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Thrilling Deeds of British Airmen by  Eric Wood

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"ONE OF OUR MACHINES DID NOT RETURN"

[85] BEHIND the cold official announcements which tell only that "one of our machines has failed to return" there is, as may be supposed, very often a thrilling story, for several things, any one of which has possibilities and probabilities of dramatic character, may have happened to that machine.

Read, for instance, the story of Captain Thomas Chaloner, 13th Squadron, R.F.C., who, not having returned from a bombing raid on July 1st, 1916, was notified as "missing." Apparently a storm was brewing in the cauldron of the elements, but, as he wrote home, Captain Chaloner "did not see it," being engaged by a German at the time. Anxious to reach his objective rather than to try conclusions with a foe on the way, the Captain set his engine going 'all out,' and succeeded in showing a [86] mocking tail to the German. He was pursued, however, for some distance, and for a time his escape was not assured. To add to his perils he came within range of an anti-aircraft battery, over which he was flying, and only good handling and skilful steering got him out of that tight corner.

The Captain was not yet out of the wood, however, for, he had hardly drawn clear when he became aware of another German machine about 200 feet above him. Again he put on his best speed, and as he drove along there came down to him the vicious snapping of a machine-gun. At first it did not occur to him that the German was attacking him! "I thought he was engaging another machine," he wrote. "When I looked up I saw that he and I were the only machines in sight, so I realized what was up."

As if to press home the seriousness of the situation, there came to the Captain the sound of several sharp raps on his left plane, and looking in that direction, he saw three ominous little holes in the wing, which proved that the German was making good practice, and that it [87] was necessary to take immediate action to deal with him. Captain Chaloner wasted no time; he stood his machine on its tail, and so bringing his gun in direct line with the hovering enemy, he emptied a whole drum into him. The German, however, roared past and over him, being enabled to do so with facility owing to the fact that his machine was probably twice as speedy as Captain Chaloner's. Before the Britisher could come about, his adversary had dropped behind and almost level with him, letting fly with his machine-gun as he did so. Chaloner replied with half a drum. Up went the German again, climbing with amazing rapidity, and coming right over the Captain. As he went he sprayed a few more rounds, and suddenly the Captain's engine 'cut out,' and he knew that one of the bullets, at any rate, had found a sure billet, probably, so he guessed at the time, in his carburettor. Instantly the British machine began to glide, and the German, flying at a fair distance above, followed, expending occasional rounds as he did so. The situation was becoming unpleasant, and Captain Chaloner, although [88] he knew that he was at a severe disadvantage, turned upon his foe and fired up at him, getting off about fifteen rounds. It was all very hopeless, however, for the British aeroplane, without a working engine, had absolutely no chance, and the pilot knew that he would be lucky if he reached terra firma alive. Suddenly his machine dived and then side-slipped, but the Captain, cool-headed still, managed to regain control when he was within about 180 feet of the ground, and he finally glided safely to earth, to find himself surrounded by German infantry.

They carried him ten miles back toward the firing line—which shows that he had gone a considerable distance over the German lines—and after a while some German Flying Corps officers came up in a motor-car to claim him as their prize. The infantry opposed the claim, and there was a "lot of scrapping," as the Captain wrote, but in the end the flying men won, and the prisoner was taken to their mess. There he met his antagonist, and also a number of British pilots who had been similarly unlucky. To the credit of the German [89] flying men, let it be said that they treated Captain Chaloner well.

Behind the brief, laconic report issued of a raid on Schleswig-Holstein, on March 25th, 1916, there is a graphic tale of an air and sea attack, which was undertaken in circumstances which were very unfavourable and resulted, amongst other things, in certain airmen being reported as missing. When, over a twelvemonth before, our naval airmen had attacked Cuxhaven their efforts had not been so successful as they might have been because of a fog which hid the precious ships in harbour, and, similarly, the raid which we are about to describe had not the results which were expected of it owing to the inclement weather. The expedition, consisting of light cruisers and destroyers and seaplanes, set out from its base at an hour which it was calculated would bring the force near to the German coast in the early morning. The evening was dark enough in all conscience, and as the ships held on their way the weather became very threatening, and at last they drove right into a howling blizzard. Com- [90] modore Tyrwhitt, who was in command of the expedition, knew that the trip to Germany was going to be no easy one; it would have been difficult even if only for the many minefields to be gone through, but with such a storm raging the dangers were increased tenfold.

