Thrilling Deeds of British Airmen - Eric Wood

Some Stories of 'Rupert'

Although we hear more about the aeroplane than we do about the kite balloon, it must not be forgotten that the former has by no means ousted the latter from its place as a valuable arm in an army's equipment. The aeroplane goes out over the enemy's lines, seeking hidden batteries, photographing positions, locating reserves, and hovering over bombarded sectors and signaling to the far-off gunners the effect of their firing. The balloon—that is, the kite balloon, the queer-looking, unwieldy gas-bag with its observation car dangling below—is used behind the lines continuously to observe the effect of gun-fire; but, although it is behind the lines, it is by no means safe. Why, by the way, the kite balloon should have been christened 'Rupert' no one knows, any more than it is possible to find out why the anti-aircraft gun should be called 'Archibald,' but there it is. Wherever the flying men go they carry their 'lingo' with them, and, no doubt, these little things give a touch of humour to what is, after all, a most serious business.

Naturally, the artillery objects to enemy kite balloons, and attempts are made to bring them down—both by gun-fire and aeroplane attacks. As a result, many have gone to earth in flames, and lucky is the observation officer in such circumstances who escapes with his life. Very often, when a strong wind is blowing, the cables cannot stand the strain put upon them, the balloon tugs like a dog on the leash, shakes itself, and goes on a wild, free voyage at the bidding of the wind—sometimes toward the enemy's lines.

An incident of this latter kind befell Second-Lieutenant A. C. D. Gavin (Royal Highlanders and R.F.C.) and a passenger who was in the swaying car with him. A bombardment was about to take place at a certain point of the line, and Lieutenant Gavin had been deputed to go aloft. The great gas-bag, unwieldy, hideous-looking thing that it was, had been inflated, and the Lieutenant and his passenger took their places in the basket. The word was given to be off; strong-armed men on a motor lorry near by began to unwind a steel cable from a big winch, and the 'Rupert' started to mount, swaying in the wind, but always being brought back to position by the queer-looking 'rudder.' Up and up, until, at 4000 feet, the balloon came to rest—if continually straining at a leash which will not allow the balloon to go higher can be called rest.

Far below, and well away from the motor lorry, the guns were firing. Lieutenant Gavin through his binoculars marked where the shells burst in the distant German lines. Presently there was a great spout of earth and debris of all kinds. The Lieutenant spoke a few words into the telephone with which his balloon was provided, and the man in the shelter below received a message which told of the result of that trial round; he in turn telephoned it to the far-off battery, the receiver there rushed off to the officer in charge, the range was altered, and once again the heavies opened fire.

Meanwhile, up in the basket, Lieutenant Gavin was having no pleasant time. The Germans had quickly realized that the good marksmanship being made by the battery they could not see and could not hit was the result of the keen watching of the man in the swaying basket, and they were doing their utmost to bring his observation work to a close. They opened fire with their heavies, aided by their own balloonists, who knew that beneath the British balloon there was the attendant lorry, and this being a better target than the gas-bag itself, they directed their gunners' fire toward it. Lieutenant Gavin, looking down, saw a 'Crump' arrive, saw the earth flung up in a shower, and knew that he was likely to be cut adrift. While yet his cables held, however, he was going to carry out the work assigned to him, and, all unconcerned, as became a Briton, he went calmly on with the task of correcting the range of our own firing and noting the effect of the shells.

Observation work is not all plain sailing. The Germans have a little dodge which they play, and that is to fire off flashes at various points, hoping to mislead the observer into believing that they are the flashes of guns. A man needs to be well trained and well experienced to avoid being fooled in this way, because to be deceived means that the battery will waste hundreds of shells, perhaps, on trying to smash guns which do not exist!

Lieutenant Gavin was not to be deceived, and he did such good work that the Germans realized that unless they made better practice with their firing their guns would be out-matched. So they concentrated upon the lorry; there was a terrific roar below, the balloon gave a sudden leap upward; and, looking down, the Lieutenant saw a great hole in the ground where the lorry had once stood.

He knew what had happened, and he knew that his work for that day, at any rate, if not for the duration of the war, was over. The balloon, as though happy to be released, bounded still higher, and, caught in a wind current, began to drift toward the enemy's lines.

Such a moment calls for prompt action, and Lieutenant Gavin was not found wanting. Dropping many hundreds of feet in a parachute does not appeal to everybody, and many can remember the feeling of dread at exhibitions when the parachutist dropped out of the basket of his balloon and a violent death seemed to be assured.

Perhaps parachuting is a fine sport, if you know how to use the apparatus; but if you have not been initiated, there is little sport about it, especially if shrapnel is screaming around. However, Lieutenant Gavin coolly set to work to instruct his passenger in the use of the parachute, made sure that he understood, then, with a cheery au revoir, helped him up on to the edge of the basket, which was swaying perilously all the time, and told him to "Go!" The passenger obeyed the injunction and dropped like a plummet for innumerable feet. His heart must have been in his mouth no doubt, and he must have wondered whether the wretched envelope would ever open.

