|Captain John Herbert Towne LETTS MC|
Lincolnshire Regiment and 64 Squadron Royal Air Force
Date of birth: 10th June 1897
Date of death: 11th October 1918
Killed on active service aged 21
Buried at Bac-du-Sud British Cemetery Plot VI Row A Grave 30
|John Herbert Towne Letts was born at Steep Hill House in Lincoln on the 10th of June 1897 the only child of Walter John Letts, a railway superintendant, and Charlotte Helen (nee Robertson) Letts of Steep Hill House. He was christened at St Ann's Church, Tottenham in Middlesex on the 19th of July 1897.
He was educated at Miss Piper's nursery school in Lincoln, at Aldeburgh Lodge in Suffolk from 1907 to 1909 and at Roydon Hall Preparatory School in Norfolk from 1909 to 1911. He went on to Lancing College where he was in News House from September 1911 to September 1912 and in Fields House until September 1913 when he moved to Gibbs House until he left in July 1915. He was appointed as a House Captain in September 1914, was in the 2nd XI Football in 1913/14, the 1st Football XI in 1914/15 and the Swimming Team in 1914 and 1915, being Secretary in the latter year. He was a member of the Cricket XI in 1914. He was also winner of the open quarter mile race, held five house colours and served as a Sergeant in the Officer Training Corps.
While still at school he applied for a place at the Royal Military College Sandhurst on the 26th of June 1915 in an application which was supported by the Reverend Bowlby, Headmaster of Lancing College. He was accepted into Sandhurst on the 27th of August 1915 where he became a Sergeant in H Company. At a medical examination, which was undertaken in London on the 29th of August it was recorded that he was five feet eight inches tall and that he weighed 143 lbs.
He was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Lincolnshire Regiment on the 26th of January 1916 and proceeded for pilot training to No. 1 Reserve Squadron at Gosport the same day. On the 19th of March, after four hours of dual instruction, he made his first solo flight in Maurice Farman Longhorn 4004. On his second solo later the same day he lost control of his aircraft and crashed into the side of a shed. On the 23rd of March 1916 he attempted to take his Aero Certificate but was forced to land after three minutes flying due to engine failure. On the 24th of March he passed his Aero Certificate (2618) at the Military School in Farnborough flying a Maurice Farman Biplane. He was then posted to the Central Flying School at Upavon where he made his first flight in a BE2c on the 29th of March. On the 9th of April he went solo on the type. He was promoted to Flying Officer and seconded to the Royal Flying Corps on the 4th of May 1916.
He was posted to France to join 27 Squadron on the 15th of June 1916 flying Matinsyde Elephant aircraft. On the 25th of June 1916 he was alighting from his aircraft after a patrol when he damaged the cartilage in his left knee. He remained at his post but damaged the same knee once again on the 27th of July and was evacuated to 29 Casualty Clearing Station on the 31st of July where it was discovered that he had dislocated the semilunar cartilage in his left knee. He underwent an operation and embarked for England at Calais on board the Hospital Ship "Brighton" on the 4th of August 1916, landing at Dover later the same day. A Medical Board which sat at 4th Northern General Hospital, Lincoln on the 19th of October 1916 declared him as being fit for light duty and he was posted as an instructor to 47 Reserve Squadron based at Waddington on the same day. On the 17th of January 1917 a Medical Board which sat at Adestial House declared him as being fit for general service and he was posted to the newly formed 48 Squadron who were about to go to France equipped with the new Bristol Fighter F2b aircraft; they were the first squadron to be equipped with them. He returned to the front with his new squadron on the 12th of February 1917.
On the 5th of April 1917 he was promoted to Captain and was appointed as Flight Commander to replace Captain William Leefe-Robinson VC who had recently been shot down and taken prisoner by Richtofen's Jasta 11 on his first mission with the squadron.
On the 9th of April 1917 John Letts and his Observer, Lieutenant Harold George Collins, were flying Bristol Fighter A3315 in the company of another aircraft piloted by Captain Wilkinson, when they became engaged in combat with five German machines of Jasta 11, Richtofen's "Flying Circus" to the east of Arras. During the engagement they claimed two Albatross DIII aircraft as shot down, both being seen to be out of control. These victories were shared with Captain Alan Machin Wilkinson and his Observer, Lieutenant Lawrence Wilfred Allen. During the fight Letts' aircraft was "cut to ribbons" and he flew it back to base with great difficulty. Hewas unhurt but sadly Collins was killed during the encounter.
After a short leave he was soon back in the air and on the 4th of May 1917, while flying Bristol Fighter A3350 he and his Observer Lieutenant L. Speller, claimed an Albatross DIII as shot down and destroyed at Pelves at 4.15pm. This victory was shared with 2nd Lieutenant H. Smithers and his Observer, Aircraftsman 2nd Class Valentine Reed.
On the 11th of May 1917 he was flying Bristol Fighter A7104 with his Observer, 2nd Lieutenant James Bruce Jameson, when they once again encountered enemy aircraft of Richtofen's Jasta 11. They shot down an Albatross DIII, which fell out of control over Biache-Dury at 12.45pm but were themselves attacked and hit. Letts managed to nurse the damaged aircraft back towards the west and made a crash landing inside British lines in which he was slightly wounded. Another Bristol Fighter was lost during the fight although Jasta 11 pilots claimed three victories. Letts victor was most probably Leutnant Maashoff of Jasta 11 as the other two victory claims made by were said to have been in flames or to have crashed inside the German lines.
On the 16th of May 1917, also with Jameson as his Observer, he claimed another Albatross DIII which was shot down in the Pelves area.
