- from the War Illustrated, 15th July, 1918
- 'An Airman's Adventures'
- by Nighthawk
First Flips at Home and Abroad
THE morning was yet young as our car raced along the broad white road, and we felt that it was good to be alive. There were three of us all observers and we had been posted to one of the finest night-flying squadrons on the western front. We had been together in the infantry, had shared the life of trench and billet in France, had trained together at the same gunnery school in England, had been taken for our first "flips" on the same antiquated school " bus," finally had served together in the same home- defence squadron. Now we were coming out to France together to fly on active service.
Two of my earlier flights in England I shall always remember my first by day, and my first by night. A machine had had a forced landing the afternoon before in a field several miles from the aerodrome. Mechanics had tinkered it up, and we were sent out in a car to fly it back. On the way out the pilot seemed pessimistic as to our prospects of coming home again. "Engine gone to pot," he asserted. ''Doubt if the wretched thing will fly at all or if she does she'll probably peter out after a mile or two, and we'll have to find another field to perch in."
I thanked him for cheering me up, and we proceeded gloomily to the scene of action. We ran the engine up. To my uninitiated intelligence she appeared to be "going strong." I turned round suddenly in my seat, and caught the pilot jerking his head in my direction and grinning at the mechanics. It may have been imagination, but I fancied the lips of one of the latter framed the words "New observer ! First flight !" Then I saw through the game and entered into the fun of it, determined that no amount of switchbacking should cause me to part company with the very excellent breakfast I had had half an hour earlier.
The chocks were jerked away, and the machine commenced to taxi slowly along the ground. My next impression was that we were approaching the high brick wall of a farmhouse with alarming rapidity. For two or three horrible moments I saw myself flattened between the machine and that wall. Then suddenly my eyes evinced a tendency to fall out, the interior portion of my anatomy seemed to gravitate towards my boots, and my head appeared to be supporting a weight of at least a ton.
A SECOND or two later we were two hundred feet above the farmyard, and, as we turned, I caught a glimpse of the group of mechanics staring up at us from the field we had just left. The pilot had held the nose of the machine down as long as he safely could, gaining speed the whole time, and had then "zoomed" out of the field.
We arrived over the aerodrome at a height of about four thousand feet. "Going to spin," the pilot shouted. "Sit tight !" The sensation of spinning from the front seat of a pusher machine is one of immense pressure on the head. Meanwhile, you glue your eyes on to one fixed spot on the ground beneath you, while every other feature of the landscape appears to revolve round this spot. You notice with a kind of detached interest that the ground is getting nearer ; the earth, in fact, seems to be coming tip to meet you.
My first flight ended in a perfectly tame manner. We made a good landing, and taxied up to the sheds. A blasé sergeant met us there. "Are you Mr. X ?" he asked. On hearing that his surmise was correct, he handed me what looked like a machine-gun, and said, "You are to do No. i camera-gun test, sir. That's the machine over there just being run up."
What to me had been a new and amazing experience appeared to that sergeant- instructor merely an ordinary routine incident of his daily life, a thing not worth commenting on.
When the time came for me to leave that school of aerial gunnery I had begun to feel that I, too, was something of a flying veteran an illusion that was rudely shattered on my arrival at a night-flying home-defence squadron a week or two later.
Curiously enough, my first night-flight was during one of the earlier Zeppelin raids on London and the Eastern Counties. The moon was on the wane, and we were flying at about three thousand feet, when I saw quite plainly shrapnel bursting in the air several miles to the south. We made in the direction of the flying, climbing steadily the whole time, but saw no hostile aircraft. We were following the coast; the sea looked wonderfully mysterious in the shine of the moon. Allound the horizon was a dim curtain of mist. It was as if. one swam in a vast circular bath of clear water, the rim of the bath being vague and far away, and made of a kind of cloudy grey marble.
We saw flashes far to the south shrapnel, star-shells, and parachute flares. But we had arrived at the limit of our patrol-area without having seen anything of the enemy aircraft, and had therefore to return. Nosing northwards, we gradually lost height, and then flew low over sand-dunes and swamps and marshy fields to our aerodrome.
Landing a machine at night is no superlatively easy matter. In certain weather conditions it is difficult to gauge with any certainty whether the machine is a hundred feet or only a few feet above ground level. Sometimes, when you are just coming into the petrol or electric flares, which are placed on all night-flying aerodromes for landing purposes, and are preparing to "flatten out," you discover that you have either underestimated or overshot the aerodrome. This means that you have to put on your engine again, go round once more, and have another shot for it. On this night, however, we touched ground by the first flare, pulled up after a very short run, and taxied easily over to the hangars.
The weeks we spent with the home-defence squadron were really weeks of extra training for the job we were ultimately destined to take up in France long-distance night-bombing and reconnaissance. The day came at last when we had to leave England, home, and beauty," and proceed overseas for active service. We landed in France late one wintry afternoon, and proceeded that same night by train to a large town in Flanders. Next morning a car was sent down from the aerodrome, and we raced along the straight, broad "route nationale" to the scene of our future activities.
On arrival at the aerodrome we discovered that we already knew many of the pilots and observers in the squadron ; and several of them tried to "put the wind up" us by relating hair-raising accounts of the narrow shaves they had had while flying over the lines. But we soon settled down to learn our jobs, study the maps, memorise the lighthouses, and get accustomed to the general ideas of service flying.
They broke us in gradually. On the second day I had a "flip" round the aerodrome to get the "hang." of the country; on the third day I flew over to a neighbouring aerodrome for lunch ; and a few days later I did a practice daylight reconnaissance along the Ypres sector.
The sun was shining as we got into our "bus," and all the world seemed gay. My pilot was in great form. We climbed well and, at about three thousand feet, headed, for Ypres. As we got nearer to the trenches the roads became more and more congested with troops and moving columns of supplies. Looking over the side of the "bus," I could see the tiny khaki-clad figures marching "in fours" along all the roads to the line, and I thought of the days when I walked along these self-same roads with many a dear fellow who has since crossed the Great Divide.
We passed over Ypres at under a thousand feet. For miles around in every direction the ground was pocked with shell-holes. I believe that in all the world you cannot find a more tragic panorama of destruction than in the lands round "Wipers." I have been down on the Somme, have seen Pozieres, Grandcourt, Beaumont-Hamel, have gazed at the ghosts of Bapaume and Arras; but nothing has moved me quite so much as these heroic remnants of Ypres seen from the air that sunny winter morning.
The gunners were putting down a barrage on the Passchendaele Ridge ; I could see the spurts of flame beneath and, away in the east, regular lines of shell-bursts. There was also a fire of considerable magnitude some distance behind the German lines, and, far above our heads, at eight thousand feet or more, a formation of British scout machines was dodging "Archie." I realised that I was again "at the war."
We turned southwards, passing over historic battlegrounds Hill 60, Messines, Armentieres and so back to our aerodrome, where we arrived in time to witness from the air the last five minutes of a football match.
I had now had my practice "flips." My next show was to be a bombing raid over the lines.
- from the War Illustrated, 20th July, 1918
- 'An Airman's Adventures'
- by NIghthawk
My First Bombing Raid
The following, pilots and observers will report in the operation-room to-day at 5 p.m." This is the formal summons, followed by a long list of names, which an orderly reads out in the mess every day just before tea-time. If you don't happen to be in the mess at the time, your flight-commander, when he meets you, will tell you casually, "Map-room at four o'clock, old boy. "You're down to fly with So-and-So.".
"What's the target, old man ?" you ask.
"Oh, the aerodrome at X," or "The sidings at Y," or "Billets near Z," he will reply.
You take a glance at the sky all flying men become in time very reliable judges of the weather and then you walk across to the hangars and have a look at your machine. If you are an observer, you are responsible for the reliability of all the apparatus you use during operations your guns, maps, lights, compasses, and bomb-controls. You get your gun and test it in the gun-pit ; you make sure that your maps are in position, and that the reading-lights are in order; you try the working of your bomb-racks and control- levers; and periodically you get the compass-officer to swing and correct all the compasses on the machine.
If you are a pilot, you will have run your engine up earlier in the day and have taken your "bus" for a test-flip. On these occasions, unless your observer is particularly anxious to have a joy-ride, you carry as passenger the corporal-fitter, who, as your chief mechanic, is responsible for your engine. He listens to the sound of it while in the air, and on reaching the ground again remedies any faults which may have been detected. Your life and the life of your observer depend upon the work and the. ceaseless attention of your fitter, your rigger, and the mechanics under them ; and, taking them as a whole, they are a wonderful crowd of fellows these air-mechanics.
