First World War: Pilot shot down by German fighter is visited in hospital by the very man who fires at him

David Miller in his Royal Observer Corps uniform

David Miller in his Royal Observer Corps uniform - Credit: Archant

Some of Alistair Miller’s ancestors were incredibly brave men with compelling war stories, but until very recently he didn’t know the half of it. A Military Cross… other honours... Why hadn’t he heard more? Steven Russell shares a family tale of intrigue, tragedy and triumph, and mysteries still to solve

Hanging in Alistair Miller's office is a painting he commissioned of grandfather David's two-seater

Hanging in Alistair Miller's office is a painting he commissioned of grandfather David's two-seater De Havilland. 'I wanted something a bit more than a photograph that would fade.' It's amazing that David was involved in aerial combat only 14 years after the Wright brothers carried out the world's first 'proper' flight. - Credit: Archant

It’s Boy’s Own stuff. A teenage pilot is shot down over Belgium by a crack German fighter. Recovering in hospital, he’s visited by the man who sent him plummeting to the ground. German ace Max von Müller leaves him a Christmas present: a book called A Love Episode.

“He was very nice and seemed a good sportsman,” the injured David Miller writes in a diary he’s started to keep. Notes on Prison Life, Germany, it will be called.

He adds: “In my ward there was a pilot from Müller’s squadron named Lt Gunter Ludiger with a broken leg. He was very decent and when I got out of bed we played chess together.

“After about 14 days in hospital I began to feel much better but was not allowed to move. My temp was very low and my pulse very slow. About the 20th, a sister from another ward brought me an American magazine to read.”

The Holzminden prisoner of war camp where David Miller was held in 1918.

The Holzminden prisoner of war camp where David Miller was held in 1918. - Credit: Archant

In the days before Christmas there are many deaths on the ward. “All coffins passed my window about 7-10 every morning. Cheerful outlook!”

David’s allowed to get up for the first time on December 23, though for only half an hour at midday. On Christmas Eve, staff and patients sing festive songs and gifts are handed out. The pastor gives David, inset above, a Sir William Scott novel: The Fair Maid of Perth.

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It must have been a surreal experience.

In the new year, 1918, the recovered airman is made a prisoner of war and locked up in a camp that soon becomes famous thanks to a morale-boosting breakout. Nearly 30 inmates, though not David, flee through a tunnel they’ve dug. It becomes the stuff of legend and inspires a film that dubs it The First Great Escape.

David Miller in his Royal Observer Corps uniform

David Miller in his Royal Observer Corps uniform - Credit: Archant

It’s 1990. Alistair Miller is taken by father Ian to look at the family grave in Scotland. “The names on the stone fascinate me and David, my grandfather, is the first one I look at. It’s got MBE against it. Why? Dad said ‘Oh, something to do with the war’, and that was the end of it.” Alistair suspects his father knew time was running out, for he’d die of cancer in 1993 – Alistair still none the wiser about why his grandfather was honoured by the nation. “I probably didn’t ever ask the right questions,” he muses.

And so it stayed until three or four years ago, when his mother was having a clear-out and wanted her sons to take some of the stuff that had accumulated over the years.

Rooting around in a cupboard, Alistair came across David’s MBE, along with Great War medals. His grandfather – who had died near Colchester in the summer of 1963, when Alistair was two – had clearly been a man of substance.

David Miller

David Miller - Credit: cont

It turned out the MBE was awarded for service during the Second World War. A 2013 letter from the Central Chancery of the Orders of Knighthood, based at St James’s Palace, explained that David’s MBE had been a new-year honour at the start of 1946, in recognition of his services as a commander with the Royal Observer Corps “and no doubt based on his contribution during the war”.

But David had also been active in the first war. And he’d had a brave brother who also left his mark. It would be a while yet before Alistair realised exactly what they’d done.

Before we find out, we need to go back to the end of the 19th Century. Thomas Miller, David’s father, is farming in Stirlingshire.

At some point he goes down to East Anglia to help oversee the harvest and assess a potential new farm’s viability as a business venture.

