Lionel Morris and the Red Baron

Air War on the Somme

By Jill Bush

Pen & Sword, 2019

The infamous ‘Red Baron’ needs little introduction, yet few will have heard of Lionel Morris. His unfortunate claim to fame is that he was von Richthofen’s first ‘kill’, on 17 September 1916 (Morris’s observer, Tom Rees was technically von Richthofen’s first victim, as he was killed before the plane was brought down).

I first came across Lionel Morris when researching my book on Carshalton’s war dead, for he lived in the village for a short period in his short life; he is not commemorated on the war memorial, and I was able only to piece together a short paragraph about him. I am therefore delighted to see this book from Jill Bush, whose Grandfather was Morris’s cousin. Through some tenacious sleuthing (not least the discovery of Morris’s diary at the RAF Museum), she has managed to piece together the details of his life and ultimately his death.

However this is not just a book about an individual, for Bush uses Lionel’s story as a backdrop to explore many themes relating to the development of the Royal Flying Corps. We learn about the journey from enlistment and training, the role of the pilots in the defence of London from German air raids, the life of these early aviators – far from glamourous, with tedious days spent on the ground and in the air punctuated with short bursts of action – and the tactics they used.

Morris’s diary, whilst not ground-breaking, provides an insight into the day to day routine of a pilot. What struck me from his account was just how unreliable some of these early machines were, and the faith (and guts) these men had in taking them up again and again.

Morris was in the RFC for just ten months, but claimed two shared victories and was witness to the opening of the Somme campaign from his Vickers FB9 over Gommecourt. By von Richthofen’s own admission Morris gave him a run for his money, and although I am not generally a fan of counterfactuals, I found myself wondering ‘what if…’ – what if Morris had just a bit more experience or a better plane? The legend of the Red Baron could have turned out very differently.

In the history of the RFC relatively few pilots are well-known, with those awarded the VC and the aces usually in the limelight. Previously Lionel may have been a footnote in history, but now his story has been brought to life in its own right. This is a homage to a fallen relative but is also much more than that; thoroughly researched and eloquently written it is well worth a read.

Buy this book from Amazon here:
Lionel Morris and the Red Baron: Air War on the Somme