[Adapted for TheVintagent from the excellent book ‘Franklin’s Indians’]

Oliver Cyril Godfrey was born in London in 1887 to an artist father, a painter and engraver, who decamped to Australia before 1901. Mrs Godfrey eventually remarried, and as late as his 1911 TT win, he was still living at his mother and step-father’s home in Finchley, employed as a ‘motor spindler’ (ie, machinist). By this time, young Oliver was a dedicated racing motorcyclist, and began racing at the Isle of Man by the age of 19, first on 726cc Rex twins in 1907 thru ’09, then the ubiquitous Triumph single-cylinder in 1910. He at last won the TT in 1911, on his fourth attempt, and raced on the Island until 1914, but didn’t get far in 1912, when mechanical trouble at the start line put paid to dreams of a second win. All his TT appearances from 1911 onwards were aboard an Indian.

Oliver Cyril Godfrey on his factory-backed Indian, having just won the 1911 Isle of Man TT

Godfrey was one of five riders supported by the Indian factory to enter the 1911 TT, the other riders being a mixture of English, Irish, Scots and American in the form of Arthur Moorhouse, Charles Franklin, Jimmy Alexander and Jake De Rosier respectively; all these riders are profiled in The Vintagent. The Indian team was managed by UK Indian concessionaire Billy Wells of the Hendee Mfg Co.’s London branch, and “technical advisor” was the great Medicine Man of Indian himself, chief engineer Oscar Hedstrom.

OC Godfrey at the finish line of the 1911 Isle of Man TT

Given the unpaved, country roads which comprised the Isle of Man TT course in those days, falls over the dirt, mud, and stones were common; both de Rosier and Alexander had significant crashes in 1911, yet Godfrey rode consistently and well to finish the race without a fall, just ahead of Charlie Collier (Matchless) who was second to cross the finish line. CB Franklin similarly had a straightforward race, and Moorhouse, although he did fall off once, kept his place on the leader board. Collier had misjudged his gasoline consumption and was forced to take on fuel at an unauthorised filling point, and was disqualified, which elevated Franklin and Moorhouse to 2nd and 3rd places.

Godfrey just after the 1911 TT win, escorted by Billy Wells and Julia Hedstrom

Godfrey’s winning feat established a number of “firsts”, including the first ever ‘1-2-3’ clean sweep by a factory team, first TT win by a foreign manufacturer (Indian), first Senior TT win, first win on the new ‘Mountain’ course over Snaefell mountain (the same course used today), and first Mountain course Race record (though Frank Applebee’s Scott set the first Mountain course Lap record). In a rather upbeat TT race report reprinted in the 1912 Indian UK sales catalogue, Godfrey was described as “small in size, but a bunch of muscles and nerves and a magnificent rider”.

OC Godfrey on his 994cc Indian at Brooklands in 1911, where he won the 70mph Handicap race.  Godfrey was a cousin of Ron Godfrey, founder of G-N cars.

Godfrey failed to start in the 1912 TT, “Did Not Finish” in 1913, but was able to claim 2nd place in the 1914 Senior TT. His Isle of Man record and results at the Brooklands Track in Surrey place him at the forefront of motorcycle racers pre-World War One. Godfrey was a business partner with 1912 Senior TT winner, Scott-riding Frank Applebee, in Godfreys Ltd, motorcycle retailers located at 208 Great Portland Street, London W1. This firm continued trading until the 1960s. A 1920 magazine advertisement laid claim to experience in all aspects of the motorcycle trade “including winning the 1911 and 1912 TTs”. Certainly a rare attribute!

Godfrey on his factory-backed Indian at the 1914 Isle of Man TT

When war against Germany was declared in 1914, Godfrey enlisted as a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps. He earned his Royal Aero Club Aviator’s certificate in a Beatty-Wright bi-plane at Hendon (now a massive RAF museum) in January 1916. The RFC used the Royal Aero Club for pilot certification through WWI, training about 6300 pilots during the War. In the photo above, from Godfrey’s flying certificate, the wires behind him are likely wing-wires on his Beatty training bi-plane.

Oliver Cyril Godfrey’s 1916 flying certificate from the RAC; he was 29 years old.

Oliver Godfrey was posted to 27 Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps which first arrived in France in March 1916 and by June was based at Fienvillers, 10 miles west of Albert in the Somme Valley, and 15 miles behind the front lines. Their “base” used a cow pasture for a runway, where the fliers and ground-crew all slept in tents. The squadron was equipped exclusively with single-seater fighter scouts, the Martinsyde G100, nicknamed the ‘Elephant’ as it was big and responded slowly to pilot input. Unsuitable as a fighter, the ‘Elephant’ had a long flight range, so was redeployed as a bomber and reconnaissance scout, and flew missions up and down the western front, to Bapaume, Cambrai and Douai.

