Percy F. (Percy Francis) Westerman.

Winning his Wings online

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Morning, noon, and night the clarion-like notes made the welkin ring.
From Réveillé to Retreat and Last Post, and whenever circumstances
demanded, there was the depot bugler with his highly-polished and
tasselled trumpet.

For nearly a week this idyllic state of affairs continued, until the
wellnigh exhausted bugler applied for leave in order to proceed to
Belfast to bury a near relative.

He was granted seven days, and took his departure forthwith. A gloom
descended over Sableridge. The polished bugle was silent, and reposed
on a green baize-covered table in the orderly-room like a fairy
princess awaiting the arrival of the enchanter to restore her to

The week passed, but no bugler returned. At the end of ten days he
was posted as a deserter. Enquiries at Belfast showed that he had not
been seen there, nor were any of his relations in need of his
services as a mourner.

Then came the staggering blow. The meek and mild musical treasure was
under lock and key, arrested by the civil police for at least half a
dozen burglaries. The last heard of him was that he had received a
sentence calculated to carry him well beyond the "duration", and the
shattered idol was not replaced. Sableridge carried on without a

A day or so after the disappearance of the bugler Derek had to take
his crew out into the bay for further instruction. It was mostly
compass work and fixing positions by cross-bearings, and since speed
was against successful work, the boat was slowed down and a trawl
shot. This was killing two birds with one stone: there was plenty of
time for compass-bearings, while there was a chance of supplying the
mess with fish.

The first cast was a failure owing to the net getting foul of a
submerged rock, but on the second attempt it became evident by the
weight of the net that something was enmeshed.

"We've a good haul this time, I think," exclaimed Derek.

"Let's hope so, sir," announced the coxswain. "We can't be too sure,
though. I remember my brother telling me about when he was off the
Dardanelles - up Mudros way to be exact - he an' some pals did a lot of
trawling. They thought they had a jolly good catch, but when they
hauled in the net they found two dead mules and two old boots."

Slowly the weed-encumbered meshes were hauled inboard until the
bulging pocket came in sight, packed with white and grey writhing
fish - skate, flounder, and two large dog-fish.

"Those flat fish are all right," continued the coxswain. "I don't
know about those skate. Rummy-lookin' creatures, ain't they, sir?"

The deep bass hum of an aerial propeller attracted the crew's
attention from the catch. Five hundred feet overhead was a coastal
airship which had drifted down silently with her engines shut off,
and, having just restarted her motors, was manoeuvring into the
wind's eye.

Perhaps it was as well that R.A.F. 1164 B carried on her fore-deck a
square of canvas painted with the distinctive red, white, and blue
circles. This device was a guarantee of her identity as a friend.
Without it a small, grey-painted craft might easily be mistaken for a
U-boat, with disastrous results.

Then the engines were stopped again. Over the side of the nacelle a
leather-helmeted and begoggled head appeared. The pilot, raising a
megaphone to his lips, hailed:

"R.A.F. launch ahoy! Any fish to spare us?"

"Right-o!" shouted Derek in reply, but his voice was apparently
inaudible to the airship's crew, for the hail was repeated.

"Hold up some fish and let them see," ordered Derek.

One of the men displayed the largest skate, a lozenge-shaped fish
measuring more than a yard from fin to fin.

"That's done them!" exclaimed Derek.

But he was mistaken. Like a cormorant swooping down from a beacon,
the huge and seemingly ungainly airship tilted her nose and dropped
almost vertically until her nacelle was within fifty or sixty feet of
the water. Then, with her propeller revolving at a reduced rate, she
forged ahead on a similar course to that of the motor-boat.

"By Jove! She's paying out her aerial. That's a smart move,"
announced Derek. "Easy ahead! Follow her up, coxswain."

Rapidly the thin but strong wire was unwound until the end dangled
within reach of the crew of the boat. In a trice one of the men
grasped the wire and bent it round the tail of the skate.

"Haul in!" shouted Derek.

"Thanks, old man!" yelled the Blimp's pilot in reply. "When you've a
chance, look us up at Netherton. We'll give you a joy-ride."

"Sure thing!" replied Derek. "I'm on it!"

The airship rose slowly, her crew still winding in the skate that was
revolving rapidly at the end of the aerial; then, having gained
possession of the novel catch, the Blimp bore swiftly southwards to
resume her patrol, while No. 1164 B steadied on her helm and shaped a
course back to the Bar Buoy.

