So much time passed. Not for nothing did I start titling Oliver's tale, "À la Recherche du Temps Perdu."
I will revisit the recent, and not so recent exploits of your fellows at a later date but must acknowledge the passing of Ziggy. That was crushing, Fullofit. I am so very sorry. Good on young Rudi for stepping into the breach.
As for the rest of you, I'm glad to see Thorpe, MacAllister, Freddy, and our new addition Jeremiah going strong. Great to have you back MFair.
It's been six weeks since my last posting but I've not been idle. For those who might want a refresher, rather than write a "What has gone before," I'll set this link to Oliver's last installment which covered the dates December 1 - 5, 1917. HERE
____________________________________________________À la Recherche du Temps Perdu - Part 53 of many6 December 1917
56 Squadron RFC
Early morning run around the field. I was rounding the far end when the klaxon sounded. A Pup emerged from over the tree line waving a long black tail of smoking oil. Even from distance I could see it was shot to pieces. The machine dropped awkwardly onto the frozen earth and bounced toward me, finally clattering to a halt 50 yards away. The pilot shut down the engine then slumped to one side. I raced over and standing on the wing, I could see he was gravely wounded. There was blood all over the cockpit. A ragged star-shaped exit wound puckered the front of his flying coat. I slowly drew his head upright. It was Pixley!! He looked up at me, his face lighting in recognition. “Ripper, Old Man,” he said.
“Ripper, Old man.” I woke with a start to Mac’s voice and took stock of my surroundings. Chair by the fire. Squadron anteroom, Laviéville. Breakfast. “You nodded off. Patrol in thirty minutes.” No! Pixley. He was right there. 8.45
Defensive patrol from Courcelles aerodrome to the Bois de Robermont. No e/a sighted. Patrol time thus expired we ran the lines then turned for home. Over Bapaume, the Hispano made an explosive clanking sound then started dropping revs. Another death rattle! Clots of oils impacted the windscreen and a plume of grey mist trailed behind B54. I tried not to think about dragging B-B across the plains of Troy.
Circled down and landed at the Advanced Landing Ground near Bapaume. Grandpa sent a tender and salvage crew.
Roy did not return from patrol. He dropped out shortly after I left formation, crash landed south of Arras, and was taken to a nearby CCS.
Today a letter from Major Blomfield: 7 December 1917
56 Squadron RFC
Line patrol. Vimy Ridge and points 7 miles north. Maybery, Turnbull, Blenkiron and Woodman. Scattered low cumulus over the field but skies cleared nearer the lines. Visibility excellent.
South of Arras, Woodman gave the dud engine signal and returned to Laviéville. I flew with Turnbull. Maybery paired with Blenkiron. On our second patrol circuit, out of a clear sky 4 Pfalz dropped in unseen from the West. How did that happen!
Descending fight. Good hits on one. As he ran east, his engine obviously compromised, I made three passes at him from above. None had much effect. Inexcusable to miss like that! In the end I broke off as the ground fire intensified. I was well into Hunland, low, and alone. Climbed to 2000 ft amidst a hail of Archie then ducked into a cloud. Too late. One Boche gunner found the range and rang the bell but good!
A bright flash, a repercussive blow struck the side of my head, knocking me and B54 over as one. I could smell the cordite or whatever it was the Huns used for their anti-aircraft shells. Stunned, I shook my head trying to clear my vision and recover my senses. I emerged from the cloud flying in a 30-degree bank and nosing down. Blind instinct took over as I righted the aircraft. How B54 survived unscathed from the blast I do not know but the Hispano made full revs. The ringing in my ears continued, pulsing in odd time to the sound of the engine. I felt like I’d walked into one of Smokey’s monstrous left hooks.
