'Flying has been, for so long, almost a commonplace event that it is difficult for many to realise that in 1914 aeroplanes were still something of a novelty. More than this, there is all the difference in the world between a modern bomber and the somewhat crazy machines in which the early war-time pilots essayed flights over the German lines. In the following chapter a former member of the R.F.C. describes a typical bombing raid over the Rhineland and recaptures the spirit of that which was more than a mere adventure.'

The above is the introduction to an anonymous piece published in 'Twenty Years After' (Part 29, Chapter LXIII). These magazines are available for WFA members to view (and search) via our 'Searchable Magazine Archive'.

This article has been published as an example of what can be accessed via our members area, and as an example of the type of articles that appeared in 'Twenty Years After'. Whilst the piece is anonymous, it is known to have been written by Captain (as he later styled himself) W.E. Johns, the author of the famous 'Biggles' stories. The piece is supplemented by additional photographs but is otherwise exactly as it first appeared. 


Above: Twenty Years After and 2/Lt William Johns

Twenty years! A long time? Not I a bit of it. I don’t know about you, but to me it seems like yester­day. Anyway, there are some things I could never forget—never shall forget.

The Lure of the Past

The vibrant roar of aero engines being run up at the crack of dawn; the taca-taca-taca-taca of Lewis guns being tested in the pits ; the dull whoof, whoof, whoof of ”Archie” as he probed the blue; the smell of burnt oil wafting about in the crisp air; the acrid reek of cordite; the wail of wind in wires as you pulled out of such a dive that only the fear of death—in the shape of a Hun sitting on your tail—could send you into. The pit-a-pat of raindrops falling on the tin roof of a Nissen hut, with a batman standing by with a cup of tea and the welcome news that flying was "washed out” on account of the weather. What joy to be able to roll over and go to sleep again! No, the memory of these things can never be erased, although it may be hard to explain why. Those of you who were there will understand.

Above: RFC fitters (www.nortonhistorygroup.org)

What a queer sort of life it was. Snatching a meagre breakfast while the stars were still in the sky, knowing that before the hour was out one might be a heap of cinders under a tangle of twisted wire. It would be somebody’s turn. Every day it was somebody’s turn. In 1918 new pilots came and were gone almost before we had time to learn their names. In my squadron, No. 55, Independent Air Force,[1] doing long­ distance daylight raids on the Rhine towns, casualties reached their peak in August 1918, when within the month we lost more than thirty' officers.

Some managed to get back across the lines, shot to pieces, to die on the tarmac; some went down in flames. Some went out and failed to return; to this day no one knows what happened to them. "Missing” was a broad term in the R.F.C. Every member of the Squadron knew, of course, that it was only a matter of time before Old Man Death would turn up his number. We became accustomed to the thought, and it no longer worried us.

Eat, drink, and be merry was the only safe line to adopt if you wanted to keep your tottering nerves together, and if by day we earned our pay, then we spent it royally by night.

Above: Christmas dinner 1918: NCOs and men (www.rafmuseum.org.uk)

What nights they were!  But perhaps the less we say about them, the better. Well, it was nobody’s business but our own, for we knew what awaited us on the morrow. How would you like to come with us to-morrow, and see for yourself—say, to Stuttgart?

Sentenced for Bombing Civilians

As a matter of detail, it was on a Stuttgart show that I went "west.” Was I lucky? I certainly was—to fall out of control for rather more than three miles, goggles smashed, a dead gunner in the back seat, petrol slopping over every­ thing, yet to get away with it, even though I spent the last three months of the War in Germany, part of the time under sentence of death for bombing "un­-defended” towns. At least, that was the charge under which I was tried by a military tribunal. But that’s another story. Let us go on a "show,” starting at the beginning.

"Wake up, sir. Cup o’ tea, sir. You leave the ground in half an hour.”
That was the way my batman usually broke the bad news.
"What’s the time?”
"Four o’clock, sir. Nice fine morning.”
"Fine morning, my foot," I grumble, as I drag myself out of bed.

I am afraid my idea of a fine morning at that period was a steady downpour of rain, with visibility "nil.”

