25 Apr 17

A Squadron View of WW1 – Part 1

A Squadron View Of World War One – Part 1

First person accounts of No 8 Sqn’s participation in WWI are very thin on the ground.  Therefore we are fortunate to have excerpts from the biography of Captain FMF West VC, “Winged Diplomat” which was ghost written by Pat Reid and published by Chatto and Windus in 1962.

A pioneer Officer with the Royal Munster Fusiliers who served on the Western front throughout the Winter of 1915 – 16, Lt West volunteered to become an Observer in the RFC.  He flew as an artillery spotter in the “Morane Parasol” with No 3 Sqn before being selected as a pilot in October 1917.  On completion of his training he was posted to No 8 Sqn based at Amiens Aerodrome.  He tells us of his introduction to 8 Sqn:

The Introduction To 8 Squadron

The Opposition
Members of Richthofen’s Jasta II
Pictured in 1917

With No 8 Sqn I was stationed once more at Amiens Aerodrome.  We were concentrating on reconnaissance for the army.  My patrol area was familiar ground – the Armentieres-Lens area.  Our machines were made for the purpose.  They were two-seater biplanes, known as the “Big Acks” – Armstrong Whitworth FK-8s.  They had a wide radius of action – about 250 miles from base in still air – and they could stay in the air for three and a half hours.  Armament consisted of the usual Lewis guns, one firing through the propeller, the other twin barrelled, firing on a broad arc to the rear.

Leigh-Mallory summoned all the new personnel to his office and told us what our purpose in life was.  We were to be the eyes of the gunners and the new tanks, which were now making themselves felt.  We could help the infantry too.  By visual reconnaissance and by photographing the lines and the enemy back areas we were to supply Army Intelligence with information, which would help them to prepare their plans for future offensives.

Leigh-Mallory warned us of our opponents in the air.  We were in the sector where Von Richthofen’s circus was operating.  He was known as the “Red Baron”.  He flew a bright red Fokker machine, brighter than the red of all the other machines in his circus.

“You gentlemen,” said Leigh-Mallory, “are just the the chickens these red German eagles are looking for.  If attacked, get down as close to the ground as you can.  Crawl along it.  Let observers do the firing.  They’ll have a much better chance to beat them off from there.”

An 8 Squadron Parade – March 1918

Early in March there were signs of a big offensive in preparation by the Germans.  On our side there was much bustle and preparation too.  On one occasion during this pepping-up period, our divisional commander, a Cavalry officer, came to inspect the aerodrome.  Just as our personnel, about 200 strong, were parading on the grass in front of the hutments, the German Air Force came in, only 50 feet up, with the sun behind them.  There were five of them in single line.  Over the aerodrome they fanned out, machine gunning all the way, heading for individual targets.  Our anti-aircraft machine guns were mounted on stout posts about 5 feet high and as the planes [SIC] were recognised and the parade melted away, some made way to the guns.  Others stood around helplessly while the German planes dropped their bombs on the hangars.

Our Divisional Commander was entirely forgotten.  He had, on his own initiative, taken shelter under a lorry, which happened to be parked in a muddy area near the parade ground.  He emerged, looking bedraggled, his elegant uniform badly spattered.

The parade was soon re-assembled in a horseshoe to listen to the address by the General.  He congratulated the Squadron upon the excellent army co-operation work it had been doing, and then said he thought he might be excused if he took the opportunity of pointing out an elementary rule of self defence in war, as exemplified, by himself, only a few moments before.  “When attacked and surprised,” he said, “bravery is one thing and stupidity is another.  Men should take shelter in the quickest possible manner, instead of standing out in the open looking at the German aircraft as if they were at a football match.  Perhaps something might be learnt from my own example in taking the proper precautionary measure of shelter along sound army lines.”  As he said this he was confronted by two hundred faces that seemed to find difficulty in repressing some emotion.  Could it be laughter?  The General hesitated and coughed and then terminated his lecture with rather unexpected abruptness.  The question soon came out, “What was all the grinning about?” “Well you see, sir,” said Leigh-Mallory, “the lorry you took shelter under is the Squadron ammunition lorry.  At the moment it’s full of detonators.  I hate to think what would have happened to you if it had been hit!”

