CHAPTER NINE - The Circus Comes to Town
13th April 1918
So what was I supposed to think?
First Hauptmann Heidemann lectures our "One Kill Wonder" on the importance of getting as many kills as possible. What was that about?
Then Leutnant Stachel shows up at my desk, reeking of engine oil and alcohol, claiming that while on a routine solo flight to break in a new engine, he shot down two more enemy aircraft?
I tried to take him seriously as he described spotting a single Bristol Fighter well below him being pursued by a bright red Fokker Dr.I. He said the Dr.I was careless, didn't see three more Bristol Fighter's waiting in the wings to attack him.
He said he dove down on the Bristols and shot down two of them.
Stachel went on to critique the Dr.I pilot for his lack of awareness.
"Sure, he ended up shooting down the other two Bristols, but for the great "Le Diable Rouge" I would have expected him to be more careful".
"Le Diable Rouge"...the Red Baron? Are you kidding me? Stachel was wasting my time. I told him to come back later when he was sobered up.
He just smiled, tipped his cap and walked out the door. I knew something was up. Almost on cue, I heard loud voices out on the airfield. When I stepped outside to take a look, the bright red Dr.I softly touched down on the worn grass in the center of the airfield.
A visit to our Jasta by Von Richthofen was rare and Heidemann ran out to greet him.
Heidemann was surprised when he immediately asked to meet the pilot of the gray Pfalz. Stachel came out and stood by while Von Richthofen explained to Heidemann how the young man assisted him in battle. Stachel politely listened but went on to advise Von Richthofen that he should really be more careful. Heidemann's face reddened at that comment but Von Richthofen laughed it off and went on to reveal why he was really there.
He wanted Heidemann's permission to transfer Stachel into his Jasta. The crowd quieted down when Heidemann turned to Stachel to ask him what he thought about that offer.
For a ladder climber like Stachel, it was clear to me what his answer would be. JG1 was the most prominent wing of the Deutsche Luftstreitkräfte and Von Richthofen was its most famous Ace with over 70 kills.
But a Cobra is dangerous because it is can surprise you and Stachel continues to surprise. He refused the offer citing the inspiration he gets from Hauptmann Heidemann and this squad and the responsibility he feels towards them. Pardon me?? Was that Stachel talking?
Richthofen took that news graciously and Heidemann beamed like a proud poppa as he led him back to his office for a private chat.
When Von Richthofen was ready to go, half the Aerodrome gathered around the bright red plane and insisted on photographs. I set up my camera but was distracted. I was still trying to understand what had just happened.
After Von Richthofen left, Heidemann called Stachel into his office. I pretended to work on paperwork at my desk and listened in. Heidemann had just given Von Klugermann a weekend pass to visit the Graf and Gräfin at the GHQ in Spa, Belgium and wanted Stachel to go along. He felt it was important that he meet the Kommandeur der Flieger.
Clearly, Heidemann was putting Stachel on the fast track. The more I thought about Stachel turning down Von Richthofen's offer the more it made sense to me. At JG1 he would be lost in the shadows of Von Richthofen's fame, but here at Jasta 77, he had a real chance at being the star of the squad.
Heidemann leaked Stachel's story along with Von Richthofen's picture to the local press. Stachel would need some help to become a famous Ace and it was becoming clearer and clearer that he was going to get it.