Morale in June
Colonel Muret was obviously quite curious about Viv’s visit to Germany, but showed his usual good manners and restraint. She, bridging the gap, told him about Ernst Udet and Hanna Reitsch. He knew Ernst, and had heard a great deal about Hanna. But, of course, none of that was any longer relevant to the main issue. What were the young pilots like? On that score, Viv said, “I don’t know how you can evaluate pilots by just meeting them at lunch.”
“I think, with a few exceptions, that one can sense morale. Is there a quiet confidence about them? Then, too, in their discussions of combat flying, how well do they understand the advantages and disadvantages of the various maneuvers that one can perform?”
This was actually what Viv herself thought. She could only say, “It was hard to imagine a group that would make a better impression.”
Colonel Muret nodded, and said, “It was my feeling from the last war, and many other things since, that a small minority of men produce most of the results, often more that all the others put together.”
“That was true in Spain, and Ivan has told me that, even in submarine warfare, it’s a few ace captains who sink most of the enemy ships.”
“It appears to even be true in the infantry. Most soldiers never shoot their guns at all, and it’s a small minority who do who do the killing.”
“The majority may not shoot because they’re afraid of giving away their position and being shot at.”
“Yes. In the air, most pilots keep their distance while the few who get close score.”
“That‘s something I couldn’t tell from just meeting the German pilots. But I think Ernst Udet agrees with us. A number of times, I heard him speaking of things that could be expected of ‘the average pilot.’”
“The average may be very good, but they aren’t all supermen. A lot will depend on which opponents we happen to get.”
“While we have, perhaps, Jean Marie and a couple of other possibilities.”
“I suspect that their best pilots will be in the first wave of the attackers.”
“So, we don’t want to be taking off at the last moment and climbing to meet their aces waiting in the sun.”
“By no means. But that is exactly what will happen unless we think of something else.”
Viv left for the flight line, trying to think of something else.
The training was going well enough, but most of the pilots had reached a plateau, not improving much. In order to break out, Viv was tempted to teach them better tactics than the official ones put out by the Armee de l’Air.
Most air forces had adopted basic fighter formations of three planes, one slightly in advance of the other two. The RAF called them ‘vics’, and they were combined with others to form flights and squadrons. In Spain, the Russians had wanted all three planes to shoot simultaneously at the same target, which was absurd. That practice was gradually abandoned, partly because, with losses, they could no longer put up formations in multiples of three. By the time Viv flew with them, everything was improvised on the spot. The Germans, however, were flying in pairs, and often with two pairs together. This was a much better formation, and Viv had discovered, at Rechlin, that it was now standard in the Luftwaffe. Unfortunately, since it was contrary to French doctrine, Viv couldn’t just introduce it.
After consulting with the colonel, Viv explained to the pilots that the Germans would be fighting in pairs, and had different parts of her groupe using the tactic against the rest. Thus, when the time came, they would all be able to use the tactic.
During this period, Viv spent a good deal of time with Barbara, who had remained in Suippes when Ivan went back to his ship. She said that she would only have been in the way in Dorchester, and, meanwhile, she had thoroughly settled into the French town. She had also continued to spend time, not only with the colonel and his wife, but with the young wives and girl friends of the pilots. While even the married men lived in the barracks, they could often be with their young ladies, most of whom were living in rented rooms in the town. As there were all the usual conflicts and misunderstandings between men and women, Barbara listened to the complaints. She said, “There usually isn’t anything constructive to be said, but I can, at least, suggest to them that English and American men are just as difficult, if not more so.”
While Barbara was no aviatrix, Viv found that she understood the situation quite clearly in general terms. She certainly knew how dangerous it was, and, since her family in Virginia had military connections, there had been many funerals and weeping widows. Viv talked with her about the morale of the pilots, which didn’t seem terribly good. Barbara indicated that a good many of their ladies weren’t well equipped to deal with low morale, saying, “Whatever the outlook, you just have to remain cheerful. I haven’t always been very good with Ivan, but he’s a special case.”
“He certainly is a special case. When he’s gone off, it hasn’t been because he’s been facing danger.”
“No. But these are fairly normal young people, and it’s not unreasonable for them to be afraid.”
“David Randolph is in at least as dangerous a situation, but he distracts himself with lots of fun and sex. With Liz and others.”
Barbara glanced briefly upward, as if imploring heaven, and said, “The English of this generation are stronger spiritually. I think the French lost too many of their best men the last time, and haven’t gotten over it.”
“The English also lost a lot.”
