À la Recherche du Temps Perdu - Part 54 of many13 December 1917
56 Squadron RFC
Not much sleep. The headache is back in force and the flat rays of the morning light slice painfully. Line patrol from Lens to the Cambrai-Arras road. We flew low, searching for enemy ground attack machines. At Lens, over our lines, archie bursts bracketed the flight. Oil sprayed onto my windscreen. Breaking formation, I flew west along the Arras-Bethune road. Engine glug-glugging in protest along but she held 1200rpm. I made for the aerodrome at Bruay. Settling gently toward the field… Caesar’s ghost! A fence!
Enough left in the engine to power over the obstacle. I landed intact at Brauy, and pulling up to the hangar was greeted by two familiar faces, Mitchell and Johnson! Bruay was the new home of 54 Squadron.
Mitchell and Johnson soon diagnosed the trouble with B54 and set to work. The Archie blast had sent a jagged shard across the manifold and sliced off 3 spark plugs. No wonder she griped so!
An ebullient Biggins greeted me as I entered the Squadron office and presented myself to the new Commanding Officer, Major R.S. Maxwell, MC. It would be some hours before B54 would be airworthy so in the interval I visited with Major Maxwell and with the return of the morning patrol, joined the squadron for lunch.
Of the original squadron who sailed for France in December of 1916, none remain. Major Horn, Uncle, and S.G. Rome left for HE last month. F.J. Morse, lyricist extraordinaire of Cinquante-Quatre
, followed them to England just a week ago. Of those I flew and fought with, M.E. Gonne was still there as were ‘Milford’ Hyde and Roman Ackers, these latter two now senior flight commanders.
Ackers was soon to England and not happy at the prospect. He may be the only man in the RFC assigned to Home Establishment who will take his leave in France - Corbie to be precise. The divine Madame de Rochefort compels him still. I was back among old comrades again. He and Milford caught me up on the news of our squadron mates including the incredible news that Goodbehere is alive and a POW! Two days ago the Huns dropped a note to that effect. Goodbehere is still alive.
I saw Milford and Ackers off on their afternoon show. Parker found me in the ‘A’ Flight hangar. He had word from his contacts in London.
“You’ve run afoul of a dangerous bunch there, sir. A right mysterious lot they are that bear the Dragon’s Eye, that being the particular mark of which you made note. Connected with some very sordid activities, but very discrete, very ‘ush ‘ush, if you take my meaning. All manner of fantastic rumors knocking about: foreign spies, arms merchants, murder for ‘ire and the like. Some gentlemen of my acquaintance suspect the involvement of a certain shadowy figure, name of ZZ. Nobody knows for certain,” he said.
“Many thanks. I could always count on you, Parker. I’m obliged.”
“Good luck, sir,” he said uncharacteristic emotion coloring his voice. “Do take care in London.”14 December 1917
56 Squadron RFC
On standby since just before dawn. Message from forward observers of low Huns over our lines at Bullecourt. Orders were to intercept then extend east and patrol offensively into Hunland. No sign of Huns at the lines. After 20 minutes, climbed to 9000 feet then headed east towards Douai. A solitary Rumpler broke apart under Blenkiron’s fire.
No further e/a sighted.
Orders from on high: “You will report to the School of Special Flying, Gosport on the 2nd of January 1918…" After completing my instructor training, I’d receive an as yet unknown posting.
Major Balcombe-Brown told me I have the reputation to refuse again if I wanted to make a fight of it. I replied that I’d best accept or Boom would ship me back to the States to sell War Bonds.
Now that I’m off to HE, B-B doesn’t want me flying anymore. Officially, I’m grounded but after arguing the point, I convinced him to let me spend my remaining time training the new men. B-B gave his assent after a lengthy tussle and only after extracting a promise that I would not fly east of Laviéville. We both agreed that Maybery should take over command of 'A' Flight.
I was secretly relieved. A great exhalation came upon me then. As when a man carrying a great burden for many miles finally sets it down, only then to realize how close he was to complete exhaustion. 15 December 1917
56 Squadron RFC
My mind hasn’t caught up to current events as yet and still ranges the familiar steps before a combat patrol. I took the two new arrivals, L.W. Williams and K.W. Junor, on a two-hour practice patrol. Junor will join ‘A’ Flight when he’s ready. After lunch I set them to Professor Strugnell’s map quiz. Both sides regrouping after the Cambrai fight so there’s additional time for training.
The headache is gone today and I’m less sensitive to the light. I’ve neglected the bag and it shows as I gasp for breath after a short interval of work. How quickly one loses fitness. Will it be similar with my aerial combat skills?
Ran into Albert and sent a telegram to Eliza with the news. I have two weeks leave coming. Will she still be in Paris? Another wire to Smokey. I’ve not heard from the Old Bull in some time.
Beery Bowman is next up for leave tomorrow. We both share deep concerns about Maybery. Richard is visibly tired. Of all the flight commanders he expends the most mental energy when leading. Beery remains as indefatigable as ever and shows no sign whatever of fatigue or strain. Nothing seems to affect him. Mac and I fall somewhere between the two extremes. Beery practically begged Richard to take his leave, saying he was only going to Paris anyway. Richard wouldn’t hear it and steadfastly refused the offer.