I dress quietly, so that I do not waken those who are not on the show, putting on thick woollen underwear, and a sweater under my tunic; Sidcot suit and sheepskin boots go on top. Helmet, goggles and gauntlets can be adjusted later. No washing or shaving. There will be plenty of time for that when we get back—if we do. If we don’t—well, what does it matter?

Above: RFC/RAF crew in Sidcot suits (IWM)

Over in the candle-lit mess, a dozen forms, booted and padded like myself, are standing round a table sipping hot tea or coffee, and munching biscuits. There isn’t much talking. Four-ten in the morning is no time for conversation, any­ way, but with nearly five hours of hell ahead of us one is even less inclined for inconsequential chatter.

"How’s the wind?” asks somebody.
"Westerly; thirty miles an hour at twenty thousand,” answers someone else.

Nothing more is said, but everyone was thinking the same thing. An hour and a half to get to the objective with the wind behind us, and three hours to get home; three hours, fighting every inch of the way against the crack jagdstaffeln (fighter squadrons) which the enemy has sent down from up north to try to stop us. Germany was reaping the bitter harvest sown by her Zeppelins over London, and she did not like it. By the middle of 1918 the muttering of the civil population of the Rhine towns was getting ominous, and the German Government knew that something would have to be done about it, or there was likely to be a flare-up. As indeed there was, at the finish.

Getting Ready to Go

Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle; up to the sheds we troop. The six machines that are to do the show are standing ready, our mechanics waiting for us, or stagger­ing under the weight of 112 or 230 lb. bombs which they are putting on the bomb racks. The pilots make for the map-room, to look at an air photograph of the objective, while the gunners draw their guns and ammunition from the gun­ room. A moment or two later the silence is split by the chatter of machine guns, as the weapons on which our lives will soon depend are tested in the pits constructed for that purpose.

Above: The No. 22 Squadron duty armourer issues Lewis guns to crews (Imperial War Museum)

Whoof! whoof! whoof! Distant Archie sounds like the barking of an angry dog. What’s going on? High in the sky, now grey with the approach of dawn, a line of smoke-bursts blossom out like tiny pink bubbles as they catch the first rays of the still hidden sun. They can’t be lower than twenty thousand feet. ”There he is!” cries someone. Ahead of the bursts a microscopic speck is creeping across the sky, flashing curi­ously from time to time.

We all know what it is: an enemy reconnaissance machine has made a dash over to see if there is anything doing on our aerodrome. The crew have seen our machines standing outside their hangars and know that we shall soon be on our way. That’s all they wanted to know. The pilot is turning back now, the sunlight flashing on his wings as he turns ; already his wireless will have ”spilt the beans,” and we shall have a warm reception at the lines.

"Start up!” The C.O. comes out of the squadron office, and his crisp com­mand stirs everyone to activity. Fitters climb into the cockpits, and again the silence is shattered as one by one the high-powered engines burst into song, putting to flight the crows that were strutting about on the aerodrome.

Above: Starting a DH4 by 'swinging the prop' (Library of Congress)

A last draw at our cigarettes and they are flung aside ; it will be five hours before we can have another—that is, if we are lucky. Straps are tightened, buckles pulled up, goggles adjusted, gauntlets pulled on (two pairs; one of pure silk, which goes under the heavier fur-backed ones).

Above: A DH4 observer with his Lewis Gun (RAF Museum)

The Take-off

Hardly able to move in our cum­bersome equipment, we squeeze our­ selves into our cockpits and secure the safety belts. Now we are all set. The roar of the engines rises to a deafening bellow as we taxi out into position for the take-off; slowly we swing round into the wind, propellers idling, eyes on the leader. He gives the signal.

Above: A computer generated image of a DH4 (YouTube)

As one, the engines roar again; the machines waddle forward like startled geese, at ever increasing speed: the tails lift; the wheels skim the ground; then, suddenly, the geese become swans as we soar gracefully into the air.

Up, up we go, circling as we climb steadily for height, and not until our altimeters register 15,000 feet does our leader turn towards the lines. He knows what we are likely to meet when we get to them, and that the greater our height the better chance we shall have of getting through, for a scout that can make rings round a two-seater at 10,000 feet may find itself outclassed at 20,000.

