Copyright
Percy F. (Percy Francis) Westerman.

Winning his Wings online

. (page 4 of 16)
Online LibraryPercy F. (Percy Francis) WestermanWinning his Wings → online text (page 4 of 16)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


Daventry found himself at Richborough, _en route_ for Dunkirk.




CHAPTER VI

Across the Channel


Contemplating a journey by the now famous Channel ferry, Derek was
soon to learn how, at the very last moment, official plans are apt to
be altered.

For some reason, possibly on account of information received of
possible enemy action at sea, the train-boat was ordered to stand
fast, while a telegraph message was received, ordering
Second-Lieutenant Daventry to proceed to an aerodrome in Sussex, and
to fly a large battleplane across to an aviation camp near Etaples.

"This is some luck," thought Derek; for the opportunity of flying
across to France was one that he had yearned for; and, accordingly,
he left his kit to be sent across by boat, and took train to the
point of his aerial departure.

The battleplane was a brand new machine that had just been delivered
from the manufacturers. It had gone through its trials, and, owing to
the serious nature of the military situation on the Amiens front, was
urgently required for the purpose of checking the Hun offensive.

Besides Derek as pilot, the machine carried a crew of four - observer,
mechanic, and two gunners. With a wing-spread that far out-classed
the celebrated Dromedary, and possessing motors of nearly twice the
horse-power, the GV 7 - such being the official designation of the
biplane - was capable of a one-thousand-two-hundred-mile flight
without having to alight for petrol.

It was, indeed, a formidable type of battleplane. Portions of the
fuselage - especially the underside - were armoured with nickel steel
sufficient to resist fragments of anti-air-craft shells, while ample
protection was afforded to the crew. Short of a direct hit, or the
smashing of a wing or tail, the machine was able to bear a severe
gruelling without becoming _hors de combat_. Being of an entirely
novel and formidable type, it was considered to be far and away a
match for any air-craft that, up to the present, the Hun possessed.

It was within two hours of sunset when Derek started on his maiden
cross-Channel trip. A steady north, or following wind gave every
indication of holding, while an almost cloudless sky betokened a
continuance of fine weather.

With her full crew and equipment, the GV 7 "took-off" magnificently,
the enormous fabric answering quickly to the controls. Compared with
the old Dromedary, with its short wing-spread and stumpy fuselage,
the battleplane was as a battleship is to a cruiser. There was an
almost complete freedom from lack of space, which contributed in no
small degree to comfort, although all controls were within easy
distance of the pilot.

Before the machine was over the English coast, an altitude of seven
thousand feet was attained. In the clear atmosphere, the low cliffs
of France were clearly discernible. It seemed as if a small silvery
streak of water - which to the ordinary traveller to the Continent is
an object of dread - was a very negligible quantity. By air, Great
Britain and France, one-time sworn foes, were to be united in a bond
of mutually self-sacrificing friendship.

GV 7 proved herself to be an exceptionally rapid climber, rising at a
steep angle without evincing any tendency towards side-splitting. As
steady as a rock, she settled down to her flight across the silvery
streak of the English Channel, and, although throttled down, her
speed was not far short of ninety miles an hour.

Within five minutes of passing over the coastline, the observer
called Derek's attention to a mere speck on the waters. By the
N.C.O.'s manner, it was evident that something was amiss.

"Boche 'plane up to mischief, sir," reported the man by means of the
voice-tube. "Steamer getting it hot, I fancy."

Without hesitation Daventry dived steeply, the men standing to their
machine-guns and bomb-dropping gear. By the aid of glasses the speck,
which was momentarily increasing in size, resolved itself into a
large tramp steamer. She had just starboarded her helm in order to
maintain a zigzag course, while clouds of smoke pouring from her
funnels indicated that the engineers and stokehold staffs were hard
at work in their efforts to shake off pursuit.


[Illustration: GV 7 TO THE RESCUE!]


"'Tis a Boche 'bus!" exclaimed the observer, as a circular cloud of
white smoke shot up a few feet astern of the tramp. "By Jove, what a
beauty!"

