For the RFC pilots, life is becoming interesting. I think the Fokker plant has put on a night shift because we're running into the things more and more. MFair, good job at getting away in one piece. Carrick, is your Mr. Notting a short form for "Notting left but buttons." Leave the bombs alone, please! Wulfe, that was a brave move. I'll keep my fingers crossed you get a confirmation by the time you're out of the hospital. And Lederhosen, that is one beautiful livery!
An Airman’s Odyssey – by James Arthur Collins Part Thirteen: In which I narrowly avoid getting holes in me
The next few days were clear and cold, but by now I was becoming quite the old hand at dressing for long patrols. I now flew nearly always with Captain Mealing, who commanded our “A” Flight. I flew to the Captain’s left and, typically, the steadfast Sergeant Bayetto took station to the right. On the 24th the captain spotted for the heavy guns up north by Ploegstraat, or “Plugstreet” as it was invariably called. We saw some Huns off to the north, but they were not game for a scrap so we went about our business in peace.
It rained all the following day, so I wandered down to the public baths in Auchel for a proper wash-up, and then enjoyed a lunch of eggs and chips and beer. According to the papers, in England they have passed a Conscription Act. Married men are exempt. I’m sure love is in the air all over these days.
I got permission from Major Harvey-Kelly to build myself a small shed on the aerodrome so that I can stay closer to the field when I’m on duty. He said I’m free to use my own resources, but I am to stay clear of the carpenter’s stores, although I may borrow tools. I have begun to make sketches and consult with some of the chaps who know more than I about building.
That night at dinner, the dispatch rider from Wing arrived with the next day’s operations. Our flight was given the longest patrol I’d yet flown. We were to fly far to the south, nearly to the Somme itself. There the captain would take photographs of the Hun defences about Fricourt, where the enemy were building the most formidable positions in depth – line after line of strongpoints and wire, much of it beyond the range of our guns.
Rain fell all the morning on 26 January, washing away the last of the snow of the previous week, but it cleared towards noon. We took off after one o’clock: Mealing, Bayetto, and me. There was some scattered cloud around 1500 feet, but above that the sky was brilliantly clear. The smoke from Bapaume’s chimneys passed by on the left and the captain began his first beat – north to south – while Lieut Talbot, his observer, leaned over the side and began to take his photographs.
We were on the third beat when Sergeant Bayetto dashed in front of the flight commander, waggling his wings. Three specks were approaching from the south about 2000 feet above us, and within seconds one could make out that they were Fokker monoplanes. Talbot stowed his camera and we swung about to the west. My engine was not giving full revs and I bled off some height so as not to be left alone. The other two Moranes were lost to sight, hidden by my wing if indeed they were there at all. I cursed the Gnôme rotary that refused to give its normal reassuring roar. And then it came – bop, bop, bop, bop, bop, bop – a hammering sound. My instruments shattered and two spidery holes appeared in the Triplex screen in front of me. I heard Theobald, my observer, firing away (Russel was on leave).
"And then it came – bop, bop, bop, bop, bop, bop – a hammering sound."
Mealing had told me not to look about if I heard a Hun’s machine guns but to simply weaver or half-loop under the HA. I forgot that and looked about. I saw past Theobald’s arm the sinister cowling and straight wings of a Fokker scarcely twenty yards behind me. And there was a second Fokker diving on us behind that one. Now at last I half-rolled. Theobald’s gun clattered away. He stopped to change drums and I turned west for a few seconds, only to hear the chatter of the German’s machine gun again. I banked vertically left, dropping down a few hundred more feet. Theobald was back in action, firing first to his right and then his left.
"I saw past Theobald’s arm the sinister cowling and straight wings of a Fokker scarcely twenty yards behind me. And there was a second Fokker diving on us behind that one."
That is when I noticed the mixture lever in the wrong position. I hadn’t intentionally touched it, but there it was. I enriched the mixture and the engine responded with a healthy growl. Now I zoomed and turned back at the Huns. One of them broke away but the other turned to get behind us. I did another half-loop downwards and dived to the west. It took about thirty second for the Hun to close on us and when he did, we zoomed again and Theobald gave him another drum, firing until the Lewis jammed.
Now we were purely defensive. I weaved and rolled while Theobald pounded at the cocking handle. Finally I heard his drum fall to the floor and he must have loaded another quickly, for he was instantly back in action. We were down to 1500 feet now and passing over our reserve trenches. At last the Hun turned back. It was strictly forbidden of course, but Theobald passed me his package of Black Cats. We each huddled deep in our cockpits and lit our cigarettes. I nearly froze my hand cupping the things for five minutes while we flew to the edge of Albert and turned north. But the feeling of relief at escaping from what seemed certain death was marvellous.
Back at Auchel, Mealing and Bayetto were duly impressed by my machine’s twenty bullet holes. It got us home though, and I’m becoming rather fond of the Morane. Poor Theobald was despondent, though. He'd fired off four drums and the Fokkers were untouched, or so he was certain.