The People News, a free newspaper serving Cleveland Tennessee (TN) and Bradley County Tennessee (Tn).

Of Bradley County Tn.

MAY  2010

                            The People News, a free newspaper serving Cleveland and Bradley County Tn.






The Mad Major

Bizarre, Fascinating, and Wacky World War I & ll Secrets.

by Cecil Owen

The British airplane came screaming downtown out of the clouds, with the engine wide open. The pilot has just spotted a German albatross fighter plane fighting below.

Then, the British pilot does a very peculiar maneuver. He does not shoot at the German plane, but flies in very close. He can even see the surprised look on the German pilot's face. He just smiles and waves as he buzzes past.

The German albatross is a one man fighter plane, with a straight six 160 horse power engine. In fact, this was one of the red baron's favorite war machines. (The Red Baron, Rittmeister Manfred Freiherr Von Richthofen). But, the British plane is a larger and slower two seater, with a V8 70 horse power engine, when wide open the small V8 could only manage 80 miles per hour. So it was not any kind of match against the albatross speed of 108 miles per hour. However, many times in a dog fight, it was not the capabilities of the plane that mattered, but the skill and experience of the pilot who won the victory. The pilot in the British BE-2 (Bleriot Experimental Number Two) was an exception. So was his BE-2 airplane. It had two large British flags, called Union Jacks, painted on both sides of the fuselage. There were several large holes, one just behind the pilot, in the plane's body. The wings and the tail were riddled with several sizes of bullet holes. Pieces of fabric were loose and flapping on the lower edges of the wings. The BE-2 was a horrible looking patched up monstrosity looking piece of junk. Even the instrument gauges were shot to bits and useless.

Actually, the plane was not made to be a fighter. It was supposed to be used for bombing or reconnaissance. During the first year of the great war (WWI) everything about the war bird airplane was very primitive. If a plane was on a recon mission, this is how the pilot would signal back his information. It was a chemical smoke system that used a battery of the twelve small glass bottles. These were contained in a wire rack within easy reach of the operator. The bottles contained a liquid which exploded five seconds after the cork lid was opened. This emitted a little round puff of smoke, or a short trail of smoke. The smoke puffs were dots, and the smoke trails were dashes. That way the pilot talked back to a faraway land battery, with dots and dashes of smoke. This method was what they called aerial telegraphing. This told the spotters that their shots were too high, too low, too far to the right or left, and also gave them the exact range.

Cecil Owen

Also, when the war first began, the airplanes did not even have machine guns. The pilots began using pistols, then shotguns, carbines, and even deer rifles. In one dog fight between two seater war planes, the German and British observers used shotguns and pistols. They both ran out of bullets, and tried to set the other plane on fire with their very pistols (signal flare guns). When the two seater British BE-2 was used as a bomber, the method was just as primitive.

First, There were steel darts about six inches long. These were much like the darts we use today when we play darts with a dart board. These steel darts were held in the observer's hand. Then, he aimed them and tossed the darts over the side of the airplane. Some bombers dropped cans of gasoline, hoping they would bust open and catch fire. Tins of TNT were also tried, wrapped in tar covered rope. The French tried using a shrapnel shell from a ground artillery gun. It was supposed to hit the ground and explode. But sometimes the shell would explode as the airplane was taking off.

Finally, the British Air Force made some 20lb aerial bombs, but still had to drop them over the side.

Last, but not least, some bright fellow installed bomb racks.

Now it is time for the pilot of our BE-2 to come into focus. He was perhaps the first of the famous British aces of World War One. He liked to be called the "Mad Major" of the La Gorge airdrome.

He was stationed at the La Gorge airdrome near Lestrem, France, but actually his name was Captain A.A.B. Thompson. No one ever knew what the initials stood for. He was a wisp of a man, tall and lanky. Some said he was over lean, but actually he was very bony and skinny, like a scarecrow. Some of the other pilots claimed if he turned sideways, you could not even see him. Remember the Halloween story about the headless horseman and the frightened school teacher, Ichabod Crane? That was a picture of captain Thompson, except he was not afraid of anybody or anything. There was a rumor that he had been a scholar or a school teacher. Very little was really known about the mad major, as he was a loner. He didn't mix very well with the other pilots. When they went to town to get drunk, or find a woman, he would refuse to go with them. They didn't know if he was married, or ever had a girlfriend. In fact, captain Thompson would not even live in the barracks with the other pilots. He lived by himself in a ruined house near the airfield. His house was in about the same shape as his airplanes - a patched up monstrosity.

