When, before the war, artistic prophets dared to depict squadrons of aeroplanes fighting in mid-air, most of us poured scorn on their predictions. We were most of us content to believe that there might, 'in the next war,' be occasional duels between two rival machines with the whole space of the heavens to manoeuvre in; but the greater thing was declared to be utterly impossible, because, it was explained, men scarcely knew how to handle an aeroplane in a 'joy trip,' let alone pilot one in the midst of dozens of other machines with their guns all firing as rapidly as their marksmen could feed them with cartridges. As a matter of fact, many months of the Great War had passed before the rival aerial fleets had arrived at a degree of efficiency to warrant such tactics; but those who believed in the possibilities of the new fighting arm had little doubt that the day would come when, even as squadrons of cruisers can manoeuvre in the waters, so aeroplanes would go forth in squadrons and engage their rivals.
Stage by stage, the new method of warfare evolved on experimental lines. The single scouter took to itself a companion; the two grew into several, some of them to act merely as scouts, but others battle-planes, designed and armed to fight the strongest hostile machines; until, in November 1916—nearly twenty-eight months after the opening of the Great War—there came the first great crash between rival air-squadrons in large force.
The Allies had won the ascendancy of the air, and their airmen were incessantly winging their way over the German lines, scouting, observing, bombing, fighting, patrolling and driving back the would-be aerial raiders. The Germans, utterly outclassed, scarcely dared take the air for some time; and then came a renewal of activity on their part. The Somme battle had been fought and won, and away in the rear the Germans were busy making fresh fortifications which were, so they boasted, to hold up any further 'push' that the Allies might try to make. Naturally, the German soldiers labouring at their gigantic task—the like of which had never been undertaken in warfare before—were not allowed much peace. Allied aeroplanes constantly sped overhead, bombing whatever was worth bombing, and at last this incessant annoyance roused the Germans to action. Once again their airmen went aloft, in force this time, to try to put an end to the pestering of their foes.
The crash came on November 9th, and it came over the German lines, in the direction of Vaulx-Vraucourt, to the north-east of Bapaume, that strategically important point in the curved German front. With the military depots at Vaulx-Vraucourt as their objective, a number of our bombing machines, escorted by several battle-planes, totalling thirty in all, set off in a formation which had been proved effective, some flying higher than the others and with fighting planes covering the bombers at all points to prevent enemy machines from attacking the less formidable planes.
They had gone some distance, and were just outside Vaulx-Vraucourt, when the escort sighted a squadron of German fighting machines already in the air. They too were in formation for attack, and were, moreover, in superior numbers, there being probably forty of them. They were barring the way to the place where the bombers were to deposit their devastating loads. That being so, the tricolour-marked battle-planes let their engines all out and swept forward to the combat, which they were determined should take place as near their objective as possible, so that when it was all over the bomb-carriers would not have far to go to accomplish their task.
There was a strong westerly wind blowing at the time, which aided the Allies in the beginning, but was no friend to some later on; for those of our machines which were winged during the conflict were carried in their descent farther over the German positions.
It goes without saying that aerial combats are matters of seconds almost. There is no time for leisurely decision, leisurely movements; everything is done, if it is done at all, at the rush; and in that fashion the raiding machines went to meet their foes. As soon as they judged they were in range, each pilot engaged the enemy which he had selected—some of them, of course, had more than one to contend against—and there followed such a battle royal as the world had never known before.
Such a large number of aeroplanes, of various types, engaged in a fight to the death at an average height of 5000 feet, makes an impressive sight. To those who are watching below, some look like balls of gold as the sun catches them; others, like big, black birds of prey swooping to the attack of smaller fry, which latter, speedier than the birds of the air, roar defiantly as they drive to an encounter which may spell destruction. Neither the artist's brush nor the writer's pen can paint that picture as it should be painted, and the imagination of the man who has not looked upon such a scene reels at the very idea of it.
