Buckingham Covers have taken time out to share the stories of the signatures on their first day covers. The first in the series is the story of FMF West VC - The Swiss Army Leg
We begin with Captain ‘Freddie’ West, his heroics, his tales of climbing with the Pope and of course his Swiss Army Leg!
Air Commodore Ferdinand Maurice Felix West, VC, CBE, MC (19 January 1896 – 8 July 1988) was a senior RAF officer, aviator, and the recipient of the Victoria Cross.
West was the son of an army officer killed in 1902 during the Second Boer War. Following the death of his father, he and his Mother moved to Italy. Both his Mother and nun Aunt were friendly with Monsignor Achille Ratti, who later became Pope Pius XI. It’s believed that a young Freddie West went on at least one local climbing expedition with the future pope, normally something to tell the grandkids, however, West’s future antics make this little story pale into insignificance!
When the First World War broke out in 1914 he joined the British Army. In 1917 he decided to transfer to the Royal Flying Corps, initially as an Observer. In January 1918 he join Squadron 8 and flew Army co-operation duties with the infantry and tanks before crewing up with Lt. William Haslam in March. West flew a series of hazardous sorties over the front, culminating with both men being awarded the Military Cross on 1 May 1918.
His VC was awarded to him at the age of just 22 in August of the same year. By this time West was Captain of No. 8 Squadron when the following deed took place for which he was awarded the VC.
On 12 August 1918, the British Army was intending to start a major offensive, but it needed information about the enemy positions. Setting off at dawn, West and his observer, Lt. William Haslam, spotted an enemy concentration through a hole in the mist. Avoiding severe ground fire, almost immediately they came under attack from seven German fighter aircraft and West was hit in the leg, and his radio transmitter was smashed. Continuing to identify his location, he remained under attack and manoeuvred his machine so skilfully that his observer was able to get several good bursts into the enemy machines, which drove them away. Only when he was sure of the enemy’s position did he attempt to break off and head for his own lines. He twisted his trouser leg into a tourniquet to stem the flow of blood from his wounds. Unable to make his airfield, West landed behind the Allied lines and insisted on reporting his findings despite being in excruciating agony. His left leg had five wounds, one of which had shattered his femur and cut the femoral artery, and had to be amputated. Shortly afterwards he was invalided back to Britain, where on 9 November 1918 he learned that he had been awarded the Victoria Cross.
After recovering from his amputation, West was fitted with an innovatively designed Swiss artificial leg. Move aside knives, Capt. West was fitted with a genuine Swiss Army Leg!
West was awarded a permanent commission in the RAF during 1919. Posted to RAF Uxbridge, he gradually returned to flying duties and commanded No. 4 Squadron in 1936. At one stage during the Second World War the German Gestapo put a price on his head because of his underground activities in assisting Allied airmen who had escaped into Switzerland. At the end of the War he was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for his work. West later achieved the rank of air commodore and in conjunction with the end of the war in Europe, he retired from the RAF. His Victoria Cross is displayed at the Imperial War Museum.
VCW012 1978 60th Anniversary of the VC Award to Captain FMF West, signed by him £60