Horst Mikaelis stood on the grassy edge of the Flugplatz and stared up at the clear October afternoon sky. He had been flying combat patrols for nearly a week, but there was something in the air, something about this day that made it different. Perhaps he would bring down his first enemy machine. Maybe this day would be his last. But something was special, unusual; he sensed it. He squatted and picked at the browning grass. He scraped out a small piece of earth and rubbed the particles between the fingers of his right hand. Then he stood and took a deep breath of the fresh fall air. The thought that the smell of burning Castor oil, or perhaps his own flesh, might well be his last sent a chill down his spine. No, this was not his day to die, but his life was about to change—to take yet another new direction—but for the better, or the worse?
He looked at his watch—1355. The mechanics had rolled the Fokker Eindecker from the hanger. Horst examined the aircraft carefully for anything out of place, worn, or poorly lubricated. He ran his hands around the fuel tanks and oil and benzine lines to insure there were no leaks. He checked for slack in the control wires and made sure that the surfaces moved freely. He lifted the cap on the main tank to make certain it was full and climbed into the cockpit then did the same for the reserve. He worked the rudder bar several times, while he watched the rudder, and then moved the stick to ensure that the wings warped as they should.
Unteroffizier Johannes Staub, Mikaelis’s Monteure (rigger), stood with his right foot on the stirrup on the port side of the fuselage and fastened the belt that bound Mikaelis snuggly into the cockpit. Horst had come to appreciate Staub, because a fumbling or inattentive Monteure could pose a greater danger to a pilot than the enemy. The young man was protective in the extreme when it came to Mikaelis’s Eindecker. It was the Monteure’s responsibility to make sure that the engine was running smoothly and efficiently, that bracing and control wires were taut, that no tears were developing in the fabric, that the ammunition was properly loaded into the belts, and that the machine—Staub’s machine—was completely prepared for the strains imposed by aerial jousting. Horst had once found Staub laboriously pouring fuel into the Fokker’s tank through a piece of chamois to strain out the impurities in the benzene. Mikaelis, as was true of every pilot, double-checked the condition of his machine before he went aloft, but Horst had yet to come across any evidence of inattentiveness on Staub’s part.
Mikaelis, after pulling his goggles down to shield his eyes, opened the fuel mixture levers and signaled that he was prepared to start the engine. He looked at his watch. It was 1400.
“Switch off!” Staub yelled.
“Switch off!” Horst responded.
Staub worked the propeller around until he felt that he had drawn the fuel mixture into the cylinders of the rotary engine. “Contact!” he shouted.
Mikaelis flipped the switch to its on position: “Contact!”
Staub completed his movement of the propeller and the Oberursel coughed, kicked a bit, and then started. The stench of burning Castor oil filled Horst’s nose as the spray began to dust his goggles.
Mikaelis watched the engine revolutions rise, while the ground crew held the Fokker in place. When the tachometer passed 1200 rpms, Horst looked to see if Hauptmann Rudolf Wutshke’s Fokker had started. It had, and Wutshke signaled Mikaelis that he was ready. One of the Hauptmann’s ground crew pulled the chocks out from in front of the wheels. Horst signaled his crew to do the same, waving his arms in a clearing motion. Both Fokkers began to roll across the field. The ground was wet, and it took a longer run than usual, more than a hundred meters, to unstick—to get the tail of the plane airborne. A few more hops on the sodden turf and Horst felt the vibrations stop as his wheels cleared the ground. He fell into position behind and to the right of Wutshke as the two Fokkers made a sweeping turn over Roulers in German-occupied Belgium and headed to the south.
Mikaelis now sensed that this, finally, would be the day that he would see combat. And what a fine fall day it was. The sky was marked with clouds, but a bright blue. The air was unseasonably warm, at least on the ground. Horst felt a sense of exhilaration as the sounds, smells, and feel of his Fokker flooded his senses. By day’s end he would know what kind of an air fighter he would be, or perhaps he would be dead.
The Eindeckers had been aloft for thirty minutes and were flying south at 2500 meters when Horst saw Wutshke rock his wings and point his arm a bit to the southwest. Mikaelis saw three specks slowly orbiting over the German front lines.
Horst followed Wutshke as he headed directly for the contacts. Fortunately for the two German aviators the flight of Royal Flying Corps (RFC) B.E. 2cs, “Quirks” the British pilots called the aircraft, failed to spot the approaching threat until it was too late. At the last moment the British tried to flee, but Wutshke bore in on one of the observation planes and Mikaelis another.
