Lou - I expect Graham and Swany will bump into each-other sooner or later!
2nd. Lieut. Graham A. Campbell, No. 24 Squadron R.F.C, Bertangles West Aerodrome, France.
April 2nd, 1916.
Waking early, I stepped out of my tent, wiping the sleep from my eyes, and headed to the briefing tent. Inside was a blackboard, with our shows chalked up for the day. Underneath them were the words ‘NO. 24 SQUADRON STANDING ORDERS: ATTACK EVERYTHING”.
Checking the board, I was overjoyed to see that our show, a patrol behind our own lines, was to be led by Major Hawker. To my amazement, I was to be number 2 in the formation, with Freddy behind me. I returned to my tent to change into my flying gear, and found Freddy and two other pilots - I assumed, the other two on our patrol - standing around and chatting. One of them I recognised from last night - 2nd. Lt. Wilkinson. I joined them, and Freddy’s face lit up. “Hey, Campbell! This is Saundby”. The Sergeant waved a tired hello to me. “He’s a miserable fella, bless him”. Saundby shrugged. “Well, it’s bloody cold up theh, and I’m too tired to bother fightin’ hoons”. I recognised the accent immediately. “You’re from Birmingham?” I asked, and he chirped up a little. “Yeh, you too? You’ve not got the accent…”. “No, but not far. Nottingham”. He grinned. “Well, hopefully you’re a proper Robin ‘ood with that Lewis”. Wilkinson laughed out loud. “Anyone’s a Robin Hood compared to you, Saundby, old boy!”. The Brummie Sergeant spat on the ground. “I’m not the one that needs two gons, Wilkie…”
Brimming with excitement, I stood by the airfield with them as our machines were wheeled onto the field. All the squadron’s planes had striped struts - red for A flight machines, white for B, and blue for C. As Saundby had said, Wilkins' DeHav had a second Lewis crudely fitted onto his nose. I felt a surge of pride to see 6018 sitting beside Hawker’s bus. I recognised one particularly rotund Ack-Emma - it was Miller, the W.O. From the Cavendish. As we approached our machines, I gave him a cheery hello. “Graham! What are you doing here?” he asked, flashing me that awkward yellow grin of his. “This is my new posting. How have you been getting on?”. His face turned sour. “I’ll tell you what, these bloody ships are a nightmare for an engine fitter! I’m up all night dealing with the damned things. Sometimes we can’t even get out the workshops to eat! But, good old Major Hawker will usually show up and bring us our supper. What a fellow, eh?”. I nodded, distractedly. “When you say they’re a nightmare - how do you mean, Miller?”. He laughed out loud. “Oh, just wait until your first case of Cylindritis, then you’ll know all about it!”.
I boarded my D.H.2, feeling excitement course through my veins, and not bothering to stop and wonder what exactly Cylindritis was. Testing the control column, I found it to be light and easy - unlike the Fees, which now seemed ham-fisted by comparison. The mechanic behind me swung my prop, and I grinned with delight as the 100hp Monosopaupe roared into life, its voice sounded powerful. With the chocks in place, I pushed the throttle forwards slowly, laughing in elation at the incredible roar of the engine, before throttling back down and waiting for Hawker’s signal. Not even the rain irritated me as we finally roared down the aerodrome, lifting up into the sky, closely followed by four machines of ‘A’ flight, making us eight in total. The DH2 felt so light in comparison to the fee, and the added acceleration filled me with excitement, and we were at 1,000 feet in a blink. As we circled towards the front, I saw a pair of Moranes lifting from No. 3’s field - I wondered if Lt. Swanson, the Morane star-turn, was at the controls of one. After a short flight out, we begun to climb up in a wide circle. Now I got to open the throttle full, and my little DeHav seemed to kick me forwards immediately. What a fine machine she was! Up we went, and the wind started to knock us around. However, my bus fought against the intrusive wind as we continued to soar up in spite of the bad weather, but once or twice I had to skid away when I realised the wind was blowing me into the path of a wingman.
