By Peter Wright
The year 1917 was a sombre one for Gamlingay. On average throughout 1916 and 1917, a Gamlingay man was killed at the front every 19 days. However, for three of Gamlingay’s young men this grim time would have been tinged with excitement. They were all to work at the very cutting edge of technology by becoming Royal Flying Corps (RFC) pilots.
Aviation was in it’s infancy at the start of WW1, and our men flew in unheated open cockpits with no oxygen at altitude, and no parachutes. They were not always involved in aerial dogfights, but carried out less glamorous training work, reconnaissance, bombing, and artillery observation, which often meant being shot at from the ground. Pilots had to be well educated, spirited individuals, and rural Gamlingay provided no less than three of these remarkable men. This article is based on the service records of Gamlingay’s Captain Knibbs, Lieutenant Hall, and Captain Orlebar, supplemented by information from the Hall and Knibbs families, to whom I am grateful.
Billy Knibbs was the youngest of Issac and Ada Knibbs six children and was born in Gamlingay in 1898. Billy was educated in Gamlingay, and later at The Leys School, Cambridge. He worked as a clerk before beginning pilot training with the RFC on March 14, 1917. His commission as 2nd Lieutenant was confirmed on January 23, 1918, and he was posted as temporary Captain a mere seven months later. During this time he flew with 88 and 16 Squadrons on the western front, flying 7 different types of aircraft.
88 and 16 Squadrons were involved in the development of wireless ground to aircraft communication – a very new technology at the time. After the armistice in November 1918 he transferred to 12 Squadron, which formed part of the allied army occupying Germany. By the time he left the RAF (as the RFC had become) on Christmas day 1919, he was able to speak German.
He then traveled to the USA, where he worked as a pilot for a film company, before returning to the UK where he rejoined the RAF, serving once again between April 1921 and November 1922.
Subsequently Billy enjoyed a colourful lifestyle as a businessman and entrepreneur, eventually dividing his time between Canada and London, where he died in 1984.
Our second Great War pilot was Henry Howard Hall, known locally as John Hall. Born at Manor Farm, Gamlingay in January 1899, John had two brothers and two sisters. He was educated in the village and later at the East Anglian School, Bury St Edmunds. He was a Lance Corporal in the London Rifle Brigade in April 1917, but on July 4 1917, began training to be an RFC pilot at Exeter College, Oxford. There followed a number of postings at various training establishments, and on February 18 1918, his commission as 2nd Lieutenant RFC was confirmed.
Over 14,000 British pilots were killed in WW1, and more than half of these were killed while learning to fly. Consequently, halfway through the war there was a concerted effort by the RFC to improve pilot training, and John was to play his part as a flying instructor, at only 19 years of age. He was instructing a student in an RE8 at Stamford on May 25 1918 when the engine failed, and the aircraft side slipped into the ground, turning the machine over. John broke an ankle. He was not declared fit for flying duties until August 20 1918.
John’s family have a number of interesting anecdotes about his flying experiences. John’s mother lived at Manor Farm, opposite what is now the grounds of the Village College. This was an open field during WW1, and John would land here with a pupil to enjoy a bacon and egg breakfast with his mother at the farm, before taking off again to resume the training session. This happened a number of times before his CO found out and the inevitable dressing down prevented further landings. After the war, John became a surveyor, moving to Hull, before returning to Gamlingay, where he lived at 61, Mill Street. He died in 1953, and is buried in Gamlingay cemetery.
The third local WW1 pilot was Augustus Henry Orlebar, who was born in 1896. When he was around six years old, he moved into Tetworth Hall with his parents and three younger sisters. This began a close association between the Orlebar family and the village of Gamlingay that was to last over 50 years.
Gus was educated at Rugby School, and in 1915 took a commission as Lieutenant in the 1/5 Bedfordshire Territorial regiment. Later that year he took part in the Gallipoli campaign, where he was wounded by a sniper. It was probably while recovering from this wound Gus decided to apply to the RFC to train as a pilot. His application was accepted, and he qualified as a flying officer in September 1916.
He flew with 19 Squadron on the western front until mid 1917, and during this time gained his first two victories, bringing down two German Albatros D111 aircraft on May 23, and June 5 1917. He then spent several months based in Essex with 44 Squadron, protecting London from Zeppelin and Gotha bombing, before returning to the western front as Captain with 73 Squadron in December 1917.
On March 13 1918 while flying a Sopwith Camel, Gus Orlebar was credited with bringing down two more German planes, one of which was a shared victory when he and another aircraft bought down Lothar von Richthofen, brother of the notorious fighter ace, the Red Baron. Richthofen was wounded, but survived the encounter.
On March 23 1918 he shot down two more enemy aircraft, but the next day took a bullet in the leg while in a dogfight.
After a period in hospital, he then joined 43 Squadron, and shot down his final enemy aircraft on September 29, 1918.
Gus Orlebar retained his contacts with Gamlingay after the Great War, and commanded the guard of honour provided by village ex-servicemen at the ceremony to mark the unveiling of Gamlingay’s war memorial in December 1920.
After the war he had a successful career in the RAF, commanding the RAF’s Schneider Trophy team, and finishing his career as Acting Air Vice Marshal. He died in 1943 and is commemorated on the WW2 section of the war memorial in Gamlingay church.
Over 200 men from Gamlingay took part in the Great War, and this is the brief story of just three individuals traced by the History Society.