Francis Meyrick

Jeremy’s War: Chapter 11 “Hate thy Neighbor “

Posted on March 8, 2008


Jeremy realized he was almost in a trance, circling the burning wreck, his gaze fixed in horrible fascination on the results of his action. Dismay and guilt was giving way partly to another emotion that shocked him in its growing intensity. A savage satisfaction. It was as if two voices were hammering through his brain. The first, full of sarcasm, was shouting at him. “Now look what you’ve done… pleased with yourself? You’ve killed a man. The great Jeremy Armstrong, selfless member of the human race, has popped off another member of the human species… Are you pleased? Eh? ”
The second voice was becoming more powerful, and Jeremy licked his lips as he wrestled with his feelings. The second voice was aimed at the dead pilot of the burning triplane. It was a taunting, cruel voice, which shocked Jeremy’s gentler nature.
“Roast, you bastard! “
Was this… what killing was all about?

He flew off westwards, low level, and started to search the sky. Nothing. He was on his own. Slowly he climbed, and surveyed the damage to his aircraft. It was worse than he thought. Everywhere there were great gouging holes torn in the fabric, and upturned edges fluttered in the slipstream. His starboard rear wing strut, a five foot length of polished spruce connecting the upper and lower wing, was all but severed by bullets. His upper starboard aileron was a tattered mess, and caused strange vibrations he could feel through the stick when he turned. Worst of all, his engine sounded progressively sicker, and its power seemed to be well down.
Still he climbed, hunting for the lines. ..
It seemed utterly strange to be alone in the sky now, after the chaos and fury of only a few minutes before. His engine was now beginning to stream smoke, and peculiar metallic noises, like one piece of engine battering another piece once every revolution, indicated that unwelcome events were taking place inside the Hispano Suiza.
On top of everything else, he was lost.
He failed to recognize any features at all. The problem was partly that he was wallowing along at just under eight hundred feet. A climb would afford him a better view. But with his engine getting sicker by the misfire, and smoke billowing out, it was obvious that a climb was a dangerous choice; total engine failure would be one consequence, the unwelcome attention of an opportunistic Hun another.
He tried hard to navigate, but nothing on the ground matched his map. He also found concentrating very difficult. His mind kept replaying the last dying seconds of the triplane pilot’s life; saw the impact, and the explosion. Saw, only seconds earlier, the strange spasmodic jerk in the pilot’s shoulders, as Jeremy’s bullets had struck him.
Wrestled, with his feelings; a sense of shock, of horror, and also a sense of vicious satisfaction.
That was it, that horrible satisfaction. Never before in his life had he felt that way…
What would Emmy say?

Her face floated in front of him, and he sensed her soft, caring voice. What would she say to the fact that he had just butchered a Hun? He knew there would be no elation in her eyes. Knew the look, that deep look of…

A small lake passed below, which he thought he recognized. He was approaching the lines! Simultaneously, archie opened up on him with a vengeance, and he was uncomfortably reminded of his low height. He was low enough to see, quite clearly, soldiers looking up at him, and men pointing. He noticed that some were pointing rifles, and he realized he was the target of small arms fire as well. A feeling of helplessness swept over him, coupled with a strange desire to be able to speak to the men on the ground, and beg them not to shoot at him. Part of him wanted to explain that he had a sick engine, and that he wanted to get home. That he had already been shot at, and that he had had enough.
A particularly loud explosion to his right deafened him, and he flinched in the cockpit. Something cut stingingly through his right cheek, and simultaneously he felt a vicious tug on his right trouser leg. Tears flooded his eyes, blood poured down his face, and he flew blindly on, his mind grappling with an avalanche of sensory information, and trying hard to keep control.

* * *

At twelve thousand feet, Hans Joachim Hemke noticed first the anti aircraft bursts, then the smoke trail, then the tiny dot crossing the lines. No German aircraft would cross the lines so low from east to west. It had to be an injured enemy limping home. Easy meat, probably.
He studied the massive dogfight going on to the north, and his leader and wingman speeding ahead.
Let them go and fight there…
He would polish off his discovery.
He half rolled the Albatros, and pulled away in a screaming dive.

