Authors: Griff Hosker
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Historical, #Military, #War, #Historical Fiction
Published by Sword Books Ltd 2014
Copyright © Griff Hosker First Edition
The author has asserted their moral right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.
All Rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, copied, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior written consent of the copyright holder, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library.
Cover by Design for Writers
To the thousands who went over the top at Arras in 1917
"Good morning, good morning," the general said,
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of 'em dead,
And we're cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
"He's a cheery old card," muttered Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.
But he did for them both by his plan of attack.
Lumpy and I were sat in the waiting room outside General Henderson’s office. We had been summoned from the hospital and brought to London by a military escort from the hospital in Essex where we had been recovering from injuries suffered during our flight from France. Flight Sergeant Hutton was convinced that I was going to be given a medal of some description. I was not so certain. I was just grateful that Nurse Beatrice Porter, the woman I knew that I would marry, had been allowed to accompany me; ostensibly it was to look after my broken arm.
I had been annoyed at the summons for I had hoped for some time with Beatrice in the military hospital. It seemed it was not to be. Our goodbye had been perfunctory. Whitehall is not the most romantic place to say goodbye to a loved one and the steely stares of the guards meant a chaste kiss and a quick goodbye. As she hurried through the London streets to the hospital in Hyde Park I cursed General Henderson for his orders.
I cursed him more as we watched the clock in the hall tick slowly around while we cooled our heels, seemingly ignored. I knew that Lumpy was wrong when Captain Ebbs and Lieutenant White arrived. Captain Ebbs kept his head down and avoided looking in my direction while the Lieutenant gave me a wan smile and an apologetic shrug. I knew then that I was in trouble. When we had been rescued from the sea by the Navy we had been harshly interrogated by Captain Ebbs as German spies. I had had to use force with his sergeant to avoid being shot out of hand. Had it not been for Lieutenant White’s intervention then things might have gone ill. Luckily the young lieutenant was able to prove that we were to spies and our injuries had been attended to in the hospital. I had wondered if my actions might come back to haunt me.
“What do you think he wants, sir?”
“Probably our heads as a pair of trophies to hang upon his wall.”
“You can’t be serious sir! You mean you aren’t going to get a medal?”
I laughed, “I will be lucky to keep these pips and avoid gaol!”
The middle aged captain was only inside for a short time. He came out a little red faced and bothered. He flashed a look of irritation at me. He was beneath contempt. I can think of many young pilots who could have been in my position. They might not have emerged as undamaged as I was.
The Lieutenant was in a little longer and when he came out he saluted. “Good to see you and the sergeant are up and about.”
“And you too, Lieutenant White. Did you put in for that transfer?”
He grinned, “Yes sir! I hope to hear something in the next fortnight.”
Just then a sergeant came out into the corridor, “Flight Sergeant Hutton.”
The Lieutenant said, “I had better go, sir.” He saluted and said, “Good luck, sir.”
And then I was alone. I thought aback to the moment when I had struck the sergeant and broken the Captain’s swagger stick. I could not think how I could have avoided doing anything else. It was bizarre; we had escaped through enemy territory, crossed the English Channel and yet we had nearly died when we landed in England.
Lumpy was in what seemed like an age and he came out red faced too. I wondered what was happening in the office. The sergeant said, “Captain Harsker, if you would like to follow me, sir”
When I entered I recognised General Henderson. There was a lieutenant next to him. The sergeant sat down and took up his pen. He would be keeping a record of the meeting. I saluted.
General Henderson returned it and asked, “How is the arm?”
He laughed, “Good, then it is healing. Sit down.” He held his hand out for the notes the sergeant had been making. He scanned them and handed them back. He leaned back and began to fill his pipe. When it was drawing to his satisfaction he pointed at me. “You are a damned fool! For what you and the Flight Sergeant did you should been awarded the V.C.” He shook his head, “As it is…” I felt a real fool at that moment. If I said anything then it would either come out as whining or apologetic. I had done what I had to and I was ready for my punishment. Perhaps I would end up a sergeant again. I could live with that.