One of those who took part in the affair told a Scotsman  interviewer that "it was terrible work. The journey was long. It was not until one o'clock on Saturday morning that we got near the German coast. We were now going full steam ahead; all decks were cleared for action, the men standing by the guns, and the bows ploughed through the angry seas like razors. We managed to steer through the hidden dangers successfully, and about 3 a.m. the curtain went up on the strangest vision which has ever been seen in the North Sea.

"The weather quickly grew worse, and just as the show was about to begin a terrific gale sprang up! Battle-cruisers, destroyers and other craft were tossed about like corks. The wind was blowing fearfully, and more than once we were in such a plight that many of us yelled [91] 'Good-bye, England, home, and beauty!' To make matters worse a terrific snowstorm came on, and the North Sea seemed to undergo a complete transformation. Nothing looked more unlikely than a battle in such weather conditions."

And indeed those same weather conditions caused the seaplane raid to be postponed for a while. Apparently the German fleet was not keen on coming out to give battle, and as their ships lolloped off the coast, the British seamen whiled away the time with gramophones, the favourite record on that dark and dismal morn being, "Here we are, here we are again!"—an invitation to the enemy to join issue. The Commodore, realizing that the weather was not likely to change, eventually decided to let loose his falcons, five of which were sent up in the teeth of the driving storm.

We will leave the story of those seaplanes for a while in order to tell of what happened to their escort during the time the bombers were winging their way toward the airship sheds on the island of Sylt. The German patrol boats, in due course, came within [92] striking distance of the British vessels, and simultaneously both sides opened fire through the blizzard. The snow was falling so densely, however, that it was difficult to retain any organized formation, and the action developed into a series of isolated duels. The British ships lost no opportunity of punishing their opponents, who were chased relentlessly whenever they were sighted through the snow. Two armed trawlers felt the weight and the smother of British gun-fire and gave no further trouble. British destroyers were quickly at work picking up struggling survivors, but the work of rescue was not easy, and danger lurked behind the snow-bank. The dense veil of snow baffled all efforts on the part of look-out men, and it happened that the Medusa  suddenly found herself face to face, as it were, with one of her consorts. The discovery was made too late to avoid collision, and with a rending crash the two ships swept into each other, the Medusa  getting the worst of the encounter. On the instant it was "Out boats!" on the other destroyers, and while at several points of the far-reaching scene of battle, guns were roaring, [93] yellow-red flashes were rending the darkness, and shells were screaming through the air, stirring deeds were being enacted in the effort to save as many as possible of the Medusa's  men, some of whom were in the water, while others were being transferred from their doomed vessel before she went down.

Both fleets used the same tactics for different purposes: the Germans sought to lure the British ships on to the minefields nearer the coast, while the British vessels tried to coax the Germans out to sea by offering themselves as bait. From the "dashing in" tactics which they had first used the Britons fell back to what seemed to be flight; they suddenly "swooped round," said one who was present, "to give the enemy the impression that we were beating a hasty retreat." The ruse de guerre  was successful; German cruisers and torpedo-boat destroyers, confident that they now had their enemy on the run and possibly at their mercy, swept out to the chase, which lasted just as long as the British desired it to. They then swung round as one ship and bombarded the disillusioned Germans with all [94] the guns they could bring to bear. Despite the awful weather conditions the British gunners got in some fine shots, as was evident when, the snow occasionally clearing, enemy destroyers were seen to be blazing from end to end. The last that was seen of two of them showed that they were in that fiery plight, and in view of the heavy weather it is not a little doubtful whether they could have reached the port for which they and their consorts were hastening with the British shells dropping like a hurricane at their heels.

Yet one other German destroyer met her doom during that terrific fight by the little-used method of modern naval warfare, the ram. H.M.S. Cleopatra, cutting through the seas with well-nigh the highest power of her engines, her bows hidden from sight by the huge waves she created, suddenly came through the snow upon a German destroyer. The unlucky boat had never experienced such a hurricane of fire as was poured upon her as the Cleopatra  came rapidly up. The light cruiser headed directly for the enemy, who tried in vain to turn off the approaching foe by her gunfire. [95] Probably the time was too short to allow of a torpedo being launched, but the risk was great, and the British commander took a desperate and determined resolve. His action was reminiscent of the olden days, and the Germans must have been wholly unprepared for the stroke. Throbbing with the full energy of her powerful engines, the Cleopatra  drove straight for her victim and her sharp bows bit deeply into the steel hull of the German. The awful impact shook the cruiser from bow to stern and made even her own strong-hearted crew wonder whether their ship would survive. But the British cruiser was little damaged, and the destroyer, listing heavily, with the sea pouring into the great rent in her hull, fell away, to be hidden immediately by another curtain of snow which fell at that moment.

