2nd Lieutenant Stanley rode alone in the first class carriage of the train to Dover. There were only a few soldiers travelling out to France at this port. Stanley himself was not going via the bitterly cold ferry crossing. His way was even more bitterly cold. Stanley was warm in his lonely carriage for now. He smiled as he remembered his final exchange with Diana. The young debutante had met him at Victoria station prior to his departure. “I bought you this,” Diana said, as she proffered an envelope. It was distorted slightly by something inside. “No. Don’t open it yet,” she told him. “Open it on the train.” William looked into Diana’s eyes, “The past few days have been very important to me. I want you to know that, Diana. I have been preparing to go back to France for so long, and here at the last you have given me a reason to regret going.” Diana gave him a mock serious look, tilting her head forward and pouting. “Now William. You know it is right and proper to do your duty by your country. I am so proud of you! I hope that you can return as soon as you can so that we might... renew our acquaintance?” Her alabaster hand gently touched the back of his. “I hope for nothing else, Diana.” Stanley checked the clock, “I have to go. I will write as soon as I can, so that you know how to find me.” Tears were welling in Diana’s eyes, “please do, please do. And William, one more thing...” Leaning forward, she kissed him on the lips. It was only for a moment, but it was a moment that blazed in Stanley’s memory.
As the train pulled away from the station, Stanley opened the envelope. Inside was a brooch in the shape of Pegasus, a photograph of Diana smiling gently and a letter.
My William, Every soldier should have a photograph of his sweetheart. I hope that I am not wrong in presuming that I am yours, even after so little time. But as you intend to make yourself some manner of knight in the skies, you should have an appropriate favour from your lady. Did you know that Pegasus was also a twin? His brother was called Chrysaor. This badge has a counterpart that will not leave my person. I hope to show it to you soon when you come back to me victorious. Be careful! Diana.
Stanley re-read the letter several times. He wondered who Chrysaor was for a while and went back to remembering Diana’s kiss.
Dover aerodrome was set behind the mess of barracks and other military facilities near the imposing castle. He reported to the duty office. “Have you ever flown across the channel before?” The adjutant looked at Stanley in his new flying coat that still creaked as he moved, “No,” Stanley replied. “After that climb past the castle, I think that nothing will daunt me though.” “It is a bit steep,” admitted the adjutant. “My advice is climb as high as you can. Don’t even set out to sea before you hit six thousand. Also, you are only going tomorrow.” “Tomorrow!” “Not enough daylight now. Get some rest and report here at dawn and we’ll send you off.”
1st Wing Headquarters, Aire Sur-la-Lys. The Château occupied by 1 Wing RFC was a place of refined French tastes, which served as a background to the tedium of administration. Stanley sat in one of the salons waiting for any instruction to come. He had thumbed through a book on the life of Wellington that had been left amongst the month old newspapers. He had just found an interesting episode involving Tipu Sultan when a stern faced officer opened the door and admitted another pilot. “Hullo,” the newcomer broke the silence of the waiting room. “Have you been here long?” Stanley put the book face down and smiled at the new arrival. “I’ve only been here a day. I ferried a BE2 in to St Omer only to be packed off here. They said I was urgently needed. I’ve been in this salon ever since.” “That’s the army for you.” The other pilot offered his hand, “Le Blanc-Smith, how d’you do.” “Stanley. Delighted to meet you. Are you just out too?” “Oh no. I’ve been with 18 for 2 months. I’m just here on squadron business. Any idea where you’re headed?” “16 I think. Unless they change their mind.” “They probably won’t.“
Le Blanc-Smith was called away after 20 minutes, leaving Stanley to wait alone once more. Finally there was a stirring in the next room and William was summoned. His tender had arrived. The Crossley trundled for half an hour of wet and grey country lanes before a sign indicated that the little town ahead was Merville. The town had the usual French traffic, but in this time of war, Stanley noticed that there were many British soldiers walking along lanes or sat outside cafés. “Resting behind the lines,” the driver explained over his shoulder. “Yes, I’ve been here before,” Stanley replied, watching two Tommies trying to negotiate with a washerwoman. “Or somewhere like it.”
After driving through the town and back out amongst the farms, the tender turned right onto a deeply rutted track. Up ahead was a russet coloured farmhouse with a few lorries parked outside. Beyond them, a cluster of canvas tents stood before the poplar lined river. “Merville aerodrome sir,” the driver told Stanley. “Not much to look at, but we are expanding across the river.” ------------------------------------------------------------------------
Stepping into the farmhouse, Stanley found the rooms being used as the squadron offices. They had clearly been a sitting room and a parlour before the RFC took over. The farmer’s furniture had been pushed against a wall to fit desks in. A 2nd Lt with wings on his tunic was acting ass adjutant.
