Fighting the Flying Circus/Chapter 30
WITH the beginning of October, 94 Squadron took on a new phase of air fighting. We were taken away from the General Orders affecting the 1st Pursuit Wing and were delegated to patrol the lines at low altitude — not exceeding 2,000 feet. This meant serious business to us, for not only would we be under more severe Archy fire, but we would be an easy target for the higher Hun formations, who could pique down upon us at their own pleasure.
These new orders were intended to provide a means of defense against the low-flying enemy machines which came over our lines. Usually they were protected by fighting machines. Rarely did they attempt to penetrate to any considerable distance back of No Man's Land. They came over to follow the lines and see what we were doing on our front, leaving to their high-flying photographic machines the inspection of our rear.
On October 2nd Reed Chambers led out the first patrol under these new orders. He had five machines with him and I went along on a voluntary patrol, to see how the new scheme was going to work out. In order to act somewhat in a protective capacity, I took a higher level and followed them back and forth over their beat at 2,000 feet or more above them.
The course of this patrol was between Sivry-sur- Meuse and Romaigne. We had turned back towards the west at the end of one beat and were nearing the turning point when I observed a two-seater Hanover machine of the enemy trying to steal across our lines behind us. He was quite low and was already across the front when I first discovered him.
In order to tempt him a little more distance away from his lines I made no sign of noticing him but throttled down to my lowest speed and continued straight ahead with some climb. The pilots in Chambers' formation were below me and had evidently not seen the intruder at all as yet.
Calculating the positions of our two machines, as we drew away from each other, I decided I could now cut off the Hanover before he reached his lines, even if he saw me the moment I turned. Accordingly I piqued swiftly back, aiming at a point just behind our front, where I estimated our meeting must take place. To my surprise, however, the enemy machine did not race for home but continued ahead on his mission. Was this brazenness, good tactics mixed with abundant self-confidence or hadn't the pilot and observer seen me up above them? I wondered what manner of aviators I had to deal with, as I turned after them and the distance between us narrowed.
A victory seemed so easy that I feared some deep strategy lay behind it all. Closer and closer I stole up in their rear, yet the observer did not even look about him to see if his rear was safe. At 100 yards I fixed my sights upon the slothful observer in his rear cockpit and prepared to fire. He had but one gun mounted upon a tournelle and this gun was not even pointing in my direction. After my first shot he would swing it around, I conjectured, and I would be compelled then to come in through his stream of bullets. Well, I had two guns to his one and he would have to face double the amount of bullets from my Spad. Now I was at fifty yards and could not miss. Taking deliberate aim I pulled both triggers. The observer fell limply over the side of his cockpit without firing a shot. My speed carried me swiftly over the Hanover, which had begun to bank over and turn for home as my first shots entered its fusilage.
Heading off the pilot, I braved his few shots and again I obtained a position in his rear and had him at my mercy. And at that very critical moment both of my guns jammed!
Infuriated at this piece of bad luck I still had the thought to realize that the enemy pilot did not know I could not shoot, so I again came up and forced him to make a turn to the east to avoid what he considered a fatal position. And at that moment I saw Reed Chambers flying directly towards me, the rest of his patrol streaming in along behind him. Reed was firing as he flew. His first bursts finished the pilot and the Hanover settled with a gradual glide down among the shell-holes that covered the ground just north of Montfaucon — a good two miles within our lines.
It was the first machine that I had brought down behind our lines — or assisted to bring down, for Reed Chambers shared this victory with me — in such condition that we were able to fly it again.
A few minutes' work with my guns cleared both jams. I had paid little attention to the rest of my pilots during this operation — and indeed had scarcely noticed where my aeroplane was taking me through the air — for I had to work with one hand holding the lever and the other pressing back the feeding mechanism of the guns, and the Spad was taking care of herself. Now after clearing out the crushed cartridges, I had just fired a few rounds into Germany, to see that the guns were both in working order, when suddenly not fifty yards in front of me I saw a whole flock of enemy Fokkers passing through a thin stratum of clouds. It was an ideal hiding place for a surprise attack, and they had been lying in wait for our Spads without noticing me until I almost bumped into them.
The next instant I was over on my wing and nose performing a double-quick spin out of their range. All eight of them were on top of me firing as they followed my gyrations. Tracer bullets went whizzing past me every second and, try as I might, I could not select an opening that would permit me to slip through them with any hope of safety. The earth was rapidly coming up to meet me and the Fokkers were as ravenously bent on my destruction as ever when I opened up my motor and dove vertically towards the ground with throttle wide open. As I did so I was conscious that other machines were coming in from behind me and that the Fokkers had suddenly left off firing their beastly flaming bullets. Glancing back I saw my own Spads had arrived in the very nick of time. Reed Chambers was in pursuit of the fleeing Huns and the whole circus was climbing southwards to gain the shelter of the low-hanging clouds.
