Oscar

Posted on June 2, 2012

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“I am a Captain, but as they are ten a-penny, and I had a very undistinguished & brief career at the front ( I was shot down by Richthofen in January 1917 & POW till the  middle of December 1918) I do not normally use the rank”

Oscar Grieg, is not someone you will have heard of. He was in his own words a modest man. However like many people living anonymous lives around us he is someone who, it is good to get to know. For Oscar lived a remarkable life. One that lives on today in three neat cardboard boxes found within the depths of the Imperial War Museum, London. Each box containing a selection of Oscar’s remarkable letters, diaries, photographs and drawings.

Oscar in Poland 1918

Oscar was born in Devon in 1889. In 1914 the First World War came. Immediately Oscar applied to join the fledgling Royal Flying Corp, only to be disappointed when told that he would have to wait six months for a plane to become available for him.

Unwilling to wait so long to join the war, impatient, he  signed up with the Red Cross. Serving as an ambulance driver in France. From his letters home this was a time of inertia, problems with his teeth, boredom, reports on the weather,and wild rumour. A life interspersed with brief,chilling moments of action and horror.

Oscar, though, had not given up his dream of flying. Eventually the call came and he finally joined the fledging Royal Flying Corp, in May 1915. After just three tuition flights and thirty five minutes solo flying, standard for the time, he took and passed his flying test.

Oscar wrote to his parents about being reprimanded by his Captai, for undertaking adventurous tricks in his new flying machine. Undaunted, he could not help sharing with them his enjoyment.

“I love flying about, and doing sharp, steeply banked turns and dives, and things. I got to 4300 (feet) the other day”

Then Oscar went to war. His departure, for a second time, told in a beautifully written letter home. One undoubtably sharing the same bravado and fears of all who have gone to war.

 8th July 1915

Dear Mother & Father,

I am hoping to get off in about 1/2 an hour and get as far as Folkestone at any rate.

I am taking a Vickers across, which I suppose will be my machine out there.

I have written to almost everyone to say I am going across. I don’t know that there is much more to say. I think, that we are all sure of meeting again somewhere. 

I expect, and feel, that I shall come through this war, but, one never knows. I shall write when I can.

Whatever happens, it is better that I should be doing my share, than to be amongst the crowd who are doing nothing, best of love,

Your loving son

Oscar.

Promoted to Captain, Oscar later became part of a photographic recognisance team. Flying a fragile Bi-Plane fitted with specialist cameras, observing the network of trenches at the front line.  Oscar flew over four hundred hours above the battleground. A miraculous feat when you learn that the average life expectance of a British pilot was measured in flying hours. The best, at most, surviving for fifty hours.

Then, on 24th January 1917, Oscar had a fateful encounter with Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron.

“ I heard a machine gun firing, and saw several bullet holes appear. We were taken completely by surprise. The enemy fired another burst, putting the engine out of action, and hitting me in my right ankle. I tried everything to get the engine going, but it would only splutter feebly. I turned east, and landed on a plain between Vimy and Fresnoy. 

When we stopped, I asked McLennan ( Oscar’s navigator) if he was hit. He said “ No, are you? I told him I had got a ‘blighty’ one in the foot, and was damed sorry to bring him there. I noticed, that he had several bullet holes in his leather coat, as I had also ”

Diaries of Oscar Greig

Crashing behind enemy lines and captured Oscar  would spend the rest of his war in prisoner of war camps before finally arriving, at the end of the war, in Schweidnitz deep inside present day Poland. It was to be from here that Oscar embarked on another remarkable adventure, determined to get home for Christmas 1918.

And so on the 11th December he bribed a guard and escaped over the camp wall. That night with no money, and only the few possessions he could carry, he walked over a snow covered mountain range and crossed into Bohemia ( present day Czech Republic)

Next he travelled by foot and train, first to Prague and then into Austria. Walking over the Alpine Brenner pass, crossing into Italy, and eventually France.

Remarkably, romantically, Oscar’s wish came true. He finally made it home two days before Christmas. Arriving safely after a journey of over one and a half thousand miles. A distance crossed, against the odds, in only eleven days.

Later his exploits would continue. Delivering the post from the air across Dartmoor.Recording the wildlife of his farm and collecting over thirty thousand prehistoric flints from the area around his Devon home. A remarkable, and unique, collection of Bronze age tools and arrowheads that date from between ten, and two thousand years BC.

All in all,Oscar’s is a life less ordinary. One deserving to be celebrated, not left gathering dust within a box in a museum. For Oscar’s story is just the kind of one we need to hear more, not less, about.

 

drawing of a  Deer,  by Oscar. France 1915.

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