The aerial war has produced some fine fighters amongst the various belligerents, though it fell to the lot of the German aviators to be given personal credit long before the British airmen were allowed to be known as gallant and successful fighters in the air. Day after day the Berlin communiqués reported that Lieutenant So-and-So had brought down his nth enemy machine; but although many British pilots had quite as fine totals notched to their credit, they were hidden behind the anonymity of Lieutenant A. or Squadron-Commander B. Amongst the German air heroes was Lieutenant Immelmann, whose prowess the Teutons were for ever singing; they were never weary of proclaiming to the world each victory gained by him. There came a day, however, when Immelmann fought his last fight—fought it as became the brave man that he was. Yet, amazing to relate, the man who vanquished this valiant fighter figured in dispatches for some time simply as "Lieutenant McC." Naturally, questions were asked when the news of what was one of the greatest air fights of the war filtered through, and a demand was made that the identity of the hero should be disclosed. Tardily, the information was given, and the world which was thrilled by the story, even when robbed of its personal features, reread it with deepened interest when it was revealed that the conqueror was Second-Lieutenant McCubbin, R.F.C.
Before telling the story of Lieutenant Immelmann's tragic end, however, it might be as well to recite the tale of a typical encounter with him. It is based upon a letter written by one of the British aviators who took part in it, Lieutenant Slade, who was taken prisoner at the end of the combat.
This fine young officer was acting as observer to Captain Darley of the R.F.C., and the pair were flying, in a French-built machine, over the German lines when, suddenly, and as it were from nowhere, a Fokker appeared.
Immelmann, the champion Fokker pilot of Germany, was mounted in that sinister-looking monoplane, and, following his customary tactics, he came up from behind the Britishers and they had no knowledge of his presence until he was pouring in a stream of bullets, which literally riddled the petrol tank, and made it about as useful as a sieve for holding petrol. Captain Darley, the instant he realized what was taking place, endeavoured to get out of range of the deadly stream by tipping his machine on to its nose, in the hope that the bullets would go slithering past, and thus allow him to manoeuvre for position from which to fight the hovering foe. Immelmann, however, was master of his machine, and had perfected his system of attack. The rat-tat-tat of his machine-gun went on, and many of the bullets found their mark. Captain Darley felt a stinging pain in his right arm, and knew that a bullet had passed through it; the thumb of his left hand stopped a shot which absolutely smashed it. But by a perfect miracle Lieutenant Slade, although his clothes were riddled with bullets, escaped injury. When he saw the plight of his pilot, he pulled out his penknife, leaned over, and performed a surgical operation in mid-air, amputating Captain Darley's thumb, the while that Immelmann was keeping in deadly line with the descending British aeroplane and giving it the full benefit of belt after belt, until he was assured that there was no chance of the Britishers escaping. Then, like the chivalrous foe that he was—and there was not a man of the British Flying Services but had a fine appreciation of the sporting instincts of Immelmann—he desisted from firing, contenting himself with flying within range and watching his enemies make their descent. Flight was out of the question, for the petrol was leaking badly from the tank, and the great danger was that which every man of the air most dreads; it was quite on the cards that the escaping fuel might set fire to the machine, and the occupants be cremated as it fell a blazing mass. Fortunately for the Captain and his companion this terrible thing did not happen, and although Captain Darley had been wounded again in the left hand, so that it was quite useless, he was able with his right arm to keep control of the machine, guiding it toward the earth, where he made an admirable landing.
The instant the machine came to earth Lieutenant Slade leapt out with the idea of setting fire to the aeroplane before German soldiers could rush up and capture it. Immelmann, however, had landed almost simultaneously and, knowing that the aviators would endeavour to destroy their machine, he hurried over, and claimed the pair as prisoners and their machine as just trophy. There was, of course, nothing to be done but to surrender in the circumstances, and, after all, the unpleasant task was rendered less galling by the courtesy of the German, who did all he possibly could for the Britishers. Lieutenant Slade, writing and describing the experience, made reference to his enemy in these terms: "He is a gentleman, and if ever we capture him I hope he will be treated as such."
