Copyright
Percy F. (Percy Francis) Westerman.

Winning his Wings online

. (page 13 of 16)
Online LibraryPercy F. (Percy Francis) WestermanWinning his Wings → online text (page 13 of 16)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


Enquiries on the telephone next morning elicited the information that
the stick was left in the mess at Downbury, and would be sent during
the day.

Just before eleven two large coastal airships were seen making over
Sableridge. Manoeuvred with a skill acquired by long practice, the
huge gasbags began to circle over the depot, one of their crew
actually attempting to remove the Colonel's flag from the masthead of
the flagstaff outside the officers' quarters. By means of semaphore a
lively exchange of compliments passed between the airmen up aloft and
the airmen on the ground, while the former continued to show their
stunt turns in a manner that caused the onlookers to anticipate a
collision with the chimney-pots. Then, describing a curve over the
harbour, one of the airships dropped an object to which was attached
a bunch of streamers. With a splash the thing struck the water and
floated vertically. It was the missing stick. Promptly a motor-boat
pushed off from the pier and retrieved the returned property, then,
with a final exchange of compliments, the two Blimps flew back to
their sheds.

Next morning the signal officer's face looked grave. A letter,
purporting to be an official document, had been handed to him. It was
signed "Senior Naval Officer, Fisherton", and requested an
explanation why a White Ensign, the jealously-guarded emblem of the
pukka Royal Navy, was flown from the gaff of the flagstaff of a Royal
Air Force establishment.

The whole thing was a hoax on the part of Dixon, the Lieutenant,
R.N.V.R., commanding the guard-ship at Sableridge, and the R.A.F.
signal officer "bit it badly". It was not until a reply had been
drafted and submitted to the Commanding Officer of the depot that
Dixon let the cat out of the bag. It was the first round of a
friendly contest between the R.N. and the R.A.F., and the former was
"one up".

When the men fell in parade that next morning the White Ensign was
not flying. In its place dangled a large earthenware jug, a silent
tribute on the part of the Sableridge signalling officer to the
guard-ship officer's capacity for stowing away mild ale. It was as
well that it was armistice week and the C.O. was in a tolerant mood,
for the incident passed off without rebuke. R.N. and R.A.F. were now
"honours even".

Next day the guard-ship was to be "paid off". After four years she
was to be released from her moorings and towed back to Fisherton, and
the departure of a time-honoured veteran could not take place without
a farewell demonstration on the part of the Royal Air Force at
Sableridge.

At two o'clock in the morning a small but desperate band of
adventurers turned out of their camp-beds. There were Derek Daventry,
clad in trench-coat, pyjamas, sea-boots, and muffler; Dennis, the
Adjutant, muffled in a sweater, two greatcoats, and a pair of
flying-boots; Wells, the signalling officer, and Kaye. The latter
carried a small bundle of rag liberally smeared with vaseline.

It was a pitch-dark night. The stars were obscured by heavy,
low-lying clouds. A keen easterly wind moaned through the fortress
and hummed through the rigging of the guard-ship.

Softly the desperadoes made their way to the pier, three of them
sheltering under the lee of the signal-house, while the fourth groped
for the painter and stern-post of a small dinghy.

"Any signs of 'em?" asked Dennis.

"Not a movement," whispered Wells. "The watch on deck is evidently
having a caulk. Got the dinghy ready yet, Kaye?"

"Can't find the rotten ropes," complained Kaye. "Ugh! Isn't it
horribly cold? Why did I leave my little back room - - ? Hallo!
Someone's tied a granny in the rope, and my fingers are frozen
stiff."

"Not so much row there," cautioned Dennis. "If you can't unlash the
thing, cut it. Now then, you fellows, don't capsize the boat and
throw us into the ditch. How's the tide?"

"On the flood," replied Derek. "Oars muffled? Kaye, you rotter,
you've put more vaseline on the thwarts than you have upon the rag
round the rowlocks. I thought I was on the skating-rink for the
moment. All ready? Give way."

Very silently the deeply-laden little craft pushed off. Partly
paddled, partly carried by the tide, the boat neared the dark-grey
bows of the guard-ship.

"Who's got the quart pot?" whispered Dennis. "You, Daventry - no? How
about you, Kaye? No luck? I say, you blighters, don't all say you've
left the beastly thing on the pier."

Cautious groping resulted in the discovery that the earthenware
trophy was not in the boat. In the darkness the conspirators had left
it perched precariously on the bottom step of the landing-stage.

