WWI Pilot James McCudden: From Mechanic to Ace

It was two days before Christmas 1917, as James McCudden pulled gently back on the control stick of his British S.E. 5 biplane. He had spotted what appeared to be a German two-seat scout flying slightly higher, a little over 18,000 ft, to the west of him, over Peronne, about 90 miles north of Paris. As he got closer, he recognized it as a Rumpler. The German knew that if he could get over 20,000 ft, he would start climbing more efficiently than the S.E. 5, but it was too late when the Germans saw him closing in.

At this altitude in December, it was likely close to -30° F, which made it hard for pilots to fly that high for long. But McCudden had a secret weapon in combating that. He’d modified his plane so his radiator vented into his cockpit and helped warm it. In the Rumpler, Leutnant Otto Horing and Leutnant Emil Tibussek had the worst possible luck on this day because McCudden was one of the most lethal foes German two-seaters ever faced on the Western Front. The rear gunner/observer could not bring his gun to bear on an attacker directly behind and below, and McCudden had become an expert at attacking that way.

(Left: British S.E. 5s attacking a Rumpler two-seater in a painting by George Horace Daviis - 1919.)

The Germans weaved back and forth, desperately trying to get McCudden in the observer’s sights, slowly losing altitude as they did. Down and down they descended, in their life and death struggle, until finally the Rumpler filled McCudden’s gun sight around 8,000 ft, and he blasted them with both his machine guns. The Rumpler’s right wings ripped off and plunged to earth. McCudden was so close he nearly flew into them.

He shot down three other German aircraft on the 23rd, bringing his total to four in one day, something no British pilot had ever done before. Young men from Germany, France, North America, and the British Isles were playing a deadly game all over the skies of France and Belgium, and the losers, like Leutnant Otto Horing and Leutnant Emil Tibussek, usually did not live to tell the tale. McCudden, whose air victory total hit thirty-two this day, remained one of the winners.

World War One ace James Thomas Byford McCudden was born on March 28, 1895. The McCudden’s were a Catholic family originating in Co. Armagh, but James was born in Gillingham, Kent, England. His father, William, was born in Carlow, County Carlow, and was a Sergeant-Major in the British army. William fought in the Anglo-Egyptian War in the 1880s. James’ English mother, Amelia Byford, also had military ancestors. James’ grandfather, for whom he was named, also served in the British army.

(Right: James McCudden's father, William)

James and his older brother, William, were quite rambunctious as children growing up in Gillingham, UK, climbing up on the family home and digging for “gold” in the garden. When any of the children needed discipline, their mother, Amelia, usually meted it out. She was said to be a strong woman. That strength would be sorely tested during the coming war. James also formed a very close bond with his older sister, Mary. James had three other younger siblings: John, known by his middle name Anthony, to the family, Kathleen and Maurice.

When James was 14, the family moved to Sheerness. Nearby, there was an early airfield in Eastchurch. William and James were fascinated with these early flying machines and would spend many hours watching them take off, fly, and land. Both may have entertained thoughts of someday flying, but at that point, flying was far too expensive for any but the rich to do. Still, James used some of his money as a post office messager to buy flying magazines.

On April 26, 1910, at just 15, James enlisted in the Royal Engineers regiment as a bugler. William had already enlisted in the same regiment in 1905. In May 1912, the British Army formed the Royal Flying Corps. Seven squadrons were authorized, but the first one activated was No. 3 Squadron, and one of its members was Air Mechanic William McCudden. When the squadron got permission to train Non-Commissioned Officer pilots, he volunteered and was the fourth to qualify.

(Left: James' brother, William.)

James, now stationed at Gibraltar, had never stopped studying aeronautics and dreaming of flying. He soon followed the same path as William, becoming an Air Mechanic in No. 3 Squadron in June 1913. With all his prior study, James became an excellent aircraft mechanic. One of the squadron’s officers called him “one of the best engine fitters we had and was trusted implicitly.” Over the next 13 months before the outbreak of WWI, he had his appetite for flying whetted several times with flights in the observer seat. In December 1913, James logged over 30 hours as an observer.

