Sgt. James B. Fullard Escadrille N31 Ochey Aerodrome, France
3 Victories (1 Claim Pending).
May 1st, 1916 (Part 2).
At ten minutes to Two Ortoli, little Devienne and I made our way towards the hangars to gear up for the mid-day patrol. We were to penetrate the enemy lines at Lac de Madine - a job none of us particularly fancied. As Ortoli shared out cigarettes beside our machine, Devienne unhappily piped up. “Man, why do they keep sending us over the lines? We’ve seen enough Fokkers on our own side, and I could really do without the artillery snapping at me”. Ortoli laughed. “Mon Dieu, Devienne! I thought you wanted to be l’As des As! You need an attitude adjustment, my boy! I’ll bet le Violette has no problems going across the lines”. The youngster sighed. “Oui, Ortoli, you’re probably right, curse you”. I smirked. “If it makes you feel any better, we can let you have all the attention of the Fokkers”. Devienne thumbed his nose at me, before nimbly climbing up into his machine. Ortoli and I boarded our own Nieuports and together we ascended into the blue.
We were overflying Puvenelle forest when I noticed two strange machines flying in the opposite direction to us, slightly higher. Inquisitively I peered at them - they were a type I didn’t recognise. They had a round, bloated fuselage that resembled a cigar, and low, closely spaced wings. The pilot’s head protruded from above the upper wings, and behind him I made out the shape of an observer. I alerted Ortoli and Devienne, and slowly we climbed up at a distance, warily trying to identify the unknown machines.
Hmm. Looks like trouble.
As we crept into a climbing circle, a single white puff appeared below the two machines - then another. Artillery. They were Germans! What were they doing so far into our lines? Immediately we sharpened our angles of climb, scrambling upwards to meet the two Bosches at their level. They had slowly begun to circle with us now, and our two formations sized each other up. Seemingly disinterested in us, they insolently turned South again to carry on with their work. I felt anger flare at their rejection of our challenge, and turned to follow. Ortoli and Devienne turned with me, and we gave chase.
The first thing I took in about these strange cigar-shaped biplaces was that they were much faster than Fokkers. We were catching them, but we were closing agonisingly slow. I made a mental note that I would have to attack from below - I had no intention of catching a bullet like I had done with the Aviatik. As they grew larger in our windscreens, I noticed that they were painted in a dull green and grey camouflage.
Suddenly, to my disbelief, they swung around in a spiralling climb and pointed their noses right at us. They wanted a fight! As they screamed over our heads I saw their gunners stand to their weapons. One looped over and started to circle with me. I realised with a start that these planes, again unlike the Fokkers we were used to, were highly manoeuvrable. I took in its details - the rounded fuselage, the slight angle to the wingtips, the large fishlike tail, as we spiralled with each other, neither of us managing to gain any ground. However, after the second turn I saw his machine stall on a wing and snap out of the turn for a second, before wrenching himself back into the spiral. It was enough for me to get behind him, and I fired two speculative bursts at him. I was stunned when the seemingly cumbersome biplace rolled onto its back and looped away with frightening agility. What the hell are these things?! I thought to myself, trying to follow the manoeuvre. On my right wing, some fabric tore away with the speed. I gritted my teeth and cut the throttle, exiting the dive and assessing the damage. Nothing too serious, but I wouldn’t be able to dive quite as aggressively.
First encounter with a Roland. Scary stuff...
As I turned above the Bosche, I saw Devienne and Ortoli twisting and looping in a similar fashion with the other machine. My opponent circled to face me again and pitched his nose up at me. In a moment of panic I saw tracers from a forward-mounted machine gun firing upwards at me. I climbed up out of reach of the guns of this ferocious new opponent.
Again I came down behind his tail, and again he expertly curved downward and away. We looped and rolled ever-downwards, and at one point the enemy machine stood on its tail. Now I’ve got you, I thought, letting loose with the Lewis, but I’d forgotten about the rear gunner and cried out in alarm as tracers impacted my own machine. The Biplace looped away again, and the moment was lost.
I chased him to ground-level, and finally he straightened out. In one last desperate moment I pulled up behind the tail of the enemy machine, and the observer and myself fired wildly at each other. Fabric and wood splintered away from both our machines, but then in a sickening moment my gun fell silent, out of ammunition. I curved away as the enemy machine tried to climb back up - but Ortoli and Devienne had gotten their man, and were now closing in on my opponent. I watched from the side as they attacked. I saw the palm tree on the side of Ortoli’s machine appear at the Bosche’s tail, and there was a flash of tracer before the Bosche finally fell into a spiral, crashing into the earth below.
Shaken, I turned for home. My machine, which this morning had sounded healthy, was now dropping and rising in revolutions at random intervals, shuddering slightly as it flew. In the windscreen were two large bullet holes, and I could see sections of bullet-perforated and torn fabric along my planes. As I pushed my throttle up to gain some speed, I felt a sudden snap, and the throttle lever shot forwards - but the RPM dropped to idle. Panicked, I worked the throttle lever back and forth, but it swung limp and unresponsive in its mounting. The cable had snapped! Frantically I glided my machine down to ground level, and the moment I touched down the propeller fell silent. I breathed a heavy sigh of relief as the machine rolled to a stop, and thanked it profusely for seeing me down safely. After a moment of sitting in my cockpit, simply happy to still be drawing breath, I climbed out and checked my map. From what I could tell, Toul aerodrome should be nearby. I walked for a little while before eventually seeing two Caudrons circling down to land.
I headed in their direction, and sure enough Toul was below. Over my head came another Nieuport attempting to land, and as I stared upwards at it I made out the red heart on the fuselage side - it was Devienne. I ran towards the aerodrome, and arrived in time to see his badly shot-up machine being rolled into a hangar. I ran up to his side. “Devienne! Are you okay? What happened to Ortoli?” the youngster’s face was pale white.
“What in hell were those things?” “I’ve never seen them before. I hope I never do again…” “You and I both. Merde, I need a cigarette”. “What happened to Ortoli?” “Oh, right. I saw him shoot down that second Bosche and turn back for Ochey, but then my motor started running low so I put in here. I was damned worried when I didn’t see you after the scrap - I’d seen you and that observer going at it, and I thought for sure he was going to get you, the way your coucou was soaking up tracers. You Americans are crazy”.
I telephoned Ochey to let de Villeneuve know that we were both safe, but that both of our machines were too damaged to fly home. Anger flickering in his voice, he agreed to send out two breakdown crews to ferry our machines back. “Two machines lost in one afternoon. What the hell happened out there?” he asked, testily. “A new German type. It’s a Biplace but flies like a scout. It’s fast and manoeuvrable” I responded, and there was a long silence at the other end of the line.
“Sir?” “Yes, I’m still here. Okay. I’m sending Pierre out to get you and Devienne. I want full reports from both of you about this new type the instant you get back”.