Whether the N.C.O. was in earnest, or merely speaking sarcastically
of the Hun machine, Daventry could not determine. His attention was
centred upon the darting form of a possible antagonist, who, as yet,
was ignorant of the British biplane's presence. The Boche machine was
remarkable for the unusual appearance of its wings, or rather
non-appearance, for they were made of some sort of transparent fabric
that rendered them almost invisible. It was only when the aeroplane
banked steeply as she hovered over her intended victim that the rays
of the setting sun, glinting on the tilted planes, revealed the
presence of the V-shaped wings. Even the black cross was absent, as
far as the planes were concerned, although they were painted on the
top and sides of the fuselage. The elongated body was fancifully
decorated in various colours, the whole resembling a freak machine
that might, or might not, prove to be a tough customer.

"Wonder if it's Biggs's old pal, Count von Peilfell?" thought Derek.
"It's not a seaplane, and the guy is a jolly long way from his base."

A thousand feet - five hundred - three hundred.

"Let him have it," signalled Derek.

The staccato of the Lewis guns mingled with the roar of the motors.
Apparently taken completely by surprise, the Hun side-slipped, spun
on one wing for several seconds, and then burst into a furnace of
smoke and flame.

Boldly into the trailing smoke plunged GV 7, keenly in pursuit of the
crippled and falling Hun. Half-blinded by the smoke, and choking from
the pungent fumes, Derek held on, until a rapid glance at the
altitude-gauge showed him that he was but a few feet above the sea.

Like a meteor, the British battleplane flattened out, and, emerging
from the smoke, began to encircle the fiercely-burning wreckage on
the sea. It was not until several minutes had elapsed that the vapour
cleared, and Derek realized that he had been badly tricked.

The Hun, in diving, had thrown out a novel kind of smoke-bomb, and,
surmising that the British biplane would dive in pursuit, the German
had climbed to a terrific height, unnoticed by his too eager and
credulous antagonist.

"We've been on a dud trail," muttered Derek disgustedly, and,
glancing aloft, he saw the faint outlines of the Boche machine,
looking much like a tadpole, scurrying home at a rapid pace. The
advantage of altitude, and the intervening distance, rendered pursuit
impracticable, and, reluctantly, Daventry had to recognize tactical
defeat.

He had, however, saved the tramp steamer from destruction, and, since
his orders were definite, he now had no option but to resume his
flight for the battle-front. Nevertheless the wireless operator was
busily employed reporting the presence and direction of a Hun to the
aerial-patrol off Dunkirk, and, with luck, the strong Allied Air
Squadron ought to be able to intercept the returning raider.

The tramp expressed her gratitude by giving a series of whoops on her
siren, and, steadying on her course, headed towards a number of
M.L.'s, which, called up by wireless, were hurrying to her aid.

The sun was still above the horizon when Derek "cut out" preparatory
to descending at the aerodrome. Miles away the sky was stabbed by
countless flashes that more than held their own against the glow of
departing day, while the air reverberated with the roar of heavy
guns. In spite of the volplaning air-craft's rush through the air,
and the shriek of the wind, the ceaseless rumble was plainly audible.
Ahead, right and left, as far as the eye could see, the lines of
flashes continued. A big engagement, not merely a series of local
operations, was in progress.

The Sergeant-Observer actually grinned in his officer's face, for
there is such a thing as a companionship of the air that makes small
beer of cast-iron methods of discipline.

"We're not too late, after all, sir," he exclaimed through the
voice-tube. "They're going it hammer and tongs."

Making her distinctive signal, GV 7 circled around the landing-ground
until the coast was clear, for there was much aerial activity in
progress, machines rising and descending almost ceaselessly.

"All clear, sir!" reported one of the battleplane's crew, as a
tri-coloured flare rose from the gathering shadows betwixt the
hangars.

"Right-o!" rejoined Derek. "Down we go."

A succession of jerks announced that the battleplane had renewed
acquaintance with the earth, although it was the first time as far as
the soil of France was concerned.

Derek stood up in his "office" and pushed back his goggles. The scene
that awaited him was very much like that of an aerodrome in England.
There were mechanics hurrying towards him, while in a few moments a
couple of flying-officers strolled up.

"New 'bus?" enquired one casually. "Just out? What's doing in town?"

Daventry did his best to reply to the widely-divergent questions, and
dared to ask how things were going out there.

"Doing? Heaven only knows!" replied one of the two officers.
"Apparently we're doing a sort of fox-trot backwards. 'T anyrate
we've orders to pack up before morning. The Boche is, we understand,
about twelve miles away, and during the last three days has been
pushing on at three miles a day. Come along to the mess and see
what's going."

