Aerial Reconnaissance on the Western Front

Some incidents in the service career of Capt. J.M. Allport as described to Ted Webster. Originally published in the 1969 Journal of the Australian Society of WWI Aero Historians, reproduced here with their permission.

To start at the beginning, Mr. Allport. Prior to the war breaking out, could you give me any outline of your normal life, trade that you followed and so on?

Well, after leaving school I thought I would go into the motor trade which was in its infancy, so I became apprenticed to a motor engineering firm. But after a little while I left there and tried to earn a bit more money by joining Hendersons Sweets, and the job I had there was pretty solid, pushing truck loads of sweets around the floor, and un-loading and stacking them. I got a little fed up with this, and when some of my pals came from the country and said they were going to "join up" I "joined up" with them.

So actually this is the point where you joined the Australian Forces?

Yes. I enlisted in Sydney in December, 1915, and was drafted to the Artillery at the "Warren" at Tempe in Sydney. We slept in tents on the ground and dug "hip holes" in the sand, but our chief concern was firstly the fleas, and secondly when we could get away overseas. We left in the "Argylshire" in May with stops at Durban, Capetown, and Dakar, and then to Salisbury Plains. We had a great reception at Durban, being the first Australians to call there. However, the bill for souvenirs, hotel cutlery, etc. caught up with us at Capetown. Eric Dibbs was on the "Beltana" on the same convoy, and has also given some highlights of the trip already published in the Journal. Ship conditions on the "Argylshire" were somewhat grim, sleeping in hammocks in the smelly holds, lacking ventilation. If you slept on the deck you had the windblast from the crews' lavatory accommodations up forward, and you were liable to have your ears bitten by rats. On Salisbury Plains, conditions improved, sleeping on sloping boards in huts. Rough conditions, but they didn't seem rough to us at the time, we were young and we could take that sort of thing. My best pal and I then got the idea of applying for the Flying Corps.

So actually you applied to join the R.F.C. whilst you were still in England?

Oh, yes. We really got the idea on Salisbury Plains, because an Australian with a B.E. happened to land near the Artillery Unit and we were greatly interested in this plane, and it turned out to be Bill Taylor; that's the late Sir Gordon Taylor. However, at that time we had to start making application, of course, we approached the Captain, our Commander, who was Jack Playfair, who later was a Brigadier. Our official application went forward, at that time to, I think it was Adastral House. We both had many interviews, medicals, and a lot of hot air and red tape, of course, but we were accepted. But then we were rejected again, with about 198 other applicants. This was by orders of the G.O.C. of the Australian Forces, but finally the R.F.C., I believe, asked for 32 men from the 3rd Division.

You mention applying and then going up. How long a period in between your application going forward, and actually going for interviews and medicals, and so on, was it only a few days?

Oh, no, it was a couple of months. It was about mid-November that we were eventually asked to, or instructed, to report to the Officer of the Cadet Battalion at Denham, quite close to London. That was alright, but we were still on 2/- a day, which was a rather drastic happening. A lot of us Australians went away with money belts, consisting of a leather belt with compartments in it. These were filled, well, not filled, but in my particular case, I had 20 real golden sovereigns, but, of course, a lot of the other boys were the same. I don't know what happened when they went on leave, probably a good cop for the girls in Piccadilly, I imagine, with their golden sovereigns. Well, at Denham they provided more drill and more discipline which we'd had plenty of in the last six months. As it transpired later, most of the fliers could have done with a lot more front line know how, in regard to navigation, aerial combat, and forced landings, etc., and a lot less Military Law and Army Regulations.

In actual fact the induction period at Denham into the Flying Corps was more just an initial training establishment?

Oh, yes. It was an establishment to instil discipline by the real English, Company Sergeant Major, Guardsman style. The next move was Oxford, where we were accommodated in Brazenose College, although most of the Australians went to Exeter College. Four of us, a South African, a Scot, an Englishman, and myself, hired furniture and made cur digs, which were the accommodation for the ordinary Oxford students, very comfortable and we settled down there, to cram for the next stage, which was instruction on squadron organisation, the theory of flying, reconnaissance, map reading, engines, rigging, plane construction, instruments, and types of bombs etc.

That period of instruction, on various aspects of the aircraft and armaments, could you tell me roughly what period this covered in time?

About two months, normally it would have been twelve months.

Yes, I was going to say it was more the basic elements of these things rather than delving too deeply into the technicalities of what this and that was, these were actually just the basic constructions, details, and so on, I presume?

So it was, but we really had to cram, because we had to go through proper exams and reach a certain standard of efficiency. It was actually a "High Pressure" course. We were probably working quite a number of hours per day on the course, more than if it had been the normal course.

