Enjoying everybody's stories! I've been playing catch-up a little bit, but catch up I did!
Sgt. Graham A. Campbell,
St. Omer Aerodrome, France.
No. 20 Squadron RFC.
January 15 - January 19.
I have been in France for four days now.
On the afternoon of the 15th Archer and I were joined by 2nd Lt. Justin Edwards - we were the last of the 20 Squadron Aeroplanes to leave Netheravon, and we were all on B.E’s. As my machine lifted into the sky, Edith peering over the edge of the front cockpit and waving goodbye to the hangars, I felt a sense of exhilaration at the thought that, in only three hours, I would be at St. Omer, our new home in France! It was only as we banked towards the Southern coast that I realised we had to get across the English Channel first.
During the water crossing, Edith’s face no longer wore his trademark grin. Instead, he sat painfully still, one hand gripping the side of the cockpit. The man had turned white as a sheet - when I asked him about his reaction later, he told me of the countless horror stories he had heard at Netheravon, of pilots engines’ failing in the middle of the Channel, where no machine can glide to land from. Not a soul in that predicament had survived.
By any means, our three B.E’s made it across safe and sound, and we landed at the Aeroplane Depot at St. Omer to collect our new F.E.2s. Edith and I picked out A6338 for ourselves - the rigger at the Depot scoffed at our choice, and let slip “Good luck to you!”, but any of the machines waiting for us were a marked improvement on the B.E’s we arrived in - so we were perfectly content with our choice as we lifted again for the second leg of our journey!
The sky was fading to dusk as we approached our new aerodrome, the Cirrus clouds above bronzed by the sun’s rays against a salmon-pink sky. Ahead of us Edith pointed out a lone Fee wheeling around the sky gaily - it was Jacky-Boy, up getting the lay of the land as per the Major’s instruction. We landed smoothly, as did Archer and Edwards, and de-planed, pulling off our cold-stiff flying gear. A Batman, Cpl. Weston, appeared before us in order to get us all billetted and settled in - after a cup of tea, naturally!
Of course, the Officers were given first refusal on what billetts were available. For the most part, they shacked up in two lovely red-tile roofed halls, which sat just to the rear of the fabric hangars (or at least, the spot in which the hangars would be!). The Commissioned pilots took control of one such hall, and the Observers took the other. Jacky-Boy decided to take Switch-off under his wing, and the pair are sharing a cozy little ‘room’ - thin drywall has been put up to create rooms in the building.
I was to share a large brick building with my compatriots from Netheravon - Archer and Jimmy Reynard. Fortunately, the airfield was excellently equipped for our outfit, and we had the entire Sergeant’s quarters to ourselves! This led to an episode of arranging the beds into two ‘forts’, in a drunken bout of nonsense, which we then proceeded to use as two ‘bases’ for our (rather distasteful, for poor old Jimmy,) re-enactment of the various battles fought in Scottish wars of independence, of old. This eventually led to the iron boiler earning the weird nickname of ‘Stirling Bridge’ after, in an impressive feat of rough-housing, in which Jimmy threw Archer and I, one by one, halfway across the floor and crashing into our ‘Castle’! If Edith had seen it, he may have put the red-headed brawler in for a M.C. But, where were the other NCOs?!
As Weston later explained, once we’d sought him out, the road transport column had become stuck in Rouen, due to the constant sluggish flow of vehicles down the veins of roads, all pumping towards the heart that was the frontlines. On top of that, the convoy had apparently run short on fuel, and would have to stop for more. So - we had arrived, but all of our supplies had not! Nor had the 95-or-so NCOs, including our Ack-Emmas, that left with the convoy - us Sergeant Pilots and Cpl. Weston were the only enlisted men on the aerodrome for now - a daunting thought!
As for our machines, the best three were crowded into the three rickety old wooden workshops for the time being. Our six-or-so fabric hangars were still in Rouen with the convoy! The rest of the machines were simply tied down and left outside.