Those of our machines which were above the Germans swooped down upon them, firing as they went, while the Teutons, with the wicked-looking muzzles of their machine-guns pointing upward, spat hundreds of bullets at them as they came. It is impossible to follow in detail the twenty minutes' fight, seeing that it was mostly a series of isolated actions—one can but give a general idea of it. Our two-gunned machines simultaneously tackled circling Germans, dived down like hawks, spitting fire as they went, slithered, as it were, down over the planes of German machines as the latter banked and turned and tried to slip away underneath to come up behind their down-sweeping foes. How many men looped the loop that day in order to save their lives or in order to come round to position for effective attack none can say. As fast as one German plane was driven off and down, another would roar to the attack; and the noise of the battle was as the noise of an engineering shop in which all the plant had run out of gear!
Think of it: seventy engines droning madly—seventy propellers humming till the air seems filled with super-bees—while scores of machine-guns, pitched, as it were, in different keys, are rattling out their discordant songs of hate! And picture it: great winging birds of man's make darting and whirling in majestic swoops, circling with graceful ease—while ever and anon one goes tumbling to earth like a shot pheasant—and, still more awful sight, shot-drilled tanks let their petrol flow and a machine catches fire and dives down a flaming mass, as though some fabled monster striving to storm the gates of Heaven had been struck by the fire of the gods!
In the midst of that battle of the kings of the air, many were the thrilling escapes from sudden death. Here, for instance, is a biplane rushing toward an enemy travelling at terrific speed in the opposite direction; it is a moment filled with horrific possibilities, not merely because both machines have a grim-faced man sitting with his hand clutching the trigger of a gun which can spit out hundreds of deaths a minute, but because the difference of a fraction of an inch in the downward push or the upward pull of a 'joy-stick,' or the slightest over-thrust to right or left, may result in a splintering, pounding crash as the two machines meet in a collision which will end in both going headlong to the earth below. Another aeroplane, diving to the attack, may—who knows?—be caught between the on-rushing machines, and the disaster be more terrible still. The margin between life and death is extremely small in such circumstances, and a man needs a cool head and a quick brain!
Not merely one storm of the death-hail, but scores, were breaking in fury, and machines not immediately engaged caught some of the bullets as they missed their real objective and went speeding through the air. Stray bullets were indeed a danger in that battle, if ever they were! And yet, the airmen did not worry about them: each man sought his opponent and fought him until he had driven him off, or perhaps, until some other enemy swooped for his tail from above or, coming up below, raked the full length of his machine with bullets.
A very whirlwind of a fight! Here and there machines darted to and fro, first tackling this foe and then that, banking with startling suddenness and amazing skill, turning in apparent frenzied haste to out-manoeuvre a rival, only to come up against yet another who must be tackled before the enemy who had been given the slip could come up again!
In such fashion did this battle of the air rage; but at last it was over, and those of the Germans who had their machines under control were pelting for safety, leaving the conquerors of the air to go about their business. No fewer than six of the enemy machines had been driven down, most of them out of control, and in one at least the pilot was sagging limp and lifeless in his seat; while of those others which flew away, their formation utterly broken, who can say how many were able again to take the air, or who knows how many of their crew went back uninjured? These things are hidden somewhere in the records of the German Flying Corps, grim reminders of the first great aerial battle.
As for our own casualties, four machines were lost to us, because, being winged, and at the mercy of the westerly wind, they had to descend at the nearest spot and were captured by the Germans. One of the returning aeroplanes was the funeral chariot of a dead observer, and two others were the ambulances of their pilots, who, wounded though they were, piloted their machines against the driving wind, bringing them eventually to their desired haven. But the victorious warriors did not return home until they had sailed on past the scene of their triumph, and their bombers had planted their explosives on the munition dumps and supply-depots at Vaulx-Vraucourt. Thus the enemy's attempt to drive off the attackers had proved a costly failure.