Your machine is reported "serviceable," guns and ammunition are aboard, her racks are loaded with bombs everything is ready for the night's "show."
In the map-room the CO. officially gives you your target, says a few quiet words, and you settle down to study your maps and discuss alternative routes with your pilot.
Shortly after my first "map-room" the barometer went down with a "crash," heavy banks of storm-clouds swept up out of the east, and, instead of starting on a bombing raid over the lines, I helped the mechanics put our machine back into its. hangar ; and by the time we went to bed that night it was snowing heavily and blowing more than half a gale.
For three days we did no flying. Then the wind died down, and I was detailed for another practice "flip" up to the lines, this time covering the Arras sector. It was with the same pilot and in the same machine as before. The snow was on the ground, and we needed, therefore, a slightly longer run before we "took off."
We climbed gently away from the aerodrome. Roads and railways were visible as long, black lines across the snow; rivers and canals were difficult to see, as . most of them were frozen over, and there was nothing to break the continuity of the snow-level ; forests were seen as great black blobs in vast, white frames of snow.
We flew the whole way parallel to the lines. There seemed to be little or no activity until we got near Lens, which was being desultorily shelled. The Vimy Ridge presented a vastly different aspect from what it did when I was there in the days of the "push." Where formerly had been a maze of trenches, lines of barbed-wire, shell-craters, the desolation and solitude of No Man's Land, were now whole colonies of tin huts, tents, canteens, cinema theatres, and all the accessories, of camp and billet life a few miles behind the lines.
I had never seen Arras from the air; still, the dear old place seemed to be strangely familiar, and I picked out many a landmark of the past. We flew over the town at a couple of thousand feet, then "tootled off" to the line, or as near to it as we were allowed to go. An inquisitive artillery observation machine hung on to our tail for several minutes. He was evidently much perturbed as to our identity. The probability is that he had never seen our type of night-bomber before. We shook the fellow off eventually, however, and I had a good look at the sector in which I had done the most of my trench campaigning. Then we "beetled " off for home and tea, arriving at the aerodrome a little before dusk.
At midnight the sky was filled with storm-clouds. A "show" seemed out of the question, and we all went to bed. But at three o'clock in the morning whistles were blowing, flares were being put out, sleepy men were opening the hangars, and orderlies were running round the camp warning pilots and observers to prepare for a "stunt."
The sky had cleared, and there was practically no wind. At half-past three the first machine took the air.
My pilot and I were second off the ground. Our engine was running perfectly, we climbed rapidly, and in less than twenty minutes we had passed the last of the lighthouses and crossed the lines. Our operation orders were for one of the most distant Gotha aerodromes in Belgium.
Below us, as we flew over the trenches, we could sec the spurts of rifle and machine- gun fire, the firing of batteries, the bursts of shells and grenades, long lines of coloured Verey lights stretching away north and south as far as the eye could reach. It was amazing to think that down there, three thousand feet and more beneath us, tens of thousands of human beings in trenches and saps and dug-outs were busily engaged in the great game of war.
We got very little "hate" going over the lines, probably owing to the fact that they were too busy to deal with us. On quiet nights, when there is little or no activity, as soon as they hear the drone of our engines, the long searchlights stab the sky, and the "Archies" greet us with vigorous "woufs" and bangs. On this night, however, only one enterprising "onion" battery had a burst at us, while about a dozen tracer machine-gun bullets came up from the Boche trenches.
Visibility was perfect, and we could see Lille with ease before we got to it a great black blob in the encircling fields of snow. We flew over the Menin Road, and I thought of the times I had passed along it in those far-off infantry days. Near here an "Archie" battery violently "hated" us, while six or seven searchlights picked us up, and we had to dive and side-slip several times in order to get out of their beams.
Near Courtrai we ran into a bank of dense black mist, and in order to see anything my pilot dived the machine. At five hundred feet above the ground we came suddenly out of the clouds. In the meantime I had lost my bearings, but fortunately was able to pick up a railway line with a double set of metals running due east.
I identified this on my map, and for some time we followed it. Then we picked up the road which went down to our objective, and about half an hour later we found ourselves, with our engines throttled back, over one of the largest Gotha aerodromes in Belgium.
Everything was quiet.Below us we could see their hangars, workshops, and hutments revealed clearly in the strong glare of the moon. I wondered at the amazing quietness, yet had an uneasy feeling that those grey-coated fellows down below were waiting for us. We flew round in wide circles, gradually losing height, and with our engine just "ticking over." Away to the north I saw shrapnel bursting in the sky, and I knew then that a machine of one of our other squadrons had arrived at its objective.
We got down to a thousand feet before we commenced our long glide on to the target. At five hundred feet I pulled my bomb levers, then glued my eyes on the ground waiting for the detonations. The first bomb burst a dull, red flash, and a report like a siege- gun in the middle of a group of sheds, and almost immediately the German anti- aircraft defences opened up. "Archies," "flaming onions," machine-gun bullets, were hurled up at us ; the whole firmament seemed filled with groping, menacing fingers of light. I fired my gun until most of my ammunition had gone, and then, having stirred up such vast "chunks of hate" that we deemed it unhealthy to remain over the aerodrome any longer, we put our nose once more west and made off home.
Over Menin, at six o'clock that morning, we ran into another "Archie" barrage, and for about twenty seconds the whole machine, quite out of control, rocked and quivered violently, then "carried on." A few minutes later, just as a wintry dawn was breaking, we recrossed the lines.
- from the War Illustrated, 21st July, 1918
- 'An Airman's Adventures'
- by Nighthawk
The Luck of 'Lighthouse Luke'
several pages from a British magazine
ON the night following my first raid over the lines the weather was too treacherous for any attempt at long-distance bombing. Showers of sleet fell at intervals ; the ground was shrouded in a dank mist; and heavy banks of low clouds scurried across the face of the moon.
My pilot and I, however, were ordered up in a wireless machine to test atmospheric conditions more intimately, and to report on the possibilities of a short "show." The surface of the aerodrome was in a wretched condition. Its composition resembled a mixture of half-frozen glue, and my pilot, after an inordinately long run, had to "yank" the "bus" off the ground, barely clearing the telegraph wires at the farther end of the aerodrome.
At about a thousand feet the ground became quite invisible ; the only things one could see were lights blinking through the mist.
We flew twice round the aerodrome, testing our wireless installation; then, on intimation from the ground that they were receiving our signals clearly, we took a rough compass- course to one of the lighthouses. During the whole of our flight we were able to remain in touch with the aerodrome, and every two or three minutes we wired down a "weather report." It was distinctly amusing to reflect that at these identical moments, somewhere within twenty or thirty miles of us, a German night-flying pilot was probably sending down to his squadron-office similar messages to ours. We often hear the Boche reports, and they doubtless often hear ours, so that at any rate we know each other's opinion of the weather.
As we neared the line that night the conditions became worse. Twice we encountered heavy showers of rain. Navigating entirely by compass and lights we wandered down to Bethune, and, in the neighbourhood of the La Bassée Canal witnessed a very fierce gun duel. We were flying fairly low, and the intense, white flames of the guns seemed to stab the fog violently.
German shells were bursting in our lines, and we could see away over the canal a long, straggling ribbon of dull, red flashes. That was our barrage methodically pounding the German trenches. Directly beneath us, alternately blazing up and dying away, a big fire burned fiercely.
Realising that the weather was rapidly becoming "dangerous" we decided to return to the aerodrome. On the way back we ran into a rainstorm of such severity that I had to crouch low in my seat to avoid being blinded. The pilot, behind his wind-screen was able more effectively to protect his eyes, but he confessed later that he felt as though he was "driving through a solid wall of water," and that he "hadn't the least notion where he was, or whether the machine was flying on an even keel."
He could hear the roar of his engine, and concentrated as far as possible on keeping the "bus" in the air until we should have passed through the bank of rain.
Then, quite suddenly, we experienced a vast relief. No longer did the rain lash and beat about us, stinging and torturing our skin. We had flown through it. A patch of clear sky showed above, and three or four miles ahead we could see the aerodrome lights. The landing-flares were lit, and they were sending up rockets to guide us in. Under difficult conditions we made a clean landing, and, on recounting our experience in the squadron- office, the "show" for that night was "washed out."
The log-book shows that a week's "dud" flying weather followed, a week of relaxation lectures in the morning, long walks in the afternoon, cards and music in the evening. During all this time I was gradually becoming acquainted with the history and traditions of the squadron, and I soon discovered that we had amongst us some of the cleverest and most experienced night-pilots in the world.
I am going to tell you a tale of one of them.