The next morning, after Archer, Jimmy and I had hastily disassembled our castles and re-arranged the quarters into a presentable condition, Edith and I boarded A6338 and, after Weston had spun our prop (a spectacle in a Fee - he had to duck under the rear struts and stand in-among the ‘birdcage’ tail!) we took off into a foreboding cloudy sky in order to familiarize ourselves with the landscape. East-by-Northeast of us was the city of St. Omer, and just to the Southeast is Lumbres. Both serve as such good landmarks that I scarcely bothered checking the roads and railway lines! We ventured slightly further East, getting as far as the sleepy town of Hazebrooke before turning back. I am very glad of the two large towns near our aerodrome, as there don’t appear to be many landmarks in the immediate area otherwise! Later in the evening, the Major organised our squadron into three flights. I was assigned to ‘B’ flight.
Then, the big day came - the one that we had been equal parts dreading and anticipating - our first excursion to the frontlines.
The day had already gotten off to a good start, as we awoke to the sound of the mass of trucks arriving. Our convoy was here! Immediately after pulling up, NCOs piled out and begun feverishly working to flesh-out the skeleton of our aerodrome. Tents appeared from thin air, hangars were erected in record time, all before our eyes an aerodrome seemed to materialise from out of the silver morning dew!
In among the organised chaos, three Fees were wheeled onto the field by a ragtag group of Ack-Emmas. Edith and I were to make our maiden voyage to the lines alongside two new arrivals to the Squadron, Capt. Graves, an ex. Royal Field Artillery man who was to be our leader in ‘B’ Flight, and 2nd. Lt. Reid. We had been ordered by the Major himself to fly out to Givenchy, in sector FF4105, in order to “get used to flying over the mud”.
As we boarded our machine I was terribly braced, and shared in Edith’s grin as the recently-arrived Ack-Emmas spun my prop (more efficiently than poor old Cpl. Weston), and soon we had lifted, headed East! I was practically buzzing with excitement as Cpt. Graves pointed our flight of three towards Lillers, and found myself already scanning the skies for marauding huns! Edith, I noticed, was doing just the same.
We initially headed East down low, as the sky was nice and blue but heavily clouded, with plenty of low Cumulus. As we passed by the Etang de Romelaere (a small lake, the name of which I learned from our Louvert Mapping Co. Maps, which are excellently detailed), Edith swung around to face me, with the widest cheshire-grin I’ve seen him wear yet, and leaned back to pat me roughly on the shoulder, as if to say “This is it, here we go!”. I laughed and waved him away, as he had effectively completely limited my forward view! Laughing, he slumped back into his seat and begun to restlessly check the Lewis gun in the front Nacelle.
Finally we turned Eastwards over St. Omer, and opened our throttles full. For the third time so far, I was surprised at the extra power the 160hp Beardmore had over the B.E’s 90hp engine. Cpt. Graves led us into a long spiralling climb around St. Omer, during which Edith got out his Eastman Kodak Brownie, a lovely little personal camera which he tended to carry around with him wherever he went, and took a photograph of Reid’s Fee, out in front of us. Thoughtfully, he took a second photograph for me - if this becomes a trend, I will have quite the scrap-book to show around by the time we’ve won the war!
At 7,000 Ft. we headed towards the Front. The trip out was uneventful, save for a chance encounter with a pair of F.E’s from ‘A’ Flight, returning from their own ‘inspection of the Lines’. We waved to each other in passing.
Finally, the front came into view - a shocking dark scar, splitting France’s face in two - and I peered down at the awful hell and carnage below. God, the pictures in the papers barely did it justice, it was a horrendous sight. Edith’s camera stayed put as we crossed over the first darkened patches of mud. Below, I could make out the silent black lines of trenches, stretching out across the front, and felt a surge of pity for the men that had to occupy them. I wonder if my old outfit, the Sherwood Foresters, were down among those trenches I was regarding from the safety of the clouds. For an instant my pity turned to guilt. Just across the lines, the ominous shape of a German ‘Drachen’, or Sausage, balloon hung in the sky, silently watching over the fields of battle. I was at once thrilled to be looking at the enemy for the first time, and would have gone over to attack the balloon, had I not been bound to my flight leader!
