“I’m beginning to wonder about Nigel,” Adrian remarked offhandedly to Kit as they left the officer’s mess the following evening. Another night fighter affiliation exercise was laid on for tonight.
“What do you mean ‘wonder’?” Kit asked back, without looking at him as he pulled on his silk gloves.
“I mean, I’m beginning to wonder if he was such a good choice for our rear gunner. A bit rough, don’t you think?”
“He’s not a troublemaker. I’m sure he was goaded into the brawl. Levesque has a way with words that rubs me up the wrong way too.”
“True enough, but the real problem is that Levesque has the rights of it, doesn’t he?” Kit’s look of disbelief forced Adrian to be more explicit, “I mean about being a better gunner than Nigel.”
“Maybe, but Nigel’s still better than most,” Kit reminded Adrian. “Levesque is the only other gunner who consistently scores higher.”
“You may be right on the towed targets, Kit, but Nigel’s score against fighters is terrible so far.”
“I don’t care about shooting down fighters, Adrian,” Kit replied steadily. “I only care about escaping them.”
They entered the crew room where all aircrew had a locker with their flying kit. Kit scanned the room looking for Nigel and found the gunner slumped on the wooden bench in front of his locker pulling on his thick, wool socks. His nose was swollen into a pig’s snout, and the right side of his jaw looked badly bruised as well.
Kit went over to him and asked cautiously. “Are you fit to fly, Nigel? It doesn’t look to me as though you could breathe through that nose.”
“I have a mouth, don’t I?” The gunner snapped back in a voice slurred by his injuries. He evaded Kit’s eyes.
“You’re sure you can wear an oxygen mask?”
The words were correct, but Nigel’s tone was so furious that Kit felt compelled to point out: “I’m not the one who hit you, Nigel.”
“I may look puny, but I could have handled that twit Levesque!” Nigel burst out furiously. “‘Cept his whole ruddy crew, including his skipper, piled in on his side. And where were my crewmates?” He glared at Kit. “Most weren’t even there, and the one who was dived under the nearest table!” He threw the last words in Stu’s direction provocatively.
Kit, who had stopped fist-fighting at the age of eleven or so, could hardly fault Stu for not being drawn into the brawl. Nevertheless, he sympathised with Nigel’s sense of being left in the lurch. Before he could think of an appropriate response, however, Nigel continued, “If a couple of the other gunners hadn’t come to my aid, I’d have been creamed — and I wasn’t even the one who started the fight! It was that flaming arse Levesque, who thinks he has the right to insult me. I’m not going to put up with it, Skipper!”
Kit scanned the locker room and spotted the Canadian. He had a black-eye and a broken lip, but he was joking happily with his crewmates. Feeling Kit’s gaze, Levesque glanced over, grinned, and then put his fingers to his lips to give a piercing, attention-getting whistle. “Two shillings to one I score better than you do, Goodie!” Goodie was apparently the Canadian’s corruption of Osgood’s name.
Nigel jumped to his feet as though he was going to attack. Kit physically held him back while, with some good-natured shoulder punches, Forrester herded Levesque and the rest of his crew out of the door.
The Canadian gunner still managed to shout over his shoulder, “Toodaloo, Goodie! See you at the debrief!”
Forrester poked his head back into the crew room to up the ante. “I’ll make that five quid to one, Moran. Are we on?”
“I don’t gamble,” Kit answered steadily.
“Not when you’re sure to lose, eh?” Forrester laughed and continued on his way.
“The only reason that effing arse Levesque scores better than me on the fighters is because you corkscrew too bloody well!” Nigel burst out, his hands still balled into fists.
Kit laughed, but Nigel glared at him. “I’m bloody serious, Skip! Couldn’t you pause in the middle of the corkscrew so I can get in a good shot?”
“Don’t be ridiculous! I’m not suicidal,” Kit dismissed the request.
“This isn’t my idea, Skipper. One of the instructors at gunnery school, a veteran of more than fifty ops, told me about this trick.”
“Only you?” Kit asked sceptically, certain that if this was a legitimate tactic, he would have heard of it before now.
“He was a bit of a mean old sod,” Nigel admitted, wiping at his battered nose with the back of his hand before adding, “and he was pissed off with most of the trainees because they didn’t pander to him the way he wanted, but I played along, and we got pie-eyed together one night. That’s when he told me this trick. I’m sure it works, Skip. He said that if the pilot first takes evasive action and then suddenly throttles back and goes still for a couple of seconds, it upsets the enemy’s aim. Not the gunner’s though; if he knows it’s coming, he can get in a perfect shot.”
By now the other crews had left the changing room. Only Adrian, Stu and Terry were left. Fully kitted up, they’d drifted over to Kit and Nigel.
“If it works that well, why doesn’t everyone do it?” Kit challenged Nigel with a glance at the others.
“Because, as this bloke warned me, most flaming skippers are too effing arrogant to listen to their gunners, that’s why!” Nigel underlined his point by turning his back on Kit and slamming his locker shut.
“That’s going too far, Osgood!” Kit called him up short. “I welcome ideas and discussion, because we’re all in this together, but I won’t tolerate disrespect and rude language. As for your proposal, much as I sympathise with your anger at Levesque, it’s more important that we don’t get shot down than that you score.”
“Just try it once, Skipper.” Nigel pleaded, turning back to face him. “The gunner who told me this was an ace, and didn’t Vaux say the key to success against night fighters was doing what they didn’t expect? What could surprise them more than a bomber that stops jinking and throttles back under attack?”
Kit glanced round at the other members of his crew.
“Why don’t we try it, Skipper?” Terry supported Nigel, earning a nod of thanks from the gunner. “The cameras will show if it works or not. If it doesn’t work, we don’t have to do it ever again — certainly not on ops.”
Adrian, a thoughtful, lawyerly expression on his face, mused, “I can’t see any objective reason not to try the manoeuvre while we’re still here in training.”
“I agree,” Stu chimed in; he agreed with almost everything Adrian said.
“I’m sure I can do this, Skipper.” Nigel insisted. “Let me show you!”
Kit knew that the cameras would only tell them how inexperienced RAF pilots reacted. He didn’t think they were comparable to the Luftwaffe’s best. Still, it might be better for them to all see the photo results. Otherwise, they might harbour illusions about something that wouldn’t work. If he didn’t prove them wrong now, they were likely to urge him to do this when a Junkers 88 was on their tail. “All right. We’ll try it tonight, but if the results aren’t decisive, we won’t do it again.”
“Thanks Skipper!” Nigel brightened visibly.
Outside the crew bus hooted a warning, and Kit sent the others down while he finished kitting up.
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