Canada’s Fighting Airmen SIX: BARKER BECOMES A PILOT
Continuing the sensational story of the war-time exploits of Lieutenant-Colonel W G. Barker, V. C.
MAJOR GEORGE A DREW
THROUGH September, October and November of 1916, Barker continued his good work as an observer, while the Canadians followed their brilliant victory at Courcelette on September 15 by playing an increasingly important part in the great British offensive. During those months he saw an Empire being welded together as never before by the blood of her sons mingled in a common sacrifice on the plains of Picardy.
Day in and day out, in every kind of weather Barker’s squadron carried on its various duties. Contact patrols and artillery observation became more and more important. The first, because of the increasing difficulty of keeping touch with the movements of our troops as the front became more confused, and the latter, because of the necessity of registering the guns every time there was any movement on the line.
During the Somme fighting there came a new development in the co-operation between aircraft and artillery which greatly increased the offensive power of the guns and presented a new field of work for the airmen. This was an emergency message to artillery headquarters by wireless, then known as the zone call, which brought all the guns within range to bear on any important target which required prompt action for results.
Barker particularly distinguished himself at this work, and even in his later exciting experiences as a pilot, found nothing to compare with the extraordinary sensation of power felt in directing the concentrated fire of scores of batteries against some target far below.
The Lone Call in Action
ON ONE occasion in October while ranging a battery on some enemy gun emplacements, correcting each shot by wireless, his pilot noticed several trains approaching a station. He pointed this out to Barker and flew toward them. By this time the trains had stopped and troops could be clearly seen leaving the cars and forming up nearby.
Barker immediately located the position of the trains on the map, sent the emergency call to artillery headquarters, gave the code reference to the position of the target, and then waited for results.
Artillery headquarters which was connected with all its batteries by telephone instantly ordered those batteries within range of the trains to open fire, giving the map reference and other necessary instructions. The officers at the batteries quickly calculated the range and direction to the target, and in less than ten minutes from the time Barker had tapped out the message from his dizzy height some miles away, the first batteries had opened fire.
In the meantime Barker and his pilot had been anxiously watching the troops rushing faster and faster from the train, hastened by the threat of the circling aeroplane. Already many of them had left on motor lorries. Suddenly a shell burst near the station. Others followed, quickly landing on the trains and among the men. Presently shells of many sizes were pouring into the station, and trains, lorries and troops, were enveloped in dense clouds of smoke. When the firing ceased and the smoke cleared away, the trains were wrecked, the station had almost disappeared, shattered lorries lay scattered about and hundreds of dead and wounded could be seen lying on the ground.
Apart from the loss of life and material damage, the main result of the prompt action of Barker and his pilot was the complete disorganization of the relief force which would shortly have been strengthening the German defense opposite some part of the advancing British line. But their work was not yet done for the afternoon. They still had their battery to range, so Barker sent a message that he was again ready to observe, and completed the destruction of the enemy battery position which had been interrupted by the arrival of the trains.
It is impossible to give details of more than a few of Barker’s flights. Probably his greatest service as an observer came at the close of the Somme battles. On November 13, the village of Beaumont Hamel, on the north-west bank of the Ancre River, with its network of caverns had at last been taken by the British after repeated failures. This was an important capture, as the village dominated the Ancre Valley and it was of vital importance that the advantage should be held.
Scouting from the Air
AS PART of the general plan of closely watching enemy movements, Barker and his pilot were flying along the Ancre River the following day, keeping low above the water in spite of heavy rifle and machine-gun fire from both banks. As they approached Beaucourt, which was only a short distance from Beaumont Hamel and also on the north bank of the river, Barker observed at least a brigade of German infantry hidden in the valleys and sunken roads near Beaucourt, evidently preparing for a counter attack on Beaumont Hamel. Had not the plane been flying very low Barker would not have seen the enemy as they were lying motionless and could not have been detected from any great height.
He immediately located their position on the map, sent in the emergency zone call to artillery headquarters and his pilot turned the machine to observe the results. In this case the fire of the batteries was controlled in such a way that shells of all calibres arrived together. When fire opened, Barker’s machine was between the British guns and the target, and the rush of shells created so great an air disturbance that they almost capsized. This was a very real danger in observing zone calls and many machines were hit in flight by our own shells.
A dramatic spectacle followed. At one moment the valley was perfectly quiet and the hidden troops were unaware of any immediate danger. The next it was a seething inferno of bursting of every size from the smallest to
the largest, and lay hidden under a dense pall of smoke. The whole area occupied by the troops was swept by shell fire, and when the smoke cleared away it was seen that the destruction had been terrible. A formidable force of some 4,000 men had been scattered with heavy loss of life.
