The medals of a First World War British fighter ace who achieved 40 aerial victories at 20 years old and later dismissed tales of chivalrous “knights of the air” are expected to fetch £40,000-£60,000.
Philip Fletcher Fullard’s victories were made in only eight months on the Western Front before his war was cut short, not by bullets, but by a footballing accident.
Although he was the war’s seventh highest-scoring British ace and the second highest-scoring to survive, his ratio of front-line flying to victories was unrivalled. Christopher Mellor-Hill, of Noonans, the auction house offering the medals for sale on March 15, said: “What could have been, had he not broken his leg, can only be guessed… Had Fullard carried on flying, it is quite possible he could have surpassed the victory score of any ace of any nation.”
Fullard was still a schoolboy in Norwich at the start of the war. He began his pilot’s training with the Royal Flying Corps in August 1916 and was awarded his wings that December. His first combat flight came in May 1917, days after his arrival at 1 Squadron, based southwest of Ypres and flying French Nieuport 17 fighters.
The 19-year-old pilot got off to an inauspicious start when he was so distracted by the sight of a German squadron below him that he stalled and spun down almost on top of them. In that moment, he later recalled, his flight leader believed he was “a goner”.
Nevertheless, he soon showed his aptitude, closing to 20 yards before shooting down a German Albatros D.III that was attacking another British machine. He was already an ace with five victories in a little over a month of active flying service and a double-ace by mid-July 1917. Pilots’ “victories” included enemy aircraft destroyed or seen falling out of control.
Later, as an octogenarian in the 1970s, Fullard explained to historian Peter Liddle: “My whole theory was to get so close that he [the enemy pilot] couldn’t dare turn… I got most of my two-seaters that way. Getting in close. I mean I could see their faces and goggles and everything.”
On the other hand, he said that, faced with large formation of 12 or 24 enemy planes, discretion was the better part of valour. “That is not a fair do. You want to fight another day.”
His tactics paid off. Between August 15 and 16, Captain Fullard would not only reach a milestone of 20 victories but increased his score to 24, claiming five Albatros scouts in just over 24 hours.
It was while playing football on November 17, 1917, two days after his 40th confirmed victory, that he suffered a compound fracture of his right leg. After a short stay in a hospital near the front, he was sent home for more surgery and to convalesce.
For actions during his First World War service, Fullard was awarded the Military Cross and bar, the Distinguished Service Order, the Air Force Cross and Belgium’s Croix de Guerre. The citation for his second award of the Military Cross stated: “He has on many occasions displayed the utmost dash and fearlessness in attacking enemy aircraft at close range.”
As for his DSO, the citation observed that: “As a patrol leader and scout pilot he is without equal.”
Fullard later said that he was also put up for the Victoria Cross, but the recommendation was blocked by a “very poor-minded” brigade commander who attached a note saying: “Make him get some more”.
If he wasn’t always popular with his superiors, he returned to England as something of a pinup hero. He appeared on the front cover of Tatler in January 1918, when the caption noted that: “Captain Fullard hoped to complete his half-century in Boche planes before the old year was out, but luck was against him.”
The same month, a Globe article described how: “The outstanding feature of Captain Fullard’s record is the few casualties his ‘flight’ has suffered. For three months he worked with the same flight of six pilots without a casualty among them, and in that time they brought down more enemy machines than any other flight in France.”
It continued: “He had a narrow escape when fighting a German two-seater, his goggles being shot away from his eyes. The Verey lights in his machine caught fire and set the woodwork of the aeroplane alight, but he managed to get his burning machine back to British lines.”
Fullard recalled that he had no qualms about shooting the offending German plane “to pieces”. He told Liddle: “I mean I wasn’t going to be insulted in that way, so to speak.”
Quoted in Liddle’s book Captured Memories, 1900–1918: Across the Threshold of War, he criticised later depictions of First World War aerial combat. “I just felt that I wanted to survive and my best way of doing it was to kill the other fellow,” he said. “I think far too much has been made about ‘knights of the air’ and chivalry. I don’t think it existed. You couldn’t have operated like that.”
He claimed, in the same 1970s interview, to have strafed Australian-held trenches after Australian soldiers allegedly looted the body of one of his comrades shot down over their sector. He said he told his superiors that the friendly fire was accidental. Liddle indicated in his book that the nature of the confession made any definitive conclusion as to its veracity “elusive”.
Fullard also claimed in older age to have shot and wounded the German ace Manfred von Richthofen, “the Red Baron”, in the head and to have never felt fear, only enjoyment, during intense combat.
He did not return to active duties during the war. Afterwards, in August 1919, he toured America with other aces to promote the sale of Victory Loan Bonds. He was one of eight British and Empire pilots to be awarded the Aero Club of America’s Medal of Honor and Merit.
During the Second World War, he served in a number of senior roles including at Headquarters, Fighter Command. He was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in January 1941.
Fullard died in Broadstairs, Kent, in 1984, aged 86.
His British and Belgian medals are being offered for sale along with related personal items including his flying goggles, a gold identity disc, an RFC sweetheart brooch, and a large portrait photo. The Aero Club of America medal will be offered as a separate lot at an estimate of £1,400-£1,800. The vendor of the items is a collector.
The top illustration depicts a Nieuport 17 attacking and destroying a German Albatros DIII. Image: Alamy