Alarums and excursions in a 'prehistoric packing case'!
A common British 'pet name' for an aeroplane, probably originating in WW1, was a 'kite'. New Zealand ace Keith 'Grid' Caldwell got his nickname from calling aircraft 'grids'. 'Packing cases' - perhaps in the sense of what in the UK we call tea chests, light and flimsy plywood boxes much sought after for moving house contents - is a common translation of a German equivalent from the same period. 'Prehistoric packing cases' seems to have been an uncomplimentary form of the term, attributed to Manfred von Richthofen and applied, generally, to single- or two-seat 'pusher' biplanes, like the Vickers F.B.2 'gun-bus', the F.E.2, and the D.H.2 that I'm flying in my current Wings over Flanders Fields RFC campaign. But this is March 1916, and the ascendancy of the new German fighter aircraft in the hands of Boelcke, Richthofen et al are some months away. Instead, our principal fighter opposition is the increasingly-obsolescent Fokker monoplane, which we in 'B' Flight, No. 24 Squadron, met and vanquished in my first operational flight.
Here's the briefing for my second show. The date is 2nd March, and I'm leading four D.H.s to provde an escort for three B.E.2c two-seaters on a reconnaisance mission to just over the lines.
As I've said before, this type of escort was relatively rare. The RFC's offensive doctrine preferred a system of timed patrols, what the Germans (in WW2 anyway) would have called free-booting frei jagd sweeps. 'Working aeroplanes' if they had an escort, were often provided it from within their own squadron (which sometimes had 'fast scouts' on its strength, useful for this purpose). This eliminated the difficulty in effecting a rendevous between slow machines flying in from different locations. In fact in January 1916, at the height of the 'Fokker Scourge', the RFC ordered that each recce machine be escorted by three others. Thus the Fokkers significantly reduced the RFC's sortie rate, never mind the aircraft and crews they actually shot down - 'virtual attrition' I think they call it.
Speaking of 2nd March 1916, I see the RFC's 'Comic Cuts' internal communiqué for that date recorded, as regards air combat, that '2Lt Fincham and 2Lt Price (B.E.2c. 2127, 8 Sqn) were persistently attacked by a Fokker biplane when doing artillery patrol in the Ypres salient. The result was indecisive. The pilot reports he distinctly saw the hostile machine using tracer bullets. Sgt Bayetto (Morane Scout, 3 Sqn) on escort duty to the Valenciennes reconnaisance, reports having been attacked by 5 Fokkers in the neighbourhood of Valenciennes. The reconnaisance machine dived to get clear, but was closely followed by the hostile machines. Sgt Bayetto opened fire on the nearest hostile machine and drove it down, apparently into the woods at Valenciennes. After the engagement he saw no more signs of the reconaisance machine and returned over Lille where he was again attacked by 3 Fokkers. These he eventually evaded and after circling around Lille for 15 minutes, returned to his landing ground.' The fate of the 'reconnaisance machine' is unrecorded, but may be deduced from being last reported as diving away, 'closely followed by the hostile machines.'
How will 2nd March be for me, Lt. Jock Higgins, from Stirling, Scotland? Would I have got a mention in 'Comic Cuts'? It's time to find out!
It's about 09:00 and the sun is having a bit of bother breaking through the fairly extensive cloud cover. Undaunted, we head off to the north-east, to meet up with the recce machines, giving me time to admire the effects of the low morning sunshine, filtered by the clouds.
I suddenly notice four aeroplanes slipping past above us, in a patch of open sky. I recognise them as 'pushers', confirming they are friendlies - the Huns had so few of this type it's more or less a given thing. I wonder if they might be our own squadron's 'A' Flight, which is supposed to be supporting us, but their more slender, less stubby appearance tells me they are the bigger F.E.2b general purpose two seaters, off on a mission of their own.
Gaining height as we press on, I see the town of Doullens to our left, which provides a welcome re-assurance that we haven't managed to get lost, yet. You know what they say, about an officer with a map ('The most dangerous thing in the Army').
Shortly after this, I spot three machines below and ahead, against some clouds, heading the same way. Doctor Livingstone, I presume.
Ankor's latest DX9 mod's mouselook includes smooth scroll-wheel zoom, an excellent new feature.
I start zig-zagging above the two-seaters. Our D.H.2s aren't fast, but the B.E.s are climbing hard, so we are able to do this without falling behind. Soon, we can see the churned earth of shelled ground, slipping in ahead and on both sides, replacing the previously-unspoilt countryside as we near the front.
Looking down and over the side - another thing made easy without head-tracking, with Ankor's latest mod - I can make out one of our observation balloons, far below. You can see him close to my starboard wheel rim, in this next picture.
Serves me right for sight-seeing, for when I look around again, I can see neither head nor tail of the B.E's. Where the heck have they gone?
Have we got ahead of them, or are they out of sight somewhere beneath us, hidden by our airframes? I begin a wide turn to the right, confident that I will pick them up again pretty quickly. They can't have gone that far.
Or can they? The B.E.s are no-where to be seen. I circle around again, feeling increasingly desperate. Still no sign! At least, I don't see any indication of an air fight, no pillars of smoke marking the fall to earth of one of my charges. Well, if they're still in the air, they're most likely ahead of us by now, so I level out and race off towards our objective. I have lost some height and the B.E.s were climbing when last seen, but I fly straight and level, the faster to catch them up.
To my boundless relief, I soon spot the three B.E.s, ahead and above. A gentle climb enables me to continue to catch them up; I will worry about getting right up to their level, after I have done that.
But suddenly, I have other, more pressing things to worry about. I haven't slowed down to ensure my flight can keep up during my recent manoeuvres, and now, I pay the price, as rounds whack into my machine from behind. A lone Fokker has slipped in between me and my spread-out flight mates and what's more, the Hun is making a very determined effort at bringing my career to an early and violent end!
...to be continued!