Thrilling Deeds of British Airmen - Eric Wood

On Patrol

A wind that whistled between the planes, strummed like a harper upon struts and wiring, and drove sheets of water into the aviator, as he sped in the teeth of the storm—such was the accompaniment to one of the fine feats of Captain R. H. G. Neville (Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry and R.F.C.), a member of the air patrol between British and enemy trenches.

The Captain's work was to scare off any enemy machines, or, if they were not to be scared off, then to fight them off; in any case, they were not to be permitted to get behind the British lines and fix prying eyes upon what was being done there.

On this particular day in the latter part of 1916, Captain Neville, who was one of our most skilful pilots, found his task exceedingly difficult. To remain up in such a stormy wind was in itself no easy achievement: add to that the constant vigil necessary in case some daring foe should manage to slip past the patrol, and you have all the elements of a most exciting experience! Despite the fact that he was wrapped up to the very top of his head, with only his eyes showing through his goggles, Captain Neville was by no means so comfortable physically as he could wish; and without doubt the lonely, uninteresting patrol was just a little monotonous—until the droning of the engine, striving, as it were, to outdo the noise of the storm, was broken by what seemed to be a hurricane of sound. A quick glance showed Captain Neville something which almost took away his breath: plunging out of the storm was a big enemy 'plane, which had succeeded in getting quite close before being seen.

For a moment it seemed to Captain Neville that the end of all things had come, because when he sighted the enemy the two machines were so close that it appeared impossible to avoid a collision, and the strength of the storm caused the Captain to fear that his machine might not answer quickly enough to the touch on the levers.

Captain Neville gave his controls a jerk which made the aeroplane shiver from end to end; the machine banked steeply, and standing at a dangerous angle, drove round—and as it did so, the enemy aeroplane swept by, the planes of it barely missing the British machine.

And then, before his opponent could grasp what was in the mind of the Britisher, the latter had completed the circle and, coming back, was opening out at the enemy machine. Captain Neville had the advantage of position, and raked the foe fore and aft so plentifully and with such accuracy that his opponent, finding he had entirely lost the advantage of surprise, turned and, giving up all hope of crossing the British lines, made off toward his own.

Then began a stern chase. Captain Neville, when he saw the enemy turn tail, realized that he was probably suffering badly from ' cold feet,' and he resolved to pursue him to the bitter end. Out and away from the British lines, the enemy tore through the rain; after him went the Captain, hanging grimly just behind his tail, like some vengeful bird relentless in pursuit of a monster foe. Showing grey through the driving rain, the earth seemed to be receding at a terrific rate. Although he could see but little, Captain Neville was quickly notified when he was over the German lines; for the appearance of the two machines scudding along, the aeroplane marked with the tri-coloured target chasing the one with the black cross, showed the men at the 'Archies' that one of their own kin was in danger. They immediately opened fire at the British machine, and the rat-tat-tatting of Captain Neville's Lewis gun was drowned by the crash of bursting shells.

In spite of the shells the Captain still held on—held on like grim death; and though he tried every device, the enemy could not shake him off. Captain Neville was running a dreadful gauntlet of fire, and many a gun which had almost found the ever-changing range, narrowly missed bringing the chase to a sudden end. The enemy fled over batteries with whose position he was conversant, in the hope that the pursuer might be hit and brought down in flames; but the Britisher flinched from nothing, and seemed to be invulnerable! On and on through the never-ceasing storm, far over the German lines, until at last Captain Neville realized that his quarry was gliding for earth. That meant one of several things: the enemy's petrol had given out; or perhaps he was nearing his home aerodrome; or again, it might be that he was utterly scared and was going down, taking all chance where he landed.

As the scenery below grew more distinct, Captain Neville saw that the second of these conjectures was the correct one; for presently there loomed the hangars of an aerodrome, toward which the foe was frantically making. The British pilot now called upon his engine for every ounce of power, as he was determined to bring his quarry to bay; and after a few anxious moments caused by the guns below, he succeeded in doing so. He went into the attack with a vehemence that startled the German, who, finding that at last he must fight, replied ineffectually to the fire of his rival; and eventually Captain Neville, by a sharp manoeuvre, obtained the advantage of position, from which he emptied a belt of cartridges into his opponent, whose machine was so badly mauled that it began to drop. The Captain, following it down as far as it was discreet to do, had the gratification of seeing it crash to earth, half a mile from its aerodrome.

The chase had not been in vain, and for this and much other fine work on patrol, Captain Neville received his Military Cross.

Here is a brief story, but one which contains heroism and drama as full-blooded as many a longer one.

Captain Dixon (Yorks L.I. and R.F.C.), scouring the air on what may be called offensive patrol, adopted tactics with which he completely hoodwinked a certain German airman who fell into a most distressing trap. The gallant Captain, whose task was to keep the enemy from getting over the British lines, instead of going for this particular Hun in the regular British fashion of pressing home a stiff attack, cunningly led that German on a wild-goose chase through the skies, behaving generally in such a manner that Herr Hun firmly believed that his antagonist was scarcely worthy of his mettle; yet, every British bird bagged was one less to annoy the 'brass hats ' in the rear of the German lines. Therefore, the German swooped upon Captain Dixon, and showering his bullets all about the machine, fully expected to see the tricolour-marked plane go hurtling to the ground. But a far different thing from that happened.

Captain Dixon, with the knowledge that a couple of other British machines were up after the Teuton, had deliberately turned himself into a decoy; and all his strange antics—his fighting and flying away, his apparent helplessness and his evident nervousness, which made the German sure of him—had been most admirable fooling, deliberately designed to lead the enemy on, distract his attention, and allow the two other planes to get well above without being seen.

