Raine - Glad to see Collins up an at 'em again! MFair - gave me a bloody scare there! Glad the R.F.C's resident cowboy is still kicking. Carrick - Best of luck with your new man! Good to see another French pilot over the front. Scout - Thank god for escorts, eh? Hope you get a scout of your own soon! Fullofit - I must admit - that crate of yours makes me jealous! Hopefully the Major doesnt have you using it for ground attack too much
Sgt. Graham A. Campbell No. 20 Squadron R.F.C, Clairmarais Aerodrome, France.
March 9th, 1916 (Continued).
After we had had our morning cup of coffee, Jimmy Reynard pulled out his lucky charm - the deck of cards we passed our nights with, playing blackjack. It was a quaint deck - red-backed, save for four of the cards, which had become lost. Jimmy had replaced them with cards from a blue-backed deck, and after many nights of card-playing, both Switch-Off and I knew that the man holding a blue card would have either the Queen of Spades, Nine of Clubs, Ten of Hearts, or the Two of Hearts.
“Fancy a game afore briefing, lads?” he asked us, and I grinned, sitting opposite him. Excitedly, Switch-Off came bounding over, pulling up a third chair. Jimmy went to deal, but then paused to glance over at McHarg, “No joining us, pal?” he asked, and the quiet Lieutenant peered at us. “Oh, well. I didn’t know you were offering”. Jimmy raised an eyebrow. “Did’ye no hear me? Yir one of us noo - of course ye can join us!”. McHarg smiled faintly. “Well, then,” he stated, and came over. As it turns out, we had not gotten another young and inexperienced card player, and even with our colour-coded advantage McHarg was soon collecting our excess war salaries. After the third win, Jimmy grunted in annoyance. “Dammit, yer’ no half bad at cards! How come yir so guid?” he demanded, and McHarg smirked. “Ah. Well, dear boy, I used to be a dealer at Leicester Square before the war. As for the how, well, I’m afraid that’s a trade secret”. He winked. Reynard chuckled softly. “Aye? Well, in that case, forget what a said about joining us!”. McHarg grinned.
Time was up, and so together we marched from our Billett to the aerodrome, arriving five minutes early to briefing. Sharing cigarettes, we waited for the arrival of our fellow pilots before stepping into the familiar gazebo and taking our usual place - to the left of the back row of chairs. In front of us, the Major silently counted the heads in the room, and begun giving the flights their assignments. I was put on the morning Reconnaissance patrol to Fricourt, alongside Graves, Reid, Normie, Edwards and Switch-Off. Jimmy was off to Diksmuide With ‘A’ flight.
We stepped out into the morning chill, and I tapped Jimmy on the back. “You just be careful out there, pal. Diksmuide is a hot shop”. I said, and he smiled as he wrapped his flying scarf around his neck. “Ach, away. A'm the very picture of' careful!”. I reluctantly nodded, said a quick “Good Luck” to ‘A’ flight, and made for the hangar to retrieve my charm from 6333, as work on my own bus had been completed. Restoring the pouch of tea to its hook on my instrument panel, I checked the tautness of the cables and the mounts of the Lewis.
Cpl. Weston appeared, a cup of tea in his hand, with an offended look on his face. “Wot - no faith, Ser?”. I shot him a glance. “Oh, it’s not that, Weston. It’s just, me and the old girl have seen a fair amount together. I like to look after her myself”. The Corporal nodded. “Good habit, that. Workin' on the buses, I can tell yer, I wouldn’t be caught dead in -” he stopped himself short, looking at me apologetically. I just smiled. “Well, you’re a smarter man than I, then” I joked, and the stout Ack-Emma relaxed.
The time for our patrol came about, and we made our way to our machines. Meeting Rickard on the field, I gave him a pat on the shoulder. “Righty-ho,” I said, climbing into the cockpit, “it should be an easy one today”. Rickard leaned on the side of the nacelle, lighting a cigarette. “I’m almost sad! It was quite the rush, yesterday!” he exclaimed, a sharp-toothed grin flashing across his face. My, I thought, he’s keen! Good thing I’m in control of the bus. Finishing his cigarette, he made to climb into the nacelle when two Lewis drums spilled out of his jacket. “Bugger!” he shouted, as he scrambled to retrieve the ammunition, tossing them into the Nacelle and clambering in after them, before restoring them to their position in the jacket. He looked over at me, and I simply raised my eyebrows at him. He shrugged. “Don’t want to run out in a scrap again!”. Testing the control surfaces, I let out a single staccato laugh. “Ha! Quite right”.
Our props were swung, and our engines roared into life. Following Graves and Reid, we lifted again into the sky as Rickard watched the ground below us drop further away. Behind me, Switch-Off’s blood red scarf contrasted stunningly against the snow. He gave me a thumbs up, and I nodded, turning back to face forwards again. Fighting against the cold, we climbed to 6,500 feet and turned South. After a gruelling flight we got out over the lines, but fortunately the show was as quiet as we’d hoped, and we were soon headed back home.
‘A’ ran into a pair of Fokkers at Diksmuide, one of which was the machine we had started to refer to as 'The Green Hun, or, more affectionately, ‘Greeny’, on account of his machine's unusual olive drab colour - it was the same machine that had shot me about before, and who had gotten Ellis through the arm. We had quickly recognised this Hun’s skill, and in-between our evening songs in the mess, we had begun to speculate about who Greeny was. We tensed as names such as Immelmann and Boelcke were uttered.
