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ARCHIVED - Oral Histories of the First World War:
Veterans 1914-1918

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Graphical element: Rendering first aid to a wounded Canadian soldier

War in the Air

In this section:

Interview with Robert Leckie: Royal Naval Air Service Flying Corps
Transcript Excerpt, 8 minutes, 34 seconds

Q. I suppose to the navy, was it just pure accident, that they happened to have engines on them, that would raise them above the water. What was the attitude of the navy towards the aircraft?

A. Well not very good to any aircraft at that time, it was a hard sell job to get the navy to agree that aircraft were any use at all. They did finally come around to it of course. I think the navy, any navy in any country, was a most ultra-conservative organization. I think the reason the navy achieved the flying boat was a young officer, a regular naval officer called John C. Port became interested in aviation. He was allowed to proceed to the United States, where he got in touch with the Curtis Company. The flying boat - the H 12 Flying Boat - was the product of the Curtis Company. Upon his return to regular service, he was posted to an experimental and development station, at Felixstowe on the east coast of England in Harriage Harbour. There he urged the Admiralty to buy these hulls that were being developed in the United States. Finally, I think the summer of Amiens, I think they did and found that the combination of the American Hull, the English engine was a winner. The aircraft so produced was away ahead of its time. The appearance of such an aircraft in the waters that the Germans like to think were theirs that is the Bay of Filygoland brought consolation to them.

Q. How did this make itself felt, [were] the Germans dismayed at this.

A. Well first of all our submarines kept station on the exits from the mine fields protecting the Bay of Filygoland. Their duty was not so much to attack ships but to report to the Admiralty movements of German units, big units. Now you will recall that the British main base was at Scapa Flow which was very far north, all the heavy ships were kept there. It took considerable time to bring these heavy units from Scapa Flow down to the southern portion of the North Sea. If the submarines were able to report a sortie of naval ships German naval ships that might possibly have been employed on raids on our coast on some of these raids, actually that did take place. Then these submarines were performing a very vital service. Now so long as the air ships - the German Zeppelins - were permitted to patrol at 1000 feet or 2000 feet over the edges of the mine fields, our submarines were in great difficulty: they could not come to the service and they were constantly watched and hampered by the Zeppelins. After the destruction of the L22 right in that area, it was very apparent that the Germans gave orders to their Air Ship commanders to keep their ships at maximum altitude on the western edge of the Bay of Filygoland. Now at that height they could not perform effective reconnaissance service or attacks against our submarines, so the pressure on our submarines was relieved.

Q. Was the destruction of L22 the one you were describing earlier?

A. No, that was another one that took place earlier.

Q. Well could you describe the circumstances of the destruction on L22?

A. L 22 was destroyed under the circumstances I described. She was patrolling at a comparatively low altitude on the edge of the Bay of Filygoland and we had been sent out on a ground patrol. As usual and on a very bad day with heavy banks of clouds in the west. Taking advantage of that cloud cover, I don't know that we took advantage of it consciously. We were simply flying in them but the L22 was silhouetted against the rising sun and the light in the east and made our approach, toward Zeppelin fairly easy. In fact it is the only time I ever had a margin of height on a Zeppelin, this time I had to lose height and I think we took them completely by surprise. I doubt very much if they even saw us until the attack.

Q. Did you attack from above?

A. We attacked them from above and behind and I had lots of height and ample speed and came up very close to them about 20 feet beneath them. Our front gunner poured the contents of two guns into them and set them on fire.

Q. What does a Zeppelin look like when it is on fire?

A. A thing of exquisite beauty, I never did see a Zeppelin in the air without being thrilled by the sheer beauty of the ship. It was a thing to marvel at, exquisite beauty. On the two occasions I was fortunate or successful in my attacks instead of feeling exaltation, I felt a feeling of horror that I had destroyed such a beautiful thing.

Q. How does it burn?

A. Unbelievable fire, because of a million cubic feet of gas going up simultaneously, lights the sky at night up ten miles around and the clouds. I think the only thing one could liken it to would be dumping a bomb.

Q. Do the bullets from the guns ignite the gas?

A. They were specially made explosive bullets that were designed for this purpose, bock, paloy, tracers, the three types of shells we used and at the percussion cap on the nose of the bullets. When heated by the friction of the air or the explosive force of the explosion this cap would ignite on fire even on contact with so thin a thing as fabric. It was absolutely necessary to concentrate fire and have the gas from the Zeppelins mixed with air, before you could start the fire. Just firing at a Zeppelin was no good, the bullets went through it and did not ignite the gas. It took us a long time to find out about these things, and I have since done so. I have since heard the reports from the various German commanders some of whom I attacked. Their story of the attack and mine side by side make very interesting reading, curious and a matter for comment. How easily one is led into error with the best intention in the world, which make statements which ultimately prove to be not quite true.