The dining room was still dark, but you could hear noise coming from the kitchen and the clatter of plates and utensils as the cooks started to prepare breakfast. The pilots would start trickling in about 4.30, but Robin had asked for the 3.30 wake-up call to get the weather report. If it had been bad again, he would have gone back to sleep, but there was no point in it now. Better check on the state of the kites and be sure everything was ready for the day ahead. Priestman asked Thatcher to bring some toast to him out in the dispersal hut and headed for the remaining hangar to talk to Rowe.
He didn’t make it. Rowe intercepted him. “I was just going to send for you, sir. I’m afraid I have some bad news.”
“How many kites are u/s?”
“Oh, it’s not that. There are 13 serviceable aircraft. It’s one of the riggers, sir. He was caught trying to go AWOL last night.”
“What do you mean?” In Priestman’s experience AWOL occurred most frequently when men did not return by the specified time at which their leave expired. Usually they arrived a few hours late, having missed train connections or whatever. Now and again, he’d known men to sneak off the Station for a night on the town that was not authorised, but they too always returned in due time. While these were offences, they hardly warranted the grave look on Rowe’s face.
“He was caught trying to climb over the perimeter fence in the middle of the night, sir. Evidently, he was trying to desert.”
“Are you certain?” Priestman asked, incredulous. Soldiers deserted. Sailors deserted. Airmen did not. At least, he’d never heard of it. Did the first recorded case have to be in his squadron?
“There can be no doubt, sir. He was wearing civilian clothes and carrying a bag with personal effects. Desertion in the face of the enemy is a capital offence, sir—”
“I know that!” Priestman retorted irritably. “But I don’t think we should jump to wild conclusions. There are no enemy on this Station, anyway.”
“The Germans have demonstrated that they can hammer us here, sir, and I was only trying to remind you, sir, that he must be held under arrest.”
“Slow down. Have you talked to him? And who is it? Which aircraft?” Priestman was rapidly becoming aware that he had focused too intently on his pilots these last four days. He didn’t know the names of any erks other than his own.
“Leading Aircraftman Tufnel, sir. He regularly serviced “H.””
“H” was the kite Sergeant Pilot Bowles usually flew, and Robin remembered that on his first morning here an airman had suggested he not take “H” because it stank. That was something else he had neglected: he hadn’t talked to Bowles about being airsick. Suddenly, he realised that despite feeling as if he’d been working himself to death these past four days, in fact, he hadn’t done half of what he ought to have done. For the moment, however, the issue was Tufnel. “What does Tufnel say he was doing?”
“He’s refusing to talk, sir.”
From somewhere out on the airfield, the first engine coughed into life. The pre-flight warm-ups were starting. The sound reminded Priestman that he still wanted to go over the Order of Battle and make a few adjustments based on the observations he’d made while flying yesterday. Herriman was over-confident and over-estimated his abilities. He needed to be well hemmed in. Kiwi was a natural leader, but it wouldn’t do to put a sprog and a foreigner in command of a section yet, if he didn’t want to alienate the old auxiliary pilots completely. So, he’d position him as Red Three, the most exposed position in Vics Echelon Starboard. He concluded that he didn’t have time to deal with Tufnel just now. “Look, Rowe, I don’t want any charges brought against LAC Tufnel until I’ve had a chance to speak to him personally.”
“Sir, according to paragraph—”
“Pack it in, Flight! One day isn’t going to make any difference. Who is servicing “H” in Tufnel’s place?”
“I am, sir.”
“Very good. And you said we have 13 serviceable aircraft?”
“Thank you. I’ll be at dispersal if you need me.” Priestman turned and started for his own aircraft, which was rapidly becoming discernible in the pre-dawn twilight. His crew was working around it already – checking the tyres, polishing the windscreen, closing the gun-ports with canvas to prevent condensation at higher altitudes that could cause the guns to jam.
Ripley was just about to climb into the cockpit when Robin came up alongside. He stopped. “Morning, sir.”
“Morning. Tell me, do you know LAC Tufnel well?”
Ripley and Appleby exchanged a glance before Ripley answered cautiously, “Well enough, sir.”
“Any idea why he would want to desert?”
“No, sir. Tufnel’s a first-class man. One of Trenchard’s brats,” Ripley said firmly, his expression one of earnestness.