They gave special emphasis to co-operation with artillery. I suppose I was earmarked for an artillery observation, artillery co-operation plane, having been in the artillery when I enlisted. The set up there was very comprehensive, they had a Theatrette with gallery seats, and it was equipped with a complete countryside landscape, with enemy battery positions, and small flashing lights representing guns firing, and the shells bursting. The pupils in the gallery were required to pin point these, and send corrections down by Morse code on a buzzer, which was provided.

In actual fact, Mr. Allport, it is rather interesting hearing about the relief map that you have just described, because this method was also used in the last war, for training purposes. A lot of people may think that this is a modern innovation, and it is very interesting to realise that this type of training aid existed in the early days of flying.

I can assure you that the impact of this system in France, and the application of it, had a terrific effect on the efficiency of our gunnery.

I should imagine that it would be of great use in the basic training of artillery co-operation squadrons and so on, it gave them an idea of what they would be looking for in actual practice.

When I went over to France I was lacking very severely in many aspects of flying, and at the front I was able, on the first occasion up, when I was given the task of ranging one of our batteries, to carry out the shoot to the satisfaction of the battery, it was a successful shoot right at the first attempt.

From this initial period at training, I should imagine that you would go on to elementary flying school, or an establishment of that type?

Most of us did. Of course, we had to pass our exams and various things, I'm afraid I was much down on Military Law but, however, that didn't seem to hold me up, in fact, most of us were posted to various squadrons for the early flying instruction, and I found myself at No. 47 Reserve squadron at Waddington, Nr. Lincoln, for the elementary flying.

In this elementary flying, could you progress through the various types of aircraft which you were instructed on?

Referring back to my Log Book, which I need to do occasionally these days, shows 8 dual instructional flights in a Graham White, a Maurice Farman Shorthorn and Maurice Farman Longhorn. Then off solo. The total flying instruction amounted to 1 hr. 55 mins. We found that it did not take long to learn to fly these old machines, as you can imagine. It was something of an anticlimax actually after the long months of study and exams to find ourselves flying around on our own in the air. The conditions under which we flew were ideal really, because we only flew in the early morning, or in the evening, as while in windy periods, even the planes standing on the ground were liable to be blown over.

I get the idea, Mr. Allport, that the planes were relatively simple to fly, probably because of the basic training and early instruction.

Oh, yes. We had "Theory of Flight" rammed down our throats as well, and this told us what to expect when we had to handle a plane.

Of the types that you did train on, did you have any particular preference, say, the Graham White, or the Maurice Farman Longhorn etc.?

Oh, no, not really, because it depended to an extent on the instructor. We seemed to get a different instructor each time we wont up, it may or may not have been a good idea, in fact the particular planes that we were flying, you couldn't stunt, it was only a matter of off the ground, round, and landing again. They were simply constructed planes, the controls were duplicated of course, and the pupil usually sat in the nacelle, in front of the instructor and slightly below him. The pupil was allowed to lightly feel the dual controls and get the idea. There was no means of intercommunication, and the pupil had no idea what the instructor may have been doing in actual fact, but, if the pupil handled the controls too heavily, he got a punch on the side of his head, which meant "Let go everything" which was the only way on these aeroplanes. After the first solo of course, the thing to do was to practice landings, and it seemed easy to take off and fly around, but to come down was quite another thing. The pilot thought about landing too heavily, or meeting the ground at too steep an angle. With an engine revolving behind your back, it made you think perhaps of the mechanics scraping bits of you out of the fins of the cylinders. I have seen many a pilot who just couldn't make it down, and he just opened his throttle out and around again, then he would fly around a while and eventually he would run out of petrol. To put the plane down in those days, it was done in quite a different manner to what it is flow. In those days you aimed to do a three point landing, just keep her off the ground until you got the three points on, nowadays of course, the nose wheel goes down, and you put your brakes on.

I believe, Mr. Allport, that most of these old aircraft had no slow running adjustment of the engine, although a few had a "Blip Switch".

Well, no, I wouldn't say that so much, the general idea was to bring the plane in without the engine, in fact, later on it was the thing to do, to always judge your landing without having to use your engine, and possibly come in with a bit too much height, side slip the height off, and just come in over the boundary of the aerodrome, and do a three point landing. It was quite the thing not to use your engine.

During the elementary training period, Mr. Allport, can you remember any of the little peculiarities of these old aircraft, the instructors, the pupils, and any highlights of the training that stand out in your memory?

