Baird, Gavin Gibson

Letter
Date:
December 23, 1929
To:
Angereau
From:
Gavin Gibson Baird
December 23, 1929

Dear Angereau,

Now that you are getting around the house on your crutches you may not feel so interested in getting my letters as you possibly were when you were confined to your bed, so this may be my last letter to you dealing with some of my flying experiences.

I hope by the time you receive this letter that you will have received our various Christmas packages, and that notwithstanding your condition that you were able to thoroughly enjoy the Christmas season. We have often expressed the wish that we could amalgamate our families at some Christmas season, and who knows, it may be next Christmas. Wouldn't it be great to be able to be all together for one Christmas, which should be of all times in the whole year the happiest time of all(especially for the kiddies).

In my last letter I mentioned the aerodrome that we were at, adjoining a little town called Erre. While we were at this point we were billeted in French homes and my observer and I had a very comfortable billet. We had, of course, a central mess where we all used to eat. The weather for flying was very poor, and while you can sometimes get a show in during the day even if visibility is poor, the same was not always true at night. It is different nowadays with instruments that are much more reliable than the ones we had, and when there are lighthouses all along the way to guide you, but if you got lost in France it was very difficult to locate yourself unless by some chance you happened to see one of our lighthouses which, of course, were separated by many miles, and on a poor night they would not be visible for any great distance. After all, they were very small and quite inefficient on "dud" nights. In October and the early part of November, we didn't have as much flying as we had had during the months that had just passed. We were, however, flying on every possible occasion and in co-operation with the infantry and artillery were trying to make things as unhappy as possible for the poor German troops. There was, however, one night that pretty nearly proved my last. We had been detailed to bomb the railway sidings and station in the City of Mons. We had completed our first show, and the night was not ideal by any means, and had come in for dinner. At this time of the year, of course, the hours of daylight were not as long as they had been and we had been getting a show in before having dinner. On this particular night-it was the 7th of November- we had completed our first show at Mons, and come back for dinner. Much to our surprise. the Colonel of the Wing was there and told us tall that we had to push off again without any delay. We did not think very much of him as none of us were any too happy at the prospects. I think this Colonel had been a preacher, or something of that kind, before he was made Colonel of our Wing, but in any event, he knew very little about flying- at least, so we thought. We pushed off again and found that there was a terrific wind "upstairs". It was, however, behind us on the way over, with the result that we averaged somewhere around 150miles an hour on our way out to Mons. It was only a few minutes, as I remember it- something like ten minutes to get from our aerodrome to Mons. After we dropped our bombs we turned to go back, but found of course, that we were facing into the wind and we had an awful time. We were shelled quite a lot, and seemed to be standing still. My observer yelled through the phone at me that he had been watching one road for five minutes and that we seemed jus as far away from it as we had been when he first saw it. I, too, had been watching the road and I knew that we were not making very many miles per hour. We were still flying on our way to the aerodrome an hour after we left Mons. We were at this time approaching the Eschault River and Canal. The Canal, or course, had been blown up by the Germans and the whole countryside seemed to be flooded with water. I was up about 3000 feet and it was there that I got hit. Not me, or my observer, but the engine, with the result that the back three cylinders were put out of commission. Fortunately we had two carburetors-one that fed the first three cylinders, and one that fed the back three. Ordinarily my engine would turn over in the air from 1200 to 1400 revolutions a minute, but with the cutting out of the back three cylinders, the "revs" dropped immediately to between 600 and 700. I knew that I had very little chance of getting across the canal, but I knew also, that if I did not get across I was a prisoner for sure, even if I managed to land safely in the dark and in a strange country. However we kept on going, coming down all the time because 700 "revs" would not keep her up. My observer climbed part way over into my seat and took hold of my hand and through the telephone said that he had enjoyed flying with me- and you must remember that we had been flying together since we both came out to France about nine months before, and with the exception of one or two shows that we had been with other fellows when he or I were on our leave, we had flown continually together. I said, "What's the matter, Joey". "Why", he said " I think that this is about the last". "Oh, I said, we will keep on flying yet for a while". What he was afraid of, of course, was landing in the water and with our heavy flying togs on and one thing and another, we would have very little chance of getting out. Not only that, but the water was quite cold, and the chances of our being tangled up in the machine greater than that of being thrown clear and without hurt. We had several forced landings during the summertime, but always on our side of the line, but here we were over the line, and with an engine that was practically no good. As a matter of fact, just about the time we were chewing the rag with one another she cut out absolutely, so that I had no help at all from the engine. I had to put her into a steeper glide than she had been in order to retain my flying speed, and as I had been watching the ground very closely decided that we would after all, with a little big of luck, be able to get across the water. After I got across I figured I was up about 500 feet and so I dropped our Michelin flare and spied a small field below me by the side of a town. I was not absolutely certain at this particular point in the Canal as to whether or not we held one side and the Germans the other, or whether he held both sides. Down at Valenciennes we held one side and he held the other, but as you got up nearer the coast he held both sides of this particular canal. However, there wasn't anything else for us to do but to land, so after dropping my flare I picked up the field and made for it. My good luck was with me as I managed to get into the field and to land without even straining a