Battle of Britain London Monument – P/O S Carlin part 2 THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN LONDON MONUMENT "Never in the field of human
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Privacy Statement The Airmen’s Stories – P/O S Carlin
This immensely detailed account of Carlin’s life, by Steve Mosely, pays particular attention to his service in WW1.
Captain and Flying Officer Sydney CARLIN M.C., D.F.M., D.C.M. (1889 – 1941) was born in Spring Bank, Hull, East Riding, Yorkshire on 24th March 1889. His birth certificate shows his Christian name as ‘Sidney’, but he consistently adopted the spelling with a ‘y’ from an early age, perhaps as attribute to his mother Caroline – her maiden name is given as ‘Smith’ on his birth certificate, but Syd wrote it as ‘Smythe’. Syd’s father William was a Tallow Chandler (ie he manufactured and sold candles). Syd attended secondary school at St Bedes, Hornsea and in Spring 1907, around the time of his 18th birthday, he enlisted in the army. According to an account given by his sister in 1969 to Jim Dixon, a Hull Times journalist, Syd had planned a military career since boyhood. He was ten when the Boer War broke out, and was imbued with the strong sense of service and patriotism shared by many of his working class contemporaries: “ ‘I remember’, recalls an old 19th Hussar, ‘that there were lots of pictures of old battles on my schoolroom walls – The Charge of the Light Brigade and one called Aliwal – and I thought, if it wasn’t for the likes of them, there wouldn’t be the likes of me.’” (The Mons Star by David Ascoli, p24).
Unfortunately Syd Carlin found that life as a private in the 18th (Queen Mary’s Own) Royal Hussars based in York and the Curragh did not provide the adventure and excitement he craved. Despite the smart ‘walking-out’ uniforms, peacetime soldiering was not seen by most families as a prestigious occupation: “There are still veterans of that time who remember notices in public-houses which said ‘NO DOGS! NO SOLDIERS!’ in that order”
Eventually Syd accepted his father’s offer to buy him out of the army. In September 1908, aged 19, Syd returned to Hull and took up farming, working first at Sunk Island, then Frodingham and, from 1912, Brandesburton (actually the Manor House, Bewholme, near Seaton). He also studied Engineering at Hull Municipal Technical College (probably on a night-school basis, as he did not obtain any professional or academic qualification). His sister stated that he enjoyed his work and did well, but “he had told his father that, if war came, he would consider it to be his duty to rejoin his old regiment immediately.”
On 8th August 1914, aged 25, Syd Carlin was accepted back into the 18th Hussars as a trained soldier. He was a sturdy fellow, only 5 feet 6 inches tall (just under the average height at the time), with grey eyes, dark brown hair and a fresh complexion. After mobilisation, the regiment sailed for France on 15th August as part of the 2nd Cavalry Brigade, and formed part of the advanced cavalry screen for the B.E.F. as it advanced into Belgium. Syd, after being kitted-out and provided with a horse (there was a great shortage of suitable cavalry remounts) followed the main body as part of the first “ten per cent reinforcements” and landed in France on 28th August. The war situation looked particularly bleak for the Allies at this point – the French and Russian attempts to invade Germany had failed utterly at the cost of huge casualties, and in the west the allied armies were retreating in the face of the great mass of the German right wing that had stuck through Belgium.
Carlin joined the regiment (probably on August 30th, together with the first mail sent on from England) in time to participate in the Battle of the Marne (6th-10th September), the decisive moment at which the German drive into France was stopped in its tracks and turned back: “It was many a long day before anyone got a change of clothes again, and when we were so lucky as to meet a bale of clothing our “cast-offs’ had to be burnt or thrown way on the spot” Regimental History refers. The French attacked both the exposed western flank of the German First Army and pinned down the enemy Second Army, creating an opportunity for the BEF to split the German forces and begin a process of enveloping and defeating them in detail. 2nd Cavalry Brigade led the B.E.F. as it advanced and provided right-flank protection as it struck north-eastwards and engaged the retreating First Army. The British cavalry screen led the advance through close country studded with small woods, villages and deep valleys, all favourable to the defence. Numerous small unit actions were fought with German rearguards, covering troops and stragglers.
On the second day of the advance 2nd Cavalry Brigade fought its famous action at Moncel. In an encounter battle, about 40 men of the 9th Lancers and the 120 strong German 2nd Squadron, 1st Guard Dragoon Regiment charged each other in the last lance-on-lance action every made by the British Army. Meanwhile, two Squadrons of the 18th Hussars dismounted and engaged the German cavalry. In 1914, both the British infantry and the cavalry had been trained to fire 15 aimed rounds per minute from their outstanding ‘short’ Lee-Enfield rifle. ‘A’ Squadron engaged the German survivors of the charge north of Moncel, while the German 4th Squadron, 1st Guard Dragoons actually charged the dismounted ‘B’ Squadron.
A contemporary account tells what happened immediately after the 9th Lancers drove off their opponents at the cost of 11 casualties: “The Germans, too, have checked and wheeled round, but they are not so steady. Though by far the heavier cavalry they have been badly mauled. It was like the little English ships sailing through and raking the great galleons of the Spanish Armada. Still, they recover and turn to retire the way they had come. Back they trot, re-forming ranks as they go. Now they have reached the northern end of the village. Now three hundred yards past, when there is a sudden burst of rifle fire and a hail of bullets ploughs through the hardly formed ranks.
(You had forgotten all about the Hussars, hadn’t you?)
But the Germans know what discipline means, and they are courageous enough too. There is a momentary confusion, but a sudden word of command pulls them together, and about eighty odd men from the inner flank wheel about.
"By Jove!” exclaims the Hussar Squadron Leader, "They’re actually going to charge us." Then, after a moment to make sure, "Cease fire! We’ll wait for ’em," he adds to himself. The other officers and N.C.O.’s see in a moment what they are to do. It is an old trick, but it calls for nerves of steel to carry it out. The Hussars had been firing "rapid independent" on the retiring Germans, and it is not always easy to get your men quickly in hand again, especially when there is an avalanche of men and horses coming down on top of you. Still, the Germans do not hold a grinding monopoly in discipline, and you might say that a crack British regiment will go one better, for the men are trained and disciplined as human beings, not machines.
"Not a shot till you get the word, and then two good volleys," sings out the O.C. "Aim low." The German cavalry has covered 150 yards. They are getting alarmingly close, and coming for all they are worth dead straight. Again it is just a matter of seconds, but the O.C. is as cool as though it were practice on the Pirbright ranges. 100 yards! And – "Fire!” Every Hussar had picked his man, and that one volley accounted for practically the entire line of Dragoons. They say that only ten got back. So ended perhaps the most brilliant cavalry engagement of the war up to that date, and, so far as I am aware, up to the time of writing. It illustrates very happily the mounted and dismounted work of our cavalry in those early days.” The Marne and After by Major A. Corbett-Smith. I n fact, only 3 of the German lancers escaped, and the 18th Hussars suffered no losses at all.
On September 8th the line of the Petit Morin river was forced in the face of stiffening German resistance and the next day the B.E.F. crossed the Marne, resulting in a general withdrawal of the German armies towards the north. Paris, and France, had been saved. The Allies advanced another 65 kms in very bad weather conditions, cold, with frequent downpours of rain, and by September 13th had closed up to the next natural obstacle in their path, the valley of the River Aisne, one of the most formidable defensive positions on the Western front. The river itself winds westward and is about one hundred feet wide, ranging from twelve to fifteen feet deep. Low-lying ground with no natural concealment extends a mile on each side, rising abruptly to a line of steep cliffs three to four hundred feet high, gently leveling to a plateau, along which runs a road known as the Chemin des Dames. The Germans settled on the higher northern side two miles beyond the crest, with superb views and wide fields of fire, behind a dense thicket of forest and scrub that covers the front and slope. Deep, narrow re-entrants, cut into the escarpment at right angles, exposed infiltrators to extreme hazard.
“On the morning of Sunday, the 13th, no less an undertaking than the crossing of the Aisne was to fall to the lot of the cavalry. Orders had come for a general advance. The 1st and 2nd Cavalry Brigades were to move north. The 2nd Cavalry Brigade was to reconnoitre the river crossings from Villers to Pont-Arcy.” (From Mons to Ypres with General French by Frederic Coleman).
It was quickly discovered that the crossings were defended and some bridges were still standing. 2nd Cavalry Brigade rushed and captured the important bridges at Bourg at the cost of less than 20 casualties, and the British were established on the north bank by mid-morning, although continually harassed by German shell-fire, with 2nd Cavalry pushing on towards Vendresse, a town 4 miles due north and just short of the Chemin des Dames.
“On Monday, September 14th, I was called at a quarter-past two in the morning, and asked to be ready to start at 3.30. We were still inclined to wonder by what good fortune we had been allowed to force a way across the Aisne at Bourg, the day previously, with such great success and so few casualties. Our passage of the Aisne and our pressing forward to Vendresse and up to the Chemin des Dames, a great east-and-west highway beyond, was so important a move, and bore such prospect of result, that it was but natural we should be in ardent expectation of a sight of the Rhine within the near future.
…We started full of hope of pressing on to further success, the battle of the Marne fresh in our minds…In the dark and the rain, without any lights, the road full of cavalry regiments and attendant batteries of artillery, progress was slow. It was a rainy, dreary morning. By seven o’clock a number of wounded had come to the dressing station at the foot of the hill. Our batteries had begun firing, but so far no enemy shells had disturbed us. Another of our batteries dashed up towards Vendresse, a most inspiring sight…The 18th Hussars and a battery went by. Our field-guns opened with increasing frequency in positions to the right and left. The Welsh Regiment and the Gloucesters passed, the former followed by its handsome white goat. Stout chaps the infantry men, bearded like a pard, except for sundry hairless youths. ..
At ten o’clock we ran up a cross-road, a mere lane, to Moulins, and climbed the steep hill to Paissy, a mountain village. Its cave dwellings and its one roadway nestling in the shelter of the high cliffside were full of picturesque Algerians and Zouaves. Leaving the car we walked to the top of the cliff, and were afforded a wonderful view. English cavalry of another Brigade galloped by on the skyline. We could see but few troops, but the General [de Lisle, 2nd Cavalry Brigade] explained that in front of us some of the 1st Corps infantry were getting into touch with our 2nd Cavalry Brigade. As we stood at the top of the ridge it was most inspiring to feel that one of the greatest battles of the world’s history was in progress in front of us.”