One little incident that worried me at the time, which turned out to be quite alright. It was the first forced landing in one of these old planes, after I had done about 2½ hrs. flying, and I thought, to vary the monotony of practice landings, I would see how high the old Maurice Farman would go. After an hour of persistent climbing the altimeter showed 8,500 ft. By then the engine checked and spluttered to a stop, with the result that I had a long glide and many spirals to get down, fortunately in a paddock. At this time I expected to be "put on the mat" by the Flight Commander, who was an excitable Frenchman, however, he was most enthusiastic and delighted and endorsed my logbook that I had established a record height for the Squadron.

Then you had finished this period of elementary flying, I presume that you were posted to a more advanced flying training school or squadron?

Yes. We were posted to a different squadron, No. 37 Reserve squadron at Scampton, for instruction on more stable and faster machines, which were Avros and small Armstrong Whitworths (the F.K.3). The Avro was a most obliging machine, if you wanted a dose of castor oil, all you had to do was to put your head out of the side of the machine. It had a rotary Monosoupape engine, which had one valve in the piston head. Both the petrol and the oil were admitted to the cylinders by the hollow fixed crankshaft, then into the sump, thence up to the piston head. Castor oil had to be used because it would not mix with the petrol. Some of the old Avros got quite smelly and slimy with the castor oil sprayed back along the fuselage, this having to be cleaned off at intervals. We had a lot of women riggers working for us on these planes, and these were quite often preferred to the men, their attention to detail, inspecting the "Raf" wires and other parts was much more thorough. Then, the other, the small Armstrong Whitworth had a 90 hp V8 air-cooled engine, and this particular engine had the habit of cracking cylinders, and on one occasion I saw the top of one of the cylinders go past, followed by the connecting rod, which narrowly missed the visor, and then a good spray of oil. However, I was over a fairly populated area, and I had to keep the throttle open, but the faithful Armstrong Whitworth came home on 7 cylinders,

From various sources, I gather that the Armstrong Whitworth.was an exceptionally stable machine. Is this correct?

Well, yes. The main difference between the Armstrong Whitworth, the Avro and other stable machines, and say a Maurice Farman, was that the centre of gravity was ahead of the centre of lift. If you flew hands off, or got out of control, the final effect was that the nose went automatically down, and you just pulled out of the dive, but if you stalled one of the Maurice Farmans the tail might go down first, or one of the wings, and it lasted until it was under control again, or you struck terra firma.

At the advanced flying training course, what stages or operations were you put through?

Straight flying, bomb dropping, Photography, cross country, and artillery observation, and after about 20 hrs. solo flying, most of us got our wings, and we were given instruction on the machine in which we would be flying at the front. An R.E.8 was my lot, and it turned out to be a winner, although the Mess Room chat centred on this new reconnaissance plane being an "incinerator" of pilots; it burnt up quite a few. However, in my case, it didn't turn out to be so on service. Nearly all the R.E.8's which crashed in England caught fire easily, because the emergency tank was only an inch or so from the rear of the engine and burst if the engine was knocked back on to it.

I take it that this machine was the one on which you did your final training before proceeding to France?

That is quite true. I had about 2 hrs. solo on the R.E.8 and there was a scream from France for more pilots, so any of us that had reached this stage were sent over.

Having reached the stage of being posted to an operational unit, Mr. Allport, could you quote actually the length of time from your original application to join the Flying Crops, to reach this point?

The training period took approximately 5 months, of which the last half covered the actual flying training. In France, the point I brought up about the emergency tanks being close to the engine, came to light. The Squadron that I went to forbade the use of this tank for petrol, and it was kept empty. Later on I was pretty glad of this. The R.E.8 was a faster, and more powerful reconnaissance machine than its predecessor, the B.E.2c, which was used very extensively at times. It had certain modifications and alterations in the positioning of the pilot and the observer. The observer, who previously sat in front of the pilot, was given a gun which he had to shoot backwards over the pilot's head, because the attacker invariably came from the rear. However, in the R.E.8 he was put in the back cockpit, which had a swivel seat and a Lewis gun mounting which he could swing round on and point in any direction. The pilot was also given a Vickers machine gun which was synchronized to fire in a forward direction through the propeller, but he didn't often have the chance of using this, because his plane was too slow to catch up and get on the tail of the German Scouts. It was used mainly for "straffing" the enemy troops in the trenches. Actually the change over made the observer the rear gunner, and incidentally helped tremendously in re-establishing the air ascendancy for the Allies at any rate, adjacent to the front line. The operations such as photography, artillery spotting, and ranging for our batteries, and various other patrol duties were carried out with much greater freedom from attacks by enemy aircraft. Of course, the real credit of winning back the air ascendancy must be given to the Scout Squadrons, Sopwith's and S.E.5's etc., that operated many miles inside the enemy territory, and "shot up" enemy aircraft as they were taking off from their own aerodromes.

