Part 5 – Aerial Adventures of Lieutenant Horace Caunt

Lt Horace Caunt RFC, is shot down and taken prisoner.

December 15, 1917 was to prove a very unhappy day, although I did not know it when I took off for Dawn Patrol. Jimmy had asked me to take over as deputy of his flight, as his deputy was on leave. I was only too ready to help an old friend. The clouds were very low and nothing could be seen of the trenches when we flew over Ypres at about 5,000 feet.

Turning north we headed for Dixmude, where the Belgian infantry were entrenched, and then turned back over Ypres down to Albert. On reaching Albert the clouds dispersed and the sun came out, so down we went to 4,000 feet. Away in the distance were two observation balloons, but flying above was a large patrol of Huns waiting to shoot down any intrepid pilot who attacked them. It was always dangerous to attack balloons so we left them alone, except when definite orders were given to shoot them up. It wasn’t a job we relished and always lead to trouble and reciprocation later by Jerry.

Jimmy fired a Very light to signal he was going home with engine trouble. In the resultant confusion the flight got scattered, but eventually I gathered my brood together and headed away up north again. Just past Ypres we spotted a Hun two-seater at work, so getting well above with the sun behind, I waggled my wings to warn the flight to watch my tail, and then dived down in pursuit. The observer did not spot me until I was about 100 yards away, when he hurriedly swung his gun round onto me, firing furiously. At 50 yards I gave him full fire from my guns, he crumpled up in his cockpit, my speed swept me past and under the Hun and zooming up I prepared to dive again, but saw the German aircraft spinning for the ground. Foolishly I followed him down, to see the machine crash into a wood. This seemed to signal machine guns on the ground to open up. I was only about 200 feet up and could see the tracer bullets flying past me in all directions. It was time to depart. I was roughly about ten miles behind the lines, and this is a terrible long way when you have to control every yard. Suddenly with a cough and a splutter my engine gave up the struggle, frantic jerking of the controls had no effect.

There was no sign of my flight, they must have lost sight of me. The wind was against me and gliding as gently as I dared I saw the lines getting nearer, could I reach them? It was going to be a desperate struggle. There was now nothing to be seen but shell holes, hopeless to land anywhere here. Nearer and nearer to safety I got, when a shell exploded on the ground beneath, the explosion sending me spinning. Fortunately, I managed to recover control before hitting the ground and managed to land awkwardly, running into a shell hole. The plane went over on her nose, I scrambled out, grabbing the Very light pistol on the way, a quick shot and my treasured Nieuport  aeroplane went up in flames.

Two German officers had crept up on me unseen and when the plane went up in flames they fired on me with a large horse pistol, one of the shots passing through a slack part of my flying suit. Soldiers rushed up and away I went to a nearby dug out. A very heavy bombardment was taking place on this sector and the Germans urged me to hurry, but heavy flying boots and equipment do not make for speed. I was led down into the Officer’s quarters. This dug out was splendidly constructed and heavy thumps of shell explosions had little effect other than causing trickles of earth from the roof, which spoke volumes for the strength of the structure. It was the headquarters of a field battery, so the front line would only be about two miles away, so near and yet so far.

The bombardment was so intense that I did not leave until late in the afternoon, when the barrage had ceased. As I was led through their lines I was amazed to see the strength of their artillery, the guns stretched wheel to wheel for miles it seemed, and when they opened up the noise was overwhelming.

The German troops were quite friendly, some shouting encouraging words in English as I passed by, many stopped me to take a photograph. My escort comprised one officer and four men. We eventually reached a ruined farmhouse, the headquarters of a howitzer battery. The officer’s quarters were in the cellar where I got ticked off for failing to stand to attention in the presence of a fierce Major wearing a monocle. Having been shouted at by this bad tempered Prussian, I was relieved to see a jovial faced officer enter the room, obviously of a higher rank judging by the way the major jumped to attention and saluted. I saluted him, to be greeted in return with a smile and a salute and an invitation to be seated. He was a Colonel, and a very human one too, for he sharply told the major to leave, and sent for some food and drink for me. He also proffered a cigar, which I gratefully accepted. After I had eaten I took a bar of chocolate from the pocket of my flying suit and offered it to the small assembly of officers who had now gathered. This gift was gratefully accepted as chocolate was a rarity in wartime Germany. They were now my friends and insisted I take a box of cigarettes and half a dozen cigars. After a final glass of wine I left them, each saluting me and shaking my hand. The Colonel wished me luck for the future. I certainly felt much better after this human incident and my spirits brightened considerably as my guard escort led me away.

Eventually another escort was detailed to take me to the German Flying Corps Intelligence HQ so I was conducted to a lorry drawn by a rather weary looking old cart horse. I was told to make myself comfortable amongst the empty beer barrels and bottles which filled the lorry. It was the Officer’s ration cart going back for more supplies and was utilised for my conveyance also. The Colonel here said goodbye, but warned me that any attempt at escaping would mean me being shot at. The horse then set off with a jolt, depositing several barrels and myself on the roadway. Picking myself up I asked the Colonel whether that constituted an escape attempt, but he failed to see the joke and stormed around to the driver of the lorry cursing him for several minutes, everyone else standing to rigid attention until he had finished. He then came back to me and apologised for the driver’s carelessness. At the second attempt we got away smoothly without mishap.

It was a beautiful moonlit night, but bitterly cold and soon I was feeling the cold eating into my bones, I complained to the guard officer who passed over his flask. A good pull of this and the blood started coursing through my veins again. He was quite a decent fellow and after giving him my parole he allowed me to walk alongside the lorry. He accepted one of my cigars, under its influence he opened up and talked about his home, his family, he deplored the war and all its attendant miseries, but he was quite convinced that Germany would win the war. He got quite excitable when I said that was impossible. We had unlimited resources in men, materials and money, and soon American troops would be in action against them. I said ‘No my dear sir, Germany is doomed to defeat and misery’. We decided to change the subject and continued our journey discussing the mysteries of flower and vegetable gardening.

At 2am we reached the headquarters of German Air Corps Intelligence at Landelade.

To be continued…