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|Sir William Hugh Stobart Chance, C.B.E.|
Part 3 - Posted to No. 27 Squadron at Fienvillers in France (September 1916)
Before posting to France I went home on Embarcation Leave for a few days and then crossed the Channel to Boulogne. I still have my "movement order" authorising me to proceed to Candas and marked "Report to
R.T.O. Abbeville". A Crossley tender picked me up and drove me through the pleasant countryside to Fienvillers where No. 27 Squadron was located. Fienvillers is a small village about ten miles west of Albert and some fifteen miles behind the front lines. Officers were housed in tents in an orchard and the Bessoneau hangars and Squadron H.Q. were on the edge of a near-by grass meadow. No. 27 formed part of H.Q. Wing and next to us was No. 70 equipped with Sopwith two-seater "one and a half
strutters", which had Scarff ring-mountings for the observer seated in the fuselage behind the pilot, and which were driven by Clerget radial engines.
This Squadron was used mainly for "offensive patrols" and carried out sweeps over enemy territory. They had heavy casualties in battle with Boche fighters.
The H.Q. Wing served directly under R.F.C. H.Q. (which had its advanced H.Q. at
Fienvillers) and was commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Dowding - in World War II the famous Air Marshal who was the inspiration of his pilots in the Battle of Britain. Tall, upstanding, and to the Subalterns rather fierce looking, I remember him mainly carrying out inspections.
The H.Q. Wing was formed preparatory to the opening of the Somme offensive with three tactical duties - strategical reconnaissance, offensive action in guarding bombers, and the bombing of distant communications, i.e. railways and railway junctions. No. 27 was mainly concerned with bombing and with disrupting the rail transport of troops and ammunition; while No. 70 was engaged in reconnaissance, offensive patrols and escort duties. A fourth Squadron - No. 60, equipped with Morane single-seater monoplane fighters - was also attached to H.Q. Wing and their aerodrome was at Vert Galand, a few miles nearer the front than Fienvillers.
Shortly after my arrival the H.Q. Wing was reinforced with a Squadron of B.E.12s (No. 19) - single seaters engined by a 12 cylinder, 140 horsepower R.A.F. We saw little of them as their hangars were on the opposite side of the aerodrome. The planes were out-dated before they arrived and were no match for the German Albatros D 11 with its twin Spandad machine guns firing through the propeller and manned by the pilots of Boelke's newly formed Jadgstaffel 2. In a westerly gale on August 6th the Squadron had great difficulty in getting home from a raid on Havrincourt Wood, and five of its planes were lost.
On arrival I reported to the adjutant and was greeted by the C.O. Major Sidney Smith - known familiarly as "Crasher Smith" because of his ham-handedness on landing his aircraft. I was posted to Captain
O. T. Boyd's* flight and sent to the Mess to meet the officers of the Squadron.
No. 27 had flown to France in March 1916 and was to go into action as a Fighter Squadron. But in this task it was not particularly successful and its role was transformed into long-range reconnaissance and escort duties and bombing of strategic targets - often penetrating up to 50 miles behind the Hun lines. When equipped for bombing we carried either two 112lb. bombs slung under the fuselage behind the landing-wheel axles, or ten 20 lb. bombs carried in frames attached to the underside of the lower planes. Armament consisted of a Lewis gun mounted above the top plane, which could be hinged down (with considerable difficulty) to enable the pilot to change drums. Another Lewis was mounted on the left of the pilot's seat and was supposed to be used to protect his tail. But it was almost impossible to fire accurately and at the same time maintain control of the aircraft. However on one occasion a pilot, finding a Hun on his tail, took a "pot shot" and, to the surprise of his assailant who had failed to recognise the sting in the Elephant's tail, shot him down and was awarded a Military Cross.
The "Elephants" originally had a 120 horse-power water-cooled Beardmore engine and flew level at about 75 m.p.h. But as newer planes were delivered they were equipped with a 160 horse-power motor which increased their speed by some 10 m.p.h. and gave a faster rate-of-climb.
Looking back after fifty years it is not easy to recapture one's feelings when "passive" service in England became "active" service in France. Certainly I was not rareing to get into action and I had doubts as to my ability to face up to anti-aircraft fire and hostile machine guns. But thousands of others whose life and background had brought no thought of war until the murders at Sarajevo were brought face to face with the same problem - "Can I make it?"
My log book records that I made my first flight in France on 13th August 1916 - 35 minutes spent circling the aerodrome and practising landings. Next day we were sent up to practice formation flying, as it was customary to fly in Vee formation when escorting bomb raids by other Squadrons; and three days later I was taken for a tour of the lines, flying over Arras and Albert, where the statue of the Virgin hung upside down from the apex of the church spire. Below us were the lines of trenches and the shell-pocked terrain, with its battered towns and villages. Since the opening of the July offensive the line had advanced irregularly and one noticed the enormous mine craters north of Bapaume which had been blown in the chalk soil. It was difficult to realise that the English and German armies were at each other's throats, killing and maiming each other by the thousand, when we soared peacefully in a blue sky between the great white cumulous clouds.
