“God damn it!”
McGinn cursed at himself as he craned his neck above the windscreen into the whipping wind, trying to catch a glimpse of his flight. At 2,000 meters the skies where clear and blue in all directions, just low cloud cover way below. How he could get separated during this simple “milk run” was beyond him…but that was pretty much how it had gone every day over the last three weeks since he was assigned to this squadron. He worked his way thru gliders, mail planes and eventually Sopwith Pup’s during his training back at home at the Montrose Air Station and he had convince himself that he was “Ace” material. But this cursed Sopwith Camel was like a wild beast in his hands. Powerful yes, but it required a master’s touch to keep it under control. His underachievement was not lost on his Captain and the result was a string of training assignments like the one he had today. And now to get separated from his three squad mates while going on another “orientation flight”. The Captain would kill him, to say nothing about the snickers from the old timers back at the Aerodrome!
His Captain’s direction had been clear enough.
“If you get separated, head back to base.”
Thankfully he knew his landmarks and he was confident he knew how to get back to the airfield. Reluctantly he banked to the west and started heading back. The skies where empty and he was safe and alone, stewing in his own disappointment. He distracted himself by following the path of a group of cranes silhouetted against the low cloud cover below him. Suddenly something shiny just caught his eye thru a break in the clouds. He looked closer and where the clouds thinned he could make out the shape of a plane. At last he had found his mates… but his heart raced when he made out the distinctive bright lozenge markings and German crosses on the top wing. The low cloud cover broke and the Fokker D7 was clearly visible. It was all by itself heading west, deeper and deeper into Entente territory!
It made no sense to McGinn that this plane would be alone so far away from its own territory. He scanned the skies above and below; making sure this wasn’t a ruse. Even from his high altitude position he could see the pilot’s heads turning from side to side frantically and his best guess was that he was lost. McGinn’s could feel his heart start to race when he realized he was in perfect position, 500 meters high, sun at his back, both he and the Fokker heading due west. His hand was shaking as he slowly reached up and charged his Vickers machine gun. Cutting his throttle and he gradually pushed the stick forward. The Camel’s nose dipped and gradually the Fokker distinctive shape came into view. His stomach floated as the speed built up. The wires started to vibrate, canvas whipping against the wood frame and the air noise got louder and louder. He felt his whole body push against the harness, lighter than air as he hit 160 km/ hr and his vision started to blur. The Fokker was growing quickly in his iron gun sight and he fought with both hands to keep his alignment. As the tail section filled his view he pressed the firing button…..one long burst. Wood and canvas exploded as the machine gun burst marched up the tail section and thru the cockpit. That view was just a flash, a second really, because he had to dip further down to avoid a collision, than off to the right and pulled the joystick hard into his gut.
Now he felt like he weighed a 1,000 pounds, being mashed by a giant weight into his seat. He tried to move his head but he couldn’t. He felt dangerously close to blacking out. He had to take advantage of his dive and get altitude back, that much of his training had soaked in. At the top of his loop his vision cleared and he could move better so he twisted in his seat to catch a view of the Fokker. He was shocked to see it was still flying straight ahead, level and slow. This was not what he expected. Cautiously he pulled the Camel around to the high six of his German enemy, and still no evasion, no dogfight at all. As he got closer he could see the pilot was slumped forward in his cockpit. He was thrilled…his first kill and he did it with one burst!
The excitement started to wane some when he realized that he was all alone…no witnesses… no credit. The Fokker was still flying straight and true, due west, slowly dropping in altitude. McGinn thought to himself, “Well…what the hell!” and resolved to escort his German enemy until someone came into view that could confirm his kill.
This odd paring of German lead with Entente escort flew deeper and deeper into friendly territory dropping closer and closer to the ground. Eventually an Aerostat came into view and fired a flare. McGinn waived. The Fokker started dipping to one side as the supply road filled with soldiers came into view. He was close enough to the ground now he could see their faces as they looked up at him. He stuck his chest out and gave them a jaunty “thumbs-up”… WW1 Flying Ace acknowledges his troops! With all these witnesses, clearly he would get credit for this kill now.
