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One hundred years ago today, my grandfather, the "Musical Tommy" was shot down

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One hundred years ago today, my grandfather, the "Musical Tommy" was shot down

Old 23rd Jan 2018, 12:47
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One hundred years ago today, my grandfather, the "Musical Tommy" was shot down

In January 1918, my grandfather, Hubert St. John Edgerley Youens, was a pilot with Number 3 Squadron, RNAS.

His squadron was flying Sopwith Camels from Dunkirk. Their operations were a mixture of Fleet Protective Patrols and Offensive Sweeps. On 23 January, he was part of a flight of eight Camels that were on an offensive sweep over the front line. The flight attacked some DFWs and Fokker D.VIIs. He didn’t return to Dunkirk. He crash-landed behind German lines and was taken prisoner.

Here is an extract from ‘Combat Reports Number 3 Squadron RNAS and Daily Reports on Operations’ for 23 January 1918:

His Camel was also taken prisoner! B7184 was built by Clayton and Shuttleworth in Lincoln in December 1917 and delivered to Dunkirk on 14 January 1918, so it was only operational for nine days! He must have pulled off a very good landing and there must have been very little damage, because it was impressed into service by the Germans.

B7184 was adopted by Ltn Otto Kissenberth (an ace who wore spectacles when flying) of Jasta 23B (usually flying Albatros D.Vs), had the roundels over painted with crosses and his staffel’s identifying black and white tail bands applied, although he retained an RNAS eagle marking on the fuselage sides, just behind the cockpit.

On 16 May 1918 Kissenberth achieved his 19th victory (or possibly his 20th) when he flew B7184 in combat and shot down Lt SB Reece of 64Sqn in an SE5a, although Reece survived his forced landing at Tilly-Neville, behind the Allied lines. B7184 was destroyed when its engine failed on take off on 29 May 1918, stalling from 40 metres and badly injuring Kissenberth, finishing his front line career.
B7184 | Captured Wings Wiki | FANDOM powered by Wikia

Pictures from The Aviation Historical Journal v2 p57 (http://www.theaviationhistorian.com/shop.htm#.WmcobyPMzGI)

I really feel a bit sorry for Lt. Reece. What SE5a pilot would expect to be attacked by a Camel?

My grandfather was taken to several POW camps before ending up at the notorious Holzminden POW camp in Lower Saxony (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holzmi...er-of-war_camp).

His family wasn't informed that he was a prisoner until three months later, in April. I have copies of a couple of letters that he wrote and while they are "stiff-upper-lip", it's clear he was longing to get home. He was re-patriated in December 1918.

Admiralty letter confirming he was a POW:


Hubert at Holzminden - far right. Nineteen years old. It's interesting that he is wearing an RFC uniform with his RNAS wings above the breast pocket, rather than on the sleeve:

Telegram about his arrival back in the UK:

Having survived flying-training, converting to Camels, combat and then POW camps, he was a lucky man to have survived the war. I never met him - he died of a heart attack in 1942, when my father was 19.

The story might have ended there, except for a serendipitous incident in the early 1980s. My father was talking to his postie, who turned out to be an aviation enthusiast.

"Mr. Youens, did you have a relative who flew in the First World War and was shot down?"

"Yes, my Father."

"Well, I've got a book that has a whole chapter about him!"
The book in question was "Germany's Last Knight of the Air", the autobiography of Carl Degelow (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Degelow), translated into English by aviation historian Peter Kilduff. (ISBN-10: 0718301463 Harper Collins 1979)

Degelow was credited with 30 kills and was the last airman awarded the Pour Le Merite. In January 1918, he was flying a Fokker D VII with Jasta 7, based near Aartrijke, north of Torhout in West Flanders.

He published his autobiography in Germany in 1920 and in it, there is a whole chapter about my Grandfather, entitled "The Musical Tommy". Here are some extracts:

We were patrolling the area of Houlthust Forest in Belgium, scene of many, many aerial combats. On this day - 23 January, 1918 - however, the weather was not very inviting, as clouds and haze lowered the visibility. For this reason the watchword from my flight leader was: ‘Look out!’

