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 6b - A Balloon Attack

Conditions were ideal for the attack. We could have gone to the objective, fired our rockets, and made our return, without once having been seen from the ground. It was an opportunity made in heaven, an Allied heaven. "But the infantry would not have seen it," said J. B.; which was true. Not that we cared to do the thing in a spectacular fashion. We were thinking of that decisive effect upon morale.

Two hours later we were pitching pennies in one of the hangars, when Talbott came across the field, followed solemnly by Whiskey and Soda, the lion mascots of the Escadrille Lafayette.

"What's the date, anybody know?" he asked, very casually.

J. B. is an agile-minded youth.

"It is n't the umteenth by any chance?"

"Right the first time." He looked at his watch. "It is now ten past ten. You have half an hour. Better get your rockets attached. How are your motors — all right?"

This was one way of breaking the news, and the best one, I think. If we had been told the night before, we should have slept badly. The two patrols of protection left the field exactly on schedule time. At 10.35, Irving, Drew, and I were strapped in our machines, waiting, with our motors turning ralenti, for Talbott's signal to start..

He was romping with Whiskey. "Atta boy, Whiskey! Eat 'em up! Atta ole lion!

As a squadron leader Talbott has many virtues, but the most important of them all is his casualness. And he is so sincere and natural in it. He has no conception of the dramatic possibilities of a situation — something to be profoundly thankful for in the commander of an escadrille de chasse. Situations are dramatic enough, tense enough, without one's taking thought of the fact. He might have stood there, watch in hand, counting off the seconds. He might have said, "Remember, we're all counting on you. Don't let us down. You've got to get that balloon!" Instead of that, he glanced at his watch as if he had just remembered us. "All right; run along, you sausage-spearers. We're having lunch at twelve. That will give you time to wash up after you get back."

Miller, of course, had to have a parting shot. He had been in hiding somewhere until the last moment. Then he came rushing up with a toothbrush and a safety-razor case. He stood waving them as I taxied around into the wind. His purpose was to remind me of the possibility of landing with a panne de moteur in Germany, and the need I would then have of my toilet articles.

At 10:54, J. B. came slanting down over me, then pulled up in ligne de vol, and went straight for the lines. I fell in behind him at about one hundred metres distance, Irving was two hundred metres higher. Before we left the field he said: "You are not to think about Germans. That's my job. I'll warn you if I see that we are going to be attacked. Go straight for the balloon. If you don't see me come down and signal, you will know that there is no danger."

The French artillery were giving splendid cooperation. I saw clusters of shell-explosions on the ground. The gunners were carrying out their part of the programme, which was to register on enemy anti-aircraft batteries as we passed over them. They must have made good practice. Anti-aircraft fire was feeble, and, such of it as there was, very wild.

We came within view of the railway line which runs from the German lines to a large town, their most important distributing center on the sector. Following it along with my eyes to the halfway point, I saw the red roofs of the village which we had so often looked at from a distance. Our balloon was in its usual place. It looked like a yellow plum, and no larger than one; but ripe, ready to be plucked.

A burst of flame far to the left attracted my attention, and almost at the same moment, one to the right. Ribbons of fire flapped upward in clouds 'of black oily smoke. Drew signaled with his joy-stick, and I knew what he meant: "Hooray! two down! It's our turn next!" But we were still three or four minutes away. That was unfortunate, for a balloon can be drawn down with amazing speed.

A rocket sailed into the air and burst in a point of greenish white light, dazzling in its brilliancy, even in the full light of day. Immediately after this two white objects, so small as to be hardly visible, floated earthward: the parachutes of the observers. They had jumped. The balloon disappeared from view behind Drew's machine. It was being drawn down, of course, as fast as the motor could wind up the cable. It was an exciting moment for us. We were coming on at two hundred kilometres an hour, racing against time and very little time at that. "Sheridan, only five miles away," could not have been more eager for his journey's end. Our throttles were wide open, the engines developing their highest capacity for power.

I swerved out to one side for another glimpse of the target: it was almost on the ground, and directly under us. Drew made a steep virage and dived. I started after him in a tight spiral, to look for the observers; but they had both disappeared. The balloon was swaying from side to side under the tension of the cable. It was hard to keep it in view. I lost it under my wing. Tipping up on the other side, I saw Drew release his rockets. They spurted out in long wavering lines of smoke. He missed. The balloon lay close to the ground, looking larger, riper than ever. The sight of its smooth, sleek surface was the most tantalizing of invitations. Letting it pass under me again, I waited for a second or two, then shut down the motor, and pushed forward on the control-stick until I was falling vertically. Standing upright on the rudder-bar, I felt the tugging of the shoulder-straps. Getting the bag well within the sights, I held it there until it just filled the circle. Then I pushed the button.

Although it was only eight o'clock, both Drew and I were in bed; for we were both very tired, it was a chilly evening, and we had no fire. An oil lamp was on the table between the two cots. Drew was sitting propped up, his fur coat rolled into a bundle for a back-rest. He had a sweater, tied by the sleeves, around his shoulders. His hands were clasped around his blanketed knees, and his breath, rising in a cloud of luminous steam, —

" Like pious incense from a censer old,
Seemed taking flight for heaven without a death."

