Royal Flying Corps Burials and Memorials
Castle Bromwich Aerodrome, Birmingham

Castle Vale Housing Estate is situated at Junction 5 of the M6 just to the east of Spaghetti Junction ( junction 6 ) and the modern centre of Birmingham. The estate was a typical early 1960s build with a mixture of high rise flats and lower blocks. The design was also of its time, very concrete in nature, and rapidly led to all the ills associated with high rise, high density council housing estates of that period. By the late 1980s and early 90s it had acquired something of a reputation as a sink estate associated with a multitude of social problems. Since then, happily, the estate management has been handed over to a housing association. Many of the tower blocks are now demolished and regeneration based upon more human values is now being successfully carried out. The area is bordered by the M6 to the south and the dual carriageway and Birmingham and Fazeley canal, to the North. Above the estate a steady stream of low flying airplanes pass over head, often lowering their undercarriage at that point, as they line up for final descent into Birmingham Airport. Tubby BA Boeing 737s returning businessmen from meetings in Europe, larger multicoloured Airbuses and elegant Boeing 757s bringing holiday makers back from all over the Mediterranean, flights from the Channel Islands and other British destinations, all pass over every day and well into the night.

And yet, I bet, not one in ten thousand of the crews or passengers, looks down and knows that they are passing over one of the very cradles of British aviation as they do so. A site that not only saw one of the first flights in England but became one of the very first airfields, or aerodromes as they were known, and then went on to give sterling national service in both World Wars. A site that has greatly aided and encouraged aviation development, into the industry that we see today. Today only one old concrete road café on the dual carriageway gives us a clue to what this site once was. Still serving greasy spoon breakfasts to passing truckers is

" The Drome Café - Established 1932 ".

For the Castle Vale Estate is built over the site of Castle Bromwich aerodrome of World War One, 1920s and 1930s vintage, which itself went on to become RAF Castle Bromwich in the Second World War. The area is rightly famous for the production, between 1939 - 1945, of nearly 12,000 Spitfire fighters, and 300 Lancaster bombers in the factories that surrounded the site. All of which first flew on their maiden test flight from Castle Bromwich. This achievement was commemorated by the recent building of the magnificent Spitfire memorial arising from the roundabout at the entrance to the estate.


Yet go back in time a further 30 years to 1909 and a remarkable story unfolds. A story very hard to imagine amongst today's high density housing, factories and shopping complexes. But in 1909 the area was the rural east of Birmingham , undeveloped fields and a large, flat area known as The Berwood Playing Fields, an area in fact very suitable for aviation.


The Wright Brothers entered history as the very first to make a successful powered flight, in an aircraft, in the USA 1903. The news spread and at last the basic principle, that still holds good today, was understood and accepted. A motorised propeller gave the machine forward momentum, this in turn caused airflow over the wing and lift underneath it, enough lift to actually sustain a heavier-than-air machine in the air.

Immediately both in the States and in Europe men rushed to copy and refine the design of the Wrights' machine. Many individuals set out to build a flying machine, one of whom was a local mechanic Louis Maxfield with premises not far away. On 1909 he assembled his machine on the Berwood Playing Fields started the motor and took off making, certainly, Birmingham's first flight and probably one of Britain's earliest as well. He is reported to have reached the staggering height of 50 feet!!

The suitability of the site for such activity was recognised. Very little of the early history is recorded but certainly by 1911 an intrepid early birdman was giving demonstration flights in a classic Bleriot monoplane. A Midland Aeronautical Club was formed. Great local excitement was caused when the field was used as a staging and refuelling post in the great London to Manchester air race of 1914, with competitors landing and refuelling on both legs. But August 1914 was approaching and aviation was about to change from a rich man's hobby and public entertainment into the deadly serious business of air warfare.


