Screenshots failed to save again! 'K' is the right button to press, isn't it? I blame Hun Spies...
Sgt. Graham A. Campbell, No. 20 Squadron R.F.C, St. Omer, France.
20th - 21st January, 1916.
I awoke late in the day to the droning of ‘A’ flight’s engines, as they took off for the morning patrol. ‘B’ Flight had been scheduled for an afternoon reconnaissance photoshoot. Rather than heading again to the Vincent, I decided to mill around the aerodrome, idly chatting with Ack-Emmas and pilots of No. 12 RFC - the other squadron based with us at St. Omer. No. 12 were on B.E’s and had suffered at the hands of the Fokker Eindecker - which, as we are quickly learning from No. 12 and ‘A’ Flight, are the scourge of our machines. At around Noon I bumped into Switch-off, who, to our happiness, has brightened up since his bout of homesickness in Netheravon. He beamed at me from above his crimson scarf, which now never left his neck (apparently he will even sleep wearing it, unless Jacky-Boy is having me on!) and begun to blurt out details of his first sortie to the lines. “Oh, Graham! It was extraordinary! Mud for miles and miles!”. I smiled, and nodded. “Yes, it’s quite the sight” I responded, feeling a strange sense of pity at the youngster’s enthusiasm, as for a brief moment the image of a burning Aviatik flashed into my mind. Absent-mindedly I allowed Switch-off to continue his creeping barrage of recollections, merely smiling and nodding automatically at the end of his sentences. Finally, the lad blurted out something about a “Letter to Mother” and merrily skipped away towards the Officers’ Mess. I breathed out heavily, and checked my watch. 14:30. Time to prepare for our flight.
Poor old 6338 was still being patched up by the Ack-Emmas, and so I was able to talk Archer into letting me borrow his bus, A6333. I mustn’t put a scratch on her, or Archer will have my head! He really has bonded with his machine, and constantly orders (and oversees) maintenance of the engine, guns, fabric, and just about anything else he can imagine might deteriorate on the aeroplane. As I donned my flying gear beside 6333, which was being given one final look over by the NCOs, Edith appeared before me, already fully equipped for our flight, the stench of whale grease invading my senses as he drew closer. Silently, he handed me the tub of the evil stuff, and I reluctantly applied the paste without a word. As I did so, Edith grinned at me, the corners of his thick black moustache curling upwards like that of a circus Strongman. Not long after, Graves appeared with his observer, closely followed by Reid, and we all climbed aboard our Fees. Props were swung, Chocks were cleared away, and we were off.
By now I was familiar with the route to Bethune, and scarcely needed to consult my map. As we approached the front lines, at 2300 feet, we formed a right edge formation, with Reid’s Reccie Bus in the middle, to protect from any possible attack from the front or rear. I sat at the back of the formation, which, admittedly, made me twitch slightly. Early that morning, some of the No. 12 boys were telling me that being ‘Tail End Charlie’, as they called the rearmost aeroplane, meant that the Hun would shoot you before anybody else! Ahead of me, Edith slowly scanned the skies, that same stone-faced coldness about him that he had when we attacked the Aviatiks. Out in front of us, there was a bright flash on the ground, and then I watched in amazement as in the same instant tonnes of earth were thrown skyward, hundreds of feet into the air. It was the beginning of an artillery barrage, fired by our guns on the German positions. Awestruck, I watched as explosion after explosion rocked the earth, one shell landing squarely on top of a farmhouse and simply causing it to vanish, as great clouds of dust raised up angrily and charged West, seeking revenge on the British artillerymen.
We passed the carnage by, and begun to list to the right, for Reid to make his photography run. In the Nacelle of his machine ahead, I saw his Observer lean over the side sickeningly in order to get as little of their Bus into the photograph as possible. I shuddered as I watched - any sudden movements by Reid and he would be tossed out the machine for sure! But Reid was a steady hand, and his Observer stayed put. By now the sky was darkening, the sun casting the clouds in a delicate pink hue, and above our heads the stars began to break through the blue. We circled back towards our own lines, and prepared for a second pass - we would have to act quickly, before the daylight became too dim. Looping around the outskirts of the still-ongoing artillery barrage, Reid’s observer again stood up, readying his camera. At once something caught my eye, an instant flash of light ahead of us. Archie? No - we were too close to our lines. There was another, closer, and this time Edith ducked down in the nacelle, turning back to face me with a worried look on his face. I looked out towards our lines and saw the flash of guns - then, to my shock, I caught a split-second glimpse of an artillery shell as it screamed past. Suddenly realising that we were in-between the guns and their target, and low enough to be right in the line of shot, panic rose in my throat and I gripped the flight stick with white knuckles until we had circled past and away from the arc of fire. Ahead of me, I saw Reid’s observer had ducked back into his seat - they must have noticed the shells too.
