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Open Cockpit  

by Arthur Gould Lee

This is one of the best personal memoirs of World War I aviation—in many ways the nonfiction equivalent of V.M. Yeates’ novel Winged Victory. Both Lee and Yeates tell the tale of combat in very human terms; as they reveal the technical aspects of WWI fighting, both paint vivid pictures of the men engaged in it. Arthur Gould Lee rose to become an air vice marshal in the Royal Air Force. Open Cockpit is the work of a mature man with a great logbook and a remarkable memory.

Lee was not a celebrated ace like his squadron mate Don MacLaren. He flew 118 patrols, engaged in combat 56 times and scored seven victories. Open Cockpit is thus the story of a journeyman pilot with a gift for writing. Young, willing and able to do his duty but fully conscious of the dangers, he was blessedly in love with flight.

It was Lee’s good fortune to have an accident that delayed his departure for the front lines and allowed him to gain additional flying experience. That saved him from being thrown to the wolves of Bloody April, the terrible month in 1917 when so many British pilots died flying inadequate equipment.

Lee entered combat with No. 46 Squadron that May, fully aware of his inexperience but far more confident in his abilities than he might have been otherwise. He was instantly enamored of the Sopwith Pup, as most pilots seem to have been.

Lee paints a better picture of German air superiority during 1916 and 1917 than any other author I have read. He accurately portrays how the twin-gun Albatros series became dominant, and how the single-gun Pup survived only by virtue of its supreme maneuverability. Later in 1918, as a veteran flight commander flying the tricky Sopwith Camel, Lee realizes the situation has reversed, and he exults in flying a superior aircraft.

Lee’s descriptions of air combat are fascinating. On attacking a brown-and-yellow DFW, for example, he writes:

Strangely in these attacks on two-seaters, I was seldom in the state of quivering excitement that always overcame me when about to engage in a dog-fight with a formation of fighters. Then one had to twist and turn for one’s life, as well as for victory, with chance for only brief bursts of fire at fleeting targets, but in a dive on a two-seater…one kept the sight glued to the apparently stationery target in a state of calm detachment, hoping that the pilot wouldn’t jink and disturb one’s aim.

Flying a Pup at altitude was hard work. Of one aerial engagement he says:

This time I get above and behind a machine painted dappled brown and I am pumping lead into him at 100 yards range when my gun stops. I zoom up, pulling out the hammer from the socket as I rise and hit the cocking handle. The handle goes down, but the exertion of hitting the gun has set me gasping, I can’t get enough air. As I drop down I see the brown plane going off eastwards in a shallow descent. I must have hit him, but he’s under control, wounded maybe.

Lee recounts the brutal work of ground strafing with bitterness, glad to have survived the 30 percent weekly attrition tolerated by a jaded high command. He’s at his absolute best in describing the details of squadron life, from donning the many layers of flying clothing required to preflighting his Pup to describing the beauty of dawn over the Western Front.

Lee’s earlier book, No Parachute, was superb. Open Cockpit is even better.


Originally published in the January 2013 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.