CHAPTER SIX - A Man to Watch
23rd February 1918
I promised myself to keep an eye on Leutnant Stachel, but I never expected him to be so entertaining!
The young man couldn’t help but attract attention to himself. It started with his first “familiarization flight” a few weeks ago. Typically these flights are ceremonial affairs, a chance for our Jastaführer to size up the new recruit while giving him an aerial tour of our patrol area.
It was a clear cold morning with snow on the ground and Stachel showed up late, red-eyed and thick-tongued. He blamed it on a cold. Startwärter Niederhauser stooped down to adjust Stachel’s cover-alls. It startled Stachel, who cursed at him and cuffed him on the side of the head, sending him sprawling. That certainly got the Hauptmann’s attention.
Based on Heidemann’s report, the rest of the flight didn’t go much better.
Stachel had difficulty staying in formation and couldn’t recognize the landmarks pointed out to him with hand signals along the way. It didn’t make it any easier that the Pfalz was set up to be tail heavy as a test for the new pilot. As expected he came in hot, bounced heavily and then proceeded to ground loop his way around the whole airfield. Stachel was fuming by the time he crawled out of the Pfalz and headed back to his quarters.
Quite a spectacle.
The Startwärter let me know that Stachel’s “cold” symptoms included the smell of alcohol on his breath.
A man with that kind of weakness presents some opportunities for me.
Not every recruit is up to the challenge.
After being publicly humiliated, I expected Stachel to lay low for a while, but it was quite the opposite.
Following his failed flight he went straight to Ziegel to review the Pfalz D.III maintenance manual. He used the mechanic’s own tools to expose the intentional schwanzlästig rigging and demanded it be corrected immediately.
He continued making orientation flights but worked his way into flying extras as well with some of the more seasoned pilots. During most of his sorties he managed to work in air-to-ground gunnery runs.
While on the ground he went to the armament section and ordered them to set his Pfalz on blocks at the machine gun range so he could fine tune his marksmanship. All well and good, but when he asked to be set up for the third time in one week I blew up.
Our ammunition supply is limited and I wasn’t going to let this little prick consume our month's allotment. I went to the Hauptmann to complain but he just smiled and told me not to worry about it.
A new pilot with that kind of drive was either going to end up dead or the next Kanone of the squad. With the war heating up, Stachel's fate would be decided soon enough.
What happened next was something I should be used to by now, but somehow this one was a little different.
The combat report was straightforward enough. Leutnant Stachel and Leutnant Fabian were to patrol the front, covering twenty kilometers from the Scarpe River to the Awoignt sector, hunting for enemy observation aircraft. Heavy cloud cover made sighting enemies difficult.
They encountered three SE-5a’s. Fabian was shot down, jumping from his aircraft when it caught on fire. Stachel claimed he shot down one of the three Tommies, but the kill was unconfirmed. I made the long bumpy ride to the crash site. It was flamer all right. Not enough left of Fabian to bring home, so we buried him right there.
I took this picture for his family.
When I got back I found Stachel and Kettering screaming at each other. I reported that I found no evidence of a shot down SE5a and Stachel stormed out of the office without another word. He never even asked if I found Fabian.
Fabian was an accomplished flyer.
Even in a 3 on 2 fight teamed up with a rookie, you would expect him to come out on top. Hard to believe Stachel was doing his job covering Fabian's back if all he cared about was getting confirmation of his kill.
A drunk with obsessive drive, deadly skills and no concern for others? That is a dangerous man. Klugermann has begun referring to Stachel as “The Cobra”.
I am beginning to think he has that about right.