Percy F. (Percy Francis) Westerman.

Winning his Wings online

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The week passed slowly, for Derek was now keenly interested in what
he hoped was to be his new rôle. A great feature was that he would
still be in the R.A.F. He really didn't want to hear within the week,
for the chances were that his services might not be required. The
uncertainty of the whole performance was exasperating; he couldn't
understand why his fate couldn't be decided on the spot.

On the morning of the 7th, just as Derek was about to proceed to the
railway station to journey to town, a letter came, with the words,
"Air Ministry" printed on the envelope.

It was brief, and to the point. Lieutenant Derek Daventry was to
report for duty at the Marine Training Depot, Sableridge, on the 19th
instant. Whether he had to appear in khaki or in the new Air Force
blue, whether he was to take his field kit, or whether he was to have
furnished quarters were points on which he was left entirely in the

"Good enough, though!" he exclaimed. "This sea-service business is
some stunt."


The First Day at Sableridge

Derek Daventry's arrival at Sableridge Marine Depot could hardly be
described as imposing. It might have been picturesque, or at least

Upon alighting at Fisherton Station he learnt on enquiry that
Sableridge was a good six miles by road, lying, as it did, at the
entrance to the extensive Fisherton Harbour. He waited for some time
at the railway station in the hope that one of the R.A.F.
motor-transport vehicles might put in an appearance. Thwarted in that
direction, he tried in vain for a taxi or even a "growler". Finally
he bargained with a sleepy youth in charge of a very ramshackle
wagonette, who, in consideration of a pecuniary largess of ten
shillings, condescended to drive the newly-joining officer to

At a leisurely six miles an hour the wagonette set out on its
journey. Apart from the slow pace and the atrocious jolting, Derek
enjoyed the ride. Compared with the devastated fields and villages of
France the prospect looked entrancingly peaceful as the road wound
round the eastern side of the harbour. The tide was in. There was
little or no wind, so that the water had the appearance of a vast
lake, studded with islands, and backed by numerous hills that
culminated in a bold down of a height of six hundred feet or more.

Then a rise in the road brought him in sight of Sableridge, a long
peninsula of what appeared to be hummocks of drifting sand clothed in
places with coarse tufted grass. Almost every hillock bore an
architecturally picturesque house, while the red-tiled roofs of
others were visible in the hollows between the dunes. At the far end,
where the waters of Fisherton Harbour rush in at the rate of five
knots to meet the waters of the English Channel, was a large white
building. At no very distant date it had been a popular hotel; now,
as the White Ensign floating from the gaff of a tall flagstaff
indicated, it was a Government building - the Marine Depot of the

Having reported, Derek was shown his quarters - a large, airy room on
the first floor with a balcony from which views of the greater part
of Fisherton Harbour could be obtained. This room, he found, he had
to share with another lieutenant.

Save for the latter's personal belongings, it was as bare as Mother
Hubbard's cupboard, the officers being in unfurnished quarters, for
which they drew the sum of half a crown a day.

His batman, having deposited Derek's kit-bag on the floor, enquired
whether he was to fetch the new arrival's equipment from the station;
to which Daventry had to reply that there was no more forthcoming at

Left to himself, Derek took stock of his surroundings. The room
required but little attention, but the view without was enthralling.
It was during working hours. Motor-boats of all types and speeds were
running to and fro. "Skimmers", credited with a speed of fifty knots,
and "hydro-glisseurs", weird-looking contraptions consisting of six
floats lashed in pairs and driven by an aerial propeller, formed part
of the R.A.F. flotilla; while, in acute contrast to the mosquito-like
craft, there were two "drifters" lying at moorings and a third slowly
"chugging" her way against the tide. These craft, like their more
select sisters, bore the distinctive red, white, and blue circles of
the R. A. F.

Just beyond a little pier lay the "guard-ship", a subsidized coaster,
painted grey, and provided with a towering superstructure. She, too,
flew the White Ensign in her rôle of guardian of the port.

Then, in contrast to the war-time conditions, were the square-sterned
fishing-boats, mostly painted white and carrying tanned sails. Good,
wholesome, weatherly boats they were, manned by greybeards and
youths, who "carried on" while their respective sons and fathers were
patrolling in armed merchant-cruisers and drifters to frustrate
Fritz's knavish tricks.

