Lady Harbury’s Burlesque Studio

Wild Days and Nights Above the Trenches of the Great War (A Novel Inspired by High Quality Simulation and an Old Brown Dog)

2nd installment – 1st installment here

by Slobodan Sucur

Mission No. 4 for Cap.’n Johnny Dobson and his Parasols (to contents)

Our latest mission was to be a bombing run, with the Parasol carrying a few 45 lb combustibles, but owing to the worsening weather I and the boys decided on an arty spotting flight instead. It would have been foolhardy to attempt taking bombs up in these windy conditions, and in ’crates that could barely climb with pilot and observer on board. As well, wired to us last night from HQ was that at least one of our Parasols do a brief patrol of the area around Menen, further into the Hun’s territory—to investigate a factory and bridges in that area, in the spirit of “forward action.” Speculation was that this served as an aircraft factory, churning out on occasion German imitations of the Parasol, and also some other ungainly variants, with double and triple tails, that we have heard rumors of but have so far not witnessed at the front lines. We drew straws and I was chosen for the flight—my observer was not too keen on this outcome, but I managed to relieve him of some of his apprehensions with a small shot of Scotch mixed with water.

A new fellow was to go aloft with us too, in the second Parasol. His name was Sanderson and he had studied classical languages at Eton before the war; a well-read chap, we noticed right away. There was a running joke this morning that, in case of engine or other trouble, we would send him behind enemy lines first since he possibly could converse in German, and other languages too.

Soon the banter was over, we were fitted up in our lambskin outer garments, with goggles, helmets, and scarves all done up fastidiously, and off we went. Sanderson and his observer ascended first into the cloudy skies, with us following about a mile behind. We escorted them a bit to the south of Bailleul, whereupon, as instructed, their Parasol did a wide climbing turn towards Ypres. We however proceeded on a steady southeasterly course towards the lines, passing them south of the river and then working our way northwards, on their side of the lines—at first encountering Lille on the right, and a battle raging below on the left, and that we spotted for a while, observing the location of the Hun batteries there. After a couple of circles in the vicinity we headed further northwards, at an altitude of about 6200 feet, and eventually found ourselves close to Menen and the bridges and factory we were ordered to assess.

There was so much rapidly-moving cloud cover that nothing was visible however, and we had to descend below 3300 feet, more clearly to locate the bridges and factory. We spent nearly 10 minutes doing this, with me ever-careful to idle the engine on the Parasol as best I could, during the long descent, so as not to give away our location to any German guns in the area. We finally managed to take some photographs of the objects and then, eagerly, I pointed the nose of the Parasol in the direction of our lines, and we began a gentle climb into low-hanging clouds that had approached us in the meantime, almost as if to call out to us that we come hide inside. The cloud cover proved beneficial for we remained unnoticed by the Archie below, allowing us safely to climb ever higher before passing onto our side of the lines, around Messines, where some of the worst winds hit us that I remember since arriving at the front in late April.

It was not raining, but the winds were so fearsome, and coming at our Parasol from several directions, that we received a right proper thrashing, constantly bobbing up and down, sinking to the left and right, and with barely any directional control being mustered from the Parasol’s rudder. It wasn’t until we spotted Armentières to our left, and when we got slightly higher still, that the winds abated somewhat. The turbulent bobbing was nonetheless still present even for the descent towards our smaller of the two ’dromes north of Armentières. I barely managed to land our ’crate, blipping the engine like a madman before taxiing to a stop in front of some sheds. Sanderson could be heard buzzing farther behind, having come in by now from the area around Ypres, although we could not spot him owing to the low cloud cover. In the meantime, while unfastening our harnesses and helmets, we noticed a single Be.2 descending towards the ’drome slightly south of us, and painting a rather odd picture on this day—of man and aeroplane, solitary and small, against an endless grey sky.

Mission No. 5 for Cap.’n Johnny Dobson & Company

For three days the rain fell heavily and incessantly. There would be no flying, the field next to our ’drome having gradually turned to mud, and so we wiled away the hours by listening to music, with such fresh tunes as It’s Poppy Time in Old Japan blaring from the gramophone, or amusing ourselves with games of faro and whist. On the fourth day, the 21st of May, the sun broke through the low-hanging clouds, beckoning us to ascend and engage in some fine sporting action.

