Percy F. (Percy Francis) Westerman.

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isolated shell-holes until the immediate danger was past.

Then back to the almost deserted aerodrome Derek flew, replenished
petrol and trays of ammunition, and returned to the fray. He was but
one pilot of hundreds engaged upon the same errand. Truly the
magnificent work was being accomplished at heavy cost, but
temporarily at least the rush was stayed, and the much-harassed
infantry - the troops who invariably bear the brunt of both attack and
defence - were able to take breathing-space.

"We're holding the blighters all right, sir," reported the
Wing-Commander to the General of the Division.

"Quite so," rejoined the other dryly. "Unfortunately, the line is
bending both on our right and left flanks. 'Fraid we'll have to give
the Boche a little more ground."

For three more days the retirement, under excessive pressure,
continued; and during the whole of that time massed squadrons of
air-craft were continuously in the air - bombing, machine-gunning,
undertaking reconnaissance work, and altogether making things very
uncomfortable for the Huns. But there were undoubted evidences that
the greatly-advertised Boche offensive was slowing down. Already the
advance through Noyon towards Paris was an admitted failure, and both
British and French, assisted by small American forces, were preparing
for the gigantic counter-attack. Fritz had shot his bolt and had
missed his target.


The Hun Bomber

The Flight-Sergeant surveyed GV 7 dispassionately. It was part of his
job to condemn unserviceable machines, and the frequency of having to
do it bored him.

"It's a wonder you got back, sir," he reported. "Why the motors
didn't konk out puzzles me, and there's hardly a strut that's
perfect. No, sir; I can't pass her. May as well set her on fire and
have done with it."

And so GV 7, after a week of gallant and strenuous service, received
her death-warrant. At the best of times the life of an aeroplane is a
brief one, and in active-service conditions the wastage is simply
astounding. Every machine must be of the very best workmanship
possible and kept in perfect tune, otherwise it must be scrapped and
replaced by another of the vast quantity turned out in the numerous
air-craft factories at home.

Derek heard the mandate, against which there was no appeal, with
genuine regret. In a few days he had gained an affection for his old
'bus, much as a cavalryman does for his charger. Nevertheless he
realized that the verdict was a just one. He, too, could not help
wondering how the badly-scarred biplane had brought down her crew in
safety, for there were thirty-three holes in the wings and
tail-planes and seven perforations of the fuselage, while most of the
struts were chipped and several of the tension-wires severed.

Accordingly the motors were removed, together with the more important
fittings. These towed to a safe distance, the doomed battleplane was
set on fire. Her late pilot watched her burn. It was a sight that
fascinated him. It was as though he had destroyed a favourite dog. He
waited until nothing but a charred mass remained, and then made his
way back to the newly-erected aerodrome - quite twenty miles farther
back than the one abandoned on the night of his first flight across
the enemy lines.

"I'll have to find the Equipment Officer," thought Derek, "and get
him to let me have another 'bus. Wonder where his show is?"

Failing to find the desired officer, Derek turned to enquire of a
goggled and leather-coated pilot who was literally smothered with
grease and castor oil.

"Bless me, Daventry! Who on earth expected to run across you in this
Johnny Horner hole?"

For some moments Derek stared at the apparition in perplexity, unable
to recognize either the voice or its owner.

"Give it up!" he replied. "Hanged if I can fix you, George."

"What! Forgotten poor little Johnny Kaye! An' we vowed life-long
friendship an' all that any-old-thing sort of tosh, old bean!"

The two pilots shook hands.

"I've been here a week on different stunts," continued Kaye. "They
don't forget to work you here, by Jove! Not that I mind though.
Derek, old man, I had the time of my life yesterday, when two Huns
thought they had me cold. Led 'em a pretty dance, and finally
persuaded them to collide. One Boche plopped fairly on top of my
tail-plane, and I had cold feet pretty badly until I looped and let
him slide off. The funny thing was that I hadn't a single round of
ammunition left. How long have you been here? You were asking for the
Equipment Officer, I believe. There's his show. Smithers is his name.
He'll fix you up with anything you want, from a double-seater to a

Linking arms with Kaye, Derek made his way by means of a duck-board
track to the Nissen but wherein the Equipment Officer held court.
Smithers was a grey-haired lieutenant of fifty, who, heart and soul
devoted to his work, was obsessed by the idea that he was the one and
only man who did any real work in the aerodrome.

