Like Sergeant Alfred Richards, VC ‘Jack’ Cottle is a name that many Plymothians have probably forgotten. He was a fighter ace in the Royal Flying Corps, part of the Army until it merged with the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) in April, 1918 to form the Royal Air Force. He scored 14 ‘kills’ including Austro-Hungary’s leading ace Josef Purer, whom he shot down as one of four kills in a single flight.
Jack was a native Plymothian born on June 19, 1894. He spent most of his childhood in Zululand, nowadays part of South Africa, joining the South African Mounted Rifles on the outbreak of war in 1914. In 1917 he yearned for something more exciting and more dangerous and he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps, being posted to the Italian Front and 45 Squadron, RFC, known as ‘The Flying Camels’ in March, 1917.
45 Squadron were an elite. When Jack arrived they flew Sopwith Camel fighters and, by the war’s end, they had 258 kills between 30 aces, an ace having shot down a minimum five enemy aircraft to qualify. One of his fellow aces was Arthur Harris, later to become ‘Bomber’ Harris, leader of Bomber Command during the Second World War. Harris scored five kills himself during the First World War.
His first kill was on March 10, 1918, a DFW two-seater reconnaissance plane south-east of Salgarada. He shared his first kill with 2nd Lieutenant Richard Dawes, a fellow ace by the war’s end. His first single-handed kill was an Albatros D.III fighter which he shot down on May 18. Then he was wounded on May 30.
Returning to action he scored an unconfirmed kill of an LVG two-seater on July 5, listed as ‘driven down’ but not confirmed as shot down. The kill was unconfirmed as its pilot might have managed to land rather than crashing. Two more kills in July totalled five, granting him ace status on July 31.
He scored another seven kills in August, four two-seater aircraft and three Albatros D.II fighters. The three fighters he shot down on a single mission, one being flown by Austro-Hungary’s leading ace, Josef Purer. He shot down the three fighters in slightly less than ten minutes, capping this rare achievement by adding a two-seater reconnaissance aircraft a few minutes later.
With another three two-seaters also to his credit, August, 1918 was his most successful month. In September 45 Squadron transferred to the Western Front and a French airfield, putting him out of action again for a while. He scored his final two kills on November 3 and November 5, only a week before the Armistice.
After the war ‘Jack’ stayed in the RAF, rising to the rank of Group Captain and having been decorated with the Military Cross, Distinguished Flying Cross and the Italian Silver Medal of Military Valour. On his first retirement he was awarded the MBE for his services to the RAF. As Second World War was underway he was recalled and served again until 1944 when he finally retired for good. A few years after the war he and his wife moved to India where he died aged 75 on August 15, 1967.