Today everyone is so familiar with aircraft, air travel and the fact that virtually every nation’s defence force includes an aerial component, so it is easy to forget that there are many people still alive whose parents were born before any practical form of working aircraft. The Wright Brothers had achieved sustained heavier than air flight in 1903—just over 100 years ago; that was only eleven years before the outbreak of the First World War, the first war in which combat took to the the skies. During the four years of the conflict the potential for aircraft in all their various forms and in all their viable tactical roles was pursued and exploited as much as the technology of the time would allow. This change in the nature of warfare (which added the first new dimension to conflict in millennia) was seen as incredible to many at the time. Certainly the impetus given to the development of powered flight by the First World War cannot be overestimated. A number of books were written during those early days of air warfare, though their number remains comparatively few, some were written by aviators themselves and some were general or unit histories. Others gathered incidents, experiences and anecdotes into anthologies which enabled an eager readership to understand what combat in the skies actually involved. This is one of those books. It covers pilot training and includes, among other things, accounts of aerial warfare from the allied perspective including night flights, bombing, Zeppelin hunting, raids, dog fights and sea-plane activity. ‘The Way of the Air’ concludes with an interesting hypothesis of how manned flight could have developed in the post-war period. This interesting First World War ‘reader’ will be a welcome addition to the libraries of all those interested in the early days of aerial warfare.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.
At last we got clear of them, and sighted our objective, just as the sun broke through the clouds, and revealed to us a stretch of low, flat-lying country, dotted here and there with villages and camps and ammunition bases. M—— showed up easily, it was a moderate-sized town of ant-like pigmy dwellings, little white and grey patches in the brilliant sunlight. A small winding river skirted the town, looking for all the world against the dark background like the vein in a man’s arm. North and south ran the gleaming, glinting railway lines, and a large road led up from the town to the firing line. This road was now converged with traffic of all descriptions. We dropped a bomb, but it was very wide of the mark, and it served to draw the enemy’s fire, which again broke out all round us with renewed fury. M—— was better supplied with anti-aircraft guns than any other position on the German front.<br>
Higher and yet higher we climbed until we were well above the clouds, and the earth was almost hidden from our sight. By this simple and expedient ruse de guerre we might be able to get over the city before the gunners were aware of our existence. But alas for our well laid plans! We had not gone far when we encountered a great double-engined Albatross, and there, with the white billowy clouds stretching like waves of a gigantic sea in all directions, we fought our battle of life and death. Fritz opened the encounter by sweeping down upon us at top speed, pouring out a steady stream of lead from the machine-gun in the nose of his machine. To avoid this we climbed rapidly, and he flashed by, beneath us, at an alarming rate. We attempted to bomb him, but it was futile, and the bomb fell downwards to the earth below.<br>
We turned as soon as were able, and waited for the enemy to recommence the attack. He was all out now, and putting on top speed bore down upon us with the speed of an express train. Nearer and yet nearer he drew. Thankfully I noticed that we were both at the same altitude. When yet about a quarter of a mile distant, his observer opened fire, the bullets flying all around us in a leaden stream, and still we did not reply. I looked at my observer. He was bending over his gun, fumbling about with some portion of the mechanism.<br>
There was no need to ask what was the matter. Alas! I knew too well. The gun had jammed. Now followed a ticklish time for both of us, for without the gun we were completely unarmed, and Fritz was drawing nearer every second. Already I could hear and feel his bullets singing past my head, occasionally chipping portions of the machine. Now he was right level with us. What were we to do? To remain in that same position would mean certain death. If we climbed, he would climb faster, and would almost immediately be up with us again. There was only one thing to be done—the unexpected! So putting her nose-down, we dived towards the earth like a stone, and had gone over a thousand feet before I could get her level again.<br>
This manoeuvre so upset the calculations of the enemy, that he was now about three quarters of a mile distant. This gave us precious time to prepare again for the attack. The observer was still working feverishly away, when we commenced to climb. Fritz had already turned and was coming down to meet us; but we had the advantage this time of having the wind behind our backs. If only that infernal gun were ready! Up we climbed, and down came Fritz; all the faster because he knew we were comparatively unarmed. Now we were under half a mile distant, now only a quarter, and now he had commenced to fire. Would we never reply? At last! Brrr! Brrr! Brrr! yapped the gun in our bows.<br>
Fritz was so startled at this unexpected development that for a moment he paused in his firing. This was our opportunity; taking steady aim J—— put the whole drum of 47 cartridges into his back in three bursts. He staggered and reeled, he was hit; I felt I wanted to cry out for sheer joy, but my throat was parched and dry. Oh! the reaction after that dreadful ten minutes. But although we had hit him, Fritz was yet by no means out of running, that is if he elected to remain and fight it out, which I doubted extremely; for the Hun is ever super-courageous when he has an unarmed and helpless foe to deal with. So throttling her down I watched him anxiously. Turning to the left he started off at top speed in the direction of his own base. This I had expected, and off we started in his trail with only another half-hour’s petrol in our tanks.<br>
On and on he flew, over wood and town, and we were close in the rear, both flying at top speed. Every moment he was getting lower. I knew only too well what that meant. He was trying to lead us into a trap, where we would make a set target for a ring of his anti-aircraft guns. We must never let this happen or we should be finished for a certainty. If we could only catch up with him; but it was in vain we wished, for he was yet a quarter of a mile ahead, when, as usual, the unexpected happened. He had engine trouble. Within five minutes we were almost on top of him. He commenced to sink like a stone.<br>
Now was our opportunity, an opportunity which our observer was not slow to take advantage of. Right into the middle of his back flew the steady stream of bullets. Again he reeled, and this time there was that peculiar fluttering of the wings, which tells only too plainly that an aeroplane is “out of control.” Like poor B—— he commenced to whirl round like a humming-top, then with one long last plunge he had crashed into one of his own encampments, and all was over.<br>
We were left to reach our own lines with twenty minutes’ petrol remaining, and under a violent bombardment of the enemy “Archies.”