Loose on the wind

BYeomanHTYeomanHTv1-01.pdf
BYeomanHTYeomanHTv1-02.pdf

Title

Loose on the wind

Description

Starts with a poem and then a series of stories which together form the memoirs of Harold Yeoman, an officer who served in Bomber Command during the war, initially as a pilot on Wellingtons and then as an Intelligence Officer. He relates his activities both professionally and personally during this time and recounts the many friends and colleagues he lost whilst on operations. He recalls his flying training on the Tiger Moths at Sywell, then on to Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Canada for further training. He was then posted to Bassingbourne O.T.U. to train to fly Wellingtons, before going to Binbrook on operational flying duties. Harold flew a number of operations before being grounded due to medical reasons. It was whilst he was grounded that his crew were reported as missing and subsequently recorded as killed in action. While waiting for his Medical Board, Harold was stationed at the Operational Training Unit at Moreton-in-the-Marsh ferrying brand new Wellingtons from Kemble and flying them to Moreton to hand over to pupil crews. He was then moved to ‘X’ Flight of the O.T.U and trained new pilots before being grounded again for medical reasons when he transferred into Intelligence for Bomber Command. He completed his R.A.F. career in Penang as an Adjutant.

Creator

Date

1994-11

Temporal Coverage

Language

Format

Multipage printed document

Publisher

IBCC Digital Archive

Rights

This content is available under a CC BY-NC 4.0 International license (Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0). It has been published ‘as is’ and may contain inaccuracies or culturally inappropriate references that do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Lincoln or the International Bomber Command Centre. For more information, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0/ and https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/legal.

