The first RAF pilot to be awarded a Victoria Cross (VC) has been honoured today with a new memorial paving stone in Whitehall Gardens, London.
Hailed as a First World War hero, former banker Captain Ferdinand ‘Freddie’ West was a pilot with 8 Squadron, flying over France in his FK8 aircraft to gain information on enemy movements. On 10 August 1918 he and his observer Lieutenant John Haslam came under attack, armed only with a single Lewis gun.
His Victoria Cross citation read:
‘Capt West, while engaging hostile enemy troops at a low altitude far over enemy lines, was attacked by seven aircraft. One of his legs was partially severed by an explosive bullet, and fell powerless into the controls. Lifting his disabled leg he regained control of the machine and, although wounded in the other leg, he, with surpassing bravery and devotion to duty, manoeuvred his machine so his observer was able to get several good bursts into the enemy machines, which drove them away. Capt West then, with rare courage and determination, desperately wounded as he was, brought his machine over our lines and landed safely. Exhausted by his efforts he fainted, but on regaining consciousness insisted on writing his report.’
Capt West’s left leg was later amputated but he continued to serve in the RAF, reaching the rank of Air Commodore and working as an Air Attaché in Rome in 1940. He left the RAF in 1946 and returned to a banking career before peacefully passing away in 1988. He was the last survivor of the First World War air VC holders, a man whose wartime memories never left him. Shortly before his death Freddie West was recorded as saying:
“Life in the trenches was absolutely miserable, quite apart from the Germans shooting at you by day and night we had to face the mud, we had to face the rats, but what we suffered most was the lack of space. Live, work, fight within a few yards and all we could see between the gaps was yards of wire and umpteen shell holes, so when we looked upwards and saw a man manoeuvring in the sky we were very envious.”
Paying tribute to his flying forefather was Wing Commander Jeremy Batt, Officer Commanding 8 Squadron:
“Our role today is air borne early warning and surveillance, effectively air traffic control of the skies from the skies. In some ways the missions Capt West flew are very similar to those we carry out today, we conduct reconnaissance just as he was doing on the day he was injured.”
“It may 100 years later but many things remain the same; the standards, values and courage that inspired him to join up are those he would still see today across the entire RAF. I’m sure he would have loved our new technology and that he would have been excited to take part in our centenary flypast. I have a sense of tremendous pride, I’m very fortunate to command this Squadron in this anniversary year and it’s been an honour to take in today’s commemoration service.”