Victory Loan Flying Circus, 1919

captain-traill-1919

Captain Thomas Traill: taken while on tour with the Victory Loan Flying Circus in the Midwest of the United States of America in April-May 1919.

Tom Traill, second right. Ewin T. Carroll, right.
On the big German rail guns at Chicago.

For the story of the Flying Circus see the earlier post.

These photos came from the album of Lieutenant Frank Carroll, one of the Victory Loan Flying Circus Spad pilots. Courtesy of Alan Roesler.

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It was a nasty moment for Clemo when Granville’s propeller appeared out of the cloud and cut off our fuselage a yard from his toes

Cloud Flying Trials, Andover, 1932

After Cambridge and a very brief period in 58 Sqn, when I only had time to get solo at night on Vickers Virginias, I was posted to Command B Flight in 12 Sqn at Andover. We were flying Hawker Harts and had been selected to do a year of cloud flying trials and, secondarily, of pattern bombing. It was decided to screen us all from posting until the trials were completed: a real boon as frequent postings of pilots was always the bane of the Squadron and the Flight Commander. The other Flight Commanders were Selby Lowndes and D.F. MacIntyre, and we got on very well together. D.F. Stevenson commanded the Squadron. There were no directional gyros and it was on the Reid-Sigrist rate of turn indicator that we depended for flying in cloud.

Central Flying School sent a party to put us all through an Instrument Flying Course and when this was completed we made for the nearest cloud whenever we took off. We knew nothing about icing but we learned. Cuthbert Larking was flying in formation on me when Cpl. Clemo, my Air Gunner, told me that he had dropped out. I went after him below cloud and watched him glide down with a dead engine and pile up, not seriously, trying to put her down in a field that was too small. We had been collecting a good deal of ice and the air vent on his petrol tank had been blocked, and this stopped the flow to the engine. Another time in a longish spell in cloud I found it becoming easier and easier to keep straight on the turn indicator though it was bumpy and there was so much ice on wings, wires and propeller that I needed full throttle to maintain height. My compass heading was all over the place but we had been taught that the turn indicator could not lie and I stuck to it till I had collected so much ice that I fell out of the bottom of the cloud. There I found that the venturi driving the gyro had iced up and the turn indicator was no longer working.

As we learned our lessons, and the taller men learned to keep their heads down in the cockpit when the ice was breaking off the centre section struts and bracing wires, the troubles with icing up of vent-pipes, venturi tubes and the pitot heads for the air speed indicators were overcome. We soon found that formation flying in cloud, as elsewhere, depended primarily on the ability and imagination of the leader: and on the ability of the leader to concentrate everything he had on the needle of the turn indicator. I used to say to myself, over and over again, eye glued to the needle, “That is the only thing in this world that matters”. Feelings in cloud can be hopelessly misleading and you must fly by what your instruments tell you regardless of what your senses may insist is happening. Sometimes when you were formatting in cloud you were convinced that the leader was in a steady turn, sometimes it seemed quite a tight turn. If the cloud was thick and bumpy you could not take your eyes off him to glance at your instruments so there was nothing to do but to curse him for a fool and stick to him in his everlasting turn – till you came out of cloud and found you were flying straight.

We soon realised that we must have an accepted procedure for use when we lost sight of each other in cloud. It involved turning outwards at a rate of turn depending on your place in the formation, for a number of seconds, also dependent on your place in the formation, which you counted in your head, and after that going into a rate of climb depending, etc.

On an exercise one day [July 18th, 1932] we were flying easily in stratus cloud in a Vic of nine with Stevenson leading when we emerged suddenly into a crevasse of clear air and flew on as suddenly into a thick and turbulent heavy cumulus. Each of us lost sight of his immediate leader and I put my head into the cockpit to get on with my drill. I had to do a rate two turn for, I think, three seconds but had hardly started when my Hart [K2425] hit another: there was a lurch and the noise of rending metal. I never saw the other aeroplane and thought that the man I was following had turned out too fast into me but in fact Granville, who was following me, had held on in the hope of reforming formation but had not seen me until his airscrew cut into my fuselage. It was a nasty moment for Clemo when Granville’s propeller appeared out of the cloud and cut off our fuselage a yard from his toes. Our end, Clemo’s and mine, went down and under in an inverted loop and I called to him over the intercom: “Jump.”

