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33LIMA

CA-WW1 - Sagittarius Rising

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Bringing another Great War classic to life in Wings Over Flanders Fields!

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The man and the book 

'...air fighting required a set steely courage, drained of all emotion, fined down to a tense and deadly effort of will. The Angel of Death is less callous, aloof and implacable than a fighting pilot when he dives.'  So wrote Cecil Lewis in his classic aviation memoir, 'Sagittarius Rising'. First published in 1936, this book - by the man who later became a founder of the British Broadcasting Corporation - is one of those 'must read' pilot autobiographies that's often quoted in other histories for its many dramatic accounts.

 

Lewis enlisted directly into the RFC in late 1915 and trained intitially on the inevitable Marucie Farman 'longhorn', moving on to the Avro 504. Posted to 22 Squadron flying the relatively-new FE2b 'pusher', on arrival in France he finds plans have changed. While he's able fo get in some extra flying time, mostly on the BE2c, he's posted ultimately to No.3 Squadron after a short introduction to its mount, the Morane Type L Parasol.

 

This aircraft he describes as '...one of the recognised death-traps which pilots in training prayed they might never have to fly...Pilots trained on ordinary Avros and 2c's, when turned loose on Moranes killed themselves with alarming regularity.' The main problem was apparently the lack of a fixed tailplane, resulting in an incredibly sensitive elevator: '...the least movement stood you on your head or on your tail.' Nevertheless, Lewis says that he '...did come to love the Morane as I loved no other aeroplane...Good old Parasol!'

 

Lewis flies the type throughout the dreadful Somme battle, on whose first dread day the British Army suffered approaching 60,000 casualties, including nearly 20,000 killed, devastating in particular many communities whose young men had signed up to fill the ranks of the 'Kitchener's Army' battalions which bore the brunt of the fighting. In the air, Lewis flies the new infantry contact patrols as well as photo recce missions and artillery spotting, and has some inconclusive air combats. By this time, Lewis has seen trials of a captured Fokker monoplane which have shown it to have little or no advanatge over most RFC types, beyond its synchronised machine gun.

 

Posted to 'Home Establishment' after winning the Military Cross, Lewis has a spell as a test pilot. Spring 1917 finds him joining 56 Squadron, formed to introduce the potent new SE5 fighter to combat. Back in France, he sees much action, including the fight during which the great ace Albert Ball is lost. Wounded after narrowly escaping being shot down by '...one of the latest Pfalz scouts: the SE was no match for that machine', he's posted back to England on Home Defence duties. His last operational posting is to a new night fighter unit, designed to operate in France to intercept enemy tactical night bombers in modified Sopwith Camels, but sees no action before the Armistice brings the war to an end.

 

Lewis's book is sprinkled with insights and anecdotes aplenty. These include an air combat demonstration with the great French ace Guynemer, not long before the latter was killed: 'In his hands the Spad was a marvel of flexibility...nothing I could do would shift that grim-looking French scout off my tail.' 'Sagittarius Rising' is currently in print and deserves a place on the bookshelf of anyone with an interest in WW1 in the air.

 

The air war in mid-1916

By this time, the 'Fokker Scourge' had already been eclipsed by more modern French and British aircraft dedicated to the air-to-air role, like the Nieuport 11, De Havilland DH2 and RAF FE2b. By the time of the Battle of the Somme, the aerial boot was firmly on the other foot and the British and French air forces were enjoying a period of increasing ascendancy, which would last only until the autumn, when the arrival of the Jastas and the Albatros D-types marked the start of another German resurgence.

 

The mission

As expected, Wings Over Flanders Fields allows me to fly with Cecil Lewis in No.3 Squadron in the fateful Battle of the Somme. I opted to start on 1 July, the opening day, and here's the squadron 'Duty Room' which shows our roster, aircraft strength and disposition.

 

3 RFC duty room.JPG

 

And here's 'B' Flight, which I'll be leading. As well as the author of 'Sagittarius Rising', another notable pilot is no less than 'HK' himself - Hubert Harvey-Kelly, the first RFC pilot to arrive in France in 1914, who as CO of 19 Squadron was shot down and killed by Kurt Wolf in a disastrous fight with Jasta 11 during 'Bloody April', 1917.

 

3 RFC B Flight.JPG

 

And here's the briefing screen for our mission. It's another bombing raid, this time to a railyard just behind the German front lines. 'A' flight is not involved in this mission (there's no 'C' flight on WOFF missions, I believe) but perhaps to make up for it, there are no less than six Moranes along for this particular ride. 

 

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And here we are lined up on the grass in front of the sheds at la Houssuoye, each carrying four small bombs down between the wheels. The weather is fine with only scattered clouds, mostly clear blue skies.

 

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I was soon up and away, leaving our airfield behind. It seemed quite well-equiped and sensibly-located, on a nice clear area of open ground, the only hazard some stands of trees on the airfield boundaries that would have been better cut down. But I managed to miss these and off I went, slowly getting the hang of my unfamiliar mount, whose elevator was quite sensitive but whose rudder needed quite a bit of deflection to effect any kind of a decent turn.

 

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Settled onto my course, I levelled off and throttled back, to let my flight catch up. They did so slowly, about as fast as you could expect on their 80 hp Le Rhone engines. Finally the formation was complete and I opened her up again.

 

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Climbing as hard as we could, we came up to the Lines. Zero Hour for the offensive was past but there was still a certain amount of shelling going on, well underneath our clear doped linen wings.

