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Thrilling Deeds of British Airmen by  Eric Wood

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TALES OF THE COAST PATROL

[147] THE Navy which had for years toasted 'The Day' when it should hold a reckoning with the sea-dogs of Britain scurried to harbour when the war-clouds burst, confining its activities to an occasional dash upon unfortified towns or harmless fishing vessels, save for a few raiders that managed to elude British watchfulness and the submarines that were to open a new chapter of frightfulness. When the High Seas Fleet did come out in force at Jutland it was defeated. The Germans, therefore, so far as the North Sea is concerned, have done little more than patrol the Belgian coast behind the shelter of their mine-field. But, even these patrol vessels have not been left in unchallenged possession of the small area of water, for the naval airmen of Britain have on several occasions swooped out of the blue depths of sky and fearlessly attacked them.

[148] Such encounters are symbolical of the new methods of warfare and provide the naval counterpart of the spectacular incidents which have taken place every day on land. The fight of a seaplane, piloted by Flight-Sub-Lieutenant James Ferrand, R.N., on November 28th, 1915, against great odds well illustrates the point.

Ferrand, with First-Class Air Mechanic Oldfield as gunner, was on. patrol duty off the Belgian coast when he suddenly sighted a German seaplane, for which he made, only to discover that the foe was not alone, but had four other machines keeping it company, while far below on the wintry waters of the North Sea there was an escorting destroyer.

To many men such odds would have been sufficient to justify a hasty retreat, for, after all, there is such a thing as discretion But to Ferrand the idea did not occur: he reasoned that if there were so many sea-planes about, with a destroyer escort, it was not at all unlikely that work was afoot the execution of which must be prevented if possible. So, with Oldfield ready with his [149] gun, the Lieutenant drove his machine at full speed toward the nearest Hun. As the two machines came within firing distance the British gunner let rip a whole drum, and then, as the German replied, Ferrand dived, then circled and sped upward again to get position, and Oldfield rammed in a second drum, which he fired as rapidly as his gun would work literally riddling the German seaplane. The enemy machine gave a convulsive shudder as the wind caught the planes, now useless, for the engine was ruined and the pilot had no control over it; then, spinning over and over as it went, it dropped toward the water, into which it plunged, sinking immediately.

Meanwhile, the other four seaplanes and the destroyer were at work with their guns, although apparently the seaplanes were not particularly anxious to get to close quarters. What was happening was that the enemy were trying to lure Ferrand nearer to the coast, and in this they succeeded, for, being intent upon tackling the more formidable foe, the British pilot took little heed of the seaplanes and endeavoured to get at the [150] destroyer, which, as soon as its commander judged the time had come, opened with every gun that could be trained upon the Briton. Ferrand handled his machine with great skill, and, circling round, came well over the destroyer, upon which he dropped some bombs. There seemed every prospect of a really good fight with fair results, when from the shore there came a resounding clap as of thunder, followed by another and yet another.

The Germans' ruse had succeeded in drawing the British machine within range of the shore batteries, and their shells came screaming past the seaplane; and now that the odds were greater in their favour, the German seaplanes also swarmed to the attack.

The British machine-gun was worked heroically, bomb after bomb was launched at the destroyer, and the gallant pilot and his mechanic kept up the worthy fight until it was evident that the odds were such that further success was impossible. Then, and then only, did Lieutenant Ferrand turn his seaplane up into the mist above, away from the enemy's guns. On the whole, he had reason to be [151] pleased with what he had accomplished, although not a little disappointed that the heavy shell fire had prevented him from coming to a conclusion with the destroyer. He had also reason to be pleased with the approval of the authorities, who awarded him a D.S.O.

Both aeroplanes and airships have been found of great value as aids in the work performed by the Navy in connexion with the German submarine menace. A submerged submarine is invisible to the lookout of a ship, but the airman overhead can distinguish the steel fish at a depth of about thirty feet—sometimes more, sometimes less, according to the state of the weather—and many of the j-boats which sallied out from bases along the Belgian coast owed their capture or destruction to the 'spotting' work of the aviators of Britain and France. Naturally, the Germans became aware, after a time, that their murder-craft could be distinguished, and they made various experiments in colouring: with what success or non-success we must leave untold.

[152] The manner in which a Frenchman and a Briton, flying together in a French biplane, settled accounts with a U-boat which had, no doubt, been preying upon shipping in the North Sea, is typical of many other encounters. It was on a Sunday in 1915, at about half-past eleven, that Flight-Sub-Lieutenant Viney, R.N.A.S., and Lieutenant de Sincay of the French Flying Service, left their aerodrome and set out on a submarine hunt off Nieuport. They were well supplied with suitable bombs, and, by the time they were five miles west of Nieuport, were flying at a height of some 3000 feet. Looking down, they saw what seemed too good to be true. Two submarines were lying side by side on the surface. The airmen anticipated that immediately the drone of their engine was heard by the German crews the submarines would submerge. To their astonishment, however, this did not happen, and on closer scrutiny the aviators saw gleaming through the water the bright yellow of a sandbank, and they perceived that there was not sufficient depth for the submarines to dive. It was impossible to hope for a more [153] favourable situation, and, prompt to seize their opportunity, the airmen began a quick spiral descent.

