Wow, Lou - sounds like a tough day for Swany....again! And another two Einies swatted out of the sky. If Swany is this formidable in a Morane, of all things, I can't even imagine what kind of score he's going to build up once he gets his hands on a scout...that being said, BE CAREFUL!!! Every time you run into another flight of Huns I get all panicky, even if you are the top-scoring morane ace of legend.
Gotta tread lightly around Guillemont, Bapaume, Delville Wood...that whole section of the front is absolutely crawling with Fokkers - I'm yet to have a day of peace there myself! Definitely a hot shop - perhaps the hottest in the Somme region, dare I say? As for the AA gunners in the area - they're dubious at best. They've given Campbell one or two scares as well...
2nd. Lieut. Graham A. Campbell, MC, No. 24 Squadron R.F.C, Bertangles West, France. 6 Victories.
April 10th, 1916 (Part 2).
Our next show of the day was a One O’Clock O.P over Delville Wood - and I was in charge. Needless to say, I was racked with nerves, as we all were, as our machines were wheeled out. The area around Bapaume was a very hot shop, and we all knew it.
I shared a cigarette with Wilkie as we walked to our buses. “Good luck, eh, Cammie?” he said with an uncertain glance my way. I patted him on the back. “Same to you, Wilkie”. As Osborn climbed into his machine, I sidled up to the side of his nacelle. “Osborn - if we find trouble and it gets too hot, clear out back across the lines. Okay?”. He shot me a lopsided smile. “Aye, awricht, A’ wull”.
We rolled off the aerodrome first, closely followed by Hawker’s ‘A’ Flight, staying with them until we had found our altitude at Doullens, before turning East, where Hunland awaited with sinister, inviting arms. At 9,000 feet we crossed over, and the scanning begun. I looked over my shoulder to check on Osborn, and was pleased to see him neatly tucked in his place in the formation. Clouds shrouded No-Mans-Land below us, and in-between the great lumbering shapes I expected at any moment a flight of Fokkers to come swooping down at us - despite that, I took a moment to peer down into Courcelette at the old French couple’s house, still standing proudly. I also noticed, to my concern, that the house two across from theirs, which had previously stood also, was now mere rubble. Although it pained me to do so, I willed the couple in my head to abandon their defiance, to seek a safe place to live behind German lines. But, with a faint smile, I knew exactly that they never would.
Over Beaumont-Hamel I checked my dashboard clock, making a note of the time - five minutes to two. I then scanned behind us, recalling the Hun’s trick last time of waiting until we overflew the city below, then circling around behind us. No Fokkers to be seen. Cautiously we continued deeper into Hunland, until slowly the great shape of Delville Wood appeared from beneath the clouds. It was at that moment that the archie started up at us, first sparsely, inquisitively, trying to figure out who we were, and then aggressively and with more frequency as our identity became apparent. Still, we went deeper into their territory.
We overflew a Hun aerodrome, Bertincourt, before weaving back West, back towards the trench lines. I gave a start as three machines suddenly made themselves apparent to us, rounding the edge of a cloud, but I quickly recognised them to be Hawker, and his ‘A’ flight, going the opposite way to us. We waved them hello as we crossed paths. For the next ten minutes nothing appeared to us, and as we circled round again at Courcelette we started to think that no air-Huns would appear. But, then, I saw something that sent a chill down my spine.
Below us, weaving in a desperate evasive dance, was a lone DH2 being chased by an Eindecker. From out perch on high I could see the tracer of the Hun as they shot past our man, and immediately I rocked my wings and put 5986 into a sharp dive, straight at the tail of the Hun. She roared alive in excitement, the airspeed indicator showing 110mph, 120, 130, as the Eindecker grew larger in my sights. We caught up just as our man was desperately trying to land, still under fire, at Bellevue on the edge of the mud, and immediately I let my Lewis bark into life, sending a venomous burst into the German machine. I saw the moment the Hun turned around in surprise, before his face was painted in sheer terror at the sight of four of us diving down to send him hellwards. It was hopeless for him. Within moments, under simultaneous fire from four Lewis guns, the Fokker burst into flames and fell towards earth. At that moment, a torrent of machine-gun fire flew upwards from the aerodrome below, several bullets smashing through my machine, and undoubtedly hitting the others’ buses as well. “Stop, you bloody idiots!” I cried out, as ahead of me the Fokker smashed into the ground.
