Here’s an awesome “there-I-was” story. In fact, it just may be the mother of all there-I-was stories. It stars two of the main characters of WWI air power…
First, the Lewis gun, probably the best and most numerous Allied machine-gun of the war. It was the first MG to be fired in combat from an aircraft, and enabled air-to-air combat in the conflict’s opening stages. For more on the Lewis gun, see this excellent piece by Barrett Tillman.
And then there’s Lt. Louis A. Strange of the RFC. At the ripe old age of 24, the good Lt. was a pioneer of aerial bombing, inventing and employing several types of bombs and novel ways of dropping them onto the Germans. He also developed several methods of mounting Lewis guns onto aircraft to make them more effective.
But then, on 10 May 1915, a Lewis gun tried to kill him…
Here’s a great version of the story, related by author Thomas Wictor in his article God did a little dance. (BTW, the same article has another unbelievable story about a German flyer, so go check it out.)
Lieutenant Louis Strange was a member of Number 6 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps. He equipped his unarmed Martinsyde S.1 scout with a machine gun on the top wing. The weapon was a Lewis gun, which used a pie-shaped drum for the ammunition. At the time the Lewis gun carried only forty-seven rounds per drum. To change the drum, Strange had to stand up in the cockpit. The drum locked into place on the top of the gun; it had to be twisted in order to change it.
On May 10, 1915, Strange took off in his rattletrap biplane to test his Lewis gun. When he ran across a German two-seater, he fired off all forty-seven rounds without scoring a hit. He unbuckled his safety belt, stood in the cockpit to change the drum, and his Martinsyde immediately flipped over onto its back. Strange was dumped out; he held onto the drum of the Lewis gun with both hands, dangling in the air as his aircraft fell in a flat spin.
Strange tried to swing his legs forward and catch them on the rim of the cockpit, but all he succeeded in doing was kicking his instrument panel to pieces. He then swung his legs behind him and hooked the toes of his boots into the cockpit. By arching his back, he was able to get his entire body into the cockpit. When he was only five hundred feet above the ground, he frantically shoved the control stick to the side and righted the Martinsyde.
This violent maneuver caused him to land in his seat so hard that he flattened it. He now lay on his back on the floor of the aircraft, facing the rear, with his legs sticking out of the cockpit. Somehow he managed to turn himself around and fly back to his base, sitting on the floor, unable to see over the edge of the cockpit and without a single functional instrument to guide him.
His commanding officer reprimanded him for destroying the instrument panel and seat of the Martinsyde. Nobody believed Strange’s story.
After the war Strange read an article in a German newspaper in which two airmen described seeing a British pilot fall out of his plane and hang on to the machine gun. Strange tracked them down, and the three former enemies confirmed that these were indeed the Germans who’d witnessed the Martinsyde flipping over.
The Germans told Strange that as they watched him go down, struggling and kicking, they didn’t have the heart to shoot at him. They were relieved he’d survived the war, because the sight of him hanging helplessly from his Lewis gun had haunted them for years.
Louis Strange lived through other adventures in WWI, earning the Victoria Cross along the way, and then flew with the RAF in WWII. By then he was a Squadron Leader and was instrumental in developing the CAM Ship & Hurricat into an operational concept that helped defend Allied shipping in the Atlantic at a crucial time.
I guess its a good thing the Lewis gun’s magazine doesn’t come off easy, huh?