Fighting the Flying Circus/Chapter 22
BY August 8th, 1918, our whole Squadron was fitted out with the machines which we had so long coveted. The delight of the pilots can be imagined. In the meantime we had lost a number of pilots on the flimsy Nieuports, not by reason of their breaking up in air but because the pilots who handled them feared to put them into essential maneuvers which they were unable to stand. Consequently our pilots on Nieuports could not always obtain a favorable position over an enemy nor safely escape from a dangerous situation. The Spads were staunch and strong and could easily outdive the Nieuports. And our antagonists opposite the Chateau-Thierry sector were, as I have indicated, the very best of the German airmen. How greatly our new Spads increased our efficiency will be seen from the results which followed.
By the eighth of August our victorious doughboys had pushed back the Hun from the deep Chateau Thierry salient of twenty miles square, and the lines now ran along the Vesle River, directly from Soissons to Rheims. This long advance left our aerodrome at Touquin far in the rear. So far in fact, that it was necessary for our aeroplanes to come down near the lines and refill with gasoline before continuing our two hours' patrol over enemy territory.
The old Richthofen aerodrome at Coincy was now in our hands. We established our filling station on this aerodrome. It lay then but eight miles south of the German front trenches.
At three o'clock on the afternoon of the 8th, I received orders to take every available plane from our Squadron and hurry out to the front to protect two French machines which were detailed to take photographs of an important position across the lines. Accordingly I collected all the pilots and we made an immediate departure from the field. Eleven machines were in the Flight. The others were not available, by reason of repairs then under way.
My ear was again troubling me and I was in despair over my physical condition. The pain was continuous. I was determined to stick it out without reporting it to the doctor, for I had the impression that a second appearance at a Paris hospital would end my active service at the front. The cook smuggled hot salt bags to me at night and I slept with these over my ear. But during the day, and especially while in the air I felt constant pain from this source.
The two Frenchmen met our formation at Coincy where we all alighted and refilled our tanks. After ten minutes' delay we again took off, three of my Spads failing to get away owing to minor troubles with their motors. This left me with eight machines besides the two Frenchmen who were to photograph and not to fight.
At 3,000 feet over the field I collected the formation and fired a red Very light from my pistol as a signal to forge ahead. I had arranged the formation with the two Frenchmen in the center, with one of my Flights on their right, one on their left and one immediately behind them. I myself flew a thousand yards above them. I anticipated strong opposition upon reaching the lines, but felt that we were posted in a solid position. Only the front center was left unprotected and little trouble might be expected from this quarter as the Frenchmen each had two guns pointing to the front.
Just as we crossed the lines, all the machines flying along in beautiful formation, I noticed a group of five Fokkers back of Soissons. They were to the west of us, the sun was in the west, and from their maneuvers I knew that they had sighted us and were flying for a position in the sun. Once concealed by the sun's glare, they hoped to approach us and take us by surprise.
Keeping one eye upon them and climbing still higher so as to keep well up to their level, I continued to lead my flotilla straight on towards the objective. Reaching Vailly we began to circle about, while the French Spads snapped their cameras. One complete circuit we made and had started upon the second in order to make duplicates of all the exposures, when I observed three of the Fokkers leave their formation and begin a perpendicular dive upon the photographers. Even as I put down my own nose to intercept them, I was conscious of a feeling of intense surprise and admiration at this exhibition of bravery on the part of the three Huns. They were coming boldly in to attack almost four times their number,- and we were still in excellent formation. It would be quite impossible for the three Fokkers to reach the Frenchmen without running the gauntlet of fire from at least twice their number of Spads. Evidently these three Heinies were pilots of the first quality!
As I descended in an oblique to meet the Fokkers, I noticed another Fokker formation of five coming straight at us from our rear. So this was the prearranged tactics of their sudden attack! I veered away slightly and looked over the situation. There was no time to lose! We must get rid of these three knights, who had come a-tilting at us with the evident intention of breaking up our formation, just in time for the onslaught of the reinforcements who were coming rapidly to their support.
The very first maneuver made by the three Fokkers verified my suspicions. The first Heinie came directly at one of the nearest French Spads, diving disdainfully through the fire of our nearest protection squad. As he approached within firing distance of the Frenchman he suddenly did a brilliant renversement and doubled back on his tracks. Busy as I was at that moment, I couldn't help but admire the daring pilot for his cleverness and coolness. He zoomed up a short distance, turned over on his wing and this time came down diagonally for a real attack. Our Spads were all firing upon him.
The Fokker was intent upon the French photographing machine. He did not pay us the compliment of even noticing our presence. I was in exactly the right position to meet his coming and at the proper moment I pulled my machine straight up on her tail, trained my sights along the line of his dive and began firing.
