Alan heard the klaxon go while he was unpacking his suitcase in the room assigned to him at the Officer’s Mess. From the window he could see Hurricanes racing across the field and lifting off in a great thundering herd. He’d never seen anything like it before – in training they’d never taken off in more than sections of three. Here there were ten to twelve of the thoroughbreds racing across the broad field and then wheeling about in a wide arc. They were magnificent! His heart raced faster at the thought that he would soon be out there with them.
When he got to the dispersal, however, it was empty. Everything just lay about – half-finished mugs of tea, unfinished sandwiches, magazines, newspapers. A record was circling on the gramophone, making only a scratching sound. Ainsworth took the needle off the record and turned off the gramophone. Then he glanced around the room, his attention drawn to the Order of Battle. Beside that was a blackboard on which crude aircraft in strange, lopsided vics had been drawn. That wasn’t a formation they’d been taught in training, he noted, and it looked sloppy. There was also a large 94 at the top of the board, underlined heavily. He wondered what that was all about. Was he in the wrong dispersal? Was this No 94 Squadron rather than 606? But the 606 shield was there, and from the markings on the blackboard the 94 clearly had been written over other numbers that had been erased. Must be some kind of score, Ainsworth decided. He stepped out of the hut to wait in the sunshine.
It seemed to take forever for the squadron to return. While he waited, a gaggle of aircraft landed but dispersed far away, and the pilots went into another dispersal hut. There were three squadrons operating from Tangmere, Ainsworth remembered. Finally, a second gaggle came into land, with one of the aircraft trailing smoke and flying unsteadily. Alan watched in fascination as the damaged aircraft was given precedence on the circuit and came in low, its engine spluttering, the hood shoved back and the pilot looking over the side as he put it down. Fire engine and ambulance rushed across the field towards it, but the pilot waved them away and rolled over to one of the blast bays. Erks rushed out and caught the wingtips. The prop slowed. The pilot jumped down.
The other planes were landing fast, one after the other, and Alan watched the way they spread out to their respective blast pens. Everywhere the ground crews swung them around and backed them in. The planes had hardly come to a standstill, before whole teams of erks were crawling all over them: opening the cowling, the ammo boxes, the fuel tank, checking and topping up oil, glycol, oxygen, petrol, re-sealing the muzzles of the guns, testing tyre pressure, etc.
Meanwhile, the pilots had gathered around the damaged machine. They seemed to be in animated conversation, pointing this way and that, gesturing with their hands as they inspected the damage to the crate. A man limping badly and walking with a cane went out to them. They converged on him like a school of ravenous fish attacking a victim. Eventually they calmed down, however, and started towards the dispersal hut in a large group.
One of them noticed Ainsworth. “What have we here?” he asked in astonishment, halting. He was a slender young man with a snobby accent. They all stopped, but then one of them came forward with an outstretched hand. “I gather you’re a replacement pilot for 606?”
Ainsworth caught sight of the two-and-half stripes just in time and saluted. “Yes, sir. Ainsworth, sir. Alan Ainsworth.”
“Straight from an OTU, I gather.”
“Don’t tell me the bad news just yet; let’s get in out of the sun first.” The CO led them all into the dispersal hut, where the windows were open, allowing for a bit of a cross breeze. He tossed his flight jacket into a chair, but the others were hanging their jackets onto hooks.
“Ring for tea, would you, Woody?” the Squadron Leader suggested, while the others collapsed into the chairs.
The CO introduced them to Alan one at a time, but except for the big New Zealander they called Kiwi, Ainsworth was sure he wouldn’t be able to put names to faces for a while.
“Could we have some more sandwiches, Skipper? These ones have got ants all over them.”
“All right, who was the bright sod who left them on the floor?”
“Does it matter?”
“Why doesn’t the Salvation Army bring us a hot meal like they do the erks?”
“It would just get cold.”
“You’re off your form today, Skipper, by about 50 yards. If you don’t smarten up, it will take us forever to make 100.”
“We’re much nicer at the The Ship, believe me,” one of the pilots told Ainsworth.
Two mess stewards arrived with hot tea and sandwiches and were greeted enthusiastically. The pilots gathered around with their mugs. Ainsworth didn’t have one, but a slight, fair-haired pilot noticed, and took a clean mug from a locker and handed it to him. A moment later silence had settled over them, as they were all eating with concentration and an almost tangible urgency.
The telephone went. The eruption of swearing was truly vile – not just rude but vehement. The clerk was absent for some reason, so the CO grabbed the receiver himself, still chewing. He managed a mere, “MMM.”
The others waited absolutely still, staring at him. He gestured with his hand for them to relax and they audibly unwound, starting to eat and drink more calmly. The CO was nodding. “Um hum. Um hum. OK. Thanks, Bridges.”
“Hornchurch was hit while 54 was still on the ground. They lost a whole section – though not the pilots, it seems – and Biggin Hill was struck again. Second time today. They also gave Debden, North Weald and Croyden a pasting. It seems Jerry is concentrating on the airfields around London. 12 Group was asked to patrol London and the 11 Group ‘dromes while the squadrons refuelled, but they failed to show up in time.”
“Typical 12 Group,” a man with a posh accent commented.
“Leigh-Mallory thinks his squadrons are more effective if they are flown in wings of multiple squadrons,” the CO explained.
“Well, I like that idea. It would be a nice change not to be outnumbered ten-to-one!”
“We never are out-numbered by that many, Woody,” the CO countered in a low, serious voice. “And the odds are identical whether we deploy in big wings or individual squadrons. The difference is at best psychological, and frankly I much prefer things the way they are.”