"State your wants briefly," he began, before Derek could say a word.
"I'm terribly busy."

Derek did so. The Equipment Officer consulted a board festooned with
red, blue, and yellow tabs.

"A single-seater is all I can manage just at present. Suit? Good. EG
19's the bird. Mornin'."

Enquiries at the hangars showed that EG 19 had alighted, owing to
slight engine defects, in a field at a distance of two miles from the
aerodrome. That occurred three days previously, and the former pilot
had been sent away to another squadron. Repairs had been effected,
and the machine was now ready for flight.

"I'll take a tender," declared Derek. "Come along, old man, and keep
me company. You can return in the tender, you know."

"Right-o!" agreed Kaye, divesting himself of his flying-coat and
tossing it to an orderly. "Just as likely I'll tramp back after I've
seen you started."

The tender, a covered-in Ford van, was soon forthcoming, and the two
chums seated themselves under the canvas tilt. The view was strictly
limited to the ground already covered, but this mattered little,
since the two pilots had plenty to talk about.

The road was typically French. It ran in a straight line as far as
the eye could see. In the centre was a strip of _pavé_, interrupted
at frequent intervals by shell-holes - some of recent origin, others
filled in with material that was subsiding badly. On either side of
the _pavé_ was nothing more nor less than a morass, the road being
torn up by ceaseless heavy traffic. Bordering the highway on either
hand were tall, leafless trees, many of them having been splintered
and cut down by shell-fire.

Swinging along the mud-covered _pavé_ was a battalion newly arrived
from the base - men with shoulders hunched under the weight of their
equipment. They were marching at ease - incongruous term. Most of them
were smoking. Some were carrying their comrades' rifles in addition
to their own. Others were tugging at their new equipment to ease the
cutting strain upon their shoulders. Few, very few, were limping. It
was not the fault of the army that they limped, for the army takes
particular pains to equip the men with good marching-boots. It was
the neglect of ordinary precautions that was punishing them.

They marched well notwithstanding. Weeks of hard training were
apparent in the bearing of the Tommies, as, with tunics unbuttoned
at the neck, revealing bronzed throats that blended with the sombre
khaki uniforms, they moved along the highway at the regulation pace
of three and a half miles an hour.

"Those fellows will give a good account of themselves, I guess,"
remarked Kaye. "Sometimes, old thing, I almost wish that I were in
the infantry."

"They get all the kicks," rejoined Daventry. "Our guns start strafing
the Boche. Boche gets angry and starts to shell back. Shell what? Not
our guns so much as the poor beggars of infantry in the trenches.
They always get it in the neck."

"All the same, I envy 'em," continued Kaye. "We don't get a chance of
surging over the top in a yelling, cheering mob. That's life, if you
like. Were you ever in the neighbourhood of Courcelette? If - -
Hallo! What's this? A Boche?"

High over - three thousand feet - a large German biplane was circling
as if looking for a quarry. The Hun was alone, for practically every
available machine was up and away from the aerodrome. Either the
hostile airman was engaged in taking aerial photographs of the "back
areas", or else he had spotted the battalion moving slowly in column
of route.

The troops were fully aware of the undesirable presence of the Boche
airman, and now came a test of discipline. It was one of those
occasions when a British soldier must not look danger in the face,
for a quadruple line of upturned faces would be clearly visible to
the Hun pilot, while the battalion might escape notice by keeping
their heads bent down.

Derek and his companion remained perfectly still, taking doubtful
cover under a gaunt tree. From where they stood they could watch
practically the whole of the now motionless column. Officers and men,
although tempted to see what was going on up above, were standing
rigid, not knowing whether a bomb might scatter wounds and death
amongst the compact crowd of troops.

"Good heavens!" whispered Derek, although there was not the slightest
reason why he should have lowered his voice. "I believe Fritz has
spotted the column. He's coming down to make sure."

"You're right, old man, I think," agreed Kaye. "There'll be an unholy
mess of things in - - "


A violent concussion almost deafened the two airmen. It was only a
paramount feeling that the Tommies might roar at them that prevented
Derek and his companion from throwing themselves flat upon the
ground. Turning, they heard the metallic clang of a breech-block
being swung home, and were just in time to see the long pole-like
chase of an anti-air-craft gun rise from a cleverly camouflaged pit
not twenty yards from where they stood.

