And now for something completely different...

An Airman’s Odyssey – by James Arthur Collins

Part Thirty-Nine: In which I am puzzled

Life at Hounslow was pleasant. We were required to fly only a couple of times a week, barely enough to keep our hands in the business of night flight. Other than those excursions, we were welcome to take our machines about the countryside on “navigation exercises.” These chiefly consisted of stunting and hedge-hopping about the countryside, interspersed with putting down near the home of any young ladies spotted from on high.

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Departing on a "Navigation Exercise"

The nights were becoming shorter and the Zeppelins seemed no longer to be interested in London. There was a raid on the east coast, but the klaxons at Hounslow remained silent. “A” Flight was dispatched to Sutton’s Farm, on the far side of the city, so I lost my chum Billy Leefe Robinson. We could, however, get away to the city once or twice a week and there we would rendezvous at Rector’s on Tottenham Court Road where Billy held court on the dance floor and I tried to chat with the girls in queue for him, playing Oliver to Billy’s Lucifer.[1] Alternatively, Tubby and I would take in the shows. After his last trip to see the Bing Boys, every time we headed for the West End, he’d want to go back. He’d bought the sheet music and would practice interminably on the mess piano (whereupon I’d offer to pass the hat to buy him lessons).

On 2 May, I had a curious and embarrassing encounter with the press. Major Higgins called for me after breakfast.

“Clean yourself and your flying gear up, Collins, and be at my office with your gear at ten. We have some fellows from the Daily Express – terrible rag – coming to see you. Don’t say anything stupid, will you please.”

“They want to see me, sir? As in – to tour the squadron?”

“No, dammit, man,” he explained. “Apparently, they think you’re a wondrous sight to behold – a wild Canadian defends London. Not at all wondrous, if you ask me. The RFC is bloody well infested with your lot. If the war goes on another year we shall all be playing hockey and using foul language like lumberjacks.”

The press team arrived as scheduled. I spent a good four hours posing for photographs in my machine, posing both in flying kit and in my best uniform. I was interviewed about my service, but as soon as I mentioned my time in France, the lead pencil-wallah would ask about “the time I nearly downed the Zeppelin.”

“I fired at the thing and did no harm that I could see,” I explained.

“But it did smoke, correct?”

“Not really. It...”

“Turned away from the city?”

“Not really. It...”

“Climbed away in fear?”

“Not really.”

Undaunted, they ran a full page story later that week. The headline read “Gallant Canadian chases off night raider.” Every man in the mess had a copy and took great pleasure in pinning the clipping to any wooden surface. For a while, the nickname “GC” (for Gallant Canadian) caught hold.

I visited the Savoy Bar twice. On this first visit Jimmy the bartender still had no news about who might have called me back from France. On the second visit, 7 May 1916, Jimmy confided that Captain Baring, Trenchard’s eccentrically brilliant ADC, was in the house. Baring was acting as a liaison to a group of visiting Russians and would be attending a dinner there the following night. [2]

So it was that on the evening of 8 May, I begged away from Houslow, claiming a need to attend to some urgent banking, and made for the Savoy. At the hotel desk, I presented a calling card on which I’d scribbled a request for a brief meeting at Baring’s convenience, whereupon the clerk paged a porter to bring the card to Captain Baring’s room with my compliments. Within minutes, the good Captain joined me in the bar, resplendent in full evening dress. He greeted me as a long-lost friend and I ordered champagne. We chatted about 3 Squadron and he told me about Swanson’s magnificent display of flying at Candas. Then he glanced at a gold pocket watch and asked, “How may I help you, Mr. Collins?”

I explained about the sudden transfer to Home Establishment and the sense that strings had been pulled on my behalf. “Who asked for me to go to England?” I asked him. “I need to know.”

Baring appeared conflicted. “I have given my word that it should remain confidential,” he said at last. I pressed him as hard as I dared.

“Please, a hint,” I begged. “I need to get this move undone. I shouldn’t be here.”

He gave me a kindly look and then a broad and impish grin. “Gripping tale in the Daily Express the other day, what?”

“Captain Baring, please – just a hint.” I was pleading pitifully now.

Baring finished his champagne, checked his watch again, and stood up. “You’ve had a hint already,” he said and excused himself.


[1] In the 1916 musical revue "The Bing Boys are Here," Oliver is the shy brother while Lucifer is the -- well, you can guess.

[2] General Trenchard and Captain Baring travelled to London on 7 May 1916. While there, Baring was temporarily attached to a visiting Russian Parliamentary Delegation. Among his many talents, Baring was an accomplished Russian translator with some significant diplomatic experience.

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