“Why?” the New Zealander asked bluntly, and by the nodding around the dispersal, Ainsworth had the impression they all wanted to know.
“Because large gaggles just get in each other’s way. Look at the 109s. We generally have somewhere over thirty or even sixty of the buggers up there when we attack, but when it comes down to it, we only fight with about a score. The others never get a chance.”
“Maybe, but frankly, once – just once – I’d like to face them on equal terms.”
The telephone and klaxon seemed to go off at the same time, and they were gone even before the returned clerk could shout “scramble” at them.
Ainsworth was left standing. He went to the door of the dispersal and gazed after them, feeling more confused than ever. Shouldn’t he be with them? But they hadn’t given him an aircraft or a flight or anything. Maybe there weren’t any extra aircraft? There had to be, because the damaged crate had been rolled into the one remaining hangar, but its pilot was clambering into the cockpit of another. From the scattered chaos of the scramble, the Hurricanes started to collect at the head of the field into a rough line. Their engines took on a more purposeful purring and the tails twitched nervously. Then they rolled forward, slowly gathering speed, until the tails came up. They bounced, leapt, floated.
How he wished he were with them!
Ainsworth watched them start to wheel around, their wheels folding up under them, and noted it was a very loose formation they were flying, not at all what he’d been taught. Why didn’t they tighten up more? It looked sloppy. Were they that tired? A disturbing thought. They were climbing up through the thin layer of low cloud. He watched until the last speck was gone, and then he looked around the forlorn dispersal again.
In less than an hour they were back. All of them. This time they trickled into the dispersal separately, depending on how far away their blast pen happened to be. “Fucking little cowards!”
“I don’t know. I sure as hell wouldn’t want to have a bloody bomb clamped under the belly of my Hurri!”
“They used to send Stukas to do that kind of thing.”
“Ah, those were the days! Stuka Parties, we called them. They were great fun. Got 15 of them the day they bombed us here, you know.”
“Fifteen!? You alone?”
“Of course not, Idiot! The Tangmere Squadrons combined. A bit confused, actually, not at all clear who got what exactly, but there were wrecks littered all over the countryside. Those were the days….”
“And now they bugger up their best fighter with a ruddy great bomb.”
“Bloody unfair, that. If they come in unmolested they bomb their targets, but if they see us, they just jettison the sodding bomb and take us on like equals.”
“Did they put the RDF out or not?” The question was from the CO, who had just come in.
“Don’t know, Skipper.”
The CO reached for the phone and jangled it. “Bridges? Did they succeed?” A long pause. The CO hung up. “They got them. RDF is down again.”
“Bugger! Now we’re blind again!”
“The whole chain again?”
“Truleigh, Pevensy and Rye.”
“Jerry’s getting too bloody clever. Whatever happened to good old days when he attacked Convoys, Coastal Command and the Royal Navy?”
No one had an answer to that, and they fell silent. The CO noticed Ainsworth. “Sorry, Alan. Not very hospitable, I’m afraid. Tell us a little about yourself – start with the good news, not how many hours you’ve had on Hurricanes.”
“Sorry, bad joke. Tell us about yourself.”
“I’m from London, sir. After leaving school I trained as an engineer and joined the Volunteer Reserve. I’d just finished basic training when the war started.”
“What part of London are you from?” a Flying Officer asked with mild interest.
“Primrose Hill, sir.”
“You don’t have to call me ‘sir.’ Save that for the Skipper. Where—”
“What’s that?” Woody interrupted in an alarmed tone.
They could hear a lot of small engines, but very low and directly overhead.
“Jerry wouldn’t send his fucked-up fighters in a low-level attack against us, would he?”
They bolted for the door so fast that several of them collided in the doorway. Ainsworth just stood there, holding his breath, waiting for the first explosion or at least the crack of ack-ack. Instead he heard a burst of excited voices, and he went to the door. The others had stopped just a few strides beyond the dispersal and were watching as Hurricanes, flying in neat vics, circled the field and came in to land one section at a time.
“Very nice,” someone said.
“Bloody amateurs,” someone answered.
“Where do you think they came from?”
“Oh, probably Scotland.”
“What?! You mean they’re foreigners?!”
“Not necessarily. That’s where they send English squadrons to relax and recuperate from the rigours of life here in the South.”
“Ah. You don’t suppose they’ve come to relieve us, do you?”
“Fancy a trip to Scotland, Donny?”
“Yes, as a matter of fact. Never been there.”
“Its charms diminish on closer contact. Rains 363 days of the year.”
“43 is being sent North,” the CO put an end to their speculation.
“Oh.” They watched the newcomers taxi neatly to the periphery of the field. Now they noticed that there were a couple of strange Ansons and Dragon Rapides parked around the periphery as well.
A Flight Sergeant was approaching the dispersal. He saluted the CO. “I’m afraid we’re not going to be able to repair ‘D’ ourselves, sir. It will have to go to a Maintenance Unit.”
“Have you put in for a replacement?”
“If you’ll sign here, sir.” He handed a form attached to a clipboard to the Squadron Leader, who signed without further ado. The Flight Sergeant turned away, and the CO turned to Ainsworth. “Unfortunately, the news about the kite is bad. It means we have no aircraft for you at the moment. Just how many hours do you have on Hurricanes?”
There was a long pause. The CO didn’t say anything. He didn’t even look particularly shocked; but the longer the silence, the worse Alan felt. Then at last the CO announced, “Well, I’m not taking you on ops until you have at least 22, so let’s see how fast we can get a crate down here for you to do some flying on, while we go to work.”
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