2/Lt. ‘Bill’ Taylor joined 66 Squadron just before the Royal Flying Corps worst month of the war, known as ‘Bloody April’…
Brave and chivalrous foes?
In the words of P.G. Taylor, the first year of the 1914-18 air war was not really a serious affair1 The exchange between opponents might amount to little more than a friendly wave. The game-changer came in 1915 when interrupter gears were installed to German aircraft.
Immelmann was killed early, but Boelke went on to become a great leader, respected by friend and foe.
When he [Boelcke] was killed in a collision…the RFC dropped a laurel wreath over his aerodrome with the message: To the memory of our brave and chivalrous opponent, from the British Royal Flying Corps.
Jasta Boelcke, was made up of picked airmen including Manfred von Richthofen:
Major Lanoe Hawker, V.C. was killed by von Richthofen after a terrific duel in a DH2 during which Hawker ran out of ammunition. Von Richthofen pursued the DH2 relentlessly in his Albatros and shot it down. Hawker, who made no attempt to save himself by landing on the German side…was trying to reach our side of the lines before his tank ran dry.
In spite of deficiencies in aircraft performance, the RFC continued to hammer away at the Germans, carrying the war into their territory with repeated offensive patrols. FE’s, BE’s, AW’s and all the rest of the oddities were destroyed in numbers by the Albatros, but the Nieuports, the Sopwith Pups and even still the DH2’s were able to inflict severe casualties on the enemy
By April 1917, the German Jastas equipped with the Albatros DIII were poised to re-gain air superiority:
Everybody knew that the following Spring was going to see a launching of not only a series of offensives on the ground but also a determined onslaught on both sides in the air…This then was the war of 1917 which we were to wage with…the aircraft of three British fighter squadrons…56 with the new Hispano-engined SE5, 19 with the Hispano Spad fighters, and 66 with the 80 Le Rhone Sopwith.
It wouldn’t be long before Taylor was in the thick of it:
After ten days of training and acclimatisation, we had our first experience of war…
With 66 Squadron:
Vickers gun for a lance
P.G. Taylor summed up the attitude of British pilots as a mixture of high spirits, a belief in their own personal superiority, and a cheerful, mocking resignation. He likened the atmosphere at his new squadron to a nervous, high spirited horse.
Our aircraft were invested, for us, with the glamour of their gallant purpose. We were known by the press as the ‘Knights of the air’. This embarrassing expression, although the source of many ribald jokes among us, was in fact unusually apt. We were just that, mounted for war on the little brown fighters with a Vickers gun for a lance.
The stresses of being sent out against the odds were calmed somewhat under the steady leadership of Captain J.O. Andrews. Andrews had survived many combat patrols, including Lanoe Hawker’s last flight against Richthofen:
By his example he [Andrews] had inspired us all not only to make the best of our equipment but almost to enjoy the challenge of becoming an effective fighting unit in spite of its limitations…each of us retained his individuality - in fact, circumstances encouraged us to develop this…
Andrews sang-froid inspired confidence. Bill Taylor recalled an incident when Andrew’s engine cut out on approach. He then pancaked his aeroplane onto a hangar tent:
In due course, Andrews emerged from his machine and climbed unhurried to the billowing ground… He stood for a moment, taking off his gloves as if to remove any soiling effects of the incident. Then he turned to the somewhat shaken onlookers and raised his eyebrows slightly, ‘Ah, Flight Sergeant Ramsay, there you are. You might have this mess cleared up, please.’
As mentioned, 66 Squadron flew the Sopwith ‘Pup’:
The Sopwith Scout was a delightful little aeroplane to fly, but…we found ourselves with equipment critically inferior to our German opponent, the Albatros. This machine had twice the horsepower of the Sopwith Scout and twice the firepower. Its superior performance allowed the Germans to choose their own terms of the battle in the air.
By early April the winter weather had cleared:
The Pups rested lightly on the soft green grass of Spring, confident and ready, secure on the sun-warmed earth of France. Overhead, the sky was clear. The air we breathed was rich with the subtle scents of fertility…
First Patrol over Cambrai
2/Lt. Taylor’s first patrol started as it would on many occasions:
Andrews spoke to us down at the aircraft. We looked strange beings in our voluminous leather coats and helmets and sheepskin thigh-boots.