Reed saw they would gain their protection before he could overtake them. With his usual good judgment he let them proceed until the last man was swallowed up within them, then he turned suddenly to the north and sought a place between them and their lines where they might be expected to issue out and make for home. Climbing for all I was worth, I arrived at the northern edge of the cloud-bank at the same time Reed reached there. We had made one or two circles just beneath the billowy mass of white, when out burst the leader of the Huns over our heads and one by one his formation followed him.
In a trice Reed and I were under the last Fokkers' tails. Reed took the left and I took the right and at almost the same second we both began firing. I had let go 200 rounds when I saw my man falling; and; again at almost the same instant Reed ceased firing and his man too dropped out of line and began his last landing. The rest of the formation fled straight on into their own lines and we were unable to overtake them. As we turned back we saw our two victims crash almost simultaneously fully a mile back of our lines.
Before we reached the aerodrome official confirmation of our three victories had been telephoned in.
Lieutenant Cook, who was now looked upon as our most successful balloon strafer had gone out this morning with Lieutenant Crocker as helper, to get an enemy balloon that hung over the eastern edge of the town of Grand Pre. Cookie now had three balloons and was becoming quite fastidious in his methods of shooting down these disagreeable targets. He naturally insisted upon especial attention being given his ammunition and his guns, for he believed in making one straight dash through the circle of Archy and getting in one long burst of incendiary bullets into the balloon and then leaving it alone. This returning again and again through the Archy barrage for several attacks is simply a foolish method of suicide.
At 5:30 in the morning Cook and Crocker left the field and proceeded to the Argonne. Here they located Grand Pre but could not discover the balloon. Finally after arousing the whole neighborhood Cook found his gas-bag supinely resting on the ground where it was tied down into its bed. It was in a decidedly bad place for an attack, but Cook unhesitatingly stuck down his nose and began firing as he dived.
About twenty or thirty shots left his guns — and then both jammed. With a string of burning words Cookie turned around as he zoomed up over the balloon and hurled at it the small hammer or tool used by pilots for clearing gun-jams. He was so enraged over his bad luck that he did not even wait for Crocker to overtake him, but made straight for home, climbed out of his machine and marched into the Armorers' office, mad as a hornet. What language he used there neither Cook nor the Armament officer would afterwards repeat, but in the midst of his abusive descriptions of guns, ammunition, mechanics and armament officers in general, in walked Lieutenant Crocker, whom Cook had left behind him at Grand Pre!
"Congrats, Cookie!" said Crocker triumphantly. "That was certainly fine work! You got him with his truck, office and all, this time."
Cook looked at Crocker with some anger and much mortification. "Got what?" he shouted rather violently. Ordinarily Cookie was the sweetest tempered man in the outfit, barring Jimmy Meissner.
"Why, the Hun balloon!" replied Crocker, looking at him indignantly. "Didn't you see him go up in flames? He hung fire for a half minute owing to the dew and dampness on the outside, but when he started he went with one burst!"
Cook stood looking at his friend anxiously for a moment. There was no question about his seriousness and truth. Then Cookie said slowly: —
"Well, I'm d—d! That's the first time I ever heard of getting a balloon with a jam-hammer and hot language!"
The next day, October third, a carefully planned attack on an enemy balloon back of Doulcon was carried out in the middle of the afternoon by our Squadron. Montfaucon was still the center of operations for the American Army. The country was extremely difficult owing to the hills and forests along the Meuse River, all of which the Germans had amply prepared for stubborn defense. The presence of their observation balloons added one source of benefit to them which we knew could be destroyed. So we were sent out in full daylight to accomplish this end.
Thorn Taylor led our formation. Practically our whole Squadron left the aerodrome at three o'clock, Ham Coolidge and Crocker who were selected as the two balloon strafers for the day flying with us on the patrol. At 3:30 precisely we were to find ourselves over the Hun balloon at Doulcon and there these two pilots were to make a sudden dash down at the balloon, one behind the other. It was a new daylight dodge we would try to put over the Germans before they suspected the object of our mission.
We expected to find enemy planes about guarding this important observation post of the enemy and it was necessary to take along enough machines of our own to sweep them away from the path which our two strafers must take to get to their balloon. Therefore, I had all the pilots set their watches exactly with mine and gave them all instructions to cross the lines precisely at 3.45 and fly between Coolidge and Crocker and any hostile aircraft that might intercept them. With every man fully schooled in his part of the game we all took off.
Walter Avery of 95 Squadron accompanied us. Avery was the pilot who had forced down the celebrated Hun Ace, Menckoff early in August on the Chateau-Thierry front. Menckoff then had a string of 37 victories to his credit and, strange as it may seem, this was Avery's first air combat. Avery disabled Menckoff's motor with one of his bullets and the German pilot decided it wiser to drop down our side of the lines and surrender himself rather than take the chance of being killed trying to glide home on a crippled machine. Great was his disgust, when he landed, to discover that his conqueror was a green American pilot.
