Thrilling Deeds of British Airmen - Eric Wood

The Spotters

In the changed conditions of modern warfare airmen have become the eyes of the army. Starting from their bases, aviators wing their way over the enemy's lines and observe every passing thing that comes within their vision, so that generals, sitting at headquarters, know exactly to where enemy reinforcements have gone, how many trains of munitions have been sent to certain places, where batteries are placed, and a thousand things that the brains of an army must be cognizant of. Trenches dug overnight are noted the next morning and inscribed upon the large-scale maps which are used as bases for the plans of operations. In fact, little that happens escapes notice—if the flying corps of an army has won command of the air.

In yet another sense are airmen the eyes of an army. During a bombardment observers, hovering over the field of battle, note the effect of artillery fire, obtain the range and wireless it back to the batteries; then, when the guns have hurled forth their bolts of destruction, they observe whether the range is accurate, and, if not, signal back instant correction. So the work goes on—and always under intense fire from anti-aircraft guns, for the enemy knows how vital to the batteries hidden away back behind the front lines is the 'spotting' of the aerial onlookers. It is work to try the strongest nerves, for the aeroplane is continually dodging like some giant dragon-fly, in the effort to avoid screaming shells, bursting shrapnel, or some enemy machine that has been sent up to put an end to the work of observation. Quick calculations have to be made, and made accurately, otherwise shells, each costing hundreds of pounds, may be flung across No Man's Land only to tear up vacant fields. Failure to explode in some vital place will cost many valuable lives when the infantry advance.

The following stories illustrate the peril and the glory involved in the work of 'spotting' on active service.

It naturally follows that when aeroplanes are on artillery observation service, enemy planes, as we have indicated, endeavour to bring them down or else to drive them away, and such efforts lead to aerial combats. During a battle on July 6, 1915, one of our 'spotting' machines was strenuously attacked by German aviators, after it had been found hopeless to try to drive it away by gun-fire. In those days the 'spotters' had to be fighters too, because aerial tactics had not developed into such a fine art as it, is to-day, when the observing machines are protected by fighting planes which fly much higher to keep a look-out for and to attack any enemy machines which may attempt to engage the 'spotters.'

The British artillery was doing good work, thanks to the information from the officers flying in the British machine. These were the pilot, Second-Lieutenant Dwight Filley, R.F.C. (Special Reserve), and Lieutenant Lambert Playfair (1st Royal Scots and R.F.C.), who was acting as observer. Their 'spotting' had resulted in so many direct hits that, the hostile anti-aircraft guns having proved ineffectual, a number of German fighting machines were sent up to attack them. As one by one they rose to the attack the gallant pilot of the British machine, with a word through the speaking-tube to his observer, made a drive which brought him alongside or above the enemy, and a fair supply of ammunition for the machine-gun being to hand, it was expended to such good purpose that one after another the Germans were compelled to retire. In the breathing spaces between the different combats Filley would drop back into position favourable for observation, and Playfair would resume his interrupted work of taking notes and sending back news to the battery.

The work in hand was important enough to call for all the attention of the two officers, but so far as they themselves were concerned, they did not seem to mind the interruptions. Down below, however, the Germans were becoming greatly exasperated, and finally some officer, having apparently made up his mind that the British aeroplane must be brought down or driven off if the position were to be tenable much longer, sent up a couple of aeroplanes simultaneously, with instructions to attack together.

One can, in imagination, hear one of the British airmen shouting through the speaking-tube: "Now for it!" or see the other passing to his companion a slip of paper with a few words scribbled upon it telling him to get ready for the scrap, with the added titbit: "There are only five rounds left!"

A final message was sent back to the battery, and then, while a shell from one of the guns crashed on to the spot indicated, Filley, without waiting for the Germans to attack him, swooped toward them in order to get in the first shots. It was a right royal battle while it lasted, but, unfortunately, it did not last very long. The British were badly outmatched, being short of ammunition and having two enemies to fight. Filley, however, manoeuvred his machine so skillfully, and Playfair worked his gun so cleverly, that, but for an unlucky bullet from one of the German machines, they might have come off with flying colours. That bullet, however, put an end to Filley's hopes, for Lieutenant Playfair was killed in the very act of firing his gun.

Practised as he was in the ways of engines, Lieutenant Filley, after recovering from the shock he had suffered at seeing his comrade killed, realized that his engine had been damaged by some of the spraying bullets from the German gun. He was helpless for attack now that his companion was dead, and his one idea henceforth was to save his machine. To stay where he was would mean being shot down by the Germans, in which case the aeroplane would be captured and he himself made prisoner, even if he were not killed.

The true soldier knows when it is time to leave the scene of battle, and Filley realized that his duty was to get back as quickly as possible. The enemy, thinking that they now had him, closed in upon him, but the Lieutenant swung round, and, with his engine making weird noises, as though it resented being driven while so severely mauled, made for the British lines. Presently the Germans came within range of the British anti-aircraft guns, whereupon they promptly turned tail, leaving Filley to go on his way unmolested to a graceful landing which he soon was able to make.

For his courageous part in this brilliant combat Lieutenant Filley was awarded the Military Cross.

The same coveted decoration was awarded to Lieutenant W. R. Freeman (Manchester Regiment and R.F.C.) for his "gallantry, ability, and very valuable work," about the same time and in somewhat similar circumstances. Hidden German batteries had been making things decidedly uncomfortable in a certain part of the British line, and the Lieutenant was detailed to reconnoitre their position. Despite continual attempts to bring him down, the Lieutenant held on his way over the German lines until he succeeded in 'spotting' the guns. His machine was fitted with wireless transmitting apparatus, and he proceeded to send back the results of his observations, until at last the British artillery got the range to a nicety.