But it was not to be. Steadily increasing German counter-attacks and shell-fire held back the British infantry and cavalrymen. “So the day ended, with our hopes of piercing the German line shattered, and with the dawning realisation that we were facing a splendidly prepared and dangerously strong position. It began to filter into our minds that the German retreat was over and that we had best prepare ourselves for fierce counter-attacks to hold the lines we had gained. We were well across the Aisne…a hard fight to maintain our positions was sure on the morrow. Sleep was of inestimable value, so we slept as best we could.” (From Mons to Ypres with General French by Frederic Coleman).
After a week of localized struggles and severe artillery bombardments, Syd Carlin and the 18th Hussars became heavily involved in dealing with an extremely dangerous German attack. On Sunday September 20th the German 7th Army commander committed the entire VIIth Reserve Corps to make a general attack, focused on the extreme right of the BEF positions and the junction with the French army to the east. Frederic Coleman was once again an eye-witness: “The Sunday was an eventful one for me. General de Lisle was up at three o’clock and away half an hour later. The Brigade was ordered to Paissy. A couple of squadrons of the 18th Hussars were to go into the trenches close to the firing line while the remainder of the command was to act in reserve…
Around the corner came a line of wounded Algerians, some supported by comrades and one swarthy fellow carried by his companions. They seemed to have suffered a bad mauling. The dazed look of mute questioning, a failure to understand, was on their faces. From red fez to blue putties, their uniforms were a riot of colour. Blue capes over light blue jackets trimmed in yellow and red, once white trousers, unusually baggy, with here and there a head dress of odd hue, they presented a variegated but woe-begone appearance…. Like a bolt from the blue came a West Yorks officer with news that the Germans had once again attacked the Zouaves on our right and pushed them back, getting in on the West Yorks’ right flank. The Huns had taken some of the West Yorks’ trenches, and driven back the line. Two companies of the Yorks Battalion had been captured. No sooner had he told his tale than Phipps-Hornby galloped up. General de Lisle, he said, wished all available troops sent up at once to reinforce him…
A real breach in the line and Paissy lost meant serious business. The muddy roads and the narrow pontoon bridges over the Aisne would not allow a thought of retirement. Nothing remained but to regain the ground that had been lost… The fight was in plain view. The Germans were coming over the brow of the hill. A couple of hundred dismounted [British cavalrymen], the first line of the counter-attack, under Major Tom Bridges, could be seen climbing the stubble-covered hillside, dotted with still forms in khaki, and crowned by the lost trench…” The charge of the 18th Hussars and 4th Dragoons threw back the enemy, re-took the lost position and pressed on as far as “the Chemin des Dames, three or four hundred yards ahead of our original position. There we stuck and held on against counter-attack on counter-attack…
A splendid charge was that at Paissy. A triumph of individual leadership and splendid quality in a handful of men. To watch it made the blood run hot and fast. To have taken part in it was worth a lifetime of mere ordinary existence.” (From Mons to Ypres with General French).
The Battle of the Aisne was the first experience that the British Army’s first experience of large-scale and sustained positional warfare since the Crimea, almost 60 years earlier. Although the B.E.F. was well-trained and equipped for its mission of mobile expeditionary warfare, equipment deficiencies relative to the Germans in key areas started to become obvious. “On Monday, following the Sunday fight in front of the Chemin des Dames, the Brigade was ordered to rest and refit. The line was comparatively quiet, save for the inevitable intermittent shell-fire. The weather was exasperating. A flash of real warm sunshine at times gave hope of a change, but the hope always vanished in cold, dispiriting rain…The universal feeling was that the new form of warfare, the trench fighting, might prove a tedious business. In spite of the arrival from England of half a dozen batteries of 60-pounders, the Germans were able to fire thirty shells to our one. Their preponderance in machine-guns was also marked.”
Other signs of the future quickly appeared on the Aisne: “A sight that attracted daily attention on the Aisne was the appearance of German aeroplanes, which dropped signals to their guns… high in the sky, on the right, was a German war balloon — a ‘sausage,’ as the men call it…”
On October 1st “an officer from G.H.Q. whom I had met in Rheims had told me of the prospective change of area of operations of the British Force. Antwerp was likely to fall, he said, and the Huns to press on towards the Channel with their eyes on Calais, Boulogne, and even Havre. Joffre’s movement on the left to outflank Von Kluck’s right was being met by a German offensive in the same area that had not proved altogether unsuccessful. To move the British force west and north would put it in direct touch with the seacoast and the British Fleet, and free it from the inconvenience of having its line of supply crossed by those of the French 6th, 7th, and 10th Armies to the westward. Besides, he argued, the trench warfare on our front had degenerated into a stalemate. To hold the line along the Aisne much less seasoned troops could with advantage be employed, and French’s men, already veterans, released for more important and exacting work in the northern theatre. West Flanders, he opined, would see some stiff fighting.”
Allenby’s 1st Cavalry Division, of which 2nd Cavalry Brigade was a part, moved west en route for the Allied left flank on the night of 3rd/4th October. “The Aisne we had reached with such sanguine hopes twenty-one days before was still the high-water mark of our advance. The three weeks’ fighting had cost the British Army in France nearly 600 officers and 13,000 men. We had learned much of warfare, and were off to green fields and pastures new to further our education.”
The Aisne was the B.E.F.’s first ‘positional’ battle of the war (Mons, Le Cateau and the Marne were all ‘encounter’ battles). It further proved what the French army had just learned at enormous cost, that the technical development of heavy artillery and machine guns that had taken place in the late 19th/early 20th centuries gave defence a strong advantage over attack and that siege warfare techniques (which had a long military heritage/tradition dating back to the first organized wars but up to then had been localized in application) could now dominate entire theatres of war. Only with the invention of new technologies (aerial, mechanized and chemical) was the balance between defence and attack to be moved closer back towards equilibrium.
The Cavalry At Ypres
Allenby’s newly created Cavalry Corps went into action in Flanders late on October 11th. It quickly became the connecting link between Rawlinson’s 4th Corps in front of Ypres and Pulteney’s 3rd Corps in front of Armentieres. The thin line of troopers held on gallantly in the centre of the British line, though overwhelmingly outnumbered by the enemy. By October 14th the 18th Hussars were across the Franco-Belgium border and based in Neuve Eglise, with ‘C’ squadron having pushed on to Ploegsteert. Much exciting close patrol work was done: “Lieutenant Gore Langton, of the 18th Hussars, at the head of a patrol, passed Nieppe, on the main Bailleul- Armentieres road, and reached Pont de Nieppe, a mile from Armentieres, in the middle of the night. A small road came into the main highway from the north. Along it troops were marching, lighted here and there by flares. A barrier extended half-way across the street. The patrol halted beside it. A trooper dismounted and walked towards the files of soldiers tramping past. "Are you infantry? " he asked of a dark form standing by the barricade. Peering towards him in the drizzle the man he had addressed took a step forward and suddenly ejaculated, " Mein Gott, Englischer! " It was a German officer! The passing troops were files of German soldiers bound for Armentieres. The trooper threw his rifle forward until the muzzle almost touched the German’s body, and pulled the trigger. An uproar followed. Leaping into the saddle, the trooper and his fellows put spurs in deep and tore back along the roadway for dear life. Ping! went a bullet beside them. Ping, ping, ping, came others, closer still. One found its mark, and a riderless horse sped on with the patrol. The scattering shots merged into a fusilade, but the troopers were well away, and not another man received a scratch.” (Coleman p260)
All of the 18th Hussars patrols got right up to the enemy main bodies, which were holding the banks of the River Lys in great strength, and had some exciting experiences getting back and dodging the German cavalry. This was the limit of British forward movement as the German forces in front of them steadied and a number of Army Corps moved up to attempt to envelop the Allied left flank by breaking through between the Lys and the North Sea.
Actions of the First Battle of Ypres
The British cavalry was about to see the last of their horses. In the following days the 18th Hussars, mostly dismounted, became deeply involved in the bitter fighting to hold and push back the Germans around Ploegsteert, despite being outnumbered almost six to one by German cavalry, also fighting dismounted. ‘C’ Squadron suffered 36 casualties while holding and finally retiring from an advanced position under heavy bombardment and infantry attack. Then on Thursday, October 22nd, the whole of the 1st Cavalry Division, with the Ferozepore Brigade of the Lahore Division of the Indian Corps in support, was assigned the task of holding the corner of the line that swung round Messines, against odds of more than two to one and with almost no reserves, where every day for a week and a half was sanguinary battle, culminating in the capture by the enemy of the Messines-Wytschaete ridge, and the consequent evacuation of Messines on November 1st.
“In ten days of continual fighting against great odds in men and guns, one third of the 1st Cavalry Division was to fall, and the magnificent qualities of the British Cavalry were to be tried to the utmost. Tried in the fire they were with a vengeance, and never for a moment found wanting.”
On October 26, in a process known as “puttying-up” that was extensively used by the B.E.F. in Flanders, a series of brilliantly improvised moves (which, apart from the stamina and fortitude of the men, enabled the Allies to win First Ypres) the 2nd Cavalry Brigade was rushed south on loan to reinforce Smith-Dorrien’s II Corps, which was also trying to fight off massive German assaults south of the Lys. Neuve Chapelle was taken by the Germans on the 27th, but the British made a counter-attack the next day. “The 2nd Cavalry Brigade were sent into the scrimmage and fought hard till nightfall. They were relieved at daybreak next morning. Neuve Chapelle had been taken, lost, retaken and lost again. When night closed in the Germans were in possession of the greater part of the town. The cavalry suffered seventy casualties, a light list for that part of the world in those days.”
