Fullofit, nice job on that raid! Wulfe, terrific writing, and now terrific art too. Onwards and upwards! An eventful day for Collins...
An Airman’s Odyssey – by James Arthur Collins
Part Twenty-Seven: In which I host a dinner guest
Roland Fisher joined our little party late yesterday, fresh from the pilots’ pool and full of questions. Was I really that keen and naive only two months ago? He’s a good fellow, but awfully gullible. Absolutely fascinated by Jericho, he is. “A real cowboy,” he gushed over a gin and tonic. “Good heavens, I’d have never believed I should meet a real cowboy. And in the Flying Corps at that!”
“Running from the American law, I suspect,” said Major Harvey-Kelly, who had been deep in conversation with Mealing until a moment ago. “Be careful what you say around him, and NEVER play poker with the man. I heard he’s killed three men back in Texas.”
“Bay’s” eyes were twinkling evilly as he went on. “They actually had the noose on him before his gang shot up the town and got him free. He went directly from there to Canada and from Canada to us.” Poor Fisher looked, slack-jawed, across the smoky anteroom at Mark Jericho, who was trying to coax Carruthers into playing the piano.
After a couple of drinks, I took a stroll over to the hangar line with Foster. He’d had only a couple of short familiarisation hops on arrival. We had three men on leave and one in the hospital, so he would be pressed into action before he was ready. As happened nearly every night, the despatch rider from Wing brought tomorrow’s orders shortly before supper and the Major departed with the RO for a half-hour, returning to the mess with the next day’s operations planned. Tomorrow would be Foster’s first time over the lines.
We sat on a workbench outside the riggers’ hut. It was already dark and a little chill, and the guns rumbled and flickered in the east as they always did. Laughter carried over the field from the other ranks’ quarters and tents.
“I’ll fly on the OC’s right and you fly on his left. We’ll be loaded with four Higgins bombs which you’ll release over the rail yard at Feuchy. It’s just over the river to the south of Athies. Actually, the river is more of a stream. Look for the bridge and it will be a little south.”
Foster was nodding studiously. I lit a cigarette. He hadn’t yet taken them up. “In fact, just let your bombs go when you see the boss drop his. That’s was I usually do and it works well enough.”
“What is the chance of Fokkers?” Foster asked.
“Fair. Depends on the weather usually. If you see them and can get away, head west in a shallow dive. And use clouds to escape if you can. If you can’t get away quickly, stick close to the OC and me and cover each other. Who are you with?”
“He’s good,” I said. “Do what he says and you’ll be fine.” As we wandered back to the officers’ huts we passed my little shed. The NCOs had built a fine verandah onto it. Sergeant Wilson and Sergeant Bayetto were sitting outside on purloined rocking chairs, smoking pipes.
“Evening, sirs. Would you like a drink?” I was about to refuse politely when Foster said he’d love one more before bed. To my surprise, Sergeant Bayetto took out a bottle of Collins Yukon Gold and filled a tin mug to three fingers. “Sir, are you sure?” I gave in and another tin mug appeared. Then he added a liberal pour of red vermouth to each one. “It was very kind of you to leave some fine Canadian whiskey in the hut, sir. You’re a fine gentleman,” said Bayetto, “although the vermouth does make it a little softer on the palate, I think.”
I hadn’t left the case of whiskey. It had disappeared. And Sergeant Wilson couldn’t meet my eye.
“I’m sure you’ll repay a favour some day in your own way,” I laughed.
“As I told you, my father will take care of you next time you’re at the Carlton Hotel, sir.” Bayetto’s father was the head chef there.
Wilson raised his mug. "Here's tae us. Wha's like us? Dam few, an' they're a' deid!"
We took off at ten the next morning, the Major, Foster, and me in a close vee. We turned north towards Béthune and climbed to nearly 7000 feet before head south-southeast in the direction of Arras. We were unescorted, so the plan was to dash across and back as quickly as possible. We turned southeast over Neuville-Saint-Vaast and dropped to 5000 feet. Archie met us a mile or two before the railyard. I could see Foster’s machine dart about a bit before he settled in. I took a last look about. Off to the south, three tiny dots stood out against a clear sky. I held up a hand to shield my eyes from the morning sun and stared at them. They we clearly Fokkers and they were turning towards us.
It seemed like an eternity but it was only a few seconds before the Major loosed his bombs and so did I. I checked Foster’s Morane and was please to see his bombs had all gone. I fired the flare to signal hostile aircraft and turned left in front of and above Foster. But the Major turned right and Foster followed. The three Huns were closing quickly now thanks to their height advantage. The Major and Foster made due west and were at least 600 yards off. I decided to head northwest on my own. There were clouds at 4000 feet in that direction and it would take the Fokkers longer to catch me. Wilson tapped my shoulder and pointed at the other Moranes. Two HAs were chasing them. Wilson pointed to our left rear, where the third Hun was now only 500 yards away.