By the time Reid had made his second photography run, there was barely any daylight left, and the sky had darkened considerably. Within our own lines, a great white searchlight split the sky in half, slowly tracking something unseen to us, likely a Hun performing a similar task to us. Surely we would never make it back in daylight - a dreaded night-time landing awaited us. Edith knew this too, as I saw him check his wristwatch, frowning, before shooting me another concerned look. I nodded in acknowledgement, and we both turned to stare at Graves, willing him silently to turn us homeward. To our dismay, he instead looped around for a third reconnaissance run. I looked again at the cockpit clock - 4:35 PM. The sky would be pitch black by 5PM, and the ground too. Holding my breath, I followed our long arcing turn to reset our photography run. It seemed far too dark to take any useful pictures by now. We made our third run, and then, to mine and Edith’s elation, Graves turned us for home. We had one more grievance in store, however. As we flew over our trenches, our boys started firing up at us! Our Bus, or rather Archer’s Bus, was hit 6 times. I’m sure I will have to buy his drinks for a week.
As it turned out, I had been rather too dramatic about the dark, as it was a full moon that night and the moon’s rays afforded us enough visibility to make a comfortable landing. Once Edith and I had de-planed and removed our flying gear, we were approached by Jacky-Boy, who had organised a squadron evening trip into St. Omer, in order to conjure up all manner of mischief. Joined by Switch-off, Jimmy Reynard, Archer (whose drinks I did indeed need to supply), Pearson, Reid, and Edwards.
Staying true to his form, Pearson stumbled upon a piano in one of the drinking establishments we encountered, and we stayed there until twelve O’Clock barking out Patriotic songs and getting entirely too merry, before those of us that hadn’t passed out (which didn’t include poor young Switch-off, who we’d shamefully left asleep on a table two taverns ago) eventually made our way back towards St. Omer aerodrome.
As it turns out, our binge couldn’t have come at a worse time, for the next morning we were shaken awake by Cpl. Weston, with the most unwelcome news that we were transferring to Clairmarais. Falling out of bed, we clawed our uniforms on and stumbled out onto the aerodrome, where our Fees awaited us. Of course, Edith and I were among the unlucky airmen scheduled to fly a Bus, rather than drive over with the NCO convoy, and so I climbed into old 6338, rather wishing that the Tommies in the trenches yesterday had aimed better. Our bus seemed to relish in our torment, the sound of the engine piercing our skulls as we lifted into the sky alongside the other two ‘B’ flight Fees, and after a short and most unpleasant flight, in which Edith was sick over the side of the Nacelle, we arrived at our new home. We fell out of our machine, and I turned to Edith. “You were sick…” I mumbled, dumbly, and he shot me a cold look. “Aye, I was aimin’ fir a Hun sheep” he sarcastically responded. I managed a weak chuckle.
Clairmarais was considerably smaller than St. Omer, but we had it to ourselves. The Major and the Captains (including Edith) stayed in a lovely large country estate that sat just behind the hangars. Our Adjutant, Lt. Ellicott, also set his office up in this building. The rest of us were Billeted in St. Omer - and I was not far away from the Vincent! I was eager to visit Jeanne again, but before I got the chance Edith arrived with orders for me. “Switch-Aff’s at No. 1 Depot. He wandered in aboot fifteen minutes after we left. Goan’ over an’ get him, will ye, before the Major catches wind of our wee night raid to Omer!”. And so, enlisting the services of Cpl. Weston as a chauffeur, we went back across to St. Omer and picked up the fragile-looking young lad. He was the picture of misery when we finally collected him, and upon arrival at his Billet (which was on the second floor of the small town-house Jacky-Boy, Jimmy Reynard and I were staying in) he remained in bed for the day. Alcohol certainly doesn’t agree with him yet!
Some good news came when we re-assembled on the aerodrome at two O’clock. We were all to be free of flying duties for the next three days, save for Graves, who was to return to St. Omer to collect a Martinsyde that No. 20 had been charged with evaluating. For the rest of the day I thought it wise not to call upon Jeanne - at least, not in my after-binge state! Jacky-Boy, however, was not to be deterred, and at the first opportunity headed to the Vincent. He returned to our Billet fifteen minutes later, in a mood. “Engine trouble?” I teased. “Oh, shut up, Graham,” he retorted, slamming the door to his room as Jimmy Reynard and I burst into a fit of laughter.
I spent the remainder of the afternoon assembling photographs that Edith had given me into an impromptu scrapbook, fashioned from one of our standard issue notebooks.
Capt. Ken Edith, after a clean shave, taken by Jacky-Boy.