Then it was back again to Ypres, where the fighting was reaching its first great crisis as the B.EF fought off three German Armies: “The Menin Road and Gheluvelt, on the 29th, was the scene of an all-day battle, to be renewed at daybreak on the 30th. The storm centre drifted our way. Gough was driven out of Hollebeke. De Lisle sent the 4th Dragoon Guards and 18th Hussars to Wytschaete to aid Gough, if he found help necessary to hold the new position in front of St. Eloi, to which he had fallen back. The day was big with action all along the line. Reports came of stubborn resistance by the 7th Division at Gheluvelt, costly to us and trebly so to the enemy. New German units had been brought up, and the Kaiser was with them, we heard.” The Kaiser was indeed at the headquarters of 6th German Army. He was intent on finally smashing the “contemptible” B.E.F. and on making a triumphal entry into Ypres. His Order of the Day stated “the breakthrough will be of decisive importance. We must settle for ever…with our most detested enemy.”
“Just before dark we relieved the 5th Lancers and a company of an Indian regiment on a line which ran from the big Ypres-Comines canal on the left along the west border of the park of Hollebeke chateau to a farmhouse about three-quarters of a mile due south of the canal…all night long we could hear the Germans arriving…they enlivened proceedings with a band, and appeared to be making themselves fairly comfortable, as the chateau was well lit up…[after a night attack by the Germans was beaten off and heavy losses inflicted] during the day we were heavily fired on by both rifles and guns..about 8pm after some 36 hours with very little rest, we were relieved…the whole country to the east was lit up by the light of the furious battle that was raging” (Memoirs of the 18th Royal Hussars).
The German plan was to trap the British in a nut-cracker movement, between the pincers of breakthroughs at Gheluvelt and Messines. At dusk on the 31st de Lisle had a talk with Mullens, who was taking over the defence of Messines, which the German commander, Fabek, believed was the key to Ypres (Ypres 1914, refers). “With the depleted 9th Lancers, 18th Hussars, and 4th Dragoon Guards, Mullens was to have the King’s Own Scottish Borderers and the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. General Allenby wanted the position held at all costs, even if it became necessary to give up the town. "De Lisle could evacuate Messines, for that matter," said Allenby, "if he held the ridge from Messines north to Wytschaete."
But to lose Messines, said de Lisle, would be to lose the ridge with it, so the town must needs be held. The situation was bad and at 9.30 on November 1st de Lisle was forced to pull back, with the 18th Hussars evacuating Messines under artillery and small-arms fire. “It was a good retirement however, most methodical and well-covered by the fire of alternate bodies right up to the next position.” Memoirs The Germans kept up the pressure, and “though our ranks were sadly depleted, and little more than a strong squadron remained at the close of the day” (almost 200 men – ‘A” Squadron was reduced to a single troop) somehow the line west of the town was held, and by November 2nd even the Germans admitted that the ‘nut-cracker’ had failed.
But the Imperial High Command decided to stake everything on one last effort – a massive assault directly down the Menin road, spearheaded by the elite Prussian Guard, to take place on November 11th, supported by the most violent bombardment yet along the 9 mile front from Messines to Reutel. Then came the German infantry attacks. Around Messines the attacks were beaten off without undue difficulty. North of the road it was a different story, and only the raw courage of the remnants of the 1st Guards Brigade and the Oxford & Bucks finally stopped the Prussian Guard in its tracks at Nonne Bosschen. But it would take another four years to the day for the Germans to finally accept that they would not be able to prevail against France and Britain.
“De Lisle’s 1st Cavalry Division came out of the line in front of Messines on the evening of the 11th for a well-earned seventy-two hours’ rest. For ten days little or no opportunity had been given to take stock of heavy casualties and refit. The men left the trenches on Wednesday afternoon, and at dinner on Wednesday night orders came to Headquarters that the Division must move to Ypres at once in support of Haig’s men, to whom, after three weeks of constant battle, had fallen the task of repulsing the fiercest attack of the whole war.
The 1st Cavalry Brigade was on the road to the north by 11 pm. and the 2nd Cavalry Brigade an hour later, all thought of the seventy-two hours’ rest forgotten, eager to press on to the succour of their gallant comrades, with such strength as in them lay. That strength was not to be gauged by their attenuated numbers, for the troopers, who had held on to Messines till the ridge was lost and their withdrawal ordered in consequence, were equal to a force of the enemy outnumbering them by six to one.”
The 12th the 18th Hussars spent in the salient in reserve, and on the night of 13th, Friday, they took their places in the sandy woodlands of the front line and showed their temper to the Prussian Guardsmen. “At night the wood was almost lighter than by day; all along the front “flares’ were sent up and at the spots they lit up heavy outbursts of fire at once occurred. One of the most thrilling spectacles ever presented to the human eye was the battle line by night around Ypres when fighting was at its most furious pitch. Once a violent thunderstorm accompanied the combat, and it served as Nature’s setting to the continuous display of rockets of all colours round the great semi-circle of the Salient, while the constant bursting of shells and the flashes of the guns, so visible at night, aided by the very vivid storm of multi-coloured sheet lightening, and abetted by the roll of thunder and the noise of the cannon, all this with the flames of many villages burning in the distance and the mass of smoke and fire arising from the town of Ypres, as a centre setting to the picture, produced a scene which few will ever forget.
We noticed at this period how weary the infantry was from its incessant fighting: the men seemed to have that far-away look on their faces, which betokened general inability to realize the horrors which were surrounding them…” (Memoirs). Finally, on November 23rd, the 18th Hussars were relieved and moved to billets in the Berthen area. “The ground was white with snow. Incessant rains had turned to freezing blizzards. The Prussian Guard had failed, and the line had held. The first battle of Ypres was finished.”
Mine Warfare The 1st Cavalry Division was pulled out of the line for a long rest and reorganization, and 72 hour leaves to England were granted to all ranks: “no coveted holiday ever produced the same feelings of expectancy as this vision of a break in our fighting career.” The casualties for 1st Cavalry Division in Flanders to December 1st were 1,544, with the 18th Hussars losing well over 200. “New drafts were daily arriving, and the regiments busying themselves getting the fresh men into shape. Continual exercise kept horses and men fit, everyone spending much time in the saddle – from the General himself to the troopers.” On November 28th, Syd Carlin was appointed a Lance-Corporal. This unpaid appointment (not a promotion) has marked the first step up of many distinguished military careers. It proves that Carlin had made his mark in the regiment since ‘re-enlisting’ barely four months earlier.
On December 2nd Sir John French arrived to thank the regiment for its part in the recent heavy fighting and the “unaccustomed” trench warfare, and the next day the Brigade lined the Meteren-Fletre Road and King George V walked down the ranks of the regiments. “Christmas Day was foggy and very quiet from a warlike point of view, a pretty heavy bombardment on Christmas Eve seemed to have satisfied both sides for the time being, and by the aid of pork, poultry, plum puddings, fruit, cakes, tobacco and rather thin beer we managed to provide ourselves with a fairly generous spread. Concerts and carol singing – the latter nearly an all night affair – terminated the day.” (Memoirs).
On 18th January 1915 L/Cpl Carlin was admitted to hospital in Bailleul, most likely for sickness or possibly an injury, as he was discharged after two days.
The 18th Hussars’ respite lasted three months, and it was not until February 28th that they went into the trenches again, at Zillebeke. The winter of 1914-15 was marked by incessant rain. From October 25th to March 10th there were only 18 dry days, and on 11 of these the temperature was below freezing. The trenches were still primitive, as the water table was mostly just two feet below ground level, and there was a severe shortage of essential construction materials such as sand-bags, sleepers, beams and planking. Sanitation was appalling, due to the presence of human excrement and decomposing bodies – often these had been piled in front to help build the parapet when the line was first dug. There were no proper facilities for drying clothing and the men frequently wore the same soaking uniforms for days on end.
Zillebeke was a sector where both sides had begun to wage mine warfare, aimed at destroying hostile trenches and counter-mining tunnels being dug by the enemy. Just before the 18th Hussars arrived a British mine had been started, to penetrate to a point under a trench that the Germans had captured from the 16th Lancers. The regiment provided men to dig the tunnel under the direction of the Sappers: “Our first day in the trenches at Zillebeke was very quiet, and in the afternoon I was detailed to help the Royal Engineers in mining through to the Germans. We were all split up in different shifts to work three hours and rest six. The work was very hard, but everything went all right till about 150 feet was reached, when the air hardly got to us and the candles went out; so we were supplied with bicycle lamps and they nearly suffocated us, but we stuck to it and at 200 feet we could hear the Germans working their way towards us and we had to be very careful. We gave up our picks and used little sharp shovels, working them with our feet and lying on our backs. After going another ten feet we had orders to leave off and charge the mine. I can’t remember exactly how much powder was used but I think it was about 940lbs. After getting all the powder in we packed it tight with sandbags and all was ready for the final event…
The explosion took place around 8pm and was a sight which will never be forgotten by those who witnessed it. There was a great flash and then we saw trees, bodies, stones and debris flying in all directions. The ground heaved and rocked and part of our trenches were broken down in several places…one German was blown over our trenches and dug-outs into a roadway we used in rear of our lines. The crater was some 25 yards in diameter and 17 feet deep.” (Memoirs).
Most of March and April was again spent in reserve billets in Berthen, but the 18th Hussars were about to be engaged in another holocaust: the second battle of Ypres.
Second Ypres and a D.C.M.
After their defeat at First Ypres, the German High Command no longer sought a strategic victory in the West. Their priority was now to knock Russia out of the war. However, they did not want the French or British to achieve a major victory in the West. Their policy was ‘active defensive’. This envisaged important attacks designed to achieve limited strategic objectives, such as seizing the Channel Ports. German tactical doctrine emphasized enveloping attacks to trap opposing forces. The High Command also wanted to test a new weapon the army had developed to break-through an enemy trench defense system – poison gas. Favourable winds were needed, and it was believed the prevailing wind in northern France was southerly, so the ideal battle-zone would be where the frontlines ran east-west. For these reasons, an attack on the north-western flank of the Ypres Salient followed by an onslaught from the south appeared to present a clear opportunity to inflict a serious defeat on the Allies. Meanwhile the allies were focused on the landings at Gallipolli, which began on April 25th, and on preparing another attack on the Aubers Ridge in May, in an attempt to succeed after the first failure at Neuve Chapelle in March.