Happening to glance aft, Derek was somewhat surprised to find a small
black kitten in the after-cockpit.

"What's that animal doing on board?" he demanded.

"Our mascot, sir," replied one of the men. "The Adjutant's dog chased
it on board just before we left the pier."

"No. 17 coming out, sir," reported the coxswain, pointing to a
motor-craft that was approaching at high speed. Interest in the
kitten was transferred to the oncoming boat.

"She's signalling, sir," continued the coxswain, as a man holding a
couple of hand-flags mounted the plunging fore-deck.

"Will you take Sergeant-Instructor Jenkins on board for the purpose
of adjusting compass?" read the coxswain.

Both boats slowed down on approaching, and rounded gunwale to
gunwale. The Sergeant, a short, burly man, who looked what he was - a
seaman ex-R.N., in spite of his khaki uniform - saluted, and stepped
into No. 1164 B.

"Ready to carry on, sir?" he asked.

"Yes, carry on, Sergeant," replied Derek.

The N.C.O. bent down to unship the hood of the compass. As he did so
the kitten scrambled upon his back and on to his shoulder. With a
yell the Sergeant dropped the metal hood fairly on the top of the
compass. The glass cracked, the compass tilted on its gimbals, and
the liquid poured from the bowl.

"That's gone west, sir!" exclaimed the Sergeant apologetically.
"Sorry, sir; it was that blessed cat. Can't stick cats at any price.
Completely up-end me, they do."

It was evident that nothing further could be done in the matter of
adjusting that compass. The N.C.O. was profuse in his regrets, but
regrets were unable to repair the damaged instrument. Accordingly the
coxswain was ordered to take the boat back into the harbour.

"Yes, sir," resumed the Sergeant. "Cats are my 'beatty nowhere', [1]
as the Frenchies say. Can't stick 'em at any price," he reiterated.
"Got disrated once over a party of cats."

"Eh?" exclaimed Derek incredulously.

"Fact, sir; it was in '97, when I was yeoman of signals on the
_Spondulux_ - third-class cruiser she was. We were lying off the west
coast, with awnings rigged day and night, and all that sort o' thing,
and perishing hot it was, too. Well, we had a cat on board, which was
bad enough, but, to make matters worse, the cat had kittens. One
night I was keeping the middle watch when I heard a most awful
racket. You'll understand, sir, we had the poop awning set, and the
dew had stretched it as tight as a drum. There was that cat and her
kittens careering up and down the awning and playing all sorts of
pranks. The skipper rings his bell, so down I goes to his cabin.
'What's that?' he asked, holding up his hand, as if I couldn't hear
plain enough. 'Cats, sir,' says I. 'Stop it,' says he. Those being my
orders I had to carry 'em out. So out I turned, creeping along the
ridge-rope of that blessed awning trying to collar the furry brood,
or, rather, to drive 'em for'ard, 'cause touching 'em always sends
cold shivers down my back. I hadn't gone a couple of yards before the
awning parted, and down I went through the hole smack upon the poop.
The Bloke (Commander) comes tumbling up out of his cabin, swears I've
been skylarking, and takes away my badges."

Against the strong ebb tide R.A.F. 1164 B rubbed alongside the pier.
The men were ascending the steps when the Officer of the Watch

"What's that kitten doing on board?" he enquired; then, without
waiting for an explanation, he continued: "Sergeant Jenkins, hand
that animal out."

The harassed instructor obeyed, although there were strong
indications of repugnance as he handled the inoffensive little

The Officer of the Watch caught Derek's eye. The officers winked at
each other, for each knew Sergeant Jenkins's antipathy.

"That's the stuff to give 'em," murmured the O.W.

[1] Bête noire.


An Independent Command

Training under war-time conditions must necessarily be as brief as
possible, consistent with a certain degree of efficiency; and the
period of instruction at Sableridge was no exception. As quickly as
raw material could be fashioned into fairly competent motor-boatmen,
drafts were sent away and recruits brought in to fill their places,
in order that the R.A.F. marine might relieve the Royal Navy of a
certain branch of its work - namely, attending upon sea-planes and
coastal airships.

