Fighting the Flying Circus/Chapter 18

Chapter 18 - Strafing the Drachen

OBSERVATION balloons, or "Drachen" as the Boches call them, constitute a most valuable method of espionage upon the movements of an enemy and at the same time are a most tempting bait to pilots of the opposing fighting squadrons.

They are huge in size, forming an elongated sausage some two hundred feet in length and perhaps fifty feet in diameter. They hang swinging in the sky at a low elevation—some 2,000 feet or under, and are prevented from making any rapid movements of escape from aeroplane attack by reason of the long cable which attaches them to their mother-truck on the highway below.

These trucks which attend the balloons are of the ordinary size—a three-ton motor truck which steers and travels quite like any big lorry one meets on the streets. On the truck-bed is fastened a winch which lets out the cable to any desired length. In case of an attack by shell-fire the truck simply runs up the road a short distance without drawing down the balloon. When it is observed that the enemy gunners have again calculated its range another move is made, perhaps back to a point near its former position.

Large as is its bulk and as favorable and steady a target as it must present to the enemy gunners three miles away, it is seldom indeed that a hit from bursting shrapnel is recorded.

These balloons are placed along the lines some two miles back of the front line trenches. From his elevated perch 2,000 feet above ground, the observer can study the ground and pick up every detail over a radius of ten miles on every side. Clamped over his ears are telephone receivers. With his telescope to his eye he observes and talks to the officers on the truck below him. They in turn inform him of any especial object about which information is desired. If our battery is firing upon a certain enemy position, the observer watches for the dropping of the shells and corrects the faults in aim. If a certain roadway is being dug up by our artillery, the observer notifies the battery when sufficient damage has been done to render that road impassable.

Observation balloons are thus a constant menace to contemplated movements of forces and considered as a factor of warfare they are of immense importance. Every fifteen or twenty miles along the front both sides station their balloons, and when one chances to be shot down by an enemy aeroplane another immediately runs up to take its place.

Shelling by artillery fire being so ineffective it naturally occurs to every aeroplane pilot that such a huge and unwieldy target must be easy to destroy from the air. Their cost is many times greater than the value of an aeroplane. They cannot fight back with any hope of success. All that seems to be required is a sudden dash by a swift fighting aeroplane, a few shots with flaming bullets—and the big gas-bag burst into flames. What could be more simple?

I had been victorious over five or six enemy aeroplanes at this time and had never received a wound in return. This balloon business puzzled me and I was determined to solve the mystery attending their continued service, in the face of so many hostile aeroplanes flying constantly in their vicinity.

Accordingly, I lay awake many nights pondering over the stories I had heard about attacking these Drachen, planning just how I should dive in and let them have a quick burst, sheer off and climb away from their machine-gun fire, hang about for another dive and continue these tactics until a sure hit could be obtained.

I would talk this plan over with several of my pilots and after working out all the details we would try it on. Perhaps we could make 94 Squadron famous for its destruction of enemy balloons. There must be some way to do it, provided I picked out the right men for the job and gave them a thorough training.

After discussing the matter with Major Atkinson, our Commanding Officer, who readily gave me his approval, I sought out Reed Chambers, Jimmy Meissner, Thorn Taylor and Lieutenant Loomis. These four with myself would make an ideal team to investigate this proposition.

First we obtained photographs of five German balloons in their lairs, from the French Observation Squadron. Then we studied the map and ascertained the precise position each occupied: the nature of the land, the relative position of the mountains and rivers, the trees and villages in the vicinity of each, and all the details of their environment.

One by one we visited these balloons, studying from above the nature of the roadway upon which their mother-trucks must operate, the height of the trees above this roadway and where the anti-aircraft defenses had been posted around each Drachen. These latter were the only perils we had to fear. We knew the reputation of these defenses, and they were not to be ignored. Since they alone were responsible for the defense of the balloons, we very well knew that they were unusually numerous and accurate. They would undoubtedly put up such a thick barrage of bullets around the suspended Drachen that an aeroplane must actually pass through a steady hailstorm of bullets both in coming in and in going out.

Willie Coppens, the Belgian Ace, had made the greatest success of this balloon strafing. He had shot down over a score of German Drachens and had never received a wound. I knew he armed his aeroplane with flaming rockets which penetrated the envelope of the gas-bag and burned there until it was ignited. This method had its advantages and its disadvantages. But another trick that was devised by Coppens met with my full approval.

This was to make the attack early in the morning or late in the evening, when visibility was poor and the approach of the buzzing motor could not be definitely located. Furthermore, he made his attack from a low level, flying so close to the ground that he could not be readily picked up from above. As he approached the vicinity of his balloon he zoomed quickly up and began his attack. If the balloon was being hauled down he met it half-way. All depended upon the quickness of his attack, and the sureness of his aim.

