England, May 1913.
The rocking chair squeaked a protest and the newspaper rustled its annoyance as Mr. Lorimer slammed it down to his knees. He glared at his wife’s aproned back and stated in a voice which brooked no dispute, “Damned Germans are building a huge battleship. Cheek and impudence of ‘em. Britannia rules the waves and always will!”
He fumbled for his pipe as his wife at the sink replied, “Yes, dear.”
“Almost as if the Kaiser wants a war, it is!”
“Well. At least if it comes, it’ll all be fought over in Europe. Won’t get to us ‘ere. Our Navy will keep the channel free.”
“Yes, dear. I’m sure you’re right, dear.”
Mr. Lorimer fumbled some shag into the cold mouth of his briar.
“Good thing our Bill is only teachin’ chaps ‘ow to fly them aereo-planes at Farnborough factory.”
“Yes, dear. It’s very comforting.”
“‘E won’t be in any fightin’ overseas, although knowin’ the lad as I do, ‘e’ll be itchin’ for it if it does start.”
“Surely not, dear.”
“An’ young Ross… learnin’ ‘ow to be a mechanic in the Royal Flyin’ Corps. Now that’ll get ‘im a good job later on, it will. Nice cosy berth there. No chance of ‘im bein’ in any battle.”
“No, dear. Now, put that smelly pipe away and go wash up for supper. I have an egg on to boil and those toast fingers you love.” Lorimer folded the paper and laid it on his chair. The banner was dated 20th May 1913.
As he walked inside from the sunlight, Ross’s eyes stung from the acrid smell of the dope used in the confines of the Royal Flying Corps hangar at Farnborough. Two riggers were painting this clear pungent liquid onto the linen-covered wings to shrink the surface drum-tight.
He peered into the dim building and located the three stripes of the mechanic in charge. Smartly, he marched over to the khaki-clad airman and stamped to a stop, his right hand snapping a regimental salute.
“Ross Lorimer reporting for duty Sir,” he asserted, standing rigidly to attention, his eyes fixed on a spot on the hangar wall.
“Stand easy, mon, I’m Sergeant Broadman.” His new boss grinned at his innocence. “An’ for heaven’s sake, forget the stiff salute. It’s only officers that get that sort o’ action round here.”
“Yes, Sir. The Duty Officer told me to change into fatigues and report to you, Sir. I’m to work here as an engine fitter, Sir.” The Sergeant studied Ross closely, and liked what he saw. Tall, rangy and with intelligent features, Ross wore his new overalls awkwardly, their pressed creases at odds with the oil stained clothes worn by the other mechanics.
“D’you know anythin’ about yon engines, lad? ‘Ow about this ‘Gnome’ engine on the bench?” Broadman continued.
“No Sir, but I’m used to stripping down my motorcycle engine, and surely all combustion engines are similar. Anyway, I’m a quick learner,” Ross asserted.
“Similar?” the Sergeant-mechanic laughed. “If only that was true! They are as different as chalk an’ cheese, even though they be the same brand an’ model! An’ most are as different from a motorcycle engine as ye can get. I’ll give ye this 70 ‘orse-power Renault motor to work on this afternoon. It needs the valves cleaned before we put it back into that Farman for Captain Dawes,” he said, waving to an aircraft just outside the hangar door.
“Now, d’ye see that engine over there on yon bench?”
Ross nodded assent as they moved to the workbench.
“This one is a rotary engine. D’ye know what that means?”
Ross shook his head.
“It means that it works exactly the opposite to your motorcycle engine. Ye see, your motorbike engine is bolted into the frame, and the insides move around as the pistons suck in fuel and fire it. But in a rotary engine, the driveshaft stays stationary and the cylinders and pistons rotate around them as they fire in succession. The prop is fixed to the cylinders, so as they spin around the drive-shaft, the prop spins as well. Get me?”
Ross furrowed his brow and pursed his lips. “I think so,” he answered cautiously, trying to understand the Sergeant’s technical explanation.
“Ye’ll catch on when ye see it in action,” the Sergeant assured him. “Well, we are working on repairin’ the wing of this wee Caudron Trainer at the moment. Lieutenant Harper needs it for a test flight later this afternoon,” he continued, leading Ross over to a small aircraft halfway towards the hangar door. “Now, the first thing ye must learn is how to swing a prop.”
Ross looked at the carved wooden propeller bolted onto the front of the engine. He could see some of the finned cylinders below the propeller, but the upper ones were covered with a tin cowling. He scanned the upper and lower wings, supported by their round timber struts and crossbars. The twin cockpit sat behind the wings, and the pair of wheels on each side supported the tailfins on a long open box-type framework. His eyes came back to the prop as the Sergeant grabbed the blade. “Now, ye swing the prop like this.”
