77_Scout - I'm so gutted to head about Aleck. I was just beginning an MC citation to send Lou when I read the news. Unfortunately the MC was not given posthumously until 1979. Don't wait too long to PM me to start a new fellow, though. Promise -- No BE2s this time...
Lederhosen, congratulations on the EK II and EK I. Well deserved.
Wulfe, so now all three Fullard brothers are in France. The story possibilities are intriguing.
Carrick, Some great photos from Mallory.
Lou, thanks so much for keeping up things. I'm on the road all next week but then I'll be able to get a little more time at WOFF.
Here is the latest from Jim Colllins...
An Airman’s Odyssey – by James Arthur Collins Part Thirty-Seven: In which I meet a dragon in the night
My return to St-Omer was like one of those dreams where you are half awake and half asleep, a state of tentative reality. It had been three months since I’d last been there. Back in January I’d dreaded the sight of a Morane. When Kennedy-Cochrane-Patrick ordered me into the thing I was ready to die. Now the little Morane had become my familiar friend. St-Omer, on the other hand, was a stranger. Patrick was gone, off to a new squadron in England. And the pilot’s pool was crowded with neophytes, some wingless, all fresh from flying school and full of bravado.
I avoided them like the plague. They would not want to hear anything I had to say. I though of heading over to RFC Headquarters to inquire how my transfer had come about, but the Training Officer reminded me that HQ had moved south to St-André to be closer to Haig at Montreuil. Instead I wandered into town to get drunk.
That was unsuccessful, the bars crowded and overpriced. I retired to bed and early the next morning received my orders to deliver a BE2 to Farnborough. The machine was fitted with some kind of new wireless set that had been undergoing trials at the front. Over breakfast, I met a Lieutenant Smythe-Parkhurst, RE, who was the local high priest of wireless types. He was returning to the Royal Aircraft Factory and would join me for the flight in the forward seat. We charted out the route together. We planned to pass west of Calais and strike out for Dungeness. From there, we would cross Sussex and skirt the South Downs to Guildford, edging west-northwest to where the Basingstoke Canal could guide us to Farnborough.
We lifted off in drizzle with a blanket of cloud around 8000 feet. Smythe-Parkhurst and I climbed steadily towards the Channel and picked our way through the clouds, emerging into brilliant sunlight. The warmth penetrated our heavy flying gear, and despite the sub-freezing temperatures, sweat ran down my back. It took less than a quarter-hour for the chalk cliffs to peek through the haze, momentary an illusion, then a light streak against the steely blue of the Channel, and finally the defined outline of the white bluffs, welcome symbols of home, crested with tidy green fields and copses of oak. Smythe-Parkhurst dismounted our Lewis gun and settled into his seat. Fifty minutes later, we circled over the broad roofs and clustered buildings of the Factory. Our benign old BE turned gently and settled down over the field like an elderly matron settling in her favourite chair.
"We lifted off in drizzle..."
And then from nowhere, just as we were about to touch down, a large white horse galloped directly across our path! I kicked the rudder left and pulled the stick back. The BE nosed up about ten feet, skidded off to one side, stalled, and slammed heavily onto the grass. We were home.
I bade farewell to Smythe-Parkhurst and reported to the Orderly Room, where I was told a car awaited to take me to my new squadron at Hounslow Heath. The journey was less than an hour, and I asked the driver to stop at Thorpe, a village on the way. I knew my mother’s grandfather was buried there at St. Mary’s Church. I spent a few minutes finding his stone. The entire time I’d been in the RFC I chummed with Jericho and Swanson, feeling very colonial and different. Now, here, on my own, I felt very much at home. I suppose that, like most Canadians, the “old country” lay close to the surface of our sense of self.
Hounslow aerodrome was a wonderfully well-built affair compared to what I’d been used to in France. The office was a properly constructed affair with a concrete foundation and metalled roof, and the quarters were all sturdy wooden buildings with glass windows. The corporal clerk explained to me that this was all new and that they’d been living under canvas a month ago. I asked for and was directed to the office of the Squadron Commanding Officer, Major T.C. Higgins.