On June 25th, 1918, my alarm-clock buzzed me awake at 2:30 o'clock sharp. As I was the instigator of this little expedition, I leaped out of bed with no reluctant regrets and leaned out of my window to get a glimpse of the sky. It promised to be a fine day!

Rousing out the other four of my party, I telephoned to the hangars and ordered out the machines. The guns had been thoroughly overhauled during the night and straight incendiary bullets had been placed in the magazines. Everything was ready for our first attack and we sat down to a hurried breakfast, full of excitement and fervor.

The whole squadron got up and accompanied us to the hangars. We were soon in our flying suits and strapped in our seats. The motors began humming and then I felt my elation suddenly begin to leak out of me. My motor was stubborn and would not keep up its steady revolutions. Upon investigation, I found one magneto absolutely refused to function, leaving me with but one upon which I could rely! I debated within myself for a few seconds as to whether I should risk dropping into Germany with a dud motor or risk the condolences of the present crowd which had gathered to see us off.

The former won in spite of my best judgment. Rather than endure the sarcasm of the onlookers and the disappointment of my team, I prayed for one more visitation of my Goddess of Luck and gave the signal to start.

At 4:30 o'clock we left the ground and headed straight into Germany. I had decided to fly eight or ten miles behind the lines and then turn and come back at the balloon line from an unexpected quarter, trusting to the systematic discipline of the German army to have its balloons just beginning to ascend as we reached them. Each pilot in my party had his own balloon marked out. Each was to follow the same tactics. We separated as soon as we left the field, each man following the direction of his own course.

Passing high over Nancy I proceeded northward and soon saw the irregular lines of the trenches below me. It was a mild morning and very little activity was discernible on either side. Not a gun was flashing in the twilight which covered the ground and as far as my eye could reach nothing was stirring. It was the precise time of day when weary fighters would prefer to catch their last wink of sleep. I hoped they would be equally deaf to the sounds of my early humming Nieuport.

Cutting off my motor at 15,000 feet over the lines, I prayed once more that when the time came to switch on again my one magneto would prove faithful. It alone stood between me and certain capture. I could not go roaring along over the sleeping heads of the whole German army and expect to preserve my secret. By gliding quietly along with silent engine as I passed deeper and deeper within their territory I could gradually lose my altitude and then turn and gain the balloon line with comparatively little noise.

"Keep your Spunk Up—Magneto, Boy!" I sang to my engine as I began the fateful glide. I had a mental vision of the precise spot behind the enemy balloon where I should turn on my switch and there discover—liberty or death! I would gladly have given my kingdom that moment for just one more little magneto!

At that moment I was passing swiftly over the little village of Goin. It was exactly five o'clock. The black outlines of the Bois de Face lay to my left, nestled along the two arms of the Moselle River. I might possibly reach those woods with a long glide if my motor failed me at the ultimate moment. I could crash in the treetops, hide in the forest until dark and possibly make my way back through the lines with a little luck. Cheery thoughts I had as I watched the menacing German territory slipping away beneath my wings!

And then I saw my balloon! The faithful fellows had not disappointed me at any rate! Conscientious and reliable men these Germans were! Up and ready for the day's work at the exact hour I had planned for them! I flattened out my glide a trifle more, so as to pass their post with the minimum noise of singing wires. A mile or two beyond them I began a wide circle with my nose well down. It was a question of seconds now and all would be over. I wondered how Chambers and Meissner and the others were getting on. Probably at this very instant they were jubilating with joy over the scene of a flaming bag of gas !

Finding the earth rapidly nearing me, I viraged sharply to the left and looked ahead. There was my target floating blandly and unsuspiciously in the first rays of the sun. The men below were undoubtedly drinking their coffee and drawing up orders for the day's work that would never be executed. I headed directly for the swinging target and set my sights dead on its center. There facing me with rare arrogance in the middle of the balloon was a huge Maltese Cross —the emblem of the Boche balloons. I shifted my rudder a bit and pointed my sights exactly at the center of the cross. Then I deliberately pressed both triggers with my right hand, while with my left I snapped on the switch.

There must be some compartment in one's brain for equalizing the conflicting emotions that crowd simultaneously upon one at such moments as this. I realized instantly that I was saved myself, for the motor picked up with a whole-soured roar the very first instant after I made the contact. With this life-saving realization came the simultaneous impression that my whole morning's work and anguish were wasted.

I saw three or four streaks of flame flash ahead of me and enter the huge bulk of the balloon ahead. Then the flames abruptly ceased.

