FROM THE AIR by Sergio Palumbo
edited by Michele Dutcher
Wearing his field service cap on his fair short hair, and a military jacket whose design wrapped over his chest and fastened off centre, secured by concealed buttons, the tall captain of the Royal Flying Corps walked in his ankle boots at a quick pace along the path.
The large training flying station he had been ordered to reach on that cold morning consisted of several metal structures, bent and curved, meant for military use—like accommodation or bomb storage. Beyond that there were three pairs of hangars, plus a single building constructed of wood and brick, not far from Farnborough Common, in England. The location was used as an emergency landing field, too. It was here, in a controlled environment, that many younger pilots from across the British Empire, including South Africa, Canada and Australia, had begun their training and gained their piloting skills during that conflict that had soon been named ‘The Great War’. It was different for him; Captain Sallow had arrived at the Royal Flying Corps by chance, and had quickly become known for his growing experience. He had already been involved in many bloody air battles in Europe, especially over the skies of France, and had been aboard three different models of biplanes before being assigned to his present squadron, in the Special Forces of the Air.
The unbelievable bloodshed that such a war had exacted had changed many rules of military confrontation when compared with what warfare and combat had previously meant for a soldier. But things weren’t going to improve any time soon, as they appeared to be heading downhill for the foreseeable future.
Over the course of the last few months, the military operations of the British Empire in the Middle East had consistently expanded and, unfortunately, had required many more resources than anyone had initially imagined. It had begun in November 1914, Sallow remembered, when an expedition arrived at the head of the Persian Gulf to immediately secure Britain’s supplies of oil, but orders had been later given to advance further inland. There had been a false sense of security resulting from the apparently feeble Turkish resistance. But a subsequent defeat had occurred on Townshend, on November 25, 1915, and the forces were pushed to partly retreat.
On the other hand, the long range bombardment of Turkish coastal artillery batteries situated in the European part of Turkey, which had been begun on February 19, 1915 by the Anglo French battleships, in preparation of Allied landing operations, hadn’t prevented the troops of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force—including thousands of men of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps—from remaining stuck in the place. They had suffered heavy losses. The command kept insisting—though many thought that the situation had reached the point where a decisive win against the Turkish army in that part of the country would be very difficult—that staying could only cause countless more casualties for no purpose. Not that such a war, The Great War, hadn’t already caused disasters and bloody battles in many parts of the world, so far… And the increasing usage of the new Fear Gas bombs that the Germans had recently developed and launched against the British and French troops in the European battlegrounds was making things worse, causing terror in those breathing in their vapours and disrupting assault tactics in an unexpected way.
Captain Sallow, or Flight Commander as he was usually called, reached the building he had been ordered to go to that day and went inside. He was already aware that the still unknown operation he would soon be a part of wasn’t going to be easy, nor something he had ever dared until that moment. The High Command was always imaginative about the ways the life of the infantrymen could be endangered, deploying them under the worst circumstances here and there, according to the commander’s point of view and considerable experience, although he was only in his early thirties. He considered a new ointment designed to be applied to the skin, called Darkness’s Grey, that was said to help a soldier blend into the blackness of the night and was meant to improve undetected incursions through enemy lines. However, it was also reputed to be the hidden cause of so many illnesses and deaths among the daring members of the assault units themselves…
Sallow’s dark eyes, the same colour as his hair, were attentive as he sat down and focused on the hurried words of the bearded, bald Colonel standing behind the one wooden desk in the expansive room.
“Since April 24, 1915, we have received a few reports about several hundred Armenian intellectuals who were rounded up, arrested, and later executed. The Turks seem to have launched a set of measures against the Armenians, including a law authorizing the military and government to act against anyone they ‘sensed’ was a security threat. Some American newspapers, like The New York Times, have suggested there is a ‘policy of extermination directed against them’ in the Middle East.”
“This seems to be a serious issue, by all means, Colonel Iltraw.” Sallow nodded.
“It is, indeed, flight commander. Our sources say that it all started after the Turkish Minister of War implemented a plan to encircle and destroy the Russian Army at Sarikamish last year, in order to regain territories previously lost to Russia. Though Pasha’s forces were routed in the battle and almost completely destroyed, thanks mainly to the new diesel powered armoured tanks the Russian Empire deployed in that area. Since that time, the Turkish Minister of War has publicly blamed his defeat on Armenians who, he said, had sided with the Russians in that region. This remains to be demonstrated. However, it is certain that many Armenians were ordered to turn in any weapons that they owned to the authorities and then those soldiers were either killed or worked to death.”
The Colonel paused briefly, then continued. “We have also received news about executions and mass graves, and death marches of men, women and children across the Syrian desert to concentration camps with many dying along the way of exhaustion, exposure and starvation. Other details have been provided by a few western diplomats, creating widespread outrage against the Turks in the West. It seems that even some ranking German diplomats and military officers have secretly expressed bewilderment…”
Sallow stared at the other man in silence, waiting for the rest of the report that he knew was to follow.
