Nigel Watson
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The Lady Sopwith Mystery

The World War One phantom aviator and her flying circus.

This and other mysteries of WW1 are explored in Nigel Watson's UFOs of the First World War (The History Press)

Did a mystery aviatrix haunt the skies over France? Was she a myth, a fake news story, a phantom, pilots in drag having a laugh or a secret squadron of women recruited to boost morale?

She was apparently first spotted by Lieutenant Frederick Ardsley, as he was flying from Amiens to Villers-Bocage, northern France, on an early morning patrol. On Wednesday, 9 January 1918, he was flying at a height of 10,000 feet when he suddenly saw an identical S.E. 5 (Scout Experimental 5) biplane flying next to him.

The odd thing about the aircraft was that its engine made a buzzing sound like something out of a toy shop, and it had a golden symbol for Venus on the fuselage rather than the normal red, white and blue Royal Flying Corps roundels and identification numbers.

Even stranger, the pilot removed their goggles with a loud laugh revealing a cascade of golden hair. The female pilot with ‘cornflower blue eyes’ waved and kissed at Ardsley before conducting a Can Can dance on the edge of her cockpit. Returning to the cockpit the woman sharply banked left and Ardsley went in hot pursuit of her. Yet, he struggled to keep up with her as her aircraft darted, rolled and dipped or suddenly accelerated out of range of his guns.

Her aircraft easily climbed to a bank of clouds at an altitude of 20,000 feet, he tried shooting her down with his fuselage machine guns but they jammed after four seconds, and his Lewis gun also jammed. Ardsley’s aircraft struggled as it tried following the other S.E. 5, and it inevitably stalled, forcing him to make a controlled dive.

This apparently was the start of the legend of Lady Sopwith. At the end of January a German pilot, Albert Roehl was shot down behind Allied lines. When he was interrogated he said he was shot down by a female pilot, ‘Die Walkure’ (The Valkyrie) as he called her.

From then on many German aviators encountered a red-nosed S.E.5 or a red Sopwith triplane piloted by a woman who shot them down. Her aircraft outflew every other aircraft in the sky and dozens of Allied pilots saw her shooting the tails off enemy aircraft, as easily as shooting fish in a barrel.

Lady Sopwith was also seen by civilians, including a six-year-old Robert Tuchel who was just about to get spanked by his mother when a S.E.5 zoomed overhead making a loud roar. The distraction enabled Robert to run free and wave his thanks to the blonde pilot.

A variant of Lady Sopwith was the sighting of a German fräulein with long yellow braids, who flew a black and white Fokker biplane. She was seen whenever things looked bad for the Allies.

Theories about her ranged from her being the sister of the Red Baron seeking her revenge for his death on 21 April 1918, which would not account for earlier sightings, to her being the tomboy sister of British RFC ace Captain Albert Ball who was killed on 7 May 1917. Rather than personal revenge, Americans tended to think there was a secret squadron of lady pilots, or the legend was just a publicity or propaganda stunt.

The novelist Arch Whitehouse thought he had the answer to this mystery:

‘I think I know the actual basis for this flossy legend that began innocently enough on a field near Chipilly near the Somme. We had a squadron of S.E.5 pilots on the same field with us, and these young scout pilots were always up to some healthy devilment. Around Christmas of 1917...they decided to enliven the dreary days by organising a squadron party complete with a theatrical performance.’

The legend was born when some mechanics saw the pilot in drag, climb into the cockpit of a S.E.5 after the performance. Certainly it sounds like the stuff of legend and myth with a good dollop of wish-fulfilment thrown into the mix. The Lady was a protector and saviour to the Allies yet there was also the German fräulein pilot who seemed to be her polar opposite.

A few things shoot down the reality of the first encounter experienced by Lieutenant Frederick Ardsley. First of all Ardsley doesn’t appear in the list of RFC pilots for that period and secondly it was claimed he was in the 49th Squadron, which did not use S.E.5 aircraft.

If it did happen as Ardsley said the aviatrix could have been a trick of his imagination caused by him blacking out after flying too high, or more likely this was a work of fiction dressed as fact that satisfied the needs of the time.

In our own day it is all too easy to suggest that she was an alien or a squadron of aliens who flew high-tech flying saucers disguised as biplanes, which relates to our own psychological, sociological and culturally specific need to read everything in terms of UFOs.


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