The Royal Flying Corps was formed in 1912. On the outbreak of war it went immediately to France with the BEF, almost in its entirety. Although initially dismissive of the air arm's usefulness prior to 1914, High Command soon began to appreciate the importance of the RFC and to depend more and more upon their reports of enemy concentrations and movements. As the war settled down into stalemate in 1915 it became obvious that things would not be resolved quickly and the RFC would need expansion, just as all branches of the Army would do. Not only would new types of aircraft be required but so would increasing numbers of pilots, observers and all squadron specialists, mechanics, riggers, armourers down to large numbers of humble erks. An increase in flying schools would be required and so, in the Midlands, the Castle Bromwich Aerodrome as it was known was taken over by the War Office to form No 5 Flying School for the training of pilots and crew. Accomodation was originally in tents but soon various buildings had to be requisitioned, a jockeys' quarters at a local Racecourse, the Old Hall Farmhouse which became the officers' mess, then huts were erected and the site grew. As well as training, Castle Bromwich began to play a more important role as a station for the formation of squadrons and their working up to a state of operational efficiency prior to departing for active service in France.

A squadron forming would be allocated a number and given instruction as to what its main task would be. It should be remembered that for the vast majority of squadrons in the RFC, and later the RAF, their main work was photographic reconnaisance and wireless spotting for the artillery. Later on bombing squadrons grew in numbers and importance. The job of the fighter squadrons, "Scouts" as they were known. was to drive off or shoot down enemy aircraft trying to carry out the same function and to stop enemy fighters interfering with their own craft. The high scoring "Aces" of both sides notched up large numbers of kills, not of enemy fighters but, by careful stalking, of many of the slower, less manoeuvreable, and poorly armed two seater survey and spotting machines. No less credit to them for that but the rosy picture of "Knights of the Air" soon disappeared in the harsh reality of intensive flying service and all its associated murderous risks.

A Commanding Officer and Adjutant would be appointed, technical personnel drafted in, pilots and observers allocated and finally new aircraft would be collected, or flown in. The squadron would then work up to a state where they would be declared fit for operations and leave for France. Most squadrons would stay at their initial base for five or six months, but such was the demand, that they would soon be required at the Front. Soon afterwards another new CO would arrive and another Squadron begin the process of formation.

On September 1st 1915. 19 Squadron was formed at the Aerodrome. Not only did it see sterling service through both World Wars but is probably the only unit connected with Castle Bromwich still undertaking active duties today!!

Pilots trained on a variety of machines with standard BE2c equipping the squadron at first. In December this was changed to the RE7 and the squadron told to become proficient at bombing. However experiments showed that the machine could not lift a 400lb bomb, an observer and sufficient fuel to carry out a mission so this had to be rethought. 19 Squadron left for Filton in April 1916, finally arriving in France in August. From then on it was fully committed over the Western Front until the Armistice. The squadron is officially credited with 285 enemy aircraft shot down. Its highest scoring pilot was a Canadian, Major Albert Carter DSO and bar, with 29 victories credited. He was shot down and captured in May 1918, survived the war, but sadly crashed and was killed whilst test flying a captured Fokker in England the following May. We shall meet a very similar story later.

Another famous fighter squadron formed here in May 1916 number 54 Squadron. This arrived in France in December 1916 and became the first squadron to be equipped with the light and versatile Sopwith Pup fighter. Its top ace was a Canadian Captain Ernest Salter with 9 confirmed victories. We shall shortly meet one of their pilots who had come literally from the far side of the world to join them only to be left behind here as a poignant reminder of where the call of duty could lead.

Other squadrons here were 38 formed on July 14th 1916 as a Home Defence squadron. 28 Squadron was here as a reserve squadron from June 1916 to July 1918. Many others formed here or passed through operating here for short periods. Amongst them was one commanded by a certain Major Harris RFC. Major Harris would go on to achieve greater fame in the next conflict as Air Marshall Arthur ( Bomber ) Harris head of Bomber Command and later Marshall of the Royal Air Force.

