Young RAF hero's brief life tells story of First World War in the air

Frederick Caton was a teenager when he joined the fledgling RAF in 1918, but he didn't live to see his 20th birthday. Chris Bond tells the Leeds lad's moving story.

Richard High, in the Special Collections department at the University of Leeds with some of the items relating to Frederick Caton. (Simon Hulme).

Frederick Caton didn’t have to go to war.

As an apprentice engineer he could have stayed at home during the First World War and helped keep the wheels of industry moving.

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But like so many young men Frederick, or “Fred” to his friends and family, wanted to do his bit for King and country.

Fred Caton in his uniform.

A century ago he joined the fledgling RAF and later that summer was among the brave band of aces who took to the air to do battle in the skies above northern Europe.

His story is bound up in a collection of more than 40 letters to his family as well as his pocket book diary, photographs and other memorabilia held in the Liddle Collection at the University of Leeds.

Fred was born in Birmingham in September 1898, but by the age of two his family was living in Yorkshire, first in Keighley and then Leeds, where he grew up.

His father worked as a turner and Fred followed in his footsteps. He studied at Leeds University and during the war he was working as an apprentice engineer at Greenwood and Batleys in the city.

Caton's old gravestone. He was just 19 years old when he died.

Despite being in a reserved occupation he volunteered for military service and in March 1918 applied to join, what was still at the time, the Royal Flying Corps.

The following month he passed the flying aptitude tests and was accepted as an observer into the newly-formed RAF.

Training that should have taken weeks, and sometimes months, was often crammed into a matter of days, such was the urgency to boost the numbers on the frontline.

In June, he wrote a letter home to his parents in Armley, Leeds, in which he talked confidently about his flying prowess. “A child of 12 could fly a machine above 3,000 feet. It is quite easy and the only thing you want is a good machine and plenty of confidence.”

Fred's pocket diary and the telegrams sent to his parents.

By the time he was sent to France where he initially joined 216 Squadron he was a trained navigator, gunner and pilot. He arrived on August 14 and two days later took part in his first raid.

Richard High, collections engagement librarian at the University of Leeds, says Fred was one of those earmarked as a leader. “He was commissioned to second lieutenant in the summer so he was obviously someone who had promise despite the fact he was just 19 years old.”

He was involved in several skirmishes where he acted as both an observer and gunner. “In the first of these the aircraft was forced to turn back before reaching its target and on the third it crash landed back at the base, which gives you an idea of how precarious their job was.”

The popular image of the Great War in the air tends to be of fighter aces locked in gladiatorial combat, but to begin with pilots were the eyes of the Army. Aircraft were used for reconnaissance in August 1914, when they played an important role in locating German troop movements which aided the British retreat from Mons.

Fred Caton in his uniform.

In these early days there was a pilot and an observer and whereas later in the war fighter pilots were feted as heroes, initially they were seen as little more than chauffeurs with the observers doing the important work of spotting enemy guns.

By the spring of 1918 planes had evolved from the rickety-looking aircraft seen at the start of the war. However, those that flew in them were now targets for both enemy fighters and artillery from the ground.

The mortality rate of pilots and crew necessitated new recruits to be fast-tracked to help beef-up numbers. “There was an increasing realisation of the grim reality of the war and this fed into the need for better organisation which led to the creation of the RAF,” says High.

In his letters home, Fred talks about being a navigation officer and his sense of excitement. “I could write pages but these things can wait until I come home again when I shall have lots to tell you.”

He was moved to the 215th squadron and in another letter home, he wrote: “The weather has not been so nice this week which is a blessing as it enables me to sleep at night instead of dropping pills on the friendly Huns and waking some of them up out of their sleep.”

In his final letter, on August 29, he wrote: “I am quite comfortable here but I would rather have stayed with the 216th as it is about the best squadron in France. Still this is a good squadron so I shall have to be satisfied and not grumble. There is a lot of responsibility but I have plenty of confidence and I shall manage alright (sic).”

Caton's old gravestone. He was just 19 years old when he died.

Two days later he was badly wounded during a raid and died the following day of his injuries in a French hospital.

His family had the agony of receiving two telegrams from the air ministry, one saying their son had been injured and another informing them that he had died of his injuries.

Fred’s commanding officer, Major J F Jones, wrote to Fred’s grieving parents with more details about their son’s death, informing them he’d been injured during an attack on enemy lines and that his plane crash landed near his base, adding: “He made a very fine effort on his raid and would have made his mark. He showed great courage.”

Another letter sent to his parents, from Lieutenant J P Armitage who was a friend of Fred’s, emphasises the high regard in which he was held by those in the squadron, despite only having been with them a short time.

“Fred I found a good chap,” he wrote. “And although he only joined our squadron a few days previous, he made himself popular with the majority of we fellows in the Mess.”

He went on: “Although Fred was seriously wounded he stuck to his gun and kept up a fire until he reached our side of the line where the machine crashed through having most of the engine shot away.

“We all admire his pluck, most of us are flying officers and can appreciate his coolness and courage under the circumstances. I must say I am sorry he met his death although I must admit he did it like a soldier, officer and gentleman.”

In a PS, Lieut Armitage added: “I happen to be a Yorkshireman myself and if I ever get through this lot all right I will try to get to Leeds as I can tell you more than I dare put in a letter owing to the censor.”

Fred’s war lasted less than three weeks and he didn’t live to see his 20th birthday.

He was far from the only young man to lose his life, but what makes his story particularly interesting is that he was there at the time of the RAF’s inception and, tragically, just as the conflict was approaching its denouement.

“He was there at the beginning of two key moments. He was part of the RAF just at the moment it was being created and he was also there at the beginning of strategic bombing, something that was developed further, controversially, during the Second World War,” says High.

“These young men had to face the odds of not coming back and they had to contend with technology and tactics that were constantly changing, so they were right at the cutting edge.”

Their bravery, though, came at a price. At one point during the war the average life expectancy of an Allied pilot was just 11 days. Fred beat that by seven days.

It was also said of those who flew in the First World War that they were mostly “a little over 20, former public schoolboys and soon dead”.

For Frederick Caton only the latter was true.

Fighter aces and their mascots

Being a pilot during the Great War was a perilous existence and many didn’t make it beyond their initial training.

Pilots flew in open cockpits reaching heights of over 10,000 feet and life expectancy was short.

So it’s hardly surprising many developed their own little rituals to help ward off the grim reaper.

Some kept a copy of the Bible in their cockpit, others wore mis-matching shoes or socks during missions, or painted skeletons on the side of their aircraft.

One pilot, Major Maurice Leblanc-Smith, kept a knitted dog called ‘Adolphus’ with him on his flying missions. It was given to him by a French girl and is held in the Liddle Collection in Leeds.

Leblanc-Smith survived the war.

Fred's pocket diary and the telegrams sent to his parents.