Percy F. (Percy Francis) Westerman.

Winning his Wings online

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little tractability in its nature.

"She's bound to crash," thought Derek. "Hope to goodness I can get
clear of Fritz's line."

In spite of imminent peril, and the possibility of a tremendous
crash, the young pilot's nerve did not desert him. Bullets were
flying past in showers of metal, for nothing pleases the Hun better
than to riddle a tricolour-circled machine that is falling helplessly
to earth.

The actual fall was of short duration, although to Derek it seemed of
interminable length. He mentally marked the spot where the ill-fated
machine would crash - a shell-pitted piece of ground about one hundred
and twenty yards from the first-line German trench.

"Now for it!" muttered Derek, as the ground appeared to rise to greet
the disabled mechanical bird. "What an unholy mess of things there'll

Relaxing his hold of the now useless joy-stick, and unfastening his
quick-release belt, Derek raised both hands above his head, grasped
and bore down the muzzle of his after machine-gun. Then, sliding
under the decking of the fuselage, he waited.

With a thud that shook every bone and muscle of his body, and
well-nigh wrenched his arms from their sockets, the biplane struck
the ground obliquely and nose first. The under-carriage splintered
into matchwood, while both tyres burst with reports like that of a
six-pounder gun. Then, rearing until the damaged tail stood
completely on end, the distorted fuselage poised in the air like a
grotesque obelisk, while the pilot, shaken and bruised, but otherwise
unhurt, scrambled as quickly as he could from the wreckage and
literally rolled into a shell-hole.

For some considerable time Derek lay motionless, listening to the
rattle of musketry and machine-gun fire, and the crackling of his
burning 'bus, until the increasing heat compelled him to make for
another crater.

Somewhat to his surprise, he found that he could move; he could even
have walked, but for the fact that it was highly desirable to keep
close to Mother Earth. So close together were the craters that at one
place their lips interlocked and formed a shallow gap. Through this
passage Derek began to make his way, noiselessly and stealthily.

If he had hoped to escape detection by the alert and vengeful Huns,
he was vastly mistaken. Already streams of bullets from half a dozen
machine-guns were playing upon the calcined earth that formed the
rims of the craters, while bombs were being lobbed into the burning
debris of the crashed biplane on the off-chance of "doing in" the
pilot should he have escaped being battered to death by the fall.

Even as he crawled a hot searing pain swept across his forehead.
Involuntarily he clapped one hand to his eye. His fingers were wet
with a warm fluid. It was his blood welling from a wound. A
machine-gun bullet had inflicted a clean gash on the lower part of
his forehead, completely cutting away the left eyebrow. It was a mere
scratch, but very painful, the worst result being the flow of blood
that, running into his eyes, temporarily blinded him.

It was some moments before Derek realized the comparatively slight
nature of his wound. Many a man has been hit in action, and regarded
his wound as slight when he has actually been hit in a vital spot.
Numerous instances have been recorded of a mortally-wounded man
"carrying on" in ignorance of the fact that in a very few moments his
name will have to be added to the list of "killed in action". On the
other hand, there have been cases of men but slightly hit, writhing
and squealing and moaning in the genuine belief that their "number is

Finding himself hit, Derek lay motionless, his face buried in the
soft earth. Presently the hot stabbing pain diminished. A sense of
numbness that was almost soothing, compared with the searing throb of
the bullet-wound, began to assert itself. Even the cold ground seemed
like a downy pillow.

The while Fritz in the nearmost trench was indefatigable in his
efforts to complete the strafing of the crashed pilot. Thousands of
pounds of machine-gun ammunition were practically thrown away in
sweeping the dun-brown ridge of earth that encircled Derek's place of
concealment. Bombs, too, were continually being thrown, only to
explode harmlessly in the crumbling, carbonized soil, for beyond
sundry and various showers of dirt, the effect of these missiles was

A quarter of an hour elapsed. Then Derek bestirred himself. It was
not the thought that he was lying in a somewhat exposed position, and
that a safer retreat in the bottom of the second crater was within a
few yards, that urged him to move. It was the sudden realization that
every second he was lying with an open wound in contact with the
earth he was running the greatest possible risk of septic poisoning
from the highly impure soil. He had known several cases where men
with chilblains had knocked the open sores against the side of a
trench, and the momentary contact with the septic soil had been
sufficient to cause acute blood-poisoning, resulting, in several
instances, in loss of a limb. On the other hand, the extreme velocity
of a bullet generates heat to such a degree that the missile is
sterilized before it hits a man, and, provided that no vital spot is
touched, the chances of complications arising from a bullet-wound are
very slight. With shell-wounds there is a difference. Minute
particles of German shells frequently cause slight wounds that,
unless carefully treated, become septic.

