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Volume 9 (2016)

EUAN DICKSON D.F.C.

Distinguished Airman in the Royal Naval Air Service, France, WWI.

by Roger Strong

Euan Dickson deserves I think to be counted as one of Thames most famous citizens although he wasn’t born here and lived just over three years in the town. He was, as far as I can ascertain, the most decorated serviceman connected with the town from WW1 and yet is almost unknown. While people know of Bleriot and Lindbergh, we seem to have little knowledge or appreciation of Euan Dickson and his place in our history.

He was born in Woodseats (a suburb of Sheffield ) in Derbyshire on March 31st, 1892 to a working class family. His father Thomas Dickson is listed in the 1891 census as a retired draper aged 48. This early retirement seems to indicate ill-health, as by the 1901 census, Thomas has disappeared and his mother Eveline Mary Dickson is listed as the head of the household. Older brothers had occupations including clerk, engineer’s patternmaker, and spoon and fork warehouseman while his younger sister was a milliner’s assistant. Euan was listed as an engineer’s draughtsman, and the family lived at 46 St. Barnabus Road, Sheffield. The 1911 census shows mother Eveline Mary Dickson aged 42 and three elder brothers aged 24, 21 and 20 with Euan aged 19 followed by a younger sister aged 17, with all still living at the same address. In an interview in 1919, he stated he had completed an apprenticeship in Sheffield, and then finished an engineering course at Sheffield University.

The Thames engineering firm of A & G Price seem to have kept good contacts in the north of England as some time in 1912, they recruited Euan as their foundry foreman. He started work at the beginning of 1913. In the 1919 interview, he said that he was selected to proceed to New Zealand to install, organise and conduct an engineering (machine) shop at the works of Messrs Price Ltd at Thames.

He lived at the boarding house run by Mrs Rebecca McLeay in Beach Road. In the 1911 electoral roll, Mrs McLeay is listed as having domestic duties which would seem to imply that Prices may have owned the boarding house (and others?) where their single men lived. They probably got their meals there and had some arrangement for their laundry etc.

I could find no trace of Euan in the A & G. Price wage book of the period which is puzzling. He seems to have left little other trace of his time in Thames.

I am also interested in finding what aeronautical influences were around in that period immediately before and in the early days of World War One. No doubt there were many references to flying in the papers and magazines of the time and this had a direct influence of people like Keith Park, Albert Gordon and Euan Dickson – three Thames connected men who went into the aviation business. Certainly there was an American ‘Wizard’ Stone who made several flights in New Zealand during 1913.

The Thames Star of May 12th, 1913 reported

'Wizard Stone gave a splendid flight at Hamilton on Saturday despite unfavourable weather conditions. After disappointments in Auckland he was able to ascend in no matter what weather, which however on the day was very wet and gusty.... The spectators loudly cheered the aviator’

On June 5th, 1913, The Thames Star recorded that Wizard Stone had crashed his Bleriot monoplane at Napier Park racecourse yesterday in strong gusty winds. He suffered a broken collarbone. The machine was badly broken. Whether these future pilots actually witnessed such flights or simply read about them we will probably never know either way but the novelty and thrill of flight certainly became an important driver in their lives. It was not easy to get into aviation and it required skills and great amount of courage. Euan certainly must have had a great deal of both.


Flight Sub-Lieut. Euan Dickson
R.N. 3966 1917.

After the outbreak of war on 4th August, 1914 Euan must have thought seriously about returning to England as around June 1915, he left Prices and took a job at Bridges' garage in Eltham, living at Cleggs' boarding house. He seems to have left that job in March 1916, and I imagine that he was waiting for a passage back to the UK. On arrival there in July 1916, he enrolled in the Royal Naval Air Service. At that stage in the war, there were two air services, The Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service. On April 1st, 1918 these would be combined into the Royal Air Force.

Euan qualified as a pilot on 12th December, 1916 at Cranwell which remains to this day as the premier pilot training establishment of the R.F.C. ( and later the R.A.F.). In those days, it was also the Royal Naval Air Station. The aircraft he flew to qualify was a Maurice Farman biplane. The photo at the time shows a handsome young man and is labelled as being Flight Sub-Lieutenant Euan Dickson R N number 3966 which indicates the number of pilots that had qualified up until that time. As well he also flew a Curtis N4, Bristol Bullet, the French Nieport Scout, Sopwith Triplane and Sopwith Strutter so he became a well-qualified and experienced pilot quite quickly.