Second Ypres began on April 22nd, when the Germans used a favourable wind that sprang up late in the afternoon at 5pm to release a chlorine gas cloud which opened a 6.5 km long gap in the French line west of Poelcappelle. “A living wall of green fog, about four feet in height, moved towards the French line and spread out to a width of about 180 metres. As the wall of smoke grew higher the whole area disappeared into it. Suddenly the rifle fire from the French increased, but gradually died down…we heard strange shouts coming from the green fog. The cries became weaker and more incoherent. Then masses of soldiers tumbled upon us from out of the fog and collapsed. Most weren’t wounded but they had expressions of terror on their faces. These piteous retreating men ranked with some of the best soldiers in the world; their cold-bloodedness and courage was almost legendary. Now they were staggering along like drunks.” No protection was available against the deadly cloud.
The Allies had forseen the risk of continued German attacks leading to a break-through into the Salient and had prepared a well-sited fall-back “second line”, intended for a last-ditch defence of Ypres. Known as the G.H.Q. line, it ran from Zillebeke Lake (2.5 kms behind the Allied front line) along the Frezenberg Ridge to almost one kilometre east of Wieltje (5 kms behind the Allied front line). At Wieltje it bent in a north-westerly direction towards Boesinghe. Canadian and British troops mounted an improvised hasty defence and over the next 12 days held the Germans along the line St Julien-Boesinghe-Lizerne.
On the morning of the 24th April the Germans intensified their bombardment and again released chlorine gas, this time against the Canadians. It had been identified that the gas was water soluble chlorine and in spite of only having the flimsiest of protection, such as wet handkerchiefs, the Canadians held their ground for several hours before being forced back. During the next few days the British made unsuccessful attempts to restore the line, suffering mounting losses. On 1st May, Sir John French ordered a general withdrawal of British forces in the Salient, bringing them closer in towards Ypres. On 2nd May the Germans attacked again with gas along a 3 mile front. The British shelled the rear of the gas cloud to catch the advancing German infantry and this helped to repulse the attack.
Next, the Germans repositioned their artillery and from May 8th tried to smash through the British lines east of Ypres along the Frezenberg Ridge between Wieltje and Hooge using their superiority in guns and ammunition for massive bombardments, followed by massed infantry assaults. The front line trenches were obliterated, but despite this and the release of a further gas cloud on 10th May they made little headway. After five days the Germans had only advanced about a thousand yards. The final day (May 13th) of this phase of the Frezenberg Ridge fighting was the worst.
The Times Diary and Index of the War noted for May 13th 1915 the “Gallant resistance by Gen de Lisle’s dismounted Cavalry Force between Verlorenhoek-Bellewarde. Line bent slightly in that region after heaviest bombardment”. In his Despatch, Sir John French highlighted the action of the Cavalry, who had been rushed up to hold the line and take some pressure off the exhausted and diminished infantry: “On May 13, the various reliefs having been completed without incident, the heaviest bombardment yet experienced broke out at 4.30am and continued with little intermission through the day.”
Graphic accounts of fighting in the front line east of Ypres clearly demonstrate the considerable physical and moral courage exhibited on May 13th by L/Cpl Syd Carlin. Despite a severe head wound, he refused to be evacuated and took command of a section of the front line, keeping his troop in action despite appalling losses endured during a most terrible and sustained artillery bombardment. “The scene was one of chaos and destruction, with the screams of frightened and wounded men merging with the ear-shattering noise of exploding shells which rained down upon them. The dwindling number of officers and NCOs vainly tried to make themselves heard above the din. There was nothing the men could do but take this hell that broke over them, cowering in what little shelter the disintegrating breastworks could give. There was no way they could fight back. Some men, a few, cowered against the breastwork, their nerves shattered, unable to control their shaking limbs and the tears streaming down their face…All they could do was curse, cry and pray. Men were literally blown out of existence.” (The Fighting Bradfords by Harry Moses).
“Here and there, where portions of the trench had been obliterated by the shells, legs and arms in the German field-grey uniform stuck out…German Mausers, equipment, helmets and their peculiar skin-covered packs lay everywhere. The ground was littered with portions of the enemy uniforms saturated in blood. Serving in the Ypres salient one was not unaccustomed to seeing men blown to pieces and therefore I expected to see bad sights on a battlefield but I had never anticipated such a dreadful and desolate sight….The enemy gunners carried out their work in a most systematic manner. They fired by a grouping system of 5 shells to a limited area, under 12 yards. Then they burst shrapnel over this area. This plan for shelling our position was undoubtedly successful, as 3 out of the 5 shells hit our trench, obliterating it, blowing in the parapet on top of the occupants, or exposing them to a deadly hail from shrapnel shells…at 12.30 pm the shelling eased, and we got ready. The order: “Pass along the word, fix bayonets,” went along the line. We all, except the wounded who looked wistfully up at us, armed to the teeth, looked forward to the Germans getting out of their trenches, but they did not…They obviously calculated on us retiring from our seemingly hopeless position, but we did not budge an inch. During the lull, the men dragged the wounded under better cover, dug out more funk-holes and took the opportunity to “drum up their char”. Shell-fire, the smell of powder and the continual dust made us all very thirsty…
At 3pm exactly, the enemy started a second bombardment of our line. All along our trench they put down a terrific barrage of shells of every description. High explosives and crumps exploded on our parapets, leaving burning and smoking craters and torn flesh, and above, screeching and whining shrapnel burst over us. We were shelled from all sides by guns of every caliber. We could not have been in a worse position, and it seemed that every enemy gun around the salient was turned on our 400 yards of trench. Shells from the Bellewaarde direction enfiladed us, and blew in our few traverses: shells from the Hill 60 direction ploughed great rifts in our parados, and broke down our only protection from back-bursts, and now and then some horrible fragments of mortality were blown back from the ridge with lyddite wreaths.
The whole place had become quite dark from the clouds of earth which went spouting up to the sky. We could barely see 20 yards ahead throughout this terrible inferno of fire. Our casualties increased at such a rapid rate that we were all greatly alarmed, our trench had ceased to exist as such and the enemy shrapnel caused dreadful havoc…The shells came down with tantalizing regularity, which was nerve-racking.” (Stand To: A diary of the trenches by F C Hitchcock refers).
The 18th Hussars came into the line at 11pm on May 12. They were on the extreme left of the cavalry line, with ‘C’ Squadron on the left, ‘A’ in the centre (Carlin’s squadron?) and ‘B’ on the right, flanked by the 9th Lancers. The Memoirs state that: “At 3.30 on the morning of the 13th, a day few of us will ever forget, just as it was beginning to get light, the enemy opened an intensely heavy shell-fire on the trenches…the cross-fire from heavy howitzers was annihilating, and the bombardment was of such intensity that a black pall hung over the trenches occupied by the regiment for long periods from 3.30 am till 10.30 am, when intermittent shelling continued till dark. The noise was deafening and the place a veritable inferno…it was impossible to distinguish where the original line ran, and only here and there were found little lengths of trenches remaining. Behind these were grouped, however, the heroic remnants of the squadrons, about a 100 men out of the 300 who had occupied them the night before. Casualties had commenced to be severe very early in the morning. ‘A’ Squadron and a part of ‘B’ suffering heaviest at first… out of three Officers with [‘A’] one was killed and the other wounded. Three out of the four Troop Sergeants were killed and 64 other ranks killed or wounded [about 70+% casualties]. The left squadron [‘C’] had its trenches on the right smashed to atoms and was compelled to close in to the left while a part of ‘B’Squadron temporarily withdrew a very short distance. Captain Lyon, himself wounded at the time, with the remnant of ‘A’, cut off from all communication, believed that he was ‘left in the air’ and withdrew to the support line held by the 9th Cavalry Brigade. Here he was compelled to retire from the fight for a time in order to get his wound dressed, and when he had done this and discovered that he had been deceived in thinking that the other squadrons had retired, he collected the men who had gone back with him, and a few others as well, and led them up again to the original line.” [As we will see below, the contemporary War Diary does not mention this temporary retreat of ‘A’ squadron, and it may be that for a period the remnant of a single troop commanded by Syd Carlin held the whole ‘A’ squadron frontage.]
The Regimental History explains that the infantry concluded that two squadrons of the 18th had retired (presumably ‘A’ and ‘C’), and a company of the Essex was sent to re-occupy the line, but on arrival discovered it was still held by the cavalry: “they strengthened our line and, with a machine gun which they brought with them, helped us to repel some attacks…during the remainder of the day…A vile day it was too, driving rain and a gale blowing from the north-east, the trenches in a horrid state, and rapid movement, just when it was most needed over exposed spots, usually ended in a slithery fall. The length of the day added to its other amenities; it seemed that eternity couldn’t be longer…The losses of the Regiment on this day were enormous [154 dead and wounded, with ‘A’ losing 70, ‘B’41 and ‘C’ 42, plus the O.C.]. In addition to these losses, there were many who were seriously damaged by concussion [which] often developed into serious affairs until the nerve system regained its proper tone. We had taken 12 officers and just under 300 of all ranks into the trenches on the night of the 11th, and in twenty-four hours had lost half our strength” (three-quarters in the case of ‘A’ squadron).
The War Diary of the 18th Hussars reported as follows:
12.5.15 In reserve till evening. All led horses sent back to permanent billets at Berthen. The Regiment proceeded to Wieltje and took over about 300 yards of the left of a line of trenches reaching from 500 yards east of Wieltje on the left to the Ypres-Verlemenhger Road on the right. All quiet.
