Some great reading this weekend. Fullofit, you're past 20 now. Lou will be agitating to send you to HE soon so you don't catch Swany. Great videos. Carrick, I think that I look forward to the interesting people you meet in hospital more than anything. Stay alive, but keep getting hurt, please! Hasse, great to see Julius about to make a move. Congrats on the EK II. That photo of Johannisthal was excellent. Lou, tremendous flying. The dogfight photo from 21 September is one of the best WOFF shots ever.
And now for something completely different...
An Airman’s Odyssey – by Capt James Arthur Collins, VC, MC Part Sixty-Five: In which the plot unfolds
After four days of rain, flying weather returned on 21 September – Wednesday. I waited desperately for Friday, partly to hear Alex’s plan and partly just to get a chance to have dinner with her. That Wednesday morning I called the section together to demonstrate a loading pattern recommended to me by the armourer sergeant, Sergeant Brady: one tracer, two Buckingham, two Pomeroy. Repeat and serve warm to the Hun. Sergeant Brady had another good idea. He loaded two groups of five tracers just before the last hundred rounds in the belt. It was needlessly risky to start a run at a Zeppelin with much fewer than a hundred rounds. We spent the morning checking our guns and ammunition, after which I flew a rigging check over to Chelmsford and back. We had a funeral. Poor Ness had killed himself during a night landing, stalling into trees.
On the twenty-second we flew timed navigation patrols, clocking our time to locations east of the city that were likely intercept points and letting the men who were new to BE12s judge their climb rate. Then Friday came at last. I arrived at the Savoy early, and Jimmy the bartender had a waiter bring a note to my table. It read: “Change of plan. Meet at the tearoom in Brown’s Hotel, Mayfair. Too many RFC officers here.” I asked directions at the front desk. It was nearly a half-hour by foot – I’d taken the train from Epping. I arrived to find Alex polishing off a cream tea in the company of a middle-aged man. The fellow seemed far too familiar with her for my taste. I watched for a moment from the doorway until Alex looked up and I pretended to have just arrived.
“Hello again! Hope I’m not interrupting,” I said, taking a seat. A waiter intervened and explained that the tea service was ending. “Just a cuppa,” I told him. To my surprise he addressed me as Captain Collins as he scurried off.
Alex placed a hand on my forearm and leaned in conspiratorially. “Jim, I’d like you to meet Price Bell of the Chicago Daily Record. Price is an old friend and a true mentor for a young journalist.” I was still processing this when she went on. “Price has been a fixture in the London press community since Queen Victoria’s jubilee year.”
Edward Price Bell
“Just after it, unfortunately,” said Bell. He offered a hand and repeated his name, “Price Bell. Pleasure to meet you.”
“So what’s the plan you referred to?” I asked, looking at Alex. It was Bell who answered.
“Miss Anderson tells me they plan to keep you from the front and you don’t want that. Is that so?” I nodded. “Take a look at this,” he said. He passed me a newspaper. It was in French: L’Humanité, subtitled a “socialist paper.”
“This is just one sample I picked up at a foreign newsagent’s on the way here. Notice anything different from your British papers?”
“That’s not different. You have the Daily Herald, for God’s sake. That idiot Lansbury’s last editorial wants Britain to pull out of the war. Socialist? That sonuvabitch is for free love and state-run nurseries.” Alex began to giggle. I was starting to like Bell. “What’s different?” he asked again.
My eyes fell on the photograph of a young officer. I read the accompanying article, translating out loud as I went: “The Activities of our Aircraft – Guynemer shoots down his fourteenth aeroplane. Heaurteaux stands at five.” It proceeded to detail the combats over the front in considerable detail. “Our press can’t run that kind of story,” I said.
“Right you are. The French make these guys heroes. The British are afraid to let the names of their top pilots get out. You’re a bit of an exception to that because you did your star turn over London, but I’ve been doing some digging about Americans flying with the RFC and do you realise that the number one killer of German aircraft is from the States?”
“Swanson,” I said. “I know him. He’s a good friend. We trained together in Canada and served together in 3 Squadron. I can tell you some tales.”
Bell seemed surprised. “Then you know he’s up for a VC as well?”
I was blown over and delighted. “No kidding?” I asked.
“I got it from a War Office source today. The Record won’t run a story about without confirmation from a second source. I’ll get that in the morning. But there’s a move afoot to keep Swanson in England, same as you. There’s a young fellow named Ball, an Englishman. He’s bagged about fifteen by all accounts. If the Brits are ever going to start publicising their pilots, you can bet your ass that Ball will get pushed out front.”
Bell lit a cigar and leaned back in his chair. “You know Max Aitken, right?” I nodded. Only now did it register that my tea had arrived several minutes ago. I poured a cup and stirred in some sugar. “Aitken is buttering up key conservatives who won’t want to see too much press about a Yank leading the RFC. But he’s tight with Lloyd George too. Lloyd George will support more publicity about airmen, but may have to placate the conservatives. You see, Haig thinks too much press about airmen undervalues the men on the ground. Trenchard is Haig’s man and backs him all the way. Trenchard doesn’t want his flying ‘aces,’ as the French call them, getting too much attention because he thinks it undervalues the pilots of his reconnaissance machines. But Lloyd George isn’t a Haig supporter. In fact, he can't stand him. Lloyd George and his clique value a bit more promotion of our airmen and to heck with Haig and Trenchard. But having a Yank and a Canuck lead the way upsets the old boys, so I suspect you’ve had all the front page photos a Canadian can expect. Not only that, but Aitken’s friends in Ottawa are pushing for you to go back to Canada for a tour to boost recruiting.”
“No.” I glanced at Alex. She was studying her teaspoon.
“So let me propose something,” said Alex. “Price is going to interview Aitken on Monday. He’ll ask him to make sure you get back to France. If Aitken doesn’t agree, Price is going to break the story about Swanson’s VC. In that story he’ll mention you, too, and suggest that Aitken’s Canadian War Records Office is helping the Brits make sure you colonials don’t get too much press too soon. Suppressing stories about Canadian heroes will put him at odds with his political pals back in Ottawa and with his minority shareholders at the Daily Express.”
She smiled and leaned towards me. “Now here is where I need your help. Price is prepared to let me break his story about Swanson being the top ‘British’ pilot in France. There will be following stories after that scoop. I need you to introduce me to Swanson so I can flesh out his tale. I’m going to ensure the Chicago Tribune tells the world that Britain’s top ace is from Warroad, Minnesota.”
Bell cut in. “Once my other source confirms that Swanson is up for a VC, I’m running with the VC story in the Record, probably by Wednesday. I need to get it out before it’s gazetted. It will be a one-two punch in the Chicago papers. Aitken’s Daily Express won’t be able to sit on the story once it’s on the wires from the States. He’ll have to run it himself, and that will start to upset his conservative pals. His only solution will be to get his connexions in Whitehall to ship you and Swanson back to France and out of sight as soon as possible.” Bell stood up. “Now buy this girl dinner. She’s earned it.” He strode out, leaving me with Alex and the bill.
In the moonless night of Saturday, 23 September 1916, the Zeppelins returned to London. There was a high, fine haze that blocked out the stars and a layer of cloud at eight thousand feet. I took off ahead of Ogden, a new man who had replaced Ness, and Atwell. It took a half hour of steady climbing to reach ten thousand. By that time, the Thames was beneath and I turned east towards Gravesend. Some ten minutes later I glimpsed something slightly higher and off to the left, north near Tilbury. It was more of an impression, like a school of charcoal fish floating against a backdrop of black sky. I turned north, climbing hard to fourteen thousand. The sky was empty. After a few minutes I turned west-southwest, back to the city. Searchlights began to drift across the night far in front. I opened the throttle fully and searched. It would be far too easy to fly headlong into a Zeppelin on a night like this.
A sudden flash of silver! The searchlights converged on an airship, perhaps a mile and a half ahead. The distance closed very slowly. To my alarm, I noticed the darkened shape of a Zeppelin directly above me, not five hundred yards away. When I opened fire on the Zeppelin in the searchlights, the one above me would have an easy target. I held fire a minute more, closing now to three or four hundred yards from the stern of the silver giant in the lights. And then I fired – long bursts of eight to ten rounds, again and again and again, trying always to target the same part of the thing, the curved dorsal section forward of the tail. A gunner on the airship hit me with an accurate burst. The Zeppelin above raked my machine with fire. I banked vertically and dived away.
Regaining my composure somewhat, I climbed back and searched for my prey. The lights had lost it. I spotted the higher Zeppelin. It had drifted a little to the north. A beam of light caught another. It was my target! I closed again to three hundred yards and began firing burst after burst with no effect. Two streams of tracer poured out – the last hundred rounds. Down to a hundred yards and still firing.
The Zeppelin began to glow. I was getting used to this so I wasted no time in turning and diving away. A ball of orange flame rolled up from the back of the giant. Heart pounding like a steam hammer. Search the sky for those grey ghosts – must not collide with a Hun now. I glanced left and was stunned to see a pair of Zeppelins no more than four hundred yards off. They were turning north at the very outskirts of London. I prayed that they had dropped their bombs on empty fields.
"A ball of orange flame rolled up from the back of the giant."
I flew north for ten minutes before realising I was too far to the west. Turning northeast, I saw a landing ground, but the configuration of the fields around it was wrong. It was likely Hainault Farm, so it was necessary to turn north. Within five minutes, I was cutting the engine and dropping over the trees and following the row of fire-pots onto the field at North Weald.