Thrilling Deeds of British Airmen - Eric Wood

Some Anonymous Heroes

The pre-war novelist used to sit down and imagine all manner of wonderful things in the way of aerial fighting, and many queer and amazing exploits were narrated. But truth has proved stranger than even the wildest fiction, as the various stories told in this book will prove. Here is a story which, if it had been told before the war, would have been laughed at as being at least improbable, if not impossible.

Toward the end of 1915, British airmen on reconnaissance work over and behind the German lines in the neighbourhood of Bruges and Nieuport, frequently noticed an enemy motor-car of great speed racing along the roads as if on urgent business. Whenever this particular car appeared, all other traffic gave place to it, so as to enable it to dash along at full speed. That car became a kind of lodestone to the British aviators, many of whom tried to put it out of action. Time after time they failed; but one day an airman who, like many others, had frequently attacked the car, made up his mind that he would settle accounts with it. Previously, like his comrades, he had used bombs; but it is not easy to bomb a speeding motor-car!

The British aviator does not like to be worsted, and this particular one had decided that the very next time he set eyes on it he would at all risks disable that car.

The day came when, flying at a considerable height in company with another machine, the aviator saw the motor-car tearing along the road in the direction opposite to that in which the British aeroplanes were flying. The pilot suddenly turned his machine from his companion plane, and set off in pursuit of the car. His observer, who understood his pilot's ambition, realized what was afoot, and knew that this time bombs were to give place to the machine-gun.

The occupants in the car had seen the target-marked aeroplane in the distance and they were not at all surprised when it turned and gave chase, past experience having told them to expect this. However, as they had over and over again successfully eluded such pursuing craft, they probably smiled as they told themselves that they were in little danger. Their car was speedy, and such a rapidly moving target was not easy to hit with bombs. The chauffeur sat at his wheel and drove the machine along at a terrific pace; while ever and anon the officers whom he was driving turned and looked at the closely pursuing aeroplane. It was drawing nearer, and suddenly to their consternation the Germans realized that this particular machine was adopting tactics utterly different from those tried by aviators in previous attacks. Instead of contenting himself with travelling over the car and dropping bombs, the pilot of the present craft was coming down in a swift steep dive which it was only too evident to the Germans would bring it immediately over their motor, unless they could get more power out of the engine. But the chauffeur had already opened that out, and not another ounce of pressure could be obtained; so that compared with the speed at which the aeroplane was making its descent the motor-car seemed to be standing still.

The startled Germans had but one hope: the aeroplane was making so steep a dive that it seemed impossible for it to escape crashing to the ground.

But the British pilot had his machine under superb control. He had worked out the whole manoeuvre to a nicety, had judged the speed at which he and the car were travelling, while his observer was ready with his machine-gun, and when the throbbing biplane was within a few yards of the pelting motor-car he opened a hot fire at the occupants. So close was the aeroplane that the aviators could see every action of the Germans. The chauffeur was bending over his wheel, one of the officers was crouching as if hoping to escape the stream of bullets, while another, more courageous, was actually standing up, revolver in hand, and firing for all he was worth in an attempt to drive off the attackers. These, however, were not to be driven off. With revolver bullets boring holes in their planes and singing unmusically about their ears, the Britishers held on to the tail of the fleeing car, the biplane still at an angle which threatened to send it nose-diving into the ground. Even the British observer was not feeling at all comfortable during those last few moments in which his pilot kept the tail of the machine up. Though the feat of levelling up the aeroplane seemed impossible, the pilot pulled his 'joy-stick' toward him, the biplane gave a quick convulsive shiver as the elevators felt the changed pressure of the air, the whole machine rocked like a storm-tossed ship, its nose went up, and the next instant the aeroplane was pelting along in safety, leaving—what? A German motor-car lying helpless upon its side!

For just as the British pilot sent his steed mounting, the chauffeur of the motor-car, badly wounded by the machine-gun fire, lost control, and the car made a dash for the bank at the side of the road. There were shouts of dismay from the German officers as their doomed machine crashed into the bank, pitching them headlong into a ploughed field, and putting the finishing touch to their little misadventure by turning a complete somersault!

It was a very satisfied pair of aviators who flew back to their companion machine and so, as Pepys has it—home.

In this little story we will call the pilot Smithson and the observer Jones, and hope, for the sake of escaping the ire of those who would object, that we have not by any chance hit upon the correct names. Smithson and Jones went up, on a certain day in December 1915, to take photographs of German positions; and in view of the fact that the whole neighbourhood was alive with 'Archibalds' it was a hazardous task that lay before the aviators. Every clump of wood that dotted the country-side had its hidden anti-aircraft gun, and a startling number of fleecy whorls appeared in the sky at the appearance of the British biplane—an F.E., by the way.

