Moran was given orders to orbit the airfield at 4,000 feet. At that altitude they were in the muck and blind, with other aircraft circling below and, presumably, above them. Moran’s neck and shoulders were starting to cramp, and his calves were aching. He wriggled to loosen his shoulders, but there was little he could do for his legs.
The tension wasn’t confined to his body; he could feel it like static in the air around him, and in the uneasy dipping, lifting and tipping of the aircraft as the rest of the crew shifted their positions. Babcock, in particular, couldn’t seem to lie still up in the nose. He was probably trying to see something — anything — around them. Moran feared any unexpected sound or sight might ignite panic. He had to do something to defuse the tension. “Pilot to crew. We’re over the Marsh and the airfield is open, but there are quite a few aircraft stacked up and all have to make an SBA approach. That takes time. I’m going to turn on the intercom so you can hear the communications with Flying Control. That way you aren’t left in the dark about our progress.”
They all listened as F-Freddy started an SBA blind approach into the airfield, and heard the pilot, Sergeant Crowly, abort after breaking out of the cloud already halfway down the runway but still two hundred feet above the ground. Moran kept his eye on the clock and noted it took Crowly four minutes to line up on the runway again. Moran looked at the fuel gauges. Even at only 100 mph and on a lean fuel mixture, he calculated that they were now down to forty minutes of fuel, and they still had F-Freddy and three other aircraft ahead of them.
O-Oboe reported in and was ordered to circle above him. Moran recognised the voice of the pilot; it was Sergeant Walter Perry — a nice bloke, whom Moran found congenial. Perry, sounding less calm than usual, reported that he was very short of fuel. Flying Control answered that all the aircraft were running low on green stuff, and he must wait his turn. Moran hoped that Perry had remembered to adjust the fuel mixture. It would be so easy to forget about that in a situation like this and without a flight engineer. In these conditions a pilot had his hands full just flying without worrying about the engines. Moran only remembered the latter because for much of his RAF career he’d been responsible for the engines instead of the flying.
F-Freddy touched down safely on its second attempt, and V-Victor was cleared to land. The stacked-up aircraft were told to descend five-hundred feet. Moran was now fourth for landing and circling at 3,500 feet. At this rate that was roughly 15 minutes away. They’d be down to just 20 minutes of fuel, which was cutting it a bit fine. Hopefully, nothing would go wrong—
Even as the thought hung in Moran’s mind, an explosion ripped through the air, shaking the aircraft like flak. Instantly a red glow started to spread under the cloud layer below them.
“My God! What was that?” Babcock cried out in alarm.
“V-Victor, I believe,” Moran told him emotionlessly, as he tried to remember who had been flying V-Victor. He had a horrible feeling it had been Pilot Officer James, a likeable and conscientious young pilot. His own throat became parched with fear. This was a nightmare, and it was only getting worse. Yet the worst thing would be to show any nerves to his crew.
A female voice came crisply over the intercom. “This is Moreton-in-Marsh Flying Control! The airfield is closed. Repeat: the airfield is closed. All aircraft divert to Stanton Court. Repeat: all aircraft divert to Stanton Court.”
Peal promptly provided a course. He had obviously anticipated the possibility of diverting; Moran made a mental note to praise him for that — if he had the chance. Stoically, he turned onto the new course, careful to maintain altitude. He had aircraft above and below him all going to the same destination. Stanton Court was 27 miles away; sixteen minutes flying time.
As soon as Stanton Court Flying Control came on the radio, Moran realized the situation here was worse that at the Marsh. This OTU had also had a night exercise and three of their aircraft were in the circuit already. Sergeant Pilot Perry in O-Oboe again reported he was extremely short of fuel and requested priority landing. Again, he was denied.
On ops, Moran remembered, they were told that if they could not land safely, they were to point the aircraft towards the North Sea, put it on autopilot and then bail out. But bailing out in zero visibility had its own dangers. Moran knew of one crew that had been forced to this extreme, but only six of the seven men survived the jump; the wireless operator was killed when he broke his neck colliding with something in the fog. It might still be preferable to crashing, but he was also aware they were too far from the sea for the aircraft to make it on autopilot. It might crash into a farmhouse, a village or town. Moran couldn’t bring himself to take that chance.
One of the Stanton Court aircraft made an SBA landing, and Moran had just descended another five hundred feet when an explosion ripped through the sky and again the clouds turned a murky red. “That’s not on the airfield!” Babcock exclaimed in alarm.
