On the World War I panel of the Helensburgh War Memorial, there are the names of 206 casualties.

The War Memorial Families Project has looked into the stories behind these names.

Research by the late Donald Fullarton, reported in his Eye on Millig column as well as from the Helensburgh Heritage Trust website, was beneficial in this project. It led to further correspondence with Peter Smith of Oxford, who led another community project, The Port Meadow WWI Aerodrome Memorial Project.

This is George Thomson's story.

Captain George Edwin Thomson DSO MC was born in Rangoon, Burma, where his father worked as an engineer, on September 19, 1897, the only child of James and Ellen Thomson.

Helensburgh Advertiser: George ThomsonGeorge Thomson (Image: Supplied)

The family home was Glenfuelan, Millig Street, Helensburgh, and the family worshipped at St Michael and All Angels. He was educated at Hermitage School, Allan Glen’s and Glenalmond before Glasgow University and he had hoped to pursue a career in the Civil Service.

George was an excellent swimmer and leading member of Helensburgh Swimming Club, and a good rugby player.

At the outbreak of the war in 1914 he was gazetted to the Kings Own Scottish Borderers as a Second Lieutenant.

In September 1916 he was transferred from the Infantry to the Royal Flying Corps, becoming a Flying Officer with the rank of Second Lieutenant on 30 December 1916. ‘Tommy’ was well liked by his fellow officers who described him as a ‘cheerful Scot’.

Helensburgh Advertiser: KOSB badgeKOSB badge (Image: Supplied)

Helensburgh Advertiser: Royal Flying Corps badgeRoyal Flying Corps badge (Image: Supplied)

During his flight training, George was badly injured in a crash which left him with a permanently scarred face.

In August 1917, he joined 46 Squadron in France and scored one victory, flying a Sopwith Pup he shot down an Albatross C type 2 seater on September 25, 1917.

An extract from the 1968 memoir of one of Captain Thomson’s fellow pilots, No Parachute by Capt. Arthur Gould Lee MC, records: "3 September 1917 - during the 3rd Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele) experienced heavy fighting, including engagement with Red Barons Circus and the Baron himself in his new all red triplane.

"Thomson was badly 'shot about' on both his jobs, one bullet grazing his temple. These were his first scraps too."

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Only a month later, on November 23, George was promoted to Captain and Flight Commander in recognition of his skill and courage.

The squadron received the new Sopwith Camel fighter, which was introduced in June 1917, on November 7, soon after George’s first victory. George was promoted again on January 7, 1918 to B Flight commander following the death of his predecessor when his plane broke up at altitude.

Sopwith Camels were considered quite difficult planes to handle and it was described as offering a choice between “a wooden cross, red cross and a Victoria Cross”.

However, for a skilled pilot such as George Thomson they were agile and highly manoeuvrable and accounted for more aerial victories than any other Allied aircraft during World War I destroying at least 1,200 enemy aircraft.

Captain Thomson operationally flew four different Camels in March 1918 when he scored his 15 victories over various types of German aircraft. The average life expectancy of a fighter pilot in 1917 was six weeks.

Helensburgh Advertiser: Sopwith Camel 1917

In his 1969 book "Open Cockpit" Captain Lee reflects on how it felt to join up "with scarcely a serious thought in my head, but a few scraps changed all that, within a couple of weeks I’d passed into manhood, alive to hazard and responsibility.

"All who survived were the same, you could see them maturing after a few dogfights, still young in years but fledged in prowess. …I just wasn’t one of those hell-bent daredevils like Thomson, who’d joined 46 Squadron six weeks after me, but who, when we were in scraps together, took risks on Pups that staggered me, and always I was amazed he escaped, but he did escape…Thomson .. didn’t care whether he was killed or not. …My mind went back to Thomson.. and all the other fighters without fear."

Captain Lee recounts in his memoirs: "Returned to Home Establishment on 7th Jan 1918, following MO & Sqdn commander recommendation after three crashes and prolonged stressful combat. Received MC before leaving. Flown nearly 400 hours, 260 in France and 222 over enemy territory, completed 118 patrols, had 56 combats and shot down 11, five solo the rest shared."

This was in the space of six months; George Thomson may have done more as he stayed in France for another two and a half months.

During March 1918, the Germans began a massive offensive to try to break the stalemate and win the war before American reinforcements arrived. George shot down fifteen German planes that month, including four on March 16 and three on March 23.

George shot down 21 German planes in total, the second highest kill score for 46 Sqdn, including duelling in the skies with the infamous German Red Baron over Ypres. George was recognised as a leading Sopwith Camel “Ace”.