By early in 1914, William was now one of the best pilots in NO. 3 Squadron and James flew a plane for the first time when Bill gave him some unofficial flying lessons. James and William both shipped out to France in August 2014 with No. 3 Squadron. In November 1914, James was promoted to corporal, and then in April 1915, he was promoted to sergeant and put in charge of all engines in his flight.

On May 2nd, 1915, what would become an ongoing WWI nightmare for the McCudden family began when the 24-years-old William McCudden was killed in a flying accident at Gospor, where he had returned to train pilots. “This was a bad blow for me, as I had always looked up to him so much, and I felt his loss very keenly indeed,” James wrote in his memoir, “Flying Fury: Five Years in the Royal Flying Corps.” His brother’s death did not deter James’ ambition to become a pilot.

Then, on May 27, 1915, McCudden and his family received further sad news when they heard of the death of sister Mary’s husband, Petty Officer Arthur Spears. He was killed when the minelayer HMS Princess Irene exploded just off Sheerness while being loaded with mines.

(Right: Early war photo James McCudden.))

In late June, McCudden was recommended for pilot training, but his competence as a mechanic delayed its approval. In August, he began to fly occasional missions as an observer in the squadron’s Morane Parasols. In November, it became a regular assignment. On December 19, McCudden and his pilot had two encounters with German ace Max Immelmann and helped drive him off with a hand-held Lewis machine gun. The French awarded him the Croix de Guerre for his service as an observer in January, but another event was probably more exciting for him.

(Below: French General General Joffre awards McCudden" Croix de Guerre.) 

On January 24, 1916, the RFC finally approved McCudden’s request for pilot. He returned to England to train at Gosport, where William was killed. On April 16, 1916, he had his first solo flight in a Maurice Farman S.7 Longhorn. He had been studying aeronautics for years now and studying pilots flying as an observer for months. McCudden swiftly became a proficient pilot. It’s an indication of just how advanced McCudden was and how few experienced pilots there were that two weeks after he began training, McCudden was appointed a student instructor.

In July 1916, McCudden flew an F.E. 2 to France and joined the No. 20 Squadron in Clairmarais. The British had not yet perfected a synchronized interrupter to enable firing through the propeller. The F.E. 2 was a pusher propeller aircraft. In some versions, the two-seater had mounted machine guns for both the observer and pilot.

McCudden’s first combat patrol was on July 10th. On July 20th,  he was part of a five-plane flight that got lost due to fog, and he made an emergency landing in the front yard of a farm. Three of the five never made it back, with one crew dying. On July 21st, McCudden first tasted the new form of aerial combat. It was not significant, as he just fired a few long-range shots at a couple of German aircraft.

(Below: A D.H. 2 single-seat fighter)

In August, McCudden was transferred to No. 29 squadron in Abeele. The squadron was equipped with the single-seat D.H. 2 fighter with one forward-firing Lewis machine gun. He took one practice flight in his new aircraft and immediately flew a patrol the following day. However, it would be a month before he could engage an enemy plane in the air. He said the D.H. 2 was “a very cold little machine, as the pilot had to sit in a small nacelle with the engine a long way back … no warmth from it at all.” Having studied aeronautics and been an aircraft mechanic, McCudden constantly looked for ways to improve his plane’s performance. He would continue that with all his aircraft.

McCudden got his first air victory on September 6th, but it was rather anti-climatic. Undoubtedly, engaging a German in air combat with his new plane for the first was exhilarating. He left the fight seeing the two-seat Albatros B II scout plane in a steep dive but believed it was “still under control” the last time he saw it. It was not until four days later that an ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) unit reported that the conspicuously white-painted Albatros had crashed near their lines. McCudden has first victory, but the 2nd would be over four months later.

(Below: An Albatros D. 1 fighter)

In October, the squadron was moved south to Izel-le-Hameau. Late 1916 was a hard period for Allied pilots. New fighters introduced by the Germans outclassed the British aircraft. A new Fokker D.I to D. III biplanes and the Halberstadt D. II biplane. But the best German fighters of that period were the Albatros D.I and D. II fighters. The Albatros was equipped with two forward-firing machine guns, which made them lethal.

