The destination for history

Flying a De Havilland 4 in World War I


Leave passed all too quickly, and when but ten of the precious fourteen days were gone, a telegram came recalling me to the squadron.

The great German offensive on the British Front had begun, and I was almost glad to go. A taxi drive to Filton, which happened to be the nearest aerodrome, and in half an hour I was off in a brand-new Bristol Fighter, speeding through low clouds and rain. Landing in Marquise, I met several old friends and was given a Camel to take to Saint-André au Bois. It was a pleasant change to be in a light scout again. As I spiralled down at Saint André, I saw that the aerodrome was crowded with machines. A Camel that landed just in front of me was turned over on her back by the high wind, so I put my machine down very carefully. A senior officer who happened to be watching was good enough to say that this was the neatest landing he had seen that day, so I asked him to give me a DH.4 (De Havilland 4) that I might proceed to my squadron. Unfortunately, Sergeant Piercy was in the act of taking off in the only machine allotted to 55 and passed over us as we talked.

I spent the next two days waiting for despatches for the 8th Brigade. The crowded state of the aerodrome was due to the fact that many nearer the Line had been abandoned, and also to the presence of numerous brightly painted Camels, which had been rushed over from the night defence squadrons of London to do ground strafing. As I passed west of Amiens, I could see but few indications of the great battle beyond the fact that a number of our aeroplanes were standing in open fields. No one knew to what extent the French had been driven back, but it was believed that they still held Paris, as the capture of that city had not been announced on the German wireless; so I flew straight there, as I had orders on no account to cross the Line with my papers.

On coming out of a rainstorm, I suddenly caught sight of this immense place lying before me. It was wonderful to realise that at one glance I could see the home of more than 2 million people. London was always more mysterious, shrouded in fog or half hidden by smoke. Here I could see everything through the clear, moisture-laden atmosphere. Somehow the place had an expectant look, gazing eastwards along the white roads, towards the fighting, and the advancing foe. High clouds above supported, as it were, by pillar-like rainstorms, whose graceful skirts swept the bright green fields below.

All was going well, yet I was not at my ease, for I had already used up one tank of petrol and there was a stiff head wind; I kept straight on, however. There were now occasional glimpses of light-blue sky above; the weather was improving. At length I began to recognise the country below, Bar-le-Duc, Ligny, then Toul and Pont St Vincent; presently Mount Zion itself hove in sight, looking more friendly in its vivid spring green than the low, black coast of England, which had faded away behind my Bristol three days before.

As I landed, I saw the General and C.O. walking up the aerodrome, so took my precious despatches from under my cushion and handed them to the former. ‘I heard you had started, so I came over,’ he said; how glad I was that I had come straight through. 

‘Four mags. Willie?’ asked Gray; fortunately for me, there were.

Everyone was much concerned about the fighting up north; we were already partially cut off by the advance of the enemy, and it was felt that we ought to be back on the British Front in the hour of peril. Raids had been carried out on Kaiserslautern and Mannheim during my absence. Thakrah and Fluke had been taken prisoner as had also Sergeant Hodge, who had been flying with an American. This latter gentleman had announced that he came from the Wild and Woolly West, and hinted very broadly that he was a handy man with a six-shooter; he was much subdued, however, after his first experience over the Line. It seems that he simply could not stand the idea of being shot at without replying, so that when the Huns began to follow the formation, he turned round to fire at them. Realising that they had to do with a novice, the E.A. (enemy aircraft) obliged him to land without shooting him; he was last seen going down in a tight spiral, which presumably prevented Hodge from firing; no doubt he ‘shot a good line’ when he got back home to ‘God’s own country’.

In contrast, the squadron had also suffered the loss of a very gallant observer in the death of Sergeant Ryan. On the return journey from Mannheim, Sansom had been left behind and attacked by five E.A. during the running fight which followed, Ryan was wounded in the leg, he sat down and continued to fire; shortly after this he was hit in the right wrist by an explosive bullet, he continued to fire with his left hand, until he became unconscious. Sansom flew home with both inner bay flying wires shot away, his aileron controls were also gone; the machine was so badly shot about in fact, that she was a ‘write-off ’.

No. 6 was in good health, although Bridgland had taken her to Mannheim, where young Stewart had shot down his first Hun from her back seat. There was, however, a slight crack in her undercarriage, so I had it changed for one of the more fashionable high type, thus bringing her right up to date. It was like getting home again to climb into the high cockpit. There was little for me to do, for everything was in perfect order, but I liked to sit there and study my maps, or perhaps polish something, or simply gaze forward past the prop, thinking over all we had done together and planning things we might yet do.

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