“Mr. Collins, welcome to thirty-nine,” he exclaimed as I stood to attention and saluted sharply. He motioned for me to sit and offered a cigarette for an expensive case on his desk. They were very fine and fat Turkish ones, and I relaxed back in the chair.
“So. You’re a Morane pilot. I’m not quite sure why you’ve been sent to us so urgently, although I’m happy to have you here,” said the Major.
I shrugged. “To be direct, I’m not sure why I’m here myself. It’s been suggested someone pulled strings for this move, but it sure as hell wasn’t me, sir. If I had my way, I’d be back in 3 Squadron tonight.”
The boss nodded. “I have a wire from your OC at Number Three to that effect. To be honest, I’d suspected you were a shirker with political connections before receiving it.” He took a long draw on this cigarette and looked out the window to where a BE was being manhandled to a stop in the stiff breeze. “You’ll be of use, of course. And perhaps you’ll be able to get back to France in due course. What do you know of us?”
“Nothing,” I admitted.
Major Higgins sighed. “Well, Cabinet is in a snit about the recent Zeppelin raids and we’re supposed to be the answer. We’ve been working-up for night flying against the bloody things, but we’ve yet to see one in the air. I daresay Cabinet’s expectations far outweigh the likelihood of success. The plan is to establish our three flights around the city in a ring, but for now we are concentrated here. Have you done any night flying?”
“Not really, sir,” I said. “I’ve taken off before first light and sometimes been able to form up in low light, but I’ve always landed in daylight. And I’ve never fought at night.”
The Major nodded. “Then I suggest you get settled in today and start tomorrow with familiarising yourself with the machines and the area. We’ll get you some practice around dusk at flying in reduced light. I’m afraid the first few landings at night are somewhat risky, so do take care not to break my aeroplanes or kill yourself.”
With that he escorted me to the mess for drinks before supper. There were too many names to remember, but several stand out. There was a new man named Chilton, a little fellow with a round face who the chaps called Tubby. There was Fred Sowrey, who apparently had two brothers also in the RFC. Splendid type. Then there was also Harris from Rhodesia, ever so solid and serious. He plied me with questions about Saskatchewan farming. Finally, there was Billy Leefe Robinson, a fellow I took to at once. He had a certain devilish quality and was disgustingly good-looking. I decided at once to invite him to join me in town at the first opportunity. I thought that the second prettiest girl he’d attract would be a far greater catch than I’d meet on my own. It seemed a good bunch.
Supper was a splendid roast such as I’d long missed in France. Pudding was splendid, a sherry trifle. And there was stilton and port aplenty. Yes, I still missed 3 Squadron, but not as much as I had this morning. Around nine o’clock I made my way unsteadily to my room in Hut 4. The compartment was meant for two pilots, but I had it to myself. I stowed my kit and fell into bed.
At 10:50 p.m., a klaxon shocked me to life. I stumbled into the hall to find fellows clambering into boots and sweaters. “It’s a raid,” someone shouted.
I had not yet had an aircraft allocated to me, but I dressed quickly and chased after the others to the hangars. Several BE2s were already being steered by Ack Emmas onto the field. The Strange mountings were set with the Lewis guns pointed upwards from the pilots’ cockpits. I shouted for the mechanics to ready a machine. After some confusion, a sergeant directed me towards a machine being readied in the next hangar. On this machine, the machine gun was fixed over the top wing in a conventional manner, as in a Nieuport. I climbed into the seat and waited for the engine to come up to temperature. Major Harris appeared and climbed up to shout at me to patrol east of the city. He asked if I were sure I wanted to fly without any practice at night landings. I nodded. The Major jumped down and I waved away the chocks. The flames from the exhaust blinded me momentarily as I pointed the machine parallel to the line of fire-pots that edged the field. In seconds the tail was up and when the rumble of the wheels turned momentarily to little thumps, I eased the stick back and lifted into blackness.
