On this day, April 4th, 1886, Robert Raymond Smith Barry was born in London. His father was James Hugh Smith Barry, his mother Charlotte Cole.
When his uncle, Lord Barrymore died without a male heir in 1925, Robert inherited the Smith Barry estates, including Fota House.
From the time he got his Aviator’s Certificate in November 1911, Robert Smith Barry was passionate about flying. In 1912 he was commissioned to the newly formed Royal Flying Corps.
When World War 1 broke out he was sent to France. He arrived on August 14th but four days later he suffered two broken legs when his plane crashed. His co-pilot was killed. After a slow recovery and some time spent as a flying instructor, he returned to France in 1916 to serve in the 60 Squadron. During the Battle of the Somme, he was part of a mission to protect bombers going to Mont Saint Quentin. His group was attacked by some German Fokker planes and again he was shot down. But he manged to land his plane and escaped major injury. His commanding officer Major Waldron was killed on this mission and Captain Smith Barry replaced him, being promoted to Major.
Realising how vulnerable and ill prepared the British pilots were, Major Smith Barry complained to his superior officers. He said to Major General Trenchard that British pilots “have barely learned to fly, let alone fight…. they’ve only seven hours flying, Sir and it’s bloody murder”. After very heavy losses of pilots and planes during the Somme, they eventually took his ideas on board and sent him back to the UK to start a new form of training. He put his revolutionary training ideas into action, including teaching sharp turn, spinning and recovery and how to take off and land in crosswinds. He also invented a new system of communication within the planes by designing the “Gosport Tube”. The War Office printed 500 copies of his book, “Methods Of Teaching Scout Pilots”. His new methods allowed British pilots to take on the well trained German pilots like the famous Red Baron and he was described as the man who ”taught the Air Forces of the world how to fly”.
His training system saved countless lives and continues to form the basis for modern military flight training. A Blue Plaque was erected to him recently at the Alverbank Hotel, near the Gosport Training School.
Robert Smith Barry sold Fota House to his cousin, Dorothy Bell around 1936. He died in Durban, South Africa in 1949 while undergoing leg surgery. Since his first crash in 1914 he had walked with a limp and the injury plagued him all his life. He had no children. After the war he continued to fly and Patty Butler, who worked at Fota House between 1947 and 1975, remembers his plane landing on the golf links (now the Bell meadow) when he and his wife made one of their surprise visits to Fota House.
Our #FotaHistoryNuggets posts are thanks to Catherine Coakley, a Fota House volunteer who researches and writes these for our community to enjoy.
Our volunteers make invaluable contributions to Fota House & Gardens with each person bringing individual expertise, skills and passion to our team who care for the house, gardens, grounds and aboretum.