WWI: Behind Enemy Lines by Aircraft II


Handley Page O/400

The British and French were not the only First World War combatants to carry out clandestine flights into enemy territory. In May 1918 an Italian Air Corps observer, Tenente Camillo de Carlo, was dropped behind Austro-Hungarian lines from a Voisin two-seater. He then spent three weeks sending back information, in the form of ground signals that were photographed by Italian reconnaissance aircraft flying overhead, during the build-up to the decisive Battle of Piave River in northern Italy.

Later in the war the French used at least one captured German aircraft for over-the-lines reconnaissance and for dropping agents. A Rumpler two-seater in German markings was retained at Toul for clandestine flights, during one of which its French-Alsatian crew landed at a German airfield, demanded that the plane be refuelled, and departed for home undiscovered. The Germans replied in kind when Leutnant Hans Schroeder, an Air Service observer and intelligence officer, used a French two-seater to visit a number of RAF airfields on the Western Front in mid-1918. The aircraft was a Breguet 14B2 reconnaissance bomber, flown to the German lines by a defecting French pilot in May 1918; serialled 1333 and wearing the markings of Escadrille BR 117, it was a new machine he had collected from a delivery park near Paris.

Schroeder, a former infantry officer who had joined the German Air Service after being wounded in the knee, served as an air observer on the Russian front before training as an intelligence officer in February 1918. Speaking excellent English and French, he was flown by the French deserter to British airfields, where he posed as a French officer, and to French airfields where he posed as a British officer. He would visit the local town or village before departing at dusk, having dined as a guest of the officers’ mess. While interrogating a captured RAF pilot in September 1918, Schroeder claimed to have dropped in on No. 5 Squadron at Acq, No. 56 at Valheureux and No. 60 at Boffles, all within a few weeks of the last Allied push on the Western Front.

The Eastern Front was the preserve of another British spy who was also an intrepid aviator. A pre-war businessman in Russia, George Hill was on holiday in Canada when war was declared. Having joined a Canadian army unit, he was sent to France as an interpreter, but after being wounded while serving in the trenches, Hill was posted to Military Intelligence at the War Office to be trained in the gathering of espionage. Being fluent in several languages, including Russian and Arabic, he was sent to the Balkans in June 1916. While attached to the British Intelligence Headquarters at Salonica in Greece, he persuaded the local RFC unit to teach him to fly in order to be able to drop spies into enemy territory. With very little flying experience, he managed to ‘borrow’ a BE2e aircraft for his clandestine adventures. Hill later recalled:

Nico Kotzov was one of my first passengers. He was a Serbian patriot who had been in the enemy’s country nine or ten times and always brought back valuable information. We wanted information from an inaccessible part of the country, and as this information was urgently needed it was decided to drop him by aeroplane. I took him up for a couple of trial flights, and although he did not enjoy the experiences very much, he was quite determined to go. He knew the country where we were going to land, and I explained to him I wanted the landing ground to be as much like our aerodrome as possible.

  As we climbed into the machine at dawn on the day of the drop, the sergeant in charge of the pigeons brought along a little cage with six of our best birds in it. I ran up the engine. Everything was all right. I signalled the sergeant to pull away the chocks and we taxied out into the dark aerodrome. I opened the engine full out and we were away. I had to do a stiff climb in the air in order to be able to cross the mountain range, and the higher I got, the less I liked the job before me.

         The flight was uneventful. I picked out the various objectives that were serving me, together with a compass, as a guide, and got over the country that we were to land upon in the scheduled time. It was getting light as I throttled back my engine, so that it was just ticking over, in order to land. We lost height rapidly and I could faintly make out the ground before me, which seemed fairly suitable. As a precautionary measure I made up my mind to circle it just once more.

         Suddenly I noticed that the whole of the field selected by Nico for our landing was dotted with giant boulders. To land in the field would be suicide. I climbed into the air again, and when I had got sufficiently high, switched off my engine to be able to make Nico hear me and I told him that his selection was no good as a landing ground. He said simply that I had told him nothing about boulders, and that he imagined we would hop over them. All hope of landing that morning had to be given up, but as it was rapidly getting light I hoped to be able to pick out a suitable landing ground for the next day and through my glasses located a dry river bed which promised to be the best place for landing, and back we went to the aerodrome.

         Next morning we made the trip again and I safely landed my passenger. Within ten days he had dispatched all six pigeons and on the return home of the last one, I took over a further cage of pigeons and dropped them by parachute over the spot where I had landed Nico. These also returned home safely. In all, I dropped Nico three times over the line.

On one occasion, Hill had landed a man called Petrov behind the lines when his aeroplane hit a furrow which jarred the BE2 and stopped the propeller. While Petrov climbed out to swing the propeller, an enemy cavalry patrol spotted them on open ground. ‘I think at first they thought it was one of their own machines. Then they must have got suspicious, for they started trotting towards us. Suddenly the engine fired and Petrov raced round to the fuselage and leapt into his seat. The cavalry patrol broke into a gallop and called upon us to stop. I opened the throttle and we were away, but before we left the ground the patrol opened fire. Their shooting was good, as we found when we got back to the aerodrome with half a dozen holes in the fuselage.’

In July 1917, Capt G.A. Hill was ordered to join the RFC mission at Petrograd in Russia, but before he had a chance to resume flying special missions the aeroplanes were withdrawn to Archangel, and so he travelled overland to Moscow as imperial Russia descended into anarchy and revolution. As the monarchy collapsed and the Bolsheviks seized power, George Hill continued his career as a spy, which he considered as a ‘joyful adventure’.

