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Knights of the Air

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Knights of the Air
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Author(s): Bennett A. Molter
Date Published: 2011/06
Page Count: 112
Softcover ISBN-13: 978-0-85706-586-5
Hardcover ISBN-13: 978-0-85706-585-8

A pilot’s account of the war in the air

Books on the war in the air above the fields, broken landscapes and trenches of France and Belgium in the First World War are not numerous. Those written by pilots who experienced war in the air during the infancy of aviation are fewer still. In the early years of the 20th century the first clumsy attempts at mastering the skies was followed quickly by the necessity, on the part of armies and navies, to find individuals with the ability to learn the skills and tactics of fighting in three dimensions. Those whose learning failed them paid a price rarely expected of young students. This book was written by a young American volunteer during wartime. He informs his readers from the outset that he has a poor opinion of his own abilities and of the contribution he believes he can make, though this is difficult to understand for those who have never taken the air to fight in a primitive flying machine—without a parachute. Molter was one of those remarkable young men, irrespective of his own opinion of himself, who elected to volunteer to fight for France before America had entered the war. He gives us an insightful account of flying combat missions from the sharp end and no one who has an interest in the subject will be disappointed with his story.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.

Aeroplanes and cameras, especially cameras, have taught both sides the value of natural shadows. Nowadays you will seldom find an ammunition dump, a supply depot or a barracks that is not situated at the border of a wood or near a line of trees where but once a day it will be unprotected by the shadows. That is at noon, when the sun is directly overhead, casting only a downward shadow.<br>
Long ago the aeroplane stepped right up behind the artillery as a means of preparation for the attack. Concentration of planes no less than concentration of fire is a prelude to an assault. Not only must the advance work of mapping be done, but the enemy’s planes must be absolutely overwhelmed by force of numbers. Not a hostile scout must be able to penetrate above our lines to spread the news of what is going on.<br>
Of all the signs by which the Tommy and the poilu know that an assault is in preparation, the arrival of great numbers of aeroplanes is the most reliable. The crack groupes de combat are withdrawn from other sectors and sent to that in which the new hostilities are to begin.<br>
Two or three weeks before the date set for the actual assault the monster flocks come soaring through the sky. As many as five complete groupes de combat may be sent to one sector in preparation for an assault. At daybreak the scouts go whirring up in pairs and streak off, each pair to some appointed German town.<br>
They check up all the trains in motion behind the lines, the length of each, the direction in which it is going, etc.; all troop movements, all fires and all other military information that comes to their notice. Within half an hour after daybreak the staff knows precisely what the situation is behind the German lines and is able to guess pretty shrewdly what the Boche plans are for the day. The actions of our own troops are regulated accordingly.<br>
It was just such reconnoissance as this which made possible the redemption of the forts at Verdun in the summer of 1917.<br>
The beginning of the last Battle of Verdun was really in Flanders. It was in July and the early part of August. The entire country had been mapped, the artillery was keeping up an incessant fire, day and night. “Hurricane fire” gave birth to its name here. On the eighth day came the attack. It was a complete success.<br>
Then it began to rain. Just a little murkiness that hid the stars at first, then a drizzle, and then a downpour. It rained for three days. The planes were useless; the army was blind and couldn’t move. For three days the attack was held up. We could not move our large guns through the mud; we knew not where we were outnumbered—we could only wait.<br>
On the fourth day the dawn was clear. We started out on reconnoissance, thundering up in pairs at the first streak of light like so many huge partridges. I was fortunate enough to be one of a pair whose destination was a certain town, Thourout, that was a strategic railway centre.<br>
While we hovered over that place for an hour we counted fourteen long trains that pulled into the station. Each train disgorged Germans. Troops were being concentrated there at a tremendous rate. We saw movements of convoys on the roads in daytime, a thing before unheard of, for as a rule all traffic moves only under cover of darkness in the war zone.<br>
By the time we had counted fourteen trains the sun was beginning to climb, and we started straight back to our lines. We reached them without incident, except for the usual salute of shrapnel, and reported what we had discovered.<br>
Although the day was fair, the attack was not prosecuted. It was evident that the Boche was ready for us. The advance and the supports were left to dig themselves in and hold what they had won, but the whole mobile reserve was packed into trains and started at top speed for Verdun.<br>
Everybody now knows what happened then, but not many know what made it possible and why the attack was switched from Flanders to Verdun. It was the blinding of the eyes of our army for those three days that prevented our following up our victory. It was the fact that we recovered our sight before the Boche did that let us win at Verdun.