No Man’s Land
Copyright 2011 Russell R. James First published as a podcast at Tales of Old.
Twenty hours. Less than one full day. Less than an hour for every year of his life. That was how long Terry Greenwood had spent behind the controls of a Nieuport 28, the 94th Aero Squadron’s pursuit fighter. It was all the preparation he would get before challenging the Kaiser’s biplanes in the skies of France. Not that he thought he needed more.
There was no time to waste in the summer of 1918. The ground war had settled into a horrible stalemate on the Western Front. Masses of infantry charged across blasted moonscapes to obliteration by cannon and machine gun fire. Each acre of land cost thousands of lives. The hopes of the High Command lay in two new technologies, tanks and aircraft. Terry had chosen the latter.
Terry hadn’t taken his enlistment lightly. He took a crash course in German and studied aeronautics before signing up. Piloting a flying assembly of canvas and wood over enemy lines was hazardous duty, but Terry had volunteered, and not just for the flight pay. Flying promised more excitement than pounding the ground with his feet.
It had been one big rush after enlisting. A rush through basic training, a rush across the Atlantic, a rush through flight training. Aviation combat losses ran high. To replace them, planes rolled off a French manufacturer’s assembly line while pilots rolled off Uncle Sam’s. They met at the 94th Aero Squadron, at least for a short period of time. The average life expectancy of a new pilot was measured in weeks.
Terry’s first morning mission briefing was short. Patrol the lines over No Man’s Land, the muddy mile-wide gash in the earth that split northern France into two armed camps. Engage and down any enemy aircraft. Return before your fuel runs out in two hours. Stick with your wingman.
Terry sat ramrod straight in his chair as the briefing went on. Terry’s riding breeches were starched, his calf-length boots polished. His blond hair was cut short, something he made time to get done before leaving England. His leather flying jacket barely had a crease. He looked with disappointment at the veterans in the briefing room.
The men around him were positively disheveled. Their ragged hair brushed their cracked jacket collars. They slouched in their chairs, unmoved by the words of their commander. Terry couldn’t believe it. He’d volunteered for the 94th because of their reputation as the best pilots in the Army. He’d seen carriage drivers with more élan and professionalism.
The commander assigned a pilot nicknamed Rock to be Terry’s wingman. Rock was a thick stump of a guy, almost as broad as he was tall. He had a three-day growth of whiskers and the look of a hobo. He muttered something negative at his assignment’s announcement. Several other pilots snickered.
Terry hadn’t met Rock. He really hadn’t met anyone since his arrival last night. He’d been introduced to a few, but couldn’t rouse much of a conversation from any of them.
After the commander ended the flight briefing, Terry hurried after Rock as he left the room. Rock didn’t break stride on the way to the tarmac and Terry trotted to get alongside him.
“Ready to go at them?” he asked Rock.
“Who?” Rock didn’t even turn to face Terry.
“The Huns, of course. I came all the way here to kill them, not kill time.”
“So you are ready to jump in and become an ace, eh? How many hours do you have?”
“Twenty. And I passed all my combat maneuvers.”
“Twenty!” Rock said with feigned awe. “Von Richthofen doesn’t stand a chance. I bet he’s deserting right now out of sheer fright.”
Terry was taken aback by this harsh retort. They approached Terry’s plane. The tail section had a smattering of canvas patches. The windscreen was chipped.
“That’s not quite polite,” Terry said. “I’m a good pilot, first in my class. I’m proud to go make the Germans pay for what they’ve done to the Belgians and for the sinking of the Lusitania. I don’t know why I’m getting the cold shoulder from everyone.”
They stopped at Terry’s plane. Rock looked him dead on for the first time. His eyes were red and watery.
“Nothing personal kid. We just have to see you make it before we invest in you. We’ve seen too many get killed, some before their mail catches up with them.”
Rock gave the fuselage of the Nieuport a pair of thumps. He took a deep breath and put a hand on Terry’s shoulder.
“Give this girl a good pre-flight, especially the braised fuel lines. Stick with me, no matter what. Keep your head on a swivel. Fokkers and Albatrosses show up out of nowhere. Watch blipping the engine too much or you’ll build up enough fuel to catch fire. A Nieuport will dive like hell, but pull her out of it too fast and your top wing will be one province behind you before you know it. If you get disoriented, fly west. Got all that?”
Terry nodded in the face of this blizzard of information. Rock left for his aircraft. Terry was sorry he has drawn such a burned out wingman on his first mission. Terry knew he was green, but he wasn’t clueless. He’d show Rock. He’d show them all. From the looks of them, they’d forgotten what they were fighting for, who they were fighting against. The Germans had started this war. To a man the evil Huns were ruthless, sadistic killers. Terry was ready to deliver some payback.