Contributor

Identifier

BYeomanHTYeomanHTv1

Transcription

Start of transcription
[underlined] LOOSE ON THE WIND [/underlined]
Harold Yeoman
[page break]
To those who never came back.
[page break]
Their voices, dying as they fly,
Loose on the wind are sown;
The names of men blow soundless by,
My fellows’ and my own.
A.E. Houseman,
“A Shropshire Lad”, XXXVIII.
“And how can a life be loved that hath so may embitterments, [sic] and is subject to so many calamities and miseries? How too can it be called a life, that begetteth [sic] so many deaths and plagues?”
Thomas a Kempis,
“The Imitation of Christ”.
[page break]
[underlined] LOOSE ON THE WIND [/underlined]
Author’s foreword
Never no more
We would never fly like that
Lennie
It makes you think
‘Yes, my darling daughter’
Crewing-up
Images of mortality
Tony
Mind you don’t scratch the paint
Rabbie
Letter home
Low-level
A boxful of broken china
The end of Harry
Silver spoon boy
Intermezzo
Overshoot
First solo
The pepper pot
Approach and landing
Knight’s move
A different kind of love
Sun on a chequered tea-cosy
Photograph in a book
Glossary
[page break]
[underlined] AUTHOR’S FOREWORD [/underlined]
During the years of the Second World War, some 90,000 men, from the British Isles, from the great Dominions overseas and from the countries of Europe overrun by the German enemy, volunteered as aircrew in Bomber Command of the Royal Air Force. Of these men, over 55,000 were to lose their lives and, to this day, more than 20,000 of that total have no known graves. In one particular operation there were more Bomber Command aircrew killed than there were casualties during the entire Battle of Britain.
There were many men whose names will bear for ever an aura of unfading brilliance, men such as Leonard Cheshire, (whom for a brief time I was privileged to know) such as Guy Gibson, or John Searby. There were also the thousands who could not aspire to the greatness of those remarkable men, to their almost unbelievable heights of courage and achievement. To attempt to assess what we in Bomber Command did achieve is no part of my aim. Much greater minds and more highly skilled pens than mine have already done this. This small piece of writing is solely an attempt, through the window of personal recollection, to tell of a few of the incidents which affected me and of a few of the splendid young men whom I was fortunate enough to know and to call my friends. Many, all too many of them, alas, gave their lives as part of the price of our freedom, the freedom from an unspeakable tyranny, that freedom which we now so casually enjoy and take so easily for granted. If, in this small book, I have planted their names like seeds in the garden of future years for even a few eyes other than my own to read, for a few other minds to remember, then I shall have done what I set out to do.
An eminent air historian has recently quoted some words which I wrote to him, words which I now venture to repeat. I said, “We simply had our jobs to do and we tried to do them as best we could.” I believe that sums it up.
Harold Yeoman
November 1994
[page break]
[inserted] [underlined] Never no more [/underlined] [/inserted]
“….. And through the glasse [sic] wyndow [sic]
Shines the sone. [sic]
How should I love, and I so young? …..”
(Anon.)
[page break]
[underlined] NEVER NO MORE [/underlined]
There was something icy cold running down my face and a brilliant light was shining into my eyes.
“What on earth?” I heard myself mutter.
I came to rapidly out of a deep sleep and tried to wriggle away from the cold wetness which was finding its way down my pyjama collar, but I could not escape it, nor the blinding glare.
“What’s going on?” I half-shouted, then I saw her hand holding the dripping sponge. Bright sunshine was pouring through my window that winter morning.
A pale, laughing face framed in jet-black hair behind the hand. She was sitting on the side of my bed.
“Betty!” I shouted, “Stop it! What the heck are you doing?”
“Saturday,” she answered brightly, twisting the sponge away from my hand, “Saturday, and it’s your day off. We were going for a walk, do you remember?”
Her dark, lustrous eyes shone with mischief. I wiped my face on the sleeve of my pyjama jacket and shuddered with the cold. I tried to pull the blankets back around me, but she pulled them firmly down again to chest level. What on earth would my parents think, I wondered, a young girl coming into my bedroom – they’d have a fit. It was almost too much for them when I’d insisted on volunteering for aircrew when I was nineteen, but this - !
“I’ve brought you a cup of tea; now hurry up and drink it, ‘cos it’s breakfast time.”
Betty got off the bed, handed me the cup and made for the door.
“Don’t be long now, and if you don’t take me for that walk, I’ll never speak to you again, never no more.”
“What, never, never no more?” I mimicked.
“No, never no more.”
She grinned, but pretended to be in a huff and flounced out, tossing her shiny black hair which gleamed like coal in the morning sunlight. It became a silly, affectionate catch-phrase between us.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
[page break]
We had arrived at the Knight’s home at almost the same time; Betty from Coventry, after the air-raid, I from Initial Training Wing, to start my flying training at Sywell, a few miles from the centre of Northampton. We had seen the bombing from a safe distance, out of the train windows, on the way up from our I.T.W. at Torquay overnight. We had stopped, miles from anywhere, for hours, it seemed, while the raid progressed. We could hear the Jerries droning overhead and saw the fire on the horizon.
“Someone’s getting a hell of a pasting,” we had said.
Betty, then, was a refugee. Near misses from H.E.s had decided her parents to evacuate her from the shattered and blazing city to the safer home of her aunt and uncle; the R.A.F. billeting authorities had decided to send me to the Knights at the same time. So we quickly became friends; we were both of an age and of similar dispositions, light-hearted, fun-loving, undemanding and contented by nature. Two of a kind, I thought.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
We walked in Abington Park. It was brilliantly sunny but bitterly cold, a wonderful December day. There was snow on the ground, the bare trees were black and stark against the clear winter sky. With my white u/t pilot’s flash in the front of my forage cap I swaggered a little. Why not? I was very proud of it. My buttons gleamed, my boots shone like glass.
“Bags of swank!” our drill Corporal used to shout at us as we marched through Torquay, and we obeyed that command, always. I was proud of myself and I was proud to be walking out with Betty. She was a lovely girl, her face in repose calm and radiant as some Italian Renaissance Madonna in a painting.
“No, I haven’t gone solo yet,” I was saying as we walked, “but I’ve only done nine hours up to now, you know”
“How long will it take you, do you think?”
“Oh, any minute now, but my instructor puts me off a bit, he is rather bad-tempered.”
(‘Can you see that other aircraft?’
‘Yes, sir.’
‘Well then, are you going to fly round it or through it?’)
“That’s not very nice, is it?”
“No, not very, but I try not to let him put me off.”
[page break]
“Will you be getting any leave at Christmas?”
“Don’t suppose so, Betty; I mean to say, I’ve only been in three months altogether and we did get a 48 hour pass from Torquay, you know.”
. . . . . . . . . . . .
The Knights had a radiogram in the lounge of their comfortable semi-detached house.
“Look what I got for Christmas,” Betty exclaimed, holding out a blue-labelled record in its cardboard envelop, “would you like to hear it?”
“What is it?” I asked.
“Hutch.”
I had little or no idea who or what Hutch was, then.
“Yes, please,” I said.
She put the record on and straightened up, standing before me in her simple, grey dress. The creamy, brown voice came out of the loudspeaker and I was immediately seized by some emotion which I had never before experienced.
“That certain night, the night we met,
There was magic abroad in the air,” sang Hutch, and Betty was humming the tune along with him.
“There were angels dining at the Ritz
And a nightingale sang in Berkeley Square.”
To this day, when I play that on my hi-fi and hear Hutch’s lovely velvet voice and perfect diction, I am back with Betty at Mrs. Knight’s, falling beautifully and adolescently in love with her from the exact moment that she played me that song. I find it, still, an unbearably moving experience, one which brings a lump into my throat and tears to my eyes.
“Did you like that? Do you want to hear the other side?”
“Oh, yes, please, I’d like to.”
On the other side was “All the things you are,” and it couldn’t have fitted my mood better, either. She was all the things which Hutch was singing about.
“That’s a wizard record, Betty,” I said. She smiled happily.
. . . . . . . . . . .
[page break]
“Gosh, I’ve never had champagne before, Mr. Knight,” I said.
“Well, you went solo on Christmas Eve, when we were away and now you’ve done your first solo cross-country today, so you can try some, to celebrate, apart from the fact that it’s New Year’s Day, of course.”
“Well, thanks very much, and – cheers!”
“Cheers,” from Mr. Knight, “and happy landings.”
“Chocks away,” Betty said. Now where had she learned that?
“Would you like to hear another new record?”
“Oh, yes, I would, very much. What is it?”
“’You’d be so nice to come home to’, it’s called,” she said, “do you know it?”
“No, I’ve never heard that one.”
She put the record on and I listened as I sipped the unfamiliar but strangely disappointing wine. I thought, “Yes, you would be so nice to come home to, Betty darling.” Maybe it was the wine after all.
But I really didn’t know how to say that sort of thing to her. How did one start? Besides, my mind was still full of the voice of Flying Officer Lines from earlier that wonderful day.
“You don’t need me, do you? I am going to have a sleep. Wake me up if anything goes wrong.”
And pulling out his speaking tube he had wriggled down into the front cockpit, out of the slipstream, that New Year’s morning, as I set course, droning over snowy Sywell in the bitterly cold sunshine. He was a Battle of Britain Hurricane pilot, instructing for a so-called rest, and trusting me, with only thirty hours in my log-book, to fly from Sywell to unknown Cambridge, land, and come back again. If you did the trip without assistance from your instructor it counted as solo time, and I had done that. My cup of happiness was full, that day.
“You’d be paradise to come home to and love”, went the song as the record ended.
I sighed.
“Yes, she would be,” I thought, “but how on earth do you go about actually saying things like that to Betty?”
There were all manner of things I undoubtedly wanted to say to
[page break]
her. But I hadn’t even kissed her yet, and you couldn’t say some things without kissing somebody first, could you? Besides, she might not want me to. So how, and when, did, or could, one start? It was very difficult, rather like trying to do a perfect three-point landing.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
Every other Friday we were paid. I was rich beyond my wildest imaginings. From the two shillings a day at Torquay I had progressed to no less than five pounds four shillings each fortnight. That was as a mere Leading Aircraftman. What I would be paid if ever I became a Sergeant pilot the imagination simply couldn’t tell me. I used to split the money carefully into equal parts and with one half burning a hole in my pocket and the Friday evening feeling joyously pervading my system my little world was at my feet until Monday morning. I would go into Northampton, to the “Black Boy” in the main square, for a mixed grill and a pint of black-and-tan, sometimes with Len or Eric, sometimes alone. It became the high point of my week.
We would sit and talk flying to our hearts’ content, comparing notes on our experiences. In retrospect how limited they were and how naive we were, and yet how miraculous and other-worldly it seemed to me to know the unutterable thrill of open-cockpit flying in the freezing winter air, strapped tightly into the fragile machine whose engine purred bravely in front of me; the wonder of the view of the blue-green and white hazy landscape spread out below, the icy slipstream on my numbed face, the thrill of the response, under my hands and feet, of the aircraft to small, smooth movements of the controls. There was the magic of the rising, tilting and falling of the snow-covered, mottled, dim countryside, blotched with the smoke of towns, the dazzling red disc of the sun as it set in the haze, the ecstasy of sideslipping [sic] in over the hedge and of smoothly straightening out the glide to set her down for a perfect three-pointer on to the frosty grass near the other Tigers, while a few fellow-pupils watched critically, and while over at the Vickers shed the engines of a great black Wellington rumbled ominously.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
[page break]
“Are you coming down to the Y.M. tonight, Harold?”
My head was down over my books, in the dining room. I wasn’t finding the theory of flight too easy.
“Oh. Yes, I’ll be along; are you going to be there?”
“Well, I work there there [sic] three nights a week now, you know. Auntie thought I should do something to help the war effort until I’m called up.”
(Called up? I hadn’t thought of that; somehow I couldn’t imagine Betty in uniform.)
“O.K., I’ll see you down there later, then, I’ve got just about an hour’s work to do. Keep a chocolate biscuit for me, will you?”
She waggled her fingers, crinkled her nose smilingly, and went out.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
I landed for the last time at Sywell in a Tiger Moth, sideslipping [sic] off the height and greasing her down on to the grass. I let the aircraft rumble to a halt, then I taxied carefully to the dispersal tents, faced her into wind and switched off. The prop juddered to a stop. An erk ducked down to chock the wheels. Dusk was beginning to fall; I could see Alex Henshaw, Vickers’ Chief Test Pilot, on the circuit in his Spitfire. Everyone always stopped whatever they were doing to watch him fly, it was part of our education. But my eyes always returned to the huge black bulk of the Wellington by their hangar. I pulled out my harness pin and released the straps carefully, so as not to damage the aircraft’s fabric. I sighed and reluctantly, as one would part from a girl, I climbed out of the cockpit. A chapter had ended.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
“I don’t know exactly where, Betty, except that it’s overseas. The lads are all saying Canada, but no-one ever tells us much. I suppose we’ll not know until we get there. There’s a few posted to S.F.T.S.s in England, Hullavington, Cranfield, places like that, but ten of us are definitely on the boat.”
She looked down at her cup of tea. We were sitting together in
[page break]
the Y.M.C.A.; she had an hour off duty. The place was full of uniforms, but I scarcely notice them, I only had eyes for her.
“Will it be soon?”
“Next week, they think.”
“Harold - ?”
“Yes, what?”
“Oh, well, nothing. You will write, won’t you?”
“Of course I will, Betty, yes, I’ll write to you as often as I can.”
“What will you be flying?”
“Harvards or Oxfords, I suppose, I’m not really sure.”
“What do you want to go on to, fighters or bombers?”
(Strange, how civilians thought there were only those two categories of pilot, but I suppose the news the press and radio gave concerned mainly those two. After all, they were the types mostly at the sharp end of things. But I thought of Betty, huddled fearfully in the shelter, that night of the Coventry raid and I felt a sudden and great anger that she should have had to endure that. And I thought of the Wellington over at the Vickers hangar at the aerodrome, sinister, powerful, black, and from then on I was never in any doubt.)
“Bombers,” I said firmly, “definitely bombers.”
. . . . . . . . . . .
It is strange that I don’t remember saying goodbye to Betty, nor to the Knights, if it comes to that. I must have done so, of course, but sadly, I cannot bring the occasions to mind.
I did go to Canada. Once we got out west we worked hard and we flew hard, by day and by night. We got no leave, very little time off. We didn’t particularly want any. Things were getting rather urgent back home. Besides, I wanted to hurry back to Betty, and to my parents, too, of course.
I wrote to her as often as I could. She sent me her photograph, smiling and lovely in that grey dress, but I’m afraid I haven’t got it now. I got my wings a few days before my twentieth birthday. In the late summer, after a stopover in Iceland, I was back in England, and with a couple of Canadian chaps, splendid fellows whom I had
[page break]
met on the boat, I was posted to a Wellington Operational Training Unit at Bassingbourne, not too far from Northampton. Most of my buddies went on to fighters. As it happened, they had a little more future than us bomber boys. Not much, but a little. Of course, I was longing to see Betty again.
As soon as I had settled in I phoned the Knights one evening. It was an interminable business, repeating their number to different operators, waiting while the line buzzed and crackled, while disembodied and unreal voices spoke unintelligibly to one another in hasty, clipped syllables. In the end, a man’s voice spoke up.
“Is that Mr. Knight?”
“Yes, who is that?”
“It’s Harold.”
“Harold! How are you? Where are you speaking from?”
I told him Bassingbourn. We were allowed to do that so long as we didn’t give the name of our unit.
“How’s Mrs. Knight?”
“Oh, she’s fine, she’s down at the Y.M. this evening, on duty.”
“I see. And Betty, is she still with you?”
There was a slight pause. I thought we must have been cut off. Then he said, “No, she went back home a little while ago. Things are a bit quieter now, you know.”
“Yes, I understand. But how is she? I’d love to see her again.”
“Well, actually, Harold, she’s fine. But look, did you know – did she mention that she’s getting engaged?”
I felt as though I’d flown slap into a mountainside in the dark. I swallowed with difficulty, the perspiration had broken out on my forehead and my hand holding the receiver was trembling.
“No,” I said, “I didn’t know that.”
“Sorry, I didn’t hear what you said.”
“No, I hadn’t heard that.”
“Yes; he’s quite a nice chap, a bit older than she is, works in a car factory, I believe.”
We didn’t talk long after that; I was too stunned to think very straight. I’m afraid I never saw the Knights again, and I am truly sorry, for they were good, nice people and they were extremely kind to me. I made a mess of my flying during the next few days.
[page break]
I still think about Betty. I have quite a substantial record collection and after years of fruitless searching I finally got the record of Hutch singing what has become for me a poignant song, that song about the nightingale. And when I play it I can see Betty’s lovely face, pale and calm, like the Madonna, and I can visualise the gleam of the firelight on her jet-black hair, that winter afternoon in Northampton.
I wonder, often I wonder, what became of her. Dear Betty, I shall never forget you for you were my first love. What happened? Where did I go wrong? I don’t know why I should feel so very sad when I think of those days, for they were truly among the happiest of my life.
Sometimes, too, I think of the way she used to laugh, and of her words; I can almost hear her voice speaking to me, as though she were in the room here. But I know I shall never see her again and now, the touching little phrase sounds only like a cry of despair in the night – “Never no more, never no more.”
. . . . . . . . . . . .
[page break]
[inserted] [underlined] We would never fly like that. [/underlined] [/inserted]
[page break]
[underlined] WE WOULD NEVER FLY LIKE THAT [/underlined]
After I had described the incident to him, with inevitable, automatic use of a pilot’s illustrative gestures of the hands, he thought briefly about it, then looking directly at me, “You ought to write about it,” he said, “Why don’t you put it on paper?”
The following day I awoke early in the morning, earlier than usual, even for me, with his words still sounding in my ears. And remembering the words with which I had described the events of almost sixty years previously still fresh and vivid in my mind, I took up pencil and paper.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
Now, in the dying days of the twentieth century, almost every summer week-end, all over the land, you may buy your ticket for some air display. You may sit in your car with the doors open to admit the pleasant breeze, the warm air, the chatter of the crowd, the over-emphatic loudspeaker announcements, or you may lounge upon your hired camp-chair, your sunglasses shading your eyes as you look upwards into the limitless blue clarity of the sky, and watch, to the accompaniment of the ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ of the hundreds of spectators, the improbable antics of the ugly, purpose-built, monstrously-powered aircraft, meretriciously decorated with advertisements, performing their violent and ugly aerial manoeuvres. To me, the vicious use by their pilots of stick and rudder palls after only a few seconds, and I think, perhaps nostalgically, that I would much rather watch fewer and simpler aerobatics performed by pilots in standard military aircraft. And as I ponder this my thoughts are led back to a day on a Northamptonshire aerodrome when I was beginning my elementary pilot training in the R.A.F.
The time was the sever winter of 1940-41. The Battle of Britain had just been won; Coventry had only very recently been devastated by the Luftwaffe in one catastrophic night raid. I was one of twenty or so young men on our course. Most of us had never seen an aircraft at close quarters until we arrived at No. 6 Elementary Flying Training School. Here, there
[page break]
were Tiger Moths – biplanes, gentlemen’s aeroplanes, as I heard them many times described. They were docile, forgiving, vice-less, sensitive to both hands and feet, a sheer joy to handle once the initial strangeness of the sensation of controlling an aircraft in three dimensions had worn off. Most of us, I fancy, could see ahead no further than going solo on them, then completing the course with the required fifty or so flying hours before we went on to the next stage in our training, a Service Flying Training School. But we did not look far into the future; we did not know nor could we imagine what was coming to us. Perhaps, in many cases, this was just as well. All we knew was that we were, each one of us, filled with an unquenchable desire and zeal to qualify eventually as pilots in the finest Air Force in the world, to become – and we thought this and spoke of it without embarrassment or apology to any man – the elite of all the armed forces, an opinion which I will hold with pride today.
So we flew and we studied flying and talked of little else but the theory and practice of flying. We questioned one another. We pored [sic] over pilots’ notes and airmanship notes and navigation books and the Morse Code. We questioned our instructors and our peers on the senior course. And we kept our eyes and ears open, sensitive and receptive to anything, however small, which would assist us in any way to obtain those wings which we longed to be able to wear on our uniforms.
Here at Sywell, the Tiger Moths were, during the day, dispersed around the perimeter of the grass aerodrome, standing in their training yellow and earth-camouflage paint, their R.A.F. roundels standing out bravely, awaiting their next pupils to take them up on whichever exercise they would carry out. We were divided into three Flights, six or seven of the boys on my course in each, with six or seven of the senior course. Each Flight had its ‘office’ in a camouflage-painted bell tent near the hedge. But what drew my eye almost hypnotically when I was standing there, not flying, perhaps watching other pupils performing their ‘circuits and bumps’ until it was my own turn, was the occasional sight of a Wellington, a twin-engined bomber, at that time the biggest we had, standing outside a hangar on the far side of the aerodrome – the Vickers shed, as it was called. It fascinated me constantly and unfailingly, massive in its matt-black dope with its very tall single rudder, standing squat, silent and menacing outside its hangar, contrasting against the snow-covered ground,
[page break]
never approached by anyone except the Vickers personnel. What was taking place there I have never known, but all of us well knew who flew it.
He would arrive in his Spitfire, considerately keeping a respectable distance outside the circuit while we pupils took off or landed in our tiger Moths. Then he would slip into a vacant place in the circuit and make his approach and landing, his aircraft, pencil-slim, perfect and graceful in its flight, the focus of all eyes from the ground, its appearance possessed of something of the beauty and poetry of a Bach fugue or a Mozart andante, a Shakespearian sonnet of flowing aerial beauty. The pilot, we learned from some of the senior course who were comparatively old hands on the aerodrome, was Alex Henshaw, Vickers’ Chief Test Pilot, a fact which reduced us tyros, with probably less than thirty flying hours in any of our logbooks, to awestricken silence.
He it would be who would take the Wellington from its place at the Vickers shed, taxi it, ponderously, it seemed to us, into take-off position when all Tiger Moths were well clear, and without fuss send it charging with engines howling at full boost over the bumpy grass field and into the air, leaving traces of oily smoke in its wake from the two Pegasus engines as he eased it over the trees fringing the aerodrome and climbed away. Later, he would return to land, once again showing meticulous consideration of us pupils, and would taxy the bomber to its position by the Vickers shed. I would have not believed them had someone told me that less than a year later I would land and take off here in a more powerful Mark of Wellington on the strength of having seen Alex Henshaw’s performances; I am sure that my audience, if indeed I had one, would have been quite unimpressed by the sight. I know that my own crew, in the tense silence as I scraped over the trees on take-off, were wishing themselves anywhere but with me in my inexperienced disregard for their safety. But it was watching Alex Henshaw that first sowed the seed of an idea in my head that, whereas almost all of the chaps on my course wanted to fly fighters, I thought that I would try my utmost to get on to a bomber Squadron, if only to hit back at those who had so terrified Betty, the niece of the couple on whom
[page break]
I was billeted in Northampton, and whom I was beginning to regard as someone more than a friend. A year later I would be wearing my pilot’s wings, having been half way across the world and back to earn them, having joined a Wellington Squadron in Lincolnshire and having survived a fire in the air followed by a barely controllable night descent in the darkness and the final crash-landing on my first operation against the enemy. I would also have gained, then lost, a love.
One afternoon, at Sywell, I was not flying, standing outside the dispersal tent with two or three others of my course, no doubt talking flying, and watching critically the take-offs and landings of a few pupils on circuits and bumps. (How readily I could point out their faults – a slight swing on take-off, a ropey turn, a bumpy landing, or a too-high hold-off; how slow I was to recognise my own failings and correct them, except on the sometimes caustic promptings of Flying Officer J - -, my instructor).
At this stage in our training we could detect instantly any appearance or movement of an aircraft in the sky, no matter how far distant it was – an attribute I have never lost – and we could also quickly and correctly identify it, an ability which, for obvious reasons, was essential by day or by night. But on that bright, very cold afternoon, first there was the distinctive note of the Merlin engine. Our heads turned. Here was the Spitfire with Alex Henshaw, assessing the position of the Tigers on the circuit. He would have been at about 800 feet; I had a splendid view as he cruised gently along, well outside the aerodrome boundary. Then there was a flash of sunlight off the wing as, quite unexpectedly, he rolled the aircraft on to its back and flew, straight and level, but inverted, into wind. We turned our heads and grinned at one another. This was good. This was very good. Exciting stuff. Soon he would roll back and finish his circuit normally. We were wrong. He turned crosswind, still inverted, his rudder pointing grotesquely earthwards. This was becoming quite amazing, an incredible sight. Then, still inverted, he turned again, on to the downwind leg and put his wheels down – or rather, put them up, as we saw them, rising like a snail’s antennae from the duck-egg blue under surface of the Spitfire. Then he turned
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on to the final crosswind leg, still inverted, undercarriage held high, flaps now out, and finally into wind, on to his landing approach.
Spellbound and speechless we watched as he lost height smoothly in the inverted position. What was he going to do? Open her up and roll her out, then go round again on a normal circuit? But no, he continued on his inverted final approach. I hardly dared breathe; the tension in our small group could be felt. Down and down he slipped until we were prepared to see simply anything – but surely not a crash? I could not truly estimate at what height he was, but finally, effortlessly and smoothly, he rolled her out, the engine popping characteristically as he held off at a few feet and set the Spitfire down for a perfect landing on the grass. We exhaled in unison, the tension gone, wonderment taking over.
I have never seen any piece of flying anywhere to approach the silken, wonderful skill of this, and I would be astonished if anyone else has; it was sheer unadulterated Henshaw genius, a sight that I have always remembered with awe, one I shall never forget.
There is a very fine novel, long since out of print, written by an R.A.F. Flight Lieutenant pilot who was killed in 1940. The action takes place at a civilian flying school; in one particular chapter some pupils are watching an instructor putting an aircraft through its paces on a rigorous test flight and one of them speaks some words which precisely matched my thoughts as I watched that incredible inverted circuit – “We’ll none of us ever fly like that.”
I am sure that none of us standing there on that wartime winter day ever did and I would be astounded if anyone else did, or could. It was flying by a genius; even the gods must have smiled to see it.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
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[inserted] [underlined] Lennie [/underlined] [/inserted]
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[underlined] LENNIE [/underlined]
In those days, full-backs wore number 1, right wing threequarters threw into lineouts and wore number 2, and so on, down to number 15 at wing forward. Lennie wore number 2 in my local rugby club’s first team, and also in the County side. As an aspiring wing threequarter [sic] myself, although just into my teens, Lennie, when I watched the team’s every home game, wide-eyed on the open side of the exposed pitch, in whatever weather, Lennie became one of my boyhood heroes.
He was not by any means one of your greyhound-type hard-running winger, for he carried, in retrospect, perhaps a pound or two too much weight to be numbered with them. But he was as elusive as a well-greased eel. Although in defence, and in particular, his rather feeble kicking, he was slightly suspect, with ball in hand every spectator, whether at club or County match, unconsciously sat up or stood straighter, in anticipation of his jinking, sidestepping runs up the touchline, soldier-erect, dark head thrown back, mouth slightly open. I wonder how often in his career he heard the encouraging shouts of the crowd, “Come on, Lennie!”
The recollection of a particular incident in one particular match, against the strongest club side in the county still remains vividly with me. In all but the highest grade of rugby, receiving the ball as a wing threequarter [sic] within ten or fifteen yards of one’s own corner flag meant that there was no choice. One kicked for touch, hoping to gain at least twenty or so yards. Especially so when one was pitted against the most efficient and successful team for miles around, and even more so when one was faced by the opposing winger, who in this case was an English international. But on this occasion Lennie eschewed the safe option. Perhaps it was that he himself knew that his kicking was rather weak.
About a hundred yards from his opponent’s line and faced by a rapidly advancing and grimly competent opponent, he set off to run, up the appreciable slope of his home ground. With a jink and a sidestep he evaded the oncoming International, who skidded and was left floundering. Urged on by the home crowd, myself included, he ran, sidestepped, swerved and tricked his way through the opponents’ entire team, his lately evaded marker in breathless and fruitless pursuit. He finally rounded the fullback and scored wide out to the left, after a solo effort of more than 120 yards. It brought the house down, especially as the England ‘cap’
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was finally left prone and exhausted in his wake. I have watched and played rugby for very many years and I honestly believe that I have rarely seen a finer individual try scored.
Came the war. Players and spectators alike of the necessary ages were scattered all over the world, many never again to see or handle a rugby ball. Very early in 1941, my elementary flying training – and Betty – left behind, the latter with some heartache, I and several other LACs from Sywell found ourselves en route for we knew not where to continue our training, gathered like so many shepherdless sheep in midwinter in a large and bleak Nissen hut at RAF Wilmslow, an overseas embarkation depot. There must have been fifty or so of us in the hut, sitting upon our respective beds, while a Corporal at one end lectured us on some topic relevant to our impending departure, then called us forward, alphabetically, of course – I was used to being the last in any roll-call – to hand us some sheet of instructions. Awaiting my turn I watched idly while others hurried forward to the Corporal’s desk, then about-turned and went back to their places. Watched idly, that is, until a name I only half-heard was called, and a well-built dark man trotted, on his toes, up the aisle to the Corporal. I started up with a stifled exclamation, recognising the way he ran. It was Lennie, Lennie C - - of W - - R.F.C. I could scarcely believe my eyes. For a second or two the forage cap with the white flash of u/t aircrew almost deceived me.
As soon as we were left to our own devices I walked along the hut and across to his bed-space.
“Excuse me, but you are Lennie C - -, aren’t you?”
“Yes, I am.”
He looked curiously at me.
“I thought so, I’ve often watched you play, at W - -.”
He looked surprised and pleased. I mentioned my cousin, who played in the same team. To meet someone from one’s own home town in the Service was a reasonably infrequent happening, and because of that, all the more welcome. He told me he was under training as a Navigator. We stuck together, despite the disparity in our ages – he was about ten years my senior – through our dismal stay at Wilmslow, then via Gourock and a ridiculously small ship to Iceland where we trans-shipped
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to an armed Merchant Cruiser. This was more of a morale-boosting title than anything else; the ship was a medium-sized passenger cruise vessel with two quite small guns which, at a guess, might have just about managed to sink an empty wooden barrel, but not much else. The news finally filtered down to us that we were heading for Canada. On setting out from Reykjavik we looked around for our convoy. There was none. We were to cross the Atlantic alone, with two paltry guns to defend ourselves against whatever there might be in the way of U-boats, pocket battleships or a combination of both. This was a very real threat. The ‘Bismarck’ was later to sink ‘Hood’ and itself to be sunk in the North Atlantic. We slept and lived, about 150 of us, I suppose, on the floor of what had been the Recreation Room with about twelve inches of so-called bed-space between mattresses. Half way across the Atlantic, in a February storm, the engines packed up and we tossed, helpless, for twenty four hours, a sitting target for the Kriegsmarine. Then at last we heard the welcome rumbling from the bowels of the ship.
An LAC whose bed-space was near to Lennie’s and mine then reported that he felt unwell. Chickenpox was diagnosed, and the M.O., looking for all the world like an S.S. man selecting victims for the concentration camp, ordered that several of us, including Lennie, Brian S - , who had been on my course at Sywell, and myself, were to be sent into quarantine when we arrived in Canada. Brian, as it happened, was also a rugby man, having played for Broughton Park.
We duly and thankfully docked in Halifax, Nova Scotia and after, I’m afraid, gorging ourselves on steaks and chocolate, which we had never seen since before September 1939, about twenty of us, including two or three Fleet Air Arm airmen, to our eyes bizarre in their bell-bottomed trousers and flapping collars, were put on the train for Cape Breton Island, in particular for the small R.C.A.F. Station of North Sydney.
Our quarantine turned out to be farcical. After twenty four hours on the camp we were informed, amazingly, that we could please ourselves where we went and whom we met, until further notice. We looked at one another in astonishment – then proceeded to enjoy ourselves while we could. Our duties, such as they were, consisted of one night duty in six when three of us were left in charge of the kitchen and served meals to the RCAF airmen
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who were on guard duty and fire picquet. The civilian cooks, who had never met anyone from the U.K., ensure that we were fed like fighting cocks, providing us with quantities of steaks, eggs and milk. Out of camp, the streets, cafes and cinemas of North Sydney and of Sydney itself were open to us. Lifts in cars belonging to the local people were there for the asking, and the friendly Nova Scotians, learning of our arrival, took us to their hearts and into their homes. They were astonished that despite the deep snow on the ground, we seldom, if ever, wore our great coats. The cold was so dry compared with that in England, and we were physically in such prime condition that we felt no discomfort, whereas our Canadian hosts went about muffled up in greatcoats and fur hats with ear-flaps. Our stay there was as good as an extended leave.
Off the pitch, most rugby players are determined to do their utmost to ensure that breweries never go out of business. Lennie was no exception. When a group of us were out together he drank his beer slowly but steadily, became more and more relaxed and laughed a good deal, sometimes uncontrollably. He never became objectionable or aggressive, never used bad language and was always amenable to our advice that perhaps he had had sufficient and it was time to return to camp. Being a mere tyro, at the age on [sic] nineteen I drank sparingly and with considerable discretion, my mental sights being fixed over the horizon, on the next stage of my flying training and the eventual gaining of my wings. So I took it upon myself, on several occasions, to steer Lennie, muscular but curiously boneless, laughing at only he knew what, safely into our barrack hut and on to his bed, where I covered him, still in uniform, with his blankets, where he would fall peacefully asleep. Lennie, even with several beers inside him, never did the slightest harm to anyone.
Of course, the idyll had to come to an end. After several very pleasant weeks, our posting came through. Brian and I and some others were destined for Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, No. 32 S.F.T.S., while Lennie was posted to Goodrich, Ontario, a Navigational Training School. I remember how we shook hands when we said ‘cheerio’. His smile was as broad as ever, and his hand, I recall vividly, was large and surprisingly soft.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
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It must have been on one of my leaves from Moreton-in-the-Marsh towards the end of 1942 when my father, who was on the committee of the local rugby club, gave me the news. Lennie had been shot down and was missing. He believed that it had happened off the Norwegian coast. It was yet another blow to me following the loss of my own crew. I had recently had a reply from the Commanding Officer of my Squadron in response to a letter I had written him, that my crew must now all be presumed dead. I felt that the bottom had dropped out of my life and I was nearing the end of my tether. I was suffering deeply, as was my flying, and I sensed that my forthcoming Medical Board would be the end of a chapter. I went about cocooned in silent grief so intense that it amounted to permanent depression, which was only temporarily assuaged by drinking far more than I ever saw Lennie drink. From what little my father had gleaned from his informant at the clubhouse I surmised that Lennie must have been on some squadron in Coastal Command. For some reason I visualised him on Whitleys.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
Years passed. I will not say that I had forgotten Lennie; occasionally some memory of those days would float unbidden into my mind and I would visualise him as I had last known him on Cape Breton Island, always smiling, playfully light-hearted, completely harmless. Then a friend gave me a cutting from a local newspaper with a photograph of the successful rugby team of the immediate pre-war years. Lennie smiled up at me from the middle of the front row of players, next to another young man who had been shot down into the sea off the Dutch coast as a wireless operator in a Blenheim on a daylight shipping strike. I was impelled to ask the friend whether any information could be obtained from the Internet as to what had happened to Lennie, and when it was he had died. Within days I knew enough to be able to consult a series of volumes of casualties of Bomber Command. For Lennie had not been on a Coastal Command Squadron as I had surmised, and he had not been shot down off Norway.
He was the Navigator of one of six Wellingtons from a Bomber Squadron at Mildenhall, (where much later, J – ended her career in the W.A.A.F. as a Base Watchkeeper), detailed to attack shipping, in daylight, on the Dortmund-Ems Canal in North-west Germany on a September afternoon in 1942.
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On reading this, I could hardly believe that Wellingtons were being used on daylight operations at that time; I had thought that the crippling loses [sic] that they suffered on such attacks in the early days of the war had meant their transfer solely to night bombing. (On my telling M – about these circumstances, she said ‘Suicide raid’. That was about the size of it.) Mr. Chorley’s painstakingly collated and amazingly detailed book gives the bare bones of the tragic story. Four and a half hours after taking off, presumably on their way back to Mildenhall, and within sight of the Dutch coast and the comparative safety of the North Sea, his aircraft was attacked by a Luftwaffe Focke-Wulfe 190, a formidable fighter aircraft. The wireless operator was killed in the attack and the aircraft was set on fire. The two gunners managed to bale out and became prisoners of war. The account says that Lennie was last seen using a fire extinguisher, bravely trying to put out the fire which was raging inside the fuselage of the Wellington.
The blazing aircraft crashed into what was then the Zuider Zee; the bodies of the wireless operator and the pilot were recovered and subsequently interred in a cemetery in Amsterdam, but Lennie’s body was never found and, having no known grave, his name is recorded on the Runnymede Memorial along with twenty thousand others whose remains were never recovered.
So died a hero who for a brief time was my friend.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
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[inserted] [underlined] It makes you think [/underlined] [/inserted]
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[underlined] IT MAKES YOU THINK [/underlined]
“Mail up!”
We jumped off our beds and hurried towards the door at the end of the barrack hut. At least, some of us did. The majority stayed where they were, on their beds, pretending to read, cleaning buttons, pottering about. There could be almost no chance of mail for them, for they were Norwegian, and their homeland was under German occupation. They accepted this lack of mail, as they did much else, with considerable stoicism.
We who were the fortunate ones gathered around the R.C.A.F. airman who called out the names on the envelopes, and who, while looking down at the handful of letters he held, handed us our mail without a glance. There was one for me. I looked at the postmark. Coventry. My heart bounded when I saw that. There was two-thirds of the width of Canada and all the Atlantic Ocean between us; she was back in devastated Coventry, I in smaller and completely peaceful Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, under training as a fighter pilot.
I walked slowly back to my bed, savouring the sight of her handwriting, feeling the texture of the envelope smooth under my fingers. I sat down quietly, as far as one could be quiet in a hut with twenty-nine other blokes. In deference to us, the Norwegian lads did keep quiet as we read our mail. I held the unopened letter a long time in my hand, gazing at her rounded, shapely writing. I wanted this moment of pleasure to last as long as possible.
At the time I was with her, under the same roof, being so caught up in the novelty and the thrill of flying, I didn’t realise what was happening to me, or to her, and it was all too foolishly late that I had become slowly aware of it. After we had parted, when I was at the Embarkation Depot en route for Canada, and when I had time to take stock of myself, it was only then that it dawned slowly upon me that I had fallen in love with her, and that I wouldn’t see her again for the best, or the worst part of six months at least. Oh, Betty, I thought, the time I so stupidly wasted. Would I ever have the chance again?
I sighed, and looked at her photograph on my locker. She was
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smiling at me enigmatically, her mouth curving slightly up at the corners, her dark eyes holding more than a hint of mischief, the gleaming mass of her ebony hair framing the soft pallor of her calm face. Slowly and carefully I opened the envelope. I turned to the last sheet, looked at the end of the letter first, fearful that it might say only “yours sincerely” or some such. It did not. The words were there that I wanted to read. I lit a cigarette, inhaled deeply and luxuriously, and started from the beginning.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
Tim spoke up from across the gangway between the beds, his English idiomatic and only very faintly accented.
“I hope she still loves you, but come on, we have flying to do.”
“O.K., Tim, I’ll be right with you.”
I tucked the letter into my top left-hand tunic pocket, carefully buttoning the flap. Soren and Aage, next to Tim, both stood up. What opposites they were, I thought, Soren cheerful, muscular, blond, extrovert, while Aage was gaunt and rather silent, and toothy, with melancholy eyes which flickered nervously around him. We made our way up to the flights; it was going to be another hot day. Already the air was filled with the tearing rasp of the Harvards’ Wasp engines as the fitters ran them up in preparation for a long day’s flying.
We turned into ‘F’ Flight crewroom at the front of one of the hangars and looked at the flying detail pinned up on the board, next to the Coke machine. Aage was due off on a cross-country to Swift Current and back at 0900, while Tim, Soren and I had an hour’s formation flying at 1000. Lower down the list I saw that I was due on the Link Trainer at 1500 for blind-flying simulation, and to round off the day, or rather, the night, one and a half solo night-flying hours at 2100. It was going to be a long day, as well as a hot one. Aage, now bent over a map, pencilling careful lines, was to take over my aircraft, I saw, when I landed after night-flying.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
After the snowy, tree-fringed grass field at Sywell it was a novelty to have these sun-baked runways, even more so when there were two parallel ones with a narrow grass strip in between, the whole field being patterned by this double triangle of concrete strips.
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We took it in turns to lead our formation of three. Station-changing, as we had no R/T, was indicated by hand-signals from the leader. Soren was to lead first with me as his number two and Tim, three. Then I would take over the lead, and finally, Tim. I followed Soren’s bright yellow Harvard out as he taxied on to the perimeter and turned towards the end of the runways in use. He took the right-hand runway of the pair and edged across to the left of it, braked and stopped. I gave him ten yards clearance and took the right-hand edge of the same runway. Tim stopped level with me, alone on the left-hand runway. I saw Soren slide the canopy shut and start rolling, and I followed, pushing the throttle firmly up to the stop. I never got used to the tremendous feeling of exhilaration as the power surged on. I lifted the tail and kept straight with small pushes of my feet on the rudder-bar. As I chased after Soren I could see Tim out of the corner of my eye, keeping abreast of me.
Suddenly Soren was airborne, then I followed, climbing into the summer sky. To maintain station, the rules of tidy and correct flying were suspended. You used no bank on your small turns to get into position, but skidded gently across on rudder only. It felt all wrong, it was like being told deliberately to mis-spell a word one had known and used for years. When I had first practised formation with F/O Sparks in the front cockpit I had been frightened out of my wits to see two other aircraft each within ten yards of me. But one was soon conditioned to accept this, and very quickly one learned the gentle art of close formation flying, when your own wing was actually tucked in to the space between the leader’s wing and his tailplane, so that any forward or backward relative movement meant a collision. But provided you watched him like a hawk, and kept station by means of constant throttle and rudder juggling, you got by. It became great fun, and the early thoughts of comprehensive and devastating collisions were soon forgotten.
So I tucked myself right in on Soren’s starboard side and stayed there while he climbed, turned or glided. We flew four basic formations, vic, echelon starboard, echelon port and line astern. The echelons looked great and the line astern gave you a bit of relaxation, for numbers two and three were slightly lower than the aircraft in front,
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to keep out of the turbulence of his slipstream. Where we were heading was not my worry, nor Tim’s. Soren was in charge of that side of things while he was leading. He gave the signal to change leaders. I skidded away from him and opened the throttle to draw ahead. He skated in to my left and Tim crossed to my right, as number two. Back to cruising revs as they snuggled themselves in tightly against me. I looked down at the baked prairie landscape and saw that Soren had headed us back towards Moose Jaw to make it easy for me. I grinned and mentally thanked him. I started to sing loudly to myself as we flew, running through the repertoire of the popular songs we were always playing on the juke box at Smoky Joe’s cafe, just outside the camp gates, I felt on top of the world – a letter from Betty, a great day for flying and the formation going like a dream. I led them around until my time was up and signalled Tim to take it from there, over Regina Beach on Last Mountain Lake, at four thousand feet.
I slid into number three position in the vic and tucked myself in tightly into Tim’s port side. He led us around in a turn to port, back towards base. We never did steepish turns in vic formation, it was too difficult for the man low down on the inside to keep station as he had to cut his airspeed back so much. Tim tightened the turn and climbed a bit as he did so. Watch it, Tim, I thought. Still tighter; I dared not look at my airspeed. Still tighter, and my controls were starting to feel sloppy, approaching the stall; I dared not throttle back any further or I would stall off the turn and go into a spin, and a Harvard lost nine hundred feet per turn once they did spin. Out of it! I shoved throttle on as I winged over and dived out of the formation, swearing to myself as I did so. The wretch! Playing silly buggers like that!
All on my own in the bright morning sky I screamed round in a steep turn to port, with plenty of power on, nearly blacking myself out in the process. I yanked the seat tighter against the straps to bind my stomach firmly in and keep the blood in my head, stopping the grey-out. I eased out of the turn. Five thousand feet. Now, where the hell were they? Then I saw them, now about six miles away, orbiting innocently. I flew over to them and sat just off
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Tim’s port wingtip, shaking my fist at him, which only made him throw back his head and laugh as he made come-in motions with his hand. I went in, tight. We formed up again into a sedate vic and finished the detail, as usual, in echelon port, about two miles from the field, when we did our line-shoot party piece – a swift wing-over to port in rapid succession and a dive on each other’s tails into the circuit, making sure we were well clear of the more sedate pupils going about their quiet business.
When we had landed, taxied in and switched off, I collared Tim.
“Damn you!” I said, pretending to be about to sling a punch at him, “What the hell do you think you were playing at? Trying to make me spin in, were you?”
“No danger,” he replied, laughing, “you had bags of height – can’t take it, eh?”
Soren chimed in, smiling broadly.
“We thought you’d just decided to go home.”
“Wait till I’m leader, next time, you two mad so-and-so’s,” I said threateningly, “I’ll turn you both inside out!”
All the same, I threw Tim a Sweet Cap; Soren didn’t smoke. We strolled back to ‘F’ Flight crew-room where I’m glad to say that Tim bought the cold Cokes. It was a hot morning.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
The Link Trainer Sergeant was a stocky little R.C.A.F. man who looked like a middleweight boxer.
“Don’t forget to reset your gyro-compass every ten minutes or so or you’ll be way to hell out at the end. Got your flight card? Do all your turns at Rate two and let’s have a nice neat pattern on my chart at the finish. Give me the O.K. when you’re ready and I’ll tell you when I’m switching on so you can punch the clock.”
“Right oh, Sergeant,” I said.
I climbed into the little dummy aeroplane on its concertina-like base. I pulled over the hood, plugged in the intercom in the darkness and propped up the flight card near the small lamp on the instrument panel. I felt the lurch as he energised the system; the instruments
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came to life with a sigh.
“I’ve put you at a thousand feet,” he said, “do you read that?”
“Check,” I replied, “turning on to 045 Magnetic, now.”
“Got you. Just watch your height as well as your timings, won’t you, bud?”
“Yes, Sergeant.”
I was flying the awkward Maltese Cross pattern, the idea being to finish exactly where you started, after the completion of the twelve legs. The instructor had a wheeled “crab” which inked in the line of your track on his chart. At the end, you should have drawn a perfect Maltese Cross, but it took forty minutes, approximately, of solid, grinding concentration on your instruments alone.
“Switching on – now!” came his voice, and I hit the stop-watch.
After what seemed like hours I did my final Rate 2 turn on to my original course. I straightened it up, timed a careful one minute, then called out, “Finish – now!”
He acknowledged and switched me off. The needles sagged to their stops. I took off my headphones and opened the hood and side door.
“O.K.,” the Sergeant said, “come right over here and have a look-see. Not bad at all.”
I went over to his glass-topped table. My pattern was about ten inches across and I had finished about an eighth of an inch from where I had started. It looked pretty damn good to me, and for an instant I thought about Tink’s brother in his Hampden.
“Yes,” I said, feeling rather pleased, “just a bit out, Sergeant.”
He grinned.
“You’re doing O.K., buddy,” he said agreeably, “now how’s about seeing if L.A.C. Briggs is outside, eh?”
“O.K., Sergeant,” I said.
He had just made my day.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
I lay back on my bed after the evening meal and read the letter once again. The hut was quiet. Those who weren’t night flying had gone to Smoky Joe’s or into town for an evening meal. The few of
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us on the night flying detail were reading, writing letters or dozing on our beds, waiting for the darkness. There was no sign of either Tim or Soren, while Aage was actually sound asleep.
She wrote, “I miss you here, I miss our walks in the park. I wonder if you will be posted somewhere near when you come back, where we can meet? Do you still want to go on to bombers, like you told me? Will it be very dangerous? Whatever happens, I shall pray for you, as I do now, that God will keep you. I have always said what has to be, will be, but I feel he will keep you safe…..” She went on to say she would be spending some time with her Aunt and Uncle in Northampton, as her parents still felt happier with her over there.
I folded the letter slowly and thought about Betty and the simple, almost idyllic happiness of life in those days six months ago. Tink, on the bed next to me, motioned to me and across at Aage, grinning, imitating his open mouth and his posture, his ungainly sprawl. Tink, the single-minded, I thought, hero-worshipping his brother flying his Hampden over Germany, and who could hardly wait to get on to the same Squadron. A faraway look would come into his eyes when he spoke about it; “When I get on Hampdens,” he would always be saying, and his broad, boyish face would be raised to the sky, “When I get on Hampdens with my brother –“
But looking at Aage had made me feel tired, too. I yawned, then lit a cigarette and grinned at him. Tink was from Coalville in Leicestershire; I wonder often what became of him.
An hour later I was taxying my Harvard out in the darkness, the flarepath away to my right looking very long and very far away. Night flying without a navigator and entirely without radio consisted, at Moose Jaw, of circuits and bumps – and of not getting lost. There was no blackout and you could see the town for miles, no bother at all. But if the visibility went, you got down out of it, quick. So far, it never had; the prairie nights were wonderfully clear.
I got my green from the A.C.P. and, nicely central between the flares, opened her up. We charged down the runway and floated off
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easily. I had done quite a few of these night flying stints before, and found I had taken to it naturally, much more so than I did to aerobatics, for example. Undercart up, throttle back to climbing power, keep the gyro on 0, shut the canopy, and up to 1000 feet. Level off, throttle back to cruising, turn port to 270. There’s the flarepath down over my left shoulder. Keep the wings level, watch the artificial horizon. Rate one turn downwind, heading 180, throttle back a bit, then wheels down when we’re opposite the middle of the flarepath. Greens on the panel as the wheels lock. There’s the A.C.P. giving me a green on the Alldis lamp. Crosswind on to 090. Bit of flap. Drop the nose and turn in. Watch the airspeed, open the canopy. Engine noise surges in. Switch on the landing light and hold her there. Nice approach, I think. Now, hold off and let her sink the last four feet. The flares merge into a line. Hold it there. A bump and a rumble. We’re down.
Keep her straight, flaps up, headlamp off. Touch of brake, not too much. Fine, now turn off the runway along the glim-lit perimeter track and back to the take-off position again. There’s someone else up, I can see his nav. lights. Wonder who it is? I rumble along the peri. track to head back for the end of the runway. Must say, I can see Tink’s point, I’d rather like a bash on Hampdens myself. After all, they’re what I wanted when I first thought about joining up, except that my ambitions were no higher than to be a gunner.
“Will it be very dangerous?”
God knows, Betty, but as you say, what has to be will be, and there is no turning back, one must simply live for and through the minute, even the second, and do what has to be done, enduring what has to be endured with fortitude.
Something’s irritating me, and I can’t think what, except there’s something here which shouldn’t be. My God! Yes! The cockpit is full of red light, now it’s flashing off and on, urgently. Stop. Tread on the brakes. She creaks and jerks to an abrupt halt. The red light stops flashing at me and someone taxies past me in the opposite direction. Wow! So that’s what the red was all about?
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Must stop this day-dreaming. Only two more circuits and I can pack it in, hand over to Aage and hit the sack. I’ll be about ready for it, too.
There’s my green. Hope he doesn’t report me for taxying through a red. It was only a dozen yards – I think. Oh, well, can’t do a thing about it now. No harm done, so here goes, back to my take-off point. Turn on to the runway, uncage the gyro on 0, open her up. We’re off again.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
Turn on to 180, see the stars sliding around. Between the field and the town, now. Nice and easy, purring along, last landing coming up, then into the pit.
“I miss you here, I miss our walks in the park.”
I wish I were meeting you after this, Betty, ‘you’d be so nice to come home to’ – I wonder if you still play that record? ‘To come home to and love.’
Coming home – the lights of home – lights – lights – lights! What the hell’s going on? All those lights, ahead, and coming straight for me? Hell! Get the stick back, you’re in a dive, heading straight for the town! You’ve been asleep, you bloody fool. Come on, come on, ease out. The lights slide below me. Thank God for that. I risk a look at the altimeter – 500 feet. God. Another few seconds, and that would have been it, smack into the town centre, curtains. I reach up and slam the canopy open, letting the cold night air flood in, taking deep breaths to wake myself up. I climb cautiously back to circuit height, select wheels down and duly get my green from the A.C.P., as though nothing at all had happened. I turn across wind, edging towards the flarepath. Shove the nose down, turn port, full flap, headlamp on, heading straight in. I land, thankfully, and exhale with relief. Aage is ready and waiting to take over the kite as I dump my ‘chute, blinking in the bright light of the crewroom, and fill in the Authorisation Book.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
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The murmur of voices nearby awoke me. I pulled the bedclothes around my ears, but it was no good. I was awake, back to life again. I sat up, yawned, looked at my watch – 0820. Still in time for breakfast, if I hurried. Brian, Tim, Tink and Soren were in a huddle across the other side of the hut, talking in hushed voices, looking solemn. Two strange erks were standing near Aage’s bed. I was puzzled.