Beery will miss my farewell celebration. We spent much of the night in conversation. He is one of the very best flight commanders I’ve met in France and a good friend these past months. I’ve no doubt he’ll be commanding a squadron in short order.16 December 1917
56 Squadron RFC
Telegram from Eliza:
How Marvelous your HE posting - Prayers answered - Impossible Paris for X-mas lovely idea - Vagabonding tomorrow next six weeks. Yours, E
Oh hell. What rotten timing. Another of Eliza’s confusing telegrams. Were her prayers answered by my HE posting or the impossibility of our spending Christmas in Paris? She set my mind on fire with her last letter by hinting some all-encompassing ‘explanation’ which might set things aright. She ended the telegram with “yours.” She’s never done that before. What does it mean? I hold to the thread of hope but the longer we remain apart the more it begins to fray. No word from Smokey either. I vented my agitation on the bag.17 December 1917
56 Squadron RFC
My last day with 56 Squadron. Training patrol this morning with Williams Junor and the three fledglings from A-Flight, Stewart, Blenkiron and Durant.
After lunch, Flight Sergeant Pickett assembled the entire company of A-Flight. Mac, with his ever-present Box Brownie camera took a number of pictures which he promised to send along. Allyn and Moody gave me a framed picture of the mechanics and riggers with whom I’d worked so closely. The photo was signed by the men. Allyn, back row second from left and Moody bottom right.
The NCOs and men of A-Flight had not been idle in their few off-hours. They had taken up a subscription and presented me with a crocodile and silver flask from Harrods. One side bore the winged crest of the Flying Corps, on the obverse an inscription read:
Captain O. A. Winningstad, VC
from ‘A’ Flight, No 56 Sqn R.F.C
I made my way through the group then, shaking each man’s hand in turn. My emotions threatened to get the better of me.
Flight Sgt. Pickett had one final gift, and stepping forward with both arms extended, as though presenting a sword, he held before him a narrow black velvet bag, 3 feet long. Inside was a thick and heavy stick, grown in a gnarled spiral and shod at one end with light brown metal. Well varnished, it ran slightly longer than the thin rattan canes I’d always disdained and it was far more substantial.
The vine staff of the Roman Centurion. Ancient ancestor of all the officer’s canes and swagger sticks. This I would carry with pride.
“We thought to have it for your 100th Hun, sir, but didn’t want to jinx things. Took a bit of time to find just the right one,” Pickett explained. Noting my examination of the shod end he went on, “from a bushing, sir. Weariless bronze it is.” Was Pickett a secret classicist?!
‘It is indeed,” I said, barely covering the quaver in my voice as I fought the constriction in my throat, and the tears that threatened to follow. A deep breath, and long slow exhale. Flt. Sgt Pickett and the others waited in respectful silence as I gathered myself.
“I thank you,” then raising my voice to address those assembled, “I thank you all. It has been my honor to serve with each of you. I owe my life to your great skill and tireless dedication to duty, as do all the pilots of 56 Squadron. The squadron’s achievements are your own to share equally with the pilots whose names and decorations grace the honors board. The brilliance of those letters shines on you as well – you who have helped to carve them.”
Tonight’s dinner, I later learned, was a long-planned affair. Entering the Anteroom, I was pleasantly surprised to see Major Baring and Lt. Colonel Playfair, OC 13th Wing in attendance. Both offered effusive congratulations, their faces betraying what I now believe was relief. The orchestra were in top form, and after a sumptuous meal, B-B made a surprisingly good speech. He seemed quite a different man altogether as the revelry began in earnest. Despite the high spirits, the night remained one of celebration and didn’t quite cross into the madness of a binge. As I had in countless fights, so too the furniture survived by the narrowest margin.
A few photos for the scrapbook.18 December 1917
Laviéville to London
Early start. Harris brought me tea and biscuits at 5.00. Mac and Richard were hors du combat
. We had spoken our farewells last night, or was is this morning? At 5:30 I was in the mess eating a light breakfast. Harris had my luggage in the Crossley and we said our goodbyes. His was a more understated presence than Parker’s but both were expert in their duties. I have been fortunate in my batmen.
Major Balcombe-Brown came to see me off. “Godspeed Winningstad,” he said as we shook hands. “I shall miss our lively discussions. A good argument now and then can be just the thing, what?"
Here at the end, I felt a kinship of sorts with B-B. We were the two of us, odd ducks.
“Good luck, sir and thank you. I’ll hope to see you in the Spring and we can have another go.” 6.00
Departed Laviéville for Boulogne. 1st A/M Zenthon drove the Crossley even more aggressively than had 1 A/M Swift. Privately, I wondered if the two were in some sort of competition. Gloomy ride north. My thoughts turned dark. Once again, I was leaving my comrades, my brothers; at least this time it was of my own volition. 8.55
arrived Boulogne, in time to catch the morning boat.
Large swells raced down the Channel. I headed forward, rejoicing in smell of the salt air and the spray veiling over the bow. The sea! Ever it restores me. Uneventful, if choppy crossing; airships overhead and destroyers abeam. By 3.00 I was walking into the lobby of the Royal Automobile Club, confident of a room having cabled them the day before.
Settled into the RAC. Spent an hour in the gymnasium, followed by a swim, the Turkish bath then the Frigidarium.
Savoy Bar at 6.00pm. Recognized a few men I knew from training but didn’t meet anyone I knew well. Jimmy as ever was there with a drink and the latest gossip. Rumors of a German spy ring penetrating the highest echelons of government are making the rounds. Dinner at the grill then back to the RAC for an early evening. Strange to be back in a city again. The VC always draws notice. In October I basked in the attention, but now the many eyes and looks bring a feeling of unease.