An hour later, the flight of seven traced the edge of the French front lines. Even at altitude, No Man’s Land looked like nowhere else on earth. Twin lines of fortified trenches hemmed a stretch of ground pulverized beyond recognition. Shell holes pocked the stark surface like lunar craters. Every bit of life, flora or fauna, had fled or been churned under the dark mud by the torrent of high explosives and the trample of booted feet. Miles of barbed wire glistened on both sides like long strings of deadly silver jewelry.
The overcast sky darkened Terry’s vibrant mood. He had so hoped for a clear blue backdrop for his first go at the Germans, his first chance at a kill. The ceiling kept the flight lower than usual, though still high enough to avoid ground fire from the troops. Flying echelon right to Rock, he took time for some cockpit sightseeing, a perusal of the maze of fortifications the ground troops had dug to stay alive. How amazing it was to fly above all that misery.
The rattle of machine gun fire shattered his reverie. He spun around and saw a gaudy yellow German fighter bearing down from above. Flashes sparkled from the plane’s cowling and a second later, a stream of bullets tore through his left wing.
Terry panicked. He yanked back on the stick and started a climbing right hand turn. The engine moaned in protest. His airspeed fell. Rock shouted a curse as his wingman peeled away and left him defenseless.
A flight of Albatrosses swooped down on the rest of the Nieuports. The veterans split into teams and an acrobatic aerial dogfight ensued. Planes rolled and looped as they tried to get firing position on the enemy. One German plane belched a cloud of black smoke, winged over and headed for the ground.
The German flight leader followed Terry. Another burst of bullets sang by his ear and splintered a wing strut. Terry nosed the Nieuport over to gain some speed. Everything he had learned in flight training rushed back in a confused jumble. Roll, yaw, pitch, throttle, wind speed, barrel roll, stall, attack position. Everything he was supposed to weigh in a split second piled on him like an avalanche. The Nieuport headed straight down. The Albatross gained. Another salvo of rounds smacked into the Nieuport’s upper wing.
The Albatross suddenly broke off its pursuit. Relief became fear as Terry realized his mistake. The ground approached like a charging bull. He yanked back on the stick. The nose of the plane reared up and the wires that anchored the top wing snapped like overstretched harp strings. Rock’s warning about a sharp climb sounded in Terry’s head too late. The top wing tore from its struts and Terry ducked just in time to escape decapitation.
The plane shook back and forth like some god had it by the tail. Terry’s biceps burned as he fought the controls to bring the wings level. Ground fire tracked his jerky flight path. The blasted soil of No Man’s Land came up fast.
Terry heaved the stick back and pancaked the plane. The landing gear collapsed. The lower wings sheared away. The prop bit into the ground and shattered like fine china. The engine seized. The Nieuport flipped tail over nose and stopped upside down.
Terry hung inverted by his seatbelt. His head dangled over a lifesaving depression in the ground. It took him a moment to realize he was still alive, hanging upside down like a bat. But sheer luck had ensured his survival, for he had demonstrated nothing resembling pilot skills in the air. He’d lived down to every low expectation Rock had about him. A flood of shame filled him.
Machine guns opened up. Bullets raked the ground around the wrecked plane and brought him back to his senses. He unlatched his belt and dropped. He tossed away his dirt-caked goggles and surveyed the area.
Up close, the choppy mud looked like some hellish frozen ocean. The air had the disgusting mixed scent of rotting bodies, burnt cordite and the tangy remnants of what he feared was some poison gas. The wrecked German Albatross lay a thousand yards away, bright yellow tail nearly vertical in the air. A fire burned under the nose. His plane could do the same any second if the fuel he smelled hit the hot cylinders. A shell hole half way between the two fallen aircraft looked like good cover.
The machine gun paused, probably to reload. He made a dash for the crater.
A spray of bullets traced his footsteps as the reloaded gunner hunted for Terry’s range. Terry sprinted faster and dove headfirst into the crater.
He skidded to a stop staring a dead man in the eyes.
The poor unfortunate lay half on his side, buried up to the shoulders. His mouth hung open and displayed a set of horribly crooked teeth. Earth caked his hair from when successive artillery poundings had attempted a haphazard re-burial. His glazed milky eyes looked through Terry and into eternity. Terry screamed and backed away like a terrified crab.
Laughter erupted from the far side of the crater. A German pilot sat with his back against the crater wall. He had a round smiling face but an athletic build. His dark hair was parted on the right and swept back, not a strand out of place. His flying jacket was open and the Iron Cross hung on his chest. A blue cross with gold eagles dangled from his neck, the Pour le Merite or Blue Max, Germany’s highest military medal. The pilot’s rank was high enough that Terry could not recognize it. The German puffed on an oversized cigar. The tip glowed bright red. He pointed at the corpse.