However, as aviators live to the accompaniment of such things, Smithson and Jones were not unduly depressed; in fact, their spirits rose as their machine carried them up into more chilly heights. The air seemed to be full of aeroplanes, all of them belonging to the Allies, for the Germans were not so active in the air just then as they had been at various other times. Not that a swift-moving Fokker might not suddenly appear out of the nowhere, swoop down wagging its tail and spraying a leaden hurricane, and make things generally lively.

Nine thousand feet did Smithson and his comrade climb in about an hour, during which time the splendid camera worked by the observer took such photographs as were considered worth while. After rising for another 1000 feet, Jones, looking toward the east, saw a thrilling spectacle—a fast monoplane chasing a biplane—and he thought that it might be a British comrade engaged with a German daring enough to approach the British lines. The chase was going on some good distance away, and about 2500 feet below the F.E., but Smithson pointed his machine's nose in that direction and hastened to take part in the little affair, if it were not unfortunately all over by the time he arrived. As it happened, he arrived in time; and, judging his position to a nicety, Smithson put up his tail till the machine was almost vertical in the air, and nose-dived for about 2000 feet at a rate with which the air speed-indicator could not cope, being designed to register no more than a hundred and sixty miles an hour! It was a hair-raising drop, and Smithson would not have been at all astonished if the F.E. had folded up its wings and dropped like a stone. Smithson had little time for meditation, for on approaching he realized that the monoplane was German and, owing to its speed, had the advantage of what was unmistakably a British biplane. So well had Smithson worked out things that when his machine was 500 feet from the two combatants the latter were almost directly underneath him, the monoplane threshing out its bullets at the biplane from a range of about fifty yards.

Smithson let his plane dive sheer until it was within 200 feet of the Hun, and then began to flatten it out gradually, in order to avoid straining it too much by a sudden jerk, which might have upset all his calculations. The result of this manoeuvre placed the F.E., when at a distance of about sixty feet off, just above and behind the monoplane; whereupon the Lewis gun began to rattle, and twenty rounds of nickel were slipped into the German. Evidently this was the first inkling Herr Hun had of the F.E.'s presence, and when he realized it he banked sharply and swung round to meet the newcomer, sweeping immediately beneath him and firing as he did so. The tactics of the German made it necessary for the F.E. to bank almost perpendicularly so as to make a complete circle and thus keep an eye upon the monoplane. The German repeatedly made wide, sweeping circles round the F.E., which was executing smaller circles, Jones meanwhile trying vainly to bring his machine-gun to bear. The difficulty with the gun was afterward explained by the gentleman whom we have christened Smithson, who said: "Owing to the fact that we were doing complete turns in about twice the length of our machine, the centrifugal force was so great that Jones couldn't hold the machine-gun on its mounting; it swung round, and though the whole gun only weighs 28 lb., he could not pull it square."

Naturally, this was a handicap, especially as the German, in his larger circles, was able to bring his gun into action; and things might have assumed a serious aspect if the monoplane had not suddenly decided to hit the unmarked trail for home, probably because he could see in the blue three more British machines pounding toward him. The German made a sudden dive for Mother Earth, and after him went the F.E. with Jones working his gun for all he was worth and spraying the fleeing foe. It was a ticklish moment, for the 'Archies' were having a good deal to say, and the distance from the earth was rapidly decreasing. Smithson was wondering how long the downward chase would last, when suddenly something happened: the monoplane wavered, side-slipped, dived, and then turned a somersault which brought its wheels uppermost—and the Britishers knew that one of those last bullets had gone home, evidently killing the German pilot.

There was a 7000-feet drop before that monoplane, and it made it in a curious, awe-inspiring fashion, the full significance of which only an aviator can realize. "The evolutions which that machine described falling 7000 feet—with no man at the wheel—were extraordinary, viewed from above," wrote Smithson; "first, wheels up; then right way again; a loop, several cart-wheels, a nose-dive; more loops, and several turns on to and off its back, sideways, until it was lost to sight almost on the ground."

Thirty-five seconds only did the monoplane take to drop those 7000 feet, and every one of them was filled with the lusty cheering of delighted Tommies, who in a long stretch of four miles of trenches were standing up and waving their hats and shouting themselves hoarse. A number of the cheering soldiers, however, suddenly made a dive for a dug-out, because it occurred to them that the falling Hun was heading straight for them. They just managed to scurry in like rabbits, when there was a crash upon the tree trunks forming the roof of the dug-out, and the nose of the monoplane buried itself in the bottom of the 'funk-hole,' the impact telescoping the greater part of the machine. The engine caught fire, the dug-out was filled with smoke, and the four men who had rushed to safety there were all slightly wounded.

