Sir William Hugh Stobart Chance, C.B.E.

Part 4 - Raids on Gouzeacourt and Valenciennes (September 1916)
 
Many people have wondered why the name "Tank" was given to those armoured monsters whose invention revolutionised traditional methods of warfare. The first tanks (see note at the bottom of this page) were built at the Carriage and Wagon Works at Oldbury, near Birmingham and could be seen being put through their paces behind a high wall surrounding the factory, from the seven story building at the Spon Lane Glassworks. On grounds of security, it was given out that the vehicles were mobile water tanks which were to be sent to Mesopotamia. Their real purpose was not revealed until they first went into action on the Somme battlefield on September 15th, 1916.

As I flew back to our aerodrome that afternoon, I seem to remember as I crossed the lines seeing some dark objects in the ruins of the village of Flers; their significance was not realised until we heard some time later that what I had seen were "Tanks".
 
A few days previously, General "Boom" Trenchard had addressed the officers of his Headquarters Wing in one of the hangers at Fienvillers, and told us that a big "push" would shortly take place and that he relied on us to do everything we could to keep the German planes well behind their lines and to go and bomb trains bringing reinforcements and ammunition to their forward positions.

Early on September 15th I was sent to St. Omer to take a new Martinsyde to 2 Aircraft Depot which was close to our aerodrome. Taking off I got my tail too high, the propeller touched the ground and one blade splintered; but I was already airborne and flying very flat with the engine vibrating horribly I managed to skid round and get back to land on the aerodrome. I was well and truly "ticked off" - but this was not the end of a bad morning. On arriving at Candas I mistook the direction of the sleeve and attempted to land down wind. On the first two attempts I overshot and had to go round again. On my final attempt I skimmed over the hangars and just managed to pull up a few yards from a wire fence on the perimeter of the aerodrome.
 


General Hugh "Boom" Trenchard
    

After lunch on September 15th, we were sent out (27 Squadron) in pairs to bomb trains. A Canadian, by name P. C. Sherren (he was later killed in an air crash after the war), and I set off together, crossed the lines at a good height and came down low to look for trains. We spied one steaming along on a single line near Gouzeaucourt and I flew along behind it at about 500 feet, "pulled the plug", and let go my two 112lb. bombs. The first fell at the side of the train, but the second seemed to make a direct hit on the engine, which stopped, emitting clouds of smoke and steam. Sherren dropped his two bombs on the rear coaches and round we flew to examine the damage. I was flying one of the newly delivered planes with a 160 horse-power engine and circling over the village of Gouzeaucourt I realised that I was being machine-gunned from the ground and that bullets were hitting the plane. So I quickly opened the throttle and as I passed over the village let fly with my Lewis gun which was carried pointing down to earth. I saw a German soldier walking with a girl in the street, but I don't suppose my bullets disturbed them. Determined not to run any further risks, I climbed steadily until I reached an altitude of 15,000 feet which was pretty well the Martinsyde's ceiling. On landing at Fienvillers I thought I bumped more than usual and on taxi-ing to a halt found that both tyres had been punctured by bullets and one of the longerons behind my seat had been severed. I reported to the Squadron Commander, Major "Crasher" Smith. So I was lucky to get away unscathed as there were several bullet holes in the wings. As I was flying over the battlefield I noticed two black objects in one of the ruined villages where fighting was taking place - I think it was Flers. Later we heard that Tanks had gone into action for the first time. It sometimes puzzles me that September 15th is celebrated as "Battle of Britain Day" and that people have forgotten that the invention of the Tank was at least as significant in military history as the day of climax of the German air attack in 1940.
 


Gouzeacourt - location of railway line and bombed trained (15th September 1916)
    

Visiting the battlefields shortly after the War on my Morgan runabout, we encountered a French farmer ploughing beside the railway at Gouzeaucourt, who told us he was there when "two brave French Aviators" bombed a troop train and caused over 40 casualties. He may have been disappointed when I told him that the bombs were dropped by English fliers and that I was one of them!
 


Aerial view of the railway line at Gouzeaucourt (1916)
   

Next day September 16th, 1916, was cloudy and flying was not possible.
 