Moreover, it will be at its ceiling ; that is, as high as it can get ; in the rarefied air it will be hard to control, and one bad turn may cost it a thousand feet of height, in which case it will have its work cut out to catch up with us again.[2]

What an amazing panorama is spread out before us as we roar towards the lines. Far away to the right are the Swiss Alps, snowy peaks rose-tinted by the rays of the rising sun. Straight ahead lies Germany, forbidding, mysteri­ous. To the left, as far as the eye can see, an incredible network of zigzag lines winds through a world of desolation until it is lost the purple distance.

Above: A formation of DH4's. The unit identification markings are of 25 Squadron (painting by Brian Knight)

Here and there tiny white cloudlets appear miraculously among the myriad shell-holes that look like nothing much as an enlarged photograph of the moon. There is no movement except at one place where a gas- attack is in progress. It is hard to believe that within our range of vision a million men are crouching like animals in the earth, each an infinitesimal cog in the machinery of war.

Accounting for a Balloon

Hello! What’s that? Miles and miles away to the left, so low as to appear almost on the ground, there is a sudden lurid blaze of orange fire; above a great cloud of black smoke rises sluggishly into the air. Pushing up my goggles I I stare at the spot, and can just make out the cause. Someone has got a balloon, evidently one of the enemy’s, for the wreckage is falling well over his side. The scout that has done the dirty work streaks for home, hotly pursued by avenging Archie, while the observers who were in the "sausage” float earth­ward on their mushroom-like parachutes.

Whoof-bang! A flash straight ahead and my nostrils twitch at the sickly smell of high-explosive. My propeller disperses the smoke as we roar through it. Archie! Another burst, another and another. They’ve got our height, but it makes no difference; we must continue to fly straight, for we have neither time nor petrol to dodge about. I glance behind.

Across the sky, along the path we have flown, lies a sinister black wake - miles of it. Hundreds of shells have been fired at us and they are still coming up, little, writhing, cloudlets, each with a darting, fiery heart.

Bang! I flinch as one, closer than the others, bursts underneath my machine and shoots it up like an express mission. Anxiously I try the controls and draw a deep breath of relief when I find they are working properly.

I glance back at Cox,[3] my gunner. He is leaning over the side of the cockpit, chin cupped in his gloved hand, jaws moving slowly as he chews a piece of gum, at the same time regarding the landscape below with no more concern than a shepherd looking over the pad­ dock gate.

Above: An Aircraft Mounted Lewis Gun (wikipedia)

He is a good boy, is Cox; a corporal who has volunteered for the job. He’ll be going home shortly to get his “wings”.  Jimmy McCudden V.C., Billy Barker, V.C., and a lot of other star turns began their careers in a gunner’s cockpit.

Away to the north a Hun two-seater, black with green and brown-blotched wings and fuselage - a Hannoverean by the cut of his tail – is crossing over to our side of the line probably on a photographic mission.

There he goes heading for the St. Michel Salient. Well, we shan’t worry him. I've often met enemy two-seaters when I’ve been out alone on the same sort of work, but by mutual consent we seldom interfered with each other. Maybe we both realised that life was quite hard enough, without adding to our troubles.

A Bearded Aviator

I remember one day meeting one nearly head-on; he passed about a couple of hundred feet below me, going in the opposite direction. Looking down over the side of my cockpit I was staggered to see that the Hun in the back seat had a big bushy beard —the most astonishing sight I ever saw in my life, I think.  In the R.F.C. the average age of a gunner, or observer would be about nineteen. Plenty were not a day more than seventeen.

Looking up, the Hun with the whiskers saw me looking down, and waved a greet­ing. Cox, leaning far over the side, rudely shoved out two fingers at him and then sank back in his seat, convulsed with mirth. I laughed every time I thought about it for a long time afterwards.

What’s ahead? Bending down and staring forward through my centre section, I can just make out a cloud of tiny black specks, circling against the sky, now eggshell blue, for all the world like a swarm of midges on a summer’s evening. Huns! They’re waiting for us to get farther over so that if one of our machines is damaged it will not be able to get back to its own side of the lines.