McCudden returned from one patrol in November with 24 bullet holes in his D.H. 2. Shortly after that, he had a dogfight with an Albatros that was nearly his last. Fighting a very skillful pilot in his outclassed plane, he intentionally went into a dive to escape, a very dangerous maneuver. He didn’t manage to come out of it until he was 800 feet from destruction. Post-war records indicate his opponent had probably been Lieutenant Manfred von Richthofen and that the German ace claimed McCudden as his 15th victory that day.

Though later renowned for his sharpshooting in the air, McCudden felt he had wasted many chances to destroy enemy aircraft in this period due to poor marksmanship. The only good news he got in the last part of 1916 was when he was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant on December 28th.

(Right: A portrait of Major James McCudden by William Orpen in 1918.)

In the last week of January through the first 15 days of February, McCudden would begin to show the signs of the high-scoring combat pilot he would become. He got his 2nd victory on January 26th and three more in February. On February 15th, he had a spinning dogfight with a Roland C. II two-seater that brought them only 300 ft above the trenches before the Roland crashed into the ground. With that victory, he had become an ace (five aircraft shot down). He was awarded the Military Cross for this accomplishment.

Surviving over a few months in combat was becoming difficult for a pilot to do. McCudden’s No. 29 Squadron had lost nearly half its pilots, either killed, wounded, or shot down behind German lines and taken prisoner. On January 21st, he was forced down for the only time in the war when his propellor was damaged either by the Fokker D. II he was fighting or his own spent cartridges. He managed to land safely on the Allied side of the front.

Aerial combat was a new kind of war. None of the early war pilots had any real training in how to shoot down another aircraft. If you lived long enough, though, you could start figuring it out, as McCudden was demonstrating. He was not happy that this 5th victory coincided with the end of his six-month tour. He had become an ace flying the now nearly obsolete D.H. 2, and he was rotating back to Great Britain just as the squadron was about to get equipped with the more up-to-date French Nieuport fighters.

McCudden was assigned to train new pilots at Joyce Green Airfield in Great Britain as the RFC expanded. One of his students was quite old compared to the 21-year-old instructor McCudden and most of the other students. It was 29-year-old Edward “Mick” Mannock. Mannock’s father was in the British Army, but he had an Irish mother, Julia Sullivan, who was from Ballincolling, County Cork. Mannock may have been born there while his father was stationed nearby, though he grew up in England. His father abandoned the family soon after, so he was mainly raised by his Irish mother. McCudden recognized him as a kindred spirit, saying Mannock “was a typical example of the impetuous young Irishman, and I always thought he was of the type to do or die.” Mannock would be the fifth-highest-scoring ace of the war, with 61, before he was shot down and killed by ground fire on July 26, 1918.

(Left: Mick Mannock)

Sometime during this period, in early 1917, McCudden also met the then-leading British ace of the RFC, Albert Ball. Ball was credited with 31 victories at that point. He had gotten many of them flying French Neiuport fighters with a machine gun mounted on the wing, firing over the prop. Ball told him how he utilized a unique aspect of the gun. He would fly under an enemy aircraft and pull the gun downward, firing up into his opponent’s belly.

While training these pilots, McCudden got used to flying a “tractor” type aircraft (propellor in the front) that would dominate the air for the rest of the war. In May, he got his own Sopwith Pup, one of the newest British tractor types.

In June, McCudden was promoted to captain. That month, he also had a Lewis machine gun installed on the top wing of his Pup to attempt to attack German Gotha twin-engine bombers that had begun bombing the U.K. in late May. On July 7th, he got close enough to several of them to use up three ammo drums and was sure he scored a number of hits but to no effect.

(Right: Diagram of a German Gotha bomber)

Shortly after that, he returned to France for what was to be a three-week tour to stay current on the air combat. He was assigned to No. 66 Squadron, flying the Sopwith Pup. His brother Anthony was flying combat missions in France by then, piloting an Airco DH. 4 two-seater light bomber. This was the beginning of the most memorable period of WWI air combat, with most of the classic fighters of the war either in service or about to be. The Sopwith Camel, later model Spads and Nieuports, and the S.E. 5 were all active, and on the German side, there was the Fokker DR. 1 triplane, the Pfalz D.III, and the later model Albatros fighters.