That same morning our C.O. was visiting, Sir Geoffrey Salmond, a distant relative of the Felix Salmond who occasionally went up in tandem with me in the Parasols. The senior Salmond was himself a pilot, having received his flight certificate before the war, and he fancied a flight or two with us. As Captain, I suggested that he lead the way, but he would have none of it, ordering that I give the commands, with one stipulation—that it be a bombing mission, as recently urged by HQ.

With the necessary preparations done on our engines, all primed, pilots and observers fastened inside their nests, and everything checked doubly so by our riggers, we began to roll and build up speed, and ascended into the now more pleasant looking skies. The flight consisted of two Parasols, I and my observer in one, and the senior Salmond and his observer in the other—both Parasols were carrying four 45 lb bombs, which slowed down our rate of climb. Eventually, however, we managed to pass 3300 feet alt. and proceeded southwards, to pass over the lines close to Neuve Chapelle, where the Hun batteries were located that we were to bomb.

We circled a few times to ascertain more clearly the position of the batteries, and I went in first, dropping the four bombs singly, soon to be followed by Salmond’s Parasol, that also dropped its bombs singly. Detonations were heard soon after, below, but we considered it wise not to loiter and proceeded northeasterly, on the German side of the lines, towards the area between Loos and Lille, where we engaged in some further reconnoitering, and also spotted a single Be.2 as it was returning lethargically towards our side of the lines. Not seeing any Hun aeroplanes in this sector either, I signalled to Salmond that we do a wide ascending turn and head towards our lines.

The journey back appeared to pass more quickly since we were no longer carrying the weight of four bombs, equivalent to having a third person on board. As we passed onto our side of the lines, and a bit south of the Lys, I noticed that my petrol was now below 50 percent. Acting prudently, I again signalled to the other Parasol that it continue towards our ’drome above Armentières, while I on the other hand idled my engine as best I could and began a slow descent towards one of our aerodromes that was just north of the river, and not too far from the town of Bailleul. The landing, save for some minor turbulence, went smoothly, and I soon telephoned our ’drome that we would refuel here. By evening we had as well returned and were greeted with good news—that five Hun positions had been either badly damaged or destroyed in our bombing raid.

Mission No. 6 for Captain Dobson

Today’s mission required that I and another Parasol, flown by Sergeant Stephen Rhodes, observe the Hun batteries and their dugouts close to the lines, and slightly south of Bethune and Lens. The ascent was uneventful, although slightly windy, and we plotted a course towards our target, making sure to climb above 3300 feet alt. before we passed the Lys and slightly veered to the left of our original flight plan, taking us over enemy territory already near Neuve Chapelle. I was carrying less fuel so that I could more easily carry four 45 lb bombs, while Rhodes, at my suggestion, was not carrying any and would thus be able to provide us with immediate cover in case of any unpleasant surprises.

I dropped two of the bombs, at a rather high alt. of 5600 feet, already over the Hun positions below Neuve Chapelle, but there was too much mist present to ascertain precisely where the bombs fell. We then floated further south, while veering a bit more to the left, to take us over Lens, and also to the outskirts of Lens, where we spotted a small factory complex of some kind. We flew dangerously low and did a few circles above the factory, while taking photographs, but were struck in the wings several times by Hun rifle fire. I dropped our two remaining bombs in the vicinity of the factory and then immediately opened the Parasol’s rotary to full power, and we dashed away as quickly as possible, further south towards the Vimy area to do some reconnoitering there, and also to harass a solitary Hun balloon (one of those sausage types) that was in the vicinity. I did several circles above and around the balloon, but owing to low altitude turbulence and rifle fire from below, Henderson my observer was unable to do any serious damage to it—although he is convinced that several of his rounds entered the gasbag. His Lewis M.G. also jammed a few times, further slowing our unsuccessful attack on the balloon. Having spent all of our ammunition, we then had no choice but to do a wide turn and to ascend northwards again. During our balloon attack, Rhodes, in the other Parasol, had kept watch slightly above us.

