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Family gives airman's poignant letters to Wolverhampton museum

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: April 17, 2014

By Gavin Jones

  • RIGHT: Pilot Kevin Furniss, from the village of Trysull on the outskirts of Wolverhampton, who died when he was just 19 on April 29, 1917

  • Pilot Kevin Furniss' poignant letter home on Easter Monday, 1917

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A BLACK Country family have given personal letters from their airman ancestor to a museum to be put on public display for the first time in 97 years.

Pilot Kevin Furniss, from the village of Trysull on the outskirts of Wolverhampton, was shot down in April 1917 aged 19 and just days into his service.

Determined that he would never be forgotten, his younger sister Muriel kept every letter, every photograph and every item sent back by the Royal Flying Corps and now her descendants have donated everything to RAF Cosford, Wolverhampton.

RAF Museum Cosford's Education Officer Philip Clayton told The Bugle: "This is a completely unique collection that we've received. It's both fascinating and poignant.

"We hope to use this collection with local schools as a way of linking back with the past, and what better way to do that than by looking at the life of a young, local man."

The bulk of the collection, which includes the young lieutenant's leather flying helmet, goggles, wallet, paperwork, photographs, letters and even his shaving equipment, is now at RAF Hendon where it is all being catalogued before its return to Cosford where it will form part of the Great War anniversary exhibition later this year.

But The Bugle has been given a sneak preview of one of the most fascinating items, a letter dating from Easter 1917 in which the former Wolverhampton Grammar School pupil, an officer with the Royal Flying Corps, described to his father back home his first flight behind enemy lines. Headed simply 'Same Address, Easter Monday,' Kevin gave the impression he was having a whale of a time, a carefree youth relishing the chance of a trip out in his new 'kite' and oblivious to the dangerous reality of flying into a potential battle.

He wrote: "My Dear Dad,

"Yesterday I went for my first trip over the lines.

"When we got 'umpty' miles the other side at umpteen thousand feet it was very cloudy and I lost the others and after tootling round for a bit I thought I'd better try and find my way home so I put her nose down all out and made for our side.

"I met no Huns, so didn't have a scrap, but once I thought I saw several machines away on one side and I turned towards them and on getting closer I saw they were black puffs of 'archie' (artillery flak) which I hadn't heard explode as he was shooting very badly.

"Anyway I dodged about for several minutes and put him off altogether.

"I eventually landed at another 'drome about four miles from here as it was too thick to go any farther. I howled with laughter when I found myself all alone miles in the air miles over Hun land – sort of all dressed up and nowhere to go and utterly lost.

"At the place I landed I met Montgomery-Moore the fellow we met in town who you liked the look of.

" I have also met several people I know in other 'dromes I've visited. I don't know how long letters take to do this trip from England anyway I haven't had a thing since I've been in France. Well I'll stop now and wait till the mail arrives before I seal this. Best Love, Kevin."

According to his logbook, which is also part of the collection, this first flight took place on April 8, 1917, and Lieutenant Furniss was in a Spad, number 6711. His flight time was recorded as 60 minutes, in the direction of Cambrai Bapaume. He landed because of mist and an overheating engine.

Records show that Squadron 23, with whom he flew, were at this time operating a fleet of Spad SVIIs, which they had only been using for a couple of months.

But if the letter home gives the impression that the young pilot found it all a bit of a lark (though it's likely he would have downplayed his fears for his family's sake) his second flight was anything but. After more than a week of being grounded due to engine trouble, followed by some test flights during which his engine continued to overheat and, on one occasion, his map case flapped loose and jammed his joystick for a hair-raising half-minute, Kevin made his second trip over enemy lines on April 22.

He was part of a formation escorting British bombers on a mission to Cambrai, but again he became separated from his colleagues when the formation swooped to attack a group of German planes but quickly found they were outnumbered. A big dogfight ensued with several planes brought down on either side, but in the melee none of his fellow pilots saw what became of Kevin's Spad.

His family back in Trysull were informed by his Commanding Officer that their son was missing, and some of his kit was returned to them. Though this must have seemed ominous, a fellow pilot stressed to them that very often missing pilots would turn out to be prisoners of war behind German lines.

And to everyone's relief, word soon came through that he was alive and a POW – in a message dropped behind British lines by a German plane.

Various letters kept by the Furniss family, which survive as part of the collection, capture the relief felt by all who knew Kevin, and the news even made the local papers. Then for weeks and months, all was quiet. His family, friends and fellow pilots must all have been hoping that he was fit and well and sitting out the war. But towards the end of July, word finally reached home that Kevin had died some time ago. At 1.30 in the morning of April 29, a week after being shot down, he had died of his injuries. Kevin Furniss was only 19 years old when he died.

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