After seven months at the front, Collins is due for a short break...
An Airman’s Odyssey – by Lt James Arthur Collins, MC
Part Fifty-Three: In which we bid farewell to Lahoussoye
I was back, but life was no less pointless. On 3 August we flew contact patrol near Thiepval. Two hours of being buffeted by our own shells, a few flights over Corps HQ with messages, home for breakfast. Same routine in the afternoon. No Huns about.
4 August began much the same. We were dropping some Hales bombs on a rail junction north of the main battle area. A few Hunnish specks off in the distance, but the enemy were uninspired. We loosed our bombs and headed west for Arras. Even the German Archie, normally so accurate and irate at us, were listless. It must be the heat, I thought. We crossed our lines and I led the formation (Whistler’s and Lewis’s machines) south-southwest for home. The engine hummed. The sun rose higher. We were down to 4000 feet and sweat began to trickle down my back. Bellevue appeared in the distant haze off the left side. And Wilson opened fire...
“When you hear shooting, don’t look about. Turn!” I’d just been drumming this into the new boys’ heads at Candas just a few days ago. Now I looked about. A nasty yellow Fokker was slipping down behind us and Wilson was already changing drums. At last I turned about. By now I was convinced that a Morane, properly handled, could out-turn a Fokker. I decided to go after the Hun. But our escort, a new kind of machine from the R.A.F. called a BE12 – a glorified Quirk, really – was on them. I chased in vain, but the Huns (there were two of them) turned for home and ran. I found myself laughing. They needed tuning, this lot of Germans.
" I chased in vain, but the Huns (there were two of them) turned for home and ran."
In the afternoon we drew the short straw and we to bomb the aerodrome at Bertincourt. We expected a hard time and had an escort of DeHavillands. In the end, we had only Archie. Some Fokkers appeared in the south, but turned away. I was looking forward to tea.
It was not to be. I landed at Lahoussoye and was met by the Major. “Pack up and pay your mess bill, Collins. You’re off to HE.” I was not expecting it so soon. Sergeant Wilson was to report to the sergeant-major. He had also been posted to the technical school at Hythe. I was off in the morning and Wilson in two days’ time.
There was a binge to see me off. I’d like to say it was memorable, but really everyone was too tired. The Major mixed up a terrible brew of liquors and we all soaked each other with soda siphons. Around ten, I slipped out into the night and threw up behind a midden. As a consequence of my drinking too much, I missed seeing Wilson off. I should have to make it up to him.
Awakened at six, for the second time I bid a sad farewell to the Poidevins. The tender was outside and the driver, as they all do, talked too much. The trip to England was of little note. I was driven to St-Omer, from which I flew as an observer (sleepy passenger, actually) in a defunct FE2 to Farnham. My orders were to report to 39 Squadron at Hounslow, where I’d spent a few weeks in the spring. Major Higgins was still in charge and welcomed me like a prodigal son, meeting me at Farnham and wondering aloud if I was back for a proper stint this time. He was driving the little 10 hp Singer I’d sold to my old chum Tubby Chilton. Poor Tubby was laid up after a crash, and wouldn’t be back for a good while. Fred Sowrey and Billy Robinson were at Hounslow, he told me.
I found the place astir. The squadron was preparing to move to Essex to protect the northeast approaches to London. The OC and HQ would be at Woodford Green, northeast of the city. The flights would be separated, spread out from the HQ like fingers pointing eastward – A Flight at North Weald Bessett, near Epping; C Flight at Hainault Farm, north of Romford; and B Flight at Sutton’s Farm, south of Romford.
I was to take charge of A Flight until a permanent flight commander was appointed. In the meanwhile, I was to do a night flying course in our new machines – the same BE12 type as had escorted us a few days earlier. It was still essentially a BE2, but with a much larger 150 hp engine. But to my delight, it sported a Vickers gun with an interrupter gear to fire through the propeller. I couldn’t wait.
"It was still essentially a BE2, but with a much larger 150 hp engine."