Go to WTJ Information Page Go to WTJ Portal Go to WTJ War Series Go to WTJ Archives Go to WTJ Articles Go to WTJ Gaming Go to WTJ Store Go to WTJ Home Page
Hall: High Adventure
Chapter 6a - A Balloon Attack

"I'm looking for two balloonatics," said Talbott, as he came into the messroom; "and I think I've found them."

Percy, Talbott's orderly, Tiffin the steward, Drew, and I were the only occupants of the room. Percy is an old legionnaire, crippled with rheumatism. His active service days are over. Tiffin's working hours are filled with numberless duties. He makes the beds, and serves food from three to five times daily to members of the Escadrille Lafayette. These two being eliminated, the identity of the balloonatics was plain.

"The orders have just come," Talbott added, "and I decided that the first men I met after leaving the bureau would be balloonatics. Virtue has gone into both of you. Now, if you can make fire come out of a Boche sausage, you will have done all that is required. Listen. This is interesting. The orders are in French, but I will translate as I read: —

On the umteenth day of June, the escadrilles of Groupe de Combat Blank [that's ours] will cooperate in an attack on the German observation balloons along the sector extending from X to Y. The patrols to be furnished are: (1) two patrols of protection, of five avions each, by the escadrilles Spa. 87 and Spa. 12; (2) four patrols of attack, of three avions each, by the escadrilles Spa. 124. [that's us], Spa. 93, Spa.10o, and Spa. 12.

The attack will be organized as follows: on the day set, weather permitting, the two patrols of protection will leave the field at 10.30 A.M. The patrol of Spa. 87 will rendezvous over the village of N—. The patrol of protection of Spa. 12 will rendezvous over the village of C—. At 10.45, precisely, they will start for the lines, crossing at an altitude of thirty-five hundred metres. The patrol furnished by Spa. 87 will guard the sector from X to T, between the town of O— and the two enemy balloons on that sector. The patrol furnished by Spa. 12 will guard the sector from T to Y, between the railway line and the two enemy balloons on that sector. Immediately after the attack has been made, these formations will return to the aerodrome.

At 10.40 A.M. the four patrols of attack will leave the field, and will rendezvous as follows. [Here followed the directions.] At 10.55, precisely, they will start for the lines, crossing at an approximate altitude of sixteen hundred metres, each patrol making in a direct line for the balloon assigned to it. Numbers l and 2 of each of these patrols will carry rockets. Number 3 will fly immediately above them, offering further protection in case of attack by enemy aircraft. Number 1 of each patrol will first attack the balloon. If he fails, number 2 will attack. If number l is successful, number 2 will then attack the observers in their parachutes. If number l fails, and number 2 is successful, number 3 will attack the observers. The patrol will then proceed to the aerodrome by the shortest route.

Squadron commanders will make a return before noon to-day, of the names of pilots designated by them for their respective patrols.

In case of unfavorable weather, squadron commanders will be informed of the date to which the attack has been postponed.

Pilots designated as numbers l and 2 of the patrols of attack will be relieved from the usual patrol duty from this date. They will employ their time at rocket shooting. A target will be in place on the east side of the field from 1.30 P.M. to-day.

"Are there any remarks?" said Talbott, as if he had been reading the minutes at a debating-club meeting.

"Yes," said J. B. "When is the umteenth of June?"

"Ah, mon vieux! that's the question. The commandant knows, and he is n't telling. Any other little thing?"

I suggested that we would like to know which of us was to be number 1.

"That's right. Drew, how would you like to be the first rocketeer?"

"I've no objection," said J. B., grinning as if the frenzy of balloonaticking had already got into his blood.

"Right! that's settled. I'll see your mechanicians about fitting your machines for rockets. You can begin practice this afternoon."

Percy had been listening with interest to the conversation.

"You got some nice job, you boys. But if you bring him down, there will be a lot of chuckling in the trenches. You won't hear it, but they will all be saying, 'Bravo! Epatant!' I've been there. I've seen it and I know. Does 'em all good to see a sausage brought down. 'There's another one of their eyes knocked out,' they say."

"Percy is right," said J. B. as we were walking down the road. "Destroying a balloon is not a great achievement in itself. Of course, it's so much equipment gone, so much expense added to the German war-budget. That is something. But the effect on the infantrymen is the important thing. Boche soldiers, thousands of them, will see one of their balloons coming down in flame. They will be saying, ' Where are our airmen?' like those old poilus we met at the station when we first came out. It's bound to influence morale. Now let's see. The balloon, we will say, is at sixteen hundred metres. At that height it can be seen by men on the ground within a radius of —" and so forth and so on.

We figured it out approximately, estimating the numbers of soldiers, of all branches of service, who would witness the sight. Multiplying this number by four, our conclusion was that, as a result of the expedition, the length of the war and its outcome might very possibly be affected. At any rate, there would be such an ebbing of German morale, and such a flooding of French, that the way would be opened to a decisive victory on that front.

But supposing we should miss our sausage? J. B. grew thoughtful.

"Have another look at the orders. I don't remember what the instructions were in case we both fail."

I read, "If number 1 fails and number 2 is successful, number 3 will attack the observers. The patrol will then proceed to the aerodrome by the shortest route."

