Raymond Keith Barlow – the first Royal Flying Corps airman to be killed on active service in the First World War.
In the course of researching for a paper on the Trafford men of the Royal Flying Corps who gained awards for distinguished service, Trafford Local Studies volunteer researcher, Richard Nelson, chanced upon the fact that Trafford has the dubious distinction of being the home of one of the first pair of airmen of the RFC to be killed in a flight on active service. Further research into the event identified that much has been written about the pilot, Lieutenant Robin Skene, but little about the brief life of Air Mechanic Raymond Keith Barlow. What follows is an attempt to redress the balance.
Raymond Keith Barlow was born in Grantham in Lincolnshire in 1892. For most of his life until he joined the RFC he lived with his grandparents, Herbert and Eliza Barlow. Although his parents were living in Hull at the time of the 1901 census, with his four younger siblings, Keith, as he was known in the family, was located with his grandparents at 50 Mersey Street, Hull. His father, Richard Cooper Barlow, was recorded as a mechanical engineer, born in Oldham. By the time of the 1911 census, Keith had moved with his grandparents to 3, Derby Street, Altrincham. His mother, a widow, had returned to Grantham to live with her parents and one of Keith’s brothers, Keith’s father having died in 1902.
Keith must have moved to Altrincham several years before 1911. Indeed the Altrincham, Bowdon & Hale Guardian, in reporting his death, states that, ‘He was well known in the town by reason of the fact that he had lived there with his grandparents for many years.’ This is supported by information from the electoral roll which shows that his grandfather was qualified to vote, having properties at 3 Derby Street, Altrincham and 11 Watson Street, Hale, in 1908 and was registered at Watson Street as early as 1904. The 1911 census and the Altrincham, Bowdon & Hale Guardian of 18th August 1914 both indicate that Keith was working as an engineer and tool fitter at H.W. Kearns & Co., Atlantic Street, Broadheath. His military service record confirms that he had worked as an engine fitter for them for four years in August 1912.
His military service record shows that Raymond Keith Barlow enlisted for the Royal Flying Corps at Lincoln on 28th August 1912 as an Air Mechanic, and was given the number 331. He joined the force at South Farnborough two days later and there he completed his apprenticeship. He was appointed as 1st Air Mechanic in July 1913 and served with Number 3 Squadron, stationed at Netheravon in Wiltshire. ‘Flight’ magazine reports that he was taken up on several flights between January and October 1913 as a passenger with 3 Squadron pilots.
When war broke out in August 1914, 3 Squadron was one of the first four RFC squadrons chosen to be sent to France. Before setting off on his flight to the front that was soon to prove fatal, Keith wrote some letters. The text of a letter to his grandparents was published in the Altrincham, Bowdon & Hale Guardian, 18th August 1914:
‘I believe we are going to the front on Friday August 7th so I am sending you a line to let you know. I am quite satisfied with everything, and do not regret the Corps in the least, as I should have gone out in any case. If I don’t come back it’ll not matter much. A few years make very little difference when all is said. The only thing I regret is I cannot see you before I go. Must conclude now. Trusting we shall meet again. Keith’
He also wrote to his mother in a letter preserved in the RAF Museum Collection
Thanks for your letters there is no need to worry we will be alright. I have just been warned that I am going by air but cannot say the exact date am sending you 15/- will you please forward 5/- to Ben (his brother) as he will need something if he wants to enjoy himself it will be a walkover for our side when we get there no more news. Remember me to all Best love Keith don’t forget to send 5/- to Ben [sic]’
The date of his mission to the front, as reported in the first letter, was not quite accurate. He set off from Netheravon aerodrome on 12th August on the way to a stop at Dover, before flying on to France next day.
‘RAC Bleriot’ by unknown RFC photographer.
Chief Marshall Sir Phillip Joubert de la Ferté, at the time Flight Commader of No. 3 Squadron, in his book, ‘The Fated Sky’ wrote, ‘The flight started with a tragedy as one of our reservists stalled his aircraft – my old friend number 260 – when taking off, and crashed, killing himself and one of our best engine mechanics.’
