I was talking this week to my friend Kenny Baird of Bo’ness Hill Climb fame when the conversation turned to First World War aeroplanes and in particular the exploits of the Polmont air ace Major James Fitzmorris.
Kenny’s father was in the RAF during the second world war and his uncle Charles Campbell in the Royal Flying Corps in the first at around the same time as Fitzmorris who won fame on both sides of the Atlantic and lost his life at the early age of 20.
It’s five years since I mentioned him in this column and the current 100th anniversary is as good a time as any to recall the incredible story of this amazing young man who was buried in the churchyard of Polmont with full military honours on October 25, 1919 after a brief but spectacular career over the trenches of the Western Front.
Two decades before the Spitfire heroes of the Battle of Britain earned immortality, the early pioneers of air combat risked life and limb in planes that were scarcely more advanced than the ‘crates’ that first took to the air in the early 1900s.
James Fitzmorris was born in the Pleasance area of Falkirk in 1897 but his family moved to Polmont and he attended Laurieston Public School. At the age of 14 he left school and joined Salvesons in Grangemouth as a trainee clerk but when war broke out in August 1914 he joined the army and became a dispatch rider in Edinburgh. By the following spring he was a motor cyclist in France and not long afterwards took to the air for the first time as a photographer surveying the German lines. A commission followed and he was recruited by the Royal Flying Corps as a pilot.
It was the beginning of an amazing couple of years in which he displayed the kind of raw courage in low flying missions and close combat that marked out these ace pilots.
By the end of 1917 at the age of 20 he had downed 17 enemy aircraft and he was brought back to the UK to instruct the next wave of trainees.
February 1918 saw him once again in the French skies and another dozen enemy planes were destroyed bringing the total claimed on his behalf to 29. Medals, promotion and both national and local fame followed.
Such was his reputation that he was sent to the USA to take part in air shows aimed at recruiting American fliers. The first was at Cincinnati on August 13, 1918 and Fitzmorris was the star attraction. He took to the air in a preparatory flight and tragedy struck. The plane stalled and plunged to the ground killing the pilot instantly. The outpouring of grief in Cincinnati was astonishing with four thousand people following the gun carriage which carried his body to the Groesbeck Mausoleum where a volley was fired and a bugler sounded the last post.
When the war ended, his parents asked that he be returned to Scotland and once again huge crowds assembled in Polmont in October 1919 to mark the second interment.
His attitude to his service was typical of the air aces of the period. In America he told the pressmen: “There really is no danger to speak of ... now and then you get into a bit of a tight squeeze, but you get out again and that is all there is to it.”
There are a number of mementos of James on permanent display in Callendar House including several photographs and his many decorations. Well worth a visit.