Jeremy’s War: Chapter 14 “The Hunter “

Posted on March 21, 2008

Ch.14

THE HUNTER

 

Evening time at last. It had been a good supper.
Now he enjoyed a cigarette, watching the smoke curl lazily up to the ceiling. Bright blue smoke escaped mischievously from the tip as it lay, waiting dutifully, in an ashtray.
He picked up the patient servant, inhaled gloriously, and then fired the smoke out. It escaped across the room, and was of a slightly duller blue.
Interesting. He watched the invisible eddies swirl around within the cloud, and imagined he was a hunter.
He waited, until just the right moment, breathed in deeply, and then blasted a lung full of air right into the middle of the blue cloud. Satisfyingly, it panicked, and broke away in all directions.
He grinned, picked up his cigarette, and inhaled deeply.
Then he started the game again.

A knock came on the door, and a shyly grinning orderly entered on his command.
“Some more mail, Herr Baron! It seems the girls have read of your recent exploits! ”
A large shoe box, tied roughly with a tatty piece of string, landed on his table. Beside it, the orderly deposited two letters. Then he discreetly withdrew.

The Hunter took his time, and finished his cigarette.
Then he reached for the two letters, and selected the one with the coat of arms on the back.
From his mother… scolding him for not writing more regularly. He smiled. It made no difference what age he became. To him, she was still her little boy. She was always warm, caring, motherly. He still addressed her as: “Dear Mamma “, and adored her. He read and re-read her letter, and folded it away carefully.
Then he opened the second letter. It was from his younger brother, painfully anxious to join his big brother as a pilot before the war was over.
The Hunter smiled. There would be plenty of war left over for Gerhard…

He gazed up at the ceiling, and thought warmly of his kid brother. They were close. He remembered the enthusiastic light in Gerhard’s eyes when he had heard of his older brother’s decoration. Almost adoration. Such is the idealism of youth.
My little kid brother…
He remembered them playing as youngsters. Gerhard would cry when pushed over or sat on, but then he would be furious with himself. He would manfully bite his lower lip, and struggle against the tears.
Men never cried…
He blew hard, and scattered another unsuspecting blue cloud.

It was his father, of course. His father, the arch type Prussian nobleman, stern, austere, yet madly in love with his sons. Who taught them history, the way of the world, and showed them the future way of the Fatherland. Above all, he had given his sons self confidence.
The Hunter knew the purpose of his life, and never doubted.
To win was the purpose.
He was good at winning.

His eye fell on the large shoe box, and a slight frown furrowed his brow. Thank goodness the faithful Kramer always managed to separate the letters that mattered from the love letters.
This cult of the personality… his face appeared on postcards, match boxes, and playing cards. The blessed propaganda machine doing its worst. Why such an emphasis on individual fame? Did the British have the same system?

He picked up a pen and paper, and started to write…

Eleventh Combat squadron
Jan 27,1917

Dear Mamma,

I am certain you wonder at my silence. So much has happened in the meantime that I do not know where to start…

He grinned to himself. A lot had happened all right.
He looked at a piece of fabric mounted on the wall. It bore the serial number 5964. Major Lanoe Hawker’s aircraft. Ex-RFC. He thought of the machine gun which decorated the entrance to his door. A British Lewis. A trophy to be proud of. Won after a hard fought duel.
His combat report had been one of his usual brief claims.
But the memory was vivid. A letter had described his true feelings.

“…It did not take long before a British scout dived for me, trying to catch me from behind. After a burst of five shots, the cunning fellow had to stop, for I was already in a sharp left curve. The Englishman attempted to get behind me, while I attempted to get behind him. So it went, both of us flying like madmen in a circle, with engines running full out at three thousand metre altitude. First left, then right, each intent on getting above and behind the other. I was soon acutely aware that I was not dealing with a beginner, for he did not dream of breaking off the fight… ”

Yes, it had been quite a fight. 5964… The fellow had fought well. A worthy foe. A pleasing trophy…

