Fighting the Flying Circus/Chapter 12
SUCH was the liaison between the allied forces on our sector of the front in the Spring of 1918 that we were frequently called upon to act in concert with the infantry or the air forces of the French and British. Thus on Decoration Day, when all the thoughts from our aerodrome were directed towards the significance of the celebration that our people back home were planning for this occasion, a call came from the British Independent Air Force Headquarters that an important expedition was being carried out that morning at eight o'clock against the German railroad station at Conflans, and it would be appreciated if we Americans could furnish them some protection on their homeward journey.
Accordingly Lieutenant Meissner was given charge of a formation of six Nieuports from 94 Squadron and Lieutenant John Mitchell led a similar formation of six machines from the 95th, all of which left our aerodrome on this mission. They were to rendezvous over Thiaucourt, which was about half-way to Conflans from the front. This Lieutenant John Mitchell of 95 Squadron must not be confused with the other John Mitchell, our colonel's brother, killed, as already stated, at Columbey-les-Belles.
Thinking the chances good for a little private scrap of my own, I got my machine ready and left the aerodrome at seven-thirty. The two large flights were just fading away in the distance as I left the ground.
By the time I reached Flirey I had attained an altitude of 15,000 feet and was in a splendid position to witness the whole show. There were the English squadrons returning from this expedition against the supply depots of Conflans. They had evidently dropped all their bombs and had quite as evidently aroused a hornets' nest in so doing. A large formation of enemy planes were following them hot-foot and our fighting machines were climbing up to intercept them. Ahead of the British aeroplanes a furious storm of shrapnel indicated that Archy was not caught napping. The German shells burst below and ahead of the bombing squadron but ceased as soon as the pursuing Hun machines approached that area. Those German batteries were putting up a beautiful performance but they were lacking in just one essential. They couldn't hit the target.
My own formations were at that moment passing over Thiaucourt and were dashing forward with all speed to the rescue of the approaching Englishmen. It looked like a regular dog-fight that was preparing before my very eyes. The Americans should reach the Englishmen at about the same time that the Huns overtook them from their rear.
Suddenly I noticed something going wrong with the American formation below me. Evidently another enemy flight had come up from the west and had started a free-for-all fight to prevent the Nieuports from giving aid to the bombers. As I watched this encounter I noticed one of our Nieuports, probably three thousand feet below me and a little to the west, first flutter and then begin to fall out of control. Ever since the beginning of the stage setting I had been edging my way towards the center of the field where the opposing forces must meet. Now they were fairly under me.
The stricken Nieuport had no sooner begun its uncontrollable spin than I noted two Albatros fighting machines set themselves on his tail. Instantly I descended pell-mell onto one of them, firing at long range and continuing my fire until to my great relief I saw my target falling steeply to earth, quite beyond control. The other Albatros veered off and hastened away.
I did not know who was the hapless pilot of the Nieuport and could not tell in what condition he was. I started swiftly down beside him to ascertain whether he was beyond further help or whether his whole performance was simply a ruse to get away from an overwhelming force. Before I had reached him I saw the Nieuport come gracefully out of the spin and with one long bank begin again its upward climb. It was only a ruse! The boy was coming back to the fight!
Climbing above him, I again turned my attention to the thickest of the fray. The attacking Fokkers had been met by the remaining strength of the Americans by now and the English bombers were nearing the allied lines. A number of individual combats were waging in various parts of the heavens. I ran about from one to the other with a savage sort of elation urging me on. It is a glorious feeling to down an enemy in combat and the sweetness of such a victory is more than doubled if it includes saving a comrade from a fall. Who this comrade was I did not know, but I saw that he was following me along as we searched the sky from place to place for a favorable opening. Finally it came!
About five kilometers away in the direction of Pont-à-Mousson I saw a running fight which had passed quite through the rest of the combatants. I had been flying in almost the opposite direction and had not noticed their passing us. My recent protégé had left me and was already streaking it in their direction. I pulled over and started in pursuit, straining my eyes to distinguish what machines were involved in this new mêlée, to what sides they belonged and how our fellows were faring. A glance at the lines told me that the British squadron was well away and unpursued.
