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Sir Bennett Melvill Jones CBE AFC FRS. Born Rock Ferry, Birkenhead 28th January 1887. Died North Devon 31st October 1975 Age 88.

Melvill Jones (Not known by Bennett to his friends and family) 

Information submitted to Aircrew Remembered June 2015 by his nephew, Edmund Wright. We decided that the full text as submitted should be written, we feel it makes the page more personal.

I only knew my grandfather in his later years, when he was no longer able to live in Emmanuel College where he was a permanent resident, although retired, and so came to live with my mother, my sister and I at our home in North Devon. At this stage he was increasingly losing his memory, and so I cannot put too much reliance on the stories, although I think that in essence they were accurate.

He headed up a team which developed the gyroscopic gunsight, which I understand hugely improved the kill rates by the allied forces fighter craft in the later years of WW2. Different reports, both historical and contemporary appear to vary as to where the main credit lies for the initial ideas and the subsequent development of this technology, and I think it would require the skills of a professional engineering historian to clarify these issues satisfactorily, given the slightly contradictory evidence from different web pages on the subject.

After being requested to make a visit and report on some aspect of the R101 development, Melvill wrote a letter to the man in charge of production of the R101 in which he queried some of the innovatory technology being applied. This letter was written fairly shortly before the R101 disaster. If I find a copy of this letter, I will send it to you. I understand that Melvill and his wife, Dorothy, were on the guest list for the inaugural flight which ended in disaster, and that only serious flu prevented them from going, and therefore surviving.

Right: ‘The Life and Legacy of G. I. Taylor’  ISBN-13: 978-0521461214 Cambridge University Press 4th July 1996 Author: George K. Batchelor

The Life and Legacy of G.I. Taylor gives a description in the book written by G.I. Taylor, a colleague of Melvill’s, of a project that he and Melvill were required to undertake to develop man killing darts as an anti-personnel weapon, based on a French version, which they tried to improve on to have their own British darts. 

This matches very exactly the description that Melvill gave to me, in which they were dropping darts down the inside of a tall chimney as part of the research, and on one occasion when they were all climbing down the inside ladder of the chimney, the darts stored in a container at the top of the chimney came loose and fell down the chimney. They all managed to squeeze themselves to the side of the chimney and just escaped being wounded or killed by the flight of many darts that whistled past them. 


Above: Bennett Melvill Jones in a balloon during WW1 working on innovative military research

The other story about this was when they dropped them onto a flat grass field from a moving aircraft to study to distribution, and so as to be able to take an aerial photo of this, they searched for all the darts in the field, and pinned each one to a large sheet of paper. Melvill told me that some top-brass officer then visited the site and exclaimed with wonder at the precision of these darts. Melvill told me that this and other similar little episodes, which confirmed a certain lack of understanding of some of those in authority, were of course an unmitigated delight to them.

On one occasion Melvill and a pilot were flying over the sea off Orford Ness, in an open aircraft, shadow shooting, in the early years, while testing gunsights; at a certain moment Melvill said he pointed at something in the sea, and the pilot leaned forward to look and pushed the joystick forwards, resulting in a sudden plunge in the aircraft. He said that by inertia, he felt himself effectively lift completely clear of his seat, and without parachutes they were quite vulnerable and so it was a relief when the pilot rapidly corrected the plunge and he “fell back into his seat” in the aircraft.


Above: the family of Melville Jones in their garden at Hinxton, Cambridgeshire.

Another “shadow shooting” episode that could so easily have ended badly, was when they lost track of how close they were to land, and before they realised it had fired a series of bullets into the sand of the beach and up into the undergrowth beyond the beach. By coincidence my mother, as a girl, was on the beach that day, as were many other people enjoying the week-end, and when she saw the plane overhead, and heard a quiet plop plop sound as the bullets fired into the sand in a straight line, she alone realised what was happening, and fortunately she said, no one else noticed or was aware of it and nothing and no-one was hit – but how close was disaster that day.

Right: Newspaper article published on Ocober 2nd 1944 – explaining the benefits of the Gyroscopic gun sight headed by Melville Jones.

Melvill believed that he should get direct experience of his aerodynamic development work, and not just rely on test pilots to give him feedback. As such when the Royal Flying Corps merged with the Royal Naval Air Service on the 1st April 1918, to form the RAF, and he left the RFC with the rank of Lieutenant colonel, he was determined to “get his wings” in the new service. 