This was plain enough. Allowance could be made for one failure, but two — the possibility had not even been considered.

"By the shortest route." There was a piece of sly humor for you. It may have been unconscious, but we preferred to believe that the commandant had chuckled as he dictated it. A sort of afterthought, as much as to say to his pilots, "Well, you young bucks, you would-be airmen: thought it would be all sport, eh? You might have known. It's your own fault. Now go out and attack those balloons. It's possible that you may have a scrap or two on your hands while you are at it. Oh, yes, by the way, coming home, you'll be down pretty low. Every Boche machine in the air will have you at a disadvantage. Better return by the shortest route."

One feature of the programme did not appeal to us greatly, and this was the attack to be made on the observers when they had jumped with their parachutes. It seemed as near the border line between legitimate warfare and cold-blooded murder as anything could well be.

"You are armed with a machine-gun. He may have an automatic pistol. . It will require from five to ten minutes for him to reach the ground after he has jumped. You can come down on him like a stone. Well, it's your job, thank the Lord! not mine," said Drew.

It was my job, but I insisted that he would be an accomplice. In destroying the balloon, he would force me to attack the observers When I asked Talbott if this feature of the attack could be eliminated he said: —

"Certainly. I have instructions from the commandant touching on this point. In case any pilot objects to attacking the observers with machine-gun fire, he is to strew their parachutes with autumn leaves and such field- flowers as the season affords. Now, listen! What difference, ethically, is there, between attacking one observation officer in a parachute, and dropping a ton of bombs on a train-load of soldiers ? And to kill the observers is really more important than to destroy the balloon. If you are going to be a military pilot, for the love of Pete and Alf be one!"

He was right, of course, but that did n't make the prospect any the more pleasant.

The large map at the bureau now had greater interest for us than ever. The German balloons along the sector were marked in pictorially, with an ink line, representing the cable, running from the basket of each one down to the exact spot on the map from which they were launched. Under one of these, "Spa. 124 was printed, neatly, in red ink. It was the farthest distant from our lines of the four to be attacked, and about ten kilometres within German-held territory. The cable ran to the outskirts of a village situated on a railroad and a small stream. The location of enemy aviation fields was also shown pictorially, each one represented by a minute sketch, very carefully made, of an Albatross biplane. We noticed that there were several aerodromes not far distant from our balloon.

After a survey of the map, the commandant's afterthought, "by the shortest route," was not so needless as it appeared at first. The German positions were in a salient, a large corner, the line turning almost at right angles. We could cross them from the south, attack our balloon, and then, if we wished, return to French territory on the west side of the salient.

"We may miss some heavy shelling. If we double on our tracks going home, they will be expecting us, of course; whereas, if we go out on the west side, we will pass over batteries which did n't see us come in. If there should happen to be an east wind, there will be another reason in favor of the plan. The commandant is a shrewd soldier. It may have been his way of saying that the longest way round is the shortest way home."

Our Spads were ready after luncheon. A large square of tin had been fastened over the fabric of each lower wing, under the rocket fittings, to prevent danger of fire from sparks. Racks for six rockets, three on a side, had been fastened to the struts. The rockets were tipped with sharp steel points to insure their pricking the silk balloon envelope. The batteries for igniting them were connected with a button inside the car, within easy reach of the pilot. Lieutenant Verdane, our French second-in- command, was to supervise our practice on the field. We were glad of this. If we failed to "spear our sausage," it would not be through lack of efficient instruction. He explained to Drew how the thing was to be done. He was to come on the balloon into the wind, and preferably not more than four hundred metres above it. He was to let it pass from view under the wing; then, when he judged that he was directly over it, to reduce his motor and dive vertically, placing the bag within the line of his two circular sights, holding it there until the bag just filled the circle. At that second he would be about 250 metres distant from it, and it was then that the rockets should be fired.

The instructions were simple enough, but in practicing on the target we found that they were not so easy to carry out. It was hard to judge accurately the moment for diving. Sometimes we overshot the target, but more often we were short of it. Owing to the angle at which the rockets were mounted on the struts, it was very important that the dive should be vertical.

One morning, the attack could have been made with every chance of success. Drew and I left the aerodrome a few minutes before sunrise for a trial flight, that we might give our motors a thorough testing. We climbed through a heavy mist which lay along the ground like water, filling every fold and hollow, flowing up the hillsides, submerging everything but the crests of the highest hills. The tops of the twin spires of S— cathedral were all that could be seen of the town. Beyond, the long chain of heights where the first-line trenches were rose just clear of the mist, which glowed blood-red as the sun came up.

The balloons were already up, hanging above the dense cloud of vapor, elongated planets drifting in space. The observers were directing the fire of their batteries to those positions which stood revealed. Shells were also exploding on lower ground, for we saw the mist billow upward time after time with the force of mighty concussions, and slowly settle again. It was an awe-inspiring sight. We might have been watching the last battle of the last war that could ever be, with the world still fighting on, bitterly, blindly, gradually sinking from sight in a sea of blood. I have never seen anything to equal that spectacle of an artillery battle in the mists.


  Copyright © 1996-2003 by The War Times Journal at www.wtj.com. All rights reserved.