Allars cut straight across the sunlit field. Most of the pilots were lounging in deck chairs, reading magazines or novels. Debsen was lying flat on his back on the grass, snoozing. MacLeod sat astride a chair opposite a card table, playing Black Jack with Green. Squadron Leader Jones was discussing with Fl/Lt. Thompson the handicaps in steeple-chasing; Jones’ father owned a stables.
“Something up, Spy?” Jones asked casually from his reclining position.
“I’m afraid there is, sir,” Allars answered seriously. “It seems that our RDF stations at Rye and Pevensey have both been attacked. Pevensey is completely off the air; Rye is so badly damaged that we now have a hundred-mile gap in the RDF chain.”
That had their attention. All the pilots – still sprawled across the lawn-chairs and lying on the grass – were staring at Allars.
“We rather assume that they will now pour bombers through the gap – possibly going for London. Then again, there is a large raid approaching Brighton.”
“So, what are we doing on the ground?” Jones asked in an annoyed tone, folding his newspaper together with a crack and getting to his feet.
“The enemy could turn any way yet or go straight for London.”
But just then the telephone in the dispersal gave its throaty ring, and the airman-clerk on duty shouted out to the pilots. “Stand-by!”
MacLeod knocked the chair over as he stood up, and Green tripped over the straps of his Mae West and fell flat on his face. The others were already sprinting towards the waiting Hurricanes. Ginger was completely out of breath by the time he reached his kite, but it was less from running than from sheer terror. This was clearly it: the attack they had all been waiting for for almost two months. And Ginger knew he was going to die.
The squadron was forming up along the far perimeter of the field. The Hurricanes trundled across the grass comfortably and then swung around to form a ragged line, their noses pointing into the wind. Here they waited for the order to scramble with their engines idling, the aircraft trembling slightly to the rhythm of the engine. Most pilots had their canopies open so they could see around the snout better during take-off.
Across the field, the Hurricanes of 43 Squadron were scrambling already. Jones’ irritated voice crackled through the R/T. “What’s going on, Beetle? We’re overheating here and you’re scrambling 43.”
“There’s enough trade for both of you, Cottonball Leader.”
“Then let us get at it. The Merchant Navy chaps have to run the U-Boat gauntlet to deliver this precious green stuff. Let’s not waste it, old boy.”
“Stand-by,” the Controller answered patiently.
“Fucking bastard,” MacLeod muttered to himself, forgetting he had the R/T on.
43 Squadron was in the air and curving around in a battle climb.
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