Raine - Congratulations on your first Hun! Even better that you took him alive! It'll make for a great war story once this whole thing is over and done with!
lederhosen - unfortunate about the engine, had a similar problem the other day...curse these flimsy engines!
Scout - Great tale about MacKinlay's experience. Sounds like he's far more conscious of the depth of his work than that Buckminster fellow is...I only wonder what MacKinlay will think when it's himself sending the Hun down in pieces!
Sgt. Graham A. Campbell, No. 20 Squadron R.F.C, Clairmarais Aerodrome, France.
March 20th, 1916.
Before briefing I headed to the aerodrome to inspect my new machine - A5644. Cpl. Weston assured me that she was a steady bus, and not a troublemaker like 6338 or ‘Patchwork’. Directing my attention to the dashboard, he pointed out a small brass clasp he had screwed in. “That’s for yer charm, sir” he explained, and I patted him on the back. “It’ll do wonderfully. Thank you, Weston!”. He touched his cap to me, before taking his leave.
I headed to briefing, hoping for a quiet day. No such luck - we were being sent on a D.O.P. to Menen, past Ypres and into Hunland. Outside, Normie gave us the order of battle. To my surprise, I wouldn’t be assuming my typical position as ‘Tail-End Charlie’ - instead, that honour fell to Reid, who was naturally less than pleased about it. As he grumbled to himself, boarding his bus, I sweetly chirped to him “Oh, it’s lovely back there! Why, you’ll even get the first crack at the Hun!”. He shooed me away irritably, as Rickard laughed cheekily from the Nacelle of our bus. Bristow made a rude hand gesture at him.
Soon we were up, Normie and Archer climbing above us in the clouded sky and holding position there. Ahead of me, Graves flew on with his usual air of calm. Behind me, Reid and Bristow nervously kept their heads on a swivel. At 7,000 feet, as we continued East, I spotted faraway off our nose the shape of two machines over Poperinghe. They were Aviatiks. I pulled alongside Graves’ bus and pointed towards them, but after a glance he turned back to me and shrugged, shaking his head. I pointed again, insistent. Again, he shook his head, but now he put his machine into a gentle climb.
The Aviatiks turned south as we approached - but their turn was lazy and unassuming. They still hadn’t seen us. Graves had now picked them up, and tracked them intently with his gaze. Suddenly they snapped around Eastwards, and immediately I broke away from our formation to give chase. Slowly I gained on them, and they tightened up their formation, preparing to defend themselves. Archie begun to chase them, bursting behind their tails.
I caught up to them over Bailleul and got below the tail of the rearmost machine. Rickard was ready on his gun, and had just begun to aim when suddenly the front machine dropped to my level. His observer’s fire was accurate, and I skidded away in alarm as tracer flashed past our heads, striking our wings and snapping our cables. Gritting my teeth in anger, I turned back to face them, my sights now set on the offending Hun. Rickard opened fire - his tracers were finding their mark - but something was wrong with our bus. I fought with the controls as our machine threatened to stall, trying to hold it straight for Rickard. Suddenly, our target’s lower right wing buckled, twisting violently and tearing away.
The stricken Aviatik begun to list to the right, but amazingly stayed in the air. As the machine tipped onto its side, the Hun observer got another good burst into us, and I heard the crack of bullets passing close by my ear. Not a second after we had been hit, our bus was rattling viciously, and we begun to drop out of the sky. Panicking, I looked behind us - one of our propeller blades was shot away!
I immediately switched off the magnetos as Rickard angrily fired off the rest of his drum into our opponent, before circling away from the Aviatiks. As we broke away, our imbalanced engine falling silent, the other Hun machine flashed past us, and again I smelled the bitter scent of phosphor as tracers smashed through our machine. Mere inches behind my head a Cabane strut exploded into matchwood, and our machine was suddenly listing heavily to the right. Gritting my teeth, I pointed us into our lines and, sweating underneath my flying cap, begun to guide our stricken bus down towards terra firma. Looking for a suitable field, we skirted Bailleul. In the front seat, Rickard watched anxiously, gripping the sides of the Nacelle with both hands, as we descended.
