Heroes of the Great War - G. A. Leask

The First Airman to Destroy a Zeppelin

Little did people dream when the Victoria Cross was first instituted that one day it would be conferred for deeds of daring in the air. War in the air was unthought of in those days. Originally the bronze cross was intended to reward gallant deeds performed by our soldiers and sailors, but with the march of science has come another arm of service, and to-day airmen ascend into the sky and fight the enemy there with rifle, machine-gun, and bomb. As so many gallant deeds are now done in the air it is only fitting that the Victoria Cross should be awarded to those who show conspicuous bravery or per-form some extraordinarily brilliant exploit in that element.

Of our famous airmen who have been awarded the coveted distinction during the war, the first to receive the V.C. was Second Lieutenant Rhodes-Moorhouse, who, unfortunately, did not live to enjoy his well-earned honour. He died of wounds, after dropping bombs on the railway line near Courtrai.

The second of our aviators to gain the V.C. was Flight Sub-Lieutenant Reginald Alexander John Warneford, of the Royal Naval Flying Corps. He did not live long to enjoy his honour. For a little time after his great feat he was the most talked-of hero in the world; then he met with a fatal accident, and an aviator of splendid skill and dauntless bravery was lost to his country.

No more daring aerial feat was performed during the war than that of Lieutenant Warneford, who on June 7, 1915, single-handed, attacked and completely destroyed a Zeppelin in mid-air at Ghent. His splendid and unique deed proved that the much-vaunted German gas-bags are not invulnerable. Before describing this Zeppelin-smashing exploit, let us note a few particulars about the early life and career of the airman.

Lieutenant Warneford was born at Cooch-Behar, India, in 1892, though his family have long been established in Wiltshire. He could claim military connections, for his grandfather, the Rev. T. L. J. Warneford, was Chaplain to the Forces in India under Sir Donald Stewart, and his mother was a daughter of the late Captain Alexander Campbell, D.S.O.

Reginald Warneford was brought to England when a boy, and attended the Stratford-on-Avon Grammar School. He graduated in the merchant service, and then joined the British India Steam Navigation Company. In 1913 he transferred his services to the P. and O. line, and was appointed to H.M. transport Somali. When war broke out he decided to come home from India, as he said, to "do his bit." On the voyage to this country he was in charge of an oil boat, which was wrecked on the South American coast.

At first the future Zeppelin-smasher decided on a military career, and actually joined the Sportsmen's Battalion; eventually, however, he transferred to the Air Service. His progress as an airman was regarded as extraordinarily rapid, and his certificate was obtained in a little more than a month.

It is said that Warneford's career in the mercantile marine was of great service to him during his period of training at Hendon. The qualities so indispensable to an aviator—coolness, resource, daring, ignorance of fear, rapidity of decision—had all been tested during his previous sea service.

On February 25, 1915, he obtained his pilot's certificate, so that by the time he accomplished his great deed he had been a recognized member of the Flying Corps for a little over three months. During this period Warneford was with our forces on the Continent, doing useful work and gathering experience for the great opportunity which was to come to him.

It should be borne in mind that from the beginning of the war our airmen were anxious to challenge and meet the German Zeppelins. These huge airships have never been used in legitimate warfare. They prefer to steal over sleeping towns by night, and drop bombs which wreck houses and cause fires and loss of life. Such warfare is sheer murder, and these fiendish raids on unfortified places have aroused the just indignation of the whole civilized world. As these raids grew more frequent, our airmen decided to seek out the bases where the monster murder-ships were housed and drop bombs on them, and, if possible, waylay them as they returned from their piratical trips.

With this object in view, Lieutenant Warneford, with two other airmen, set out at day-break on June 7, 1915, to bomb the Zeppelin sheds at Evere, near Brussels. This was the occasion on which, according to a reliable witness, the joyous Belgians stood on their roofs and sang their National Anthem as they witnessed the damage done.

After seeing the terrible effects of his companions' bombs on the Zeppelin sheds, Warneford, who had reserved himself and his ammunition for further and bigger adventures, proceeded alone on his journey of airship-hunting. At 3 A.M. he perceived on the horizon, about midway between Ghent and Brussels, a Zeppelin flying fast, at a height of about 6000 feet. This was the supreme moment in the young airman's life for which he had so ardently longed, and, mounting higher in the air, he made for his prey with exultant heart.

