A Collection of Awards to the Royal Flying Corps, Royal Naval Air Service and Royal Air Force

Date of Auction: 19th June 2013

Sold for £12,000

Estimate: £4,000 - £5,000

‘After tea Collett and I went back to town by train and had a talk about many things, for Collett was in the Camel Squadron on the same aerodrome and he used to come back shot to ribbons nearly every time he went out. One day he drove a German machine down to the ground behind the German lines, and then to make quite sure he fired at it on the ground until it burst into flames. Collett was always downing the Hun, whenever and wherever he could find him ...’

Flying Fury, by James McCudden, V.C., D.S.O., M.C., M.M., refers.

The outstanding Great War M.C. and Bar group of three awarded to Captain C. F. Collett, Special Reserve, attached Royal Flying Corps, the first New Zealander to gain ace status, a pioneering parachutist and a much admired test and display pilot: highly acclaimed by his peers - McCudden, V.C. among them - he was killed putting a captured Albatross Scout though its paces over the Firth of Forth in December 1917

Military Cross, G.V.R., with Second Award Bar, the reverse privately engraved, ‘Capt. Clive F. Collett, M.C., R.F.C., Aug. 1916’; British War and Victory Medals (Capt. C. F. Collett), extremely fine (3) £4000-5000

Footnote

M.C. London Gazette 9 January 1918. The original recommendation states:

‘For consistent and conspicuous gallantry and skill as a leader of offensive patrols during the period 29 July to 20 August 1917. He has on numerous occasions attacked large formations of enemy aircraft single-handed.

On 10 August 1917, he destroyed one enemy aeroplane which was seen to crash by the remainder of the formation; on 13 August, he shot down and destroyed one enemy aeroplane which was seen to crash; on 14 August, he attacked a hostile formation single-handed and destroyed one enemy aeroplane that was confirmed by No. 23 Squadron; and on 18 August Captain Collett shot down and destroyed one enemy aeroplane which was confirmed by A.A.

M.C.
London Gazette 9 January 1918. The original recommendation states:
‘For consistent and conspicuous gallantry and skill as a leader of offensive patrols during the period 29 July to 20 August 1917. He has on numerous occasions attacked large formations of enemy aircraft single-handed.

On 10 August 1917, he destroyed one enemy aeroplane which was seen to crash by the remainder of the formation; on 13 August, he shot down and destroyed one enemy aeroplane which was seen to crash; on 14 August, he attacked a hostile formation single-handed and destroyed one enemy aeroplane that was confirmed by No. 23 Squadron; and on 18 August Captain Collett shot down and destroyed one enemy aeroplane which was confirmed by A.A.

In addition to the above, Captain Collett has shot down two more enemy aeroplanes out of control. In every engagement Captain Collett’s gallantry and dash has been most marked. He has led his formation with great skill and has on several occasions extricated them from most difficult positions.

By his consistent gallantry and dash, combined with skill as a leader, Captain Collett has set a magnificent example.’

Bar to M.C. London Gazette 7 March 1918. The original recommendation states:
‘For conspicuous bravery in leading offensive patrols against enemy aircraft.

On 9 September 1917, when on offensive patrol, he successfully engaged and destroyed three hostile aircraft. The first was driven down completely out of control, and the second crashed near Staden. The third he followed down to within 50 feet of the ground and saw it turnover. Then firing on it while it was on the ground he set it on fire. After using up all his ammunition, and being wounded in the hand, he returned to his own aerodrome, crossing the trenches at a height of about 50 feet.

Since 22 August 1917, he has destroyed, besides those mentioned above, two other enemy machines and taken part in numerous other engagements. His brilliant example was a continual source of inspiration to the Squadron in which he served.’

Clive Franklyn Collett was born in Blenheim, New Zealand, in August 1886, the son of the Stock Inspector for the Bay of Plenty Province, and was educated at Queens College, Tauranga. Qualifying as an electrical engineer, he headed for England to find employment and prop up the family finances, working his passage over on a steamer, and he was living at an aunt’s house in London on the outbreak of hostilities in August 1914. Quickly enlisting in the Royal Flying Corps, he took his Aviator’s Certificate (No. 1057) in an L. & P. Biplane at Hendon in January 1915, was commissioned from the Special Reserve as a 2nd Lieutenant and, after completing his formal pilot training, was gazetted as a Flying Officer that May.