"Together!" hissed the Adjutant. "Don't splash so, Kaye. You sent a
shower down my back, and the water's horribly cold. 'Sides, you're
making an awful row. Old man Dixon will be roused out of his
beauty-sleep, and our little stunt will be a proper wash-out."

It was a hard tussle to regain the pier, for the spring tide was
swirling viciously. The signalling officer managed to grab the jug
and deposit it in the stern-sheets, and once more the raiders
approached the silent and unsuspecting guard-ship.

Deftly Derek bent the boat's painter to a deadeye in the vessel's
chains, and allowed the dinghy to drop astern until she lay alongside
the Jacob's ladder that served as an accommodation-ladder. One by one
the four swarmed up and gained the guard-ship's deck. Here they
waited, listening intently. The wind, moaning dismally through the
rigging, failed to outvoice the nasal efforts of the three men
forming the guard-ship's crew. The Lieutenant, berthed aft, was also
soundly asleep.

Wells nudged Derek in the ribs, and handed him the earthenware
pitcher. Very cautiously the two commenced to mount the creaking
ladder to the bridge, while Dennis and Kaye remained by the gangway,
ready to cover their comrades' retreat should their presence be
detected.

It did not take the signalling officer long to uncleat the masthead
halyards. These he bent to the handle of the jug, at the same time
inserting a piece of brass wire through the rope so that it would
render through the sheaves in the masthead truck, but refuse to
return when once a strain was put upon it.

Up into the darkness rose the fragile trophy. More than once it
struck dully against the top-mast, fortunately without breaking. Lost
to view, it announced its arrival at the top-mast head in no
unmistakable manner. A sharp jerk, and the metal pin was released.
The jug was almost literally nailed to the mast; until a hand was
sent aloft - and it was hardly likely that any of the ancient mariners
composing the guard-ship's crew could essay the feat - there it must
perforce remain.

The work of re-embarkation was performed with more haste than
discretion, the Adjutant stepping confidently into fifteen feet of
water instead of into the boat. With praiseworthy devotion to the
great cause, he refrained from audible comment in spite of the fact
that Wells grabbed him by the hair. Unfortunately Dennis had adopted
the latest fashion of allowing his hair to grow fairly long and to
brush it back from his forehead. It made an excellent hand-grip for
the signalling officer's massive and horny paw, but nevertheless the
operation was a painful one.

At the risk of capsizing the dinghy, the Adjutant was hauled in, and
the return trip was accomplished without further incident.

Exultant but shivering, the four officers made their way back to
their quarters, and turned in to sleep the sleep of men who had
achieved their ends.

Directly Derek awoke he sprang out of his folding bed and hastened to
the window. In the pale-grey dawn he could see the outlines of the
guard-ship silhouetted against the light. Aloft the trophy hung in
uninterrupted serenity.

"Tug's alongside the guard-ship," announced the Adjutant at
breakfast. "Let's go down to the pier and give her a good send-off."

Practically every R.A.F. officer on the station hurried out of the
building and crowded on the pier-head. Crowds of men lined the shore,
while dozens of civilian spectators appeared to watch the departure
of one of the links of the Great War - the humble coaster that for the
last four years had, under the authority of the White Ensign,
prevented all unauthorized craft from leaving or entering Fisherton
Harbour.

The Royal Air Force had made up its mind to give its departing
confrère a fitting farewell. From the signal yard-arm on the pier
fluttered a triple hoist of flags: "Good-bye; good luck". Klaxon
horns, sirens, and the long-neglected trumpet blared forth in noisy
lament; petrol-tins, on which to beat a rousing tattoo, were pressed
into service; while the steam-tug, straining at the hawser, responded
with a succession of strident whoops.

Slowly the guard-ship swung round and shaped a course for Fisherton,
following obediently in the wake of the tug. On her bridge stood the
burly figure of genial Lieutenant Dixon as he waved an acknowledgment
of the exuberant welcome. Fifty feet above his head dangled the
earthenware jug.

"He doesn't know it's there," remarked Derek.

"Then he jolly well will do so," rejoined the signalling officer,
and, grasping a pair of hand-flags, he steadied himself on the
pier-head rail.

"Guard-ship, what's that at your fore top-mast head?" he signalled.

The R.N.V.R. Lieutenant glanced aloft. For a moment he looked
puzzled, then he realized that honours were no longer even. The
R.A.F. were "one up".

A broad smile suffused his features. Snatching up a pair of
hand-flags he semaphored:

"Thanks; but why didn't you fill it before you returned it?"