We reached our trench lines at Beau Hamel, keeping our eyes peeled for signs of trouble. Whereas usually in my Fee I would be praying for a quiet day, at the controls of my new bus I sorely hoped for a Fokker to appear, unwittingly sailing along below us. Off our left wingtips I spotted a pair of Fees droning along, and gave them a cheery wave as they approached, wondering if it might be my pals from No. 20. Just as I looked back, Hawker suddenly rocked his wings and put his bus into a sharp dive, with the others following. I knew what it meant instantly - he must have seen a Hun!
My hands shaking with excitement, I followed my wingmen in their dive, my gaze searching for the unseen enemy. I couldn’t make out what they’d seen as we dove further and further, down past 5000 feet, then 4000, then 3000….and then, there they were! Two Fokkers down at ground level, weaving in amongst archie bursts. How on earth had the Major spotted them from so high up?! By any means, all eight of us came down in impossibly fast dives, straight towards the unwitting Huns. In a flash Hawker was on his Hun, his machine gun shredding its fabric and shattering its spars. The second Fokker, now up on the situation, tried to make a break for his own lines, but our buses were hopelessly faster and soon I was behind him. I fired away half a drum at him, and cried out in delight as he fell into a spin, trailing black smoke from his engine, crumpling in the mud as I flew overhead. I had gotten him!
Looking behind me, I saw Wilkinson grinning at me from behind his windshield, and I waved at him. He laughed, but put two fingers to his eyes, then forward. Pay attention!. I nodded, and looked for the rest of our flight. I found them triumphantly circling over the top of a second burning Fokker wreck. I couldn’t keep the smile off my face as I flew over to join back up with them, picking out Hawker’s red-strutted machine from the group and guiding my own bus over to his side. As we settled back into formation we were forced to skid to the right, as we had nearly flown right into an artillery barrage on our trenches. I was glad that Hawker had the good sense to guide us away from the shelling, for immediately I recalled the time, during a recon show, my own bus had nearly been hit by a shell in flight. Hawker pointed his nose up and we begun to climb once more, returning to our patrol, but our excitement was over for the day and we eventually turned home.
First DeHav Victory!
I was buzzing with excitement for the whole journey back, and when we did arrive back at Bertangles I couldn’t help but do a jovial loop over the top of our Hangars, hanging at the top of the manoeuvre for a few seconds with a wide grin on my face before falling and flopping over on my back, pulling sharply up with plenty of room between me and the ground. I then swung around, gently gliding my bus down and making a smooth landing, letting the tail skid fall of its own accord. Immediately as my bus rolled to a stop I regretted my stunt - I had done it in full view of the Major, which was a fool thing to do. As I de-planed, I saw him standing beside his own DeHav, watching me.
Rushing up to him, I began to blurt out my apology, but Hawker merely laughed, slapping me on the shoulder. “It was a very nice loop! Although, perhaps, don’t stunt over our hangars. If you do manage to kill yourself, I’d rather you only wrote off your own machine”. Embarrassed, I meekly nodded. I made my way towards the Officers’ mess, where Freddy and Wilkins were already throwing off their flying gear. I joined them as they were excitedly discussing the fight.
“Did you see how the Major dove on that Hun, Wilkie?” Freddy asked, before imitating the sound of an engine and demonstrating with his hand. “And what a dive it was!” Wilkins answered, “He must have lost 5,000 feet in ten seconds!”.
“And how quickly he dispatched that Fokker - the poor fella didn’t stand a chance!”. “Oh, I never saw that, but I did see Campbell here send the other Hun down in one burst!”. Wilkins turned to me, slapping me on the back. “You really showed him, eh, Campbell? Well done, chap!”. I laughed, still buzzing with adrenaline. “Yes, he went down rather quickly, didn’t he? I think I must have gotten the man with my fire”. Freddy clapped his hands together. “Righto! First drinks are on Campbell tonight, eh? Lets get this kit off and go see the Old Man”.
