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"Blood & Crosses".

DeFreest Larner

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Evening, you disreputable Huns! 

Recently, I've been entertaining myself with writing a 'novelised' diary, of sorts, documenting my current Thursday Night V-Life, which (should it be long enough) I'm planning on calling 'Blood & Crosses'. As, naturally, you rowdy devils make up a large part of the story, I wondered if you might be interested in reading it yourselves! I'm planning on writing one chapter per week, so if you enjoy it and want more, don't shoot me! ;) 

Without further ado, here is the first chapter. Fair warning, It's quite long!

Chapter 1: Sioux.

Our Spad VIIs sat ready in a neat line, the Sioux Indian insignia gleaming in the afternoon sunlight on the fuselage sides. I smoked a cigarette as I watched the mechanics doing their final checks of the flying wires & guns. To the West lay the front, a hellscape of mud and death that carved an ugly scar across the entire face of France. The horrors of the trenches seldom bothered us though, for we were pilots of the 103d Aero Squadron, and our battles raged in the clouds far above.

With the absence of Cpt. Hunter, I had been placed in charge of 3rd. Flight for our first patrol of the day. Last week, our 3rd wingman was shot down and killed in a scrap, and so for now our flight consisted of just Warren Hobbs and myself. Joining us on our patrol was 2nd Flight, led by Drummond Cannon, and Edwin Parsons of 1st Flight, whose charismatic leader, Paul Baer, was currently on a leave of absence, spending a well-earned period of rest with his wife back home. With Paul’s absence, Edwin was flying under Cannon’s lead.

As one, our engines roared into life, and within moments we had been lifted by our Spads into the air, and were tearing towards the lines. With Warren and 2nd Flight at my back, I swung us North as we climbed to our patrol altitude. Our teeth chattering in the impossible cold, we eventually got our height and turned towards the lines, scanning the skies for German reconnaissance machines and the dreaded Pfalzes of the Flying Circus.

I shall explain. The Flying Circus was the nickname for Jagdgeschwader 1, the infamous German fighter squadron that sat across the lines from us. Once headed by the now-deceased Red Baron himself, J.G.1 consisted of four Jagdstaffeln, numbers 4, 6, 10 and 11, and each Staffel was nearly the size of our own squadron. The name ‘Flying Circus’ came from their brightly-painted machines, all adorned in bright reds, yellows, and all manner of vibrant colours.

We had faced the Circus several times before, and we all recognised several of their machines - A silver & red machine with a rabbit painted on its fuselage, a black Fokker Triplane, a Pfalz with black and yellow chequers on its wings, and others. My first (and only) victory to date had been one of their number, a blue and yellow machine. There was one particularly distinctive machine, a Pfalz with a black-and-yellow top wing, striped like a wasp, which we had decided must be their leader, as he always seemed to be at the head of the formation. I had never directly mixed it up with this hun, but we had been involved in the same fights on many occasions, and I had seen his effectiveness as an air fighter. I was not alone in begrudgingly respecting him. As we approached the lines, I wondered if I’d see the Wasp during today’s work.

We flew along the lines, up and down, for about fifteen minutes before we saw our first signs of the Hun. About 600 Meters below us flew a pair of Pfalzes, hunting over our lines. I rocked my wings to signal my wingmen behind me, before lazily bringing my nose around to chase the two huns. A second Spad joined me; it was Ralph Talbot, our newest replacement.

With Ralph on my six, I dove towards the two low Germans, setting my sights on the trailing machine, a bright red machine with a white tail. The Huns never saw us coming, and I was able to get close before pressing down on the triggers. My nose-mounted Vickers machine-gun, and the accompanying Lewis gun mounted on the upper wing, barked into life, and I watched as white-hot tracers poured into the cockpit of the unaware Hun. As I zoomed past, I saw the Pfalz list to the left, fuel trailing from a perforated petrol tank. In the cockpit, I saw the Pilot’s head drop forwards, before jerking back up. He was alive, but wounded.

