…and the story of a Frontiersman whose accidental death was a great loss to Britain.
This Topic page is based around the Troop, and later the Squadron, based at Farnham in England. Most Frontiersmen units had several men whose Legion rank, if they had one, was far lower than that held in the armed forces. These men believed in the Legion maxim, that to be a Frontiersman was honour enough for any man. Farnham Squadron had in its ranks a number of men who had held senior military rank, but who were happy to serve as plain Frontiersman. The main picture on this page shows a number of them with trophies they won at the gymkhana at the Legion summer camp, Northolt, Middlesex, 1935. More than 400 spectators turned up to watch this event and Farnham Squadron were the most successful unit. An added attraction was the Legion Headquarters Band, for between the wars the Legion ran several very good military bands. Stood at the centre of the back rank in this photo is Frontiersman Dundas, who had been a full Colonel in the army and been awarded the D.S.O.. Next to him on his left was Frontiersman Lawrence, who had been a Lieut.-Colonel and wore the D.S.O. and Military Cross medals. These men had no need of Legion rank. Dundas was also a brilliant horseman. The Squadron Captain, Henley had been a Major and his 2 i/c Lt Hewes had been a Captain. Every member of the Squadron was a skilled rider and their success in competitions can be seen by those trophies ranged in front of them.1 They had the advantage that the wealthy Arthur Burchardt-Ashton, who served for some years as Cdt-General, owned a substantial estate, Pine Ridge, at Farnham. The Frontiersmen had free range of his land for their riding and training. The estate no longer exists and Pine Ridge has been largely built over.
Probably the most extraordinary member of the Squadron is not shown in this photo. This was Leonard C Bygrave who held the military rank of Captain but served in Farnham as a Frontiersman. He had been in Croydon Squadron where he was very soon promoted to Sergeant. On moving from Croydon, he transferred to Farnham Squadron and, following Legion rules, which in those days were rigidly enforced, he reverted to Frontiersman. Bygrave was born in 1891 and educated at Tiffin Boys’ School, Kingston-on-Thames. It was soon apparent that he possessed a brilliant mathematical and engineering brain. He started work in 1906 at the National Physical Laboratory, his abilities coming to the attention of Dr Walter Rosenbain, DSc FRS, Superintendent of the Metallurgy Department, who gave him a glowing reference to the War Office. He then moved to the International Electric Co. Ltd., where he was in charge of the drawing office and designed telephone, signalling and other electrical apparatus for military, naval, mining and general work, including a field telephone set that was used in the war by the military. From there he went on to the Relay Automatic Telephone Co. Ltd, where the General Manager, Col. Clay realised that his unusual talents should be used by the military. Bygrave had been medically rejected by the army as he had a weak heart and almost no vision in his left eye. By 1917 it became apparent that he was likely in any case to be called up and used in a totally unsuitable job. He was given the name of a contact, Major Reiss at the Air Board Office at the War Office and wrote to him on 26th March asking if it might be possible for him to be commissioned in the Royal Flying Corps as an Equipment Officer. For once the War Office realised that they had a valuable asset here and in May 1917 he was commissioned as Temporary 2nd Lieutenant. His service took him to France where he rapidly rose to the rank of Captain and was not discharged until 1920.2 He was awarded the MBE for his services. Even after the War he served for a while with the Surrey Yeomanry.
With the War over he worked for the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough, rising to be their Chief Scientific Officer in charge of their Instrument and Photographic Department. In September 1920 he carried out research into navigation equipment on airships on a research flight on R33. Records of the British National Archives make many references to his patents and the Bygrave Slide Rule was well ahead of anything else in its field. In the 1930s he was working on designing an accurate bomb-sight for aeroplanes, which was a far more difficult task than on airships. He also developed a bombing simulator for training purposes. The photographic section was working on fixed and free gun-type aerial cameras to take 16 exposures 2¼” x 2¼”. He worked on a distant reading compass that was accurate under all flight conditions and of acceptable reliability.3 His colleagues and fellow Frontiersmen always spoke highly of him and his winning personality. He could not stand snobbery and ostentation, but was good-natured, kind-hearted and broad-minded, while maintaining very high principles. He would never let anyone down. Well enough off to own a car – unusual for those days – his car was always at the disposal of any Frontiersman needing to get to an event. When in 1933 he moved house, the Croydon Squadron honoured him at a dinner at the fashionable Café Royal and made him a presentation.
He was always a keen rider and that was to be his downfall. On Wednesday August 28th 1935 he was out riding with the Guildford Troop when he was knocked from his horse by an overhanging branch, which he had obviously not seen on his blind left-hand side. He was taken to hospital where he was operated on, but failed to recover and died on 6th September. At his funeral on 10th September, the bearer party for his coffin was formed from the Farnham, Guildford and Croydon Squadrons. There was a very large attendance at the funeral including many senior representatives, not only from the Royal Aircraft Establishment, but also the Air Ministry and the War Office.4
As well as his death being a loss to the Legion, it was more critically a tragic loss to the country. Four years later we were at war with Germany and we can now only speculate how valuable this genius of a man would have been to the war effort had he lived. In 1947 a plaque was fixed to one of the RAE buildings commemorating Bygrave as “the originator of the present methods of bomb ballistics research”.5
1 The Frontiersman magazine October 1935, various pages.
2 BNA WO339/106158
3 Information kindly supplied by Farnborough Air Sciences Trust (a registered charity) and Mr. Geoff Butler
4 The Frontiersman magazine October 1935 p2.
5 Information by courtesy of Farnborough Air Sciences Trust
We are grateful to the staff of Farnborough Air Sciences Trust (FAST) for supplying information in their records on Capt Bygrave and also giving permission for us to reproduce his photograph, which is © copyrighted to them.
The photograph of the five Farnham Frontiersmen (with dog) is reproduced courtesy of Mrs Audrey Wells. These are © copyright as are the other photographs from the official Legion of Frontiersmen archives.
The article above was originally published on http://www.frontiersmenhistorian.info in December 2010.
© Copyright Geoffrey A. Pocock. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced in any form, in part or in full, without prior permission.