"When I was almost over the monster," said Lieutenant Warneford, "I descended about fifteen yards and flung six bombs. The sixth struck the envelope of the ship fair and square in the middle. There was instantly a terrible explosion. The displacement of the air round about me was so great that a tornado seemed to have been produced. My machine was tossed upward, and then flung absolutely upside down. I was forced to loop the loop in spite of myself."

This alarming experience failed to daunt the pilot. He had been trained at sea and in air to be prepared for any emergency. He kept his head, or would have perished then and there. Even in the whirl, he admitted afterward, he could not help feeling a thrill of honest pride at seeing his victim falling to earth in a cloud of flame and smoke.

Then, by a sort of miracle, his Morane monoplane righted itself. Warneford was ready, and coolly looked about for a safe landing-place, as he was forced to descend owing to an empty petrol tank. He selected a lonely spot, and glided to earth none the worse for his aerial thrills.

Once on the ground he discovered that he was in the enemy's country, or rather in a portion of Belgium in German occupation. This did not disturb him much, but he decided, after getting his tank filled again, to make off before the enemy could approach. When next he came to earth it was in the Belgian lines, and all danger was past.

To appreciate fully the thoroughness of Warneford's work, it is necessary to relate briefly what exactly happened to the Zeppelin.

In his upside-down flight the airman had noticed his victim in flames. The spectators below, who had thus the most imposing aerial drama of the war to witness, saw the burst of fire caused by Warneford's sixth bomb spread until the whole Zeppelin was enveloped in flame and smoke. They held their breath as they saw the burning monster crash down on to the famous nunnery of Ghent known as Le Grand Béguinage de Sainte Elisabeth. The flaming mass set fire to the buildings. Terrible scenes followed, for Belgian women and children refugees were also within the nunnery.

Not one of the Zeppelin's crew survived, and the men's bodies were flung in all directions. The fire caused in the Convent accounted for the death of two brave nuns, and a heroic Belgian lost his life while attempting to rescue a little child.

For days afterward the mournful Germans were engaged in gathering up the fragments of their destroyed Zeppelin.

Within thirty-six hours of his splendid achievement the King conferred on Lieutenant Warneford the Victoria Cross, a record in connection with this coveted award. His Majesty telegraphed to the airman his hearty congratulations, and concluded by stating he had pleasure in recognizing his 'gallant act' in the manner mentioned. His mother was immensely proud of her son's distinction. "I always believed my son would do something big," she said.

But the satisfaction felt by his countrymen at the hero's success, a satisfaction the more intense because of the detestation of the use to which Germany had consecrated her Zeppelin fleets, was soon to be turned to mourning. After his splendid exploit at Ghent, Warneford spent a few days with his chums in the Flying Service in Paris. He was feted royally, and had a warm reception, living for a week in a blaze of glory.

On June 17 Warneford proceeded to the Buc Aerodrome, Versailles, and made an ascent in a Maurice Farman biplane with an English lieutenant. Then he made a second flight with Mr. Needham, an American journalist. Those who watched this flight state that the machine was flying at an altitude of about 600 feet. Suddenly, to their alarmed eyes, it seemed to rock, the wings met, and it crashed swiftly to earth. When the falling aeroplane was about 250 feet from the ground, Lieutenant Warneford and his passenger appeared to throw themselves from it. The spectators, horror-struck, rushed to their aid, and found the famous airman still breathing, but grievously injured. His companion was killed on the spot. Warneford's friends did everything they possibly could to save his life, but he died in a motor-car on the way to the British Military Hospital at Versailles.

The whole world was deeply affected by the untimely death of one of its most brilliant aviators. The pathos, the tragedy and the triumph of his short life was eloquently expressed in these moving words by a French writer: "He had braved Death in full battle; Death takes his revenge when he is thinking only of the smiles of life, and slays him. Not long since he cleaved the firmament like a radiant atom, and smote the Goliaths of the air; now he lies a lamentable victim, he who had confronted the storm, killed by a breeze!"