It is interesting to note that until the formation of the RAF in April 1918, the RFC was, officially, a specialist branch of the Army and ranks used army ranks. Officers were transferred in from their regiments, all officially being described as " attached Royal Flying Corps." Very few, like CS Lewis in Sagittarius Rising, were commissioned directly into the Corps, but even then starting as a 2nd Lieutenant.

As well as training and squadron formation Castle Bromwich aerodrome also began a function that it would develop further in World War 2  - receiving and test flying locally manufactured aircraft. Over the four years a wide range of different aeroplane types were flown at the Aerodrome. These ranged from the early Maurice Farman flying birdcages to the later more sophisticated fighter and bombers that rapidly developed as the conflict wore on. It was said of the early Farman birdcage trainers that a canary could be let loose within a correctly rigged plane and would not find space to escape through the wires! How often this test was applied and how many war department canaries were lost, history does not relate. Overall there is no doubt that the early Castle Bromwich RFC Aerodrome saw increasing flying activity as the war progressed to its conclusion.


Sadly early flying was a risky business. Engine failure was always a possibility for novices and experts alike. Experienced pilots would keep the plane straight and try and set down somewhere ahead. Often novices would try and turn a malfunctioning plane resulting in a stall, as forward momentum was lost, and a fall or spin into the ground. For whatever reason fatalities were not uncommon and many men died doing their duty in learning to fly, or carrying out flying duties just as if they had been killed at the Front itself. Castle Bromwich was no exception. Fortunately the training record was quite good but I have discovered the graves of twelve casualties who died flying there. Most are probably novice trainees but at least one was a qualified pilot attached to a forming squadron and another two tragically killed on the same day, possibly as the result of a collision? Another, most surprisingly, was a veteran of three years combat flying over the Western Front with 15 victories and major decorations to his credit.

Casualties tended to be buried locally and there are two churches within close proximity to the airfield where burials and memorials can be found. To the North is the Parish church of Curdworth, Warwickshire. The aerodrome actually fell within this rural parish, as it was in 1914. As usual the church is on rising ground and looks down towards Castle Vale, The second lies just south of the airfield. On a small hill that would have overlooked the field itself, is what was the small hamlet of Castle Bromwich. The raised ground is topped by a large 17th century building, Castle Bromwich Hall, its attendant gardens and large, Baroque style church. Today the M6 passes below this raised ground, indeed some of the hillside has also been sliced away for a dual carriageway collector road serving the large housing areas that have now filled all the surrounding fields and countryside. Burials seem to have been divided roughly equally between the two churches.

Now just off the huge junction 9 of the M42, Curdworth is an ancient Warwickshire agricultural village. History briefly touched it in the 1640s when one of the first cavalry skirmishes of the English Civil War is recorded as having taken place across the sloping ground to the south-east of the church. Otherwise it existed peacefully until the creation of the aerodrome just in the southern corner of the parish, at Castle Bromwich. The church stands on a rising knoll of ground looking down in that direction. During World War 1 the aerodrome would have been visible from there with the small biplanes rising and circling around the district. As parish church it was chosen for the site of burials of some of those killed in flying accidents. [Image]

Opposite the church entrance is a cluster of five graves from our period of study.

Some are private headstones and others are in standard CWGC form. Alphabetically these are of:-


DIED 5 / 7 / 1917 AGED 19
CWGC- No Further Details.
A private memorial now quite faded.


DIED 17 / 9 / 1916 AGED 19.
CWGC - Born Lerwick, Shetlands. Son of Rev and Mrs Hodges of Coggleshall Essex.

As noted previously Lt Hodges was comissioned into the Royal Garrison Artillery and attached at some point to the Royal Flying Corps. Note he died on the same day as 2nd Lt Syson. Two seaters would not appear to have been used so I wonder if this was the result of a collision, or just a very bad day?

