Auckland pilot Lieutenant Wesley Neal Spragg survived two serious plane crashes. The third killed him.

The son of Mt Albert butter baron Wesley Spragg, the young airman lasted less than two years during World War I after being made a probationary second lieutenant in Britain's Royal Flying Corps.

This may have been longer than many, judging from data cited in Sandra Coney's new book on war memorials and some of the military men - and one nurse - associated with each one.

Welsey Neal Spragg in his flying kit. Photo / Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries
Welsey Neal Spragg in his flying kit. Photo / Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries

In Gone West, Great War memorials of Waitakere and their soldiers, Coney tells the story of 10 World War I memorials in the area - of more than 500 nationally.

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The book, which grew from Coney's long interest in the history of the area, is being launched tomorrow, on Armistice Day.

Coney says that of more than 1400 pilots sent to France by the renamed and expanded Royal Air Force between July and November 1918, just 11 per cent were still serving with their units by the time of the armistice, the end of the fighting, on November 11, 1918.

"... it was claimed pilots only lasted three weeks during heavy fighting."

The planes were rickety constructions whose frames and coverings were mostly of timber and canvas.

On New Year's Day 1918, Spragg, aged 23, died in a Maurice Farman MF11 Shorthorn, a biplane powered by a V8 motor mounted behind the "nacelle", the box where the pilot and observer/gunner sat.

Flown by Lieutenant Arthur Upham, the plane was passing by the Aotea Convalescent Home at Heliopolis, outside Cairo in Egypt.

Upham and Spragg had attended a New Year's Eve concert at the home and left early, according to a letter from the matron, Mary Early, to Spragg's mother Annie.

"They always said they must have their 'Beauty sleep'," said Early, "so they left saying they would drop their New Year greeting as they were flying past the Home. Well, they came! While we were watching the two happy boys fly past, 'something' went wrong with the wing of the machine. It crumpled up and down came the aeroplane!"

"We had just waved to the two boys. Your son had waved back ..."

Spragg jumped or was thrown out of the plane. It crashed into the ground. Spragg died within minutes, having suffered a head injury. Upham was pinned under the plane, until it was lifted by 12 men, and he survived with concussion and a broken shoulder and nose.

Spragg had gained his aviator's certificate, required for entry into the Royal Flying Corps, a forerunner of Britain's Royal Air Force, in May 1916. Within weeks he had survived two crashes.

The Herald reported in September 1916: "On nearing the [Norwich] aerodrome at the end of the journey, the engine of the machine jammed, forcing the propeller off, and breaking the rudder control.

"Fortunately the machine remained upright, and planed uncontrolled to within 50ft [15m] of the landing, when its nose dropped, and it dived to earth.

The wreck of the plane crash in which Wesley Neal Spragg was fatally injured. The building is the Aotea Convalescent Home, Heliopolis, Cairo. Photo / Spragg family papers, Auckland University
The wreck of the plane crash in which Wesley Neal Spragg was fatally injured. The building is the Aotea Convalescent Home, Heliopolis, Cairo. Photo / Spragg family papers, Auckland University

NZ Herald, September 14, 1916. Source: National Library

Spragg and the observer jumped clear just as the plane hit the ground. The impact of the crash caused the engine to break free of its mounting and it smashed through both men's seats.

"The aeroplane was completely wrecked, while Lieutenant Spragg suffered the loss of some teeth and injuries to his shoulder, necessitating his undergoing hospital treatment for some weeks."

Wesley Neal Spragg's funeral at Old Cairo Cemetery. Photo / Spragg family papers, Auckland University
Wesley Neal Spragg's funeral at Old Cairo Cemetery. Photo / Spragg family papers, Auckland University
Gun salute at the funeral of Lieutenant Wesley Neal Spragg at Old Cairo Cemetery. Photo / Spragg family papers, Auckland University
Gun salute at the funeral of Lieutenant Wesley Neal Spragg at Old Cairo Cemetery. Photo / Spragg family papers, Auckland University

The same article also records the earlier crash, in which Spragg was the observer and the plane was destroyed. Thrown from his seat, he passed "head first through the tailplanes" before falling more than 4m to the ground.

"Happily, in this case, a steel cap which he was wearing, and doubtless also the breaking of his fall by the tail planes saved him from injury."

"Lieutenant Spragg was recently at the front, where he was engaged at times over the enemy lines, and where he saw something of the commencement of the allied offensive."

Howard Ellis

Lieutenant Samuel Howard Ellis - a lawyer and businessman who was knighted in 1943 - was one of three sons of New Lynn School headmaster Howard Ellis to serve in World War I. All three survived.

Lieutenant Ellis was shot down behind the German lines at Arras during the Battle of the Somme in July 1916. He managed to land but was taken prisoner.

Some of his wartime prison-camp letters were published in Auckland newspapers.

"I was brought down by an 'archie', or anti-aircraft gun, on July 3, hit in the left leg (which was broken and put me out of action) and in the right cheek," he said in a letter sent to Sir Thomas Mackenzie, New Zealand's High Commissioner to London, and published in the Herald.

