France (Albert Ball)
Posted to France on 15 February 16, Albert flew BEb reconnaissance planes (pictured right). These RFC planes were two-seaters where the observer photographed German ground defences, and using a radio, spotted for the Royal Artillery. Exposed to heavy fire from the ground and sudden attack from Fokkers above, an airman's chances of survival were slim. Albert found it 'great sport'.
Not supposed to fly below 7,000 feet, Albert and his observer came out of cloud to find themselves at 500 feet with the Hun lines blazing gunfire at them. 'We could actually see their faces,' he said on feet his return, but the Major nearly had a fit.
'What good were you doing?' he demanded to know. 'Oh, no good! We only caused every German in the trench to feel sick and use up about 100lb of shot.'
Accounts of his narrow escapes began to concern his father but Albert wrote back: 'Well, now, please understand that if you bother or trouble yourself any more . . . I shall just send short, uninteresting letters.' But the strain of flying under fire was beginning to tell. In the same letter he advised his brother Cyril, who was thinking of transferring to the RFC, to stick to his regiment for 'nerves do not last long, and you soon want a rest.'
Snow, wind and rain often kept planes grounded and in the waiting between patrols, he acquired a gramophone, went rat shooting with his friends in nearby barns and wrote home to his mother for cheese, jam and home-made cake.
Despite the superiority of the German Fokker fighter plane, Albert flew straight at every enemy plane he saw. 'Attack Everything!' was his motto, aiming his plane straight at them as if on collision course and forcing the Hun to turn away and bolt.
Every day he pestered his CO to fly fighters. Eventually they sent him on a fighter training course at St. Omer where he didn't damage a single aeroplane. On his return he went straight up in a Bristol Scout and almost sawed his propeller in the machine-gun mechanism had not been properly synchronised.
Young and inexperienced as he was, 2nd Lieutenant Ball was entrusted with the best fighter aeroplane available - the French Nieuport Scout (pictured right): 'Well, I have never had such sport. I fooled about and banked it, having such a topping test ride . . . So Huns, look out!' His expected leave was cancelled.
'So as to be on hand if ever a Hun comes', he pitched a tent on the aerodrome and gardened in his spare his own vegetables in a small plot. Towards the end of May he had four fights had came out top in every one: 'I only got about 8 shots in my four fights on one patrol and machine; one just missed my back and hit the strut.' His leave was cancelled again.
Albert was well aware of the chances of his survival. In a letter to his father he wrote: 'If anything happens to me, as it quite easily may, I expect you, and wish you to take it well, for men tons better than I go in hundreds everyday.' On the 10 June he went home to an enjoyable leave.
On his way back to the Front ten days later he wrote home from Folkestone: 'You have been dears during my leave . . . when I come back, I shall try, with God's help, to repay your dear love.'
Battle of the Somme
The bombardment in preparation for the Battle of the Somme began that same day and the British made a concerted attack on the kite-balloons that the Germans put up to watch the movements of British guns and troops. Albert described his part in it: ''Three of us were sent from this squadron. The first time we did no good, so I asked for another chance . . . I went for my balloon and set it on fire, but my engine was badly hit and I had to come back all the eight miles over Hun land, at half speed, and only a few feet up. My machine was hit badly. I have enclosed one of the bullets.'
'For this action and conspicuous skill and gallantry on other occasions', 2nd Lieut. Ball was awarded the Military Cross. He later described the action as 'a rotten job'.
When the Battle of the Somme commenced on 1 July 16 the RFC were stretched to the limit. Albert wrote to his mother: 'I am OK. but oh, so fagged! However I shall soon get over that. Things are on full steam just now - 2.30 a.m. until 9.30 p.m.'
Perhaps he was fortunate not to be with his old regiment at Gommecourt. The 'Robin Hoods' had attacked the German trenches across 400 yards of 'no-man's land' and only 90 men out of a total of 627 survived.
Somme, June 16, 1916.
The village of Gommecourt was the most westerly point of the whole Western Front. A veritable stronghold, it was held by the German 2nd Guards Reserve Division whose line ran round its western perimeter and held a commanding view overlooking the British lines.
Allotted the task of taking Gommecourt were the 1/7th (Robin Hood) Battalion Sherwood Foresters attacking from the North, and the Staffordshire Brigade attacking from the South - the two storming parties to meet East of the village.
Training began on a tract of land with trenches, dug-outs and machine gun emplacements exactly replicating the German defences at Gommecourt. In practise, these trenches must have been attacked 50 times till every man knew his job to the very last detail. The grand finale was an attack under a dense smoke screen. Confident of forthcoming success, everyone relaxed at the following concert party provided by the 'Whiz-Bangs.'
The Battalion moved up to Bienvillers to find that heavy rain and the procession of heavy guns and ammunition had churned the roads into muddy furrows. In the trenches, muddy water came above the knees, sometimes to the thighs. Hostile shelling had caused some of the trenches to collapse altogether but they had to be made passable and the Robin Hoods, high in morale, fit down to the last-joined man and splendidly trained for the offensive, set about the Herculean task.
