Kevin Furniss - A story of “Bloody April” 1917
This blog is reconstructed using an archive of letters and personal effects donated to the RAF Museum by Kevin’s niece.
2nd Lieutenant (2Lt) Kevin Furniss, an ex- Wolverhampton Grammar School pupil and 19 year old pilot in the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) left the UK for his first operational posting with 23 Squadron (Sqn) in France, on 28 March 1917.
23 Sqn were a Scout Squadron at this time, operating the single seater SPAD S.VII on offensive fighter patrols, close escort and ground attack duties. They were based at an aerodrome at Baizieux, located between Albert and Amiens in the Somme department of Northern France.
Kevin’s first flight with 23 Sqn was in SPAD S.VII number A6682 on 5 April 1917. In a letter home to his father Kevin describes the SPAD as “…a splendid thing” and his log book entry records the flight as being “…very nice too!”
He made two further flights in A6682 before the engine problems which had beset his aircraft, A6695, were fixed. One of these flights was a line patrol on the evening of 15 April, and his log book records that he landed in the dark by flares. A letter to his father refers to this flight and Kevin says “On Sunday evening I landed by flares as it was almost dark, I nearly broke the apparatus at the first attempt but got her down all right at the second”.
On 22 April after three weeks and eight SPAD flights in France, Kevin was detailed for his first operational sortie. 23 Sqn were to assist in the escort of six FE2b bombers of 18 Sqn on a bombing raid targeting Cambrai aerodrome. Taking off at approximately 5.30pm Kevin was flying A6695 in a formation of five 23 Sqn aircraft led by Captain Kenneth Campbell McCallum, and including SPAD A6682 flown by Australian 2Lt Frank Colin Craig.
What happened to the group is still the subject of conflicting reports as to who shot down whom and where. However both Alan Morris in “Bloody April” and Trevor Henshaw in “The Sky Their Battlefield” present the story as follows.
Having dropped their bombs on Cambrai aerodrome the formation turned for home and set off back west to the Allied lines. The SPADs met a formation of aircraft which turned out to be Albatros fighters of the German Air Force, specifically from fighter squadrons (Jasta) 5 and 12. A confused, terrifying melee then ensued. Alan Morris describes it thus:
“Offz.Stellv Nathanael…immediately picked off one SPAD and Von Osterroth knocked down another over Marcoing in the ensuing free for all. So many were firing at the third when its wounded pilot crashed on newly-won British territory at Havrincourt that it was simply added to the Jasta’s score”.
It is believed that the inexperienced Kevin was the first casualty, a victim of Offiziersstellvertreter (Officer Deputy) Edmund Nathanael, of Jasta 5. Nathanael was 28 years old, a fighter ace who at this point had claimed ten other Allied aircraft shot down, two of them from 23 Sqn. 19 days later Nathanael was himself shot down and killed, by Captain William-Kennedy-Cochran, of 23 Sqn.
The second casualty in Morris’ description was 2Lt Frank Craig, in Kevin’s first SPAD A6682. The aircraft was force-landed by Craig in German territory and captured intact; Craig became a prisoner of war for the remainder of the conflict. He later married the eldest daughter of Field Marshal Lord Birdwood, and some of his letters and photographs are held by the Australian War Memorial.
The third casualty was Capt McCallum, who managed to put his aircraft down in British territory and make his report before being taken to hospital for his severe leg wounds. McCallum was awarded a Military Cross following the action, the citation for which gives an inkling of the nature of the engagement:
“When engaged in escorting a formation of bombing machines he was attacked by four hostile aircraft, bringing down two of them. While fighting these he was attacked by a large hostile formation, which completely surrounded him. Although badly wounded in the feet he succeeded in effecting a safe landing behind our own lines”.
Capt McCallum survived his wounds despite having his left leg amputated. In later life he became the Managing Director of the Trust House chain of hotels, and was awarded the CBE in 1958.
Kevin Furniss was grievously wounded during the engagement. Papers later obtained by his family record him as a POW patient at Field Lazareth (hospital) 501 in Cambrai, suffering from burns and gunshot wounds. At 1.30am on 29 April Kevin died of his wounds, and was later buried in the cemetery alongside the hospital.
This is now the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cambrai-East cemetery, and Kevin’s headstone stands alongside those of other victims of Bloody April.
Henshaw, Trevor - The Sky Their Battlefield 1995
Morris, Alan - Bloody April 1967