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by Jeremy Archer
It was late afternoon at Merville in Northern France on 21 May 1940. The Durham Light Infantry lookout scuttled down from the church tower to report to those waiting anxiously on the nearby airfield that hundreds of German soldiers were just 500 yards away - and closing fast. This was the signal that forty-nine year-old Pilot Officer Louis Strange, Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, had been waiting for. What followed was the stuff of Boy's Own Paper, Victor or Commando; indeed Louis Strange's adventures twice featured in Top Spot, an Amalgamated Press comic.
Earlier that day Strange had left Hendon in a DC-3, switched to a De Havilland Dragon in Croydon when the DC-3's port engine failed and arrived in Merville as 24 Squadron's Aerodrome Control Officer. The airfield had been evacuated by the RAF fighter squadron stationed there and 24 Squadron had been tasked with saving what planes - or failing that, what equipment - they could. Two fighters had already been patched up, gratefully accepted by RAF pilots shot down earlier, and flown back to England. The remaining Hurricanes had been cannibalised, leaving just one in flying condition. With no other pilot available, Louis Strange climbed into the cockpit of a type he had never flown before, with most of the instruments missing. The guns were also unserviceable - but he wasn't expecting to have to fight.
Light anti-aircraft fire forced Strange up to 8,000 feet over St. Omer but, just as he was beginning to relax, heavier anti-aircraft fire attracted the unwelcome attentions of a squadron of Me-109s. He was taken surprise by the first burst of machine-gun fire, watched the next five aircraft overshoot without hitting his Hurricane, and then pushed the stick forward and the tree-hopping began. In his own words: 'Those Messerschmitts chased me up the village street and down the château drive and almost through the château front door, until suddenly, twisting downstream in a wooded valley, I slipped clear over some sand-dunes and out to sea. The ships' AA opened up at the pack on my tail, and one salvo was enough to turn them back.'
On 11 June 1940, just a week after the British Expeditionary Force had been evacuated from Dunkirk - and with a country seeking heroes during such desperate times - Louis Strange was awarded a bar to the Distinguished Flying Cross that he had been awarded in 1918. It was only one of a number of astonishing incidents in an action-packed life.
Louis Strange spent his childhood at Tarrant Keynstone Mill on the River Stour. A son of the soil, his family had farmed at Spetisbury in the Stour valley since the mid-1700s. In his autobiography Recollections of an Airman, published in 1933, Strange wrote: 'Both my father and mother came from families that had been on the land for many generations ... He loved to tell us of great hunting runs in Dorsetshire with Mr. Radcliffe's foxhounds, Lord Wolverton's deerhounds and Mr. Farquharson's harriers. Very stirring to us children were also his tales of the way in which the Dorsetshire Yeomanry came into existence during the Napoleonic Wars and the part his grandfather played in its formation ... Of course I joined the Dorsetshire Yeomanry. I was a member of that honourable body before I even left school, and I can remember how proud I was when I secured third place in my first point-to-point race, while another red letter day was on the occasion of a certain run with the Portman hounds in the Vale when after an hour and forty minutes hard going I was the only person up with the hounds. It was a special triumph because the Vale men did not think much of the South Dorset hill folk.'
During manoeuvres in May 1913 Louis Strange found himself engaged in an animated discussion of the role that aircraft would play in the next war. Before he really knew what had happened he had taken a number of bets that he would fly over next year's Dorsetshire Yeomanry camp and wave at his earth-bound comrades. Two months later a ewe with foot-rot kicked him in the ribs; he might be no use on the farm but surely the controls of an aircraft shouldn't be beyond him. He enrolled at Hendon, taking his Royal Aero Club certificate, No. 575, on 5 August 1913.
He now had to make a difficult decision: should he follow the family tradition and farm at Lower Almer on the west bank of the Stour or should he become a professional pilot? In the event he had to wait for a course vacancy at the Central Flying School, Upavon. Just after obtaining his licence he won his first cross-country race, to Mill Hill and back; he won the Hendon March Meeting 17-mile race, beating his old instructor into second place and, on 4 April 1914, appeared in Flight magazine as one of five pilots who had recently joined the 'Upside Down Club' by performing a 'looper', in the jargon of the day. In May 1914 he finally joined the sixth course at Upavon, little imagining that 'within two years I was to return there to step into Major Trenchard's shoes as Assistant Commandant'.
Louis Strange was formally commissioned as a Second-Lieutenant in The Dorsetshire Regiment on 30 July 1914 - just five days before war broke out - and, still on his flying course, remained on attachment to the Royal Flying Corps. Things then started to move rather fast: he was posted to 5 Squadron and flew his Henri Farman, with a very drunk mechanical transport driver as unwelcome passenger, to Amiens on 16 August. Strange was already expressing his individuality by being the only pilot in the Squadron to have fitted a Lewis gun to his machine. However, this was anticipating future developments: his first important role was observing and reporting on the movements of the wheeling armies during those crucial early days of manoeuvre, before trench warfare set in. Less than two weeks after arriving in France there came another innovation from Strange's fertile brain. He decided that convoys of defenceless German troops were too tempting a target and, on 28 August, he and his observer made up three petrol bombs and attacked German transport north of St. Quentin; the results 'sent us home very well pleased with ourselves'.
