John Bull (@garius) is editor of London Reconnections. He also provides all kinds of tweeted distractions. Today, for instance, he set us up with a thread on wing-walkers. Wing-walking, of course, was seriously impaired when biplanes were no longer the thing.
However, his references to wing-walkers (in this case, particularly females of the species) drove me back to one of the earliest books I have on flying. Cecil Lewis wrote Sagittarius Rising in the mid-1930s — and it’s still in print (as right). By then he had a wide reputation. Apart from his MC, he had been one of the first executives for the embryo British Broadcasting Company (and an innovator of its Children’s Hour). He would serve as a squadron leader in the second unpleasantness, and live into his nineties to be the oldest survivor of the RFC.
Cecil Lewis enrolled in the Royal Flying Corps at an illegal early age. He survived two years of war-time operations:
Did I, in fact, fly all through the long months of the Somme battle? Did I dive headlong, guns stuttering, into the Richthofen Circus that night Ball was killed? Did I range over darkened London, nervous under the antennae of her searchlights, hunting for Gothas? And did I, all that behind me, celebrate my twenty-first birthday four months after the Armistice? It seems I did.
Two episodes in Sagittarius Rising continue to catch my mind.
The first is the opening of the Battle of the Somme.
July the 1st, the zero day of the Somme offensive, dawned misty and bright. Before it was light I was down in the sheds looking over my machine — an extra precaution, for I had been over it minutely the evening before. I was detailed for the first patrol, and soon we got the machine out and ran it up.
We were to watch the opening of the attack, co-ordinate the infantry flares (the job we had been rehearsing for months), and stay out over the lines for two and a half hours. Before we left, a second machine would overlap us, stay out its two and a half hours, and so continuous patrols would run throughout the day.
We climbed away on that cloudless summer morning towards the lines. There was a soft white haze over the ground that the sun’s heat would quickly disperse. Soon we were in sight of the salient, and the devastating effect of the week’s bombardment could be seen. Square miles of country were ripped and blasted to a pock-marked desolation. Trenches had been obliterated, flattened out, and still, as we watched, the gun fire continued, in a crescendo of intensity. Even in the air, at four thousand feet, above the roar of the engine, the drumming of firing and bursting shells throbbed in our ears.
” Keep clear of La Boisselle” were my orders. There was a small but heavily fortified salient there. It was to be blown up. Two huge mines, the largest ever laid, were to lift it sky-high at the moment the attack was launched. Weeks before, I had taken the officer in charge of the tunnelling up over the spot, and had heard stories of how the men worked down there in the darkness with pick and shovel, stopping at intervals to listen whether” Keep clear of La Boisselle ” were my orders. There was a small but heavily fortified salient there. It was to be blown up. Two huge mines, the largest ever laid, were to lift it sky-high at the moment the attack was launched. Weeks before, I had taken the officer in charge of the tunnelling up over the spot, and had heard stories of how the men worked down there in the darkness with pick and shovel, stopping at intervals to listen whether enemy miners were tunnelling under their galleries. But all was well, the mines were complete, wired, the troops had been retired clear of them, and the officer in charge was waiting, hand on switch, to set them off. Once they were fired, the infantry were to sweep through Boisselle and on up the Bapaurn road to Pozieres, their first day’s objective.
Now the hurricane bombardment started. Half an hour to go! The whole salient, from Beaumont-Hamel down to the marshes of the Somme, covered to a depth of several hundred yards with the coverlet of white wool-smoking shell bursts! It was the greatest bombardment of the war, the greatest in the history of the world. The clock hands crept on, the thrumming of the shells took on a higher note. It was now a continuous vibration, as if Wotan, in some paroxysm of rage, were using the hollow world as a drum and under his beat the crust of it was shaking. Nothing could live under that rain of splintering steel. A whole nation was behind it. The earth had been harnessed, the coal and ore mined, the flaming metal run; the work-shops had shaped it with care and precisio ; our womenkind had made fuses, prepared deadly explosives ; our engineers had designed machines to fire the product with a maximum of effect; and finally, here, all these vast credits of labour and capital were being blown to smithereens. It was the most effective way of destroying wealth that man had yet devised ; but as a means of extermination (roughly one man for every hundred shells), it was primitive and inefficient.
Now the watch in the cockpit, synchronized before leaving the ground, showed a minute to the hour. We were over Thiepval and turned south to watch the mines. As we sailed down above it all, came the final moment. Zero!
At Boisselle the earth heaved and flashed, a tremendous and magnificent column rose up into the sky. There was an ear-splitting roar, drowning all the guns, flinging the machine sideways in the repercussing air. The earthy column rose, higher and higher to almost four thousand feet. There it hung, or seemed to hang, for a moment in the air, like the silhouette of some great cypress tree, then fell away in a widening cone of dust and debris. A moment later came the second mine. Again the roar, the upflung machine, the strange gaunt silhouette invading the sky. Then the dust cleared and we saw the two white eyes of the craters. The barrage had lifted to the second-line trenches, the infantry were over the top, the attack had begun.
At 7.28am Captain James Young of the 179th Tunnelling Company, Royal Engineers, detonated two mines, a total of sixty thousand pounds of ammonol, to form the Lochnagar Crater.
The second is the following year:
One jolly June morning the peace of London Town was disturbed by the unexpected arrival of about twenty German bombers, who laid their explosive eggs in various parts of that comfortable metropolis. They did not do very extensive damage; but their appearance was quite enough to scare the civilian population very thoroughly, and raise an outcry. Barbarians! Dastards! Bombing open towns! Waging war against defenceless women and children! The daily hymn of hate rose to a frightened scream. England was, as usual, un- prepared. The arrangements made for home defence were quite inadequate. True, a few old 2c’s had staggered into the air to attack, but they could not climb up anywhere high enough. They might be all right for Zepps; but against Gothas they were a joke — worse than useless! The complete German squadron returned home triumphant.
Agitation in the press! Scandalous neglect of the defence of dear old England ! Questions in theHouse! Panic among the politicians! Lloyd George acting quickly ! Result: a crack squadron to be recalled for the defence of London immediately, and twelve elated pilots of 56 Squadron packing a week’s kit into our cockpits. God bless the good old Gotha!
That first raid was on 13 July 1917. The SE-5 aircraft, withdrawn from France, and improved early-warning systems, inflicted growing casualties on the Gotha G-IVs, forced the Germans into night raids. Accidents and anti-aircraft fire ensued caused after 61 losses, and the raids were abandoned by May 1918.
The Ulster Museum has a John Lavery painting, Daylight Raid from My Studio Window, 7 July 1917:
Lady Hazel looks none too perturbed.
Lewis’s account of flying over London by night deserves repetition: