Jeremy’s War: Chapter 9 “First Blood “
Posted on March 8, 2008
Jeremy stood stiffly before McAllister’s desk.
Beside him, Owen too stood to attention. More or less. The atmosphere in the office was tense.
McAllister looked up from the report he had been reading, and studied the two men. He sat back, and folded his finger tips together under his chin. When he spoke, it was disconcertingly quietly.
“A fine performance, gentlemen. ”
Jeremy grit his teeth.
“You, Lieutenant Armstrong, have made engineering and aeronautical history… ”
It was not a compliment.
“Firstly, the engineering side. Tell me, when you were in your spiral dive through the cloud, did you close the throttle? ”
Jeremy knew what was coming.
“No, Sir “.
McAllister smiled thinly.
“So it seems. I am told that, judging from the state of your engine mount and engine internals, it is a miracle that your engine did not depart the airframe in flight, or that your engine did not simply melt. In other words, it was scrap. Squadron Leader Matherson writes to tell me it is now a lively source of debate as to what rpm your engine actually achieved. It is thought somewhere in the order of three thousand rpm, as opposed to cruise rpm of fifteen hundred… ”
McAllister’s face was expressive of his feelings.
“Not good enough, Armstrong. ”
“No, Sir. ”
McAllister studied the smartly turned out young airman, standing stiffly to attention, and compared it with Owen’s casual slouch, and stained attire. Above all, he resented the glare of defiance in Owen’s stare.
An idea crossed his mind. He would turn the tables on Owen. But first he had to deal with the inquiry.
He addressed Armstrong, not unkindly.
“Do you know why your engine over speeded? ”
Jeremy answered truthfully.
“I do now, Sir. The high airspeed in the dive working on the propeller caused the engine to over rev, Sir. ”
“You fully understand the need to retard the throttle promptly in high speed dives? ”
“Yes, Sir. ”
There was a pause. McAllister was beginning to enjoy himself. He would be very reasonable and understanding to the young airman. As for Owen…
“Secondly, the aeronautical side. The damage to your upper wing sustained in flight again is a source of astonishment. Squadron Leader Matherson writes that the two forward cabane struts had in fact both parted company with the top wing attachment points. The center section box spar had cracked wide open. Severe damage had occurred right along the top wing, including the main wing struts. This had actually caused the leading edge to lift in flight. Astonishingly, you managed to retain control of the aircraft and return to an airfield… ”
McAllister paused. Where Armstrong was concerned, should he choose ‘Crucifixion’ or ‘Beatification’? The choice was his. There were plenty of grounds to lambast Armstrong. But to what point? The lad looked miserable enough already. And God knew, he could do with some airmen that respected him. No. He made his decision. He would crucify that rebel Owen. In front of Armstrong. Tear him off a strip. Show him. As for Armstrong… he would be understanding and magnanimous…
“…This was quite a feat of skill. It was a shame that having arrived at Champ Moutons, you then proceeded to land downwind… ”
Something of the humor registered with McAllister, and he enjoyed the look of amazement that was creeping into Owen’s face. It was satisfying to see…
“So I think it’s probably safe to say that that is a beginner’s mistake you will never make again. We’ll put it down to the stress of the moment…
Have you anything to say? ”
Jeremy, still too ill at ease to savor the relief beginning to arrive at the gallop, stammered wearily:
“I’m sorry, Sir, I had oil all over my goggles, and I guess when I took them off, I… ”
But McAllister waved it away.
“Forget it. You have learned a lot. I expect you to demonstrate that in the coming weeks. I would like this squadron to be proud of you. ”
It seemed a fitting note to end that one on.
“Yes, Sir. ”
Now for Owen…
“As for you, Mr Owen, I feel most strongly that you have shown yourself lacking in leadership skills. ”
The red flush that started spreading across Owen’s face was delightful to watch.
McAllister continued as coldly as he could.
“You must understand that this squadron has placed you in a position of responsibility as a flight leader. I expect you therefore to take to heart those duties. Clearly, there are areas of performance and knowledge in which your wingman was… lacking. I have to therefore tell you I expect you to rectify those deficiencies. ”
He paused, grinning privately to himself, studying Owen’s suppressed rage.
“Any questions? ”
“Sir, if I am to be responsible for my pilots in the way you suggest, then I will need time off from front line duty to address those areas which need attention. That will mean flights away from here to the west, where we can practice dogfighting skills free from interruption and unpleasant surprises. I will need at least… ”
But McAllister held up his hand peremptorily.
