100 Years

1918 - 2018

Marking the end of World War I

A Victory

By Geoffrey Dobbs

Shortly before my grandfather died I called in to see him on my way back from school. I pressed the doorbell for as hard and as long as I dared. He was partly deaf, had hearing aids but hardly ever used them. He was very sick, we knew that, and I was secretly afraid of finding him dead on my own.

But the door screeched open and there he was: tall, stooped, all bones and sharp edges; a ragged cardigan hung from his shoulders like a poncho and old striped shirt billowed out over his grubby brown slacks. His long, thin white face, greyed with stubble looked down at me, puzzled. 'Yes?' He asked, croakily. I stared up at him for what seemed minutes, awaiting recognition that wasn't forthcoming.

‘It’s me, Alan,' I said finally and a thin smile crept across his face.

‘Of course it is, come in son.’

The house smelt of stale cooking scents, old clothes, faded leather and a miasma of ancient dust.  I felt it was the smell of trapped time. He shuffled over to the table in the centre of the dining room and pulled out a chair for me.

'Sorting out stuff,' he muttered. An old blanket covered the table and heaped together in the centre was a collection of disparate objects: battered books, old tobacco tins, a large black-handled pocket knife, an old leather-bound notebook, his WW1 medals and slightly to one side and gleaming in the light, a gold ring.

'Dunno what to do with it all. Don't suppose you'll want any of it. Put it in the bin I guess.’

‘But Granddad,’ I remonstrated ‘your medals … they’re priceless, of course we’ll want to keep them. I know that Dad will want them. You can’t just throw them away.’

He gave me a bleak smile. ‘They’re nothing special, I wasn’t a bloody hero. Everyone got them. But if your Dad wants them, he can have them—they’ll be yours one day then.’

He reached over the table and picked up the ring, placing it in the palm of his hand. I saw that it was a wide band of gold, slightly deformed with an embossed lozenge shaped shield. Then he closed his hand over it and stared into space.

‘You’re not going to throw that away too are you Granddad?’

‘Like it do you?’

He put the ring back on the table and leant back on his creaking chair.

‘I was a flier, you knew that didn’t you?’ I nodded. That was in fact all that I knew about my grandfather’s wartime life for he never spoke of it and as far as I knew he never took part in any ANZAC Day marches or any reunions.

‘November 1918, the fourth to be exact,’ he opened the leather-bound notebook and flicked through its yellowing pages. ‘Yeah, the fourth. We were advancing by then; the Germans were collapsing and we knew it would soon be over. There were rumours about an armistice but the fighting went on just the same. I’d been at the front for just a couple of months, flying a Sopwith Snipe. I’d been in a few dogfights, fired off God knows how many machine gun rounds, done a bit of strafing and bombing but as far as I knew I hadn’t brought down one enemy plane. Everyone else seemed to have one or more crosses painted on their planes but not me. And I badly wanted to get a Hun before it was all over.

‘Well, that day I got my chance. Two of us were sent out on a reconnaissance flight to see if the Germans were still occupying a hill ahead of the British advance. We’d been loaded up with four 25 pound bombs: if the hill was occupied, we were to bomb any artillery positions we saw. But the other plane struck engine trouble and had to turn back so I was on my own.’

‘Were you scared?’ I asked him.

‘Scared?’ He laughed drily. ‘Too bloody busy to be scared. You had to fly those planes with every inch of your body. Brute strength. No autopilot. Watch your fuel gauge, watch the altimeter, watch your heading and keep a sharp lookout above, in front, behind, below. Even in dogfights everything happened so quickly you barely had time to get scared—unless you were in a steep dive with a Fokker on your tail. Then you could get scared and with good bloody reason.’

He paused and for a few moments flicked through the pages of the leather-bound book which I now realised must have been his logbook from fifty years ago.

‘It was a bright, sunny day,’ he continued. ‘Ahead I could see the smoke of the battle front and as I climbed up to 15,000 feet, I could see that the roads were chock-a-block with advancing troops, lorries and horses. Once I was past the battle front I dropped back down to below 10,000 feet again. I found the hill and circled around it as low as I dared.’