Derek freely admitted to himself that he "had the wind up" over the
possibilities of tetanus. Even as he resumed his tedious crawl he
incautiously showed the top of his head above the frail cover
afforded by the ridge. The Huns, quick to perceive something in
motion, swept the spot with their machine-guns. As a result Daventry
ducked, but not before there were three or four bullet-rents in his
leather flying-cap, while his triplex goggles, which he had pushed
back just before he had been hit, were cut away by a piece of metal.

Into the second crater he dropped, his legs buried above the knees of
his fleece-lined flying-boots in the soft soil. Here he was
relatively safe. He sat up and took stock of his surroundings: a
circular sloping wall of debris descending to a pool of stagnant
water eleven feet below the ordinary ground level. Here and there
were coils of rusty barbed wire and the remains of calcined posts,
while a Hun's "Dolly Varden" tin hat, sporting a bullet-hole front
and back, and a battered dixie, alone served to break the monotony of
the limited expanse of landscape.

Derek's wound was still bleeding freely. He made no attempt to
staunch the flow, knowing that there was a chance of the cut
cleansing itself. His old 'bus had practically burnt itself out. The
fierce flames were succeeded by a thick, oily smoke that drifted in
clouds across the crater and eddied down the slope, as if reluctant
to soar and dissolve in the comparatively pure air above. It was with
the greatest difficulty that the pilot managed to refrain from
coughing. Temporarily the musketry-fire had ceased and comparative
silence reigned. Any noise coming from the crater would inevitably
betray the presence of a yet-living man to the vigilant Huns. Yet, on
the other hand, the smoke was of service. It acted as a screen and
prevented the Germans seeing their foes; and behind this pall of
smoke fresh British troops were massing for another attack, while the
methods adopted for bridging the canal for the passage of the tanks
were being carried out at high pressure.

Then ensued a tedious period of inactivity. Both British and German
guns were firing desultorily, the former putting over heavy stuff,
while the Huns contented themselves by "watering" the back-areas with
high-velocity shells of medium calibre. Overhead British aeroplanes
passed and repassed - big bombing-machines, intent on their ceaseless
task of harrying Fritz's lines of communication.

The crashed pilot was now almost unmolested. The tic-tac of the
German machine-guns had ceased, but, with their customary cunning,
the Huns would, after a period of inactivity, suddenly send over a
number of bombs. As long as they had the faintest suspicion that
somebody was alive in the crater they meant to continue the strafing.
A remorseless resentment towards the British airman who had so
effectually machine-gunned their trenches urged them to complete
their task of wiping out the cause of their discomfiture. Just as
likely as not, the moment darkness set in Fritz would dispatch a
party to search thoroughly the scene of the biplane's crash.
Fervently Derek hoped that the tanks would be in action before night

The misty sun sank lower and lower in the western sky. Steadily and
stealthily the shadow of the lip of the crater rose higher and higher
upon the opposite slope. Evening mists were rising from the dank,
unwholesome soil. Then, as the sun set, away to the north-east, and
again to the south-west, a steady rumble, and the glare of numerous
searchlights and star-shells, betokened considerable activity; while
behind the German lines the sky glowered in the light of dozens of
burning ammunition-dumps. Notwithstanding the determined resistance
offered in this sector of the line, the Germans were preparing for a
further retreat and abandonment of ground implacably held by them for
more than four long years.

Listening intently, Derek heard slight, but unmistakable sounds of
movement in the Hun trenches. Keenly alive to his chances of being
carried off as a prisoner by a raiding-party, the pilot began to
climb on hands and knees up the slippery, sliding soil of the crater
in the direction of the British lines. It was a dangerous business,
for, in the open, he would be exposed to the fire from friend and
foe, but that was preferable to being hauled off to a German prison

Literally worming his way, Derek slid over the top of the crater and
gained the comparatively level ground beyond. Here he lay, inert and
silent, his ears strained to catch the faintest sound. He was not
mistaken. Even as he was crawling from his place of concealment a
number of Huns were, with equal caution, descending into the crater
to search for a possible prisoner.

