First World War observer in balloon was a sitting target to German aircraft
PUBLISHED: 10:05 11 November 2017 | UPDATED: 10:05 11 November 2017
Colin Tooke Collection
Armistice Day each November sharply focuses our attention on the two world wars of the 20th century in which thousands of Britons perished.
The passage of time has reduced the numbers of 1939-45 war survivors, but our respect and gratitude to them and their 1914-18 comrades-in-arms remain undiminished.
Through the past three years we have been appalled by harrowing descriptions and old newsreel footage of the Great War a century ago. On television. we have become familiar with the battlefield mud, trenches, men clutching rifles clambering over the top in the face of relentless gunfire, slaughter and – years later – the aftermath, with long disciplined rows of headstones commemorating the fallen at the places where a generation of young men lost their lives.
In 1998, Mrs Peggotty and I were on a coach returning from Paris to our Channel port when our driver, who was making good time, diverted to Vimy Ridge, providing his passengers with an unscheduled opportunity to visit the scene of a prolonged and horrendous battle between Canadian and German troops.
The Allies suffered 10,602 casualties, including 3,598 killed.
It was humbling and awesome, the wide memorial dominating the landscape. Despite the passing of a century, the search continues for unexploded shells and mines, and certain areas were still out of bounds. We all gazed in hushed awe at the memorial and the remains of the trenches, trying to imagine the reality.
However, within a few days of our return home, it was reported a highly experienced bomb disposal expert - Lieut-Col Mike Watkins, British head of a military safety directorate - had been killed while surveying Vimy tunnels still thought to contain unexploded charges.
It was sobering information.
My maternal grandfather fought in the 1914-18 war, but was gassed, dying from its effects years later, before I was born. His large photograph hung in my Nan’s Newtown home throughout my childhood.
A Great Yarmouth resident currently recalling his grandfather, another victim of that conflict, is regular correspondent Robin Hambling, an octogenarian living on Lawn Avenue.
William Frederick Hambling, a postal worker who volunteered for the Army in 1916, met a bizarre death on active service 16 months later.
William, educated at Yarmouth’s Priory School, began his Post Office career in his home town but, after passing the requisite examinations, moved to Ipswich as an assistant inspector of postmen before being granted permission to join the Armed Forces.
After being passed fit, he applied to join the 25th Cyclists Battalion but there were no vacancies, so instead be joined the Royal Garrison Artillery as a bombardier.
In 1917 he was aloft in a balloon near Ypres, acting as an observer for his gunners, giving them information on the range and direction at which to fire and reporting on the effect of their bombardment. Obviously a balloon is a defenceless sitting target, unable to take evasive action...and William’s was shot down, presumably punctured and ripped by German gunfire, plunging to the ground.
Whether he was killed by the actual bullets or by the fall to earth, I do not know, but grandson Robin tells me: “I understand he was shot down by an aircraft.”
Remarkably, the family still possesses all his original paperwork required despite the fact he enlisted voluntarily.
I have before me letters from his Ipswich head postmaster to “the recruiting officer” giving William permission to sign up for active service, and one from a doctor confirming his physical fitness to serve!
Typical of military botched bureaucracy Lieut H Pollard, officer commanding the Administrative Centre of the 25th Cyclist Battalion of the London Regiment, told William by letter: “I shall be pleased to enlist you in this unit”.
But only two days later that same officer sent another, stating: “Recruiting for this unit is now closed.”
If William Hambling had become a military cyclist, he would not have been up in that balloon...