The enemy machines begin to take more definite shape as we draw nearer to them, and presently it is possible to make out the shark-like bodies of Albatrosses, Pfalz, and Fokker Triplanes.

Five minutes later comes the first clash. Nine enemy fighters, painted in blue and yellow stripes, come down with a roar and a rush. We know them well; they come from Metz.

Above: A Fokker DVII fights with a DH4. (www.stormbirds.blog)

In an instant the air is filled with the staccato clatter of machine guns, as if a school of rattlesnakes had been disturbed. Tracer bullets cut criss-cross lines through the still air; ours are white, and the German’s black; you can smell them as you go through them.

Above: DH4s of 57 Squadron fight off Albatross DVs of Jasta 18. This encounter took place in October 1917. (www.russellsmithart.com)

The enemy are old hands, and they’ve brought their nerves with them. They press home their attack and do not zoom up from the bottom of their dive until they are less than twenty feet over our heads. It is rather terrifying, this, because, quite apart from bullets, a collision seems inevitable. Indeed, there is every chance of one should an enemy pilot be hit or his machine damaged, as he roars down.

Taking the First Brush

As it is, one of them has not pulled out, although he has turned aside. There he goes, in a long shallow glide. Either the pilot or his machine has "stopped one” and he is concentrating on getting his feet on good solid earth. Our own formation is still intact, and we edge a little closer together for company and mutual protection. I look across at the next man to me, some twenty-five yards away.

Above: DH4s flying in a wedge-shaped formation. These are post-war US-built DH-4Ms, which had metal framed fuselages, 400hp Liberty engines and DH9-style rearranged cockpits; quite different to the DH4s of the RAF.

He pushes up his goggles and smiles. Good! He’s a new man, and they don’t all take the first brush so calmly. It isn’t easy. The smack of a bullet sounds much worse at twenty thousand feet than it does on the ground; maybe you’re apt to remember the hundred gallons of petrol you’re sitting on. One explosive bullet through that and . . . but don’t let’s think about it.

On we go. The long winding ribbon of the Rhine drops away behind us. With a following wind of thirty miles an hour we are now covering the ground at a hundred and fifty miles an hour, which means that we shall reach the objective in about an hour and a half. But it will be all the harder coming back—three hours, at least.

Odd Huns are still hanging on to us, like wolves harassing a herd of deer; and for the same reason. They are waiting for a straggler. Let one pilot get out of place and he will be lucky if he gets back to it again, for instantly he will be a mark for a dozen or more guns. Or, should a pilot’s engine let him down now, the chances are that he will be a dead man long before he can reach the ground.

But there is no sense in worrying about these things. The Huns who met us at the lines are beginning to drop away now, their petrol exhausted, but their place is taken by others. Our destination will be known at every enemy headquarters by this time, and every staffel of scouts stationed within a hundred miles of our route will be sent up to intercept us. Time and time again they attack. Sometimes one, by him­ self, more daring than the rest, will charge right up to the muzzles of our guns ; sometimes half-a-dozen will come in together from different angles, trying to flurry our gunners or cause the forma­tion to open out.

Over a German Town

Stuttgart appears ahead, a city of microscopic houses spread across the landscape; there are some important targets here if only we can hit them, motor works, magneto works, and the like. The important moment has ar­rived. The Huns begin to glide away, but we know what is coming as well as they do.

Bang! Bang! Bang! Up comes the barrage, and in a few seconds the air is filled with smoke, flame, and hurtling metal. Crash! My machine quivers like a thoroughbred as something lashes it with the ferocity of a sjambok. I moisten my lips and try the controls. O.K. A gaping hole has appeared in the lower port plane, not six inches from the main spar. A piece of fabric flaps aft like a yacht’s pennant in a squall. On the starboard side a cross-bracing wire is threshing about and an inter­plane strut looks as if something has taken a bite out of it—which, in fact, it has.

