Fighting the Flying Circus/Chapter 14

LIEUTENANT SMYTH went out with me again on June 4th, 1918. He had now become a valuable companion and I placed the utmost dependence upon his reliability and good judgment. We crossed the lines near Pont-à-Mousson to take a look into the enemy territory and see if any inquisitive aeroplane might be coming over for photographs.

Within a dozen minutes after passing the trenches I picked up the distant silhouette of two enemy machines approaching us from the direction of Metz. I saw at first glance that these fellows had more than a thousand feet advantage of us in the matter of altitude. Without waiting to discover whether or not they had any friends behind them, I turned sharply about and began climbing for a greater height. We could neither attack the enemy nor defend ourselves advantageously so far below them.

While flying south and climbing steeply I noticed ahead of us, in the direction of our own aerodrome, an enormous number of white shell-bursts dotting the heavens at about our altitude. These were American anti-aircraft shells and they told me clearly that an enemy aeroplane was operating over Toul; likewise they indicated that no American planes were in the sky there, else our gunners would be more cautious in firing.

Up to this time I had downed five German aeroplanes, every one of them behind their own lines. Confirmation for my last victory, won on May 30th had not yet come in, so officially I was not yet an ace. That was of little consequence but the matter of dropping a Boche plane within our own territory where I might land beside him and have the satisfaction of seeing what sort of prize I had bagged—this was a pleasure that I rather ardently desired. Consequently I forgot all about the late object of our attack, who presumably was still coasting along five or six miles behind us. I wigwagged my wings to attract Smyth's attention, pointed the nose of my Nieuport towards the city of Toul and forged with all possible speed ahead in that direction. Smyth understood and followed close behind me.

As we drew nearer we easily distinguished the outline of a two-seater Hun photographing machine tranquilly pursuing its way amidst the angry bursts of shrapnel. I wouldn't have taken a million dollars for my opportunity at that moment. The enemy was in our very front lawn and would drop within a few kilometres of my own hangar. He hadn't even noticed my approach but was lazily circling about, no doubt photographing everything of interest in the vicinity with calm indifference to the frantic efforts of our Archy batteries.

It was a Rumpler, just as I had thought. I had him in a tight position. He couldn't see me as I was exactly in the middle of the sun. I had just the right amount of elevation for a leisurely direct attack. Smyth stayed above me as I pushed down my joystick and began my slide.

Painted in big black letters on the side of his fusilage was the number "16." The outline of the "16" was beautifully shaded from black into orange color. Just ahead of the "16" were the ornate insignia, also in orange which represented a rising sun. I pictured the spot on the wall over my sleeping cot where those insignia would hang this evening after dinner as I directed the sights of my machine-gun past the rising sun, past the observer's seat, raised them a trifle and finally settled them dead into the pilot's seat only a hundred yards ahead of me. Absolutely certain of my aim I pressed the trigger.

Words cannot describe my chagrin and rage as I realized that my gun had jammed after the first two or three shots. I dashed on by my easy target at the rate of two hundred miles per hour, cursing madly at my gun, my ammunition and at the armorer at the aerodrome who had been careless in selecting and fitting my cartridges. The two or three bullets that I had fired merely served to give the alarm to the Huns in the machine. They would turn at once for home while I withdrew to repair my miserable firearms.

It was too true. Already they were headed for Germany and were moving away at top speed. I directed my swifter climbing machine upon a parallel course that would soon distance them as well as regain me my former superior height; and as we flew along I disengaged the faulty cartridge from the chamber of the Vickers and fired a few rounds to see that the mechanism was in good firing order. All again arranged to my satisfaction, I looked below to see how far my craft had carried me.

I had crossed over the lines! There lay Thiaucourt below me, not more than a mile away. The enemy machine had been steadily diving for home all this time and I had a very few seconds left me for an attack of any kind. All hopes of getting a victory inside of my own lines had now disappeared. I should be lucky if I got confirmation for a victory at all, since we were now so far inside Germany and so near to the ground. I dived on to the attack.

Most of one's troubles in this world come from something wrong inside one's self. If I hadn't been so stupidly optimistic at the outset of this engagement I should have been more cautious and my first disappointment would not have made me forget to keep an eye out for other enemy machines. Even Smyth I had forgotten, in my rage at losing the best chance for a brilliant shot that had ever come my way. I had been flying for five minutes with almost no thoughts except angry disappointment. Now I had a rude awakening.

Even as I began my last dive upon the Rumpler I heard, saw and felt living streaks of fire pass my head. They crackled and sparkled around me like a dozen pop corn roasters, except, that they had a far more consistent and regular rhythm. I saw a number of these tracer bullets go streaming past my face before I realized what a blessed idiot I had been. Almost scared out of my wits with the dreadful situation in which I now found myself I did not even stop to look around and count the number of enemy machines on my tail. I imagined there were at least a thousand from the streaks of fire which their tracer bullets and incendiary ammunition cut through my wings. I kicked my rudder with my right foot and shoved my joystick to the right with a single spasmodic jerk. My machine fell over onto its wings and slid sideways for a few hundred feet and then, seeing a clear country between me and dear old France, I pulled her back into line and fed in the gas. The suddenness of my maneuver must have caught the Heinies quite by surprise, for as I straightened out I looked behind me and saw the two fighting single-seaters which had been on my tail still on their downward dive. I had gotten away so quickly they did not even yet know I had gone.

