This week, being the week that the Royal Air Force officially celebrates the centenary of its formation, from the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service, seems as good a time as any to relate part of the story of the father of my late step-mother, who was a member of both the RFC and RAF.
Although I had known part of his story from my step-mother, who was very close to, and proud, of him, my interest was particularly stimulated when, in conducting her house clearance, I came across several artefacts including his khaki tunic complete with RAF Flying Wings (Squadron Leader John Sharp, Project Director at Boscombe Down Aviation Collection commented that, although he was aware that such artefacts existed he had never seen one), his forage cap, his RFC Aviation Certificate and his Flying Log (Fig 1). Intriguingly, with the collection there was also a pen or pencil sketch of the R34 airship, signed ‘Frank Boorman’ (Fig. 2).
Fig. 1. Collection of artefacts belonging to Harold Ira Couchman
Fig. 2. Pen/ink drawing of R34 Airship
The 1901 and 1911 censuses show that Harold was born at Crockham Hill in Kent, his father being Samuel Herbert Couchman, a butler who was living at Chartwell. His date of birth, shown on a Royal Aero Club Flying Certificate (Fig 3) was 18th February 1897.
Fig.3. Royal Aero Club Flying Certificate
His profession at the time of taking this certificate is given as ‘Motor Coach Proprietor’. Indeed, around 1925, Messrs Newton and Couchman, trading as Wylye Valley Motor Services, took over a bus service operating from Chitterne via Codford and Sutton Veny; this business itself being taken over by J&O Withers in 1955.
The vehicle he was thought to have been using at the time he sold his business to Withers is a 1942 Bedford OWB with a Roe utility body (Figure 4), which he bought second hand in 19481.
Couchman’s vehicles had red livery. A 1934 timetable is reproduced in Figure 52
It is thought that Withers didn’t acquire any of Couchman’s buses as they purchased a Bedford OB from another bus company and Couchman’s OWB would have been too old by this time1.
Fig.4. 1942 Bedford OWB bus of Wylye Valley Motor Services
Fig.5. Timetable for Wylye Valley Motor Services
Harold appears to have first gained a Royal Aero Club Aviator’s Certificate on 12th March 1918, when he was a sergeant serving with the Royal Flying Corps, and this is shown in Figure 6.
Fig. 6. Harold Couchman’s Royal Aero Club Aviator’s Certificate (1918)
As mentioned above, on the 6th October, 1932, he took another flying certificate with the Wiltshire School of Flying on a Redwing aircraft.
The Wiltshire School of Flying was founded in 1931 with a membership of 120 and was based at High Post Aerodrome, Middle Woodford (Figure 7). This airfield featured in the recent film ‘Secret Spitfires’ which tells the tale of how over 2000 Spitfire aircraft were built in Salisbury and test-flown at Highpost. This airfield closed at the end of 1945 as it lay directly in line with the new runway at Boscombe Down). Wiltshire School of Flying was equipped with one Robinson Redwing and one Spartan Arrow aircraft. The Chief Instructor was E.G. Hordern and Harold was one of the original members.
Fig. 7. High Post Aerodrome, Middle Woodford, ca 1930s.
The Robinson Redwing was a British two-seat single-engined biplane, which had folding wings, and first flown in 1930. Twelve were produced, selling mostly to clubs, of which one survives, G-ABNX (Figure 8).
Fig.8. The last surviving Robinson Redwing, G-ABNX
An article from a local newspaper from October 1932 makes fascinating reading and is reproduced here in toto:
HIGHPOST ‘PLANE CRASH
CODFORD PILOT’S EXTRAORDINARY ESCAPE
MACHINE FOULS OVERHEAD WIRES
The first accident to any machine from the Highpost Aerodrome, near Salisbury, which occurred at Highpost Hill on Wednesday evening, was marked by the extraordinary escape of the pilot, Harold Couchman, a motor services proprietor of Codford.
Mr Couchman, an experienced pilot, who served with the Royal Air Force in the war, was flying solo in a Redwing aircraft, belonging to the Wiltshire Flying Club, to which he belongs. His machine had been in the air only about twenty minutes, when flying above the by-road which leads from the main road to the Club’s aerodrome, it struck some overhead electricity high tension wires, tore down telephone wires on the other side of the by-road, travelled a short distance with the wires entwined about it, and crashed on its nose.
The craft turned turtle and was twisted, and the front portion was wrecked.
An attendant from a near-by garage dashed to the machine and found that the pilot was already out of the cockpit and was lying on the wing, dazed. He had received only minor facial injuries and a broken knee. A nurse who was playing golf on the Highpost-Course hurried to render first-aid. Motorists went for other assistance; the telephone wires being down, and ambulances from the R.A.F. Station at Old Sarum and the Salisbury City Fire Brigade were quickly on the scene.
Mr Couchman was taken to a Salisbury Nursing Home in the Air Force Ambulance. He had been a member of the Flying Club since it was formed twelve months ago, and had been frequently piloting machines.
This accident happened on Wednesday 12th October, 1932.
Tragically, in November of that same year, Harold and his wife, Greta’s, son, Peter, died from septicaemia, aged 7 years. He had fallen over in the school playground, cutting his leg, but didn’t tell his Mum until he was in the bath later that evening. His grave is at Codford St Mary.
Harold Couchman died on 31st March, 1961 and his grave is in the ANZAC War Graves Cemetery in Codford St Mary (Figure 9).
Fig. 9. Harold and Greta’s grave at the ANZAC War Graves cemetery, Codford St Mary
Harold Couchman’s personal items, depicted above, have been donated to Boscombe Down Aviation Collection at Old Sarum. Also among Harold’s artifacts is his ‘The Ideal Royal Flying Corps Loose Leaf Note Book’ containing his training notes, Lecture 1 being on ‘Map Reading’. BDAC inform me that the RAF Museum at Hendon is very interested in this because, although they have details of the training syllabus for RFC pilots, information on how the course was delivered is scant.
BDAC intend to put use these artifacts as part of a new display on the Royal Flying Corps..
- Phil Groocock for the Warminster Vintage Bus Running Day Team (Personal Communication).
- Motor ‘Bus & Coach Proprietors of Wiltshire in 1933. Roger Grimley; and https://warminstervbrd.wordpress.com/history/withers/