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Thrilling Deeds of British Airmen by  Eric Wood


 

 

RESCUED BY AIRMEN

[133] TO say that a roaring aeroplane swooped down through the air, landed, and in the presence of a host of running foes waited for a stranded man to straddle across its fuselage and then pounded back into the sky with its salvage, is to lay oneself open to the charge of being melodramatic. But it nevertheless is sober fact that on more than one occasion during the war an intrepid pilot, flying at a great height, having seen a comrade's machine go crashing earthward, has dived after him, intent upon giving what aid might be possible, realizing that if the unfortunate pilot escaped more than likely death he would be taken prisoner.

High up in the clear blue sky skimmed the glittering dot which friend and foe alike knew to be an aeroplane, and, because it came from seaward, recognized it as a British machine out on a reconnaissance and, [134] maybe, on a bombing expedition. Far out to sea grim grey outlines belched fire and smoke—and away behind the hills, that seemed like impregnable barriers to victorious progress, the earth went up in miniature eruptions; while from gun-pits hidden on the shelving beach, or in amongst the ravines which had been won in many a sanguinary battle, the 'heavies' of the Anzacs hurled their little less destructive high explosives at the enemy hidden in cunningly devised dug-outs on hill-side and in gulch.

And the aviator—it was Flight-Sub-Lieutenant Smylie, R.N.A.S., speeding inland—was out to bomb the railway station, Ferrijik Junction. The shimmering planes caught the sunlight and gleamed like points of gold; white puffs of smoke broke out all around, yet although the covering of the planes was riddled by the shrapnel, the Royal Naval Air Service man held on. Nerves of steel, head clear as age-old wine, every faculty alert, he was picking up this tit-bit of information, that seeming anthill with swarms of ants which none but an observer from above could [135] discover; and he cared nothing for the 'Archibalds,' except that they might—who could tell?—send him hurtling below, in which case General Headquarters would never know what he had found out.

And then, when the work was almost done, came the climax: an ominous silence—then the thunder again—then once more silence, and so on. The airman knew what had happened—his engine was playing him false! There is a vast difference between being 'pinked' by a foe and being treated scurvily by your own machine and the man in the single-seater biplane soaring so gaily a moment before over the hills of Gallipoli said strong things about the engine which in calmer moments he had often lovingly tended.

You cannot repair a fault in an engine when you are in mid-air, although, if you know how, you can do miracles of many kinds with aeroplanes while they are on the wing. In this present instance it was a case of going down to see what was wrong and trying to put it right. So Lieutenant Smylie put his machine at an angle and went volplaning [136] clown the giddy depths of air, taking the man-bird's chance that he might land in a lonely place.

One thing consoled him in his wrath, and that was that he had disposed, usefully, as far as he could make out, of all his bombs but one; and Ferrijik Junction was smoking and blazing as a result. He snapped his teeth together grimly as he thought of the luck that was really his after all in having that one left—it would come in handy later, perhaps.

The biplane glided down like a swallow, the earth seemed to be rising up to meet it; an amateur sitting in the fuselage would have felt his heart stop with the fear of the coming crash. But, instead, there was a slight jar, a rebound, and another jar slighter than ever; then stillness except for the quivering twang of the planes. Quickly unstrapping himself, the airman stepped out, slipped his goggles over on to his forehead and began to inspect the engine which had brought him down, as he realized, in the enemy's territory. What, however, he did not know at that moment was that a party of Turks had seen the volplaning [137] machine, and, judging the spot where it would land, were rushing toward it, hugely delighted at the prospect of their prize. The Lieutenant tinkering away at his engine, having discovered the secret of its awkwardness, suddenly straightened his bent back. Two things he had heard—the rushing of feet behind him and the hum of something above. Quickly looking round, he saw a number of Turks pelting along the rough ground, so near that he could see the grins of victory on their dirty faces.