We call him "Lighthouse Luke,", a term of endearment which is no reflection on his abilities as a pilot. It is now pretty generally known that in certain kinds of weather night- flyers find their way about largely with the aid of ground-lights, and the term " Lighthouse Luke " spoken in jest one night in the mess would seem to impute to its owner a fondness for flying round and round the lighthouses instead of crossing the lines and doing his job. Needless to say, this is not the case. No pilot in the squadron has done better work than old Lighthouse Luke, and I am sure that if he reads these lines he will pardon this little joke at his expense.
We are a high-spirited crowd of fellows. We love a little friendly badinage, and no one more so than Lighthouse Luke himself. We recognised his gifts as a humorist before he had been with the squadron a week, and his first show over the lines was probably the most pricelessly humorous thing he will ever do, even if he lives to be a hundred.
To begin with he is the owner of the most ludicrous flying-boots in all the world. Charlie Chaplin is nowhere in it compared with Lighthouse Luke dressed up for a "show." The feet of these boots are about nine inches too long, and they have been trodden down on each side so that, as dear old Lighthouse toddles out to his machine, his legs bend gracefully outwards and inwards, and remind one of a goose on the day before a certain part of its anatomy is manufactured into pale de foie gras.
The night of Luke's first show was dark and "dud," and, as he was being gently assisted into his "bus" by his admiring mechanics he was heard to mutter " Ha, ha ! 'Tis duddy dark !"
He got off the ground in great style, but nothing more was heard of him until the fragments of his machine arrived back next morning on a three-ton lorry. His observer was sent down to the South of France to recuperate. But old Lighthouse Luke turned up, smiling, complete with flying-boots and the remains of the deceased "bus."
The story is this. He had dropped his "pills" on a railway station in Hunland, then putting his nose west he "beetled-off" for our own lines. After that he remembered little except that it got so dark that he could see nothing whatever outside his "office." He came down lower in the hope of recognising some feature on the ground.
Then suddenly he hit a railway embankment, the under-carriage fell into a ditch, the rest of the machine sat down across the rails.
A dark object hurtled through the air and landed in some soft mud about fifty yards away.
"That," said Lighthouse Luke laconically, "was my observer. Then I picked myself up out of the ruins and noticed to my horror that a train was approaching in the distance. I ran along the metals to the nearest signal-post, 'shinned' up it, and stopped the train.
' When I returned a crowd of angry Frenchmen were standing round my machine demanding why I had chosen the railway to land on."
When a machine crashes, a salvaging party is generally sent out to "take it down," the wires being carefully unscrewed, instruments packed up, and the engine, ailerons, and other important parts rescued, to be patched up and used again.
Poor old Luke's "bus," however, was destined for a more ignominious end.
"Those energetic Frenchmen," he said plaintively, "attacked it with hatchets and crowbars, smashing through tail-booms, spars, and wings as if they had been so much firewood. It was painful to see them throw all the bits, as soon as they had chopped them up, into the field where my observer was still lying. Then a great crane arrived miraculously, picked my engine up and chucked it contemptuously beside the rest of the wreckage. Finally, they bent back the bulged rails, and the delayed train rolled past. Their railway communication restored, they all became amiable once more, took us to an inn, gave us coffee and cognac, and even thanked me volubly for having saved their train.
"Next morning I left my observer in the nearest hospital, piled what remained of the ill- fated 'bus' on to the lorry, which had been sent out, and came home."
Dear old Lighthouse is still "carrying on." He has done some brilliant work, and he has smashed no more French railways.
- from the War Illustrated, 3rd August, 1918
- 'An Airman's Adventures'
- by Nighthawk
A Run of Bad Luck
setting up machine-guns in aircraft
About three weeks before Christmas the weather cleared, and the squadron carried out some very successful raids. Ill-fortune dogged my foot-steps, however, and I began to be looked upon as a "Jinks" that is, a man who brings bad luck to a machine. It didn't matter what machine I went up in, something happened either the petrol system gave up the ghost, or the water-jacket burst, or tappet-rods broke mysteriously, or the oil- pump expired, or the pressure went "dud."
Once we, started on a raid in high hopes this time of "getting there." The engine seemed to be running perfectly, yet we had only just crossed the lines when the pressure gave out altogether. My pilot switched over to his gravity tank and pumped the pressure up again. Then he tried the main tank once more, but again the pressure went, and the engine "conked." Finally, he decided that as we were on a long show it would be madness to go any farther with a dud engine. We therefore, swung the "bus" round and came home on our reserve tank.
On the following night, when some two or three miles over the line, our temperature suddenly went up and after a few preliminary coughs, our engine cut out altogether.
"We've been hit !" my pilot shouted through the telephone which connected our seats. "I think it's a machine-gun bullet through the radiator. Water run out! Engine red hot! We'll have to come down, old boy ! I'll try and make the lines. Get your Verey pistol ready. I'll drop the parachute flare when we're over."
I cleared my "office" for action that is, got the gun off its mounting and laid it on the floor, so that if I were - thrown out in the crash it would not hit me. There was not enough time to worry, but I remember vaguely wondering whether we should land in a shell-hole or on the top of a house or into the edge of a wood.
Fortunately, we had a pretty stiff wind behind .us. Had it been against us, we could not possibly have made the lines. As it was, we crossed the trenches at about a thousand feet, losing height rapidly. The parachute flare refused to burn, and therefore we fired a succession of Verey lights. The night was dark, but the lights showed us, roughly, the nature of the country we were flying over. We glided down across a small town, and then, in the flickering glare of one of my rockets, we glimpsed what looked like a long, flat field.
"Landing there !" shouted my pilot, pointing frantically at the field. "Get ready for the bump, old boy !
We flew down the field with the wind behind us the while I glued my eyes on to the ground, searching for obstacles. A tree-stump, a fence, a ditch, some telegraph-wires might spell the difference between life and death. But everything ; seemed to be clear.
We turned back into the wind, in order that when we touched the ground we should have it dead against us, thus shortening our run and minimising the chances of disaster. The pilot switched on his landing lights, which enabled us to see some fifteen or twenty yards ahead. I noticed that the grass was rather long. Then, just as I imagined all danger to be (past, a row of tall trees loomed ahead. Our speed at that moment was between fifty and sixty miles an hour, and impact with the trees at that velocity would mean certain destruction both for ourselves and the machine. My pilot did the only thing possible. He put his joy-stick right forward, the nose of the machine went down, and we gained speed suddenly. Then he pulled the stick almost back into his stomach. With the additional flying speed he had gained by the slight dive he was able to "zoom" over the trees and "pancake" into a ploughed field on the other side.
The under-carriage was swept off altogether, but we were on the ground once more, unhurt, and within sound of British rifle and machine-gun fire. Our bombs had buried themselves, on the impact, in about six inches of gravelly furrow ; the engine, which we examined in the light of a hand-torch, was a mass of white metal, due to its having "seized-up" after the water in the radiator had all run out; but, otherwise, not a plane had been damaged, not a wire strained. These, together with the booms and instruments were salvaged under fire the next day, but the engine and under-carriage had to be "written off."
On that same night two other of our machines had forced landings. Followed a period of engine trouble for the whole squadron. This was almost entirely due to the intense cold. Water froze in the radiators. Two engines seized-up while being tested on the ground. We had to keep a constant supply of boiling water on hand day and night. Innumerable tail-skids were broken every day by machines landing on ground frozen hard as steel, then unavoidably skidding and slewing round so violently that something had to go.
During this bitter month the squadron had more engine trouble and. more forced landings than during any other period of its history. Every night those of us who were back safely would stand on the aerodrome waiting for some machine which was overdue.
"Who's not down ?" we would ask.
"Oh, it's Bobby to-night," or "Daylight Dave," or "Piccadilly Percy," as the case might be.
Then we would strain our eyes cast-ward, Yes, there was still hope ! We could see strings of "flaming onions" all round the horizon ; German searchlights still probed the sky. Evidently some -British machines had not yet regained our lines. Then we would see the navigation lights of a machine in the distance ; her engine, throbbing through the night sky, would become more and more audible.
"This must be Bobby," we would say. But she would pass over us to another aerodrome.
"Oh, that is one of So-and-so's machines. They had a more distant target than ours," someone would inform us.
Sometimes three machines would come along together, and not one of them land. Then the Recording -Officer would stroll out and say :
"It's all right, you fellows ! You can wash out. No more 'shows' to-night. Weather coming up 'dud.' Bobby's down at X------. 'The Flapper's Ruin' landed at No. 5. Everybody accounted for ! "
Then we would go into the mess, and for two or three jolly hours we would forget that such a thing as an aeroplane existed.