Melvill had previously learned to fly whilst working at the Air Armaments Experimental Station at Orford Ness and had served as a gunner for about six weeks in 1918 in a Bristol Fighter in No. 48 Squadron, having gone across to France with his brother as pilot, to do some flying to test various instruments under actual war conditions. (Melvill told me that they fired on a German aircraft, and believed that they had succeeded in downing it, but could not be definite, and so could not record it as a kill). Now, to “get his wings” in the new RAF he had to demonstrate his ability with an inspector, by taking off, undertaking some aerial manoeuvres as requested and finally to land the aircraft, all without wearing spectacles. Being extremely short-sighted he resolved this requirement as follows. When taking his seat beside the inspector, he handed him his spectacles, as was a requirement for the test, and took off blind, as he knew the length of the runway, and had taken off from it many times, so he did not need his sight for this. He carried out the manoeuvres successfully, and when the time came to land he said to the inspector “now, you must realise that, with my myopia I cannot see the runway, so if we are to land successfully, you must “talk me down”. Although apparently taken aback, the inspector complied and talked him down; all went well with a good landing, and Melvill “got his wings”. Well clearly times have changed and he would never have got away with that ruse today, but in the informality of those early years, such things occurred at times.

In the early days, before the construction of wind tunnels, to develop basic aerodynamic principals, Melvill had to resort to primitive measures. He described to me, how he used to tie pieces of cotton wool on short lengths of cotton which he would attach on all parts of the upper wing. Then in flight he would get himself in position to take photographs of the cotton wool tufts on cotton, whilst undertaking different manoeuvres, such as diving, climbing, level flying, accelerating, etc. He described the difficulty of climbing up to the top wing of a doubled winged aircraft, with a rope tied round his middle, and holding the camera above his head to take photos showing the angle of each of the threads of cotton. A real gymnastic feat.

Melvill was tutor at Cambridge to Frank Whittle, the inventor of the jet engine, and whilst he initially he had reservations about Whittle’s theories, nevertheless he encouraged him in his work, but “warned Whittle not to expect too much, and advised him to assume that it would be at least ten years before the sky would be black with jet aeroplanes” (quote from JET by John Golley)

Left: ‘Jet’ ASIN: B00DDSFWWM Datum Publishing Limited 1st Dec. 2010 Author: John Golley

The person who could undoubtedly tell you a great deal more about Melvill’s life and flying work, and with the authority of having known and worked with him is his son (my uncle) Geoffrey Melvill Jones, who although he is now 91, continues to take an active role in his research in aviation medicine, and has a very accurate memory. 

Geoff lives and works in Canada having emigrated there quite early in his career.


Benedict Jones driving his home built car, with his wife Henrietta Cornelia Jones (née Melvill) standing beside the car. Their son Bennett Melvill Jones can be seen with his back to the photo, wheeling a bicycle at the foot of the steps.

I would note, just for your interest, that Melvill’s father, a barrister, was an amateur engineer of some ability, and this undoubtedly had a positive influence on Melvill. When Melvill was still a boy, he and his father built a kit car in the garage of their house in Birkenhead. They had various set-backs, such as finding that the superstructure was excessive for the horsepower and having to dismantle it, and replace it with something very light, and such as realising that they couldn’t get it out of the garage once made, and having to dismantle it to some degree to get it out, before re-constructing it outside. Once built, it ran, I believe Melvill told me, at 15 miles per hour and ran for 1000 miles before it gave up.

Right: Daughter of Melvill, Margaret with ‘just one’ of their Great Danes.

Left: Edmund Wright (nephew and author of this page) with his grandfather in his later years.

My grandfather reminisced to me once about when they went out, possibly on the inaugural drive, and met another car (an unusual occurrence in those days) in the middle of a one lane bridge. He remembers his father Benedict getting out of the car as did the other driver, and they had a leisurely discussion about how to resolve the situation; they then agreed to wrestle to decide who should back their car. Benedict perhaps had an unfair advantage, being an amateur wrestler (if my memory of this conversation is accurate?), as well as an amateur engineer. Benedict won the match; the two drivers shook hands, and the other driver backed his car, allowing Benedict and Melvill to proceed. What a pace of life and what a contract to the frenetic impatience that we all accustomed to today!

In 1916 he married Dorothy Laxton (née Jotham) (died 1955). They had a daughter, Margaret (b 1917) and two sons, Warren (b 1920) and Geoffrey (b 1923). Warren was a pilot who was killed in action in 1941. Wellington II W5485 EP-J – Further information is also available on this website here.

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• Last Modified: 06 June 2015, 23:03 •