The little Nieuport ahead of me continued straight on and while I was still half a mile away I saw him dart in to the attack. There were four or five Nieuports against the same number of Albatros machines and the whole show was drifting east toward the Moselle River. I slightly increased my altitude and prepared to select the most favorable door for my entrance. But whilst I was in the very act of entering it a sudden change in the situation attracted my attention. The same little Nieuport that had been in trouble so recently over Thiaucourt and which had again gone in red-headed against these Albatros was diving down on the tail of one enemy while a second Albatros perceiving his advantage had gotten into a similar position on his tail. Even while I was starting down to make the fourth in this headlong procession I saw the leading Albatros suddenly zoom sharply up and loop over onto his back. The Nieuport went under him at headlong pace.
Both Albatros were now on the Nieuport's tail and I was firing intermittently at each of them, hoping to divert their attention for the fraction of a second necessary to relieve the pilot on the Nieuport. With a careful aim I settled a long burst of bullets into the Albatros ahead of me. I saw at once that he was finished. The machine continued straight ahead until it crashed full into the forest that lines the east bank of the Moselle.
In the midst of this diving battle the pilot in the Nieuport had tried the same maneuver that the enemy Albatros had so recently achieved. Pulling back his joystick with great suddenness, the Nieuport rose and let the two machines, one a pursuer? the other my victim, and now pilotless, pass beneath him. But at the same instant came the sound of that sinister crackling that indicated to me that the strain had again been too much for the strength of the Nieuport's wings. The whole surface of the canvas on the right wing was torn off with the first wrench! It was the same familiar old accident that had so nearly claimed Jimmy Meissner a fortnight previously—that had indeed landed Jimmy Hall a prisoner in German lines and that had so terrified me a few days before. And here we were again at least four miles north of No Man's Land! Would he disintegrate here or would he be able to make some sort of landing in the forest-covered mountains below? It was a pitiable choice.
Fortunately we were left alone with our problem—the pilot of the other Nieuport and myself. The two Albatros had evidently decided to call it a day and go in. They may never have known the catastrophe which overtook their coveted victim. The other enemy machines had carried on their attacks or retreats well beyond the Moselle. I took a rapid survey of the heavens before turning my helpless attention to the ugly situation in which my protégé now found himself. Truly, if he gets out of this alive, I thought to myself, he will certainly survive the war!
"The boy who can pilot a machine without any fabric on it, as that chap is doing, is certainly something of an artist," I again said to myself as I put on the sauce and hastened to overtake my wobbly companion, who was staggering towards our lines much like a drunken man. But at any rate he was getting there. I came up to within twenty feet of him and looked curiously into the pilot's seat.
There was Jimmy Meissner again, turning a cheery grin towards me and taking his ease while he waved a hand to me! Jimmy Meissner indeed! No wonder he could fly a machine without canvas. With the practise he was getting he would soon be flying without wings. This was the second time he had gone through with practically this same experience, and I had saved him from attack on both occasions.
I stayed close beside Jimmy all the way in. When he finally settled down on our field for his final little crash he came wobbling over to me from the wreck as blithe and merry as ever.
"Thanks, old boy, for shooting down those Boches on my tail," said Jimmy, trying to be serious. "I'm beginning to like coming home without any wings on my machine."
Just here Doug Campbell came out of the hangar and ran up to my machine.
"Rick!" said Douglas, "who was the poor fellow who ripped the canvas off his wings and fell just beyond Pont-à-Mousson? I saw the thing go down."
"Doug!" I returned seriously, "you simply can't kill some people!"
"But I've put in a report that he crashed!" retorted Doug. "Taylor and I were in on that show that you just left. We beat you home. We both saw the wing come off that Nieuport when he came out of the dive. Who was he ?"
I pointed sadly at Jimmy without speaking. Then I pointed to the remains of his machine in the center of the field.
"Jimmy Meissner!" I said, climbing down from my machine, "I got two Huns through you to-day and I thank you for them, but you must really stop this sort of thing. It's getting on my nerves."
"Was that really you, Jimmy? " queried Campbell, coming up and hugging the unabashed Meissner." And this is the second time you've gotten away with it!"
"You will never be shot down in air fighting, my son," contributed Thorn Taylor, who was also regarding our lucky pilot with unbelieving eyes. "Wait till Flatbush hears about this new stunt of yours!"
Jimmy Meissner comes from that part of Brooklyn known as Flatbush.
While we were thus congratulating Jimmy upon his second miraculous escape on a collapsed machine John Mitchell of 95 Squadron settled upon the field beside us. And he had another interesting story of the day's adventure.
