I had some tracer ammunition in my Lewis gun drums and as there was a danger that these might be classified as “explosive”, I threw them overboard as I passed over a small wood. Shortly afterwards I landed in a stubble field. I jumped out and tried to set fire to the wings of the machine with a “portfire” which we carried in the event of a forced landing in enemy territory. The doped fabric of the lower wing would not burn so I jumped back into the fuselage, broke the glass petrol gauge and set alight the petrol which gushed out. A German soldier driving a hay-rake galloped up yelling, followed by an officer on a horse and a crowd of soldiers who had been exercising nearby. I gave my flying coat to a Bosche to carry and was escorted off by the officer – a major. By this time there was a considerable crowd round the Martinsyde, who bolted when the petrol tank exploded and the Very lights ignited as the plane broke in half. Some staff officers arrived in a car to view the wreck and the German Major with whom I conversed in French, told me I was claimed by an A.A. Battery who had fired at me as I glided down to land. But I denied it. I was picked up by a fat Captain and driven off to Bourlon, where the Air Force Headquarters was located in the Chateau. After waiting some time in a room occupied by clerks, I was interviewed by an officer wearing a monocle and decorated with the Iron Cross, he gave me a cigarette. Later I was interrogated by a very rude officer, but only gave my name, rank and Regiment, which annoyed him. As I was leaving the Chateau, I produced my only German phrase, “Ich danke Ihnen fur Ihre grosse freundlichkeit” causing some surprise! I was then taken to the Mairie, where I was shut up with two German private soldiers. An A.A. Battery in the village kept on firing and I saw several F.E.’s flying overhead. After waiting until about 3 p.m., I was marched off to the station about a mile distant and put on a train to Cambrai.
I was taken to the Fortress which was used as a barracks and put in a very dirty room where I met several other British officers, recently taken prisoner – including Captain Gray, Saunders, Molloy, Helder and Money, all Royal Flying Corps and shot down that morning.
What were one’s feelings when it became evident that it was not possible to get back to the British side of the lines? I think that my attention was rivetted on finding a safe landing place rather than realising that I was to fall into enemy hands. I must admit that on my first flights over German-held territory, I was frightened, particularly when anti-aircraft shells exploded – some near enough to cause my plane to bounce.
I had had practically no instructions in how to deal with enemy aircraft, and the very primitive bomb sight fixed on the side of the pilot’s seat was quite useless. So when we reached our targets, we had to guess the approximate moment to “pull the plug” and release the bombs. Not too difficult when coming down low over a station full of trucks and carriages, but very uncertain when flying at 10,000 feet!
The room had no furniture except for double-tier wooden bunks in which we slept on straw filled palliasses. The food provided was vile – an unpleasant change after the Mess at Fienvillers – and consisted of vegetable soup served twice a day, black bread and ersatz coffee. Fortunately we had some French money and were able to buy through an interpreter a little jam, chocolate and biscuits. There were no washing facilities but we were allowed half an hour’s exercise in the barrack square.
One day while we were there, there was a parade of a Bosche Battalion, which had been made up with drafts – mostly young soldiers – after having suffered severe casualties on the Somme battlefield. The battalion was formed up in square and addressed by a senior officer sitting on his horse. After a long oration, an N.C.O. produced some Iron Crosses from a bag he was carrying. These were duly pinned on the breasts of a number of the “other ranks” – no doubt “pour encourager les autres”.
We were kept in Cambrai for about ten days until enough prisoners had been collected to make up a train load. Officers were packed eight to a third class carriage with a German private, who smelt to high heaven, to guard us. After spending a night in the train and passing through Douai, Mons and Brussels, we disembarked in Cologne station. We spent another night in an underground waiting room known to many prisoners-of-war as the “Black Hole of Calcutta”. Next day we entrained and in due course arrived at Gütersloh in the province of Hanover where we spent a night in a reception camp located outside the main P.O.W. Lager. A party of twenty-eight R.F.C. officers went on by train to Osnabruck where we were shut up in rooms with windows pasted over with paper so that we could not see out. We were kept there for about a fortnight, and were visited by an attaché from the American Embassy who gave no reason why we were segregated. We learned later that we were kept incommunicado because the British Government was threatening to shoot a captured Zeppelin crew – about fifteen in number – because they were carrying tracer bullets which were held to contravene the Hague Convention. So the Huns picked twice the number of R.F.C. officers in case it became necessary for them to retaliate. Fortunately we were not shot!
To revert to my landing in enemy territory – when I was staying at the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool in 1940, I saw a senior R.A.F. officer in the lounge whom I seemed to recognize and who turned out to be Air Vice Marshal Owen T. Boyd, my one time Flight Commander. I introduced myself and we had a chat. He remembered my disappearance on September 17th and said he had often wondered what had happened to me. Shortly afterwards on a flight to Egypt, his plane had to make a forced landing in Sicily, so he in his turn became a P.O.W.