Francis Donald Holden Bremner was born in Dover almost exactly nine months after his parent’s wedding. His father was adjutant of the Northumberland Volunteers in Morpeth, and his mother Mary Rose (Zuzzie) had come back to be with her Holden parents for the confinement. He had a way of wrinkling his nose which earned him the nickname Bunnie which stuck with him throughout his life, although he was also known as Donald and—occasionally—Frankie.
Like all children of military families, he and his brother Bill (18 months his junior), travelled about a good deal and they were stationed in Gibraltar and Dover before his father left the army to join the City of London Police as Assistant Commissioner, and they settled in London at Gloucester Terrace.
It was a fairly privileged upbringing; his father’s use of boxing as a fitness system for the police came to the attention of Lord Louis of Battenberg, (First Sea Lord at the time) who suggested that he teach the Princes at Buckingham Palace. Bunny and Bill were brought along as sparring partners, and Bunny used to recall the day they’d been playing with a ball in one of the corridors of the Palace when an errant throw nearly dislodged a large vase from the top of a cupboard. Queen Mary was held in as much awe by her boys as by the general public, and there was a moment when they thought they’d all be sent to the Tower, but the vase settled back on its base again …
At 14 he was sent to Cheltenham College like his father and uncles, where he excelled in mathematics and obtained a scholarship, subject to his father joining the Council. He won a Mathematics Exhibition to Trinity College Cambridge, where he went in 1911, and claimed to be the first Exhibitionist not to get a first class honours degree, because of his passion for rowing!
During his final year he’d got engaged to Vivyen Hurd, daughter of Archibald (later Sir Archibald) Hurd, Naval Correspondent of the Daily Telegraph. They’d been introduced by mutual friend Ken Garnett. She was known as Didi—apparently she was one of a group of friends known as Didi, Dédé and Dodo.
Ian doesn’t remember this, but David remembers Donald telling him that he and a group of friends sailed a boat to Norway before the war. It had no on-board toilet arrangements and you had to lean against the foot of the jib do your business. He also prescribed the following for seasickness; tie a length of whipping twine round a piece of raw bacon. Swallow it, then pull it up again. We aren’t prepared to verify its effectiveness—or truth!
When war broke out in 1914, he had just graduated, and a friend of his assembled a motley crew of graduates to man a steam yacht, the Zarefah, and later the Sagitta, which were volunteered for use by the Royal Navy. For a short time they were used in the North Sea as the flagship of the Admiral commanding minesweepers, and Bunny was employed as an Able Seaman RNVR, shovelling coal for all he was worth. But they weren’t very gainfully employed, and the Admiral offered to arrange their transfer to their choice of Royal Navy specialisation. Bunny had had an interest in aviation since school days (David still has aviation magazines of his dating from 1908–1909), so he volunteered for the Royal Naval Air Service as aircrew.
His initial training was at Chingford, Essex in the second half of 1915, on Graham Whites and Farman Longhorns, on which the instructor demonstrated the controls with the student perched behind him, unable to reach the controls. There then came a point at which they swapped seats, and the instructor sat in the back, with little voice communication, and no chance of reaching the controls …
On completion of his basic training, he was selected to fly Scouts (the term fighter hadn’t come into use), but he found that at 6 ft 3 in he couldn’t get his knees into the Bristol Scout aircraft, and applied to fly Shorts seaplanes—but he was posted to No. 2 Wing RNAS (a Scout squadron at Dover) anyway. Once there, he found that he could just manage it if he took the cushion out!
He was posted more or less immediately to Imbros, an island off the coast of the Dardanelles, to spot for the Naval bombardment in support of the ill-fated landing. He arrived in December 1915, when the campaign was already faltering and evacuation was on the cards.
No. 2 Wing was a small outfit with only 23 aircraft of all different types. Bunnie flew no less than ten different types of aircraft while he was there.
On only his seventh operational flight on 8 January 1916 he was spotting for the guns of HMS Peterborough who was shelling the Turkish positions in preparation for the evacuation of Allied forces when he was chased by a German in the infamous Fokker Eindekker. His engine misfired, and he had to make an emergency landing on the Dardanelles peninsula itself, dodging the Turkish shells that were landing all around. He found that the engine damage had been caused by the German’s gunfire. He was told to destroy the machine with a pick, a shovel and a sledge hammer (a fire would have given the Turkish guns something to aim at), and by that evening he was on a boat back to Imbros—the second to last boat to leave the Dardanelles.
Surprisingly No. 2 Wing continued to attack the Dardanelles for another five months after the evacuation, either by dropping bombs, searching for submarines, or spotting for the Naval guns. Bunnie flew many different aircraft types on all these different missions, but his favourite was the Bristol Scout. There was little opposition, which was just as well, since the Bristol sported two Lewis machine guns firing through the propeller without the interrupter gear developed later to protect the propeller, so it was only used if really needed! They doped fabric around the propeller blades ‘… to stop the splinters coming off in your face’ according to Bunnie. He did fire his guns in anger once in pursuit of another German Eindekker at one point, though there was no evidence of hits on the German, though there must have been several in his propeller.
