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Thrilling Deeds of British Airmen by  Eric Wood




[72] THE credit for making possible the destruction of the German raiding light cruiser Konigsberg, without undue loss to ourselves, belongs to the men of the Royal Naval Air Service. When the war began the Konigsberg  was at Dar-es-Salaam, and, acting upon orders given long before, no doubt, she at once commenced operations against British shipping on the east coast of Africa. Among her exploits was a sudden attack on the obsolete British cruiser Pegasus, which, some time previously, had bombarded Dar-es-Salaam and then put in at Zanzibar to see to her rusty old boilers and generally tinker up before undertaking further work. The Pegasus  never made another voyage, however, for on September 19th, 1914, while she was still under repair, a scathing bombardment was opened upon her, and her commander, looking seaward, saw what he recognized to [73] be the Konigsberg, belching flame from every gun she could bring to bear. The poor old Pegasus  could not reply to any effect because her assailant was well out of range of her guns. The conclusion was foregone and the Konigsberg, having wreaked her evil will upon the old cruiser, steamed away. But there had been some fine heroism on board the Pegasus, only one example of which we have space to mention here. This was the conduct of certain of the crew who, seeing their ensign shot away from the halyards, promptly made a rush for it, and, there being no other available means of restoring it, held it aloft in their hands, waving it jauntily in the most exposed place, so that the enemy should be under no misapprehension but that the outclassed little vessel would go down with her flag flying.

Some six weeks later, Nemesis, which had been on the track of the raider, caught her up in the shape of H.M.S. Chatham, which discovered the German hiding in the Rufiji River, opposite Mafia Island, in German East Africa, later to be wrested from the Kaiser by the gallant South Africans under General Smuts.

[74] The rest of the story reads like a romance from the pages of Marryat—with differences! The British officer in command of the operations sank a German liner in the mouth of the river, to prevent the raider from escaping, and then began shelling the cruiser. The Konigsberg, however, managed to get out of range, and, in order more securely to bottle her up, a fairly large vessel, the collier Newbridge, was sent up river toward the island on which the German seamen had meantime entrenched themselves, with machine-guns and quick-firing guns for artillery. It was but poetic justice that Lieutenant Lavington, an officer who had been attached to the old Pegasus, should be placed in command of the Newbridge  when she steamed up river on her hazardous mission. The collier was to be scuttled when she reached a position where her presence below the surface would effectually block the channel.

Lieutenant Lavington piloted his craft skillfully, and passing the fortified island, from which the entrenched Germans opened fire upon him, came to the appointed spot. The [75] collier was then swung broadside across the channel and water was let into her port tank so that she took a list to stern, thus offering great resistance to the four-knot current running. This operation having been successfully achieved, the crew jumped for the steam launches which had followed in the wake of the Newbridge  to take them back; buttons which connected electric wires with three charges of gun-cotton placed in the hold were pressed; there followed three terrific explosions, and the collier began to settle down to her last resting-place.

On the way back down river the gallant bluejackets had to run the gauntlet of the entrenched foe, who were using dum-dum bullets. There were a number of casualties, but the majority of the men succeeded in getting back unscathed to the waiting warships at the mouth of the river.

Although she was not disposed of until the following July, the Konigsberg's  days were numbered. To effect her final destruction elaborate preparations were made, but they were worth while. Two of the monitors, the [76] Severn  and the Mersey, which had been built for operations in shallow waters, were sent over to East Africa, together with a number of Royal Naval Air Service men and their machines. Headquarters were established at Mafia, from which place aerial observers went up to take notes of the exact position of the Konigsberg  in order that the monitors might be able to get the range.

To the man who knows nothing about atmospheric conditions and their effect upon aircraft, it may not seem a more hazardous venture to go up in East Africa than to do so in Western Europe, but the truth is that there is a vast difference. For instance, it is on record that a German aviator in Southwest Africa could only fly over the Union camps at certain times of the day because of the effect of the heat upon his engine. And much the same conditions prevailed in East Africa, where, as the official account said, "Most serious risks have been run by the officers and men who have flown in this climate, where the effect of the atmosphere and the extreme heat of the sun are quite unknown to those [77] whose flying experience is limited to moderate climates. 'Bumps' of 250 feet have been experienced several times [which means that the aviator has dropped into an air-pocket, and slid down the emptiness so quickly that the effect of reaching normal conditions again, has given his machine an awful bump, in much the same way as a man jumping from a wall feels the jar when he hits the solid ground below], and the temperature varies from extreme cold, when flying at a great height, to a great heat, with burning tropical sun, when on land."

On April 25th, Flight-Commander Coll carried an observer from Mafia to where the Konigsberg  lay. It was only after considerable trouble that they located her, for she was hidden among the jungle, with tree trunks erected upon her decks to further conceal her. The Germans, who, it was supposed, had an observation and 'spotting' station at Pemba, were quickly apprised of the approach of the aeroplane, and her appearance was the signal for a heavy bombardment. Perhaps because the German gunners were not experienced in aerial [78] shooting the machine was not brought down, but, as she had to descend to about 700 feet to enable the observer to take the required photographs, it is not to be wondered at that some shots got home, and that the engine of the aeroplane was badly damaged, although not so badly as to prevent the aviators returning to their base.

