Carrick - Oof! Those pesky craters! I'm glad Emile walked away unhurt! Scout - sounds like Aleck's war is going smoothly! That being said, hopefully the lads in the Bristols will keep any marauding Fokkers at bay!
Fullofit - Sorry about your Fokker claim - those Frenchies are a strict bunch when it comes to confirmation! I'm glad to see Gaston retaining his compassion for his Two-Seater colleagues - he hasn't let the CdG get to his head! I wonder what effect his next one will have on him...So far, Switchy's lucky scarf has outweighed Jeanne's curse...but his luck may be running out...only time will tell...
Sgt. Graham A. Campbell, No. 20 Squadron R.F.C Clairmarais Aerodrome, France.
March 18th, 1916.
Quietly, we sat in the briefing room, the weight of yesterday looming over us. Major Wilson turned to us, as stoic as ever, but somehow we could sense his anxiety. “Men,” he began, as we motionlessly listened, “McHarg’s injuries are severe, but as of this morning he is awake and responsive. I am assured he will recover in time. Harrison, regrettably, still has not regained consciousness. Both men are to be sent back to England”. The silence cracked the air in two. “Now. Your assignments”.
We were performing recons today. ‘A’ flight was being sent to Toucouring, ‘B’ to Armentieres, and ‘C’ to Loos. Readying our Fees, we uttered our good-lucks to each other and climbed aboard. Following Normie’s lead, we circled around and turned towards our climbing point. Two machines suddenly appeared above us from behind a cloud - they were Caudrons! I curiously gazed up at the large, weird-looking twin-engined machines as they slowly crept across our front, and for a moment I was distracted from thinking about poor McHarg. However, the Caudrons had soon disappeared Southwards, and Graves had begun to climb. I made to follow, but suddenly the Beardmore at my back begun to groan and rattle. With Rickard nervously looking back at me, I checked the instrument panel. The RPM needle flickered between 1200 and 1300, before slowly beginning to descend as ‘Patchwork’ begun to shake in protest. Telling myself to remain level-headed, I reached for my Very pistol, holding the stick between my legs as I loaded a green cartridge for 'ENGINE TROUBLE', firing the signal forwards and above me before gently turning round in a slow descent.
Staying at 1,000 feet, I nursed the agitated Fee back towards Clairmarais. At my back, the Beardmore’s fluctuations in revolutions grew more severe, before suddenly evening out at 8,000 RPM. Gripping the column of the now-anemic Fee tightly, I approached Clairmarais and made a shaky landing, at which point Cpl. Weston came running out. “Wot’s the problem, sir?” he called out, as he jogged over. “Bloody engine’s missed!” I cried back, as Rickard climbed down from the Nacelle. Turning to me in exasperation, he threw his hands up in the air. “I told you this damned bus was a dud!” he yelled, shaking his head as he strolled towards the mess for an early lunch.
I assisted Weston in wheeling the machine into its hangar, at which point he summoned Cpl. Mealing, one of our fitters. I decided to stay and observe their work on the machine after Weston offered me a cup of tea. The Ack-Emmas went about checking over ‘Patchwork’, and in no time at all Mealing had found the issue. As it turned out, one of the Magneto wires had been improperly fitted, and the insulation had chafed away, fraying the wire and eventually snapping it.
Unexpectedly grounded for the day, I visited McHarg in the hospital tent. He was a sorry sight, his head and torso wrapped in bone-white bandages. Despite it obviously causing him pain, he sat upright as I walked in, chirping out a weak “Morning, Campbell,”. I smiled and nodded, taking a seat in the simple wooden chair beside his bunk. “How’s Harrison?” he asked me. “Oh, he’s quite fine,” I lied, before hastily changing the topic. “Have you heard the good news? You’ve caught a Blighty!” I joked. McHarg attempted a laugh, which became a cough. “Yes, well, it seems I’m as lucky at flying as I am at cards” he retorted, gesturing with his eyes towards his arm, which I now saw was wrapped in a sling. I chuckled sympathetically. “Say, Campbell, can you light me a fag? I can’t strike a bloody match with this arm”. Obligingly I produced a box of Lucifers, lighting one of my own cigarettes and handing it to him.
Gratefully, he took a long drag, closing his eyes and leaning backwards. Quietly, he begun to speak again. “How embarrassing” he muttered, and I glanced at him in surprise. “What, the smash?”. He shook his head. “No, being sent home”. Despite myself I laughed. “Oh, well, don’t worry, you’ll soon be back over and -” he cut me off. “Campbell, I’m stomach-shot. I haven’t survived that damned Fokker yet”.
I could find no words to respond. No witticisms. We sat in silence for a few moments, listening to the distant drone of ‘A’ flight returning from their morning show. In a more cheery tone, McHarg turned to me and said “Well, go and see how they got on, then!”. Managing a faint smile, I nodded and made my way back out onto the aerodrome.
As Normie’s machine swooped down to land, I could make out the bullet holes and the severed wires. Fortunately, the crew emerged unscathed from the battle-damaged bus, as did the airmen aboard the other two buses. However, ‘A’ flight had returned with one aircraft less. Intercepting Normie as he tiredly dragged his feet towards the mess, I asked him what had happened. Without looking at me, he sighed deeply. “Come on. Let’s get a drink”.
As we sat on either side of the small wooden table between the fireplace and Pierson’s piano, Normie explained the events of the day. ‘A’ flight’s show had been a very near-run thing. “We were nearly at Toucouring, when I saw behind us four Aviatiks, accompanied by no less than six Fokkers. They were shadowing us, from above and behind”. My eyes widened. “Ten Hun machines, together?” I asked in disbelief. Normie nodded solemnly. “I had my very pistol ready, keeping an eye on them. Surely enough, two Monoplanes came down at me, at which point I fired the flare.I turned the bus to meet one head-on, and Talbot opened fire. The Hun didn’t care much for that, and skidded away”.
