ups and downs


June 1918

The month of June 1918 was a momentous month for me and is worthy of a chapter all to itself. First I lost my partner who was moved onto a new station.  To replace him I had a Welsh lad but sad to say we didn’t get on at all well.  It wasn’t his fault, but here we were, two temperamentally incompatible people, thrown together in these conditions, and never able to get away from each other for more than a few minutes at a time. As it turned out I was stuck with him until the fighting ended in November.  Apart from our incompatibility he was the worst case of nerves that I had come across,  and I knew that  in the case of an emergency I would be on my own.  He had a very bad stutter which made him almost useless for the job we were doing. Signals from the aircraft had to be phoned to the Commander in quick time but he couldn’t get them out.  It brought our “shoots” to almost complete failure. Moreover when he was on watch he was missing signals that we should have had and acted upon.  I was really worried and the upshot was that apart from mealtimes, I was doing more than my share of the stint and my ears were painful from wearing earphones for long periods.

Then out of the blue “Man Friday” appeared.  He was an Italian gunner who, in his early years, had emigrated to America and worked in the coal mines.  He was able to speak some English. His command of swear words was first class, but his knowledge of ordinary language was not too hot.  However, here was help, out of the blue, and from now on Angelo was my right hand man, and during a shoot he took on the telephone.  Angelo was a great mountain of a man, and my nearly six-foot was dwarfed by him.  He was massively built with strength to match.  I grew very fond of Angelo over the next few months, as I’m sure he did of me.  I had great sympathy for him because his wife and children were in that part of Italy occupied by the Austrians, and he couldn’t get any news of them.  By now we were Italianised.  My name was Tomasso and the Welsh lad whose name was Sylvan, became Silvio.

I was much happier now, but even that was not enough, because
I received a new uniform.  Had you forgotten how I had all this time been moving around with the seat of my breeches all torn?  When I tried the new breeches on however I couldn’t get my calves into them, they were too tight.  I knew if I sent them back it would be months before I could have another pair, so I set about doing a tailoring job and let out the seams.   It was successful, much to my surprise. Then someone decided that the British troops in Italy should wear khaki drill and topees.  While this style of clothing might be appropriate wear on the plains, it wasn’t so good at eight thousand feet.  Just to emphasise this point the day after our khaki drill arrived we experienced a blizzard.  I have never been so cold in my life.  The wind was so thin it found its way through the tiniest cracks in the hut. We wore our blankets as extra clothing and stamped around the hut all day but we were almost numbed by it. It only lasted a day, but it made me wonder what a winter would be like up here.

It was during this month that I was upgraded to Air Mechanic First Class.  This doubled my pay from two shillings to four shillings per day.  This was the very pinnacle of riches, but somehow money didn’t seem very important. How can you spend money so far from civilization.  I had heard that my old partner Robby had not been upgraded and I felt he deserved it, and not me.  I don’t know how these things are done, probably drawn out of a hat like the medals.

In my wandering on the mountainside I had found, almost on the summit, a party of Royal Engineers.  They had constructed a look-out and set up telescopes and instruments for pin-pointing enemy artillery and other useful data. I mentioned to them that we were on Italian rations and they agreed to arrange for an extra two rations,  so that we could draw our food from them.  They had a good cook and it was a great treat to be back on our accustomed diet. I have mentioned before this business of ”not belonging”.  These chaps were doing one week on the mountain and then having a weeks rest down below. We went on for ever.  I was quite happy up here and anyway it was pretty hot and not too healthy on the plains. There was no envy on my part.

There was something which had me badly worried.  Since about March things on the Western front had  been going very badly for the British and French, and the Germans were pretty close to winning the war.  It was expected that the Austrians, helped by German troops, would attempt another breakthrough on the Italian front,  and it was known that our sector would take the brunt.  In the early
hours of the morning, I think it was on the 15th June, all hell broke loose.  We were not too badly affected by shell fire except that, at half hourly intervals, a huge shell came over.  I thought it must be a twelve-inch.  Just missed us and went down to the valley below.  The first one scared the pants off us, it was like standing on a railway line with an express train coming at you. Half hour an hour later, on the dot, came another, and so it went on, each one seeming to miss the hut by a few feet and then carrying on to the valley below. Now we had the jitters a few minutes to the half hour, lay down on the floor and hoped it would pass us by. 

About midday things went ominously quiet.  As is generally the case the bombardment destroyed all means of communication and it was impossible to get any information.  I had a feeling that something had gone wrong, and that we were in dire trouble.  If the Austrians had broken through none of us could have got away. The road below us ran parallel with the front line for a few miles before going down the mountain and would have been cut by the enemy. The only other way was an eight thousand feet climb down almost vertical mountain, which was impossible. I decided that if the worst did happen, I would throw my wireless gear and papers over the top. Had I known how near I was to the true facts I would have been very worried indeed.

The Austrian/German infantry had broken through and got among our artillery positions.  The Austrian artillery could no longer fire in case they hit their own troops, and ours were being over-run. Later in the afternoon the British/French infantry counter-attacked and the position was restored. All this we learned over the next few days. I no longer felt very secure, but I now that realised that in mountainous terrain the risk of being cut off was one of the hazards.

To complete the month, on the 30th June, the Royal Flying Corps ceased to exist, and by amalgamation with the Royal Naval Air Service, the Royal Air Force came into being. It made little difference to us except that we took on new titles and from now on I was Leading Aircraftsman.

Tom Herbert’s Story  - WW1 Begins  -   Work and Play  -  R.F.C. 1917  -  Barrack Life -

To The Front Line  -  Menin Road  - Entrained  -  France to Italy  -  Montello  -  Easter -

Monte Pau  -  Angelo  - Log Cabin  -  Vittorio Veneto  -  Bordighera  -  Blighty  -  Notes  -  Links