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Thrilling Deeds of British Airmen by  Eric Wood




[309] FOUR months at the front, and a hundred fights in the air! Such is the bald statement of facts regarding the record of Captain and Flight-Commander Ball, D.S.O., M.C. Add to this the fact that by the time he had completed those first four months on active service Captain Ball was only nineteen years of age, and one has some idea of the kind of men comprising Britain's aerial fighting force.

It is impossible here to relate even a tithe of his many fights, and we must content ourselves with telling one or two of the exploits of this stern-jawed, keen-eyed king of the air.

He was a Second-Lieutenant (Temporary Lieutenant) when, on a day in the autumn of 1915, he destroyed an enemy kite-balloon. Now, in order to bring down a kite-balloon one has to be over the enemy's lines and well [310] within range of artillery; and although the weird-looking sausage is a fairly large target, compared, say, with a Fokker, it is no easy task to drop bombs with any degree of accuracy: the bomb has to hit fairly and squarely. When Lieutenant Ball spotted the kite-balloon he instantly made for it, swooping down upon it as an eagle swoops on its prey. When immediately over it, he loosed his first bomb, which went hurtling down to explode harmlessly on the ground. From below, the anti-aircraft guns began to pepper him; but Ball stuck to his task and bombarded that balloon until he had exhausted his bombs, though, to his chagrin, without having done any damage to his objective.

Driving his machine out of the danger zone, the pilot swept back to his aerodrome behind our lines, loaded up with further bombs, and without wasting a moment of time, took the air again and hied him out across country to the far side of the German lines. There was the kite-balloon, still tugging at its ground lines as though taunting him for his failure. [311] Lieutenant Ball repeated his previous tactics, but with this difference: one of the bombs struck home. Immediately the balloon burst into flames, and with a tail of fire roaring behind it, the basket fell rapidly to earth.

The official announcement of the award of the M.C., for conspicuous skill and gallantry on many occasions, contained, after a brief account of this exploit, the following cold statement: "He has done great execution among enemy aeroplanes. On one occasion he attacked six in one flight, forced down two and drove the others off. This occurred several miles over the enemy's lines."

How one wishes for an amplification of that little paragraph, with all its details filled in! But the lack in this instance is somewhat atoned for in the official accounts of how Lieutenant Ball earned his D.S.O., and the two bars thereto.

The day on which he won the D.S.O. was a very eventful one for Lieutenant Ball. First he espied seven enemy machines in attacking [312] formation, and made a dive for them, separating one from the others and driving toward it at a terrific rate until he was within some fifteen yards. At such short distance there is little chance of manoeuvring for position, and it is a case of fighting right away. The Britisher set his machine-gun ta-tat-tatting, and from the German machine came an answering song of hate. Bullets from the guns plunked into the machines, flipped through planes, snipped wires which twanged to the rush of air; but, although Ball had many a mark to show subsequently, none of the enemy's shots got home vitally, or caused sufficient damage to put his machine out of control. On the other hand, the German got it hot—the spraying bullets from Ball's gun dealt severe punishment to the Teuton and his aeroplane. The Hun machine was suddenly seen to shiver; do what the pilot would he could not get back control of it; and presently it slithered through the air and crashed to earth.

This was quite sufficient for the other half-dozen Germans, who promptly made off!

The air was full of hostile machines that day, [313] and scarcely had the gallant Ball finished the fight just described when five fresh antagonists appeared in sight. Having still a fair supply of ammunition, Ball went gallantly to the attack, adopting similar tactics and concentrating upon the machine nearest him, which he approached at rapid speed until he was within ten yards of it. For a second time that day he was successful; well-aimed shots hit the German's petrol tank and played havoc with the engine, so that the machine went nose-diving to earth with flames issuing forth from its fuselage.

There was little time to exult over his victory, for Lieutenant Ball during his attack on this machine had been subjected to a rapid fire from another enemy, to whom he now turned his undivided attention. Quick as lightning he swung round to the attack, firing his bullets into the German, and giving his foe neither rest nor respite until he had afforded him the full benefit of every cartridge in his possession. Once again, the enemy machine, badly holed and quite out of control, crashed down on the top of a house in a village [314] over which the latter part of the fight had taken place.

