Louis Strange was a young farmer serving as a “weekend soldier” in the Queen’s Own Dorsetshire Yeomanry when he first saw aircraft being used in a military role at a May 1913 training camp. He had been taken up for a flip the year before and was quick to realise the potential for reconnaissance offered by the aeroplane. That evening he voiced his opinion to the horror of his cavalry comrades. He tells the story in his own memoir, Recollections of an Airman. The upshot was that he made a reckless wager that next year he would be flying over the camp.
He learned to fly at Hendon like so many of his contemporaries; a kick in the ribs from a sheep he was trying to treat for foot rot gave him the time away from the farm to do this. In May 1914 he collected his bets when he flew over the Dorsetshire Yeomanry training camp at Crichel Park. In August of that year he flew Henry Farman F-20 No. 341 to France in support of the British Expeditionary Force along with the rest of the fledgling Royal Flying Corps. He quickly made a name for himself for his aggressive and daring flights, but the incident that made him a household name occurred in 1915. While pursuing a high flying Aviatik in his Martinsyde Scout, Louis was flung out of the cockpit when he stood to change a stuck ammunition drum on his machine gun. Hanging on to the jammed magazine for dear life while his machine fell in an inverted spin he managed to extricate himself from his predicament. He tells the story himself in the opening chapters of Turner’s Flight.
He went on to distinguish himself as a pilot and leader in the First World War, retiring in the rank of Colonel. In the period between the wars he was active in the developing civil aviation scene, and when war broke out again he rejoined the Royal Air Force where trouble soon found him again. He flew one of the last Hurricanes out of France during the withdrawal from Dunkirk, a machine he had never flown, pursued by a flight of Messerschmitt 109’s. This exploit won him a bar to his First World War Distinguished Flying Cross, one of very few to achieve this. He commanded the original parachute training school and achieved near miracles in the organisation of air supply during the Normandy landings and subsequent advance into Germany.
Louis Strange never lost his love of the land and farming. Always an innovator many of his ideas were years ahead of their time: so much so that he was often regarded as eccentric in his later years, but his views on what we now call organic farming and the environment would now be considered mainstream. He died peacefully in his sleep in 1966 at the age of 75. Considering his career, and that his friend Robert Smith-Barry described him as the bravest man who ever lived, that has to be added to his impressive list of achievements. His tombstone in the country churchyard where he is buried carries the lines from Psalm 139:
If I take the wings of the morning
Thy right hand shall hold me…