“Problems at home, maybe?” Priestman pressed him.
“No, sir…. But he hasn’t been himself since Sanders broke his back.”
“Sanders, sir,” Appleby took over from his taciturn colleague, coming nearer. “He and Tufnel were at Halton together and posted here together. Sanders had an accident just before the raid. He fell backwards off a Hurricane wing and broke his back. He’s up in Southampton in hospital now. I heard he won’t ever walk again. You might want to talk to Fowley, sir. He’s Sanders’ replacement.” Appleby nodded towards one of the other Hurricanes.
Priestman thanked him and went straight over. Fowley’s story was the same. It was getting light very rapidly because there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Priestman could see a lorry waiting out in front of the Officers’ Mess to bring the pilots over to dispersal, so he started walking towards the dispersal himself. At dispersal Priestman made a note to himself to call Mickey after 8 am and ask him to bring over Tufnel’s personnel files.
When the Sergeant Pilots arrived from their Mess, Priestman asked Bowles to step outside with him. “Sorry to get your day off to a bad start, but your rigger tried to go AWOL last night,” he told the Sergeant Pilot. “Any idea what the problem might be?”
Ginge had expected some personal criticism from this terrifying new CO and was relieved by the question about his rigger. “Tufnel, sir?”
“He’s been very upset about Sanders, sir.”
“Sanders. The fitter who broke his back about a week ago.”
“Yes, sir. They were good friends. The padre tried to get Tufnel a pass so he could go and visit Sanders, but the CO wouldn’t approve it. And then the raid came and you came….”
That folder full of leave slips! Priestman thought guiltily. Mickey had mentioned that nothing had been approved in a long time and maybe he ought to look at it…. Better have him bring that along with Tufnel’s files. But the word “padre” was a good tip, too. He would ask the padre to have a talk with the erk. He nodded, “Thank you.”
“Is that all, sir?” Ginger asked hopefully, anxious to end this uncomfortable one-on-one with a CO, who frightened even the commissioned officers.
“Now that you mention it, no.” Ginger waited for the axe to fall. “I understand from your ground crew that you suffer from airsickness.” Priestman levelled his eyes on Bowles as he said this.
Bowles looked down and his ears started to turn red. “If that’s what you want to call it, sir.”
“I’m surprised your instructors passed you out of training. Airsickness is no one’s fault, obviously, but it is a serious impairment to effective flying.”
Bowles’ expression became very stubborn as he looked up and met his commanding officer’s eye. “I didn’t have it in training, sir. It has nothing to do with flying.”
“But you have been sick when flying – repeatedly, I was told.”
“I’m only sick when I see the enemy, sir,” Bowles told him bluntly, adding provocatively, “Am I going to be posted, too?”
“Is that what you want?” Priestman retorted sharply. Mickey had told him that his nickname in the squadron was “the Butcher.”
“No, sir.” Bowles stood before him, his face flushed with shame, but his lips pressed together resentfully and his blue eyes flashing defiance.
“You want to keep fighting despite this condition?” Priestman probed.
“Yes, sir. I carry paper bags.” Ginger pulled one out of his flight jacket pocket to show the squadron leader. “And I’ll clean the aircraft myself if you want me to. I’ve offered to do that before, but Sanders and Tufnel wouldn’t hear of it.”
“That’s not necessary, Bowles,” Robin tried to ease the tension. “If you are prepared to keep flying despite this discomfort, then I for one am honoured to have you with me.”
It took several minutes for Ginger to digest that, and he didn’t quite believe it. “You’re not going to post me, sir?”
“No, why should I? You’re one of my more experienced pilots, and I understand you have a credited kill.”
“That was just an accident, sir.” Ginger hastened to explain, feeling embarrassed. “During the raid, everything was happening so fast that I didn’t have time to be sick, and suddenly there was this Stuka right smack in front of me, so I shot at it and it blew up.”
“That’s the way it happens for all of us half the time,” Robin told him with an amused smile. “Shall we go and get some tea?” He gestured towards the dispersal hut with his head.
“Thank you, sir,” Ginger replied automatically, and then he realised that he really was thankful. The CO wasn’t anywhere near as bad as the others made him out to be. At least he cared whether Ginger was sick or not. Jones must have known about it too, but he hadn’t cared.
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