There was no need for a second shot. The shell from the "anti" burst
with mathematical precision right in front of the black-crossed
aeroplane, and the next instant the machine began to fall earthwards.

It was not until the enemy biplane crashed that the Tommies were
aware of the turn of events, and a roar of cheering burst from eight
hundred throats.

"Pretty shot that," remarked Kaye approvingly. "Hanged if I knew that
there was an A.A. battery about here."

The appearance of half a dozen men wearing crested steel helmets
helped to solve the problem. It was a French anti-air-craft gun,
cunningly concealed in a camouflaged shell-hole, that had scored the
direct hit, and the Frenchmen showed their delight with typical
Gallic exuberance.

Within a few minutes the highway resumed its usual war-time aspect.
The battalion moved on; horse and motor transport scurried to and
fro; while a gang of Chinese coolies set to work to remove the debris
of the crashed Hun machine, and to mend the hole in the _pavé_ where
the raider's bomb had fallen.

EG 19 was found at the indicated spot, the air-mechanics having
completed the slight adjustments necessary for the machine to resume

Derek examined his new steed critically. The biplane showed signs of
being a "flyer" in the truest sense of the word. With a comparatively
short fuselage and wing-spread, it looked a businesslike craft. Being
a one-seater, the pilot had to do everything necessary when in
flight, even to work the two automatic-guns, one of which was mounted
in front of the "office", the other, for use when being pursued, was
immediately in rear of the seat.

"Nice little 'bus," declared Kaye, as he helped his chum to don his
leather coat. "I've had 'em, and know what they'll do. Well, good
luck, old man. S'pose you'll get back to the aerodrome before me.
Gadfathers! I guess we'll be on the same patrol to-morrow, and then
there'll be dirty work at the cross-roads."


A Slight Disturbance.

It was shortly after midnight that Derek was roused from his straw
bed by the sounding of a tocsin-gong warning of the approach of
hostile air-craft.

The young pilot received the intelligence without emotion. He was
getting accustomed to being turned out at unearthly hours, and the
regularity of the proceedings made him stiff, especially when, in
nine cases out of ten, the Hun failed to put in an appearance.

With very few exceptions, the German airmen now rarely flew over the
British lines during the hours of daylight. If they did, they
generally paid dearly for their temerity, as frequently a whole
squadron of chasers promptly pounced upon them. But at night there
were opportunities, and the Boche was not slow in seizing them.
Rising to an immense height above the aerodromes, they could glide,
unseen and unheard, for miles, until they imagined that they had
avoided the British air-patrols.

Consequently alarms were frequent, but in the darkness the Boche
often went wide of his objective, unless that objective happened to
be a hospital, the roof of which was marked at night by an
illuminated Red Cross - a Red Cross to a Hun being like a red rag to a

"'Nother of 'em," he muttered. "Getting fed up with dud calls. Jack,
turn out, you lazy blighter!"

Kaye, who was fully dressed, with the exception of his boots, rolled
heavily from his uncomfortable couch. In the dim light of a guttering
candle he commenced to pull on his footgear, and took the opportunity
to philosophize.

"Deuced queer how a fellow gets used to things in this jolly old
war," he began. "Didn't know what it was to be wakened out of my
beauty-sleep until some time in 1915. No wonder my thatch's getting a
bit thin on top. And now, when a Boche is about dropping his rotten
eggs, we grumble because it's a cold night and we have to turn out.
Funny thing too: yesterday a Tommy came up and saluted, and asked if
I remembered him. Wiry sort of chap, as hard as nails, smothered in
mud, an' just off back to a rest camp. He was the pater's gardener, a
fellow well over forty, who didn't know one end of a gun from t'other
back in '14. Now he's a sergeant and a D.C.M. man, while his young
brother, a hefty lout who used to weed the parson's garden when he
wasn't poaching, has managed to get exemption as an engineer. Lord!
after the war, won't there be a gulf between men and slackers?"

"One will feel sorry for the slackers. They won't be able to hold
their heads up," remarked Derek.

"Not they," corrected Kaye, giving his bootlace a vicious tug.
"They'll have whole skins and fat purses. The blighters who've done
all the work and gone through all the danger will be back numbers
when the war's over - if it's ever going to be over."

