Obituary: Commander Charles Eckersley-Maslin
Saturday 28 June 1997
He was born in 1901, and his military life started in 1917 while he was still at Bedford School. He lied about his age, enlisted in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and after a short training was sent to the Western Front. He was wounded in the face and lost most of his front teeth. While recovering in hospital, the army authorities found his true age to be 16 and sent him back to school, where he was feted as a hero.
After leaving school, he was offered a commission in both the Royal Navy and the Army but failed the medical for the Navy because he had flat feet and that for the Army because of lack of teeth. He spent a year studying medicine at St Thomas's Hospital in London, but yearned for a more active life. In 1919 he joined the Royal Irish Constabulary serving in County Clare. He drove an armoured Rolls-Royce and was twice blown up. Sixty years later, small pieces of shrapnel were still dropping out of his body.
On the disbandment of the RIC in 1922, his next stop was Southern Rhodesia, where he joined the British South African Mounted Police. He served in Mashonaland and Salisbury (today Harare). As a part-time job he was paid as a sparring partner for the welterweight champion of the country. As he was a member of a private police force, he was allowed to keep his amateur status. The welterweight, however, fell sick and Eckersley-Maslin was sent to fight the South African champion. In the first two rounds, he tore into the champion, leaving him slumped on his stool. Confident of victory, he sprang up for the final round, only to be hit three times and to wake up in the dressing room.
He caught blackwater fever twice, but, as the sole survivor of one particularly virulent epidemic, he was delighted to see his case mentioned in the Lancet. He was invalided out in 1925. Undismayed, he journeyed to Egypt on a Rhodesian passport and joined the Royal Air Force on a short service commission. After qualifying as a pilot and coming top of his class, he was posted to 28th Squadron, first at Ambala in India and then at Karachi.
While in Karachi, he was appointed RAF test pilot for all newly arrived aircraft, and resident member of the Guild of Air Pilots of the British Empire, which required all pilots, except of civil airlines, to report to him personally, for clearance to continue their journeys. In this capacity, he met most of the famous round-the-world aviators of the late 1920s, including Amy Johnson and Jim Mollison. Working under him as a Petrol Tally Clerk was Aircraftman Shaw, alias T.E. Lawrence, who Eckersley-Maslin thought was making a very deliberate attempt to lose his famous identity.
In 1932, although offered a permanent commission, he realised that, due to his age, his chances of much higher rank were slim, so he became a civil pilot, first at Shanklin on the Isle of Wight, then at Ports-mouth, where he became Airport Manager and Chief Flying Instructor. His next move was to Jersey Airways as their superintendent; on Jersey aircraft used to land on the sands two hours either side of high tide. Finally he joined the American racing driver Whitney Straight, whose aircraft company made him manager of Ramsgate Aerodrome, where he test-flew the "Flying Flea", the first balsa-wood and papier-mache DIY aircraft. This proved to be a flying disaster.
In 1939, as a Squadron Leader on the RAF Reserve, Eckersley-Maslin was accepted into the Fleet Air Arm as a Lieutenant-Commander (Air Duties) and spent the early years of the Second World War in the Mediterranean in HMS Eagle as flight deck officer and "batman".
On promotion to command at the end of 1941 and leaving the ship shortly before it was sunk, he returned to the UK where his civil aviation experience was put to good use by commanding a number of new airfields that were being built or requisitioned for the Fleet Air Arm. Never happy at a desk, he flew anything he could get his hands on, including Spitfires, Hurricanes and, on one occasion, a Lancaster bomber.
In 1943, he was promoted Acting Captain and appointed Captain (Air) Mediterranean, in charge of all the naval airfields in that area. After the war, he served briefly at the Admiralty, before, as was the lot of all "air duties only" captains, he reverted to the rank of Commander.
His last appointments in the Royal Navy were as Commanding Officer of the Deck Landing School at Milltown in Scotland, and then of HMS Simbang in Singapore, where throughout the Korean War all Fleet Air Arm aircraft were repaired.
Eckersley-Maslin had a fierce loyalty to his men, a wry good-humour and certainly did not suffer fools, including many senior officers, gladly. In 1953, he retired to Tasmania, where among other things he was a hospital secretary, then inspector, and a JP.
Charles Edward Eckersley-Maslin, naval officer and aviator: born Long Eaton, Derbyshire 13 June 1901; OBE 1953; married 1927 Molly Singleton (two sons; marriage dissolved 1939), 1947 Claudine Moore; died Hobart, Tasmania 21 June 1997.
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