WWI ace and the first ever search and rescue mission
The First World War saw the dawn of a new type of fighting: aerial combat. This also meant that this was the first time that countries needed to search for and rescue downed pilots. And it fell to pioneering aviator Richard Bell Davies of the British Royal Navy to carry out the first modern-style search and rescue mission – and, suitably enough, it was a mission straight out of a comic book adventure.
Born in London in 1886, Davies enlisted in the Royal Navy when he was just 15. After almost a decade sailing the world, he decided to take to the skies. He took private flying lessons and then, in 1913, he was accepted into the fledgling Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS), making him one of the world’s first combat pilots. Within a year of Davies getting his wings, the First World War broke out. Both sides were keen to see what their weaponized flying machines could do.
It didn’t take long for Davies to make a name for himself. Over the opening months of the bloody conflict he carried out a number of successful bombing raids, most notably taking out German submarine bases along the Belgian coastline. By January 1915, he had been awarded the Distinguished Service Order. However, this was nothing compared to his next act of bravery. At the end of 1915, the 29-year-old Davies was tasked with patrolling the skies above the border of the Ottoman Empire. On November 16, he was patrolling alongside another aviator, Flight Sub-Lieutenant Smylie, when disaster struck.
Smylie’s plane was hit by heavy fire and went down. The pilot made a controlled landing and, eager that his machine didn’t fall into enemy hands, promptly blew it up. This meant, however, he was stranded behind enemy lines. With the enemy closing in, and despite the fact nobody had ever tried a quick rescue of this type ever before, Davies went down for his comrade. Smylie was bundled onto rather than into the aircraft and the two men took off to safety. According to legend, it took two hours to get Smylie free, so tightly was he wedged in above the controls.
For his unprecedented actions, Davies was awarded the Victoria Cross and then the Air Force Cross. He soon went back to his first love, the sea. He served throughout the 1920s and 30s and, even though he retired as vice admiral in 1941, he still served his country