Background Info

The Blue Max

~ ~ Chapter 1 ~ ~

       Bruno Stachel stepped down from the truck and surveyed the airfield’s forlorn expanse. A cold wind, sodden with the hint of snow, whispered out of the northwest to set up a restless fluttering along the line of tent hangars, and somewhere a loose board swung and thumped. He stood before what appeared to be the station’s sole permanent building — a weathered structure that presumably at some dim time had served as a railroad storehouse. Inside someone pecked impetuously at a typewriter. The truck driver, a gloomy fellow with a ludicrous mustache, had unlashed his luggage from the mudguard, and having placed it on the duckboards, now stood in sleepy preoccupation.
       “Wait here a moment,” Stachel instructed, squinting into the wind.
       The airdrome, he noted, was situated at the junction of two highways on the edge of a farm village. The hangars backed up to the north-south road, which itself was paralleled by the railroad spur. Running west on the upper side of the field, the other road crossed a small stone bridge to disappear into the miles of plain beyond. The town had once aspired to greater things apparently, since a two-story factory building — now a vacant-windowed ruin whose chimney etched a tired exclamation point against the sky — brooded on the western horizon. The field’s southern boundary was marked by a line of uneasy poplars. It was altogether dismal, and Stachel’s loneliness was intense. He struggled to shake it off as he entered the shack.
       The office, dominated by a noisily laboring field stove, was heavy with the smell of wet wool and peat smoke. The Unteroffizier continued with his typing, his lips pursed around the sopping stub of a cigar, until Stachel rattled the envelope containing his orders. Then, with the comprehensive glance utilized by soldiers since armies had been born, he took in Stachel’s rank, the ribbonless spread of Feldgrau from waist to shoulder, and face — in precisely that order. He arose, the cigar end vanishing into a cupped hand, to take up a position of attention that was just casual enough to let it be known that here by God, was an old campaigner.
       “Afternoon, Herr Leutnant,” he said blandly. “You must be the new officer” — his eyes flickered to a paper on his desk — “Stachel. Leutnant Stachel.”
       “Where is everybody?” Stachel was acutely aware of the condescension in the other’s tone. He despised being patronized, and to realize that he now was being patronized by one who could base his superiority solely on having been in this melancholy hole first was just short of infuriating.
       “On patrol. Sir. They’re due back any time now.” Stachel wondered if the Officer’s Code said anything about an Unteroffizier who made a separate, mocking sentence of “sir.”
       “The driver outside — where should he put my gear?”
       “I’ll take care of that. Sir. Simply sign the book there and make yourself comfortable by the stove.” Then, as if he sensed Stachel’s rising annoyance, the man said disarmingly, “Dirty weather. Cold. Give a man pneumonia.”
       Stachel considered the peace feeler. He decided to reject it and give the old campaigner something other than a cigar to chew on.
       “I’m surprised they’re flying,” he offered in an equally mild tone.
       “They fly in worse than this. Sir. How is anybody’s guess. . . .”
       “Who are you?”
       The other paused, weighing the sharpness of the question and re-evaluating the questioner. An almost indiscernible change came into his eyes, but it was sufficient to show that he’d replaced superciliousness with caution.
       “Unteroffizier Gerhardt Rupp, sir. I am staff orderly and chief clerk to the Jastaführer. . . .”
       “I didn’t ask what you do, I asked who you are. Now see to my bags.”
       It was the other’s turn to be infuriated, but he had soldiered long enough to know that a Uffz would always come out second best in a contest with an angered Leutnant — even a brand-new one — so he hid his wrath in the business of getting to the door.
       When Rupp had left, Stachel signed his name to the book, noted the time and date, and was once again struck by the brevity of the interval that had passed since day he had entered the flying school at Köln. The familiar pang of inadequacy stabbed at him, and his mild satisfaction at having put the Uffz in his place was immediately erased by the old anxiety. As tired as he was, and as pleasant as the stove was, he brought up the only defense known to him and strode purposefully to the door and out into the wind. Physical action — a purposeful stride was usually enough — would counter the indefinable sense of impending doom that had been his companion for as long as he could remember. Inadequacy, anxiety, depression, loneliness: would they ever leave him? Did every man resort to purposeful strides, to the exercise of muscle, to stifle a retching of the spirit?
