An unexpected passenger in a Handley Page O/100 on 4th November 1916

Handley Page O/100 aircraft 1459 "Le Tigre" of No. 3 Wing, R.N.A.S., March 1917, Ochey, France. Photograph from the collection of Library and Archives Canada, PA-125413

Handley Page O/100 aircraft 1459 “Le Tigre” of No. 3 Wing, R.N.A.S., March 1917, Ochey, France. Photograph from the collection of Library and Archives Canada, PA-125413

Published with permission from ‘Bloody Paralyser – The Giant Handley Page Bombers of the First World War’ by Rob Langham (Fonthill Media, 2016).

Following the first flight of the Handley Page O/100 in late 1915, the four prototypes were put to work training crews of this new weapon at the Handley Page Flight at RNAS Manston through 1916. The first production O/100 arrived in September, and by November the Handley Pages were ready. The Handley Pages were to join 3 Wing at Luxeuil, which formed part of an Anglo-French bombing force using Sopwith 1 1/2 Strutters.

The first Handley Page to make it across to France, 1459, had observer Lieutenant Paul Bewsher among the crew of the aircraft who had previous experience of reconnaissance missions around the British coast. He described the build-up to the ferry flight:

“The great machine was prepared. Heavy tool-boxes, engine spares, tail trolleys, and a mass of material were packed into its capacious maw. The tanks were filled with petrol, oil and water. The engines were tested again and again. The day came. A pile of luggage stood on the ground beneath the machine; farewells were said—gloves, goggles, boots and flying caps were collected—and it rained. Back into its hangar went the machine. Back into the tents went the luggage. Back into the mess went the disappointed airmen. For three or four days this happened, but at last a gentle breeze, a clear horizon, and a blue sky greeted the morning. Once again the suit-cases and trunks were packed inside the machine. I put my little tabby kitten into her basket and tied a handkerchief over the top, and lashed the whole on to the platform in the back of the aeroplane. The six airmen dressed themselves in their sky-clothes and took to their places—the C.O. at the wheel. A whistle was blown; farewells were shouted; the engines roared, and we mounted triumphantly into the air over the countryside of Thanet.”

Bewsher went on to describe his feelings during the flight on 4 November 1916:

“I was leaving England behind! I had to look back over the rail to see the white line of the cliffs and the sweep of the Isle of Thanet coast from Birchington to Ramsgate. I began to feel a lump in my throat. I was not eager to look forward to see the first glimpse of France through the sea mist. My thoughts were full of the sadness of bereavement. I knew not what lay ahead—what France and war might bring me. I knew not how long I would be from my own well-known country, or even if I would ever return.”

It was not long before Bewsher thoughts were distracted by an escaped passenger:

“To my horror I suddenly became conscious of the kitten sitting beside me carefully cleaning her paws, and probably supremely unconscious that she was 6000 feet in the air, half-way across the Dover Straits. Apprehensive for her safety I gave her no time to learn her position, but quickly pushed her into the basket, and, undoing my flowing coat and my muffler, I took off my tie, which I tied across the top of the basket to prevent the spirited young lady from emerging once more.”

Despite the cold, Bewsher became more and more absorbed into reading his copy of H. G. Wells’ The History of Mr Polly before the aircraft flew over the outskirts of Paris and landed at Villacoublay. The second aircraft, HP 1460, followed not long after HP 1459, and more Handley Pages followed as they were prepared and tested at Manston. One more, HP 1461, made the crossing that year on 15 November, but weather again delayed crossings so that it was not until 1 January 1917 that the next two Handley Pages left Manston.

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