Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Birth of U.S. Marine Corps Combat Aviation, Part I

Part I, the Raid on Thielt

By George B. Clark

The first all-Marine air combat mission in Marine Corps history was a bombing raid carried out on the morning of 14 October 1918 by Squadron "C" of the First Marine Aviation Force from the La Fresne aerodrome, France, during World War I. A composite flight of five DH-4s and three DH-9As led by Captain Robert S. Lytle, USMC, attacked a German-held railway junction and yards at Thielt, Belgium, and dropped 2,218 pounds of bombs. The designated target was bombed without incident.

Following is a list of pilots and observers who participated in this first Marine air combat operation

PILOT                                        OBSERVER                           MACHINE

(1) Capt. Robert S. Lytle           Sgt. Amil Wiman No. D-3 - DH-4
      (flight leader)
(2) 1stLt. Arthur H. Wright      Cpl. David F. Price No. D-9 - DH-4
      (alternate leader)
(3) 2dLt. Eynar F. Olsen 2dLt. Everett O. Loring No. D-5 - DH-4
(4) Ensign Elmer B. Taylor        MM1, 1stclass Jay R. Jones No. D-6 - DH-4
  (USN)                    (USN)
(5) 2dLt. Ralph Talbot              Cpl. Robert G. Robinson No. D-1 - DH-4
(6) 1stLt. Harold C. Major 2dLt. Russell S. Adams No. E-3 - DH-9A
(7) 2dLt. Clyde N. Bates Sgt. Herbert Hughes                No. E-1 - DH-9A
(8) 2dLt. John H. Weaver 2dLt. Bronson H. Davis No. E-2 - DH-9A

On the return flight the eight Marine De Haviland bombers were intercepted by a mixed formation of 12 enemy fighter planes made up of eight Fokker D-VIIs and four Pfalz D-IIIs. As they approached the bombers head on, the enemy fighter formation split into two elements, four fighters coming on the right side of the bomber formation bent on taking out the lead bomber. The eight other fighters swept on the bombers' left determined to cut out a Marine aircraft and then by concentration to destroy it.

Captain Lytle
Captain Lytle sized up the situation and signaled his pilots to tighten up the battle formation. When this was accomplished the observers brought their guns to bear on the nearest enemy plane and opened fire as soon as it came within range. Lytle signaled his observer, Sergeant Amil Wiman, to fire on the enemy foursome on the right flank, and as the leading German fighter cut in under their wing at about 400 yards range and 150 feet below, Wiman expended about 25 rounds at this plane. His aim was good because the German was forced to change position immediately. He dived out of range. A second fighter came closer and attacked the Lytle-Wiman DH-4 under its tail at a range of about 200 yards and hitting the wings and center section of their plane. Wiman emptied his ammunition drum at this German plane and it went down, apparently out of control. 

Lieutenant Talbot
At the same time the eight enemy fighters on the left flank closed in on Marine aircraft No. D-1, piloted by Second Lieutenant Ralph Talbot with Corporal Robert G. Robinson as observer. Robinson, who was a crack aerial gunner, withheld fire until he filled the sights, squeezed out several bursts, and brought down the nearest enemy plane. During this air battle two German fighters moved into position beneath the Talbot-Robinson DH-4's tail and suddenly attacked them from below. In the first few moments of this encounter a German bullet shattered Robinson's left elbow. Then his machine gun jammed. Talbot moved away from the fighter planes to enable the wounded Robinson to clear the stoppage, and then they returned to the fray.

Notwithstanding, even though his left arm was useless, Robinson continued firing until he collapsed after receiving two more bullet wounds, one in the stomach and one in the thigh. Talbot whipped the DH-4 around and with his front gun shot down a second German fighter. Following this he dived his aircraft toward the ground to escape the balance of the enemy and crossed the German trenches at an altitude of about 50 feet, landing at Hondschoote, a Belgian aerodrome, where the wounded Robinson was rushed to a field hospital. Robinson eventually recovered, but Talbot was killed in a test flight crash on 25 October 1918. For extraordinary heroism in this action, and an accumulation of other daring deeds, both Talbot and Robinson were awarded the Medal of Honor.  