Sergeant Broadman pulled the blade down in an arc until it hit some resistance, then heaved it down in a curve. The prop skidded to a halt, then backed up a bit. The engine cylinders rotated with the prop and Ross nodded his head in understanding of what the Sergeant had been explaining.
“It’s a bit like turning the engine over on my bike. You have to find the compression spot so it will fire easily,” Ross ventured.
“Aye. Well, this will be yer first task, today. I want ye to swing this prop fifty times before lunch. The magneto is switched off, so ye’ll do no harm. To the aircraft, that is. Then ye can toddle off to the mess tent for a wee bite, lad.” And he waved at a large tent out in the sunlight to the right of the hangar.
For the next half an hour or so, Ross swung the prop, getting more assured, and fluid in his swing each time. The little 45 h.p. Anzani motor obligingly coughed and spluttered each time. Only the switched-off magneto prevented it from firing up.
With a sweat up, he wiped his hands on a piece of rag and wandered over to the mess tent to satisfy his hunger.
Half an hour later Ross nodded to the Sergeant and mechanics as they entered the tent and stood in line for their meals. He wiped the grease from his plate with a crust of bread, drained his mug of tea, stood up and exited the tent into the sunshine. Strolling around outside, his eyes swept over the assembled aircraft and huts which comprised the Farnborough Flying Depot in southern England. There were planes of many types, Farmans, Breguets, Bleriots and BE2s, all spindly struts and linen, crouching there like ungainly grasshoppers with their wings spread. He felt blissfully happy. The sun was shining. He was learning how to be an aircraft mechanic. What could be better! He drew in a huge breath and spread his arms wide in satisfaction.
Everyone seemed to be having their mid-day meal now so, whistling his mother’s favorite tune, “The Last Rose of Summer”, he wandered back to the task he had been given for the afternoon. The Renault motor lay on the bench, oil streaked and lifeless, the stubby exhaust pipe black with soot.
Grabbing a cloth, he started to clean off the greasy mess to reveal the shining grey metal beneath. He spent a few minutes looking the engine over and seeing the differences between it and his bike engine, then reached for some tools and got to work. Having scraped the carbon off the valves and piston tops, Ross rebuilt the motor and told the Sergeant it was ready. “Bloody Hell, man! How d’ye expect me to check yer work if ye close it all up? Strip the cylinders off it again so I can see what ye’ve done.”
“Sorry Sir, I just thought it would save time.”
“Thought? Thought? The Flyin’ Corps don’t pay ye to think! They pays ye to obey orders! What were ye before? Bugler, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, Sir. With the Royal Engineers, Sir.”
“Well, I bet that when ye was told to play Reveille, ye didn’t play ‘Annie Laurie’ cause ye thought the troops would like it better, did yer!”
“An’ it’s the same ‘ere. Ye do your job an’ let me see it’s done right, before ye close up. Unnerstand?”
“Yes, Sir. It won’t happen again, Sir.”
“It’d better not! Now, as soon as the cylinders are off again, get some rubbin’ paper an’ rub the rust off all the support wires on Captain Dawes’ aircraft over there. Get to it, lad.”
The other mechanics hid their grins as Ross approached them a few minutes later.
“Do you know where I can find some rubbing paper?” he asked.
“Latrines,” quipped one, and the others laughed.
“I mean to rub the rust off the support wires.”
“Well, yer could try the supply cupboard over there. But ye’ll have ter use left-handed paper, as we’ve run out of the right-handed stuff, an’ the supply truck’s not due ‘til tomorrow.”
Remembering the order he had been given some years before as a boy-soldier in the Engineers, to fetch a left-handed hammer from the stores, Ross grinned and said, “You sure I can’t get a can of tartan paint for you while I’m there? Save you the trip...”
The other mechanics grinned widely.
“You’ll do right well here,” one red haired lad said. “Just follow orders an’ you’ll be set. The Sarge is all right once you get to know him. I’m Mick, and this is Sandy and Pete. Welcome aboard.”
“Thanks. Ross Lorimer, ex Royal Engineers, Sapper & Bugler. Pleased to meet you,” and they shook greasy hands. “Mick O’Brien, ex Royal Navy. Stoker, but this is a much better berth.”
“Sandy Paul, ex Grenadier Guards. Cook and general dogsbody until I landed up here. Made the mistake of blowing the shit out of a fuel pipe on a General’s car. I guess you could call this posting a reward. Now I blow shit out of fuel-pipes all day,” he laughed. “Makin’ a career out of it, you might say. And this here fellow’s Peter Baker. Cockney. Don’t say much. He was a regular soldier, but with all the fuss an’ goings on, he reckons there’s less chance of him bein’ killed here, if we go to war.”