As they dropped signs were not wanting that they had been noticed: men slipped inside the hatches, which were shut down quickly, and although they could not dive the submarines began to try to get away before the biplane could draw close enough to drop bombs with effect. Viney and Sincay held their missiles, preferring not to risk missing, as they might have done had they released from too great a height. This caution allowed one submarine to escape, for it got up speed and zigzagged on the surface in such a way that, although the biplane was right over it on several occasions, there was little chance of hitting it.

The other, however, seemed to be unmanageable. Perhaps her commander was flustered at the thought of that swooping bird of prey hovering so close above him. True, the submarine moved, but though her commander tried every trick that he knew he could not get her outside of the circles [154] which the descending aeroplane was making. Nearer and nearer the biplane dropped, and while one lieutenant piloted, the other kept his eyes fixed upon the squirming submarine, waiting for the moment when he might begin the attack. This moment came when the pilot brought the machine to within 200 yards of the surface directly over the U-boat. There was a sharp click as the releasing gear let slip one of the destructive balls; almost immediately there followed a sharp crash, and the aviators saw that the first bomb had fallen true, hitting the submarine's bridge and crumpling it up.

All the time the biplane was on the move, of course, and as the bomb hit the mark the machine continued in its circuit. Again it came round over the doomed craft and a second bomb was released. There was a second terrific explosion, the aviators saw a great gaping hole torn in the steel skin and the green water rush in. A moment later nothing was to be seen upon the surface but a widely spreading circle of oil, which indicated where the U-boat had sunk.


[Illustration]

A SEAPLANE 'SPOTTING' A SUBMARINE.

[155] It was all very quickly done, necessarily so, for not far off were enemy aeroplanes, whose observers might see the circling biplane and realize what was in progress out at sea. However, there was no interference from enemy aviators, and remaining near the spot just long enough to make sure that their prey had been wounded to the death, Viney and Sincay reascended at full speed to the dizzy altitudes whence they had swooped, and sailed homeward in high spirits, no doubt, at their success.

Following the British official announcement of the thrilling episode, came a wireless from Berlin to the effect that "Competent German authorities repeat that no German submarine has been destroyed by a British aeroplane. Papers point out that if the English report is correct, either a British or a French submarine has been destroyed." No doubt this was reported immediately to the horse-marines!

On May 21st, 1816, a number of German raiding machines suddenly swooped out of the [156] sky and rained their exploding missiles over Dunkirk. News quickly reached a certain aerodrome, and several British machines of the Coast Patrol darted up with the intention of cutting off the raiders as they passed Nieuport on their return.

Flight-Sub-Lieutenant 'Anonymous' of the R.N.A.S., mounted on a Nieuport scout, saw them as black specks in the distance, and went out to meet them, rising till he was in a position to attack and opening fire on them at a range of 400 yards. He sprayed the passing machines and would have continued the fight but for the fact that at that moment he heard the roar of another engine above, and, looking up, saw a black-crossed plane at about 300 yards distance and with the advantage of position.

Lieutenant 'Anonymous' at once set his elevators to 'rise' and went after the new enemy, chasing him out to sea until he was within effective range, when he emptied a drum into him. Reloading as quickly as possible and still climbing, the intrepid airman reached a height of 10,000 feet, his eyes still upon the [157] fleeing foe, when he was suddenly attacked by a large two-seater German machine which opened fire at a long range.

One more foe did not matter much to Lieutenant 'Anonymous,' who promptly replied with his Lewis gun. He was able to see that his aim had been remarkably good, even at the long range at which the duel was being fought.

Suddenly smoke began to issue from the German machine, a smother of black cloud which almost hid it from the eyes of the victor, who, not without pleasure, saw the burning plane take a nose-dive to the sea.

Lieutenant 'Anonymous,' however, had little time to enjoy the results of his triumph and attack, for yet another enemy now appeared. He proceeded to expend the remainder of his ammunition upon the new foe, and the 'scrap' only terminated when he had no more cartridges to fire. The airman now decided that it was high time to be going, and he arrived safely at the aerodrome to learn, that a fellow-pilot had witnessed his fight with the two-seater, a burning example of the prowess and courage [158] of British airmen in general and of Lieutenant 'Anonymous' in particular.


