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Thrilling Deeds of British Airmen by  Eric Wood


 

 

WARNEFORD, V.C.

[115] IN the year 1892, there was born in the Indian city of Cooch-Behar an English boy named Warneford, who was destined some twenty years later to become one of the heroes of our Empire. As he grew to manhood, this boy was fascinated with the new science of flight, and shortly after the great European War had begun he was able to obtain a commission in the Royal Naval Air Service, being posted for training at the Hendon Aerodrome. Here he obtained his 'ticket' in February 1915. Later, he went overseas, and was one of those brilliant pilots who quickly made names for themselves by their raids into the territory occupied by the enemy.

Very early on the morning of June 7th, 1915, Lieutenant Warneford and two brother officers, Flight-Lieutenants Wilson and Mills, went up from their station "somewhere in Flanders," [116] bound for the big Zeppelin hangars at Evere, a few miles to the north of Brussels. Aloft, the early morning was very misty, but steering chiefly by compass the three pilots made direct for their objective. As they flew, the slight haze cleared and in due course the Belgian capital could be seen spread out below. The gigantic airship sheds of the Evere aerodrome could also be discerned, and accordingly the machines piloted by Wilson and Mills turned to attack, whilst Warneford, making away to the north, came round in a gigantic circle, an aerial spectator of his comrades' attempts on the sheds.

Wilson and Mills were by this time gliding lower and lower, and their machines being now visible from the ground the German anti-aircraft batteries guarding the sheds were getting to work. Quite suddenly, Mills put the nose of his bus down and swooped at the hangar. He was soon temporarily out of danger from the 'Archibald' shells, but within range of rifle fire, which was at once opened upon him. He could see the nose of a Zeppelin protruding from the hangar, so he knew that [117] if he succeeded in hitting the shed he would most certainly destroy the dirigible inside. At an altitude of not more than five hundred feet he dropped three of his bombs in rapid succession. One of these missiles went through the roof of the hangar as if it had been cardboard and, bursting, ripped the top of the envelope of the airship inside. As the hydrogen from the torn ballonets rushed out and mixed with the air, it was immediately set on fire by the burning outer fabric, with the result that the airship and shed instantly became a roaring furnace. The hundreds of Belgians who had climbed to the tops of their houses to view the affair saw clearly a pillar of flame over 200 feet in height rise into the still morning air, and forgetting the fact that the Hun ruled them with a rod of iron, gave vent to a roar of cheers.

Meanwhile, Wilson and Mills on their fast little mounts were climbing aloft as rapidly as their engines would drive them; and, except for a few bullet holes in the planes of Mills' machine, both winged their way back toward their own base none the worse for their adventure.

[118] Warneford, observing that his comrades had effectively 'strafed' their Zeppelin, made away on a private tour of his own, hoping for something to turn up.

The Fates were kind to him, and about three o'clock, when the early sun was driving the last of the night mists from the sky, he sighted in the far distance a long grey shape. Hardly believing his own eyes, he flew nearer, and convinced himself that ahead there was indeed one of Count Zeppelin's gigantic creations on the wing. He immediately tilted his elevators, and the sensitive little mono-plane in which he was flying at once commenced to cause the needle of his altimeter to tremble along the feet. In those early days it was only possible to 'strafe' a gas-bag by getting above it, and he knew that it was imperative that he should be well above the monster before he commenced to attack. The 80-horse-power Gnome had gallantly set him at a splendid altitude before the men in the cars of the Zeppelin discovered the small speck in the sky that spelled terrible danger to themselves. They at once went ahead at full speed, and [119] tilting their elevators and letting go some of their water-ballast attempted to rise to the same level as their antagonist and there keep him at bay—by means of the machine-guns mounted in the gondolas.

Warneford at once noted the movement of his gigantic antagonist and decided to attack before the Zeppelin, which he knew could climb even faster than his own little mount, out-manoeuvred him.