"In peace-time I should be paying three or four guineas a week for
this room," thought Derek. "Now I'm being paid to occupy it, and am
about to have sea trips free, gratis, and for nothing. This is some

At tea Derek was introduced to his new comrades. There were eleven
officers belonging to the permanent staff and fifteen others under
instruction. The latter were for the most part youngsters in point of
age, many of them joining up direct from school, but veterans in
point of war service. Most of them had been flying in the old
R.N.A.S. and R.F.C., and their joint record covered every battlefront
from Heligoland Bight to German West Africa, and from Mesopotamia to
beyond the Scillies - pilots who had faced death a hundred times and
had cheated the grim messenger by crashing and surviving. And now
they had exchanged the joy-stick for the wheel of a motor-launch and
the zest of flying for the equally exhilarating lift of the ocean.

The meal over, the crowd of junior officers adjourned to the
shore - the tide being low and the moon full - to play sand-cricket and
rounders until it was time to change for mess. The meal over, there
was a "liberty-boat" to the "beach" - the boat consisting of a
motor-lorry, while the beach was the term used to denote the
neighbouring seaside town of Coombeleigh.

"Ripping fine station!" commented Blair, Derek's room-mate. "I've
been in a few stations in my time, but this is the one. By Jove, if
things continue as they are going, we'll have a top-hole time! The
Colonel? He's one of the best, but I pity the fellow who slacks. Yes,
the C.O. expects a high standard, and he'll get it, or there'll be
trouble. An' the Major's absolutely 'it': couldn't wish for a better.
Of course we aren't in full working order yet. There are only half
the number of men here at present, and the majority of 'em are a
scratch lot. We've got to lick them into shape as seamen, and it's a
tough proposition, I can tell you. Got your bedding yet?"

"No," replied Derek. "I'll have to sleep rough to-night, but it won't
be the first time."

"I'll take you to the Stores Officer," continued Blair. "He'll fix
you up with bed-boards and some blankets. Give the batman a shout,
and tell him to bring the gear along."

In a very short space of time Derek's equipment was augmented by a
couple of trestles and three boards. These formed the bed. On that
were placed half a dozen blankets and a straw pillow - a Spartan
couch, but far better than many he had slept upon in damp and stuffy
dug-outs in France.

Hardly had Derek settled his scanty belongings when he was sent for
by the C.O. His first official task was to accompany the Colonel and
the Major to a large private house adjoining, which had recently been
commandeered for officers' quarters. The former occupiers - a lady and
her daughter - still remained in possession of a room in the basement.

The Colonel allotted the rooms, Derek's duty being to pin a cardboard
strip, bearing the various officers' names, on the doors. He was on
the point of completing the work when the late owner spoke to him.

"I quite understand," said she, "that my house is taken over by the
Royal Air Force; but would you give my compliments to the Colonel and
tell him that I must object to having one of my best rooms turned
into a wood and coal store."

Somewhat mystified, Derek asked to be shown the room referred to. He
hadn't the faintest recollection of any room being given over as a
fuel store.

"Oh, yes, I can show you," rejoined the lady. "Here you are."

She pointed to the door of a large room on the ground floor. On it
was written "Lieuts. Woods and Coles".

Admirably concealing his desire to smile Derek explained.

"I am so sorry," replied the evicted tenant apologetically. "I am
rather short-sighted. I quite thought it was 'Wood and Coals'."

Punctually at four bells Derek turned in, and, notwithstanding the
hardness of his plank-bed, he slept soundly, lulled by the murmur of
the surf upon the sand. It was the end of his first day of home
service in a new branch. To-morrow he was to start work in earnest as
a motor-boat officer of the Royal Air Force.


U-boat versus Motor-boat

For the next few days the work of turning chaos into order and
knocking raw material into fairly smart crews proceeded apace.
Patience and energy overcame difficulties, and although there were
many ludicrous displays afloat, "George Robey's Marines", as they
were dubbed by the Fisherton seafolk, managed to make considerable
headway without any serious accident.

The crew told off under Derek's orders were a mixed lot. One was a
solicitor, another a master from a public school, numbers three and
four were bank clerks, while the fifth was a Lancashire coal-miner.
Once having overcome the tendency to refer to the boat as "it", and
to the bows as the "pointed end", they began to get into shape.
Mornings they spent in lecture-rooms ashore, listening to and trying
to master the theory of compass-work, knots and splices, and the use
of the lead-line. This instruction was varied by lessons in
signalling, the intricacies of the Naval and International Codes,
semaphore and Morse being patiently explained by the Signalling
Instructor - a hard-working individual whose soul appeared to be
wrapped up in bunting from the eight a.m. parade to five and after
seven-thirty in the evening.