As far as an officer under instruction was concerned, the test was a
simple, and at the same time a drastic one. He might be sent at a few
hours' notice to bring a motor-boat round from, say, Great Yarmouth
to Sableridge, a distance of between two and three hundred miles. He
had to use his discretion - to remain in port should the weather look
threatening, or the atmospheric conditions point to fog or mist.
Nevertheless, it was no light task to navigate a half-decked
motor-craft in the depth of winter, when short days and dark nights
added to the difficulties of making a passage.

It was of no use for an officer to attempt to live on his reputation.
He had to be prepared to execute orders rationally and efficiently.
There was one second-lieutenant who boasted that in pre-war days he
had navigated his own yacht from Blackpool to the Isle of Man.
Shortly after he had reported for duty at the depot an officer was
required to bring a motor-launch round from Harwich.

"Why not send Ruby, sir?" suggested the Major, as he and the Colonel
were debating as to who should be deputed for the task. "He has taken
a boat across to the Isle of Man."

So Second-Lieutenant Ruby received his sailing orders, and for the
next few days he walked about like a man in a trance. The magnitude
of his task appalled him. Finally he went to the Major and declared
that he was not equal to navigating the boat. From that moment he
ceased to be a motor-boat officer, and was given a tedious but safe

It was towards the end of the first week in November that Derek
Daventry received his orders for his first trip as an independent
command. His instructions were to take two 35-footers and proceed to
Wagshot Air Station, where he was to receive a sea-plane and tow her
back to Sableridge. The double distance amounted to nearly seventy
miles, of which half was open sea work. The sea-plane was an obsolete
machine, the engines of which had been removed, and was required
merely for the purpose of practising how to take this kind of
aircraft in tow.

All the previous day Derek was exceptionally busy. On him rested the
responsibility of the voyage. He had to see that the boats' equipment
was in order, that the tanks were filled with petrol, that there was
plenty of lubricating oil on board, that the men had drawn their
rations and blankets, and that charts and navigating instruments were
on board.

Before sunset the two boats were moored alongside the pier. The start
was timed for six in the morning. Hardly ever had Derek studied the
barometer so frequently and so carefully. Twice during the night he
rose from his camp-bed, donned trench-coat and sea-boots, and walked
down to the pier, in order to satisfy himself that the boats were
riding properly in the tide-way, and that their securing-rope had
sufficient slack to allow for the rise and fall of the tide.

At 5 a.m., just as he was enjoying a sound slumber, he was awakened
by his batman.

"What sort of morning is it?" he asked.

"Cold, sir, and fine," replied the man. "Bright moonlight, and hardly
any wind."

Quickly Derek tumbled out of bed and began to dress. Experience had
taught him that to be warmly clad in a boat is as necessary as when
flying. Over his khaki breeches he wore a pair of thick flannel
trousers. On his feet he had a pair of socks, a pair of woollen
stockings, and a voluminous pair of india-rubber sea-boots. Walking
even a short distance in loosely-fitting boots inevitably resulted in
the total destruction of the heels of the socks, but on the other
hand it would be a fairly simple matter to kick off the boots in the
event of Derek finding himself "in the ditch". Sea-boots that fit
tightly, and cannot be taken off quickly in an emergency, are nothing
short of death-traps.

He discarded his tunic, wearing in its place two thick sweaters. The
next items were his oilskin trousers and coat, while the only outward
and visible sign that he held His Majesty's Commission in the R.A.F.
was his cap, with the distinctive badge of the crown, eagle, and

By the time he had completed dressing breakfast was served. He ate
his meal in solitary state in the electrically-lighted mess-room.
There was no question of the excellence of the food at Sableridge,
even in war-time. Hot Scotch porridge, with treacle, eggs and bacon,
toast, real butter, marmalade and jam - a square meal to fortify the
young officer's inner man for the coming ordeal of a sea-voyage.
Feeling rather like an arctic explorer, for across his shoulders he
now carried a well-filled haversack and a pair of binoculars, Derek
descended the steps of the officers' mess and walked down to the

The batman was right. It was a cold morning. Every bush was festooned
with hoar-frost that glistened in the moonlight. The planks of the
pier were slippery with ice, while there was a biting coldness in the
air that gave a zest to life, even at six o'clock on a November

The crews of the two boats were already at the pier-head, black
oilskinned figures, looking like ghostly familiars in the grey light.
Both craft had their engines running, the fumes from the exhausts
rising strongly in the cold air. From the stern of each boat flew the
White Ensign, while as a distinguishing pennant each displayed the
"International F" from the short iron mast abaft the fore-deck.

