Sergeant Mechanic Robert Tomlins A.F.M.

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Sergeant Mechanic Robert Tomlins A.F.M.

Sergeant Mechanic Robert Tomlins A.F.M.

Robert Tomlins was born on 23rd June 1892 at Shrewsbury in Shropshire.  He was 24 years old and a motor mechanic by trade when he joined the Royal Naval Air Service on 10th June 1916.  His number was F 16153 (the F indicating he was on flying duties) and his rank was Air Mech. IE on 1st August 1917 he was promoted to Petty Officer and on transfer to the Royal Air Force on 1st April 1918 became a Sergeant Mechanic No. 216153.  In October 1918 he was selected to be one of the crew of the Semi Rigid Airship SR 1 and their task, under the Captain and Pilot Capt. GM Meager, was to fly this airship from Italy to Britain.

He was awarded his Air Force Medal a result of being an air crew member on the first flight from Italy to Britain.

The SR 1 was larger than any British non-rigid, being 270 feet in length, 55 feet in diameter and 441,000 cubic feet in capacity. The envelope was supported at its base by a horizontal framework of triangular-section girders of tubular steel. At regular intervals on the two longitudinal girders were fastened parabola wires which looped from end to end and secured the lower edges of the envelope. From the same points lift wires led up inside the envelope and were connected to parabola wires in the two internal fabric curtain that were themselves fastened to the top of the envelope by suspension wires. A ballonet ran along the entire lower length of the envelope and was inflated through a valve at the nose, which operated in a manner similar to that of a Venetian blind. The single car, of squat and angular form, contained three engines : a single SPA and two Italas, which were actually German Maybachs built on licence; these gave the ship a top speed of 46 mph.  A crew of nine was normally carried.

Fuel: 738 gallons 5,535 pounds  
Oil: 64 gallons 576 pounds  
Water ballast: 106 gallons 1,060 pounds  
Spares:   300 pounds  
Armament: 1 m/c gun 40 pounds  
    Ship total: 7,511 pounds
Crew: 9   1,400 pounds
    Total load: 8,911 pounds
The table on the left shows the breakdown of the load.
The total of 8,911 was 681 pounds under her total lift of 9,592 pounds.

Six days after its flight from Italy SR 1 was flown to her allotted station at Pulham, where the unreliable SPA was removed. The war had only five days left to run and SR 1 was never used operationally except when she watched over the surrender of the German U-boats at Harwich.

She flew over London on 2nd July, 1919, as publicity for the War Loan The airship was seen by Tomlins who was working at Luton at the Vauxhall plant when he saw the SR 1 flying overhead.  He had been in the forces for the period of "hostilities only" as opposed to being a regular and had left the Royal Air Force in 1920.  Chief Cox'n Nobby Clarke received a letter from Tomlins who went on to say:
"I was so bucked up seeing the old ship over Luton that I went and celebrated, having a whisky with old Meager and one with Williams, and eight pints of Government ale with "Nobby" Clarke himself and the rest of the crew-in fact, got properly blind-O!"

Meager, the Captain and pilot of the SR1, received the following commendation from the Admiralty:
London, S.W.1
12th Dec. 1918

With reference to the recent voyage of airship SR 1 from Rome to Kingsnorth under the charge of Captain Meager, RAF, who was lent by the Air Ministry for this duty, I am commanded by my Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty to request that this officer may be informed that his report has been read with great interest and that they are of the opinion that the Flight reflects very creditably both on the Captain and the Crew.

R.R. Scott,   
The Secretary,
   Air Ministry.

It was from this recommendation that Meager got his Air Force Cross and the rest of the crew were awarded the Air Force Medal. As Williams was already in the process of getting a AFC he did not even receive a bar to his award, the only one who missed out on an award for this epic flight.

The awards were announced in the London Gazette of 8th February 1919. The medals are shown as worn with the ribbon fitted back to front!

The Air Force Medal was instituted at the same time as the Air Force Cross, and was awarded to NCO's and men for courage or devotion to duty whilst flying, though not in active operations against the enemy.  All awards to British personnel are named in large serif capitals (First World War), or in rather crude engraved style (Second World War).

Approximately 120 medals and 2 second award bars were issued for the First World War, and 259 medals for the Second World War.  Since 1946 nearly 400 medals have been awarded.  Almost all AFM's are listed in the London Gazette without citation, and often it is necessary to undertake in depth research to find the reason for the award.  The AFM was occasionally awarded to Commonwealth Air Forces, and a few have been issued to the Army Air Corps.

When I purchased the group about 10 years ago it came with the photograph and a copy of a citation (the right date but wrong citation) as follows:
His Majesty the King has been graciously pleased to confer the undermentioned Officers and other ranks of the Royal Air Force, in recognition of gallantry in flying operations against the enemy.
As the AFM was awarded for courage or devotion to duty whilst flying, though not in active operations against the enemy.  This is obviously not correct.  Also typed at the bottom of the citation is the following:
Recipient was one of the crew of an R.N.A.S. Airship which was patrolling the English Channel when a German submarine was sighted by them, and subsequently the submarine was sunk.
Along with this citation was a letter allegedly from the daughter of Tomlins confirming this.  This cannot be so, I imagine someone in the past had the group but had no idea why it had been awarded, so they invented a story.  I came to find out why the award had been made, when on a shopping trip, I left my wife to it, and went into the local library and glanced through the aviation books.  There I found a book Airship Pilot No. 28 by Capt. T. B. Williams A.F.C. and in it I saw reference to the flight of the SR 1 from Italy to Britain in 1918.  This caught my attention as I had remembered the caption on the back of the photograph of Tomlins that was dated Rome Oct. 1918.  With anticipation I looked to see if there was a list of the crew?  Yes there was and listed as 3rd Engineer was R Tomlins.  This was the reason he had been awarded the AFM along with all of the other NCO crew members of the SR 1.

Tomlins' medal group - obverse

Tomlins' medal group - reverse

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The British Airship at War, 1914-1918 - Patrick Abbott
Airship Pilot No. 28 - Capt. T.B. Williams A.F.C.
My Airship Flights 1915-1930 - Capt. George Meager A.F.C.
Photographs - The Royal Aeronautical Society (Collection of Roger Bragger)