In March 1918, he was awarded the Military Cross, and in April was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.

Helensburgh Advertiser: WWI DSO medalWWI DSO medal (Image: Supplied)

Helensburgh Advertiser: WWI MC medalWWI MC medal (Image: Supplied)

The MC and DSO recognise ‘conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty’.

The official medal citations provide some insight into his brave exploits, with his MC stating: "On one occasion, when testing his machine, he observed a hostile two-seater machine between himself and the lines.

"He dived on it and fired sixty rounds at a close range, rendering the observer insensible.

"He then pulled up under the tail of the enemy machine, fired another thirty rounds, and observed it going down in a slow spin."

His medal citations described further air battles and how Captain Thomson ‘displayed the most marked skill and gallantry’ and ‘has rendered continuous gallant and valuable service'.

At the end of March after his last aerial victory on March 23, George was posted back to Home Establishment in England as an instructor, and in May he was appointed second in command of a Training Depot Station at Feltwell in Norfolk, (by this time the Royal Flying Corps had become the Royal Air Force).

George came home on leave in early April 1918, and the Helensburgh and Gareloch Times reported: “A vast amount of satisfaction has arisen in the town, especially amongst those who took a leading part in the welfare of the Helensburgh Swimming Club, that one of their number, now Captain George Thomson, KOSB RAF, has the proud distinction of wearing the ribbon of the DSO, also the ribbon of the Military Cross.

"Captain Thomson, who is at present staying for a few days of his well- earned furlough with Mr and Mrs Joseph Buchanan, Windsor Terrace, 21 East Princes Street, has only been some nine months in France, and in the course of his sojourn has had many thrilling adventures.

"On three occasions his own machine has come to grief, but he safely returned and landed in his own lines. He has not yet attained his 21st birthday.

"As a swimmer he was in the front rank of the many young men who were members of the club the year the war broke out, and many exciting races were seen at the pier. With the progress he was making there is no saying what honours he might have achieved in this branch of healthy sport.

"We understand Captain Thomson is to be retained in London as a lecturer on aviation in warfare. His many friends in town have congratulated him on winning such high military honours, and wish him good luck.”

Just six weeks later on May 23, 1918, he was accidentally killed during a take-off from Port Meadow aerodrome Oxfordshire, after refuelling on a solo cross country flight. His single-seater Sopwith Camel F1 D9545 burst into flames at 600 ft, probably due to a carburettor fault, and crashed to the ground killing him outright.

George was 20 years old.

Helensburgh Advertiser: Wolvercote Aerodrome May 1918Wolvercote Aerodrome May 1918 (Image: Supplied)

George’s greatest fear and nightmare was his plane bursting into flames in the sky and crashing to the ground. Having survived the Front on the ground and in the air, it is tragic that he was killed in an accident in England.

He is buried in Wolvercote Cemetery, Oxfordshire, and is remembered on the new memorial at Wolvercote on the site of Port Meadow Aerodrome.

He is also remembered with honour on the Scottish National War Memorial, Allan Glen’s School Book of Remembrance, University of Glasgow Roll of Honour, St Michael and All Angels Memorial, Helensburgh and Gareloch Unionist Association Roll of Honour, Hermitage School Roll of Honour, and Helensburgh War Memorial.

Helensburgh Advertiser: George Thomson's graveGeorge Thomson's grave (Image: Supplied)

Reporting his death, the Helensburgh and Gareloch Times said at the time: “Captain Thomson was an excellent swimmer, and a prominent and successful competitor at galas of the local Swimming Club.

"He was also a fine rugby player. Only last month Captain Thomson paid a visit to Helensburgh. He resided with Mr and Mrs Joseph Buchanan, and they, as well as his other friends in town, deeply regret the loss of a young life full of rich promise.”

Port Meadow Aerodrome where George died was a training aerodrome that operated out of tents and temporary buildings with some 800 trainee airmen and 60 planes operating there in 1918.

Helensburgh Advertiser: Port Meadow Aerodrome memorial, Wolvercote, OxfordshirePort Meadow Aerodrome memorial, Wolvercote, Oxfordshire (Image: Supplied)

After the war it was completely cleared away, the land returned to pasture and memories of the war faded into history. The Port Meadow WWI Aerodrome Memorial Project (see their page on Facebook), set out to raise a memorial to the seventeen airmen who had died while training and visiting the aerodrome. The memorial was unveiled on May 23, 2018, on the centenary of George Thomson’s death.

Thanks to Fiona Baker of Destination Helensburgh for submitting this piece.