The hut signified by the name of mess was the result of a poor
attempt to turn an inadequate building into a dining- and living-room
for hungry airmen. The furniture consisted of a few trestle-tables
each covered with an army blanket of different shades. Long wooden
stools contrasted with aggressive hardness with the dark browns and
greys of the tables, while a solitary chair, resting insecurely on
three legs, indicated the appointed place of the C.O. In one corner
was a much-battered piano, a partly-reconstructed derelict from a now
demolished ch√Ґteau. The inevitable gramophone, which proclaimed in
wheezy tones "The Parson's waiting for me and my Girl", occupied the
top of the piano in partnership with a decrepit melodeon. The windows
were heavily curtained with blankets, while the blue-washed walls
were adorned with a vivid selection of Kirchner prints.

Curled up around the almost red-hot tortoise stove were some of the
animals that are to be found in every well-ordered mess: three dogs
and a large yellow-and-white cat, all serenely indifferent to a
lively scrap between two lively young bloods who were settling an
argument as to who should not pay for certain liquid refreshment. The
rest of the mess were deriving exhilarating enjoyment from the
friendly little bout, the din completely outvoicing the gramophone's
announcement as to a certain padre's present occupation.

There were present between twenty or thirty officers. Some, just back
from a desperate errand across the enemy's lines, were still wearing
their yellow-leather flying-coats, and, while watching the struggle
between two of their chums, were warming their benumbed hands at the
stove. Others, about to fly, were similarly attired. Others, off duty
for a very limited space of time, were rigged out in a medley of
garments culminating in British warms and much-soiled trench-coats.
All were smoking cigarettes of a brand known throughout the British
army and Royal Air Force as "gaspers", and, judging from the buzz of
conversation, their thoughts were far away from the war, despite the
fact that the forefront of the much-advertised Hun offensive was now
but a few miles off and was still advancing.

"Blow in!" was Derek's newly-found friend's invitation. "Blow in, and
make yourself at home. Sling your gear over there," - indicating a
small mountain of thrown-off coats - "sorry there's no clothes-rack.
Last time Jerry came over here dropping eggs our mess-room got it. We
haven't replaced camp equipment yet. Hallo! No dinner ready yet?
What's up with the messman this evening?"

Just then an orderly stepped briskly into the room, and, saluting,
delivered a sealed envelope to a small, undersized youngster whose
badges of rank proclaimed him to be a major. Although barely
twenty-four this officer was a senior major, and wore across his
right breast a double row of ribbons belonging to much-prized
distinctions. In addition he had "put up" three wound-stripes.

Almost languidly the Major opened the envelope. It was about the
fiftieth he had received that day. Then, dismissing the orderly, he
strode across the room and pinned the contents to the notice-board.

"Urgent, you fellows!"

Bedlam ceased. The combatants broke away, and arm in arm joined in
the throng around the board.

It was an order from the General Officer Commanding, briefly stating
that the enemy was still advancing in force and the squadron was to
attack by low-flying machine-gunnery. "It cannot be expected,"
concluded the order, "that this work can be performed without
considerable loss."

Brief and to the point. The officers read it carefully. There was
silence in the room. Everyone knew what the work entailed. Some,
perhaps many of them now present, would go and not return. The
already heavy casualty list of the R.A.F. would be greatly augmented.

"Some stunt this!" remarked a voice. "But I say; what's wrong with
dinner? Ring the bell for that messman, somebody."




CHAPTER VII

When the Hun Pushed


There was little rest for anyone that night. In spite of the outward
show of levity every man realized more or less the gravity of the
situation. Taking advantage of heavy mists that caused the deadly
poison-gas to roll sullenly over the British lines, the Huns were
pushing forward regardless of the cost. Their High Command knew
perfectly well that it was a gambler's last throw. Failure meant a
total and sudden crumpling up of the German Empire on all fronts. It
was a despairing effort to aim a knock-out blow at the British, in
the hope that it would result in a relaxation of the British navy's
strangle-hold upon every subject of the Kaiser.

Yet, although from an Allied point of view the situation was serious,
not for one moment did the British, from the Commander-in-Chief down
to the latest-arrived Tommy, entertain any doubts as to the issue of
the titanic conflict. We were going back, it was true, but sooner or
later the pendulum would swing in the opposite direction, and the
Hunnish hordes would either be smashed by Foch, or else driven
pell-mell across the Rhine.

