THIS story of a First World War airman has been sent in by Ray Durnall of Cradley Heath and concerns his grandfather, who has featured in our pages before.
Ray writes, “The Bugle published an article in issue 1077 about the death of my grandfather Jeremiah Richard Durnall.
“At the time, although I knew that he had been in the Royal Flying Corps and RAF, I had not followed up on his actual role in the First World War.
“His military record gave the usual cold classifications: Engaged in Army: 23/7/17; Age at that date: 41 3/12; Entry into RFC: 9/3/17; Unit: 45 B Sec; Entry into RAF: 1/4/18; Civilian occupation: Fitter; Marriage: 2/5/08; Town: West Bromwich (Jeremiah had remarried after his first wife died in 1905, leaving three children); Person to be informed of casualties: Edith May Durnall; Address: 14 Laburnham (sic) Terrace, Herbert Rd, Small Heath B/ham; Height: 5’ 8’; Chest: 36 1/2”; Discharge: 30/2/20.
“The record was stamped: CASUALTY CARD DESTROYED:– NO ENTRY 8/6/20. On the bottom of the record were; British War Medal and Victory Medal despatched 30/9/21
“Written in the margin were details I found more personal:
“Florence May 22/4/02 born W/B (only daughter from first marriage when the family lived in Temple Street); Myra Rose 19/3/10 born W/B; John Raymond 14/4/14 born B/ham (my dad); Vivian May 9/4/14 born B/ham (always known as Mary); James Henry 16/5/16 born B/ham.
“Trawling the internet I obtained an Absent Voters’ List for 1918 which showed Jeremiah, his rank given as 2/pte. 45 Bal. Sec., RAF, together with details of his firstborn son Albert, who he had joined up with, both registered at the Laburnum Road address. Another document gave him as KBS(BP) with a rate of pay at 1s. 6d.
“Using all the abbreviations through various search engines I determined that Jeremiah was a member of a now defunct unit of the RAF the ‘Kite Balloon Sections’, nicknamed at the time ‘Balloonatics’. Following a countrywide search by Blackheath Library a book The Balloonatics, written by Alan Morris, published in 1970, gave fuller insight into Jeremiah’s service.
“A Kite Balloon was similar to a barrage balloon, 65ft long and 27ft in diameter, and filled with flammable hydrogen gas. Slung underneath was a wicker basket, 3ft by 5ft by 4ft; one or two men together with maps and other equipment would be winched aloft, for the purpose of observing enemy activity up to distances of 35 miles.
“Using embryonic telephone connections, artillery fire could be directed onto enemy positions and enemy aircraft and other movements reported. This operation would be undertaken day and night at various heights and in most weather conditions.
“Of course this would make the balloon and associated groundcrew prime targets for enemy attention, both from aircraft and shelling. Alan’s book gives many hair-raising reports of such encounters, together with two specific details of Jeremiah’s 45 section when outstanding bravery was rewarded.
“In one, Flight Sergeant G.G.L. Blake was awarded the DCM. The citation reads ‘For conspicuous courage and determination while observing from a balloon, which was brought down by hostile aircraft. Though injured he immediately ascended again, and was once more shot down. This NCO has rendered valuable services at all times.’
“Even more remarkable is that these balloon flights were performed with early, unreliable parachutes. Blake, of the 45th section in August 1918, having parachuted three times in action by then, and having been promoted to lieutenant, called for an extended lift, and set up a height record for a kite balloon of 6,925 ft. At that time he had logged a total of 470 hours of observation.
“An entry in the London Gazette for February 1919 reads, ‘2nd Lieut. Clifford Thomas Perrins 45th Balloon Section. On 11th October this officer displayed marked gallantry and courage. The enemy commenced to shell the camp where 2nd Lieut. Perrins was getting the telephone trailer into position preparatory to moving forward. Twelve men of his party were killed or wounded by the first shell, he himself being slightly wounded. Despite this, and the fact that the enemy kept up a continuous and accurate fire on the position, he, with two non-commissioned officers, continued to attend to the wounded until they had all been moved to a place of safety.’ For this he was awarded the Military Cross.
“I don’t know if the photo attached, showing Jeremiah in dead centre of the back row, shows either or both of these officers; maybe one of your readers could determine the decorations visible but Jeremiah would have been in the unit certainly at the time of Perrins’ act. Another point of interest is the buttons on the bottom row second from right and top row fourth from left; they look ‘rubber’ and maybe these men handled the gas so their buttons wouldn’t spark?
“I have determined from the dates and mentions in the book that Jeremiah was at the Battle of Amiens, also known as the Third Battle of Picardy. On paper the French, who first developed this balloon technology had 72 sections, the British 44 (possibly no.13 was omitted) the Americans 17, and the Belgians 6, while the Germans had 170.
“The observers and balloon groundcrew numbered about 48, this is probably the extent of the men in the photograph, and associated support took each British section up to approximately 200 men. In the context of the First World War, a small band and a fraction of the 186,000 who were in the RAF at its conception.”