The night was moonless. I switched on the panel lights and stared at the bubble in the spirit level to ensure I didn’t slip into the trees somewhere below. After a minute the landscape came into focus, long ponds and wetlands reaching down to the Thames and standing out only faintly from the darkness of the fields. I leaned over the side, and to my shock saw the yellowish shape of another BE not a hundred yards below. I let my machine drift south. I’d had no briefing, but it made sense to me that on a dark night like this, the Hun airships would have to follow the river to London. I decided to skirt the city to the south and then come north again to the river.
BANG! My heart leapt to my throat. I’d hit something, or something had hit me. A bird? I looked behind and caught the faintest outline of a barrage balloon. I’d run my undercarriage over the top of the thing, mere inches from disaster! But I was alive and shivering in the dark with the million rooftops of London below. I followed my compass southeast and switched the panel lights off to let my eyes adjust fully to the blackness.
About ten frigid minutes passed as the BE climbed steadily higher. Ghostly fingers of light appeared far ahead – searchlights pointing straight upwards. I was flying due east and now I angled to the northeast, searching for a glimmer that would be the Thames. Ten more minutes passed. To the east the searchlights suddenly moved, waving like magician’s wands across the grey of the night. The searchlight crews must have heard sounds in the sky, I thought, and I turned east over East Anglia, the Thames now glimmering faintly a couple of miles off to my right. The BE droned on. After several minutes, I saw some flashes far ahead, a little off to my left. It was friendly Ack-Ack. I turned gently towards them and switched on the panel lights momentarily to read the compass and altimeter – 10000 feet and climbing.
The flashes of Archie continued, approaching the city. The sense of loneliness was overwhelming. And then it was there. To the left of the cowling, a little below and silhouetted against a cloud, I saw the unmistakable outline of a German airship. I dared not avert my gaze, for the thing was a mere wisp in the night. Lose it and it would not again be found. With visions of St. George and the dragon in my head, I charged the Lewis and approached the giant airship in a shallow dive from its rear right quarter. I could not estimate the range at which I fired, but I emptied a double drum on that first pass and had the momentary image of a dirty big Maltese cross on the side of the beast as I broke off to the left and zoomed into the darkness to regain height. I saw that there was a machine gun position on the back of the airship and the fellow there was firing in my direction. At least one round hit my machine. I turned to the right for another pass, but the Hun monster was gone.
"To the left of the cowling, a little below and silhouetted against a cloud, I saw the unmistakable outline of a German airship."
It took about five minutes and the aid of more AA flashes to see the faint outline of a Zeppelin some distance ahead and at my level. To be honest, I am not sure it was the same craft. Nonetheless I closed on the thing and fired another drum. I broke away down and to the right as a stream of German tracer sought me out. I changed to my final drum and pressed on to the west, straining my eyes for a hint of the airship.
This time I caught a faint glimpse of the Zeppelin a little above me and quite close. I began firing as soon as I nosed up and continued for five or ten seconds until the Lewis stopped with the cocking handle in the forward position. It was the end of my ammunition and unfortunately the Hun monster continued on its way.
The return flight to Hounslow was uneventful, except that I surprised myself with my rage at the idea of these horrid devices with their dirty black crosses flying over “my” England to drop bombs on families in their homes, and I grew in determination to bag one. I maintained six thousand feet until I knew I was well past the city, having no desire to meet another barrage balloon. The fens stood out as patches of lighter grey, guiding me home until the bluish fairy lights of the fire-pots, laid out in an L, outlined my landing area. I throttled back, approaching the field with far more confidence that my experience merited. At the last second a tree passed beneath the machine, uncomfortably close. I held parallel to the line of flaming pots. There was the grass, or the illusion of grass, I held the nose up and met the ground with a gentle bump. I trundled towards the hangars and cut the engine as the mechanics ran to me and steadied the wingtips. My first night landing had been textbook.
I’d seen a Zeppelin, fired at it, and lived. In fact, I might have attacked several airships for all I knew. Nonetheless, my story would deserve a drink.