I reflect on how amazing it is that I’m here at all, sailing along nearly three miles up in a flimsy contraption made of wood and quivering fabric, suspended on air, sustained only by the wind rushing under the wings. I think how not long ago the aeroplane didn’t exist at all, no man had ever flown into the skies, and now there are thousands of us sharing in a marvellous adventure, but half of us out to kill the other half.
Arthur Gould Lee, No Parachute (1968)
Arthur Gould Lee served in the Royal Flying Corps (the air arm of the British Army) during the latter part of the First World War, and went on to a career in the Royal Air Force which lasted until 1946. After retirement, he wrote a number of memoirs describing his time in the air services during the period in which the concept and execution of “war in the air” were being invented, more or less from scratch. These two books cover his Royal Flying Corps years, and are complementary works.
No Parachute (1968) consists of a selection of long letters he wrote to his wife from France while serving with No. 46 Squadron during 1917-18. These are interspersed with diary entries, and lightly edited to insert details of locations and operations that would not have been let pass by the censor at the time. Its successor, Open Cockpit (1969), covers the same time period, bracketed by descriptions of the author’s experiences in flying training, and as a flying instructor shortly before the war ended. Each chapter has a theme—dog-fights, offensive patrols, trench strafing, fear, the uses and dangers of clouds—and allows Lee to look back on the events described in No Parachute with the more analytic eye that comes from the passing of forty years.
Lee was lucky, in many ways. A concussion sustained during a crash in training meant that his transfer to combat flying was delayed—he arrived in France with 85 hours’ flying experience, instead of the 15-20 that were standard at the time. He also narrowly missed the carnage of “Bloody April”, 1917, when the R.F.C. sustained huge combat losses and the average lifetime of a new pilot was just two weeks, with many being killed on their first encounter with better-trained and better-equipped German pilots. He also avoided having to fly some of the early obsolete aircraft provided for the R.F.C., which provided little more than target practice for the superior German Fokkers and Albatroses, and instead served in the Sopwith Pup and Sopwith Camel. And, once in combat, his letters home relay a cheerful litany of narrow escapes, forced landings, and bullet holes found in aircraft and clothing, which must have driven his long-suffering wife mad with anxiety.
The interest here is in the evocative detail—the layers of clothing required for a patrol at 20,000 feet (in an open cockpit, with no supplementary oxygen!); a sudden encounter with a British shell, blurring past the plane at 8,000 feet on its way to the German lines; the smell of phosphorus when a stream of tracer bullets passes close by, and the acrid smell of nearby anti-aircraft shell explosions; the burnt castor oil streaming back from the rotary engine, making face, goggles and clothing filthy; and the reeking whale grease the pilots would rub on their faces to prevent frostbite at high altitude.
The equipment was catastrophically unreliable—hardly a page goes by without someone’s engine cutting out, or someone’s gun jamming, both a potentially lethal turn of events in combat. Gun jams were so common that the pilots carried a hammer in the cockpit, with which to striking the cocking lever in an effort to drive a faulty cartridge into the breech so that it could be cleared.
The letters reproduced in No Parachute convey the overwhelming immediacy of the experiences, and also plot Lee’s course, over the course of a few months, from wide-eyed innocent to grizzled combat veteran. We see, too, how he descends from an initial unreflective exultation in combat into weary and nerve-shredded combat fatigue. Despite his protestations, the station medic eventually diagnoses Lee’s recurring abdominal pain as psychosomatic, and arranges a transfer to Home Establishment, where Lee ends the war as an instructor (but develops appendicitis, perhaps proving his point about the abdominal pain).
The overview provided by Open Cockpit lets Lee put things into context—why Distant Offensive Patrols were flown, and why pilots found them both risky and pointless; the unproductive dangers of trench strafing; the detailed process of getting an aircraft into the air, or coordinating an airborne attack; what pilots carried in the cockpit, and why. (In this last category, I had been puzzled, when reading No Parachute, about why Lee had lost a shaving kit when forced to abandon his plane in no-man’s-land—it turns out that, with engine failure over enemy territory so common, the pilots always carried a sort of overnight bag in readiness for being taken prisoner.)
Taken together, this pair of books provides a marvellous insight into the strange and perilous lives of what Lee calls the “winged striplings” of the R.F.C. Since their original publication in the late ’60s they have gone through a number of well-deserved reissues, most recently the finely produced and rather lovely Grub Street hardbacks pictured at the head of this post.
I knew that although I had not been killed, something in me had. Something had gone out of me and was buried, and would always be buried, in a hundred cemeteries in France and in England, along with the companions of my youth who had died that our country might live.
Arthur Gould Lee, Open Cockpit (1969)