MFair, I'm fairly shattered seeing your man go so quickly. Personally, I find I take too many chances when flying with the RNAS and all their good kit.
Fullofit, Chesty is making a good breast of things down in the Alsace. Congratulations.
Lederhosen, how many confirmed now?
Carrick, when will Keith bag the elusive No 5? Keep him alive until the RFC gets a better machine.
Harry, perhaps Lazlo will need a more suitably built machine. Fancy a Gotha sometime soon?
Lou, Swaney's headache isn't putting him off his game. Try my father's natural cure for anything: bottle of scotch and a lemon. Go to bed with scotch. Place lemon at foot of bed. When you see two lemons, you're cured!
An Airman’s Odyssey – by Lt James Arthur Collins, MC
Part Fifty-Five: In which I defend the Realm!
It was a pleasant drive out to North Weald Bassett. I found the place without too much bother. Or at least I found the village. Twice I drove along the Epping Road past the lane into the aerodrome without noting the wooden guard house at the corner or the RFC ensign hanging limp on its low pole.
Major Higgins was present and sent for me as soon as I reported. After issuing a compulsory dressing-down for not reporting the previous evening, he informed me that I was to act as flight commander for “A” flight, as I outranked Billy Leefe Robinson and Fred Sowry. He reminded me that Billy and Fred had more experience in night flying than I, and suggested I remedy that shortcoming. And then he left me alone to survey my kingdom.
The laneway that angled off the Epping Road was lined on the west side with storerooms, work sheds, and technical offices, and the two barrack huts each segmented into two-man rooms for the six officers assigned to the flight. On the left side of the road stood the armourers’ sheds, butts, and the aeroplane sheds. The other ranks were still under canvas, although a row of barrack buildings was nearing completion by the airfield. There was no officers’ mess. We were to take our meals at q nearby pub, the Kings Head.
This being my first command of any real sort, I retired to the small building across from the guard house that served as the station office. I gave orders for the pilots to meet me in the Kings Head when it reopened at 4 pm. The meeting was informal, just the eight of us: Leefe Robinson, Sowrey, Ness, Redden, McHarg, Edmund, Skeffington, and me. Beer was ordered. We went around the room, putting forward suggestions about how to find and hunt hostile airships. Here at least I had the advantage. Only Leefe Robinson and I had so far seen a Zeppelin in the air.
The general plan was simple. A patrol section of three or four machines would take off together and gently fan out before turning east or south, according to orders. No turn would be begun until two minutes after takeoff. The leader would begin climbing to 14000 feet immediately and would turn first. The second man would hold at 1000 feet for one minute before turning and climbing to 12000 feet. The third would hold at 1000 feet for two minutes and then turn and climb to 10000 feet. The fourth, if any, would hold three minutes, turn, and climb to 8000 feet. Orders would specify the patrol circuit.
Everyone was very keen and determined to bag a Zeppelin. And everyone wanted permission for family to visit. I put Billy in charge of inviting as many young ladies as possible to a dance in two weeks’ time. Freddie had the more difficult job of putting together a band!
The next week was wonderful. Cross country flights by day and an intense regimen on night flying after dark, following Major Higgins’s own plan for training. The field was large, with a line of trees the only obstacle on the south side and the village close by on the north. The surrounding fields, however, were rather small if something went wrong. I grew familiar with the approaches, clawing over the elms and stalling close by the first in a row of fire-pots, and then quickly turning to taxi out of harm’s way and back to the sheds.
We familiarized on new weapons. We had several sorts of incendiary rounds, including a new type made by Sparklet – the soda siphon company. I thought of Major Harvey-Kelly and the siphon battles in 3 Squadron’s messes. There was also a Heath Robinson affair – a battery of French-made rockets wired to the outer struts. At the flick of a toggle switch they would fire madly off in all directions and, we were assured, Zeppelins would fall from the skies. They were rubbish, of course, but great fun to play with.
Then came the night of 23 August. I’d returned from the Kings Head shortly before midnight and had just laid out my pyjamas when the bell outside the station office began to clang. I ran down the gravelled road to investigate. The duty sergeant stumbled over his words: “Zep, Zep, Zeppelins. Number and height unknown. Passed over Southend minutes ago, heading west. One section patrol Romford to Dartford. Hold the other. Go! Go!”
At the sheds the boys were dressing. “Ness – number two. Billy – number three.” I didn’t see Sowrey. It would be the three of us then. Romford to Dartford. Multiple airships. Height unknown.”
The engine was being run up and I climbed into the BE12. Temperature was close enough. I waved away the chocks and turned up the field, rumbling and thumping over the clay until the tail came up and I climbed into a moonless night. After a minute I turned around to the south and began climbing hard. A cloud layer at 5000. Scattered clouds beyond. Fifteen minutes later I was passing through 8000 feet, climbing at full throttle. Panel lights off now. Look for the river. #%&*$#, nothing but cloud.
There it is! Off to the left. A small ship’s wake stood out against the blackness. I counted the minutes to Dartford. At 10000 feet I turned about and headed northwest, still climbing but not as hard now. The BE was struggling to keep up the rate of ascent. Mustn’t stall.
A flash to my right. Thin daggers of bluish white light scraped across the sky. Searchlights over Grays. Other lights joined the dance, reaching out to the night, some diffused by the lower cloud bank, some knife-edged and piercing. I turned east. They must have heard the Huns’ engines. 12000 feet now. I wondered where Ness and Billy were. Billy had a Bristol. That’s why he was number three.
To my left, something twinkled. I remembered a night in Saskatchewan. What was I? Seven? Eight? My father home from the Yukon. Dorothy and a friend with jars, and a field of fireflies on a hot summer night. This was like one of those fireflies, except it didn’t belong here at 13000 feet. I searched for it. There is was again – a silver flash in the beam of a searchlight. A second light beam joined the first, and now the flash took shape, long and silver. God bless the searchlight teams! This was a genuine Hunnish Zeppelin, just a mile off and a little higher. I turned gently, not daring to take my eyes off the things. It took form. There were ribs and seams and engine pods and a great black Maltese cross standing out against the silver.
"There is was again – a silver flash in the beam of a searchlight."
"There were ribs and seams and engine pods and a great black Maltese cross standing out against the silver."
The BE still needed 500 feet and threatened to stall. It was all done by feel now. One did not dare turn on the panel light. More searchlight beams converged on the airship. It grew larger and larger. I began to fire long bursts. God bless the Vickers! Sparks flew where the rounds struck the Hun. From his frozen lonely platform forward of the tail, a lone gunner opened fire and several rounds splattered through the wings of my machine. One struck the cowling and hit a strut. I kept firing – 300 rounds at least without effect. The silver giant went dark for an instant. I braced for a collision and in that second remembered the French rockets. I pulled at the toggle switch and rolled away simultaneously, momentarily blinded by the flare of the ten Le Prieur rockets.
It might have been the roll, for I was no longer aiming when I fired the things. But suddenly the world turned red and I felt the sear of the fireball on my left cheek.fireball on my left cheek.
"But suddenly the world turned red and I felt the sear of the fireball on my left cheek.fireball on my left cheek."
The BE12 tumbled away. Beside me the mighty airship was reduced to a metal skeleton in moments, a dragon breathing its last over the city below.
"Beside me the mighty airship was reduced to a metal skeleton in moments, a dragon breathing its last over the city below."
The engine didn’t sound exactly right and the nearest field was miles away. I turned from the probing lights and the tumbling flame and headed carefully north-northwest for home. Shivering unceasingly in the dark cockpit, I pieced it all together slowly. This was new. This was a first. We had finally brought down a Zeppelin over England. I had brought it down.