The first hand accounts of the experiences of men in time of war always make fascinating reading. Their stories are, of course, always as varied as the individuals concerned and the eras to which they belonged, whether they were soldiers, sailors or airmen, the branch of their service, their nationalities, the conflict in which they were participants and in which theatre they fought. This is what makes military history so fascinating. Sometimes many men report a common experience that abided for decades. Occasionally we hear, across time, the voices of a few notable men who fought their own war in their own special way and once their time had past history would never know their like again. That is especially true of the pilots of the First World war. The machinery of flight was a new technology. The aircraft were raw, basic, flimsy and unproven machines and both they and the brave men who piloted them were fighting their first conflict while learning and evolving their skills and equipment, quite literally, as they fought and died. The dogfight days of the early biplanes, triplanes and early mono winged fighters would be short, but their images together with those of the iconic airships which they ultimately destroyed will remain indelibly imprinted on the history of conflict and the development of man’s mastery of the air. Heroes to a man, these trailblazers were almost always young, carefree, well educated and modest young men full of the joy of living and commitment to their aircraft and to flying. This special Leonaur edition contains the writings of two such men from the Royal Air Force, written anonymously during wartime, which take the reader back to those dangerous and epic delays of aerial combat over the muddy trenches of the Western Front in Europe during the Great War. Available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket for collectors.
The morning light increased every minute, and the grey of the sky was merging into blue. The faint, hovering ground-mist was not sufficient to screen our landmarks. The country below was a shadowy patchwork of coloured pieces. The woods, fantastic shapes of dark green, stood out strongly from the mosaic of brown and green fields. The pattern was divided and subdivided by the straight, poplar-bordered roads peculiar to France.<br>
We passed on to the dirty strip of wilderness which is the actual front. The battered villages and disorderly ruins looked like hieroglyphics traced on wet sand. A sea of smoke rolled over the ground for miles. It was a by-product of one of the most terrific bombardments in the history of trench warfare. Through it hundreds of gun-flashes twinkled, like the lights of a Chinese garden.<br>
Having reached a height of 12,000 feet, we crossed the trenches south of Bapaume. As the danger that stray bullets might fall on friends no longer existed, pilots and observers fired a few rounds into space to make sure their guns were behaving properly.<br>
Archie began his frightfulness early. He concentrated on the leader’s machine, but the still-dim light spoiled his aim, and many of the bursts were dotted between the craft behind. I heard the customary wouff! wouff! wouff! followed in one case by the hs-s-s-s-s of passing fragments. We swerved and dodged to disconcert the gunners. After five minutes of hide-and-seek, we shook off this group of Archie batteries.<br>
The flight-commander headed for Mossy-Face Wood, scene of many air battles and bomb raids. An aerodrome just east of the wood was the home of the Fokker star, Boelcke. C. led us to it, for it was his great ambition to account for Germany’s best pilot.<br>
While we approached, I looked down and saw eight machines with black Maltese crosses on their planes, about three thousand feet below. They had clipped wings of a peculiar whiteness, and they were ranged one above the other, like the rungs of a Venetian blind. A cluster of small scouts swooped down from Heaven-knows-what height and hovered above us; but C. evidently did not see them, for he dived steeply on the Huns underneath, accompanied by the two machines nearest him. The other group of enemies then dived.<br>
I looked up and saw a narrow biplane, apparently a Roland, rushing towards our bus. My pilot turned vertically and then side-slipped to disconcert the Boche’s aim. The black-crossed craft swept over at a distance of less than a hundred yards. I raised my gun-mounting, sighted, and pressed the trigger. Three shots rattled off—and my Lewis gun ceased fire.<br>
Intensely annoyed at being cheated out of such a splendid target, I applied immediate action, pulled back the cocking-handle and pressed the trigger again. Nothing happened. After one more immediate action test, I examined the gun and found that an incoming cartridge and an empty case were jammed together in the breech. To remedy the stoppage, I had to remove spade-grip and body cover. As I did this, I heard an ominous ta-ta-ta-ta-ta from the returning German scout. My pilot cart-wheeled round and made for the Hun, his gun spitting continuously through the propeller. The two machines raced at each other until less than fifty yards separated them. Then the Boche swayed, turned aside, and put his nose down. We dropped after him, with our front machine-gun still speaking. The Roland’s glide merged into a dive, and we imitated him. Suddenly a streak of flame came from his petrol tank, and the next second he was rushing earthwards, with two streamers of smoke trailing behind.<br>
I was unable to see the end of this vertical dive, for two more single-seaters were upon us. They plugged away while I remedied the stoppage, and several bullets ventilated the fuselage quite close to my cockpit. When my gun was itself again, I changed the drum of ammunition, and hastened to fire at the nearest Hun. He was evidently unprepared, for he turned and moved across our tail. As he did so, I raked his bus from stem to stern. I looked at him hopefully, for the range was very short, and I expected to see him drop towards the ground at several miles a minute. He sailed on serenely. This is an annoying habit of enemy machines when one is sure that, by the rules of the game, they ought to be destroyed.<br>
The machine in question was probably hit, however, for it did not return, and I saw it begin a glide as though the pilot meant to land. We switched our attention to the remaining Hun, but this one was not anxious to fight alone. He dived a few hundred feet, with tail well up, looking for all the world like a trout when it drops back into water. Afterwards he flattened out and went east.