I should imagine, Mr. Allport, that that type of operation was rather hazardous for the "scout pilot" in so far that it would be quite a battle, with the distance involved, getting back to their own lines, especially if they had been shot up a bit themselves.

Yes, this was quite often the case, particularly as the prevailing wind was usually from the west.

Could you tell me anything about the types of German aircraft that you were meeting in opposition at this time?

Yes. We would quite often encounter the Albatros, Pfalz, D.F.W.'s and in the latter period, the Fokker Triplane.

We read quite often Mr. Allport, about the German "Circuses" and the big battle formations, I suppose that you would quite often be attacked by the odd enemy scout that would come into attack or, possibly a pair of them hunting together?

Yes, that is so. We were mostly bothered by the "lone wolf" who, on a cloudy day, would sneak up and catch you unawares. The "Circuses" we quite often encountered when we went over the lines on photography missions, when we had to go 4 or 5 miles into enemy territory taking photographs. They obviously didn't like this, our aircraft taking photographs of their positions, emplacements, and so on, and would very often send tip "Circuses" to try and get rid of us.

On these penetrations into enemy territory, I presume that you would have an escort of Scouts on occasions?

This is generally so, but we would quite often supply our own escort. One machine would probably be the photographic machine with one or two of us to act as escort for it; on other occasions we would have an escort of a formation of Scouts. These were operations where we had to penetrate a bit deeper into enemy territory than we would normally do on our everyday missions, such as artillery observation, which was done from just above the line.

You did mention, Mr. Allport, that prior to your arrival in France the casualty rate was rather high in the artillery observation squadrons, and that you arrived in. France at the time that the R.E.8 was introduced to front line service.

Yes. The squadron I was with had R.E.8's. Although in England we had the wind up a bit on account of the fire hazard, actually these planes proved a boon especially when compared with the B.E.2c's which had been used previously. The Casualty rate with the R.E.8's was very much less, as a matter of fact, I have a copy of a map which was captured from the German Air Force, which was signed by Count O'Gorman of Headquarters XIII Corps. This has a caption to it which reads "In the time between the 1st of March to the 15th April, 1917 in the section La Bassee - St Quentin, the Eng1ish and French aeroplanes which were shot down are shown by a black spot which indicates the position where they fell". A count of these black spots on the map gives a total of over 150 planes, which were shot down in the space of 6 weeks, in a comparatively small section of the Front. A lot of these were "sitting ducks", the old B.E.2c's, which I previously referred to, with the gunner/ observer seated in front of the pilot, were no match for the faster German Scout planes, and no doubt many of Baron von Richthofen's and his "Circus'" victories were scored over this type of machine.

In respect to the figures which you have just quoted referring to only a small section of the fighting area, this no doubt, rightly, or wrongly, gave rise to this period being quoted as "Bloody April"?

Yes, this is quite so, but things did change shortly after this period, and although Richthofen received quite a lot of publicity, I really think a lot of our pilots such as Bishop, Ball, McCudden, and Mannock deserve just as much "kudos" or more, than the Baron, owing to the fact that most of their fighting was done well into enemy territory, and this aggressive attitude helped to regain the Allied air ascendancy. Actually no victory over an enemy aircraft by a British pilot was credited, unless it was confirmed by independent witnesses or photographs.

When you were posted to France, Mr. Allport, could you tell me which Squadron you were actually posted to, the type of Squadron, its duties, and any impressions that you may remember of joining that Unit?

I was posted to No. 5 R.F.C. Squadron at Acq, which was an artillery observation Squadron. As to my impressions, I was rather reserved at first and being a bit green I was taken in hand by one of the old school of observers in the Squadron, who probably didn't relish the job, but I was very pleased to have someone like him to show me the ropes. He told me, and I will always remember this, that the first four weeks were the test for the new pilots, and if they survived this period they would have learned enough to look after themselves, and should be able to avoid the pitfalls. However, thanks to a bit of luck and a very good observer, I soon piled up 60 hrs. on artillery observation and front line patrols.

Could you tell me the normal duration of a routine flight on artillery observation, or similar patrols?

That varied quite a lot, for instance on a photographic patrol you could be up over the line, have the photographs taken and be back at the aerodrome in possibly an hour. An artillery observation shoot could take from 2 to 4½ hours. An N.F. (or front line patrol) could be from 1 to 4½ hrs. depending on weather and petrol endurance.