In the afternoon the classes went afloat, while those who had been in
the boats during the morning were told off for instruction on shore.
Altogether it was a case of long hours and diligent application, and
to their credit the men rose nobly to the occasion.

It was a proud day for Derek when for the first time he took his boat
across the bar and out to the open sea. His command, from the stern
of which the White Ensign floated grandly in the breeze, was a
half-decked motor-craft of thirty-five feet in length. The engine was
completely under cover, being placed well for'ard. Abaft the
half-deck was an open well, fitted with a canvas "dodger", that
afforded slight protection from wind and spray. Here were stationed
the coxswain and the engineer, while usually the officer in charge
would take up his post by the coxswain. Abaft the well was a fairly
spacious cock-pit, provided with a folding awning that in heavy
weather afforded complete protection from rain and spray. "All out",
the boat was capable of doing seventeen knots, although it was
customary to run her at only half throttle.

"Let go, for'ard! Cast off!"

"All clear, sir!"

"Easy ahead!"

With a gentle motion the motor-boat glided away from the pier on her
first run under Lieutenant Derek Daventry's command, then, gathering
speed, headed down the buoyed channel towards the distant Bar Buoy,
while Derek, with frequent references to a chart, stood by the
none-too-competent coxswain.

It was no use denying that Derek fully realized his position. His
sensations were somewhat akin to those on the occasion of his first
solo flight, but with this difference. Then he was responsible for
himself alone. If an accident had occurred through his inexperience
or error it was he alone who would have suffered. Now he was directly
responsible for the safety of five men with practically no experience
of the ways of the sea, who looked to him implicitly, took their
orders from him, and, in short, placed their lives in his hands.
Added to this was the fact that he was answerable for the safety of
the boat - a practically brand-new craft that had cost the nation a
sum closely approaching £2000.

To port and starboard of the narrow channel were dangerous,
unobtrusive sandbanks, studded with concealed ledges of rock, their
presence indifferently marked by the milk-white rollers that lashed
themselves in impotent fury upon the shoals. A slight error of
judgment, a wrong turn of the helm, and the frail cockle-shell would
almost certainly run aground, and be dashed to pieces in the

Derek quickly found that R.A.F. 1164 B - that being the official
designation of his command - was decidedly wet. Her long, lean bows,
and the weight of her engines being well for'ard, tended to make her
shove her nose into it. Showers of icy spray flew inboard, enveloping
the occupants of the steering-well, and making them duck their heads
as they gasped for breath. Well it was that Derek and his crew were
well equipped with oilskins and sea-boots; even thus protected
moisture found its way down their necks, soaking chillily against
their chests and backs.

Nevertheless it was wildly exhilarating. The rapid pulsations of the
powerful motor, the rhythmic lift of the long, lean hull to the
waves, the hiss and the sting of the flying spindrift, and the
unwonted sensation of speed - a sensation not experienced when flying
at a height - all combined to give a new zest to life.

And to what purpose? At first sight it was a mere joy-ride, a
pleasure-trip in an expensive motor-boat at the cost of the British
taxpayer. But it was part of a system of training. Since the
amalgamation of the R.F.C. and the R.N.A.S. it was hardly the thing
to continue to draw upon the hard-worked navy for sea-going craft to
attend upon the rapidly-increasing fleet of coastal airships and
sea-planes. And since the aerial-fleet is liable to accident, it is
also advisable to have assistance promptly and efficiently. Hence the
necessity for the formation of an auxiliary marine branch of the
R.A.F., so that in the event of a "Blimp" or a flying-boat being
compelled to "land" upon the sea, aid would be quickly forthcoming
from the motor-boat about to be attached to the various sea-coast
air-stations. And as soon as the officer under training at Sableridge
had passed his period of probation in charge of a small craft he
would be posted in command of one of those seaworthy vessels known as
a "coastal M.L.", on board of which he would live an almost idyllic
existence, sleeping and living in one of the most comfortable little
ward-rooms imaginable.