We drifted close, but not over, the German lines, and I peered down at them. I saw nothing, but knew that thousands of enemy troops must be down there. Grinning like a child as he did so, Edith pointed the gun towards the lines, before turning back to me and winking. We didn’t linger long - Capt. Graves circled around, with Reid and I in tow, back onto our side. We had scarcely been over the front longer than 10 minutes, however, when the engine behind me suddenly backfired and begun to rumble and groan in an awfully worrying way, before lurching to a halt. It had stopped completely! Concernedly, Edith looked back at me, as I listed away from the formation, firing a distress flare as I did so, and begun to gradually descend. I tried to shout for Edith to find a nearby aerodrome on his map for us to land at, but the wind tore away my voice. Cautiously, I continued my descent and switched the Magnetos off, to prevent a fire should we crash upon landing.
To our right was Bethune - looking at my map, I spotted Hesdigneul Aerodrome nearby, to the South-West. I swung the now-silent Fee around and begun scanning the ground for the aerodrome. Ah, there it is. Gradually I let the Fee fall, calculating where I would need to be, and at what height, in order to make the landing. After a few hair-raising moments, we were down safe and sound, and the Ack-Emmas of No.15 squadron lazily strolled towards us. “Enjun Trooble, Seh?” A Liverpudlian Corporal called out to me, as I hoisted myself from the Nacelle, followed by Edith. I went to respond, but Edith, of course being my senior as a Captain, responded on my behalf. “Aye, she cut oot aroon’ 7,000 feet an’ we had tae glide her in. Hope we’re no causing any bother!”. The Corporal seemed taken aback by the Captain’s lack of condescending tone. “We’ll ‘ave ‘er fixed up right away, seh. I’ll let the Adjutant know yer’ here”. He responded, before gesturing to the other Ack-Emmas to wheel the machine in. As he scampered off, Edith called after him “Call St. Omer - Tell ‘em that Captain Edith and Sergeant Campbell are safely down!”. The corporal waved a hand in acknowledgement.
We lunched with a Captain Ellicott in the Officers’ mess - a rare luxury for me - as Edith nattered away about matters and grievances that occur above my station, before a sheepish knock on the door announced the reappearance of our Scouse Ack-Emma. Poking his head through the door, he spoke: “Seh, your machine is ready t’ go”. Edith beamed. “Why, thank ye, Corporal! Well, we’ll no take up any mair o’ yir time. Thank ye for the lunch!”. And with that, we were promptly off and back into A6338, and within minutes we were back up in the air and heading back to St. Omer. Upon our return, our chief mechanic, a rather cynical fellow, insisted that our bus remain grounded until the next day while he doubly-inspected the work of the 15 Squadron mechanics.
On the morning of the 18th I was pleased to see that ‘B’ flight wasn’t scheduled to go up until quarter-to-three. With the whole day free, Jacky-Boy and I went on an excursion to St. Omer by car (with an unfortunate Ack-Emma conscripted as a chauffeur). I found it to be a beautiful city, yet untouched by the creeping hell of war only a few miles East. Tall, white houses lined the streets, and a Churchyard by a bridge crossing a small stream was a particularly pleasant sight. The people seemed quiet, reserved. Probably hoping the war wouldn’t decimate their homes.
We made our way to a quaint little Cafe - the Vincent - and stepped inside, where we were met with an ocean of green RFC Uniforms. Aha! So we had found the correct locale! We took a seat and a petite, attractive waitress approached us. “Good Morning, Monsieurs!” She happily chirped. “Coffee?”. I nodded. “Please.” She poured the coffee, which tasted exquisite, and beamed at us before running off to fetch us both a menu. We looked through, and were surprised by the variety, given that a war was on! We eventually settled on the breakfast hastily pencilled in at the bottom, which simply read - “Anglais petit déjeuner ”, and were thrilled when a Full English, complete with fried sausages and tomatoes, appeared before us, brought over by the same waitress. “Ah, mon héroïne!” Jacky-Boy explained, and attempted to put an arm around her waist, which was batted away at a speed to rival our Fees. She laughed, backing away from my eager colleague, and spread her arms out. “Monsieur, do you not see all these Aviateurs? You’ll have to do better than them all!” she chuckled, before winking and striding away. The pilots around us chuckled, before going back to their individual conversations.