“Newspaper articles like that of April 28, 1915, from the Atlanta Constitution, ‘Massacre Continues in Turkish Armenia’ or the New York Times’ article from April 28, 1915—’Appeal to the Turks to Stop Massacres’—have highlighted the bloody facts that were reported, although the details appear scarce.” Colonel Iltraw paused again for a few moments. “We need to know if such reports are true, or if events worse than these are in the development stages. It’s the viewpoint of the higher ups that we must immediately ascertain such facts and see how the resentment, and the sentiment of revenge of that population, might be turned to the advantages of our army in our aim at defeating the Turkish Empire and gaining a decisive win in that uneasy area.”
“Are we speaking of a reconnaissance flight to the Syrian desert, Colonel?” the captain asked. “This is unusual to me, and very far from the European battlegrounds.”
“I haven’t finished giving you all the details, flight commander. Driven forward by Turkish soldiers, many women, children, the elderly, and the infirm are presently said to be on a death march, heading into the that desert with no food and water, the marchers being subjected to periodic robbery and massacre.” Colonel Iltraw spoke in an unfaltering tone. “Just one or more reconnaissance flights wouldn’t be enough to make things clearer. So, you will be joining a special group and will be transported to your destination, where you’ll be formally assigned, at first, to the Middle East Wing before commencing the secret operation. We can’t endanger more people, and can’t even let our aeroplanes land on that distant area controlled by our enemies. Is that clear, Flight Commander Sallow? This is why you’ll reach the surface, not by landing, but by jumping down from the biplanes thanks to a new model of parachute…”
“Jumping down to the ground?” The inquiry exploded from the captain’s lips. “Using a parachute?”
The other looked at him and, as if he had predicted and understood his perplexities, added with a smile, “Sounds strange to you, doesn’t it, Flight Commander Sallow? It sounded strange to my ears as well when I first heard the details. But this is how things must be done in this case…” the older man said. “Actually, the first time I was told about the latest secret developments in the parachute project, I thought that it was an unprecedented and very modern method that might prove useful in present warfare, and to our army. The Germans were already testing it themselves, according to our agents in Europe…”
Sallow was still wide eyed.
“Then I was also told that our military would never allow our pilots to wear such a device, as the first models were reputed to be bulky, or too weighty, although the reality was that the higher ups feared that it might encourage cowardice or inspire some young pilots to escape a bloody battle in the air simply by jumping from the aircraft, to save their lives. This is sad, but it hardly will change in the following months… So, they clearly forbid our pilots from using it. On the other hand, they are asking you, or better ordering you, to jump from a considerable height into an area controlled by the Turks. This is the way it has to be. It can’t be helped, Flight Commander Sallow.”
The younger man considered it. He knew that some of the more unusual missions for pilots like him involved delivering spies behind enemy lines. There were also subsequent concealed flights to keep those behind the military front supplied with the birds that were used to send reports back to base, and this he had already done, more than once. Not all of them had made it, unfortunately, and the missions were dangerous. Now they were speaking of something entirely different, and even more uncertain, in a country far away from the European battlegrounds. This would be more bizarre than even the strangest of his unusual assignments so far.
“Two small piro-motors situated at both ends of the parachute will need to be activated after you jump and will let you choose and partly change your course, though they have a limited range of action, of course. The trainer will explain all you need to know.” Colonel Iltraw seemed to have now completed his instructions. “One thing more: once you are in that desert, you’ll be on your own. We can’t provide you with horses, nor can we send any local agents with pack animals. The task would be too difficult and we have no time to prepare or deploy such resources.”
What was now up to Sallow was just to nod and openly accept the orders received. However, serious doubts were rising in his mind, and even deeper fears.
“In order for us to retrieve you, allowing you to join our troops again, you’ll have to get to the north western coast by yourself, from the desert area of your assignment. You will need to reach Mudanya, or Hatay… not a short journey. Hopefully, there might be alternatives… By the time you have the job done the Allied Army of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force could have finally secured the landing base on the north western coast of Turkey and we might be in control of the damn’ beaches, which is improbable at the moment. In that case, you would have a safer way to get back home.”
“What if that doesn’t happen and those damn’ beaches are still in the hands of the enemy?” the flight commander asked the superior.
“Well, I suppose you’ll have to find another escape route. There are a few alternatives, but all of them are more dangerous…”
“I see,” answered Sallow, swallowing hard.
“All the other details are in the papers I’m handing to you now. I don’t know if we’ll meet again, flight commander. What I can do is wish you best of luck, of course.” Colonel Iltraw stood up and gave the Captain a warm handshake before taking leave of him. Sallow duteously stepped out of the room. The commander breathed in the cold air outside. He knew he needed a beer after all that he had heard, though he didn’t know if he could find one strong enough in a nearby pub. Maybe a stiff drink would be better, or more appropriate…
Sallow and the other six men chosen for the mission were ordered to meet next morning at a designated point in the same training facility near Farnborough Common. The flight commander was pleased that he had already worked with two of them: Hubert Maenllwyd and Edwin Roberts from the Special Forces of the Air, who were both slim, with chestnut coloured hair. The other four were: Aki Rewse as Equipment Officer, Aibne Horpe as Armament Officer, Syed Gower as Rigger, and Paul Kibler as Flight Sergeant with his strange blond, though sparse, curls.
