Combat report 27th of January 1917 Lieutenant Andrew Caldwell, Flight leader of B Flight RFC 54 8:30AM
Took off with out incident on a blisteringly cold, crisp morning. One or two clouds starting to build but otherwise a bright day. 'A' flight chaps are having a lay in, so just 'B' flight up for the morning run. Since my promotion to flight leader, I feel a real burden for the chaps under my command, when I started my goal at 54 was to down as many Hun as possible, now its to bring my boys back home alive. 'Stewpot' flight leader of 'A' says he feels the exactly same, but carries the stress of leadership well. The CO doesn't give a fig and thinks we're Barmy and to prove it has been sending us on ridiculous railway straffing jobs, which Pups are in my learned opinon utterly unsuitable for. Still, a week in to the job and not lost anyone yet.
The patrol went with out incident for the first 45 minutes, the only other aircraft we saw were some french Caudron G.4 and their escorts. We had patroled the front between Reincourt and Oppy 3 times. The bally CO demanded 23 minutes behind enemy lines and not a moment less.. In those 23 minutes we'd seen nothing.
I was thinking this crossing over Reinfield airfield would be our last and we'd return home. Sadly it wasn't to be.
I spotted a flight of 7 Halberstadt DIIIs about 700ft above us flying towards us. We engaged them at about 11,000 feet, entering into a twisting melee, a dance of death. I attempted to remain high but that soon ended, all bets were off. The first plane I attacked I hit a number of times on it’s starboard wing, destroying its struts, it made a wonderfull poping noise as it was hit and I had to duck as a spar came hurtling at me. I returned for a second go at him but his plane was shaking badly and acting very erratically. He span to his death.
The second Halberstadt took me much longer. Eventually, he dived towards Riencourt and in my pursuit I manage a number of good shots. Sadly, over the airfield I was hit multiple times by enemy anti-aircraft fire. Flying again over the airfield I managed a good burst into his crate, at the same time a spot of 'archie' aimed no doubt at me, came very close to him. His engine burst into flame and he crashed in a ball of death on the east side of the airfield.
I was planning to make a run for home when I spotted a third Halberstadt DIII dangerously close. I engaged and saw that his wing was already damaged - good old 'B' flight. I squrted him a number of times with hot lead until my Vickers jammed, but it was enough. I watched him as he crashed landed to the south of Riencourt airfield. I'd suffered some damage to my fuel tank from ground based AA fire and was out of fuel by the time I started to run for home. There was not much room for error but I nosed my Pup west and hoped for the best.
I didnt get far and landed softly approximately 200 yards west of the Riencourt observation balloon,and 2miles behind enemy lines. The Hun manning the ballon watched the whole thing and were laughing at my misfortune, with smiles on their faces they were waiting for me as I came down sausage side of the lines. The capture was quick and effecient. Having had no time to set fire to my pup I was pulled from the cockpit and roughed up a fair bit, though, in honesty not as bad I could have been and both I and the pup were captured intact, with the only thing wounded our pride.
I was locked in the shed under the Ballon, with not a scrap to eat or drink and was to be transferred to a prisoner of war camp at first light the following morning. Thankfully, the old truck sent for me managed to get bogged down in the thick and slightly thawing mud and lost a wheel, 'Vorsprung Durch Technik'. I used the resulting confusion as an opportunity to escape, it took me less than 24 hours to return to our side of the lines. I handed myself in to an infantry Regiment in the trenches 3 miles west of where I landed, they were jolly friendly bunch of chaps who treated me to an enamel mug of steaming tea, a can of corned beef and some Woodbines (balm to the soul) and let HQ know I was safe.
My joy of reunion with my squadron was quickly smoothered. The lightest blow of which was the wrath of my CO at not setting my Pup on fire. The real body blow, that makes me sick to my stomach was recieving the news my friend and wingman, Roland Pennant, was shot down early in the engagement, spinning from 10,000 ft to die in the mud northwest of Reincourt. We'd started at 54 on the same day, both of us 21, he had 3 kills to his name and was a brave and kind man.
I'm bally sick of this #%&*$# war and off to get drunk as two saliors tonight. Join me if you like. I'm buying and choosing the songs!