Now aware, and furious, the leading Pfalz swung around to fire at me, but I had zoomed back up above him. Ralph sent a burst at the German, but he skidded to the left out of harm’s way. As I circled overhead, the Hun lifted his nose up, so that his machine stood on its tail, and fired up at me, and I watched as the smoke-trails from his tracer passed close to the left of my cockpit. I dove back down as the Hun flopped onto his back, and fired a long, accurate burst into him. Trailing steam, the hun looped away, but was caught by a second burst from Ralph. Again, the Hun lifted his nose, and this time I saw tracers bursting through the floor of my cockpit. I dropped on him once more as he flopped over, and put another burst into him. At this point, the Hun decided he’d had enough and dove towards his lines. As Ralph and I watched, the Pfalz broke apart in the dive, shedding its wings and falling to earth. We flew back towards our lines, checking the time on our dashboard clocks so that we could put in a claim for the fallen Flieger.

As we flew back, I realised there was a sharp pain in my left thigh. Looking down, I saw my flight suit was red with blood, at which point my pulse started to rise. I’d been shot! Firing off a distress flare, I returned to base and landed. Two corporals helped me de-plane, and I went to the medical tent. I’d only been grazed by a stray bullet, but one more inch to the East and the bullet would have gone clean through my leg. Alas, no hospital rest for me on this occasion.

After having a bandage applied, I took back off (in an un-perforated machine) and looked for my wingmen. After a quick search I found them where I had left them, still patrolling the front. We had only just re-formated when we saw the flash of tracer out over the mud - straining my eyes, I saw a Spad locked in combat with an Albatros. Warren and I dove towards the fight, and we arrived just in time to catch the Albatros standing on his tail, same as my Pfalz had done. I fired a long burst into his cockpit, and he fell away. As he tried to pull out of his dive, Warren fired a second burst that tore his wing off, and I watched for the second time as a German aiman fell to his death with clipped wings.

By coincidence, the Spad that had been fighting the Albatros was none other than Cpt. Hunter, who had set off looking for us shortly before my return. We waved to him as he joined us and took lead, and the six of us turned West down the lines.

The initial excitement of the afternoon being over and done with, we climbed up higher and headed out into the mud, flying a long patrol route up and down the lines. After twenty or so minutes of uneventful flying, we were beginning to warm to the idea of a quiet patrol. However, there would be no peace for us today. From out of the blue, Hunter begun frantically rocking his wings and turned sharply to the right. We followed, and as I looked over my shoulder I saw the brightly painted Pfalzes of Jastas 10 and 11, two units of the Circus, looming overhead and preparing to fall on us with their twin Spandau machine guns. However, upon seeing us turning away they gave up the chase, and begrudgingly lingered in the mud like tethered dogs as we extended into our own lines. As their machines grew into distant specks, I counted eight of them in total.

After returning and refuelling, we embarked on our second job of the day - the hated Distant Offensive Patrol. This kind of job entailed flying into Hun lines and looking for trouble.

Sure enough, after about fifteen minutes in Hunland, with not an aircraft in sight, we spotted twelve Hun machines, all single-seat scouts, ominously drifting Northwards in a widely spaced group. This was the Circus Proper, with all four Staffeln in attendance. By this point, three of our pilots had dropped out with engine trouble, or low fuel, and so only three remained to challenge the mass of Pfalzes and Albatroses. Despite the overwhelming odds, we pointed our Spads towards the large formation and begun to stalk them, looking for an opportunity to drop down and send a Hun spinning towards the earth, and his death. However, when we got close the formation swung East, pulling us even further into Hunland, until we were miles behind the lines. At this point, Hunter signalled that he was in trouble, and turned for home. As we later found out, he was dangerously close to running empty on fuel.

Only Ralph and I remained. The huge formation begun to slowly turn our way, and I started my dive on the highest machine I could see - a silver and yellow Pfalz. The German immediately reacted, and I pulled sharply out of my dive. Now the Circus begun to turn in agitated circles below us. With the element of surprise lost (Indeed - likely never there in the first place!), Ralph and I abandoned our hunt and turned back towards the lines, looking for easier prey.

As we flew, we were conscious of the Circus following us, slowly climbing up to our altitude. However, this didn’t phase us so much, as our Spads were faster than their machines, and we knew we could dive away if things got too hot. Eventually, the huns swung South and disappeared. After a brief search for any other marauding huns, we finally decided to pack it in and head for home.