“Out of the question! You know the pressure we are under. Granted, it is not as bad as last March and April, but we still cannot afford days off. It is vital to keep the squadron up to strength. Sorry, but no can do. ”
Owen said nothing. He seemed to be staring straight ahead, and having difficulties breathing. His jaw was set dangerously.
McAllister dismissed them. As they left the building, Jeremy wanted to speak, but Owen stomped off towards the mess. Jeremy wavered, and then decided to go to his room, and think things out.
* * *
An hour or so later, the mess contained the usual number of lounging, reading, billiard playing, smoking and gossiping pilots.
When the figure of Jeremy appeared from behind the barracks, heading across in the direction of the mess,a voice announced:
“Hey-up! Here comes teacher’s pet! ”
There was a murmur.
When Jeremy entered, he was at once struck by the odd silence, and complete lack of greeting. He had been getting to know the others. Greenhall was the other section leader, and the most experienced man. Three pilots belonged to his flight, and were known as the ‘three little piggies’; Pinky, Perky, and Porky. The names had stuck, as they were so extraordinary descriptive. They tended to sit together, and indulged in a joint, mono-syllabic, ‘animal-noise commentary’, which Jeremy found hard to follow. Pinky was thin and morose, Perky was disgustingly cheerful all the time, and Porky -naturally- was corpulent and shoveled down other people’s leftovers. Jeremy had enjoyed a long and earnest conversation with Pinky the night before.
But this time everybody was busy, and none met his eye.
He felt strangely excluded, and it hurt.
He headed over to Owen, who sat studiously engrossed in a newspaper. There was an awkward silence, with Jeremy standing there, not knowing how to start.
An answering grunt came from behind the newspaper.
Jeremy debated how to start, and looked up to heaven for inspiration. He clenched his lips, and then just decided to go for it.
“I don’t understand what happened in there. All I know is… it was my fault I lost sight of the formation… ”
Several heads looked up slowly.
“I can’t see how you can be blamed for that. And… as for getting lost in cloud… my fault again. The downwind landing at Champ-les-Moutons… my stupid fault again. I’m sorry. And I’m sorry you got chewed out over it… ”
Owen remained impassive. Nobody else spoke.
“So… I think I’ve come in on something going on between you and McAllister… I don’t understand what it is, and I’m sorry… that I screwed up. ”
He finished weakly. Nobody spoke. Zero reaction.
Jeremy turned to walk out. He reached the door, and paused, his hand uncertainly on the handle.
Then he walked out.
Baines cleared his throat. Owen looked up. Baines winked at him, grinning broadly:
“You can’t say fairer than that! ”
“Oink-oink-oink! ” from the three little piggies sounded their approval.
* * *
Two more patrols came and went without combat. On the first, a two seater was spotted and chased. But enemy aircraft had appeared in the distance, and Owen had called it off. On the second, a dogfight in the distance had been observed, with seemingly a dozen machines whirling around in a small space of sky. Owen had speeded off to help, but arrived at the very end. Jeremy had seen one aircraft go down trailing black smoke, and another flutter down strangely, disappearing from sight as Jeremy concentrated furiously on shadowing Owen’s every move.
Jeremy had gotten as far as testing his guns that time, and he now knew it was only a matter of time before he fired in earnest. The thought at once frightened and elated him, and, in his usual seriousness, he tried to analyze the emotional paradox.
Thus, that night in the mess, a conversation had ensued in which Jeremy had unwisely queried unspoken holy issues. What was it like to fight? To kill? Why were they fighting?
What was the purpose of it all? How did they all feel about it? The sardonic expressions had eventually silenced him. The others had sung ‘Rule Britannia’ with gusto, and he had felt a fool.
Was he a bolshevik? Somebody wanted to know.
He had become embarrassed, and left for bed early.
* * *
The following day, Jeremy learned that they were to escort an RE8 on a photographic mission. Something told him he would be fighting before the day was over.
Greenhall, the other section leader would be up as well with his three little piggies. That alone made seven machines flying top cover.
McAllister too was making one of his increasingly rare flights that day, with two newcomers, Patterson and Digsby. That made ten machines, and sounded impressive to Jeremy.
He communicated his thoughts to Baines.
“Ten machines! Quite a force! “, but Baines seemed unimpressed.
He pulled a face, and Jeremy looked surprised.
“More like seven “, Baines grunted, and would not be drawn further.
