Canada’s Fighting Airmen
Fighting over the Alps and the Venetian plain, Barker won two decorations in two months
MAJOR GEORGE A. DREW
SEVEN: BARKER GOES TO THE ITALIAN FRONT
THE fight over the Menin Road on October 16, in which Barker won his first double victory, was his last decisive encounter on the Western Front for nearly a year. For the next two weeks the weather was poor for flying, and while he and the pilots of his squadron were daily over the line harassing enemy troops with machine-gun fire they missed any serious engagement with the scouts, largely through the policy of “hedge hopping” which they had adopted on these expeditions. Flying very low over the trenches at great speed they would be back in the reserve areas before there was any warning of their coming, pouring streams of lead from their twin Vickers guns into the ranks of the surprised enemy troops, and then on their way home again, without the German fighting machines being aware of their presence in the misty air. This method of carrying out “ground strafes” also foiled the anti-aircraft guns as they could do nothing against fast low-flying machines.
Barker was preparing for his third winter in France. The first he had spent as an observer, the second as a pilot with a Corps squadron doing reconnaissances, artillery observation, photography and bombing; and now as a scout pilot he was looking forward with keen interest to the prospect of a winter of fighting against the famous Jagdstaffel 11 under Richthofen which was operating on the same part of the front. But all their plans were suddenly changed in the last week of October.
On October 26, before the public was aware that anything serious had happened, the British and French general staffs met and decided that the plight of the Italian army was so critical that, in spite of the urgent need for troops on the Western Front, they must send assistance to Italy without delay. Each army agreed to dispatch immediately five complete divisions and four squadrons of aeroplanes. The next day the 28th Squadron received orders to proceed to Milan by train.
The wings were removed and their faithful Sopwith Camels placed in box-cars with their wings beside them.
Then almost before they had time to realize what had happened, the whole squadron with its pilots, mechanics and machines started south in one train, leaving behind them the Flanders plain which they knew so well for a type of fighting which none could visualize. For Barker it marked the beginning of one of the most romantic chapters in the story of aviation, and for the whole squadron the threshold of a great adventure.
The Collapse on the Italian Front'
TO APPRECIATE the significance of this sudden move and understand the importance of the achievements of the British squadrons in Italy in the ensuing months it is necessary to recall the circumstances which had led to this sudden decision by the Allied command.
The defeat of the Italian army along the Isonzo River in October, 1917, and the subsequent retirement of their whole line for nearly ninety miles to the Piave River in little more than two weeks came very close to ending Italy’s participation in the war. For over two years Italy had more than held her own along the rugged Austrian border, and the courage and spirit of the Italian troops in the wild fighting among the mountains and rough river valleys which marked the battle line, had come to be accepted as a matter of course. Only those who traced the changing front day by day on their maps realized the appalling swiftness of the Austro-German advance and the imminent danger of the total collapse of the Italian army.-
Up to the time of the Austro-German attack in October the Italian front lay close to the Isonzo River from the Julian Alps to the Gulf of Trieste. For months carefully prepared propaganda had been spread among the troops along this front, and it had been particularly effective with the divisions holding the line at Caporetto which were largely composed of radical socialists who had been conscripted into the army after the riots among the munition workers at Turin. These men fraternized with the Austrians and finally agreed to the suggestion of German propagandists that both sides should lay down their arms and refuse to fight and thus end what they termed a “capitalists’ ” war. At this point several of the best German divisions were rushed from France to the Austrian front and before the surprised Italian radicals realized that they had been duped, the Germans under Von B elow had driven through their line at Caporetto and were rolling up the loyal Italian troops on both sides.
What Von Hindenburg had done to the Russians at Tannenberg, what Von Mackensen had done in his sweeping victory over Roumania, Von B elow now planned to do with the retreating Italians. And he very nearly succeeded. Back went the Italian line with startling suddenness. The Austro-German attacks left no opportunity to reform an orderly defense. It was only when they crossed the Piave that the-advance was finally halted and, in this, nature played a very considerable part.
The Piave is a wide, shallow river running from the foothills of the Italian Alps southeast across the Venetian plain to the Adriatic sea. Just as the Italian troops were being driven back over the river, the fall rains began to flood the mountain valleys until the rising waters made it extremely difficult to get animals and guns across. While the enemy were bringing up the necessary bridging material, the Italians at last had an opportunity to reorganize their scattered forces, and when the attack was resumed, they were able, with the protection of the river, to finally hold the line. Italy had suffered a crushing defeat. She had lost hundreds of thousands of men, thousands of guns and hundreds of airplanes. She was holding the line along the Piave, but her position was critical, and the deepest depression had overcome the whole nation. The arrival at this time of British and French troops had a moral effect out of all proportion to the numbers involved, although they were considerable.
