Review by Peter L. Belmonte
Night flying and aerial bombardment were both in their infancy during World War I. Contemporary airplanes lacked the navigation instruments that would have made those missions so much easier and safer. The men who conducted night bombing raids were, then, truly aviation pioneers. Thus this memoir of such a pilot is a valuable account of the air war. New Zealand native A. R. Kingsford first published his fascinating memoir in 1930. This reprint includes the original unabridged text plus a few extra illustrations provided by Kingsford’s son.
Kingsford writes in an informal style; it is almost as if the reader were sitting in a British pub having a pint with the author as he recounts his flying experience. For example, Kingsford rarely mentions both the first and last name of squadron mates. Instead, his narrative is chock full of references to Rooty, Little Box, Albu, Bright Eyes, Reid, Jeffrey, Stoney, Alf, and Hughie. Too, the author avoids almost all mention of specific dates of flights or campaigns, making reference only in the most general way to the German offensives that began in the spring of 1918, for example. This helps the reading to go smoothly and enables the reader to concentrate on Kingsford’s flying experiences.
The author was an enlisted soldier in the Middle East before he was accepted for pilot training and began training in England. After his graduation, he was assigned to Home Defense flying missions against raiding German Zeppelins. Tired of seeing action only against the airships, Kingsford applied for and was granted a transfer to 100 Squadron. Based in France, the squadron conducted reprisal rides against German targets. Through most of his stint in France, Kingsford flew FE2b and FE2c aircraft. Only during the last few months of the war did the squadron receive the much larger and slower Handley Page bombers.
The author’s accounts of his missions help us to understand the perils of night flying in 1917 and 1918. Even without enemy interference, these missions would have been hazardous; throw in German anti-aircraft fire and one gets the feel of danger on every mission. On one mission, a bomb failed to properly release from Kingsford’s aircraft. He tells us what happened next:
Telling me to keep the machine steady, Bourney [Kingsford’s observer] climbed out of the nacelle in the darkness on to the lower plane and laying flat, he released the bomb from the rack and calmly climbed back. A false step would have meant Bourney’s exit from this world, but it was all in the night’s work to him. Back in the mess, I shouted him a spot [bought him a drink] for a plucky effort, and he made me promise not to tell the boys – he was no glory seeker. [p. 112]
These were brave young men indeed. As an interesting commentary on the youth of these pioneer combat aviators, Kingsford mentions two occasions when the men celebrated the twentieth birthday party of one of their squadron mates.One continuing theme is the strain of night bombing duty. As Kingsford says in an understated way, “[n]ight flying under War conditions is a nerve-wracking, strenuous game” (p. 112). More than once he recounts the names of men who “failed to return” to base after a mission. Soon he, with others, assumed a certain fatalistic attitude; one did one’s duty and hoped for the best.
Kingsford also recounts his exploits while off duty or on leave. While these are not full of debauchery, they do involve alcohol consumption and at least casual, if not intimate, dalliances with women. In one humorous passage, Kingsford describes how he and a friend got a manicure from a pretty French girl: “I’d never let vanity get the upper hand of me before, but this was different, and no man could refuse to have such a chic little bit of goods fiddling round him. We spent an hour or more there, but drew the line when she wanted to do out toe-nails” (p. 74). One certainly cannot begrudge young men engaged in such dangerous flying duty some fun once in a while.
The book includes artistic renderings of a few of the episodes recounted in the memoir plus four photographs of Kingsford. Although the author doesn’t cover the actual “mechanics” of flying these aircraft in detail, aviation enthusiasts will enjoy descriptions of aircraft attempting to land in the dark, trying desperately to evade searchlights, searching for a lighthouse navigation aid, and dropping bombs on landing German Gotha bombers. This is a welcome reprint and is highly recommended to those interested in World War I air combat and bombing missions.A. R. Kingsford.
Peter L. Belmonte is a retired U.S. Air Force officer, author, and historian. A veteran of Operation Desert Storm, he holds a master’s degree in history from California State University, Stanislaus. He has published articles, book chapters, reviews, and papers about immigration and military history. Pete’s books include: Italian Americans in World War II (Arcadia, 2001), Days of Perfect Hell: The U.S. 26th Infantry Regiment in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, October-November, 1918 (Schiffer, 2015), Forgotten Soldiers of World War I: America’s Immigrant Doughboys (with Alexander F. Barnes, Schiffer, 2018), Play Ball! Doughboys and Baseball during the Great War (with co-authors Alexander F. Barnes and Samuel O. Barnes, Schiffer Books, 2019), United States Army Depot Brigades in World War I (with co-author Alexander F. Barnes, McFarland Publishers, 2021), and Chicago-Area Italians in World War I: A Case Study of Calabrians (Fonthill Media, 2019). He is also working on a multi-volume history of Italian Americans in World War I. You may see his books at his webpage: https://www.amazon.com/author/peter.belmonte.