The sea affair had ended successfully and the British crews were highly pleased with their work. But what of the airmen?

The leader of the raiders was Flight-Lieutenant G. H. Reid, and of the band of Naval Air Service men who went on that bombing expedition five, including Lieutenant Reid [96] himself, Flight-Sub-Lieutenant J. F. Hay, Chief Petty Officer Mullins, and two others, failed to return.

The trip out to the airship sheds was uneventful, but when the Naval men came within sight of their objective it was clear that they were to experience a warm reception. Anti-aircraft batteries barked angrily and the air was filled with screaming shells and whistling bullets, but the aviators sailed courageously on their way, and as each passed over the long lines which he knew to be sheds, he loosed his bombs, drove on, and then swept round in a circle which led him out seaward. It was a strenuous and dangerous business, for the driving snowstorm lashed the machines, and the snow coated the glass of the airmen's goggles and blinded them. The German gunners, too, were making good practice; such good practice, indeed, that two machines were brought down. One of these, a small mount carrying Sub-Lieutenant Hay, tumbled into the sea just off the coast.

Among the rest, Lieutenant Reid, leader of the raiders, was fighting his way through the [97] snowstorm, shells bursting above and below and around him, so that he seemed to be encircled by a ring of explosions. Safety lay in putting as great a distance as possible, in as short a time as possible, between himself and the batteries below, but looking down, the Lieutenant was startled to see a seaplane drifting on the water, buffeted by the wind and waves, and the figure of a man struggling beside it.

Lieutenant Reid recognized that the wrecked machine was the single-seater which had carried Lieutenant Hay, and although he might have succeeded in getting away had he pushed on, the gallant airman planed down through the crashing shells, alighted on the water, and taxied toward the now almost submerged seaplane, which was presently reached. A heavy sea was running and Reid and his mechanic had to use all their skill and cunning to keep their machine steady and at the same time hold on to the almost exhausted Sub-Lieutenant. Despite all the difficulties, however, and regardless of the fact that the Germans were continually firing heavily at them, [98] Lieutenant Reid and his mechanic, C. P. O. Mullins, at last managed to drag the wrecked aviator into the body of their machine, where they fixed him up as comfortably as was possible. He was chilled to the bone, and almost unconscious by reason of his exposure and the drenching he had received.

It was now time to attend again to their own safety. Lieutenant Reid opened out his engine and set the seaplane taxiing along the rough waters, expecting it to rise in due course. The machine, however, refused to do anything of the kind, and the pilot could neither coax it nor force it. Nothing but the purr of the engine and a short, sharp spurt followed his efforts.

And alas! Lieutenant Reid could see a German ship ploughing its way through the heaving seas. Steadily forward the vessel came, and the sight of her made the airman redouble his efforts to get up and away. The wind seemed to force his machine downward every time he thought he had it on the rise; the water seemed to be clinging to the floats and refusing to let go. It was maddening!

[99] It is easy to imagine what thoughts were running through the minds of the three Britons as they sat in their obstinate mount: to rise and wing out across the sea meant freedom and opportunity to fight again; to stay there, until that forging ship reached them, meant captivity until the world-war was over! Never did men work more determinedly than they; but weather and water were against them; they lay rocking helplessly on the surface, and knew at last that they were doomed.

When the German ship came up there was nothing for it but to submit with the best possible grace, and the shivering, drenched, wretched-looking three were hauled aboard, to be consigned to a prison camp and enforced idleness for many a long day to come.

Sometimes news of what happens to those who are posted 'missing' comes, not through letters received from the men themselves, but from neutral correspondents with the German army. In such cases the censor sees to it that the narrator does not tell too much, but there is one story at least which filtered through [100] to America of a battle royal in which British aviators were worsted.

