Lee, Arthur Gould: No Parachute: a Fighter Pilot in World War 1

The proposer of this book likes military history, but has only recently been reading about the war in the air. A friend had recommended this book as being the very best account of aerial combat during World War I. It is based on real diary extracts and letters of the 22-year old pilot (now the author), written to his young wife in the periods between skirmishes over the trenches in search of the Hun.

We noted that many years elapsed between the events described and the publication of the book in 1968, and we guess there has been much editing and lapses of memory, with perhaps a stiffening of the author’s opinion. Perhaps even some exaggeration? On the other hand a letter to a loved one at home might accentuate the positive and gloss over some of the horrors (which would likely be removed by the censors). But horrors are there aplenty, and excitement too: at times the book resembles tales of that Boys Own favourite, Biggles but the action in No Parachute is real not imagined, and relates to action in the skies over the famous arenas of war: the Ypres Front, the Battle of Messines, the Third Battle of Ypres, the Arras Front and the very important Battle of Cambrai.

It seems that Britain started making fighter aircraft too late. At the start of the war, aircraft were designed for reconnaissance, and especially for artillery observation.  Later, came the first real ‘fighters’: faster and more manoeuvrable, still doing reconnaissance work but also targeting enemy aircraft, strafing ground positions and going after tanks. This was the first time in history where aircraft fought each other, and so commanders and crew had scant idea of how to go about their task. Most pilots learned their skills ‘on the job’, with only basic prior training with no notion of the horrors of combat. British pilots received only 15-20 hours of flying experience before being posted to a squadron and being thrown into battle.

The diary begins on 18th May 1917 following a period when British planes were distinctly inferior to those being made in Germany and France. Casualties in the preceding April, known as ‘Bloody April’ had been especially high, and morale in the squadrons was low. The best British fighter plane at the start of the diary was the Sopworth Pup, which came into service in Autumn 1916 but had been outclassed by the latest German aircraft. The Pup was no match for the Fokker Triplane in the skilled hands of the Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen and his ‘circus’ of highly experienced pilots. For example, the Fokker’s guns could fire rapidly through the arc of the propeller, but the Pup’s could not. Our pilots were aware that they were vulnerable, and wondered how long it would be before a better aircraft with decent weaponry would emerge, whilst young pilots with their all-too-brief training were being killed every day (at least, when weather permitted flying; often it didn’t). Overall, casualties on the British side were four times more than on the German side. The psychological challenge for pilots was immense: they were pitted against a superior force and they often questioned the ‘why?’ of war, having little notion of the strategic aspect of the ground fighting going on in the trenches below. But, by November squadron 46 (Lee’s squadron) received the first of the Pup’s successor, the Sopwith Camel. In good hands this was a much better fighting aircraft, being fast, manoeverable and with synchronised guns. It wasn’t perfect: the mass of the rotary engine was large in relation to the aircraft’s body, and so there was a tendency of the aircraft to twist and crash on take-off. Thus many novice pilots died before even becoming airborne.  One source claims that 413 pilots died in combat and a further 385 pilots died from non-combat related causes.

Pilots were hit and frequently crashed, sometimes scrambling out of the broken plane to the safety of allied forces and sometimes being taken as a prisoner of war. On other occasions they became ‘flamers’, and died in scorching agony or jumped from the plane to certain death. There was ‘no parachute’ and the author frequently asks ‘why?’. One belief was that the authorities in London thought pilots might bale out unnecessarily, thus wasting an aircraft.

Our author-pilot seems to have been a miraculous survivor, a statistical outlier. He has many near scrapes, his uniform is frequently holed (once the fuel tank is ruptured), his aircraft is often holed too, his joystick is hit, he survives many mechanical failures of the aircraft, and his gun frequently seizes up. He attributes his skill as a pilot to a longer training period than most – injury having delayed his transfer from training ground to active service. However, he takes rather a long time to claim his first kill, and altogether his tally is rather modest, only seven. Nevertheless he received the Military Cross and rose to the rank of Captain. After the War he served in the newly formed Royal Air Force, eventually becoming an Air Vice Marshall.