Lt West describes the typical sortie.

Reconnaissance and photography were the most nerve-racking occupations of all.  We had many narrow squeaks.  On photographic duties I had to steer a steady course; no veering right or left, no side-slipping to evade or elude.  We were an ideal target for anti-aircraft gunfire and tempting prey for German air marauders.  Gunfire became a serious menace in 1918.  Hardly a sortie was accomplished without damage to our planes from anti-aircraft shrapnel.  Ripped fuselages were commonplace and every plane showed scars.  They were the scars of the survivors.  Shrapnel in the engine or in the controls; a chance hit on a main spar; these wounds were fatal.  The occupants were doomed.

The Death of Baron Von Richthofen.

Manfred Von Richthofen
“The Red Baron”

Lt West witnessed the shooting down of Baron Von Richthofen.  This is his first person account:

Baron Manfred Von Richthofen first appeared as a pilot on the Western Front in December 1915.  By April 1918 his score had mounted to eighty kills – a long way ahead of any Britisher.  His plane, first an Albatross and later a Fokker, and those of his Squadron had long been painted their vivid red, a gesture calculated to instil terror in the heart of the enemy as well as being an act of bravado and conceit.  Such was the man and the machine that none of us was anxious to meet.

On a Sunday morning, 21st April, I flew with a Lt Richard Grice to inspect a machine which had force landed at Hamelet.  We decided that it would have to be dismantled; it could not be flown off.  We then took off again for base in good weather, flying south some twenty miles and then along the straight stretch of road from St Quentin to Amiens.  I was looking forward to a good Sunday Lunch.

About 2 miles from Amiens, Grice suddenly tapped me on the shoulder and shouted above the roar of the engine and the rush of wind.  “Look out for plenty of trouble!”  He pointed with his arm outstretched and I followed his gaze.  There in the offing to port were three red-painted Fokkers.  A chill of rather special intensity ran through me and I hoped Richthofen was not among them.  I shouted back to Richard, “Ease your guns and be ready.”  I momentarily pressed the trigger of my own machine-gun, firing a burst to make sure it was in trim.

Our anti-aircraft guns opened fire on the Germans, and I could see the red machines sailing through puffy balls of black smoke as the shells burst around them.  Then I saw what the three Germans were after.  One of them was ahead and below the other two.  He was streaking after an English two-seater, an RE8, one of our slower reconnaissance type machines.  The German was gaining rapidly, and the Englishman had no hope of escape.

Richthofen’s Fokker DR1
Contary to popular belief, Richthofen never flew an all red triplane.  His all red aircraft was an earlier Albertross.

I had to look out for myself, but I was mesmerised by the chase and my eyes turned quickly to port again expecting to see the poor RE8 crashing in flames.  As I did so I could hardly believe my eyes.  My incredulity gave place to a surge of exultation.  I saw, not the little English plane, but the German on his tail suddenly slump forward into a dive and head for the ground in a long parabolic sweep.  The machine looked almost under control, yet something told me it was not.  It would not come out of its dive.  As it slipped to earth I lost sight of it momentarily, then I saw it again as it crashed, not too badly, as I thought, in a field in the locality of Corbie.

I told Grice I was going to investigate and try to land in a large field near the site of the plane crash.  I circled twice at about fifty feet and then landed.  We bumped easily over the sward of a level field and came to rest.  We climbed out and made for the direction of the German aircraft.  A crowd of Australian soldiers was already around the plane.

“What of the pilot?” I asked.  “He’s dead,” one said, and jerked his head in the direction of a stretcher, which I saw lying near a hedge away from the crowd.  A brown army blanket, spread across it, showed bulky.  “Badly cut up?”  “Dunno,” was the reply.  “There’s the captain, ask ‘im.”