The evidence of Allied unity supplied by these ten divisions from the Western front and some of the best British and French airplanes restored much badly needed confidence among the troops, and greatly reassured the alarmed Italian public at a time when it was of vital importance.
Not unnaturally, therefore, the 28th Squadron as it proceeded through Italy was hailed with an enthusiasm which its members found a little difficult to understand. To the overwrought nerves of the Italian people who were suffering from the strain of a great catastrophe, these British youths, drawn from the four corners of the globe, were not merely doing their allotted military task. They were liberators come to help in freeing Italy from the heel of the invader. Whenever their train stopped they were met by the mayor or some local dignitary ■who insisted on fêting them as though they were already victors. Thus their trip to Milan had all the appearance of a triumphal march rather than the beginning of what might easily have been the very reverse.
Preparing to Take the Offensive
ON THE trip south, Barker, who then held the rank of Captain, was temporarily in command, and was in charge of the squadron on the train. When they pulled into Milan he could find no one who knew anything of their next move. Due to the general confusion, no transport officer had been detailed to meet them and, to make matters worse, no one on the train could speak Italian, nor could they find anyone at the station who could speak English. His first step, therefore, was to find an interpreter. Walking along one of the main streets he saw the sign of a well-known American shoe company, and going inside was met by a clerk who had been born in the United States but had been living in Milan for some time. As soon as he heard of Barker’s difficulty he volunteered his services and became interpreter for the squadron.
Having reported their situation by telegram to Headquarters, the officers of the squadron decided they might as well enjoy themselves; so they went to the Metropole Hotel and spent a few joyous days while waiting for orders. The airmen were always able to take advantage of any opportunity for diversion whether at the front or away from it, due to their freedom from encumbering routine duties, and their unexpected holiday in Milan was no exception.
Shortly after their arrival, Barker learned from his volunteer interpreter that the great Caproni airplane factory was located at Milan. They were within flying distance of any place they might be ordered to go, so he decided to visit the factory and attempt to utilize their spare time by having his airplanes assembled there. At thefactory he met Caproni himself who, in spite of the fact that they were working under tremendous pressure, generously offered the services of his experts to replace the wings and test the machines. The next day Barker persuaded the station master to have the cars shunted into the Caproni siding, and in a few hours the wings had been replaced, the engines tested and the squadron was ready to take the air once more.
When they received word a few days later to proceed by train to Verona there was much surprise at Headquarters when the squadron arrived shortly afterward by air. At Verona they were instructed to fly to an aerodrome between Padua and Vicenza which was about forty miles from the front, it still being uncertain whether the Italians would be able to hold the Piave line. A few days later, however, they were directed to their new aerodrome which was still little more than an open field between Mount Grappa and the Montello Plateau.
Their new surroundings were in striking contrast to the level mud of Flanders which they had left a little over two weeks earlier. Instead of the long, level plain ending in the modest row of hills which stretched back from Mount Kemmel they now found their landing field dominated by the snow-capped ranges of the southern Alps, and in place of the substantial metal hangars and orderly rows of huts they now had canvas coverings for their machines and tents for living quarters.
As they rose from this aerodrome above the Piave River a wonderful scene presented itself. To the north lay endless piles of snow-capped mountains, in front of them the beautiful Venetian Plain and to the southeast some forty miles away, the blue waters of the Gulf of Venice.
Barker’s First Fight on the New Front
VITHEN they first arrived at the front, »V the Austrian machines roamed the sky at will. The Italian Air Force had suffered heavy losses in men and machines during the retreat, and for the time being their fighting spirit was at a low ebb. The first enemy machine Barker met was nearly forty miles behind the Italian lines while his squadron was still near Padua. What followed could scarcely be termed a fight. The Austrian was clearly not expecting to be attacked and either did not see him or was not seriously concerned about Barker’s steep descent until too late. Diving from above and behind, Barker waited till he was within fifty yards-before opening fire with his twin Vickers. A stream of bullets entered the Austrian’s fuselage and almost instantly he went down in flames. This was Barker’s fifth victory after nearly two years in the air. He had destroyed one while he was an observer, one while he was a pilot with the 15th Squadron, and two in one day with the 28th during their wild dog-fight over the Menin Road in front of Ypres. This first victory in Italy marked the beginning of a period of steady fighting during which his official record of airplanes destroyed in the air rose from five to fifty.
