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CHAPTER XXI


DEVASTATING FIRE


Modestly enough Tom and Jack took the new honors that came to them. As a matter of fact they were in no wise sure that they had discovered the location of the German giant cannon. It was all well enough to come in and report seeing some strange-colored flares of fire. But Tom and Jack felt that they wanted to see a thing with their own eyes before surely believing.

Of course, though, the French experts knew about what they were talking, and the major and the lieutenant seemed very sure of their ground.

"I only hope we have had the good luck to have spotted the beasts' machine," said Tom.

"You will have the honor of proving it to yourselves in the morning," Major de Trouville told them. "You shall accompany the first scouting party that goes out. We will send out two photographing machines, and enough of a squadron to meet anything the Huns can put forth. Paris shall be delivered from the Boche pests!"

"We'll do our best," said Tom, and Jack nodded in agreement.

It did not take long for the news to spread about Camp Lincoln that the two young United States aviators had, very probably, discovered by accident the big German gun.

And in telling what they had seen Tom and Jack remarked that the peculiar tri-colored fire had been in the midst of other flashes of flame, and, doubtless, smoke, but that could not be seen on account of the darkness.

"The other flashes were probably guns fired to camouflage the flash from the giant cannon, or possibly cannons," observed Major de Trouville. "But we shall see what to-morrow brings forth."

The hours of the night seemed long, but there was much to do to get ready for the next day's operations. More aviators were sent for, and the men of the air spent many hours tuning up their motors and seeing to their guns, while the big machines, which it was hoped could take pictures of the giant cannon's position, were gone over carefully.

In addition some powerful French guns were brought up—some of the longest range guns available, and it was hoped that the big aeroplanes might signal by wireless the exact location of the super-gun, so that a devastating fire could be poured on it, as well as bombs be dropped from some machines especially fitted for that work.

Camp Lincoln, where the picked squadron was situated, was in the neighborhood of Soissons, France, in a sector held by the French troops. The lines of German and French trenches, with No Man's Land in between, was about ten miles to the east of this point. This section had changed hands twice, once being occupied by the Germans, and then abandoned by them when they made the great withdrawal.

Now, perhaps ten miles back of the German trenches, the great gun was hidden, making its total distance from Paris about eighty miles, but its distance from Camp Lincoln something less than twenty miles.

Modern guns easily shoot that distance, but the commander of the forces in this section was going to shorten that. Soissons was the nearest large city to the camp. As a matter of fact the air squadron was some distance east of that place, and nearer the battleline. So that it was comparatively easy, once the location of the big gun was known, to bring up heavy artillery behind the French lines to batter away at its emplacement.

After a night of arduous labor, during which there was anxiety lest the Germans find out what was going on, morning broke, and to the relief of all it was bright.

There was an early breakfast, and then the aviators' helpers wheeled the machines from the hangars. Several big photographing craft were in readiness, and ten bombing planes were in reserve.

Major de Trouville inspected his brave men. They were as eager as dogs on the leash to be off and at the throat of the Huns. A wireless message from Paris had come in soon after breakfast, stating that nearly a score had been killed in the capital the previous night by fire from the "Bertha."

"And it's up to us to avenge them!" exclaimed Jack.

"That is what we'll do if we have any luck!" added Tom grimly.

There was a last consultation of the officers, instructions were gone over, and everything possible done to insure success. The moment a big gun was sighted, the signal was to be given and the French long-range cannon would open fire, while the bombing machines would also do their part.

"All ready! Go!" called the major, and there was a rattle and a roar that drowned his last word. The men of the air were off.

Led by Tom and Jack, the others followed. Up and up they arose, the smaller planes flying high as a protection to the more cumbersome machines of the bi-motored type. And soon the squadron, the largest that had yet ascended from Camp Lincoln, was hovering over the German lines.

The Huns seemed to realize that something more than an ordinary attack from the air was impending, for soon after the anti-aircraft guns began firing a swarm of German aviators took the air, and there was no shirking battle this time. The Huns so evidently felt the desperate need of driving away their attackers, that this, more than what the major and lieutenant had said, convinced Tom and Jack that they were at last on the track of the big gun.

