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Thrilling Deeds of British Airmen by  Eric Wood


 

 

A BATCH OF V.C.S

[170] LIKE the other branches of the fighting forces, the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service have won their quota of Victoria Crosses in the war, and in other chapters will be found the stories of the marvellous feats by which some of them were won. It goes without saying that the V.C. is not won easily, as the following accounts of almost superhuman bravery will show.

Major Lance G. Hawker (R.E. and R.F.C.), who won his Victoria Cross on July 25th, 1915, had about three months previously been awarded the D.S.O. for a dash over the German lines to Gontrode, where he attacked an airship shed. The 'Archies' were very active that particular day, and a ring of bursting shells seemed to be made around the devoted airman as he droned within sight of the Germans. He had been unable to take [171] them by surprise, for over the position was a captive balloon, the occupants of which had heard and seen the on-coming aeroplane long before the men at the guns had done so, and had telephoned the news to those below. But Lieutenant Hawker (he was Lieutenant in those days) had not gone out on his expedition without knowing that he had a difficult task before him, and the balloon which had enabled the Germans to prepare a warm welcome for him was destined to assist him in his work, for as he sailed into view of it the intrepid airman by a stroke of genius decided to use the 'sausage' as a shield.

He was flying at a great height as he approached the shed, but knowing that in order to drop his bombs effectively he must get closer to his objective, the airman presently began to descend at a speed which completely baffled the gunners: As he drew nearer he very skilfully manoeuvred so that he had the balloon between his machine and the artillery. This, of course, added to the difficulties of the German gunners, who, naturally, had no wish to send a screaming shell into the giant [172] gas-bag, from which was suspended a basket containing some of their own comrades. The Lieutenant found that dodging the shells was no easy task, even when he was at a great height, and when in due course he came within 200 feet of the ground, it is not too much to say that it was a case of 'touch and go.' Indeed, it was remarkable that his machine was not smashed to pieces. Only the utmost ingenuity in the utilization of that captive balloon saved the airman from destruction and enabled him to wing into such a position that he could loose his bombs with such a degree of accuracy that they went crashing on to the airship shed, to the consternation of the Germans who had felt sure of their prey. The Lieutenant was within so short a distance of the shed that he felt the effects of his own bombs; but, cool-headed and calm, he kept his machine under complete control and, while the 'Archies' boomed out at him, he set his aeroplane climbing back into the giddy heights and so away toward home. In such fashion did he win the D.S.O.

And now to relate the manner in which he [173] earned the little bronze Maltese cross—"For Valour."

The official announcement of the award began with, "For most conspicuous bravery and very great ability," and, as the powers that be do not indulge in superlatives without ample reason, it is evident that the exploit of Major Hawker, although officially described in a ten-line notice, was something fairly remarkable, to say the least. What really happened, so far as we are permitted to know, was that on July 25th, Major Hawker was flying on reconnaissance duty "somewhere in France," when suddenly he was attacked simultaneously by three enemy aeroplanes. The odds were greater than would at first appear, for each of the hostile battle-planes carried a pilot and an observer, both of whom had machine-guns, while the gallant Major was flying alone. It really meant, therefore, six men to one and six guns to one, and yet Major Hawker went gaily into the 'scrap.' At a height of 20,000 feet he bore down upon one of the machines, leaving the others to do as they liked while he attended to their [174] companion. Needless to say, the two companion machines tried their best to bring him down, but Major Hawker concentrated his efforts upon the one he had marked, and, after a short yet severe tussle, he peppered the German 'plane all over, so badly mauling it that its pilot lost control and had to make a dive for the ground, where, unfortunately for him, he landed with a crash inside the British lines.

While his crippled opponent was slipping through airy spaces, Major Hawker was at grips with a second one, and, despite a tremendous ta-ta-ta-tatting of the two machine-guns mounted on it, and the whistling of bullets from the third machine which he could not tackle for a little while, he manoeuvred his aeroplane with such marked ability that from the beginning it was evident the Huns were outmatched. Before very long the Major saw the second hostile machine bank, turn, and then swoop away, heading for its own lines. It had been so severely handled that its pilot had all his work cut out to keep control, but succeeded in doing so just long enough to reach safety.

[175] It was now time to deal with number three, which Major Hawker treated as he had the other two. He tackled it with vigour, poured in a rapid fire of shots which tore through the wings and the body, generally making things so warm for the two German airmen that, not at all relishing their treatment and by no means eager to suffer the fate of their companions, they turned and scurried away, hotly pursued by Major Hawker, who, however, was unable to bring them again to action.

