Percy F. (Percy Francis) Westerman.

Winning his Wings online

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"Count von Peilfell," he said sternly, "I arrest you as a spy!"

Instantly the armed guard surrounded the prisoner.

"By Jove! This is great - absolutely!" he exclaimed, bursting into a
roar of laughter. "Count who? You silly juggins, it's you who'll have
to count, I guess! Quit fooling, and don't be a silly ass!"

The armed party showed signs of incredulous astonishment. Canterbury
looked at Derek as if he had been one of the victims of a practical
joke. Even Daventry began to wonder whether he, too, had made a
grievous error in placing the stranger under arrest. Then he nodded
to the Orderly Officer in a manner that showed confidence in his

"Carry on; remove the prisoner," ordered Lieutenant Canterbury.

The formalities before the Adjutant having been completed, the
accused, still protesting that it was all an idiotic mistake, was
removed to the guard-room. On being subjected to a strict
search - which resulted in the discovery of nothing of an
incriminating nature - the prisoner was informed that he would be
given facilities for proving his identity, and that no doubt some of
his brother officers would appear to establish his innocence.

Then, to the surprise of all present, the accused turned to Derek.

"You are very smart," he remarked in quite a casual way. "I am Count
von Peilfell. I should like to know how you spotted me?"

"Considering that we were flying side by side a short while ago,"
replied Derek, "and you were making faces at me the whole time
(perhaps you recollect the incident), I think I've good cause to
recognize you again."

"_Der Teufel!_" ejaculated the Count. "It was a thousand pities that
on that occasion my ammunition was expended."

"I am sorry to hear that," replied the British pilot enigmatically.


The Count's Ruse

Count Hertz von Peilfell, on finding himself alone under lock and
key, began to rave in genuine Teutonic style. He realized that he had
made a mess of things generally. His calculated plans had gone wrong
simply through a careless lack of caution, and now he was confronted
by the prospect of ending his career in front of a British

The Count was a man who did not hesitate to take certain risks, but
invariably he weighed up his chances. Cool and calculating, he was
not one who would embark upon a project for the mere love of

His record as an airman was well known to the R.A.F. The latter
admired his audacity, although they had no love for the means he
employed. He was typical of the brute force of Prussianism - his
mission as an airman was to destroy, ruthlessly and methodically,
and, when the odds were against him, his gaudily-painted biplane was
not to be seen aloft.

So when the time came that the Hun in the air was "having a sticky
time all round", Von Peilfell discreetly kept clear of the British
flying-men. He became an instructor, teaching German quirks to fly in
machines that, by nature of the shortage of certain raw material in
Hunland, could never hope to hold their own against the
magnificently-constructed and powerfully-engined craft bearing the
distinctive red, white, and blue concentric circles.

Then came rumours - rumours that were based upon solid facts - that the
British and French airmen were bent upon reprisals for wanton
night-bombing of undefended towns. Berlin was to be the supreme
objective of the numerous squadrons of huge bombing-'planes that were
being concentrated on the Western Front.

In desperation the German High Command called a conference, to which
the "star" airmen of the Imperial Air Service were summoned. The
return of the boomerang was a prospect that the apostles of kultur
not only failed to appreciate, but dreaded. At all costs the peril
must be staved off - either by counter-active measures or by
hypocritical appeals to neutrals, or, as a last resource, by applying
for an armistice.

It was Von Peilfell's chance. A popularity hunter, he knew that the
cessation of his aerial achievements was rapidly placing him on the
list of fallen idols. The pulse of the German populace - the
picture-post-card dealers - told him this. Where once a hundred
thousand photographs of the "Sky Hussars" were sold, now barely a
thousandth part of that number were disposed of.

To regain his vanished prestige, the Count suggested a scheme,
namely, that he should enter hostile territory disguised, and find
out where these mysterious battleplanes were concentrating, and also
note the details of their construction.

Von Peilfell had carefully counted the risk. He was a fluent speaker
of English. His accent was almost faultless. Several years spent in
England, including a period at a public school, had given him a
remarkable insight into the life of an Englishman, while in pre-war
days he had made the acquaintance of several British officers, with
the sole view of making good use of the knowledge thus obtained when
"Der Tag" dawned.

