On the Canada pages of this website you will find Historian Will Shandro’s account of the Calgary Frontiersmen’s effort to pay for an airship, although this apparently came to nothing. On another page we tell of the highly successful Air Command of the Legion based in Yorkshire, which during the 1930s flew up to nine small private planes. See: The Flying Frontiersmen.
What we have not covered are the early pioneer Frontiersmen flyers. It is often thought that the Frontiersmen were only interested in horse transport but, as in many other ways, the Frontiersmen were always forward thinking on many subjects. With regards to the Canadian interest in airships, in the First War there was a great fear of the German Zeppelins as in the early years of the War Britain had no real defence against them and their regular bombing raids. It took some time for a way to attack them was devised. The first Zeppelin to be destroyed from the air was shot down by Sub-Lieut Warneford, who was awarded the Victoria Cross for his exploits, although he was killed in an air accident a few days later. Air accidents were all too common in the early years of flying. Warneford had been taught to fly by Frederick Warren Merriam, acknowledged as one of the finest of the early flying instructors. Records show that Merriam joined the Legion late 1912 or early 1913 and was given the number 7077. He had qualified as a pilot in February 1912, one of the earliest men to receive an aviator’s certificate, this in spite of poor eyesight, which had necessitated several operations. Having spent several years involved in the infant motoring trade, he was a highly skilled mechanic and moved on to aeroplanes, where he became one of the finest flying instructors at Brooklands, teaching many who would become well-known pilots and later senior officers in the Royal Air Force.
Flying was a highly risky activity – in addition to being very costly. The deaths and serious injuries to pilots in those early years were considerable, even before the War, which was also to take a heavy toll. Warren Merriam was so highly thought of as a skilled instructor that the Royal Naval Air Service decided to bypass their vision tests and commission him as a Flight Lieutenant. His services were even called upon early in WW2, when he was recalled to the Fleet Air Arm at the age of 59 as a Lieutenant-Commander to assess the skill of applicants to the Fleet Air Arm. He evolved a series of tests to ensure that pilots were appointed to the type of plane and duty best suited to their particular skills. 1
It was as early as December 1912 that the first death of a Frontiersman in an air accident happened. Legion Captain Arkell Hardwick, who had spent some years exploring and hunting in Africa, was then the Manager of aircraft manufacturers Handley-Page, although he did not have a pilot’s licence himself. He was flying as a passenger in a Handley-Page monoplane on a Sunday morning flight from Hendon to Oxford. The pilot was Lieut. Wilfred Parke, R.N. It was one of those English December days when the air seems mainly calm, but an occasional gusty squall can burst out without warning. Pilots did not have then the advantage of reasonably accurate weather forecasts. According to spectators, the engine was not running smoothly and Parke, an experienced pilot for the time, decided to return to Hendon as the plane could not rise above 200 feet. Somehow, a strong gust – too strong for Parke to counter with the controls and the power of the engine – caused the plane to crash on Wembley Golf Course. Both men were killed immediately. Hardwick was buried at St. Pancras Cemetery, East Finchley, with a joint escort and bearer party of Frontiersmen and Household Cavalry, as Hardwick’s brother was an officer in the Household Cavalry. 2
In December 1913, Lt. Col. Driscoll, then Chief Executive Officer (basically Commandant) of the Legion, had his first experience of flying, with Warren Merriam as his pilot. The Frontiersmen wanted to see how good an aeroplane would be at observation and seeing mounted troops on the ground. The plan was for B Troop of the Surrey Squadron of the Legion under Corporal J.F. Addis-Price to see if mounted men under cover of surrounding woods, while also dashing through open spaces, could reach the Bristol School of Aviation at Brooklands unobserved. The weather was cold with a gusty wind and it was a dark late December day. The mounted men could see the aeroplane high in the sky swaying and plunging in the wind. When the machine landed, down climbed Driscoll in Legion uniform – complete with riding boots and spurs. The men asked Driscoll what he thought about the use of an aeroplane for scouting purposes. With much scorn he replied:
“You don’t think I was looking for you, do you? My time was fully occupied trying to keep myself from being bucked off that parrot perch up there. I could have killed this chap for asking me, in the presence of those Germans, to go up and umpire, especially as I had never been in an aeroplane in my life. However, he handled the machine splendidly and is promoted to lieutenant on the spot.” 3
According to the report, they asked Warren Merriam if he had seen the mounted men. He replied that they had indeed succeeded in getting through unobserved, but that the plane was underpowered and unsuitable for flying in such weather conditions. Warren Merriam’s version in his autobiography is somewhat different. He said that: “Much to their surprise, we spotted them in the vicinity of Byfleet and dropped a message to say so.” 4 One of Warren Merriam’s pupils at the start of the First War was one of Driscoll’s sons. Although the Frontiersmen thought that their exercise was a success, we can see from Warren Merriam’s account that it was not. When war came it was soon understood that observation from the air would be a vital way of intelligence gathering and that the use of the horse for scouting had only a limited value.
