Jeremy’s War: Chapter 15 “Mutiny “
Posted on March 21, 2008
The muffled ‘kerrump’ as the fuel tank exploded reached Jeremy’s ears. It should have registered in his brain immediately, but there was a time lag. During which he was picked up by an invisible, red hot hand, carried bodily through the air, and smacked hard and painfully onto the ground. This winded him, and he groaned and gasped painfully for air. For several seconds he experienced that peculiar hiatus of panic and breathlessness, during which the fear of asphyxiation reigns supreme. Then his shocked system managed to restore some semblance of order, and organize the first shallow drafts of oxygen to his beleaguered body.
Now he became aware of other sensations. Intense pain from his face, and a smell of something burning.
He stood up unsteadily, and realized that his face was burned badly, and swelling up noticeably. His eyelashes appeared to have been singed behind his goggles. For if he half closed his eyes, he could see the burnt hairs as a fuzzy black residue. He took his gloves off slowly, and with trembling fingers he explored. His eyebrows were gone, and when he tried to smooth the remains of his eyelashes straight, he could feel gritty little pieces of carbon coming away as well. When he blinked, his vision was now clearer. He turned his attention to the hideous inferno that contained his friend. He knew straight away.
No man could survive that.
Great columns of black smoke and heat were now billowing across the ground, and beginning to envelop his own machine. He moved clear, and observed this. Then the thought registered that his own tanks might ignite with the heat soon. Half heartedly, his legs seemingly disjointed, with a will of their own, he stumbled back towards his machine. Absently, he noticed that even the paint was beginning to bubble and blister. He knew this was not a good thing, but puzzled why he couldn’t really get worked up about it. It was if he was in a heavy trance.
He shook his head vigorously.
“Come on lad… ”
The voice belonged to someone else.
“Better get a move on, old son “.
It sounded croaky and feeble, but it was definitely his own voice.
Then another sound commandeered his attention. Urgency registered now. He knew that sound. It brought horrible memories. With a surge of much needed adrenaline, he recognized the sound of machine gun fire. He looked up, his first nightmarish thought that he was about to be strafed on the ground again.
But no. It was another SE5. With green pennants flying.
Owen. He was shooting at something beyond a row of poplar trees. Odd. Which side of the lines were they on?
Oh, gawd. Oh, hell!
Awareness flooded back to him. He drew a deep breath, and dived into the billowing black smoke.
* * *
If Jeremy was talking to himself in a good natured way for encouragement, and to try and restore the workings of his mind, Owen’s language at two thousand feet was less temperate. His promises to himself what he would do to Jeremy if they -ever- got out of this mess, had graduated from a vicious kicking, via slow throttling, to brute machine-gunning against a wall. He could see a party of seven or eight German soldiers approaching across a field at a brisk trot. In the distance, approaching rapidly, he could see two Fokker D.V’s, presumably the survivors of the five ship formation they had previously encountered.
Also in the distance, much farther away, he could see three more dots approaching. Presumably everybody was attracted by the massive column of black smoke.
Meanwhile, Armstrong was sitting on the ground.
Owen’s brain reeled, and he debated the options.
One: cut and run.
In view of overwhelming odds approaching. In which case Armstrong would certainly be strafed on the ground.
Two: turn and fight the two Fokkers.
In which case, if Jeremy continued to hang around, he would be either strafed, shot, or captured.
Three: dive and have a quick burst at the foot soldiers, maybe kill a few, slow them down, warn Jeremy, and then climb to meet the attackers. In which case they would probably both be rubbed out. What a choice.
