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‘Bravest man in the world’

Brian Cormack reveals the extraordinary life of Louis Strange

Louis Strange (second right) and Joy Watts (left), with whom he lived during the last few years of his life

Louis Strange (second right) and Joy Watts (left), with whom he lived during the last few years of his life (Image: David Strange)

Pioneer aviator Louis Strange died quietly at his home in Worth Matravers fifty years ago this month. Dubbed ‘the bravest man in the world’ by his friend and comrade, Robert Smith-Barry (who developed the internationally recognised ‘Gosport System’ of flying instruction), Louis Strange would have been a national hero in any other age, his life the stuff of legend. However, he belonged to a time when bravery was a matter of duty and ingenuity was issued as standard.
Lieutenant-Colonel Louis Arbon Strange DSO, OBE, MC, DFC, to give him his full title, came from a family whose farming roots in Dorset are documented as far back as the mid-18th century on land around Hilton and Hazelbury Bryan. He himself was born in 1891 and grew up at Tarrant Keynston Mill. A keen horseman and hunter, in 1909 he enlisted in the Dorset Yeomanry. In this he was following a family tradition – Stranges had ridden with the Yeomanry since the regiment was formed early in the Napoleonic Wars. The following year he was with a mounted troop detailed to help with crowd control at Bournemouth’s first flying display and was instantly smitten by aviation. The Wright brothers had made the first heavier-than-air flight just seven years earlier and although the five-day event in Bournemouth saw Britain’s first aviation fatality when the tail of Charles Rolls’s Wright Flyer broke off and the plane smashed into the ground at Southbourne, Louis’s passion was undimmed. A year later he took his first flight, then went on to complete his training at Hendon, where he became the fifth member of the Upside Down Club: pilots who had completed a loop.

The Story of Louis Strange by Peter Hearn (HMSO, 1994). The cover illustration is from the 1959 Top Spot cartoon of the famous Martinsyde incident, artist unknown

The Story of Louis Strange by Peter Hearn (HMSO, 1994). The cover illustration is from the 1959 Top Spot cartoon of the famous Martinsyde incident, artist unknown

When war broke out, he was seconded to the Royal Flying Corps, where his curious nature and inventive mind found much to occupy them. In May 1915 he and air ace Lanoe Hawker VC had mounted a Lewis machine gun on the top wing of a Martinsyde S1 scout aircraft to enable it to fire forward, clear of the arc of the propeller. Days later, while attempting to change the ammunition drum on the Lewis while under fire, Louis was tossed out of the cockpit as the plane flipped over. Miraculously, he clung to the empty drum and clawed himself back in, just in time to right the aircraft. ‘Years later, in the 1950s, Louis met a lot of his former adversaries in Germany, including the pilot who had chased him that day. He was convinced Louis had been killed,’ says Louis’s great-nephew, David Strange.

Louis in his Royal Flying Corps uniform

Louis in his Royal Flying Corps uniform

In another escapade, Louis and his comrade, future racing driver and spy Euan Rabagliati, designed a bomb chute in the floor of the plane to enable them to deliver their load with greater accuracy. They dropped their first bomb but the second jammed in the chute, detonator pointing down, so if they attempted to land it would go off. Louis scrawled a warning note and dropped it on a weight over the airfield so the ground crew could be evacuated. Being a farmer, Louis knew that the ears of wheat were strong enough to wrap around an object, so they flew very low over a nearby wheat field in the hope that the crops might dislodge the detonator. As they ran out of fuel, they returned to the airfield to land without knowing if they had been successful. It turned out that they had been, but those who saw them land said they had never seen a plane exited so quickly!
Ill health returned Louis to Blighty, where he set up the first air gunnery schools and served at the Central Flying School before commanding the 80th Wing that accounted for some 449 German aircraft and 23 balloons before the enemy surrender on 11 November 1918, despite having been formed only in June of that year. Peace, though welcome, probably afforded Louis the first opportunity to properly mourn the loss in action of his younger brother Gilbert (known as Ben), himself a seven-kill ace, little more than six weeks earlier. Ben is remembered on the war memorial at Tarrant Keynston.
Although granted a permanent commission in the Royal Air Force in 1919, Louis retired in 1921 with sciatica and joined his brother Jack (known as Ronald) to farm the land his father had bought at Worth Matravers the year before – their mother, Kate, was the grand-daughter of Robert and Letitia Burt from Swanage and when a deal on a farm near Blandford fell through, she persuaded her husband, Walter, that their future lay in Purbeck soil.