Already airmen were busily engaged in getting stores and material
away. Rumours, often too true, were coming through of vast quantities
of stores falling into the hands of the enemy, often owing to the
blind confidence of those in charge in the ability of a comparatively
few British troops to withstand ten or even twenty times their
number.

Huge motor-lorries, piled high with material, rumbled away as fast as
they could be loaded up. Wounded men, some "walking cases", others
badly hit, were streaming towards the now perilously-advanced
dressing-stations. Troops, both British and French, were arriving to
succour their worn-out and harassed comrades, while, almost
momentarily, night bombing-machines were either going to or returning
from their destructive missions.

The flashes of countless guns and the lurid flares of abandoned
ammunition-dumps and petrol-stores illuminated the misty sky, while
the sodden earth trembled under the thunder of artillery-fire. At
frequent intervals Hun bombing-'planes, soaring at great heights,
fearful lest their careers might be cut short by the British
machines, dropped bombs indiscriminately, the loud clatter of which
was distinctly audible above the roar of the howitzers and heavies.
It was an inferno into which men, who a few years ago never thought
to handle a rifle and bayonet, plunged bravely and resolutely to give
their lives for their country.

Realizing that Flanders and Northern France were Britain's bulwarks,
and that should the Channel ports be lost the thorny problem of
Ostend and Zeebrugge would be magnified a thousand-fold, every foot
of ground was obstinately contested by the hard-pressed troops.
Isolated battalions deliberately sacrificed themselves on this
account, thus obtaining a temporary respite for their undaunted
comrades, while in countless numbers fresh hordes of field-greys
hurled themselves by day and night against the dauntless khaki lines.

Derek soon found the reason for his hasty flight to France. With
hundreds of other airmen he had been sent across to assist in
stemming the tide of Huns. Success or failure in the present struggle
depended mainly upon superiority in the air. Not only did aerial
combination mean that the enemy's concentration could be clearly
observed - mists and fogs alone preventing - but his lines of
communication could be constantly interrupted, while a new factor,
low-altitude machine-gunning, was "putting the wind up" the German
infantry in no half-hearted fashion.

The young pilot was told off to start at dawn. Provided with a series
of aerial photographs of the enemy's positions, and also a map ruled
off in squares and numbered and lettered, he was able to obtain a
clear idea of the sub-sector over which he was to operate. So
elaborate were the preparations that there was hardly a square yard
of ground captured by the enemy that was not mapped out for
particular attention by the R.A.F. By bomb and machine-gun fire the
Huns were to be unmercifully galled - but at a cost.

With the first blush of dawn, when rosy tints glowing beyond the
flame-tinged clouds of smoke betokened another wet day, GV 7, in
company with others of her kind, was brought from the camouflaged
hangar.

During the night her crew had snatched a few hours' sleep, the work
of replenishing fuel and ammunition being entrusted to the
air-mechanics and ground men. With her cylinders shedding enough
castor oil to dose a battalion at full strength, and every part of
her construction carefully tested, she stood ready to start upon her
errand of death and destruction.

The air was "stiff" with machines as GV 7 began to climb steadily.
Derek's whole attention for the time being was to avoid certain
"unhealthy" spots where high-velocity shells from the British heavies
screeched unceasingly. There were other shells which he might not be
able to avoid - those coming from the opposite direction - for he knew
that it was not an uncommon occurrence for a 'plane to get in the way
of a high-velocity projectile and to vanish into fragments.

In the hollows wreaths of white mist still clung: danger-spots
concealing swarms of German troops who had been rushed up under cover
of night in spite of the terrific barrage of the guns and bombs from
the British air-craft. A few miles beyond the irregular line of
contesting foes a Hun sausage-balloon rose rapidly, swaying and
jerking at the end of a two-thousand-feet length of wire. In less
than three minutes it was spotted and brought down by a direct hit,
while a second, in the act of ascending, was promptly hauled down to
earth.

Suddenly GV 7 side-slipped, pitching violently in a tremendous
air-current. A German eight-inch - a missile that arrived some seconds
before its screech was heard - had passed within a few feet of the
starboard longeron.