Got home without incident. Landed less groggy but experienced a woolen detachment from my surroundings as if perception were a second removed from observation. Thoughts tumbled in mixed order. Pulling up to A-Flight hangar I saw Major Balcombe-Brown step out Woodman’s plane and speak briefly to Flight Sergeant Pickett before striding toward his office. As Moody and Allyn took hold of B54, I tried to speak and failed. With some effort I told them about the guns, and spraying lead all over Hunland. They would move B54 to the butts where I meet them there along with 2nd A/M Milton, the ‘A’ Flight armorer, after making my report.
Grandpa was away so I recounted the events of the patrol directly to Major Balcombe-Browne.
“Lt. Woodman left the patrol with a dud engine before we reached the lines,” I said in conclusion.
“Yes, I took his machine up after he landed to confirm it. One can’t be too careful, you know. Turned out the carburetor was loose after all,” the Major acknowledged nonchalantly.You did what?!
This was infamous! It was all I could do to stifle an outburst.Steady, Oliver…
“Sir, you have just announced publicly, to one and all, that you suspect Woodman a coward,” I said through clenched teeth.
“Oh? I don’t see it that way,” he countered mildly.Oblivious. Utterly oblivious.
“That may be, sir, but the squadron most certainly shall. Officers, NCOs, and men.”
When I stood, a full diatribe at the ready, heat suddenly rose behind my eyes and my balance drifted. My ears rang louder with a sharp, tinny whine. Thoughts, articulate a moment before, now jumbled incoherently. At that moment I felt liquid pour over my upper lip.
“Mind your nose, Winningstad,” said the Major. My hand came away bloody. I felt dizzy and set a hand on the desk to steady myself.
“Sit down, Winningstad,” said B-B moving quickly round the desk and helping me into the chair. He looked as a man awkwardly concerned but unsure what to say. Shrugging off a wave of nausea, I pressed a handkerchief to my nose stemming the blood. The Major remained silent at my side, his hand on my shoulder. The spell passed. I didn’t bother with the medical orderly. I’d had my bell rung by the Archie blast, that was all. No different than what happened in any football game.
Visit to the gun butts embarrassingly brief. My sights were dead on. It was the man, not the machine which had failed today.
High winds scotched the afternoon patrol. I spent some hours napping, cloth over my eyes. Light lanced my brain like the pitiless bronze. Brutal headache. I felt as Zeus waiting for Athena to burst forth from his skull. Sunset finally brought some relief.
I took my ticket a year ago today. RAeC Certificate #3955. Seems longer. I’ve just spent the last hours poring through my diary and logbooks, my Iliad
, as it were. Combats beyond count. Dead friends. Eliza… So many times, my tale might have ended.“yet he bent away to one side and avoided the dark death.”8 December 1917
56 Squadron RFC
Escort of 3 DH-4s of RFC-49 on their Recce of enemy positions between Bullecourt and the Bapaume-Marcoing road. The full complement: Maybery, Turnbull, Stewart, Woodman and Blenkiron. Good thing too as we were going in very low, the DH-4s at 1300 ft. and ourselves at a mere 3500. We were sitting ducks at this height but the Gods of War were not without a sense of Irony.
East of Ablainzeville aerodrome, still on our side of the lines we overflew (!) 6 low Albatri. Red-noses again. Once more we caught the Baron’s men low. No. 2 stoppage in the Vickers on my first bounce. I climbed to clear the jam and surveyed the scene. A-Flight had Jasta 11 scurrying for their lives. Dove in again and put half a drum into the nearest Hun. He crashed into the woods, two miles east of Ablainzeville
Circling the fallen Hun, I collected Blenkiron and we attacked another pair of Albatri. The pilot slumped forward. He joined his fallen comrade in the woods near Ablainzeville
Alone in the sky, it took me some minutes to find Blenkiron, then eventually Maybery, Turnbull and Woodman hove into view from the East. Three of the DH-4s landed at Ablainzeville, all with visible battle damage but no apparent wounds. All six men gave us a wave as we buzzed their parked machines. Of the remaining DH-4 and Stewart there was no sign.