“Nothing to say for yourself, eh?”
I shrugged, “It is hard to know what to say sir. If you want me to apologise then I am afraid I won’t. I would do it again! In fact the only thing I regret is not smacking that arrogant captain as well.”
I saw the sergeant hide a smile while the lieutenant looked shocked. Surprisingly enough the General did not react as I would have expected, “Yes, well I can understand that, but better he is in Blighty than in the trenches eh? So what do we do with you?” He shook his head. “You can’t stay in England despite the fact that you need sick leave. I need you away for at least a month so that the hubbub can die down. Captain Ebbs was desperate to bring charges but thanks to Lieutenant White’s testimony and your sergeant’s I think that I can send a report to the captain’s C.O. and he will be reprimanded.”
He must have seen the relief on my face. I did not want another court martial. “Quite, Captain Harsker. You made quite an impression on the young lieutenant. He has asked for a transfer to the RFC. Well, you and the Flight Sergeant can travel back to France by train. There was a new bus for you but the broken arm means you can’t fly. We’ll have a ferry pilot take it over at the end of the week. I’ll have my driver take you to Victoria.” He leaned over his desk, “Try to avoid upsetting senior officers eh, Captain? Stay in the air. You are in your natural element there.”
I stood and saluted, “Sir.”
“Oh and your Flight Sergeant has been put in for the new Military Medal.” He grinned, “He didn’t hit anyone.”
Once outside, Lumpy stood, “Well, sir?”
“We are being sent back to France.”
“But your arm, sir. It isn’t healed.”
“They want us out of the way. We have a travel warrant for the train.”
He shook his head, “It’s not fair, sir.”
“I know but someone once said there is nothing fair in love and war.”
When we reached the street the driver had placed our kit bags in the boot of the General’s car. I leaned in to the corporal driver. I noticed that it was a woman. I smiled, “Corporal I have to make a detour on the way to the station. I need to call at the hospital which is close to Hyde Park.“ She frowned. “It is on the way and I promise I shan’t be long.”
She gave me a searching look. “Is this RFC business?”
I decided that honesty might work. I gave her my most charming smile, “It is heart business. I need to tell my fiancée that I am returning to the front and we won’t have any time together now.”
I thought for one moment that she would refuse but then she gave me a beaming smile. “You should have said so in the first place.”
It was, indeed, a rapid journey. “Entertain the corporal will you sergeant?”
They knew me at the hospital and the porter rang up to the ward for Beatrice. She looked surprised to see me but the look on my face must have given her a premonition. “You are going back to France and the war aren’t you?”
I nodded, “The general wants me out of the way until the furore has died down.” I didn’t care what people thought. I threw my good arm around her and kissed her. “I will be back for Gordy’s wedding. We will have a week’s leave then.”
As she pulled away I saw that, although she was smiling, tears were coursing down her cheeks. “I know but take care will you? You have nearly died twice and I couldn’t bear it if I lost you forever.”
“Don’t worry, I will return. The flying will soon be limited because of the weather. Besides, with this arm I will be grounded for a while anyway.”
I heard the porter hiss, “Watch out sir, matron!”
I released Beatrice, “I will write!”
She fled inside before Matron could see us. What we had just done was definitely against the Matron’s regulations. I slumped into the back seat. The corporal said, as we drove off, “She seems like a nice girl.”
As I stared at the wet London streets all I could say was, “She is.”
We were dropped at Victoria Station and handed our travel warrants. They allowed us Second Class travel on any train. There was a military pass for each of us. It would not do to be stopped by military police. Lumpy looked up at the departures board. “There’s a train in an hour, sir. We have just got time for a cup of tea.”
I looked at the board. I did not want to take the train and the boat. If I had to return then I wanted it to be quickly. “We’ll get the one to Greenwich instead. It goes in fifteen minutes. You will have to wait for your cup of tea.”
He could not believe his ears. “Why Greenwich, sir? We’ll be in trouble.”
