Pilot who flew many successful sorties scoring 15 victories in one month but who died during a take-off at Port Meadow

PILOT George Thomson won the Military Cross for outstanding gallantry during the First World War.

In his Sopwith fighter plane, he shot down 21 enemy aircraft, including 15 in one month and four in one day.

His glittering career, however, ended prematurely when he was killed, aged 21, in a flying accident at Port Meadow airfield in Oxford.

Historian Peter Smith has been researching the life of Captain Thomson, who was honoured for his skill, courage and bravery.


Captain George Thomson, DFO

George Edwin Thomson was born in Rangoon, Burma, in 1897, the only son of James and Ellen Thomson, of Dumbartonshire.

He was educated at Glenalmond College and Glasgow University, and planned to join the Civil Service. He was described as an “excellent rugby player and swimmer”.

He joined the Army in 1914, but transferred to the Royal Flying Corps in September 1916.

During flight training, he was badly injured in a crash which left him with a permanently scarred face.

In the summer of 1917, he joined 46 Squadron in France and scored one victory in a Sopwith Pup, before the squadron received the new Sopwith Camel fighter. He became a Flight Commander in November that year.

Mr Smith, of Arthur Street, Osney, writes: “During March 1918, as the Germans launched a massive offensive to try to win the war before the American Army arrived in strength, Thomson scored 15 victories in that one month alone, four in one day, bringing his total to 21. Of those, 11 were single-seater fighters.

“He was by now a leading Sopwith Camel ‘ace’ alongside Major Donald MacLaren, another 46 Squadron pilot, who scored 54 victories and survived the war.”


His grave at Wolvercote Cemetery

As well as the Military Cross, Captain Thomson was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. The Military Cross citation described how he had dived on an enemy aircraft, fired 60 rounds at close range, then pulled up under its tail, fired 30 more rounds and saw it slowly spin to the ground. Both citations spoke of his “conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty”.

In May 1918, he was appointed second in command of a training station at Feltwell in Norfolk, by which time the Royal Flying Corps had become the Royal Air Force.

Later that month, two months after his last aerial victory and aged only 21, he was accidentally killed during a take-off from Port Meadow, after stopping to refuel on a solo cross-country flight.

His Sopwith Camel burst into flames at 600ft, probably as a result of a carburettor fault, and crashed on nearby Pixey Meadow.

An inquest in the parish room at Wolvercote heard that Captain Thomson was an experienced pilot and it was unlikely the crash was caused by pilot error.

The jury returned a verdict of accidental death.

The Sopwith Camel, described as an “agile, highly manoeuvrable biplane”, was introduced in 1917 and accounted for more aerial victories than any other Allied aircraft during the First World War.

Mr Smith’s research shows that more than 5,400 were built. It was credited with destroying at least 1,200 enemy aircraft.

Port Meadow, an airfield since 1911, became a training aerodrome for the Royal Flying Corps in 1916.

Every morning before planes could take off and land safely, livestock grazing there had to be moved away.

The aerodrome remained in place well after the war – the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VIII, landed there in June 1933 when he visited the city to open the rebuilt Wingfield-Morris Hospital, now the Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre.

It was suggested at one time that the historic meadow should become the site of Oxford’s civilian airport.

Memory Lane this week


  • Do you want alerts delivered straight to your phone via our WhatsApp service? Text NEWS or SPORT or NEWS AND SPORT, depending on which services you want, and your full name to 07767 417704. Save our number into your phone’s contacts as Oxford Mail WhatsApp and ensure you have WhatsApp installed.