Like a drunk, they wove from side to side down the length of the runway, Moran wincing at each swerve and expecting the crash to follow. Miraculously it never came. They zig-zagged so much that as their speed fell away, Moran began imagining the commentary he would get in the mess. “Just what did you have in that thermos of yours, Moran?”
His second thought was that he had made it. He had returned alive from a sortie that he’d believed would kill him. His premonition, if it was one, had been wrong.
He slowed the aircraft to a stop before the end of the runway and used the outer engines to swing Zebra onto the taxiway. The ground crew signalled them towards a dispersal point. The Lancaster thudded over the cracks in the concrete toward the torches lighting a hardstanding. Bishop waved his arms in front of his face to indicate Moran could switch off the engines, and one after another the Merlins wound down.
Silence returned — except for the echo of the engines still ringing in his ears — until all at once his crew seemed to come back to life. A garble of excited voices filled the fuselage as they left their crash positions to return to their stations and collect their kit. Babcock’s laughter sounded slightly hysterical, while the expletives peppering Roper and Osgood’s dialogue revealed heightened excitement. Tibble surprisingly, joined in, laughing and chattering unnaturally, a sure indicator of the magnitude of his relief.
Moran looked down in disbelief at his hands still on the control column. He was alive. He was going to see Georgina again. Furtively, he removed one hand to give Zach a pat.
MacDonald staggered to the cockpit, sweat streaking his face. “Well done, Skipper.” His hands trembled with exhaustion, and he flexed his fingers as if to ease stiffness or cramps.
Moran looked up at him and announced bluntly, “I’m putting you in for the DFM.”
MacDonald looked astonished. “Ye’re the one who flew the flaming thing!”
“We wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t jury-rigged that rudder and manhandled it for almost three hours.” That said, Moran released the straps and tried to push himself up out of his seat. He couldn’t. His muscles were too stiff to unfold.
Sounds of some sort of commotion filtered up from the tail. The excited voices of the gunners, exclaiming in wonder and gabbling at a hundred miles an hour, mixed with shouts of amazement from the ground crew. Peal and Tibble tumbled out of their stations to find out what the fuss was about. Torches flashed about in the tail, and with an inarticulate grumble, MacDonald turned around to go and find out what was happening. A moment later, Pete Bishop emerged out of the fuselage into the cockpit. “Do you realise you’ve brought our aircraft back with a man-sized hole and the entire second half perforated like a sieve? If you can’t take better care of her than that, sir, we won’t lend her to you ever again!”
Kit laughed appreciatively.
“Seriously, sir,” Bishop stopped jesting, “I don’t know how your rear gunner survived.”
“Neither do I. The rudder control cables snapped, by the way.”
“Only the rudder cables? You must have a flaming guardian angel!”
Kit laughed again and then asked, “Can you give me a hand?” Bishop at once reached out, bracing himself against the armour plating behind the pilot’s seat to help take the strain as he pulled Moran out of his seat. “Who else made it back?” Moran asked as he painfully straightened up.
“All seven aircraft that made the high run returned safely. As you probably know, Forrester and Howard went down over the target. The CO landed with a flak shell still in one wing and one tyre shot away, but no injuries. You’re the last aircraft to return.”
That made two aircraft down out of thirteen, both from the six that made the low-level run. It was a casualty rate of 15%. Better than expected. Kit still felt dazed by his own survival.
Unsteadily, he made his way down the length of the fuselage, crawling more than climbing over the main spar. After a look at the damage to the tail, he stepped shakily down the ladder to the tarmac and turned to look again at the tail from the outside. Half a dozen torch beams from the ground crew slid along the surfaces of the aircraft, pausing to highlight one jagged hole after another. Nigel gazed dumbstruck at the large hole immediately behind his turret.
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