Lieutenant Walter James Prier, a battered Camel, an unpaid cheque and the loss of five pilots

Richard Maddox

German troops examine a crashed Sopwith Camel biplane (serial number D6404) of No. 43 Squadron. Note the 'Out of Bounds' sign and the propeller leaning against the fuselage of the aircraft. Image Copyright © IWM. IWM catalogue Q 23893. Original source

German troops examine a crashed Sopwith Camel biplane (serial number D6404) of No. 43 Squadron. Note the ‘Out of Bounds’ sign and the propeller leaning against the fuselage of the aircraft. Image Copyright © IWM. IWM catalogue Q 23893. Original source

IN THE IMAGE ABOVE two German soldiers pose near a damaged Sopwith Camel biplane.

It carries the serial number D6404 and is from No. 43 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps. No individual aircraft letter is shown on the fuselage side. If the aircraft carried one it was probably on the fuselage upper decking behind the cockpit and/or on the upper wing.

The aircraft seems has endured little damage.

The caption on IWM’s Collections website attributes the date when the image was taken to sometime in March or April 1918 and indicates that it was made on a captured British aerodrome. The ‘Out of Bounds’ notice beside the aircraft could bear this out but no other details are given.

Further investigation reveals that Sopwith Camel D6404 – built by Boulton Paul – was shot down on the morning of 28 March 1918 – days before the Royal Air Force was formed as the world’s first independent air force. (1)

The aircraft was part of an offensive patrol lead by Captain John Lightfoot Trollope and was being flown by Canadian Lieutenant Walter James Prier when it was lost.

It had taken off from Avesnes-le-Comte airfield in the Pas de Calais area of northern France where No. 43 Squadron were based from 22 March until 3 June 1918 and around 10 miles from Arras. (2)

The patrol, consisting of nine British aircraft were attacked by enemy ‘scouts’ (fighter aircraft) in the Arras – Albert area.

The British side lost five pilots.

Two – Second Lieutenant Charles Rowland Maasdorp piloting Camel C8224 and Lieutenant Harold Towns Adams flying C8267 were killed. (3) (4)

Maasdorp’s aircraft became the twenty-second victory for Leutnant Ernst Udet, the commanding officer of Jagdstaffel 11 (Fighter Squadron) 11 from the Luftstreitkräfte – the Imperial German Army’s air arm. (5)

The unit had previous being commanded by Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen. (6)

The remainder – Prier, Trollope and Lieutenant Robert Johnston Owen, all combat-experienced pilots – were captured.

Prier claimed a victory in the skirmish but in turn was brought down by Leutnant Rudolph Heins of Jasta 56. This was Heins’ third victory. (7)

Meanwhile Second Lieutenant Cecil Frederick King, also of No. 43 Squadron RFC had seen Trollope being set upon by German aircraft and managed to down one of the Captain’s attackers.

In a report he made to Major C C Miles, his commanding officer he stated… (8)

I climbed up and saw Capt. Trollope’s Patrol being attacked by 5 E.A. [enemy aircraft] Scouts.

I at once attacked and drove 1 Scout down which I saw crash on the ground. I also saw another E.A Scout engaged by the patrol go down completely out of control in a quick jerky spin.

He was then wounded in the buttocks and was forced to break off the action. Crash landing he was briefly hospitalised at No. 3 Casualty Clearing Station at Gezaincourt. (9) (10)

John Trollope’s injuries during his encounter with the enemy were more severe.

Initially his left hand was removed at the wrist and he was repatriated. By October 1918 he was back in England.(11)

His injuries were so severe that eventually his arm was amputated at the shoulder.(12)

His aircraft came down near Albert. Just four days earlier twenty-year old Trollope had destroyed six enemy aircraft in a day, becoming the first pilot to do so.

Once recovered King would be promoted to Captain and take over Trollope’s vacant position.

Before his death at the age of nineteen in January 1919 in a flying accident while serving as an instructor with No 33 Squadron RAF, King would be decorated with the Military Cross, the Distinguished Flying Cross and the French Croix de Guerre avec Palme. (13) (14)

Some of Prier’s records are preserved at the UK National Archives, including a (much reduced file) personnel file that contains his Prisoner of War questionnaire. This simple document which reveals some basic detail about the loss of his aircraft. (15)

In the questionnaire, Prier states that he was set upon by ‘about ten aircraft hostile aircraft‘, that his engine was ‘riddled‘  [by enemy gunfire] and that he was ‘forced to land‘, perhaps indicating a loss of fuel or oil.