“Jesus! Do you think O-Oboe ran out of fuel and crashed?” Osgood asked anxiously.
“There’s no point in speculating,” Moran cut the discussion short, all too sure that Osgood was right. Perry. He dared not think about it. “Navigator: I want a course to Colerne. Wireless operator: tell Stanton Court to give our slot to someone else. Then put a Darky call out and see if you can raise Colerne.” If his mental calculations were correct, they were down to just fifteen minutes of fuel, and it would take him the better part of that to reach RAF Colerne.
Moran was going against orders they’d all heard, and it surprised him that none of his crew voiced the slightest objection. Instead, the alacrity with which Peal and Tibble responded and the pitch of their voices underlined that the tension was becoming nearly unbearable. Moran knew he had to keep them occupied. “Tibble, what is the reported cloud base?”
“I’ll check, sir.”
“As soon as you have it, tell me, and then check again. Understood?” Moran was careful not to sound angry or upset. In his head he heard Don’s voice; Don had never once been flustered or excited.
Less than a minute later Tibble nervously cried out: “Just four hundred feet, sir!”
“That’s plenty of room, Tibble. Nothing to worry about.” Moran lied. “Babcock. I’m on instruments. I need you to be my eyes. If you see anything that is about to kill us, give me a chance to save us by telling me which way to fly. No need for ‘bomb aimer to pilot’ in this situation. Just shout ‘up’, ‘right’, or ‘left.’ Understood?”
“Understood, Skipper.” Babcock sounded calmer.
“Peal? Is the course still 165?”
“Good. Here we go.” Moran drew a deep breath and cautiously descended. Both fuel gauges were now in the red.
He broke out of the cloud at four hundred feet, but patches of fog crouched like puddles on the otherwise black landscape beneath him. He could not remember if Colerne was situated in a valley or more on a rise. He hoped the latter.
Tibble’s breathless voice crackled through the intercom. “Skipper! Colerne has responded! They’ll fire a flare and we’re already cleared to land!”
“Babcock, watch for that flare,” Moran responded, concentrating fully on not flying into the ground while simultaneously trying to spot somewhere to put the crate down safely if he had to. That was a fantasy. In this darkness he couldn’t see the contours of the land, let alone ditches, streams or stone walls — all things that would shatter an aircraft flying at 75 mph. Anyone inside would be turned into unrecognisable lumps of muscle and bone. He could not reduce speed further without stalling, however, unless he lowered the flaps and undercarriage. If he lowered both, he could reduce the stalling speed to 65 mph, but at the price of increasing fuel consumption and delaying their arrival at the airfield.
“Flare!” It was Babcock. “Ten degrees to starboard, Skipper.”
“Got it!” Moran corrected his course slightly as a flare path lit up the darkness. It wasn’t exactly clear. A light mist clung to the ground blurring the lights, but he could see the path of darker grey between the fuzzy lines of light. Even as he lowered the undercarriage, he ordered, “Crash positions, everyone.”
Babcock scrambled back up into the cockpit and strapped himself in just as they cleared the perimeter fence. Moran was too high, and he side-slipped to the left and then the right to reduce altitude before putting on full flaps. By then, he’d used up half the grass field that served as a runway. He had to stall it or go around again. He didn’t have the fuel to go around again. He throttled back and dropped the Wellington onto the ground. It protested loudly by creaking and screeching, and it bounced up twice before kindly deciding to stay on the ground.
They were hurtling toward the end of the runway, and Moran frantically tried to apply the brakes equally, terrified of yawing violently or putting a wing in and cartwheeling. At the last minute, he swung hard onto the perimeter track, heard a crash and felt a jolt as the tail hit something. Probably the Chance Light. “Osgood? Are you all right?”
“Yes, sir — but we just lost the port tail plane”
His first prang, Moran registered. He was bound to get a red endorsement in his logbook for that, but at the moment he didn’t give a damn. He focused on taxiing down the perimeter track toward the signalling ground crew. They directed him to a dispersal point and motioned for him to cut his engines. He gladly shut them down and breathed in the silence.
It was a moment before he could summon the energy to take his feet off the pedals. He was only now conscious of how stiff he was.
Behind him Peal remarked in his precise Oxford accent, “Well, that was a sobering experience.”
“And no one was even shooting at us!” Tibble added.
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