“Hey, Tink!” I called, sitting on the edge of my bed and yawning again, “Tink!”
He looked over his shoulder and came across to me. I nodded towards the strangers.
“What’s cooking?” I asked.
“It’s Aage.”
“Aage? What about him?”
“He’s dead. He crashed, night flying, last night.”
“He what?” I gasped, fully awake in an instant, “He crashed? How the hell did it happen?”
Tink shrugged.
“No-one knows, he just went in, about four miles away, that’s all we know.”
“Christ,” I whispered, “poor old Aage. He’s definitely - ?”
“Oh, yes,” Tink said, “no doubt about it, I’m afraid.”
I said, quietly, “He took over my kite, last night, you know.”
Tink said, “Was it O.K. when you had it?”
“Of course, no trouble at all.”
I didn’t want to mention my falling asleep, not even to Tink. He sighed.
“Makes you think, doesn’t it?”
“Yes,” I answered, remembering the lights rushing towards me, “it certainly makes you think.”
(‘What has to be, will be.’)
“Mail up!” someone shouted, and there was a clatter of feet hurrying down the hut. There would be no mail for Aage. Another day had begun.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
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[inserted] [underlined] “Yes, my darling daughter” [/underlined] [/inserted]
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[underlined] “YES, MY DARLING DAUGHTER” [/underlined]
“What was it you did yesterday?” Flying Officer Sparks asked, “advanced formation, am I right?”
“Yes, sir,” I replied, wondering what was in store for me that morning. He pinched his lower lip between thumb and finger and frowned with silent concentration, his black moustache looking more luxuriant than ever.
“Well now, I think you’d better do some steep turns, climbing turns and a forced landing. An hour, solo. Take 2614. Don’t do all your turns to port, you don’t want to give yourself a left-handed bias, and watch you don’t black yourself out in your steep turns. Now. Forced landings. Don’t touch down anywhere, you only do that with an instructor. Don’t go below a hundred feet, and thirdly, don’t cheat and have a field picked ready, close your throttle at random when you’re doing something else. If you do ever have an engine failure you won’t be able to pick and choose the time or the place. All right? Any questions?”
“I take it I keep my undercarriage up, sir?”
“Yes, better a belly landing and a bent prop than a somersault if you try a wheels down landing on an unknown surface. Anything else?”
“No, sir.”
“Right, off you go, then.”
“Thank you, sir.”
I came to attention, about-turned smartly and went out of the Instructors’ Office into the pupils’ crewroom of ‘F’ Flight, No. 32 Service Flying Training School, Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, on the Canadian prairies.
I felt buoyant that morning; I was feeling very fit and happy and I knew I was flying well. It was a beautiful early summer day with a few puffs of fair-weather cumulus at about five thousand feet, with a light breeze to temper the already growing heat. The constant drone of Harvards filled the air, punctuated by the fierce, ear-splitting howl and crackle of the high-speed propeller tips as one fled down the runway like a scalded cat, tail up, and took off, flashing yellow in the sunlight and tucking its wheels neatly up as it left
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the runway.
Tim and Soren, two of the twenty or so Norwegians on our course – in fact, the R.A.F. were in the minority on Course 32 – were sitting in the crewroom. They completed my formation of three when we flew, and we were great buddies. Tim looked up and grinned.
“No formation for us this morning, eh?”
“No, not this morning, Tim. I hear that you’re grounded, anyhow, for trying to make me spin in off a turn!”
I was joking, of course, and Tim knew it; on’s [sic] loyalty to one’s formation was absolute. Tim laughed hugely, his lean, brown face, normally rather grave, was transformed.
“Anyhow,” I said, “he’s not fit to fly with a face like that,” and I pointed to Soren, who was feeding a nickel into the juke box. There was a thud, and out came the seductive voice of Dinah Shore.
“Mother, may I go out dancing?
Yes, my darling daughter.
Mother, may I try romancing?
Yes, my darling daughter – “
It was practically our course signature tune at Moose Jaw, everybody sang, whistled or hummed it and selected it on whatever juke box was handiest, whether here in the crewroom or out at Smoky Joe’s, the cafe at the camp gates, on the dust road which led to town. Soren looked up. He had a bottle of coke in one hand, a split lip and a discoloured right eye. He grinned at me.
“Ah, but it was just a friendly little fight with a couple of Canadians, nothing serious at all.”
Soren’s favourite occupation on his evenings out was to have several drinks then find someone to fight. Strangely enough, he never fought with any R.A.F. bloke.
“See you later, then,” I said to them. Tim gave a vague wave, Sorne’s eyes were already shut as he lay full length on a convenient bench, arms crossed on his chest, his mop of incredibly blond hair gleaming in the sun which poured in through the window.
“What if there’s a moon, mother darling, and it’s shining on the water?” I sang to myself as I crossed the expanse of concrete
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in front of the hangars, under the blazing sun, my parachute bumping against the backs of my knees, the morning breeze finding its way pleasantly inside my unbuckled helmet. It was so hot that we were able to fly in shirtsleeves. Up at eight or ten thousand feet it was delightfully cool, but at ground level the temperature could climb to the 120’s in the sun by afternoon.
I found 2614 among the half dozen kites parked in line facing the hangar. Someone had thoughtfully left the canopy open to minimise the heat in the cockpit. I checked that the pitot-head cover was off, I didn’t want to get airborne and find that the airspeed indicator was out of action. Then I climbed in off the port wing-root, clicking the leg-straps of my ‘chute into the quick-release box as I did so. An erk was standing by with the starter trolley. I did up my safety harness while I was busy with the pre-start cockpit check. I operated the priming pump and shouted “Contact!”, switching on the ignition, and with the stick held firmly back into my stomach I pressed the starter switch. The propeller staggered, jumped, staggered again, then caught as the engine roared into life. the prop-tips became a yellow semi-circular blur in front of my eyes. The erk wheeled away the trolley, parking it to one side where I could see it.
I tested the controls for the full movement and ran up the engine, buckled my helmet securely and pulled the seat up hard against the straps, waving away the chocks. The erk gave me the thumbs-up. I toed the brakes off, opened the throttle a little, and we rolled. I taxied with exaggerated care, knowing that F/O Sparks was probably watching me. I had been told off by him once or twice for taxying carelessly. So I ruddered the nose meticulously, each way in turn, at 45 degrees to my direction of travel, which enabled me to see ahead, to the sides of the big 450 horse-power radial engine. A taxying accident was a very serious matter indeed, and a Court Martial was the automatic sequel.
I arrived at the end of the twin runways in use and squinted up into the flare; no-one was on his approach. A final check on the windsock and on the cockpit settings, then I turned on to the runway, pushing on a little rudder to ensure I was absolutely in
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line and central. I set the gyro to ‘0’ and uncaged it, then glanced up to make doubly certain that the canopy was fully back, just in case anything went wrong on take-off and I had to get out in a hurry. Then a final deep breath and we were off. I eased open the throttle to its fullest extent. We rolled, rumbling over the runway, keeping straight with small pushes on the rudder. The engine note rose to a deafening howl and the pressure on the stick increased as we gathered speed and as I eased the stick central. We were in a flying attitude, tail up and charging down the runway which was vanishing with amazing rapidity under the nose of the aircraft. At 65, a slight backward pressure on the stick – not quite ready. At 70, a bump or two, then the incredibly smoothness of being airborne.
I whipped up the wheels, holding the nose just above the horizon to pick up speed, then I throttled back to climbing boost and revs, and reaching up, slid the canopy shut. It was a bit quieter then, and I could relax a little. I adjusted the climbing angle to give me 100 m.p.h., saw with satisfaction that the gyro was still on ‘0’, and did a quick check on all the instrument readings, going swiftly round the cockpit in a clockwise direction. The altimeter slowly wound around its way towards the cotton-wool cumulus.
“Mother, may I go out dancing?
Yes, my darling daughter,” I sang loudly to myself.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
“How right he was,” I thought as I brought her smoothly out of a steep turn, “you can black yourself out in one of these.”
I had tightened the turn gradually, to the left, which I could do without conscious effort, toeing on top rudder to keep the nose pushing around the horizon, the stick fairly tightly into my stomach to tighten the turn in on itself. As the rate-of-turn indicator hovered around the 3 1/2 mark I could feel myself being crushed down into the seat, my cheeks were being pulled downwards, and the instruments had become rather fuzzy as the ‘g’ took hold of the blood in my brain, sucking it down out of my head. Then, as I came out of the turn and the ‘g’ decreased, I stretched myself against the straps as the pressure slackened, and bared my teeth in a mirthless grin
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to restore my features to their correct shape.
“Forced landing next,” I said to myself as I slowly but firmly closed the throttle, stopping it just before the place where the undercarriage warning horn would sound. I was at about six thousand feet, to the west of Moose Jaw. Several miles away, to the north-east, I could see another Harvard stooging along, probably on a cross-country, and away to the north a civil DC3 was flying the beam from Regina to Swift Current. I gently pushed the nose down into the quietness, selected flaps down and hand-pumped on 15 degrees. In a real engine failure you would have to do it this way, the hard way. I slid the canopy open and was all set to pick what would laughingly be called my ‘field’; in this part of the world what passed for a field was rather rare.
The prairie lay below in its muted colours, the occasional yellow dust road straight as a string, the sun flashing briefly on some watercourse. About thirty miles to starboard there seemed to be some line-squalls building up already above the low hills which marked the border of Canada with the neutral U.S.A. I put the kite into a shallow glide. Then I saw my field, a green, squarish paddock with two white buildings in one corner, a dirt road leading up to them. I settled the airspeed on 80 and turned towards the paddock, losing height slowly but steadily in a succession of well-banked turns like the descending hairpins of a mountain road. The green postage stamp of the paddock grew larger. From the smoke of a small fire somewhere on the prairie I saw I would be roughly into wind on my final approach. The white buildings grew into the size of matchboxes.
“What a God-forsaken place,” I thought, “imagine being stuck out here, miles from anywhere, no town, no trees, lots of damn-all connected by roads.”
Then I notice a movement near the house. One figure was standing just outside it, then it was joined by another. Still I glided down, mentally noting airspeed and altimeter readings with quick glances, checking and assessing my position in relation to the paddock. I used to sideslip Tigers with contemptuous ease to get them into the
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field at Sywell, it became my trademark before I left there, but I’d never tried to sideslip a Harvard. Come to think, perhaps this wasn’t the time to start. The horizon had lifted quite a lot. I was going to make it all right, I thought. The prop windmilled ahead of me and I had the urge to open the throttle to make sure that the engine was still functioning; it seemed an age since I had cut the power off. I dropped the nose and did a final turn to port. Airspeed back to 80, pump down full flap, line up, into wind, on to the paddock.
It was a man and a girl standing there watching me, the sun gleaming on their upturned faces. The man was pointing upwards, towards me, he had put his arm protectively around the girl’s shoulders. His daughter, I thought. I imagined them speaking to one another in their slightly harsh Canadian voices, anxious as to what was going to happen next to the aircraft, to me – and to them and their home. I saw the girl give a small wave of the hand, nervously, encouragingly, almost as though she were trying to placate some force, to stave off a possible disaster, and I felt a pang of guilt, knowing that they would be thinking that I was in trouble. Two ordinary people, the tenor of their lonely lives disturbed as never before, by my so casual and uncaring intrusion.
Altitude 150 feet. Airspeed 80. It was, if I said it myself, a honey of an approach, I could have put her down with no trouble at all. They were both waving now and I could distinguish their features. I had them firmly fixed in my mind as father and daughter. Perhaps he was a widower, living out his hard life on the land which his ancestors had farmed since the Indians had left, perhaps his pretty daughter had sacrificed her youth, her prospects and hopes of marriage, to look after her father and help on their farm, burying herself in their lonely world. They were remote there from everything of violence, receiving news of the war over the radio from professionally cheerful and brash newsreaders, couched in terms that they could merely imperfectly comprehend: Europe was far away, dominated by some tyrant of whom they knew little, opposed only by distant and defiant English cousins whom they had never seen, and whose ways were as strange and unknown to them as those of the biblical characters of whom perhaps they read daily at the end of their quiet evenings together.
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I saw him clasp her to himself protectively, and I saw also that I was now below 100 feet. Firmly, I opened the throttle fully. The engine surged with power, its roar doubly deafening after the long glide down. I eased the nose up and gently started to milk off the flap. The house slid beneath my port wing. I saw, out of the corner of my eye, the two figures. He was greying, slightly stooped, in brown bib-and-brace overalls, she a slim girl in a vivid blue frock, her dark hair like a halo round her face. I suddenly thought of Betty. They stood, their arms around each other, as I flew over them.
Then I had the strange and unaccountably peaceful feeling that in those few minutes I had known them all my life. It was as though time itself had become distorted, elongated, to envelop the three of us in some temporal vacuum in a cul-de-sac off the normal path of consciousness, where the clock of the world stood still and where we had, in some mysterious way, experienced a fragment chipped off the endless expanse of eternity, wherein the three of us had been united as one.
The horizon sank away below the Harvard’s nose. I was back again in my element after those eerie few seconds. I looked down at them for the last time. She was standing with both hands pressed to her face. Then her father slowly raised his right hand, as though in benediction. I climbed away into the summer sunshine. And I sang, to no-one but myself, but thinking of the girl down there –
“Mother, must I keep on dancing?
“Yes, my darling daughter!”
I turned the Harvard’s nose for home.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
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[inserted] [underlined] Crewing-up [/underlined] [/inserted]
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[underlined] CREWING-UP [/underlined]
Although there are many things which happened at that time when we looked directly into “the bright face of danger”, there are some, and regrettably, some of the most important, the recollection of which steadfastly eludes me. This of course pains me greatly, as the men I was about to meet were destined in those six all too short months to leave an indelible and now poignant impression upon my memory.
My recurring faint recollection is somehow associated with being in a group of other pilots, pupils at 11 O.T.U., Bassingbourne, not far from Cambridge, quite near to the place of execution of Dick Turpin at Caxton Gibbet, and later to become an American Flying Fortress base. We were gathered at the end of one of the hangars in the morning sunshine, practising what little skills we had acquired on the use of the sextant, taking sun-sights and from them plotting the latitude of our position, which was, of course, easily checked by our, at that stage in our training, benign instructors. Perhaps their thoughts were couched in similar terms to those which Connie was to use in conversation with me a year or more later, and in totally different circumstances and surroundings – “They don’t know what’s coming to them, poor sods, do they, Yoicks?”
None of us knew what was coming, for better or for worse, to us, and I was certainly not to know that within the hour I was to meet, and for the next six months – (was it really as little as that?) – become associated with and know intimately five of the finest men, in my opinion, who ever walked the earth. Men who became closer to me, closer to each other, than brothers, than my and their own flesh and blood, men who were mutually supportive in the intangible but unyielding bond which perhaps only aircrew or ex-aircrew can comprehend, men, four of whom had already entered the last six months of their short lives.
We put away our sextants, thankfully, in most cases. There were about twenty of us pilots on the course, both from the United
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Kingdom and the Dominions. My own particular friends were Charlie from Newcastle, Hi-lo, a rugged, rangy Canadian and the man who was to become his Observer, a cheerful Australian named Laurie, and also Roddy, another Canadian, smiling and lively, whom I often addressed, attempting, not unkindly, to imitate his accent, as Raddy. He, Hi-lo and Laurie were soon to be posted with me to 12 Squadron. All three were also soon to die.
We had completed our introduction to the Wellington under the tutelage of ‘screened’ ex-operational pilots, on somewhat battle-weary ex-Squadron aircraft. The inevitable ‘circuits and bumps’ – a few of the bumps quite heavy – had been the order of the day, and of the night, a fortnight of them. I astonished myself by going solo on what were in my eyes monstrously large twin-engined aircraft, having gained my wings on single engined Harvards, in less than three hours. Perhaps it was due not so much to skill and ability as to confidence, or perhaps over-confidence. Looking back on it now it never ceases to astound me and I have to consult my log book to verify the figure of a mere two hours and forty five minutes instruction.
One interesting feature of this fortnight was that before we flew at night we practised what were known as ‘day-night’ landings. Flying in broad daylight with an instructor as safety pilot, we wore specially tinted goggles which gave the impression of surrounding darkness, while the runway was marked by sodium lights which showed up brightly and gave us the line of approach and landing. It was a novel and rather weird experience, but a very useful one, preparing us for the real thing, flying at night in much-reduced visibility, our eyes fixed almost exclusively on the blind-flying panel of A.S.I., altimeter, turn and bank indicator, gyro compass, artificial horizon, and rate of climb and dive indicator.
And so, to one degree or another proficient enough pilots of the Wellington, we were ready to be crewed up.
‘George’, as automatic pilots were universally known, were rare pieces of equipment in late 1941, so every Wellington was crewed by
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two pilots who shared the manual flying (of anything up to 7 1/2 hours on some operations) and one of whom was designated as captain of the aircraft, almost invariably addressed as ‘skipper’ or more usually ‘skip’. Once in the air, however, the pilot was virtually under the orders of his Observer, a misnomer if ever there was one, as he was in no position, huddled in his tiny compartment with his plotting chart and maps, his parallel ruler and sharpened pencils, constantly reading his super-accurate navigation watch, his ‘slave’ altimeter and airspeed indicator, to observe anything outside the aircraft. No pilot, however privately doubtful he might be of the Observer’s statement of the aircraft’s position relative to the earth, or of his instructions to alter course on to a given heading at a certain time, ever had the temerity to question him as to these matters except in the mildest and most oblique of terms. To do otherwise was to risk a most sarcastic reply, usually culminating in the curt riposte, “You just do the flying and let me do the navigating.” Later, on the Squadron I was to learn that Observers as a clan – and a Freemasonlike clan they were, dabbling in the impenetrable mysteries of running fixes, square searches, back-bearings, drifts and suchlike – were sometimes irreverently known as the Two-Seventy Boys, after their alleged persistent habit of, having bombed some German target and being urgently asked by the pilot for a course “to get the Hell out of here”, would airily answer, “Just steer two-seventy,” that being West. The Observer was also the crew member who released the bombs, his bomb selector panel down in the starboard side of the aircraft’s nose being somewhat inappropriately known as the Mickey Mouse, for a reason I never discovered, directing the pilot from his prone position between the front turret and the pilot’s feet on the rudder pedals with what was usually a breathless series of instructions, “Left, left”, “Right” or “Steady”, the word “left” always being repeated so as not to be confused with “right” against the various external and internal noises of a bomber aircraft. Current at the time was a somewhat school-boyish joke that one Observer had so far forgotten himself in the excitement of the bombing run to call urgently to the pilot, “Back a bit!”
The remaining three crew members each wore the air gunner’s ‘AG’ half-wing on his chest. But one, in addition, had the cluster of
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lightning flashes of a wireless operator on his sleeve and was invariably referred to, not by the official designation of wireless operator/air gunner but with the racy and succinct abbreviation ‘WopAG’. His was the task of obtaining as many bearings on radio stations, both R.A.F. and, if he was able, B.B.C. and German civilian stations such as Hamburg or Deutschlandsender and pass the information to the Observer in the next compartment. He must also, at designated times, listen out to messages from his base aerodrome and also his Group Headquarters. In addition, in emergency, he could attempt to obtain a course to steer to any given bomber station by requesting from them a QDM, the code for that information. But this was regarded as being rather infra dig.
The two ‘straight AGs’, as the other gunners were known, occupied their respective gun turrets with a few inches to spare, one at the front and one at the rear of the aircraft, the coldest positions, despite their electrically heated leather Irvin suits. In the ‘tail-end Charlie’s’ case it was the loneliest position in the aircraft and the most hazardous if attacked by a Luftwaffe night-fighter, but the safest if a sudden crash-landing became necessary, or if the order to bale out was given in some dire emergency, when he simply rotated his turret through ninety degrees, clipped on his parachute, jettisoned the turret doors and fell out backwards. Each turret was equipped with two .303 inch Browning guns, lovingly maintained and cared for by their users, pitifully inadequate when compared to the cannon of the German night-fighters.
To be in the firing line of these Luftwaffe cannon was not at all pleasant. Although never, fortunately, experiencing it in the air, Charlie, my room-mate, and I, billeted in Kneesworth Hall close to the aerodrome, on the old Roman road of Ermine Street, were quietly writing letters one evening in our first-floor room when we heard, and ignored, the noise of the air-raid siren from the village. Bassingbourn was one of the nearest training aerodromes, and certainly the nearest bomber O.T.U., to the east coast, although a fair distance from it. But this fact must have been well known to the enemy, who paid us periodic visits. One aircraft, in fact – I believe it was a Junkers 88 – either by design or mischance actually landed at
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Steeple Morden, our satellite aerodrome and became the property of H.M. Government and the Air Ministry, subsequently appearing as part of the circus of captured German aircraft in flying condition which we once saw flying out of Duxford, a nearby fighter station, where they were based, and heavily escorted by a squadron of Spitfires indulging in some plain and fancy flying around them to discourage curious onlookers such as we, who might have gone so far as to try to shoot them down, if in sufficiently rash a mood. However, to return to Kneesworth Hall and the air raid warning. Charlie and I carried on with our respective writing until we were suddenly aware of a strange aircraft engine noise becoming rapidly louder, accompanied by the loud and staccato banging of cannon-fire as the German intruder shot-up the road, the village and approaches to the aerodrome. Our letters were swiftly thrown aside as we, with violent expletives, flung ourselves under our respective beds. My future rear gunner also had a tale to tell concerning an attack by an intruder.
The taking of sun-sights over, we were instructed to gather in one of the hangars to be crewed up. There was, as I recall, no formal procedure attached to this important and far-reaching event. One of two instructors acted somewhat like shepherds directing straggling sheep to make up a group of six which was to be a crew. There must have been a hundred or more aircrew of all categories milling around rather haphazardly until, perhaps, a beckoning hand, a lifted eyebrow or a resigned grin bonded one man to another or to a group as yet incomplete. The whole procedure, if indeed it could be graced by that term, seemed to be quite without organisation, the complete antithesis of all previous group activities I had experienced since putting on my uniform eleven months before. Here, there was no falling-in in threes, or lining up alphabetically. (And how I used to long for anyone named Young who would replace me, the invariable and forlorn last man in any line for whatever was to be received or done.)
“You lookin’ f’r ‘n Observer?”
He was tallish, rather sallow and thin-faced, in Australian dark blue uniform with its black buttons, Sergeant’s chevrons on his sleeves, the winged ‘0’ above his breast pocket.
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“Sure. Glad to have you,” I said.
This was Colin, more often than not simply ‘Col’. He was to guide us unfailingly through the skies, friendly skies by day and night, then through the hostile moonlit spaces over Germany and Occupied Europe. Col, from Randwick, near Sydney, with his baritone voice which quite often suddenly creaked, almost breaking as he spoke, with his wry sense of humour, his sudden, almost apologetic half-stifled laughter, his strange, colourful vocabulary – “Take five!” His term, sometimes sarcastically uttered, of approval. And when he suspected that I or some other member of the crew was trying to kid him – “Aw, don’t come the raw prawn!” A single man, his father working for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
Later, one night on ops with the Squadron to Kiel where the Gneisenau was skulking after its dash up the Channel from Brest with the Scharnhorst and Prinz Eugen, Col performed a wonderfully accurate piece of navigation. It was on an occasion, of which there were several, when the Met. forecast was completely inaccurate, which we feared when we entered cloud at 600 feet after take-off. We climbed slowly until we could climb no more in the thin air and reached 20,500 feet, still in cloud, a faint blur of moonlight showing above us. We bombed the centre of the flak concentration in the target area, completely blind, but saw several large explosions which we duly reported on our interrogation back at base. Losing height slowly on the way back and with an unwelcome passenger in the shape of the 1000 pound bomb which had hung-up, I broke cloud at something around 1000 feet on return, a mere four miles south of our intended position, to see the welcome finger of Spurn Head down to starboard and the four red obstruction lights of a radar station near Cleethorpes gleaming ahead. Over seven hours in cloud and an error of only four miles, thanks to Col’s abilities. It was on this raid, by Wellingtons, 68 in total, of our No. 1 Group, that the Gneisenau was so badly damaged that she never sailed again from her berth. Many of her crew were killed. Perhaps it was our bombs that had done the damage, who knows.
I once found Col, on an op, being quietly sick into a tin at the side of his plotting-table, his face ashen, but carrying on despite that.
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Such was his dauntless spirit. He had my unspoken sympathy as a fellow-sufferer.
A pale, poker-faced and very quiet Royal Canadian Air Force sergeant pilot attached himself to us. Elmer, as the rest of the crew came to christen him, was silent to a degree, but despite that somehow exuded a quiet if somewhat forlorn determination. When we reached the Squadron in October he joined Mike Duder’s crew. Five of the six of them were killed when, damaged by flak over Essen on Mike’s 29th trip, his last but one of his tour had he completed it, they were finished off by a night-fighter and crashed in Holland. It was not until many years later that I learned a little more about Elmer. Although in the R.C.A.F., he was not, in fact, a Canadian, but a citizen of the United States of American, from St. Paul, Minnesota. Before Pearl Harbor [sic] he had an urge to fly against the Germans, possibly because of his Central European forbears. He volunteered for the U.S. Air Force as a pilot and underwent his initial training. Unfortunately, like many others, he had trouble with his landings and was failed. He returned home undeterred, with his desire to become a pilot undimmed. To raise money for the course of action upon which he had decided, he took a job in a sweet factory and augmented his wages by working as a petrol pump attendant. He then travelled to Canada and enlisted in the R.C.A.F. This time he successfully completed his training and got his long-desired wings. All this I learned years later when I was able to trace his sister-in-law and with a residual sense of guilt over my at times impatient, if not downright snappy instructions to him in the air, I have attempted to salve my conscience by having several times visited his grave, and those of his crew, in a war cemetery in a small, neat town in the Netherlands.
The ‘father’ of our crew was Mick, our Wop/AG, the only married man amongst us. In peacetime – or ‘civvy street’ as it was invariably known – he had worked at Lucas’ in Birmingham and was knowledgeable on most things electrical and mechanical, owning a small Ford car as well as a motor cycle. The former was later well used on stand-down nights on the Squadron for trips into G.Y. (as Grimsby was known) and I once had the doubtful pleasure of a hair-raising pillion ride
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over snow-covered skating rink minor roads, on his motor cycle, also into Grimsby, which was almost as nerve-wracking to me as a trip to Essen. Mick (this was not his given name) was tallish, fairly well-built, with a high forehead, a studious manner, a slight ‘Brummy’ accent and an unconsciously querulous voice. It was he, I think, who christened me ‘Harry’, by which name I became known by the rest of the crew, and the use of which, after their loss, I have strongly discouraged. Mick had done part of his training somewhere in Lincolnshire and had frequented, and knew the landlady, Edna, of the Market Hotel on Yarborough Road in G.Y., which became a home from home for us on stand-down nights. He had a habit concerning which Col and I wryly complained on several occasions, of, on being asked over the intercom. for some information, would testily reply, “Hey, shut up, I’m listening out to Group.” We met his wife once, in the ‘Market’, Mick proudly introducing her to us all, a shy, rather self-effacing girl, soon to become a widow.
Our gunners were a wonderfully contrasted pair. Johnnie, from a small Suffolk town – and again, not his given name – in the front turret, was slim, neat in appearance, quiet of speech and demeanour, moderate in his choice of words and apparently completely without fear. No matter what the circumstances, his voice over the intercom. was as calm and measured as though he were indulging in casual conversation over a glass of beer. On the way to Essen one night we were suddenly coned in a dozen or more searchlights and the German flak gunners got to work on us. Cookie was hurling the aircraft all over the sky in his attempts to get us out of the mess, and I was being hurled all over the interior of the aircraft, which was lit up as bright as day. In a steep dive, attempting to escape from the combined attack of searchlights and flak bursts, Johnnie, without being told, opened fire with several short bursts from his twin Brownings on the searchlight batteries, and immediately we were freed from them as they snapped out as though all controlled by a single switch. Johnnie bought himself no beer the next time we went to the ‘Market’.
In contrast to Johnnie’s urbanity there was Tommy, our cockney rear gunner. I am still looking for Tommy, still seeking to discover what became of him after he was admitted to hospital after a few ops with us, whether even today, somewhere, he is alive. J – would have
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described him, had she, like me, had the good fortune to know him, as being like Tigger, a very bouncy animal. Although not tall, he was built like a boxer or a rugby prop forward, solid, chunky – even more so when kitted up in his Irvin suit – with a gleaming broad red face, scarred in one place, topped by rather long and slightly untidy Brylcreemed hair, his face almost always split in a broad grin. He was cheerful, cocky, good-humoured, never short of a quip, lively and effervescent, and he was a tonic to us all when things were going against us.
He laughingly described to us one incident in which he was involved while in his training Flight in the weeks before coming into the crew. He had been on a night cross-country involving an air-to-sea firing exercise, aiming, presumably, at a flame float which they dropped in the English Channel. Several other gunners were taken along on the trip and after Tommy had fired his allotted number of rounds he retired to the rest bed half way down the Wellington’s fuselage, unplugged his intercom., closed his eyes and fell asleep, the padded earpieces of his helmet dulling the noise of the engines and of the rattle of the Brownings fired by his fellow-pupils. He awoke with a start, someone shaking him violently and yelling in his ear, “Bale out! Bale out!” The aircraft was being jinked around the sky in evasive action from the attack of a German fighter. By the time Tommy had collected his wits, found and clipped on his parachute and jumped through the open escape hatch, the aircraft was down to approximately 600 feet, the lowest safe altitude to allow a parachute to open. No sooner had it done so than he was down to earth, to the softest of all possible landings – in a haystack.
He had no idea where he was, nor what had happened to the aircraft or to the others in it, and certainly no idea of the planned route of the cross-country flight.
“I hadn’t a bloody clue where the hell I was,” he told us, “could’ve been in France, Germany England, any bloody where.”
So he collected his deployed parachute into his arms and in the darkness plodded away from the scene of his sudden and fortuitous landing upon the earth. The unfamiliar countryside was silent and
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dark. He came upon a ditch under a hedge and rightly decided to spend the night there. In the morning he would take stock of his position. In the ditch, he rolled himself into his parachute, comfortably warm inside his leather Irvin suit and once more slept.
In the morning, at daylight, he cautiously emerged to size up the situation. On the other side of the hedge was a narrow road. Keeping well hidden, he awaited developments. Presently, the distant sound of voices alerted him and two men dressed in farm-workers’ clothes came walking along the lane. Tommy strained his ears to catch their conversation, to determine what language they were speaking. To his relief he heard familiar English words. Tommy emerged and, perhaps too quickly, confronted them. But startled as they were by his sudden appearance and flying clothing, they were soon convinced of his nationality when he employed his colourful vocabulary to some effect. They directed him to the nearest house where he received some much-needed refreshment and telephoned his flight Commander at Bassingbourn.
On our evenings out at the ‘Market’ in G.Y. he always made a point of collecting small empty ginger ale bottles after one or other of us – often it was I – had added the contents to our gin. These he would take along on our next op., storing them handily in his already cramped rear turret ready for use. We had heard it said that if caught in searchlights, a couple of empty bottles thrown out would, during their descent, scream like falling bombs and cause the searchlight crew to douse their light, and one night on the approach to the Happy Valley, as the Ruhr, with the somewhat black humour of bomber crews, was known, when we were trapped in searchlights he proved, by throwing out a few bottles, that this was no old wives’ tale. It worked like a charm and we slipped through the defences and on to Essen.
(Soon afterwards, on leave, I was relating this to an elderly and very unworldly female relation, who, to my amazement and vast amusement was alarmed and scandalised, wide-eyed and open mouthed. “Oh! But you might have killed somebody!” she exclaimed.)
I have made several attempts to find out whether Tommy survived the war. In correspondence with a contemporary Squadron member, he
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wrote to say that he had a copy of a Squadron Battle Order in which Tommy’s name appeared in relation to an operation, as rear gunner in some crew whose names were unfamiliar to me, but that Tommy’s name had been crossed out in pencil and another substituted. Whatever the significance of that, neither he nor I could tell after the lapse of time. A message on the Internet, placed by my Dutch friends, has produced no result.
Are you out there somewhere, Tommy? If so, you and I are the only two survivors of the six who came together on that sunny August day in the echoing hangar at Bassingbourn those years ago. I miss you all, more than words can express; I think of you every day that passes, and I never cease to grieve for you, nor ever shall.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
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[underlined] Enemy coast [/underlined]
Through cockpit window now,
The lemon-slice of moon,
Some random stars
Pricked in a hemisphere of indigo.
Ahead, the coastline waits –
Pale, wavering beams
As innocent as death
Rehearse the adagio ballet
Which will transfix us
On pinnacles of light
For ravening guns.
But for a space
In this brief, breathless safety,
Poised high above the metal
Of the neutral sea,
We hang in vacuum,
Scattered like moths,
Mute castaways in sky.
Until, inevitable, we penetrate
The charnel-house of dreams,
That swift unveiling of Apocalypse
Familiar to us
As the routine holocaust
Which other men call night.
H.Y.
June 1991
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[inserted] [underlined] Images of mortality [/underlined] [/inserted]
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[underlined] IMAGES OF MORTALITY [/underlined]
Someone, once, to whom I had been talking – perhaps, it must be admitted, at rather too great length – of my time at Binbrook, cut across my words impatiently with, “Ah, yes, but you were at an impressionable age then.”
Not being by nature argumentative I let the comment pass, and the subject was rapidly changed. But the memory of that remark has remained with me. Broadly, I would not dispute its accuracy, for surely, at whatever age one is, one should be, and should remain, impressionable. But here, the implication seemed to be that the events I had been speaking of were not of such importance to have remained so strongly in my memory as they had done. I was then, and still find myself now, a little annoyed by that viewpoint. The happenings of that period of time were of considerable importance to us participants, and the young men, or youths, as some of us were who were involved, were all, in their own individual ways remarkable to one extent or another, by any standards of unbiased judgement. But perhaps my bias is showing.
Be that as it may, when I think of Binbrook now, there comes into my mind a cascade of kaleidoscopic impressions of scenes, small scenes maybe, and of faces and voices, images of places and of people fixed into my memory like the black and white snapshots secured in an album of photographs.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
It was a shock to me when I saw it for the first time, walking up the road from the Mess towards the hangars. Being a peacetime Station – only just – Binbrook was equipped with the standard pattern of permanent buildings, including a row of what had been married quarters – a few semi-detached, two-storied houses. For some seconds I couldn’t think what had happened over there when I saw that most of the top storey of one of the houses had been shattered and was broken off. I halted in my stride, quite appalled at the unexpected and shocking sight. My first thought, an almost instinctive reaction in those days, was “enemy action”, then it slowly dawned on me that
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this was not so, that the building had, horrifyingly, been struck by one of our own aircraft, either on taking off or on landing, using the short runway. Who it had been, and what casualties had resulted, I never knew. I was too shaken to ask and no-one, certainly, ever volunteered the information. It was not a topic of conversation one indulged in or dwelled upon. But similar incidents were to involve my room-mate, Johnny Stickings, and I was to escape the same fate by only a few scant feet, and by the grace of God.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
Johnny had been somewhat longer on the Squadron than I, an Observer in Sergeant O’Connell’s crew. He was short, rather chunky and pale, with straight hair the colour of dark sand. I think we were both much of a type, for while we never went around together, we were perfectly pleasant towards one another and quite happy to be sharing a room, never getting in each other’s way or on each other’s nerves.
One winter’s morning I woke to find his bed still neatly made up and unslept in. At breakfast I heard that his aircraft had crashed the previous night, coming back from an op., on Wilhelmshaven, I believe. As far as anyone could tell me there had been both casualties and survivors. It was later that day when I returned to the room, and found Johnny in bed.
As I recall, he seemed rather dazed and quiet, as well he might have been. He went into few details of the incident; possibly his conscious mind was shying away from the harrowing experience, or perhaps he had been given a sedative. What he did tell me was that when the aircraft crashed he remembered being thrown clear. He had been flung bodily into a small wooden hut on some farmland in Lincolnshire. The hut had collapsed around him and he was only discovered lying in its wreckage by chance, when one of the rescue party noticed the demolished building.
For several years, on the anniversary of the crash, there was an entry in the memorials in the “Daily Telegraph”, to Sergeants O’Connell, Parsons, Laing and Delaney, signed “Johnny”. Then one year the entry no longer appeared.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
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Life on the Squadron produced, naturally, shocks to one’s nervous system. Shocks which one could reasonably expect as part and parcel of the normal run of operational flying, and which to one extent or another were predictable. It was the unexpected ones which shook one more violently than the rest; the dazzling blue of a searchlight out of nowhere which flicked unerringly and tenaciously on to one’s aircraft, the long uneventful silence of flying through a black winter’s night being suddenly shattered by a flakburst just off the wingtip. These were things which could set the pulse, in an instant, racing to twice its normal speed.
But there was an incident which occurred in, of all places, the ablutions of the Officers’ Mess, an incident which was so completely unexpected and, at the time, heaven forgive me, so utterly shocking, that it froze me into complete immobility, open-mouthed, horrified, and, for an instant, uncomprehending.
Apart from, as they are termed, the usual offices, in the dimly-lit stone-floored rooms, there were, naturally, a row of washbasins. I was washing my hands at one end of this row one evening when I heard a soft footstep nearby and I distinguished a figure in the feeble blue light which served to illuminate the place. What was so shocking was the face, a random patchwork of different shades of vivid red, white and pink, two long vertical cuts from the ends of the mouth to the chin, the eyelids unnaturally lifeless and mis-shapen, the hair of the head in isolated tufts falling at random on the skull over the brow.
As he moved, I recovered myself and muttered some vague greeting as I went hurriedly out, back to the normality of the well-lit, noisy anteroom. It was a while before I recovered from this un-nerving encounter. Someone subsequently told me about Eddie. He was a burn case, one of McIndoe’s ‘guinea pigs’. A pilot, he had crashed, taking off in a Hampden. The aircraft had burst into flames. The Hampden’s cockpit was notoriously difficult to get out of in a hurry and he had fried in his own greases until he was rescued. Richard Hillary, in his well-known book ‘The Last Enemy’, described Eddie as the worst-burned man in the R.A.F. He was now a pilot in the Target Towing
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Flight, flying drogue-towing Lysanders on gunnery practices.
Possibly because we both frequented the games room a fair amount, he and I slowly drifted together. No-one made any sympathetic noises towards Eddie, that was definitely not done, and no-one made the slightest concession towards him either. He played against me often at table-tennis, with a controlled ferocity which could have only have been born of the desire to live his spared life completely to the full. Frequently, a clump of his dark auburn hair would flop uncontrollably down over his eyes, to expose an area of shiny red scalp, upon which hair would never again grow, one of the numerous grafts on his head and face, the skin having been taken, he told me, mostly from his thighs. He would damn it cheerfully and push it roughly back again with his sudden slash of a broad grin, which never reached his lashless and expressionless eyes.
I had detected some accent which I could not place. One day while we were sitting together in the anteroom, chatting, he mentioned that he was a South African.
“Oh?” I said, “Where from? I’ve got relations out there.”
“Where do they live?”
I named the town.
“Well I’ll be damned,” he said, “that’s where I’m from; what’s their name?”
I told him.
“Have you a cousin called Edna?”
“Why, yes,” I said, astonishment growing every second.
“I used to go around with her,” he laughed, “it’s a small world, isn’t it?”
Eddie, I am glad to say, survived the war. There is a photograph of him, among others of McIndoe’s ‘Army’, in a book named ‘Churchill’s Few.’
. . . . . . . . . . . .
What can one say of Teddy Bairstow? Only that, had he lived fifty years before his time he would have been described, I am sure, as ‘A Card’ or as ‘A Character’.
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Unlike Tony Payne or Jim Heyworth, for example, he was physically unimpressive; very thin-faced and pale, sparse hair brushed sideways across his head, but with eyes as bright as those of the fox’s head of our mascot. It was his voice, however, which one remembers best, grating, strident and penetrative in its broad Yorkshire accents. When he was in the room, everyone knew it, and the place seemed filled with his jovial, but somehow, rueful, almost apprehensive presence.
Teddy had a stock phrase which he used whenever anyone asked him, for example, what sort of a trip he had had. He would lift his voice in both pitch and volume and exclaim to the world at large, “Ee! ‘twere a shaky do!” He had, to everyone’s knowledge, at least one very shaky do. Coming back from some op, he found, for one reason or another, that he wasn’t going to make it back to Binbrook. But he was reasonably close, he had crossed the Lincolnshire coast, and decided he would force-land his aircraft. But no wheels-up-belly-landing, as he should have done, for Teddy. Incredibly, he did a normal landing, if it could be described in those terms, undercarriage down, in the darkness, into a field near Louth, and got away with it without nosing over into a disastrous cartwheel. Few would have survived to tell the tale – Sergeant O’Connell certainly had not done so – but everyone agreed with Teddy’s usual comment. ‘Twere indeed a shaky do.
Towards the end of February Teddy’s luck ran out. We went after the German pocket-battleship Gneisenau in Kiel Docks, where it was holed up after escaping up the Channel. Teddy did not come back.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
Somehow, it happened that Eric and I tended to gravitate together to play billiards or table tennis in the Mess games room, and for the odd glass of beer. It was, I think, possibly because like me, he was the only one of commissioned rank in his crew, apart from Abey, that is, who was his pilot and our Flight Commander, a Squadron Leader, very much senior in rank to both of us. Eric was Abey’s Observer, tall, well built, unfailingly polite, his manner polished and urbane, yet by no means superior. We got along very well; I enjoyed his company, and I like to think he enjoyed mine.
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It was one afternoon when we had a stand-down. Frequently, my crew and I would go in to Grimsby, to the cinema, then to the “Market” for a meal with Edna, the landlady, possibly stay the night, and come back in time to report to the Flights next morning. We usually managed to cram ourselves into Mick’s, our wireless operator’s, Ford. However, on this particular afternoon, possibly because we were broke, there were no such arrangements. I happened to bump into Eric in a corridor, in the Mess. We said “hello”, then he stopped suddenly and said, “I say, are you interested in music?”
“Yes, I am, rather,” I said, not knowing what to expect.
“Well, look, I’m just going along to old Doug’s room, he’s going to play some records – would you like to come along? I’m sure he won’t mind.”
So I went. Doug was pleased to see us both. He wound up his portable gramophone and put on Tchaikovsky’s ‘Valse des Fleurs’. I can never hear that lovely, lilting piece without thinking of that afternoon in Doug Langley’s room, lost in the beauty of discovery of orchestral music, and remembering Doug himself, with his light-ginger hair and luxuriant moustache, sitting, eyes closed, head thrown back, as Eric and I listened attentively. From there, on a subsequent stand-down night we went to a real symphony concert, my first ever, in Grimsby, and a whole new and wonderful world had opened up for me, thanks to Eric and Doug.
Abey’s crew went missing on Kiel, the same night as Teddy Bairstow. It was years later that I knew that Eric, and indeed, the rest of the crew, had survived. Desperate for contacts after J – ‘s death, I hunted through telephone directories until I found his name, and contacted him. After a few phone calls, and the exchange of several long letters, I met him in London. Being the men we are, it was an affectionate but undemonstrative greeting, a handshake and smiles rather than arms around shoulders and tears.
His was a simple story. With quite typical frankness he told me, and M – who was with me, that it was all his fault that they had got shot down. There had, he said, been some fault in his navigation, a very common thing in those days when navigational aids were almost nil, when such things as Gee and H2S had never been heard of. On the way to Kiel they had strayed over Sylt, a notorious hot spot of an island off the Danish-German coast.
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They were hit be flak in their starboard engine, which put it out of action. After a discussion as to the alternatives open to them, Abey had turned for home, in the fond hope that one good engine would be sufficient to carry them to the English coast. It was not to be; they were losing too much height to be able to make it back across the wide and inhospitable North Sea. The next option was to turn round again, fly across enemy-occupied Denmark and try to get to Sweden, where they would bale out and be interned for the duration. Again, their loss of height eventually ruled this out, they would never have a hope of reaching any Swedish territory. The third and final option was to bale out over Denmark. This they did, one after the other, successfully, over the island of Funen. They were all immediately taken prisoner. Eric and Abey finished up in the notorious prison campo Stalag Luft III, Sagan, the scene of the “Wooden Horse” tunnel – and of the murder of fifty aircrew officer prisoners by the Germans.
Eric, to my and to M – ‘s fascination, produced an album of pencil sketches he had made on odd scraps of paper, of prison-camp life. I asked him how he had been treated as a P.o.W., those three and more years that he spent behind the wire. Typically, again, he said, “Oh, I didn’t have too bad a time, really, you know.”
What could one say in reply to that? I simply shook my head in wonder. Of course, among others, we mentioned Teddy Bairstow. He and his crew had not been so fortunate. Nor had Doug Langley, whose grave I found, quite by accident, in a quiet cemetery in norther Holland a short time afterwards.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
I returned to Binbrook after many years. But only to the village. I had already found the Market Hotel in Grimsby where I went so often with my crew. I had stood for several minutes, looking up at the windows of the rooms we used to have, and remembering kindly Edna, who treated us like sons. Remembering Col, and Mick, and Johnnie, of my original crew. Remembering Cookie, our skipper, and Mac, our rear gunner, the Canadians among us. Thinking of the man I never knew, Rae, the man who had taken my place, the man who had died instead of me.
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When I arrived at Binbrook, I found I could barely contain my emotion. I recovered myself to some extent while I drank a cup of coffee in the Marquis of Granby, the well-remembered pub in the village. I stood for a long time at the top of the hill, on the road which led down into the valley and up again to the now deserted and silent aerodrome. I stood, remembering again, seeing, across the distance, visions of the Wellingtons I and my friends had flown, parked in their dispersals, the movement of men around them, and their faces, hearing their long-stilled voices. But I could go no closer to them than that. There were too many memories, too many ghosts.
On that fine morning the images of mortality were too real to be borne.
. . . . . . . . . . .
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[inserted] [underlined] Tony [/underlined] [/inserted]
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[underlined] TONY [/underlined]
At the time when I subscribed to ‘Readers’ Digest’ there would appear in each issue a short article entitled ‘The Most Unforgettable Character I Have Ever Met’. I find that this description could fittingly apply to Tony Payne.
When I had the privilege of knowing him, Tony, at the age of 21, was already a veteran in terms of ability and experience, looked up to almost in reverence as one of the elite pilots on the Squadron.
And whenever I recall the Officers’ Mess at Binbrook with its high-ceilinged anteroom just across the main corridor from the dining room, with the eternal, homely smell of coffee from the big urn near to the door, I can visualise Tony as he was so often, standing slightly to one side of the fire, pewter tankard in hand, holding court, as it were, the focal point of all eyes and conversation, eternally smiling and cheerful, his crisp, clear voice sounding above the music from the worn record on the radiogram which would be softly playing a catchy little tune, a favourite of his, called ‘The Cuckoo’. I have never heard it, or heard of it, even, since that time, but I could never forget it, as it was almost Tony’s signature tune. But Tony was entering the last six months of his life.
He had the gift of holding everyone’s attention by his witty observations on most things operational – and non-operational, his words rolling brightly and optimistically off his tongue, his eyes shining with the pleasure of living for the moment, and that moment alone, of good company and comradeship.
Once we were discussing a particular trip. (They were always ‘trips’, occasionally ‘ops’ but never ‘sorties’ or ‘missions’). Someone was describing our attempts to locate some target in Germany one night recently. There had been only sporadic gunfire aimed at us whn [sic] we arrived at about 20,000 feet, and that gunfire, we knew, was not necessarily from the immediate area of the target.
“What did you think about it, Tony?” someone asked. Tony beamed at the question, leaned slightly forward and declaimed with mock solemnity and a judicial air, “Ah! Then I knew that something was afoot!” he said.
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Among his many friends, or ‘familiars’ as they might have once been known, (a description singularly appropriate), was the Senior Flying Control Officer (or ‘Regional Control Officer’ in the terminology then in force) Flight Lieutenant Bradshaw, “Bradders” to everyone. He was old enough to be Tony’s and our father, a World War I pilot beribboned with the ‘Pip, Squeak and Wilfred’ campaign ribbons of that conflict, slightly portly, fairly short in stature, of equable temperament and genial in manner, his iron-grey to white hair meticulously trimmed. A great deal of repartee was invariably exchanged by the two, doubtless born of their mutual affection despite the disparity in their ages.
To our delight one day, Tony hurried into the anteroom in a state of high glee, carrying a small, brown-paper wrapped parcel the size of a large book.
“Wait till you see this, you types!” he crowed to his audience, which included Bradders, who was as intrigued as the rest of us. Tony slowly, tantalisingly slowly, unwrapped his mysterious parcel then dramatically held up its contents for all to see. It was a gilt-framed oil painting of a side-whiskered old man in a country churchyard, his foot upon the shoulder of a spade, a battered old felt hat on his head. The frame bore the title – ‘Old Bradshaw, the village sexton’. It brought the house down and it was ceremoniously hung on the anteroom wall near to the portrait of Flying Officer Donald Garland, one of the Squadron’s two posthumous Victoria Cross recipients, and near also to the mounted fox’s head, our Squadron badge, which had been presented to ‘Abey’, Squadron Leader Abraham, our Flight Commander, on his posting from a Polish O.T.U. where he had been instructing, to 12 Squadron.
At about this time the Air Ministry commissioned Eric Kennington, a noted war artist, to make portraits of outstanding aircrew members, many in Bomber Command, and Tony was one of those selected to sit for him. He sat in his usual place at one end of the anteroom fireplace while Kennington went about his work. The Mess kept a respectful silence while this was proceeding, conversing only in whispers and never attempting to peer over the artist’s shoulder. Some time later, the finished portrait was hung in a place of honour on the wall, to Tony’s laughing embarrassment.
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It was only within these last few years that during a telephone conversation with Eric, my friend, fellow-survivor and table tennis and billiards opponent of those days, who had been Squadron Leader Abraham’s Observer when they were shot down over Denmark, that he asked me if I remembered Tony’s portrait, and whether I knew what happened to it. I confessed that I had almost forgotten about it and did not have any idea what had become of it. But his question touched off in me a desire to find out. It seemed logical that in the first instance I should consult my local Library to see whether they might possibly have any book of the Kennington portraits. It did have such a book, and they brought it out to me. Unfortunately, Tony’s likeness was not among the hundred or so reproduced, but he was mentioned in the index of all the portraits which the artist had undertaken. Where next? I decided that the obvious next step was to contact the R.A.F. Museum at Hendon. There I struck gold. They had the original portrait in storage and swiftly sent me a photo-copy. I obtained two copies, one of which I sent to Eric. Today, a sizeable and well-produced copy of Tony’s portrait hang on my wall where I can look on it with a mixture of affection, pleasure and great sadness, as well as a sense of honour that such a fine man and such a fine pilot could have wanted me to join his crew. I was more than a little surprised when he did so and have often wondered what prompted him to approach me. It was prior to his finishing his first tour, and I have described the incident and its calamitous sequel in the next chapter.
His crew, on his first tour with us, must truly have been quite exceptional. To have completed their tour made them exceptional enough. The chances of that were a considerable way short of evens. There was an example of their ‘press on regardless’ spirit and of the brilliant navigation of Tony’s Observer, Sergeant Dooley, a dapper, smiling little Englishman, on one of our trips to Kiel to bomb the pocket-battleship Gneisenau.
We rarely had an accurate Met. forecast on the trips we did in that winter of 1941-42, and on this night the conditions turned out to be worse than even the Met. Officer had forecast. We took off in the darkness and gloom and entered heavy cloud at 600 feet We climbed
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steadily out over the North Sea but at 20,500 feet we had still not reached clear air. With our bomb load we could climb no higher. We were somewhere in the top of the cloud mass, the moon a faint blur of light on our starboard bow. Below and around us were numerous gun-flashes from the flak defences of Kiel, and as obtaining a visual pinpoint was obviously impossible we bombed the centre of the flak concentration. We turned for home, still in cloud. After over three hours of manual flying, concentrating solely on the instrument panel in front of me, and losing height slowly down to 1,000 feet, I became aware that we had finally reached the cloudbase. Then to my relief and delight I pinpointed Spurn Head, our crossing-in point, about four miles to starboard, and saw the four red obstruction lights of the radar station near Cleethorpes dead ahead. We heartily congratulated Col on his navigation – seven hours plus in cloud and only four miles off track at the end of it.
