Sunderland teenager flew WWI spies into Europe

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A WEARSIDE teenager who risked his life to fly spies into Europe during World War One is the inspiration behind a new museum project.

Claude Alward Ridley, who grew up at Mere Knolls House in Fulwell, won a Military Medal and Distinguished Service Order for his ‘conspicuous gallantry’ during the conflict.

WAR PLANE: Claude Alward Ridley's wartime Morane Bullet plane.

WAR PLANE: Claude Alward Ridley's wartime Morane Bullet plane.

Now volunteers at Washington’s North East Land, Sea and Air Museums (NELSAM) are planning to work with local schools to build a replica of Claude’s plane – as a tribute to him.

“Claude is an inspirational character and his courageous actions during the Great War deserve to be far better known, at least locally,” said museum trustee John Stelling.

“He risked his life time and again to fly spies into German-occupied territory at night, helped bring down Zeppelins and was given command of his own squadron at just 19.

“It is our intention to remember Claude’s actions by building a replica of his plane, the Morane Tyne N Bullet, which will then go on permanent display at the museum.”

Claude, the second youngest of seven children, was born in Sunderland in 1897 to solicitor Louis Ridley and his wife Eleanor and spent his early childhood in Fulwell.

By the time of the 1911 census, however, the family had moved to a plush 10-room home in Notting Hill, London, where Claude attended the exclusive St Paul’s School.

After completing his education, the Wearside youngster enrolled at Sandhurst College as a cadet – until war saw him temporarily commissioned in the Royal Flying Corps.

This, however, was short-lived, as he resigned when offered a full army commission. After passing out, he joined the Royal Fusiliers – but remained fascinated by flying.

“He ended up attached to the RFC as a pilot in 1915, when he was 18, and joined 3 Squadron in France – where he soon engaged in battles with the Germans,” said John. “Inevitably, in August 1915, Claude ended up injured during a brutal fight with two German planes. A wound to his foot saw him sent back to the UK for convalescence.” Once fit to fly again, the aviator was posted to the London defence airfield of Joyce Green, where he was tasked with fighting off Zeppelins during raids on the capital.

“During one incident, on March 31, 1916, seven Zeppelins crossed the Suffolk coast, intent on bombing London – until splitting up over East Anglia,” said John.

“Zeppelin L15 continued towards London, on a path that took it near Joyce Green, and Claude scrambled his plane – catching a glimpse of the Zeppelin in a searchlight.

“He started firing his machine gun, closing it down, but the Zeppelin moved out of the light and was lost. It later crashed off Margate, after being hit by anti-aircraft fire.

“Claude received a Military Medal for his ‘conspicuous gallantry and good work during Zeppelin raids,’ which was recorded in the London Gazette of May 16, 1916.”

His bravery during the Zeppelin raids was rewarded with a return to France, where he served with the new 60 Squadron – equipped with French-built Morane Bullet planes.

“These could reach 90mph, but the machine gun couldn’t fire at that speed. At lower speeds, the plane was liable to stall during anything other than straight flying,” said John.

“Claude became an expert in the perilous job of flying spies into German territory at night – a dangerous job, as he had to reconnoitre the area in daylight before the landing. A night or so after, he would take off at night with the spy and return to his selected field, where he would land, drop off the spy and take off again.”

His missions went smoothly until August 3, 1916, when Claude landed in his chosen field near Douai – and discovered the Germans had just taken over a nearby field as an airbase.

To make matters worse, his engine died and he was unable to take off again. But, with great nerve and more than a little “stiff upper lip”, the Wearsider managed to escape with his life. “His spy told Ridley to hide, and presently, returning with civilian clothes and some money, told him he must now shift for himself,” according to the book 60 Squadron, by Group Captain AJL Scott.

“Ridley did so with such address that he eluded capture for three months on the German side of the line, and eventually worked his way via Brussels to the Dutch frontier and escaped.

“This was a good performance, because he could speak neither French nor German. He would go up to some likely-looking civilian and say ‘I am a British officer trying to escape; will you help me?’

“They always did. Later, the conductor of a tram in the environs of Brussels suspected him but, knocking the man down, Ridley jumped into a field of standing corn and contrived to elude pursuit.”

Claude took detailed notes on all enemy action he witnessed during his months on the run and, following his escape, was able to supply “good information” to the British forces. And, just weeks after returning home, he was awarded a Distinguished Service Order for his ‘conspicuous gallantry and judgement in the execution of a special mission’.

“It is rumoured that Claude had a personal audience with the King to congratulate him on his escape,” said John.

The Wearsider was later allowed to return to his squadron in France, but was banned from flying – for fear he would be shot as a spy if he crashed behind German lines.

“In view of that, at the age of 19, he was sent home to help defend London once again – and given command of 37 Squadron at their new base at Stow Maries.

“It is amazing that someone of 19 was chosen for this role, and it is a real tribute to him. He was not only in charge of flying, but was responsible for numerous civilian staff as well. No doubt, however, he was frustrated not to return to his front-line squadron but, given the six-week life expectancy of a front-line pilot, the posting may well have saved his life.”

Claude continued his flying career with the RAF following the end of the war, serving at several stations around the country before retiring with the rank of Squadron Leader in 1928.

The outbreak of World War Two in 1939, however, saw him back in uniform as a Wing Commander – but he sadly died of natural causes at the Dorchester Hotel in 1942. “The North East has a great history of aviation heroes, and Claude is one of them. Our project will keep his memory alive, and help share the story of his brave actions,” said John.

•North East Land, Sea and Air Museums is based at old Washington Road. For further details, contact 519 0662 or email

Plan to build Morane Bullet replica

THE dream of building a replica of pilot Claude Alward Ridley’s wartime Morane Bullet plane will cost £12,000 to turn into reality – and fundraising starts now.

“We have approached the Heritage Lottery for funding, and are currently at the application stage. This is a project we really want to make happen,” said museum trustee John Stelling.

“We believe it is important to mark the wartime bravery of Claude, and building a replica of his plane is an ideal way of highlighting his story to people of all ages.”

Three schools have already expressed an interest in working with North East Land, Sea and Air Museums to create the aircraft – using their own wood and metalwork facilities.

And an appeal has now been launched for good quality timber, to be used for the fuselage, as well as screws, nails, paint and metalworking equipment. “The idea behind the project is firstly, of course, to build the replica, but we also want to get schools looking at the history of aviation – especially here in the North East,” said John.

“More than 5,000 men from the region served with the Royal Flying Corps, and later the RAF, during the war, with the conflict providing a catalyst in the development of aircraft.

“Aviation was still in its infancy when the war started, with the first Channel crossing recorded just five years before, in 1909. By 1919, though, planes could cross the Atlantic.”

Museum volunteers estimate it will cost £3,500 to build a non-flying replica of Claude’s Bullet plane, but around £9,000 extra is needed to buy a trailer and for research purposes. “We need to get started soon, as we are aiming to complete the plane within two years – so that it is ready for the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme in 1916,” said John.

“At the moment we are busy putting specialist bits and pieces together, like wheels, and after that we will need wood and paint to create the main part of the plane.

“Ideally, we will be able to raise enough money for a trailer so that we can take the plane to exhibitions around the country – and possibly to the Passchendaele Museum in 2016 too. The project is definitely going to happen, even if the museum has to fund part of the build at first. This is something we feel is very important – especially as it is 100th anniversary of the war.”