       He looked into the large tent adjacent to the headquarters building and watched a trio of mechanics struggling profanely to hoist the engine from a mud-spattered Albatros. The gloom was fetid with castor oil, lacquer, stale sweat, and damp wool. (God, how he hated the stink of sweat and wet wool; it was rapidly becoming Germany’s national odor.) The men ignored him, and he could almost feel the defensive cocoon they had drawn around them by their intimate swearing and calculated avoidance of his eyes. The enormous gulf between the Officers Corps and troops was never more tangible than when enlisted personnel chose to pretend they did not see. He stood tentatively in the shadow, thinking about this and awaiting the biplane’s teetering protest as it gave up its engine to the block and tackle.
       At first, the new sound was a suggestion — a feeling in the atmosphere. Then, over the men’s chattering and the rasp of the chain, Stachel heard a high drumming and he went outside to peer aloft. A spittle of snow was in the air now, and the dark clouds rolled low. At their base, out to the west where a thin band of lemon sky separated the horizon from the shaping storm, a cluster of dots slanted down the wind. The gentle hum gained in pitch as the dots formed into aircraft. It seemed to Stachel, standing with his hands behind his back and blinking into the flurry, that they were coming in awfully fast. He’d been told that the Jastas, as the Imperial Service’s front-line squadrons had come to be called, were very casual in their flying and frequently made mockery of operational safety regulations, but these approaching machines were acting as if a landing were the last thing they were about to attempt. There were five of them, and as they slid lower, canting their dual wings to the field, he felt an uneasy puzzlement. Their engines whined strangely. They had round noses and a pronounced dihedral in the lower wing. They weren’t Albatroses, of course, since the Albatros had a deep-bellied, barrel-like, front elevation and he was quite familiar with the type. No German aircraft he could recall. . . .
       A siren croaked down the line, and from behind the railroad embankment came the knocking of a machine gun. Somewhere a man shouted, and there was the clumping sound of running feet. The three mechanics burst from the hangar behind him. One of them, brushing hard against him, swore foully and with no trace of the comfortable tone that had mellowed the wrangling inside. Stachel fought for balance, pacing sideways in indecision and confusion. Dry sticks crackled nastily in the air about him and the rush of engines beat down in a numbing shock wave. Then it dropped in an instant to an angry, dwindling snarl.
       “You’d better get down on your belly. Sir. Otherwise our English visitors will punch several extra navels in it.”
       The Uffz’s cold cigar, an inch from Stachel’s nose, wagged up and down as the words came around it. His eyes again hinted derision.
       “Shouldn’t we be doing something?”
       “What would you suggest? Sir.”
       “How about shooting back at the Englishmen? Or isn’t that fashionable among you old-timers?”
       “Suit yourself. Sir. This is one old-timer who’s going this ass under an umbrella.”
       Stachel lurched into the cigar’s wake and followed Rupp around the hangar, crouching against the returning roar, to the ridge topped by the rail spur. A shallow trench, sandbags already whitening under snow, cut a sawtooth pattern beside the rise of gravel. They rolled into it, and Stachel was aware of his dry mouth and shortness of breath. The machine guns beyond the embankment were thumping steadily.
       “Damned fools. Why don’t they wait until the Englishmen get back in range?” the Uffz snorted, his face frowning at the sky.
       “At least they’re doing something.”
       “The bastards couldn’t hit a grounded Zeppelin.”
       “Why don’t you go show them how, Rupp?”
       The cigar turned toward him. The eyes above it, old and too wise, were sullen. “I’m on fire detail. If there’s a fire in the hangars, I join the pee brigade.”
       “Meanwhile, you’re on the complaining detail, eh?”
       “Begging your pardon, Herr Leutnant, but you need a sense of humor. Haven’t you ever belly-ached about your favorite soccer team?”
       “Don’t tell me what I need.”
       “Not a chance. Sir.”
       “You’re a smart aleck, aren’t you, Unteroffizier Gerhardt Rupp?”
       “I get along.”
