Thomas Unwin (1888-1971), relative of Tim Unwin

ThomasUnwinAviatorMy grandfather, Hugh Thomas Haldane Unwin, known as Thomas, was one of the first fighter pilots in history, and the eldest of four brothers who fought on the front in the First World War: Thomas, Shadforth, Bobby and Gerald. Defying the statistics, all the brothers survived the war. Three of them also earned the Military Cross. My grandfather’s citation in the Supplement to the London Gazette of 1 February 1919 reads:

Lt. Hugh Thomas Haldane Unwin, 1/1st York. Dns [Yorkshire Dragoons].
On the night of the 17th/18th September 1918, with eight men of his platoon, he raided a strongly wired pill-box on the north bank of Zillebeke Lake. After resistance, the garrison escaped while his patrol was endeavouring to get through the wire. With conspicuous courage he entered and thoroughly searched the pill-box, obtaining valuable identifications. Three previous attempts to raid this post had failed.[1]

Prior to the war, Thomas and Shadforth had emigrated to Canada in search of fortune and adventure, but they returned to join the war effort in Britain. Thomas joined the Yorkshire Dragoons, initially in the ranks, and received his ThomasUnwinFlyingCertcommission signed by King George on 1 January 1916. Later that year, he became affiliated to the fledgling Royal Flying Corps, learning to fly in a Maurice Farman biplane at the Military School in Ruislip (see his flying certificate, right). He subsequently flew sorties over the Somme. As a child, I remember him telling stories about his exploits, and in particular about one occasion when the machine gun, which was meant to fire through the propeller, shattered the propeller instead. Fortunately, he survived the crash landing. There was probably a bit of bravado in the way he subsequently told the story, but there was also no doubt unimaginable bravery. And while Thomas was one of those magnificent men in their flying machines, both Shadforth and Gerald were among the last soldiers to see active service on horseback. Shadforth joined the Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Force and served out the war as a Bombardier in the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery Brigade. Gerald was a 2nd Lieutenant in the Royal Bucks Hussars, and earned his own Military Cross as a brigade galloper when ‘he on two occasions went forward, with great coolness and indifference to danger, to reconnoitre the village for machine guns’ (London Gazette, 18 July 1918).

My grandfather and his brothers came out of the war and went on to live long, active and successful lives. They were the lucky ones, and they knew it.

Hugh Thomas Haldane Unwin, b. 1888, Lewes, Sussex, d. 1971, Hampshire, 2nd Lieutenant, 1/1st Yorkshire Dragoons, is the relative of Tim Unwin, former James Barrow Professor of French, 1995-2000

[1] Zillebecke is about a mile and a half south east of Ypres.