Fighters of the Sky: Accounts of the Air War over France by American Pilots—Night Bombing with the Bedouins by Robert H. Reece, With Three Accounts from ‘New England Aviators 1914-1918’ & A Happy Warrior by William Muir Russel
Life and death in the clouds above the Western Front
This unique Leonaur edition brings together for the first time several associated accounts of interest to all students of aerial warfare during the First World War. The first concerns the activities of ‘the Bedouin Squadron’, a unit comprised of aviators brought together from all over the globe who joined the RFC. The squadron became active in September, 1917 and flew the large Handley-Page bombers. Accounts of bomber squadrons are comparatively rare compared with those of ‘scout’ squadrons so this narrative is particularly interesting. This riveting account is accompanied in this unique Leonaur edition by anecdotes of air battle concerning one of the squadron’s American pilots, Sam Mandell. The final work in this book concerns the wartime exploits of William Muir Russel who was a first lieutenant in the American Air Service flying with the 95th Aero Squadron of the First Pursuit Group.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.
Stand by to bomb Mouzon at 9.45 a.m.
On receiving this order, the flight leaders and deputy leaders went to their maps to locate the new objective and study photographs of the town to pick out the points of military value. In studying Mouzon it was not difficult to see what we were to do. The town lay on the east bank of the Meuse with a suburb on the west bank where the railroad station and warehouses were situated. We decided to try to cut the railroad and destroy the warehouses.
The next morning our orderlies called us early enough to see a low-lying mist over the camp. It was just dawn. We dressed amidst shouts from the barracks of “Come on, rain.” This appeal to the rain god was heard every morning whatever the weather, as rain was sure preventive of bombing raids. Nevertheless, we felt that thrill which came only when we were on the alert to go over.
At 7.15 the flight leaders held their meeting in the office of the Group Commander, where the colonel outlined the plan of the formation to bemused. This morning, if the weather cleared up, we were to go over in three “V’s,” the 166th Squadron first, then the 20th, and lastly the 11th. We were to meet over our own field at 8000 feet, fall in behind one another in order, and climb to the final height of 13,000 to 14,000 feet during the final run to the lines. We were to bomb with the wind, which the weather report showed to be blowing toward Germany at a speed of about 30 miles an hour. This was rather a stiff wind, difficult but not impossible to operate in.
The sun appeared quickly, drying up the mist as if anxious to see us get on our way. We dressed carefully in our flying clothes, climbing into the De Havilands, and tested out our sights, machine guns, and Verys pistols. Soon the signal “all set” was given. A Verys pistol was fired showing one green ball, giving the signal to start the Libertys. With a roar the long line of engines started almost all at once as the mechanics swung the propellers and the process of warming up began. Then we—we were flight leaders that day in our squadron, the 20th—began taxiing to the starting-line; number 2 followed, then number 3, and so on until the whole flight were ready in formation on the ground—all the powerful engines throbbing and the propellers turning over. Suddenly the Operations Officer, noting the squadron ahead of us had left the field, fired a single red Verys light from the line. We opened our throttle and moved forward, taking off into the air. As we took off, numbers 2 and 3 started forward and in their turn leapt into the air, numbers 4 and 5 followed, then the next two and finally the 9th, until all the planes were in sight.
Our next difficulty was to gather the squadron into formation. After getting up to 1000 feet altitude, we throttled down until 2 and 3 caught up and climbed a little above and behind us. We three then continued climbing slowly until the rest gathered together and formed our “V” in a wide, loose formation.
The flight climbed together until we reached our desired altitude over the field. Taking one hour, this part of the trip is always very tiresome. One sits gazing at the altimeter, wondering if one will ever get up, the time passing so slowly. Down below the country gradually gets more and more spread out, until the forests blend into a patch of green and the rivers show only as nickled lines.
We returned over the field, looking meanwhile for the other two squadrons. Finally, down below us we saw the leaders, the 166th, starting for the lines. We fell in line behind them, passing over Bar-le-Duc and flying up the valley with the Argonne Forest on our left and Verdun on the right. As we neared the lines I signalled the planes into close formation so that by the time we crossed we were prepared to withstand an attack, the planes being stepped up and back with the “V” much smaller. One plane here firing a red light fell out with motor trouble, not being able to keep up with our speed. We all had orders to return in this contingency.