       This time the crackling sound seemed inches above their ditch, and the engine sound was a rattling rain of physical blows. Now Stachel caught a glimpse of the buff-colored undersides of the British machines and the large bull’s-eye insignia marking their lower wings. Their speed was astonishing, as low as they were, and he could even feel the backlash of their propeller wash. An explosion crashed, as if a great door had slammed, and concussion stung his face. There was another, then a rapid series, but the jarring decreased as the blasts marched away in fretful pursuit of the rushing attackers. Above the sandbags he could see a hangar roof collapse in a shower of dirty snow and spinning turf. He realized with vague satisfaction that he was watching the whole affair with an objective detachment. He had often worried over his possible reaction when he’d come under enemy fire for the first time. For a man as anxiety-ridden as Bruno Stachel could be while lying in his own bed, objective detachment in real danger was droll indeed; for one who perspired gallons over chitchat with a clergyman, a mere dry mouth amidst snapping ricochets was paradox of almost comic cast.
       He sensed the other’s eyes on him. “What are you staring at, Rupp?”
       “I was just wondering what you’re smiling about. Sir.”
       “Was I smiling?”
       Another truce was in the air. “Yes.”
       “I wasn’t aware of it.”
       “Takes a cool one to smile at a time like this.”
       “Gas pain. I always look like this when I have a gas pain.”
       Now the Uffz was smiling. “Yes. Cool.”
       Stachel shot down the white flag.
       “Kiss my ass, Unteroffizier Gerhardt Rupp,” he said.
       Rupp’s smile faded, and he looked away, Adam’s apple bobbing.
       The English machines soared in a wide turn over the distant factory. Stachel’s gaze followed them; he guessed they were Sopwiths, although he admitted to himself in secret embarrassment that they could just as well be Spads or Nieuports or whatever, for all he could recall of the training manuals. As he watched, another movement caught his eye and he sought it out.
       Beyond the line of trees and along the far-off cloud base, a ragged V of specks wheeled with deceptive slowness toward the field. At first they stretched across the, sky like a flight of tired geese; but in their approach they edged together and the air throbbed with their bass humming even over the waspish buzz of the circling Englishmen. Stachel nudged the Unteroffizier.
       “Ours,” Rupp said slowly.
       Stachel counted ten machines in the German formation. “Now we’ll see something,” he thought aloud.
       “Not if our people return as usual, out of ammunition and low on fuel. They usually come back as empty as a spinster’s belly.”
       “Not likely today, I’d say. Otherwise they wouldn’t barge in like this, but would hang off as long as they could until the Englishmen tired of shooting up an empty lot and went home.”
       Rupp’s pout deepened. “I wouldn’t say a company of men, a dozen hangars, and four spare aircraft make up empty lot.”
       “You know what I mean.” He leveled his eyes at the Uffz. “We might as well get this understood right off, Unteroffizier Gerhardt Rupp, chief clerk to the squadron leader: don’t try your smart-aleck stuff with me. You may able to use your sly little noncom ways with other new officers — and maybe with some of the old ones, for all I know — but not with me. I’ll squeeze you like a flea and poop on the goo.”
       Rupp studied a thumbnail, his face flushed. “Whatever do you mean? Sir.”
       “Just this: don’t underestimate me.”
       “You’re the officer. I obey the orders. But my thoughts go on.” There was defiance there.
       “Then think of how sweet I am. It’ll be safer that way.”
       “I’ve noted that the toughest officers are the most pleasant ones,” Rupp suggested angrily.
       “A philosopher, eh? It may reassure you to know that I’m really a very pleasant fellow. I am, that is, until some smart aleck presses me. Then I poop on his goo.”
       Rupp withdrew his crumbling forces. “No offense, Herr Leutnant.”
       Stachel had already feigned absorption in the developing aerial action, but the exchange, as any such acrimony invariably did, had cost him dearly. He wondered if Unteroffizier Gerhardt Rupp could sense that truth.
       The Englishmen made another sweep, this time down the long axis of the hangar area. Their clattering guns showed tiny flickers of pale yellow, and the truck Stachel had arrived in sagged, its windshield dissolving in shower of glass dust. Somewhere someone whimpered.
       For Rupp’s benefit, Stachel shook his head professionally, as he’d seen the instructors do at Köln. “Two-to-one odds. Those Tommies are fools.”
       But he was thinking: he’s only a frigging noncom, and probably one of those Bolsheviks to boot. What’s there to be so upset about?