On July 21st, No. 56 Squadron commander Major R.G. Blomfield invited McCudden on a patrol. It was the first British squadron equipped with the new S.E. 5 fighter and was becoming known as an elite group. Flying the S.E. 5 for the first time, McCudden shot down an Albatros D. V. Five days later, he shot down another one in his Pup, his only victory in that aircraft. He was very impressed with the S. E. 5 and with the commander and men of the No. 56 Squadron and got Blomfield to put in a request to assign him to it.

(Left: Major R.G. Blomfield)

McCudden returned to England in early August, but on August 12th,, he was ordered back to France as the commander of “B” Flight of No. 56 Squadron. Flying the S.E. 5, he would begin what was perhaps the best six months of air combat of any WWI ace. From August 1917 through February 1918, McCudden would score an amazing 50 air combat victories.

The S.E. 5 was one of the best fighters of the war on either side. It was capable of over 120 mph in level flight It was one of the first British fighters with a synchronizing gear to allow firing through the propellor. But it was armed with just one Vickers firing through the prop mounted on the port side. It also had a Lewis gun mounted on top of the wing firing over the prop.

McCudden had an amazing start to his career with No. 56 Squadron. In his first three days, he downed four Germans. One of the two fighters he downed on August 20th, an Albatros D. III, went down in flames. It was the first time he had flamed an opponent’s plane, and the event shook him. “It was at that time very revolting to see any machine go down in flames, especially when it was done by my own hands,” McCudden wrote later. The German pilot was Vizefeldwebel Karl-Josef Ohlerl.

(Below: A group of S.E. 5 fighters lined up at an airfield.)

Burning to death was one of the greatest fears for most pilots since they carried no parachutes. Many carried pistols not just for protection if shot down behind enemy lines but to shoot themselves if flamed. Some also died by jumping out of flaming planes to avoid burning to death.

(Right: Once passed off as a "photo" of a burning German fighter and falling pilot, this fake photo still represents such an event well.)

McCudden’s exhaustive knowledge of aeronautics and aircraft mechanics and his willingness to make modifications to his plane were one of the factors in his miraculous performance in his S.E. 5. He installed a control stick from a Sopwith Camel, which he thought increased his firing accuracy. He cut down the exhaust pipes to reduce weight, reduced the wing dihedral to increase agility, and added a red prop spinner from a German L.V.G. C.V. two-seater he shot down, which gave him a few additional mph. Among the later alterations he made was a set of high-compression pistons that gave him better high-altitude performance and a radiator vent that helped warm his cockpit, allowing him to fly longer in the icy temperatures at high altitudes. Many pilots probably never saw their aircraft from the time they landed until they took off again. McCudden spent hours in the hangar with his.

(Below: Werner Voss in front of his Fokker Dr. I triplane.)

In September, McCudden brought down four more German aircraft. On September 23rd, his flight also brought down one of the most famous German aces. Seeing an S.E. 5 being attacked by a light-blue Fokker triplane below them, they dived to its aid. The seven S.E. 5s were all around the German, but the “pilot seemed to be firing at all of us simultaneously,” McCudden recalled. He was “so quick and uncertain that none of us could hold him in sight at all for any decisive time.” Finally, the pilot’s luck ran out, and Arthur Rhys-Davids shot him down. This victory made Rhys-David a celebrity for a time, but it didn’t last long. He was shot down and killed barely over a month later.

They later found out the German pilot was Werner Voss, who had 48 victories. McCudden recalled that “his flying was wonderful, his courage magnificent, and in my opinion, he is the bravest German airman whom it has been my privilege to see fight.”

James’ younger brother, Anthony, who really wanted to fly a fighter like his ace brother, got his wish in December. He was commissioned a Lt. and posted to No. 84 Squadron, which was equipped with the S.E. 5. James was up to 23 victories by the end of November. Anthony visited James several times during the fall, and James was worried that Anthony was too reckless. He had also taken him up a few times in England while Anthony was training. “He was very keen, and I took him up several times, but he was inclined to be overconfident, which always spells trouble for the fledgling,” James said in his book.