James McCudden, who was at the time a Mechanic in 3 Squadron, and a friend of Barlow’s, who had billeted with him at Ford, near Evesham, in August 1913, describes in more detail what happened to Keith and Robert “Robin” Skene, the pilot, in the Bleriot XI-2, as they left the airfield:
‘On the morning of the 12th our four 80 h.p. Bleriots were lined up on the tarmac in front of the sheds at Netheravon at 3.30 a.m. The NCO and the mechanics going by air were Corporal Robins and A.M.s (Air Mechanics) Gardiner and Barlow. At 4:30 a.m. the sun rose on a beautiful summer sky, and all engines were started up. “A” and “B” flights went first… ..the first stop was to be Dover. Of ‘C’ flight….. lastly Mr Skene with A.M. Barlow (took to the skies).
Mr Skene, who was a good pilot and one of the first who at an early date had looped the loop, landed again for some adjustment, and then took off a second time. I can see Keith Barlow now standing in the passenger’s seat talking to Corporal Macrostie, and I shall never forget it. Barlow knew the machine was slow and unhandy….
They left the ground, and I noticed the machine flying very tail low, until it was lost to view behind our shed up at about 80 feet. We then heard the engine stop and following that the awful crash, which once heard is never forgotten. I ran for half a mile, and found the machine in a small copse of firs, so I got over the fence and pulled the wreckage away from the occupants, and found them both dead….
I shall never forget that morning at about half past six kneeling by poor Keith Barlow and looking at the rising sun, and then again at poor Barlow, who had no superficial injury, and was killed purely by concussion, and wondering if the war was going to be like this always.’
The coroner’s inquest returned a verdict of accidental death. It heard that the monoplane had not flown far on its journey when the pilot banked sharply when taking a left-handed turn. It concluded that the aeroplane was not loaded to a dangerous extent because several other machines left the school carrying similar weights without accident. The machine lost speed and dived vertically to the ground from about 150 feet, and Barlow was ejected before it hit the ground (RFC pilots and crew were not supplied with parachutes at this time) and ‘died from injuries sustained in an aeroplane accident’, according to the information sent by the RFC to his mother. Lieutenant Skene died in the wreckage, the first RFC Officer casualty of the war. Keith Barlow was buried at Bulford Church with military honours and is commemorated on war memorials at St Wulfram’s, Grantham, St George’s Church, Altrincham and on the Altrincham War Memorial.
 There is some confusion in some of the records about this date. His military record and some of the RFC Casualty reports state 11th August 1914. James McCudden, later to gain the V.C., in his book ‘Flying Fury, Five years in the Royal Flying Corps’, published in 1918, records it as 12th August, as does the Squadron History and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and The Times of 13th August 1914.
Image – Licensed under Public Domain via Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File: RAF_Bleriot.jpg#/media/File: RAF Bleriot.jpg (2015)
Altrincham, Bowdon & Hale Guardian, 18th Aug 1914 p 2, The Times, Aug 13th 1914 p 8, South Wiltshire Coroner’s Inquests https://salisburyinquests.wordpress.com/1914-2/skene-robin-barlow-raymond/ (2015); Commonwealth War Graves Commission website www.cwgc.org, Trafford War Dead website www.traffordwardead.co.uk; Flight International Magazine https://www.flightglobal.com/pdfarchive; RAF Museum www.rafmuseumstoryvault.org.uk, http://www.roll-of-honour.com/Lincolnshire/GranthamStWulfram.html (2015); Blog article entitled ‘This letter will break your heart’ http://www.london24.com/news/old-london (2015); Census returns 1901, 1911; Electoral Roll for Altrincham 1904 to 1915; Birth, Marriage and Death Records; Ancestry, RFC Service Records; Find My Past; Long, Jack T.C. (2005) Three’s Company – an Illustrated History of No.3 Squadron RAF: Pen & Sword Books ISBN 844151581; McCudden, James V.C (2000) Flying Fury – Five Years in the Royal Flying Corps: Greenhill Books, ISBN 1853674060 (First published in 1918)