We had a cheery Mess – particularly when clouds made flying impossible or when all pilots had returned safely from a raid. Captain Maurice Baring – Trenchard’s A.D.C. – came to visit us from time to time and was adept in keeping us amused with various parlour tricks such as balancing a liqueur glass on his bald pate while reciting doggerel verse. Writer and poet, he had the knack of keeping up our spirits and advising his Master about the morale of his Squadrons.
During the next week the Squadron was engaged in a number of sorties and log book records on 25th July, “Busigny. 2 112 lbs dropped on station 6000 ft. Other bombs seen exploding.” 31 August: “To lines. 2 leaders fell out. Formation lost. 3 machines missing”; and the same afternoon: “Escort. 12,000 feet. Bois de Havrincourt. Crossed above clouds. Not much Archie. Bombs seen in wood.”
My C.O., Major Smith, hearing that my brother Roger was with the 4th Dragoon Guards about ten miles from Eu on the river La Bresle, gave me the use of a sidecar to go over to see him. He was billeted with his C.O. and other H.Q. officers in an estaminet. The horses were all down by the river on ground which gets flooded in winter and they seemed pretty comfortable. I wrote home later to say that I believed the Cavalry had moved up again behind Albert. Coming back from a raid I flew low and saw some horses, but could not make out if they were Cavalry or Army Service Corps. On the way home I flew over No. 60 Squadron’s aerodrome at Vert Galand and seeing a prisoner-of-war cage near-by I dived down and was delighted to see the German prisoners scattering madly.
On September 3rd formation was lost in heavy clouds, but I went on alone to drop eight twenty-pounders on Sailly. There was a strong wind against me on the way home and I must have been an easy target flying under the clouds. I was making little headway and twisted and turned to avoid the shells. When I landed – thankful to get back and rather frightened – it was found that one of the main spars had been half shot through.
On September 6th we penetrated well behind the lines to Aulnoy Station, came down low, and I dropped my bombs on the tracks at 800 feet. Writing to Pilkington, who had left the 2/8th Worcesters at the same time as myself and was serving with 47 Squadron in Salonika (he kept my letter and gave it back to me shortly before he died in 1965), I commented: “One thing you will miss to a great extent will be Archie. He seems to get better every day and although you are at about 12,000, plumps off his first burst a damn sight too close to be comfortable. I have had my machine hit twice, but nothing badly. We had a good show the other day, 8 112 lb. and 36 20lb. or thereabouts on a big station about 50 miles behind the lines. We came down to about 500 and fairly b—d the place up. Trains flying miles in the air. One chap dropped his 112 on a turntable and all the slates on the engine sheds round it leapt about 6 ft. into the air. Huns bolted out of the station like rabbits, they exceeded all speed limits and had colossal vertical breeze. We got M.G. and rifle fire, but no damage done and all got back safely. At present we are rather short of pilots, as we have lost five in the past week or two.”
The week finished with two raids on aerodromes at Villers and Trescault when three hangars were seen to be blown up and several bombs fell on the aerodromes and near-by villages. On September 14th I was sent on offensive patrol and log book records: “3 combats with L.V.Gs (German two-seaters). Machine seen falling in flames Bois des Vaux.” But I cannot claim to have shot down a Hun, although I loosed off my Lewis several times. We had had hardly any instruction or practice in fighting techniques and stood little chance if we met the newly formed Fighter Squadron commanded by Boelke, which caused so many casualties when it went into action for the first time on September 15th; but of this later.
A few days beforehand we were summoned into a hangar and addressed by “Boom” – General Trenchard, commanding the R.F.C. in France. He told us that a new attempt to break through the German lines would shortly be made; that we were to do everything we could to stop trains bringing up ammunition and reserves; and he hinted that new methods of attack would be used.
Early on September 15th I was sent to St. Omer to take a new Martynside to 2 Aircraft Depot which was close to our aerodrome. Taking off I got my tail too high, the propeller touched the ground and one blade splintered; but I was already airborne and flying very flat with the engine vibrating horribly I managed to skid round and get back to land on the aerodrome. I was well and truly “ticked off” – but this was not the end of a bad morning. On arriving at Candas I mistook the direction of the sleeve and attempted to land down wind. On the first two attempts I overshot and had to go round again. On my final attempt I skimmed over the hangars and just managed to pull up a few yards from a wire fence on the perimeter of the aerodrome.
After lunch we were sent out in pairs to bomb trains. A Canadian, by name Sherren, and I set off together, crossed the lines at a good height and came down low to look for trains. We spied one steaming along on a single line near Gouzeaucourt and I flew along behind it at about 500 feet, “pulled the plug”, and let go my two 112lb. bombs. The first fell at the side of the train, but the second seemed to make a direct hit on the engine, which stopped, emitting clouds of smoke and steam. Sherren dropped his two bombs on the rear coaches and round we flew to examine the damage. I was flying one of the newly delivered planes with a 160 horse-power engine and circling over the village of Gouzeaucourt I realised that I was being machine-gunned from the ground and that bullets were hitting the plane. So I quickly opened the throttle and as I passed over the village let fly with my Lewis gun which was carried pointing down to earth. I saw a German soldier walking with a girl in the street, but I don’t suppose my bullets disturbed them. Determined not to run any further risks, I climbed steadily until I reached an altitude of 15,000 feet which was pretty well the Martynside’s ceiling. On landing at Fienvillers I thought I bumped more than usual and on taxi-ing to a halt found that both tyres had been punctured by bullets and one of the longerons behind my seat had been severed. So I was lucky to get away unscathed as there were several bullet holes in the wings. As I was flying over the battlefield I noticed two black objects in one of the ruined villages where fighting was taking place – I think it was Flers.