TWENTY-EIGHT officers and men on board a large German airship were busy at 6,000 feet somewhere above Ghent and Brussels at three o’clock one morning in June 1915.
At the same time a young man educated at the English college, Simla, and at Stratford-on-Avon Grammar School, was flying round in an aeroplane with half a dozen bombs on board.
The enemy airship, said to be either of the Zeppelin or Schutte-Lanz type - but in either event a large one, for she had eighteen gas compartments - was returning from a scouting trip along the Belgian coast.
The commander of the airship saw a tiny monoplane - a Morane - and, realizing the danger, pushed his craft higher in an attempt to reach his ceiling. His plan was to speed as fast as he could to the airship station at Gontrode, south of Ghent. He did not welcome the sight of that small monoplane, and it is likely that when he reached his ceiling he thought himself fairly secure as he pushed forward with engines full out.
But he had not reckoned with the pertinacity of Flight Sub-Lieutenant Reginald Alexander John Warneford, RNAS. Warneford knew that the airship commander would lower altitude to reach his shed and he therefore followed the ship until she began to lose height in preparation for the landing.
AWARDED THE ViCTORIA CROSS and the Cross of the Legion of Honour, Flight Sub-Lieutenant R. A. J. Warneford, of the Royal Naval Air Service, brought down an airship over enemy territory. After he had bombed the airship he had to land and repair his engine before he could return and make his report.
As the ship came lower the British pilot pulled alongside her and, while controlling his small monoplane, he fired at her repeatedly with a rifle. The airship crew, too, were provided with rifles, and they returned the attacker’s fire. In addition, the Germans had machine-guns which poured a constant stream of fire at the Englishman.
Having found that his rifle fire was rather ineffective, Warneford changed his plans and zoomed into the air to gain height over his enemy. He got above her as she was descending to make for the sheds outside the city of Ghent.
Then the drama opened in earnest. First one bomb, then another and another until all six were released, swept towards the airship.
One or more of the bombs found a home on the broad back of the ship. Some staccato explosions sent swift tremors into the air - and then a crimson glow developed into a burst of fire that swept the huge envelope from end to end.
Meanwhile, the English pilot found himself hurtled high into the air in his tiny craft, which turned completely over and began to fall on its back. The concussion of air following the explosion of the airship had flung the Morane monoplane into space as if it were no more than a piece of paper.
After a grim struggle Warneford managed to right his aeroplane - and then his engine stopped. The airship below was burning herself out on the convent of Saint Elisabeth, where women and children fought to escape. The scene was terrifying. One nun was killed outright, two were badly burned, and a man gave his life after having performed several brave rescues amid the devastation. The man, with a child in his arms, jumped from a window of the burning building; both were killed.
Flight Sub-Lieutenant Reginald A. J. Warneford, who was later to be awarded the Victoria Cross and the Cross of the Legion of Honour, still struggled valiantly with his Morane monoplane, but in the end he was forced to land in enemy country.
It appeared that the only future for him until the war was ended lay in a prison camp. He put his machine down in a lonely field, expecting to be surrounded at any moment. He worked feverishly on his motor and was prepared to set fire to his aeroplane directly he saw the inevitability of surrender. A party of Germans was heard approaching.
Every second became of vital significance to him. Could he get his engine going in time to escape? There were but a few moments between escape and captivity - moments so full of tenseness that it would be impossible to describe them adequately.
Warneford heard once again the music of his engine. Having swung the propeller himself, he scrambled into the moving aeroplane, and just before the enemy reached him he bounded into the air amid showers of rifle fire. His luck held; he flew back to report his morning’s work.
Ten days later R. A. J. Warneford was killed at Buc Aerodrome, Versailles, France, while flying a machine destined for Dunkirk. He was twenty-three years of age. He is buried in Brompton Cemetery, London.
His achievement made his name famous the world over, and his photograph was printed in papers of all nations. Made into a lantern slide, it was flashed on every cinema screen and on screens of innumerable theatres.
The name of Warneford was on everyone’s lips, for he was the first pilot to bring down a German airship. Although many other pilots were doing as useful work in other directions, there was something romantic about his particular achievement, something that excited the public’s imagination. He became the hero of the moment, and his death soon afterwards was felt as a personal loss by thousands of his countrymen.