Tremendous excitement on our return to Laviéville. In addition to my two Huns, Blenkiron and Woodman both scored. We’d caught the six Red-noses flat-footed and dropped four. Riding high, we made our way to the squadron office where Grandpa took our reports. The mood wouldn’t last.
Blenkiron saw my first Hun crash. I was less confident about the second claim as none of the others had seen the Hun go in and I wasn’t precisely sure as to the location. My hope lay with the nearby Archie battery, assuming they didn’t claim the Albatros for themselves. B-B forwarded both claims, as well as Woodman’s, witnessed by Turnbull. In the scattered combat none of saw Blenkiron’s Hun crash but he was quite positive as to its exact location. Major Balcombe-Brown the martinet then made his appearance, refusing to forward the claim. Blenkiron protested, provided exact coordinates. and even offered to show the Major the crashed machine. B-B was adamant in his refusal. There was nothing to be done.
When the others departed, I remained behind and had it out with the CO.
“I strongly protest, sir. Blenkiron has seen 8 months of service and is a trained Observer. He didn’t win his MC for creative thinking. If he states the Hun crashed at these coordinates, I would believe him.”
“Regrettably, I cannot do so without additional corroboration,” replied B-B.
“Sir, you forwarded my second claim, which only ground personnel might have seen. Denying Blenkiron’s claim in these same circumstances suggests you doubt his word as an officer.”
“I disagree. You exaggerate, Winningstad. My decision is final.”
“I repeat my original protest, sir. Further, I would like my objection registered in the squadron record.”
B-B’s eyes set harder. “Your objection is noted, Captain. Is there anything else?”
"No, sir." I departed the office before I truly lost my head and said something wildly insubordinate.
I sit here now seething in anger as I write this account. My headache is back with a vengeance, but the ringing in my ears is almost gone. Major Rainsford Balcombe-Browne, OC No. 56 Squadron has strange blind spots in his dealings with other men and more than a few traits smacking of the Martinet. He doesn’t see it. Neither the message he was sending by denying Blenkiron nor the way his actions with Woodman’s machine would inevitably be interpreted. He can be an awkward fellow at times and is prone to overreact when something doesn’t fit his idea of how things should be. "Land on the world next time!"
I worry for what might happen if I accept a posting elsewhere.9 December 1917
56 Squadron RFC
Laviéville, FranceArthur was screaming this time. Something was tearing at him from below as he lay trapped under the wreckage. I tried to reach him. It would be nothing to lift the shattered fuselage and set him free. The same unseen hands held me back no matter how violently I struggled.
“Oliver, help me!!!”
His screams became incoherent now. My own strangled, heaving cry burst forth as I jerked awake.
Harris bent over me, a worried look on his face. “Rain, sir,” he said in low voice. “Morning patrols cancelled.”
Weather not improving. Field swamped. No flying today. I spent the morning writing letters.
In the afternoon Maybery appropriated B-Bs Crossley (I really must learn how to drive an automobile) and we headed up to No. 20 Casualty Clearing Station at Boisleux au Mont to visit Roy. The Station was a sea of wounded men. Orderlies staged the stretchered wounded in a huge tent, preparing for the arrival of the Ambulance Train.
We found Roy sitting up on his bed, head bandaged and in conversation with the man beside him. He was visibly pleased to see us and boy did he have a tale to tell. Roy was pulled unconscious from the wreckage of his plane and pronounced dead on arrival at No 20 CCS. When he woke, he was in the morgue and in a state of some disorientation, pounded on the locked door. Gave the passing orderly one hell of a fright and the terrified fellow took some time before summoning the courage to open the door and let Roy out. Hearing this his ward mate burst out laughing.
The man next to Roy, Lt. Thompson, turned out to be a Gloucester!
“Which battalion?” I inquired.
When he answered “2nd of the 6th, I could barely contain my excitement. I briefly recounted how I’d been a guest of the Gloucesters after my escape from Hunland in May, and bowling some Mills (Miwls) Bombs to some lurking Huns. Richard looked at me, surprised. I’d not told anyone about Thomas Prewett.
