The 'wasp' hummed through the air, and the goggled pilot, engaged on work which ought to go through without interruption, scanned the surrounding space for signs of possible foes. Finding none, he took in all details that he could of what was going on below. It seemed that the trip was going to be a fairly comfortable one, a 'joy-ride ' almost, and Major Lionel Wilmot Brabazon Rees, R.A., R.F.C., was not at all worried. The calmness, however, was destined to be disturbed suddenly by one of those terrific events which take place so unexpectedly in the air.
Far off, in the misty distance, driving toward the British lines, there presently appeared a little bunch of black spots which, to any but a man whose eyes had been trained to see, might have been taken, perhaps, for the dancing, mocking dots which are to many the signs of indigestion; but Major Rees, practised aviator as he was, who had fought and won many an aerial duel, knew that those black spots were aeroplanes.
Earlier in the day, as the Major knew, a party of British fliers had droned over the German lines to harass enemy communications, and, as far as he knew, had not returned.
The appearance of the darting black spots in the direction from which the raiders would come on their return caused Major Rees to believe that they were the homing birds of the Flying Corps, and as there was little else doing just then, the gallant and courteous pilot let his engine all out and went up to meet the approaching machines, intending to escort them home, and, if necessary, to fight off any Germans who ventured to try to intercept them.
Then Major Rees made a startling discovery: the gradually approaching dots resolved themselves into no fewer than ten machines driving along in good formation, and, to the surprise of the Major, when they were close enough to be distinguished through his binoculars, he saw on their wings, not the tricoloured circle of the Allies, but the sinister black cross of the Hun.
And those ten machines, the pilots of which had sighted the lonely patrol, were opening out as they came in order to surround him from above and below, from front and rear, from left side and right side.
The gallant Major, when he discovered his mistake, did not bank and go swinging round for home, but went boldly forward, to join issue with the foremost of the enemy. The machines met, and while the remainder of the foe were flying like carrion crows to the feast, the two fought out a fight which, although short, was bitter and fierce. The vicious Lewis gun barked in anger at the Nordenfeldt, and a hail of shots spattered through the rival machines and made grim music, which each of the aviators knew might end in the crash of a grande finale.
With a roar, Major Rees' machine swept under the German, followed a sharp wheel, and the Britisher was mounting to the attack again, to be in turn sprayed by a stream of bullets. In this manner for a brief space of time, into which was crowded all the terror of aerial fighting, the 'scrap' went on, until Major Rees realized that his opponent's fire had slackened, whereupon, driving into him, he sent the Hun diving to the ground, not mortally wounded, but so badly mauled that it was impossible for him to continue the fight.
So rapidly had the conflict been waged and ended that it was all over and the German was slipping down the dizzy heights before his companions could get near enough to give much assistance. As it was, when they saw the plight of their comrade, five of them, while yet at a long range, opened fire with their machine-guns, and five hail-storms seemed to break upon the British pilot's machine.
Major Rees, scorning to fly from even such superior numbers, sailed into closer quarters, singled out a foe, and after another stiff, sharp fight drove him off, then turned upon another and treated him in a similar way.
Such doughty fighting, whirlwind tactics of a sort that enabled the British pilot to fight and conquer and come up again, completely demoralized the other three Germans, who, thinking discretion the better part of valour, now scattered and made off, bent upon getting out of range of the British fire-eater.
Major Rees, his machine showing many signs of the mauling it had received, breathed more freely when he saw his enemies beating their retreat. Not that he was afraid, but the respite gave him a breathing space in which to see what damage had been done to his machine. He found that it was still workable and under control, for which he was glad, because" westward he could see a couple of cross-marked aeroplanes going full out, and being in fighting mood, Major Rees hurried on their trail.
