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No Parachute

by Arthur Gould Lee

Few people had the privilege of recording their feelings about World War I air combat in personal letters home, and of those, fewer still survived. Only the very few can, some 50 years later, experience the luxury of putting their youthful impressions into book form. Arthur Gould Lee, who retired as an RAF air vice marshal, did just that, and did so with obvious pleasure, enabled by the wide experience of those 50 years to better understand the import of what he had written. And he used restraint, keeping the letters intact and adding only material that wouldn’t have passed the censors at the time, such as locations of airfields, names of casualties, etc., as well as brief but incisive overviews of the war.

No Parachute reveals that Lee was a courageous 22-year-old, devoted to duty and well aware of the hazards he faced on the Western Front. He was more mature than most of his colleagues, in part by virtue of being married and in part because he had had the good fortune to have crashed during training. Though crashing isn’t usually good luck, it allowed him to log many more flying hours than the average replacement pilot of the time. It also delayed his appearance in combat until after “Bloody April” 1917, when the Royal Flying Corps suffered appalling losses.

Like many British author/pilots, Lee writes very well, quickly engaging readers with his personality and insights. It is obvious he was a true pilot at heart who loved flying for myriad reasons, and who regarded air combat as the price for his pleasures.

His letters begin on May 18, 1917, and continue to January 7, 1918. In those action-filled 7½ months, Lee describes how his status changed “from being a pigeon to being a hawk.” He brilliantly describes this transition, noting that it involved 222 hours over the front lines, 56 aerial combats and the terror of ground strafing. Lee was reported missing four times, and he claimed 11 “Huns” shot down, five alone and the rest shared. (He was later officially credited with seven victories.)

Lee obviously liked his work and his friends. He didn’t like the fact that the Germans had superior aircraft, and noted the qualitative differences in opposing Albatros D.Is, D.IIs and D.IIIs, the latter dubbed the “V-strutter.” They all had a higher ceiling and carried two machine guns to the single gun of his Sopwith Pup. Yet despite its inferiority to the Albatros, he loved the Pup for its delightful flying qualities.

Lee detested ground strafing, a task for which the Pup was phenomenally unsuited. He writes about flying through a shell-laden sky, for example, vulnerable to bullets from above and below: “The problem [of strafing] was worsened by the presence of a couple dozen or more low-flying Huns flitting to and fro, strafing our troops. They were protected by Albatros fighters up above, scores of them, and fierce scraps were in frequent progress with our ma – chines, mostly S.E.s. As I watched them…I saw a V-strutter come down with an S.E. after it—the wings folded back, the pilot was thrown out and fell with the wreckage barely a quarter of a mile from me. Another loss of life that could easily have been saved with a parachute—not that it matters much with a Hun.”

Note that Lee’s story of returning to combat in a Sopwith Camel is superbly told in a companion book, Open Cockpit. If possible, No Parachute should be read before Open Cockpit. The 50 years between the author’s combat days and publishing his first work gave him the background to write the three authoritative appendices of this book. The first deals with the notorious failure of the British high command’s insistence on continuing the mass production of aircraft designed and built by the Royal Aircraft Factory long after they had proved worthless in combat. The second examines Hugh Trenchard’s heralded but deadly practice of always being on the offensive. The third explains why British pilots did not have parachutes when they should have. All the additional information provided in the appendices will give readers an even greater appreciation for the youthful zest of Lee’s letters.


Originally published in the September 2014 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.