The purpose of the N.F. patrol was to watch for gun flashes, call up one of our batteries and direct their fire to silence the enemy guns. When low cloud existed and observation was impossible, our plane merely flew up and down the section of the front above our own trenches and support lines to "show the flag" and help keep up, the morale of the infantry.

You did mention another point, that you also had a very good observer. I presume that you mean as his name implied that he was very observant to the extent of keeping his eyes open for enemy aircraft?

Yes, that was the role of the observer at this stage of the war, also to see that the new pilot did not get lost and land on the wrong side of the line, which sometimes did happen when no sun was visible. I did not have this observer for very long, as he was soon transferred to another new pilot. However, he was with me long enough to get me out of a spot of bother with my first encounter with an enemy aircraft. It was a very neat looking German scout plane painted in a black and white check pattern. It was a day with big billowy clouds down to about 4,000 ft. and the E.A. evidently had spotted us from a greater height, and worked out his dive around the edge of the cloud. My trusty observer had seen him coming, and I only woke tip to the fact, when I heard him firing a burst from his machine gun at the Hun. I banked to prevent the enemy from getting a sight on us from behind, and by good luck more than good management, we had him where we wanted him, and as he persisted in trying to dive under our tail, I prevented this by pulling the plane into a steeper and tighter turn, meantime he was being raked by my observer's fire. Having greater speed he was able to break off the attack, and as he did not return we were able to finish the shoot in comparative peace.

In making contact with the battery you were spotting for did you employ wireless telegraphy, or some other method?

Most shoots were pre-arranged with the batteries, targets being mainly gun emplacements. All known gun emplacements were registered on a counter-battery map which was prepared by the intelligence department. The procedure was to call up the battery by wireless, they, in turn, would put out a large white ground signal when they were ready to fire. The pilot usually flew towards the battery signalling "G" on his transmitter, (Morse buzzer) and watching for the flash of the gun. Then he turned towards the target watching for the burst, which usually occurred 20 or 30 seconds after firing. Corrections were sent down, and each gun of the battery individually ranged. The shoot was successful, or termed successful, when the battery was satisfied and put out the appropriate ground signal. Three hours would be the average time of the shoot during which time, as you may imagine, the pilot had plenty to do in addition to keeping an eye open for enemy aircraft. When they appeared it was better to stop the shoot for a while, and retreat to one's own side of the line. The enemy aircraft were quite often spotter planes locating our batteries, or scouts after our blood. We were equipped with forward firing guns, but obviously we could not bring them to bear on a faster flying machine. The Artillery observation machines were too slow even to catch up with an enemy scout or get on his tail.

During the early period of your service in France, Mr. AIlport, did you have any trouble with anti-aircraft fire?

Well, by and large, anti-aircraft fire didn't bother us very much, except when straight flying on photography missions, or when in formation. Most counter battery shoots were done from just on our side of the line, at approximately 5,000 ft., and the "Archie" virtually never ceased, but it was only the very occasional piece of shrapnel which left its mark on the plane. The avoiding technique in this regard, was to develop a habit of constant change in direction, and a variation in height. I believe that very few of our artillery observation planes were shot down by enemy anti-aircraft fire although, I believe it used to worry our scout pilots when flying in formation over the lines. It actually had the effect of keeping them up high, which obviously made them a harder target to hit. In another respect, it is possible that our bombers who penetrated further over the lines, would avoid certain areas or towns where the anti-aircraft batteries were known to be concentrated with a consequent increase in anti-aircraft fire. But the art-obs planes, as I say, having developed the habit of evasion, were not bothered very much, although there might be the odd shot that may come near us.

You did mention a height of 5,000 ft. being normal on artillery observation. How does this compare with the height at which you flew on photography patrols?

Well, normally a similar height would probably be used, but on one occasion, whilst I was still a bit green I was given the task of photographing certain gun positions and it looked like being a sticky job. Not knowing what height to go over at, I asked the Photographic Section from what height they would like the photographs taken. Curiously enough they said that they liked them taken from a height of about 2,000 ft. So, having been given the positions and locations of a number of gun emplacements, I proceeded over the line at an altitude of 2,000 ft., with the result that I got some very good photographs, even showing the actual guns in their emplacements. But I also got a good collection of holes in the aircraft from machine gun fire from the ground, for our repair department's attention. As a matter of fact, one bullet passed through the engine oil pressure pipe, and another entered the petrol tank. The observer and I were both well saturated with petrol and oil, but fortunately we didn't experience any fire. However, the plane got us back to our side of the line, and we were able to get it down into a paddock all in one piece, although the engine was very sick, and had, in fact, seized up by this time, being on full throttle.

