The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 2 No 5 - June 1973

Thompson, Major C. R., DFC - Obituary

D. P. Tidy

Major Cecil Robert Thompson, DFC, RFC, RAF, SAAF, died on 16th March, 1973, at the age of 78. 'Tommy' Thompson was one of the most personable and best-loved of the 1914-18 air aces, and made friends wherever he went. On 5th August, 1914, he joined the 1st Transvaal Scottish and was soon on his way to the South West African Campaign. He used to recall vividly the first action in which South African troops were bombed. Colonel J. Dawson Squibb, DSO, VD was a martinet, but Tommy related with glee how at the end of the bombing, when he picked himself up, he noticed Dawson brushing sand from his moustache, 'so I knew what he'd been doing - lying flat on his face like me!' Colonel Dawson Squibb, also a great character, was Secretary of The Country Club, Johannesburg, from 1908 to 1940. Tommy was still serving on the Committee of the Club at the time of his death.

After the South West Campaign, Tommy tried to join the Horse Artillery in Cape Town, with a few other young six-footers. 'What experience have you had?' he was asked. 'That's a damn silly question', he replied, and was rejected. So off he went to Johannesburg and joined the 4th South African Horse. Quite an experience, as he could barely stay on a horse, he related.

With the 4th South African Horse he went off to German East Africa and the campaign there, returning in 1916 to join Captain Allister M. Mackintosh Miller's 'first 2000' in 1917. Miller personally interviewed 8,000 candidates and selected 2,000 who were known as 'Miller's Boys'. Tommy teamed up with Hugh Saunders on the boat to England, and these two were nicknamed the 'Dingbats'. The name has stuck for life as far as Hugh is concerned because he is still known affectionately as 'Dingbat', although his full title is Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh W. L. Saunders, OCB, KCB, KBE, MC, DFC, MM, RAF (Ret'd). Also in the first 2 000 was another who was to join Tommy and Hugh in No. 84 Squadron RAF, Andrew W. Beauchamp-Proctor, VC, DSO, MC, DFC, South Africa's most decorated airman of that war. C. J. ('Boetie') Venter and H. G. Willmott, two of the SAAF's most senior officers of World War II were also in the first 2,000, so Tommy was in great company.

Tommy and 'Dingbat' Saunders were sent to the training school at Northolt, near Uxbridge, Middlesex and were trained by another South African, A. G. Kiddie, from Kimberley, alongside the brother of H. A. van Ryneveld (later Sir Pierre), this brother being killed later in the war. Tommy acquired his RFC nickname of 'Ruggles' at this time and is described thus in 'Tiger Squadron' by Wing Commander Ira ('Taffy') Jones, DSO, MC, DFC, MM who trained with him and later visited him in South Africa. Tommy, 'Taffy', 'Dingbat' and van Ryneveld all joined 74 Training Depot Squadron at London Colney (my book 'I Fear No Man' (Purnell) has a detailed description of this unit in 1917).

The advanced pupils, including Tommy and 'Dingbat', were posted to No.84 Squadron. Tommy related how his departure was put back because, when in a blinding snow-storm, he was about to depart for the bright lights of London, his instructor demanded another training flight. He skidded a wing-tip in the slush, crashed and injured his shoulder. However, he eventually reached 84 and served under Sholto Douglas (later Marshal of the Royal Air Force Lord Douglas of Kirtleside), who was C.O. of 84 from August, 1917 to November, 1918.

Tommy shot down five enemy aircraft, flying the SE5a which he loved. On a balloon strafe he led his flight into the attack only to hear the pop-pop-pop of machine-gun fire behind him as he attacked. He turned furiously to shake his fist at his No.2, only to see it was a Hun, and to receive a bullet straight in the side of his jaw. He got home somehow and spent some time in hospital, receiving the DFC for his services.

After the war he met and married Enid, the inspiration of his life, and flew all over South Africa in a barnstorming air- circus on the lines of Sir Alan Cobham's, giving flips to all who would come. His friend, Tommy Duff, tells a story of one who would not. Seeing the sad-faced chap who would not fly, Tommy asked him why. He said he would not fly if he were paid, and that, if the people who owed him money for meat would pay him instead of wasting their money flying with Tommy, he'd look happier!

In World War II, Tommy was Adj to No.24 (originally 14) Bomber Squadron SAAF and went to East Africa, and in May, 1941, to Egypt, with Marylands attached to an RAF Wing, the Squadron later receiving Bostons, Tommy returned to South Africa to assist in the demobilisation scheme, and later joined a famous whisky firm, receiving in consequence, yet another nickname 'Whisky' Thompson (to distinguish him from 'Typewriter' Thompson, a bowls colleague of his).

Tommy was active and cheerful right to the end, despite a painful foot and knee affliction. He entertained me to dinner a few nights before he went and his hospitality, humour and vigour were undiminished. He goes, mourned and missed, but his grand sense of humour and friendly disposition raise a tear of laughter rather than of sorrow. He would have wished it no other way.


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