Kit had been through the crewing up process before, when he’d been recruited for Don Selkirk’s crew. Then, as now, he’d found the exercise absurdly informal and haphazard. The members of the course collected in a large, empty hall and were told, literally, to “sort themselves out.” They were expected to organise themselves into crews of five with one pilot, one navigator, one bomb aimer, one radio operator and an air gunner. Two additional members of the crew, the mid-upper gunner and the flight engineer, would not join until they went to a Heavy Conversion Unit (HCU) several months from now. The five men who teamed up here, however, formed the core and largely determined the character of each crew. As a flight engineer, Kit had been accepted into Don’s crew at the HCU after it had already become a close-knit and well-functioning team. It felt as if he’d been adopted by them. As a pilot, in contrast, he had the responsibility to create a crew nucleus from scratch by selecting airmen who were both competent in their respective jobs and would work together well. The best crews melded into a well-functioning team. Those that didn’t were often the first to “go for a Burton.”
Kit remembered the bomb aimer on Don’s crew complaining that they had less time to choose a crew than a wife. Yet, as he put it, “choose the wrong wife and you may be miserable; choose the wrong skipper and its curtains.” Don had retorted that the wrong navigator, radio operator or air gunners would be just as deadly. “All seven of us have a vital job to do, and all of our lives depend on each of us doing his well.”
Kit surveyed the chaos in front of him and wondered how he could possibly identify the right men from this horde of virtual strangers. Forrester, on the other hand, approached the process with a methodical and nearly scientific singlemindedness. For two weeks, he had been bluntly asking men about their assessments and exam scores, marking down their answers in a small, notebook. As soon as the Station Commander told them to get started, Forrester made a beeline for the Canadians. Forrester had told Kit the troublemakers were “feisty” and “aggressive,” qualities he wanted in his crew, especially for the air gunners.
Kit didn’t agree, but the bigger problem was his reluctance to choose anyone at all. Kit didn’t plan to die, but he couldn’t escape the feeling that his chances of survival were poor. Statistically, more than half the men in this room would be dead before they completed their first tour. Kit’s unease, however, extended beyond the statistics.
For one thing, Don had been the best skipper imaginable, yet he’d bought it. Clearly a pilot judged “average” had an even lower chance of making it. The odds meant Kit would need good luck, and a profound sense of having already used up more than his fair share of that unsettled him. He’d made it through thirty-six ops without a scratch. On the night Don was killed, the bomb aimer, navigator and radio operator had also been injured, the navigator and radio operator critically. Yet while shrapnel had torn slices through his flight jacket and burned holes in his boots, Kit remained completely unscathed. Kit didn’t think he deserved to escape injury and death more than the others. If anyone had not deserved to die, it was Don. His mother might credit his survival to a ‘guardian angel,’ but Kit thought rather he had been dicing with the devil — and the devil didn’t like to lose, not in the long run.
Of course, there was no reason to assume he would take his whole crew with him when he got the chop, but the RAF had done away with “second pilots” long ago. That meant that if he bought it his crew stood little chance of returning safely. The best they could hope for was to bail-out.
Standing in that echoing hall filled with eager young men chatting, laughing, gesturing and shaking hands, Kit felt like bad luck. Tapping someone on the shoulder would be like the grim reaper pointing a finger at them. On the other hand, if he approached no-one he would be left with the dregs, the men no one else wanted. The result would be a crew of misfits, further diminishing his — and their — chances of survival.
Then an odd thing happened. Pilot Officer Peal walked over to him. As one of the few commissioned navigators, he and Kit had run into one another regularly at the officers’ mess. Tall, blond, slender, and elegant, Peal was a film-maker’s image of an RAF officer. Forrester alleged that Peal’s father was a famous and successful barrister, while his mother was supposedly the daughter of a fabulously wealthy American “railway baron”. Kit mistrusted rumours of that sort, but there was no question that Peal had a ready smile and an easy-going nature combined with the manners of a perfect gentleman.
“Moran?” He smiled as he approached. “Any objections to me as your navigator?”
Objections? Moran already liked the modest and soft-spoken Englishman. Furthermore, he and Peal had shared a couple of pints just a few days ago, during which they had discovered a common interest in buildings, Moran as would-be civil engineer and Peal as a man with a degree in architecture. What mattered most, however, was that Moran had flown with Peal, and he’d been absolutely first-rate. Peal had been precisely atop of every check point dead on time. If anyone was not a misfit or ‘the dregs’ it was Peal. If further proof were needed, Forrester had targeted Peal as the man he wanted for his crew. Moran glanced towards the Australian and, sure enough, Forrester was making his way back across the large chamber in evident haste.
Still reeling from the unexpectedness of the offer, Kit stammered uncertainly, “No, of course I have no objections. I’d be pleased to fly with you, Peal—”
Peal didn’t give Kit a chance to express any reservations. He broke into a smile and held out his hand. “Shall we go by first names? I’m Adrian, in case you forgot.”
“Right. Kit.” They shook hands just as Forrester arrived.
“Don’t tell me that you’ve already signed on with Moran, mate? Without even giving me a chance to chat you up?”
