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Title: Air Men o' War
Author: Cable, Boyd
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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Normalised hyphenation and punctuation. Obvious typos corrected, but
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AIR MEN O' WAR



    +--------------------------------------------------------------+
    |                     _BY THE SAME AUTHOR_                     |
    +--------------------------------------------------------------+
    |                                                              |
    |                      BETWEEN THE LINES                       |
    |                         _$1.50 net_                          |
    |                                                              |
    |                         ACTION FRONT                         |
    |                         _$1.50 net_                          |
    |                                                              |
    |                       DOING THEIR BIT                        |
    |                         _$1.25 net_                          |
    |                                                              |
    |                       GRAPES OF WRATH                        |
    |                         _$1.50 net_                          |
    |                                                              |
    |                         FRONT LINES                          |
    |                         _$1.50 net_                          |
    |                                                              |
    +--------------------------------------------------------------+
    |                     E. P. DUTTON & COMPANY                   |
    +--------------------------------------------------------------+



    AIR MEN O' WAR

    BY

    BOYD CABLE

    AUTHOR OF "BETWEEN THE LINES," "ACTION FRONT,"
    "GRAPES OF WRATH," "FRONT LINES," ETC.

    [Illustration]

    NEW YORK
    E. P. DUTTON & COMPANY
    681 Fifth Avenue



    Copyright 1919
    By E. P. DUTTON & COMPANY

    _All Rights Reserved_

    _Printed in the United States of America_



                                TO ALL

                            AIR MEN O' WAR

  AND ESPECIALLY TO THOSE WHO ARE OR HAVE BEEN ON THE WESTERN FRONT,
  WHOSE HOSPITALITY AND FRIENDSHIP I HAVE ENJOYED, AND TO WHOSE HELP
 AND INTEREST THESE TALES ARE LARGELY DUE, THIS BOOK IS DEDICATED AS A
     TRIBUTE OF ADMIRATION AND A TOKEN OF CHERISHED FRIENDSHIP BY

                                                            The Author.

  In the Field,
  _September 5th_, 1918.



FOREWORD


It has been my endeavour throughout these tales not only to chronicle
some of the wonderful work done in the air, but also to show the
connection between it and that of the Armies on the ground, the
assistance rendered in so many ways by the air arm, and its value in
a battle and in a campaign. I hope that my stories may show something
of the skill and daring of the air men and--what is less well known to
the public--how much they are doing to save the lives and cut down the
casualties of the men on the ground, and to help our arms to victory.

Already I have been rebuked for exaggerating and making my characters
perform impossible feats, so I may forewarn the reader that I have
written nothing here for which I cannot find an actual parallel--and
in some cases even more wonderful--fact. Practically every incident I
have pieced into my tales has, to my own knowledge, occurred, and I
have left untold many which for sheer sensationalism would beat these
hollow. There are many in the Air Force who will recognise incidents
and feats, but will not recognise the characters I have attached to
them, because--mainly at the urgent wish of the men themselves--I have
used entirely fictitious characters and names throughout. Because most
of the writing was done while the R.N.A.S. and R.F.C. were still in
existence I have left this as written.

I ask the indulgence of critical readers amongst the air men to any
technical errors they may discover (knowing how keenly they will look
for them). I make no pretence to being a flying man myself, but because
I have done flying enough--or rather have been flown, since I am not
a pilot--to know and appreciate some of the dangers and risks and
sensations of the work, and have lived for over a year in the Squadrons
at the Front, I cherish the hope that I have absorbed enough of the
nature and atmosphere of the work to present a true picture of the
life. I shall be very well content if I have been able to do this, and,
in any slightest degree, make plain how vital to success a strong Air
Force is. I have had experience enough of the line, and have gained
enough knowledge of the air, to be tremendously impressed with the
belief, which I have tried in this book to pass on and spread, that
every squadron added, every man trained, every single machine put in
the air, helps in its own measure to bring us to final victory, more
quickly, and at a less cost in the long and heavy "butcher's bill" of
the war.



CONTENTS


    CHAPTER                           PAGE

    I. Silver Wings                      1

    II. Bring Home the 'Bus             14

    III. A Tender Subject               32

    IV. A Good Day                      46

    V. A Rotten Formation               57

    VI. Quick Work                      68

    VII. The Air Masters                80

    VIII. "The Attack was Broken"       94

    IX. If They Knew----               107

    X. The Fo-fum's Reputation         120

    XI. Like Gentlemen                 131

    XII. "Air Activity"                146

    XIII. The Little Butcher           164

    XIV. A Cushy Job                   178

    XV. No Thoroughfare                185

    XVI. Thrills                       196

    XVII. The Sequel                   212

    XVIII. The Raid Killers            232



I

SILVER WINGS


An old man working in one of the aircraft factories once complained
that he was not very satisfied with his job. "I've got three boys
out Front, all in the infantry; and I keep thinkin' to myself, Why
shouldn't I be doin' some sort of munition work that 'ud help my own
three boys? I don't know a livin' soul in the Flyin' Corpse; why should
I be workin' for them, an' not makin' shells or bombs or suthin' that
'ud be helpin' my own three boys?"

And then somebody told him how he _was_ helping his boys, what the
work of the air services really meant, how the artillery observation,
and photographing, and bombing, and directing the guns on to hostile
batteries and machine-gun emplacements, and so on, all worked up to the
one great end, to making the task easier for the infantry, to saving
the lives of the men on the ground; and told a few stories of some of
the ninety and nine ways this help works out.

The old man was fully satisfied and grateful for all that was told
him, and declared he'd go back to his job with twice the heart--"just
knowin' I'm doin' mebbe the best work I could, and that I'm givin' real
help to my own three boys."

Amongst the tales told him the one of "Silver Wings" perhaps impressed
him most, and that, probably because it bore more plainly its own
meaning of help to the infantry, was more easy to make clear than the
technicalities of artillery observation and the rest.

And just because it is such a good instance of how, after all, the
chief or only end and aim of the air services is the helping to victory
of the men on the ground this story of "Silver Wings" may be worth the
telling here.

Hard fighting had been in progress for some days, and the flying
men had been kept desperately busy from dawn to dark on the various
branches of their several works, when a "dud day"--a day of rain and
squalls and hurricane winds--gave them a chance to rest.

Toward afternoon the weather showed signs of abating a little, and
word came through to the Squadron to which "Silver Wings" belonged
asking if they could get a machine in the air and make a short patrol
over the line on a special reconnaissance. A heavy and unpleasantly
gusty wind was still blowing, but a pilot and machine were picked for
the job and presently made the attempt. An anxious Squadron Commander
and a good many of the pilots watched the trial and saw the quick
result. The machine was brought out with mechanics hanging to the
wing-tips to steady her against the gusts, the engine started and given
a trial run up; then the pilot eased her off, looked round, felt his
controls, ran the engine up again until his machine was throbbing and
quivering to the pull of the whirling propeller, and waved the signal
to haul away the chocks that blocked his wheels. His machine began at
once to taxi up into the wind, still swaying and swinging dangerously,
and then, in answer to the pilot's touch, lifted clear of the ground,
ducked a second, rose again and swooped upward. The watching crowd let
go a breath of relief as she rose clear, but before the breath was out
it changed to a gasp of horror as the machine, caught by some current
or eddy of wind, swerved, heeled, righted under the desperate effort
of the pilot, slipped sideways, and with a sudden swoop plunged and
crashed on the ground. The machine was hopelessly smashed and the pilot
was dead when they ran and came to him and picked him up.

The Squadron Commander would have abandoned or postponed the attempt
to get a machine up, but the pilot of "Silver Wings" spoke to him
and urged that he be allowed to have a try. "I'm sure I can get her
off," he said. "I'll take her right over to the far side of the ground
clear of the currents round the sheds. I know what she can do, and I'm
certain I can make it."

So the Major gave a reluctant consent, and they all watched
breathlessly again while "Silver Wings" fought her way along the ground
against the wind, lifted suddenly, drove level for a hundred feet,
swooped sickeningly again until her wheels were a bare six feet off
the ground, hoicked up and away. Everyone could see by her dips and
dives and sudden heelings and quick righting how bumpy and gusty the
air was, and it was not until she was up several hundred feet, and came
curving round with the wet light shining on her silvery planes that the
watchers on the ground heaved a sigh of relief, watched her streak off
down wind, and swing in a climbing turn that lifted her farther and
farther into the safety of height.

"He's all right now," said one. "Only, the Lord help him when he comes
to land again." The hum of the engine droned down to them, and the
shining wings wheeled again close up against the dark background of the
low clouds and shot swiftly down wind towards the lines.

Over the lines she turned again and began to fight her way across
wind and moving slowly north. The wind constantly forced her drifting
over Hunland, and in accordance with his orders to hold close along
the front, the pilot had to keep making turns that brought him facing
back to the west and fighting slowly up wind, edging off a little and
slanting north and watching the landscape slide off sideways under
him. And so, tacking and manœuvring buffeted and wind-blown, he edged
his way along the front, his eyes alternately on the instrument-board
and on the ground and puffing shell smoke beneath, his ears filled
with the roar of his engine and the shriek and boom of the wind
beating about him, his hands and feet in constant motion, juggling
with controls, feeling, balancing, handling the throbbing horse-power
and the wind-tossed fabric under him. And so at last, at the end of a
hard-fought hour, he came to the spot he sought, circled and "sat over
it" for five minutes, and watched and tried to pick up the details of
the struggle that spluttered and spat in smoke-puffs and flashing jets
of fire and leaping spouts of earth and smoke beneath him. He began
to piece together the meaning of what he could see, and of what he
had been told before he set out. A body of our infantry in the attack
had gone too far, or their supports had not come far enough, with the
result that they had been cut off and surrounded and were fighting
desperately to hold off the infantry attacks that pressed in on them
under a heavy supporting artillery fire. The cut-off party were hidden
from the view of our front line by a slight ridge and a wrecked and
splintered wood, and their desperate straits, the actual fact of their
still being in existence, much less their exact location, was unknown
to our side. This much the pilot knew or was able to figure out; what
he could not know was the surge of hope, the throb of thankfulness that
came to the hard-pressed handful below him as they saw the glancing
light flash from his hovering "Silver Wings." They made signals to him,
waving a dirty flag and straining their eyes up for any sign that he
saw and understood. And with something very near to despair in their
hearts they saw the shining wings slant and drive slowly up into the
wind and draw away from over their heads.

"No good, Jones," said a smoke and dirt-grimed young officer to the man
still waving the flag. "He doesn't see us, I'm afraid. Better put that
down and go back and help hold off those bombers."

"Surely he'd hear all this firing, sir," said the man, reluctantly
ceasing to wave.

"I think his engine and the wind drowns any noise down here," said the
officer. "And if he hears anything, there's plenty of heavy gunfire all
along the front going up to him."

"But wouldn't he see the shells falling amongst us, sir, and the bombs
bursting, and so on?" said the man.

"Yes; but he is seeing thousands of shells and bombs along the line
from up there," said the officer; "and I suppose he wouldn't know this
wasn't just a bit of the ordinary front."

Another man crawled over the broken débris of the trench to where they
stood. "Mister Waller has been hit, sir," he said; "an' he said to tell
you it looks like they was musterin' for another rush over where he is."

"Badly hit?" said the officer anxiously. "All right, I'll come along."

"He sees us, sir," said the man with the flag, in sudden excitement.
"Look, he's fired a light."

"Pity we haven't one to fire," said the officer. "But that might be a
signal to anyone rather than to us."

He turned to crawl after the man who had brought the message, and at
the same moment a rising rattle of rifle-fire and the quick following
detonations of bursting bombs gave notice of a fresh attack being
begun. Still worse, he heard the unmistakable tat-tat-tat of renewed
machine-gun fire, and a stream of bullets began to pour in on them from
a group of shell-holes to their right flank, less than a hundred yards
from the broken trench they held. Under cover of this pelting fire,
that forced the defenders to keep their heads down and cost them half
a dozen quick casualties amongst those who tried to answer it, the
German bombers crept closer in from shell-hole to shell-hole, and their
grenades came over in faster and thicker showers. The little circle of
ground held by the group belched spurts of smoke, hummed to the passage
of bullets, crackled and snapped under their impact, quivered every now
and then to the crash and burst of shells. They had been fighting since
the night before; they were already running short of ammunition, would
have been completely short of bombs but for the fact of the ground they
had taken having held a concreted dug-out with plentiful stores of
German bombs and grenades which they used to help out their own supply.
The attack pressed savagely; it began to look as if it would be merely
a matter of minutes before the Germans rushed the broken trenches they
held, and then, as they knew, they must be overwhelmed by sheer weight
of numbers. Waller, the wounded officer, had refused to be moved. "I'll
stay here and see it out," he said; "I don't suppose that will be long
now;" and the other, the young lieutenant who was the only officer
left on his feet by this time, could say no more than a hopeful "Maybe
we'll stand 'em off a bit yet," and leave him there to push along the
trench to where the fire and bombing were heaviest and where the rush
threatened to break in.

The din was deafening, a confused uproar of rifles and machine-guns
cracking and rattling out in front and banging noisily in their own
trench, of bombs and grenades crashing sharply on the open or booming
heavily in the trench bottom, of shells whooping and shrieking overhead
or _crumping_ savagely on the ground, and, as a background of noise to
all the other noises, the long rolling, unbroken thunder of the guns on
both sides far up and down the lines.

But above all the other din the lieutenant caught a new sound, a
singing, whirring _boo-oo-oom_ that rose to a deep-throated roar with
a sharp staccato _rap-tap-tap-tap_ running through it. He looked up
towards the sound and saw, so close that he half ducked his head, a
plunging shape, a flashing streak of silver light that swept over his
head and dived straight at the ground beyond his trench, with stabbing
jets of orange flame spitting out ahead of it. A bare fifty feet off
the ground where the Germans crouched in their shell-holes "Silver
Wings" swooped up sharply, curved over, dived again with the flashes
of her gun flickering and streaming, and the bullets hailing down on
the heads of the attackers. It was more than the Germans, lying open
and exposed to the overhead attack, could bear. They scrambled from
their holes, floundered and ran crouching back for the shelter of
deeper trenches, while the lieutenant, seeing his chance, yelled and
yelled again at his men to fire, and seized a rifle himself to help
cut down the demoralised attack. He could see now how close a thing
it had been for them, the weight of the attack that presently would
have swarmed over them. The ground was alive with running, scrambling
grey figures, until the bullets pelting amongst them cut them down or
drove them headlong to cover again. Then his men stopped firing and
watched with hoarse cheering and shouts the dives and upward leaps of
the silvery shape, her skimmings along the ground, her upward wheeling
climbs followed by the plunging dives with fire spitting and sparkling
from her bows. The Germans were firing at her now with rifles and
machine-guns until she turned on the spot where these last were nested,
drove straight at them and poured long clattering bursts of fire upon
them until they were silenced.

Then she turned and flew over the broken British trenches so close
that the men in them could see the leather-clad head and arm of the
pilot leaning over the side, could see his wave to them, the flung
packet that dropped with fluttering streamers down amongst them. The
packet carried a note jerkingly scribbled in pencil: "Hang on. I'm
taking word of where you are, so that they can send help to you. Good
luck."

The lieutenant, when he had read, handed the message to a sergeant
and told him to pass it along round the men. And they read and shouted
cheers they knew he could not hear to the pilot lifting the "Silver
Wings" steadily into the sky and back towards the lines. He was high
enough now for the "Archies" to bear on him again, and from their
trenches the men watched with anxious hearts and throbs of fear and
hope the black puffs of smoke that broke rapidly above, below, and
about the glinting silver. He made desperately slow speed against the
heavy wind, but fortunately had not far to go before he was far enough
back to be over the lines and out of reach of the Archies. Then just
when it seemed that he was safe, when the Archie shells had ceased
suddenly to puff about him, the watchers saw another machine drop from
the cover of a cloud, dive straight down on the little silver shape,
saw the silver wings widen as they turned sharply upward to face the
enemy, wheel and shoot sideways to avoid the dive. With beating hearts
and straining eyes they watched the two dipping and curving, lifting
and diving, wheeling and circling about each other. The battle noises
drowned all sound of their guns, but they knew well the rapid rattle of
fire that was going on up there, the exchange of shots, the streaming
bullets that poured about both, thought at last they could catch the
sound of the firing clearly, could see the black cross and circled red,
white, blue, that marked enemy and friend as the two machines drifted
back in their fighting down wind until they were almost overhead.
Once the watchers gasped as the enemy dived on "Silver Wings" and she
slipped sideways and came down a thousand feet nose first and spinning
in dizzy circles. The gasp changed to a cry of relief as the "Silver
Wings" righted, zoomed sharply up, whirled round, and in turn dived
on the enemy machine, that had overshot his pursuing dive and come
below her. And the cry changed again to a yell of applause, a burst
of cheers, as the enemy swerved suddenly, slid drunkenly sideways
and down, rolled over, and fell away in a spinning dive, swoop after
sickening swoop, that ended crashing in a clump of wood half a mile
away. A wind-blown torrent of streaming black smoke marked the place of
the fall and the fate of the enemy. "Silver Wings" turned again, and
fought her way back towards the lines, with the Archie shells puffing
and splashing about her.

Down in their trenches the isolated cluster of men set about
strengthening their defences with new heart, made with a new hope
preparations to withstand the next attacks. It was not long before they
had help--a help that the guns, knowing now exactly where they were
although they could not see, could send in advance of the rescuing
attack. A barrage of shells began to pound down beyond them, out to
their right and left, and even behind them. "Silver Wings" had dropped
her message, and the shells brought the answer plain to the cut-off
party. They knew that they were located, that the guns would help out
their defence, that rescue would come to them as speedily as might be.

The actual rescue came presently in the shape of an attack over the
ground they had covered the day before. Before it came they had to
beat off one or two more enemy rushes, but this time the help of those
barraging shells stood them in good stead, the sweeping shrapnel
prevented the enemy creeping in to occupy in comparative safety the
shell-holes round the position, the steady fall of high explosives
broke down the enemy trenches and checked free movement in them. The
Germans were badly pounded on that portion of front, so that when the
rescuing attack was made, it fought its way rapidly forward, and the
isolated party were able to do something to help it merely by hanging
to their position, by rear and flanking fire on the Germans who held
the ground between them and the attacking line. The attack resulted in
the whole line being pushed forward to the ridge behind the separated
party, holding it, and thrusting forward a little salient which took in
the ground the party had hung to so stoutly, consolidated, and held it
firm.

The rescued men were passed back to their lines, and--most of them--to
the casualty clearing stations. And when the lieutenant brought the
remnant of his company back to the battalion, he told the Battalion
Commander his end of the story, and heard in return how the message of
their whereabouts had been brought back and how it had directed the
movement that had got them out. The lieutenant wanted to send a word
of thanks to "Silver Wings" and her pilot, but this the C.O. told him
he could not do. "The pilot was lifted out of his machine and taken
straight to the C.C.S.,[1]" he said. "He was wounded by rifle-fire from
the ground when he first dived to help you beat off that attack. No,
not seriously, I'm glad to say, but he'd lost a lot of blood, and he
got rather knocked about landing and broke his machine a bit I believe."

[1] Casualty Clearing Station.

"Wounded," said the lieutenant slowly, "and at that time. So he kept on
diving his machine about and fighting after he was wounded; and went
through that air fight with his wound, and shot the Hun down, and then
came on back and gave his message----" "Dropped a note straight into
the signallers at Brigade Headquarters," said the C.O.

The lieutenant drew a deep breath. "We knew we were owing him a lot,"
he said. "But it seems we were owing even more than we thought."

"And I'm beginning to think," said the C.O., "that all of us here on
the ground are owing more than we've known to those fellows in the air."



II

BRING HOME THE 'BUS


For ten minutes past the observer had been alternately studying his map
and the ground 20,000 feet below, and now he leaned forward out of his
cockpit, touched the pilot on the shoulder, and made a slight signal
with his hand. Immediately the machine began to swing in a wide curve,
while the observer busied himself with his camera and exposed plate
after plate.

He looked up and out a moment as there came to his ear, dully but
unmistakably above the roar of the engine, the hoarse "_woof_" of a
bursting anti-aircraft shell. The black smoke of the burst showed a
good hundred yards out to their left and some hundreds of feet above
them, and the observer returned to his photographing.

"_Woof_" came another shell, and then in quick succession another and
another, the last one dead ahead and with such correct elevation that,
a second later, the machine flashed through the streaming black smoke
of the burst. The pilot looked back inquiringly, and the observer made
a sign which meant "Do what you please," and sat back to wait until the
pilot took such steps as he thought fit to disarrange the aim of the
gunners below.

The harsh rending cough of another shell came so close beneath the
machine that both men felt her distinctly jolt upward, twisting from
the wind shock. The pilot waited no more. He jammed the controls hard
over and flung the machine out in a vicious side-slip, caught her at
the end of it, tipped her nose over and plunged straight down with the
engine full on for a thousand feet, banked sharply, pivoting fairly on
his wing-tip, and shot off at right angles to his former course for a
quarter of a mile; then, climbing slightly as he went, swung hard round
again, dipped a little to gather speed, hoicked hard up, and in a few
seconds was back somewhere about the position at which he had first
departed from the course.

Back about the point where they had last turned a string of black
smoke-puffs flashed out rapidly. The pilot shut his engine off for an
instant. "Fooled 'em that time," he yelled back, and grinned gleefully
at his observer. The observer peered out carefully and exposed another
plate, turned and passed another signal to the pilot. Instantly the
engine roared out, and the machine tipped her bows down and went
plunging earthward. The observer watched the needle of his height
indicator drop back and back through 20,000, 19, 18, 17, 16, hang there
an instant, leap up again to 16 and 17. There it stayed quivering for
ten seconds, while the machine hurtled forward at a hundred miles an
hour on a level keel. There the pilot dropped her nose a little again
and went slanting down with the engine full on, and the needle of the
speed indicator climbing up and up until the speed touched 140 miles an
hour and the height indicator dropped to a 14,000-foot level.

The Archie shells were spouting and splashing round them in all
directions, but their erratic course had sufficiently upset the gunners
to bring the bursts well out and clear, and the pilot made the last
steep dizzying plunge that brought him to the 10,000-foot height his
observer had asked for. But at this height they were well within the
range of smaller Archie batteries, and the observer jerked the handle
of his camera to and fro at intervals, with the racking cough of the
shells sounding perilously close, and the reek of their burst at times
swirling past as the machine tore through their smoke. Three times
heavy splinters _whurred_ viciously past them, and once a sharp crack
and rip left a gaping black rent in the cloth of the body close astern
of the observer.

For a good ten minutes the machine circled and swung and darted to and
fro, while the observer hung on and snapped his plates at such objects
as he wanted on the ground below; and for all that ten minutes the
Archies continued to pitch a stream of shells up round and over and
under them.

Then the observer signalled "finished," and the machine jerked round
and streaked off at top speed in a series of curves and zigzags that
carried her westward and homeward as straight as the pilot dared drive
in avoiding the shells that continued to follow them. The pilot kept
her nose down a little as he went, so as to obtain the maximum speed,
but when he began to run out of range of the Archies and leave their
smoke bursts well astern, he tilted up and pushed straight west at top
speed, but on a long climb that brought him up a thousand feet a mile.
Presently he felt the signal cord looped about his arm jerk and jerk
again, and, tilting the machine's nose slightly downward, he shut off
his engine and let her glide and twisted round to the observer.

"Huns," yelled the observer. "Six of 'em, and coming like stink," and
he pointed up and astern to half a dozen dots in the sky.

"Would you like a scrap, Spotty?" shouted the pilot. "Shall we take 'em
on?"

"Don't ask me," shouted Spotty. "Ask the Hun. He'll scrap if he wants
to, and you and your old 'bus can't help it, Barry."

"Thought you knew the old 'Marah' better," retorted Barry. "You watch";
and he twisted in his seat and opened his engine out.

Now the "Marah" was the pride of her Squadron, and, most inordinately,
of her pilot. Built line by line to the blue-print of her class,
fraction by fraction of an inch in curve, straight, and stream-line, to
the design of her sisters in the Squadron, differing no hair's-breadth
from them in shape, size, engine, or propeller, she yet by some
inscrutable decree was the best of them all in every quality that
counts for best in a machine. There are theories to account for these
not uncommon differences, the most popular and plausible being that
the better machine is so merely because of some extra skill and minute
care in her and her engine's building, last touches of exactness and
perfection in the finish of their parts and their assembling.

The "Marah" could outclimb anything in the Squadron with the most
ridiculous ease, outclimb them in feet per minute, and in final height;
she could outfly them on any level from 100 to 20,000 feet, could
"out-stunt" them--although here perhaps the pilot had as much to say
as the machine--in any and every stunt they cared to challenge her
on. Barry, her young pilot, literally loved her. He lost no chance of
trying her out against other types of machines, and there were few
of the fastest and best types even amongst the single-seater scout
machines that could beat her on a level fly, or that she could not
leave with her nose held slightly down. No two-seater Barry had ever
met could come anywhere near the "Marah" in stunting, in the ease and
speed at which he could put her through all sorts of fancy spins,
loops, side-slips, and all the rest of the bag of air tricks. How much
of her superiority was due to her own qualities and how much to her
pilot it is hard to say, because certain it is that Barry could climb
her nearly a thousand feet higher, and drive her several knots faster,
than any other pilot who had flown her.

It is because of all these things that Barry had preferred to make this
particular photographing trip a lone-hand one. It was a long-distance
journey far back behind the German lines, to a spot known to be
well protected by long-range Archies, and of such importance that
it was certain to order out fast fighting machines to cut off any
flight taking back reports or photographs. Barry's arguments for his
single-handed trip were simple, and, as the Squadron Commander had
to admit, sound. "One machine stands much more chance of sneaking
over high up without being spotted than a whole flight," said Barry.
"When we're there I can chuck the 'bus about any old how to dodge the
Archies, while Spotty snaps his pictures; and if we're tackled by any
E.A.,[2] the old 'Marah' could probably outfly them by herself. And
since you're so beastly positive that this isn't a scrapping stunt, I'd
sooner be on my own and free to dodge and run and use clouds and so on
without having to think of keeping formation. Don't you worry. We'll
come through all right."

[2] E.A. Enemy Aircraft.

The Squadron Commander gave in. "Right oh," he said reluctantly.
"And do keep your eyes skinned for Huns and run from 'em if you've a
chance. This information is wanted badly, remember, and you mustn't
risk getting scuppered with it. And, besides we can't afford to lose
the 'Marah' out of the Squadron. You don't count of course, but the old
'bus is too good to lose."

He hid a good deal of anxiety under his chaffing, and Barry, reading
that and the friendship that bred it, laughed and took the same
light-hearted tone. "You won't lose her," he said. "If a Hun punctures
me and Spotty we'll just jump overboard and tell the old girl to push
along home on her own. She's jolly near got sense enough to do it too,
I believe."

Now all this was in Barry's mind when Spotty told him of the pursuing
enemy, and so he set himself to take every ounce of advantage he could.
The machines behind were travelling faster, because they had sighted
him from a much higher level, and had all the additional speed that a
downward slant gave them, while the "Marah," still held on a slightly
upward incline, lost something of her top speed thereby.

Barry knew there were Archie batteries to be passed over on the way
back, and if he meant to keep a straight course it was necessary that
he should be as far above them as possible. He leaned out and peered
down at the landscape wheeling and unrolling under them, picked out
the spot he was watching for--a village where he knew Archie batteries
were located--and altered course slightly to give it a wider berth. In
another minute the Archie shells began to bark about them. At the first
one that came dangerously close the "Marah" hoicked abruptly upward
500 feet, wheeled sharp south for half a mile, swung again and drove
straight west. Twice she had to swerve and dodge in similar fashion
before she cleared the zone of the Archies' range, and these swerves
and their faster downward passage allowed the enemy craft to overhaul
her considerably. Spotty swung his machine-gun round in readiness and
trained it aft and up on the hostiles.

Two single-seaters were half a mile ahead of the other four and looming
larger every minute. They were within long range now, and, presently,
one of them loosed off a dozen rounds or so at the "Marah." Spotty
jerked a signal that he was going to fire, and taking careful sight
rapped off about twenty rounds. The range was too great yet for him,
and the Huns made no sign of a swerve from their direct path, so Spotty
ceased firing and waited, glancing over his sights at one machine that
had forged slightly ahead of the other. Barry looked back over his
shoulder and up at the two machines. They were still a good thousand
feet above the "Marah," but Barry was satisfied enough with the way the
game was running, because while they had dropped from perhaps 20,000
feet to 15,000, the "Marah" had gained 3,000 to 4,000 as she flew.

The advantage of height was half the battle, and Barry wanted to
snatch every inch of it he could gain. For that reason he passed a
signal back to Spotty to open fire again, and Spotty obediently began
to rip out a series of short bursts. The two men had flown so long
together that each knew the other's dodges and ideas to an extent
precious beyond words, and had a code of brief signals in head-noddings
and jerkings and hand motions that saved much waste of time and breath
in shutting off engine to shout messages or yelling through the
communicating 'phone. Spotty figured now just the plan Barry had in
mind, a plan to hustle the enemy into making his attempt before he was
at the closest effective range for a diving attack. The plan succeeded
too. His bullets must have been going somewhere close, for Spotty
saw the nearest machine swerve ever so slightly, as if her pilot had
flinched or ducked instinctively. Then Spotty saw her nose dip slightly
until it was pointed straight at the "Marah," the machine-gun firing
through her propeller broke out in a long rapid burst of fire, and the
"tracer" bullets[3] came flashing and streaming past in thin pencils of
flame and smoke. What followed takes a good deal longer in the telling
than it did in the happening. All three machines were travelling,
remember, at a speed of anything round a hundred knots, a speed that
rose at times as they dipped and dived to nearer perhaps a hundred and
thirty and forty. While they were flying on the same course with little
difference in speed each airman could see the other closely and in
detail, could watch each little movement, look over at leisure small
items about each other's machines. Mere groundlings cannot get nearer
to the sensation than to imagine or remember sitting at the window of
a carriage on the slow lumbering sixty-mile-an-hour express, watching
the almost equally slow mail rushing over the rails at sixty-five miles
on a parallel line, and seeing the passengers at her windows scanning
deliberately the shape of your hat or colour of your hair.

[3] Tracer bullets emit smoke and flame to allow the shooter to follow
their flight.

In just such fashion Spotty saw the pilot of the leading machine rise
slightly and glance astern at his companion, saw him settle himself
in his seat, saw him raise a hand and motion downward. Instantly he
jerked the cord fast to Barry's shoulder, signalling "look out," and
with swift clockwork motions snatched the almost empty drum of his
machine-gun, and replaced it with the full one he held ready clutched
between his knees.

Vaguely in the swift ensuing seconds he felt the machine under
him sway and leap and reel; but his whole mind was for that time
concentrated on his gun sights, on keeping them full on the bulk
of the machine astern of him, in pressing the trigger at the exact
critical second. He saw the round bow of his nearest pursuer lift and
for one long breath saw the narrow tapering length of her underbody
behind it. That was a chance, and he filled it full and brimming with
a fifty-round burst of which he saw the bullets flash and disappear in
the fuselage above him. Then in a flash the underbody disappeared, and
the rounded bow of the hostile came plunging down on him, growing and
widening as it came full power and speed of engine and gravity pull.
He was dimly conscious of her firing as she came, and he kept his own
gun going, pumping bullets in a constant stream, his eye glued to the
sights, his finger clenched about the trigger. Somehow he knew--just
knew, without reasoning or thinking it out--that his bullets were going
to their mark, and it gave him no slightest touch of astonishment when
he saw his enemy stagger, leap upward, lurch and roll until she stood
straight up on her wing-tip, and so, banking and deflecting from the
"Marah's" course, flash in a split fraction of a second out of the
fight.

He had no more than a glimpse of a gust of fire and gush of black
smoke from somewhere about her before she vanished from his sight,
and he was training his sights on a second shape that came swooping
and plunging down upon him. This second enemy made better play with
her gun. With deadly slowness and persistence, as it seemed, she
closed, yard by yard. Spotty trained his gun full in the centre of the
quivering light rays that marked the circle of her whirling propeller,
and poured burst after burst straight at the jerking flashes of the
machine-gun that blazed through her propeller. He felt an agonising jar
on his ankle ... but the drum of his machine-gun snapped out its last
cartridge, and Spotty smoothly and methodically whipped off the empty
drum, stooped and lifted a full one, fitted it in place, and looking
over his sights rapped his gun into action again; while all the time
the bullets of his adversary hailed and ripped and tore about and upon
the "Marah," riddling the rudder, slashing along the stern, cracking
in the whip-like reports of explosive bullets about the observer's
cockpit, lifting forward and rap-rap-rapping about the bows and the
pilot's stooped head. The "Marah" leaped out suddenly and at full
stride in a hundred-foot side-slip, checked, and hurtled upward; and in
that breath of time the pursuer flicked past and down and out of the
vision of Spotty's sights.

It was all over so quickly that Spotty, looking overside, could still
see the first enemy spinning down jerkily with black smoke whirling up
from her fuselage, spinning helplessly down, as he knew, to hit the
earth 15,000 feet below. Spotty felt suddenly and surprisingly sick and
faint. His particular story blurs somewhat from here on, because he
himself was never able to supply it in detail. He was able to answer
Barry--Barry turning to shout his question while the "Marah" tore
along at her full 110 knots--that he'd been hit somewhere about the
foot or leg, and didn't feel much, except sick. This Barry was able
to gather with some difficulty, after juggling with the wheel beside
him that shifted angles of incidence, and more or less stabilised the
"Marah's" flight, abandoning his controlling "joy-stick," clambering
up on his seat, and hanging back and over to bring his head into the
observer's cockpit and his ear within reach of Spotty's feeble attempts
at a shout. He himself was rather unfit for these acrobatics, owing
to certain unpleasant and punishing wounds just received. While he
attempted to carry on his laboured inquiries, the "Marah," her engine
throttled down and her controls left to look after themselves, swooped
gently and leisurely, slid downwards on a gliding slant for a thousand
feet, pancaked into an air-pocket, and fell off into a spinning dive.

While she plunged earthward at a rate of some hundred feet per second
Barry finished his inquiries, dragged or pushed back into his seat--it
was really down into his seat, since the "Marah" at the moment was
standing on her head and his seat was between the observer's and the
bows, but the wind pressure at that speed made it hard work to slide
down--took hold of his controls, waited the exact and correct moment,
flattened the "Marah" out of her spin, opened the throttle and went
booming off again to westward a bare 5,000 feet above ground level.

He had, it is true, a moment's parley and a swift summing up of
the situation before he turned the "Marah's" bows definitely for
home. And the situation was ugly enough to be worth considering.
Spotty (Barry thought of him first) was in a bad way--leg smashed
to flinders--explosive evidently--bleeding like a stuck pig (wonder
would the plates be spoiled, or was the camera built water-tight, or
blood-tight?)--very doubtful if he'd last out the journey home. Then
Barry himself had wounds--the calf of his left leg blown to shreds, and
the toes of his left foot gone, and, most upsettingly painful of all, a
gaping hole where his left eye should be, a blood-streaming agony that
set his senses reeling and wavering and clearing slowly and painfully.
This last wound, as it proved, was the result of a ricochetting bullet
which, flicking forward as Barry had turned his head, cut his left eye
clean from its socket.

The summing up was very clear and simple. They were a good thirty
miles from the lines; Spotty might easily bleed to death in less
than that; he, Barry, might do the same, or might faint from pain
and exhaustion. In that case done-finish himself, and Spotty, and
the "Marah," in a drop of 5,000 feet and a full hundred-mile-an-hour
crash below. On the other hand, he had only to move his hand, push the
joy-stick out and sweep the "Marah" down, flatten her out and pick a
decent field, land, and he and Spotty would be in the doctor's hands
in a matter of minutes, both of them safe and certain of their lives
at least. In seconds they could be "on the floor" and in safety--and
in German hands ... the two of them and ... and ... the "Marah." It
was probably the thought of the "Marah" that turned the scale, if ever
the scale really hung in doubt. "We can't afford ..."--what was it the
Squadron Commander had said?--"can't afford to lose the old 'Marah'
from the Squadron." No (Barry's vision cleared mentally and physically
at the thought),--no, and, by the Lord, the Squadron wasn't going to
lose the "Marah," not if it was in him to bring the old 'bus home.

