Lt Horace Caunt, RFC, has been posted to the Western Front.
After arriving at Amiens railway station, we found our way to the airfield in Candos and presented ourselves to the Commanding Officer. Candos aerodrome, in northern Normandy, contained a pool for Scout pilots and replacements were taken from there to keep squadrons in the line up to strength. There were two French Nieuports parked on the grass. I had never flow this type before. They were not easy to fly, but after you got used to their little peculiarities you found them very excellent. After a few loops and spins I was called in to hand over to another pilot, but unfortunately for him he failed to see some telegraph wires on his landing approach, his undercarriage got caught up in them, nose-diving him into the ground. Telegraph poles seemed to be falling down miles away. Fortunately, the pilot was unhurt beyond a few cuts and bruises.
Two days later I was posted to a Nieuport squadron near the Belgian town of Poperinghe, near Ypres, together with two other pilots. We were caught in an air raid on the way there and were rescued by a young Belgian girl who coolly led us down into the cellar of her shop as bombs exploded nearby, until the raids was over. She appeared unconcerned by the raid, her fear apparently blunted her town having been targeted so often by air raids and long distance shelling.
We reached the squadron next evening, just in time for dinner and the first person to greet me was ‘Tiny’, he thumped me on the back and pumped my hand until I thought he would have it off. It was great to see him again. Introductions all round and before dinner finished I was known by all. There was a complete absence of red tape in the active RFC squadrons on the Western Front which made for better Esprit de Corps and more friendliness between officers and men. We regarded our ground crew mechanics and riggers as good friends, especially as our lives were very much in their hands. They saw that all machines were kept up to concert pitch and that every control and instrument was kept up to concert pitch, and that they functioned perfectly before we went over the lines where the simplest mistake or error could prove fatal.
‘Tiny’ had a word with Jimmy, his flight commander, and I was attached to ‘Tiny’s’ Flight where ‘Tiny’ promised he would guard my tail faithfully, it was pleasing to think that he would be flying behind me like a guardian angel. Next morning I was given a plane and told to fly about for a few hours, just to get used to it, and also to memorise the landmarks around the aerodrome. When the flight took off for the front line I followed for a few miles, then peeled off and flew up to the Belgian coast, keeping well behind the trenches. It was interesting to view the devastation in the countryside below from the air. Whole areas were under water, villages submerged with the church steeple sticking out. The sea came into view so back I went, this time a little closer to the lines. Shells were bursting regularly over the trenches, so the ‘Poor Bloody Infantry’ were still sticking it, what heroes they were. I felt so lucky to be away from it all, if we were fired upon we could drop our noses and head for home, but they, well certainly they could put their heads down, but had to stay put.
I flew on and over Ypres, there were the remains of the Cathedral and Cloth Hall and away to the West I spotted our advanced landing ground. I lowered my nose but suddenly found myself over enemy lines and got a dose of ‘Archie’. In the ensuing confusion of evading flight I lost my bearings, but to my relief I saw a large airfield where I could land to ask for directions. I landed and whilst taxying to the hangers two men in strange uniforms ran towards me, my first thoughts were that I had landed on a German aerodrome and was just throttling up to make a dash for it when I saw they were Belgians. One was the Commanding Officer who insisted I step out to have a drink. There were about thirty pilots there, all jabbering in Flemish, but two spoke English and laughed heartily when I told them I had nearly bolted when I saw their uniforms. A few toasts had to be drunk before I was allowed to leave. as I took off two of my new friends flew along with me to escort me a part of the way.
After a couple more days flying around I was put on ‘Dawn Patrol’, ‘Tiny’ briefed me and saw I was liberally covered with Whale Oil to keep frost bite at bay. Jimmy next came over and instructed me to keep out of any fight, but to keep out of it above and watch whilst circling around. A few final words a cheery smile and off we went. I certainly felt nervous but the fear went as pilots about me started putting a few rounds through their guns to warm them up. I do the same to mine, with the engine going beautifully and gun warmed up I look down over lines and lines of trenches. We dived down in formation to 8,000 feet, a much clearer view of the ground from this distance. The sun is rising and the early mist dispersed. White puffs appear in the front of us, ‘Archie’ is busy again. These we leave behind. A short while later at the end of our patrol range we turn towards Ypes and a patrol of Germans, twelve strong, appear above us, but they shear off as do another as we turned and headed towards them. We certainly seemed to hold the supremacy of the air just then. So, my first patrol was over and we returned home. I climbed very slowly out of my machine, the cold had made me very stiff, and walked across to ‘Tiny’ to join in a smoke. He said “Well old chap, not much excitement that time. We’ll see what we can do next time. Come on, let’s get breakfast, I’m starving!”
A very amusing story went the round of the RFC concerning the Prince of Wales. A young pilot, whom we will call Tom, was the proud owner of a dilapidated motor cycle. He was motoring to St Omer when he came across a car at the roadside, broken down and with a young Staff Officer sitting on the running board, smoking a cigarette. Tom asked if he could me of any assistance, but the Staff Officer declined his offer saying that his chauffeur would soon be back to put it right. After chatting for a while Tom decided it was time to move on, but before leaving he said “Your face is familiar, do you mind telling me your name?” “Certainly,” was the reply, “I am the Prince of Wales. Would you mind telling me yours? Tom thought he was having his leg pulled and unbelievingly replied “Oh yeah, and I am the King of England, Cheerio,” and with a cheeky chuckle roared off on his way to St Omer. About three weeks later the Prince visited Tom’s squadron to dine with the officers, and Tom was covered with confusion when he recognised the Prince, but his embarrassment was patent to all when the Prince walked up to him with outstretched hand and with a chuckle said “Hello dad, and how are you these days?”
His Highness was often to be seen those days, he much preferred being one of the lads, loving to lead our unconventional lives, free from irksome ceremonial duties and the pomp and splendour of the court back in London. We all thought the world of him and were delighted to entertain him whenever he paid us the honour of a visit.
To be continued…