And yet, "pious " is hardly the word. J. B. was swearing, drawing from a choice reserve of picturesque epithets which I did not know that he possessed. I regret the necessity of omitting some of them.

"I don't see how I could have missed it I Why, I did n't turn to look for at least thirty seconds. I was that sure that I had brought it down. Then I banked and nearly fell out of my seat when I saw it there. I redressed at four hundred metres. I could n't have been more than one hundred metres away when I fired the rockets."

"What did you do then?"

"Circled around, waiting for you. I had the balloon in sight all the while you were diving. It was a great sight to watch from below, particularly when you let go your rockets. I'll never forget it, never. But, Lord! With out the climax! Artistically, it was an awful fizzle."

There was no denying this. A balloon bonfire was the only possible conclusion to the adventure, and we both failed at lighting it. I, too, redressed when very close to the bag, and made a steep bank in order to escape the burst of flame from the ignited gas. The rockets leaped out, with a fine, blood-stirring roar. The mere sound ought to have been enough to make any balloon collapse. But when I turned, there it was, intact, a super-Brobdingnagian pumpkin, seen at close view, and still ripe, still ready for plucking. If I live to one hundred years, I shall never have a greater surprise or a more bitter disappointment.

There was no leisure for brooding over it then. My altimeter registered only two hundred and fifty metres, and the French lines were far distant. If the motor failed I should have to land in German territory. Any fate but that. Nevertheless, I felt in the pocket of my combination, to be sure that my box of matches was safely in place. We were cautioned always to carry them where they could be quickly got at in case of a forced landing in enemy country. An airman must destroy his machine in such an event. But my Spad did not mean to end its career so ingloriously. The motor ran beautifully, hitting on every cylinder. We climbed from two hundred and fifty metres to three hundred and fifty, four hundred and fifty, and on steadily upward. In the vicinity of the balloon, machine-gun fire from the ground had been fairly heavy; but I was soon out of range, and saw the tracer bullets, like swarms of blue bubbles, curving downward again at the end of their trajectory.

No machines, either French or German, were in sight, Irving had disappeared some time before we reached the balloon. I had not seen Drew from the moment when he fired his rockets. He waited until he made sure that I was following, then started for the west side of the salient. I did not see him, because of my interest in those clouds of blue bubbles which were rising with anything but bubble-like tranquillity. When I was clear of them, I set my course westward and parallel with the enemy lines to the south.

I had never flown so low, so far in German territory. The temptation to forget precaution and to make a leisurely survey of the ground beneath was hard to resist. It was not wholly resisted, in fact. Anti-aircraft fire was again feeble and badly ranged. The shells burst far behind and above, for I was much too low to offer an easy target. This gave me a dangerous sense of safety, and so I tipped up on one side, then on the other, examining the roads, searching the ruins of villages, the trenches, the shell-marked ground. I saw no living thing, brute or human; nothing but endless, inconceivable desolation.

The foolishness of that close scrutiny alone, without the protection of other avions, I realize now much better than I did then. Unless flying at six thousand metres or above, — when he is comparatively safe from attack, — a pilot may never relax his vigilance for thirty seconds together. He must look behind him, below, above, constantly. All aviators learn this eventually, but in the case of many new pilots the knowledge comes too late to be of service. I thought this was to be my experience, when, looking up, I saw five combat machines bearing down upon me. Had they been enemy planes my chances would have been very small, for they were close at hand before I saw them. The old French aviator, worn out by his five hundred hours of flight over the trenches, said, "Save your nervous energy." I exhausted a three-months reserve in as many seconds. The suspense, luckily, was hardly longer than that. It passed when the patrol leader, followed by the others, pulled up in ligne de vol, about one hundred metres above me, showing their French cocardes. It was the group of protection of Spa. 87. At the time I saw Drew, a quarter of a mile away. As he turned, the sunlight glinted along his rocket-tubes.

A crowded hour of glorious life it seems now, although I was not of this opinion at the time. In reality, we were absent barely forty minutes. Climbing out of my machine at the aerodrome, I looked at my watch. A quarter to twelve. Laignier, the sergeant mechanician, was sitting in a sunny corner of the hangar, reading the "Matin," just as I had left him.

Lieutenant Talbott's only comment was: "Don't let it worry you. Better luck next time. The group bagged two out of four, and Irving knocked down a Boche who was trying to get at you. That is n't bad for half an hour's work."

But the decisive effect on morale which was to result from our wholesale destruction of balloons was diminished by half. We had forced ours down, but it bobbed up again very soon afterward. The one-o'clock patrol saw it, higher, Miller said, than it had ever been. It was Miller, by the way, who looked in on us at nine o'clock the same evening. The lamp was out.


Neither of us was, but we did n't answer. He closed the door, then reopened it.

"It's laziness, that's what it is. They ought to put you on school regime again."

He had one more afterthought. Looking in a third time, he said, —

"How about it, you little old human dynamos; are you getting rusty?"


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