Knights of the Air

Just finished reading Night Raiders of the Air, a Kiwi pilot’s memoir of flying night bombers in WWI for the Commonwealth (or probably more accurately, the Empire). It’s unbelievable what these guys did, going up thousands of feet in the freezing night, sitting unstrapped in wicker armchairs stuffed into these big wooden clothes horses, tied with wire and wrapped in canvas. Machines, beautifully made by piano makers, but as fragile as butterflies and ready to catch fire just for looking at them funny, fires you can’t escape by jumping out when half a mile up and when your own side won’t give you parachutes.

Night after night they went up for hours on end, to drop bombs onto enemy airfields while being hosed from below by ‘glow worms’ of tracer bullets or flaming onions from Archie. The enemy bullets and shells are almost secondary to the hazard of simply crashing on unknown landing strips in the dark – how many times they crash and are thrown out, like they’ve come off a motor bike. They get lost so often and when the finally run out of fuel they have to guess how high they are off the ground and simply hope they don’t get too hurt as they hurtle into whatever’s in the way that they’ll hit at 70 knots, with nothing between them and ‘it’ but a mahogany dashboard to lose your teeth on.

As a memoir it’s written with a light touch, but which is all the more poignant as casualty lists of comrades only ever grow longer and longer, and he writes even of his own nerves building up and up and how the battle becomes as much with one’s self to keep even-keeled as it is to take to the Boche, who are also often noted to be such brave and gallant, but so young, men as well. Young as in 21 or 22 year-old and having had more than a couple of month’s combat experience without dying is an old veteran who’s spent way beyond his quota of good luck.

And the waiting, the waiting, the waiting for orders, for the off, waiting and waiting for the missing planes to come back from a sortie, waiting and waiting for leave that when it comes is a glorious fortnight of partying back in Blighty, compounded by an ever growing dread of returning to pointless carnage and finding out who else has been smashed up, lost their nerve, or gone West.

I’m glad I’ve rediscovered my WWI flying books, McKee’s brilliant The Friendless Sky, then An Airman’s Outings with the RFC, I will re-read them avidly to learn of astounding courage from a century ago.

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