b. 19/01/1896 Paddington, London. d. 08/07/1988 Windsor, Berkshire.
Ferdinand Maurice Felix “Freddie” West (1896-1988) was born in Paddington, London on 29th January 1896, the only son of Lieutenant Francis West, East Lancashire Regiment, and his French wife, Comtesse Clemence de la Garde de Saignes; and the grandson of the Admiral of the Fleet, Sir John West. When his father’s regiment was ordered overseas, he resigned his commission to remain with his wife, but at the outbreak of the Boer War, he immediately volunteered for service again and in 1902 was killed in action. His widow left England to take up residence in Milan, Italy, where young Freddie commenced his education in a private school.
His upbringing soon resulted in Freddie becoming fluent in three languages – English, French and Italian, and on graduation in 1912, he chose to study international law at Genoa University, and was on vacation in Switzerland in August 1914 when the news came of England’s declaration of war with Germany. West travelled back to London, and enlisted as a Private, in the Royal Army Medical Corps (to his own dismay as he wanted immediate action in France). He then applied for transfer for several months before being accepted for a commission in the Royal Munster Fusiliers.
Commissioned on 15th May 1915, he eventually arrived in France on 8th November, and within 48 hours was involved in front-line trench warfare. After 4 months of life in the trenches, he chanced to have his first flight, in an aeroplane of 3 Squadron RFC, and he resolved to transfer to the air service. He was accepted for training in March 1916, and returned to England for basic training at Brooklands as an observer, and at the end of April he returned to France and 3 Squadron.
West soon decided he wanted to be a pilot, and volunteered at any opportunity for sorties in order to accumulate an impressive total of flying hours as an observer, before applying for pilot training. By July 1917, he had flown over 100 hours in operations, and duly requested pilot instruction, and by October, was back in England to begin training. By Christmas 1917 he had obtained his RFC “Wings”, and on 4th January 1918 was posted to 8 Squadron, based near Amiens in France.
Commanded by Major Trafford Leigh-Mallory, 8 Squadron was equipped with Armstrong Whitworth FK8 two-seaters; and they were mostly involved in tactical co-operation with artillery and the few tank formations. He soon settled into the unit’s work, and gained wide experience in low-level co-operation with the infantry and gunners. In March 1918, he regularly was crewed with Lieutenant John Haslam, an ex-Cambridge student, and the two men shared a variety of hazardous sorties during the German Spring Offensive which began on 21st March.
On the 23rd April, they reached their objective and made an accurate bombing run, but as they reached the front line, they were hit by groundfire, and West managed to get them home, landing only 100 yards west of the Allied trenches. On 1st May, both West and Haslam were awarded the Military Cross for this action.
On 19th June, on a bombing sortie to Mericourt, he was jumped by a formation of Fokkers, and was forced into evasive action through a balloon barrage. He managed to weave his way to his original target successfully. His return to base brought news of his promotion to Captain and command of a Flight. On 1st July, 8 Squadron was attached to the Tank Corps for specific co-operation duties.
On 12th August 1918, the British Army was intending to start a major offensive, but it needed information about the enemy positions. Setting off at dawn, West and his observer, Lt JAG Haslam, flying an Armstrong Whitworth FK 8 (serial number C8602), spotted an enemy concentration through a hole in the mist. Avoiding severe ground fire, almost immediately they came under attack from seven German fighter aircraft and West was hit in the leg, and his radio transmitter was smashed.
Continuing to identify his location, he remained under attack and manoeuvred his machine so skilfully that his observer was able to get several good bursts into the enemy machines, which drove them away. Only when he was sure of the enemy’s position did he attempt to break off and head for his own lines. He twisted his trouser leg into a tourniquet to stem the flow of blood from his wounds. Unable to make his airfield West landed behind the Allied lines and insisted on reporting his findings despite being in excruciating agony. His left leg had five wounds, one of which had shattered his femur and cut the femoral artery, and had to be amputated.
After a short spell in Rouen Hospital, he was sent home to the London hospital in Whitechapel; where on 8th November 1918 he was told of the London Gazette notice that day of his award of the VC. In December he was finally discharged from hospital, wearing a clumsy wooden left leg, with the official compensation award of £250 from the Air Ministry for the loss of a leg. On 1st March 1919 he attended an investiture at Buckingham Palace to receive his VC and MC; but now faced an uncertain future in civilan life.
Deciding to resume his interrupted career in law, West then met the Swiss tool manufacturer, Desoutter, who had also lost a leg but had designed an ingenious false leg which permitted almost normal operation without the aid of crutches or walking sticks. West quickly adapted to the Desoutter leg, and began to seek readmission to the air service hoping to fly again.
Backed by the influence of Hugh Trenchard, he was temporarily recommissioned and posted to the Foreign Office in April 1919 as an RAF “Liaison Officer”; while in August his name appeared in the relatively short list of officers granted permanent commission in the peacetime Royal Air Force. Two other names on the list were his previous commander, Leigh-Mallory, and his observer, John Haslam MC DFC. In February 1921 West was posted to RAF Uxbridge, and soon began flying again at nearby Northolt; though his piloting was entirely unofficially sponsored. He continued to fly at every possible time and he had not lost any of his skills. A posting to 17 Squadon at Hawkinge followed in 1924; and three years later a spell at CFS, Upavon. A tour of duty at Kalafrana seaplane base, Malta in 1928-1929, was followed by an administrative post at the Old Sarum school of army co-opeeration; while from 1933 to 1936 he commanded No 4 Squadron at Farnborough.
He then became a RAF “diplomat” when appointed Air Attache to Finland, Estonia and Latvia; and on the outbreak of WWII saw him as Group Captain, commanding RAF Odiham in Hampshire. In 1940 he was promoted to Air Commodore and sent to Rome as Air Attache in the British Embassy there, but in June he moved to Switzerland and joined the British Legation at Berne. Here he remained for the rest of the war, and despite confirmed rumours of the Nazi Gestapo placing a “price” on his head, he commenced a second war; a secret war of counter intelligence and “underground” activity which for a long time was not public knowledge. His service was recognised after the war with the award of a CBE.
Retiring from the RAF in March 1946, he joined the Rank Organisation, and later became managing director of Eagle-Lion Distributors. In January 1976, Freddie West, by then the sole surviving air VC of the 1914-18 conflict celebrated his 80th birthday; still very active in many charities, and was Chairman of the RAF Association, and was a member of the VC and GC Association Committee. West died peacefully on 8th July 1988, aged 92 in Windsor, Berkshire. He was buried in Holy Trinity Churchyard, Sunningdale, Berkshire with his mother. His medals were donated to the Imperial War Museum, where they form part of the Ashcroft Gallery.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: LORD ASHCROFT GALLERY, IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM, LONDON.
BURIAL PLACE: HOLY TRINITY CHURCHYARD, SUNNINGDALE, BERKSHIRE.
Medals in the Imperial War Museum before the Lord Ashcroft Gallery was created.
St Clements Danes Church, Aldwych
MOD Building, London (Terry Hissey)