A few minutes later, McAllister was the first man off the ground, with Patterson and Digsby in ragged pursuit. Digsby hauled his machine off a fraction too soon, and it wallowed sickeningly for a second. A disapproving “Beeeeeeeh “, which sounded like three sheep with bellyache, came from the three little piggies. Jeremy looked around, and decided to buttonhole Perky, who was the most approachable Piggy.
“I say Perky, what did Baines mean when he said ‘more like seven’? ”
The sound of three donkeys braying answered him, and he wondered if that meant he was being a dumb ass.
Only Perky would assist further, and motioned with his head to the departing formation. “See that lot? Count them out. ”
“But he’s flying top cover! ”
The braying was, if anything, more mocking.
* * *
Thirty minutes later, Owen and Greenhall’s formations got airborne, and climbed to six thousand and twelve thousand feet respectively. It was a hazy day, with high cloud absorbing a lot of sunlight.
Anti-aircraft bursts ahead soon showed where the lines were, and Owen led them straight to where the action was. Ahead, the RE8 could just be made out, very low, starting its photographic run. Two ominous dots could be seen falling from the sky towards the RE8; but Jeremy noticed that, although Owen steered a descending course that would intercept the two German aircraft, he spent a lot of time searching the sky above. Jeremy tried to search as well, but found himself extremely busy watching the two Hun machines as well as Owen.
Mentally, he clicked off the odds. Three against two. Owen and Baines knew exactly what they were doing, whereas Jeremy did not, but it nonetheless seemed pretty good.
Still they raced down, and he realized the Germans would reach the RE8 first. He could see that ship’s rear gunner firing at his attackers. Then, suddenly, they had arrived, and at two thousand feet Owen was aiming straight for a red nosed Albatros that was harassing the RE8. Jeremy followed, and it seemed to him a collision was inevitable. Owen’s machine rolled hard left, and Jeremy was forced to break right. The Albatros whizzed between the two of them. Jeremy continued the right turn, so steeply that he felt almost giddy, and found himself above a turning machine with black crosses.
He fired briefly, realizing this was his first shooting in earnest, and missed hopelessly. The machine disappeared, and he looked for Owen. He saw what looked to be Owen pursuing an Albatros, and turned to follow, only to have to take violent evasive action as something whistled past his left wing tip. He stared, recognizing Owen, who was waving madly. Jeremy turned to follow, but his speed was slower, and by the time he had accelerated, Owen’s machine was disappearing in the distance.
From then on in, the battle dissolved into a series of frantic images, one cascading after the other. An SE5 was being chased and fired at by an Albatros. Jeremy saw his chance, turned and dived, and latched onto the tail of the Albatros. All the details stood out incredibly clearly: the horizontal tail plane that seemed to curve forward too far, the long fin, the green camouflage -spinach color, Jeremy thought – and the pilot’s shoulders and head, everything loomed large. Jeremy fired, noting with quiet amazement that his bullets were raking through the German aircraft. He saw the German whip his head around, and thought the German had seen him. Suddenly, the Albatros left the SE5, and rocketed vertically upwards. Jeremy, surprised, started to follow, but he had never before pulled up so steeply. His airspeed fell away, and, perplexed, he watched the Albatros out climbing him. He pushed forward on the stick. A sudden feeling of weightlessness mesmerized him, and the aircraft seemed to respond sluggishly. Then it fell forward horribly, and Jeremy realized he had been more vertical than he had thought. He was slow, in a diving attitude, picking up speed, craning around, looking for the spinach Albatros…
Bullets were flying around him, and a horrible cracking, splintering noise made him look first at his starboard wing strut, which had pieces flying off it, and only then over his shoulder. A silhouette behind him was bobbing about, with sparks appearing around its nose. Jeremy screamed into a right hand turn, and the bullets stopped coming. He craned back over his shoulders, and could see the silhouette still there, following him. Where was Owen? He cast a glance around, and was amazed to catch a brief glimpse of three aircraft in formation pointing straight at the ground. He couldn’t tell who they were.
That staccato, coldly metallic sound was back again.
At the same time that he sensed he had inadvertently rolled off a bit of bank, the bullets started to rip through his wings again. He decided on impulse to haul into a left hand turn, reversing his turn. It was a mistake. The increase in juddering and shaking, and the strange noise the bullets made ripping through his fabric, increased markedly. He decided that had been a definite faux pas.