CHAPTER XXV

Salvage Work


For the best part of the next five weeks adverse climatic conditions
prevented the salvage of the stranded sea-plane. Unless given
remarkably fine and calm weather, the sand-dunes of Thorbury, fringed
by extensive shoals carrying less than a fathom of water, were
inaccessible.

Christmas was drawing on apace, and the prospect of liberal leave
demanded a "settling up" of the matter of the sea-plane as soon as
possible. Having received his instructions either to salve or destroy
the errant machine, Derek proceeded to Thorbury in a brand-new
motor-boat fitted with a powerful paraffin engine, and capable of
keeping the sea in almost any weather. Compared with the earlier
motor-boats to which Derek had been accustomed, R.A.F. 21, as she was
officially designated, was a ship. With sleeping accommodation for
two officers and four men, and fitted with a small but efficient
galley, she was practically independent of the shore in the matter of
sleeping and feeding her crew.

Rounding Thorbury Head, R.A.F. 21 very cautiously approached the
coast, keeping her lead-line going continuously. At a fathom and a
half she anchored. It would be unwise to proceed farther in; even
then the shore was only four hundred yards away.

Manning a dinghy Derek went ashore. It was a difficult matter, for
the ground-swell was breaking heavily.

A brief examination of the sea-plane showed that her days were over.
"Beach-combers" had already been at work, and several of the metal
fittings had been stolen. It was also evident that an attempt to
launch the sea-plane through the surf would meet with failure.

"She'll have to go," declared Derek to Kaye, who had accompanied him.
"I'll send off for some petrol."

The crew set to work to remove the floats and dismantle the motor.
This done, the fuselage was drenched with petrol and set on fire. In
a quarter of an hour nothing but a few charred struts and tangled
tension-wires remained.

Finding that it was impracticable to remove the floats - each of which
weighed two hundredweight - except by land, Derek returned to make
his report. His next task was to proceed by motor-lorry and bring the
remains back to the depot.

Laden with a dinghy, two coils of three-inch rope, some "internal
iron-bound blocks" (otherwise large pulleys), and nine men under
Derek's orders, a large motor-lorry left Sableridge for Thorbury. The
day was a perfect one, and the men were in high spirits, for the
"stunt" promised to be of the nature of a picnic. In forty minutes
the ponderous vehicle had covered the twelve miles between Sableridge
and Thorbury, then further progress was barred by soft, yielding
sand.

Between the lorry and the floats were first a stretch of fairly deep
water forming part of Thorbury Harbour, and then three hundred yards
of hummocking sand covered with coarse grass. The dinghy was
unloaded, and the men and gear ferried across. Round one of the
floats was passed a long rope, and all hands, tailing on to the
slack, began to haul away. The result was rather surprising, for
directly the heavy mass began to move half a dozen large rats
scampered from the interior of the float.

Foot by foot, yard by yard, the float was man-hauled to the shore of
the harbour, where, in sheltered water, it was launched and anchored
until the second float was treated in a similar manner.

By this time the tide was ebbing with considerable strength, its rate
exceeding five knots. The danger arose of the unwieldy craft being
carried out across the bar to the open sea, and it was only by dint
of hanging on to fifty fathoms of rope that the men could keep the
floats in check. During these operations one of the floats capsized
in the rollers that were sweeping in over the bar, and before it
could be righted Derek and half a dozen of his men had their
sea-boots filled with water.

At the nearest point to the lorry where the floats could be grounded
was an expanse of a hundred yards of soft sand. All the man-power at
Derek's command was unable to drag the floats up the
gradually-shelving incline, nor could the lorry be brought any nearer
by reason of the yielding nature of the sand.

"Proper Marathon, eh, what?" remarked Derek, wiping the perspiration
from his forehead.

"Pity we hadn't burnt these as well," rejoined Kaye. "Already these
salvage operations cannot have cost a penny less than thirty pounds,
and in the end these blessed floats will be sold for as many
shillings to some blighter who wants them for fishing-punts."

"Service, my impatient lad; Service with a big S!" exclaimed Derek
laughingly. "The main point is, we've got to bring these wretched
floats back to the depot. I'm going to try hauling them up by means
of the lorry. S'pose it's man enough for the job."

Accordingly a sufficient length of stout rope was lashed round one of
the floats and also to the lorry. At the signal the powerful vehicle
began to move slowly ahead, and, with hardly a hitch, the float
slithered over the sand up the incline and on to the hard ground. The
second float followed suit, and then came the task of loading up.

