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Our Fierce DOG-FIGHTS over Arras

I saw the last of Capt: Ball. V.C.

Cecil Lewis

On the first Offensive Patrol [in April 1917], with two others, we attacked five German scouts four bright red and one green. I chose one and dived, got him in the sights, and pressed the trigger of the Vickers. Not a shot! I continued in the dive, trusting to the Lewis gun to do the trick: it fired two shots and jammed! Damnation! I zoomed away, trying frantically to clear the Vickers jam. Nothing would shift it, so I pulled the Lewis down its sliding quadrant to clear it and reload. The spade grip of the gun knocked down the hinged wind-screen, and the blast of a 100 M.P.H. wind nearly blew my head off. This was a pretty state to be in surrounded by five enemy scouts!

I was a sitter for any Hun, so I turned west and climbed away, working all the time to get my screen up and clear the Lewis jam. At last I managed it; but then, try as I would, I could not force the gun up the quadrant back into place on the top plane. The slide was twisted. I came home fed up, my gun pointing straight up into heaven. Nevertheless, that day the squadron got four Huns: a good start. Ball accounted for two of them....

In 1917 co-operative tactics in single seater fighting were rudimentary. A combat was a personal matter. In a fight no pilot has time to watch others; he is too occupied in attempting to down his own man or in avoiding an enemy intent on downing him. Tactics apart, the vital question is that of performance. A machine with better speed and climbing power must always have the advantage.

During the next ten days Offensive Patrols were carried out daily, and, unfortunately, it soon became clear that, good as the SE5 was, it was still not equal to the enemy. Scrapping at high altitudes, fifteen to eighteen thousand feet, the Huns had a marked superiority in performance. This naturally tended to make us cautious, since we knew that, once we came down to their level, we should not be able to get above them again. Height, apart from its moral superiority, means added speed for the one above, who in his dive and zoom away has gravity on his side. Since machine-guns in a scout are fixed, firing forward in the line of flight, it follows that the pilot aims the whole machine at his adversary. If that adversary is above him, he will be forced to pull his machine up on its tail to get him in the sights. That means loss of speed, manoeuvrability and, if carried to an extreme, a stall, and wandering about at stalling speed is asking for trouble when there are enemy guns about. This inferiority of performance was an initial difficulty. Later, when the SE5 got a larger motor, things looked up.

Single combat, a duel with another machine, was, performance apart, a question of good flying. Two machines so engaged would circle, each trying to turn inside the other and so bring his guns into play. Ability to sustain such tight vertical turns is the crucial test of a fighting pilot. Once the balance of the-controls is lost, the machine will slip, lose height, and the enemy will rush in. Then, by all the rules of the game, you are a dead man.


But when a number of machines had closed and were engaged in a “dogfight," it was more a question of catch-as-catch-can. A pilot would go down on the tail of a Hun, hoping to get him in the final burst; but he would not be wise to stay there, for another Hun would almost certainly be on his tail, hoping to get him in the same way. Such fights were really a series of rushes, with momentary pauses to select the next opportunity-to catch the enemy at a disadvantage....

But, apart from fighting, when twenty or thirty scouts were engaged, there was always a grave risk of collision. Machines would hurtle by, intent on their private battles, missing each other by feet. So such fighting demanded iron nerves, lightning reactions, snap decisions, a cool head, and eyes like a bluebottle, for it all took place at high speed and was three-dimensional.

At this sort of sharpshooting some pilots excelled others; but in all air fighting (and indeed in every branch of aerial warfare) there is an essential in which it differs from war on the ground its absolute cold-bloodedness. You cannot lose your temper with an aeroplane. You cannot “see red," as a man in a bayonet fight. You certainly cannot resort to " Dutch " courage. Any of these may fog your judgment-and that spells death.

Often at high altitudes we flew in air well below freezing point. Then the need to clear a jam or change a drum meant putting an arm out into an icy 100 M.P.H. wind. If you happened to have bad circulation (as I had), it left the hand numb, and since you could not stamp your feet, swing your arms, or indeed move at all, the numbness would spread to the other hand, and sometimes to the feet as well.

In this condition we often went into a scrap with the odds against us-they usually were against us, for it was our job to be "' offensive " and go over into enemy country looking for trouble-coldbloodedly in the literal sense; but none the less we had to summon every faculty of judgment and skill to down our man, or, at the worst, to come out of it alive ourselves. So, like duelling, air fighting required a set steely courage, drained of all emotion, fined down to a tense and deadly effort of will. The Angel of Death is less callous, aloof, and implacable than a fighting pilot when he dives.