Corporal (Later Gunnery Sgt.) Robinson
But to return to the proceedings between the 12 enemy fighters and the seven Marine bombers. Noticing that Talbot and the badly wounded Robinson were having trouble, Lytle attempted maneuvering the bombers to aid them, but at that desperate moment his engine conked out and he had to drop from the formation. One second the plane was in formation and the next it was gliding downward through the clouds. Feeling out his plane carefully, Lytle trimmed the DH-4B for her best gliding angle and kept the machine airborne in a long, sloping descent. Passing over the German lines, just below 1,000 feet [altitude], he encountered heavy enemy anti-aircraft and machine gun fire from the ground. He made a dead stick landing in front of a railway embankment used by the Belgians as a defense line near Pervyse. The plane did not crash, but bumped over the shell crated ground and came to rest on the edge of a large crater. 

Lytle and his observer climbed from their disabled machine. Neither was hurt. A group of Belgian soldiers scrambled over the railway embankment and manhandled the plane into the shell crater, out of sight of enemy observation. No sooner had this been accomplished than the Germans began shelling the area. The Belgians, followed by Lytle and his observer, ran to the safety of the dugouts in the back slope of the embankment. Lytle then reported his whereabouts to Squadron Headquarters from the Belgian lines by a field telephone call, ordering the air mechanics to come and pick up the disabled plane.

“Raid on Thielt, 14 October 1918,” by James Butcher

The Thielt raid was an event of the first importance, for it was the first all-Marine air combat operation in Corps history. The activities of this flight have been narrated in some detail as a matter of historical record.

Medal of Honor Citations for Participants in the Thielt Raid

2nd Lieutenant, U.S. Marine Corps
1st Marine Aviation Force

For exceptionally meritorious service and extraordinary heroism while attached to Squadron C, 1st Marine Aviation Force, in France. 2d Lt. Talbot participated in numerous air raids into enemy territory. On 8 October 1918, while on such a raid, he was attacked by 9 enemy scouts, and in the fight that followed shot down an enemy plane. Also, on 14 October 1918, while on a raid over Pittem, Belgium, 2nd Lt. Talbot and another plane became detached from the formation on account of motor trouble and were attacked by 12 enemy scouts. During the severe fight that followed, his plane shot down 1 of the enemy scouts. His observer was shot through the elbow and his gun jammed. 2nd Lt. Talbot maneuvered to gain time for his observer to clear the jam with one hand, and then returned to the fight. The observer fought until shot twice, once in the stomach and once in the hip and then collapsed, 2nd Lt. Talbot attacked the nearest enemy scout with his front guns and shot him down. With his observer unconscious and his motor failing, he dived to escape the balance of the enemy and crossed the German trenches at an altitude of 50 feet, landing at the nearest hospital to leave his observer, and then returning to his aerodrome.

ROBINSON, Robert Guy
Gunnery Sergeant, U.S. Marine Corps
1st Marine Aviation Force

For extraordinary heroism as observer in the 1st Marine Aviation Force at the front in France. In company with planes from Squadron 218, Royal Air Force, conducting an air raid on 8 October 1918, Gunnery Sergeant Robinson's plane was attacked by nine enemy scouts. In the fight which followed, he shot down one of the enemy planes. In a later air raid over Pittem, Belgium, on 14 October 1918, his plane and one other became separated from their formation on account of motor trouble and were attacked by 12 enemy scouts. Acting with conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in the fight which ensured, Gunnery Sergeant Robinson, after shooting down one of the enemy planes, was struck by a bullet which carried away most of his elbow. At the same time his gun jammed. While his pilot maneuvered for position, he cleared the jam with one hand and returned to the fight. Although his left arm was useless, he fought off the enemy scouts until he collapsed after receiving two more bullet wounds, one in the stomach and one in the thigh.

Sources:  U.S. Marine Corps Museum, Wikipedia

No comments:

Post a Comment