Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Kings of the Air: The continual strain

Back in the air again, after that diversion into sources.
Many airmen were afraid before they went into combat. 'Your first flight is a picnic,' thought Maréchal des logis Marcel Viallet (N67). 'Do you think about coming under fire? Your aircraft breaking up in mid-air? The controls malfunctioning. Not on your life. Nothing can rattle you when you first climb into a plane … until the day [the enemy] slips to one side and spears you from behind. By crikey, that makes you mind your step. … The obsession with crashing was awful. Seeing the ground rushing towards you as you fall is so terrifying and so disorienting that my pen has gone on strike. Even if, by extraordinary good fortune, the hero of the drama survives such a dreadful experience, think what willpower must be needed to fly again.'

Many men certainly required a major effort of will to accept what was in effect single combat. 'It's hard to suppress that ancientinstinct for self-preservation screaming at you to sheer off and get away from the planes with sinister black crosses,' added Viallet. But Marcel Brindejonc des Moulinais found such feelings disappeared with experience: 'My second clash was very different,' he reported. 'I knew what to expect. Only five rounds hit my plane where it mattered. So you could get away and that idea alone gave me the courage [I needed] to continue.' Adjudant Célestin Sanglier (N62) agreed: 'That little shiver as the first rounds whistle past your ears, then the thrill of combat, and you forget everything, even that you might be hit by a round from your opponent.' Raoul Lufbery (N124) thought that 'opening fire is mildly intoxicating for the pilot; our worst imaginings fade away and we give each other a real peppering.'

Not everyone felt the same. 'I happened across two comrades with the group insignia,' recalled Adjudant André Chainat (SPA3). 'I signalled to them, "Follow me." They did so reluctantly. I put myself in amongst them. I pushed them [and] found my Boches again. I worked out a plan and signalled, "I'm attacking." Happily, I was facing the last in line and I sent him down in flames. I looked around for my comrades. They'd [both] disappeared ... Some are true and some false; some will go [into combat], some will not [and] some just pretend to do so ... some disappear from view until all ... danger is past. Their engine started to sputter, their gun jammed, they were attacked by an enemy superior in number and don't know how they escaped ... if they go out alone they never encounter [an enemy plane].' Paul Waddington shared a similar experience: 'plenty of fighter pilots never attacked, either because they didn't know how, or often because they left it to the patrol leader, who was generally more experienced and the first into the attack.'

As well as the mental struggle, aircrew also had a physical battle to contend with. Cold was a perennial problem. A ground temperature of 15°C falls to -42°C at 6,000 metres. At -34°C, a temperature typical of higher altitudes even in midsummer, the body operates at only 25% efficiency. Some of the effects of cold and oxygen deprivation were known before the outbreak of the war and the newspaper Le Matin organized a campaign to provide warm clothing for aircrew. But it was rather more enthusiastic than helpful: woollen gloves and scarves absorbed water from rain and clouds and then froze. 'I give mine to my mechanic,' one American pilot told James Hall (N124). 'He sends them home, and his wife unravels the yarn to make sweaters for the youngsters.'

'We weren't stupid enough to wrap ourselves in clothes taken straight from a freezing locker,' recalled André Duvau (BR29). 'You took care to lay out your flying suit and fur-lined boots reasonably close to the mess stove. Then, once you were warm, you put on a big woollen jumper over your tunic, 'slipped' into your flying suit, and pulled on your overboots, carefully tightening the belt and the wrist and ankle tabs. On your head went a silk stocking, followed by a silk balaclava, a woollen balaclava and a fur-lined leather flying helmet. You turned up the collar of your flying suit and wrapped a muffler round your neck, fixing it at the back so the wind couldn't catch the ends and whip them into your face. A good pair of goggles completed the outfit, plus a pair of paper gloves with fur-lined gloves on top. We lumbered about like deep-sea divers.'

Exhaustion, mental and physical, struck all pilots – a combination of long flying hours, repeated oxygen deprivation and acute anxiety. 'Flying has a way of ageing you very quickly,' commented the writer Jacques Duval. 'You very soon learn to shield yourself behind an armour of indifference,' recalled one bomber pilot, 'and what you remember of [your] trips is more often some minor irritation – your tie was too tight or your windscreen rattled – than all those moments critical to the outcome of one of [our] four-hour battles.'

Jacques Ehrlich (SPA154) was an experienced balloon-buster, a task that required a cool head and a steady hand on the controls. He was also a successful one, shooting down down eighteen 'sausages' (and one aircraft) between June and September 1918. Yet he was always afraid. 'I touched wood all the time,' he confessed. 'I was scared that the Boches would attack me from the rear, that the guns and machine-guns circling the balloon would bring me down; I was scared that technical trouble would stop me getting back. As soon as I'd completed my task, I pulled off my glove and frantically touched wood again until I got back. But once my feet hit terra firma my fears evaporated. I was wild with joy, roaring with laughter. I could have been at the music-hall.' 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, some took to drink. Jean Navarre had always hated discipline, even as a child, and many commanding officers found him hard to handle. Yet his flying abilities made up for a lot. 'In the air,' recalled Captain Henri de Saint Sauveur, his CO in N67, 'Navarre was a phenomenon, a prodigy: he devised the range of manoeuvres known as “aerobatics”, which he had long been developing for use in aerial combat … I still admire him hugely. I'm very grateful for the way he tackled the missions entrusted to him – enthusiastic, dependable and cheerful. And I'm still completely in awe of his dexterity and skill.' Major Charles de Rose was similarly charmed and exasperated in turn. 'Navarre always catches you on the hop,' he grumbled. 'Just when you're about to put him on a charge, you end up mentioning him in despatches.'

But returning prematurely from convalescence after his wounding in the summer of 1916, followed by the death in action of his twin brother, saw Navarre turn increasingly to alcohol. His behaviour become ever more erratic and in April 1917, the worse for drink, he tried to run over some Paris policemen. Hospitalized again, he was not passed fit for service until September 1918 and was still at a training establishment when the armistice was signed.

Some pilots diagnosed with nervous exhaustion were sent to a convalescent hospital at Viry-Chatillon, Hôpital Complémentaire VR75, originally established under the auspices of the Ligue Aéronautique de France, with a 'magnificent ten-hectare park, whose fountains and harmonious design are reminiscent of the gardens at Versailles, available to those who have risked their lives and given unstintingly of their patriotism.' 'The pilots called this hospital Squadron VR75 on account of its number,' recalled one patient. 'They gave us plenty to eat and and we had lots of English cigarettes. We always slipped a few boxes in our pockets when we left to enjoy ourselves in Paris. A big 25- or 30-seater diligence, drawn by four horses, took us to Juvisy station. ... I left the hospital after a month, wearier than on my admission – and with good reason because we led a rather wayward existence.'

Bernard Lafont (V220) was not alone in feeling as he did after a flight over the lines: 'Back at the tents, I stretched out in an armchair, exhausted. My body was tired from all the rapid climbing and descending and the constant changes of pressure. My ears buzzed and the rumble of the engine still filled my head. But above of all I was weary of the continual strain on my mind and my senses … Always risking your life to … to observe some distant object on the ground or in the endless skies.'

Pictures: Viallet (from Wikipedia), Brindejonc des Moulinais, Chainat (both from old postcards), Ehrlich (from La Guerre Aérienne Illustrée), Navarre (from Wikipedia), the hospital at Viry-Chatillon (from the excellent As Oubliés site).




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