13.5.15 In trenches. At 3.30am the enemy opened a very heavy shell fire on the front trenches held by the 2nd Cavalry Brigade, that portion held by the 18th Hussars being particularly battered. Considerable lengths of trenches on the left of the 18th Hussars line were demolished by cross fire from heavy howitzers. Casualties became very heavy. All communication was cut by the leveling of trenches and the incessant fire of guns and machine guns. The part of the right Sqdn under Capt O’Kelly after considerable loss were withdrawn by its commander to a ditch about 150 yards in rear of the fighting line which he had been informed gave better cover, but not liking same, they returned at 6.30 am to the firing line, the other part of ‘B’ Sqdn under Lt Lane remained in the firing line all the time. The centre Sqdn under Capt Lyon (‘A’ – Carlin’s Sqdn?) suffered severely, out of 3 officers 1 was killed (Lt Taylor) and two were wounded (Capt Lyon and Lt Chasemore) and 3 out of the 4 Troop Sergeants were killed. Major Corbett who commanded the Regt this day, Lt Colonel Burnett being in charge of the Brigade, was killed as he was going along the trench to encourage his men. The right trenches of ‘C’ squadron were blown to pieces. A company of the Essex Regt came up to occupy the lines which were supposed to be abandoned, but the 18th Hussars were found to be still in possession. During the remainder of the day the remnants of the Regiment held the still intact parts of the parapets aided by a Machine Gun of the Essex Regt and about a company of the same corps. The bombardment of the 18th Hussars trenches was of such an intensity that a black pall hung over them for long periods from 3.30 am until about 10am, while heavy intermittent shelling continued until dark. The noise was deafening, and the place a veritable inferno. The Regiment retired at 9pm to the support trenches having been relieved by the 4th DGs and at midnight the whole Brigade was relieved by Infantry…Officers 2 killed – 6 wounded. O Ranks 19 killed – 103 wounded – 24 missing.
Syd Carlin was the only other rank of the 18th Hussars to be decorated for the Frezenburg Ridge action of 13th May 1915. His severe wound was officially described as a Gun Shot Wound to the head. This was most likely caused by a shrapnel bullet, as at this stage of the war British troops still wore caps (steel helmets, issued from October 1915, cut head wounds by 75%). Syd was evacuated to the Base General hospital at Wimereux, on the coast near Boulogne, together with another severe head wound from the bombardment of the Cavalry, Captain the Hon Julian Grenfell, D.S.O. Sadly, Grenfell, who had just written his most famous war poem, Into Battle, was mortally wounded and died at Wimereux on May 26th. Syd was sent on to England, where he arrived at Charing Cross Hospital on May 17th.
R.E. Officer in the Ypres Salient Carlin was almost fully recovered when his D.C.M. was gazetted on 5th August 1915. Later in the month, during convalescent leave at home in Hull, Syd was offered a commission in a local TA unit that was about to go to France, the 1st East Riding Field Company, East Riding (Fortress) Royal Engineers. He was posted to 11th Reserve Cavalry Regiment at Tidworth while the application was processed. Syd was medically examined and passed fit for duty overseas. On 14th September he was duly discharged from the cavalry, and commissioned the next day as a temporary Second Lieutenant.
The 1st (East Riding) Field Company joined the B.E.F. in September 1915 as part of the divisional troops of 3rd Division, which was serving in the Ypres Salient – familiar ground for 2/Lt Syd Carlin. The Royal Engineers were undergoing rapid expansion in 1915, due to the scaling up of the army and to many new technical responsibilities including tunneling and gas warfare that had been added to their traditional trio of supply, communication and fortification. The R.E. had formed 6% of the ‘teeth arms’ of the original B.E.F. but this doubled to 11% by mid-1916. Their importance was recognised by Sir Douglas Haig in his first dispatch as Commander-in-Chief: “12. The continuance of siege warfare has entailed for the Royal Engineers work of a particularly arduous and important kind extending from the front trenches to the Base Ports. In the performance of this work the Officers, Noncommissioned Officers and men of the Field Companies and other units of the Corps have continued to exhibit a very high standard of skill, courage, and devotion to duty.”
As usual, Syd did well in his new role and on 21st May 1916, two months after his 27th birthday, he was appointed temporary Lieutenant, just in time for the imminent British offensive on the Somme.
Assault Pioneer During the Battle of the Somme – the Fight for Devil’s Wood During the Spring of 1916 the British army extended its line to the south, taking over the Somme sector from the French. Units transferred from Flanders to Picardy generally welcomed the move, and no doubt Lieutenant Carlin looked forward to the start of the great offensive designed to break through the German line. For the Somme offensive General Haldane’s Third Division formed part of Sir Walter “Squibs” Congreve V.C.’s XIII Corps (the nickname refers to Congreve’s famous ancestor William, who invented the rocket artillery used by the British army in the Napoleonic war).
After the debacle of the initial attack on July 1st, Haig concentrated on the southern sector where progress had been greatest. Rawlinson’s troops progressively captured the woods between the German First and Second lines, and in a remarkable night action on 13/14th July, Fourth Army mounted a full-scale assault on the Second line. Longueval and Delville Wood were on the extreme right flank of the attack, and by close of play on 14 July the British had forced an entry into the southern edge of the wood and the village to its west. The village of Longueval is situated on a ridge at the junction of four roads and had, in 1914, 130 houses and 406 inhabitants. Delville Wood (nicknamed Devil’s Wood by the men who fought there) is a 155 acre forest of oak and birch, with dense hazel thickets. It was broken up by grassy rides, which artillery bombardments soon filled with craters and broken trees. The north end of the wood dips down in a reverse slope towards the German Third line, making it easy for the Germans to bring up troops out of sight of the British artillery observers.
Longueval/Delville Wood was important for several reasons. It masked the approaches to Flers, the next main German defensive position to the north and to Ginchy to the east. Haig was also concerned that the Germans might counter-attack from Longueval south west along Caterpillar Valley, which was being used by the British artillery. By July18th the Germans had concentrated 138 battalions on the Somme, having started the battle with just 62. Longueval village had been turned into a fortress, equipped with reinforced cellars, underground tunnels, and machine gun nests, manned by the 2nd Battalion of the 16th (Bavarian) Infantry Regiment, who had been ordered not to yield a metre of ground.
On July 15th the southern part of Longueval was captured but strong resistance in the orchards to the north brought progress to a halt. The South African Brigade captured all but the north-west corner of Delville Wood, and then, despite a fierce bombardment, fought off three German counterattacks from the north and east. The next day, the British attacked the orchards from the west and the South Africans tried to capture the remainder of the Wood. Both efforts failed. It became difficult to get supplies of water, food and ammunition up to the fighting. The South Africans asked to be relieved, but were told this was impossible. An order was issued by XIII Corps that the village and wood must be taken by dawn on July 17th. A saturation barrage was fired for an hour and a half, while the British-held parts of the village and wood were subjected to an all-night German bombardment of mixed HE and gas, creating hellish conditions as the exhausted infantry attacked through the smashed tree-trunks and ruined houses. Yet again, courageous efforts to attack failed in the face of stubborn German resistance.
Congreve bought up the 76th Brigade from Third Division to reinforce his efforts and issued another “at all costs” order to take the objectives. He was confident his order would be obeyed in both letter and spirit, since his eldest son Billy (who had already won the DSO and MC for gallantry) was the Brigade-Major responsible for executing the attack. Lieutenant Syd Carlin and his Engineers were assigned to the 76th Brigade infantry as assault pioneers. The crisis point of the battle was now beginning.
At 03:45 hours on July 18th 76th Brigade attacked Longueval from the west, securing the village. Meanwhile, the South Africans advanced to the northern end of the Wood and the two forces joined up south of the Longueval-Flers road. At 0800 the German artillery began a saturation bombardment of unprecedented ferocity. Every part of the area was searched and smothered by shells. At 1400, the German infantry attacked Longueval, followed by an assault into Delville Wood an hour later.
For six hours the defenders had to endure sheer hell, while suffering horrendous casualties. Burning trees came crashing down, adding to the blast and smoke of the high explosive shells. At times the incidence of explosions was seven per second (420 rounds per minute). The wood, which had only a few days before been described as dense with trees, foliage and thickets which offered a paradise of cover to snipers, was now reduced to blasted stumps. On that day, 20,000 shells fell in an area of less than one square mile. Frank Marillier was a Lewis gunner manning the northern perimeter: “We were holding the most advanced post in the wood. We did not realize that a couple of days earlier the survivors had been told to withdraw. In the circumstances this was understandable enough. The conditions were appalling. I have never known such shelling and how any of us lived is still a mystery”.
It was under these conditions that Syd laid out his fire trench, bought up his section and started digging. The numerous thick tree roots made digging-in particularly difficult; contemporary photographs show that the ground conditions made it almost physically impossible to construct an adequate trench that would give decent protection. Syd was seriously wounded by shell splinters in his left leg – some of the fragments hit the hip-flask he carried in his pocket and split it open down one side (he later gave it to his sister as a souvenir). Nonetheless, he was ready for the German infantry when they attacked. A light drizzle had turned to persistent rain, adding mud to the new horror that was about to begin as fresh German troops, including the entire 153rd Regiment, pressed forward on all sides of the exposed perimeter.
July 18th – Devils Wood
To the great surprise of the German attackers, the handful of survivors offered a stubborn, desperate resistance and there was fierce close-quarters fighting with high losses on both sides. In many parts of the wood and village there were hand-to hand "duels" between small groups of attackers and pockets of resistance led by Syd and others like him. It is not easy to relate the circumstances of events of this painful day, because so many of the protagonists were killed. No prisoners were taken. Although fighting tenaciously for possession, the 76th Brigade was eventually ordered to withdraw to their original frontline near the two windmills at the western exit of the village, while the South Africans were slowly pushed back towards the south east corner of the wood, where they clung on until the handful of survivors were relieved by the Third Division on July 20th, while desperate counterattacks enabled the British to recapture the southern part of Longueval as far as Clarges Street. Sadly, Billy Congreve was killed that day, after winning a V.C. for his many acts of leadership and courage in the fight for Longueval.
The heroic resistance of the defenders of Longueval/Delville Wood on July 18th, pitted against the flower of the German Army, saved the southern part of the British line, at the shocking cost of 78% casualties. The ferocity of the fighting is demonstrated by the fact that amongst the Allied casualties the dead outnumbered the wounded by 4 to 1 (in typical trench warfare, the ratio of dead to wounded was 1 to 3).
On 20th October 1916 Syd was awarded the rare distinction of wearing an M.C. in addition to his D.C. M., but it seemed that his combatant career was over. Carlin’s sister recalled: “Syd eventually arrived in hospital in Epsom. He was cheerful but tired of the long and painful fight to save his leg and asked to have it amputated. It was taken off above the knee.” [Probably this occurred early in 1917, about 6 months after he was hit by the shell.]