The pilots – the ‘chaps’ or ‘fellows’ as they are generally called – have spare time when the weather is bad. They gather in the Mess, they sing bawdy songs – probably more bawdy than the ones published in the book – they binge-drink heavily and have headaches in the morning. They are mournful when their comrades are killed (the average survival of these pilots was only three weeks). Flying low, they see the wretched state of soldiers in the trenches and they feel thankful not to be one of them.

Indeed, flying these single-seater ‘kites’ could be fun, and the pilots experienced the great thrills of looping, the elation of fine-weather flying with blue sky above and ‘white lambswool clouds’ below, and the satisfaction of a perfect landing. It was cold up there, the cockpit was open to the weather, limbs and hands became numb. However, the Officers’ Mess was warm and cosy, a place of comradeship where friendships were formed, stories traded and backs slapped after a successful sortie.

We found the adventures riveting. We became engrossed and wondered how we ourselves would have fared in the cockpit of a Pup or Camel. One member had brought with him one of his own Biggles books, circa 1956, and we reflected on the differences between the Biggles author WE Johns and our No Parachute author AG Lee. It’s all there in Wikipedia. We learn that Johns, in contrast to Lee, was a very unlucky pilot, breaking several aircraft, and subsequently (or perhaps consequently) becoming an instructor. After brief active service he was shot down and became a prisoner of war. After the war he was a recruiting officer, but he famously rejected an application from TE Lawrence (of Arabia). All that’s a digression, but we in the book group are used to digressions.

Another member came to the meeting with a plastic model of the Sopwith Camel, a surprisingly neat little biplane. It is easy to see how it gave the Fokkers a hard time. Over 5000 real Camels were made at the Sopwith Aviation factory in the war.  Powered by a French 130 horsepower engine (about the same power as a family car today) they could reach 117 mph, more than the Pup’s 111 mph, whereas the Red Baron’s Fokker triplane could do only a paltry 103 mph. Except for some alloy skim near the engine, Camels were made of fabric stretched over a wooden frame, hence the nickname of all such aircraft: ‘kite’.

We reflected on the difficulties of communication. The aircraft were not fitted with radio and so communication was achieved by hand signals, streamers and wing-wobbling. Ground radio did exist, and when a pilot crashed in allied territory a rescue party with technicians would arrive surprising quickly as messages could be sent. Feedback from the squadrons to the command in London may have been poor. One member pointed out that the Red Baron was better looked after, being brought home to a hero’s welcome of girls and bubbly, and encouraged to give feedback to aircraft manufacturers.

The language of the diary was ‘as expected’, but rather short of the pilots’ slang that has by now enriched the English vocabulary, sometimes to the dismay of foreigners who can’t understand what we are talking about. I tried to compose a sentence of slang to illustrate this (a good way to overcome my insomnia). What about ‘They tore a strip off him after he ditched his kite; he had caught a packet after a cock-up in a dog-fight that ended tits up’. Not poetic I admit, and I can’t find this particular sentence in the book. Probably most slang came later, from the RAF in WW2. Overall, the language sounds predominantly upper-middle class, and probably the pilots were recruited from the English public schools. I can’t verify this. Lloyd George seemed to imply they were. He said of the pilots ‘They are the knighthood of this war…they recall the legendry days of chivalry not merely by the daring of their exploits but by the nobility of their spirit’. To this eloquence, Arthur Lee replies with a Churchillian turn of phrase ‘only occasionally were these …(pilots)… scions of the knightly families of Europe. They came from every social level, from the cities and countryside, from the streets and farms and forests of lands all over the world’.

By December the tone of the writing changes. Lee was by now tired, ill, to some extent disillusioned, and perhaps shell-shocked. He’s done 118 patrols with 56 combats. The Medical Officer said Lee needs a good spell of leave, and he is relieved of duties and sent home.

In an Appendix written years later he pours scorn on the decisions made by government authorities at the War Office in London, who had no experience of fighting aircraft, and were slow to pick up technical innovations. He identifies multiple failures of high command and rivalry between War Office and Admiralty for the materials, engines and labour to supply the two separate air forces, the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS).

We enjoyed the book immensely: the thrilling encounters, the insights, and the comment on why so many pilots were killed unnecessarily.