Above the Western Front: A Rookie Pilot's First mission
It was cold, and wet. It was always cold and wet in the morning in spring. April in France was normally a pretty site. Trees and flowers return color to a dreary landscape as they spring back to life after a long nap. Yeah, France is nice in springtime, normally, but this is 1918 and for the last 4 years Europe’s greatest powers have been using northern France as a battleground. Gone were the spring trees and fresh flowers, replaced by a line of opposing trenches, shattered stumps and mud. Mud everywhere, as far as the eye can see, mud fields with shell crater lakes all over the place.
Grimes thought it would be nice to take a quiet flight in the springtime. Such was not the case today, today would be a dawn patrol, a sweep for enemy fighters who were flying for the same reasons. Grimes put the nice thoughts of spring out of his head and tried to clear his mind for the mission briefing. It had been a long war for many, but he had only arrived two months ago. He had been training with the squadron since then and he was getting to know most of his fellow pilots. Some who were here when he got here were gone though, after all the average life expectancy of a fighter pilot in combat was only 40 to 60 hours of flight time. The fighting in the air was as vicious and close range as any trench raid on the ground would have been. Grimes was nervous when he entered the hanger and took his seat for the briefing.
The morning briefing had been quick and to the point. Heavy German air activity was expected. The Ludendorff offensive had been going on for two weeks and allied command worried about a breakthrough. The Germans were throwing everything they had into one final effort to destroy the British Army and her allies and force the French to sue for peace. Grimes smiled, he wanted contact with the enemy. He worried that he would miss out on all the action. He wanted to be able to boast of his achievements back home in La Prairie. Young and reckless, he does not see the foolishness of such thoughts. Today is a day for courage and honor, for service to King and Country. Conditions were ripe for contact with experienced German fighter pilots. Today was also a day for blood.
Grimes climbed into his SE5a scout and began his pre-flight routine with his crewman and ground guide, Tim. A Peterborough native who, having been told at 43 he was too old to fly in war, boarded a tramp steamer in Halifax and signed on with the RAF in London as a mechanic, Tim had become an advisor and confidante over the last two months. Grimes had come to rely on Tim’s knowledge of the area, having been here since 1914. Tim had a unique sense about him. Today Tim’s only words were ‘don’t get caught looking at the pretty landscape when the krauts come at you out of the sun’. Tim knew planes after almost 4 full years. He had touched virtually every plane flown so far on the allied side and it was even rumored he was called in to ‘offer expertise’ on a captured German Albatross D7. Pre-flight with Tim was thorough; nothing to chance was Tim’s motto.
Today’s patrol took them over the Somme region of the front. This area seemed to be the focus for the latest German offensive. Flying in the back end of a finger four formation, Grimes was nervous, his palms were sweaty and he could feel the perspiration on his forehead. His wing man, Martin, a man from Calgary with over a year in combat, Martin started out as an observer before getting his wings after his pilot was shot during a mission. Martin flew the plane back to base and landed it on his own. Then came Shorty, a young man no older than Grimes but on his fifth combat mission, ‘Shorty’ was aptly named, a short stature man from Port Arthur he had two kills in his 5 missions. The flight leader was Captain Matt Dorian, a veteran from Montreal with over twenty kills to his credit.
Flying at 3000 feet, Grimes was alert, his mates were depending on him as much as he was depending on them, so he was using his filter to check the sunspot and checking his mirrors constantly. Still, when the flag signal announcing contact came from the flight leader, Grimes had to look around to find the contact at his 3 o’clock. When he finally made the four Albatross D7s coming in his heart skipped. He was both excited and scared at the same time. Here it was, combat! Grimes saw Martin break off and begin to climb as he angled his plane towards the incoming Germans.
The enemy had the advantage of altitude on their side. The German planes were breaking off and heading towards the Canadians. Diving and maneuvering as they came in. Grimes was trying to match the altitude of his adversary. This German was clever though, he wasn’t about to go nose on with Grimes. He swung out and around while descending and dropped right in behind Grimes as he desperately tried to maneuver his plane around to keep the German in front of him. Although his plane was nimble and fast, Grimes was a rookie and that didn’t help matters any as his adversary was obviously no rookie.
Grimes could see the German plane lining up in his mirrors. He needed to maneuver and fast! He dodged and spun, twisted and turned, climbed and dove, but to no avail. The German matched his maneuvers and was closing. He could feel his plane shudder as the first burst tore from the German’s nose guns across the main body of the fuselage. The second burst he felt in his body as a bullet ripped through his shoulder and shattered his mirror, tearing through the struts on the port side wing. Wounded, Grimes was struggling with his scout. The SE5a was normally a rugged craft that could withstand punishment and get the pilot home but today there was a rookie at the controls and there was still the problem of the Albatross on his tail to deal with.
The German, perhaps sensing that his prey was nearing the end, accelerated his craft. Grimes could almost hear the scream of the German engine behind him. He was losing both altitude and ground on his opponent. The German swung out from behind Grimes and angled slightly towards him when he let go his final burst. The bullets ripped through his fuel tank and the lower half of the cockpit. Grimes could feel pain from both his legs now. He dared not look down but he could feel the warm blood flowing. That last burst had also punctured his fuel tanks and destroyed his foot control pedals as well as ripped through the engine compartment. Grimes started losing altitude at a faster rate. He was almost in a dive and there was smoke coming from his wounded craft. The German was gone, having confirmed his victory; he was looking for other targets. Grimes had no idea how the battle above was going. His focus was on landing his craft safely.
The engine sputtered and quit for good at 100 feet. Grimes was gliding now, using his damaged control stick he managed to keep his nose level as the ground raced up at him. He was dizzy from loss of blood and fought to maintain a conscious state while he struggled to land safely. Grimes could hear the landing gear shatter on impact. The plane’s nose hit the ground and he was rocked forward in his cockpit. He struck his head and slipped into unconsciousness.
He awoke 3 days later in a hospital just outside his aerodrome. His struggle had been watched from the ground and Grimes was recovered, unconscious and barely alive, by a French patrol. He had lost his right leg and his left leg was badly mauled. His shoulder was also badly mauled and Grimes had a long period of recovery to look forward to. The battle he was in had been won by his flight that day. Captain Dorian getting two of the four enemy pilots himself.
Recovering from his wounds, Grimes remembered his feelings on that cold and wet morning in France during the spring of 1918. He had wanted something to brag about, something that made him different and unique in La Prairie. He wondered now if the experience could ever be discussed with anyone who had not gone through it. Grimes, still 22 but no longer young, realized what war was. It was pain and suffering, dead friends and shattered lives. If you live through it, you will never be the same again.