A number of other Frontiersmen became pilots during the Great War, including three from the Canadian 210th (Frontiersmen) Battalion C.E.F. Lieut. Wensley transferred to the Royal Flying Corps, where he was commissioned. After the Armistice he worked for the Flying Mail Service between Folkestone and Cologne, Germany. On transfer to the RFC, Lieut C. G. Smith saw action in France, Italy and Egypt. Capt. J.T. Hollonquist, DFC, also joined the RFC and was commissioned. He served in Italy flying a Sopwith, where he was credited with bringing down six German planes. In addition to the DFC he was awarded the Italian Legion of Honour. Also in Canada 1914 another WW1 Air ‘Ace’ Thomas Frederic (Tommy) Williams, M.C., M.M.V. who was born in 1885 in Ontario, joined the Legion of Frontiersmen at Calgary at the outbreak of WW1, then resigned to enlist in the C.E.F. Eventually he received a commission in the Royal Flying Corps and destroyed fourteen German aircraft in aerial combat. He was awarded the Military Cross (M.C.) and the Italian government decorated him with the Valore Militare Medal (M.M.V). Tommy Williams went on to a long and distinguished aviation career in Canada. In 1971, at age 87 he performed one last solo aerobatic flight for 30 minutes, with loops, rolls and a spin and after 56 years of flying was at that time recognized as the world’s oldest active pilot. In 1974 Tommy Williams became a Member of Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame in Edmonton, Alberta.
Probably the most famous of all the early Frontiersmen flyers was Arthur Tedder. Tedder was only a Frontiersman for a short time in 1914 when he was working for the Colonial Office as an Acting Assistant District Commissioner in Fiji. There the Frontiersmen were putting on a brave show, but with no proper military presence there they had little chance of resisting any rumoured German invasion from Samoa. Tedder left Fiji and the Frontiersmen and returned to England and a military commission. He was transferred to the Royal Flying Corps and in 1916 trained as a pilot. Over the following years he rose steadily through the ranks until in WW2 he became head of the Anglo-American air forces in the Middle East, the Mediterranean and North Africa. He was then appointed Deputy Supreme Commander to Eisenhower for the Allied campaign from Normandy to Berlin. After the War he became Chief of the Air Staff and was elevated to the peerage. 5
As far as Canadians are concerned, their most famous flyer is usually considered to be “Wop” May (Capt. Wilfrid Reid May, OBE, DFC, 1896-1952). Born in Carberry, Manitoba, May’s family moved to Edmonton in 1902. His nickname “Wop” came from his little two-year-old cousin who could not pronounce Wilfrid and called him Wop. That name stayed with him throughout his life. He joined the Canadian army in February 1916, but in 1917 transferred to the British Royal Flying Corps. In 1918 he was transferred to 209 Squadron of the newly formed Royal Air Force. He was involved in the aerial battle when the famous “Red Baron” was shot down. After the War, together with his brother, May opened Edmonton’s first airfield. The area is known today as Mayfield. The R.C.M.P. called on May’s services at times. He was one of the first to fly across the 60th Parallel into the North West Territories. He achieved national fame in 1928 flying diphtheria serum to the extremely remote Fort Vermillion under extraordinarily difficult winter conditions. Later in 1932 he flew even further north as part of the legendary hunt for the “Mad Trapper of Red River” in the North West Territories. The event was made more serious by the killing of RCMP Constable Edgar Millen, who was a Frontiersman on indefinite leave from the Legion while serving with RCMP. In the 1930s, “Wop” May was recorded as a member of the Legion of Frontiersmen in Edmonton. 6 May arrived just after the Mad Trapper (Albert Johnson) had been killed and a Constable seriously injured. May flew the injured policeman 125 miles to the nearest doctor and saved his life. May subsequently oversaw RCAF training schools in Western Canada in WW2. In 1974 May was declared a National Historic Person in Canada.
1 F Warren Merriam First Through The Clouds, [Batsford, 1954] 151-155. The whole book is a very interesting account of his life and flying adventures.
2 “Frontiersman” Gazette February 1913, p20
3 “New Zealand Herald” 19 March 1914, reporting from “Frontiersman” Gazette February 1914
4 Merriam First Through The Clouds, 63
5 For details of Tedder’s life and career (1890-1967) see: Vincent Orange, Tedder: Quietly in Command, [Frank Cass, 2004]
6 The Frontiersman, October 1936, 8. See also The History of the Legion of Frontiersmen, with particular reference to Canadian Division, [privately published, Regina, c 1980] 96, and R.C. Featherstonhaugh, The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, [Garden City, 1940] 245-249.
Initial research for this item was by Will Shandro of Canada and the late Bruce Fuller of New Zealand. Canada details are supplied by Will. It was due to Bruce’s research into the death of Arkell Hardwick that the idea for this article came about. This is therefore dedicated to the memory of Bruce Fuller (1934-2013) who was a member of the Legion of Frontiersmen from 1957 until his death and was a respected and knowledgeable historian of the Legion.