Having obtained official sanction, Von Peilfell proceeded to put his
plan into execution. A slightly-damaged EG biplane had fallen behind
the German lines, and its pilot had been captured. The machine was
repaired; the Count, dressed in the complete uniform of the captured
airman, set out just before daybreak to attempt his hazardous errand.

The German Head-quarters Staff knew exactly the aerodrome from whence
the captured EG machine had come. The Count, therefore, decided to
give that locality a wide berth, and, by assuming the rôle of a pilot
who had lost his way and had been compelled to descend owing to
engine failure, make his way to Le Tenetoir aerodrome, where, if his
information proved correct, he would find the giant aeroplanes making
ready for their flight to Berlin.

But when he alighted in view of the car carrying Lieutenant Derek
Daventry, R.A.F., he unwittingly committed two grave errors. He was
unaware that Derek, who was in the habit of piloting one of the
somewhat small number of EG's, immediately took a keen professional
interest in the apparently crippled machine. He was also ignorant of
the fact that Derek was his antagonist on the occasion when both
British and German pilots were unable to exchange a single shot; nor
did he know that when he raised his goggles and grinned at his rival,
that grimace had been indelibly printed upon Derek's memory. These
two instances led to the Count finding himself under lock and key in
a dug-out that served as a cell.

Like a caged bird Von Peilfell paced to and fro. He realized that his
case was a desperate one, and that his shrift would be short; a
drumhead court-martial at eight in the evening would be followed by
execution at dawn.

For nearly an hour he maintained his restless promenade, a prey to
dejection. The dug-out was barely twenty feet in length and seven in
breadth, so that there was little room for exercise. He tried to
formulate a plan of escape, but none seemed feasible. The place was
unlighted, save by the dim glimmer of a candle set in a stable
lantern. Ventilation was provided by means of a length of bent
stove-pipe passing between two of the massive girders supporting the
concreted and sand-bagged roof. The walls were heavily timbered, and,
upon examination, found to be backed by cement. A flight of steep and
narrow steps gave access to the open air, but at the top was a
massive oaken door. Incidentally, the Huns who had constructed the
dug-out, had removed the door of the Abbaye de Ste Marie, at Le
Tenetoir, to serve a similar purpose for this subterranean retreat.

The heat was stifling, for, outside, the autumnal air was damp and
humid. Von Peilfell began to feel oppressed by the weight of the
leather flying-coat. Mechanically he unbuckled the straps, and threw
the garment on the wooden bench that served as a seat and a bed. As
he did so his eye caught sight of a glint of scarlet. The lawful
owner of the flying-coat had been guilty of a breach of discipline by
investing in several red-silk handkerchiefs, whereas, by virtue of an
Air Ministry order, he should have provided himself with those of a
khaki colour.

The Count consulted his wristlet watch - a Nurnberg timepiece studded
with jewels. It was a gift from a number of his admirers when he was
at the zenith of his fame. He found himself wondering why his captors
had not taken it from him. The Germans invariably plundered their
captives. Perhaps these Englanders would not do so until he was dead.
He shivered at the thought. In another eight hours all would be over.

Then his thoughts went back to the square of scarlet silk. Even as he
gazed dully at the sheeny fabric an inspiration flashed across his
mind. He glanced at his watch once more. In another ten minutes or so
he would be visited either by the Sergeant or the Corporal of the

Grasping the handkerchief, he tore the silk into ragged strips. His
next step was to place the lantern on the edge of the plank-bed, so
that the strongest possible light fell on the floor. Then, holding
the torn handkerchief, he waited, every sense on the alert, ready to
act the moment he heard sounds of the visiting guard.

The remaining interval seemed interminable. Through the
securely-fastened door he could hear the howling of the wind. It
ought to have been a bright moonlight night, for, according to the
calendar, it was the time of full moon. He hoped that the shrieking,
moaning wind meant a cloud-laden sky and also a downpour of rain.

Selecting four of the strongest strips of silk, Von Peilfell knotted
them into a long loop. This he hid behind the bench, reflecting that
if his first plan went astray there was material at hand to enable
him to cheat the firing-squad. He found himself wondering which was
the least painful course - for he was a coward when it came to having
pain inflicted on himself - to face the muzzles of a dozen rifles, or
to end his own life by strangulation.

His reflections were interrupted by the tramp of heavily-shod feet.
The visiting N.C.O. was about to enter the dug-out.

