9 April 1917 – A new offensive

The latest British offensive opened today. The attack front runs from Givenchy-en-Gohelle in the north to a point near Croisilles in the south. The capture of Vimy Ridge, the key position in the north, has been entrusted to the right of the First Army (chiefly the Canadian Corps reinforced by the 5th Division and by heavy artillery of the I Corps). The rest of the attack will be carried out by the Third Army.

The total strength of the Royal Flying Corps along the whole front of the First and Third Armies is 25 squadrons, with 365 serviceable aeroplanes of which a third are single-seater fighters (56 Squadron will also be available shortly with its SE5 fighters). The German Sixth Army in opposition has an air strength of eighteen reconnaissance and artillery flights, five fighter flights, and seven protection flights, comprising a total of 195 aeroplanes, with alsomost half being fighters. That said, the German aircraft (and the fighters in particular are superior to the British, and have been in place in numbers since the autumn of 1916 giving the German pilots plenty of time to learn appropriate tactics. The British are bringing on a number of new types on stream but these are untested in combat.

The plan of attack followed a series of short advances, the capture of each successive objective being timed in accordance with a pre-arranged programme. Under this programme contact patrol aeroplanes (A variety of BE types) from 12, 13 and 16 Squadrons flew over the front to detect and report on progress which would be signalled by flares in response to Klaxxon horns sounded by the aircraft.

Aircraft were up from 0600 to follow the advance which took place in snowy conditions. The aircraft nevertheless were able to report progress and points of enemy resistance and most of the objectives were taken by the end of the day. Despite this intensive activity only one aircraft went missing, that of 2nd Lieutenant Ernest Buxton Smyth and 2nd Lieutenant S Cooper from 16 Squadron who were hit by a shell in BE2g 6818 and crashed in no-mans land (in the end they were found wounded in an abandoned German dugout a few days later when the advance continued).

Their colleagues 2nd Lieutenants Vernon Forster Stewart and George Ronald Yorston Stout were shot up and crashed, writing off their BE2f (2550) – both men were unharmed though.

12 Squadron wrote off two of its BE2e’s. Lieutenant Norman Thirmbeck Croft and Lieutenant John McDougall Musson crashed BE2e A3159 after being shot through by machine -gun fire. More prosaically, Lieutenant George Hall Gordon and Lieutenant Lionel Baker-Jones crashed their BE2e (7078) when they were caught by a gust of wind on landing.

Finally 13 Squadron had 6 of its aircraft destroyed. Lieutenant Kenneth Capel (Ok) & Lieutenant Jack Brooker crashed and wrote off BE2c 4493 after a forced landing. Lieutenant Douglas Herbert Bell and Captain W W Boyd did the same to their BE2d (5875). Lieutenant Frederick Albert Victor Cook and Lieutenant John Edward Albert Robertson Daly crashed their BE2c 5437 in no-mans land after being hit by machine gun fire. Lieutenant John Hamilton Norton and Captain Theodore Laird Tibbs, also crashed in no-mans land after bing hit by artillery fire. Both aircraft were destroyed. In the end though, all four crews survived unhurt.

The other two were lost when they overturned on the aerodrome on take off. Lieutenant Eric Redgrave Gunner and Lieutenant Cecil Curtis in BE2e (A2867) and Lieutenant Leslie Robin Neville and Lieutenant William Ewart Wittrick Cushing in BE2e (6262) were the guilty parties.

teaserbox_12539183In the end there were only two fatalities during the day when observer Lieutenant Harold George Collins from 48 Squadron was killed on patrol. His pilot Lieutenant John Herbert Towne Letts got their Bristol F2B (A3315) back. They also claimed to have shot down two Albatrosses. Also Lieutenant Johannes Hieronymus Brink from 4 Squadron was wounded and later died when he and his observer Lieutenant Robert Ellis Heath (who was wounded) were shot down and crashed in their BE2d 5742 This has traditionally been allocated to Leutnant Karl Schaeffer from Jasta 11 but this seems unlikely as he was serving on a different part of the front at the time.

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