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Following on from the start of the 2nd Battle of Ypres on 22nd Apr 1915 which commenced with chlorine gas attacks, the Royal Flying Corps were requested by GHQ to undertake bombing raids on the German rail network to disrupt enemy troop movements between the Staden-Cortemarck-Roulers line, and the railway stations at Thielt, Staden, Deynze and Inglemunster. Four aircraft from No.2 Squadron were detailed to bomb targets at Roubaix, Tourcoing and Courtrai.
The latter task was given to 2nd Lieutenant William ‘Billy’ Rhodes Moorhouse. Shortly after 1500 hours on the 26th he left the airfield at Merville flying BE2c No.687 and carrying a 100lb bomb mounted beneath the fuselage. To accurately bomb his target, the railway line to the west of Courtrai Station, William flew at a height of 300-ft. His aircraft came under intense enemy fire from a machine-gun located in the belfry of Courtrai Church and from the ground. He was hit by a burst of machine-gun fire and his aircraft was peppered by bullets and struck by shrapnel from the bomb explosion. Badly injured, William decided to fly the 35 miles back to Merville rather than land in enemy territory. Flying very low to gain maximum speed he had to endure ground fire flying over German held positions and was twice struck by bullets.
He landed at Merville airfield at 1615 hours and had to be lifted out of the cockpit by his mechanics. William insisted on reporting the success of his mission to his Flight Commander before being taken to a Casualty Clearing Station where he died. The German reinforcements were delayed for a critical 16 hour period because of his brave action. He requested that his body be returned home for burial. In the ultimate irony, his son less than a year old at the time of his father’s death, flew Hurricanes in the Battle of Britain, was awarded the DFC, but he was shot down and killed in Sep 1940. He is buried alongside his father at the family vault in Beaminster Dorset.
In homage to his Maori ancestors, Julian Arahanga made his film, Dancing in the Sky, of William’s life and ultimate sacrifice. He made this film available to WAHT in 2014 but it is with great pride that we make it available today on the Centenary of his exceptional gallantry – the first VC awarded to an airman. The BE2c in the pictures flew in the Anzac Day Commemorations in Wellington, New Zealand, in May 2015 in honour of William’s achievements.