He knew it was going to be a close thing, for himself and for the
"Marah"; and carefully he set himself to take the last and least ounce
of the chances in favour of his getting the "Marah" across the line.
It would be safer to climb high and cross the fire of the Archies
that waited him on the line; safer so far as dodging the shells went,
but cutting down the limit set to his strength and endurance by the
passing minutes. On the level, or with her nose a little down, the
"Marah" would make the most of the time left her, or rather left him.
His senses blurred and swam again; he felt himself lurching forward
in his seat, knew that this was pushing the joy-stick forward and the
"Marah's" nose to earth, shoved himself back in his seat and clutched
the stick desperately to him ... and woke slowly a minute after to find
the "Marah's" bows pointed almost straight up, her engine struggling
to lift her, his machine on the very verge of stalling and falling
back into the gulf. He flung her nose down and forward hastily, and
the "Marah" ducked gracefully over like a hunter taking an easy fence,
steadied and lunged forward in arrow-straight flight.

After this Barry concentrated on the faces of the clock, the height
and the speed indicators. Once or twice he tried to look overside to
locate his position, but the tearing hurricane wind of the "Marah's"
passage so savaged his torn face and eye that he was forced back into
the cover of his windscreen. Five minutes went. Over, well over a
hundred the speed indicator said the "Marah" was doing. Nearly 5,000 up
the height indicator said (must have climbed a lump in that minute's
haziness, concluded Barry), and, reckoning to cross the line somewhere
inside the 500 up--which after all would risk machine-gun and rifle
fire, but spare them the Archies--would allow him to slant the "Marah"
down a trifle and get a little more speed out of her. He tilted her
carefully and watched the speed indicator climb slowly and hang steady.

And so another five minutes went. Two thousand up said the indicator;
and "_woof, woof, woof_" grunted a string of Archie shells. "Getting
near the line," said Barry, and pushed the joy-stick steadily forward.
The "Marah" hurtled downward on a forty-five degree slant, her engine
full out, the wind screaming and shrieking about her. Fifteen hundred,
a thousand, five hundred pointed the needle of the height indicator,
and slowly and carefully Barry pulled the "Marah's" head up and held
her racing at her top speed on the level.

Fifteen minutes gone. They must be near the lines now. He could catch,
faint and far off through the booming roar of his engine, the rattle of
rifle fire, and a faint surprise took him at the sound of two strange
raps, and the sight of two neat little round holes in the instrument
board and map in front of him. He looked out, carefully holding the
joy-stick steady in one hand and covering his torn eye with the other,
and saw the wriggling white lines of trenches flashing past close
below. Then from the cockpit behind him broke out a steady clatter and
jar of the observer's machine-gun. Barry looked round to see Spotty,
chalk-faced and tight-lipped, leaning over the side with arms thrust
out and pointing his gun straight to earth with a stream of flashes
pouring from the muzzle. "Good man," murmured Barry, "oh, good man,"
and made the "Marah" wriggle in her flight as a signal.

Spotty looked round, loosened his lips in a ghastly grin, and waved an
arm signalling to turn at right angles. "Nothin' doin', my son," said
Barry grinning back. "It's 'Home, John' for us this time. But fancy the
priceless old fellow wanting to go touring their front line spraying
lead on 'em. Good lad, Spotty."

A minute later he felt his senses reel, and his sight blacken again,
but he gripped his teeth on his lip and steered for the clump of wood
that hid his own Squadron's landing ground.

He made his landing there too; made it a trifle badly, because when he
came to put rudder on he found that his left leg refused its proper
work. And so he crashed at the last, crashed very mildly it is true,
but enough to skew the wheels and twist the frame of the under-carriage
a little.

And as Spotty's first words when he was lifted from his cockpit were
of the crash-- "Barry, you blighter, if you've crashed those plates of
mine I'll never forgive you.... You'll find all the plates exposed,
Major, and notes of the bearing and observations in my pocket-book"--so
also were Barry's last of the same thing. He didn't speak till near
the end. Then he opened his one eye to the Squadron Commander waiting
at his bedside and made an apology ... ("An apology ... Good Lord!..."
as the Major said after). "Did I crash her badly, Major?" And when
the Major assured him No, nothing that wouldn't repair in a day, and
that the "Marah" would be ready for him when he came back to them, he
shook his head faintly. "But it doesn't matter," he said. "Anyhow, I
got her home.... And if I'm 'going West,' the old 'Marah' will go East
again ... and get some more Huns for you." He ceased, and was silent a
minute. Then "I'm sorry I crashed her, Major ... but y'see, ... my leg
... was a bit numb."

He closed his eye; and died.

       *       *       *       *       *

    A pilot lost doesn't very much count.
      (But don't tell his girl or his mater this!)
    There's always another to take his mount,
      And push the old 'bus where the Archies miss.
    But a 'bus that's lost you can't renew,
    For where one works there's the want of two
    And all they can make are still too few,
      So we must bring home the 'bus.



III

A TENDER SUBJECT


The telling of this tale in the Squadron Mess came about through (1) a
mishap, (2) a joke, and (3) an argument. The mishap was to a fighting
two-seater, which landed on the Squadron's 'drome with a dud engine.
The pilot and observer made their way to the Squadron office and, after
a brief 'phone talk to their own C.O., borrowed a tender and pushed
off for their own 'drome. The leader of "A" Flight walked down to
the tender, chatting to them, and four of the Squadron's pilots took
advantage of the chance of a lift in to a town the tender had to pass
on the journey. All of them heard and all were a little surprised, at
"A" Commander's parting word to the two visitors. "I've told the driver
to go slow and careful," he said. "You fellows just watch he does it,
will you?"

The joke began to dawn on the four just after the tender had carefully
cleared the first bend of the road from the 'drome and the driver began
to open her up and let her rip. The joke grew with the journey, and
the four on their return to the Squadron that afternoon burst into the
full ante-room and, announcing it "Such a joke, oh, _such_ a joke!"
went on to tell it in competing quartette to a thoroughly appreciative
audience. It appeared that one passenger--"the pale-faced nervy-looking
little 'un with pink eye-rims"--had showed distinct uneasiness when the
tender rushed a dip-and-rise at top speed, and his observer--"a reg'lar
Pickwick Fat Boy, quakin' like a jelly"--complained openly and bitterly
when the tender took a corner on the two outside wheels and missed a
country cart with six inches and a following gust of French oaths to
spare.

When, by the grace o' God, and by a bare hand's-breadth, they shaved
past a lumbering M.T. lorry, "Pink Eye" and "Fat Boy" clung dumb
to each other and plainly devoted themselves to silent prayer. The
dumbness deserted them and they made up all arrears of speech, and to
spare, when the tender took four heaps of road-metal by the wayside in
a series of switch-backing hand-springs. "'Course we twigged your joke
by then," said the four to "A" leader. "I suppose you delivered the
driver his go-slow order with a large-sized wink and he savvied what
you meant." It appeared that Pink Eye had asked the four to make the
driver slow down, or to kill him or something. They pretended innocence
and said he was a most careful man, and so on. Fat Boy nearly wept when
they met a Staff car travelling fast and, never slacking an ounce,
whooped past with a roar; and after a hairpin bend, which the tender
took like a fancy skater doing the figure-of-eight, Pink Eye completely
broke up and swore that he was going to get off and walk. "He'd have
done it too," said the four delightedly, "if we hadn't eased her up.
But you never saw such a state of funk as those two were in. Kept
moppin' their brows, and apologisin' for their nerves, and fidgetin'
and shiverin' like wet kittens every time we took a corner or met a
cart. It was too funny--really funny."

This led to the argument--whether men with nerves of that sort could
be any good in air work. "I know I'd hate to be a pilot with an
observer of that kind watching my tail, almost as much as I'd hate
to be an observer with Pink Eye for a pilot," said one, and most
there agreed. A few argued that it was possible for men to be brave
enough in one kind of show and the very opposite in another--that
one fellow could do the V.C. act seven days a week under fire and
take every sort of risk in action without turning a hair, and yet go
goosey-fleshed on a Channel crossing in a choppy sea, while another man
might enjoy sailing a boat single-handed in a boiling white sea, and
yet be genuinely nervous about dodging across the full traffic-tide
of a London thoroughfare. Most of those present declined to believe
these theories, maintaining stoutly that a good plucked 'un was always
such, and that an obvious funk couldn't be anything else--except in
novelettes and melodrama. Then came the story.

"Did y'ever hear of 'Charger' Wicks?" said the Captain of "A." "No?
Well, you're rather recently out, so you mightn't, but--well, he's
fairly well known out here. He's rather a case in point----"

Being told by an expert to an audience of experts, his tale was put
more briefly, technically, and air-slangily than I may hope to do, but
here is the sense of it.

"Charger" Wicks was a pilot in a well-known fighting squadron, and
was so called from a favourite tactic of his in air fighting and his
insistent advice to the rest of the Flight he came to command to follow
his plan of attack. "Always charge straight at your Hun if you get a
chance," he would say. "Drive straight and hard nose-on at him, keeping
your gun going hot. If you keep straight, he'll flinch--every time; and
as he turns up, down, or out, you get a full-length target underneath,
topside, or broadside. If you keep on and shoot straight, you're bound
to get a hatful of bullets into him somewhere."

The plan certainly seemed to work, and Charger notched up a good tally
of crashed Huns, but others in the Squadron warned him he'd try it once
too often. "Charge straight at him, and he'll dodge," said Charger.
"Wait," said the others. "Some day you'll meet a Hun who works on the
same rule; _then_ where'll you be?" "Yes," said Billy Bones, Charger's
observer, "and where'll I be?" But although he pretended to grumble,
Billy Bones was, as a matter of fact, quite in agreement on the nose-on
charging stunt and believed in it as firmly as Charger himself. It took
nerve, he admitted, but if you had that--and Charger certainly had--it
worked all right. As it happened, the nerves of both were to be "put
through it" rather severely.

They were up with the Flight one day, Charger with Billy Bones leading
in their pet 'bus Y221. They ran into a scrap with odds of about two
to one against them, and in the course of it Charger got a chance to
put his old tactic to the proof. The moment he swung Y221 and headed
her straight at a Hun scout, Billy knew what was coming, and heaved
his gun round ready for any shot that offered as the Hun flinched
past. But this time it looked as if the Squadron's old warning was
going to be fulfilled and that Charger had met the Hun with the same
rule as himself. Charger's gun began to rattle at about one hundred
yards' range, and the Hun opened at the same moment. Billy, crouching
with his gun at the ready and his eyes glued on a scarlet boss in the
centre of the Hun's propeller, saw and heard the bullets stream smoking
and cracking past and on their machine. It does not take long for two
machines travelling about a hundred miles per hour to cover a hundred
yards, but to Billy, staring tense at that growing scarlet blot, each
split fraction of a second was an age, and as the shape of the Hun
grew but showed no sign of a changing outline, Billy's thoughts raced.
Charger, he knew, wouldn't budge an inch from his line; if the Hun also
held straight ... he still held straight ... the slightest deviation
up or down would show instantly in the wings, seen edgeways in thin
lines, thickening and widening. The bullets were coming deadly close
... and the red boss grew and grew. If the Hun didn't give now--this
instant--it would be too late ... they must collide. The approaching
wing-edges still showed their thin straight line, and Billy, with a
mental "Too late now!" gasped and gripped his gun and waited the crash.

Then, at the last possible instant, the Hun's nerve gave--or, rather,
it gave just an instant too late. Billy had a momentary vision of the
thin wing-edges flashing wide, of the black crosses on the under side,
of a long narrow strip of underbody and tail suddenly appearing below
the line of the planes; and then, before he could move or think, he
felt the Y221 jar violently, heard horrible sounds of splintering,
cracking, tearing, had a terrifying vision of a great green mass with
splashed ugly yellow spots rearing up over the top plane before his
startled eyes, plunging past over his ducking head with splintering
wreckage and flapping streamers of fabric whizzing and rushing about
his ears. Y221--whirling, jolting, twisting all ways and every way
at once apparently--fell away in a series of sickening jerks that
threatened to wrench her joint from joint. Billy's thoughts raced
down ahead of them to where they would hit the ground 15,000 feet
below ... how long would it take ... would they hit nose-first or how
... was there anything he could do?--and before his mind shaped the
question he had answered it--No, nothing! Dully he noticed that their
engine had stopped, that Charger apparently was busy at the controls;
then--with a gleam of wondering hope, dismissed at first, but returning
and growing--that the lurching and rolling was steadying, that they
were coming back on an even keel, were ... yes, actually, were gliding
smoothly down.

Charger twisted and looked down overside, then back at Billy and
yelled, "D'ye see him?" Billy looked over, and next instant saw a
vanishing shape with one wing folded back, saw another wing that had
torn clear floating and "leafing" away on its own. The shape plunged
plummet-wise until it was lost in the haze below. Billy turned inboard.
"Broken in air," he shouted, and Charger nodded and turned again to
his controls. Billy saw that their propeller was gone, only one jagged
splinter of a blade remaining.

They made a long glide back and a good landing well behind the lines on
a grass field. "What happened?" said Billy the moment they had come to
rest. "He flinched, of course," said Charger. "Ran it a bit fine, and
our prop caught his tail and tore it up some. I dunno that we're much
hurt, except for the prop and that broken strut."

And, amazingly enough, they were not. The leading edge of a top plane
was broken and cracked along its length, one strut was snapped, the
propeller gone, a few jagged holes from bullets and Hun splinters
ripped in their fabric. "God bless the people who built her!" said
Charger piously. "Good stuff and good work in that old 'bus, Billy.
That's all that brought us through."

Billy mopped his brow. "Hope we don't meet any more of that breed of
Hun," he said. "I find I don't like collisions--not one little bit."

"He flinched at the finish, though," said Charger simply. "They all do."

When they got Y221 back to the 'drome and overhauled her they found her
wrenched a bit, but in a couple of days she was tautened up into trim
and in the air again.

And the very next morning, as if this weren't enough, Charger and
Billy had another nerve-testing. They were up about 12,000 and well
over Hunland when they ran into a patch of Archies, and Charger
turned and led the formation straight towards a bank of white cloud
that loomed up, solid looking as a huge bolster, before them. The sun
was dead behind them, so Billy at first sat looking over the tail on
the watch for any Huns who might try to attack "out of the sun" and
its blinding glare. But as it was dead astern over the tail Billy
could see clearly above and behind him, so that there was no chance
of a Hun diving unseen from a height, and they were moving too fast
to be overtaken on the level "out of the sun." Billy turned round
and watched the cloud they were driving at. The sun was full on it,
and it rose white and glistening like a chalk cliff--no, more like
a--like a---- Billy was idly searching his mind for a fitting simile,
when his thoughts broke and he yelled fiercely and instinctively in
warning to Charger. But Charger had seen too, as Billy knew from
his quick movement and sudden alert sit-up. The cloud was anything
round a hundred yards from them, and they could just see the slow
curling twisting movement of its face. And--what had suddenly startled
them--they could see another machine, still buried back in the cloud,
and looming large and distorted by the mist, but plainly flying out of
it and straight at them.

What followed was over and done in the space of seconds, although
it may seem long in the telling, as it certainly was age-long in the
suspense of the happening and waiting for the worst of it. Billy
perhaps, powerless to act, able only to sit tense and staring, felt the
strain the worst, although it must have been bad enough for Charger,
knowing that their slender hope of escape hung on his quick thinking
and action. This was no clear case of following his simple plan of
charging and waiting for the Hun to flinch. The whole success of the
plan depended on the Hun seeing and knowing the charge was coming--on
his nerve failing to meet it. Charger didn't even know this was a Hun.
He might be one of ours. He might have seen them, and at that very
second be swerving to miss them. He might be blinded in the cloud and
know nothing of them driving full-on into him. All this went through
Charger's mind in a flash, and almost in that same flash he had decided
on his action and taken it. He thrust the nose of Y221 steeply down.
Even in the fraction of time it took for him to decide and his hand to
move the control lever he could see the difference in the misty shape
before him, could judge by the darkening, hardening and solidifying
outline the speed of their approach. And then, exactly as his bows
plunged down, he saw and knew that what he feared had happened--the
other pilot had seen him, had thought and acted exactly as he had.
Charger saw the thin line of the edge-on wings broaden, the shadowy
shape of the tail appear above them, just as he had seen it so often
when the Hun he charged had flinched and ducked. But then the flinching
had meant safety to him driving straight ahead--now it meant disaster,
dipping as he was fairly to meet the other.

Again for the fraction of a second he hesitated--should he push on
down, or turn up? Which would the other do? And again before the
thought was well framed it was decided and acted on. He pulled the
stick hard in, zoomed up, and held his breath, waiting. The shape was
clearer and harder, must be almost out of the cloud--doubtful even now
if Y221 had time and room to rise clear--all right if the other held on
down, but----

The nose of his machine swooped up, and as it did, and before it shut
out his view ahead, Charger, with a cold sinking inside him, saw the
outline ahead flash through changing shapes again, the wings narrow
and close to edge-on view, open and widen again with the tail dropping
below. Again the other man's thought and action had exactly followed
his own. No time to do more; by the solid appearance he knew the other
machine must be just on the edge of the cloud, and they were almost
into it, its face already stirring and twisting to the propeller rush.
Charger's one thought at the moment was to see his opponent's nose
thrust out--to know was it a Hun or one of ours.

Billy Bones, sitting tight with fingers locked on the cockpit edge, had
seen, followed and understood every movement they had made, the full
meaning of that changing outline before them, the final nearness shown
by the solidity of the approaching grey shape; and the one thought in
his mind was a memory of two men meeting face to face on a pavement,
both stepping sideways in the same direction, stepping back, hesitating
and stepping aside again, halting, still face to face, and glaring or
grinning at each other. Here they were doing just the same, only up and
down instead of sideways--and here there was no stopping.

He too saw the spread of wings loom up and out of either side of them,
rushing up to meet them. The spread almost matched and measured their
own--which meant a nose-to-nose crash. The cloud face was stirring,
swirling, tearing open from the rush of their opposing windage. Had
Charger time to--no, no time. They must be just ... it would be on the
very cloud edge they would meet--were meeting (why didn't Charger turn,
push her down, do something--anything) ... meeting ... (no escape after
this collision--end on!) ... _now!_

Next instant they were in darkness--thick, wet, clammy darkness. No
shock and crash of collision yet ... or yet. Billy didn't understand.
Was he dead? Could you be killed so instantaneously you didn't feel
it? It wasn't quite dark--and he could feel the cockpit rim under his
hands--and----

They burst clear of the cloud, with trailing wisps sucking astern
after them. He was bewildered. Then, even as Charger turned and shouted
the explanation, he guessed at it. "Shadow--our own shadow," yelled
Charger, and Billy, nodding in answer, could only curse himself for a
fool not to have noticed (as he had noticed really without reasoning
why) that the blurred, misty shape had grown smaller as well as sharper
as they approached. "I didn't think of it either," Charger confessed
after they were back on the 'drome, "and it scared me stiff. Looked
just like a machine in thick cloud--blurred, sort of, and getting
clearer as it came out to the edge."

"It was as bad as that beastly Hun," said Billy, "or worse"; and
Charger agreed.

Now two experiences of that sort might easily break any man's nerve,
and most men would need a spell off after an episode like the collision
one. But Charger's nerve was none the worse, and although Billy swore
his never really recovered, the two of them soon after put through
another nose-on charge at a Hun, in which Charger went straight as
ever, and when the Hun zoomed up and over, Billy had kept his nerve
enough to have his gun ready and to put a burst of bullets up and into
him from stem to stern and send him down in flames.

Everyone in the Mess agreed here that the two were good stout men and
had nothing wrong with their nerves.

"Not much," said the narrator, "and they're still goin' strong. But you
remember what started me to tell you about them?"

"Let's see--yes," said one or two. "We were talking about the joke of
that couple to-day being so scared by a bit of fast driving on a clear
road."

"Right," said the other, and laughed. "Heaps of people out here know
those two, and it's a standing joke that you can't hire them to sit on
the front seat of a car or a tender or travel anything over fifteen
miles an hour in anything on wheels."

He waited a moment for some jests and chuckles to subside, and
finished, grinning openly. "They are the two I told you about--Charger
Wicks and Billy Bones!"

There was dead silence for a minute. Then, "Good Lord!" said one of the
quartette faintly, and "Wh--which was Charger?" faltered another. "In
their flying kit we couldn't----"

"The smallest--the one you called the pale-faced, nervy-looking little
'un," said "A" Flight Commander.

"Help!" said the other weakly. "And I--I recommended him 'Sulphurine
Pills for Shaken Nerves.' Oh, help!"

"Yes," said the last of the demoralised quartette miserably, "and he
thanked us, and said he'd write it down the minute he got back."

There was another pause. Then, "Such a joke!" said someone, quoting
from the opening chapter of the quartette's story--"_such_ a joke!" And
the Mess broke in a yell of uproarious laughter.

The quartette did not laugh.



IV

A GOOD DAY


Half an hour before there was a hint of dawn in the sky the Flight was
out with the machines lined up on the grass, the mechanics busy about
them, the pilots giving preliminary tests and runs to their engines.
There had been showers of rain during the night, welcome rain which had
laid the dust on the roads and washed it off the hedges and trees--rain
just sufficient to slake the thirst of the parched ground and grass,
without bringing all the discomfort of mud and mire which as a rule
comes instantly to mind when one speaks of "rain" at the Front.

It was a summer dawn, fresh, and cool, and clean, with the raindrops
still gemming the grass and leaves, a delicious scent of moist earth in
the balmy air, a happy chorus of chirping, twittering birds everywhere,
a "great," a "gorgeous," a "perfect" morning, as the pilots told each
other.

A beautiful Sabbath stillness, a gentle calm hung over the aerodrome
until the machines were run out and the engines began to tune up. But
even in their humming, thrumming, booming notes there was nothing harsh
or discordant or greatly out of keeping with the air of peace and
happiness. And neither, if one had not known what it was, would the
long heavy rumble that beat down wind have wakened any but peaceful
thoughts. It might have been the long lazy boom of the surf beating in
on a sandy beach, the song of leaping waterfalls, the distant rumble of
summer thunder ... except perhaps for the quicker drum-like roll that
rose swelling every now and then through it, the sharper, yet dull and
flat, thudding bumps and thumps that to any understanding ear marked
the sound for what it was--the roar of the guns.

Already the guns were hard at it; had been for days and nights past, in
fact; would be harder at it than ever as the light grew on this summer
morning, for this was the day set for the great battle, was within an
hour or two of the moment marked for the attack to begin.

The Squadron Commander was out long before the time detailed for
the Flight to start. He spoke to some of the pilots, looked round,
evidently missed someone, and was just beginning "Where is----" when he
caught sight of a figure in flying clothes hurrying out from the huts.
The figure halted to speak to a pilot and the Major called impatiently,
"Come along, boy. Waiting for you." "Right, sir," called the other, and
then laughingly to his companion, "Worst of having a brother for C.O.
Always privileged to chase you."

"Flight Leader ought to be first, Sonny, not last," said the Major as
the boy came up. "Sorry, Jim," said the boy, "I'm all ready," and ran
on to his waiting machine.

One by one the pilots clambered aboard and settled themselves in their
seats, and one after another the engines were started, sputtering and
banging and misbehaving noisily at first in some cases, but quickly
steadying, and, after a few grunts and throaty _whurrumphs_, picking up
their beat, droning out the deep note that rises tone by tone to the
full long roaring song of perfect power.

The Major walked along the line, halted at each machine, and spoke a
word or two to each pilot. He stood a little longer at the end machine
until the pilot eased his engine down and its roar dropped droning to a
quiet "ticking over."

"All right and all ready, Sonny?" said the Major.

"All correct, sir," said Sonny laughingly, and with a half-joking
salute. "Feel fine, Jim, and the old bus is in perfect trim."

"Think the rain has gone," said the Major. "It's going to be a fine
day, I fancy."

"It's just topping," cried Sonny, wrinkling his nose and sniffing
luxuriously. "Air's as full of sweet scent as a hay meadow at home."

"Flight, got your orders all clear to start?"

Sonny nodded. "Yes, we'll show you the usual star turn take-off all
right. You watch us."

The Major glanced at his wrist-watch and at the paling sky. "Almost
time. Well, take care of yourself, Sonny." He put his hand up on
the edge of the cockpit, and Sonny slid his glove off, and gave an
affectionate little squeeze to the fingers that came over the edge.

"I'll be all right, Jim, boy. We're going to have a good day. Wish you
were coming with us."

"Wish I were," said the Major. "Good luck," and he stepped and walked
out in front of the line of machines, halted, and glanced at his watch
and up at the sky again.

The half-dozen machines, too, stood waiting and motionless, except for
the answering quiver that ran through them to their engines' beat.
Down from the line the throbbing roll of the gunfire rose louder and
heavier, with a new, an ugly and sinister snarling note running through
it. The flat thudding reports of the nearer Heavies came at quicker and
closer intervals, the rumble of the further and smaller pieces ran up
to the steady unbroken roar of drum-fire.

The wind was coming from the line and the machines were lined up
facing into it, so that the pilots had before them the jumping,
flickering lights which flamed up across the sky from the guns'
discharge. Earlier, these flashes had blazed up in broad sheets of
yellow-and orange-tinted light from the horizon to half way up the
height of the sky, leaped and sank, leaped again and beat throbbing and
pulsing wave on wave, or flickering and quivering jerkily for seconds
on end, dying down, and immediately flaring up in wide sheet-lightning
glows. Now, in the growing light the gun-flashes showed more and more
faintly, in sickly pallid flashes. There was no halt or pause between
the jumping lights now; they trembled and flickered unceasingly, with
every now and then a broader, brighter glare wiping out the lesser
lights.

The pilots sat watching the battle lights, listening to the shaking
battle thunder, and waiting the Squadron Commander's signal to go. The
birds were chattering happily and noisily, and a lark climbed, pouring
out long shrill bursts of joyful song; somewhere over in the farmyard
beside the 'drome a cock crowed shrilly, and from one of the workshops
came the cheerful clink-link, clink-link of hammers on an anvil.

It was all very happy and peaceful--except for the jumping gun-flashes
and rolling gunfire; life was very sweet and pleasant--unless one
thought of life over there in the trenches, and what the next hour or
two would bring. Everyone knew there was "dirty work" ahead. It was
the first really big "show" the Squadron had been in; they had been
in plenty of the ordinary O.P.'s (Offensive Patrols) and air-scraps,
but this was the real big thing, a great battle on the ground, and a
planned attack on the grand scale in the air, which was to sweep the
sky of Huns ... and the gunfire was still growing ... and the lark up
there was bursting his throat to tell them what a pleasant place the
world was on this summer morning, with the raindrops fresh on the grass
and the breeze cool in the trees.

Nearly time! The Flight Leader ran his engine up again, its humming
drone rising to a full deep-chested roar. The other pilots followed
suit, engine after engine picking up the chorus and filling the air
with deafening and yet harmonious sound. A man stood just clear of
the wing-tips to either side of each machine holding a cord fast to
the wood blocks chocked under the wheels; another man or two clung to
each tail, holding it down against the pull of the propeller, their
sleeves, jacket tails, and trouser legs fluttering wildly in the gales
which poured aft from the whirling screws and sent twigs and leaves
and dust flying and dancing back in a rushing stream. So the pilots
sat for a minute, their faces intent and earnest, listening to the hum
and beat of their engines and note of their propellers' roar, watching
the Flight Leader's movements out of the tail of their eyes. He eased
his engine down; and promptly every other engine eased. He waved his
hand to right and left, and the waiting men jerked the chocks clear
of his wheels; and five other hands waved and five other pairs of
chocks jerked clear. He moved forward, swung to the right with a man
to each wing tip to help swing him, and rolled steadily out into the
pen; and five other machines moved forward, swung right, and followed
in line astern of him. He wheeled to the left, moved more quickly,
opened his engine up, ran forward at gathering speed. Moving slowly his
machine had looked like a lumbering big fat beetle; skimming rapidly
across the grass, with its nose down and its tail up, it changed to an
excited hen racing with outstretched head and spread wings; then--a
lift--an upward swoop and rush--and she was ... a swallow, an eagle,
a soaring gull--any of these you like as symbols of speed and power
and grace, but best symbol of all perhaps, just herself, for what
she was--a clean-built, stream-lined, hundred-and-umpty horse, fast,
fighting-scout aeroplane.

The Squadron Commander stood watching the take-off of the Flight with
a thrill of pride, and truly it was a sight to gladden the heart of
any enthusiast. As the Flight Leader's machine tucked up her tail and
raced to pick up speed, the second machine had followed her round her
curve, steadied, and began to move forward, gathering way in her very
wheel-tracks. As the Leader hoicked up and away, the second machine
was picking up her skirts and making her starting rush; and the third
machine was steadying round the turn to follow. As the second left the
ground, the third began to make her run, and the fourth was round the
turn and ready to follow. So they followed, machine by machine, evenly
spaced in distance apart, running each other's tracks down, leaping
off within yards of the same point, each following the other into the
air as if they were tied on lengths of a string. It was a perfect
exhibition of Flight Leadership--and following. One turn round the
'drome they made, and the Flight was in perfect formation and sailing
off to the east, climbing as it went. The Commander stood and watched
them gain their height in one more wide sweeping turn and head due
east, then moved towards the huts.

The hammers were still beating out their cheery clink-link, the birds
chirping and twittering; the lark, silenced or driven from the sky by
these strange monster invaders, took up his song again and shrilled
out to all the world that it was a joy to live--to live--to live--this
perfect summer morning.

And the guns replied in sullen rolling thunder.

       *       *       *       *       *

The last red glow of sunset was fading out of the square of sky seen
through the open Squadron-office window. The Major sat in his own place
at the centre of the table, and his Colonel, with the dust of motor
travel still thick on his cap and coat, sat by the empty fireplace
listening and saying nothing. A young lad, with leather coat thrown
open and leather helmet pushed back on his head, stood by the table and
spoke rapidly and eagerly. He was one of the Patrol that had left at
dawn, had made a forced landing, had only just reached the 'drome, and
had come straight to the office to report and tell his tale.

"I have the Combat Report, of course," said the Major; "you might read
it first--and I've some other details; but I'd like to know anything
further you can tell."

The lad read the Report, a bare dozen lines, of which two and a half
told the full tale of a brave man's death--"_as he went down out of
control he signalled to break off the fight and return, and then for
the Deputy to take command. He was seen to crash_."

"That's true, sir," said the lad, "but d'you know--d'you see what
it--all it meant? We'd been scrappin' half an hour. We were on our last
rounds and our last pints of petrol ... against seventeen Huns, and
we'd crashed four and put three down out of control ... they were beat,
and we knew it, and meant to chase 'em off."

He had been speaking rapidly, almost incoherently, but now he steadied
himself and spoke carefully.

"Then _he_ saw their reinforcements comin' up, one lot from north,
t'other from south. They'd have cut us off. We were too busy scrappin'
to watch. They had us cold, with us on our last rounds and nearly out
of petrol. But _he_ saw them. He was shot down then--I dunno whether it
was before or after it that he saw them; but he was goin' down right
out of control--dead-leafing, then a spin, then leafing again. And he
signalled----" The boy gulped, caught and steadied his voice again,
and went on quietly. "You know; there's half a dozen coloured lights
stuck in the dash-board in front of him--and his Verey pistol in the
rack beside him. He picked out the proper coloured light--goin' down
helplessly out of control--and took his pistol out of the rack ... and
loaded it ... and put it over the side and fired his signal, 'Get back
to the 'drome--return home,' whatever it is exactly--we all knew it
meant to break off the scrap and clear out, anyway. But he wasn't done
yet. He picked another light--the proper coloured light again ... and
still knowin' he'd crash in the next few seconds ... and loaded and
fired, 'I am out of action. Deputy Flight Leader carry on.' ... Then
... he crashed...."

The boy gulped again and stopped, and for a space there was dead
silence.

"Thank you," said the Squadron Commander at last, very quietly, "I
won't ask you for more now."

The boy saluted and turned, but the Major spoke again. "There's a
message here I've just had. You might like to read it."

The pilot took it and read a message of congratulations and thanks
from Headquarters on the work of the Air Services that day, saying how
the Huns had been driven out of the air, how so many of them had been
crashed, so many driven down out of control, with slight losses of so
many machines to us. "On all the fronts engaged," the message finished,
"the Squadrons have done well, and the Corps has had a good day."

"A good day," said the boy bitterly, and spat a gust of oaths.
"I--pardon, sir," he said, catching the Major's eye and the Colonel's
quick glance. "But--Sonny was my pal; I was his chum, the best chum he
had----" He checked himself again, and after a pause, "No, sir," he
said humbly, "I beg your pardon. _You_ were always that to Sonny." He
saluted again, very gravely and exactly, turned, and went.

The Colonel rose. "It's true, too," said the Major, "I was; and he was
the dearest chum to me. I fathered him since he was ten, when our Pater
died. I taught him to fly--took him up dual myself, and I remember he
was quick as a monkey in learning. I watched his first solo, with my
heart in my mouth; and I had ten times the pride he had himself when he
put his first wings up. And now ... he's gone."

"He saved his Flight," said the Colonel softly. "You heard. It's him
and his like that make the Corps what it is. They show the way, and the
others carry on. They go down, but"--he tapped his finger slowly on the
message lying on the table, "but ... the Corps 'has had A Good Day.'"


(_To the tune of "John Brown's Body."_)

    Half the Flight may crash to-day and t'other half to-night,
    _But_ the Flight does dawn patrol, before to-morrow's light,
    And if we live or if we die, the Corps still wins the fight,
      And the war goes rolling on.



V

A ROTTEN FORMATION


The Major lifted his head from the pile of papers he was reading and
signing, and listened to the hum of an engine passing over the office
and circling down to the 'drome. "One of ours," he said. "Flight coming
down, I suppose. They're rather late."

An officer lounging on a blanket-covered truckle bed murmured something
in reply and returned to the sixpenny magazine he was devouring. The
noise of the engine droned down to the ground level, ceased, stuttered,
and rose, sank again, and finally stopped. The C.O. hurried on with his
papers, knowing the pilots of the Flight would be in presently to make
their reports.

In three minutes the door banged open noisily, and the Flight Leader
clumped heavily in. Such of his features as could be seen for a leather
helmet coming low on his forehead and close round his cheeks, and a
deep collar turned up about his chin, disclosed an expression of bad
temper and dissatisfaction.

"Hullo, Blanky," said the Major cheerfully. "Made rather a long job of
it, didn't you? Any Huns about?"

Now Blanky had an established and well-deserved reputation for bad
language, and although usually a pilot is expected more or less to
modify any pronounced features in language in addressing his C.O.,
there are times when he fails to do so, and times when the C.O. wisely
ignores the failure. This apparently was one of the times, and the
Major listened without remark to a stream of angry and sulphurous
revilings of the luck, the Huns, the fight the Flight had just
come through, and finally--or one might say firstly, at intervals
throughout, and finally--the Flight itself.

"Three blessed quarters of a bloomin' hour we were scrappin'," said
Blanky savagely, "and I suppose half the blistering machines in the
blinking Flight are shot up to everlastin' glory. I know half the
flamin' controls and flyin' wires are blanky well cut on my goldarn
bus. And two confounded Huns' brimstone near got me, because the
cock-eyed idiot who should have been watching my plurry tail went
hare-in' off to heaven and the Hot Place. But no-dash-body watched
any-darn-body's tail. Went split-armin' around the ruddy sky like a
lot of runaway racin' million-horse-power comets. Flight! Dot, dash,
asterisk! Formation! Stars, stripes, and spangles----"

He broke off with a gesture of despair and disgust. None of this
harangue was very informing, except it made clear that the Flight had
been in a fight, and that Blanky was not pleased with the result or the
Flight. The Major questioned gently for further details, but hearing
the note of another descending engine Blanky went off at a tangent
again. Here one of them came ... about half an hour after him ... wait
till he saw them ... he'd tell them all about it ... and so on.

