Lou - I KNEW IT! The second you mentioned your new posting I knew it would be with 70 and their Strutters. Swany's score is about to get a whole lot fatter!
Sgt. James B. Fullard, Esc. N31, Ochey, France.
April 28th, 1916:
The first day spent in the medical tent had been mind-numbingly boring. I had watched, teeth gritted, as four yellowy flashes went past the open tent flap - four Nieuports tearing down the airfield and lifting off into a perfectly blue sky. And there I had been, stuck in a miserable cot with my arm in a sling.
As it turns out, fate decided to at least provide me with some good company in the tent. When the Nieuports returned, there was a sickening crunching sound followed by panicked yells, and a few moments later Lemoine appeared through the flap on a stretcher, unconscious and blood streaming down his face. As we later learned, he had been the victim of a buckled undercarriage and had smacked his head off the dashboard. Apart from a deep, but small, cut on the forehead, he was okay and escaped with just a concussion. Sadly for him, though, he, too was sentenced to four days in the medical tent.
Even with Lemoine’s easy humor to busy my mind, the days were slow to pass and filled with miserable dullness, which only intensified each time a patrol flashed past the tent flap. After the second day the doctor was content to allow me to wander the aerodrome for a few hours a day. It was during this time, as I found little Devienne in the barracks, that he excitedly told me a scrap of gossip he had coaxed out of Messier. I was to be awarded the Croix de Guerre, avec Palme de Bronze!
“Me?! But, whatever for?” I had asked, and after an audible “Ha!” he shot me a look of incredulity. “Man, are you kidding me? You’ve shot down four Bosches by the end of your first month!”. “Two. Only two were confirmed”. “All the same, Mon Ami, it is quite a feat”. “Perhaps” I had replied, modestly. The award was presented to me on the afternoon of the 27th. Not all pilots were present for the ceremony, and I still had my arm in a sling, but we couldn’t very well put the war on hold on my account. At the end, when de Villeneuve pinned the cross on my chest, I swelled with pride. Wait until Michael hears about this!
My arm was still stiff this evening as I pulled on my flying clothes, preparing for the evening sortie. As Souris busied himself checking the tautness of my flying wires, I felt a hand on my back as Thierry appeared behind me. “Fullard, come and see. I think you’ll like this”. He gestured to my machine and pointed out four small patches on the left side of the tail. Where the bullets of the Aviatik had perforated my machine, Thierry had patched the holes over with five small white circles of linen, each decorated with a small hand painted German cross. Grinning from under his thick black moustache, he said “See? She has battle scars just like you!”. I smiled, but thought to myself that, if I could help it, I would make an effort not to collect any more of Thierry’s decorative patches.
My Nieuport was wheeled onto the field and parked next to Metayer’s. Beside them stood the bulky shapes of three Nieuport 12s, belonging to Tartaux, Desmond and Papeil. I watched with interest as the six airmen hastily made their checks and scrambled up into their two-seaters. They reminded me of worker ants. Alongside my own machine I met with Metayer, who gave me his ghostly, empty smile and extended a hand. “Welcome back, Fullard. Good to see you again”.
We lifted first, followed by the lumbering shapes of the Nieuport 12s, and we circled up in a long climbing spiral. Once the two-seaters were happy with their altitude, we turned as one towards St. Mihiel and the lines. From what Ortoli had told me, the fighting had quietened down for the Poilus, but in the air it was ever-frantic, and to make matters worse the Bosche AA gunners had been getting increasingly accurate over the past few days.
Flying through the clouds by our compass bearings, we approached St. Mihiel cautiously. The mud peeked up at us from below the cloud base, and for a moment I caught a glimpse of the rippling white shimmers of l’Etang de Refuge. Ahead of us, Tartaux’s observer raised himself up from his cockpit with camera in hand, and our flight begun to manoeuvre over the Bosche trenches, looking for a decent break in the clouds.
I noticed two Fokkers, their yellow surfaces contrasting against the murky grey-brown, gliding along below us. I signalled to Metayer, who waved in acknowledgement, and we begun to circle above them, carefully examining their movements and trying to decipher their intent, but the clouds closed up again and they were lost from view. I made a mental note to keep one eye out for them. As they continued on towards our side of the lines, I made my decision, and signalled to Metayer that we were going to attack.
I tilted my nose down into a dive and soon my flying wires were singing as the wind vibrated them. The trailing fokker enlarged in my sight picture, and with a tense hand I tightened my grip on the control column. The two Fokkers broke away, one skidding to the left violently and the second making a more measured curve to the right. I followed the leftmost Fokker, who immediately turned to face me. After one circle, I was behind him. The Bosche was clearly a beginner - his evasive manoeuvres were feeble at best, as he lazily tried to turn away, then climb up in a straight line. I got close and fired two short bursts at him, but my aim was off and so I skirted out to the side of him, cutting my throttle and allowing him to extend out ahead of me again.
As I fired again, a second burst whipped past my machine, and in alarm I looked around. It was Metayer, who had easily driven away the other Fokker and was now muscling his way onto my prey. By any means, one of us had hit the Fokker this time as he immediately slipped onto a wingtip and went into a sharp dive. I watched as the German airman tried to pull out of the dive, before going into an uncontrolled spin. Circling above, I watched with an uneasy feeling as the Fokker wallowed towards earth. The rudder and elevator rocked wildly as the Bosche tried to fight the controls all the way down, before finally impacting with the earth on the outskirts of St. Mihiel.
Sighing deeply, I rejoined Metayer and begun to climb again, looking for our Nieuport 12s, replaying the short-lived battle in my head. Why? Why would he only make those lazy turns? I asked myself, feeling a strange underlying blend of anger and shame creeping into my heart. It wasn’t long before we found the two-seaters again, and we steepened our climbs to reach them, escorting them until finally Tartaux signalled that he was heading back to Ochey.
We landed and I made my way to the barracks to write my report. As I penned the details of the fight with the Fokker, I couldn’t shake the horrible feeling that I hadn’t just shot down the helpless rookie Bosche, I had murdered him. As if realising my thoughts, Metayer, without looking up from his own report, said to me “Congratulations, Fullard, on your kill. That Bosche didn’t know what hit him”. I grunted in agreement.
Over supper that night I didn’t involve myself with the excitable chatter of the pilots, past being welcomed back to the table after my injury. Halfway through our meal, Messier appeared and, after being sufficiently insulted by the pilots, declared that the Fokker had been confirmed. “Your third!” Ortoli boomed, and slapped me on the back. I managed a weak smile.