Meet Captain David Benjamin Gray.
Born in Assam in 1884, Gray was a friend of Morris’s as well as his flight leader, who joined the RFC from the Indian Army. He's been leaping out of the archives at me for the best part of four years. I found him with the help of my friend Jim Miller, in a letter that was written to Lionel Morris’s father from a German PoW camp, where he'd lied about his name and squadron. At the National Archives he was in a lawyer’s letter describing a trial for attempted murder, and a repatriation report that described him setting his aeroplane aflame.
I found him on the internet, in digitised accounts of the notorious Holzminden prison camp, where his fellow prisoners dubbed him the Father of the Tunnel. He escaped in the summer of 1918, an exploit that newspapers still cannot resist calling The First Great Escape. He cut an archetypally dashing Royal Flying Corps figure in photographs, dark hair slicked back, and centre-parted, with a caterpillar moustache that underlined a long straight nose and a gaze direct from 1916. Two years later, fresh from his remarkable prison break, the features were still familiar but pinched, and instead of a smart officer’s uniform, he wore a filthy coat, huge shoes and a gleeful expression, looking for all the world like Charlie Chaplin’s skinny brother.
So who was this man, whose gift for languages gave him another nickname, ‘Munshi’, after the Persian word for teacher? His adventures were turned into a film starring a young Jack Hawkins, and he was still serving the Royal Air Force thirty years after his FE2b was shot down by the great German ace Oswald Boelcke. There’s one book that says he fought the Bolsheviks in Russia. Another is due out in September - the film rights were snapped up by Channel Four even before the manuscript had been delivered to the publisher. Gray’s Great Escape has proved irresistible all over again.
A couple of weeks ago I had a conversation with a woman who lives in the village of Wonston in Hampshire where Gray and his wife Violet are buried. Jane Gray (no relative!) never knew the good Captain but her mother was friends with Violet for decades. More intriguing stories came out – about the tragedy of his only son, about how much admired he had been in the village, and about the mementoes of his life that ended up in a crème de menthe tin. One of them apparently was an aspirin, allegedly the remainder of a stash that had ‘sedated’ a fellow escapee posing as a lunatic in order to fool German villagers, a plot dreamt up by Gray and executed with creative guile.
He didn’t brag about himself. It was only after some visitors who knew about the Holzminden episode turned up, eager to know more about him, that the village realised what an extraordinary man had been living in their midst. The local library was suddenly deluged with requests for the book that had led the visitors to Wonston.
Jane told me she had passed on what was left of the Grays’ belongings (including the crème de menthe tin) to the National Museum of Army Flying at Nether Wallop and Winchester Museum. I’ve been in contact with both, but my enquiries have been fruitless so far. I’m all wrapped up with Lionel Morris at the moment and haven’t the time to visit the museums in person to really look for Gray, but just as soon as I can, I shall.
Not so much a journey of discovery, more of a commute of compulsion
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