All this happened very quickly. I do not even know if I switched to ‘transmit’ or whether he heard me but there was no question about jumping: the moment we released ourselves, being on the outside of the loop we were hurled out over the centre section. I waited for the remains of our aeroplane to leave the vicinity and then found the release grip and gave it a pull. I was travelling head downwards at about 200mph and it brought me up with an awful jerk, yet in that fraction of a second I felt the stitching on the back of my harness tearing away: it was designed to do this but I did not know it and grabbed the sides of the harness, leading up to the canopy out of sight in the cloud, and held on for my life. Then for a few minutes there was further cause for anxiety as Granville, his engine running very badly with what remained of his propeller, glided down, seemingly all around us, in the cloud. I tried to assure myself that the odds against his flying into the parachute were very long but I was glad when he faded into the distance.

I came out of cloud at 8000’ still, as I thought, depending for my life on my grip on the shrouds of the parachute. In the open again I looked down at the harness round my body and thighs: it seemed to be intact and I very cautiously slid my hands down till I was sure the harness was supporting me. It was a relief to find that I would not have to hang by my hands for the next vertical mile and a half. Having checked on my own situation I looked round for the others: it never occurred to me that the other pilot might have been able to glide away and make a successful forced landing, but he did. I hoped to see three more parachutes but there was only one, floating down about forty yards away. I called out:

“Is that you Clemo?”

and Clemo, hanging knees up in his harness, made a comic motion of bringing his heels together, raised his hand in salute, and replied:

“OK Sir.”

Cpl Clemo

When an aeroplane will no longer fly and is hopelessly out of control there is nothing nicer than to take to a parachute: and sitting below your canopy at five or six thousand feet on a fine day is quiet and peaceful: but when you get nearer the ground, if you are the worrying sort, you begin to think about high-tension cables and main roads. I came down through a young birch tree in a spinney beside the A303 and Clemo landed successfully in the grass alongside. My parachute stayed up in the tree and I had to release my harness to get my heels on the ground. Walking to telephone I met a man who told me that the other aircraft had crashed and that the crew were killed. He probably thought that the front end of our Hart was the other machine I was asking about, but I had no reason to doubt him. I rang up and reported what had happened, and what the man had said, and a car came out for Clemo and me. He was quite undamaged but my right knee was numb from a wrench it had when the parachute opened and the rigging had fouled my leg.

When we arrived back at Andover we heard the extraordinarily good news of Granville’s safe landing. I could hardly believe it but when at four next morning I found my knee was too stiff to use I was happy to be able to send my batman along with a chit to tell him to lead the flight on the early show. All the rest of the formation had lost each other but ours was the only failure of the breakup drill and the others had rendezvoused above or beyond the heavy cumulus. We were lucky only to have one collision.

The trials were only the official introduction to the study of the bearing of cloud flying on tactics and when they were satisfactorily completed I was posted to the Staff College, which was also located at Andover.

 

Excerpt from The Memoirs of Thomas Cathcart Traill, ch.12 U.K. Again. pp. 100-102.

Drawing by TC Traill.

We did not have parachutes then

After one or two fairly uneventful Ops with Jones we got into a fight:

Logbook entry 29 May 1918

Lt Jones – 110 min – 17,000’ – Armentieres, Bethune, Festubert. Bombs on Armentieres. Dived on Hun formation, 4 or 5 down. 5 Tripes under tail. Shot up longerons, tail gadget, elevator controls and scarfe mounting. Turned on them and drove two down, one probably crashed. Came home tail wobbling and barely under control and crashed. OP. [Kemp saw him go down vertically about 5000’].

Like many other entries in the logbook, it recalls vivid pictures against a hazy background. I can only guess how I came to be left by the rest of our formation with five Fokker Triplanes under my tail; but I remember from later dogfights how quickly a fight used to diffuse in three dimensions, until in a few minutes you might find yourself left alone in the sky with your opponent, or opponents. And I cannot think where Kemp could have been that he was able to encourage me to think I had destroyed one of the Triplanes. Once a fight was joined, each man fought to bring his front gun to bear on an enemy aircraft and to prevent any Hun doing the same to him. Thus, once a fight started it was each man on his own for himself: a Hun getting on the tail of another Bristol might afford a good opportunity to get a burst into him and at the same time to remove the immediate threat from your comrade. But there was no fighting in formation, or retaining formation except when we had to run for the lines: then any Bristols still in sight of each other would edge together for mutual support.