After what felt like eternity, we touched down in a field just West of town. As we landed, the wheel struts on our right begun to splinter and warp, and when we finally skidded to a halt our machine’s rightmost wingtip was only inches off the ground. We both sat in silence for a few moments, before Rickard finally spoke. “So much for the new bus…” he muttered.
We listened to the booming of artillery and chatter of machine-gun to the East as we deliberated on what to do. At first, it seemed sensible to make our way to Bailleul, but keen-eyed Rickard spotted a Caquot balloon being winched up a few fields over, and so I marked the position of our damaged Fee on the map, retrieved my charm. We made for the balloon.
At the foot of the balloon were a pair of Sergeants, on standby beside the winch. I called out a hello to them as we approached. “Morning, chaps. Do you have a telephone we can use?”. One of the Sergeants looked us over. “You two were on the Fee that just came down?” he asked, and I nodded. He turned to his colleague, clearing his throat and holding out a palm. The other balloonist grunted, and pressed a pound into his hand. He turned, winked cheekily, and pointed to a small wooden hut nearby. “In there. The C.O’s office”. I raised an eyebrow, before thanking him and making my way to the hut, knocking on the door. “Come in,” a gruff voice said on the other side.
I stepped in onto a frayed persian rug, hardened with mud and debris. Ahead of me was a modest oak desk, and behind that a wiry Captain peered at me over his glasses. “And who are you?” he asked coldly. “Sergeant-Pilot Campbell, sir! We’ve just been shot down. I was wondering if I may use your telephone to call my C.O”. The Captain scoffed. “Shot down, eh? Sound to me like you’re just a plain old Sergeant now, then”. He nodded to the phone on his desk. Reddening with anger, I picked it up and called Clairmarais.
I relayed what had happened to us, and where 5644 had been abandoned. The Major told us to head to the town centre in Bailleul, where a car would pick us up, and also said he would send a recovery crew for our machine. I thanked him and slammed down the receiver, turning to leave. At the door I paused, before spinning around on my heel. “You know, that bloody gasbag of yours would have been burst ten times over if we weren’t up there. Perhaps you want to stick a gun on it and do a bit of bloody fighting yourself for once” I growled, slamming the door behind me. As Rickard and I stormed away, the door flung open again. To my back I heard the Captain screeching “How dare you! I’ll have you court-martialed!” and so on.
We arrived at Bailleul within the hour, and the Car arrived an hour after that. We drove back in silence, and I reflected on my first time being shot down. Surprisingly, I found that I was embarrassed more than anything. It was past Three when we finally reached Clairmarais, and ‘C’ flight was just embarking on their patrol. As Rickard and I made our way to the mess, I realised I was exhausted and in need of a good drink. I pushed the door open, making a straight line to the bar and asking the bartender for a double brandy, thanking the brief welcome backs that were uttered to me.
As I sipped my drink, I realised the mess was unusually quiet, despite there being a good amount of pilots. I picked out Normie and approached him. “What’s going on?” I asked him, and he sighed. “After you went off after those Aviatiks we went into Hunland. The Fokkers were waiting for us, and we got into a scrap. It was only after we were all back that we realised Archer and Beckwith were missing”. I stared into my brandy, feeling miserable, and we sat quietly for a few moments. “It’s my fault” I blurted out, Normie looked at me confusedly. “If I hadn’t gone off after-” I was abruptly cut off. “Oh, don’t be stupid, Graham! There were four of us together. One more would have made little difference, so don’t feel so bloody well sorry for yourself!”. I flinched. “You’re right. Sorry, Normie”.