He had noticed an enemy two-seater and two protecting fighting planes of the enemy accompanying it just east of the British bombers who were returning. His entire formation dived down to the attack and a brisk little battle took place at only 3,000 feet above ground. One after another Mitchell's formation of six machines piqued down at the two-seater and let go a burst. At the last swoop the enemy plane burst into flames and crashed.
Then they took up the pursuit of the two defending planes and Mitchell chased one of them as far north as Vigneulles, which is half-way to Metz from the front line trenches. At this point the fleeing Hun evidently decided that he was no match for the American who dared to follow him so deep within his own territory, for he dived suddenly to earth and attempted to land in a large open field just outside the town. Mitchell followed him all the way down, firing continuously as he attempted to land. The Boche pilot made a miscalculation of his distance, being probably scared out of his wits, ran full into a fence and turned a double somersault before ending in a total smash.
Just how the pilot came out of this misadventure Mitchell had no way of ascertaining, but as long as the wreckage remained in his sight no person attempted to emerge therefrom.
It was a glorious day for 94 and 95 Squadrons. We had brought down in combat four aeroplanes of the enemy without the loss of a single one of our own. We lost one machine through accident in this fight, but there were so many amusing incidents connected with this accident that none of us took it seriously. It happened in this way:
The comedian and life of 95 Squadron was Lieutenant Casgrain, of Detroit, Michigan. Lieutenant Mitchell took him along on this expedition, although it was his first trip over the lines. Casgrain kept in the formation and took a gallant part in the attack on the two-seater machine which ended in its destruction in air.
But in recovering from the downward dive Casgrain made the same mistake which so many of us had made in pulling up the Nieuport too quickly. He lost his canvas, just as Meissner had done.
Being unaware that proper manipulation would permit him to fly home in that condition Casgrain put his nose down immediately and began a long glide to earth. Evidently he thought he was much nearer home than he was. For as we were told later by an artillery observer who had seen him land, Casgrain floated blandly half-way across No Man's Land, which is about a mile wide at this point, selected a smooth piece of ground and landed with the ease of an eagle.
He stepped out of his machine with a nonchalant manner, map in hand, and set about quietly perusing it as much as to say, "Well, here I am! Now just where am I?"
At this moment several rifle balls dug up the dirt at his heels. He dropped his map and made a jump for some nearby trees. After a short consideration of his position he was seen to leave the trees and advance straight towards the German trenches, his hands held up in the air!
Poor old Casgrain evidently thought he was well behind the German lines, after his first rude awakening. As a matter of fact he might just as well have walked in the other direction and passed through into our own lines if he had only known that he was in No Man's Land.
The officers' mess at 95 Squadron do not tire of repeating this story to the present day. A few days after the cessation of hostilities they learned from released prisoners with great satisfaction that their star comedian had been well cared for in German prisons, where he had been the wit of the camp. A fortnight after his capture he was caught hoarding his food in order to have a supply on hand when an opportunity came for an escape. For this offense Casgrain was sent north to a distant camp in Prussia just before the armistice was signed.
The American gunners who witnessed Casgrain's landing in No Man's Land brought their 75's to bear upon his aeroplane as soon as they discovered he had abandoned it. It lay somewhat nearer the German trenches than our own. All the rest of the day they hammered away at it without scoring a single hit. Presumably the novices in this battery were experimenting at range finding, for they shot away much ammunition without damaging the machine. This particular battery evidently had not had much practice before they left the United States.
That night the humorous Boches in the trenches went out and secured the little machine. The next morning the American gunners saw the top plane of the Nieuport standing upright in the German front line trench. The bulls-eye cocard, which was brightly painted with red and blue circles around the big white center, stood directly facing them as much as to say.:
"Now! Here is the target! Take another try at it!"
From the frequency of these accidents to our Nieuports it may be wondered why we continued to use them. The answer is simple—we had no others we could use! The American Air Forces were in dire need of machines of all kinds. We were thankful to get any kind that would fly.
The French had already discarded the Nieuport for the steadier, stronger Spad, and thus our Government was able to buy from the French a certain number of these out-of-date Nieuport machines for American pilots—or go without. Consequently, our American pilots in France were compelled to venture out in Nieuports against far more experienced pilots in more modern machines. None of us in France could understand what prevented our great country from furnishing machines equal to the best in the world. Many a gallant life was lost to American aviation during those early months of 1918, the responsibility for which must lie heavily upon some guilty conscience.