6 Squadron WW1 Facts 4

Extract taken from my latest book, Over the Western Front

APRIL 1916

Despite poor weather conditions for almost the whole of the month, with low cloud, driving rain and strong winds making life most unpleasant, our machines continued to bomb the enemy trenches around the new craters at St Eloi until the offensive effectively ground to a halt on the 16th April and we received orders to revert to our normal role of artillery observation duties for the rest of the month. The weather perked up for a few days towards the end of April and we managed to engage seventy-seven artillery targets in a single day. I think that’s a squadron record.

 

Funnily enough, all the time we were operating around St Eloi, 6 Squadron was flying alongside machines from 5 Squadron. If we had known their sheds would have been empty all this time, it would have been far easier to have kept 5 Squadron here at Abeele until 29 Squadron was ready to move in, instead of moving the squadron out to Droglandt lock, stock and barrel. But then, we all know the expression regarding the benefit of hindsight. Strangely enough, it was rumoured only a month ago that it would 6 Squadron and not 5 Squadron that would be leaving Abeele. I sure hope somebody in charge knows what they’re doing.

 

6 Squadron has been unlucky this month with four of our machines destroyed in accidents for one reason or another. One of our two Bristol Scouts and a BE2c overturned upon landing when their pilots were returning from a patrol. A second BE2c ended up in a ditch after the pilot missed the landing area and attempted to land on a ploughed field next to the aerodrome. Yet another BE2c ended up in a ditch in the process of leaving on a reconnaissance sortie when its engine gave up the ghost at two hundred feet. The only casualty in all of the above was Lt Moncrief, the observer in the BE2c that overturned and broke in two. He was thrown into the air and suffered broken bones. Pardon the pun, but I reckon he’ll be back in the air in no time at all. I daresay our major had a lot of explaining to do when ordering replacements from the Aircraft Park. Let’s hope next month will bring fewer accidents.

 

Talking of accidents, 29 Squadron arrived on the morning of the 15th April, a whole month after the newly-formed squadron first tried to leave Blighty! Everyone who was able to turned out to greet the ten little DH2 scouts when they circled Abeele and dropped down one by one on to the main landing area. What a strange sound those pusher aircraft made, popping and buzzing like a swarm of manic insects. As it happened, three of the wireless machines that I and my boys maintain happen to reside in an aeroplane tent right next to one that has been allocated to 29 Squadron, so I’ve been able to get to know a couple of their mechanics and find out what happened.

 

To cut a long story short, due to mechanical failure and bad weather in England and over the Channel, only three of the twelve aircraft that originally set out from England made it in one piece to St Omer, with most of the accidents resulting in total loss of the machines and several pilots seriously injured in the process. Most people don't realise that a large percentage of Royal Air Force casualties are due to accidents. Worse was to come, though, with more accidents occurring as the squadron was slowly brought up to its full strength of twelve machines, with a total of fourteen aircraft either destroyed or badly damaged in less than a month. Anyway, II Brigade has at last got its very own fighter squadron.

 

Without wishing to tempt fate or further antagonise 29 Squadron’s already sensitive pilots who have had two machines struck off charge, with one pilot killed and another seriously injured in accidents since they arrived here, 6 Squadron didn’t lose a single man in the month of April. The loss of a 29 Squadron pilot so soon after their arrival at Abeele was all the more distressing because it took place right in front of the whole of 6 Squadron whilst we were on parade. It all happened so quickly, there was nothing anyone could do. The problem with ‘pusher’ aircraft is the heavy engine located right behind the pilot. Though the engine does gives a pilot some protection when he’s attacked from behind, it can end up crushing the pilot in the event of a bad landing unless the pilot is lucky enough to be thrown clear.

 

I’m beginning to feel a bit of a fraud, as I’ve been working in the village at HQ and can enjoy practicing the piano and playing at Marguerita’s almost every night with the major’s blessing. I’m sure the situation will change, now that the weather has improved and we’re back to flying artillery observation sorties where the wireless aeroplanes are in the air almost constantly during the day.

 

I had a strange experience when I was playing at Marguerita’s on Saturday the 8th April to celebrate my friend Ernie Dexter’s birthday (he’s a fellow wireless mechanic who has aspirations of one day becoming an officer) when I noticed there were four German prisoners sitting in the audience. They were under guard of course, but it was confronting nevertheless. I can only think they were captured in the allied advance at St Eloi. Hopefully it was the first and last time I will ever be face to face with the enemy. The strangest part about it all was the fact that, apart from their uniform, they looked exactly like us.

 

I don’t think there will be any more German guests at that particular establishment as on the following Sunday evening there was an affray during my performance when shots rang out in one of the other rooms. Not being a hero, I didn’t wait to find out what the fuss was about and made a bee-line for the front door. It so happened to be the day after 29 Squadron arrived at Abeele, so it’s possible the pilots were just letting their hair down. Nothing came of it, with no-one brought before either of the majors and it’s been quiet at Marguerita’s ever since.

 

My first Easter in Belgium was quite remarkable in its diversity and uniqueness, with an invitation / request / order to play at the sergeants’ dinner in their mess on the Saturday night, a combined church service on Easter Sunday morning which was held in one of the empty aeroplane sheds with a sermon delivered from the cockpit of a DH2 and, to top it off, a German bomb attack on the night of Easter Monday. Fortunately there was no damage or injuries sustained by either squadron, but it was the first time I have been close to an exploding bomb and the feeling of helplessness that goes with it.

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