On 22 November 1914 Louis Strange claimed his first German aircraft 'kill', an Aviatik two-seater. He forced it down from 7,000 feet over Armentières to make 'a bumpy landing in a ploughed field just behind a wood where the Cornwalls and Devons occupied some reserve trenches. I knew they would do their share of the business, and as it was too close to the firing-line for me to land and I had a wounded observer to get home, I headed full speed for Bailleul'. In early 1915 he was promoted to Captain and posted to 6 Squadron as a Flight Commander. His second sortie earned him the Military Cross: on one of the first-ever tactical bombing missions his aircraft dropped three 35-lb bombs on Courtrai railway station, causing 75 casualties and closing the station for three days. Had he not survived, this feat would almost certainly have earned him the Victoria Cross.
Of aerial combat he wrote: 'In my brushes with the enemy in the air I found my training with the Dorsetshire Yeomanry to be of great value. It had taught me something of scouting, any way, and on a clear cloudless day I found the air rather a cold-blooded battlefield, in which the sun may prove either a saving grace or a deadly ambush. At any rate, everything depended upon getting the first blow in, but when there was plenty of cloud about you did not need to be so cautious when you hunted for trouble.'
On 10 May 1915 there occurred another of those Boys' Own feats with which Louis Strange is associated. At an altitude of 8,500 feet above Menin he was pursuing, in one of the new Martinsyde S1 single-seater scouts, an Aviatik 'belonging to von Leutzer's Squadron from Lille Aerodrome'. Trying to change a used ammunition drum for his Lewis gun, he found it was cross-threaded. Sterner measures were caller for and, standing on his seat in the cockpit, he gripped the control column with his knees and tried again. Disaster struck: the aircraft stalled, flipped into a spin and Strange found himself hanging upside down, gripping the useless drum and hoping desperately that he hadn't managed to loosen the thread. 'I kept on kicking upwards behind me until at last I got one foot and then the other hooked inside the cockpit. Somehow I got the stick between my legs again, and jammed on full aileron and elevator; I do not know exactly what happened then, but the trick was done. The machine came over the right way up, and I fell off the top plane and into my seat with a bump.' Although his frantic kicking had smashed all the instruments, he managed to return to base and 'slept for a good solid twelve hours'. The Germans reported Strange as having been shot down but were naturally disappointed not to find any confirmatory wreckage, despite half-a-day's enthusiastic searching of the wood on the north side of Menin! The Martinsyde S1 was notorious for its unreliability and, in the event, only 60 entered service.
During that period Louis Strange also managed to renew old friendships: 'One day the First Battalion of the Dorsetshire Regiment came into a rest camp close to Abeele, with the result that I met a lot of officers and men I knew. I gave some of them joyrides in my machine, as they wanted to have a look at the trenches from the air, and spent a lot of time on the ground with them as well. Among the "other ranks" of this battalion I found a regular old character of a fellow, by name Fudge Maidment, who had often worked for my father on our Dorsetshire farm, although poaching was the real business of his life. Fudge was one of the instructors of my youthful days, for he taught me all sorts of poaching tricks; under his tuition I learned how to decoy ducks out on the shallows in the Stour, as well as to set night lines for pike, snares for rabbits and traps for all sorts of vermin. Fudge was a veteran soldier as well, for he had fought in the Boer War, in which he vowed he had a much better time than in the present one. He declared himself thoroughly fed up with trench warfare, and said that the only place that he had any use for was the cookhouse. I am sorry to say the battalion suffered very heavy casualties not long afterwards in the old canal cutting in front of Bellewarde Lake.'
By August 1915 Louis Strange was the long-serving of the thirty-seven pilots who had flown out to France a year earlier. "That settles it, then", said his Commanding Officer, and he was posted home the following day. Three months later he married Marjorie Beath, whom he had been courting since he first took her on a joyride in an 80 h.p. Gnome Blériot from Hendon in October 1913. The best man was Major Lanoe Hawker, V.C.: Louis Strange acted as an aerial decoy for the first of the two German aircraft that Hawker shot down on 15 July 1915, for which feat Hawker was awarded his Victoria Cross. One of Strange's well-deserved wedding presents was a promotion to Major. On 21 September 1915 he was posted to Fort George, Gosport to form 23 Squadron. Due to appendicitis Strange handed over command in March 1916: the Squadron Briefing Room, formally opened by AOC-in-C Strike Command on 2 April 1997, is named after him.
