Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Kings of the Air: When will it be my turn?

All aircrew had to face the likelihood that they would be wounded during the course of their flying career. Gaston Partridge (VB101) was sanguine about the possibility: 'Being wounded, like flying solo, is no big thing and you accept it as inevitable.' On 26 May 1915, Sergeant René Mesguich and observer Robert Jacottet (MS12) pounced on an Albatros of FA12, but the German fought back, wounding Mesguich: 'the bullet went through the fatty layer of my flesh, good old flesh that never did me any harm. It didn't touch my nerves so I could carry on making all those vital actions I needed so much, but it sent warm blood trickling down my arm and I was livid.' Despite the wound, Mesguich still shot down his German. 'It was just enough to make me interesting and give me a few days' rest,' judged the sergeant, 'without preventing me from moving my arm and walking around as normal.'

In 1918, Captain François Coli, CO of SPA62, crash-landed into a hangar and lost an eye in the process. Nevertheless he refused all medical assistance until he had dictated the following order: 'All men in this squadron, the CO apart, are forbidden from entering the hangars in their plane by any means other than the doors intended for that purpose.'

René Dorme (N3) tried to reassure his parents, 'Just keep telling yourselves that flying is no more dangerous than driving a motor car.' This was not Nungesser's experience. He was badly wounded on 29 January 1916 but two months later was back with his squadron, on crutches, flying missions over Verdun. That December he returned to hospital for attention to his wounds but still he refused to convalesce, shooting down a further six aircraft before he was forcibly rehospitalized with exhaustion. During the war he accumulated a frightening range of injuries: 'skull fractures, concussion, internal injuries, five fractures of the upper jaw and two of the lower, shrapnel in the right arm, dislocations of the knees and right foot, shrapnel in the mouth, withered tendons in the lower left leg, withered calf, fractured collar-bone and fractured wrist.' Given all his injuries, it is perhaps unsurprising he had to use a walking stick. The sniggery tone of 'Vigilant' in his book French Warbirds about Nungesser's gait at a medals ceremony is therefore all the more distasteful. In complete contrast to Nungesser, René Fonck never suffered a scratch.

In 1915, André Quennehen (MF23) survived a near-miss flying with the son of General de Maud'huy as his observer. That September young Maud'huy was killed, serving with MF63. 'When will it be my turn?' wondered Quennehen. One pilot thought it was all a matter of chance: 'If he's unlucky, even the best pilot can be killed the first time he has an accident; if fortune smiles on him, a bumbler can emerge from a disaster unscathed.'

Some men conquered their fear of death by telling themselves they were dead already. Captain Albert Auger was the CO of N3. 'Thinking you might die is what allows you to live life to the full,' he reckoned. 'A willingness to die for one's country is the measure of a man.' Aspirant Pierre Gourdon (MF201), bolstered by his faith, was of a similar mind: 'Don't live your life, but a dream, an ideal. Death is an eternal dawn where the soul lives forever in glory, no longer afraid of the day. Heroes today will tomorrow be angels. All true sacrifice is welcome unto God.'

Some risks were much worse than others: 'The aviator is not afraid of some types of death – being downed by a shell or hit by a bullet, falling quickly and crashing to the ground. His real dread is that he'll see his plane is on fire, realize the gravity of his situation and be burned alive.' Raoul Lufbery (VB106 and N124) had discussed the possibility with this comrades. 'I should always stay with the machine.' he advised. 'If you jump you're done for. But there's always a good chance of side-slipping your aeroplane down in such a way that you fan the flames away from yourself and the wings. You can even put the fire out before you reach the ground. It has been done. Me for staying with the old bus, every time!' Yet, in the event, Lufbery chose to jump. On 19 May 1918 he entered a dogfight with an Albatros. 'Luf fired several short-bursts as he dived in to the attack,' reported Eddie Rickenbacker (94th Aero Squadron), who saw him fall. 'Then he swerved away and appeared to busy himself with his gun, which evidently had jammed. Another circle over their heads and he had cleared the jam. Again he rushed the enemy from their rear, when suddenly old Luf's was seen to burst into roaring flames. He passed the Albatros and proceeded for three or four seconds on a straight course. Then to the horrified watchers below there appeared the figure of their gallant hero emerging in a headlong leap from the midst of the fiery furnace! Lufbery had preferred to leap to certain death rather than endure the slow torture of burning to a crisp.'

Inevitably, most casualties occurred among inexperienced aircrew: 'There were an enormous number of deaths and losses among the young,' reckoned Paul Waddington (SPA154). 'It wasn't unusual for a young fighter pilot to turn up and be dead a fortnight later through lack of experience. After a certain amount of flying time and getting yourself out of a number of tight spots, then fine! You'd every chance of staying the course.'

The constant loss of friends and comrades eventually took its toll of even the most equable of men. '[I was] one of ten pilots who in January 1917 formed the initial nucleus of [N, later SPA]81, under the command of Captain Mandinaud,' recalled Adjudant Pierre de Cazenove de Pradines. 'It was my honour to be the first member of the squadron mentioned in despatches. It was later my sorrow to witness the tragic end of nearly all my valiant comrades from the early days [Mandinaud, Rivière, Caillou, Boiteux-Levret, Raymond, Sauvat], all top-drawer pilots who promised so much. It was a grim time for those who remained. The thought of all these deaths was the only spur we needed to avenge our comrades and continue our mission without allowing gaps to appear. Although a very difficult task, it was accomplished magnificently. Nearly all those who replaced the dead now figure among the ranks the aces and all have at least one victim to their credit.'

Bernard Lafont (V220) watched as a Caudron staggered back to the airfield at Lemmes, behind Verdun. The observer was dead, but the pilot unharmed: 'He was standing by his plane, gabbling away, badly shaken and very worked up. He told us about the dogfight: a Boche had surprised them, a few rounds and it was over. [The pilot] was covered in blood, face and clothes. Blood had poured from his observer's wound and the draught from the engine had sprayed it all over him. He had to land the plane under this horrible shower. He managed to touch it down but he was obviously very emotional; every now and then his limbs started trembling. I remained in front of the plane, abandoned on the airfield. The panels of the fuselage were red; so too the struts and the engine housing.'

'I stare Death in the face every day,' said Lieutenant Rémy Grassal (C13), speaking for many aircrew. 'It doesn't frighten me. Those who of my friends who live through this will tell you that I always did what was asked of me, regardless of danger, and that I gave everything in the performance of my duty.' Sous-lieutenant Raymond Havet (N77) was shot down over Chambly (Meurthe-et-Moselle) on 16 March 1917, probably in combat with an aircraft from FA39. He had described how he wished to be remembered in a note left on his bunk for his CO: 'This Boche was no smarter than the rest of them. I made a mistake and I ask you to forgive me. No tears, no wreaths, no flowers. Just a drop of champagne, later … when the time is right.'

Pictures: Partridge (from La Guerre Aérienne Illustrée); Coli (before his accident); Nungesser (from La Guerre Aérienne Illustrée); Lufbery, Cazenove de Pradines (from La Guerre Aérienne Illustrée); Havet's grave marker at Thiaucourt cemetery (he also appears on the Monument des Morts in Avallon (Yonne))

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