'Turning Heavens into Hell'
Battle in the Air with One Hundred Aeroplanes
told by Officer of Royal Canadian Flying Corps


Exploits of the Canadian Flying Corps

studying the map before take-off on a mission


The heroism of the Canadians is one of the immortal epics of the War. The great dominion sent across the seas her strongest sons. Their valor in trench and field "saved the British army" on many critical moments. The feats of daring of these Canadians would fill many volumes, but here is one story typical of their sublime courage — a tale of the air.


from a French magazine - a Canadian combat squadron


I — With the Canadians in the Clouds

There were one hundred of us — fifty on a side — but we turned the heavens into a hell, up in the air there, more terrible than ten thousand devils could have made running rampant in the pit.

The sky blazed and crackled with bursting time bombs, and the machine guns spitted out their steel venom, while underneath us hung what seemed like a net of fire, where shells from the Archies, vainly trying to reach us, were bursting.

We had gone out early in the morning, fifty of us, from the Royal Canadian Flying Corps barracks, back of the lines, when the sun was low and my courage lower, to bomb the Prussian trenches before the infantry should attack.

Our machines were stretched out across a flat tableland. Here and there in little groups the pilots were receiving instructions from their commander and consulting maps and photographs.

At last we all climbed into our machines. All along the line engines began to roar and sputter. Here was a 300 horsepower Rolls-Royce, with a mighty, throbbing voice; over there a $10,000 Larone rotary engine vieing with the others in making a noise. Then there were the little fellows humming and spitting the "vipers" or "maggots," as they are known in the service.

At last the squadron commander took his place in his machine and rose with a whirr. The rest of us rose and circled round, getting our formation.

Crack! At the signal from the commander's pistol we darted forward, going ever higher and higher, while the cheers of the mechanicians and riggers grew fainter.

Across our own trenches we sailed and out over No Man's Land, like a huge, eyeless, pock-scarred earth face staring up at us.

There was another signal from the commander. Down we swooped. The bomb racks rattled as hundreds of bombs were let loose, and a second later came the crackle of their explosions over the heads of the Boches in their trenches.

Lower and lower we flew. We skimmed the trenches and sprayed bullets from our machine guns. The crashing of the weapons drowned the roar of the engines.

I saw ahead of me a column of flame shoot up from one of our machines, and I caught a momentary glance at the pilot's face. It was greenish-ash color. His petrol tank had been hit. I hope the fall killed him and that he did not burn to death.

II — The Vultures over the Trenches

Away in the distance a number of specks had risen, like vultures scenting the carrion that had already been made. It was a German squadron. The Archies had not bothered us much while we were spraying the Prussian trenches, but now we had that other squadron to take care of. Our orders were to bomb the trenches. We could not spare a bomb or a cartridge from the task of putting the fear of Britain into the hearts of the infantry below before our own "Tommies" should start over the top.

I don't know what it was, but suddenly, just after my partner had let go a rack of bombs, there was a terrific explosion just beneath us. My machine leaped upward, twisted, then dropped suddenly. Death himself was trying to wrench the control levers from my grip, but I clung to them madly and we righted. A few inches more and I couldn't have told you about this.

There was no longer any chance to worry about flying position. There were too many things occupying my attention — that line of gray down there that we were trying to erase and the Boche squadron thrumming down on us.

One drum of our ammunition was already used up. My partner whirled around on his stool — a sort of piano stool, which always made me think of the tuneless, tin-panny instrument back in quarters — grabbed another drum and slammed it into the machine gun. It was to be a parting message for the Prussians, for the commander was just signalling to retire.

My partner lurched forward. He was hit. A thin red stream trickled down his face.

I raced westward, the air whistling through the bullet holes in the wings of the machine and my partner leaning against the empty bomb rack, silent.

As we sailed over the foremost Prussian trench some Scotch were just leaping into it. The "ladies from hell" the Germans call them, because of their kilts.

Several machines had landed before I took the ground. Ambulances were dashing back and forth across the flying field.

They lifted my partner out of the aeroplane, but they did not put him into an ambulance. He had answered another recall. I walked to quarters ill — ill at heart, at stomach, at mind. I'll never know a better pal than was Tom.

On the way I managed to help with a machine that had just landed. A big Rolls-Royce it was, and the radiator had been hit by a bit of shrapnel. The pilot and observer were both terribly scalded.

Just by the aerodrome another biplane fluttered down. The observer was dead. The pilot was hit in a dozen places. Somehow he brought the machine in, switched off his engine and slopped forward in his seat, stone dead.

Ten minutes later I was sound asleep. The next day we were at it again.

In battles of this kind it is more or less a matter of good fortune if you escape with your life. Flying ability and trickiness can play but little part. It is in the lone adventure that stunt flying helps.

