WW1 Fighter Pilot, Colonial Administrator, Knight – and Rower!

Sir Herbert Thompson CIE, photo reproduced by kind permission of the National Portrait Gallery, London.

4 March 2020

By William O’Chee

The recent King’s Cup event at the 2019 Henley Royal Regatta was a reminder of the many rowers who served in the armed forces of Britain, France, Australia, New Zealand, America, and Germany.

With no First World War veterans still living, many of their stories have sadly been lost. However, a letter has recently been uncovered in an archive in Oxford University which sheds light on the life of one such man, Herbert Thompson.

Joseph Herbert Thompson was one of the first intakes of discharged servicemen to enter Brasenose College at Oxford after the First World War. He had gone straight from Manchester Grammar School to the Royal Navy in 1916, serving as a fighter pilot with the Royal Naval Air Service.

Rowing came to a complete halt in Oxford in the First World War. Many of its past oarsmen were also killed, depriving the University and its constituent colleges of the continuity needed to restart their rowing programmes. Brasenose College was one of these.

The year after returning to England, Thompson was elected Captain of the Brasenose College Boat Club, and did much to restore its prowess by enlisting legendary 1890s stroke, C.W. “Bill” Kent to coach. Kent was a four-time winner of the Grand and also a winner of the Stewards’.

In a letter to the College in 1967, he recounted how his squadron were seconded to assist the Royal Flying Corps in their battles with Baron von Richthofen’s “Travelling Circus” in 1917. He also told how he shot down one of its aces, Hans Waldhausen.

The letter reads:

…Robert S[hackleton] flattered me by telling me he’d heard a broadcast on 27th September when the BBC got me to do a 3 1⁄2 min in “Today” on the 50th anniversary of the evening when, as a boy of 19, I shot down a German “ace (horrid word). The man, Waldhausen, might well have been the prototype of the “hero” of the recent popular reconstruction of World War I air combat, the film “Blue Max” – for his case was an exact parallel of that “hero”.

 …I belonged to a Naval Squadron of fighter pilots who had been lent lock, stock and barrel to assist the RFC, who were hard pressed by Richtofen [Richthofen]. Waldhausen had recently belonged to Richtofen’s [Richthofen’s] Travelling Circus, hence his eminence.…

After leaving Oxford, Herbert Thompson was initially employed as a teacher at the Imperial College School, before joining the Indian Civil Service. He was a member of the I.C.S. until Indian Independence, rising to be Resident in Lahore and becoming Sir Herbert Thompson CIE.

Upon his return to England, Thompson immediately volunteered to coach the Brasenose College Boat Club alongside the renowned Gully Nickalls. He was also recruited by H.V. Hodson, who had also come out of the I.C.S., to become the rowing correspondent for The Sunday Times.

True to the ethos of his College, he was without affectation despite his considerable achievements, and was known to all in the College Boat Club as ‘Tommo’ or ‘Tommy’.

Fighter pilot, passionate rower, colonial administrator, newspaper correspondent and genial friend, Sir Herbert Thompson CIE exemplified how to live an extraordinary life. More than 100 years after his encounter in the skies above France, his story is none the worse for the passage of time.

The author would like to acknowledge the generous assistance of Helen Sumping and Laura Hackett at the archives of Brasenose College, Oxford. A version of this article was originally published on the blog of the Brasenose College archives.

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