Grice and I turned to see an Australian artillery officer and an NCO talking elatedly to each other.  They recognised our airman’s kit and the captain welcomed me.  “We’ve had a rare bit of luck!  Guess who we’ve shot down?”  I shook my head.  “Richthofen!”  “I don’t believe it!”  “We’ve got his papers.  Here they are.”

The Australian lifted one end of the blanket.  I was rather overcome by the sight of the dead pilot.  His face was gentle, distinguished and quite calm in death, with no expression or even hint on his features that might convey any pain in his last moments.  He might have died in bed.  He looked a friendly person.  He must indeed have been a brave man.

I pulled myself together.  “I’d better phone Leigh-Mallory right away,” I said.  I managed to get my call through, and I broke the news about Richthofen.  “West,” said Mallory, “you’re a responsible person and a promising pilot.  Don’t go and ruin your reputation by originating sensational rumours.”

Back at Amiens a very different Leigh-Mallory greeted me.  Corps headquarters had confirmed the news.  Richthofen’s death was now an episode of the war, a psychological blow to German morale of the first importance.

No 8 Squadron May 1918
Maj Leigh-Mallory, centre (with stick)
Capt West is at his left hand
It is a sobering to note that shortly after this photograph was taken, 36 pilots and observers were lost in just one week!

Nevertheless our losses in men and planes were becoming more serious with every month as Spring turned to Summer.  In one week, thirty six pilots and observers were lost.  We could not wrest air superiority from the Germans, though their losses were as heavy as ours.  The fact was that we were equally matched, and both sides suffered heavily.  The Germans were fighting in packs with an air strategy and organisation that made them formidable.  We were still individuals: each pilot carrying out individually allotted tasks.  We were liable to be caught and outnumbered locally by these massive German air patrols.

Lt West Promoted – and Decorated.

On 19th June 1918, Lt West was promoted to Captain and given command of “B” Flight.  On that day he was also involved in “a pretty hectic sortie.”  Capt West takes up the story:

Lt D Sharman was my observer that day.  He had flown with me on previous occasions.  We set off to drop bombs on a suspected ammunition dump at Mericourt on the Somme.  Just as we reached the target I spotted a pack of hungry Fokkers.  Remembering Mallory’s advice, I dropped down to 200 feet.  This was all very well.  Sharman was able to defend us from the air, but I could do little against the barrage of miscellaneous hot metal that immediately came up at us from the ground.  It seemed to come from everywhere around us.  Then to my horror I spotted dead ahead of me a wire cable.  Just in time I banked clear of it, only to find that I was heading for other wires, a balloon barrage in fact, with the balloons high in the clouds above me.  I had difficulty in keeping my machine airborne because of the tight manoeuvring I was force to carry out, almost at ground level.  Sharman managed in these moments to fire at 2 balloons, but we were a long way from home and the Fokkers were hunting us, determined to finish us off.  It would only be a matter of minutes before either the ground shrapnel broke up the machine or the Fokkers got us.  At this crucial point I looked quickly about me and almost collapsed with relief.  Our fighters had arrived.  About six of them were breaking up the Fokker attack.  I could climb again.

Sharman and I took advantage of the dogfight now going on, which seemed to distract the ground gunners, and we came in again, negotiating the cable barrage, and dropped our bombs.  There was an ammunition dump there all right.  A series of explosions rocked the aircraft dangerously as I swung off, but nothing broke away and my engine was still intact.  It was time to wheel and make for home.

The ding-dong struggle in the air continued daily through the summer.  Almost every day a friend was missing, and it seemed only a matter of time before my turn would come.  Yet surprisingly enough, experience told heavily and it is curious to note the longer survival of the older pilots who had been in France for some time.

Capt West was awarded the Military Cross, for his “conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty.”