“That was you, sir? Before my time but I heard the story.” said Thompson.
“Is Prewett well?” I asked.
“He was when I last saw him,” replied Thompson. “That was… he stopped and tapped his fingers together trying to remember. Three days ago. Three days ago, when the Huns finally pushed us back to Welsh Ridge. Thousands of them. They attacked on the 2nd. Our new CO copped it the first day. Fought them off for three days but the blighters took La Vacquerie village, then the trenches on our right and hit us from two sides. Endless streams of wounded men heading back past me down the trench. Last I saw Prewett he was with Captain Downs and some men heading back to drive the Huns out of the trenches on our right. We had to fall back to the second line. I was hit by a shell fragment right after.” ***
Phobos’ icy fingers clawed upward from the pit of my stomach. The thought of Thomas Prewett dead was almost too much to bear.
We left Thompson and Roy in good spirits. The ward nurse thought Roy might be fit in a week for which I was glad. Indra Roy had been a cheerful presence in the mess. He was, as far as I knew, one of the few if not the only Indians in the RFC. He was a quick learner and a keen student who soaked up everything the older pilots taught him. I thought his flying skills stood room for improvement but there was no doubting his courage. He was eager for combat, almost too keen. D@mn young too, he just turned Nineteen a week ago. Five months ago, he was still at St. Paul’s School and now he couldn’t wait to get back to combat flying. I’d brought Roy his sketching pad and some of his colored pencils. He promised a portrait of B54 on his return.
Returned to letter from Eliza!
Teaching surgical nursing steams now. She’s moved up fast, but Eliza always was a quick study. She sounded happier. “How marvelous.” That was the old Eliza, the one before Aldermaston. What explanation, I wonder. When might I see her again?
As I suspected, the Archie boys claimed yesterday’s second Red-nose. Wing confirmed the first.
One Hundred Nine.
***For a gripping primary source account of this attack, see the diary of Private William Reginald Dick, 2/6 Gloucesters. HERE 10 December 1917
56 Squadron RFC
Harris’ whispered announcement of more rain and scrubbed patrols sent me back to sleep for another hour. At breakfast, B-B relayed some news:
“General Trenchard has invited you to lunch with him today at his Advanced Headquarters in Fienvillers,” said Major Balcombe-Brown. “I rather think he will offer you a command. Be warned, I believe him to be frustrated by your previous refusal of a squadron, or a posting to Home Establishment.”
1st A/M Swift drove the CO’s Crossley along the muddy roads with gleeful abandon. An hour later I stepped out of the filth-covered vehicle at Fienvillers, which lay adjacent to Candas, home to that festering orifice, the No. 2 Aircraft Depot. Mercifully, the two establishments did not share a common mess.
General Hugh Trenchard, GOC Royal Flying Corps, greeted me with his typical stentorian enthusiasm. We were joined at lunch by the General’s private secretary, Major Maurice Baring, whom I held in high regard. He was no stranger to the officers and men of 56. We’d met several times, most recently in London. It was Baring who guided me through the particulars of my VC investiture.
Conversation wove a meandering course through my experience of the last 8 months and my thinking on air combat tactics before returning inevitably to the possibility of a German Spring Offensive. My mention of McCudden’s ideas regarding a dedicated group to hunt German 2-seaters intrigued the General greatly. I got the impression I was being tested. Lunch finally concluded; the sharp pointy end of the meeting came round at last.
“Will we lose you to the American Air Service?” asked Boom.
“Not at present, sir. My one encounter with that particular branch was most unsatisfactory, to put it politely. The service appears rather disorganized and beset by fratricidal politics of the worst kind. I doubt they’ll field a viable squadron before the Summer. In any event, I don’t believe my stock very high with those in command.”
“How can that be?” asked Boom, raising eyebrows in genuine surprise.