The amazing fact about this trying period, however, is that during the whole of the time not one pilot or observer sustained anything worse than a scratch or a bruise as the result of all our forced landings. Machines came down, landed in shell-holes and ditches, smashed trees and telegraph-wires, turned upside down, were broken to pieces, yet every time their occupants were thrown clear or emerged from the ruins with nothing worse than a mouthful of French soil, a scratched wrist, a bruised posterior.
My own run of bad luck culminated in what might almost be termed a comic crash. A new pilot had arrived hi the squadron to take over the duties of a flight-commander. He had done a great deal of night-flying in France, was a man of vast experience on the type of machine we were, flying, and later proved to be one of our most successful pilots. I was detailed one windy afternoon to fly with him on a short test-reconnaissance of the country round about the aerodrome.
We ran the engine up, taxied out to the farthest corner of the aerodrome, got our nose into the wind, then, opening the throttle, moved off down the aerodrome with ever- increasing speed. The pilot got the tail of the machine up, but held her nose down, so that we were flying at about eighty or ninety miles an hour, while still just skimming the ground. His object was to pull the stick back suddenly, then "zoom" out of the aerodrome. But he kept his stick forward a second too long. The under-carriage hit the village pump with a sound like the report of a big gun.
the next thing I remember is that we were heading for some telegraph-wires, oscillating violently from side to side. Instinctively I ducked my head, preferring to be badly hurt on the ground than decapitated in the air. But the pilot, with amazing coolness, dived under the wires, swung the "bus" on to her wing-tip in order to avoid colliding with one of the telegraph-poles, then put her down as gently as if nothing had happened.
By all the rules of flying we should both have been killed that afternoon. On impact with the pump the machine should have nosed into the ground, in which case we should have had the engine on the top of us, and could not have hoped to get away with our lives.
That crash broke my run of bad luck, and during the ensuing three months I was able to take part in every raid carried out by the squadron.
- from the War Illustrated, 10th August, 1918
- An Airman's Adventures
- by Night-Hawk
My Longest Flight
the marvels of aerial technology
One of my earliest and most exciting "shows" proved eventually to be also my longest flight in the air, either by day or night. It was in the depth of winter, when the nights are long and flying risks due to low clouds, local ground mists, and sudden squalls are at their maximum.
We "took the air" about eleven o'clock, with orders to fly up to the line and see what the weather looked like. If it promised to be at all treacherous, we were to return. The target was a large aircraft receiving depot, it had never been attacked before, and the distance to it was so considerable that to accomplish it we required the most favourable weather conditions.
We left the aerodrome that night fully expecting to be driven back by a snowstorm which had been threatening all the afternoon and evening, and which our most experienced weather prophets predicted would arrive in our area about midnight.
I remember that as I walked out to my machine I caught a glimpse of the CO. staring anxiously eastwards. It was apparent that he was reluctant to send us off on a hazardous "show" with the elements so much against us; but the strafing of this aircraft park was considered to be of vital importance.
All pilots and observers had also been asked to bring back certain information for the Aerial Intelligence Department. In my rough notebook under this date I find the entries : "Are there two lights or only one at X ?" "Is there a particularly strong lighthouse at Y ? If so, what does it flash ?" "Try to give the exact location of the red flares N.W. of Z." And I remember studying these questions by the light of my hand-torch as we flew towards that palpitating line of flame which is the frontier of the war.
Flying in a pusher machine on a pitch-black night gives an observer a sense of isolation which no other experience on earth can provide.
You hear only the reverberations of your engine, throbbing, thundering, steadily droning behind you ; if you lean out of your seat the air sings swiftly past your ear-flaps.
Beneath, around, and above you is one vast void of dense blackness ; you can just see the dull reflection of your navigation lights, which you generally keep switched on until you are nearing the lines. Then you stand up in your seat to speak to your pilot. You can use your telephone if you like, but it seems more friendly and companionable to bend over and talk to him. He throttles down his engine, and if you get your heads below the "streamline" of the machine you can hear each other without effort.
But you can't see his eyes through his goggles. He seems to you a figure of mystery an automaton of the air. On the ground he is a fellow in his twenties just as you are interested in sport, girls, the newest show in town, the latest issue of "La Vie Parisienne." But in the air he is the king of sportsmen, the master of the most daring of man's inventions. He challenges space, wind, storm, darkness, and wins or loses gaily.
The pilot opens out his engine once more, and you regain your seat and sit, straining below and ahead through the darkness for the lights and landmarks which will guide you to your objective. Another machine, bent on some similar mission to your own, looms on your port wing, her lights gleaming.
For a space she keeps company with you, blinking her signal lamps in token of friendliness, then she veers off, and you lose her in the abounding vastness of the sky.
A mile or so across the lines that night we flew into some of the thickest clouds I have seen, in the whole of my flying experience layer upon layer of dense, brutal stuff.
We climbed to six thousand feet before we reached the "ceiling" of the mist, then quite suddenly we found ourselves floating under a clear sky. Ahead of us loomed further banks of cloud, looking for all the world like gently undulating foothills. Behind them, again, were great mountains of mist, holding the horizon, turrets and pinnacles, weird, fantastic needles, standing out like white enamel against the intense black of the sky.
We were flying now solely by compass. As we came towards these cloud-mountains their outlines faded away imperceptibly ; the snow patches and towering peaks seemed to melt together into a white haze, and for another thirty minutes we flew through dense fog.
We were just beginning to consider the advisability of swinging the "bus" round and returning home, when we heard a couple of ominous "woofs" in the neighbourhood of our tail. ? "Archie !" I muttered to myself. "How the blazes have they picked us up in this stuff ?" Two seconds later we ran out of the clouds into a perfectly clear patch, and the Hun started to "hate" us vigorously.
My pilot "stunted" as he had rarely stunted before, side-slipping, "stalling," spiralling steeply, banking vertically. A couple of searchlights picked up our tail and hung on to us obstinately. It took us nearly five minutes to shake them off, and even after that we saw them probing and stabbing the upper heavens in a frantic effort to pick us up again.
For the first time since we crossed the lines I was able to see the ground and to identify features on it.
We were over a large town which, by its shape, I knew to be Y, a vital centre of railway and road communications. Our target lay some ten miles or so beyond.
We were able now to fly with the aid of our map and ground features. A few minutes later we saw the aerodrome, and dropped some of our "pills" on the hangars, and the remainder on some railway sidings near by. Curiously enough, we met here with no resistance at all.
The target had not been attacked before, and it was obvious that for once we had caught the Hun napping.
We circled over the place for two or three minutes, during which time I got off about a couple of hundred rounds from my Lewis gun, then it jammed, and we made off west. Over X we got a little more "hate."
Once more we flew into the fog. Occasionally we caught a fleeting glimpse of the newly- risen moon through scudding wracks of storm-cloud. The temperature had gone down, and the wind had both increased in velocity and changed its direction.
For a short time we flew through blinding snow.
During the snowstorm my compass went absolutely "dud" ; my pilot's went partially "dud." We went on, blindly hoping to get out of the clouds and pick up some landmark.
We flew for hour after hour.
After about four hours of this we caught a glimpse of what appeared to me to be moonshine on the sea.
"We've got to land !" my pilot shouted. "Petrol running low ! Fire off a few Verey lights ; perhaps one of the coast aerodromes will light up for us."
I did this, but nothing happened.
"Right-ho !" he said cheerfully. "Un-screw the gun. Try and pick out a field."
I glued my eyes earthwards through the mist. We were rapidly losing height. Presently I saw the lights of a town, and we flew towards them. Red and green signal lamps, steam from a locomotive, showed us that we were over a railway station. We flew round once or twice at about a hundred feet, then my pilot "chanced it," and put the "bus' down perfectly in a small field alongside the railway.
Not a wire had been strained ; it was one of the best forced landings I have ever had by day or night.
Even then, so blind had we been during the latter part of our flight, we were not sure whether we were down in Hunland or on our own side of the lines. A great crowd of railway workers swarmed across the field to us. With a good deal of relief I heard English voices. That was about four o'clock in the morning. We found we had drifted down south, and were only about an hour's flying from our own aerodrome.
At six o'clock that morning, just as dawn was breaking, we requisitioned petrol and hot water from the railway people, filled our tanks, started our "prop," flew the "bus" out of the field, and arrived home in time for breakfast, having been in the air nearly six hours.
