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  • Writer's pictureCaptain Crisp

Sqn Ldr Edwin Rowland Moon Southampton’s aviation pioneer and war hero

A real Southampton ‘local’, Edwin Rowland Moon was born 8th June 1886 in Cranbury Avenue, Southampton.

His father, also Edwin, was a financier and broker, with a business in Southampton. The younger Edwin, after school locally, became a financial secretary, although his uncle, Egbert Moon, was a boat builder.

In the early part of the last century, Egbert expanded his business and occupied the ancient Wool House in Southampton under the guise of the Moonbeam Engineering Company Limited, not only to continue building bespoke motor launches, but also to sell marine engines and iron propellers for the home and export markets.

Young Edwin, as many of his contemporaries, was captivated by the possibilities of heavier-than-air flight, and was inspired to emulate the Wright brothers and later Bleriot.

Fortunately, he was allowed a small area of his uncle’s manufacturing workshop area to build his early designs of a small aircraft.

Naming it after the engineering company, ‘Moonbeam I’, Moon tested it on land at Fawley – close to the family home of Isabel Waldron, his future wife. Moonbeam I was not successful – only managing a short ‘hops’ when Moon took off from Webster’s Field, on Ower Farm near Calshot, and also from Mouland’s Field, Regent’s Park, Southampton.

Although disappointing, these ‘hops’ encouraged Moon to design a new aircraft, ‘Moonbeam II’, which owed a lot to the Albert Santos-Dumont ‘Demoiselle’ [Butterfly] successful design, although

Santos-Dumont had generously waived his patent rights to the design of this aircraft to encourage other amateur constructors to advance aviation across the world.

Moonbeam II was a small high-wing monoplane, only weighing 260lbs, of which 160lbs was the V4 60hp small JAP engine and 6ft diameter propeller.

Transported to fields attached to North Stoneham farm, where Southampton Airport is now sited, the first successful flight was made.

The precise date of that momentous flight is a little vague, but is believed to have been on 1 June 1910.

By this time, his father had died, and his mother had remarried the businessman and politician, Edward Turner Sims, one of the directors of Southampton’s largest department store, Edwin Jones & Co. Edwin Moon had also married Isabel in 1911.

Moon continued developing his aircraft, making longer flights, and finally gained his Aero Club Pilot’s Certificate in early 1914.

When war was declared in September 1914, Moon volunteered for the fledgling Royal Naval Air Service, commissioned as a Flight Sub-Lieutenant pilot.

By April 1916, Moon was stationed on board HMS Hyacinth, an obsolete armoured pre-Dreadnought cruiser, now used as an RNAS Depot Ship, which was part of the fleet based off Tanganyika near Imperial Germany’s East Africa Colony.

Moon undertook many missions in the ship’s seaplanes, on reconnaissance, bombing and target spotting missions, culminating in the award in June 1917 of the Distinguished Service Order.

On 6 January 1917, Moon and his observer, Cdr Bridgeman, were on a reconnaissance flight near the Rufiji river delta near German positions where the aircraft force landed when the engine failed. Destroying the aircraft to prevent it falling into enemy hands, they spent three days trekking across the delta region in terrible conditions without food and with limited water trying to get either to their ship or at least to friendly territory.

Constricting a primitive raft from a door and wood from a disused building they came across to cross a wider tributary, they were swept out to sea and drifted for another two days. Bridgeman was suffering from exposure and exhaustion, and eventually despite Moon’s best efforts, slipped off the raft and was drowned.

Moon was eventually rescued by local natives, who handed him over to the nearest white men for medical treatment – Germans!

Upon his recovery, he was then incarcerated as a prisoner of war, although his poor wife had been informed by this time that he was missing, believed dead. Moon was released from German captivity on 21 November 1917.

Recommended for the Victoria Cross for his efforts to save Bridgeman, Moon was instead awarded a Bar to his Distinguished Service Order, the Royal Humane Society’s Silver Medal, and the French Legion d’Honneur [Croix de Chevalier].

At the end of the First World War, Moon elected to stay in what was now the Royal Air Force at the new rank of Squadron Leader, and owing to his experience on seaplanes, was given command of the important flying boat station of RAF Felixstowe in Suffolk.

Not only was RAF Felixstowe a flying boat base with several squadrons, but it was also home to the Seaplane Experimental Station, later the Marine Aircraft Experimental Unit, where all potential new seaplanes were tested prior to any military acceptance.

One of the aircraft being tested was the giant Felixstowe Fury, at the time, the largest flying boat in the world – a factory scale model is on display here at Solent Sky Museum.

A five engine triplane ‘boat, the Fury had a wing span of 123ft and first flew on Armistice Day 1918.

Although conceived as a long range armed military ‘boat, the Fury was considered for a non-stop Atlantic flight, and plans were well in hand until Alcock and Brown’s flight in June 1919. The next idea was to use her for an even longer flight – Felixstowe to Cape Town.

More testing ensued, with the flight scheduled to take place on 12 August 1919. The day before was the final test flight, with the aircraft loaded at an all-up weight, exceeding 28,000lbs, as she had carried on previous flights.

She took off, with Moon at the controls as before and seemed to struggle to gain altitude, and crashed from a stall just off shore, witnessed by hundreds of holidaymakers nearby, with the crash killing one of the crew members.

The full cause of the crash was never established, and no direct blame was laid at Moon’s feet – indeed, that December he attended the funeral of the Atlantic flier Sir John Alcock, who had been killed ferrying a new Vickers Viking amphibian to Paris, as the official representative of the Secretary of State for War, Winston Churchill.

Moon carried on his duties as a test pilot and training officer at RAF Felixstowe.

On 29 April 1920, he was on an instructional flight in a flying boat – Felixstowe F5 N4044 of 230 Squadron with a training crew which included a Portugese pilot. The aircraft made several practice landings and take offs then climbed to about 1,500ft, where, according to a survivor, there was a loud crack from the tail area which put the aircraft into a spin. Moon tried to regain control, but to no avail, and the aircraft crashed into the sea.

Two crew members survived, and four others, including Moon, died in the crash.

Squadron Leader Edwin Rowland Moon DSO* LOH was 33 years old.

He is buried in his home town in Southampton Old Cemetery, with his grave marked by one of the propeller bosses from the Felixstowe F5, erected by his 230 Squadron comrades.

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