Of course the two boys could not communicate with one another, but they said afterward that their thoughts were the same.

The battle of the air opened with a rush and a roar. The Germans, though outnumbered by their opponents, did not hesitate, but came on fiercely. They attacked first the big photographing planes, for they realized that these were the real "eyes" of the squadron. The impressions they received, and the views they carried back, might mean the failure of the German plans.

But the French were ready for this, and the swift little Nieuports, dashing here and there, swooping and rising, attacked the other planes vigorously.

It was give and take, hammer and tongs, fire and be fired on, smash and be smashed. It was not as one-sided a battle as it would seem it might have been owing to the superiority of numbers in favor of the French—at least at first. Several of the Allies' planes were sent down, either gut of control, or in flames. But the Huns paid clearly for their quarry.

Jack and Tom ran serious risks, for the Germans, realizing that the two leading planes had some special mission, attacked them fiercely. Tom managed to shake off and disable his antagonist. But Jack's man shot with such good aim that he pierced his gasolene tank, and had it not been that Jack was able to thrust into the hole one of some wooden plugs he had brought along for the purpose, he might have had to come down within the German lines. But the wood swelled, filled the hole, and then the petrol came out so slowly that there was comparatively little danger.

And having, with some of their companions, fought their way through the German air patrol, and having escaped with minor damage to their guns. Jack and Tom looked down at the place where they had seen the queer lights.

And then, high up and at a vantage point, while below them hovered their photographing planes, the two young aviators beheld a curious sight.

In German-occupied territory, but on French soil, they saw near a railroad junction, where they were fairly well hidden in a camouflaged position, not one, but three monster Hun cannons. The guns looked more like gigantic cranes than like the accepted form of a great rifled piece of armament. The guns were so mounted that they could be run out on a small track at the moment of firing, and then propelled back again, like some of the disappearing cannon at Sandy Hook and other United States forts. Only the German guns advanced and retreated horizontally, while the usual method is vertically.

"We've discovered 'em! There they are!" cried Tom, but of course he could not hear his own voice above the roar of his motor. But he knew that he and Jack were over the very spot where the night before they had seen the colored flares from the great guns.

And they had, indeed, by a most lucky chance, located the big German guns, for there were three of them. They were placed almost mid-way between the railroad station of Crepyen-Lannois and the two forts known as "Joy Hills," forts which had fallen into German hands. There were two railroad spur lines from the station, and on these the heavy guns were moved to position to fire, and then run back again. Other spur lines were under course of construction. Jack and Tom, as well as the other airmen, could observe, indicating that other guns were to be mounted, perhaps to take the place of some that might be destroyed.

As a matter of fact, as was learned later, there were but two guns in service at this time, one of the three having burst.[1]

Even as the French squadron came hovering over the place where the German monster guns were placed, the advance of Tom, Jack and their comrades being disputed by the Huns, one of the super-guns was run out to fire on its specially constructed platform.

That this should be done in the very faces of the French was probably accounted for by the fact that the Germans were taken by surprise. It took some little time to arrange for firing one of the big cannons, and it was probably too late, after the French airmen were hovering above it, to get word to the crew not to discharge it.

As it happened, Tom and Jack, with Boughton, who had kept pace with them, witnessed the firing of the big gun. As it was discharged, ten other heavy guns, but, of course, of much less range, were fired off, being discharged as one to cover the report of the giant mortar. And at the same time dense clouds of smoke were sent up from surrounding hills, in an endeavor to screen the big gun from aeroplane observation. But it was too late.

In another moment, and even as the echoes of the reports of the ten cannons and the big gun were rumbling, the bombing machine of the French came up and began to drop explosives on the spot. At the same time word of the location of the great cannon was wirelessed back to the camp, and there began a devastating fire on the guns that had been, and were even then, bombarding Paris.

  1. Note.—While of course this story is fiction, the description given above of the great guns and their method of firing and concealment is strictly in accord with the facts, and made from a sight of aeroplane photographs taken by the French, and from an official report, published April 26, 1918, by Deputy Charles Leboucq of the Department of the Seine.