Ernst watched the Hurricanes tearing into the Junkers with a vengeance. While the undamaged Junkers opened up to full throttle and, relieved of their bomb load, jinked and frolicked with almost as much agility as the fighters, any bomber that had suffered flak damage was cold meat for the Hurricanes. Ernst watched in horror as first one and then a second Ju88 sheered off, streaming smoke. One spiralled down, apparently out of control, while the other dived hard for the Solent and small figures started to drop out of it. Smoke was billowing back from both engines of a third machine that was struggling hard to keep above the barrage balloons, and then a fourth blew up in mid-air.
“Whose side are you on, Herr Staffelkapitän?”
“Shut up, Feldburg!”
Ernst sensed it, anticipated it, and he was thankful for it, too. The tension of just watching the bombers get shot to pieces was too much. Christian didn’t say another word; he just dipped his wing and shoved the Emil into a power dive. Dieter must have read his mind, too, because he and Busso were right beside him. Ernst blocked out the acrid shouts in his earphones and concentrated on staying with Christian.
The Hurricanes sprang forward raggedly, some of the pilots overeager and others caught off guard by the order when it finally came. Twelve abreast, they galloped across the broad field in the mid-day sun like a cavalry charge. In a ragged line they lifted into the air. The Controller was vectoring them to the north. Angels 15.
“Sure that’s enough, Beetle?” Jones wanted to know. It was half the Messerschmitt’s favourite cruising altitude.
“Your bandits are bombing Portsmouth dockyards. No point in going in too high.”
“Fucking bastards,” MacLeod commented again, although it was unclear if he meant the Germans that were bombing Portsmouth or Control for holding them back so long. They were vectored back to the west. The familiar countryside, soaked in mid-day sunshine, spread out green and apparently peaceful below them.
Ahead, the sky was smudged with the smoke of anti-aircraft fire and bombs. Ginger saw the smoke first and then the black dots – more like beetles than aircraft – except that they were in neat rows. Then he saw the little dots that tumbled away from the “beetles” and realised he was watching the bombs fall.
His stomach heaved so violently that he tasted vomit in his mouth. He tried to swallow it down, but he couldn’t. Christ, he thought, I’m going to be sick all over the cockpit again. If he was, it would get on his boots, and his feet would slip on the pedals just like last time. In desperation he let go of the stick, pulled off his right glove, and was sick into it. He felt better after that, and let the glove sink down beside the seat as he wiped the sweat from his face with his sleeve.
He concentrated on flying. They were ordered into sections line-astern. He fell in behind Thompson and heard the “Tally Ho” as if it were miles or even light-years away. How did the poem go? “Cannon to the right of them, cannon to the left of them, cannon in front of them volleyed and thundered. Into the valley of death….”
Over the dockyards the last of the bombers were still making their runs, although the formation leader had turned and started for home. The returning bombers would clearly pass a little more to the east, but Hurricanes were amidst them like wolves amidst the sheep. They careened in and out, overtaking the bombers, peeling off and curving around to attack again.
From where she stood, Emily could hear the rat-a-tat of the Browning machine guns and the high-pitched chatter of the answering bomber guns. She could see tracer criss-crossing in the air, leaving ugly, dirty streaks on the sky. Emily saw smoke burst out of a bomber engine, and a minute later the whole machine slowly tilted over. She could see the insignia on both wings; the cockpit glass caught the sunlight. She heard the engines screaming at a totally different pitch. Then little dots started to fall out of it, and she realised it must be the crew abandoning the dying aircraft.
“They’ve got another! Look over there!”
Emily looked over just in time to see another bomber slip out of sight behind the barrage balloons. A few moments later, an explosion rocked the ground and smoke billowed up in a huge cloud. Another bomber was smoking from both engines.
“More Hurricanes!” someone cried out excitedly.
Indeed, there were now even more fighters swooping in and out like frolicking swallows, and it took the observers a moment to register that these fighters were not attacking the bombers, but the other fighters. A Hurricane peeled off from the fight and roared right over-head at no more than 1000 feet, recklessly risking a collision with the balloon cables.
By the time Emily registered that it was being pursued by an Me109, it was too late to take cover. The German flew straight at them, its guns blazing. She could see the muzzle flashes. From behind someone flung her forward onto the pavement, and instinctively she covered her head with her hands. With a deafening roar, the shadow passed overhead and was gone.
Dazed, Emily got back to her feet. Both her knees were bleeding. Her stockings were in shreds. The palms of her hands were bruised and bleeding. Her hair was falling down from her bun. Around her the others also got to their feet and brushed off their trousers. Someone offered her a handkerchief for her knees. Emily realised only now that she was trembling all over. And the battle moved on at 250 miles an hour.
Christian didn’t waste time getting lined up astern. He took them in on a broad reach, and Ernst nervously tried to calculate a deflection shot.
But they were going much too fast and were soon being jostled by the slipstream of the bombers, and the Hurricanes were scattering in all directions.
The Emil’s engine screamed in protest. For the first time in his life, Ernst thought the gallant little bird might fail him, as he tried to stay with Christian, who had reefed hard to the right firing furiously at an escaping Hurricane – but from too far away. Ernst could see his tracer falling away in a gentle curve, a good half-hundred metres short of the target. The Hurricane flipped onto its back and started turning the other way. Christian and Ernst tried to follow, but they had been caught by surprise and lost ground.
Then Ernst felt his Emil shudder and, amazed, wrenched around in his seat to look behind him. Spitfires! He tried to scream a warning into the R/T, but it was jammed. Only then did he register that someone had been screaming into it for some time. There were Spitfires all over the place! There had to be at least two squadrons of them. Ernst looked left and right in terror as he realised he’d lost Christian. He was absolutely alone in a sky filled with enemy.
“Christ!” Ernst shoved the throttle to emergency speed and started twisting and turning wildly to shake off his pursuer. Some part of his brain was saying “dive”; the Emil had an advantage in a dive. But there were those damned barrage balloons! The cables could slice right through a wing. He turned over Southampton water and then dived for all the Emil was worth.
After an eternity, the Isle of Wight loomed up. Smoke billowed up from a cluster of buildings around the soaring masts of the radio station. The other group of Junkers must have hit their target, Ernst registered, as he levelled off just above the ground and flew right through the smoke. Beyond, he dropped off the far side of the cliff to skip across the wave tops.
He was utterly alone in a sunny seascape. The shadow of his Emil danced over the wave tops. Men in a fishing boat threw themselves onto the deck as he swept over. He pulled the stick back a little and looked over his shoulder. Left. Right. He weaved backed and forth a bit. No one – except for the remnants of the bomber force limping home ahead of him.
Ginger never even fired his guns.
Shamefacedly, he shoved back the hood of his Hurricane. Sanders and Tufnel were on either side of him cheerfully asking if he’d had “any joy,” but then they saw his face and Sanders asked instead, “Are you all right, sir?” The concern in his voice was genuine.
“I’m sorry,” Ginger pleaded. “I seem to have had an accident again. I’m so sorry.” He felt terrible. His glove had turned on its side during the crazy flight and spilt his vomit over the floor of the cockpit after all. “I’ll help clean it up,” he promised, ashamed both of what he’d done and the fact that Sanders and Tufnel would be expected to clean up after him.
“Don’t you worry about a thing, sir,” Sanders answered evenly, as he leaned forward to help Ginger with his straps. “We’ll have it cleaned up in no time. Just like before. Nothing to worry about, sir.”
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