Read CHAPTER IV - A NIGHT RAID of Night Bombing with the Bedouins , free online book, by Robert Henry Reece, on ReadCentral.com.

Every precaution having been taken, the engines run, the controls tested, the compasses swung, the courses made out, the charts prepared, and the drift figured, the Bedouins sat down to dinner free from care or worry. The dinner hour was always set, winter or summer, at least two hours before the night’s raid was to start.

A guest of the Bedouin mess on the night of an important raid would have been surprised if told that the jolly, laughing officers, who apparently had no thought in the world other than the enjoyment of various wines and viands, were soon to set out on a pioneer raid against a far-distant German industrial centre. For the Bedouins made the best of the present; they all knew what a long-distance raid over Germany usually meant; many of their jolly comrades would not be seen again. So they made merry at dinner and drank each other’s health. The wine, however, was light, and even the most reckless Bedouin drank it in tiny sips, for the work to be done was important. The personal dangers of the raid the reckless Bedouins might ignore, but they knew that these raids fitted into the general tactical plan of operations; consequently, every Bedouin was imbued with a spirit of determination in spite of an apparent frivolity.

On entering the ward-room a few moments before dinner, the guest of the Bedouin mess would have been greeted joyfully by the officers who were singing lustily in perfect tune with a piano which was very much out of tune. A few moments later he would see these rollicking fellows stand silently at attention on the entry of the Commanding Officer until “Good-evening, gentlemen,” from the C.O. granted them permission to “carry on.”

Before the chief steward announced dinner, “aperitifs” were passed around; then the C.O. led the way from the ward-room into the adjoining mess, where the officers stood at attention on each side of the long table until the C.O. said, “Gentlemen, be seated.” If any one came in late to dinner, he apologized to the C.O. before taking his place at the table; and no matter how oily and dirty he may have been a few moments earlier, he entered the mess clean, freshly shaven, and in neat uniform. This mess etiquette, as it was called, did not interfere in any way with the good-fellowship existing between the C.O. and his junior officers; but it prevented men who had been away from home and the society of ladies for many years from growing lax in manners and careless of personal appearance.

After dinner, decanters of port were passed around and the King’s health was drunk: “Gentlemen, The King.”

This toast means nothing to us Americans unless we have drunk it among British officers at the front. Under such conditions, “Gentlemen, The King,” is a call to patriotism, a spur to endeavor, and an ideal of courage which must be lived up to. We Americans are so apt to think of a king as a despot or tyrant that it takes us a long time to understand the love which the Englishman has for his King. The King of England is as much of a symbol to Englishmen as the Stars and Stripes are a symbol to us. The King, as an individual, has no power, except the power of influence. This power is great when the influence exerted is in the right direction, but the King has no dictatorial power similar to that which may be granted to our Presidents. The King is merely a symbol which stands in the minds of Englishmen for patriotism, justice, democracy, and humanity. So when the Bedouins raised their glasses to the toast, “Gentlemen, The King,” they paid a tribute to all that Great Britain and her Allies were fighting for democracy, justice, and freedom of the individual from oppression.

After this final toast, every aviator went to his quarters and clambered into his bulky but warm flying clothes. There was no hurry or bustle, but each aviator, thoroughly equipped for the raid with maps, charts, and instruments, arrived at the map-room on a definite moment. Here he received a few final instructions from the Commanding Officer; then, smoking a last cigarette, he made his way through the dusk to his own aeroplane.

While the aviators drank to “Gentlemen, The King,” the mechanics were warming up the twin motors of each aeroplane, the bomb-racks were being filled with fourteen one-hundred-and-twelve-pound bombs, the guns were being mounted, and by the time the aviators arrived on the aerodrome the huge Handley-Page bombing planes were in readiness for a nine hours’ flight over Germany.

After climbing up a ladder to their respective positions, the aviators made a final survey of the machine on the reliability of which depended the success of their adventure. The engines were again run up to see that they gave the proper revolutions, the gauges inspected, the controls tested, and the return spring of each gun weighed. When thoroughly satisfied, each aviator took his place and his pilot signalled for the “chocks” to be withdrawn from in front of the wheels.

While the aviators carried on this final inspection of their machines, the aerodrome officer, stationed on a high platform situated in one corner of the field, awaited the signal to light the “landing T”; i.e., a huge “T” of electric lights headed into the wind, which shows to the aviators the taking-off and landing path. Each machine is given its respective letter for the day, which is flashed in Morse code on the navigation lights by the aviator when ready to leave the ground; he then awaits an answer from the directing stand. Simultaneously with the lighting up of the huge “landing T,” the letter flashed from the first machine ready is repeated by the signal officer. The answer received, the machine taxies across the aerodrome to the starting-point, turns, hurtles down the flare-path and leaves the ground at the head of the “T.” Under this simple method of direction I have seen twenty aeroplanes leave an aerodrome on a pitch-black night in twelve minutes without a single mishap.