Months later, following his return to Scotland, wife Jane asks about the farm and its prospects. “It was fine, the weather was soft and it could be worked easily,” he tells her. And what was the farmhouse like, she wonders.

“Oh dinny be daft, lassie. I dinny have time to look at hooses!”

The domestic arrangements were fine, though, and the family did indeed take the train for the 400-mile journey south and a new life in East Anglia – bringing the cattle with them. Over time, the Millers appear to have had three farms: Hill Farm at Layham, near Hadleigh; Hempstalls, at Horsley Cross, between Colchester and Harwich; and another farm to the south, at Great Bentley.

David was the baby of the family, having been born in Dumbartonshire in 1898, the youngest of six boys and three girls.

His early years had more than their share of tragedy. His 52-year-old mother died when he was six, and he was 13 when he lost his father. As a teenager he was sent back to Scotland, to boarding school, and in June, 1917, signed up for the Royal Flying Corps. He joined newly-formed 57 Squadron and was stationed in France.

In these days of fast jets and unmanned drones, it’s easy to forget that it was only late in 1903 that the Wright brothers were credited with making the first “proper” flight. Little more than a decade on, planes were being flown in combat.

At about 10.45am on December 2, 1917, while flying a mission north-east of Menin in Belgium, pilot Miller and observer Arthur Hoyles, both 2nd lieutenants, were downed by Max von Müller. It was the Bavarian’s 34th victory in the skies. Amazingly, David survived the crashing to the ground of his two-seater De Havilland. He had a short stay in hospital and was then in several prison camps before arriving at Holzminden in the spring of 1918. The camp south of Hanover earned a place in military folklore when 29 prisoners escaped through a tunnel in the July. More could have got away, apparently, but for a fat officer who found himself lodged underground!

It was the biggest escape of the war. Ten officers managed to make their way back to Britain. David noted in his diary: “Great excitement. 29 record. Confined to house. No food till 1 o’clock.”

Alistair says: “I was aware of the diary from fairly early on in my childhood, as it was always kept with the medals, but at that stage of my life the significance of the MBE box meant nothing to a young boy. It was the MC that held the fascination.

“However, it has only been in the last four years or so that my brother spent some time and typed the diary up in a more legible form, and this led on to the discovery of the further information we have found on both David and, latterly, John.”

Alistair knew his grandfather’s brother had won the Military Cross, though that wasn’t marked on the family grave back in Scotland and he knew no other details.

“Dad never explained. I don’t know whether he ever knew…”

While trying to find out more, Alistair typed “John Miller Hill Farm” into the internet and stumbled upon the work of Michael Woods. This was perhaps as recently as four months ago.

Retired headteacher Michael has done much work over the past few years in researching the lives of those honoured on Layham’s memorial. He knew about Lieutenant John Miller, born in 1887 at Denny in Stirlingshire. “John is listed as one of the original recruits into the 17th Highland Light Infantry, raised by the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce in September 1914,” he explained.

Two years later John was commissioned in the 7th Battalion Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, continuing to serve in France and fighting in many engagements.

As the world moved towards a kind of peace, though, came tragedy. John was badly injured in October, 1918, and died the following month – either on the day of the armistice itself or the day after. Records show both.

He was awarded the Military Cross posthumously. His citation spoke of “marked gallantry on several occasions… Particularly during an attack on Lieu St Amand on October 13th, when his company was held up in front of the village by intense machine-gun fire.

“He maintained his position with his platoon all day, and several times attempted to move forward and gain the village. Later, he volunteered to put up a bridge across the River Ecaillon in the face of enemy machine guns posted 100 yards away, and successfully accomplished the task, but was severely wounded just as he was moving away.”

Michael Woods says: “In the heat of the action absolute clarity about the fates of those involved would be unlikely. It seems probable that John’s severe wounds led to him being transferred to Le Treport, 100 miles away from the fighting, on the French coast, where he remained until his death on either the 11th or 12th November 1918, aged 31.

