“Somehow,” Terry murmured, “I never thought the weather might kill me. I always knew Jerry might get me, but not the English weather.”
“Me neither,” Nigel agreed. His jaw was set, and Kit could sense he was trying hard to get control of his emotions. “I volunteered for the RAF and for aircrew, so I wouldn’t killed by the weather. I said to myself: in the RAF you won’t find yourself paddling around with the ice floes after some flaming U-boat has sunk your ship out from under your arse. I thought, in the sky, it’s a clean death. Here one minute and gone the next. None of the agony of slowly starving and freezing to death in a ruddy lifeboat.” The young gunner’s expression was forbiddingly grim.
“I just wanted to be someone,” Terry spoke up again. “For once in my life I wanted to be someone special, someone other people looked up to.”
This confession astonished Kit. Usually, men who volunteered for aircrew for the alleged glamour of it didn’t fare well. Yet Terry had done well so far, especially today. Kit sensed a determination in him that would get him through anything. Maybe wanting to prove he wasn’t worthless wasn’t the same as being attracted to the glamour?
Terry’s remark, or the alcohol and decompression from the tension of the flight, triggered a confession from Stu as well. “I fancied myself as a fighter pilot. One of the older boys from my church choir flew in the Battle of Britain. He’s buried in the churchyard. It even says on his tomb ‘One of the Few.’ I heard he lasted something like two weeks on his squadron. Not very long.” He sounded pensive.
“It was the Blitz that got to me,” Adrian picked up the theme. “I was up at Oxford when it started, but when I came home for Christmas—” He shook his head. “London just wasn’t the same. Smoke and dust hung in the air, and the whole city smelt different. It wasn’t just the broken gas and sewage pipes or the smell of unwashed bodies on the buses and in the shops. It was more than that. I can’t explain it exactly, the whole city smelt dusty, dirty and battered. You’d turn a familiar corner and suddenly be confronted by shattered buildings, broken glass and masonry, or wrecked vehicles surrounded by puddles of leaking oil. Sometimes dirty bandages and discarded clothes fluttered in the gutters, or dazed people stumbled around sorting through the rubbish for something to salvage from their former life.”
Adrian shook his head. “So much has been written about how the Londoners ‘took it’ — and, of course, they did. But it hurt and it made us angry, too. At least it made me angry. What bloody right did the Germans have to blow up our city and destroy our way of life? What right did they have to disrupt our simple, peaceful pleasures — shopping, walking in a park, going to the theatre or out to dinner? What right did they have to shatter our homes, shops, workplaces and churches?”
“Or sink our ships!” Nigel lashed out again. “Submarine warfare is cowardly! They can’t be seen or heard, and they don’t attack warships — just innocent merchantmen. Bastards, that’s what they are. Bloody bastards!” Clearly, Nigel had been hit hard and personally by the war at sea. Even Stu, whose relationship with Nigel had remained strained since the fight with Levesque, understood and looked both anxious and concerned, glancing at Adrian for guidance. Adrian looked at Kit.
“If you tell us what happened, Nigel, maybe we’d understand better,” Kit prodded gently.
“Me brother.” Nigel’s voice almost broke. “Me older brother, who was more a father to me than that drunken bastard, who called himself me dad. Danny always looked out for us, worked extra jobs, hid the money so me dad couldn’t drink it all away. January 1941 a U-boat got his tanker amidships.” Nigel was not looking at any of them, just staring at a spot on the table and speaking in a tight, angry voice. “It blew up and went down in less than five minutes. Fuel all over the surface. Burning. Two lifeboats got away, but one caught fire and went down. The other managed to pull two men out of the water, but they’d swallowed too much oil already and were puking their guts out. Others were too badly burnt to be touched let alone manhandled inside the boat, and there were too many of them in it already anyway. They didn’t have enough water or rations and it was freezing cold. When the sun came up, they saw icebergs on the horizon. And after that one by one they died. Miserably. From injuries, the cold, the oil-contaminated rations. By the time the Navy finally found them, only three were left. Danny wasn’t one of them. His mate came to tell me about it, and that’s when I decided I would bomb the effing hell out of Germany!”
Whatever the others thought, they nodded out of respect for their crewmate. Nigel downed what was left of his beer in a single guzzle, and Kit signalled the landlord to bring another round.
“What about you, Skipper? Why did you volunteer for aircrew?” Terry put the question to him, his eyes fixed earnestly on his skipper.
Kit shrugged. “I didn’t like watching other men risk their lives, while I sat around safe. I felt I had to do my part or I wouldn’t be able to look at myself in the mirror.” It sounded to Kit like a propaganda newsreel, yet it was true.
“But surely you proved you were as good as anyone with your first tour as a flight engineer,” Adrian was quick to note. “Why the second tour?”
“Was it because you wanted to fly?” Stu asked.
“Or command?” Nigel spoke up, his voice still strained but somehow calmer too.
Kit was in dangerous waters. He did not want to tell them that volunteering for flying training and a second tour of ops had been his ticket out of the humiliation and degradation of being posted LMF. He thought they would lose all respect for him if they knew that. Trust too. If he told them he’d refused to fly in November 1943, they might wonder if he would fail them at a critical moment in the months ahead. He opted for a half-truth instead. Shaking his head to Stu and Nigel’s questions, he told them solemnly. “Nazism is based on racism. I detest racists and want to eradicate them from the face of the earth.”
“Are you Jewish?” Stu asked surprised.
“No, but killing people because of their race is unchristian, immoral and horrifying.” Kit’s tone told his subordinates that the discussion was over.
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