After we had removed our flying gear, we invaded the Adjutant’s office to file our reports. Maj. Hawker was just finishing up his, and he turned to us as we walked in. “Ah, now you’ll have a handful now, Old Man!” he said, laughing, to the Adjutant, and took up his position behind his desk, watching eagerly at the show that was about to take place. The Adjutant slicked back his greying hair and stroked the stubble on his chin. He can’t have been older than thirty-five, but, as I later learned, being the eldest in the squadron (save for Johnstone), he had been given his rather exaggerated nickname.
As one we started blurting out the details of our fight, as the bewildered Adjutant tried to pick out details from the flurry of words. Eventually, at the end of his tether, he jumped up and yelled “QUIET, you devils! One at a time, for god’s sake!”. Hawker let out a hearty laugh from behind his desk as we all went silent. As commanded, we made our reports one-by-one, and once we had finished the Adjutant sighed, rubbing his temples. “Okay, so that’s two Fokkers witnessed to have crashed, one for the Major and one for Campbell. I’ll telephone the Tommies and the Balloonists in the area, and see who’s seen what. Now, leave me alone, you riff-raff”.
We retired to the mess tent to have our lunch and wait for the ‘C’ flight pilots to come in, stepping outside periodically to watch the occasional set of Moranes come or go. Powell popped his head into the mess at one point. “3’s ‘aving a big party t’night. That Swanson’s got anovver two confirmed”. We all let out a hooray as ‘Whiskey’ Gomm - the Scottish Captain from yesterday, cried out “That’s, whit, 9? 10? How dis he dae it?”.
‘C’ finally returned - as Ren Rogers, their flight leader, told it, they had had a quiet show. “Your mob scared all the Fokkers away!” he complained to Freddy, who laughed and shrugged. Not long after, as we were settling down to a dinner of roast ham, boiled potatoes and cranberry sauce (courtesy of Johnstone, our Orderly, who had a keen eye for supplies, and a keener tongue still for striking deals with the local farms) the Old Man stood up from his seat, using a cane to support a game leg I’d failed to notice before, and cleared his throat. Everybody fell silent in anticipation, and I did the same - although I wasn’t sure what it was that I was supposed to be anticipating.
Dramatically holding up a telegram, pretending to examine it as an academic might view a studious text, he cleared his throat a second time, in a theatrical way. “Alright, alright, you detestable hounds, here it is. The following airmen have now been credited with one victory each.” In between the names he read came a singular cheer of approval from the pilots. “Canning, Corruthers, Foster...” - the Kiwi’s head shot up, and he delightedly let out a single “Ha!”. I caught his eye, and mouthed “Well done!” - “...Gomm, Ogden, and Rogers”. The pilots broke into frenzied cheering, pounding their cutlery on the table and applauding, before the Old Man roared out “SILENCE, YOU BLOODY MANIACS!” His tone was furious, but humour shone in his cloudy blue eyes. In fits of laughter, the room piped down. “Right,” the Old Man continued, but before he could get his next sentence out, a pilot sat beside Whiskey cried out “Haud on! What aboot ma claim?”. In a thunderous roar the Old Man replied “DENIED, Milligan, you Scotch deviant!”. The room burst into laughter again, as Milligan threw his arms up in disgust.
“NOW! Listen, you rabble! For some reason those desk-flying fools at H.Q are sending you lot some medals!”. Immediately, the pilots fell silent, their eyes flicking to each other, as if to say who do you think it is?. “Foster and Rogers, it’s a M.C for you both. As for you, Whiskey…” the Old Man fell quiet, staring over us with a sly glance. Just when it seemed the pilots were fit to burst, he cried out “it’s a D.S.O!”
The reaction in the mess was uproarious, and I thought that they must have heard the cheering and congratulating in Hunland. As if on cue, three bottles of champagne were brought up to the table by our tenders, and glasses were hastily filled, as Maj. Hawker proposed a toast to the Captain - who I learned shortly after had downed six huns, with today’s confirmation being his seventh. After the noise had died down, I asked Freddy about the spectacle. “Oh, each night the Old Man will tell us what claims H.Q has confirmed. It’s something of a habit, now. You’ll get used to it quickly!”.
It seemed that both camps at Bertangles would be celebrating tonight.