There were, of course, emergency methods, such as standing the machine on its tail and holding it there just long enough to get one good burst into the enemy above you; but nobody would fight that way if he could help it, though, actually, an SE5 pilot could do the same thing by pulling his top gun down the quadrant. He could then fire it vertically upward while still flying level.

This was how Beery Bowman once got away from an ugly situation. He had been scrapping a couple of Huns well over the other side of the lines. He managed to crash one of them, but in so doing exhausted the ammunition of his Vickers gun: his Lewis was jammed. The other Hun pursued him and forced him right down on to the “carpet "about a hundred feet from the ground. There was nothing to do but to beat it home. The Him, out to avenge the death of his friend, and having the advantage of speed and height over Beery, chivvied him back to the lines, diving after him, bursting his gun, zooming straight up again, hanging there for a moment in a stall, and falling to dive again.


He repeated this several times (he must have been a rotten shot) while Beery, with extraordinary coolness and presence of mind, pulled down his Lewis gun and managed to clear the jam. The next time the Hun zoomed, Beery throttled right down and pulled back to stalling speed. The result was that when the He fell out of his zoom, Beery was not ahead of him as before, but beneath him. As the Hun dropped into his dive Beery opened fire with his Lewis gun, raking the body above him with a long burst. The Hun turned over on his back, dived, and struck the ground, bursting into flames. Beery laconically continued his way home. He was awarded the D.S.O.

With the exception of Ball, most crack fighters did not get their Huns in dog-fights. They preferred safer means. They would spend hours synchronizing their guns and telescopic sights, so that they could do accurate shooting at, say, two or three hundred yards. They would then set out on patrol, alone, spot their quarry (in such cases usually a two-seater doing reconnaissance or photography), and care-fully manoeuvre for position, taking great pains to remain where they could not be seen, i.e. below and behind the tail of the enemy. From here, even if the Hun observer did spot them, he could not bring his gun to bear without the risk of shooting away his own tail plane or rudder. The stalker would not hurry after his quarry, but keep a wary eye to see he was not about to be attacked himself. He would gradually draw nearer, always in the blind spot, sight his guns very carefully, and then one long deadly burst would do the trick.Such tactics as those were employed by Captain McCudden, V.C., D.S.O. [killed in an accident in July 1918, having accounted for more than 50 German machines], and also by the French ace Guynemer [killed without trace in September 1917].


The squadron was doing well in Huns. Ball came back every day with a bag of one or more. Besides his SE5 he had a Nieuport scout, the machine in which he had done so well the previous year. He had a roving commission, and, with two machines, was four hours a day in the air. Of the great fighting pilots his tactics were the least cunning. Absolutely fearless, the odds made no difference to him. He would always attack, single out his man, and close. On several occasions he almost rammed the enemy, and often came back with his machine shot to pieces.

One morning, before the rest of us had gone out on patrol, we saw him coming in rather clumsily to land. He was not a stunt pilot, but flew very safely and accurately, so that, watching him, we could not understand his awkward floating landing. But when he taxied up to the sheds we saw his elevators were flapping loose-controls had been completely shot away! He had flown back from the lines and made his landing entirely by winding his adjustable tail up and down! It was incredible he had not crashed. His oil tank had been riddled, and his face and the whole nose of the machine were running with black castor oil.

He was so angry at being shot up like this that he walked straight to the sheds, wiped the oil off his shoulders and face with a rag, ordered out his Nieuport, and in two hours was back with yet another Hun to his credit.

Ball was a quiet, simple little man. His one relaxation was the violin, and his favourite after-dinner amusement to light a red magnesium flare outside his hut and walk round it in his pyjamas, fiddling! He was meticulous in the care of his machines, guns, and in the examination of his ammunition. He never flew for amusement. The only trips he took, apart from offensive patrols, were the minimum requisite to test his engines or fire at the ground target sighting his guns. He never boasted or criticized, but his example was tremendous....

THE squadron sets out eleven strong on the evening patrol. Eleven chocolate-coloured, lean, noisy bullets, lifting, swaying, turning, rising into formation -two fours and a three-circling and climbing away steadily towards the lines. They are off to deal with Richthofen and his circus of Red Albatrosses.

The May evening is heavy with threatening masses of cumulus cloud, majestic skyscrapers, solid-looking as Snow Mountains, fraught with caves and valleys, rifts and ravines-strange and secret pathways in the chartless continents of the sky. Below, the land becomes an ordnance map, dim green and yellow, and across it go the Lines, drawn anyhow, as a child might scrawl with a double pencil. The grim dividing Lines! From the air robbed of all significance.