I remember the Triplanes below and behind us standing on their tails – they were particularly good at that – and shooting us steadily to pieces while Jones swung his scarfe mounting from side to side as he engaged whichever was the most dangerous at the moment. I did not know it, but Jones had forgotten that the barrel of his gun was six inches below the line of his sights and once when he was shooting at a Hun under our tail he was also shooting through the starboard longeron, one of the four wooden members constituting the fuselage. He completely shot away six inches of it where it had been joined by two struts and five bracing wires. Each of the other longerons had German bullets through them so our Bristol was in poor shape. Then Jones’ gun-mounting was hit and jammed, and there was nothing for it but to turn and attack with my front gun. As I turned her and put the nose down I knew something was seriously wrong; but it was no good pulling out till I had done something about the Fokkers. As I started shooting, one or two of them turned and dived away, and at the same time the Bristol took on a sinuous motion that clearly could not last for long. When I looked round, the tailplane and rudder seemed to be following us down in a sort of spiral. I pulled out very gently and turned for home, completely at the mercy of any German pilot who cared to come along and shoot me down; but only one of the Triplanes showed up again and he came up two hundred yards to starboard. Jones reached round behind his jammed gun-mounting and managed to fire a short burst in his general direction, and he did a flick roll and went down. He was probably out of ammunition: they had fired thousands of rounds at us from not quite effective range.

Jones and I had formed the habit, with nothing said on either side, of shaking hands when we crossed the lines on our way home after a fight. This time, as I flew gently westwards at slow speed with the tail winding along and the fuselage likely to break in half at any moment, I shouted, as I shook his hand, “I’m worried about that tail”. Jones shouted back, and meant every word, “That’s all right, I’ve got my eye on it”. We did not have parachutes then.

When we were still about 8000’ and almost within gliding distance of the aerodrome, the front tank ran dry; and as the rear tank had a bullet hole in it, we glided on without power. I was sorry to find that without engine, with controls to one side of the elevators shot away and with the tail trimming gear shot up and jammed, I could not hold the nose up. With the stick right back in my stomach the machine glided at about 75 miles an hour. I was afraid to use much force on the tail trimming gear in case the tail came off; and for the same reason I discarded the idea of letting the nose down to gather the extra speed that might give me the ability to flatten out before hitting the ground. I decided the safest course was to let her glide in as she was going.

When we were down to a hundred feet Jones went through his own peculiar forced-landing drill: this was to unship his gun from its mounting and throw it overboard, so that it could not fly around and hit either of us, and then to sit down on his little seat, facing aft, to fold his arms and to relax. He really was a wonderful man. The last moments passed quickly, as they do on these occasions. We hit hard, broke in half and folded over like a jack-knife. Jones was thrown, flying and rolling well clear, ahead; and I got off easily with a cut across the bridge of my nose. We were within a hundred yards of the airfield, and Major Johnstone walked over to meet us as we came in. I remember we were laughing a lot, and I suppose we may have been a bit hysterical; but we would have been indignant if anyone had suggested it. Even Jones found it a bit of a strain watching the twisting undulating tail all the way home.

 

Excerpt from The Memoirs of Thomas Cathcart Traill, ch.7 20 Squadron. Ypres/Bailleul. pp. 50-51

We had a long drawn out fight and killed a cow

Jones came back from leave on the 23rd June and we had one or two indeterminate scraps:

Logbook entry 23 June 1918

Attacked from sun by nine Pfalz scouts and Fokker biplanes. Scrapped whole way back. Fired many rounds but got none.

Nearly strafed some Camels.

OP. Several Huns scattered. Two two-seaters over Nieppe. Cut off one and the formation got him.

Had a look at Calais. Contour chasing. Two rolls.

I do not know how it was with the others, but I did not feel anything personal about the man I was trying to kill and who was trying to kill me, even when my tracers seemed to be going in between his shoulders. The German pilot and his aeroplane seemed one impersonal thing to be destroyed before it destroyed you. A Bristol Fighter going down in flames with its crew made me sick, I knew the men in her. But not a Fokker doing the same thing, that was just the end of a satisfactory affair. Once or twice I felt ‘this chap is good’, but I did not continue to think of the enemy pilot as a man. Our feelings were too stretched to include the enemy in love or hate.