He gave a short, gruff laugh.

‘Well, it was occupied alright and by the time I’d confirmed that there were several bullet holes in my wings so I dropped the bloody bombs as quickly as I could, without really seeing where they went, climbed back up to a safe height and headed back. I was getting close to the airfield when I spotted anti-aircraft bursts and tracer ahead of me. I headed towards them and saw that what they were aiming at was a Hun fighter, a Pfalz.

 ‘Now, I knew that I should have gone straight back to the airfield and given my report but the Pfalz was a bloody tempting target. If it had been one of the new Fokkers I might have thought twice about tackling it. But a Pfalz, well, I reckoned I could deal with that. You see Alan, the Pfalz was a single-seater fighter the same as mine; well armed alright and fast, but not as fast as my Snipe or as manouevrable. The Snipe was one of the best fighter planes we had.

‘I had the engine at full throttle, going like the clappers, over 100 miles an hour. Well, that’s not much these days of course but it was pretty bloody fast then. The Pfalz was circling, maybe looking for targets on the busy roads below.

‘Best of all,’ he continued, ‘I was at about 7,000 feet and the Pfalz was below me, maybe at about 4,000 feet. You always tried to attack from above and behind. Dive down, get as close as you could and then take the shot. That’s what we used to say, you see ‘take the shot.’

He paused and picked up the pocket knife and the tobacco tin to demonstrate.

‘I went down in a shallow dive, like this, timing it so that I would have the Pfalz in my sights as it completed a turn. I bloody near missed him then because he suddenly started to climb but I managed to pull out of my dive fast enough to get him in my sights for about ten seconds and I gave him a short burst from the Vickers. Dunno if I hit him. He tried to zoom up above me so I banked really sharply like this—the Snipe was a bloody marvelous kite for that sort of manoeuvre—and followed him up at full throttle. I knew that I could climb faster than he could and I went straight past him as he did a half –roll out of his climb. I made a very tight turn out of the climb, so tight I thought the bloody wings might tear off, reckoned I could hear the struts and wires screaming. Then I dropped down on the Pfalz just as he was starting to climb again. This time I had him filling my sights head on for a good twenty seconds and I just kept firing. Reckon I must have fired about a hundred rounds into him. We were so close that we bloody near collided.

‘I thought I’d lost him because all of a sudden the sky was empty, no sign of him. Maybe I’d got him and he’d gone down I thought. I circled around, half expecting him to come at me from below. And then I spotted him. He was heading east, away from me. There was a long, thin trail of grey smoke coming from his engine and he going down slowly in a shallow dive. Well, I felt pretty bloody pleased with myself. I’d got my Hun.

‘Dunno whether I should tell you this …  haven’t told anybody for over fifty years.’ He paused and looked closely at me for a moment.

WW1 plane in flamesWW1 plane in flamesNational WW1 Museum and Memorial, Kansas City, Mo., USA‘Well, looked like the Pfalz was going for a crash landing. Then I thought what if he gets downed by ground fire? I’ll miss out on getting the credit. So I followed him down, throttling back until I could close in about fifty yards behind him. The smoke from his engine was drifting into my cockpit and I could smell the burning oil. He looked back at me once, or did I imagine that? Perhaps he knew what was coming or maybe he hoped I’d let him get down safely. I took my time Alan, waited until I had the Pfalz full in the sights and then fired. I saw bits flying off the tail and wings and I saw his head jerk back. Then there was a huge burst of flame from his engine and the Pfalz sort of flipped and then went straight down. We couldn’t have been at more than 2000 feet, if that, and by the time I’d circled back I could see black smoke and the flicker of flames on the ground below.’

He scrabbled around the table, found a half crushed packet of cigarettes and lit one with shaking hands. He held on to the match until it was flickering around his fingers.

‘D'you know what I felt?’

‘Excitement? Pride?’ I suggested.