The design succeeded beyond the Captain's hopes. The British planes, tiny specks in the distance, mounted higher and higher, and through their binoculars the occupants could just see the chase taking place. Up and up, and still up they soared, till they were lost in the void—and never an inkling did the Teuton have of the swift destruction awaiting him.

All his attention was taken up by the foe who was so hopelessly out-matched in every way; never was man so surprised as he when, as though from nowhere, there came two smothering storms of shot which tore through fuselage and planes and—worse than all—struck his engine and petrol tank, so that he went spinning down.

And, as his rival fell, Captain Dixon's machine performed queer antics in the air to celebrate the triumph, in the which there presently joined the two victorious aeroplanes which he had so cunningly assisted.

Second-Lieutenant H. S. Shield, R.F.C., won his Military Cross on September 13th, 1915, by attacking a German Albatross when flying over Bois-de-Biez. He was 10,000 feet up, when his observer, Corporal T. Bennett, sighted the Albatross flying some 3000 feet below. Losing no time, the British machine dived to the attack. As it dropped, the 'Archies' were crashing furiously, and the machine seemed to be slipping through a maze of bursting shells, which fortunately did no damage, so that Lieutenant Shield was able to get into contact with the Albatross, a biplane whose Mercedes engine could drive her along at a terrific pace and whose machine-gun was mounted in such a way that it could be brought into action at almost any angle. "Very conveniently mounted," the official report says of that gun, and it called for considerable skill on the part of Lieutenant Shield to manoeuvre his machine so that Corporal Bennett could attack with the minimum of risk from the stream of bullets which the German gunner was pouring in. The British machine swept down, then circled to the assault. The German sailed on, but the Britishers were relentless, hanging on to the cross-marked tail and splattering their shots upon the body of the Albatross, and trying to hit the engine, which was almost completely covered in.

Not the least part of Lieutenant Shield's work lay in steering his machine so that the Albatross should serve as a protection from the German anti-aircraft guns, and in evading tricks of the Albatross to lure him to positions where the 'Archies' could get him. The Lewis gun chattered away, the bullets 'pinked' all about the Albatross, dotted its wings with holes, and—best of all—struck the machine in a vital part. Of a sudden, Corporal Bennett saw it make a dramatic side-slip, saw its pilot endeavour to right it before that fatal second came when worse should befall; and then, as all the German's efforts failed, the Albatross tilted up its tail, stood on its nose—and dived through 7000 feet, crashing to earth inside the British lines!

Captain Leslie R. Aizlewood (Yorkshire and Lancashire Rifles, attached to R.F.C.) swept along on his aerial duties between the German and British lines, with shell-holed 'No Man's Land' scudding beneath him, the boom of far-off guns trembling in the air and 'woolly bears' breaking into fantastic shapes as the 'Archies' barked angrily. He was on patrol work, which called for eyes everywhere, lest out of the blue depths enemy machines should suddenly swoop and effect his destruction, or endeavour to slip past him and fly over our lines to spot certain things which the High Command desired to keep from the foe.

For a while the Captain saw nothing out of the ordinary, heard nothing more ominous than the roar of his engine and the muffled thunder of the opposing artillery, then there abruptly appeared, as it were from nowhere, five machines, heading directly for the British lines. Their appearance was the signal for Captain Aizlewood to pull his 'joy-stick,' manipulate his elevators, and so drive his machine higher than the oncoming aeroplanes, on whose wings were clearly marked the black crosses of the Hun. Up and up he went, while the Germans winged forward and in due course swept under the watchful pilot, whose idea had been to get between the Germans and their lines, and drive them back. With his Lewis gun ready, Captain Aizlewood was waiting for them, and with his engine going all out, he dived at an appalling speed at one of the foes.

Resisting the temptation to fire as he dropped, Captain Aizlewood, in order to make sure of his victim, held his fire until he was within so short a distance as twenty yards; then he let his Lewis gun spit its vicious rain of bullets, sweeping the German machine from tip to tip, plugging holes here and there, snapping contact wires, and damaging the aeroplane so effectually that its pilot lost control. The machine tilted and side-slipped, and then began to nose-dive—the beginning of the end of another enemy.

But the tale is not finished. That downward sweep to such close quarters, and the amazing success of the firing, held elements of danger for Captain Aizlewood, who—so much is aerial fighting a matter of seconds—could not flatten out quickly enough to soar triumphantly over the now helpless enemy but went plunging down toward it. A breathless moment indeed! It is easy to imagine the cool-headed Captain manipulating the levers of fate and the wires of life and death in the hope of flattening out before the coming of what might be a fatal collision. But it was not to be: the British machine sped through the short space intervening, its wildly revolving propeller caught in the enemy aeroplane, there was a ripping and tearing, a deafening, maddening roar of engines, something went flying into space—it was part of Aizlewood's propeller—and then, the astonished pilot found his machine free from that of his victim, and the latter went on its way to destruction.

It was an unenviable plight in which the British aviator now found himself. His propeller was broken, his machine had received considerable mauling in that terrific mid-air collision, and somewhere in the blue were four other German airmen who would jump at the chance of tackling what they would consider a lame duck. Captain Aizlewood, his head clear as ever, tested his machine as best he could, found that it was not altogether out of control, although very nearly so, and with the British lines in front of and below him, the airman headed for the ground. It was a descent perilous enough to try the strongest nerves; and yet, with a machine that would not readily answer to touch, and that indeed might at any moment refuse to answer at all and so send him nose-diving to death, he swept toward the uprushing ground—and made a safe landing!

"For conspicuous gallantry and skill," began the official paragraph which announced the award of the Military Cross to the intrepid aviator.