The Central Medical Establishment crouched beside the Middlesex Hospital, surrounded by reminders of the Blitz. In the waiting room, scores of young men waited nervously to face the RAF Medical Board. The fresh, young faces of schoolboys hoping to be passed fit to enter the RAF wandered restlessly about the room, while the pain-lined faces of wounded veterans anxious – or dreading – a return to the fray hovered about the tables. The two groups segregated instinctively, keeping a wary distance from one another.
Banks nodded to others like himself, men whose faces weren’t quite natural. They were involuntary members of the same club. Even if they did not know each other’s names, they felt a natural kinship. He sat down next to one of them; the other man smiled stiffly and pushed a dog-eared magazine in Banks’ direction. “Looking for a bowler hat or a flying category?” he asked.
“Flying category,” Banks answered firmly.
Before they could deepen the conversation, a name was called, and his new-found companion jumped nervously to his feet. Banks had time only to wish him luck before he was led away, never to be seen again.
After another indefinite period that felt quite long, Banks’ turn came. He was taken to a door labelled “Adjutant.” The orderly opened the door for him, waved him through and closed it behind him. Inside the dingy, cramped room he was told to take a seat. The flight lieutenant behind the desk had a thick file in front of him, which evidently contained Banks’ medical records. Looking at the documents rather than at Banks, he remarked. “Let’s see. Third degree burns over face and hands. Right hand festered and needed repeat treatment … hm.” At last, he looked up. “You’ll have no difficulty getting a discharge.”
“I don’t want a discharge,” Banks protested.
“Oh, one of the gung-ho types, are we? Had a couple of you today already. It must be a contagious condition. Look, the RAF needs fully fit pilots, not invalids. We have hundreds of young chaps who can’t wait to get at the Hun. It’s better for everyone, if you take your discharge and look for other work.”
“But that’s not what I want,” Banks insisted.
“Well, last I heard, the RAF isn’t here to do what you want it to do, but rather to win the war. Go and take a seat again. You’ll still need a complete physical before you get your discharge papers.”
Stunned, Banks walked back into the waiting room and sank into a chair, unable to formulate any clear thoughts. He had not considered the possibility of being kicked out of the RAF altogether. He had assumed they would let him do a ground job — controlling, adjutant or the like.
At what seemed like a haphazard intervals, he was called to various offices to provide blood and urine samples, to have his lungs, blood pressure and reflexes tested, to take an eye examination and a hearing test, and so on. The afternoon dragged by as the waiting room gradually emptied. Shortly before 6:00p.m., Banks was called and escorted to a door with a sign stating the occupant was Air Commodore so-and-so and Chairman of the Board of Medical Examiners.
Unlike the adjutant, he wore medical insignia and projected a polite and gentlemanly manner. “Pilot Officer Goldman, have a seat.” Smiling, he added, “There’s no need to be nervous. If it were allowed, I’d offer you a brandy. As it’s not, we’ll just have a nice chat, shall we?”
“Now, you have a rather thick file here, and by the looks of it you’ve had a very rough time these past eighteen months. However, I understand from the adjutant that you would like to remain in the RAF.”
“Very much so, sir.”
“Well, we’re always pleased to have officers who are as keen on the service as you are.”
Banks felt some of the tension ease. Even if they didn’t let him fly, apparently they wouldn’t throw him out altogether after all.
“Moreover,” the air commodore was continuing. “except for your injuries, you appear to be in excellent physical condition – eyesight, hearing, and all the other bits and pieces seem to be in excellent working order.”
“Yes, sir,” Banks agreed emphatically.
“I’m also happy to tell you that a number of other pilots who suffered similar injuries and returned to flying status have performed far beyond expectations. We’re seeing more and more of them nowadays.” Just when Banks was about to relax, he added, “However, in your case, there are two impediments preventing a return to flying status.”
After the initial encouraging remarks, the statement took him aback. “But, sir…” His voice faded away as the air commodore lifted a hand to halt his flood of protest.
“First, Dr MacIndoe does not think your right hand will ever regain sufficient strength to handle the instruments of a modern fighter, much less a bomber, under combat conditions.”
Banks could have pointed out that the Spitfire did not take any strength to handle, but he preferred to focus on his personal objectives. “I’d be perfectly happy with a restricted flying category, sir. Just before I was shot down, I had been posted to Training Command. That’s all I’m asking for now,” he declared, adding without even stopping to take a breath, “I can certainly handle elementary training aircraft under training conditions.”
This elicited a smile from the air commodore. “That’s very refreshing to hear. We need good instructors – though, of course, you’ll have to convince Training Command that you are up to the task.”
“If you decide to pursue that path, you will have to pass a flying test with the Chief Flying Instructor at Central Flying School Upavon.”
Banks nodded seriously. “Yes, sir. Of course.”
“However,” the Air Commodore again quashed his growing hopes. “I mentioned two impediments. The second is more unusual. I have a note here suggesting you might be better suited to other kinds of work entirely. Specifically, that you might be better suited to intelligence than flying.”
“Who put that note in my file, sir?” Banks asked, stunned.
“I’m not at liberty to disclose that, Pilot Officer, but I can assure you it is a gentleman in a very senior position within the Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6 as some call it.”
Clive, Banks registered, and his skin went cold. Then he roused himself. “Sir, I fell in love with flying as a child. I built gliders before I was fourteen. I obtained my pilot’s licence at seventeen. I had qualified on twins by the age of eighteen. I had a commercial licence at nineteen. I have over 1,200 hours flying in my log. I came to England for the sole purpose of flying with the RAF and joining the fight against Nazi Germany – as a pilot.”
The air commodore considered him calmly and not unkindly, but Banks had the feeling he was not entirely sympathetic either – or did Clive wield greater power and influence than Banks could imagine?
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