Ross shook hands all round, then as the Sergeant looked over at them with a quizzical look, they all moved off to their tasks.
Ross found the fine grit sanding paper in the locker, and started to sand off the rust from the multitude of wing support wires, coughing as he inhaled the fine dust. The job seemed to last forever and he was surprised at just how many wires there were to support the wings and body. Some of them were taut, some slack, but all of them were covered in rust until he got to them and made them gleam.
“Been watchin’ you,” a gruff voice said at his shoulder. Ross swung around in surprise to see Sergeant Broadman right behind him. How had he got so close on his nail-shod army boots?
“That Renault engine’s in good shape. A fine job. Ye can close it up an’ take a smoko.”
“Sergeant, to you. Remember that,” and he moved off towards the other mechanics.
A few minutes later, having bolted the cylinders onto the engine and put the tools away, Ross was standing at the opening of the hangar, just in front of the ‘Caudron’. There was not much happening on the airstrip, so he turned and looked at the small aircraft.
“Well, time for a bit more swinging practice I suppose.”
He grabbed the carved wooden prop in both hands, pulled down gently until he felt the compression stroke, spread his feet, and pulled sharply down. With a smoky cough, the engine caught, fired roughly, then fell into a regular beat as the propeller became a blur.
‘Holy Hell! Someone’s been fiddling in the cockpit. They’ve left the magneto switches on with the throttle open!’
In dismay Ross watched the wheels start turning as the craft vibrated and came alive, gathering speed as it rolled. He jumped to one side and ducked under the wing as it passed him, then tried to clamber on board to shut the engine down. His boot pushed a hole in the linen covering the wing and his foot was nearly caught there, but he managed to pull free and reached for the cockpit. The craft was vibrating hard now and he lost his balance, falling to the hangar floor as the tail-plane passed over his head.
He lay there and watched in dismay as the Caudron rolled out of the hangar and chewed into the Farman parked just outside. The Farman’s wings slewed round and crushed the spars supporting the Caudron’s tailfins and they collapsed, dragging the carcass sideways. As it slewed, the wreckage crunched into a staff car parked nearby.
The Commanding Officer’s car!
“Blithering idiot! What do you mean by it, eh?” They were in Major Rawlings’s office. Rawlings stood behind a small desk, his knuckles leaning on its worn surface. A mug of cold tea was etching a ring on the scratched varnish of the Major’s desk. Sergeant Broadman stood at ease to one side. Rawlings glared at Ross, his red face thunderous.
“Sorry Sir, I didn’t mean it.”
“What do you take me for? As big an idiot as yourself? I know you didn’t actually set out to do it, but any fool knows you must have the magneto switches off before you work on an aircraft. Any fool at all!”
“But I had been practising swinging the prop all morning and the switches were off. Someone has switched them on again,” Ross protested in dismay, his throat tight.
“Sergeant Broadman! Can you shed some light on this shemozzle?”
Broadman stiffened even more, if that was possible and barked, “Mechanic Baker was adjustin’ the electric cable from the magneto after lunch, Sir and ‘e then went off to ask Lieutenant Harper when he would be available to take it up for a test flight, Sir.”
“I see,” the Commanding Officer said, swinging his gaze back to the young man standing to attention before him. “So this is when you got back to it and had a bit more... ah, practice, lad?”
“Yes, Sir,” Ross replied glumly. “I suppose so.”
“Hmmm. And my car just happened to be in the wrong spot, I suppose?”
“I suppose, Sir. Honestly, I didn’t mean it to happen.”
Only the Sergeant’s lips moved as he said, “Sir, if I may put a point in the lad’s favour?”
“The lad ‘as been working ‘ard all day, an’ not slacking off in between jobs, Sir. An’ the work ‘e did on the little Renault motor was excellent, Sir.”
“I see. Well lad, I believe you are not stupid. Sergeant Broadman would not have spoken up for you if you were. And good mechanics are hard to find. But we cannot allow this sort of thing to happen.”
“Oh, Sir, it’ll never happen again, Sir. I will be most careful to check all the switches from now on.”
“I can see that, lad. But how do I justify the repairs needed on two of our precious aircraft, let alone my car? That’s the rub.”
“Well, Sir,” the Sergeant ventured. “The damage is fairly superficial to both craft. As soon as the Caudron’s prop hit the Farman’s wing-struts it got snarled on the support wires and chewed itself to a stop. I expect a day on each of ‘em should see ‘em flying again. Maybe the Colonel don’t need to know, Sir.”