My bullets cut a straight streak of fire up and down his path and as the Fokker entered this path I saw my flaming bullets rip through his machine from stein to stern. By controling my Spad to keep pace with the Fokker, I let go at least a hundred rounds before I saw that my bullets were finally missing him. He must have been literally riddled with bullets.
He fell away and dropped, but did not burst into flames. I cast one glance at his two companions and saw that they were being cared for by other members of my Flights. Reed Chambers was having a merry set-to with one of them, while the other was at some distance away endeavoring to rejoin his Flight.
Chambers had set upon his antagonist with such energy that the Fritz had altered his original intention of taking a shot at the Frenchmen. The latter were still under the protection of one of my small formations and were making their way homewards. Suddenly Reed obtained a favorable position under his Fokker, and with a short burst the enemy machine fell over onto its wing and began drifting down out of control. Two of the daring Fokker pilots had more than met their match but had put up one of the most brilliant attacks I had ever witnessed.
In the meantime I was in considerable difficulty myself. From the time of my first shots I had stalled my motor and was now drifting through air with a dead propeller while watching the proceedings above me. I was an easy victim in this condition should the five Fokkers detect me without power, and the sole method of restarting my motor was a long dive that would force my propeller to revolve through sheer pressure of the air against it. I lost no time in tipping over on my wing, and then heading vertically downwards, let my machine rip through the atmosphere for a 1500-foot fall before switching on my spark.
The engine mercifully started and I again pointed up my nose and climbed with all speed to overtake my fellows. The end of the two vanquished Fokkers I had had no opportunity to observe.
My instructions to my Spads had been to stick closely to the French two-seater machines and to protect them across the lines, no matter what happened to any individuals who might be cut off. For some unknown reason the Fokkers above me did not take advantage of my isolation and made no effort to get me as I flew along in the rear of my formations. Reed Chambers had already caught up with them and they were all well over our lines.
The French machines dropped down to our field at Coincy, while the Spads of 94 continued on their way homewards. Landing beside the French photographers I inquired as to the success of the expedition and learned that they had actually snapped thirty-five views of the positions they wanted, in spite of the Fokkers' attack.
Upon inspection of the one French two-seater which had been the object of my Fokker's attack, we found that the German airman was as good a shot as he was pilot. We counted a number of bullet holes in the tail of the machine, none of them fortunately having broken any of the control wires.
Our efforts to obtain confirmations of the destruction of the two Fokkers shot down by Chambers and myself were disappointing. Our troops were advancing so rapidly that none of the regiments who were along that sector on the eighth of August could be located, when a few days later we drove over to that front to make inquiries. However one can scarcely expect to get confirmations for all one's victories, since nine-tenths of our combats were necessarily fought on the German side of the lines.
My Fokker pilot may have escaped death; and now that the war is over, I most sincerely hope that he did, for he was a brave pilot and a daring fellow.
At lunchtime on August tenth we received orders for all hands to get aloft at once and form an aerial barrier in front of a small piece of woods that lay just back of our lines northwest of Fere-en-Tardenois. This wood was scarcely two miles from the enemy trenches and our natural supposition was that our Generals were filling this area with troops or guns and desired to conceal the fact from enemy espionage.
Upon landing at the Coincy field for refilling with gasoline we found that our surmises were correct. Long convoys of motor-lorries, all cleverly camouflaged to merge with the roads and fields, were rapidly passing northwards, and all were packed full of our doughboys. The road kept humming with these convoys all the afternoon. Evidently there was to be a big push on the morrow directed against Fismes from this very advantageous position so close to their front.
Just as we were getting away, Lieutenant Tytus of the 1st Aero Squadron came running up to me and told me that he was ordered to select a flight of our machines to protect him in a photographing mission over Fismes and the roads leading into it from the north. The Army authorities desired to have the fullest information as to just what the enemy was doing, before completing arrangements for the morrow's attack. He asked me if I would pick out a few pilots from my Squadron and be ready to go up with him in ten minutes.
I asked for volunteers, as this was purely a voluntary mission. Five pilots immediately asked for the job and we drew our machines apart from the others.
Being in command of this expedition, I determined to see to it that a complete understanding existed between our Spad pilots and the pilots of the Salmson machines of No. 1 Squadron who were to do the photographing. The region to be photographed was a large one, covering several towns lying between the Vesle and the Aisne rivers and all the highways running between them. It would take some time thoroughly to cover this territory and we were certain to be attacked before completing the excursion.
I talked to the pilots for five minutes and made everybody understand that when they saw me make a virage, or circle on one wing, just ahead of them they must immediately make a dive for our lines without any delay, photographs or no photographs. With our experience of the strength of the enemy Fokkers in this sector, it would be senseless suicide for our five machines to attempt to parley with overwhelming numbers of the enemy. It would be useless to get the photographs if we could not return with them.