The mad major had an unusual hobby for a fighter pilot, he was a bonified bookworm. He loved to fly and loved to dog fight the hated Huns. But, his next love was to have his nose stuck in a book. Boxes and boxes of books were stacked in his ramshackle old house. The myths and epics of the Greeks, the Romans and the Vikings are his favorite subjects.

Sometimes before retiring for the night, he drank several glasses of gin. This made him want to talk, so he would go to the officers mess bar. There he would give a low-voiced monologue about Vulcan, Thor, or war with Troy.

As dawn broke, the mad major walked toward his waiting BE-2 war bird, with his schoolmasters gait. He would be reading one of his books, turning pages as he went.  He would then stop to finish a paragraph before handing the book to his mechanic, who would mark the page and place it in a storage box.

The captain was certainly a peculiar person, or oddball to most of his fellow flyers. He was mad at the world for having a world war, that disrupted his life. He was especially mad at the Germans, called Huns, heinies, boches, krauts, square heads, and fritz. The British were called Englanders, tommies, or limeys. The Americans were called yanks, doughboys, or colonials.

Captain Thomson liked to go up alone at the crack of dawn. His mechanic had to make sure the BE-2 was ready to fly and warmed up. Especially making sure it was patched up from the last day's escapade. The mad major liked to skim over the earth, just a few feet above the bushes or meadow grass. He was looking for dirty broche foot sluggers, gravel-crushers, slang for the German PBI (poor bloody infantry). When enemy troops were spotted he would begin strafing them. Every fourth bullet was a tracer bullet that glowed and could be seen in flight.

A tracer bullet consisted of eight parts barium peroxide, and two parts magnesium. This is why the mad major's war bird had so many holes everywhere.

Now, the La Gorge airdrome's top brass was constantly raking him over the coals for these low flying stunts. But he always gave the proper excuse for this. "Well, gentlemen, I am terribly sorry but you know how unruly these bloody air machines can be. It was out of control and wouldn't rise at all. I am awfully bloody sorry."

Now, on this particular morning when the mad major buzzed past the German albatross fighter pilot, and just smiled and waved, it made the German pilot so furious, he shook his fist at the British pilot then he swings around and begins to chase the mad major by rushing his airplane. This turns into a hound and hare chase, just over the heads of the soldiers in the trenches below. They expected to see the two planes crash, locked together in a mangled heap. Each side also picked it's target in the air, banged away at the two airplanes. As the dogfight continued, neither pilot was able to gain the advantage over the other. The two were flying in wide areas that now took them over the German lines.

Finally, the mad major flew just 20 feet behind the albatross. Then he started down in hawk like swoops,  making it clear he would ram the German ship into the ground. Many times this had happened, but if the wheels were used wrong, you had no landing gear left for your self. The captain had his pistol but didn't use it. That would be like shooting a mother plover (dove) sitting on her nest of eggs. With each swoop, the German plane is forced closer to the ground. It now became clear that the British flyer was fanatical, like a madman. So the German pilot just gave up, and landed his war bird. He leaped from the albatross, and just stood there bewildered. It was useless to run, for it was all open country. And the mad Englander was flying back to finish him off. The mad major made a swooping run over the grounded aircraft. He had just seen the Hun pilot make a "dead stick" landing, because he was out of gas. When you have to glide down, landing with a dead engine, that is a dead stick landing.

Then, the mad major pulled another peculiar stunt, he didn't harm the enemy pilot! Instead, he smiled and waved again, then headed for his home airdrome. This sure left a very puzzled enemy pilot behind.

Canvas Falcons by Stephen Longstreet
The Fighters by Thomas R. Funderburk
Aces and Aircraft of WWI  by Christopher Campbell.