Major Lanoe Hawker VC helped to establish British control of the air above the Somme in the opening weeks of the battle, but was shot down and killed shortly after it ended.
Lanoe Hawker was born in Hampshire in 1890. Growing up, he became very interested in mechanics and engineering and later entered the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich. He qualified as a second lieutenant in the Royal Engineers in 1911, but an increasing interest in flying led him to train as a pilot. He joined the Royal Flying Corps (RFC)'s Central Flying School in August 1914 and later joined No. 6 Squadron. Hawker went with his unit to France in October 1914 and soon began aerial reconnaissance work during the early stages of the First World War.
Hawker was a natural pilot and his aggressive tactics saw him become the first flying 'ace' of the RFC. On 25 July 1915, in an aircraft that he had adapted himself, he brought down three German aircraft near Ypres. He was awarded the Victoria Cross (VC), to add to the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) he had gained in April.
By September 1915, Hawker had seven victories and was sent home to take command of the newly-formed 24 Squadron, RFC. This fighter unit was the first to be equipped exclusively with DH2 single-seater scouting aircraft intended for combat. As a 'pusher' with the engine located behind the pilot, the DH2 had a good field of fire for its Lewis gun mounted at the front.
Hawker led 24 Squadron to France in February 1916 and established it at Bertangles, north of the Somme. It was during this period that he invented the fleece-lined, thigh-length boots that became known as 'fug boots' and later became standard issue. Hawker made a number of other innovations during his war service, including developing a way to double the capacity of the Lewis gun ammunition drum.
In early 1916, the German Fokker E1 monoplane was still dominant over the Western Front. But the arrival of 24 Squadron, motivated by Hawker's concise philosophy - 'Attack Everything!' - soon helped the Royal Flying Corps to turn the balance. On 1 July, the opening day of the Battle of the Somme, the squadron flew a number of patrols and Hawker personally led two reconnaissances. Soon, British airpower dominated the skies over the Somme and 24 Squadron had claimed 70 victories by November.
In September 1916, the arrival of new German aircraft once again shifted the balance of power away from the Royal Flying Corps. On 23 November, a week after the Battle of the Somme ended, Hawker took part in a patrol near Bapaume. After attacking up to eight German aircraft over Achiet, he began a long dog-fight with one in particular. The pilot was German 'ace' Manfred von Richthofen, who later wrote, 'I discovered that I was not meeting a beginner. He had not the slightest intention of breaking off the fight…' The battle lasted for more than 30 minutes until, with Hawker running out of fuel, he was finally brought down and killed, von Richthofen's eleventh victim. Hawker was aged just 25 when he died.