“We went into circles again – fast and furious and as small as we could drive them. But always I kept above him and at times I could look down almost vertically into his cockpit and watch each movement of his head. If it had not been for his helmet and goggles, I could have seen what sort of face he had. ”

As it turned out later, the man’s face had been quite aristocratic. Even in death, it had maintained a certain composure, spoiled only by the blood that had trickled from his mouth and nostrils. The bullet through the back of the head had seen to that. Just like a shot rabbit…

“We were getting so close to the ground that he would soon have to decide whether he would land behind our lines or would break the circle and try to get back to his own side. ”

It had been an epic chase. The stuff that inspired pleasant memories in one’s old age. He would forever be able to sit around a fire and tell that story…

“The battle is now close to the ground. He is not a hundred yards above the earth. Our speed is terrific. He starts back for his front. He knows I am right behind him and close on his tail. He knows my gun barrel is trained on him. He starts to zigzag, making sudden darts right and left -left and right- confusing my aim and making it difficult for me to train my gun on him. But the moment is coming. I am fifty yards behind him. My machine gun is firing incessantly. We are hardly fifty yards above the ground – just skimming it. ”

The lines had been coming up. That sickening feeling the quarry was about to escape. That moment when the wounded rabbit escapes down the burrow. The deer reaches the safety of the bushes. So nearly, and yet…

“Now I am within thirty yards of him. He must fall. The gun pours out its stream of lead. Then it jams. Then it reopens fire. That jam almost saved his life. One bullet goes home. He is struck through the back of his head. His plane jumps and crashes down. It strikes the ground just as I swoop over… ”

He shut his eyes and relived that moment of triumph. That marvelous, glorious, supreme moment when one roars up into the sky, looking down on one’s enemy smashed to pieces on the ground.
Very, very gratifying.

“His machine gun rammed itself into the earth, and now it decorates the entrance over my door. He was a brave man, a sportsman and a fighter. ”

It had been close though. So close. The Englishman had hit the ground barely fifty yards from the first trenches. Seconds away. Just seconds. Maybe that was why this victory also pleased him so much. The sport had been excellent.

He chuckled quietly, and picked up his pen again.

Eleventh Combat squadron
January 27th, 1917

Dear Mamma,

I am certain you wonder at my silence. So much has happened in the meantime that I do not know where to start. I have been appointed commander of the Eleventh Combat Squadron stationed at Douai. I left the Boelcke squadron only very reluctantly. But no matter how hard I resisted I had to go. The Eleventh Squadron has been in existence as long as my former one, but so far it has no enemy to its credit, and the way they do things here is not very edifying….

He realized he was frowning. It was true. Morale had been low. The whole squadron had not had a single victory to its credit! Incredible! However, he had changed that.
He grinned again to himself. Oh yes…
Picking his pen up again, he continued his letter.

…I have twelve officers under my command. Luck has been with me. On the first time up with my new command, I brought down my seventeenth, and on the following day, number eighteen…

The faces of his men when he landed back! It was of paramount importance to lead by example. His own mentor, Boelcke, had lived by that rule. To show his new men so soon the killing way, that had suited him well. Their faces had mirrored elation and, also, some amazement.
Was shooting down the British really that easy?
That night in the mess he had lectured them, and poured out his ideas. Boelcke’s ideas. They had listened, in rapt attention.
Two damn good days. On the first day, the enemy pilot had obliged by falling out of his cockpit at a height of 500 meters, in full view of seven of Jasta Eleven’s other pilots. The aircraft had burned nicely, shooting up flames and black smoke. The only sour note had been the fact that it had crashed on the enemy’s side. That had been a pity. No trophies for the squadron walls. However, the next day had fixed that. Shooting down an F.E.2b, and forcing it to land near Vimy, he had been able to furnish some much needed tangible evidence of the vulnerability of the British. Although the crew had set fire to their machine, the two machine guns had been salvaged. The squadron had been able to hang up its first honors.
Two damn good days. Morale up. Two victories up.
A landing survived. Quite a landing.