I believe that small arms, and machine gun fire from the ground, when flying at low altitudes, would be rather hazardous?

Yes, you've got to be either high up or very low down. Then you are very low down over the trenches you don't experience much fire from the ground as a rule, because you have come and gone before they can range on you. On this occasion I actually learned quite a lot the hard way and we were, in fact, rather lucky to get down in one piece. But this was one of the early hazards which we came to accept during our first few weeks in France, one of these silly things that you would do.

I suppose, Mr. Allport, that it wasn't really a silly thing, but that you would be intent on getting the plane down safely, when it had been damaged?

Well, yes, I suppose that this would be the case under the circumstances, the main thing was to get back over our side of the line and get down before anything really serious happened.

Was there any after effect of this saturation in oil and petrol?

Not so far as my observer or I were concerned, but there was a sequel to this, which was the Court Martial of the Repair Section Sergeant, who was charged with handing over a petrol tank full of fumes for repair to an air mechanic. When the air mechanic applied the blow lamp to it, it exploded and filled the Ack-Emma with bits of petrol tank. Incidentally, the bullet, a German armour piercing one, was removed from the tank, and is still in my possession, one of the souvenirs of my time in France.

You did mention earlier that communication between yourselves and your escort, was carried out by hand signals or waggling the wings. Were there any occasions when you lost contact with your escort, on a patrol or reconnaissance mission?

Yes. On one particular occasion, we had arranged for an escort of 4 Sopwith Triplanes from nearby No. 8 Squadron (The Naval squadron) and on this occasion we set out with complete confidence and rendezvoused with the "Tripes". Then we had to fan out over the line, and make a sweep right along it. Of course, it would be pretty hard for the Naval Squadron to provide us all with an escort when they were in fact, in formation. In this instance my particular photographs were to be taken some distance over the line. What I didn't know at this time was that the escort was flying many thousands of feet above us while I was busy taking the photographs. It was a very nice warm day, the sky was clear, the sun was shining, and I think that with the rarified atmosphere, my observer must have gone off to sleep. The result was that a wily lone flier came in. to the attack, and he got a pretty good burst of machine gun fire into us whilst I was busy concentrating on aiming for the photographs. The machine gun fire came in from pretty close range, and consequently by instinct, I kicked the rudder and yanked the joy stick, and I think that the result of our peculiar manoeuvre must have convinced our attacker that he had achieved a kill. Anyway, I side slipped some height off and circled, but as he didn't return to the attack, we were able to hurry at full bore back to our own lines, and as the saying goes, live to fight another day.

I presume that the kick of the rudder and the flick of the joy stick was an instinctive movement, due to the training you received, and the hints picked up from people on the squadron?

Well, actually, I don't think it was that. I just had to do something. We hadn't had any aerobatic training at all, and normally what I did would have put the plane into a spin, which probably it partly did.

Were there any hits on your plane Mr. Allport?

Yes. One bullet which must have gone close to myself or the observer, went into the front petrol tank, but thanks to the squadron orders, which I mentioned previously, the tank was empty. However, a thin stream of smoke came from it, and this pretty well continued all the way home, evidently this bullet was a phosphorous tracer. There was no actual fire but, as I say, had that tank been full of petrol, or even petrol fumes, which they did have in training in England, it would probably have been a completely different story.

I should imagine that with smoke trailing, that you would be a bit concerned?

I don't really know what I would feel at that time, it's a long time ago, but we realised we had a job to do, and under the circumstances we had to get home with the photographs. The major point was that the enemy plane wasn't about, and we went full bore for home. If he had re-appeared, we wouldn't have taken this course, we would probably have circled, and lost a bit of height to prevent him getting on our tail and shooting us down.

Could you draw any comparison between these particular aircraft, and the R.E.8's you were flying?

We got to know quite well the different types of German aircraft. As a matter of fact, one of the lessons I learned from this particular trip, was never to trust your observer to spot for Huns and I developed a very keen eye for spotting enemy aircraft before they got too close. Actually the enemy took great exception to photographic patrols, and they very often sent up "Circuses"' to intercept, and, of course, it didn't take very long to determine whether they were enemy aircraft or not, we could very quickly do that.

You did mention earlier Mr Allport, about the "Circuses", but this was a case of a single aircraft attacking you, that you have just recounted. Would it be the case that you would see single enemy aircraft cruising around in the vicinity of your patrol area, but being held off from attacking, because of the possibility of a scout escort being present?