Weston Farm, Worth Matravers

Weston Farm, Worth Matravers

Entrepreneurial as well as resourceful, Louis and Ronald set up Worth Farm Dairy in Swanage High Street, opposite where the library is now, selling produce from the farm. In summer they also sold ice cream on the beach. By coincidence, Ronald’s great-granddaughter, Emily, now runs a catering business called Love Cake Etc close to the former dairy on the High Street.
His health restored by working on the land, Louis left the business to Ronald and returned to aviation in 1928 as director and chief pilot at Simmonds Aircraft (later Spartan) and a director of the Whitney Straight Corporation. He flew in several high-profile air contests before war broke out and rejoined the RAF in 1940 at the age of 50. Too old for a regular commission, he became a pilot officer in the RAF Volunteer Reserve and as the Allies fled northern France, he was posted to Merville as Aerodrome Control Officer, tasked with saving as much equipment as possible. As the enemy advanced he patched up a Hurricane – a plane he had never flown before – in order to fly it home. ‘It’s said he made it to the cockpit with the enemy about 100 yards away and took off,’ says David Strange. ‘Ground fire forced him to climb higher and higher until he encountered eight Messerschmitts, who gave chase. He then had to use all his skills and tricks to keep ahead of them until he got close enough to the naval ships at sea for them to give him some covering fire.’
The exploit earned him a bar to his DFC and the command of the Central Landing School at RAF Ringway near Manchester – an opportunity for yet more shenanigans. ‘Churchill told him he wanted 5000 paratroops trained and arranged a visit to check on progress,’ recounts David. ‘On the day of Churchill’s visit it was very windy and too dangerous for trainee parachutists, so Louis instructed a hundred men to hide in long grass and sent a team of forty or so of his best men who could handle the conditions to perform a jump. This they did, then carried out a mock assault, their number swelled by the men already on the ground.’ Greatly impressed by the exercise and suitably briefed by Strange, the Prime Minister immediately ordered the acceleration of training. True to form, though, Louis was soon off to pastures new, establishing the Merchant Ships Fighter Unit to develop a system for the catapult launching of Hurricanes at sea to protect the merchant convoys.
Later in the war he assisted in the planning of Operation Overlord and was in Reims in May 1945 to witness negotiations for the German surrender. After the war he returned to farming in North Dorset, although he continued in competition flying for a few years, and was a frequent visitor to Weston, where he offered plenty of unwanted advice to his brother Ronald and nephews John and Peter, David’s father. ‘He was ahead of his time in many ways,’ says David. ‘He invented a rocket-powered grass-drying machine and wanted to put the whole farm in grass for dried grass production, but the machine was very slow and my father and uncle didn’t agree with him as he would have used much of the arable land, which was used for cereal production, and his grass dryer would not have coped. They wanted to continue haymaking the old-fashioned way, which was dependent on dry, sunny weather. Louis’s grass-drying device was 30 years ahead of its time. The problem was that it was too slow.’

Louis Strange shows his sister Daisy his rocket-powered grass-drying machine at Weston Farm.

Louis Strange shows his sister Daisy his rocket-powered grass-drying machine at Weston Farm. (Image: David Strange)

After a spell living in a caravan at Winterborne Kingston, where he failed to get permission to build a home to his own design, he moved to Worth Matravers to live with Joy Watts, who had been his landlady in Manchester. He also saw his daughter, Susan, regularly but had broken with his wife, Marjorie, in 1952 when she had him admitted to a psychiatric hospital after his increasingly frequent bouts of depression became manic.
Louis Strange died peacefully in his sleep on 15 November 1966, aged 75. David Strange again: ‘I was twelve years old when he died and only remember Louis as a very frail old man sitting in a chair with a blanket over him. He suffered terrible depression in his later years, to which the horrors of war no doubt must have contributed, but I had no idea of the story of his life at that stage.’

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