Sport Remembers The Battle of the Somme 1916-2016

The motorbiking ace hunted down by the Red Baron

Oliver Godfrey won the first Isle of Man TT race in 1911 – and was to test those nerveless motorbiking skills with the Royal Flying Corps in the skies over the Somme. Unfortunately for the 2nd Lieutenant, he was to run into the legendary Red Baron, German air ace Manfred von Richthofen.

Godfrey was born to fly. And fly he did, especially on his 500cc Indian bike over the Isle of Man TT's Snaefell mountain course at an average of 47.63mph. For 1911, that was pretty fast.

2nd Lieutenant Oliver Cyril Godfrey

Oliver Godfrey Sport Remembers the Somme

Oliver Godfrey in 1914.

Born in London, the son of an artist and engraver, Godfrey was 23 and living with his mother and stepfather in Finchley, North London, when he won the inaugural TT.

The first three places were claimed by the Indian team, a success that helped the pioneering firm from Massachusetts dominate the UK motorcycle market for the next decade.

"A bunch of muscles and nerves"

An Indian brochure later described Godfrey as “small in size, but a bunch of muscles and nerves and a magnificent rider”. Despite not winning another TT, he was one of Britain’s top riders in the pre-war years.

Just over a year later, he and 1912 TT winner Frank Applebee had set up motorcycle retailers, Godfreys Ltd, on Great Portland Street, London. A 1920 ad for the firm, which traded until the 1960s, claimed wide experience “including winning the 1911 and 1912 TTs”.

The day he met the Red Baron

But by then Godfrey was no longer alive to see the fruits of his venture. He had joined the Royal Flying Corps in 1915 and qualified as a pilot in January the next year after training at Hendon.

He joined 27 Squadron and by June was stationed in a cow field at Fienvillers, 15 miles west of the Somme battlefield. The squadron used single-seater Martinsyde G100 fighter-bombers, nicknamed Elephants because they were large and hard to manoeuvre.

Oliver Godfrey's pilot licence

Oliver Godfrey's pilot licence, dated 12 January 1916.

The planes were mainly used for bombing and reconnaissance because of their five-and-a-half-hour range and were pretty inefficient as fighters. Godfrey’s squadron had some success however, attacking and photographing enemy airfields, trains and Field Marshall Karl von Bulow’s HQ at Bourlon Chateau.

Germany revolutionised aerial warfare with their fighter squadrons

But in August the Germans changed the course of aerial warfare, creating fighter squadrons that hunted in formation with faster, more agile planes. The first squadron was Jagdstaffel 2, which included a young von Richthofen who was to become the most famous pilot of the war with 80 kills, and his mentor Oswald Boelcke, “the father of the German air force”.

On September 23, 1916, Godfrey and five other 27 Squadron comrades were on a bombing mission over Cambrai when they ran into von Richthofen and four other air aces of  Jagdstaffel 2. It was a disaster for the Elephants. Godfrey and two other planes were shot down immediately and his body was never found. More than 800 planes and around 250 fliers, around 75 per cent of the Royal Flying Corps, were lost during the four months of their Somme.

Godfrey's name is on a memorial at Point-du-jour Military Cemetery, Athies.

Remember the Somme

This year marks the 100­-year anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. The Royal British Legion is calling on communities across the UK to take the time out from their daily lives to honour those who fell. We have created a Somme 100 toolkit which contains everything you need to organise a Remembrance event in your community.

Make your own commemoration to 2nd Lieutenant Oliver Cyril Godfrey or one of the other casualties of the First World War by simply placing a virtual poppy in their memory on our Every Man Remembered website.

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