As the formation continued its patrol some distance this side of our lines Coolidge and Crocker left the rest and placed themselves a good distance the other side of Montfaucon. We found no enemy machines in our vicinity, but were not sure that they would not appear as soon as we approached the Doulcon balloon.
As my watch neared the hour I crept a little nearer the point of attack. Looking over the situation ahead of me some four or five miles, I suddenly saw two Spads streaking it ahead with all their speed in the direction of the balloon. I looked at my watch. It was but 3:40. Coolidge and Crocker were each afraid that the other would steal a march on him and were both so anxious, to get the balloon that they disobeyed orders and had gone in several minutes ahead of the stated time. Looking around I saw that my formation of Spads were just coming up in implicit obedience to orders. But now, instead of protecting our two picked men, we would arrive there only after the ceremony was over!
As we all opened up in pursuit of the two pilots I saw advancing to cut them off from the balloon a formation of six Fokkers. Then one lone Spad seemed to appear from somewhere in the clouds and flew in to engage the Fokkers. During the brief melee which followed many things happened at the same time. The lone Spad fell to earth and crashed back in Germany. The balloon burst into flames indicating that either Coolidge or Crocker had succeeded in reaching the mark despite the Fokkers. And at the same moment the clouds behind me seemed to be emitting swarms of Fokker fighting aeroplanes which hurled themselves upon our Spads.
They were behind me, for I had distanced the others somewhat and had altered my direction to go to the rescue of the unknown Spad which had just fallen. But as I had started too late to be of any assistance I again diverted my course to attack two German biplane machines which I could distinguish coming in to the fight from the direction of Dun-sur-Meuse. I wondered whether it was Coolidge or Crocker or some other who had fallen. Whoever it was, he had made a gallant fight, although if they had obeyed orders and waited for the agreed time of attack he would not have had such odds against him.
One of the biplane machines saw me coming and cravenly turned back without notifying his companion. I surprised the latter and after a very brief bit of maneuvering shot him down completely out of control. Knowing it would be extremely difficult to gain a confirmation of this victory so far behind the German lines I waited about for a few moments until I saw him crash violently into the ground. I was satisfied I had destroyed him, whether anybody else ever knew it or not. In fact this victory of mine never was confirmed.
Many twisting combats were in progress as I gained again the part of the heavens above Doulcon. Several machines had fallen but whether friend or foe I could not distinguish from this distance. The Spads were scattered all over the sky and our formation was hopelessly destroyed. I determined to call them together and take them back to our lines. Our balloon was in flames, our mission ended and we were taking unwise risks fighting ten miles within the German lines where a mishap would drop some luckless pilots prisoners in their territory.
The enemy pilots were only too willing to let us go. As I collected my pilots about me and headed for home the Boches lost no time in widening the distance between us. I dropped back and saw that the last of the Spads had crossed the lines and were well on their way. Then, noticing something going on east of me near the city of Verdun, I made a detour to investigate it.
It was a combat between two machines that was going on just south of our front. Hastening ahead with all possible speed I arrived there at a most fortunate moment, to find that Ted Curtiss of 95 had just been forced to abandon an attack on a German L. V. G. by reason of a gun-jam. The Hun pilot was endeavoring to make his escape as I reached him from one side and a Spad that I later recognized as belonging to Ham Coolidge came in on the other.
Diving down with terrific speed I began firing at 100 yards. With my first burst I noticed the gas-tank of the enemy machine catch on fire. Ham began firing as he approached on the other side but already the two unfortunate occupants of the observing machine knew their coming doom. The L. V. G. descended rapidly, the wind fanning the flames into a fiery furnace. The two unfortunate aviators must have been burned to a crisp long before the ground was reached. When the crash did come there was a great explosion and all that remained of the aeroplane was a black cloud of smoke and dust that ascended a few yards and was scattered to the four winds.
Adjusting matters that night I found that Ham Coolidge was the hero of the day with the balloon and one Fokker to his credit besides one-half the vanquishing of the L. V. G. Thorn Taylor, Will Palmer and Crafty Sparks had each brought down a Fokker, making a total of five besides the two-seater that I had crashed back of Dun. Our lead was now safely beyond that of our next rival — 27 Squadron. And from that day it increased and has never been lessened.
Avery, as well as Eugene Scroggie, one of my pilots from Des Moines, Iowa, were missing. I had seen one Spad fall but could not tell which of these pilots was in it. But in spite of this uncertainty I felt so confident that both pilots were not dead but merely prisoners that I put off writing to their parents for weeks. At the cessation of hostilities both of these boys were turned back to us by Germany. Scroggie had been shot through the foot but was able to come back to his Squadron. Poor Avery had received a disfiguring wound in the face which had been neglected by the German surgeons. But he was immediately put under the best of our medical care after he was released from Germany, and will doubtless soon return to the States in as perfect condition as he left.