It is 1917 and twenty-five year-old Lieutenant Caunt of the RFC has just been awarded his wings and is posted to a new airfield.
Gosport was surely the most remarkable aerodrome in the Flying Corps. Tightly guarded day and night, plenty of barbed wire about to deter inquisitive strangers, and the mess and living quarters built underground. Built like a fortress it was nicknamed ‘Fort Brockhurst’, but despite its grim appearance on approach it was surprisingly comfortable, homely and friendly on the inside. There was a complete absence of red tape and annoying rules. Such was Gosport and we all enjoyed our too brief stay there. It was a stunt training squadron and on that very safe and reliable machine, the Avro 504, we learned all the aerobatics needed for aerial combat. I was fortunate to be placed under one of the finest instructors I ever had, he taught me many clever tricks but frightened me to death in the process. His nickname was ‘Chips’, he decided that my low level flying ability could be tightened up by doing ‘a spot of hunting’ as he termed it. This consisted of finding a hare on open ground and chasing it across the countryside, wheeling left and right after it as it zig-zagged across the grass, our wing tips almost scraping the ground and setting the wheels spinning as we sometimes touched the ground. It might sound like a cruel sport but it was a valuable experience for low level combat flying to shoot up the enemy. My dare-devil instructor was eventually to became over confident however after hitting a fence, crashed into the ground, breaking both legs and several ribs.
Chips decided that my newly gained aerobatic abilities should be put into practice in a Bristol Scout machine, a beautiful little plane with an 80 hp engine, but the controls were so sensitive that the experienced jokingly suggested that one should beware of sneezing in her cockpit for fear of her looping the loop. I was told not to try anything too clever below 5,000 feet. I took off, Chips flying in formation, it flew wonderfully and soon I found myself at 15,000 feet over the Solent, the Mauritania far below looking like a small rowing boat. Over Southampton we roared, up into a loop, down into a spin and then back again towards Gosport. I couldn’t resist stunting as we flew alongside liners and destroyers along the Solent, the crews waving to me. I suddenly realised the aerodrome was ahead but too far away to reach in a glide. Throttling up I found the fuel was draining out, this meant another forced landing, I seemed to be making a habit of this. Picking a useful field I touched down but an awkward cow got in the way making me swerve. Up went the tailplane and the nose ploughed into the ground. Chips landed behind me, after surveying my plane he told me to get into his Avro and fly it back. It was the rule that after any crash, the pilot was to get back into the air immediately to restore confidence. Soon after orders arrived to proceed to Central Flying School, Pewsey.
Machines of all descriptions were parked about the hangers in this aerodrome, Avro’s, Sopwiths, SE25s and Camels, but the squadron was essentially an advanced Scout one. Here you would fly the type of machine you would fly in France and be instructed in the last essential lesson, Formation flying. It was whilst here I experienced the loss of five pilot colleagues. Flying your first solo flight on Friday is to be avoided at all times according to superstitious pilots, all those crashes occurred on one Friday. One particular victim had lost his foot during previous active service in the infantry, after crashing into a hanger he found himself trapped in his burning cockpit by his false foot which was strapped to the rudder bar. Despite many gallant efforts to release him, the flames proved too fierce and he perished. Sometimes I am sickened by it all, why must so much youth be sacrificed in this awful war?
Some relief from my tortured mind was granted when I was sent to Turnbury in Scotland on a gunnery course. On the train from St Pancras there were various groups of other pilots, many old friends among them. I was delighted to meet an old friend from Doncaster. He was a huge fellow, 2” taller than my 6 foot 2 inches, but he was much broader. He was a good natured giant, popular with everyone, and nicknamed ‘Tiny’, of course. Upon arrival we found we were billeted in a requisitioned hotel with excellent rooms and fine views down to the sea across the golf links, which was also our airfield. Our training was aerial combat, firing at each other with cameras, the resultant photos proving the levels of marksmanship, but the most dangerous stunt was firing on a towed target over the sea. The towing pilot told tales of bullets whistling over his head, and holes in his aircraft proved he was telling the truth.
It was a free and happy period of my Flying Corps career, as long as our flying exercises were carried out satisfactorily, we were given freedom of reign after working hours. But things could get a little boisterous and rowdy, with the colonel walking into the middle of a mighty pillow fight one riotous evening and getting walloped on his head, whereupon he gathered up the pillow and waded into the fight. Very juvenile, perhaps, but a wonderful release for our exuberant spirits.
The last evening of the course and we gave a farewell dinner to our popular Colonel and staff. We had had a glorious time in this beautiful Scottish seaside resort. After the dinner, bags were packed, and up early in the morning we left on a special train, back to our old squadrons. All was now ready for France and sterner duties.
I said farewell to ‘Tiny’, telling him to let me know when he was off abroad. He sent a wire the following week, it read “I’m off, cheerio”. Three weeks later I received my own orders to proceed to France next morning. This allowed me a day in London, so with a friend we arrange a dinner and theatre for four. At midnight the party broke up, we to the Officer’s Rest, our companions to their own homes. There was little sleep that night. Up for an early breakfast and then a cab for Victoria station. What a sad spectacle presented us on that 7.30 leave train, poignant scenes of women trying bravely to hold back tears, men, equally emotional, but hiding the fact by blowing their noses loudly, all dreading the guard’s whistle.
The last good byes, the incoherent replies, handkerchiefs waving and we are off. We arrive at Folkstone, and the boat is packed like sardines, but room enough to sing Tipperary, Keep the Home Fires Burning, and Take Me Back to Dear Old Blighty. Two destroyers accompanied us to keep submarines away. Arriving in Boulogne I went to the Officer’s Club and met other pilots going to the same place. What a busy place Boulogne was, packed with troops of all Allied nationalities, some waiting to go up the line, others more fortunate, embarking on the return boat for ‘Blighty’. A hospital train arrives bringing its pathetic cargo to the Red Cross Ship. These were infantrymen from the front line, the real heroes of this bloody awful war. Despite their wounds and the pain they were suffering they still manage to smile and ask for ‘a gasper’. At least for most of them the war is over.
To avert our minds from it all we made for the cafes, the clubs, the theatres, anywhere where there was light and laughter. We rubbed shoulders with French, Australian, Canadian, Newfoundland soldiers all blended by the war into a great brotherhood. Eager civilians selling souvenirs, and French girls arm in arm with soldiers, joining them with their drinks, then fun in their beds at night. In this hedonistic melee against the background of the ambulance train, it seemed the world had gone mad, the only object of it all was to forget. It was a relief to get into the comparative quiet of a railway compartment as we continued on our way. After stuffing rags and paper into the broken corner of the compartment window we opened a bottle of wine to fortify ourselves and were soon fast asleep, sleeping past our destination, Amiens, and on to Paris. We had visions of Court Marshall But a sympathetic Transport Officer assured us all would be well. We were allowed time to view the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame and the Champs Elysee before we were returned, well fed and wined, to Amiens.’
To be continued…
Derek Stevens is available for talks.
Telephone 01297 553765 or 07525 354815