What a choice…
Rage welled up inside him, and at the top of his lungs he screamed:
“ARMSTRONG YOU BLOODY BASTAAAARRD!!!! “
But for the roar of his engine, and the howl of the slipstream, his voice would have echoed for miles…
Then he turned, dived screamingly at the foot soldiers, and opened fire…
* * *
Even as he slid in the cockpit and fumbled for the harness, Jeremy knew he was choking. He would never have time…
Coughing and spluttering, with tears pouring down his face, he taxied clear of the worst of the smoke, and then proceeded to don his harness. It took a bit of fiddling, and just as he was finishing, he looked up in time to see Owen attack two German aircraft head on. His eyes bulged in horror, and, without taxying back, he slammed the throttle open. Bumping and jolting, his machine careered off over the uneven terrain.
One main wheel dipped down a rabbit hole, and the resultant wobble brought the left wingtip down hard on a grassy knoll. It seemed impossible that the situation be reprieved, and Jeremy’s mind raced over the implications of a crash on take off. But somehow the machine bounced on, and now the tail was rising.
With the tail flying, Jeremy had his first proper look ahead. He groaned…
He would never make it. Ahead, in a crazily short distance, lay a row of trees, sticking up from a thick wild hedge. His eyes sought desperately for a gap, but there was none. Where was the lowest point?
Perhaps there? In between what looked like two birch trees stretched what seemed to be the lowest bit of hedge. He kicked the nose round in that direction, and exhorted his engine to produce more power. It was useless. He had one hundred yards where he needed two hundred. The thought of chopping the throttle and stopping, and taxying back for a longer take off run crossed his mind. But then he remembered the approaching enemy aircraft, and his ordeal in the ditch at the hands of the green and blue Albatros. It was too much to bear, and he pushed even harder on the throttle. It could go no further, but still he pushed harder, as if by his own physical effort he could propel the aircraft faster across the ground.
By now he was beyond the point of no return. There was no going back. Still the main wheels bounced heavily on the ground. With twenty yards to go, the wheels skipped more lightly, but that was all. With eight yards to go, he thought a prayer, and pulled back on the stick.
The nose of the aircraft rose up, and for a split second hope welled up like a fountain. The aircraft reached five or six feet…
Then the wings stalled. She mushed heavily, wallowed, and plunged downwards. There came a horrible crashing, cracking, tearing sound, and in seconds the machine was enveloped in a strange green whirling world of madly spinning leaves, twigs and branches.
Everywhere was noise, disaster, and visual confusion.
Jeremy’s brain stalled also, and instantly he became a passenger, wholly powerless to influence his fate.
* * *
Owen saw the ground ripped up in tufts, and two or three men fall awkwardly beneath his bullets. Their arms were thrown up unnaturally, their bodies writhing, and as he roared low overhead, he saw them sinking to their knees, still racked by spasms. The others had thrown themselves flat, and some were aiming rifles at him, but he neither knew nor cared where the bullets went.
He had built up useful speed in the dive, which he now converted into the steepest climb possible, turning to face the attack. Selecting the leader of the pair, he aimed to ram him, and opened fire at the last second. Tracer criss crossed, and he sensed bullets impacting around him. Then they hurtled past, the undercarriage of the Fokker so close he feared it would strike his top wing. He racked it round in a body punishing turn, and noticed one of the Fokkers peeling off and down. Guessing his target to be Jeremy, Owen side stepped the machine that drilled at him, and raced to cut off the other.
His thumb operated the guns, and a two second burst shredded the sky. The bullets abruptly stopped coming, and he squeezed the trigger as hard as he could.
Even as he darted a glance over his shoulder at the silhouette latching onto his tail, he knew he was lost.
His ammunition had run out, and he was fifteen miles behind German lines…
* * *
To Jeremy, the horror of events had slowed the world down to a virtual stop. He stared as if looking in from another world. His huge propeller hacked and chopped at the greenery with undiminished zest. The world he was looking into was small, with a radius measured in feet.
Only if he had been able to look up might he have seen a different color. It was all very odd. He wondered what was going to happen next. But in a detached way. He was only a passenger, and he would find out soon enough.
It was all very odd…
Abruptly, a different colour appeared through the propeller disc, and he could see –again, how odd– a hedge with trees in the distance…
Funny. What were those chaps doing?
