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Commemorative centenary event at Horsea Island

21 September 2017
A very special commemorative event has taken place at the Defence Diving School on Horsea Island Portsmouth.

Relatives of the late Flight Commander Edward de Ville, along with the relatives of his rescuers, visited the site to mark the 100th anniversary of his dramatic rescue from an aircraft crash at the island.

The incident itself was the stuff of legend.  On 14 September 1917, during the First World War, an aircraft, a Sopwith Baby seaplane, piloted by Acting Flt Commander Edward de Ville, took off from the Royal Naval Air Station at Calshot.  

He was to act as a target for practice anti-aircraft gunnery training over Portsmouth harbour.  Despite the misty conditions, he refused to cancel the mission, and was soon flying blind through zero visibility.

Horsea Island at the time was a long-range radio transmission station with four 446-foot tall masts, made from huge timbers, spread around the area. On the ground Able Seaman Nicholas Rath, Ordinary Seaman Richard Knowlton and Deckhand (Trawler Section) George Abbott were in a working party, re-painting the masts.  

They heard the aircraft flying around but couldn’t see it. Suddenly they heard a loud bang immediately above them, the sound of the aircraft’s engine stopped but nothing fell to the ground. The mast was swaying, but Nicholas Rath immediately started to climb up it, while the others followed with a Bosun’s Chair.

As the mist cleared they found the aircraft impaled in the mast, 300 feet up, with the pilot half out of his cockpit, unconscious. The three reached the stricken aircraft at about the same time.

Helped by the two others, Nicholas Rath reached out, pulled Edward de Ville out of the plane and brought him down. After a month in Haslar Naval Hospital he made a full recovery.  

The rescuers were all awarded the Albert Medal (the forerunner of the George Cross) for their bravery.

The commemoration was held in the original wireless telegraphy room, and although the masts are long gone, the assembled crowd were given a feel for what it must have been like for the participants in the daring rescue.

Michael Bayliss, grandson of the pilot, gave an account of Edward de Ville’s subsequent life in Venezuela, Richard Knowlton Junior, spoke of his namesake grandfather’s life in Salisbury, and Rory McKenna came over from Ireland to speak about his countryman Nicholas Rath.  Michael Bayliss also spoke about George Abbott, who had no descendants but came from Nelson, Lancashire and returned there.

Royal Navy Chaplain David Wylie held a short but poignant service of thanksgiving for the saving of Edward de Ville’s life.  

In all, 34 descendants of the pilot and his rescuers attended. At the conclusion, Michael Bayliss presented commemorative photographs on behalf of Edward’s 26 living descendants to the representatives of the descendants of his saviours, one to Richard Knowlton Junior and the other to Breda Mullen, granddaughter of Nicholas Rath.

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