* * *

By the time Jeremy’s eyes had cleared sufficiently to look around, he had crossed the lines. He gaped in amazement at a huge hole in the lower starboard wing, and a smaller one in the upper wing. Fabric fluttered freely from the bottom wing, and he could see one wingrib smashed, with most of the part rearwards of the spar missing, and another one exposed almost fully to view.
Something else was wrong too. He was applying almost full left stick to keep flying level. The SE5 wanted to turn right all the time. His face hurt, and he could feel blood trickling down past the corner of his mouth. His right knee hurt as well.

Sod this for a game of soldiers…

He groaned, and tried to map read again. He busied himself for a minute or two, until a small canal floated past, and he had to admit he was utterly lost.

A canal?? Where the hell am I?

The whole thing was taking on that dreamlike quality again. He wasn’t really flying an aeroplane. He hadn’t really just shot down and killed a Hun. He hadn’t really got a badly damaged aircraft underneath him.
He hadn’t really got shrapnel wounds. It was all in his imagination. Above all, he wasn’t really lost.

Suddenly, without surprise, he became aware of himself, flying along in a battered SE5. He observed himself, sitting in the cockpit, struggling with the damn map, looking over the side. He felt sorry for Jeremy Armstrong. He was obviously quite lost. That was a nasty cut on his right cheekbone. It was still bleeding, and the blood was congealing on his cheek, jaw, and collar.
The poor lad looked done in.
He observed the face, and the eyes. Yes, poor old Jeremy was in trouble all right…

Taca-taca-taca! Taca-taca-taca! Taca-taca-taca!

He was suddenly back inside the cockpit, reeling with shock. Bullets smashed through his windscreen, and his instrument panel. His compass dissolved in pieces, and the airspeed indicator disappeared.

What the hell!? Who’s shooting?

He instinctively pulled hard right, and darted a quick look over his shoulder. A silhouette, evil sparks dancing over the nose, was all he saw. It was enough. The sheer injustice of it made him want to scream.

NOOO! For crying out loud! I’m damaged, I’m injured, I’ve already been shot at. I’m lost. I’m over MY side of the lines. BUGGER OFF and leave me ALONE!!

His engine sounded as if it was gasping in terminal exhaustion, and he debated advancing the throttle. But he needed the power if he stood any chance of avoiding the bullets being hosed over him.

Taca-taca-taca!! Taca-taca-taca!!

There was nothing else for it, and he slammed the throttle forward. Immediately the engine note increased shrilly, there was a strange clanking sound, and then a series of metallic crashes, that reduced in frequency proportionately to the winding down of the propeller.
Jeremy gasped in horror.

His engine had quit.

* * *

Hans Joachim Hemke saw the propeller die, and realized the plight his enemy was in. From the steep turn, it was obvious that his foe was still alive, but it seemed a miracle. He had seen his bullets tear through the SE5a, and it seemed impossible they had missed the pilot.
But now his engine was gone…
Should he let him go? His commandant would. Werner Voss was a man of principle, who taught his pilots to respect crippled aircraft. But…
He looked over his shoulder. There was nobody else around. Here was a chance to add to his score.
His lips curled back from his teeth, and he opened fire again from point blank range…

* * *

On the way back, Baines had never ceased looking out for Jeremy. He was close to home, when, looking south, he saw an aircraft in a screaming dive. It was too far away to identify, but something in the way it was coming down like a ton of bricks made him wonder. He waggled his wings at Owen, and pointed urgently. Owen, tired and with a shot up aircraft, wanted only to limp home. He waved dismissively, with a gesture that implied ‘do as you like’. Immediately, Baines banked away, and headed for the area in which the dot had disappeared.