“Oh, she is delightful,” Jacky-Boy said, grinning at me, and I laughed and shrugged. “True, but it is as the young Mademoiselle says - she has her share of suitors already, clearly!”. Jacky-Boy’s eyes glinted. “No match for me, dear boy. You’ll see”. I laughed again. “Just don’t go into a spin, Jacky-Boy!”. “Whyever not? She has plenty of rudder to kick, I’ll get out of it juuuust fine”. I choked on my coffee.
We made it back with an hour to spare before ‘B’ Flight’s sortie, and I decided to write a quick letter home, detailing my arrival at France and my first experience of the lines and an unintended engine failure. At half-past two, Edith found me and we donned our flying gear. Edith handed me a tub of foul-smelling paste. “Here, boyo, get this oan yer face. It’s whale grease- it keeps the cold awa’ “. Grimacing at the odour, I heeded the Captain’s order.
Laughing merrily at my screwed-up face, Edith slapped me on the back with a force that sent me a step forward. “Ach, ye’ll get used tae the smell in no time at all!”. Miserably I reflected on my own chances with the young waitress if I were to continue wearing the whale grease, as we boarded old A6338.
Our briefing was nice and simple - local, too. We were to make a quick sweep over Boisdinghem, only about 10 miles West of us, before returning to land. To me, it seemed rather like a waste of fuel. Why would we be at any risk so far behind the lines? But, the Major had deemed it necessary, and so up we went in our three F.E.2s. Anyway, the sky was beautifully clear and the wind was low - a perfect flying day!
We happily cruised along for a while near St. Omer, when suddenly I noticed that Edith was staring intently upwards and to the right. I followed his gaze, but saw nothing. Focusing my eyes, I stared into the blue, and picked up three specks. One was far larger than the others, which appeared to be mono-wing designs. A B.E.2 being escorted by two Morane-Saulnier monoplanes. Curious - I was under the impression that only the French used those monoplanes! My interest quickly faded, and I turned back to watch Cpt. Graves’ machine. Ahead of me, Edith seemed agitated and, to my surprise, he begun to ready his Lewis gun. What the devil had gotten into him?
We completed our patrol, and after we landed Edith jumped down from the Nacelle grinning ear-to-ear. “Ha! Guess they Huns didnae fancy it, eh?” he boomed, and I looked at him, puzzled. “Huns? What huns?”. “Och, the Fokkers that went over us!” he retorted, and I gasped. Of course! No, the RFC didn’t have Morane scouts - but they looked just like Eindeckers! And the B.E - why, it must have been an Aviatik!
The 19th begun similarly to the previous day - no sortie until 3PM, plenty of time to visit the the Vincent Cafe, and its alluring waitress. It was less crowded this time, but still peppered by RFC types. As expected, the waitress appeared. “Hello again, Monsieur. Coffee?” I nodded, smiling. “Your eager friend is not with you today,” she stated, as she poured the coffee. “No, he’s out flying this morning”. I replied, and she sighed. “Yes, the mornings can be lonely in here” she replied, and I looked up. Absentmindedly I let slip the response of “Ah, but pretty girls like you don’t ever really get lonely”. “Quoi?” she exclaimed, and leaned back. I went red. “Oh, I, erm, my apologies”. With one hand on her hip, she cocked her head to the side and smirked at me. “You Aviateurs are all so forward!”. I laughed nervously. “A slip of the tongue. Not my intent. Why, I don’t even know your name yet!”. The corners of her mouth flicked upwards. “Jeanne”. I downed my coffee in one go. “Graham”. She extended a hand, which I shook. “Well, Graham, it is a pleasure. Your Coffee is finished - would you like more?”. I paused. “Well, actually, do you happen to have any teas here?” her eyebrow raised in amusement. “Huh. Well, I shall have a look”.
After Jeanne had fished out an old tin of green tea, and I had enjoyed a cup with my breakfast, I made my way back to St. Omer aerodrome in plenty of time for our sortie. Edith appeared, and nodded to me. “Ah, afternoon, Graham. Oot on the Toon again? Fin’ yersel’ a girl there?” he teased, and for the second time I went red. “No,” I lied. “Aye well, forget her because we’ve to look after an observation balloon today. The Hun have been sending Fokkers over te have a crack at it all morning”.