We had already cruised over the ‘required’ sector of the front and we were on our way home when, from out of the sun, a British Sopwith Camel squadron suddenly pounced on us. A number of individual battles soon developed and I found myself engaged with a fellow who had caught me by surprise. This pilot, who did not seem too well acquainted with the location of the front lines, belong to, as we later learned, to a group of Dunkirk based fighter pilots who we called the Armstrong Boarding School.
Eventually, I forced my opponent to land on our side of the lines, near Dixmude. As was our custom, we sent a car to pick him up and bring him to our airfield, where, in courteous fashion, he could spend the day with us as a guest of honour.

The occupant of the downed Sopwith (B7184) turned out to be Flight Sub-lieutenant H. S. J. E. Youens, a member of Number 3 Squadron Royal Naval Air Service. A Canadian by birth, this fine young man of 20 years had his visage temporarily marred by a bloody nose and a lovely pair of swollen black eyes caused by his rough landing.

As soon as this son of Albion saw us approaching, he held out his hand in greeting and I asked: ‘Was that you?’ meaning the flier who had forced him down. I confirmed his assumption and invited him to accompany us back to our airfield.

On the trip back, our guest was visibly depressed by his misfortune. He mentioned something that many of his countrymen whom we had shot down told us:’Your “Archies” are awfully good.’ We were led by this statement to the conclusion that the British fliers had often felt the effectiveness of our anti-aircraft fire, which they had nicknamed ‘Archie’.

We had meanwhile reached our airfield and taken our guest to a nearby castle we had taken over to billet Staffelpersonnel. It was a beautiful structure, but difficult to heat, which is no doubt why its Belgian owners used it only during the summer months. In the casino the representative of the Armstrong boarding school relaxed as he ate supper and drink a glass of wine. With the help of the wine we soon had a lively conversation going. My knowledge of English, which I had improved while in America a few years before the war and a frequent Pröstchen!’ [‘Cheers’] seemed to help and forget the sorrow of defeat the candles were lit and soon no one could tell whether we were in a German Kasino or an English club.

After the meal, I want guest seemed at ease and a few shots of whisky completed the task of loosening Mr. Youens’ tongue. He then declared to us that he was musically inclined and performed rather well on the violin. So we had a violinist - but no violin.

Just then, the cook, who had been following the conversation through the half open door, suddenly shouted that Monteur Schmitz had brought back a violin when he returned from furlough.

‘Let’s have it,’ I said and the ‘Stradivarius’ was brought forth. It was in relatively good condition, except that it lacked an A string.

‘Never mind,’ said the Tommy, ‘I have one of those right here.’ With that he drew from his wallet at least two complete sets of strings for his favourite instrument. It seems that before taking off the English man had put these necessary parts into his pocket to be prepared for any eventuality. Mr. Youens busied himself stringing his fiddle and I took my place at the piano to assist him in tuning the instrument. Within ten minutes the international orchestra was ready to begin and as the opening piece we played the well-known German national anthem Deutschland Über Alles. To the delight of all present, my partner played the song with as much intensity of feeling as if it were God Save the King.

That whole evening our guest gave us pleasure and helped us pass the time with his musical entertainment. We eventually did play the British national anthem and every German in the room stood at respectful attention as a sign of comradeship beyond the bounds of national or political affiliation. Thus, a defeat was transformed into a victory. That evening at Castle Wyengendal in Flanders was unique. It lasted until midnight and then our guest was shown to a one-bed room with the windows boarded up, Both for protection from a sudden storm and to ensure that he would be with us long enough to partake of breakfast the following morning. As a final precautionary measure, Mr. Youens was politely asked to temporarily parked with his braces and his boots, as running barefoot while holding one’s trousers is a bit difficult.