“2nd Lieutenant Stanley, reporting for duty.” The adjutant looked up glumly. “Oh? A new one.” He waved for an orderly. “Take 2nd Lieutenant Stanley to the barge and give him the empty cabin.” The adjutant then returned to his paperwork. “Barge?” Stanley asked, but the adjutant ignored him. “This way sir,” the orderly took Stanley’s bags and beckoned him outside.
“Please don’t mind Lieutenant Ward sir,” the orderly said once they were outside the farmhouse. “He doesn’t mean it. The barge he mentioned is down here.” The man gestured toward the river. “The officer’s have their lodgings and their mess there. The old aerodrome is here to our right.” The orderly nodded to a small field by the river with hangars on the far side. “You might fly from here, but we have been moving across the river. It’s bigger.”
The barge was a large boat that had originally been laid down as a cargo barge but fitted as hospital accommodation before the CO of 16 squadron had acquired it somehow for his officers. It was large and spacious and afforded good views. Unfortunately it was the depths of winter and the view was miserable. Across the river and downstream a large open field had more tents, and hangars visible. Some men were busy building a wooden hut. “That’s the new field sir,” the porter indicated across the river. Beaupré farm, but they’ve taken to calling it ‘La Gorgue.’”
A week had passed since he had arrived at La Gorgue, but to Stanley time had dragged into a tortuous eternity. It seemed that no-one would talk to him. His attempts to make friends had been shrugged off. Not that anyone was very friendly with each other. Captain Gould of A flight gruffly rebuffed any attempt at conversation. Bodham-Whetham of B flight was Stanley’s flight commander, but he seemed to be avoiding him. Stanley didn’t even know who was in charge of C flight.
The Major was somehow worse. Dowding would mutter something to officers every now and again, but he didn’t seem to show any interest in their answers. They called him ‘stuffed shirt,’ and complained about how bad he was for moral. Stanley had been up for a few familiarisation flights in a BE2c. The west airfield was a tiny L shaped field that was looked terrible to get back onto. Across the river the new field was... unusual. On the marshy ground between two rivers, four runways had been laid out in grey ashes. They looked like a crude union flag on the earth. The ground was marshy and any attempt to land outside the ash lines would result in the wheels bogging down. Or the aeroplane tipping over in a drainage ditch.
After the first two days bad weather had stopped all flying. Since no-one wanted to talk to him, Stanley found the waiting miserable.
“Things look like they're clearing up,” Major Dowding mumbled to his captains at dinner. “Arrange crews for the morning. There is a lot of work outstanding.”
“Veitch, Stanley, Thayre, Hardy, Storey. In the flight office at 7 on the dot.” Boddam-Whetham warned his flight. For the rest of the evening Stanley could barely contain his excitement. They were going to do something. His first sortie!
Three BE2cs plodded through scattered cloud on their way to their assigned batteries. They were in a group now but Stanley knew that they would split up over the batteries to observe different guns and range them for the artillery. When the trio were over St Villers. Stanley was watching the ground below in fascination. The way that the trenches stood out from the air amazed him. He had spent time in trenches, but had never realised how obvious their positions were to aerial observation.
There was a sudden noise that startled Stanley from his reverie. Three monoplanes were right behind the BE2s and were shooting at them!
Stanley’s heart was in his mouth. He pushed the stick forward and the aeroplane dove abruptly. Then he pushed on the rudder and swerved before regaining some altitude. He looked around for the Eindekker even as his observer, Storey, heaved on the Lewis gun and tried to get a bead on something nearby.
Stanley saw a trail of smoke and was surprised to see that it was a monoplane, curving away. Another Eindekker was flying away eastwards. Storey pointed down and to Stanley’s right.
The last Eindekker was chasing Thayre and Hardy. Hardy was firing away with his Lewis gun, but the black crossed machine was flying low, hiding below the tail of the British machine.
Stanley dived and throttled back. Slowly the Eindekker came into Storey’s field of fire. The captain fired off a brief burst. Even over the roar of the engine, the rattle of the machine gun was painfully load above Stanley’s head.
The Eindekker dived away and turned eastwards. The BE2s were alone again in the sky.
When C flight finally landed back at La Gorgue, Stanley excitedly ran over to check on Thayre and Hardy. “Did we get that one?” “I dont’ think we can claim anything,” Hardy replied. “He left before things got dangerous for him. Thanks for encouraging him to ****er off.”
---------------------------------------- ---------------------------------------- Good stories gents. And congratulations on the first claim Lou. I was lucky. I was too busy looking at the ground to think about the sky. The Eindekkers really did get the jump on me. Luckily he was a rotten shot or I wouldn’t have had time to dodge. Historically, Diana married an army captain in 1919. Maybe it didn't work out with William. Maybe it did but he didn't survive DiD. We shall have to see...