Memoirs & Diaries - In a Kite Balloon

British balloonist "bailing out" I am not what is termed a literary man, so I shall have a little difficulty in clearly expressing myself, but I have had some experiences as a flight sergeant in the Royal Air Force which may prove interesting.

I will, therefore, do my best with a poor stock of words to give an accurate account of my experience in the Great War in a kite balloon on the Vimy Ridge sector of the line.

I shall not give the name of the officer who was observing in the balloon with me, but I will give the first initial of his surname, so that if he reads this, he may recognize himself.

In the early part of May 1916, before the big Vimy Ridge battle, in the morning soon after sunrise the balloon ascended with Lieutenant H. and myself to about 5,000 feet.  Everything was at peace except an anti-aircraft gun showing evident anger at an annoying mosquito that was buzzing over enemy country.

That bark was the only sound that made one realize that a tragic war was on.  For people with jaded nerves who are perplexed with the ceaseless hurry, bustle, and noise of modern life, I recommend a few hours up aloft in a kite balloon as a tonic and respite from its cares and worries.  There is a charming and attractive calm and quietness about the experience that is recuperative and restful.

Of course this is not recommended whilst there is a war on, because the clouds can harbour unseen, unknown terrors and instruments of destruction.  For instance, the enemy developed an astonishing accuracy in shelling kite balloons with shrapnel.  I have had some uncomfortable half-hours with this kind of attack.  This morning in May one shell burst towards our balloon, only one, but it left us guessing as to when the next would be sent over, for the enemy rarely let us off with only one try, but this morning he did. He was kind to us that day.

Our object on this morning was to locate a very annoying gun that kept everybody in our sector of the front on tenterhooks by its back-area firing - a nasty irritating business.

We nicknamed the gun "Ginger," and its explosive crumps gave everyone the jumps.  A hollow bang would faintly be heard in the distance, and, before you could count two, with a terrific whoop and crump, a high explosive shell would burst near.

I remember our sergeant-major getting terribly upset over this gun; we were at a part of the line, taken over from the French, called Bois de Ville, and our sleeping accommodation consisted of a lot of holes covered over with brushwood, mud and sandbags, and one went down three steps into it.  One night "Ginger" was particularly active, and "Molly" M., our sergeant-major, could not sleep, but remained wandering about from one side of the small dug-out to the bottom step of the entrance, where he would fearfully look out.

He did that once too often, for, with a roar and a crump, a shell exploded just outside our dug-out, and "Molly," with just his head showing, caught a drift of lyddite smoke from that shell that made him look like a nigger minstrel.  He fled.  We heard no more of him until our motor-cyclist reported having seen him running for dear life, with blazing and staring eyes, and a foaming and muttering mouth.

Poor old "Molly"!  It became particularly hard for him, after telling us all on parade at home, "Now come on, you lazy lot of buzzers, lep, rite, lep, rite, faster, faster.  When you get the other side and have a nine-point-two on your backsides, you'll hop it quick enough."

Poor old "Molly"!  If he had gone to bed with Sergeant Tom B. and me he would have been all right; it was pure funk after all, for he never got a scratch otherwise.

German observation balloon leaving its hangar at MetzWe were out to locate this gun, but for a long time Lieutenant H. and I did not trouble much about guns.  We were too enraptured with the glorious sunrise.  It was wonderful, marvellous - words fail me to express what I felt.  I felt very near to what some people call the infinite, whatever they may mean, or, as some may say, near to God, but whatever it was I was thinking and feeling, I began to realize in some dim way that to be absorbed in a vision of unutterable beauty is a fine experience.  I was thinking that it was good to have been born, just to experience that one thing.  I thought of many other things in a rambling sort of way...

Bang!  Like a big drum being struck.  Swish-rip - a sighing whistle, a noise, or rather a shriek like the tearing of some gigantic piece of canvas.  Christ!  What's happened?  Gee!  The balloon has burst.  It had collapsed about us, and we were coming down.  I desperately struggled to push away the fabric of the balloon from the basket, and suddenly from underneath the mountain of fabric, I glimpsed the white face of Lieutenant H.

"We must jump," he said.  I agreed with him, and immediately dived over head first, and nearly dived through my harness.  It had no shoulder straps, only a waistband and loops for one's legs.  Never shall I forget that sickening horrible sensation when, in my first rush through the air, I felt my leg loops at the knees, and my waistband round my buttocks.  I managed, however, to grab hold of the thick rope which is toggled on from the waistband to the parachute.  Meanwhile, everything else seemed to go wrong; the cords of the parachute somehow in the struggle got entangled round my neck, so that as the parachute began to open with a deadly pull on my body, I was literally being strangled in mid-air.

The sensation was horrible and unforgettable; my face seemed to swell to twice its size, and my eyeballs to become too big for their sockets.  Then I was suddenly freed, and could breathe again, but my neck was badly lacerated and raw.  My bad luck was not over, however, because I was suddenly pulled up with a sharp jerk that jarred every bone in my body.

Hydrogen gas cylinders for inflating balloonsI had fouled the cable which held the balloon to the winch, and my parachute had, in striking it, coiled itself round about three or four times.  Suspended in mid-air!  I remained in that helpless position for what seemed like hours, and I looked down, and saw Lieutenant H., his parachute getting smaller and smaller.  Then I slowly began to unwind - round and round I went like a cork, and broke away with a rush, the silk of my parachute being torn almost across, and I began hurtling down at a great speed, with my damaged and useless parachute flap, flap, flapping above me.

I thought it was all up with me.  I had seen a couple of parachute accidents, and I knew what to expect.  I could do nothing but curse at the damned bad luck I was having.  I have read that face after face of one's friends and scenes of one's past haunt one when in danger.  It is perfectly true, because I actually experienced it.

Crash!  I had shut my eyes, I thought I had struck the ground.  No; in a slanting, rushing dive, I had struck poor old H.'s parachute, and the force of my fall had caused his parachute to collapse.

"Sorry," I shouted.  One had to shout I remember, for the wind seemed to be blowing a gale, although actually it was a calm, sunny day.  "Sorry, but I couldn't help it."

"It's all right, old man," he shouted, "but couldn't you find some other bloody patch to fall on?  Millions of bloody acres about you, yet you must pick me to fall on."   "It looks like finish," he continued.  It did.

Suddenly his parachute began to bellow out with a flapping roar, tumbling me off like a feather, but I was too inextricably bound up with his cords to shoot away altogether; incidentally, I was hanging like grim death to something or other.  What it was I don't know, but I imagine it was about half a dozen of his parachute cords.  And so we landed, two on one parachute.  At least, I landed first, because I seemed to slip down just before we landed, and he landed full weight on top of me.

I know nothing of what happened immediately after, but I heard subsequently that we had landed almost on the support trenches, and scores of Canadians had rushed out and gathered round us, and that the enemy thought it was a fine opportunity to drop a few shells around.

Flight-Sergeant W. S. Lewis served with the R.F.C. and R.A.F. from June 1915 to March 1919.  A good deal of that time was spent in France on the Vimy Ridge sector.  He entered the Civil Service in May I919.

First published in Everyman at War (1930), edited by C. B. Purdom.

Photographs courtesy of Photos of the Great War website.

A 'Tour' was a period of front-line service.

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