The author tells both an engaging and insightful story of his experiences as a pilot during the First World War. His flight training at the Central Flying School (CFS) at Upavon in Britain was a risky and haphazard one. At that stage of the war (1916), there was no comprehensive flight training system in the Royal Flying Corps (RFC). Indeed, Macmillan received no theoretical instruction and aerobatics were frowned upon. Macmillan once accidentally found himself in a loop during the latter stages of his training and trusted to his instincts to set his airplane aright, thus landing safely. The RFC put great emphasis on training as many pilots as possible and sending them to France, where it was expected that the squadrons to which they were assigned would give them, in effect, "on-the-job training." (Many of these pilots were passed out of training with barely 20 hours of solo flight time, which was often done in aircraft that these pilots would not be flying with the frontline squadrons to which they were assigned! What's more, the life expectancy of RFC pilots on active service in France was then 11 days.)
So it was that Macmillan found himself assigned to an operational squadron in France in March of 1917. This was a perilous time for pilots in the RFC. The air supremacy it had established during the Battle of the Somme of the previous year was long gone. The Germans, with their Albatros scouts (fighters) had a superior airplane which gave them ascendancy in the skies over the RFC at the time. The same time in which Macmillan was flying Sopwith 1-and-a-half Strutter 2-seater airplanes on reconnaissance/escort/fighter missions over the Front. He shares his feelings about these missions in considerable detail. The reader can't help but be astounded at the bravery and devotion of the members of Macmillan's squadron in flying what was generally known to be an inferior aircraft. Not until the summer of 1917 that the RFC would at long last receive advanced fighters that would go a long way in effectively contesting Germany's air superiority over the Western Front.
As of September 1, 1917, Macmillan's squadron was fully equipped with the redoubtable, nimble Sopwith Camel single-seat fighter. The Camel (which, by war's end, was credited with downing 1,200 enemy aircraft) was a tricky plane to fly, and could be unforgiving to any pilot of mediocre ability trying to master it. (Macmillan and his squadron mates were gradually trained on flying the Camel, while continuing over the previous month to fly the Sopwith 1-and-a-half Strutters in combat.)
Here is an observation Macmillan made about combat flying at this stage of the war that staggered me, because it shows how the sheer incompetence of the higher leadership can needlessly cost lives:
"... From behind the three remaining RE8s [a 2-seater aircraft in the RFC used for reconnaissance and artillery-spotting missions over the Front] and to the east of them I dived and zoomed, spraying the Hun formations to keep them at a distance from the RE8s, for I knew from my own two-seater days that such tactics were the best to follow to protect them.
"The Huns fell back and did not press home their attack. The three Re8s returned across the lines in safety, lucky to be alive and flying and carrying only one casualty; ... After expending the last of my ammunition in a final burst of fire at the Huns, I crossed the lines behind the RE8s, with a recollection of 90 minutes of constant watching and diving and shooting throughout the whole period of that patrol.
"Here, with those RE8s, was yet another example of ordering inefficient two-seaters on reconnaissance over enem territory without fighter escort. I knew no reason why my patrol should not have been briefed to meet those Re8s and give them escort. Their squadron was in the 2nd (Corps) Wing of the same Brigade as 45 [Macmillan's squadron], so that Brigade HQ co-ordination of its squadron's work for reconnaissance and escort could have been as direct as the reverse process of the confirmation of the fight at Brigade level from my report forwarded through 11th (Army) Wing and that of 6 Squadron through 2nd Wing. The channels of communication existed; yet I was not informed that this reconnaisance was to be made. It was only by luck that I happened to see those RE8s.
If (as was even odds) I had been at another part of my patrol line at the time, I should never have seen them, and they surely would have suffered more than the loss of one machine. From this inco-ordinate brigade policy we in 45 had suffered more 1-and-a-half Strutter casualties than we need have done. Here was evidence that 6 Squadron [the RE8 squadron that Macmillan helped save from being decimated by the enemy] was in a like predicament, brought upon them by the continuation of a policy that did not make sense."
Macmillan's combat service ended abruptly by accident in January 1918, by which time 45 Squadron had been transferred to Italy, to assist the Italians in fighting back the Austro-Hungarian forces [who had been giving them a hard time since the previous autumn, when they (along with a smaller German force) at Caporetto, had almost destroyed the Italian Army along the Isonzo Front]. He finished the war as a flight instructor in Britain.
Of all the First World War memoirs I've read, this is one of the most cogent and interesting ones that I've yet come across. The reader is made very much aware of Macmillan's presence on every page. He is not at all shy in conveying both the excitement and hazards of wartime flying, whether over the Front or while training pilots on home soil.