The ghost plane
In 1917 two Australian pilots in an RE8 fended off six German fighters, then disappeared. By John White
The weather had been bad for days. It was the early afternoon of 17 December 1917, a week before Christmas, and on the Western Front near Armentières the 21st Battalion, AIF, was holding its section of the line. The majority of the unit was in secure positions and trying to endure the cold; there were patches of snow on the ground. Forward of the main force were outposts, small groups of men in dug-outs and hollows who kept watch on the Germans opposite. The Germans, for their part, were doing much the same. The ground between the opposing forces was fairly open and flat, and only slightly damaged by artillery. There had been fog earlier in the day and there was scattered cloud now.
From behind the Australian lines came the steady drone of an aircraft, which took station a few kilometres back and some two and a half kilometres above the heads of the soldiers. It was about 2.15 pm. The distant shape was easily recognisable as an RE8 observation machine, one from No. 3 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps (AFC). Like the troops below, the crew of two were taking their turn to man the front line. The flyers’ time on station in the air was determined by the fuel carried by their plane; the routine was to patrol for several hours and carry out assigned tasks, and then go home when another aircraft took over.
From the ground below, the movements of the Australian aircraft would have been familiar. Today it was clearly directing heavy guns, sited well behind the lines. The British shells could be accurately dropped five kilometres into German territory if given good ranging. The crew of the RE8 provided that. Waiting near the battery for the flash of the guns, the pilot would then steer back to the front line, parallel to the shell’s flight path. As it neared the line the aircraft would execute a neat turn and head back to its starting point, ready for the next salvo. For 35 minutes the patient effort went on.
In the cockpit of RE8 A3816 was Lieutenant James Sandy. Apart from the serial number, his aircraft was distinguished by the individual letter “B” and a white disc that identified aircraft from No. 3 Squadron. Sandy was a busy man; in addition to flying the aircraft accurately, artillery spotting meant a lot of extra work for the pilot. On his knees was a board with a standard military map of the area. In addition to the usual gridded coordinates, it bore a series of concentric circles at the centre of which was the target. The battery below, the British 151st Siege Battery equipped with 8-inch howitzers, had the same map and was well briefed on the details of the flight.
Once the guns on the ground fired, Sandy started his watch and then turned the RE8 so that he had a clear view straight ahead. As the seconds ticked down, he scanned the ground in the target area for the shell bursts. By knowing exactly when the explosions were due, Sandy could identify the bursts from “his” guns. Once located, the distance and direction from the target would be noted on the map. The concentric circles allowed the distance from target to be easily fixed. Viewing the circles as a clock face allowed the direction to be fixed as well: for example, a shell that hit short and just to the right would be at “5 o’clock”. The RE8 carried a simple transmitter and this information could be summarised into short groups of letters and the letters broadcast to the battery using Morse code and radio. Sandy worked the Morse key as well.
Behind Sandy sat his observer, Sergeant Henry Hughes. Hughes’s head and shoulders projected into the airstream from the middle of a large metal ring mounted on top of the fuselage. The ring was a rotating gun mount to which was attached a single Lewis machine-gun. While the pilot was busy the observer kept watch on the skies around he RE8. If German aircraft began to take an interest in the slow observation plane he needed to alert the pilot and prepare for a battle. Although the observer’s gun provided the main defence of the RE8, the pilot controlled a forward-firing Vickers machinegun that sometimes came in useful.
At just after 2.50 pm, probably summoned to put an end to the shelling, a formation of six German fighters arrived. They were faster and more nimble than the RE8, and each one carried a pair of forward-firing machineguns. The fighters were from Jagdstaffel 29, a hardworking and experienced unit equipped with Pfalz and Albatros fighters. They had been transferred to this area several weeks earlier to support the German 6 Armee, and were based nearby at Bellincamps. The Australian airmen were now in serious trouble. No. 3 Squadron had learned how to push the stolid and slow RE8 to its limits, and crews had already survived encounters with roving German reconnaissance aircraft or even small groups of fighters. However, a formation of six enemy could work together to block any path of retreat and mount simultaneous attacks from several directions. By any reasonable measure, the fight should have been over quickly.
The two Australian airmen began a desperate battle for survival. Their adversaries would have to come close to deliver an accurate burst, and at that distance they were equally vulnerable to return fire. Watched by hundreds – if not thousands – of observers on the ground, the RE8 endured the aerial melee for minute after excruciating minute. After a few minutes, however, it was the RE8 crew who claimed one of the attackers. An Albatros fighter dropped down, its motor silent, and crash-landed intact right in front of one of the 21st Battalion’s forward dugouts. The surprised Australians scrambled out, grabbed the German pilot and dragged him back under cover. Leutnant Rudolf Clausz had a minor wound in the upper leg; after treatment he would survive to become a prisoner of war. He was relieved of his flying boots and sent back under escort. The Albatros D.Va, hardly damaged but leaking fuel, sat exposed on the open ground. Soldiers managed to souvenir the watch from the cockpit (and also, probably, the compass), but otherwise the brightly painted fighter would remain undisturbed until sunset.
