January 23-24, 1916
What a dismal little place.
Auchel seems to me like the place that time forgot: The field looks like it was cleared before the war if there was ever a farm on our little hill at all. At least the staff does make an effort to keep it clear as weather permits. You cannot blame the worker for not wanting to go out in the winter, but when the alternative is the trench you would expect a little more effort. Hmph.
'The place that time forgot.' Every single one of our 'craft, barring an Avro trainer that apparently lives here for courier runs, is a monoplane: Morane-Saulniers to be precise. Everyone knows the monoplane is a dead end technology and the future belongs to two- or perhaps someday even three-wingers. Even the French in their Nieuports know this.
Nonetheless it will not do to remind my new partners of their inferiority on day 1, so I make the proper noises when meeting with Lieutenant Norton. Norton is a pleasant fellow, pleased as anything to have a 'real' Baskerville on his squad. Apparently he follows football and knows full well the team my father sponsors, the 'Hounds', went 18-5 in last year's rounds before most of our fielders joined the fighting. Good man, Norton. He should do nicely.
There are nine of us pilots in all, nine observers-gunners of course, and I'm told some thirty or forty staffers. Of the pilots, three are commoners - sergeants. That does not satisfy me of course but I am assured that their flying skills make up for their lack of pedigree. We shall see.
Morning patrol then, and Lieutenant Norton asks me to lead a flight consisting of myself and my new wingmate, Second Lieutenant O'Keefe. O'Keefe is an Irishman, poor thing, but at least he controls his accent most of the time. Norton feels that giving the two of us are own mission will give us a chance to learn each other's ways. Not really, though it did make me somewhat aware of the Morane's sad qualities.
For example, my entire rear is blocked by a solid beef of a man named Richardson. Lieutenant Richardson and I get along well enough though he has a tendency to prate and go on about his home life that could quickly grow old. Today, as I struggle with an underpowered aircraft and crawl towards the front, I welcome the background noise: He doesn't seem to need me to respond, just to be an audience.
Our mission today: Athles railyard. O'Keefe and I each have four 20 pounder Hale bombs. Needless to say my experience in dropping bombs from several thousand feet is zero, and despite our suggested instructions I think I shall have to get quite close to have any chance at all. There is a third flier, a Sergeant Foster, on the same mission as ours but following a different flight path. So long as he doesn't get in the way.
Though tedious, slow and filled with Richardson's prattle, our advance to Athles is smooth. We begin dropping low towards the rail, but before I can get too far my gunner uncocks his gun. His prattle stops mid-sentence: "Eindecker!"
I can't see a thing behind me and begin to turn, but Richardson starts shrieking like a banshee. "Hold still! I need to aim!" Well then. For the next minute or two he trades shots with the Kraut and then shouts "He's done!"
Time for the railyard again. I can see it falling off to my right and look just in time to see O'Keefe's bombs fall short. I bank in at about 2,000 feet - no altimeter on a Morane of course - and aim for what I expect to be the main buildings. There's a satisfying explosion behind me, but less than a minute Richardson reports: "Missed!"
Nothing for it. I signal that we head home and turn for the front. We're steadily climbing as I don't want to deal with German fire over the lines. Richardson's gone quiet on me, a sign I will soon learn means trouble. "What's amiss?"
"I think O'Keefe is buying it."
"Eh?" Sure enough, over my lower left wing I saw O'Keefe appear but more or less perpendicular to my flight path. Then another plane appeared after him. At first I thought it might have been one of the Nieuports sent to escort us, but no...this had the characteristic single wing of a failed design. Eindecker.
"Hold on!" I called and banked sharply (for a Morane) towards the fight, hoping to at least distract the Kraut. By the time I finished my turn though they were gone, both quite gone - whether I simply missed them, or they camoflauged into the ground clutter ... Richardson couldn't find them either, so after a minute or so I turned for home.
As it turns out, O'Keefe beat his Eindecker and landed at an aerodrome closer to the front for repairs, shaken but quite well. Even Sergeant Foster bagged one though a bullet tore his shoulder in the process. Richardson filed a report for our own Hun, then in a bit of legerdemain that is apparently more common than you'd think the three of us wound up backing each other's claims.
I do not think I will ever love the Morane, but it was a fine enough first day.