Situated on the Western Front in Northern France, the date was the 20th May, 1917 at 0600hrs.
The rain was coming down so hard that it filled the empty fire buckets in just a few short minutes, it was much like a never ending stream of soggy bullets coming from the heavens. Our dawn patrol was due to take off at 0630hrs and there were just three of us rostered for it. We were all stood in the ready room, trying to get mentally prepared to face the unseemly weather. As disgusting as it was, the patrol was still rostered to go ahead. A stand-down was talked about by the Officer in charge of Operations (Ops), which suited us just fine.
My Flight, which was B Flight, was selected for all of the dawn patrols in the last two weeks of May. We all wanted to get out there and fight the Boche, but we had found ourselves getting quite frustrated by the persistency of the rain which had prevented so much flying for some weeks. The blasted weather was with us for a considerable while to come, the thick and miserable clouds stretched to infinity in all directions.
It wasn’t likely to curtail any of the other tasks waiting for me, for example, the CO wanted me to catch up with the ever-increasing stack of paperwork which cluttered the Adjutants desk, he had just taken a few days leave to attend his daughter’s wedding, lucky chap! Quite frankly the paperwork could wait, there was still plenty of time for sifting through administration matters and it wasn’t as if I was going anywhere in a hurry, not with the disgusting weather just outside the door.
I went over to the hangar where my Nieuport 17 was having a spring clean. Seeing that the weather was so shocking, I thought that I would have Sgt Joshua Watkins work his magic on it. There were a few niggles which needed clearing up, mostly of the bullet variety, this coupled with some other damage resulted in a few hours of fun for the Sergeant.
I had recently experienced the Boche breathing down my neck on a couple of occasions, I had felt the vortices of their bullets whizzing past my head several times, the noise of which left no doubt in my mind that the war could be very short indeed.
Little more to be said about the doom and gloom, dwelling on such matters did nothing for morale, so I chose to ignore it. What’s the point of worrying about something that may never happen? More likely, what’s the point of worrying about something which is inevitable!
Having Watkins check over my aeroplane turned out to be a great decision, it appeared that the rudder cable had taken a hit and had started to fray. A couple more hours in the air and it would break for sure, leaving me with no rudder, which would not be a disastrous event in itself, but if I got into a fight and lost any other control surface, then that would be game over!
The frayed rudder cable was replaced in no time at all, Sergeant Watkins gave it a second inspection, to be certain of no other damage and it all seemed fine, the old bus was declared airworthy for yet another sortie.
We had been in receipt of the Nieuport 17s for just less than two months by then, the ground crew knew the whereabouts of every single nut and bolt on those aircraft. It was a credit to the mechanics on how quickly they learned the intricacies of the Nieuports, the reassurance of knowing the ground crew were tip-top was immense and especially when our lives depended on them knowing their business.
I climbed over the side of my aeroplane and sat in the cockpit, where I imagined myself in pursuit of a German Albatros D.1. That retched German aeroplane had been giving us some trouble right up to the point when we had the Nieuports delivered. In the Nieuport we had a new hope, the Nieuport 17 would give us the tool to even the score up a little.
I took a moment to stoop low in my seat and check what the weather was up to, to my surprise I found that the dreadful weather was starting to clear up a bit. The familiar sound of the rain on the hangar roof was dying to an infrequent pitter-patter, and the wind had stopped whistling through the hangar doors like an uninvited guest. I jumped out of the seat and rush over to the hangar doors, where I hung my head out to confirm the change in the conditions. That was when I realised a quick chat with the CO was necessary, the day’s operations list would need organising if flying was to go ahead.
I thought I was going to slip right on to my backside whilst running cross to the COs office, the rain had made the ground extremely slippery right across the camp. There were mud splatters up my trousers and all over my boots, rather ‘un-officer like’, “My batman’s going to be busy later!” I mumbled to myself as I trudged through it all.
