Aerial Tactics

As the days go by, I find much that is novel and interesting about the aerial war, which in reality is quite different from any idea of it that I had had. I will try to give a rough idea of how the upper war is carried on.

The trenches, sometimes visible, often quite invisible from the heights at which one flies, form the dividing line between us and the Boche. Behind them, at distances of from seven to fifteen miles, are the aerodromes a few acres of tolerably flat land, three or four or half a dozen hangars (often cleverly camouflaged), barracks, and sheds for automobiles. Each side, of course, knows pretty well the locations of the enemy aerodromes. This gives

It is a curious fact that in certain sectors the aviator’s life is made miserable by this ceaseless bombing, while in other places a species of unwritten understanding permits him to sleep, at least, in peace. I have a friend in a far-off escadrille who has to jump out of bed and dive for the dug-outs nearly every clear night, when the sentry hears the unmistakable Mercedes hum close overhead, the shutting off of the motor, and the ominous rush of air as the Huns descend on their mark. He knows that the Germans get as good as, or better than they give—but the knowledge does not make up for lost sleep. In my sector, on the other hand, we could blow the Boche aerodromes to atoms and they could probably do as much for us, but neither side has started this useless ‘strafing.’ Just before an attack, such bombing might be of military value; otherwise it only harasses vainly men who need what sleep they get, and destroys wealth on both sides, like exchanging men in checkers without profiting in position. I have heard parlor warriors at home say, ‘By all means make war as unpleasant as possible — then it won’t happen again.’ But there is a limit to this, when nothing of tactical value is accomplished.

The aerodromes are the headquarters of the different squadrons, each of which is specialized in some type of work. Military aviation divides itself into certain groups, requiring different types of machines and different training for pilot or observer. These groups are day-bombing, night-bombing, observation, photography, artillery firecontrol, and chasse. I would like to tell you all about the different buses used, but of course one is not at liberty to do so. In general, bombing-machines are rather large two-seaters or three-seaters, designed to rise to great heights, where they are very fast, and capable of carrying heavy loads for long distances. They are, naturally, well armed, but depend (for safely carrying out their missions) principally on their speed at altitudes of 18,000 feet or more. Photography, observation, and artillery control machines, on the other hand, must be fast at lower altitudes, handy in a fight, and speedy climbers. They are, so far as I know, always twoseaters, and are really the most important of all aeroplanes. I believe that all the allied designers should work together to produce a single uniform type of two-seater — small, quick to manoeuvre, and very fast up to 15,000 or 16,000 feet. Such machines, flying about their work in small groups, are truly formidable things for single-seater scouts to attack, as they are nearly as fast and handy, and have the enormous advantage of being able to shoot backward as well as forward. With light double-controls for the machinegun man or observing officer (who would take a few lessons in emergency flying), they could not be brought down by killing the pilot — a most valuable feature.

The Boches have such machines, — particularly the Roland, — which are tough nuts to crack, even when outnumbered. Two of our boys had a running fight with a Roland recently, and dove at him alternately for thirty minutes over forty miles of country. Both were nearly brought down in the process — and they failed to bag the enemy machine, though at the last they did for the observer. This shows the great value of the fast two-place bus.

I doubt if people at home are aware of the difficulties of designing a twoseater which one could pronounce, without hesitation, the best. It must have four major qualities: speed, climbing ability, diving speed, and handiness. The need of strength, or high factor of safety, goes without saying. Speed is simply a matter of power and head resistance, and is comparatively easy to attain alone; the rub comes in combining with it the requisite climbing power, and factor of safety. The Germans, in general, seem to believe in a very heavy, substantial motor, which cuts their climbing to a certain extent, but gives them a very fast dive. The Allies’ machines, I should say, are slightly faster climbers, but cannot follow a diving Hun. And so it goes — to have one quality in perfection, another must be sacrificed.

Last of all come the single-seaters, whose sole purpose is to fight. Many different types have been tried — monoplanes, biplanes, and triplanes, with different kinds of fixed and rotary motors. At present the biplane seems to have it (though I have seen an experimental monoplane that is a terror), as the monoplane is by nature too weak, and the triplane (magnificent otherwise!) is too slow in diving for either attack or escape.