(Right: John Anthony McCudden)

In the two months after McCudden’s double victories on August 20th, he did very well, with seven confirmed victories. After returning from a short leave in late November, however, through the winter, James McCudden became the scourge of the air for German pilots. From November 18th through February 26, 1918, he shot down an astounding 39 enemy planes.

In December, McCudden shot down fourteen. It was more victories than many pilots achieved over many months or even years of combat. On the 23rd, he shot down four in one day, a first for British pilots in the war. He had ten victories in the last week of the year alone, with three on one day and two on another day in addition to his four on the 23rd. On January 9th, 1918, McCudden shot down an LVG C two-seater that was 56 Squadron’s 250th victory and the 100th for his B Flight. On February 16th, he duplicated his feat of four victories in one day.

(Below: An S.E. 5 fighter - painting by George Horace Davis.)

McCudden was more than a talented combat pilot. He was also an excellent flight commander. He imposed strict discipline regarding formation flying for B Flight and refused to take unnecessary chances. This was especially beneficial for novice pilots. Pilots who could live through the first few weeks of their tour would acquire the invaluable experience needed to become effective combat pilots. McCudden got many of his pilots through that period. During McCudden’s time commanding Fight B of No. 56 Squadron, he and his men destroyed 70 German aircraft for the minimal loss of only four of their own.

On January 7th, the government began to allow the press to use the names of R.F.C. pilots in their stories about the air war. McCudden was not happy about it, and he even wrote to his family, asking them not to talk to the press. His letter got there too late, however. He quickly became well-known at home and around the world. Among allied pilots, he was already well-known and admired. In mid-January, he began a tour of a British squadrons in France, lecturing on his dogfighting techniques.

(Below-right: A group of 56 Squadron pilots from April 1917. Back row, left to right; Lt G J C Maxwell, 2/Lt W B Melville, 2/Lt H M T Lehmann, 2/Lt C R W Knight, 2/Lt L M Barlow, 2/Lt K J Knaggs: front row, left to right; Lt C A Lewis, Lt J O Leach, Major R G Blomfield (Commanding Officer), Capt A Ball, Lt R T C Hoidge.)

On February 26th, McCudden shot down a Hannover two-seater. It was his 57th confirmed victory. When he arrived at No. 56 Squadron in August 1917, he had trailed German Manfred von Richthofen, the eventual leading ace of the war, by 50. When McCudden left France to return to England shortly after this victory, he trailed him by six. He flew two more inconclusive patrols, the last on March 1st.

On the night of March2nd, the Squadron gave McCudden a going away party at a hotel in Amiens, where they presented him with a silver model of his S.E. 5. There were officers from over 20 other squadrons there as well. He was now held in such esteem that the following night he dined at Brigade Headquarters with General J. F. A. Higgins, D.S.O., and the night after that had tea with General Sir Julian Byng, the Third Army Commander.

McCudden was truly moved, especially by the admiration of his No. 56 Squadron comrades. “I could not express to my comrades just what I wanted to say and how much I owed to them all. In bed that night I thought over it all and more than ever regretted that I had to leave a life that was all and everything to me, and I confess I cried.” he wrote in his book.

(Below: Manfred von Richthofen.)

McCudden had barely been home for two weeks when tragedy was visited on his family again. His brother, Anthony, had been shot down and killed in France on March 18th, while fighting von Richthofen’s “Flying Circus.” Anthony was an excellent pilot, with eight victories in six months of combat missions, the last six in three months flying the S.E. 5. Many of his No. 84 Squadron comrades believed his desire to emulate his brother may have contributed to his death. However, the 20-year-old had certainly lived far longer in the intense air combat of that last year of the war than many. Anthony was awarded the Military Cross posthumously.

(Below: McCudden's Victoria Cross)

McCudden was too busy to dwell on losing another brother for long. In April, King George V personally presented him with the Victoria Cross at Buckingham Palace, and he was also promoted to major. He met the mother of Captain Harley Alec-Tweedie, a writer, and she encouraged him to start turning his wartime diary into a book. Amazingly, with the help of C. G. Grey, editor of “The Aeroplance,” he finished enough of the book before he returned to France for it to be published. He managed to write it while also test piloting the new Sopwith Snipe and instructing pilots in Scotland. It was published in late 1918.

