b. 15/10/1891 Darjeeling, India. d. 17/06/1915 Buc, France.
Reginald Alexander John “Rex” Warneford (1891-1915), the only boy among four girls, was born in Darjeeling, India on 15th October 1891. His father, R.H.W. Warneford, was an engineer working on the Cooch Behar railway, a respected man who was popular with the local population, but Rex was brought back to England as a young child when his parents separated. He was placed in the care of his grandfather, the Reverend Thomas Warneford, who sent him to King Edward VI School in Stratford upon Avon, where the headmaster was a personal friend. Rex thrived whilst in Stratford but sadly it didn’t last, as his grandfather’s health began to fail and he was forced to leave his work for the Church. They had to move to Ealing, London, and Rex became increasingly concerned for his grandfather.
On 11th January 1905, Rex entered service with the P&O Steam Navigation Company’s subsidiary, the British India Steam Navigation Company. He was to begin an apprenticeship on the liner Somahi, a relatively new vessel. His main duties were to serve the first class passengers and they found him charming and helpful. Unfortunately, he was hiding personal sadness as his father had passed away, his mother’s behaviour had become erratic, and at the end of the year, his grandfather also died.
During his service in the Merchant Navy, which was to last nearly 8 years, Rex was involved in a number of wild escapades interrupted by periods of despair. While suffering from appendicitis in Calcutta Hospital, he set light to a blanket while trying to hide a forbidden cigarette. He also went missing for evening before official discharge, wearing a theatrical nurse’s uniform and wig. Sadly, the situation in Europe was deteriorating rapidly, and Rex left his final ship, the Mina Brea at Talcahuano, and had returned to England in another vessel by the middle of December 1914. He disembarked at Liverpool and celebrated Christmas in Ealing.
Rex was now determined to serve his country. His experience in the Merchant Navy seemed to make the sea the most appropriate choice, but he was to be disappointed. He attempted to enter the submarine service via the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth, but having failed he was left with no alternative but to volunteer for the Army. He went to the London offices of the Sportsman’s Battalions, and was accepted into the 2nd Battalion and sent to Grey Towers for training.
Warneford didn’t particularly like the posting calling the Battalion a “sort of Boy Scouts Jamboree for old gentlemen.” He then applied for a transfer to the Royal Naval Air Service in the belief that it would provide the excitement he wanted alongside proximity to the sea. The transfer was granted, and he became a probationary pilot in the Navy on 10th February 1915, despite having no knowledge of flying. He was sent to Hendon for training and gained his Royal Aero Club Certificate only 15 days later, which would indicate a natural flair for flying.
He was posted to Upavon, and then No 2 Squadron RNAS at Eastchurch, where his behaviour often found him irritating his superiors. On one occasion, he strode into the Officers’ Mess, pulled out his revolver, twirled it around in his hand cowboy fashion and said “Hi suckers! What about this?”, before firing six shots into the roof. This and other incidents saw Rex being banished with a recommendation he be dismissed from the service. However, he had at least one sympathizer in the Eastchurch Station Commander, E.L. Gerrard. He was impressed by Rex’s flying skills, and he was responsible for Rex being posted to No 1 Squadron RNAS at Dunkirk on 1st May 1915.
Rex made his first operational sortie in a Voisin, and almost ran out of fuel with his desperation to chase an enemy machine back to its base, often at tree top height, taking pot shots at it with a rifle. One of the main duties of No 1 Squadron at the time was to implement measures to prevent Zeppelins from reaching England. On 17th May, he was in a Nieuport two-seater, and with Spencer Grey in another, were engaged on anti-Zeppelin patrol along the coast of Belgium. Despite closing in on the LZ39, it narrowly escaped. Shortly afterwards, Warneford was given one of two new monoplanes, the Morane Type L, fitted with unsynchronized machine guns and racks for 20lb bombs.
On 7th June 1915 at Ghent, Belgium, Warneford, flying a Morane-Saulnier Type L, attacked the German airship LZ37. He chased the airship from the coast near Ostend and, despite its defensive machine-gun fire, succeeded in dropping his bombs on it, the last of which set the airship on fire. LZ37 sunsequently crashed in Sint-Amandsberg. The explosion overturned the Warneford’s aircraft and stopped its engine. Having no alternative, Warneford had to land behind enemy lines, but after 35 minutes spent on repairs, he managed to restart the engine and returned to base.
He arrived to a hero’s welcome, and this rapidly spread so quickly, that within just four days, it was announced that he was to be awarded the Victoria Cross. Through the days that followed, it was given celebrity status and went to Paris, where he was awarded the Legion d’Honneur. Shortly afterwards, he received a message that he needed to test a new machine at Buc that afternoon (17th June). He chose to offer a pleasure flight to a Lieutenant Commander, R.F. Lee-Dillon, who he had been reported rude to earlier that day. Lee-Dillon accepted reluctantly, and soon he and his wife and another Naval pilot were heading for Naval HQ with Rex in an RNAS Fiat car with a French military driver. Here the other pilot left, his place being taken by a civilian named Henry Beach Needham, a reporter for an American newspaper.
Arriving at Buc, the men got out and Warneford and Lee-Dillon climbed into a new Farman F27, and gave instructions that the passenger tap him on the shoulder three times when he had had enough. The flight was uneventful and they landed safely. It was agreed that Needham should be next to go up with Rex rather than Lee-Dillon’s wife. They took off without incident and rose to 300 feet, before Rex went into a steep dive to about 50 feet. When he straightened out, the aeroplane went into a spin and crashed into a wheat field, about three-quarters of a mile from the watchers.
A search of the field found Needham first, killed instantly by the impact. Rex was found a few minutes later, lying on his face and in a terrible state. Lee-Dillon checked for a heartbeat and discovered he was alive. He was rushed to the Trianon Palace Hotel, Versailles, but Rex died before a doctor could fully examine him. He had never regained consciousness and his injuries were extensive: fractured skull, both arms broken and fractures to the right hip and leg.
Rex’s body was returned to England, and after lying in the mortuary chapel of Brompton Cemetery overnight, he was buried with full military honours on Tuesday 22nd June. The funeral was attended by over 50,000 and his coffin was carried on a gun-carriage pulled by Blue Jackets with a firing party of 50 men. Later that year, his mother Alexandra received his VC from the Admiralty, and a year later a memorial stone was raised over his grave. It was subscribed for by the Daily Express, and was unveiled by Lord Derby on 11th July 1916. Warneford’s medals including the VC, Legion d’Honneur, 1914-15 Star, British War Medal 1914-20 and Victory Medal 1914-19 are held by the Fleet Air Arm Museum, Yeovilton, Somerset.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: FLEET AIR ARM MUSEUM, YEOVIL, SOMERSET.
BURIAL PLACE: BROMPTON CEMETERY, LONDON.
COMPARTMENT 6 EAST, 34′ X 22′
Graham Mottram – Image of the Warneford VC Medal Group and the Warneford VC Display at the Fleet Air Arm Museum.
Steve Lee www.memorialstovalour.co.uk – Images of the Warneford VC Stone in Exmouth, and the Warneford Crescent sign in Longhedge, Wiltshire.