Fullofit - A Nieuport 11!! Gaston must be a very happy boy! Those Fokkers better had just watch out. I hope the pilots are ferrying one of those old N10s to No. 20 R.F.C's aerodrome...
Sgt. Graham A. Campbell, No. 20 Squadron R.F.C, Clairmarais Aerodrome, France.
March 21st, 1916.
The rat-a-tat of rain beating against the roof of our billett set the mood of the morning. Switch-Off sat in the armchair by his bed, flicking through the recently-arrived Comic Cuts with Jimmy standing over his shoulder. Noticing me stirring, Switch-Off excitedly turned and proudly held the Communiques aloft. “No. 3 has done it again!” he cried, “One of their boys forced a Fokker down on our side and took him prisoner!”. Reynard ferried it over to me and I flicked through it, reading the account of one James Collins and his observer, and their duel with a lone Fokker over the lines.
“A find it hard enough scrappin’ wae they Fokkers in a Fee!” Jimmy exclaimed, and I agreed. We then shifted the topic of conversation to the foul weather outside. “Do you think we’ll be able to go up in all of that?” Switch-Off asked, gesturing to the window-pane, which was shaking precariously in the heavy wind. “Tough to say. If we were sensible, of course not, but we are in the Flying Corps, after all,” I responded, earning a laugh from my two colleagues. Jimmy turned to Switch-Off. “ Ne’er mind yir lucky red scarf, ye’ll need an entire red aeroplane te muster the luck needed te get back fe that show!”. Chuckling, Switch-Off reclined back into his chair. “Don’t be daft, Jim. Who would be stupid enough to paint their aeroplane red?”.
We opted to don our long leather flying coats on the way to briefing, leaning into the wind with our collars turned up against the rain. Eventually we slogged through into the briefing room. We found one or two pilots sheltering from the rain, but no Major. In his place was the operations blackboard, which simply read “ALL FLIGHTS CANCELLED DUE TO WEATHER”. Sighing, I prepared to retreat into another soaking.
I emerged to a scene of chaos. Several Ack-Emmas were running, panicked, towards our Bessoneau Hangar at the end of the line, which was in the process of slowly collapsing in on itself. Eager to help, I ran too towards the commotion, stopping short outside the hangar. Two Ack-Emmas were lifting the tail of one of the Fees when Cpl. Weston appeared, drenched through and frantic. “No! Don’t wheel it out into the rain, you fools, we need to keep it dry!”. I noticed that similar commotions were taking place in other hangars, and poking my head into one I realised that they were slowly flooding up. By my own stripped-down machine, an engine fitter desperately tried with his colleagues to lift a Beardmore up onto a stack of crates, to save it from the pooled-up water. I ran to help, as did some other enlisted men who were nearby, and with a mighty heave we hoisted the engine up onto the crates. Puffing breathlessly, I turned to the fitter. “Lucky I was here to help!” I joked. Grinning, he replied “Lucky I thought to move it in the first place - it’s your Fee’s replacement engine!”.
Eventually, the Ack-Emmas were forced to make a mad dash with the Fees in the collapsing hangar, fitting them in whatever nook and cranny left in our other hangars that they could find. I stood beside Weston as he looked over Graves’ soaked bus. “This isn’t good…” he muttered, before turning to a group of his colleagues. “Right, lads! The moment these machines are dried we’re re-doping them!”. “The canvas?” a voice replied. “The whole bloody lot! Struts and Propeller!” Weston replied, before adding “So get all our cellon someplace dry!”.
Sensing I would only be a hindrance, I headed to the mess, where I found the rest of the airmen, most with beer in hand. We flitted away the day by playing cards, or chess, singing, and telling stories of home. And, of course, discussing our scraps in the air.
“Fokker Fodder - too right!” Edwards shouted, some cheers of approval following. “At least you’re flying the bloody bus - us poor sods can’t even get out of the way!” Bristow retorted, and we all laughed. I chimed in. “Well, come on now. It’s not that bad. We could be in Quirks!”. We cheered, and beside me Edith begun to sing:
“Oh! They found a bit of iron what some bloke had thrown away, And the R.A.F said ‘This is just the thing, We’ve sought for many a day,”
We broke into rapturous laughter, and all joined in chorus with the Scots Captain.
”They built a weird machine, strangest engine ever seen, But they’d quite forgotten the thing was rotten, And they shoved it in a flying machine!”
As we laugh-sung, Jimmy Reynard jumped onto Pierson’s piano, playing along a shaky rendition of the chords. The misplaced notes adding to the hilarity, we continued on, getting ever-more boisterous as we went. I noticed that some of us had gotten ahead of themselves, and had switched to brandies.
”Then they ordered simply thousands more, And sent them out to fight! When the blokes who had to fly them swore, The R.A.F said ‘They’re all right’!
The bus is stable as can be, We thought up every bit of it ourselves, you see, They were so darned slow, they wouldn’t go, AND THEY CALLED THEM R.A.F 2Cs!!”