Number 16 and the orange-colored Rising Sun that I fancied would be decorating the walls over my sleeping cot were still leering at me from the fat sides of the Rumpler as it descended leisurely to the ground.

As I took my melancholy yet grateful way homeward I reviewed and checked up the events of the morning. I resolved then and there never again to permit premature elation or circumstances of any kind, good or bad, to rile my temper and affect me as they had this morning. Fate had been extraordinarily good to me and I had escaped miraculously with only a few bullet holes through my wings, but I could never expect to be so fortunate again.

It was with a chastened spirit that I confronted our armorer a few minutes later and told him about my jam. Instead of bringing a severe punishment to the careless mechanics who had tested my gun and ammunition I mildly suggested that they make a more stringent examination of my cartridges hereafter.

At this time I was second in command of Squadron 94 and, as one of the privileges of the office, I could go off on voluntary patrols at any time I desired so long as such proceedings did not interfere with my required duties. I naturally preferred going by myself, for I felt no responsibility for other pilots under such circumstances and I had a much better chance of stealing up close to enemy aeroplanes without discovery. In formation flying the whole flight is limited to the speed and altitude of its weakest member. Formation flying is very valuable to an inexperienced pilot; but after one has learned to take care of oneself one prefers to go out with a roving commission.

The morning following my disappointing encounter with No. 16 of the Rising Sun Squadron, I went over to my hangar at an early hour to see that all was right with my machine. Inside the shed I found the mechanics busy with my Nieuport. The gun had been dismounted and was still in the repair shop. Some defect had been discovered in the mechanism, they told me, and it had been necessary to take it to the gun repair shops for examination. My machine was out of commission for that day.

Looking over the available machines I found that Lieutenant Smyth's Nieuport was in good condition, although the guns were not correctly aligned, according to Smyth's judgment. He readily consented to my using it for a little patrol, though this necessitated his remaining behind. I knew nothing of the capabilities of his machine, yet I was pleased to try the efficacy of his twin gun mounting. My own Nieuport carried but one gun.

Flying high over Nancy and Toul and Commercy I tried first to learn the topmost ceiling of Smyth's machine. The highest altitude, it should be explained, to which any machine can climb, is controlled by the steadily increasing rarity of the atmosphere. The higher one rises, the greater speed is required, to enable the thinner air to sustain the weight of the aeroplane. Consequently, the limit of altitude for any given machine depends upon two factors: its horsepower and its weight. In order to climb an extra thousand feet, you must appreciably increase the horsepower or diminish the weight. To resume: I reached 20,000 feet and found that Smyth's machine would go no higher. I fired a few bursts from each gun and found that they operated smoothly. Everything appearing to be all right, I headed for Germany and began to scour the hostile skies. For a time nothing appeared. Then, again coming from the direction of Metz, I observed a photographing two-seater, accompanied by two scouts acting as protectors.

Acting upon the same tactics that had appealed to me yesterday I turned back into the sun and awaited their passing over our lines. To my delight I saw the two fighting machines escort the Rumpler fairly across our lines and then themselves turn back into Germany. They had not seen me and evidently considered their protection no longer necessary. I hugged the sun closely and let the Rumpler sail by below me. Imagine my extravagant joy when I again made out the painted Rising Sun in orange colors along the side of the Rumpler's fusilage, and the big black numerals "16" following it! My escaped prize of yesterday was again within my clutches. It would never escape again.

The barren walls of my sleeping quarters again rose before my eyes. Manfully I choked down all unwonted feelings of optimism as I thought of yesterday's mishaps, but still I felt every confidence in the outcome of to-day's encounter. This was too good to be true.

Compelling myself to patience I followed my enemy along as he made his way still further to the south. He had some special mission to perform, of this I was sure. I wanted to know just what this mission was. At the same time the farther back he ventured the better would be my chances for dropping him within our territory. He was now almost over Commercy. My sole fear was that some careless move of mine would disclose me to the attention of the observer.

As he left Commercy behind him and approached I made up my mind to delay no longer. I suddenly left my position in the sun and darted out to the rear to intercept his retreat. It was to be a straightforward battle in the open. Let the best man win!

Again my luck was with me, for I reached a point directly behind him and had turned towards him for my first shots before they were aware of my presence. I had decided upon my tactics. Diving upon him from a diagonal direction my first bursts would doubtless cause him to put his machine into a vrille. I would anticipate this and zoom up over him and catch him dead under my next diving attack. As I neared the Rumpler's tail from three-quarters direction I saw the observer suddenly straighten himself up and look around at me. He had been down in the bottom of his office, probably taking photographs of the scenery below. The pilot had seen my machine in his mirror and had just given the warning to the rear gunner. As he faced me I began firing.