All of them wore the formal attire that had become the official uniform of pilots of the Royal Flying Corps. Sallow still remembered when, at the start of the war, there was no formal uniform for the flyers but the military, with their wide experience of Army motor transport, had motoring garments available which they had offered to the newly formed Royal Naval Air Service and Royal Flying Corps pilots like him. So, that was how their weatherproof coats, goggles, and leather boots had come into play. After all, the Airmen needed uniforms that could protect them from the biting winds of an open cockpit while in the air. They also wore flying helmets to shield their heads and their present suits had also come into use: three layers, a thin lining of fur and an outside layer of special light material, all made into a one piece suit just like his. These overalls and goggles were regarded by pilots nowadays as the most suitable for operational use.
Airmen like Hubert Maenllwyd and Edwin Roberts, who were around Sallow’s age, were well accustomed to special operations and the others were as well, as far as the flight commander knew. So his crew had some experience in many of the very unusual or perilous tasks abroad. They were all great pilots, of course.
The aeroplanes they flew were similar to the frigates from that era called Piro-frigates and were powered by steam (as well as sail). The present biplanes that pilots like them used were known as piro-biplanes as they were powered by steam as well as modern aviation fuel. By late 1915 all the aeroplanes of the Royal Flying Corps had adopted the familiar cockade markings, though contrary to usual French practice those years, they were applied to the fuselage sides as well as the wings.
The B.W.3., which stood for Blériot Working, was a refurbished French Voisin piro-biplane, powered by a 60 hp (45 kW) water cooled engine. There were a few of those in that military training facility, and the members of the mission group would be dropped from one of those aircraft during their operations in that desert abroad. Like all earlier examples of the type, the B.W.3 had parallel chord unstaggered wings with rounded ends, using wing warping for roll control, and the flight commander was well aware of those useful features. The wings were unequal in length: upper wingspan was 36 feet 7 1⁄2 inches and lower 34 feet 11 1⁄2 inches.
As the seven airmen kept walking towards the fuselage of one of those piro-biplanes, the aircraft came into full view. The rectangular section was a fabric covered wire braced structure, with the pilot seated aft, behind the wings and the reconnaissance man in front, under the centre section. This arrangement was adopted so that the aircraft could be flown ‘solo’ without affecting the aircraft’s centre of gravity, if necessary. The main undercarriage consisted of a pair of skids: an axle carrying the wheels was bound to the skids by cords and restrained by rods. A sprung tailskid was fitted, while the wings were protected by semi-circular skids located beneath the lower wings.
Other minor modifications on the model they saw before them, Sallow noticed, included the undercarriage wheels that were moved back 12”, the wings which were re rigged to have 1° dihedral, and the propeller was cut down in an attempt, to increase the engine speed.
The briefing started and all of them had to sit inside a tent where they found some chairs, a desk and the fair haired trainer, Transport Officer David Daniels, who was drawing something on a large sheet of paper situated in plain view in front of them. Next to him was the model of one of the parachutes they were meant to study and learn how to use.
“The design and construction of a parachute like this, since the beginning of our studies, is based on the thought that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. That said, every link from the jumper to the canopy has to carry its share of the maximum load that is applied during the opening shock…” The trainer looked over the group of young but very experienced pilots who had been chosen for the difficult duty that was to be carried out in that desert area where they would be very soon deployed. At first sight, he seemed to be someone who liked to say what was on his mind without worrying about how the person on the receiving end felt hearing it. “Tensile strength is the greatest stress cloth can withstand straining along its length without rupturing, expressed as the number of pounds per square inch. The 28 foot canopy of the parachute is a polygonal structure having 28 sides, and a diameter of 28 feet plus or minus 1 inch…”
The other data and all the details about the new strange device they would be using, so as to get to the ground below from the piro-biplanes, kept coming and filled their minds, though several serious worries came with them, and left a bitter taste in all the pilots.
Daniels seemed to notice their unspoken wariness, and stared at the seated airmen, explaining, “The suspension lines are sewn into the canopy. These lines run continuously from the connective link on one side, through the canopy, and on to the connective link on the other side. The material between any two suspension lines is called a gore. There are 28 gores in a 28 foot canopy. In this peculiar type there are self inflating wings that provide control of speed and direction…” He was aware of the uncertainty, or the doubts, on the faces of the few men he was talking to, but he was from the military and just did as he was ordered. He explained what he had rehearsed over and over, spewing out what he had either been previously told, or he personally knew by experience. He had already used that device a few times during the tests he had been a part of at the base of the Royal Flying Corps Training Wing near Farnborough Common. “The parachute works, boys, I can assure you. Not perfectly all of the time, but it works. Anyway, believe me, boys, this mission will not be easy, as you well know…”
They all nodded. Paul Kibler, the flight sergeant, made a face and scratched at his sparse blond hair for a while in a characteristic way.
“Always keep in mind, boys, that opening your chute at a high speed while still low could result in a dangerous rupture of the canopy. Don’t do it, at any time—just wait for your piro-biplanes to reach the required height set before jumping! Then do your best and, hopefully, in a matter of moments you’ll put your feet on the ground and be prepared to do your duty.” Then the trainer handed them some reference documents that offered a coverage of flight performance, overall motion, inflation management and loads prediction, other than including a detailed design example. Of course, it all had to be kept secret and couldn’t be carried on their body once they were abroad in the area of operations.
