William Rhodes-Moorhouse, the first airman to receive a Victoria Cross, served as a pilot in the early months of the First World War.
Although Moorhouse (he did not become Rhodes-Moorhouse until January 1913, in compliance with a clause in his grandfather’s will) was born and educated in England, his mother was of New Zealand birth and his maternal grandmother a member of Ngāti Ruanui.
Born to Mary Ann ('May') Rhodes (once New Zealand’s richest woman) and Edward Moorhouse, William left Cambridge University without a degree in order to pursue his passion for speed and mechanics. He was interested in the fledgling field of aviation, taking private flying lessons from 1909. In 1912 he became the first pilot to fly across the English Channel with two passengers.
When war broke out in August 1914 Rhodes-Moorhouse immediately joined the Royal Flying Corps as a second lieutenant and was posted to the Aircraft Park at Farnborough. In March 1915 he obtained a posting with the No. 2 Squadron, based at Merville, northern France, where he flew a reconnaissance and light bomber aircraft, the BE.2.
On 26 April 1915 Rhodes-Moorhouse set off on a solo bombing mission carrying a single 100-pound bomb. His target was a rail junction in the Belgian town of Courtrai (Kortrijk) through which German reinforcements were being sent to the front line. Rhodes-Moorhouse flew in low to make sure the bomb hit its target – so low that his machine was damaged by the force of the explosion. His reduced altitude also made him an easy target for infantrymen on the ground and a machine gun placed in a church tower. Gravely injured, Rhodes-Moorhouse managed to fly back to his base and refused all medical attention until he had filed his report. The following day he died from his injuries, leaving behind a wife and an infant son. For his daring raid Rhodes-Moorhouse was posthumously awarded a Victoria Cross, becoming the first airman, and the first Māori or part-Māori, to be given the British Empire’s highest military decoration.
By Matthew Tonks