The German aviators swung round the nozzles of their snappy little weapons, to point clear at the Britisher, who, with his own Lewis unshipped, was rapidly coming up. The two streams of shot whistled through the air and the Germans' bullets broke upon and through the Major's nacelle and wings. One of the Germans, when the distance had lessened, succeeded in getting into an advantageous position—a momentary advantage, but yet just enough for what he had in mind: his machine-gun kept up its staccato rat-tat, and some of the bullets plugged their way into his adversary's thigh. Under the shock of the impact Major Rees temporarily lost control. His machine slipped in the way that aeroplanes do when the guiding brain no longer controls them, made a quick dart forward, and then fell sheer down at a terrifying speed.
It seemed that there was nothing but disaster awaiting Major Rees.
In such moments everything depends upon the man, and in this case the man was not found wanting. Faint from loss of blood, with a sharp stinging pain in his thigh, and with the knowledge that unless he acted promptly and coolly he would be dashed to death below, Major Rees, while the machine spun, succeeded by a miraculous effort in getting the plane in hand once more. There was quick work with the 'joy-stick' and rudder-bar, and suddenly the machine, which a second before seemed doomed, had righted itself and was going on, and, wonder of wonders—its pilot was driving for his foes!
Close in he drove his 'plane, so close that only a few yards separated the combatants, and the Major could see the begoggled faces of the Germans. At this close range Major Rees expended his ammunition, drum after drum, until at last not a bullet remained.
"Then," says the report which notified the award of the Victoria Cross to him, "he returned home, landing his machine safely in our lines."
Already, before this, Major Rees had made for himself a reputation in the service. As early as September 21st, 1915, he had performed a deed which, among others, won for him the M.C. He was flying a one-gunned aeroplane, with Flight-Sergeant Hargreaves as companion, when he saw 2000 feet beneath him a very large German machine, mounting two machine-guns. The Hun plane was sweeping along at a terrific rate, and Major Rees—or as he was then, Captain Rees—knew that so far as speed was concerned, the enemy had the advantage of him. Such trifles, however, do not worry the men who gained from Sir John French the eulogy that they had won the supremacy of the air. The Major went down in a fine spiral and then dived at the foe—firing his gun as he did so and rattling bullets upon the German aeroplane, which, however, being so much faster was able to evade the down-rushing Britisher. Before the pilot could right his machine, the German had banked, turned and come up so sharply that he could get his antagonist broadside on. Instantly the machine-guns opened fire and a hurricane of bullets swept Major Rees' machine. The British gun was not idle, however, and it answered the enemy in its own way, answered so effectively that Major Rees, handling his machine with remarkable skill and cool-headedness, suddenly saw the German make a sharp turn and glide away. One of the nickel pellets had delivered its message somewhere in the enemy's engine, and the great plane, apparently uncontrollable for fighting purposes, went gliding down, to land eventually just behind the German lines near Herbecourt.
On another occasion the gallant Major attacked a hostile aeroplane and a dramatic, hard-hitting fight took place. The foes were well matched in courage, and neither would admit defeat for some time. Major Rees, with one main spar of his machine shot through, fought on with the proverbial courage of the Briton and battered his enemy unmercifully. Not even when the stream of bullets from the German partly shattered a rear spar did the Major give up, but, persisting in his attack and drawing in closer than ever, to make sure of effective firing, he succeeded in driving the enemy down.
A third enemy machine suffered as sadly at the hands of Major Rees and his companion, Flight-Sergeant Hargreaves. The Hun was no mean antagonist, but a large, speedy fighting machine, far more powerful than that piloted by the Briton, who, however, sailed into the 'scrap,' driving up, diving, banking, turning, and so on, all the time letting the German have full benefit of the Lewis gun. For three-quarters of an hour the fight went on, until, the last drum having been expended, Major Rees flew away.
The Germans must have felt very pleased that they had succeeded in driving off so stubborn an adversary, and never doubting but that they had seen the last of him, they climbed aloft, looking for more victories.
They did not know that Major Rees had gone to his aerodrome, not to take his ease after a brilliant fight, but to replenish his stock of ammunition. They were soon to learn, however, for back he now came with all the speed he could get out of his engine. A strenuous encounter followed, and this time the Major was one too many for his antagonist, for soon the German machine went sliding down the unseen precipices, to crash into the unyielding ground below.