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RFC Pilot, Interpreter and Intelligence officer

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Single WW1 Victory medal to George Victor Cottam Royal Flying Corps

George Victor Cottam was born in Narva, Estonia (Then part of Russia ) on the 2nd July 1898 . The son of a mill manager for the Krenholm (Kreenholm/Narva) Manufacturing Company. 

His father George Cottam from Oldham was in charge of the large estate of Narva on which there was a large efficient hospital, a fever hospital, a maternity hospital, 2 English churches. He was also in charge of the Police Force and the running of the Police Station and the general care and attention of all the English factories were his sole charge and responsibility.  The Russian Government awarded George the elder The Stanislav Order of Zeal - a very high honour for any foreigner to receive. He also became the British Vice Consul in Russia.

Narva is in the north west of Russia, 86 miles south west of St Petersburg. Cotton is manufactured also the fisheries Salmon and Lamprey were other valuable industry.
Narva is on the estuary of the River Narova making the town appear live Venice in some parts.


Life in Narva was very grand for all the English families. They lived altogether on a large estate. They all lived in separate houses, one for each family. Each family had their own servants; there were maids, a cook, and a coachman to drive them about in the horse drawn sleigh in winter and carriages in summer. None of the English families had anything to do but live a complete life of luxury. 
The large estate was completely self supporting with a communal bakers and washhouse (for laundry etc); they had their own church and churchyard, a busy working farm, which supplied the whole estate. The farm provided fruit and vegetables, cows for milk, butter and cheese, hens, pigs and sheep. Also a dressmaker visited all the families regularly to repair and make clothes.

The houses were heated by wood fed stoves built of tiles to radiate the heat back into the room. As there were no open fires which some of the English found there was something missing. The kitchens were very large where the main heating came from Cooking was done by very large ovens, with deep backs. The wood was always stacked at one side of the kitchen.

The outer doors and windows were double as in the winter it was the habit to place cotton wool between the two windows to prevent even the slightest of draughts.

Winter transport for months on end was horse drawn sleigh. Clothing was suited to the weather padded coats and cloaks with large fur collars, fur hats and ear caps.
To protect them from frost bite and Russian type boots which we all know and wear today. Winter was long, hard and very bitter then suddenly within only a week. Spring and fur coats were put away and cotton dresses were worn throughout the summer which was consistent and hot. Summer dresses were worn until the autumn, which was short then it was winter again.


Unrest in Russia had been simmering for a long time then the Revolution broke out and the British embassy could no longer give protection to the English families.

It was decided that the women and children should leave Russia. The English families were aware for a long time of the unrest and they were warned continually not to get into any arguments about the political situation because the British Embassy could not take responsibility for them. It was a great shock to all the English that they would have to leave. And from living a life of luxury very suddenly overnight they were all now refugees, fleeing the Country they had grown to love.

Papers were hurriedly gathered together. Alice collected as much as she could get I.e. Treasures, silver etc. Reluctantly Alice and her two daughters, including all the other women said their farewells to their husbands (who had to stay behind and continue to manage the Cotton Mills.) The first stage of their journey was easy compared to the second and third stage.

Alice and her daughters boarded a train, (along with all the other women) and taken 86 miles to St Petersburg. Hilda was now 12 years old and Hannah was 8. After they arrived in St Petersburg, they were told to get on a train which would take them to the fishing port of Archangel. The train was packed with refugees. Whole families lived in small compartments. There was very little in the way of sanitary facilities. Mothers with small children had to empty potties out of the train windows. Older children were sent along the train to the engine where there was the only source of hot water for washing etc, and filling tea pots to make a hot drink.

There was no luxury of a Restaurant Car so when the train stopped at various stations they obtained a ticket for a meal at the station restaurant.

Where they was no service and knowing a train was due to arrive the Russian peasants had fled sometime before afraid of the Russian soldiers so all they left was very large containers of soup and other unappetising concoctions from which they were all expected to ladle and eat and no one could fancy any of it. But they had to try to eat to keep going until the next stop at the next station where the same unappetising food awaited them again.

To help pass the time in such appalling cramped conditions, the women told the children to pick bugs and fleas off each other!

Between St Petersburg and Archangel the women and children were travelling for 3 weeks. Also at many of the stations along the way the English families hardly dare speak to the officers who patrolled the station platforms as they didn't know who were friends or enemies. Alice managed to keep a good eye on her daughters. It was extremely difficult for her and the other women with young children. All the women hoped the children wouldn't say anything to the officers while the train was stopped, and very often searched. On reaching Archangel, Alice had to choose between 2 boats which would take her, hopefully back home. One was a cattle boat and the other was a fishing boat. Both these boats were very small. Alice managed to get onto a small fishing boat. Another wait was upon them as all the fishing boats had to sail in groups to give protection to each other because of the icebergs and also the 1914-18 war was on.

Alice and her daughters were lucky as their boat and all the other fishing boats were soon full and so they were able to leave Archangel on one of the first convoys of ships.

Not having very good navigation instruments the convoy of ships sailed further north than they expected hoping to arrive at their first port of call in Iceland. Unfortunately they missed Iceland completely and sailed further north and were more than a little surprised to find they had landed in Greenland. Two other fishing boats in the same convoy were sunk by Icebergs and all were lost at sea.

