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Pembrokeshire WW1 pilot's diary reveals British and German flyers went to extraordinary lengths to help each other

By South Wales Evening Post  |  Posted: May 09, 2014

A pilot with a sopwith camel aircraft like the one flown by William Sambrook in the First World War. A diary by Mr Sambrook has revealed some of the extraordinary co-operation between British and German pilots during the conflict.

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BRITISH and German pilots went out of their way to help each other during the First World War, a serviceman’s diary has revealed.

William Sambrook, a Royal Naval Air Service pilot from Pembrokeshire, was 22 when he recorded the co-operation between the two nations.

He said the pilots would warn each other where they were about to drop bombs and send photographs of graves when they buried the other side's dead.

Research for an exhibition commemorating the conflict’s outbreak revealed the existence of the diary.

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Mr Sambrook was posted to Coudekerque airfield near Calais in 1916, and tells of almost daily bombing raids on German-held aerodromes, as well as the docks, and Zeppelin sheds at Bruges and Zeebrugge.

His diary said that on one day in May 1916 one of their number failed to return from a raid on Ostend aerodrome, and there were rumours the missing aircraft had been picked up from the sea by a Belgian trawler.

One of Mr Sambrook’s colleagues then flew over the German airfield and dropped a message asking if they had information about what might have happened to him.

A reply, dropped from the air, confirmed the aircraft had been shot down over the sea.

“They said attempts had been made at rescue, but when the machine was brought in, the pilot was already dead,” said Mr Sambrook in his diary.

“He was buried with full military honours alongside two comrades at Marrakerke cemetery, Ostend. The message was accompanied by two photos of the funeral and the grave.”

“There was also a message in German stating the name and place in German territory where our machines could land if they had engine trouble.”

The head of photographs at the Imperial War Museum, Alan Wakefield, said this type of cooperation was more common among pilots than foot soldiers.

“I know of cases where German pilots dropped notes and photographs of a crashed aircraft and its occupant, saying they’d buried him and asking for his name so they could make a headstone,” he said.

“In one instance, a German pilot dropped a note saying he was about to bomb an airfield and suggesting that those on the ground should get out of the way.”

It was a Sopwith Camel that Mr Sambrook took to the air with, and his service earnt him the Distinguished Service Medal for gallantry in the air in 1917.

After a subsequent career working in the public health department of Westminster City Council, he returned to Pembrokeshire to live with his sister in Deerland, Llangwm.

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  • CastleFieldJa  |  May 09 2014, 6:13PM

    A wonderful story about quite remarkable acts of humanity in the face of war. I had heard of such events (passed down through the generations) but had not seen evidence before.

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