And so, Three O’Clock came around and we boarded our machines, lifting into the sky. Graves led us over St. Omer, where we began to climb. Our balloon was over Bethune, in sector FB6155 - not too far to go. Along the way I listened carefully to my engines, and kept my eyes peeled for huns behind our lines.
Over the mud, the RPM of A6338 begun to drop, and I feared that the temperamental old girl would cut out on us again. Fortunately, she stayed in the air this time. I now see what the Ack-Emma at the Depot meant! As we circled South-West the sun hit our eyes. Squinting, I stared into the light and made out the silhouettes of two machines, coming our way from the English lines. As I stared, I took in the details of their silhouette. Ahead of me, Edith stared also. Squinting, I begun to think that….yes! Aviatiks! I tried to signal Graves, then Reid, but their engines were obscuring their view of me, so I tapped Edith on the shoulder, and pointed. All the laughter gone from his face, and looking scarily serious, he nodded to me. So, it was settled. I begun to climb up to meet the Hun. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Graves and Reid doing the same. We approached the Huns from their front, and without any hesitation Edith fired a quick burst at them. Alarmed, the Huns wavered in the air, before deciding to continue straight over their heads. I followed from below, but Edith’s gun couldn’t get high enough to reach them. Not the front gun, at least…
I levelled out, and begun to overtake the two Aviatiks. Seeing my plan, Edith immediately jumped up and charged the rear-facing Lewis, pointing it upwards in anticipation. I grinned as he started firing up at the Huns, but the top wing obscured my view of the action. I drifted off-course and Edith waved me left, so I turned in to the Aviatiks once more and this time we approached from behind. Edith really let the trailing Hun have it this time, and I let out a cheer as it’s lower Starboard wing broke away! But, the tough German machine merely wobbled, and kept flying. At that point I strayed too close and a hail of gunfire suddenly tore through our machine. In shock, I peeled away, but Edith waved us back on. Steeling my nerves, I continued to chase the wounded Aviatik - we were now getting dangerously close to the Hun lines.
This time, I approached below the tail of the Hun, putting his tail between his observer and us. Edith took aim and fired upwards again, into the fuselage. As we watched, a thin snake-tongue appeared at the side of the aeroplane. I blinked, and looked again...yes, still there! As I watched, the tongue grew, and before my very eyes the Aviatik was suddenly engulfed in flames. Listing away to the side, it fell straight down. It was a terrible sight, and I felt perfectly sick at the thought of the Huns in the machine, burning as they fell. Edith was the man with the gun - he must have felt even worse. We didn’t think of the poor old Hun for long - we had drifted over the lines, and overstayed our welcome, and now Archie was hammering away around us. It was my first time being archied, and it was terrifying. As we flew I could hear the whistle and see the white-hot streams of shrapnel coursing past, and the aeroplane shook with every near-miss. One particularly close burst sent us several feet upwards. Edith gripped the sides of the Nacelle with both hands as we made a desperate run back towards our own lines.
Eventually, the hellish Flak subsided, and we gratefully drifted across the lines. I looked out to the wings, and saw several holes through them from the Aviatik’s return fire, as well as a snapped spar in the upper Port wing. Fearing that the aeroplane may break apart under stress, I made the decision to land at the first English aerodrome I saw. Embarrassingly, we ended up putting in at Hesdigneul again, and we were greeted by our Scouse friend, who whistled as he looked at the bullet holes in our machine. “Busy day, Seh?” he remarked, and the pair of us started laughing like idiots.
Needless to say, the Major was not impressed with us, and coldly ordered us to make our reports, ignoring our claim of an Aviatik sent down in flames.
That night, we had an almighty binge in the mess.
1) A6638 was one of the original FE2sin service with No. 20 Squadron.
2) As written, when No.20 arrived at St. Omer, their supplies, which were travelling by road, along with 99(!) NCOs, was stuck behind them due to fuel issues and overcrowded roads!
3) In the town of St. Omer there was a real Vincent cafe, with a real 'Jeanne', who was adored by RFC personnel for her fantastic coffee! Although, our Jeanne has received a little bit of the Hollywulfe treatment
Additional Note: Regrettably, it seems that WOFF hasn't saved any of the screenshots I took during my sorties. Sorry