Several days of hard training followed. Because the parachute was a completely new piece of equipment, they had to be used to it or they would find themselves in real trouble once in the air…
Just one week later, the group was on the move. Once the airmen reached the base in Greece where they were meant to be briefly stationed before the start of the operations, they immediately began their preparations and went through a subsequent training that had to remain completely secret. They were not even allowed to speak about the mission with the other pilots they met from time to time in the military facility or in the mess hall. Not that they saw too many people or airmen around. Their superiors did their best to keep them away from the rest of the troops, and also from other members of the Royal Flying Corps.
The day finally came and they readied themselves for their duty. As they had been told, a long high altitude flight over 18,000 feet was needed to clear the many mountain ranges on their way to the desert before they reached the jump zone. So, they put on their fur lined clothing as necessary levels of protection from the cold they would have to face, otherwise their body would give out moisture which would freeze when the high altitude was reached. Dressing had to be done in strict sequence. Underwear, close woven woollen underwear duplicating and worn loose, the two inch squared vest, inner shirt, army shirt, and so on to the Sidcot Suit provided with lamb’s wool. That way, pilots could resist temperatures of minus fifty degrees C., commonly… Flight Commander Sallow verified that all the airmen in the group dressed as needed.
What they found funny, and strange, on this occasion was that usually before the take off the pilots were clearly reminded of the fact that the clothing they wore and their equipment were the property of the public. So, any losses due to exigencies of the campaign had to be certified by the officer commanding. However, in this case it had been their superiors who had told them to destroy, or make unserviceable, the new device they would use to skydive to the ground, as no one in the military wanted the parachutes to fall into the hands of the Turkish soldiers and, by means of them, to the Germans. That secret had to be kept at all costs.
When they were in their two-seater piro-biplanes and eventually took off, their appearance didn’t even look human anymore, as all that clothing, the gloves, the large goggles and the helmets on their heads would make it difficult for anyone to recognize them as such. Much as ancient knights wrapped in their bulky armour bore no resemblance to the bodily warriors underneath that wore them. Other than that, as higher altitudes meant diminished oxygen levels and increased the threat of hypoxia, they had been provided with systems for breathing made up of large masks that fitted over their nose and mouth. Though many airmen said that they openly disliked the apparent restrictions that resulted from such a weighty face covering, as reported in several air battles in Europe, and some pilots had serious problems with it, this couldn’t be helped.
The long flight went well and the crew were apparently in luck as no one happened to spot them along the way, once they got past the sea, and even afterwards. In fact, they saw no one until they had almost reached the area where the piro-biplanes were to leave the seven airmen who had been brought here to jump below. Only some herders lost in the wild dusty plain seemed to notice their presence in the air, but the airmen didn’t worry about them.
The desert zone now stretched as far as human eyes could see with just a few shrubs that sparsely dotted the ground. And above them, the clear sky was pale blue.
Their B.W.3 aircraft had gotten them safely to this point. Such a feat wouldn’t have been possible if they had used an old oil based biplane, whose cruising range—as it has been demonstrated in several tests—was much less than this piro-biplane. There was no door to be slid open, right before they jumped. The seven men just had to get out of the cockpit by using their arms and putting their feet on the upper part of the fuselage before looking below and shouting at the pilot that they were ready. They all felt their eyes widen and their chests tighten.
Then the jump took place.
After leaving the fuselage, the men kept their feet together and their head back, looking up when they jumped. The flight commander remembered the strange sensations he had had during the first tests at the training field near Farnborough, when he was generally unable to focus on anything except how high up he was. The trainer had called it ‘sensory overload’. What he and his crew had been scared of during those days at the base? Well, seriously of dying, getting wounded or losing control before touching the ground, of course. They were not afraid of heights, obviously. After all they were war pilots and had flown so many times that they were more experienced than most other airmen. This was why they had been selected for this mission. However, it was one thing to be piloting a piro-biplane, and an entirely different matter to be jumping out of it while still in the air… After so many tests, the parachutists knew that it was all mental. Words couldn’t completely explain it. and yet it could be so satisfying—if you survived.
The military also reminded him of how many times he had tried to scream during the tests, only to discover that you couldn’t really scream because the wind was so strong that it filled up your mouth with air. Unlike the training they had undergone in Great Britain, there were no clouds to pass by in the clear sky here, and you immediately had a 360 degree view of everything around you. Falling speed was really considerable, exactly as they had been taught, and in just ten seconds you had already covered about 1,800 ft. In a way it felt like flying.
“Make sure you always look up and down and all around during the jump,” the trainer had told him. Those words resounded in Sallow’s aching ears as the ground came nearer and nearer. Then the time came to activate the small ball sized attachment to release the parachute, just when his mind was getting used to the feeling of seemingly unending freefall. As expected, there was the noise of something catching the air, and the force of the parachute itself slowed him down, ripping his body towards the sky.
The flight commander imagined a time in the future when there would be many people ready to jump out of aeroplanes every day, just for a living… Who knows?
