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Lionel Morris and the Red Baron – Jill Bush

Review by Adrian Roberts.

There have been several books published recently by non-specialist authors who have been inspired by a distant relative who was killed flying during the Great War. Sadly, I have not been able to be complimentary about all of them. This book is of a much higher quality. It is well written and well edited; it has a decent index and bibliography, and is well researched with copious references in the endnotes. A foreword by Trevor Henshaw, author of The Sky Their Battlefield II, is a good sign. 

Lionel Morris was the first victim of the then-unknown Manfred von Richthofen. He was 19 and an only child. He and his observer, 21-year-old Tom Rees, who was also killed, were shot down on 17 September 1916, in FE.2b 7018 of No. 11 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps (RFC). Incidentally the only glaring error in the book – not the author’s fault – is the cover art which depicts von Richthofen’s D491/16 as a v-strutted Albatros D.V, when it was a D.II. 

The problem is that, like thousands of other young men who died, there is very little information about Lionel Morris. Only two photographs of him exist. When Jill Bush started researching her first cousin, twice removed, she only had family rumours to go on, but then she found that, for a few months, he had kept a diary addressed to his mother. It is now in the RAF Museum’s collection. The author managed to persuade the museum to allow her to use extracts. Even the complete diary would not be enough to make a book but, with letters written by his CO and comrades after his death, it is possible to deduce he was a quiet but dependable young man, reliable but probably not a born leader. That is about all we know – except that in von Richthofen’s own account of the fatal fight he pays him the compliment of believing he was fighting an experienced air fighter.

What Jill Bush has done is to give a general account of the history of any numbers of boys at Whitgift School, Croydon, joining the school’s Officer’s Training Corps, enlisting soon after they were 18, and then getting seconded to the RFC and training as a pilot. She includes a full discussion of the effort to train enough pilots, such as Trenchard’s plea to Brancker for greater numbers, and the inevitable shortcomings of such a rushed programme, and her discussion of the numbers of casualties in training is more balanced than some. Then she includes an account of the aviation component of the Battle of the Somme, and 11 Squadron in particular, which is the period covered by Morris’s diary. This is done competently with just a few over-simplifications. 

The book has plenty of interest for readers of all levels of knowledge. Aviation experts and enthusiasts may wonder if it only covers well-trodden ground, but they would have to be exceptionally well read indeed to find nothing new. A beginner to the subject would certainly gain a good overview of the RFC in the first half of the war. The only problem is that, of course, the history stops on 17 September 1916, so they would not know that, for instance, the quality of pilot training improved considerably in 1917. It is possibly fortuitous that Morris was shot down by von Richthofen rather than an unknown pilot, as it enables the publisher to create the requisite marketing angle by inserting ‘the Red Baron’ into the title. 

Jill Bush has done all that she possibly could to commemorate two more young men who are now more than just names in a casualty list, and the book deserves to be read. 

ISBN 978-1-52674-2-223

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