Claude Alward Ridley

Claude Ridley was born on 15 November 1896 in Sunderland as the third child of wealthy parents Louis and Eleanor Ridley.

His parents moved to London where they lived in fashionable Royal Crescent at Notting Hill.

He attended St Paul's School in London and then Sandhurst College as a Cadet.

On the outbreak of the war he received a temporary commission into the RFC although this was short lived as he resigned when offered a full commission at RMC Sandhurst.

After passing out he joined the Royal Fusiliers but continued his interest in flying by becoming attached to the RFC in 1915.

He joined 3 Squadron in France where he soon engaged in battles with the Germans and inevitably in August 1915 during a fight with 2 German planes he was wounded in the foot which meant that he was no longer able to fly and returned to the UK for convalescence.

Once fit to fly he was posted to one of the new London defence airfields at Joyce Green to deal with Zeppelin raids.

C. Cole and E.F. Cheesman in The Air Defene of Britain 1914-1918 provide an account of a zeppelin raid on the night of 31 March/early hours of 1 April 1916..

Seven German Navy Zeppelins set out to bomb London. The raid soon ran into trouble when two returned with mechanical troubles and then three Army Zeppelins returned because of bad weather.

The remaining three pressed on into England with two crossing the Suffolk coast and one crossing the Norfolk coast causing havoc with sighting and bombs all over East Anglia.

Zeppelin L15 continued towards London on a path that took it near to Joyce Green.

Ridley took off in his BE2c and then caught a glimpse of the Zeppelin in a searchlight. He started to fire his machine gun at the Zeppelin and closed the distance but as he did so the Zeppelin moved out of the searchlight and was lost by Ridley.

A few minutes later over Purfleet the Zeppelin was again picked out by a searchlight and an anti aircraft battery made a direct hit splitting the fabric of the airship and allowing gas to escape. Once again the zeppelin was lost but badly damaged it crashed into the sea off Margate.

The London Gazette on 16 May 1916 records the award of a Military Cross for conspicuous gallantry and good work during zeppelin raids. in his Morane Bullet with 60 Squadron in France from the book 60 Squadron

Ridley now moved back to France with the new 60 Squadron where he became the expert in the perilous job of flying spies into German occupied territory at night. This was a dangerous task as he had to reconnoitre the area in daylight before the landing and choose a suitable grassy field from the area. A night or so later he would take off at night with the spy and return to his selected field where he would land, drop off the spy and take off again.

60 Squadron were equipped with French built Morane Bullets. These were quite fast with a capability of 90mph but at that speed the machine gun would refuse to fire and at lower speed the plane was very unstable liable to stall and spin on any manoeuvre other than blatant fast straight flying.

On 3 August 1916 Ridley took off with his spy and landed in his chosen field near Douai. Two bad things happened firstly the Germans had that day taken over a nearby filed as a temporary airfield and secondly his engine died and he was unable to take off again.

The book 60 Squadron by Group Captain AJL Scott tells the story of what happened next-

His adventures were remarkable. His spy got out, told Ridley to hide for a little, and presently, returning with civilian clothes and some money, told him that he must now shift for himself.

Ridley did so with such address that he eluded capture for three months on the German side of the line, and eventually worked his way via Brussels to the Dutch frontier and escaped.

This was a good performance, none the worse because he could speak neither French nor German. The method he adopted was a simple one he would go up to some likely-looking civilian and say, “I am a British officer trying to escape; will you help me?”

They always did. He had many interesting adventures. For example, he lay up near the Douai aerodrome and watched the young Huns learning to fly and crashing on the aerodrome where he saw one of our B.E.s brought down, and the pilot and observer marched past him into captivity; later the conductor of a tram in the environs of Brussels suspected him, but, knocking the man down, he jumped into a field of standing corn and contrived to elude pursuit.

This exciting account was similarly recorded by Ralph Barker in his book The Royal Flying Corps in France and other similar accounts at the time helping to build a great reputation for Ridley it is at odds to the account recorded by Ridley himself in documents held by the National Archives. We do not know the sources used by Barker and Scott so it seems best to follow the account attributed to Ridley himself.

According to Ridley's account the agent, known only as V.M., did not tell Ridley to shift for himself. A friend of V.M. gave Ridley civilian clothing and V.M. stayed with Ridley until his attempted arrest on the tram on September 30th.  Ridley recorded his indebtedness to V.M. at the end of his account.

Ridley was after that alone until he met Landers, a Belgian fugitive on October 3rd, with whom he eventually crossed the frontier.

It is unlikely that Ridley introduced himself as British officer trying to escape, when he was on the run with the agent in occupied Belgium. The agents’ mother, sister and V.M.'s former comrades had been arrested. Ridley recorded a number of occasions then, and later when he was alone,  of refusals help. The 'standing corn' story may be the garbled version of Ridley's appeal to a man  who was loading a cart with corn to let him hide in it - he was refused.

Whatever account is correct Starting with the new aerodrome near to his crash Ridley kept notes of all enemy activity and on his eventual escape via the neutral  Netherlands he was able  to supply good information.

On 14 November 1916 the London Gazette records the award of a Distinguished Service Order for conspicuous gallantry and judgment in the execution of a special mission. When his machine was wrecked he used great resource and obtained valuable information.

It is rumoured that Ridley had a personal audience with the King to congratulate him on his escape.

Ridley returned to his Squadron in France but he was not allowed to fly as were he to crash behind German lines then he would be shot as a spy given his actions while he was on the run. Maries aerodrome before restoration.

In view of that, at the age of 19, he returned to the defence of London and in November 1916 he was given command of B Flight 37 Squadron at its new base at Stow  Maries.

Although no doubt he was frustrated not to return to his front line squadron, given the life expectancy of a front line pilot at about 6 weeks, the posting may well have helped him live through the war.

In 1928 following postings at several stations, including a spell at the 2nd flying training school at RAF Digby in Lincolnshire, he retired with the rank of Squadron leader but the new conflict saw him back in uniform although now with the rank of Wing Commander.

Despite leaving Stow Maries in July 1917 after less than a year, Ridley maintained an attachment to the village.

In June 1925 he married Lilias Elizabeth McAlpine, granddaughter os the well know contractor Sir Robert Alpine, at St Marks in Audley Street, London with a reception at Claridges Hotel. Such was his standing that no fewer than 3 air commodores were guests at the wedding.

Valerie Lloyd George, Granddaughter of former Prime Minister David Lloyd George carried the brides silver lame train.

Ridley was a keen sportsman listing hunting, steeplechasing, polo, boxing and rugby amongst his sporting interests.

In 1925 he donated an illuminated cross to replace the weathervane on the steeple of the church where 3 of his men were buried.

Sadly he died from natural causes in 1942 whilst off duty in London. gravestone at Stow Maries

He always recalled happy times in Stow Maries and it was in respect of his wishes that he was buried in the Churchyard that could be seen from the southern end of his aerodrome. Many years later he was joined there by his wife Lilias.

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