Norman Birks

Wounded WWI pilot who attempted escape when held as POW, founded a successful engineering company and who also served in the Air Training Corps in WWII, Norman Birks, studied at Bradford Technical College from 1908 to 1911.

Norman Arthur Birks was born in Bradford in 1892. At 16 he came to Bradford Technical College from 1908 where he studied engineering for 3 years, before spending a further 3 years at the University of Sheffield.

At the outbreak of WWI he joined the 9th York and Lancaster Regiment and the Motor Machine Gun Service, and saw active service in Armentières before the unit was disbanded as the motor cycles were a waste of time in trench warfare. His application to train as a pilot with the Royal Flying Corps was then accepted.

Following training he began flying DH2s with 29 Squadron based at Izel-le-Hameau in France and had numerous close shaves before flying Nieuports. On 5th April 1917 he was leading a flight above enemy lines when his petrol tank was hit and he was soaked with petrol. He continued trying to make his escape but was hit himself and his plane crash landed behind enemy lines. He crawled through trenches trying to get back to the British side but was hit by a grenade, badly wounded and captured.   

Months of neglect, poor rations and operations performed without anaesthetic later he was sent to the notorious Holzminden prisoner of war camp, where he joined 400 other British officers. On 5th April 1918, a year after he had first been injured he was sent for a medical to see if he could be repatriated due to the severity of his wounds, but this was rejected. On his return journey he made a bid for freedom, jumping out of the lavatory window of a moving train as it took him back to Holzminden Camp. He was later captured hiding in a disused windmill and returned to camp in solitary confinement. During his time there 29 men escape via a tunnel they had built and 11 reached home. Norman remained a prisoner until the Armistice.

On returning home he started an engineering company manufacturing components for the gas and plumbing industries with his brother. He stayed with Abbot, Birks & Co throughout his career until he retired in 1970. The company continued until 1995 when it was sold.

In WWII he served as second in command of the Air Training Corps squadron at Leatherhead. He remained lifelong friend with many officers he had met while a POW and was never bitter about his captors.

Norman died in June 1989.