With a roar the tortured SE5 piled through the hedge, with debris flying everywhere. The startled soldiers fell back, or threw themselves down. One unfortunate got the main undercarriage axle square in the temple. His neck snapped back, and was broken. Only two men thought of their rifles. One was slow, and missed by a mile. The other, younger and cooler, aimed well, and the bullet grazed Jeremy’s chin, stinging him and drawing blood.
The SE5 struggled on, accelerating once more from its near terminal encounter with the hedge.
Airborne at last, Jeremy searched and found the enemy first, and only then took in the damage with a quick glance. His heart sank. He seemed to be carrying half a forest with him. The lower port aileron was hanging by only one hinge, and, through the swaying foliage that had wrapped itself around the flying wires, he could just make out that there was a huge three foot rip in the under surface of the starboard upper wing. The edges of the damage fluttered merrily, and he wondered what effect the damaged controls would have on the handling.
He could see Owen twisting and turning, and, wearily, he turned to face an attacker. Two against two.
Then he saw the three Pfalz aircraft approaching, their black crosses catching the sun as they banked, and he wished he could just land again and give himself up.
He was going to die for sure this time.
What the hell. It was overdue, really.
He didn’t care anymore.
He would sell himself as dear as possible, and then die.
Simple as that.
* * *
The visitor was sipping brandy, and McAllister was pretending to listen intently to a story of an old school cricket match. The speaker, Colonel Raymond Laurence Rimell, was a bigwig from Wing Headquarters. So if a cricket match was what the big man wanted to talk about, then that was fine with McAllister. He would have professed a burning interest in a collection of butterflies if that had seemed appropriate…
He looked up startled as Sergeant Brinklow entered abruptly without knocking. His initial irritation gave way to puzzlement, as the sergeant spoke.
“Begging your pardon, Sir, but I think you should come quickly, Sir. ”
There was no mistaking the look of urgency in the man’s eyes. Without a question, he got up quickly, grabbed his cap and baton, and followed the sergeant out of the building. Rimell followed behind.
Even before he turned the corner, he could hear the shouting match. Somebody, somewhere, was furious. Beside himself with anger, in fact. Not for a long time had he heard such rage.
The scene that met his eyes shocked him. A flying officer, Lieutenant Owen, was holding another officer, stretched on his back on the ground, by the throat. Surrounding them was a collection of shocked ground staff, staring in bewilderment. The man on the ground, wisely perhaps, was not moving.
McAllister approached the battleground, rage mixing with disbelief that this should happen on this of all days, with a V.I.P. from Wing H.Q. present.
Unbelievable. What would the man think of his squadron?
* * *
It was astonishing to be alive. Utterly amazing. Dully, Jeremy reflected on this, and wondered why he had been given a new lease of life. That assumed of course that Owen didn’t squeeze his windpipe any harder. He was beginning to choke.
He didn’t feel any anger towards Owen. The man had a point. More than anything else, Jeremy just wanted to go to his room, and be alone. Let Owen rant and rave on, he would finish eventually, and then Jeremy could go and maybe even sleep.
What ever else, he had to admit Owen gave a truly wonderful (if slightly repetitive) chewing out. Delivered at full volume, with arteries pumped full of blood, eyes staring madly, Owen was indeed a sight to behold.
“You stupid BASTARD!…
YOU crazy blithering IMBECILE!…
you damn near killed the BOTH OF us…
and I hate getting killed…
I HATE IT!…
what a time to go and pick BLOODY DAISIES!… fifteen miles behind enemy lines, and you have to go for A STUPID BLOODY WALK…
and me, I’m the BIGGER FOOL for hanging about for you… BASTARD!..
if it hadn’t been for those Sopwiths turning up we’d have been DEAD MEAT!…
WILL YOU EVER THINK, ARMSTRONG, THINK, YOU STUPID BASTARD!!!
