Pilot's fascinating World War One diaries reveal respect between enemies

Pilot's fascinating World War One diaries reveal respect between enemies

WW1 Pilot William Sandbrook

William Sambrook with his Sopwith Camel, hoisted on board HMAS Sydney for take off from the tiny platform which can be made out above the aircraft.

First published in News
Last updated

AN EXTRAORDINARY example of cooperation between First World War British and German troops has been uncovered by researchers preparing an exhibition to commemorate the outbreak of the conflict.

Members of Llangwm Local History Society have been poring over log books and diaries kept by 22-year-old pilot William David Sambrook, who hailed from Cilgerran.

The documents reveal the camaraderie that sometimes took precedence over hostilities, particularly with regards to airborne war.

Photographs and excerpts from the diary will be on show at the Heritage Lottery-funded exhibition in Llangwm this November.

William was posted to Coudekerque airfield near Calais in 1916. His diaries tell of almost daily bombing raids on German-held aerodromes, as well as the docks and Zeppelin sheds at Bruges and Zeebrugge.

One day in May 1916, a British aircraft failed to return from a raid on Ostend aerodrome. There was talk of the plane being picked up from the sea by a Belgian trawler.

A few days later, with still no news of their missing comrade, one of William’s colleagues flew over the German airfield and dropped a message asking if they had information about his fate.

The British pilots received a prompt reply, also dropped from the air, confirming the aircraft had indeed been shot down over the sea.

William took up the story in his diary: “They said attempts had been made at rescue but when the machine was brought in the pilot was already dead. He was buried with full military honours alongside two comrades at Marrakerke cemetery, Ostend.

“The message was accompanied by two photos of the funeral and the grave.”

Examples had been noted before of each side treating the bodies of their victims with respect, but a postscript to the note shows an unusual degree of fellow feeling among pilots.

“There was also a message in German stating the name and place in German territory where our machines could land if they had engine trouble,” William wrote.

Alan Wakefield, head of photographs at the Imperial War Museum, says this degree of cooperation was much more common among pilots than among those fighting the war on the ground, where the conflict soon became impersonal.

“I know of cases where German pilots dropped notes and photographs of a crashed aircraft and its occupant, saying they had buried him and asking for his name so they could make a headstone,” he said.

“In fact in one instance a German pilot dropped a note saying he was about to bomb an airfield and suggesting that those on the ground should get out of the way.”

Mr Wakefield remained sceptical about the tip-off providing the British with details of a safe landing place.

“This is surprising because the German squadron would not have had jurisdiction – the German army were under instruction to take British pilots prisoner.

“I think it’s more likely to have been an example of German humour – they wouldn’t have expected the British to take them up on it.”

William was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for gallantry in the air in 1917.

Towards the end of the war, he went on to become one of the first pilots to engage in ‘deck flying’, taking off in Sopwith Pups and Camels from short platforms built on gun turrets, on what were to be the forerunners of aircraft carriers.

He survived his time in France, and after a career working in the public health department of Westminster City Council, he returned to Pembrokeshire to live with his sister in Deerland, Llangwm.

His nephew, Richard Palmer, still lives in the same house and has kept his diaries and logbooks safe.

“He was a lovely man” Richard said. “When he was in London he would send us Twickenham rugby match programmes and he kept my brother Maurice and myself supplied with rugby boots.

But he never spoke to us about his war record.”

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