“The air of the best class”: The Interesting Character of Lieutenant Hubert Noel Charles

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                    Lieutenant H. N. Charles

 

This past week, I finally had the opportunity to listen to an oral history by Lieutenant Hubert Noel Charles available in the Imperial War Museum’s digitized archives section. The oral history, one of three (the two others are not digitized), was produced in 1973 by Alex Revell, author of modern biographies of Lieutenant Arthur Rhys Davids and Major James McCudden. Revell, in part with a wave of interest in the First World War from the 1960s to the 1980s, interviewed many former Royal Flying Corps members to preserve the experiences of men well into their eighties and nineties.

Born in 1893, Lieutenant Hubert Noel Charles was 56 Squadron’s head engineering officer. Charles presents an interesting contrast to the traditional mold of the popular Royal Flying Corps officer, two key differences at the forefront: to begin with, at age twenty-four in 1917, he was older than most officers in the squadron were. Also, Charles went against the rather prominent trend of former public school and upper class boys as officers (whether they be flying offices or administrative, logistical/intelligence, or equipment officers). Charles attended Highgate School, a charity grammar school in London. In his late teens and early twenties, he attended the University of London and earned a B.Sc with Honours in Engineering. This university degree makes Charles a prominent outlier in not only 56 Squadron’s officers demographics, but also against the popular media’s portrayal of flying officers versus ground officers, mechanics, etc.; in many media portrayals, especially in Aces High (1976) and The Dawn Patrol (1938), the bulk of the aforementioned non-flying officers are depicted as “lower class characters” lacking the “proper education”  attributed to the “upper class” flying officer with a public school and university education. Also common in media is a portrayal of strife between these two groups, with what appears to be a mutual distaste for the other but an adherence to assisting the flying officers on the side of the ground crew.

Charles’ experience and outlook goes against the media and more traditional manner of classifying Royal Flying Corps members. Despite the obvious traditional class difference between Charles and many of the pilots he assisted with engineering and repairs, he discussed many of them in detail that suggests a high level of respect and admiration for their service. In the case of Arthur Rhys Davids, whose upper middle class background and public school education, Charles dedicated a long section of one of his oral histories discussing the character of the ill-fated lieutenant:

      “Rhys Davids had been head boy of Eton and was, for his age, a very fine classical scholar. And the funny thing about Rhys Davids was that being a classical scholar, he won’t mind me saying this even though he isn’t here now, he was  such a marvellous judge of people. That’s what half the classical books are written about is people.”

 

Charles’ education, certainly not as “lacking” as attributed by others, showcases a knowledge of the classics, as he connects how Rhys Davids’ character developed along with the subject he dedicated to himself during his time at Eton. In most of his interviews, he speaks in depth about a variety of subjects ranging from engineering and mechanics (his specialty) to geography and the humanities. Charles is obviously aware of the class differences between him and many of the other squadron members. However, in his interview, he speaks of all members with equal levels of respect and admiration, portraying them in a realistic manner that showcases both strengths and prejudices without being derogatory. Later in the interview, he states:

 

                        “Well, Maybery was a regular cavalry officer and he had the outlook that everyone admired the regular officers. I mean, what was it about…that made them the most admired personalities in the Royal Flying Corps…The air of the best class of a regular peacetime officer…We all wanted people to think that we were                                           officers…We always wanted to imitate the regular officers.”

 

In this part of the interview, his wording provides the image similar that portrayed by the popular media: the dashing upper class officer. Although he himself was an officer, he had a view tinted by an edge of self-deprecation, a belief that the flying officers with their higher class backgrounds had a higher standard of self-worth in the eyes of the public and military as a whole.

Much like with McCudden, Charles’ respect for the upper class offices was reciprocated. Instilled by McCudden’s demand to respect all mechanics due to their work ethic and dedication, the regular flying officers of 56 Squadron greatly adored and respected not only Charles, but the rest of the ground crew as well. Charles gained the attention of the High Command for his work on different fighter aircraft to eradicate flaws found only after they left the factory. Hand-selected for work with 56 Squadron. He modified the Royal Aircraft Factory SE5a aircraft to eradicate engine failure occurring in steep dives and banking, allow for obtaining higher speed and ceiling height in a shorter time (specifically for James McCudden’s tactics), and strengthen wings to allow for more diving (specifically for Arthur Rhys Davids’ tactics). Later in his career, he was the crash-investigating officer at James McCudden’s crash, which, ironically, occurred from engine failure he worked so hard to prevent.

Other than a brief stint in hospital, Charles remained in 56 Squadron until High Command transferred him in order to spread his knowledge and influence over aircraft maintenance and production. Below is a timeline of his Royal Flying Corps and Royal Air Force Career:

December 6, 1916- June 1, 1917: Hospital

June 117, 1917- November 5, 1917: To 9th Wing

July 9, 1918: Chief Investigating Officer in James McCudden’s crash.

 

Charles dedication to detail and duty not only allowed him to break through the class confinements of the RFC, but also rise through the ranks of the workforce. Below is a timeline of Charles’ extensive career in the automobile and engineering industry after the First World War:

1919 – 1920: Technical Sales Department with Zenith Caburetters
1924: Morris Motors.
1930: Chief Draughtsman and Chief Engineer with MG Car Co. and Racing Shop.
1938: Chief Engineer with Rotol Airscrews.
1941: Development Engineer with Austin

Mid-1940s: Consultant Engineer for Cam Gears and Norton.
1953: Gains partner position with Manley & Charles.

 

H.N. Charles died in 1982 at age 88.

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