“Well, sir, I gave an interview to an American journalist in October. I spoke a bit of truth which undoubtedly ruffled some feathers, especially among the West-Pointers.”
“Did you?” replied Boom, in dry amusement. “Best to avoid newspapers altogether.”
“You’ve given tremendous service, Winningstad, but it’s time for your next posting. Eight months in France, how many hours in the logbook?
“Nearly as many as Captain Clement,” mused the General. His attention trailed off reflectively for a few seconds. Amazing he would know that number so precisely.
“What would you have, Winningstad?” he continued. “Home Establishment? A squadron?”
“General, I have no doubts regarding my ability to command a squadron, but that would be a waste of my energies and skills. I’m a man of action, sir, at my best in the air, smashing the Hun and leading others to do likewise.and bringing them home alive... some of them.
“I should go mad behind a desk, grounded there like Achilles in his tent, while others take my place in the fighting.”
The fighting where men win glory …
“True, a Squadron Commander doesn’t lead operations currently,” answered Boom, “I do believe that circumstance will change when the Hun resumes the Offensive come Spring. With Russia out of the war, all those Hun divisions will transfer west. We’ll need every man in the air to meet that onslaught.”
“Do you think an attack certain, sir?
“I do,” he answered with a concrete finality.
What happened next seemed out of my control. An all too familiar detachment came upon me and in the grip of some mad impulse I charged right into the lion’s jaws.
“You mentioned Captain Clement, sir…”
“Terrible loss,” replied the General.
“If I may be permitted an observation, sir. The French saw fit to award Captain Clement the Croix de Guerre yet his family have nothing from his King, save a letter of deep regret. How is that? Thirteen months of frontline service. Fourteen victories…”
My barb struck a nerve. The General was no fool and saw clearly through my clumsy subterfuge. Major Baring’s eyes flew wide in surprise, his monocle tumbling like a falling mountaineer before wrenching violently as the lanyard snapped taut, just as it had that July day at St. Omer when I’d lost my mind with the King.
“If you think your record of service allows for such familiarity, Winningstad, or leave to make such insinuations then you are very much MISTAKEN!” boomed the General.Oh Lord, you’ve really done it now, Oliver! You’re finished.
General Trenchard’s glare would have melted holes in armor plate, and trained unrelentingly upon me it was all I could do to meet it without flinching. Boom’s features darkened as he drew a full lungful and handed down my sentence.
“You’re a damned impertinent young officer!” he roared.
“Yes, sir. It’s a defect of character.”
Boom glowered silently for uncounted seconds as I sat squirming, then as the storm passed, he assumed a calm, almost paternal tone.
“Now see here, Winningstad, it simply won’t do for the highest scoring pilot in the Flying Corps to get the chop because he’s too pigheaded to go for a needed rest. I’ll brook no more refusals. Don’t force me to send you to America on a fund-raising tour.” Mother of God! Could he do that? Think Oliver. Think!
“General, there’s another possibility. Perhaps I might serve as instructor then return to France to meet the Hun in the Spring, be it with a squadron or as a Flight Commander.”
Boom smiled. “Perhaps you might,” he replied without commitment, and turned to Major Baring. “Make a note of that, Maurice.”
The General stood then, signaling the conclusion of our meeting.
“Congratulations and good luck to you,” he said. I stood there unmoving for a moment, thinking he wished to shake hands. Boom regarded me inscrutably, then spoke, not unkindly, “Remove yourself Winningstad.”
I snapped to attention, saluted and exited the room, realizing then how sorely I’d tempted fate and Boom.
T. B. “Grandpa” Marson, our magnificent Recording Officer, goes to HE tomorrow. Tonight, we celebrated. Many speeches in tribute. Richard recounted how Grandpa’s 10-year-old daughter Thais had the entire squadron wrapped about her finger during the emergency deployment back to England in June. Richard, Beery and Turnbull are the only ones who remain from those days. 11 December 1917
56 Squadron RFC
Patrol of Hun lines north of the Bapaume-Marcoing Rd. Climbout over the old neighborhood at Chipilly.
