Edward Ashmore and the defence of Britain

by Geoff Simpson

Ensuring the enemy did not arrive in 1940

In 1940 a retired Major General returned to service at the age of 68. He raised and commanded the 6th West Sussex Battalion of the Local Defence Volunteers, which quickly became the Home Guard. Had the Germans crossed the Channel, Edward Bailey Ashmore’s march towards the sound of gunfire would have been a short one.

Edward Ashmore, in retirement, lived at 30 Maltravers Street, Arundel, Sussex and enjoyed music and studying languages. His country called again for a time in 1940. He was 81 when he died at home on 5 October 1953. He was survived by his wife, who had been Betty Doreen Violet Parsons until their wedding in 1919. They did not have any children. Mrs Ashmore died in 1986, at the age of 87, still living at 30 Maltravers Street.

An obituary in The Times recognised the key role Edward Ashmore had played in defending Britain. However, his achievements earlier in his career played a larger part in ensuring that the enemy did not arrive in 1940 and the Home Guard did not find itself facing German infantry and tanks in south country fields, lanes and streets.

Edward Ashmore was born at the family home close to Hyde Park, London on 20 February 1872. His father, Fitzroy Paley Ashmore, was a barrister (Inner Temple) who died young. His mother, formerly Marian Bailey, came from a family of south Wales industrialists which owned Easton Court in north Herefordshire, now Grade II listed and ruinous.

Edward was the eldest child of two boys and two girls. He went to Eton College, as did his brother, Geoffrey William Paley Ashmore. G W P Ashmore served as a Royal Engineers officer in the First World War and died when HMT Transylvania was torpedoed off north western Italy on 4 May 1917. He is buried at Savona.

Edward Bailey Ashmore, First World War defender of London.

When he was at Eton Edward was in Durnford House and showed himself to be an accomplished rower. There seems no known explanation of the origins of “Splash”, the nickname he carried through life. It is tempting to speculate that it originated from some schoolboy indiscretion on the Thames but it’s more likely that it came about after he joined the Army.

Before we return to the firm ground of fact, it is also reasonable to consider the possible influence on Ashmore of his housemaster, Walter, later Sir Walter, Durnford. His entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) suggests that he was “held in particular affection” by his charges at Eton and records that, at the College, “He was head of the army class, commanded the volunteer corps, and administered rowing.”

Commissioned into the Royal Artillery and serving in the Boer War

From school, Edward Ashmore went to  the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich. “The Shop” as it was known, ceased to function in 1939 but in Ashmore’s time it was particularly a place of study for future Royal Artillery and Royal Engineers officers. In 1891 Ashmore was commissioned in the Royal Artillery. He went on to serve in the 2nd Boer War. On 31 March 1900 he was badly wounded in the fighting at Sanna’s Post outside Bloemfontein.

The saving of British guns at Sanna’s Post was seen as an act of collective gallantry by Q Battery, Royal Horse Artillery, resulting in the award of VCs to Major Phipps-Hornby, Sergeant Parker. Gunner Lodge and Driver Glasock. Three non-Artillery officers were also recommended for the VC and turned down. However, an award was eventually made to one of them, Lieutenant Francis Maxwell, Indian Staff Corps, attached Roberts’ Light Horse, after his sister had written a letter promoting his case. This came to the attention of Queen Victoria and impressed her.

In his book, The Evolution of the Victoria Cross (Midas 1975), M J Crook commiserated drily with the two officers denied the VC, “neither of whom, perhaps, were blessed with sisters who were such able correspondents!”

Ashmore spent time at the War Office. He became interested in aviation and learnt to fly at Brooklands, gaining Royal Aero Club certificate no 281 in 1912.

“In learning to fly at the age of forty he showed great determination, taking lessons at dawn so as to be able to begin work at the normal hour, always pushing himself forward in the queue awaiting instruction, and regularly staying airborne for longer than was allowed. He passed through the first course at the Central Flying School and in January 1913 was appointed to the reserve of the RFC,” states the ODNB.

Command of the London Defence Area

On 5 August 1914 Ashmore was made a general staff officer in the Royal Flying  Corps (RFC). Shortly afterwards he took over from the future Viscount Trenchard  the command of the administrative wing at South Farnborough. He now held the temporary rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He commanded wings in England and France and led an RFC brigade. In 1916 he returned to the Royal Artillery.

In the summer of 1917 there was again a South African influence in the life of Edward Ashmore when General Smuts submitted his reports to the War Cabinet, leading to the formation of a separate air service and a London Air Defence Area. This was a time of great public concern over German bombing and civilian deaths.

With his combination of artillery and flying experience Ashcroft was an ideal candidate to command the defence of London. His appointment was arguably the point at which the preparations began that would lead to the “Dowding System” of early warning, interception and control, vital in 1940.