"No need to try to tinker the old thing now," he muttered to himself, and made a leap away from the aeroplane, after having set fire to his machine, knowing that this would explode the bomb and so ensure the destruction of the aeroplane. At the same time he looked up.

What he saw set his blood a-tingling—a single-seater biplane similar to his own was swooping down, and he could see the varicoloured circles on her planes which told him she was British. And she was but a few-hundred feet above him, yet coming down swiftly as a stone drops.

[138] But would she get down in time to rescue him before that band of yelling Turks reached him? Smylie did not know: all that he did know was that they should never touch his machine. The trouble was that the descending aeroplane might alight so near the stricken machine that when the explosion took place it might be damaged and its pilot be wounded. Lieutenant Smylie, clear-eyed, clear-headed, was watching the one small bomb that remained in place, and, his revolver ready in his hand, he ran back, determined to blow the machine, and any who got near her, into smithereens: never should his British 'plane fall into the enemy's hands.

The hum of the coming aeroplane had now turned to a thunderous roar, and the airman knew that it could be but a few feet from the ground. Then came a hail:

"Quick, man!

And the aviator shot—shot with an accuracy that was amazing; there was a sharp explosion, a cloud of smoke, a rain of wreckage—and the advancing Turks saw nothing of their anticipated prize but scraps of wood and steel.

[139] But they saw something that made them frenzied; the second aeroplane was on the ground, and the stranded airman was sitting across the fuselage, there being no other place for him to sit. In the brief moments that had elapsed between the firing of the revolver and the descent of the shattered wreckage he had swung his comrade's propeller, had called contact, and had leaped astride the fuselage at the moment the big bird was on the rise. There was a rush by the Turks, who were yelling excitedly; incredible though it may seem, not one of them fired a shot at the aviators, who could have been killed outright. Instead, they tried to seize the biplane, as though they would pull her down to earth once more. One or two, indeed, did manage to snatch hold of her tail as she quivered to the purring engine, but they were shaken off like so many rats, and up into the clear blueness the biplane went with her double burden—up and out seaward, with the shrapnel bursting all around her. The rescuer—it was Flight-Squadron-Commander Richard Bell-Daviessat grimly in his seat and manoeuvred his [140] machine into the heights of safety, while the rescued held on grimly to the fuselage with hands and feet.

Commander Davies later received the V.C., and Lieutenant Smylie the D.S.O., and the announcement of the awards referred to the affair as "a feat of airmanship that can seldom have been equalled for skill and gallantry."

Captain S. Grant-Dalton (Yorks and R.F.C.), on escort duty with a raiding party in Egypt, was returning home at the head of his flock, when one of the machines went gliding to earth, badly mauled by gun-fire.

The Turkish gunners had been able to get in a good deal of practice, seeing that the British air-forces had not been idle. So their shooting was not so bad, as Second-Lieutenant Paris, observer to Captain Grant-Dalton, realized when he heard the scream of flying shells, and what was worse, saw the British machine go dropping to earth. Lieutenant Paris promptly informed his pilot of the mishap and the Captain instantly made up his mind. [141] The machine must not be allowed to be captured by the Turks. It was evident that its pilot was unable to get it to rise, for through his binoculars Captain Grant-Dalton could see him labouring bravely but vainly trying to get it to start. There was nothing for it, Captain Grant-Dalton decided, but to slide down those intangible precipices, bomb the stranded machine, and carry off its pilot.

Scarcely had Lieutenant Paris realized what was in his pilot's mind, when the machine was diving headlong to earth, the wind whistling as it rushed past, and the Turks playing a rare game with their 'Archies,' striving valiantly and perseveringly to get the range, the speed of the aeroplane making that no easy matter. This was lucky, for it helped the airmen and their machine to run the destructive gauntlet, and they succeeded in landing on the ground near to the derelict plane. It did not take long for Captain Grant-Dalton to put his plans into action. Having satisfied himself that the fallen machine could not be made to fly again in the time at his disposal, he rendered it utterly useless to the [142] Turks, who he knew would soon be hurrying up to take possession of the booty. Then with a cheery smile he took the pilot of the destroyed machine aboard his own and carried him safely away from danger to the home aerodrome.

