Finally, I can get back to WOFF. I still haven't caught up with everyone's stories, but first I need to bring Collins's English sojourn to an end...

An Airman’s Odyssey – by James Arthur Collins

Part Forty: In which I meet an odd little man who scared me

I was long overdue visiting Mummy in Cambridge. I slipped Tubby Chilton a guinea for the use of the Singer, as it had been his turn to have it and my taking it meant he had to make alternate plans for a filthy weekend in Brighton with a certain young lady. It was a beautiful day for driving and I made the journey in a little more than three and a half hours, with time for a sandwich and a pint at the Fox and Duck in Therfield.

I hadn’t been to the new family house before and was delighted with it – an ivy covered brick structure -- likely a former manse – in Grantchester, just outside of the city. The air smelled of lilac and freshly-cut grass, tulips and daffodils. The car crunched the white gravel as I pulled up in front and hoisted my bag from the passenger seat. An ancient lion knocker graced the door. I banged three times and heard footsteps. The heavy door inched open and a pleasant, mature face peered at me.

“Ooh, and you must be Mister James,” said the woman who now opened the door fully. “I am Mrs. Winthrop. I work for your mother.” There was a trace of Scots in her voice, and she carried herself with assurance and grace. I liked her at once. “Mrs. Collins is lying down, but Dorothy is waiting in the garden. May I take your bag?”

I told her I’d bring it to my room later, and asked if I could see my sister. Mrs. Winthrop led me through the hall and a library to the glass doors leading onto a bricked patio with a small fountain. Dorothy ran to me and planted a kiss on my cheek.

“How are you?” I asked as she sat and poured a cup of tea. Mrs. Winthrop retired inside.

“I’m good. Good. And you? I’m so happy to see you home safe.”

I explained that I still wasn’t sure how I had come to be here, but that I had enjoyed a short break from the front. I told her I really wasn’t looking for an extended stay in England.

“Mummy won’t like it if you say that,” she replied. “She hasn’t been herself of late.” Dorothy and my mother had always been close, and her tone gave me concern. “She’s taken Daddy’s passing very badly, I’m afraid. And she frets on you daily. And sometimes she’s a bit too fond of a cordial to settle herself.”
“She’s drinking?” I asked. This was something new, and most unlike Mummy.

“It’s a real concern,” Dorothy said glumly.

We were interrupted by my mother, who emerged in a lovely violet dress and jacket, but with her greying hair awry. She planted a wet kiss on my cheek and hugged me a little too long. She sat and stared at me for nearly a full minute and began to sob – big, heaving, gasping sobs. “You are your father’s boy,” she gasped at last.

The next hours were spent in idle chat and story-telling, and gradually Mummy reclaimed her old balance and wit. Dorothy was engaged to a local banker, I learned, and Mummy had a modest social circle in Cambridge. I told them of my experiences, omitting the more hair-raising chapters. They laughed at my tales of Sergeant Wilson, especially the goose hunting escapade. They were thrilled by the stories of Jericho and Swanson from the American West. Mummy was offended that I lacked any decorations for my service. I told them of the encounter with the Zeppelin and was mildly surprised to find they had read about it in the Daily Express. We had always been a Times family, I was certain.

We ate early and I noted Mummy had three glasses of wine and ordered a cognac, all brought my Mrs. Winthrop. There had been a butler and an assistant housekeeper earlier, but the butler had volunteered last year and the assistant housekeeper was now a conductor on the trains. The household was down to Mrs. O’Reagan, the cook, and Mrs. Winthrop, the head housekeeper who doubled as a lady’s maid, plus a part-time tweeny named Peggy.

At length I ventured a question, asked in an offhand tone: “Mummy, do you have any idea how I came to be recalled to England?”

She slammed her brandy snifter to the table, breaking the stem and spilling the drink. “Of course not. How could you think such a thing?”

“Mummy,” said Dorothy. “Jimmy is just asking a question. He misses his friends in France.”

My mother’s eyes narrowed to slits. Her voice was heavy. “Jimmy would be better off looking after his own people here and minding his own business.” Then in a flash, her voice took on an unnatural sweetness. “Isn’t that right darling?” she said to me. “Isn’t it good to be home with your old Mum?”

“I’m needed in France, Mother,” I said. It was a mistake. My mother began to screech at me, calling me a fool and an ungrateful wretch. I’d become a hero over London according to the papers, and now I wanted to be an anonymous fool over the front in France. If I went back I’d be a line in the casualty reports, just like the rest of the fools. People depended on me. I had a business to run. I had my father’s legacy to carry on. That sort of thing.

