24 Hours…. a “Day in the Life” of a WW1 Fighter Pilot

Open Cockpit

Clearly I am way late to this dance, but finally picked up the book “Open Cockpit” written in 1969 by Arthur Gould Lee, an Air Vice-Marshall of the RAF who served in World War 1. He is known for several books from that era including “No Parachute”.

The format of the book was not what I expected.  Each chapter reads like a single topic with titles like “Scared”, “Dawn Patrol” and “Ground Strafer”.  Instead of trying to weave together a continuous story about the war, he uses these chapter topics to give vivid detailed descriptions on what he experienced as a fighter pilot during the war.  From rubbing his face with reeking whale oil, to trying to relieve himself on a long patrol at high altitude, he gives you real insight into the early era of military aviation and what the young men experienced who were there.

Chapter Three is titled “Twenty Four Hours”, and in it he  describes a day in his life of an orderly officer (O.O.) in his squadron.  He describes events in order for a twenty four hour period of time with little introduction or explanation.  It was hard to believe what these men went through on a daily basis.

I apologize in advance to Mr. Lee, but I thought I would share a “cliff notes” version of the day that chapter outlines.

4:00 am / Waiting for hard boiled eggs in the mess. On “Standby”, phone rings and alerts us that a German Arty Spotter was seen at 5,000 feet east of Neuve Chapelle.  They want us in the air immediately and send a Crossley to drive us to our planes.

I am angry because I didn’t get breakfast.

4:15 am / In the air, climbing south eastward as the sun breaks. We found the Hun but he saw us coming and retreated before we could get into range.  Outrun by the faster German plane, we circled around and headed north.  I climbed to 10,000 feet and came back around to see if the Hun had returned.  He did and we dived on him again, but this time archie opened up and exposed the sneak attack before we got even close.  The Hun gets away a second time.

5:15 am / Frustrated we fly further north, trying to find something to sneak up on.  Finally we see two L.V.G.’s 700 feet below us coming directly our way.  Two Seaters are tricky and in a pair the rear gunners can be punishing.  We swing to the east to isolate a single plane and make a side attack.  As we swing wide, archie traced our path ruining our surprise.

Suddenly the archie stops….I know what that means.

I look  up to the east and see a swarm of ten Hun scouts in the distance against the clouds.  They are already firing from far away ( must be inexperienced) and we dive towards our lines.  The fighters were Albatros DIII’s and they are gaining rapidly.  Tracer fire is starting to zip over my shoulders.  I look back a second time and balls of white archie open up right in front of them.  Our archie has come to the rescue!   They fly through the archie but the attack is disrupted.  When we reach a 1,000 ft. the enemy planes have pulled off.

We head north, and gradually get back up to 12,000 ft.,  We cloud hop to the east, getting deeper and deeper behind enemy lines.  Find another D.F.W right below us.  My wingman and I dive in on him.  He doesn’t see us so I am patient this time, waiting until I am 200 feet away.  When the plane fills my Aldis I fire in 20 shot bursts.  The startled rear gunner quickly turns and starts firing back at us fiercely.  The D.F.W starts to dive and I pursue him in an almost vertical dive.  I try to keep firing but my gun jams.  I keep one hand on the joystick controlling the dive and  grab the hammer from its leather strap with the other and start wailing on my Vickers to try and break it loose. The Albatros is faster than a Pup and even in a full dive he starts to pull away.  Gun still jammed, I finally pull out.

The standby sorties are usually limited to two hours so we head back to our side of the lines. On the way back with the sun up and massive cumulus cloud cover I get a few minutes of joyous flying. My wingman and I dive and climb, exploring the dark crevices and vertical cliffs of the cloud cover.

6:15 am / I land and pull off my flight gear and report to the office.  The orderly I am to relieve at 8:00 am got called to a go on a standby flight so I have to start my shift now.  I put on my collar and tie and strap on my Sam Brown and head to the Messing tent for the 7:00 am breakfast.

7:00 am / “Tenshun!” by the Sergeant. “Any complaints?” by me.  Dead silence by the men.  “Carry on!” by the Sergeant.  And so it goes.  I have my breakfast, wash and shave. The Sergeant reminds me that it is pay day and that I need to travel to Hinges.

8:30 am / No Crossley available and  Hinges is twenty-five miles to the southwest.  Get a diver to take me in the sidecar of a P.&M. motorcycle.  It is a wild winding ride and I have to lean way out from the sidecar on the turns to keep the wheel on the ground.  I am scared to death, but can’t complain.  Don’t want the driver to think he can scare a fighter pilot that easily.

10:00 am / I survive the double journey and while the corporal clerk went thru the payroll, do the morning inspection of the Aerodrome.  We walk the entire grounds, all the buildings, the latrines, the armory, the petrol store, etc, etc…. testing the fire appliances at every location.

11:00 am / Conduct pay parade in “A” Flight Hanger, surrounded by engines being tuned, guns being tested and planes being taxied to the field.  Just as I finish the Recording Officer comes in and asks that I cover for him while he goes into town for a haircut.  I sit in the office at the desk next to the Major for an hour in complete silence. Not a very social fellow!  I answer the phone several times and don’t have any answers to any of the questions so hand the phone to the silent Major each time.  Finally he gets fed up with me and goes for a walk.

