Adventures of an Observation Officer of the Kite Balloons
from 'the Illustrated War News'
Brown and I had been warned overnight that it was our turn for "sausage observation," and with the accuracy of a mental alarm-clock, my brain woke me exactly at daybreak. With a shiver and a half-formed hope that it would be misty in which case I could sneak another hour between the blankets I poked my head out of the door and scanned the weather sign some four miles away. Long experience has taught us that the four skeleton walls of the ruined farm-house on the sky-line are as good visibility indicators as can possibly be obtained therefore we call them our weather sign.
But this morning they stand out clear and sharp against the grey sky, not a trace of mist anywhere near them, and, with a groan, I withdraw my head, shake Brown into some sort of consciousness, and perform a hasty toilet. Then, with cigarette well alight, go out to seek the flight-sergeant, who, smart and clapper and jaunty, has already dressed and waits my orders.
"Up in a Balloon Boys"
"Out balloon" says I curtly a latter morning, a chill wind, an empty provision-hold are not conducive to social amenities at this hour. A snappy salute, three blasts on a whistle, and all the air mechanics in camp rush forth to the parade, the few stragglers tasting the rough edge of the sergeant's tongue.
"Out balloon !" he repeats. The sturdy fellows draw the sausage-shaped gasbag from its shed, and walk it down to the ascension ground, carting the winch after it, and generally preparing it for the day's work. Meanwhile, in a corner of a smoky mess-room, Brown and I are stowing away vast quantities of porridge and bacon. We smoke a last cigarette as we stroll to the ascension ground, where the Intelligence officer awaits us with the chart. This scrutinised, and the work to be done explained thoroughly, we don the attachments for the parachutes, strapping them on firmly, for upon their security may depend our lives.
The balloon is toggled on to the rope of the winch, and, stepping inside, we examine basket, valve and ripping-cords, and ballast and then make fast our parachutes practically getting into our lifeboats before one slap is properly launched.
"Right ease out !" cries Brown, he being the senior officer. The sergeant blows his whistle once, cries "Let up hand over hand !" and as the air-mechanics gradually case out on the half-dozen ninety-foot ropes the "sausage" begins gradually to ascend. When we leach the end of these ropes the winch commences slowly to revolve, and its giant cable holds us in reluctant leash as we gradually rise heavenwards.
Five hundred feet, and the first stop. The balloon is bucketing about like a kite in a gale in the twelve-mile-an-hour wind we stop to measure. We halt and gauge the wind velocity at every five hundred feet until we reach the three-thousand mark, at which altitude our work is done. Sometimes we find that a heavy ground mist obscures the earth and spoils our visibility and with many curses, we descend once more, having been to quite a lot of trouble for nothing. But if we can get a good view of the ground all around of our batteries, and of the trenches of the opposing side we commence operations forthwith.
from 'the Illustrated War News'
Tale of a Telephone
Bang ! The ranging gun of oar battery opens the ball, and almost on the who a voice sounds in my cars. It is the inevitable question "Where did that one go ?" and we have to answer it on the second. We live with a telephone headpiece eternally in position and if somebody would invent a "gadget" for holding field-glasses to our eyes without making our arms ache so terribly we should be more than grateful to him. We have to report on every shell-burst and in addition, talk to the field-batteries the heavies well to the rear, as well as answer all sorts of questions from Headquarters. The telephone system is a thing to wonder at.
Apropos of telephones, one day, when there was hardly anything doing, Brown absent- mindedly gave his own private telephone number, and about a quarter of an hour later was speaking to his wife in North London. That is just an illustration of the far-reaching ramifications of our telephone service and the story is perfectly true.
The enemy's shells are a source of interest to us. We are called upon to report the distance they are falling beyond or short of their targets, which are usually our own heavy-gun emplacements ; and, in addition, we must give the nature of the shell whether it is the soft, fleecy-clouded shrapnel or the yellowy-brown amatol, the black cloud of lyddite or the deadly grey-green of the gas-shell.
And though we are perched so high above the world, well behind even our own lines and safe from the too-pressing attentions of "Archies," life isn't exactly one sweet song for us, nor yet a dull existence. In fact, we get far too many thrills.
There was the occasion when a Boche aeroplane came our way one day and tried to set us alight with machine-gun fire. We had nothing but our automatic pistols for defence, but we used these to good effect, and had the pleasure of seeing the Hun crash to the ground it was afterwards ascertained that a pistol bullet had passed through his heart and killed him as he sat at the controls,
Rapid Descent by Parachute
Then another day, we had front seats at as pretty an air-fight as one could wish to sec. Again it was a Boche who had penetrated our lines, and his antagonist was a young aviator only three days out from the base school. Round and round us they flew, both eager for the combat, and their machine-gun bullets hummed and shrilled round our ears like so many bees. They weren't close enough to us for our pistols to carry, or we might have taken a hand. But in the end, the youngster scored his first aerial victory and the marauding Boche met with a sudden and incandescent death.
On a third occasion we were attacked by an enemy airman, and this time he not only set the balloon afire, but severed the winch-cable with his machine-gun bullets, so that the "sausage" was rifting away on the high wind a mass of flame.
We had to jump quick that time, I can assure you, and as I fell, my parachute refused to open. In an instant of time all the horrors of crashing to the ground to be broken to pulp flitted through my mind ; all the stories of defective parachutes and aerial accidents with their gruesome details affrighted my very soul and I said my prayers with the swiftness of a machine-gun. Then I felt a jerk that almost broke my back and with exasperating slowness, the umbrella of the parachute opened and checked my downward rush.
I was little more than a ghost when I at length reached earth in perfect safety, and though my nerves were all in rags, I was compelled to lie down on the ground and roll with laughter at the sight of my confrere. His parachute had acted from the first, and now he was hanging head downwards on the branch of an adjacent tree, apostrophising with vivid profanity all the Boches that fly, and all the air mechanics in our own service ; the first because through one he had got into his present predicament, the second because they didn't help him down fast enough for his liking.
A "Sausage" Adrift
There was the time when a sudden gust of wind tore the cable out of its bold, and sent us careering at over eight thousand feet for the north. We could see, in the rifts of the clouds, the earth speeding past at express rate, but soon the darkness hid that and we knew what it felt like to be in a raiding Zeppelin when it had broken down. We expected every minute that the aerial defences of England would open fire upon us, for we knew the course upon which we were drifting, but though searchlights were out at various towns none picked us up the clouds screened us too effectually. All that night we drifted and just before dawn felt a terrific bump that stopped the balloon. Trying for soundings, we found ourselves well aground and managed to climb down out of the basket after ripping the envelope. And, when dawn came, we found we had grounded on one of the mountains of the Pennine chain had drifted from somewhere in France to a quiet little village in Derbyshire.
No, observation-ballooning isn't a quiet and "cushy" job we've no use for men with cold feet in the work at all. Nor can we use those without brains; the work of marking charts with things observed gun-pits, "pill-boxes," and the like, the calculation of distances and angles, all these call for great intelligence and we may say it without boasting in any way just because it happens to be perfectly true, in the Kite-Balloon Sections we have many of the greatest intellects of our country.
two pages from 'the Illustrated War News'
Back to Index