Collett first went out to France with an appointment in No 18 Squadron in March 1916, but it proved to be a short-lived posting, for he was seriously injured in a flying accident a few weeks later, subsequent photographs clearly showing the effects of the injuries to his face and head. Unusually, however, his MIC entry reveals that his brother claimed a 1914-15 Star on his behalf from New Zealand in March 1930 and, even though the MIC entry states his first entry into the French theatre of war as being in 1916, his application appears to have been approved. Be that as it may, his British War and Victory Medals were issued to his mother back in October 1922.

Pioneer parachutist - the “Guardian Angel”

Once recovered from his injuries, Collett found employment as a test pilot, working on such types as the tiny Eastchurch “Kitten” P.V. 8, designed by the R.N.A.S. for anti-zeppelin operations. Yet it was his work in another pioneering arena that won him a place in the annals of R.F.C. history.ccording to his obituary in The Aeroplane, Collett deserved to be ‘particularly remembered for his gallantry in testing new types of parachutes from aeroplanes, frequently from what would have previously been considered dangerously low levels’, adding ‘his work in this direction will ultimately be the saving of many lives’.

And a case in point would be Collett’s trial run with E. R. Calthorp’s “Guardian Angel” parachute at the experimental station at Orfordness on 13 January 1917 when, judging by the complicated nature of the device’s trappings, he very much needed a guardian angel. Wearing a heavy harness, he was meant to clamber out on to the wing of a B.E. 2c, from whence, on checking that his connecting lines were untwisted, he would leap into thin air, but with a careful eye on ensuring his lines did not come into contact with the aircraft’s tail plane. Thereafter, assuming this part of the exercise was completed without mishap, his fall on the connecting lines would hopefully release the parachute from its cumbersome housing under the aircraft.

And so D-Day arrived, the authorities having thoughtfully assembled an ambulance and fire tender while the gathered throng anxiously awaited the outcome of the trial. There appears to be some confusion over who was the pilot on that memorable day, though opinion tends to favour Captain Vernon Brown - he later left a telling anecdote about how Collett had noticed the ambulance and fire tender on the ground and shouted “Much good they’ll be if my parachute doesn’t open!”. In the event, as captured by assorted cameras, the experiment was a success, his “Guardian Angel” fluttering into action at a height of 600 feet - 31 seconds later he was on the ground. The design, however, was eventually rejected owing to its weight and cumbersome means of operation.

In passing, Vernon Brown went on to become an Air Commodore and, appropriately enough on the back of his time at Orfordness, a Chief Inspector of Accidents. He was knighted in June 1952.

Fighter Ace - double figures in less than 6 weeks - double M.C.

In July 1917, Collett joined No. 70 Squadron out in France as a Flight Commander, the commencement of a remarkable period of operational flying in Sopwith Camels in which he claimed at least 12 victories in less than six weeks.

First to fall to his guns was an Albatross DV over Ypres on 27 July but, as observed by McCudden on numerous occasions, one of those days when Collett’s aircraft returned to base ‘shot to ribbons’ - thus his ‘port top and bottom main planes shot through; fuselage bottom rear spar and fuselage horizontal strut damaged by enemy aircraft and starboard wheel shot through’ (his C.O’s damage report refers).

A week later, in a combat with six Albatross DVs over Roulers, Collett sent down another after firing 120 rounds, but on 10 August he ran into an enemy pilot ‘who put up a good fight’, the pair nearly colliding in their protracted dogfight. Collett nonetheless got in a good burst of fire, hitting his opponent’s fuselage, and his victory was later confirmed by an A.A. unit on the ground.

Three days later he forced an ‘all-black Albatross DV’ to crash-land, having got in a double burst of fire into his fuselage and seen the enemy pilot slump over his controls, but received a hot reception from A.A. fire on crossing the lines near Dixmunde.

