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Eric Wood

Against Great Odds

The way in which our airmen won the ascendancy of the air was characteristic of the Briton. It mattered not how many hostile machines might be barring the way to an objective, the British machine would drive in among them and break up their formation, and in many cases send some of their number crashing down to the ground. Time and time again the reports of the Flying Services contained short paragraphs stating in cold official language that "Lieutenant A. attacked a flight of ten enemy aeroplanes, completely breaking up their formation." Sometimes there were more than ten! As a rule, that was all the information made public. Nothing of the swift rush to the tune of a roaring engine, nothing of the gathering of the foes in an encircling movement, nothing of the cheating of death by the amazing skill and staggering pluck of the pilot, nothing of the cool-headedness of a man sitting with a machine-gun spitting out its stream of lead—while from all sides the enemy were striving to plug the engine with shot or cut away the ever-moving tail of the machine with the red, white, and blue circles.

Occasionally, however, some interesting details were published—as in the case of Captain W. A. Summers (Highlanders and R.F.C.) and Lieutenant Tudor-Hart (Northumberland Fusiliers and R.F.C.), who in the summer of 1916 when on patrol duty somewhere over the troubled front in France, took the offensive against a flight of no fewer than ten German machines. They were coming toward the British lines to spy out the land, and intending no doubt to leave behind them a few mementoes of such a wonderful feat as having braved the crossing of the lines; for those were the days when generally German aviators merely hovered over their own positions, fearing to cross 'No Man's Land.'

Being so superior in numbers to the single battle-plane, which was a fine two-seater with a couple of guns, the German squadron for once held on its way when the Britisher approached with its engine roaring out a challenge to mortal combat. For a while the Germans thought they had the British machine at their mercy, but they were very sadly disillusioned. Captain Summers, who was the pilot of the two-seater, steered his plane so skilfully and worked his Lewis gun so effectively, at the same time that Lieutenant Tudor-Hart with an expertness gained in many an aerial 'scrap' manned the second machine-gun, that despite their strength in numbers, the Germans could neither drive off the British machine nor inflict vital damage on it.

It goes without saying that the British machine did not escape punishment—and pretty heavy punishment, too! What else could be expected, in view of the fact that very often it was engaged in a sharp fight against four machines at once, and formed, as it were, the pivot around which the circling enemies turned, the centre to which streams of bullets pelted with hissing anger? Captain Summers, his begoggled eyes missing very little of what his immediate antagonists were doing, or the others were manoeuvring to do, made his machine perform miracles of evolution—darting hither and thither, swooping down upon some luckless German, or swinging at top speed between two enemies and peppering them with his Lewis gun as he went.

Imagine the fierceness of the fight: the narrow escapes from disaster in the great gamble with death in mid-air! Captain Summers, who knew that only by taking risks could victory be achieved, piloted his machine in such a way that very often it was within fifteen feet of its immediate opponent. For several long drawn-out seconds collision seemed imminent and impossible to avoid, as the wide-spreading planes swept close together, then, with a sharp bank Captain Summers circled round the foe while Lieutenant Tudor-Hart sprinkled the nickel bullets over the German. Then, back again the British machine swept to the attack, which was maintained until the observer noticed that another foe was approaching from above.

Such a moment called for instantaneous action; and Captain Summers was equal to the occasion. Even while his observer was emptying a belt of destructive missiles the pilot pushed the 'joy-stick' over to the right; the machine banked at so perilous an angle that it seemed it could never right itself again, recovered, and then went round in a roaring whirl which carried it out of range of the enemy overhead. A tug of the 'joy-stick' once more sent it rising steeply, so that in a few seconds the foe, all unprepared for such a swift and courageous manoeuvre, was being showered with bullets from above. Then the coming of another Hun from the rear distracted the attention of the Britishers and called for yet further evolutions, each more amazing than its predecessors. Once there came an attack from two foes while the Britons were engaged with a third, and as the enemies swept from front and rear it seemed that escape this time was impossible. But the miracle happened: as the Huns approached, their machine-guns spitting angrily, the British battle-plane suddenly dived, leaving the enemies rushing madly toward each other while Captain Summers drove his machine straight for another foe which had been coming up to the attack from below.

In such a way did the hopelessly out-numbered British pilot carry out his self-imposed attack, and so vigorous was the assault that the German formation was smashed and the various machines began a helter-skelter flight to their lines, followed by their redoubtable foe, who chased them many miles over the German positions and only thought of returning home when ammunition had run out.

Then the Britisher merely turned and sailed away, and no Hun machine could stop it, no 'Archie' could bring it down.