Horst quickly shortened the distance, pushed the lever forward to engage his weapon to the synchronizing gear, and at close range pressed the button on the control column that fired the 7.92mm Lightened Maxim—better known as a Spandau. The B.E. staggered under the punishing fire and the pilot rolled the plane and dove for his own lines. Horst blipped the engine—cutting the fuel flow to the cylinders of the throttle-less rotary to control the speed of the machine—and followed, holding his fire and waiting for the B.E. to pull up. When it did he was there. With the 100 horsepower Oberursel now roaring, Horst closed and sent several short bursts into the plane. It staggered and rolled over again, but this time out of control. Horst followed the plane down until it crashed, just behind German lines.
An excited Mikaelis gasped for breath. It was only then that he saw Hauptmann Wutshke flying behind and above. He waved to Horst and made a signal that he had downed his B.E., and then pointed to the wreckage of Horst’s. Mikaelis suddenly realized just how low he was flying; he could make out the faces of German troops who were waving to him. He waved back.
Wutshke and Mikaelis headed east and climbed back to 2500 meters. Then the Hauptmann, again leading the way, turned south.
The two Fokkers were over Bethune and were about to turn for home when Horst spotted a lone aircraft ahead, racing west—another B.E. Wutshke spotted it as well and, pointing ahead with his arm, pursued. As the three aircraft neared the trenches, Mikaelis pulled off, expecting Wutshke to drop the pursuit. At their 1345 briefing, Wutshke had reiterated what were standing orders: no one was to venture further west than no-man’s-land. But to Horst’s surprise, the Hauptmann forged ahead. Mikaelis returned to the pursuit, but he was now well behind.
As he crossed into the British rear, Mikaelis saw Wutshke engage the B.E. Then suddenly the Hauptmann’s Fokker veered to the right and sliced into a dive. At first Horst thought that it was a maneuver to evade the fire of the two-seater. But as the dive steepened he feared that his commander had been wounded, if not killed. After falling a thousand meters or so, Wutshke’s Fokker began ripping apart.
Horst did not watch the crash; he was determined to catch the enemy machine. When he had closed the distance, the British pilot tried to roll out of the line of fire, but too late. As Mikaelis opened at close range he saw pieces fly off the upper wing of the B.E. as it slipped into a dive. Horst blipped the engine and followed, trying to line up another shot. As he closed, dangerously in a steep dive, he fired—wildly—but close enough to prompt his adversary to pull up, a sudden maneuver that caused the weakened upper wing to rip free and the B.E. to disintegrate. Horst watched, with an uncomfortable satisfaction, as the two British aviators in the out-of-control aircraft fell helplessly to their deaths.
When the plane crashed and burst into flames, Horst felt his legs weaken and his hands begin to shake. He gripped the flight control with both hands and headed due east, racing for the German lines. If there were other aircraft nearby, he never saw them. Finally, after what seemed an eternity, he saw the tall spire of St. Michael’s Church and knew he had reached Roulers. He didn’t even bother to make the usual circuit around the Flugplatz. He came straight in, cut the Oberursel, bounced twice, and rolled to a halt near one of the service tents.
Staub was the first to reach the Fokker.
“Are you wounded, Herr Leutnant?” he asked as he removed Mikaelis’s flight helmet.
Horst could only shake his head. Staub helped the pilot from the cockpit, but Mikaelis’s legs would not support him when he reached the ground. He sat there, his knees pulled up to his chest and wrapped by his arms, trying to control his emotions. He was still there when Oberleutnant Reinhold, Wutshke’s number two, came running to the just-landed Fokker.
“Where’s Herr Hauptmann?” Reinhold bellowed, the look on his face indicating he sensed the answer.
“He went down. His machine broke up.”
“I’m not sure, somewhere south of Bethune.”
“Behind British lines?”
“I don’t know. We spotted a lone B.E. and pursued. Herr Hauptmann followed it over the lines. The observer must have hit him. He spun out and went down.”
“Could he have lived? Did you see him crash?”
“No, but I saw his Fokker break up. I doubt . . . he must be dead.” Horst looked up at Reinhold. “He broke his own rule; his own rule!”
“And paid the price,” Reinhold replied, shaking his head.
Horst Mikaelis had scored his first kills. There were no witnesses to the destruction of the second B.E. that had crashed behind the British lines, so it remained unconfirmed. Not that it made any difference to him. One kill? Two kills? He cared not. The price had been too high. Rudolf Wutshke was worth more than a pair of lumbering British two-seaters.