"I'll have a say in the matter," thought Derek, as he loosened his
automatic-pistol in its holster. "If they wander round this way I'll
give them a few rounds and then run for it. There'll be a risk of
being strafed by our own people, but that's preferable to being done
in by a Boche."

Fortunately the necessity of having to use his pistol did not arise,
for the Huns, having made a survey of the wreckage of the EG machine
and the interior of the two craters, were evidently satisfied. No
doubt they were "jumpy", groping about in the darkness, for after a
few minutes they cleared off as silently as they came.

Waiting for another quarter of an hour Derek resumed his way on all
fours towards the British trenches. It was a tedious journey, for
wherever, as frequently happened, a star-shell lit up the ground he
had to remain immobile, simulating one of the many corpses that
littered the ground. The slightest movement would have brought down a
hail of machine-gun bullets and possibly a few unpleasantly-accurate
rifle-shots from the alert Tommies, and, having gone thus far, Derek
was becoming more and more anxious not to receive these attentions.

At length he reached a shell-hole within ten yards of the
hastily-improvised parapet of sand-bags. Here he lay listening to the
men conversing in low tones. Much of their language was lurid, but
nevertheless it was like music to hear English voices again after
hours of mental and bodily tension.

He whistled softly. Then a voice hissed out a challenge.

"It's all right," replied Derek. "I'm one of the R.A.F. Can I make a
dash for it?"

A consultation between several of the men followed, then a voice

"In you come. Take your chance; but Heaven help you if you try any
monkey-tricks. We'll riddle you."

The pilot waited till the blinding glare of a star-shell gave place
to opaque darkness. Then, judging his direction, he made his way to
the line of sandbags and crawled over the top.

Into the trench he rolled, to find himself confronted by the dull
gleam of a bayonet.

"Looks all right, Sergeant," reported one of the men.

"Maybe," replied a non-com. "At anyrate take him along to the

The subaltern was frankly sympathetic.

"You've had a rotten time, old man," he observed. "We'll send you
back as soon as poss. There'll be a tender waiting on the other side
of the canal, and you'll be in the dressing-station in half a jiffy.
Risky work, yours."

"I wouldn't change jobs," replied Derek, striving to raise a smile,
but disastrously. It was a difficult matter to use his facial muscles
when an eyebrow was missing. "Yours is a sticky business, and, by
Jove! a fellow can't help admiring the infantry. They've all the hard
work to do."

"Collar-work, perhaps," agreed the Platoon-Commander. "But the way
you fellows do stunts over Jerry's lines gives me the creeps."

"Safe enough," protested Derek, "except, of course, when Fritz gets
one in with his Archibalds. I'm going in for a soft job after the

"What's that?" enquired the infantry officer.

"Flying," replied the R.A.F. officer. "You mark my words, it'll be
one of the safest things going. I think I'll sign on as pilot to a
fat city alderman. Take him every day from Hyde Park to the Mansion
House in a 240-h.p. Scout. Jolly sight healthier than skidding all
over the shop in a car."

"Glad you think so," rejoined the subaltern. "Well, here you are.
This Corporal will guide you past our reserve trenches. Good luck!"

Without mishap Derek followed the Corporal through the maze of
hostile-constructed trenches and across the canal by means of a
barrier of sandbags covered with "corduroyed" timber. In a sunken
lane were several A.S.C. motor-vehicles which had just brought up the

"Here you are, sir!" exclaimed the Corporal. "This tender's just

"Not so fast, mate," protested the driver, who was sweating profusely
in his efforts to start the engine. "She's a fair mule. Come and bear
a hand."

Even as the obliging Corporal grasped the cranking-handle a shell
burst within twenty yards of the stationary motor-vehicle. Derek
ducked involuntarily as he felt the blast of the explosion and the
screech of the flying fragments. He was untouched, but the luckless
Corporal was lying motionless on the ground, while the driver of the
tender was swearing softly as he fumbled for his first-aid dressing.

"I've copped it, sir," he reported. "Got it somewhere in the thigh.
It's a Blighty for me, I reckon."

He paused, then, producing a knife, began to cut away his clothing
with the deftness acquired by experimenting on his comrades.