Smithson looked at his watch, and found that a lot of valuable time which should have been spent in taking photographs had been taken up in fighting, so he set the F.E. climbing again; but before many feet were registered, the engine shirked, and refused to do any more work. This necessitated giving up all hopes of finishing the allotted work; and so the F.E. was turned toward home, where Smithson and Jones, when they arrived, received a rousing tribute, and discovered that the observer of the biplane to the rescue of which they had opportunely raced had been badly wounded.

After devouring a substantial lunch, Smithson and his comrade motored up to the front line, where the machine had fallen—the German front trenches being about a hundred yards away—and there found a few interesting little articles which were carried away as mementoes of an aerial 'scrap' which they knew might possibly have had a different ending.

In the far-off Garden of Eden things happened during the Great War the like of which Father Adam never dreamed of, and not the least impressive of them were the doings of certain airmen, unnamed.

In the early days of war in Mesopotamia, before it was realized that there would be a protracted campaign, our aviators had nowhere to stable their machines, and the result was that constant exposure to rain and fierce sun ruined them; but, as the campaign progressed and the fighting developed into a counterpart, on a small scale, of the warfare of the Western front, aerodromes were established, and a regular system of bombing expeditions was instituted.

The Flying Corps worked in conjunction with cavalry, and the enemy's irregular horse, their raiders, or their companies of thieves, knew to their cost how effective an arm of warfare the Flying Service was. The lurking-places of the raiders were swept by machine-guns from aeroplanes, and even squadrons of Turkish cavalry were chased by the flying men—in very truth a 'flying column,' but in a far different sense from what had previously been understood by the term.

It is on record that a raid on our camel transport was unsuccessful primarily because the airmen had often before struck terror into the hearts of the enemy, by literally raking them with machine-guns.

Flying in Mesopotamia is by no means a pleasure. A newspaper correspondent with our forces, describing prevailing conditions, said:

"In the hot weather, the conditions for flying are very trying. At night and in the early morning the air at 500 feet is far hotter than on the ground, and it becomes hotter and hotter until you reach 3500 feet. You must go up 6000 feet before you begin to feel cool. The intense heat thins the oil; you can never run your motor full out or it will get red-hot. You lose 20 h.p. at a temperature of 115 degrees. Long flights are impossible. After 9 a.m. the heat makes conditions most adverse for flying, and there is nothing to be done in the evening. The wood warps and shrinks in the sun. New machines have to be rerigged when they come out, and the dust chokes the engines. The sand rises in clouds and blows as high as 4000 feet.

"During the rainy season mud sometimes put our machines out of action. After a single day's rain at Oran, a 90-h.p. engine and eight men could not move an aeroplane in the driest part of the aerodrome in the driest part of the camp.

"Then there are the floods. An aeroplane at Kurna, or Nasiriyeh, between April and July had the same difficulty in finding a dry spot as Noah's dove. And it is much easier to land than to get away. At the beginning of the campaign, when we were operating in country where the tribesmen were in the pay of the Turks, the landing difficulty increased the odds against the aviators."

As an instance showing how the floods affected the aviation, the following story is worth telling. Like so many of the good yarns of the air, the name of the chief character is unknown. It was in July, 1915, and the anonymous airman, who had gone up to Nasiriyeh, was compelled to descend at the earliest moment; but peer as intently as he might, he could see nothing beneath save water. The whole country was under flood—and as the airman was flying a machine not built to do the work of a seaplane, the task was not particularly enchanting, especially as the airman knew that where he must eventually land there were a number of Arabs.

Now, as on one side of the river the Arabs were friendly, and on the other were hostile, a great deal depended upon which side the aviator landed. It called for some skilful manoeuvring to ensure bringing the machine down in the right place, but eventually he succeeded in landing on what he thought was the friendly side. No sooner had he alighted, however, than a number of hostile Arabs appeared, rushing down toward the river-bank, and evidently intent upon bagging the great mechanical bird. After all he had come down on the wrong side! The position was far from a comfortable one for the unfortunate aviator, for he was knee-deep in water and he had only his revolver to defend himself with, but he determined to put up a good fight. He was just about to let fly at the foremost of the thieving crowd, who were now close to the machine, when to his surprise a series of rifle reports rang out and a number of the enemy went tumbling over, while the rest promptly scattered in all directions.

The aviator presently descried a number of friendly Arabs on the other side of the river, and he knew that help was at hand—help which, as it turned out, meant the saving of the derelict machine; for after the 'friendlies' had poured in a goodly amount of fire, they waded out to where the aeroplane was lying and very soon had drawn it out of danger.

Some day we shall have the full story of the work of our airmen in Mesopotamia, and it will contain many thrilling chapters!