“Hmmm. I doubt that. But what about my car? Who’s going to pay for that?”
“Bit of panel-beating an’ a can of paint... I was a boilermaker before I joined, Sir. I think we can ‘ave that shipshape and Bristol fashion in less than a week, Sir. An’ I think the lad will be stiff and sore from all the effort he’s going to put into the repairs, Sir, if I may make so bold.”
“Yes, I see your point Broadman. Make the punishment fit the crime, eh?”
“Yes, sir, in a manner of speaking.”
“Right then. So be it. He’ll be under open arrest in the Guard Room until the Colonel can sit at his trial. And maybe some kitchen duty if he has time to spare, eh?”
He turned his cold eyes on the young mechanic, and Ross shivered in trepidation.
“But Lorimer, I need to stress one thing. You must never take things for granted. Check everything. That’s the mark of a good tradesman. Check and double-check. Take everyone else to be a careless idiot. At all times be aware that the lives of our precious pilots are in your hands. It is your careful work that keeps them flying. One slip from you, one oversight, and you will be attending their funeral.
“Do you understand?”
The Grenadier Band was playing “Oh, You Beautiful Doll” again, just outside his cell window. That made six times in a row. Maybe this time they had it right and they would start to practise something else.
Ross lay on his narrow bunk, hands behind his head. The first two days of his arrest had been spent in panel beating the Major’s car, under the Sergeant’s guidance, then painting it with black gloss paint, so it matched the rest of the car. Since then he had been
penned up in here for three days, and still no news of when the Colonel would be convening his trial.
The band finished on a sour note and Ross heard the bandmaster bawling some poor musician out for having a poor embouchure. “You been suckin’ lemons, or what!” Ross heard him scream.
“Once more, from the top, an’ this time blow it sweet Corporal Smith, or I’ll ram yer trombone slide up where the sun don’t shine!” Ross groaned as the opening notes assailed his ears again. A music lover, he liked these modern tunes, but hearing them over and over was just an added punishment for him. He pulled the ends of the thin pillow up over his ears and closed his eyes.
The rattle of his door lock brought him upright, as Sergeant Broadman walked in.
“’Ow are ye doing, lad?” he asked as the inmate came to attention.
“All right except for a headache, Sir,” Ross replied loudly to get over the din from outside.
“Right. Get yourself out of here. You are still on open arrest until your trial. But Lieutenant Colonel Symes ‘as been delayed in London an’ we don’t know when ‘e’ll be back. An’ I need some help in the machine hangar.”
“Yes, Sir,” beamed Ross as he picked up his kit.
As he followed Broadman across the field, Ross heard the gutsy roar of a Farman taking off into the breeze. He stopped momentarily and watched the clumsy craft wallow into the sky.
If only I could fly. Wouldn’t it be grand!
But he knew that usually only officers were allowed to fly, and for years and years only gentlemen had become officers.
How lucky Bill is. Being a test pilot at A.V.Roe’s really helped him become a pilot in the RFC. It’s just what he always wanted.
But Ross, coming from the common stock, was probably destined to spend his days at a workbench, scraping carbon off piston heads and tuning engines. His shoulders slumped slightly as he continued to follow his sergeant.
Some time later, as he took a break from stripping an ailing engine, he saw a Lieutenant approaching one of the BE2s parked in front of the hangar.
“Is she ready to go up?” the intrepid birdman asked. Ross assured him that it had been given the all-clear some time ago. “Good. Well, can you give me a hand to swing her round?”
“Yes, Sir.” And Ross hurried to swing the tail of the tractor aircraft around for take-off. Lieutenant Dennison, dusted his jodhpurs off, and clambered into the rear cockpit.
“What’s it like up there?” the youngster asked, pointing at the sky.
“Like nothing you have ever known,” the pilot replied, fitting his leather helmet over his head.
“My brother is a flyer.”
“Oh? What’s his name?”
“Sergeant William Lorimer. He’s an NCO pilot”
“Oh, Mad Bill! I’ve heard of him. Got himself into a spot of bother in the courts I hear. Something about driving his blessed motorcar backwards, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, Sir. Drove it in reverse through the town for over 150 yards at speed. But he was in complete control of it all the time, and if it hadn’t been for that nosey copper...”
“Quite. Well, I suppose, seeing you are Mad Bill’s brother, I’d better take you aloft, eh? That’s if you have the time and inclination..” and he handed young Ross a spare helmet from the other cockpit.
“Can you spin the prop for me, young feller?”