On leaving the ground the aeroplanes fly dead into the wind for a couple of miles, circle back to the left around the aerodrome, and head into the wind again until the height at which the flight is to be carried out is reached. The first aeroplane to reach this height passes directly over the aerodrome and then steers a course to the first lighthouse. A comparison of this course with the previously figured course, and a comparison of the previously calculated ground speed with the time taken to travel from the aerodrome to the lighthouse enables the aviators, by the use of instruments and a few simple calculations, to gauge their drift. This process is continued on another course to the next lighthouse and the previously tested direction and velocity of wind are accurately checked in this way and future courses altered accordingly. These calculations are all important to the long-distance night bomber, for although roads show up in the moonlight like white threads, they are too numerous and interwoven to be followed for great distances, and although rivers and lakes look like silver ribbons and blotches, the moon may be obscured at any moment or the ground itself may be obliterated by low clouds or mist. Accuracy in aerial navigation, therefore, is of the utmost importance in long-distance night flying.

The night aviator, however, has many things to think of besides a constant checking and readjustment of his course according to variations in direction and velocity of wind. On his own side of the lines he is constantly challenged by searchlights which must be answered immediately if the aviator wishes to avoid the risk of being shot down by his own anti-aircraft guns or of being attacked by his own night-patrol machines. The method of answering these challenges is extremely simple. All that is required of the aviator is to shoot at the searchlight with a large pistol loaded with an enormous cartridge. The aviator, intent on his calculations and annoyed by any interruption, often wishes that this pistol was a deadly weapon, but it is not. It merely fires a certain colored light which floats slowly down changing in its descent to certain other colors, which prove to the officer in charge of the challenging searchlight that an Allied aeroplane is above him. The colors which are shown on one night, however, will not do on another, for these “colors of the day,” as they are inappropriately called, are changed every night and the utmost secrecy is maintained in regard to them. Even the aviators do not know the “color of the day” until ten minutes before the start of a raid, neither do the officers in charge of the anti-aircraft batteries. The reason for this secrecy became apparent to the Bedouins one night when a Hun flew over our aerodrome shooting down our “color of the day,” blinking his navigation lights, and finally firing down a red light which was our prearranged forced-landing signal. The aerodrome officer, believing that one of the Bedouin machines was returning from that night’s raid with engine trouble, lit up the “landing T” and brought upon himself a shower of bombs which carried him into the Unknown.

After crossing the lines the aviators are intent on steering an accurate compass course, checking their position from time to time by various landmarks such as canals, rivers, cross-roads, and woods, and figuring changes in wind. The bursting shells of the enemy anti-aircraft batteries must be disregarded, for a slight detour around a particularly heavy barrage might mean an error of several degrees in their course which, unless corrected, would bring them twenty to thirty miles away from their objective after a flight of one hundred and seventy miles or more, and an accurate correction of a compass course after a wide detour is always difficult and sometimes impossible. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance for long-distance night bombers to hold their course regardless of the enemy’s efforts at destruction.

The hatred in the hearts of the Huns, expressed by the constant “whonk” of bursting anti-aircraft shells, contrasts disagreeably with the loveliness of the moonlit panorama. All man’s disfigurements of the earth are obliterated by distance and nothing but a scene of inspiring beauty is in view from the aviaors’ lofty outlook at a height of several thousand feet.

The flashings of the guns, the “flaming onions,” i.e., strings of phosphorus balls shot up to light the sky and to ignite any inflammable substance with which they come in contact, and the black puffs of smoke from the bursting shells add a weird and startling brilliancy to the surroundings. No matter how many times a man may fly at night the immensity of the heavens above him, crowded with unknown worlds, cannot fail to impress him with his own insignificance in the general scheme of the universe, and Death itself appears of small importance compared to the way in which he faces it.

The aviators, however, have little time for reflection, for on a long flight they must keep a constant outlook for such landmarks as will enable them from time to time to mark their exact position on the chart and by comparison with their compass course and “ground speed” vary their course according to changes in direction and velocity of wind. An instrument called the “pitot tube” indicates the speed at which the aeroplane passes through the air, but the speed at which the plane travels in relation to the ground depends on the direction and velocity of the wind. They must also watch the flashes from anti-aircraft batteries and pin-point them on their maps if possible; aérodromes which are lit up, train movements, the lighting of towns, the blaze of steel factories; in fact everything of military importance must be recorded and reported upon, if accurately located. The night aviator, however, must be extremely careful in his observations, for it is very easy to get lost and it is extremely difficult to keep an accurate check, on the charts, of your exact position over the ground, even after long practice; especially is this true when the flight covers three to four hundred miles in distance and lasts from eight to nine hours.