I think that if most of us did see an enemy scout in the distance, we would retreat to our own side of the line, and wait until he went away again. There is another aspect of the attacks by German scouts against an R.E.8.. They reached the stage where they would very rarely take one on unless by surprise. They were reluctant to attack, because an R.E.8 properly handled, with a good crew, was equal to at least two German scouts. The attack by the scout invariably came from the rear, and by banking at more than a 45º angle, the R.E.8 pilot could control his flying, and by pulling the stick back, the turn could be regulated in such a manner as to keep the attacker in full view of the gunner, without the former being able to retaliate. The only advantage the German had was being the faster plane, he could break off the fight at will, and maintain his height more easily. At a later stage, after being transferred to No. 2 R.F.C. Squadron at Hesdigneul, I had many pre arranged practice flights, using camera guns with the 2nd Australian Squadron, who were flying S.E.5's from Bruay, at this-time. This helped our artillery observation pilots to work out a useful defence technique. The enemy at this stage, had virtually lost control of the air, and had learned that our "Art Obs" planes had a sting in their tails, and he usually left us well alone, and we were able to range our artillery with a maximum of efficiency.

Did you stay with the R.E.8 Squadron all the time you were in France?

No. After about 200 hrs. War flying (that was between the 22nd May and the 10th August, 1917), I was transferred as a Flight Commander, to No. 2 R.F.C. Squadron, under the command of Major Wilfred Snow, who was also an Australian, and came from Adelaide. We were located at Hesdigneul, near Bethune, and operated on the Lens front. This Squadron was equipped with the big Armstrong Whitworth which we knew as the "Big Ack" or "Ack W" and although it was more cumbersome than the R.E.8 it was more powerful, and had a water cooled Beardmore engine. One peculiarity of this engine, was that it occasionally suffered from broken exhaust valves, the top of which bounced around in the cylinder, whilst the other five cylinders carried on, and inevitably got you home. The "Ack W's" were a very strong plane which could take a bit of punishment, and had all flying wires duplicated. The large wing span enabled it to carry a pretty good load of bombs, which we used to do quite frequently on moonlight nights. The night flying was not too difficult, and our casualties were very few. We operated from a larger aerodrome, because Hesdigneul had very limited space, this aerodrome being Auchel. Incidentally, we were briefed very thoroughly beforehand on finding our targets, and, of course, on getting home again. The main guides to memorize were canals, in which the moonlight and stars would be reflected in the water, long tree lined roads, and the various peculiar shapes of the numerous woods, and copses, in this area. We knew these like the palms of our hands, from our day flying, and we had no instrument aid except the compass which on its own was of very little value. For landing at night each plane was equipped with a magnesium flare, which was attached to the underside of the wings. When coming into land this was ignited by the pilot, by remote control, and incidentally was very effective.

Was this actually attached in a holder to the wing, or did you drop the flare, Mr. Allport?

No. It was fixed underneath the wing, attached permanently. It was, in fact, a landing light, only it didn't glare in your eyes, and was provided to give enough light to see on your downward approach. We generally approached our target by gliding silently in from higher altitudes, and dropped our bombs on the target. Opposition to our actions would then be put up by the enemy in the form of machine gun tracers, and another missile which we called the "Flaming Onion". This was similar as its name suggests, to a string of onions, there would be about 20 of these things all strung together, and they were like flaming balls, and were very spectacular. I have never heard of a plane being hit by one, or what the result would be.

Standing orders were, as far as day bombing was concerned, that every operational flight doing shoots or patrols by daylight, had to carry two bombs, and drop them on the other side of the line, on selected targets. Of course, it was rather indiscriminate bombing, but the idea was to accustom the newer pilots to the line and get them familiar with the surroundings so that they wouldn't hesitate about going over the line; another thing was that a certain amount of moral support was given to the infantry in the trenches providing, of course, that the bombs were not dropped on our side.

During the period, which I presume was the latter part of 1917, that you were with No. 2 Squadron, was there a lot of activity in the air?

It was the beginning of 1918, and the German "Circuses" were making their appearance up north where we were. On one occasion, on photography, in company with another Armstrong Whitworth which was acting as my-escort, we ran slap bang into a brightly coloured "Circus" of six Albatros, which dived almost vertically at us. My observer, Arthur Hammond, a Canadian, who saw them first, got a good burst into one of them, which went down in flames. From then on it was a dog-fight between the Germans and the two of us, during which time I circled many times, keeping a watch on-my tail. As each one came at us, we pulled into an increasingly tighter turn, and "Hammy" my observer, would have his gun trained on the enemy aircraft, as long as they would persist in trying to get on our tail. One of these he also shot down, and by this time we were down to about 500 ft. and there was only one of them left to chase off. He eventually made off after a burst of fire from "Hammy", and at last we had a chance to open the throttle and take for home, and our side of the lines. Our escort was okay, having also lost height in the scrum. I fired a Verey light, indicating to him to get back into formation, and having regained our height, we were able to go over and secure our photographs without being molested again. Actually the big Armstrong Whitworth could take care of itself providing you had a reasonable crew in it. It was very similar in lay-out to the R.E.8 in that the gunner, or observer, had a swivel mount fitted with a single, or a double Lewis gun, and the pilot had one forward firing gun.