The work the different groups perform seems to be roughly the same in the Allied and enemy armies. The daybombers fly at great heights, sometimes escorted and protected by single-seaters. The night-bombers fly fairly low, never escorted. Photographers, observers, and artillery regulators have a nasty job, as they must fly rather low, constantly subjected to a galling attention from old Archibald. When their mission requires it, they are escorted by chasse machines — a job that single-seater pilots do not pine for, because they often go twenty or thirty miles into ‘Bochie,’ where motortrouble means a soup diet till the end of the war; and because, at low altitudes, hovering over a slow ‘cuckoo,’ the anti-aircraft gunners have too good a time.

The single-seaters may be divided into two classes: the first does escort work about half the time, the second does nothing but parade up and down the lines, hunting for trouble. The last are the elite among airmen. Unfortunately I am not one of them, as they are recruited only from tried and skillful pilots. As to fighting, there is a good deal of popular misconception. One imagines picturesque duels to the death, between A (the great French or English ace) and X (his German competitor) — the multitude of straining, upturned eyes, the distant rattle of shots, the flaming spin of the loser. As a matter of fact, a duel between two monoplanes, handled by pilots of anything like equal skill, who are aware of each other’s presence, is not unlikely to end without bloodshed. Bear in mind that they can shoot only forward, that the gun must be aimed by aiming the whole machine (to which it is fixed immovably), and that a twisting, climbing, banking aeroplane, traveling at over one hundred miles per hour, is no joke to hit in its small vitals, and you can see that this must be so.

The truth is, that the vast majority of fights which end in a victory are between scouts and two-seaters, and that it needs two scouts to attack one biplane with anything like even chances of winning. Think a moment. The two-seater is nearly as fast and handy as you are; he can therefore avoid you and shoot forward almost as well, and in addition, he has a man astern who can shoot up, sideways, and backwards with most superior accuracy. This disconcerting individual, it is true, cannot shoot straight down when the wings are horizontal, but to enable him to do so, the pilot has only to tilt the machine to the necessary angle.

Now, suppose two French monoplanes sight an Iron-Crossed two-seater. Flying at 16,000 feet, they see French shrapnel in white puffs bursting below them at 2,000 feet, and several miles away. They change their course, and presently, dodging in and out among the fleecy balls, they espy a fast biplane, heavily camouflaged in queer splotches of green, brown, and violet. Coming nearer, they make out the crosses — ha, a Boche! Nearer and nearer they come, till they are 400 yards behind and 600 feet above the enemy, who has seen them and is making tracks for home. Three hundred yards, by the way, is the closest one may safely approach a machine-gun in the air. At this point, A dives on the Boche, to about 250 yards, shoots a short burst, and veers off. The German machine-gunner lets him have a rafale, but meanwhile B has dived under and behind the enemy’s tail.

There he stays, at a fairly safe distance, with his eye on the rudder above him, ready to anticipate the banks which might enable the gunner to get in a burst. As soon as A sees that B is beneath the Boche, he dives and shoots again. The gunner is in a quandary — if he aims at A, B will slip up and forward, rear his machine into position, and deliver a possibly deadly burst. If he devotes his attention to B, A will be safe to make a dive to dangerously close quarters. There you have the theory of the most common of all attacks — but in reality it is more difficult than it sounds. The three machines are traveling at great speed, and constantly twisting, rearing, and diving. It is the easiest thing in the world to pass another plane, turn to follow it, and see nothing, no matter how you strain your eyes. In passing, your combined speed might be roughly 120 yards per second, and you are both moving in three dimensions. The object for which you search may be to the side, ahead, above, below; and every second of your search may be increasing its distance at enormous speed.

It is bitterly cold, and I am sitting in our cozy mess-room waiting for lunch, which is at twelve. A dense fog hangs over the aerodrome, and the trees are beautifully frosted.

Just had word that a boy who was at Avord in my time has bagged one of the ‘Tangos’ — no mean feat. It is the crack escadrille of all Germany — Albatross DIII’s, driven by the pick of the Hun fighting pilots, and commanded, I believe, by Von Richthofen — the most famous of German aces. They are a formidable aggregation, recognizable by rings of tango red around their Iron Crosses, and stripes of the same color along the fuselage. For a young pilot to bring one of these birds down in one of his first flights over the lines, is a wonderful piece of luck and skill.

On days (like to-day) when the weather makes flying impossible, the fellows sleep late, make a long, luxurious toilet, breakfast, and stroll down to the hangars, where they potter around their ‘zincs,’ feeling over the wires, adjusting the controls, tinkering their machine-guns, or perhaps fitting on some sort of new trick sight. Sights are a hobby with every pilot and nearly everyone has different ideas on the subject, advocating telescopic or open, one or two-eye outfits. Then, if one is extra careful, he takes out the long belt of cartridges, feels each bullet to make sure it is tightly crimped in the shell, and pushes and pulls the shells until all are exactly even. ‘Jams’ are the curse of this game, and no amount of trouble is too much, if it insures a smooth working gun. Some jams can be fixed in the air, but others render you defenceless until you can land.

