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

Monday, August 21, 2017

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

Part II, Marine Aerial Raiders

By George B. Clark

Pilot and Observer/Gunner of the Marine Aviation Force

From the Thielt raid forward, the Day Wing squadrons at La Fresne and Oye aerodrome made attacks on the German forces at Steenbrugge, Eecloo, Ghent, Deynze, and Lokeren; they attacked railway centers, canals, supply dumps, and aerodromes. Some of the more important raids were:

17 October 1918: two raids were carried out by the Force. In the morning the railway yards at Steenbrugge were bombed with good results by a formation of five Marine bombers led by Major Roben of Squadron "C." An afternoon raid was directed on Ostend Harbor and Zeebrugge Mole.  

18 October 1918: an impressive raid was made by a formation of seven Marine bombers led by Captain Wright of Squadron "C." The objectives were Eecloo and Leopold Canal. Despite heavy anti-aircraft fire, the Marine flyers came down to height of 3000 feet and dropped bombs on the railway yards. Several direct hits were observed. It was ascertained from the Burgomeister of the town that a direct hit was made on a troop train resulting in the deaths of 60 enemy officers and 300 enlisted men. About three miles southeast of Eecloo was a German aerodrome and some 12 enemy aircraft, presumably Gothas, were sighted on the field. Bombs were dropped on this aerodrome, but it was not possible to ascertain the damage. Enemy Fokker D-VIIs were encountered over the railway yards at Sinde, which was also bombed on the same day.

Lt. Everett Brewer Was the
First Marine to Down an
Enemy Aircraft, 28 Sept. 1918
19 October 1918: a raid on Melle was abortive because of bad weather conditions, although bombs were dropped. Hansbeke was also raided. No damage was reported. Due to the dense fog, the six aircraft became separated, temporarily lost. Marine Aircraft Nos. E-1, E-3, and E-5 with pilots Second Lieutenants John P. McMurren, August Koerbling, both of Squadron "A", and John F. Gibbs of Squadron "B", were among the participants in this raid.    

22 October 1918: another raid was made on Melle under the direction of Captain Day. Nine aircraft took off but due to dense fog and the necessity of flying 65 miles by compass, only four planes were able to reach the objective, the five others turning back. An excellent description of the raid was written by Second Lieutenant Charles B. Todd, Jr., the pilot of Marine Aircraft No. D-10, as follows:

We received our orders to proceed to Melle, a railroad center near Ghent, and to bomb the place. We left the aerodrome, nine planes in all, at 8:40 A.M. and started toward the lines gaining altitude as we flew. When we crossed the lines at an altitude of about 11,000 feet we ran into a thick fog bank and were forced to descend to about 7,000 feet. The five ships in the rear of our formation left us and turned back and thus leaving but four of us to proceed on our mission. We flew in a diamond formation with Captain Day leading. Captain Presley was on the right, I was on the left and Lieutenant H.C. Norman was in the rear corner of the diamond.

The fog was very dense and we had much difficulty seeing the earth a great part of the time and we used our compass for direction. Near Ghent we ran into a heavy archie barrage which first burst above us, then below us, and soon when the correct range was obtained the shooting was very accurate and the bursting shells came so close that they fairly seemed to bounce off our wings, engine and tail. They burst so close to my tail that my machine was thrown about as if I were flying in a heavy windstorm.

It was very difficult to stick to the formation and we dared not separate because we would be lost to one another in the fog and thus be an easy mark for the Huns who fly in droves and not singly. Indeed I feared that I would run my leader down and still I stuck to the formation as did the others.

Suddenly three Huns darted out of the haze in the rear and firing at Norman, came right on after me. Two were below and one behind. I banked the machine to give my observer a chance at them and then closed in behind my own leader. The Huns did not remain long, however, because of the dense fog and the fire from their archie. We dropped our bombs on the railroad and then the formation became scattered.

An official Belgian report states that Lieutenant Norman was attacked by seven Hun planes and brought down. His machine crashed to the earth near the Bruges-Ghent canal on our side of the lines and both Lieutenant Norman and Lieutenant Taylor were killed.

27 October 1918: a six-plane raid was flown against the railway junctions and yards at Lokeren. During this activity Marine Aircraft No. D-11, flown by Second Lieutenants Frank Nelms and John F. Gibbs of Squadron "B", was struck by anti-aircraft fire and made a forced landing in Holland and were interned there. A second raid was flown on this same date against Ghent by a five-plane formation from Squadron "B."

Owing to the success of the Second Belgium offensive and the retreat of the Germans, the aerodromes at Oye and La Fresne became so far behind the lines that it was necessary to establish an advanced aerodrome. An abandoned German aerodrome at Knesselaere in Belgium was chosen on 26 October 1918, and Major McIlvain was placed in command. This interrupted flights for several days, while Squadron "B" was moved to the forward field. From here the Marine squadrons managed to carry on several more operations before the Armistice, the 11th of November 1918. As a wartime Force its history ends here.

To sum up, the Force participated in the Ypres-Lys offensive and the first and second Belgian offensives. The Marine aviators made their combat record in a period of only three months—from 9 August to 11 November 1918. Figures are a cold but not inaccurate means of measuring achievements.

Sources: U.S. Marine Corps Museum and Wikipedia

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