- from the War Illustrated, 17th August, 1918
- 'An Airman's Adventures'
- by NIghthawk
We 'Strafe' a Train
British pilot attacking targets on the ground
MY pilot and I have always managed to work in very close co-operation. If I spot anything unusual my method is to point it out to him, and we then decide as to the advisability of getting nearer to it or farther away, as the case may be. If, on the other hand, he sees something first, he attracts my attention either by hitting me on the head or wobbling the joy-stick so that the "bus" swings from side to side.
"What do you make of that ?" he says. "Shall we go down and have a look at it ?"
All I can see, perhaps, is a black blob on a road or a cloud of steam.
"How's the engine running ?" I ask him, because a great deal depends on your distance from the line and the sweetness of your engine.
"Thumbs up !" he bawls.
"Right-ho!" I reply. "Down we go!"
That is how we worked it on the night of which I am about to write.
We were flying with a "roving commission" that is, we had permission to attack any legitimate targets which presented themselves trains, transport or troops on the road, search-lights, railway-sidings, dumps, aerodromes, batteries in action, or anti-aircraft defences. Instead of an ordinary machine-gun we had on board that night a gun firing small shells.
We left our aerodrome about eleven o'clock. The moon was nearly at the full, visibility was perfect, and the night was still and cloudless. We climbed rapidly towards the lines, our plan of campaign being to cross over at a fairly considerable height with our engine well throttled back. We wanted plenty of height to play about in while we were looking for a target.
At eight thousand feet, with your engine just giving sufficient revolutions to keep you flying level, there is not much danger of any anti-aircraft defences locating you. If you happen to be in the mood for it, you can then afford to have a little sport with the enemy searchlights. By opening your engine out for half a minute or so you may succeed in attracting the attention of anything up to a dozen search-lights ; then you throttle-down again, the searchlight operators lose you, and you can sit and watch the long, sinister fingers of light erratically probing the sky for you, moving here and there, sometimes slowly searching a cloud, at other times frantically sweeping in great arcs from east to west, from north to south, and back again.
In time we get to know our searchlight friends. Lighthouse Luke, or Bobby, or Piccadilly Percy will come back and say, "The fellows at X got on to my tail to-night, and it took me all my time to shake them off !"
There are several very unhealthy localities so far as searchlights are concerned, groups of lights controlled by exceptionally clever men, and it always affords us great satisfaction if, by some new stunt, or combination of stunts, we can avoid being "picked up" and held in the beams.
One of my own experiences will suffice to show that there are searchlights and searchlights.
On a perfectly clear, dark night, we arrived in the neighbourhood of X at a height of three thousand feet. Five miles away several searchlights opened up, stabbing the sky in our direction above, below, and at the level at which we were flying. But not one of them picked us up. We dodged them all without any trouble, and without the employment of any special stunt. An hour later, in a more distant part of Hunland, and quite near an aerodrome then being used by the Richthofen Circus, two crossed searchlights, without any warning at all, suddenly got on to us and held us in a steady embrace. Immediately the gun barrage opened " Archies," machine-guns, and "flaming-onions."
It was apparent that the operator in charge of these twin searchlights had. laid a trap for us, waiting until we were practically over his position before opening out.
Worse was to follow.
Streams of vicious little red tracer bullets were whizzing past our machine. I could see bursts and spurts of fire in the darkness all around me. Meanwhile, my pilot was banking and side-slipping, diving and "zooming," opening-up and shutting-off his engine, but all to no effect.
The twin searchlights had us and held us. When we got a short distance away from them they handed us on to two others. This was very cleverly and deliberately done. The two other search-lights came on, swung slowly towards us, and adjusted-themselves to the angle of the original two ; the first pair then shut down.
All this time we were being "hated" violently.
Eventually the second pair of searchlights handed us on to a third pair, and we went through the hottest five minutes of my flying experience. I wondered at the time whether or no Von Richthofen was watching the performance. When we finally got out of the beams and found ourselves once more in the friendly darkness, we had lost height to such an extent that we were barely five hundred feet above the ground.
On our return we discovered that our planes had been shot through in nearly twenty places. Our consolation was that, notwithstanding the clever manipulation of their searchlights and the violence of their defences, we succeeded in dropping some bombs on Richthofen's aerodrome.
I have also seen some brilliant search-light work on our side of the lines. One night, over Amiens, I saw a couple of big German bombers held in the beams for fully five minutes; one of them was brought down by gun fire, the other got away; but we have reason to believe that it was badly damaged.
On the night with which this sketch deals we flew over the German lines without having a shot fired at us. A big artillery "strafe" was on at the time, and it was obvious that the steady drone of our engine was not noticed in the greater noise of the guns.
WE flew on at a great height until we were some fifteen miles or so behind the lines, then we came down to between four and five thousand feet, and cruised about at this height looking for an attractive target.
Suddenly I saw a long, snaky-looking train winding its way along the loop line which led up to the main line from T------, and thence to one of the most important of the German railheads. Feeling sure that it was either a troop or ammunition train, I pointed it out to my pilot, and after the usual rapid consultation we dived for it.
At a thousand feet I opened fire, and saw a burst on the metals just in front of the locomotive. By this time half the train was in the loop section, the forward half was on the main line. We flew alongside the train at five hundred feet. My third or fourth shot caused a curious little blue flame in the locomotive itself, and the train came to a standstill. We again dived until we were just a few feet over the telegraph-poles, pumping stuff into the carriages and waggons as hard as I could make my new weapon work.
For five minutes we flew up and down that train. In the clear moonshine I could see little dark figures running from the danger-zone into the fields on each side of the railway, running this way and that, seeking shelter and mercy from the flying death. Then a cool- minded and courageous little group of soldiers got a machine-gun out of the remains of the train, set it up in a meadow near the derelict locomotive, and started firing at us.
They must have been brave men, for quite apart from anything else, the spectacle of a big night-bombing "bus" diving and "zooming" and turning so near the ground is enough to test the stoutest nerves. However, these grey-coated fellows got their gun going, and for two or three minutes spiritedly returned our fire and gave us a very hot time.
As soon as we had fired all our rounds I signalled to the pilot, and in order to reduce head-resistance, crouched down in my "office" with my head below the "stream line" of the machine. Then we once more "climbed " for the lines and home.
- from the War Illustrated, 24th August, 1918
- 'An Airman's Adventures'
- by Nighthawk
On Wings Of Happy Chance
several pages from a British magazine
A few days before the Battle of Cambrai we received sudden orders to move from our aerodrome. On an afternoon of scurrying storm-clouds the whole squadron flew south to an advanced landing-ground opposite the Cambrai front, and some three or four miles only from the first line of trenches. There were no available hangars, and during the whole of that battle our machines remained in the open ; we ourselves slept in them, or under them, or on the floors of the few tin huts which we found there, or in any odd corners where we could get out of the wind and the rain. It proved to be that period of my service in the Flying Corps which most approximated to my experiences in the trenches.
Notwithstanding all the discomfort of it, however, we had some very interesting and exciting flying, and achieved some notable results. Due east of the landing-ground, and some seven or eight miles away from, it, was a long, straggling village cut in two by a canal. That part of the village east of the canal was in German hands ; British troops held the western end of the village as far as the canal bank.
Our orders were to bomb and bomb continuously from dusk to dawn the part of the village still in German occupation, and in which concentrations of troops for a counter- attack had been reported the afternoon before.
Another night-flying squadron had joined forces with us. We took the air as soon as it became dark enough to camouflage our machines, and using as few lights as possible flew across the lines in twos and threes and little bunches, laid our "eggs" and returned to our starting-point for more ammunition and bombs. We all flew low that night, partly because it was scarcely worth climbing to any height on such a short journey, and partly because, in order not to endanger the lives of our own fellows in. the trenches, we had been ordered to take particular care that we were over the canal before releasing our bombs or firing our guns.
It was an amazing spectacle. The moon, shining fitfully through scudding wracks of clouds, was nearly at the full. The air between the aerodrome and the target seemed to be one long lane of British machines. On the way home we met a dozen or more machines going out ; on the way out we met the same number returning home. We blinked our navigation lights at each other and went on with the work.
As all the world knows, the later stages of the Battle of Cambrai were fought in storms of wind and rain. It was dangerous flying weather, but we felt that the fellows in the trenches needed our help ; and to this day we like to think as the corps commander subsequently told us that our persistent bombing of the enemy's concentrations assisted very materially in breaking-up several counter-attacks.
We did not get through this trying period without several accidents. One pilot had his petrol-tank shot through, but got home safely. When just over the aerodrome his engine burst into flames. He chose the quickest way of getting down to the ground side- slipping and made a good, if somewhat fast, landing. Both he and his observer were unhurt. The flames of the burning engine had been quenched in the last rapid dive to earth.