But Sergeant Dooley and Tony had outshone us. Like us, finding the target in Kiel docks completely cloud-covered he had refused the opportunity to bomb blind as most of us had done. They set course for the Baltic Sea, topped the cloud and found moonlight – and stars. Flying straight and level, which one had to do to take astro-shots of the various stars on the astrograph chart, and which one could safely do over the sea, but which was a most unhealthy undertaking over hostile territory, Sergeant Dooley obtained an astro fix of their exact position. He then plotted a dead-reckoning track and course to the target, some distance away, and when their E.T.A. was up, bombed on that. The Squadron Navigation Officer subsequently re-plotted his whole log and found that they had been ‘spot-on’ the target. Such was the ability and experience of Tony and his crew.
When his tour was finally over and he had a well-deserved D.F.C. to his credit he was posted away to some hush-hush job at an aerodrome on Salisbury Plain, and both the Mess and B Flight Office were the poorer and less colourful for his going.
My final meeting with him before my posting and his shockingly unexpected and untimely death was a few weeks after he had left the Squadron at the end of his tour. He appeared one day, cheerful and unchanged as ever, in the anteroom one lunchtime. He had flown up,
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unofficially, one guessed, in a small, twin-engined trainer. He was, he told us, flying all sorts of kites, at all sorts of heights, mostly over the Channel. He alleged that ‘they’, whoever they might be, and he did nothing to enlighten us on that, even wanted him to fly inverted on occasions. Beyond that he said nothing, and we did not ask him too many questions. He mentioned that although he had flown up to see us in the Oxford, one of the several aircraft at the secret establishment, he would have preferred something else – “I wanted to come in the Walrus”, he chuckled, naming an antiquated and noisy single-pusher-engined flying boat, usually operated by the Fleet Air Arm.
“I’d love to have taxied up to the Watch Office and chucked the anchor out!”
He left us after a cheerful lunch and went for ever out of my life, for which I am greatly the poorer.
It seems that he came back to 12, without a crew, for a second tour and was insistent on taking part in the first 1,000 bomber raid, that on Cologne, with a completely new crew. His was the first aircraft to be shot down that night. It happened over the outskirts of Amsterdam. How he came to be there will always remain a mystery to me, as the route planned for that night to Cologne lay over the estuary of the Scheldt, mush [sic] further south, its numerous islands providing invaluable pinpoints.
He and all his crew are buried in beautifully tended graves in a shady part of Amsterdam’s New Eastern Cemetery, which I have several times visited.
On one visit to Amsterdam I had contacted a Dutchman who had formed part of the team of volunteers who had excavated the remains of C-Charlie, Tony’s aircraft on that fatal night in May 1942. I was able to visit the crash site in the suburb of Badhoevedorp. A small museum of remembrance had been created in some old underground fortifications on the outskirts of the city where were reverently displayed several small identifiable components of the aircraft, as well as one or two pathetic personal belongings of the crew. I was offered, and accepted, a small section of the geodetic construction of the Wellington and this now has a place of honour in my living room, where Tony, from his portrait, appears to be looking down upon it.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
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[inserted] [underlined] Mind you don’t scratch the paint [/underlined] [/inserted]
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[underlined] MIND YOU DON’T SCRATCH THE PAINT [/underlined]
After what happened that night to his beloved Z-Zebra when we, for the first and only time, were being allowed to fly it on ops, I could have quite understood if Tony had never wanted to have anything to do with me, or with any of the crew, again.
But instead, after it was all over, for some time afterwards, whenever he happened to see me in the anteroom there would come into his eyes a gleam of what I could only interpret as amusement, but something more besides; this was a look of amusement mingled with a knowledge and appreciation of our good fortune, the look which perhaps a proud parent gives to his offspring as he sees him emerge from the last obstacle of a tricky course in the school sports and run triumphantly towards the finishing line, a “by-God-you’ve-done-it” look. A fanciful idea maybe, but the more I look back on it, the more I am sure that was what it was.
It was when we had already done a handful of ops, I remember, and when he himself must have been well on towards finishing his tour – remarkable enough in itself – and quite some while after the events which led to his, and our, final trip in ‘Z’ that he caught my eye and beckoned me over, one day when there was no flying, in the mess at Binbrook. He and I were both standing among the small crowd of aircrew officers near the fireplace, tankards in our hands, nearly all of us smoking, under the gaze of the portrait of Donald Garland, V.C., and of the fox’s mask mounted on its wooden shield.
And when I had made my way towards him he paid me a great and surprising compliment, he who was without doubt one of the finest of the many fine pilots on the Squadron.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
But the story, of course, starts some time before that, when we were very much the new boys, before I and the rest of the crew had been blooded on ops. When we had arrived on the Squadron from our Operational Training Unit at Bassingbourn, Elmer, my co-pilot,
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had been allocated to Mike Duder’s crew, while the rest of us had been taken over, as it were, by Ralph, a pilot who had a few ops already to his credit. We settled down comfortably enough with him and went through the final stages of our familiarisation and training on the Mark II Wellington in preparation for our first operation together. This landmark in one’s flying career was something which I, at any rate, had looked forward to – if that is the correct form of words – with a mixture of curiosity, awe and a certain degree of apprehension tinged with excitement; I regarded it as a large step into a completely unknown world. Just how hazardous a step it would turn out to be I was soon to discover.
At that time, my logbook tells me, we had no aircraft which we could really regard as our own, perhaps because we were a fresher crew, I don’t know. However, we had flown seven different aircraft since joining ‘B’ Flight. One morning we reported as usual, to the Flights. I had the privilege of using, along with others, Abey’s, our Flight Commander’s, office as a sort of mini-crewroom. It was late November and we sat around talking, shop mostly, until about ten o’clock, when Abey’s phone rang. All conversation stopped. We knew what it would be – either another stand-down, or a target. It was a target, for freshers only. It would not be named until briefing that afternoon, of course, but I was fairly certain it would be one of the French Channel ports.
Abey nodded to me pleasantly and said, “Let the rest of your crew know, will you?” Then he looked quickly at the blackboard fixed to the wall facing him and said, “Look, I think you’d better take Z-Zebra, Tony’s aircraft – he’s off to Buck House tomorrow to collect his gong from the King.”
Tony Payne wasn’t in the Flight Office at the time, I suppose he had been told by Abey that he wouldn’t be required in any case; an appointment with His Majesty would naturally take priority over anything. So it was lunchtime when we’d done our quite uneventful night flying test on ‘Z’, that I saw him in the Mess. Or rather, that he saw me, and made a bee-line for me.
“What’s this I hear, then?” he asked.
I grinned at him.
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“You mean about Z-Zebra?”
“Yes, I mean about Z-Zebra. My Z-Zebra. You’re not actually going to fly my kite, are you? On ops? God!”
There was a look of mock-horror on his face.
“Well, that’s what Abey said, so that’s what we’re doing. Don’t worry, Tony, we won’t bend it, or anything.”
“Bend it? You’d better not! If you so much as scratch the paint I shall deal with you all personally, one at a time, when you come back, you mark my words!”
We both knew he was kidding, but I knew, too, that ‘Z’ was the apple of Tony’s eye and that it had served him well. I hoped that it would serve as [sic] well, too.
Briefing was in the early afternoon. I cannot recall that there were many of us there, three crews at most is my recollection. The target was Cherbourg docks, time on target 2100 to 2130, bomb-load seven five hundred pounders, high explosive, route Base – Reading – Bognor Regis – target and return the same way. I felt nothing other than curious anticipation, once the time of take-off drew nearer. I think the thought that we were in ‘Z’ boosted my morale. Tony’s aircraft must be good, for he was good, the best. That followed; ‘Z’ wouldn’t let us down. The trip was going to be, if not the proverbial piece of cake, then quite O.K., quite straightforward, a nice one to start us off, of that I was confident.
It was a Saturday evening and dusk was falling as I went up to the Flights and opened my locker in Abey’s office. He was there, of course, looking quietly on at the small handful of us putting on our kit for the op. I started to struggle into my flying kit. Roll-necked sweater under my tunic, brown padded inner suit from neck to ankle, like a tightly fitting eiderdown, old school scarf, which, while I would never have admitted it, was my good-luck talisman. Pale green, slightly faded canvas outer flying suit with fur collar, wool-lined leather flying boots, parachute harness, Mae West and, lastly, ‘chute and helmet, which I carried. I checked that I had the issued silk handkerchief, printed very finely with a map of France, just in case, and I touched the reassuring small miniature compass,
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sewn into my brevet, another aid to evasion if forced to bale out.
I joined Ralph and the lads in the hangar. There was a continuous buzz of conversation, the odd burst of laughter. Ralph was smiling with rather forced cheerfulness, no doubt wondering how his new crew would cope. Col, our Aussie Observer, looked more sallow than usual and was chewing gum rapidly. His Australian twang, when he spoke, was more pronounced, it seemed to me. Mick, the wireless op., looked worried, as usual, and said nothing, while Tommy, our rear gunner, was completely unconcerned and grinning from ear to ear. Johnnie, who would occupy the front turret, was his calm and quite imperturbable self, almost, I realised, the complete antithesis of Tommy.
Ralph said quickly, “Let’s go, then,” and we strolled out of the chilly, pale blue lighting of the hangar into the darkness. We climbed awkwardly into the waiting crew-bus parked on the perimeter track. A half moon was beginning to show, flitting in and out of the scattered clouds which were drifting out to sea from off the Lincolnshire Wolds. It was cold, and despite my flying kit, I shivered a little. Col was still chewing stolidly, his face expressionless. There was a little desultory conversation as the bus rolled towards the dispersals, but the night’s op was not mentioned.
“Z-Zebra,” called the W.A.A.F. driver through the little window at the front of the bus. We started to clamber stiffly down the back steps, reluctant to leave the companionable shelter of the vehicle.
“Have a good trip!”
Someone from another crew shouted the conventional but oddly reassuring words, which were invariably used to send a crew on their way.
“You too,” one of us replied.
Z-Zebra loomed over us in the semi-darkness. The crew bus rumbled away. The silence was intense, almost tangible. The ground-crew stood around, blowing on their hands and beating their arms around their bodies against the cold. There were muted greetings. Col and I walked several yards away from the kite, lit cigarettes from my case and took a dozen or so quick draws before stamping them out.
“Come on, let’s get started,” I muttered, and we clambered up the red ladder which jutted down from Z’s nose. Johnnie was handing
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the pigeon in its ventilated box carefully up to Mick.
We struggled in, heavily and clumsily, each to his position. I hoisted myself over the main spar and stood in the astrodome, reaching down to plug in my intercom lead, and I found the hot-air hose, aiming it to blow on to my body once the engines had been started. The port engine suddenly stammered and roared into life, then the starboard. We heard Ralph blow twice into his mike to test the intercom, then he spoke.
“Everyone O.K? Harry?”
“O.K., skip,” I said.
“Col?”
“Yeah, skip.”
“Mick?”
O.K.”
“Johnnie?”
“O.K., skipper.” Johnnie was always punctilious and correct.
“Tommy? All right at the back there?”
“Yes, fine, skip.”
“Right, I’ll take it there and do the bombing run, Harry, you can bring us back.”
“O.K., skip,” I said.
Ralph’s mike clicked off. There was an increased roar from the port enging, [sic] shaking the whole kite, then from the starboard, as Ralph ran them up, checking the power, the magnetos, the oil pressure and the engine temperatures. The kite was shivering like a nervous racehorse at the starting gate, waiting for the off. A lull, then I felt a lurch as we moved slowly out of dispersal. The hangars, topped by their red obstruction lights, slid by, then we were at the end of the runway in use. Behind us I could see the nav. lights of the other aircraft which were to share the night sky with us over Cherbourg. A green Alldis light flashed directly on to us – dah, dah, di-di, - Z.
“You’ve got your green, skipper,” I said. We were on our way.
“O.K., here we go, hold on to your hats.”
Johnnie appeared alongside me and grinned rather wolfishly; the front
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gunner went into his turret only when we were safely airborne. Ralph opened up the throttles against the brakes to lift the tail a little. Z-Zebra jerked and strained, then suddenly we surged forward, the engines howling. The Drem lighting of the flarepath smudged past, faster and faster as we charged down the runway. The bar of lights with the two goose-neck flares at the far end slid towards us, then suddenly all vibration ceased; we were airborne, we were on our way.
Johnnie gave me the thumbs-up and vanished up front to go into his turret. In a few seconds he called up to say he was in position. I felt and heard Ralph throttling back to settle into the long climb to operational height; we would aim to be at 20,000 feet over the target. He began a turn to port to bring us back over the centre of the aerodrome to set course accurately for Reading.
The night was clear, some cloud showing vaguely out to sea, a blaze of stars everywhere, with the half moon as yet low on the port beam. There were several flashing red beacons to be seen, scattered over the dim landscape like lurid and sinister fireflies, but no-one bothered to read their Morse letters on the way out; coming home, it would be another matter, they would be looked for and read as eagerly as one used to read the familiar names on railway stations on the way back from a holiday. From the astrodome the mainplanes were pale in the faint moonlight, the exhaust stubs glowed redly. The rudder was a tall finger behind us, under which sat Tommy in his turret, a lonely place. I could see the guns rotating from side to side as he kept watch. There was little sensation of height or speed as the engines roared steadily under climbing power, the passage of time seemed suspended and there was a sense of complete detachment from the earth and from all things on it. Conversation was limited to the essential minimum.
Ralph came up, eventually, on the intercom.
“Oxygen on, please, Harry, ten thousand feet.”
I acknowledged, unplugged my intercom and left my position, going forward over the main spar to where just behind the Observer’s compartment the oxygen bottles were in racks up on the port side of the
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fuselage. I screwed open the valves on each one and returned to the astrodome.
“Oxygen on, skipper.”
I plugged in the bayonet fitting of my oxygen tube to the nearest socket and clipped the mask on my helmet securely to cover my nose and mouth. After a while, “Glow on the deck, dead ahead, skipper,” Johnnie said. I went forward quickly to stand beside Ralph.
“Looks like Reading,” I said, “they always did have a lousy blackout. See those two lines of lights? The railway station. Wouldn’t that slay you? I don’t know how they don’t get bombed to hell.”
“Useful for us, anyhow,” Ralph replied, “we’re dead on track and two minutes to E.T.A., too. Good for you, Col,” he called.
The faint glow of Reading vanished under the nose. The moon was a bit higher now. Col gave the new course for Bognor. I took a deep breath of oxygen and holding it in my lungs as long as I could, went back to the astrodome. Tommy spoke up, rather fractiously.
“Bloody cold back here.”
“Shut up a minute, Tommy,” I heard Mick say, “I’m listening out to Group.”
No-one spoke for a while. Then I caught a glimpse of a white flashing beacon to starboard. These were very useful; Observers kept a list of them coded with their actual Latitude and Longitude positions. I switched on my mike.
“Occult flashing R Robert about five miles to starboard, Col,” I said.
Then, “That’s peculiar,” I thought, “I didn’t hear my own voice saying that.”
I checked my intercom switch and repeated what I’d said. Still nothing. I moved over to the intercom point at the flarechute and plugged in. I blew into my mike – dead as mutton. Taking a gulp of oxygen I went forward to Col’s desk and banged him on the shoulder. He looked up in surprise. I undid his helmet and shouted in his ear.
“Is your intercom working?”
He thumbed the switch and I saw his lips moving. Then he shrugged his shoulders expressively.
“Bloody thing’s crook,” he shouted.
After another gulp of oxygen I went forward to yell in Ralph’s ear.
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“Intercom’s u/s!”
I saw Ralph check his mike, then he nodded, the corners of his mouth turned down ruefully.
“Not a sausage,” he shouted, “see if Mick can fix it.”
I pushed through the door into Mick’s compartment. He beat me to it.
“Intercom’s u/s, R/T, too.”
“See if you can fix it!”
Mick nodded.
I went forward again to Ralph, who had scribbled a note on a message pad.
‘If no joy in 15 min. we jettison and abort.’
Without the intercom we would be completely cut off from one another, an impossible situation. I settled into the second pilot’s position alongside Ralph, thinking that I might as well stay up front for a while. Ralph was writing something again, letting the trimmers fly the aircraft while he did so.
‘Tell the gunners,’ I read, and gave him the thumbs-up. More oxygen, then I ducked under the instrument panel, past the bomb-sight, treading gingerly on the bottom escape hatch, and quickly opened the front turret doors.
My God, I thought, it’s freezing cold in here.
Johnnie twisted himself round and looked at me questioningly.
“Intercom’s gone for a Burton,” I shouted, “we may have to scrub it.”
He raised his eyebrows and nodded.
Half way back down the fuselage I saw the rear turret doors opening and Tommy emerged, slightly red in the face.
“My bloody intercom’s u/s,” he shouted, looking aggrieved.
I told him the situation quickly and he went back into his turret. I bent over Mick, who was fiddling with the intricacies of the radio equipment.
“Any joy?” I shouted.
Mick grimaced and shook his head.
“Keep trying, Mick.”
When I went back to Ralph he leaned over and shouted, “If Mick can’t fix it by Bognor, we’ll jettison ten miles out to sea and go home.”
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I wrote a note for Col and passed it to him. I was already hoarse with shouting and tired from moving around the aircraft on scanty oxygen.
Still we climbed. Bognor was now below us, I could distinguish the shape of the south coast, the Isle of Wight. Col came forward and made book-opening movements of his hands to Ralph who nodded and selected the bomb-door switch to ‘open’. Col ducked down to the bombsight. I wondered idly whether there were any convoys below; even though the bombs would be dropped ‘safe’ they wouldn’t like five hundred pounds of solid metal from this height. There was a slight shudder as the bombs went. Col came back.
“Bloody waste,” he shouted.
Ralph nodded as he closed the bomb-doors.
He shouted to me, “We might as well get down lower where we can come off oxygen. Get a course from Col, will you?”
I did so and set it on the compass for Ralph, who did a wide turn to port, losing height steadily. The altimeter slowly unwound.
When we passed through ten thousand feet I turned off the bottles and went the rounds of the crew, telling each one we were on the way home. Their reactions were muted, impassive. Soon we were down to two thousand feet, droning over the dim November landscape. There were no beacons to be seen anywhere in this area. I stood alongside Ralph, wondering if I would get a chance to fly ‘Z’ soon, but perhaps he didn’t like the thought of passing messages himself; the journey from front turret to rear, for example, was a bit of an obstacle race.
Quite suddenly, I noticed that the starboard engine temperature was up. I tapped Ralph on the arm and pointed to it. He nodded slowly, we droned onwards. I looked out of my side window, through the arc of the propeller, mere inches away, at the starboard engine. Was it my imagination, or was there a whitish mist streaming back from it? Ralph had levelled off at a thousand feet. Col came in and handed him a note of E.TA. Reading. The starboard engine temperature was higher, and now the oil pressure was decidedly down, too.
We’ve got trouble, damn it, I thought, and I saw there was now
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no doubt at all about the trail of vapour from the engine.
“Looks like a glycol leak,” I told Ralph, who stared grimly ahead and nodded. Then he turned to me.
“Get Mick on the W/T to base, returning early, intercom and R/T u/s, glycol leak starboard engine.”
I gave him the thumbs-up, seized a message pad and wrote it down, then went aft and handed it to Mick, who was sitting glumly at his table. He looked at the note, raised his eyebrows and frowned, then started to tap out the message on the Morse key.
Up front again I saw that the vapour leak from the engine was now streaked with red, and angry looking sparks were flying back over the engine nacelle and the trailing edge of the mainplane. I nudged Ralph, who leaned over to look, then grimaced. Now, the engine temperature was very high and the oil pressure had slumped even further. Z-Zebra was in real trouble. As is the way in flying, events thereafter moved in a downward spiral from bad to desperate with sickening rapidity. A lick of flame spat out of the engine, over the starboard mainplane, then horrifyingly, like the tail of a rocket, the flame shot back towards the rear turret.
“Fire!” I yelled in Ralph’s ear.
I pressed the extinguisher button on the instrument panel. Ralph chopped the starboard throttle back and hauled the wheel over to counteract the lurch and swing. I looked at the flames which were now pouring out of the duff engine, over the cowling and the trailing edge of the mainplane. Suddenly Tommy appeared at my side.
“Hey! There’s a hell of a lot of sparks flying past my turret!”
“Yes, we’re on fire, but we’re trying to get it out,” I shouted back at him.
Tommy’s eyes opened wide when he saw the blazing engine.
“Jesus bloody Christ,” he said, in awe.
We were now below 1000 feet. Ralph had opened up the port engine to try to maintain height, but we were turning slowly to starboard the whole time. I thought about the best part of 375 gallons of petrol in the starboard wing-tank, then about the western edge of London and its balloon barrage, somewhere very close to us. We
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were in one hell of a mess, I thought, and it began to dawn on me that the situation could well kill us all. I tried not to think too hard about that. Ralph was wrestling with Z-Zebra, trying to keep it on some sort of a course, but it appeared to be useless.
“Poop off some reds,” he yelled, “and look out for a flarepath!”
I hurried aft.
“Put the I.F.F. on Stud 3,” I shouted to Mick, above the howl of the good engine, and nodding glumly, Mick switched to this distress frequency which would show up as a distinctively shaped trace on all ground radar sets. I quickly found some double-red Verey cartridges and got the signal pistol down from its fixture in the roof of the fuselage. I loaded the cartridges and shot them off one at a time.
“Can’t do much more now,” I said to myself, and hoped for the sight of a flarepath, a directing searchlight, or anything that would help us. I went forward again. We were still losing height and I realised that we were too low to bale out. But the fire had died down and I sighed with relief at that. The prop windmilled slowly and uselessly. I wished that Z-Zebra had been fitted with propeller feathering devices, but it was useless wishing thoughts like that. I peered intently at the starboard wing; there didn’t seem to be any fire there, thank God, otherwise we would simply blow up in mid-air and that would be that. Now, the immediate problem was how we were going to get back on to the ground in approximately one piece; there wasn’t a flarepath or a beacon to be seen anywhere.
I felt completely helpless and at the mercy of a capricious and malignant fate which I could do nothing to influence. It was like being in a paper bag going down a waterfall. Ralph’s face was grim as he struggled to keep straight and to maintain altitude. I heaved a length of wrapped elastic from my parachute stowage and tied the wheel fully over to the left, to take the load off Ralph a little. He nodded his thanks. Another length of elastic; I tied the rudder bar over to the geodetics. That was all I could do.
I looked out again. Still no sign of friendly lights and the treetops were looking damned close now. The port engine exhaust stubs were bright red due to the punishment the engine was taking and I knew it was just a matter of minutes before we hit something. I thought, “This is a hell of a shaky do.” Then, ahead, I saw an interruption in the dark skyline and I was puzzled as to what it
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could be. I took a glance as [sic] the A.S.I., just under 100 m.p.h., much too near stalling speed for comfort. I hardly dared look at the altimeter, it showed a mere 200 feet now. The curious, dim outlines on the skyline grew slowly larger as we staggered on. That was about it, Z-Zebra was simply staggering along and sinking through the air, almost on the point of stalling, when we would drop like a stone. I was holding the wheel over to port, helping Ralph all I could. Keep height and we lost speed; keep speed and we lost height. That was the quite hopeless situation.
The jagged skyline, which was now beginning to fill the windscreen, resolved itself horrifyingly, in the dim moonlight, into buildings. A town, and worst of all, a town with a tall, thick chimney, dead ahead.
“Jesus Christ,” I thought, “we’ve bloody well had it now, we’re going to hit that bloody chimney.”
100 feet on the altimeter. Now we were over the town, churning over the roofs at 90 miles an hour. The streets looked so close that I could have put out a hand to touch them. The chimney loomed nearer, the black roofs skated away behind us, apparently just below the floor of the fuselage. I thought of the people in those houses, cringing as they heard the hideous noise just above their heads, praying that the aircraft wouldn’t hit them in a cataclysm of bricks, rubble and blazing petrol. I was sweating as I frantically heaved at the wheel to try to help Ralph. His eyes were staring as though he were hypnotised by the sight of the chimney. With agonising slowness it slid towards us, slightly to starboard now, it seemed, then just beyond the starboard wingtip, a handful of yards away. I shut my eyes for a second, hardly daring to believe that we had missed it.
“Thank Christ for that!” I yelled at Ralph. We were over open fields again. Ralph shouted desperately, “I’ll have to put it down soon, get them into crash positions!”
I hurried to the front turret, collected Johnnie, who was as pleasant and imperturbable as though he was sitting in an armchair in the Mess. he would have had a grandstand view of the whole thing, up to now. Together, we grabbed Mick and Col. The three of them lay on the floor of the fuselage, hands clasped behind their necks.
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I hurried, stumbling, to the rear turret and wrenched open the doors.
“Crash landing, any minute now!” I yelled at Tommy. He would sit tight, his was the safest place in the kite in this situation. I almost envied him. I rushed forward again and took a final glance out of the windscreen. We were at treetop level. Then I went back to join Mick, Col and Johnnie. There was not enough room for me to lie down, so I stood sideways on, taking a firm grip on the geodetics, and hoped for the best.
Suddenly the port engine was throttled right back. This was it, I thought. A few seconds’ silence, which seemed like a month, then a tremendous impact. A cool smell of newly-torn earth filled the aircraft. I hear, unbelievably, a long burst of machine gun fire and could see red tracer flying ahead of us. I couldn’t think what was going on; surely we weren’t being shot at? The kite bucketed along, everything twisting and grinding, the deceleration fantastic. I could hardly stay upright. The smell of ploughed earth was beautiful, almost intoxicating. I hung on grimly, and after what seemed an age, we finally lurched to a halt. For an instant there was total, blissful silence.
“Everyone out, quick!” I shouted.
The three of them hurried forward where I could see Ralph’s legs vanishing through the escape hatch above the pilot’s seat. Tommy came staggering from the rear of the fuselage, clutching his forehead.
“You O.K.?” I asked him.
“Hit me bloody head on some broken sodding geodetics,” he said angrily.
“Hurry up and get out in case the bloody kite goes up,” I said urgently, and I pushed him forward, ahead of me. He climbed out of the top hatch via the pilot’s seat; I was hard on his heels. I could hear Johnnie telling someone, in his clear, modulated voice, that he had forgotten to put the safety-catch of his guns on to ‘safe’, the impact of the crash had set them firing. I hoped vaguely that no-one had been hurt. It was years later that I learned that one bullet had gone through a child’s bedroom window as her mother was putting her to bed; the bullet had embedded itself in the mattress without harming the little girl.
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I followed Tommy up and out. I was swinging my legs over the edge of the escape hatch, on to the top of Z-Zebra, when I saw a spurt of flame from the port engine. The strain had been too much for it.
“Port engine’s on fire!” I shouted to them, “get to hell out of it!”
I jumped back inside the cockpit, quickly found the port fire-extinguisher button and jabbed my thumb hard on it, swearing softly under my breath. Then I clambered out again, found the port mainplane under my feet and walked down it on to the field.
The aircraft looked like a landed whale, its props bent grotesquely backwards, its back dismally broken, with the rudder towering up at an odd angle, its wings now spread uselessly across the stubble and the broad rut which we had gouged out of the field trailing back towards the hedge, between some tall trees. The crew were grouped together twenty yards away.
“Come on, Harry!” someone shouted.
A man was running over the field towards us, I could see the steam of his panting breaths in the moonlight as he got nearer and heard him excitedly saying something about ‘the biggest field in the district’. The moon shone palely through the trees which we had missed and the air was sweet as wine. I lit a cigarette and joined the others.
“Are you O.K.?” Col asked. I nodded.
“Bloody fine landing, Ralph,” I said, “damn good show.”
We followed the man over the stubble, towards the broken hedge, then to an Auxiliary Fire Station on the outskirts of St. Albans, where we had come down.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
“Look,” Tony said confidentially, “you know I’ve got …… as my co-pilot?”
“Yes,” I said, wondering what was coming next.
“Well, between you and me, I’m really not all that happy with him. Would you like to come into my crew? I can fix it with Abey, if you would.”
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When I recovered from my astonishment it didn’t take me long to decide. I shook my head.
“No, thanks, Tony, no, really, I wouldn’t want to leave my own crew, you know.”
“Oh, well, I can quite understand that. I just thought - . But if you do change your mind, there’s a place for you with me, any time.”
I thanked him. I have never forgotten the honour he did me.
As I have said, Tony took the wrecking of Z-Zebra quite well, all things being considered. Shortly afterwards, he finished his tour. His crew were posted away, while he himself went on to some hush-hush flying, somewhere on Salisbury Plain, we heard, involving several different types of aircraft. It was something, we guessed, in connection with the development of radar and its applications. He paid us a visit once, in an Anson.
“I wanted to come up in a Walrus,” he said, naming a slow, noisy and out-of-date small flying-boat, “and throw out the anchor in front of the Watch Office!”
We had a jocular half hour with him in front of the ante-room fire.
Tony Payne came back to the Squadron for his second tour of ops. He took a new crew, on their first trip, on the Thousand Bomber raid on Cologne. His was the first aircraft to be shot down that night. He was hit by flak over Ijmuiden, on the Dutch Coast and the aircraft blew up over Badhoevedorp, on the outskirts of Amsterdam, killing him and the whole crew. They are buried together in a beautiful shady spot in Amsterdam East Cemetery, their graves lovingly kept and cared for. I have visited the place where they fell; I have seen the place where they now lie at peace. Most of the aircraft was salvaged recently by some caring Dutch people, and I have a fragment of it on my bookshelf, to remind me of the man that was Tony. Not that I need much reminding.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
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[inserted] [underlined] Rabbie [/underlined] [/inserted]
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[underlined] RABBIE [/underlined]
He was the sort of bloke one took to automatically if one was of a fairly quiet disposition, for he himself was quiet almost to the point of being self-effacing. On the ground, that is. But in the air – well, that was another matter. On the evidence that I had, at least, it seemed that another side of his nature took over.
In build, he was perhaps an inch or so taller than me, well made, with rather thick, limp, fairish hair, quite piercingly blue eyes and a mobile mouth which always carried the trace of a smile, as though he were laughing inwardly at some secret joke. His manner of speaking was strange until you got used to it; he would start a sentence then lower his eyes almost apologetically, as though he were afraid you were becoming bored with what he was saying. His voice was quite deep, very quiet, and his utterances were staccato, like short bursts of machine-gun fire, punctuated by little nervous laughs, almost sniggers. Now and again he would stammer slightly, and now and again a trace of his native soft Scots accent would ripple the surface of his halting, quietly spoken sentences.
It was I who first called him Rabbie, on account of this inflexion of voice, which, when he became animated, would show more prominently. I think he secretly rather liked the name; there weren’t many Scotsmen on the Squadron as far as I knew, and certainly, there weren’t many in ‘B’ Flight. We became friendly, and although on stand-down trips to G.Y., as we invariably called Grimsby, crews usually went as crews, on nights when we stayed in the Mess he and I, more often than not, would gravitate together, along with Eric. Possible because the three of us where a shade quieter types than, say, Tony or Teddy Bairstow.
I don’t know how it came about that I flew to Pershore with him – he had done his O.T.U. there, it seemed, and on a stand-down day he got permission from Abey to do a cross-country there. He must have asked me if I would like a ride; anyhow, I went along with him. He had his own co-pilot, Sandy, with him, and his crew. It was then I discovered the other side of Rabbie. I had only been on the Squadron a fortnight and everything was new and a bit strange.
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Rabbie and most of the others were comparatively old hands, and whereas I was a strictly-by-the-book pilot, I soon found that there were others who weren’t. Like that day, when I flew with Rabbie. One normally did cross-countries at a sober and sedate height, say between two and six thousand feet. Perhaps for a few minutes, now and again, one might have a crazy fit and beat up a train or something or other, but unauthorised low flying was a Court Martial offence, and all pilots had been repeatedly warned of that fact ever since they started flying at E.F.T.S.
We went off in Barred C, Abey’s own aircraft, and once we’d cleared the circuit, quite simply, it was a hundred feet maximum all the way. To begin with, I was shaken rigid, I’d never known anything quite like it; such sustained, hair-raising excitement, spiced with the occasional bad fright. Trees, villages, hills, hedges, they all streamed by; very little was said among the crew. When I’d collected my scattered wits and realised that this was second nature to all of them, I began to enjoy it a little more. We landed at Pershore, Rabbie said hello to one or two old friends, we lunched, took off again and came back at the same height, all the way. I was getting used to it by this time, but I still swallowed hard once or twice.
When we had landed and taxied in I came down the ladder after most of them. Rabbie and the crew were doing what we usually did then, taking off helmets, sorting out the navigation stuff, looking for some transport back to the Flights. As we lit cigarettes, and with his little secret smile, Rabbie said to me, “Enjoy it?”
“Rabbie,” I said to him, “excuse me for asking, but do you always do your cross-countries at nought feet?”
He gave his little sniggering laugh and looked down.
“Well, no,” he said softly, “but you have to let your hair down now and again.”
Some of it must have rubbed off on Sandy, too, except that he gave himself a bad fright. It really could have been quite a shaky do. Several of us were in ‘B’ Flight office one afternoon, doing nothing in particular. We had a couple of kites on, that night,
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but most of us had been stood down too late to go into G.Y. The phone rang and Abey answered it, his face, as usual, giving nothing away. He looked across at the blackboard as he listened and our eyes followed his, wondering.
“That’s right, E-Edward,” he said, and rang off.
The board said, ‘E’ – Sgt. Sanders – Local flying – airborne 1420.’
“We’d better go and see this,” Abey said calmly, straightening a few things on his desk, “Sandy may be in a bit of bother, it appears that he’s hit something south of here. He’s coming in now.”
We piled into the Flight van and hared out to dispersal. Just then, we saw ‘E’ land, quite a reasonable one, too. We breathed again. Then, as we waited, he taxied in and we could see that where the port half of his windscreen had been there was just a jagged hole. The air-intake on his port engine looked peculiar, too, it was half bunged up with something greyish. Sandy stopped in his dispersal and cut the engines. The ladder came down and he climbed down it a bit tentatively, looking decidedly sheepish when he saw the reception committee.
He and Abey talked rather quietly together while the crew climbed down and stood around, fiddling with their ‘chutes and navigation stuff, surreptitiously brushing what looked very like feathers from off themselves and trying to look unconcerned. Someone who had overheard the conversation muttered, “Been low-flying over the Wash and hit a bunch of seagulls.” We grinned at [sic] bit at that, once we knew they were all O.K. Abey’s poker face said nothing as he turned away from Sandy. Then someone nearby said, “Hey, Sandy, what’s wrong with your face?” and when we looked closely we could see a piece of pink seagull flesh sticking to his cheek. Sandy put a hand up to his face, then had a look at what he had collected. Slowly, his eyes rolled up, his knees buckled and he fell at our feet in a dead faint. Abey, good type that he was, hushed it all up.
Not long afterwards, a handful of our kites went as part of a smallish force to attack one of the north German ports. It might have been Emden. Rabbie was on it; I wasn’t. Next morning, after breakfast, Teddy put his head around the door of the ante-room, his eyes starting out of his thin, pale face.
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“Hey!” he exclaimed, “You want to have a look at Rabbie’s kite, he’s had a right shaky do!”
He tore off out, to tell someone else. Quickly, we made our way up to the Flights. ‘E’ was parked right outside ‘B’ Flight hangar, and most of the starboard mainplane out board of the engine just wasn’t there. The wing finished in a ragged, twisted jumble of geodetics. Obviously, they had had a very narrow escape indeed from a burst of flak. I climbed aboard. The wheel was tied over to port with a chunk of rope. I found Rabbie, poking idly about at this and that.
“Dodging the photographic bod,” he said with an apologetic grin. There was one of the photographic section erks outside now, fussing about with a camera, taking pictures of ‘E’. Rabbie looked paler than usual, thoughtful.
“How the hell did you manage to get it back like this?” I asked.
“Oh,” he said, with his nervous little snigger, “it wasn’t too b-bad, Sandy and I tied the wheel over a bit,” and nodded towards it.
The photo erk had gone and the sightseers had thinned out to two or three. I climbed out, chatting to Rabbie, but as we talked, I could see something different. There was something in his eyes that I’d never seen there before, a distant, almost other-worldly expression.
When I left the Squadron I lost touch with everyone, including, at times, myself. It was a long time afterwards, and I was talking to Eric on the telephone. We had reached the “Do you remember” and “What happened to” stage.
“By the way,” I asked him, “what ever happened to Rabbie?”
“Rabbie?” Eric replied, “Oh, I’m afraid he was shot down, you know.”
It had happened near the Dutch town of Beverwijk. Rabbie had finished up as a P.o.W with Eric and Abey, then had been repatriated on account of injuries to his hands, Eric said. Some of his crew had been killed.
In June 1989 a Dutch air-war historian took me to a beautifully-kept cemetery in the small town of Bergen, near Alkmaar, to visit the graves of a contemporary crew of ‘B’ Flight whom I had known.
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As I was turning to leave, my eye, quite by chance, noticed another name on a nearby tombstone, one which I immediately recognised, that of our Commanding Officer, who had gone missing while I was with the Squadron. Very near to him and to the others was yet another familiar name, that of Sandy.
Each name of all the aircrew, some 200 of them, who are buried there, is inscribed upon the bells of the local church, just across the way. One of the bells is perpetually silent, representing those who could not be identified. And one bell bears the inscription – “I sound for those who fell for freedom.”
. . . . . . . . . . . .
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[inserted] [underlined] Letter home [/underlined] [/inserted]
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[underlined] LETTER HOME [/underlined]
I wonder how many premonitions the average person has during his or her lifetime. It’s not the sort of topic which crops up very much in normal conversation, so I don’t think it can happen all that often. But when it does, and you believe you are being given a glimpse of the future, it can be quite weird and rather frightening. So far, I can recall three instances personally. One was at a very long interval of time, one was just the opposite, while the third - . That is what the letter home was about.
A week or two ago I was watching a debate from the House of Commons on television. There was a fairly sparse attendance, the subject became rather mundane and my attention, frankly, was beginning to wander. I looked along the green leather seats where the numerous absentees would normally have sat. Surely, I thought, surely seats like those had played some part in my life at some time?
Then I had it – they were the colour of the wooden-framed armchairs in the anteroom of the Mess at Binbrook. And I was immediately reminded of the first, and very strong, premonition I had had there, and was coping with, as I sat in one of those chairs, almost alone in the quiet room on that winter’s night, waiting to take off on a raid over Germany – and not expecting to come back.
Looking into my logbook now, I can narrow it down to one of four dates, but the actual date is of no importance. The premonition I had, though, was important, very important to me, very gradual, but extremely strong.
Abey, our Flight Commander in ‘B’ Flight was, in every sense of the word, a gentleman. He was then in charge of eight or ten crews of six men each which comprised ‘B’ Flight, and he had, among many other things, the responsibility of selecting crews under his command for any operations on any particular night, or day. Fortunately, the latter were scarce enough. Sometimes the choice was simple, if a maximum effort was called for by Command or Group, he simple sent everyone whose aircraft was serviceable. But sometimes
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he had to choose, and no-one envied him that, nor ever queried his choice. Querying things like that is something that happens in films, usually bad ones. If a “fresher” target was specified for the night’s operations then novice crews, who had done up to four of five ops were selected to go. If he had any choice at all, any crew due for leave went on leave, that same morning. He did his job well and fairly; he was a very considerate man.
On the day of which I write, our crew had done three trips, one of which had had an abrupt and near-catastrophic ending. A “fresher” was called for that night, so we were “on”, in S for Sugar. I have been wondering, recounting this, trying to remember what my reactions were during the time of an op, from the first knowledge that I was going, that night, to some unknown target, whose location and identity would not be known until briefing that afternoon, until the moment after one’s return, sitting down thankfully, tired and strained, into a chair, with a mug of coffee and rum in one hand and a cigarette in the other, for interrogation after the trip. When we would look around the room to see who was seated at the other tables with the Intelligence Officers, recounting their stories of the night’s experiences. However, although I readily confess that not a single trip went by when I was not to some extent frightened, quite often very frightened indeed, my first reaction on being told that I was among those who were on that night’s operations was one of intense excitement, of being immediately strung up to a very high pitch, reactions accelerated beyond their normal speed, like those of a sprinter on his starting blocks, alert for the sound of the pistol which will launch him on his rapid way.
We did our night flying test in S for Sugar as soon as we knew we were operating that night. It was winter, but not too bad a winter until then. This particular morning was cold and cloudy with a breeze from the south-west, the odd spot of rain in the wind, a typical winter’s morning in Lincolnshire, in fact. We flew around for a while to test that everything in the aircraft was working properly, except for the bomb-release mechanism and the guns. We weren’t bombed up yet, of course, and we would test the guns over the sea once we were on our way that night. I was still quite strung up with excitement
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and anticipation. None of us thought or said very much about the target, it was bound to be one of the French Channel ports, the docks, or course, and they were reckoned to be a piece of cake – straight in from the sea, open the bomb doors, press the tit and then home, James.
Briefing was at 1430 hours. By that time the weather wasn’t so good. The cloudbase was down, the wind was getting up and it was colder. At briefing there was ourselves and a handful of others. The target wasn’t one of the Channel ports, it was Wilhelmshaven, on the north German coast, not what we had expected, and quite a tough target. Weather prospects were moderate to fairly poor, with a front coming across which we would have to contend with, a risk of icing. It didn’t sound all that funny. But there it was.
The excitement of the morning had worn off and I was beginning to feel a bit deflated when I went back to the Mess after briefing. There was nothing to be done until teatime, and takeoff was fairly late, to catch the late moon. About five hours to kill. As I thought about it like that I realised that the expression could be taken more than one way, and I didn’t like one way very much. I went back to my room with the sense of deflation sliding quickly downwards towards a feeling of depressive foreboding. It was not as though the target was the toughest one in the book, tough enough by any standards, but no long stretch of enemy territory to be crossed there and back. Not exactly, as we had thought, the reasonably easy one we had expected, but not as bad as it might have been. Or so I tried to tell myself.
The foreboding grew inside me the longer I sat in my room. I was alone; Frank Coles, my room-mate, was Squadron Signals Leader and usually had things to do even when the rest of us were free. Out of the window I could see that the weather was steadily worsening, which added to my unease. I sat there, smoking, and trying to read. It was useless. I became more and more certain that this trip was the one I wasn’t coming back from, that we were going to be shot down. Once I had arrived at that realisation I found I was almost able to visualise it happening; I had already seen it happen to others nearby. But tonight it was going to happen to us, and that would be the end of me.
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There was nothing I could do about it; I had to go through with it, it had to be faced. The only practical thing I should now see to was to write a letter home, to my parents. The trouble was that I had very little idea what I wanted to say to them. For several reasons, I felt they hadn’t had the time to get to know very much about me, as an individual. But still, I felt I owed them this letter.
So I wrote to them. It was a very short letter, I remember, but its exact contents I cannot recall. I know I started in the conventional way – “by the time you read this you will know I have been reported missing,” and so on, and I know that after I had addressed the envelope I added, “To be forwarded only in the event of my failing to return from an operation.”
By the time I had stewed over this wretched little piece of writing it was teatime. There was still no sign of Frank. I was glad of some company in the Mess, although there weren’t all that many in, with only the freshers operating. So I had tea. It was usually a high tea if there were ops on. On this evening, as on many others, there were kippers, toast and tea. Surprisingly, I found I was very hungry. I think I was determined to enjoy what was going to be my last meal. So I savoured every morsel. As dusk fell I stretched myself out in front of the roaring fire in an armchair in the anteroom to await the time to go up to the Flights to get dressed for the trip. The armchair had wooden arms and sides with a green leather padded seat and back.
Every time the tannoy went with some commonplace announcement that someone was wanted at his Flight or Section I would jump a little and stiffen when the W.A.A.F. said, “Attention, please, attention, please,” and then slump down again when I heard that it wasn’t ops being scrubbed. There weren’t many people in the anteroom, and as the fireplace was at one end and I was very close to it, I couldn’t really see who was in the room with me. I was concentrating on absorbing, I think, every scrap of physical comfort I could from the heat of the fire, in what I now firmly believed to be the last few dwindling hours of my life. I could hear sleet or snow spitting as it dropped down the chimney on to the fire.
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I was seeing all sorts of strange pictures in the glowing coals. What they were I didn’t know, faces mostly, it seemed, but whose, I couldn’t distinguish. I started as one of the Mess waiters drew the big curtains across the blacked-out windows. Seeing me in battledress and roll-necked sweater and knowing that I was “on”, he gave me a half-smile as he piled some more coal on to the fire. The heat on my legs died as he did so.
“Is it still sleeting?” I asked him.
“Yes, sir,” he answered quietly, “still sleeting.”
Tactfully, he didn’t add “It’s a rotten night to be on ops,” or anything like that, but I knew that was what he was thinking. I nodded. He walked quietly away about his business and we left it at that. The wind was starting to get up quite a lot now. I could hear the slap of the sleet hitting the window like a wet cloth in the gusts. Surely they would scrub it? In an hour or so we were due to take off for Wilhelmshaven. I wondered what the weather was like over there, whether they were thinking that it was such a bad night that they were safe from R.A.F. raids. Then I thought about the letter. Was I being stupid? Was this all a lot of childish, hysterical nonsense, over-dramatising oneself? I still thought not; I was still convinced in my own mind.
Why did one write such things? I mused. It made no difference, really, to the outcome, someone would die, someone would be bereaved, that was all there was to it. I wondered how many people I knew actually wrote them, too. I suppose one reason for writing a last letter was to say a final goodbye to someone who was dear to one, but I think also it was to prove to oneself that one was ready and spiritually prepared to leave this life, to give up all those things regarded hitherto as important and to enter a new existence, to meet again one’s friends who were already there, like going from one room of a house to another via the dark passage which we call death. There was a Sergeant pilot in ‘B’ Flight, whom I knew quite well, Norman Spray. He left a letter for his mother. He went missing on a raid the following spring and his words of parting from his mother were so memorable that they found their way on to the page of a national newspaper which I happened to read. I am sure he was an exceptional person to have written in the way he did.
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The minutes ticked slowly by. Hypnotised by the heat from the fire and, I suppose, subconsciously withdrawing from what I believed were my final hours, I think I must have dozed for a few minutes. The tannoy announcement jerked me back to complete wakefulness. The W.A.A.F. said, “All night flying is cancelled, repeat, all night flying is cancelled.”
I immediately started to shiver uncontrollably, despite the fire’s heat. I moved my body around in the chair to try to stop the shakes, to try to hide them in case someone should see. I fidgeted around, stretched, blew my nose, then looked around the ante-room to see whether anyone was watching me. There were one or two ground staff Officers, and Teddy, Eric and Doug, the first two talking quietly over their beer, Doug reading a book, absently stroking his luxuriant ginger moustache with the back of his hand, an unconscious gesture which we all knew well. Outside, the wind moaned, the sleet was still tapping on the window, as though someone were asking quietly to be let in, perhaps like the messenger of Death itself. For not long afterwards, He would claim two of those three.
I took something of a grip on myself and pressed the bell at the side of the fireplace. When the steward came I ordered a beer. I could hardly believe this was happening. He was the man who had drawn the curtains earlier. He took my order, then hesitated and said, not looking directly at me, “You’ll not be sorry, sir, about the scrub, not on a night like this?”
“No, I’m not,” I said, “not on a night like this.”
The shakes had just about stopped by then. I went across to Eric and had a chat and another beer. Neither of us said much about the scrub, he hadn’t been on, anyhow, being in Abey’s crew. I certainly didn’t complain about it. Eventually I went up to my room and furtively tore up the letter into small pieces. I don’t think Frank noticed anything, if he guessed what I was doing he was too tactful to mention it. Then I undressed and got into bed. I was probably going to live for another twenty-four hours.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
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[inserted] [underlined] Low-level [/underlined] [/inserted]
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[underlined] LOW-LEVEL [/underlined]
By the third day, those of us who were in the know were getting a little twitchy.
When you are briefed no less than three days in a row for the same target, when you are told it is to be a low-level night attack, when you learn that the whole thing is so hush-hush that only pilots and Observers are to know what the target is until after you are airborne, you only need one scrub to make you jump a bit at loud noises.
After the second briefing, when there was another scrub, and the following day, when there was a third identical briefing, you could have almost cut slices of the tension out of the air with a knife. To begin with, nothing in that city had ever been bombed before. When we knew where it was to be, we looked at each other with eyebrows raised. For very good reasons, we had to go in low and make one hundred per cent certain that we were going to hit the target when the Observer pressed the bomb-release. If we were not certain, then, ‘dummy run’ and round again. No trouble in that, we were told, there were no defences worth speaking of, only a couple of light flak guns at the airport some distance away. Just avoid that, and we shouldn’t have any bother.
So we were told at the briefings, all three of them. Did we believe it could possibly be true? We made ourselves believe it, I think, but it took some doing. Weren’t we used to the Channel Ports, to Kiel, to Essen and the Ruhr, where, in all conscience it was deadly enough at twenty thousand feet at night, let alone at – what was to be our bombing height? – two thousand five hundred feet, straight and level down a corridor of flares?
We would have liked to believe it, certainly. It sounded so – different, so well organised. 235 aircraft, which to us was one hell of a lot, including some Manchesters and four-engined Stirlings and Halifaxes. The first wave was going to drop flares, and keep dropping them so that the whole place would be well lit up, and once
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they'd done that and let go some incendiaries and cookies to start the ball rolling, then the second wave, which was us, would come in and stoke the place up with high explosive, as low as the safety height, 1,000 feet per 1,000 pounds of the heaviest bomb, permitted. If there hadn’t been some Manchesters carrying 2,000 pounders, in our wave, we would have been down around 1,000 feet, I suppose.
What was going through the minds of Mick, our wireless op. in S-Sugar, and Johnnie and Bill, the gunners, being completely in the dark as to what it was all about, I could only guess. But they accepted the situation stoically, and never asked one question. Except when we were clambering out of the transport at dispersal, really on our way, on the third evening, then Mick, who was a married man, said quietly to Cookie, “Is this a suicide effort, skip?” I believe he was recalling those two posthumous V.C.s our Squadron had won less then [sic] two years before, when we had lost five out of five Fairey Battles trying to stop the German advance through the Low Countries. Anyhow, Cookie shook his head.
“No, Mick, it’s not a suicide effort, at least not if I can help it!”
I’m afraid I couldn’t resist mischievously chipping in then, just as we were sorting ourselves out in the dusk of that early March evening under the shadow of S-Sugar’s nose in the quietness of our dispersal.
“You won’t be needing your oxygen mask, though,” I said.
Mick’s eyes widened. It was a bit cruel of me.
“You’re kidding, Harry, aren’t you?”
“No, pukka gen,” I laughed.
“Oh, bloody hell,” Mick said, his Brummy accent very pronounced.
Col, our Aussie Observer, came to the rescue.
“Don’t let it worry yer, Mick,” he said, “it’s going to be a piece of cake. Or so they say, anyhow.”
I was hoping this didn’t fall into the category of famous last words, as we climbed aboard. I found I was yawning quite a lot, while a muscle in my back was trying to do something all on its own.
We took up our positions in the kite. As co-pilot, mine was in the Wimpy’s astrodome until Cookie wanted me to fly it, or needed
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a hand with something up front. I checked the intercom point, saw we had a flare handy in case we had to do a bit of target-finding ourselves, and I groaned inwardly when I saw the stack of nickels, as our propaganda leaflets were known, which I was going to have to shove out over northern France. I took one out of the nearest bundle and saw a cartoon of a depraved and vicious-looking S.S. man, headed, ‘Personalité de l’ordre nouveau.’ I hoped I didn’t meet him later that night in some French gaol.
Faintly through my helmet I heard someone shout “Contact port!” and the engine shuddered into life with a roar, bluish flames spitting out of the exhausts. Then that tune, which remained obsessively with me throughout that night, and which, ever since, has evoked such vivid memories of it, started going through my head – ‘The last time I saw Paris’. Now we were rumbling around the perimeter track. The black shapes of the hangars, topped by their red obstruction lights, came and went. A little group of four or five W.A.A.F.s near the end of the runway waved to us as we passed them. A dazzling green light flashed three dots, our aircraft letter, at us, Cookie opened the throttles and the tail lifted. Then we were charging down the runway, the Drem lighting whipping past the wingtips as the Merlins’ roar rose to a howl at full throttle.
When we had turned on to the course for Reading, our first pinpoint, Cookie checked that everyone was O.K. Then he said, calmly over the intercom, “Now I can tell you where we’re going. It’s the Renault factory in Paris and it’s a low-level do, two to three thousand feet, and there’ll be bags of flares so we can bomb spot on.” There was stunned silence, then Johnnie said coolly, “Paris? That sounds like fun.”