At reduced speed M.B. No. 1164 B crossed the bar, wallowing and
plunging in the confused cross-seas. But for the protection afforded
by the after-canopy she might have fared badly, for green water was
slapping viciously against the canvas covering on both quarters.
Although wet, she was a good sea-boat, and, beyond a quantity of
spray, she passed through her ordeal without shipping any dangerous
quantity of water. Then, gathering way, she glided serenely over the
long, oily rollers of the open bay.

Derek's orders were to cruise within the limits of Old Tom - a
detached chalk pinnacle on the south-western side of Coombeleigh
Bay - and Thorbury Head, a bold promontory on the eastern side. Here,
with ordinary caution, a boat could come to little harm, the water
being fairly deep, and unencumbered with rocks or dangerous currents.

Three or four miles away, and also within the limits of the bay, the
Fisherton fleet was at work, the boats running under reduced canvas,
with their heavy trawls trailing astern. In the bright sunshine their
dark-tan canvas and white hulls made a pleasing picture, the warm
colours contrasting vividly with the yellow cliffs and dark-green of
the pine-woods fringing the bay. Far out to the southward could be
discerned the squat form of a Blimp as it see-sawed five hundred feet
above an up-channel tramp steamer - the solitary visible reminder that
there was a war on, and that there were such things as U-boats lying
in wait for British merchantmen.

For the best part of an hour Derek exercised his crew, practising
"man overboard" - the "man" being represented by a life-buoy thrown
overboard at an unexpected moment - and also slowing down for the
purpose of enabling the individual members of the crew to fix their
position on the chart by means of cross-bearings.

Suddenly the dull boom of a gun broke the stillness of the air.
Derek, who was bending over the sight-vanes of the compass, raised
his head at the familiar sound, although what seemed to be a long
time had elapsed since he last heard the report of a quick-firer.

To his astonishment he was just in time to see the masts and sails of
one of the fishing-boats disappear over the side, to the
accompaniment of a shower of spray and a cloud of smoke from the
bursting projectile while less than four hundred yards away from its
victim was a large U-boat.

The pirate had evidently been resting on the sandy bottom of the bay,
and finding that she was in the vicinity of a fleet of small and
unprotected fishing-craft, had judged it a good opportunity for an
object-lesson in kultur.

A careful survey of the horizon by means of the periscopes had failed
to reveal anything of a suspicious nature to the kapitan-leutnant of
the unterseeboot. M.B. No. 1164 B, lying motionless on the water, was
an inconspicuous object, her aviation-grey painted sides hardly
visible against the haze on the skyline.

The crew of the motor-boat looked enquiringly at their skipper. It
never occurred to them that a hostile craft was in the vicinity. Not
one of them had seen a U-boat except in the form of a picture in an
illustrated paper, and this one did not resemble their idea of a
German submarine.

Derek weighed up the case in a few brief seconds. Here he was in a
fast motor-boat with a raw, practically untrained crew, and with not
so much as a pea-shooter on board. The Hun probably carried a couple
of six-inch quick-firers and a few machine-guns. By force Derek could
do nothing.

Nor could he, with any degree of honour, seek safety in flight and
leave the slowly-moving fishing-boats to the mercy, or rather the
lack of mercy, of a ruthless pirate compared with whom the Buccaneers
of the Spanish Main were gentlemen.

By stratagem Derek might do something. Unceremoniously pushing aside
the still bewildered coxswain, and ordering the engineer to "let her
rip for all she's worth", Derek swung the helm hard over until the
motor-boat headed straight for the long, low-lying, sinister hull.

"Full throttle!" yelled Daventry. "Lie down, men, all of you."


M.B. No. 1164 B, gathering way, travelled faster than ever she had
done since her acceptance trials. Her long, lean bows lifted clean
out of the water, while her stern squatted deeply into the trough of
her wake, and feathery shafts of spray shot out far and wide of her
knife-like stem. Viewed "bows on" she presented a puzzling, nay
alarming, proposition to Fritz, whose nerves were already unstrung
through the effects of half a dozen narrow squeaks. All he saw was
something approaching at terrific speed. He knew that there were
mosquito craft that had their stings in their tails, and
depth-charges were his great aversion and terror.

