Jeremy’s War: Chapter 6 “No huns today “
Posted on March 5, 2008
Jeremy slept badly, and awoke to the sound of aircraft taking off. He peered out the window in time to see four SE5’s climb up into the sky. No one had called him, and he wondered what to do. He was in low spirits by the time he entered the mess for breakfast. Lots of the men seemed to be already there, and he detected secret amusement.
Nobody spoke to him, which made matters worse.
He felt absurdly self conscious and uncomfortable.
When most of the others had finished breakfast, and trooped out, a shadow fell over him. He looked up,to see a lanky human being with a stern face standing over him. The airman introduced himself as Dave Owen, and sat down beside Jeremy.
“I’m your flight leader “, he announced grimly.
Jeremy nodded, feeling unhappy.
“We’ll fly a patrol this afternoon, with Baines as third man. Stay on my right, do as I do, and stay close. If it looks like a scrap, I’ll tell you to beetle off home. I’ll signal like this… ”
Owen jabbed a pointed forefinger at Jeremy, and then motioned with his thumb over his right shoulder.
“Get it? ” Jeremy nodded again.
There was a pause, and Owen studied his charge. Jeremy fidgeted uncomfortably.
“How many hours have you got? “, Owen asked at last.
“How many on SE5’s? ”
“Done any target practice? ”
“Very little “.
Owen said nothing. Jeremy plucked up courage, and inquired what had been going on the night before.
Owen looked at him quizzically. “Just a bit of fun. ”
Jeremy asked: “Were you there? ”
Owen took his time answering, and eventually said:
“Yes. Why? ”
Jeremy retreated, muttering: “Oh, nothing. ”
Owen suddenly seemed amused. “You left in a hurry… ”
Jeremy, nonplussed, wished he had left the subject alone.
Owen leaned forward, the amusement gone, the serious expression returned.
“Let me guess, Armstrong. You were just fresh from reporting to McAllister, right? ”
“Well, yes… ”
“And the great Captain gave you a sterling speech on how he expects his officers to behave? ”
“Well…yes, as a matter of fact. ”
Owen looked sardonic. He mimicked McAllister’s accent and mannerisms, including wielding an imaginary cigarette holder. “I like my airmen to be smart, and conduct themselves as gentlemen. Too much riffraff these days in the services… ” He stopped and looked questioningly at Jeremy, who found himself nodding in surprised agreement.
“Yes… he did say something of the sort. ”
Owen laughed dryly, without much humor. Then he leaned forward, until his face was close to Jeremy’s. He spoke slowly, evenly, with barely concealed bitterness.
“Don’t believe the flannel. McAllister is yellow. He was a good flier once. Clobbered six Germans. But that was a long time ago. All he cares about now is his school cricket trophies, and the fastest way of getting promoted to Colonel, so he never risks his neck in battle again. He is a cynical manipulator, who flies as little as he can, as far from the lines as he can… You get the drift? ”
There was a silence, during which Jeremy tried to marshal his thoughts. He managed one syllable:
Then he lapsed into silence.
Owen became brisk.
“Things are tough at the moment, Jeremy. Everybody’s nerves are frayed. The fliers who fight the war find themselves opposed to the politicians who pretend. We lost another man yesterday. Caldshot. Good bloke. Everybody liked him. The party was… a way of getting over him. The war must go on, you know. McAllister and his ilk say so… Can’t let a little thing like death stop the show, can we? ”
Owen had ended on a distinct note of bitterness.
Jeremy shuffled uncomfortably. He decided to change the subject.
“Where are we going on patrol? ”
An aircraft started up outside. The engine ran roughly for a few seconds, and then picked up strongly.
A strange chill swept through the mess. Jeremy shivered. Owen looked out the window. He turned to Jeremy, thoughtfully, and repeated the question:
“Where are we going…? ”
A dry laugh.
“I wish I knew! ”
He stood up, clapped Jeremy on the back, and strode out.
* * *
That afternoon, Jeremy walked out to his aircraft with wooden legs. He felt clumsy and self conscious. Although he felt everybody was observing him, there was in fact little evidence of it. He tried to convince himself they were all too busy to take time off to look at him, but still he felt in a trance. His fingers fumbled with the harness, his breathing was far too fast and shallow, and the voice that shouted ‘contact!’ belonged to somebody else. It sounded croaky, high pitched, and terrified.
For a brief second he was ashamed to realize he hoped the engine wouldn’t start. The Hispano-Suiza however had other ideas, and caught immediately, with exhaust smoke swirling back and stinging his nostrils. He noticed Owen taxying forward, and waved the chocks away.
