A Flyer’s Fate: The Story of 2nd Lt. James Noble Layton Millet. Written by: Bruce J. Paul. This article also appeared in the May 2001 Newsletter.
Ten Camels faced the wind as their heavy wooden propellers were swung through and with sharp coughs of blue smoke their rotary engines burst into life. As wings rocked and swayed the chocks were pulled and the snarling, squarish little aircraft lept forward whipping up grass and dirt behind them. As they rose their collective clatter shattered the quiet of the countryside surrounding their home field at Champien. The noise slowly faded behind them as they grouped together and turned their blunt noses towards the north-east. It was mid-morning March 13, 1918. A cool clear spring day and the men of 73 Squadron were off to conduct an offensive patrol in an area approx. 50 miles away, near the German held town of Cambrai. Among their airmen, was a Nova Scotian, Second Lieutenant Millet. Just one of the 511 Maritimers who served in the British flying services during WWI.
That spring, the situation facing the troops on the ground was far graver than even the infantry could have imagined. One of the largest and most important battles of WWI was but one week away. The Germans had been assembling close to 60 divisions in preparation for the Great Spring Offensive of 1918. Although the attack had been predicted by the Allied Forces, the scale and ferocity of the assault had not. The Germans had amassed nearly one million men along a 50 mile front. On March 21st the Allied Armies would find themselves once again, in headlong retreat as their positions were quickly overrun.
During the period of anxious waiting, the RFC’s role of reconnaissance was of the utmost importance. The fighters, or scouts as they were then called, had the difficult task of clearing the air, enabling the Corps aircraft to go about their work unmolested. The priority of the Germans was ‘to keep the eyes, ears and especially the bombs away from their troops.’ As a result, the RFC would lose 245 men during the month of March. The costly, bloody fighting of 1917 had left the Allied Forces with serious manpower shortages. The German Army had likewise been weakened and its morale was steadily declining, but this was not the case within the German Air Services. In March of 1918 the Germans had more fighters available on the Western Front than did the Allies. In terms of aerial superiority, the Germans had begun to lag behind but were soon to catch up with aircraft designs like the superb Fokker D.VII. For the time being however, they would soldier on mostly with the aging Albatros “D” type biplanes and the controversial Fokker Dr.1 triplanes. Aircraft such as: the SE5A and the Sopwith Camel introduced in Mid 1917, were closing the aerial gap for the RFC but certainly not without cost.
Immediately prior to the offensive German air opposition became less pronounced and unpredictable, large formations could at times meet vicious resistance or be virtually ignored. As “zero hour” drew closer the activity in the air began heating up considerably. This was the situation as Millet and his fellow pilots droned steadily over the French fields. Below their Camels wings, there remained little evidence of the miserable winter when rain alternated with snow and more often than not, dense ground fog made flying either treacherous or impossible. Millet was at the controls of an F.1 Camel, serial no. B5590. It was constructed under contract by Ruston, Proctor & Co. Ltd. of Lincoln and was most likely powered by a Clerget engine. Two narrow white bands around the rear fuselage signified its attachment to No. 73 squadron.
2nd Lt. James Noble Layton Millet was the son of Lewis J. Millet of Windsor Nova Scotia. He was educated at Windsor Academy and later entered the banking profession. He became a popular member of the staff at the Barrington Street branch of the Royal Bank in Halifax. Millet was working at another branch in Newcastle, New Brunswick, when “the call to arms found him”. On May 25, 1917, he enlisted in the Royal Flying Corps at Toronto and after training at camp Borden was made a second-lieutenant and posted as a pilot. After receiving further training in England, he was deemed fit for combat and sent to France.
If the pilots survived the experience of mastering the fiery little Camels, and many did not, they had still to continually face a well-trained and devoted enemy. The Camels had few of the comforts and distractions of a truly practical fighter. The pilots did not have the luxury of an enclosed cockpit, an electrically heated flying suit, or for numerous official reasons, a parachute. There were few instruments and no self-sealing fuel tanks. Outside communication was usually limited to hand signals or the rocking of wings. While one engine manufacturer claimed his spinning rotary engines would actively deflect bullets, the “wicker” or cane seats installed within the linen covered fuselage of a Camel, clearly would not. Another consideration was the combination of paint, doped fabric, wood and gasoline, together with a total-loss lubrication system, that gave these early aircraft the fire retarding capability of dry hay.
Shortly after 10:00am, 73 Squadron’s patrol was nearing Cambrai. They were among several other units in the area providing protective cover for RFC bombing raids. At 10:15 they spotted enemy aircraft approaching and as they drew nearer the battle was quickly joined. Their patch of sky became a jumble of drab green Camels and multicolored Tripes and Albatri. A Fokker triplane with a Yellow tail was seen diving away with most of his top wing coming apart. In another corner of the sky a Camel began trailing thick broiling smoke as flames ate away at its fuselage. Everywhere aircraft twisted about seeking advantage or attempting to avoid a deadly burst of machine gun fire. As 2nd Lt. Millet fastened himself on the tail of a German aeroplane, a sudden burst of fire stuck his Camel. Another German flight stacked high above, had dropped down upon the Camels. Millet’s patrol leader stated that he had seen Millet’s aircraft before the fight, but could not be certain of his fate, as no one had definitely seen his machine go down. The scrap lasted for nearly a half an hour with upwards of 35 German aircraft becoming involved.
What is believed to have happened to 2nd Lt. Millet was later recorded by the German pilot involved. The 25 year old ex-cavalryman was flying a green-streaked Fokker triplane, Dr.1 152/17. He had dove on a Camel from 73 Squadron and fired upon it, putting holes through its fuel tank and hitting the pilot. The camel nosed down, caught fire and was observed heading towards the British Lines.
When 73 Squadron returned from their patrol they reported losing two Camels. Both were piloted by Canadians. Of Millet it was said that there was just a chance that he had landed safely on the German side and had been taken prisoner. After weeks of anxiety, definite news was received. The aircraft had smashed to the ground behind German lines between Gonnelieu and Banteux. The pilot was dead. 73 Squadron’s men were greatly saddened by the news as Millet was considered to be a most popular member whose life held the promise of great happiness and achievement. The other Camel pilot Lt. Elmer Heath, an Ontario native, had faired better. Though wounded, he had survived his crash and was taken prisoner. The pilot commonly believed to have downed Millet’s Camel recorded the aircraft as his first of 9 Camels he was to destroy. As a matter of fact, he would raise his total to eighty aircraft shot down before his death only 39 days later on April 21, 1918. His men knew him as Rittmeister Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen. He was more popularly known as the “Red Baron”. James Noble Layton Millet of Windsor, Nova Scotia, is listed as his sixty-fifth victim.
Lothar von Richthofen, himself a 40 plane ace, would learn of his older brother’s death while in hospital at Cambrai. Lothar was piloting the yellow tailed Fokker I referred to earlier. He was recovering from wounds he sustained when his aircraft crash landed after the scrap with 73 squadron’s Camels on March 13, 1918.
At the Arras Flying Services Memorial in the Faubourg – d’Amiens Cemetery, the name of Second Lieutenant J.N.L. Millet is carved on a stone panel. The Memorial commemorates casualties of the British Flying Services who fell on the Western Front and have know known grave. 2nd Lt. Millet was one of the 1388 Canadian airman who lost their lives in the First World War.