SUBALTERN’S SAGA (Part Two)
Since I wrote an account of my experience in World War 1 which ended when I fell into the hands of the Germans, owing to engine failure, in September 1916, my family have pressed me to give some account of the time I spent as a prisoner-of-war in Germany.
After sixty years, memory begins to fail, but fortunately I had kept a diary and had access to letters I had written to my family and to various relations. So the opportunity provided by a holiday in South Africa supplied the incentive to write Part Two of my “Subaltern’s Saga”.
Many people have wondered why the name “Tank” was given to those armoured monsters whose invention revolutionised traditional methods of warfare. The first tanks were built at the Carriage and Wagon Works at Oldbury, near Birmingham and could be seen being put through their paces behind a high wall surrounding the factory, from the seven story building at the Spon Lane Glassworks. On grounds of security, it was given out that the vehicles were mobile water tanks which were to be sent to Mesopotamia. Their real purpose was not revealed until they first went into action on the Somme battlefield on September 15th,1916.
As I flew back to our aerodrome that afternoon, I seem to remember as I crossed the lines seeing some dark objects in the ruins of the village of Flers; their significance was not realised until we heard some time later that what I had seen were “Tanks”.
A few days previously, General “Boom” Trenchard had addressed the officers of his Headquarters Wing in one of the hangers at Fienvillers, and told us that a big “push” would shortly take place and that he relied on us to do everything we could to keep the German planes well behind their lines and to go and bomb trains bringing reinforcements and ammunition to their forward positions. On the afternoon of September 15th, No. 27 Squadron pilots were sent out in pairs with instructions to drop their bombs from a low height on any trains they could find. A Canadian, P.C. Sherren and I – he was later killed in an air crash after the war – crossed the lines at a good height and spotted a train steaming along near the village of Gouzeaucourt.
We came down low and I flew along the train at a height of about five hundred feet. My first 112lb bomb exploded at the side of the train but my second hit the engine, blowing it up in a cloud of steam. Sherren followed and his bombs hit the last coaches of the train which were loaded with ammunition and which exploded. Highly delighted, I flew low over the village and my Martinsyde became the target of an enemy machine gun whose bullets punctured both of my landing wheel tyres, making a number of holes in the wings and fuselage. Fortunately I survived unscathed. I opened the throttle and climbed as high as the Martinsyde would go – crossing the lines at 15,000 feet – determined to get back to our aerodrome as quickly as I could. The plane bumped on landing with its two punctured tyres and I switched off the engine after taxi-ing to the hangers and reported to the Squadron Commander, Major “Crasher” Smith.
Visiting the battlefields shortly after the War on my Morgan runabout, we encountered a French farmer ploughing beside the railway at Gouzeaucourt, who told us he was there when “two brave French Aviators” bombed a troop train and caused many casualties. He may have been disappointed when I told him that the bombs were dropped by English fliers and that I was one of them!
September 17th, 1916, was a bad day for the Royal Flying Corps. No. 12 Squadron – who flew B.E.2c’s and whose main role was artillery observation – after an abortive early morning start, set out later in the morning to bomb Marcoing Junction, escorted by F.E.2b’s from No. 11 Squadron. The B.E. pilots flew without observers, whose weight was about equivalent to their load of two 112lb. or eight 20lb. bombs. On turning for home after dropping their bombs, the British formation was attacked by three fighters from the newly formed German Jagdstaffel 2, flying for the first time in the new “Albatros D 1” scouts, equipped with more powerful engines and having two machine guns, one each side of the fuselage, which were provided with interrupter gear and so could fire through the arc of the propellor without hitting the blades.
One of the B.E.’s that had successfully bombed a train, was shot down by the Commander of the German Squadron – Hauptman Oswald Boelke – it being his twenty-seventh victim. The pilot, Lieutenant Patterson, died in hospital from his wounds. Another of the No.12 pilots, Raymond Money, who had spent several months in France flying as an observer before qualifying as a pilot in England and returning to France, had engine trouble and his plane was hit by a burst of “Archie”. However he managed to survive though he crashed on landing. The F.E.’s of No.11 Squadron put up a valiant fight but four of them were shot down by the much faster and better armed Germans who had been joined by several of their comrades.
Two of the F.E.’s managed to land without killing their crews who were taken prisoner – Captain Gray (Indian Army), his observer Lieutenant Saunders (Middlesex Regiment); Second Lieutenant Tom Molloy (Dorset Regiment), his observer Lieutenant Helder (Royal Fusiliers) who was slightly wounded. The F.E.’s had little chance to cope with the much faster Albatroses who attacked from the rear and out of the line of fire of the F.E. observer’s rear-firing Lewis guns which were mounted on the top plane and fired by the observer standing up in his cockpit which projected from the lower plane, with the pilot sitting behind him. So it was impossible for the observer to fire at a plane approaching from the rear without hitting his tailplane.
No. 27 Squadron set off early to bomb the station at Valenciennes some way behind the lines, and having dropped their bombs were lucky to return home without having run into enemy opposition. But my luck did not hold. It was a lovely morning and nine Martinsydes, each carrying ten 20lb. bombs, with four others acting as escort, had soon got into formation led by my Flight Commander Captain Owen T. Boyd. I was the right hand back man. We flew north towards Arras and met two F.E.’s on early morning patrol who seemed surprised to see us. As we crossed the La Bassee Canal at about 9,000 feet, we ran into a lot of “Archie” near Lens but there was no sign of any hostile machines. Our formation continued to be shelled in spasms on its way to Valenciennes. Suddenly my engine began to misfire and finally stopped. I turned on the emergency petrol tank which fed the carburettor by gravity and pumped up pressure in the main tank with the hand pump.
The engine picked up again for a short time but the pressure gauge showed no reading. I turned for home, dropped my bombs and managed to climb to 11,000 feet, when the engine finally packed up. The Squadron flew back overhead; I fired a Very light but it did not appear to have been noticed. There was nothing more to be done than to glide down and look for a suitable landing place.