* * *

Slamming the controls over hard, Jeremy spotted a meadow, and side slipped down steeply. Full right rudder, left stick, and the aircraft descended as if sliding sideways down a rope. The manoeuvre took the Albatros by surprise, he overshot, and had to make a turn. This gave Jeremy a precious twenty seconds, which he put to good use.
He continued the side slip down to twenty feet, and then viciously kicked the machine straight. Heaving back on the stick, he managed to arrest the rate of descent, and the SE5 floated at six feet over the meadow, scattering terrified sheep in all directions. As he touched down, the Albatros lined up on him, five hundred yards away.
Hemke started firing before he was fully lined up, and watched with relish as earth and grass kicked up in a long line, overtaking the landing aircraft. He pulled up into a screaming right turn, and once through 180 degrees, he watched in deep satisfaction as the SE5 lay tipped up on its nose, bursting into flame, smoke billowing upwards.
Then, suddenly, he leaned forwards, cursing softly. A figure, stumbling madly, and jumping over obstacles, was running away from the wreckage.
Hemke pulled his machine around in a dive again, and thumbed the trigger.
This time, there would be no mistake.

* * *

Baines, closer now, recognized the Albatros for what it was. He saw the smoke from the wreck billow up, and feared the worst. Although he had full throttle applied, his machine seemed almost stationary. Then he saw the Albatros line up for another run in, and a puzzled frown crossed his face.
Odd… why was he shooting at a downed and blazing aircraft?
A horrible thought crossed his mind, and mentally he urged his machine on…

* * *

The crunch as the SE5 hit the ditch knocked the wind out of Jeremy, and he could only sit and stare in amazement as the nose dug in, and the tail lifted straight up into the air. But the thought of fire soon galvanized him into action, and he scrambled out of the cockpit in feverish haste. He let himself drop the eight feet to the ground, rolling over and over. He was barely on his feet, staggering drunkenly, when the petrol vapors ignited with a roaring whoosh, and the blast of hot air lifted him bodily for fifteen feet. He seemed to roll over and over, and got to his feet with his flying jacket on fire. He ripped the garment off, and, as more explosions indicated his ammunition exploding, he started to run again, stumbling and desperate.
A roaring sound filled the air, and he gazed up in stupefied amazement. A blue and green silhouette was approaching him fast and low, spitting flames. It took him an eternity to analyze the significance of the spurts of dirt ripping across the field towards him…

My God! He’s shooting at me!

He threw himself down, and, miraculously, the bullets ripped close by without touching him. He looked up as the machine swept overhead, and found himself staring up into a grinning face. A hand came up, and waved mockingly at him. The Albatros soared up into the sky, did a hard turn, and came in again, its purpose unmistakable.

Jeremy remembered the ditch he had crashed into, and started running back again, frantically…

* * *

Owen climbed out stiffly, and looked at Greenhall.
Greenhall, his face streaked and dirty, searched around the sky.
Behind him, Perky and Porky lit cigarettes.
“I lost Pinky “, Greenhall murmured quietly.
“I lost Armstrong “, Owen replied.
“And they got the RE8 “, he added as an afterthought.
There was a long silence.
“Where did Baines shoot off to? “, Perky asked.
Owen shrugged his shoulders.

McAllister marched across, and everybody stopped talking.
“Did the RE8 make it? ”
His voice was cool, poised. Nobody answered.
McAllister repeated his question, snappily.
“No, Sir “, Owen answered slowly.
There was a pause, during which everybody stared coldly at their commanding officer.
Owen continued pointedly:
“We got jumped by six Fokker D.V’s, which made the odds twelve against seven.
We lost Pinky and Armstrong as well. ”
He paused.
“…Sir “, he added, with a strange emphasis on the word.
“I see “, McAllister answered. He stared at the stone faced expressions of his men, started to say something, thought better of it, and turned around. He marched off stiffly, taking care to avoid any mud.

Behind him, one or two of the stone faces gave way to hate. McAllister was nearly out of earshot, when a stage whisper reached his ears.
“And where were you, Sir? ”
He stiffened, half looked around, and then marched on.

