Max Cremetti: Aviator
by Bob Davenport
St Pancras Cemetery contains the graves of a number of airmen who were killed in flying accidents in the relatively early years of aviation. As well as Jean Baptiste de Manio, these include Max Cremetti.
Max Arthur Eugene Cremetti was born in London on 24 September 1893, the fourth son of the Belgian-born Eugene Cremetti, an art dealer who in around 1880 had opened the Hanover Gallery in New Bond Street with his friend Count Max Hollender – the two partners named sons after each other. Through what is now the Art Fund, the Eugene Cremetti Fund has made possible the purchase of many works of art for UK public collections.
Max spent two years at Harrow School, where his housemaster was George Townsend Warner, father of the writer Sylvia Townsend Warner. He left in 1909 to pursue a career in engineering with the motor-vehicle firm of Clément–Talbot in Ladbroke Grove.
Within a week of the outbreak of the First World War in July 1914 he attested for military service, and on 9 August he was enlisted as a motor-cycle dispatch rider in the 4th Signal Troop of the Royal Engineers. Later that month, with the rank of corporal, he was a member of the original British Expeditionary Force to France, and took part in the retreat from Mons. In January 1915 he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for ‘conspicuous gallantry on 31st October , during the attack on Wytschaete–Messines, in taking messages under a dangerous fire, showing great resource and never failing to achieve his object’.
In the same month he was commissioned as a temporary second lieutenant in the Royal Scots Fusiliers; however, wounds received at Wytschaete made him unfit for further infantry service and he joined the Royal Flying Corps, having gained his Royal Aero Club aviators’ certificate on 1 June 1916 in a Maurice Farman biplane at Shoreham.
He returned to France as a qualified pilot. On 18 July he was wounded twice and the plane he was flying side-slipped and crashed on one wing. He fractured a thigh and collar bone and was unconscious for a week; he was then described as being in an ‘excitable state’ with his eyes ‘watering freely’. In August he was reported as being ‘physically fit but very excitable’, and a medical board extended his sick leave until 10 September.
On 20 September he was back in the air when his plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire and became uncontrollable. (This is probably the incident, described by a couple of writers, when he was shot down from a height of 8,000 feet but managed to save himself and his observer by throwing out the plane’s Lewis gun and landing in no-man’s-land.) He escaped without physical harm but had suffered severe shock; he was unable to concentrate on anything, and suffered from insomnia and headaches. He was transferred to the London General Hospital, and on 27 September was judged to have had a complete nervous breakdown and declared ‘Permanently unfit as pilot’.
Diagnosed with neurasthenia, he was considered by a number of medical boards after that. On 8 December he was deemed unfit for general service for six months, for home service for four and a half months, and for light duties for three months. On 14 March 1917 he was declared unfit for general service for six months and for home service for three months, but was now judged capable of light duty involving open-air life with exercise. On 8 June it was noted that ‘His deep reflexes are still exaggerated … the general muscle sense is diminished [and] He is over anxious and easily excited’ – the cause: ‘stress of service’. But ten days later he had ‘recovered nervous control’, and on 9 July he was pronounced fit to fly, having been judged to be ‘in perfect health’.
It seems that he had already been back in action before this. On the morning of 7 July a fleet of 22 German Gotha bombers – large, long-range, twin-engined aircraft which each carried half a ton of bombs and was defended by three machine-gun positions – had headed up the Thames and bombed the City of London, narrowly missing St Paul’s Cathedral. As the bombers returned to their bases, British aircraft met them over the Essex coast. According to Rupert Matthews’s account of the action, Cremetti ‘charged headlong into the German formation. He flew straight through it from end to end while his observer raked the Germans with gunfire. Having completed his run, Cremetti turned around and flew straight back through the Germans a second time.’ And his biography in Harrow Memorials of the Great War says, ‘Lieutenant Cremetti charged twice through the raiding squadron, past the guarding battle-planes and back again; then chased two of the raiders towards the Channel and succeeded in bringing one of them down over the mouth of the Thames.’ But a note for the 9 July medical board states that he had distinguished himself as a ‘gunnery officer’ – not a pilot – in this skirmish (which inflicted such casualties that there were to be no more large German daylight raids on the capital).
He was now transferred to the Aircraft Acceptance Park at Hendon, with the job of testing new planes. There, on 14 August, one of his colleagues returned from a flight saying that his plane needed attention as the engine would not produce the necessary r.p.m. Cremetti, however, said he thought there was nothing wrong with the plane, and went up in it. It climbed fairly well to 600 feet, but then dropped about 100 feet, recovered somewhat, but then took a sideturn and fell to the ground, catching fire. Cremetti was killed immediately – owing to shock and fracture of the skull an inquest was told – and his body was burned almost beyond recognition; the observer in the plane with him was badly injured. A senior officer told the inquest that if he had been present he would not have objected to so experienced a pilot as Cremetti going up in the plane; but engines that ran well on the ground sometimes did not perform so well in the air, and the pilot had been wrong in his judgement.
His funeral took place on 21 August. A military lorry draped in purple and covered with wreaths, with an escort of over 150 RFC men, carried the coffin from a service in St John’s Wood to St Pancras Cemetery as a band of the Scots Guards played ‘Flowers of the Forest’, and there was a firing party from the King’s Royal Rifle Corps. He was buried in a family plot that already contained his brother Peter, who had also died at the age of 24, in April 1914. He was later joined there by his parents and two more brothers.
• Roger Bateman, ‘Canvas, Wood and Wire’ (Shoreham History Portal)
• M. G. Dauglish and P. K. Stephenson (eds.), The Harrow School Register, 1800–1911 (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1911)
• ‘Personals’, Flight, 23 August 1917
• Harrow Memorials of the Great War, Vol. V: April 11th, 1917, to April 10th, 1918 (Harrow: Harrow School, 1920)
• Lieutenant Max Arthur Eugene Cremetti, Royal Flying Corps (service records), National Archives WO 339/19191
• Rupert Matthews, Heroes of the RAF: No. 50 Squadron (Surbiton: Bretwalda Books, 2012)
• ‘Messrs. Eugene Cremetti’ at Art Renewal Center, https://www.artrenewal.org
• The Times, 20 August 1917 (‘Airman’s Misplaced Confidence’), 21 August 1917 (‘Personal Notes’), 22 August 1917 (‘Funerals’)
• Charles C. Turner, The Struggle in the Air 1914–1918 (London: Edward Arnold, 1919)