b. 28/03/1895 Gillingham, Kent. d. 09/07/1918 Auxi-le-Chateau, France.
James Thomas Byford McCudden (1895-1918), a descendant of a long line of regular Army service, was born in Gillingham, Kent on 28th March 1895; one of four sons of Corporal (later Sergeant-Major) W. H. McCudden, Royal Engineers, all of whom joined the Royal Flying Corps at various times, and three of whom eventually died while flying for their country. Educated in the army garrison schools, his first close acquaintance with flight came in 1909, when his father retired from the army, and the family moved to Sheerness; close to the original Eastchurch airfield.
Joining the Royal Engineers as a boy soldier on 26th April 1910, he was regraded as a bugler six months later, and on 24th February 1911, sailed to Gibraltar. Returning to England in September 1912, he was attached to No 6 Company, RE stationed at Weymouth, and whilst there applied for a transfer to the newly created Royal Flying Corps. He was accepted into the RFC as No 892, Air Mechanic, 2nd Class on 28th April 1913, and mustered as an engine fitter.
On 9th May he was posted to Farnborough, but within his first week there was almost returned to the army for causing extensive damage to two aircraft. In the end, he was sentenced to a spell in detention and remained in the RFC. By 1914, his ambition was to be a pilot. With promotion to Air Mechanic, 1st Class, he moved to France with 3 Squadron on 13th August 1914, and on 20th November was promoted to Corporal. On 1st April 1915, he was promoted to Sergeant, in charge of all engine maintenance on the unit, at the tender age of 20.
Tragically, just four weeks later, he was told of the death of his brother, Flight Sergeant William McCudden, in a flying incident. He still applied for pilot training but was refused due to his valuable work in maintenance. When 3 Squadron moved to Auchel on 1st June 1915, he began some private tuition from Sergeant Watts, but gained more experience as an observer. On 19th December he was involved in his first aerial combat when his aircraft was attacked by a German monoplane scout. On 1st January 1916, he was officially made an observer, and his early exploits saw him awarded the French Croix de Guerre, which he received on 21st January. Only three days later, he was finally accepted into pilot training and returned to England, with promotion to Flight Sergeant.
He qualified as a pilot on 16th April 1916 and soon started Service flying training at CFS, Upavon, finally getting his RFC “wings” on 30th May 1916. He was then sent back to France, and joined 20 Squadron at Clairmarais on 7th July, and flew his first operational sortie on the 10th. His stay with 20 Squadron was brief, and he moved to 29 Squadron at Abeele, whose role was fighting. On 6th September he secured his first aerial victory, and over the next few weeks attempted to destroy German observation balloons, which brought him the award of the Military Medal on 1st October.
He received his commission on 1st January 1917, and after some leave, rejoined 29 Squadron on 21st January. Five days later he received his second official victory, and by 15th February had reached five. He was then personally notified of the award of the Military Cross (gazetted 12th March 1917), after flying his last patrol with 29 Squadron. On 23rd February, he returned to England for a rest period. He was then posted as a flight instructor to the 6th Training Wing, RFC, Maidstone. One of his pupils was a tall Irishman named Mick Mannock (later VC). On 1st June 1917 he was gazetted to the rank of Captain, and joined 66 Squadron at Estrees Blanche. In August, he moved to 56 Squadron as the new commander of B Flight. Over the next couple of months, he was involved in a dogfight with seven aircraft of the “Richthofen Circus” over Roulers, and was involved in the fight which led to the shooting down of the German air ace, Werner Voss. McCudden wrote that Voss was “the bravest and most skilful Hun I have ever seen.”
Four days after Voss’ death, McCudden recorded his 14th victory, and by 1st October, he was notified of the award of a Bar to his Military Cross. For the rest of the month, he was restricted to two more victories. In November 1917, his Squadron moved to a new base at Lavieville, north east of Amiens, ready for the Battle of Cambrai. Once settled in, McCudden began to add to his considerable tally, and by the start of December, had reached 23; by the end of the month, he would add at least 14 more. His victories in December would see the award of the DSO on the 15th, and by 3rd January 1918, a Bar to his DSO was also awarded. In fact, he obtained 14 of the 18 victories achieved by 56 Squadron that month.
By the middle of February 1918, he had reached his 50th victory, and by the time he went on leave on 5th March, he had 57. He spent some of his leave with his younger brother Anthony, who was with 84 Squadron. He was also a recipient of the MC, but tragically was killed in a dogfight on 18th March. On 29th March, McCudden was awarded the Victoria Cross which was given for his combat successes but also his careful leadership of pilots in his direct command. His investiture took place on 6th April, and later that month he became an instructor at No 1 School of Aerial Fighting in Ayr, Scotland. This school, commanded by another VC, Lt Colonel Lionel Rees, was training fighter pilots.
He was then bestowed with the Freedom of the Borough of Gillingham, but the ceremony never took place as he had flown back to France, briefly with 56 Squadron, before being appointed to command 91 Squadron, being formed at Tangmere. He was desperate to return to the fight however, and was given command of 60 Squadron with the rank of Major.
On the morning of 9th July, he travelled to Hounslow aerodrome for his flight to France to take up his appointment. He landed briefly at Hesdin, then set off again for 60 Squadron’s base airfield at Boffles. At about 5.30pm he landed at what he believed was his destination. In fact, he was at Auxi-le-Chateau, home of Nos 8 and 52 Squadrons. He asked for directions to Boffles and took off. Turning into the wind, he rose to about 100 feet and started to turn, but rolled on the side and plunged into some trees bordering the aerodrome. He was found by the wreckage, unconscious, having suffered a fractured skull. Taken immediately to No 21 Casualty Clearing Station, he never regained consciousness, and died at around 8pm. He was buried the following day in the small British War Cemetery at Wavans. His medals (including the VC, DSO*, MC*, MM and Croix de Guerre) which he left with his sister, Mary, when he set off that fateful day, are now held by the Royal Engineers Museum, Chatham, Kent.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: ROYAL ENGINEERS MUSEUM, CHATHAM, KENT.
BURIAL PLACE: WAVANS BRITISH CEMETERY, WAVANS, FRANCE.
James McCudden's medals including VC, DSO with Bar and MC with Bar at Royal Engineers Museum, Chatham, Kent (April 2014).
Cemetery Plan courtesy of Kevin Brazier -
ROW B, GRAVE 10
Edward Newling Painting
Brompton War Memorial, Gillingham, Kent
Family Grave in Chatham Cemetery
St Clements Danes Church, Aldwych
McCudden's stone and programme from the unveiling of his stone at the Royal Engineers Museum, Chatham, Kent.
A duplicate stone laid at Sheerness War Memorial, Kent
Ian Fleming Artwork