In the thick of the action

HOME leave for Albert Ball was not a totally happy affair. Perhaps it was the battle fatigue of four months continuous flying, family tensions or a mixture of both that led him to write, from Folkestone en route to France, on June 22:

"Just a line before leaving dear old England again. You have been dears during my leave and have put up with such a lot I shall never forget your kindness. Don't forget if I say mad things I never mean them.

"Re Thelma [Starr, Albert's latest girlfriend]. I love her very much. I know she's a bit full of life but I think she will cool down for me. Now if you ever get to know anything [about her], do always tell me. I trust her but I know even the strongest have weak moments, She's not one of the strongest. Nor am I."

Albert was soon back in the thick of the action writing, on June 27, that he had "only just missed being done in today".

"I was on the two o'clock patrol. Over the lines I saw a lot of transport etc in a wood and went to have a good look so I could report the place. The old Huns did not like it. They surrounded us with shells, archie guns and at last we were hit.

"One of my cylinders was smashed and the machine got a few [bullets] through it. One only just missed my leg. The engine stopped but I saw what I went down to see and also managed to get my machine far enough over our lines to prevent the old fools from shelling it."

The full horrors of war were never far away, however. Albert learned that a good friend had been killed in his machine while he had been on leave in Nottingham and he reported that the squadron eventually had just four Scout pilots left.

ON one of his missions, Albert brought down a German balloon but had his engine badly damaged by enemy fire - "I had to come back from Hunland at half speed and only a few feet up. My machine was hit badly. I have enclosed one of the bullets"

July 1, 1916, was a day to remember in more ways than one, The British suffered appalling casualties at the beginning of the Battle of the Somme and Albert Ball who flew for 17 hours in support of the men on the ground, was notified he had been awarded the Military Cross.

He passed on the news to his parents with characteristic understatement:

"In a few weeks I get four days leave in order to be decorated by the dear old King ... enough about the MC for I don't want to bore you."

Triumph mingles with disappointment for Nottingham's Albert Ball, flying ace hero of World War One, as JOHN HOLT continues to chronicle the progress of the fighter pilot through his letters home to his parents

The French press took a great interest in Albert Ball' as news of his exploits began to spread.

In July he wrote that he had "six machines and one balloon to my credit".

The total was undoubtedly more than that but Albert was modest about his claims which had to be officially witnessed. If he thought that a plane or balloon had not been properly destroyed, he did not add it to his tally.

Even after he lost four close friends in one day, he wrote:

"You ask me to let the devils have it when I fight. Yes, I always let them have all I can but really I don't think them devils. I only scrap because it is my duty so I do not think anything bad about the Hun. He is just a good chap with very little guts trying to do his best. Nothing makes me feel more rotten than to see them go down but you see it is either them or me so I must do my best to make it a case of them."

News of his exploits began to spread. The French newspapers were interested in him, alerting the British press that the country could have a new hero on its hands.

Even the leading French air ace of the time sent his autograph book for Albert to inscribe. (A few days later, his father tried a similar move. Albert replied he had "no time for such things").

Albert's thoughts, however, returned to the misery of is home leave.

"Was I not a silly little ass when on leave? Ever since, I have been asking God to have another chance to come and really make my people happy. You know I always wish it but my mad ways always upset things."

Although he fought a very intense and almost personal war - which, once again, was beginning to take its toll on his nervous system - Albert never demonstrated the cut-throat approach of some of his colleagues and the armchair generals back at home. .

His father wrote back asking if it would be long before he could rise to something other than a Second Lieutenant and if he could pass on details of his son's exploits to the newspapers.

"Oh, I never rush round trying to get promotion," Albert replied. "All I want is plenty of good work to do. I am very satisfied.

"Re letting the papers have my wires; if you wish to let them see them I don't object but if they put in any bosh I shall be more than wild.

"I like doing things but I don't like big songs. If they wish to say that I have downed five machines and a balloon all well and good but nothing else must be put in." .

On July 16, Albert rose at 5 am and carried out 12 flights throughout a long day.

"At last nature is asking to have its own way. However I am not done yet and they are sending me to do instruction for a short time."

That final comment shrouded Albert's

true feelings about what had happened.

Totally worn out, he asked the top brass for a day or two's rest from the grind of patrols.

THE response, despite the efforts of one or two sympathetic majors, was to send him back to 8 Squadron - and back to the BE2c machines and artillery flights he hated. It was, to all intent and purposes, a demotion, presumably to repay his temerity in asking for a well-earned break. He wrote to his parents on July 19:

"I am now getting a taste of real Army thanks. I was feeling very rotten and my nerves were quite bad

."Naturally I cannot keep on forever ... General Higgins has sent me back to BE2cs. This is thanks after my work and not even the major can stop it.

" Three majors have done their best but they all think it a cad's trick. I think I shall ask to go back to my regiment. Will you advise me?"

THE letters and other memorabilia of Albert Ball VC were bequeathed to the City of Nottingham in 1985 by his sister, Mrs Lois Anderson, and are now deposited in the Nottinghamshire Archives Office, Castle Meadow Road, Nottingham. Extracts from the letters are reproduced by permission of the Principal Archivist.

Nine days later, Albert grabbed his chance to make his point by volunteering to try to land a spy behind enemy lines. The operation had been attempted, unsuccessfully, over the previous six weeks and, after considerable haggling, Albert was allowed to have a go.

He described the operation in a letter:

"At 8pm, I started out with the spy in my machine. We got over the lines and after a few seconds three Fokkers came after us. We had no gun for the machine could not carry his luggage etc and a gun so we had to dodge the beasts. At least it was so dark they could not see us.

ROCKETS were sent up to try to set us on fire. Oh, it was nice, I really did think the end had come.

"The planes were lit up with flashes.

We found a landing place and I started down. Everything had to be done quickly or we would have been caught but we got down. .

"Picture my temper when we landed; the spy would not get out. The Fokkers j had frightened him and he would not risk. it.

''There was nothing to do but get off again before the Huns came along and stopped us, I went down three times after this but the rotter refused to do his part so we had to return.

"Oh I was cross after taking so much risk for nothing."

After another two weeks in the BE2c - in which he continued to bring down aircraft and balloons when returning from bombing raids - Albert got his due reward for his bravery when he was told to return to 11 Squadron.

On August 14 he wrote with typical bluntness:

"I was surprised to hear that it is my birthday and oh it is a happy one. Major Hubbard said he had got a brand new machine for me ... I think it has done me good to be here and know artillery works and bombing. All this helps to make you a good flying officer.

NEXT MONDAY: Read how the final nine months in the life of Albert Ball bordered on Hollywood fantasy