‘This is the line patrol today,’ he said. ‘We may not even see any Huns. Keep formation, and watch your tails…, waggle your wings. But don’t leave the formation. I’ll lead the attack. Follow me until you actually engage a Hun. then it’s up to you…We’ll probably get archied, but don’t splitarse all over the place trying to dodge it. stay in open formation and follow my diversions. And never try to dive away from a Hun. Remember- turn into him and make him scrap with you.’
Taylor walked to his aeroplane. He felt for the first time, a loneliness. Putting his foot into the fuselage stirrup, he swung up into the cockpit, lowered himself in, then fastened the seat-belt. He began to feel more at ease
I began to feel at home, ready in the world I had chosen
McFall was standing, waiting to swing the propeller, and Ellins was by the wingtip. We went through the starting routine…When my engine was warm I ran it up to full throttle and watched the rev counter. A good healthy sound, the aircraft quivering with the stress of power. I throttled back and let the Le Rhone engine spin easily. Andrews was out turning into the wind…I glanced across the two remaining Pups and saw their engines running. I waived to Ellins and McFall. They jerked away the chocks and my machine began to move lightly over the grass.
Within moments, they were airborne, circling to join the formation at 1000 ft. Leading his flight, Taylor flew with a red pennant attached to his tail. Andrews, leading the squadron, had two streamers attached to his wing struts. Each aircraft had an alphabetical identifier. Taylor’s Pup, 7309, was marked with a large ‘A’, intersected by a white horizontal line of 66 Squadron.
Taylor planned flights meticulously, having lost his way during flight training in the U.K. Stowed in a folder beside his seat, for quick and easy reference, were maps of the region for thirty miles each side of the lines, pasted on pieces of plywood. He wouldn’t have the option of landing and asking directions in no mans land.
With the map on my knees, I checked the country as we climbed out east for the lines- a naked strip of earth running from the North Sea to the border of Switzerland where opposing forces had come to a state of semi-static conflict, dug into trenches and living in squalid holes in the ground. Here ahead of us before Arras, the country was green with Spring, the small Villages of the farming community lying in apparently undisturbed peace.
After passing over quiet French villages, and the road to Arras, he described the view from on high:
Far below I saw the brown stain of the front line upon the earth and, looking closer, the holes from the shell bursts. It had a curious effect on me. I felt detached, uninvolved, as if I were looking down on the surface of the moon. I was not able to envisage the human scene upon it. It lay there, a scar upon the earth. But it was not mine -my world was up here, a region of such clarity and detachment that only the prospect of our own war seemed to have any reality.
Passing over the lines, Taylor was initiated into the nerve-wracking experience of flying through flak:
I hated the passive role one had to play along the inevitable line of these black shell bursts, and could never quite rid myself of the thought that the next explosion would be a direct hit upon my aircraft.
Taylor made it back. He later visited his ground crew:
Ellins handed me a piece of jagged shrapnel, about an inch square. that he found wedged in a corner under one wing, where there was a tear in the fabric. The war was suddenly real indeed. I weighed the piece of steel in my hand, and dropped it into the pocket of my flying coat, where it stayed.
Presumably as a reminder of his luck that day.
Modifications on Terra Firma
In the U.K., Taylor had purchased a pair of soft and warm, musquash fur gloves :
they allowed a sensitive touch through the soft leather fingers. We were issued with regulation gloves…thick and insensitive, and having only one thumb separate and fingers in a single mitt. To handle a Sopwith Scout with a thick leather glove was like trying to catch a feather with a cricket bat.
These fine gloves became part of his RFC issued gear. He was now completely protected from the elements. Well, almost:
All in all, my first patrol wasn’t much of a success. I had collected an allergy to sitting up in archie, and also a frostbitten face.
So he made a leather face mask, with eye holes that could be covered by the googles, and a small opening through which he could breathe:
I was never again frostbitten, even when later we flew up to 20,000 feet
Taylor also modified the triplex glass behind his gun. It was_a clumsy affair, heavily padded_ to protect the pilot’s face in a crash:
[It] allowed the air-stream to howl into the cockpit, and it also partially obscured the view at the most critical time when closing with an enemy aircraft. So I took it off, faired in the top cowl behind the engine, and fitted a rounded screen that gave an unobstructed view, and a draught-free cockpit…I am convinced the improved visibility of the new screen saved my life on many occasions in the coming months.
