Air Service Boys over the Rhine/Chapter 18
A CLOUD BATTLE
For some little time the picked squadron that was intrusted with the difficult and dangerous task of locating the big German gun flew over the French lines. Below them Tom and Jack could make out various French camps, the front and supporting lines of trenches, and various other military works. They could see a brisk artillery duel going on at one point. They noted the puffs of smoke, but of course could not hear the explosions, as their own motors were making too much noise.
Tom and Jack kept within sight of one another, and also within view of their comrades. Each plane was marked with a big number so it could be distinguished, for the aviators themselves were so wrapped in fleece-lined clothes, so attired in gauntlets, goggles and fur boots, as protection against the terrible cold of the upper regions, that one's closest friend would not recognize him at a near view.
It was the object of this first scouting expedition to make a preliminary observation over as wide a range of the enemy's country as possible. While it was hoped that the location of the big gun might be spied out, it was almost too much to expect to pick out the spot at the first trial. The Germans were keen and wary, and undoubtedly they would have laid their plans well.
"Well, I don't see any of 'em coming out to dispute our passage," thought Tom, as he looked at his controls and noted by his height gage that he was now up about two miles. "There isn't a Boche plane in sight."
And the same thing was observed by Jack and the other fliers. The Germans seemed to be keeping down, or else were higher up, or perhaps hidden by some cloud bank.
That was another hazard of the air. Going into a cloud, or above it might mean, on coming out, that one would find himself in the midst of enemies.
It is a life full of dangers and surprises. It is this which makes it so appealing to the young and brave.
On and on flew the Allied planes, and the eager eyes of the pilots were alternately directed toward the earth and then ahead of them, and upward to discern the first sight of a Hun machine, if such should venture out.
The fliers were now well over the German lines, and the batteries from below began firing at them. This was to be expected, and Tom, Jack and the others had gotten used to the bursts of shrapnel all around them. They could see the puffs of smoke where the shells burst, but they could hear no sounds.
"The 'Archies' are busy this morning," thought Jack, as he noted the firing from below, and using the French slang word for the German anti-aircraft guns.
He took a quick glance toward Tom's machine to make sure his chum, so far, was all right. Assured on this point Jack looked to his own craft.
"Well," he mused, "at this point the 'flaming onions' can't get us, but they may pot us as we go down, as we'll have to if we want to get a good view of the ground where the big gun may be hidden."
The "flaming onions," referred to by Jack, were rockets shot from a ground mortar. They have a range of about a mile, and when a series of them are shot upward in the direction of a hostile plane it is no easy matter for the aviator to pass through this "barrage." Once a "flaming onion" touches an aeroplane the craft is set on fire, and then, unless a miracle happens, the aviator falls to his death.
The German gunners, however, could not use these to advantage while the French planes kept so high up, though the shrapnel was a menace, for the Hun guns shot far and with excellent aim. A number of the scout machines were hit, Tom's receiving three bullets through the wings, while Jack's engine was nicked once or twice, though with no serious damage.
But as for the German planes they declined the combat that was offered them. Probably they had different plans in view. It soon became evident to Tom, Jack and the others that to fly at that height meant discovering nothing down below. The distance was too great. The big gun might be hidden almost anywhere below them, but until it was fired, disclosing its presence by an unusual volume of smoke, it would not be discovered. Also its fire might be camouflaged by a salvo from a protecting battery.
"It's about time he did that," said Tom to himself at last, as he noticed Cerfe, who was the leader of the air squadron, dip his plane in a certain way, which was the signal for going down. "We've got to get lower if we want to see anything," the young aviator went on. "Though they may pot some of us."
Down they went, flying comparatively low but at great speed in order to offer less of a target to the gunners below them. And, following instructions, each pilot noted carefully the section of the German trenches beneath him, and the area back of them. They were seeking the big gun.
But, though they looked carefully, it could not be seen, and finally when one of the French machines was badly hit, and the pilot wounded, so that he had to turn back toward his own lines, Cerfe gave the signal for the return.