The tension was released and we all laughed immoderately. Cookie told them about the lack of defences, how the crossing-in point had been carefully chosen at the mouth of the Somme, near Abbeville, and how we had to be very sure not to drop anything outside the target area, in case of casualties to the French population.
“I’ve always wanted to see the Eiffel Tower,” Mick said.
From the rear turret Bill, our Canadian gunner, drawled, “Don’t worry, at our height you’ll be able to count the bloody rivets!”
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The evening was clear as our home beacon slowly fell away behind us. It seemed strange to be cruising easily along at about five thousand feet; usually we climbed steadily all the way to whichever target we were bound for. There wasn’t much talk over the intercom, I think the boys were busy digesting the news about the target – and the bombing height. Then the moon came up, huge, brilliant and impersonal, a beautiful sight, away to port. Reading was, as always, easy to find, the railway station was like a dimly-lit flarepath, but it gave us a good pinpoint, however much it might have helped the Luftwaffe. We crossed the south coast dead on track and E.T.A. and headed out over the Channel. Cookie switched off the navigation lights. Shortly afterwards, Mick reported that he had switched off the I.F.F. We were on our own now.
In only a few minutes it seemed, Johnnie said, “Enemy coast ahead, skipper.” I peered forward from the astrodome. The pewter colour of the Channel showed a faint line of dirty white a few miles ahead of us. A few degrees to starboard some light flak was going up, and I reported it for Col to log.
“Probably Le Tréport”, I said, “they always put on a firework display for us.”
Johnnie said, “I can see a big estuary dead ahead.”
“O.K., Johnnie,” Col replied, “let’s know when we cross the coast. Next course one seven two magnetic, skip.”
Then Johnnie said calmly, “Anyone see an exhaust almost dead ahead, same height?”
I hurried forward to stand beside Cookie, and we both saw it at once, a point of orange light, straight ahead of us, and nastily at our own height.
“We’ll keep an eye on him,” Cookie said, “I don’t want to be formating [sic] on a goddam 109.”
“Nickels due out in five minutes, Harry,” Col told me.
“O.K., Col, thanks,”
I went aft again, to the flare chute. I heard Cookie say, “That fighter’s still going our way, we must be bloody close to him. I’m going to alter course a bit to try to lose him, then fly parallel to our proper track. Turning ten degrees starboard now, Col.”
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In the darkness of the fuselage I unlocked and extended the flare chute and started pushing the bundles of leaflets out. Once free of the aircraft the slipstream would release each bundle from its elastic band and spread them all over the countryside below. In a little while I heard Cookie say, “That bloody fighter’s still there, damn him to hell.”
Johnnie said, “We’re catching him up a bit, too, skipper.”
“That’s bloody impossible,” Cookie exclaimed angrily. He sounded rather exasperated.
I finished the nickelling, stuffed a couple into my pockets for souvenirs, brought the flare chute in and went forward again, past Mick, who gave me a thumbs-up, and Col. Johnnie had been quite right, that glowing point of red light was definitely larger now. The countryside under the rising moon was a leaden blur, now and again shot with a vein of silver as the moonlight reflected off a river.
“How long to the target, Col?” Cookie asked.
“E.T.A. eighteen minutes.”
The light was really getting quite a bit bigger now and we were still heading straight towards it. Suddenly, it all became clear to me.
“Hey, Cookie!” I exclaimed, “that’s no fighter exhaust, it’s the bloody target!”
There was a moment’s silence, then, “Jesus!” Cookie said in awe, “You could be right, Harry, you could just be right, at that. Check our course, Col, one seven two magnetic, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah, that’s it skip, one seven two.”
Now we could see it. It was a fire on the ground, like a huge, glowing ember alone in the darkness. I went back to the astrodome. A pinpoint of white light hung above the glow, like a star, then a second, a third, a fourth. The flares were going down, dropped by the markers, for us. Cookie called out, “O.K., fellers, this looks like it, but we want to be good and sure where we bomb.” As we flew towards the blaze Johnnie said, “I can see the Seine, the fire’s right on it.”
Col said, “Part of the works is on a sort of banana-shaped island
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in the river, we’ve got to fly slap over it.”
We could see almost a dozen flares now, brilliant, whitish-yellow, and trailing rope-like white smoke as they slowly sank towards the ground, suspended from their parachutes. I could dimly see buildings below us. Cookie was turning S-Sugar gently to come in from the south-west; all the action was now on our port beam, then on our port bow.
Suddenly, away to starboard, two light flak guns pumped a few rounds of coloured tracer upwards, but there could have been no aircraft anywhere near them.
“Light flak away to starboard, skip,” I said, “only a few rounds, I think they’ve gone down to the stores to get some more ammo.”
“Just keep an eye on it, Harry.”
I was humming the words of that song to myself,
“The last time I saw Paris,
I saw her in the Spring….”
We were heading straight in now, flares on either side of our nose. The ground was almost invisible against the glare ahead from the fire and the lines of flares hanging in the sky. Col said, “Coming forward, skip.”
A few more rounds of tracer hosed up, away to starboard, but I didn’t even bother to report it. The lack of opposition near at hand was quite uncanny; we certainly weren’t used to this sort of thing. I was searching the sky for fighters, tracer, heavy flak-bursts, but there was nothing. Just the flares, dozens of them now. We were right among them, flying straight and level down a well-lit avenue.
I saw a dim shape loom up, dead ahead, growing rapidly and menacingly larger every second.
“Turn port, skip, quick!” I shouted.
Cookie yanked her nose round. A Hampden, bomb-doors open, hurtled past us on a reciprocal course, obviously completely disobeying briefing instructions as to the direction of the bombing run. He was almost close enough to read his identification letters.
“The stupid bastard,” said Cookie, “what the hell’s he doing?”
“Bomb doors open, skip,” Col said tightly.
“Bomb doors open, Col!”
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The inferno had vanished under our nose. There was a long silence while Col directed our track up to the target. I peered down, but I could only see a jumble of city buildings; I was trying to find the Arc de Triomphe.
“I’ve got that island coming up,” Col said, his excitement showing in his voice, “left, left, steady, right a bit, steady, steady – bombs gone!”
I felt the rumbling jolt as we dropped our load on the Renault factory.
“Bomb doors closed,” Cookie called.
“Oh, bloody marvellous!” Bill almost shouted from the rear turret, “spot on, Col, you got the first one bang on the island and the rest of the stick went right across the factory, I saw them bursting!”
Some distance ahead there was a sudden flash from the ground, a yellowish fire which turned redder and spread out, in a bend of the Seine.
“Some poor sod’s bought it, about one o’clock, five miles,” I said.
“Yeah,” said Cookie, I can see it. Don’t know what the hell he was doing up there.”
I looked back at the target, now a sea of flame beneath the brilliance of the unearthly light of the flares and the moon. A sudden eruption of flame shot up from the factory as I watched.
“Christ! Did you see that?” Bill called, “someone’s hit a goddam petrol tank or something.” We learned later that one of our Flight Commanders, Squadron Leader Jackson, had scored a direct hit on a large gas holder; it was that we had seen.
But the other fire, the burning kite on the ground in the bend of the river, drew our eyes to it as I took over the controls from Cookie.
“Poor sods,” Johnnie said quietly, “I hope they got out of it.”
We droned on over northern France, heading for Abbeville and home. But the excitements of the evening were not over yet. Half way to the French coast Johnnie reported a light flashing from the ground, to starboard of our track. I looked across between the nose and the mainplane and saw it, a square of yellow light, bravely flashing
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di-di-di-dah, “V for Victory”. Col came up to look.
“Good on yer, mate,” he said laconically. Those people down there in Beauvais were risking their lives by signalling to us their appreciation and encouragement, and I felt a strong bond had been forged between them, whoever they were, and us, in S-Sugar.
We flew on towards the mouth of the Somme. Bill said he could still see the target burning, many miles behind us now, and we were riding on the crest of a wave at the obvious success of the attack. We’d never known anything like it before and we hoped we would know many like it again. And as the Renault factory burned in Paris and the V’s flashed out from Beauvais I became aware that perhaps, after many disappointments, we were now beginning to win.
There was much elation as we flew homewards in “S”. We were a cheerful and buoyant crew, that night of all nights. I never dreamed that five short weeks hence I alone, of the six of us in the crew, would be the only one left alive.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
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[inserted] [underlined] A boxful of broken china [/underlined] [/inserted]
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[underlined] A BOXFUL OF BROKEN CHINA [/underlined]
It had happened to Abey’s crew already (although I was not to know this until some years later), and no doubt it had happened to others whom I had known.
It was a common enough occurrence in those days, when we had simply to rely upon dead reckoning navigation with a bit of astro thrown in – there was nothing else to rely on, then – that at one time or another you would stray off track, fly unwittingly over a defended area, and get thoroughly well shot at. I use the words ‘thoroughly well’ advisedly, in the full knowledge that I shall be treading on many corns when I say that the German flak and searchlights left our own standing at the post when it came to accuracy and effectiveness. On several nights while at Binbrook, after our own air-raid sirens had sounded, we would troop out of the Mess to watch the progress of a raid on Hull and, so to speak, compare notes on the Luftwaffe’s reception with what we received, over Germany. We were all left in no doubt as to which target we would have chosen to be over, and would retire to the anteroom when the all-clear sounded, shaking our heads sadly and making rueful and derisive comments concerning the lack of effectiveness of our ack-ack gunners and searchlight crews compared to their German counterparts.
There were well-known hot spots over the other side, places whose names sent a slight chill up one’s spine when they were mentioned. Places such as Essen, or anywhere in the Ruhr, if it came to that, Hamburg, Heligoland, Sylt or Kiel. The list was a long one and the toll taken by those guns of unwitting tresspassers [sic] over their territory was heavy.
But no such reputation attached itself to a town called Lübeck, which we, among 2345 aircraft, were to attack one night late in March 1942.
“Lübeck?” we whispered to one another at briefing that day, “Lübeck? Never heard of it.”
We had it pointed out to us by our Intelligence Officer at the briefing, a bit beyond Kiel, a bit beyond Hamburg and between the two, almost on the Baltic coast. The defences, we were told, were
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believed to be negligible. Oh, yes? Well, we’d heard that about the Renault factory in Paris and that turned out to be true, so why shouldn’t this one be the same? Our confidence was very high after that Renault attack and this one was beginning to sound quite good. It was going to be largely a fire-raising raid. There were a lot of wooden buildings in the town, apparently. This really was beginning to sound very interesting, the chance to do to a German city what they had done on fifty-odd nights in succession to London. However, we were to carry an all-high explosive load in S for Sugar. We were warned, of course, of the proximity to our route of the defences, which we all knew about, of Kiel and Hamburg, but no-one really needed telling about those. We had experienced the Kiel defences twice before recently, once when 64 of us Wellingtons of 1 Group had put the battle-cruiser Gneisenau out of action for the rest of the war. I often wonder which of us it was that hit it, for I remember seeing some quite big explosions that night.
So, as far as the trip to Lübeck was concerned our crew, at least, were in a fairly happy mood. Looking back, I am sure that on that night, while not one of the six of us would have admitted it for fear of tempting whatever fates might be looking down upon us, we were each secretly thinking that this trip, this particular, and possibly only trip we would do, was going to go some way towards approaching the proverbial ‘piece of cake’. One could describe a trip in those terms while drinking, in a post-operational flood of euphoria, one’s mug of rum-laced coffee, waiting for interrogation, bacon and egg, and then bed, but no-one ever had the temerity to voice those words about any target before take-off. Not at any price. Fate was not there to be tempted in such a careless and impertinent manner.
The buoyant mood of the crew of S for Sugar was not in any way diminished when we gathered in B Flight hangar, all kitted up and ready – almost eager – to go. Mick, Johnnie and Col were standing near the crewroom door, looking amused about something, and with a fairly large cardboard carton half-hidden by their flying-booted legs. They had obviously said something to Cookie, now commissioned and doing his first op. as a P/O, for he was showing a lot of very white teeth in his amusement.
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“What’s going on?” I asked, puzzled. Such levity was very unusual before an op., we were invariably rather silent and very tense. Mick nodded towards the box.
“Present for the Jerries, from the Sergeants’ Mess,” he said in his Brummy accent, a broad grin splitting his face.
“What the hell have you got there?” I asked.
“Boxful of broken china,” Col said, “we’re going to chuck it out over the target. It’s all got the R.A.F. crest on, too.”
“Christ, you’re a mad lot of so-and-so’s,” I said through my laughter. Had I known it, I wasn’t going to laugh again for some time after that.
Recalling it now, although I cannot obviously tell where or how the navigation went wrong, it must have done so, somewhere along the line. Perhaps the reason was simply plain fatigue which led to our being off track and flying into trouble. Fatigue which, even as young, fit men, was inevitable when one realises that while the Lübeck raid took place on 28th March, this was our third operation in four nights. It almost alarms me now, to think of it as I write. We had taken off late on the evening of the 25th, the target being Essen, never any picnic. We had bombed what we believed to be Essen, but we had seen, remarked upon among ourselves at the time, and reported at our interrogation, that many aircraft seemed to be bombing much too far west, at Duisburg, we believed. But there were those among the Squadron aircrews who laughingly insisted that we had bombed too far east, perhaps Bochum, or even Dortmund. We still didn’t think so; we believed we had been in the right place and that the main force of the attack had hit Duisburg.
Apparently ‘Butch’ Harris thought so too, for after a few hours’ sleep we were awakened, fully awakened, with the news that ops were on again that night, the 26th. At briefing we learned the target. Essen again, time on target before midnight. It was a sticky trip, and we lost two of our crews, making three lost in the two nights. I have often wondered how many ex-aircrew are alive today who can say, “I was twice over Essen within twenty-four hours, and live to tell the tale.”
So, after the double attack on Essen, twenty-four hours’ rest
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and we were off to Lübeck, the piece-of-cake target compared to Essen, the wooden town which would burn like Hell itself. Provided we got there to see it, which, in the event, we didn’t.
It seemed that no sooner had we crossed the enemy coast, somewhere in Schleswig-Holstein, that a huge, bluish searchlight suddenly snapped on, and pinned us as surely as a dart hitting the bullseye. And not only one, but about a dozen followed. Then the flak started. Cookie was flying S for Sugar, I was in the astrodome. What use I was I don’t really know, except to try to see if there were any fighters about to attack us. Which was ridiculous, with all the flak they were throwing up at us. In any case, I couldn’t see a thing for the dazzling and horrifying glare of all those lights.
Cookie threw the Wellington about as though it were a Spitfire. The sensation was like that of being on a high-speed roller-coaster which had gone mad. And all the time, the intense, bluish flood of light which lit up the interior of the fuselage like day and the thumping of the flak-bursts around us. We had the sky all to ourselves, and, it seemed, all the defences of northern Germany were telling us that this time we weren’t going to make it back home. I was hanging on to whatever I could to stay standing upright in the astrodome, striving to see beyond the lights, to see whether there was a gap anywhere which Cookie could aim for. One second I would be pressed down on to the floor as he pulled out of a steep dive, the next, I would be hanging in mid-air, fighting against the negative ‘g’ and clutching wildly at the geodetics as he topped a climbing turn then put S for Sugar into another screaming dive. We carried one flare, heavy and cylindrical, four of five feet long. This suddenly left its stowage with the violent manoeuvres and hit me flush in the chest, almost knocking me to the floor. I managed to grab it before it damaged the aircraft and somehow secured it again.
I was, of course, frightened, but not uncontrollably so. As the shellbursts thudded around us my fear was climbing steadily, like the mercury in a thermometer on a hot day. I felt I was useless in the astrodome and longed to be doing something active. Quickly I unplugged my intercom and oxygen and clawed my way forward, to see if I could do anything to help Cookie, perhaps to take over
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if he was hit. Col was sitting with both hands clutching at the navigation table, looking rather sick and staring straight ahead of him, while Mick was fiddling with his radio, doing goodness knows what, I thought. I reached the cockpit, where Cookie was wrestling with the controls, his face shiny with sweat, his jaw tightly clamped. He glanced down at me as I plugged in my intercom. Dive, turn, climb, turn, dive – we were corkscrewing all over the sky, losing height all the time. Then Cookie snapped on his intercom switch.
“Col, get rid of the bloody bombs.”
Col came forward, his face looking ashen in the awesome light. A few seconds later I felt the bombs go with a thud. I thought, “I hope they kill somebody, destroy something down there, after what they’re doing to us.”
My fear had now risen to such a pitch it amounted almost to ecstasy.
“Get your chutes on everybody,” Cookie half-shouted over the intercom, “stand by to bale out.”
I obeyed, gladly, and wrenched open the escape hatch near to where I was standing. As I did so, a hole appeared in the aircraft’s fabric skin at my side and I wondered how much damage we had taken. It seemed it was merely a question of a second or two before we were hit and blown to pieces or set on fire, before I and the rest of the lads were torn apart by an exploding shell. They could not go on missing us for ever. I was impatient for the order to bale out; I felt I had had enough of this experience. At the same time I felt a deep sadness that I might be going to die without having led a complete life, a life in which I had not experienced many things. I had never known the love of a woman; I had never even had a steady girl friend.
Through the open escape hatch I could see the earth, a huge forest, stretching away under the moonlight. Still the lights and the flakbursts hammering at us, the smell of cordite. At that moment I came to accept that I was going to die, and at the same time, I now realise that I lost altogether, and for ever, the fear of death. Not the fear of pain, of great pain, which I still possess, but the fear of dying, of the flight into the unknown world of
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the hereafter. I am convinced that in those seconds, a corner of the veil was lifted and I was granted a glimpse of the boundless quietude of eternity. A great and mysterious calm flooded over me, enfolded me in a sensation of complete and deep peace. I now understand what the prayer means when it speaks of ‘the peace which passeth all understanding’. I could not then and cannot now understand it, but I am certain that at that moment, when I felt I was standing poised on the brink of death, the Almighty reached out His hand to me and I responded and touched it with mine. The memory of the incredible sensation of smoothly passing, as it were, through the fear barrier to another dimension, one of all-embracing calm, is one which has remained with me all my life.
Then suddenly it was quiet. Utter quiet – and darkness. We were through it, we had got away. There was the forest below us, and a stretch of water. The Baltic? It could only be. Cookie was almost drooping over the controls now, physically spent, nearly, I knew, at the point of exhaustion. He had saved all our lives.
“Take over, Harry, for Christ’s sake,” he said, and almost dropped out of the left-hand seat. I climbed quickly up into it and took the controls. Someone slammed shut the escape hatch and I inhaled deeply, very, very deeply, hardly able to believe we were still alive, still flying.
We were at a mere 2,0000 feet. Cautiously but quickly I tested the controls for movement and response. Satisfactory. Almost incredible, I thought.
“Col, where d’you reckon we are?” I asked.
“I know where we’ve been, right enough, Harry,” he said, “slap over Kiel.”
“Look, then, I think we’re a bit east or south-east of it now,” I told him, “I’ll steer three-one-five for the time being if you’ll give me a course to take us to that big point of land on the Danish North Sea Coast – you know the one I mean? Near Esbjerg?”
He knew it. He gave me the course and I started to climb; the more height we had, the better for us, in case of further trouble. We had lost thirteen thousand feet in all that evasive action but we needed to get at least some of it back. I had everyone make a check around the aircraft, but apart from a few minor holes we were intact, and there were no injuries of any sort. It seemed
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unbelievable that we could have survived the pounding we had taken with such negligible damage.
In the brilliant moonlight I saw the Danish coast creeping towards us, with the glint of the welcoming North Sea beyond. Esbjerg harbour was sliding beneath our nose; about eight ships were anchored there – and we hadn’t one single bomb left for them. I cursed aloud; they would have been sitting ducks for us. Not a shot was fired at us as I dived S for Sugar gently out to sea.
On the way back I discussed with Col where he thought we had been caught at first; he reckoned we had been trapped over Flensburg and then handed on, from cone to cone of searchlights until we were firmly into the Kiel defences, like a fly in a spider’s web. I was sure his assessment was correct as we had arrived over Esbjerg exactly as we had planned. I settled down to the long, thoughtful flight home. As usual, there was almost complete silence all the way. I am certain that there was not one among us who was not offering up a silent prayer of thanks.
After we had landed, switched off the engines and climbed stiffly down the ladder, we gathered in a group to congratulate Cookie. He was quite matter-of-fact about his marvellous effort. Then Mick said, in that edgy voice of his, “But listen here, Cookie, we used to have decent trips when you were a Sergeant, I hope all your trips as a P/O aren’t going to be like this one.”
He little knew that two short weeks and three trips later, he, Cookie and the rest of them, apart from me, would be dead, in unknown graves.
Then, inconsequentially, I remembered something.
“Hey! What happened to that boxful of china?” I asked.
The tension was easing.
“Oh, that?” Col said, “don’t worry, Harry, we’ll drop it on the blighters on our next trip, get our own back for tonight. Anyhow,” he added, “I’ll bet it’s the first time Kiel’s been dive-bombed by a single kite!”
I recall, with crystal clarity, waling down to interrogation. Col and I were together, he on my right, the others a few paces behind
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us. The moonlight was intensely bright and the hangars and the buildings of the Station stood out sharp and grey under its flood of cold light. There was not another soul to be seen and there was only the sound of our footsteps on the roads which led down from the hangars to the Headquarters buildings. I felt that I did not want to speak now, I did not want to break the spell of the feeling of that great “peace, from the wild heart of clamour” which was pervading my whole being, enfolding me in the purity of its white light, like that of the moon, shining down from God’s heaven on those whom he had spared that night, the night of the Lübeck raid.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
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[inserted] [underlined] The end of Harry [/underlined] [/inserted]
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[underlined] THE END OF HARRY [/underlined]
“And the king was much moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept: and as he went, thus he said, O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!”
II Samuel 18, v.33.
“Crews were given a forecast of clear weather over Essen but cloud was met instead. The bombing force became scattered and suffered heavily from the Ruhr Flak defences….. 7 Wellingtons, 5 Hampdens, 1 Halifax, 1 Manchester lost ….”
Martin Middlebrook and Chris Everitt,
The Bomber Command War Diaries.
I open my log-book to refresh my memory of that trip. The entry lies there in red ink, under my fingers, as clear as the day on which it was written, as is now my recollection of the night, which comes flooding back to me.
The date. We were in M for Mother. “Operations, Cologne. Diesel engine factory attacked with 4000 lb. bomb. Moderate heavy flak and searchlights in area, mostly on west side of town. Good weather.” A pencilled note, “263 aircraft in attack; 179 Wellingtons, 44 Hampdens, 11 Manchesters, 29 Stirlings. A new record for a force to a single target. 4 Wellingtons and 1 Hampden lost.” We got off lightly that night. Sometimes, like one we did to Essen, it was ten per cent. It was the last night I ever flew as one of Cookie’s crew.
We approached Bonn from the north-west at about twenty thousand feet, into the brilliant light of the moon, dead ahead. The sight was fantastic, beyond all imagining. We were just off the edge of a solid sheet of strato-cumulus at about ten thousand feet, stretching as far south and east as the eye could see, lit brilliantly white by the moon, and with its north edge, nearest us, as well-defined as the edge of an immense shelf. Out of this layer there towered
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a huge cumulo-nimbus, rearing up, its north side jet black, like a gigantic tombstone, to about 15 or 16 thousand feet and casting a tremendous shadow over the Rhineland. To the north of this cloud-shelf it was crystal-clear, hundreds of stars shone brightly and the Rhine writhed and gleamed like a thread of silver below us. We turned north, to track along it, the fifteen or so miles to Cologne.
We could see it ahead. There were six or eight searchlight cones, with a dozen to twenty lights in each, probing, leaning, searching the sky for a victim to pin like a sliver moth in the beams. Every now and again the cones would re-form to close the inviting gaps between them. Each cone would split in half, the lights from one half leaning one way, and the other half the other way, to join the neighbouring cones, which performed the same manoeuvre, to form new cones. It was hideously fascinating, almost hypnotic, to watch. There would seem to be no way through. The dozens of red flashes of the flakbursts, seen distantly, grew larger and more menacing as we approached. Light flak was hosing up, strings of red, green, orange and white, and below everything, the fires, three or four smallish ones, growing larger all the time. Big, bright, slow flashes as cookies exploded among the flames. We were tensed up as we carried ours in. M-Mother had been specially modified to carry the two-ton bomb which protruded some way below the belly of the kite, the bomb-doors of which had been removed. A single hit from a piece of shrapnel on the cookie’s thin, exposed casing and – the mind shied away from it.
So we felt naked with this inches beneath us as we edged through the searchlights, to the right of the Rhine, weaving constantly through the flak, which we could hear, thumping around us over the roar of the engines. We could see it flashing close to us on all sides. In our imaginations the cookie was growing in size; they could hardly miss it, I thought. More fires started below, a stick of bombs rippled redly across the darkened city, then another. Some incendiaries went down in a yellow splash. Or was it an aircraft going in? Still, the slow, bright flashes of the cookies going down on to Cologne. Col went forward. We could hear his harsh breathing over the intercom as he directed us into the bombing run, guiding M-Mother so that the target slid down between the wires of the bomb-sight.
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“Bomb gone!”
The kite thumped upwards as the cookie left us on its journey of destruction. A tight turn to starboard and we were heading back the way we had come, towards the surrealist cloudscape, the enormous, abrupt shelf with the grotesque tower looming up out of it.
On the way back Cookie called me up on the intercom.
“Will you take over, Harry?”
Someone else said, “come on, Harry, get us home.”
It sounded like Mick, the wireless op. Up to now I had always got them home. I had never in my life been called “Harry” by anyone until we were crewed up at O.T.U. But from them I would have happily accepted any nickname they cared to bestow on me. So we flew on through the night, and I got them home.
When we landed I found the M.O. waiting. He was usually to be seen somewhere in the background. This time, he singled me out and detached me from the weary crews who were standing around, clutching their helmets, drinking their rum-laced coffee, rubbing their faces and eyes to clear their fatigue before they were interrogated.
“How did it go?”
“O.K., Doc.”
“Any trouble?”
“The trip, or me?”
“You.”
“No more than usual.”
“Take your pill?”
“Yes.”
“No effect?”
“No.”
“Take this one, now. Get some sleep and see me in the morning after breakfast.”
“O.K., Doc.”
He slapped my shoulder and trudged off. I went into interrogation with the crew, lighting another cigarette as I did so. Ewart Davies was the Int. Officer at our table. We liked him. He didn’t push us too hard for answers, he was quick, quiet, and had some idea what it was like. He knew we wanted our egg and bacon – and bed. As we walked towards the table, Johnnie, our front gunner, gave me a
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quizzical look. Mac, now our rear gunner since Tommy had gone into hospital, was telling him how he’d chucked some empty bottles out over the target to fox the searchlights; it had worked, too. Gunners were a special breed, and had a special bond.
Next morning, I saw the Doc. He made no bones about it and came straight to the point.
“Come in, sit down. Now then, your grounded until you can have a Medical Board, and as soon as you can pack you’re going on six days’ sick leave.”
I felt as though someone had slammed a brick on to the back of my head. I had flown and lived with my crew for eight months. We had shared much together; more than that perhaps. We had shared everything from hilarious evenings in the “Market” to staring into the face of imminent death, where our expectation of life seemed to be measured in seconds. They had become indispensable to me, we were part of one another, our relationship uniquely deep. We knew one another’s strengths, and weaknesses. Where there was a weakness, and there were few, strength was drawn from the others. Where there was strength, we each drew from it fortitude and endurance. We were closer to each other than brothers and there was an unspoken-of bond of the deepest affection between us all which was greater in its way than anything else in the world of human experience. I was stunned to think I was being parted from them; it was something I had never imagined could possibly happen. Our lives were so much intermingled and we were so completely unified and interdependent that I couldn’t imagine life without Cookie, Col, Mick, Johnnie and Mac.
In a daze, I collected some kit together, saw the Adj. about my travel warrant and found Johnnie. He, of all the crew, was closest to me. We would always sit next to one another on our sessions in the “Market”; he was very quiet, absolutely imperturbable, the personification of steadfastness and quiet courage. Somehow I got to Grimsby, then to Doncaster. On Doncaster station I was surprised to meet Ewart, who had so many times gently interrogated us. Normally so ebullient, he too was now subdued.
“Posted to Northern Ireland,” he said ruefully, in his harsh Welsh
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voice, “Hell’s bells, I never wanted to leave 1 Group, but you’ll be back, don’t you worry.”
Nearly three years later I was to meet him in Malaya. We had much to tell each other then. But now, we were both thoroughly depressed. He saw me on to my train, we shook hands, wished each other “Happy landings” and I looked back at him as the train pulled out, a slight figure, smoking the inevitable cigarette in its long holder, hunched miserably on the end of the platform.
The sick leave was anything but cheerful. I was tired, moody and tense. I developed some new and unpleasant symptoms which I kept to myself. I slept fitfully, ate little, snapped at my parents and listened avidly to every news bulleting on the radio for word of bomber operations. There was a raid on Hamburg, five missing. I drank in the local pub, alone, more than I was accustomed to, lay in bed late, walked alone on the cliffs where I used to go with Ivor on his leaves from the R.A.F. Three of my friends were on the verge of call-up for aircrew and Ivor and another school friend, Connie, had already gone to Stirling squadrons which were being formed and expanded. Of these five, four were soon to die, but there was no knowing that at the time. I looked out the first three and let them eagerly pick my brains, it gave me some relief to be able to talk flying and it filled some of the dreadful blanks in the leave.
I was working it all out. I would apply to go on to night fighters, to get some of my own back, or on to Coastal Command Whitleys. The morning before I was due back off leave I heard the B.B.C. news bulletin.
“Last night, strong forces of Bomber Command attacked the Krupp’s works in Essen and other targets in Western Germany and Occupied France. Much damage was done and large fires were caused. From all these operations sixteen of our aircraft failed to return.”
I found my hands were clenched tightly. Essen. That was an old enemy; we had been twice in and out of its massive and savage defences inside twenty-four hours not so long ago, and it had cost us three of our crews, including our Commanding Officer, in the process. To this day I cannot say or hear that evil name, Essen, without a shiver going down my spine.
My parents saw me off at the station. I was glad to go back;
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I felt like a fish out of water away from a bomber station, it was my life. I was anxious to hear the latest gen., and to get my medical board over and done with, to know what was to become of me. The local train crawled from Doncaster to Grimsby; I found transport there to take me to Binbrook.
My room-mate Johnny Stickings had crashed in January when one engine had failed on the way back from Wilhelmshaven, and he and the only other survivor had been taken to hospital. A little later, another Observer and a good friend, Eric, had gone missing with Abey, our Flight Commander, on Kiel, along with Teddy Bairstow and his crew. I had been moved in with Eric’s room-mate Frank, to keep up our morale, I supposed.
I walked along the empty corridor in the Mess. Someone came out of the ante-room and passed me, a pilot whom I didn’t know. I wondered about him, who he was, who he was replacing. We said “hello”. I went up the stairs and turned left to my room. I opened the door and there was Frank, with his fresh complexion and almost Grecian good looks, putting away his laundry.
“Hiya, Frank,” I said, “what’s the gen?”
“Oh, hello, Harry,” he replied, looking up, “how do you feel? Did you have a good leave?”
“So-so,” I said, “but what’s the gen?”
He cleared his throat.
“Look, Harry,” he said, “I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news for you. Cookie, your crew, they went missing on Essen two nights ago.”
“Oh, Christ, Frank, no,” I said, dropping on to my bed, “Oh, God, they didn’t. Is there any news of them?”
He shook his head slowly.
“No, I’m afraid not. They went to Hamburg the other night and got back O.K. with everybody else, then they were on Essen and they didn’t come back, I’m afraid. They were in H-Harry, there was nothing heard from them after they took off. I’m terribly sorry.”
I put my head down into my hands; I was beyond speech. I heard Frank go out of the room very quietly. I thought, “I’ve let them down. I’ve failed them completely. I wasn’t with them to get them back home this one time when they needed me more than ever. I wish
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to God I had gone with them.”
And I wondered who had taken my place. Whoever you were, I thought, I would have you heavy on my conscience for the rest of my life, I would forever walk with your ghost at my side. I knew it was the end of something unique and very wonderful in my life, as though a great light had suddenly failed. It was the end of being called “Harry”. To this day I have never permitted anyone else to call me by that name, their name for me. H-Harry was gone for ever, taking them all with it to their eternity, and their own Harry had died with it, and with them.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
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[inserted] [underlined] Silver spoon boy [/underlined] [/inserted]
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[underlined] SILVER SPOON BOY [/underlined]
It’s not a part of the city I’m in very often, but a short while ago, after a lunch engagement, I found myself passing the narrow-fronted shop in the busy street which once was the cafe where I had met him for the last time.
I stopped for a minute or so, oblivious to the intense, grim-faced pedestrians brushing past me, and to the traffic as it roared by. And I remembered that day more clearly, it seemed to me, for in that area, while the occupants of the shops and offices have obviously changed many times, the upper facades of the Victorian buildings have remained virtually unaltered – as have my recollections of Jack.
So indeed has the mystery surrounding him, how he came to be in the R.A.F., what happened to him then, and why the man who might have answered my questions would not do so.
There seems to have been no actual beginning to our friendship, it was simply one of those things which developed out of nothing. Since we were merely children at the time I suppose we must have seen each other in the road, probably each of us with a parent, perhaps eventually spoken a few casual words, but looking back now I cannot put any sort of a date upon it. I suppose friendships are like that. My memories of the house we lived in then are intermingled, woven like the coloured threads of a tapestry, with the recollections of the lads I knew at that time – of Alan, of Norman and Peter, and of Jack himself, who lived nearest to me of them all.
He was an only child of quite well-to-do parents. His father was a tall, big-boned, genial man, fond of country pursuits. Jack’s mother was a pleasantly relaxed, comfortably built lady with shrewd eyes, a good amateur pianist who also had rather a fine contralto voice. Jack was very much the son of his parents, cheerful, almost jaunty in manner, generous to a degree and quite undemanding – this last perhaps because he had most things that an only child of fairly well-off parents could wish for. But although he was a boy whom I had heard described, somewhat jealously perhaps, as having been born with a silver spoon in his mouth, he was not by any means a spoiled child.
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Like most other boys of my age I lived an intensely active life, physically in top gear from morning till night. But there appeared to be a shadow across Jack’s life. He was frequently absent from school, and on those occasions when I called at his house I would be told by his mother that he was in bed, unwell. These vague illnesses were, more often than not, described as ‘overgrowing his strength’, but eventually there were hints of a weak heart. He began to be excused games at school and their doctor’s car appeared fairly regularly at their front door. Yet he was never anything else but buoyant and cheerful and I never remember seeing him look or behave very differently from a normal, healthy lad. My own parents, at those times when I told them that Jack was poorly, would give each other meaning looks and would now and again make veiled and half-audible remarks about some doctors who knew when they were on to a good thing. These bouts of malaise never seemed to alter in their frequency, and it became accepted, gradually but inevitably, in the small coterie of friends I had as a young teenager, that Jack was perhaps a little less fit than the rest of us.
Jack’s father, as I have mentioned,. Was interested in country life, and in particular, in shooting; he owned a beautiful and gentle-natured black Labrador, by name Prince. Jack’s uncle was a farmer near to the small country town of B - , some sixty miles away, and close to some good shooting. It was only natural that Jack’s family should spend most of their holidays there. One summer it happened that my parents were going through a period of considerable financial stringency; there had never been any luxuries in my life, but now, even the necessities were scarce.
Then Jack’s father, perhaps being aware of our circumstances, and being the generous man he was, casually asked me if I would like to spend two weeks of the summer holidays with them on the farm. My parents readily and gratefully agreed; I was in the seventh heaven of delight. It was an idyllic fortnight, the car drive there and back were memorable adventures enough, to me, at any rate, without anything further. We had the run of the marginal land on which Jack’s uncle grazed his stock, the scenery was very agreeable, there was impromptu cricket to be played, drives in the country and to
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wonderful, deserted beaches nearby. The discordant note, as far as I was concerned at any rate, was sounded by the early-morning shoot which I attended, crouched unhappily in the butts near the sea’s edge in the half-light of a chilly dawn, while Jack’s father blazed away at the beautiful and harmless ducks and we regaled ourselves with bottles of cold tea, which were regarded by the others, at least, as something of both ritual and delicacy. A little while ago I found, at the bottom of a drawer, a photograph, startlingly clear, of Jack and me standing against a haystack during that holiday, two gawky youths grinning into the camera, with me holding Jack’s cricket bat. I was to visit the farm once again.
When the war came, the little crowd of my friends and I, apart from Jack, went our various ways. It is difficult now to place the events of that time in their correct sequence, the constantly recurring pain of many recollections has tended to blur the outlines, but never to soften the impacts of those tragic times. The two events connected with Jack, I am now astonished to realise, were separated by almost three years of war – in my mind they seemed to be telescoped together, their perspective foreshortened by the passage of time.
Strangely enough, my own family’s ancestors had some connections with B - , and my father, who was always much more interested in the family tree than I ever was, had paid one or two visits to the place over the years to search the parish register for reference to our name and to contemplate the inscriptions on our forebears’ tombstones in the shady churchyard on the side of the hill.
My father was quite obviously under considerable stress during the war; the office where he worked was constantly understaffed as more and more men were called up into the Forces. There were also frequent Air Raid Precautions duties which he could not neglect, nor would ever have dreamed of doing so. In addition, my mother’s health was beginning to fail, and they had two sons in the forces, one of whom was engaged in duties where the chances of eventual survival were rated as about two in five.
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Early in 1942 my own crew, in my absence on sick leave, were reported missing on a raid over the Ruhr. I think my parents must have noticed the effect this had upon me, for they decided that on my next leave we could go to B – for a few days, staying at the hotel in the small market place, if I was agreeable. I thanked them, and thought it might be a good idea. It was late spring when we went, with blue and white quiet skies and sunlight pleasantly shining on the grey stone buildings. The hotel was almost empty; B - , while on the main road, was also between two county-towns which drew the local people like the twin poles of a magnet.
Released from operational flying I embarked upon what was to be several months of drinking far more than was good for me, in an attempt to dull the agony of mind and self-recrimination I was undergoing. This must have been painfully apparent to my parents, and must have caused them considerable heartache, but – and I shall always be grateful to their memories for this – they uttered no word of reproach.
How we spent our time there I cannot remember, perhaps I was in a constant alcoholic haze. The only event I can recall with any clarity was the afternoon we visited Jack’s uncle’s farm and I introduced my parents to Mr. Brown, his wife and his two daughters. I remember it as having the appearance and atmosphere of a scene in a stage play. Everything seemed to be happening in slow motion, gestures seemed limp and exaggerated and we sat like figures in a tableau against the backdrop of the scarcely-remembered living room of the farmhouse, small-windowed, lit by an oil-lamp, a heavy, dark red tasselled tablecloth draped over the massive dining table. Outside, I could see the shelter-belt of firs waving lazily in the breeze, hypnotic in their motion. My parents and the Brown family sat stiffly in their best clothes. What they talked about, I have no recollection; I said not more than perhaps a dozen words. I remember that one of Jack’s cousins kept looking curiously in my direction from time to time. Jack, now working in a branch of the same bank as his father, was, naturally, mentioned. I hadn’t seen him for quite some time, but someone said he would like to meet me when we went back home, before I returned to my unit.
The arrangements were made. My parents and I got off the bus at its city terminus in the Haymarket. They would make their way to the railway station and so home, I would join them later, to pack my kit at the end of my leave, as that day was my last.
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I remember feeling released and lighter in spirit when I left them, and guilty because I did so, but the sense of freedom was pleasant after a week when it had been necessary to cork down my feelings tightly and be on my best behaviour. Yet I almost dreaded going back to my unit, a Bomber Group Headquarters, where I had been given a sinecure of a job while I waited for a medical board, for the news that I might receive of the fate of the crew of H-Harry. As I walked through the grey city streets it seemed as though I were treading the razor-edged ridge of a mountain in a high wind.
We had arranged to meet at a little cafe on one of the main streets. Jack was standing outside, smartly dressed, tall, looking well and, as usual, cheerful. We shook hands.
“Hello,” he said, “nice to see you again. How are you?”
I lit a cigarette as we walked into the quiet cafe.
“So-so,” I replied, “a lot has happened since I saw you last.”
We sat at a small table, ordered coffee and biscuits. I looked at him and said, “You’ll have heard about my crew, have you?”
He looked down at his cup and nodded. I thought he appeared more adult than I’d ever noticed before.
“Yes,” he replied, “I had heard. How do I tell you how sorry I am?”
“Don’t try,” I said, “it’s O.K., I know.”
He asked, uncomfortably, “Do you think they could be prisoners?”
“I don’t know; it’s nearly two months now, no-one’s heard anything?”
We sat silently for a few minutes, traffic noise falling on our ears. Then he said tentatively, looking at the wings on my chest, “Are you finished flying, for good, I mean?”
I shrugged.
“Not as far as I know. I’ve got six months off then I’ll be having another medical board and we’ll see what they say then. I’ll probably go back on ops, I should think; after all, I’ve only done half a tour, I think I owe somebody something.”
“Do you think they’ll send you back again?” he asked, surprised.
“Oh, yes, they can do anything, you know,” I said, “there’s a bloke on the Squadron who’s completely flak-happy and he’s still operating.”
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He looked at me.
“What do you mean, ‘flak-happy’?”
“He’s round the bend,” I said shortly, “got the twitch, call it what you like.”
Jack shook his head wonderingly.
“But they let him go on flying?”
“Sure they do; he’s a damn good gunner and an experienced one, too. He’s not afraid of man or beast. Of course,“ I said, “there is another side to it – he could be dead by now. It’s a while since I saw him, and anything could have happened in that time. It depends on the targets you get. It depends on a hell of a lot of things.”
Jack swallowed hard.
I asked him if he’d seen anything of Alan or Peter.
“They’ve both volunteered for aircrew,” he said. I thought he sounded a bit wistful and I could tell what he was thinking.
“Listen,” I said firmly, “when I went and stuck my neck out I didn’t do it as a dare to the rest of you, you know, there are other ways of getting yourselves into trouble. And don’t you go losing any sleep about not being fit, it’s not your fault, and when the time comes you’ll be shoved into something which will be useful to the war effort, I’ve no doubt at all.”
He looked at my wings again.
“I hope so,” he replied, “it’s not a great deal of fun feeling left out of things.”
We finished our coffee. He insisted on paying for them, saying that he was a rich war-profiteer. He was probably getting a lot less than me, but it was no use arguing, I didn’t have a lot of time, and neither did he. I suddenly thought of that and said to him, “Anyhow, what are you doing here, skiving off during working hours? Shouldn’t you be drawing up balance sheets or something?”
He looked at me a bit sheepishly, squinting into the sunshine as we stood on the pavement with the pedestrians hurrying by around us.
“Oh, I asked the Manager for an hour off,” he said airily, “told him I was meeting a pilot on leave from the R.A.F. He said to tell you to drop one for him.”
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We shook hands.
“Take care of yourself,” he said, “and I hope you’ll have some good news soon.”
“Thanks, so do I.” I could hear the pessimism in my own voice. I looked at my watch. “Well, it’s been great seeing you; until next time, then, so long, Jack.”
It was some time later when I learned, with feelings of complete astonishment, almost disbelief, that not only was Jack now in the R.A.F., but that he had been accepted for aircrew training. I had to read my parents’ letter several times before I could begin to grasp what they were telling me.
Many months went by. I had been stationed at Tuddenham, in Suffolk, for a year, watching the almost nightly operations of, originally, the Squadron’s Stirlings, then their Lancasters; by day seeing the vast fleets of American Fortresses and Liberators forming up overhead to carry on the round-the-clock bombing of German cities. Late on a February afternoon I stepped out of the Tuddenham mail van, on which I had hitched a lift, at the aerodrome gates of Mildenhall, our parent station. The daylight was already fading and there was comparative silence; the Fortresses were back at their East Anglian bases and our Lancasters were waiting, poised to go that night.
I stood watching the roadway which led up to the barrier at the guardroom, chatting to the Service Policeman on duty. I recognised J – ‘s walk when she was far away. The S.P., who knew her, wished us a good leave, saluted and turned away. J – and I had met and worked together in the Operations Room of a bomber station in east Yorkshire, around the time of the Battle of Hamburg. But after a blissful few months I had been posted to Tuddenham, then, quite amazingly, following a bleak interval without her, she had been posted to the Base Operations Room at Mildenhall, a small handful of miles away. Everyone who knew us thought that one or other of us had somehow wangled things; in point of fact it was simply unbelievably good luck. In addition, it was a considerable feather in her cap as Mildenhall was one of the key stations in Bomber Command.
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Consequently, we saw one another several times a week when she, of course, should have been catching up on her sleep after long and hectic hours of night duty when operations were on. Now we were going on leave together; three days at my home then three at hers.
A lorry, known to all as the Liberty Wagon, took us to the nearest railway station at Shippea Hill, along with a dozen or so others, then we caught a local train to Ely. We had a meal there and took the overnight train home. We arrived before breakfast the following morning. When we had freshened up and had breakfast, my mother, who looked paler and more drawn than when I had last seen her three months before, looked at me across the table and said quietly, “I hardly know how to tell you this; it’s so awful, when you and J – have just started your leave.”
I couldn’t guess what was coming, but I steeled myself for whatever it might be.
“What is it, mother?”
She bit her lip then said, eyes averted, “I’m afraid it’s bad news, it’s Jack, he was killed two days ago.”
I felt my mouth open and close, then I reached slowly for a cigarette.
“But – was he on ops? I didn’t know he’d got as far as that, I thought he was still training.”
Mother nodded.
“As far as I know, he was killed training, night flying.”
She paused.
“You will go and see his parents, won’t you? They’re terribly upset, naturally.”
“Of course I’ll go,” I said, “of course I will.”
I went to see them that afternoon, after I had screwed up my courage to the limit for what I knew would be an ordeal for all of us. The tension in their house was almost tangible, their grief hung on the air like a cloud. They knew little about it except that Jack was dead; he had been a Navigator on Wellingtons at an Operational Training Unit in the Midlands whose name, Husband’s Bosworth, rang a bell with me when they told me. His pilot was also from our area;
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they had flown into a hill near a village in Northamptonshire. His funeral was here, tomorrow, would I come? It was unthinkable, of course, that I would not. His father paced the room incessantly, never meeting my eyes, Jack’s mother, her face bloated with weeping, tore at a handkerchief in her deep armchair in the corner. Their beautiful piano, black and shining, would remain unplayed for a long time, I knew, and her voice, which I had so often heard in Schumann lieder, would be silent now. The dog lay across the hearthrug, his eyes following first one speaker, then the other; I felt he knew what had happened to his beloved young master.
I met the cortege at the massive stone and iron gateway of the cemetery the following afternoon. The late winter sun was sinking and it was bitterly cold under the fading colour of an almost cloudless sky. I was the only non-relation there; as the hearse came slowly up to the gates through an avenue of trees I gave it the finest salute I had ever given to any senior officer. When I went home in the deepening dusk J – was alone in the living room, sitting in the firelight. I kissed her gently, holding her to me.
That evening, as I felt I must, I went to see Jack’s parents again. They were sitting alone, quieter than before, and with the calm of resignation beginning to possess them. Prince’s tail thumped the hearthrug twice as I walked into the room, his eyebrows lifted and fell as he looked at me, his chin across his folded paws. Jack’s photograph smiled cheerfully down from the mantelpiece. I told them I had come to say au revoir. His father thanked me for being there that afternoon, then, “Do you think you could possibly do something for us?”
“If I can, of course,” I said, glad to be moving on to practicalities.
“You know Jack was stationed at Husband’s Bosworth when – it happened, don’t you?”
“I didn’t know at the time,” I said, a bit uncomfortably, thinking that I should have done. We had seldom written to one another; one didn’t have much time nor the mental quietude in Bomber Command to do very much in the way of letter-writing, except to one’s girlfriend.
He went on.
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“Do you know anyone there? In your job I thought perhaps you might know someone who could tell us just what happened. We know so little, just what his C.O.’s letter told us, not very much at all. But if you could, perhaps, speak to someone?”
Jack’s mother dabbed at her eyes.
“Actually, I do know someone there, as it happens,” I said, “a chap I worked with at Tuddenham until recently was posted there as Adjutant; I’m sure he’ll be able to tell me something.”
He brightened slightly.
“That’s good,” he said, “really quite a coincidence. What sort of chap is he? You really think he would be able to help?”
I described George, avuncular, knowledgeable, but on occasions fiery and quite outspoken.
“I’ll phone him as soon as I can after I get back to Tuddenham, and get in touch with you.”
“I’ll be glad to pay any expense involved, if there is any,” he said, “and don’t get yourself into trouble on our account, will you? But – we would like to know something, of course.”
“Don’t worry about that,” I told him, “there’ll be no expense, and no trouble at all.”
I said goodbye to them. I was not to know that I would never see them again.
The first day back from leave I rang George quite confidently. He sounded his usual self, brisk, affable as ever, but perhaps slightly fussed. Had he trodden on a few toes already, I wondered? After the conventional greetings were over, I came to the point.
“George, I’ll tell you why I’m ringing you – it’s about a crash you had a week or so ago, the pilot was Sergeant - - . Well, I was a friend of the Navigator. I’ve just come back from his funeral at home and his parents were wondering If you could give them, through me, any further details of how it happened.”
There was an abrupt and surprising change in his manner.
“Is that why you rang me? To ask me that? I can’t tell them any more than was in the letter to them. I’m surprised at them asking you to do this.”
“O.K., then, George,” I said calmly, “if that’s how it is then I’m very sorry to have bothered you.”
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I rang off. I was extremely puzzled and quite troubled by his unexpected reaction; we had always been, and still are, good friends and our working relationship was never anything less than co-operative and mutually accommodating. That evening I wrote to Jack’s father, telling him briefly that I had been unable to obtain any further facts about the crash. He did not reply.
For various reasons, and to my lasting shame, I did not visit the graves of Jack, and of Peter, Connie and Roly, another classmate, all Bomber Command aircrew casualties, for several years. But after having stood in that busy street, gazing at what had been the cafe, and remembering Jack and I as we had been then, both of us in the prime of youth, an inner compulsion drove me to do so. I could find the graves of all of those who were buried there except one – Jack. I visited and revisited the place where I thought I had stood at his funeral, searching the tombstones round about for his name, but to no avail. I had heard that his parents had moved to B – on Mr. Henderson’s retirement and I was almost on the point of becoming convinced that they had had Jack re-interred there.
Eventually, after several fruitless searches, and as a last resort, I decided to go to the cemetery office to make enquiries. In a few minutes I had found it, about a hundred yards away from the place where I had been looking. There was a solid, low grey headstone with a substantial curb. There was the name, Flying Officer John Henderson, ‘killed in a flying accident 3rd February 1945.’ So very near to the end of the war, I thought sadly. The lettering was now so faded as to be almost illegible. Underneath his name were those of both his parents. The grave itself was completely bare, not a flower, not a blade of grass, not even a weed, only the cold, wet earth under the leaden sky.
I stood for several minutes in the silence, remembering them, but especially remembering Jack, incidents from our friendship returning vividly to mind. And I wondered about many things, the questions now long unanswered. Was he really the semi-invalid he had always been made out to be? How then had he passed his aircrew medical? Why did they crash that night? Had he – God forbid – made a navigational
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error? Why had George been so brusque and annoyed at my question?
There were no answers to be found in the rustling of the cold breeze among the fallen, russet leaves, and I thought that there never would be, that I would never know. But worse, I wondered would there be anyone left to remember Jack when I was no longer able to remember, or would his name disappear completely, both from his gravestone and from the memories of everyone who might have known him on earth?
I took the Remembrance Day poppy out of my lapel and pressed it into the sodden, bare earth below his name. Then on that grey afternoon I spoke a few words to him, very quietly, but knowing that somewhere, he would hear. And as the winter dusk was falling I turned away.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
I did not expect that I should be writing a sequel to this, but a sequel there is, one long-delayed…