Another anonymous hero of the Coast Patrol had a thrilling tale to tell, when, after the 'scrap' in which he was wounded, he lay on a hospital bed, in blessed contentment at having plentifully 'strafed' several Huns before being put out of action.

The pilot, whose name doubtless has appeared above a three-line paragraph which omitted everything that would serve to make the story real, was out on a bombing expedition over Marcoing (south-west of Cambrai) on August 2nd, 1916, and after having deposited with good effect the steel-cased explosives—the anti-aircraft guns meantime making thunderous music all about him—he banked, turned, and headed for home.

But he was not to be allowed to get away unmolested. The Germans, finding that their batteries were not making good practice, sent up aeroplanes. The first that the unnamed pilot knew of this, however, was when he turned and almost crashed into an L.V.G. [159] scout—one of the latest of its type—which was pelting toward him. It was a close shave, the touch of a lever deciding the fate of both aviators, but the Britisher was equal to the occasion and swept upward, so missing the Hun machine, which went roaring on beneath him. As he passed, the British bomber, his gun already unshipped, emptied a drum into his enemy and quickly slipped in another drum, intending to follow up his attack. While thus attending to his gun, he saw another British pilot bear down upon the German, which probably hurt his feelings, because the warriors of the air have a particular liking for finishing off their foes without assistance.

However, the British officer need not have felt annoyed at the thought of missing a 'scrap,' for, a moment later, a German Roland thundered into action and let fly a stream of missiles at him, to receive a full drum in return as the British machine drove in. That pilot experienced all the excitement he needed—and maybe, although one can never tell with these kings of the air! a little more than that, for while engaged with Hun Roland, [160] a violent storm seemed to crash down upon him. Throwing a quick glance behind him, the pilot saw no fewer than three other Rolands hanging on to his tail and rattling out hundreds of machine-gun bullets. No matter how the pilot tried to shake them off, they remained poised, as it were, directly over the tail of his machine; and the storm of bullets was unpleasantly steady—far too steady, for one riddled its way into the poor fellow's leg and he had much ado to refrain from yelling with the pain of it. Knowing that more than ever his life depended on keeping cool, he finished slipping in another drum, of which he gave the Rolands the benefit, much to their discomfiture, for the Lewis gun swinging from side to side sprayed them with good British bullets and convinced their pilots that safety lay in putting as great a distance as possible between themselves and their snappy foe.

If they had only known!

Scarcely had the Germans winged out of range than the engine of the stricken pilot began to misfire and thus bang out its protest [161] at being expected to work without a sufficient supply of petrol. The airman, knowing the signs, gave a hasty glance at his tank, and saw a neat little hole, like a black spot, through which the petrol was squirting.

A moment or so later the engine struck, and the pilot, although he knew that to land now would be to fall into the hands of the enemy, had no other course open to him but to make for earth. Sliding down gracefully, but in a frightful temper at the fate that had played him so scurvy a trick, he looked about for a likely landing-place.

The petrol from the tank was flowing over his left leg, and as it soaked through, the pilot had a brilliant idea—he shoved his knee against the hole and so stopped the flow; then, thinking that if he got more pressure he might even yet be able to get the engine to start again, he pumped for all he was worth, glancing anxiously at any movement of the needle of the pressure gauge. Meanwhile the aeroplane had been heading for the ground, which was now only about 200 feet below, with many Germans firing up in the hope of hastening its [162] descent. Suddenly, to the pilot's unfeigned joy, he heard his engine grunt and then open out into a protesting roar. It took but a brief while to flatten out and set the head of the machine for home—about fifteen miles distance, by the way.

It was a thrilling affair. Pumping hard, and keeping his knee over the hole to prevent the petrol from leaking, the pilot kept up the necessary pressure in the tank. It was no easy matter to do the two things and at the same time guide the machine. It was impossible to get the aeroplane to rise, and the intrepid pilot had to content himself with flying at the altitude to which the engine would lift him, about fifty feet.

Several times the engine seemed about to give in again, but pumping harder than ever, the pilot succeeded in keeping on the go. On one of these occasions he gave up hope and had flattened out to land, when suddenly the engine resumed working when only a few feet from the ground, and he was able to shove his machine up a little higher.

By this time the pilot was feeling sick and [163] faint from loss of blood and exhausted through the severe exertion of pumping. As he crossed the German lines machine-guns below opened out upon him and, seeing the low altitude at which he was flying, it was a miracle that he was not hit.

But, in due course, he succeeded in getting away, only to come to a place which he did not know. He was lost, and being so near the ground could not pick out landmarks by which to steer.

At length, however, he saw a French biplane flying low. Following it, he saw where it landed and made for the same spot, but went to earth with a crash which damaged his machine badly but fortunately did not injure him. The landing was made just in time; the pilot was almost at the point of collapse and a few more moments might have resulted in disaster.