Another officer renowned for his subterfuge in the field was T.E. Lawrence, whose Arab irregulars were harrying the Turks in Palestine and Trans-Jordan. Attached to the British Military Intelligence Department in Cairo called MO4 in December 1914, Capt Lawrence spoke excellent Arabic and had built up close contacts with various Arab leaders during his pre-war archaeological and mapping expeditions to the region. His brief was to contact and encourage Arabs in Turkish-controlled Sinai, Syria and western Arabia to carry out a campaign of guerilla warfare in support of the Allies. Lawrence realised very early on the value of air support in order to keep in touch with his Arab irregulars, and to gather accurate intelligence from behind the Turkish lines.

The first experience of British aircraft operating behind enemy lines in the region fell to the RFC air unit in Mesopotamia (Iraq), when British troops captured a Turkish garrison at Kut el Amera on the banks of the River Tigris, midway between Baghdad and Basrah, in September 1915. A Turkish counterattack cut the British supply lines, and by the beginning of 1916 the garrison was surrounded and under siege. The one and only way to ensure the survival of the 10,000 soldiers was to supply them by air, something that had never been done before, and No. 30 Squadron, based at nearby Ora, was allotted the task.

Its ubiquitous BE2c aircraft braved German Fokker Eindekker monoplane fighters and Turkish ground fire to cross enemy lines carrying food, medical supplies and ammunition to the besieged force, and flying out their sick and wounded. Three RNAS Short 827 and Farman floatplanes that could operate from the River Tigris joined No. 30 Squadron at the end of February to drop supplies from low level, without parachutes, to the British troops below. During the 143-day siege, more than 13 tons of supplies were delivered in the world’s first airlift, half of which was delivered over a 14-day period; but it was not enough and General Townsend’s garrison was forced to surrender on 29 April 1916.

However, it was not until the end of 1916 that No. 1 Squadron Australian Flying Corps (AFC) arrived in Egypt and T.E. Lawrence first met one of its flight commanders – Lt Ross Smith, an ace with twelve confirmed kills – and plans could be made to set up an air base behind enemy lines at Jauf, in western Arabia. Supplies and fuel had been stockpiled en route when irregulars of Emir Feisal, one of Turkey’s staunchest allies, captured Wejh on the Red Sea and plans for the covert air base had to be abandoned.

In 1917 a detachment of No. 14 Squadron AFC moved to Aqaba equipped with three BE12 reconnaissance aircraft, a development of the BE2c. Manned by Australian pilots Lts Ross Smith and C.H. Vautin and observer 2/Lt L.W. Sutherland, who had been credited with seven kills, the unit became known as ‘X’ Flight and was put at the disposal of Lawrence and his Arab irregulars. His Arabs being prone to inaccuracy or exaggeration, Lawrence himself regularly flew over the Turkish lines to carry out his own assessment of enemy positions, especially along the Hejaz Railway that stretched for hundreds of miles across the desert between Medina in the south and Damascus in the north.

The railway was crucial to the Turks and a constant target for Lawrence’s guerrilla fighters. His spies were also dropped behind the lines by ‘X’ Flight, while its pilots often landed in enemy territory to pick up agents or rescue downed aircrew who were in danger of capture – the Turks offered £40 in gold for every Allied airman delivered – or worse, were dying of thirst. In August 1917 Lawrence and his Arabs prepared an airstrip at Kuntilla in the Sinai as a forward operating base for RFC aircraft based at El Arish. On 18 September General Allenby launched an offensive against the Turks at Beersheba in Palestine, and six weeks later Jerusalem fell to British troops, ending 730 years of Muslim rule.

Ross Smith, now flying Bristol F2B Fighters with No. 1 Squadron AFC, was based at Guweira, flying reconnaissance missions over the Turkish stronghold at Jurf el Derwish on the Hejaz Railway. In May 1918 he flew Lawrence, now a lieutenant-colonel, to Allenby’s headquarters in his Brisfit to discuss the preparations for a final push to chase the Turks out of the Middle East. The attack was launched on 19 September and within five weeks British and Arab armies were within sight of the Turkish border at Aleppo, having taken Damascus and Beirut.

Two Bristol Fighters were assigned to Lawrence in support of his Arab irregulars behind Turkish lines, one of which went unserviceable; the other, flown by Lt Junor, fought a number of dogfights with Turkish aircraft. Ross Smith flew spares and fuel for the Brisfits into Emir Faisal’s headquarters at Umm as Surab in a twin-engined Handley Page 0/400 long-range heavy bomber. The giant aircraft, the only one of its type in the Middle East, did much to reinforce the Arab irregulars’ belief that Allah was, indeed, on the side of the Allies.

On 30 October 1918 Turkey signed an armistice with the Allies, and 12 days later the First World War was over. The aftermath of the Great War saw most of Europe in turmoil. The victors wreaked economic and political vengeance on the vanquished, and on Germany in particular. The Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires imploded and nationalism and revolution spread from eastern Europe to Asia Minor. New countries were carved out of old – Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Civil wars broke out in Russia and Poland, while Finland declared war on Russia and Greece attacked Turkey. As Great Britain and France battled to hang on to their empires, monarchs were deposed and fascists vied for power with communists. The seeds of another ‘great’ war in the twentieth century were being planted.

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