2nd. Lieut. Graham A. Campbell, MC, No. 24 Squadron R.F.C, Bertangles West, France.
April 5th, 1916.
I heard Johnstone’s apologetic voice softly calling my name as I slowly drifted into consciousness, and was met with the strange sensation of my tent being lit by the glow of an oil lamp. Blearily I took the cup of tea being pressed into my hands, and looked up into the friendly face of the Orderly. “Whasszgoinon..?” I mumbled. “Sorry to wake you, sir, but your escort patrol is scheduled to leave in 20 minutes”. I looked at my wristwatch, puzzled. “But...it’s only twenty-to-four!”.
Half-crawling out of my tent into the dark, frosty morning, I found a miserable silhouette shivering as it sat atop an ammo crate. “Morn’ Campbell” came Wilkie’s voice from the dark shape, and I grunted in response. “We’ve got a patrol this early?” I asked. Wilkie let out a long sigh. “Yup. We’re ferrying a pair of Quirks from No. 9 to Delville wood. Command wants them to be over their target at first light, so…” my eyes, now slowly adjusting, made out the shape of Wilkie raising his arms and gesturing at the darkness. Soon we were joined by Saundby, who was in a fouler mood than either of us combined. He muttered combinations of profanities I would never have dreamed of as he sidled up to us. Wilkie and I couldn’t help but chuckle, as he let out a fresh wave of swearing, followed by “...never get any bloody sleep until I’m dead…”.
We met with Freddy on the way to the aerodrome, where our buses waited for us in near pitch-darkness. To our surprise, he seemed positively raring to go. “Morning, Fellas! How about this? Night flying!” (He said the words ‘Night Flying’ as if presenting the name of a cabaret show, his hands shooting out to his sides). We groaned in chorus, and Saundby added “They can’t even wait until it’s light to disturb us now!”. Freddy grinned, and slapped him on the back. “Well, look on the bright side mate, it’s not raining anymore, and you get to pay No. 3 back for waking you up!”. I watched an evil grin spread across Saundby’s face as he pulled his flying helmet on. “Yeah...right! Good idea, Freddy!”.
Hawker was already aboard his bus, waiting for us, when we got to our own machines and climbed in. “Ready, chaps?” he shouted to us, which was met by a harmonised “No” from Saundby and Wilkie. Hawker’s laughs were quickly drowned out by our engines starting up, and my own laughs were also lost as I realised that Saundby, his chocks still in place, was running his engine as loudly as possible, opening up the throttle as fully as he dared to, before eventually idling again. Poor old No. 3, they don’t deserve that! I thought to myself, as I saw the white flash of Saundby’s grin smugly turning to us. Soon we were rolling down the field into pitch blackness. I have no shame in saying I had the wind-up proper as we approached the end of the airfield, where the land dipped steeply down, and I tried to picture the distance to that now-deadly drop-off as we approached.
With much relief I lifted off okay, but as I looked forwards I was horrified to realise that Hawker’s bus had already vanished completely into the darkness. I felt panic start to rise as I heard the others’ engines around me, but saw nothing. Suddenly, from out of the gloom, a DeHav flashed sickeningly close to the nose of my machine, and I jerked upwards on the stick in shock. I strained my eyes, trying to make out the pattern painted on the machine’s struts, and cried out in delight as I realised it was Hawker.
As I was sidling into formation, another DeHav shot over my head, giving me an awful scare. Nervously I tiptoed my own machine to my position in the formation, praying all the while that the others could see me better than I could see them. How on earth are we ever meant to find the Quirks like this? I thought to myself, as suddenly yesterday’s clouds and rain seemed like easy work. To the East my eye was drawn to a brilliant searchlight splitting the sky in two, at the base of which could be seen the occasional burst of an Archie gun. I knew that there must be a Hun up there, but how they ever expected to know where they were, I surely had no idea. By any means, our flight decided to overlook the ‘Attack Everything’ rule on this occasion. The climb up to altitude was terrifying - I kept my eyes firmly fixed on Freddy’s bus as we went up, not daring to look at my dashboard or my map for even a second for fear of a collision.