The venue of the little thrill which we are about to record is given vaguely enough as "the Eastern theatre of war," and the names of the two officers concerned are hidden behind the initials M. and F. However, the absence of names cannot detract from the dramatic interest of the story.

The story runs that Captain M. and Captain F. went up on separate machines to spy out the land and to take photographs of a certain position. Long before they reached their objective, they sighted two black dots which they very quickly identified as enemy machines. This meant that the course of good photography would not run smoothly, because the pilots of those black-cross machines would have to be reckoned with. Not that the British pilots particularly [143] objected to a few extra foes, and, as a matter of fact, to have a 'scrap' in mid-air is a much better way of passing the time than to be 'strafed ' by some foolish gunners in safety beneath you.

So the British sailed in gaily with Lewis guns ready for the fray, although they decided to allow their enemies to go on with their patrol unmolested as long as, in their turn, they themselves were permitted to take photographs. But this did not meet with the approval of their enemies, who made for the two British machines, and a most exciting few minutes followed, during which the aeroplanes made circles around their opponents, or climbed high or drove low—and always the machine-guns rat-tatted at one another as they passed. The time came when the foe decided they had had enough for one day, and with a parting drum they turned and made off, much to the delight of the Britons, who thought they could now proceed with their interrupted snapshotting.

But man proposes and a bullet in a petrol tank disposes, as Captain F. discovered. The [144] engine spluttered and tried to work, but finally gave up in despair, and Captain F., positively sick over his hard luck, began to spiral down. Below were many ant-like figures, who were no doubt hugely delighted at the spectacle of their enemy in forced descent, for they thought that presently he would have to land and be compelled to surrender both himself and his machine.

But those men did not know of what stuff Captain F. was made, and they did not know that while he was corkscrewing through the air he was working out a plan to frustrate his foes, vowing that they should never lay hands upon his machine or the photographs he had taken.

Neither did the waiting enemies know that the pilot of the untouched machine had also formed a plan which, if it were successful, would rob them of every scrap of self-satisfaction.

Captain F. came to earth as lightly as a bird, jumped out of his aeroplane, and looked it over quickly to see if it was at all possible to tinker it up and so slip away before the enemy, [145] whom he could see within a short distance rushing toward him, could come up. He found that there was no chance of doing anything in the time at his disposal, and, determined to snatch one prize at least from the foe, he deliberately set fire to the derelict machine. The leaping flames and the rising cloud of smoke told the approaching foe what had happened, and with yells of rage they increased their speed, hoping to arrive in time to put out the fire.

Captain F. stood near his burning mount, waiting for the moment to come when he would have to surrender. But that moment never came. There was a droning roar overhead, and looking up he saw the machine piloted by Captain M. dropping toward him. Instantly he realized what his comrade intended, and needless to say his heart beat quickly as the significance of it burst upon him. The running enemies were so near now that it seemed impossible for Captain M. to reach his friend in time to pick him up, and to fail meant the capture of the heroic Captain F. [146] The aeroplane came to earth near to Captain F. and its pilot gave a shout of "Hurry!"—as though the stranded aviator would need any exhortation! He dashed over the intervening yards as though on the running track at school, and in a moment was beside the now stationary 'plane. No time for thanks yet—action, not words, was desired. Because there was no other safe place to which he could scramble in time, Captain F., without undue flurry, mounted the engine cowl and sat on it. Instantly Captain M. let out his engine, and speeding along the ground for some distance his machine mounted into the air. The enemy, shouting and roaring, tore madly toward the escaping prey, and were only 200 yards away when the machine rose like a bird, one man manipulating the 'joy-stick' and levers and the other clinging on to the cowl!


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