 

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I levelled off at four thousand and in the clear conditions, was able to pick out our target visually, just the far side of the shelled area. As the range wound down, I called up the tactical display, selected a series of targets in the railway complex and issued 'Attack' orders. Leaving my flight to get on with it in their own way I then made my own bombing run. Everyone's bombs seemed to hit at about the same time so I wasn't sure which were mine, But overall, we seemed to have had much the desired effect. A good start!

 

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Sure enough, a certain amount of damage had been done. Not bad at all, considering that out bombs were so small.

 

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I banked around for home, porpoising a bit while trying to balance the turn in the awkward big parasol. Rolling out with plenty of coarse rudder, I levelled her off and headed for home, gratifled to see that the flight seemed to be losing little time in getting back into formation.

 

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It was only at this point that Archie showed up. There was a muffled 'crump!' and then another, as the black bursts of German AA fire started unrolling in our wake. A bit late there, you Huns! Well, you can do your worst, now. We have knocked about your little railway station and we're already well on our way home!

 

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My confidence was a little premature, as it turned out. The Huns hadn't finished with us yet!

 

 

...to be continued!

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At this point, homeward bound from a successful bombing raid, the newly-awoken German Archies were light but apparently bang on target, for their rounds seeemed to be bursting right on top of me. I had no desire to take any risks at this point and commenced mild evasive action. Better safe than sorry! My little formation was back together now, roughly half way across the wide stretch of No-Man's Land and soon to be back at la Housouye. Or so I thought.

 

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At this point there was a rattle of machine gun fire as my observer, sitting just behind me, cut loose. Ooops!

 

I fish-tailed and looked back. The problem wasn't hard to see. A small flock of Fokkers had appeared from goodness knows where and was closing determinedly. Lower down, something caught my eye - a Morane was falling from the sky in a vertically-banked spiral that might or might not be under control.

 

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As I watched, a second Morane went steeply down, this time with a lighter-coloured Fokker dropping after him like a hawk. This was getting worse by the second. So far, those on the left of my Vee formation seemed to be bearing the brunt.

 

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Looking right, two Fokkers were closing in on my other Moranes, who kept their height and began to edge slightly right and away from me.

 

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Decisions, decisions! My flight was now well and trully split into two elements, one low and behind, already fighting for their lives, and the second to my right, which soon would be. I could not be in two places at once, and rather than diving down and losing height I'd never be able to regain, I decided to rejoin the Moranes on my right, as the Fokkers closed on them.

 

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This was easier said than done. I throttled up but my flightmates were already going flat out for friendly territory and were a little way above. Rather than fall behind trying to regain their level I opted to slip across and come in below and behind them, hopefully giving my observer a crack at the trailing Fokkers.

 

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My tactic seemed to work quite well. My observer's fire took the lead Fokker by surprise and the Hun broke off his attack on my flight-mates. My trusty back-seater gave him another burst as he slipped away across my tall from right to left and dived away. I didn't see what became of the second Hun but when I looked up and right again, my two Moranes were going strong and Fokker-free.

 

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I now determined to do what I could for whatever might be left of the other half of my flight; those who had been forced down right at the start of the air fight. I banked down and looked around, back to towards the Lines. I was relived to see at once a sandy-coloured monoplane flitting into open countryside from the shelled area, very low down but still going strong. Less encouraging was that close behind him - close enough to have been in formation - was a second, paler monoplane - one of the Fokkers had chased him over and was not letting go! I chopped my throttle and spiralled down after them as the pair slipped below me.

 

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This seemed to have the desired effect, for the Fokker broke off and turned east for Hun-land. I chased after him for a bit but he was too fast for me. Satisfied that he was going, I turned again for home.

 

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It wasn't long before I realised that I wasn't done yet. Whether the Fokker I'd chased off had 'rediscovered honour' or it was one of his comrades, I could see the distant but distinctive outline of a mid-winged monoplane closing slowly from behind. And I was now on my own.

 

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Clearly this impertinent fellow needed to be reminded that he was now on our side of the Lines. With that in mind, I steered towards a likely source of some ground fire, in the shape of an observation balloon which I could see glinting in the summer sunshine, low and slightly left.

 

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The friendly AA gunners duly sprang to life and the Fokker quickly took the hint, banking left and swinging back towards the Lines. This time, there was no repetition, and I sailed sererenly on, waggling my grateful wings at the balloon site as I passesd.

 

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Another few minutes and I was safely back at La Houssoye, glad to be back on terra firma but anxious to find out who had made it back, and who hadn't. I was fairly sure that I had managed to save a couple of likely casualties but I was equally sure that at least one Morane must have been lost.

 

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The big surprise was that I seemed to have got one of the Fokkers. I duly completed a combat report claiming the one we'd shot off the tails of the Moranes to my right but I didn't see him crash so we'll have to see if that one is confirmed or not.

 

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Alas, casualties had been heavy, with three Moranes destroyed. Amongst the crews, we had three dead and one mortally wounded. The three enemy aircraft claimed destroyed and the damage our bombs had wrought was some consolation. The boys on the ground are not the only ones paying a high price for whatever ground may be gained in this offensive!

 

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Well that concludes the second mission in this book-based series and it was certainly an eventful one. Flying the two-seaters whose vital work made them the primary target for the faster 'scouts' was obvously no sinecure. I'm glad that the next mission in the series puts me back on the side of the hunter rather than the hunted! For that report, we'll be flying with Imperial Prussian Jagdstaffel Nr. 2 later in 1916, recreating the air combats described by no less than Manfred von Richthofen in 'The Red Battle-flier'.

 

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Excellent write up 33Lima and some good thinking in the heat of battle.

Edited by Polovski

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My Favorite book.... put into pictures, i really enjoyed this 33Lima.Thank you 

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