"Did you down any Huns?" asked the Major, and Blanky told him No, not
one single, solitary, stream-line Hun crashed, and couldn't even swear
to any out of control. Before the Major could say more, the office door
opened to admit a leather-clad pilot grinning cheerfully all over his
face. Blanky whirled and burst out on him, calling him this, that, and
the other, demanding to know what the, where the, why the, advising
him to go'n learn to drive a beastly wheel-barrow, and buy a toy gun
with a cork on a string to shoot with. The bewildered pilot strove to
make some explanation, to get a word in edgeways, but he hadn't a hope
until Blanky paused for breath. "I didn't break formation for more'n
a minute----" he began, when Blanky interrupted explosively, "Break
formation--no, 'cos there wasn't a frescoed formation left to break. It
had gone to gilt-edged glory, and never came back. But I was there, and
your purple place was behind me. Why the which did you leave there?"

"Because I'd winged the Hun that was sitting on your tail," said the
other indignantly. "I had to go after him to get him."

"Get him," said Blanky contemptuously. "Well, why didn't you?"

"I did," said the pilot complacently. At that Blanky broke loose and
cried aloud for the wrath to descend and annihilate any man who could
stand there and deliberately murder the truth. "But I _did_ get him. I
watched him crash right enough," retorted the maligned one. Blanky was
still yelling at him, when in came another couple talking eagerly and
also with faces wreathed in smiles, and evidently well pleased with the
world. "Hullo, Blanky," said the first. "Pretty good show, eh?"

Blanky wheeled and stared at him as if in dumb amazement. "Blanky
doesn't think so," said the Major softly. "He's complaining a good deal
that your formation wasn't very good."

"Good, Major," exploded Blanky again. "It was worse than very beastly
bad. I never adverbed saw such an adjectived rank bad formation. It was
a rotten formation. And then Billie tells me--has the crimson cheek to
say he crashed a constellation Hun."

"Ask Tom there," said Billie. "Tom, didn't you see me put one down?"

Tom couldn't be sure. He'd been too busy with a Hun himself. He and the
Diver had one fellow between them, and both shootin' like stink at him,
and were watching after to see if he crashed----

"Crashed," burst in Blanky. "My sainted sacred aunt. Another fellow
walking in his sleep and killing criss-cross Huns in his dithering
dreams. Any imagining more of you get a fabulous freak Hun?"

The Diver said mildly, "Yes," he'd got one--not counting the one
between him and Tom, which might have been either's. Blanky was
beginning again, when the Major stopped him. "This is getting too
complicated," he said. "Let's get the lot together--observers and
all--and see if we can make anything of this business."

A babble of voices was heard outside, the door banged open, and in
jostled another batch of pilots and observers talking at the pitch of
their voices, laughing, shouting questioning, answering, trampling
their heavy flying boots noisily on the bare wood floor, turning the
little office hut into a regular bear-garden. Their leather coats
were unbuttoned and flapping, their long boots hung wrinkled about
their knees or were pulled thigh-high, scarves swathed their throats
or dangled down their chests, enormous furry gauntletted gloves hid
their hands. Some still wore their leather helmets with goggles pushed
up over their foreheads; others had taken them off, and looked like
some strange pantomime monsters with funnily disproportionate faces
and heads emerging from the huge leather collars. For minutes the
room was a hopeless bedlam of noise. Everyone talked at once: all,
slightly deaf perhaps from the long-endured roar of the engines, and
rush of the wind, talked their loudest. They compared notes of flashing
incidents seen for a fraction of a second in the fighting, tried to
piece together each others' seeings and doings, told what had happened
to them and their engines and machines, asked questions, and, without
waiting for an answer, asked another, or answered somebody else's.

The voice of Blanky haranguing some of the last-comers, calling down
curses on their misdeeds, rose through any break in the hubbub. The
Major sat for some minutes listening to the uproar, catching beginnings
and middles and loose ends of sentences here and there from one or
another: "Gave him a good half drum." ... "Shot away my left aileron
control." ... "Went hare-ing off over Hunland at his hardest." ...
"Pulled everything in sight and pushed the others, but couldn't get
her straightened." ... "A two-inch tear in my radiator, an' spoutin'
steam like an old steam laundry." ... And then the voice of Blanky
spitting oaths and "It was the rottenest formation I ever saw,
abso-blanky-lutely _rotten_." His sentence was swamped again in the
flood of talk and fragments of sentences. "Then it jammed--number three
stoppage and" ... "yellin' myself black in the face, but couldn't make
him hear." ... "I hate those filthy explosive bullets of theirs." ...
"Chucked her into a spin." ... "Missing every other stroke, fizzing and
spitting like a crazy Tom cat." ... "I ask you now, I _ask_ you what
could I do?" ... "Down flamin' like a disembowelled volcano."

The Major called, called again, raised his voice and shouted, and
gradually the noise died down.

"Now, let's get to business," he said. "I want to know what happened.
Blanky, let's hear you first."

Blanky told his story briefly. The formation of six machines had run
into twenty-two Huns--four two-seaters, the rest fighting scouts--and
had promptly closed with and engaged them. Blanky here threw in a few
brief but pungent criticisms on the Flight's behaviour and "rotten
formation" during the fight, mentioned baldly that they had scrapped
for about three-quarters of an hour, and although there were certainly
fewer Huns in at the finish than had begun, none, so far as he knew,
had been crashed. All the Flight had returned, mostly with a good few
minor damages to machines, but no casualties to men.

"Now," said the Major, "some of you claim Huns crashed, don't you? Let
'em alone, Blanky, to tell their own yarns."

The first pilot told of running fights, said he had sent at least one
down out of control, and saw one crash. His observer corroborated the
account; Blanky pooh-poohed it scornfully. He contradicted flatly and
hotly another pilot who said he had crashed his Hun, and in the middle
of the argument the last pilot came in.

"Here's Dicky. Ask him. He was close up, and saw me get 'im," said the
denied victor.

"Dicky," cried Blanky, "I've been waiting for--here, you cock-eyed
quirk, what in the Hot Place did you mean by bargin' across the nose of
my bus when I'd just got a sanguinary Hun in my ensanguined sights. You
blind, blithering no-good...."

"What's that, Blanky? What d'you say?" remarked Dicky cheerfully.
"Wait a bit. My ears...." He gripped his nose and violently "blew
through his ears" to remove the deafness that comes to a man who has
descended too quickly from a height. "Didn't you see me get that Hun,
Dicky?" demanded the Diver. "Why didn't you keep formation? Served you
something well otherthing right if I'd shot you, blinding across under
my gory prop...."

Dicky gripped his nose and blew again. "Wait a minute--can't hear
right...."

The talk was boiling up all round them again, in claims of a kill,
counter-claims, corroborations, and denials, and the Major sat
back and let it run for a bit. Blanky, the Diver, and Dicky held a
three-cornered duel, Blanky strafing wildly, the Diver demanding
evidence of his kill and Dicky holding his nose and blowing, and
returning utterly misfitting answers to both. He caught a word of
Blanky's tirade at last, something about "silly yahoo bashing around,"
misinterpreted it evidently, and, still holding his nose, grinned
cheerfully and nodded. "Did I crash a Hun?" he said. "Sure thing I did.
Put 'im down in flames."

The Diver leaned close and yelled in Dicky's ear: "Didn't I
crash--one--too?" Dicky blew again. "No, I didn't crash two," he said.
"Only one, I saw, though there was another blighter----"

Blanky turned disgustedly to the Major. "They're crazy," he said. "I
know I didn't see one single unholy Hun crashed in the whole sinful
show."

"Between them they claim five," said the Major, "and you say none. What
about yourself? Didn't you get any?"

"No," said Blanky shortly. "One or two down out of control, but I
didn't watch 'em, and they probably straightened out lower down."
(Blanky, it may be mentioned, has a record of never having claimed a
single Hun crashed, but is credited, nevertheless, with a round dozen
from entirely outside evidence.)

The Major spent another noisy three minutes trying to sift the tangled
evidence and claims of crashes, then gave it up. "Write your reports,"
he said, "and we'll have to wait and see if any confirmation comes in
of any crashes. You were near enough to the line for crashes to be
seen, weren't you?"

"Near enough?" said Blanky. "Too disgustingly near. I suppose anyone
that knows a bus from a banana would recognise the make of ours, and
I'm rank ashamed to imagine what the whole blinking line must have
thought of the Squadron and the paralysed performance."

The bir-r-r of the telephone bell cut sharply through the noisy talk,
and the Major shouted for silence. He got it at last, and the room
listened to the one-sided conversation that followed. Some of the
men continued their talk in whispers, Blanky fumbled out and lit a
cigarette, Dicky dropped on the bed beside the man with the book, who,
through all the uproar, had kept his eyes glued to the magazine pages.
"What you got there?" asked Dicky conversationally. "Any good?"

"Good enough for me to want to read," snapped the other. "But a man
couldn't read in this row if he was stone deaf."

"Well, y'see, they're all a bit bucked with the scrap," said Dicky
apologetically.

"Oh, bust the scrap," said the reader. "I'm sick of scraps and Huns.
Do dry up and let me read," and he buried himself again in the fiction
that to him at least was stranger than the naked truth that rioted
about his unheeding ears.

The Major's end of the talk consisted at first of "Yes ... yes ... yes
... oh, yes," and then, more intelligibly, "Yes, pretty good scrap
evidently.... No, they're all back, thanks.... Thanks, I'm glad you
think--what?... Are you sure?... Quite sure? Good. There's been rather
an argument.... Six? Quite certain?... Thanks very much.... I suppose
you'll send a report confirming.... Right. Thanks.... Good-bye."

He put the receiver down on the stand and turned to Blanky with a
smile twitching his lips. "Our Archies," he explained, "rang up to tell
me they'd watched the whole show----" "Pretty sight, too," growled
Blanky. The Major went on: "and to congratulate the Squadron on a
first-class fight. And they positively confirm six crashes, Blanky;
saw them hit the ground and smash. Some others seen low down out of
control, and could hardly recover, but weren't seen actually to crash.
So we only get six--and as the others only claim five, you must have
got yours after all."

"Course he got it," struck in Blanky's observer; "only I knew he'd
argue me down if I----"

"Oh, shut up," said Blanky. "How could you see? You were looking over
the tail, anyway."

"Well, I knew I got mine," said Dicky.

"Me, too" ... "And I was sure----" ... "And I saw mine."

"For the love of Christmas, dry up," stormed Blanky. "If you could only
fly as well as you can talk, you might make a half-baked blistering
Flight. As it is you're more like a fat-headed flock o' incarnadined
crows split-armin' over a furrow in a ploughed field. Of all the
dazzling dud formations I ever saw----"

"Never mind, Blanky," said the Major. "You got six confirmed crashes
amongst you, so it wasn't too dud a show."

"I don't care," said Blanky, tramping to the door and jerking it open.
"I don't care a tuppenny tinker's dash what Huns we got." He swung
through, and, turning in the doorway with his hand on the knob, shouted
back with all the emphasis of last-word finality: "I tell you it was a
ROTTEN formation, anyway."

Behind him the door _slammed_ tremendously.



VI

QUICK WORK


It is difficult, if not indeed impossible, to convey in words what
is perhaps the most breath-catching wonder of air-fighting work, the
furious speed, the whirling rush, the sheer rapidity of movement of the
fighting machines, and the incredible quickness of a pilot's brain,
hand, and eye to handle and manœuvre a machine, and aim and shoot a gun
under these speed conditions. I can only ask you to try to remember
that a modern fast scout is capable of flying at well over a hundred
miles an hour on the level, and at double that (one may not be too
exact) in certain circumstances, and that in such a fight as I am going
to try to describe here the machines were moving at anything between
these speeds. If you can bear this in mind, or even realise it--I
am speaking to the non-flying reader--you will begin to understand
what air men-o'-war work is, to believe what a pilot once said of air
fighting: "You don't get time to think. If you stop to think, you're
dead."

When the Flight of half a dozen scout machines was getting ready to
start on the usual "offensive patrol" over Hunland, one of the pilots,
"Ricky-Ticky" by popular name, had some slight trouble with his engine.
It was nothing much, a mere reluctance to start up easily, and since he
did get her going before the Flight was ready to take off he naturally
went up with it. He had a little more trouble in the upward climb to
gain a height sufficient for the patrol when it crossed the line to
stand the usual respectable chance of successfully dodging the usual
Archie shells. Ricky, however, managed to nurse her up well enough
to keep his place in the formation, and was still in place when they
started across the lines. Before they were far over Hunland he knew
that his engine was missing again occasionally and was not pulling as
she ought to, and from a glance at his indicators and a figuring of
speed, height, and engine revolutions was fairly certain that he was
going almost full out to keep up with the other machines, which were
flying easily and well within their speed.

This was where he would perhaps have been wise to have thrown up and
returned to his 'drome. He hung on in the hope that the engine would
pick up again--as engines have an unaccountable way of doing--and even
when he found himself dropping back out of place in the formation he
still stuck to it and followed on. He knew the risk of this, knew that
the straggler, the lame duck, the unsupported machine, is just exactly
what the Hun flyer is always on the look out for; knew, too, that his
Flight Commander before they had started had warned him (seeing the
trouble he was having to start up) that if he had any bother in the
air or could not keep place in the formation to pull out and return.
Altogether, then, the trouble that swooped down on him was his own
fault, and you can blame him for it if you like. But if you do you'll
have to blame a good many other pilots who carry on, and, in spite of
the risk, do their best to put through the job they are on. He finally
decided--he looked at the clock fixed in front of him to set a time and
found it showed just over one minute to twelve--in one minute at noon
exactly, if his engine had not steadied down to work, he would turn
back for home.

At that precise moment--and this was the first warning he had that
there were Huns about--he heard a ferocious rattle of machine-gun fire,
and got a glimpse of streaking flame and smoke from the tracer bullets
whipping past him. The Huns, three of them and all fast fighting
scouts, had seen him coming, had probably watched him drop back out of
place in the Flight, had kept carefully between him and the sun so that
his glances round and back had failed to spot them in the glare, and
had then dived headlong on him, firing as they came. They were coming
down on him from astern and on his right side, or, as the Navals would
put it, on his starboard quarter, and they were perhaps a hundred to a
hundred and fifty yards off when Ricky first looked round and saw them.

His first and most natural impulse was to get clear of the bullets
that were spitting round and over him, and in two swift motions he had
opened his engine full out and thrust his nose a little down and was
off full pelt. Promptly the three astern swung a little, opened out as
they wheeled, dropped their noses, and came after Ricky, still a little
above him, and so fairly astern that only the centre one could keep a
sustained accurate fire on him. (A scout's gun being fixed and shooting
between the blades of the propeller--gun and engine being synchronised
so as to allow the bullet to pass out as the blade is clear of the
muzzle--means that the machine itself must be aimed at the target for
the bullets to hit, and the two outer machines of the three could only
so aim their machines by pointing their noses to converge on the centre
one--a risky manœuvre with machines travelling at somewhere about a
hundred miles an hour.)

But the fire of that centre one was too horribly close for endurance,
and Ricky knew that although his being end-on made him the smaller
target, it also made his machine the more vulnerable to a raking shot
which, piercing him fore and aft, could not well fail to hit petrol
tank, or engine, or some other vital spot. He could do nothing in the
way of shooting back, because, being a single-seater scout himself,
his two guns were trained one to shoot straight forward through the
propeller, the other, mounted on the top plane on a curved mount which
allowed the gun to be grasped by the handle above his head and pulled
back and down, to shoot from direct ahead to straight up. Neither could
shoot backward.

Ricky, the first shock of his surprise over, had gauged the situation,
and this, it must be admitted, was dangerous, if not desperate. He had
dropped back and back from the Flight, until now they were something
like a mile ahead of him. A mile, it is true, does not take a modern
machine long to cover, but then, on the other hand, neither does an air
battle take long to fight, especially with odds of three to one. With
those bullets sheeting past him and already beginning to rip and crack
through his wings, any second might see the end of Ricky. It was no use
thinking longer of running away, and even a straight-down nose-dive
offered no chance of escape, both because the Huns could nose-dive
after him and continue to keep him under fire, and because he was well
over Hunland, and the nearer he went to the ground the better target he
would make for the anti-aircraft gunners below. He must act, and act
quickly.

A thousand feet down and a quarter of a mile away was a little
patch of cloud. Ricky swerved, dipped, and drove "all out" for it.
He was into it--400 yards remember--in about the time it takes you
to draw three level quiet breaths, and had flashed through it--five
or six hundred feet across it might have been--in a couple of quick
heart-beats. The Huns followed close, and in that half-dozen seconds
Ricky had something between fifty and a hundred bullets whizzing and
ripping past and through his wings. As he leaped clear of the streaming
wisps of the cloud's edge he threw one look behind him and pulled the
joy-stick hard in to his stomach. Instantly his machine reared and
swooped up in the loop he had decided on, up and over and round. At the
first upward zoom Ricky had pulled down the handle of his top gun and
brought it into instant action. The result was that as he shot up and
over in a perfect loop the centre machine, which had been astern of
him, flashed under and straight through the stream of his bullets.

Ricky whirled down in the curve of his loop with his gun still
shooting, but, now he had finished his loop and flattened out,
shooting up into the empty air while his enemy hurtled straight on and
slightly downward ahead of him. Instantly Ricky threw his top gun out
of action, and, having now reversed positions, and having his enemy
ahead, steadied his machine to bring his bow gun sights to bear on
her. But before he could fire he saw the hostile's right upper plane
twist upward, saw the machine spin side on, the top plane rip and flare
fiercely back and upward, the lower plane buckle and break, and the
machine, turning over and over, plunge down and out of his sight. One
of his bullets evidently had cut some bracing wires or stays, and the
wing had given to the strain upon it.

So much Ricky just had time to think, but immediately found himself
in a fresh danger. The two remaining hostiles had flashed past him
at the same time as the centre one, while he threw his loop over it,
but, realising apparently on the instant what his manœuvre was, they
both swung out and round while he passed in his loop over the centre
machine. It was smart work on the part of the two flanking hostiles.
They must have instantly divined Ricky's dodge to get astern of them
all, and their immediate circle out and round counteracted it, and as
he came out of his loop brought them circling in again on him. For an
instant Ricky was so concentrated on the centre machine that he forgot
the two others; but, the centre one down and out, he was suddenly
roused to the fresh danger by two following short bursts of fire which
flashed and flamed athwart him, and caught a glimpse of the other two
closing in again astern of him and "sitting on his tail."

Both were firing as they came, and again Ricky felt the sharp rip and
crack of explosive bullets striking somewhere on his machine, and an
instant later knew the two were following him and hailing lead upon
him. He cursed savagely. He had downed one enemy, but here apparently
he was little if any better off with two intact enemies in the worst
possible position for him, "on his tail," and both shooting their
hardest.

A quick glance ahead showed him the white glint of light on the
wheeling wings of his Flight, attracted by the sight of his battle,
circling and racing to join the fight. But, fast and all as they came,
the fight was likely to be over before they could arrive, and with the
crack and snap of bullets about him and his own two guns powerless
to bear on the enemy, it looked uncomfortably like odds on the fight
ending against him. Another loop they would expect and follow over--and
the bullets were crippling him every instant.

Savagely he threw his controls over, and his machine slashed out
and down to the right in a slicing two-hundred-foot side-slip. The
right-hand machine whirled past him so close that he saw every detail
of the pilot's dress--the fur-fringed helmet, dark goggles, black
sweater. He caught his machine out of her downward slide, drove her
ahead, steadied her, and brought his sights to bear on the enemy a
scant twenty yards ahead, and poured a long burst of fire into her.
He saw the streaking flashes of his bullets pouring about and over
her top planes, dipped his muzzle a shade, and saw the bullets break
and play on and about the pilot and fuselage. Then came a leaping
flame and a spurt of black smoke whirling out from her; Ricky had a
momentary glimpse of the pilot's agonised expression as he lifted and
glanced wildly round, and next instant had only in his sight a trailing
black plume of smoke and the gleam of a white underbody as the enemy
nose-dived down in a last desperate attempt to make a landing before
his machine dissolved in flames about him.

With a sudden burst of exultation Ricky realised his changed position.
A minute before he was in the last and utmost desperate straits, three
fast and well-armed adversaries against his single hand. Now, with two
down, it was man to man--no, if he wished, it was all over, because the
third hostile had swung left, had her nose down, and was "hare-ing" for
home and down towards the covering fire of the German anti-aircraft
batteries. Already she was two to three hundred yards away, and the
first German Archie soared up and burst with a rending "Ar-r-rgh" well
astern of him.

But Ricky's blood was up and singing songs of triumph in his ears.
Two out of three downed; better make a clean job of it and bag the
lot. His nose dipped and his tail flicked up, and he went roaring
down, full out, after his last Hun. A rapid crackle of one machine-gun
after another struck his ear before ever he had the last hostile fully
centred in his sights. Ricky knew that at last the Flight had arrived
and were joining in the fight. But he paid no heed to them; his enemy
was in the ring of his sight now, so with his machine hurling down at
the limit of speed of a falling body plus all the pull of a hundred
and odd horse-power, the whole fabric quivering and vibrating under
him, the wind roaring past and in his ears, Ricky snuggled closer
in his seat, waited till his target was fully and exactly centred
in his sights, and poured in a long, clattering burst of fire. The
hostile's slanting nose-dive swerved into a spin, an uncontrolled
side-to-side plunge, back again into a spinning dive that ended in a
straight-downward rush and a crash end-on into the ground.

Whether it was Ricky or some other machine of the Flight that got
this last hostile will never be known. Ricky himself officially
reported having crashed two, but declined to claim the third as his.
On the other hand, the rest of the Flight, after and always, with
enthusiastic unanimity, insisted that she was Ricky's very own, that he
had outplayed, outfought, and killed three Huns in single combat with
them--one down and t'other come on. If Ricky himself could not fairly
and honestly claim all rights to the last Hun, the Flight did for him.

"_Three!_" they said vociferously in mess that night, and would brook
no modest doubts from him. And to silence all doubts the Squadron
poet composed a song which was sung by the mess with a fervour and
a generous slurring over of faulty metre (a word the poet didn't
even know the meaning of) that might have stirred the blood of a
conscientious objector. It was entitled, "Three Huns Sat on his Tail,"
and was sung to the tune of "There were Three Crows Sat on a Tree," or,
as the uninitiated may prefer, "When Johnny Comes Marching Home," and
it detailed the destruction of the Huns one by one, verse by verse.

When I tell you it was sung chanty fashion, with the first, second,
and last lines chorused by the mess, I can leave you to imagine the
loud-pedal, full, fortissimo effect of the "Hurrahs," and (helped out
with feet, with fists, spoons, and anything else handy to resound upon
the table) of the final rolling "Cr-r-r-ash."

    There were three Huns sat on his tail,
          _Hurrah, hurrah_!
    But he looped over one and gave him "Hail
          _Colum-bi-a_!"
    He shot up the Hun so full of lead
    That before he knew he was hit he was dead,
    And our Archie look-out reporting said:
          One!--CR-R-R-ASH!

But all this was later, and is going a little ahead of the story. As
the last Hun went reeling down, Ricky, in the official language of
the combat reports, "rejoined formation and continued the patrol."
He pulled the stick towards him and rose buoyantly, knowing that he
was holed over and over again, that bullets, and explosive bullets at
that, had ripped and rent and torn the fabrics of his machine, possibly
had cut away some strut or stay or part of the frame. But his engine
appeared to be all right again, had never misbehaved a moment during
the fight, was running now full power and blast; his planes swept
smooth and steady along the wind levels, his controls answered exactly
to his tender questioning touch. He had won out. He was safe, barring
accident, to land back in his own 'drome; and there were two if not
three Huns down on his brazen own within the last--how long?

At the moment of his upward zoom on the conclusion of the fight he
glanced at his clock, could hardly believe what it told him, was only
convinced when he recalled that promise to himself to turn back at the
end of that minute, and had his belief confirmed by the Flight's count
of the time between their first turning back and their covering the
distance to join him. His clock marked exactly noon. The whole fight,
from the firing of the first shot to the falling away of the last Hun,
had taken bare seconds over the one minute.

That pilot was right; in air fighting "you don't get time to think."

       *       *       *       *       *

    Quick is the word and quick is the deed
      If you would live in the air-fight game;
    Speed, give 'em speed, and a-top of it--speed!
      (Man or machine exactly the same).
    Think and stunt, move, shoot, quickly; or die,
      Fight quick or die quick; when all is said,
    There are two kinds of fighters who fly,
      Only two kinds--the quick, and the dead.



VII

THE AIR MASTERS


It is hardly known to the general public--which seems a pity--that the
Navy has, working on the Western Front, some Air Squadrons who fly only
over the land and have not so much as seen the sea, except by chance or
from a long distance, from year's end to year's end. They have carried
into their shore-going lives a number of Navy ways, like the curt
"Thank God" grace at the end of a meal, or the mustering of all hands
for "Divisions" (Navalese for "Parade") in the morning, marking off the
time by so many "bells," hoisting and lowering at sunrise and sunset
the white ensign flown on a flagstaff on the 'drome; they stick to
their Navy ratings of petty officers and sub-lieutenants and so on, and
interlard their speech more or less with Navy lingo--a very useful and
expressive one, by the way, in describing air manœuvres--but otherwise
carry out their patrols and air work with, and on about the same lines
as, the R.F.C.

Naval Number Something is a "fighting scout" Squadron, which means
that its sole occupation in life is to hunt for trouble, to find and
fight, "sink, burn or destroy" Huns. At first thought it may seem
to the Army which fights "on the floor" that this job of a fighting
machine is one which need interest no one outside the Air Service, that
it is airman fighting against airman, and that, except from a point
of mere sporting interest, the results of these fights don't concern
or affect the rest of the Army, that the war would roll on just the
same for them whichever side had the upper hand in the air fighting.
Those who think so are very far wrong, because it is on the fighters
pure and simple that the air mastery depends. Air work is a business,
a highly complicated, completely organised and efficient business, and
one bit of it has to dovetail into another just as the Army's does.
The machines which spot for our guns, and direct the shooting of our
batteries to destroy enemy batteries which would otherwise destroy our
trenches and our men in them; the reconnaissance machines which fly
up and down Hunland all day and bring back reports of the movements
of troops and trains and the concentration or removal of forces, and
generally do work of which full and true value is known only to those
Heads running the war; the photographing machines which bring back
thousands of pictures of all sorts--the line knows a few, a very few,
of these, and their officers study very attentively the trench photos
before they go over the top in a raid or an attack, and so learn
exactly how, why, and where they are to go; the bombing machines which
blow up dumps of ammunition destined for the destruction of trenches
and men, derail trains bringing up reinforcements or ammunition to
the Hun firing line, knock about the 'dromes and the machines which
otherwise would be gun-spotting, reconnoitring, and bombing over our
lines--and perhaps some day one may tell just how many Gotha raids
have been upset, and cancelled by our bomb-raids on a Hun 'drome--all
these various working machines depend entirely for their existence
and freedom to do their work on the success of the fighting machines.
The working machines carry guns, and fight when they have to, but the
single-seater fighting machines are out for fight all the time, out
to destroy enemy fighters, or to put out of action any enemy working
machine they can come across.

The struggle for the air mastery never ceases, and although it may
never be absolute and complete, because the air is a big place to sweep
quite clear and clean, the fact that scores of our machines spend
all their flying hours anywhere over Hunland from the front lines to
fifty miles and more behind them for every one Hun who flies over ours
and, after a cruise of some minutes, races back again, is fairly good
evidence of who holds the whip hand in the air.

All this introduction is necessary to explain properly the importance
of the fighting squadrons' job, and why the winning of their fights
is of such concern to every man in the Army, and to every man, woman,
and child interested in any man in the Army. It also serves to explain
why it was that three machines of Naval Number Something "leapt into
the air" in a most tremendous hurry-skurry, the pilots finishing the
buckling of their coats (one going without a coat indeed) and putting
on goggles after they had risen, when the look-out at the Squadron
telescope reported that there were four Hun two-seater machines
circling round at about 10,000 or 12,000 feet and just far enough over
our front lines to look suspiciously like being on a gun-spotting or
"Art.-Ob." bit of business.

That such a performance should be taking place almost within sight of
their own 'drome doorstep naturally annoyed the Navals, and led to the
immediate and hurried steps which took the three machines and pilots
who were first ready into the air in "two shakes of the jib-sheet."
The three men were all veteran fighters, and their machines three of
the Squadron's best, and if the four Huns had known their reputations
and calibre it is doubtful if they would have dared to hang about and
carry on with their work as they did. There was "Mel" Byrne, a big
man with a D.S.C. and a Croix de Guerre ribbon on his breast, and a
score of crashed Huns notched to his credit, flying his "Kangaroo";
"Rip" Winkle, who had once met and attacked, single-handed, seven
Huns, shot down and crashed three hand-running and chased the others
headlong as far over Hunland as his petrol would take him: he was in
his "Minnenwerfer"; and the "next astern" was the "'Un-settler" flown
by "Ten-franc" or "Frankie" Jones, a youngster of--well, officially,
twenty, so called, not because he was in his baptism named Frank,
but because of a bet he had made with another Naval Squadron as to
which Squadron would "crash" the most Huns by a stated date. He was
desperately keen to win his often-referred-to wager--so much so in fact
that the other pilots chaffed him constantly on it and swore he would
risk more to win his bet than he would to win a V.C.

The three wasted no time in the usual circling climb over the 'drome,
but drove up full tilt and straight for the four dots in the sky. They
climbed as they went, and since the Trichord type is rather famous
for its climbing powers they made pretty good height as they went.
"Mel," in the lead, was in a desperate hurry to interrupt the enemy's
artillery-spotting work, so gave away the advantage of height and
sacrificed the greater climb they could attain with a lesser speed to
the urgent haste and need of getting in touch with the enemy. They were
still a good couple of thousand feet below when they came to within
half a mile of the Huns, and the "Kangaroo," with the others following
close, tilted steeply up and began to show what a Trichord really
could do if it were asked of her. They were gaining height so rapidly
that the Huns evidently did not like it, and two of them turned out
and drove over to a position above the Trichords. The three paid no
attention to them, but climbed steeply, swinging in towards the other
two machines which, since they still continued their circling, were
probably continuing their "shoot" and signalling back to their guns.
But the Trichords were too threatening to be left longer alone. The two
turned and flew east, with the Trichords in hot pursuit, slanted round,
and presently were joined by their friends. Then the four plunged on
the three in an almost vertical dive. Because the fighting scout only
shoots straight forward out of a fixed gun, its bows must be pointing
straight at a target before it can fire, and the Huns' straight-down
dive was meant to catch the Trichords at a disadvantage, since it was
hardly to be expected they could stand on their tails to shoot straight
up in the air. But this is almost what they did. All three, going "full
out," turned their noses abruptly up and opened fire. The Huns turned
their dive off into an upward "zoom" and a circling bank which allowed
their observers to point their guns over and down at the Trichords, and
fire a number of rounds.

But because it was now perfectly obvious that the Trichords had
attained their first and most urgent object, the breaking-off of the
Huns' "shoot" and spotting for their guns, they could now proceed to
the next desirable part of the programme--the destruction of the four
Huns by methods which would level up the fighting chances a little. The
"Kangaroo" shot out eastward and began to climb steeply, Mel expecting
that the other two would follow his tactics, get between the enemy and
their lines, and climb to or above their height. But the "'Un-settler"
was in trouble of some sort, and after firing a coloured light as a
signal to the leader meaning "Out of action; am returning home," slid
off west in a long glide with her engine shut off. Rip Winkle, on the
"Minnenwerfer," followed the "Kangaroo" east a few hundred yards and
began to climb. The four Huns at first tried to keep above the level of
the two, but it was quickly evident that the Trichords were outclimbing
them hand over fist, were going up in a most amazing lift, in "a
spiral about as steep as a Tube stair." The Huns didn't like the look
of things and suddenly turned for their lines, dropped their noses,
and went off at full speed. The two Trichords cut slanting across to
connect with them, and in half a minute were close enough to open fire.
Two against four, they fought a fierce running fight for a minute or
two. Then the "Kangaroo" swept in astern of a Hun, dived and zoomed
up under him and poured in a point-blank burst of fire. Mel saw his
bullets hailing into and splintering the woodwork of the underbody, was
just in time to throttle down and check the "Kangaroo" as the Hun's
tail flicked up and he went sweeping down in a spinning nose dive. But
a hard-pressed pilot will sometimes adopt that manœuvre deliberately to
throw a pursuer out of position, and, knowing this, Mel followed him
down to make sure he was finished, followed him watching the spin grow
wilder and wilder, and finish in a splintering crash on the ground. Mel
lifted the "Kangaroo" and drove off full pelt after the others. Two of
the Huns had dived and were skimming the ground--they were well over
Hunland by now--and the other one and the "Minnenwerfer" were wheeling
and circling and darting in and out about each other exactly like two
boxers sparring for an opening, their machine-guns rattling rapidly as
either pilot or gunner got his sights on the target. Then when he was
almost close enough to join in, Mel saw a spurt of flame and a gust
of smoke lick out from the fuselage of the Hun. The machine lurched,
recovered, and dipped over to dive down; the "Minnenwerfer" leaped in
to give her the death-blow, and under the fresh hail of bullets the Hun
plunged steeply, with smoke and flame pouring up from the machine's
body. The wind drove the flames aft, and in two seconds she was
enveloped in them, became a roaring bonfire, a live torch hurtling to
the ground. The Trichords saw her observer scramble from his cockpit,
balance an instant on the flaming body, throw his hands up and leap out
into the empty air, and go twisting and whirling down to earth.

A Hun Archie shell screamed up past the hovering Trichords and burst
over their heads, and others followed in quick succession as the two
turned and began to climb in twisting and erratic curves designed to
upset the gunners' aim. They worked east as they rose and were almost
over the lines when Mel, in one of his circlings, caught sight of
a big formation flying towards them from the west. He steadied his
machine and took another long look, and in a moment saw they were Huns,
counted them and found fourteen, most of them scouts, some of them
two-seaters of a type that Mel knew as one commonly used by the Huns on
the infrequent occasions they get a chance to do artillery-observing
work on our lines. Both Mel and Rip worked out the situation on much
the same lines, that the Huns had some important "shoot" on, were
specially keen to do some observing for their guns, had sent the four
two-seaters first and were following them up with other two-seater
observing-machines protected by a strong escort of fighters. Mel looked
round for any sight of a formation of ours that might be ready to
interrupt the game, saw none, and selecting the correct coloured light,
fired a signal to Rip saying, "I am going to attack." Rip, as a matter
of fact, was so certain he would do so that he had already commenced
to climb his machine to gain a favourable position. The fourteen were
at some 17,000 feet, several thousand above the Trichords, but here
the great climbing power of the Trichords stood to them, and they went
up and up, in swift turn on turn that brought them almost to a level
with the enemy before the Huns were within shooting distance. They
came on with the scouts flying in a wedge-shaped formation, and the
observing-machines protected and covered inside the wedge.