The squadron then transferred to Thasos, another island off the coast of Bulgaria, who had declared war in December 1915. There were more spotting sorties, but also some improvised bombing raids, using home-made bomb racks under the fuselage and wings. Bunny told the story of one pilot of Balkan origin who hated the Bulgarians, and would take off in a two-seater fitted with bomb racks, and with the observer’s seat in the front full of yet more bombs. Having released the bombs from the racks, he would then use an umbrella to hook the other bombs out of the front seat and over the side!
In August 1916, Bunnie was invalided home via Greece (D.B. has a temporary Greek passport issued to him) with dysentery or malaria (it also seems to have been variously diagnosed as trench fever and heart strain) which kept him on the sick list until March 1917 when he was posted as First Lieutenant of the Royal Naval Air Station at Redcar, Yorkshire. In spring 1918 he was transferred to the Orfordness Experimental station as an experimental officer. He tried to get back to active flying duties but was never fit enough to make more than a few flights. The work there included experiments with parachutes, including seeing how many rounds could be fired into one until it became unsafe.
Having transferred into the RAF on 1 April 1918, he got married to Didi in London in June. Brother Bill, home from his medal-winning service in Coastal Motor Boats, was best man, and Didi’s younger sister Barbara (Bee) was a bridesmaid.
He was demobbed in 1919 and became an apprentice at the Dick, Kerr factory in Preston Lancashire, who made heavy electrical equipment and trams. The following year he transferred to English Electric Ltd in London, and moved to Thatches on Brasted Chart in Kent. Thatches was built for Bunny and Didi in the grounds of Didi’s father’s house, the Shaw, and like the Shaw had a thatched roof, and masses of wood inside.
In 1923 Ian was born, following an earlier miscarriage. From 1925 to 1927, Bunny was working in India on the electrification of the railways, and was consequently away when Christopher was born in June 1927. Christopher suffered from Treacher-Collins syndrome (a severe calcium deficiency) which left him with a cleft palate, profoundly deaf, and no outer ears. He required a full-time nurse, and many operations as a baby to stabilise his condition. Bunny however had been posted to Buenos Aires as adviser to Lord Ampthill in regard to railway concessions, and his long absences at this difficult time caused some stress in his domestic relations.
In 1929 he transferred to the International Standard Electrical Corporation and Standard Telephones and Cables (STC) in Croydon where he worked for ten years as a patents engineer in radio broadcast and loudspeaker pools.
In 1939, he wrote to the First Lieutenant at Redcar asking for advice on the most useful way he could help the war effort. He joined the Ministry of Aircraft Production as Senior Production Officer, buying in aircraft instruments. In 1941, he became Assistant Director of Standardisation in the Ministry.
In 1942 he transferred to the US Signal Corps as Civilian Technical Adviser, again involved with purchasing instruments for aircraft. He left after a disagreement in 1944 to become Chief of Radio Technical Supplies in the US Office of War Information.
At the end of the war he went back to STC at Adastral House in Aldwych, London as a patents engineer, transferring to the subsidiary, Creeds in Croydon in 1953, where he stayed until 31 December 1962 when he retired three months short of his 70th birthday. He served on the Sevenoaks Rural District Council for another ten years, retiring at the age of nearly eighty.
Although Thatches was created in the grounds of the Shaw, it was a large house with about six acres of grounds, and when it grew too large, Bunnie and Didi built a Colt wooden house on the back of an existing ‘Garden House’ and moved there.
Although he never flew again, Bunnie enjoyed machinery throughout his life. He owned an Indian motorcycle in the 1920s, which had a single 1000 cc cylinder and a cone clutch.
In the 1950s and 1960s he owned a 1926 Bentley 3 litre which he had to dispose of reluctantly because he couldn’t afford the fuel—despite his best efforts, he could never get more than 8mpg out of it! Nevertheless, it proved invaluable for towing a large clinker-built dayboat called Elizabeth that was used by son Ian in the 1950s.
After the Bentley he had an Austin Healey Sprite (the Frog-eyed Sprite). His brother was living in Fochabers in Morayshire at this time, and each year he would drive up to see him. Bunnie had inherited a love of dogs from his father, and the one we associate with the Bentley was Mickey, a sort of black red setter, who was found by Bunnie’s brother Bill on the dockside, and inherited by Bunnie when Bill was posted to South America. For the Sprite it was Doofah, a Saluki who used to sit in the passenger seat and caused a good few second glances when seen from behind, owing to her flowing golden locks … Eventually Bunnie decided he had to get a saloon car for the long journey, and bought a stage 2 tuned Morris Minor. He was most upset when he took it north for the first time, and caught a cold—also for the first time!
Didi was a dignified lady with religious beliefs which she expressed in a book, I Tune the Instrument, and in many other activities involving the local community. For many years she used to arrange for foreign—mainly German—students to come over for exchange visits, in order to promote better relations.
Bunnie retained a connection with No. 2 Wing RNAS throughout his life, and provided much information to the Imperial War Museum, including taped interviews with David Lance which allow us to hear his voice again today.
He also had an interest in gardens and gardening, starting during the Second World War when he kept goats and grew vegetables. In retirement he remained a keen gardener, which provided some relief from looking after Didi, who suffered many years of senile dementia, before moving to a nursing home. She died in 1981, and Bunie died on 30 March 1983, three days after his 90th birthday, following a fall while tending his tomatoes which resulted in a broken hip.