The seven men activated the two small piro-motors on both ends of every parachute that allowed for easier manoeuvrability, exactly as Colonel Iltraw had instructed that day near Farnborough. You could make it speed up and go in the direction you wanted for a longer time than any other similar fabric device, thanks to those two small rotors that let you better chose a spot to land, and you could also make the parachute rise a bit higher, or take it a bit lower. You could even increase your cruising altitude for a few minutes longer over that empty desert plain.
The right place for their landing was spotted in front of some pointed outcrops in the near distance that might prove to be dangerous, and the flight commander signalled to the others behind him to touch the ground as he was doing now, or just to follow his path the best they could. Mostly by luck, all of them noticed his gestures and did as ordered.
Once the captain and other three men touched the surface, they had to get past the after effects of the jump. The last three were still in the air and were quickly nearing the ground. One of the seven jumpers, Kibler, the flight sergeant, had to cut the ropes of his parachute and fall before it was time. The device began rotating and he fell to the desert from a considerable height, breaking his arm. The other men had seen him fighting against the device to try to make it go in the direction he wanted, but he had failed, not due to anything he had done wrongly, as they later discovered. All of his fellow flyers joined him on the plain, but they had no time at the moment to retrieve the parachute that had been cut away, as its piro-motors that had messed up kept going and took it towards the horizon. The pilots watched it disappearing into the distance.
So they had to decide what to do next and Sallow ordered them to forget about the parachute that got away. After all they were in a desert and wherever it might fall, no one, luckily, would find it for who knows how long. Anyone who knew the flight commander was well aware that he had a presence, something that made men listen to his reasoning when he spoke, even when he wasn’t giving orders.
However, this was the first problem they had encountered so far and a serious deviation from the plan they had been given. Their orders were to destroy all of those parachutes once they had landed safely on the ground, but they were openly forgetting about that order. Not that they had other alternatives, anyway…
They checked their equipment, water provisions and weapons. Given their task and the many miles they had to cover in that barren dry area of operations, they had only been provided with lightweight boxes: the only materials they had were absolutely necessary and easily portable. They were well equipped with energy stimulating tonics and rousing vapours, highly recommended by the High Command for anyone suffering from fatigue, heat exhaustion or many other possible conditions during the war, according to their military manual. So, the men looked over their pistols: the pilots had been issued Webley–Fosbery Self Cocking Automatic Revolvers instead of the usual Webley MK4, which was the standard British Army Service firearm of the First World War. Though the process of opening, emptying, and loading the Webley–Fosbery was almost identical to all other contemporary Webley revolvers, it had a shorter cylinder, the overall structure was strengthened and proved to be much more reliable. It also had a speed loader to make it easier to reload the firearm, differently from a stock allowing for the revolver to be converted into a carbine. This automatic revolver was the perfect pistol for Special Forces of that time, and for this task in particular. The men also had the common British Lee Enfield 0.303 inch rifle, of course, which in experienced hands let a soldier fire twelve well aimed shots a minute.
The grounded airmen in the group studied their map and calculated where they were—or where they thought they were. Then everyone in the group put on a head cloth to protect their head and face.
“It will be a long hard journey, boys, you all know that. So, let’s start walking, do our research, go back and report what we find, alive! It’s as easy as that…”
“Aye, flight commander. We couldn’t ask for anything easier than that… Alive, I mean.” Aki Rewse, the short Equipment Officer, made his point clear.
Sallow opened his mouth in a sneer, though not too widely as he didn’t want let the sand or dust in…
The warm wind brought no relief from the sun’s rays. Nothing lived in the area they were moving through, and nothing could.
“With this heat, I think it would be wise for us to keep moving through the night,” Aki Rewse said, following six hours of gruelling hiking in that unbearable environment.
“Unfortunately we can’t stop and wait for it to come. We must keep going for a while longer, sun or no sun,” Kibler, the flight sergeant, replied in a low tone. “Other than that, we must be prepared as there can be freezing temperatures in a desert land like this after sundown.”
The flight commander agreed with Kibler and looked back in the direction from which they had come. He didn’t say anything more, focusing instead on his new surroundings. The crew was marching over a plateau, with an altitude between 1,300 and 3,900 feet. There didn’t seem to be any water ahead and he didn’t see how someone could ever survive for long there. It was certainly no place for old Armenian men and women with children.
So, they all continued until they were tired and the night emerged with its brilliant stars.
“It’s time to stop for today,” said Aibne, the Armament Officer, a bit rumpled in his appearance because of his tiredness and the blazing heat. “We need to rest, Flight Commander Sallow.”
“Yes, I agree. Set up a camp, boys. Nothing too comfortable, just whatever is necessary…” the Captain said.
So, Hubert and Edwin started preparing things and the others did their best to make camp.
As the bedding was stretched on the ground, the flight commander kept turning something over in his mind. He had experienced some unusual sensations since they had started moving through that area. Possibly, it was the strangeness of the place, or the unbelievably hot climate, he couldn’t be sure. It seemed that he felt eyes on him at all times. This was why he ordered strict double guard duties as the others slept—or at least tried to.
The next morning they all woke up, started moving again, hiking all day and, in the evening, they eventually came to a spot where they found the first evidence of a mass killing.
