An Airman’s Odyssey – by James Arthur Collins

Part Eight: In which I bid farewell to England, find France, and prepare to mount a killer machine

Mummy was a trifle out of sorts that I had not travelled to Cambridge to spend my leave sipping tea in her parlour with her friends and the vicar, but the wonders of the Cavendish Hotel’s social set and the theatres of the West End and the restaurants of Piccadilly and the Savoy Bar had somehow clouded my view, I suppose. Anyway, she and my sister Dorothy took the train to the city and I found them rooms at Brown’s Hotel, a short walk away. I’d lied to them that the Cavendish was fully booked. They would probably have been scandalized by the nightly revelry there.

I met them at Brown’s and took them to listen to de Groot’s orchestra and dine at the Piccadilly Hotel Grill Room.[1] Dorothy wanted to teach me the foxtrot and was suspicious when she found I already had learned a few steps. But gentlemen never tell...

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"I met them at Brown’s and took them to listen to de Groot’s orchestra and dine at the Piccadilly Hotel Grill Room."

We hired a car and driver to take me to Farnborough early the next morning and Mummy and Dorothy went along to see me off. The trip took a little under two hours and the day was bright and unseasonably warm. There was time for elevenses at a café near the Royal Aircraft Factory. My mother put a brave front on it all, but I could tell she was sick with worry. Dorothy laughed and teased, but her nerves showed as well. For my part, I was itching to be off and quite insensitive to their distress. I assured them that flying was wonderfully fun and very safe, that the Hun scarcely bothered us, and that we would push the enemy out of France and probably Belgium by summer’s end. We parted at the café and I walked to the factory gates alone, looking back only once.

The aircraft I was to ferry to St-Omer was a BE2c equipped with a new type of wireless telegraphy unit, destined for operational trials. A middle-aged civilian electrical engineer named Salter was to accompany me in the forward seat. He’d spent the morning being shown the basics of the Lewis gun, as the machine was to be armed for the flight across the Channel.

We took off around 12:30 in the afternoon and climbed slowly to the east. My kit was stowed behind my seat and together with the slightly portly Salter, his kit, and a collection of electronic bits and pieces, the aircraft struggled for altitude in the crisp air. After an hour, Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells slipped under my left wings and, with some of our petrol burned off, the machine edged past 7000 feet. I wanted to cross the Channel at 10000 feet if possible so that I would have the ability to glide a long way if we encountered engine problems. Salter made me laugh, for he was playing with the Lewis like a schoolboy shooting red Indians, only his foes were imaginary Fokkers. Of course, I couldn’t hear the fellow over the engine, but the frozen spittle on his moustache told me he was making the necessary machine gun sounds. He looked back at me with a broad smile and saluted.

We met the coast just west of Dover and turned southeast for France. The needle of the altimeter edged just past the number ten and I at last throttled back slightly and rechecked the mixture as the white cliffs of England disappeared into the haze behind. A few minutes later I estimated we were entering the danger zone – the part of the crossing where we should be too far from either shore to glide for safety. “Just ten minutes, Lord,” I thought. “Let the engine run for ten more minutes and we’ll be fine.”

The engine did its job, buzzing along smoothly as I searched the haze for some signs of the French coast. Nothing. I began to pray again. “Thanks for the ten minutes, Lord. Any chance you could tack on another five or ten minutes of smooth sailing? And sorry about the other night. God bless Mummy and Dorothy. And look after Dad.”

The sun was westering and shining on the water two miles below with blinding force. I thought I saw something and squinted into the glare. There it was again, a shimmering grey shadow dulling the glare. I watched as the streak turned from silver-grey to green with a white border of crashing foam. The shape of Cap Gris Nez emerged, by my estimate about eight miles off to my right.

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"The shape of Cap Gris Nez emerged..."

We turned eastward and followed the coast until the smoke of Calais’ chimneys directed our way southeast, and from that point the shapes of large woods and the canals and main railway line guided us towards St-Omer. We approached the depot and airfield from the southwest and I searched for the section of field at which I’d been ordered to land. Salter had been here before and pointed at a row of hangars at the east end of the complex.

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"Salter had been here before and pointed at a row of hangars at the east end of the complex."

There was a inspection parade underway at the west end of the field and I made a point of passing overhead about fifty feet off the ground and scaring the dignitaries’ horses (I was later to learn that the parade was a reception for General Henderson, who had arrived from England only a short while earlier this day). I reported to the OC Pilots’ Pool, a pleasant fellow with the imposing name of Lieutenant W.F.C. Kennedy-Cochran-Patrick, who said that I should find my hut, get settled, and report to the hangars to get familiarised with machines other than the BE2, because I might be posted to a squadron flying any type. In the mess, I also learned that I was lucky to have found St-Omer at all, because the day before there had been a major fire in the Depot's bomb stores. Only a courageous effort by the major commanding the stores had saved the place from going up. [2]

I did so, and found that besides the ubiquitous BE2, there were two Bristol Scouts, a lone FE2, and one of the dreaded Moranes, of the type familiarly called a “Parasol.” One of the sergeants helped me into a Bristol and was talking me through its peculiarities when Lieut. Patrick appeared and told me to “get down from there.”

“You’ll never see a Bristol,” he said. “There are a few, but only for the experienced men. Let’s try you out on a Morane.” I stared at the thing, which occupied the other side of the same hangar. Its single wide wing hung from a central mast above the fuselage, looking more like the roof of a shed than a flying surface. It took little imagination to see the bloody thing separate itself from the machine in a tight turn. The tail was the real killer, though. The Morane lacked a proper tailplane. Instead, the entire tail surface was an elevator that pivoted on a central rod so that as the rear edge went up, the front edge went down. “Be very gentle with the elevator,” Patrick warned. “It’s twice as sensitive as you’d think, and it doesn’t take much to throw the nose into the ground as you try to lift off. Oh, and the stick is short for a tall fellow like you, so keep a grip on the thing.” I noticed what he meant. One would have to be an orangutan to hold the stick comfortably.

To my great relief, it had begun to snow and the wind was picking up. Patrick swore under his breath and suggested I put off my first flight here until the morning. I would at least live another few hours.


[1] David de Groot's Piccadilly Orchestra played the dining room of the Piccadilly Hotel throughout the war and the 1920s.

[2] Actually, Major Newall was the OC of 12 Sqn, based at St-Omer. He and a corporal broke into the storage shed and extinguished the flames, an action for which the Major received the Albert Medal. It is not known whether the corporal received anything other than burnt boots.

Attached Files de Groot.jpgCap Gris Nez.jpgArrival at St Omer.jpg