As he’d hoped, the cloud petered out just east of Bath, and after that Priestman had a splendid view all the way to the Channel. Magnificent. He could pick out one landmark after another, flying entirely by the living map below him rather than by compass or chart. He left Salisbury behind, the elegant Cathedral spire compressed optically into insignificance, and set his sights on Southampton Waters shimmering in the distance. He could see the barrage balloons floating above the city like great silver elephants and was surprised when puffs of cloud started to form just above them. Anti-Aircraft.
Only then did Priestman stop sightseeing and realise that there was what looked like half a hundred aircraft flying towards Southampton from the south. Looking more closely, he identified roughly 20 bombers and above them twice as many smaller dots – not the tiny Me109s, but the more powerful but less manoeuvrable twin-engine Me110s.
Up to now, the Jerries had concentrated on Channel shipping, but this air fleet was clearly heading for Southampton itself. He counted again: definitely more than 50 aircraft. No one could expect him to attack such a gaggle of aircraft alone. No one expected him to attack at all. He was posted to Training Command. He was flying a machine over-due for an overhaul back to the factory. He had the day off.
But that was Southampton they were attacking! Just beyond it was Portsmouth – home. Besides, he could now see seven Hurricanes hanging on their propellers as they strained valiantly for height. Must have been scrambled from Tangmere a bit late. Priestman clipped his oxygen mask over his face, pulled down his goggles, and started spiralling up another 10,000 feet so he could dive shallowly at the bombers.
At least if he had to jump this time, he’d land practically in his back garden, he told himself. No risk of being taken prisoner, either – at least not bloody yet! He switched on the gun sight, set it for Heinkel 111, and turned the guns to “fire.” Then he went straight in at them head-on.
For a moment Robin was caught up in the thrill of closing at nearly 600 miles an hour. What an amazing thing that someone was actually paying him to do this, he thought irreverently. Of course, head-on attacks didn’t leave a lot of time for shooting, and the tactic was better designed to just break up a bomber formation, upset their nerves and aim a bit. Then again, if their targets were in the middle of a city like Southampton, making them miss their military targets only meant dropping the bombs on innocent civilians. Not exactly what he was being paid to do, Robin realised a little late.
By then he was through the formation, however, and swinging about in an S-curve to come back on the bombers from behind. Around him planes were shooting past like meteors. The 110s had bounced the Hurricanes, and they were all darting about in the familiar chaos of a dogfight. Priestman sensed more than saw a 110 start lumbering around to discourage his attack on a bomber as it turned for home. The 110 was well out of range, however, and after his experiences in France, Priestman wasn’t concerned. Instead he concentrated on the bomber in his sights.
He pushed the throttle through the safety-wire and opened fire, holding down the trigger-button with urgency, wanting to score hits before the 110 had a chance to drive him off. Frustratingly, only bits of the bomber’s port wing broke away, and it continued to fly apparently undisturbed. Priestman pressed in closer and aimed more directly at the port engine. It started to smoke and then burst into flame. Abruptly, damaged portions of the wing fell away, and the pilot lost control of the aircraft. It went into a flat spin going down fast – and then tracer was flashing past Priestman’s own wing.
He felt the Spitfire shudder slightly, and the sound of cannon punching holes in the fuselage was unpleasantly familiar. He kicked the rudder and stood on the wing-tip, greying out as he slid down and away from his assailant – consciously delighted by the manoeuvrability of the Spit. He felt even better in it than he had in his Hurricane. The Me110 didn’t have a hope of following him – and so it ignored him and started for home.
Below, two parachutes blossomed and swayed, incongruously peaceful amidst the dirty bursts of anti-aircraft fire. To Robin’s amazement, the parachutes were falling not on Southampton, but over what was very nearly Gosport. Robin could make out Southsea Castle and Palmerston’s Follies beyond. If he flew just a minute or two more, he’d be right over his mother’s house. Or he could beat up Aunt Hattie at the Mission – if it weren’t for those barrage balloons.
A very odd feeling, to be in the midst of combat and at home at the same time. No time for philosophising with 110s still around, he reminded himself. Furthermore, his fuel gauge was reading nearly empty. Time to find the Supermarine factory – and hope it hadn’t been hit by the raid.
He climbed and swung hard left to return to Southampton Water, beside which the Supermarine factory lay. On the way, he located the wreck of his Heinkel; the port wing was completely charred, and the rest lay at an awkward angle on the mudflats before Portchester. Low tide, the sailor in him registered.
The factory, of course, had been a target in the raid. Fortunately, the German bombers hadn’t been terribly accurate, but the near misses marked the factory out with columns of smoke rising into the air all around it. Priestman circled a couple of times before the balloons were lowered to make a landing lane for him. They were rather miserly about it, Robin thought, and the lane created by the lowered balloons was not only very narrow, it was not properly into the wind. The crosswind blew smoke from the near misses right across his path, further com- plicating his landing. At least the runway, built for testing new machines, was quite long.