Another pilot brought off a wonderful forced landing in a snowstorm within a mile of the line; His engine had "cut out" altogether, and he glided down quite blindly. Through the driving snow he could see scarcely ten yards - in any direction. Suddenly he glimpsed the ground immediately beneath the wheels of his undercarriage, jerked the stick back mechanically, and "flattened out." When eventually he pulled up he discovered that the nose of his machine was within two yards of an enormous shell-crater. One second more and they would have gone into it, and that meant certain death.
Another of my friends was hit in the head and shoulder while flying at 800 feet above Douai. He flopped forward over the joy-stick, and the "bus" immediately nosed earthwards. His observer, realising that something had gone wrong, leaned over from the front seat, pushed the pilot off the stick, held him back with one hand, and pulled the machine out of her dive just in time.
It was a very dark night. The pilot had fainted. With one hand the observer held the unconscious man back in his seat ; with the other he kept the joy-stick straight, the machine climbing steadily. He had his back to the course they were flying, and his main object was to get the machine over the lines, then crash her, and trust to luck. He had little or no lateral control, because he could not touch the rudder. However, with full control of his throttle and elevator, there was not much danger of side-slipping because the machine was stable, and, provided she was not banked at too steep an angle would take up her own rudder.
Every mow and then his right arm would become cramped with the strain of keeping the pilot in his seat. He would change hands, watching his instruments grimly. The- pilot would again flop forward, to be pressed back with the left hand, while the tired right hand' grabbed the stick and rescued her from her dive.
For more than half an hour my friend managed to keep up this sort of pump-handling, and then to his intense joy he saw beneath him the long line of Verey lights over the trenches. He flew for another two or three minutes, then throttled back, and shook the unconscious figure in the pilot's seat.
"Look here, old boy," he shouted as the pilot opened his eyes, "I've flown the 'bus' over the lines. It's your job now. Can you land her ?"
The pilot responded to the appeal and "flattened out" in time to "write off" the "bus" in a shell-hole. But they "got. away with it." . Friendly Portuguese officers gave the observer fried steak and "pukka" port, and sent the wounded pilot back to hospital through one of their own clearing-stations.
On another occasion one of our machines was seven miles over the lines on a pitch- black night. The engine cut-out completely. The pilot tried all the usual dodges diving steeply, turning the. self-starter, switching over to service-tank. But nothing happened.
"We're for it !" he shouted to his observer. "Unscrew your gun !"
A machine-gun was firing viciously from the ground, and they were less than the length of a football field from it,-when, with a sudden roar, the engine "opened out." All the way home she gave trouble spitting and spluttering like a Manx cat but they managed to make our lines and land in a field without breaking anything.
On the following night an observer's handkerchief blew back into the engine and choked it, and we heard the machine miles away from the aerodrome clanking home on about two cylinders. He had to glide the final four miles absolutely without engine. Fortunately, there was a stiff following wind, and he got in easily.
A "dud" engine, an essential "control" shot away, a bad wound causing the pilot temporarily to lose consciousness these three factors have been responsible for some of the most amazing escapes from death in the chronicles of war. These few little accidents which happened to pilots in our squadron during the Cambrai fighting are only some of the very many cases I know of where fortune has waited upon pluck, and brought many a dear good fellow back to safety when all the odds seemed to be against him.
After ten days' strenuous and difficult flying in snow, rain, and .heavy winds, through fog and clouds- we got the order to return to our aerodrome. We flew back with warped wings and slackened wires with ailerons and elevators curled by long days and nights' exposure to the elements, with "sloppy" controls, damp magnetos, engines that coughed and spat, machines that were nose-heavy and tail-heavy, that flew "right-wing low" and "left-wing low." In short, there was not a ''bus" in the squadron which did not urgently need a rest and a thorough overhaul. My own pilot conjugated the general situation as follows :
"Engines dud ; rigging dudder ; pilots and observers duddest."
In the days which followed I spoke with many of the infantrymen and gunners, who had been through the Cambrai push, and they all agreed that it was "great" to hear the mighty hum of our machines as we flew over their lines. Many of them, from points of vantage, had seen the savage little bursts of flame from our Lewis guns as we searched the roads for German troops; nearly always they were able to hear the detonations of our bombs.
The knowledge that on such. occasions as these our work in the air is of direct and immediate advantage to our comrades in the trenches makes all the peril and the gamble of the game worth while.
- from the War Illustrated, 31st August, 1918
- 'An Airman's Adventures'
- By Night-Hawk
Combats in the Moonlight
night flying above the clouds
WILL there ever be serious fighting in the air at night-time? I have often been asked to give my opinion as to the possibilities of night-fighting in the near future, and have always replied that aerial combats of the type we are accustomed to in the daytime are impossible by night. On dark, or semi-dark nights, you cannot see a machine until you are close to it. During over six months' night-flying in France I have never seen a machine on -a dark night long enough to enable me to aim my gun and fire. On several occasions a machine has passed close to us, been vaguely visible for a fraction of a second, and then been lost to view completely.
One very dark night, five thousand feet over Ypres, a giant Gotha whizzed underneath us. For one brief moment I glimpsed its twin engines and long fuselage in the tiny cone of light sent down by our tail-lamp. I signalled my pilot round immediately, and we turned sharply on a vertical bank ; but to look for a machine, even a big Gotha, on a dark night, is as hopeless as to search for a drop of fresh water in the ocean. You might come across it by chance, but there can be no question of skill or the use of method in finding it. For this reason, fighting in the air on dark nights by means of fast-moving . aeroplanes may be considered impossible.
There remains the question of moonlight nights. Here the answer cannot be given so definitely. .Attempts have been made by all the belligerent Powers to bring about aerial combats in the moonlight, and there is little doubt that in the course of time a good night- fighting machine will be evolved. The present types of heavy bombing machines are obviously unsuited for offensive fighting, although some of them could render a good account of themselves from a defensive point of view.
England can claim the first notable success so far as aerial fighting is concerned. It is no secret, either to our own or the German authorities, that the last great moonlight raid on London failed, partly because of the accuracy and violence of our barrage, and partly because our home defence airmen, flying fast and handy scouts and fighters, were able to bring down a number of the enemy bombers.
One of our most famous scout pilots, in order to test a theory which he had formed, went up one moonlight night and flew up and down the lines between Arras and Albert looking for machines. He saw over a dozen of our own night-bombers, but no enemy machines ; in some cases ho was able to get right up to a machine without being observed. A few days later he flew over to our squadron and Was able to tell us the identification numbers of two or three of our "buses" which had crossed that sector on the night of his' experiment. He had seen these numbers shining clearly in the moonlight.
During this same moonlight period our own and another night-flying squadron were attacked in the air. But the attacks were not pressed home with any determination, and we lost no machines. All this goes to show that serious night-fighting between machines equally, or nearly equally, matched, will undoubtedly take place in the near future, but that it will only be carried on under very favourable conditions of weather and visibility, and that the pilots selected for it will have to be men with exceptionally keen sight, steady nerves, and accurate judgment of distances. When you are anywhere near another machine at nighttime you have to estimate your distance even more accurately than in daylight. An error of a fraction of an inch may spell all the difference between life and death, victory or defeat.
I remember one clear moonlight night shortly after the Cambrai stunt, when the air seemed to be as a Canadian pilot phrased it "lousy with German machines."
Our day-flyers had spotted a new German aerodrome which, by its area and the size of its hangars, was obviously intended for use by large night-bombing machines. The job of strafing the place was allotted to our squadron.
It was a splendid opportunity, conditions were favourable, our fellows were as keen as mustard, and we made a good night's job of it. We flew in two relays eighteen machines before dinner, and eighteen after. A week or so later, through an Intelligence source, we learned that so effective had our bombing been that two out of the three Gotha flights had been forced to abandon the aerodrome, and that the damage to machines, hangars, and personnel had been very heavy. Most of the hangars had disappeared, while the aerodrome itself was thickly besprinkled with bomb-holes.
We were second off the ground that night. It was an evening of wonderful moonshine, and we were able to hang on to the tail of the first machine until we were well over the lines. Then we lost sight of it. On arrival at the target, however, we saw our first machine at about three hundred feet above the aerodrome. The observer was firing his gun into the hangars, and being hated vigorously by a Boche machine-gun cleverly emplaced near some cross-roads.
The Germans had their night-landing flares out. We could see several of their machines on the ground, and they were sending up signal lights, evidently warning their own machines which were still up to keep away until our raid was over.