"Now if I could get hold of a mate to start her up," he continued
ruminatingly, "I'd soon drive the pair o' us to the

"I'll have a shot at it," volunteered Derek, and grasping the handle
he swung it vigorously.

The next instant he was nursing a broken arm.


Turned Down

"Always said she was a mule, sir," exclaimed the driver. "Either she
won't fire or else she back-fires when you don't expect it. Did you
cop it, sir?"

Derek, with the jagged ends of a compound fractured bone threatening
to push through the skin, was compelled to admit that he had.

Apart from the acute pain, it was galling to realize that, after
coming through a beautiful crash and spending the best part of the
day and night under machine-gun fire in a shell-hole with nothing
worse than a slight flesh-wound in the forehead, it was his very hard
luck to be crocked up by a mere back-fire, especially as he had been
careless enough to grasp the handle in the wrong way.

"Rotten night's work," grumbled the driver, as he liberally dosed his
wound with iodine. "Where's that there Corporal, sir? Good Lord, he's
copped it, too!"

He bent over the unfortunate N.C.O.

"Dead as mutton," he announced nonchalantly. There was no surprise in
his tone. Three years of living cheek by jowl with sudden death in
all sorts of terrible forms had blunted his feelings. "Poor bloke!
And it might have been a Blighty for him, too - same as me. 'Ere,

A man bending under the weight of a coil of wire was slouching past.
At the hail he threw his burden down, glad of the opportunity to ease
his aching shoulders.

"What's up?" he asked.

The driver explained.

"Fat lot you knows about an engine," remarked the new-corner. "That's
why they put you in the M.T. And I've been driving motor-lorries all
over Yorkshire and Lancashire these ten years. There's not a blinking
motor that I can't master, and yet they shove me in the bloomin',
foot-slogging infantry. Chronic, I calls it."

"Don't want to hear about your qualifications," broke in the driver
with acerbity. "What I want is a practical demonstration."

Then realizing that it was hardly the style to adopt when a favour
was required he added:

"'Course it was rough luck on you, mate; but I can't help it, can I?
Now be a sport and get the old mule a-going, and I think I can find a
whole packet of fags in my greatcoat pocket. Crikey! That was a near
'un," he ejaculated, as a shell burst about a hundred yards away and
slightly to the left of the road. "Jerry's putting a lot of stuff
over tonight."

"Sure you've got the fags?" enquired the newcomer cautiously. The
prospect of getting hold of a packet of cigarettes interested him far
more than did the Boche shells. Like the poor, German shells were
always present; cigarettes were not.

"Feel in my pockets," said the driver. "They're yours as soon as you
get the blessed engine to fire."

The man was about to do so when in the reflected glare of a
star-shell he caught sight of the driver's hastily-applied bandage.

"By gum, you've been hit, lad!" he exclaimed. "Why didn't you say so,
instead of offering me fags? Reckon as you'll want 'em more'n me, so
here goes."

A deft manipulation of throttle and spark, a short rapid jerk of the
hitherto refractory cranking-handle, and the engine began throbbing
with renewed activity.

Before the driver could hand over the promised guerdon his benefactor
settled matters by lifting him easily and gently into the seat.
Derek, feeling sick and giddy with the pain of his broken arm, took
his seat beside the driver, while the Tommy, slinging his bundle
across his shoulders, ambled off into the darkness.

To Derek the journey was a nightmare. Racked with pain, hungry,
thirsty, and dead tired, he was hardly conscious of the jolting,
swaying vehicle, of the crump of heavy shells that were constantly
searching the lines of communication, of the numerous halts owing to
the congestion of traffic. Whether it was five miles, or fifty, he
had not the remotest idea. All he did was to wedge the shoulder of
his unwounded arm into the angle formed by the tilt and the front of
the tender, and trust that he would not be flung from his seat by the
terrific bumps as the battle-scarred vehicle literally bounded over
the uneven road.

He was practically unconscious when deft arms assisted him from the
car. He could hear voices sounding dim and far-away. Then he was
faintly aware that he was in an underground retreat of vast size that
smelt of iodine and ether; a lot of - to him - unnecessary
man-handling, a struggle for breath, and then merciful oblivion.

Upon recovering consciousness Derek found himself at a base hospital.
His arm had been set in splints, while his forehead was swathed in
surgical bandages. It was the second stage of his journey to Blighty.