The CO was sitting on the side of the Adjutants desk and he looked directly at me whilst I burst through the door, it was almost as if he had the power of foresight and knew when I was inbound. He passed comment on my unseemly entrance and then he informed me that the weather was on our side for an effective attack on the enemy airfield.
“If you take off in 20 minutes you should have acceptable weather for the patrol.” he announced, “At your turning point, the German chaps will still be sitting on the ground contemplating the weather change. They will either be rolling out their aircraft or sitting out on the airstrip warming their engines up, this of course, will allow you a trouble free strafing run. You will take the advantage and attack them whilst they’re sitting pretty!” The CO was ahead of things as usual and the plan seemed a winner to me. I often wondered how he dreamed up his plans, and furthermore, I pondered upon how he knew what the enemy would be doing. In God we trust, but in the CO we believe!
The mission comprised of Lieutenant James Tindal, Lieutenant Frederick Wilson and myself. Both Tindal and Wilson were as new to this game as I was. To be sure of one fact, there weren’t many really ‘old hands’ still clocking up the hours over Northern France.
Funny as it sounds, we were all looking forward to getting up there and surprising the Hun with a good old strafing run, though at first it all seemed so ungentlemanly, but war is war and better them than us.
Whilst walking over to my aeroplane I experienced a feeling of serenity, it was all a bit abstract to my mind. Normally my head would have been buzzing with thoughts of what to do and when to do it. I would go through movements and directions in my mind’s eye. But on that morning, nothing specific filled my mind, nothing but the noise of the mud squishing beneath my feet and the sporadic drop of rain which landed on my face.
In only minutes we took off in formation and gained height as quickly as the Nieuport would let us. A few hand signals were passed about to see if there were any problems amongst us, but there was nothing to report from all parties involved, the Nieuport 17s were all behaving themselves. The Lewis gun perched on the top wing of the Nieuport was our main weapon and all three were cocked and ready to engage the enemy when necessary or to our advantage.
The targeted airfield was coming up on our port side and we could see some movement near their hangars. The rain had stopped and the Hun were pushing out their D.1s, ready to commence operations against us, but we had beaten them to it. Our orders were to fly down like the ‘Angels of Death’ and rake everything on the ground, cut into their aeroplanes and cause a deadly chaos all about. We had to get a gallop on though, or we would be the targets of their men on the machine gun posts.
I gave a signal to Tindal, he was first to go. He had the right angle and direction for his initial attack, his position looked perfect from our point of view. There didn’t seem to be much in the way of urgent activity on the ground, they were obviously not expecting us at that point in time. Puffs of smoke from Tindal’s Lewis gun showed that he had engaged the enemy and the small threads of cordite smoke trailed from Tindal’s top wing, which quickly dissipating to nothing. A distant noise of firing confirmed that Tindal’s gun was pelting bullets towards the hangar and the D.1s on the ground. From behind it was possible to see the path of the bullets through the damp air, the speed and twist of the bullets vaporised the humidity in the air, leaving nothing but vortices behind it and only destruction ahead of it.
Chunks of the hangar structure tore off, the chaos caused by the bullets hitting the hangar must have been put the fear of God into whoever was inside it. From the air, the scene of the attack was ugly to say the least, we all knew about the deathly horrors caused by the rain of fire. But at the same time, the feeling of immense power energised our bodies through and through.
Wilson was next to go, although Tindal was still finishing his run when Wilson started his attack. I half expected a few chunks of Tindal’s aircraft to be shot off by Wilson, he followed on the same line that Tindal took, meaning that his bullets would fly the same path. I should have known better than that really, I had no reason to doubt Wilson’s sense of timing and marksmanship. Again, the red hot lead vaporised the damp air and the D.1s received a jolly good hammering. I speculated that it was going to take them a fair while to repair the battle-damaged aeroplanes which lie wrecked upon the ground. I counted at least three of their aircraft looking rather sorry for themselves and needing some serious attention to be airworthy again. I knew if that was Sergeant Watkins aircraft, he would be spitting bullets and swearing an awful lot.
