Thrilling Deeds of British Airmen - Eric Wood

The Train Bombers

One of the uses of aircraft in war is to disorganize the enemy's lines of communication, a direction in which much good work has been done by British airmen who have bombed transport columns and cut railway lines.

To illustrate the kind of work done the following stories may be told, beginning with the exploit of Second-Lieutenant H. Long (Durham Light Infantry and R.F.C.). Before going on to the recital of this adventure, however, we will first record another incident in which the gallant Lieutenant was concerned.

On September 10th, 1915, he sped across the British lines, over 'No Man's Land' and beyond the German trenches, to tackle an enemy observation balloon-shed, the balloon in which, from the British point of view, had on several occasions proved too useful to the German artillery. Lieutenant Long carried a special bomb, weighing one hundred pounds. Although he was fired at very vigorously by the German batteries as he passed, the airman succeeded in arriving well over the shed without being hit, and prepared to drop his bomb. He was flying in circles and taking aim, when an anti-aircraft battery close by the shed made his position so hot that he decided to deal with the guns and leave the original objective for the time being. So, mounting as high as was practicable, consistently with good aim, he darted toward the battery, and, as he passed over it, released his bomb, which fell plumb upon the guns. Exploding with a terrific roar, it reduced the battery to a mass of useless metal, killing some of the gunners and wounding others.

Not a little pleased at his success, the intrepid airman now flew back to his base and loaded up with another huge bomb, with which he returned to settle accounts with the balloon-shed. The Germans were probably far from expecting that the airman would make a second visit. They were engaged in packing up their balloon when the dramatic reappearance of the aviator caused something like consternation. Long lost no time in getting to business: as he swooped over the spot where the men, looking like flies, were tugging at ropes to haul down the captive monster, he let loose his giant bomb, and as he whirred away there came up to him the resonant roar of the explosion. Looking down, he saw that his aim had not been so good as on the previous occasion: the bomb had missed its objective, although only by a very few yards. No little damage was done in the neighbourhood, however, which was some comfort to the plucky Lieutenant.

Three days later Lieutenant Long set out on a different adventure. Information had been received that a number of enemy trains were being moved up toward the front, and it was desirable that they should be stopped. The mark presented by a moving train is not as easy as the uninitiated might imagine, any more than two sets of gleaming rails are quite the best targets. In order not to throw away his bombs, Lieutenant Long, when he came within sight of the speeding trains, dropped to an altitude of only 500 feet, at which, naturally, he afforded a fine mark for anti-aircraft guns and even for riflemen. He kept pace with the trains, which, on the appearance of the aerial enemy, had increased their speed; but his bombs missed the quarry and ploughed up the ground alongside the track. Determined not to be frustrated, the airman flew back to his base for a further supply of bombs, and then, concentrating upon the foremost train, he returned to the attack no fewer than three times, on each occasion flying at a greater height in order to make the best use of his bomb-sight. It was a case of rapid travelling, quick manoeuvring and nice calculation of the relative speed of the train and the aeroplane; a case, too, of taking hazards of being struck by the incessant fire directed at him while over the train, and especially while returning for supplies of bombs. But the Lieutenant courageously faced these perils, worked out his plans, and carried them into execution, with the result that after three journeys he had torn up the railway lines in two places, and so for a time at any rate had prevented troops from being transported to where they were sorely needed.

His success encouraged Lieutenant Long to essay a similar feat two days later, when he attacked a crowded train from a height of 500 feet. Although pestered by concentrated rifle-fire, he managed by most careful sighting to tear up many yards of rails.

Then, as though he had not done enough for one day, that very evening, when the ever-watchful observers reported that troop trains were moving twenty-five miles away, Lieutenant Long gallantly volunteered for further duty.

Again winging his flight over the enemy front trenches, he made for the trains, but a terrific rainstorm, the gathering darkness, and the gusty weather were against him this time, and he was unable to reach the trains in time to hold them up. Not to be denied, however, the airman turned his machine and raced toward Peronne Station—a vitally important strategic point.

It was a flight filled with many dramatic moments, for in the raging storm the elements seemed to be combining to destroy the intrepid human who dared to ignore their power. Long held on tenaciously, and presently, as he drew near to Peronne, other enemies joined in the struggle and he found himself faced by a veritable curtain of fire which barred the approach to the station. The roar of the elements was outdone by the crash of exploding shells, and the darkness was brightened by red-glowing stars from whose beauty death might come swiftly at any moment. So incessant was the fire, so menacing was the ever-changing pattern of the curtain in the sky, that the aviator perforce gave up his self-imposed task, and, sweeping round, steered away from the darkened station. But not to go home; the explosives he carried had not been used, and the intrepid pilot scorned to carry them back with him! So, climbing rapidly to about 1500 feet, he made for a rocket battery, sent his bomb hurtling downward, and heard it explode. Then the sudden cessation of fire from one of the guns of the battery told that the aim had been true; he had put at least one gun out of action, and the evening's danger had been justified, even although he had not succeeded in his first objectives.

On a certain day in the autumn of 1916 a bombing 'flight' of aeroplanes set off to harass the enemy on his lines of communication. Among the British pilots were Captain Eric J. Tyson (General List, R.F.C.) and Lieutenant John R. Philpott (General List, R.F.C.). At length, after many miles had been covered, what looked like a big black worm was seen in the distance.

