The drone of the Hispano-Suiza 8 in my SPAD S13 was almost enough to put me back to sleep. Were it not for the fact that this was my first combat patrol in my new fighter, I might well have fallen asleep. My train ride yesterday to get to the aerodrome was nothing but one horror after another, so I was well after midnight getting to my new posting. After doing umpteen pages of paperwork and getting everything lined up, I fell into bed at 2:30 AM and was up at 4:00 AM to get ready for this little jaunt.
Dammit, things were so tight for my unit that I had not even had time for a familiarization flight before taking off for this patrol. Thank God that I was not a complete rookie at flying a fighter. My previous plane, though, had been a pusher with one machine gun. I had managed to knock down four observation balloons and one very tired Roland C.II, but nobody, including me, was sure that my previous experience would do me any good against a Fokker. On the other hand, having two machine guns did give me more confidence in my chances to live through this.
The SPAD S13 was a struggle to fly compared to my previous planes. I had been told to try various aerobatic maneuvers just after takeoff so that I would have some idea of what the plane felt like. The struggle was not because of defects in the SPAD, but because pilots tended to over-control the plane as they went through maneuvers that were difficult with older planes, but no problem with the SPAD. Experience would fix the problem, but only if you lived long enough!
I went through the usual menu of aerobatics including some that would have been impossible with my old pusher, and the SPAD performed like a champ. I fooled around for as long as I could waste the time, but the rest of my unit began to get too far away from me, so I gave up on the joyriding and pushed to catch up.
Uh-oh, sometimes being a goof-off had its advantages: three Fokker D.VIIs were coming in on the tail of the trailing SPAD, and I had seen them before they were ready to shoot. The other SPADs were flying at the normal cruising speed, but I was pouring on the coal trying to catch up. The D.VIIs were also pushing in at maximum speed, and they had the advantage of being in a shallow dive, so they were going to catch my friends pretty damned soon.
I was going about 130 MPH (Miles per Hour) and the Fokkers were doing about 125 MPH. That was not much of a difference in speed, but I did hope to catch up before disaster struck. Dammit, I could not get any more speed out of my plane; I even found myself leaning forward on my seat straining to get that last possible iota of speed from my ship. The three Germans were en trail so that the lead Fokker was very close to the trailing SPAD and about ready to shoot; however, that did put me at about the same distance from the tail-end Fokker.
Dammit, I was about to have kittens as I struggled to get close enough to take a shot at the nearest German. There was no chance of me catching up to get within normal range of the D.VII, but I had to do something. The only thing that I could think of was to raise my nose to well above my target and to spray bullets as I let the nose fall. Just maybe, I would be lucky enough to put a bullet where it would do some good.
That was pretty sloppy tactics, but nothing else would do. I could only shoot for a few seconds that way before running out of ammunition, but I had no other choice. Well, I have always been lucky, and the other American's guardian angel must have been working overtime because one of my bullets did do some good. Along with everyone else in the squadron, I was using the incendiary bullets, and one must have hit the gas tank of the D.VII. There was a mighty blast, and the plane exploded in a massive fireball.
The flash of light was seen by at least one of the American pilots, and the SPADs all peeled off in different directions. The Germans were disconcerted by the totally unexpected explosion and were slow to react. They must have been rookies without much combat experience. Anyway, the two remaining Germans suddenly found themselves in the midst of four SPADs who were intent on knocking them out of the sky.
The resulting fight was shorter than as such things usually went, and the two D.VIIs were shot down. Unfortunately, neither one was by me. However, three kills by three pilots were sufficiently rare in our squadron that none of us were in the mood to complain, even the one who did not score a kill that morning.
We had been on a hunting mission so the flight leader decided that we had done enough. Besides, we were all low on ammunition, and we needed to return to base to restock. Not only that, the castor oil lubricant that we were breathing always produced such bad screaming squirts (diarrhea) that we all looked for a chance for a drink of whiskey as soon as we could get it. The whiskey was the only thing we had to fight the effects of the diarrhea.