Nearer and nearer drew the motor-boat. Derek's resolution increased
with every revolution of the propeller. He had started with the idea
of "putting the wind up Fritz", but now he meant to hurl the boat
bodily at the submarine, and take his chance of being picked up. A
35-foot boat travelling at seventeen knots would by its momentum
shatter some of the hull plates of the submarine, but at the same
time her bows would crumple up like brown paper.

Once and once only did the Lieutenant turn his head and glance at his
crews. For novices they were behaving splendidly, lying stiffly, yet
alertly, on the cockpit-gratings, although they could not resist the
temptation of looking over the side to "see how things were going".
Not a man showed a trace of fear. It was an expression of
determination, of really "doing his bit" that showed itself in the
knit brows of every member of the crew.

The U-boat made no attempt to do further damage to the fishing-boats.
Two men at the quick-firer abaft the conning-tower swung the weapon
round and let fly at the elusive target presented by the bows of
R.A.F. 1164 B. Derek saw the flash, and distinctly heard the screech
of the projectile ere it burst four hundred yards astern.

It was the last show. Already the U-boat's nose was dipping. The
gunners, abandoning their weapon, bolted precipitately for the
after-hatchway. With a resounding clang the water-tight metal cover
fell in its appointed place, and the long, unsightly grey hull
slithered beneath the waves in a swirl of froth and foam.

With mingled feelings of exultation and relief - exultation because he
had scared the Hun into ignominious flight, and relief because he had
not been compelled to sacrifice his boat and his men on the altar of
duty - Derek put the helm hard-a-port, and, without slowing down,
began to circle round the spot where the U-boat had disappeared. How
he regretted that R.A.F. 1164 B was not fitted with depth-charges. No
doubt, too, the kapitan-leutnant of the submerged craft now noticed
the omission, but the chances were that he was too scared to attempt
to rise to the surface and engage by gun-fire the interfering little
spit-fire. He promptly crawled along a few feet above the bed of the
sea - slowly, lest the following wake of the U-boat would betray its
presence - until he imagined that he was safe from pursuit.

Meanwhile the fishing-boats were running for port, the dismasted
craft in tow, and steered by a venerable greybeard whose silvery
locks were bound with a blood-stained handkerchief, while his "mate",
otherwise his fourteen-year-old grandson, was nursing a
badly-lacerated leg, and thanking his lucky stars that he was not one
of Germany's sons.

Having satisfied himself that the fishing-boats were out of danger
Derek steered for the harbour. Just as he crossed the bar he saw two
coastal airships making seawards.

"That's good!" he remarked to the coxswain. "Those fellows will do
some very efficient strafing, unless I'm much mistaken. It hasn't
been a bad run, has it?"

"No, sir," agreed the coxswain. "Quite an enjoyable little picnic."


The Blimp and the Skate

During the initial stages of the life of the R.A.F. Marine Training
Depot there was one thing missing. No doubt there were others, but
this one, in the eyes of the C.O. and officers, was of great moment.
The men would fall in on parade smartly and rapidly; the colours
would be hoisted at nine in the morning with éclat; there were
sentries posted to pay proper compliments to officers; and a superb
gun-metal bell tolled out the hours and half-hours in correct ship's

But there was no bugler; nor was there a bugle even if a bugler had
been forthcoming. And a bugler capable of blowing a loud-sounding
bugle was a desideratum. He would become the coping-stone of the
building of efficiency.

The Major did his level best to obtain some Boy Scout buglers from
Fisherton, but, false to their precepts, the youngsters were not
prepared to use their breath for two shillings a day on behalf of the
R.A.F. when they could earn thrice that amount elsewhere.

It looked as if Sableridge Depot would fail to attain that degree of
pomp and circumstance when fate, in the guise of the Drafting Officer
at Blandborough Depot, played into its hands. Amongst a batch of new
arrivals was a gem, a priceless jewel - a man who could blow a bugle.

He was a short, tubby individual with watery-blue eyes and a flat,
rubicund nose. Quiet and unassuming, his arrival was hailed with
acclamation. Had he asked for a silver trumpet and a pair of wings of
a slightly different type to those worn by airmen no doubt the
delighted officers would have done their level best to accede to his
request. As it was they subscribed and purchased a trumpet, the
sounds of which floated across the parade-ground in a manner
calculated to raise the martial spirit of all ranks well above

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Online LibraryPercy F. (Percy Francis) WestermanWinning his Wings → online text (page 10 of 16)