Like a slow sick ballet, the Fokker twisted over, gradually becoming inverted and hit the ground sliding on its top wing. Clouds of dust and debris flew up, but the plane came to rest in tact just a few yards from the supply road. If McGinn followed his Captains orders he should head back now, but his mind wandered back to his squadmates. He was the lone Scotsman among a crowd of English braggarts. These veteran pilots had been in this war for several months and many had “trophies” over their bunks. Bits of canvas with German Crosses or Serial numbers cut from the planes they shot down. They would bore him for hours with their rambling descriptions of impossible dogfights. There was a perfectly decent flat field to the side of the supply road, he was already separated from his flight, what difference would it make if he made a quick stop before heading back?
He could hardly contain himself when he landed in the field, fumbling with his harness. He grabbed his pocket knife from his kit and climbed out of the crate. He was little dizzy when he his boots hit the dirt, but it felt good. He was on the opposite side of the supply road filled with infantryman and he broke into a run as he made his way up the slope. The road was jammed with dull eyed soldiers and he fought his way thru the crowd.
“Make way, Make way! Officer trying to get thru!” McGinn called out as he jostled and shoved his way thru the men. Some cursed at him. Considering they had all witnessed his kill, he expected a bit more respect than this.
Finally he made it to the Fokker D7, laying on its back in all its glory, canvas badly ripped on one side. He was filled with pride as he pulled out his pocket knife. The canvas made a very satisfying ripping sound as he cut out the plane name and number. Hands on his hips, trophy in hand he turned towards the soldiers on the supply road hoping for some acknowledgement of his great success. The soldiers shuffled slowly along the road and he was disappointed that none of them even looked up at him. However many of them did slow down and peer thru the gaping hole in the side of the canvas. He followed their eyes and saw that on the other side, two infantry man had pulled the German pilot from the cockpit and were laying him down carefully on the ground next to his cockpit. McGinn’s scuffled around the plane, he was excited at the thought of seeing his adversary eye to eye and perhaps even more possible trophies. Maybe a German pistol, or even better, German medals?
These thoughts left him as soon as he caught a glimpse of the pilot. He was just a boy, several years younger than McGinn. He looked so restful, laying on the ground, no real evidence of the violence he just had experienced. What caught McGinn’s eye were the Entente soldiers who kept marching by, peering thru the large gaping whole in the canvas. Some slowed and looked at the young pilot, some gave McGinn a slight nod of acknowledgment, others cursed and spit in the dirt. A young soldier, maybe 16 years old, stopped and blessed himself. Others tapped him on the shoulder and he moved on. But mostly they just marched by, face after face, oblivious to the spectacle framed by the ripped canvas like a picture frame.
For the first time McGinn looked up beyond the faces to the supply road. that stretched out for miles to the horizon. The line of soldiers was endless, not hundreds, not thousands, but hundreds of thousands, all heading east to the front lines. “The Big Push” he had heard about was clearly on. What struck him was how quiet they were. You could hear the shuffling of feet, clanking of equipment, occasional murmuring of muffled conversations. This was in stark contrast to the constant ground shaking explosions of artillery shells exploding to the east. If you looked east you could see flashes above the trenches. The same trenches where these men were marching.
McGinn looked back at the young German pilot, his blond hair and pale skin contrasted against the disturbed soil. He began to feel ill and embarrassed. He stuffed the canvas scrap and pocket knife into his field blouse. Carefully he stepped his way around the plane, he knew it was time to get back. When he crossed the supply road he was careful to find a gap in the line and apologized to the young soldiers as he passed thru.
He climbed back into the cockpit and got some help to get the prop turning. The popping and sputtering of the Claret engine cleared his mind and his stomach started to settle. It was a relief to feel the bumpy ground give way to the open skies. As he gained altitude he looked down and the supply road once again became a long thin line in an abstract landscape.
He tried to focus on his instruments and getting the Camel under control, but he knew those images of the faces passing thru the gap in the canvas would stay with him for a long, long time.
* the historical picture that inspired the story