My first sortie over into enemy territory was on August 20th. The Squadron was ordered to escort a bomb raid on Le Transloy, a village some miles behind the German lines. We took off individually and climbed to 12,000 feet before getting into formation over a designated rendezvous. The leader turned east and soon we were under fire from the German A.A. batteries. Black clouds of the bursting shells appeared below us and their detonation was felt by a sudden bump and, if near enough, heard with a loud "crump". But the Squadron flew into low cloud and log book records "three machines only over lines. Clouds at 3000 feet." Two days later I was roused by my batman at dawn and we took off early to bomb Beaulencourt. This time we carried bombs and log book says, "4 20 lbs. dropped on village unobserved. Misty. Plenty of Archie" (the slang for A.A. fire). I wrote home to say that "I saw 4 bombs fall on the village. There must have been 20 or 30 of our machines over the lines where we were and only one Hun in sight - very low down."
The next outing was a raid on Aulnoy - a railway junction some way behind the lines - and I was in the air for over three hours, having crossed at 13,000 feet. "Two 112lb. bombs seen to hit station and one on village." Our Martinsydes had no proper bomb sights, except for a wire contraption fixed to the right side of the cockpit. It was almost impossible to fly straight and level and at the same time peer sideways over the edge. So I got my "rigger" to make a hole in the floor of the cockpit through which I could try to pick out a target. But accuracy was impossible unless one was flying low, and many of our bombs must have fallen ineffectively. High-explosive bombs were not the only weapons used against the Boche by the Squadron. Periodically a tender was sent into the nearest town and returned having denuded the shops of rolls of Bromo and as many china articles as could be found. Over our target the Bromo rolls were hurled out - to descend fluttering to earth as the paper unrolled - and followed by a "jerry'", which we fondly hoped would fall on the head of an unsuspecting enemy, gazing up at our paper streamers. But we shall never know whether "jerry" fell on –“Gerry". Other lethal weapons in the shape of broken gramophone [sic] records, soda-water bottles and other rubbish were likewise cast overboard.
We had a cheery Mess - particularly when clouds made flying impossible or when all pilots had returned safely from a raid. Captain Maurice Baring - Trenchard's A.D.C. - came to visit us from time to time and was adept in keeping us amused with various parlour tricks such as balancing a liqueur glass on his bald pate while reciting doggerel verse. Writer and poet, he had the knack of keeping up our spirits and advising his Master about the morale of his Squadrons.
During the next week the Squadron was engaged in a number of sorties and log book records on 25th July, "Busigny. two 112 lbs dropped on station 6000 ft. Other bombs seen exploding." 31 August: "To lines. 2 leaders fell out. Formation lost. 3 machines missing"; and the same afternoon: "Escort. 12,000 feet. Bois de Havrincourt. Crossed above clouds. Not much Archie. Bombs seen in wood."
My C.O., Major Smith, hearing that my brother Roger was with the 4th Dragoon Guards about ten miles from Eu on the river La Bresle, gave me the use of a sidecar to go over to see him. He was billeted with his C.O. and other H.Q. officers in an estaminet. The horses were all down by the river on ground which gets flooded in winter and they seemed pretty comfortable. I wrote home later to say that I believed the Cavalry had moved up again behind Albert. Coming back from a raid I flew low and saw some horses, but could not make out if they were Cavalry or Army Service Corps. On the way home I flew over No. 60 Squadron's aerodrome at Vert Galand and seeing a prisoner-of-war cage near-by I dived down and was delighted to see the German prisoners scattering madly.
On September 3rd formation was lost in heavy clouds, but I went on alone to drop eight twenty-pounders on Sailly. There was a strong wind against me on the way home and I must have been an easy target flying under the clouds. I was making little headway and twisted and turned to avoid the shells. When I landed - thankful to get back and rather frightened - it was found that one of the main spars had been half shot through.
On September 6th we penetrated well behind the lines to Aulnoy Station, came down low, and I dropped my bombs on the tracks at 800 feet. Writing to Pilkington, who had left the 2/8th Worcesters at the same time as myself and was serving with 47 Squadron in Salonika (he kept my letter and gave it back to me shortly before he died in 1965), I commented: "One thing you will miss to a great extent will be Archie. He seems to get better every day and although you are at about 12,000, plumps off his first burst a damn sight too close to be comfortable. I have had my machine hit twice, but nothing badly. We had a good show the other day, 8 112 lb. and 36 20lb. or thereabouts on a big station about 50 miles behind the lines. We came down to about 500 and fairly b---d the place up. Trains flying miles in the air. One chap dropped his 112 on a turntable and all the slates on the engine sheds round it leapt about 6 ft. into the air. Huns bolted out of the station like rabbits, they exceeded all speed limits and had colossal vertical breeze. We got M.G. and rifle fire, but no damage done and all got back safely. At present we are rather short of pilots, as we have lost five in the past week or two."
The week finished with two raids on aerodromes at Villers and Trescault when three hangars were seen to be blown up and several bombs fell on the aerodromes and near-by villages. On September 14th I was sent on offensive patrol and log book records: "3 combats with L.V.Gs (German two-seaters). Machine seen falling in flames Bois des Vaux." But I cannot claim to have shot down a Hun, although I loosed off my Lewis several times. We had had hardly any instruction or practice in fighting techniques and stood little chance if we met the newly formed Fighter Squadron commanded by Boelke, which caused so many casualties when it went into action for the first time.