We flew south, and came across an awesome scene. Down the lines, the Circus had run into a patrol of British Sopwith Camels and Bristol Fighters, and a large furball had broken out just over the Hun trenchlines. The scrap resembled a swarming beehive, with tracer flying in all directions amongst the twisting & looping machines. We approached the fight, and I saw three Huns circling overhead, watching their comrades’ sixes. Feeling surprisingly bold, I dropped down with my guns blazing, and fired a good burst into our familiar black & yellow chequered friend, which then dove sharply away with a trail of fuel and steam following it, and disappeared. I zoomed back up, looking for the two remaining Germans, but I assume they followed their wingman down as I never did see them again. Ralph and I cautiously dropped down lower towards the furball below us, looking for targets of opportunity. Suddenly, I saw a Pfalz appear from behind a cloud - it was the Wasp!

I immediately charged my guns, to make sure they would go properly, and excitedly dove towards the tail of the Circus’ ringleader. I bit back a smile as the Wasp grew in my sights, and in my eagerness fired too early. I watched as the Wasp begun to skid away to the left, and then to my horror my goggles were suddenly pelted with large droplets of Castor Oil, and my Spad begun vibrating sickeningly. The engine had packed up! Now panicked, I rolled onto my back and dove sharply away, through the looping and rolling Pfalzes and Camels below, and further down still, heading straight for my own lines. As I looked over my shoulder, I watched as Ralph put a burst into a Silver machine, before diving away with the Wasp on his tail. I gritted my teeth as a trail of steam shot out from his machine, but I had to focus on my own predicament. Gliding down, I hit the ground hard, buckling the undercarriage, and scraped to a halt just in front of a British trench. Swiftly unfastening my harness, I dove into the trench, where I was greeted by a group of rugged Tommies, all with grins on their faces. As they later told me, they loved to watch a good dogfight, and some had observed my failed attack on the Wasp (much to their humor!). After being handed a cup of watery coffee, I stood alongside some Tommies on the viewing platform at the edge of the trench, watching the fray. One Sopwith pilot in particular put on a magnificent show, shooting two or three Huns down, and at one moment I thought I'd seen him even sending the Wasp running! Sadly, I saw this Camel come down, several Pfalzes firing at him, and I can only imagine that he has been killed.

I sat chattering with the Tommies, thrilled at having shot at the Wasp myself, until eventually a car was sent by Cpt. Hunter to collect me, and I was driven back to my aerodrome. I was happy to be greeted by Ralph who had only been shot about a little, and had made a clean escape, but saddened to learn that during our patrols, two of our pilots had collided in mid-air, and had both dropped down into Hunland. Such circumstances had become sadly common to us, and we only spared a short, quiet moment for our lost comrades. Eventually, I filed my claim, and we congregated in the mess for our usual past-times of cards and drinking. Later that night, I was elated to discover that my Pfalz, and my Albatros, had both been given as shared victories with Ralph and Warren. On top of that, Cpt. Hunter had knocked down a Bosche two-seater - his fourteenth victory! Ralph was especially braced at having gotten his first Hun. We had a binge that night to celebrate Ralph being ‘Blooded’, along with our other victories, before retiring to our quarters, sufficiently drunk.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Chapter 2: Hypoxia. 


The high patrols are freezing in Summer. In the bitter winter cold of January, they are unbearable. We sat, numb, in our Spads at 15,000 feet or more, biting down on our knuckles or holding the flight sticks between our knees and clapping our hands to try, in vain, to stay warm - by this point, we didn't even care to search for the enemy. To be killed would at least deliver us from the awful cold, and the constant gasping for oxygen that simply wasn't available.


Over Christmas, we had received new machines. Spad XIIIs, an improvement on the older Spad VIIs in firepower, speed and climb. I had become an ace - that is, I had brought my victory tally to 5 - my last two being scored in the new type. We weren't the only ones to receive presents over the festive period, however - the Circus had swapped out their Pfalz IIIs for the new Pfalz XIIs. Their machines could climb far higher than our own aircraft, and we had lost the speed advantage. However, the faithful Spads could still escape in a dive. 


