RUSI JOURNAL, Vol.156, No.5 – October/November 2011
By Paul Beaver
This is a masterly exposition of storytelling about a gallant young man who died flying at the age of thirty-one. Yet, in those years, he did more than most in a lifetime three times longer. To do his memory justice, Samuel ‘Kink’ Kinkead has Julian Lewis as the storyteller who brings an extraordinary life into focus.
There are few pilots of renown who lived through the highs and lows of the First World War, including the Dardanelles Campaign and the little-known campaign in Bulgaria. But Kinkead did so, and he went on to lead some of the most intriguing air action in South Russia in 1919 and then to fly some of the world’s fastest aeroplanes. It is truly an understatement to say that Kinkead lived life at full throttle.
Lewis’s story starts at the moment he stumbled upon Kinkead. As a newly [selected parliamentary candidate] for New Forest East, he finds an unusual gravestone in Fawley Churchyard, near the former Royal Air Force Station at Calshot on the Solent. Beginning his research, he discovers that the incumbent was a real-life Biggles from whom we can all learn lessons of professionalism, duty and skill at arms.
Kinkead lies with other heroes from other wars, including those from the Battle of Britain, and he is no stranger to the Royal Air Force. his portrait hangs in the Academy at Cranwell, and another is in the RAF Club in Piccadilly. There is even a Kinkead trophy presented annually for aviation skills.
And it is his skill in the air which the book serves to illuminate. It is not just about air warfare in its earliest days – although Julian Lewis turns a forensic historian’s mind to some new facts and assessments – but also long-range aviation and the quest for speed in the 1920s. Indeed, it was in a Supermarine seaplane during an attempt on the world absolute air speed record that Kinkead died in 1928.
Julian Lewis’s detective story is worth a book in its own right. Tracing a man who had Irish roots and grew up in South Africa was not easy, but rewarding nevertheless. The Kinkead family was highly successful and had other gallant connections in the early days of aviation. But Kinkead seems to have been an intensely personal man who left little in the way of letters or even notes. Although it is difficult to trace Kinkead’s daily life at the Western Front, Julian Lewis has used the technique of quoting Squadron records and other people’s memoirs to give an account of what it would have been like then. It is by telling the story of this extraordinary pilot in the context of the campaigns that the book gains its depth.
The book also traces Kinkead’s career. it tells of how he flew with No.2 Wing, Royal Naval Air Service in the Balkans, where he learnt the air warfare trade, including crop-burning which had both tactical and strategic effect. These early exploits stood him well. After a brief spell with what was then the Royal Naval Air Station Cranwell, he was posted to No.1 Naval Squadron flying Sopwith Triplanes with the fabled ‘Dallas Circus’, led by the distinguished Australian pilot Roderic Dallas, on the Western Front. These airmen were the unsung heroes of the Western Front who lived and died in the everyday battles, but who were not the aces of history books.
After the Sopwith Triplane, Kinkead moved onto the Camel, the mount of aces. This deadly fighter was perhaps the best Allied fighter of the First World War and certainly the most famous, thanks to the fictional Biggles, who could have been modelled on Kinkead.
Following the formation of the Royal Air Force on 1 April 1918, Kinkead was posted to RAF Leuchars near St Andrews; of course, like so many after him, Kinkead could not resist the urge to fly under the railway bridge – an iconic landmark – but unlike many he does not seem to have been put on a charge for the deed.
When the war ended, Kinkead, like so many aviators, looked for further excitement. Winston Churchill gave him that opportunity and he joined what has become known as Churchill’s Army, fighting the Bolsheviks in Russia’s civil war, in South Russia. He trained B Flight of No.47 Squadron and departed with them to join the expeditionary force commanded by another great name from those first days of air warfare, the Canadian ace Raymond Collishaw.
The campaign was neither the best planned nor the best executed. It failed to keep the Red Army at bay and one by one the cities held by the White Russians (the anti-Communist counter-revolutionaries) in Tartarstan and the Crimea fell to the Reds. After a difficult extraction, the force returned to the UK. Kinkead received various tsarist decorations to add to his British gallantry medals. One decoration was for disrupting a Red Army cavalry charge by flying low against the mounted men – a skill which would be very useful later.
Kinkead had proved himself in expeditionary warfare and was again sent east. This time it was to Mesopotamia, which was under a League of Nations mandate. This is where the beginnings of aerial policing and the use of low-flying aeroplanes against insurgency were put into play, building on lessons learned in Russia only a few months before. Here, as in Russia, First World War vintage aeroplanes, like the DH9A of No.30 Squadron, were successfully employed.
After the end of these hostilities, Kinkead was posted to Africa to support civil aviation routes being developed to South Africa. The legendary flyer spent many months in Sudan on a ground tour – but that would not last long. It seems a good man, a good flyer, could not be kept down.
Into the story now comes another legend of aviation, R.J. Mitchell. It was Mitchell and the Supermarine S4, the forebear of the Spitfire, which encouraged Kinkead to join the elite RAF High Speed Flight formed to contest the Schneider Trophy (a seaplane race) and retain it permanently in the United Kingdom.
This was the era of the high-speed seaplane. World records were being broken by floatplanes and the Schneider Trophy courses were at places like Venice, Nice and Calshot. Kinkead was not just a Supermarine pilot; he flew the Gloster IV, designed by Henry Folland, another British great aviation pioneer.
It was during a world record attempt that Samuel Kinkead lost his life. Contemporary files say he might have exceeded 300mph on the fatal run at Calshot and that this may have overstressed his aeroplane. He was under pressure, but he had been before; the weather was dull and overcast, but he had flown in such conditions before. What actually went wrong will never be known.
So passed a great British aviator, a man with a sense of duty and dauntlessness; a person without many close friends yet with many followers. A great testimony to his life was the success of the memorial fund set up in his name, which raised more than any previous aviation fund. Julian Lewis’s book brings Kinkead alive and reveals facts about early aviation that have for too long been kept in dusty archives.