On the 24th of May he was back in the air again with his Observer Lieutenant Lawrence Wilfred Allen in Bristol Fighter A3350 when they were attacked by four enemy two seater machines. Despite the heavy odds they claimed two aircraft destroyed while driving the other two off. Their aircraft was damaged during the fight with Allen being wounded. In the event they are officially credited with one victory. The official report into this action stated:-
"By his indescribable pluck and dash he has set a fine example to his pilots and observers of his flight."
For this feat he was awarded the Military Cross which was announced in the London Gazette of the 16th of August 1917. The citation read:-
"For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He attacked four large two seaters, driving two down out of control and forcing the remaining two down. He has helped to destroy eight machines, and throughout has set a splendid example."
On the 27th of May while flying with his Observer, Lieutenant Malcolmsen, he shared in the destruction of another Albatross DIII south of Douai.
On the 5th of June he and Observer Jameson, flying Bristol Fighter A7106, claimed another two seater sent down out of control at 7.25am also near Douai.
On the 17th of August he was flying in Bristol Fighter A7219 with 2nd Lieutenant Jameson as observer when they were attacked by eight Albatross DIIIs at 11am to the east of Nieuport. The combined fire of Jameson and that of Lieutenant I.H. Tanner, the observer of fellow Bristol pilot 2nd Lieutenant Alan Craddock Simpson, sent one enemy aircraft spinning down on full power with the result that it fell apart in the air.
On the 22nd of August 1917 he was flying with his Observer Lieutenant Harold R. Power in Bristol Fighter A7219, along with two other machines, when they pursued ten Gotha bombers out to sea who were returning from a raid on the Kentish coast. In the running battle, Power was fatally hit and involuntarily struck Letts across the head with the barrel of his machine gun causing an injury and concussion. Letts managed to nurse the stricken aircraft back to their base but Power was dead when they arrived.
On the 4th of September he was flying with Observer 2nd Lieutenant John Frost in Bristol Fighter A7219 when they shot down two Albatross DVs at Ghishelles at around 7pm. On his return to base he wrote the following report of the action : -
"Whilst leading an Offensive Patrol I observed 15 scouts about 1,000 feet below me. I kept on diving machine with formation and firing and then "zooming" up again. One scout detached himself from the formation, and I flew straight at him. This E.A. was firing at my machine and I was firing at E.A., who finally rolled over and came under my machine. Observer fired 3 drums into E.A. who was last seen in a spin, apparently out of control. Further observation was impossible owing to the darkness. In all I engaged about 8 scouts. In the middle of the engagement I went to some Sopwith Pups who were in the vicinity and on returning with them the E.A. had retreated, but were engaged without any apparent result."
A note was added below the report from Major H.S. Shield, the Commanding Officer of 48 Squadron: -
"This was apparently the machine observed by 2/Lt Walker, which crashed into another machine." Letts and frost were credited with the destruction of both aircraft.
On the 15th of September 1917 he and John Frost took off in Bristol Fighter B1117 for an Offensive Patrol. When at 12,000 feet they became detached from the rest of the squadron. They were flying at a lower altitude when they spotted an enemy two seater to the north east of Dixmunde. On their first attack Letts' gun jammed but he cleared the jam and pursed the enemy machine, firing at it until it went down out of control. After falling some distance it righted itself and headed west. They pursued and attacked it again until it crashed at 7.15pm where the victory was later confirmed by Belgian troops in an advanced post. On his return to base he filed the following report of the action: -
"Whilst leading an O.P. I observed 7 Albatross scouts flying on the line Beke-Middelkerke about 1,500 feet above formation. Two of these machines attacked the top formation of 3 Bristols and one E.A. was shot down and fell in pieces in the air. The other then attacked the lower formation and my machine in particular. After a sharp encounter E.A. flew away east. By this time the main formation had lost me and I was by myself. I then sighted a two seater E.A., being "Archied", I at once flew to attack E.A. I got well behind him and fired a good burst into him. Tracers could distinctly be observed to enter the machine. My gun then jambed and E.A. turned east. I cleared the jamb and headed off and he again turned west. I fired another burst into E.A. who stalled and side slipped as if out of control. My gun again jambed and E.A. righted himself and again turned east. I headed him off again and on getting very close (about 20 yards off) fired another burst at him, and I noticed that his rudder was very badly damaged, being all twisted at the top. After this I headed him off three more times, and finally at 800 feet just over the lines, I lost E.A. who apparently dived very steeply. My Observer had fired twice at E.A. when I was clearing my jambed gun, and my Observer saw E.A. crash into a wood and heap up. Hostile A.A. attack was very heavy and I returned."
On the 19th of September 1917 he returned to England where he was appointed as Testing Instructor at the Aeroplane Experimental Station, Martlesham Heath and was posted as Group Commanding Instructor at the School of Air Fighting on the 20th of October 1917 where he served until the 24th of January 1918. During this period he flew and tested a range of new aircraft and equipment.
Several months later, at his own request, he returned to active service and was posted to 42 Training Depot Station on the 1st of October 1918 before returning to France where he intended to serve as a Flight Commander with 64 Squadron but was instead ordered to report to 87 Squadron to fly the Sopwith Dolphin. He crossed to the France on the 10th of October 1918 in an SE5 aircraft.
On the 11th of October 1918 he borrowed SE5a C6484 of 32 Squadron. Shortly after takeoff and, while still close to the ground, he attempted to roll the aircraft which nosedived into the ground destroying the aircraft and killing John Letts instantly.
The Letts Cup was presented to the school in his memory.
He is commemorated on the war memorial at the Royal Military College Sandhurst.