A journal of the Great War – By an Anonymous Aviator (Colin Urquhart)
My Halberstadt from the previous day was never confirmed.
And so began November 1916. I wonder how many people would have thought 27 months ago that the war would have lasted this long? On the morning of the 1st Landon and I accompanied F/Comdr Draper and F/S/L Armstrong’s machines back to the Verdun front, this time to bomb an enemy aerodrome at Mercy Le Haut, well behind the Hun lines. There was a heavy ground haze and even heavier cloud, so it was a long and tiring flight. My eyes burned with the strain of keeping Armstrong, who led, in sight. We found the target and turned home. In the end it was two and half hours of exhausting boredom. On landing at Ochey we went to the RO and gave our reports. I was about to ask if I could head for town to get a bath, but Lieut Higgins ordered me to go and see the boss before I got the chance to open my mouth.
I reported to Commander Bell-Davies’ office and saluted. “Flight Lieutenant Urquhart,” he said with a smile. “Are you used to that yet?”
“I rather like the look of the extra ring on the sleeves,” I told him. “I was thinking of getting a few more sewn on.”
“Before you go off on that, Admiral, read this.” He passed me a sheet of paper. It was authorization for a transfer to the “detached squadron.” I asked what that meant, thinking perhaps that I was bound for Salonika or Borneo or somewhere similarly remote.
“We have detached a unit to the RFC to help them in the Amiens area. The new Hun machines are hurting them badly. It’s a single-seater squadron. The new Sopwith scouts, I understand.”
My heart gave a leap. The Sopwiths’ reputation had already spread. They were a true “pup” to fly, and so they had been nicknamed. I was to report at once, which meant a day-long drive by road. Bell-Davies told me I was to return a Breguet bomber to St-Pol-sur-Mer, and then get a drive down to join the new unit at a place called Vert Galant near Doullens.
I had less than a half-hour to get my kit squared away and pay my wardroom chits off. I’d never flown the Breguet. We had only two of the things, which were useless machines. George MacLennan was our resident Breguet merchant and he spent fifteen minutes teaching me how to avoid the many ways the thing could kill me. And with that I bid farewell to 3 Wing.
It was eleven at night when my driver finally found Vert Galant after a Cook’s tour of Flanders after dark. It was a large field – two separate fields actually – locating in a sloping hollow among low rises of land. There was a cluster of farm buildings at a road junction, a small copse, and hangars lining both sides of the Doullens-Amiens road. We were on the east side of the road, along with 13 Squadron RFC, flying FE2s. The west side was not currently occupied, although it was prepared for two more squadrons, and our side could have taken another one. One of our flights was accommodated in the Ferme de Rousel, on the east side of the road across from the larger farm at the crossroads. Two rows of newly-constructed corrugated iron huts housed the rest of the pilots. Some of the men were supposed to be housed under canvas until more new huts were ready, but the squadron had sent a boarding party to claim some wooden buildings across the road. As long as no other squadron moved in, the place was ours.
I met Squadron Commander Bromet, formerly of 1 Wing. He told me I was in B Flight, commanded by Acting F/Cdr Bob Little, an Australian. I told him how thrilled I was to get a shot at the Pup, but he said with a sigh that as the newest arrival I was consigned to fly a Nieuport scout until more Sopwiths arrived. He hoped it wouldn’t be for long.
The few fellows remaining in the wardroom at that hour seemed a pleasant crew. I met Bob Compston, a very young-looking Englishman, and Jimmy Goble, another Australian. I shared a drink with one of the flight commanders, a very nice fellow named Colin MacKenzie. He’d been a medical student and a probationary surgeon in the RN before learning to fly. Commander Bromet promptly christened us Colin and Semi-Colin. I, of course, became Semi-Colin.
Charles Booker, an English fellow who’d spent time in Australian, was an acting flight commander. He showed me the way to my cabin in the dark. The others were asleep, so I quietly laid my sea bag on the floor and bedded down for the night.
The following morning I flew a familiarization flight in a large triangle over to Doullens and south to the Somme. Compston led, with Danny Galbraith, me, and a fellow named Barry Hazard. Galbraith, interestingly, is a Torontonian and a good chum of Stearne Edwards from 3 Wing.
The Nieuport was a joy to fly, but its only armament was a Lewis with a 47 round drum mounted on the upper plane. To change it one had to stand with the stick between one’s knees and pull the silly thing off. I have no head for heights and it would be a simple matter for me to tumble into the void. I told myself that I would simply have to make do with 47 rounds. May the equipment gods smile on me!
The flight was uneventful and the weather foul, freezing rain pellets that stung like needles and gusts and bumps and crosswinds. To add to the joy, my little LeRhone engine started misfiring as I approached Vert Galant in a stiff breeze. I went around a second time and settled myself down. Because of the wind I had to land approaching from the north which meant a slightly downhill run. The machine seemed to take forever to settle down and for a few seconds I thought I’d introduce myself by trundling into a row of trees at the far end of the field, but at last the machine stopped. The engine was making terrible sounds so I shut it down. The ack emmas were not thrilled about pushing it four hundred yards back to the hangars. I explained to the irate petty officer that it was a bad case of cylindritis and shutting the damned thing down was to be preferred to rebuilding the engine tonight.