Before Kit could answer, Adrian spoke up with a vaguely apologetic smile, “Oh, I’m so sorry, Forrester, but we did indeed just shake on it. A gentleman’s word and all…”
Forrester took it well, congratulated Kit with a “Well done, mate,” and excused himself to go in pursuit of another man he wanted.
“You seem very sure about this,” Kit observed to Adrian as Forrester’s back retreated across the room. He couldn’t imagine why Adrian had chosen him. Several other pilots on the course seemed more Adrian’s type — the right school tie and all that.
“Although you don’t talk about it, everyone knows that you’ve completed one tour already, and you can’t hide that DFM either,” Adrian noted, with a nod towards the ribbon below Kit’s wings which indicated he’d earned the Distinguished Flying Medal. Although not explicit, Adrian’s look said: “that kind of over-modest line-shoot won’t wash with me.”
Kit was glad to be distracted by the arrival of a young sergeant with an air gunner badge. “Sir!” He addressed Kit with a smart salute, forcing Kit to answer in kind. Then he opened in a pugnacious voice, “Have you already selected a rear gunner, sir?”
“No,” Kit admitted.
“In that case, sir, I’d like to fly with you. My gunnery assessment was above average, and you flew with me on the first day.”
Kit was amused by his brashness and couldn’t resist reminding him, “Didn’t you get air sick when I was corkscrewing?”
“That was just because I wasn’t expecting it, sir. I can cope — even if I have to skip the pre-flight meal. Went without dinner often enough as boy,” he added with an engaging grin.
The boy, because he was still that, was very slight and thin, ideal for the cramped rear turret, but he looked too young to be in RAF uniform. Kit found himself asking, “Just how old are you, Sergeant?”
“You mean to the RAF or how old I am really?”
“Is there a difference?”
“Lied to get in, sir,” the boy admitted candidly. “I was only 15, almost 16, but I’m 18 now.”
“What’s your name, Sergeant?”
“Osgood, sir. Nigel Osgood. I’d really like to fly with you, sir. I’ve got good night vision.”
Osgood’s eagerness discomfited Kit. The boy was treating him as though he were some sort of wizard skipper, like Don had been, and he wasn’t. He tried to curb the youngster’s enthusiasm. “I’ve got no doubts about your vision, Osgood, but…” But what? “Tell me more about your background.” Since Osgood was a sergeant, Kit had had no opportunity to interact with him outside of training as he had with Peal.
“Not much to tell, sir. Wasn’t good at school so I left at 14. It bored me a bit,” he admitted with a grin.
“Your parents didn’t object to that — or you lying about your age to sign up?”
“Why should they? Me mam takes in laundry. By the docks. Liverpool docks, that is.” With his accent, that had never been any doubt. “Not good money, and she had me and me two brothers to feed. Me dad wasn’t around much.”
“When he wasn’t too sozzled to get a berth.” Contempt ladened his tone, but then he seemed to realise that this fact might not recommend him, so he hastened to add, “I don’t take after him, sir. Don’t need to worry about that. Besides, me mam threw him out five or six years ago.”
Kit liked the boy, which was exactly why he was reluctant to take him on, but he couldn’t find a legitimate reason to say no. He looked over at Adrian. “We’re in this together now, Adrian. What do you think?”
“Sergeant Osgood looks like a fine gunner to me.”
Kit turned back and offered his hand. “Welcome aboard, Osgood. Off duty, I’m Kit.”
Osgood broke out in a relieved grin. “Thank you, sir — Kit.” He grinned wider at that.
“My name’s Wright, sir.” Another sergeant who had been hovering beside them held out his hand at once. “I’m the best bomb aimer on the course, and I’d like to join your crew, Flying Officer Moran.”
Wright’s accent was public school, and Kit had been around long enough to know what that meant. The RAF still assumed anyone with a public school background was officer material and automatically gave them an acting commission along with the opportunity to go to flight training if they wanted, which almost everyone did. Nearly all bomb aimers had started out in flight school but washed out at some point. When they did, they also lost the rank of “Acting Pilot Officer” and were reclassified as Sergeants. There was nothing wrong with that as far as Kit was concerned, but calling himself “the best bomb aimer on the course” seemed a bit of a line-shoot. Kit had heard nothing to confirm that self-assessment, but he had noticed that during briefings and collective training, Wright liked to draw attention to himself. Kit viewed his behaviour a sign of immaturity, and his instincts said that they would not get along.
Out loud Kit responded, “I’m flattered, Sergeant, but I don’t think we’ve flown together. I’d like to do that before we make a formal decision about crewing up.” Since he’d flown with both Peal and Osgood, Wright could not claim Kit was being unfair.
“I don’t mind, sir, but Forrester is only one of the other pilots interested in having me join their crew. I don’t expect I’ll be available tomorrow.”
“Well, then, best of luck,” Kit told him with a smile. He didn’t like being pressured.
Wright looked stunned. He glanced at Peal as if expecting the navigator to come to his defence, but Peal simply smiled and shrugged apologetically. Wright turned on his heel and made a beeline for Forrester.
Shortly afterwards the session ended, as arbitrarily and haphazardly as it had begun. Noting the time, the Station Commander announced that that would be all for now and informed them they had another couple of days to complete the process of crewing up. Henceforth, however, those that had teamed up should do all flying together.
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