But though he wished to drive in upon his quarry, the latter doubled away and he was compelled to chase the monster for some time. Having the heels of her, he was fortunately able to climb as he chased, and at the same time gain steadily upon his enemy. When the Zeppelin had reached an altitude of 6000 feet she temporarily stopped climbing, and it was at this juncture that Warneford swooped down upon her. The speed indicator moved higher and higher until the terrific speed of no miles an hour was being recorded, and still he dived toward the broad back of the airship. He could not hear the crackle of the enemy machine-guns, but it is certain that they were [120] firing at him all this time, though he presented an almost impossible target. At last he was directly above the dirigible, and the observer on top must have screamed some awful messages into his telephone in those last few minutes of his life. It must have been apparent to this man that the mad Englishman intended to ram them and send all to 'glory' together, for the under-carriage was little more than twenty yards above the top of the Zeppelin when Warneford flattened out and let go his bombs. At this range it was almost impossible to miss, and in fact he dropped three bombs, all of which took effect. In an instant, as it seemed, the huge envelope was a sheet of flame. Then a tremendous explosion shook the air.


[Illustration]

THE GLORIOUS ACHIEVEMENT OF LIEUT. WARNEFORD

Although Warneford had quickly banked away to get clear, the flames from his victim singed him; then the great up-rush of air from the doomed airship caught his swaying little mount and tossed him upward as though the machine were in the grip of a tornado, causing Warneford to make an involuntary 'loop.' She then put her nose down and, with the [121] dazed pilot still strapped in his seat, commenced to rush headlong for the ground. At this second the young pilot regained control of himself, and in a few moments had also resumed command of his mount. His Gnome was back-firing and missing, which gave him a pretty sure indication that something was wrong with his petrol supply. How could matters be righted? Warneford made up his mind to go down and attempt to rectify things before any of his enemies could capture him. He selected a fairly deserted piece of country, alighted, and, even as he stopped, he was out of his seat and round to the Gnome. Once more he was back peering into the fuselage, for oil was running down, which meant a bad leakage of petrol. Quickly he noted which of the two tanks that he carried was leaking, emptied its remaining fuel into the other tank, reconnected the feed-pipe to the carburettor, then leaped into his seat again. This work had taken him nearly thirty-five minutes, and already he could observe German troops coming across the fields, firing as they ran. These were moments pregnant with excitement for [122] Warneford. If his engine 'fired' he would be up and away well before the enemy reached him, but if it refused to start there was nothing for him but a German prison—at the best. At his command a Belgian peasant swung his propeller for him, and at once the Gnome started into a healthy roar. Then opening her out he went bouncing along the ground, and with a steady rush soared aloft toward the sea and safety. Behind him the blazing wreckage of his victim had fallen upon the convent buildings of St Elizabeth, which had also caught fire, and a great coil of black smoke was rising into the morning sky.

Warneford soon sighted the sea, and making along the coast espied Cape Gris-Nez, where he landed, and shortly afterward the news was sent out far and wide telling the story of this first successful fight with a Zeppelin in mid-air. Warneford's name was in everybody's mouth, and after the Legion of Honour had been bestowed upon him by our gallant Allies, he was received by King George, who personally pinned the Victoria Cross upon his blue tunic. News which filtered through [123] revealed the consternation of the Germans over the loss of the great gas-bag. Strangely perturbed, too, were the Zeppelin-builders, and the reason for this was that the destroyed dirigible had not only contained a picked crew, but also carried a number of experts from the factory, who were making the trip for experimental purposes; and though other gas-bags could be built and other crews trained, it was practically impossible to replace quickly the expert brains which had 'also perished.

Unfortunately, the gallant Warneford did not live long to enjoy his well-earned honours. Ten days after his great and successful duel he was in Paris and went aloft in a machine that was just as stable and easy to control as his own Morane-Saulnier 'Parasol' was difficult. With him, as passenger, was an American journalist. When they were at a few hundred feet, the machine was seen to nose-dive, and, owing to the fact that Warneford had no space to pull her out, the big bus crashed to the ground and was wrecked, killing instantly both pilot and passenger.

[124] The end of the hero came as a great shock to the world, but his name will ever be remembered as the man who, unaided by the devices that were later used by airmen to bring down dirigibles, was the first to attack and successfully destroy a zeppelin in the air.


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