It was then that a fresh terror ambushed us - we had flown into a cloud. Suddenly there was nought but pitch blackness in front of me, and I felt terror grip me as I desperately looked for something - anything - to tell me where my wingmen were. Above me, I could barely make out the faintest image of a DeHav’s unpainted lower surfaces - feeling as if I was in some kind of horrific dream, I glue my gaze to the dull, wallowing shape, fighting the urge to drop away and run back to Bertangles. As we broke out of the other side of the cloud, I felt a single sob of elation escape me.
For a precious moment I saw clearly the silhouettes of my flight against the dull blue-white of a cloud - and I noticed that there were only three. Who had we lost? No time to try and work it out. I felt overwhelmed as I tried to find my position in the formation, and then suddenly we were into another cloud, and I was hit by a fresh wave of terror.
Through some divine miracle we managed to continue upwards without killing ourselves, but not before we were subjected to the horror of two more clouds. But, I then noticed that the sky had shed its black, adopting instead a deep, dark blue, and I could have cried with happiness as I realised that the sun would soon be peeking over the horizon. As the sky continued to lighten, and the first pink tones begun to take hold of the clouds, I could finally make out the painted struts of my wingmen - and with a lurch in my stomach I realised that it was Freddy who was missing, but I was distracted from thinking upon his fate by the yellowy flash of the B.E’s appearing underneath us. We gratefully assumed our position above and behind them as they lazily banked to the East.
Our approach had been perfectly times - as we crossed into the mud, the sun had only just begun to creep over the horizon, and our visibility was finally restored. Below us, the Quirks ambled lazily on, basking in the pink glow, as we hovered above, keeping our eyes peeled for any early-morning Huns. As we overflew Bapaume the sky seemed to suddenly burst into colour and life, and I forgot the terrors of night-flying as I looked out over the beauty of the clouds, soaked in the pinks and whites of dawn.
I looked back out over my shoulder, feeling quite at peace, when my happiness came to an abrupt stop. With a nauseating lurch I made out the shape of no less than six Fokkers, who had cleverly hooked around us as we had gone deeper into Hunland and now bore down on us from the direction of the mud. Frantically I rocked my wings, and at once Hawker swung his machine around in response. I tightened my grip on the stick as we curved around to face the Huns, and before I could prepare our formations merged.
I quickly got behind one Eindecker as the two sides exploded outwards into a wild, chaotic tangle of looping machines, and put a long burst into him, at which point he fell away in a vertical dive with smoke pouring from his engine. Just as soon as he had disappeared, bullets tore through my own wings, and I pushed the nose down in a panic to escape my unseen pursuer. I skidded away hard to the left, trying to get a glimpse of the Hun behind me, and spotted him as he banked away.
I zoomed up above him before nosing over and coming down in a vertical dive, but this artist was crafty and pulled away out of the reach of my Vickers. I then found myself twisting in a seemingly infinite corkscrew, down, down, down with the Hun, as we stared into each-other’s faces. Eventually we found that we had run out of sky, and as we danced around each other mere feet from the rooftops of Bapaume, I found myself slowly catching up to his tail. Just a few more centimetres and I would have him…
At my back, I felt the engine suddenly shudder, and fall silent. My blood ran cold - I was too low to glide home, too far in Hunland to escape through the mud. In a dumbfounded haze, I looked for a place to land, as the suburbs zoomed below me at deadly speed. I tried for the mud, but to my horror I realised that dead trees blocked every possible landing spot. I suddenly realised that I was about to die, alone, in Hunland. I thought of Switch-Off, Jimmy Reynard, and McHarg, I thought of my parents; the look in my Father’s eyes when he had shook my hand as I’d left for the last time. I thought of Jacky-Boy, and what I’d say to him in the next few moments. I thought of Hawker, still above my head somewhere, indomitable, and how I had let him down. I thought of Jeanne’s Coffee.
My bus impacted hard, rolling across the ground as sickening speed, as over my head flew the triumphant Eindecker. I saw the sun reflect in his goggles as he smugly looked down at me - his most recent victory, and, defeated, I let go of the stick.
Ahead of me, the trees and fences rushed up with open arms, welcoming me into eternity...