September 17th, 1916, was a bad day for the Royal   Flying Corps. No. 12 Squadron - who flew B.E.2c's and whose main role was artillery observation - after an abortive early morning start, set out later in the morning to bomb Marcoing Junction, escorted by F.E.2b's from No. 11 Squadron. The B.E. pilots flew without observers, whose weight was about equivalent to their load of two 112lb. or eight 20lb. bombs. On turning for home after dropping their bombs, the British formation was attacked by three fighters from the newly formed German Jagdstaffel 2, flying for the first time in the new "Albatros D 1" scouts, equipped with more powerful engines and having two machine guns, one each side of the fuselage, which were provided with interrupter gear and so could fire through the arc of the propellor without hitting the blades. 
                      
One of the B.E.'s that had successfully bombed a train, was shot down by the Commander of the German Squadron - Hauptman Oswald Boelke - it being his twenty-seventh victim. The pilot, Lieutenant Patterson, died in hospital from his wounds. Another of the No.12 pilots, Raymond Money, who had spent several months in France flying as an observer before qualifying as a pilot in England and returning to France, had engine trouble and his plane was hit by a burst of "Archie". However he managed to survive though he crashed on landing. The F.E.'s of No.11 Squadron put up a valiant fight but four of them were shot down by the much faster and better armed Germans who had been joined by several of their comrades.
 
Two of the F.E.'s managed to land without killing their crews who were taken prisoner - Captain Gray (Indian Army), his observer Lieutenant Saunders (Middlesex Regiment); Second Lieutenant Tom Molloy (Dorset Regiment), his observer Lieutenant Helder (Royal Fusiliers) who was slightly wounded. The F.E.'s had little chance to cope with the much faster Albatroses who attacked from the rear and out of the line of fire of the F.E. observer's rear-firing Lewis guns which were mounted on the top plane and fired by the observer standing up in his cockpit which projected from the lower plane, with the pilot sitting behind him. So it was impossible for the observer to fire at a plane approaching from the rear without hitting his tailplane.

September 17th - No. 27 Squadron set off early (7 a.m.) to bomb the station at Valenciennes some way behind the lines, and having dropped their bombs were lucky to return home without having run into enemy opposition. But my luck did not hold. It was a lovely morning and nine Martinsydes, each carrying ten 20lb. bombs, with four others acting as escort, had soon got into formation led by my Flight Commander Captain Owen T. Boyd. I was the right hand back man. We flew north towards Arras and met two F.E.'s on early morning patrol who seemed surprised to see us. As we crossed the La Bassee Canal at about 9,000 feet, we ran into a lot of "Archie" near Lens but there was no sign of any hostile machines. Our formation continued to be shelled in spasms on its way to Valenciennes. Suddenly my engine began to misfire and finally stopped. I turned on the emergency petrol tank which fed the carburettor by gravity and pumped up pressure in the main tank with the hand pump. 
 




Hauptman Oswald Boelke
 

The engine picked up again for a short time but the pressure gauge showed no reading. I turned for home, dropped my bombs and managed to climb to 11,000 feet, when the engine finally packed up. The Squadron flew back overhead; I fired a Very light but it did not appear to have been noticed. There was nothing more to be done than to glide down and look for a suitable landing place.
 


Route of the bombing raid on the 17th September 1916
    

I had some tracer ammunition in my Lewis gun drums and as there was a danger that these might be classified as "explosive", I threw them overboard as I passed over a small wood. Shortly afterwards I landed in a stubble field. I jumped out and tried to set fire to the wings of the machine with a "portfire" which we carried in the event of a forced landing in enemy territory. The doped fabric of the lower wing would not burn so I jumped back into the fuselage, broke the glass petrol gauge and set alight the petrol which gushed out. A German soldier driving a hay-rake galloped up yelling, followed by an officer on a horse and a crowd of soldiers who had been exercising nearby. I gave my flying coat to a Bosche to carry and was escorted off by the officer - a major. By this time there was a considerable crowd round the Martinsyde, who bolted when the petrol tank exploded and the Very lights ignited as the plane broke in half. Some staff officers arrived in a car to view the wreck and the German Major with whom I conversed in French, told me I was claimed by an A.A. Battery who had fired at me as I glided down to land. But I denied it. I was picked up by a fat Captain and driven off to Bourlon, where the Air Force Headquarters was located in the Chateau. After waiting some time in a room occupied by clerks, I was interviewed by an officer wearing a monocle and decorated with the Iron Cross, he gave me a cigarette. Later I was interrogated by a very rude officer, but only gave my name, rank and Regiment, which annoyed him. As I was leaving the Chateau, I produced my only German phrase, "Ich danke Ihnen fur Ihre grosse freundlichkeit" causing some surprise! I was then taken to the Mairie, where I was shut up with two German private soldiers. An A.A. Battery in the village kept on firing and I saw several F.E.'s flying overhead. After waiting until about 3 p.m., I was marched off to the station about a mile distant and put on a train to Cambrai.