RFC Fighter Pilot – With 74 ‘Tiger’ Squadron in France
Despite his disability, Syd was determined to keep on fighting the Germans. He discovered that men who might otherwise have been either invalided out of the army or assigned to sedentary administrative duties had managed to transfer to the R.F.C. as frontline pilots or observers (possibly due to the horrific casualties the R.F.C. had suffered in Spring 1917). His determination impressed his superiors and he was promoted a substantive Lieutenant in the Territorials on 1st July 1917, backdated to 1st June.
In a feature article in the Hull Times of March 7 1969, journalist Jim Dixon related: “Though his stump had not healed properly, he learned to fly at his own expense and badgered the War Office until they put him up before a medical board for the RFC. Still troubled by an unhealed stump, often in great pain, he produced his documents and managed to convince the medical board that he was as good as any man they passed with two legs.” Lieutenant Carlin was passed ‘Fit’ on 7th August 1917.
Syd seems to have started early on a habit of lying about his real age to boost his chances of being accepted as a combatant – he had declared his year of birth truthfully as 1889 when he was commissioned (and had to show his birth certificate) but his R.F.C. records show it as 1891, making him appear to be 26 when he was actually 28. (When Carlin wrote to the Secretary of State at the War Office in 1936 he claimed to be 42 when he was actually 47, and on his re-employment in 1939 he compromised by stating 1892 as his year of birth, making him 47 when he was really 50!)
Lieutenant Carlin officially transferred on attachment to the RFC at the end of August and was posted to the 1st School of Aeronautics, then on to the Central Flying School at Upavon, Wiltshire on 9th October 1917. Since the aim of the C.F.S. was to produce trained air fighters rather than simply teach students to fly, Syd was refunded part (but not all) of the cost of the personal flying lessons he had taken in the summer. Syd quickly attracted the attention of the C.F.S. Commander, Lt Colonel Jack Scott. “As far as landing was concerned he turned out to be a poor pilot, but his remarkably cheerful spirit added to his pertinacity. This decided Scott to recommend his acceptance. As always, Scott was correct in his judgement.” (King of Air Fighters by Ira Jones refers).
Carlin was appointed as a Flying Officer on 12th March 1918 and on May 26th he joined No 74 ‘Tiger’ Squadron in northern France, based at Clairmarais (on the eastern outskirts of St Omer). The Squadron was equipped with the latest S.E.5A. It was commanded by the highly respected and inspirational New Zealander ‘Grid’ Caldwell M.C. and numbered the great ‘Mick’ Mannock M.C.* and Ira ‘Taffy’ Jones M.M. among its senior figures. Its pilots were carefully picked from an eager pool of volunteers; the ‘Tigers’ were an elite R.A.F. unit.
Jones recorded Carlin’s arrival: “May 26: A new pilot joined today. He has a wooden leg, an M.C. and a D.C.M. His name is Sidney Carlin and he is a Yorkshireman. Before the war he was a farmer near Hull. He must be a stout lad. Spiers knew him at the C.F.S. and Jack Scott and Zulu Lloyd (C.O. and Flight Commander at the C.F.S.) highly recommended him. He has been christened “Timber-toes.” He has a release gadget on his leg when he flies, so that he can detach it if he crashes. As Spiers says he lands no better than I do, I am looking forward eagerly to seeing a one-legged pilot hobbling away from a ruined S.E. It will be a grand sight.” Tiger Squadron. Jones elaborated: “This one-legged airman soon developed into an air fighter of outstanding ability and tenacity, and he attacked enemy aeroplanes and balloons with equal sang-froid. Mannock took special interest in him – christened him ‘Timbertoes’ – and his subsequent success made him proud of his protégé.” (King of Air Fighters p224.).
Syd quickly became a popular figure among his new comrades. He was proud of his his connection with Mannock, who had already destroyed forty aircraft. Mannock’s friendship with Carlin had solid foundations: Mannock had also served as an officer in the Royal Engineers before transferring to the R.F.C. and he also had serious physical problems that he strove to minimise with medical boards – the results of a childhood illness and mal-treatment by the Turks early in the war. Both Carlin (who was 29) and Mannock (two years older at 31) were significantly older and had more varied life experiences than many of their fellow pilots. Neither of them had enjoyed a privileged upbringing.
H. G. Clements (nicknamed ‘Clem’) of 74 Squadron wrote in an account of Major Mick Mannock in 1981: “The fact that I am still alive is due to Mick’s high standard of leadership and the strict discipline on which he insisted. We were all expected to follow and cover him as far as possible during an engagement and then to rejoin the formation as soon as that engagement was over. None of Mick’s pilots would have dreamed of chasing off alone after the retreating enemy or any other such foolhardy act. He moulded us into a team, and because of his skilled leadership we became a highly efficient team. Our squadron leader said that Mannock was the most skilful patrol leader in World War I, which would account for the relatively few casualties in his flight team compared with the high number of enemy aircraft destroyed.”
On May 31st, Mannock’s through training and drilling of his team probably saved Syd Carlin’s life. Syd’s engine boiled over and cut out, leaving him unable to manoeuvre. “Clem shot a Hun off “Timber-toes” Carlin’s tail this morning. Carlin’s engine went dud. He crashed on our side of the lines. He is O.K., though.” Tiger Squadron After this ‘hairy’ start, Syd nailed his first victory within three weeks of arriving in France. On June 13th, together with another pilot, he attacked two DFW two-seaters at 2,000 feet near Zillebeke. He fought one down to 500 feet and watched it crash. Five days later he got on the tail of a blue painted Pfalz Scout and opened fire. The Pfalz started to emit smoke from the cockpit area but Carlin had to break off to counter another E.A. that appeared on his own tail.
Syd confirmed his reputation for having trouble with landings that he had earned at the Central Flying School. Returning from an afternoon patrol on June 25th he stalled in a cross wind and turned the plane onto its nose. On July 1st he did it again when returning from a patrol during which he witnessed Ira Jones shoot down a silver Rumpler two seater, while on July 4th he bounced so badly that he tried to take off again but instead stalled and crashed. His sister confirmed that Syd always carried a stick in case he had to use a “quick release gadget he had invented which enabled him to ditch his wooden leg in an emergency.” On each occasion his aircraft was a write-off, but each time the one-legged pilot hobbled away uninjured from the wrecked S.E.
Balloon-Buster Ace “But to Syd this [first E.A. shot down] soon appeared to be a lucky break, and he switched to the more dangerous task of attacking enemy observation balloons. No easy targets these…” Hull Times March 7 1969. “The unit discovered a first class fighting man in their midst, Lt S. Carlin, MC DCM. He had marked up one confirmed on the 13th of June over a DFW two-seater, but from the 18th of July, started a run on balloons. By the end of the month three of them had gone down in flames, plus two Scouts; and before being captured, “Timbertoes” as Mannock called him, had collected five E.A. and six balloons.” (USA Cross & Cockade Vol 10 no 3).
Syd recorded his first balloon victory as follows: “With a patrol under Lt Roxburgh-Smith I attacked a balloon N.W. of and close to Armentieres. It went up in flames after 130 rounds being fired at close range. The observer was seen to jump out.” Minutes afterwards, the patrol was jumped by two Pfalz scouts, but Roxburgh-Smith managed to shoot one down and drive the other off. Syd busted another balloon the next day during a morning of heavy rain. Jones commented: “July 20 – Carlin bagged another balloon in flames today. He is never satisfied unless he has a go at a balloon, if there are no Huns about. His aggressiveness often results in no decisive success. Unless flames are seen coming out of the gas-bag, the attack is not officially considered a success. All the consolation the unlucky pilot has is that he has returned safely and had an attack of the jim-jams on the way back. To bring a balloon down is worth three Huns.” After a week of bad weather he was at it again, diving through cloud on July 28th to nail a third balloon before its ground defences shot up his tail.
Two days later Syd destroyed a Fokker biplane: “Whilst on patrol with Major Caldwell M.C. we attacked some E.A. then engaging some Bristols. I got on the tail of an E.A. and after a large burst it went down out of control, and was seen to burst into flames on hitting the ground.” He scored a fourth balloon on August 2nd and was recommended for an Immediate D.F.C.: “A gallant and determined pilot, who sets a fine example to his squadron. Though handicapped by the loss of a leg, he is bold and skilful in attack, and has destroyed four balloons and shot down two enemy machines.” On August 6th Carlin was present at a 2nd Brigade inspection where, standing stiffly at attention with his walking stick, he was introduced to King George V. On 9th August he was promoted Temporary Captain. Syd killed another Fokker on August 10th: “Whilst on patrol under Captain Glynn we were attacked by E.A. I engaged one which was diving on an S.E.5, and it went down out of control after a short burst from both guns.”
September 1918 was the month in which Syd Carlin’s luck ran out. It started with a day of ‘maximum effort’ on September 2nd in support of the Canadian attack on the Hindenburg line. 74 Squadron bombed Linselles aerodrome from 6,000 feet, then remained to give cover as two other squadrons strafed and gutted it. The German pilots were also active, mostly in large and well-organised formations of up to 30 Jagdgeschwader III BMW powered Fokker biplanes, with a high proportion of experienced and competent war flyers. That evening Syd got badly shot up in combat and forced to land, but once again he was uninjured. Two days later he attacked a line of observation balloons: “I attacked an E.K.B. at 2,500ft N.E. of Armentieres. The balloon went up in flames and the observer went down in a parachute. His parachute was seen to collapse and the observer crashed. I followed on to another balloon, but running out of Buckingham [incendiary bullets] it did not go into flames. I fired about 50 rounds at it from my Vickers. The observer went down in a parachute.” Syd was credited with his fifth balloon.