Two unexpected things happened immediately.

Instead of falling into a vrille, as any intelligent German would certainly have done, this pilot zoomed sharply up and let me go under him. In fact I had about the thousandth part of a second in which to decide to go under rather than ram the monster. Thus my clever plans were all upset by the refusal of my antagonist to do the maneuver that I had assigned to him. Our positions were reversed. Instead of my being on top and firing at him, he was on top and by some extraordinary miracle he was firing at me.

I circled away and looked back to unravel this mystery. I quickly solved it. From out of the belly of the Rumpler a wicked looking machine-gun was pumping tracer bullets at me as fast as any gun ever fired! It was a new and hitherto unheard-of method of defense—this shooting through the floor. No wonder he had climbed instead of trying to escape.

To add to my discomfiture I jammed both my guns on my next attack. There appeared to be no justice in the world! I circled away out of range and moodily cleared the jam in one of my guns. The other absolutely refused to operate further. In the meantime I had not failed to keep an occasional eye upon the movements of my adversary and another swift glance at intervals to see that no other enemy machines were coming to interrupt the little duel that was to ensue. I sobered up completely and considered the exact chances of getting in one swift death-blow with my more adroit Nieuport before the more heavily armed Rumpler could bring its armament to bear upon me. The enemy machine was flying homewards now, straight in the direction of St. Mihiel.

Coming at him again from below, I got in two or three good bursts that should have made an impression upon him—but didn't. The lower berth I found altogether too hot a position to hold, owing to the floor guns of the enemy, so I zoomed suddenly up overhead and circled back to try to catch the observer unprepared to receive me. Several times I tried this dodge but I found one of the most agile acrobats in the Germany army on duty in that back seat. He would be lying face downwards in the tail of his machine one second, firing at me. I would zoom up and come alongside and over him within two seconds, yet I always found him standing on his feet and ready for me. We exchanged bursts after bursts, that observer and I, and soon came to know all about each other's idiosyncrasies. I do not know what he thinks of me, but I am willing to acknowledge him the nimblest airman I ever saw.

We had been at this game for forty minutes and the Rumpler pilot had not fired a shot. I had long ago given up hope of their ever exhausting their ammunition. They must have had a week's supply for the rear guns alone. And now we were well back of the German lines again. I continued to circle in and fire a short burst of half a dozen shots, but found it impossible to break through their defensive tactics long enough to get a steady true aim upon any vital part of their machine.

We were getting lower and lower. They were preparing to land. I fired a farewell burst and in the middle of it my gun again jammed. The pilot waved his hand "good-by-Be" to me, the observer fired a last cheery burst from his tourrelle guns, and the show was over for the day. My coveted "16" would not decorate my bedroom walls this night.

I flew thoughtfully homewards, wondering at the curious coincidence that had brought No. 16 and myself together for two days running, and the strange fate that seemed to protect it. It was unbelievable that a heavy two-seater could escape a fighting machine with all the circumstances in favor of the latter. It must have been something wrong with me, I concluded.

Just then my motor gave an expiring "chug" and I began to drop. I leveled out as flat as possible and looked ahead. I should be able to glide across the trenches from here if Smyth's machine was any good at all. So fed up with disappointment was I that I did not much care whether I reached the American lines or not. What could have happened to the fool motor anyway?

I glanced at my wrist-watch and found the answer. I had been so absorbed in my pursuit of No. 16 that I had forgotten all about the passing of time. It had been two hours and thirty-five minutes since I had left the ground, and the Nieuport was supposed to carry oil for but two and a quarter hours' flight. The oil completely exhausted, my motor was frozen stiff and a forced landing in some nearby shell hole was an imminent certainty.

The continued favors of Providence in keeping enemy planes away from me in that homeward glide served to restore my faith in Justice. I crossed the lines and even made the vicinity of Menil-la-Tours before it became necessary to look for a smooth landing ground. There was little choice and what choice there was appeared to be worse than the others. Barb wire stretched across every field in close formation. Selecting the most favorable spaces I settled down, just cleared the top of the wire with my wheels and settled without crashing into a narrow field.

As I climbed out of my machine several doughboys came running up and inquired as to whether I was wounded. A few minutes later Major Miller drove up the road in a touring car, having seen my forced landing from a nearby town. I left a guard in charge of the stranded aeroplane and drove away with the Major to telephone to my aerodrome for the aeroplane ambulance and to report that I had landed without injury. As it proved impossible to "get through" by telephone, the Major very kindly offered to drive me home in his car. In half an hour I was back with my squadron, none the worse for the day's adventures, but, on the other hand, none the better save for a little more of that eternal fund of experience which seemed to be forever waiting for me over the enemy's lines.

But as soon as I stepped out of the car I learned of an occurrence which dispelled all thoughts of my own adventures. Douglas Campbell had just landed and was dangerously wounded!