‘Yeah. I reckon. And relief.

‘The next thing I knew, I was over the airfield. I realized then that the Pfalz must have been aiming for a crash landing there. Once I’d landed I was greeted with congratulations by everyone of course, except for the Intelligence Officer who gave me a right bollocking for not returning straight back with my report and leaving the Pfalz for others to deal with.

‘After I’d completed my report, a fellow pilot who had a motor bike suggested that we go and see the wreck. I was still “on a high”, as you would say, and the idea of securing a few souvenirs from my first victory was pretty appealing. So, after zig-zagging around a few muddy lanes lined with shattered tree stumps and scrambling around old shell holes we got to what was left of the Pfalz. It had crashed alongside a main road and was surrounded by a cluster of soldiers. They fell back sort of respectfully when we turned up and I really liked that! I was still in my flying gear so they quickly worked out that I must have been the one who brought it down. A young officer came up, saluted me and offered his congratulations. “We saw it all,” he said, '”good work. The pilot landed over there— oh, don't worry he's a good Hun, the best kind there is— a dead one.”

‘Now, I really hadn't thought much about the pilot. Thought he'd have been burnt up with plane I suppose. And I can't say I was that keen to go and look at him but the officer obviously assumed that I'd want to see the result of my handiwork and led me across fifty yards or so of mud to another group of soldiers. A few ran off when they saw us coming.

‘The pilot was lying on his back, arms flung outstretched, one twisted right around so that the hand was palm downwards. I noticed that the other hand which still had a glove on, was partly burnt as if he’d tried to beat the flames out. There was a sickening smell of petrol and of burnt flesh and leather. I didn't understand at first; then I realised that he must have jumped from his burning plane. He must have been wounded, there was a hole in his shoulder, still bleeding, but he’d managed to jump. He was that desperate not to be burnt alive. His face was unmarked and I looked straight into his half-closed eyes. They were grey. I bloody near puked there and then but managed to hold it back. His body had already been stripped by souvenir hunters. His flying helmet, goggles, and one glove were gone; his flying jacket had been ripped open and that would have gone too if we hadn’t arrived.

‘The officer apologised explaining that he’d put a guard on the body but … “you can’t trust these chaps I’m afraid. They know it’s nearly over and are out after any souvenirs they can get. I’m afraid they’ve even taken his ID disc.” As he spoke, the officer grabbed at a soldier who was trying to slip away with the missing glove. He ordered the man to empty his pockets. The soldier wasn’t happy about it, I could tell that: he deliberately spat on the ground alongside the dead pilot before handing over a gold ring – this ring. “You’d better take it,” the officer said, “may help to identify him, if you can be bothered!”

 ‘Well, that was my souvenir young Alan. And as far as I know that was the only German I killed. I flew a few more patrols, without incident, and a few days later the armistice was declared. I got to thinking afterwards about what I’d done and I didn’t feel as proud of myself as I had at first. I got to thinking that if I’d let that German crash land his plane, he might have survived the war, like me.’

‘But surely you were just doing your job, your duty? Millions died in that war, you only killed one.’

‘Maybe Alan, but it didn’t seem like that, then or now. You see, I’d killed for the sake of it, for the sake of getting a cheap victory and a painted cross. That pilot wasn’t going to fly for Germany again, even if he survived the crash. Think about it son; if it hadn’t been for me he might be sitting down talking with his grandson, like me, right now. That’s the real tragedy of war, you know: you don’t just kill one man, you kill his children, his grandchildren, generations …’

As he finished his tale, my grandfather handed me the ring. He pressed it into my hand, closing my fingers over it.

‘I want you to promise to keep it safe, maybe even wear it when you’re older and I want you to pass it on to your own children, and tell them its story.’

A few weeks later my grandfather died.

That was over fifty years ago. I no longer have the ring. My eldest daughter has it now.  She wears it on ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day, in honour of two young men who met in the skies above Flanders a hundred years ago; of one who lived and of one who died.

 

© Geoffrey Dobbs, 2019

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