Noiselessly the Count placed himself on the earthern floor, and laid
a bright-scarlet strip of silk round his throat. Then with
outstretched arms he waited, scarce daring to breathe.

A key grated in the door. The oak, swollen by the wet, refused at the
first attempt to yield to the Corporal's efforts. Von Peilfell heard
the man swear at the recalcitrant door. Then, with a groaning noise,
the door swung open on its rusty hinges. "Where the - - " ejaculated
the Corporal; then, turning to the two men who accompanied him, he
shouted excitedly:

"The Boche 'as cut his bloomin' throat! Run, you blokes, for all
you're worth, and fetch the doctor."

The men obeyed promptly, while the Corporal, setting his lantern on
the floor, approached to examine the prostrate form of the prisoner.
It was an act of mere curiosity on his part. The N.C.O., who less
than twelve months ago was a meek and mild grocer in a quiet country
town, had seen plenty of ghastly sights during the last six months.
The mere sight of a dead Hun hardly troubled him. Without a tremor he
bent over the supposed corpse.

Judging that by this time the two men were a hundred yards or more
away, Von Peilfell took prompt action. Before the Corporal realized
that there was plenty of energy in the "dead" man, the Count drew up
his knee, and, launching out with his right foot, caught the luckless
N.C.O. a knock-out blow on the solar plexus.

Without a sound the Corporal collapsed upon the floor; while the Hun,
waiting only to place his victim's cap upon his head, ran stealthily
up the steps leading to the entrance to the dug-out.

Even as he ran the Count, in a typically Prussian manner, regretted
that he was wearing rubber-soled flying-boots. Iron-shod footgear, he
reflected, would have been more effective when he hacked at the
luckless Corporal. In order to carry out a test effectually, it was
necessary to do it brutally. That is the Hun method of thoroughness.

Through the open door of the dug-out and into the darkness Von
Peilfell ran. Dazzled, even by the comparatively-feeble light within,
he could hardly see his hand before his face in the rain-laden, inky
blackness without. He paused, fearful lest he should blunder blindly
into some obstacle, and rubbed his eyes vigorously with his knuckles.
Then, pulling his recently-acquired cap well down over his bullet
head, he settled down to a rapid walk.

It had been part of his training always to take stock of his
surroundings, and the knowledge thus obtained when a few hours
previously he had walked into Le Tenetoir aerodrome was now of
inestimable service. Carefully avoiding the sentry of the gate, and
crawling through a barbed-wire fence, he gained the open, devastated
country, for the time being a free man again. But between him and the
German lines lay fifty miles of ground firmly held by the victorious


With the Tanks

For the second time within twelve hours Derek Daventry made a journey
by car to Le Tenetoir aerodrome. On the second occasion it was to
give evidence against the airman-spy Count Hertz von Peilfell; but
upon arriving at his destination he found that the court-martial had
been summoned to no purpose. The prisoner had escaped, and, although
his description had been circulated all along the Allied front and
over the back-areas, the Count was still at large.

Amongst the British airmen the general tone of expression was one of
sympathy - as far as sympathy could be extended to a Hun. Von Peilfell
was a crack airman; his rôle of spy was quite in accordance with
modern warfare, for both British and French air-craft had frequently
landed spies well behind the German lines. It was almost unanimously
felt that, if Count von Peilfell were to fall, a fitting end to him
would be in aerial combat. If he fell on territory occupied by the
Allies he would be buried with full military honours; if on soil
temporarily held by the Huns, then a British aeroplane would
doubtless circle over the funeral-party and drop a wreath bearing a
tribute to the crack Hun flyer's prowess.

But sterner work was on hand. It was a carefully-kept secret that at
dawn on the next day following the spy's escape a frontal attack was
to be delivered upon the Huns, still holding a strongly-fortified
section of the line - a front of twenty miles, protected on both
flanks by broad canals, and defended by mazes of trenches and
barbed-wire entanglements.

Once this section were pierced, the whole German line would be in
danger. Army corps would be practically surrounded and forced to
surrender, while a broad wedge would be driven between the Huns in
Flanders and those who were stoutly resisting the Franco-American
troops in the neighbourhood of Metz.