We landed and were congratulating ourselves on such a successful flight as we headed to the club for a drink. That did not last long as the squadron XO (Executive Officer) ran to us and said, "We just got word that the Krauts are trying something different. Flights of both fighters and bombers are headed our way, and we are in their path. Undoubtedly, they are out to clobber us, and we don't have enough planes to stand them off. Nevertheless, we are going to do what we can, and we need you men to get back into the fight. Get back to your planes and be ready to take off as soon as all of you are rearmed and refueled. The ground crews have already gotten the message and are working their tails off to get your craft ready to go. Good luck and give them hell!" With that, he ran off to waylay another flight that was just landing.
Jack Sorly, our flight leader, said, "I sure hope we can get more information before we take off. I would like to know where to find the bastards before they can jump us like earlier today." We all agreed to that, but that did not stop us from running as fast as we could manage to get back to our planes.
Thank God, there was a man standing beside Jack's plane with some papers and a map in his hands. He and Jack talked intently for a few seconds before Jack hastily climbed into his SPAD. He must have been full of useful information, judging from the look on Jack's face. We quickly took off and formed up to follow wherever Jack was to lead us. As usual, I was tail-end-Charlie, and I was not going to waste any more time playing with my SPAD. I was now confident in what it could do and planned to do my damnedest to show what I could do. I wanted to prove that I was a valuable member of the team and not a one-trick pony.
We climbed to 6,000 feet, but Jack was reluctant to take us any higher because of the problems we would have in getting enough oxygen. Oh, yes, we often did go higher than that during an actual dogfight, but nobody stayed that high if he did not have to. A man's fighting efficiency fell rapidly when he had trouble getting enough oxygen, so everybody kept that in mind.
The Germans must have been serious about this because we saw them in the distance after only about 20 minutes of flying time. We were already well behind the German front lines, and we were occasionally getting antiaircraft (AAA) fire, but none of it seemed to be the determined sort that we sometimes saw. There were so many German planes in the sky at one time that they looked like dark clouds in the distance. Without a doubt, these were not the usual flights of German observation planes with their fighter escorts. As somebody might say, there certainly was a plethora of targets. Suddenly I wondered just how much good our four SPADs were going to do against what looked like hundreds of enemies.
Well, as they say in the poem: "Ours not to reason why; ours but to do and die." And it looked like a hell of a lot of that was headed our way! There was only one thing to do—we climbed. We didn't worry about the lack of oxygen. If we didn't gain some altitude on the Germans, they were going to blow us out of the air like so much confetti. Altitude was the only thing that could save us, so we were prepared to suffer with our breathing. Better that than to eat a bullet.
We managed to get about 5,000 feet above the Germans before we ran out of time. Below us was a mass of planes, both fighters and bombers like none of us had ever seen before. As soon as we were in position, Jack dove at the nearest German bombers, and we followed his lead. My God, those Gotha G. Vs were big!This was my first sight of such monsters, and I wondered where was the best place to shoot. Shit, I figured that anywhere in the fuselage was good enough, so that was where I aimed. The pilot was hidden from sight by the upper wing, but I figured that a few bullets into that area should do some good. I was approaching from the front at about a 45° angle and directly in line with the fuselage.
I fired and got the surprise of my life. The whole damned airplane lit up with a blast of burning fuel. I had no idea that the pilot was practically sitting on the fuel tanks. Well, my hit made short work of that plane as I swerved to one side to keep from flying through the fireball. I was now below the Germans and was going to have a hell of a battle getting back above them.
These guys were no slouches. Two or three of the D. VIIs were after me in a flash. My main concern was to keep wiggling back and forth so that I did not give them a fixed target. Climbing took away one of my few advantages over the D. VII because that maneuver cut drastically into my available speed. By the time I was through the line of German planes, my air speed must have dropped to no more than 75 MPH, and that was what I was used to with my old pusher fighter. I guess my experience with flying one of those jobs was what saved me. I did get a lot of holes punched into the fabric covering my plane, but none of the bullets hit anything important that time.
I finally got back up to a reasonable altitude with the Germans following me. We had to destroy those bombers, so I tried to ignore the two D. VIIs that were after me. I did a wing-over and dove down on another G V. As nearly as possible, I aimed for the same place that I had shot at the first time. However, this time, I was approaching from the rear and was staring down at the machine gunner situated right behind the pilot.