There can be no doubt of the effect of the disorganization of such a strong force, for the enemy never counterattacked and the high ground about Beaucourt was captured two days later by the British.
He Becomes a Pilot
“Blood Bath” of the Somme these actions, and on November 16 Barker proceeded to Narborough in Norfolk to train as a pilot. His period of training was amazingly feisef. The experience of nearly a year as an observer had given him most of the technical knowledge necessary, and a thorough familiarity with the handling of a machine, although he had never operated the controls. As a result he had only two flights in a dual control machine with an instructor before attempting his first solo. The first flight lasted fifty minutes, the second a few days later, five minutes, after which his instructor allowed him to go up alone.
This seems almost incredible in these days of cautious training but it must be remembered that time was precious and the sole test was whether a man could fly. He spent from four to five hours in the air every day for the next week, after which he passed the necessary tests and received his wings as a pilot. He went from Narborough to Netheravon on the Salisbury Plains for a few more days for the final touches and was then ready to return to France.
He spent the Christmas season in London, went to hear Lloyd George make his first speech in Parliament after the formation of the Coalition Government early in January, and the next day proceeded to France and rejoined the 15th Squadron.
When he left France in November he had been the senior combatant officer with the 15th Squadron in point of service, but could not be promoted, as an observer could not command a flight. When he returned as a pilot he was immediately given command of C Flight and shortly afterwards promoted to the rank of captain.
For the next two months he went through the daily grind of observation, photography, bombing and patrols with few unusual incidents. One of the most exacting of the winter tasks of the corps squadrons such as the 15th was the long reconnaissance. This particular phase of the airman’s work was not spectacular but it was vitally important and it called for courage, skill and endurance of the highest order. These flights of perhaps three or four hours far behind the enemy’s lines under the constant menace of antiaircraft fire and fast fighting scouts were trying enough in summer, but in the depth of winter they were a severe test of endurance.
Such were the sort of “uneventful” flights which Barker and the other pilots in his squadron made regularly through the winter months. That was only one of the many arduous tasks performed day in and day out by the corps squadrons which, because they lacked the sensational elements of actual combat, are all too little remembered in the stories of the Royal Air Force but which contributed immeasurably to the success of our armies.
On March 15, 1917, British patrols found that the German trenches along the whole Somme front were very lightly held. This was the first knowledge the British and French had of the great German retirement to the Hindenburg line.
During the constant British attacks from July to November of 1916 the Germans had lost heavily and Hindenburg decided to straighten out the great Somme salient and retire to a shorter line of great strength. All through the winter this line had been prepared, with concrete machine - gun emplacements, deep dugouts and vast fields of barbed wire. When the new line was ready he gradually moved his troops back from the old line leaving only machine-gun detachments to act as a rear-guard. This movement had been so ably executed that it had been under way for nearly a month and was almost completed when it was discovered.
The Advance on the Somme
ON MARCH 17, the British and French commenced to advance along the whole Somme front. Although there was no serious opposition it was an extremely difficult operation, as the advancing troops never knew when they would meet a withering burst of machinegun fire from some hidden strong point. The result was that the whole front was in a constant flux, now one part now another advancing with greater rapidity.
In this confusion the various staffs in command were almost entirely dependent upon the air force for information as to the location of the advancing troops as well as of the enemy. It was during this advance that Barker won his second decoration.
During the winter there had been a change in the operation of the reconnaissance machines. In 1916 the observer had done all the wireless work and had carried on the control of artillery fire. In the spring of 1917 it was decided that the pilot should do this work, leaving the observer free to do general observation and operate his machine-gun. Barker therefore found himself still doing the actual fire control for the guns as well as flying, and with more than a year’s experience in this work behind him he now had ample opportunity to make full use of his skill.
Just before the British reached the Hindenburg Line an incident occurred which had far-reaching results in the future handling of zone calls, and illustrates very forcibly the appalling responsibility which rested upon youths like Barker—he was then twenty-two.