I excused myself from the table, took my bag from the hall table, and headed to the car with a slurred voice shouting that if I left I should never come back. I got in the Singer and started the motor. Dorothy ran outside, tears running down her face. “Where are you going?” she asked. I had no idea. She said to check in at the Bull Hotel in town and she would find me.

It was not the visit I’d planned, but at least the Bull was comfortable and had a pleasant bar and lounge. I sipped on a glass of champagne and was surprised to see Dorothy enter less than an hour after my leaving the house in Grantchester. We moved to the sitting area off the lobby and ordered tea. Dorothy was understandably upset. Life at home had become unbearable, she said, and her engagement to Mr. MacDonald, the banker, was as much an escape from the past as a start to the future. She was an emotional tangle.
“How did she do it?” I asked. “Get me here, I mean.”

Dorothy composed herself and dabbed her face with a silk hanky that smelled of lavender. “Do you remember Mr. Dunn?” she began. I did not. “Daddy met him in Edmonton when you were tiny. Dunn was in a law practice there and Daddy wanted his help to take the company public, but that never panned out. Later he began to make a lot of money as a stockbroker in Montreal and eventually moved to London, where he made a fortune as a merchant banker. A couple of years ago his banking partner disappeared and his business fell apart. He owed a great deal of money to investors, including Mummy. Anyway, a couple of months ago Mr. Dunn came to see her and wanted to negotiate terms for repayment in order to avoid bankruptcy. Mummy knew he had friends in high places and she told him she’d forgo repayment for several years if he’d help get you back in England. He said he’d talk to a friend of his, a man he called Max...” [1]

I arranged to write Dorothy via a friend of hers and left Cambridge in the morning. Returning to London, I went directly to the Savoy. Jimmy was not on duty until six, so I sat in the lobby with a newspaper until he showed up. I ordered a Manhattan cocktail and asked Jimmy for news. He had none, so I asked him who could help me find out who was who at the Daily Express. Jimmy said to stroll down the Strand to Mooney’s Irish House on Fleet Street. There I’d likely find an RFC staff officer named Captain Hooper. He had some responsibility for RFC press liaison and might be able to help.[2]

Mooney’s was crowded with journalists at seven in the evening and I drew many questioning glances at my uniform. A couple of patrons obviously recognized me from the recent story in the paper. There were only three other officers in the pub, only one of which was a captain. I stood beside him at the bar and offered to buy a drink, and he happily accepted. It was indeed Captain Hooper.

“Max,” I learned, was likely a fellow named Max Aitken. Aitken was a wealthy Canadian businessman and a Conservative Member of Parliament with newspaper interests. He had bought the Globe and, unbeknownst to most in the newspaper business, was approaching majority ownership of the Daily Express. Further, he was a colonel in the Canadian Army and the head of something called the Canadian War Records Office, a position with responsibility to publicise the Canadian war effort. Its office was about ten minutes’ walk away, so I decided to stay in town. I arranged to leave the car at the Savoy, but in a concession to budget I stayed down the street at Haxell’s Hotel. At nine the next morning I appeared in the lobby of the Canadian War Records Office at 15 Tudor Street and told the clerk at the desk that I was a friend of James Dunn come to see Colonel Aitken.[3]

I waited an hour, during which the clerk asked my name several times and returned to his desk to mumble into a telephone. There was a copy of a book written by Max Aitken, recently published and entitled Canada in Flanders. I skimmed it. It told a jingoistic tale of Canadian heroism and made no attempt at understatement. At length a Lieutenant Willson arrived to escort me up two flights of stairs. And there he was.[4]

Aitken was far younger than I expected, rather short and broadly built. He had a wide, tight smile set in an impish face. A face like a Toby mug, I thought, only younger. He wore the pip and crown of a lieutenant-colonel of the sleeve of his Canadian tunic and his boots were improperly laced but well-polished. He leaned over and shook my hand and I quite forgot to salute. Aitken did not seem to notice. He motioned for me to sit and asked what he could do for me.

[Linked Image]
Max Aitken

“Well sir,” I said, “it’s really what you can undo. You see, I’ve been recalled to Home Establishment three months early, and I have learned that James Dunn had a hand in it. But I strongly suspect that Mr. Dunn worked through your office. I know that RFC headquarters jumped to release me from France and that smells of Cabinet pressure. You have influence in Cabinet, I’m told. And I’m told that you and Mr. Dunn are well acquainted.”