The odds were so hugely in their favour that it was clear they never
dreamed the two would attack their fourteen, and they drove straight
forward to cross above the lines. But the Trichords wakened them
quickly and rudely. Each wheeled out wide and clear of the formation,
closed in astern of it to either side, lifted sharply to pick up an
extra bit of useful height, dived, and came hurtling, engines going
full out and guns shooting their hardest, arrow-straight at the
two-seaters in the centre of the formation below them. Owing to the
direction of their attack, only the observers' guns on the two-seaters
had any chance to bring an effective fire to bear. It is true that the
few scouts in the rear of the wedge did fire a few scattering shots.
But scouts, you will remember, having only fixed guns shooting forward,
can only fire dead ahead in the direction the machine is travelling,
must aim the machine to hit with the gun. This means that the target
presented to them of the Trichords flashing down across their bows made
it almost impossible for them to keep a Trichord in their sights for
more than an instant, if indeed they were quick enough to get an aim at
all. Their fire went wide and harmless. The two-seaters did better, and
both Trichords had jets of flaming and smoking tracer bullets spitting
past them as they came, had several hits through their wings. But they,
because they held their machines steady and plunged down straight
as bullets themselves on to their marks, were able to keep longer,
steadier and better aim. Mel, as he drove down close to his target, saw
the gaping rents his bullets were slashing in the fuselage near the
observer, saw in the flashing instant as he turned and hoicked up and
away, the observer collapse and fall forward with his hands hanging
over the edge of his cockpit. Rip saw no visible signs of his bullets,
but saw the visible result a moment after he also had swirled up,
made a long fast climbing turn, and steadied his machine for another
dive. His Hun dropped out of the formation and down in long twisting
curves, apparently out of control. He had no time to watch her down,
because half a dozen of the Hun scouts, deciding evidently that this
couple of enemies deserved serious consideration, swung out and began
to climb after the Trichords. Mel promptly dived down past them, under
the two-seaters and up again under one. The instant he had her in the
gun-sights he let drive and saw his bullets breaking and tearing into
her. She side-slipped wildly, rolled over, and Mel watched for no more,
but turned his attention and his gun to another target.

By now the half-dozen Hun scouts had obtained height enough to allow
them to copy the Trichords' dive-and-shoot tactics, and down they came
to the long clattering fire of their machine-guns. Both Trichords had
a score of rents in wings and fuselage and tail planes, but by a mercy
no shot touched a vital part. But they could hardly afford to risk such
chances often, so went back to their plan of outclimbing and diving on
their enemies. Over and over again they did this, and because of their
far superior climb were able to keep on doing it despite every effort
of the Huns. Machine after machine they sent driving down, some being
uncertain "crashes" or "out-of-controls," but most of them being at
least definitely "driven down" since they did not rejoin the fight, and
were forced to drop to such landing-places as they could find. There
were some definite "crashes," one which fell wrapped in roaring flame
from stem to stern; another on which Rip saw his bullets slashing in
long tears across the starboard wing, the splinters fly from a couple
of the wing struts as the bullets sheared them through in splitting
ragged fragments. In an instant the whole upper wing flared upward
and back and tore off, the lower folded back to the body, flapped and
wrenched fiercely as the machine rolled over and fell, gave and ripped
loose; the port wings followed, breaking short off and away, leaving
the machine to drop like a plummet to the ground. The third certain
crash was in the later stages of the fight. The constant dive-and-zoom
of the Trichords had the desired effect of driving the Huns lower and
lower each time in their endeavour to gain speed and avoid the fierce
rushes from above. Strive as they would, they could not gain an upper
position. Some of them tried to fly wide and climb while the Trichords
were busy with the remainder; but one or other of the two leaped out
after them, hoicked up above them, drove them lower, or shot them down,
in repeated dives.

The fight that had started a good 17,000 feet up and close over the
trenches, finished at about 1,000 feet and six to seven miles behind
the German lines. At that height, the pilot of one Hun driven into a
side-slip was not able to recover in time and smashed at full speed
into the ground; another was forced so low that he tried to land, hit
a hedge and turned over; a third landed twisting sideways and at least
tore a wing away.

Then the two Trichords, splintered and rent and gaping with
explosive-bullet wounds, with their ammunition completely expended,
their oil and petrol tanks running dry, turned for home, leaving
their fourteen enemies scattered wide and low in the air, or piled
in splintered smoking wreckage along the ground below the line of
their flight. The fight with the fourteen had run without a break for
three-quarters of an hour.

They never knew exactly how many victims they had "sunk, burned or
destroyed." As they stated apologetically in the official "Combat
Report" that night: "Owing to the close presence of other active
E.A.[4] driven-down machines could not be watched to the ground."

[4] E.A.=enemy aircraft.

"Frankie" was almost more annoyed over this than he was over having
had to pull out of the action with a dud machine. "If we could have
confirmed all your crashes," he remarked regretfully, "it would have
been such a jolly boost-up to the Squadron's tally--to say nothing of
my wager."



VIII

"THE ATTACK WAS BROKEN"


The infantry who watched from their trenches one afternoon a Flight
of our machines droning over high above their heads had no inkling of
the effect that Flight was going to have on their, the infantry's,
well-being. If they had known that the work of this Flight, the
successful carrying out of its mission, was going to make all the
difference of life and death to them they might have been more
interested in it. But they did not know then, and do not know now,
and what is perhaps more surprising, the Flight itself never fully
learned the result of their patrol, because air work, so divided up and
apparently disconnected, is really a systematic whole, and only those
whose work it is to collect the threads and twist them together know
properly how much one means to the other.

This Flight was out on a photographic patrol. They had been ordered to
proceed to a certain spot over Hunland and take a series of pictures
there, and they did so and returned in due course with nothing more
unusual about the performance than rather a high average of attentions
paid to them by the Hun Archies. The photos were developed and printed
as usual within a few minutes of the machines touching the ground, and
were rushed off to their normal destinations. The photographers went to
their afternoon tea and forgot the matter.

But in a Nissen hut some miles from the photographers' 'drome afternoon
tea was held up, while several people pored over the photos with
magnifying glasses, consulted the many maps which hung round the
walls and covered the tables, spoke earnestly into telephones, and
dictated urgent notes. One result of all this activity was that Captain
Washburn, or "Washie," and his Observer Lieutenant "Pip" Smith, to
their no slight annoyance, were dragged from their tea and pushed off
on an urgent reconnaissance, and two Flights of two fighting scout
Squadrons received orders to make their patrol half an hour before the
time ordered. Washie and his Observer were both rather specialists
in reconnaissance work, and they received sufficient of a hint from
their Squadron Commander of the urgency of their job to wipe out their
regrets of a lost tea and set them bustling aboard their 'bus "Pan" and
up into the air.

It may be mentioned briefly here that three other machines went out
on the same reconnaissance. One was shot down before she was well over
the lines; another struggled home with serious engine trouble; the
third was so harried and harassed by enemy scouts that she was lucky
to be able to fight them off and get home, with many bullet holes--and
no information. Washie and Pip did better, although they too had a
lively trip. To make sure of their information they had to fly rather
low, and as soon as they began to near the ground which they wanted
to examine the Hun Archies became most unpleasantly active. A shell
fragment came up through the fuselage with an ugly _rip_, and another
smacked bursting through both right planes. Later, in a swift dive
down to about a thousand feet, "Pan" collected another assortment of
souvenirs from machine-guns and rifles, but Washie climbed her steeply
out of range, while Pip busied himself jotting down some notes of the
exceedingly useful information the low dive had brought them.

Then six Hun fighting scouts arrived at speed, and set about the
"Pan" in an earnest endeavour to crash her and her information
together. Pilot and Observer had a moment's doubt whether to fight or
run. They had already seen enough to make it urgent that they should
get their information back, and yet they were both sure there was more
to see and that they ought to see it. Their doubts were settled by the
Huns diving on them one after another, with machine-guns going their
hardest. The first went down past them spattering a few bullets through
"Pan's" tail planes as he passed. The second Pip caught fairly with a
short burst as he came past, and the Hun continued his dive, fell off
in a spin, and ended in a violent crash below. The third and fourth
dived on "Pan" from the right side and the fifth and sixth on her left.
Pip managed to wing one on the right, and sent him fluttering down
out of the fight more or less under control, and Washie stalled the
"Pan" violently, wrenched her round in an Immelman turn, and plunged
straight at another Hun, pumping a stream of bullets into him from his
bow gun. The Hun went down with a torrent of black smoke gushing from
his fuselage. Washie brought "Pan" hard round on her heel again, opened
his engine full out and ran for it, with the scattered Huns circling
and following in hard pursuit. Now "Pan" could travel to some tune when
she was really asked--and Washie was asking her now. She was a good
machine with a good engine; her pilot knew every stitch and stay, every
rod, bolt, and bearing in her (and his rigger and fitter knew that he
knew and treated him and her accordingly), every little whim in her
that it paid him to humour, every little trick that would get an extra
inch of speed out of her. A first-class pilot on a first-class scout
ought to overhaul a first-class pilot and two-seater; but either the
"Pan" or her pilot was a shade more first-class than the pursuers, and
Washie managed to keep far enough ahead to be out of accurate shooting
range and allow Pip to scrutinise the ground carefully as they flew.
For Washie was running it is true, but was running east and further out
over Hunland and the area he wanted to reconnoitre, and Pip was still
picking up the very information they had been sent to find.

When they swung north the three pursuing scouts by cutting the corner
came up on them again, and Pip left his notes to stand by his gun.
There was some brisk shooting in the next minute, but "Pan" broke clear
with another series of holes spattered through her planes and fuselage,
and Pip with the calf of his leg badly holed by an explosive bullet,
but with his gun still rapping out short bursts over the tail. They
were heading for home now, and Washie signalled Pip to speak to him.
The "Pan" is one of those comfortably designed machines with pilot's
and observer's cockpits so close together that the two men can shout
in each other's ear. Pip leaned over and Washie yelled at him. "Seen
enough? Got all you want?" "Yes." Pip nodded and tapped his note-block.
"All I want," he yelled, "and then some----" and he wiped his hand
across his wound, showed Washie the red blood, and shouted "Leg hit."

That settled it. Washie lifted the "Pan" and drove her, all out, for
home, taking the risk of some bullet-holed portion of her frame failing
to stand the strain of excessive speed rather than the risk of going
easy and letting the pursuers close for another fight with a wounded
observer to protect his tail.

"They've dropped off," shouted Pip a few minutes later. Washie swung
and began to lift the "Pan" in climbing turn on turn. "Look out," he
shouted back, "look out," and stabbed a finger out to point a group of
Huns ahead of them and cutting them off from the lines. Next minute
Pip in his turn pointed to another group coming up from the south well
above them and heading to cut them off. Washie swept round, dipped
his nose slightly, and drove at the first group. The next few minutes
were unpleasantly hot. The Huns strove to turn them, to hold them from
breaking through or past, or drive them lower and lower, while Washie
twisted and dived and zoomed and tried to dodge through or under them,
with his gun spitting short bursts every time he caught a target in
his sights; and Pip, weakening and faint from pain and loss of blood,
seconded him as best he could with rather erratic shooting.

Affairs were looking bad for them, even when "Pan" ran out and west
with no enemy ahead but with four of them clinging to her flanks and
tail and pumping quick bursts at her; but just here came in those two
Flights of our fighting scout Squadrons--quite accidentally so far as
they knew, actually of set design and as part of the ordered scheme.
Six streaking shapes came flashing down into the fight with their
machine-guns pouring long bursts of fire ahead of them, and the four
close-pursuing Huns left the "Pan" and turned to join up with their
scattered companions. Washie left them to fight it out, and turned
directly, and very thankfully, for his 'drome.

This ends the tale of "Pan," but not by any means of the result of her
work. That work, in the shape of jerky but significant reports, was
being dissected in the map-hung Nissen hut even before Pip had reached
the Casualty Clearing Station; and "Pan's" work (confirming those
suspicious photographs) again bred other work, more urgent telephone
talks, and Immediate orders. The stir spread, circle by circle, during
the night, and before daybreak the orders had borne their fruit, and
Flights--Artillery-Observing, reconnoitring and fighting-scout--were
lined up on their grounds waiting the moment to go; the Night Bombers
were circling in from their second and third trips of destruction on
lines of communication, railways and roads, junctions and bridges,
enemy troops and transport in rest or on the march, ammunition dumps
and stores; in the front lines the infantry were "standing to" with
everything ready and prepared to meet an attack; the support lines were
filling with reinforcements, which again were being strengthened by
battalions tramping up the roads from the rear; in the gun lines the
lean hungry muzzles of the long-range guns were poking and peering up
and out from pit and emplacement, and the squat howitzers were lifting
or lowering to carefully worked out angles.

Before daybreak was more than a mere doubtful smudge of lighter colour
in the east, the waiting Flights were up and away to their appointed
beats, and the first guns began to drop their shells, shooting "by the
map" (maps made or corrected from air photographs), or on previously
"registered" lines.

The infantry up in front heard the machines hum and drone overhead,
heard the rush and howl of the passing shells, the thud of the guns'
reports, the thump of the high-explosive's burst. That, for a time,
was all. For a good half-hour there was nothing more, no sign of the
heavy attack they had been warned was coming. Then the gunfire began to
grow heavier, and as the light strengthened, little dots could be seen
circling and wheeling against the sky and now and again a faint and
far-off _tat-tat-tat-tat_ came from the upper air. For if it was quiet
and inactive on the ground, it was very much the other way in the air.
Our reconnoitring and gun-spotting machines were quartering the ground
in search of targets, the scout machines sweeping to and fro above them
ready to drop on any hostiles which tried to interrupt them in their
work. The hostiles tried quickly enough. They were out in strength, and
they did their best to drive off or sink our machines, prevent them
spying out the land, or directing our guns on the massing battalions.
But they were given little chance to interrupt. Let any of their
formations dive on our gun-spotters, and before they had well come
into action down plunged our scouts after them, engaged them fiercely,
drove them off, or drew them away in desperate defensive fighting.
Gradually the light grew until the reconnoitring machines could see and
mark the points of concentration, the masses moving into position, the
filled and filling trenches; until the gun-spotters could mark down
the same targets and the observers place their positions on the map.
Then their wireless began to whisper back their messages from the air
to the little huts and shanties back at Headquarters and the battery
positions; and then....

It was the turn of the guns to speak. Up in the trenches the infantry
heard the separate thuds and thumps quicken and close and run into one
long tremendous roar, heard the shells whistle and shriek and howl
and moan over their heads, saw the ground far out in front of them
veil in twisting smoke wreaths, spout and leap in volcanoes of smoke,
earth, and fire. Battery by battery, gun by gun, the artillery picked
up and swelled the chorus. The enemy machines did little gun-spotting
over our positions. If one or two sneaked over high above the line, it
needed no more than the first few puffs about them from our watching
Archies to bring some of our scouts plunging on them, turning them and
driving after them in headlong pursuit. On the ground men knew little
or nothing of all this, of the moves and counter-moves, the dodging
and fighting high over their heads. Their attention was taken up by
the ferocious fire of our artillery, and in waiting, waiting, for the
attack which never came.

Small wonder it never came. The guns caught it fairly, as it was
developing and shaping and settling into position for the assault. The
attack was a little late, as we heard after from prisoners--perhaps
the Night Bombers, and their upsetting of road and rail transport
timetables with high-explosive bombs and showering machine-guns, had
some word in that lateness--and our fire caught it in the act of
deploying. And when such a weight of guns as was massed on that front
catches solid battalions on the roads, or troops close-packed in
trenches, the Lord ha' mercy on the men they catch. The shells rained,
deluged down on every trench, every road and communication way within
range, searched every thicket and patch of cover, blasted the dead
woods to splintered wreckage, smashed in dug-out and emplacement, broke
down the trenches to tumbled smoking gutters, gashed and seamed and
pitted the bare earth into a honeycombed belt of death and destruction.
The high-explosive broke in, tore open, wrenched apart and destroyed
the covering trenches and dug-outs; the shrapnel raked and rent the
tattered fragments of battalions that scattered and sought shelter in
the shell-holes and craters. The masses that were moving up to push
home the intended attack escaped if they were checked and stayed in
time; those that had arrived and passed into the furnace were simply
and utterly destroyed.

For a good three hours the roaring whirlwind of gunfire never ceased,
or even slacked; for three hours the ground for a full mile back from
the Hun front line rolled billowing clouds of smoke, quivered and shook
to the crash of the explosions, spurted and boiled and eddied under the
shells "like a bubbling porridge pot," as one gun-spotter put it, was
scorched with fire, flayed with lead and steel, drenched and drowned
with gas from the poison shells.

For three hours the circling planes above watched for sign of movement
below, and seeing any such sign talked back by wireless to the guns,
waited and watched the wrath descend and blot out the movement in fresh
whirlwinds of concentrated fire; while further back a full five to ten
miles other spotters quartered to and fro working steadily, sending
back call after call to our Heavies, and silencing, one by one, battery
after battery which was pounding our trenches with long-range fire. And
for three hours the infantry crouched half deafened in their trenches,
listening to the bellowing uproar, watching the writhing smoke-fog
which veiled but could not conceal the tearing destruction that raged
up and down, to and fro, across and across the swept ground.

Three hours, three long hours--and one can only guess how long they
were to the maimed and wounded, cowering and squeezing flat to earth
in the reeking shell-holes, gasping for choked breath through their
gas-masks, quivering under the fear of further wounds or sudden and
violent death; how bitterly long they were to the German commanders and
generals watching their plans destroyed, their attack wiped out, their
regiments and battalions burnt away in our consuming fire.

Our despatches, after their common use and wont, put the matter
coldly, dispassionately, and with under-rather than over-statement of
facts--"The attack was broken by our artillery fire."

Broken! Smashed rather; attack and attackers blotted out, annihilated,
utterly and entirely.

"By our artillery fire." The truth no doubt, but hardly the complete
truth, since it said no word of the part the Air Service had played.
So few knew what had been brought about by the work of a photographic
patrol, the following reconnaissance, the resulting air work.

The infantry never knew how it was that the attack never reached them,
why they did not have to beat it off with bullet and bayonet--or be
beaten in by it--except that the guns perhaps had stopped it. The
public did not know because the press did not say--perhaps because the
press itself didn't know. And what the Air Service knew, as usual it
didn't tell.

But Somebody evidently knew, because Washie and Pip found themselves
shortly afterwards in Orders for a Decoration; and apparently the
Squadron knew, because next morning when he went out to his 'bus Washie
found that "Pan" had a neat little splash of paint on what you might
call her left breast, an oblong little patch showing the colours of the
ribbon of the Military Cross.

    _All that we are and all we own,_
    _All that we have and hold or take,_
    _All that we tackle or do or try_
    _Is not for our, or the Corps' own sake._

    Through our open eyes the Armies see,
    We look and we learn that they may know.
    Collect from the clouds the news they need,
    And carry it back to them below.
    We harry the guns that do us no harm,
    We picture the paths we shall never take;
    There's naught to help or to hinder us
    On the road we bomb or the bridge we break.
    Only to work where our footmen wish,
    Only to guard them from prying eyes,
    To find and to fetch the word they want,
    We war unceasing and hold the skies.

    _All that we are and all we own,_
    _All that we have or hope or know,_
    _Our work and our wits, our deaths, our lives,_
    _We stake above, that they win below._



IX

IF THEY KNEW--


A group of infantry in our front line trench watching the boiling
eddying smoke and spurting fires of our artillery barrage on the enemy
lines saw a couple of planes whirl suddenly up into sight above and
beyond the barrage smoke. They were diving and twisting about each
other like a couple of tumbler pigeons in flight, or rather, since one
was obviously pursuing the other closely, like a pigeon hard pressed by
a hawk. The excitement of the infantry turned to disgust as they caught
plain sight of the markings on the machines, saw that the pursued
was a British machine, the pursuer a black-crossed German. And when
the British machine came rocketting and whirling through the barrage
smother in plain flight from the German, who dared not follow through
the wall of falling and bursting shells, the disgust of the men on the
ground was openly and angrily expressed.

"Mastery o' the air," shouted one. "Fat lot he'll master." And from
the others came similar jeers--"Hurry up, son, or he'll catch you
yet--Why couldn't he have put up a fight?--Do they ever court-martial
them blokes for runnin' away?--Fritz fliers top dog again."

And yet, if those men had known, they would have cheered the man
passing over them, cheered him for as plucky a man as ever flew--and
that is saying something. If they knew, so often if they knew--but at
least I can let them know something of this particular story.

The Flight went out as usual on "o.p." (offensive patrol), which,
again as usual, had taken them well over Hunland. For the first
half-hour they had a dull time, seeing no Huns about and having no more
than the normal amount of Archie fire to dodge. Then the Flight Leader
spotted a string of dots to eastward, and on counting them and finding
they numbered something round a dozen to fifteen, concluded they
were Huns. He ensured the Flight's attention to the matter, and then
pointing his machine straight at the enemy, and after glancing round
to make sure the Flight were in correct formation, began to climb them
steadily up and towards the oncoming hostiles. He kept a close watch
on the enemy, because he knew that the Squadron to which he belonged
and the type of machine they flew had a name apparently discouraging
to the Huns' fighting inclinations, and he was afraid that, even with
more than two to one in their favour, they might on recognising the
Flight avoid action and clear off. The Flight had already burnt a good
hour's petrol and had some miles to go back home, and this did not
leave a very great margin for a long pursuit and perhaps a prolonged
fight. But this time the Huns showed no sign of shirking the fight, and
came driving straight west on a course which must very soon bring them
into contact with the Flight. As they swept closer it was seen that
the hostile fleet was made up of three two-seater machines and a dozen
single-seater fighting scouts, and just before they came close enough
for action "Ailie" Arrowman, the Flight Leader, noticed something
else that made him decide very quickly to concentrate the Flight's
frightfulness on the two-seaters. The three were bombers, and from
their slow and heavy flight obviously fully loaded with bombs, and from
the direction they were taking were clearly out on a bombing raid over
the British lines.

Now these Hun raids and bomb-droppings had been becoming unpleasantly
frequent for a little time before this, and all our patrols had
special orders to keep a sharp look-out for bombers and make things as
hot for them as possible. The Hun was coming to specialise on rapid
dashes over our lines, the hurried dropping of their eggs, and a hasty
bee-line flight for home. Our infantry and our batteries were a good
deal annoyed by these attentions, and naturally and very simply wanted
to know why our flying men didn't "stop these blighters coming and
going as they liked." This, of course, is a delusion of the men on the
ground. The Huns were very far from doing as they liked, but since
the air (for flying purposes) is twenty odd thousand feet high, and
as long as the line, it takes a lot of policing against tip-and-run
raids, especially when you remember that machines can pass within quite
a few hundred yards of each other and never know the other is there.
The groundlings don't recognise these facts, much less the incidental
possibilities of Huns sneaking over under cover of clouds and so on,
and it must be confessed the airmen, as a rule, don't take many pains
to enlighten them, even when they do get talking together. On the
ground, again, they know nothing of the Hun bombers chased back and
brought down well behind their own lines, and nothing of the raids
which are caught and interrupted, as the one I'm telling of was about
to be.

All this is by the way, but it explains why Ailie was specially keen
to out the bombing machines first of all, and also why the bombers at
the first sign of attack on them dropped their noses and went off at a
rush, and the Hun fighters hurriedly dived in to divert the Flight and
force a fight with them. We need not at the moment follow the details
of the whole fight, but see rather how the one man Ailie fared in it.
But, incidentally, it may be mentioned that the rest of the Flight sank
one bomber and chased the other down to the ground, fought the escort
and sank three of them at a cost of no more than one pilot wounded, a
great many bullet holes in the machines, and one badly crippled and
just able to reach and land on our side of the lines.

Ailie went down in a hurricane dive on the first bomber, and since
he was much faster than the big machine, especially with it carrying
a full load, he caught it up rapidly, and bringing his bow gun into
action commenced to hail a stream of lead on it. The gunner of the
two-seater began to fire back at Ailie, but as his pilot at the same
time was swerving and swinging his machine to dodge the streaking
bullets, he spoiled the gunner's aim and few of the bullets came
dangerously close to Ailie. But two of the enemy scouts had seen
Ailie's charge, had promptly swung and dived after him, and, following
hard astern, opened fire in their turn. Ailie caught up the two-seater,
swooped down under her, throttled back to keep her pace, pulled down
the gun fixed on his top plane, and started to pelt bullets up into
the underbody hurtling along above him. The two Hun scouts dropped to
his level and followed, shooting close and hard, and Ailie, finding
their bullets snapping and smacking on his planes, was forced to
swerve and duck and at last to turn sharp on them. Either he was the
better pilot or his was the handier machine, because in a few seconds
he had out-manœuvred them and driven them diving down ahead of him.
He ripped a short burst into one, wheeled, looked round for sight of
his two-seater and, sighting it tearing off at top speed, swung and,
opening his engine full out, went racing after it. The two-seater flung
himself into a spin and went twisting and spiralling wildly down, Ailie
following close and shooting whenever he could bring his sights to
bear. But again the renewed rattle of close machine-gun fire began, and
he glanced round to find the scouts hot in pursuit again. This time
they were not to be pursuers only, for another of the Flight leaped
suddenly into the fight, rattled off a quick burst of fire, and in an
instant had one of the enemy scouts plunging down helplessly out of
control, whirled round and without a second's hesitation attacked the
second. The Hun bomber, down to about 1,000 feet, flattened out and
drove off east with Ailie still hard after him. He was getting angry
now. Burst after burst of fire he had poured, as far as he could see,
straight into the big machine, and yet it kept on apparently unharmed.
But suddenly its tail flicked up, a wing buckled and tore loose, and it
went down rolling and pitching, to crash on the ground.

Ailie swept over, leaning out and peering down on the heaped wreckage;
but whatever triumph he might have felt was short-lived, for at that
moment _tat-tat-tat-tat_ went a gun close behind him and then the
quicker closer rattle of double or triple guns. Ailie hoicked hard
up in a swift climbing turn, whirled round, and just catching one of
the enemy scouts in his sights, gripped the trigger of the firing
mechanism. His gun fired--once--and stopped, although he still held the
trigger hard gripped and it should have continued to fire. The target
swept clear, and Ailie, after gripping and releasing quickly several
times, knew his gun had jammed. The two hostiles reopened fire on him,
and he swerved, straightened out and went off in a bee-line at top
speed. He was not unduly alarmed, although his position, a bare 1,000
feet off the ground and therefore well within ground shooting range
of rifles and machine-guns, with a jammed gun, and with two scouts
hard after him, was uncomfortably risky. He was on a fast machine,
so fast that he did not believe the Hun flew that could catch him;
and he reckoned that in a straightaway flight he could drop the two
sufficiently to be out of urgent danger from them. As he flew he leaned
forward, wrenched back the cover over the breech of his gun and jerked
the loading lever rapidly to and fro. But the jammed cartridge stayed
jammed and Ailie felt a first qualm of fear, as he heard the guns
behind him reopen fire and recognised that he was not gaining on his
enemies. Another gun broke into the chorus, and Ailie glanced round to
see another of his Flight diving in and engaging one of the enemy. The
second one, a bright scarlet painted scout, kept on after him, caught
him up and dived firing on him.

Then began a game that Ailie might remember in his nightmares for long
enough. His machine was not doing her best, and the hostile fairly had
the wings of him. Time after time the Hun swooped up over him and dived
down, firing as he came. Ailie could only duck and swerve and dodge,
some of his dives bringing him perilously close to the ground; and as
he flew he wrenched and jerked at his gun's firing mechanism, snatched
the Verey pistol from its rack, and with the butt tapped and hammered
at the gun, hoping the jar might loosen the cartridge. He escaped
touching the ground and crashing over and over again by bare feet; more
than once he had to zoom sharply and just cleared low trees or even
bushes that appeared suddenly before him; once his wheels brushed and
ripped across the top of a hedge, and once again in a banking turn his
heart stood still for a second that seemed an eternity, as he banked
steeply and the machine side-slipped until his wing-tip, as it appeared
to him, was touching the grass. And all the time, in dive after dive,
his enemy came whirling down on him, the fire of his machine-gun
clattering off burst after burst, and the bullets hissing past in flame
and smoke or smacking venomously on the wings and body of Ailie's
machine.

And through it all, flinging his machine about, twirling and twisting
like a champion skater cutting fancy and fantastic figures, doing
star-performance low flying that might have kept every nerve and sense
of any stunt-artist flier occupied to the full, Ailie still made shift
to spare a hand and enough eye and mind for the job of fiddling and
hammering and working to clear his jammed gun--a gun that was not even
in a convenient position to handle because, set above the left upper
edge of his cockpit, it was very little below the level of his face and
awkwardly high for his hand to reach. He gave up trying to clear it at
last and turned all his attention to out-manœuvring his opponent. The
Hun was above him, and every time he tried to lift his machine the Hun
dived, firing on him, and drove him down again. He was too low to pick
up or follow landmarks, so kept the westering sun in his eyes, knowing
this was edging him west towards our lines. The Hun after each dive did
a climbing turn to a position to dive anew, and each time he climbed
Ailie made another dash towards the west. The Hun saw the move, and, to
beat it, dropped his climbing-turn tactics and instead dived and zoomed
straight up, dived and zoomed again and again. Ailie saw his chance and
took it. He throttled hard back next time the Hun dived, and as the Hun
overshot him and zoomed straight up, Ailie in two swift motions pulled
the stick in, lifting sharp up after and under him, pulled down the
top gun and fired point blank into him. The Hun whirled over, dived
vertically, and in an instant crashed heavily nose first into the
ground. And Ailie's top gun had jammed after about its tenth shot.

He flew on west, hardly for the moment daring to believe he had
escaped, opening the throttle and starting to lift from his dangerous
proximity to the ground mechanically, and with his mind hardly yet
working properly. If he had not caught the Hun with that last handful
of shots before his second gun jammed....

And then, almost before he had collected his wits enough to realise
properly how close his escape had been, that same horrible clatter of
machine-gun fire from the air above and behind him broke out, the same
hiss and snap of bullets came streaming about him. For a moment he had
a wild idea that his Hun had not actually crashed, but a glance round
showed that it was no longer the brilliant red machine, but another,
and again a fighting scout.

Exactly the old performance started all over again, but this time
without even that slender chance he had used so well before of catching
his enemy with the fire of his top gun. Again he went through the
twisting and dodging and turning to avoid his relentless enemy and the
fire that crackled about him. Again he dived into fields, skimmed the
ground, hurdled over low bushes and hedges, used every flying trick
and artifice he knew, but had never before dared try at less than
thousands of feet height, to shake off his pursuer; and again as he
flew he wriggled and worked at the jammed gun in front of him. For
breathless minutes he worked, casting quick glances from the ground
rushing under him to the gun mechanism, jockeying his machine with
steady pressures or sharp kicks on the rudder-bar and one hand on the
joy-stick, while the other fumbled and worked at the gun, and the
bullets sang and cracked about him. By all the laws of chance, by all
the rules of hazard, he should have been killed, shot down or driven
down into a crash, a dozen times over in those few minutes; just as by
all the limits of possibility he could never hope to clear a jammed gun
while doing fancy flying at such a height. But against all chance and
hazard and possibility--as pilots do oftener than most people outside
themselves know--he flew on untouched, and ... cleared his jamb. By
now he was worked up to such a pitch of fear, frenzy, desperation,
anger--it may have been any of them, it may have been something of
all--that he took no further thought of manœuvring or tactics, whirled
blindly and drove straight at his enemy, firing as he went, feeling
a savage joy in the jar and bang of his spurting gun. To avoid that
desperate rush and the streaming bullets, the Hun swerved wide and
swooped out in a banking turn, a turn so hurriedly and blindly taken
that, before he could properly see, he found himself whirling into
the edge of a forest the chase had unwittingly skirted. Ailie saw him
distinctly try to wrench round to clear the trees--but he was too near;
to hoick up and over them--but he was too low. He crashed sideways on a
tree-trunk, down headlong into the ground.

Again Ailie swung and flew straight towards the sun, switching on to
the emergency tank, because by now his main petrol tank was almost
empty. He continued to fly low and no more than 100 or 200 feet off
the ground. At his speed it would take a good shot to hit him from the
ground; higher up he would run more risk of Archie fire and of meeting
Huns, and--this perhaps was the main determining factor, because by
now he was almost exhausted with the fatigue of severe and prolonged
strain--flying low would bring him quicker to the lines and safety.

One might have supposed that by now the grim gods of War had had sport
enough of him. But he was not yet free of them. Within a mile he was
attacked again, and this time by three hostile scout fighters. He made
no attempt to dodge or out-manœuvre them. His cartridges were almost
finished, his machine was badly shot about, his petrol was running out.
He opened his engine out to its fullest and drove hard and headlong
for the lines and the drifting smoke and winking fires that told of an
artillery barrage. Close to the barrage he had to swerve and dodge a
moment, because one of the Huns was fairly on top of him and hailing
lead on him, but next instant he plunged at, into and through the
barrage, his machine rocking and pitching and rolling in the turmoil
of shell-torn air, his eyes blinded by the drifting smoke, his ears
stunned by the rending crashes and cracks of the drum-fare explosions.
He won through safely and alone, for his three enemies balked at facing
that puffing, spurting, fire-winking inferno, turned back and left him.

Ailie, hardly daring to believe that he was actually clear and safe
and free, steered for home. He skimmed his bullet-torn machine over
the trenches, a machine holed and ripped and torn and cut with
armour-piercing and explosive bullets, his guns jammed, his ammunition
expended, his petrol at its last pints, he himself at almost the last
point of exhaustion, dizzy from excitement, weak and faint from sheer
strain.

Yet this was the man and the moment that those infantry in the trenches
jeered, looking up as he passed over, his ripped fabric fluttering, his
shot-through wires whipping and trailing, blessing the wildest luck
that had left him alive, heart-thankful for the sight of khaki in the
trenches below him.

It seems a pity those disgusted infantry could not have known the
truth, of all he had come through, of those long danger-packed minutes,
of those three crashed Huns scattered along his track--and of those
bombs which would _not_ drop on our lines, batteries, or billets that
day.



X

THE FO-FUM'S REPUTATION


I am naturally anxious to avoid angering the Censor by naming any
particular type or make of machine, but fear it is inevitable that
anyone who knows anything of aeroplanes must recognise in reading this
story the type concerned, although that may hardly matter, since the
Hun knows the type well (and to his sorrow), and the tale more fully in
the exact detail of his casualties than we do. And because this type,
which we may call the "Fo-Fum 2," has for a full year previous to the
date of this story's happenings been openly scoffed at and condemned
in speech and print by the "experts" as slow, clumsy, obsolete, and
generally useless, I also fear I may be accused of "leg-pulling" and
impossibly romancing in crediting the Fo-Fums with such a startling
fight performance. I may warn such critics in advance, however, that
I can produce official records to prove a dozen shows almost or quite
equally good to the credit of the Fo-Fums.

A Flight of six Fo-Fums went up and over Hunland one morning when a
westerly wind and a strong hint of dirty weather in the air made it an
abnormally risky patrol for anything but the best of pilots and the
most reliable of machines and engines. But the Fo-Fums, whatever their
other faults, have at least the admitted merit of reliability, and the
quality of the pilots on this patrol is fairly shown by this story.

They were well over the lines and about 10,000 feet up when a circus of
about twenty Huns hove in sight well above them. The Flight Leader saw
them and, climbing a little as they went, he led the formation towards
the hostiles, or, as he put it, "beetled off to have a look at 'em."
The Huns evidently saw the Fo-Fums at the same time, and with natural
willingness to indulge in a scrap with odds of more than three to one
in their favour swooped up, "coming like stink," to quote the Flight
Leader again, to the attack.

The Fo-Fums knew how the ball would almost certainly open under the
circumstances--twenty Hun scouts with the advantage of superior speed,
height and weather gauge, against six Fo-Fums--and quietly slid into a
formation they had more than once proved useful in similar conditions.

The Huns, seeing no other enemies near enough to interfere, circled
above, collected their formation into shape, and made their leisurely
dispositions for the attack, while the Fo-Fums no less leisurely
straightened out their wedge-shaped formation, swung the head of
the line in a circle, which brought the leader round until he was
following the last machine of the Flight, and so commenced a steady
circling or--one can hardly refrain from quoting that expressive
Flight Leader--"chasing each other's tails in a blessed ring-o'-roses
giddy-go-round." The Huns drove up into a position which brought them
between the Fo-Fums and the sun, thereby, of course, gaining the
additional advantage of being able to aim and shoot with the sun in
their backs while the Fo-Fums had the light in their eyes.