wire. When we were 30 or 40 feet off the ground I pushed the electric buttons that ignited flares under my wings, and with the aid of these flares was able to make a perfect landing, thanks to the fact that there were no obstacles, although a few days afterwards when I went back to see the machine it seemed a miracle that I could escape all the trees, telegraph poles, etc. A safe plan to follow in making a forced landing of this kind is to land alongside of a road. Never try to cross the road, but land parallel to it. If you do that, nine times out of ten you will escape one obstacle at least, and that is, telegraph and telephone poles. While we were still running along the ground, with flares on, of course, as they usually burned for about four minutes, our old friend, the Huns, from the other side of the canal, started to use machine gun on us. Needless to say it just took us a second to get out of the machine and lie flat on the ground until such times as the flares burned themselves out. Our machine was riddled a bit, but nothing to speak of. After the flares had gone out we pulled ourselves together and located our position from the stars and then made tracks for back country. We figured that we would not have very far to go before we came across somebody or other. There were a lot of guns in the immediate vicinity -18 pounders, I should imagine- and they were going off for all they were worth, and there was generally a lot of activity. However, we eventually made our was past shell holes to the cobbled streets of a little town in Belgium, called Wesbelvian, which is a very small town south of Tournai. We had on our winter flying equipment, which included hip sheepskin boots with the fur on the inside and thick rubber soles, and while these boots were very cumbersome to walk in, they were at least noiseless, and we went padding through the streets of this little town in hope of running up against someone shortly. I saw a light under the bottom of a door, although there were no other signs of habitation at all, and I said to Joe, "We better find out where we are". "Oh, he said, I think we better keep on walking". He said, "I have a hunch that there are Germans around here". "Well", I said, "we might just as well know it now as run into a bunch of them on the road or something of that kind", so I knocked on the door and a voice answered it asking me, "What the ---- I wanted". Those were about the most welcome words that I had heard for a long time. After he had opened the door and had a look at me, I think he must have figured that he had been drinking too much and been seeing things, because he stepped back as though we were not human at all. I explained to him that we had just been forced down and would be obliged if he would take us to his Colonel. He told me that he was in the Eighth Seaforths, a Scottish Battalion, and that his O.C was Colonel Anderson, located at a Chateau just a short distance away. We eventually got up to the Chateau and he turned us over to the Colonel's orderly, who took us in to the Colonel's room. They were using that part of the Chateau furthest away from the German lines so that if any shells hit the Chateau they would hit the unoccupied portion of it. He was sitting at a table with his Adjutant, and they were planning an attack which they hoped would enable them to get across this canal. After I told him who I was and explained things to him, he told us that he would try to get his telephone operator to get through to our squadron. He took me down in the basement and there was a very up-to-date telegraph switch board- very complicated, but apparently very efficient. It happened, however, that our squadron was in another army, and that he would have to go away back to Army Headquarters near the coast before he could get a connection back again. This proved to be rather difficult, and he did not get us through our Squadron until the next day. He wanted to know if we wanted anything to eat or anything to drink, and said that any time we felt like a rest we could make ourselves comfortable anywhere at all around the place and try to get some sleep. He said something that did not make us feel any too comfortable, and that was this- "If they start shelling during the night with gas shells, go down in the basement where there is a safety [?], and you will be quite all right there". I figured you might get to sleep and not be able to tell gas shells or ordinary shells. Needless to say, we stayed pretty well awake until morning. You see, we didn't carry our gas respirators with us in the air, as there was no necessity for so doing. At three or four o'clock in the morning, old Heinie started to shell the cross roads right in the immediate vicinity of the chateau. We timed the first two or three shells and knew just about when another would land. They came about every three minutes and they were great big ones, too. We later found out that they were 9.2's. That is, 9.2 inches in diameter. In the morning, the Colonel asked us to come in and have breakfast with him, and breakfast was all that one could desire. As I remember it, we had bacon and eggs, toast and marmalade, and coffee- this being served by the Colonel's orderly. When we were over breakfast, a Captain came in with quite a gash on his forehead which was bleeding quite a lot, and he looked at me and said, "Were you the bird that came down last night?". I said that I was and he said " You're lucky". He said, "As soon as you put your flares on I though you were a Hun trying to locate us". He said, "I had a machine gun trained right on you, but something told me not to fore". I said, "Thank goodness you didn't". I asked him how he got the gash on his forehead, and he told me that he had walked into one of the trip wires that he Huns had left along the road when they were vacating the country. These trip wires went off when something bumped against them, and in the explosion he was fortunate not to be killed but get this small cut on his head.

We were at the chateau for a couple of days before we got word that a car was coming for us, and then we started back to meet the car. It was not safe to drive the car right up but they got as far as they could, and then we met it. It turned out that it was not one of our cars, but was from another squadron located in the sector. They took us back to their aerodrome and said that a car from our own squadron would come up the next day. We were very comfortable there and the next afternoon the Major himself arrived in his touring car and took us back to our own aerodrome. This proved to be the last bombing trip I made. Shortly after that, of course, the Armistice was declared and from then on our flying was restricted to the immediate vicinity of the aerodrome or on little pleasure trips that we wanted to take.

Yours very sincerely,

Gavin

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