Gilbert Insall – The Great Escape

insallpainting

Title: insallpainting
Description: A three quarter length portrait of Insall in a leather flying coat, thick leather gloves, and cap rolled under his arm. © IWM (Art.IWM ART 2629) by-nc

Gilbert Stuart Martin Insall was born in Paris on 14 May 1894 to Gilbert Jenkins Insall and Mary Stuart Insall. He originally signed up to the army and joined the Royal Fusiliers. Later, he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps (R.F.C.) in March 1915. After he had received his pilot’s training, he was posted to No. 11 Squadron in France.

On November 7, 1915, near Achiet-le-Grand, France, whilst patrolling over the Western Front, Gilbert engaged a German plane and forced it to make a rough landing in a field. He destroyed the aircraft with an incendiary bomb. Afterwards, Gilbert flew through heavy fire from anti-aircraft guns over enemy trenches. His plane’s petrol tank caught fire but he managed to land his plane (a Vickers FB5) just inside Allied lines, near a wood, where they then came under sustained German artillery fire. Throughout that night, he and his observer (Air Mechanic T H Donald) repaired the aircraft by torchlight. By dawn, he was able to fly it back to his base. Gilbert was awarded a Victoria Cross aged just 21 for these actions. However, nine days prior to being awarded the Victoria Cross (on 14 December 1915), he was shot down and captured.

The London Gazette wrote about the event on 21 December 1915:

“War Office, 23rd December 1915. His Majesty the KING has been graciously pleased to award the Victoria Cross to the undermentioned Officers: —

Second Lieutenant Gilbert Stuart Martin Insall, No 11 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps. For most conspicuous bravery, skill and determination, on 7th November, 1915, in France. He was patrolling in a Vickers Fighting Machine, with First Class Air Mechanic T. H. Donald as gunner, when a German machine was sighted, pursued, and attacked near Achiet. The German pilot led the Vickers machine over a rocket battery, but with great skill Lieutenant Insall dived and got to close range, when Donald fired a drum of cartridges into the German machine, stopping its engine. The German pilot then dived through a cloud, followed by Lieutenant Insall, fire was again opened, and the German machine was brought down heavily in a ploughed field 4 miles south-east of Arras. On seeing the Germans scramble out of their machine and prepare to fire, Lieutenant Insall dived to 500 feet, thus enabling Donald to open heavy fire on them. The Germans then fled, one helping the other, who was apparently wounded. Other Germans then commenced heavy fire, but in spite of this, Lieutenant Insall turned again, and an incendiary bomb was dropped on the German machine, which was last seen wreathed in smoke. Lieutenant Insall then headed west in order to get back over the German trenches, but as he was at only 2,000 feet altitude he dived across them for greater speed, Donald firing into the trenches as he passed over. The German fire, however, damaged the petrol tank, and, with great coolness, Lieutenant Insall landed under cover of a wood 500 yards inside our lines. The Germans fired some 150 shells at our machine on the ground, but without causing material damage. Much damage had, however, been caused by rifle fire, but during the night it was repaired behind screened lights, and at dawn Lieutenant Insall flew his machine home with First Class Air Mechanic T. H. Donald as a passenger.”

Whilst a prisoner of war, Lieutenant Insall made three escape attempts with the last one being successful. According to German P.O.W. records, he was captured in Bapaume and was then sent to be held in a camp at Krefeld, Germany. However, his first escape took place in Heidelberg. After being transferred from Konstanz to Heidelberg, Insall managed to escape from Heidelberg and made it to Pforzheim before being recaptured. His successful escape was made when he was transferred to a camp in Strohn.

After tunnelling out of the camp at Strohn, nine days later Insall reached the neutral Netherlands. He was awarded a Military Cross for this daring escape and received it in 1919. Lieutenant Insall continued to serve as a pilot with the Royal Air Force all the way to the Second World War. He finally retired in July 1945. Afterwards, he became an archaeologist and specialised in aerial photography.

He married Olwen Scott Yates on 22 July 1926 in Great Berkhamstead, Hertford.

Gilbert died in Scrooby, near Bawtry on 17 February 1972 aged 77. He is commemorated in Rosehill Cemetery, Cantley. He was cremated on the 24 February. His name is also included on a memorial in St Clement Dane’s Church, Aldwych, Central London. His medals are kept at the Royal Air Force Museum. The Imperial War Museum holds the clothes he wore during his escapes. Like all Victoria Cross winners, he is commemorated at the Union Jack Club in Waterloo, London.

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