66’s Pups vs. The black Huns
A few days later, Taylor ran into more than just the dreaded ‘archie’. He was flying in ‘V’ formation toward the southern patrol area near Cambrai:
Cambrai, like Douai, was a centre of enemy air activity
Two aircraft had failed to take off, a third developed engine trouble and dropped out. The three remaining Pups (of Taylor, Andrews, and Smith) crossed enemy lines at 12,000 ft. Followed by the distant woofs of the black shell-bursts of AA fire, Taylor saw Andrews turn about 45 degrees to port:
In the distance ahead I could see some little moving specks quickly developing into aeroplanes as they headed towards us.
Huns. The enemy. The focal point of the great sport.
Fascinated, I followed Andrews round and straightened up to…I felt a wild, if slightly apprehensive thrill.
The enemy aircraft had the height advantage and dived into their attack. Andrews flew straight at them and Taylor followed, closing the distance rapidly:
They were four dark machines, the leader ahead of the others. I saw the tracer, thin, harmless-looking white streamers, streaking towards us from the noses of the Huns.
I pressed on, keeping plenty of speed, and chose the machine on the end of the line. Then I realized I had no choice, as he was already firing at me…I could hear the crackle of his guns as he flashed by overhead.
I pulled the Pup round in a climbing turn and saw the Hun again, a black machine with white outlined crosses.
We closed again and he tried to get into position to attack me from behind, but I found I could easily turn inside him as Andrews had said. He hadn’t a chance to pin me down that way. Realizing this he broke off the close manoeuvring and sailed up in a long, sweeping climb.
Suddenly this wasn’t a football match. This could mean someone’s death
Taylor momentarily forgot about flying technique as instinct took over. The Black Hun above him turned back in for another attack:
My one thought was to get him firmly in my sights, in the stream of bullets from my gun.
The death must be his.
I pulled the Pup up on her tail, firing as I held full throttle and brought the Hun into my sights. The Vickers rattled out, the aircraft hung suspended. Then the Pup dropped from under me and I felt the seat belt tighten and pull back into the cockpit.
The machine was falling vertically after the stall, with the nose pointing at the earth. Instinctively I pulled off the throttle, let go the firing chord. Technique took over, easing the aircraft out of the dive.
Where was the Hun? I looked around as I drew the stick back. I saw him then, hanging above me, waiting. I turned in a kind of corkscrew pull-out…
The enemy aircraft was on him again in seconds:
But before he could line up his sights I had whipped round in a turn and was trying to entice him closer. He knew his stuff, however, and again tried to exploit the Albatros’ advantage on the climb…maneuvering to set me up for another diving attack. I could see this coming and was able to avoid it by turning in under him and spoiling his dive.
He flashed on over again and I pulled around for a chance to get a burst into him. He wasn’t there. I kept in a close turn in case he was coming in from a blind spot, screwing round always to spot the black machine. But I could see him nowhere.
The sky was empty.
Where had he gone? Taylor could see the other Sopwiths below him - but the enemy had disappeared, completely! He dived down and joined the formation:
I was in sole possession of the hostile sky. I could not understand this sudden end to the fight. Why had the Huns gone? And where? My head kept turning, scanning every inch of the hostile sky.
I learned later that this method of fighting was the standard tactic of the Albatros – the diving attack and the disinclination to get involved in close maneuvering.
When I flew a captured Albatros later at once I saw the point. The machine had an excellent performance, but was heavy on the turns.
It was a good education, the beginning of the path to survival. Even though I hadn’t got the Hun, he hadn’t got me either. The score was even.
Taylor bags a two-seater?Taylor and Andrews continued on from Arras to Douai, the Jasta’s lair . They flew through accurate anti-aircraft fire, again. Then Andrew’s machine plunged into a steep dive toward Hunland. Taylor pressed the nose of his Pup down, opening the throttle to keep up:
For a moment I couldn’t account for his sudden dive. Then I saw two Hun machines moving slowly against the dark earth, heading east, and now about six thousand feet below.
I eased back the throttle as I caught up with Andrews, and we went on down in a screaming dive, overtaking the Huns easily with all the height we had to use. As we approached I could see they were two-seaters from high in the sky above them.
Andrews made for the lead aircraft, Taylor slewed away for the other, adrenaline pumping:
My excitement was terrific. It was all I could do to hold my fire to effective range instead of shooting away my ammunition at a range of a half mile or more.
Then I saw the tracer come up, and the rear gunner actually crouching in his seat and firing at me.
Strangely I had no fear that he would hit me, even though the pilot was holding the aircraft on a magnificently straight course.