As I flew along with Ralph on my wing, I was snapped out of my frost-daze by the sight of tracers to the West. Overjoyed at the prospect of a fight (for this point we had been up above 10,000 feet for an hour, and the lack of oxygen was dizzying), Ralph and I headed for the scrap, arriving just in time to see two Spads of 1st Flight diving for our own lines, two Pfalzes of the Circus on their tails. We circled above the enemy machines carefully - the Circus seldom flies only in pairs - and planned out our attack. I checked my fuel gauge, and - disaster! I didn't even have enough fuel for the trip home! 

Cursing myself for not paying attention before we had the enemy so close, I signalled to Talbot that I was 'washing out', and begun to drop my nose. Below me, I saw one red-winged machine, and decided that in one last insolent show of defiance, I would throw a few bullets at the machine on my way past. Diving down hard, I fired a quick burst at the Hun machine, and continued out towards the lines. As far as I could tell, my bullets didn't find their mark.


The Pfalz halfheartedly attempted to follow for a few seconds, before Talbot's lingering presence above convinced him to retreat into Hunland. Just before I reached our trench-lines, my engine coughed, and fell silent. I listened to the long sigh of the wind as I glided down, a strange sense of peace coming over me as the oxygen flooded back to my lungs, as I scanned for a suitable field to land in. 


Later,  Fokkers and Gothas appeared over our lines, alone or in twos, lambs to the slaughter. We knocked down 9 or 10 of them in total - four of which were mines. Why they insisted on coming over in this manner I cannot fathom. My last victim of the day landed upside-down in a pool of water...I only hope the poor Hun inside was shot dead, to save him from drowning. 



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Chapter 3: Raids. 



The cold weather only worsened in Early January, and as our SPAD 13s sat on the ready line, their camouflage was whited out by the softly falling snowflakes. As we were soon about to discover, the snow turns to daggers in the air, whipping and stabbing at your face. To try and protect ourselves, we wore our scarves over our faces, but the cold and the pain would not be denied. 

Our first assignment of the day was a patrol of the front lines, led by our indomitable C.O, Capt. Hunter. Shivering violently, we made our way through the blinding snow. I wondered all the while, "what madmen would be up in this weather, except for us?", but as it turns out, I was about to find out exactly who. Mere moments after we crossed into the line, I heard a terrific metallic snap as bullets rung off my flying wires, and one passed close enough to my head to chip the metal windshield frame. I was being bounced! No time to look back - I threw my machine violently into a hard dive. As I screamed towards earth, I found a chance to look over my shoulder, and saw an Albatros with a bright red tail twisting in among the three Spads of Hunter, Ralph and Warren. 


Feeling anger boil up inside me, I pulled out of the dive and circled to the left, climbing back up towards the fight. The aviator in the Albatros demonstrated excellent skill - but his situation was hopeless. He was outnumbered four-to-one, and all of our number were killers. I reached back up to the fight, my engine straining as I demanded a steep climb angle from it, and put my gunsights on the offending Albatros. In one moment, he pitched up to take a shot at Hunter, and hung motionless right before my guns. Exacting revenge, I let my vickers roar out, and the Albatros fell away into a spin, disintegrating as it went. My 10th victory. 

Not long after, we watched from above as a mass of German two-seaters approached the lines. At the time, we thought nothing of it - probably a Schlasta, headed for the trench lines, but later we spotted that the R.F.C base downriver from our own aerodrome had been raided, and almost completely destroyed. This marked the start of our rear-area patrols, fighting Rolands and Halberstadts. 

The fighting was tough, the onslaught endless - but in the end, we returned home victorious. Edwin had scored 3 victories, seen by us all - two Rolands and a Fokker D.VII. Hunter's score had risen to 18 - an awe-inspiring score. Hobbs and I each claimed two victories, and Talbot one. A victory for every pilot in our flight, and not a soul lost.


My score now rests at 11. 


To our surprise, there was no sign of the circus today. We wondered if they had been moved to another sector, but the R.F.C pilots reported fighting them earlier in the day. Again, no word of the Wasp has arrived, and we are beginning to think that perhaps he has been killed by another unit. By any means - we were amazed not to see them in the thick of the raids today, for it seems that they have been involved in every other major Hun offensive until now. 


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