Later we heard that Tanks had gone into action for the first time. It sometimes puzzles me that September 15th is celebrated as “Battle of Britain Day” and that people have forgotten that the invention of the Tank was at least as significant in military history as the day of climax of the German air attack in 1940.
Shortly after the War a friend and I did a tour of the battlefields and found the railway at Gouzeaucourt. Driving his plough near by was a French peasant and I inquired whether he had been there in 1916 and remembered a train being bombed. “Yes,” he said, “brave French aviators dropped bombs on a German troop train. The engine was hit and a bomb fell on the last two coaches which contained ammunition and blew up. There were over 40 casualties and I was ordered to help to clear the wreckage.” It was satisfactory to tell him that the bombs fell from British machines and that I was one of the pilots!
The next day was cloudy and no flying was possible, but on the 17th September we were ordered to attack Valenciennes, a long way behind the lines. We set off at 7 a.m. and were soon flying in formation towards our target. It was a fine sunny autumn day and “Archie” was more troublesome than usual. When we were about twenty miles inside German-held territory, we were heavily shelled and the air was full of black crumps. Almost immediately my engine stopped and I began to lose height. I thought that perhaps the air pump, which delivered fuel from the main tank to a small tank which supplied the carburettor by gravity, had packed up. So I feverishly worked at the auxiliary hand pump and after a short interval the engine picked up again. Then I was in a dilemma – should I try to rejoin the formation, which was now disappearing into the distance, or turn home. However fate decided, and the engine stopped again and refused to start in spite of my efforts to put pressure into the tank. So there was nothing to do but to glide down as flatly as possible and try to get back over the lines. But soon I realised I was not going to make it – I had already dropped my bombs on a wood – and would have to make a forced landing. We had just been issued with tracer bullets for our Lewis guns and were warned that the Boche were claiming that they were explosive and contrary to the rules of the Hague Convention. So before landing I fired off my machine guns and threw out the spare drums of ammunition. Picking a likely looking stubble field, I landed without difficulty and, clutching the incendiary torch with which we were equipped in case of a forced landing, jumped out – set the torch alight and poked it into the canvas of the main planes. But this proved ineffective, so I climbed back into the cockpit – broke the glass of the petrol gauge, dipped my handkerchief into the stream of petrol which poured out, lit it from the torch and flung it back into the cockpit. There was a great gush of flame and I ran headlong to be clear of the burning plane and flung myself down, as some German troops, exercising some distance away, started loosing off.
Soon the plane was surrounded by field-grey soldiers and a German officer rode up on his horse. I saluted and we conversed in French. After a short time a staff car appeared and I was whisked off to German H.Q. which was located in the Chateau de Bourlon, the scene of much heavy fighting in 1918. After languishing in a cell for an hour or so, I was escorted into the Chateau and interrogated by a very rude German Intelligence officer. We had been warned only to give our name and rank, so I refused to answer his questions. Eventually I was marched off to the station and taken by train to the Citadel in Cambrai where I found several other officers – most of them from the R.F.C. September 17th was a notable day for the Fliegerkorps, as Boelke and his newly formed Fighter Squadron – Jagdstaffel 2 – first went into action as a Squadron with their new Albatroses. Boelke set out early in the morning and soon found four bomb-carrying B.E.2cs escorted by six F.E.2bs – two-seater fighters with pilot and observer sitting in a nacelle jutting beyond the planes in front of their engines. Losing height with the sun behind them, Boelke’s pilots took the British formation by surprise as they turned for home after bombing Marcoing, and before breaking off the fight had shot down four F.E.s and one of the B.E.s. Another B.E., piloted by Raymond Money, was hit by “Archie”, damaged, and crashed on landing.
So ended my active career as a pilot – with 42 hours 45 minutes in France and a total of 68 hours 25 minutes solo in the air. Casualties were heavy at this period of the war and some squadrons were changing completely in six weeks. General “Boom” Trenchard, in command of the R.F.C., had determined that the Somme offensive should be fully backed in the air and his planes operated entirely over or behind the front lines, whereas the Germans seldom ventured over British-held territory. Apart from A.A. casualties many British pilots were shot down by the German fighters, sitting up high in the eye of the sun and awaiting favourable opportunities to attack. The story of the R.F.C. has been told in many books – so this is just the personal record of one of the many young pilots who were sent to France relatively untrained and many of whom were killed or wounded. Falling into the enemy’s hands was unpleasant, but probably saved one’s life. Whether or not it was worth it in manpower and equipment is anyone’s guess. Apart from the Gouzeaucourt episode I shall never know whether the bombs which fell from my Martynside helped towards ultimate Allied victory. But it was fun to fly and to be able to look back on the early struggles with unreliable engines, few navigational aids, and the wind rushing past one’s ears as one climbed towards the heavens.