To many of us, the name of Reg Kingsford is familiar as a Nelson photographer from Broma Studios. However, Alfred Reginald Bellingham Kingsford was also a World War I fighter pilot. This story is written from a talk given by Margaret Kingsford, Reg's daughter-in-law, to the Nelson Historical Society in 2012.
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As a young teenager Reg took up a photography apprenticeship and migrated to Australia aged 19 to take up a photographic job in Sydney. A while later he moved to New Zealand to work in Nelson for the Tyree Studio. Reg was in Nelson when World War I broke out and he volunteered, enlisting in the Medical Corps in the 6th Reinforcements of the 2nd New Zealand Division, New Zealand Expeditionary Force.
Having reached Egypt, Reg was on board the ill-fated Marquette troopship when it was torpedoed en route to support the Gallipoli campaign. It was not to be Reg's last brush with death at sea; he was also on board a ship that was sunk between England and France with the loss of 189 lives. Reg survived and arrived in France just in time for Christmas 1916 and served on the Western Front.
Around this time the call went out for 200 New Zealand volunteers to join the Royal Flying Corps. Britain was trying to build up an air arm to match Germany's and Reg and a friend decided to give it a go. In May 1917 they transferred from the NZEF to the British Army and into the RFC.
Following flight training Reg's first operational posting was as part of a Home Defence Squadron helping defend Britain against Zeppelin attacks. It was long, monotonous flying punctuated by nail biting moments as pilots negotiated pea soup fogs, avoided being shot down by enemy fire, and endeavoured to make it home without running out of fuel somewhere over the English Channel. Reg was lucky, his only emergency landing was over land and aided by a farmer who had rigged up a lit landing strip for just such emergencies.
In January 1918, Reg was transferred to the 100 Squadron, the senior and best operational bombing squadron on the Western Front. Here he diced with death regularly. On one occasion Reg's plane was disabled by gunfire and as he looked for a suitable place to land, his crew member Bourne let go the bombs and threw gear overboard to lessen the load. Still 18 miles on the "wrong side of the (enemy) lines" Reg was losing power and height and flying into a head wind. It became clear they weren't going to make it and as Reg headed towards a clear patch of ground, the wheels touched uneven ground and there was a splintering crash. The plane had hit trenches and although Bourne was thrown clear, Reg was tangled up in the plane wreckage.
Eventually struggling free, both men collapsed in the unoccupied trench, wondering which side of the line they were on - Allied or German? Feeling their way through the trench "we found ourselves face to face with the business end of the biggest revolver I have ever seen in my life...'Qui êtes vous? (Who are you?) came the whispered question. I was never so glad to hear French spoken in my life and almost keeled over with relief."
During another raid one of the plane's bombs would not release. Reg did everything he could to dislodge the bomb just 20 miles from home but it stuck fast. Eventually Bourne took Reg's walking stick and prodded and poked the bomb and when this proved unsuccessful, he climbed out of his seat, swung over the side of the plane. Clinging on for dear life with one hand, he used the other to bat at the bomb. "I was convinced our luck had finally run out, when, all of a sudden, the offending bomb fell away," Reg recalled. "I had never seen anything like it 'til then and have never seen anything like it since." Bourne climbed back inside and they returned home safely though "we were both pretty well done in". Although Reg tried to get recognition for Bourne, his heroism was never formally recognised.
Reg's posting finished in August 1918 and his log book showed he dropped 151 bombs weighing a total of 3.8 tons, and spent 142.5 hours flying in France with 100 Squadron.
Upon his and his wife Charlotte's return to New Zealand in 1919, Reg purchased Broma Studios in Nelson and had a successful photographic career, until his retirement in 1966 at the age of 75. The studio's photographs can be viewed at the Nelson Provincial Museum. Although his son Peter worked in the studio with his father, he was killed in action in World War II as a F/S pilot on a raid on Tobruk. One of Reg's twin sons, Hugh, then joined his father at the studio and carried on the family business until his own retirement in 1983. Hugh's wife Margaret, also worked for the studio. Reg died in 1987.
Report reproduced with permission from the Nelson Historical Society Newsletter, May 2012.
Updated May 6, 2020
Sources used in this story
- Australian Society of WWI aero historians (1987) Night bird: recollections of a Kiwi in France: an interview with Major A.R. Kingsford (1987) '14-'18 Journal, 1987, p. 57
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Further sources - A.R. Kingsford
- Kingsford, A.R. (1988) Night raiders of the air : being the experiences of a night flying pilot, who raided Hunland on many dark nights during the War. London: Greenhill
- Kingsford, A.R. (1936) With the earth beneath. London: J. Hamilton
- Broma Studio. Early New Zealand photographers and their successes. Retrieve 12 July 2013