Did you stay in France until the end of the war?

No, I was there for a period of 10 months. In April 1918 I was posted back to Home Establishment in England at Boscombe Downs. Shortly after this I was despatched to Gosport, where they had a School of Special Flying. The machine used there for training was exclusively the Avro.

Was the special flying a particular phase of flying, or was it with the idea of training for a particular purpose, Mr. Allport?

The main purpose of it was to teach an instructor how to instruct his pupils, and as we had .no acrobatic training whatsoever before going to France, and were not flying planes in France which were suited to aerobatics, there was quite a lot we had to learn. When I was posted back to England it was a fact that, although I had over 400 hrs. war flying, we had had no aerobatic training, and we would never have looped a plane. Consequently, the instruction at Gosport was mainly familiarizing ourselves with what a plane could do, we had loops, rolls, spins, and everything properly explained to us, also how we should put pupils through similar aerobatics. We really learned how to fly again. The procedure of teaching the younger fliers how to handle a plane, and the method of teaching, varied considerably from the instruction we had originally received on the Maurice Farman, and the other unstable machines. The plane exclusively used at Gosport was the Avro, because it was an extremely good plane for aerobatics, although the response to the controls on an Avro was not quick, nevertheless, it was a really fool-proof and very sensitive plane. One thing they used to do to us was to take us up to 2,000 ft. the instructor would switch off the ignition and say, "Now you have to put the plane down in that field there. The wind is coming from the south of the field, and you've got to do a cross wind landing, up the narrow field, also I don't want it put in the hedge at the other end." They had another plane there, which was used for preliminary instruction, which was the D.H.6. It was a small, easily flown plane, and it had the unusual feature of virtually being incapable of stalling. It seemed to come down like a lift. An unusually heavy camber was used on the leading edges of the two wings, which no doubt, had a similar effect to the. present day flaps which lower the minimum flying speed of an aircraft. It was a slow flying machine, with a high lift wing, but it was a very safe plane on which the young inexperienced pupil could learn his flying.

Going back to your service with No. 2 Squadron in France, did you know anything of a pilot named McLeod?

Yes, he was one of the pilots in my flight whilst I was over there and when I was transferred to England, he took over from me as Flight Commander, also, my observer, Hammond, became his observer. They were in a scrap in which they were shot down, incidentally after Hammy had shot down two of the enemy aircraft of which there were 5 or 6 attacking them. They were set on fire and things got a bit hot for Hammy and Mac, so Mac got out on the wing and controlled the plane down, keeping the flames from blowing their way. They crashed into No-Man's Land and Mac who was wounded pretty badly, dragged the badly injured Hammond out of the plane and into our trenches, under gun fire from the Germans, which again wounded him. The result of this exploit was that Mac received the V.C. and Hammy a Bar to his M.C. Hammy lost a leg, and Mac died later, in Canada, from the wounds he received in this action. McLeod was a wild sort of chap but Hammy was a cool headed fellow, and probably one of the best shots, as far as shooting aircraft down among the observers.

Just in passing, have you any overall impressions of the serviceability of the aircraft you were flying, in respect of trusting the ground crew, to have tho piano in good condition when you took it over to fly?

We had a good solution to this problem, we usually took the mechanic or rigger concerned up for a test flight after his work had been completed. The ground crew did an excellent job, and I never had any occasion to fault their work.

Did you have any periods where, shall we say, the squadron ran into a spasm of engine trouble, or anything of this description?

Engine troubles didn't worry us very much because the engines were pretty reliable and a forced landing was nothing in those days, even crashes were not a great worry, you'd have been a bit unlucky not to come out of a crash. In fact, if you were up in the air and you were going to have a forced landing, in particular in England, well you just picked a nice looking farmhouse or a pub, put it down in the backyard and nipped in for tea, and a bit of V.I.P. treatment!

Well, Mr. Allport, I would like to thank you for assisting the Society in giving us this interview.

Actually Mr. Webster, I wish to return the thanks to yourself, and the Society for giving me the opportunity to record my experiences. Thank you very much.

added by bern
Start date
1915
End date
1919
Credit

Ted Webster, Australian Society of WWI Aero Historians

Subject
Documented by