The two British machines darted off toward the crawling thing, for they knew that it was an enemy train, hurrying up either munitions or troops. Captain Tyson reached the spot first, and dived from a tremendous height until he was within about 300 feet of the train. The droning of his engine had been heard; anti-aircraft guns barked at him, and riflemen sent up a perfect hurricane of bullets. It was a pretty picture for the artist, but a none too pleasant experience for the man sitting in the frail steed of the air. Suddenly, when right over the train, Captain Tyson loosed his bombs, which fell with resounding crashes and effectually stopped the progress of the train, many of the carriages of which were in ruins.

Captain Tyson was in a tight corner, however. In addition to the firing from the ground he had now to face several enemy aeroplanes which came rushing upon the scene and opened fire as he was dodging 'woolly bears' and rifle bullets. Meantime Lieutenant Philpott had come up and found that the train had been wrecked. Apparently there was nothing for him to do there. Not far off, however, lay the railway station—fair mark for any hostile aviator. He sailed right over, dropping his bombs as he went, banked, turned, and made back to where Captain Tyson was engaged with the enemy machines. During the fight the Captain had been severely wounded and his engine had been struck by an unlucky shot, so that it would not fire properly, and was a source of annoyance and danger to its pilot. The Captain, however, promptly shed his annoyance and forgot the danger in "the stern joy that warriors feel" when they meet their opponents. Ably seconded by Lieutenant Philpott, he fought a good fight—too good for the Germans, who received such a mauling that they very soon scudded to earth.

Meantime the Germans below were endeavouring to start another of their machines. Neither the Captain nor the Lieutenant were inclined to allow them to effect their purpose, and, as though they read each other's thoughts, they both dived toward the earth, braving a tornado of bursting shrapnel and singing bullets. Feverishly the Germans toiled at their task, hoping against hope to get their machine up before the dare-devil British should come within effective range: and hoping, too, that one of their own guns might plant a shell where it would put an end to the flying of at least one of the machines.

They hoped in vain. With engines roaring—the Captain's making weird protestations at being worked at all—the two assailants thundered into range, and gave the Huns a few missiles which scattered them in all directions and dashed their hope of sending up the aeroplane. Then up again, and with the wind whistling merrily through the holed planes, with crashing guns below them and screaming shells behind them, the Captain and his comrade took the unmapped trail for home. It is pleasant to add that later they were awarded the Military Cross, an honour which they had certainly earned.

Another officer who won the Military Cross for train-bombing was Lieutenant A. L. Gordon-Kidd (Special List, R.F.C.), who from a height of 7500 feet sighted an enemy ammunition train—good mark, and fair prey to the hawk of the Flying Corps. Down went the gallant pilot in a breathless dive which carried him to within 900 feet of his quarry. Then, at a touch of the pilot's hand, a bomb went whizzing through the air and crashed into the heart of that train-load of explosives. The destructive missile had been well and truly sighted! There was an upward rush of air, the force of which affected the British machine, and made it difficult for the aviator to keep the aeroplane on an even keel. Below, however, was a sight to hold any man enthralled: the bomb had exploded the ammunition, and what was left of the train was blazing furiously.

Another successful attack upon a train was the work of Lieutenant D. A. Colquhoun, R.F.C. This time the train was freighted with horses—probably intended to haul heavy artillery or to serve as draught animals for commissariat wagons. But, whatever their destined use may have been, few of them lived to serve it, for suddenly out of the sky came humming the deadly aeroplane with tricoloured circles on its wings. The engine-driver opened the throttle of his iron steed, the fireman stoked till the sweat rolled off him. All in vain, the dreaded bird of ill-omen swooped like an eagle from its tremendous height, and with such impetus that it seemed it must crash into the racing train. The pilot, however, had his machine well in hand, and when at a height of about 500 feet he released a bomb which fell with devastating effect full upon the unfortunate train. Many of the trucks were instantly destroyed, and the aviator, from his comparatively short distance, saw the bodies of horses flung into the air and far away from the train.

Second-Lieutenant F. S. Moller (General List, R.F.C.) is another hero of the air whose Military Cross was awarded for bombing a train. Together with several other airmen he took part in a raid with the object of harassing enemy communications and effecting as much damage as possible to the 'dumps' containing accumulated stores of ammunition. Each man knew what he was expected to do, and when, in due course, the raiders arrived over the scene of their proposed activities, Lieutenant Moller set to work. Far below he could see a train on the move, heading toward the British lines, and he knew that there was a fair chance of its being well laden.

Through his binoculars, Lieutenant Moller, as he dived to the attack, made out certain things which convinced him that the train was carrying ammunition, and continuing his descent until he was only about 300 yards up, he began to loose his bombs. The angry 'Archies' barked out their protests at the daring aviator, who, however, took little notice of them, and the ammunition train soon felt the destructive power of British explosives. Lieutenant Moller, having noted the success of his attack, now darted in pursuit of three other similarly laden trains, the drivers of which were obviously attempting to put as much space as possible between their freights and the airman. No doubt there was not a man on those trains who did not know that if a bomb from the raider with the tricoloured targets should fall upon the swaying line of cars there would be an explosion from which few, if any, of them would escape. But a railway train is at a disadvantage as regards speed when compared with an aeroplane, and Lieutenant Moller had no trouble in catching up with his foes; shells burst around him as he flew, and shrapnel clattered upon the body of his machine. Undeterred, he came up with the rearmost train, swooped, sighted, and his bombs fell with a resounding crash. Spending no further time on the crippled train, the airman caught up with first one and then the other train, treating them with similar severity.

It was a very satisfied British airman who now returned to his base, and not even the incessant fire of the anti-aircraft guns which battered his machine spoiled his enjoyment.