I was taken to the Fortress which was used as a barracks and put in a very dirty room where I met several other British officers, recently taken prisoner - including Captain Gray, Saunders, Molloy, Helder and Money, all Royal Flying Corps and shot down that morning.

What were one's feelings when it became evident that it was not possible to get back to the British side of the lines? I think that my attention was rivetted on finding a safe landing place rather than realising that I was to fall into enemy hands. I must admit that on my first flights over German-held territory, I was frightened, particularly when anti-aircraft shells exploded - some near enough to cause my plane to bounce.

I had had practically no instructions in how to deal with enemy aircraft, and the very primitive bomb sight fixed on the side of the pilot's seat was quite useless. So when we reached our targets, we had to guess the approximate moment to "pull the plug" and release the bombs. Not too difficult when coming down low over a station full of trucks and carriages, but very uncertain when flying at 10,000 feet!

The room had no furniture except for double-tier wooden bunks in which we slept on straw filled palliasses. The food provided was vile - an unpleasant change after the Mess at Fienvillers - and consisted of vegetable soup served twice a day, black bread and ersatz coffee. Fortunately we had some French money and were able to buy through an interpreter a little jam, chocolate and biscuits. There were no washing facilities but we were allowed half an hour's exercise in the barrack square. 

One day while we were there, there was a parade of a Bosche Battalion, which had been made up with drafts - mostly young soldiers - after having suffered severe casualties on the Somme battlefield. The battalion was formed up in square and addressed by a senior officer sitting on his horse. After a long oration, an N.C.O. produced some Iron Crosses from a bag he was carrying. These were duly pinned on the breasts of a number of the "other ranks" - no doubt "pour encourager les autres".

We were kept in Cambrai for about ten days until enough prisoners had been collected to make up a train load. Officers were packed eight to a third class carriage with a German private, who smelt to high heaven, to guard us. After spending a night in the train and passing through Douai, Mons and Brussels, we disembarked in Cologne station. We spent another night in an underground waiting room known to many prisoners-of-war as the "Black Hole of Calcutta". Next day we entrained and in due course arrived at Gütersloh in the province of Hanover where we spent a night in a reception camp located outside the main P.O.W. Lager. A party of twenty-eight R.F.C. officers went on by train to Osnabruck where we were shut up in rooms with windows pasted over with paper so that we could not see out. We were kept there for about a fortnight, and were visited by an attaché from the American Embassy who gave no reason why we were segregated. We learned later that we were kept incommunicado because the British Government was threatening to shoot a captured Zeppelin crew - about fifteen in number - because they were carrying tracer bullets which were held to contravene the Hague Convention. So the Huns picked twice the number of R.F.C. officers in case it became necessary for them to retaliate. Fortunately we were not shot!

To revert to my landing in enemy territory - when I was staying at the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool in 1940, I saw a senior R.A.F. officer in the lounge whom I seemed to recognize and who turned out to be Air Vice Marshal Owen T. Boyd, my one time Flight Commander. I introduced myself and we had a chat. He remembered my disappearance on September 17th and said he had often wondered what had happened to me. Shortly afterwards on a flight to Egypt, his plane had to make a forced landing in Sicily, so he in his turn became a P.O.W.
 
Note:
First Tanks - Although some of the very first tanks were built at Oldbury, they were originally invented and prototype tanks were first made at William Foster & Co. Ltd. who where an agricultural machinery company based at Lincoln, Lincolnshire. The company was best known for producing threshing machines and steam traction engines. The prototype tanks were in effect agricultural tractors with armoured bodies. After the First World War, The Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors decided that the inventors of the Tank were Sir William Tritton, Managing Director of Fosters together with Major W. G. Wilson.
 

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