The pilot said in German, “Let me introduce you to our friend, Hans.”
Terry flipped on his back and pulled his pistol from his holster. The German raised his hands and gave Terry a bemused look. Terry took shaky aim at the pilot.
“Don’t move a muscle,” Terry said in German.
“An American that speaks German!” the pilot replied. “A wise investment of your time for when we have won the war.”
Terry’s first impulse was to shoot the German, to fulfill the bloodlust he’d carried, to avenge the women and children the Germans had slaughtered. But his first shot might not kill the Hun. The wounded German probably had a dagger in his boot. He’d pull it, rush him and then what? Checkmate for both of them.
Terry took in the pilot’s officer braid and the Blue Max. He set aside his cowardly fear of death for a rationalization. The German was a prize worth keeping alive, a captive worth more than a dozen kills.
“You, sir, are my prisoner,” Terry announced.
The German smiled. “As you wish. Permission to puff, Commandant?” He did not wait for a response and lowered one hand to his cigar. He pulled it from his mouth and blew a smoke ring. He put his cigar back in his mouth, placed both hands behind his head, and relaxed against the crater wall.
“Within my rights under the Geneva Convention, I request a visit from the Red Cross, lunch, and to have you deliver a letter to my wife. How about it?”
Terry grimaced at the idiocy of his last statement.
“So we agree,” the pilot said, “you are not really in a position to take prisoners. Good. Even if you did, where would you take me? Which way is home?”
Terry peered over the edge of the crater. Everything looked the same. With the overcast sky, he could not judge the sun’s position. The Hun was right.
“Our troops will come for me,” Terry said. “They saw my plane crash and they will send out a patrol. And we’ll have you in a POW camp by dinner.” The bravado rang hollow even in his own ears.
“Two planes crashed,” the German said. He flicked a finger against his Blue Max. “Which of us will friends be in a greater hurry to rescue?”
Terry felt a pit of despair open up in his stomach.
“So we’ll wait,” the German continued, “and see who becomes whose prisoner. Fair?”
The crump of artillery sounded in the distance. A shell screamed overhead like a wailing child. It hit the earth beyond them. It exploded and the earth trembled. Terry sunk back a bit into the wall. The German waved his hand in the direction of the artillery unit.
“New toys on the playground,” he said. “Two planes to shoot to pieces. A storm is coming.”
The full battery opened up with a roar that sounded like distant rolling thunder. A chorus of shrieking shells arced in overhead. Terry kept his eyes locked on the German’s. The man sat frozen. Terry’s heart hammered harder as the shells approached. His pistol wavered.
The first shell exploded on top of his Nieuport and sent it skyward in splinters. The blast rolled over him with the power of an ocean wave. Terry’s pistol flew from his hand and he buried his face in the dirt. The other shells in the salvo struck all around them. The concussion felt like it would collapse his chest. Shrapnel and clods of earth filled the air.
When the ground went still he peered up at the German. He hadn’t moved. Dirt splattered his uniform. Smoke rose from the tip of his cigar. Terry’s weapon rested in the German’s hand, trained on Terry. The German cracked a jovial grin.
“I guess I am no longer your prisoner,” he said. He spun the pistol once around his finger. “And I’ll hold on to this since you can’t be trusted with it.”
“All those shells,” Terry said, “and you didn’t flinch.”
“Because I believe in destiny,” the German said. He took a big puff of his cigar. “And I have a great destiny ahead. I am certain of it. That’s why I can fly without fear and your puny pistol and the great railroad guns don’t scare me. My fate won’t be sealed in this war.”
Terry realized that at this point his own fate probably would be.
“So, how long have you been flying a…” The German looked over the crater rim at the scraps of plane that remained. “… Nieuport? They fly like a toboggan wrapped in canvas.”
“I have twenty hours,” Terry said. It sounded nowhere near as impressive as it did when he bragged about it to Rock. “And that Nieuport’s a fine aircraft.”
“Please,” the German said. “Our trainer planes can fly rings around it. Even the French traded them in for SPADs.”
“Well, one of them shot you down,” Terry said. His taunted-schoolboy comeback made him cringe.
“Mechanical issue,” the German said with a dismissive wave, “followed by a lucky shot to the oil pump.”
“A flyer from the 94th got the best of you and you won’t admit it.”
“You Americans,” the German said, “So full of yourselves. Sailing across the sea from your backwater cowboy country, ready to save the world, believing that the Western Front will collapse because Uncle Sam arrived. You have no understanding of Europe. How long have you been at the front? A week?”
Terry had already been embarrassed by his low flight time. He wasn’t going to admit his short length of service.
“We’ll say a week then,” the German continued. “This little trip to the ground should give you an appreciation of your position as a pilot. Speaking of which…“ He gave the pistol another twirl. “You were going to shoot me with this? Here on the ground like we were infantry privates?”