Each pilot has his own mechanic, who does nothing but look after his bus, and is usually a finished comedian in addition to being a crack mechanic. In truth, I never ran across a more comical, likable, hard-working crew than the French aviation mechanics. They are mostly pure Parisian ‘gamins’ — speaking the most extraordinary jargon, in which everything but the verbs (and half of them) is slang, of the most picturesque sort. Quick-witted, enormously interested in their work, intelligent and good-natured, they are the aristocrats of their trade, and know it. You should see them when they go on leave. Jean or Chariot, ordinarily the most oily and undignified of men, steps out of the squadron office arrayed in a superb blue uniform, orange tabs on his collar, a mirror-like tan belt about his waist — shaven, shorn, shining with cleanliness, puffing an expensive-looking, gilt-banded cigar. Is it fancy — or is there a slight condescension in his greeting? Well, it is natural — you can never hope to look so superbly like a field-marshal. A little crowd of pals gathers around, for it is just after lunch; and presently the motor-bus draws up with a scream of brakes and a cloud of dust. The motor has AV in big letters on the side, and its driver (not to be confounded with any mere ambulance or lorry chauffeur) would feel it a disgrace to travel under forty miles an hour, or to make anything but the most spectacular of turns and stops. The driver produces a silver cigarette case, passes it round, takes a weed, taps it on his wrist, and chaffs the permissionnaire about a new godmother on whom he is planning to call in Paris.

Presently the captain steps out of his office; the departing one spins about, head back and chest out, cigar hidden in his left hand; ‘click’ —his heels come together magnificently, and up goes his right hand in a rigid salute. Smiling behind his moustache, our extremely attractive captain salutes in re turn, and shakes Chariot’s hand warmly, wishing him a pleasant leave. He is off, and you can picture him tomorrow strolling with princely nonchalance along the boulevards. What if he earns but five cents a day — he saves most of that, and his pilot presents him with a substantial sum every Saturday night, all of which is put away for the grand splurge, three times a year.

In Paris, you will recognize the type — well dressed in neat dark blue, orange collar with the group number on it, finger-nails alone showing the unmistakable traces of his trade, face, eyes and manner registering interest and alert intelligence. As likely as not you see him on the terrace of some great cafe — a wonderfully smart little midinette (his feminine counterpart) beside him, with shining eyes of pride and at the next table a famous general of division, ablaze with the ribbons of half a dozen orders.

The ‘mecanos’ dress as nearly like pilots as they dare, and after flying is over in the evening are apt to appear about the hangars in the teddy-bear suits and fur boots of the ‘patron.’ Some funny things happen at such times. There is a class of officers, called ‘officers of administration,’ attached to squadrons and groups of aviation, who do not fly, but look after the office and business end of the equipe. They are worthy men and do absolutely necessary work, but somehow are not very swank.

One day it became known that the revered Guynemer was to visit a certain escadrille, and naturally all the officers were on fire to shake the hero’s hand — a reminiscence to hand down to their children’s children. The administration officer — a first lieutenant — was late in getting away from the bureau, and when he got to the field, Guynemer had landed, left his machine, and gone to have the sacred aperitif of five o’clock. Meanwhile, the chief comedian of all the mechanics, dressed by chance in his pilot’s combination and boots, and proud to tinker (with reverent fingers) the famous Spad, had run out to where it stood, filled it with gas and oil, touched up the magneto, and cleaned a couple of plugs. The officer, as he came to the hangars, perceived the well-known ‘taxi,’ with the stork on its side, and a furry figure strolling towards him. A snap of heels, the position of attention, and he was saluting (as he thought) one of the most glorious figures of France. The comedy mechanician — taking in the situation at a glance — strolled magnificently by, with a careless salute and a nod. The officer never inquired who it was he had saluted — but what a tale to pass around the barrack stove on winter evenings! Mistaken for Guynemer! Saluted by a two-striper!