Two days later, on 18 August, between Polygon Wood and the Forest of Houthulst, Collett opened fire on another Albatross DV - ‘I could see my tracers going into the cockpit, while he was banked towards me. The pilot appeared suddenly to collapse and his machine started to spin and then went into a vertical nose dive.’

He had attained ace status inside three weeks and was awarded the M.C.

And more of the same was to follow in rapid succession, namely further Albatross DV victims over Gheluwe on the 22 August and over Roulers on 5 September, on which former occasion Collett reported his ‘guns worked well and I could see my tracers going into his fuselage’. Yet not to disappoint the likes of McCudden, who flew from the same aerodrome, he had again returned in a badly shot up aircraft in the interim, following a combat on 31 August: ‘Starboard bottom plane main spar shot through, port bottom plane main spar shot through, rudder bar shot through, front main spar shot through, and control lines shot through at bottom of mounting’ (his C.O’s damage report refers).

A good insight to Collett’s character about this time is to be found in the words of a fellow 70 Squadron pilot, Lieutenant Cedric Jones:

‘Clive Collett was my Flight Commander in 70 Squadron, so of course I got to know him better than most. An accident in 1916 had marked his face, and this gave him both an aggressive and arrogant look. But he was one of the very best pilots, and I owe him practically everything learnt about aerial fighting. The front line was very active at this time, and I had only two days practice before I went over the line. I had complete confidence in Collett, and Collett had complete confidence in himself. If he thought any of his patrol were in trouble, he would be round in a flash to the rescue, and he never failed to remedy the situation. Collett had very little time for the chairborne pilot, and was not always popular because of this, but he got the job done. I am sure he would have run up a much larger score than he did, but for the offensive patrol on 9 September 1917, in which he was wounded.’

This final combat, as cited above, resulted in him destroying three enemy aircraft, one of his victims being Leutnant Karl Hammes, whose severe wounds ended his operational career - he later became a star of the Viennese opera and was killed in action with the Luftwaffe over Poland in 1939. For his own part, Collett was also wounded, his little finger being shot off by another enemy aircraft’s return fire, some say piloted by Leutnant Ludwig Hanstein of Jasta 35, but others the Bavarian ace Max Ritter von Muller, who would be awarded a posthumous “Blue Max”. In either event, the injury was sufficient to necessitate Collett’s evacuation to the U.K.

Highly skilled experimental and display pilot - His Majesty’s approval

The final chapter in Collett’s wartime career encompassed a short but thrilling period of experimental and display work. Yet it was for the latter activity that he won true acclaim, his fans numbering King George V, who personally thanked him for a wonderful exhibition flight which was also witnessed by the Queen and H.R.H. Princess Mary.

Of his work as a test and display pilot, Collett’s obituary in The Aeroplane states: ‘As an experimental and demonstration pilot he was unexcelled, and his vivid sense of humour made his demonstrations the more enjoyable to those who participated in them. In the course of his work he came into personal contact with the people at all the advanced flying schools in Great Britain, and at every one he made firm friends, so that one may safely say that he was one of the most popular officers in the Corps, though his natural modesty and sense of good form prevented him from ever becoming known to the outside public.’

And of his premature death at the end of 1917, his old comrade from No. 70 Squadron, Cedric Jones, states: ‘Collett had the job of taking up an Albatross round the country, giving practice flights and engaging in mock combats with our pilots at various units. He was flying at Turnhouse, Scotland, on 23 December 1917 when the exhaust manifold came off the Albatross while he was stunting, and it was assumed that this knocked him out. In any event, the Albatross spun upside down and went into the water. In spite of determined efforts by rescue boats from the Fleet to reach him, the Albatross sank with Collett still in the cockpit. So ended sadly a great pilot and a great character.’

The Aeroplane concluded: ‘He leaves behind him a high reputation for skill and gallantry, and a host of friends to mourn his loss. Of the many fine lads who have come to us from the Overseas Dominions, none has been a finer specimen of the youth of Greater Britain than Clive Collett’.

His remains were eventually recovered and interred in Edinburgh (Comely Bank) Cemetery, while a memorial tablet was later unveiled at the Holy Trinity Church, Tauranga, New Zealand; sold with two extensive files of research, containing a mass of information regarding the recipient’s distinguished and gallant career.