The voice that cut in would, in normal circumstances, have been a relief for Jeremy.
“Lieutenant Owen! Stop that this instant! ”
But it wasn’t…
Bloody McAllister! What does he know?
Slowly and stiffly, both men got up, covered in mud. Jeremy’s chin and neck were also covered in blood.
McAllister, painfully aware of Rimell observing all, tried to master the situation.
Standing stiffly, with his baton just so, he tried to bellow authoritatively.
“What the dickens is going on! Stand to attention! Lieutenant Owen, explain yourself! ”
Owen jutted his chin forward, refused to do anything else but slouch, spat some mud onto the ground, and answered evenly:
“Nothing going on, Sir. Just a private matter between my wingman and myself. ”
Jeremy nodded in absolute agreement.
McAllister, rapidly going puce in the face, shouted:
“I said: Stand to attention! I’ll ask you again. What the dickens is all this about? ”
Before Owen could say anything, McAllister rounded on the bystanders, and sent them scurrying. Then he turned to Owen again. He hoped and prayed for a civil reply.
Owen just glared. Jeremy, hacked off, couldn’t care less.
McAllister tried once more.
“Lieutenant Owen! For the last time… ”
He got no further.
With an irreverent “Aw, go to hell! “, Owen turned around and stomped off in the direction of the mess.
McAllister, all authority gone, could only stare in open mouthed amazement.
Jeremy decided to add his twopence.
“Yeah, good idea. Go to hell! ”
Then, he too, turned around and stomped off after Owen.
McAllister, making inarticulate noises, found speech impossible. A sound like a smothered snigger reached his ears from behind him. He whirled around, but Colonel Raymond Laurence Rimell, veteran of hand to hand combat in the Boer wars of South Africa, had already carefully wiped his face clear of any emotion.
* * *
The next day, the entire squadron was paraded in front of McAllister. Cleaned up, there remained little evidence of the previous day’s events. A careful bystander would have noticed that some of the eyes appeared more deeply sunken in their sockets. Some of the stares seemed vacant and disinterested. If they focussed on anything, the point was one thousand yards away.
Jeremy Armstrong sported a bandage on his chin, had no eyebrows, and seemed very red and puffy in the face.
McAllister was reading the riot act.
His usual lecture on the behavior of officers and gentlemen was now in the process of being delivered at a great deal of decibels, with much furious staring from six inches distance into impassive faces. He wandered up and down, seemingly addressing each pilot individually as well as collectively.
Nobody except the new men, O’Gormen, and a pale youth named Woodman, took the blindest bit of notice.
Up and down he marched, lecturing, haranguing, and even threatening.
It was a fine performance.
Then, after twenty minutes, he mellowed a little. Became more agreeable. Even implored.
He actually thought he was doing well. Maybe it was time to wind up, and deliver a final pep talk.
Yes, that was it.
“…so, in conclusion, Gentlemen. I want you to fight as British airmen. Steadfast, resolute, unflinching in the face of death. Remember the great historical contribution you are fortunate to find yourself in a position to be able to make. In decades to come, men will admire your deeds, and your spirit. Above all, your thirst for victory regardless of cost… will be admired. ”
Had he heard a quiet snigger? Surely not. Irritation set in, and he scanned the faces in front of him suspiciously.
“…I want to see us carry the battle to the enemy. No skulking on this side of the lines. Go for the jugular. In other words, I want to see AGGRESSIVE patrols… ”
There was that damn snigger again. Unbelievable. He had to stamp this out. If he let the rot continue…
Jeremy was thinking about all the death and destruction. Digsby. His funeral. Baines. The desperate plea. The huddled shape slumped forwards in the cockpit, surrounded by a wall of fire. Pinky’s death. Overwhelmed by the enemy, whilst McAllister made damn sure he was nowhere near the action… He guessed the rest of the old hands were all thinking similar thoughts. The voice of the Agitator had been ringing in his ears…
So you, kind Sir, believe the sacrifices made by our gallant men are in the most noble of causes? I see. You believe this is a war of principle, of purity, of evil versus good? I see.