The following morning a car from the Army Interrogation Section came for our guest. He departed with words of loud praise and thanks for common rightly hospitality, as well as good wishes for his conqueror and a flattering statement about the latter’s gentlemanly manner of aerial combat. His visit is recorded in the annals of Jasta 7 As follows: ’A double victory, on the one hand the hard-fought air battle that ended victoriously; and, on the other hand, the musical pleasure that the loser so bountifully and cordially provided us.’
The above reads like a Hollywood film script. It's hard to believe that anyone would go into combat with a set of violin strings! He must have been an enthusiastic violinist - my brother has a violin that Hubert made.

My father was slightly irritated that Degelow referred to my grandfather as Canadian. I recently discovered why this may have occurred. Flight Commander Armstrong referred to in the combat report was the Canadian Ace F.C. Armstrong and perhaps Degelow, knowing this fact, assumed that all the pilots of the “Armstrong Boarding School” were Canadian.

My father also told me that my grandfather always claimed that it was engine trouble that caused his landing behind German lines and not enemy action.

One further twist to the story occurred sometime later in the mid-80s. My father received a copy of a letter sent to a British Forces Liason Officer in September 1970:

My father always said he would have gone to Degelow's 80th birthday party in January 1971, if he had known about the invitation, but ironically the party never happened. Carl Degelow died in November 1970, two months before his birthday.

Last edited by India Four Two; 23rd Jan 2018 at 19:09. Reason: Typos.
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Old 23rd Jan 2018, 13:43
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What a wonderful story you tell and thank you for sharing, it was captivating reading indeed.

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Old 23rd Jan 2018, 14:17
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Hmm. what a phenomenal story. Many thanks for sharing
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Old 23rd Jan 2018, 17:23
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Wonderful story!

Family lore has it that paternal grandad was a Spitfire pilot, but I discovered he was actually in the RFC; so probably Camels then. Or he was a mechanic, or a whatever, we simply don't know... Got passed on though, plenty of aeronautically inclined folks in the family!
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Old 23rd Jan 2018, 18:56
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That's a fantastic story, Simon. Thanks indeed for posting this.
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Old 23rd Jan 2018, 21:06
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+1 .
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Old 23rd Jan 2018, 21:17
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I'm glad I got bored with the footie and came here - what a story!
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Old 24th Jan 2018, 15:54
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Thank you Simon a truly wonderful story. I loved the bit where the method used to detain your grandfather was taking his boots and braces so he would have difficulties in escaping.
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Old 24th Jan 2018, 21:52
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India Four Two

According to the supplement to the London Gazette dated 2nd August 1917 a
Second Lieutenant Frederick Youens of the Durham Light Infantry was awarded a posthumous VC.
Related by any chance?


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Old 25th Jan 2018, 00:40
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Yes. Frederic Youens was a (2nd?) cousin to my grandfather. My family comes from the High Wycombe area. Youens Road in High Wycombe is named after him and he is one of two VCs commemorated in the name of Fraser Youens House at the Royal Grammar School. Both my grandfather and my father went to RGSHW.

Frederick was a very brave fellow. Won his VC for tossing German grenades out of a trench. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frederick_Youens

He is buried in Railway Dugouts Cemetary, SE of Ypres. It’s on my itinerary for when I do a battlefield tour.

Last edited by India Four Two; 25th Jan 2018 at 01:38. Reason: Spelling
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Old 25th Jan 2018, 01:30
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Fascinating - thanks so much for sharing this great story

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Old 29th Jan 2018, 13:30
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Thank you for a wonderful story.
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Old 5th Feb 2018, 02:23
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Adding my thanks for sharing your grandfather's story, India Four Two.

I'm not sure if you've read him, but a fellow named Richard van Emden has written quite a few books on the camaraderie that existed between the Brits and the Germans during the Great War. I very much enjoyed reading his "Meeting the Enemy", lent to me by a family friend and WWII bomber pilot and recommend it to anyone interested in that gentlemanly period of our past.
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Old 5th Feb 2018, 11:12
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Brilliant. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about your grandfather. Thank you so much for sharing it with us.
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Old 7th Sep 2019, 09:57
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A great story, thanks for sharing.
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