On a cloudless September day, in 1916, spectators at the German Headquarters in Picardy saw four tiny specks appear in the sky. The setting sun provided an appropriate background for what was about to be enacted. Evidently hostile aeroplanes were approaching, for puffs of bursting shrapnel from the anti-aircraft guns began to play about the points of black. Those shells seemed to be very near to the oncoming aeroplanes, although it afterward transpired that they were falling nearly a mile short of the nearest machine. The specks grew larger, the guns roared continuously, and the watchers presently saw a couple of German machines rise swiftly behind the raiders as though to cut them off.

Every one was now on the qui vive, waiting for the combat to begin. It was clear that the visitors were British, yet there was not one of the lookers-on who did not admire the way in which the four pilots sailed over the gun positions, apparently quite untroubled by the bursts of shrapnel.

[101] Presently it became evident that one of the raiders had caught sight of one of the German machines, for he began to dive.

But it is time for us to see what was happening in that British biplane, and we have available the report of the newspaper correspondent who interviewed the pilot and observer afterward.

Lieutenant Douglas Stewart, the observer, sweeping the limitless space with his binoculars, had spotted one of those uprising German aeroplanes, and, informing his pilot, Captain A. S. Salmond, prepared for the moment when Captain Salmond should decide to attack. The Lewis guns were unshipped and ready when the biplane turned in her course and dived steeply. The cross-marked wings grew rapidly larger and Briton and German met in mortal combat 8000 feet up. Unhappily for Captain Salmond and his observer, their attention was taken up by their one foe, and they did not see that a second hawk was on their trail.

The British machine, which had dropped about 2500 feet, engaged the first enemy at [102] some 600 yards, and there followed a sharp exchange of about a dozen rounds of ammunition without much harm being caused to either combatant.

And then came disaster for the Britons.

The second German plane, which had succeeded in getting well over the British craft, suddenly poured in a stream of bullets. One plugged into Stewart's cheek, another cut the collar of his tunic to rags and narrowly missed his throat, while a third scraped the pilot's face. Stewart was flung off his seat on to the floor of the nacelle, and was badly bruised. He had sufficient strength to ram another drum into his gun, and, determined to make a good show, he emptied this at the enemy, although he could not get back into his seat, and had to fire lying down.

He realized, in that moment when the machine was swaying frightfully, that there was little chance for him and his companion. "It was a pretty fight," he said, "but fate was against us." Fate indeed was against them, for the German's hurricane of bullets crackled all over the machine, and presently the pilot's [103] control was carried away. It was now impossible to get out of the tight corner and the British machine was utterly at the mercy of the foe, whose shots now cut away the struts of one of the wings, which immediately collapsed.


[Illustration]

A BRITISH AEROPLANE ABLAZE AFTER A DUEL WITH A GIANT BIPLANE.

Like a bird with broken wing, the doomed aeroplane dropped at lightning speed, followed by the victor. Seven thousand five hundred feet Captain Salmond saw that his altimeter was registering, and he knew that there was little likelihood, unless a miracle happened, of either he or his observer escaping with life. Grim, silent, facing death, those two intrepid men sat in their nacelle, the pilot doing all he could with his smashed controlling gear to prevent the machine from turning too many of those fearful somersaults which so often have resulted in death.

The splendid skill and nerve of Captain Salmond triumphed, the tragedy was obviated, and when the machine reached earth, the two men, although badly shaken and sorely battered, were still alive—indeed, they had no bones broken!

[104] In the spirit of camaraderie which seems especially to distinguish the men of the rival flying services, the German victors, it is pleasant to add, treated their prisoners courteously while they were at the flying base.

We will conclude this chapter with one other story told by a newspaper correspondent with the German army.

One day during September 1916, Captain Boelcke, the man who competed with Immelmann for the reputation of being champion flying fighter of Germany, attacked Captain R. E. Wilson of the R.F.C., and after some excellent fighting on the part of both succeeded in holing Captain Wilson's tank.

The petrol flowed over the machine, and instantly there was a tremendous blaze which enveloped the whole aeroplane. Knowing that if he would save his life he must descend at once, Captain Wilson immediately sent his machine diving for earth. It needs grit to keep one's seat with the flames roaring around as the machine slips through the air. Captain Wilson was badly burned, and any man could [105] be excused who in a moment of such agony as the airman must have suffered lost his head and leapt out of his machine.

But Captain Wilson kept his head, maintained perfect control over his mount, and actually succeeded in bringing it to rest as gracefully as he would have done in normal circumstances, much to the astonishment of the Germans, who had expected to see the machine crash heavily to earth, the flaming bier of its pilot.


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