He held a hand up, signalling his forgiveness. “We don’t know what happened to them. For all we know, they could be perfectly fine. After all,” he paused for a moment, looking slightly embarrassed, “...after all, we thought those Aviatiks had gotten you when you didn’t show up”. To his surprise, I chuckled faintly. “Normie, my boy, they just about did get us this time”. “Oh?”. I offered him a cigarette and recounted the story of our scrap. More bad news came from the Adjutant, who came to inform me that my Fokker claim had been thrown out. “How can that be?” I asked, incredulously, “the bloody thing about fell on one of our balloons!”. The Adjutant held his hands up. “Sorry, Campbell. They claim they never saw it”. I thanked him and, in a huff, ordered another drink. In a flash I realised that the balloon my Fokker had fallen in front of was the same one Rickard and I had visited today. Those damned balloonists!
That night a gang of us piled into the old Bedford that sat parked next to the Officers’ quarters. I thought it would be good for me to tag along, and take my mind off things. With Edith at the wheel, we drove into St. Omer in search of alcohol and pleasurable company. We left the truck outside the Vincent, and headed towards the center of town. Switch-Off knew of an inn where the Flying Corps types tended to gather in the nights, and so he led the way.
The Inn was a quaint, homely place. We stepped into the doorway at the rightmost end of a lovely rectangular sitting room. In the centre of the wall, several pilots, mostly English but also some French, were laughing and drinking together, swapping yarns as they reclined in patterned armchairs. Against the leftmost wall beside the staircase was a piano, staffed by a Lieutenant-pilot who quietly played away to a pensive tune I didn’t recognise, swaying gently with the music. Stepping onto the large woven rug that covered most of the floor, I realised that the walls had been adorned with parts of machines, some English and some German. Between them were oil paintings of aircraft in flight, doing battle. I turned my eyes to the bar - above it was mounted a large two-bladed propeller - or rather, it used to be, for one of its blades was shot away.
Behind the countertop stood a thirty-something bartender with a thin pencil moustache and jet-black hair, neatly side-parted. Jimmy and I approached him, ordering two whiskies. To our left, propped up on the stools, were three aviators, who were regarding us with a keen interest. “Hello, chum!” one suddenly said to me, and I faced him. “I haven’t noticed you in here before”. “No, you wouldn’t have. It’s our first time in here”. The airman smiled, leaning against the counter. “Oh! Well, it’s a pleasure to meet you”. He extended a hand. “George Reid, 25 Squadron”. I took his hand and shook. “Ah! 25, you’re on Fees as well! Graham Campbell, 20 Squadron”.
Reid introduced us to his compatriots, George Maxwell and Douglas Grinnell-Milne, also of 25 Squadron. Together we chatted away the night, sharing scandalous tales and stories of combats against the marauding Fokkers as we slipped into an alcoholic haze. Suddenly, Grinnell-Milne turned to face the room and yelled out “The Young Aviator!”. Immediately, the soft piano notes broke into the tune of “Tarpaulin Jacket”, and as one the pilots let out a cheer and begun to sing.
“A young aviator lay dying, at the end of a bright summer’s day, His comrades had gathered around him, to carry his fragments away!
The crate was piled up on his wishbone, His Lewis was wrapped round his head,
He wore a Spark-plug on each elbow, ‘Twas plain he would shortly be dead!”
Grinning, we joined in, holding our drinks high in the air amd belting out the macabre lyrics. We felt no sadness at the fatalistic tune - quite the opposite. The song let us know we were still alive yet. With an arm around Switch-Off’s shoulder, we belted out our song at the top of our lungs, slipping into a dizzying alcoholic world and letting it carry us on. As we neared the end of the tune, we chorused louder still, relishing the moment. Our final chorus became jumbled - it seemed every man sung a slightly varied lyric, but the sentiment remained even between us all.
”Take the piston rings out of my stomach, And the cylinders out of my brain,
Extract from my liver the crankshaft, And assemble the engine again!”