This Squadron was used mainly for “offensive patrols” and carried out sweeps over enemy territory. They had heavy casualties in battle with Boche fighters.
The H.Q. Wing served directly under R.F.C. H.Q. (which had its advanced H.Q. at Fienvillers) and was commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Dowding – in World War II the famous Air Marshal who was the inspiration of his pilots in the Battle of Britain. Tall, upstanding, and to the Subalterns rather fierce looking, I remember him mainly carrying out inspections.
The H.Q. Wing was formed preparatory to the opening of the Somme offensive with three tactical duties – strategical reconnaissance, offensive action in guarding bombers, and the bombing of distant communications, i.e. railways and railway junctions. No. 27 was mainly concerned with bombing and with disrupting the rail transport of troops and ammunition; while No. 70 was engaged in reconnaissance, offensive patrols and escort duties. A fourth Squadron – No. 60, equipped with Morane single-seater monoplane fighters – was also attached to H.Q. Wing and their aerodrome was at Vert Galand, a few miles nearer the front than Fienvillers.
Shortly after my arrival the H.Q. Wing was reinforced with a Squadron of B.E.12s (No. 19) – single seaters engined by a 12 cylinder, 140 horsepower R.A.F. We saw little of them as their hangars were on the opposite side of the aerodrome. The planes were out-dated before they arrived and were no match for the German Albatros D 11 with its twin Spandad machine guns firing through the propellor and manned by the pilots of Boelke’s newly formed Jadgstaffel 2. In a westerly gale on August 6th the Squadron had great difficulty in getting home from a raid on Havrincourt Wood, and five of its planes were lost.
On arrival I reported to the adjutant and was greeted by the C.O. Major Sidney Smith – known familiarly as “Crasher Smith” because of his ham-handedness on landing his aircraft. I was posted to Captain O.T. Boyd’s* flight and sent to the Mess to meet the officers of the Squadron.
No. 27 had flown to France in March 1916 and was to go into action as a Fighter Squadron. But in this task it was not particularly successful and its role was transformed into long-range reconnaissance and escort duties and bombing of strategic targets – often penetrating up to 50 miles behind the Hun lines. When equipped for bombing we carried either two 112lb. bombs slung under the fuselage behind the landing-wheel axles, or ten 20 lb. bombs carried in frames attached to the underside of the lower planes. Armament consisted of a Lewis gun mounted above the top plane, which could be hinged down (with considerable difficulty) to enable the pilot to change drums. Another Lewis was mounted on the left of the pilot’s seat and was supposed to be used to protect his tail. But it was almost impossible to fire accurately and at the same time maintain control of the aircraft. However on one occasion a pilot, finding a Hun on his tail, took a “pot shot” and, to the surprise of his assailant who had failed to recognise the sting in the Elephant’s tail, shot him down and was awarded a Military Cross.
The “Elephants” originally had a 120 horse-power water-cooled Beardmore engine and flew level at about 75 m.p.h. But as newer planes were delivered they were equipped with a 160 horse-power motor which increased their speed by some 10 m.p.h. and gave a faster rate-of-climb.
Looking back after fifty years it is not easy to recapture one’s feelings when “passive” service in England became “active” service in France. Certainly I was not rareing to get into action and I had doubts as to my ability to face up to anti-aircraft fire and hostile machine guns. But thousands of others whose life and background had brought no thought of war until the murders at Sarajevo were brought face to face with the same problem – “Can I make it?”
My log book records that I made my first flight in France on 13th August 1916 – 35 minutes spent circling the aerodrome and practising landings. Next day we were sent up to practice formation flying, as it was customary to fly in Vee formation when escorting bomb raids by other Squadrons; and three days later I was taken for a tour of the lines, flying over Arras and Albert, where the statue of the Virgin hung upside down from the apex of the church spire. Below us were the lines of trenches and the shell-pocked terrain, with its battered towns and villages. Since the opening of the July offensive the line had advanced irregularly and one noticed the enormous mine craters north of Bapaume which had been blown in the chalk soil. It was difficult to realise that the English and German armies were at each other’s throats, killing and maiming each other by the thousand, when we soared peacefully in a blue sky between the great white cumulous clouds.
My first sortie over into enemy territory was on August 20th. The Squadron was ordered to escort a bomb raid on Le Transloy, a village some miles behind the German lines. We took off individually and climbed to 12,000 feet before getting into formation over a designated rendezvous. The leader turned east and soon we were under fire from the German A.A. batteries. Black clouds of the bursting shells appeared below us and their detonation was felt by a sudden bump and, if near enough, heard with a loud “crump”. But the Squadron flew into low cloud and log book records “three machines only over lines. Clouds at 3000 feet.” Two days later I was roused by my batman at dawn and we took off early to bomb Beaulencourt. This time we carried bombs and log book says, “4 20 lbs. dropped on village unobserved. Misty. Plenty of Archie” (the slang for A.A. fire). I wrote home to say that “I saw 4 bombs fall on the village. There must have been 20 or 30 of our machines over the lines where we were and only one Hun in sight – very low down.”
The next outing was a raid on Aulnoy – a railway junction some way behind the lines – and I was in the air for over three hours, having crossed at 13,000 feet. “Two 112lb. bombs seen to hit station and one on village.” Our Martynsides had no proper bomb sights, except for a wire contraption fixed to the right side of the cockpit. It was almost impossible to fly straight and level and at the same time peer sideways over the edge. So I got my “rigger” to make a hole in the floor of the cockpit through which I could try to pick out a target. But accuracy was impossible unless one was flying low, and many of our bombs must have fallen ineffectively. High-explosive bombs were not the only weapons used against the Boche by the Squadron. Periodically a tender was sent into the nearest town and returned having denuded the shops of rolls of Bromo and as many china articles as could be found. Over our target the Bromo rolls were hurled out – to descend fluttering to earth as the paper unrolled – and followed by a “jerry'”, which we fondly hoped would fall on the head of an unsuspecting enemy, gazing up at our paper streamers. But we shall never know whether “jerry” fell on –“Gerry”. Other lethal weapons in the shape of broken gramophone [sic] records, soda-water bottles and other rubbish were likewise cast overboard.