In clothes and get-up the mechanics follow the pilots’ lead, but in language the situation is reversed — we take pride in memorizing, chuckling over, and using at every opportunity, the latest word or phrase invented by these gifted slangsters. An aeroplane is never ‘avion’ or ‘appareil,’ but ‘zinc,’ ‘taxi,’ or ‘coucou.’ Motor is ‘moulin’ — to start it, one ‘ turns the mill.’ In the aviation, one does not eat, one ‘pecks.’ One is not killed — one ‘breaks one’s face,’ though face is not the inelegant word in use. Gasoline is ‘sauce’; to open the throttle, you ‘give her the sauce.’ A motor breakdown is not, as in the automobile service a ‘panne,’ but a ‘carafe’ — heaven knows why! and so on.

Life out here is in many ways a contrast to the last six months. Though only a beginner, a bleu, I am Somebody, through the mere fact of being a pilot, and most of all a pilote de chasse — a most chic thing to be. I must dress well, shave daily, wear my hair brushed straight back and long, — in contrast to all other branches of the army, — have my boots and belt polished like a mirror, and frequent only the best cafe in town. These are, of course, unwritten rules, but sternly lived up to — and I confess that the return of self-respect, after months of dirt and barrack life, is not unpleasant.

Our escadrille, composed of ten French pilots, two Americans, and the officers, is really a very decent crowd of chaps of good family and education. Frenchmen of this kind are good fellows and pleasant companions, differing from us only on certain racial points of outlook and humor. Among them are two lawyers (with all the French lawyer’s delicate wit, irony, and love of play on words), a large wine-grower (if you can grow wine), a professional soldier from Morocco, a medical student, and my room-mate, a most attractive chap, an English public-school man, whose family are French importers in London. He has been nearly everywhere, is absolutely bi-lingual, and is the sort of man who is at home in any kind of company.

From time to time, of course, someone is brought down, and though I dislike it intensely, one feels that decency demands one’s presence at the funeral. Elaborate, rather fine ceremony usually, where the Gallic emotional nature appears at its best. At the last one, for instance, the captain (brave as a lion, and a man to his finger-tips) was overcome in the midst of his speech of eulogy and burst into tears. Impossible to an Anglo-Saxon, but to me there was something very fine in the sight of this splendid officer, frankly overcome with grief at the loss of one of his men. When the ceremony is over, each pilot and friend comes to pay respect to the departed comrade, takes up in turn an implement shaped like an Indian-club, dips it in holy water, makes a sign with it over the coffin, draped in the Tricolor, and sprinkles a few drops of water on the flag.

At our mess, we have queer little things of glass to rest knife and fork on, while the dishes are being changed; and last night at dinner, when the captain’s orderly assigned one pilot to a particularly ticklish mission, an irrepressible American youth who was dining with us, picked up one of these knife-rests (shaped exactly like a holywater sprinkler), stood up very solemnly, made the sign over his victim, and sprinkled a few drops on his head. Amid roars of laughter everyone at the table stood up in turn and did likewise. A harmless joke to us, but I am not sure of its good taste to a Frenchman.

If I had known France before the war I could decide better a question that constantly occurs to me: ‘Has France grown more religious with war? ’ The educated Frenchman is certainly the most intelligent, the most skeptical, the least inclined to take things on trust of all men, yet on the whole I am inclined to believe that religious feeling (by no means orthodox religion) has grown and is growing. In peace times, death seems a vitally important thing, to be spoken of with awe and to be dreaded, perhaps as the end of the game, if you chance to be a materialist.

All that is changed now. You go to Paris on leave, you spend two or three days delightfully with Bill or Jim or Harry, a very dear friend, also in on leave from his battery, regiment, or squadron. A week later someone runs up to you with a long face. ‘Bill got crowned on Thursday’ he says; ’joined a Boche patrol by mistake and brought down before he saw the crosses. Poor old cuss.’ You sigh, thinking of the pleasant hours you have passed with Bill — your long talks together, his curious and interesting kinks of outlook, the things which make personality, make one human being different from another. Somehow your thoughts don’t dwell on his death as they would in peace-times — a week or a month later your mind has not settled into taking for granted his non-existence. Next time you visit Paris, you hasten to his former haunts — half expecting to find him absorbing a book and expounding his peculiar philosophy.

Is there a life after death? Of course there is — you smile a little to yourself to think you could ever have believed otherwise. This, I am confident, is common experience nowadays. The belief that individuality ceases, that death is anything but a quick and not very alarming change, is too absurd to hold water. It is a comforting thought and gives men strength to perform duties and bear losses which in ordinary times would come hard.

  1. These letters were written just before the author was transferred to the American service. — THE EDITOR rise to a certain amount of give and take in the bombing line, which, in the end, accomplishes very little.