In July, though many friends advised him not to return to combat, McCudden accepted an assignment to return to France and command No. 60 Squadron. On the morning of July 9th, before he left for France, he visited Mrs. Alex-Tweedie in London to talk about his book, which he had recently delivered to Grey. Alex-Tweedie, a widow, is sometimes called McCudden’s fiancée, but she was 28 years his senior, so was more likely just a friend. She later said he expressed a wish to pass the 80 victory total of von Richthofen, who had been killed in April. He then visited his beloved sister, Mary, and gave her an envelope containing his V.C. and other medals.

McCudden had trouble finding the No. 60 Squadron airfield after flying over the Channel to France in his S.E. 5. He landed at the British airfield at Auxi-le-Château to get directions, then immediately took off again. He likely had engine trouble just after getting airborne and made the mistake of trying to turn around back to the field, lost altitude in the turn, and crashed. He always trained new pilots to look for a field to land ahead rather than turning back. Perhaps it was the overconfidence of a veteran pilot. McCudden was taken to a field hospital and died around 8 pm.

McCudden passed away as the most decorated Royal Air Force pilot of the war, with his V.C., DSO, MC and Bar, MM, Croix de Guerre, 1914 Star, and BWM (seen above).. He had received every available British award for valor. For all of that, he was just 23-years-old. All those medals, together with those of his father and his brothers, William and Anthony, are held by the Royal Engineers Museum, Chatham today. He was buried at Wavans British Cemetery Beauvoir-Wavans, Nord-Pas-de-Calais, France On his tombstone, this was inscribed:

Fly on dear boy
From this dark world of strife
On to the Promised Land
Of eternal life

Tributes flowed in for the ace pilot. Major-General Sir Hugh Montague Trenchard, who had been Commander of the RFC, said, “His determination and nerve were tremendous, and there was no finer example of the British pilot.” Major-General John Maitland Salmond, who was his commanding officer in No. 3 Squadron, said, “… the secret of his remarkable success lay in the fact that he fought with his head as well as with his great heart.”

(Below: McCudden's mother, Amelia)

McCudden’s mother and father had now lost three sons and a son-in-law to the war. His mother, Amelia, became something of a celebrity for her “mother’s sacrifice” to the war, much like Alleta Sullivan, the American mother who lost five sons in WWII. Amelia was much in demand and even attended a Buckingham Palace Garden Party. She was selected to be the British representative laying a wreath on the tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Washington in 1921.

The death of James McCudden was a terrible blow to the Allies. He was undoubtedly one of the most talented pilots of WWI. But for the McCudden family, coming after the loss of two other sons and a brother-in-law, it was a crushing event. The famous cliché of World War One’s “lost generation” had become more than mere words for them. 


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“McCudden V.C.” by Christopher Cole

“Fighter Pilots of World War I” by Robert Jackson

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No. 56 Squadron on aerodrome.com

McCudden Medals at Royal Engineers Museum, Kent

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WW1 aviation

Royal Aircraft Factory S.E. 5 Cutaway Drawing

James McCudden’s Genealogy

James McCudden, V.C (video)

The Last Flight of Werner Voss: Storm of Steel Military History (Video)

World War One Aces Falling – McCudden and Mannock (Video)


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Views: 144

Tags: Air War, First World War, James McCudden, McCudden, Mick Mannock, WWI, World War One, military history

Comment by Joe Gannon on March 15, 2024 at 8:54pm

James McCudden's medal displaiy from the  Royal Engineers Museum, Chatham.

Comment by Joe Gannon on March 16, 2024 at 2:30am

A picture of McCudden in front of a Sopwith Snipe, which he flew as a test pilot while in England and Scotland before his fatal flight back to France. Only a few of them saw combat very late in the war.

Comment by Joe Gannon on March 16, 2024 at 4:09pm

A diagram that demonstrates McCudden's method to destroy dozens of two-seat German scout planes during the war.

Comment by Joe Gannon on March 16, 2024 at 4:12pm

James McCudden, VC

Comment by Daniel P. McLaughlin on April 1, 2024 at 10:03pm
Fantastic article Joe Gannon, well researched and crafted, enjoyed every paragraph, thank you.


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