Early in December he downed his first balloon. He was returning over the Montello foothills when he found this balloon just below the clouds. Its occupants had not seen him, and diving from the clouds he riddled it with inflammable bullets before they had a chance to signal to the men operating the cable. It immediately burst into flames and the two observers jumped. What followed was fortunately a very rare occurrence. The bag had taken fire before the Austrian observers were clear of the basket and their parachutes had scarcely opened before the burning wreckage followed them down and enveloped them in its flaming mass.
At that time the four British squadrons in Italy constituted the 14th Wing of the Royal Air Force and consisted of one Corps squadron and three Scout Squadrons, the 28th, 45th and 66th. The Corps squadron was called upon to photograph the northern part of the line for the purpose of preparing military maps which were of vital importance; make almost daily reconnaissances far over enemy territory to learn the disposition of their troops; locate enemy aerodromes; watch any evidences of activity; observe for the British guns which were taking their place on the Asiago Plateau ; and generally carry out the multitude of duties which have already been described as part of the work of a Corps squadron. In doing this work they were invariably accompanied by escorts of scouts.
When not accompanying the Corps squadron, the scout squadrons carried out frequent offensive patrols far back of the Austrian lines, usually diving to attack conspicuous ground targets and often making use of the four twenty-pound bombs they always carried.
This aggressive attitude which almost invariably carried the fighting in France far back of the German lines, even when the enemy had a marked superiority in machines, came as a great surprise to the Austrians; but they were not yet prepared for the heights of daring which the greater freedom and sense of personal combat, sometimes lacking in the later massed manoeuvres on the Western Front, were to inspire in these youthful adventurers.
A Successful Sortie
CHRISTMAS 1917 was a red letter day for Barker. There were strict orders at this time against unauthorized flights, as the shortage of machines and parts made casual flying with its resultant losses a serious handicap to the efficiency of the units. This fact had an important bearing on what followed. He was leaving the mess hut on Christmas morning with two young English lieutenants of the 28th Squadron when they saw an Austrian balloon hanging just under the clouds far back near the mountains. In the clear morning air the balloon looked attractive quarry and, either from the holiday spirit or mere desire for adventure, they decided to carry out an offensive of their own and remove the enemy balloon from the landscape before proceeding to see what else luck would bring in the way of a target.
The aerodrome was some distance away, so Barker got his car and drove over to their machines without the rest of the squadron knowing anything of their plans. They were soon in the air and on their way over the Austrian lines, taking advantage of the clouds to hide their approach from the balloon. Its destruction was only a matter of seconds. Diving out of the clouds Barker raked it from end to end with inflammable Buckingham bullets and it instantly burst into flames. This was his second balloon. Barker then rejoined his companions and they flew farther still into enemy territory with his machine in the lead.
Presently Barker observed an enemy aerodrome in which there was considerable activity, but there were no machines on the landing field. This was a situation which he had frequently considered and had a plan ready for the occasion. He had decided that the ideal way to attack a hangar was to be low enough to fire through it and not down as this would give the inflammable bullets a larger target with more chance of setting the enemy machines on fire, but this was only possible if the landing field was clear.
Diving steeply toward the landing field he skimmed along, scarcely clear of the ground, and poured Buckingham bullets into the hangars. At the end of the field he rose into the wind and circled back to repeat the procedure. The other two machines which had followed him down, imitated in turn what he had done, and then, almost before the amazed pilots and mechanics who had been working on their machines inside had time to realize what was happening, the three Camels were down at them again. The hangars took fire and were soon burning fiercely.
In the meantime the Austrians had ' rushed to a trench dug along the side of the aerodrome as a shelter from bomb splinters. Barker now turned his attention to them and flying the length of the trench, he sprayed it with a withering machine-gun fire. Again the other machines followed. Turning, they swept over the trench a second time and then flew home without meeting any enemy machines in the air. They had not, however, escaped without damage. A number of the Austrians had carried machine-guns and rifles to the trench and had maintained a heavy fire as the machines passed over, riddling their wings with bullets but fortunately hitting no vital part.
Their arrival at the 28th aerodrome was not observed by the other members of the squadron who were busy celebrating Christmas at their huts some distance away. The three adventurers rejoined them without comment on what they had done as their expedition had been clearly contrary to orders, and now that it was over they were non e too sure what the official attitude would be in spite of its success.