The Thames Star of 2nd February, 1917 reported that

‘Sir Thomas Mackenzie has sent word to Mr.H. Lowe that Mr Euan Dickson, formerly of Thames, has obtained a commission as flight sub-lieutenant in the Royal Naval Air Service. His many Thames friends will be pleased to hear of his success.’

On March 31st 1917, Euan was posted to 10 Naval Squadron in France but on 29th April 1917 was reassigned to 5 Naval Squadron in France. Apart from a two-week leave of absence and a brief stay in hospital, he remained on combat duty until August 1918. The aircraft he flew at that time was a DH 4 which was two seater aircraft designed as a bomber. Aircraft design had developed at such an incredible pace during WW1 that many features were put into production without much trial at all.


The DH4 bomber flown by Euan Dickson in 1917.
This was the plane on which his
Cook Strait aircraft was based

The DH 4 was designed by Geoffrey de Havilland and proved to be a reliable and effective aircraft but its chief defect was that the space between the pilot’s position and that of the observer/gunner was filled by a large petrol tank. Pilots did not wear parachutes since it was considered by the authorities that it would encourage aircrew to jump rather than face the enemy! Most pilots then knew that the most likely way they would die was by being burned to death and many chose to jump or carried a revolver rather than face such a painful end. The survival time for most pilots in WW1 was measured in weeks and the most dangerous time was early in their careers before they had gathered some experience.

Euan flew from a base near Dunkirk for much of the war and carried out some 185 raids between May 1917 and August 1918. In most of his flights, he had Walter Naylor, Walter Scott or Charles Robinson with him as observers. Communication between pilot and observer was mainly by shouting down and listening to a voice tube. As well as the danger, it was extremely cold in the open cockpit which must have been a challenge.

Euan continued to value his connection to Thames and the Thames Star of 12th December, 1917 reflects this as it noted

‘Sub-lieutenant E. Dickson, who made many friends while he was at Thames a few years ago, is now doing good work in the Royal Flying Corps in France. Lieut. Dickson participate in a recent air raid when 15 German machines were destroyed.’


Distinguished Flying Cross
14 Apr 1918 and 21 Sept 1918

He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross on 14th April, 1918 and again on 21 September 1918 firstly for

‘conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in a bombing raid on Thourout Railway Station and Varsennaere Aerodrome on 25th October, 1917. Secondly for conspicuous gallantry in attacking enemy aircraft and carrying out bombing raids. On the 16th March, 1918 when he went to the assistance of a machine of his formation which was being attacked at close quarters by twelve enemy scouts. Despite the fact that all of his guns on his machine were useless due to lack of ammunition, he turned and charged the hostile formation splitting it up and diverting their attention from the other machine, thus undoubtably saving it. On other occasions he had bought down enemy machines and taken part in many daylight bombing raids, at all times showing utter fearlessness and great determination.'

The Distinguished Service Cross had been awarded 19th December 1917 and the French Croix de Guerre with Bronze Star in August (?) 1918 for actions during the German offensive from March to July 1918.

These were all for bombing raids although the distinction between a bomber and a fighter were much more blurred in those days. It was more a definition based on function than on size. Most aircraft that ‘bombed’ had two men on board both to release the bombs and to defend the aircraft from enemy aircraft. Even so as a bomber pilot, Euan was credited with 14 enemy aircraft destroyed. He was shot down by one of Richthofen’s ‘Red Squadron’, and at the end of the war was one of only three pilots who remained of the original squadron.


A flight Lieutenant of the RNAS prepares
to drop a 16 lb high explosive bomb.
Click to enlarge the photo.

He seems to have considered himself a New Zealander and continued to value his Thames connection. In 1919 he returned to New Zealand to take up the position as Chief Flying Instructor with the newly formed Canterbury Aviation Company based at Sockburn outside Christchurch on 20th November, 1919. Sir Henry Wigram was the main instigator of this club and an interesting side-line to Dickson’s appointment is the comment in Vincent Orange’s book on Keith Park which says that Park was interested in the position but was advised not to bother to apply as Dickson had a more impressive war record.

Conditions must have been very primitive but no doubt Dickson was very pleased to get the job and to be able to continue flying. Many WW1 pilots wanted to continue to fly but the lack of opportunities after the war meant that few had the chance.

Before he left England, Dickson had supervised the despatch of four Avro airplanes similar to those he had flown during the war. They arrived in Christchurch on November 25th, 1919 and were assembled and tested on 21st January, 1920.