I simply had no choice. I had to bore in on the gunner while he was shooting at me for all his gun was worth. I fired off six rounds from each of my guns and got real lucky. I hit the gunner, and he stopped shooting at me. This gave me the time I needed to concentrate on shooting down the bomber. I didn't know exactly where the fuel tanks were, so I made a slight change in tactics. I opened fire just behind the pilot and raised my nose so that a chain of bullets was raked across where the pilot was sitting. I doubt that he ever knew what hit him. He slumped forward and the G. V nosed over into a dive that it never recovered from. The explosion was tremendous when it finally hit the ground. I wondered how many bombs it was carrying.
Okay, here I went through the German formation again, and I had to recover and try for altitude. This time, four D. VIIs were chasing me, and they got a bit lucky, or was that skill? Anyway, they managed to shoot away the outer supporting brace for my left wings, and there was no way that I could maintain fine control of my plane under those circumstances. The SPAD 13 was a great plane, but it just did not fly well by flapping its wings.
All I could do was to turn toward home and hope that I could outrun the German bullets. Yeah! I was afraid to put any sort of strain on the wings by doing much of any aerobatics, so I was a sitting duck for any D. VII that might come along. I guess that you could say that I was unforgivably lucky that the Germans were too busy to follow me.
Every time I got over about 90 MPH, my left wings would start to flutter. Each time, I throttled back and prayed like I had never done before. My God, this was nerve racking! I kept looking around for German planes in my vicinity, but I could have done nothing to help myself if I had spotted any. Anyway, I made it back to our airdrome and settled in to the gentlest landing that I could make. Well, as everybody knows, every landing produced some bounces, and my lower left wing fell off with my second bounce.
That ripped the whole top wing off and slewed the plane around. In the process, the whole damned mass of junk was jerked off the plane and the fuselage began to roll. I was just able to duck down below the top of the cockpit so that my head was not torn off by the ground as I rolled, but I did get a severe bang in the back of my head. I had a ringing headache by the time the fuselage stopped rolling, and I was not able to climb out of the cockpit by myself.
My ground chief mechanic was actually the one who pulled me from the plane before it caught fire, and I might have kissed him if I had only had that much control of my body. Sgt. Alfred and Pvt. Alonzo carried me to a stretcher and laid me out. I could see tears in Sgt. Alfred's eyes as he laid me down. I never did figure out if that was for me or for his beloved airplane.
I was carried into the hospital, and the flight surgeon looked me over. His conclusion was that I was all in one piece and undeservedly lucky. If that lower wing had fallen off just seconds earlier, I would have been dead. As it was, he gave me two aspirins for my headache and sent me off to bed. I did stop in at the bar for a drink before the diarrhea hit me. I was too late.
The other guys in my flight came trooping into my room after they returned with a full bottle of the finest cognac. We finished that before they left. I think I missed several drinks because I had to honor my case of diarrhea with a couple of trips to the latrine. The cognac was in honor of me shooting down two of the G. Vs. No one else had gotten more than one, but the raid had been broken up.
Col. Handly looked me up later that night and congratulated me on my two kills and making it back to the airdrome before my SPAD 13 fell apart. However, he did say that if I broke another one of his very scarce airplanes, he would shoot me himself! My thought was that he would have to get in line behind Sgt. Alfred.
The next morning, my diarrhea was back under control, but I had a tremendous headache. I claimed it was from the bang on the head, but it may have been from all of that cognac that I drank last night. In any case, I was relieved of any flying duties that day and was told to sleep it off. Everybody figured that the Germans would need a few days to recover from yesterday's fiasco. For whatever reason, they never tried another one of those massed bomber runs like that again.
Frankly, that made me very happy. I don't mind admitting that I was scared to death the whole time I faced that many German planes. Nobody else would admit it, but I could tell that they felt the same way.
For the next week, we were sent out after German observation balloons. The ground troops were screaming bloody murder that those balloons were giving too much accurate information to the German artillery, so the shells were landing too often where they did the most harm. Apparently, somebody high up in the chain of command agreed with them, so we were assigned sectors to clear of the observation balloons. Most people did not realize how dangerous it was to attack those balloons. I had rather face two or three D. VIIs than go after one balloon. Unfortunately, nobody listened to me.