Post by Dave Homewood on Jul 5, 2022 16:47:40 GMT 12
From the PRESS, 1 FEBRUARY 1964
Night-Bombing During The “Big Push”
[Specially written for “The Press" by A. R. KINGSFORD]
IN April, 1918, when the “Big Push” to Paris was on, the Germans kept their railways busy at night bringing up troops, ammunition, rations and other war supplies, so to the Allied airmen railways were important targets. Trains were sporting targets and their destruction had far-reaching effects.
On these raids we usually carried eight 20-pound bombs and one 230-pounder, all capable of derailing a train. Juneville, 30 kilometres north-east of Rheims was one our favourite hunting grounds, and on our fourth night we were lucky. It was a clear starlight night when we set off. Nothing happened for half an hour, we were beginning to think our luck was out when my observer spotted the familiar glow of an engine stopping a few miles from Juneville station. We made for it with throttles back and as we dashed down, the furnace door was opened, illuminating the engine cab. Almost silently we swung round on to the tail of the train. And at 1000 feet my observer directed me and let go two 20-pounders and the 230. Anxious to see the result we dropped a flare, which showed overturned waggons and wreckage. We flew off in search of fresh targets and found nothing, so we returned to our wrecked train, let go the remaining bombs and peppered the wreckage with our machine gun.
After a spell of train strafing I was alloted a new machine, an F.E. 2C, number 450 powered with 160 h.p. water-cooled engine. It cruised at 70 m.p.h. at 1200 revolutions. There were three petrol tanks, one gravity-fed, under the top plane. This was always used for take-off and landing. The main tank was under the pilot's seat, which assured him of a warm exit from this world if the worst happened. There was also an auxiliary tank under file engine. A three-way tap on the dashboard controlled the feed.
We were pleased with 450, but she brought us bad luck. And our second flight we crashed. It happened after an urgent order to fly late one afternoon, to a French aerodrome at Villeseneux, 50 miles away, for a special bombing mission on Amiens. We arrived safely but as darkness set in, fog enveloped the aerodrome. To us this meant no flying, but we were assured the target area was clear and that it was imperative to go.
I was ordered to take off first and since I was quite unfamiliar with the French system of flares I thought it advisable to make some inquiries about the flare layout, but no-one understood my French. So I decided to take off between two flares and over one in the distance which formed the triangle. We had just left the ground when our port wing hit something. By the glow of the navigation light I could see a strut dangling in the air, the leading edge of the lower plane was smashed, fabric and ribs were torn to splinters, and then the wing dropped. I could not keep the machine on an even keel and it was evident we were for it, so I pressed the flare button, saw a clear patch and waited for the crash. There was a thud, the sound of splintering wood, and I was catapulted from the front seat.
I was slightly dazed, but realised that I had an enthusiastic observer somewhere around. Groping about the wreckage I called his name. A muffled sound came from the darkness. I crawled in the direction of the sound, then fell into a ditch almost on top of him. He was injured and lying in a foot of water.
Others came to grief that night; one landed on the tree-tops in a forest, and two crashed in force landings. In one crash the crew was killed. And to cap it all no-one found the target.
The next afternoon the Germans occupied Villeseneux aerodrome. We made a hurried departure a few hours before. The enemy pushed on towards Paris, but American troops halted the enemy, pushed them back, and the city was saved.
Two Raids A Night
Soon after our arrival at Ochey we were asked by the French to concentrate on an aerodrome in Alsace Lorraine from which German planes were raiding Paris. And for a short period we often flew two raids a night. Apparently our efforts were successful, as one enemy pilot landed in our lines and gave himself up. His reason, so he said, was that no matter where he landed, our machines were waiting to bomb.
In 55 Squadron casualties were heavy on their daylight raids. The squadron flew D.H.4’s, a good machine, but no match loaded with bombs for the enemy fighters without a fighter escort, they often lost a third of their aircraft and crews on a raid. In an effort to relieve 55 Squadron we were ordered to bomb the enemy fighter dromes at Morhange and Freisdorf.
