As was his habit, Moran was the last to board the aircraft after a talk with the ground crew. Since this was a daylight trip the curtains were not closed around the navigator or wireless operator’s stations, and Moran paused to look at Peal’s maps.
“How high are the mountains around Loch Ness again?”
“Ben Nevis is a touch over 4,400 feet; most of the others are shy of 3,000 feet.”
“What winds are forecast?” He asked stepping back to address Tibble.
“Out of the west at 15 to 20 mph but gusting higher.”
“Be prepared to drop a flame float to test wind drift when we turn in over Loch Ness at Inverness,” he told Tibble. Plugging in his intercom to a socket, he warned Osgood as well. “The wireless operator is going to drop a flame float as we turn onto the bomb run. You’ll need to spot it and read deviation.”
Moran continued to the cockpit to find MacDonald held the checklist already, pencil in hand, awaiting the pre-flight cockpit check. They started their engines without difficulties two minutes ahead of time.
Babcock called up from the nose. “Bomb aimer to pilot: Forrester is already taxiing towards the runway.”
“Roger,” Moran answered.
There was a pause, and then MacDonald noted. “We’re ready to go, skipper.”
“I’d rather be one of the last on this trip,” Moran answered and kept them at dispersal for another couple of minutes. They took off sixth of eight aircraft into a clear blue morning sky.
It was a beautiful flight over the snow-clad landscape. From their altitude of twelve thousand feet, it was impossible to see dirt or footprints; everything looked pristine and pure. Railway tracks, cleared roads and bodies of water looked black, forests grey. Gradually the landscape became more rugged.
Peal called in over the intercom. “Navigator to crew: we’ve left English airspace.”
“You mean we’re over enemy territory?” Frank asked aghast.
“Y’ daft joker,” MacDonald growled. “We’rrre finally hooome.”
They left the Lowlands behind them and climbed up over the Cairngorms before sinking down toward the Moray Firth and then, at Peal’s direction, turning southwest. Ahead of them stretched Loch Ness, clearly visible between its flanking hills.
Moran descended gradually to 1,000 feet and asked MacDonald and the gunners to keep their eyes on the aircraft ahead of them. He asked Tibble for the winds. “North by northwest. Gusting 20 to 25 mph, Skipper.”
Ahead of him Moran could see Forrester’s aircraft already climbing above four thousand feet and banking around to the south. Behind Forrester, Sergeant Pilot Taffy Owens had also finished his run and was gaining altitude. The other three aircraft ahead of them were still on their runs. They appeared to be badly buffeted by the winds and the loch was ruffled by choppy waves.
“Pilot to bomb aimer: Can you see the buoys?”
“I think so, but none of the dye markers are anywhere near them.”
“Can you detect any sort of pattern to the misses?”
“They’re all downwind of the buoys.”
Their instructions had been to make the drop at “no more than 1,000 feet.” Moran now suspected that this was not the optimal altitude. The instructors wanted to see if the bomb aimers or pilots could judge conditions for themselves and adjust their run accordingly. He pushed the column forward as he called over the intercom, “Wireless operator, launch the flame float.” Tibble must have moved to the flare chute earlier because he could detect no changes in the trim of the aircraft and almost at once Osgood read off the degree of deviation.
As Moran dived, MacDonald looked over at him with alarm. “Five hundred feet, Skipper.”
“Don’t worry, Daddy. I’m not ditching.”
The aircraft immediately ahead of them was climbing and Babcock reported. “He was closest so far, but still wide of the triangle.”
Moran continued down to 200 feet before ordering: “Pilot to bomb aimer: master switch on. Take me in.”
“Right. Right. Right. Right. Steadeeee. Steadeee. Left. Steadeee. Gone!” Had they been carrying a full load of bombs the Lancaster would have leapt up several hundred feet when they were released, but the dye canister was too light to make any difference.
Moran pulled the column back hard and asked for more power from MacDonald. The Merlins started screaming in protest as the Lancaster strained upwards.
“Got it!” Osgood called excitedly from the tail. “We’re the first kite to lob the canister bang on target!”
“Congratulations, Babcock!” Moran replied, although his mind was preoccupied by the mountains around them. From his current altitude he had no chance of clearing Ben Nevis, rearing up to 4,400 feet beyond Fort Augustus, but if he could climb to three thousand feet, he should be able turn south beforehand. To reach 3,000 feet he needed five minutes, during which time he was going to use up some 11 to 13 miles of loch. He should be able to make it. Alternatively, he could just keep flying down Loch Linnie and bank south from Oban, but that route would eat up more fuel and delay their return. It was cold up here, the day very short, and the risk of icing would increase as the sun went down. Moran opted for the shorter route. “Pilot to engineer: give me maximum boost, 3000 rpm, and 15 degrees of flap.”
“Max boost, 3000, 15.” MacDonald acknowledged.
The battle-weary Lancaster shuddered and strained, and Moran sensed unease from his crewmates as she struggled to climb. They weren’t going to have a lot of room to spare, he registered, but he wasn’t really worried. Less than ten minutes later, they scraped over the snow-capped mountains and Moran eased off on the power, reducing the noise and vibrations. Gently, he banked around to turn for home, and reminded Peal to keep track of airfields they could divert to on their way back. He had no reason to anticipate the need to divert — except for icing. It was just good practice always to have an eye on options, and there was no shortage of these when flying over Scotland and Northern England.
“What’s that? Sorry! Mid-Upper gunner to crew: I can see what looks like a column of smoke rising from Loch Ness.”
“Rear gunner to pilot: It’s smoke from a fire on the side of the mountain flanking the Loch.”
In the dead of winter after heavy snow? Then a chill ran down Moran’s spine as he requested: “Pilot to Wireless operator: Are you picking up anything?”
“W-William just flew into the ground, Skipper. The CFI is calling for emergency services, but it doesn’t sound good.”
It didn’t make sense. They’d had perfect visibility. Part of Moran wanted to turn around, fly back, and see what had happened, but there was nothing they could possibly do. Seeing the crash site would not exactly bolster morale either. He held his course for Swinderby.
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