By Julian Lewis
30 Squadron Journal – 2001
On Thursday, 12 March 1998, more than 300 people converged on All Saints' Church in the parish of Fawley, near Southampton Water. They assembled to commemorate the life and achievements of a Royal Air Force officer who died, aged 31, before many of them had been born.
Flt Lt Samuel Kinkead had been killed exactly 70 years earlier, flying a forerunner of the Spitfire – a Supermarine-Napier S.5 seaplane – in an attempt to become the first man to travel at more than five miles a minute.
Having served with No 1 Sqn RNAS (which became 201 Sqn RAF, in 1918), 47 Sqn, 24 Sqn and 30 Sqn before joining the High Speed Flight, 'Kink' Kinkead now lies buried in Fawley churchyard. There began the chain of events which led to that unusual ceremony two years ago.
It was as the newly-chosen Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for the new constituency of New Forest East, which includes Fawley village and the former seaplane base at Calshot, that I came unexpectedly upon a plot of RAF graves in the churchyard in 1996. Most of them dated from the Battle of Britain, but the older ones went back to the inter-war years. Most prominent of those was the memorial for Kink which listed the DSO, DSC and DFC he had been awarded during his short life. Also mentioned were the circumstances of his death and the fact that the memorial had been erected as a tribute by his brother officers.
Clearly there was a remarkable story here, and it did not take long to start piecing it together. This is what emerged.
Though Kink was born in South Africa in 1897, his Irish father and Scottish mother had emigrated there only a few years earlier. Volunteering whilst a teenager, Kink joined the RNAS in September 1915 and learnt to fly at Eastbourne by the end of that year. He served in the Dardanelles until November 1916 when, severely stricken by malaria, he was invalided home.
Until then, he had achieved three victories but in 1917, there were dramatic developments. His elder brother, Thompson Kinkead, was killed in a crash at Shoreham whilst training as a Royal Flying Corps pilot. There is a poignant list of all his possessions, for which Kink had to sign after the accident, in Thompson Kinkead's file at the Public Record Office.
In September 1917 Kink joined No 1 Sqn, RNAS, based at Dover and Dunkirk, remaining with it until the end of the war. The citations for his gallantry awards speak for themselves. There were four of them by this stage:
DSC – 'On 24 October, 1917, he brought down an enemy machine, and immediately afterwards encountered and drove off a group of seven hostile aeroplanes. On 4 December, 1917, he brought down an enemy two-seater machine completely out of control. By his skill and determination in attacking enemy machines he has always shown a fine example to other pilots.'
Bar to DSC – 'On 22 March, 1918, he attacked and drove down out of control an Albatross scout which was attacking a French machine. He has brought down many other enemy machines. He is an exceptionally good pilot, and a clever and plucky fighter, and has performed very fine work, both on offensive patrols and on low flying missions.'
DFC – 'A skilful and gallant leader, who has attacked enemy formations superior in numbers with marked success. In a recent engagement his patrol flew to the assistance of some of our machines which were greatly outnumbered by the enemy, and succeeded in accounting for three enemy machines and scattered the remainder.'
Bar to DFC – 'On a recent date this officer engaged a large party of troops in a wood. The engagement lasted for an hour, but so persistent was his attack that the enemy broke and dispersed. During this attack he was harassed by six hostile scouts. Later on he shot down an enemy two-seater in our lines. A bold and daring airman.'
By the time of the Armistice he had shot down at least 30 enemy aircraft, latterly piloting the tricky but lethal Sopwith Camel. Not content with this, however, he volunteered immediately for service in South Russia, where he led B Flight of 47 Sqn under the overall command of the Canadian ace Ray Collishaw.
Desperate battles were being fought by White Russian forces against the Bolsheviks. Britain's involvement was politically controversial and there was pressure for the RAF detachment to be withdrawn. Officially it was disbanded but, almost without exception, the officers and men of Kinkead's Flight volunteered to continue their campaign under cover of what was supposed to be a training mission.
Kink's 100-strong Flight ranged across Southern Russia on a specially adapted train from which the Camels could quickly be disembarked and made ready for action. When the White Russian offensive collapsed in 1920 he and his men escaped by the skin of their teeth as a remarkable book, Last Train over Rostov Bridge, published in the early 1960s, relates.
His immediate DSO in the field was won in October 1919 when he and another Camel pilot dived to within 10 feet of the ground and drove 4,000 charging Bolshevik cavalrymen from the field of battle, inflicting tremendous casualties. This saved the city of Tsaritsyn (later Stalingrad) from being overwhelmed.
The early and mid-1920s saw him as an instructor at Cranwell and then on active service with 30 Sqn in Iraq where, on one notable occasion, he and another pilot landed to rescue the crew of a downed RAF plane – taking off with the bullets of hostile tribesmen whistling around their ears. After organising part of the pioneering flight from Cairo to the Cape and back in 1926, he was posted to the High Speed Flight at Felixstowe.
According to the confidential reports on his Service Record and the testimony of those who knew him, Kinkead was exceptionally modest and unassuming. Only when he flew as a member of the winning Schneider Trophy Team at Venice in September 1927 did he become a focus of public attention. At that event he had a close brush with disaster when a serious defect developed with his Gloster IV biplane on the sixth lap. Only his decision to abandon the race at that point narrowly averted a crash. The other two members of the team triumphed in S.5 monoplanes, and it was in the third of these – N221 – that Kink would attempt to break the 300 mph barrier at Calshot six months later.
Contemporary press reports describe the brilliant flying display he gave on Sunday, 11 March 1928, when flying the S.5 for the first time. The plane was said to have flashed across the Solent at such tremendous speed that none of the photographers could capture the moment.
The following day was bitterly cold. A snowstorm ruled flying out of the question until late afternoon when Kink made a snap decision to attempt to break the record. Whether he felt under pressure from the fact that the Debate on the Air Estimates was under way at Westminster, or from the fact that a large crowd had assembled to witness the attempt, will never be known. N221 was believed to have been travelling at some 330 mph when, in a split second, it turned through 90 degrees and plunged vertically into the Solent.
The cause of the crash was never determined: it was ironic that a man who had survived so many deadly combats should have died when everyone was willing him to succeed.
After one or two unsuccessful efforts, Kink's closest surviving relatives – two nephews – were found, via South Africa, to be living in the south of England in 1998. They and their families were present proudly to witness the church service and an RAF Tornado flypast over Kink's grave on the 70th anniversary of his death.
Today, the hangar from which he flew is a youth activities centre at Calshot and its main conference room – now renamed the Kinkead Room – contains a permanent exhibition consisting of his portrait, his citations, and numerous photographs of his adventures. People who visit Calshot draw inspiration from his story – and that is the best memorial of all.
[For later developments, click here and here]
[For RACING ACE, Julian's biography of 'Kink' Kinkead, click here and here.]