LIEUTENANT SMYTH went out with me again on June 4th, 1918.
He had now become a valuable companion and I placed the utmost dependence upon
his reliability and good judgment. We crossed the lines near
Pont-à-Mousson to take a look into the enemy territory and see if any
inquisitive aeroplane might be coming over for photographs.
Within a dozen minutes after passing the trenches I picked
up the distant silhouette of two enemy machines approaching us from the
direction of Metz. I saw at first glance that these fellows had more than a
thousand feet advantage of us in the matter of altitude. Without waiting to
discover whether or not they had any friends behind them, I turned sharply
about and began climbing for a greater height. We could neither attack the
enemy nor defend ourselves advantageously so far below them.
While flying south and climbing steeply I noticed ahead of
us, in the direction of our own aerodrome, an enormous number of white
shell-bursts dotting the heavens at about our altitude. These were American
anti-aircraft shells and they told me clearly that an enemy aeroplane was
operating over Toul; likewise they indicated that no American planes were in
the sky there, else our gunners would be more cautious in firing.
Up to this time I had downed five German aeroplanes, every
one of them behind their own lines. Confirmation for my last victory, won on
May 30th had not yet come in, so officially I was not yet an ace. That was of
little consequence but the matter of dropping a Boche plane within our own
territory where I might land beside him and have the satisfaction of seeing
what sort of prize I had baggedthis was a pleasure that I rather ardently
desired. Consequently I forgot all about the late object of our attack, who
presumably was still coasting along five or six miles behind us. I wigwagged my
wings to attract Smyth's attention, pointed the nose of my Nieuport towards the
city of Toul and forged with all possible speed ahead in that direction. Smyth
understood and followed close behind me.
As we drew nearer we easily distinguished the outline of a
two-seater Hun photographing machine tranquilly pursuing its way amidst the
angry bursts of shrapnel. I wouldn't have taken a million dollars for my
opportunity at that moment. The enemy was in our very front lawn and would drop
within a few kilometres of my own hangar. He hadn't even noticed my approach
but was lazily circling about, no doubt photographing everything of interest in
the vicinity with calm indifference to the frantic efforts of our Archy
It was a Rumpler, just as I had thought. I had him in a
tight position. He couldn't see me as I was exactly in the middle of the sun. I
had just the right amount of elevation for a leisurely direct attack. Smyth
stayed above me as I pushed down my joystick and began my slide.
Painted in big black letters on the side of his fusilage was
the number " 16." The outlines of the " 16" was beautifully shaded from black
into orange color. Just ahead of the " 16 " were the ornate insignia, also in
orange which represented a rising sun. I pictured the spot on the wall over my
sleeping cot where those insignia would hang this evening after dinner as I
directed the sights of my machine-gun past the rising sun, past the observer's
seat, raised them a trifle and finally settled them dead into the pilot's seat
only a hundred yards ahead of me. Absolutely certain of my aim I pressed the
Words cannot describe my chagrin and rage as I realized that
my gun had jammed after the first two or three shots. I dashed on by my easy
target at the rate of two hundred miles per hour, cursing madly at my gun, my
ammunition and at the armorer at the aerodrome who had been careless in
selecting and fitting my cartridges. The two or three bullets that I had fired
merely served to give the alarm to the Huns in the machine. They would turn at
once for home while I withdrew to repair my miserable firearms.
It was too true. Already they were headed for Germany and
were moving away at top speed. I directed my swifter climbing machine upon a
parallel course that would soon distance them as well as regain me my former
superior height; and as we flew along I disengaged the faulty cartridge from
the chamber of the Vickers and fired a few rounds to see that the mechanism was
in good firing order. All again arranged to my satisfaction, I looked below to
see how far my craft had carried me.
I had crossed over the lines! There lay Thiaucourt below me,
not more than a mile away. The enemy machine had been steadily diving for home
all this time and I had a very few seconds left me for an attack of any kind.
All hopes of getting a victory inside of my own lines had now disappeared. I
should be lucky if I got confirmation for a victory at all, since we were now
so far inside Germany and so near to the ground. I dived on to the attack.
Most of one's troubles in this world come from something
wrong inside one's self. If I hadn't been so stupidly optimistic at the outset
of this engagement I should have been more cautious and my first disappointment
would not have made me forget to keep an eye out for other enemy machines. Even
Smyth I had forgotten, in my rage at losing the best chance for a brilliant
shot that had ever come my way. I had been flying for five minutes with almost
no thoughts except angry disappointment. Now I had a rude awakening.
Even as I began my last dive upon the Rumpler I heard, saw
and felt living streaks of fire pass my head. They crackled and sparkled around
me like a dozen pop corn roasters, except, that they had a far more consistent
and regular rhythm. I saw a number of these tracer bullets go streaming past my
face before I realized what a blessed idiot I had been. Almost scared out of my
wits with the dreadful situation in which I now found myself I did not even
stop to look around and count the number of enemy machines on my tail. I
imagined there were at least a thousand from the streaks of fire which their
tracer bullets and incendiary ammunition cut through my wings. I kicked my
rudder with my right foot and shoved my joystick to the right with a single
spasmodic jerk. My machine fell over onto its wings and slid sideways for a few
hundred feet and then, seeing a clear country between me and dear old France, I
pulled her back into line and fed in the gas. The suddenness of my maneuver
must have caught the Heinies quite by surprise, for as I straightened out I
looked behind me and saw the two fighting single-seaters which had been on my
tail still on their downward dive. I had gotten away so quickly they did not
even yet know I had gone.
