St Peter's Church at Twineham is a rare early 16th century brick structure with Horsham slab roof and broached shingled spire. As you walk into the porch, glance to your left and you may notice something that looks a little out of place.
Within lies a sombre reminder of the aerial battlefields of WW1 - a temporary grave cross made from the propeller of an aircraft, brought over from Esquelbecq Military Cemetery in France. It memorialises Captain Eric Horace Comber-Taylor, K.I.A. on the 16th of June 1918, at the age of 29.
Born in June 1889, the son of Mr. William Overton Comber-Taylor and Mrs. Ida E. Comber-Taylor of "Furzelands" in Albourne (since renamed "Firslands"), Eric attended St. John's College (now Hurstpierpoint College). After school he became a bank clerk for the National Provincial Bank at Folkestone, moving to 33 Alexandra Street and later moving on to the Hythe branch.
Volunteering in Brighton in September 1914, soon after the outbreak of war, he began as a Private in the Royal Fusiliers, heading to the Western Front over a year later in November 1915. Returning for officer training in March 1916, he began his journey to becoming a pilot of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), being commissioned as 2nd Lieutenant in August 1916. Switching into the RFC within a few months, he earned his aviator's certificate on 7th December of that year. 1918 found him serving in the newly formed RAF with No. 10 (Reconnaissance) Squadron on spotting and bombing duties. 10 Squadron mostly flew BE2s well suited to their recce role, but for about 4 months from June 1918, they were supplied with a small number of the Bristol F2b 'Fighter', which Comber-Taylor also flew.
Artillery observation or 'spotting' was an unexciting, but necessary job. It involved flying within a small area for extended periods, reporting back to artillery posts via radio transmitter as to the impact of their volleys until they were zeroed in on their target. While the artillerymen on the ground couldn't radio the aircraft back, they could relay simple acknowledgements or queries with fabric laid out on the ground or other visual signals. The task could be quite an arduous one for the pilot and observer, depending on the skill of the particular artillerymen they were directing. However, while it required close attention, the surrounding skies could not be neglected - repeatedly circling artillery spotting aircraft could make tempting sitting ducks for enemy pilots. On occasion, this scenario would be used by Allied pilots who would sit in the clouds above the spotting plane, awaiting the arrival of an opportunistic Fokker or Albatros to take the bait.
Aerial bombing in WW1 was of a very different nature to WW2. Although larger, specifically designed bombing aircraft had arrived by the war's end and Zeppelins made some costly sorties to bomb from the skies above Britain, most often a few bombs on underslung racks would be dropped from small aircraft like the Bristol fighter of Comber-Taylor at a relatively low height, or sometimes simply thrown from the cockpit. Although accuracy depended on the pilot having the required skill and taking the necessary risks at low height, it was a world away from the massed area bombing to come in WW2.
On Sunday the 16th of June, he lined up his only recently delivered Armstrong Bristol F.2B (C967) for take off from Droglandt aerodrome. A few miles north west of Poperinghe, he and his Observer, 2nd Lt. G. A. Cameron were scheduled for an artillery observation mission. Sadly, on take off, the engine immediately failed, causing the aircraft to stall. Whether due to a mechanical issue or due to Comber-Taylor not being familiar with the performance of the type, he was killed in the ensuing crash, while Cameron survived with serious injuries. Unfortunately such events were not uncommon, although perhaps more tragic than as a result of enemy action. Returned, the wreck of C967 was struck off charge as unrepairable four days later.
Eric's father placed the battlefield cross at Twineham Church, having had it returned from France when the cemeteries were formalised with stone markers in the 1920s. Around the 2000s, it was apparently moved from its original location outside, to within the porch. The original inscription reads: 'R.I.P. CAPTAIN E. H. COMBER-TAYLOR RAF KILLED IN ACTION 16/6/18'. An inscription added to mark the return reads: 'PROPELLER CROSS FROM THE GRAVE OF HIS SON ERIC HORACE ESQUELBECQ MILITARY CEMETERY FRANCE'. The memorial may possibly be made from the propeller of Comber-Taylor's own crashed aircraft itself; however most Bristol Fighters in service had two bladed propellers rather than four. The grave is now marked within Esquelbecq Military Cemetery, Plot III, Row B, Grave 20, with the same personal inscription noted below. He is also named on the Woodmancote war memorial.
At the red brick church at Twineham, a brass plaque is mounted within on the north wall, near the pulpit, and reads: 'IN MEMORY OF AN ONLY SON/ CAPTAIN ERIC HORACE COMBER-TAYLOR/ FLIGHT COMMANDER ROYAL AIR FORCE/ KILLED IN ACTION IN FRANCE JUNE 16TH 1918/ LOVED BY ALL FOR HIS GENTLENESS AND QUIET BRAVERY'.
Capt. Eric Horace Comber-Taylor. Newspaper portrait most likely from the Illustrated London News report of his death, Saturday 17 August 1918. For an additional photo of Eric, see Roll of Honour.com.
Article by R. S. Gordon, February 2017. This updated version was published December 2020. Additional background information provided c/o Adrian Vieler.
- CWGC: https://www.cwgc.org/find-records/find-war-dead/casualty-details/25099/ERIC%20HORACE%20COMBER-TAYLOR/
- Airhistory: http://www.airhistory.org.uk/rfc/files/names_combined_C.txt
- Great War Forum: https://www.greatwarforum.org/topic/158755-no-10-squadron-rfcraf/
- Imperial War Museum: https://www.iwm.org.uk/memorials/item/memorial/16776
- Natwest Group Remembers: https://www.natwestgroupremembers.com/our-fallen/our-fallen-ww1/c/eric-comber-taylor.html
- RAF Web: https://www.rafweb.org/Members%20Pages/Casualties/1918/Casualties_1918_C.htm
- Roll of Honour: http://www.roll-of-honour.com/Sussex/Twineham.html