I pulled the gun ring as the Hun came in, filling the view of the nose of my Pup.
He had to go down. I almost flew into his tail, pulled out, and swept over above his wing.
At the top of my climbing turn, I looked down to see what had happened. The Hun was diving vertically into some scattered cloud that hung over the land below. I felt sure I had got him.
This would be Taylor’s first kill if he could confirm the crash. He dived for a gap in the low cloud where the German machine had disappeared:
In a few moments I was out below, and searching the misty air at two thousand feet. Not seeing the Hun, I turned quickly and swept round, scanning the haze and the ground below.
Suddenly there was a terrific explosion-
I thought my Pup had disintegrated, but she flew on calmly through the filthy smoke of a shell-burst, only to be rocked by an absolute frenzy of gunfire.
Taylor had to get out, quick:
I opened out to full throttle and turned into the climb. Every inch of height to the cloud-base seemed to resist me as I hauled the Pup up and willed her into the blessed shelter above.
It must have been less than a minute till the clouds closed around us, but it seemed to me like an age. The ‘Archie’ followed me blindly up, still bursting in open air above, but I was clear now and had only to hold my course above the cloud to lose them.
I flew away to the south, leaving the air behind me aimlessly dotted with slowly dissolving shell bursts.
At about 3000ft Taylor saw another aeroplane:
I identified it as a solitary Pup.
It was Andrews, his two red streamers fluttering cheerfully from the wing struts. I slid in behind him taking up my position above his starboard wing. He held up his hand in greeting and we flew south down the line of the patrol.
I think Andrews got one of the two-seaters [Andrews only claim, however, was made on April 30] Whether mine crashed or not I do not know. It certainly looked as if the pilot had been hit and had fallen forward onto the controls. But the barrage I met when I tried to confirm my first kill completely dampened my interest in the matter.
Taylor breaks up the The Douai Circus’ party.
German airmen hunted in packs, following the Boelcke Dicta: The Jasta must fight as a unit with close teamwork between all pilots…Foolish acts of bravery only bring death…
Taylor would soon learn the reason for this only a few days later…
The Germans had brought together a group of specially selected pilots, the elite of their fighter force under the command and inspiration of Manfred von Richthofen. their unit Jagdstaffel 11, was stationed near Douai, almost directly opposite us, and equipped with a new V-strutter D3 Albatros. Von Richthofen’s machine was painted all red, and the others were red with various other vivid colours.
Out patrolling for 2-seater reconnaissance aircraft Taylor noticed bird-like things swooping and attacking the ground, thousands of feet below him. Diving down he could see they were coloured Albitri of the Hun Circus from Douai, putting on a fine show:
I decided to break up their party….such confidence did I have in the maneuverability of my Pup.
I hauled her over, and pressed her down in a dive for the Huns. The specks grew quickly into aeroplanes, and the aeroplanes into brilliant Albatri - unaware, so I believed, of my approach.
I selected one, a red machine with some chequered marks on the fuselage and started to turn in behind him as he was soaring around for another dive on the trenches.
I don’t think he saw me, for he made no attempt to evade the attack and I got a good burst into him, and saw him rear up in a terrific zoom, fall over the top and dive for near the earth. But if he had not seen me, one of the others had; as I pulled out there was the sound of machine-gunfire close behind my tail.
…I was suddenly conscious of a shark-like creature closing in on me. I held full throttle and tried to climb away, but it was futile…
They had me cold. I couldn’t reach them to attack, and couldn’t climb away to escape. The instant I flew straight they would nail me.
Luckily, Taylor had a trick up his sleeve:
There was only one remaining possibility; a move which I had always avoided and from which there was no turning back.
I decided to dive right down on the deck, and hare off home below the trees and the Church tower. … I shook off a Hun with a sideways loop…. and dived for the earth. The manoeuvre gave me a few seconds start.
I remember the broken earth, with the shell holes, my wheels only a few feet off the ground. A Hun began to overtake me, diving, turning to get me in his sights. I had to watch him, and avoid flying into the ground. I swerved away as his nose was coming on, and he was forced to pull out to avoid a crash.
A broken village came rushing up and I went skating around some ruined houses, past some splintered trees..Then there were fields, green and brown, behind the lines, and a fold in the ground. I poured the Pup down a low valley…A quick look behind. The Huns had gone, the air was clear.