The Fo-Fum men were not greatly disturbed by this, for several reasons,
because they were used to conceding the advantage in beginning a fight,
because knowing the Huns had the wings of them it was no use trying
to avoid it, and because they were contentedly sure that there were
so many beastly Huns there they couldn't all keep "in the sun" and
that each man would easily find a target sufficiently out of it. They
continued their "giddy-go-round," and a dozen of the Huns at top speed,
with engines full out and machine-guns rattling and ripping out a storm
of tracer bullets in streaking pencil-lines of flame and blue smoke,
came hurtling down like live thunderbolts. The sight alone might well
have been a terrifying one to the Fo-Fum men, and the sharp, whip-like
smacks and cracks about them of the explosive bullets which began to
find their mark on fabric or frame would also have been upsetting to
any but the steadiest nerves.

But the Fo-Fums showed not the slightest sign of panicky nerves.
They held their fire until the diving Huns were within reasonable
shoot-to-hit range, and met them with a sharp burst of fire from
observers' or pilots' guns as the position of each machine in the
circle gave a field of fire ahead or anywhere in a full half-circle
round to port, stern, or starboard.

It may help matters to explain here--and again it tells nothing to
the Hun that he doesn't already know well and to his sorrow--that
the fighting Fo-Fum mounts three machine-guns--one, which the pilot
handles, shooting ahead; another which the observer, sitting in front
of the pilot and to the side of the pilot's gun, shoots anywhere
outward in a half-circle round the bow and in any forward direction
down or up; and a third placed on the top plane, which the observer
also shoots by jumping up from his bow gun, standing almost man-high
clear of the "gun'l" of the machine's body, and aiming up or level
outward to either side and astern.

In meeting the attacking dive the observers stood up to their top
guns, and if their position in the Flight's circle allowed them to
bring their gun to bear on an enemy, they opened fire. If the machine
was full bow on to the rush the pilot fired; or if she was in such a
position that he could not see a target sufficiently ahead, or the
observer see sufficiently to the side, he dodged the machine in or out
of the circle enough to bring one of the guns to bear, and then wheeled
her back into position.

These tactics may sound complicated, but really are--so the Fo-Fums
say--beautifully simple when you know them and are used to them. What
they amount to is merely the fact that all six machines were able to
open fire within a second or two of one another, and that in some cases
the pilot was able to get in a second burst from his bow gun by dipping
his nose down after a hostile as she plunged past.

That they were effective tactics was promptly demonstrated to the Huns
by one of their machines bursting into flames, another rolling over
sideways and "dead-leafing" down in a series of side-to-side slips
which ended in a crash on the ground below, and by another continuing
his dive well down, changing it into a long glide to the eastward
and out of the fight, evidently with machine or pilot out of action.
Several of the Fo-Fums had bullet-holes in their machines, but nothing
vital was touched, and they had just time to connect up nicely into
their compact circle when the remainder of the Huns came tearing down
on them in similar terrifying fashion.

But the Fo-Fums met them in their similar fashion, and when the Huns,
instead of diving past and down as the first lot had done, curved up
in an abrupt zoom, the observers swung their gun-muzzles up after them
and pelted them out of range. One Hun lost control just on the point
of his upward zoom, flung headlong out until he stalled and fell out
of the fight for good. From the fact that his gun continued to fire at
nothing until he was lost to notice it was evident either that his gear
was damaged or the pilot hit and unconsciously gripping or hanging to
the trigger or firing mechanism. A fourth Hun at the top of his zoom up
lurched suddenly, fell away in a spinning nose dive, and also vanished
from the proceedings--whether "crashed" or merely "out of control" was
never known.

In a fight against this sort of odds, which our pilots so often have,
the need of keeping an eye on active enemies rather than on the
subsequent interesting fashion of an out-of-control's finish certainly
reduces our air men's score a good deal, since it is the rule only to
claim and record officially as a "crash" a machine which is actually
seen (and confirmed) to have smashed on the ground, to have broken
in air, or otherwise have made a sure and positive finish. Five Huns
down and definitely out of action was a good beginning to the fight,
especially as no Fo-Fum was damaged, and the odds were now reduced
to fifteen against six--quite, according to the Fo-Fums, usual and
reasonably sporting odds.

But the odds were to lengthen to such an extent that even the seasoned
and daring fighters of No. Umpty Squadron began to look grave and feel
concerned. Two Flights came looming up rapidly from eastward, and,
occupied as the Fo-Fums were with the first brush, the new enemies were
upon them almost the instant the second rush on them finished--before,
in fact, the first Huns shot down and hit the ground. The newcomers
converged on the fight and dashed straight at the Fo-Fum circle without
a pause. There were twelve of them in one lot and eight in the other,
and that, added to the twenty the Fo-Fums had counted at the beginning
of the fight, made a total of forty machines against their six.

After this the tale of the fight can no longer be told as a whole. It
developed into a series of rushes and dives on the part of the enemy in
large or small numbers, swift leaps and turns and twists, and plunges
and checks, repeated hot attacks and attempts by the Huns to break the
Fo-Fums' steady circle, determined and fairly successful efforts of the
Fo-Fums to foil the attempts. For long minute after minute the fight
swayed and scattered, flung apart, out and down and up, climbed and
fell and closed in again to point-blank quarters. It ran raging on and
on in a constant fierce rattle and roll of machine-gun fire, a falling
out, one fashion or another, of Hun after Hun, in occasional desperate
fights of single Fo-Fums forced out of the circle and battling to
return to it.

Some of these single-handed combats against odds are worthy subjects
for an air saga, each to its individual self. There was, for instance,
the Fo-Fum which was forced out of the circle, cut off, and fought a
lone-hand battle against eleven enemies. The observer stood and shot
over his top plane at one Hun who tried to cover himself behind the
tail of the Fo-Fum. The pilot at the same instant was lifting the
nose a little to bring his gun to bear on another Hun diving on him
from ahead, and this sinking of the Fo-Fum's stern gave the observer
a chance. He filled it with a quick burst from his machine-gun, and
filled the Hun so effectively full of bullets that his nose dropped and
he swooped under the Fo-Fum. The observer jumped down to his bow gun,
swung the muzzle down, and caught the Hun passing under with a burst
which finished him and sent him whirling down out of control.

The pilot's shooting at the same time was equally effective. The Hun
who had dived on his right front was met by a quick turn which brought
the bow gun to bear and a short burst of fire. The Hun continued to
dive past and under, and both pilot and observer caught a flashing but
clear-imprinted picture of the Hun pilot collapsed in a heap on his
seat before he also fell helplessly rolling and spinning down out of
the fight.

The observer, dropping his forward gun as he saw his shooting
effective, scrambled quickly up to his top gun and was just in time to
open on another Hun not more than twenty feet away and with his gun
going "nineteen to the dozen, and rapping bullets all over the old
bus till she's as full of holes as a Gruyère cheese," as the observer
said. He only fired about a dozen rounds--the fight by now had been
running long enough and hot enough to make economy of ammunition a
consideration--but some of the dozen got home and sent another Hun
plunging down and out.

The observer just lifted his eyes from watching the "late lamented"
and trying to decide whether he was "outed" or "playing dead," in time
to catch a glimpse of a black cross streaking past astern of him. He
glued his eyes to the sights, jerked his muzzle round after the fresh
enemy, and just as he swung in a steep bank "slapped a hatful of lead
into him" and saw a strip of the hostile's cowling rip and lift and
beat flailing back against the struts until the enemy shut off engine
and glided out.

The pilot's gun was clattering again, and the observer, seeing all
clear behind him, turned and half jumped, half fell, down into his
cockpit as the Fo-Fum lay over on her beam-ends in a bank that brought
her almost sheer on her wing-tip. He was just in time to see the
pilot's fresh victim fall out of control, and dropping the bow gun he
had grabbed he hoisted himself to his top gun again.

It sounds a little thing when one speaks of all this jumping down and
scrambling up from one gun to another, but it is worth pausing to
consider just what it means. The place the observer had to jump from
at his top gun was about as scanty and precarious as a canary bird's
perch; the space he had to jump or fall down into was little bigger
than a respectable hip-bath; the floor and footholds on which he did
these gymnastics were heaving, pitching, and tossing, tilting to and
fro at anything between level, a slope as steep as a sharp-angled roof,
and steeper still to near the perpendicular.

And all the time the machine which carried out the acrobatic
performance was travelling at the speed of a record-breaking express
train, and if the performer mis-jumped or over-reached the enclosing
sides of his cockpit, sides little more than knee-high as he stood on
the floor, not ankle-high as he stood at the top gun, he had a clear
eight to ten thousand feet, a good mile and quarter, to fall before
he hit the ground. And this particular Fo-Fum stood on her head or
her tail, on one wing-tip or the other, dived and dodged, twisted and
turned and wriggled and fought her way through, over, under, and about
her eleven opponents, putting four well down and a fifth damaged in the
process, and picked up her place in the shifting, breaking, and ragged,
but always reforming, circle.

The fight flared on for full forty minutes, and still at the end of
that time the Fo-Fums were all afloat and able to make home and a good
landing, although some were so shot about and damaged that it was
only by a marvel of piloting skill they were kept going--and, let it
be added, as their crews never failed to add, because they were stout
buses well and honestly built of good material by skilled and careful
hands, driven by engines that were a credit to the shops they came from
and would "keep running as strong as a railway locomotive, into Hell
and out the other side, s'long's you fed oil and petrol to 'em."

One machine had the oil tank shot through, and yet the engine ran
long enough without "seizing up" (melting the dry metal by friction to
sticking point) to get home. There were other mechanical miracles--too
technical for explanation here--that the pilots tell of with wonder
and admiration, although they say little, or at most or no more than a
mild "good man" or "sporting effort" of the equal or greater miracle
of men enduring and keeping their wits and stout hearts, and carrying
on, whole or wounded as some were--one observer to his death soon after
landing--for that forty minutes' savage fight against odds. Full forty
minutes, and at the end of that time there were only some score Huns
left in the fight: and in the finish it was they who broke off the
action, and slid out and away down wind.

"Y'see," as the Flight Leader said after when he was asked why he
didn't pull out or battle his way out and home, "Y'see, the old Fo-Fums
are pretty well known on this slice of front, and they've got a
reputation for never chucking a scrap. I'd have hated to come plungin'
home with a crowd of Huns hare-in' after us. The line 'ud think we'd
been runnin' away from a scrap; and I wouldn't like my Flight to be
letting down the old Fo-Fums' reputation like that."

Most people will admit that the Flight didn't let it down. There are
even a good many who think it added a good-sized gilt-edged leaf to the
Fo-Fums' and the Umpty Squadron's plentiful laurels.



XI

LIKE GENTLEMEN


When Lieutenant Jack Smith, new come from a year of life in the
trenches and reserve billets, landed for a day or two's stay with his
brother in one of the squadrons of the R.F.C., he began to think he had
strayed into an earthly Paradise, was amazed that such an excellent
substitute for well-found civilised life could exist in the Field.

He got the first shock when he arrived at the 'drome about 8.30 a.m.
and found his brother still comfortably asleep. While his brother got
up and dressed he explained that, the Division being out on rest near
by, he had taken a chance of the long-standing invitation to come and
spend a day or two with the Squadron; and while he talked his eyes kept
wandering round the comfortable hut--the bookcase, the framed pictures
on the walls, the table and easy-chair, the rugs on the floor, all the
little touches of comfort--luxury, he called them to himself--about the
place.

"You're pretty snugly fixed up here, aren't you, Tom?" he burst out at
last.

"So, so!" said Tom, pouring a big jug of hot water into the
wash-basin--hot water, thought Jack Smith, not only for shaving, but to
wash in. "Being Flight Commander, I have a shack to myself, y'see. Most
of the pilots share huts. We'll fix a bed here for you to sleep. Hullo,
quarter-past nine! I must hurry--won't be any breakfast left. You had
brek?"

"Two hours ago," said his brother. "_We_ don't lie in bed till
afternoon, like you chaps."

Tom laughed. "Not my turn for dawn patrol," he said; "I'll be on
to-morrow. My Flight's due to go up at noon to-day." And he went on
outlining the methods of their work.

In the Mess they found half a dozen other pilots finishing breakfast.
"My brother Jack--going to spend a day or two with us"--was introduced,
and in ten minutes found himself pleasantly at home amongst the others.
He began to forget he was at the Front at all, and the attentive waiter
at his elbow helped heighten the illusion. "Tea or coffee sir?...
Porridge, sir?"

Jack had porridge, and fresh milk with it and his tea. Fresh milk--and
he'd nearly forgotten milk came from anything but a tin! Then he had
a kipper--not out of a tin, either--and bacon and eggs and toast and
marmalade. It was his second breakfast, but he did it full justice.

After breakfast he went out with Tom to the hangars, and had a look
over the machines and pottered round generally until after eleven. Then
Tom went off to get ready for patrol, and handed him over to "Jerry,"
one of the pilots. Jack spent a fascinating hour watching the patrol
start, and then being taken round by Jerry, who was bubbling over with
eagerness to show and explain and tell him everything.

Then they had lunch, and again Jack was led to forgetfulness that he
was at the Front. Sitting there with a dozen happy, laughing, chatting
companions at a table spread with a spotless cloth, with a variety of
food and drinks to choose from, with no sound of guns or any other echo
of war in his ears except the occasional hum of a plane overhead--and
that was pleasant and musical rather than warlike--he felt and said he
might as well be in a long-established Mess in barracks at home.

After lunch he sat in the ante-room with the others round the big, open
fireplace and smoked a cigarette and skimmed the plentiful weeklies
until Tom's Flight was about due in. Jerry picked him up again and took
him out and showed him the Flight when they were pin-points in the sky,
and explained the process of landing as they came in.

Jack found his brother's machine had brought home several bullet-holes,
and he was oddly thrilled at sight of them--oddly, because he thought
he was completely _blasé_ about bullet-holes and similar signs of
battle.

Tom made very little of it, merely saying Yes, they'd had a scrap, had
crashed one Hun and put another couple down out of control; and who was
on for an hour on the canal?

Jack went to the canal with them, and found they had there a wonderful
boat built by the pilots out of planks they had "found." The boat
held two comfortably, four uncomfortably, and on this occasion
carried seven. They fooled away a couple of hours very happily and
school-boyishly, landed, and went back at a jog-trot to the 'drome. The
wind had changed and they could hear the guns now, heavily engaged, by
the sound of them.

They were back just in time to see a patrol go up, and Tom hurried
Jack out to watch. "We've got another Squadron's Major here, staying
to dinner to-night, and the patrol is taking off in a fancy formation
that's our own special patent. It's worth watching. Come along."

It was worth watching, although Jack, perhaps, was not sufficiently
educated in air work to appreciate it properly. The Flight was drawn up
in line facing into the wind, and, after a preliminary run up of their
engines, a signal was given, six pairs of chocks jerked simultaneously
clear of the wheels, and the six machines began to taxi forward over
the ground, still keeping in line.

Their speed increased until they were racing with tails up, and then,
suddenly, the whole six lifted together and took the air, keeping their
straight line and climbing steadily. The right-hand machine swept round
to the right, and one after another the rest followed him, each banking
steeply and, as it seemed from the ground, heeling over until their
wings stood straight up and down. As they straightened they opened out
and dropped into their places, and the Flight swept circling round
above the 'drome in correct and exactly-spaced formation.

"Pretty good show," said Tom critically.

"You wouldn't understand rightly, Jack, but it's a fancy stunt we've
never heard of another squadron being able to do. Sheer swank, of
course, I'll admit, but rather sport."

Later, Jack was able to appreciate better what the "stunt" was worth
from the admiring and amazed comments of the much-impressed visiting
Major.

Tea followed, and after it the pilots drifted off to such occupations
or amusements as they desired. Some lounged in the ante-room, with the
gramophone singing, whistling, and band playing; others went off to the
hangars to see to something being done to their machines, engines, or
guns; others vanished into their huts, and, reappearing stripped, began
strenuous work on a punching-ball or disappeared over the surrounding
fields on a cross-country run. The brothers wandered round, and
finished an idle hour with a brisk turn at the punching-ball.

"Gets a good sweat up," explained Tom, "and helps keep you in
condition. That's the curse of this job--not getting any exercise
unless you do something of this sort."

"Curse of it!" said Jack enviously. "Blest if I see much of a curse of
any sort about it. It's amazing to think anybody can be in the middle
of a big push in this war and be able to have such a ripping fine time
of it."

Tom laughed. "Our C.O. always swears this is the only end of the old
war where a man is able to live like a gentleman and fight like a
gentleman," he said. "And I don't know he isn't right."

"It's the only side I've seen where you can," agreed Jack. "You
certainly live like gentlemen, anyhow."

"Oh, it's gentlemanly enough fighting, too," said Tom. "Anyhow, you
do go out to scrap with your face washed and a clean shirt to your
back, and come straight home to a hot bath inside half an hour after,
if you like. And in the actual fighting it's clean scrapping--putting
your skill against the other fellow's, and the best man winning, as a
rule. None of your blind floundering through mud and shell-fire for me,
thank'ee, and getting scuppered without a notion who did it or how you
got it."

That evening they changed for dinner, Tom lending a pair of slacks to
his brother. "Might as well," said Tom. "Not that it matters about
you, because I could tell the C.O. you didn't bring kit. But he likes
everyone to dress properly for Mess, and so do we all. Dunno he isn't
right, too. Now, will you bath first, or shall I?"

The bath arrangements were explained to him--the bath being a
curtained-off corner of the hut with hot water in a canvas bath on the
floor and a shower operated by pulling a string to a tank on the roof.

"We're having the band for dinner to-night," said Tom, as they
dressed. "We rather pride ourselves on our band, y'know; eleven
instruments, and all real good performers picked up all over the shop,
and in the Squadron as batmen or mechanics or something. Lots of 'em
were part or whole professionals in civvy life."

"I feel as if I were going to a ball or a banquet or a box at the opera
or something," said Jack, as they walked down to the Mess--"I feel so
amazing clean and groomed and sleek. And you lucky beggars have this
any old night, and right in the middle of the war, too!"

The evening "put the tin hat on it" as he said. There was a champagne
cocktail before dinner, and then the Major led the way into a Mess that
made Jack blink his eyes. The table down the centre was big enough to
take the whole score of diners and of generous enough width to allow of
stretched legs without kicking opposite shins and toes. It was covered
with a spotless cloth, glittering cutlery, and shining glass, and down
the centre were shaded electrics and vases made from polished brass
shell-cartridges filled with flowers. The C.O. sat at the head of the
table with the Major-guest on the one side and Jack on the other with
his brother beside him. There was a full-course dinner most excellently
cooked and served, and there was almost any drink available you liked
to call for, although Jack noticed that his brother and most of the
others drank fresh-made lemonade or something of the sort.

"It's one thing you have to cut out pretty well," explained Tom. "This
game doesn't leave room for men with anything but steady nerves, and
most of us find little or no liquor and not too much smoking gives you
the longest life and gets the most Huns. We're all out for the most
Huns, y'see, and pushing up the Squadron's record. Over the hundred
crashed in under six months now and we want to pile it up. There's
hardly a man here hasn't got anything from two to a dozen a-piece."

"Doesn't seem to sit on their consciences," said Jack, looking round
the table of happy faces and listening to the chatter and laughter that
ran steadily through the dinner. Out in the ante-room the band played
light and cheerful music.

"Some band," said Jack admiringly in answer to a remark from the C.O.
"Good as a West End Theatre; makes me want to get up and dance,"
tapping his foot in time to the alluring rag that the music had just
slid off into.

"You people evidently believe in the 'eat, drink and be merry, for
to-morrow, etcetera' theory," said the visiting Major.

"Why not?" said the C.O. quickly. "Let's live decently while we can,
I say. We're all proud of the Squadron, and all keen to do the best
we can to make it the best in the Field, in living, and feeding, and
comfort--and fighting. And the theory seems to work all right."

"Looking at your record," said the other Major, "it does."

They were at the second course, when half a dozen pilots came in in
ones and twos, went to the head of the table and made their formal
apologies for being late, and went to their seats. They were the
evening patrol, and the Leader took his place near the Major's end of
the table.

"Anything doing to-night?" asked the Major when the Captain had been
served and commenced his soup.

"Quite a brisk scrap," said the Captain proceeding industriously with
his soup. "That's what made us so late. Chased a bunch of fourteen
Albatrii and had twenty minutes' scrapping with them."

"Get any?" asked the Major.

"Two crashes and three down out of control. Jerry got one crash and I
got the other. Makes the Squadron tally a hundred and seven, doesn't
it?"

"Yes, good work," said the C.O., and called down the table "I hear you
bagged another to-night, Jerry. How many does that make?"

"Hundred and seven to the Squadron, sir," said Jerry, "and eight to me."

The Flight Leader, hurrying his dinner to catch up to the others,
went on to tell some bald details of the fight. Jack sat drinking it
in, although it was rather a technical and air-slangy account for him
to understand properly, and all the time he could not get it out of
his mind how extraordinary it was that this man and the others who
half an hour ago had been fighting for their lives, shooting men down,
hearing (and seeing as he gathered from the story) bullets crack past,
tearing home at a hundred and odd miles an hour with the reek and roar
of a big battle beneath them, with shells puffing and coughing about
them as they flew, should now be sitting, washed, bathed, cleanly and
comfortably dressed, at a full-course dinner, with flowers on the
table and a good band playing outside. He had seen plenty of fighting
himself, but with such a difference, with such a prolonged misery of
short sleep, scratch meals, hard physical work, living in mud and filth
and dirt and stench, under constant fear of death or mutilation, that
this air-fighting appeared by contrast--well, the C.O. had it right,
"living and fighting like gentlemen."

The port went round, followed by the coffee, cigarettes, and liqueurs,
the niceties of Mess etiquette, Jack noticed, being very punctiliously
observed, and no man touching his port or lighting his cigarette before
the Major touched and lit his, none moving from the table until after
the port had been round, and so on. The evening finished with a couple
of very jolly hours in the ante-room where the gramophone took the
place of the band in alternate turns with musical pilots at the piano.
A group hung round the open fireplace chatting and joking, another
round the piano where one pilot played musical pranks, sang topical
air songs, and played seductive melodies that set half a dozen couples
"ragging" round the room, and two or three tables collected for Bridge
and Poker.

Jack, revelling in the comfort and pleasantness of the whole thing,
was haled at last by Jerry into a set for Bridge, and played for an
hour just the sort of game he liked--good enough to be interesting,
free and easy and talkative enough not to be stiff and boringly
business-like.

He was very thoughtful as he undressed for bed--a comfortable camp bed,
with a soft pillow, and pyjamas--and Tom looked at him with a glimmer
of a smile.

"Wondering if you'll put in for a transfer to Flying Corps?" he asked.

Jack was a little startled.

"Well, something like that--yes," he admitted. "You do seem to have
such a ripping good time of it, and right bang in the war, too. It's
amazing."

"'Tisn't all pie, all the time, y'know," said his brother seriously.
"Pretty strenuous at times."

Jack grunted scornfully, with his mind on what strenuous times in the
line meant.

"We'll talk it over to-morrow," said Tom. "Must get a sleep now. I'm on
dawn patrol."

Next day was very much like the first, and Jack felt the inclination
grow to consider a transfer to this life of luxury and ease.

But the afternoon brought a new side of air work to him. The remains
of a patrol--three machines out of six--straggled home with riddled
machines and the tale of a hot fight. Jack gathered and sorted out
and had interpretations of the involved and technical details, and
they made his blood run hot and cold in turn. The six had fought a big
formation of fifteen to twenty Huns, fought them fast and fiercely for
a good fifteen minutes, had crashed five certainly and put others down
without having time to watch their end, had routed and driven east the
remainder of the formation. But they had lost two men crashed. One had
his top petrol tank holed and the top plane set on fire. He was low
down and fighting two Huns, and he might with luck have dived down and
made a landing in Hunland. He preferred instead to take one more Hun
down with him and lessen the odds against his fellows, had deliberately
flung his machine on the nearest enemy, crashed into him, and went
hurtling down, the two locked together and wrapped in roaring flames.

Another had his engine hit, but with water spraying out from his
radiator fought on and finished his individual combat, and put his Hun
down before he attempted to turn out and make for the lines. He had
flown long enough after receiving the damage to make it a matter of
speculation whether his engine could get him home or not, but he flung
away this last chance by turning aside from his homeward flight and
throwing away a couple of thousand feet of height to dive in to the
assistance of another of our machines hard beset by four enemies. One
of these he crippled and drove down, and another his divers on gave a
quick chance to the hard-pressed pilot to shoot down and crash. But the
damaged engine by now was done, and the pilot could only turn his nose
for the lines and try to glide back.

One of the hostiles saw his chance, drove after him, dropped on his
tail, pouring in burst after burst of fire, hung to him and followed
him down in the spin which was evidently the last desperate attempt to
win clear, finally shot him down and crashed him as he flattened out.

A third pilot had been badly wounded by a burst of bullets which
had riddled and smashed one arm. He, too, might have pulled out and
escaped; and he, too, hung on fighting to the end; flew his machine
lurching and swerving home, landed, fainted, and died from loss of
blood before the tourniquet was well on his arm.

A fourth, with a bullet-shattered foot, stayed in the fight and took
another wound in the shoulder, and still fought on, saw it out, and
came home--and went off to the Casualty Clearing Station with a laugh
and a jest on his lips and the certainty in his heart that he was going
to lose his foot or carry it mutilated and useless for life. But he
refused to go until notes had been compared and he could be told their
bag of Huns and the total it brought the Squadron up to.

What hit Jack hardest was that his new but firm friend Jerry was one
of those crashed. And only an hour or two before he had been talking
with Jerry and planning and taking his advice about joining up with the
R.F.C., how to apply and how to get quickly through his training, and
ways of wangling it to get to this Squadron--and--jumping far into the
future--how he, Jerry, would put him up to any amount of fighting tips,
and how to get your Hun and keep a whole skin and pile the Squadron's
record up.

It had all sounded so good to Jack, and now--Jerry was gone, had fought
his last fight, had died the death within an hour of his last laughing
word to Jack on the 'drome, had flung himself flaming into a collision
with his enemy and paid out his life for one more crashed Hun to the
Squadron's tally. And the other one lost, the boy who had thrown away
his chance by diving with a "conking" engine to help a friend, was
the same boy who had fooled at the piano, had kept them all giggling
and chuckling at his jokes and chaff at lunch that day; and then had
gone out and played a man's grim part and sacrificed himself to give a
friend a fighting chance.

That night Jack talked to his brother and told him he'd made up his
mind to put in for an exchange. "Yes, Jerry told me all that--poor old
Jerry," he said, when Tom warned him he'd been seeing the best side of
the life in that particular Squadron, that they were rather a--well,
swanky lot if you liked, but believed in doing themselves well; that
any other Squadron he might go to might be much less particular about
how they lived and might rough it a lot more. (Which, by the way, is
very true; and there are many men who have lived in Squadrons at the
Front for many months may scoff at this description of Squadron life as
rank exaggeration. It is not, as others can testify.)

Jack heard it all out, but did not alter his determination.

"Whatever Squadron it is you admit they live better than we do in the
line," he said, "and anyhow that's not my point now. I'd like to get
even a bit with some of that crowd who downed poor Jerry."

"It is better than the line," admitted his brother, "and whatever the
Squadron, at least we live decently and fight fairly and squarely."

"Yes," said Jack, "your C.O.'s right--live and fight--and, by
the Lord," he added warmly, his mind on that day's fight, his two
friends and the manner of their end, "he might have added 'die'--like
gentlemen."



XII

"AIR ACTIVITY"


That "air activity," so frequently reported and so casually read in
the despatches, means a good deal more than "fleets of aeroplanes
darkening the sky," machines dashing and flashing around anywhere up
to their "ceiling" of twenty odd thousand feet, shooting holes in and
crashing each other, bombing and photographing and contact-patrolling
and ground-strafing, and all the rest of it.

There is just as much "air" activity, or if you measure by hours, from
two to ten times as much, amongst those men whose sole occupation in
life is pushing other people into the air and keeping them there until
they wish to come down, and who never have their own two feet off the
firm earth. The outsider hardly thinks of this, and there are even a
few pilots--a very few, as one is glad to know--who are apt to forget
it, while the great majority of the others don't or can't very well
make much show of their appreciation of or gratitude for the sheer hard
labour of the groundwork in a Squadron that keeps them afloat. I know
that most pilots will be glad to have even this one little bit of the
limelight turned on a class of men who deserve a good deal more than
they get.

No. 00 Squadron broke into the Air Activity period a full week before
the Push began on the ground, but a certain amount of "dud weather"
gave the pilots some intervening spells of rest and gave the Squadron
mechanics a chance to catch up and keep level with their work. But in
the last few days before the Push was dated to begin, the air work
became more strenuous, because the Huns, evidently suspecting that
something was coming off, set their air service to work trying to push
over and see what was going on behind our lines, and to prevent our air
men picking up information behind theirs. No. 00 was a single-seater
fighting Squadron, and so was one of the ots whose mission in life was
to down any Huns who came over to reconnoitre or spot for their guns,
and, conversely, to patrol over Hunland and put out of action as many
as possible of the Hun fighters who were up to sink our machines doing
artillery observing or photographing. The more machines one side can
put and keep in the air the better chance that side has of doing its
work and preventing the opposition doing theirs--it is a pity many
aircraft workers even now don't seem to understand the value of this
sheer weight of numbers--and since both sides by this time were using
their full air strength it meant that No. 00, like all the rest, was
kept flying the maximum number of hours machines and pilots could stand.

As the work speeded up the strain grew on pilots and machines,
which also means on the mechanics. Some of the planes came home with
bullet-holed fabrics, shot-through frames, and damaged engines. All
the holes had to be patched, all the frames had to be mended, all
the engines had to be repaired. The strain and pressure on a flimsy
structure being hurtled through the air at speeds running from 100 to
200 miles per hour is bound to result in a certain amount of working
loose of parts, stretching of stays, slackening of fabrics, give and
take in nuts and bolts, yielding and easing of screws; and since the
pilot's and the machine's life and the Squadron's efficiency alike
depend on every one of the hundreds of parts in a machine's anatomy
being taut and true, or free and easy-running, as the case may be,
the mechanics began to find a full normal day's work merely in the
overhauling and setting up of the machines, apart altogether from
fight-damage repairs.

Two days before the Push began the mechanics put in a hard working day
of fifteen hours out of the twenty-four; the day before the Push they
started at 6 a.m. and finished at 1 a.m. next morning--and with the
first patrols due to start out at dawn. But they finished with every
machine trued to a hair-line, braced and strung to a perfection of
rigidity, with engines running as sweet as oil, and giving their limit
of revolutions without a hint of trouble, with every single item about
them overhauled, examined, adjusted and tested as exhaustively and
completely as if a life hung on the holding of every bolt, brace, and
screw, the smooth, clean working of every plug, piston, and tappet--as,
indeed, a life would hang that day.

The weather report of the day was not good, but a good half hour before
dawn the mechanics had the machines out in line and the pilots were
straggling out swaddled in huge leather coats, sheepskin-lined thigh
boots, furred helmets and goggled masks. But before they arrived the
mechanics had been out a full hour, putting the final touches to the
machines, warming up the engines--for it was near enough to winter
for the cold-weather nights to make an engine sulky and tricky to
start--giving a last look round to everything.

The first two Flights went off before dawn, and the third an hour after
them. The mechanics walked back into the empty hangars which, after the
bustle of the last few days seemed curiously dead and desolate, and
then to their waiting breakfasts.

For some of them the respite was short. Ten minutes after the last lot
of machines had gone there was a shout for "A" Flight men. They hurried
out to find the C.O. and the Flight Sergeant standing together watching
a machine drive slowly up against the wind towards the 'drome. Plainly
something was wrong with her; she had an air of struggling, of fighting
for her life, of being faint and weary and almost beaten. It was hard
to say what gave her this curious look of a ship with decks awash and
on the point of foundering, of a boxer staggering about the ring and
trying to keep his feet. It may have been the propeller running so
slowly that it could be clearly seen, or the fact that she was losing
height almost as fast as she was making way; but whatever it was, it
was unmistakable.

As she drew near to the edge of the landing ground it was evident that
it would be a toss-up whether she made it or touched ground in a patch
of rough, uncleared field. The mechanics set off, running at top speed
to where she was going to touch; the C.O. and the Flight Sergeant
followed close behind them. They saw the pilot make one last effort
to lift her and clear a sunk road and bank that ran along the edge of
the landing ground. He lifted her nose, ... and she almost stalled and
fell; he thrust her nose down again, ... and she hung, ... lurched, ...
slid forward and in to the bank. Would she clear ... would she....

Then, in an instant, it was over. The wheels just caught the edge of
the bank, her tail jerked up and her nose down, ... and the runners
heard the splintering crash of her breaking under-carriage, of her
"prop" hitting and shivering to matchwood, her fabrics ripping and
tearing. She stood straight up on her nose, heeled over, and fell on
her side with fresh noises of crackling, tearing, and splintering from
her wrecked wings. Up to now the runners had thought of the machine,
but in the instant of her hitting, their thoughts jumped to the pilot
and--would he smash with her, or would the wreck catch fire? But before
they reached the piled tangle of wood and fabric they saw a figure
crawl out from under it, stand upright, and mechanically brush the dirt
from his knees. They found he was untouched.

"Got a bullet in her engine somewhere, sir," he told the Major. "I
caught a fair old dose from the machine-guns, and had the planes
riddled; then this one got her, and I couldn't get my revs., and
thought I'd better push her home. Poor old 'bus."

"Another one coming, sir," said the Flight Sergeant suddenly, and
pointed to a machine whirling towards them at a thousand feet up. There
was nothing wrong with this one, anyhow. She roared in over their
heads, banked and swung, slid down smoothly and gracefully, touched
and ran and slowed, and came to rest with the engine just running. It
whirred up into speed again and brought her taxi-ing in towards the
sheds and the mechanics running to meet her. The Major and the pilot,
walking back towards the sheds, were talking of the show: "Something
terriff., sir--never saw such a blaze of a barrage--and the place fair
stiff with machine-guns. Yes, crowds of Huns--and ours--hardly pick
a way without bumping--I put a good burst into one Albatross--didn't
see----"

The Major interrupted: "Can you make out the letter--ah, there, 'K,'"
as the machine, taxi-ing into the sheds, slewed, and they saw the big
"K" on her side.

"'The Kiddie,'" said the pilot. "Morton's 'bus. Seemed to be running
strong enough."

They quickened their pace, the Major with a growing fear that turned
to certainty, as they saw men come from the sheds, clamber up on the
machine, stoop over the pilot, and begin to lift him.

They found Morton hit in the foot and badly. But before he was well
clear of the machine he was laughing and asking for a cigarette. "Yes,
I stopped one, Major; but it doesn't feel too bad. Hullo, Solly, what's
yours?"

"Engine hit, conked out, crashed her edge of the 'drome here," said
Solly hurriedly. "I say, Major, can I take 'The Kiddie' and go back?
I'm all right, and so is she--isn't she, Morton?"

"Better take a rest," said the Major. "After a crash like that----"

But Solly argued, protested so eagerly, that the Major gave in. The
mechanics bustled and swarmed about "The Kiddie," filling the oil and
petrol tanks, securing her light bombs on the racks fitted under her,
replacing the expended rounds of machine-gun ammunition. And before
Morton had finished his smoke or had the boot and sock cut from his
foot, Solly was off. One might have imagined "The Kiddie" as eager
as himself, her engine starting up at the first swing of the prop,
roaring out in the deep, full-noted song that tells of perfect firing
and smooth running. Solly ran her up, eased off, waved his hand to the
two men standing holding the long cords of the chocks at her wheels.
The chocks were jerked clear, "The Kiddie" roared up into her top
notes again, gathered way, and moved out in a sweeping circle that
brought her into the wind, steadied down, gathered speed again across
the grass, lifted her tail, and raced another hundred yards, rose and
hoicked straight up as if she were climbing a ladder. At a couple of
hundred feet up she straightened out and shot away flat, and was off
down wind like a bullet.