Ill — The Mysterious Major and the Uhlans

One of the most versatile flyers in the corps was the "Mysterious Major." Condon was his name, but to all the men, both sides of No Man's Land, he was the "Mysterious Major."

He was forced to glide to earth one day, back of the Prussian lines, with his big motor stalled. He leaped out hastily, adjusted a bit of machinery and spun the propellers. A gentle purr, then silence, was the response.

Once more he flashed the blades around, with no better result.

It wasn't a healthy neighborhood to be in. With a short, crisp oath, the "Mysterious Major" set to work in dead earnest. Down the road to the right of the field a cloud of dust, flying high, appeared. It meant cavalry. The major's ears caught the sound of hoofbeats.

It was tradition that he would never be killed in the air, but here he was on earth, with cavalry galloping toward him. His descent had probably been spotted and the Uhlans sent to get him.

At last he got a roar from the engine that sounded like business, but it petered out.

Closer came the hoof beats. The Uhlans rode over a fence and came galloping across the field. A shot punctuated his exhortations to the motor and slit one of the planes.

Pulling and tugging, he got his machine turned so that he could use his machine gun. Br-r-rang! He let drive a drum of ammunition from his machine gun. He saw several horses and riders go down in sprawling, rolling heaps, then turned to his motor again.

Eight or ten Uhlans who had escaped his murderous fire withdrew. He knew what they would do. They would return from every side at once, and his single machine gun could never stop them.

If he could only get into the air he would feel safe. Once more he twisted the propeller. As though nothing had ever been wrong, the engine started to thrum and roar. He leaped into the seat.

Quickly the machine rose. The Uhlans saw it. I suppose they knew he had not loaded the machine gun again, and they galloped on to the field, firing at him.

He was so low that there was every chance for them to hit his petrol tank or even the major himself. So he went even lower. Straight at the heads of the horses he drove. The animals, scared at the great, white-winged, roaring machine, reared and plunged, throwing some of the riders to the ground. The others were too busy with their mounts to shoot straight.

The major waved goodby, fired a couple of parting shots from his service revolver and climbed to where the bullets could not reach him. It was not his fate to die in the air, he thought, but only a few weeks after he told me this story he was killed by a shrapnel burst from an Archie, which wrecked his machine while he was flying with an air patrol.

I do not think they ever should have sent him on such work. He was too valuable alone. The Prussians feared him so much that a price was upon his head.

Scarcely a day went by that some new feat of daring was not accredited to this almost phantom-like flier. Perhaps he did not perform them all, but the effect was cumulative.

I have known the "Mysterious Major" to side slip three thousand feet at a time. He used to skim so close to the Boche trenches that they say men ducked their heads, and all the time he was pouring six hundred shots a minute from his machine gun.

Many said the "Mysterious Major" was crazy, but if we all were suffering from the same dementia the Boches wouldn't be able to show their heads. He was of inestimable value to the secret service, but those stories will have to wait until after the war, if they are ever told.

IV — The Birdman Who Played 'Possum

One of the most thrilling encounters I can recall is that of Captain Woodhouse, who, accompanied by another pilot, was out over the Prussian lines. One of the Prussians gave chase and opened fire. Woodhouse made believe that he had been hit, and his companion brought the machine down in a field. Immediately the Prussian, in one of the latest type battle planes, made his landing and went over to the other machine without bothering to cover the pilot with his revolver, Woodhouse meanwhile lying as if dead. Suddenly he leaped up, jammed his revolver under the Boche's nose and marched him over to the big battle plane, got in after him and with the gun against his ribs took him back to our lines, a prisoner. Later he returned and got the Prussian machine. Besides the machine there were some valuable papers taken, which proved very useful later.

In the Royal Naval Air Service there is a young lieutenant, Murray Galbraith by name, with whom I once trained at the school at Dayton, Ohio. Murray is a great big fellow who gave up a splendid future — his father is one of the Canadian silver kings — to go into the flying service. He was sent to Dunkirk to do patrol work for one of the monitors lying off the coast. Over at Ostend the Prussians had made their staff headquarters in a certain hotel. Galbraith spotted this hotel and directed the shellfire of the monitor with such accuracy that the Prussian staff barely escaped annihilation.

On one of his flights over the Prussian lines he encountered five machines, one of which he disposed of. He got away from the rest and, coming on toward the Somme, ran into another group of Boches. Two of these he put out of business with a withering fire from his Lewis gun and then executed a loop and started earthward. His engine gave out, but he was just high enough to glide back over their lines and then to a point of safety near our lines.

When he landed his machine was literally shot to pieces. He received the D. S. O. for this and, I believe, has since been decorated again.

(Retold from New York Herald)



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