Taylor’s split-second decisions had saved his life. After landing safely at the aerodrome, Taylor had more of a chance to ruminate over his experience:
I pulled back my mask and wiped the sweat from my face.
In the relief of escape, and under the influence of the fresh, sunlit air, I managed to find reasons to be pleased with my foolhardiness. I might have got a Hun. I certainly spoiled their party. And I was still alive. But it wasn’t an exploit that I would repeat in a hurry…
..at the aerodrome, I got out and gave my Pup a pat on the rump. I looked over the wings and tail – there wasn’t a single bullet hole to be seen. The Huns hadn’t shot very well, but I couldn’t rely on that for next time…
Taylor had been fortunate indeed:
I was luckier than I knew…48 Squadron had earlier in the day lost almost a complete flight of Bristol F2a fighters to the Jagdstaffel of highly coloured Huns from some of whom I had just escaped.
Led by Captain Leefe-Robinson, who had been awarded the Victoria Cross for bringing down a German airship over London, the first patrol of 48 Squadron to go out encountered five Albitri led by von Richthofen over Douai. Two of the six Bristol fighters were shot down, including that of Leefe-Robinson, who was wounded and taken prisoner. Of two that escaped over the lines, one was practically a write-off and the other was badly damaged
Taylor beats the odds
Taylor commanded 66 Squadron for a time. He made official representations to the authorities in England. They reacted negatively to his suggestions for better aircraft:
…abysmal ignorance separated them from any real understanding of our need…The real barrier was the system itself, one which did not encourage direct personal contact between the war pilot and the designers and manufacturers…
…most of us felt that where human lives were at stake the high politics of competitive manufacturing interests should be disregarded, and the production of the best weapon with which to destroy the enemy should be the only consideration. Anyway, I was unimpressed with the long distance decisions taken, since I believed that the people who did the fighting were those best qualified to advise on the functional requirements of their weapons But in the end, my job was to fight the war not plan it.
66 Squadron was eventually upgraded to Sopwith Camels, and sent to Italy in late 1917. By then Captain Taylor had been re-assigned to England as an instructor:
In the later stages of the war, frequent changes in aircraft types brought temporary superiority to one side or the other. The re-equipment of more RFC squadrons with the Sopwith Camel and SE5a…caused a serious setback for the German air force in the late summer and autumn of 1917, when the Albatros D5a, was still their main fighter, supported by the Fokker triplane the advent of the Fokker D7 the Germans again found themselves with superior equipment to the Allies
Despite their debut disaster, the Bristol fighters became one of the best all-round aircraft of the war. No.1 Australian Flying Corps certainly flew them to good effect in Palestine. The FE’s and RE8 crews battled on, including 3 Australian Squadron’s RE8’s. 2 and 4 Squadron AFC flying Sopwith’s and SE5s also distinguished themselves.
Germany could not keep up with the Allies industrial output. Their ‘Aces’ fell one by one (note: the term Ace was used after WW1.) Von Richthofen was shot down in April 1918.
P.G. Taylor respected his opponent’s skill and bravery:
The term ‘Hun’ was used by the British propaganda machine to denote a barbaric type of enemy, there was no stigma attached to it in the RFC. It simply meant a German aircraft and the word joined the other jargon that sprang up in the Service.
For myself- and I believe I was typical- I was not incapable of killing Huns, but I was certainly incapable of hating them. I hunted as a job, and for the thrill of the chase. Hate had no part in it.
Sir P.G.Taylor dedicating his writings: To all those who fought in the air over France in the Great War of 1914-18. These high-spirited pilots laughed off the label Knights of the sky. Nevertheless their service 100 years ago is remembered here.
Taylor, P. G. (Patrick Gordon), Sir Sopwith Scout 7309. Cassell, London, 1968.
Follow the P.G. Taylor story in these articles:
Raglan St to RFC: Mayor P.T. Taylor
Raglan St. to RFC: Bill Taylor’s school days & calling to the skies.
Raglan St. to RFC: Pilgrimage to ‘the silent fields’
Raglan St. to RFC: Bill Taylor: boy mascot company commander avoids the Valentine’s Day mutiny
Hart, Peter Bloody April: slaughter in the skies over Arras, 1917. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 2005.
Franks, Norman L. R. (Norman Leslie Robert) & Bailey, Frank W & Guest, Russell 1994, Bloody April – black September, Grub Street, London
Morris, Alan Bloody April. Arrow Books, London, 1968.