During a reconnaissance he discovered a very strong position, well hidden, about two miles northwest of Bullecourt and about one mile in front of the Hindenburg line. He could clearly see a considerable German force occupying a sunken road and a series of hastily constructed trenches directly in the path of our advancing troops. Knowing the proximity of our own troops he flew so low over the position, in spite of intense rifle and machine-gun fire, that he could see the color of their uniforms. Having made absolutely certain that they were German troops he flashed the zone call back by wireless and waited to observe the fire. Nothing happened. Presently he realized that for some reason the call was not going to be answered and flew back to Division Headquarters where he landed. Here he located the officer in command of the artillery, reported what he had seen, the message he had sent, and asked why there had been no response.
He was told that the guns had not been ordered to fire, as they had reports from the infantry that the area in question was occupied by our troops, and that Barker must therefore have been mistaken in his observations.
Barker immediately telephoned to General Longcroft, who was in command of the corps squadrons, and told him what had occurred, pointing out that in addition to his having clearly seen German uniforms he had the fairly conclusive evidence that his machine was riddled with bullets fired from the trenches supposed to be held by our troops.
General Longcroft from past experience had great confidence in Barker’s observations and asked to speak to the artillery commander. He pointed out to him the impossibility of effective cooperation unless zone calls were promptly answered and insisted that Barker’s observation be accepted in spite of the contrary information in their hands. Finally the artillery commander agreed to fire on the observation given and Barker was returning to his machine to observe the fire when his report received effective confirmation. A runner arrived with a message sent several hours before that the British advance guards had been forced to retreat from the area in dispute and that it was now held in considerable force by the enemy.
A few minutes later Barker was once more over the position and this time saw the enemy driven out under a crashing storm of high explosives. This incident was the subject of considerable discussion and in future it was only in the most exceptional cases that the zone call was not immediately answered.
A Close Shave
EARLY in April the British were in close contact with the main force all along the Hindenburg Line. South-east of Bullecourt where the fighting was extremely bitter, the Australians had captured a part of the Hindenburg Line and had blocked off the trench at both ends of the part they held. Barker was on a low reconnaissance when he saw a German counter-attack on the Australians developing from the south-east where the Germans were advancing in great numbers along the trench. He immediately gave the zone call centring his fire on a point just clear of the Australian troops. Practically the whole Australian artillery was within range and the gunners brought a crushing fire to bear on the German trenches. The fire continued for about half an hour before he sent back the order to cease fire. Then, quite contrary to orders, Barker spelled out the message “Counter-attack smashed.” This brought a reprimand from his superiors, as they were ordered to send all messages in code, but it raised the morale of the Australian gunners to know immediately that their work on an unseen target had been so successful.
Often during the advance Barker found it necessary to land to get any information concerning our troops. Frequently he was not certain whether he was behind or in front of the Germans. He would come down, leave his engine running with his machine pointed into the wind for a quick getaway, and then look around for some signs of our troops.
His splendid service during the advance won him his second decoration, a Bar to the Military Cross. The official announcement in the London Gazette was as follows:
“For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He has done continuous good work in co-operation with the artillery, and has carried out successful reconnaissances under most difficult and dangerous conditions.”
Barker continued to carry. out the various duties of a corps squadron pilot throughout the spring and summer of 1917. He saw the devastation wrought when the top of Messines Ridge was literally blown off in June by the greatest man-made earthquake in history, and the beginning of the Flanders offensive in July and August.
On August 7, he was again slightly wounded but this time it was a very close shave. He had been ranging a 9.2 inch howitzer battery on a German battery position and had just reported the complete destruction of the target when the anti-aircraft guns suddenly found his range and he was surrounded by the coal-black puffs of high exposive shells. Holes began to appear in his wings as he employed the usual tactics of diving and banking to deceive the gunners. Just as a particularly vicious burst appeared near the machine he was struck under the right eye by a steel splinter which was fortunately deflected by the cheek bone and passed over his eye without injuring it. He was soon back over the lines, landed without further incident, and immediately had the wound dressed. The bone had not been damaged, and while it was necessary to wear bandages over the wound for about two weeks, he did not leave the squadron and was flying again next morning.
In the beginning of September he received orders to return to England and proceeded once more to Narborough where he was to be attached for six months as an instructor. By then he had been flying almost continuously at the front for more than a year and a half and it was considered good policy to send pilots back before they “cracked” under the strain.
No Stunting by Request
"LJE FOUND himself under a very
-*• capable commanding officer, Major “Grumpy” Lee Smith, who attributed a great part of his success in training to the strict regulation that there must be no stunting. This did not quite suit Barker’s taste.
