Stachel's First Kill
"Stachel shouldered his way through the crowd. The excited babble fell off to a murmur as he strode up to the wreck. His service knife glinted as, with four sweeping motions, he cut away the RE-8's serial number. Rolling up the piece of fabric and returning the knife to a pocket of his flying coat, he turned to regard the crowd. Kettering was there. Wordlessly, Stachel went to him. He shoved the roll of khaki linen against Kettering's chest, than stalked away to get something to drink."
This key scene from Jack Hunter's novel "The Blue Max", took place in front of the Jasta's main office. Stachel was frustrated because earlier in the day, his "first kill" had not been witnessed by anyone and could not be considered "official". When he came upon this RE-8 on patrol and managed to injure the rear gunner and damage its engine, he decide to make a point by escorting the aircraft back to his aerodrome. He showed his cruel side when, even though defenseless, he chose to shoot it down so that it crashed landed right on Captain Heidemann's doorstep.
One of the challenges in my project "Rupp's Skizzenbuch" is to capture key events in the story but have it believable that my main character Gerhardt Rupp was aware of them. This one was easy. Rupp as the Unteroffizier could have been at his desk and almost fallen out of his chair when a plane crashed so close to their offices. When thinking about this chapter, I started thinking about Stachel shoving the canvas he cut out into Kettering's hand. It was not much of a leap to consider that Kettering, on returning to the squad office, would have dropped it on Rupp's desk and said, " You might need this for your combat report, looks like Stachel got his first kill."
Wouldn't it be cool if I actually had the canvas with the RE-8's serial number on it? It would be perfect for the Title Image for this Chapter. Down the Rabbit Hole again.
I started my research looking at images of RE-8's to see where the serial was located. It was pretty consistent, on the tail, a letter and three or four numbers.
I didn't want the canvas to be huge, so I opted for the version labelled "A 3930" because it fits between two horizontal supports in the tail section. It also lines up with the description in the novel of cutting the canvas "in four sweeping motions". Next I looked for a side view of the RE8 that was close to being to scale so I could determine the size of the tail piece. I found this image and added a graphic scale.
I zoomed up on the tail and used the graphic scale to get rough dimensions for the canvas I was going to create. I added some sample serial numbers and plotted it at a large scale. I flipped the orientation, because generally on the title pages the journal is on the right side of the desk. I wanted to make sure the slope of the canvas showed.
At this point the "artifact" was becoming precious to me. Like the journal, when you work this hard to simulate an old object, you start believing it is real. I needed a serial number, but didn't want to just make one up. Clearly the aircraft in the novel was fictional. I decided to try and find an actual serial number for a plane that was shot down around the time of Stachel's kill. I bought Trevor Henshaw's book " The Sky their Battlefield" earlier this year and to be honest it has been sitting on my bookshelf barely opened. It is a fascinating resource that names and indexes every recorded air fight and casualty for the British, Commonwealth and United States of America from World War I. The journal entry is March 9th, and I was looking for a shot down RE-8 where both pilot and rear gunner were killed in action. Sure enough I found one with the serial number B-835. On March 11th, Lt. JA Convery and Lt. JLP Haynes were both killed in action while an Artillery Registration mission in an RE-8 near the town of Oppy, just north of Cambrai in France, not far from where Stachel's sortie occurred.
With a measurable template and a real serial number, it was time to get to work. I bought a 24" x 18" canvas, drew up the template. A visit to Home Depot for some custom mixed house paint got me the background color and the paint for the white letters. I made some stencils for the letters I needed, spray mounted them onto the canvas and used a dry sponge to dab on the white color for the letters. As a final touch I used black wax ( for those chalk paint furniture experts out there) to age and streak the finish.
It is not exactly a museum quality, but I have to admit, when I pulled out my razor blade to cut out the numbers " in four sweeping motions" it was surreal experience for me. It felt heavy and limp in my hands. I crumpled it up a bit to make it look less perfect. After taking these pictures I hung the canvas on the wall in my office, just the way a pilot would hang his trophy in the officers mess.
I suppose at worse, it made me pause on a busy spring weekend to think about two young men who lost their lives in the Great War, almost 100 years ago.
Salute Lt. Convery and Lt. Haynes.