March 11th, 1916.
On the 10th, ‘B’ flight was sent on an O.P. over the lines between Bethune and Loos. Due to our recent losses, the Major has instructed us to double the number of machines sent out together. With Captain Tepes as our flight lead, Normie, Graves, Reid, Switch-Off and myself took off and headed East.
The weather soured as we reached the lines, the clouds obscuring the skies over the front. I grimaced as we broke through the haze, trying to catch a glimpse through breaks in the clouds of any lurking Fokkers. However, no Huns appeared, and after a bleak and uneventful patrol we turned back for home. Upon our return, we discovered that another new Fee had been brought in. According to Cpl. Weston, it was a dud - written off from some other Fee squadron after being brought down in a scrap (its occupants being badly wounded and sent home), but inexplicably repaired at the aircraft depot and kept in reserve. I decided to inspect the machine for myself. The upper set of wings had been replaced, and mismatched patches of un-doped linen and PC-10 gave it a most unusual look. In a strange way, I found the new bus charming. Perhaps I have developed a fondness for the duds, as 6338 has earned a certain reputation in the squadron - certainly, when I was wounded in the C.C.S, no pilot flew her.
Being free for the rest of the day, I headed to the Major’s office and requested to test-fly the new machine. With a raised eyebrow, he agreed, and so I went to the aircraft hangar, asking the Ack-Emmas to ready her for flight. Trying to contain their laughter, they wheeled the frankenstein-machine out onto the airfield, at which point I jumped in, alone, and went up. To my surprise, the machine was fairly sturdy in the air, and the engine went beautifully. Our frankenstein appeared to be a hidden gem! I decided I would keep this knowledge to myself, lest someone take her for themselves! I made a smooth three-point landing, and headed towards the mess for a cup of tea.
The next day, No. 20 was given some much-needed rest. The only orders we had for the day were test flights, with the rest of the day free for personal recreation. Normie, Graves, Reid and I made our flights, and headed to St. Omer for lunch. Reid suggested the Vincent, to which we agreed. As we walked in, I saw Jeanne at the far end of the Cafe. She turned to face us, then reddened, quickly dropping her eyes when she recognised me. At a solitary table in the corner I spotted Switch-Off, who to my surprise seemed to be attempting to hide behind a propped-up menu. I went over to join him. “Afternoon, Switchy!” I cheerily greeted him, to which he blurted out “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be here!”. I looked at him, astonished. “What…?” I started, and Switch-Off dropped his tone to a hushed low tone. “I know what Jeanne did to Jacky, and it’s wrong, but she’s so nice to me, and…” I held up a hand to stop him. “Raymond, it’s okay. Nobody will think worse of you for coming to see Jeanne”. He reddened, dropping his head, in a startlingly similar manner to Jeanne. “I only wish I was as forgiving as you…” I muttered, as Jeanne sheepishly scuttled up to our table.
“C...Coffee?” she asked me, misery failing to disguise itself in her voice. “Please,” I responded. She nodded briefly and bolted towards the back of the Cafe again, apparently anxious to escape my presence. Switch-Off watched her go, before turning to me. “I visited her after you told her about Jacky. She can’t stand the guilt, Campbell”. I slowly nodded, becoming lost in thought. “I suppose…” for one instant, I became overcome with grief, and felt tears well in my eyes. However, in the same second I composed myself, straightening my face once more. “I suppose she never assumed he might die. And, perhaps, it was only Jacky who thought their situation was...different”.
Jeanne returned with my coffee, laying it down on the table. She turned to leave, but before she walked away, her back turned to me, she muttered the words “I’m sorry. I wish I could tell him”.
We finished our lunch and paid, and after saying a quiet goodbye and sharing an embrace with Jeanne Switch-Off joined us in returning to Clairmarais. As we rounded the treeline on the dirt path leading to the hangars, we picked up the sound of terrified screaming, and men shouting. We looked at each other and immediately tore into a sprint, coming round the edge of the hangar, before stopping dead in our tracks. Ahead of us was a saddening scene - we watched in quiet sympathy as five Ack-Emmas, accompanied by Jimmy Reynard, fought Ackart to the ground, wrestling the Webeley he had in his hand away from him. As they took the gun, he begun to shriek the word “No!” on repeat, in a blood curdling cry of pure horror. Reynard caught our gaze, and met it, a look of exasperation on his face. He was pale white, the Webeley resting in his hand. Slowly, he looked down at the pistol, before suddenly dropping it and recoiling as if it had seared his skin, staring at it lying in the mud for a few moments before storming away behind the aircraft hangars.
Graves and I chased after him, finding him squatting at the back of the hangar, a cigarette in his trembling hand. “Just what the hell was that?” Graves asked in a shaky voice, at which point Reynard slowly looked up. “The man’s lost the plot...he was trying to blow his ain heid aff...kept screaming about They're going to get me, They're going to get me…I got a hold of his arm just afore he could pull the trigger, but he fought me aff like a wild animal...that’s when the Ack-Emmas came in”. The Scotsman took a long drag of his cigarette, and slowly got to his feet. “‘I need a bloody drink”.
Ackart had disappeared in the back of a Bedford bound for Calais by nightfall. I cannot say if we will ever see him again.