The clouds were numerous and heavy, but we could see the leading squadron ahead as well as patches of ground in spots showing us our position. We were travelling at a terrific rate, the wind being apparently much stronger than the weather report showed. Stenay was plainly visible on our right. I thought of turning and dropping our bombs there, but as the leaders still went on I followed, thinking that they could see the objective from their position, though I could not see it from ours. As they reached the place where Mouzon was situated, they turned to the left over Raucourt, because, as we learned later, Mouzon was covered with clouds when they passed it. All this time the anti-aircraft shells were bursting around us, but our speed compared with the ground was so great that they were very inaccurate at our height of 14,000 feet. They showed, however, that we were discovered by the enemy and we could expect an attack by their planes.
As we reached Mouzon luck caused a sudden rift to appear in the clouds and the town was plainly visible. I steered the pilot, by the reins attached to his arms, for the town, swinging the formation to the right. Getting the edge of the town in the sight I gave the “all set” signal by firing off a Verys light with seven green balls. At this point always comes a tense moment. The town passed back along the bar of the sight, reached the cross-bar and passed it. I pulled back the lever and let go our bombs. Waiting a few seconds to be sure all the squadron had dropped theirs, I signalled to the pilot that all was well and to go home. Leaning over the side of the plane as far as possible, I tried to see the effects of the bursts, noticing one on a barracks and some flames near the railroad.
We turned now down the Meuse toward home against the wind, feeling that all was well. It had been a successful raid, and we were feeling happy about it.
Without warning a blue body with a white cross flashed up in front of us. Grasping a Verys light, always kept prepared, I gave the “Enemy Aircraft” signal—seven red balls—and stood up at the guns ready for the attack. The first Boche passed from under our wing and came up under our tail. I gave him one volley as he passed and continued as he hung on his propeller not twenty feet from us, just behind our horizontal stabilizer. In this volley I shot away our right flipper wires so that I had to be careful in the future in shooting on the other side, as if both sides were shot away we should be forced to land. This blue fellow went down some distance, but climbed up behind us again and reopened fire, his tracers flashing all around us, but never hitting any vital part.
The other planes in the formation were having their troubles too. From the leader’s place I could see one Boche in flames above the rear of the formation and one Liberty going down below for protection. This plane was smoking, but not yet in flames. Then the fight stopped just as suddenly as it began. I counted the squadron, and slacking speed to gather the planes back into the “V,” found there were seven left. We seemed to have got at least two Boches and had lost one of ours.
At this point two more German Squadrons appeared from the rear. The first thing I saw was one of our rear planes dive down suddenly into the middle of the “V” with two black-and-white-checked Fokkers after him. One of these fell out of control into a vrille; the other fell back and satisfied itself with long-distance firing; the Liberty went back to its old position. The tracers were flying by in the rear of the formation in all directions, but it was impossible to see exactly how many Boches were in the attack. One started crawling up on us from behind about twenty-five feet below. I fired bursts at him steadily, but he still came on. Having made a habit of always keeping one magazine in reserve on the gun fully loaded, I felt in the cockpit for a fresh one to replace the one just used up. There were none left. The reserve I had on the gun was now the last shot I had in the plane. As the German came nearer I fired in bursts of ten my last magazine. He turned back, luckily, as we were now helpless in case he persisted. I swung the useless tourelle back and forth pretending to point the guns at him as he hung back 400 yards behind. Finally, we seemed to crawl by Stenay and got over our lines at Dun-sur-Meuse. Here again I counted the flight. There were five left.
We arrived back at the field to await the hardest part of the whole raid. After making our report we watched the sky for the missing planes to come in. One hour passed; then two; finally, we heard a month later that one plane had gone down in flames and two others had been forced to land in German territory. This was our last raid, as the rain god answered our daily supplications from Nov. 6 to Nov. 11.