“I know. The Somme. But the proportion was less, and never quite reached the critical point. Unlike the French, they didn’t have mutinies.”
“I can’t imagine a mutiny in the RAF.”
“But you can with these young men?”
“Not exactly. Anyhow, I’m trying to instill some self-confidence, bit by tiny bit.”
There was a reversal of progress in the middle of June. Two pilots in the other groupe collided in mid-air. It happened right over the airfield, and the two charred wrecks with what was left of the previously human bodies constituted a very ugly sight. Viv and the colonel had seen such things before, but the others had not.
Particularly affecting was the fact that the wife of one of the pilots had actually seen the crash. She hadn’t known that her husband was one of the two killed, and it took some hours for the information to be released. The young women had gathered at the headquarters, and, when it came out, there was what Barbara called ‘an indescribable scene.’ She had herself taken charge of one widow in a way that the women in her family had been consoling young military widows for generations. There were stages of grief extending over some time, and Barbara knew about all of them. Viv didn’t, and kept well clear of the process.
Viv had other problems. Because of the rapid expansion of the Armee de l’Air, there was a shortage of mid-level officers, particularly flying officers. Each groupe should have had a leader who set an example of skill and daring, and who was young enough to interact with his men as a comrade. While Viv might herself be fulfilling that function in a groupe that lacked an official commander, the leader of the other groupe, Pierre Marchand, was, in her view, totally inadequate. A poor flyer and unreliable drunkard, his slipshod practices might even have been partly responsible for the accident that had occurred within his command. His pilots were afraid that something similar might happen to them, and they didn’t want to fly at all. Marchand didn’t want to fly either, and, while he probably should have been relieved of his command, there were no available replacements.
Colonel Muret, sensing a problem that could get worse quickly, halted training for three days for the funeral. In the meantime, he began flying himself against the advice of his physician. When Viv asked him about it, he said, “I’m sometimes subject to vertigo, but I haven’t had an attack in some time, and I felt very good in the air today. Better than I had expected.”
Viv guessed that the Hawk was the first modern airplane he had flown, but her understanding was that, in a vertigo attack, the world literally spun around and upside down. Would anyone in that condition even be able to parachute?
The fact that the colonel was flying certainly made an impression on the pilots, but Viv thought that it would take much more than that to allay their fears. Indeed, when Madame Muret, a few days later, prevailed on her husband to stop flying, things were as they had been before. Ironically, he had a vertigo attack at home one morning when he would otherwise have been flying. At least, thought Viv, they had been spared another tragedy.
With her own unit, Viv explained that collisions didn’t occur if every pilot remained conscious of the position of other planes relative to his own, even when upside down. There were grave looks and nods, but Viv privately thought that few of them were capable of that. After all, it wasn’t easy.
While she felt that she had things under control with her own men, the other groupe seemed to be falling apart. Part of it stemmed from the women. They were angry and felt that their men were about to be sacrificed for no good purpose. They wanted them to stay on the ground and, if possible, get out of the military altogether. Jean Marie’s girl friend, now fiancé, was among the most vociferous. However, he was so committed to flying that he ignored her. Not so the others.
Barbara had almost continuous discussions with the young ladies, reporting intermittently to Viv. They both thought that the flyers were very nearly being treated as cannon fodder. But, what to do? More to the point, what to say? As Barbara put it,
“We can’t say that these men will be sacrificed just to delay the Germans and save England from invasion. That’s what the women already think, and they want their men out.”
Viv reacted almost automatically, “They can’t just leave. They’d be hunted down. Besides, they really don’t want to be branded as cowards.”
“That didn’t prevent the widespread French mutinies the last time.”
“As you said, widespread. If everyone is deserting the trenches and going home, there isn’t much stigma. But a single Groupe de chasse can’t do that.”
“Is there some way that they can pretend to fight without really doing it?”
“It is possible to take off, get into a cloud formation, and fly to a rear area, later claiming to have gotten lost. It wouldn’t fool anyone, but probably wouldn’t be actionable.”
Barbara nodded, and Viv had the impression that the women would advise their men to do exactly that.
The next day, Viv said to the colonel, “I have some men who really will fly and fight. No matter what we do, the rest won’t be effective.”
“I won’t allow them to desert with their aircraft. However, if there’s an attack on the base here, I won’t prosecute a man who takes cover instead of trying to take off under fire.”
“Taking off under fire might be considered beyond the call of duty.”
The colonel agreed.
From her many discussions with him, it was pretty clear to Viv that she would be leading her men into combat when the invasion came.