On the 30th we had a long drawn out fight and killed a cow:

Logbook entry 30 June 1918

Attacked black Tripe over Comines, seen to crash. Nine Pfalzs joined in and five more soon after. Five of them seen to crash. Found myself scrapping a Pfalz over Gheluvelt alone at 2000’. Rear gun done in.Pfalz disappeared and I found an Albatros and got him completely out of control, probably crashed. Attacked two Pfalzs with front gun but got archie in petrol tank and went West nose down. Third Pfalz got 25 yards away on tail and shot us up. Spun away. Forced landing hit a cow and wrote (off) the bus and the cow. (Albatros) confirmed by archie to have fallen completely out of control into ground mist.

Jones must have had a trying time after his gun had packed up. We had started the fight at 15,000’ and had fought it on our own at three levels on the way down. The Albatros I think I got never saw me coming: just slowly rolled over into his final (?) dive. When we attacked the last two Pfalzs the connelure-packing of my gun came away and spread itself like fine tow around my cockpit. After that it would only fire single shots and had to be reloaded after each. That was when I decided to go, and got archie in the front petrol tank and was bounced by the third Pfalz and spun away from him. This was what had probably worried Jones most, because he had no way of telling whether I was spinning intentionally to get away or if we were out of control, which we could well have been. I came out of the spin as low as I dared in case the Pfalz, realising I was foxing, had come down with me, isolated the front tank and ran for the lines on a small reseve I had kept in the other. W were well on the way home when this ran out, and I was making a successful forced landing until I hit a herd of cattle: I just could not miss them all. The cow died instantly and we were stood on our nose. Before we had climbed down, a woman and her daughter arrived and started abusing us in broken english, ‘You English, you no care, you kill our cow’, etc. This was too much for Jones, who jumped down and might have laid hands on them, but they ran for it. I checked afterwards and found that the British had paid for the cow. (I bet we paid more than it was worth).

On the 1st of July we:

Logbook entry 1 July 1918

Attacked some Tripes and Pfalzs. Drove them down. Latymer got one. Later started to scrap some Pfalzs but belt (of my machine gun) broke and came home.

 

Excerpt from The Memoirs of Thomas Cathcart Traill, ch.7 20 Squadron. Ypres/Bailleul. pp. 53-54

I plugged the holes in the petrol tank with handfuls of strong clayey mud

On the 27th I was joined by Captain Burbidge, a particularly unmechanical man even for those days, but full of courage and a very good man with a pair of Lewis guns.

Logbook entry 27 Sep. 1918

Went too far East and attacked some Huns. Many more came in and had to run. Turner missing. (Our formation claimed 3). Case and Turner killed.

Logbook entry 27 Sep. 1918

Scrapped SE5. Sat on it w. front gun. (We were always taking chances to practise fighting with each other, especially if we fancied ourselves at it)

Logbook entry 28 Sep. 1918

Big push starting. Met 19 Huns and scrapped about 12 of them. My gun dud. Burbidge shot pieces off one. Bus a bit shot up. Also Hooper. Bolton missing. (We claimed 3). Bolton and McBride killed.

Logbook entry 1st Oct. 1918

Watching some Huns to East when 3 dived from West. Shot us up and holed rear tank. He did climbing turn on our tail and Burbidge shot him. Glided over and landed in cavalry lines and flew back later. Heslop spun and was chased.

I was leading the dawn patrol and climbing on a northerly course only a little way over the lines. To the east of us on the same general course was a bunch of Huns whose leader must have been watching me as carefully as I was watching him, both of us wondering if and when to attack. When the three Fokkers came into us from the NNW it was a complete surprise. Being nearly a head-on attack, the Germans’ burst was a very short one, but it was accurate. As well as one that made a big hole in the top of the rear tank, on which I was sitting, several more came through the fuselage. As the Hun went past us and started to turn on our tail Burbidge started shooting. He was extraordinarily quick with his guns. Whether he got him I cannot tell but the Hun dropped his nose out of the turn and went on down as he might if he were hit or as he would if he were disengaging. Burbidge certainly thought he had got him and very likely had. My front tank was empty so I had no option but to glide across the lines and look for somewhere to make a forced landing. I chose an exercising ground that the cavalry were just vacating and put her down successfully. The officers were hospitable: they apologised for being unable to offer us any breakfast because they were just moving up to the battle, but gave us instead two bowls each of whisky and water. The spirits on an empty stomach stirred my initiative: after isolating the empty front tank I gathered a couple of handfuls of strong clayey mud, watered by the horses, plugged the holes in the petrol tank and showed Burbidge, sitting on the floor of his cockpit, how to hold the clay in place. I pumped up the air pressure in the tank to make sure the clay was effective and finally taught three of the troopers how to pull the propeller to start the engine: they will remember that. It started at the first pull over, and Burbidge and I flew home, full of whisky and good humour, to find the squadron convinced the Hun had got us. Those three Huns were not amateurs: they went through our formation like a dose of salts. It was almost certainly a planned job between them and the formation to the east of us. We were up against a noticeably skilful and determined lot of German pilots at that time. I have always thought that we were dealing with von Richtofen’s old circus. The Baron himself had been killed before we came down to the Somme, and I do not remember now what grounds there were for this belief.