Before the war, spectators at Flying Exhibitions held their breath as they saw some intrepid airman deliberately make his machine loop the loop. It seemed the acme of fool- [164] hardiness, a courting of death, but such experiments—for they were little more—added to our knowledge of the factors which make for air-worthiness, and in the Great War many an aviator has no doubt owed his life to the fact that those who looped the loop lived to tell of certain things which ought to be done to make certain machines more stable. Tucked in among the annals of our Flying Corps are the brief details of a story which, when the whole of it can be told, will be found to excel, in no mere dramatic sense, most things that have happened in the air.

The British pilot—name unknown, unfortunately—mounted in a single-seater scout, was on May 14th, 1915, chasing a German machine, the pilot of which apparently did not like the idea of joining issue with the foe who persisted in hanging on his tail. The German must have been brought to bay but for a queer accident. The British aviator, having splashed out a drum of cartridges, was in the act of reloading his gun when by some misfortune his machine temporarily got out of control. It was only a momentary lapse, [165] but in the air even a second counts, and the aeroplane, without any controlling hand on it, suddenly made a dive and turned completely over, remaining in that position as it tumbled earthward.

A tremendous event that, for the earth was 8000 feet below; and it is not difficult to imagine what thoughts must have flashed through the officer's mind.

That he was not hurled out of the machine to fall, a mangled mass, on the ground, is little less than a miracle, particularly as the safety-belt, with which every airman straps himself into his machine, happened to be loose and had slipped down over his legs. As the aeroplane turned its dramatic somersault, the airman but for his remarkable presence of mind would have gone flying into space.

As the machine turned over the airman clutched the rear centre-section struts and gripped for dear life. The safety-belt held his legs tight as in shackles, and while the machine went on its terrible journey through space, the unfortunate pilot, hanging head downward, clung to the struts and tried to [166] disentangle his legs. Round and round like a teetotum the aeroplane spun, and the motion of it sickened the aviator, whose blood ran into his head until he thought it would burst. The strain on his arms was tremendous and his struggles made the machine shiver from wing to wing. He expected any moment to see the wings fold up, and in that case the end would come only too soon. The suspense was awful; no less so because it did not last many seconds. The aviator's life depended upon his getting his legs free of the leather shackles, since the only hope of righting the machine—amazing thing that in such circumstances any man dared even hope to perform such a miracle!—lay in reaching the control levers with his feet. With eyes staring, and above him only the blurred mass of his overturned mount, with his heart almost stopping, and yet, as well as man can be in such a position, clear-headed and of set purpose, the airman exerted all his efforts, used all his cunning, and at last, with a gasp of relief, felt first one leg and then the other slip out of the strap.


[Illustration]

THE R.N.A.S. AT WORK.

[167] He did not know how near the ground he might be; all he knew was that he must have fallen a tremendous distance, and that his chance of life lay in immediate action. His legs sought and found the control lever up there in the fuselage, the control wires worked, ailerons moved, the elevators of the machine answered to the call, and, miracle of miracles! the aeroplane began to bend over, as it were, stood almost on its nose, then tilted, and at last rose up and fell back into position.

And the airman found himself in his seat, into which, as the machine righted itself, he had automatically dropped, though he still clutched the thin spar of salvation.

When in due time he returned to earth the much-tried pilot had survived an experience the like of which few men have passed through and come back to tell the tale.

One of the most dramatic episodes of the Coast Patrol occurred on July 15th, 1916. Ong of our Naval flying men, who had left Dunkirk, was ten miles off the coast and some 12,000 feet high when, as he was [168] approaching Ostend, he encountered a German seaplane, which was flying about 500 feet below him.

The recognition was simultaneous, and there began a matching of wits for position. The German seaplane, a single-engined tractor, banked and turned suddenly with intent to get into position behind and below the Naval machine. A second later both machines were executing a steep glide, and but for the promptitude of the Briton the German would have succeeded in obtaining the tactical advantage. There was but one way to counter the German's move, and the Briton, with swift decision, determined to loop the loop over his opponent. Down went his ailerons at the bidding of the control wires, and the aeroplane, to the amazement, no doubt, of the German (who probably imagined that his enemy had lost control), dipped, then rose again, and swept up and round, until it turned completely over. When the British machine righted itself, the sea-plane had passed underneath it, and from his favourable position behind the British pilot opened fire at a range of 100 yards.

[169] It was quickly evident that some of the bullets had got home, for the German pilot, apparently wounded, lost control, and his seaplane tipped over into a vertical nose-dive. The petrol tank must have been holed, for as the seaplane fell it caught fire, and the British pilot's last vision of it was of a flaming torch heading for the depths of the North Sea.


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