Obviously, I have thought very many times about Jack since his fatal crash and I have visited his grave very many times also. But rarely, if ever, have I dreamed about him. Until a few nights ago, that is, more than fifty-one years since he was killed. It was a dream which was so vivid and so poignant – that realisation was with me even as I was dreaming it – that it has stayed with me, haunted me and disturbed me ever since the early morning when, in this heartbreaking dream, I recognised Jack, from a great distance, walking towards me on a riverside path. There were iron railings on my right, a river was nearby, at my left hand, the path curving slightly from my left to the right. For some reason I was quite sure I was on the riverside at Stratford-upon-Avon. I have been there twice, once during the war, with Connie and Shep, when we were at Moreton-in-the-Marsh together, and once on a brief visit when I was on holiday at Malvern. Yes, this was Stratford, I was positive. And I knew it was Jack approaching, I could distinguish his
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features, his walk, his tall, upright figure. He was as I never saw him in life, in uniform, his peaked cap at a slight angle on his head, the Navigator’s half-wing above his breast pocket. There he was, coming briskly towards me, smiling, the Jack I knew of old. And he was with a girl. Her features I could not distinguish as she approached me with him; they were walking close together, arm in arm. Even in my dream I could feel a lump in my throat as I watched them. They stopped in front of me. I heard Jack say, “This is Janet”, and I could see now that she was smiling, a radiant, pure smile, full of utter delight and joy.
They turned together and walked slowly in the direction that I was going. It had turned slightly misty. I was fascinated by Jack’s girl Janet, wondering what sort of person she was; I could not take my eyes off her. She wore a small, round hat of the pillbox type, and a brownish, quite long, heavy coat. Her lips were full, I saw, and pink; here eyes shone with a wonderful radiance, such as I have rarely seen. I had the overwhelming sensation of their happiness with one another. Then the girl, Janet, looked at me directly, her arm still through Jack’s, and gave me her wonderful smile, so full of bliss.
“We are going to be married,” she said, “next year.”
At that moment she looked as lovely as anyone I have ever seen. But immediately, as though I had been submerged by a wave from the sea, I felt an immense sorrow engulf me, because, as I awoke slowly, with the vision of that lovely, loving couple in my brain, even in my dream I knew that their marriage could never, never be. For Jack was to die; Jack was dead.
It is a dream I shall have in my mind until the day of my own death, until Jack and I meet once more and – God alone knows whether there ever was a girl named Janet – perhaps I might meet that girl who I dreamed was going to marry my oldest and closest friend, The Silver Spoon Boy, the boy who gave everything he ever possessed. ‘Too full already is the grave, Of fellows who were young and brave, And died because they were.’
. . . . . . . . . . . .
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[inserted] [underlined] Intermezzo [/underlined] [/inserted]
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[underlined] INTERMEZZO [/underlined]
“Sign here? And here? That it? O.K., Sergeant. Now, what have I signed for? Oh, I see, one brand-new Wimpy in mint condition with full certificate of airworthiness and rarin’ to go. HD 966, isn’t it? Where do I find her? That it, over there by the dispersal hut? O.K., thanks. Probably be back tomorrow for another. Cheerio.”
“Here we are, on this beautiful morning. HD 966. Plenty of juice, Corporal? Well, I’m not going as far as John o’ Groats, thanks, just to Moreton-in-the-Marsh. Pitot head cover off? Fine.”
“There’s only me. Up the ladder. God, it’s hot in here. Haul the ladder up, stow it next to the bomb-sight. Slam the escape-hatch door. Stamp it down firmly, to be sure. Hell, the heat. Slide open the windows, that’s better. Shove my chute into the stowage. Into the driver’s seat, check brakes on. Push and pull the controls about to test for full movement. Shove the rudder to and fro with my feet. All free. Fine. Check the petrol gauges. Enough.”
“Undercart lever down and locked. Flaps neutral. Bomb doors closed. Switch on the undercart lights. There we are, three greens. Undercart warning horn? God, that’s loud. Never mind. Main petrol cock on, balance cock down.”
“Now. Throttles closed, boost override normal, mixture rich, pitch levers fully fine, superchargers medium. O.K. So – ignition on, open throttle an inch. There we are. Now, yell out of the window. Contact port! Press the starter button. That’s it, got her! Hell! What a row, wish I’d brought my helmet after all. Shut the window. No, damn, not yet. Contact starboard! Press the button. There she goes. Come on, come on. Now shut the window. It’s a bit cooler now, anyhow.”
“Oil pressure O.K., all temperatures O.K. So, what’re you waiting for? Run them up. Port engine first. What a bloody noise. Pitch controls O.K., revs down and up again. Give her plus four boost. This is going to be damn noisy. Here goes. Throttle back, boost override in. Now for it. Open right up. Hell, it’s awful. Plus
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nine and threequarters. Fair enough. Throttle back smoothly. Not too quick. Override out. Now the starboard engine. Stick my fingers in that ear. Pitch control O.K. Plus four boost. Mag drop? ……”
“All O.K., then. Brake pressure? Right up. Try each wheel. O.K. So it should be, too, brand new kite. There goes the Anson with those A.T.A. girls. God, shook me when that blonde brought the Halifax in. Cool as you please, all five foot nothing of her. Damn good landing, too. Smashing blonde, like to see her again. Like to – hey, steady on! Back to business. Test the flaps. Right down. Now up again. Fine. Where’s he taken the starter trolley? Oh. Over there, well away from me. See they haven’t got that bloody Whitley moved yet. Bit off-putting, that, finding a pranged Whitley over a hump in the runway, just after you’ve landed. Plenty of room, though, at least it’s on the grass. Well, come on, let’s get back to Moreton, might have half a can if there’s no more flying today.”
“Chocks away. Wave hands across each other where the erk can see. There he goes with the port chock. Now the starboard. Thumbs up from him. And from me. Little bit of throttle, hold the yoke well back. Here we go. Taxy out over the grass. Bumpy. Wish they’d get another runway put in, too. The one they have got isn’t even into the prevailing wind. Using it today, though, I see. Not much wind at all, but the Anson used it. Lovely sunny day. Swing the nose about a bit, never know what’s ahead. Would hate to prang a Spit or something. What’s that Oxford doing? Coming in. Trundle up to the end of the runway, opposite the line of trees. Bit off-putting they are, too, when you’re approaching to land. Park, crosswind. Brakes on. Relax and watch him come in. Wheels down, crosswind, losing height. Bit bumpy over the trees, of course. Flaps down, now he’s turning in. Nice steady approach. Oh, Christ, here’s a Spit coming in next, what a bind. I’ll have to wait a bit. Yes, he’s put his undercart down. Damn!”
”Float her down, boy, float her down. Now, watch it. Not bad, not bad at all. Over-correcting a bit on his rudder on the runway. Never mind, nice landing, though. Open up my throttles to clear the plugs of oil. Yoke hard back. What a row. There we are, sounds
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O.K. Now throttle back and wait for the Spit. Quick check round the dials again. Set the altimeter to zero. Gyro to zero and leave it caged. Where is he? Oh, here he comes, hellish fast. God! That was a split-arse turn and no mistake. Full flap. Well, he is heading in approximately the right direction. Whoof! He’s down. A bit wheel-y, but never mind, he’s in one piece and still rolling. Now beat it, chum, and let a real kite take off. No-one else in the circuit? Thank bloody goodness. Wait a tick, where’s my friend in that Spit? Oh, there he goes, taxying to the Watch Office. Fighter boys – I don’t know!”
Here we go then. Flap fifteen degrees. Brakes off. Port throttle to turn on to the runway. Hope the far end’s clear. Suppose they would poop off a red if it wasn’t. Nice and central Brakes on. Uncage gyro on 0. Now hold your hat. Open both throttles steadily against the brakes. What a bloody row. Yoke back, now let it go to central. Not too far, not too far. More throttle. Hold the brakes on. She’s shuddering like hell, wants to jump off the runway. Lift the tail just a bit more. Now. Full throttle and brakes off. Here we go – and how! We’re really rolling. Shove those throttles forward against the stops. Touch of rudder against the swing. Fine. Hold it there.”
“Feels great. Love take-offs, tremendous sense of power. Hellish noise, too. Airspeed? 50. Nice and straight, shove the tail well up, a real 3 Group takeoff. Touch of rudder again. 65. Over the hump. Gi-doying! Nearly airborne then! Plus nine and threequarters on both, 3000 revs. Wizard. 75. Runway clear and pouring back underneath. There’s that Whitley. Plenty of room. 80. Almost ready. Still bags of room. Come on, come on. Ease back a bit. Trying hard to go, almost a bounce then. Now? Now she’s off. Airborne. Keep her straight, wheels up. Pick your field in case an engine cuts. Right, got one. Lights out as the wheels come up. Then red, red, red. All up and locked. Throttle back to climbing boost. Revs back to 2600. Airspeed 120. Overrides out. 200 feet. Gyro still on 0. Take half the flap off. Watch it, now. 300 feet. All flap off. Slight sink there, feels horrible. Keep climbing. Everything sounds good. Quick look around the panel. All O.K.
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“1000 feet. Level off. Cruising boost and revs. Select weak mixture on both. Rate 2 turn to port. There’s the Oxford just taking off. Spit’s parked at the Watch Office, next to the Hali. The Hali – God! That girl was a smasher. Cirencester just below the port wing. Now the railway. And there’s the Fosse Way. Follow it home, no bother. The Romans knew how to build roads. Excuse me, Centurion, but there’s an enemy chariot on your tail! Weave left, Lucius Quintus – now! Weather’s wizard, just a few puffs of cloud at 1500 feet. No hurry. Throttle back to economical cruising boost and revs. Try the trimmers. Feet off the rudder. Nice, keeps straight. Feet on again. Hands off. Bit nose heavy. Just a touch on the trimmer. Try again. There we are, perfect, no wing-drop, no pitching, no yawing. Flies herself and purrs like a sewing machine, she’s a beaut. Check the magnetic compass. Heading 037. Cage the gyro, set to 037, uncage. Check around the panel. Zero boost, 1850 revs, airspeed 150, altimeter 1000 feet, temps. and pressures O.K. and steady. Fosse Way sliding along under the port wing. Vis thirty to forty miles, 2/10 cumulus at 1500 feet. God’s in his heaven and all that.”
“What a view, all greens and hazy blues. Fields, trees, hedges, pale little villages. Lovely country. Must really explore it soon. Good as being on leave. I’m lucky. Bit lonely in these kites all on your own, though. Used to five other bods nattering. Nearly four months now. I wonder if there’s any news yet. Write to the Squadron tonight, see if there’s anything come through from the Red Cross.”
“Kite at 10 o’clock, slightly higher. Twin. Oxford, heading for Little Rissington, I’ll bet. Wonder who’ll take this Wimpy over. Couple of weeks and it could be bombing Tobruk or somewhere. Long stooge out there. Portreath – Gib – Malta – Canal Zone. Blow their luck. Wonder what the chop rate is out there. Better than we had, I’ll bet. Spit. at nine o’clock, high, heading East. Going like a bat out of hell. Clipped-wing job. Boy! Is he pouring on the coal. Wonder if he’s a P.R.U. type. Climbing hard, too. There he goes. Berlin by lunchtime at 40 thousand plus, I’ll bet. Nothing to touch him. Take his pictures, stuff the nose down and come home with 450 on the clock. Not a thing near him. That’s the life.”
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“Stow-on-the-Wold coming up below. Must go back to that pub some time. Wonder if I’ll hear anything from the police. No rear light. Jam had no front light. Both tight as newts. Tried to tell the flattie we were a tandem which had just come apart, wouldn’t believe us. Hell, couldn’t even pronounce it, I called it a damned ‘un, could hardly talk for laughing. We’d had a few that night! Blasted nuisance, though, expect we’ll be fined ten bob each. Shan’t go to court, though, write them a pitiful letter. Got no ident letters yet, how about doing a beat-up at nought feet? Oh, hell, can’t be bothered. Too hot, anyhow, slide the window open a bit more. Wouldn’t want to drop off to sleep like I did that night at Moose Jaw. Shaky do, that. Never mind, still alive and kicking.”
“Should write home tonight, really. Can’t be bothered to do that, either. Write to Betty? Oh, Christ, what’s the use? She’s hooked up to that other bloke, whoever he is. Don’t even know his name. Hell and damnation, why didn’t I - ? What’s the bloody use of moaning about it? But, God, she was nice. Wizard girl. There were angels dining at the Ritz - . Oh, for God’s sake, stop it. She’s gone, she’s gone, you’ve bloody had it, you missed your chance. Just stop thinking about her. Forget it. Oh, hell, why didn’t - ? Christ! Forget it, can’t you? Think of something else. Yes. Yes. What? I know. Let’s have a song.”
“Ops in a Wimpy, ops in a Wimpy,
Who’ll come on ops in a Wimpy with me?
And the rear gunner laughed as they pranged it on the hangar roof,
Who’ll come on ops in a Wimpy with me?”
“There we are, Moreton dead ahead. Long runway end on to me. Two kites on the circuit. God, I’m ready for a bite of lunch. Wonder what it is? I’ll do this right, otherwise the Boss will chew me off.”
“Into wind over the runway in use. Good look-see at the Signals Area, then a copybook circuit. Here we go. Signal for transport by pushing the revs up and down again. Makes a nice howl, hear it for miles. Oh, hell, I expect I’ll get chewed off for that, though.”
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Blast him, why does he hate my guts? Those other two Wimpies have gone, must have landed. Yes, can see one taxying. Reduce airspeed to 140. No signals out except the landing-T and that’s O.K. Crosswind leg. There’s the van leaving the Flight Office, good-oh, he’s heard it. Turn port, downwind. Throttle back to 120. 120 it is. Lock off, select wheels down. Red lights out. Green, green, green. Down and locked. Ready for crosswind.”
“Rate 1 1/2 turn to port, now. Nice. Select flap 15 degrees. Stop. Lever to neutral. Push a bit to compensate for the flap. Now the approach. Full flap. Shove the nose down. Rate 1 1/2 turn to port again. Watch the airspeed. Back to 95. Pitch fully fine. The van’s heading for dispersal down there. Keep the speed at 95. Dead in line with the runway, height just nice. Carry on, carry on. Losing height nicely, speed dead on 95. Trees rushing by. Lower and lower. Throttle right back. Push the nose down a bit more. Ten feet, now level off. Lovely, sinking down beautifully. Airspeed falling off as the runway comes up. Clunk! We’re down, what a beaut. Have we landed, my good man? I didn’t feel a bloody thing. Keep straight with the rudder. No brake, plenty of room. Slowing down now. Flaps up. Turn right at the peri. track. There we are.”
“Van’s waiting for me. Good-oh. Follow it round to whichever dispersal. Go on, then, after you, I’m waiting. That’s better. Get well ahead, where I can see you. That’s it. Weave the nose a bit. Not too rough with the throttles. Bit of brake now. O.K., I see which dispersal. Bit more brake. Slow right down. Turn into dispersal and swing round into wind in one go, with the starboard throttle. Flashy! Throttle back, straighten her up. There’s an erk with the chocks. Roll to a stop. Brakes on and locked. Pull up the cut-outs to stop the engines. That’s it, piece of cake.”
“Ain’t it gone quiet? Out of the seat. Where’s my chute? Yank open the escape hatch and shove the ladder down. Just nice time for lunch. Wotcher, Loopy, thanks for the lift. Did you witness my absolutely superb landing? No? Well, you missed a treat. How’s the Boss? What was that? Do what to him? Not me, old boy, it’s
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a Court Martial offence, and besides, it’s immoral. Come on, let’s go for lunch. What about the White Hart tonight? By the way, you missed a treat at Kemble this morning. I was just standing there, waiting until this kite was ready, when a Hali. comes into the circuit. Lovely approach and landing, taxies in, stops, and what do you think, out steps this A.T.A. pilot. Wait a minute, wait a minute, this one was a dame, and a wizard blonde at that. Now just let me describe her to you in some detail, you lascivious, drooling Australian, while I permit you to drive me to the Mess. Well, now, she was about five foot six, and her figure…..”
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[inserted] [underlined] Overshoot [/underlined] [/inserted]
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[underlined] OVERSHOOT [/underlined]
In that glorious summer they had decided that I could do some non-operational flying, so they posted me away from Group Headquarters at Bawtry Hall, where I’d been playing about with a bit of admin. work, a lot of cricket, and, between drinking sessions, flirting with a couple of W.A.A.F.s.
Bawtry had been very pleasant but it was distinctly stuffy after the Squadron. I was the only recently operational aircrew there and I always had the feeling that they were waiting uneasily and suspiciously for me to start swinging from the chandelier, or to come rushing up to someone very senior and snip his tie off at the knot. What really made it for me was the brief moment when I happened to look across the anteroom one day – where Group Captains and other wingless wonders were two a penny, with bags of fruit salad to be seen on their chests, though – I looked across and saw him standing there, quite quietly. It was “Babe” Learoyd, and he had only one medal ribbon, that of the Victoria Cross.
It was a bit strange when I found myself back on a Wellington Station again, even more so because this one, an O.T.U. at Moreton-in-the-Marsh, was set in lovely pastoral countryside, a complete contrast to my Squadron’s base on top of the Lincolnshire Wolds. As I was back on flying, I decided that instead of getting drunk every night I’d better cut it down a bit, to every other night, if I wanted to survive, of course, which was debatable. I suppose that was oversimplifying it, because if I misjudged something and pranged, I would possibly write myself off, but I might take a few quite innocent people with me, which wasn’t by any means O.K.
However, I needed something to knock me senseless at night, because I was still getting nightmares. In the end, I would usually fight myself awake, distressed and sweating, and lie wide-eyed, until the summer dawn at last came palely to my window and I heard the distant whistle of the first train as it wound its way through the trees and by the little brooks down to Adlestrop and Oxford.
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That train and the railway station in the small market town gradually became to me symbols of ordinary, carefree life, of freedom and safety from sudden death, symbols I was desperate to hang on to. Eventually, the station became so central and vital a part of these imaginings that I lived in considerable and constant anxiety lest one of our aircraft while using the short runway which pointed directly towards it, should crash on to it and destroy my only link with the sanity of the outside world.
I wasn’t posted to the actual O.T.U. in Moreton, but to No. 1446 Ferry Flight. Basically, the idea was that we picked up brand-new Wimpies from Kemble, about half an hour’s flying time away, flew them solo, following the Fosse Way, back to Moreton, then handed them over to pupil crews from the O.T.U. who would do one or two cross-countries in them and then fly them out to the Middle East, in hops, of course, to reinforce the Squadrons in the Western Desert. Sometimes they were straight bombers, nevertheless looking strange in their sand-coloured camouflage, sometimes “T.B.s”, torpedo-bombers, with the front turret area faired in by fabric and the torpedo firing-button on the control yoke, and sometimes they were pure white Mark VIII “sticklebacks”, bristling with A.S.V. radar aerials, low-level radar altimeters and the like.
One morning I had collected a T.B. from Kemble and was bringing it in to Moreton. No bother at all. Except on my approach to land I seemed to be coming in a bit steeply, I thought. I checked the airspeed, 95, correct. I checked the flap-setting – yes, I had full flap on, and wheels down. Looked at the A.S.I. again. Still 95. But, hell, I thought suddenly, it’s graduated in knots. Frantic mental calculations to convert knots to m.p.h. Ease back on the control column a bit. Multiply by five, divide by six, I concluded. Say, 80. So, bring the speed back to 80 indicated. I should have checked before take-off, of course. After all, this was a T.B., a nautical job. Looks right now, I thought, except that I’m floating a bit while the airspeed drops off, using a bit more runway to get her in. No panic, though. I got her down quite nicely and didn’t go anywhere near the far hedge. Quite a good landing, too, though I says it as shouldn’t.
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But, just my luck, Squadron Leader --- had noticed it.
“That’s not a bloody Spit you just brought in, you know, Junior,” was his greeting as I walked into the Flight Office. I sighed inwardly. Here we go again, I thought.
“No, sir.”
What the hell were you doing? Trying to land at Little Rissington?”
“Just came in a bit fast, sir, that’s all.”
“You should’ve gone round again, done an overshoot.”
“Well, sir, I don’t much like overshoots on Wimpies.”
He grunted.
“Don’t like overshoots,” he said acidly, “Are you a competent pilot, or not?”
“Yes, sir, I am, but I don’t like taking unnecessary risks.”
To tell the truth, I hated overshoots completely. You had to shove on full throttle when you decided you weren’t going to make it, and with the full flap you already had on, the nose tried to come up and stall you at fifty feet. So you pushed the nose down with all your strength and some frantic adjustment of the elevator trimmer – three hands would have been useful about then – to pick up some speed before you even thought of climbing away to have another shot at a landing. Then, while keeping straight you had to milk off seventy degrees of flap a little at a time – and she wasn’t at all fond of that process. She wanted to give up the whole idea and just sit down hard into a field, to sink wearily on to the deck and spread herself, and you, around the county. You had to be damn careful not to take off too much flap in too much of a hurry when those big trees came nearer, or when those hills started to look rather adjacent. At night, of course, you couldn’t see them at all, but you knew they were lurking somewhere handy. If you were in a hurry about taking the flap off, then, you went down like a grand piano from a fourth-storey window, and you’d had it. No, overshoots were definitely not for me, thank you very much, not unless they were absolutely essential, and I knew that I knew, to the foot, when they were. I’d never been wrong yet.
“Well, watch it in future, Junior, and don’t set the pupils a bad example.”
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I could quite understand why Loopy had been within an ace of punching him in the face, a few days previously. It wasn’t only the things he said, it was the way in which he said them. Before I could reply he went on, “You might be interested to know that we’ve got the S.I.O.’s son taking a kite out to Gib. soon, he’s done his circuits and bumps and he’s crewed up. His father had a word with me at lunchtime yesterday.”
As I only knew the Senior Intelligence Officer vaguely by sight I merely murmured something non-commital [sic] and asked if there was anything else. I was told, reluctantly, no, there wasn’t, so I saluted and drifted out to have a word or two with Dim and Loopy.
A few days later there was a gap in the flow of kites from Kemble, and as Loopy and I had done all the compass and loop-swinging on those we’d recently collected I took myself off to the Intelligence Library. I was standing at one of the high, sloping library desks, reading one of the magazines, when out of the corner of my eye I saw someone come in and stand at a desk about six feet to my left. I took no notice of him but carried on reading Tee Emm or whatever it was. When I had finished, I turned to go – and recognised him.
“Christ! It’s Connie, isn’t it?” I exclaimed.
I had last seen him in the Sixth Form at school, five years ago. Five thousand years ago.
“Yoicks!” he said, greeting me by the nickname I’d almost forgotten. Connie wasn’t his real name, either, but he’d always been called that at school because, it was said, he had a sister of that name who was more beautiful than the moon and all the stars. A shame I never met her. We shook hands vigorously.
“What the hell are you doing here?” I asked.
“Been posted to something called a Ferry Flight,” he replied.
“Bloody marvellous! I’m in that, too; come into the madhouse!”
“Well, blow me,” Connie said, “it’s a small world, isn’t it?”
We celebrated that night, in traditional fashion, with several pints apiece. It was great to have him with me, he was jaunty, carefree, entertaining and likeable. I had noticed, of course, that he had the ribbon of the D.F.M. One day, as we walked through some nearby town on a half-day off, I noticed too that his battledress was ripped,
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just below his ribs, on one side.
“By the way,” I said, “do you know you’ve torn your battledress?”
I pointed to the damage. He laughed heartily.
“That’s my line-shoot, I’m not repairing that, Yoicks – got that over Turin from a cannon-shell. Never felt a thing!”
It was about this time that I discovered the poems of A.E. Housman and, on free afternoons, I would lie on the unkempt lawn of the little cottage where I had my room, out beyond the Four Shires Stone, and would read his poems long into the drowsy, high-summer afternoons, their words tinged with the sadness that I had learned. And as I lay there, the supple, vivid wasps would tunnel and plunder the ripe plums I had picked off the little tree under whose shade I rested. There was constantly to be heard, with the persistence of a Purcell ground, the noise of the Wellingtons on the circuit, two miles away, over the lush green Gloucestershire landscape, hazy with heat, the sound rising and falling on the consciousness like the breathing of some sleeping giant.
At length I would pick myself up, stiffly, feeling the skin of my face taut with the sun, and put the poetry away. Then in the incipient twilight I would stroll down the road towards the sinking sun to meet Connie, to have dinner in the Mess and to slip easily into the comfortable routine of an evening’s drinking with him, and perhaps with Dim, Loopy, Pants or Mervyn, in the anteroom, or down at the White Hart in the village. I would see Connie’s dark hair fall across his forehead, his heavy black brows lift and lower expressively over his mischievous eyes as he told some humorous story of his days and nights on his Squadron at Downham Market. Sometimes, when we were flush, he and I would catch a train to one of the neighbouring market towns, to embark on an evening’s pub crawl, laughing at each other and at ourselves as the beer took effect, and as the darkness slowly fell, un-noticed; each of us drowning our private memories.
Once, a bunch of O.T.U. pupil crews came into a pub where we were sitting – was it in Evesham? – obviously on an end-of-course party before they went their various ways to join their bomber Squadrons. They joked a lot, sang a bit and indulged in some mild, laughing horseplay. Connie, who like me had been watching them, suddenly
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grew solemn.
“Poor sods,” he said gravely, “they don’t know what’s coming to them, do they, Yoicks?”
Poor Connie, too. He himself had not long to go. Just over a year later he was killed, at the controls of his Stirling, where, had he known that he must die, he would have wished to be, I think.
Eventually, wherever I had been, I would fall into bed, my brain dulled by the alcohol, but neverthless [sic] conscious enough to dread what the night might hold for me, waiting for the nightmares to come again.
There was one kite in the circuit, wheels down, as I strolled towards the Mess for dinner as twilight was beginning to fall. It was yet another lovely evening, and what with the idyllic existence and Connie’s new-found friendship, I was feeling that as far as I was concerned, I could stay here until further notice, despite Squadron Leader --- and his unpleasant little ways.
I was quite near to the Four Shires Stone when I heard the sudden howl as the kite’s engines were opened up to full throttle. Should we go to the White Hart with Loopy and Dim tonight, I wondered, or have a bit of a session in the Mess? Just then there was a loud thump and a silence, another thump, and I saw a telltale column of black smoke erupting over the hedges and treetops ahead and slightly to my left, a mile or so away, I guessed. The kite had overshot and gone in.
“Jesus!” I said, and broke into a run down the road. I was panting and sweating along when suddenly the Flight van screeched to a halt beside me, going the same way. Squadron Leader --- was driving.
“Get in, Junior,” he yelled, “We’ve got to get them out!”
He let in the clutch and drove fiercely down the empty road. The pillar of smoke grew bigger as we got nearer. Then I saw the gap in the hedge and the smashed tree where it had hit. At the far edge of the field the shattered Wimpy burned savagely. We skidded to a stop and flung our doors open. As I ran through the gap in the hedge and across the field, --- raced around the front of the van to join me. I could feel the heat on the surface of my eyes from
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the wall of leaping flame. The kite’s geodetics were like smashed and twisted bones stripped of their flesh. I ran on, over the cratered and churned earth. There was a reek of petrol, of ploughed earth, and of something else, sweetish, sickly, burned. An engine lay to one side, the prop grotesquely curled back.
Suddenly there was a ‘whumph!’ and I found myself on the ground. A petrol tank had exploded. I got up again and went towards the inferno that was raging under the smoke-pall. I splashed through a pool of something. I could hear Squadron Leader --- cursing somewhere nearby; I was gasping and sobbing for breath.. [sic] Then the oxygen bottles started to explode and bits of metal went screaming viciously past me. I tripped and fell heavily. And I saw I had fallen over something smoothly cylindrical, like an oversize sausage, bright brown, and with a smouldering flying boot at the end of it. A few feet away lay an untidy, horribly incomplete bundle of something in what looked like Air Force blue, lying terribly still under the stinking glare. I was retching, on all fours, unable to move further. I dimly heard another explosion nearby, sounding curiously soft, there was a blast of hot air on my face, and then there were the bells of the approaching fire-tender and ambulance.
I was being dragged by my shoulder. It was ---.
“Come on,” he panted, “we’ll never get near it. They’ve had it, poor bastards.”
We must have made our way back to the van as the rescue vehicles arrived; I don’t remember much about that part. I was leaning up against the side of the van and wiping my face with a shaking hand when I heard --- say, “Now I’ve got to go and tell the S.I.O. that his son was flying – that.”
“Oh, Christ,” I groaned.
“Let’s go,” he said, “Let’s get to hell out of here.”
He switched on the engine of the Utility as the black funeral pall of smoke spread over the sky, and thinning, smudged the sunset dirtily.
I read an article in a magazine recently. The writer had been visiting some place which had impressed her. She concluded with
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the words, “But you never lose an experience like that. You carry it around with you.”
Yes. And sometimes you feel you need just a little help to carry it just a little further.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
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[inserted] [underlined] First Solo [/underlined] [/inserted]
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[underlined] FIRST SOLO [/underlined]
I drank some more beer and said to Connie, “The trouble with Shep is that he’s far too damned opinionated, and what’s much worse, he’s far too often right. You just can’t knock him down, can you?”
Afetr [sic] several pints in the White Hart I was feeling less in control than I might have been, but having given vent to that penetrating observation I felt quite foolishly and inordinately pleased with myself. Connie, who had also had several, perhaps for different reasons, looked at me a trifle owlishly.
“I say, Yoicks,” he said, slurring just a little, “that’s rather good. You’re dead right.”
“If you don’t mind, Connie,” I said, “I’d rather you didn’t use that word.”
“What word? What have I said?”
“Dead,” I replied.
At the time, Connie and I were busy settling into our new routine in ‘X’ Flight of the O.T.U. at Moreton-in-the-Marsh. The powers-that-be had decided that there were too many pilots in Ferry Flight just across the way, and not enough utility pilots in ‘X’ Flight. Squadron Leader ---, with barely disguised joy, had promptly nominated me for transfer. And perhaps because he knew Connie and I were close friends, he had selected him to accompany me.
“Utility” was the word for it. We flew Wellingtons on fighter affiliation exercises and on air-to-air gunnery, one pilot and a kite full of A.G.s who took it in turns to man the turrets. Fighter affiliation was by common accord reckoned to be gen stuff, that is, approximating to the real thing – mock attacks by the ‘X’ Flight Defiant, convincingly hurled around the sky by Cliff, at which the gunners “fired” their camera-guns. But the air-to-air lark, I always thought, was of very doubtful value. Our Lysander flew straight and level, towing on a cautiously long cable, a canvas drogue, at which the gunners fired live ammo. with prodigal enthusiasm. Doubtful value? I might have said “pointless” instead. How many Me109s or 110s obligingly flew alongside you at a convenient distance and invited
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you to have a shot at them? It was damn noisy, too, with both your turrets blazing away, and the smell of cordite lingered on your battledress for days.
Most of the time the Defiant or the Lysander, whichever was in action, was flown by Cliff. He was tallish, lean, dark-haired and casual, a Canadian Flight Sergeant, but a man who might have stepped straight out of a Western film. Like Connie, he too was entering the last few months of his life. Cliff, the casual, was soon to be killed over Hamburg in his Pathfinder Lancaster.
The other occasional pilot on the two single-engined kites was Hank, an American, a Flying Officer in the R.A.F., also casual and easy-going, but suave, where Cliff was slightly flinty. The two were inseparable, if only as inveterate gamblers. I learned a lot about the gentle art of shooting craps from Cliff and Hank. On days when there was no flying, when Bill, Connie and I would be lecturing the O.T.U. pupils on Flying Control systems, emergency procedures, dinghy drill and airfield lighting and also, in my case, on the layout of the multifarious internal fittings of the Wellington, Cliff and Hank would retire to a quiet corner of the hangar. Gambling was strictly prohibited by the R.A.F., of course, but the rattle of dice would faintly be heard, punctuated by urgent cries of “Box cars!” “Baby needs new shoes!” or “Two little rows of rabbit-shit!” Money was never seen to change hands, but now and again it was apparent, from the obvious tension which was building up between them, that the stakes were high.
Our happy little Flight was genially run by an Irish Flight Lieutenant named Bill. Bill was the very antithises [sic] of Squadron Leader --- whom I’d just left behind. He was a tall, gangling, rather awkward-looking pilot who affected a slightly vague nonchalance about life in general. One of his endearing little foibles was that he seldom, if ever, referred to an aircraft by its proper name. It was commonplace that all Wellingtons were Wimpies, and fairly common that Lysanders were Lizzies, but he extended these nicknames by referring to our Defiant as a Deefy.
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I sat in on his introductory lecture to a new Course, a dummy run for me before I took over the conducting of the wedding ceremony of sprog crews to the Wimpy. They had all come off Oxfords and it was a bit awe-inspiring at first to be confronted by the size and complexity of the Wellington at close quarters. Bill’s opening remarks were memorable. He lurched up on to the dais, which was, in our hangar, alongside a complete Wellington fuselage, stripped of its fabric, and also near a separate cockpit taken from another kite. He looked slowly around the faces in front of him, as though surprised to find himself there at all, then lit a cigarette, exhaled, beamed happily at our new charges, coughed softly, and in an unbelievably broad Ulster accent uttered the following pearl of wisdom and deep scientific truth.
“Well, now. This here – this here is a Wimpy, and –“ patting a mainplane as one would a favourite dog, and lowering his voice confidentially as he leaned forward earnestly towards them – “these are the wings. Now you’ll be wondering what keeps them on. But don’t you be worrying yourselves about that, ‘cos it’s ahll [sic] ahrganised.” [sic]
After that, he had our pupils in the hollow of his hand; they adored him, as we all did. Dear old Bill. Old? He was about twenty three.
Bill, Hank, Cliff, Connie and me. A nice mixture; one Northern Irishman, one American, a Canadian and two Englishmen. Then into our happy little world stepped a newcomer. Shep. Correction – he did not step, he never stepped. He would barge, blunder, or he would push, but step? No. However, he arrived, all right. That was the system all over. ‘X’ Flight had needed two pilots, so it got three. Shep was a stocky, powerful little Yorkshireman, darkish hair thinning a bit, snub-nosed, built like a prop forward and always with a challenging look shining from his eyes, as though to tell the world, “I’m only five foot six but don’t let that fool you, I’m little and good and I’m worth two of you.” In his manner of speaking he was blunt and earthy to the point of rudeness, but almost everything he said was accompanied by that challenging look and a grin, which took the edge off most of his outrageous remarks. While none of us, except perhaps Bill, were saints as regards our language, which was, when circumstances demanded it, bespattered with words we wouldn’t normally use in mixed
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company, not to mention the odd spot of blasphemy, Shep’s outpourings were liberally garnished with a single oath, namely, “bloody”, which, at times, he rather over-used, I’m afraid.
Like Connie, he had been on Stirlings in 3 Group, or rather, “them bloody Stirlin’s” and, of course, when he realised that he and Connie had that in common he attached himself firmly to the two of us. So our placid little duo became a slightly turbulent trio. Express an opinion which didn’t match Shep’s and, “Ah’m tellin’ you, you’re bloody wrong. Now listen ‘ere – “ and one would be corrected in no uncertain way.
On an occasion when flying was scrubbed for a couple of days due to bad weather, we found ourselves in the city of Oxford. We had a meal, and we also had several beers. When it came to the time to go for the train back to Moreton it was growing dusk and it became necessary to find our slightly alcoholic way from an unfamiliar side street to the railway station. There developed a slight divergence of opinion as to the correct course to steer; Connie and I were all for heading in a certain direction, but not so Shep. Oh, no.
“It’s not that bloody way, Ah’m tellin’ you, Ah’m bloody sure we passed that big buildin’ over there when we came in.”
Meekly, we followed him. And arrived at the railway station in a few minutes. That was Shep all over. A trip to Stratford-on-Avon followed, one Sunday, and we were regaled with a lecture on bloody Shakespeare, and also bloody Ann Hathaway. The trouble was that Connie and I were both reasonably ignorant about Shakespeare and all his works and couldn’t contradict, or even argue with Shep. It was a trifle frustrating, to say the least, at times.
I seem to recall that it was my idea in the first instance, to have a bash at the single-engined kites which we owned. I had been up with a crowd of gunners on fighter affil., no evasive action, of course, to give them practice in getting the Defiant in their sights long enough to get a picture of it. It was simply a question of flying a straight-line track along the line of the range for about forty miles and back again, while all the gunners had a shot. To be honest, it was pretty damn boring, except when one of the pupils,
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despite all my previous entreaties and warnings, would clumsily heave himself in or out of the rear turret and give the undoubtedly adjacent and awkwardly placed main elevator control shaft a hearty push or shove, whereupon we were all hurled up to the roof or on to the floor amid a torrent of curses, depending on whether the kite was forced suddenly into a climb or a dive. It broke the grinding monotony of straight and level flight, though, and once back into the correct attitude everyone had a good laugh about it, including me. Needless to say, the exercise was conducted at a very respectable altitude to allow for such eventualities, and also to give Cliff free rein to throw the Deefy around with considerable abandon.
I was stooging along at about six thousand feet on a day of pleasant sunshine while all this was going on around me, watching Cliff out of the corner of my eye as he screamed across and down beyond my starboard wingtip in a near-vertical bank which he would then convert into a steep turn and a rocket-like climb, before coming in at me again from some new angle. I was thinking that it was pretty to watch, and that he should have been a fighter boy. I thought also that I might well have been one, too, had I not had two early love-affairs, a distant one with the Wellington across the field at Sywell, the other with Betty who had suffered under the German bombing of her home town. But the germ of an idea was growing as the morning progressed and as I day-dreamed, holding the Wimpy on course over the placid Gloucestershire landscape while the white puffs of cumulus drifted lazily by on their summer way.
When I’d finally finished the detail and landed back at Moreton I disgorged my crew of gunners and wandered into Bill’s office. He was sitting there doing his best to look like Lon Chaney on one of his off-days.
“Hello, Bill,” I said, “have you got a minute?”
“Sure, Junior, me boy,” he replied, “and what would be on your mind, now?”
“Well, it’s like this,” I said thoughtfully, “I’ve been watching Hank and Cliff having all the fun chucking the Deefy and the Lizzie about –“ he had me doing it by this time – “ – and I was thinking I’d like to have a bash on them, too. I did my S.F.T.S. on Harvards,
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you know.”
“Did you now?” he answered thoughtfully, “well, well, let’s see.”
He lowered his voice confidentially and looked around conspiratorially. He pretended to be watching a Wimpy on the circuit.
“As a matter of fact,” he said quietly, “a little bird tells me that Hank might be leaving us soon.”
“Oh?” I said, not wanting to appear to be too inquisitive, and waited for him to go on.
“Yes,” he said, “apparently the Chief Instructor came across him and Cliffy rolling the bones in a quiet corner, and poor old Hank, him being the senior and an Officer and all, is going to be sent to the place where they send naughty boys.”
“But what a bloody stupid waste,” I exclaimed, “Hank’s a damn fine pilot. He goes and sticks his neck right out, volunteers for the R.A.F. when he had no need to, being a Yank, and just because he rolls a couple of dice they’re going to kick him up the backside. It seems damned childish to me.”
“Oh, he won’t be grounded for good, or anything like that, he’ll just do drill and P.T. and parades and so forth for a couple of weeks, then they’ll send him back on flying, somewhere. Anyhow, the point is, I could use another pilot or two for the Deefy and the Lizzie, so you and Connie and Shep might as well have a go. It wouldn’t be fair on them if I said O.K. to you and not to the other two.”
“No, of course not,” I said.
“There’s no dual controls, you realise that, don’t you, Junior? You’ll have to pick it up from a ride or two in the back seat and read up the Pilot’s Notes a bit.”
“I’ve already been genning up on them,” I grinned, “I think I know where all the taps are, it’s just a question of getting the feel of the things.”
“You crafty so-and-so,” Bill said, smiling. “O.K., then, you fix it all up with Cliffy and I’ll have a word with the other two. H’m. Is that the time? Neither of us are flying this afternoon, so how about a quick noggin before lunch?”
“Sound suggestion, Bill,” I said.
We walked up to the Mess together; I was feeling slightly excited at the thought of getting a couple of new types in my log-book. I suppose I liked the challenge.
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It was strange to be sitting jammed into the four-gun turret of the Defiant while Cliff flew it around the circuit and gave me the gen.
“She’s a bit of a heavy sonofabitch,” he drawled, “but she’s got no vices if you treat her right.”
To be honest, I couldn’t see anything of what went on in the cockpit in front of me, all I could do was to form some idea of the distances on the circuit, where to start reducing speed and where to put the wheels and flaps down, and to watch the landing attitude, of course. He did a couple of circuits and bumps for me and that was all we had time for on that session.
Soon afterwards, he gave me a ride in the Lysander. That was quite an entertaining experience. It was an ugly-looking parasol-wing kite with a big, chattery radial engine, wonderful visibility due to the high wing, a fixed undercart and ultra-short take-off and landing runs. It was fitted with God knows what in the way of trick slots and flaps. Take-off was incredible, it made me want to laugh out loud.
“The important thing,” said Cliff as we stood ticking over, ready to roll, “is to make sure you’ve got your elevator trim central for take-off – this wheel right here.”
I leaned over his shoulder and looked at the aluminium wheel down below his left elbow. It was the size of a small, thick dinner-plate, with a bright red mark painted across the rim as a datum.
“If you don’t have that centralised, like it is now, you’ll try to loop as soon as she gets airborne, then we’ll be having a whip-round for a goddam wreath for you. So watch it, bud.”
“O.K., Cliff,” I said, “I’ve got you.”
“Let’s go, then, eh?” he said, and opened the throttle. We seemed to be airborne in about fifty yards and climbed like a lift in a hurry. The runway simply dropped away below us. Compared to the Wellington’s take-off it was simply unbelievable.
“Hell’s teeth!” I said, “She really wants to go, doesn’t she?”
“Sure does,” he replied happily.
Landing was equally impressive. It seemed you just closed the throttle and the Lizzie did the rest. She was designed for Army
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co-operation duties, to land in any small, flat field. And, of course, they were used extensively for the cloak-and-dagger stuff, putting in our agents to western Europe by night and picking up others, all by the light of the moon and a couple of hand torches: that must have been quite something.
Cliff turned into wind.
“No undercart to worry about,” he called.
Suddenly there was an almighty ‘clonk’ and I almost snapped the safety harness as I jumped involuntarily.
“What the hell was that?” I asked.
“No danger, just the slots popping out at low speed. Now see, I’ve got the elevator trim wound right back. Get it?”
“O.K.,” I said, “Got it.”
We lowered ourselves down on to the runway and rumbled to a halt in a few yards.
“Bloody marvellous!” I exclaimed, “some kite, isn’t it?”
“Sure is,” said Cliff as we taxied in, “I wouldn’t mind one of these babies for myself, to take back home.”
“No trouble at all,” I replied, “they’ll be two a penny after the war, and with all the cash you’ve won at craps you’ll be able to afford a fleet of them.”
He laughed.
“Aw, well, we’ll have to see, when the time comes,” he said.
The time never came, of course.
You can guess who organised himself the first solo. You’re right, it was Shep.
“Ah’m flyin’ the bloody Lizzie in ten minutes,” he announced loudly, one day soon after, bustling into the hangar and crashing open his locker door.
“How’d you fix that?” Connie asked.
“Ah, well, Ah’m the best bloody pilot around here so Bill said it was only right Ah should have first bloody crack before either of you clumsy buggers bent it.”
“Get the Line-Book out!” I shouted, “Just listen to that – best pilot? You’re just a ham-fisted bus driver, you four-engined types are all alike!”
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“Steady on, Yoicks,” Connie said, “don’t include us all in that.”
“Well, some of you are ham-fisted,” I said. “Anyhow, let’s go and witness this demonstration of immaculate, text-book flying by our modest friend here.”
Shep grinned and slung his chute over his shoulder, then the three of us wandered down to the peri. track where our Lizzie was standing on the grass, looking quite docile and waiting for her pilot. Shep buckled his chute straps into the harness quick-release box, pulled on his helmet and heaved himself into the cockpit. Connie and I lit cigarettes while he started her up, ran up the engine and taxied out for take-off.
“When are you going to have a shot?” Connie asked.
“Tomorrow, in the Lizzie,” I replied, “I’m quite looking forward to it.”
Shep was ready for take-off. He opened her up and the bright yellow Lysander quivered and tolled, then she was airborne, climbing steeply and joyously. He took her nicely around the circuit, a much smaller one than the Wellington’s, of course. Connie and I watched critically, smoking and chatting. As he was on his landing approach Bill drifted along.
“How’s he doing?” he asked.
“Bang on,” I said, “just coming in now.”
Shep landed and taxied round to the start of the runway again. He had done all right, we agreed. No reason why I shouldn’t, too, I thought. Hurry up, tomorrow.
He stopped to let a Wimpy take off. The contrast was grotesque, the bomber using most of the runway and climbing very shallowly away over the trees as it tucked its wheels up, leaving behind it a blur of oily, brownish-black smoke.
Shep moved on to the runway into position for takeoff. It was a lovely afternoon, hardly any wind, a few puffs of cumulus at about four thousand feet. There was a slight haze over the low hills beyond the railway station. We heard him open her up and she rolled. He’d hardly got the tail up before he was airborne, nose-high. Then he was climbing steeply, the engine howling, the kite hanging on its prop.
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“Oh, sweet Jesus!” Bill said, very distinctly, next to me. I simply stopped breathing and watched. We were going to see Shep die in front of our eyes and were completely unable to do a thing to help him. Then, at the moment when it seemed he would inevitably stall and crash into the middle of the aerodrome from less than a hundred feet, he somehow got the nose down, and as he did so, painfully raised the starboard wing. The crazy, fatal climb changed slowly, so terribly slowly, into a steep turn to port. Shep was in a series of tight turns, at full throttle, right over the centre of the runway at about fifty feet. Gradually, the turns slackened, the note of the screaming engine eased. He flew over us, very low, still turning to port, but now more or less in control, obviously winding the trimmer frantically forward.
“Bloody hell!” Connie gasped, “I thought he’d had it that time.” I could only gulp and nod. I felt for a cigarette with hands which were shaking so much I could hardly open the case. My knees felt like water. Bill sighed and said quietly, “I’m afraid he didn’t do his cockpit drill. He forgot the elevator trim.”
We said nothing, but watched as Shep came in to land.
“Let’s go,” Bill said.
We went back to the Flight Office. Five minutes later Shep bustled in, a bit red in the face. He dumped his chute and helmet on to a chair.
“Bloody Lizzies!” he exploded wrathfully, “that bloody trimmer wants modifying, it’s a bloody menace!”
We could only look at one another in silence and amazement. Surely he would admit to being in the wrong, just this once?
Next day, Bill called for Connie and I and silently handed us a memo from the Chief Instructor.
“With immediate effect,” it said, “Lysander and Defiant aircraft of ‘X’ Flight will be flown only by the following personnel.
F/L W. McCaughan,
F/O H. Ross,
F/Sgt C. Shnier.”
Bill, Hank and Cliff. I handed the memo back to Bill.
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“Yes, Bill,” I said, “O.K., fair enough.”
So we flew Wimpies up and down the range and liked it, and we watched Cliff hurling the Defiant into gloriously abandoned manoeuvres in the late summer sky while we flew straight and level. And we gritted our teeth, and we liked it. But now and again I had a sneaking little thought – I wondered what would have happened if that had been me up there instead of Shep. Would I still be bouncing around, like he still was, or …..?
I know, of course, what became of poor Connie, and every year on the anniversary of the day it happened, I visit him where he lies. What happened to Shep, I don’t know, but I’m prepared to bet that whatever it was, he would have had the last word, or, as he would put it, the last bloody word. But really, he wasn’t such a bad bloke. As I said to Connie, you just couldn’t knock him down, that was all.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
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[inserted] [underlined] The pepper pot [/underlined] [/inserted]
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[underlined] THE PEPPER POT [/underlined]
It must have been a surprise to Connie as, just when we were about to climb up the ladder into the Wimpy one fine morning, he saw me fold into a heap at his feet. I can’t say it was much of a surprise to me, I hadn’t been feeling too brilliant for some time before that.
Things then moved very quickly. The M.O. saw me and whipped me off to London for a medical board, where I was told quite pleasantly that my flying days were over as far as the Royal Air Force was concerned, and I was asked what I would like to do. No promises, of course. I said, “Intelligence, in Bomber Command.” That seemed to them a reasonable idea, as far as I could make out.
Then followed several completely idle weeks in Brighton in mid-winter, waiting to see what was going to happen to me. My days’ work consisted of reporting to the Adjutant in the Metropole at nine a.m., asking, “Anything for me?” being told, “No”, and that was it until next morning, when the routine was repeated. I was billeted in a little hotel on King’s Road, facing the sea, with three or four other R.A.F. types and one or two R.A.A.F types. There were a few civilians there, too, among them the comedian Max Miller, who, off-stage seemed to me to be distinctly un-funny, if not downright anti-social.
I made friends with a couple of other pilots, Aussies, John Alexander and Don Benn, who were on their way home. Don had crashed in a Beaufighter and injured his legs – his M.O. had said he should play some golf to strengthen them. As he had been a stockman in outback Queensland, the idea of his playing golf was rather amusing both to him and to me. But, as an utter tyro myself, I agreed to go around the lovely course, up on the Downs near Rottingdean, with him. At night, John and I would paint the town red in a mild sort of way, sometimes exercising the legs of the local police force. I caught a glimpse, one day, of Hank Ross, doing penance, marching in a squad of aircrew types along the front. It depressed me greatly. Hank looked desperately unhappy. I waved to him and he acknowledged
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me with only a sad little smile. I thought that if he had waved back, he would probably have been sent to the Tower. It still seemed desperately unjust. I never saw Hank again.
Eventually my course came through, to an Intelligence training centre in a big old house in Highgate. Some fairly hush-hush stuff went on there and we were forbidden to talk to anyone who wasn’t on our own course of about twenty. But one evening, in the anteroom, I was delighted and amazed to see dear old Tim, and made a bee-line for him, rules or no rules. We chatted for a few minutes until someone intervened. Next day I was kept behind after a lecture and given a severe reprimand, and although I saw Tim several times after that, I never spoke to him again while we were there. Not until we met, at Niagara Falls, almost fifty years later – two survivors.
During this time, Alan was called up for training amd [sic] I discovered he had reported to an Aircrew Reception Centre at St. John’s Wood. We met for half a day, had a long talk, a visit to the flicks and a meal at a strange and deserted Greek restaurant somewhere near Covent Garden.
The end of March found me posted as an Intelligence Officer to Linton-on-Ouse, where there were two Halifax Squadrons, one commanded, as I discovered when I arrived, by Wing Commander Leonard Cheshire. Soon afterwards, the Canadians were about to take over Linton and I accompanied one of the Squadrons to Holme-on-Spalding-Moor, in east Yorkshire. After a couple of weeks there, the S.I.O. decided that they were rather short-handed at the satellite Station, Breighton, where the other Squadron from Linton had settled in. So there, among the farm buildings of the nondescript but not unpleasant hamlet of Breighton, I put down roots for a few months. And there I met J - .
. . . . . . . . . . . .
I was pinning up the bombing photos of the previous night’s raid when I noticed he was there again. the Intelligence Library, no matter how we tried to dress it up, was never all that well-populated, and that morning was no exception. The photos usually drew a few
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interested crew members, Tee Emm was invariably popular, but the other stuff was really a bit on the dull side. There wasn’t, for example, a tremendous rush for the Bomber Command Intelligence Digest. Most of the crews, anyhow, were sleeping off last night’s trip, or last night’s session in the local, whichever was applicable.
This little gunner, though, I had seen him in there several times before, always at the same table near the door. It made me wonder. I suppose it was rather obtuse of me not to have cottoned, especially in view of my own feelings about J - . Anyhow, when I had put up the photos I went over to him, more out of curiosity than anything.
“Hello,” I said to him, “did you want something?”
He hesitated, then said, “I suppose – “
“Yes?”
“I suppose Sergeant S – isn’t on duty, is she?
I saw it all, then. One of our W.A.A.F. Watchkeepers, Billie S – was very much sought after for dates, and, it must be admitted, slightly blasé about the whole business. Rumour had it she was the daughter of a fairly high-ranking Army Officer in the Middle East. She was an extremely pleasant girl, blue-eyed, blonde and very nicely shaped, with a calm, almost angelic manner and a vibrant, husky voice which could send the odd shiver up your spine when she used it in conjunction with those big blue eyes of hers. But not my type. Now J - , one of the other two Watchkeepers, she was a different matter entirely. I had the feeling I was going to like Breighton very much indeed, even though I’d only been there just over a week.
“Sergeant S - ?” I said to him, “do you want to see her?”
(Bloody silly question, I thought, of course he did.)
“Well, if I could, just for a minute, if it’s no trouble.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
I went back into the Ops. Room. Billie was purring at someone on the telephone and even then, unconsciously using her china-blue eyes expressively. Apart from her, there was only Margaret, one of the Int. Clerks, writing industriously. Billie hung up finally. I said, “Billie, there’s a gunner in the Int. Library would like
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a word with you.”
She wrinkled her nose just a little and said, “who is it, sir? Not that Sergeant P - ?”
“Don’t know his name,” I replied, “smallish chap, though, in Sergeant – ‘s crew, if I remember rightly.”
“Yes, that sounds like him, Johnny P - ,” she answered, with a faint sigh. She shrugged her shoulders and with a lift of her immaculately plucked eyebrows she said, “Would you mind, very much, sir?”
She sounded resigned.
“No, you go right ahead,” I said with a grin, “mind he doesn’t chew your ears off, though.”
She laughed quietly and went out, smoothing down her skirt over her hips as she went. Margaret was smiling quietly to herself and I cleared my throat rather noisily and started to sort out a pile of new target maps, mostly of Hamburg, I noticed. My tea had gone cold and I cursed it. Margaret looked up and laughed.
“Shall I get you some more, sir?”
“If you wouldn’t mind, Margaret, there’s a dear.”
She went out into the little store-room-cum-kitchen between the Ops. Room and the Int. Library, which we had been told recently to empty as far as possible. This had intrigued us greatly, but we asked no questions.
Billie came back, patting her blonde hair and looking a little flushed.
“Well,” I said, “have you been fighting like a tigress for your honour?”
“Oh, nothing like that, sir,” she replied with a smile, and left it at that, which was fair enough. Nothing at all to do with me, really. Margaret came back with teas all round. The war could continue. Billie got behind her switchboard, handed me a cigarette and did her usual pocket-emptying routine in search of a comb or a lipstick or something, as I lit her cigarette. The stuff that girl carried around with her.
The moon period came around and there weren’t any ops for a few days. Funny to think that when I had been operating a full moon was popularly known as a “bombers’ moon”. Now it was shunned as
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being too helpful to the German night-fighters. We more or less caught up with the outstanding stuff; the Watchkeepers got the S.D. 300 slap up to date and Pam spent a bit of time in the Library putting up some new stuff on the notice boards and going over some bomb-plots with the crews from the photos they had come back with. She mentioned casually that one of the gunners seemed to be spending a lot of time in there. I merely said “Oh, yes?” and looked blankly at her.
I got to know J – a little better during this time, and I knew that this was it. I was very pleased to see that she didn’t have an engagement ring on her finger. Our conversations progressed imperceptibly from one hundred per cent “shop” to a slightly more personal level. I found I was looking forward more and more to the times when she would be on duty, and I tried to fiddle it so that I was on at the same times. I also found that I was looking forward less than usual to my next leave, which would take me away from her for a week.
One afternoon, when things were quiet, I asked J – how Billie was coping with Johnny.
“Well, he’s very persistent,” she said, “he wants a date with her, but she’s doing her best to stall him off. Poor kid, what he really wants is his mother, you know.”
I nodded thoughtfully; I hadn’t seen it quite like that.
“So is Billie going to date him?” I asked.