12:00 am / Lunch at the mess, same routine all over again. “Tenshun!”… “Any complaints?”…. Dead silence…”Carry on!”.

A fast lunch of a halfhearted curry and then up in the air again for firing practice to see if the boys were able to fix my machine gun. The jam on my Vickers had been a bad one.  A tracer got stuck at the back of the barrel and than got split by the next round.  I line up on the wooden target in the adjoining field.  The farmers are used to the routine and move off as I approach the ringed target.  The jam was gone and Vickers fired smoothly.

2:00 pm / As I landed at “C” Flight Hanger the flight commander waves me over and tells me to get my guns reloaded, that they need me to fly an escort for a B.E.2e doing an emergency photo recce quite a way over the enemy lines.  They were going to leave in ten minutes.

2:30 pm / We follow the B.E. pilot to the front, flying at an uncomfortably low 5,000 ft. There was a lot of archie and am surprised that the  pilot makes no evasive maneuvers at all, just calmly flies through the explosions.  His indifference to the danger was a sign of someone who had become hardened to the risks and was just trying to complete his assignment.

3:00 pm / Almost 15 miles into German territory at low altitude, I constantly twist my head to the left and right watching for the Hun.  At this altitude we are no match for the Albatros fighters.   The B.E. pilot methodically completes his recon route taking photographs while we circle overhead.   As we head back home, I finally see what I expected all along, four Alabatros fighters to the east, catching up with us fast.  We can not maneuver away because are assignment is to escort the recon plane.  I make ready for a fight, but I know we are done for.  To my astonishment, they Albatros do not level out, but dive right past us and do not come back. No idea why.

3:30 pm / As we approach the lines the archie is punishing.  Seems like half the archie in France is pointed at us, high explosive, shrapnel, flaming onions, the whole lot!   The shells burst so close it pushes my Pup sideways and stings my eyes.  The B.E. pilot continues to fly straight and true, unconcerned about the risks.  As we cross the trenches at 4,000 feet we are clear of the archie and our escort is over.  The B.E. pilot and his gunner waive at us as they head back to their base to the north.  We make it back to our Aerodrome in fine spirits.

What we didn’t know is that the B.E. pilot had been injured by the flak.  He passed out on the way back to his aerodrome, lost control of his airplane clipping the cables on one of our balloons. The airplane dove into the  ground killing the pilot, the gunner and destroying the films.

4:00 pm / We are told that a General is arriving within the hour and to line up in front of our planes.  I don’t know who he is or why he is there.  Exhausted and distracted from the recent flight, I can  hardly put a whole sentence together to greet him.

After the General leaves I go back to the office to work on my next assignment, censoring the airman’s letters.  I hate this job, feel like a peeping tom, so I scan them quickly. Most of the men share very little information about what they are going through.  Just like the B.E. pilot, we keep our plane straight and level and hardly notice  that our lives are constantly in danger.  Hard to write that down.

I got some help from the bored standby pilots and the five us got through them in short order.

5:00 pm / Dinner time… “Tenshun!”. “Any complaints?”. Dead silence. “Carry on!”.

7:00 pm / Finally some time off until Lights Out. I go to the mess for a drink because I figured I deserve it after a hard day’s work.  Before I even got the drink I am interupted. Two new pilots have their first flight in the morning and they want me to take them up for a bit and show them the lines.

7:10 pm  / Back in the air as the sun gets low in the sky.  I take them south towards Arras, well behind our balloon line at about 2,000 ft.  As we turn to head back I notice three scouts about 500 feet above us heading west, must be one of our patrols. I freeze when I recognized the black crosses!  What were these planes doing this far on our side of the line?  As I stare I realize I forgot to tell the new pilots to load their guns before take off. I realize it is too late to sneak away and I wait for the Huns to dive and slaughter us.  To my surprise the Huns drift off to the east.  It is clear that they did not see us at all.  The new boys do not see them either.

When we make it back to the aerodrome I keep the whole incident to myself.  No use getting the new guys all excited before their first real sortie the following day.

8:30 pm / When we reached the Mess the binge is well on.  Since I am on duty as the Orderly I can’t get tipsy.  As the binge winds down I do the rounds for Lights Out.  This is a silly exercise that means the lights turn off as I entered the barracks and quickly came back on as soon as I am out of sight.  I have to walk it again at 11:00 with the sentries before I can go to bed.

12:00 pm / Finally climb into the sleeping bag in the office.  I have to stay dressed because I am on duty.  Shortly after I tuck in I hear the unmistakable deep throb of the Mercedes Engine.  This is nothing new, we have enemy bombers fly over almost every night, but this time there is a sudden roar of exploding bombs and not very far away.  I jump out of bed to make sure the aerodrome is ready for the attack.

Once outside I can see the explosions on the horizon.  One, two, three….the bombs walk there way towards the tarmac.  I can hear the plane’s engines get louder as they fly directly over my head.  With my jaw clenched, I wait for the fourth bomb to hit.  Seconds seem like minutes….but to my relief the fourth bomb never falls and the engine sounds started to fade to the east.  The major calls and I let him know that the aerodrome had not been damaged in the attack.

1:00 am / I finally climbed back into my sleeping bag and immediately fell asleep.



It will seem like seconds when they wake me up again at 4:00 am for my next day’s duties.

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