We broke out into loud cheers and applause, all cackling like madmen and knocking back our various drinks. Soon we had moved onto another number, and the booze was beginning to flow more freely. It was not long after that our Adjutant appeared from out of the storm and approached me. “Campbell, you are invited to the Major’s office” he bluntly stated, removing his flying coat and shaking it off, to the irritation of the nearby airmen. I thanked him, donning my own coat and wondering to what end the Major wished to see me. I made my way to the large country house in which our Headquarters section resided, and stepped into its luxurious foyer.
The Major’s office was at the top of the grandiose staircase - a warm, inviting room with ornate oak panelling on the walls. Standing in front of a large rectangular window that looked out onto the aerodrome, Major Wilson sat behind a sturdy wooden desk, on which resided a neat stack of paperwork, a crystal decanter of brandy (complete with two square glasses), and a small lamp. “Have a seat, Campbell” the Major offered, gesturing to a well-crafted wooden chair, complete with quilted leather padding, which sat on the opposite side of the desk. I obliged, still curious as to the nature of my summons.
As I sat, the Major poured out a glass of brandy. “Sit” he commanded, and I obeyed, feeling nerves start to get the better of me. Quietly, Major Wilson began to speak. “We’ve retrieved your bus”. I swallowed. “It was a damned fool way to lose a good machine, going off after Huns alone”. Feeling my brow turn clammy, I dutifully agreed. “Yes, sir. It was silly of me, and it won’t happen again”. “You’re bloody right it won’t,” he said, more firmly now, “but, that’s not the reason I wanted to see you”. Despite myself, I breathed out in shaky relief, causing the Major to smirk, to my embarrassment. “Actually, I have some good news for you. Despite your…overzealousness...to get at the Hun, you have been getting on well here, and your achievements have piqued the interest of H.Q. Certainly, your victory claims have not gone unnoticed”. I fidgeted nervously.
“So, upon my recommendation, you are to be commissioned. Congratulations, Second Lieutenant Campbell.”. I sat in gobsmacked silence as the Major poured a second glass of Brandy and pushed it across to me, before producing a scrap of paper, on which he begun to write. “Th...thank you sir,” I stammered, dazed. “You have been granted ten days’ leave, at the end of which you are to report to St. Omer.”, he continued, finishing his writing and setting his pencil down, before passing the scrap of paper to me. “Head to Calais and board the ferry back to England. You will need a new uniform. Once you’ve landed back in Blighty, board the train to London”. I looked down at the scrap of paper, marked with the Major’s impossibly neat handwriting. I read the address he had written down. Hawkes & Co, 1 Savile Row. Slowly rising to my feet, I saluted the Major with as much vim and vigour as I could muster in my surprised state. “Thank you, sir!” I barked in my most military voice. He smiled up at me, before quickly reaching into a desk drawer. “Oh, and take this. For the uniform”. In a small envelope I found a cheque for 17 pounds. My eyes nearly popped out of my head . Once again, like a broken record, I thanked the Major and turned to take my leave. However, I stopped short halfway out of the door, turning to face the Major once more.
"Er...may I make a request, sir?". "Go ahead". "Well, I was only hoping that...that I may have one more day with the Squadron, before I take my leave, I mean". Smiling approvingly, the Major sipped at his drink. "Very well. I'll put you on the roster for tomorrow, and you shall leave the morning after".
Back in the mess, the boys were just as elated as I. “They’ll make ye a flight lead!” Jimmy shouted, and I laughed him away. Switch-Off begun to list off items he wanted brought back from England. Graves proposed a toast, and glasses were raised as the boys cheered me on. Drinks were poured and songs sung late into the evening as we celebrated. We came to a climax around midnight, where in our rowdy, drunken state, we begun to smash all the furniture, allowing ourselves to devolve into sheer anarchistic revelry. Eventually, it was plain that the night had reached a conclusion, and Switch-Off, Jimmy and I drunkenly made for our Billett.
Walking down the near pitch-black path was hard going, but we eventually staggered indoors and found our bunks. Yawning, Jimmy casually mentioned “So, it’s yer last day tomorrow before yer’ aff hame! Let’s hope fir a quiet one”. I agreed. Hanging up his scarf, Switch-Off turned to me. “How long will you be gone?” he asked, a hint of sadness in his voice. “Oh, only a week or two” I mumbled, before slipping away into dreams.
I dove through the cloud, away from the swarming Fokkers. Coming out the other side, I saw that my trick had worked - at least, for the most part. However, two monoplanes had seen my deception, and came diving down at my bus. Suddenly, one was ablaze, spinning down to its doom. Ahead of me, Jacky-Boy cried out “Focus, Graham! He’s going to get us!”
The drainage at Clairmarais Aerodrome was notoriously poor, and the airfield suffered prolonged problems with flooding - a feature that was not missed when No. 20 finally relocated!