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  • Dropping Things from Planes in WW1 November 7, 2013

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback

    ww1 plane

    With insouciance and innocence man took to the air and then in the First World War began to fight in the air. The pilots were suicidally brave and also almost childlike in their duels. Along with the machine guns there were jokes and jests with friends and enemies alike. In this short post Beach wanted to celebrate incidents where pilots dropped unusual things from their planes in the pursuit of honour.  For example:

    A letter was received at Newcastle on Saturday by the father of Lieutenant W. Baxter Ellis, of the Royal Flying Corps, who has been reported missing, stating that he had the ill-fortune to be brought down by a Fokker in France, but was being well cared for by two German flight officers. The letter had been dropped into British lines by a German machine.

    The war in the air in the two world wars tended to be fought with rather more kindly than the war on land, or God forbid, at sea: memories of the taxi story. Having said that no pilot from the Second World War would have made this kind of a gesture: their kindness tended to be restricted to not shooting parachuting pilots (sometimes).

    Two German aeroplanes were destroyed after the raid on Sunday evening. One of the Gotha type was destroyed near the Belgian coast… The pilot who destroyed the Gotha found it 30 miles out to water, where the hostile craft turned turtle. Seeing one of its occupants hanging on to the Gotha’s tail, the British airman chivalrously threw him his lifebelt, and on the way home endeavoured to report the position of the wrecked machine to British destroyers.

    Dead pilots were also treated with respect by enemy pilots:

    A note was written: ‘To the Bulgarian-German flying Corps in Drama. The officers of the Royal Flying Corps regret to announce that Lieut von Eschwege was killed while attacking the captive balloon. His personal belongings will be dropped over the lines some time during the next few days.’ With the effects went photographs of the German’s coffin on the shoulders of six British flyers.

    For more on the death of von Eschwege check out an earlier air mine post.

    Then there were the jokes…

    1 st of April was not allowed to pass without one practical joke being played on the enemy. An aviator flying over the Lille aerodrome dropped a football. It fell slowly through the air, and the Germans could be seen hurrying from all directions to take cover from what they evidently thought was a bomb. That it bounced to an enormous height from the ground without exploding was probably taken to be due to a delay in the action of the fuse, for it was not till the ball finally came to rest that they emerged from their shelters to examine. On it was written ‘April fool. Gott Strafe England!’

    And the atrocities? This sounds like an urban legend. Poisioned sweets are one things, but sweets with ‘germs’ in them in WW1?

    Austrian aviators dropped packets of poisoned sweets. Several of these sweets picked up at Ravenna, Codigoro and Candra were submitted to a bacteriological analysis, as the result of which it was discovered that the sweets were composed of starch, sugar, and infectious germs.

    There must be lots more out there, perhaps even a full length study? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

    9 Nov 2013: Tacitus from Detritus writes in: Chivalry was not quite dead in WWII.  When double amputee Douglas Bader was shot down the Germans negotiated with the RAF, allowing a plane to come in under truce and air drop a replacement for his damaged prosthetic leg.  On 14 August the German Authorities notified the British via the Red Cross that Bader was a prisoner. Group Captain Woodhall broadcast the welcome news over the Tangmere station tannoy. The Germans also offered free passage for an RAF aircraft to deliver a spare leg for Bader to Galland’s JG26 airfield at Audembert. The British did not take up this offer but dropped a spare leg by parachute from a Blenheim on 19 August during a Circus operation to Longuenesse. Admittedly, this sort of nicety was rare at that point in history. *** Nathaniel with a classic too: I  recall reading that some WW1 airplane engines were lubricated with castor oil, and that fumes blowing back to the pilot exerted their natural laxative effect. Supposedly one British pilot dealt with this by cutting holes in the bottom of his flight suit and cockpit, then flying over the German lines whenever he felt the need. Don’t have a source at hand for this, unfortunately. *** Then the great Mike Dash with an epic example: You can include reluctant Belgian pigeon-fanciers on your list, if the account I found when researching Lt.Colonel Alfred Osman and the part he played in organising bird-borne communications in the Great War is to be trusted: “The Voluntary Pigeon War Committee’s efforts culminated in a scheme that involved “brave Belgian volunteers” parachuting into enemy-held territory strapped to a large basket full of homing pigeons, which they were to use to send information about enemy troop movements back to one of Osman’s lofts. The scheme worked, the Colonel wrote, “except that at the outset great difficulty was experienced in getting the man to jump from the plane when the time came.” Such reluctance was understandable at a time when parachutes were still in the early stages of development, but the ingenious if stern-hearted Osman solved the problem in collaboration with the designers of the two-seater observation planes that had been adapted to carry out the missions: “A special aeroplane was designed in order that when the position was reached the seat upon which the man sat gave way automatically when the pilot let go a lever,” he wrote, sending the hapless Belgian spy plummeting earthward with no option but to open his ‘chute.”  [picture below, from a 1928 pamphlet on homing pigeons in the war  ]*** Thanks to Mike, Nathaniel and Tacitus!