CHAPTER SIXTEEN - The big Push Gets pushed back
27th July 1918
The orders came in at midnight on July 14th. Jasta 77 was to leave Beauvin first thing in the morning and relocate further south to a new aerodrome located at Coucy. Our orders were to support the ground troops near Soissons as they push further west in hopes of finally breaking through the salient and marching into Paris. This was the last gasp of the Big Push that started in March and very few believed we would have success.
We packed up quickly, but the bad roads delayed us and our pilots had to spend a few nights sleeping under the wing of their aircraft.
Unfortunately this proved to be the best part of our week.
By the 18th our troops hit a stalemate going west. The French launched a surprise attack that set us on our heels. Reinforced by growing American forces they pushed us further and further back.
This was supposed to be the glorious offensive into Paris, but it turned into a quiet retreat of the German Army. We provided cover overhead but we all could feel the spirit of the German soldier breaking. The lack of food, spare parts and ammunition were finally taking their toll. The “Big Push” was turning into the “Pushed Back”.
Four years of this war has worn me down. Long ago I stopped caring who wins. If I can hold on a little bit more, perhaps I can find a way to make it to the end.
The soldiers on the ground were not the only victims of a weakening spirit. In the air, Jasta 77 was also facing a number of setbacks.
A shortage of supplies forced us to ration our fuel. A lack of spare parts made it difficult to keep more than six or seven crates in the air. Heidemann reduced the typical size of a patrol group to three aircraft.
Worse yet, engine trouble started to plague the Fokker DVII’s. Engine failure meant sudden death for pilots. When Schneider’s engine blew he crashed badly on the runway and had to relearn how to play the piano with one arm. When Ulrich’s cockpit suddenly ignited for no apparent reason at high altitude, he had to choose between burning or jumping. He chose to jump.
The sheep barely looked up while three of us struggled to remove him from the post.
Pilots weren’t the only victims. The mechanics worked themselves ragged trying to keep the Jasta afloat. Ziegel looked like he hadn’t slept in days. He took personal responsibility for the mysterious engine trouble and he died a little bit every time he lost an aircraft.
This explained his panic when Heidemann returned from a patrol near Autreches without his wingman. Ziegel ran out of the shop, scouring the sky to see if he was anywhere in sight. Heidemann was panicked as well, considering the missing airman was Leutnant Stachel.
Heidemann had a lot riding on that young man’s success and he had yet to succeed in getting his transfer back to his dear wife Elfi.
Ziegel’s ears and eyes were well trained to the foibles of a failed engine. He took off in a dead run to the west end of the airfield way before we even saw it coming.
The black Fokker came in low and slow trailing black smoke. It got worse when the engine died completely. The landing gear sliced through the treetops, causing the nose to dip. The whole aircraft began a sick rotation onto its backside in mid-air. For a bizarre moment, it was flying backward upside down. That ended with a crash as it skidded to the ground in a cloud of dirt, grass and engine oil.
Ziegel was way ahead of us and good thing he was. Smoke quickly turned into flames and Stachel appeared stuck.
As we got closer, I could hear them screaming at each other. Ziegel’s upper body was deep inside the cockpit struggling to get Stachel’s feet untangled. The engine exploded in flame just as Ziegel broke him free. We dragged them both back from the heat and they lay together on the ground in a heap.
Stachel, as always cool and collected, coughed a few times, lifted himself up and with his hands on his hips, looked down at Ziegel. Ziegel was quite the sight to see, face beet red, eyebrows singed off and sobbing uncontrollably. Stachel just shook his head and started back to the hangers to get himself cleaned up.
All things considered, Heidemann was unusually cheerful.
Like Stachel’s Fokker, the German war effort was in flames, but our Jastaführer’s plan for getting himself home was still intact.