The attack was twice postponed due to more persistent, heavy rain but was finally ordered for 7:30 a.m. 1st July 16. After being in a shelled area for 10 days, repairing trenches, fighting and reconnoitring in patrols every night in drenching rain with no means of drying out, the Battalion was less than ready for an assault.
The Robin Hoods marched through a sea of mud to the village of Fonquevillers where they rested on sandbags and ate enormous bacon sandwiches. The Padre said two simple prayers: 'Lord God of Battles' and 'The Lord's Prayer' to the tune of the big guns now firing incessantly.
As dusk fell, the men filed into the muddy and flooded trenches. The Carrying Company took four exhausting hours - with their extra loads they had great difficulty extracting their legs from the lower strata of mud. The remainder of the night was spent up to their knees in mud and water, leaning against the sides of the trenches. None could sit down, and sleep was out of the question as they waited for the appointed hour.
At first light British artillery commenced a terrific bombardment. The Germans instantly replied. Smoke was discharged to screen the advance. At 7.30 a.m. the first wave moved out of the front trench along with the second wave out of the trench behind. Immediately, the Germans opened up with a heavy, accurate shell and machine gun barrage.
Men fell at every step. The Commanding Officer and Adjutant were killed in the first wave, the third and fourth waves were practically annihilated, and those who managed to reach the German barbed wire found it mostly uncut. A few survivors heroically pressed on. Out of the leading waves, 12 men reached the German second line but when the covering smoke cleared they found they were isolated. Falling back to the German first line, they joined 24 other survivors trying to form a fire position. It was hopeless. Attacked from both flanks with bombs, they found their own rifles out of action due to muddy water so they retreated into shell holes west of the German wire.
One small party almost made it to the third German line, but without support they had to retreat, first to the German first line, and then back into shell holes. Only six got back after dark.
Owing to the deep mud in the trenches, the Carrying Company did not get over the top till 8 a.m. and by that time the wind had changed and most of the smoke was over their own trenches. In no-man's-land, in full view of the Germans, they came under deadly machine gun fire. It was now of the utmost importance to get the Supporting Company forward to reinforce the Robin Hoods.
Another smoke barrage was ordered but the Carrying Party bringing up the smoke bombs got completely stuck in deep mud and the attack could not take place till 3 p.m. Even then the smoke was thin and drifted back over their own line. The Staffordshires were unable to move and a platoon of the 6th Sherwood Foresters who did dash forward was almost wiped out.
After dark, survivors crawled out of shell holes and dragged themselves back to their own lines. The remnants of the Battalion were relieved in the early hours and the small surviving party marched to Warlincourt later in the day.
After being reported missing, one officer crawled back four days later, exhausted with some seven wounds. Constantly sniped at by the enemy, he had lain out in no-man's-land without food and water.
The Robin Hoods had gone into action with 627 men and only 90 came out. The German 2nd Guards Division suffered 185 killed and 382 wounded with 24 missing.
Sir William Beach Thomas later wrote: 'They died defeated, but won as great a victory in spirit, and in fact, as English history or any history will ever chronicle.'
Albert's first complete victory was notched up, catching a Roland in a broadside from his Lewis gun and causing it to crash. Out of 11 combats so far, he had forced down 5 German planes, though this estimate was conservative - Albert only claimed those beyond any doubt. The strain of combat and the loss of his friends were beginning to tell. He confided to his father: 'Yesterday four of my pals went out and never came back . . . At night I was feeling very rotten, and my nerves were poo-poo . . . I went to see the CO and asked him if I could have a short rest, and not fly for a few days.' Albert was none too happy when he was sent back on reconnaissance BE.'s.
No doubt his casual attitude to military discipline and his outspoken manner had ruffled a few cap feathers. General Trenchard had once asked him what he thought to a BE that he had just tested and Albert replied: 'Bloody awful machine!'
Though often up at dawn on artillery registration, and again at noon on bombing raids, Albert found he had more free time and he slowly recovered his spirits. He even volunteered to land a spy in Hun land at night but after dodging 3 Fokkers on the way and finding a landing place the spy refused to get out: 'I went down three times but the rotter refused to do his part. So we had to return.' The spy was probably wise. The chasing Fokkers had thoroughly aroused the countryside. For his efforts though, a word of praise was passed to him next day from General Trenchard.
Ball's actions in the air were not so reckless as they appeared. His keen eyesight enabled him to quickly spot hostile aircraft, and coupled to uncanny judgement of speed and distance was his deadly his prowess with a Lewis gun. Always tinkering with his with machine to improve it, he increased the firing arc of the Lewis gun upwards. And to leave both hands free to fire it, he re-rigged the controls of his Nieuport to fly itself.
The technique he devised for downing enemy aircraft became his hallmark: 'I pretend to attack from above, then suddenly dive under it and empty drum from my Lewis gun into its petrol tank, and down he goes.' His riskiest moment, he reckoned, was when he had shot his adversary - he was apt to fall on top of him.
