Humanity in the Heavens

Occasionally one comes across records which can astound. One example is the messages dropped by both German and British pilots over enemy lines during the First World War seeking information about missing airmen. 

It might take weeks for the fate of pilots and navigators shot down over the Western Front to filter back to their units. Both sides naturally took great trouble to find out what happen to the fate of their men. In this they were helped by an extraordinary and completely unofficial system of dropping messages over each other’s airfields containing the names of men who crashed over enemy lines. These precious scraps may be the only surviving evidence of the often chivalric nature of the air war over the Western Front. 

At a stage early in the war German pilots began to drop messages over Allied airfields with details of British aircrew who had either been captured or had been killed when their machines crashed or subsequently died of wounds. They also asked for information about their men who had gone missing.

In late September 1917 attached to a list of British airmen who had crashed during the month which had been dropped on an airfield there was a request: ‘Can you give us any news about the fate of our pilots Lt Dostler missed since 21.8.1917 and Lt Voss missed since 23.9.1917. Both officers are possessors of the German order “Pour le merite.”’ 

The British too dropped requests for information about particular individuals. Permission was sought at the end of February 1918 for a note be sent concerning four officers from 60 Squadron who had recently gone missing and for whom no information had been received. After Albert Ball VC was lost, his squadron decided to drop message bags ‘containing requests written in German for news of his fate’ over Douai. Charles Carrington remembered:

We crossed the lines at thirteen thousand feet. Douai was renowned for its anti-aircraft. They were not to know the Squadron was in mourning, and made it hot for us. The flying splinters ripped the planes. Over the town the message bags were dropped and the formation returned without encountering a single enemy machine.

Ball was shot down on 7 May 1917 and is buried in Annoeullin Communal Cemetery and German Extension.

The finest such collection is in an album listing the loss of pilots and officers, particularly for the last half of 1915 and the first half of 1916. If a man crashed on the German side of the lines the book indicates that a message would probably be dropped over British lines a few days later. On 18 June 1916, Lieutenant J R S Savage and his observer Aircraftsman A M Robinson in their FE2 aircraft were shot down by two Fokker aircraft. The Germans subsequently dropped this message:

To the Royal Flying Corps. Pilot Lt Savage was killed and buried in the military cemetery at Saalemines, Observer Robinson, slightly wounded in the head taken prisoner. Flying squadron in sector opposite Bethune. 

Savage is commemorated on the Sallemines Memorial at Bully-Grenay Communal Cemetery, British Extension. His body may have been destroyed in subsequent fighting. Robinson seems to have survived the war.

Lieutenant C W Palmer was shot down on 2 March 1916 with a wound in his foot as a result of a gunshot. There were several messages describing his fate, firstly that he been captured and had been wounded. A few days later there was another message indicating that his left foot had been amputated and finally that he had died of blood poisoning on 29 March and had been buried with ‘military honours.’ Palmer’s body now lies in Douai Communal Cemetery.

Remarkably the collection even includes a postcard showing two rather bemused looking airmen a few minutes after their capture by the Germans. The men 2/Lieutenants L R Heywood and D R Gayford were shot down on 9 March 1916. The card, together with other photographs of shot down British aircraft, was taken from a German prisoner in July 1916.  

These messages also reflect the close-knit communities that many squadrons – on both sides – became and the real concern felt over individual pilots and gunners who had ‘gone west’. 

The system seems to have become very well developed for mutual benefit, although it is hard to imagine that the authorities on either side really approved of it. However, it is clear that the British, at least, turned a blind eye. These messages were regarded as being official enough for them to be used as evidence of a man’s death. In the War Office casualty summaries for missing officers the entry for Second Lieutenant W W Hutton, RFC, posted missing on 28 October 1917, reads: ‘A German message has been dropped into our lines in which it is stated that 2/Lt Hutton is dead.’ This, along with the lapse of time since the man went missing, was adduced to be evidence enough of his death. Hutton’s body was never found and he is commemorated on the Arras Flying Services Memorial.

In addition, German newspapers published lists of aircraft that had been shot down. This was meant to reassure their readers of the superiority of their air force, however the information they contained proved invaluable as evidence of the fate of Allied airmen.  For Captain J S Campbell, RFC who was reported missing on 28 September 1917,  the War Office eventually concluded that: ‘”In a list of British air losses in September 1917” published in a German newspaper an entry appears to the effect that Capt. Campbell is dead.’ Capt Campbell is buried at Pont-Du-Hem Military Cemetery, La Gorgu.

These messages show that even in the midst of a bitter world war that common humanity could survive. They would have helped both squadron messes and the families of individual air crew, come to terms with both the loss of popular members and those who had just arrived on the Western Front. 


Many of the surviving messages can be found in a scrapbook found at The National Archives in piece AIR 1/967/204/5/1707. 

German message about the shooting down of Lts A R H Browne, G A Porter and 1/AM W H Cox and H Kirkbride, all 13 Sqn RFC on 5 December 1915. The translation reads ‘With regard to the BE no 4092 and other aircraft brought down after a violent fight in the air. The pilots and observers, 4, met with an honourable flying man’s death and were buried yesterday with all military honours.’ 

Credit: TNA ref AIR 1/967/204/5/1097, p9c


Spittoons in Arcadia

Having spent many hours in pubs over the decades I have long been fascinated by their history and the people who used them. I wrote this for the Twentieth Century Society newsletter about fifteen years ago.

Read More

Humanity in the Heavens

Occasionally one comes across records which can astound. One example is the messages dropped by both German and British pilots over enemy lines during the First World War seeking information about missing airmen.

Read More