Then the "air activity" hit the Squadron on the ground. A tender and
accompanying gang sped out to the crashed machine and set about the
business of picking it up and bringing it home; telephone messages
buzzed in and out of the Squadron office; another tender rolled out
of the 'drome and started racing "all out" with a pilot bound for the
Park, where a new machine would be handed over to replace the crash.

Before the crashed machine was in, the first lot out began to home to
the 'drome. One by one they swept in, curved, slid down, and slanted
smoothly on to the ground, and rolled over to the hangars. There was
hardly one without a bullet-hole somewhere in her; there were some with
scores. Planes were riddled, bracing and control wires cut, fuselage
fabric and frames ripped and holed and cracked, propellers cleanly
shot through. This was at 8 o'clock--and half of them were due to be
up again at 1, and the others at 2. Every possible arrangement had
been made for quick repairs and replacements, tools laid ready, spares
brought out and placed to hand. The mechanics fell on the damaged
machines like wolves on a sheepfold. Fuselages were ripped open,
broken wires and controls torn out, badly damaged planes unshipped and
slung aside, snapped and dangling bracing wires hurriedly unscrewed,
suspected longerons and ribs stripped and bared for examination, holed
or cracked propellers removed. In an hour anyone walking into the
hangars might have thought he was in an airship-breaker's yard, and
was looking at a collection almost fit for the scrap-heap. But at the
appointed time the machines of the first Flight were ready, although it
would take a decent-sized booklet to detail the nature and method of
the repairs and replacements.

But every hole in a fabric had been patched, spare wing and tail planes
had been shipped, new wires rove, damaged propellers replaced by new
ones, fuselage covers laced up, guns examined and cleaned. At a quarter
to one the pilots came from an early lunch and found their machines
ready, fabrics whole and taut, wires and stays tight-strung and braced,
engines tuned up and ready, everything examined and tried and tested,
and pronounced safe and fit. And "The Kiddie," that had come in a full
hour after the others, and had several bracing and control wires cut,
and twenty-seven bullet marks to show for her two trips, was amongst
the first to take off with the others.

As, one by one, the first Flight went up, the men were hard at work
on the machines of the second, hoisting up tins of petrol and oil, and
pouring them into the tanks, reloading the bomb-racks, packing away
fresh stores of ammunition, trying and running up the engines.

At sharp two the second Flight took off, and at three the third (which
had also brought home a miscellaneous assortment of injuries) followed
them to the tick of time. But although all three Flights were out,
the mechanics, with no faintest hope of a rest, set hastily about the
business of mending and repairing those planes and parts which had been
removed, and were now, or would be when they were done with, complete
and ready spares.

They kept hard as they could go at it for a couple of hours, and then
the first Flight began to drop in on them. One was missing--"crashed
in No Man's Land"--another pilot reported, "Seemed to go down under
control all right," and another was lost in Hunland.

The third Flight had even worse luck. Two were missing, nothing known
of them, so apparently lost over the line, and another came circling
back with her under-carriage swinging and twisting loose and hanging by
a stay. On the ground they noticed the casualty, and, fearing the pilot
might not be aware of the extent of the damage and try to land without
calculating on it, they fired a light and signalled him.

But it was quickly evident from the caution of his manœuvres
that he knew, and he came down and pancaked as carefully as he
could. He crashed, of course, but, as crashes go, not too badly.
Everyone was watching him with bated breath. As he touched the
ground--_cr-r-rash_--a tongue of flame licked and flickered, and
instantly _fouph_ it leaped in a thirty-foot gust of fire, dropped,
and before the horrified watchers could move tongue or foot, blazed up
again in a roaring, quivering pillar of fire. Then, as some scuffled
for fire-extinguishers and others ran with vague and crazy ideas of
dragging the pilot out, they saw a figure reel out from behind the
blaze, throw himself down, and roll on the grass. He was burned about
the hands and face, had a skin-deep cut across his brow, a broken
little finger--nothing that a few dressings and a splint would not make
as good as ever. He had leaped out as he landed.

His amazing escape brightened the shadow that would have lain on the
Squadron Mess that night from the loss of the other pilots, and for
the hour of dinner the talk ran free and mixed with jests and bursts
of laughter. In the ante-room there was another half-hour's talk over
the events of the day, a medley of air slang about revving, and Flaming
Onions, and split-arming, and props, and mags., and Immelman Turns, and
short bursts, and Hun-Huns, and conking, and all the rest. Then, about
9.30, the pilots began to drift off to bed, and at 10.30 the mess rooms
were clear and the lights out.

But in the hangars, the armoury, the carpentry and machine shops, the
electrics were at full blaze, the mechanics were hustling and bustling
for dear life. It grew colder as the night wore on, and by midnight men
who had been working in shirt-sleeves began to put on their jackets. By
2 a.m. they were shivering as they worked, especially those blue-lipped
and stiff-fingered ones who had to stand still over a lathe or sit
crouched, stitching and fumbling with numb fingers at fabric and tape
and string. Again the hangars were filled with a welter of stripped and
wrecked-looking outlines of machines, and all the apparent lumber of
dismantled parts and waiting spares. About 3 and 4 a.m. tenders began
to rumble in on their return from various errands, and at 5 orderlies
came from the cook-house with dixies of hot tea. The Flight Sergeants
confabbed and compared notes then and sent half the mechanics off to
bed and set the other half to work again; and by 6 the machines were
taking decently recognisable shape. And at half an hour before dawn
again the machines of the first Flight were out and ready, with engines
run up and warmed, and tanks full, and ammunition and bombs in place,
waiting for the shivering pilots stumbling out to them in the dark.
They were gone before the first blink of light paled the gun-flashes
in the sky, and they were barely gone before there came dropping into
the 'drome the pilots who had gone off the night before to fly in new
machines to replace the wastage. A second Flight went at 9, and then
the mechanics, who had turned in at 5.30, were turned out again and the
others sent to bed. They had an even shorter spell of rest, because new
machines somehow require an appalling amount of work and overhauling
and tuning up before any self-respecting Squadron considers them fit to
carry their pilots.

All that day the yesterday's performance was repeated, with the
addition that parties had to be sent off in tenders to bring in
machines that had made forced landings away from the 'drome and were
unfit to fly home. The mechanics, dismissed for an hour at dinner-time
and an hour at tea-time, spent about ten minutes over each meal, and
the rest in sleep. They needed it, for that night they had no sleep at
all, had to drive their work to the limit of their speed to get the
machines ready for the pilots to take in the morning. That day there
were more crashes, mild ones and complete write-offs, and it is hard
to say which the weary mechanics loathed the most. The pilots had
amazing luck. Man after man was shot down, but managed to glide back to
our side of the lines, crash his machine, crawl out of the splintered
wreckage, and make his way by devious routes back to the Squadron--to
take another machine as soon as it was ready, and go out again next day.

For four days this sort of thing continued. In that time the mechanics
averaged twenty and a half hours' driving hard work a day, the shop
electrics were never out, the lorry-shop lathe, with relays running it
never ceased to turn; the men ate their food at the benches as they
worked, threw themselves down in corners of the hangars and under the
benches, and snatched odd hours of sleep between a Flight going out and
another coming in.

By the mercy, dud weather came on the fifth day, driving rain and
blanketting mist, and the mechanics--no, not rested, but spurted
again and cleared up the débris of past days, repaired, refitted, and
re-rigged their machines in readiness for the next call, whenever it
might come. At the finish, about midnight of the fourth day, some of
them had to be roused from sleeping as they stood or sat at their work;
one man fell asleep as he stood working the forge bellows and tumbled
backwards into a tub of icy water.

Then they reeled and stumbled to their beds, and again by the
grace--since once asleep it is doubtful if mortal man could have
wakened them--the sixth day was also dud, and the mechanics slept their
fill, which on the average was somewhere about the round of the clock.

By then the fury of the battle assault had died down, the Squadron's
duties were eased, and the mechanics dropped to a normal battle routine
of fourteen or fifteen hours a day.

The Air Activity speeded up again after a few days of this, and from
then on for another fortnight the men in the air were putting in two
and three patrols a day and with some of the Artillery Observing
machines in the air for four and four and a half hours at a time, while
the men on the ground in the Squadrons were kept at full stretch and
driving hard night and day to maintain their machines' efficiency. No.
00's mechanics did an average of nineteen to twenty hours work a day
for fifteen days, and it is probable that if the full fact were known
so, or nearly so, did the mechanics of most of the other Squadrons
on that front. For, as it always does in prolonged fine weather and
continued air work, the "air supremacy" became much more than a matter
of the superiority of the fighters or fliers, dropped down to a race
between the German mechanics and our own, their ability to stand the
pace, to work the longest hours, to put in the best and the most work
in the least time, to keep the most machines fit to take the air.

The workshops at Home play a bigger and much more important part in
this struggle than ever they have known, and are in fact fighting
their fight against the German shops just as much as their air men are
fighting the Hun fliers. A constant and liberal supply of spares and
parts needed for quick repair obviously cuts down the Squadron's work
and better enables them to keep pace with the job, and time and again
in this period the Squadron mechanics were forced to work long hours
filing and hammering and turning and tinkering by hand to repair and
improvise parts which should have been there ready to their hand. As
the struggle ran on it became plainer day by day that our men were
gaining the upper hand, not only in the fighting--they can always do
that--but in the maintenance of machines in the air. The number of ours
dropped, perhaps, but the Huns' dropped faster and faster, until our
patrols were entirely "top dog." The pilots will be the first to admit
the part their mechanics played in this victory.

Through all this strenuous time "The Kiddie," for instance, played
her full part. Time and again her pilot brought her in riddled with
bullets, with so many controls and flying-and landing-wires and struts
cut through, that it was only because she was in the first place well
and truly built, and in the second place, so keenly and carefully
looked after, that Solly was able to nurse her back and land her on the
'drome. And always, no matter how badly damaged she came in, she was
stripped, overhauled, repaired, and ready for action when the time came
round for her next patrol; and always the work was done so thoroughly
and well that she went out as good, as reliable, as fit to fly for her
life, as any 'bus could be.

In the first week of the show, which was the most strenuous period just
described, Solly Colquhoun got a Military Cross for his share of the
show, and on first receiving word of it the Major sent for him to come
to the office, and gave him the news and his congratulations.

"May I borrow the message, sir?" said Solly Colquhoun. "I'll bring it
back in five minutes."

The Major gave him the telegram.

"Off you go," he said laughingly. "Off to raise the mess, I suppose.
Get along. I'll be over to wet the Cross with you in a minute. Tell the
Mess Sergeant to get the fizz ready that I had in."

But Solly had not gone to rouse the mess. He went at a hard trot
straight to the Flight hangars.

"Flight," he yelled as he neared them. "Fli-i-ght! Where's the Flight
Sergeant? Oh, here, Flight--I want you and my rigger and my fitter.
Fetch them quick."

They came swearing under their breaths. "The poor old 'Kiddie' for the
air again," said the rigger. "Done her whack this trip, hasn't she?"
returned the fitter.

"Look here," said Solly abruptly, hardly waiting for them to come to
a halt before him. "Just read that wire, will you?... I brought it
straight here. You're the first in the Squadron to know. I wanted you
to be, and I wanted just to say thank you to you fellows for getting me
this Cross. I know what 'Kiddie' has stood up to, and why. I know what
you did, ... and ... well, thank you."

He shook hands awkwardly but very heartily while the men stammered
congratulations and disclaimers of any reason for thanks. "Must beetle
off," said Solly. "Promised to take this paper over. Tell the other
men, will you? A Military Cross for our Flight. And thank you again."

He turned to hurry out, but, passing "The Kiddie," stabled there with
her fore-end swathed and blanketted, her sides sleek and glossy and
shining, taut and trim, spotless and speckless as the day she came from
her makers, he halted and ran a fondling hand down her rounded back.

"Thank you too, 'Kiddie,'" he said, nodded to the Sergeant, "I got a
good old 'bus, Flight," turned, and ran off.

"A d----n good 'bus," said the Sergeant, "_and_ a d----n good man
flying her."



XIII

THE LITTLE BUTCHER


The C.O. was showing a couple of friends from the infantry round the
Squadron, and while they were in the hangars having a look at the
machines--one of our latest type fighting scouts--a pilot came to them
on the run, and hardly pausing to make a jerky salute, spoke hastily:
"Message just come in by 'phone, sir, that there's a Hun two-seater
over our lines near Rorke's Camp, and will you warn the Flight when
they go up presently to look out for him. And if you don't mind, sir,
I'd like to go up at once myself and have a shot at him."

The Major hesitated a moment; then "Right," he said, and with a quick
"Thanks" the pilot whipped round and ran off.

"Might walk over and see him start," said the C.O. "He'll be gone in
a minute. Always has his bus standing by all ready. He's our star
pilot--queer little chap--always desperately keen for Huns, and makes
any number of lone-hand hunts for 'em. Crashed nearly forty to date,
the last brace before breakfast yesterday."

"Hope it didn't spoil his appetite," said one of the visitors.

"Spoil it!" The C.O. laughed. "Gave him one, rather. You don't know
him, but I tell you he'd sooner kill a Hun than eat, any day. We call
him 'The Little Butcher' here, because he has such a purposeful,
business-like way of going about his work."

They came to The Little Butcher as he was scrambling aboard his
machine. He was too busy to glance at them, and the two visitors,
looking at the thin, dark, eager face, watching the anxious impatience
to be off, evident in every look and movement, saw something sinister,
unpleasant in him and his haste to get to his kill. Their impressions
were rather strengthened after The Little Butcher had gone with a rush
and a roar, and they had asked the C.O. a few more questions about him.

"No, not a tremendous amount of risk for him this trip," said the
C.O. "Y'see, he's on a 'bus that's better than their best, and can
outfly and out-stunt anything he's likely to meet. He knows his job
thoroughly, and it's a fairly safe bet that if he finds his Hun his Hun
is cold meat."

Now, both the visitors had been fighting for rather a long time, had
few squeamish feelings left about killing Huns, and were not much given
to sparing pity for them. And yet they both, as they admitted after
to each other, felt a vague stirring of something very like pity for
those two German airmen up there unaware of the death that was hurtling
towards them.

"I'm rather changing my notions of this air-fighting," said one. "I
always thought it rather a sporting game, but----"

"So it is to a good many," said the C.O. "But there's nothing sporting
about it to The Little Butcher. He's out for blood every time."

"Seems to me," said one, when the C.O. had left them to go and see the
Flight get ready, "this Little Butcher of theirs is well named, and is
rather an unpleasant sort of little devil."

"I can't say," admitted the other, "that the idea appeals to me of
going off, as it seems he's doing, to shoot down a couple of men in
cold blood. Butchering is about the right word. I'm out to kill Germans
myself, but I can't say I like doing it, much less gloat over the
prospect, as this youngster appears to do."

Their unfavourable impression of The Little Butcher was so much
stronger even than they knew that it really gave them a grim sense of
satisfaction when the C.O. told them later that word had just come in
that there were two Huns where one had been reported.

"Nasty surprise for your Little Butcher," said one, "if he bumps into
them. But I suppose he'll see them in time and wait for the Flight to
help him."

"Not he," said the C.O. "He'll tackle the two quick enough, and
probably outfly 'em and get one or both. Sheer off from a chance of
crashing two Huns instead of one? Not much."

This was late afternoon or early evening, and the two heard the story
of the fight that night, before and during dinner, between courses and
mouthfuls of food, over cigarettes and coffee, in snatches and patches,
in answers to questions and in translations of air terms they did not
clearly follow. And again their impression of The Little Butcher grew
firmer, that he was "a murderous little devil" and "a cold-blooded
young brute." There was no mistaking in The Little Butcher's telling
his huge satisfaction in his kill, his fretting impatience when he
thought he might be baulked of his prey, his eagerness to finish his
work; and frankly the two did not like it or him.

When he had gone off that afternoon, he had flown arrow-straight
for the locality the Hun was reported in, climbing in a long slant
as he went, looking out eagerly for any sign of his quarry. He found
them--or, as he still thought, the one--by sighting the puffing bursts
of our Archie shells, and took quick stock of the position. The sun
was still high and in the south-west; the Huns almost due south of
him. His great anxiety was to approach unseen to such a distance as
would prevent the Hun escaping on catching sight of him, so he swung
wide to his left to gain the cover of a slow drifting cloud that might
allow him to come closer without being seen. He passed behind and clear
of it, and continued his circle, south now and bearing west towards
another cloud, and as he flew he stared hard towards the puffing
shell-bursts and made out the tiny dots that he knew were two machines.
He was sure they were both Huns, because the way they circled and flew
about each other without any movements of a fight made it clear they
were not opponents. The Archie shells wrote them down Huns.

With the second cloud safely between him and them, The Little Butcher
swung and raced towards the two, reached the back of the cloud, and
went laddering up towards its upper and western edge. He figured they
could not be more than a mile from him then, but to locate them exactly
and make his best plan of attack he skirted round the side of the
cloud--a thick, solid, white cotton-woolly one--until he caught sight
of them.

The instant he did so he plunged into the cloud and out of sight. He
had kept so close to it that the one turn of his wrist, the one kick
on his rudder, flung him side-slipping into it, to circle back and out
clear behind it again. He looked down and round carefully for sight of
any of our machines that might be coming up to interrupt his work and
perhaps scare off his quarry, but saw none. But on the clear sunlit
ground far below he saw a puff of smoke flash out, and then another
close beside the hutments of Rorke's Camp, and concluded the two Huns
were "doing a shoot," were observing for their artillery and directing
the fire of their guns on to points below them. It gave him the better
chance of a surprise attack, because at least one man's attention on
each of the machines must be taken up in watching the fall of the
shells. The Little Butcher revived his hope of bagging the two, a hope
that at first had begun to fade in the belief that one might bolt while
he was downing the other.

The worst of the position now was that the two were rather widely
separated, that his attack on the one might bolt the other, and that
the second might reach the safety of his own lines before he could be
overtaken. The Little Butcher didn't like the idea, so he restrained
his impatience and waited, fidgeting, for the two to close in to each
other or to him. He climbed to the top of the cloud and circled with
engine throttled back, swinging up every now and again until he could
just catch sight of the two, ducking back behind the cloud edge again
without being seen.

He was so intent on his business that it was only instinct or long
habit that kept him glancing up and round for sight of any other enemy,
and it was this that perhaps saved him from the fate he was preparing
for the two. In one of his upward glances he suddenly caught sight
of another machine full three thousand feet above him, and racing to
a position for a diving attack. The Little Butcher, as he said that
night, "didn't know whether to curse or weep." The newcomer broke in
most unpleasantly on his careful plans. Two slow old Art. Ob. Huns
were one sort of game; with a fast fighting scout thrown in the affair
became very different. The two he had counted as "his meat," but now
with this fellow butting in.... He felt it served him right in a way
for not diving at them first shot instead of hanging about for a chance
to bag the two. He had been impatient enough, Lord knew, to get at
them, and he shouldn't have waited.

All this went through his mind in a flash, even as his eyes were taking
in the details of the scout rushing to position above him, his mind
figuring out the other's plan of attack. He wasn't worrying much for
the moment about the attack, because he was still circling slowly above
his cotton-wool cloud, had only to thrust forward the joy-stick to
vanish as completely from sight as if he were in another world. But he
wanted to frame the best plan that would still give him a shot at the
artillery machines, and--

The scout above pointed at him and came down like a swooping hawk, his
guns clattering out a long burst of fire. The Little Butcher flipped
over and sank like a stone into the thickness of the cloud. He went
plunging down through the rushing vapour, burst out of it into the
sunlight below, opened out his engine, and, turning towards the sun,
was off with a rush.

As he swept out clear of the cloud he looked round and up, to locate
his enemies, size up the position, and figure the chances of his
contemplated plan working. The scout was not in sight yet, was circling
above the cloud still, probably waiting for him to emerge. The two
artillery machines were closer together, as if they had noticed the
signs of fight and were in position to support each other. They were
out on his right hand and about a mile away. He kept straight and hard
on his course--a course that was taking him into a line that would pass
between them and the sun.

He saw the scout again now, high up and circling above the cloud still.
The Little Butcher paid no further heed to him, but drove on at his
top pace, with his head twisted to the right and his eyes glued on the
slow swinging artillery machines. They gave no sign of seeing him for
ten long seconds, or if they saw him concluded he was running away. "My
luck held," said The Little Butcher in his telling of the tale, and
the savage ring in his voice and glint in his dark eyes gave a little
shiver to the two listening infantrymen.

He gained the point he was aiming for, shot up into "the eye of the
sun," kicked the 'bus hard round, and came plunging and hurtling down
on the nearest of the two machines. As he dived he heard the whip of
bullets past him, knew the scout above had sighted him, was probably
diving in turn to intercept him. He paid no heed; held hard and
straight on his course, keeping his eye glued on the nearest machine
and his sights dead on him, his fingers ready to start his guns at
first sign of their seeing him. And because he was coming on them "out
of the sun," because even if they had smoked glasses on and looked at
him it would take a second or two to accustom themselves to the glare
and be sure of him, he was within 300 yards before the farthest one
suddenly tilted and whirled round and dived away.

The Little Butcher was on him before he had well begun his dive, had
gripped the trigger lever of his guns and commenced to hail a stream of
bullets ahead of him. He saw the Hun swerve and thrust his nose down,
so changed course slightly to hold him in his sights, and kept his guns
going hard. He was close enough now to see the observer swinging his
gun round to fire on him, and then, next instant, to see a handful of
his bullets hit splintering into the woodwork of the Hun's fuselage.

The Hun fell spinning and rolling, and The Little Butcher thrust
his nose down and ripped in another short burst as his target swept
underneath. Then he lifted and swung, and went tearing straight at the
second artillery machine, which was nose on to him and firing hard from
its forward gun. At the same moment he heard the whipping and cracking
of bullets about him and the clatter of close machine-guns, looked up,
and saw the scout turn zooming up from a dive on him.

The Little Butcher held straight on, opening fire at the Hun ahead.
The Hun side-slipped, ducked and spun down a thousand feet, The Little
Butcher diving after, spitting short bursts at him every time he
thought he crossed the sights, aware again that the scout above was
following him down and shooting uncomfortably close. He was forced to
turn his attention to him, so next time a dive came, he pulled his top
gun down and let drive at the shape that plunged down, over, and up,
then hoicked up after him and engaged hotly.

The two-seater below made no attempt to climb and join the combat,
but swinging east hit for home as hard as he could go. The Little
Butcher broke off his fight with the scout and went, full out, after
the two-seater, the scout whirling round and following gamely. Because
The Little Butcher had by far the faster machine, and had besides the
added impetus of a downward slant from his thousand-foot higher level,
he overhauled the two-seater hand over fist, forced him into a spinning
dive again, and in a moment was mixing it in a hot fight with him
and the scout. Again, because he had the faster and handier machine,
he secured an advantage, and whipping round astern of the scout and
"sitting on his tail" drove him to escape his fire in a steep spin.

But at that moment The Little Butcher felt a spray of wet on his face,
found it was oil, and concluded, wrathfully, that his oil tank or pipe
must be shot through. His engine, he knew, would quickly run dry, might
seize up at any moment, and leave him helpless. And the two-seater
was off tearing for the lines again, the scout still spinning down to
escape him. He wanted that two-seater, wanted him badly. He had bagged
the one and meant getting the other.

There was a last chance--if his engine would stand for a few minutes.
He opened her out and shot off after the two-seater. He caught him up
and dropped astern, the oil still spraying back, misting his goggles
and nearly blinding him, the Hun observer pouring a long steady fire at
him. He stooped forward with his face close to the windscreen, dropped
to a position dead astern of the two-seater where the observer could
not effectively fire at him without shooting away his own tail, and
poured in a long clattering burst from both guns. His bullets, he knew,
were tearing stern to stem through the Hun; but the Hun held on, and
The Little Butcher felt his engine check and kick. The oil spray had
ceased, which meant the last of the oil was gone and the engine running
dry. The Little Butcher gritted his teeth, and kept his guns going.

The Hun observer's fire stopped suddenly, and he fell limp across
the edge of his cockpit. The Hun pilot was helpless. With a fast
scout on his tail, with no gunner or gun to shoot astern, he could do
nothing--except perhaps escape in a spin down. But astern of him the
guns continued to chatter, the bullets to rip and tear and splinter
through his machine.

The Little Butcher was in an agony of suspense as to whether he could
get his man before his engine failed him, and as he told his story it
was plain to see the intensity, the desperate uncertainty, and the
eagerness he had felt. "I knew my engine was going to conk out any
second--could feel a sort of grate and grind in her, and that my revs.
were dropping off. The Hun was drawing away a yard or two ... and I
tell you I cursed the luck. I hung on, dead astern and pumping it into
him and seeing my bullets fairly raking him. But he _wouldn't_ go
down...." (His eyes gleamed as he spoke, his brows were drawn down, his
whole face quivering with eagerness, with the revived excitement of the
chase, the passionate desire for the downfall of his quarry.) "I began
to think he'd get away. I'd never have forgiven myself--having him dead
helpless like that, right at point-blank, and then losing him.... But I
got him at last--and just in time. Got him, and crashed him good...."

It all sounds very brutal perhaps--did certainly to the two infantrymen
listening, fascinated. But--this was The Little Butcher; and he was out
to kill.

The end had come a few seconds later. The Hun pilot lurched forward;
his machine plunged, rolled over, shot out and up, tail-slid, and then
went spinning and "dead-leafing" down. The Little Butcher shut off his
crippled engine, looked round and saw the Hun scout streaking for the
lines, put his machine into a long glide and watched his second victim
twist and twirl down and down, watched until he saw him hit and crash.

He came down and made a landing on another 'drome, borrowed a tender,
and in an hour was eating his dinner.

I have said the two visitors did not like the story or the teller. They
were, in fact, a little disgusted and sickened with both, and they said
as much to their friend the C.O. when the others had left the table,
and they three lingered over liqueurs.

"Silly of me perhaps," said one, "but I hated the way that boy sort
of licked his lips over the chance of catching that Hun unawares and
shooting him down."

The other wrinkled his nose disgustedly. "It was fifty times worse his
hanging to that fellow who couldn't shoot back--when the observer was
dead--and bringing him down in cold blood. Poor devil. Think of his
feelings."

"Little Butcher," said the first, "you named him well. Bloody-minded
little butcher at that."

"But hold on a minute," said the C.O. "I can't let you run away with
these wrong notions of The Little Butcher. Have you any idea why he
is so keen on killing Huns? Why he jumped at the chance to go up and
get that one to-day, why he was in such a hurry to tackle the two, why
he--well, why he is The Little Butcher?"

"Lord knows," said one, and "Pure blood-thirstiness," the other.

"I'll tell you," said the C.O. "It is because he was once in the
infantry, as I was; and because he knows, as I do, what it means to
the line to have an artillery observing machine over directing shells
on to you fellows, or taking photos that will locate your positions
and bring Hades down on you. Every Hun that comes over the line, _you_
fellows have to sweat for; every minute a gun-spotter or photographer
or reconnaissance machine works over you, _you_ pay for in killed and
wounded. Lots of our pilots don't properly realise that, and treat air
fighting as more or less of a sporting game, or just as the job they're
here for. The Little Butcher knows that every Hun crashed means so many
more lives saved on the ground, every Hun that gets away alive will be
the death of some of you; so he's full out to crash them--whenever,
wherever, and however he can."

The two guests fidgeted a little and glanced shamefacedly at one
another. "I hadn't thought----" began one, and "I never looked at
it----" said the other.

"No," said the C.O., "and few men on the ground do, because they
don't know any better. P'raps you'll tell some of 'em. And don't
forget--although I admit that, as he told the story, it mightn't sound
like it--his isn't the simple butchering game you seem to think. You
didn't see his 'bus when it was brought in? No. Well, it had just
thirty-seven bullet holes in it, including one through the windscreen,
a foot off his head. Any one of those might have crashed him; and he
knows it. Some day one of them will get him; and he also knows that.
But he takes his risks, and will keep on taking 'em--because every
risk, every Hun downed, is saving some of you fellows on the floor.
There's a-many women at home to-night who might be widows and are still
wives; and for that you can thank God--and The Little Butcher."

"I see," said the one listener slowly--"I see."

"So do I," said the other. "And I'm glad you told us. Now," thrusting
his chair back, "I'm going to find The Little Butcher, and apologise to
him."

"Me too," said the first--"apologise, and thank him for all he's done,
and is doing--for us."



XIV

A CUSHY JOB[5]

[5] Cushy=easy, soft.

A Ferry Pilot once told me that he had a very pleasant and "cushy" job,
especially when you compared it with the one in a Squadron working over
the lines. Because we had just made an ideal flight across Channel on
a beautiful summer day, and were sitting in comfortable deck-chairs,
basking in the sun outside the Pool Pilots' Mess after a good lunch, I
was inclined at first to believe him. A little later he told a story
which made me revise that belief, the more so as it was not told to
impress, and was accepted by the other Ferry Pilots there present
so casually and with so little comment that it was apparently an
experience not at all beyond the average.

A chance remark was made about a recent trip on which he had been lost
in the mist, and had two very close shaves from crashing. Since none of
the others asked for the story, I did, and got it at last, told very
sketchily and off-handedly, and only filled in with such details as I
could drag out of him with many questions.

He had started out one morning to fly a new fast single-seater scout
machine to France, and, while getting his height before pushing out
across Channel, noticed there was a haze over the water, and that the
coast on the other side was also rather obscured, although not to any
alarming extent. But before he had got over to the French side quite a
thick mist had crept up Channel, and he had to come down to a couple of
thousand feet to pick up his exact bearings. He lost some time at this,
but at last recognised a bit of the coast, and found he was rather off
his line, so swung off and pushed for the Depot landing-ground. Before
he reached it, the mist, which had been steadily thickening, suddenly
swept over in a solid wave, and he found any view of the ground
completely gone.

He climbed a couple of thousand into the sunlight again, and looked
round for a bearing, thought he could make out the ground in one
direction, and, opening his engine full out, pushed off for the spot.
But either his eyes had deceived him, or the mist had beat him to it.
He flew on, with nothing but crawling, drifting mist visible below
him, dropped down again and peered over the side, down and down again
until his altimeter showed him to be a bare couple of hundred feet up.
There was still no sight of ground, and since he was now in thick mist
himself he could see nothing but dim greyness below, all round, and
above him. He climbed through thinning layers of mist into daylight,
and headed straight south by compass, figuring that the best plan was
to try to outfly the mist area, and, when he could see the ground
anywhere, pick up a bearing and a 'drome, any 'drome, and get down on
it.

But after half an hour's flight he was still above crawling banks of
mist, and by now had not the faintest idea of where he was. He had made
several dips down to look for the ground, but each time had caught not
the faintest indication of it, although he had dropped dangerously low
according to the altimeter. He began to wonder if the altimeter was
registering correctly, but came to the highly unpleasant conclusion
that, if he could not trust it, he certainly dare not distrust it to
the extent of believing he was higher than it showed, dropping down and
perhaps barging into a clump of trees, or telegraph wires, or any other
obstruction.

He admits that he began to get a bit rattled here. He became oppressed
with a desolating sense of his utter aloneness, especially when he was
low down and whirling blindly through the mist. He was completely cut
off from the world. Firm ground was there beneath him somewhere, cheery
companions, homely things like cosy rooms and fires and hot coffee; but
while the mist lasted he could no more touch any of them than he could
touch the moon.

To make it worse, he was completely lost and had not the faintest idea
where he was. He was steering by compass only, and if he was drifting
to the east he might be approaching the lines and Hunland, and if to
the west might even now be over the sea. For an hour and a half he
flew, trying to keep a straight course south, and seeing nothing but
that dim grey around him when he came low, the sun and sky above, and
the wide floor of mist beneath, when he climbed high. Flying high he
had the same sense of aloneness, of being the only living thing in an
empty world of his own, of cut-offness from the earth, that he had when
he was in the blanketting mist.

It was a different kind of aloneness, but even more desperate from the
feeling of helplessness that went with it. Here he was, a fit, strong
man, with every limb, organ, and sense perfect, with a good, sound,
first-class machine under him, with a bright sun and a clear sky above,
able to control his every movement, to fly to any point of the compass,
to go up, or down, or round, at any angle or speed he liked--except a
speed low enough to allow him to drop to the ground without smashing
himself and his machine to pulp and splinters. All his power was
reduced to nought by a mere bank of mist, a thin impalpable vapour, a
certain amount of moisture in the atmosphere. His very power and speed
were his undoing. Speed that in free air was safety, was death on
touching the ground except at a proper angle and with a clear run to
slow in--an angle he could not gauge, a clear run he could not find for
this deadly mist. It was maddening ... and terrifying.

He decided to make one more try for the ground, a last attempt to see
if he could get below the mist blanket without hitting the earth. He
thrust his nose down and plunged, flattening out a little as he came
into the mist, shut off his engine, and went on down in a long glide
with his eyes on the altimeter, lifting and staring down overside,
turning back quickly to read his height. At three hundred he could
see nothing, at two hundred nothing, at a hundred still nothing but
swirling greyness. He flew on, still edging down, opening up his engine
every now and then to maintain flying speed, shutting it off and
gliding, his eyes straining for sight of anything solid, his ears for
sound of anything but the whistle and whine of the wind on his wings
and wires. Down, still down, his heart in his mouth, his hand ready on
the throttle--down ... down....

Everything depended on what sort of surface he was flying above. If
there were flat open fields he must catch sight, however shadowy it
might be, of them before touching anything. If there were trees or
buildings below, the first sight he got might be something looming up
before him a fraction of a second before he hit. Down, steadily and
gradually, but still down--down ... then, UP--suddenly and steeply,
his hand jerking the throttle wide open, the engine roaring out in
deafening notes that for all their strength could not drown the
thumping of his heart and the blood drumming in his ears. A hundred
feet he climbed steeply; but even then, with the panic of immediate
peril gone, he kept on climbing in narrow turns up into the sunlight
again.

He had had a deadly narrow escape, had been so intent on staring
down for the ground that almost before he knew what was happening he
had flashed close past something solid, something that his wing-tips
catching would have meant death--a straight upright pillar, then
another, with faint pencilled lines running between them--a ship's
masts and rigging. And as he shot up, almost straight up, he had a
quick glimpse of another three shadowy masts jerking downwards into
obscurity before and then beneath him. He must be over a harbour, or
dock, or perhaps some sort of canal basin. He kept his upward course
until he was in sunlight again, carefully examined his oil and petrol
gauges and his compass, and set a northerly course. The mist might be
over all France; he would make a try back for England.

He held on until he had run his main petrol tank out, switched on to
the gravity "emergency tank" set on the top plane, and kept steadily on
his course. He had an hour's petrol there, and that ought, he figured,
to take him well over England and inland.

He decided to keep going until he could see signs of the mist thinning,
or until his petrol ran almost out; but when it was about half empty,
and he thought he must be back over the Channel and a good many miles
inland, he slid down through the mist on the chance of being able to
see the ground below it. He went down to a hundred feet, lower, could
see nothing, opened his engine out again and began to climb.

Then he had another hair-raising deadly scare. He saw the mist in
front of him suddenly begin to darken, to solidify, to take shape, to
become a solid bulk stretching out and thinning away to grey mist to
either side, above him, and below him.

For one flashing instant he was puzzled, for another he was
panic-stricken, knew with a cold clutch of terror at his heart that
he was charging at a hundred miles an hour full into the face of a
sheer-walled cliff. Actually his speed was his saving--his speed and
the instinct that did the one possible thing to bring him clear. He
had gathered way on his upward slant, his engine running full out. He
hauled the control lever hard in, and his machine, answering instantly,
reared and swooped and shot straight up parallel with the cliff face,
over in the first half of a loop, and straight away from the cliff,
upside down, until he was far enough out safely to roll over to an even
keel. It was so close a thing that for an instant he saw distinctly the
cracks and crevices in the cliff face, held his breath, dreading to
feel the jar of wheels or tail on the rock, and the plunge and crash
that would follow.

