In the Company of Eagles by Ernest K Gann

Four Square/NEL, 1967, 221 p.

This novel of aerial combat in the Great War focuses on Sergeant Paul Chamay of the 322nd Escadrille in the Service Aéronautique and Leutnant Sebastian Kupper of Jasta 76 of the Luftstreitkräfte. Early in his combat experience Chamay sees his friend and mentor, Raymonde, killed by a German flying an Albatros with a distinctive target painted on its fuselage. Chamay is enraged since, though Raymonde’s aeroplane was incapacitated, he might have survived had Kupper (the Albatros was his) not come in to fire at him again, hitting him in the head. Chamay is from then on fixated on seeking out that Albatros and killing its pilot.

While that is the bare bones of the plot the book as a whole is much more nuanced than this might suggest, as it also explores – if only briefly – other characters, Chamay’s inventive but slightly hare-brained mechanic Babarin and forgetful armourer Susotte, his commander, the formal Captain Jourdan, and a lover, Denise, Kupper’s relationship with his wife Marie via her letters, his stolid batman Private Pilger, and the wily scrounger Feldwebel Groos. There is also a sequence involving a ham from Kempinsky’s, a gift to Kupper from Marie that is coveted by all at the front and manages to pass through several hands.

Gann outlines the vicissitudes of a Great War fighter pilot, always on the lookout, never able to let his guard down, the rigours of open cockpit aerial warfare, swathed in warm clothing, the cramp induced by the controls.

There is also a brief account of the catastrophic Nivelle offensive of 1917, of the French units which fought in it, and died, the calamity which led to mutiny and refusal to undertake any more offensive operations.

Later in the book we find that Kupper thought he was performing a mercy on Raymonde, saving him from a fiery death, though of course Chamay never gets to know this.

The final encounter, to which the book was always leading up, unfolds in a way which is a touch unexpected.

I have long held in interest in the aerial aspect of the Great War having read the histories They Fought for the Sky by Quentin Reynolds and The Friendless Sky by Alexander Mckee in my youth. Though fiction, In the Company of Eagles is as good an introduction to the subject as any.

Pedant’s corner:- The cover illustration isn’t quite spot on. There are two [red] Fokker Triplanes depicted on the wraparound cover but none appears in the text – though an attack by new [black] RNAS Sopwith Triplanes on Kupper’s airfield does. In addition I believe only Manfred von Richthofen flew a red-coloured Fokker Triplane.

Otherwise; wiith (with,) Mercedes’ (Mercedes’s,) Albatros’ (Albatros’s,) “Jourdan hesitated so, that Chamay was certain he was trying to communicate ….” (no need for the comma.) “None of the items were used” (none … was used,) after the Nivelle offensive another German tells Kupper the French troops were mutinying (at the time they occurred the Germans were ignorant of the French mutinies,) Gros (elsewhere always Groos,) Barbarin (elsewhere always Babarin.) “Every French aeroplane was not flown by a man named Chamay” (at least one French aeroplane was, though, so that sentence isn’t true. It ought to read ‘Not every French aeroplane was flown by a man named Chamay’,) jettys (jetties,) pistules (pustules.)

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

free hit counter script