“Well, I don’t know what she’ll decide,” J – said, “she’s tried her best to head him off, and all that, but he just shakes his head and keeps asking her to go out with him just once; what can she do?”
“Knowing Billie, I’m sure she’ll think of something,” I said, and we smiled at one another. I little suspected what in fact she was thinking of. Had I known, I would have slept less at nights than I was already doing, for various reasons.
Of course, I was thinking along the lines of asking J – for a date, too, but I was worried about rushing things. I had to pick my moment and I wasn’t sure just how to recognise when it had come. I would lie awake thinking it over, and thinking about J - , which just shows you what sort of state I was in.
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Two or three nights later I was on duty with Freda, the third of the Watchkeepers. Our aircraft had just gone off and we were relaxing a bit and wondering if we’d get any early returns. Freda had just finished phoning the captains’ names and take-off times through to Base at Holme-on-Spalding-Moor, along the road about eight miles, when the phone rang.
“It’s Billie, for you, sir,” Freda said.
“For me, Freda?”
“Yes, sir, she asked for you.”
I thought Billie must have forgotten to finish something on her last shift and wanted to square it with me, or get Freda to do it while she was on duty.
“Hello, Billie,” I said into the phone, “what’s the gen?”
“Oh, hello, sir,” came her creamy, purring voice, “can I ask you a favour?”
I still thought it was going to be something to do with work.
“Of course,” I answered blithely, little knowing that my whole life was in the process of being changed from that very second.
“Well, sir, I’ve got a date with someone tomorrow night, and to be perfectly honest about it, I’d rather make it into a foursome. So would you be willing to come along?”
“Hell’s teeth, Billie,” I said, “this is a bit of a surprise, isn’t it? But never mind, yes, O.K., you can count me in on it.”
“Oh, thank you very much, I knew you wouldn’t let me down, it’s such a load off my mind. You’re sure you’ve no objections?”
“No, of course I don’t mind, I’m game for anything,” I said brightly. “It isn’t Johnny, by any chance, is it?”
“Well, sir, as a matter of fact, it is,” she said confidentially. “I couldn’t very well get out of it and I thought it would be best if I tried to organise a foursome – the Londesborough Arms in Selby, if that’s all right with you. By the way, I’ve got some transport laid on from the W.A.A.F. guardroom to get us there, seven o’clock, assuming there’s a stand-down, of course, but we’ll have to make our own way back, so it’s bikes all round. We can push them on to the lorry to go to Selby.”
“Sounds bang-on,” I said.
Billie started to make end-of-conversation noises and was obviously about to hang up on me.
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“Just hold on a sec., Billie,” I chipped in quickly, “there’s just one small detail I’d like to get clear – who am I taking along?”
“Oh, don’t you worry about that, sir,” she said airily, “I’m sure I can find someone nice for you. Thank you very much indeed.”
She put the phone down.
I lit a cigarette and drank a mug of tea thoughtfully, letting my imagination give me a pleasant few minutes until we got a call from Flying Control that we had an early return coming back. So, for the time being, at any rate, I put the thought of my blind date aside. When the main body of our aircraft came back, one of the crews I interrogated happened to be that of Johnny P - . His pilot was a chunky bloke with a staccato manner. Johnny just sat there quietly smoking and saying nothing, but looking silently into infinity, as though he’d never seen me, or his crew, before. It was a bit weird. Finally, Pam, Derek and I got the Raid Report completed and bunged it off to Holme by D.R. I got to bed about 0400.
I was awake again with just about enough time to cycle down to breakfast. It was a miserable morning, ten-tenths low cloud and raining like the clappers. But J – was on duty and the day seemed to brighten when I saw here. Pam was photo-plotting as hard as she could and I got my head down, alongside her, over the mosaic photograph, about four feet by three, of last night’s target. No-one said very much. The blackboard had been cleaned off, in readiness for the next one. The photo-plotting took a long time, there was so little ground detail on the crews’ pictures due to cloud-cover over the target. About ten-thirty we got a stand-down through; J – phoned it around to those who were concerned. Buy lunch time we’d only plotted about half a dozen photos. One thing about the Ruhr – if you missed the aiming-point you usually hit something or other in the way of a built-up area. It was a consolation.
At lunchtime the rain had eased and there were even a few breaks in the cloud to the west. Derek took over from me about two-thirty and promptly plotted one of the photos to within a couple of hundred yards of the A.P., from a sliver of ground detail you could hardly see.
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“Beginner’s luck,” I said laughingly, and went off for a sleep. I hit the mattress and knew no more for a couple of hours. When I awoke, it took me a few seconds to remember that I was going on a blind date that evening, but suddenly I felt unreasonably, unaccountably happy, swept along by a wave of well-being which had me whistling “Tuxedo Junction” and singing snatches of “Sally Brown” as I got myself spruced up and into my best blue. I don’t know why I should have felt like that; possibly as someone once said, the mood of flying men changes with the weather, and outside, I saw that the sky had cleared to a beautiful evening.
“Sally Brown is a bright mulatto,” I sang,
“Way, hey, we roll and go –
“She drinks rum and chews tobacco,
“Spend my money on Sally Brown!”
Which started me wondering, again, who my date would be. I honestly hadn’t a clue, Billie had given me no inkling whatsoever, but I trusted her implicitly not to saddle me with some worthy but plain girl who would spend the evening painfully tongue-tied and twisting her fingers together. Never mind, I thought, it’s quite a change for me and at least we might all have one or two laughs together and try to forget about ops and casualties for a couple of hours. At five to seven I was trying to look as inconspicuous as possible, twenty yards or so from the W.A.A.F. guardroom, and trying also to think up a convincing story to tell the W.A.A.F. (G) Officer if she should appear and want to know what I was doing. As I was looking at my watch for the third or fourth time I heard a soft, musical voice say, “Hello, are we each other’s date?” and there she was, there was J - , looking quite wonderful.
My heart skipped a couple of beats, I could feel myself blushing scarlet and I found I was grinning foolishly. I managed to stammer something trite, or perhaps merely stupid. Anyhow, J – laughed, and I laughed with her, more or less in relief. I felt a bridge had been crossed, or at least, built.
Everything happened pretty swiftly after that. Billie and Johnny P – cycled breathlessly up, a fifteen-hundredweight lorry with several
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assorted aircrew on board screeched to a halt, and accompanied by a chorus of piercing wolf-whistles, Johnny and I loaded the four cycles on to the lorry, helped the girls up and scrambled aboard ourselves. Loud cries of “Let’s get airborne!” and “Chocks away!” and we were off, racing over the wet roads under the trees, through the village, being thrown companionably and tightly against one another as the driver took corners at some speed, and away to Selby, the nearest town of any size.
It turned out to be rather a dingy little place, I thought, but the pub itself was clean and surprisingly quiet, no Breighton types, or indeed no uniforms at all, apart from ours, to be seen. The evening went by in a blur which was only partly due to the intake of alcohol. Billie was her usual polished and poised self and Johnny never took his eyes off her. He looked like a thirsty man approaching an oasis. Such an unremarkable little chap to look at, a mere five feet six or seven, mousy, rather untidy brown hair, slim built like we all were on wartime rations and high levels of stress, but with an infectious grin which would suddenly light up his plain features.
What J – and I talked about I cannot for the life of me remember; I was completely bowled over by the simple fact of listening to her cool, musical voice. I think we talked about books and cricket, but had we simply sat in silence, that would have ensured my complete happiness, merely to be at her side, in her charming company. Considering the rationing position, we had a very good meal in the small, half-empty dining room. I remember how spotlessly white the tablecloth was. Johnny demonstrated his talents as an amateur conjuror, palming small objects and plucking them out of our ears, and so on. We had all had two or three drinks by then and our laughter came fairly freely. He did one small, silly trick with the chromium pepper pot, holding it between his fingers and rushing it down towards the table in the representation of a bomb’s rushing it down towards the table in the representation of a bomb’s trajectory, with the accompanying piercing whistle. We all duly made “boom” noises when it hit the cloth – except that it didn’t, it was no longer to be seen.
Eventually it was time to go. We undid the locks on our cycles in the twilight of the summer evening, and by tacit agreement, split
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up into two couples. J – and I didn’t hurry, tomorrow could take care of itself and we never saw Billie and Johnny again that evening. On the way back we stopped at a field-gate by the edge of a copse and leaned our elbows on the top bar, side by side, to watch the sickle moon slowly rise. One or two aircraft droned distantly in the starry vault of the darkening sky and we followed the nav. lights of one of them until they vanished into the haze and all was silent again, except for some small animal rustling his nocturnal way through the undergrowth. We didn’t talk much, I think we were both content with the magic of the still night and with each other’s presence and new-found companionship.
As we stood there, I tentatively put my arm around her shoulders and that small overture was not repulsed. We talked about Johnny.
“Do you know any of his crew?” I asked J - .
“Some of them,” she answered, “they seem nice lads. Johnny’s lucky to have a crew like that.”
“Yes,” I said, “he is. It’s a very special sort of relationship, there’s nothing quite like it.”
She turned to look at me.
“Your own crew, do you keep in touch with them?”
So I told her. She put a hand on my arm.
“I’m dreadfully sorry, I really had no idea that had happened.”
We cycled back to Breighton. I felt a great peace stealing over me. We stopped at the now deserted road by the W.A.A.F. guardroom.
“It’s been a lovely evening,” J – said, “thank you so much for it.”
“I’m the one who should thank you,” I said, “for putting up with me.”
She shook her head.
“Don’t say that, please. Anyhow, I must go now.”
She hesitated. Her lips, when I kissed her, were cool and sweet, like dew on a rosebud.
The next morning Base Ops., in the shape of Flight Lieutenant Smith, came on the phone.
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“Is that you, Breighton?” he asked in his dried-up schoolmaster’s voice. He would seldom, if ever, call you by your own name, you were only “Breighton” to him. I sometimes wondered what he called his pupils and more especially, whether he called his wife by her surname. So I was always deliberately and exaggeratedly casual in reply to him, just to irritate him.
“Yeah, Smithy, this is the Acting Unpaid Senior Int./Ops Officer, at your service. What can I do you for?”
Smithy was not amused. He sniffed loudly.
“We’re sending you some parcels. Store them in your little kitchen place, or whatever you call it. Don’t open them. That’s important, but keep them under lock and key until you’re told what to do with them, and keep the key on your person at all times. Is that understood?”
“Cloak and dagger stuff, eh, Smithy?”
He sniffed again and went on.
“Expect them in about half an hour. They go under the name “Window.” Is that quite clear, Breighton?”
“Yeah, I’ve got it.”
He rang off and I mused a little, wondering what on earth it could be that was so secret and new.
A sheeted-over lorry arrived from Holme and we started to unload the innocent-looking brown-paper parcels, the size of shoe boxes, and quite heavy, too. We all pitched in and got the lorry emptied eventually. By this time you could just about squeeze up to the sink in there to make the tea. Which one of the girls did, as we needed some by then. I dutifully locked the door on the bundles but I could see this was going to be a real bind, so we laid on tea-making facilities with the W.A.A.F.s in the telephone exchange, next to the Ops Room, and moved our few mugs and kettle and so on in with them.
When things had quietened down and I thought no-one would notice particularly, I slipped quietly in to the Window Store, as I was now mentally calling it, locked the door carefully behind me and took down one of the parcels. Very carefully I made a small slit in one corner of the wrapping paper so that it would look like accidental damage. I looked inside. There were hundreds, or perhaps thousands,
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of what seemed to be paper strips, about an inch wide and a foot or so long, matt black on one side, silvered on the other. My first thought was that they were some new form of incendiary device. I sniffed them – no smell. What on earth could they be? Was it something to dazzle the searchlights, then? In that case, why weren’t both sides shiny? I could get no further with my theorising, but as it happened I was somewhere on approximately the right lines. I carefully replaced the bundle and went back into the Ops Room, not forgetting to lock the door behind me as I left the thousands of bundles of Window. I put on an innocent expression and started to whistle “Sally Brown”.
“Quite a nice day out there,” I said. I wonder if I fooled them.
The mysterious Window wasn’t a mystery for much longer. A couple of days later we got a target through, quite early on, which was a sign that the weather was going to be settled. Hamburg. Hence all those new target maps. And when the operational gen came through, bomb load, route and timings and so on, right at the end was the magic word Window. It was to be carried by all aircraft. The number of bundles per aircraft was stated, as were the points on the route where dropping was to start and finish. The dropping height and the rate of dropping was stated, everything was laid down. Then we guessed it. It was a radar-foxing thing.
“Let’s hope it works,” we said to one another.
Derek did the briefing and I went along to listen, sensing that this might be an historic occasion. The Station Commander stood up on the platform first, and conversation stopped abruptly. He looked slowly around the blacked out briefing room in the Nissen hut. You could have heard a pin drop.
“Gentlemen,” he said, very slowly and quietly, “the intention of tonight’s operation is to destroy the city of Hamburg.”
The silence was so intense you could almost feel it. He went on to say that they would be carrying a new device which would save us many casualties if it was used strictly in accordance with instructions, and he told them about Window, which was designed to swamp the enemy radar screens with hundreds of false echoes, each one looking like a four-engined bomber.
Well, as far as Breighton was concerned, it worked like a charm that night. When the crews came back, and the Squadron’s all did,
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they were highly elated about the results of the attack and the lack of opposition. Few fighters had been sighted, flak was wildly inaccurate and spasmodic and the searchlights were completely disorganised and erratic. The photographs proved their elation was well-founded.
Three days later it was Hamburg again, and my turn to brief them. I caught a glimpse of Johnny, sitting about three rows back, still with that distant look on his face, as though this had nothing to do with him. I mentioned this to J – when we met on night duty, the first time I had seen her since the night we had gone to Selby.
“I’ve noticed it, too,” she said, “I don’t know what it is with him. Maybe it’s because of Billie, of course, he’s absolutely overboard for her. She’s changed too, she’s gone much quieter than she was.”
“Yes, I’d noticed that,” I said, “funny what love does to you, isn’t it?”
I gave J – a sideways look. She had coloured just a little, but smiled and said nothing. We were in the lull before take-off time. We talked about the possible effects of Window on this second raid on Hamburg. We did not know it at the time, of course, but this night was to be known as the night of the fire-storm, when hurricane-force winds, caused by the immense uprush of air from the fires, were to sweep their flame-saturated way through the city, even uprooting trees which had stood in their path. And there were still two further raids to come in the next week, plus an American daylight attack thrown in for good measure.
“Did you notice the bomb-load was almost all incendiaries?” I asked J - .
“Yes, I did,” she replied, “I wouldn’t be in Hamburg tonight for all the tea in China; imagine, almost eight hundred aircraft with full loads of incendiaries.”
“Make them think a bit,” I said. “You know, J - , what I can’t understand is why they just don’t give in now, surrender while they’ve still got some towns which are fit to live in; it’s quite obvious that we’re just going to work our way through the list one by one and flatten all his cities – I can’t think why he will just allow this to happen.”
We talked, smoked and drank tea far into the night. When they came back, the crews’ elation was now tinged with awe. No-one had
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ever seen such tremendous fires, “a sea of flame” was a common description by the crews, with a smoke pall towering to above twenty thousand feet; you could smell it in the aircraft, some said.
It was either on one of the big Hamburg raids or very soon afterwards that Johnny P – ‘s crew did not come back. I have to admit, in shame, that they were, as far as my feelings were concerned, just one of the many that we lost – all good, brave lads, but now almost anonymous in their terrible numbers, like the headstones in a war-graves cemetery seen from a distance. I knew only few of them personally; when it happened, I felt the pang of the loss, but the impact was not so great, God forgive me, as that of the loss of a crew on my own Squadron, of men whom I had been flying alongside, or with. Perhaps there is a limit to the sorrow one can truly absorb and bear, perhaps a saturation point is reached when the loss of men becomes a ghastly normality, where the mind begins to accept it as part of the natural order of things. But later – then it will suddenly all strike home in some unguarded moment, with full savage impact, as it has done, many times since.
When the last crew had been interrogated the night that Johnny went missing I saw Billie standing to one side, pale as chalk, gazing wordlessly at the faces around her, waiting for Johnny, who would never bother her again. I went over to her and touched her shoulder.
“Try to get some sleep, Billie,” I said, “he may have landed away, you know.”
It was all I could say. She nodded miserably.
She was on duty next morning, when we started the photo-plotting, tense, deadly pale, her eyes haunted by heaven knows what dreadful visions. I had given her a cigarette and taken one myself when the clerk handed me something or other and distracted my efforts to produce my lighter. Billie said quietly, “I’ll get mine,” and, typically, dumped a load of stuff from her pocket on to the desk. It wasn’t a lighter which she’d got out, though, it was a chromium pepper pot. I froze. She clapped a handkerchief to her mouth and rushed blindly out of the Ops Room as we sat silent and motionless.
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Later that day I met J – outside the village church.
“Shall we go inside?” she said.
We stepped into the dimness of the nave. My mind was still on Johnny.
“The way he looked,” I said softly to J - , “do you think perhaps he knew?”
“Perhaps,” she said, “perhaps he did.”
It was cool and quiet in there. J – knelt in a pew and bowed her head; I knelt alongside her so that our sleeves touched. Somehow, I felt I needed that nearness of her. A Prayer Book was at each place; there was just enough light left to read. I opened the book and came upon Psalm 91.
“Thou shalt not be afraid for any terror by night: nor for the arrow that flieth by day. A thousand shall fall beside thee, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee.”
J – ‘s face was calm, next to me, as I thought of Johnny, and of all the others. After a while I closed the book and slowly stood up. I took J – gently by the hand and we walked out, shutting the heavy oak door behind us, into the dim, evening green-ness of the churchyard and the faraway sound of engines in the summer twilight, as the first stars were beginning to appear.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
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[inserted] [underlined] Approach and Landing. [/underlined] [/inserted]
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[underlined] APPROACH AND LANDING [/underlined]
With the inevitablity [sic] of an experience of déja vu, it unrolled itself with preordained certainty in my dream, as completely familiar as the action of a film one has seen often before, slowly remembering it in all its detail, and on waking and thinking afresh about it, I realised with some surprise that I had never written about, or even spoken to anyone about this particular event – since the time that J – and I talked about it, that is – one which both at the time it happened and since that time, I had always privately marvelled – and shuddered at what might have been.
At night in the Ops. Room at Breighton, once 78 Squadron’s Halifaxes had taken off there was little to do for whoever was on duty. Normally there was one Int./Ops. Officer – that is, Pam, Derek or myself – one duty Watchkeeper, a W.A.A.F. Sergeant, Billie, Freda or J - , and an Ops. Clerk. There was time to catch up on all sorts of things which of necessity had to be shelved during the process of assisting perhaps twenty or so aircraft to take off, adequately prepared and correctly informed, to bomb some target in the Third Reich. There was, naturally, time to chat, time to drink tea and to smoke endless cigarettes while the hours crawled by until the tension of the time of the first aircraft due into the circuit approached. And when J – and I were on duty together (and I took some pains to ensure that we often were) the conversations were naturally more relaxed, more personal.
It was on one such occasion, when the names of people one had known in the Service were casually dropped into the talk like snowflakes on to a pond, to exist for an instant and then to vanish and to be almost forgotten, that one name struck a chord between us.
I mentioned F – ‘s name quite casually, as that of someone I had known well by sight but not personally, a pilot on our sister Squadron at Binbrook eighteen months before, and who was the central character in a very highly skilled but very high-risk piece of flying which I had witnessed from, literally, a grandstand seat, and which, these many years later, was the subject of my dream.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
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At Binbrook, when operations were on, it was necessary to have what was termed a Despatching Officer, one who was not flying on that operation. He was provided with a light van and a driver, and was to ensure that in this van there was contained every conceivable piece of necessary equipment which any member of any crew flying on the operation was likely to find to be unserviceable or to have forgotten prior to takeoff – articles such as flying helmet, goggles, oxygen mask, intercom. leads, the various essential maps and charts, and so on. In the event of a sudden radio call from an aircraft to the Flying Control Officer on duty in the Watch Office that some such was required. The Despatching Officer would be driven rapidly to the relevant aircraft’s dispersal to deliver the required piece of equipment.
On one particular late winter’s afternoon, although both Squadrons were operating, my own crew was not among those detailed. And I was designated on the Battle Order as Despatching Officer. There was, as it happened, no call for my services and the Wellingtons started to take off, using one of the shorter runs, roughly north-west to south-east and passing within two or three hundred yards of the Watch Office. Once that I was certain that nothing was required, I went into the Watch Office and up on to the balcony to watch the aircraft taking off, bound for some target – I cannot recall which – across the North Sea.. All had left the ground and were on their way, vanishing into the evening sky to the east, when there was a call over the R/T from one of them which had just crossed the English coast. It was that piloted by F - .
One of his main undercarriage wheels, the port wheel, could not be retracted. He was climbing away with one wheel locked into the ‘up’ position and one which would not join it. Apparently he could neither retract the wheel which was locked down nor lower again the wheel that was retracted. He was carrying a 4000 lb. High Capacity blast bomb, irreverently and casually known to us as a ‘Cookie’. His Commanding Officer, watching take-off from the Watch Office, called him up on the R/T and ordered him to jettison the Cookie into the North Sea, then to return to the aerodrome to attempt what would have been, in any case, a fairly hazardous
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landing with a full petrol load. But it was the only possible and sensible procedure in these unfortunate and unhappy circumstances.
But F – was very much his own man. I knew him, from a distance, almost as the reincarnation of a cavalier of King Charles’ day, dark, good looking, dashing, individualistic, the complete extrovert. He might well have served as the model for Frans Hals’ “The Laughing Cavalier”. He replied – to his C.O., mark you – that he intended to bring his bomb back with him. Then, apparently, Wing Commander K - , his C.O. and he exchanged words and observations of some sort. But F - , literally in the driving seat, was adamant and persuasive enough to have his way. We waited rather breathlessly for what might transpire, as well as what his C.O. might say to him, should he, in fact manage to return safely.
After a short while, all the aircraft operating having cleared the area, we heard the note of F – ‘s Twin Wasp engines, as noisy as four Harvards, which is saying something. He appeared on the circuit, a grotesque and unsettling sight. To those of us who have flown aircraft, especially Wellingtons, it is an almost unconscious reaction on seeing any aircraft in the air, to project oneself, as it were, into the cockpit, holding the controls, glancing at the blind-flying panel’s telltale instruments, and in this case, in F – ‘s case, seeing the wretched sight of one green light and two reds in the trio of small undercarriage warning light on the dashboard.
There were now five or six of us on the Watch Office balcony and we watched tensely as F – steadily made his circuit and, throttling back, commenced his final approach. His particular aircraft, in common with a few on both Squadrons’ strengths, had been modified to carry a ‘cookie’, which was essentially a railway locomotive boiler, thin-skinned and packed with high explosive. The bomb was too deep to be accommodated in the normal Wellington bomb-bay, so the modification consisted in suspending it in a rectangular hole like an upturned, lidless coffin without bomb-doors, in the underside of the aircraft. And the bomb was by no means flush with the aircraft’s belly, it protruded, throughout its entire length, by several inches, horrifyingly open to flak, machine gun bullets, cannon-shells – or a belly landing. The sensitivity of the weapon was legendary, the name “blockbuster” applied
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to it by the press was completely apposite.
So F – made his approach, one wheel up, one down, a grotesque and unpleasant sight, the cookie protruding ominously. Why we stood there watching, goodness only knows. Perhaps we were simply too fascinated to move or perhaps we were quite unthinking as to what the outcome might be, should there be an accident, a bad landing, and the cookie were to explode. If that had been the case, I would not be writing this. Or perhaps we were just plain stupid or reckless not to have sought cover.
The aircraft slowly slid down its final approach in the quickly-fading daylight. We watched and waited, almost holding our breath. I remember lighting a cigarette with a hand which was not altogether steady. Then, holding the starboard wing over the ‘missing’ wheel well up, F – touched down, it must have been lightly, on the port wheel only, the engines throttled back to a tick-over. Miraculously, he kept the aircraft straight. We hardly dared look at the protruding cookie. As the Wellington slowed the starboard wing slowly drooped, and finally, at the end of the aircraft’s run, the wing finally scraped the runway, the Wellington slewed around through ninety degrees to starboard and came to a lopsided rest. The fire tender and ‘blood wagon’ raced up, but neither, thankfully, were needed.
It would be trite to say that we breathed again but I am sure that there were some of us who in the final seconds of the touch-down and landing run were actually holding our breath. We stood there, the small group of us, on the balcony, potentially exposed to what would have been a blast-wave of killing proportions not only for us, but for many quite far distant from the runway. Perhaps the fact that we stayed to watch was even due a degree of professional interest in the expertise of one of our peers. But the visual memory of F – ‘s landing that evening has remained with me as something at which to marvel.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
“Oh! Did you know F - , then?” J – asked, that night in the quiet Ops. Room at Breighton.
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“Only by sight” I replied, then I told her about the landing.
“I will never forget that, I assure you. You knew him, too, then?” I added. J – nodded.
“Oh yes, who didn’t? He was quite a character, wasn’t he?”
“’Was’?”
“Yes. Perhaps you didn’t know he had been killed at --- .” She named an aerodrome not too far distant.
Apparently F – had taken off on a non-operational flight. On board was also an A.T.A. girl pilot and the aircraft had, for some unknown reason, crashed, killing everyone on board. J – mentioned that there was a certain theory concerning something which might have been a contributory factor to the tragedy. I will not set down here what that theory was. But I shall continue to remember F – as I knew him at Binbrook, debonair, dashing, cavalier-like and above all, just that bit larger than life, and possessed of flying skills to which few of us could ever hope to aspire.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
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[inserted] [underlined] Knight’s move [/underlined] [/inserted]
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[underlined] KNIGHT’S MOVE [/underlined]
“One sang in the evening
Before the light was gone:
And the earth was lush with plenty
Where the sun shone.
The sound in the twilight
Went: and the earth all thin
Leans to a wind of winter,
The sun gone in.
One song the less to sing
And a singer less
Who sleeps all in the lush of plenty
And summer dress.”
“Casualty”
from “Selected Poems” by
Squadron Leader John Pudney.
Once I had seen the hangar, intact, black and huge, just over the hedge as I rounded the bend of the lane, everything seemed to fall into place, even after so many years.
Everything, except, of course, that J – was gone. I shut my eyes for a moment and forced my thoughts away from her. God knew what became of Pam, and as for Derek, I never heard of him for years after I left Breighton. But now I had, for the first time, come back. Seeking what? I could find no answer to that in my mind, except that I had obeyed some inner compulsion to revisit the place and that somehow it seemed to bring me some peace and calm of spirit to be back there amid the quiet hedges, the ruined buildings, the memories, and the silent, empty sky, where among so many losses I had, with deep feelings of the unique guilt of the survivor, found
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my personal happiness when so many had lost everything, for ever.
I walked down the empty road in the warm October sunshine, past what remained of the East-West runway, and marvelled at the utter silence. The little river at the edge of the road slipped silently over its green weeds and I remembered Gerry, how he had aborted a takeoff one night, smashed through the hedge and across the road and had finished up with the aircraft’s nose almost in that river. Amazingly, they had missed everything solid and had all walked away from it. I smiled to myself as I recalled how everyone in the Mess had kidded him about it the following morning.
The Mess itself was till there, pretty well intact. One or two broken panes in the windows, the buff-coloured walls reflecting the warmth of the sun, the porch by now overgrown with tall weeds around which a bee idly buzzed. Now, no bicycles leaned against its walls, there was no C.O.’s car parked, no battledressed figures walked in and out, calling to one another – there was just the brilliant sunshine and the utter silence. And then, as I visualised the inside of the Mess, its layout, its half-remembered faces; I thought of the events of such another day of sunshine all that time ago. I saw the interior of the anteroom, the small table with the chessmen on their board, the young bomb-aimer sitting opposite me, frowning with concentration as we played, then looking at his watch and standing up reluctantly, the cracked record, “I’ve gotta gal, in Kalamazoo”. “Shall we finish it tomorrow?” I had said to him.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
My part of the briefing came second, as usual, after the Wingco had told them the target and shown them over the route on the wall-map. Most of the crews weren’t really interested in the industries, population or the other standard Intelligence gen which I served up to them, and I didn’t blame them; their main concern was what the defences were like – and, privately, whether they would get back. They were silent when I pointed out the flak and searchlight belt around the target, and a few night-fighter aerodromes near to their route. There were one or two whistles when I told them
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how many aircraft were on that night; it was quite a big effort and craftily organised so that there were two targets, the stream of kites splitting up abreast of and between the two towns, then turning away from each other to attack their respective targets some sixty miles apart. There were also elaborate Mosquito spoof attacks to draw off the enemy fighters from the main force.
“We hope that will fox the defences,” I concluded.
When briefing was over I left the hubbub and snatches of nervous laughter from the crews and cycled down to the Ops Room in the summer afternoon to try to finish plotting last night’s bombing photos. One of our Halifaxes was on his landing approach, another was on the downwind leg with his undercart lowered. One of their engines was slightly desynchronised and it made a throbbing note above the steady roar. The sun was very bright, the trees were a deep green above the huts and the houses of the village and it was warm.
One of the bombing photos was holding us up. There was only a small fragment of ground detail, more or less one block of houses, visible in the usual mess of smoke, cloud, bomb bursts, flak and fires. Pam was having a go at it when I arrived.
“Any luck?” I asked, throwing my cap on the table.
“Not yet,” she said, “but it must be somewhere near the aiming point because there’s so much going on in the photograph.”
We stewed over the mosaic for a time, trying to fit the photo in, which would enable us to discover where the aircraft had dropped his load of bombs. Pam looked along the approach side to the A.P., I took the exit side. Finally, I had it placed.
“Oh, good,” Pam said rather wearily, and stretched.
I measured the distance carefully.
“Can you give him a ring in the Mess, Freda?” I asked the duty Watchkeeper, “he’ll be wanting to know. Tell whoever you speak to that they were about a thousand yards from the A.P., would you?”
After that, we generally tidied up from last night’s effort, and as far as we could, from tonight’s preparations. I did a last minute check that the Pundit was in the right place and set to flash the correct letters, and that the resin lights on the aircraft were the correct colour combination. About six o’clock I went down to the Mess, put my feet up and relaxed. There were several battledressed and white sweatered chaps clumping about in their heavy, soft-soled flying boots, trying not to smoke too much, mostly a bit pale and rather quiet.
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Dinner was much as usual, no-one had very much to say to anyone else, at least among the crews who were on. Derek came in and said he was going up to relieve Pam on duty.
“See you before take-off,” I told him.
“What the heck for?” Derek asked, “there’s no need – why don’t you get some sleeping hours in till they come back?”
“Oh, I don’t know; I might as well be up there,” I said, not wanting him to know that J – and I had a sort of thing starting. I hoped so, anyhow. She would be taking over from Freda about now. I’d taken her out a couple of times and I thought she was pretty wizard; we seemed to speak the same language. Had to be a bit careful, though, the R.A.F. was touchy about male Officer – W.A.A.F. N.C.O. relationships. You could easily find that one of you was suddenly posted to Sullom Voe or somewhere like that, and the other to Portreath, or worse still, overseas.
I went into the anteroom. Someone had the radiogram going. It was Glenn Miller and the Chattanooga choo-choo on Track 29. I settled down with Tee Emm at a table where someone had left the chess board and pieces, and was chuckling over P/O Prune’s latest effort when a voice said, “Do you play?”
I looked up. He was a P/O Bomb-aimer, rather stocky, darkish, with his name on the small brown leather patch sewn above the top right-hand pocket of his battledress, his white, roll-necked sweater and half-wing looked rather new, I thought.
“Sure,” I said, “but not very well, I’m afraid. I’ll give you a game, though, if you like.”
“I’m not very good myself,” he said.
As we were setting out the pieces, “Who are you with?” I asked. He named his skipper.
“He’s good; flies these Hallies like Spits!” he said, laughing. For an instant, the lines of stress on his face were smoothed out in the snatched and fleeting relaxation of the moment, so that instead of looking like a young man, he looked like a very young one.
“Yes, I know the name,” I said, “I think I’ve plotted one or two of your photos recently. How many have you done?”
“Six”, he answered.
There was nothing I could say to that. Thirty trips was a hell
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of a way off when you’d done six.
He chose white from the two pawns I held in my closed fists.
“Off you go, then,” I said.
He opened conventionally enough, pawn to king’s fourth, pawn to queen’s third, and so on, and as we played I could tell we were both about the same calibre, on the poor side of indifferent. After a while, he started looking at his watch a lot and I could see his concentration was beginning to fade, but his knight was going to have my bishop and rook neatly forked, so I knew I was in for a bit of trouble. He sighed and said, “That’s about it for now, I’m afraid, I’ll have to get weaving up to the Flights.”
I said, “O.K., then, shall we finish it tomorrow? I’ll make a note of the positions, if you like.”
“Yes,” he said, “fine,” and got to his feet. “Thanks for the game.”
“Enjoyed it,” I said, and gave him the usual and universal Bomber Command envoi, “Have a good trip.”
“Sure, thanks,” he said, gave a half-wave and went out.
I watched him go. He looked rather like a schoolboy who had been sent for by the Head. A slightly cracked record on the radiogram was now telling us that someone liked her looks when he carried her books in Kalamazoo. I wondered idly where that was. I made a copy of the position on the chessboard and went out of the Mess. It was a beautiful summer evening, the sun was starting to dip now and there were some streaks of altostratus in the north-west. A faint breeze brought the twittering of sparrows; a blackbird nearer at hand was giving a few clarinet notes, intent on practising the first bar of his eventual good-night song. A Halifax droned over, to the east, high, probably setting off on a night cross-country or a Bullseye. His engines made a hollow, booming roar in the clear evening air. Then the Tannoy came to life with a hum and with a leap of the heart I heard J – ‘s voice come over, telling someone he was wanted at his Flight Office.
I cycled up the quiet road through the hamlet, which was companionably and inextricably mixed up with the Station’s huts, and turned right at the tall gable-end of a house on to the narrow concrete road which, in a few hundred yards beyond the W.A.A.F. site, came to the Ops Room.
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The sentry gave me a cheery “Good evening, sir,” and I went inside to the strip-lighting, the huge wall-blackboard, the central plotting table and the long desk with the telephones. Derek, J – and little Edith, one of the Int. Clerks, were on duty. I saluted and said, “Hiya, folks, everything under control?” It was. Edith was finishing writing up the captains and aircraft letters on the big blackboard and it looked impressive. You started to imagine the bomb-load from that lot going down on to a built-up area, and what it would do. Then you stopped imagining. I got busy with some paper-work, tying up loose ends and amending some S.D.s, then the clerk made some tea. J – ‘s phone was pretty quiet – it usually was a couple of hours or so before take-off – she was writing a letter, I think, and Derek was sorting out the mosaics alphabetically and sliding them back into the big drawer below the table.
“Time we had a new one for Hamburg,” he said, “this one’s about had it.”
“So’s Hamburg,” I said, “if it come to that,” and we grinned.
We drank tea, smoked and chatted a bit, mostly about our next leave. Derek was whistling “Room 504” off and on, and rather badly. There wasn’t a lot to do now except wait for a scrub, which we knew wouldn’t happen when there was a big summer high over western Europe. Odd calls came in to J – requesting Tannoy messages; she put them out and logged them all.
I went outside for a while to look at the sky. The Ops Room was windowless and the lighting and general fug got you down rather after a time, especially as we all smoked like chimneys. It was about nine o’clock. I looked over the cornfield which was just outside the Ops Room door. The corn was ripe, grown high, ready for harvest; the sky was very beautiful, pale green almost in one place, some stars showing, complete stillness.
“Calm before the storm,” I thought, rather tritely. I breathed the cooling air gratefully. Somewhere in the distance the blackbird was firing his short bursts of evening song. It was all very peaceful and the war seemed a hell of a long way off.
The sentry seemed fidgety, he was probably wishing I would hurry up and go in again so that he could have a quiet smoke himself.
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“Nice night,” I said to him.
Back in the Ops Room I felt we were completely insulated from the outside world. Until the phone rang.
“Ops, Breighton,” J – said. She listened, then put the phone down.
“Flying Control,” she said to me, “they’re taxying out. First off should be any minute now.”
“O.K.,” I said, “I might as well chalk them up.”
I was feeling a little strung-up; it would give me something to do. In a little while the phone rang again.
“Ops, Breighton….. right, sir, thank you.”
J – turned to me.
“B – Baker airborne 2149.”
I chalked up the time opposite ‘B’. After that, the phone went at very short intervals, until they had all gone. In the Ops Room we never heard a thing, only the hum of the air-conditioning and the buzz of the strip-lighting.
I imagined them doing their gentle climbing turns to port and setting course over the centre of the aerodrome, the Navigators carefully logging the time, the gunners in their turrets watchful for other aircraft, then climbing steadily away towards Southwold where they crossed out for the North Sea, the enemy coast and whatever lay in wait for them beyond, on the other side.
When they’d all gone, the Wingco came in for a chat. He was a good type and we all liked him. He and Derek shared an interest in painting, and after a while he took Derek off to the Mess for a drink. There wouldn’t have been much for Derek to do behind his desk, anyhow.
“Can you cope?” Derek asked, as he went.
“Of course,” I said, hiding my elation that J – and I would be able to have a talk. The clerk slipped off into the Int. Library, I think she sensed that three was a crowd. After a while, the phone rang again.
“Ops, Breighton….. yes, thank you, I’ve got that.”
She turned to me again.
“Flying Control. Early return, F – Fox, starboard inner u/s. I’ll phone the Wingco in the Mess.”
While she was doing so, I went outside again. It was quite dark now, and countless stars were showing. They had put the Sandra Lights on for
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F – Fox. In a little while I heard him coming from the south, then he came into the circuit with his nav. lights on, flashed ‘F’ on his downward ident. light and slid down on to the runway behind the H.Q. huts, his three engines popping as he throttled back. In the stillness I heard the screech of his tyres as they bit the runway, then his engine-note faded into silence. In a minute or two I heard his bursts of throttle as he taxied into dispersal. He would have jettisoned his load, and most of his petrol, into the sea. J – had logged his time of landing on the board.
“I’ve told the Wingco,” she said.
We swopped childhoods, parents and early Service days for a while, then I decided to go and have a sleep in the Window Store, on the bench. I must have been tired and slept very soundly, because I was awakened by knocking on the door and Edith’s timid voice calling, “First aircraft overhead, sir.”
I shivered as I swung my legs down off the bench and on to the stone floor; I always shivered when I heard those words, wondering how it had gone. Had they had much opposition? That was always my first thought. Had there been much fighter activity? What had the flak been like, and the searchlights? I never thought much about the target; what seemed to matter to me was whether they were all back.
I went into the Ops Room and lit a cigarette, passing my case around. Derek was back.
“Here’s Rip van Winkle,” he said, “come to muck things up for us.”
“Get knotted,” I grinned, “and let’s have my fags back.”
He threw my case back at me and I disappointed him by catching it. The phone rang; J – answered it. The first one had landed safely. Derek said, “I’ll get along and start the interrogations, Pam’s on, too.”
“O.K., Derek,” I told him, “I’ll be down later,” and he left.
He still had “Room 504” on his mind and it still sounded no better. The phone rang again, it was another one landed. They kept coming in steadily and whoever was nearest the blackboard chalked them up. By quarter to six we had them all back but two. I took a quick
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look around. The clerk was in the far corner collecting empty cups. I said to J - , quietly, “Can you meet me tonight? Seven o’clock? We’ll go to the Plough, if you like.”
She nodded.
“Yes,” she breathed, and smiled briefly. She still looked wizard, I thought, even at six o’clock in the morning after a long night duty. For a while we let our thoughts take possession of us. Then the phone broke the silence again. One of the two had landed away, in 3 Group. That left just one outstanding.
The minutes ticked by. Then I said the usual thing, one of us always said it at times like this.
“He could have landed away, too, and they haven’t told us yet.”
But there was actually only fifteen minutes left before his endurance, on the night’s petrol load, ran out. I went outside, restlessly. The Sandra Lights looked desolate in a vivid and rigid cone above the aerodrome, waiting in the silence which had now enveloped everything. Dawn was starting to break. It looked like being another perfect summer morning. Far away, a door slammed and someone whistled, loudly and jauntily. Probably one of the returned crews, just off to bed. The sky, lightening, seemed immense, the stars had faded and the trees were motionless. In a little while I went back inside.
“Anything, J - ?”
She shook her head. I looked at my watch. Time was up, and more. We were quite quiet for a long while. Then I said, “I was playing chess with his bomb-aimer just before they went. Let’s hope to God they are P.o.W.s”. We still sat, waiting. When I knew it was quite hopeless I said to J – “You’d better phone the Wingco and the Padre. I’m going to see about the photographs. See you this evening, then, goodnight, J - .”
“Goodnight, or rather, good morning,” she said.
I walked out of the Ops Room into the early morning with a feeling of weariness and desolation. What was it all about? I thought. It was quite cool outside; I reached for a cigarette and my hand found a piece of paper in my pocket. It was the sketch of the chess board. I looked at if for a minute or so, then I said,
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“Good luck, wherever you are.”
I screwed the paper into a ball and dropped it into the waist-high corn, and I thought of the seven men who might be lying amidst the wreckage of their aircraft somewhere across the sea. It was growing light now and a faint breeze stirred the ripened heads of the wheat. Somewhere, the blackbird was starting to sing. The Sandra lights had been put out. There was nothing left for me to do. I shivered, and turned away.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
With an effort I dragged my thoughts back to the reality of the present, and I realised it was already time to go. The sun was dazzlingly low, but its warmth still lingered and there was a faint scent of late roses as I walked up through the hamlet, towards the gable-end and the road to the Ops Room. An old man was stiffly tending his patch of front garden, and looked up as I said “Good evening.”
“Been a fine day,” he said. He saw my rucksack. “Have you come far?” he added.
“Yes,” I said, “I’ve come a very long way,” and I walked on, into the silence and the shadows of the gathering twilight.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
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[inserted] [underlined] A different kind of love. [/underlined] [/inserted]
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[underlined] A DIFFERENT KIND OF LOVE [/underlined
“’Tis sure small matter for wonder
If sorrow is with one still”
(A.E. Housman)
Temporization, delaying tactics, putting-off. Call it what you will. I try to justify it be telling myself that whatever one calls it – and I am fairly certain we have all of us been guilty of it at some time – it is a human failing, and the guilt one feels, if one should feel guilt at some action or lack of action if it affects only oneself, has been felt by many another person. And should one indeed experience feelings of guilt if whatever the reason for the “putting-off” it affects only oneself? But I am afraid that in the circumstances which I have finally decided and brought myself to the point of describing, at least one other person must have felt some hurt, almost certainly deep hurt, and this is what has concerned me for a very long time. The thought and the concern I have felt is something which comes into my mind for no apparent reason at intervals of time, like the aching of a doubtful tooth which one knows will prove difficult and extremely painful of extraction. The moral points having been made, it is time for me to elaborate, sparing, I hope, no detail, least of all sparing nothing of the sad story of my own actions which undoubtedly started the whole business. These events, I know, will be re-lived in my mind, as they have been over the years, for days on end, producing invariably feelings of deep sadness and of ineradicable guilt.
I think it is worthy of mention that in the closing months of my career in the R.A.F. I was successively Adjutant of two units. The first of these was the unhappiest unit I had encountered, and the second, which followed immediately afterwards was without doubt the happiest one; one where I felt that those around me were like-minded. I went, at the behest of the powers-that-were in South East Asia Command, from one to the other on receipt of the appropriate signal, teleprinted on to paper, simply by walking from one tent to
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another on a crowded-to-capacity aerodrome near Rangoon, the Japanese surrender having thankfully taken place a few hours before. I met some of my new fellow-Officers and took to them immediately. First impressions were confirmed over the next days, weeks and months. On the final posting of my R.A.F. career I had arrived on a unit which was the most agreeable I had experienced in six years. I think that was understandable when one considers that I would wake in the mornings knowing that there was no war being fought, that no-one was going to be killed among those around me, no-one was going to go missing on operations and that one would not find an empty bed across one’s room in the morning, no empty chair in the Mess, no letters to be written to next-of-kin.
From the tented camp, where conditions were, to put it mildly, primitive, we were, after a few days, put on board a small paddle-steamer and left Rangoon for where we knew not. On this small ship I was to meet people with whom I was to work and play very happily for almost the last year of my service in the R.A.F. and with a few of whom I was to form enduring friendships, now alas, terminated by the inevitable and merciless passage of time.
It was on this ship too, where I first became acquainted with the music of Elgar. One morning as we were steaming southwards – we knew that much! – I was coming down a short flight of stairs leading to what, in terms of a house in England, would be described as a hallway or lobby. Some music was being played on a gramophone there and I was so struck by its grave beauty that I stood stock still on the stairway until it had ended. Then, moved by it and marvelling at its beauty I went up to the Equipment Officer who was playing it on his wind-up gramophone. This was at the time of 78 r.p.m. shellac records, of course. I asked him what he had just been playing and he was more than pleased to tell me that it was a movement from Elgar’s Enigma Variations, called Nimrod and explained the significance of that title. Little did I know that I was to hear the same music, in vastly different circumstances very soon, the recollection of which would have the power to move me deeply for years afterwards, not only because of the music itself, but because of the player of it and what the player meant – and still means – to me.
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We soon learned that we were heading for the island of Penang, of which most of us had heard, but that was all, as part of Operation Zipper, the British occupation, or rather re-occupation, of what was then Malaya, after the Japanese surrender and withdrawal. We were to be, in fact, the first R.A.F. unit to land in Malaya. And so it was. We arrived at the quayside of Georgetown, the principal town, under the massive shadow of the battleship H.M.S. Nelson, anchored next to us. Over the next few days we found our quarters in an old army cantonment on a wooded hillside, at Sungei Glugor, and took possession of the small aerodrome at Bayan Lepas in readiness for the arrival of a Spitfire squadron and a detachment of two Beaufighters from Burma. We hunted for furniture for the empty and deserted cantonment and found ample in the abandoned dwelling houses on the island. We readily imagined what must have happened to the original occupants during the Japanese occupation.
Within days we had the Station operating and thanks to the Royal Signals, in contact with our parent formations at Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. The Spitfires and Beaufighters duly arrived. We were an operational formation.
Now that I was settled into a permanent location I had the time and facilities to write a letter to J – every day, as she did to me. We had been engaged to be married for just under two years and there was a clear agreement between us that we would not be married until after we were both settled into civilian life again. Never did either of us doubt the promises made to one another and despite the time and distance which separated us, neither of us doubted the fidelity or behaviour of the other. J – was a W.A.A.F. Sergeant on an operational bomber station, now thankfully converted to peaceful purposes, and she was surrounded by some hundreds of both W.A.A.F. and R.A.F. personnel. As for me, my surroundings were peopled exclusively by men. The relationship between J – and I was firmly founded on mutual trust.
It had been decided that we should participate in a Service of Thanksgiving in one of the churches in Georgetown, and the arrangements were soon made, as were the arrangements for a victory march-past of all the armed services in Georgetown’s Victoria Park.
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I suppose there were over 100 of us to attend the service, which was held in the Chinese Methodist Church on a pleasant evening. A sizeable Chinese contingent were also present, men and women, all beautifully dressed in white. I was near to the right hand end of a pew fairly near to the front of the church, and as I took my place the organ was being played. To my amazement and delight I immediately recognised the tune as none other but ‘Nimrod’, which I had only recently come to know and which had made such an impression on me on the boat coming down from Rangoon. Smiling to myself, I looked up and to my right to see if it was one of our number who was the organist. My further surprise was that it was not anyone that I knew, but someone I took to be a Chinese youth in a white surplice. And then I saw that I was again mistaken; the organist was a Chinese girl in a long white dress. As she finished ‘Nimrod’ she moved almost seamlessly into a Chopin E Minor Prelude whose tune, full of yearning, almost brought tears into my eyes.
The service itself was jointly conducted by a Chinese clergyman about 50 years old and of almost ascetic appearance, and our own Methodist Padre. During the service an announcement was made that light refreshments would be served in the church hall afterwards and I determined to be there, partly from personal preference and partly because as Wing Adjutant it would obviously be my duty not to return immediately to the cantonment at Glugor but to show a degree of sociability towards the local people who were our hosts.
It dawned on me that since I had left England more than six months previously I had never seen a member of the opposite sex in that time, nor even heard a female voice. My mother, on my embarkation leave and J – immediately prior to my going on leave, had been the last two women to whom I had spoken.
I wondered, as, the service over, I went into the fairly crowded church hall, whether the girl organist would be there so that I could tell her how I had enjoyed and been moved by her choice of music. She was indeed there, one of those serving refreshments at a line of tables at one side of the hall. I was extremely pleased, went straight across to her, and smiling, spoke to her, complimenting
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her on her playing.
She smiled depracatingly [sic] and brushed away with her hand one side of the curtain of her collar-length black hair from her face, a gesture which, so characteristic of her, I have recalled very many times since. Her voice was soft, musical and charmingly accented, reminding me forcibly of J – ‘s own voice. She apologised for not having played well; she said she was out of practice. These few seconds were the start of an utterly delightful, all-too-brief, but quite unforgettable friendship. It became a friendship, and only that. Nothing more. During the time that I knew her I never once touched her, not even to shake hands when eventually I left Malaya for good. (‘For good’? I was in two minds about that. I felt I was being torn apart). My promises to J – were unbreakable and at no time did I think even of the possibility of breaking them. We were engaged to be married; we would be married as soon as it could be managed when I returned to the U.K. Strangely, I have only just discovered some poignantly applicable words in a chanson by the 14th century Guillaume de Machaut –
‘…. in a foreign land,
You who bear sweetness and beauty
White and red like a rose or lily ….
The radiance of your virtue
Shines brighter than the Pole Star ….
Fair one, elegant, frank and comely,
Imbued with all modesty of demeanour.’
I was not alone in making a friend in the local community; there were at least two other Officers to my knowledge who formed attachments of one sort or the other while we were on the island.
And at home? J - , in her daily letters to me occasionally mentioned going to dances on the aerodrome where she was stationed and I presumed that obviously she danced in the arms of men. But I trusted her as implicitly as I hope she trusted me. She mentioned two men, both Australian pilots, by their nicknames. One of them was killed, with all his crew, when they crashed within sight of the aerodrome on returning from an op. No reason for the crash was ever
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established. But to my discredit I could not help feeling a twinge - - perhaps more than that – of jealousy whenever I read their names in her letters. And some time after J – and I were married, while we were once talking about wartime days and nights, quite out of the blue she said, only half-jokingly, “If I hadn’t married you I would have married an Australian”. I remember that I smiled but said nothing. What could I say?
I find it difficult now to describe Chiau Yong adequately as I saw her then and as I think of her now, without using trite phrases or words which in this age of cynicism would be sneered at or greeted with unbelieving or sarcastic laughter. But then, and over the weeks which followed I was charmed by her placid nature, her smiling, childlike innocence, her undoubted beauty and her impish sense of humour.
That evening in the church hall, as I chatted to her, standing as we were at opposite sides of the table of refreshments, I felt a growing happiness which I had not known for a long time stealing over me and calming me, as though the war, with all the tragedies which I had seen and experienced, had never taken place.
When, regretfully, it was time for me to go I had learned her name and that she was the daughter of the clergyman whose church this was. I had also, hesitantly and tentatively, expecting nothing except possibly a polite rebuff, asked if I might see her again by coming to hear her organ practice, whenever that might be. She shyly consented and I felt, as I left the hall, that my feet were hardly touching the ground. I think I must have been smiling foolishly, but fortunately no-one commented as we boarded the gharries to return to Glugor.