High winds churning up whitecaps on the Étang de la Hutte
below. Mind wandering. Headache is back. Freezing over the lines. No e/a sighted.12 December 1917
56 Squadron RFC
Morning show was an escort of 2 RFC-49 DH4s on a recce of the front from Fontaine-Uterte Aerodrome to the St. Quentin-Amiens road. Eponymous F-U… the antipathy was mutual.
With Maybery, Turnbull, Stewart, Blenkiron and Woodman, we crossed the lines at 8000 feet. One DH4 dropped out shortly thereafter. No e/a sighted for the next hour. Saw the remaining DH4 to friendly lines then patrolled St. Quentin to Cambrai.
Scrapped with five high Pfalz over Mont St. Martin aerodrome. Yellow Tails of Jasta 10. We fought down to 2000 feet before I could land a proper burst. He flew right through the stream of tracer, then slid down to crash near Premont aerodrome.
No sooner had I reformed with Maybery than the Hun’s silver comrades rained down bent on revenge. Some hot moments over Premont, but the Pfalz were uncoordinated and attacked piecemeal. We soon regained the advantage. Maybery forced the Hun to break directly into my gunsight. A third Pfalz entered the lists. He too fell near Premont.
Gathered Maybery, Blenkiron and Woodman and returned to Laviéville. Turnbull and Stewart landed 15 minutes later.
Orders came through early afternoon for a special mission: A dusk attack on Lieu St. Amand aerodrome, 20 miles into Hunland. This was a job for a night bombing squadron but I was eager for a fight and made my case to the CO. With darkness falling, Major Balcombe-Brown reluctantly gave his assent to my leading a 4-ship flight and making the attempt with Turnbull, Fielding-Johnson and Maybery. The sun fled below the horizon as we took off. A solitary search beam lit our path through darkening purple skies.
Weather conditions deteriorated. It wasn’t until we reached the lines that my head cleared and the full madness of what we were about to attempt struck home. I could see next to nothing and we had a 50-mile round trip to the target and back. In stygian gloom I fired off the red flare and washed out the patrol. Getting home alive would be no small challenge.
The flight kept station by the glow of our engine exhaust. As we approached what I hoped was Laviéville, the tree line obscured the firepots lining the field. Descending, I fired off my last flare into the ground on approach, hoping it might better illuminate the treacherous path between the trees. Leading the way through the gap, I cleared the branches by a yard then set B54 roughly onto the field. Safely down.
Amazingly, the entire flight landed without mishap. What the hell had I been thinking even to attempt such a stunt?
After making my report I braced for the expected tantrum from the CO but it never came. Major Balcombe-Brown was on the telephone to 13th Wing arguing the particulars of the aborted evening show.
“No sir I do not agree. I will not squander the lives of highly trained pilots on …” the Major began, then immediately pulled the telephone away from his ear. I couldn’t make out the stream of shouted words coming from the earpiece. The torrent subsided; B-B resumed speaking.
“Yes, sir, Captain Winningstad led the patrol personally. In his judgment the situation necessitated a washout and I accept his word implicitly. Yes, that is correct, sir. A very good evening to you as well,” said the Major hanging up the telephone.
“Wing saw reason in the end. The mission order came down directly from HQ not from Colonel Playfair,” he said. “It was a gimcrack plan from the start. I should never have let you go.”
I knew then that B-B, despite being oblivious in certain realms of human social interaction, and harboring a tendency toward the Martinet, would take care of his people. He’d backed me to Wing and had outright refused the order for 56 to ground strafe during the Cambrai show. The Squadron would be safe in his hands. Whatever his flaws might be, he would protect the pilots and the men. I could leave now.
I turned to go just as the evening dispatch rider entered, without knocking of course. The three Pfalz from the morning all confirmed. One hundred twelve.