Number 16 and the orange-colored Rising Sun that I fancied
would be decorating the walls over my sleeping cot were still leering at me
from the fat sides of the Rumpler as it descended leisurely to the ground.
As I took my melancholy yet grateful way homeward I reviewed
and checked up the events of the morning. I resolved then and there never again
to permit premature elation or circumstances of any kind, good or bad, to rile
my temper and affect me as they had this morning. Fate had been extraordinarily
good to me and I had escaped miraculously with only a few bullet holes through
my wings, but I could never expect to be so fortunate again.
It was with a chastened spirit that I confronted our armorer
a few minutes later and told him about my jam. Instead of bringing a severe
punishment to the careless mechanics who had tested my gun and ammunition I
mildly suggested that they make a more stringent examination of my cartridges
At this time I was second in command of Squadron 94 and, as
one of the privileges of the office, I could go off on voluntary patrols at any
time I desired so long as such proceedings did not interfere with my required
duties. I naturally preferred going by myself, for I felt no responsibility for
other pilots under such circumstances and I had a much better chance of
stealing up close to enemy aeroplanes without discovery. In formation flying
the whole flight is limited to the speed and altitude of its weakest member.
Formation flying is very valuable to an inexperienced pilot; but after one has
learned to take care of oneself one prefers to go out with a roving commission.
The morning following my disappointing encounter with No. 16
of the Rising Sun Squadron, I went over to my hangar at an early hour to see
that all was right with my machine. Inside the shed I found the mechanics busy
with my Nieuport. The gun had been dismounted and was still in the repair shop.
Some defect had been discovered in the mechanism, they told me, and it had been
necessary to take it to the gun repair shops for examination. My machine was
out of commission for that day.
Looking over the available machines I found that Lieutenant
Smyth's Nieuport was in good condition, although the guns were not correctly
aligned, according to Smyth's judgment. He readily consented to my using it for
a little patrol, though this necessitated his remaining behind. I knew nothing
of the capabilities of his machine, yet I was pleased to try the efficacy of
his twin gun mounting. My own Nieuport carried but one gun.
Flying high over Nancy and Toul and Commercy I tried first
to learn the topmost ceiling of Smyth's machine. The highest altitude, it
should be explained, to which any machine can climb, is controlled by the
steadily increasing rarity of the atmosphere. The higher one rises, the greater
speed is required, to enable the thinner air to sustain the weight of the
aeroplane. Consequently, the limit of altitude for any given machine depends
upon two factors: its horsepower and its weight. In order to climb an extra
thousand feet, you must appreciably increase the horsepower or diminish the
weight. To resume: I reached 20,000 feet and found that Smyth's machine would
go no higher. I fired a few bursts from each gun and found that they operated
smoothly. Everything appearing to be all right, I headed for Germany and began
to scour the hostile skies. For a time nothing appeared. Then, again coming
from the direction of Metz, I observed a photographing two-seater, accompanied
by two scouts acting as protectors.
Acting upon the same tactics that had appealed to me
yesterday I turned back into the sun and awaited their passing over our lines.
To my delight I saw the two fighting machines escort the Rumpler fairly across
our lines and then themselves turn back into Germany. They had not seen me and
evidently considered their protection no longer necessary. I hugged the sun
closely and let the Rumpler sail by below me. Imagine my extravagant joy when I
again made out the painted Rising Sun in orange colors along the side of the
Rumpler's fusilage, and the big black numerals "16" following it! My escaped
prize of yesterday was again within my clutches. It would never escape again.
The barren walls of my sleeping quarters again rose before
my eyes. Manfully I choked down all unwonted feelings of optimism as I thought
of yesterday's mishaps, but still I felt every confidence in the outcome of
to-day's encounter. This was too good to be true.
Compelling myself to patience I followed my enemy along as
he made his way still further to the south. He had some special mission to
perform, of this I was sure. I wanted to know just what this mission was. At
the same time the farther back he ventured the better would be my chances for
dropping him within our territory. He was now almost over Commercy. My sole
fear was that some careless move of mine would disclose me to the attention of
As he left Commercy behind him and approached I made up my
mind to delay no longer. I suddenly left my position in the sun and darted out
to the rear to intercept his retreat. It was to be a straightforward battle in
the open. Let the best man win!
Again my luck was with me, for I reached a point directly
behind him and had turned towards him for my first shots before they were aware
of my presence. I had decided upon my tactics. Diving upon him from a diagonal
direction my first bursts would doubtless cause him to put his machine into a
vrille. I would anticipate this and zoom up over him and catch him dead under
my next diving attack. As I neared the Rumpler's tail from three-quarters
direction I saw the observer suddenly straighten himself up and look around at
me. He had been down in the bottom of his office, probably taking photographs
of the scenery below. The pilot had seen my machine in his mirror and had just
given the warning to the rear gunner. As he faced me I began firing.