By the time the two floats, the dinghy, and the gear were piled upon
the lorry there was precious little room for eleven persons, but the
Royal Air Force men were not to be deterred by trifles. Swarming all
over the small mountain of gear, and even perched upon the canvas
awning, they returned tired but triumphant. At last the work of
salvage was completed, although the actual amount of material
recovered was but a moiety of the original sea-plane.

Upon entering the ante-room of the mess Derek and Kaye encountered
Grainger, lieutenant and hydro expert. Grainger was in high spirits.
His particular task was to get a hydro-glisseur into running order
before he proceeded on Christmas leave, and in spite of numerous
difficulties he had achieved his end.

"The priceless old thing has been running this morning," he declared.
"I'm taking her for a spin up to Fisherton. Coming, you fellows?"

"Right-o!" replied Derek. "Hang on half a minute until I change my
socks and sea-boots. I'm carrying about a quart of sea water in each
boot, and it's beginning to feel slightly damp."

The hydro-glisseur, as its name implies, is a weird sort of craft
that skims on the surface of the water and is propelled by a
two-bladed aerial propeller. The body consists of six floats lashed
together in pairs. Credited with a speed of fifty knots,
hydro-glisseurs are used for towing aeroplane targets at high speed,
while air-craft hovering overhead try their level best to bomb the
targets into fragments.

"You'll want your flying-kit, you fellows," declared Grainger, as the
trio prepared for the trial trip. "Unless you want to be as deaf as
posts, don't forget your helmets."

Arrayed in leather jackets, flying head-dress and fur-lined
gloves - gear that took Derek's thoughts back to those seemingly
far-off days at Torringham aerodrome and on the Western Front - the
"glisseurs" made their way to the boat-sheds out of which the freak
craft were moored.

A few minor adjustments, and the powerful engine fired. Throttled
well down, the motor was running at sufficient speed to make the
propeller buzz as it cleft the air.

"All ready? Let go!" roared Grainger.

A touch of the controls, and the glisseur gathered way. Soon she
began to lift under the enormously powerful drive of the huge
propeller, until, with a deafening roar that could be heard for
miles, the freak craft quickly worked up to a speed of certainly not
less than forty-five knots.

Presently Grainger throttled down.

"There's a Boche submarine alongside Fisherton Quay," he announced.
"She came into harbour at lunch-time. I vote we go and have a look at
her."

The proposal met with unanimous assent, and a course was shaped for
the place where the ex-German submarine was moored.

As the hydro-glisseur approached the quay the speed was greatly
reduced. Derek could see the long, unlovely above-water outlines of
the U-boat, her deck literally packed with people while from her mast
floated the White Ensign over the discredited emblem of the
badly-bruised Mailed Fist - the Black Cross of Hunland. For yards
either way beyond the submarine the quay was lined with hundreds of
interested spectators, for the trophy had been sent for public
inspection, a small charge being made, and the proceeds given to
local charities.

The Mayor of Fisherton, accompanied by the members of the
Corporation, was engaged upon an official civic welcome to the
surrendered U-boat. There were aldermen and councillors in blue and
scarlet robes, in cocked-hats and "top-hats". Their wives, sisters,
cousins, and aunts helped to swell the throng; while the
gorgeously-attired mace-bearer and the portly town-crier, with his
silver-plated bell, contributed their share to the splendour of the
occasion. In the wake of the spectators was the town band; the
musicians, having just completed a patriotic selection, were
partaking of refreshment.

"Mind how you come alongside with that gadget of yours," sung out the
Lieutenant in command of the submarine. "We've a terrific lot of
camber, you know. If I were you I'd tie up alongside the quay. I'll
show you round if you like, but there's a fine old crush already."

"We'll accept your invitation another day, thanks," replied Grainger,
as the hydro-glisseur, with the ignition switched off, glided slowly
and silently with the tide. "Nip ashore, Kaye, and make that rope
fast!"

Moored stern-on to the granite wall of the quay, the hydro-glisseur
bid fair to attract even more attention than the U-boat. Even the
Mayor and Corporation delayed their departure to gaze upon the marine
freak; while perspiring policemen strove in vain to keep back the
Fisherton townsfolk and prevent them from unduly crowding upon the
mayoral party.

"This is our little stunt," remarked Grainger. "Evidently people are
curious to see us start up. We won't disappoint them. Stand by, Kaye,
to cast off, but don't slip till I give the signal."