For the return flight, we climbed rather higher, to about 8200 feet alt., to avoid any lurking Hun aircraft, but made sure to stay on the German side of the lines, for better spotting of trench lines and arty positions. Eventually, while passing Neuve Chapelle, we turned slightly to the left and plotted our way, through the broken clouds and low-lying mist, towards one of our aerodromes slightly to the north of the River Lys, and that I had alighted upon after my previous mission. Once again my petrol was close to the 50% mark and so, being prudent, we set down here, as did Rhodes in the other Parasol.

The landing went well since there is a fairly large field at this aerodrome that is laid out in a sort of half-crescent shape. We telephoned our own small ’drome above Armentières, but, the winds having picked up speed in the afternoon, we were advised to spend the night here—where we were served up some fine entertainment, first enjoying Charlie Chaplin’s film The Champion and then a burlesque dance performance by Lady Harbury (who usually resides in Paris and has translated Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past into English; she is also known for her double-jointedness).

For dinner there was goose pâté and other hard-to-come-by specialities, to be washed down with sparkling red Gratien & Meyer champagne that one of the pilots here, an NCO, manages to supply occasionally as we were told, ferrying the bottles down from the Meyer facilities in the Loire Valley—of all things imaginable by an inconspicuous Be.2.

Mission No. 7 for Cap.’n Dobson

Very early on the morning of the 22nd of May, having bade our fellow pilots and the C.O. farewell at the ’drome north of the Lys, and having thanked them for their hospitality, we flew our Parasols back to our own hangars northwest of Armentières. My Parasol had had its wings re-patched the night before, while we were having a splendid occasion in the mess at the other ’drome, and we were now ready to ascend into the skies once again. Breakfast having been concluded quickly, I and Henderson my observer, Felix Salmond piloting the other Parasol, and a new fellow, Ltn. Strugnell, piloting the third one, made our way slowly but surely towards Ypres, in decent and calm weather.

On the southern outskirts of Ypres, around 3300 feet alt., I received a squirt of hot oil from the LeRhone rotary, first across my wind screen and then onto my goggles and face. The sting of the boiling oil was not the worst of my troubles, for now I had to decide what to do, with the engine beginning to emit a grating, oscillating sound. Also, my rpms began to drop to 950, which was much too low to attempt continuing with the boys towards the front lines around Ypres. I therefore wagged my wings briefly, then signalled with a Verey pistol, and Salmond and Strugnell went ahead to complete the mission without us: to spot for Hun arty positions around Ledegem and then further south, running a course parallel to Lille.

I on the other hand began a wide turn below Ypres, dropped all four of my bombs onto an empty meadow, to jettison some ballast that way and coax my struggling engine to continue running, and the rest we left to fate—or at least that seemed to be the case judging from Henderson’s morose expression. I pointed the Parasol’s nose directly at our ’drome north of Armentières and we clambered along, barely to make it onto our field, with the rotary now coughing and sputtering horribly. Granted, I touched down well enough; and Henderson, though nervous, was eventually relieved to find that we were in one piece.

Henderson’s assumption, as to the problem at hand, was that our engine may have been damaged on our previous mission, by Hun rifle fire around the factory near Lens that we had photographed. This was likely, for our wings had also absorbed several rounds that day. My consolation was, however, that HQ found the photographs of the facility invaluable and suspected that this was most likely the hidden Pfalz factory they had been speculating upon recently, and not the one near Menen that we had earlier investigated.

to be continued…

Slobodan Sucur’s publications include analytical works on 19th century authors, as summarized on his profile page at The Literary Encyclopedia. He also writes the occasional (odd) poem, some of which have been published in The Melic Review and in Ygdrasil, A Journal of the Poetic Arts. His hobbies include topics in WWI aviation, flight modeling, and the early years of aeronautical engineering, areas that he has attempted to transform into an experimental text that fits well the serialized novel format and that is inspired by OBD Software’s detailed WWI flight simulator Wings Over Flanders Fields.