Hovering over the German lines Lieutenant Freeman had some exciting moments. All about him shells were bursting and rifle bullets came thick and fast. German aeroplanes were not absent either, but for five solid hours the aviator stuck to the task allotted to him, and, although his propeller and his planes were damaged by bullets, he refused to be driven off until he considered that his work was done. Only then did he make for his base, no doubt highly pleased with what he had achieved.

Another 'spotter,' Second-Lieutenant A. A. Benjamin Thomson (Royal Warwicks and R.F.C.), earned the Military Cross at Neuve-Chapelle in 1915. He was working in conjuction with a heavy gun, well behind the front line, was bombarding the German trenches. On August 29th the rain was coming down in torrents and the clouds were at 500 feet only, which naturally involved flying, observation work, at a height which was distinctly uncomfortable from several points of view. In some way, perhaps, the clouds may have proved friendly, for when the German fire became too hot for safety, the Lieutenant could dart above a cloud bank and remain sheltered—to come through at a different spot and so compel the enemy to readjust sights and go to the trouble of getting the new range; all of which meant that the observer was given time to make his notes and send messages to the big gun, which, owing to his excellent work, was registering direct hits in quick succession.

Once, however, the clouds nearly brought disaster. Even we who grovel on terra firma  will understand that it can be no easy matter to keep one's bearings in mid-air when, owing to a driving rain, one can scarcely see the ground below, and when one gets tucked away among thick clouds it is easy to overshoot the mark. This is what Lieutenant Thomson did. He had got in among clouds which hid everything from his sight, and when he finally came down out of them, he found himself well over the German trenches. He was quickly espied by the enemy, and a very tornado of fire instantly enveloped him. Lieutenant Thomson, however, favoured by the gods who guard the brave, lived through the storm and succeeded in driving his machine back toward our lines, over which he calmly hovered, continuing his observations, with the result that, in the course of a couple of hours, the British heavy gun tossed no fewer than ten big shells plump on to the required target, to say nothing of others which fell uncomfortably near. The discomfited Germans shook angry fists at the airman who seemed, as he hovered lightly in the grey dome of heaven, to be mocking them. It was only when it became too dark to see anything that Lieutenant Thomson volplaned to earth, after a most satisfactory piece of work.

Another aviator who, by all the rules, ought to have given up, but who succeeded by a tremendous effort in keeping his machine in action, was Second-Lieutenant Malcolm Henderson (4th Ross Highland Seaforth Highlanders, R.F.C.). This officer was accompanied by an observer who was to take photographs of enemy positions. This work naturally involved flying at a low altitude at certain places, in order to avoid clouds and the 'Archibalds,' which latter saw to it that the British aeroplane did not have an unmolested trip.

Whenever Henderson dived or spiraled into view, German anti-aircraft guns banged away at him, woolly puffs of smoke burst all round, and high explosive shells crashed thunderously above the roar of the engine.

Coolly Henderson controlled his machine, and just as calmly the observer took his photographs, and it seemed that, despite the terrific bombardment to which they were subjected, the two aviators would succeed in their mission.

Then came catastrophe.

At one place the Germans below had the range almost to an inch, and explosions of the shells made the aeroplane plunge madly. The pilot kept his head, but expected that a missile would strike home at any moment. He did not have long to wait. Suddenly the machine staggered, and seemed as though it would turn over; there was a deafening roar, a tearing, ripping sound, followed by another, a hoarse cry from the pilot, a startled exclamation from the observer. For an instant the machine hung, as it were, out of control, then gave a downward lurch. The slip might have ended in a nose dive but for the pilot's tremendous reassertion of self-control. After recovering from the first shock of the appalling thing that had happened, Henderson set himself a task which was sufficient to daunt, so one would think, the bravest of men.

What had happened in that dramatic moment was this: a gun had found the exact range and a shell, hitting the nacelle of the aeroplane, had crashed its way through the floor, cut off one of Henderson's legs just below the knee, and then continued on its way into space.

Losing blood as he was at a fearful rate, with his head dizzy, his eyes bleared, every nerve affected by the shock, who could have blamed Lieutenant Henderson if he had given up? How could any man be expected to withstand so awful a disaster? In all too many cases, such a tragedy must have resulted in a still greater one, the culmination being a wrecked and burning machine, the funeral pyre of its occupants.

But incredible as it may seem, the dramatic truth is that the heroic Henderson on regaining consciousness immediately got his machine under control again while at that dizzy height of 7000 feet, and with the one determination to save his aeroplane, his observer, and the precious photographs, set his course toward the British lines.

Meantime, the German gunners, whose observers had marked the effect of the shell, had fully expected to see the machine fall crashing to the ground, but when, to their amazement, it recovered equilibrium and then turned round and made off, they feverishly got to work again. But ere they had made up their minds to act, Henderson had driven his plane so far that it was necessary for the artillery to get a new range, and by the time that was done he was still farther off. With a deafening roar the engine drove the plane along at its giddy height, and with physical strength fast waning, and the strain sapping his nervous energy, the pilot manipulated his machine, dodging the Teuton's 'woolly bears' when the range was too accurate to be pleasant. Already in the distance he could see the British lines, and if only consciousness would last, safety was assured. Bracing himself for a last effort, Henderson set his teeth, and, holding gamely on through the pursuing shells, he presently volplaned to earth well within our own lines. Only then did his grip relax and his senses leave him.