Although away from the front line, the next two years were not wasted. Louis Strange established No. 1 School of Air Gunnery at Hythe in Kent; was promoted to lieutenant-colonel and formed No. 2 School of Air Gunnery at Turnberry. In April 1917 he became Assistant Commandant at the Central Flying School and took it upon himself to 'test-fly' the new machines as they rolled off the production line. On 26 June 1918 the call to arms sounded again and Louis Strange was selected to command the newly-formed 80th Wing. The nature of the air war had changed and the equipment had become immeasurably more sophisticated. Nevertheless Louis Strange remained undaunted and, during the next five months, was to be awarded both the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Distinguished Service Order. By this time the Germans were on the defensive and his Wing of Sopwith Camels, SE-5s, DH-9s and Bristol Fighters launched massed raids on enemy airfields, enormously reducing the effectiveness of any German aerial response. Between 1 July and 11 November the seven Squadrons under Strange's command - two of which were Australian - destroyed or drove down out of control no less than 449 German aircraft, as well as 23 balloons.
The immediate post-war period was one of almost inevitable anti-climax. There was a spell as Chief Flying Instructor at Upavon, followed by command of the Flying Wing at the Cranwell; however, the strains of wartime eventually caught up with him and, in early 1922, Louis Strange retired from the Royal Air Force, with a small disability pension. In 1916 his father, John, had sold Lower Almer and bought 1,300 acres at Worth Matravers on the Isle of Purbeck. The next seven years, spent working the land at Worth Matravers, helped restore Louis Strange's health. By the late 1920s he was once again restless and drawn by the 'spirit of the air', as he called it, he became a director of the Spartan Aircraft Company. Spartans flew in many of the high profile King's Cup races of the early 1930s. He also established contact with his former foes, in particular von Leutzer, reaching the conclusion that: 'There is no doubt that to-day a high degree of mutual admiration exists between the survivors of the two Air Forces that fought each other so fiercely - For they are jolly good fellows, And so say all of us.'
Spartan failed in 1935 and Louis Strange was then asked to join Willard Whitney Straight's Straight Corporation, only to find it taken under Government control on the outbreak of war. Too old for a Regular Commission, Louis Strange joined the RAFVR as a Pilot Officer. Initially he was posted to 24 Squadron, the RAF's only transport and communications services squadron. Louis Strange's war was characterised by a natural disdain for authority and the 'normal channels', coupled with a remarkable flair for experimentation and innovation as the conflict developed. Just three weeks after his hair-raising escape from France, Strange - by now a Squadron Leader - reported to Ringway, near Manchester for 'parachuting duties'. The Germans were the pioneers of airborne forces but Winston Churchill was determined that the British should develop an airborne capability. Over the next nine months Louis Strange made an invaluable contribution, culminating in the Prime Minister's visit to Ringway on 26 April 1941.
Louis Strange's next appointment was to the Merchant Ships Fighter Unit (MSFU). It was becoming clear that the Battle of the Atlantic against Hitler's U-boats had to be won for Britain to have even a chance of survival. With insufficient aircraft carriers available, there was the so-called 'Air Gap' within which merchant shipping was out of reach of land-based aircraft on both sides of the Atlantic. With predatory Focke-Wulf Condors once destroying no less than five ships in a single day, 9 February 1941, fighters launched by catapult from merchant ships were felt to be an effective response. The Catapult Aircraft Merchantmen (CAM) and their so-called Hurricats soon proved their worth: in total four Condors were destroyed while the deterrent effect was even more important.
After yet another period in the wilderness, having been moved from MSFU at short notice and demoted to Squadron Leader, Louis Strange was posted to 46 Group as Wing Commander Operations. There he assisted in the preparation and planning for Operation Overlord, landing in Normandy himself on 15 June. He soon had no less than six airstrips under his control in the expanding beachhead. He was also responsible for the control and local administration of a series of Temporary Staging Posts (TSP) supporting the allied campaign. During the advance that followed the break-out from Normandy, Strange personally 'liberated' Château Lillois, twenty-four years after he had been the first to announce the departure of the Germans in the heady days of 1918. He was also at SHAEF Forward Headquarters in Reims on 6/7 May 1945 to witness Generaloberst Alfred Jodl and Admiral Hans-Georg von Friedeburg negotiate final surrender on all fronts.
For his wartime contribution Louis Strange was appointed an Officer of The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. The Commander of 1st Allied Airborne Army, General Lewis Brereton, personally wrote the citation for Strange's American Bronze Star: 'Through his tireless energy, devotion to duty, technical and practical knowledge of aircraft, and wide experience in the operational employment of aircraft and airborne troops, Wing Commander Strange rendered a major contribution to the successful accomplishment of airborne operations against the enemy during the period 14 December 1944 until the cessation of hostilities in Europe.' After the war Louis Strange returned to Dorset, died at his home in Worth Matravers on 15 November 1966, aged 75, and was buried in the cemetery by St. Nicholas's Church. His great-nephews still farm at Worth Matravers. There is a display commemorating Louis Strange at The Keep Military Museum in Dorchester.