Luck comes in patches, good and bad, it comes in cycles and our attacks on these enemy aerodromes resulted in us losing a number of crews, some by enemy action, others in crashes. These losses were always keenly felt by the rest of us. Living as we did in such close contact we all got to know our companions extremely well. And when it was a room-mate who “failed to return” the grim reality of war was brought home to us vividly. There would be the packing of his belongings and a note to the next-of-kin couched in hopeful terms that he might be a prisoner and safe, but so often it was not the case.
This job nearly fell to my room-mate on the night of our first raid on the steel works at Hagindingen. When I was going in to bomb an anti-aircraft shell exploded uncomfortably close, fragments piercing the radiator and the engine crankcase. My observer immediately let go all the bombs and as the temperature needle rose we headed for our lines. Our height was 4000 feet The engine lost power by overheating and fire was likely. To retain as much height as possible we jettisoned our machine-gun and ammunition. The altimeter dropped to 2000 ft. when we still had some distance to go to reach our lines where there was a rough emergency landing ground.
Landed In Wire
“We crawled on, just keeping flying speed and managed to cross the German trenches with 200 feet in hand. It was obvious we could not make the emergency ground, so switching the engine off I levelled out, and landed—in a barbed-wire entanglement in the French trenches. My unfortunate observer was thrown out on to the barbed-wire and was badly torn in the face, but otherwise unharmed.
Next morning the German artillery shelled the remains of our machine. That evening we reached our aerodrome to find that we had been reported missing; but we were also told our old machines were to be replaced by twin-engined Handley Pages, powered by Rolls-Royce engines and capable of carrying a bomb load of three-quarters of a ton. The Handley Page crew consisted of a pilot, an observer and a gunner. The hew planes were roomier and speedier, with a greater range, which meant we could raid Cologne and Frankfurt.
As the days lengthened and summer came, the outlook brightened. On land we had retaken much lost ground and in the air we now had the upper hand. Our slow machines had given way to fast Bristol Fighters, Sopwith Camels, and the S.E.5. The S.E.5, flying at 120 m.p.h., was more than a match for the enemy fighters.
Ochey was too small, so we shifted to Xaffervilliers, not far from the Swiss frontier. Electric flares and an elaborate control tower were installed, anti-aircraft guns, machine-gun posts, and searchlights were sited.
“Why all the defence?” we wondered; but we soon knew. The enemy raided us nightly with some success from a few days after our arrival. He got a direct hit on our petrol dump—and it was a great blaze —and this started a latent desire for dug-outs. One unfortunate incident marred our first raid with our new Handley-pages. The squadron’s mascot was a mongrel dog, affectionately known as “Blackie.” It was his habit, like many dogs who run with a car, to run by our planes when taking off, and he was always there to meet us on landing. He had been used to single-engine machines and on this night took up his usual position. When the machine, took off “Blackie” got mixed up with the tail wheel.
“Blackie,” to us, was part of the squadron and his loss was keenly felt. He had flown more than most dogs and many a time when 55 Squadron visited us, they smuggled him into one of their machines. There was a feud between the squadrons over “Blackie” and he made many return trips. As summer gave way to autumn, we went further into Germany to bomb. Strategic targets—power stations, factories and railways.
The end came sooner than expected. Returning from a raid on the night of November 10-11 we were told the war was over. It was a bright sunny morning, cold and frosty, and one of those days it was good to be alive.
Mr Kingsford, who was a flight commander in the Royal Flying Corps, later the Royal Air Force, in the First World War, is past-president of the 1914-1918 Airmen’s Association. “At the closing stages of the war, great strides were being made in the design, speed and armament of aircraft. War always accelerates science," he writes. “Another thing war teaches us is never to underestimate the enemy. We had the greatest respect for him in the air. He was a gallant and brave adversary." The association will hold a reunion in Christchurch this month.