“You are the enemy,” Terry said.
The German looked exasperated.
“The generals down here soak the ground with the blood of their troops, using tactics from the last war, as usual. What are soldiers to them?” He flicked his pistol at the half-buried corpse in the shell hole. “French fertilizer. You can’t even tell which side he fought for. He’s just the wasted unclaimed dead in a wasted unclaimed stretch of land.”
The dead man’s mouth hung open as if in a shout of agreement.
“But in the sky,” the German said, “a man is still free. I abandoned the infantry to take to the air. In the beginning, we were as knights of old, our aircraft our steeds. We’d give the enemy a wave in the days when we were all scouts. But someone drew a pistol, and then someone brought a rifle, and before you knew it we were bolting on machine guns with interrupter gears. We hunt each other now, one-on-one, man-to-man, in a deadly aerial joust. Unlike Hapless Hans here, our skills can save our lives. Aviators are above shooting each other on the ground.”
Terry shook his head in confusion. This wasn’t the German he expected. He’d seen the posters, read the news stories. Germans were evil brutes and this chap was downright… civilized.
Some barked commands sounded nearby, followed by the jangle of equipment and the thud of tramping feet. A patrol was out, probably in search of a downed pilot. Both of the men in the crater had predicted their rescue. One of them was about to be correct. Terry sent up a prayer for salvation, a fervent hope that French soldiers would crest the crater’s edge and kill the man who held Terry’s life in his hands. The footsteps came closer.
“Now we see whose side God truly favors,” the German said.
The tip of a helmet showed above the crest. Terry’s hopes rose and then were dashed. The soldier wore the distinctive German helmet with the sloped neck shielding and the side bolts for the machine gunner’s armor plate. The soldier shouted back to the rest of his patrol and pointed his Mauser rifle at Terry. Drops of dried blood specked the bayonet’s sharpened silver edge.
Terry realized that he was going to become a POW less than an hour into his first mission on the front. With no kills to his name, no tales to tell. From what he’d been told about the German POW camps, he’d be lucky to survive the war at all. He sighed in despair.
A sergeant and several other soldiers arrived at the shell hole’s rim. The German pilot stood, pistol still trained on Terry.
“Captain,” the sergeant said. “I’m Sergeant Schwartzentruver from the 352nd, ready to take you home.”
The Captain tapped his Blue Max and winked at Terry. “Then away we go.”
“And him?” the sergeant said. He pointed at Terry the way one identifies trash to be taken out.
“Since you aren’t aviators,” the Captain said, “I guess you can shoot him.”
Terry stood to scream in protest. The first soldier who arrived raised his rifle to his shoulder and aimed at Terry’s chest.
The Captain jerked the barrel up and away. “Kidding! Kidding! Stand down soldier. Sergeant, give me a dispatch form.”
The sergeant pulled a pad of paper and a pencil from his tunic and handed them to the Captain. The Captain scribbled a message on it and handed it to a stunned, grateful Terry,
“A safe conduct pass,” the Captain said. “For God’s sake don’t lose it.” He turned to the sergeant. “Escort this brave man to enemy lines and release him. The Flying Circus needs targets and my boys will be able to down him over and over.”
Terry flashed a bit of anger at the insult.
“Don’t be mad,” the Captain said. “It’s a privilege to be the German Army’s ace-maker.” He laughed and headed off towards the German lines with several soldiers in tow.
Sergeant Schwartzentruver followed his orders and delivered Terry back to French lines. His story from No Man’s Land, sans the part where he lost his pistol, made him the toast of the squadron.
Terry did not fulfill the Captain’s wishes, and made no further German aces. He listened and learned from his appreciated, battle-tested peers, now that he was fully aware of the caliber of the pilots they opposed. Within two months, he had his first kill. By the end of the war, he led his own flight into combat against the Jagdgeschwader known as the “Flying Circus.”
He kept the safe conduct pass as a souvenir, but it was only as an older man, watching the next World War unfold, that he understood the opportunity he had missed. He replayed in his head a thousand times his split-second decision to not shoot the German captain, to not sacrifice his life to end another. While the Luftwaffe leveled London, he wondered how different the world might have been had he pulled that trigger. His safe conduct pass was signed by Captain Herman Goering.
(Historical note: Future Nazi Field Marshall and Nuremberg war criminal Herman Goering flew fighters for the German Army during the First World War. He was awarded the Iron Cross and the Pour Le Merite and was credited with 22 kills. By war’s end he commanded Von Richthofen’s Jagdgeschwader, nicknamed the “Flying Circus”. It is reported that he treated captured enemy fliers with great chivalry. He was shot down once in 1917 and was almost shot down several times in 1918. Perhaps if he had been downed just one of those later times…)