There were corpses of young and old women, children left lifeless on the ground and, not far from those, a group of men had been shot dead. Their bodies had stayed there, under the sun, surrounded by the loneliness of those silent empty lands for, who knows, days, or weeks…? There were no weapons next to the bodies, so the conclusion was that anything useable had been taken away by the killers, or perhaps the victims had never been endowed with such things to begin with. The flight commander’s second thought was probably the right one, as he couldn’t imagine these old people, or the children, having weapons with them when they had been attacked.
Sallow could almost hear in his mind the gunshots, the screaming that had occurred. This was an almost overwhelming image of death, loss and destruction. Their chances of survival had been meagre to begin with, since they had been forced to walk for miles to this place where water and food were almost unattainable. It had been a very long journey for all of them before dying here. And who knows how many were still walking across that damn’ desert, under the same conditions?—Probably starving… If there were others who had survived, perhaps they were still up ahead. The pilots were now undoubtedly witnesses to this genocide and they had to find them, or at least try, so they could issue a complete report about the massacre, anyway.
After taking photos, using the special equipment Syed Gower had with him, and writing rundowns about what they had stumbled into, the group continued to moving along, as quickly as they could. It was late evening when they got to a different area, with some peculiarities.
The place appeared to be very ancient ruins, or what was left of them nowadays, at the top of the mountain. The dust of the desert which was the realm of the wind, and the terribly dry climate had almost entirely reclaimed this stretch of land as their own over thousands of years of unending erosion. There was really not a lot to see among the remains of those buildings from a time long gone. The ruins appeared to be from a period before the first major civilizations of the world had come into being.
What Sallow found strange, on the ground, were the remains of many predatory birds, possibly of some Lämmergeier—it was unusual to see so many remains in a single place. At first he thought that the mass kill-off was probably a result of the harsh conditions in this desert, which was unforgiving even to such creatures that were well suited to that climate. Then he noticed something else. These remains were long birds with a wingspan of 9.3 feet, although their bony remains seemed to have been easily torn apart. By other larger creatures? Perhaps eagles? How was it possible?
As the night was quickly approaching, the captain ordered the other men to set camp, and decided the guard duties for the following hours. However, this wouldn’t be a night of rest, nor would a long restful sleep be waiting for them.
All of a sudden, in the dead of the night, the two airmen watching the small extemporary camp noticed a strange noise, followed by one, then two animal calls. These calls weren’t something they had ever heard before, nor were they like anything they already knew.
Then, the beat of large wings threw some powerful gusts of air to the ground and the others woke up. It was at that moment the terror began.
As soon as Sallow had risen to his feet, he looked bewildered. He wasn’t sure what was happening. There was nothing in his combat experience that could have prepared him for this. How could it be? How was such thing possible…?
The monstrous flying creature—as large, and long, as two modern piro-biplanes, or more—moved across the night air like it was made of water, and its enormous wings, and legs, were just blades, streaming through the wind with unusual and apparently weightless steps. It had the wide face of a lion with an eagle head on top of the unbelievable body that was towering over them which was scarcely visible in the dark. But its appearance was something no one would ever forget, anyway.
As the flight commander breathed, his mouth stayed open as if he couldn’t come to terms with the unbelievable sight he had before him, his eyes wide as he stared straight ahead.
His crewmates, too, had every reason to be terrified. Though they were excellent pilots, well trained soldiers and men who had seen almost everything, what they were now facing wasn’t anything that could have been expected on any of the battlegrounds of this war.
As the captain crossed paths with the course of that winged creature, he saw just how large its mouth was: easily wide enough to eat half of his body in a single motion and skewer him like the meat of a rotting corpse. The monster unexpectedly changed its mind and headed for his fellow crewmate Paul Kibler on the left, only by chance. Before a single moment was over, the top half of the flight sergeant’s body had been removed from his lower half, leaving his legs as the only remnants on the ground. Then it was the time for Syed Gower to fall lifeless to the sand.
Screams filled the night, and a few shots were fired—though the men had been previously told not to fire off their weapons in that area, as they didn’t want the shots to be heard in the distance by anyone, since it might give away their location. But nothing could stop the unexpected attack. Several times the bayonets or the knives of the armed airmen were swung at the creature’s head in desperate, fierce moves during the hopeless close combat. But at no time did any of their blades draw blood. Its talons, on the other hand, certainly drew blood from the two corpses from the Royal Flying Corps who had not been able to stop its attacks from the air. Each powerful blow cut either a stretch of skin on their back or along an arm. The creature moved its body in ways that the men couldn’t oppose, or escape, and easily outmanoeuvred them.
It just seemed that there was nothing they could try that would make them safe. Before long the flying monster was the only one still unharmed in that place, while the bodies of Aibne, Hubert, Edwin and also Aki lay injured on the ground.
In a last attempt to fire a precise shot against the winged creature, Sallow put his hands to the large personal TL-122A flashlight he had in his equipment and pointed it towards the monstrosity to see it better.
As a matter of fact, not all the pilots in their group had packed a survival flashlight like that, and for many reasons. When the equipment had been chosen for the task it was decided that the accumulated weight of all of an airman’s gear could grow to be unbearable in that desert. Also, they didn’t want to overload their piro-biplanes during the long flight.
However, his move proved very efficacious, in a very unexpected way, before he had the chance to open fire, because the flight commander realised that the creature didn’t like that artificial light and it moved backwards as the man pointed the device at it.