The three aircraft swung around into the stiff breeze, and Owen and Baines immediately surged forwards, their tails lifting. Jeremy found his throttle arm turned to lead, and for a brief instant the enormity of what was happening quite overwhelmed him. He swallowed hard, gritted his teeth, slammed the throttle open with unnecessary venom, and took off on his first patrol…
* * *
It was cold at twelve thousand feet, and he shivered uncontrollably. But the view was breathtaking. They were heading east. He could see mountains in the distance to the south, and the battle front below stood out clearly. He poured over the side of his cockpit, and studied the criss cross of lines. Roads, fields and a twisting river stood out clearly, a long, long way down. To the west, over Germany, dark clouds stood out against the horizon. The flight had been uneventful, and Jeremy found he had relaxed considerably. He was enjoying himself to a degree, despite the awareness of the dangers of enemy aircraft. He kept a close watch on Owen, but so far had found it easy enough to maintain a loose formation.
The air was quite smooth, and very small adjustments of throttle and controls were all that was required to keep in position. Even with his limited experience, he felt he was performing reasonably well within the formation, and he decided to try and increase his lookout. He searched the sky around them, or tried to, and realized how big a task it actually was. He had heard much talk of the ‘hun in the sun’, and tried hard to squint into the light, but it brought tears to his eyes. Still, he knew the importance, and persevered in trying to keep as sharp a lookout as possible.
After twenty minutes of patrolling up and down the lines, the formation swung back onto a westerly heading, and Owen started a gentle descent.
Fifteen minutes later, they orbited the airfield, and he prepared to land. The overwhelming emotion he felt was relief. His first patrol had almost been an anti-climax. A sense of deliverance flooded through him. He lined up on final approach behind Owen and Baines, and the thought crossed his mind that he had never landed behind two other aircraft before. He studied the airfield looming larger, and wondered if he should break off, and let the others land first. The field however was huge, and seemed wide enough to permit fifty aircraft to land wing tip to wing tip. Besides, it seemed excessively cautious to break off, and he wanted to talk to Owen and Baines. He had a good view of them, and he decided to continue. As they came over the hedge, he carefully spaced himself away from Owen’s SE5. Tension had crept in, and he realized
with a shock that his mouth was dry. Something at the back of his mind told him he should have broken off the approach, but it was too late now. Never mind, they were down through twenty feet.
With a start he became aware that he had been so busy watching Owen’s aircraft, that he had not been monitoring his airspeed. His eyes flew back inside the cockpit. He was going a bit slower than he had thought. Looking out, it seemed as if Owen was a bit close for comfort. He closed the throttle, and out of the corner of his eye, he was aware of the ground approaching rapidly. At the same time, the nose of his aircraft seemed to float up gradually, and started to obscure his view of Owen’s aircraft! Too late he remembered the usual rotation of the aircraft’s attitude on landing, whereby the nose comes up as the aircraft slows down above the runway. The distraction of another aircraft ahead of him was upsetting his usual routine… Instinctively he pushed the stick forward to lower the nose to see. But this meant the wings were no longer attacking the oncoming airflow at the same high angle. At the lower airspeed, the aircraft could no longer maintain height, and it sank abruptly towards the runway. The resultant impact caused Jeremy to wince, and over react. As the aircraft, having contacted the ground so rudely, started the colossal bounce back up, the pilot hauled back on the stick, aggravating the effect. The SE5 kangarood back into the sky, only to loose airspeed quickly, and start down again. Seeing the ground coming up, Jeremy, eyes bulging, hauled back on the stick once more, but the aircraft, low on airspeed and sluggish to respond now, crashed heavily onto the ground. An ominous crack from underneath warned Jeremy of some problem, but he could only note it at the back of his mind, so preoccupied was he with the crisis at hand. They were hurtling skywards once again, when the buffeting, horrible wallowing and the sluggish stick response triggered a vital memory circuit. His mind at last recalled Hendon, and the tutelage of Kershaw, and the warnings of an approaching stall. The memory circuit, having clicked open, caused a rapid and correct analysis of the mess, and he slammed open the throttle. The SE5 staggered away at 20 feet, wallowing horribly, but the thrust from the engine, and the extra airflow from the propeller slipstream over the wings, just combined efforts sufficiently to pull her away from the edge of catastrophe. Another SE5 slid past below and immediately on Jeremy’s left, horribly close, and Jeremy, his heart in his mouth, saw the pilot -Owen- staring up at him. Even with so much else going on, Jeremy noticed the look of open mouthed horror on his section leader’s face, and his spirits fell even further.