…I was following my eighteenth victory down to make sure, when all of a sudden one of my wings broke at an altitude of 900 feet, and it was nothing short of a miracle that I reached the ground without a mishap.

Funny old business, those wing failures. The mechanics blamed it on the quality of the glue. It didn’t seem to penetrate the wood enough. He had seen samples where two pieces of wood had been glued together, and then later broken apart. Sometimes the glue joint held, and the wood splintered elsewhere. But, sadly, far too often the two pieces parted company exactly along the joint, as if the glue had simply failed. Odd.
He yawned. He would write a stinker of a letter to the manufacturers, Albatros Flugzeugwerke, and see what they could come up with. It didn’t do to have aeroplanes coming apart. It interfered with the hunt.

…On the same day my old Boelcke squadron lost three planes, among them dear little Immelmann – a thousand pities. It is quite possible that they met with a similar accident.

It was strange that his old squadron had suffered so grievously on the day that he had provided Jasta Eleven with their first trophies. If he had been still at his old squadron, would he have been able to prevent their losses?
He leaned back, and gazed up at the ceiling.
The fate of a squadron depended on leadership and team work. He had to lead by example. Maybe he could mould Jasta Eleven into a rival to the Boelcke squadron.
Yes, that would be something! To beat his old squadron.
He already had the Blue Max, Germany’s highest accolade for the airman. Now to make this squadron famous!

He yawned hugely. An answering yawn from somewhere near the floor made him chuckle. A huge head flopped onto his knee, and a pair of big eyes regarded him devotedly.
“Maurice, you old beggar! You sound as if you have had a hard day! ” He stroked the Great Dane’s head, and blessed the day he had acquired his pet.
Yes, a spot of leave would have been nice first. A rest, and a chance to show off his award.

…Unhappily, there is no chance of leave, and I would have liked to show you my Pour le Merite.

Too bad. The family celebrations would have to wait a while.
His eye fell on the shoe box again. Somewhere a door banged, and the occupant of the next room clattered about noisily. Maurice barked angrily. A smile spread across the face of the Hunter, and he kicked the wall, and banged it with his fist:
“Yo! Kurt! Come in here! ”
The clattering stopped, footsteps echoed in the corridor, and the door was opened a crack. A mischievous face appeared. “Herr Commandant! ”
The Hunter regarded him leisurely, a smile twitching at the corner of his mouth.
“You pervert! How is your love life these days!? ”
The mischievous face adopted a mock sad expression, and managed to do a passable imitation of a hangdog look.
“Not too well I’m afraid, Herr Commandant… the women do not seem to fall for us poor pilots with no victories. If only I could get my face on a box of matches! ”
The Hunter suppressed his chuckle. He liked Kurt Wolff. That man would go far. But for now…
He adopted a strict expression. “See that box!? Open it! ”
The airman obliged, raising his eyebrows in astonishment, as he studied the massed contents. A smell of perfume wafted up his nostrils, and he sniffed approvingly.

Mein lieber Gott! There had to be hundreds and hundreds of letters in there…

He turned to face his new Commandant, wondering how many of these letters the man had received already in his career. Lucky devil…
The eyes that studied him were cool and shrewd. Above all, cool.
The eyes of the Hunter.

The Baron snapped his order:
“Leutnant Wolff, you will see to it that these letters are distributed to the squadron! I hold you personally responsible for ensuring that they are all answered without fail! And… ”
He couldn’t stop a grin spreading across his face.
“…and DEALT with where necessary! If I receive ONE complaint from some unfortunate fraulein who has been overlooked… ” He wagged his finger expressively.
“I will have your guts for garters! ”
Kurt Wolff, a pilot with zero victories, destined to go on and secure fame in his own right, cracked his heels together, and saluted snappily.
“Jawohl, Herr Commandant! ”
Then he disappeared out the door in a blue streak. A few seconds later, a loud war whoop, receding in the distance, signaled his delight at this particular mission.
The Hunter looked up briefly, grinned, and went back to writing his letter to dearest Mamma.

F.M.
(c)


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