After several hours of intense concentration the aviators approach their target, and although they have charted the course constantly they now spend some time in flying back and forth while they check off on a large-scale map the landmarks about the target and satisfy themselves that their long flight will not be valueless if the bombs are dropped with accuracy. In the meantime the sound of the motors, together with the telegraphed intelligence from other Hun towns, tells the enemy that Allied night bombers are in the vicinity. The Huns in charge of the anti-aircraft defences stationed about the target direct huge beams of numerous searchlights toward the sky and an intense barrage is put up above and around the target by the Hun batteries. The air is filled with shrapnel from bursting shells at the altitude at which the machine is flying, for the Huns have accurate instruments which gauge the altitude of an aeroplane from the sound vibrations of its engines. The aviators, however, are still intent on picking out their target (probably a factory which manufactures war material) and have not yet entered the barrage. The Huns, I imagine, often wondered why British bombers flew about a town for such a long time before bombing; the inhabitants always had more than enough time to enter the dug-outs before the bombs dropped. The British bombers, however, were not making war on women and children; they were intent on destroying a poisonous gas factory or other targets of military importance; so they flew about the town until the target was accurately located; then and not till then, they throttled down their engines and glided swiftly down between the searchlight beams and below the barrage of bursting shells, for once the engines are throttled down the enemy’s sound instruments are valueless and the anti-aircraft barrage ranged at the previous altitude of the aeroplane fills the air with shrapnel far above the rapidly descending plane. A quick adjustment of bomb-sights to compensate for the altitude, speed, and drift of the plane and the front fore-sight soon is in line with the target, and after a pause the back fore-sight coming in line with the back-sight gives, with the previously adjusted stop-watch, the exact moment for releasing the first bombs. The plane passes over the target and turns on a steep “bank,” while the aviators watch for the burst of the bombs. The bomb-sight is readjusted to the reduced altitude, another sight taken, the remainder of the bombs released, and then, nose down, engine “full out,” the huge plane rushes through the lowered barrage for more congenial surroundings.

Great care must be taken when bombing a factory, for usually very close to it the Hun has located an unprotected prison camp filled with Allied prisoners, and we have official information that prisoners have so infuriated the Hun guards by singing “God save the King” or the “Marseillaise” during a bombardment of the near-by factory that they have been bayoneted to punish them for their “insolence.” As soon as the aviators are away from the barrage, they steer a straight course for home, and again an intent outlook is kept for landmarks which will enable them to mark their position on the charts and figure their ground speed and drift. If their course is correct, they will see after a few hours a lighthouse several miles away dimly flashing a letter in Morse code. They head straight for this, and when over it they steer a course which will bring them to the lighthouse situated near their aerodrome. As they approach the aerodrome they fire down the “color of the day” and if the aerodrome is not under bombardment by the Huns the flare-path is lighted and the pilot spirals slowly down while the allotted letter of the plane is being flashed in Morse code on its navigation lights; as soon as this signal is answered from the ground, the pilot glides swiftly down to the flare-path. When fifteen to ten feet from the ground the Holt’s flares attached to the wing tips of the planes are lit by electrical contact and the landing is made in a momentary but brilliant blaze of light.

It is interesting to sit in the officers’ mess of a night-bombing squadron and watch the returning aviators enter. They are cold and stiff and all are very tired, for no man can fly without fatigue from dusk to dawn under conditions which demand intense concentration and entail a considerable amount of nervous strain, but now is shown the difference in temperament; some return with bloodshot eyes and haggard faces which indicate a condition of intense fatigue; others come in gaily as though home from a late dance; still others thoughtfully quiet. All of them, however, show signs of nervous strain and mental tension and they must relax their taut nerves before going to bed, especially if the raid was but another similar to those that had been carried out on several previous nights. So, while relaxing they eat bully beef sandwiches and drink hot chocolate or beer or, if the night has been particularly cold, a glass of hot rum. Deafened by the roar of the engines and the sudden change in atmospheric pressure they either whisper or yell if they speak at all, during the first few minutes after entering the mess. But the raid is over, so very little is said about it; every now and then some one looks at his watch and sees that nine hours have elapsed since the raid started; he says nothing but he and all realize that the machine which has not returned has used up its supply of petrol and that the fate of a dear friend will remain unknown perhaps for weeks, perhaps for all time.