Victory 64 – Clutterbuck’s account
Event ID: 547
12 March 1918
Source ID: 43
It is nine years since the greatest incident in my life happened. It finished my career as a flying officer but, as a Hun officer remarked, ‘the war is finished for you’, meaning that, being a prisoner of war, I should at least see the end of hostilities. Until I saw the copy of Richthofen’s own report, I believed that I had been brought down by one of the members of Richthofen’s celebrated circus, and had no idea that it was the famous Baron himself whom I had tried to down and who succeeded in downing me and badly wounding my observer. Every detail of the scrap is as fresh in my mind as though it happened yesterday, but I can’t begin telling it without paying my little tribute to Baron von Richthofen and the men who comprised what was known as his circus.
To my mind, they were undoubtedly the pick of the German airmen and although their methods of attack were different from our own, they were no mean adversaries, and certainly they were fine pilots, for which statement I can personally vouch. Richthofen handled his machine cleverly, was an excellent shot, and was entirely fearless….
…The fatal day for me, we set out nine strong, and after being over the lines for two hours at a height of 18.000 feet, we had not commenced operations, although the Germans had a decoy in the shape of a two-seater hovering below us, but the air had been rapidly filling with machines for some time. My great friend Lieutenant G. Gibbons was flying on my left, and suddenly I saw him go down as though to attack the large two-seater. i followed him down, and my observer, Lieutenant Sparks, M.C., as usual tested his gun, but, curiously enough one empty cartridge case flew into my cockpit and lodged down between the tank and the joy stick, which rather curtailed my movements to climb. My friend in the meantime pulled out of the dive and climbed up again, while I continued to lose height until I managed to poke the cartridge case aside. By that time, my formation was some three thousand feet above me and a long way off.
A few minutes later, the three machines that had been in our vicinity for some time attacked me, and I had a little difficulty in placing my machine in a good position for my observer, owing to their coming out of the sun; that is, they kept the sun behind them and in a line ith my machine – a position favoured by all experienced pilots.
My observer managed to get off a few bursts before he collapsed. I looked over into his cockpit and saw him huddled up, apparently dead. I quickly decided the combat was unequal and tried to withdraw. The Bristol fighters were excessively strong, and I had often dived them with the engine full on, and could always leave anything behind me in a dive.
I did so on this occasion until, glancing at my planes, I saw several of my bracing wires streaming aft. They had evidently been shot away in our little scrap. I pulled out of the dive at 4000 feet and, to my astonishment, found I was much farther over the lines than I had thought at first. I now kept the machine’s nose down and kept up a steady 140-mile streak for home, passing under numerous German machines.
Soon I discovered a machine gaining on me from above and behind. I unstrapped my belt and endeavoured to obtain my observer’s gun, but, unfortunately, was unable to reach it; otherwise I could have continued my flight home and kept the enemy machine off my tail.
Gradually but surely, owing to his height, he gained on me – a sinister demon getting closer and closer every minute. I figured I should have to interrupt my flight home and try to send him down, so when I thought he was near enough, I turned and faced him. We were now approaching each other, nearer, nearer, at a terrific pace, neither giving way on direction and neither firing until quite close, when I believe we both opened fire simultaneously. My gun, after a few rounds, jammed – a number three stoppage, which usually took about three minutes to rectify in the air.
Now my gun was out of action and my adversary’s guns were very busy. He had two of them firing through the propeller. For the moment I think I lost my head and decided to ram him head on, but he decided otherwise and passed below me a matter of a few feet. He then tried to get on my tail or in a suitable position to hit me while I decided to ram him with my undercarriage, but always he would manage to pass a few feet under me, looking up into my face. I often wonder if he divined my intentions. During these dives he would get into a burst at me while flying in a vertical turn or from various weird angles. Although my machine was heavier than his single-seater, he seemed unable then to get above me or to sit on my tail, the fatal position.
After some trying minutes of these gyrations, my forward petrol tank either gave out or he put a shot through it, so I dived again and switched over to the other tank, and was now flying about one hundred feet up, but this time I was getting nearer to the lines, and in a few minutes I would be safe. Of course, I knew my adversary would continue to follow me down, which he did, and just sat on my tail pumping lead into me.
I suppose his machine was just a few miles faster than mine, because I could not gain on him, and all the time he kept firing bursts into me. I kept kicking the rudder to alter my direction and confuse his aim. This went on for a while, and I began to hope that he would run out of ammunition when, suddenly, my observer, whom I had taken for dead, got up to his gun and started firing.
It is hard to imagine my joy. I shouted and cheered the stout fellow. Half his arm was shot away, and he had been unconscious for some time and weak from loss of blood, but he had managed to crawl up to his gun and get off a burst. It was too much for him, however, for he sank back in a heap again.
My spirits dropped as quickly as they had risen, and a few moments later my adversary had punctured my petrol tank. It was a pressure-feed, and in spite of my efforts to pump up the pressure by hand, the engine gradually petered out, and before I knew what I was doing I was on the ground among shell holes. I pancaked from about five feet and stopped with my wheels in a shell hole.
By the time I had helped my observer out of the machine, the Germans rushed out of their dugouts and took great pleasure in telling us on which side of the lines we were, and so prevented us from firing the machine. Another minute in the air and I should have been on our side of the line, as it was only two miles away.
My observer was treated with great courtesy and kindness and his wounds dressed in a near-by dugout. We have nothing but praise for the manner in which we were treated near the line. We eventually arrived at a village a few miles away, where many troops were quartered and it amused us to see them turn out their band. When we inquired the reason, we were informed it was to celebrate our capture.
My observer and I eventually parted at Le Cateau, where he went to a hospital and I to a cell to be questioned by officers. We were generously offered a dish of likely looking horse and macaroni, but had it been paté de foie gras, I am afraid we could not have eaten it at that moment. To the officer who looked after us, we tendered our best thanks for his kindness.