He touched down rather nicely under the circumstances, and relaxed at once, feeling quite pleased with himself about the Heinkel. In his satisfaction with his kill and his nice landing, he forgot about the sticky brakes. He applied the brakes too hard. The starboard brake caught much firmer, and before he could correct, the wing-tip touched the turf and whompf, he was hanging from his straps upside down in the cockpit as the aircraft ploughed a rut in the runway. Priestman’s first thought was: thank God my trainees can’t see me now.
Fire engine, ambulance, assembly-line workers, technicians and even secretaries (or so it seemed to Robin in his embarrassment) were soon swarming around to help him out. Helping hands, reassuring voices, all promising immediate help, urged him not to worry. “Important thing in this situation,” someone declared in a stentorian tone, “is not to release the straps.”
“Thank you,” Priestman retorted in a precise, annoyed voice. “I may have botched the landing, but I’m not a complete idiot.”
The workers of the Supermarine factory could see that his guns had fired. They saw, too, the cannon holes left by the 110. They naturally assumed that the crash had been caused by battle damage or pilot injury rather than incompetent flying. They had feared that the pilot might be seriously hurt. His tart reply, therefore, caught them by surprise, and his rescuers laughed with relief. Then, well cushioned by multiple pairs of arms, he was told to release the straps, and they dragged him out of the cockpit carefully.
As Robin got his feet under him, his knees were shaking. He was both shaken by the crash-landing and feeling foolish for having it witnessed by such a crowd. But the crowd saw a young man who had evidently just clashed with the enemy – risking his life for theirs – and who had nearly died landing. Most could not see that he was shaking, but his annoyed remark about having “botched the landing” was already being passed back to the edges of the crowd and beyond. It would soon become legendary among the factory workers.
A man in a suit with a white technician’s coat over it pushed his way through the crowd. “Where did you come from?” he demanded.
“RAF Hawarden, actually. The brakes – as you may have noticed – are a bit sticky, and she’s not fitted with variable pitch yet, either. Didn’t Wing Commander Kennel warn you?”
“Flight Lieutenant Priestman?”
“That’s good news, then. You were over-due, and we were rather worried that you might have been mixed up in the raid we just had.”
“I was, actually. Got a Heinkel.”
“Good show!” Now they all started congratulating him and clapping him on the back. The next thing he knew, he was being taken to the factory canteen – which was quite all right, as he felt he could very definitely use a stiff drink even if it was only mid-morning.
A growing gaggle of factory dignitaries, men with greying hair and balding heads, escorted Robin. They all seemed extraordinarily keen to meet him. Men in suits and ties under white coats were being introduced to him, and they all seemed to want to shake his hand. In a group they entered a huge factory canteen in which men in grimy overalls stood in line for food or sat at long, battered tables. The smell of boiled cabbage, cooked potatoes and hot fat filled the room. The clatter of trays and cutlery counter-pointed the drone of voices.
Priestman knew the Supermarine factory was working around the clock in three shifts, seven days a week. The newspapers had reported cases of men falling asleep standing up on the assembly line, of men having heart-attacks while working, men collapsing from exhaustion. The men here certainly looked exhausted, Robin thought. The average age must have been near 40. These were men too old for the services, men with families to feed.
Evidently, word of his kill had reached them because someone started clapping and others took it up. It never occurred to Robin that they were clapping just because he flew and fought – whether he shot down anything or not. The sound spread across the vast hall as the men seated at the tables got to their feet, clapping louder and louder.
Priestman stopped dead in his tracks, overcome with emotion. This was completely different from winning a prize at an air show. There were no photographers and no socialites, no fluttering flags, silk scarves and silk dresses. No flowing champagne. Just tired men in oil-smeared overalls in an echoing hall that smelt of over-cooked food.
The managers around him stopped with him. They waited uncertainly, not knowing what he wanted.
Priestman tried to put it into words. “I couldn’t have done it without the Spitfire.” He told the men around him. But that wasn’t enough. He wasn’t sure they’d pass the message on. He reached out to the nearest man in dungarees, standing in front of a long table and clapping vigorously like the others. He was a short man with a fringe of grey hair around his shining head. His hands were black with ingrained oil. He continued clapping even as Robin leaned closer to his ear to be heard above the roar of clapping. “The Spitfire! It’s a magnificent machine! We couldn’t do a damn thing without her.” (Unfair to the Hurricane, but at the moment it didn’t matter.)
The man nodded vigorously, grinning, and clapped more wildly still. Then Robin was led away to the management dining room behind its solid oak door, and the sound of the clapping faded away.
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