"I remember a school-chum of mine," continued Daventry, "Brown, by
name; a fellow who hated sea-water like poison. Last I heard of him
was that he was in command of an M.L. - they call M.L.'s Harry Tate's
navy, I believe, but the men who run them are all O.K. - and he's been
given the D.S.O. for some harum-scarum work off the Belgian coast.
They are fond of putting square pegs into round holes in the
services, but sometimes the edges of the pegs get worn down, and then
they fit right enough. By Jove! That was a near one. Time we sought
our little funk-hole."

A crash, followed by two others in quick succession, gave plenty of
indication that Fritz was setting to work. Then the antis joined in
the deafening roar, firing at a swiftly-moving object showing like a
silvery gossamer in the rays of a searchlight.

It was less than fifty yards from the two chums' hut to the mouth of
the dug-out, but during their deliberate and leisurely progress
across the open ground Daventry and Kaye had an opportunity to
observe some of the results of the raider's work.

A quarter of a mile away a fire was blazing fiercely. In that
direction lay the hospital. Nearer, but in the opposite direction,
was another but smaller blaze. A babel of excited voices could be
heard between the crashes of the anti-air-craft guns and the
explosion of the bombs.

"Chinks' quarters," remarked Kaye laconically.

"Yes; it's the Chinese compound," agreed Derek. "Pity the Boche
didn't make a mistake and drop an egg into the barbed-wire enclosures
to the right. There are about four hundred Prussians there, men of
the lowest type of Hun I've ever met. Hallo! what's Fritz doing?"

Both officers stopped and gazed aloft. The German biplane was diving
rapidly right into the eye of the searchlight. It was a deliberate
move. The Hun was descending under perfect control, with his engine
running all out, straight for the searchlight projector.

"Look alive, old man!" exclaimed Derek, gripping his chum by the arm
and forcing him into the dug-out.

The two were only just in time, for as they descended the steps they
could hear the rattle of a machine-gun and the splaying of hundreds
of bullets upon the concrete.

Five minutes later the raid was over. The daring Hun had got away
apparently untouched. Not only had he bombed the hospital, the
Chinese compound, and part of the aerodrome, but by flying down the
path of the searchlight and making good use of his machine-gun he had
"wiped out" the entire crew of the searchlight itself.

While deprecating the wanton attack upon a Red Cross building in no
mild terms, the R.A.F. men were not slow to praise the nerve and
daring of the Boche, who, braving the Archibalds, had descended to
within fifty feet of the ground in order to use his machine-gun with
the deadliest results.

"Have a gasper?" asked Kaye, tendering a battered cigarette-case in
which every dent had a story attached to it. "There's nothing like a
cigarette when you've been turned out."

"Thanks, no," replied Derek. "Think I'll try a pipe before I turn in
again. Wonder if there'll be any more stunts? Hope not, as I'm on
patrol to-morrow - or to-day, rather," he added, glancing at his

A minute or so later Derek knocked the ashes from his pipe, dived
between the blankets, and was fast asleep, as if a hostile
bombing-raid was merely one of the side-shows of life.

Just as the first streaks of dawn stole across the eastern sky the
airmen were turned out by another alarm. Officers and men doubled on
to the parade-ground to the accompaniment of a regular fusillade of
bombs detonating at no great distance away.

"No. 1 Flight - in fours - right - double march!"

No. 1 Flight, detailed for special duty, promptly hurried off, while
the remaining flights were ordered to stand at ease.

The nature of the commotion was soon obvious. The Chinks, as the
Chinese labourers are termed, were seeking revenge for the deaths of
several of their fellow-countrymen during the raid. With true
Oriental cunning and stealth they had raided a store containing live
Mills's bombs, and, armed with these sinister weapons, had surrounded
the barbed-wire enclosure where the German prisoners were caged.

Before the handful of sentries realized what was taking place a
terrific fusillade of bombs was directed upon the cage, and the
strafing was still in progress when the airmen arrived upon the

It did not take the new arrivals long to restore order. The Chinamen,
expostulating and explaining in their quaint "pidgin" English, were
relieved of the few bombs that had not been thrown across the barbed
wire, and were marched back under escort to their compound.

"Bochee-man him dropee bomb on Englishman," declared an old coolie
imperturbably. "Englishman he dropee bomb on Bochee-man - can do.
Bochee-man dropee bomb on Chinaman; him dropee bomb 'on
Bochee-man - no can do."

