Today the British Fourth Army began its long awaited offensive. The Fourth Army is supported by nine RFC squadrons totaling 167 aircraft and another five squadrons in support as required. The overall strength of the RFC at this point has increased to 27 squadrons, consisting of 421 aircraft and four kite balloon squadrons consisting of a total of fourteen balloons available for observation duties.
The RFC outnumbers the German Army Service which only has 129 aircraft, and at this point the new allied aircraft types are giving the British technical superiority too.
The RFC pilots have been flying since 0400. At 0600, two DH2’s from 32 Squadron RFC piloted by Major Lionel Rees and Lieutenant John Simpson intercepted ten German bombers crossing the lines at Festubert. Simpson and Rees became separated but Simpson attacked the German formation anyway. Within seconds three enemy aircraft attacked him in turn. After a fierce exchange of machine-gun fire, Simpson’s DH 2 descended more than 5,000 feet, apparently under control. Actually Simpson was dead, having been hit eight times in the head by the accurate fire from one of the German gunners.
Rees did not witness the attack but shortly after he spotted the German formation and attacked. He held his fire until within 100 yards, then opened fire disabling two German aircraft. The remaining German aircraft turned back towards their lines. Rees gave chase and the faster DH2 soon overtook the German bombers. Rees continues the story:
“I closed, just as I was about to open fire, a shot struck me in the leg putting the leg temporarily out of action. I fired another drum, but not having complete control of the rudder, I swept the machine backwards and forwards. I finished firing about 10 yards away, and saw the observer sitting back firing straight up in the air. . . . I then recovered the use of my leg and saw the leader going towards the lines. I got within long range of him. He was firing an immense amount of ammunition. Just before he reached the lines I gave him one more drum. Having finished my ammunitions I came home.
Subsequently, contact patrols have been reporting progress back to headquarters. For example, 9 Squadron aircraft observed the 30th Division had broken into the German front line and faced little opposition. They also witnessed the 18th Division occupy Pommiers Trench and then capture Pommiers Redoubt. Another aircraft observed the flashes from mirrors on the packs of the advancing British soldiers near Montauban. The crew, Captain J. T. P Whittaker and Second Lieutenant T. E. G. Scaife, then attacked a German artillery battery and German troops occupying trenches east of the woods before breaking off the attack to observe the 16th Manchesters enter and capture Montauban.
Aerial observers, have been locating German artillery batteries who are laying down an intense barrage of their own on the advancing British infantry. The airmen sent hundreds of requests for fire, but with hundreds of bursting shells landing seemingly everywhere below them, it was impossible to give more than general corrections.
At 1400, six aircraft attacked the rail center at St. Quentin. All six were shot down, but at least they managed to damage the station and prevented a German Division from reinforcing the front.
British aircraft have flown nearly 108 hours between aLL told but there were only nine air combats between British and German aircraft with losses of 1 killed, 4 wounded and 9 missing.