Thrilling Deeds of British Airmen - Eric Wood

First-Aid in Mid-Air

The manner in which Sub-Lieutenant Oxley won his D.S.C. reveals an amazing degree of coolness and audacity—those two distinguishing qualities of British airmen.

King Fox of Bulgaria and his brood, when they entered the arena of the European War, probably did not realize that far-off Britain would send her aerial fighters over their cities; but the men of the Royal Naval Air Service might certainly take Ubique!  as their motto.

Choosing the most opportune moment, Bulgaria ' came in ' and, pouncing upon the back of gallant Serbia, helped to smash her; and so our naval airmen did what they could to take toll of the Bulgars for their treachery. Day after day the coast of the traitor-kingdom was raided, and bombs fell with destructive effect upon places of military importance; and not all the efforts of the enemy could keep off the gallant airmen of Britain. Not merely in ones and twos, but in whole squadrons the fliers went, spreading terror wherever they appeared.

When Sub-Lieutenant Oxley, flying as observer in a battle-plane piloted by Flight-Lieutenant Dunning, D.S.C., won his Cross, he was on escort and reconnaissance patrol for a flight of bombing machines the objective of which lay "somewhere on the Bulgarian coast." As it happened, the day, June 10th, 1916, was as fine a day as could be wished either for a flight or a fight.

The battle-plane, as distinct from the bomb-droppers, hummed on steadily in advance, ready to engage any enemy craft bold enough to attack; and Oxley was busy all the time not merely in looking out for hovering foemen, but in taking observations of the countryside. After a while, his attention was distracted from note-taking by the sudden appearance of two machines, approaching from inland. The pilot, Lieutenant Dunning, knew that these would prove to be enemies, and eagerly made toward them, driving into as close range as was possible; and then a fierce fight began.

Both enemy machines took part, trying to bring down their intrepid opponent, who, however, darted hither and thither, soared up and over this foe, swooped down and under the other, incessantly endeavouring to out-manoeuvre them. While Dunning steered his machine skilfully, striving ever to secure the most advantageous position, Oxley worked the machine-gun, giving one enemy the benefit of a drum full of cartridges, and then slipping in another as Dunning swooped toward the foe who was attacking from another point.

Quick work—a thrilling game—a gamble with the death that might come before the next revolution of the propeller! Battles in the air do not, as a rule, last long, though a whole eternity of experience may seem to be crammed into the few minutes between attack and retreat—or disaster. Oxley and Dunning passed through all the stages of such combats: advance to attack, engagement, circling round their foes, mounting higher and then dropping lower, giving shots and receiving shots, never able to efface the subconscious thought that they might be doomed to that swift destruction which is so often the airman's end; and when Dunning felt a sudden burning pain in his left leg, and there was the thump of bullets as they entered the petrol tank, it seemed that the climax had come. Dunning set his teeth, Oxley trained his gun at the nearest foe: they would die fighting anyway.

But, there was no need to die! The enemy, not realizing that they had wounded both pilot and machine, and having themselves had quite sufficient drubbing for one day, suddenly turned tail and drummed off in retreat!

As soon as he saw that Dunning was injured, Lieutenant Oxley got to work. The home aerodrome was a good way off, and Dunning might bleed to death if his wound was not stopped, so Oxley improvised a tourniquet which he contrived to pass over to his disabled companion with a scribbled note telling him to fix it on his leg and to relinquish control of the machine so that he himself might take charge.

Then, while the aeroplane was spinning through the air, Oxley scrambled over from his own seat into that occupied by the pilot, the latter shifted, Oxley took his place, and, while Dunning applied the tourniquet to the pumping wound in his leg, the observer steered the racing machine toward their base. Dunning made himself as comfortable as possible, and then turned his attention to the injured petrol tank. It was leaking badly, and unless the leak were stopped the machine would have to descend a long way from home. The pilot solved the problem in the most primitive way: he simply kept his thumb over the hole, and in this way succeeded in preventing fuel from escaping, except when, because of the strain on his hand, it became absolutely necessary to change thumbs!

Such was the manner of the home-coming; and the aeroplane, although bearing numerous signs of her dramatic encounter, in the shape of riddled planes, dented fuselage, penetrated tank, and what not, glided gracefully down to earth, making an excellent landing.

A scarcely less remarkable instance of first-aid during an aerial battle is that in which Captain A. E. Borton (Black Watch and R.F.C.) was the wounded pilot, and Captain Anthony Marshall (28th Light Cavalry, Indian Army, and R.F.C.) was the observer, both of whom eventually received the D.S.O., in "recognition of their gallantry and devotion to duty." The aviators were on an important reconnaissance flight in the neighbourhood of Staden, on June 7th, 1915, when they were attacked by a hostile aeroplane. In the course of the combat the enemy gunner succeeded in getting home a bullet which severely wounded Captain Borton in the neck and head. The result was that the Captain began to bleed most profusely, and it was clear that unless something was at once done for him he would become unconscious. There was no time to return to the base, despite the fact that the machine was a fast one, for the aviators were faced by the all-important fact that it was vitally necessary for the reconnaissance to be carried to completion. Somewhere behind the lines a red-collared Staff officer was waiting anxiously for the report. Captain Marshall, by the blood reddening the aviator's coat and the way in which the pilot himself was sagging in his seat, soon realized the seriousness of his comrade's wounds, and he speedily improvised bandages with which he and the pilot himself, while the machine was still pelting through the air under strict control—amazing achievement!—succeeded in temporarily binding up the wound and somewhat stanching the flow of blood. That done, Captain Borton steered his machine over the course which had been mapped out for the reconnaissance. The enemy aeroplane, which had persistently been attacking all the time that first-aid was in progress, now followed after them, its pilot's intention being to drive them back and so prevent them from making their observations.

Captain Borton, gallantly summoning all his reserves of strength and keeping his head as cool as man can under such circumstances, bravely piloted his machine, though every moment was filled with agony for him and brought nearer and nearer a state of unconsciousness. Incredible though it sounds, not only was the persistent enemy kept at a distance, but Captain Marshall, in between times of rattling out drums of cartridges at the foe, was also busy taking most valuable notes. As the German swooped to attack, Captain Borton banked and turned, dived or rose as the exigencies of the attack demanded, although concentration of mind was difficult. It was a perfect whirl of manoeuvring and out-manoeuvring, and yet through it all the note-book was being entered up; until at last, having done all that which they had been sent out to do, the two gallant aviators bethought them of the home station, banked suddenly and swung round, to the momentary bewilderment of their antagonist, and then, with their engine all out, sped up and on. Each second now was precious, for it was clear to Captain Marshall that his companion was in sorry plight and might at any instant crumple up in his seat, lose control, and let the aeroplane go spinning earthward. However, by a mighty effort, Captain Borton fought the insidious desire to let go of all things, kept his controls working almost mechanically, and succeeded in making a safe landing. Captain Marshall, immediately he had seen his comrade lifted from the machine, made his report, which, so the official record put it, "was as detailed and complete for the last as it was for the first part of the reconnaissance."

Pluck? Determination? Yes! Verily of such stuff are the kings of the air made!