After a short stay in Greenland all the refugees took another fishing boat and with better navigation they set sail and finally arrived at Scrabster in the north of Scotland. During their long sea voyage the girls could remember how light it was throughout the day and night. Sailing so far north they recalled and my Mum often told us of the Northern Lights and the Midnight Sun and how beautiful it was.
After arriving in Scrabster  they sailed on through the Caledonian Canal to Liverpool. On reaching Liverpool they made their way to Easingwold in Yorkshire where Alice's sister, Sally (Sarah) now lived with her husband, Joshua French, and their daughter Nancy.

Alice, Hilda and Hannah lived with her sister and family for about 18 months. During this time Alice was constantly worried about her husband, Joseph whom she didn't know whether he was alive or dead. He was very much alive and by this time he was trying to escape.

It was decided that the English Men should try to leave Russia overland. Joseph had many tricky times trying to escape. First with his brother, James and many of the other English, hid in a cattle truck but they were soon caught as they didn't realise the cattle weren't been taken far enough out of Russia.

The second time they hid in a bread van and at each stop at the various towns, they hid in the ditches, sometimes sleeping rough for nights' on end. This also proved fruitless as again they were caught. This second attempt the men had the terrible feeling that someone had informed the Russian Anarchists of their route on how they were trying to return to England. They were placed under house arrest.

Their final chance came when some sheep were being moved so they hid in a sheep truck for many miles. At each checkpoint they had to bleat like sheep and hope and pray the truck wouldn't be searched.

After leaving the borders of Russia, the men were still afraid, because each time they were stopped they had great difficulty explaining who they were. As they could all speak Russian, they were all dressed like Russians, with beards and long padded coats.

During their journey south from Harpenda to Oslo the men were arrested by army soldiers and were put into prison and had all their papers taken from them.

After many days of uncertainty, much to their great surprise the men were finally released, given back their papers, and then helped by the army soldiers on the rest of their journey to Bergen where they were advised to cross the North Sea when it was rough, to avoid mines. This must have been very unpleasant, but finally they reached Newcastle.

Finally Joseph reached Easingwold during the night and Alice woke her daughters for a happy reunion of their Father and husband.

George Cottam and his wife, Lizzie and Mary Cottam, James' wife was the very last English to leave Narva, sailing direct from Narva, on a fishing boat to Bergen and on to Newcastle.

George and his wife lived in Southport where he died in July 1921 and his wife died in 1925.
After a short time living in Easingwold Joseph returned to the cotton industry. This time to Monton Mill, Eccles."

George Victor Cottam had enlisted in the RFC while his family were still in Russia having been educated at Rossall school, Nr Fleetwood having previously been a border at “Bowdon College”, based at College House on South Downs Road. 

He  joined the Royal Flying Corps Special Reserve in July 1916 initially training at Christ’s Church, Oxford and then at Beaulieu.

He joined 23 sqn in France flying FE2bs in December 1916 The squadron moved to France on 16 March 1916 flying FE2b two-seat pusher fighters. The squadron used the FE2b on close-escort duties and to fly standing patrols to engage hostile aircraft wherever they could be found, helping to establish air superiority in the build-up to the Battle of the Somme.

By the end of the year the "Fee" was obsolete, and the Squadron started to received Spad S.VII single-seat fighters in February 1917, with its last F.E.2s in April 1917. 23 Squadron flew its SPADs both on offensive fighter patrols over the front and low-level strafing attacks against German troops.] In December 1917 it replaced its SPAD S.VII with the more powerful and heavier armed Spad S.XIII.He returned to the UK in February 1917 suffering from fainting fits.


He was then posted to No 1 school of aeronautics as an interpreter for Russian pilots on the 23 March 1917

The No 1 School of Military Aeronautics was a World War I training school for the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), based in Reading, England. It was formed in 1915 as an instructors college - but expanded in 1916 into a full RFC training school. In 1917 technical skills were separated and moved to a nearby airfield, Coley Park, as the School of Technical Training. All training at the school was on the ground; ranging from theoretical subjects through to practical training (e.g. taxiing and artillery observation).

He then went on to serve with No. 4 Reserve Squadron Farnborough 2nd May 1917,  No. 17 Training Squadron 18th June 1917, No 6 TS See No 32 TDS; nucleus of No 89 Sqn at Catterick on 19TH December 1917

On 25/7/1918 he joined 219 Sqn guarding the Thames Estuary.

Unemployed list 23/1/1919.

Post war he worked for Lewis, Lloyd & co as a cotton salesman.










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Edited by dante

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In 1939 George re-enlisted in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve as a Temporary Flight Lieutenant, Special Duties, he appears on the Special Operations Executive (SOE): Personnel Files having failed to become a staff officer

George Victor COTTAM - born 02.07.1898 Special Operations Executive: Personnel Files (PF Series). George Victor COTTAM born 02.07.1898. Collection: Records of Special Operations Executive Date range: 01 January 1939 - 31 December 1946 Reference: HS 9/360/3 Subjects: Intelligence

He is noted that during while serving in RAF intelligence (overseas) he was accused of ‘disseminating communism during his lectures’ but was found to be ‘merely garrulous and a bore but not subversive’

He died in 1986 in Nottingham

Note: If anyone is aware of his WW2 service specially where he served I would be very grateful




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