An infantry attack would be too costly. Heavy artillery bombardment
would give the Boches an inkling of what was about to develop. On
this account the British guns had of late remained comparatively
inactive, in order to lull Fritz into a state of false security.

So the assault was to be delivered by tanks, supported by relatively
small detachments of infantry, while the R.A. F. were ordered to
co-operate to their utmost capacity. Every available machine fit for
offensive work was to be employed in the operations, the idea being
not only to paralyse the Huns in the firing-line, but to prevent
reinforcements and supplies reaching them. In brief, the whole of a
certain German sector was to be wiped out.

At five in the morning, or two hours before dawn, the tanks were to
start upon their grim errand. Every square foot of ground occupied by
the enemy in the coveted sector had been photographed and
re-photographed by daring airmen. The work had been efficiently
performed, but at a cost, as the long R.A.F. casualty list testified.
It was not in the heat of combat that these daring aerial
photographers had been shot down, but in the cold, methodical pursuit
of an art that the demands of modern warfare had relentlessly

With an accurate knowledge of the nature of the terrain the task of
the tanks had been rendered fairly straightforward. There were, of
course, hidden pitfalls which the almost all-seeing lens of the
camera failed to detect: cleverly-camouflaged gun-emplacements and
nests of machine-guns that were not shown on the finished
photograph-prints; but even here the work of the airman was evident.
Cryptic markings on the prints gave the staff officers certain
clues - an anti-aircraft battery here; a booby-trap there, an
observation-post in that place. The science of detecting screened
pitfalls was almost as perfect as the skilful art of camouflage.

There were tanks and tanks. The ground trembled under the pulsations
of their powerful engines. Whippets, male tanks, female tanks,
"Rolls" tanks capable of doing twenty miles an hour with their
250-h.p. engines; tanks mounting six hundred quick-firers, tanks
bristling with machine-guns - a veritable armada of land-ships moving
forward in what appeared to be a solid, compact mass.

They moved slowly at first, each section led by an officer on foot
towards the as yet invisible German lines. There had been a spell of
quietude on this part of the front of late. The Huns considered their
defensive works so perfect that a frontal attack would be impossible,
and, being let severely alone, they had refrained from their usual
lavish display of star-shells.

Grunting, groaning, coughing; ejecting vile, sulphurous fumes from
their noisy exhausts, the steel-clad mastodons ambled onwards until
Fritz, suddenly aware that danger was at hand, opened a furious fire
that threw a dancing, lurid glare upon the crater-pitted plain over
which the hordes of tanks surged like a sullen ground-swell beating
upon a flat shore. Vivid red and white rockets - Fritz's S.O.S.
signals - soared skywards, an appeal by the field-grey infantry for
support from their heavy artillery.

It was at this juncture that Derek Daventry, one of the host of
aerial fighters, found himself flying at a few hundred feet above the
Boche lines.

In the reflected glare of the rifle- and machine-gun fire he could
discern the array of tanks advancing. The slow-moving tanks were in
the van, their _raison d'être_ to flatten down the hostile wire and
pave a way for the whippets and "twenty-milers" of the land-fleet.
Machine-gun bullets were rattling against their armoured snouts,
while here and there bursts of vivid-red flame gave token that the
anti-tank bullets - steel-cored and copper-encased missiles - had put
more than one tank out of action.

All this Derek took in as the result of a few seconds' flight. Then,
over the hostile front, his work began. In darkness, save for the
intermittent flashes of the guns, the British 'planes sped to and
fro. Unavoidable collisions brought friends crashing to earth;
oft-times the machines were flying blindly through clouds of black,
nauseating smoke. Rocking, side-slipping, bumping, and banking, the
aerial-fleet continued its work in hammering with the land-armada of
tanks. Machine-gunning, bombing, and dropping poison-gas cylinders,
the airmen hovered remorselessly over the now-demoralized Boches,
while the tanks, surging onwards, beat down acres of barbed-wire and
flattened out whole sectors of trenches.

Derek had just fired his ninth tray of ammunition when he felt the
joy-stick give. A fragment of shell had severed the "nerve-centre" of
the biplane, and the 'bus was now practically out of control. A touch
upon the rudder-bar turned EG 19 in the direction of "home", but
almost immediately the engine "konked". In the darkness it was
impossible to see what had happened, but another fragment of shell
had lodged fairly in the magneto.