Final plans having been made, on July 6th Flight-Commander Harold E. M. Watkins, with Assistant-Paymaster Harold G. Badger of H.M.S. Hyacinth  (who had had no previous experience in flying, and had volunteered for the risky venture) as observer, left Mafia at 5:25 a.m., with a cargo of bombs, followed at 5:40 by Lieutenant-Commander Coll with Flight-Sub-Lieutenant H. J. Arnold as observer. The Severn  and the Mersey  were meantime moving up into the river, and while the monitors were taking up firing positions, and while Lieutenant Arnold was signaling his observations, the airmen in the first machine dropped their bombs, which action served to keep the Germans engaged. All being ready, the monitors opened fire, and at the same time [79] H.M.S. Weymouth  attended to Pemba observation station, with intent to distract the German gunners, that their bombardment at the monitors and also at the invaluable aeroplanes overhead might be ineffective.

The Konigsberg, closely hidden in the dense jungle, was no easy mark, despite the aid of the aeroplanes, which, naturally, could not keep the air so long in those early days as is possible to-day. The result was that, although firing was opened at 6:30 a.m., by 12:35 little damage had been done to the Konigsberg, chiefly because the aeroplanes, of which there were only two available, had continually to be relieving each other. The distance from the aerodrome to the site of the Konigsberg  was thirty miles, therefore "Considerable intervals elapsed between the departure of one and the arrival of its relief, and this resulted in loss of shooting efficiency." To make matters more difficult, just after half-past twelve one of the machines broke down, and the gunners on the monitors had to make the best they could of the one observer.

Naturally, the Konigsberg  was not taking her [80] gruelling without a fight. Her gunners worked their guns well, and won praise from the Admiral in charge of the British forces. The Konigsberg  replied, he wrote, "firing salvos of five guns with accuracy and rapidity. H.M.S. Mersey  was hit twice, four men being killed and four wounded by one shell." For six hours the bombardment had been going on, and the Konigsberg  was still intact, although she had been hit five times—not bad shooting, considering all the difficulties of 'spotting' the fall of the shots. Again the monitors fired a salvo, and the shells fell with devastating force upon her. The vessel was now seen to be heavily on fire between the masts. Then it was that the aeroplane broke down, and the work of observation was left to the second machine. The Germans had paid their respects also to the aviators, and many narrow escapes were experienced. But the work went on until 3:50, when the second machine was incapacitated for further work that day, and the operations came to a temporary close.

Although the Konigsberg  must by that time have been in an awful condition, her men [81] were plucky, and she had continued to fire with one gun, intermittently, for some time after the fire had broken out. Eventually, however, she ceased firing, whether because her guns had all been put out of action or because ammunition had failed her was not known then. Certain it was that, if she were not entirely out of action, she was incapacitated, and would not give much trouble when the time came to put the finishing touches upon the work.

These final operations were carried out on July 11th, and Flight-Commander Coll, having got his machine in working order again, went out with Flight-Sub-Lieutenant Arnold, to 'spot' for the monitors, which had effected necessary repairs and taken in coal. The observation of Lieutenant Arnold was excellent, and it did not take long for the gunners on the monitors to get the exact range, whereupon they literally showered their explosives upon the doomed Konigsberg, or what was left of her. Even then the Germans put up a good defence, trying to bring down the aeroplane, or else drive it away, and the aviators were in [82] no little peril all the time. Eventually, when the work was almost completed, the Germans got home a shot which so badly damaged the machine that Lieutenant Arnold had to signal to the monitors that they were forced to descend and would try to land near by. From 3200 feet the aeroplane dropped to 2000 in a very short time, although Flight-Commander Coll did his best to keep up as long as possible. He knew that the work must be completed as quickly as possible, and that without his machine the gunners on the monitors would, to all intents and purposes, be helpless. His observer continued calmly to take note of each shot as it fell and to send back ' spotting' corrections. A quarter of an hour passed, the aeroplane dropping lower all the time, and the Germans making frantic efforts to finish their aerial enemy, until at last they succeeded in hitting it again, inflicting further injury, which made it imperative to go down at once. Even then, while the biplane maintained an even keel Lieutenant Arnold continued to send his 'spottings,' but at last flight was no longer possible. The machine, piloted [83] very skilfully, came over the monitors, and then began to fall rapidly, turning over and over and finally plunging into the river near the Mersey, which, by the way, had been struck by shells from the Konigsberg.

It was a dramatic moment. Flight-Commander Coll was entangled in the wreckage, so that he was in great peril. Lieutenant Arnold was able to disengage himself and with great gallantry went to his pilot's assistance. The soaked planes were dipping one after the other into the water, and the weight of the engine was gradually dragging the biplane down. Working feverishly yet systematically, at great risk to himself Lieutenant Arnold succeeded in extricating Coll from the wreckage. He was only just in time; a few more minutes and the pilot would have gone down with the wreck of the aeroplane on which he had done such good service.

Supporting his exhausted companion, Lieutenant Arnold awaited anxiously the arrival of a boat which he had seen set out from the Mersey. In a short time he and his burden were hauled into the craft, and taken on [84] board the monitor, which, with her sister vessel, had meantime continued the bombardment of the helpless Konigsberg. At 12:50 it was reported that the raider was on fire and would give no more trouble. The cruiser had not long survived the aeroplane!

It is evident that but for the good work done by the Royal Naval Air Service, the destruction of the Konigsberg  would have been far more difficult. In all probability a strong force of men would have had to have been landed, and they would have had to fight their way through the jungle and assault the entrenched Germans, an operation which would, no doubt, have been attended with considerable loss. The operations proved in a remarkable way the value of the newest arm in warfare.

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