He flew a circuit, worrying about the crack he had heard, and set up for another landing. On his own in the sky this time, he fell into the usual routine, and, despite nervous apprehension, the approach was good. He floated above the runway at four to six feet, and then descended slowly towards the grass. The SE5 settled smoothly down, and he was almost beginning to congratulate himself, when another loud crack, distinctly audible with the throttle now closed and the aircraft slowing down, sent horror signals to his brain. The aircraft seemed to slow down normally for a few seconds more, and then abruptly swung hard left, totally ignoring his frantic rudder inputs. The left lower wingtip contacted the ground, he felt as well as saw it, and this slewed the aircraft around further. The propeller also touched the ground, sending up large clods of grassy earth in a fountain. He observed this phenomenon with a sort of detached amazement. His brain searched his Hendon file of experiences with an urgency bordering on the hysterical, but could offer no idea what to do. For a brief instant in time he became an impotent spectator, jaw sagging open in amazement, before a loud crack and the disappearance of the propeller disc and the fountain of earth led to an inescapable conclusion. The SE5 slithered to a halt, and slowly he realized it was all over.
An ominous hiss reached his ears, and the added realization of the possibility of fire actioned him, better late than never, to switch off the fuel cock and kill the mags.
The hiss faded away, and he slowly undid his harness.
He felt utterly disgusted, disappointed, and sick that he had broken the aircraft. Running figures were now approaching the aircraft, but he hardly heeded them. He started to slowly climb out of the cockpit, until a voice bellowed: “Get out, you bloody fool! ” The urgency was unmistakable, and he scrambled clear.
The bellowing voice belonged to Owen, who now approached at the gallop. Behind him the fire tender also approached at speed. Owen’s look said it all. It ranged first over the damaged aircraft, and then over Jeremy. For the anger he obviously felt, he restrained himself reasonably well.
“Well, Mr Armstrong. Is this the way you were taught to land at Hendon? And what were you trying to do to my aircraft? Mate together? Do you know by how little our wing tips missed? ”
Jeremy could only stand and take it. His face told his misery all too clearly.
A mechanic straightened up from underneath the wing, and announced flatly: “The spar’s gone, Sir. Needs a new wing. ”
Owen turned his head to the speaker, and then focussed on Jeremy again.
“Great! Marvelous! “. Owen’s snarl fell like a whip.
Then, swinging around, he started to walk back in the direction of the mess. Over his shoulder he shouted:
“Come on Jeremy. Come with Uncle Owen and we’ll have a little chat. ”
Jeremy threw a last look at his injured SE5, muttered a feeble “Sorry! ” to the assembling engineers, and hurried after his section leader.
* * *
An hour later, a still subdued but happier looking Lieutenant Armstrong was sitting in the mess, listening to Owen.
Owen had been doing a lot of talking, and now he gulped at a glass of brandy with evident relish.
“So you understand where you went wrong, do you? ”
Jeremy nodded earnestly.
Owen leaned back, and regarded him thoughtfully. “Okay “, he announced at last. “Put it all down to experience, and your little machine will be fixed by the morning.
Don’t let it happen again… “
He laughed suddenly, and knocked back the remainder of his drink. He stood up to go, turned away, and then paused. He faced Jeremy again, and asked: “By the way, we’ve talked about your landings. How did you enjoy the patrol? ”
Jeremy nodded. “It was okay. I… tried to keep a good look out. But… ” He shrugged his shoulders. “I guess no Huns today. ” He tried to keep the relief out of his voice.
Owen savored the remark. “No Huns today. ” He played it round his mouth, like a wine taster checking an old bottle. Baines had come in, and was busy throwing his coat down, and making himself comfortable.
Owen adressed him. “I say Baines, Lieutenant Armstrong, is disappointed that he saw ‘no Huns today’. What would you say to that, my boy? ” His tone was slightly mocking.
Baines, kicking a chair out of the way, stretched his legs, and folded his hands behind his head.
“That’s funny “, he mused. “I saw five Huns today. A formation of one Rumpler, stooging about looking juicy, and four triplanes lurking topsides. ”
Owen smiled at Jeremy, who looked disconcerted, laughed dryly, and walked out.
Baines, pulling a flying boot off, glanced at Jeremy.
“It was a trap. Old Hun trick. They like to hunt in packs. That’s why we beetled off home. ”
Last edited by Francis Meyrick on March 6, 2008, 8:02 am