As often as I possibly could I went to the church and sat in a pew near to the front, where I could see her sitting at the organ console, while she practised, content to listen to the music she made and to watch her as she played, quite unperturbed that I was there, a few feet away from her, listening and watching. Sometimes I went with her into her home, where she played the piano for me. And often we talked. Her English was truly excellent, somewhat reminiscent in her use of words and phrases of the Victorian era, but none the less lucid and charming to hear spoken
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in her soft, lilting voice. We talked about the music she played; she asked what sort of music I liked. We talked a little about our respective backgrounds. She was keen to learn anything about England. I mentioned one or two of my wartime experiences but asked for no details of hers or of her family’s under the Japanese occupation. I developed an interest to scratch the surface of knowledge of the Chinese language. Her own dialect, and that of her mother, who spoke no English, unlike her father and her sister, was Hokkien. She and her sister, who joined us on one occasion when we sat talking, amused themselves and entertained me by translating my name into written Chinese ideographs, which they pronounced as ‘Yo-min’. Whenever Chiau Yong wished to draw my attention to something or ask me a question, it was always prefaced by her saying ‘Mister Yo-min….’ . I suppose in her strict upbringing, which I assumed she had had, the use of my Christian name would have been seen as unduly familiar.
She taught me the numerals from one to ten and chuckled delightfully behind her small hand at my unavailing efforts to pronounce the words for ‘one’ and ‘seven’ correctly. To my ears they sounded identical; I am afraid that I was an obtuse pupil. I asked her about her own name; she told me that it meant ‘shining countenance’ which, I thought, could not have been more appropriate. As to her age, I never enquired. I would have put her as being slightly younger than I. I was 24 at the time, she would be possibly around 20, I thought.
I met her parents on at least one occasion. They very kindly invited me to come to their home for an evening meal, which I was glad and honoured to do. Two things stand out clearly in my mind about that occasion: the number of different languages spoken around the table and the sense of peacefulness which surrounded us. Her mother, a quiet middle-aged lady, simply dressed in black, spoke only Hokkien which, if she addressed me, was translated by Chiau Yong, as was my reply to her mother. Her father, the minister, spoke excellent English in a calm and measured manner. Her sister, Chiau Gian and her rather quiet younger brother spoke English too, for my benefit. Chiau Yong, who had told me that she was learning Mandarin, the classical Chinese tongue, spoke in English, of course, to me, in Hokkien to her mother and in Malay to the houseboy who appeared from time to time on his domestic errands.
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After I had visited their home on several occasions to see Chiau Yong and to hear her play, I was slightly surprised when one afternoon, as we were talking together, a pilot from the Spitfire squadron which had arrived came into the room. I knew D – P – well enough to talk to, but I thought, in my limited understanding of such things, he did not fit into my preconceived idea of what a fighter pilot should be like. He was, from what I had seen of him in the Mess, not only slightly older-looking than the other pilots, with somewhat thinning hair, but also of a quieter disposition than most of the others. However, a Spitfire pilot he was, whatever ideas I had formed about the differences between them and bomber pilots such as I had been. I gathered he had come to see Chiau Yong’s father, and not being interested in the reason for his visit I promptly forgot about him after we had exchanged polite enough greetings on this and on one or two further occasions when he came to the house to see Mr. Ng.
I knew that my time on the island and indeed in the R.A.F. must shortly come to an end. Being an administrative officer, as Adjutant, I could almost forecast when my time would come to ‘get on the boat’ and while others around me were obviously in a fever of impatience to get back to ‘civvy street’, as it was always called, I found my own state of mind to be more in the nature of calm acceptance, knowing that while I would be returning to J - , whom I loved and to whom I would be married, somehow, somewhere and at some time, I had spent a quarter of my life and almost all my adult life in R.A.F. uniform and would find things difficult or indeed incomprehensible.
At about this time our unit, 185 Wing, received orders to move across to the mainland, into Province Wellesley, to become R.A.F. Station Butterworth, leaving very good and well-appointed accommodation for something not quite so commodious. But there was a very good ferry service between Butterworth (which local people knew as Mata Kuching) and Georgetown, so I was still within easy reach of the town, its cafes, good sports facilities which were well used by us all, and above all, still within easy reach of Chiau Yong.
Towards the end of my service at Butterworth, on one visit to her, she suggested that we take a cycle ride to see some nearby parts
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of the island which were strange to me, and this we did for a couple of hours, along deserted roads, up hillsides, almost always under the cover of trees with their blossoms, so exotic to my eyes, with their birdsong, and the chattering and calling of monkeys and chipmunks.
The idyll had to end. I think my unconscious mind has, as a defence mechanism, obliterated the recollection of our goodbyes, for I can remember not one single thing about it. It is as though it had never happened. But it must have done, of course. I returned to England, a stranger to a strange land. Standards had changed, attitudes had changed, there was no longer the feeling of one-ness, of co-operation and togetherness which the war had engendered. It seemed now as though it were ‘every man for himself and damn the others’. I let a decent interval of two or three days pass as I settled in at home with my parents then I travelled south to be with J - . It was a happy but strange reunion. Strange to see her in civilian clothes, strange to see her leave to catch an early train to Brighton to work for the South Eastern Gas Board. All our talk was of when, where and how we were going to be married and where we would live. In the end, with the willing help of my parents, I found very basic accommodation in my home town, as I had agreed with J – that I needed to return to my old occupation and to obtain a necessary qualification as soon as possible.
J – and I were married in the autumn from her aunt’s home in Surrey and after our honeymoon in Edinburgh we were thrust into the realities of married life in cramped surroundings, comprehensive rationing, with a shared kitchen, and where even the basics of living necessitated stringent saving on my salary, with all of which J – coped amazingly well. I had to study hard in the evenings in the same small living room where J – was usually reading or knitting, deprived of the radio so as not to disturb me. Settling down at work was none too easy. My superiors were a man who had somehow missed the first World War and who was too old for the Second, his deputy, who had tried hard to dissuade me from volunteering for aircrew on the grounds that I would be probably be instrumental in killing people and who himself, had he not been reserved from military service as a key employee would have been compelled to describe himself as a conscientious objector. There were also two ex-R.A.F. men, who in six years of service had attained the respective ranks of Corporal
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and of Leading Aircraftman. Perhaps because I had outranked them it became apparent that any particularly physically dirty or awkward job was allocated to me. I accepted the situation as a continuation of military discipline, as I did when the office clerk, a lady of mature years, when I politely declined to do part of her far less than arduous work for her (so that she would have more time for gossiping, I suspected), told me rather angrily and unimaginatively that since “I’d been away” I had changed, which I thought was something of an understatement. I never talked of my wartime experiences and no-one asked me a single question. All they knew was that I had flown aeroplanes, been over Germany and finished my career in the Far East. The rest was silence.
Having neither a telephone nor a car I kept in touch with friends I had made in the R.A.F. by letter and rarely did a week go by without news from someone, either in the U.K. or some other part of the globe. My correspondents, of course, included Chiau Yong, whom I had told in a letter that I was finally married, and had given her my address. I certainly had not forgotten her and whenever I thought of her I smiled mentally at the remembrance of her charming company and her music-making.
At this time, although of course there was no means of knowing it, J – was sickening for a serious, potentially fatal illness, which within months was to take her into sanatoria for more than a year of her young life. Whether this slow decline in her health, coupled with the novelty of her surroundings and circumstances contributed to the short and low-key breakfast table conversation which took place between us I do not know, but I suspect it might have done so.
I remember vividly that it was a Saturday morning. There were two letters for us, one for J – and one for me, which, to my delight I saw was from Chiau Yong. We opened our respective mail at the breakfast table. The letter was typical of Chiau Yong’s nature – pleasant, equable, written in beautiful English and containing some mildly jocular reference to something I must have once said to her about settling down into civilian life. It contained no word of love; it ended without those conventional little crosses which were the well-known signs for kisses. I would have been astonished beyond measure if it had done so. J – had finished reading her own letter. I smiled across the table and said “From Chiau Yong. Read it, darling”.
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She took it without a word and read it expressionlessly. I had no inkling of what was to come as she handed the letter unsmilingly back to me. Looking directly at me, she said “I don’t think it’s right that she should be writing to a married man like that and I think you should tell her so”.
I could hardly believe what I was hearing. I was completely taken aback with shock and surprise. I had known J – for more than three years during which time we had seen eye-to-eye on almost everything and no word of disagreement had ever passed between us. But I recovered my composure quickly and knowing that one’s wife must come first in everything, I said “All right”.
I immediately left the table, got the writing pad and sitting down again in front of J – I wrote the cruellest words that I have ever in my whole life composed. My opening words are to this day burned into my memory.
“Dear Chiau Yong”, I wrote, “In England, a married man does not write letters to another girl”. And I continued briefly that the correspondence between us must now stop. It took about three minutes. I handed the letter wordlessly to J – who read it and gave it back to me with a nod. “Yes,” she said.
Chiau Yong’s name was never again mentioned during our married life, but I cannot and would not pretend that, happily married as we were for almost 40 years, I never thought of Chiau Yong. For I have thought of her often and I have been deeply and bitterly troubled that I must have been the cause of her suffering so much shock and pain so unexpectedly and, in my eyes, without any reason, and certainly not by any misdeed of hers, intentional or otherwise. I have prayed again and again over the years, and still do, that she might have eventually forgiven me. I never saw her again; I never heard from her again. Whether she is alive or dead, was or is happy or unhappy, I do not know, but I do know that she brought light and sweetness in unbelievable measure into my life and that our short and beautiful friendship was as innocent in every respect as any relationship could be.
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There is a curious and disturbingly bitter postscript to this unhappy episode in my life. J –‘s parents lived in Worthing and naturally she wanted to see them and her unmarried younger sister whenever she could. We had not much money, but by dint of hard saving we were able to spend two or three weeks every summer, usually during the Worthing Cricket Week, with her parents. One summer’s day, not all that many years before she died, J – and I were walking through the park near to the Worthing sea front. We left the park and crossed the road, going towards Lancing, still near to the sea. On the corner stood a church whose denomination I did not know – until I read on a notice board erected near to the church door, “Minister – D. P. –“ I looked away quickly before my shock and astonishment became too obvious. It could only have been the Spitfire pilot from Penang who used to visit Chiau Yong’s father, presumably for some sort of guidance or instruction as to his post war vocation. If things had been other than they were I would have gone immediately with J – to seek him out, to talk over the times when we first met, but of course Chiau Yong’s name would have come into our conversation. I walked on in silence, as though nothing untoward had happened, but with my mind in a turmoil. So J – never knew about D – P – , about his nearness and of the memories I still had of sunlit afternoons in the church hall in Georgetown where I would sit talking with that beautiful young girl in her long white dress.
Was I in love with Chiau Yong? Can one be in love with two people at once? Was that possible when I never stopped loving J - ? These are questions I have many times asked myself. The only self-convincing conclusion to which I can reasonably arrive is while there was no element whatsoever of the physical aspect of love in my relationship with her, yet I feel that the affection which I held and hold for her, whatever her feelings might have been for me, was more than mere friendship, that this was a different kind of love. Christ exhorted us to love one another. We were both Christians and I think that this is what He meant us to feel for one another.
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And so now, very often, while I have been writing this belated account of something which has haunted me for a very long time, and very often since I wrote that terrible, wounding letter, I remember with a sort of poignant gratitude and happiness, bitter-sweet happiness, the beauty of her nature and her innocent sweetness and I thank God for the gift of happiness which she gave me. But at the same time I feel a profound and bitter guilt and sadness, knowing that the dreadful hurt which she must have suffered and perhaps for years remembered was due to no fault of hers but was entirely due to me.
. . . . . . . . . . .
Mi querer tanto vos quiere,
muy graciosa donzella,
que por vos mi vida muere
y de vos no tiene querella.
Tanto sois de mi querida
con amor i lealtad,
que de vos non se que diga
viendo vestra onestad.
Si mi querer tanto vos quiere,
causalo que sois tan bella,
que por vos mi vida muere
y de vos no tiene querella.
(Enrique, d. 1488)
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[inserted] [underlined] Sun on a chequered tea-cosy [/underlined] [/inserted]
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O where are you going, Sir Rollo and Sir Tabarie,
Sir Duffy and Sir Dinadan, you four proud men,
With your battlecries [sic] and banners,
Your high and haughty manners,
O tell me, tell me, tell me,
Will you ride this way again?
(School Speech Day song, 1936.)
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[underlined] SUN ON A CHEQUERED TEA-COSY [/undelrined]
It was Zhejian green tea. I poured the water on, placed the lid carefully on the pot and took the tea-cosy in my left hand. The sun through the kitchen window shone brightly across its red and green checks. And stirred some memory, deep down in the recesses of my mind. Those checks had some significance, somewhere from a long way back. I stood there, looking down at the covered teapot and let myself relax until the realisation slowly dawned. I was looking again at the band around Ivor’s R.A.F. peaked cap when he was an apprentice at Halton, before the war, and I found myself thinking back to the times I had walked with him along the cliffs, hearing the gulls screaming overhead and wheeling in the sunlight, laughing with him as he sang “Shaibah Blues”, with the waves crashing on to the rocks below.
I never thought I would find myself in the position of trying to do a small thing to defend Ivor, after all this time, but, of course, there’s no one else left to do it now. Looking back over it, although so many years have passed since H – wrote what he did, it still seems to me that they were very cruel words to use, especially as Ivor had no means of defending himself, no right of reply nor of appeal. It was something so barbed that it eventually acquired, through its re-telling, the significance and nature of a legend, and in the perverse way of things it elevated Ivor to the status of a minor hero. But all the same, at the time it took place I could see it had made a deep and lasting impression on him, young and resilient as he was. And now, to me, at any rate, H – ‘s words about Ivor have acquired a poignancy which can never to expunged.
Ivor need not, of course, have let anyone into the secret; one didn’t do that sort of thing, very often, at school, in case it was thought that one was being sissy or trying to attract attention and sympathy, but it was sufficient to indicate to me, and to John, I believe, who was there at the time, how deeply it had struck home, when Ivor approached us one day on the Second Field, before school went in.
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It was the beginning of the Autumn term. The field behind the woodwork room looked bare and open without the cricket nets; the marks of the bowlers’ run-ups and of the batting block-holes could still be seen. The rugby pitch, away down the slight slope, looked very green and inviting with its newly painted posts and flawlessly straight white lines. During the winter months I lived for rugby and thought of little else; scholastic subjects took a poor second place.
As was the custom, about half the school were engaged in punting a single rugger ball around, more or less at random, before lessons started, competing with one another to catch it then punt it as far as one could again. It sounds, and looked, I suppose, pointless. But it was rare that anyone in any match missed catching a kick by the opposition, and no-one at all would dream of letting the ball bounce before he attempted to take it. I was squinting up into the sun at the flight of the ball when I heard someone call, “Hey! Yoicks!”
I turned to see Ivor. John, who was nearby, grinned when he saw him and came over, with his rather stiff-legged, rocking walk. Ivor and I exchanged the usual new-term greetings and repartee – where had we been, had we seen the latest laurel and Hardy picture, and so on. Then, surprisingly, for the old term was now but a hazy memory, Ivor said, “What was your report like?”
“My report?” I repeated in astonishment.
“Yeah, what was it like?” Ivor repeated, attempting a casual nonchalance.
I was surprised at his interest in that, because Ivor, more so than I, perhaps, was not particularly scholastically minded. He had the build of an athlete, taller than me by four or five inches, heavier by almost a stone, with dark, short-cropped hair, a freckled face and a pugnacious jaw. He moved with the natural athlete’s springy lope. He was a more than adequate boxer, a hard-working and aggressive lock forward and, during the summer, a forthright, attacking middle order batsman, as well as being a bowler of fearsome pace and hostility, if rather lacking in accuracy.
“What was it like, then, your report?” he repeated insistently.
To be truthful, I could hardly remember much about it; I took little interest in it, apart from my French result and the comments opposite “Games”. My parents rarely commented on it either, except to tell me, with some regularity, that I would have to pull my socks up.
“Oh, all right, I suppose,“ I said off-handedly to Ivor. “I was top in French,” I added rather smugly. He ignored that.
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“What did H – have to say – about your Speech Training?”
I looked at him in amazement. Speech Training? It just didn’t count; there was no exam., no placings, just remarks on the term’s progress, or lack of it.
For a short while around this period of time, the powers-that-were quite rightly decided that we should be put on the path towards becoming at least partly comprehensible in our speech to someone who might live more than half-a-dozen miles away. And Mr. H - , as a recent graduate from Oxbridge, was deputed to perform this function. It must be said that he did so with rather bitter sarcasm, delivered under a thin veil of feigned jocularity, which did little to impart in us either the ability, or indeed the desire to speak our mother tongue in a widely acceptable form. In fact, it had, in some cases, where the pupil concerned was either of a rebellious or strongly independent nature, quite the reverse effect, as toes were, metaphorically speaking, firmly dug in.
Into this category Ivor fell; he took very personally and very much to heart the barbed remarks directed at him during the rather tedious classes in Speech Training, and in the end, it was obvious to everyone that he was adopting an attitude verging on passive resistance to H – ‘s instruction. It seemed that Ivor’s was the proverbial duck’s back off which the pure water of H – ‘s tuition flowed unheeded.
Ivor seized me, in mock anger, by the lapels of my blazer.
“C’mon, c’mon!” he exclaimed in his best Humphrey Bogart accents, “Come clean, y’rat!”
“Well,” I said, rather tired of the subject by now, “if you must know, I think he said something like ‘fairly good’. I didn’t get myself told off by my parents, anyhow, so it can’t have been too bad. But why, anyhow? What’s all the fuss about?”
Ivor’s eyes narrowed and he looked around him before, dropping his voice, he said to John and me, “Do you know what the rotter put on mine?”
“No,” I said, somewhat obviously.
“Well, on mine, he said, ‘Seems incapable of sustained effort’, the so-and-so. My Dad played merry hell about it, threatened to
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stop my pocket-money and goodness knows what.”
“I say, it is a bit thick, though, isn’t it, H – saying a rotten thing like that? I mean to say – “
I left the sentence unfinished; I felt that H – ‘s remark was a bit much. Surely he could have simply said ‘fairly good’ or ‘could do better’? They were the customary form of words. But this, well, it was rather damning. Both John and I made sympathetic noises, then John passed around his wine gums. I let Ivor have the black one and we chewed them in thoughtful silence, each of us meditating on the rat-ishness of H - . The next time I caught the ball I passed it hard to Ivor and he gave vent to his feelings with a tremendous punt which almost cleared the fence by the Art School.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
At that age, memories are short, and mine was no exception. I cannot speak for Ivor, of course; I suppose that somewhere inside that stubborn, defiant head of his a resentment still burned, and as far as H – was concerned, while it would be quite unfair to say that he had it in for Ivor, it was apparent that he singled him out with some slight relish as the object of any cutting remarks he felt inclined to make concerning our defective pronunciation. But it was something which, to be honest about it, did not loom very large in my life. Perhaps twice a week, during the Speech Training lessons I would look covertly, with mingled anticipation and apprehension, at the scornfully sarcastic H – and at a reddening Ivor, his lower lip jutting stubbornly, as the temperature of the atmosphere rose between them. But my Autumn term was dominated by the fact that I was picked to play for the Junior House fifteen.
I knew, of course, that Ivor’s eldest brother was in the Royal Air Force; from time to time he mentioned him, proudly, and looking back, I realise that I never knew his first name, he was to Ivor, simply ‘my brother’. Somehow, it lent them both a great deal of dignity, I think. Ivor would also tell us the latest Station his brother was on, their romantic-sounding names supplying, as it were, a coloured backdrop to the anonymity of ‘my brother’ in his coarse, high-necked airman’s tunic and peaked cap pulled down on his brow,
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as I saw him in my imagination, marching in a squad of men – I did not yet know they were called ‘flights’ – across a vast parade ground.
“He’s on a course at St. Athan, just now,” Ivor would tell us, or, “My brother’s been posted to Drem,” or again, “He’s at Scampton.”
What his brother did, exactly, we never knew, nor thought to ask, it was sufficient that he inhabited and was part of a picturesque, far-off and dashing world, greatly removed in every way from our monotonous and rather dreary provincial town.
One day, Ivor came up to John and me and said, proudly, “My brother’s been posted overseas, he’s gone to Aden.”
John said, mischievously, “Will he be wearing a fez?” and had to dodge the powerful left swing which Ivor pretended to aim with serious intent at him. On the strength of that news, John and I took to calling Ivor “Ali”, but we could tell he didn’t much like it, and as he was still the target of H – ‘s jibes we thought he had sufficient to contend with, so we eventually dropped it.
It was during the Christmas holidays when I was, for want of something better to do, in our sitting room playing the piano rather loudly and very inaccurately, that my mother put her head around the door.
“You’re not concentrating,” she said, “I can tell, you know. But there’s someone here for you, do you want me to bring him in?”
“Who is it?” I asked, glad of the interruption.
“I think he said his name was Bradley,” she replied.
“Oh, it must be Ivor, then,” I said, feeling much less bored and getting up from the piano. I went to the front door. Ivor was standing there with an expression of elaborate unconcern on his face.
“Hello, Yoicks,” he greeted me.
“Hiya,” I said, “what are you doing here?”
I thought perhaps he might want to borrow a book, or something.
“I was just going for a walk along the cliffs – want to come?”
This surprised me slightly as he wasn’t by any means a regular friend of mine away from school; there were a group of five or six of us who lived near to one another and who tended to congregate
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on our bikes in our immediate neighbourhood; Ivor lived all of three-quarters of a mile away in quite another part of the town, separated from our district by a railway line.
“Sure,” I said, glad of the distraction, “just hang on, I’ll shove my coat on.”
As I was doing so, “Mother!” I called, “I’m just going along the cliffs with Ivor.”
“Mind you don’t get cold,” she said, “Have you got your coat on?”
I rolled my eyes at Ivor, who grinned understandingly.
“Yes, Mam,” I said, in a long-suffering voice, and shut the door quickly behind me. We strode away.
When we arrived at the cliff-tops, the cold easterly wind was smashing the rollers against the rocks below and tugged at our overcoats as we walked. Until then we had talked of the usual things, what we had had for Christmas presents, the “flicks”, as Ivor always called them – a word learned from his brother, perhaps? – and how we had been passing the time during the holidays.
“My brother’s in Aden,” Ivor said, “did I tell you?”
I said yes, he had told us, how was he getting along?
“Great,” he said, “but it’s bloody hot out there. They’re all wondering what this bloke Mussolini’s going to do, he keeps talking about – what’s its name? – Abyssinia, or some place?”
I wasn’t greatly interested in the comical figure of the Italian dictator, comical, that is, as he appeared to us, or as he was portrayed to us. So I merely grunted something non-committal.
Ivor said abruptly, “I’m leaving. I thought I’d tell you.”
“You’re what?” I shouted above the noise of the sea, “You’re leaving? Leaving school? But you can’t!”
“Oh, yes I can, though,” he replied with a grin of triumph, “my Dad’s been to the Town Hall to check up.”
“But what are you going to do?” I asked, now all agog. He used an expression I heard then for the first time, on that cold and windswept cliff path, one which, when I hear it, inevitably brings to mind Ivor, his freckled face pink with the cold, as he proudly said, “I’m going to join the Raf.”
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The penny didn’t drop. It must have been the cold.
“The what?” I said, “What’s the Raf?”
He punched my shoulder playfully. Fortunately he was nearer the cliff-edge than I.
“C’mon, yer mug, it’s the R.A.F., of course. What else did you think?”
“Oh, yes, of course,” I replied, recovering my balance. “When’re you going, then?”
“Soon as I can. End of next term, prob’ly. I’m going to be a Boy Apprentice at Halton!”
He squared his broad shoulders. A vision of Oliver Twist with his empty porridge bowl held out in front of him floated into my head. ‘Boy Apprentice’ sounded rather like someone who was being exploited, ill-treated. I am sure I was wrong, but the picture remained. But I grinned and said, “You might get out to Aden with your brother.”
“Hope so,” he said wistfully, “but he’ll prob’ly be posted again before that. Anyhow, that’s what I’m doing. I’m leaving as soon as I can. No more speech training for me!”
We laughed. Two gulls wheeled noisily overhead, their screaming cut across the noise of the sea and of the wind. Ivor aimed his fingers, pointed like a pistol, at them and clicked his tongue very loudly, twice. He was good at that.
“Gotcher!” he exclaimed.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
The Spring term came and went. Ivor, as they would put it nowadays, kept a low profile as far as H – was concerned, and worked assiduously at every subject, even Speech Training. At the end of term he quietly left us. I don’t even remember saying ‘cheerio’ to him. We were young, you see, and quite without sentiment. Then it was summer, and the nets went up again. To my surprise I was elected Junior House cricket captain and became rather insufferably swollen-headed about it. It was on a Saturday afternoon that summer when I saw him again. I was sitting at home, reading, when a shadow passed the window, there was the sound of heavy footsteps and someone knocked at the door. I heard the door-knocker flap loosely as my mother answered it, then the sound of conversation.
[page break]
“It’s your friend,” mother said, “the one in the Air Force.”
I hurried to the door. Ivor stood there, smiling broadly, resplendent in his uniform, heavy boots shining brilliantly, his cap carrying the chequered band of the Halton Cadet.
“Hiya, Ivor!” I said. (I almost called him ‘Ali’ and only just corrected myself in time.)
“Hiya, Yoicks! How about comin’ for a walk? I’m on a forty-eight.”
I had no idea what that was but I went to tell my mother where I was going.
“Isn’t he smart?” she smiled quietly, “he looks well in his uniform.”
We set off for the cliffs, in the sunshine. I noticed he did not lope along now, he marched. He seemed taller than I remembered him, bronzed and deep-chested, harder. We exchanged news. In one way he seemed to be very grown-up but in another, he was still my form-mate, furrowing his brow at some problem of Algebra.
“What’s a forty-eight, by the way?” I asked.
“Just a forty-eight hour pass.”
“You haven’t got much time at home, then, have you? All that way from Halton and you’ll have to be back again inside two days?”
“Sure,” he said, airily and confidently, “it’s a piece of cake.”
That was another new expression; I stored it for future use.
“Where’s your brother just now? Still in Aden?”
“No, he’s been posted to Shaibah; bet you don’t know where that is.”
I shook my head.
“never heard of it before,” I said.
“Middle East,” Ivor said proudly, “Iraq – getting his knees brown good and proper.”
He started to sing joyfully what I later knew to be the anthem of all overseas R.A.F. men, “Shaibah Blues”. Then he ripped into several verses of “Charlotte the Harlot”, and while, having been very strictly brought up, I didn’t know the meaning of some of the expressions, I gathered from their anatomical connections that it was not the sort of thing one would sing at home. At least not at my home. But I smiled rather sheepishly when he’d finished.
I said, “Do you like it, in the Raf?”
(I hadn’t forgotten.)
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“It’s great,” he said decisively, “bloody great.”
He slapped me hard on the shoulder.
“It’s a great life if you don’t weaken, Yoicks!”
“What do you do?”
“Oh, square-bashing, P.T., lectures – I’m going to be a Flight Mechanic.”
I could see he was as happy as a sandboy, it shone out of him. He was alert, confident, buoyant, a complete contrast to the rebellious and scowling youth who had reluctantly forced himself to stand and, red-faced, chant, “the rain in Spain.”
“that’s fine, then,” I said, “but we don’t half miss you in the scrum.”
He never mentioned H – ‘s name.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
Then, of course, the fuse which had been smouldering in Europe for six years finally detonated the bomb, and everything blew up in our faces. Not many of us were at all surprised. Although I and nearly all our little crowd who lived nearby had left school and were settling into our various jobs, as soon as Munich had come along I pushed my studying to one side. I knew there was no point in it now. It was going to be, at the very least, somewhat interrupted. So I, and my friends, played a lot of games, went to a lot of flicks, cycled a lot, and, out of working hours, lived our lives to the full, as far as we could. I started to take a girl out. Her name was Lilian, and she was extremely beautiful.
When the Battle of Britain was on I went into the R.A.F. One of my leaves, much later, coincided with one of Ivor’s, and he called at hour house, out of the blue. This time, as we were men, we shook hands firmly. He looked me up and down.
“I’m bloody well not going to call you ‘sir’,” he said.
“You’d bloody well better not try,, either,” I replied, “or I’ll stick you on a fizzer!”
He swung a playful punch at me, which, knowing Ivor, I was half-expecting. I dodged it and clouted him in the midriff, hard enough to make him wince.
“You rotten sod!” he gasped, “come on, let’s have a walk on the
[page break]
cliffs!”
I handed him a Players’, we lit up and strode away. The cliffs were partly wired off as an anti-invasion measure but we managed to get near enough to hear the same waves crashing on to the same rocks, and to smell the salt air as we walked. Until I looked at us, I felt nothing had changed; then I knew it had, really, and that you could never, ever, put the clock back to what had been.
It was about this time that the inevitable, impersonal and cruelly clinical process of the dissection of our little crowd began.
Norman was unfit for military service because of his deplorable eyesight. He was working for one of the Government Departments in London when a German bomb killed him. Peter, who lived in the next house down the street, and whose father had been drowned at sea a couple of years before, went into the R.A.F., became a Navigator, and was killed when his Wellington, from Finningley, crashed one night. I visited his mother on my first leave after it happened.
She was in a state of near-hysteria at mention of his name, and bitter, it must be said, that everything seemed to be going well for me. She did not know, of course, about my crew. I left her staring into the small fire, locked in her private world of abject misery. Then there was Jack, who was also an only son, strangely enough, also a Navigator on Wellingtons, also killed in a night crash.
By the time Alan, whom I had met in London while I was on my Intelligence course, had qualified as a Radar Operator on Beaufighters, the Germans had ceased flying over England at nights and he was transferred to non-operational flying. George also went into the R.A.F.., qualified as a pilot, then, almost immediately, the war ended. He emigrated to the U.S.A., where he had been trained.
Connie and I had a few months together at Moreton-in-the-Marsh, until I was grounded for good. I left him there, bumped into him once more, on leave, then learned of his death. He had crashed his Stirling, towing a glider, over England.
When it was all over, I asked Alan to be my best man. I would have done so anyhow, but in practical terms I had no choice – there was no-one left in our crowd now but he and I.
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So much had happened since I had last seen Ivor that he rarely had entered my thoughts. There was little reason for him to have done so, as he was a Fitter, in a pretty safe ground job in the R.A.F. Like thousands of other friends, we had been separated by the war and we would either bump into each other on some R.A.F. station, or in some outlandish place in the Far East, or eventually, we’d see each other back in the U.K. When he did enter my head occasionally, I thought perhaps he might have met and married a girl from some other part of the country, or, like George, had seen service in foreign parts and emigrated. I visualised him in a fez, thought about John’s remark about his brother, and smiled to myself at the happy recollection. But gradually, Ivor faded out of my mind.
Until I bumped into a chap who owned a shop, and who had been in our form at school. He had lived within a few hundred yards of Ivor. He, also, had served in the wartime R.A.F., as an armourer, and strangely enough, he told me he had been on the nearest Station to Breighton, at the same time as I had met J – there. I don’t know how he managed it, but he was a mine of information as to what happened to the chaps in our form. Ivor’s name did not come up immediately, as, of course, he had left school before we had done so. But in a pause during his cataloguing of old friends and acquaintances I asked him, “Where’s Ivor got himself these days? I haven’t seen him for years.”
P – was solemn, bespectacled and deliberate in manner and speech. He looked earnestly at me through his thick lenses for a moment or two, as though sorting through some mental card-index and trying to decide whether I could be trusted to hear the information which he had in store there.
“Ivor,” he said slowly, “Ivor Bradley. Yes. he went into the Raf, of course – you knew that?”
“yes,” I said, “He was a Boy Entrant, a Halton Brat, as they were known.”
A smile flicked on to and off his face, like the headlights of a car signalling ‘come on’.
“That’s right,” he continued, then paused. “Yes, well he went missing, you know.”
[page break]
For a moment I could not think what he meant. Rather obtusely I said, “You mean he left town? Went off somewhere suddenly?”
“No, no, he was aircrew, he went missing on a raid over Germany,” P – said, looking more owlish than ever.
“But – he was a fitter, surely?” I exclaimed, with an awful feeling, which I had hoped never again to experience, beginning to overtake me. Then, as the light dawned, I said, “Did he remuster to aircrew?”
P – nodded.
“Yes, that’s what happened. I saw him just after he volunteered for aircrew – you remember we lived near to one another? – and he said he wanted to do something a bit more active. So he became a Flight Engineer.”
“Good God,” I said softly, I’d no idea at all. I never dreamed that Ivor would go – like that.”
He nodded again, solemnly.
“Well, he did, I’m afraid,” he said.
He shuffled through a few more cards.
“How long were you at Breighton, by the way? I saw your name in the Visitors’ Book in the Church there, on the day after you’d been in.”
“That’s remarkable,” I said, “what a small world, isn’t it?”
I remembered very vividly going into the church with J - , the day after Johnny P – went missing.
P – said, “You must call in again sometime. I’ll shut the shop and we’ll have a cup of tea and a proper chat.”
I said yes, I would do that, and I felt I should really have made more of an effort to do so. But I was a bit of a coward about the rest of his card index, I’m afraid.
It was several more years before I learned what had happened to Ivor. Searching through a volume of aircrew losses I finally found his name. He was lost without trace, with his crew, during a raid in a Pathfinder Lancaster in the summer of 1943.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
I poured myself a cup of the green tea and took a sip as I looked out of the window. But it was terribly tepid, so I threw it all away
[page break]
and found I wasn’t really thirsty after all. The sun had long since moved off the chequered tea-cosy, and it was starting to get dusk. I shivered suddenly and found I was feeling extremely lonely and extremely depressed. I looked across at the white telephone and wished to hell that someone would ring, anyone at all, even a wrong number would have done, just so that I could have heard a voice. I sat for a while, waiting, but I knew it was a stupid thing to do. Nobody did ring, so I put on my anorak and went out quickly.
I walked around for a bit. I passed a lighted pub which looked very inviting and cheerful with people smiling at one another and chatting while they drank their beer. I wished I could go in and have a few beers, with Connie, like I used to. I stopped and thought about it, but I knew it would be no good, and as M – had said, it wouldn’t solve anything. So I kept on walking and feeling bloody miserable when I thought about Ivor and Connie, and about Jack and Peter and Norman, and all my crew. And about J - . Her especially. Then I had a strong craving for a cigarette, but I knew that would be a stupid thing to do, too.
It started to rain, so finally, I made my way back to the flat. It felt empty and cold, like somewhere someone had once lived, but didn’t any more. If no-one rings before nine o’clock, I told myself, I will ring M - , just so that I can talk to someone, for Christ’s sake. I sat and looked at the telephone again for a bit and thought about it. But nine o’clock came and I didn’t do anything about it in the end, because I knew it wouldn’t be very cheerful or very much fun for her, and as I was tired and cold I swallowed a couple of aspirin and got into bed.
While I was taking them it occurred to me that there was a stack left in the bottle which could be put to very effective use, but then I thought that wasn’t exactly any part of a pressing-on-regardless effort, so I shoved the bottle firmly to one side.
I knew I wouldn’t be able to go off to sleep after all this business, and I was damned right. I kept thinking about Ivor, then I started thinking about the crowed and how much I realised I was missing them. And about J - ; her, most of all. Then I thought,
[page break]
“My God, there’s only me left now, and I’m not much damn good to anyone like this, even if there were anyone,” which made things worse. I would have given a great deal if I could have turned the clock back, to have gone back to Breighton, to that lovely summer, to have started all over again, to be meeting J – for the first time, that wonderful morning when I saw her walk into the Ops Room, when she came to attention smartly and saluted and said, “Good morning, sir.” Little did I know, little did we both know what was to happen to us.
But this was getting me nowhere, so in the end I said aloud, “Oh, Christ, I just don’t want to wake up in the morning.” Then I said goodnight to J – ‘s photograph, in our own very special way, like I always had done, to her, once upon a time, when we were together, when we were happy.
And then I put out the light.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
[page break]
[inserted] [underlined] Photograph in a book. [/underlined] [/inserted]
[page break]
[underlined] PHOTOGRAPH IN A BOOK [/underlined]
“Frankie, do you remember me?”
(Late 20th century pop song.)
I realise it is very trite to say that the unexpected is always happening. Nevertheless I have to say that something completely unexpected happened recently to me, which produced, out of the blue, a violent cocktail-shaking of emotions which I thought were firmly and peacefully laid to rest.
I flatter myself that usually I am among the first to obtain, or at least to see, newly-published books on the subject of Bomber Command in the second world war, but for one reason or another, this was not the case in relation to a recently-published history of No. 4 Bomber Group.
4 Group included the aerodromes at Linton-on-Ouse, (my initial posting as an Int/Ops Officer), Holme-on-Spalding-Moor, to which I was moved when the Canadians were about to take over the northernmost aerodromes of 4 Group to form their own 6 Group, and Breighton, the satellite of Holme, where I was to meet, fall in love with and become engaged to J - , who, when the war was over became my wife.
I should have, to have been true to form, snapped up the book on its first appearing, but for various reasons, I did not. Instead, I heard reports – all good – of it from D - , an Ex-W.A.A.F., who features on a whole page of it, complete with her charming photograph, and with whom I had been corresponding. And I heard of it from Alan, a friend who was instrumental in having a memorial installed on the village green close to the place where Pilot Officer Cyril Barton, V.C., of 578 Squadron in 4 Group, sacrificed his life in bringing back his crippled and half-crewed Halifax after the disastrous Nuremberg raid. Alan was a schoolboy at the time and was among the first on the scene of Cyril Barton’s crash. He has, most worthily, devoted a considerable amount of his time and energy to ensuring
[page break]
that Cyril’s sacrifice will never be forgotten. It was as a result of this that, just before J – died, I met Alan, a very caring man, a man who has become a true friend to me. He was given the book as a birthday present.
He and I live in neighbouring towns. We speak on the telephone quite often; we meet whenever we are able and always find much to talk about, as Alan was also in the Royal Air Force. He was thrilled to receive the book, which, naturally, contains material concerning Cyril Barton. I had been searching bookshops for it, but without success; I had been waiting for the local Library to obtain it for me.
Early one evening there was a ring at my doorbell. Alan was standing there, cheerful as ever, a welcome sight indeed. He was carrying something flat in a Sainsbury’s carrier bag. With typical generosity he said that as he and his wife were shortly going on holiday, I might as well have the benefit of the book while he was away. I was grateful to him, and leafed through it while we chatted for a while before he had to leave to go to work. He showed me a picture in the book of Cyril’s wrecked aircraft and of Alan himself, as a schoolboy, standing near to it, very soon after the crash occurred.
When Alan had gone, impressed by the high quality of the book and by the photographs in particular, many of them amateur pictures taken by wartime aircrew members, I leafed through its pages, then worked through them systematically.
There were many poignant, familiar scenes. Of aircraft and their crews, of aerodromes and their buildings, targets in Germany and the occupied countries, pictures of people I had known of by reputation, people I had known personally, many I had never known. I found myself wondering how many of those young faces smiling at me from the pages were now, like myself, turning these same pages thinking, as I was thinking, “Oh, yes, I remember a scene like that”, or how many if them were no longer able to do this. A lump was gathering in my throat as I turned to a particular page and saw, among a group of captions, one which read ‘Interrogation for 78 Squadron crews as others await their turn, following the raid
[page break]
on Berlin on 31st August/1st September 1943.’
Reading it, I thought, “Well – I was an Intelligence Officer to 78n Squadron at that time.” Then I looked at the photograph and saw myself pictured there, in the far corner of the room, writing down the replies to my questions to the crew – heaven only knows who they were – at my table.
“My God,” I exclaimed.
I could not help it and I am not ashamed to admit that my eyes flooded with tears. I had no idea that the photograph had been taken; the author’s credit was to Gerry C - , who was a pilot on the Squadron at that time, whom I knew, and with whom I am still in contact.
I felt as though I had been wrenched back in time to that night, almost fifty years ago, as though the intervening years had never been, as though I were still at Breighton, working those long and irregular hours in the windowless Operations Room alongside Derek and Pam, with one or other of the W.A.A.F. Watchkeepers – Freda, or the attractive and much sought after Billie, or with J - . I felt, strangely, that all I needed to do was to walk out of the door of this cottage and I would find myself, miraculously, back on the narrow concrete road leading from that house in the hamlet of Breighton with its tall gable-end, along past the W.A.A.F. site to the Nissen huts of the Intelligence Library, the Window Store and the Ops. Room, where the armed sentry would be on duty, where the cornfield would be stretching away to my left, up towards the perimeter track and the runways of the aerodrome. I would return the sentry’s salute and his greeting and I would open the heavy door of the Ops. Room to see, on my left, the huge blackboard with the captains’ names and their aircraft letters already entered for the night’s operation. At the top, the target for tonight, perhaps Duisburg or Mannheim or Essen – or Berlin. The route written underneath that – Base – Southwold – Point A, with Lat. and Long. positions for the route-marking flares to guide the bomber stream to the target. The time of briefing, of the operational meals, of transport out to the aircraft, of starting engines, and of take-off. Of ‘H-Hour’, the time on target. On the wall facing me I would see the huge map of the British Isles, the S.D. 300, blotched in red with gun-defended areas, stuck with broad-headed pins and coloured threads carrying information
[page break]
about navigational hazards.
In the middle of the room the big map table where, after the raid, we spread the mosaic photograph of the German town which had been the target and would plot the crews’ bombing photos. And, to the right, the place where I shall sit, near to the telephones and next to J – who is there behind her switchboard and Tannoy microphone, ready for the night’s operation. If she had been born a man she would, I know, have been a member of a bomber crew, for she thought and talked of little else but bombing operations.
Except on stand-down evenings, in the twilight, when we met secretly in the village at a quiet angle of buildings on the main road, near to the bus stop, then cycled to the ‘Plough’ at Spaldington, the nearest village to the bombing range, where, amazingly, there were no other uniforms to be seen in its homely bar. Where we would spend the long, warm evenings over two or three beers, sitting in the high-backed, high-sided wooden seats made for two, made for people like we were then, people who were young and who had met and who loved each other deeply and desperately. And sitting there, talking gently together, we would hear, above the murmur of the farm workers’ talk, the drone of some aircraft, perhaps on a night cross-country flight, perhaps heading for the other side on a raid. Then we would both sit silently, listening, not saying anything, but I know we were both praying for its safe return to base.
Sometimes, when our own aircraft had gone on a raid and we were not due on duty until they returned, we would steal a precious hour together, sitting with our arms around one another in the darkness, on a low grassy bank under some trees, not far from the unmanned railway level crossing at Gunby, the Sandra lights from the aerodrome shining distantly through the trees, heavy with their summer foliage. For some reason, whenever I hear Delius’ ‘The Walk to the Paradise Garden’ I invariably and inevitable think of J – and I at that place and those wonderful, warm summer nights we shared in the countryside of East Yorkshire, around Breighton.
The tears which came to my eyes when I saw my photograph, and the sadness which overwhelmed me, were because now, that Interrogation Room, whose walls, had they been possessed of ears, would have heard
[page break]
small, unemotionally told tales, couched in the understated phrases of flying men, of achievement, of failure, of heroism, of desperation, triumph and tragedy, that Interrogation Room is now an unoccupied ruin, and the Ops. Room is no more, now part of an isolated dwelling house. I know, for I have been back there, where among so much tragedy, I was so happy.
And J - , now, is no more, except in my memory. I sat with her, taking her cold and unfeeling hand in mine, one beautiful summer morning, such as we used to have at Breighton, and I watched her life slip away from the loveliness that had been her. But we shall meet again, I know, she and I, and all the many crew members who came into our lives and went again, and were forgotten by us, like the many dawns and the many sunsets which we shared.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
[page break]
[underlined] GLOSSARY [/underlined]
Abort – to abandon an operation and return to base.
A.C.P. – Aerodrome Control Pilot, a ‘traffic policeman’ for those aircraft within visual distance.
A.G. – Air Gunner.
Alldis lamp – high-powered lamp capable of flashing Morse letters.
A.P. – Air Publication, usually a book; Aiming Point.
A.S.I. – Airspeed indicator.
Astrodome – transparent blister half way back along the fuselage of the Wellington.
A.S.V. – Anti-surface vessel.
A.T.A. – Air Transport Auxiliary, civilian aircraft delivery service.
Base – parent Station of one or more satellite aerodromes. Three, four, or even five Bases and their satellites constituted a Group.
base – one’s home aerodrome.
Best blue – best uniform.
Bind – (noun) nuisance, annoyance. (verb) to complain, tiresomely.
Bomb plot – plan of the target area annotated with the positions of each of the Squadron aircraft’s bombing photos.
Bombing Leader – senior Bomb-Aimer on a Squadron, responsible for instruction and training of other Bomb-Aimers.
Bombing photo – vertical photo taken automatically on release of an aircraft’s bombs, thus showing the point of impact.
Boost – petrol/air mixture pressure at the engine inlet manifold.
Buck House – Buckingham Palace.
Bullseye – bomber exercise in conjunction with friendly searchlights.
Circuits and bumps – take offs, circuits and landing, the staple diet of training pilots.
C.O. – Commanding Officer.
Cookie – 4000 pound High Capacity blast bomb, nicknamed by the press and B.B.C. ‘blockbuster’.
DC3 – Douglas Dakota twin-engined transport aircraft. Also known as a C-47.
Defiant – Boulton Paul single-engined fighter/night fighter. Two-seater, the rear seat being in a rotatable 4-gun turret.
[page break]
D.R. – Dispatch rider.
Drem lighting – aerodrome runway and perimeter track lighting, protected by metal dish-shaped hoods so as to be invisible from above. First used at R.A.F. Drem, Scotland.
Early return – (later knows as ‘boomerang’) aircraft returning from an abortive sortie.
E.F.T.S. – Elementary Flying Training School.
Erk – Aircraftman.
E.T.A. – Estimated time of arrival.
Feathering – device which enabled the pilot to turn the blades of a propeller edge-on to the direction of flight, thus minimising the drag on the aircraft in the event of an engine failure.
Flak – German anti-aircraft fire.
Flights – Flight Offices and crewroom.
Flying the beam – flying from A to B by means of an aural signal transmitted by B.
Fresher – a new crew; such a crew’s early operational flights; the target for such a crew.
Fizzer, stick (or put) on a – charge with an offence.
Gee – radar navigational aid which enabled an aircraft to fix its position. Had a limited range which just covered the Ruhr and was susceptible to jamming.
Gen – information, news, divided into ‘pukka’ (true) and ‘duff’ (false). (Meteorological Officers were invariably known as Duff Gen Men.)
Geodetics – aluminium girders formed into spiral basket-work construction which made up the fuselage and mainplanes of the Wellington.
Get weaving – get going, get started.
Glim lamps/lights – low-powered lights which formed the flarepath of an aerodrome.
Glycol – Ethylene glycol, liquid coolant.
Gong – medal.
Goose-necks – paraffin flares housed in watering-can-shaped containers. Supplemented Drem lighting.
G.Y. – Grimsby.
Gyro – gyroscopic compass.
[page break]
1 Group – Bomber Group in north Lincolnshire consisting of, originally, 4 R.A.F., 3 Polish and 2 Australian Wellington Squadrons, latterly, of Lancaster Squadrons.
3 Group – Bomber Group in East Anglia consisting of, originally, Wellington Squadrons. Converted to Stirlings, latterly to Lancasters.
Halifax – Four-engined Handley Page bombers with crew of seven. Nicknamed Hali or Halibag.
Hampden – Twin-engined Handley Page medium bombers, crew of three.
Harvard – single-engined North American Aviation Co. advanced fighter trainers. Also know as Texan or AT – 6.
“Have a good trip” – Between close friends on a Squadron this parting remark was occasionally varied by the addition of “Can I have your egg if you don’t come back?” This was part of the grim humour current among bomber aircrew.
H.E. – High explosive.
High – anticyclone, high-pressure weather system.
H2S – Radar device which showed a ground plan of the earth below an aircraft.
Ident. light – identification light, a small nose-light used for flashing Morse.
I.F.F. – Identification friend or foe. Radar set carried on an aircraft to identify it as friendly to British ground defences. Set to ‘Stud 3’ it gave a specially-shaped distress trace on ground radar screens.
Int. – Intelligence.
Intercom – internal ‘telephone system’ in an aircraft.
Interrogation – now known, in view of the current overtones of ill-treatment which have become implicit in the term, as ‘de-briefing’.
I.T.W. – Initial Training Wing.
Juice – petrol
Kite – aircraft.
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L.A.C. – Leading Aircraftman.
L.A.C.W. – Leading Aircraftwoman.
Line-shoot – boast.
Link Trainer – a simulator which gave practice in instrument flying.
Lysander – Single-engined Westland Aviation Army co-operation (originally) aircraft.
Mag drop – the reduction in r.p.m. of an engine when one of its two magnetos was switched out.
Mae West – Inflatable life-jacket which gave to its wearer the contours of the famous film actress.
Mosaic – collage of aerial photographs, taken probably at different times, but from the same height, making up a complete picture of a German town, and used to plot bombing photos.
Nav. – navigator, navigation.
N.F.T. – night-flying test.
Nickels – British propaganda leaflets dropped over enemy territory. To drop the leaflets was known as nickelling.
Observer – Navigator/Bomb-aimer in twin-engined bombers prior to the establishment of these as separate categories.
Occult – white flashing beacon showing one Morse letter whose latitude and longitude was carried by Observers or Navigators (in code).
On the boat – posted overseas, or, when overseas, posted to the U.K.
One o’clock – slightly to the right of dead ahead (twelve o’clock). Dead astern was six o’clock.
Ops – operations.
O.T.U. – Operational Training Unit.
Oxford – twin-engined advanced bomber-trainer, made by Airspeed Ltd.
Peri. track – perimeter track, a taxying track connecting the ends of the runways on an aerodrome, and having aircraft dispersal points leading off it.
Pigeon – homing pigeon carried in bomber aircraft to carry a message back to base giving the aircraft’s position in the event of ‘ditching’ (landing in the sea), when the aircraft would be too low for its radio transmissions to be heard.
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Pit – bed.
Pitch controls – varied the angle of the propeller blades and consequently controlled the r.p.m. of the engine.
Pitot head – (pronounced pea-toe) fine-bore tube facing forward which supplied air pressure from the movement of the aircraft through the air and showed this pressure as airspeed on a ‘clock’ in the cockpit.
P/O – Pilot Officer (not necessarily a pilot!)
Poop off – shoot off.
P/O Prune – a cartoon character in Tee Emm (q.v.), an inept pilot forever involved in accidents of his own making.
Portreath – R.A.F. Station in Cornwall
Prang – crash, wreck, break.
Press the tit – press the button.
Prop – propeller, more properly, airscrew.
P.R.U. – Photographic Reconnaissance Unit.
Pundit – aerodrome beacon, flashing two red Morse letters which were changed at irregular intervals. The beacons were always within two miles of the parent aerodrome, although their position was changed nightly.
R.A.A.F. – Royal Australian Air Force.
R.C.A.F. – Royal Canadian Air Force.
Resin lights – low-powered lights at the rear of an aircraft’s wingtips, illuminated over this country as a warning to friendly night-fighters. Colours were changed at irregular intervals.
Revs – revolutions.
Rolling the bones – gambling with dice.
R/T – radio telephone (speech).
Sandra lights – cone of three searchlights stationary over an aerodrome, to assist returning aircraft.
Scrub – cancel.
Second dickey – second pilot.
S.D. – secret document.
S.D.300 – wall-map of the U.K., kept in the Ops Room and maintained by the Watchkeepers, showing positions of all gun-defended areas, navigational hazards and convoys.
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S.F.T.S. – Service Flying Training School. (Stage following E.F.T.S.)
Spit – Spitfire.
Spoof. – feint.
Sprog – newly arrived, newly joined, raw, inexperienced.
Square-bashing – drill.
Stall – lose flying speed.
Stirling – four-engined bomber manufactured by Short Bros.
Stooge – boring, casual or haphazard flying.
Stud 3 – Distress frequency setting on I.F.F. (q.v.)
Sullom Voe – R.A.F. Station in the Shetlands.
Sweet Caps – Sweet Caporal cigarettes, a popular Canadian brand.
Tee Emm – Air Ministry Training Magazine. Humorously written and comically illustrated aid to safe flying and good navigation and gunnery. It was extremely popular with all aircrew.
Trailing edge – rear edge of mainplane or elevators.
Trimmers – (or ‘trimming tabs’). Small adjustable sections of the aircraft’s control surfaces, enabling it to be flown, when they were carefully adjusted, without undue pressure on the controls by the hands and feet.
Undercart – undercarriage.
u/s – unserviceable.
u/t – under training.
Vic – V.
W.A.A.F. – Women’s Auxiliary Air Force; a member of same.
W.A.A.F. (G) – Officer responsible for the discipline and well-being of all W.A.A.F. on a Station.
Watchkeeper – W.A.A.F. Sergeant who acted as a clearing house for all telephoned outgoing and incoming secret operational and other information, and who was responsible for its prompt and correct transmission to the appropriate person(s).
Wellington – twin-engined Vickers bomber with a crew of six.
Wimpy – Nickname for the above. Derived from the character in a ‘Daily Mirror’ cartoon – J. Wellington Wimpy, a friend of Popeye.
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Wingco – Wing Commander. (C.O. of a bomber Squadron).
W/T – wireless telegraphy (Morse code).
Y.M. – Y.M.C.A.

Collection

Citation

H Yeoman, “Loose on the wind,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed September 29, 2022, https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/collections/document/30990.

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