“I expect it is unusual for pilots who have been recommended to apply to 617 to request an interview, sir.”
“Unusual, yes, but sensible, nevertheless. I gather you have some reservations about joining us?”
“Do you want to expand on that?”
“617 is rightly viewed as an elite unit, sir. Your aircrew are all of the highest quality, and the vast majority have proven this not just in training but on many operations. I don’t believe that I have skills that exceed those of experienced replacement pilots you could recruit from any active squadron.”
“Skills? Probably not. But that’s not the only thing that counts. Many pilots with other units have already developed a fixed mind-set. They think they know it all. Pilots straight out of training are more open-minded. The fact is 617 needs fresh blood. That’s why I’m here, and it’s why I want a few crews straight out of training. I’m also looking for airmen untainted by cynicism, men who’ll bring enthusiasm to the job.”
“Pilot Officer Forrester and his men will certainly do that. And, I admit, my own crew were very excited to hear of this opportunity and keen to join. Unanimously, I might add.” Moran admitted. “But in my opinion, sir, they are over-estimating their capabilities. We are simply too inexperienced to face the demands placed on members of 617 Squadron. We would be a weak link in the chain, detracting from the strength of the squadron as a whole.”
Fauquier’s eyes focused on him intently trying to see beyond his words. “The WingCo at Syerston mentioned that you were modest and told me you questioned whether you would fit in. That is to your credit, but I think your doubts are misplaced. First of all, we train our sprog crews very carefully before we take them along on operations. Every new pilot — regardless of where he comes from or how many flying hours or sorties he’s flown elsewhere — flies Second Dickie with me personally before he takes his own crew on an op. That’s why my Lancaster is still fitted with two sets of controls. Furthermore, we don’t only fly against the high-profile targets that get attention in the papers. We do many routine ops, mostly marking and illuminating for Main Force. In short, you’d have plenty of opportunity to gain experience and confidence before tackling something dicier. That said, it’s not strictly true about you being so inexperienced, is it?”
Damn, Kit thought, he’s pulled my personnel files. Not one of the COs at the training units had bothered to do that. Kit answered cautiously, “I’ve never commanded a Lancaster on operations, sir.”
“No, but you’ve flown 36 complete ops, and you’re wearing the DFM,” Fauquier countered. “Furthermore, assessments of your flying have gone from ‘average’ in advanced flight training to ‘exceptional’ at the HCU. You were chosen by the Lancaster Finishing School to apply. That says to me that you continue to learn while many others who have learned to fly easier and faster have plateaued. That’s what makes me believe you have the potential to be a valuable member of this squadron.”
“Thank you, sir. But, as you mentioned a moment ago, fitting into a squadron isn’t all about flying skills. It also has to do with sharing attitudes. Every squadron has its own character and ethos. I think you’ll agree that 617 Squadron has a markedly different character from the squadrons of Main Force or even the Pathfinders?”
“Yes, Moran, it does. We believe in getting the job done, not just counting ops. We want maximum impact with minimum casualties — and that applies to casualties on the ground as well as in the air. We’ve beaten up factories in advance to warn the workers to get out. We’ve bombed marshalling yards and other military installations without dropping one bomb outside the perimeter fence. We aim for high-precision bombing to ensure there is no — and I mean no — unnecessary casualties. I don’t deny that we take risks, but never suicidal risks. I was a banker in civilian life, Moran; I’m good at calculating risk.”
Moran found himself attracted both to Fauquier’s blunt honesty and to the kind of operations he was describing. Yes, Main Force was supposed to bomb legitimate military and industrial targets, but the reality was that neither the navigational equipment nor bombsites were accurate enough to ensure results. It was why they had long ago given up even trying. Instead, night raids targeted cities, causing massive civilian casualties. The phrases ‘area’ and ‘saturation bombing’ better described their activities. Harris had even invented the term ‘de-housing’ to justify the destruction of residential areas. The term was meant to imply this wanton destruction of dwellings was a legitimate means of waging war by undermining the morale of Germany’s population, particularly the industrial workforce. In the worst raids, the ones that started fire storms, thousands of civilians, some claimed tens of thousands, regardless of age, sex or job, were incinerated.
“Your reservations wouldn’t have anything to do with what happened to you on November 23, 1943, would they?” Fauquier asked softly into the silence.
Moran was relieved that the group captain had broached the subject. It was better this way than if he’d had to raise it or if they’d continued to tip-toe around it. Meeting Fauquier’s eyes, he answered, “Yes, sir, they would. I believe 617 has a record of treating cases of LMF particularly harshly.”
“Possibly. I’ve only been on the squadron six weeks. However, let’s be clear about this. I’ve read your file, including your CO’s report on the incident. You didn’t suffer from LMF. You suffered from bloody-mindedness.”
The assessment caught Kit so by surprise that he laughed. Then fearing this might be misinterpreted as not taking the incident seriously, he cut himself off. Soberly, he admitted, “I was undoubtedly being bloody-minded, sir.”
“If I’d been your commanding officer, I would not have expected you to fly after just two hours’ sleep — that’s stupid and often leads to accidents. When I sent you back on ops, it would not have been with a sprog crew; they deserve someone particularly calm, not someone just off a dicey-do with fatal consequences. Instead, after you were rested, I would have asked you to fly as my flight engineer. Would you have refused to fly?”
“No, sir.” That was not bravado. Kit knew that if he’d been given only a day or two to come to terms with Don’s death, he would have flown with any skipper he respected; and he already respected Fauquier.
“Right. So, what we have here is a command failure combined with some bloody-mindedness on your part, not a case of LMF.” Fauquier let that sink in, while Kit nodded mutely and thought: My God, why hadn’t anyone else seen it like this? Why hadn’t he seen it himself? Because everyone had been so quick to tell him he was “LMF” — until Dr Grace refused to confirm the diagnosis.
Fauquier continued. “Now you know my opinion, does it change yours about joining the squadron?”
“Yes, sir,” Kit answered with a smile and a surge of relief. This wasn’t just about laying his ghosts to rest, it opened up new prospects as well.
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