by Chris Crowther
Editor’s note: For the first time since its founding, Soldier of Fortune presents fiction. The following is an excerpt from a novel set in World War I: PURSUIT, by British author Chris Crowther. He notes about writing the book: “I drew on my own 42 years in the flying game, having cut my teeth on open-cockpit biplanes and flown helicopters overseas with an American expatriate outfit.” In this segment the key character Mark Kingsley has just followed his friend Lee on what he considers an ill-judged attack on a German observation balloon.
The balloon was filling both our windshields now and I was wondering if the old Nieuport’s wings would give in before the ground-fire even started coming up. With his Lewis gun angled up at the usual forty-five degrees, Lee had dived below the descending balloon and was already opening up at extreme range. All I could do was stay in close to him in the hope of at least drawing some of the fire when the ground defenses opened up.
Except they weren’t, which was puzzling to me, but obviously encouraging to Lee as some of his .303s started hitting home. Now he was so close to that great grey floating elephant that for a moment I wondered if he’d even got target-fixation and was about to ram it. And still no ground fire. Why? Then, in that last manic split-second I suddenly remembered crew-room chat I’d once heard of how the Boche sometimes booby-trapped their balloons and …
Suddenly, my recollection turned to appalling fact as there came the mother of all detonations and the balloon disappeared in an incandescent fireball. Even the roar of my le Rhone was momentarily overwhelmed by the thunder-like explosion and my sight, by its resulting flash. As the Nieuport shuddered and flicked like an autumn leaf in a gale, I gripped the stick in a desperate battle to stop the aircraft pitching and rolling itself to oblivion. After what seemed like a lifetime, I found myself almost on the deck, still flying, the le Rhone mercifully still running and my wheels just inches above field grey figures diving for cover to avoid instant decapitation.
At least that should have temporarily taken the self-satisfied grins off their faces at finding some dumb-ass fighter jocks all set to walk right into their trap. I should have realised that, with no Jagdgeschwader operational, this was the perfect opportunity and … but no time now for self-recrimination as I shook myself back to reality and the Nieuport into controlled flight while at the same time trying to see what had happened to Lee.
READ MORE aviation adventure in SOF’s The Fire Pit
At first I couldn’t find him and feared he’d already speared in. Then I glanced further away to the north and saw his aircraft, still airborne and slightly above me, but describing a series of ever-tighter downward turns. I again closed with him in tight formation and saw why. His aircraft was black with smoke from a blast that had effectively stripped off large areas of its fabric. From the wings, long shards of canvas now fluttered in the slipstream while the empanage control surfaces seemed all set to become a flying skeleton. He was still flying, but only just and with little control. Certainly, there was no way he would ever reach our lines and whether he would ever land safely anywhere looked horribly doubtful as he battled just to keep it right side up.
And then his faltering engine gave its last gasp and all other options suddenly went the way of his luck.
PURSUIT is available here, on Amazon.