There was more skirmishing:

Logbook entry 3 Oct. 1918

Went down on 17 Huns. Lale, Dodds and Harlock each got one. Couldn’t get my sights on.

Logbook entry 3 Oct. 1918

Bombs on Busigny. 17 Huns above but didn’t attack.

Logbook entry 5 Oct. 1918

OP. 25 Huns miles East. No scrap.

Logbook entry 5 Oct. 1918

Lale leading. OP. Bombs on Le Cateau. 4 Huns away E.

Logbook entry 6 Oct. 1918

v dud. Line Patrol. Came through a cloud w. McHardy among 7 Fokkers. Dinwoodie hit in heel. McHardy landed Soissons. Burbidge shot at one but missed him. Returned in clouds.

There was a lot of cloud as we skated around the lines, mostly below but often in it. We went into heavy cloud again at 2000’ and I expected to have lost McHardy when we came into a clear patch with cloud above and all around: a sort of inverted pudding bowl of clear air with six Fokkers milling round in it and apparently waiting for us. Burbidge started shooting immediately, and I pulled the Bristol round to regain the cover of the cloud as one of the Fokkers was lining his sights on us. Just as the cloud closed in on us again I saw McHardy come into the clear and start at once to turn back. He must have been back in cloud almost as soon as we were but one of the Huns got in a quick burst and hit his observer in the heel. It was a brief encounter.

On the 7th we moved East again, from Proyart to Moislains, following up the Army’s advance. For the next week or two little occurred of particular interest: just the same old things that seemed as if they would go on forever. On a roving commission by myself in dud weather I had an indecisive encounter with six Huns in and around a lot of low cloud over Bohain. An SE5 joined in at one point, and when I met the pilot by chance afterwards and found he was a well-known fighting character we both agreed that, if we had known who the other was, we would have done something more than keeping running away around the clouds. It was easy in retrospect.

Logbook entry 22 Oct. 1918

Push on. Dove on 10 Huns over Forest (de Morval) and two more formations came in at us. Came West a bit and played about with them for 60 mins. Learmond thought he got one. Clouds at 7,000 and on ground. Lost. Landed with 60 Squadron at Bapaume.

 

Excerpt from The Memoirs of Thomas Cathcart Traill, ch.8 Leave & Move to the Somme. The Armistice.

Royal Naval College, Dartmouth: July 1914 – Mobilisation for war

In July 1914 a Royal Marine bugler ran out on the cricket ground and sounded the end of my schooldays. It was just before my fifteenth birthday and after spending the first ten years of life on an estancia in the Argentine I was one of the junior term at the Royal Naval College Dartmouth. On the 28th the captain had assembled all four hundred cadets and told us there was trouble between Servia and Austria: that there might be war and that if the Navy mobilised we would go too. He thought nothing would come of it but lists would be posted in our gun-rooms to show the ships we would join on mobilisation.

We were not allowed to write home about these matters, or of our possible postings, but when I retired forty years and two world wars later I found in an old school notebook a diary of the next few days. It was written in the form of a letter to my Mother, but she never saw it because it was forgotten when the bugle sounded. It so clearly mirrors the feelings of a fourteen year old boy in rather unusual circumstances that I produce it below as written, but with minor excisions.

Monday 27th July 1914

There seemed a bit of a scare but nobody thought much of it.

Tuesday July 28th 1914

The papers were getting quite excited and after lunch a rumour went round that we were to be held in readiness to leave the college in five hours. After prayers the Skipper told us we might have to mobilise and, if so, Blakes and Grenvilles would go to Chatham by the first train. All the chests were to go and the Admiralty gave us eight hours, though the captain hopes to do it in five. That dear (just think of it) Mr. Winston Churchill wants us to mobilise badly.