We’re turning now, slowly, to come up wind to drop our bombs; at the same time we open out slightly. The moment has come. There is no messing about with bomb-sights. I take the centre of the town at the junction of my fuselage and lower starboard plane, and then, hand grasping the bomb toggle, fix my eyes on the leader's machine. A Very light curves through the air. It’s the "Let go’’ signal. I jerk back toggle and the machine rocks slightly as the two bombs, each weighing a hundredweight, hurtle down into the void.

Above: A (U.S.-built) DH-4 releasing bombs. (earlyaeroplanes.com)

Where are they going? I lean over the side of the cockpit, to watch them. There they are, looking like two elongated eggs, hanging in space. There are a dozen altogether, all rushing earth­ward at something over a hundred miles an hour, but because we are looking at them end-on they appear to be stationary. Gradually they become smaller . . .smaller . . . smaller, until they disappear altogether. Nothing happens. Seconds pass, and still nothing happens. Can they all have been duds ?

Death Wings its Way

It was a queer sensation, waiting for the bombs to burst. Actually, from our normal altitude, they took about three-quarters-of-a-minute to reach the ground and that seems a long time when one is waiting. Often, during that time, I have thought "Death is on its way to somebody; in twenty seconds someone who is now alive will be dead, but he has no idea of it.’’

Had I any scruples? None whatever. One thought only in the abstract, as a gunner shooting at a distant mark which he cannot see. There is no sign of life on the ground; one can hardly pick out the buildings, so far away are they. There is nothing disturbing in killing someone you do not know, one you cannot see, someone you do not know exists. The reaction is quite different from shooting a fellow on the ground, in a trench show, for instance. There you can see your man; if you killed him, see what you had done. There is no doubt about it. On the other hand, for all I knew my bomb might have fallen into somebody’s back garden and done no more damage than spoil the cabbage patch. . You did not know, so there was no difficulty in remaining calm and dispassionate. But what about those bombs we dropped?

There they go! A pillar of white smoke spurts upwards, followed an instant later by a whole cloud of them. Good! One has hit the railway line; another has landed in the main square of the town, which should have put the wind up somebody—if nothing worse.

Above: A photograph whose main interest lies in the fact that It shows the type of machine flown during the War by the author of the accompanying chapter. The aeroplane is a D.H.4, and the gunner is here seen in the position which he would occupy when aiming at an enemy above and slightly forward of his own machine. The single Lewis gun was frequently replaced by a double gun. (Twenty Years After)

Well, that’s all. There is no more to see; nothing more to do except get home. Already the formation is begin­ning to turn as our leader takes up the homeward course. Quickly I glance around to make sure that I am in posi­tion; the other pilots are doing the same, for the real fireworks are about to begin.

One of the biggest frights I ever had in my life was at this particular moment of a similar show ; or, rather, -while we were over the objective; which, to be specific, was Mannheim. So interested was I in watching the town that I must have got out of position. Either that, or Don Waterous was at fault. (We never really discovered which.) He was flying in the "gallery”; that is, in the line up above.

Collision in Mid-air
Somehow or other we collided. The first thing I knew about it was a terrific bump which occurred just as Jock MacKay,[4] who was leading us, fired the "Let go’’ signal.

Above: Captain Duncan Ronald Gordon MacKay, a Royal Flying Corps captain from Inverness, was shot in 1918 (www.express.co.uk/news/uk/1040606/last-scot-fall-first-world-war-armistice-day)

Looking up, I caught a fleeting glimpse of a pair of wheels just leaving my "skylight” (the transparent area in the centre section, just over my head.) The wheels had, in fact, struck my top plane slap in the middle, and under the impact my machine recoiled like a tennis ball from a racquet.

Down I went, a good three hundred feet, straight under the formation — just as everyone pulled his bomb toggle. There was no time for me to get out of the -way; there was no time to do anything. There I sat, stiff with fright, while a cloud of bombs sailed down round me. Two, evidently from the same machine, missed my engine by not more than a couple of yards. Not one touched me—obviously, or I should not be writing this.

I must say it was an amazing stroke of luck. Sweating with panic and with my heart in my mouth, as the saying is, I climbed back into my place, A nasty experience, believe j me. But let us get back to the Stuttgart show.

