April 11, 1916 – Drama of air duel with Fokkers at 15,000 feet

A Great Bowden pilot’s daring air duel with a number of infamous German Fokkers is recounted in the April 11, 1916, edition of the Market Harborough Advertiser.

The pulsating description comes in one of the 12 million letters sent every week by British servicemen fighting around the world.

The Advertiser’s editor has done well to track down this story as it is sourced from a letter to the parents of Flight-Sergt T May who comes from Gainsborough in Lincolnshire and well outside the paper’s circulation area. However, his co-pilot was Capt J R Howett of White House, Great Bowden, and so the editor has his local story.

The account begins: “We were on patrol duty about 60 miles over the enemy’s lines, when we were attacked by a number of German machines, including some of their noted Fokkers.

“We saw them preparing for the attack and as we were quite ready we waited for them. You cannot imagine how anxious we were for them to get near us.”

His thrilling story continues: “We rose to a height of between 14,000 and 15,000 feet before the fight began. They as usual attacked from the rear (being faster machines).

“I was with Capt Howett, who said ‘Mind and give them some lead’.

“I waited until they came ridiculously near then emptied a full magazine into them. The machine fell like a log out of sight and I am certain they paid the price. This finished rear attacks.”

But that wasn’t the end of the battle. “The next one came more to the front, so I let him have some at a greater range. They must have been hit, for the machine made a nose dive and cleared off at once.

“I could not see the result because we were immediately attacked by another before I knew where I was. I could see him firing at us before I was ready and by the time I had fired five or six rounds I was hit with a bullet that went through my thigh.

“Almost at the same moment an anti-aircraft shell hit us, blowing my seat away. Large pieces of shell pierced my thick leather flying jacket.

“I was stunned for a time but was in no position to do a faint, so I pulled myself together and we made for our lines, then some 50 miles away, doing ‘ducks and drakes’ to avoid anti-aircraft shells.”

They made it to British positions but because there was no hospital they had to take off again to find somewhere to get medical help. They are now in Boulogne.

The detailed and evocative narrative is in stark contrast to another air battle account, this one the result of Zeppelin air raids over Britain’s East Coast.

The reports are drawn from War Office press releases and the Government’s propaganda machine the Press Bureau. Their accounts have none of the daring drama but simply provide staid numbers. “The total casualties reported as a result of the Zeppelin raid now amount to: killed 43; injured, 66. Nearly 200 explosives and incendiary bombs were dropped. A Baptist Chapel, three dwelling houses and two cottages were demolished and a town hall, four dwelling houses, 35 cottages and a tramway car shed partially wrecked, but no military damage was caused.”

This edition also has more Flying Corps news. It carries a prominent picture of a former Advertiser employee, Flight-Lieutenant Percy Cort, who has been promoted to Flight-Commander and Temporary Captain.

The Advertiser says: “Eight months ago he took up flying and he is to be very heartily congratulated on his rapid and well deserved promotion.”

There are also reports of two Harborough men, both from Mobbs Corps, who have been killed in action. This marks the end of a lull in local stories sourced from letters home to loved ones in the area.

Private Tom Gilbert, 24, of Dingley Terrace, Market Harborough, was a former employee of Mr H Lakin, hairdresser of High Street.

In a letter to Private Gilbert’s mother, Captain Henry Grierson says: “Your son Tom was killed by a shell. He was asleep in a dug-out at the time and I am certain he experienced no pain at all. He has been buried in a little cemetery reserved for men of the 7th.”

Private T J Smith, who was formerly employed at Messrs Webb Bros, was also killed in action. One of his friends, also called Smith, describes what happened. “I was standing by him in a trench at the time when he looked over and was caught by a sniper. He died within a minute or two – he did not suffer much.”

  • Check out this week’s Harborough Mail for current news from the Market Harborough area.
  • My fellow researcher and De Montfort University colleague David Penman is conducting a similar real-time project with the Ashbourne Telegraph. Check out his Great War Reports.
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