Today they were flying in three sections of four aircraft rather than vics, and once they were in the air, Jones ordered them into Sections Line Astern. This put Ginger, Green and Debsen respectively into the “tail-end Charlie” position of their respective sections.
Ginger didn’t like this formation at all. While the three aircraft ahead of him flew one behind the other in a neat row, he had to weave back and forth behind Blue Section and, theoretically, keep an eye out for any Huns that might try to “bounce” them from behind. But how could he watch the sun and the sky around him when – if he didn’t watch where he was going – he might lose the squadron or crash into Debsen? After just ten minutes of flying like this, the back of Ginger’s neck was completely rubbed raw, and unconsciously he stopped turning his head because it hurt too much. Instead of turning his head, he twisted his upper body, and that was when he came within a hair’s breath of colliding with Debsen.
Twisting around, he’d unconsciously applied too much right rudder, and all of a sudden there was Debsen flying straight at him. They both yanked the stick over and veered off in opposite directions just in the nick of time.
His heart was still thudding from the near miss, when Ginger got a blistering in his ears from Jones. “Stop mucking about back there! You are supposed to be keeping a look-out, not playing games!”
Ginger, his nerves still very shaky, resumed his position behind Blue Section, but now he hardly dared turn in his seat at all. He concentrated on just weaving back and forth as if he were keeping a look out, even though he didn’t dare take his eyes off where he was going to look behind him.
The next thing he knew, his Hurricane bucked for no reason at all. Then a great hole appeared in his wing, and for a whole second Ginger thought his Hurricane was disintegrating around him for no reason. Then the sound of gunfire penetrated to his brain, and he realised he was under attack. He wrenched around in the cockpit and to his horror discovered a huge, twin-engine, twin-tailed German fighter was not more than 300 yards away and firing at him.
“Look out behind!” he screamed into the R/T (forgetting all the proper jargon). But it was too late. The Messerschmitts were all over them. Tracer was piercing the air every which way. The squadron seemed to explode as every aircraft abandoned the formation for the safety of diving, rolling, turning, and jinking.
Ginger, too, was doing all he could to get away from the Messerschmitt on his tail. He had been weaving when he had been hit, and without even thinking he up-ended onto one wingtip and pulled the stick back into his stomach. The blood drained from his head so fast, that his eyes could not focus and all he saw was a sheet of grey. He realised he was on the brink of blacking out entirely, and then he must really have blacked out, because he came to floating in his Hurricane in a thick haze.
He heard only silence, and for a moment Ginger thought he was dead. He did not know if he was right way up or upside down, whether he was diving or climbing.
Then he realised that his engine was still rumbling in his ears, and so he decided he might not be dead after all. He looked out the window and with a jolt saw the leaden sea, heaving, dark and ominous, no more than a thousand feet below him. The sight filled him with sheer terror. Instinctively he pulled back on the stick to rush upwards towards the heavens – away from the murky darkness waiting to swallow him and his aircraft whole.
After the initial, panicked response, however, Ginger concentrated on his instruments. He straightened out, righted his slight left bank, and climbed steadily through the haze into clear sunshine. Here he looked in all directions, straining to find the others. But there was not another aircraft in sight. After looking about for several minutes, trying to decide where he was, he gave up.
Timidly he switched on his R/T. “Beetle, Cottonball Blue Four here. Do you read me?”
To his amazement, the response came instantly, from a very nice, clipped voice. He recognised it as the man with the eye-patch, the man the others called “the Cyclops” – another cruel nickname for a man who had a suffered such an awful injury. Ginger couldn’t remember his real name, but he was relieved to hear his voice: “Reading you loud and clear, Cottonball Blue Four, over.”
“I – seem to have blacked out for a minute.”
“Are you hurt?”
“No, no. I just turned too tightly, I expect,” Ginger felt an absolute fool. “But I can’t seem to see where I am.”
“Not to worry, Blue Four. Circle while we get a fix on you.” A short time later a course was given to him, which Ginger gratefully followed back to Tangmere.
To Ginger’s horror, however, only a little more than half the half the squadron was on the ground when he returned. Surely the others hadn’t all been shot down? As tail-end Charlie, he should have seen those Messerschmitts before they attacked; he had failed entirely. He stood miserably on the edge of the field, searching the sky.
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