“Come on and I’ll explain. I don’t want to miss that train.” We hurried to the platform. “We will fly the new Gunbus back ourselves. We will get there quicker. I don’t know about you but I don’t fancy sleeping on a train.”
He considered that and nodded, “But you have a broken arm! You can’t fly.”
“When I fire the Lewis I only fly with one arm. Where is the difference? Come on, Sergeant, pretend we are escaping across France again!”
He suddenly grinned, “You normally make the right decisions sir, righto. In for a penny, in for a pound.”
We made the train with time to spare. It was relatively empty as it was noon and most people were at work. We had the whole compartment to ourselves. Once on the train I took off my sling and had Lumpy feed my plaster cast arm through the sleeve of my greatcoat. “We’ll just tell the flight officer that the General wanted the Gunbus over there sooner rather than later.”
“It might not be ready to fly sir.”
“All it needs is fuel and we can do that, can’t we?”
I was largely convincing myself as well as Lumpy but it sounded a reasonable plan. I had one twinge of pain getting into my coat but it was nothing really. We left the train and Lumpy carried both of our kitbags. I used the station master’s telephone to ring the airfield for a vehicle and a lorry arrived an hour later.
When we walked into the squadron office I was delighted to see that I knew the officer from our previous flights and I out ranked him! Earlier in the war I would never have dreamed of using rank but the war had changed me.
“Good to see you again. We are here to take the new FE. 2 over to Number 41 Squadron.”
He looked surprised, “We thought we had to wait for a ferry pilot.”
I leaned in, tapped the side of my nose and said, “Something big brewing, we were pulled back from leave specially.”
He brightened somewhat. Young officers in Blighty lived vicariously through the exploits of those of us in France. He would dine out in this story and it would grow in the telling. “You will be doing us a favour. The Zeppelin raids mean it is asking to be blown up there on the field. I’ll just get it fuelled for you. Flight Sarn’t, get the new Gunbus fuelled up for Captain Harsker would you?”
“Anything else I can do for you?”
“A couple of flying helmets, goggles and gloves would not go amiss and if you could manage a brew of tea we would be eternally grateful.”
Half an hour later we were aboard the familiar Gunbus. We had had tea and we were kitted out well. We had even been given a couple of scarves. The downside was that we were unarmed and we had no way of communicating with each other, save by shouting. But we would be going home. Without the sling my broken arm ached as I taxied to the end of the airfield. The sling had taken much of the pressure off it. Once we took off I would have to rest it on the side of the cockpit. It was a luxury for Lumpy not to have to spin the propeller and hurl himself on board; the mechanics at the field did it for us. In fact he would have an easy journey east to France.
I had lied a little to my Flight Sergeant. It was not as easy to fly one handed as I had made out and I needed to use my broken arm to help us into the air. Again, I felt a twinge or two but once we were airborne I used my one good hand to lift us slowly to our cruising altitude.
Everything had taken slightly longer than I would have expected and I was not certain that we could make the field before dark. One advantage we had was that we knew the route well. The wind was from the west and that enabled us to make the field before the sun set. As we turned to land into the wind I counted the aeroplanes on the field. They were all there. The only one missing was the one which we had burned in the woods near to Ypres.
Our arrival sparked nerves and interest. The sound of an aeroplane flying from the east meant that the gun crews around the field aimed their weapons to the skies. As the rest of the squadron was down it meant that the pilots and gunners were curious about this new and late arrival. The huge Gunbus looks nothing like any German aeroplane and we were recognised for what we were.
When the engine stopped the mechanics raced over to secure the aeroplane. I had taxied as close to the aeroplane park as I could manage. As soon as Lumpy descended he was recognised and the other gunners swarmed over this popular character.
My arm was now aching quite severely and I struggled to climb down from the cockpit. Gordy and Ted greeted me, “We thought you would be on sick leave! We heard you had been wounded.”
I held up my left arm, “Just a damaged wing. Nothing to worry about.”