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To The King!

 by Lt. Col. Michael A. Buck, USAF (Ret.), Former Commander 186th Fighter Squadron

A History of the 186th Aero Squadron in the Great War, Part 2

16 February – 27 August 1918

“We landed a bit short” A less-than-textbook landing in an Avro: 186th Aero Squadron training at Oxford, England

Immediately upon the squadron’s arrival in Liverpool, three men were admitted to the hospital, two for measles and the other for suspected meningitis.  The remainder left Liverpool the same day, proceeding to Camp Woodley in Romsey, England, arriving late that night.  The squadron spent the next ten days under quarantine.  While at Romsey the squadron was split into four flights (A, B, C, and D) and sent to different posts in England to receive training by the Royal Air Force. 

B Flight traveled to Castle Bromwich, Birmingham, in command of Lt. Walker.  During the flight’s stay in Castle Bromwich, mumps developed and the entire flight was placed under quarantine for three weeks, during which time they were put to work on a farm.  Flight members participated in the Allied parade in the city of Birmingham, given in honor of the Red Cross.

 

C and D Flights were sent to Rendcombe Aerodrome, near Cirencester, in command of Lt. Lindall where they were turned over to Lt. Herbert F. Guenther, officer in charge of all American personnel stationed there. 

On 5 April 1918 B Flight joined C and D Flights at Rendcombe.  These three flights next transferred to Cheltenham, England on July 4th and were entertained by the townspeople.  While at Cheltenham, a baseball game was played between the 186th and the 199th Aero Squadrons, both of which were guests of the town.

Still under the command of Lt. Zapf, A Flight was initially stationed at Lilbourne, near Rugby.  On 5 April 1918 A Flight was transferred to Port Meadow Aerodrome, Oxford, England, at which time Lt. Zapf was relieved of command of the 186th by Lt. Ray Traxler.  By the time the 186th arrived, Port Meadow was the site of feverish training activity.  It was here that 186th aero squadron’s mechanics and pilots, whose only experience was with trainers, would learn to maintain and operate combat aircraft. 

For centuries, Port Meadow had been used as common grazing land.  The Great War was not considered sufficient cause to upset that tradition, so the first job every morning was to drive the cattle off the airfield and onto Wolvercote Common to allow flying to begin.  As trainees could eventually find themselves in any combat role, the basics of all aspects of aerial combat were covered, including air-to-air, air-to-ground, and observation.  For air-to-ground firing, the silhouette of an airplane (complete with German crosses fashioned from planks) was laid out on the meadow in chalk lumps. 

Even more than today, flying was a risky business.  In all, thirteen aviators would die in training at Port Meadow during the war.  Many deaths were due to inexperience, but death came to even the most seasoned combat veterans.  The Scottish Ace, Captain George Edwin Thomson of Number 46 Squadron, scored 15 of his 21 victories during March of 1918 alone and been awarded the Military Cross.  He was returned to England and assigned to Port Meadow as an instructor due his experience and to grant him a well-earned rest.  On 23 May 1918 he was killed during takeoff at Port Meadow when his aircraft caught fire and crashed in full view of 186th personnel.

Despite the hectic pace and frequent fatalities, the Royal Flying Corps maintained its sense of decorum, and American pilots found themselves immersed in British military culture.  Lieutenant Amos Mathews recalled, “The instruction squadron that I was attached to was very nicely quartered, and lived like gentlemen.  We had our meals together in a big dining room; the staff would sit at the head table.  About once a week, on some ceremonial occasion- somebody’s birthday, or some anniversary or something- we would all be assembled and the Major would raise his glass and say “Gentlemen: to the King.”  And we’d all drink to the King, and sit down very solemnly.  Sometime later in France, a friend of mine ran into a little difficulty with his top brass, a Colonel, who said “Don’t you know anything about military courtesy?” and this fellow clicked his heels and said, “Sir, I was trained by the British, and all I know about military courtesy is how to drink to the King.”

While the squadron was in England they received instruction with different types of English planes- Bristol Fighters, B.E.2E, Avro 504s, D.H. 6s, Sopwith Camels and Pups, S.E. 5s and R.E. 8s. 

A mechanic remarked that “This instruction was all practical; the men worked on the planes and were made responsible for their upkeep and efficiency.” 

Amos Mathews had fond memories of the R.E. 8.  Decades later, he recalled, “The first combat plane I had a ride on- I had any instruction on- was an R.E. 8.  The “R.E.” stood for “Reconnaissance Experiment,” and it was a very successful observation plane- mapping, and observing and that sort of thing- because of her great stability.  Stories were told of pilot and observer being killed, and the R.E. 8 ran level until it ran out of gas-  then it gently let itself down, being found behind the English lines with the pilot and observer both shot to death, but with the plane intact.”

Due to a shortage of English doctors, 186th surgeon Lieutenant Harry F. Erwin found that he was the only physician at Port Meadow available to care for the men of the squadron.   Still, the men’s health must have been excellent, because Erwin wrote home that he had “covered almost the entire island on furloughs.”  He described the country as “beautiful and interesting, if not made more so by historical attachments.”  He also noted the food shortages with which the British people were quietly coping, due to the needs of the war effort and also to the relentless German submarine attacks on Allied shipping.  In fact, the men of the 186th were so struck by the hardships suffered by the citizens of their host country that the squadron adopted as its mascot a bright, curly-headed English boy named Loveridge, whose parents had been killed in an air raid in October of 1917.  

While the 186th was being readied for war, the needs of the operational squadrons fighting in France slowly drained the unit’s cadre of aviators and medics; ultimately all of the flying and medical personnel originally assigned to the 186th were transferred out.  It was hoped that they would be replaced soon after the squadron’s arrival in France.

In anticipation of the difficulty that could lie ahead in finding enough qualified officer aviators to fully man the squadron, Private Gus Beck, along with other enlisted men of the 186th, was given familiarization rides and rudimentary training in the tasks expected of an Observer.  Beck became known as “The Flying Dutchman” and walked away from more than one crash during his training at Port Meadow.

On 17 August 1918 all flights were reassembled in Winchester, and equipped for duty in France.  The squadron handed the task of watching out for the young orphan Loveridge to the 153rd Aero Squadron.  The 186th then traveled to South Hampton on 23 August, where they awaited transportation across the Channel.  The squadron embarked on board the S.S. Yale on 27 August 1918 and then disembarked at Le Havre, France the next morning.  One squadron member wrote, “The trip was uneventful; no submarines, no German Fleet, no sea monsters.”