The second volume of the history of air war—the Somme, Gallipoli and more.
Readers of this the second volume of ‘The War in the Air’—the account of the activities of the British air force during the First World War—will note that the author is different to that of the first volume, since Sir Walter Raleigh died following a journey to the Middle East, and the task of completing the work was taken up by H. A. Jones (1893-1945). While volume one was more expansive in its introductory subject matter, this volume concentrates specifically on the prosecution of the air war in 1915-16 from the Allied perspective. Churchill’s abortive initiative to open a second front by attacking Ottoman Turkey through the Dardanelles, was a significant campaign and is covered here in detail, providing much interest since this theatre, divided between operations over land and sea in the Eastern Mediterranean, presented its own problems. On the Western Front the Allies attacked with ‘the Big Push’ which was the Battle of the Somme in 1916, and the role of aircraft of the RFC in this monumental battle is fully described and naturally fills a substantial part of this volume. Finally, the work of the Royal Naval Air Service is described as it attempted to prevent the incursions of enemy ships, which were intent on disrupting the passage of men and materiel to and from the continent, in the North Sea and English Channel. The German submarine threat was omnipresent as a barrier to the unimpeded traffic of supplies of all kinds and it was clear that aircraft would play an essential part in U-Boat discovery and destruction.
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Whilst the bombing was in progress the offensive patrol of No. 60 Squadron, led by the Squadron Commander, Major F. F. Waldron, came in for heavy fighting over Cambrai. Major Waldron was killed in a fight with a Fokker: the other Moranes, badly shot about, eventually returned.
The railway attacks on this day and on the 1st of July had cost, in all, eight bombing aeroplanes missing, one pilot who got back wounded, and damage, more or less severe, to many of the aeroplanes which returned. The offensive patrols had proved inadequate to the protection of the bombing pilots who, flying without observers in their bomb-loaded B.E.2c’s, were ill-equipped to protect themselves. Furthermore, the reported results of the bombing were incommensurable with the losses incurred. General Trenchard, after consultation with G.H.Q., cancelled further low bombing attacks on trains, by the B.E.2c’s, and sent the detachments back to resume their routine corps work for the First and Second Armies.
Bombing in formation, under escort, once again became the general rule. In the afternoon the concentration of trains which had been reported in Cambrai by the morning reconnaissance was attacked by three R.E.7’s of No. 21 Squadron with four Martinsyde escorts. Three 336-lb. bombs hit buildings south of the station.
Some of the most confused and bloody fighting on the ground, during the day, took place in the underground warrens of La Boisselle. In the evening a number of flares lighted in and about the village enabled the air observers to plot the line of the infantry’s progress. On the front of the XIII Corps the interest centred about Caterpillar and Bernafay woods. The Corps received orders, in the afternoon, to take these places. An observer of No. 9 Squadron had reported in the morning that he examined Caterpillar Wood three times from a height of five hundred feet and that he could find no trace of the enemy there.
Another observer of the same squadron flew low over Bernafay Wood in the afternoon and confirmed infantry patrol reports that that place, too, was untenanted. Bernafay was taken, with little opposition, at nine in the evening, and its capture, reported by wireless from the air, was known to corps headquarters nine minutes after it happened. Caterpillar Wood was quietly occupied during the night.
Throughout the day aeroplane and balloon observers co-operated continuously in counter-battery work, and many photographs were brought in to show the effect of the artillery fire. Enemy balloons working for their own artillery were attacked by aeroplanes in the afternoon. One balloon, above Logeast Wood, north-west of Achiet-le-Grand, was registering an enemy battery on to guns in the Château de la Haie valley, west of Hébuterne, when Captain J. A. Crook on a Nieuport of No. 11 Squadron appeared over the wood. He dived at the balloon, fired his Le Prieur rockets into it at close range, and sent it down in flames. Against other German balloons the attacks were unsuccessful.
Tuesday the 4th of July was a comparatively quiet day on the ground, but by midnight the III Corps at last held the whole of the village of La Boisselle. Clouds were low all day, bringing occasional rain. No German aircraft were seen by the fifty-two pilots of the IV Brigade who flew low about the lines, chiefly on artillery work. A large enemy column marching on Bazentin-le-Grand in the evening was attacked by machine-gun fire from the air and partly scattered, and its position was notified at the same time to the artillery. The weather was no better on the following day and again there was little flying. On the ground bombing parties on the front of the XV Corps pushed forward to the southernmost point of Contalmaison, and the capture of the whole of the powerful first defence system from the Brickfields to La Boisselle was now complete.
Before the second system could be assaulted the enemy had to be ejected from the fortified tangled acres of the Mametz Wood, and from the pear-shaped Trônes Wood, the core of which was entrenched. In the afternoon of July, the 6th, No. 3 Squadron was instructed to reconnoitre Mametz Wood and the German trenches to the west, especially the Quadrangle Support trench which connected the wood with Acid Drop Copse. The report which the squadron sent in gave, in some detail, the condition of the trenches, stating exactly what portions appeared too damaged to be tenable. The small Acid Drop Copse had been pretty well levelled by shell fire, but the majority of the trees of Mametz Wood were still standing: not enough of them had been blown over, said the observer, to form much of a barrier. Attacks against the positions were made by the XV Corps through the next day, the 7th, but met with strong opposition which developed behind a heavy barrage. An observer of No. 3 Squadron dropped a message to say that at half past five in the evening the Quadrangle Support trench, fiercely assaulted all day, was still strongly manned by German infantry.