Suddenly the barrage of hate dies away, and again we know the reason. A bunch of enemy aircraft are tearing along in our wake, and they’re out for blood. We’re over their home town and they’re full out to show their girlfriends what they can do. Well, they’ll have to get on with it; there is nothing we can do except sit still and hope for the best. One can’t start stunting when one is a hundred and fifty miles away from home; against this wind we shall only just have enough petrol to get back as it is.

Above: A RFC/RAF formation being attacked by Germans (Art.IWM ART 3071)

Taca-taca-taca-taca. I look across at the next machine to me ; the gunner is crouched over his guns, tracer bullets pouring from the two barrels as three machines attack him simultaneously from different angles.

TACA-TACA-TACA. My heart gives a lurch as a burst of bullets rip through my machine. My altimeter disappears in a cloud of splintered glass. I look back over my shoulder to see what is happening. Cox is firing, barrels point­ing downwards, first one side of the fuselage then the other. So that’s the game. I press my right foot gently on the rudder bar, enough to swing my tail aside, disclosing a blue-nosed Albatros that had crept up under my elevators.

Above: An Allied gunner with twin Lewis machine guns (The aircraft is a French Breguet XIV as flown by the French and Americans) (www.flickr.com/photos/29415369@N05/4939096020)

Not a Pretty Sight

He is in the open, now, and Cox plasters him at point-blank range. He jerks up, turning slowly on to his back, and then begins to go down like a falling leaf. Cox throws me a grin, thumbs turned up­ ward, jaws still chewing. He isn’t pretty to look at. There is blood round his mouth where the biting slipstream has tom the skin off his lips. The temperature is seldom above zero at 21,000 feet—that’s our height now we are relieved of the weight of our bombs —and frostbite sends a lot of our fellows to hospital.[5]

I take a quick look round the forma­tion to make sure that I am still in position. Hello, we are only five machines. Where is the other? I look downward over the side and my heart seems to go stone cold as my eyes fall on a gigantic plume of black smoke, ending in a spark of white light that is falling like a shooting star. Quickly I look at the letters on the noses of the remaining machines to see who has gone. It's "E” That’s Tim. He was deputy leader. Poor old Tim.[6] We shall miss him at the piano. With a nasty feeling of nausea drying my mouth, I creep up into the deputy leader’s place.

Of all the grim business on which we were engaged, seeing one of one’s friends go down in flames was the most dreadful ordeal of all. I shall never forget the first machine I saw go that way. The pilot’s name was----; we had learnt to fly together. An explosive bullet must have hit his rear main tank. I was flying next to him in the formation, and we were actually smiling at each other when it happened.

Suddenly a cloud of black, greasy smoke poured aft from the tank be­tween him and his gunner. The gun­ner was completely enveloped in it, but I could just see him standing up in it, with his hands over his face. The horrible thing was, poor ------ was still unaware that Old Man Death had claimed him. For several seconds I could only stare, fascinated; then I pointed.

Looking Back—to see Death

He looked back to see what I was pointing out, and looked death in the face. He threw, a quick glance across at me and half raised his hand. The machine plunged downwards on its four-mile drop to oblivion. For an hour afterwards I could see that ghastly trail of smoke, reaching, it seemed, from heaven to earth. And you will believe me when I say that it took more than one spot of whisky to put me to sleep that night. But let us get on.

I look at the watch on my instrument board and see that we still have two hours to go before we reach the lines.

Above: A DH4 cockpit and instrument panel (computer generated - www.stormbirds.blog)

Two hours! Two years, more like. Already it seems an eternity since we took off. The Huns are still at us, new ones coming up to take the place of those that fall. The chatter of machine-gun fire becomes monotonous. A bullet smashes through my windscreen and I crouch a little lower in the cockpit.