It departed as quickly as it had come. Had its hasty retreat been thanks to that light or was there some other reason? The remaining airmen weren’t certain, and stayed pensive… Maybe the monster had already eaten enough for that night, or had other urges at present.
At least it had left a few of them alive.
“I think… I believe I have seen the face of that winged creature before. When the flashlight revealed how it looked, a memory came to my mind…” Hubert Maenllwyd told the others who stood around, still shaken.
“What?” the flight commander asked him. “Where?”
“A depiction of such creature was on the head of an ancient weapon my father has at home, coming from the Middle East. He found it in the desert and brought it back to England years ago…” the man maintained. “The same body, those wings, and the face of a lion with the eagle head…”
“The face of a lion with the eagle head… You’re referring to some legendary sculpture of a mythological creature, I imagine…” Aibne added.
“But, I mean, how could such a creature be real?” Edwin Roberts retorted.
“You all saw it! That damn’ thing killed two of our fellow airmen!” Sallow raised his voice.
“If such winged creatures do exist, they are bloody monsters…” Edwin uttered.
“Others might consider them to be fairies…” Hubert added in a low tone. “At least, this was what my father once told me about the Mesopotamian myths that were widespread in ancient times about such legendary beings. Their exact name was the Anzû, or also Imdugud. According to other versions, if I remember correctly, they were like a great bird who could breathe fire and water, the personification of the southern wind. I’ve seen other depictions of such monsters on a few objects coming from this region that are in British museums. Originally, it was associated with rainstorms, and its most prominent feature was its gigantic size…”
“A gigantic beast it is indeed!” an angry Aibne said.
“I always knew you were a well-educated man, Hubert,” Edwin maintained. “Your family is rich, isn’t it? Is this why you know so many things about ancient legends?”
“Yes, my father is a well-known academician, and took me to visit collections at the British Museum and in museums throughout the country when I was a child.” The other nodded. “However, there’s a lot that we don’t know of these lands about things that we consider to be just legend…”
“Is there anything else that you remember which might be useful to us? So we can get out of this alive?” Sallow asked.
“I know that some old depictions of Anzû put it alongside goats… maybe goats are what it ate, or what was offered as food from the locals in the ancient times.”
“I think that in this case we are the goats that monster is going to be feeding on, if we don’t do something…” Aibne said worriedly.
“We’re not some stupid goats. We’re British soldiers, and we are armed!” Edwin retorted.
“We already saw that our shots didn’t kill it: they didn’t even pierce through its massive body. Maybe we missed it a few times, but even our best tries didn’t have any effect...” the flight commander pointed it out. “We must find another way, and we will have to do it soon! Luckily, my flashlight proved to be of some use and made it leave… Perhaps it’s a night creature that doesn’t attack, or prey, under the light of the sun. If this is true, I see more trouble as soon as night comes again. But if the monster only feeds when the sun has already set, maybe we have some more time to find something to use against it…” Sallow made it clear to the others.
“But it’s a damn’ winged creature, flight commander! How can we kill it?” Aibne asked their Captain.
“The problem is that such beasts can fly… and those enormous wings give it enormous advantages…” Sallow noticed. Then something seemed to come to his mind, and he became really serious. “Maybe I know of a way… at least we could try this, men!”
Aibne stared at the Captain. “How are we certain that it’s not going to attack us again in the morning?”
“It’s possible that it has already eaten enough tonight… and I’m convinced it really hates sunlight.” Sallow thought about what he had said and, looking into the eyes of his men around him, he added, “I’m sorry for being so frank, but it’s just what has happened. The monster has killed and eaten two of our airmen. Actually, you know, deserts like this usually look empty but this doesn’t mean they are uninhabited. During the middle part of the day, when the sun is high in the sky, animals shelter from the warm temperatures. You may see signs of them around dusk and dawn. That is when they look for food. This could be what that damn’ winged creature does…”
“And what about our operations in this area…?” Edwin asked.
“Right. We must continue, those are the orders we’ve been given.” The flight commander nodded. “However, we must bury our fellow crewmen with dignity here, bury them deep, before we move forward…”
After taking leave of the bodies of their dead, some long and hard hours of walking under the fierce sun ensued for the five airmen. Sometime after midday they spotted something in the distance, near a tall stone outcrop that seemed to have been continuously abraded by erosion caused by wind driven sand for centuries. It looked like an object they already knew, or had previously seen, though its contorted features made it difficult to figure out what it really was. There was a very old tree ahead, and it appeared to have died long ago. In its bony branches a large piece of cloth seemed to have been caught, stuck like a ripped dirty shirt on a bent hat stand. Once they approached the object they realized that it was the parachute of the dead flight sergeant!
The men were ready to take it down and destroy it, according to the rules they had to comply with during their operations in that area, but the flight commander prevented them. “I want it to be left intact, at least what it still left of it. Perhaps we can use it against that winged creature…”
“As you wish, Captain…” Aibne nodded.
“I also want you to check to see if it can be activated, just in case,” Sallows added.