Foiling a Massed Attack
CHRISTMAS passed with as much evidence of the holiday spirit as possible and a cheerful dinner in the mess at night. The next morning, however,, was far from peaceful. Shortly after daybreak the pilots of the 28th were awakened by the alarm signal, and as they rushed to their machines could hear heavy bombing to the south. As they rose into the air they could distinguish a large number of enemy machines bombing a neighboring aerodrome. The Camels had a high climbing speed and were soon level with the enemy machines. Before long they were joined by some Italian scouts and, presently, by far the greatest aerial battle that had yet taken place in Italy was in' progress. There were twenty-two Austrian machines in the first formation they encountered—all two-seaters. During the fight that followed—which resembled the massed aerial battles common on the Western Front during 1917 and 1918—twelve of the enemy were destroyed by the British and Italians and fell behind the Italian lines. One of these fell under Barker’s guns. The raid had been a costly failure to the enemy.
The survivors had scarcely crossed their lines when Barker sighted another formation of ten machines approaching. Climbing up to them he discovered they were German Gothas, the first which had appeared since his squadron went to Italy. These were great twin-motored biplanes similar to those which bombed London and were very heavily armed, usually carrying at least two gunners in addition to the pilot. He knew that it would be foolhardy to dive into this formidable group of machines, as their massed fire power all directed at one target was almost certain to be fatal if be closed in to the usual short range before firing. He therefore decided to change his tactics and, circling far ahead of them with his faster machine, waited until he was directly in front of the middle of the formation and on the same level, and then flew straight at them. As they approached with terrific speed, he manoeuvred his Camel until he had three of the Gothas in direct line; then, taking careful aim, he opened fire at nearly three hundred yards, hoping to damage one of the three machines in the line of his bullets. Meeting at the rate of over one hundred yards a second, he only had time for a momentary burst of fire before he dived under the leading machine, but he could see that his tracers were finding their mark. As he flattened out from his dive, he saw that the second machine of the trio he had fired on, was in trouble and had swung out of the formation. This was exactly what he hoped would happen and he now climbed rapidly above the disabled Gotha. Diving like a flash before the other machines could come to its rescue, he poured lead into the great bomber which was fighting back vigorously from its two rear guns and then, as he passed below it, zoomed up and finished his drums through the floor of the fuselage under the pilot’s seat. Immediately it went into a steep nosedive and burst into flames, falling like a huge torch on the Italian side of the Piave. By this time more British and Italian machines had arrived and the remaining Gothas turned for home.
Successful Aerodrome Attack
WHEN Barker returned he found one of the Austrian bombers had landed, only slightly damaged, near his aerodrome and its occupants were the centre of an interested group of officers. Both the pilot and .observer were in full mess kit under their flying clothes, as were two others who were brought in shortly afterward. It appeared that the enemy had dined extremely well on Christmas night and had continued the celebration through until dawn. As the night wore on, they had chosen Christmas morning to destroy practically a whole squadron of airplanes in their hangars and then kill twelve of their pilots and mechanics with machine-gun fire, besides wounding a great many more. Finally, they decided to bomb the British aerodrome in retaliation, and most of them took off in their mess uniforms without any sleep.
The British officers, could not understand the reference to their attack on the enemy aerodrome, as none of them knew of Barker’s extremely successful flight. However, the story was soon pieced together and hailed with much more enthusiasm in the squadron than it was at Wing Headquarters where the breach of orders could not be entirely overlooked. The two days had, however, been entirely successful from the British point of view. Probably fifteen machines had been destroyed or damaged on the ground on the 25th, many pilots and mechanics had been killed and wounded, and on the 26th, thirteen out of thirty-two enemy machines which crossed the lines had been brought down in Italian territory, all more or less directly the result of the raid of Barker and his two companions. Their failure to observe orders cost them certain decoration but detracted nothing from the esteem they gained among the Italian, French and British airmen.
Two Decorations in Two Months /
TT WAS not long, however, before Barker was recommended for his third decoration. By the end of the first week of January he had destroyed two more enemy machines in flames bringing his total up to five in the two months he had been in Italy. Shortly afterward, he received word that he had been awarded the Distinguished Service Order. This was announced in the London Gazette on February 18, 1918, and the following citation was published six months later:
.“London Greffe, No. 30801, 18th July, 1918,
“With reference to the awards conferred as announced in the London Gazette dated 18th February, 1918, the following are the statements of service for which the decorations were conferred:—
AWARDED THE DISTINGUISHED SERVICE ORDER
Capt. William George Barker, M.C., Gen. List and R.F.C. For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. When on scouting and patrol work he has on five different occasions brought down and destroyed five enemy airplanes and two balloons, though on two of these occasions he was attacked by superior numbers. On each occasion the hostile machines were observed to crash to earth, the wreckage bursting into flames. His splendid example of fearlessness and magnificent leadership have been of inestimable value to his squadron.”