A long way out he slanted up, with his heart still thumping
unpleasantly, climbed until he was in the sunlight again, and turned
north.

He found the mist thinning ten minutes later, cleared it in another
five, glided down, and picked a good field, and landed--with about ten
minutes' petrol in his tank.

And that same afternoon, when the mist went, he refilled his tanks and
took his machine over to France, and delivered it to the Depot there.

But a Ferry Pilot, you'll remember, has a "cushy job."



XV

NO THOROUGHFARE


For a week the line had been staggering back, fighting savagely to
hold their ground, being driven in, time and again, by the sheer
weight of fresh German divisions brought up and hurled without a pause
against them, giving way and retiring sullenly and stubbornly to fresh
positions, having to endure renewed ferocious onslaughts there, and
give to them again. Fighting, marching, digging in; fighting again
and repeating the performance over and over for days and nights, our
men were worn down dangerously near to the point of exhaustion and
collapse, the point over which the Germans strove to thrust them, the
point where human endurance could no longer stand the strain, and the
breaking, crumbling line would give the opening for which the Germans
fought so hard, the opening through which they would pour their masses
and cut the Allied armies in two.

Now at the end of a week it looked as if their aim was dangerously
near attainment. On one portion of the line especially the strain had
been tremendous, and the men, hard driven and harassed for two days and
nights almost without a break, were staggering on their feet, stupid
with fatigue, dazed for want of sleep. Of all their privations this
want of sleep was the hardest and cruellest. The men longed for nothing
more than a chance to throw themselves on the ground, to fling down on
the roadside, in the ditches, anywhere, anyhow, and close their aching
eyes and sink in deep, deep sleep. But there was no faintest hope of
sleep for them. They had been warned that all the signs were of a
fresh great attack being launched on them about dusk, by more of those
apparently inexhaustible fresh enemy divisions. The divisions they had
fought all day were being held stubbornly by rear-guard actions until
the new positions were established; and plain word had been brought
in by reconnoitring air men of the new masses pressing up by road and
rail to converge with all their weight on the weakened line and the
worn-out men who made ready to hold it. Everyone knew what was coming.
Company and battalion officers scanned the ground and picked positions
for trenches and machine-guns to sweep the attack; Generals Commanding
pored over maps and contours and sought points where concentrated
shell-fire might best check the masses. And all who knew anything
knew that it was no more than a forlorn hope that if once those fresh
divisions came to close quarters they could be beaten back. Our men
would be outnumbered, would be unrested and worn with fighting and
digging and marching continuously,--that was the rub; if our men could
have a rest, a few hours' sleep, a chance to recuperate, they could
make some sort of a show, put up a decent fight again, hold on long
enough to give the promised reinforcements time to come up, the guns to
take up new positions. But "a renewed attack in force must be expected
by dusk" said the word that came to them, and every precious minute
until then must be filled with moving the tired men into position,
doing their utmost to dig in and make some kind of defensive line. It
looked bad.

But there were other plans in the making, plans figured out on wider
reaching lines, offering the one chance of success in attacking the
fresh enemy masses at their most vulnerable points, fifteen, twenty
miles away from our weary line. The plans were completed and worked out
in detail and passed down the chain to the air Squadrons; and Flight
by Flight the pilots and observers loaded up to the full capacity of
their machines with bombs and machine-gun ammunition and went droning
out over the heads of the working troops digging the fresh line,
over the scattered outpost and rear-guard lines where the Germans
pressed tentatively and waited for the new reinforcements that were
to recommence the fierce "hammer-blow" attacks, on over the dribbling
streams of transport and men moving by many paths into the battle line,
on to where the main streams ran full flood on road and rail--and where
the streams could best be dammed and diverted.

The air Squadrons went in force to their work, bent all their energies
for the moment to the one great task of breaking up the masses before
they could bring their weight into the line, of upsetting the careful
time-table which the enemy must lay down and follow if they were to
handle with any success the huge bulk of traffic they were putting on
road and rail. Each Flight and Squadron had its own appointed work and
place, its carefully detailed orders of how and where to go about their
business. In one Squadron, where the C.O. held council with his Flight
Leaders and explained the position and pointed out the plans, one of
his Captains summed up the instructions in a sentence. "That bit of
road," he said with his finger on the map, "you want us to see it's 'No
Thoroughfare' for the Hun up to dark?"

"That's it," said the C.O. "And if you get a chance at a train or two
about here--well, don't let it slip."

"Right-oh," "That's simple," "No Thoroughfare," said the Captains,
and proceeded about their business. The Flights went off at short
intervals, intervals calculated to "keep the pot a-boiling," as
closely as possible, to allow no minutes when some of the Squadron
would not be on or about the spot to enforce the "No Thoroughfare"
rule. For the rest of the afternoon they came and went, and came and
went, in a steady string, circling in and dropping to the 'drome to
refill hurriedly with fresh stocks of bombs and ammunition, taking off
and driving out to the east as soon as they had the tanks and drums
filled and the bombs hitched on. They were on scout machines carrying
four light bombs and many hundred rounds of ammunition a-piece, and
Dennis, the leader of the first Flight, made an enthusiastic report of
success on the first return. "Found the spot all right, Major," he said
cheerfully. "The crater reported is there all right, and it has wrecked
half the road. There was a working party on it going like steam to fill
in the hole, we disturbed the party a whole lot."

They had disturbed them. The road was one of those long miles-straight
main routes that run between the towns in that part of France. They
were well filled with troops and transport over the first miles, but
the Flight Leader followed instructions and let these go, knowing
other Squadrons would be dealing with them in their own good time and
way. "Although I wish they'd get busy and do it," as he told the C.O.
"Having nothing to worry them, those Huns just naturally filled the
air with lead as he went over 'em. Look at my poor old 'Little Indian'
there; her planes are as full of holes as a sieve."

But he had pushed his "Little Indian" straight on without attempting
to return the fire from below, and presently he came to the spot where
the Squadron was to tackle its job--a spot where an attempt had been
made by our Engineers to blow up the road as we retired, and where a
yawning hole took up half the road, leaving one good lorry-width for
the transport to crawl round. An infantry battalion was tramping past
the crater when the Flight arrived above it, and since the "Little
Indian" flew straight on without loosing off a bomb or a shot, the
rest of the Flight followed obediently, although in some wonder as
to whether the target was not being passed by mistake. There was no
mistake. They followed the leader round in a wide sweep over the open
fields with stray bunches of infantry firing wildly up at them, round
to the crater, and past it again, and out and round still wider. The
road by the crater was empty as they passed, but a long string of
lorries and horse transport that had been waiting half a mile back
began to move and crawl along towards the crater. The "Little Indian"
kept on her wide circle until half the lorries were past the crater.
Then she came round in a steep bank and shot straight as an arrow back
to the road, swept round sharply again and went streaking along above
it. Two hundred yards from the crater she lifted, curved over and came
diving down, spitting fire and lead as she came, pelting a stream of
bullets on the lorries abreast of the mine hole and diving straight
at them. Thirty feet away from the hole, one, two, three, four black
objects dropped away from under the machine, and four spurts of flame
and smoke leaped and flashed amongst the lorries and about the hole,
as the "Little Indian" zoomed up, ducked over and came diving down
again with her machine-guns hailing bullets along the lorries and the
horse transport. And close astern of her came the rest of the Flight,
splashing their bombs down the length of the convoy, each saving one or
two for the spot by the crater, continuing along the road and emptying
their guns on the transport. Half a mile along the road they swung
round and turned back and repeated the gunning performance on men
struggling to hold and steady crazed and bolting horses, on wagons in
the ditches, on one lorry with her nose well down in the half-filled
crater and another one comfortably crashed against her tail that stuck
out into the half-width bit of road.

"A beautiful block," the Flight told the Major on their return.
"Couldn't have placed 'em better if we'd driven the lorries ourselves.
And there's horse wagons enough scattered along the ditches of the next
half mile to keep the Hun busy for hours."

The second Flight, arriving about ten minutes after the first had
departed homeward bound, found the Huns exceedingly busy struggling
to remove the wrecked transport which so effectually blocked the way.
There were men enough crowded round the crater especially to make a
very fine target, and the first machine or two got their bombs well
home on these, and scattered the rest impartially along the road on
any "suitable targets" of men or transport. They established another
couple of very useful blocks along the mile of road behind the crater,
and completely cleared the road of marching men for a good three miles.
The third Flight found no targets beyond the working party at the
crater until they had gone back a few miles to a cross road, where they
distributed some bombs on a field battery, bolted the teams, and left
the gunners well down in the ditches beside their overturned guns and
limbers.

They had barely finished their performance when the first Flight was
back again, but by this time the enemy had taken steps to upset the
arrangements, and with a couple of machine-guns posted by the crater
did their best to keep the traffic blockers out of reach of their
targets. But the Flight would not be denied, and drove in through the
storm of bullets, planted their bombs and gave the ground gunners a
good peppering, and got away with no further damage than a lot of
bullet holes in wings and fuselages. For the next hour the Germans
fought to strengthen their anti-aircraft defences, bringing up more
machine-guns and lining the ditches with riflemen, and the attackers
got a reception that grew hotter and hotter with each attempt. But they
held the road blocked, and effectually prevented any successful attempt
to clear and use it, and in addition extended their attacks to further
back and to other near-by roads, and to the railway. Crossing this line
on one outward trip Dennis, still flying his bullet-riddled "Little
Indian," saw a long and heavily-laden train toiling slowly towards the
front. It was too good a chance to miss, so he swung and made for it,
swooped down to within a hundred feet and dropped his bombs. Only one
hit fairly, and although that blew one truck to pieces, it left it on
the rails and the trains still crawling along. But the Flight followed
his lead, and one of their bombs hit and so damaged the engine that a
cloud of steam came pouring up from it and the train stopped. Another
long train was panting up from the German rear, so the Flight swept
along it and sprayed it liberally with machine-gun bullets, scaring the
driver and fireman into leaping overboard, and bringing that train also
to a standstill. Dennis headed back home to bring up a fresh stock of
bombs, and, if he could, damage the train beyond possibility of moving,
although he feared it was rather a large contract for a scout's light
bombs. But on the way back he met a formation of big two-seater bombers
carrying heavy bombs, and by firing a few rounds, diving athwart their
course, and frantic wavings and pointings managed to induce them to
follow him. Two of them did, and he led them straight back to the two
trains. The driver and fireman of the second had resumed their duties
and were trying to push the first train along when the bombers arrived,
and planting one bomb fairly on the train, started a fire going, and
with another which fell between two trucks blew them off the metals.
The burning trucks were just beginning to blow up nicely as our
machines raced for home and more ammunition.

The next hour was mainly occupied with a fast fight against about
twenty Hun machines evidently brought up to break up the road-blockers'
game. The fight ended with three of the Huns being left crashed on
the ground, one of ours going down in flames, and two struggling back
across the lines with damaged machine and engine. Dennis was forced to
leave his machine for one trip and borrow another while his damaged
wings were replaced with new ones.

This time two Flights went out together, and while one engaged the Hun
machines which still strove to drive them back, the other dived back
on the road and again scattered the working party which struggled to
clear the road. They had a hot passage, whirling down through a perfect
tempest of machine-gun fire, and another machine was lost to it. Dennis
struggled back across the lines with a shot-through radiator and an
engine seizing up, was forced to land as best he could, wrecked his
machine in the landing, crawled out of the wreckage, got back to the
'drome, and taking over his repaired machine went out again.

"That road's blocked," he said firmly, "and she's goin' to stay
blocked." And he got his men to rig a sort of banner of fabric attached
to a long iron picket-pin harpoon arrangement, painted a sentence
in German on it, and took it up with him. They found the road still
blocked, but columns of troops tramping in streams over the fields to
either side. They spent a full hour scattering these and chasing them
all over the landscape, had to break off the game to take on another
fight with a crowd of Hun scouts, were joined by a stray Flight or
two who saw the fight and barged into it, and after a mixed fast and
furious "dog-fight" at heights running from anything under 300 feet to
about as many inches, chased the Hun machines off. They came back in
triumph down the deserted road and the empty fields, spattering the
last of their rounds into the wrecked lorries and wagons still lying
there, and then, as they passed over the piled wreckage at the crater,
Dennis leaned out and dropped his streamered harpoon overboard. It
plunged straight, hit, and stuck neatly upright displaying its legend
clearly to anyone on the ground.

"What was on it?" said Dennis in answer to the questions of the Flight
later on. "It was a notice in German. Maybe it was bad German, but it
was a dash good notice. It said 'No Thoroughfare,' and I fancy we've
taught the Huns what it means anyhow."

They, and a good many of their fellow squadrons, had, on this and on
other road and rail Lines of Communication. They lost men and they lost
machines; but the expected fresh attack on the line did not develop at
dusk as foretold.

And that night the weary troops slept a solid life-renewing six hours.



XVI

THRILLS


It was a bad day for kite-balloon work; first, because the air was not
clear and the visibility was bad, and second, because there was an
uncomfortable wind blowing, and the balloon was jerking and swaying
and lurching at the end of its long tether, making it hard for the
observers to keep a steady eye on such targets as they could pick up,
and still harder to plot out angles and ranges on the map spread on the
table sticking out from the side of the basket.

But hard fighting was going on, and the line was getting badly
hammered, so that every balloon which could get up was in the air, and
every observer was hunting for hostile battery positions, directing
the fire of our guns on to them, and doing all they could to lessen
the shell-fire that was pouring down on our infantry in their scanty
trenches. At times a swirl of mist or cloud came down and shut off the
view altogether from the balloons; but they hung on, and stayed aloft
waiting for a clear and the chance to observe a few more rounds the
moment they got it.

In one balloon the two observers had been sitting aloft for hours,
after an early rising and a hurried breakfast. They had only been
having fleeting targets at intervals as the haze cleared, but any
danger of becoming bored was removed by the activities of a certain
anti-balloon gun which did its best to shoot them down whenever it
could get a sight on them, and by the excitement of watching out for an
air attack whenever the low clouds came down and offered good cover to
any Hun air man who cared to sneak over above them and chance an attack.

When a blanketing mist crawled down over the target again, one observer
swore disgustedly and spoke down the telephone. The second kept watch
round and listened to the one-sided conversation. When it finished, the
first observer turned to the map. "This is unpleasant, Dixie," he said,
pointing to a spot on it. "We've lost the hill out there."

"Lost the hill!" said Dixie disconsolately. "Don't talk to me about
losing. I've lost my beauty sleep; I've lost interest; and if this
cussed gas-bag doesn't stop behavin' like a cockle-boat in a tide-rip,
I'm goin' to lose my breakfast next."

"It's clearing a little again," said the other cheerfully. "Hope so,
anyway. I want to finish that battery off. Can you see what the line's
doing?"

"Seems to be mainly occupied absorbin' Hun high explosive," said
Dixie. "They don't look to be enjoyin' life down there any more'n I am
--an' that's not enough to write to the papers about."

"There they go!" said the other. "Spot that flash? Let's get on with
it. The P.B.I.[6] down on the floor there want all the help we can give
'em."

[6] Poor Blanky Infantry.

"You've said it, Boy," remarked Dixie, and turned to his spotting again.

Both were hard at work five minutes later trying to pick up the burst
of their shells and pass their observations down to the guns, when
there came a whistle and a howl and a loud, rending _c-r-r-rack!_
somewhere above them.

"See here, Boy!" said Dixie. "This is gettin' too close to be pleasant,
as the turkey said about Christmas. Can't we find where he's located
and pitch a few back at him? I'm about tired of perchin' up here being
made a cock-shy of."

"Wait a bit," said Boy. "I'm almost finished with this other battery.
Maybe---- Look out! Here she comes again!"

"Look out!" retorted Dixie, when the shell had howled up and burst in
a cloud of filthy black smoke not more than a hundred yards out and on
their level. "Pleasant prospect to look out at. Hades! Here's another.
Say, Boy, this is gettin' too hot, as Casabianca said to the burnin'
deck. He's got our elevation all right, and if we don't change it he'll
get us next, for sure."

The closeness of the shot had been observed below, and, after a brief
telephoned talk, the balloon was hauled rapidly down a thousand feet.
Another shell crashed angrily above them as it went down.

The next hour was a highly unpleasant one to the two observers. The
"anti" gun was plainly out to down them, and kept pitching shell after
shell with most discomforting accuracy all around them. The winch
below hauled them down and let them soar up to all sorts of varying
elevations in strenuous endeavours to cheat the gunners, while the two
observers did their best to pick up targets and lay their guns on to
them, and the anti shells continued to scream up and burst about them.
Several times the explosions were so close that it appeared certain the
envelope must be holed, and the observers stopped work and waited with
held breath to discover whether they were sinking and if they would
have to jump for it and trust to their parachutes. But the balloon
held up, and the two continued their shoot. It was unpleasant, highly
unpleasant, but the hard-pressed infantry wanted all the assistance the
guns could give them, and the guns wanted all the help air observation
could give; so the observers held on, and chanced the shells, and kept
their guns going on such targets as they could pick out of the dull
light and grey mist.

It must be admitted that, as the time dragged past, the strain began
to tell on the tempers of both men. The only respite they had from the
continued torment of the anti-balloon gun was when the mist closed down
on them; and then the strain was in no way lessened, but altered only
to that of watching out for an attacking enemy.

And that looked-for attack came at last. There came a sudden and
urgent call on the telephone from below, and both men strained their
eyes out through the lifting haze to the next balloon in the line and,
with an instinctive fumbling at the attachment of their parachute
harness, made ready to jump. But what they saw held them spellbound for
a moment. The next balloon in the line was being attacked. It was over
a quarter of a mile away; but the silhouette of a plane could clearly
be seen swooping down on the defenceless balloon, flashes of fire
spitting and streaking from his guns as he came. The two balloon-men
leaped over the edge of the basket. One plunged down the regulation
distance, his parachute fluttered open with a shimmer of gleaming silk
that looked exactly like a bursting puff of white smoke, began to drop
down in wide pendulum swings. But with the second man's parachute
something plainly had gone wrong. Dixie and the Boy, clutching the
sides of their basket and staring horror-stricken, gasped as they saw
the little figure go plunging plummet-wise hundreds after hundreds of
feet ... hundreds ... thousands ... and still the parachute followed in
a solid unopened black dot. The balloon was near 3,000 feet up when the
man jumped, and he and the parachute went down 3,000 feet, as a stone
would drop down a well. Dixie and the Boy watched fascinated, tried to
turn their heads or shut their eyes--and couldn't.

When it was over, Dixie spoke hurriedly. "Come on, kid! Over! Or it's
our turn next!"

But to watch a parachute fail to open, and the next instant to trust
your life to the proper working of your own, is rather a severe test,
and it is little wonder that both Dixie and the Boy waited another
second watching and waiting before leaping over. They saw a lick of
flame flicker along the top of the attacked balloon, die down, flash
out again--and then caught sight of the Hun scout wheeling and heading
for their balloon. The winch below was hauling down with frantic haste;
but there is little hope of pulling down a K.B. 3,000 feet in anything
like the time it takes a fast scout to cover 500 yards, and the Boy,
taking a gulping breath, was on the point of jumping, when Dixie
clutched at him and cried--croaked is a truer word--hoarsely at him.
The new act of the drama was begun and ended almost quicker than the
first. Out of the grey mist another plunging shape emerged, hurtling
straight across the path of the enemy scout, its guns streaming fire,
clattering a long postman-knock _tat-tat-tat-tat_. The enemy machine
swerved violently, missed collision by bare yards, swept round, thrust
his nose down and tried to dive away. But the other machine was after
him and on him like a hawk after a pigeon, clinging to his tail and
pelting fire at him. A gust of sooty black smoke puffed from the
leading machine, a spurt of flashing fire followed, and it went diving
headlong with flame and clouds of smoke trailing after.

"Boy," said Dixie unsteadily, "I've mighty near had balloonin' enough
for one morning's amusement!"

The telephone was calling, and the Boy turned to answer it. But
before he spoke there rose to them again the shrieking rush of an
approaching shell--a rush that rose to a shriek, a bellow, and ended
in an appalling crash that sent the balloon reeling and jerking at
its tether. Again both men fingered the parachute harness buckled
about them and stared up intent and uneasy at the swaying envelope
above them. Before they could decide whether it was hit or not another
wailing yowl heralded another shell, another rending crash, another
leaping cloud of black smoke just below them, the shriek and whistle
of flying fragments up past them, told of another deadly close burst.
Choking black smoke swirled up on them, and the Boy began to shout
hurriedly into his telephone.

"Tell 'em the basket's shot full of holes," said Dixie, "and my
parachute's got a rip in it big enough to put your fist in. And
tell----"

He broke off suddenly. The pitching, tossing, jerking of the tethered
balloon had changed to a significant smoothness and dead calm. The
Boy dropped his telephone receiver. "Dixie," he gasped, "we're--we're
adrift!"

Dixie took one swift look over the edge of the basket. "You've said
it," he drawled, "an' that ends the shoot, anyway."

"Should we jump for it?" asked the Boy hurriedly.

"If you feel like it, go ahead," said Dixie, "but not for mine,
thank'ee. My parachute's shot up to glory, an', anyhow, we're driftin'
back over our own lines. I'd as soon stay with her till she bumps."

"I think she's dropping," said the Boy. "The shell that cut the cable,
maybe, holed the gas-bag, and she'll come down with a run."

"We're comin' down all right," said Dixie philosophically, "but not
fast enough to hurt. You jump if you like. I'm goin' to hang on and
pull the rippin'-cord when she's near the floor."

But the remembrance of that other observer, falling like a bullet
beneath an unopened parachute, was too close to encourage the Boy
to leap, and the two waited, hanging over the edge of the basket,
watching the ground drift past beneath them, trying to gauge how fast
the balloon was coming down. It fell slowly, very slowly, at first,
losing height so gradually that it was hard even to say it was losing.
It began to look as if the two were in for an easy and comfortable
descent without leaving the balloon. Then plainly the rate of descent
began to quicken. The ground began to swirl up to them at an alarming
speed; the balloon, which had up to now been drifting so smoothly that
its movement could hardly be felt, started to lurch down in sickening
swerves and drops and swings.

"Boy," said Dixie seriously, "I dunno you hadn't better chance it an'
jump. Looks like this ol' sausage was punctured bad, an' I'm gettin'
to think she's goin' to phut out quick an' go down wallop. S'pose you
jump, an' I hang on to her. My parachute----"

"Take mine," said the Boy quickly. "I'd as soon stay with her."

"Nothin' doin'," answered Dixie. "Parachute jumps is no popular pastime
of mine at the moment, an' I don't mind ownin' to it."

So both waited, Dixie with his hand on the ripping-cord, both with
their heads over the side, their eyes fixed on the passing ground.
There was a strong wind blowing, and, as they came closer to the
ground, they began to discover the surprising speed at which they were
travelling, to feel a good deal uneasy about the crash with which they
must hit solid earth. The balloon was falling now at dangerous speed,
and, worse, was coming down in a series of wild swings and swayings.

"The wood!" shouted Dixie, pointing out and down. "Better crash her in
it, eh?"

"Go on," answered the Boy briefly.

The next minute was rather a nightmare--a wild impression of a
sickening plunge, of tearing crackling noises, of breaking branches,
of a basket jerking, tossing, leaping, falling, bouncing and falling
again, and finally coming to rest amongst the crashing tree-tops,
hanging there a moment, tearing free and, falling and bringing up
completely with a bump amongst the lower branches, while the envelope
settled and sagged and flopped in another crescendo of cracklings and
rippings and tearings on top of the trees. The two clung for dear life
to their basket; were jerked and wrenched almost from their grip a
dozen times; hung on expecting every moment to be their last; felt the
basket at last settle and steady, and cease to do its best to hurl them
overboard.

They climbed over, caught stray cords, and slid thankfully to firm
ground. "Did it ever strike you, Boy," said Dixie, "what a pleasant
thing a lump of plain solid dirt under your feet can be?"

That ended their adventure so far as the air was concerned. But it cost
them an hour's tramp to find a main road and discover where they were;
and another hour to tramp along it to a fair-sized town where there
might be an inn or hotel. A mile-stone on the roadside gave them their
whereabouts and surprised them by the distance they had drifted back.

They set their faces east and began a steady tramp. The road was
rather crowded with a stream of French civilians all moving west, and,
as they walked, the crowd grew closer and more solid and showed plainer
signs of haste and anxiety. There were no troops on the road; it was
wholly filled with civilians--women and children and very old men for
the best part, all laden with bundles or pulling or pushing or driving
vehicles of every sort and description. There was a cow dragged behind
an old woman and a child, a huge bed-mattress bundled and roped on its
back; a perambulator piled high with clothing and blankets, and with a
baby nested down in the middle of the pile; an old man leading a young
child and carrying a bird-cage with two full-sized chickens crammed
into it; a decrepit cart and still more decrepit pony, with a load of
furniture that might have filled a pantechnicon; a family, apparently
of mother and five children of descending ages and sizes, but each with
a bundle hugged close; an old bent woman tottering a step at a time on
two sticks. All trailed along wearily in a slow drifting mass; and all,
except the very young children, were casting uneasy glances over their
shoulders, were evidently struggling to put as many paces as possible
between them and their starting-point.

Dixie and the Boy knew well what it all meant--merely the evacuation
of another village that had come within shell-range of the Hun, or
was near enough to the shifting battle-line to make it wise to escape
before all in it were engulfed, made prisoner, and set to slavery in
the fields on starvation rations for Hun task-masters, or, worse,
deported, torn apart, child from mother, weak from strong, helpless
from helpers, and deported to far-off factories or the terrors
of an unknown fate. The French and Belgians have learned their
lesson--learned it slow and hard and bitterly--that it is bad to be
driven to leave all they own on earth, but infinitely worse to stay and
still lose all, and more in the "all" than mere earthly possessions.

Dixie and the Boy tramped slowly against the tide of refugees and
drew at last to near the town from which the stream was pouring. It
was all very pitiful, very cruel. But worse was to come. The road
was one of those long main national route highways common in France,
running straight as a ruler for miles on end, up hill and down dale.
The roofs of the village were half a mile away, and suddenly, over
these roofs, an aeroplane came skimming. It flew low, and it flew
in a bee-line along above the wide straight road; and as it flew
there sounded louder and plainer the unmistakable _ac-ac-ac-ac_ of a
machine-gun; there was plainly to be seen a stream of spitting fire
flashing from the flying shape. It swept nearer, and the clatter of
its guns sounded now through a rising wail, a chorus of shrieks and
calls and sharp screams, and the cries of frightened or hurt children.
The gun shut off abruptly as the machine swooped up; burst out again
in a long savage tattoo as it curved over and came roaring down in a
steep dive. In the road there was a pandemonium of screams and cries:
a wild turmoil of figures rushing hither and thither, flinging down
into the ditches, scrambling over them and fleeing in terror out over
the open fields. As the machine dived the two observers could see the
streaking lines of the tracer bullets, hear the sharp cracks and smacks
of explosives hitting the ground--and other things. They could only
stand and curse in impotent rage, and the Hun machine, with a rush and
a roar, spat a last handful of bullets over and past them and was gone
on down the road. The two stood and watched its graceful soaring and
plunging, listened to the steady rattle of its guns, swore savagely
again, then turned to help some of the shrieking women and crying
children about them. But next moment another distant _tat-tat-tat_
made them look up to see another black-crossed machine, and then a
third, leap into sight over the village and come tearing down above
the road. Dixie and the Boy both filled the few intervening seconds
trying to hustle the fear-stricken villagers off the road down into
the cover of the ditches, behind carts--anywhere that might be out
of reach of the bullets. But the newcomers had gone one better than
bullets for fiendish destruction. As the first one approached a black
blob fell away from it, and next second there was a rending crash, a
leaping cloud of smoke and dust whirling and eddying up from the road.
The machine roared over and past, with her machine-gun hailing bullets
down the road, and far down the road came another billowing cloud of
smoke and the crash of another bomb. The third machine followed close,
also machine-gunning hard and also splashing bombs down at intervals,
one falling with horrible effect fairly in a little crowd of women
and children clustered under and behind a country cart. The cart was
wrecked, and the horse and half of the women and children....

The two observers gave what help they could, their faces white and
their hands shaking and their ears tingling as they worked. The whole
scene after the passing of the destroyers was heart-rending and pitiful
and far too horrible for description. And the cruel part of it was
that it was all such useless destruction, such wanton savagery, such
a brutal and wilful slaughter of the innocents. The low-fliers were
too close down for there to be any possibility of their not knowing
well what they were shooting and bombing. There was not a sign of a
uniform on the road; it was packed with what clearly and unmistakably
was a crowd of refugees, of helpless women and children. It was hard to
imagine what the Huns hoped to gain, what object they could have had in
such indiscriminate murder; but, object or no object, its happening is
a matter of cold history.

It was growing late when the two observers, continuing their journey,
saw a distant aerodrome, made their way across the fields to it,
explained themselves, and were offered dinner first, and then transport
back to their unit.

The two told their tale of the day while they waited with the Squadron
for dinner to be served. It was dark by this time, and an annoying
delay came before dinner in the shape of an order to put all lights
out, and in the droning approach of some enemy bombers. They passed
somewhere overhead, and the machine-gun defences fired a few streams of
ineffectual bullets up at them. One bomb whistled and shrieked down and
burst noisily a few hundred yards from the 'drome and others farther
afield. The pilots and the two observers were collected again just
outside the door of the mess listening to the distant drone of the Hun
bombers, watching the flicker and jump of gun flashes in the horizon
and a red glare that rose in a wide steady glow from one or two points.
It was an unpleasant reminder of the trying time the Army was having,
of the retreat they had made, of the stores and dumps that had been
fired to prevent the enemy taking possession of them.

One of the pilots--a youngster of under twenty, with two wound stripes
on his cuff--laughed suddenly. "That Hun bomber just about rounds off a
complete day of frightfulness for you two fellows," he said. "You have
had a lively time, one way and another."

"We have," said Dixie. "I've had thrills enough for this day to fill a
boy's adventure library full an' overflowin'."

"Too many for me," said the Boy, "when I think of watching that man go
down with an unopened parachute."

"It was worse seeing that Hun come down the road," said Dixie, "and
bein' able to do nothin' to stop him. An' when I think of that mother
with a dead baby, an' that kid--a girl--about five years old, that an
explosive bullet----" And he stopped abruptly.

There was silence for a minute, broken by the young pilot.

"Speaking of thrills," he said, and laughed again, "there was a
paragraph--some of you will remember how we grinned over it. Wonder
if I could find the paper? It would tickle you diving balloonatics
especially. I'll see," and he disappeared into the mess-room and began
to hunt round with an electric torch.

He found the paper and brought it out and read the paragraph by the
light of his torch. It was headed "60,000 Thrills," and it ran:[7] "A
Blanktown cable, received by the Chief Representative for Blancountry,
states: At an aquatic carnival, held by the Big Stone Swimming Club at
Light Falls, there was an attendance of 60,000. The proceeds go to the
Soldier's Fund. Prince Walkiyick--known as Alec Walker the Middle Seas
sprint champion--dived from a height of 200 feet into the water. He was
two seconds in the air and thrilled the spectators with his exploit."

[7] Except that names are altered, the paragraph is reprinted here word
for word as it appeared in a daily paper and was read by thousands of
men in the line at the time of the first retreat in the spring of 1918.
I have the cutting now.--B. C.

"Good Lord!" said the Boy helplessly.

"Thrilled the spectators," repeated Dixie. "_Thrilled_ ... well, if
that doesn't take it."

The young pilot was laughing again, long and immoderately, and some of
the others, looking at the two observers' faces, had to join him.

"Sixty thousand, you said," the Boy was beginning, when he was
interrupted by a distant _boom--boom--boom_.

"Huns bombing Blanqueville again," said the young pilot. "More women
and kid casualties, I suppose."

Dixie was cursing, low but very intensely. "If those spectators are out
for thrills----" he said, and looked to where a red glow was beginning
to rise in the sky over Blanqueville.



XVII

THE SEQUEL


There was a strike in one of the aircraft factories; in fact, there
were simultaneous strikes in many, if not most, of the factories,
although for the moment this story is concerned only with one of
them--or rather with its sequel. At the front they knew little or
nothing of the strike, although, unfortunately, they knew a good deal
of the result. On the other hand, the workers probably know nothing of
what their strikes may mean to the front, and this is what I want to
tell them. They have, it is true, been publicly told by a member of the
Government that the strikes resulted in a waste of so many hours' work,
a shortage or reduction of output of some hundreds of machines, and so
on; but these things are a matter of cold figures. If they are told
the result in flesh and blood, they may look at a strike in rather a
different light.

One Squadron in France first "felt the breeze" of the strike in a
drying up of the stream of "spares" and parts that are constantly
required for repair, and the mechanics having to make good this
shortage by many night hours' sheer hard labour, by working long
shifts when they ought to have been sleeping, by hacking out with cold
chisel and hammer, and turning upon overworked lorry-shop lathes, and
generally making by hand what the idle machines in the factories should
have been punching out in dozens on a stamping machine, or turning
comfortably on automatic lathes.

That was a minor item of the strike's sequel. Another and more serious
item in the same Squadron was that one or two machines, which had
been marked off for return to the depots and complete overhaul and
setting up, had to be kept in commission and hard at work. This was
unpleasantly risky, because at this time the Squadron was very actively
engaged in the preparation for a coming Push, and the machines were
putting in even more than a fair average of flying hours. The life of
a machine is strictly limited and countable in these "flying hours,"
and after a certain life machine and engine, with constant wear, and
despite regular and careful looking after by the Squadron mechanics,
come to be so strained and shaky that for safe flying they must have
such a thorough overhaul and tuning up that it almost amounts to a
rebuilding.

One particular machine in the Squadron--the old "Gamecock"--had
for some time back been getting rather rickety and was to have been
replaced before the anticipated heavy operations of the air activity
that would open the way for the Push. One out of those hundreds of the
strike's lost machines should have come to the Squadron to release the
"Gamecock," but, of course, when it did not come there was nothing for
it but to keep the "Gamecock" flying. She managed to get through her
share in the work without any further trouble than a still further
straining, and an engine which for all the labour lavished on it grew
more and more unreliable. She carried on up to the actual morning
of the Push, and her pilot and observer, the Flight and Squadron
Commanders alike heaved sighs of relief to think that the rush was
nearly over, that there would be no further urgent need to risk her in
the air. But as it happened their relief was premature, and there was
still a "show" and a serious one for the "Gamecock" to take a part in.

The Squadron was an artillery observing one, whose work it was to
fly over the enemy's lines and observe the fire of our batteries on
selected targets, and, "spotting" where their shells fell, wireless
back to our guns the necessary corrections of aim to bring them on
the target. The night before the Push a reconnoitring Squadron had
discovered a fresh group of enemy batteries, and Headquarters allotted
the destruction of these to various batteries in conjunction with
certain artillery flying Squadrons. The "Gamecock's" Squadron was
included, and since there was already a heavy morning's work portioned
out to the Squadron, there was nothing for it but to detail the
"Gamecock" to help handle the fresh job.

"Do it?" said her pilot scornfully in answer to a doubting question
from the observer. "Course she can do it, and a dozen jobs on top of
it. There's nothing wrong with her."

"Oh no, nothing whatever," said the observer sarcastically. "You'd
claim there was nothing wrong with her if her engine turned round once
a week, or if her planes were warped like a letter S. How many times
did her engine cut out to-day? And she was rattling like a bag of old
bones when you were stunting her to dodge those 'Archies,' till I
thought she was going to shake herself into the scrap-heap right away."

"Rats," said the pilot stoutly. "She's strong as a house."

The Flight Commander evidently did not agree with him, to judge by
the conversation he had that night with the C.O. "I hate sending the
'Gamecock,'" he said. "But I suppose there's no help for it."

"Afraid not," said the Major. "Every machine had enough to do before,
and this new job will give them all their hands full. We just _must_
send every machine we've got."