The day after becoming a balloon-buster ace, on September 5th 1918, “Carlin was concerned with Caldwell [his C.O.] in one of the miracles of the war in the air.” The Squadron was spending the day around Izel-le-Hameau and during a dawn patrol over the south Cambrai sector Carlin and Caldwell attacked the same Fokker. They dived together, and Carlin, being above Caldwell, did not see him and struck his upper wing tip. “They collided and both went spinning into the depths below. This happened at 16,000 feet. At 8,000 feet, Carlin succeeded in gaining a measure of control, and managed by skilful flying to steer his machine back to our lines. Caldwell’s machine, which was more damaged than Carlin’s, would not respond to his attempts to regain control, but kept on spinning. Ultimately he decided that his only chance to get his machine out of the spin was to stand half-in and half-out of his cockpit, with the foot inside the cockpit pressed hard on the rudder on the side nearest to him. He hoped that by standing in this manner he would counteract the spinning, and eventually gain sufficient control to get the machine back to our lines. He crossed the lines at about ten feet and then throttled back. Immediately, his machine nose-dived into the ground, and at the same moment Caldwell jumped! Turning a few somersaults on the ground, he eventually came to a halt near a dug-out, where some of our infantry were watching, speechless. When Caldwell gave himself a shake, got up and walked towards them with a broad smile on his face, they looked as if they were watching a ghost.
“This almost incredible story does not end here. The accident happened about 6 am, and as no news of him had reached the squadron by nightfall, everyone presumed that he had fallen in enemy lines, and there was a dark depression hanging over the Squadron, Carlin in particular being in a state of great agitation. True to the Squadron tradition, however, the pilots, aided by the hope that he was safe, and the company of many visitors who had arrived to sympathise, “livened-up” the party after the dinner almost into a “wake”; while it was in progress news was received from Lieutenant Spiers, the Recording Officer, that Caldwell was on his way back to the Squadron. His appearance was the signal for the liveliest night in the history of the Squadron, and Carlin, who was almost insane with depression, quickly recovered his normal composure, only to “pass out’ in complete happiness later in the evening!
“The next day, Caldwell led a Squadron patrol with greater determination than ever…” (King of Air Fighters). Syd achieved his 10th victory on September 15th at 18.50, N.E, of Lille: “The Flight attacked 5 E.A. (Fokkers & Pfalz). I got in two bursts at one, putting it on fire.”
On September 21st at 16,000 feet over Armentieres, Carlin fought his last fight of the war. The Squadron sent up a patrol Op of five machines to Lille, and at 18.40 they met Fokkers. In USA Cross & Cockade Vol. 10 no. 3 of 1968 Caldwell recalled: “I remember this fight well…how badly it turned out to be. Perhaps I might enlarge: previously we had noticed a Hun patrol of 10 to 12 Fokkers coming up the lines just before dark and after our side had set off for home so I thought I would organize a surprise for them. Took four of our best chaps well behind the lines at 20,000 feet and then flew towards the lines and there, sure enough, were our enemy Fokkers. Our surprise failed, however, because they saw us coming and spread out in climbing turns (obviously old hands). In the dog fight that followed, we did reasonably well for a start, but when another E.A. formation came in from the north, 10 or so strong, we were in dire trouble! I saw Carlin’s S.E. going down with explosive ammunition hitting it, but I could not help as I was in the centre of several persistent Huns. We had to do just what we could to save ourselves. Carlin crashed, Glynn and Hunt were forced down on our side of the line and only Roxburgh-Smith and I returned to the aerodrome at Clairmarais North. It was a sad ending to what we had planned would be a successful venture.”
“Carlin had a sudden feeling as if someone had knocked him on the head, and he remembered no more until he regained consciousness at 5,000 feet, when he saw the smoke and flame of tracer bullets all around him. Soon he realized this elevator control had been rendered ineffective by the two Fokkers who were sitting tight on his tail. He flew towards our lines as fast as he could go, and had the hardest of luck in crashing on the wrong side of the German barb-wire entanglements in No Man’s Land. He managed to get clear of his machine and made a great effort to find an opening to get through the wire while our troops in the opposite trenches put up a magnificent machine-gun barrage to prevent any German soldier getting at him. While he was hobbling about from shell-hole to shell-hole, he was suddenly knocked flat by the butt of a rifle and jumped on by a couple of Huns.” The Germans claimed Carlin near Hantay, east of La Bassee, at 18.45. The victor was Unteroffizier Siegfried Westphal of Jasta 29 and Carlin was the second of six victories he would have by the end of the war. “The RAF lost one of its legends – fortunately as a prisoner.” (Bloody April…Black September).
“He was taken to a General in the line to be interviewed, and thence to a temporary prison at Lille, and later to Karlsruhe. In each place he was punished because of his refusal to acknowledge the rank of any German officer by addressing him as “sir”. A few days after he was shot down, an enemy airman was made prisoner, and he informed us that “an airman with lots of decorations and only one leg had been caught trying to crawl through the barbed wire.” This news was a great relief to the Squadron. Nowadays, our wooden-legged hero is happily engaged as a land agent in Kenya, working for a German firm!” (King of Air Fighters).
In Search of Adventure
Syd was repatriated on 13th December 1918, and admitted to the central RAF Hospital. In October 1919 he relinquished his commission due to his disability. He returned to Hull and rented a farm at Bewholme, then took a larger one at Lissett. He joined the local Hunt, which gave him some excitement, but as the years passed the urge to move on took over. His sister recalled that “My husband was farming at Gembling when Syd suddenly informed us that he was leaving – going out to Kenya to work on a sheep farm. Having made up his mind we knew nothing would change it, and when he left he asked us to look after an old propeller, taken from a captured German aircraft, into the hub of which he had fitted a clock… He was not at all keen on writing letters and did not talk much about his activities. Mother had all Syd’s official records bound in a book form and gave him this after the war, but what became of them we do not know. If Syd did keep a log book, we never saw it.”
In 1922 Syd went out to Africa, initially to Uganda, then after two years to Kenya. He was based at Lumbwa in Nyanza Province, western Kenya, near Lake Victoria and the Uganda border. Supposedly the estate where he was manager was owned by a German Baron! One of Syd’s neighbours was Brigadier A.C. Lewin, who after a distinguished military career learned to fly in 1931 at age 57 and flew from Britain to Kenya after only 50 hours solo. “The Flying General” owned an estate 40 miles away and also served as Commandant of the Kenya Defence Force. From 1930 – 1935 Carlin served as a volunteer in the Kenya Defence Force as Staff Officer for Nyanza Province, attending as many annual camps as possible, under what he described as “very heartbreaking conditions as regards finance for the Kenya Defence Force.”
The Kenya Defence Force, set up in 1928, was intended by Lord Delamere, effective leader of the white settlers in Kenya, to be a whites-only armed force. His aim was to safeguard the settlers’ position by both providing security against any unrest among the black population and using the KDF as an instrument to help achieve self-government status. The Kenya Defence Force was created on the basis of conscription of able-bodied resident white males, but once a Labour government came to power in Britain in 1929 the KDF was viewed as a politically incorrect ‘settler’s private army’ and funding for it was cut. In 1931 a hardline Governor, Sir Joseph Bryne, was appointed to quash the settlers’ self-government ambitions. The KDF was further starved of government funds due to the rising tension between the settlers and the Governor.
Matters came to a head in March 1936, when General Lewin resigned, on the basis that he found it impossible to carry out his duties as Commandant when he was not consulted in matters affecting the Force under his Command: “My regard and admiration for the officers and men I have had the honour to command during the period of my association with the Kenya Defence Force increases my regret for this unfortunate relationship between the Force and your Excellency as Commander in Chief”.
Syd continued to hunt and began to play polo. In 1936 (when he was 47) he wrote a letter to the Secretary of State for War requesting to be trained for combatant military service. He stated that he was “perfectly fit, and extremely active, please do not judge me by many less active amputation cases. Up to eight weeks ago [before returning to England on leave] I was playing seven and eight chukkas of lesser tournament polo, without a breather, and can hunt today over any country, and during the Abyssinian scare in Africa, I got myself vetted by perfectly good doctors, and have got their perfectly good reports.”
“Since 1935 Sydney Carlin had been more interested in the international situation and the future than the past. He was a patriot, a man who believed in England and all that she stood for.” Jim Dixon As Carlin informed the Secretary of State, “by allowing me to share the burden, I believe that I can still be of some use, not merely by training for combatant service, but in the encouragement of the youth of the Country for the issue which awaits us…I expect to visit Germany during the next few weeks… Failing everything else, I would offer myself for training in espionage, much as I dislike the idea, but I have no gift of languages, and people tell me that I am always so obviously English.”
Despite a shameless lie – “I believe my age is 42” – in fact he was 47 – after some weeks, Syd was formally offered “as a special case” a month’s unofficial, unpaid and uninsured training with a field unit of the Royal Tank Corps (“no expense must fall on Army funds in respect of your attachment”). After his leave Syd seems to have returned to Kenya. But he soon grew restless, and as his sister recalled “the wanderlust in him eventually reasserted itself and he headed out for the Seychelles – doing a spot of pearl shell diving and digging for gold en route. The gold he managed to find would probably have filled a tooth, but this he gave to his twin sister.” Between November 1937 and November 1938 Syd was in the south west Pacific area, spending time in New Guinea, New Britain and New Ireland and the surrounding islands. “Like so many of his kind, politicians did not fool him. Munich sickened him.” It was probably at this time that he was “shipwrecked in the Red Sea in an old Chinese junk he had bought. The Red Sea is not a happy place to splash around in, but his luck held and he was rescued by a Greek ship.”
Royal Artillery Officer, Malta Garrison
In August 1939, as war with Germany and Italy seemed imminent, Carlin reached Malta and immediately volunteered for military service. On August 30 he passed a medical exam and was appointed by the Governor and Commander-in-Chief as a Lieutenant in the 7th Anti-Aircraft Regiment Royal Artillery. When, ten days later, Syd filled out the forms to officialise his application, he listed Lumbwa, Kenya as his permanent address, but listed the RAF Club in Piccadilly as his mailing address, suggesting he had definitively left Kenya. Curiously, he also put a question mark after his (actual) day of birth, thus: ‘Mar 24?’ as well as a false year of birth ‘1892’ and rendered his mother’s name as Lilian Smythe instead of the Caroline Smith shown on his real birth certificate. Given that he was 50 (but claiming to be 47) this may have been an attempt to discourage any search for his birth certificate (his father’s name of William Carlin is given correctly, perhaps because it offered little scope for creativity). In due course Syd’s status was officialised from November 1st 1939 and he was quickly moved up to the rank of Captain. According to Jim Dixon “he was quickly commended by his CO for his efficient service…and…he knew he was to be promoted to Major”. Syd enjoyed his service with the Gunners in Malta, “a post which is giving me incentive and interest, and allows me sporting recreation in pleasant surroundings.”
