Thrilling Deeds of British Airmen - Eric Wood

Flying While Dying

There is a story told of two French airmen who, while on a reconnaissance, met with disaster in mid-air—a tragic mishap whereby the pilot was robbed of his sight and the observer was mortally wounded; and yet both returned to headquarters with their information. The dying observer gave directions to the blinded pilot, telling him when to fly high and when to fly low, and thus, followed by bursting shrapnel, the heroes got their machine home.

We are concerned only with British airmen, however, so we may not do more than mention that grim story—perhaps one of the grimmest of the war, certainly one of the most heroic; but the flying men of Britain also number among their heroes who have 'gone west' men who similarly finished their flights racing against certain death.

Such a one, for instance, was Lieutenant Rhodes-Moorhouse.

An order came to this young officer to bomb the vital railway junction at Courtrai. This was a task after his own heart, for besides being exceedingly dangerous, it would, if successful, disorganize the enemy's communications. Through Courtrai German troop trains continually bore reinforcements to Ypres—that long-held, blood-consecrated salient of the British line in Flanders. The destruction of the station, the tearing up of yards of the steel road, would effectively hinder the flow of these reinforcements, as Rhodes-Moorhouse knew. He knew, also, that there were anti-aircraft guns everywhere, for the Germans realized that important junctions must attract British airmen, and a warm reception awaited the man who would dare to come humming overhead.

Such risks, however, are as the spice of life to the flying man, and the Lieutenant mounted to his seat, waved au revoir  to his comrades at the air station, and alone, on that April 27th, 1915, guided his rapid biplane over the German lines, potted at here and there by Archibalds,' but holding jauntily on his way. Soon it seemed that every anti-aircraft gun within range was in action; shrapnel puffs hung around the intrepid flier like balls of wool, and bullets whistled all about him. And these came not only from the shells, for innumerable rifles blazed from the trenches; every German grey-coat within shooting distance let fly—and rifle bullets are by no means to be despised by the airman, since they can pierce a petrol tank, or smash a delicate steering gear, to say nothing of finding a mark in the pilot's body.

But the gods of the air and of brave men seemed to be watching over the gallant aviator, for he escaped all injury, and succeeded in making many valuable observations of the German positions and their strength. Though keeping at a good height he was flying not too high to see that which he was out to see.

Courtrai at last lay beneath him—Courtrai with its fussing trains, its thousands of cannon-fodder ready for the inferno of the front lines, Courtrai with its massed anti-aircraft guns. The town looked a fine mark for bombs, but Rhodes-Moorhouse knew from past experience that there is little certainty of hitting any mark when one is many thousands of feet above the ground. He also knew well enough that there is no little risk in coming down low enough to be sure of doing it. But, the mark had to be hit, those were the orders, and without stopping to calculate chances he planed down from his height of comparative safety, and with the precision acquired by the cool-headed, practised airman, came to within 300 feet of the railway junction.

Three hundred feet! Think of it! Not so high above the ground as is the golden cross of St Paul's Cathedral. And within range—easy range—of the rifle of every German there, to say nothing of the 'Archibalds'!

As the machine ceased volplaning and righted itself, gliding upon an even keel, as it were, every rifleman blazed away, every anti-aircraft gun spat fire; bullets sped upward through the fabric of the planes, and whistled their tunes of death in the airman's ears. And then came new sounds—the explosion of bombs dropped in quick succession as Rhodes-Moorhouse released them from their gear. Holes yawned in the ground, the steel lines of the railway were wrenched from their ties, and the junction presented a scene of woeful destruction. Men scattered in all directions as the balls of death came hurtling through the air; but some stuck to their posts and bullets continued to whistle about the Lieutenant. Suddenly one struck him in the thigh with a sickening thud that told him it was no light wound he had received. Soon his garments were wet with his blood and he realized that probably the only way to save his life was to go down at once and surrender to the Germans.

Rhodes-Moorhouse gritted his teeth: away back at the Flying Base were officers waiting for his report, and if the god of good luck would have it so, they should get that for which they waited. All the bombs were gone now, and the biplane swept on its way. Suddenly it banked, so steeply that the foes beneath thought that the airman was about to come tumbling in their midst. They did not know Rhodes-Moorhouse. Instead of falling, he turned an amazing circle, and, in order to get up top speed, rushed downward to within a hundred feet of the hard-working gunners and riflemen. Then—up, and up—rising from the depths of danger to the heights of safety, he headed swiftly for the Base. Realizing that the prey they had thought certain was escaping, the Germans increased the intensity and rapidity of their fire. The Englishman seemed to be flying in a cloud of shrapnel; it would be remarkable if he escaped further injury. He did not escape: once again that stinging, burning pain, and the shock of it made him all but lose control. A momentary gasp, a brief haze before the eyes, a quick pulling of himself together—and his now clearer mind told him the truth: he was wounded to the death.

The Base—the men waiting at the Base for his return: that thought alone sustained him. The biplane answered his slightest touch and seemed to leap upward in bounds away from the drumming bullets and the sharp crack of the bursting shrapnel. At top speed he went, for it was to be a race to reach home before death for ever silenced him. He was still over the German lines, but he swept on past them, across No Man's Land and over the British front line. Even then he did not go down to get the medical aid he so sorely needed: at the Base only must he stop.

He now commenced to drop from the giddy altitude, still driving his machine at full speed, until coming at last within sight of the Flying Base he shut off his engine, set his machine at a decline, and, cool as a man in the full flush of life, though his body was numb with coming death and a mist was before his eyes, volplaned to a perfect landing.

Men rushed to his assistance, not knowing how sorely he needed it, nor yet how useless their help, save to get him out of the winged chariot of death. But they knew when they saw his face and lifted his limp body from the seat. . . .

He made his report calmly, like a soldier who has done unscathed what he went to do; men accustomed to coolness marvelled at him as they carried him to hospital.

He died, and in his death, as "Eyewitness" wrote, the nation lost "a very gallant life." Could any man have a better, nobler epitaph?