Steadily the body of scouts rises higher and higher, threading its way between the cloud precipices. Sometimes, below, the streets of a village, the corner of a wood, a few dark figures moving, glides into view like a slide into a lantern, and then is hidden again. But the fighting pilot's eyes are not on the ground, but roving endlessly through the lower and higher reaches of the sky, peering anxiously through fur-goggles to spot those black slowmoving specks against land or cloud which mean full throttle, tense muscles, held breath, and the headlong plunge with screaming wires-a Hun in the sights, and the tracers flashing.

A red light curls up from the leader's cockpit and falls away. Action! He alters direction slightly, and the patrol, shifting throttle and rudder, keep close like a pack of hounds on the scent. He has seen, and they see soon, six scouts three thousand feet below. Black crosses! It seems interminable till the eleven come within diving distance. The pilots nurse their engines, hard-minded and set, test their guns and watch their indicators. At last the leader sways sideways, as a signal that each should take his man, and suddenly drops.

Machines fall scattering, the earth races up, the enemy patrol, startled, wheels and breaks. Each his man The chocolate thunderbolts take sights, steady their screaming planes, and fire. A burst, fifty rounds-it is over. They have overshot, and the enemy, hit or missed, is lost for the moment. The pilot steadies his stampeding mount, pulls her out with a firm hand, twisting his head right and left, trying to follow his man, to sight another, to back up a friend in danger, to note another in flames.

But the squadron plunging into action had not seen, far off, approaching from the east, the rescue flight of Red Albatrosses patrolling above the body of machines on which they bad dived, to guard their tails and second them in the battle. These, seeing the maze of wheeling machines, plunge down to join them. The British scouts, engaging and disengaging like flies circling at midday in a summer room, soon find the newcomers upon them. Then, as if attracted by some mysterious power, as vultures will draw to a corpse in the desert, other bodies of machines swoop down from the peaks of the cloud mountains. More enemy scouts, and, by good fortune, a flight of Naval triplanes. But, nevertheless, the enemy, double in number, greater in power and fighting with skill and courage, gradually overpower the British, whose machines scatter, driven down beneath the scarlet German fighters.

It would be impossible to describe the action of such a battle. A pilot, in the second between his own engagements, might see a Hun diving vertically, an SE5 on his tail, on the tail of the SE another Hun, and above him again another British scout. These four, plunging headlong at two hundred miles an hour, guns crackling, tracers screaming, suddenly break up. The lowest Hun plunges flaming to his death, it death has not taken him already. His victor seems to stagger, suddenly pulls out, in a great leap, as a trout leaps on the end of a line, and then, turning over on his belly, swoops and spins in a dizzy falling spiral with the earth to end it. The third German zooms veering, and the last of that meteoric quartet follows bursting. . . . But such a glimpse, lasting perhaps ten seconds, is broken by the sharp rattle of another attack.

Two machines approach head-on at breakneck speed, firing at each other, tracers whistling through each other's planes, each slipping sideways on his rudder to trick the other's gun fire. Who will hold longest? Two hundred yards, a hundred, fifty, and then, neither hit, with one accord they fling their machines sideways, bank and circle, each striving to bring his gun on to the other's tail, each glaring through goggle eyes, calculating, straining, wheeling, grim, bent only on death or dying. But, from above, this strange tormented circling is seen by another Hun. He drops. His gun speaks. The British machine, distracted by the sudden unseen enemy, pulls up, takes a burst through the engine, tank and body, and falls bottom uppermost down through the clouds and the deep unending desolation of the twilight sky.

The game of noughts and crosses, starting at fifteen thousand feet above the clouds, drops in altitude engagement by engagement. Friends and foes are scattered. A last SE, pressed by two Huns, plunges and wheels, gunjammed, like a snipe over marshes, darts lower, finds refuge in the ground mist, and disappears.

Now lowering clouds darken the evening. Below, flashes of gun fire stab the veil of the gathering dusk. The fight is over! The battlefield shows no sign. In the pellucid sky, serene cloud mountains mass and move unceasingly. Here where guns rattled and death plucked the spirits of the valiant, this thing is now as if it had never been! The sky is busy with night, passive, superb, unheeding.

Of the eleven scouts that went out that evening, the 7tb of May, only five of us returned to the aerodrome. The Mess was very quiet that night. The Adjutant remained in his office, hoping against hope to have news of the six missing pilots, and, later, news did come through that two had been forced down, shot in the engine, and that two others had been wounded. But Ball never returned. I believe I was the last to see him in his red nosed SE going east at 8,000 feet. He flew straight into the white face of an enormous cloud. I followed. But when I came out on the other side, he was nowhere to be seen. All next day a feeling of depression hung over the squadron. We mooned about the sheds, still hoping for news. The day after that hope was given up. I flew his Nieuport back to the Aircraft Depot.