EG 19 had to come down. How she came down depended upon sheer luck,
since the skill and nerve of the pilot were useless to avoid the
threatened calamity.

Derek steeled himself to meet the tremendous crash, but the shock
never came. By one of those eccentricities of movement that
aerial-craft occasionally perform, the biplane flattened out within
twenty feet of the ground, dipped her nose, and then pancaked upon
the shelving side of a large shell-crater. Without a scratch the
pilot scrambled out of the fuselage and gained the ground.

He promptly threw himself at full length in the stiff mud that lay in
the bottom of the crater, and listened to the appalling racket
overhead. Shells of light calibre were screeching and bursting all
around, their uproar punctuated by the heavier concussion of
aerial-bombs. A crescendo of machine-gun fire added to the deafening
roar, while the hail of bullets directed upon the imperturbable tanks
sounded like a continuous tattoo.

Almost on the lip of the crater a large tank had come to a
standstill. Two jagged holes in her fantastically-painted sides
showed that a Hun anti-tank gun had scored direct hits, but whether
these had put the mobile fort out of action Derek was unable to

While debating whether it would be safer to take cover under the lee
of the tank or to remain in the doubtful security of a wide
shell-crater, Daventry saw the door in the wake of the tank's sponson
thrown open, and a couple of mechanics crawl through, followed by a
waft of brownish smoke.

At first sight the flying-officer imagined that the men were the sole
survivors of the land-ship's crew, but he was mistaken. It was a case
of engine failure that had brought the tank to a halt, and since the
only means of "cranking-up" was performed from without, the mechanics
were risking death in the open in a laudable effort to restart the

Even as the men strained frantically at the handle a shell burst
within five yards of the tank. One of the mechanics, caught by the
direct blast of the explosion, was wiped out of existence; the other,
by one of those inexplicable freaks of fortune, escaped with only a
slight shock. Although only a few inches from his luckless comrade he
was evidently in the so-called safety-zone of explosion. Slightly
dazed, and apparently oblivious of the fact that he had missed death
by inches, he sweated at the cranking-handle in a vain attempt to
overcome the compression.

Acting purely upon impulse, and not taking into account the risk,
Derek scrambled up the loose mound of earth, against which bullets
were burying themselves with a succession of dull thuds. Then across
the few yards of open ground he ran, and threw himself at the

The mechanic took no notice of the new arrival. His whole mind was
set upon his task. Even had Derek been a Boche it is doubtful whether
the man would have given him a thought.

"Hold out there, mate!" shouted the mechanic, without raising his
head. Derek grasped the cranking-handle. The other, placing his foot
upon the metal, brought his whole weight down. Over swung the crank,
and with a thunderous roar the powerful motor fired - and continued to
do so. Through the eddying fumes Daventry could discern the mechanic,
with hunched shoulders, stumbling towards the still open door.

"This is a stunt that will suit me," exclaimed the young officer. "A
change is as good as a rest." The next thing he remembered was
barking his shins on the sharp, metallic edge of the threshold. Then,
coughing and spluttering in the petrol-laden fumes, he heard the door
clang behind him.

The interior of a tank was not strange to Derek. Several times
previously he had gone for joy-rides in the land-ships, but now he
was experiencing a novel sensation, that of being cooped up in a
mobile armoured fort in action.

There was very little room to move about. Most of the interior was
occupied by the powerful motors and fuel-tanks, six-pounder guns
mounted _en barbette_, and machine-guns, to say nothing of fifteen
men of the original crew. The tank was in reality a moving magazine,
for, in addition to the large quantity of petrol and ammunition, she
carried a stock of phosphorous-bombs, smoke-bombs, and gun-cotton.
The latter explosive was for use in the event of the tank becoming
disabled and in danger of falling into the hands of the enemy, and it
was the duty of the last surviving member of the crew to blow the
land-ship to bits should there be a danger of capture.

Derek, not content to be a mere passenger, looked around for
something to do. The commander of the tank was too busy to notice the
new arrival. His sole attention was directed towards the enemy
through the periscope sights in the roof of the mastodon.

An unattended machine-gun attracted Derek's notice. A brief
examination showed that the mechanism was intact. There was

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Online LibraryPercy F. (Percy Francis) WestermanWinning his Wings → online text (page 7 of 16)