Gavin now had no time to waste. Before he could follow his passenger on the exciting trip, there was much to be done. Supposing the balloon came down in the enemy's territory the Germans must not get hold of the valuable papers in the basket. These papers contained confidential instructions, and his own elaborate observations for the eyes of the Staff only. There were also instruments the secrets of which were not to be surrendered to the enemy. Gavin hastily gathered his papers, and deliberately destroyed them what time the current of wind was carrying the balloon swiftly toward the German lines. At last the final piece of paper was torn to shreds, the instruments were smashed beyond recognition; and then, and then only, did Gavin think about himself. He looked down out of the basket, and saw that he was still over the British lines, but rapidly approaching their limits. He seized his parachute, saw that it was in working order, put himself into the ring, gripped the handholds provided, climbed upon the edge of the basket, noted the white covering of his comrade's parachute still dropping toward earth—and fell, like Lucifer, into the emptiness below.

Would the envelope never open? Was that terrific rush to keep on until he smashed into the ground? And, if the parachute did open, where would he land?

Gavin could not answer all of those questions at once. The answer to the first came suddenly: there was a jerk at his arms, as though they were being pulled out of their sockets, then the downward mad rush ceased, and in its place there was a gentle floating motion. He would not crash into the ground!

From below, as he drew nearer, came the louder boom of guns; presently came the rattle of machine-gun fire, and he realized that he was just over the front lines. But in which front lines would he land?

Down and down he continued to drop, his field of vision becoming narrower as he neared the earth; the white lines of chalk which he knew to be trenches grew clearer and more distinct, and at last he knew that he would land where he wanted to land—within the British lines.

However, when he touched earth German machine-guns were rattling perilously, and he had good reason to thank his lucky stars when at last he crawled unharmed into a British trench.

On a day toward the end of 1916, during a tremendous bombardment by both sides, Second-Lieutenant Norman Brearley (Liverpool Regiment and R.F.C.) decided that a certain 'Rupert' well behind the German lines was proving far too useful, and he resolved to bring its career to an end. As he winged his way over the front lines toward his objective the Lieutenant chuckled at the thought of the surprise he was going to give the Huns—always supposing that a certain little ruse he had in mind proved workable.

Long before he arrived anywhere near the 'Rupert,' he was spotted, and the 'Archies' did their best to drive him back or bring him down. But Lieutenant Brearley was a 'sticker,' and held on his way until, with 'woolly bears' woofing all about him, he was immediately above the kite balloon. The anti-aircraft guns, of course, redoubled their efforts, while the observers in the basket of the balloon fired madly from their rifles.

Suddenly the Germans on terra firma  shouted excitedly; the tiny speck in the sky was seen to be in trouble, apparently having been winged.

What had happened?

A high explosive shell had burst near the aeroplane, the machine had suddenly tilted, and with its planes almost at right angles to the ground had begun to side-slip at an amazing speed. Not one of the Germans below thought that anything could save the airman. Great was the rejoicing among the gunners, while the occupants of the 'Rupert' felt that they had been saved from a fate they scarcely dared think about.

The 'Archies' stopped firing, for it was only throwing away good ammunition to pursue a stricken foe whose life was all but spent.

Lieutenant Brearley sat tight, but there was no fear in his face, nothing about him that would have suggested that he knew he was hurtling to his death: instead a grim smile lurked about his mouth and a determined look was in his eyes as his hand gripped the trigger of his Lewis gun.

For this side-slip down through space was not the result of the machine being hit at all; it was a deliberate manoeuvre! The ruse was not one to be lightly attempted, for in order to deceive the spectators below, the machine must drop sheer with wings vertical and at a terrific speed to give the appearance that it was out of control. The trick called for grit—called for a man who was willing to take his life in his hands, because it might easily be that the machine could not be righted in time and then—

But Lieutenant Brearley was willing to risk all in order to bring 'Rupert' down, and the machine slipped speedily through the air, dropping thousands of feet in an incredibly short time to 1500 feet from the ground, when it was almost level with the balloon, which was now being hauled down.

Then the amazing thing happened.

The enemy below saw the apparently doomed machine suddenly right itself and, in a flash, dive straight for the unwieldy envelope. Too late it was realized that things were not what they seemed and that the Briton had been playing a trick. The guns opened out immediately, but 'Rupert' was now acting as a shield to the intrepid airman, whose machine-gun was firing rapidly upon it.

Meanwhile the Germans were striving to haul down their balloon before the aviator could inflict deadly injury upon it, but as he was provided with an efficient weapon for such an attack and was no prentice hand at the work, it was not long before Lieutenant Brearley had the satisfaction of seeing the ugly mass go blazing to earth, utterly destroyed.

Then, as the official account notifying an award of the Military Cross for the brilliant deed says, "he returned."