While with the 15th in France he had been flying the cumbersome B.E. 2 C, B.E. 2 E, and later the R.E. 8, popularly known as the “Harry Tate,” because like its namesake of the London music-halls it was certain to do some tremendously funny trick at the most unexpected time. Now he was tasting the joy of handling the agile Sopwith Camel, and after the slow, clumsy machines he had flown in the past, he felt the liberation of a completely new experience and wanted to express that freedom in loops, rolls and spins, which were decidedly not a part of the training programme as conceived by Major “Grumpy” Lee Smith.
He had only been in England a few weeks before he decided that he would very much prefer to be back in France with a fighting squadron, and asked tobe transferred. This was at first refused. He then adopted another course. He continually “stunted” his machine in the most conspicuous manner, and made life miserable for the headquarters staff by zooming over their huts at all hours of the day. Finally, after a particularly daring stunt which very much disturbed some visiting senior officers, he was haled before the camp commandant and told in no uncertain way that this could not continue. Barker replied that there was a very simple way out of the difficulty as all he wanted was to be sent back to France. This was something new. Men did at times devise various ingenious methods to get away from the front, but here was an officer frankly insubordinate for the purpose of getting back into action. Major Smith saw the humor of the situation and agreed to his transfer. In a few days he received word that he could join the 56th in France with which Major McCudden was already making himself famous, or the 28th which had just been formed and was still in England, but would be leaving for France in a few days.
He chose the 28th Squadron as it was equipped with Sop with Camels, while the 56th flew the S.E. 5. The S.E. 5 was a faster and more powerful machine, but Barker preferred the Camel as it was very much more responsive and less stable, which in his opinion was an advantage in fighting.
He was immediately given command of A Flight in the 28th and on October 2nd flew to France again with his new squadron. They landed at Saint Omer in Flanders where so many Canadians detrained on their way to the Ypres Salient. From there they flew to a new aerodrome assigned to their squadron not very far away.
The great Flanders offensive was at its very height. Thousands of British guns were churning the Flanders clay into a picture of the most hopeless desolation, just as they had done with the chalk fields of Picardy a year before, and in the midst of this waste of mud and water in which no building or tree survived to give the land the appearance of human habitation, the Canadian Corps was once more plugging steadily along toward victory in the closing battle of the year at Passchendaele.
On October 15, information was received from spies of the arrival of a large number of German troops, who were to relieve immediately the exhausted battalions on both sides of the YpresMenin Road. Barker received orders to take his flight of six machines and attack the relieving troops along the road.
Outwitting Richthofen’s Jagdstaffel
AT THIS time the pendulum had swung back to the German side in the matter of fighting scouts. The Fokker F 1 triplane had just reached the front, and one of the first squadrons to receive it was Baron Manfred von Richthofen’s famous Jagdstaffel 11, which was then operating along the Flanders front. Richthofen, himself, was away on leave at the time with sixty-one victories to his credit, but his squadron of picked fighters was a formidable group at any time, and particularly now that they had received their new machines. With this knowledge Barker called his flight together and outlined his plans.
He and his companions would fly low over the lines and then directly along the Ypres road toward Menin. If they were fortunate in finding troops on the road they were to come down to the tree tops and use their ammunition with the greatest care, firing only when sure of their target, as he was certain that with such an important relief in progress, German scout machines would be prepared for such an attack, and it was important that they have some ammunition left for the fight that was bound to follow. If they did get into a fight they were to drop as low as possible, as the Camels could manoeuvre better and take chances over the trees and hills, which would be suicidal for the faster Fokkers.
The six machines of his flight crossed the lines early one afternoon with Barker in the lead. The day was dull and the clouds lay in a dense mass little more than a thousand feet from the ground. The visibility was so poor that they were well over the shell-torn earth held by the Germans before they were even seen. Thus they escaped any serious rifle or machine-gun fire, and they were flying too I low to be seriously bothered by the larger anti-aircraft guns. Flying straight along the tall double row of poplars which marked the Menin road, Barker presently sighted at least a battalion of infantry standing motionless under the trees in an effort to avoid detection by the aeroplanes which had been seen approaching. Down he went till his wings were barely clear of the trees, followed by the other five machines in single file. As they dipped down, a deadly stream of bullets poured into the hiding troops as their twin Vickers came to life with a chattering roar. Once clear of the end of the column Barker wheeled and they repeated the attack. After they had passed over them the second time the Germans on the ground who had not been hit were so scattered that Barker saw that further firing would be a waste of ammunition, so he re-formed his flight and started for home.