(a pause, whilst his words sink in)
Can you then explain to us, kind Sir, why it is that the manufacturers of the guns and the bombs grow rich and fat upon the proceeds of this most noble cause?
Or would you, kind Sir, have us believe that the gentry who supply the war effort, who sell the guns, the bombs, the boots, the uniforms, the aeroplanes, the ships… would you, kind Sir, have us believe that the gentry supply these goods for free? For the sake of principle? (laughter) In a spirit of self sacrifice? (loud laughter)
Would you have us believe they do NOT make a fat profit out of the misery and blood of our boys in the trenches?
(laughter, fury, screams, shouts, pushing and jostling)
McAllister’s voice echoed through his mind.
“I want AGGRESSIVE patrols… ”
He felt a deep contempt at those words, and a muscle twitched disdainfully in his chin. The corner of his mouth dipped down momentarily, a fragment of his inner feelings bubbling to the surface.
Quick as light, McAllister was on top of him. His nose was six inches from Jeremy’s.
“Anything on your mind, Armstrong? ”
The answer came slow and even, and would have warned a more cautious man off.
“No. Sir. ”
McAllister was past caring, driven frantic by the sense of challenge to his authority.
“Well, speak man, speak! If you’ve anything to say, now’s your chance! Let’s all hear it!! ”
Slowly, Jeremy’s eyes refocused from a thousand yards away to the face in front of him.
McAllister, sensing a bubbling cauldron, would have done well to back off strategically. Still he came on, oblivious to the risks of getting scalded.
The seconds ticked away. The man had said nothing, and, satisfied, McAllister turned away.
The voice that spoke then was quiet, and infinitely deadly.
“You did say offensive patrols, didn’t you, Sir? ”
McAllister whirled round.
A pin dropping would have shattered everybody’s nerves. Jeremy thought of Pinky, and his jaw set squarely and stubbornly.
“…you would know all about that, wouldn’t you, Sir? ”
There had been no mistaking the deadly sarcasm.
* * *
The mess was oddly quiet. People smoked, read, and played billiards. Nobody talked. But, oddly, there was an air of grim satisfaction in the air. Quiet, unspoken satisfaction. Jeremy reflected that the airmen in that room were probably closer together now than ever before.
He thought of the reaction.
McAllister had gone white with rage. He had ranted and raved. Drops of spittle had rained on Jeremy’s face.
Who couldn’t have cared less.
Then McAllister had made another mistake. And shouted that if anybody else agreed with Armstrong, they should say so.
Instantly, Greenhall had stepped forward.
“I agree with Armstrong, Sir! ”
Perky. “I agree with Armstrong, Sir! ”
Porky. “I agree with Armstrong, Sir! ”
Owen. “I agree with Armstrong, Sir! ”
Patterson, a veteran after one week. “I agree with Armstrong, Sir! ”
Even O’Gormen, after hesitation, had stepped forward, saying nothing. He didn’t have a clue what was going on, but he wasn’t going to be left out…
Only Woodman, thoroughly bewildered, mouth agape, had stared unbelievingly as his illusions of squadron life disappeared in a matter of seconds.
McAllister, almost hysterical, had waved his fist under Jeremy’s nose, and with a “This is your doing, Armstrong! I’ll be watching you! “, he had strutted off, furious.
Entering his office, he had slammed the door.
After a pause, Greenhall had dismissed the men.
Jeremy sank back in his chair, watching the cigarette smoke curl ominously up to the ceiling.
“I’ll be watching you… “
He shrugged his shoulders. In a mere three weeks at the front, he had aged twenty years. He was unrecognizable from the lad who had traveled hopefully.
He was also disillusioned, cynical, and hardened.
What the hell…