Three days later he was placed on board a hospital ship at Boulogne.
His arm was making very satisfactory progress, and he was able to
walk up the gangway unassisted; but, shortly after arriving on the
other side, he made his first acquaintance with hospital red tape.

A short train journey brought him to Minterton Station, the nearest
place by rail to Tollerby Military Hospital.

Greatly to Derek's surprise he found a nurse, several orderlies, and
an ambulance waiting for him.

"But I can walk quite all right," protested the patient.

"No doubt," was the reply, "but you must go in the ambulance; it's

Nor did "routine" end there, for on arriving at the hospital Daventry
was peremptorily ordered to go to bed at five in the evening.

"It's routine," explained the nurse. "The doctor will have to take
your temperature."

"Surely he can do that without sending me to bed," said Derek

The nurse shrugged her shoulders.

"I didn't frame the regulations," she replied. "I'm afraid there's no
help for it; to bed you must go."

Followed a not altogether congenial fortnight. The compound fracture
healed rapidly; no complications ensued; yet Derek had to exist under
restraint, and subjected to the too rigorous rules and regulations of
the hospital.

There were eleven other wounded officers in the ward, all bored stiff
with things in general, and the hospital in particular. The only
diversion, and one that they thoroughly enjoyed, was listening to the
lurid and incoherent remarks of their fellow patients whenever they
were "coming to" after an operation. It was one of those few
occasions when a patient could "speak his mind", even though he were
in a semi-conscious state, and invariably the hospital staff came in
for a considerable amount of "strafing", to the huge delight of the
rest of the ward.

Then came Derek's "Medical Board". He rather welcomed the
examination, fully convinced that he would be granted sick leave, and
then be ordered to rejoin his squadron. The result was almost
equivalent to a knock-out blow between the eyes.

The medicos had no fault to find with the young pilot's arm, but they
persisted in harping upon subjects apparently irrelevant to the case,
until Derek began to wonder what on earth they were trying to

He found out soon afterwards. His medical history sheet was endorsed
"Unfit for flying". Absolutely unaware of the fact, his strenuous
flights on the Western Front had resulted in an insidious nervous
attack. Although he felt perfectly fit for aerial work, the doctors
knew better. Henceforth he was no longer free to soar aloft; the
exhilaration of handling the joy-stick of a 'bus was no longer his.

"Won't I be able to fly again?" he asked one of the doctors.

"Possibly you may get another pair of wings some day," replied the
R.A.M.C. officer grimly.

"Then I suppose I'm booked for the infantry," continued Derek.
"Anyway, that's better than nothing. I want to have a look-in at the

"Not in your present category, my young fire-eater!" replied the
doctor. "Aren't there any ground jobs going in the R.A.F.: equipment
officer, for example?"

Derek was not enthusiastic. Like Gallio, he cared for none of these

"What you want," continued the doctor, "is a job afloat. Nothing like
it for fellows off colour after a crash. Do you know anything about
the sea?"

"I've knocked about in small yachts," replied Derek. "Nothing in the
deep-sea line, unfortunately."

"There are hundreds of amateur yachtsmen doing jolly good work in the
R.N.V.R., as you know. 'Harry Tate's Navy' they used to call them;
but, by Jove, the way those fellows played the game at Zeebrugge was
an eye-opener! I suppose you know that the R.A.F. is starting a new
stunt - a Marine branch?"

"Haven't heard yet," replied Derek. "It sounds promising."

"I've a young brother in it," said the doctor. "If you like, I'll
write and get particulars. The show's only been running a month, I
believe. Sableridge is the name of the place; it's somewhere on the
south coast."

Directly Derek received particulars he wrote off to the Air Ministry,
stating his qualifications and requesting to be transferred to the
Marine section, R.A.F. Promptly came a reply acknowledging his
communication, and requesting him to call at Room Number So-and-so at
the palatial hotel in use as the head-quarters of the R.A.F.

Without any preliminaries, Derek was subjected to a brief yet
searching examination. What did he know about navigation? Could he
box a compass, set a course, read a chart, understand the rule of the
road and the use of a lead-line? Could he semaphore and Morse? Could
he handle a motorboat in a roughish sea?

"Very well," concluded his examiner. "Go home, and if you don't hear
from me in a week's time, come up again."

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Online LibraryPercy F. (Percy Francis) WestermanWinning his Wings → online text (page 9 of 16)