I listened in mute awe at the disturbing tale. “Captain James swung the formation about, and we took the Huns on, but they refused to let us get close, staying out of our guns for a while. Eventually, they all came in at us. Quickly I saw one Fokker falling and trailing smoke, and again we beat them away. However, Anderson and Forbes’ bus had disappeared. We tried to look for them, but there was no sign”. Pausing for a moment, Normie took a long, deep sip of his whiskey, before lighting a cigarette. “It’s a shame Pierson goes on leave today. I could use a song to cheer me up” he concluded. I nodded in agreement. “Poor chaps. Hopefully they got down okay”.
‘B’ returned just after two O’Clock, after having had an uneventful show, but ‘C’ hadn’t fared much better than ‘A’. They, too, came back one machine short. It was a double-blow for me, as it was Edwards, in 6338, who was missing. As Switch-Off explained, they, too had gotten into a scrap with a group of Fokkers. The battle was short-lived, with only a small exchange of fire, but he had seen Edwards slipping down towards the allied lines during the scrap.
The mess was quiet that night. To everyone’s surprise, Jimmy Reynard had some ability on the Piano, enough for us to run through ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’ once, but he was no Pierson. We were not downhearted, though. Harrison was awake again, although he was still in a bad way, but he and McHarg had left earlier in a Bedford bound for the coast, and would soon be back in England. To further lift our spirits, both Edwards and Anderson, and their observers, had telephoned the squadron, and were back with us at Clairmarais by dusk. Sadly, Edwards had his controls shot away during ‘C’ flight’s scrap, and had been forced to crash-land old 6338. The faithful old girl was wrecked completely in the smash.
As the evening was wrapping up, Edwards snapped his fingers and turned to me. “Oh, Campbell! Before I forget, I thought you would appreciate having this back”. From his pocket he produced a small pouch of tea, handing it to me. My stomach churned as I recognised my lucky charm - I had been flying without it for two days!
The mood in our Billett was sombre as Switch-Off and I watched the lights dimming on the aerodrome from the window. The youngster broke the silence. “Good thing our boys all made it back today,” he said, a faint smile on his face. I nodded slowly. “Quite. It seems our luck is up”. Switch off let out a weak laugh, and for a moment the quiet lingered, before he spoke again. “Do you think McHarg will be okay?” he asked, his voice distant. I looked over at him, and noticed that he appeared slightly old for his age. “Oh, he’ll be perfectly fine. He’s a tough chap”. We didn’t speak again for a few minutes. Switch-Off lit a cigarette, the orange glow catching in the reflection of the window. As he inhaled, I heard the faint crackle of the tobacco as it was converted into ash. “Graham?” he asked softly, his eyes turned away from me. “Yes, Switchy?”. He sighed, a thin trail of smoke escaping his nostrils. “I don’t want to die”.
I felt a stab of sadness in my chest. I desperately wanted to tell him that he wouldn’t die, that we would all go back to England and lead long, happy and normal lives. But the words wouldn’t come, and deep down I knew that, no, we wouldn’t all go home. The most terrible realisation was that we couldn’t ever know who would fall next. It dawned on me that it may well be me going West next. But then, I was possessed by another idea. The idea of Today. In my mind I realised that, today, everybody had come back to Clairmarais safely. Today, McHarg was on his way back to Blighty, away from the clutches of our war. Today, we had laughed as, when Jimmy had sat down at the piano, Edith had introduced him to the ‘stage’ as if he were one of the great composers of old. Today, I was alive.
Smiling to myself, I drifted off into sleep.
I) Normie's recounting of 'A' Flight's story is a retelling of a reconnaissance flown by the real No. 20 Squadron on March 18th, 1916, during which a flight of five F.E.2s were attacked by six Fokkers and four Two-Seaters. Cpt. James and Cpl. Stringer, in F.E.2 A5206, sent one Fokker down, smoke pouring from its engine. However Anderson & Forbes damaged bus, A6328, was seen by James being pursued at low altitude by a Fokker. The flight lost sight of A6328, eventually giving them up for lost and returning home. However, Anderson remarkably got his bus home and landed in a field south of Ypres, only just missing a pair of trees as he did so. The only casualty of the encounter was 2nd. Lieut. Kirton, who was wonded in the arm and leg. He was repatriated to England, but was deemed unfit for flying above 5,000 feet. Kirton later went on to be a Test Pilot at the Vickers factory where he remained until his untimely death on November 22 1918, losing his life in an accident while flying a Sopwith Dolphin.
II) Graham's bus, A6338, has sadly met its end. However, it lasted longer than its historical counterpart - the real A6338 was lost on February 21st, when 2nd. Lieuts Newbold and Champion flew her on a reconnaissance. Sadly, two of her three FE2 escorts dropped out with engine trouble, and they came under attack by a lone Fokker near Moorseele. Her remaining escort drove the Fokker off, but not before A6338's cylinder water jacket had been shot through. Dropping altitude, A6338 was attacked by a second Fokker and an Aviatik. To make matters worse, it was raining that day, and Champion's Lewis Gun had soon iced over, leaving A6338 defenceless! East of Menin, at 4,000 feet, A6338's engine finally gave out, and Newbold made a forced landing under fire from German infantry, touching down on Terra Firma just one field across from the Germans on the ground. Both men were immediately captured, as was A6338.