As soon as it had, the guns below fell silent. Our friend in the DH2, which I now recognised to be Saundby, put down at Bellevue below, and I fired the washout signal before following him down, rushing to his side. He sat pale-faced, shaking like a leaf in his nacelle. “Saundby! Are you okay? Are you shot?” I asked him frantically, but he seemed not to even notice I was there. A corporal came running over to us, a wide grin on his face. “Did you see that! Got him down in flames!” he shouted to us, and I slowly turned to face him, rage burning within me.
Grabbing the corporal by his collar, I pushed my face close to his. “If you ever put bullets into my machine again, you b.astard, they'll be burying you next to that Hun” I growled, straining not to throw a punch right then and there. The corporal looked at me, wide-eyed, in confused fear, and with a growl I released him, turning back to Saundby, who was starting to show some signs of life now. “Campbell?” he asked weakly, and I placed a hand on his shoulder. “It’s me. What happened, Saundby? Where are the others?”. As if to answer, another DeHav appeared overhead, circling once then swooping down to join us. It was Hawker. Climbing out his machine, he came our way.
“Hell of a scrap,” he told me, “Four Eindeckers, from right out of the sun. I sent one off with his tail between his legs, but lost the others. I recognised your buses as I was flying past. Are you okay?”. Without saying anything, I gestured to Saundby, who was rocking back and forth gently in his cockpit, still white as a ghost. The Major sighed in understanding, and went to his wingman’s side.
It was an hour before Saundby had calmed down. Eventually, we had our buses patched up and took off towards home, arriving in good time. Lethargically I made my report to the Old Man, who said he’d call in my claim. After a few moments on the phone, he shot me a questioning glance. “Oh, really?” he was saying, “Okay. Well, our man says the same thing. Yes. Yes, okay. Thank you”. He hung up. “The gunners at Bellevue are claiming your Fokker. Same story, shot down in flames”. I nearly exploded with rage. “They’re claiming it?! Do you want to come to the hangars with me, I can show you exactly what bus they were shooting up!”. The Old Man held his hands up. “It’s not me you need to convince! I’ve told H.Q. your side of things, now there’s nothing for it but to wait for a confirmation”. Trying to hold my temper, I thanked the Old Man and left.
Word came from No. 20 that evening - a letter from Jimmy Reynard. It read:
How about that new single-seat job of yours? Gotten any huns in it yet? I’m sure you have. McHarg’s got a 48 Hour Pass, and said he would visit you if only you weren’t so far away. We have some new laddie in the cottage, taking up your old spot, named Billinge. Nearly as young as Switchy, he is! I feel like an old man, sharing a Billett with those two, now that McHarg’s not around.
Speaking of Switchy, he’s been worried of late. We saw a name from No. 24 come up in Comic Cuts - 2nd. Lt. Fred Foster - and Switchy says that you both knew him at Hounslow. He was distraught at the news, inconsolable for the past two days, but some brandy has sorted him out. But, he worries about you. If Comic Cuts is anything to go by, all the real scraps happen in your neck of the woods.
Feel free to visit any time, we miss having you around, as boring as you are.
Your pal, Jimmy”.
P.S: That one lad in the Morane is up to 11 now! Aren't you neighbours with No.3? Tell him that the great Jimmy Reynard says 'Well Done'. He'll be chuffed.
I smiled as I read the letter, and resolved to write back, to Switch-Off, Jimmy and McHarg. It was only as I fetched pen and ink that I realised how desperately I missed the old crowd at Clairmarais, and I decided that on my next leave I would have to visit them. Smiling fondly as I wrote, I detailed my time in No. 24 - the air fights, being shot down, my midnight escape across the lines...it seemed astounding to me that so much had happened in only nine days! Although I was happy to be in No. 24, I thought that perhaps I would be having an easier time if I’d stayed with 20.