Two unexpected things happened immediately.
Instead of falling into a vrille, as any intelligent German
would certainly have done, this pilot zoomed sharply up and let me go under
him. In fact I had about the thousandth part of a second in which to decide to
go under rather than ram the monster. Thus my clever plans were all upset by
the refusal of my antagonist to do the maneuver that I had assigned to him. Our
positions were reversed. Instead of my being on top and firing at him, he was
on top and by some extraordinary miracle he was firing at me.
I circled away and looked back to unravel this mystery. I
quickly solved it. From out of the belly of the Rumpler a wicked looking
machine-gun was pumping tracer bullets at me as fast as any gun ever fired! It
was a new and hitherto unheard-of method of defensethis shooting through
the floor. No wonder he had climbed instead of trying to escape.
To add to my discomfiture I jammed both my guns on my next
attack. There appeared to be no justice in the world! I circled away out of
range and moodily cleared the jam in one of my guns. The other absolutely
refused to operate further. In the meantime I had not failed to keep an
occasional eye upon the movements of my adversary and another swift glance at
intervals to see that no other enemy machines were coming to interrupt the
little duel that was to ensue. I sobered up completely and considered the exact
chances of getting in one swift death-blow with my more adroit Nieuport before
the more heavily armed Rumpler could bring its armament to bear upon me. The
enemy machine was flying homewards now, straight in the direction of St.
Coming at him again from below, I got in two or three good
bursts that should have made an impression upon himbut didn't. The lower
berth I found altogether too hot a position to hold, owing to the floor guns of
the enemy, so I zoomed suddenly up overhead and circled back to try to catch
the observer unprepared to receive me. Several times I tried this dodge but I
found one of the most agile acrobats in the Germany army on duty in that back
seat. He would be lying face downwards in the tail of his machine one second,
firing at me. I would zoom up and come alongside and over him within two
seconds, yet I always found him standing on his feet and ready for me. We
exchanged bursts after bursts, that observer and I, and soon came to know all
about each other's idiosyncrasies. I do not know what he thinks of me, but I am
willing to acknowledge him the nimblest airman I ever saw.
We had been at this game for forty minutes and the Rumpler
pilot had not fired a shot. I had long ago given up hope of their ever
exhausting their ammunition. They must have had a week's supply for the rear
guns alone. And now we were well back of the German lines again. I continued to
circle in and fire a short burst of half a dozen shots, but found it impossible
to break through their defensive tactics long enough to get a steady true aim
upon any vital part of their machine.
We were getting lower and lower. They were preparing to
land. I fired a farewell burst and in the middle of it my gun again jammed. The
pilot waved his hand "good-by-Be" to me, the observer fired a last cheery burst
from his tourrelle guns, and the show was over for the day. My coveted " 16 "
would not decorate my bedroom walls this night.
I flew thoughtfully homewards, wondering at the curious
coincidence that had brought No. 16 and myself together for two days running,
and the strange fate that seemed to protect it. It was unbelievable that a
heavy two-seater could escape a fighting machine with all the circumstances in
favor of the latter. It must have been something wrong with me, I concluded.
Just then my motor gave an expiring " chug " and I began to
drop. I leveled out as flat as possible and looked ahead. I should be able to
glide across the trenches from here if Smyth's machine was any good at all. So
fed up with disappointment was I that I did not much care whether I reached the
American lines or not. What could have happened to the fool motor anyway ?
I glanced at my wrist-watch and found the answer. I had been
so absorbed in my pursuit of No. 16 that I had forgotten all about the passing
of time. It had been two hours and thirty-five minutes since I had left the
ground, and the Nieuport was supposed to carry oil for but two and a quarter
hours' flight. The oil completely exhausted, my motor was frozen stiff and a
forced landing in some nearby shell hole was an imminent certainty.
The continued favors of Providence in keeping enemy planes
away from me in that homeward glide served to restore my faith in Justice. I
crossed the lines and even made the vicinity of Menil-la-Tours before it became
necessary to look for a smooth landing ground. There was little choice and what
choice there was appeared to be worse than the others. Barb wire stretched
across every field in close formation. Selecting the most favorable spaces I
settled down, just cleared the top of the wire with my wheels and settled
without crashing into a narrow field.
As I climbed out of my machine several doughboys came
running up and inquired as to whether I was wounded. A few minutes later Major
Miller drove up the road in a touring car, having seen my forced landing from a
nearby town. I left a guard in charge of the stranded aeroplane and drove away
with the Major to telephone to my aerodrome for the aeroplane ambulance and to
report that I had landed without injury. As it proved impossible to " get
through " by telephone, the Major very kindly offered to drive me home in his
car. In half an hour I was back with my squadron, none the worse for the day's
adventures, but, on the other hand, none the better save for a little more of
that eternal fund of experience which seemed to be forever waiting for me over
the enemy's lines.
But as soon as I stepped out of the car I learned of an
occurrence which dispelled all thoughts of my own adventures. Douglas Campbell
had just landed and was dangerously wounded!
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