Then came a grim reminder that there were war risks even on a coastal
voyage. Before embarking every man had to give his name to the
signalman on the pier-head, in order that their next-of-kin should be
promptly informed if the boats met with disaster and the crews failed
to return.

"All ready?"

"All ready, sir!"

"Cast off!"

With a slight jerk, as the clutch was slipped in, the 35-footer
gathered way, her White Ensign temporarily enveloped in the bluish
haze of the exhaust. A slight touch on the wheel steadied her on her
helm, and soon the white signal-house on Sableridge Pier was a misty
wraith in the darkness.

Half a cable's length astern followed the second boat, her
sergeant-coxwain, unused to the science of navigation, although he
knew how to handle a small craft, keeping station with the utmost
fidelity. At that distance she was a mere indistinct grey wedge, her
position chiefly indicated by the "bone in her teeth", otherwise the
creamy froth leaping from her knife-like bows and thrown wide on
either side by her pronounced flare.

Ahead the Bar Buoy winked its friendly greeting. No other light was
visible in that quarter, and steering for that particular light was
"not good enough", when on either hand of the narrow channel were
dangerous sandbanks, on the fringes of which the surf was pounding

It was on this account that Derek kept looking astern. Over the
bobbing canopy and beyond the fluttering ensign were two white
lights, one several feet higher than the other, and actually four
hundred yards apart. These were the only lights ashore, and were
permitted when the exhibition of any other illuminant would result in
a fine not exceeding £500. In short, they were the harbour leading
lights, and as long as a mariner kept them in line, either when
entering or leaving the fairway, he could carry on in absolute
confidence, scorning the hidden dangers on either hand.

The Bar Buoy at last! Giving the boat starboard helm Derek swung her
round until her head pointed due east. Already his cap and oilskins
were running with moisture, and the salt spray was stinging his face
and making his eyes smart despite the scanty protection afforded by
the "dodger".

"Hardly so comfortable as my old 'bus," thought Daventry; "but it's
jolly exhilarating. Now then, old lady, let's see how you take that

"That one" referred to a crested "comber" that was bearing down
towards the swiftly-moving boat. A slight touch on the helm and the
fine bows swung round to take the advancing mass of water line on.
Administrating a vicious slap to the wave the motor-boat lifted to
the crested billow. Spray came hissing aft in solid sheets, pattering
on the canvas canopy with a sound similar to that of peas being
shaken in a wooden box. She was through, but immediately beyond was
another wall of water.

Right down until her fore-deck ventilators were hidden plunged the
boat. For a moment Derek thought she would never recover herself. The
engine faltered. In a second the alert engineer was at the throttle
and the "spark".

"Water on the mag, sir," he shouted. "I'll have to ease her."

"And about time," thought Derek. "Wonder if it's like this all the
blinking way?"

But soon the boat entered smoother water. The breakers were on the
weather side of the bar. Beyond was easier going.

Winking the moisture from his eyes, Derek glanced astern. The other
boat was making fairly good weather of it, although she looked to be
nothing more than a double wing of white foam.

"Good enough," declared Derek, and, calling to one of the deck-hands,
he gave the wheel over into his care, admonishing him to report
immediately Thorbury Head became visible.

"Now for a smoke!" he exclaimed, and, pulling out his favourite pipe,
he carefully loaded up.

Curiosity prompted him to see what the rest of the crew were doing.
Grasping the life-lines on the canopy he made his way aft, his sole
foothold being the narrow, slippery water-ways.

Under the awning were the rest of the crew, lying helpless on top of
a nondescript heap of blankets and oilskins, together with the
disintegrated rations - fresh beef, "bully", and loaves. In the throes
of sea-sickness the hapless "George Robey's Marines" hardly cared
whether they were on or in the sea.

Clearly nothing could be done to help the luckless victims of _mal de
mer_, so Derek made his way back to the steering-well, and, standing
behind the coxswain, surveyed the outlook.

There was very little to be seen, only a limited expanse of
white-crested water, bounded by darkness that was even now struggling
for mastery with the first faint tints of a grey dawn. Land,
somewhere within three miles, was invisible. All that the helmsman
had to depend upon was a small and untested compass fixed in a rather
inaccessible and unhandy spot, and within three feet of the mass of
metal comprising the six-cylinder motor.