Since the days when the Major performed that feat many other airmen have done similar things, and very many have been faced by even greater odds; yet it must be remembered that in the early part of 1915 aerial fighting may be said to have been in its infancy: machines were not so air-worthy, the armament of them was not so effective, and altogether the danger and the difficulty were relatively greater. With the improvements made in aircraft, such an affair as a fight between one machine and three became more or less a minor matter, but that in nowise diminishes the achievement of Major Hawker, [176] who at later dates distinguished himself yet more, and won the reputation of being one of Britain's finest aerial fighters. Without much doubt, the reports of the Air Board made reference to his name in their repeated commendations of 'Major A.' and 'Major B.' To the regret of very many, in 1916 his name appeared in the list of 'Missing.'

About a week after Major Hawker had won the V.C., one of his fellow-fliers, Captain John Aidan Liddell (3rd Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and R.F.C.), also won the distinction. On the last day of July, 1915, Captain Liddell was on a flying reconnaissance over Ostend-Bruges-Ghent, when he was wounded in the thigh by high-explosive shrapnel from an anti-aircraft gun. His leg was riddled with bullets, being wounded in fifty places! The observer, who saw his pilot sag helplessly, and realized that he was sorely wounded, had little time for thinking, for the aeroplane immediately began to drop sheer down. The shock had rendered Captain Liddell unconscious, and he had been jammed [177] between the steering-wheel and the side of his seat. The machine was free to go its own way—which was directly earthward—and the jerk pitched the observer between the struts and the machine-gun. As the aeroplane dropped the rush of the wind was tremendous, and the observer was never so thankful in his life for being jammed up so that he could not move, for the machine turned turtle and then came right way up again, as it dropped in a spin from which it appeared there could be no recovery!

The unconscious pilot, it seemed, would never come back to the world of feeling. The observer well knew what happened in such circumstances: he had seen machines crash to earth when the pilot had lost control. There is on record the story of two airmen who found themselves in a similar plight to that in which Captain Liddell and his comrade were in, and the observer, unable to do anything to right the machine, had to content himself with trying to rouse his pilot by banging as loudly as he could upon the frame-work of the aeroplane! Whether that had [178] any effect, or whether it was the uprush of cold air which brought the pilot back to consciousness, is not known, but the fact remains that after the uncontrolled machine had dropped 5000 feet, and when it was within 2000 feet of the ground, the pilot regained consciousness, and succeeded in getting his mount under control again.

In like manner, Captain Liddell came round, to find himself bleeding profusely, with a feeling that if he moved his leg would drop off; with pain racking his body, his head throbbing, and his machine slipping downward at a speed amazing even to so skilled an airman. The altimeter showed they had fallen 3000 feet, and it seemed impossible for him to pull up, because in the moment that his eyes opened he saw that the control wheel was affected. How could he hope to get his machine in hand? He could see no way to do so, and yet—such is the stuff of which heroes are made—he attempted the seemingly impossible. Only Captain Liddell himself knows how he managed it, but the fact remains that, growing weaker and weaker every second, [179] and scarcely able to bear the pain, by fumbling about in a half-dazed way with levers which did not want to move, he succeeded at last in getting the engine to answer. The elevators worked and, with a convulsive shiver, as though resenting the insolence of man daring to control it, the aeroplane began to slacken its pace, pushed up its nose, and approached something like an even keel.

Down below, German gunners who had seen the headlong drop of the machine and expected to see it crash itself to pieces on the ground, were amazed to see it begin to fly normally again. The whole thing seemed incredible. Yet, that did not prevent them, naturally, from doing their very best to bring it down after all; for, as Captain Liddell turned toward the Belgian lines, where, many miles away, was an aerodrome, the anti-aircraft guns opened fire, and the cotton-wool whorls appeared on every side. The gallant Captain—who knew that he could not last long, because of the stream of blood which was dyeing his machine red—fought against the desire to lapse once more into a blissful state of [180] unconsciousness, fought, not merely for his own sake, but for the sake of the man who looked to him to drive the machine back to safety, and for the sake of the authorities who waited somewhere behind the line for the report which had been gathered during the first part of the tragic flight.

Fortunately, he did not fight in vain. "Notwithstanding his collapsed state," ran the official announcement, "he succeeded, although continually fired at, in completing his course, and brought the aeroplane into our lines, half an hour after he had been wounded . . .

"The difficulties experienced by this officer in saving his machine, and the life of his observer, cannot readily be expressed, but as the control wheel and throttle control were smashed, and also one of the under-carriage struts, it would seem incredible that he could have accomplished his task."

Praise indeed: and heroism indeed!

"You must lift me out," Captain Liddell said to those who rushed to his assistance as he brought the machine to earth. "If I move, I am afraid my leg will drop off."

[181] He was carried to hospital, but, although everything possible was done for him, he did not live to receive the Victoria Cross, which was placed on his bier.