But England was at war, while Malta, due to Mussolini’s hesitation to risk a fight with England and France, was still peaceful. Syd wanted action, rather than promotion or recreation. In December 1939 he requested a transfer either to the Royal Tank Corps or the RAF. It was forwarded by the authorities in Malta to England with their recommendation, but the Adjutant-General’s Department immediately ruled out the Tank Corps as an option. They proposed the alternative of a transfer to the RAFVR, to be an officer rear gunner in bomber aircraft. Syd accepted this proposal on condition that, once in the RAFVR, he would be not be barred from combat missions, due to his age or disability. The RAF Medical Board assessed him in February 1940 as ‘Unfit’ but stated that “This officer has remarkable powers on his artificial leg: therefore in view of his previous flying experience (500 hours war flying) since he lost his leg in 1916, it may be considered worth while to treat him as a special case. I believe he could carry out the duties in spite of his disability.”
Battle of Britain Fighter Air Gunner
Syd flew back to England in the summer of 1940, just as the Battle of Britain about to begin. In early July, dressed in his new uniform, he arrived in Hull to pay a brief visit to his mother in 78 Westbourne Avenue and greet his family, but it was a short reunion. On July 6th he reported to the Air Armaments School at Manby, near Louth in Lincolnshire. He booked a taxi for the 30 mile journey, and asked his sister to go with him. She waited while he reported to John Kimber, the School Adjutant: “Syd was most amused when the adjutant doubted his sanity in throwing away rank to become a Flying Officer Air Gunner.” Syd however was quite happy to be back in his old mob. Rank did not worry him… In August Syd completed his initial gunnery training and was posted to 264 Squadron, flying out of Hornchuch, one of the hottest sectors of the Battle of Britain. 264 were equipped with Defiants, a fighter whose sole armament was four machine-guns in a power-operated dorsal turret. Syd “was always down on the flights, checking the guns and ready to take part in anything that was going.” Another member of the squadron, Freddie Sutton, wrote in his diary “We have an air gunner on the squadron, a flying officer, who has a mass of medal ribbons on his tunic and sports an artificial leg. Known to everyone as “Timbertoes”, he can hop in and out of the gun turret with the ease of any youngster.”
During the air battles of 1940 the Defiant had some initial success, especially against Stukas and Bf 110s. However, even with the excellent Rolls Royce Merlin engine, the weight of the turret and gunner reduced speed and manoeuvrability versus German single-seat fighters. 264 Squadron destroyed 15 enemy bombers but lost 11aircraft and 14 aircrew in 8 days of operations at Hornchurch, East London from August 21-28. The Air Gunners were particularly hard-hit, as they were usually trapped in the turret and so could not escape in time from a stricken Defiant. Syd Carlin was flying operationally on August 28th, an especially terrible day when 5 Defiants were lost.
Together with his pilot, P.O. Stokes, Syd’s Defiant patrolled over Rochford airfield near Southend, an aerodrome which had been bombed earlier in the day, and landed at Hornchurch. Air Gunner Freddie Sutton described his experience on August 28th: “Flying with P/O Bowen in L6963 in the tail-end position we could think of many other places we would rather be in, and when the Huns attacked, though we did damage a He.III, it did seem as if all the enemy hate was directed at ‘L6963’. As the attacks seemed to increase ‘Ponky’s’ voice penetrated above the din with ‘You know, old boy, I think we’ll get out. All the others have gone.’ At this point the pilot of a Me.109 realised, too late, that our aircraft was not a Hurricane, and as he tried to pull out of his dive I was able to get a good burst. Suddenly, there was a mighty thud and I was pushed up tight against the top of the turret. I heard the pilot say ‘Hit-Fire-Jump’ but it was impossible to get out. ‘Ponky’ realised that I had not been able to get out and, in the face of many difficulties, managed to regain control and we were able to return to base. L6963 had 3 cannon shell and 120 bullet holes in her.
“Once again the squadron had been hard hit. The C.O., his aircraft on fire, had bailed out after Cliff Ash, though badly wounded, had left. But F/L Ash was dead before he reached the ground. The famous pair, Thorne and Barker, had knocked down a 109 even though their engine died on them, and Barker managed to pull off a landing as the E/A crashed nearby. P Kenna and ‘Johnny’ Johnson died, Gaskell crashed in a field and took over a car to get his wounded A/G to hospital, but it was too late and F/Lt J Banham, with a German pilot, was pulled out of the ‘drink’ and returned to the squadron. Only three Defiants returned to base in a serviceable condition…”
As a result of the severe losses of its aircraft, 264 Squadron was transferred on August 29th from daylight operations to night-fighting duties, and re-based at Kirton-in-Lindsey in Lincolnshire. Due to his character and experience, Carlin was a great morale-booster in a squadron rather shaken by its heavy butcher’s bill. He was one of the few men in the RAF entitled to wear RFC wings and an Air Gunner’s brevet. On September 3rd he flew another daylight patrol, despite the risks. A South African pilot of 264 Squadron paid tribute to ‘Timber-toes’ in his book The Sky Suspended: “About this time we received a small sunburnt gunner, who had a wooden leg and a long history. His proper name was Sid Carlin, but he was known to us all as ‘Timbertoes’. If I remember rightly he was an infantryman in 1914…Anyhow, he passed the inter-war years sailing an Arab dhow along the East Coast of Africa. With the resumption of the war, he joined up again; and here he was with us in that noble and dangerous position of a junior Air Gunner. His D.F.C., we were amused to notice, began his second row of medals. He was continuously critical of the pre-war government in England, roundly denouncing it, particularly for lack of an agricultural policy. This was his hobby-horse. About this time we spent an evening in the officers’ club at Grimsby, where a few local popsies were present. By midnight, all, save Timbertoes, had flagged. As he hobbled past one of us he whispered: “I’m dancing with my first white woman for eighteen years.” Later he was killed when the Germans strafed the aerodrome from which he was operating, and in place of ducking, he attempted to shoot back from the turret of a parked aircraft.”
Another Famous Friend – ‘Pick’ Pickard DSO**, DFC
By November Syd was regularly flying in 264 Squadron night operations from airfields in south-east England. On January 5th 1941 he was transferred to 151 Squadron, another Defiant unit based at RAF Wittering, where he resumed night interception missions against enemy bombers attacking the Midlands.
Jim Dixon: “German aircraft were also operating in an intruder role against our airfields, in an effort to make life a little more difficult. At Wittering, under the command of Group Captain Basil Embry during the early months of 1941 were many pilots who were to gain fame in the air, but among this gallant company there was only one ‘Timbertoes’. Nothing disturbed him despite the pressure and, as Group Captain Embry told [Syd’s sister] Mrs Mann: ‘Everyone was amused at Syd’s antics during this busy period. He would cycle through the camp wearing his pilot’s wings one day and another day it would be his air-gunner’s badge.’ Enemy bombers and intruders did not worry him, nor did it seem that the Hun who could frighten him had yet been born.” Syd still craved even more opportunities to fight the Germans.
According to Chaz Bowyer (Guns in the Sky – The Air Gunners of WWII) and Syd’s entry in Who Downed the Aces in WW1? Syd Carlin, during his ‘off-duty’ and leave periods, scrounged rides as gunner to Squadron Leader Percy Pickard, D.S.O.**, D.F.C., who at the time was posted to 311 (Czech) Squadron, so that Syd ‘unofficially’ flew in several bombing sorties over Germany as a rear-gunner in a 311 Squadron Wellington bomber. Syd’s friend Pickard, though much (25+ years) younger, was also a Yorkshire man who had been a farmer in Kenya 1932-1936, served in the KDF and earned a three handicap at polo. In March and April 1941 ‘Pick’ was seconded from 311 Squadron to play the starring role as the pilot of Wellington bomber ‘F for Freddy’ in the famous war movie Target for Tonight. He was killed in 1944 at the end of the spectacular “zero feet” Operation Jericho mission which destroyed much of Amiens Prison, giving French Resistance prisoners scheduled for execution the chance to escape. Basil Embry called Pickard “one of the great airmen of the war and a shining example of British manhood. I always felt he was part of a character from an earlier, Elizabethan, age.”
In the early hours of 7th May 1941Syd Carlin and his pilot Squadron-Leader Adams were patrolling over Hull. Another aircraft of the squadron intercepted three E.A.s and shot down two He 111 bombers. Syd’s aircraft also intercepted three hostiles, but in each case Adams was unable to get the Defiant into a position where Syd could bring his guns to bear. This must have been intensely frustrating for Syd, and to make matters worse the Germans bombed Wittering that day.
Early in the evening of 8th May, Wittering was attacked again, this time by a lone Ju 88 that swept in low. It strafed ‘A’ flight dispersal and dropped a stick of 8 anti-personnel bombs. Whilst everyone else ran for cover in bunkers and slit trenches as the air raid warning sirens blared, Syd leapt on to his bike and pedaled furiously towards his parked aircraft. He was climbing into his turret with its four power-operated machine-guns when the bombs detonated. Syd was caught in the blast as two aircraft were destroyed and four others damaged. His arm was blown off, but when the raid was over and people rushed to help him, Flying Officer Syd Carlin was already dead. He was the only casualty. The official Squadron Operations Book noted, “His loss is felt by all.”
Jim Dixon concluded his tribute with these words: “His death was a bitter blow to all who had known this gallant airman. Within the RAF the news quickly reached those who cherished happy memories of days they had spent with ‘Timbertoes’. In Freddie Sutton’s log book a simple entry – ‘Flew to Wittering in Defiant N1703 with the C.O. to represent ‘264’ at the funeral of Fg-Off Carlin’ – records the respect all felt for this Yorkshireman. To his many other friends the news came when they checked the casualty list and under the heading ‘Killed on Active Service’ they saw: No 81942 Fg.-Off. Carlin S., MC, DFC, DCM. So passed ‘Timbertoes’, a gallant warrior.” Syd Carlin was cremated; a memorial panel in Hull Crematorium includes his name.