August 10, 1918 – First RAF Victoria Cross for Pilot Who Files Report Before Having Leg Amputated
Pictured – Freddie West, plus his leg. After having the limb blown off, West and his observer flew home, fighting off seven German aircraft and then filing a vital recce report before going to hospital.
The British ideal of a stiff upper lip perhaps reached its apogee during the Great War, which featured countless stories about servicemen suffering appalling injuries and bearing them as though they stubbed a toe. It is easy to pass off the tales as propaganda and British braggadocio, but the story of the Royal Air Force’s first Victoria Cross suggests there was some truth to the matter.
The Royal Air Force was formed in 1918 out of the Royal Flying Corps, becoming the world’s first independent air force. Twenty-two year-old Captain Ferdinand “Freddie” West had transferred into it from the Royal Munster Fusiliers, seeking something more glamorous than the trenches. Being assigned to a reconnaissance squadron rather than the more gallant scouts might have come as a blow, but it led West to one of the service’s most glorious moments.
With the Battle of Amiens in full-swing and the Allies finally advancing in victory, an Army Co-Operation Squadron was formed to conduct ground support and run vital recce missions. West was deployed on one such flight, his observer Lieutenant John Haslam noting the positions of German guns, trenches, and tanks that would soon be facing their comrades on the ground. Doing so on August 10, 1918, they were jumped by seven German fighters, who looked at West as easy prey.
West was determined not to go down easy. He dodged their fire until an explosive round tore through the cockpit, severing his left leg and thudding into his right. Incredibly, West knocked his hanging left leg off the dashboard and kept fleeing, making sure Haslam had the best possible field of fire to stave off the Germans. West used a piece of his uniform to staunch the bleeding. When they landed, the shocked Haslam saw the full extent of his friend’s injury and tried to rush him to the hospital. West insisted on filing a report to his CO first, which noted the vital information he had taken. After that he was taken to a hospital where his leg was completely amputated.
The next day West made sure to clarify his report:
“Sir, was brought down after uneven flight yesterday at 11.45 a.m. My leg was blown off but managed to do a good landing. One Hun followed me down to twenty-five feet. Haslam wounded in ankle. I lost my left left. Was operated. Luck to everybody.”