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Fenny Stratford’s Fighter Pilots WWI
Sopwith Camel.
One of the most famous fighters of World War One.
Mick Mannock

When celebrities took to the skies

Good grief. In the wake of the Channel 5 documentaries it seems we now have ‘celebrity’ truck drivers.

Is there no end to this celebrity hype. Whatever next - celebrity biscuit dunkers.

But that’s not to decry truckers although in the realm of unsung heroes I’m sure there are persons far more deserving of public adulation, not least those risking their lives on the front line in Afghanistan, or the dedicated army of those toiling all hours under the sun for a pittance in the N.H.S.

It could be said that the cult of celebrity began with the advent of the silver screen and apart from the film stars during World War One those in the celebrity limelight were not infrequently the air aces.

The story of Fenny Stratford and one such Knight of the Air, Edward ‘Mick’ Mannock, has been told in a previous article but Fenny Stratford also has an association with another local distinguished airman of that time, Francis Tattam.

Born at an address in Simpson Road, when aged about 14 Francis worked his passage to Canada, where apart from several jobs in Saskatchewan he also helped to build the Kansas City railway station.

He later joined the Mounties but shortly after the outbreak of war enlisted in the Army and served in the Canadian Engineers in France.

In 1916 he then gained his wings as a pilot in the R.F.C. and one Saturday in July 1918 he greatly entertained the residents of Fenny Stratford with a display of flying stunts. Indeed his performance would merit a communication to his parents ‘expressing the Council’s high appreciation and admiration of the splendid exhibition of flying given to the inhabitants of the District on the 16th July 1918.’

Having received his commission, in October 1918 Francis would be sent with the B.E.F. to the Murman Coast, Russia, but in early April 1919 his parents received a telegram to say that he had been posted missing since March 31st.

Then in April 1920 they received a letter from the War Office stating that he had arrived from Russia in Terijoki, on the frontier of Russia and Finland. Arrangements for his repatriation were to be made as soon as possible and in a cable he told his parents that he was safe and well.

It later transpired that whilst on a wireless station he had been captured by the Bolsheviks, only a few days after having distinguished himself on active service. For this the French Government awarded him the Croix de Guerre which had been sent to his parents by his commanding officer at Archangel, accompanied by the following details in French:

‘A very good pilot; did not hesitate to take observations at Bolchoe-Ozerki from 20th to 30th March with a machine which he had never piloted previously, and he bombarded the enemy with success, submitting himself to a violent bombardment. He returned with his machine riddled with bullets on 23rd March, 1919.’

In 1920 Francis broke his arms and legs in an air crash and returning to Bletchley he married in 1922 and began employment at the Tompkins Moss garage in the High Street.

Then at the age of 51 he joined the R.A.F. as an officer during the Second World War, after which he resumed his former employment and later became a temporary agent for the Prudential.

Continuing the family tradition his son would become a Master Pilot in the R.A.F. whilst as for Francis he died aged 71 at Renny Lodge, Newport Pagnell, in 1966.

But back to celebrity truckers. In the folly of youth, of a Friday evening a favoured stopping off point before hopefully seeking a night of debauchery in the Northampton night spots was the M1 service station at Newport Pagnell. Here we would often see celebrities of the day and on one occasion we noticed Matt Monro who, despite our unsolicited approach, quite happily signed autographs.

In his earlier days he had been a long distance lorry driver and I found him to have quite the most down to earth and unassuming charm. A confident yet not arrogant pride in his abilities - in fact just what you’d expect from a real celebrity trucker.