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A Squadron View Of World War I - Part 2

The Second Battle of the Marne.

Eight Squadron's crucial contribution on the Western Front is brought to life in Captain West's description of their role in the Second Battle of the Marne, which was fought in July 1918.

Army Corps HQ got wind of a pending German attack on their front and were desperate for information on concentration of troops, guns and ammunition.  Their anxiety grew every day.  It became clear that the fate of many lives depended on the ability of a few airmen to provide information.  Leigh- Mallory was worried.  I must have caught his eye.  I was one of his experienced pilots now: he gave me, and my observer Lt Haslam, the task.

Next morning, in a long sortie in wet misty weather, Haslam and I flew up and down the Corp's front while I directed our artillery fire.  All, personal fear vanished in the tremendous thrill and fascination of the task.  The lines of moving troops were spotted, the map locations determined and then tapped out in code on the transmitter in the cockpit, with the wind whistling past and the fragile machine bumping from the shrapnel explosions around us.

Seconds later we saw the results of our spotting in the vivid flashes from our guns and, after what seemed quite a long pause, the explosives bursting silently around the target.

Everything the Germans could throw at us they did.  Yet miraculously we were both unscathed.  The rain and mist proved friendly to us, making up for the clouds which drove us down on the enemy guns.  Sheets of rain, carried on gusts of wind obscured the German gunners' aim, and when the gusts stopped the mist rolled its obstructive vapours slowly along in disconcerting eddies.

Leigh-Mallory was in high spirits when we got back.  He said that aerial reconnaissance information, collected along the whole of the sector front, had revealed a picture for our intelligence of a heavy wedge formation attack about to be launched to break right through our lines and turn our front, cutting our communications to the sea.

Captain West is Awarded the Victoria Cross

Armstrong Whitworth FK8 "C8594" of No 8 Sqn RAF.
It was in this aircraft that Capt FMF West, pictured here with his observer Lt J Haslam, won the Victoria Cross flying from Amiens on 10th August 1918.  (Print from Sqn Archive)
 

Capt West describes in his own words the action for which he was awarded the RAF's first Victoria Cross:

On 7th August came direct and secret news of an impending mass assault by our arms along the whole Amiens sector.  A senior staff officer came to brief us for the impending attack.  The attack, he told us, would begin, at dawn on 12th August.  The Germans would counter attack, throwing in hidden reinforcements in certain sectors and our task would be to find where these reinforcements were massing or moving to and inform army HQ.

Dawn on 12th August arrived.  I was exhilarated and was in my machine at the first steak of light.  Haslam was coolness itself.  As we rose above the ground mist into the blue sky we knew it would be a fine day though the blanket beneath us still lay heavy.  The whole front was alive.  Both from our side and from the enemy the gun flashes came like a myriad of fire-flies, sparkling with greens, yellows and reds beneath the tenuous white blanket.  I had not long to wait for aerial movement above me.  Within twenty minutes the fighters on both sides were there - wheeling, circling, rising, diving, protecting and attacking.  I flew low, skimming the tops of the cotton wool waves.  My job was to find openings in the mist, to scan the enemy terrain beneath, to locate myself all the time, and so locate, at once, the positions of enemy concentrations that I might light upon.

Suddenly I saw one.  I could scarcely believe it: just what we were searching for, just what we were taught to look for.  I was in a clear gap where the morning haze had rolled itself up.  Straight below me was the edge of a big wood and, along the edge, scarcely concealed, was one of the largest concentrations of troops, transport, and armoured cars I had ever seen.

I dived at once and came over them very low, trying to make sure of my whereabouts, trying to pinpoint landmarks so I made no mistake in reporting.  We were being heavily attacked from the ground but I scarcely noticed it, so engrossed was I on tallying up the strength of this enemy reserve.  Haslam, behind me, was retaliating.  There must have been a dozen machine-guns blazing at us.  The Germans knew well what we were after.  They had to bring us down to save themselves.  We disappeared again into the mist.

I had the enemy strength well taped, but the location was still uncertain.  I cursed the mist although it must have saved the machine.  I would have to make another run.  As I dived, two aircraft seemed to pass right in front of me, like ghosts, through shallow vapour- and then I felt a burning pain in my right foot.  At the same moment, the staccato rat-tat-tat of machine-gun fire came to me from close to.  I looked at my instruments.  My wireless transmitter was smashed.

Capt FMF West MC
"B" Flight Commander
(Sqn Archive)
Click Image to Enlarge

The gap in the cotton wool seemed to have closed over.  I was temporarily lost.  Then there it was again, to port, a large funnel of a hole; just what I wanted.  I wheeled and dived for it and spotted the woods again.  This time they were at a different angle.  I recognised something.  Yes, the shape of the wood was unmistakable.  I knew that shape from the photographs in our marquee back behind Amiens.  With an exultant feeling of certainty and success I turned for home.  With my transmitter gone I had a double reason for getting home safely.

