An Airman’s Odyssey – by Capt James Arthur Collins, VC, DSO, MC
Part One Hundred and Thirteen: In which I prepare a gift
Swany and I stood at the side of the road and chatted enthusiastically for twenty minutes. He began by asking me about my experiences with the Spad. I told him honestly that I liked its speed and ruggedness but thought it was under-gunned and handled like a pig. He went on rapturously about his squadron’s Pups. “They dance in the sky,” he said. “You just think and she goes where you want.”
“Not the Spad,” I said. “You just think and she keeps on going where she was already off to.” We agreed that both machines would benefit from a second gun and better synchronisation. I told him I had requested permission to mount a Lewis on my top wing but that it had been denied. He asked me if I had seen or heard of Alex Anderson since we left her in Salisbury, and I told him about meeting Alex in Paris. And then I told him about Thérèse and suggested that the road was clear if he wanted to pursue Alex. “Ja, really? Dat road was always clear, Jim,” he said with a laugh. Swine, thought I.
I asked about the rest of his time in England and he told me about getting lost over the North Sea in bad weather and ending up in Holland. He was very serious about how frightening the experience had been and I laughed till I cried. He told me how he had promised the Dutch that he would quit the RFC and become a neutral American again.
“There might be no such thing as a neutral American soon,” I said. The papers were full of the possibility that the United States would join the war. “What will you do if the US comes looking for you?” I asked. Swany just smiled and shrugged. He explained that he wasn’t worried and that he might have a bigger problem if he was shot down over Hunland. He was sure the Germans knew about his promise to the Dutch.
Swany wanted me to go back and have a drink in the 66 Squadron mess. Out of the corner of my eye I had already noticed Major Harvey-Kelly staring at us from the east airfield. I explained we had bags of work to do but that I would try to get over to see him tomorrow evening. He made me promise to come for dinner.
The rest of the day and most of the next was spent getting ourselves sorted out. The big push was imminent and we had to be operational on the morrow. The officers worked on the mass and the setup of the squadron office much of the afternoon. Late in the day, I joined the Major for a tour of the workshops and the men’s accommodation, and then we went with Xavier and to pay a visit on the Bossu family, who owned the farm at the corner. We brought them a bottle of cognac and the Major invited them to come and see him at any time if they had any questions or concerns.
My Armstrong hut was initially reserved for the three flight commanders, but the huts easily slept six or even more so Bertie Davison, my business partner and our equipment officer, moved in and we reserved space for any visitor. There was much debate whether to install partitions so that each of us had a separate room. I was for separate rooms but most of the others wanted to keep the space open. I vowed that if any of them was a heavy snorer or night screamer, the walls would go up!
The French farmers in these parts often wear sabots
– heavy wooden clogs. I asked M Bossu where I might acquire a pair and he gave me a Gallic shrug in response. I walked over to the hamlet of Le Rosel, no more than a few houses gathered about a farm on the west side of the field. With some difficulty I made my mission understood and managed to pay a farm hand more than I should have for a dirty pair of sabots
, one of which had a crack. Cerillo in B flight fancies himself as a bit of an artist and I borrowed his oil paints for an hour in the afternoon. I cleaned up the wooden shoes and painted on the instep of each a lovely Dutch windmill and Dutch flag. I returned the paints to Cerillo’s hut (before he realised I had borrowed them) and put the shoes on the step of my hut to dry. I asked our carpenter to slap together a container for them and he did a tremendous job in less than two hours – a beautifully joined box with a hinged top. He sanded it smooth as glass but could not paint or lacquer it in time.
That night turned into a bigger show than I had anticipated. Major Boyd, the OC of 66 Squadron, had invited all our officers to dine with them and had set up a marquee tent for the dinner. They put on a good feed of pork, potatoes, and green beans. Being as the dinner was in a tent, there was nothing to smash up so we substituted a tremendous bun fight. Major Harvey-Kelly made a wonderful drunken speech and called me up with my little box. He explained that it was only fitting to call on one VC to make a presentation to another. And then he said with a wink that he’d seen my shooting since joining 19 Squadron and was convinced that my VC had been the result of careless smoking by zeppelin crews!
I began by explaining how Swany and I had met so long ago in Toronto and how we had served together when first in France, explaining how Swany’s observer had shot down many Fokkers while Swany held his Morane nice and steady, thus making a name for the Yank as a Hun-getter. I then drifted into the story of how his navigation skills, acquired in the woods of Minnesota, depended largely on reading which side of a tree moss was growing on. Not being able to discern that fact from ten thousand feet in the dark, Swany had contrived to land in Holland thinking he was going to nip into the Kings Arms for a pint and phone his squadron to say he’d be home after breakfast. I then suggested he obviously needed help in telling Dutchmen from Englishmen (probably because both of them spoke so much better English than a Minnesota woodsman). “This,” I said, “will help you to remember what side of the North Sea is not part of England.”
Swany opened the box and, seeing the painted clogs, began to laugh. Not to be outdone, he immediately pulled off his shoes and put the clogs on. I did not have the heart to describe to him the condition of the feet on the farmhand from whom I had bought the things.