CHAPTER FOURTEEN - The bottle and the blue max
22nd June 1918
On the ground, Stachel continued to get bolder. He made little effort to hide his drunkenness and our Jastaführer managed to look the other way.
It was no different in the air. This week he and Heidemann took on three DeHavilland bombers, flying in formation at low altitude. They intended to attack the formation from behind and below, avoiding the line of fire of their rear gunners. Heidemann’s guns jammed so Stachel had to go solo. He caused the lead plane to explode so violently that it took out the second plane as well. When he circled the third, its rear gunner secured his guns and raised his hands high in the air.
Another surrender? These things seemed to only happen to Bruno. Maybe it was the black paint and his obscene “slogan” on the top wing.
The surrender and capture of the DH 9 caused quite a stir in the Jasta. The captured aircraft was put on display and Ziegel examined it like he had just found the Holy Grail. Heidemann conducted a halfhearted interrogation of the English pilot and rear gunner, then invited them to join him for dinner. The day’s events culminated with the usual raucous party at the Officer’s Mess. The squad gathered around while a reluctant Stachel was introduced to his captured enemies. The drunken crowd roared with laughter when the Englishmen commented that they only surrendered because they couldn’t stop laughing at the slogan on his top wing.
Stachel didn’t appreciate the humor at his expense and stormed out to continue the party in private in his own quarters.
The next day was rainy and everyone slept in. Kettering and Ziegel were drinking coffee in the office and I was working at my desk. Stachel noisily entered the room with a rain poncho over his head. All the anger from the night before appeared to have subsided.
They started to tease him again about the Englishmen and he became confused, acting like he didn’t know what they were talking about. He asked for the date and grabbed the clipboard from my desk with the combat reports from that week. He was pale and puffy, but the look that came over his face as he paged through the reports was shock. Not what I would have expected from someone that had just gotten eight kills in one week.
As he left I wondered if he remembered any of it at all.
Stachel changed after that, rarely coming to the Officer’s Mess. His requests for cognac trickled to a stop. While Stachel slowed down, Heidemann’s publicity efforts began to gain speed.
The “Black Angel” story got picked up by several other papers. Stachel’s fame spread and letters and packages began to arrive. A trickle turned into a flood, eventually filling one room in our office. The war news was not good and the people were hungry for a hero.
Stachel was thrilled at first but quickly became uncomfortable with it all. When the news came through that he was to be awarded the Pour le Mérite (the Blue Max) for his heroic capture of the Englishmen, he was elated. When he heard that Major Klingel was coming with a publicity team and that he would be required to be interviewed and pose for photos, a dark cloud came over his face.
The ceremony was impressive, with the whole Jasta lined up wing to wing in front of the hangers. The interview, on the other hand was a complete disaster. The reporter peppered Stachel with personal questions about the girl, the rescue and his “good friend” Wili Klugermann. Stachel’s answers got shorter and shorter the angrier he got.
The real event of the day was the phone conversation I overheard back at the office. Heidemann called General Wurfl to update him on the ceremony and started blasting Major Klingel for how badly the interview went. He made a strong pitch to replace him with a “combat seasoned airman”. When he suggested Wurfl talk to his good friend and newsman Ludwig Niebergall for advice on possible candidates, Heidemann’s plan finally became clear to me.
He intended to use the Black Angel to get out of Jasta 77 and reunite with his struggling love, Elfi.