The official announcement of the award of the Victoria Cross to Second-Lieutenant Gilbert S. M. Insall (R.F.C.) stated that it was bestowed "For most conspicuous bravery, skill, and determination," and the high praise was well deserved.

This gallant officer was on patrol duty on November 7th, 1915, and his watch in the air was after a while rewarded by the appearance of a German aeroplane. The meeting between the aviators took place near Achiet, toward which town the British airman chased the German, who apparently disliked the look of the big Vickers fighting machine in which Insall was mounted. With his engine putting forth every possible ounce of power, the Teuton sped through the air; but he could not shake off the Vickers 'plane, which hung relentlessly at his tail. Finding that he could not escape, the German aviator changed his course and, [182] although Insall did not know it until it was too late, lured him toward a hidden battery.

The stern chase continued, and at last the two aeroplanes were almost over the battery. The first inkling Insall had of the danger was a salvo from the guns below; but, with remarkable coolness, he dived from a giddy height until he was almost touching the German machine. His gunner, First-Class Air Mechanic T. H. Donald, was on the qui vive, waiting eagerly for the moment when he could effectively let loose a stream of bullets at the fleeing foe; that moment came, and Donald, taking cool aim as his machine swooped down, opened fire. A whole drum of cartridges was scattered upon the rival machine, and the marksmanship was so good that its engine was hit and stopped dead.

The German was now in a sorry plight, but he knew that he had still a chance of escape if he could but volplane to earth before his antagonist regained position and attacked him again. Below was a thick bank of cloud, and into this, and through it, the German dropped. Caring nothing for the danger that [183] he knew must lie on the other side of the cloud, Insall also dived into the mist-veil, and, emerging from it, saw his enemy still going earthward. Like a hawk pouncing upon its prey the British machine swooped down, a few breathless seconds ensued, and then Donald once more opened fire, spraying the German machine with a nickel hail which literally shattered it, sending it hurtling into a ploughed field a few miles south-east of Arras. By little short of a miracle the aviators escaped death. When their machine landed, they scrambled out and very pluckily prepared to engage the Vickers 'plane, now hovering close above them.

Insall, when he saw that the Germans were still bent on fighting, dropped yet lower, till within 500 feet above the spot where the wrecked machine lay. From this position Donald let his machine-gun rip out its tattoo of death, and the Germans finding the place too hot for them wisely took to their heels. One of them was wounded, but his comrade gallantly kept with him and tried to help him along to safety.

[184] The British airmen, having defeated their foes, now turned their attention to the destruction of the machine itself. Near at hand were German trenches, the occupants of which were firing rapidly at the Vickers machine, which, however, merely completed its circle, and, as it again passed over the German machine, loosed an incendiary bomb from its rack. There was a sharp report, a burst of flame and smoke, and as he swept round and up Insall's last glance showed the enemy machine a total wreck.

The problem now before the victors was how to get home. They were about 2000 feet above the ground, and in order to obtain a higher speed than they were flying at, it was necessary to dive down. This, however, meant that they would come within easier range of German riflemen in the trenches over which they must pass; but the plucky Britishers took the risk, and improved the occasion. To the utter astonishment of the Germans, the aeroplane swooped toward them, the roar of the engine sounding like thunder. They could not understand such tactics, [185] and they could not imagine what the airmen intended. They were soon enlightened, however, for as the British machine came over the trenches its machine-gun opened fire, and Donald raked the defence ditches with disastrous effects upon their occupants.

Even as the aeroplane passed Insall pulled up and set his elevators to rise, and as the machine responded it was followed by a terrific burst of fire from the Germans, who had speedily recovered from their surprise. Bullets whistled past the rising aeroplane, cut holes in its planes and nacelle, and—worst luck of all—penetrated the petrol tank. Insall, looking at his gauge, realized that the oil was running out. To an aeroplane, oil is what the blood is to the body, and the Lieutenant knew that he must extract from his engine all he possibly could within the next few minutes if he were to get his machine to safety. He resolved not to try to fly to his station, but to alight just within the British lines. Scanning the country beneath and before him, he saw a wood not far away, which he judged to be about 500 yards within the British lines, and thereabout [186] he decided to land. From behind him, as he drove onward, German anti-aircraft guns continued to fire, and bursting shrapnel created smoke-clouds in all directions, but the speed at which the Vickers machine was flying and the fact that it was now gliding earthward disconcerted the gunners, so that nothing happened to prevent Insall from guiding his machine gracefully to rest beyond the friendly wood.