The Martinsyde G100 ‘Elephant’; a slow and unwieldy plane

The bombing success of 27 Squadron became their main role from 9 July 1916 onwards, and enemy airfields at Bertincourt, Velu and Hervilly were added to the list of targets. Oliver Godfrey joined the Squadron at this point, a relatively easy period for British fliers, when the chances of survival were still reasonable. The start of the Third Battle of the Somme on 15 September saw the squadron attack General Karl von Bulow’s headquarters at Bourlon Chateau, followed by more bombing of trains around Cambrai, at Epehy, and Ribecourt. By August 1916 the German Imperial Army Air Service was reorganized, and new “hunter” squadrons were created, becoming the pioneers of specialist fighter aircraft formations and tactics (the ‘Dicta Boelke’), soon to be universal. The first ‘hunters’ were Jagdstaffel 2, formed at Lagnicourt, under the command of Oswald Boelcke, Germany’s top-scoring pilot at the time, and a young Manfred von Richthofen (the ‘Red Baron’) was among pilots hand-picked by Boelcke for the new unit, and by 16 September Jagdstaffel 2 had received enough of its allotted aircraft to commence operations in earnest.

A Martinsyde ‘Elephant’ in a muddy airfield in France…

For RFC units like 27 Squadron, their ‘honeymoon’ in France was definitely now over. It was during a bombing mission by six Elephants to Cambrai on 23 September that Oliver Godfrey lost his life, most likely shot down by Hans Reimann of Jadgstaffel 2, who was himself killed in the same engagement. The events of that day are described in a history of 27th Squadron written by Chaz Bowyer: “On September 22nd bombing raids were carried out on Quievrechain railway station. One pilot, seeing that his bombs had failed to explode, proceeded to strafe the engine driver of a train attempting to leave the station quickly. Later in the day, fifty six 20lb bombs were scattered in Havrincourt Wood, suspected of harbouring German infantry. The following day 27 Squadron sent six Elephants on an Offensive Patrol over Cambrai, setting out at 8.30 am. All six were attacked over Cambrai by five Scouts of Jagdstaffel 2 led by Boelcke in person – with disastrous results for the Martinsydes. Sgt. H. Bellerby in Martinsyde 7841 was shot down almost immediately by Manfred von Richthofen (his 2nd official victory) while within seconds two more Elephants piloted by 2/Lts. E.J. Roberts and O.C. Godfrey were destroyed by Leutnants Erwin Boehme and Hans Reimann. Recovering from the shock of the first German onslaught, the remaining three Martinsydes continued the fight despite being outnumbered and outclassed by superior German aircraft. Lt. L.F. Forbes having exhausted all of his ammunition made one last defiant gesture by deliberately charging at the Albatros piloted by Hans Reimann, ramming the German scout in a near head-on collision. Reimann spun to earth and his death in a crushed cockpit, but Forbes, in spite of one collapsed wing with aileron controls shattered, managed to nurse his crippled Martinsyde towards base.”

The Hunter: Manfred von Richthofen sitting on a downed Martinsyde ‘Elephant’

Godfrey had only been in France 3 months, and was one of 252 crew and 800 planes lost during this 4+ month campaign, in which the RFC lost a staggering 75% of its men in the battle…yet on the ground it was far worse, with 750,000 dead in an evil Autumn. Many of the pilots coming to France at that time were relatively inexperienced, deployed to replace downed airmen as fast as they could push them out of the training schools. German pilots, with vastly superior aircraft and plenty of tactical combat experience as the months went by, racked up hundreds of ‘kills’, before the tide of the war turned, and they in turn became the hunted.

A Martinsyde G100 downed behind German lines…

When Godfrey was shot down, Cambrai was situated miles behind enemy lines, and its unclear what became of his body or whether, indeed, there was anything left in the burned-out wreck to bury. His memorial is Ref. IV. F. 12. at Point-du-jour Military Cemetery, Athies, near Arras. On settling his estate some 18 months later, the small fortune of £1475 went not to his mother, but to Frank Applebee, Scott-mounted winner of the 1912 TT and Oliver’s business partner in Godfrey’s Ltd, the motorcycle dealership in London which carried its founder’s name nearly 50 years after lying down in the green fields of France.

The Hunted: von Richthofen’s plane after being shot down on Apr 21, 1918

[Adapted from the book ‘Franklin’s Indians’, by Timothy Pickering, Chris Smith, Harry V. Sucher, Liam Diamond, and Harry Havelin, available here]

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