It was not to be Immelmann's fortune to be taken prisoner; he was destined to die while engaged in the work of which he had become a past master.
His last great battle took place in July 1916, and it is interesting to note that his antagonist, Second-Lieutenant M'Cubbin, had never been in an aeroplane before the February of that year.
Lieutenant McCubbin went up in an F.E. machine between eight and nine o'clock, and was accompanied by three other battle-planes, one of them piloted by Lieutenant Savage. The duty in hand was what the official report termed "an offensive patrol,"—that is, a trip to bomb anything within the enemy lines worth bombing, and at the same time deal with any hostile aeroplanes met with.
When several thousand feet up, the British airmen sighted a squadron of no fewer than eleven enemy planes, including L.V.G.s, Rolands, and Fokkers. Long odds, those! But McCubbin and his comrades welcomed the opportunity for a good fight, and sailed into it with one heart. The leading Britisher made a dive for an L.V.G., which promptly turned tail and headed away east. Thus foiled, the British airman swooped down at a Fokker, there was a brisk interchange of shots, much manoeuvring—and down to earth went the Fokker. Thereupon one of the Rolands attacked; another short, sharp encounter followed—and the Roland went to keep its companion company on the ground.
Meanwhile, the second British machine had joined issue with a Roland. There was the usual manoeuvring for position, much rat-tatting of machine-guns, and this Roland also, put out of control, went hurtling to earth. In the midst of this particular fight, two Fokkers, seeing that their comrade was in a tight corner and likely to be beaten, came humming through the air, intent on smashing the Britishers. So anxious were they, however, that they narrowly missed destruction themselves, only the skill and coolness of their pilots averting a collision in mid-air. This little episode in the drama resulted in their being too late to assist the doomed Roland.
McCubbin flying at 8000 feet had witnessed these various incidents, and was hurrying to the attack, when he caught sight of three Fokkers hovering some 5000 feet above him, and about to swoop down to attack Lieutenant Savage. The latter was ready for them, and when the first Fokker appeared he assailed it vigorously and skilfully, sending it down in a spinning nose-dive. Scarcely had he disposed of this foe when he was attacked by the other two Fokkers, which came sweeping down toward him. Fokkers being designed for sudden descents and fitted with fixed machine-guns which spray their bullets as the machine swoops down, it was necessary for Lieutenant Savage to out-manoeuvre his opponents; so, to avoid that first rush, and to be ready to attack the Fokkers when opportunity offered, he suddenly dived to within 5500 feet of the ground. McCubbin realized what was in Savage's mind, and determined to go to his assistance, although this called for a sheer drop of 2500 feet if he was to get into the zone of the battle.
Down went the Fokkers, straight and steady as stones dropped from a balloon, and following them in the wild dramatic dive was McCubbin. The machine-guns on the Fokkers were spitting viciously, and McCubbin saw Savage's machine suddenly swerve dangerously. He knew what had happened; the leading Fokker, diving headlong for the tail of the British battle-plane, had pelted it with nickel missiles, one of which had evidently caught the gallant Savage. The British pilot lost control of his machine, the engine of which had also been hit, and he plunged down to earth and died the death of a defeated airman.
The Fokker which had brought about this disaster was piloted by the redoubtable Immelmann, who had once more played his dangerous trick of spraying shots as he swooped; but he was to play the trick no more. McCubbin, dropping plumb for his foe, reached him before he had time to right the Fokker after the triumphant encounter. Another man might have given the order to fire while still at a safe distance, but McCubbin, knowing that he could rely upon the nerves of his observer, who was manning the machine-gun, and knowing too that as the Fokker's gun was fixed it could not be brought to bear unless the machine turned, sailed close into Immelmann while the latter was still trying to complete the wide circle which should bring him into position to attack.
The great moment came when the F.E. and Fokker were close together, so close that they were almost touching each other, and then McCubbin's observer fired. That encounter took place at something less than a thousand feet above ground, and the first round ended the battle. McCubbin's machine was driving, like a wheel within a wheel, along-side the unfortunate Immelmann, who, caught off his guard, suddenly banked in the hope of being able to outmanoeuvre the Briton; but it was a forlorn hope. ,A steady stream of bullets poured into the Fokker, and Immelmann, wounded and incapacitated, could make no effort to right the Fokker, which turned clean over on its right side and fell like a stone to the ground, where it burst into flames.