I’m not doing that again…
He tightened up the left turn as hard as he could, and snatched a look over his left shoulder. His harness constrained him, and he cursed, wishing he had not tightened the shoulder straps so hard. Out of the very corner of his eye, he could just make out a wing tip.
Still there! Now what do I do?
On an impulse, he pulled the stick hard back, and zoomed upwards. The world fell away, and he looked across at the horizon, which was now in an unusual place. His eyes glanced in at the airspeed indicator, and watched the speed drop away. It did so very rapidly. He felt he was not traveling quite vertically, but falling over to the left a bit. Where was his enemy? He found himself booting in full left rudder, and half turning, half falling, he discovered his nose pointing vertically downwards again.
What an extraordinary caper… and where’s that Hun!?
Something appeared to his left, and he found himself staring at Owen’s machine, green pennants fluttering from the wing struts. Owen was gesticulating wildly, and, as they both pulled out of the dive at the bottom, Jeremy slotted in behind his leader once more, more than relieved.
A machine was going down, smoke and flames pouring from it. The pilot was waving his arms frantically. Two more machines raced past, one behind the other. Jeremy noticed in passing, in a detached way, that the machine behind wore black crosses. Owen banked sharply right, and Jeremy had to close his throttle for a second, to avoid a collision. Then he was dropping back fast, and he had to smack open his throttle once more.
A yellow shape floated into view, and Owen was firing at it. It was a Fokker triplane, with green patches on the wings and fuselage. It went down into a screaming dive, and Owen followed. The triplane, the pilot’s head bobbing back and forth, turned hard right, and Owen lost him.
Somebody was shooting at them again. Owen’s head bobbed around, and he pulled up hard. Jeremy followed, and then lost him as Owen did something strange. He seemed to roll away upside down, and Jeremy could only stare in amazement.
With no time to ponder on what had happened, Jeremy hauled round into a tight right hand turn again. The shooting stopped, but he knew without looking the machine was still there. He pulled as hard as he could, and his SE5 stood on a wing tip. It made it easier for him to see his foe. Sure enough, an all red triplane was pursuing him. He could see the pilot staring across at him. But as long as he kept turning, the German could not get a clean shot at him. The illusion lasted for several seconds, before Jeremy saw to his horror that the German was out turning him, and slowly catching up.
Never try and out turn a triplane…
Who was it had said that? Perky? Baines? But they were right. He tried to pull the turn even tighter, but only succeeded in losing more speed. He realized he had lost a lot of height as well…
Now what do I do???
Desperate, he half rolled out of the turn, and dived for speed. He was heading straight for a little river…
* * *
Owen cursed again, and wished Greenhall would hurry up.
Having saved the RE8, which was trying to beetle off home, Owen was only too keenly aware that the four approaching dots racing in from the east, would swing the odds around heavily in the other side’s favor. Meanwhile he couldn’t spot Greenhall, and was having to worry both about protecting the RE8 and Jeremy Armstrong.
He chased one Hun away from the RE8’s tail, just in time to see the other Albatros expertly throw off Baines, and then half loop and roll around to latch onto Jeremy’s tail.
There was nothing else for it, and, one eye anxiously on the approaching formation, Owen left the RE8, hoping Baines would take over, and raced to help his charge.
The four approaching dots were a minute away now, and Owen gritted his teeth, knowing too well that things were turning ugly. He needed to drag Jeremy away from this, so that they could fly a fighting retreat, safeguarding the two-seater as well as escaping a superior force. It would soon be six against three, and Armstrong was just a pup.
Where the hell was Greenhall?
Then he gasped, as he saw two sets of dots about to clash six thousand feet above him. A set of four dots coming in from the west -Greenhall-, and… five, no, six from the south-east, out of the rising sun.
He sighed. It was going to be a hard day…
* * *
Greenhall had watched Owen’s section dive to protect the camera ship, and now he studied the sky with a concentration bordering on the desperate. He didn’t like it. The two machines diving on the RE8 would have seen Owen’s three ship formation diving to intercept.
What have you lot got up your sleeves?
Then he saw, way off in the east, low and fast, four more enemy machines racing to the scene. He waggled his wings, and dived. Without having to check over his shoulder, he knew the three little piggies were following him down.
For a long time, he studied the four ship formation, and knew by their squat appearance that they must be tri-planes. Four triplanes and two albatrosses versus five SE5’s. If that was the final odds… He looked up and around, but could see nothing. Behind him, Pinky saw his leader searching the sky above, and thought grimly:
“My thoughts exactly, leader. Where’s their top cover? “
He kept half an eye on Owen in the dive, but tried hard to search above, staring into the sun until his eyes streamed. But it was Porky who suddenly fired his guns in warning, waggled his wings, and pointed furiously.
