Life and death in the skies above the battlefields of France
There are few books written by the dauntless young pilots who fought the first real war of the air when powered aircraft bombed, strafed, observed or fought in life or death dogfights over the battle lines. This special Leonaur edition contains two riveting accounts of the early conflict in the clouds by American pilots who flew for the allied cause. Charles Biddle volunteered to join the French Foreign Legion and became a member of the Aviation Division. In the course of the war he flew with the French Escadrille N. 73, the internationally famous Lafayette Escadrille and then, as the United States of America joined the allied fight in 1917, with the 13th Aero Squadron and the 4th Pursuit Group. Biddle’s book is partnered here by an account, edited by his brother Kermit and with letters, of the wartime experiences of Quentin Roosevelt, son of Theodore Roosevelt. Quentin joined the United States Army Air Service, first in a reserve squadron and ultimately in the 95th Aero Squadron serving in France. While flying his Nieuport 28 aircraft, Roosevelt was shot down and killed in July 1918 during combat with German aircraft, four months before the end of the war. These are thrilling accounts flyers at the sharp end of war and are an invaluable addition to the libraries of everyone interested in air combat.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket; our hardbacks are cloth bound and feature gold foil lettering on their spines and fabric head and tail bands.
Was out on Wednesday morning on a high patrol and had a couple of other little set-tos from which I think I also got some experience, but that was about all. We were up as high as I have been so far, about 18,000 feet, and it is as cold as Christmas up there. Dressed warmly however you do not feel it much, except on your face, and I have now got something to cover most of that up. There were five of us this time and at about 16,000 feet we ran across three or four Boche fighting planes who were a little below us. We manoeuvred for position and attacked. I picked out one fellow and went for him, but after about six shots and just when I was getting close enough to do some business, my machine-gun quit owing to a cartridge missing fire. I tried to fix it at once, but she would not fix. Everyone had gotten pretty well separated during the fight and as there was one Boche above me in a fine position to attack and I could see no sign of my comrades, I started hiking for our side of the fence as fast as I could go. On the way I passed a Boche within a hundred yards going in the opposite direction liked a scared rabbit. I had to laugh to see him humping his machine up and down so as to make it hard to hit. He looked for all the world like a hopping rabbit and I guess he thought I was going to take a crack at him, but if he had only known it I was beating it for home just as hard as he was.
As soon as I got in quieter water I fixed my machine-gun and began looking for my patrol. I had not been going five minutes when I ran bang on a Boche two-seater all by itself. I was afraid to start shooting when I first wanted to as there are so many different allied machines that it is very hard for a greenhorn to tell them all from the German. I thought it was a Boche, but did not like to begin shooting until I was absolutely sure, so waited until he passed under my wing close enough to see his old Maltese crosses on his planes. I then turned around and went for him from above, which by the way, is a fool method to attack a two-seater, as it gives the machine-gunner, who sits behind the pilot, a beautiful shot at you. Usually the best way to do it is to get under his tail where he often does not see you and can’t shoot without hitting his own tail. I guess I was a bit too anxious however and spoiled my own chance.
I could see the machine-gunner blazing away and could not get to close quarters without giving him a much better chance at me than I had at him. I aimed ahead of him about the distance that I thought was right and gave him a rip from my machine-gun. I could see the tracer bullets and they looked to me as though I hit him, but I could not be sure. At all events he started for home without a second’s hesitation, full motor and diving slightly, which gives almost the greatest speed. I manoeuvred a little and gave it to him again and I hope I touched him up for the machine-gunner seemed to me to stop shooting. I went after him a third time, this time from behind his tail and we were both streaking it through the air at a scandalous pace.
I had my machine nosed down a bit and going full out, was overhauling him and had just begun to shoot again when my machine-gun jammed, this time from a broken cartridge and so that it was impossible to fix it in the air. We had been going for the Hun territory all the time, so that we were by this time several miles behind the German lines. With my machine-gun out of commission there was of course nothing to do but go home. Since that time we have been having poor weather again and I have not been over the lines.
I certainly hope I can become skilful enough before long to drop one of these fellows good and proper as the saying is. My chance at the two-seater was badly handled, as I had to do my shooting at about 200 yards, and this is entirely too far. The great majority of successful fights, practically all of them in fact, are fought from 100 to 10 yards. You must remember the terrific speeds of the machines, the fact that we have to point our whole machine, and the great distances covered in a few seconds, in order to understand why patrol formations get broken up in a fight and why there is so much shooting without result.
Also, when it is one machine against another, if one fellow sees the other coming a good way off and wants to get away, he can usually do it. It takes so little time to cover several miles, and a skilfully manoeuvred machine is very hard to hit anyhow. The majority of successful combats are cases of surprise, where you sneak up close behind another machine without his seeing you or where he is busy attacking still another machine, and you can drop on his rear unawares. There are exceptions, of course, but most fights seem to be like this. Of course if a number of machines attack one of the enemy, they can often on account of their numbers get him whether he sees them or not and no matter how hard he tries to get away. I think I could do a lot better with that two-seater another time, but a little experience like this is I guess the only way to learn.
It would be utterly impossible for the one man in a chasse machine to use a movable gun fired from the shoulder. There is no place where you could carry such a gun and you would not have room to use it if you could carry it. In our small planes, of which the greatest assets are speed and manageability, there is just room for the pilot and no more. He is entirely encased with nothing but his head sticking out and in addition is tightly strapped in his seat with straps coming up between his legs and over his shoulders. This precaution is both necessary and important for in the rush of a close encounter one will do things that would otherwise throw the pilot around inside the machine and possibly out of it.