They had not gone far before they saw another formation of ten machines approaching in the opposite direction. At first in the dull light they could not tell whether they were friend or foe, and they had almost met before the distinctive red markings became visible. Evidently the , Gfermans had also been in doubt, as the two formations passed through each other without a shot being fired. Then as they both wheeled, the bitterest fight in Barker’s long experience started.
The enemy machines were all Albatross D 5’s, faster and more powerful than the Camels, but much slower in turning. Immediately the Camels followed Barker’s instruction and took the fighting literally down to the tree-tops. It was a dog fight of the wildest order, each pilot fighting his own battle with every nerve strained under the constant tension of watching machines, targets, and the ground all at the same time.
A Wild “Dog Fight”
r"PHE first to draw blood was Malloch,
who shot down one of the Albatrosses into a clump of trees where it burst into flames. Malloch was easily the most picturesque member of the 28th Squadron. An East Indian of high caste, he had graduated from Oxford before the war, was European in his speech and tastes, but always wore his turban even when in the air. He was a man of great courage and a splendid fighter.
A moment later one of the British machines went down, also in flames, and now to add to the wild confusion two sickening tongues of flame flickered thirty or forty feet up into the milky air from the burning machines.
Barker had been diving to the assistance of the British machine, which had just crashed as he saw it attacked by two of the Albatrosses, when suddenly a burst of bullets ripped the fuselage beside him, and turning he saw that one of the enemy was “on his tail.” He kicked his machine to the right and discovered that he was able to keep just clear of the fire from the fixed guns of the slower turning Albatross by continuing to circle. Finding that his circling tactics had saved him from what would ordinarily be a fatal position he now decided to change the position. He knew that the Albatross with its heavy Mercedes engine could not loop so close to the ground as the Camel with its light rotary Clergy engine, so he circled lower and lower till he knew the German could not possibly loop, and then suddenly pulled his machine over in a loop, and in less time than it takes to tell, was over and behind his enemy. The German could do nothing now but fly straight away, trusting to his speed for escape. But it was a clear shot, and as he crossed Barker’s sights a short burst of fire sent him down in flames.
Barker was just turning to rejoin his comrades when he found another German machine diving to attack him. The programme which he had coolly calculated in the heat of battle to deceive his first victim, had worked so well that he decided to repeat it on his fresh opponent. He permitted the enemy to get close behind him and again started to circle. Once more he looped, and once more as the German found himself trapped and started to fly for home, he brought his enemy down in flames.
By this time he had lost the remainder of his flight and decided it was time to return. He began to climb and before the new enemy machines which had arrived during the fight could intercept him, had disappeared into the low lying clouds. He had climbed to ten thousand feet and was not yet clear of the clouds, when suddenly he noticed by the action of his instruments that he had gone into a spin due to the lack of any sense of direction while flying in clouds. He cut off his engine and did his best to right the machine. The altimeter showed the dizzy descent although he scarcely felt it himself. Nine thousand, eight thousand, seven thousand, on down to one thousand it read in a few minutes before he was once more clear of the clouds. Finally with the sense of balance restored he righted the machine only a few hundred feet from the ground after falling for more than nine thousand feet, got the engine started again, and began to fly by compass for home.
It seemed to take him a surprisingly long time to reach the line, and when he finally did, he found that he was behind Arras nearly forty miles south of Ypres where he had intended to cross. After refueling at the first aerodrome he found, he flew back to his own squadron where he was greeted enthusiastically as they had given him up as lost. On his return he found that the only other officer of the six who had returned was Lieutenant Fenton, so things looked rather blue for his flight. Later in the evening, however, they learned that two of the others had landed safely behind our lines, Malloch who was badly wounded in both legs during the fight having created a disturbance by knocking over a tent filled with Canadians near Caestre while making a forced landing. Fortunately the occupants of the tent were not injured. Malloch’s wounds put him out of action for some months. The two remaining pilots of the flight had been killed.
The flight had given a good account of itself, however, against odds which were considerably increased by the arrival of new machines during the fight, for they had completely destroyed four of the enemy, two falling under Barker’s guns, while Malloch and Fenton had each accounted for one.
The following day events took place far away at Caporetto in the Isonzo valley separating the Austrians and Italians which had far-reaching consequences for Barker and his comrades in the 28th. When news of the collapse of the Italian army trickled through to the Western Front it conveyed very little to the British airmen other than the thought of possible disaster to a staunch ally. None of them dreamed that in a few days it was to change the whole course of the war so far as many of them were personally concerned.
Editor’s Note: Major Drew will continue his story of Lt.-Col. Barker's success as an air-fighter in an early issue.