Above: A German two-seater photographed by a machine above it. This Illustration helps to render clear the significance of being “on jerry’s tall,” as it is called, during an aerial duel. Such a position, above one’s foe and slightly behind him, exposes his most vulnerable parts in the way most disadvantageous to him, and at the same time sets the attacker in the best attitude for holding the target indefinitely with his gun. (Twenty Years After)

Fear becomes less acute as weariness grows; the altitude is beginning to tell. Taca-taca-taca. On all sides of me gunners are pointing their Lewises this way and that, shooting, flinging the empty drums overboard in their haste to reload, and shooting again. Huns are everywhere. In a sort of dream I see the gunner in a machine sink down and disappear from sight. He doesn’t reappear, and his gun, pointing pathetic­ally heavenward, tells its own story. He’s down. The Boche see the harm­less gun, too, and, knowing what it means, concentrate on that machine, for they can do so – with impunity.

Heaven help the wretched pilot; he’ll be lucky to get back. There he goes already. Down tilts his nose, white smoke pouring from the engine - steam from a punctured radiator, or petrol from a cut lead pouring over the hot engine. If it’s the former, he’s got a chance; if it’s the latter - well, one spark from the exhaust, or one tracer bullet, will be enough to fire the vapour.  Down he goes, twisting and turning to escape the jackals who rush in to finish him off. We can’t do anything about it; no use risking the entire formation for the sake of one machine. We don’t see the end. The cluster of wheeling specks becomes smaller and smaller, and finally disappears in the blue depths of the void below and behind us.

Strasbourg Ahead

What’s the time? An hour to go. The Rhine, with Strasbourg nestling beside it, is just ahead. We hardly seem to be moving. I take a chocolate from pocket under my dashboard and munch it without enthusiasm. The shooting is less intense now, the reason being that the gunners are running short of ammunition and they’re using it sparingly

I am jerked from a condition bordering on semi-coma by the actions of our leader. His nose tilts up, tracers spurt­ing from the front gun. Then I see the reason. A blue and orange Pfalz is attacking him from the front. Perhaps he’d hoped to catch him unawares. If so, he made a mistake. At the last moment the Hun swerves, obviously hit.

As the machine passes me not more than twenty feet away I see the pilot’s white face clearly, as he looks up through his big goggles.

It’s a queer feeling to see the other fellow; in air-fighting one tends to forget that there is a man in the other machine. Still watching him I see his top wing fold back. Both wings tear off, and the torpedo-shaped fuse­lage, with the engine still on, shoots through space like a badly-aimed dart. Poor devil. Let’s hope he’s got a bullet in him, too, to spare him the mental agony of that last fearful rush. It must seem like a lifetime.

What’s the time? Twenty minutes to go. Thank God! And when I say that I mean it. Leaning over the side I let cold air pour into my lungs to pull me together. In the distance, straight ahead I can see what looks like two large white molehills. They are the lime-pits near Nancy, over our side of the lines. Home!

Above: 'Home' for Johns was the RAF base at Azelot, near Nancy. It is still a working aerodrome to this day. 

Author: William Johns, via 'Twenty Years After' (First published in this form in 1938), Part 29, Chapter LXIII

Images/Footnotes: David Tattersfield


[1] This was actually the Independent Force, RAF not as Johns (and many others) have called it the 'Independent Air Force'. 

[2] At sea-level barometric pressure is 39.93 inches. At 10,000 feet it has dropped to 30.58 inches, and at 30,000 ft. to 13-75 inches. (Footnote in the original) 

[3] Actually 2/Lt FN Coxhill. (Johns mis-remembered him as 'Cox') 

[4] MacKay very nearly survived the war. He was wounded on 10 November by anti-aircraft fire during an attack on railway sidings; his observer, 2/Lt Harry Gompertz managing to land the machine. Mackay succumbed to his wounds the following day. He is buried at, Jœuf some 40 miles north of Nancy. 

[5] Temperature falls about 1 degree Fahrenheit for every 330 feet rise in altitude. If, therefore, the temperature on the ground is 60 degrees, at 30,000 feet the thermometer will register zero. (Footnote in the original) 

[6] 'Tim' has yet to be identified. It seems that Johns is using an assumed name or is mis-remembering.  

Further Reading: 

Biggles’ Last Flight: the flying career of Captain WE Johns

Biggles, the Battle of the Flowers and the RAF in the First World War