St John-Cottingham is out of action for nearly two weeks...

16 January 2017, No 60 Sqn RFC, Savy

The miserable weather continued into the new year. New Years Day 1917 saw us dine well in the mayors house in Savy while the wind and sleet rattled the window panes and wispy strands of snow swirled over the frozen field across the road.

We flew on the second, when I was attached to Caldwells C Flight for a close offensive patrol" to the lines east of Bapaume. Caldwell turned back with a dud engine while I struggled to keep up with my old Type 16. My machines engine was no bon, as the troops would say. Flying into a headwind it was difficult to gain altitude without stalling. We saw nothing amidst the dark clouds and headed home.

The new fug boots Id got before Christmas kept my feet warm, at least, and Id also received a lovely grey highland sweater from my Auntie Flora. I wore it over a high-necked fleece cardigan. The parents sent me a paisley blue silk scarf which shut out the draughts when I buttoned up my leather flying coat. The issue mitts did a good job. Mine were a very nice lambskin lined with felt with a separate place for the index finger. I had a local woman sew a square of lambswool on the back of each mitt, so that I could rub my face or wipe my nose as the need came. The whole was capped off, quite literally, with a white balaclava worn under a leather helmet. All in all, I felt wonderfully kitted out.

We flew on the fifth, a defensive patrol up to Auchel. En route we spotted a Roland and engaged it. The gunner was a keen chap who put several rounds into my machine, cutting a fuel line. I glided down and landed in a field near Bthune, glad to be out of it. Im not fond of well-handled Rolands.

On 6 January 1917 we flew another defensive patrol, this one south to Bertangles, but saw nothing. Then on the 7 January the major decided to lead a patrol to tour the lines near Loos. He is not really supposed to cross the lines, being the CO, but being mad about shooting at Huns, he had himself lifted into Sowreys Nieuport 17 and led Caldwells flight. I was ordered to join the show in my ailing 16.

There was fairly heavy cloud and it was difficult to keep station in the winds at altitude. Major Paget-Graves led us up to 13,000 feet. My machine was barely able to hold the altitude and was not giving anything like full revs. The CO suddenly fired the dud engine signal and turned away. We formed on Captain Caldwells grid, as he insisted on calling it. It was Caldwell, Fry, Pidders (2/Lieut Geoffrey Pidcock), and I. Within a very few minutes Caldwell waggled his wings and rolled over, diving on some unseen prey. I followed as best I could, fiddling with the mixture all the time. Without warning the engine roared to full revs and I heard or perhaps felt an ominous crackling from the lower planes. It was not unknown for Nieuports to fold up in a dive, and as my machine was a particular pig, I blipped the engine and levelled out with great care.

Below me a swirling dogfight had begun. Ever keen, Caldwell had fallen on a formation of six Albatri with our three and a half Nieuports. One of the Huns, a machine with a red nose, quickly climbed onto my tail. My Le Rhne chose that moment to revert to its half-hearted efforts. I got one brief crack at the Hun, a full deflection shot that seemed to do no harm. The Hun, however, was very good and began stitching my machine with his Spandaus. In a very short time we were low over the front and I took yet more hits from ground fire. The engine began to miss badly so I picked out some pockmarked but apparently level ground just past our trenches and tried to settle down onto it. The damned machine caught a gust and floated over the level spot into a line of crump holes. The undercarriage cracked on the rim of one hole and the whole bloody arrangement went arse over teakettle.

I must have broken free of my lap belt on the Nieuports first flip, for the machine was shattered and I, relatively unharmed except for a couple of cracked ribs, ended up fifty yards away in a frozen depression with half of a dead man for companionship.

Soon I was dragged into a dugout where I was plied with whiskey by the company commander of the York & Lancaster Regiment, and then given some painkillers by their battalion MO. The combination meant I had only fragmentary recollections of how I spent the next day. I ended up in a Canadian CCS near Bethune, from which I called the squadron to arrange transport back. The doctors said flying is out of the picture for me for at least a week, so I am hoping for a Type 17 by then.

Major Paget-Graves expressed satisfaction that I was back, especially as I will now be free to fill in for Lieutenant Alders, our equipment officer, who is up for leave. And, of course, I will be able to begin recruiting ORs for his damned cricket match. It seems ridiculous to be thinking of cricket in ten degrees of frost, but orders are well, you know.

First on my agenda was to consult with the Great Man, Sgt-Maj Aspinall. Unbeknownst to me he is a keen batsman and a self-avowed fine bowler to boot. He advised that I spend time in the hangars and shops to get to know the men personally, and suggested that one might find more talent than one expects if one approaches things right. Approaching things right, where the men are concerned, involves drink. I resolved to get to know some of the men and then set up the team office in a village estaminet where one might share a pint if necessary.


Squadron Christmas card, drawn by Roderic Hill