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Tragedy at Croydon’s Tank Day 1918

On a previous post giving some glimpses of Croydon in 1918 through Herbert Montgomery Martin’s photographs, I mentioned that there was a tragic crash during the Tank Day. On 16 March people were invited to subscribe to the Victory Loan – basically contributions to the war effort – and the presence of a tank, a new war machine, encouraged these investments. The day was overshadowed by the death of a young pilot at Croydon.

The book Croydon in the Great War records: 

Croydon Tank Day, 1918

It is a sad thing to recall that the day was overshadowed by the the tragic death of a young airman, whose evolutions over the Town Hall had much interested spectators. His engine failed and he crashed to the ground, being killed instantly. (43)

The pilot was Captain Christopher Francis Aden Ley, in the South Nottinghamshire Hussars and then the 40 Training Squadron of the R.F.C. In fact, the copies of the official report made 2 days after the crash we have in HCAT’s archives categorically state that ‘this officer was not assisting in any way in the display to assist the war savings committee.’ All crashes had an inquiry and the Court found that the crash was caused by an ‘error of judgement. Ley’s casualty card states that ‘when 1000 feet up, pilot dived, misjudged distance and hit a house.’ However, it does seem odd that the Ley dived then crashed if he was not involved in the display.

Ley was a pupil in the Training Squadron but was flying the Sopwith Camel alone. He was only 24 years old at his death but already seen action and been severely injured. He had injured his thigh in a crash while in the 32 Squadron in France on 3 June 1917 and had been transferred to the Park Street Hospital in England on 10 June 1917. His first injury came only 5 weeks after graduating from the RFC on 1 May 1917. 

Despite the improvements to pilot training detailed in the previous post, tragic accidents still happened though with less frequency than before Smith-Barry’s training. The next blog will use Martin Montgomery’s photographs to picture some of those in the ‘roll of honour’ who died at or near Croydon Aerodrome in the First World War.

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