Friday, 6 November 2015

Behind the name on the Croquet Cup

Sir (Ernest) Leslie Gossage in October 1941
© National Portrait Gallery, London   
Artist: Bassano Ltd

Air Marshal Sir Ernest Leslie Gossage KCB, CVO, DSO, MC, was one of the most highly decorated RAF officers to have fought in the Great War. He was not a Budleigh resident, but his family name is so well known in the town that his wartime service deserves a mention.

The Gossage family originated from Widnes in Cheshire, where William Gossage (1799-1877) opened his soap factory in 1850. His son Frederick Herbert (1833-1907) carried on the business successfully, living at a house named Winwood in Much Woolton,  an affluent suburb of Liverpool.

The name of Winwood recurs several times in the Gossage family records. It was borne by two of his sons, including William Winwood Gossage (1862-1934). Mayor of Widnes in 1901-02,  he was described as a soap manufacturer, as was his younger brother Ernest Frederick Gossage (1863-1933).

Ernest Frederick Gossage moved to Budleigh Salterton at some stage, living at a house called Homeland in 1919 according to a local town directory. However he either moved to another house or, more likely, renamed it in accordance with the family tradition. It was at Winwood, on Cricketfield Lane, that he died on 25 February 1933.

Their son Ernest Leslie Gossage (1891-1949) was born at Toxteth Park, Liverpool, on 3 February 1891.  He was educated at Rugby School and Trinity College, Cambridge.

On 19 July, 1912,  he was appointed as Second Lieutenant of the Royal Field Artillery, having joined the RFA Reserve while still at University.  On 12 May, 1915, he was listed as a Flying Officer with the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), the air arm of the British Army. The term was originally used in RFC as a flying appointment for junior officers, not a rank.

At the start of the war, the role of the RFC consisted of artillery co-operation and photographic reconnaissance.  Commanded by Brigadier-General Sir David Henderson, it consisted of five squadrons – one observation balloon squadron (RFC No 1 Squadron) and four aeroplane squadrons. These were first used for aerial spotting on 13 September 1914, but only became efficient when they perfected the use of wireless communication at Aubers Ridge on 9 May 1915. Aerial photography was attempted during 1914, but again only became effective the next year. By 1918, photographic images could be taken from 15,000 feet, and interpreted by over 3,000 personnel.

Gossage was assigned to No. 6 Squadron as a pilot. Formed at Farnborough on 31 January 1914, the squadron had arrived in France in August of that year.

By 5 September 1915 Gossage had reached the rank of Captain and had become a Flight Commander in No. 6 Squadron.

Following a promotion to Major in 1916, he was given command of No. 56 Squadron, described as “one of the most famous fighter squadrons of the Royal Flying Corps and early RAF.”

Later in the same year he took command of No. 8 Squadron. Operating from airfields near Saint-Omer, the squadron was initially used for bombing and long-range reconnaissance, carrying out flights of up to 100 miles (160 km) behind the front lines. It was equipped with a mixture of aircraft, including the Royal Aircraft Factory BE8 and the Bristol Scout, while it also evaluated the prototype Royal Aircraft Factory BE9, pictured above, a modified BE2 that carried the observer/gunner in a nacelle ahead of the aircraft's propeller.

The opinion of those testing the BE9 was generally negative, with Major Hugh Dowding, at the time commander of 16 Squadron, stating that it was " extremely dangerous machine from the passenger's point of view”,  while Hugh, later Viscount, Trenchard, head of the RFC in France said that "this type of machine cannot be recommended.” It was sent back to the United Kingdom early in 1916.

In February 1916 No. 8 Squadron moved to Bellevue and specialised in the Corps Reconnaissance role, carrying out contact patrols and artillery spotting in close co-operation with the army. The squadron flew in support of the Battle of the Somme in the summer of 1916 and the Battle of Arras in April–May 1917. 

In 1916, Gossage was awarded the Military Cross for his service with the RFC. The citation, dated 30 March, referred to his  “consistent good and zealous work under bad weather conditions, both on patrol and when co-operating with the artillery in operations resulting in the capture of the enemy's position.” 

The following year, he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and took command of the Royal Flying Corps' 1st Wing.  When the Royal Air Force was founded on 1 April 1918 Gossage was appointed as a Staff officer in the Directorate of Operations and Intelligence.

After the War he became Officer Commanding the School of Army Co-operation before moving on to be Deputy Director of Staff Duties at the Air Ministry in 1928.  He was appointed Air Attaché in Berlin in 1930, Senior Air Staff Officer at Headquarters Air Defence of Great Britain and Senior Air Staff Officer at Headquarters RAF Iraq Command in 1934. He went on to be Air Officer Commanding British Forces Aden in 1935 and Air Officer Commanding No. 11 Group in 1936.

Air Marshal Gossage, fourth from left, as Air Member for Personnel, in session with the Air Council during World War II

He served in World War II as Inspector-General of the RAF, as Air Member for Personnel and then as Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief at RAF Balloon Command.

 Following his retirement from regular service with the Royal Air Force, Gossage agreed to be re-employed to assume the role of Commandant Air Cadets after the retirement of Air Commodore John Adrian Chamier. He served in this role until he stepped down in 1946.  He died three years later in Sussex, aged 58.

Although the family background was commercial rather than military, there were links to the armed forces.  William Winwood Gossage is recorded as the Honorary Colonel of the 3rd West Lancashire Brigade of the Royal Field Artillery.

A record of Cambridge University alumni edited by John Venn notes that his brother Ernest Frederick Gossage was described as ‘Lieut.Col.’ in his Times obituary of 27 February 1833 [sic] and in Who’s Who.  The Budleigh Salterton Members Challenge Cup Gossage Cup, which he presented to Budleigh Salterton Croquet Club in 1925, eight years before his death, also attributes this rank to him.   Venn observes that he was not recorded as such in Army Lists. However researcher Richard Daglish has been investigating the Gossage family as part of his study of a local Territorial artillery unit in which several family members served with distinction. Thanks are due to him for pointing out that Ernest Frederick Gossage appears in the London Gazette twice with that rank, one of them as Major, Hon. Lt.Col. (Email 30 October 2018.)

Records of the Budleigh Salterton Croquet Club in the 1970 issue control sheet make mention of a Major Gossage in 1947 with reference to the Gossage Cup. This is likely to have been Major Terence Leslie Gossage MBE (1918-1999), son of the Air Marshal and a Major in the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry.

‘The Great War at Fairlynch’ 2015 exhibition at Budleigh Salterton’s very special museum! Reviews included: “Wonderful display on WW1, informative, bright and relevant. Well done!! 

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