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3 SQUADRON HISTORY - 100 Years Ago…

“Fights in the Air” - 1916

Reproduced below is a letter from Gunner William BRAKE, of the 4th Field Artillery Brigade, AIF.  (Newly arrived near Armentieres on the Western Front, in Northern France.) 
- Later William transferred to the ground crew of 3AFC.  He was writing to his brother James, who at the time was undergoing flight-training at Point Cook in Australia.  James Brake was one of 3AFC’s Flight Commanders. 

c 1916.  William Brake (left) and James Brake (right); both photographed at their family home in Mont Albert (a suburb of Melbourne).  [Photos: Australian War Memorial]

May 25, 1916.

I was pleased to hear that you are in the Flying Corps.  As we see more planes here than we do trains, trams, or any other locomotive vehicles, I thought I might drop this note and let you know a few of the incidents I have seen.  Fritz [i.e. The German Air Service] has some bonzer planes.  Practically all the planes used here are biplanes.  I've only seen about two monoplanes since I've been here.  I think they are mostly Fokkers, although I have seen a few Taubes.

Left: Painting of German Taube ("Dove") by Tony Theobald.  Right: Major Evans, 9th Battery Australian artillery, looking through binoculars at a German Taube aeroplane. [AWM A00831]

On one occasion I saw a "go in the air" with the machines firing shots at each other, but it didn't last long.  It's interesting to see them going like mad for highest elevation.  Immediately a plane gets near the enemy lines, it is peppered - shots poured into it - and although it may seem a lot, a gun must fire thousands of rounds before it brings an aeroplane down.  A plane may be hovering around a position for, say, half an hour, and it is nothing uncommon to count 150 bursts in that time.  It's great sport looking at them.  The shell they fire is about a 3-inch, and would weigh about 13 lbs.  They make a great whistle going up into the air.  Airmen seem to have a charmed life, although I've seen three or four brought down at different times.  Of course, it all depends on the hit, but a Fritz came down one day not far off here, falling anyway.

Another night, about 6 p.m., I saw as good a looking sight as you could wish to see, although it did end in a man being shot.  First of all, for observing purposes, their planes fly high up, while ours do the opposite, and fly very low.  Well, this night, one of our planes went over observing for artillery fire.  It was flying up and down about over our first-line trenches, and at height of (just a guess) 500 or 600 feet.  It seemed to just skim over the trees.  It was going up and down like this for about twenty minutes, with anti-aircraft shells bursting all round it, and the exhaust of his engine was almost drowned by Fritz's machine guns.  It seemed too good to last, and so it was; the pilot got a shot through the back of his head, killing him instantly, and as he fell forward the engine stopped.  The observer brought the machine down, but was not able to start the engine again before reaching the parapet of our support trenches (second line). 

When the enemy noticed the machine coming down they ceased to fire at once, and held their fire until the observer took the pilot's body out and got clear himself, and then shells fell like rain on it and caught it on fire, which finished it.  The observer was uninjured.  Two more machines came out then, to see where their mate had fallen, and were allowed to come up to the spot and circle round a few times before a shot was fired.  Once they got away, the firing started again.  Old Fritz proved himself a "sport" in this encounter, anyway.  I suppose just to keep Fritz from getting cocky, these two gave an exhibition of flying, and dodging shells by the hundred and machine-gun bullets by the… (Well, it's beyond me).  It was the best three quarters of an hour I've ever spent as a spectator at any "sport".  They were at a height so low that I was frightened their propellers might catch in the tall trees about.  They got away without a hit as far as we could see.

4th June. …It seems a good while since I started this, but think I may as well go on as start another letter.  Since the first date on this letter things have been fairly lively up above; they seem to be firing more at our planes lately for some reason or other, and lately we have got hold of some very decent and fast machines.  On three occasions I've seen our machines fired at, and, as far as we could see, untouched, with anything up to 1,000 rounds each time.

You would not think it possible to fire so many shells and not hit something.  You must remember most of the shots were very close.  It's great to see them turning and diving to dodge the shots.  We have both scouts and fighting planes above us every day.  Some new machines (fighting planes, I think) have come along lately, and you ought to see them travel; it's a sight for sore eyes; and their engines have a deafening roar.  One of the latest planes has its propeller at the rear of the front plane; it can shift, too. 

British F.E.2b

I used to think their machines were better than ours, but I am beginning to doubt it now.  One thing I am sure of: their men are not better than ours; our fellows seem to have no ‘nerves’ at all.  Taking the R.F.C.  all round, there are very few casualties (on this front, anyway).  

Up to date, everything has gone pretty good with us.  In my lot [Artillery] there has only been one man wounded since we've been here, so you see we keep well under cover.  There are dozens of us had pretty close shaves, but at this game a miss is as good as a mile.  We get an assortment of shells sent over at us.  A 12-pound shell is known as a "pip-squeak;" a 14 lbs. (their field gun) a "whiz-bang;" then there is a 4.2” and a 5.9” (15 centimetres) known as a "coal box", owing to the black smoke it makes when it bursts.  The 5.9 is only used when they think they are "on" something.  - If they get "on” anything with one, believe me, the something moves!  (Unless it is a mountain.)

One falling and bursting in an ordinary paddock would make a hole about 6ft. across and about 2ft.6in. deep, or shift about a dray-load of earth.  This is about as big a shell as we get round here; anything bigger is used only for bombardment purposes.  I was back for a few days' spell one time, and for some reason or other they decided to make a shot at a house near where I was (about 300 yards away).  The first shot fell short - about 200 yards off - but wait until I tell you the ammunition - 9.2”!  The second shot went over by about 100 yards; the third shot "lobbed" in the middle of the place - a large farm house, with stables, etc., adjoining. 

…When I heard the whistle of the first shot coming louder and louder, I gave about three strides (each 10ft.) and dived head-first into a semi-dry drain.  Well, it was from here that I did my observing.  I'd rather be in that mud than chance a run across the open.  Well, as I said, shot number three hit the house.  After about five minutes, when the brick-dust, tiles, plaster, manure, carpets, etc., cleared away, I saw the place was in flames.

About another minute, a man ran out of the building one side, and a cow the other.  (Stables and house are all in one over here).  That chap ought to have a ticket in Tatts [lottery]; he couldn't lose.  They put about ten shots in altogether.  My joy knew no bounds when they decided to cease fire.  Fellows everywhere seemed to be coming out of the earth itself - from drains, gutters, shell holes, etc. 

When a bombardment like this starts, it surprises you how few drains and holes there are about.  By now, we all prefer mud and slime to "shrapnel wounds" obtained while fighting "somewhere in France."  The piece of shrapnel which generally gives you the wound is about the same size -only about ten times the weight - of an ordinary teapot.

Interior view of the wrecked Cathedral of St. Vaast, at Armentieres, in France.  [AWM E01704]

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