THE ROYAL AIR FORCE AT 100 YEARS OLD
The memories of that time from a draft account by Bryan Evers Sharwood-Smith. It is an extract from ‘Away Before Dawn’ – a book that I am working on for possible future publication.
My first combat was typical of what could happen to the very young and innocent. We were low and some miles over enemy territory, when my flight commander suddenly dived steeply, the remaining four machines of the flight following close behind. Soon the white tracer began to flash from his gun. ‘Houthulst Forest’ lay beneath us and I thought, if I thought at all, that he was firing into one of the camouflaged German encampments below. This was utterly exhilarating. I had not fired in anger before so I opened up, holding my machine in a dive until I had nearly expended a fully loaded ammunition drum. By this time the rest of the Flight had pulled out and turned for home, and frankly, even I was aware that we were too low down for prolonged heroics. When we landed I was at first severely reproved by my Flight Commander.
‘Never lag behind like that again!’
But then he added, ‘
That was quite a good show though, d’you think you hit ‘im?’
I had not realised that we had been diving on a German two-seater. True, I had a fleeting impression of a shadowy form flitting eastwards in the half light as I pulled out of my dive, but no more than that. German aircraft, unlike our own, were heavily camouflaged.
Months later, by which time I was much more battle-wise, a novice observer was to sit inert behind me during a brief flurry with a more numerous enemy patrol. He was in complete ignorance that anything untoward was happening. Indeed, he mentioned later that he had been feeling cold and miserable and thought that we were on our way home. His carelessness might have cost us our lives but, remembering my own early self, I repressed my wrath.
I was happy enough in 29, but as the CO realised full well, there was concern about my life expectancy. It was short enough for any front-line pilot, but my chances of survival were beginning to look very bleak. While the days slipped by I was simply not learning nearly fast enough. The CO thought that I would be safer on bombers and he arranged for my transfer to 57 squadron, flying DH4’s. But I was not safer on bombers. I disliked the great cumbrous things. Twice, owing to engine failure, I was forced to crash land on broken ground. Later still I was caught napping by a formation of Albatross Scouts and, though we shot down the leader, forcing him into an uncontrolled dive, our machine was riddled, and my observer was wounded in both hands, a bullet taking away both the foresight and the backsight of his Lewis gun. We got home with difficulty.
After four months in France I was sent home for a rest. My CO recorded depressingly that I was unlikely to make an ‘efficient’ pilot. I did not accept this and asked that I be posted for further training with fighters. My request was granted, and after my leave, I went to a training unit at Port Meadow near Oxford to fly Bristol fighters . There had been a squadron of these two-seater fighters operating from the same aerodrome from which I was flying bombers, and I had often admired them enviously as they roared overhead after take-off, their sleek snouts thrusting aggressively skywards.
During my leave from France two events took place of considerable importance. The first was the 21st March ‘Great Spring Offensive’, the German Army’s final attempt to end the war at least on their terms, if not with total victory. The Russians had recently surrendered releasing a massive force of German men and artillery from the Northern Front. The plan was to aim the main thrust at the British section of the Western Front, from the Somme battlefields to the Channel ports, thus inflicting an allied defeat before the Americans could arrive in strength. It was only halted after a long British tactical retreat from those Somme battlefields, held at such a cost back in 1916. We again suffered heavy losses in men and guns, as did the Germans.
The second event was the demise of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service leading to the birth of the Royal Air Force on April 1st. Despite this bold initiative that created the world’s first dedicated national air force, the change was greeted with no great enthusiasm in either service, particularly in France. All manner of wild rumours circulated. One was that we would all have to share duties as orderly officer for our aerodromes, striding up and down officiously but uselessly with a telephone in one hand and file under an arm. Another by-product of the innovation was the new uniform. Air Force blue did not appear overseas for many months but the khaki variant with the leather peaked cap and navy type tunic came out with newly commissioned officers. As any squadron photograph of the time will show they were often to be worn in bizarre association with RFC uniform and with the army type uniform of seconded officers. This phenomenon was due to the degree of indulgence accorded us flying people. We also benefited from generous free transport, presumably in recognition of our dangerous occupation. This never seemed fair in our eyes. Already we were much more highly paid than the infantry who were faced daily with the mud and blood of the trenches and seemed to lead a far more unpleasant existence.