Having used up all his ammunition, Lieutenant Ball winged his way to the nearest aerodrome within our lines, took in a supply, and with a cheery wave of the hand was off up into the air again, looking for more enemies—and finding them. What happened later on was a fitting climax to a brilliant series of encounters; for meeting three enemy machines, he attacked them so vigorously that the Germans, utterly demoralized, scudded for earth and safety: anywhere, to get out of range of this fearless fighter!

"Then," says the communiqué  laconically, "Lieutenant Ball, being short of petrol, came home. His own machine was badly shot about in these fights."

On the day that he won the first bar to his D.S.O. Captain Ball was on escort duty to a squadron of bombing planes, and in the course of the flight he espied four German machines in formation, waiting to attack the British raiders. Instead of giving them the opening they wanted, the Lieutenant took the initiative, [315] and being at a greater height than the enemy aeroplanes, dived toward them at such a speed that, in order to avoid collision, the Germans had to break up their formation—which was just what Ball wanted. Before his foes could recover position, he was upon the nearest one, spraying the machine with his bullets and causing such havoc that it went tumbling down to bury its nose in the ground, a complete wreck.

Captain Ball seems to have been fond of smashing formations of German aeroplanes, for the announcement gazetting this first D.S.O. bar contains an account of another exploit, in which he went boldly to the attack of no fewer than twelve enemy planes! Adopting his usual tactics, he dived and scattered the enemy forces, firing at the nearest one with such good effect that it was put out of control and went spinning over and over to destruction. He had little opportunity for observing his enemy's end, however, for he had scarcely succeeded in sending the first machine to earth before three others were upon him, attacking from different angles. It was a desperately tight corner, in which an instant's [316] loss of self-control, the slightest negligence, meant disaster! Clear-headed and daring, the pilot darted into the attack, first at one foe and then at another, driving one away—probably too scared to come again within range of such a doughty fighter—and putting a second one out of control so that it went earthward to keep its shattered companion company.

Ball now found himself in anything but a fit condition to continue the fight, for his machine had been badly handled by the enemy, and he had emptied his gun of its last cartridge, whereas he knew that the third machine, which was now coming toward him intent on trying conclusions, was probably well supplied with ammunition The British pilot was under no delusions as to what might be about to happen, and told himself that his flying days were probably over, for the German was humming toward him, with his machine-gun fully trained upon the foe. A few more yards and the spraying bullets would be spattering all about him . . . a few more minutes and his machine would perhaps go spinning to destruction. . . .

[317] Ball, with his eyes fixed upon his onrushing foe, did not try to avoid the combat, for—he had his revolver fully loaded! A revolver against a machine-gun spitting death at the rate of hundreds of bullets a minute! It makes one hold one's breath even to think of it!

Fortunately, that Teuton did not know the straits his enemy was in, or no doubt he would have acted far differently from what he did. As he drew near Lieutenant Ball noticed that the German was seized with a nervous shaking. Probably the fierce onslaughts upon his companions had utterly unnerved him. As becomes a warrior, whether he fights on land or sea or in the air, Captain Ball was quick to seize his chance: he opened fire with his revolver and emptied it full in the face of his foe. A grim dramatic moment! Yet not so dramatic as the moment that followed, for the impetus of his swift flight carried the German on a little way, and then—his machine turned over, and went down . . . down!

Very cautiously the victor banked and turned; then, flying very low owing to the [318] fact that his machine had been badly mauled, Captain Ball returned safely home.

Much more might be told of Captain Ball's achievements, for he had a most remarkable record in the air. In the course of his many adventures he had accounted for no fewer than forty-two enemy machines. Then came disaster. Early in May 1917 it was announced that this gallant officer had been missing since the evening of the 7th of that month. He had gone up with ten other airmen, on a flight the purpose of which was not revealed, and the last that was seen of him was when he was a little way over the enemy lines. Then the light failed, and the aviator, hero of so many fights, took his place upon the tragic list of 'missing,' a list which has contained the names of few men more entitled to the admiration of their countrymen.

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