DIED 23 / 7 / 1917
CWGC - Son of Mr L and Mrs I Jacot, The Hill, Perry Barr, Birmingham

The Jacots were a Birmingham family with connections to Curdworth . Perry Barr is not far away. There is an older memorial to the Jacot family in the churchyard and Conrads name was also added to that. His grave is interesting as a long flat shaped stone with a cross, almost like a knights sword, along its length. On the side are the words " Killed while flying". At the end of the stone I brushed away an accumulation of lichen and moss to reveal a small delightfully carved Royal Flying Corps badge, complete with wings, crown and initials.


2nd Lt L SYSON
DIED 17 / 9 / 1916 AGED 23
CWGC - Noted as originating from Liverpool.

See notes under Lt Hodges. Although serving in the RFC prior to the formation of the RAF ( 1 / 4 / 1918 ), the CWGC stone displays the badge of the Royal Air Force.

DIED 23 / 9 / 1916 AGED 30.
CWGC - Born at Victoria. Husband of Ella Woodrow Neutral Bay New South Wales.

Lt Woodrow is the pilot I referred to earlier as coming half way around the world only to meet with untimely disaster at Castle Bromwich. The AFC consisted of four squadrons two of which remained active in the Middle East in The Palestine Campaign. The AFC Roll Of Honour lists Lt Woodrow as having been attached to 54 Squadron, most likely to gain operational experience. As previously noted 54 were working up at Castle Bromwich during that period. I wonder did Ella ever make it to this rural and isolated spot, where her husband still lies, to visit his resting place?


Two memorials connected with the aerodrome, exist within the church itself, both of interest and one of the highest quality. On the North wall are two painted boards. One is the Parish War Memorial listing those who went and those who fell. A separate board lists the RFC men buried outside and confirms they were killed flying from the " aerodrome " within the parish.


But the most beautiful memorial is to the Australian Lieutenant Woodrow in the form of a cross fashioned from an original. four bladed wooden aeroplane propellor. A metal plaque confirms his memory " killed in an aeroplane accident" and the plaque has a metal Australian Forces " Rising Sun " cap badge affixed to it. A splendid piece of craftmanship.



The cemetery lies across the road from the Hall and Church.


Now rather overgrown it has remained in use from the turn of the twentieth century to recent times. As always it makes fascinating wandering coming across many memorials of interest. One in particular is out of our period but is worth mentioning, the grave of a world war II ARP warden killed by enemy action whilst on duty. A reminder to us that the end of world war 1 led to an unsatisfactory peace and inevitable, further conflict.

The RFC-related burials lie in a little cluster about halfway down the path on the left hand side set back someway towards the middle of the area. Four lie in a row with the others around them.


Again in alphabetical order they are:-


DIED 14 / 9 / 1917
CWGC  -No Further Details. "Airmen Died " gives him as David Kitto Billings and most surprisingly, as a native of Chicago, Illinois.


DIED 8 / 6 / 1917 AGED 25 YEARS
CWGC - No Further Details.

Lt Higgs's memorial is a private one in the shape of a large cross. This must have been erected by his family but no details are given in the record. "Airmen Died " gives him as a native of Brussels Belgium. Was he a refugee from 1914?


DIED 22 / 5 / 1918

CWGC - Notes attached to 54 Training Squadron which spent a spell back at Castle Bromwich during this time. The memorial is a private stone again noting " Who was killed while flying "

Corporal C N RYDER

DIED 10 / 4 / 1917
Interestingly Cpl Ryder does not appear to show on the CWGC website register,

despite having a CWGC stone. The AFC Roll of Honour shows him as a fitter on number 4 Squadron Australian Flying Corps, killed in an accident. It does not state wether a flying accident or something more mundane on or off the aerodrome. However the AFC section of "Airmen Died"  gives Corporal Clifford Newton Ryder, a native of Sydney, as killed while flying. Was he undergoing unofficial tuition or trying a solo? The history notes no 4 Squadron, AFC leaving for France at the end of 1917 so again was presumably at Castle Bromwich working up to operational status.

