The Flying Frontiersmen

FEBMAR09The dodgy solicitor “Count Johnston-Noad” has made regular appearances on We know that he re-formed the Maritime Command around 1930 and soon afterwards set up the Legion Air Command. As well as being an international racer of motor-boats, this wealthy man was also a keen flyer and was a director of Maidstone Airport Ltd., where the Air Command was to be based. Johnston-Noad’s companies had a habit of falling into debt and receivership, and before long Maidstone Airport Ltd. proved no exception to this pattern. Possibly concerned about Johnston-Noad’s growing notoriety, the Legion of Frontiersmen hesitated to promote the Air Command until 1934 when Alec Knowles-Fitton came on to the scene.

FEBMAR09_2Knowles-Fitton was a well-known figure in the Leeds area. He had been a First War pilot and had wanted to join the Royal Auxiliary Air Force. Sadly he had been involved in a motor-cycle accident in the days before specialist crash-helmets and had fractured his skull. Although he had made a full recovery the R.A.F. medical officers considered he could have had a problem in formation flying. The Governing Council of the Legion shared the view held by many in Britain that Air Defence was of vital importance as Britain would be endangered from the air in a future war with Germany. Following discussions with Colonel G Darley, DSO, the Commandant of Yorkshire Command, a meeting was arranged at Harewood Barracks open to anyone who might be interested in joining an Air Command. From this beginning and with Knowles-Fitton’s enthusiastic leadership the original Air Command idea grew until 1939 to become a vital part of the Legion in Britain. They also had an important supporter, for while Lancashire Frontiersmen had the support of the influential Earl of Derby, Yorkshire Frontiersmen and the Air Command were supported by the Earl of Harewood. He was married to the daughter of King George V (the Princess Royal) and therefore he was the brother in law of the Prince of Wales, the Dukes of Kent and Gloucester and the Duke of York (later King George VI). There have always been suggestions that the Royal Dukes took an interest in the Frontiersmen and we have photographs of Royal inspections.

The approved uniform was different to the regular Frontiersmen uniform. Side-caps were worn, for obviously Stetsons were not a suitable headwear around aeroplanes, and instead of shoulder chains epaulettes bearing wings were worn on the patrol jacket. A small point of interest is that as a concession to 1930s fashion, turn-ups were worn on the navy blue trousers. Flyers have always sought to be different and other ranks were known as “Air Frontiersman”, or A/Frontiersman. Their success can be gauged by the fact that within two or three years they had access to at the very least nine aeroplanes with all necessary back-up ground staff. The planes they used, as can be seen from the photographs, were mainly de Havilland Gipsy Moths. These were popular planes among well-to-do private flyers. A Gipsy Moth cost no more than a good sports car of the day and the Air Ministry was keen to encourage private flying as in those days there was not a great deal of difference between flying Gipsy Moths and the biplanes currently in use by the Royal Air Force. Flying clubs could claim up to £2000 from the British Government if they could raise an equivalent sum from membership fees and fund-raising. The Gipsy Moth was a simple aircraft with a reliable basic engine and relatively inexpensive to maintain. Most Moths carried a strict “No Smoking” notice as the petrol tank was in the wing immediately above the pilot’s head.1

FEBMAR09_3Air Command spread around the country and small units sprang up as far south as Gosport on the Hampshire coast and Liverpool in the north-west. They also had some success in New Zealand as the then famous long-distance flyer Flt. Lt. C.T.P. Ulm as well as co-pilot “Scotty” Allen were always proud to appear in Frontiersmen uniform, particularly after their acclaimed flight from Australia to New Zealand in their plane “Faith in Australia”. There was a unit of Air Command in Wellington. Air Command in Britain took part in air defence displays, often in association with St. John Ambulance. As we saw in earlier months, the Legion had close links with St. John Ambulance with anti-gas warfare training. Summer training often entailed a ground unit practising being “bombed” from the air by one of the de Havilland Gipsy Moths. Orders would name pilot and observer and the observer was always responsible for providing his own “bombs”. One wonders what they would have contained. Men could train as an Observer and Air Command had its set examination for prospective Observers.


Air Frontiersmen on parade

At a Legion Scunthorpe Troop dinner in February 1935 plans were made to start a Scunthorpe Air Squadron. Knowles-Fitton spoke at the dinner and Legion Founder Roger Pocock was also there. During the evening Knowles-Fitton apparently enthused Roger Pocock so greatly about the importance of flying that on Pocock’s world tour later that year he spoke eloquently, particularly in Canada, on the importance of young men seeking the excitement of a flying career.2 As Canada did not share the British fear of air attack, Pocock’s exhortations did not have the impact he would have wished.

Air Command became known as Air Defence Branch and from March 1938 as Air Communication Group. At the start of WW2 they could offer fully trained men to Royal Air Force, Military and defence units, often in groups of around 20 and these were taken on with alacrity. Once again, the Legion of Frontiersmen had planned ahead most skilfully.

1 Brian Johnson Classic Aircraft (Channel 4 Books 1998) has details on the De Havilland Gipsy Moth.

2 Details of Roger Pocock’s World Tour and visit to Canada can be found in Geoffrey A Pocock, Outrider of Empire (2008: University of Alberta Press)

Photographs are reproduced by kind permission of Mr. Chris Knowles-Fitton. These are strictly © to him and to the Legion of Frontiersmen archive at the Peel Special Collections Library, University of Alberta. They may not be reproduced without prior permission.

The article above was originally published on in February 2009, and has since been revised and updated.

© Copyright Geoffrey A. Pocock. All rights reserved.  This article may not be reproduced in any form, in part or in full, without prior permission.

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
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