The moment the aeroplane touched earth Insall and his mechanic jumped out to see what they could do with the petrol tank. If they had hoped to be left unmolested, they were disappointed; for the Germans, who had realized the purpose of the airmen, promptly opened fire in the direction in which the aeroplane had dropped. During the next few hours no fewer than a hundred and fifty shells were dropped, fired at the machine, but not one of them caused any material damage. In the face of the bombardment, however, Insall and his companion found it impossible to effect repairs during daylight, and so they waited in the wood until night fell. Then, [187] by the aid of screened lights, they overhauled their machine, and found it badly knocked about by rifle fire but still in a repairable condition. It took them nearly all night to effect these repairs, but at last they were done, and at the break of day Insall and Donald mounted their aerial steed again, taxied it along the ground, and then drummed their way upward and homeward, duly reaching their station—little the worse for their perilous adventure.

In another place we have told the story of a dive to earth in a machine that was a mass of flames, and here in this collection of tales about the V.C. we must include that of Sergeant Thomas Mottershead of the R.F.C., who passed through the terrifying experience of dropping to earth in a blazing aeroplane.

It was one day in 1917 that Sergeant Mottershead pushed up the nose of his machine and drove to a height of 9000 feet, to enable Lieutenant Gower, his companion, to make observations of certain points in the enemy lines. Hostile machines came out to meet the target-marked plane, and a very severe [188] little 'scrap' took place nearly two miles above the ground. The Britishers were unfortunate, for a machine-gun in one of the enemy planes sprayed the aeroplane with bullets and tore a hole in the petrol tank.

Instantly, the fuel began to flow out and down toward the engine. Lieutenant Gower saw the first flash as the liquid caught light, and he immediately endeavoured to beat out the fire. It is no easy matter, however, to subdue flaming petrol, and Gower realized that the position was very serious.

Sergeant Mottershead realized this also, and knew that it was useless to think of continuing the fight. If he were to save the life of his observer, whose information was wanted by those in command below, he must immediately make for earth, trusting to the powers who guard airmen that Lieutenant Gower might be able to triumph over the fire. There seemed little likelihood of that, however, seeing that the descent would have to be made at top speed, which would cause the air to fan the flames until they enveloped the whole aeroplane.

[189] This was just what happened as the intrepid pilot sent his aerial mount plunging for earth. The flowing petrol ran into the flames already kindled, the air, as the machine rushed through it, drove the flames up to the tank, and before many minutes had passed the aeroplane was a blazing torch, with a stream of fire leaping behind it and a trail of black smoke.

A fearful sight to watch, and a fearful experience for the aviators! Throughout the time the machine was falling, Lieutenant Gower gallantly fought the flames, which he noticed were being fanned by the air all around the legs of the gallant pilot; but his efforts were unavailing.

Grim-faced, cool-headed, Mottershead sat in his seat, with the flames scorching his uniform and burning his legs horribly—the legs that he could not move out of the way because they were controlling the machine; and through the flames he was looking for a safe landing-place.

He was suffering intensely; the pain must have been sufficient to drive an ordinary man [190] mad, and the whole incident was terrific in its horror. Yet the gallant Sergeant did not lose his head: one thought only was present, and that was that he must save Lieutenant Gower.

The machine was slithering down the airy spaces at a wonderful speed, thousands of feet were dropped in an incredibly short time, and Sergeant Mottershead now realized that he must begin to flatten out for the landing, in order to avoid a dive into the ground. That this man could control himself to think clearly in such circumstances is astounding, and speaks volumes for his courage.

When Mottershead saw what he judged was a likely place for landing, he flattened as well as he could, considering the speed at which the machine was travelling and the fact that some of its control wires had been burnt away like so many cotton strands. It was a moment filled with tense anxiety and dread possibilities. Sergeant Mottershead, despite his bravery, was almost at the breaking-point: his eyes were bleared, the pain in his legs was terrible. Just behind him the tank was blazing, making life [191] unendurable. It seemed easier and better to die than to live.

Then the climax that he had dreaded happened. During that wild, mad descent the thought had ever been present that, as the struts had been burnt away, the machine might at any moment collapse; perhaps the tail might drop off, and then . . . the result was too awful to contemplate. Fortunate it was for that gallant pilot and his observer that the catastrophe happened when the machine was within only a short distance of the ground; otherwise, neither would have escaped death by being crashed to earth. Even as it was, when the aeroplane suddenly collapsed to the ground, a flaming mass still, Sergeant Mottershead was pinned down by the wreckage, and only by the promptitude of some soldiers who had watched the awesome spectacle was he brought out alive and conveyed to hospital, to die, alas! before the world learned of his brilliant exploit.

"Though suffering extreme torture from burns Sergeant Mottershead showed the most conspicuous presence of mind in the careful [192] selection of a landing-place, and his wonderful endurance and fortitude undoubtedly saved the life of his observer."

Thus testified the official announcement chronicling the posthumous award of the V.C. to this gallant pilot.


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