These aircraft seem to have been ideal for New Zealand conditions at the time, and Dickson began to make some pioneering flights. The NZ Herald of 24 May, 1920 records a flight from Fairlie to Christchurch with two passengers – some 100 miles covered in one hour in heavy rainstorms, the machine having the advantage of a following wind from Geraldine to Christchurch. He was also the first to fly a circuit around Mt.Cook on 21st May, 1920. A 1922 report has him taking up a parachutist who jumped over the port town of Lyttelton.

However Euan Dickson will be most remembered for his pioneering flight across Cook Strait on 25th August, 1920. The flight pioneering Walsh brothers from Auckland were waiting at Petone for suitable conditions to make an attempt at crossing quite unaware that Dickson was planning his flight. Dickson on the other hand, had become aware that the Walsh brothers were ready to do their flight and waiting on suitable weather before attempting the crossing.


From the left: Euan Dickson, Mr C.H.Hewlett
(deputy chairman of the Canterbury Aero Club)
and Mr J.E.Moore, the Chief Engineer.
with the Avro 504K they flew across
Cook Strait on 25th August, 1920
Click to enlarge the photo.

The details of the flight are themselves both mundane and amazing –a reflection of the times. Almost 100 years later we have to remember the limitations of the machine and lack of knowledge of the weather conditions that they might encounter on the trip. After the flight, the passenger said that he was thinking of the reliability of the engines while they were flying! One 110 hp engine meant that there was not a lot of power available to the pilot.

He left Christchurch at 7 am on that August morning flying in an AVRO 504K with a Le Rhone 110 h.p. engine taking Mr C.H.Hewlett the deputy chairman of the company and Mr J.E. Moore the chief mechanic on board. Flying conditions for the time were not good, and they flew through thick cloud for much of the way north with only occasional glimpses of the coast and the sea. Encountering strong north-east head winds, they used more petrol than they had planned and decided to land on a paddock owned by a Mr. Bullen of ‘The Elms’ Kahautara River Flats at 8:50 am. Dickson described the landing ground as rather rough but they managed to get some additional motor spirit and a cup of tea. They were back in the air by 9:35 am, and then landed at a pre-arranged paddock behind the town of Kaikoura at 9:40 am. Fuel tanks were topped up and after a hearty reception which included more tea and cakes, they took off again at 10:20 am. They flew at an average height of six thousand feet along the coast and turned inland at the Ure ( Waima) River towards Blenheim. A Mr. Mogridge had arranged a bombfire there to guide them in. There were few people about as they landed at 11:50 am and word had not got out yet.

Leaving Blenheim at 12.55 pm, they climbed again to six thousand feet and followed the coast past Port Underwood and Rununder Point. Halfway between there and Wellington, they changed course to fly direct to Cape Terawhiti which is to the west of Wellington City. They came down to 3500 feet over Terawhiti lighthouse. Wellington appeared suddenly to their left, and they flew directly over Wellington city surprising people in the street and members of parliament who it was reported spilled out onto the steps to see the aeroplane. They landed at Trentham at 2:10 pm

The Avro carried mail and southern newspapers. Some letters were from the chairmen of the Canterbury Aviation company to Mr Massey and the members of the Air Board. Mr. Massey commented that although it was an historic event, it did not warrant giving the half-holiday that some members had proposed.

Dickson flew home three days later on the 30th August, leaving Trentham at 3:20 pm and arriving in Blenheim at 4:25 pm. He reported a fine trip, although there was some cloud when they left.

Dickson continued his pioneering aviation work in the South Island until the Canterbury Aviation Company was taken over by the government on 21 June 1923. They named ‘Wigram’ after its chief benefactor.

Euan Dickson married Marjorie Alice Williams in 1922. She was born Marjorie Phillips, and was the daughter of Mr Thomas Albert Phillips of ‘The Point’ Rakaia Gorge Windwhistle, and her mother was Frances Martha Smith. This certainly made her a member of Canterbury aristocracy. She had been previously married to Kenneth Stuart Williams. She seems to have had at least two children from her first marriage and appeared regularly in the society pages of the newspaper through the 1930’s. Dickson and his wife had two children.

The marriage seems to have broken up in 1940. In 1942, he married again to Joan Forbes, and they had a daughter Joanne who was born in 1944. There was also a second child.

After leaving Canterbury, Dickson went into business in Auckland with the Auckland Motor Company which made car bodies. In those early days, you often bought a car as just the engine and chassis and had someone fabricate the bodywork and seats etc. to suit your own particular purpose. His company seems to have done that successfully. He retired from the company in 1964.

The Dicksons lived in Remuera. Euan Dickson died in Auckland on 10th March, 1980 aged 87 years.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

I would like to record my sincere thanks to Althea Barker for all her help - a master researcher

References:




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