DIED 23 / 3 / 1917 AGED 32

A most interesting private memorial now in some disrepair with metal lettering falling out here and there. Noted to be the younger son of the late Wm Staniforth of Hackenthorpe, Derbyshire. Husband of G Staniforth. Also contains the line " To the dear memory of Billie. Killed While On Flying Duty In England, Gladys. " Presumably Gladys was able to visit the memorial and see it completed and properly sited.

Although private memorials were commissioned with love and care, to my mind the mix of private and CWGC stones is untidy in appearance. It gives an idea of the jumble of differing heights and types that may have occurred throughout all military cemeteries had the IWGC, as it was then, not stood by its principles in the face of considerable, bitter, public and parliamentary opposition for the uniform remembrance of the dead in the form of a standard stone. The effect now, with most relatives having passed on and no longer looking after private memorials, would have been most unsightly.

As it is, some of these memorials do not now do justice to the bright spirits of these young men, all volunteers to the Corps. But the inscriptions all show a common theme. They are keen to express that all died doing their duty in flying even if not at the Front. Indeed if the men could express any regret, apart from being suddenly parted from loved ones, I feel sure they would all say the same. Their regret would be not to have survived to take part in active service and further the war effort against the enemy, inflicting loss of materiel and personnel upon him. Yet there is one more, quite amazing, burial at Castle Bromwich, not of a novice, but of a veteran fighter pilot who for three years of flying Sopwith Camel Scouts over the Western Front, did just that, receiving high decorations and being credited with 15 victories over enemy aircraft.


Captain Haynes saw three years active flying service over Belgium and France. He died just after the war, in an accident and not as a result of war service so, quite unfairly it seems to me as he was an RNAS / RAF veteran, he is not commemorated in the RAF Roll of Honour. Consequently he now lies in some obscurity here in the very centre of England, another far away from his native country, worthy of far greater remembrance and recognition of his service than he has so far received. Hopefully this research may go a little way to correcting this imbalance.

DIED 28 / 4 / 1919 AGED 24.

A large private memorial sets out Captain Haynes life and wartime service in detail.
( Further details obtained from " The Aerodrome" website and CWGC. )

Edwin Haynes was the son of Tufnell and Emily Haynes of Johannesburg, South Africa where he was born in 1895. In 1916 he joined the Royal Naval Air Service, in effect the Admiralty's private air force. Although its main purpose was, originally, the air protection of naval bases and fleet operations, the RNAS expanded to provide several fighter squadrons for operations over the Western Front. Captain Haynes joined number 3 Naval squadron, RNAS, in France, flying Sopwith Camels. He became their top scorer with 15 victories credited to him. On 1 / 4 / 1918 the RNAS and the RFC were joined together into the Royal Air Force, to be recognised as a separate service in its own right. Number 3 became 203 Squadron RAF and Captain Haynes continued to serve with them up to the Armistice. By then he had been awarded both the Distinguished Service Cross and the Distinguished Flying Cross for his long and successful wartime flying career.


Having survived all that it would always be ironic that he should be killed five months later, on 28th April 1919, whilst flying a Bristol Fighter from Castle Bromwich aerodrome.

With such a long and outstanding service record it is also quite sobering to realise he was still only 24. Obviously his family must have arranged for the large well lettered private headstone to be erected . It has survived well but the lettering is in need of recolouring with black paint. The last lines at the bottom quote from the text used in the scroll presented to the families of all who fell.

"Let those that come after, see to it that his name be not forgotten"

I hope that this article will help us to remember all those whose who followed the path of duty and paid the ultimate price, here in the very centre of England at Castle Bromwich Aerodrome.

(If of interest a half hour illustrated talk is available on the burials and memorials.)

For a direct link to the author of this article, email Christopher John

Copyright © Christopher John, January, 2003

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