No details of how, where or when he was captured are given in this document.

But the fact that he indicated on the form that he ‘had no time to burn his machine‘ suggests that he was apprehended very quickly.

According to another document at the National Archives he was held at Holzminden officer prisoner of war camp in Lower Saxony, Germany.(16)

The PoW questionnaire was completed on Monday 16 December 1918 – two days after he arrived back in England after being released from captivity and repatriated to Britain.

At some point an official Standing Committee of Enquiry was held to review the circumstances surrounding his capture by the enemy.

This review was carried out by a panel of officers including Brevet-Lieutenant Colonel E L Challenor, CB, CMG, DSO. This may be Edward Lacy Challoner who commanded the Leicestershire Regiment from August 1919 until 1923 and an England cricketer. Challoner was joined by Brigadier General C R J Griffin CB, CMG, DSO and Major General A E Price-Davies, VC, CMG, DSO. This is Llewelyn Alberic Emilius Price-Davies. Price-Davies served in the Second Boer War and was twice Mentioned in Despatches. His Victoria Cross was awarded for his actions at Blood River in September 1901.

Prier was exhonerated of all blame and a certificate to this effect was issued by the War Office, dated 15 July 1919.

This file also contains documents relating to a cheque that he wrote to the President of the Mess at Royal Flying Corps Station, Market Drayton (dated 4 March 1918) before he embarked for France. RFC Market Drayton would later become RAF Station Ternhill.

The cheque was returned to the Mess President marked ‘R.D.’ – meaning ‘return to drawer’ – indicating that there were insuficient funds in Prier’s bank account to cover the £4. 0s. 6d due, around £225 in today’s money.

Much effort appears to be expended on this matter as various official departments got involved attempting to send the cheque back to Prier so he could pay his outstanding debt.

The matter appears to have been settled when the office of Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, Commander-in-Chief, British Armies in France wrote to the War Office in London (who in turn informed the Air Ministry) on 1 April 1918 that Prier had been posted ‘Missing’ on 28 March.

Other papers in this file at the National Archives indicate that Prier was selected in Canada for training as a a cadet with the Royal Flying Corps.

Having completed his initial cadet training he was commissioned as a Temporary Second Lieutenant with effect from 19 August 1917 – the date he embarked for England – and was further instructed that he was to report to the School of Military Aeronautics at Oxford on 3 September ‘for instruction in aviation’. The course lasted around 2 months. (17)

The letter requiring him to report to Oxford goes on to inform his that he ‘will be required to provide [himself] with the necessary outfit, including camp kit’ as on an attached list. For this he ‘will be credited with an allowance of £50 (less £8 already recieved).

This letter ends with the cautionary warning that ‘In the event of your being unfavourably reported upon during your period of probation, your commission will be cancelled.(18)

He spent a number of months in RAF training establishments before embarking on the White Star liner SS Megantic on 29 June 1919 to return to his home in Toronto, Canada. (19)



(1) Sopwith Camel, Flight and The Aircraft Engineer – 29 April 1955, page 563.

(2) UK National Archives file reference WO 339/125280.

(3) – retreived 5 November 2019.

(4),-charles-rowland/ – retreived 5 November 2019.

(5),-harold-towns/ – retreived 5 November 2019.

(6) – retrieved 5 November 2019.

(7) – retrieved 5 November 2019.

(8) – retrieved 5 November 2019.

(9)  UK National Archives File reference Air 1/1223/204/5/2634/38

(10) – retreived 5 November 2019.

(11) – retreived 5 November 2019.

(12) Back from Germany, Flight and the Aircraft Engineer – 24 October 1918, page 1191.

(13) – retreived 5 November 2019.(14),-cecil-frederick/ – retreived 5 November 2019.

(15) – retreived 5 November 2019.

(16)  UK National Archives File reference AIR 76/412/178

(17) – retreived 5 November 2019.

(18) UK National Archives file reference WO 339/125280.

(19) UK National Archives file reference AIR 76/412/178