Ross was beside himself. Not thinking of what Sergeant Broadman might say, he ran around the front to the engine, and as the pilot yelled “Switches on,” pulled the wooden prop hard down, half turning away as he did so. The engine caught immediately and settled into a quiet burble, as Ross jammed the helmet onto his head and clambered very carefully into the front seat, making sure to step only on the strengthened sections. His stomach was doing somersaults with anticipation. There was a buzzing in his ears as his blood pulsed against the helmet straps.
He pulled the goggles down over his eyes and wriggled himself into a comfortable position in the cockpit, cracking his shin on a large wooden box with black knobs on the front of it.
“What’s in this box, Sir?” he yelled back over the noise of the engine.
“Oh, it’s a wireless radio set I am playing with. Could be useful for relaying messages back to base, if I can get it working right.”
Young Ross stretched one leg past the large wooden box and rubbed his barked shin. But the pain was soon forgotten as the smell of the engine swept back over him. This was why he enjoyed spending so many hours on the motors. The purr of a well-tuned engine was music to his ears.
Due to the weight of the engine in front, the pilot had to sit in the rear seat to provide some balance when flying solo. However, when carrying an observer, the passenger sat in the front cockpit and tried to see the ground in front of the lower wing.
Ross could not see anything ahead at first, due to the engine compartment being tilted up in front of him. Neither could the Lieutenant see where he was going, but his experience of taxiing let him trundle the craft slowly into the clear. He tried out the controls, then pushed the engine to full revs and held the stick lightly as the BE2 surged forwards and started its run. Soon the tail came unstuck, and the blur of the prop allowed Ross to see the trees at the end of the field.
His guts churning, he felt his toes clench as the trees accelerated towards him. His fingers gripped the rim of the cockpit on either side. The wind was snatching at his cheeks beneath the goggles, and the roar of the hard revving engine filled his ears.
‘It must start to fly soon,’ he thought as the trees barrelled towards him. But still the plane held onto the ground, its wheels bouncing and shuddering on the rough surface.He remembered stories of planes which had not made it. Planes which had driven straight into fences, hedges and trees.
‘Hell, I’m going to be killed!’ His fingers gouged into the cockpit rim, almost becoming part of the timber. He could see the individual branches now. The treetops rose higher in front of him. They were heading straight for them! Suddenly, a lurch. His stomach dropped into his boots as the pilot pulled the stick back, and the aircraft’s nose cut off all sight of the trees.
They were airborne!
A small shudder from the wheels told of just how close it had been as they scattered a pile of leaves to the four winds.
Through the spinning arc of the prop, he saw only blue skies and fluffy cloud. The wind was buffeting his ears, competing with the din of the hard working engine. His fingers vibrated in time with the engine and he realised they were still locked onto the rim. He freed them and laid them in his lap while he marvelled at the scene ahead of him. Below the lower wing the fields rolled past. A farmer leading a horse up a narrow lane, stopped, squinted up at them and waved. Ross waved back but was sure the man couldn’t see him as the plane slowly gained altitude.
Twenty minutes later, he stared over the edge of the fuselage straight down at the villages and towns below. Roads joined them like beads on strings, and if he stared really hard, he could make out the occasional vehicle travelling along them.
It was impossible to speak with the pilot; the racket of the 70 hp Renault engine and the wind at about 70 miles per hour combined to make that impossible. But the pilot reached forward and tapped his helmet. He swivelled round and clasped both hands in the victory salute, then turned back to stare over the side again. Low wisps of cloud drifted past and he saw a cloud-bank ahead. The Lieutenant slowly turned the craft around and headed back to the airfield.
Young Ross was too excited to feel scared as, with all wires thrumming, they came in to land. The wheels touched, bounced, touched and bounced again before grabbing the ground and shuddering their message into the aircraft’s frame. They had landed! And there, waiting for him in front of the hangar, in full regimental uniform, was Sergeant Broadman!
Dressed in his best uniform, Ross was front-and-centre, staring at a spot directly above Lieutenant Colonel Symes’ head. Symes sat at his desk, fists clenched on the surface, his eyes boring straight into Ross’s face.
“... stupidity. Never in all my born days have I had to suffer such indignity. And the cost of repairs! My God, man. Do you have any idea...”
Ross stood mute, carved out of stone as the CO wound up his harangue.
“You have already served five days detention, and I believe Major Rawlings has not gone easy on you in that time. You will serve another seven days in detention at Aldershot, and forfeit fourteen day’s pay. Believe me, if your older brother was not so well thought of, you would be on your way back to the Royal Engineers right now. However, I believe you may have learned a valuable lesson from all this, so we will leave it there.
But if I ever have you standing here before me again...”
Go on to Chapter Two