Flashing bullets were cutting a living circle all around me too, I noticed. Notwithstanding the subtlety of my stalking approach, the balloon's defenders had discovered my identity and were all waiting for me. My guns had both jammed. This, too, I realized at the same instant. I had had my chance, had shot my bolt, was in the very midst of a fiery furnace that beggars description and thanks to a benignant providence, was behind a lusty motor that would carry me home.

Amid all these conflicting impressions which surged upon me during that brief instant, I distinctly remember that only one poignant feeling remained in my brain. I had failed in my mission! With the fairest target in the world before my guns, with all the risks already run and conquered, I had failed in my mission merely because of a stupid jamming of my guns.

Automatically I had swerved to the right of the suspended gas-bag and grazed helplessly by the distended sides of the enemy Drachen. I might almost have extended my hand and cut a hole in its sleek envelope, it occurred to me, as I swept by. The wind had been from the east, so I knew that the balloon would stretch away from its supporting cable and leave it to the right. More than one balloon strafer has rushed below his balloon and crashed headlong into the inconspicuous wire cable which anchors it to the ground.

I had planned out every detail with the utmost success. The only thing I had failed in was the expected result. Either the Boche had some material covering their Drachens that extinguished my flaming bullets, or else the gas which was contained within them was not as highly inflammable as I had been led to believe. Some three or four bullets had entered the sides of the balloon—of this I was certain. Why had they failed to set fire to it ?

Later on I was to discover that flaming bullets very frequently puncture observation balloons without producing the expected blaze. The very rapidity of their flight leaves no time for the ignition of the gas. Often in the early dawn the accumulated dews and moisture in the air serve so to dampen the balloon's envelope that hundreds of incendiary bullets penetrate the envelope without doing more damage than can be repaired with a few strips of adhesive plaster.

As I doggedly flew through the fiery curtain of German bullets and set my nose for home I was conscious of a distinct feeling of admiration for the Belgian Willie Coppens. And since he had demonstrated that balloon strafing had in fact a possibility of success, I was determined to investigate this business until I too had solved its mysteries.

Then I began to laugh to myself at an occurrence that until then I had had no time to consider. As I began firing at the sausage, the German observer who had been standing in his basket under the balloon with his eyes glued to his telescope, had evidently been taken entirely by surprise. The first intimation he had of my approach was the bullets which preceded me. At the instant he dropped his telescope he dived headlong over the side of his basket with his parachute. He did not even pause to look around to see what danger threatened him.

Evidently the mother-truck began winding up the cable at the same time, for as the observer jumped for his life the balloon began to descend upon him. I caught the merest glimpse of his face as I swept past him, and there was a mingled look of terror and surprise upon his features that almost compensated me for my disappointment.

On my way homeward I flew directly towards a French observation balloon that swung on the end of its cable in my path. Without considering the consequences of my act, I sheered in and passed quite close to the Frenchman who was staring at me from his suspended basket.

Suddenly the Froggy leaped headlong from his perch and clutching his parachute rope with his two hands began a rapid descent to earth. And not until then did I realize that coming directly at him, head on from Germany as I did, he had no way of reading my cocards which were painted underneath my wings. He had decided that I was a Boche and did not care to take any chances at a jump with a blazing gas-bag about his ears.

Fortunately for me, the French gunners below could read my bright insignias from the ground and they suffered me to pass, without taking any revenge for the trick I had played upon their comrade.

Arriving at the aerodrome at five-forty-five, I found that I was the last of my little party of balloon strafers to land. The other four were standing together, looking rather sheepishly in my direction as I walked towards them.

"Well, what luck?" I enquired as I came up to them. Nobody spoke. "I thought I saw a big blaze over in your direction, Jimmy!" I went on, addressing myself to Lieutenant Meissner. "Did you get him?"

"No!" replied Jimmy disgustedly. "The balloon was not up in the air at all. I didn't get a sight of it. I didn't even see where they had hidden it."

"Did you get yours, Reed?" I asked, turning to Chambers.

"H--- , no!" retorted Lieutenant Chambers emphatically. "I shot the thing full of holes, but she wouldn't drop."

The other two pilots had much the same stories. One had failed to find his balloon and the other had made an attack but it had brought no results. All had been subjected to a defensive fire that had quite reversed their opinions of the Archibald family.

"I suppose you burned yours all right, Rick?" said Reed Chambers rather enviously as we walked up to the mess together. "What do you think of us fellows anyway?"

"I think, Reed," replied I, "that we are the rottenest lot of balloonatical fakers that ever got up at two-thirty in the morning. But I am happy to discover," I added, thinking of my one puny magneto, "that none of us had to land in Germany."