The Flight Commander sighed. "All right. I do wish they'd replaced her
though, as they promised to do a week ago. Wonder why they haven't."

"Well, a machine isn't made as easy as knitting a sock, you know,"
said the Major. "I dare say it's a hard job to keep up to the wastage.
Four machines we've had crashed and replaced ourselves in this last
week. I suppose those people in the factories can't keep up the pace,
even working night and day." (The Squadrons knew little or nothing
of the strikes then. What they and the Major would have said if they
had known, what they did say when they came to know, is a different
story--_quite_ a different story.)

There was just one hour of light before the time set for the attack,
the "zero hour" when the infantry would go over the top, and that hour
was filled with a final intensive bombardment that set the earth and
air quivering like a beaten drum. The "Gamecock" and the rest of the
Squadron were up and over the lines with the first glint of light, and
the fighting scouts were out with them and busily scrapping with any
Hun machines that came near or tried to interfere with the artillery
and reconnoitring machines.

The "Gamecock" waddled off to her appointed place, and after picking
up the targets with a good deal of difficulty, owing to the billowing
clouds of shell smoke and dust, and getting in wireless touch with the
first battery, the observer waited till the machine was in a favourable
position to let him see the shot and signalled the battery to fire.
For half an hour the "Gamecock" circled steadily with a fairly heavy
"Archie" fire breaking about her, and the observer picking up one
target after another and putting the guns on to it. As fast as he
signalled back that a direct hit had been obtained he went on to the
next target and observed for another battery, while the battery he had
just finished with proceeded to pour a hurricane of high explosive on
the spot it had "registered," and to blot the enemy battery there out
of active existence.

Then the "Gamecock's" work was interrupted. A couple of Hun scouts
dropped like plummets out of the clouds and dived straight for the
"Gamecock," their machine-guns rattling rapidly as they came. The
observer at the first sound of their shots whipped round from where he
was hanging overside watching his target below, glanced up and grabbed
for his machine-gun. He hastily jerked the muzzle in the direction
of the coming Huns and ripped off a burst of fire, and at the same
moment heard the sharp hiss of their passing bullets, saw the streaking
flashes of fire from their tracers flame by. One hostile finished his
dive in a sharp upward "zoom" just before he came down to the level of
the "Gamecock," whirled round in a climbing turn, plunged straight down
again at the "Gamecock," opening fire as he came, and before reaching
her level repeated his tactics of zooming up and turning. The other Hun
hurtled down past the "Gamecock's" tail, turned under her, and whirled
upward, firing at her underbody. The observer ceased fire a moment and
tapped back a message on his wireless to the battery saying the last
round was "unobserved." He used the code of course which condenses
messages into one or two Morse letters, and knowing that the battery
would not fire until he passed the word that he was ready again, he
turned his attention to driving off the two machines that plunged
firing at them. The underneath one was practically concealed from him,
so he first directed a carefully aimed burst of fire on the top one as
once more it dived on them and its bullets whipped flaming past. He put
in another burst as the Hun spun up and away again, then leaned out
over the side and just caught a glimpse of the lower machine driving
up at them. He swung his machine-gun round on its turret mounting and,
thrusting the muzzle down, rattled off a score of rounds. At the same
moment he heard the crack and rip of bullets tearing through their
wings, and heard also the sharp _rat-tat-tat_ of the overhead enemy's
gun reopening fire. The observer swung his gun upward again, took a
long breath, and directed careful aim on the body whirling down on
them. He realised that the game was too one-sided, that with two fast
enemies attacking in concert from above and below, it was merely a
matter of minutes for the "Gamecock" to be sunk, unless he could down
one of the two hostiles first. He opened fire carefully and steadily.

Up to now the pilot had been unable to take any part in the fight,
because his gun only fired directly forward and the Huns had taken care
to keep astern of him. But now he suddenly throttled down and checked
the speed of the "Gamecock" by thrusting her nose up and "stalling"
her. The move answered, and next instant the upper machine swept
forward and up and ahead of them. The pilot opened his engine full
out and drove for his enemy, pelting fire upon her. His bullets went
straight and true to their mark, and the Hun, hearing them tear through
his fabrics, dipped over and plunged hastily down a full thousand feet.
The "Gamecock" heaved herself over and dived after him with the pilot's
gun still going. Almost immediately he heard the observer's gun firing,
and, stopping his own, glanced over his shoulder and saw the full width
of the other Hun's wings wheeling close astern of them. Immediately he
checked his dive and flattened out to give his observer a fair shot,
and knew instantly from the long-sustained rattle of the observer's gun
that the chance had been seen and taken.

He leaned out and peered down for sight of the other machine, and
then--his heart jumped at the unmistakable sound and throb--his engine
missed, picked up, missed again, cut out, and stopped completely. The
"Gamecock's" speed, held as she was at the moment on a slightly upward
slant, began to fall away, and the pilot hurriedly thrust her nose
down and went off in a long glide, while he tried desperately every
device he knew to get his engine started again. There was no sign of
the petrol leaking, so he knew the tanks were not hit, but on the
off-chance he switched on to the emergency tank--without result. Oil
pressure was all right, and--he broke off to glance round as the rattle
of fire came again to his ear. His observer was standing up blazing at
one machine which swooped after them closing in on the one side, while
the other climbed and swung in from the other. The pilot groaned. There
was just a last faint chance that they might manage to glide without
engine back over the line, provided the observer could stand off the
two attackers and prevent the "Gamecock" being shot to pieces. The
chance was so small that it was hardly worth taking, but since it was
the last and only chance the pilot swept round until his nose was for
home, gave the "Gamecock" a good downward plunge to get her speed up,
eased into a glide, and turned his attention to the engine again. The
two hostiles, supposing his engine hit or at least seeing it out of
action, leaped after and past the "Gamecock," and, whirling inward,
each poured a burst of fire upon her. They were repeating the tactic,
which shielded them from the observer's fire, and the "Gamecock's"
chances began to fade to nothingness, when the game took a fresh turn.
A scarlet-nosed grey shape flashed up out of nowhere apparently, past
the "Gamecock"--as swiftly past her as if she were standing still--and
hurtled straight at the nearest Hun, spitting a stream of fire upon
him. The Hun, with the bullets hailing and cracking about him, checked
and wheeled; but without a break the stream of drumming bullets beat
and tore in under his fuselage, and just as the red and grey scout
zoomed up and over him he dived, a spurt of fire flashed out from him,
and he whirled down out of the fight with black smoke pouring from him
in clouds. The other hostile spun round and streaked off, with our
victorious scout tearing after him. And at that moment the "Gamecock's"
engine sputtered, stopped, spat and sputtered again, picked up and
droned out in full song.

The observer seized the communicating 'phone and shouted into it. "Are
we damaged, d'you know?"

"Lord knows," the pilot shouted back. "She seems to be running all
right though. What next?"

"Back where we broke off the shoot," yelled the observer. "Three
batteries to put 'em on yet; and look at the time."

The pilot glanced at his clock. It was nearing the "zero hour,"
the moment when the infantry would be swarming out into the open No
Man's Land--and into the fire of those enemy batteries upon which the
"Gamecock" had not yet directed our guns. Both pilot and observer knew
how much it meant to have those hostile batteries silenced. The word
had come from Headquarters and had passed down to the Squadron that
it was very certain, from the fact that the batteries had been kept
concealed and had not fired up to now, they were meant to be used for
repelling the attack, that they would be reserved and unmasked only
when the infantry began their advance, that they would then unloose a
tempest of destroying fire on the attackers.

And because both pilot and observer had served a time in the infantry
before they joined the Flying Corps, they knew just what it meant to
the infantry to have such a fire to make way against, and both turned
anxiously back to complete their job.

Down below the ground was hidden under a drifting haze of smoke and
dust, and the "Gamecock" circled slowly while pilot and observer
searched for their objectives. They found the other spots on which they
had directed the guns--spots which now were marked by whirling, eddying
clouds through which the bursting high-explosive still flamed red at
quick intervals. From there at last they found the next target, and
the observer hastily signalled back to his battery to fire. The engine
was giving trouble again, missing every now and then, running slowly
and laboriously, while the pilot fiddled and fretted about throttle
and spark and petrol feed and tried to coax her into better running.
The observer failed to catch the puffing smoke of the battery's first
shot and signalled the code to fire again. Before the next shot came,
a stutter of machine-gun fire broke out overhead, and pilot and
observer glanced quickly up at the clouds that drifted over and hid the
fighters. The machine-gun fire rose and fell in gusts, and then out
of the cloud 1,000 feet up a machine whirled and spun down past them,
recovered an instant and shot eastward in a steep gliding plunge, fell
away suddenly, and crashed amongst the trenches.

Immediately after her there fell out of the sky a cluster of machines,
wheeling and circling and diving at each other like a swarm of
fighting jackdaws. The "Gamecock" suddenly found herself involved in a
scrimmaging mix-up without her crew knowing who or what was in it. A
pair of wings, with thick black crosses painted on them, whizzed across
the "Gamecock's" bows, and the pilot promptly ripped off a quick burst
of fire at her as she passed. "Never mind them," shouted the observer,
"get on with the shoot," and leaned out from his cockpit to watch for
the fall of the next shell. The "Gamecock" resumed her steady circling,
while the fight raged round and over her and drifted in wheeling rushes
clear of her and away quarter, half a mile to the south.

But they were not to be left unmolested. A Hun two-seater dropped
out of the fight and raced at the "Gamecock," putting in a burst of
fire from his bow gun as he came, wheeling round the "Gamecock's"
stern and pouring bullets on her from the observer's gun. The hostile
was tremendously fast, and the "Gamecock" with her crotchety engine
was no match for him. The observer, for all his anxiety to finish the
shoot, was forced to defend himself, and he turned to his gun with
black rage in his heart. "Brute," he growled, and loosed a stream
of bullets at the shape astern. "I'd like to down you just for your
beastly interference," and his gun rattled off another jet of bullets.
The enemy swooped down and under the "Gamecock's" tail with his gun
hammering viciously. The pilot lifted her nose so as to sink the tail
planes and rudder clear of the observer's line of fire and give him a
shot, but the "Gamecock" had barely speed enough for the manœuvre, lost
way, stalled badly, slid backward with a rush, and plunged down.

They were dangerously low for such a fall, and the pilot waited heart
in mouth for the instant when she would right herself enough for him
to resume control. He caught her at last and straightened her out,
and at the same instant her enemy following her down dived past and
up under her, where he was out of reach of the observer's gun. The
pilot wrenched her round in a narrow circle that brought her pivoting
on her wing-tip, and allowed the observer to look and point his gun
straight overside and directly down on the enemy. He got off one short
burst, and this time saw some of his tracer bullets break in sparks
of fire about the fuselage and pilot's cockpit. They did damage too,
evidently, because the Hun broke off the action, drove off full pelt to
the eastward just as the "Gamecock" dropped in a dangerous side-slip.
Again her pilot caught and steadied her, and began to climb her slowly
and staggeringly to a higher level. Those last wrenching turns and
plunges had been too severe a strain on her shaken frame, and now, as
she climbed, both pilot and observer could hear and feel a horrible
jarring vibration. They were not more than 3,000 feet up, but the
engine threatened to refuse to lift them higher, and when it choked
and stuttered and missed again, the "Gamecock" shivered and almost
stalled once more. The pilot hurriedly thrust her nose down and swept
down in a long rush to pick up flying speed again. "Get on," he yelled
back. "Get on with your shoot. I daren't try'n climb her, and there's
no stunt left in her if another Hun comes. A brace parted in that last
scrap"--and he turned to his engine again, and swung the "Gamecock" in
a wide circle.

Once more the observer signalled his battery to fire. This time there
was no difficulty in finding his target, because the "zero hour" had
come; there were little dots swarming out over the No Man's Land below,
and the hostile batteries the "Gamecock" was looking for were flaming
out in rapid sheets of vivid fire, and their shells pounding down
amongst our infantry. The "Gamecock" circled slowly over the batteries,
losing height steadily, because her pilot had to keep her nose down
so that the glide would help out her failing engine and maintain
her flying speed. Her observer was picking out shell-burst after
shell-burst with greater and greater difficulty in the reek below,
signalling back the corrections to the guns.

By now the "Gamecock" was low enough to come within range of the rifles
and machine-guns turned up on her. The batteries below her knew that
she was "spotting" on them, and did everything possible to knock her
out; while their gunners, having at last got the word of the beginning
of the attack, opened a furious rate of fire barraging the No Man's
Land. The observer above them saw those streaming flashes, and knowing
what they meant, stuck doggedly to his task, although now the bullets
were hissing close and thick about them, and the windage from the
rushing shells of our own heavy guns and the air-eddies from the guns
firing below set the "Gamecock" rocking and bumping and rolling like
a toy boat in a cross tide. The observer felt a jarring crash under
his hand, a stab of pain in his fingers and up his arm. The wireless
instrument had been smashed by a bullet as he tapped a signal. He
shouted to the pilot, and the pilot slowly turned a white, set face
to him and called feebly into the 'phone. "Hit" was the only word the
observer caught; and "Get her back as far as you can and shove her down
anywhere," he shouted instantly in answer. The "Gamecock" swung slowly
round and lurched drunkenly back towards their own lines. The observer
looked at his clock. It was already past the "zero hour."

Down below in the front line the battalions had waited for that
moment, crouched in the bottom of their trenches, listening to the
rolling thunder of the guns, glancing at watches, examining and
re-examining rifles and bombs and equipment. One battalion in the Elbow
Trench had been shelled rather heavily about dawn, but the fire had
died away before the moment for the attack, smothered probably by the
greater volume of our artillery fire. At last a word passed down the
trench, and the men began to clamber out and form into line beyond
their own wire. They could see nothing of the enemy trench, although it
was only little more than 150 yards away. Its outline was hidden in a
thick haze of smoke, although its position was still marked by spouting
columns of smoke and flying earth and débris from our bursting shells.
But exactly on the "zero hour" these shell-bursts ceased and over the
heads of the infantry the lighter shrapnel began to rip and crash,
pouring a torrent of bullets along the earth in front of the line as it
started to move forward.

There was little rifle or machine-gun fire to oppose the advance,
and although many shells were passing over, only odd and ill-directed
ones were dropping in the open No Man's Land. It began to look as if
the steadily-moving line was going to reach the first trench with very
little loss. But suddenly, with sharp whooping rushes, a string of
shells fell in a precise line exactly across the path of the advancing
battalion; and before their springing smoke-clouds had fairly risen,
came another crashing and crackling burst of shells along the same
line; and then there fell a thick curtain of smoke and fire along the
battalion's front, a curtain out of which the rapidly falling shells
flamed and winked in red and orange glares, and the flying splinters
screeched and whined and whirred.

The left half of the battalion came through fairly lightly, for the
barrage was mainly across the path of the right half, but that right
half was simply shot to pieces. The bursting shells caught the men
in clumps, the ragged splinters cut others down one by one in rapid
succession. The line pressed on doggedly, stumbling and fumbling
through the acrid smoke and fumes, stunned and dazed by the noise,
the crashing shock of the detonations, the quick-following splashes
of blinding light that flamed amongst them. The line pressed on and
came at last--what was left of it--through the wall of fire. Behind
it the torn ground was littered thick with huddled khaki forms, with
dead lying still and curiously indifferent to the turmoil about them,
with wounded crawling and dragging themselves into shell-craters
in desperate but vain attempts to escape the shells and shrieking
fragments that still deluged down from the sky amongst them. The
remains of the line staggered on, the men panting and gasping and
straining their eyes eagerly for sight of the parapet ahead that marked
their first objective, that would give them cover from the raging
shell-fire, that would need nothing more than a few minutes' bomb and
bayonet work to make their own.

They were just taking vague comfort, such of them as had thought for
anything but the trench ahead and the hope of clearing the deadly
No Man's Land, at finding themselves through that barraging wall of
flame and rending steel, when the yelling rushes of the overhead
shells paused a moment, to burst out again with full renewed violence
next instant as the enemy guns shortened their range. The barrage had
dropped back, the curtain of fire was again rolling down, spouting and
splashing and flaming across the path of the shattered battalion. The
broken line pushed on and into the barrage again ... and from it this
time emerged no more than a scattered handful of dazed and shaken men.
But the parapet was close ahead now, and the handful took fresh grip of
their rifles and ran at it. Some fifty men perhaps reached it; the rest
of a full 500 were left lying on the open behind them, waiting for the
stretcher bearers--or the burying parties.

The "Gamecock's" pilot managed to bring her back into the lines of
our old trenches and pancaked her, dropped her flat and neatly into a
thicket of barbed wire that clutched and rent her to ribbons, but held
her from turning over.

The observer clambered, and the pilot was lifted down from the
cockpits and taken to a dug-out where a First Aid Post had been
established. The Post and the trenches round it were crowded with
wounded men. The pilot was attended to--he was already far spent with
two bad body wounds--and the observer while he had his hand dressed
asked for news of the attack. "Don't know much," said the doctor,
"except that my own battalion had a bad doing. Left half got over
with little loss but the right half had to go through a barrage and
was just about wiped out. These"--with a jerk of his head to the
casualties--"are some of 'em. But most are out there--killed."

"I saw the barrage as we came back," said the observer bitterly.
"Across the Elbow Trench? Yes, and about the only bit of the whole
line they managed to barrage properly. And they could only do that
because we couldn't out the guns that laid it down. Couldn't do our
job properly and counter-battery them because we were up on a crock of
a 'bus that the Huns could fly rings round, and that let us down into
rifle range and got him"--nodding his head at the recumbent pilot--"his
dose. All just for want of a good machine under us."

"Chuck it, old man," said the pilot faintly. "The old 'Gamecock' did
her best ... and stood to it pretty well considering."

"Mighty well," said the observer hastily, suddenly aware that he had
spoken louder than he meant. "I'm not grousing. It's a sheer matter of
luck after all. How d'you feel now? Any easier?"

But he was wrong. It was not luck. It was the Sequel. The doubtfully
efficient machine sent on dangerous work, the unsilenced batteries
and high-explosive barrage, the hundreds of dead men lying out in the
open, the "Gamecock's" pilot dying slowly there in the trampled mud of
the dug-out under the flickering candles' light were all part of the
Sequel--a sequel, of which the aircraft strikers had never thought, to
a strike of which the dead and dying men had never even heard.

    "We were battered all round the ring at first,
      We were hammered to hell and back,
    But we stood to old Frightful Fritz's worst
      And we came for another whack.
    Now the fight's swung round; now we're winning fast,
      And we'll make it a knock-out too,
    If Home doesn't let us down at the last,
      If our backers will see it through."



XVIII

THE RAID-KILLERS


The stout man in the corner of the First Smoker put down his paper
as the train ran through the thinning outskirts of the town and into
patches of suburban greenery. It was still daylight, but already the
pale circle of an almost full moon was plain to be seen. "Ha," said
the stout man, "perfect night!" An elderly little man in the opposite
corner also glanced out of the window. "Perfect," he agreed, "bit too
perfect. Full moon, no wind, clear sky, no clouds. All means another
raid to-night, I suppose." The full compartment for the next few
minutes bubbled with talk of raids, and Gothas, and cellars, and the
last raid casualties, and many miraculous escapes. There were many
diverse opinions on all these points, but none on the vital one. It was
accepted by all that it was a perfect night for a raid and that the
Gothas would be over--certain--some time before morning.

       *       *       *       *       *

Dusk was just beginning to fall on an aerodrome in the British lines
when the big black machines were rolled out of the hangars and lined
up in a long row on the grass. Pilots and Observers, already in flying
kit, were moving about amongst the machines and watching the final
touches put to the preparations for the trip. The Squadron Commander
stood talking to the Pilot and Observer of the machine which was
to lead the way. He glanced at his watch for the tenth time in as
many minutes. "You've got a perfect night for it, anyhow," he said.
"Topping," agreed the Pilot. "And just as perfect for the Huns' trip to
England," said the Observer. "Wonder how H.Q. are so sure about them
starting on a raid from Blankenquerke 'drome to-night," remarked the
Pilot. The Squadron Commander grinned. "They're certain about a heap of
things," he said. "They don't always come off, maybe, but they get on
the mark wonderfully well as a rule. Anyhow, they were dead positive
about the reliability of the information to-night."

"Wouldn't take a witch or an Old Moore to make a prophecy on it
to-night," said the Observer with a laugh. "Knowing how full out the
old Hun has been lately to strafe London, and seeing what a gorgeous
night it is, I'd have made a prophecy just as easy as H.Q. I'd even
have made a bet, and that's better evidence."

"Ought to be getting ready," said the Squadron Commander, with another
look at his watch. "Plenty of time, but we can't afford to risk any
hitch. You want to be off at the tick of the clock."

"Be an awful swindle, certainly, if we got there and found the birds
flown," said the Observer.

"Don't fret," said the C.O. "The Lord ha' mercy on 'em if they try to
take off while old Jimmy's lot are keeping tab on 'em, or before it's
too dark for him to see them move."

There were a few more not-for-publication remarks on the usefulness of
"Jimmy's lot," and the effectiveness of the plans for "keeping tab"
on the German 'drome, and Pilot and Observer turned to climb to their
places. "All things considered," said the Observer, "I'm dashed if I'd
fancy those Huns' job these times. We give 'em rather a harrying one
way and another. Must be wearin' to the nerves."

The Pilot grunted. "What about ours?" he said.

The Observer laughed. "Ours," he said, and, as the joke sank in,
laughed again more loudly, and climbed to his place still chuckling.

For the next ten minutes the air vibrated to the booming roar of the
engines as they ran up, were found in good order, and eased off. The
dusk was creeping across the sky and blurring the trees beyond the
aerodrome, and overhead the moon was growing a deeper and clearer
yellow. The Squadron Commander walked along the line and spoke a few
words to the different Pilots sitting ready and waiting. He walked back
to the Leader's machine and nodded his head. "All ready," he shouted;
"just on time. Push off soon as you like now--and good luck."

The quiet "ticking over" of the propeller speeded up and up until the
blades dissolved into quivering rays of faint light; the throaty hum
deepened, grew louder and louder, stayed a moment on the fullest note,
sank again, and as the Pilot signalled and the chocks were jerked clear
rose roaring again, while the machine rolled lumbering and lurching
heavily out into the open, its navigation lights jerking and jumping
as it merged into the darkness. The lights swung in a wide curve,
slowed and steadied, began to move off at increasing speed to where
a pin-point of light on the ground gave the pilot a course to steer,
lifted smoothly and on a long slant, and went climbing off into the
dark.

The moonlight was clear and strong enough for men on the ground to see
all sorts of details of the machines still waiting, the mechanics about
them, the hangars and huts round the 'drome. But no more than seconds
after it had left the ground the rising machine was gone from sight,
could only be followed when and as its lights gleamed back. Once it
swept droning overhead, and then circled out and boomed off straight
for the lines.

Pilot and Observer were both long-trained and skilled night-fliers.
They crossed the line at the selected point and at a good height,
looking down on the quivering patchwork ribbon of light and shadow
that showed the No Man's Land and the tossing flare lights from the
trenches, the spurting flashes of shell-bursts, the jumping pin-prick
lights from the rifles. The engine roar drowned all sound, until
suddenly a yowl and a rending _ar-r-r-gh_ close astern told them that
Archie was after them. Faintly they heard too the quick _wisp-wisp_ of
passing machine-gun or rifle bullets, the sharp crack of one or two
close ones, and then silence again except for the steady roar of the
engine and the wind by their ears.

Ahead of them a beam of light stabbed up into the sky, swept slowly in
widening circles, jerked back across and across. The big machine barely
swung a point off her course, held steadily to a line that must take
her almost over the spot from which the groping finger of light waved.
A spit of flame licked upward, followed quickly by another and another,
and next instant three quick glares leaped and vanished in the darkness
ahead. A second search-light flamed up, and then a third, and all three
began swinging their beams up and down to cover the path the bomber
must cross. The bomber held straight on, but a quarter of a mile from
the waving lights the roar of her engine ceased and she began to glide
gently towards them. The lights kept their steady to-and-fro swinging
for a moment; the Night-Flier swam smoothly towards them, swung sharply
as one beam swept across just clear of her nose, dodged behind it,
and on past the moving line of light. One moment Pilot and Observer
were holding their breath and staring into a vivid white radiance; the
next the radiance was gone and they were straining their eyes into a
darkness that by contrast was black as pitch. The engine spluttered,
boomed, and roared out again; the lights astern flicked round and
began groping wildly after them, and spurt after spurt of fire from
the ground, glare after glare in the darkness round and before them,
told that Archie was hard at it again. The Observer leaned over to the
Pilot's ear and shouted "Dodged 'em nicely."

"Jacky's turn next," answered the Pilot, and began glancing back over
his shoulder. "There he comes," he shouted, and looking back both could
see a furious sputter of shell-bursts in the sky, the quick searching
sweeps of the lights where the second Night-Flier was running the
gauntlet. The leader went on climbing steadily in a long slant, and at
the next barrier of lights and guns held straight on and over without
paying heed to the rush and whistle of shells, the glare and bump of
their bursts.

Mile after mile of shadowy landscape unrolled and reeled off below them.

The Observer was leaning forward looking straight down over the nose of
the machine, unerringly picking up landmark after mark, signalling the
course to the Pilot behind him. At last he stood erect and waved his
arms to the Pilot, and instantly the roar of the engine sank and died.
"Steady as you go," shouted the Observer, "nearly there. I can see the
Diamond Wood."

"Carry on," the Pilot shouted back, and set himself to nursing his
machine down without the engine on as gentle a glide as would keep her
on her course and lose as little height as possible. The Observer,
peering down at the marks below, gave the course with a series of
arm signals, but presently he whipped round with a yell of joyful
excitement. "Gottem! We fairly gottem this trip. Look--dead ahead." The
Pilot swung the machine's nose a shade to the left and leaning out to
the right looked forward and down. "The 'drome?" he shouted. "'Drome,"
yelled the Observer, scrambled back to get his head close to the
Pilot's and whooped again. "'Drome--and the whole bunch of 'em lined
up ready to take off. See their lights? Wow! This isn't pie, what!" He
was moving hastily to get to his place by his gun again when the Pilot
reached out, grabbed his shoulder, and shouted, "Don't go'n spoil a
good thing. We don't want to hog everything. Let's wait and get the
crowd in on it."

"Right," returned the Observer. "Keep the glide as long as you can."

They slid noiselessly in to the enemy 'drome, circled over it, losing
height steadily, looking down gloatingly on the twinkling row of lights
below them, and peering out in a fever of impatience for sign of the
next machine of the flight. But in their anxiety to have a full hand
to play against the enemy below they nearly overplayed. A search-light
beam suddenly shot up from the ground near the 'drome. Another leaped
from a point beyond it. "They're on to us," yelled the Observer. "Open
her up and barge down on 'em quick."

But the Pilot held his engine still. "It's some of the others they're
on," he shouted back, as light after light rose, and, after a moment's
groping, slanted down towards the west where a sparkle of shell-bursts
showed. "Now for it. Look out."

The line of lights which marked the machines below had winked out
at the first burst of the Archies, but the Night-Flier had marked
the spot, her engine roared out, and she went swooping down the last
thousand feet straight at her mark. At first sound of her engine half a
dozen lights swung hunting for them, spitting streams of fire began to
sparkle from the defences' machine-guns. The Night-Flier paid no heed
to any of them, dropped to a bare three hundred feet, flattened, and
went roaring straight along the line of machines standing on the 'drome
below. _Crash-crash-crash!_ her bombs went dropping along the line as
fast as hand could pull the lever. Right down the line from one end to
the other she went, the bombs crash-crashing and the Observer's gun
pouring a stream of fire into the machine below; a quick hard left-hand
turn, and she was round and sailing down the line again, letting go the
last of her bombs, and with the Observer feverishly pelting bullets
down along it. Clear of the long line, the Pilot was on the point of
swinging again when a huge black shape roared past them, the wing-tips
clearing theirs by no more than bare feet. Pilot and Observer craned
out and looked down and back, and next moment they saw the glare and
flash, heard the _thump-thump_ of bombs bursting on the ground. The
Observer was stamping his feet and waving his arms and the Pilot
yelling a wild "Good shot!" to every burst, when a rush and a crash and
the blinding flame of a shell-burst close under their bows recalled
them to business. The air by now was alive with tracer bullets, thin
streaking lines of flame that hissed up round and past them. The Pilot
opened his engine full out and set himself to climb his best. The
tracers followed them industriously, and the Archie shells continued to
whoop and howl and bump round them as they climbed. The Pilot, craning
out and looking over, was aware suddenly of the Observer at his ear
again. "I gotta heap of rounds left," he was bawling. "Let's go down
and give 'em another dose."

"Bombs are better," returned the Pilot. "Whistle up the pack. Shoot a
light or drop a flare."

Next moment a coloured light leaped from the Night-Flier, and in
return a storm of tracers came streaming and pelting about her. Another
light, and another storm of bullets, and a couple of search-lights
swept round, groped a moment, and caught them. "Your gun!" screamed the
Pilot. "I'm goin' for the light." The big machine swerved, ducked, and
jerked out in a long side-slip. At first the light held her fast and
the bullets came up in a regular tornado of whistling, spitting flame
and smoke, most of them hissing venomously past, but many hitting with
sharp smacks and cracks and in showers of breaking sparks on wings and
frame. But another wild swoop and dive and upward turn shook the light
off for a moment, and then the Night-Flier put her nose down and drove
straight at the point from which the sword of light stabbed up. As they
steadied and held straight, the Observer swung his gun round, took
steady aim, and opened fire. The light fumbled a moment, lit on them
again, and poured its blinding glare full in their faces. The Pilot,
his eyes closed to narrow slits, went straight at the glare, and the
Observer, better equipped and prepared, jerked a pair of smoked glass
goggles down off his forehead and reopened fire. The light vanished
with a snap, and instantly the Pilot pulled the stick in and hoicked
hard up. A thousand feet up, with the darkness criss-crossed by waving
search-lights, the air alive with bullets, the ground flaming and
spurting with Archie fire, he shut off engine a moment and yelled,
"Good shot! Come on--try another."

They tried another, the tracers flaming about them and ripping
through their fabrics, the attacked light glaring savagely at them
until they swept with a rush and a roar over and past it. Behind them
more of the Flight were arriving, and a fresh series of bomb-bursts
was spouting and splashing on the ground about the enemy machines and
amongst the hangars round the 'drome. A hangar was hit fairly; a lick
of flame ran along its roof, died a moment, rose again in a quivering
banner of fire, and in another moment was a roaring blaze. The whole
'drome was lit with the red glow, and into this and through the rolling
smoke clouds that drifted from the fire machine after machine came
swooping and circling. The fire made a beacon that marked the spot
from miles around, and the Night-Fliers had nothing to do but steer
straight for it to find their target. The Leader's machine, with
ammunition almost expended, climbed high and circled round watching
the performance, Pilot and Observer yelling delighted remarks at each
other as they watched bomb after bomb smash fairly amongst the hangars
or the scattered line of machines standing on the 'drome. It was on
these machines that most of the Night-Fliers concentrated. Huge black
twin-engined "Gotha" machines, something over a dozen of them in a
row, they made a plain and unmistakable target in the red light of
the fire, and an irresistible invitation to any of the Night-Fliers
that came swooping in. One after another they came booming out of the
darkness into the circle of red light, swung ponderously and drove in
along over the line, scattering bombs down its length, raking it from
end to end with machine-gun fire. The whole place was a pandemonium of
smoke, fire, and noise. The search-lights jerked and swept frantically
to and fro, the air shook to the explosion of the bombs, the splitting
crash of the Archie guns and bang of their shell-bursts, the continuous
clatter of machine-guns on the ground and in the air. Several times
machines were caught in the search-lights and swam for the moment
bathed in staring light, while Archies and machine-guns pelted them
with fire. Most of them stunted and dodged clear very quickly, or
had to give in and escape to the outer darkness, circle and wait and
take another chance to edge in clear of the blinding light and the
uprushing streams of tracer bullets. One was turned back time after
time by the defences and by another search-light which clung to him
persistently, and would not be shaken off for more than a moment by
all his dodging and twisting. Suddenly over by the light there sprang
a volcano of flame and smoke--and the light was gone. Up above in the
Leader's machine the two men were yelling laughter and applause, when
they saw another machine swim into the glare of another light. She
made no attempt to dodge or evade it, struck a bee-line for the row of
Hun machines, droned straightly and steadily in and along the line,
her bombs crashing amongst them, a sputter of flashes at her bows
telling of the machine-gun hard at work putting the finishing touches
to the destruction. The light followed her and held her all the way,
and through its beam the streaking smoke of the tracer bullets poured
incessantly, the shell-bursts flamed and flung billowing clouds of
black smoke, the rocket fires reached and clutched at her. Utterly
ignoring them all, she held on to the end of the line, banked and
swung sharply round, and began to retrace her path, still held in the
glaring light, still pelted with storming bullets and Archie shells.
But halfway back she lurched suddenly and violently, recovered herself,
swerved again, reeled, and, in one quick wild swooping plunge, was
down, and crashed. A spurt of flame jumped from the wreckage, and in
two seconds it was furiously ablaze.

Up above Pilot and Observer shouted questions at each other--"Who
was it ... What 'bus ... did you see ...?" And neither could answer
the other. The search-lights rose and began to hunt, apparently, for
them, and Archie shells to bump and blaze about them again. Out to the
west search-lights and sparkling Archie bursts showed where the other
machines were making for home. The Observer waved to his Pilot. "Only
us left," he shouted, and the Pilot nodded, swung the machine round,
and headed for the lines.

Back at their 'drome they found the Squadron Commander beside them
before they had well taxied to a standstill. "I was getting anxious,"
he said; "you were first away, but all the others are back--except
three. And here some of them come," he added, as they caught the hum of
an engine. "One ... two," he counted quickly. "That will be all," said
the Leader. "We saw one crash," and described briefly.

The two climbed out of their machine and walked slowly over with the
C.O. to some of the other Fliers. None of them had seen the crash;
all had dropped their bombs, loosed off all the rounds they could,
and cleared out of the pelting fire as quickly as possible. All were
agreed, most emphatically agreed, that the line of Gothas was a
"complete write-off," and were jubilant over the night's work--until
they heard of the lost machine.

As the two machines dropped to ground and past the light switched on
them a moment all there read their marks and named them. "Bad Girl of
the Family" flounced lightly in, and "That leaves The Bantam's bus
and old 'Latchkey' to come," said the waiting men. "Here she is ...
Latchkey!" There was silence for a moment.

"I might have known," said the Leader slowly--"might have known that
was little Bantam's bus, by the way he barged in, regardless. It was
just like him. Poor little Bantam--and good old Happy! Two more of the
best gone."

The C.O. knew The Bantam's mother and was thinking of her and the
letter he would have to write presently. He roused himself with a jerk.
"Come along," he said; "you've another trip to-night, remember. See you
make it help pay for those two."

"They've gone a goodish way to pay their own score," said the Leader
grimly. "And some others. Anyway, that lot will do no raid on London
to-night."

       *       *       *       *       *

The Squadron was drowsily swallowing hot cocoa, completing reports and
lurching to bed, when the stout man clambered to his usual corner seat
in the First Smoker and gave his usual morning greeting to the others
there bound for business.

"Well," he said jovially, "no Gothas over after all."

"Never even made a try, apparently," said the little man opposite.
"Seems odd. Such a perfect night."

"Very odd." ... "Wonder why...." "I made sure," said the compartment.
"I don't understand...."

They didn't understand. Neither did a-many thousands in London who had
been equally certain of "Gothas over" on such a perfect night. Neither
even did they understand in the homes of "poor little Bantam" and "good
old Happy," whither telegrams were already wending, addressed to the
next-of-kin.

But the Huns understood. And so did the Raid-Killers.

    When you pray and hear them say
      Baby prayers to-night,
    "Guardian angels keep us safe
      Till the morning light,"
    Give a word and give a thought,
      If you've one to spare,
    To your guardian air men
      Flying "over there."





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