CHAPTER FIVE - New Arrivals
9th February 1918
There are some advantages to being the Unteroffizier. I am responsible for the duty book so I get the first look at new arrivals and believe me, I have seen all kinds. Baby-faced boys who talk dreamily about the “joys of flight” and hope they will be the next Von Richthofen. Entitled, fat-faced sons of aristocrats who think they are off to camp and treat me like I am in charge of mucking out their father’s stables.
I have not survived two wars by being an idiot. I have a good nose for trouble and when Leutnant Bruno Stachel stepped up to my desk, I could smell it a mile away. Behind those icy gray eyes, you could see the Angels and Devils wrestling for control.
It was clear to me that for the moment, the Devils were winning.
It only took Stachel a few moments to decide that all I was good for was carrying his bags.
As a clerk, I am pretty much at the bottom of the food chain for Jasta 77. That being said, among most men, this gray beard and the service badges on my feldgrau demand at least some level of respect. Not with this one. He was on the attack from the beginning and wound as tight as a drum.
Not that I had much time to think about it.
On my way back from delivering his bags, I heard the familiar drone out on the western horizon. The Aerodrome sirens started up and our machine gunners started throwing up defensive rounds. While running for cover, I found Stachel staring at the approaching aircraft and had to grab him by the collar to get him down into the trench next to the train tracks.
Five Sopwith Camels right over our heads, with Vickers machine guns blasting. As we collected our wits, they banked up high over the Old Factory and prepared for another run. On the second pass the truck Stachel arrived in exploded into a pile of broken glass and twisted metal. On the eastern horizon Hauptmann Heidemann and the rest of the squadron returned from patrol and the timing couldn’t have been better. Now the Tommies were facing 2 to 1 odds. Any sane pilot would have headed home, but not these Englishmen.
It was all over in minutes.
Heidemann sent the first one cartwheeling in flames through a farmer’s fields. Two black smoke columns rose up behind the Old Factory while another lay in a heap right along the train tracks where Stachel and I were huddled. The last one was mired in the mud in the marsh, upside down, nose first, tail high.
There are some disadvantages to being an Unteroffizier as well.
I am responsible for collecting the dead and arranging for their burials. I visit the crash sites, save what is worth saving and gather up what is left of the pilots. The flamers are the worse. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the man from the machine. Long after Leutnant Stachel was tucked safely into bed I was mucking through the marshes with a lantern and a stick, trying to find the fifth pilot. It was hopeless. This lost airman was going to spend his eternity right where he landed.
I kept thinking about Stachel’s face during the raid on our Aerodrome. Any new recruit would have had his tail between his legs and his head down. Stachel was enjoying it, a smile on his face, almost laughing as he watched. A strange, strange man.
Clearly someone to keep an eye on.