b. 14/05/1894 Paris, France. d. 17/02/1972 Scrooby, Nottinghamshire.
Gilbert Stuart Martin Insall (1894-1972) was the eldest son of a dental surgeon, G. J. Insall, being born on 14th May 1894 in Paris, France. He was educated at L’Ecole Anglo Saxon in Paris. He then entered Paris University, and intended to study to follow in his father’s footsteps as a dentist, but on the outbreak of war in August 1914, he volunteered to enlist in the army, and in September 1914 he became a Private in the UPS, Royal Fusiliers, 18 Service Battalion.
With his younger brother, Algernon, he showed an early interest in aeronautics, and both applied for a transfer to the Royal Flying Corps. Algernon was officially accepted on 12th March 1915 and Gilbert obtained his transfer two days later. A period of pilot training at Brooklands early in March resulted in Gilbert obtaining Royal Aero Club Certificate No 1110 on 14th March 1915, the date of his acceptance to the RFC.
Gaining his pilot’s “wings”, he was posted to France on 16th July 1915, and later in the month joined 11 Squadron RFC at Vert Garland aerodrome, alongside the Amiens-Doullens road. 11 Squadron was equipped with Vickers FB5 two seat aircraft, and was intended for fighting duties. The squadron arrived on 25th July 1915 and by September had moved to Villers Bretonneux.
Although employed to a large extent as a fighter squadron, its main tasks were photo reconnaissance and bombing sorties. Gilbert quickly settled into the routine of the squadron, and from his early flights displayed a keen fighting spirit. On 6th September 1915, for example, in FB5, with Second Lieutenant Manley, he was tasked with photo reconnaissance of Albert. A German aircraft suddenly appeared and Insall turned and engaged them. During the following weeks, he regularly took on several German aircraft without visible results.
On 7th November 1915 near Achiet-le-Grand, France, Second Lieutenant Insall, on patrol in Vickers F.B.5 Gunbus No. 5074 with 1st Class Air Mechanic T. H. Donald, engaged an Aviatik two-seater and forced the German pilot to make a rough landing in a plowed field. Seeing the air crew scramble out and prepare to fire, Insall dove to 500 ft and his gunner opened fire, whereupon the Germans fled. After dropping an incendiary bomb on the downed German aircraft, Insall flew through heavy fire at 2000 ft over enemy trenches. The Vickers' petrol tank was hit, but Insall brought the plane 500 yards back inside Allied lines for an emergency landing. Insall and Donald stayed by the Gunbus through a bombardment of about 150 shells while awaiting nightfall. After dark, they then set to work by torch light to salvage their plane. After they repaired the machine overnight, Insall flew them back to base at dawn.
For his actions, Gilbert was gazetted for the VC on 23rd December 1915 and Donald was awarded the DCM. Sadly, at the time of his gazetting, Gilbert was in a German hospital following an incident on 14th December. He was attacked by a German two seater, and Donald was wounded in the leg, and Gilbert was hit in the base of the spine by a sliver of a shell. Forced to land behind enemy lines, they were taken prisoner and taken to Cologne for medical treatment.
After several months in hospital, Gilbert was moved to a prisoner of war camp in Heidelberg. He was determined to escape and in 1916 he succeeded, only to be re-captured five days later. Sent to Crefeld Camp, he and several companions then built an escape tunnel and managed to escape into the Black Forest. Again, he was soon re-captured and was sentenced to a period of solitary confinement in the POW Camp at Strohen.
On 28th August 1917, he escaped with two others from Strohen, and managed to get to the Dutch border and freedom. Gilbert’s unending attempts to escape from imprisonment saw him awarded the Military Cross. During the winter of 1917-18, the now Captain Insall, was attached to the training staff at Gosport; and in mid 1918 he was posted to 51 (Home Defence) Squadron at Bekesbourne, as commander of A Flight. By the armistice he was serving on the staff of 53 (Home Defence) Wing, Harrietsham.
Deciding to remain in the postwar RAF, he was granted a permanent commission with the rank of Flight Lieutenant, with seniority from 1st August 1919, and spent the next year serving in Germany with the British occupation forces. A spell at No 6 Flying Training School followed; then on 1st April 1922 he was posted to Uxbridge RAF Depot. In 1926, he married Olwen Scott, and in April 1927, with promotion to Squadron Leader he moved overseas to Iraq, to command 70 Squadron.
Two years later, with further promotion to Wing Commander, Insall was appointed to command 35 Squadron in March 1929; and in 1932 he commenced a two years’ tour of duty as commander of RAF Station, Upavon. His next appointment sent him to RAF Kenley as officer commanding the station headquarters staff, from May 1934. Promotion to Group Captain followed and led to an overseas tour of duty in the Middle East; returning in 1940 to succeed in command of RAF Uxbridge.
Serving in various capacities throughout the 1939-45 War, Gilbert Insall eventually retired from the Service on 30th July 1945. In the same year, on 22nd November, his courageous companion of the 1915 VC action, T H Donald, died. Living in semi-retirement in Yorkshire for many years, he nearly died of a heart attack in 1969 when his house was burgled. His medals were stolen, but fortunately were recovered in 1970. Gilbert died on 17th February 1972 and was cremated at Rose Hill Crematorium in Doncaster. His ashes were interred in Nocton Churchyard, Nocton, Lincolnshire. A memorial headstone has been erected in Rose Hill Cemetery, Doncaster.
In addition to his VC and MC, he was awarded the 1914-15 Star, British War Medal 1914-20, Victory Medal 1914-19, General Service Medal 1918-62 with clasp “Iraq” with Mentioned in Despatches oak leaf, Defence Medal 1939-45, War Medal 1939-45, King George V Silver Jubilee Medal 1935, George VI Coronation Medal 1937 and Elizabeth II Coronation Medal 1953. His medals are held by the Royal Air Force Museum, Hendon.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: ROYAL AIR FORCE MUSEUM, HENDON, LONDON.
BURIAL PLACE: ROSE HILL CREMATORIUM, DONCASTER, YORKSHIRE.
HEADSTONE AT NOCTON CHURCH, NOCTON, LINCOLNSHIRE. (ASHES INTERRED)
National Memorial Arboretum
Ernest Newling painting
St Clements Danes Church, Aldwych, London
Rose Hill Cemetery, Doncaster
War Illustrated, 5th February 1916
RAF Museum (Thomas Stewart)