Wednesday 29th July 1914

Went down to the river in sailing cutters before breakfast and bathed. The water was very cold and we were only given about three minutes. Just before breakfast the list of ships was put up. I am in the Lord Nelson with rather a decent crew: Tennant C.G., Malleson, Young, T., Holmstrom, Lowry, Curzon, Langley, Snow, Soames. Pearce and Curzon will keep us amused.

All leave is stopped in the German and English Navies. We will most likely mobilise now. I can’t think what it will be like having war in real ernest (sic). I’m glad I’m in Lord Nelson: she won’t sink as easily as the London would have done. I am feeling very excited. I went out with Olivier and Vereker with Alfred Marshall in a yacht. Bathed and had tea. Awful fun. Nothing but rumours all over the College. Can’t imagine a mobilisation in ernest. The Lord Nelson, belonging as it does to the second fleet, will fight. We are about the best in the second fleet and unless we run up against the Germans’ first fleet, we ought to tickle the Germans up a bit. If Austria and Germany are such fools as to fight they will pay for it and no mistake. (The occasion warrants strong language I think and if it wasn’t that you wee going to read it Mother, I’d use it). If we mobilise (and they say we are only waiting for the word) we will have to carry our chests down those steps to Sandkey. Some say Russia has declared war, Austria and Servia are fighting, some say the German Ambassador in Servia has been murdered, etc, etc. Everyone is going on working just the same but there is (as they say in books) an air of partly suppressed excitement. To think that I did not know that there was any sort of crisis threatening on Monday morning. A. Marshall will have to go with the Army to France as a telegraph engineer if war is declared. I think there ought to be some means besides the cadets to get the chests down. It is prep now and I must do some revision (chemistry). Is this going to be the end of the world? The United States and China dragged in and Armageddon fought again. I think not. Last night we were told we would turn out I three minutes as the telegram had come, but it was only to stand by. The special trains were got ready then and they are still ready now.

Thursday 30th July 1914

English exam first period. Old PTH stood me out for five minutes for drawing Cook’s attention to the fact that the bags were being taken to the dormies. The chests are all chalked and the bags on them, we are going on quietly with exams till we get word, then we’ll shake up. If war is declared we can’t be kept here because it will be a hospital, most people are sweating out of their notebooks for the exams but I think it muddles you and exams always take me up, so I’ll stay as I am. I can’t help hoping we’ll go. What I funk is the submarines. I have just finished my chemistry prep. If Winney’d had his way we would have gone on Tuesday, only the captain and headmaster kicked up a dust and made asses of themselves. I like the captain all the same. I see the papers have just come but I can’t go and look at them. A. Marshall is taking the exam, he was awfully nice yesterday.

I’ll bust soon. I had practically given up hope when an old steward told me Russia was mobilising and that she had told Austria and Germany. Europe has got a tickle in its nose and wants to sneeze, and if she doesn’t she won’t be comfortable till she has. The latest rumour is two o’clock tonight, I should not think it is true, though it is possible an answer is expected about then. It is quite true Russia has told Austria and Germany she is mobilising for war. Over 2,000,000 men. There is a notice saying we mustn’t tell anybody anything, so you mustn’t see this till the scare is over or Europe has had a very convulsive sneeze. Algebra and Geometry combined this afternoon. Our Army is going to operate on the left of the French. It will be but a drop in the ocean of the French army but I bet it will hit hard for its size. Excitement is running high again now. We the second fleet are going first at the German fleet and when that is over our Iron Dukes and Dreadnoughts will come and blow them out of the water. The thing is, won’t their first fleet blow us out of the water, they very likely will, but the Lord Nelson stands a very good chance of getting through. Five p.m. – no more news yet. There was some excitement in the night but we did not go. It is untrue I think about our second fleet leading against the Germans. I don’t think we’ll mobilise at all now, though we are standing by the whole time and I don’t think we’ll go home if the crisis doesn’t abate soon. A very hard geometry and algebra paper last …

I do not know what it was that ended the diary at that point but it was not till Saturday afternoon that the bugler sent us sprinting to join the ships in which, in the ensuing war, a quarter of our Blake term were killed in action. When we arrived at Chatham we found Lord Nelson had sailed for Portsmouth. We followed her and were pretty weary by the time we slung our hammocks about four o’clock next morning. The last thing I saw that night was my neighbour, soon to inherit a title, fall out of his hammock. He dropped four or five feet to the steel deck, turned over and went to sleep. Peers can take it.