At 5:30 sharp we left the ground and flew away over Fismes. At that time Fismes was directly on the line. American troops held the south half of the city and German troops occupied the northern half. Fismes lays just half-way between Rheims and Soissons.
We were directly over Fismes when I detected a formation of eight red-nosed Fokkers stealing around on our left. They had evidently just left their aerodrome and were coming over to patrol the lines. Their present maneuver was as clear as crystal to me. They hoped to get behind us at a superior altitude and then come in upon our rear with the sun at their backs. It was precisely the maneuver I should have attempted in their place.
We had the advantage of them in one particular--- they did not know how deep we intended going into their territory. I saw by their actions that they intended to overlook us until we were well within their grasp, and then they would suddenly discover us.
"Very well!" I said to myself, "we will go ahead and photograph until you are ready to attack!"
Affecting ignorance of their presence, I continued straight into Germany. We made a short cut from southeast to northwest and came back in the contrary direction. A few discreet circles enabled the photographers to cover fairly well the territory they wanted, without taking us more than six miles within the German lines.
As we began our second circuit the Fokkers determined to start something. They had made up their minds that we were not playing fair with them. Five of their machines came darting down upon us from a great altitude, while the remainder continued cruising the lines between us and home. I saw the attack coming and put my Spad in motion at the same instant.
Diving down behind my little formation which was tranquilly pursuing its way northwards, I passed behind the tails of the rear machines and immediately zoomed up directly in front of them, turning sharply back to the right so that they could not help seeing me. Without further thought of their possible misunderstanding of this pre-arranged signal I began climbing for altitude directly towards the approaching Fokkers. The five enemy machines had their sharp edged wings cutting the air directly towards me. It is a thrilling and a somewhat fearful sight to see the outline of a Fokker biplane descending upon one. I see them in my dreams very frequently after too hearty a supper late at night.
Beginning firing at a comparatively long range I held the Spad on its steepest course and waited to discover which side of me the Fokkers would choose to pass. Soon they began firing too and the swift streaks of fire formed a living path along which we both traveled. I felt deep down in my heart that they would not stop to take me on. Their object was to get the two-seater which had the damaging photographs. They would swerve to my right at the last instant in order to place me between them and my formation. My Spads must be well together and headed downwards towards the lines by now. I had no time to look around, for I was lying back, half upon my back, the earth well under my tail and the sun under my engine, which prevented it from shining full into my eyes. Almost instinctively I prepared to flatten out and immediately swing over to the right. The enemy must move in that direction!
As we whizzed past each other I ceased firing and flattened out my course. The enemy machines had passed me and I now had the tipper ceiling. They had fortunately continued on down after the Salmson, just as I had expected them to do. Now the other Spads in my flight must look after them. Evidently none of the five had been injured by my fire any more than they had injured me. We each of us had presented a very small target subject to injury.
As I eased off my motor I heard the crackling of machine-gun fire below me. I first cast another glance at the distant Fokker formation above me, then looked down over the sides of my office. Surely the five Fokkers could not have reached my Spads so soon! They should have been diving for the lines long ago!
As I looked down I discovered a regular dog-fight was in progress. Certainly those were Spad machines which were turning and twisting about the encircling Fokkers, and the Spads in fact seemed to outnumber the Fokkers. Something strange about the color of the Spads' wings first struck my attention, and then I discovered that this fight was between a French squadron of Spads and another formation of Fokkers that had evidently arrived at the same spot at the same time. Without my being aware of it, two different groups of aeroplanes had been watching our little party all this while and had all concentrated below me to meet the diving Fokkers!
The Salmson and my five Spads were well below me in about the position I expected to find them. The Spads had instantly obeyed my signal and had begun diving even as they headed around to the rear. They were well out of the melee.
Considerably chagrined over my lack of caution and thanking my lucky stars again that the new arrivals which had stolen in from an unobserved quarter were part friendly instead of all hostile, I turned about and vindictively charged into the midst of the combat.
A Fokker had just zoomed up ahead of a diving Spad, letting the Frenchman proceed below him at headlong speed, when I arrived upon his tail. With my first burst the Fokker turned over and fell earthwards out of control. Still too angry with myself to think of caution, I was badly scared a moment later by the spectacle of flaming bullets streaking past my face. I dropped over onto my wing, kicked my rudder crosswise, and fell a hundred yards in a vrille. No more bullets coming in my direction, I hastily pulled my Spad into position and cleaved the air for home! I wanted to get off by myself and think this over! Never again would I venture into hostile skies without twisting my neck in all directions every moment of the flight!
That night after an examination of my machine I called to my mechanics and directed them to bring me the painter's paints and brush. With painstaking care I took the brush and drew little circles around three holes in my wings where German bullets had passed through.
"Cover these holes as neatly as possible," I directed the mechanics, "and then have the painter put a small maltese cross over each patch. These are little souvenirs that will remind me of something next time I am over the lines!"