Suddenly the buzz of conversation on the quay was absolutely drowned
by the appalling and deafening roar of the powerful engine and the
deep bass hum of the whirling propeller. The next instant almost
every hat in the wake of the rapidly-revolving "prop" was torn from
it's owner's head and whirled aloft in the tornado-like back-draught.
Scarlet and violet gowns flapped in the terrific blast like clothes
hung out to dry on a boisterous day. In ten seconds a section of the
crowd was swept aside like a portion of a cornfield falling under the
action of a tractor reaper, while those of the spectators who were
beyond the danger-zone rocked with merriment and shouted
encouragement to the Marathon competitors for the runaway head-gear.




CHAPTER XXVI

Christmas Eve


"Six o'clock, sir, and a fine morning," announced Derek's batman, as
he switched on the electric light, and handed the still half asleep
officer a cup of strongly-brewed tea.

"By Jove! it's Christmas Eve, and I'm Orderly Dog till eight
o'clock," thought Derek. "What with this wretched demobilization
business and officers clearing out almost every day my turn comes
once every five days. Well, here goes!"

Jumping out of bed Daventry dressed for the occasion, his garb
consisting of a pair of flannel trousers drawn on over his pyjamas, a
sweater, sea-boots, trench-coat, muffler, and cap - the last three
items served to camouflage the rest for the work immediately in hand,
that of being present on réveillé.

Making his way across the parade-ground the Orderly Officer entered
the main building. Already the corridors were resounding to the
shrill notes of the Orderly Sergeant's whistle and his strident
shouts of "Show a leg, everybody!"

Derek had to visit personally twenty-five rooms and satisfy himself
that their occupants were really awake. The sentries, too, had to be
visited, and their early morning parade attended. These functions
completed, Derek was at liberty to return to his quarters and attend
to his toilet at his leisure, happy in the knowledge that his
twenty-four-hour trick of "Orderly Dog" was nearing completion.

The spirit of Yule-tide was in the air. For days past officers and
men had been going off on eleven days' leave, while those who
remained were entering into the prospect of a happy Christmas with
the utmost zeal.

In the officers' quarters the mess-room was transformed with
brightly-coloured bunting, the walls being hung with flags, while the
ceiling was almost hidden by chains and festoons of coloured paper.
In the men's building each room entered into healthy rivalry with the
others, and some of the decorations showed that a great amount of
patience and artistic prowess had been employed to transform the
usually Spartan-like quarters into bowers of evergreens.

Breakfast over and the eight-o'clock parade dismissed, Derek was
relieved of his duties as Orderly Officer, but he quickly found that,
even during armistice-time and Christmas week, there is always
something cropping up for an officer to tackle.

At six o'clock the last liberty-boat had left, and the depot, sadly
depleted, settled down to spend the eve of Christmas in strange
surroundings. Derek was about to write some letters when a telephone
message came through stating that a motor-boat had just arrived from
Stourborough and asking what was to be done with her.

"Sticky sort of day for a half-decked boat to make a hundred-miles
run," thought Derek, as he donned sea-boots and oilskins, for as
senior officer on the station (there were only seven not on Christmas
leave) he had to receive the new arrival and see that she was made
secure for the night.

It was both blowing and raining. Pitch dark, too, except for the
gleam of the Low Light. The tide was at half flood, and making
strongly. Grinding against the pier was the motor-boat, manned by
half a dozen hands in oilskins and sou'westers.

"They won't be able to find moorings on a night like this, sir,"
remarked the Corporal in charge of the pier.

"And they look about done up," added Derek. "I'll find a fresh crew
from the Duty Watch, and let them take her up to Fisherton Quay for
the night. The old crew will come ashore and get a hot meal."

"We've had nothing to eat since midday, sir," reported the coxswain
of the boat. "She was making heavy weather of it coming down Channel,
and we hadn't a chance to tackle any grub."

Having seen the well-nigh exhausted crew ashore Derek made his way to
the mess-deck, where in response to the whistle and the order "Fall
in the Duty Watch!" nine men paraded.

"I'm calling for volunteers to take a boat up to Fisherton," said
Derek. "The boat has been running continuously since daybreak, and
the men are done up. I want a coxswain, an engineer, and two
deck-hands. Those willing to carry on take one pace forward."

Without hesitation every man of the nine took a pace to the front,


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 13 15 16

Online LibraryPercy F. (Percy Francis) WestermanWinning his Wings → online text (page 13 of 16)