CHAPTER XX. OUR CONQUERING AIRMEN
The airmen who were the eyes of the Army in Sinai and Palestine can look back on their record as a great achievement. Enormous difficulties were faced with stout hearts, and the Royal Flying Corps spirit surmounted them. It was one long test of courage, endurance, and efficiency, and so triumphantly did the airmen come through the ordeal that General Allenby's Army may truthfully be said to have secured as complete a mastery of the air as it did of the plains and hills of Southern Palestine. Those of us who watched the airmen 'carrying on,' from the time when their aeroplanes were inferior to those of the Germans in speed, climbing capacity, and other qualities which go to make up first-class fighting machines, till the position during the great advance when few enemy aviators dared cross our lines, can well testify to the wonderful work our airmen performed.
With comparatively few opportunities for combat because the enemy knew his inferiority and declined to fight unless forced, the pilots and observers from the moment our attack was about to start were always aggressive, and though the number of their victims may seem small compared with aerial victories on the Western Front they were substantial and important. In the month of January 1917 the flying men accounted for eleven aeroplanes, five of these falling victims to one pilot. The last of these victories I myself witnessed. In a single-seater the pilot engaged two two-seater aeroplanes of a late type, driving down one machine within our line, the pilot killed by eleven bullets and the observer wounded. He then chased the other plane, whose pilot soon lost his taste for fighting, dropped into a heavy cloud bank, and got away. No odds were too great for our airmen. I have seen one aeroplane swoop down out of the blue to attack a formation of six enemy machines, sending one crashing to earth and dispersing the remainder. In one brief fight another pilot drove down three German planes. The airman does not talk of his work, and we knew that what we saw and heard of were but fragments in the silent records of great things done. Much that was accomplished was far behind our visual range, high up over the bleak hills of Judea, above even the rain clouds driven across the heights by the fury of a winter gale, or skimming over the dull surface of the Dead Sea, flying some hundreds of feet below sea level to interrupt the passage of foodstuffs of which the Turk stood in need.
All through the Army's rapid march northwards from the crushed Gaza-Beersheba line the airmen's untiring work was of infinite value. When the Turkish retreat began the enemy was bombed and machine-gunned for a full week, the railway, aerodromes, troops on the march, artillery, and transport being hit time and again, and five smashed aeroplanes and a large quantity of aircraft stores of every description were found at Menshiye alone. The raid on that aerodrome was so successful that at night the Germans burnt the whole of the equipment not destroyed by bombs. Three machines were also destroyed by us at Et Tineh, five at Ramleh and one at Ludd, and the country was covered with the debris of a well-bombed and beaten army. After Jerusalem came under the safe protection of our arms airmen harassed the retiring enemy with bombs and machine guns. The wind was strong, but defying treacherous eddies, the pilots came through the valleys between steep-sloped hills and caught the Turks on the Nablus road, emptying their bomb racks at a height of a few hundred feet, and giving the scattered troops machine-gun fire on the return journey.
A glance at the list of honours bestowed on officers and other ranks of the R.F.C. serving with the Egyptian Expeditionary Force in 1917 is sufficient to give an idea of the efficiency of the service of our airmen. It must be remembered that the Palestine Wing was small, if thoroughly representative of the Flying Corps; its numbers were few but the quality was there. Indeed I heard the Australian squadron of flying men which formed part of the Wing described by the highest possible authority as probably the finest squadron in the whole of the British service. This following list of honours is, perhaps, the most eloquent testimony to the airmen's work in Palestine:
Victoria Cross . . . . . 1
Distinguished Service Order . . . 4
Military Cross . . . . . 34
Croix de Guerre . . . . 2
Military Medal . . . . . 1
Meritorious Service Medal . . . 14
Order of the Nile . . . . 2