 

Excerpt from The Memoirs of Thomas Cathcart Traill, ch.1 A Letter Home.

The Layout of a Bristol Fighter

Bristol Fighter

 

To clarify some of the things that happened to me and my observers in the next six months it will be well first to describe briefly the layout of a Bristol Fighter. It was a biplane drawn by a Rolls Royce water-cooled engine turning a wooden two-bladed propeller. Behind the engine the fuselage was rectangular in section and tapered towards the tail where were attached the fin and rudder and the tail-plane and elevators. There were separate control wires to each side of the elevators, so that if one of the control wires was shot away only one half of the elevator would work. There was a rubber-sprung wooden tailskid under the rear end of the fuselage which was built of four ash and spruce longerons, strutted with horizontal and vertical spruce struts, and braced in all directions with piano wire. It was a very robust and sturdy structure.

The top plane was placed only about a foot above the engine cowling, almost level with the pilot’s eyes, so that he could search the sky above and below it and so that when he was in a tight turn on a Hun’s tail he did not lose sight of him behind the centre section. The bottom plane, to allow an adequate gap between it and the top, was mounted below the fuselage. The top and bottom planes were strutted and wired and braced to each other and to the fuselage. The inter-plane bracing wires were made of streamlined steel, like the blade of a knife, to reduce drag.

Behind the engine was the front tank and behind that was the pilot’s cockpit. The pilot sat on the rear tank and had his feet on the rudder-bar under the front one. Neither was self-sealing, but the incendiary ammunition was comparatively ineffective and a tank did not necessarily catch fire when it was hit. Immediately behind the pilot was the circular observer’s cockpit with a rotating ‘Scarfe’ ring on which was mounted one, later two, Lewis guns.

The pilot’s gun was a Vickers mounted in front of him, under the engine cowling, and firing forward between the cylinders along the line of flight of the aeroplane. There was blast-tube from the muzzle of the gun to a hole in the radiator, to keep scraps of burning cordite out of the engine, and there was a most ingenious interruptor gear to prevent the bullets from hitting the propeller: it was the invention of a Rumanian, Constantinescu, and was called after him. It depended on the instantaneous transmission of impulses along a pipe filled with oil under pressure. If the spring-lever, which maintained the pressure, was not frequently raised by the pilot either the gun would not fire when the trigger-grip on the joystick was pressed or, if there was air in the tube, the propeller could be shot away. When properly handled it was a reliable gear; but pilots did sometimes, when they pressed the trigger, see their propellers fly to pieces.

 

Lay out of Bristol Fighter

 

The observer had a little seat, facing aft, with his back to the pilot and so close to him that if they both looked up they bumped their heads together: but over the lines the observer never sat down. His job was to see that he and his pilot were not surprised by enemy aircraft from behind and that gave him a hemisphere to search and search and to keep on searching. On his search more than on anything else depended his own life and his pilot’s. The pilot had plenty of searching to do too: there was no place for a stiff-necked type in a fighter squadron.

The observer’s gun for various reasons was not as lethal as the pilot’s, but we could not have done without it. We were not so fast as the Fokker biplanes who were our main opponents, but we held our height better in a dogfight; and, when a Fokker was turning inside you and almost, but not quite, getting his sights on you, he offered a good target to your observer: and when it was essential to get back to the lines, probably against a headwind, with the Huns still amongst you, the observer’s guns made the difference between a possibility and the other thing.

Landing these old aircraft presented in one respect a different problem from landing modern aircraft in which the undercarriage-springing includes shock absorbers. In a Bristol Fighter the axle was lashed down in the Vs of the undercarriage struts by elastic rope under tension. This meant that, after a heavy landing, the undercarriage, if it survived, threw the aeroplane back into the air as hard as the pilot had thrown it on the ground. It was the same if the wheels hit a ridge on the airfield, and there were plenty. Sometimes if the tail-skid hit first, or if the wheels were thrown up sharply just as the skid was coming down, a bucking motion between the wheels and tail-skid would ensue, with a good chance of the aeroplane finishing on its back: not very dangerous but undignified. The object was to sink to the ground with wheels and tail-skid together: to make a ‘three point landing’.

 

Excerpt from The Memoirs of Thomas Cathcart Traill, ch.7 20 Squadron. Ypres/Bailleul. pp. 48-49

Drawings by TC Traill.