from ‘the War Budget’ September 16th, 1915
'A Duel in the Clouds'
Told by Himself


the Romance of the Air_War

both photos are original color photos taken in 1914 - 1915


Our 'bus — or as the landlubber would say, aeroplane — was all ready to start for cloudland as I climb into the observer's seat, settle down comfortably, and glance round, in the manner of all good airmen.

The pilot, a long, lean, wind-dried imperturbable military officer, walks round, accompanied by a mechanic, whiffing a cigarette, and assuring himself that all is taut and trim. An aeroplane at best is but a frail contraption. "Crack" goes some little thing, and one has "gone to glory," or elsewhere, almost before the sound ceases.

“All right," says the pilot, as he spits out his cigarette and climbs into the seat behind me. He takes the wheel and the mechanic starts the propeller. "Pop, pop, pop," yaps the engine. "Stand clear" is signalled, and off we go, at first by a hop or two over some uneven ground, then in a steady run. The engine drones like a million angry bees, and one runs through a whole gamut of queer sensations in the next few minutes. Suddenly the earth breaks loose and falls into space, and my heart, with all the other works, tries hard to follow suit. The half-sinking, half-choking sensation soon passes, giving place to an exhilarating thrill.

Now we are beading for the clouds. Higher and higher tears our 'bus, roaring like a mammoth dragon-fly. In the vortex of that noise the pilot's energetic lips make an emphatic silence, and our companion seems stricken dumb. Thus it is that the thunderous Zeppelin passes an air scout unchallenged in the night. All other sounds are utter stillness to the man whose ears are bombarded by his own machine. Sooner might he catch the faint tick of his watch in a tube train.

Presently our 'bus banks. The pilot wants to reach better air, and is ascending in a wide spiral. Round and round we go, pushed up a very wide circular staircase. Below, so far below that it seems of little account now, stretches the broad carpet of the earth. Upon it woods, fields and water make a futurist pattern in green, brown and silver. Little ants swarm about it, so small that one overlooks the twos and threes, and sights only the crowds. These little ants are men, whom we are now viewing as men themselves view the stars — at so great a distance that grandeur of the individual is lost in the compactness of the mass.

At the altitude now reached the unpractised eye would see few distinctive features in the panorama beneath. My business, however, is to "observe." Experience tells me that certain moving patches are troops, that vivid flashes from a shroud of yellow smoke mean artillery, whilst a. beautiful white plume some few hundred feet beneath us, that shakes itself out and-slowly fades away, indicates that our old acquaintance, "Archibald," the anti-aircraft gun, is yapping his customary "Good morning." Had his reach been as long as his aim is good, he would have "got" us long ago. But we are "saving it up" for "Archibald," and mean at the first good opportunity to try and drop an "extinguisher" right upon his ugly black mouth. That will be my job, joy be with the task.

Our 'bus straightens out upon even keel and goes switch-backing off toward "somewhere not in France." For a time I sit at ease and watch the strange spectacle of the earth reeling by, twirled by an unseen cinema operator.

Ahead, astern, on either side of us other machines scud along, for we are flying in company in order to shower bombs and blessings upon the truculent Hun by way of advising him that air-raiding is a game at which more than one can play. Suddenly we cut away from the crowd. A speck which has appeared upon the horizon is recognised by the pilot as an enemy plane, and we're off after it. Quickly the speck grows into a big machine tearing towards us. "Aviatik," I signal to the pilot. He looks hard at the oncomer and nods back "Yes." Blood begins to leap and pulses to thrill. It is a case of “Get your guns ready," for we are on the verge of the most exciting adventure man can. experience — a duel in the clouds.

We are in the clouds at the moment. A second or two later and we are above them, as the eagle, gets to skyward of his prey. The foe holds a like intention. Both machines rush upward, but ours goes the faster. Noticing this the enemy starts "potting" at us; but we hold our skyward course and make no reply to his fire. Soon we sweep round so that the pilot may get a clear sight of the foe beneath.

Now comes a moment of intensive thrill. Do you know how the kestrel shuts its wings and falls like a stone upon his quarry? My pilot copies the kestrel's tactics. Our kestrel drops beak first. How far she falls I do not know, though it must he some hundreds of feet. That daring, earthward rush seems like falling down the face of a precipice and being caught up gently at the bottom by some mysterious hand, when, at the right moment, the pilot skillfully checks this appalling dive. We bring up near the enemy, and I pump bullets at him, but he dips and like a crow that has been worsted in a fight, turns tail and flies at full speed.

We let him go and race away after our companions. Some way ahead I see the smoke of factory chimneys and the silver glint of water, and by this recognise our objective. Recurring puffs of smoke, flashes of fire, and the sudden disappearance of a building show that the fight is on, and we hasten to get into it. Soon the "phut phut" of bullets striking us beneath announces that we are in it right enough. A tilt of the planes lifts us out of range of the guns, and whilst the pilot hanks round I look down for a favourable target. Our purpose is to destroy things of military importance, not to murder the inoffensive. Therefore, the big factory chimneys are a good and legitimate mark for our missiles. I swing my first bomb at them and see it explode not far away. Then I try again. By this time the sky is raining bombs, and the earth spitting up a return hail of explosive shell.

I loose another bomb, and one of the factory smoke stacks crumples up, though whether from my shot I cannot say. From the air it is hard to tell who does hit the target when several are aiming at it. As buildings fall they seem, from above, to collapse of their own volition, to tumble down for no particular reason except that they have become disinclined to stand up any longer. Most of the, elements in a bombardment, which prove so terrifying to people on the ground, barely exist for the spectator in an aeroplane. The horror is in the hearing, and he is timely deaf.

Anti-aircraft guns drive us up and keep us moving, but as we dodge about down go our bombs one after another at what I judge to be the right moments for dropping them. Panic reigns below, it is clear, and we evidently destroy a good deal which the Huns did not wish to lose. Then, without loss to ourselves, we buzz away home, happy in the knowledge of a good task well done.


a french monoplane in 1915


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