The observer turned and grinned at the nearest machine-gunner. It was
his way of expressing the fact that they had had a very narrow shave.
Derek, too, realised the danger, although his attention was mainly
directed towards his task of piloting the battleplane. Occasionally
checking his position by means of his map, he held on until it was
time to dive to the attack.

Viewed from a height of three thousand feet the battlefield lost much
of its sordid horror. The old trenches, overrun by the Allies some
eighteen months previously, were barely discernible. Hardly anyone
expected that they would again prove to be the scene of a sanguinary
struggle. New shell-holes contrasted forcibly with the older craters,
but of new defensive work there was little to be seen. So rapid had
been the German onrush that the British on the defensive had but
little time to reorganize. They contented themselves by holding
desperately to every bit of cover, receiving and giving hard knocks
in characteristic bull-dog fashion.

Miles behind the opposing line the air was thick with smoke from
burning dumps and stores. Here and there were low mounds of rubble
that once were prosperous villages, some others rebuilt only a few
months previously to suffer again from an advance of the modern Hun.
Here and there guns, scorning the use of camouflage, were firing with
open sights at the dense field-grey masses, while farther back on
both sides the heavies were exchanging tokens of mutual hate.

A streak of flame plunging earthwards within fifty yards of GV 7
attracted Derek's attention. One glance revealed the sad fact that a
British biplane was crashing. He could see the concentric red, white,
and blue circles as the doped canvas glinted in the ruddy light. A
little beyond two British chaser-machines were climbing "all out"
towards a patch of clouds where the Hun who had downed the
unsuspecting biplane was "squatting" in fancied security. His dream
of safety was soon to be rudely shattered, for the Boche 'plane stood
as little chance as a rat when cornered by a trained terrier.

Just as Derek was preparing for a vol-plane, a Hun triplane dashed
blindly athwart his path, followed by a British "Camel". The Boche
evidently "had the wind up" horribly, for he made no attempt to use
his after machine-gun, but merely dodged and banked stupidly in a
forlorn attempt to shake off the pursuit. Then with ostrich-like
tactics he attempted to fly under, and in the same direction as GV 7,
regardless of the fact that the latter could "drop an egg" with
unerring aim upon his broad expanse of planes.

Daventry let him severely alone, knowing that the Boche had all his
work cut out to defend himself without a chance to fire upwards into
the battleplane. It was against the ethics of aerial warfare to spoil
another man's bag.

On came the Camel, her speed being only about five miles more than GV
7, although both were tearing through the air at more than a hundred
miles an hour. Derek could see the hooded and goggled head of the
machine-gunner as he bent over his sights. Then came a rapid burst of
flame from the Lewis gun. Daventry looked over the side of the
fuselage. The triplane, a litter of rents and fluttering canvas, was
plunging earthwards.

Waving his arm in joyous congratulation to the victorious Camel,
Derek turned, and began to swoop down upon his objective. As he did
so he became aware that he was an object of attention from a
particularly-aggressive anti-aircraft battery. The Huns had brought
up several Archibalds, mounted on swift armoured-cars, and were doing
their level best to counteract the demoralizing attack of the "air
hussars".

Banking, Derek brought his machine out of the danger-zone, but not
before the wings showed unpleasant signs of the accuracy of the Huns'
aim. The rotten part of the business was that he was unable to locate
the position of the antis. Right out in the open were several
sky-directed guns surrounded by men, but Derek was becoming a wily
bird. He knew that both men and guns were decoys, and that the actual
battery was some hundreds of yards away and skilfully camouflaged. To
fall into the error of attempting to wipe out the decoy would be an
act of self-destruction.

A battalion in mass formation moving by the side of a straight
stretch of canal afforded fair sport. Derek dived almost
perpendicularly, with engines "all out" until within two hundred feet
from the ground, then, flattening out, made straight for the head of
the field-greys.

At the sight of this startling apparition the Boches were instantly
thrown into a panic. They broke ranks and fled. Barred on the right
by the canal, they were compelled to surge in a disorderly mob across
absolutely open ground. Impeding each other, literally falling over
one another, the wretched Boches were at the mercy of the swift
battleplane. Machine-guns and bombs both took heavy toll, hardly a
shot being fired in return.

Not once, but many times, did GV 7 swing round and return to the
attack, until the thoroughly terrified survivors took refuge in


1 2 4 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16

Online LibraryPercy F. (Percy Francis) WestermanWinning his Wings → online text (page 4 of 16)