Using a combination of charm and determination Ashmore made an impact. He created a gun belt to the east of the capital, with aircraft patrolling inside it. There were white arrows on the ground to direct the defending aircraft towards incoming hostiles. Under Ashmore, communications between ground observers and control centres improved and aircraft on the ground were airborne quicker when danger threatened.

How primitive some of it sounds compared even with what happened 23 years later when Britain was under threat again, but it was a start and a considerable improvement on the previous uncoordinated situation. On two nights in August 1917 Gotha raids retreated in the face of the new defences.

Edward Baily Ashmore reached the rank of Major General and died 70 years ago.
Observer Corps posts such as this one were a key part of The Dowding System in 1940.

“Splash” Ashmore “the recognised authority on air defence”

In 1990, a symposium, The Battle Re-thought, looking again at the Battle of Britain, was jointly organised by the RAF Historical Society and the RAF Staff College, Bracknell. Presiding over the proceedings was Air Chief Marshal Sir Christopher Foxley-Norris, then chairman of the Battle of Britain Fighter Association. Other members of “the Few” were present to hear a range of papers presented by historians, as well as joining in the discussions.

One paper, from Derek Wood, was entitled The Dowding System. In describing the situation that Air Marshal Dowding found when he was appointed AOC-in-C, Fighter Command Wood said, “A great deal of research and experimentation had gone on in the late 1920s and early 1930s: pioneering work on reporting and interception, based originally on the London air defence area layout perfected in 1918 by Major-General E B Ashmore. He is very often forgotten, but he was the first pioneer. He had gridded maps, he had common counters, he had a method of reporting, and he had sequences and timings. But he also did one other thing: he founded what is now the Royal Observer Corps, so he had two attributes so far as the defence of this country was concerned.”


The Observer Corps is born

“Splash” Ashmore remained in post until late 1918. He was now, “the recognised authority on air defence” (John Bushby,  Air Defence of Great Britain, 1973) and held further posts in that field. However, his system for the defence of London was largely abandoned once the threat of bombing was over for the time being.

Ashmore’s considerable disappointment was perhaps assuaged by his service on a sub-committee of the Committee of Imperial Defence which concluded that, in the event of another war, “the civil population will be so vitally affected by air attacks that responsibility for observation and warning cannot be considered exclusively military”.

In 1924 Ashmore organised experiments in Kent, when nine observation posts were established between Romney Marsh and Tonbridge. A control centre was established in the post office at the village of Cranbrook. In the following year the Observer Corps was born. Royal status was granted in 1941, recognising the contribution of the Corps to the Battle of Britain.

A Royal Observer Corps post in 1941.

Shooting down enemy aircraft

Retirement for Ashmore came in 1929, the year in which he published a book, Air Defence. In this book he described his theories but also set out the contribution of the pilots defending London in the Great War.One of them was Captain Quintin Brand who, as Air Vice-Marshal Sir Quintin Brand, would command No 10 Group in the Battle of Britain.

Ashmore quoted Brand describing his successful action on the night of Whit Sunday, 19 May 1918, when a large force of German aircraft approached London.  Brand was patrolling over Throwley aerodrome, Kent, where he was based as OC No 112 Squadron, and flew towards a concentration of searchlight beams east of Faversham.

Brand wrote, “I arrived over the vicinity still climbing, being something over 7000 feet. The concentration of lights, about four in number, was searching just north-east of me; and while looking in their direction, something passing above and to my left caught my attention. It proved to be a twin engine machine about 500 feet or so above me. I turned to engage the enemy aircraft (whose identity was perfectly definite) by approaching from his rear and below his own height. His rear gunner opened fire. I immediately returned his fire, and a subsequent burst apparently put his starboard engine out of order. The aircraft did a rapid turn with nose well down, and passed beneath me. I turned, keeping it in sight, and got to very close quarters (He was going downwards rapidly). Soon after my opening fire the aircraft burst into flames, which also enveloped my own machine for an instant. The aircraft fell to earth in pieces over the south-east side of the Isle of Sheppey.” There were no survivors. Brand received the DSO for this action.

Quintin Brand during the First World War. He would be AOC No 10 Group during the Battle of Britain.
Edward Bailey Ashmore.

Edward Ashmore, in retirement, lived at 30 Maltravers Street, Arundel, Sussex and enjoyed music and studying languages. His country called again for a time in 1940. He was 81 when he died at home on 5 October 1953. He was survived by his wife, who had been Betty Doreen Violet Parsons until their wedding in 1919. They did not have any children. Mrs Ashmore died in 1986, at the age of 87, still living at 30 Maltravers Street.

An obituary in The Times recognised the key role Edward Ashmore had played in defending Britain.

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