I stood on my locker and looked back over our tail. The air seemed full of machines, some of which were obviously German night-bombers returning from a raid over our territory. Several more of our own "buses" had by now arrived on the scene. Bombs were dropping on and near the hangars ; observers were firing their guns from all angles into the doomed buildings ; I saw one of our fellows flying low over a German machine which, with a view to escaping from the rain of bombs and bullets, was attempting to "take-off" the aerodrome.
There was a tiny red flash, a distant report almost like the drawing of a champagne cork, and then a second or two later a sudden up-blazing of petrol. For some little time that Boche machine burned furiously, lighting up hangars, workshops, and hutments, and materially helping us in our work of destruction.
On our second visit later that same night the aerodrome was in darkness. There were no flares and no signalling lamps. The only sign of activity was a violent increase of "hate," the Germans having evidently brought up some mobile anti-aircraft batteries.
On the following night we again passed over this Gotha aerodrome on our way to a more distant target in the north of Belgium. I was carrying what I always called my "Big Bertha" that is, a little gun which fired shells. At that time ours was the only machine in any night-flying squadron upon which this gun was mounted. Naturally, we were not a little proud of it, and as we flew over the Gotha aerodrome I fired off a couple of shells by way of greeting. There was no reply. We learned subsequently that the aerodrome had been temporarily evacuated.
One of the most curious flying coincidences I know of occurred during the opening of the German offensive last March. In those days the enemy was very persistently bombing our back areas, and at the same time attempting raids on London and Paris. The observer in one of our machines, when well over the lines, suddenly saw a twin-engined machine flying about two hundred feet beneath him, its vast expanse of wing and long, narrow fuselage gleaming in the moonlight. Realising that this was a Gotha, and that by the route it was taking it was probably on the homeward journey from England, he decided to follow it back to its aerodrome and attempt to destroy it when landing. Meanwhile, another of our pilots farther south had encountered a Gotha which in his opinion was homeward-bound from Paris.
The London Gotha landed at an aerodrome a mile or so to the north of X ; the Paris Gotha landed at an aerodrome a little to the east of the same village. And both Gothas were destroyed within a few miles of each other, by bombs dropped from the air while they were taxi-ing up to their hangars.
Comparing notes afterwards the two pairs of pilots and observers each saw the enemy machines at, roughly, the same distance beneath them ; each was able to follow his victim without the presence of his own machine being noticed ; each saw the same recognition signals flashed from the Hun aerodromes and each followed his quarry slowly down until it was on the ground before releasing his bomb.
That was a unique bag for one night. As an airman, however, I cannot help but imagine myself in the position of the occupants of those unlucky German machines. I can see Eitel, the pilot, looking at his watch.
"Been a cold trip to-night, eh, Fritz ?" he. shouts to his observer. "And what a barrage over London ! Mein Gott ! But now we're down, my boy ; we're home !"
Perhaps they had been four hours in the air, had crossed the lines twice, and been hated savagely each time, had braved the sea and the guns of London. Now they were down, their landing-wheels had touched . the ground, they remembered that in the mess there were bottles of real old beer from Munich, and a British bomb completed the story !
- from the War Illustrated, 12th October, 1918.
- 'An Airman's Adventures'
- by Nighthawk
Strafing the Hun by Moonlight
preparing for a night-time raid
Above us rode a high, white moon ; below us was the incredible desolation of the Somme miles on miles of craters and shell-holes, blown-in trenches, and abandoned gun-pits a vast, abominable expanse of pain and death. We had just crossed the valley of the Ancre. The Somme lay ahead, a thin, silvery snake of a river, curving away into the night. Beneath us, in these tragic fields, lay villages and towns for ever sacred to the memory and valour of British troops Beaumont - Hamel, Pozieres, Miraumont, Bapaume.
Across the low hills and over the valleys the roads run in long, straight ribbons converging on Bapaume and Peronne and Albert. Beyond Albert lie Amiens and the gate to Paris. This was the direction of the German thrust, and all their roads of communication were packed with moving columns of supplies and troops.
Early that morning we had received the news that the German hordes were advancing, that our fellows, fighting gloriously, were slowly yielding ground, and that the issue of the battle lay to a very large extent in our hands.
All that day our scouts and bombers and fighting machines had been out, flying low, firing into the German masses as they advanced, bombing their reserves, disorganising their communications.
Now it was our turn. The day flyers were resting. We were carrying on their work.
The roads, white in the moonshine, were packed with black silhouettes-lorries, Staff cars, guns being hurried forward, and moving companies of men.
From a height, of two thousand feet, as we fiew southward to the Somme, we could see three large and a number of smaller fires burning dumps, farmhouses, stores of food and forage, munitions, engineers' material, the impedimenta of war for the most part stuff which our fellows could not take back with them in their retreat, and which they had blown up in order to prevent its falling into the enemy's hands.
Bapaume was on fire. There was also a vast horseshoe of flame near the Miraumont railway, while farther south and east Peronne cast skywards a shower of sparks and smoke, which, like a great blast-furnace, every now and then reddened and glowed and sent up long, curling flames, licking the sky greedily.
WE sighted our first target in the glare of an adjacent fire a column of troops on the road, sandwiched in between two long convoys. We dived, and flew over that long, straight road at a height of a hundred feet or less. There were gun-limbers and motor- lorries which could not leave the road, and hundreds of pygmy black figures scurrying away on each side into the shell-torn wilderness through which the road ran. Our bombs small, savage fellows, designed for infantry strafing burst in a line along the road, and only two or three of them fell wide. We were so near the ground that we heard their detonations as one hears a salvo of guns when standing near a field-battery in the line. Doubtless the horses were rearing and plunging; some of the men were probably shouting orders; others, stricken with panic, were tramping and pushing their comrades to one side and flinging themselves into shell-craters or trenches ; upon many of them Death had laid his violent, implacable hand.
That there were confusion and panic was obvious. There was practically no retaliation from the ground. We turned back along the road, zigzagging across it from one end of the convoy to the other, spraying the dismayed, tumultuous mass with tracer bullets from our Lewis gun.
The impression left on my mind is that of a grotesque dream the glare of the burning village, the pygmy troops with their pygmy waggons, the sense of immense speed which one always has when flying near the ground, the loud, inexorable roar of our engine, the bursts of flame from my gun ; above it all the strong shine of the moon revealing a narrow ribbon of road stretching away and ahead through a desolate waste of shell- holes as far as the eye could reach.
Then we flew home to listen to great tales from our other flyers. One had started a big fire in a group of rest billets ; another had chanced upon a German lorry-park, bombed it vigorously, and, so far as he could see, inflicted great damage ; two of our pilots had blown up big guns by the roadside ; several had attacked troop-trains steaming up to railheads.
We left the aerodrome on our second "show" just before eleven o'clock. Everybody was keen on getting in as many trips as possible that night. The big battle was in full swing, and we felt that it was "up to us" to do all we could for our comrades in the trenches.
Most of us had been in the infantry before joining the Flying Corps, and there is no job of work which the average flying officer likes better, than troop strafing on the roads behind the German lines. That is because he knows that this particular work is of the most direct assistance to the infantry. Reconnaissances or the bombing of factories, railways, and aerodromes miles behind the line are useful jobs, and of vital importance ; yet there is not the same joy in them, because their results are not so immediately apparent to our friends in the front line. On the other hand, the work done in the battle-zone from low altitudes demoralises the enemy infantry, and proportionately encourages our own.
In the Somme area, during that strenuous period, we obtained evidence from prisoners of enormous material and moral damage inflicted on the enemy by low-flying bombing machines, particularly by night flyers, who, under cover of darkness, are naturally able to get farther back than the day people do, and can thus attack and disorganise the German reserves and transport on the roads.
Therefore from the dusk that night until dawn the following morning, we carried on with our work of bombing and machine-gunning troops in the German forward and reserve positions ; and there is no doubt that the work done by both, night and day squadrons during the early days of the great offensive- materially hindered the enemy's plans, delayed his counter-attacks, and helped our own and the French armies on the ground eventually to stem the tide of the advance and to stabilise the position.
My pilot and I, in all our flying experience together, have never had so much excitement crowded into such a limited space of time, We did five trips of about an hour's duration each that night, and upon each occasion we chanced on targets such as we had never had before. During these operations every machine in the squadron held a roving commission.
Within a certain well-defined area we could fly where we liked, our orders consisting only in getting down low, and attacking all troops, guns, transport, or trains we might see.
On our fourth trip we nearly bumped . into a Boche observation-balloon floating serenely in the moonlight. We were roughly three thousand yards behind their advanced positions there was no definite line at that stage of the battle and as it was only an hour or so before daybreak, we concluded that the Huns intended to steal a march on our ground folk and get their K.B.'s going in time to observe our dawn movements perhaps even in the hope of catching the last of our ration and ammunition convoys on their way back from the forward positions. There is always a good deal of movement behind the lines just after nightfall and at dawn.
