'TOO OLD AT TWENTY-FIVE.'
What Boy Airmen are Doing at the Front.
By A SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT.
"It's boys of nineteen and twenty who are winning the war in the air for us on the western front," said a flying officer who returned from France a few days ago. "It's a case of being too old at twenty-five." His statement is corroborated by the British Commander-in-Chief himself.
"This is a war of youth," said Sir Douglas Haig. "It takes youth to win. Why shouldn't a soldier be young? Would you choose men of forty to play a championship football game? War is more strenuous than the fiercest football game."
The ever-increasing strain on the nerves of the pilot, due to the more and more exacting demands of the warfare on the western front break up a man the quicker once he is out of his teens. The work of the flying men was never so important as now. The demands made upon them are becoming greater every day. Artillery control, reconnaissance, photographing, bombing, and fighting must be carried on unless the weather is hopelessly wild.
The machines that direct our gunnery are necessarily slow, and they have to be up all day. They present a good target for the guns of the enemy, but as a rule they get off comparatively lightly, protected as they are by patrols of fighters, who keep away the enemy fighting machines.
THE ART OF SPOTTING.
The nature of the present fighting in Northern Flanders has made artillery spotting a fine art. The enemy is now reduced in many places to placing his guns in shell craters and disguising the positions of his guns by means of dummy flashes. These he manipulates very skilfully.
Thus a British observer flying over the enemy's position and looking for a gun which he is convinced is concealed in one of three or four craters close together, sees three or four flashes simultaneously.
It is the observer's business to find out which of those flashes comes from a real gun, and it is an exceedingly difficult job. He may watch for the explosion of the shell in the British lines, and then trace the direction from whence it came, only to find that there were four distinct flashes from four different craters all about the same spot.
Sometimes he decides to drop a bomb on one of the craters in the hope of being lucky enought to hit the right one, or he will direct our artillery on to the crater, but even then the shot or the bomb may be wasted on a dummy.
In these circumstances the number of direct hits known to be obtained on the enemy's guns is remarkable. Last week the correspondents at the front were able to announce that our airmen helped the guns to range on well over 700 German batteries, and that 128 gun pits were totally destroyed.
The Germans resort to all manner of devices to save their guns. The craters, with their dummy flashes, are connected with a tunnel, into which the gun is withdrawn when a British aeroplane is seen to be directing the guns.
RISKS MUST BE TAKEN.
Our young airmen take any amount of risk in order to get the British guns well on to the target.
Some pilots do not consider they have done a thorough day's work unless they return with their machines simply punctured all over with bullet holes.
Occasionally a good pilot has the bad luck to have several smashes in one week. As a matter of fact, he does not consider it bad luck if he comes down every time uninjured in the British lines.
But it is these smashes that tell more on the older pilots than the young men. After a half-a-dozen falls, even if the man is uninjured, the shock is such that some men are not fit for any more flying for many weeks.
The youth of nineteen thinks nothing of it. The late Captain Ball told a friend of his that he sometimes felt nervous when going into a big fight in the air, but never did he feel the slightest apprehension before going up, and he liked to start early in the morning. Older pilots with a longer experience of flying and of the risks candidly confess to a certain "shakiness" before starting off. They are more careful about the running of the engine and have a general look round the machine before leaving the ground.
The public have yet to learn the name of a nineteen-year-old pilot whose exploits are already the talk of the squadrons at the front. His feats are said to equal, if not surpass, those of Captain Ball, and the number of enemy machines he has brought down during the recent fighting is said to be a record.
FAINTING FROM COLD.
One of the great difficulties the pilots now have to contend with is the intense cold at the great altitudes they now have to fly. Twenty thousand feet is by no means an uncommon height for our machines to reach.
Here the air is noticeably rarefied and pilots have fainted and lost control of their machines. The German airmen have an ingenious electrical installation for keeping themselves warm, the power for which is supplied by the engine of the aeroplane. Our men are supplied with small charcoal warmers worn inside the pilot's jacket, and which glow and keep them warm for hours.
There is not much humour in the fighting at the front, particularly in the contests in the air, but at one aerodrome the flying men were roaring with laughter the other day at an amusing incident.
The German airmen are not so youthful as ours, because the harsh, rigid discipline of the German Army is not calculated to produce daring airmen at the age of nineteen.
One day, flying audaciously near the British lines, two of our airmen spotted a Hun flying fairly low. They at once attacked him and immediately the Hun threw up his arms. They thought he had been struck by a bullet until he began to wave his arms again in the true "kamerad" fashion, so they directed him to fly in the direction of their aerodrome, the two machines escorting the prisoner.
Every now and again the Hun was compelled to drop his hands on to the controls in order to save his machine. His guards watched him narrowly and at the slightest suspicious movement they fired their machine guns and the prisoner at once put up his arms again. All three gracefully alighted in the aerodrome, the Hun with his hands still above his head and very glad to be made a prisoner.
The Weekly Dispatch - September 2, 1917