Perky snarled, mimicking McAllister’s accent:
“I was low on fuel, so I had to return to base “.
Porky added:
“I didn’t think my wingmen were ready yet “, and spat expressively on the ground.
Greenhall snapped:
“Knock it off, you guys! ”

* * *

With ten yards to go, it looked as if he wasn’t going to make it. The rattling of machine guns accompanied the sound of bullets ripping up the ground, drilling a path of death that threatened to overtake the fleeing man.
The sheer terror in Jeremy’s mind threatened his sanity, and he threw himself over the edge into the shallow, muddy water, with a sobbing groan. He buried his face into the muddy bank, and his shoulders racked convulsively. Bullets continued to whistle over the top of him, and then the Albatros roared past. Jeremy looked up, and watched the German swing around to line up his gunsight along the length of the ditch. Realizing the intention, Jeremy raced, splashing and falling, sobbing and gasping, around a slight bend, and once again flung himself down. More bullets ripped up the muddy water.
This time Jeremy buried his face in his hands, trembling in mortal terror, unable to look up.

He heard more machine gun fire, and tried to make himself as small as possible to avoid the bullets. Death loomed large and close, and he thought frantically and longingly back to home, his parents, and Emmy…

A colossal crump shook the ground nearby, and earth rained down upon Jeremy.

My God, dear God… he’s dropping bombs now…

The Albatros roared over low again… and again… and once more… Jeremy cowered in the mud, hands over his head.
Slowly a thought registered with him. The noise was fading… His hands slowly peeled away from his head, and he crouched, listening intently. The noise of the Albatros was fading…

Is it a trap? Is he…

The noise faded to a distant beat, and slowly, very slowly, the exhausted face of Jeremy Armstrong appeared above the edge of the ditch. His jaw sagged open, and he stared a full ten seconds in stupefied amazement.
Not fifteen yards away, another wreck lay burning furiously. From the tail, protruding up into the air at a crazy angle, a black German cross grinned ghoulishly at him…

He swiveled his head slowly, painfully, and dimly recognized the silhouette of an SE5 disappearing towards the horizon. Even as he watched, the wings rocked smoothly from side to side, in a surreal, dream-like, gesture of farewell.
He stared at it until it disappeared, his mind reeling from the force of events.

* * *

The old car battered its way along the twisty road, and bounced through the ruts. Inside, a group of airmen were hanging on for dear life. The vehicle stopped beside an ancient dry stone wall, and an airman leaped out, climbed up and peered over. He ran back to the car immediately.
“He’s over there, chaps! ” He pointed up the road. “Go through that gate! ”
They bumped their way through an old gate, and were met by a peasant woman, who flagged them down.
Owen wound down the window.
“Votre ami est la “, the woman said, pointing.
“Ask her if he’s hurt “, Baines suggested.
Owen obliged as best he could.
“Est ce que… est ce qu’il est blesse? ”
The woman, grief stricken, shook her head.
“Non, il n’est pas blesse, mais.. ”
She tapped her head with her forefingers.
“Il est fou… how you say… crazy… he talks with the dead… ”
Tears rolled down her cheeks, and she glanced fearfully over her shoulder.

The car bumped on, and headed for the smoke.
They could go no further, and piled out.
Nobody spoke. It was an uncanny scene…
The light was beginning to fade. On the other side of a ditch stood Jeremy, with his back towards them, motionless, silhouetted against a burning aircraft. At his feet lay… a body.
Owen started forward, but Baines held him by the sleeve.
“No, wait, let me deal with this… ”
He moved forward, jumped over the ditch, and walked up to Jeremy. He stood beside him, but still the airman didn’t move. Baines could hear only the wind, and the crackling and spitting of the flames. He stared at the face of the German pilot he had killed. A young face, eyes wide open, with blood trickling from the corner of his mouth.
Then he looked at Jeremy, whose eyes seemed ghostly distant. Neither man spoke. The flames from the Albatros were oddly reflected on Jeremy’s face.

Baines placed his arm around Jeremy’s shoulders.
“Come on, old man “, he said softly. “It’s all over. ”


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