St. Edward's parishioner Peter Ward was intrigued by this plaque and decided to research the story behind it. He discovered not one but two poignant and parallel stories, from World Wars I and II.
On the south wall of the church of St Edward the Confessor, Sutton Green, is a simple plaque recording the death of Pilot Officer Michael Henry Grayson Rawlinson, RAF on 16 May 1940 in the Battle of France.
Born 27 March 1918, the son of Lieutenant-Colonel Arthur Rawlinson and his wife Ailsa, Michael joined the RAF straight from Downside School, qualified as a pilot and in 1938 was posted to 85 Squadron, equipped with the new Hawker Hurricane fighter aircraft at Debden in Essex. Following the outbreak of war, Michael moved with 85 Squadron to Rouen as part of the Air Component of the British Expeditionary Force. About three weeks later the squadron moved to Merville airfield before finally establishing itself in Lille at the beginning of November from where it flew patrols to protect shipping in the English Channel. Bitterly cold winter weather often prevented flying, caused damage to aircraft and took its toll on the health of the airmen who were living in fairly primitive conditions. Perhaps a visit by King George VI accompanied by Lord Gort, C-in-C of the BEF in December did something to raise the spirits of Michael and the rest of the squadron.
After eight months of what has become known as the Phoney War because of the lack of engagement, at 4.10 am on Friday 10 May the whole squadron was awoken by the sound of enemy aircraft and anti-aircraft fire: the German invasion of France through Belgium and Luxemburg had begun. The squadron had scrambled by 0435 but the first extant record of engagement by Michael followed the last patrol of the day recording a shared 'kill'.
Very intense operations continued daily from dawn to dusk. Six days later Michael scrambled at 1.30pm to defend the airfield from attacking He111 bombers escorted by Me109 fighter aircraft and shot down one He111. After landing to refuel and re-arm he departed to patrol over Belgium where he was shot down by a Me109, variously located as near Brussels or Mons or south west of Lille. The following day was the first occasion any aircrew were given leave. A lucky three were flown to England for a short break but on arrival first went to Michael's flat — the location is not given — where Flt/Lt Richard Lee broke the sad news that Michael had died in combat on 16 May, to whom is not recorded.
Left to right: Hawker Hurricane MkI, as flown by Pilot Officer Rawlinson,
Heinkel 111 bomber and Messerschmitt 109 fighter
However no official confirmation was forthcoming, his aircraft apparently crashing behind German lines and no communication being forthcoming from the enemy. One can only wonder how his parents living in Woking must have felt for the four years before a confusing message was relayed by way of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva in Spring 1944. This reported the burial of a Stirling bomber pilot identified as 'Haidee Silver 40851' who had crashed near Mons on 15 May 1940.
While the RAF number 40851 was that of Michael Rawlinson and Mons was in the vicinity of the crash, he had died while flying a Hurricane fighter on 16 May 1940 so clearly there were some inaccuracies, including the fact that the first Stirling bomber aircraft did not enter service until 1941. Naturally the authorities contacted his father, Major Arthur Rawlinson who was able to confirm that Michael had received a silver bracelet engraved ‘from Haidee’. It was the gift of Haidee McMorough, who had married Michael's brother Peter on 29 June 1940, just five weeks after Michael's death.
Left to right:
One wonders what must have gone through the minds of Arthur and Ailsa Rawlinson when they first heard reports of the death of their elder son and then waited, and waited, for confirmation of his death. Since its formation on 23 December 1939, Arthur was head of Military Intelligence (MI) 9a concerned with the interrogation and de-briefing of enemy personnel, complementing section M19b which was committed to communicating with and, where possible, supporting captured British personnel in German prison camps. Perhaps Arthur would have asked the head of MI9b if there was any news of his son Michael in German captivity at some time in the years he waited for official news.
Ailsa, and indeed Arthur, would perhaps also have been recalling a similar situation twenty-five years earlier in the First World War. Ailsa had two elder brothers, Rupert and Denys, serving in the Irish Guards. In fact it was through Arthur's friendship with Denys while at Pembroke College, Cambridge, that he came to know the Grayson family. While the two brothers joined the Irish Guards, it was Rupert who became a good friend of John Kipling, the two enjoying a similar social life in London when not required in the barracks.
Finally in September 1915 the Second Battalion, the Irish Guards was deployed to France and advanced up the line to the Western Front to reinforce the advance at the Battle of Loos and went 'over the top' and advanced towards the enemy line on 27 September 1915. They experienced heavy German shell-fire, one of which exploded very close to Rupert Grayson and John Kipling. Rupert was injured but apparently there was no sign of John. Days later his father Rudyard Kipling and his mother, Caroline (Carrie) Kipling, were officially advised that John was 'wounded and missing' but they also heard directly from Rupert. By the Armistice in 1918, three years after the Battle of Loos, there was still no confirmation of the death of John. It was not until 1992 that the grave of John Kipling was officially listed as being situated in St Mary's ADS Cemetery by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
Rudyard and Caroline Kipling were naturally greatly distressed at the loss of their only son, having earlier suffered the loss of their daughter Josephine, aged six, in 1899; only Elsie survived, marrying in 1924 and dying in 1976. Rudyard Kipling in particular befriended the friends and companions of John and in particular Rupert and the Grayson family, which included Arthur Rawlinson following his marriage to Ailsa in December 1916. It is said that it was through Rupert that Arthur first met Rudyard Kipling and was commissioned to write the screenplays to some of Kipling’s works which was to lead to a career in film-making before and after the Second World War.
A member of the Officer Training Corps on the outbreak of war in August 1914, Arthur was commissioned into the York and Lancashire Regiment in September 1914 and transferred to the Machine Gun Corps in June 1916. Having been wounded in action he was transferred to the War Office and became an intelligence officer in the Intelligence Directorate called MI1a, initially to exploit intelligence from escaping British prisoners of war and later expanded to explore ways of communicating with prisoners in enemy camps.
It may be noted that Haidee and Peter obtained an annulment in 1954. Peter remarried and later became Conservative MP for Epsom (later Epsom and Ewell) from 1955 to 1978 when he was made a life peer, taking the name Baron Rawlinson of Ewell. He served as Solicitor General under Harold Macmillan and Attorney General under Edward Heath. It is interesting to note that in 1974 the law was changed to permit a Catholic to take the position of Lord Chancellor or Lord Chief Justice. At the time it was thought that this was to allow Peter to be appointed to the position, and thus be the first Catholic Lord Chancellor since St Thomas More, but he fell out of favour with the party leadership and was never offered the post.
About Peter Ward:
Peter and his wife Rosemary have attended St Edward the Confessor church for about 15 years. Both have contributed to church life in various ways for some years.
After a career as a Religious Education teacher and Catholic school leader, he recently retired from being a diocesan Religious Education adviser first in Westminster and latterly in Arundel and Brighton. He continues to undertake denominational school inspections and is often asked to contribute to national discussions about Religious Education.
He explains his interest in aviation as the result of visits to London airports as a child. This interest led to his researching aviation in Orkney and Shetland and the publication of a small book on an air station there. These research skills have subsequently led to his contributing a chapter on the history of Catholic Religious Education in England and Wales to a recently published book.
His parish work, aviation interest and research experience led him to uncover the story behind the plaque on the wall in the church.