Owen and Pinky saw them simultaneously: six more Fokker D.V’s diving out of the sun, straight at them.
Owen whistled through his teeth, and calculated desperately. Those smart cookies must have been hiding very high in the sun, up at eighteen thousand feet or so. He was outnumbered six to four, which didn’t unduly alarm him, knowing the experience of his flight, but Owen faced odds of six to three, and Armstrong was of little use.
Greenhall decided that at all costs he had to get as close as he could to Owen before turning to face the D.V.’s. This would hand the advantage to them, but there was little he could do about that.
Down… down… they were through 9000 feet, flying wires howling, and he would soon have to turn and face his attackers. He could see the RE8 desperately trying to escape, and Owen’s flight doing a good job in fighting off the two Albatrosses. He wondered fleetingly where McAllister was with his two machines. He started to look, and then gave up, a feeling of bitter resignation creeping in.
At 7000 feet, the two formations clashed, and a Fokker D.III. immediately went spinning down on fire, black smoke erupting out in an astonishingly large, dirty cloud. The pilot, with no parachute, tried desperately to protect himself against the flames, until he breathed in burning vapor, which destroyed the inside of his lungs. He was dead before his machine hit the ground, showering sparks and debris over a wide area.
Greenhall tried to dive a little longer than he should, to get closer to Owen’s scrap, but a series of astonishingly hard hammer blows somewhere beneath the cockpit forced him to swerve into a tight turn. He spotted his antagonist, and concentrated on seeing if he could out turn him.
Owen would have to wait…
* * *
Pinky was determined to nail the D.III. on Perky’s tail, and pulled a colossal load to heave himself around in time. Even so, he saw the gap opening up, and slammed the throttle open. His engine coughed heart stoppingly, and then picked up again. He was not going to catch the German. Where were the others?
Something incredibly hard hit him in the back of the head. It hurt unbelievably, and his first feeling was one of surprise, then indignation.
How dare they…!?
There was no pain.
He had to do something, urgently. What was it again?
He puzzled about it, and then something funny seemed to be happening to his vision. He was suddenly a long way back, looking through a tunnel with black sides.
Something was happening, and it could be important.
He was unaware of the sinister shape that followed his aircraft, and continued to rake his machine with bullets, long after Pinky had died.
* * *
Jeremy twisted and turned, and found himself descending below five hundred feet. His snatched glances showed his enemy was still on his tail, and there was no sign of anybody else coming to help.
He was on his own.
At least he was heading west. Every so often bullets would rattle around, but mostly Jeremy was able to avoid too much damage by continually weaving. The drawback however was that his enemy was getting closer all the time, and they were also getting lower.
As another hail of bullets noisily passed through the lower left wing, Jeremy suddenly decided he had had enough. Hauling back on the stick, his machine soared skywards. A quick glance over his shoulder showed him the triplane following. As Jeremy hit the vertical, he opened the throttle wide, and this extended his vertical line another two hundred feet. Then he was slowing down so much, he didn’t know what to do. He craned around, looking for the triplane. He was still there. Jeremy now seemed to be hanging from his propeller.
His mind was a blank. As the whole machine seemed to start sliding backwards, he weakly pushed the stick forward, expecting the nose to wallow forward and down, as it had previously. To his horror, the exact opposite happened, and the aircraft seemed to fall sickeningly over backwards. Jeremy screamed, feeling for one second that he was falling out of the aircraft. The nose, having been pointed at the sky, swung viciously through the horizon until it pointed straight down. He opened the throttle again, and to his amazement found himself not far from the triplane’s tail. He skidded himself into position whilst pulling out of the dive, and found the triplane floating smack into his sights…
Jeremy didn’t know whether he was shocked or elated. Squeezing the trigger, he observed his bullets cutting through the enemy. He saw the pilot half looking back, and then appear to jerk in his seat. Less than twenty seconds later, the triplane smashed into the ground spectacularly, and exploded immediately. Pieces flew in all directions, and one wheel rolled along the ground, bouncing horribly and unnaturally over the rough surface.
Horrified, Jeremy could only stare open mouthed.
He had scored his first kill…
Last edited by Francis Meyrick on March 8, 2008, 1:12 pm