, but circled round and came back at the FE from below and behind. Evidently Rees and Morris did not see him, for their machine kept a steady course. Closing in, he opened fire, spraying the nacelle and engine with bullets. There was no return fire as both occupants had been hit and the engine also had been damaged. He almost rammed the enemy with his Albatross in his eagerness. As he swerved aside, he saw the propeller of the FE stop; he watched fascinated as the machine nosed over and went down. Morris, mortally wounded, summoned sufficient strength to control the descent and to bring the machine to a landing close to a German flying field. Richthofen followed the machine down, almost wrecking his machine by a rough landing on a nearby field in his eagerness to view his victim.

He ran to the BE2b as others came running up from the airfield. Rees died as he arrived, and Morris, still breathing as he was borne away on a stretcher, was dead on arrival in hospital. Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen had indisputable evidence for his first victory, the bodies of a pilot and an observer, damaged FE2b airframe No. 7018 fitted with 120 h.p. Beardmore engine No. 701. He submitted his victory claim No. 1:

‘When patrol flying I detected shrapnel clouds in direction Cambrai. I hurried forth and met a squad which I attacked shortly after 11 a.m. I singled out the last machine and fired several times at closest range (10 meters). Suddenly the enemy propeller stood stock still. The machine went down gliding and I followed until I had killed the observer who had not stopped shooting until the last moment. Now my opponent went downwards in sharp curves. In approx. 1200 meters a second German machine came along and attacked my victim right down to the ground and then landed next to the English plane.’

Before the war, Tom Rees lived with his parents, Thomas and Alice Rees, at their home at ‘Troedyrhiw Villa’, Devynock, Brecon. A brilliant scholar, he entered Aberystwyth University College in 1913 and, as an enthusiastic member of the University Training Corps, he had to be restrained from joining up as soon as the war started. Good counsel prevailed but nothing could stop him from entering the Army immediately after he graduated as a Bachelor of Arts. Commissioned into the Royal Welsh Fusiliers on 21 January 1915, he was gazetted to the 14th (Service) Battalion of his regiment which largely comprised volunteers (Pals) from the northern coastal area of Wales, mainly the counties of Caernarvon and Anglesey. Rees’s academic abilities and soldierly qualities ensured his early promotion to Lieutenant. Shortly after proceeding to France with his battalion in November 1915, he successfully applied for a transfer to the Royal Flying Corps. Following a brief period of training in England, he recrossed the Channel to join 11 Squadron at the Front. Unlike his pilot, Rees was killed in the air during the fight with von Richthofen, ironically on the very day his promotion to Captain was announced. The members of Jasta 2 showed their respect for a gallant foe by burying him with full military honours. The Rees family suffered a grotesquely coincidental double tragedy on that fateful seventeenth day of September 1916, when Tom Rees’ brother, John, was struck by lightening and also killed. Tom Rees is buried in Plouich Communal Cemetery, France. He was twenty-one years old.

Tom Rees and his pilot, Lionel Morris, were both posthumously recommended for a Mention in Despatches in October 1916, by Lieutenant-Colonel Playfair, Commanding 13th Wing R.F.C. The recommendation reads: ‘For gallantry, ability and devotion to duty in his work as an observer. Has taken part in many aerial combats. Period 19.7.16 to 17.9.16. Missing whilst engaged on bombing escort on 17.9.16.’

Manfred von Richthofen celebrated his first victory by ordering a plain silver cup, two inches high by one inch wide, from a jeweller in Berlin. The inscription was to read: ‘1. Vickers 2. 17.9.16’, to mark his first victory, achieved against a ‘Vickers’ type two seater on 17 September 1916. He was to continue ordering these cups until, after his 60th victory in September 1917, the jeweller was no longer able to produce them owing to the shortage of silver.