Immelmann had fought his last fight, had brought down his last foe. Yet even as the German went hurtling to his death, the second Fokker swung round, with the evident intention of getting at McCubbin before he could right his F.E. But McCubbin was ready, for as he saw Immelmann go slithering down to earth he banked sharply, turned in an amazingly short circle, and made direct for the Fokker. The gallant Lieutenant knew all about Fokkers and their disadvantages, even as he knew the advantages they possessed if once their pilots could obtain the right position. The Fokker has such a short span of wing that it cannot be banked to any great extent without developing a nose-dive, so that at the end of a dive it has to make a large circle. The F.E., on the other hand, having a much wider span, can practically "stand on its wing tips," which enables it to turn in an exceedingly narrow circle.
In just the same way that naval men have worked out sea-tactics, so have our airmen evolved air-tactics, and McCubbin was an adept. He knew perfectly the capabilities of his F.E., and as the Fokker reached the end of its dive and began the wide swooping circle, Lieutenant McCubbin steered his machine into what may be termed the centre of that circle. By steep banks and sudden turns he kept his machine inside, while his observer was slipping in fresh cartridges, merely waiting for the exact moment to come when he could fire.
Then the unexpected happened: the pilot of the Fokker, evidently nervous of a man who could out-class Immelmann, and realizing that McCubbin's F.E. had the advantage in powers plus that of position, instead of completing the circle which might have brought him to where he could attack, suddenly gave up the fight, and went sailing away to friendly shelter, leaving McCubbin the victor in what had been a thrilling battle!
McCubbin and his observer were both uninjured, but their machine bore honourable marks of the fight, its planes being holed in numerous places, and its fuselage looking like the top of a pepper-box.
A week later McCubbin fought another battle, and was not so fortunate, although he was almost as successful. In many respects this second battle had in it more of the elements that thrill than that with Immelmann, although because of the lauded prowess of the German more glamour surrounded the previous affair.
Lieutenant McCubbin with four other machines had been on a bombing expedition, and, their work completed, the airmen were returning home when a Fokker followed them and attacked one of the British machines. McCubbin was well in advance, but, looking round, saw the Fokker coming; so banking, he swung round, recrossed our lines, and sailed into the fight.
McCubbin used all his skill to obtain the advantage of position, and the Fokker pilot did his best to get above his foe and use the tactics which had always proved so successful. While the aeroplanes were engaged in fighting for position, the machine-guns spat angrily, bullets spattered through nacelles and ripped their way through the planes. Almost simultaneously two bullets got home: one from the British battle-plane hit the Fokker, which toppled over and hurtled to destruction; the other, from the Fokker, smashed its way through the nacelle, entered McCubbin's shoulder, passed clean through the muscles, and lodged in his forearm.
By a supreme effort McCubbin kept his head; the pain was terrible, and the arm was rendered utterly useless; blood flowed freely, weakening him every minute. But to descend then meant falling into the enemy's hands, and McCubbin was determined that that should not happen if it were humanly possible to avoid doing so. He swung his machine round and, his eyes misty, his head swimming, he made a bolt for his own base. Over the trenches filled with British soldiers, who had breathlessly watched the combat in mid-air, and had cheered enthusiastically when they saw the Fokker go down; over the trenches and beyond to where the aerodrome stood clearly marked out, McCubbin drove his aerial steed. Every moment seemed an age, every necessary touch of the 'joy-stick' jolted the wounded arm; but McCubbin held on, knowing that he must get his machine to safety quickly lest the petrol ran out owing to the tank having been shot through. Onward and downward, in a beautiful volplane he went to meet the uprising ground, coming to rest as lightly as a bird, and then collapsing through loss of blood the moment his machine touched earth.
For his gallant conduct in these two encounters Lieutenant McCubbin received the D.S.O.