A journal of the Great War – By an Anonymous Aviator (Colin Urquhart)
Over the next few days the same pattern repeated itself. We’d be off in the morning after the ground mist cleared, typically around 8:30 or 9:00. Each day we’d fly over the lines between Bapaume and Arras, but the weather was too poor to see much. We had heavy cloud, ground mists, and driving rain or sleet nearly every day.
I led a patrol again on the 9 November. We were ordered to attack a Hun aerodrome at Riencourt, about halfway down the old Roman road from Arras to Cambrai. I decided to take Le Prieur rockets to see if they could perhaps hit a fuel storage area.
Or so I told the equipment officer. My real thought was that I could fire them off and get away without expending ammunition from my Lewis gun. I have a deep fear of changing the drum on the gun. I’ve tried it twice on short practice hops near Vert Galant. You need to unfasten your restraining belt, stand up and grip the control stick between your knees, and heave on the empty drum in a 75 knot freezing blast. I’m tall enough that the side of the cockpit is below my knees. If I lose my tenuous grip on the control stick or if a sudden gust or Archie blast causes the little Nieuport to hop about, Flight Lieutenant “Semi” Colin Urquhart goes overboard and becomes a meat bomb! The thought keeps me awake at night. I’ve secretly vowed never to change the drum. I’m hoping that my Pup will arrive before I get in a real fight.
On 11 November the GOC visited us. I was duty officer and accompanied Squadron Commander Bromet with the Great Man. He has a brusque manner. Well, in truth, a terrifying manner. Not that he really talked to me, although he did once haltingly acknowledge my existence, but it left me with the impression that I was something he’d found on his shoe. General Trenchard’s aide was a totally different matter. Captain Baring is an older man, a scion of the famous banking family. He has a reputation as something of a renaissance man and I’m told he is a former diplomat and a published author and poet. Trenchard grunts things to him and he takes notes. Throughout it all he managed to keep up a quiet and humorous commentary for my benefit, mainly on the oddity of naval custom and terminology.
“Gudgeon pins. Make a note of that, Baring,” the GOC would grunt, and Captain Baring would dutifully take out a pencil and scratch down something in a strange hieroglyph which he called Pitman shorthand.
Our Technical Chief PO asked for the same gun oil as 32 Squadron (now installed across the road from us) used in their DH2s. “Far superior to our naval oil, sir,” he said to the OC. Trenchard nodded and Baring wrote. We were somewhat chagrined to learn that an hour later the boys at 32 Squadron were requesting good Royal Navy oil, “not the rubbish they send the army.” On closer examination both oils were found to be the same stuff!
On 12 November, Hazard and I were led by Booker over nearly as far as Cambrai. The cloud was heavy and we climbed to 12000 feet trying to break through. The Nieuport could scarcely hold itself level at that height. Suddenly Booker fired a red flare and dived through the cloud. I tried to follow. For an instant I saw a silvery-blue outline of a two-seater well below us, but I passed through more cloud and saw no other aircraft after that, friend or foe. I circled about for a while and, not fancying my chances alone 20 miles into Hunland, set course for home.
Booker and Hazard landed shortly after me back at Vert Galant. Hazard was whooping. He’d bagged a Roland, his first kill.