My pilot saw the balloon before I did. I happened at that moment to be comparing a bend in the road over which we were flying with the same bend as shown on my map, and when he gave me the "look-out" signal we were within fifty yards of the phenomenon. It was slightly above our level, and so bloated did it look, swaying there in the moonlight, that my first idea was that we were about to fly into a cloud. Then a slight alteration in perspective, as we swung clear, enabled me to see the balancing-fins and the observer's basket. In two seconds I had trained my gun and fired a burst. I believe that the observer was either killed or seriously wounded, though the shadow cast by the swaying gasbag above hindered my view. Both of us, however, had a fleeting impression of a figure vague, goggled, and muffled up in heavy flying kit falling backwards into the car.
Then we climbed above the balloon, and I dropped a couple of bombs, which missed the outer edge of its envelope and exploded near the hauling-in winch on the ground. We circled round, firing continuously. The balloon began rapidly to lose height. Evidently the people on the ground were attempting to haul it in. Eagerly we waited for the explosion, but it never came ; instead, the envelope rapidly deflated, collapsed, and fell to the ground. Then they got a machine-gun near the winch into action against us, but we sprinkled the remainder of our bombs round it, and the firing died away.
We returned to the aerodrome, reloaded, and, in a heavy ground mist which came up just before dawn, set off on our fifth "show."
At six o'clock that morning, when all the machines were back, the C.O. came into the mess.
"Well, this is the end of a perfect night," he said.
- from the War Illustrated, 2nd November, 1918
- 'An Airman's Adventures'
- by Nighthawk
The Lighter Side of Flying
several pages from a British magazine
From a night observer's point of view, finding one's way in mists or clouds is a most difficult and trying operation. Usually, even on the darkest night, one can see lights in towns, fires in camps or billets, puffs of steam from locomotives on the railways, the star- shine on rivers or patches of water, the head-lamps of cars on the road. But in damp weather you peer out of your "office" ; suddenly a cross-road or stretch of railway or piece of water looms up at you through the swirling fog-wreaths. You dive for your map in the hope of identifying the piece of country immediately beneath you, but by the time you have found out where you are your cross-roads or railway or water-patch have been swallowed up in the mist again.
In treacherous weather even the best pilot or observer is apt to lose his whereabouts.
To be lost at night-time is no joke, yet, curiously enough, the fellows who lose themselves seem almost invariably to meet with "comic" adventures which more than compensate them for any danger or discomfort they may have passed through.
In our squadron we had a pilot whose name went through the casualty report no fewer than four times. Each time, however, he turned up during the following day, none the worse for his experiences. He landed in fields of all sizes and descriptions once near Paris, another time on the coast, then, at Rouen, and once in a turnip-field miles from anywhere. He brought back tales of pretty school-mistresses who had befriended him, of dinners in great chateaux, drinks with brigadiers, rides with brass-hats in staff-cars, until we all envied him, and wished that his phenomenal luck could befall us. The most amazing part of these incidents, however, was that he rarely broke anything on his machine ; he pulled off the most lucky series of forced landings that I have heard of. Only on one occasion did he crash badly, and then he happened to be within a mile or two of the largest aircraft depot in France. All he did was to leave his wounded "bird" in the field where it had fallen, betake himself to the aforesaid depot, collect a new machine, and fly it home to the aerodrome.
About this time a period of dangerous fogs and ground mists one of our oldest and most experienced night-flyers got hopelessly lost, and landed, as he imagined, near the coast in the German lines between Nieuport and Ostend. He and his observer clambered out, held a hasty consultation, and set fire to their machine. It burned merrily.
"The Germans may take us, my boy," declared the pilot grimly, "but they won't take our bus."
Then they walked along the shore for about an hour, and came upon a little bathing resort, near Havre.
Tableau ! Collapse of two heroic airmen ! They sheltered for the night in one of the Havre hospitals.' When they eventually arrived back at the squadron they were received boisterously, and it was unsafe for any of us to mention the words "fire" or "Havre" in their hearing for days and weeks afterwards.
Who of us will ever forget the malicious glee with which we welcomed the famous exploit of Captain B. and his observer ? Both were careful, shrewd men, both had nerves of steel, stout hearts, and original ideas for outwitting the Hun. Both set out one misty, difficult evening to bomb a big German dump about five or six miles behind the lines.
That evening we could scarcely see from one end of the aerodrome to the other. There was no wind, and a dank, heavy mist shrouded the ground. In ordinary circumstances we should have regarded this as a "dud flying night," and the whole squadron would have betaken itself in motor-cars and tenders and lorries to the nearest town for dinner and a merry evening. As it was, however, we felt that it was "up to us" to take the air and "chance it," for the big battle had begun, and our comrades on the ground were fighting- grimly to stem the tide of the German advance.
Captain B. and his observer left the aerodrome shortly after dusk. Every other machine came back safely. At midnight we gave them up for lost. Early next morning their machine was discovered by some Canadian pioneers in a field within six miles of the aerodrome.
There was no trace of either Captain B. or his observer. The machine was intact, undamaged, and, so far- as we could see, had been landed while still under control. The neighbourhood was searched, hospitals visited, ponds and wells were dragged, but without result. The two airmen had either fallen out, and their corpses were lying in some inaccessible spot, or they had been mysteriously spirited away.
For three days we mourned them, and were just getting accustomed to their absence, when, one afternoon about tea-time, they walked into the ante-room wet, unkempt, ravenous. Their story was that they had landed their "bus," and then, believing themselves in Hunland, had "cut and run for it." And for three days they had remained in hiding, sleeping by day in the heart of a big wood, sallying forth at night to search for food and try to find out where they were. Eventually they saw British soldiers and walked back to the aerodrome. When they arrived they were crestfallen, sore, angry with themselves. But we soon cheered them up, pointing out that they had made a valuable contribution to the sum total of human gaiety.
On one occasion a big German night-bomber was severely damaged by our anti-aircraft fire and forced to land several miles behind our lines. The occupants two German officers and a gunner-mechanic first attempted to set fire to their machine. Failing in this, however, they strolled up to the nearest farmhouse, banged at the door, proudly informed the aged farmer and his wife that they were "Prussian aviator-officers," and solemnly demanded supper, beer, and disguises with which to escape from "those dogs of Englanders."
In the meantime, from the aerodrome we had watched the descent of the machine ; then two or three of us who were not flying that night were sent out in the squadron-car to find it, and, if alive, to arrest its occupants.. We traced the machine down, and arrived at the farmhouse only just in time to save the Germans from being roughly handled. We found them surrounded by a crowd of French farm-hands, women, and urchins,, brandishing pitchforks, brooms, rusty knives, pieces of wood, as odd an assortment of weapons as I have ever seen. The Germans were vociferating in deep, threatening gutturals, and the crowd, thoroughly roused, and angered by their preposterous behaviour, would, I believe, have made short shrift of them had we not arrived at the psychological moment and prevented the incident from developing into a summary lynching. They surrendered with a bad grace, and were brought to the aerodrome.
A night or two later my pilot and I were the unwitting cause of considerable amusement in the squadron. It was during the dark period ; we had had a week of "dud" weather, and the conditions were unsafe for anything except a very short show. As an experiment, however, it was decided to send a wireless machine on a direct compass- course to a town in the German forward area with instructions to send back weather reports every five miles or so up to the line. Ours was the machine selected for the job. We left the aerodrome, flew for a certain number of minutes on a given compass- bearing, dropped a parachute flare, and by its light saw the target a short distance ahead, released our bombs, and came home again.
On walking into the mess for a drink, we were greeted with cries of "Rockets ! Rockets !" After a good deal of chaffing, we were told that the only weather report received by the wireless operator on the aerodrome had been a continual repetition of "Rockets ! I am lost! Send up rockets! Rockets!" We were able in the end, however, to convince our deriders that we were not the culprits, as shortly after leaving the ground I had discovered that our wireless aerial was broken. We had then decided to fly straight to our target without coming down for a new aerial and because of this we had not been able to send a single message.
On the following morning our version was verified. The frantic screams for "Rockets !" had come from a new pilot in another squadron, who had been sent up for a practice "flip" round the lighthouses.
Little comedies like these make up the lighter side of an airman's life in France. They are touchstones to much gaiety and mirth. They serve to take our thoughts away from the great strain and stress which are inevitable on active service.
several pages from a British magazine
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