The British overseer explained that the victims of the Chinese were
prisoners of war and must be protected; to which the Chinamen replied
that they, too, were in a compound enclosed by a wire fence.

"Hanged if I know how to answer that argument," explained the
Englishman to a staff officer. "Evidently it's a case of reprisals. I
don't know what's to be done, but there'll be a fine old row over the

There was no more rest for Derek after that. Returning to his
quarters, he found that his batman had made his bed and tidied his
room with a precision that one would hardly expect to find within a
few miles of the front. There was also a steaming hot cup of tea
ready; and a batman who attends to his master's personal comfort
under adverse conditions is a priceless treasure.

Derek sipped his tea gratefully, washed, shaved, and prepared for the
coming day's work.


Kaye's Crash

At 10 a.m. Derek Daventry started off in EG 19 on patrol. Kaye,
flying a machine of the same type, had risen five minutes earlier.
According to instructions the two airmen were to make a
reconnaissance above the important railway junction of Les Jumeaux,
where the Huns were supposed to be detraining a number of tanks for
the avowed purpose of holding up the British and French

Everywhere the Huns had been held. In certain sectors their line was
cracking badly. There were evidences of a retreat on a large scale.
Demoralization was sapping their ranks like a canker, while the
morale of the Allies, never low in spite of reverses, was again on
the rise. At the same time Fritz still had a certain amount of kick
left in him. He might strive to stave off disaster by rallying the
best of his badly-shaken troops and attempt another break through, in
the hope that if the operation were successful he might be able to
effect a possible peace by negotiation.

It was therefore necessary to keep a vigilant watch upon the Germans'
back-areas, to observe any great concentration of troops or material,
and to continue harassing his lines of communication; and the only
way to do this was by means of that juvenile but virile branch of the
service, the R.A.F.

That day machines were up in hundreds. The sky seemed stiff with
biplanes and monoplanes, all bearing the distinctive red, white, and
blue circles. Each machine had a definite object in view - a set task
to perform.

On the other hand the Boche was chary of going aloft. Not a single
black-cross machine crossed our lines. Even the famous Hun circuses
kept well away from the scene, since Fritz recognized the Allied
superiority in the air, and rarely, if ever, tried conclusions with
superior numbers. Therein lies the difference. British and French
airmen are sportsmen, ready to rush in whenever an opportunity
offers, and scorning to decline a combat against heavy odds; German
flyers are almost invariably cold-blooded, scientific men who
calculate their chances deliberately before venturing to meet their
aerial foes.

Keeping Kaye's 'bus in full view, for both airmen were bound for
practically the same destination, Derek flew all out, passing over
the German lines at less than two thousand feet. Not an Archibald
greeted his appearance. Fritz was getting tired of being strafed, and
was beginning to find that it paid better to lie doggo than to invite
a few bombs or a hail of machine-gun fire from passing aeroplanes.

Steering partly by compass, and correcting his course by observation
of prominent landmarks, Derek held on. Other 'buses passed and
repassed - bombers, chasers, and reconnaissance machines - some of the
pilots waving a greeting to the squat, businesslike EG 19.

It was a bright, sunny day, although here and there dark clouds
drifted slowly across the sun. The ground beneath was honeycombed
with shell-craters, and dotted with mounds that at one time, not so
very long ago, were prosperous villages. A canal, almost dry owing to
the destruction of the locks, cut the landscape in an unswerving
straight line, while a network of railways, most of them constructed
immediately after the big German offensive, spread like a gigantic
cobweb as far as the eye could see.

There was plenty of smoke, for it was now the Huns' turn to set fire
to their own ammunition-dumps, while at frequent intervals
long-distance naval guns would drop their gigantic projectiles, that
burst in a mighty cloud of black and orange-tinted smoke.

Viewed from the air, the scene of the mighty battle was tame.
Distance hid the hideous and ghastly details, while in the pure
atmosphere the indescribable but distinctive stenches from the field
of carnage were not perceptible. If distance did not exactly lend
enchantment to the view it certainly threw a kindly veil over most of
its shortcomings.

Half an hour passed. Kaye's 'bus was still in sight. If anything,
Derek was gaining on her, but in the air five minutes' start is a

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Online LibraryPercy F. (Percy Francis) WestermanWinning his Wings → online text (page 5 of 16)