In all this time not a Hun plane had come out to give battle. What the reason for this was could only be guessed at. It may have been that none of the German machines was available, or that skillful pilots, capable of sustaining a fight with the veterans of the French, were not on hand just then. However that may have been, Tom, Jack and the others, after firing a few rounds from their machine guns at the trenches, though without hope of doing much damage, turned back toward Camp Lincoln.
"Well, then you did not discover anything?" asked Major de Trouville, who had been transferred and given the command at Camp Lincoln.
"Nothing," answered Jack.
"If it's in the section we covered, it is well hidden," added Tom.
"And I think, don't you know," went on the Englishman, Haught, "that the only way we'll be able to hit on the bally mortar is to fly low and take photographs."
"That's my idea," said the major. "If we take a series of photographs we can develop them, enlarge them, if necessary, and examine them at our leisure. I had thought of this, but it's a slow plan, and it means—casualties. But I suppose that can't be avoided. But I wanted to try the scouting machines first.
"After all, the taking of photographs from the air of the enemy trenches and the land behind them is a most valuable method of getting information," he continued.
Men, specially trained for such observation work, examine the photographs after the aviators return with the films, and they can tell, by signs that an ordinary person would pass over, whether there is a new battery camouflaged in the vicinity, whether preparations are under way for receiving a large number of troops, or whether a general advance is contemplated. Then measures to oppose this can be started. So, Major de Trouville was right, photography forms a valuable part of the new warfare.
The photographing of the enemy positions is done in big, heavy machines, carrying two men. They must fly comparatively low, and have not much speed, though they are armed, and it takes considerable of an attack to bring them down. But of course the pilot and his observer are in danger, and, to protect them as much as possible, scout planes—the single-seat Nieuports—are sent out in squadrons to hover about and give battle to the German aircraft that come out to drive off the photographers.
"We'll undertake that," proceeded Major de Trouville. "I'll order the big machine to get ready for an attempt to-morrow at locating the gun."
"Is it still shooting?" asked Jack.
"Yes, it has just been bombarding Paris; but I have no reports yet as to the damage done."
"Aren't we doing anything at all?" asked Tom.
"Oh, yes, our batteries are keeping up a fire on the German lines along the front behind which we think the gun is concealed, but what the results are yet, we don't know."
"Well, let's hope for clear weather to-morrow," suggested Boughton.
The intervening time was occupied by the aviators in getting everything in readiness. The machines were inspected, the automatic guns gone over, and nothing left undone that could be thought of to give success.
The next day dawned clear and bright, and, as soon as it was light enough to make successful photographs, the big machine set out, while hovering above and to either side of it were several Nieuports. Tom and Jack were each occupying one of these, ready to give battle to the Huns above or below the clouds.
In order to distract the attention of the Germans as much as possible from the direct front where the airships were to cross the lines, a violent artillery fire was maintained on either flank. To this the Germans replied, perhaps thinking an engagement was pending. And so, amid the roar of big guns, the flying squadron got off.
"Now we'll see what luck we'll have," mused Tom, as he drove his machine forward, being one of the large aerial "V" that had for its angle the ponderous photographing bi-motored machine.
Over the German lines they flew, and then the Germans awoke to the necessity of ignoring the fire on their flanks and began shooting at the airships over their heads.
"This ought to bring out their pilots if they have any sporting blood," thought Jack.
And it did. The French and their allies were no more than well over German-occupied territory, before a whole German air fleet swarmed up and advanced to give battle. They flew high, intending to get above their enemies, and so in the most favorable fighting position. But Tom, Jack and the others saw this, and also began to elevate their planes.
"We certainly are going up!" mused Tom, as he noted the needle of his height gage showing an altitude of twelve thousand feet. "When are they going to stop? We're high above the clouds now."
That was true as regarded himself, Jack, and two other French planes. But still the Germans climbed. Doubtless some of them were engaging the big machine which was low down, trying to take photographs, but Cerfe and Boughton were guarding that.
"Here comes one at me, anyhow!" thought Tom, as he saw a Hun machine headed for him. "Well, the sooner it's over the better. Here goes!" and he pressed the release of his automatic gun, meanwhile heading his craft full at the German to direct the fire, for that is how the guns are aimed in a Nieuport, the gun being stationary.
And so began the battle above the clouds.