There was also the danger of bumping on a drifting mine. Derek
realized the peril. Fortunately perhaps for them, the men were in
ignorance of the fact that mines had been reported within thirty
miles of Fisherton Harbour, and, with an onshore wind and the
indraught of the tide, thirty miles was a very small distance for one
of these instruments of destruction to drift in forty-eight hours.

Added to this there was the possibility of being fired upon by the
batteries at Churst and Fort Edward, guarding the narrow channel
leading to the tidal estuary on the banks of which Wagshot Air
Station stands. Although the forts had been warned that the two
R.A.F. motor-boats were passing, there was always a chance that a
highly-strung battery-commander might mistake the two grey hulls for
the conning-towers of a pair of U-boats and give the order to open
fire. Such a thing had been done before, with disastrous results.

Suddenly Derek's reveries were broken by the coxswain shouting:

"There it is, sir; a couple of points on the port bow!"

Unable to comprehend the nature of the intelligence, Derek peered
ahead in the direction indicated, quite expecting to see a horned
mine a few yards from the bows. Then he heaved a sigh of relief, for
looming faintly through the mist was the unmistakable outline of
Thorbury Head.


A Mouldy Station

Ten minutes later the boats were in the turmoil of the troubled water
caused by the swirl of the tide over Thorbury Ledge. Had it been
light enough for anyone standing on the headland to watch the two
diminutive craft struggling through the broken water, he would
doubtless have expected to see the frail cockle-shells founder under
his eyes.

It was hazardous work, certainly; but by this time Derek had the
utmost confidence in the seaworthiness of his two craft. Often hidden
from each other by the intervening crests, the boats behaved
wondrously; but the youthful officer in charge was relieved to know
that wind and tide were in the same direction. Had it been otherwise
things might have been different. From the headland it was now plain
sailing, for in the gathering light the slender tower of the
lighthouse at Fort Churst could be discerned, standing out clearly
against the dark background of the well-wooded hills. In forty
minutes both boats were passing through the narrow channel. Signals
were exchanged with the batteries, and the welcome order to proceed
was received.

It was now comparatively smooth water. The crews, recovering from
their malady, were able to sit up and take nourishment in the shape
of bread and bully beef. More, they began to take a lively interest
in their surroundings, although the aspect of that land-locked
stretch of water in war-time and in November was far different from
what it had been previous to August, 1914, when the sea was dotted
with the sails of countless yachts.

"Wonder if it will ever be the same again?" thought Derek. "One
thing's fairly certain: we won't see the German Emperor afloat here,
unless as a prisoner of war on a British battleship."

Over a vast observation minefield the boats glided serenely. Fifty
feet beneath their keels were cylinders of powerful explosive that at
the touch of an electrically-connected key ashore would blow a
hostile ship to atoms. Farther on there were mechanical
contact-mines, moored fathoms down so that a vessel of the deepest
draught could pass unscathed but should a U-boat attempt to nose her
way in by creeping just above the bottom of the sea, her fate would
be swift and terrible.

"Keep a sharp look-out for the gateway," ordered Derek, as he placed
a fresh man at the helm. "It's getting a bit misty, and we don't want
to run full tilt against the boom."

The boats were now nearing the innermost line of anti-submarine
defences of the western approach to the greatest naval harbour in the
world. Right across the water-way was a triple line of massive wire
hawsers, supported by barrels at frequent intervals. So much was
visible; what was not visible was a wondrous complication of nets,
explosive charges, and other effective anti-submarine defences.
Britain's sure and safe shield was taking no undue risks with Fritz
and all his evil works. To enable authorized vessels to pass, a
gateway had been constructed. Between two large craft moored a
cable's length apart there was a movable section of the barrier, and
towards this the two motor-boats steered.

"Motor-boats ahoy!" hailed an officer from one of the guard-ships.
"You are to proceed to Bull Roads and await further orders from the

Against this mandate there was no appeal. The word of the Senior
Naval Officer was more than law. Doubtless it meant irritating and
apparently needless delay, but, whatever the object of the order, it
had to be put into effect without delay.

"Aye, aye, sir!" shouted Derek in reply. He knew perfectly well that
non-compliance would result in a six-pounder shell fired across his
bows, and almost immediately a salvo from the guardship's

"Port helm!" continued Daventry, addressing the coxswain. Round swung

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Online LibraryPercy F. (Percy Francis) WestermanWinning his Wings → online text (page 11 of 16)