Sitting in the trenches which scar the once fair fields of Flanders, British Tommies have seen the great flying battle in progress thousands of times, and probably few of these men of the trenches, who live in the hell of high explosive and shrapnel, would willingly change places with the bird-men. One sight alone is sufficient to make the strongest-nerved watcher shiver—the sight of an aeroplane falling a flaming mass through the air, carrying, probably two men, certainly one, to what seems to be an awful death.
Here is a story of such a spectacle—one only of hundreds that have been vouchsafed to men who never want to witness the thrilling drama again.
Away back in June 1915 (to be exact, Friday the 18th), one of our machines, driven by Second-Lieutenant W. H. Dyke Acland (Royal Devon Yeomanry and R.F.C.) accompanied by an officer observer, was reconnoitring over Poelcappelle at a height of 4000 feet, when a large German aeroplane approached, and thundering in close proximity began to attack. Now, that German machine was no adversary to be treated lightly: it was double-engined, had two propellers and a double fuselage, and could work up a speed which enabled it to make rings round our machine. This it promptly did, loosing a hurricane of machine-gun bullets as it did so, although, apparently, without inflicting any damage upon the British aeroplane, thanks to the brilliant way in which Lieutenant Dyke Acland handled his mount. The 'scrap' took place at a range of about 200 yards; and after the Germans had thus fruitlessly squandered their ammunition, Dyke Acland's companion, who had been waiting for the opportune moment, ripped in about fifty rounds from his machine-gun, several of which apparently got home, for immediately afterward the German machine began to waver in its headlong course, the roar of its engines ceased, the aeroplane gave a nasty tilt, and then tipped its nose downward. For a sheer 2000 feet that monster plane nose-dived, seemingly out of control, and Lieutenant Acland and his observer were not a little 'bucked' at the thought that they had so successfully tackled their big antagonist. Their delight subsided somewhat when presently they saw the German machine flatten out somewhere about half a mile below them, and then begin to stagger along, flying slowly and erratically, evidently just able to keep an even keel for sufficient time to enable it to get to safety.
As the Britishers had a certain object in view, which was to reconnoitre German positions, they made no attempt to finish off their enemy, although it seemed a shame to leave a job uncompleted. However, they had done remarkably well to have scared the German away, and were free to go ahead with their immediate work, which they promptly did.
But, alas, what the German aeroplane had been unable to accomplish, German anti-aircraft guns succeeded in doing; for while Lieutenant Dyke Acland was steering his machine, a big shell whoofed up into the air, burst with a nasty crash, and sent out a multitude of singing bullets which tore holes in the planes and perforated the petrol tank. As the job was almost finished, the airmen decided that, in view of the precious information they had obtained, it was better to wing homeward than to wait for another of those unpleasant messengers of death. They were, moreover, in an exceedingly critical condition, because the petrol leaking from the tank had caught fire. In such circumstances, it does not take long for control wires to be burnt away or for the tail of the machine to be caught by the flames. The consequences were too awful to contemplate; and men who had seen aeroplanes slip through space like burning torches had no pressing desire to be the occupants of a machine presenting such a spectacle to a jubilant enemy.
So Lieutenant Acland promptly stood his machine on its nose and dived for the earth. The result was that the petrol, instead of running back toward the engine, began to run down the front of the body, the roaring fire gathering in intensity as the machine slipped through space, so that in a very few seconds the aeroplane was enveloped in flames.
From below it must have been a thrilling spectacle. To those in the machine it was a horrifying experience. The fire licked round their legs, burning them badly; the heat cracked the glass in the pilot's goggles and burnt away the surrounding fabric; but, although suffering severely, the Lieutenant stuck to his seat, resisting, as did his observer, the temptation to which some men have succumbed: to risk all in a leap from what might easily prove to be a cremating furnace! Down, down, the machine dropped, not erratically, but steadily in answer to the touch of the cool-headed yet scorching pilot; while to add to the terrors of the moment, the rounds of ammunition which had not been pumped into the big German aeroplane went off in a rattle, accompanied by the popping of the cartridges in the pilot's revolver!
To those who watched, and to those who were watched, it seemed as though the downward journey would never end, or, if it did, that the passengers would be incinerated. Long before the machine reached the ground a good part of its framework was burnt, and the remainder was blazing; at any second the tail might simply drop off. The blades of the propeller, made of hard wood, were so much burnt that the propeller ceased to revolve in the rush of air."
Mother Earth was reached at long last, a perfect landing was made, and the aviators, scarcely believing in their good fortune, leaped out of the furnace: as they did so, the tail of the machine dropped off; while Lieutenant Dyke Acland, as though he had not suffered sufficiently already, tripped over a wire stay, fell, and sprained his knee! Fortunately he had been able, by his plucky coolness, to bring his wrecked machine into the British lines; otherwise, both he and his observer would have been taken prisoner. As it was, the German guns out yonder blazed away at them with shrapnel while willing hands were collecting those parts of the machine which could be utilized again.
Badly burnt as he was (although he had fortunately not received any fatal injury) Lieutenant Dyke Acland, before he would go into hospital, calmly sat down and wrote out his report, winding up with a brief account of the flaming descent, and summing up his impressions in the laconic sentence: "The whole of the nacelle seemed to be in flames." Then, because it might be needed by some keeper of the records, he gave geographical details of the spot where he had landed!
For his magnificent courage and devotion to duty, Lieutenant Dyke Acland had bestowed upon him the Order of St. George by the Tsar of Russia.