Episodes from the United States first war in the air
The United States of America joined the Allies in the First World War in April of 1917. While the addition of its enormous resource of men and military personnel was undoubtedly pivotal in a war that had become one of attrition against a much war weakened enemy which was struggling alone, it was inevitable that the history of the American units engaged on land, sea or in the air would concern the latter battles of the conflict. For the airmen themselves, including those of the American 17th Aero Squadron whose exploits this book details, that made far less difference than it would to most military personnel. The air war was new, the flying machines were flimsy and primitive and the business of fighting in the skies was being defined by the young men who fought and died above the surface of the earth. All knew that the life of a pilot was perilous and likely to be short. This is an essential book for those interested in the First World War in the skies over the Western Front—and in the early days of what was to become one of the greatest air forces in the world. Many of the activities of the 17th Aero Squadron were focussed on the Dunkirk front and in its support of the British battle and advances during the fighting at Cambrai. The book includes an interesting view of a low bombing and machine gun attack on the Varssenaere Aerodrome. Also included are many combat reports by the squadron’s pilots and these make fascinating reading. The appendices include useful statistical information, an honour and casualty role and a list of those officers and men who served in the squadron.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.
During the next four days we shot down a balloon a day, with the exception of the 23rd when we put on low bombing shows exclusively. It was on one of these expeditions that Lieutenant Hamilton, one of the most fearless and expert pilots we ever had, was shot down from the ground just as he was zooming away from the “sausage” he had set on fire—his second in two days.<br>
It was the nature of the fighting on the ground, while the Hun was going back, that worked so complete a change in our operations. The Air Force of the enemy was largely concentrated in the vicinity of Cambrai, but the congestion on the roads behind his lines gave us an opportunity of doing greater damage to his morale and material by attacks on moving infantry and transport, than we could ever have accomplished by devoting all our attention to his scouts. The latter, for the most part, flew in very large flocks and, except for sallies from time to time against small detached flights of Allied machines, they waged a defensive offensive.<br>
It was but natural, however, that they should make low-bombing and machine gun attacks on ground targets hazardous in the extreme. That was no doubt part of their business. In other words they were there, but we, when carrying out such machine gun attacks and especially when loaded with bombs and flying a height of a few hundred feet, had few chances to attack and “get” them. We depended upon other squadrons patrolling higher up, at various levels, to look out for Fokkers, while we did a job that cost us casualties and doubtless too a certain quota of what would have been our legitimate toll of Huns during these furious days.<br>
In many ways, on the other hand, “ground-straffing” is a severer test than most fighting of a pilot’s stamina and skill and of the rigging and fitting of his machine. Perhaps too this work of ours helped more to bring the end of the war a little nearer than if we had shot down many enemy scouts in that first week. From Intelligence we knew that our attacks did much to shatter the German soldier’s faith in his own airmen. At all events we came down on the Hun without cessation, as he retired in the direction of Cambrai, shooting up his convoys that became a wild confusion of broken lorries and runaway horses, and scattering his infantry from the roads into the fields, inflicting on them many casualties. From the ground over which our pilots buzzed the Hun sent up all manner of “stuff” from Archy to pom-poms and a hail of machine gun fire. But no feat was too daring for them, and their extremely manoeuvrable machines made their work only the more spectacular.<br>
It was on one of these raids that George Wise disappeared. His engine failed and he was made prisoner. Merton Campbell too was “missing” on the 23rd, and when the Boche had gone back beyond Thiepval and Contalmaison we found his grave. He had landed, upside down, in that broad belt of shell-torn country where there is not a yard not shattered by heavy explosive. His grave was a low soft mound beside his crashed machine. On it the usual inverted bottle, stuck in the mud, contained an envelope, blood-soaked and bearing his name.<br>
We made a cross of a broken four-bladed “prop” of fine mahogany that we got from salvage, and engraved a nameplate on a copper disk. We took it up past wrecked villages and then more wrecked villages, into the old No Man’s Land of some of the fiercest battles of the war. At the head of his grave without ceremony we set it up. He lies there, one of our stoutest, by a file of tree trunks smashed and stripped and grotesquely rigid against the sun, under a little slope of ground rising toward the east that has been blasted into dust by months of artillery fire.<br>
Both Hamilton and Campbell were at once awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross by the British and their people notified.<br>
The twenty-sixth of August was our most tragic day. It had rained in the night and a gusty wind had begun to blow at dawn, getting stronger and gustier as the day advanced. Low clouds, with gaps of blue between them, streamed thickly up from the southwest over the rolling hills beyond the aerodrome. Our Besseneaux hangars bulged up and flapped; our tents were all swollen on one side and lean and caved in, against the wind, on the other; the aeroplane fabric that covered the holes we called our windows, in the Squadron Office shack, were bellied and tense; the little wood was full of the noise of the wind. It was blowing in fits at seventy or eighty miles an hour.
At four thirty in the afternoon the colonel rang up and said that there were a lot of Huns about on the lines and that some of our “low-straffers” were in trouble on the Bapaume-Cambrai Road.