“Some sources suggest he died 12.11.18 but his Medal Card has that date struck through and 11.11.18 inserted. It will not escape readers’ notice that this is the day that fighting ceased.”

Alistair understands the bridge was constructed in the dark and his great-uncle mortally injured the following morning. It is some consolation that John’s efforts ensured troops were able to cross. “It’s been an incredible ‘journey’ over the last couple of months, and very poignant,” he admits. Alistair asked for John’s name to be read out at one of the nightly remembrance ceremonies at the Tower of London, where an artistic installation called Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red is marking the 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War. He also has one of the 888,246 ceramic poppies coming, when the installation is taken down.

Thanks to the family being hoarders – Alistair admits, with a grin – they have not only David’s MBE but John’s Military Cross. Both were stored in old chocolate boxes. Among the pilot’s books was a volume telling the story of the Holzminden escape, too.

On November 12, 1918 – the day after the armistice – David wrote in his diary: “Guards very slack… Rumours about leaving camp.” By the 21st, there was still no news. Men played a football match: RAF v The World.

It wasn’t until December 10 that he left the camp and boarded a slow train to freedom. Four days later he was on a boat sailing up the Humber to a symphony of ships’ whistles. The next few days saw him travelling down to Ripon and dealing with post-war bureaucracy – “More filing papers”.

David left Ripon on the 6.23pm train to Leeds on December 16. He changed at Derby after midnight. “Got 1st” (a first-class seat). And that was the last of his diary entries. No mention of an emotional return to the farmlands of Suffolk and Essex, which is where he was no doubt heading.

Alistair has a theory – a sad one.

Two of David’s brothers and “dearest sister” Janet had died within 23 days the previous month.

Janet was 25 when she died at Great Bentley, near Colchester, on November 6. (Perhaps a victim of the flu epidemic?) John died in France, of his wounds, about six days later. And William on the 29th, in Alberta, Canada. He was 29. Had he emigrated to use his agricultural skills to begin a new life, as so many Brits had? “This is my own supposition, but it was probably only when he (David) got back to Hill Farm that he realised he’d lost them, in such a short time. Is that why the diary stopped abruptly? We’ll never know.”

We do know that David married Violet, the daughter of a farmer near Layham, and had two boys. Son Ian, Alistair’s father, was born at Hempstalls Farm, Essex.

The former PoW’s future did not lie in agricultural, though, for Hempstalls would be sold. David enrolled in the Royal Observer Corps in Colchester in 1933. He became head observer and, after war broke out, was promoted to Assistant Observer Group Officer. In 1943 he was made Observer Commander.

After being awarded the MBE in 1946 David resigned as group commandant, but the following year re-enrolled full-time, becoming an observer lieutenant by 1950. He was later promoted again to observer commander in the metropolitan area – presumably London.

David died peacefully, while gardening at his home in Ardleigh, in the summer of 1963.

Grandson Alistair’s head must be spinning, having taken on board so much information about his courageous relatives in a fairly short space of time. How has it left him feeling?

“Still on ‘the journey’, I think,” he smiles. “I’d like to find out about his sister Janet, and William, who died in Canada; and try to track down Tom.”

Tom? Another of the brothers – one Alistair hadn’t heard about until Michael Woods at Layham said he was on the 1911 census.

“I still want to know what happened to him. Did he emigrate to Canada with William? Did he go to Australia with Alexander? (Yet another brother.)

“All we know about Alexander is that he went out there. He used to come from his farm, or wherever, down to the post office once a week to get his mail, and he didn’t turn up one week. So they went looking for him, and found him in a ditch. He’d died of a heart attack or whatever, and rolled into the ditch.

“We knew nothing more than that until father got a phone call in the ’60s, saying ‘I’m in Australia, I’ve been through some papers and I believe you’re due some inheritance. Send me some money’. Dad hummed and ha’ed and, being the ’60s, he did send money. And he duly received a cheque. I remember we bought a Dormobile camper van and toured Ireland, as a family, on Alexander’s money!”

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