Surges of verve pain went up my right leg, but I had little time to dwell on them because two more German aircraft, their markings plainly visible, crossed my path in staggered diving formation.  I opened fire at once, and as I pressed the trigger a tremendous new surge of pain shot through my left leg and I heard the enemy rat-tat-tat again near to.  Haslam was blazing away behind me, and then everything around me was confused and hazy.  The terrific pain was the only thing that seemed to keep me from going off entirely.

The machine was diving.  I felt too weak to control it.  I could not stop it.  I could not bring it up.  It was too strong for me.  Something told me I was crashing, and that I must not do so.  I had to get back.

With all the strength I could muster, I heaved again on the joystick and the machine slowly levelled out.  We skimmed over trenches at tree height and I knew we were now near our own lines.  There was a German on our tail.  I could not turn round, but the from the desperate spatter of Haslam's guns I knew we were still in danger.

Blood was gushing in fountains from a big hole in my left leg.  Waves of sensation intermingled with a drowsy numbness in my brain, the waves on consciousness coinciding with each resurgence of pain.  In one such moment I had the inspiration to twist my trouser leg very tightly with my left hand above the knee.  I was wearing shorts and I gripped the seam into a feeble tourniquet.

I realised that I would never reach the aerodrome.  I must land somewhere, but safely.  I must free the rudder bar for better manoeuvre or I might come to grief.  My left leg was in the way. It was useless.  I lugged and heaved at it, pulling it clear of the controls.

I kept on recollecting the enemy troop location behind the woods.  Everything else was dreamlike, hazy and unreal.  I saw the ground coming close and saw an open field to starboard.  I managed to manoeuvre into a landing glide and came in.  The German pilot was still on our tail.  He was determined to make a kill.  As we touched down he swooped over us, his guns blazing along our length.  I managed to keep the machine level and we bumped, but torturing pain shot through me.  The German turned and swooped again, his guns hammering.  He was still not satisfied.  Soldiers - Canadians - were running towards the machine.  They were shouting something at us.  Haslam was bending above me from his observer's cockpit, one hand on my shoulder, saying, "Hang on , Freddie! Hang on! There's help coming."

Armstrong Whitworth FK8 of 8 Sqn
It was in this aircraft that Capt West was shot down 10th August 1918 (Sqn Archive)
Click Image To Enlarge

A sunburnt Canadian came panting up, looked into my cockpit and shouted to the others.  "The pilot's badly hit.  Come on boys!  Get him out!"  One huge fellow tried to lift me, while the other grasped my buttocks.  The pain of their tugging was excruciating.  I felt sick and started to vomit, retching saliva.  They made a triangular gash in the cockpit beside me.  Then they began to lift me out.

I passed out several times while this was going on.  Then I was carried by four of them across the field.  The jolting gave me increased pain but try as I would to pass out again I was now conscious of every step.  Then I saw the ambulance arrive.  "Where's Haslam?" I asked.  "He's coming along too," said someone.  "He's not badly hurt."

I was given an injection and I knew no more for some time.  I awoke to find myself still in the ambulance.  After an age of time, as it seemed, we arrived.  My legs were beginning to hurt me again, a more continuous, searing, deeper pain that travelled through my entire body.

I had a lucid moment and found myself talking to the MO.  "Doc, I've got important information….  It's absolutely vital….  the Germans are moving fast…. I know where masses of infantry are concentrating.  Tell 8 Squadron to send over an officer at once."  He said, "Look here old boy, forget about the war."  "Please do it!" I repeated.  He looked at me again.  "OK, I will," he said and left me.  I realised I was in a long queue of wounded, waiting for an operation.  Then I must have dozed off again.  A minute or two later, it seemed, a mask came down on my face and the sickly smell of chloroform filled my nostrils.  I began counting and got to thirty-five.

West's letter to Leigh-Mallory from his hospital bed, the day after losing his leg.
(Sqn Archive)
Click Image to Enlarge

The next thing I remember was seeing, in a blurred fashion, the familiar face of our Squadron Adjutant, "Jock".  I came to slowly, lying on my back in bed.  Jock was standing beside me.  I slowly put my hand out towards him and he took it.  He was saying something.  What was it?  Then I was violently sick.  It seemed to clear my mind a little because I remembered I had sent for Jock.  "I've got some information, Jock, for Leigh-Mallory," I said.  "It's hot stuff."

I shut my eyes to concentrate and I could see again the landscape below me as I hovered between the German lines.  "Large masses of enemy infantry concentrating at Ham and Hombleux….  Many tanks and guns at Bussy…"  I told him everything I could remember.  Then I passed out.

When I next woke up, the pain in my legs had gone, replaced by violent pins and needles in my feet and toes.  I tried to sleep but it woke me up from time to time.  I threw back the blankets and sheets to reach for my feet.  One leg was gone.