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by John Biggins

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1996
ISBN: 0-312-14751-1
Publisher: St. Martin's

The third entry in an engagingly episodic, seriocomic series that allows Ottokar Prohaska (The Emperor's Coloured Coat, 1995; A Sailor of Austria, 1994) to recall his antic WW I adventures in the service of the Austro-Hungarian Empire while a centenarian resident of a Welsh nursing home. It's mid-1916, and the Czech-born Otto (a career officer who has won the Knight's Cross of the Military Order of Theresa for his exploits as a U-boat captain) is suddenly seconded to the Flying Corps in the wake of charges he mistakenly sank a German minelayer. The errant hero's squadron is based near the Italian front high in the Alps, a decidedly hostile environment for the rattletrap flying machines employed by both the Allies and the Central Powers during the Great War. Despite the primitive nature of their weaponry, Otto and his mates carry out some terrifying missions, including a two- plane raid on Venice, albeit at no small cost in blood and equipment. When not engaged in mortal combat with Italian fliers, targeting siege guns for bombardment, or fighting the routinely harsh elements, Otto's squadron does battle with its insanely rigid commanders, who place greater value on outmoded traditions and caste systems than on their men's lives. Eventually transferred back to the Navy's air arm, Otto helps send a French sub to the bottom of the Adriatic and finds himself in Vienna toward year's- end to witness the first signs of the fall of the House of Habsburg (the two-headed eagle of the title). Otto is then posted back to the seagoing fleet, ready for further pre-Armistice action. Another fine outing for Otto Prohaska, a protagonist with a keen eye for the ethnic politics, repressive instincts, and other suicidal faults of the failing dynasts he served as a hired gun.