The Last Bombing Run

They survived the mission; would they survive the landing?

White was acquainted with the pilot who had mistakenly landed this British bomber at a German airfield. German soldiers got a good look at the Handley-Page; the dog’s attention was elsewhere. (Drake Goodman)
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Well, we were flying, which is what we came to France to do. I spent my spare time sightseeing over the Tours area, gaining hours and experience. My promotion orders put me on active service as a First Lieutenant, Air Services, American Expeditionary Force, France. I wasted no time in donning my French-built uniform: high leather boots, Sam Browne belt, 1st lieutenant bars, flying wings, and cap. I continued routine instructing, cross-country flying, and chateau-hunting.

August: Lieutenant Spain, our detachment commander, called me and some other officers into his office. Orders had come down to find men to train for night bombing. England had the best facilities for such training at its flying fields and with British squadrons of night bombers at the front in France. From these primitive flying fields, the British had set up operations flying the biggest night bomber the Allies had: the Handley-Page Type O/400, constructed of aeroplane cloth, spruce struts made of Olympic Mountain-grown spruce, and wire to hold it together. It was powered by two 375-horsepower Rolls-Royce 12-cylinder engines, with fixed hardwood four-blade propellers. With its wings spanning 100 feet, and at more than 62 feet long, the ship was so big its wings were on hinges so they could fold back against the body to squeeze in a hangar for maintenance.

A bomb bay sat between the upper and lower wings, and a long snout stuck out in front with a seat for the observer/bombardier. We had a three-man crew: pilot, observer, and gunlayer [gunner], the latter stationed just behind the wings. The engines could run for 50 hours, after which they were pulled for complete overhaul.

Flying time was said to be eight hours, but we liked to think more of five to six hours at a so-called flying speed of 70 to 80 miles per hour, landing at 50. Volunteers were sent to Handley-Page Stonehenge flying field in Salisbury Plains for further instruction, then on to France, arriving at Independent Force 100 Squadron in mid October.

November 10, 1918: My last bomb run, one day before the armistice was signed on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Our ship was filled with 300 gallons of gasoline, one ton of bombs, and magnesium incendiaries packed 260 to a metal canister. The target was Frescaty Aerodrome at Metz, France, then in German hands.

Handley-Page pilots had a saying about the O/400: “It takes an hour to get to 6500 feet, our ceiling, with a ton of bombs” in describing a “typical night bombing show.”

4:30 p.m.: We departed in smooth air, heading north. When we neared the target, all the aerodrome lights were still burning. They heard us coming and quickly doused the lights, then lit the blue-white searchlights. Our target, the airfield and hangars, was still some distance ahead. The ship was too much aeroplane cloth, wooden struts, and wire to make any hard moves or quick turns—nothing we could do but fly straight. Couldn’t put it in much of a dive because it would start to tremble, as if to tell me to keep on a level keel or it might shake itself to pieces.

The searchlights were bright enough to read the morning newspaper—if we had one—and the anti-air guns kept up their work. We could hear the swoosh and saw the flash of near-misses. We kept on going, dropped our eggs, and came through on the other side of the field.

7:30 p.m.: Now all clear, we turned 180 degrees for home. My observer told me some of our canisters of bombs hadn’t let go. By this time fog covered the ground. I was not quite lost, but I didn’t know where in hell I was either.

We flew a compass course and timed our flight until we should have been over the Stonehenge field. I couldn’t see the ground. The field heard us coming and placed gasoline flares on the ground to indicate a landing strip wide enough to land on in the night fog.

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