Hubert and Edwin did as they were ordered before making their report. “There’s still fuel in its piro-motors… the rotors may still work, though we don’t know for how long…”
This made the flight commander think for a few moments. “Well, this is interesting. Maybe I had a good idea after all, boys…”
More hours of difficult hiking passed, worsened by the additional weight of the parachute recovered. They kept walking until late evening approached. The oncoming night not only brought cooler temperatures, but also worries about the feared image of that bloody monster that might be coming for them again.
So, the men set their bedding and tried to make preparations for whatever might be next. And it was Sallow himself who chose the first guard duty. Just as if he was expecting trouble…
By now they had a surprise for that creature if it came back!
At a certain moment, when the grip of sleep was almost having the better of the Captain, a beat of wings was heard in the air, along with a fierce call. That strange animal’s call…
This was the second assault by that creature they had had to face in that damn’ desert, Sallow considered. And it was at night, again... Luckily they had had time during the day to think of something to be used against it, but their chances of a win appeared to be meagre. Now that the winged monster had made it clear that it only preyed at night, they had to put into practice the strategy they had devised. It was now, or never!
Sallow awoke his fellows, then his eyes focused on the creature’s moves and he believed that it was its powerful wings that let the monster manoeuvre so quickly, increasing its effectiveness. Just like the piro-biplanes they used in air warfare… Truth be told, they were humans and they didn’t have wings or other means to fly in the air and fight at the height it reached. But what if they could stop its wings, or prevent the monster from making use of them so that they all could assault it on the ground? That might even the playing field.
This was exactly what they had on their mind.
“It’s here! Is everyone ready?” the captain cried out.
“We need more time!” Hubert replied.
“We don’t have any more time! We must try now…”
The flight commander laid the weighty rifle on his bag for better stability, then aimed and fired. The shots took the creature by surprise apparently, although the beast didn’t seem to be affected by the blast, thanks to its hard skin. Hubert and Edwin opened fire, according to the plan devised to attract the monster’s main attention towards them.
The creature snarled, showing its pointed teeth and thrashing its tail. Then it charged. That monstrous being wasn’t going to make it easy for them to kill it.
Aibne and Aki had other duties during those minutes and, at a certain point, they signalled to their captain that they were ready. It was at that moment that the piro-motors of the recovered parachute were activated and its canopy started raising into the air, moving against the winged creature.
The flight commander stopped firing and switched on his military flashlight. He pointed it directly at the monster, hoping to get the same reaction as the previous night. The beast seemed to be affected and immediately started flying backwards. Its response was right on time, as its movements brought it near the approaching parachute that began wrapping its huge wings in it.
The monster fought against the canopy, made its wings beat harder and stronger, but it couldn’t get out of the unexpected grip of that wide, resistant cloth. The creature plummeted to the ground, much to the satisfaction of the men.
But it fell too quickly…
And its huge body landed on two unfortunate crewmembers. Edwin and Aki were standing right underneath the beast wrapped up in the parachute and there was no way they could escape the impact, much to the regret of the captain.
Then Hubert threw one of the torches they had previously prepared at the monster, as soon as he lit it up. Then Aibne did the same thing.
Sallow was approaching the two to do his part and avenge the death of their fellow airmen. The downed winged creature was still wrapped in the strong grip of the parachute, whose piro-motors had stopped working by now. It was time to concentrate their efforts and hit the target many times from two sides, as the monster couldn’t fly anymore. However, all of a sudden, the huge talons of the beast erupted out of a hole in the canopy that covered the monster and reached the chest of poor Hubert, causing a deadly wound. Before the flight commander and Aibne could try anything else, the fire coming from the torches previously thrown reached the small amount of fuel left in the piro-motors of the parachute and all hell broke loose.
There was a great explosion that hit Aibne, sending his corpse flying into the distance, blasting Sallow away as well.
Terrible cries followed, the crackle of the fire on the ground and then the flight commander gave out, sinking into unconsciousness.
The night went by and Sallow slept until daybreak came. As he woke and raised both his eyes to the sky, he saw that he had survived that last explosion, as incredible as it was. However, he also knew that all their gunfire, and the torches they had used the night before during that bloody battle, might have attracted the attention of the Turkish soldiers to this place—if some of the latter had been near when they were attacked.
Sad to say, what he saw in the distance appeared to be much worse than the fear, or the dangers, he had undergone the night before. It was a dusty uniformed Turkish Nefer, rifle in his hands, coming nearer. He had clearly spotted him, and others like him were approaching the point where he was now standing, seemingly waiting for the order to attack.
As Sallow looked at their angry faces, worrisome sneers appearing in their dirty beards, with large knives already covered in blood that many among them clearly displayed. He knew from just one glance that he had escaped certain death caused by that legendary creature only to be defeated in the end—at the cost of the lives of so many. How terrifying to fall into the crueller fingers of those murderers who had just left the corpses of the poor Armenian men and women they had plundered before killing. Those were fierce men at arms, who looked like man eating creatures, they had previously spared no age or sex and had mercilessly cut down young and old alike in that desert. Why should they stop as they saw some British soldier easy to take and fall into their cruel hands?
As those assassins came nearer and nearer the flight commander knew that he, unfortunately, would be their next target, the subject of their depravation and hatred. Not even his training or his courage would be enough to face the unholy torments and the bloody acts of inhumanity that were next because those beasts were undoubtedly bereft of any compassion…