One hundred years ago tomorrow the legendary German fighter pilot Manfred von Richthofen described his 27th aerial victory as “just another lattice-tail enemy aircraft”.
To No. 25 Squadron RFC though, it represented the loss of a valuable aircrew, while in the village of Deeping St Nicholas, far away from that maelstrom over Flanders, Timothy and Florence King, the parents of Airman Second Class Frederick King, mourned the death of a loved one.
Born at the family home near the Blue Bell Inn in 1894, Fred was educated at the local school and worked as a farm labourer.
Enlisting in Spalding on January 12, 1915, he was posted first to 9th Battalion, Lincolnshire Regiment, rising to the rank of acting-sergeant with 6th Battalion while serving in Egypt from November 18, 1915.
Perhaps the limited prospects of action among the sandy wastes of the Middle East was a good incentive to apply for a transfer to the Royal Flying Corps.
Volunteering for service with the RFC in late 1916, he was posted to No.25 Squadron with the rank of Air Mechanic Second Class (equivalent to Corporal) as a qualified gunner/observer, trained to use machine guns and take photographs from the air with a fixed camera.
Fred flew five combat operations over the Western Front between January and March 1917, the first of these being a fighter patrol on January 27.
Fred had a ‘hot’ patrol on February 9, flying with pilot Sgt R Munro in FE2b 7683, one of seven tasked to bomb an enemy airfield then take photographs of the area.
Having dropped bombs on the airfield, as the formation withdrew to take photographs at 10,000 feet it was attacked by five enemy fighters.
2/Lt W S Shirtcliffe and his gunner drove one off by firing at it from long range but he had to break away and return home with engine trouble.
Lt Whittaker/Lt Freeman-Smith carried on with the photography while the remainder dealt with the German fighters.
Lt Dunlop caught one at close range and his gunner Lt Weir fired a whole drum into it, causing it to dive away with smoke pouring from it that turned into flames as it fell. Lt Davis engaged a two-seater, closing to 200 yards for his gunner Cpl Ramsey to fire at it and send it downwards. Munro and King’s aircraft was set upon by two fighters. Fred King drove off the closest with accurate firing from his rear-facing gun then took on the other with bursts from his front gun.
Under Fred’s fire, this enemy aircraft went down with smoke pouring from its engine. Sgt Munro saw it flattening out about 1,000 feet over La Bassee and he thought it tried to land among some houses. With their job well done, the seven FEs of 25 Squadron all returned to base without any casualties.
In March 1917, on a front from Arras to St Quentin, German troops withdrew to their Hindenburg Line of defence and information about this situation was essential to British commanders. On March 17, a photo-reconnaissance operation flown by nine FE2bs from No.25 Squadron (including Fred King), three of which were camera-equipped, was escorted by nine Sopwith 1½ Strutters of No.43 Squadron. They flew east of Arras to photograph the trenches.
High in the bright sky von Richthofen’s Jasta 11 was waiting for them and his ten fighters pounced on the 18 British two-seaters.
Shortly afterwards more German aircraft joined in the action, so numbers were pretty even, although there was a great difference in the performance of the opposing aircraft.
With typical offensive spirit the British machines climbed to meet the enemy, keeping a close formation as the aerial dance of death began.
In the dog-fight the British claimed to have ‘driven down out of control’ three enemy aircraft; shot down two more in flames and forced a sixth to land.
Then disaster struck.
Slipping in behind one of No.25 Squadron’s FE2bs, A5439 ‘Zanzibar No.10’, von Richthofen fired burst after burst at his elusive target. While pilot 2/Lt Arthur Boultbee might frantically twist and turn to elude his attacker, it would be virtually impossible for his gunner, Fred King, to have drawn a bead on the Red Baron’s Halberstadt.
At the mercy of such an accomplished air fighter, the outcome was inevitable.
Eventually a vital tail-boom was severed in the hail of bullets and the FE2, breaking up in the air, crashed behind enemy lines near Gavrelles, killing Fred and his pilot.
It was von Richthofen’s twenty-seventh victory.
Fred’s pilot on that fateful day was Lieutenant Arthur Boultbee RFC, also a Fenman, born in the village of Colne, near Earith in the Cambridgeshire fens.
Both men are buried in Neuville St Vaast cemetery and Fred King is commemorated on the war memorial outside Deeping St Nicholas church.