"The leg is more serious, and that is only a matter of a few weeks. I was a bit seedy for a day or so, but am now mending rapidly."

In a later letter to Mackenzie, published in the Auckland Star, Ellis appealed for books.

"A number of officers here (we are thirty-three in all) are anxious for books about New Zealand, especially those giving information to prospective settlers. I would be awfully obliged if you would send me some."

Ellis' father lobbied for his airman son to be brought home under a prisoner exchange with Germany. Mackenzie took this up and in January 1918 told Ellis' family that the bid had succeeded.

The two families were connected by the friendship of Howard's brother Roy with Mackenzie's son Clutha. The connection grew when in June 1918 Howard married Mackenzie's second daughter Mary, who nursed and drove ambulances at New Zealand hospitals in England during the war.

Kaitarakihi memorial

Spragg and "all the boys" who died in the 1914-18 war are commemorated on the "Gone West" monument near Huia on a hill that gives a commanding view of the Manukau Harbour entrance.

The monument, overlooking Manukau Harbour, that commemorates Neal Wesley Spragg and
The monument, overlooking Manukau Harbour, that commemorates Neal Wesley Spragg and "all the boys" who died in the Great War. Photo / Martin Johnston
The Spragg memorial is at the southern end of Kaitarakihi Park, within the red line and now part of Waitakere Ranges Regional Park.
The Spragg memorial is at the southern end of Kaitarakihi Park, within the red line and now part of Waitakere Ranges Regional Park.

Unveiled in 1920, the monument was financed by Spragg's father and built on 307 hectares of land he donated which is now within the more than 16,000ha of Waitakere Ranges Regional Park.

"My father and my aunt were present at the unveiling of that memorial," Wesley Neal Spragg's great-niece Jessica Beever, 71, told the Herald.

His story has been with her "all of my life - as early as I can remember".

"My aunt, Kathleen Spragg, she has passed on now too, she told me she was in the house with her grandparents when the news came that he had died. She could remember into her 90s the weeping and wailing that went on when the news was received."

Jessica Beever, 71, is the great-niece of Wesley Neal Spragg, who is commemorated in the Kaitarakihi Memorial. Photo / Michael Craig
Jessica Beever, 71, is the great-niece of Wesley Neal Spragg, who is commemorated in the Kaitarakihi Memorial. Photo / Michael Craig

Wesley senior had five daughters, and a son - who died in infancy - with his first wife. He later married her sister Annie and they had two children, a son who died in infancy, and Wesley Neal.

"You can see why they were so cut up about losing this man," says Beever.

Coney says Wesley senior's gift of the Kaitarakihi block as parkland reflected his love of forests - his family had a holiday home 10km to the north, high on Mountain Rd in the Waitakere Ranges - as well as his anger at the continuation of milling, and his prophecy of tourism in the ranges.

New Lynn memorials

A 102-year-old oak tree overlooks the roundabout outside New Lynn School. It commemorates Lieutenant Harry Morgan, the district's "first to fall" in the Great War, and his many comrades who died, according to a plaque placed under the tree in 2005.

Morgan died in the Gallipoli campaign in May 1915 and Coney believes the tree was planted in the same month. She describes him as New Lynn's "first officer" to die and says Private George Crutcher was "probably the first New Lynn man to die in the 1st World War".

Private George Crutcher is thought to have died during the Anzac landing at Gallipoli on April 25, 1915. Photo / Auckland Weekly News, Auckland War Memorial Museum
Private George Crutcher is thought to have died during the Anzac landing at Gallipoli on April 25, 1915. Photo / Auckland Weekly News, Auckland War Memorial Museum

Crutcher, 20, went missing during the Anzac landing at Gallipoli in the Ottoman Empire on April 25, 1915 and a court of inquiry determined he was killed in action.

New Lynn has had a series of war memorials, culminating in the brick pillars outside Lynnmall shopping centre.

In 2000, a brass plaque at the pillars was unveiled on which are listed the names of New Lynn men who died in 20th century conflicts that involved New Zealand.

Crutcher's name is absent from among the 18 deaths listed for World War I, Coney says, noting that there were 19 names of New Lynn's dead on an earlier memorial which is itself absent, the Gateway of Remembrance.

The Gateway of Remembrance in New Lynn disappeared without trace possibly in the 1960s. Photo NZ Herald, National Library
The Gateway of Remembrance in New Lynn disappeared without trace possibly in the 1960s. Photo NZ Herald, National Library

She has found that mistakes on memorials are not uncommon and says it would be good if Crutcher could be recognised.

The gateway stood diagonally opposite the oak tree, at the intersection of Margan and Matai (now Rankin) Aves and led into the grounds of the St Andrew's Presbyterian Church

Opened in 1933, the brick arch was built by the Rev W P Rankin, who also built the adjacent church hall. Marble panels on each side of the arch carried the names of the 94 New Lynn men who served in World War I.

Coney says: "No-one knows exactly when the Gateway of Remembrance was removed or why. It seems to have been in the 1960s, perhaps because of road reconfiguration. And so no-one remembers what happened to the marble Rolls of Honour. Maybe they will turn up some day at the back of a garage or in someone's shed."