There was a long silence. And then Colonel Aitken began to chuckle. “That quite a pair you have there, my friend.”

“I need them to fight the Hun, sir. And I want to go back to doing just that.”

Just then the phone rang and Aitken shouted for Lieut. Willson to tell them he’d call back. “Look, Mr. Collins. I did a favour for another New Brunswicker and a good friend. I’m frankly loathe to let him down no matter what you say you want.”

It was now or never. I sat upright and folded my hands in my lap. “Sir, as far as I can tell you have established this office to promote Canada’s role in the defence of the Empire. I have read your book. It’s a wonderful piece of promotion. I suspect you have used your interest in the Daily Express to make me a bit of a star turn for doing not much with my squadron over London. All fine work, but...” I hesitated here. If Aitken thought I was bluffing I was finished.

“But what?” he said.

“If I am not returned to my old squadron in France at once, I shall get in my motor and drive to my hotel where I shall call the Manchester Guardian. And then I shall detail how Conservative cronyism conspired to send a brave Canadian pilot back to his mother so that she would forgive a debt from one of Colonel Aitken’s Conservative friends and fellow financier. I respect all your good work and obvious influence, but that is exactly what I intend to do.”[5]

Aitken examined me like a mongoose studying a snake. “You do realise, Mr. Collins, that Canada will demand its heroes and you could be one of them. I can make you or break you, Mr. Collins.”

“We can break each other, sir,” I said. “Or I can be sent back to Number 3 Squadron at Lahoussoye, resume my duties for the Empire, and say no more about this. It’s your decision, sir. There will be other Canadian airmen you can write about, I’m sure.” In the silence that followed my heart nearly deafened me with its drumbeat.

Aitken pulled back his chair and at the sound of the scraping, Lieutenant Willson reappeared at the door.

“Mr. Willson, please escort Mr. Collins downstairs. Mr. Collins, it has been a pleasure to speak with you.” And with that, I left.

I had scarcely been back at Hounslow a day when orders came through to board a ship out of Folkestone for Calais and report to 3 Squadron no later than Thursday, 25 May 1916. I had enjoyed my brief time with 39 Squadron. We now had only one flight at Hounslow, so I hosted a fine dinner at a local restaurant for the fellows and the squadron command group. Tubby offered to buy my half of the Singer, and the next day I was at Victoria Station by ten in the morning.


[1] James Hamet Dunn, later Sir James, Baronet (1874-1956) was a lawyer, stockbroker, merchant banker, and industrialist. Despite setbacks in 1915-1916, he quickly re-established his fortune and established many large companies including British Celanese, Algoma Steel (Canada), and Canada Steamship Lines. A native of Bathurst, New Brunswick, he was a good friend of Sir Max Aitken, also a native New Brunswicker.

[2] Mooney’s Irish House on the south side of Fleet Street is today called the Tipperary. Its entrance features a long history of the pub, almost all of it inaccurate.

[3] William Maxwell “Max” Aitken, later Sir Max Aitken, Baron Beaverbrook (1879-1964) was a financial, political, and publishing powerhouse. Like James Dunn, he put together many companies, including the once giant Steel Company of Canada. Moving to London in 1910, he became friends with fellow New Brunswicker Andrew Bonar Law, who was a rising force in the Conservative Party, and with Winston Churchill. Aitken won a seat in Parliament and broadened his influence by acquiring newpapers, beginning with the Globe and then, later in 1916, achieving control of the Daily Express. He later acquired a number of other major papers and became the premier media baron in the United Kingdom. In 1915, Aitken was appointed as “Canada’s Eye Witness” to the war by Canadian Prime Minister Robert Borden and Minister of Defence Sam Hughes. Aitken then financed the establishment of the Canadian War Records Office, essentially an archive of Canadian war information and a propaganda machine for the Canadian war effort. The CWRO sponsored war reporting, filming, and art. Aitken was made an honorary lieutenant-colonel. A political animal of the first order, Aitken was instrumental in undermining support for Prime Minister Asquith throughout 1915 and 1916, leading to Asquith’s replacement by Lloyd George in December 1916. Aitken held a number of Cabinet appointments, and is best remembered as Churchill’s Minister of Aircraft Production in the Second World War.

[4] Lieutenant Henry Beckles Willson was a man of letters and historian who worked briefly as an archivist of unit histories and assistant to Max Aitken around this time. He left the CWRO as a result of a difficult relationship with Aitken.

[5] The Guardian was the standard-bearer for the Liberal Party.

Attached Files Aitken.jpg