How football injury saved Norwich schoolboy who was one of the greatest fighters of the First World War
PUBLISHED: 15:48 01 October 2017
Fearless, ruthless and uncommonly lucky, Norwich schoolboy Philip Fullard was one of the greatest fighter aces of the First World War. A century on, Steve Snelling examines his extraordinary career.
The bitter fighting around Passchendaele showed no sign of letting up as Philip Fullard made his way back to his fighter squadron after a month’s enforced rest.
At 20 and just two years out of school, he was already a combat veteran whose lethal record of success belied his boyish features.
In a whirlwind five months tour on the Western Front, the prize-winning Norfolk scholar who reputedly turned out for a war-weakened Norwich City second string had becoming one of the rising stars of the Royal Flying Corps with 28 victories to his name and a Military Cross and Bar to add to his academic and sporting achievements.
Since joining No 1 Squadron at Bailleul in May 1917 as an already accomplished pilot with a penchant for performing stunts his career trajectory had been upward all the way until one day in September and an act of folly that very nearly proved fatal.
Frustrated by a fruitless chase above the war-torn battlefield in his Nieuport Scout, he decided to make up for the lack of adrenalin-charged excitement with a little test of his own.
“I thought that for an experiment I would see what would happen if a Nieuport was put out of control with the engine full on,” he later wrote, “so, letting go the controls, I waited.
“The machine fell 12,000 feet in a diving spin at great speed, when suddenly I felt an intense pain in my head and found I could see nothing at all.
“I thought I had been shot, and, managing to make the machine fly level at a slow speed, I waited, and after what seemed a long time, I began to see very indistinctly with one eye the blurred outline of white objects.
“I picked out the white cross on the aerodrome and landed safely, still in great pain in the eyeballs and quite blind in one eye…”
It was this self-inflicted near-disaster which accounted for his unscheduled leave of absence and for the presence for the first time among his flying kit of a pair of goggles.
Until that spectacular brush with catastrophe, he had preferred to fly his wind-buffeted, open cockpit fighter without any protection for his eyes and with nothing to hinder his sight of the enemy.
Though not of his choosing, the change to his flying routine made no difference to his run of success in the warring skies above the embattled troops slogging their way across the Flanders bog.
During the four weeks following his return at the end of September he was as consistent and courageous as ever, equalling his best monthly return of his short combat career with five enemy aircraft destroyed, six shot down ‘out of control’ and an observation balloon ‘deflated’.
It was a performance which confirmed his status as one of the leading ‘aces’ of the British air services and would help make him the highest-scoring Englishman to survive the First World War.
Such was his prowess that he briefly gained celebrity status when a reluctant high command bowed to media pressure and identified him, together with the legendary James McCudden, as one of the nation’s ‘Air Stars’.
The Eastern Daily Press followed up with its own tribute to a local hero whose “great exploits” had earned him national and international recognition.
Detailing his accomplishments as a second generation boarder at the Norwich School, then known as the Norwich Grammar School, the newspaper trumpeted his triumphs since going overseas as a teenager.
“His best achievement on any one day was to bring down four German aeroplanes,” it stated. “Another day he and a fellow airman accounted for seven in a flight before breakfast, three of them falling to Fullard’s share.”
Not surprisingly, the report made much of his youth, describing him as a “fair and fresh complexioned, curly haired, strong featured man only just come of age” who was “gifted with great rapidity of mind”.
Just the quality, or so the article’s author opined, to “fit him for success in the air”.
That much was certainly true, but there were other character traits which went unmentioned that also contributed to Philip Fullard’s remarkable record as a fighter pilot: fearlessness, ruthlessness and self-confidence bordering on arrogance which, when allied to his supreme mastery of his flying machine, made him the most formidable of adversaries no matter what his age.
Interviewed years later when he was in his 80s, he scoffed at the romanticised image of the first war in the air as a courtly joust between devil-may-care aviators portrayed as latter-day knights.
“I don’t think it existed,” he declared. “You couldn’t have operated like that…”
His own approach to aerial combat was decidedly unsentimental. “I just felt I wanted to survive,” he said, “and my best way of doing that was to kill the other fellow.”
By way of example he recalled an early morning clash that took place some 2,000 feet above the shell-churned wilderness in October 1917 at the height of the Passchendaele offensive.
Having manoeuvred close beneath the tail of an enemy two-seater, he proceeded to shoot it up “properly”, as he put it. With the rear gunner seemingly silenced and the aircraft at his mercy, he then decided to change the ‘drum’ on his machine-gun which entailed him having to hold the joystick with his knees while he fumbled to replenish his ammunition.
Suddenly, “the observer in the machine I thought I had dealt with… came to life again and fairly shot me up properly”. The burst of fire ripped through his flying coat, punctured his oil tank, ignited a supply of Verey lights and, as he turned to look, tore off his goggles.
His reaction was anything but chivalrous. “I had no qualms about going down again and shooting him to pieces,” he said. “I mean I wasn’t going to be insulted in that way… I shot him down and he was seen to fall in flames quite close to the lines.”
The combat over Moorslede which resulted in his 37th aerial victory also illustrated another - arguably the most valuable if intangible of all - of his many virtues as a fighter pilot: his extraordinary good fortune.
Though he never carried a “good luck token” on any of his sorties, it was his enviable claim to fame within the squadron that he never lost anybody “who was flying with me in any formation, whether it was six, 12 or two [aircraft]”.
“As to my own machines,” he recalled, “I changed… two or three times because they were shot up but I was never shot down. Including the eye thing, I had to come down five times for one reason or another… twice just behind the lines. Once, upside down and once, in a shell-hole. And I don’t think I ruined machines except [on] one or two of these occasions.”
However, his greatest stroke of luck came not in the air but on the ground. On November 17, 1917 he suffered a compound fracture of his right leg while playing football for his squadron against a team from an army battalion resting nearby.
The 20-year-old patrol leader, who had escaped serious injury in countless combats during 250 hours of flying over the battle zone, was carried off to hospital never to return to front-line action.
“This happened immediately before the Cambrai offensive,” he later wrote, “so that I was very hurriedly evacuated to England to make room for the expected casualties.
“Perhaps owing to this hasty move, my leg refused to set properly and, after seven attempts had been made, it was eventually plated more than a month after the fracture.”
The injury denied him the opportunity to add to his score of 42 victories, all of them achieved with No 1 Squadron within the space of a little under five months, but in all probability saved his life.
Whereas many another great ace fell victim to the unrelenting strain of combat in the final year of the war, Philip Fullard recovered, albeit slowly, to take on the less glamorous but less hazardous role of an area flying examining officer.
His venturesome war ended in Yorkshire as a 21-year-old major with a Distinguished Service Order, a Military Cross and Bar and just one big regret - that he had not been awarded the Victoria Cross for which he had been cited in the autumn of 1917 when his flying career was at its zenith.
Though other awards came his way during a distinguished career spanning more than three decades the absence of the VC continued to rankle long after the war was over.
Speaking about it in the late 1970s, Norfolk’s most successful fighter ace ever remembered being shown a copy of the rejected recommendation after it had been returned to the squadron adjutant.
Scrawled across it in crayon was the brigade commander’s comment: “Make him get some more.”