“My turn” I whispered to myself as I pushed the throttle forward. I wanted to be in and out, whilst inflicting as much damage as I could, then collect my medals on the way through to the Mess, where a beer would be waiting for me … perhaps I was thinking too far ahead again!
The Germans soldiers were well and truly alert and focused by the time I got around to my attack. They swung their machine guns around to the sound of my engine and it wasn’t long before they started to lay down fire in my direction, which as you might expect, endangered my life in a very serious manner.
“Blast, I should have gone first!” I exclaimed to myself, I saw flashes of light from the end of their machine guns and just a fraction of a second later I was hearing that dreaded noise again, bullets were starting whizz past my head and tear through my wings. Like a cancer, dread and fear crept through my body and my heart was thumping wildly. My head buzzed with what could have been thrilling excitement or extreme anxiousness, either way my Lewis gun was expending vast amounts of ammunition through the actions of my committed attack. I could see my rounds smashing through the aeroplanes on the ground and impaling any German airmen nearby. I gave my aircraft some starboard rudder to bring my sights onto one of the machinegun pits and when I was aligned I fired again, putting a fierce volley of shots directly upon the enemy gun, completely tearing it up in the most torturous way.
“Lummi, Mummy!” I nervously laughed to myself, whilst still being immersed in concentration of the most deadly kind. Thrilling was definitely the word, my heart was pumping like the first time I made a solo landing during flying training with my brother Freddie.
Out of nowhere, and totally unexpected, an enemy bullet tore through my shoulder and a sudden realisation of the most distinct kind of pain was forced upon me. Contrary to every pilots belief, I was mortal after all and by George that really hurt! The force of the impact pushed me as far back in my seat as I could go. The pain was like having someone push a red-hot poker into me and it was like nothing I had ever experienced before. I found myself shouting for some help, exclaiming all sorts and cursing the enemy marksman who manned that damn gun. I thought I had finished him off, that gun pit was completely shot up as I pass over, although I was not really paying too much attention to what happened on the ground behind me.
The intense pain, coupled with the effect of losing blood made me ever so light-headed. I was still compos mentis enough to glance a look at the holes in the wings, it was apparent that they were sucking air and the extra stress caused by this was tearing the holes more so, I could see the damage was worsening by the second. It was even money if I was going to make it back alive, whether I run out of blood before the wings run out of lift was where the money lie.
Tindal and Wilson were flying on my port and starboard sides respectively, I felt that there was a good chance of landing on the airfield, if not somewhere nearby. My pain was worsened farther still, my light-headedness turned to tiredness and a wilting desperation apprehended my mind. I knew that I had to get the old bus on the ground or I was dead. I spotted the landing strip of our aerodrome ahead and with things the way they were, I had only one chance to land. Despite my weariness, I could just about recognise that I had a good approach line, although my eyes were half closed by that point.
In a semi-conscious state I made my plan to landing early and let the Nieuport run up to the hangar doors. It was going to be tricky move to execute, especially for an insensible pilot, but if I did it right then I would roll to a stop somewhere near the ground crew, help would surely be nearby.
The wheels were down on the ground and a perfect speed was noted. Good direction made with a little pressure on the port rudder and I was bang on. I stopped about 20 feet from a hangar and made an effort to wave my usable arm to attract some help. My blood soaked clothing alerted the crew that I needed more attention than the aeroplane did. Good heavens, I felt tired, I just wanted to go to drift off.
Somehow I remembered to kill the engine’s life-giving magneto, and as I did so the engine run to a stop. Still oblivious to most things around me I waved my good arm around again, but my whole body felt like it weighed a ton. I could see a lot of people running towards me, but everything seemed to be fading to darkness, and then, the eventual tiredness took hold of me.
The last thing I remember was the voice of Sergeant Watkins, “It’s Lieutenant Chalmers, he’s been hit, get the medic, get a stretcher and be quick about it, blimey … there’s blood everywhere!”