I put the machine into a shallow dive at full throttle. The ruins of Thélus approached off the right side. Our Lewis gun rattled. I cursed to myself. Wilson was wasting ammunition. The Hun was still 300 yards away. The fire continued in long bursts, interrupted by pauses to change drums. The Fokker should open fire any second, I thought. We were down below 3000 feet now. The bugger won’t get under our tail! The Lewis kept up its rattle. Another drum change. The Hun still hadn’t fired. More Lewis bursts.
Wilson banged on the back of my head and pointed behind me to the right. The yellow Fokker was breaking off and trailing black smoke. I banked hard right and closed on the stricken Hun. Its propeller was windmilling. Wilson opened fire again as we passed to the right of the Hun and turned over him and then back towards him. The propeller had now stopped and the machine was settling down behind our second line trenches, just west of Vimy Ridge. The pilot was out of it at once and stood next to the machine. I was sure he was fumbling for a flare or a lighter. Wilson put a long burst in his direction and we saw the black-clad figure run for the cover of a shell-hole. Some khaki figures were approaching from the direction of a nearby communications trench. I waggled our wings and they waved and raised their tin hats.
"Wilson opened fire again as we passed to the right of the Hun..."
Back at Bruay I nearly burst through the door of the squadron office. Major Harvey-Kelly greeted me with a loud halloo, and said he saw my Hun go down! So it’s official. I have one at last. Foster, God bless him, was able to claim two Fokkers driven down, although it is by no means certain that they did not simply head home.
As soon as our reports were signed, the Major gave me permission to take his 15 hp Crossley staff car to find the Hun. Jericho was back and jumped in, as did Sergeant Wilson and Foster. I raced towards Houdain, and nearly came to an early end at the main junction there. The car had only a pedal-activated transmission brake and took forever to slow. We came within inches of killing several horses pulling a gun carriage and raced out of town to the shrill of whistles and to shouts of stop! The road to Arras was straight and unusually quiet, and we made good time, turning at Mont-St-Eloi towards La Targette and Neuville. After Neuville we had to leave the car and make our way forward on foot. British and Imperial forces were taking over this sector from the French and there was a fair bit of disorder. We asked some New Zealand tunnelers and found a fellow who’d seen our Fokker going down just to the southwest. It took about an hour of stumbling about tracks and trenches before an Irish captain said he could take us to the German machine.
The Fokker, when we found it, had been heavily scavenged. The instruments were gone, as were the machine guns and rudder. I was able to salvage a serial number from the fuselage and one of the crosses from a wing. But the real joy came when some of the captain’s men told us the pilot had been taken to the battalion intelligence officer. We were led through a labyrinth of trenches to a dugout, and there we found Leutnant Alex Nagler.
The German pilot spoke a little English and a little more French, so we were able to get by reasonably well. He hadn’t given up much information, just name and ranks and the fact he flew a Fokker. I was required to sign a paper taking responsibility for the prisoner and promising to turn him over to the Provost Marshal within 24 hours. I explained that he was to be our guest for dinner. And with that, we set out to find our way back to the car.
It took two hours, but when we finally got to Neuville I ran into a New Zealander herding a dozen young pigs into a basement. I chatted with him for a while and managed to buy a side of pork that he’d already butchered. Apparently the tunnelers were looking after themselves rather well. Jericho was itching to drive the Crossley and I was content to sit in the back with Foster and my Hunnish friend. Wilson kept up a running commentary on Jericho’s driving ability (“Wir all gaen’ tae dee!”). Jericho, normally such a talented man, struggled with the concept of the Crossley. The wheel, apparently, was on the wrong side. And the throttle was a pedal in the middle of the floor between the clutch and the brake pedal, not on the steering column like a Ford truck. And there was a stick thing for the gears instead of a pedal, again like a proper Ford machine. Leutnant Nagler was visibly wondering how we were still in the war as we lurched and shuddered through town. Back onto the main road, Jericho thought he was racing for the Gordon Bennett Cup! I was happy to get back to Bruay. I’d signed for a captive German officer and was responsible for him, yet not one of us was armed. Had he simply jumped out it would have been a foot race.
That night was a memorable binge. We hired a local woman to prepare the pork, which was magical. Champagne flowed like a river, and Carruthers belted out every tune he knew on the piano. Even Herr Nagler joined in the songs, and we taught him all the filthy words. The night must have set me back ten pounds. In the end Nagler and Wilson slept in my old hut. We didn’t bother with an armed guard, as our pet Hun was paralytically drunk.