Having had one piece of luck, Sandy and Hughes received another when a second RE8 from their squadron – crewed by Captain Jones and Lieutenant Hodgson – joined the fight. Now the two Australian machines could cover each other and combine their defensive fire. A third RE8 crew, flown by Lieutenants Wrigley and Blair, observed the battle while returning to the No. 3 Squadron airfield at Bailleul and waded in. Moments later the German fighters broke off the attack and flew away. It was now about five minutes after 3 pm – the action had lasted more than 15 minutes. The three RE8s split up, but not before Jones flew alongside Sandy and Hughes’s machine. All appeared to be normal. Unnoticed by anyone, Sandy and Hughes’s aircraft flew in steady circles and drifted off to the south-west until lost to view.
Back on the ground, No. 3 Squadron had been informed of the remarkable events of the day. Reports were forwarded to AFC Headquarters and recommendations were drafted for the award of a Military Cross to Sandy and Distinguished Conduct Medal to Hughes. However, the two men did not return as scheduled and no word of a crash or forced landing was received. After a few hours they were declared missing. The men and their aircraft had apparently vanished.
After dark a party of ground staff set out to salvage the Albatros under the direction of Lieutenant Roderick Ross, the experienced No. 3 Squadron Engineering Officer. Working quickly under shell fire, they successfully dismantled the German fighter. Packed on to several vehicles, their prize arrived at Bailleul in the early morning. By daylight a punctured fuel tank and some other light damage had been repaired. The assembled Albatros, ready for flight, was posed in front of the hangars. It was the latest D.Va model and had the serial D.5390. It was also the first enemy aircraft to be brought down intact by the AFC.
Later that morning news finally arrived about the missing crew, who had been found dead in their aircraft. Ross now had the sad duty of examining the crashed-landed RE8, while the squadron medical officer looked at the bodies of Sandy and Hughes. A3816 had come down, unseen, in a field 75 kilometres to the south-west. Ross’s careful report was based on his firsthand examination of the crash scene. It confirms that the previous day’s air battle had a remarkable and haunting conclusion.
In what must have been the last seconds of the fight a bullet fired from behind the RE8 struck Hughes in the chest and then passed on to strike Sandy’s head, killing him. The aircraft, with the flight controls apparently in a neutral position and the throttle high, settled into a stable series of orbits and drifted on the wind until the petrol ran out and the engine stopped. Without power, the RE8 then came down in a steep glide and carried out a respectable robot landing near St Pol. Ross believed the ghost aircraft had taken two hours to complete its remarkable flight. A3816 delivered its crew to earth without further injury to their bodies. Although found fairly intact, the RE8 was too badly damaged to repair and was reduced to parts.
The Albatros was flown to Britain and tested, then later transferred to the Australian authorities for shipment home and preservation. It was displayed at the Australian War Memorial for many years, accompanied by the remarkable story of its capture. Over the last year the Albatros has been painstakingly conserved, and once again carries the gaudy finish worn on 17 December 1918. The fighter will go back on display in late November, together with Clausz’s boots and some personal relics of the RE8 crew.
Research continues to uncover fresh information about the two Australians. The Sandy family has been contacted and recently donated several items to the Memorial, including a formal photograph and a memorial plaque made by No. 3 Squadron and placed on Sandy’s grave at St Pol. Sandy’s military record shows that he went to Gallipoli as an artilleryman but became so ill that he did not see action and was eventually discharged from the army after lengthy hospital care.
Back in Australia and unable to walk well, he promptly enlisted in the AFC on 1 September 1916 and went on to qualify as a pilot. He joined No. 3 Squadron; late in August 1917 he moved with the unit to France for its operational debut. After several practice flights Sandy carried out his first “fighting duty”, flying an RE8 with the serial A3816. It became his regular machine and over the next few months he carried out many difficult flights and had to force land several times due to engine trouble. By the time of his death, he was a senior pilot and one of the squadron’s most experienced airmen.
Hughes’s family has not been traced and no known image of him survives. His records show that he was from Prahran in Melbourne and joined the AFC in late 1916. Hughes did well and in February 1917 he volunteered for further training as an air gunner. He was promoted to sergeant in August and after completing courses in Britain he returned to No. 3 Squadron on 10 December 1917, qualified for his new duties. Apart from a few brief practice trips over the next few days, it was all the preparation he would get.
According to the squadron records, on 17 December 1917 Hughes was making his first operational flight.
Cite as: White, John, “The ghost plane”, Wartime 44 (2008) 58–63