The British scout squadrons lost no opportunity of carrying the fighting into enemy country. The reconnaissance machines went far back up the valleys between the mountains, along which the enemy brought his supplies to the western part of his battle front on which the British and French were now engaged. The British held the high ground below the Alps known as the Asiago Plateau, and the British flights were to a great extent between and over jagged snowcapped mountains. An engine failure in these surroundings was likely to be fatal, as possible landing places were few and far between. Added to this danger, to say nothing of the enemy machines, was the menace of anti-aircraft fire from guns ■ perched high on the peaks of the more commanding mountains. A machine might be flying at ten thousand feet when the pilot would hear the sharp bark of guns perhaps not more than two thousand feet below. Every flight, therefore, was a constant hazard.
During January, February and March, Barker continued his aggressive fighting, sometimes in the mountains and sometimes over the Venetian plains. By the middle of March, after many strenuous battles he had destroyed four more machines and two more balloons. He also established a high reputation as an escort and inspired great confidence in' the reconnaissance machines he accompanied, because he would never be drawn away by some inviting target in spite of his recognized desire to meet the enemy. This was a weakness of many of the best fighters, as in their eagerness to fight they would dive after any enemy machine they saw and leave the slower machines unprotected.
His continued good work brought him his next decoration late in March, of which the following official citation appeared in September.
“London Gazette, No. 30901, 16th September, 1918. War Office.
“His Majesty the KING hasbeen graciously pleased to approve of the following Awards to the undermentioned Officers and Warrant Officers in recognition of their gallantry and devotion to duty in the field:
AWARDED A SECOND BAR TO THE MILITARY CROSS
V “ Captain William George Barker, D.S.O., M.C., Gen. List and R.F.C.
For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. When leading patrols he on one occasion attacked eight hostile machines, himself shooting down two, and on another occasion seven, one of which he shot down. In two months he himself destroyed four enemy machines and drove down one, and burned two balloons.”.
This was equivalent to a third award of the Military Cross and was his fourth decoration. Up to the middle of March he had destroyed twelve machines and four balloons which were officially recognized. It will be noticed that the last citation states that he drove down one machine. In this case the machine was probably destroyed, but only when the destruction was confirmed by other observers or through prisoners was official recognition given. For that reason one of the four machines he destroyed in France was not recognized in the later totals although it had been seen to go down completely out of control.
Early in April he carried out a particularly daring daylight raid on the Austrian Army Headquarters at San Vito. His squadron had excellent photographs of San Vito, and through prisoners he learned the exact location of the buildings occupied by the Headquarters staff. They were a conspicuous group in the centre of the town easily located from the air.
As there were several enemy aerodromes nearby, he decided that he would not be able to carry out his plans if he flew straight over the line to San Vito which was some forty miles up the Venetian Plain, as the Austrian scouts would be warned of their approach. Leading his patrol of six machines to the coast behind the Italian lines he flew out to sea just north of Venice, up the coast until he was opposite San Vito, and then straight inland until they reached the town. By their circuitous approach they had escaped detection, and the first warning the Austrian Headquarters had of their arrival was the concentrated roar of six engines as the British machines swept down toward their buildings. They were certainly not prepared for what followed.
Descending to the level of the windows which were just above the surrounding buildings Barker and the others after him fired through the windows of the Headquarters buildings. This they repeated several times; then one by one they circled overhead and dropped their four bombs. By this time several Austrians were in the air and Barker led his flight straight home across the Piave. They were continually attacked and fought intermittently a great part of the way but reached their aerodrome without losing a machine. The damage inflicted was considerable but the moral effect was a great deal worse. That British machines could come forty miles behind the lines and fire in the very windows of their building was not a comforting thought to Army Headquarters.
These expeditions, carried out by the British with apparent confidence in their superiority, had an even more depressing effect on the Austrian airmen. They seemed utterly unable to cope with, such tactics. An extract from an unposted letter found on an Austrian pilot who'was taken prisoner very vividly describes their effect on Austrian morale.
“The British aviators are perfect marvels of daredevilry. A few days ago they broke the windows of Army Headquarters at S. Vito al Tagliamento with machine-gun fire. They come down to a few metres off the ground, fire on troops on the march with machine-guns and then make off right under our noses in the most maddening manner. We should never have believed, coming from Roumania, that in Italy we could possibly be so inferior. Here we are absolutely crushed.”
Barker was maintaining the tradition of the Royal Flying Corps that the place for British machines was over the enemy lines and the Austrian airmen had completely lost the initiative which they held in October and November of 1917.
Editor’s Note—Major Drew will continue the story of Lieutenant-Colonel Barker’s career as a war pilot in an early issue of MacLean’s.