• A spring week in London, 1918

    Posted on March 24th, 2012 John Dorcey No comments

    It was in the spring of 1917 that Rodney Williams, like many others his age, answered the call. The Carroll College (Waukesha, Wisconsin) student joined the Air Service of the American Expeditionary Forces. Training would be a year-long adventure for Williams, a year that would see him in Wisconsin, Texas, and Ontario, Canada. Late in 1917, after assignment to the 17th US Aero Squadron, Williams shipped out from New York for advanced training in Great Britain. In Spring 1918, Rodney and other members of 17 Sqaudron were at RAF Turnberry. There they would receive advanced training in gunnery and aerial combat. Williams recorded his experiences, thoughts, and feelings in a diary dated from Winter 1917 to April 21, 1919. The Wisconsin Veterans Museum holds Williams’ 97-page, single-spaced manuscript in its archives. We share Williams’ details of a week in the spring of 1918 just as he wrote them with punctuation and spelling unchanged.

    Lt Rodney Williams AEF

    Lt Rodney Williams

    Following a train ride from RAF Ayr and Turnberry to London –

    “We arrived in London at 6:00 AM a tired and hungry lot for we had been unable to secure sleeping compartments for the journey down from Scotland. The only other alternative was sleeping (if you could) in a crowded day coach. Also we had no refreshments since tea the afternoon before, except a cup of coffee at Leeds which had scalded my mouth and tongue unmercifully. We went no further than the station restaurant to satisfy our hunger. After that we hailed a taxi and in a short time were reporting at RAF Headquarters. Here we were told to report to the Central Dispatch Pool in London. Evidently our early arrival in France was to be delayed.

    The CDP was an organization for furnishing pilots to fly machines from one place to another as needed in England and also flying new machines across the channel to France. The necessary number of pilots was secured by utilizing flying officers who had completed their training courses and were waiting for orders to proceed to France in addition to a regular staff of pilots who were resting from the strain of a six to nine month period of service at the front. Each morning the pilots on duty would report for orders where upon they would receive directions to proceed to some ‘acceptance park’ or other aerodrome, and take a machine to its proper destination, whether it be in England, Scotland, or France. Maybe a pilot would be gone several days on one trip before returning to the CDP, this was because it was necessary to return by train, or by boat and train if from France. Some times however instead of recrossing the channell by boat a large Handley-Page aeroplane would bring fifteen or sixteen pilots back at one trip thus saving anywhere from a half to a whole days time for each one.

    While stationed at the CDP (I was only there a week) I witnessed the last bombing raid that the Huns made on London. It was a warm sring evening and the streets were filled with busses, taxi cabs, and other vehicles besides the thousands of foot passengers. Tho only ten o’clock I had retired and as my bed stood beside an open window I had been lying there listening to the night sounds of the great city. It seemed as tho I could feel it pulsating like the heart beats of some mighty monster.

    When the sirens shrieked out their gastly warning I sat up in bed and leaned out of the window; almost instantly the throbbing of the night life increased in rapidity even as my own heart beats had. Motors raced by and the foot passengers hurried home or to nearby raid shelters, policemen blew their whistles and the lights began going out. Then the pulsating, which had become a virtual race, settled down to a faint murmering as of distant waters and finally absolute quiet reigned except for an occasional taxi hurrying along in the darkness or a commanding voice from the street crying, “Put out that light.” Just as the lull before the storm this period of death-like quiet is the most terrifying part of the raid. Like the ruslting of the trembling leaves when the first gust disturbs their calm and heralds in the coming downpour even so was that first shaft of light which mounting skyward stood as a signal, followed by one search light after another, here, there and everywhere until the surrounding sky seemed filled with torrents of light; some waving to and fro and some standing still, others weaving a triangular web in which they hoped to enmesh the night raiders whose Engines could now be heard droning out the familiar O’ou-O’ou-O’ou. Suddenly almost beneath my window, BANG! WHR-ish! went an anti-air craft gun and the shell whistled up, up, and then burst into numerous fiery red particles flying in every direction. Afer a few seconds the report came back – just a distant, “Oh!”

    Then BANG! BANG! BANG! went the rest of the battery and soon the air was filled with the roar of the guns and the whir of the shells as every anti-aircraft battery in and about London put up the barrage which was a very curtain of fire around the city thru which the Huns dared not penatrate. For a half hour this kept up as Hun after Hun arrived and failing to break thru the barrage dropped his bombs near the suburbs and started home ward and all this time the broken fragments of shrapnell were falling on the roofs and in the streets like hail. When the Huns started away from the barrage they were not thru however for then the night flying home defense squadrons got in their work. Little sparks of red and bluish light could be seen chasing each other across the sky in groups of 20, 30, 40 or even a hundred, and I knew them to be tracer bullets from the machine guns of the airmen aloft. After a particularly long burst of these tracers from one gun I noticed a spark in the sky as if some one had lit a match and then it began growing larger and larger till suddenly flames shot up thirty or forty feet in the air and a Hun machine came whirling down in a mass of flames. Six other raiders were brought down that night before they reached the channell. It was some 20 minutes after the last raider had departed before the “All Clear” was sounded thru the streets and then the lights were turned on and people came pouring out of the tubes (underground railway stations) where they had taken shelter. Once more traffic was resumed and the city throbbed gently on. The last raid was over (but the Huns were the only ones who knew it; it had become too costly for even those spend thrifts of frightfullness.)

    The next day I was ferrying a machine to France and while crossing Kent flew over the wreckage of one of the Gothas which had been shot down by a night flying scout. It was a huge ugly looking machine painted all black, but now badly smashed and little resembling the machine that had started out so triumphantly not twenty four hours before on its murderous mission.”

    Sopwith Camel

    Lieutenant Rodney Williams, and the 17th Aero Squadron, would eventually make it to France. He would shoot down the squadron’s first aerial victory and eventually five total victories. He would also be wounded in the thigh during his last combat sortie, spending the last weeks of the war recuperating in England.

    Returning to Wisconsin, Williams would work as a salesman and manager at the Waukesha Airport. Later, he served as manager of the Jefferson County (Wisconsin) Dairy Improvement Association, retiring in 1971. He attended several reunions of World War I aviators. He died at the Wood Veterans Home in Milwaukee in 1972. The Wisconsin Veterans Museum (Madison, Wisconsin) has on display a replica of Sopwith Camel D6595 that Williams flew while with the 17th. Williams was inducted into the Wisconsin Aviation Hall of Fame in 2002.