Action Stations at last

ON January 29, 1916, Second Lieutenant Albert Ball officially joined the Royal Flying Corps and was posted to No 22 Squadron in

Gosport, Hampshire, where he spent a month teaching other officers how to fly with hair-raising jaunts over the sea.

The call-up to France finally came on February 15 and three days later. having arrived at the RFC base at St Omer, he wrote:

"At last we are in for sport and really look like having plenty of it. Flying the BE2c do not consider my luck very good. However I shall have a good smack."

The two-seater BE2c was considered a rather cumbersome and slow plane - certainly no match for the impressive German Fokker machine of the time - but Albert eagerly took to his reconnaissance missions.

February 23.

"I was sent on some work over the Hun lines. Oh it was sport. The Archie [anti-aircraft] guns were firing at us all the time. We were not hit but 1 am sorry to say that one of our machines was hit and brought down by a Fokker machine. The pilot and observer were killed.

"On the way back from the lines my engine went wrong and 1 had to land. 1 spent nearly all night with the machine, got it right in the end and started back at 8am. It started to snow and 1 could not see a thing so I had to land. Each time the snow stopped, 1 started up and flew a few more miles and in the end arrived back at 4.15pm.

"The Major was pleased for he did not expect me to bring the machine back in the snow. There are still two of our machines out yet and we will soon not expect to see them again."

On March 3, he described another of his now-legendary "near shaves":

"I was five miles over Hun lines to report on the station and trains. On the way back, Archie guns fired from three sides and to make it worse the old fools sent rockets to try to set our machine on fire. We were nearly back over the lines when a Fokker attacked us. The observer let fly with the gun but after two shots the beastly thing went wonky.

"I then pulled out my revolver but this also stuck. By this time, we were over our lines and the Fokker did a bunk. Rotten part is that if guns had not gone wonky we should have had a good scrap."

A few days later, he describes flying over the remnants of "huge towns"

Albert Ball (above) finally gets some of the action he craved in the skies above France as JOHN HOLT continues to chronicle the life and times of one of the First World War's most celebrated fighter pilots through his letters home to his parents

"It is really enough to make you sick with rage. Nothing but a heap of bricks and churches etc were the same. It is a sight for the gods. I went so low over the Hun lines that I could see their faces but they didn't hit me or even my machine. The lines at this place are only about ten yards apart and we just fly down the centre of no man's land and can then observe what each side is doing. "You say that you wish I could bring down a Hun machine. So do I but my machines are not for fighting and it's the Hun who comes out top. However I have got a good observer with heaps of pluck so we shall get a chance one day before very long."

After just a few weeks in France, battle fatigue soon started to show and the pilot, who was later to become known to the French airmen as "the ever-smiling one", began to feel the pressure. Hearing that his brother Cyril was planning to join the RFC, he wrote:

"Sorry that Cyril is being so foolish.

Please tell him that his regiment is the best job. I like it but nerves don't last long on this job and you soon want a rest."

In April, Albert bagged his first war souvenir, taking the prisms out of the field glasses of a German pilot who had been shot down. Meanwhile, combat reports for the previous two weeks stated that two balloons had been forced down by BE2c pilots who were officially named only when enemy aircraft were seen to crash. The pilot was, on both occasions, Albert Ball.

CHARACTERISTICALLY, however, Albert marked his successes by playfully teasing his mother in a letter home which revealed much about his intentions to come through the ordeal.

"What do you mean by saying when I come back I shall be a wiser and sadder boy or man? I may be wiser but I hope that I will have no reason to be sadder. Also there is no need for the boy or man for I went a boy and I shall return a boy.

Above, Albert writes how he' played about' in his Scout while waiting for some Hun planes to take off and challenge him to a fight

I am younger every day and it will take many years for me to lose my boyhood. I shall always be a boy and I like it."

Albert was given regular updates on his factory and showed his father's entrepreneurial flair by completing land deals with fellow pilots and officers. His dad was pleased to act as the middle man for the deals back in England.

Disenchanted with the limitations of the BE2c, Albert campaigned to be allowed to fly the faster Bristol Scout. Not only was the plane more powerful, it also allowed the pilot to take to the, skies without an observer. Albert, training to be a fighter pilot at last, was a happy if exhausted, man. He wrote in May:

"I always sing when up above the clouds. It is very nice but I am always happy.. but I am just beginning to want a few days at home."

Technical hitches continued to blight the RFC, however. (}n one mission, Albert's plane had a fault? machine gun and he ended up nearly cutting his own propeller in half.

There was good news and bad news in store. His success in the skies led to him receiving orders to join 11 Squadron at Savy Aubigny to test a new French machine, the Nieuport Scout - the plane in which he was to become a household name around Europe over the following months. The bad news was that his leave had been cancelled.

To help him relax on the ground, he created his own garden and sent home for flower and vegetable seeds. Eager to spend more time alone, he had moved into a tent near the aerodrome. The mess was three miles away but Albert had peace and quiet and the opportunity to be in the air immediately should a Hun plane have appeared.

Success soon followed. On May 16, he wrote:

"Brought down Hun Albatross at 5,000ft over his lines. I was at 12,000ft. I dived down at him and put 120 shots into the machine after which he

turned over and was completely done in. After the fight I was only 3,000 ft up and my engine was missing but with my usual luck I got back."

THERE was more bad news on May 23. He received a warrant to go on leave yet it was cancelled the very next morning due to a shortage of pilots who could fly the Nieuport. His leave had then been cancelled three times.

He "celebrated" by honing the flying skills that made him famous. An out-and-out fighter, he regularly attacked half a dozen German planes at once and like to engage the enemy in cat-and-mouse games.

"I went over to a Hun aerodrome in my Scout and played about until they sent machines up after me. I had to wait half an hour but at last I was rewarded by seeing an Albatross and Fokker being brought out '" I first went for the Albatross when it was

10,000ft up and put a drum in after which it dived back into the aerodrome having had enough.

"During this, the Fokker had gone around the rear and was sneaking up behind my tail. I waited until it was a few yards off and had opened fire then I turned round and chased.

It was so surprised it only gave me time to get three shots in. It was in such a hurry it landed in a field and would not go back to its aerodrome until I had gone. But that's enough shop for it gets so beastly always talking about our life. But I know you always like to be in the know."

Always in the back of his mind, however, was the feeling that he was not immortal. After losing some of his friends and hearing about his leave which had been finally granted for June, he wrote:

"If anything happens to me, as it quite easily may, I expect you and wish you to take it well for men tons better than me go in hundreds every day."