* * *

       At the point of the V, which was now a tight wedge of thunder, Otto Heidemann decided that the raiding Englishmen were fools. Brave, to be sure. But fools. However such was the history of the English people, and if these five fellows wanted to be conformists, so be it. He glanced over his shoulder at the formation and was pleased to see how well the others had closed in. They were really quite good — even the newer ones were first-class.
       The past hour and a half had been uneventful. They had traced a large triangle, flying from the airdrome here west to where the Scarpe crossed the lines, then southeast for nineteen kilometers along the front, and finally, after several circuits of their area of responsibility, almost due north over Cambrai to close out the patrol. Only once had they sighted enemy aircraft — a low-flying trio of DeHavilland artillery spotters that had disappeared ghostlike in the ground haze. Later, he had considered sending several machines at an observation balloon that formed a swollen obscenity at the end its tethers south of Croisilles, but Mueller, the Jasta’s balloon specialist, was in charge of the Kette composed of the newer men, and it would have been too risky to commit them and too time-consuming to organize another section. Besides, Army had been quite specific in its instructions for a high-altitude patrol in squadron strength, so he had dismissed the balloon and had concentrated on his surveillance of the pale blue vault around and above.
       The weather, too, had preoccupied him. The low, rolling snow clouds moving in from the northwest could be much more dangerous than enemy machines, and he did not want to lose half the Jasta simply through inattention to their movements. The sky was a strangely deceptive thing — at one moment bright and cheery, the next opaque and baleful. In the early days he had more than once found himself entirely lost in a shining sky within a few minutes of leaving a fie1d. And only once had he dared to enter a storm cloud, and he had barely survived the subsequent crash. So Otto Heidemann respected the sky and was wary of its tricks. Someday, he felt, there would be aircraft that could ignore the weather, but not in this generation or the next.
       He had been mildly surprised to find the airdrome under attack. Not that anything the English could do would ever really confound him; he had flown against them too long to reckon without their unpredictability. Indeed, it would take an Englishman to fly some sixteen kilometers into alien country during a snowstorm, to launch a strafing attack against a strongly defended station, then, with tanks and ammunition boxes nearly empty, to attempt a return in the teeth of a twenty-knot wind. Like the sky, the English aviator and his eccentricities held Otto Heidemann’s unqualified respect.
       But his career was to destroy men such as these, so he readied himself for the job at hand. He charged the twin Spandau machine guns nested in the cowling before him, pulled another hitch in the security belt, checked air pressure gauge (low, but not dangerously so) and tachometer (normal at full), and resettled the glasses over his eyes. His feet were numb with the cold, and he removed them from the rudder bar briefly to stamp them against the boards. Behind and to both sides, their rocking wings somber-hued in the afternoon light, the other machines formed oblique stairsteps upward. Ulrich, in the Albatros nearest his own, stared across the gap at him, his face nearly hidden by a roll of scarf and the blankness of goggles.
       Heidemann pointed to Mueller on his right, then swept his arm toward the southwest. He could see the answering nod before Mueller stood his Albatros on its side, left wing high, to turn away, trailed by the machines of his Kette. With the Englishmen’s escape route thus covered, Heidemann teetered the wings of his airplane to signal the free-for-all. His watch said 16:22.
       The Sopwiths had finished another run along the hangar line and were climbing in a businesslike effort to meet the onslaught. In the dive, the airdrome formed a black-brown polygon that swelled in size over the yammering rocker arms of Heidemann’s engine. He singled out an Englishman at the near edge of the pack, aligned his sights, and, with a tap of rudder, took up the proper angle of deflection. He thumbed the right gun button on his control-column yoke and the starboard Spandau pounded authoritatively. Too high; another correction. Again the jabbing motion, this time on the full fire lever, and both ammunition tracks trembled as the cartridges raced in a dull copper blur. He was close behind the Sopwith now, and the Tommy’s khaki wings snapped to the vertical in a full-torque right bank that barely cleared the rushing turf. A quick third burst from both guns tore away the red-white-and-blue rudder directly ahead, then Heidemann pulled up in an arcing climb to watch as the English craft cartwheeled wildly through a farmyard, trailing a welter of junk. Oddly, there was no fire.
       Circling at a bare fifty meters, Heidemann took stock. A demolished aircraft was burning briskly beside the railroad, but he was unable to determine its nationality. Another column of smoke traced an enormous, soot-brown question mark in the air above the abandoned factory. The sole Tommy still visible was faltering in the vortex of a twister of Albatroses, and even as he watched, the enemy machine turned on its back to plummet sickeningly into a marsh.
       Heidemann throttled back the hammering engine and sighed deeply, taking his first real breath since the insane plunging and whirling had begun. As usual, his mouth was sticky dry.
       It was 16:23, and snowing quite heavily.

Copyright © 1964 and 1992 by Jack D. Hunter.  All rights reserved.  No part of this document may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the author.

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