When Lieut. Ball transferred to No. 60 Squadron he took with him a reputation for being difficult to control. But his new CO, the daring and eccentric Major Smith-Barry, recognised that Ball knew his business and gave him a roving commission, needing only to accompany other machines when he chose.
The German pilots learned that the plane with the red nose cap - Albert had fixed a red spinner on the front of his propeller - did not consider numbers but immediately attacked. Ball would fire a few bursts from his Lewis gun at any German formation and when they scattered would latch on to the nearest machine and rake it with fire. The German pilots tried to keep out of his way.
'On 22 August he attacked 7 enemy machines, shooting one down, the rest retiring. Seeing 5 more hostile machines, he shot one down, attacked another that had been firing at him and shot it down so that it landed on top of a house. He then went to the nearest aerodrome for more ammunition, attacked three more machines, causing them to dive away. Being then short of petrol with his machine badly shot up, he came home.'
For this action Lieut. Ball was awarded the DSO.
'On August 28th when on escort duty to a bombing raid, he saw 4 enemy machines. He dived on them, broke up their formation and shot down the nearest one which fell on its nose. He came down to about 500 feet to make certain it was wrecked.'
'On August 31st he observed 12 enemy machines in formation, dived on them, fired a drum into the nearest machine which went down out of control. Several more hostile machines then approached, and he fired 3 more drums at them, driving down another out of control. He then returned, crossing the lines at a low altitude with his machine very much damaged.'
For these two actions Lieut. Ball was awarded the Bar to his DSO.
Ball was the first airman to go right into his man and fight him to the finish - crash or be crashed. It required courage. Albert often said that the Germans weren't prepared to take risks - he certainly was. A visiting General joked that he intended putting Albert Ball's name on a big board in the trenches in order to frighten the Huns.
'It is raining today,' he wrote to Lois, 'so I am letter-writing . . . You will be pleased to hear I have more Huns to my credit than any other English or French pilot. The Major asked for a list today and it worked out: 84 combats, 11 Hun machines and 1 balloon brought down and seen to crash, 5 machines brought down but not seen to crash, and 12 forced down and damaged.'
Noted in the Press
His achievements were being noted in the French and British Press. Le Journal reported: 'Lieut. Albert Ball has struck and brought down his 22nd aeroplane . . . this new 'ace' of English aviation is only 19 years old.'
Daily Mail reported: 'No courage could surpass that of the British airman, who flies within a few feet of the German trenches, when a shot in his petrol tank means death . . .'
Early in September, Albert went home on leave where he was embarrassed to find himself the centre of attraction. National newspapers carried stories of his exploits and his awards of the MC and DSO. Albert didn't take to being a celebrity. Though good-humoured and friendly, he was essentially a lone hunter.
On his way back to France, he wrote home from London: '. . . Mother, I shall fight for you and come home for you, and God always looks after me and makes me strong. May he look after you also.'
The Somme battle was still raging. The RFC kept on the attack despite facing a newly-strengthened German air force of specially trained fighter squadrons. In the latter half of September, Baron von Richthofen, known as the 'Red Baron' shot down thirty British planes. He was flying the new German Albatros that had two forward firing guns and was faster than any other aircraft. Nevertheless, rarely did a German machine cross into British territory.
Now in command of a flight, Captain Ball began to show the RFC what fighting in the air realy meant. Towards the end of September he had destroyed 9 enemy aircraft and forced 8 down bringing his overall tally to 30 victories.
'He attacked 3 hostile machines and brought one down, displaying great courage and skill. He has brought down 8 hostile machines in a short period and has forced many others to land.'
These actions, including his tenth victory, brought Captain Ball the Second Bar to his DSO.
On a rainy day he wrote home: 'I feel sorry for the chaps I have killed . . . just imagine what their poor people must feel like . . . however it must be done, or they will kill me.'
On 4 October, the War Office sent their air ace home on leave prior to posting him to Home Establishment. After receiving the Army Commander's personal thanks, he said goodbye to his comrades.
Captain Albert Ball, air ace and national hero, found his home crowded with newspaper reporters and photographers. Instead of doing a spot of fishing with his dad, or pottering in the garden as he hoped, he was caught up in a whirl of social functions. Privately good-humoured and friendly, he was hopeless at public speaking. One local reporter who did win his confidence was told: 'Often, early in the morning, I go up after the Hun dressed in my pyjamas.'
He reported to Orfordness as a flying instructor and staightaway began his campaign to have another smack. Eventually his efforts bore fruit and on 25 Febuary he was posted to No.56 Squadron at London Colney - the squadron was about to go to France.
The CO of No. 56 Squadron was a stickler for discipline but made one exception - Albert. The pair would walk together, the CO correctly dressed but Captain Ball, always the individual, in oil-stained tunic with boots covered with mud, no cap, and hands in pockets.
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