A grey-haired and weathered Flight Sergeant emerged. “Where did you come from, sir?” He was eyeing the squadron letters on the Hurricane with evident bafflement.
“I left Duxford this morning just after 5 am. We were supposed to fly escort to a bombing raid, but something went wrong. We ran into an incoming raid and attacked.”
“Well done, sir. Did you get anything?”
“No. I saw a bit break off the tail, but that was all, I’m afraid. Look, do you think you could tank her up and let me make a telephone call? I haven’t the foggiest idea where I am, much less where the rest of my squadron is.”
“You’re at Plievaulx, sir. 139 Squadron.”
“Oh, how extraordinary! That’s where we were supposed to land this morning. 579 Squadron.”
“I’ll take you over to the CO, sir. Let me just get some petrol organised. You’ll want those holes patched up, too, I should think.”
Priestman glanced over to where the Flight Sergeant was pointing, and felt a short moment of dizziness as he saw the huge gaping holes in the fuselage of the Hurricane. He hadn’t realised she’d been that badly hit.
He nodded. “Yes. Better check the controls, etc. while you’re at it.”
“Of course, sir. One moment.”
The Flight Sergeant went over to the two airmen who had just put chocks around the Hurricane’s wheels. They nodded, and set to work right away. You certainly couldn’t complain about the service, Priestman thought to himself, except that the erks weren’t as cheerful as his own crew.
“I gather 139 is flying an operation?” Robin remarked to the Flight Sergeant as they started across the field together towards a large, camouflaged tent.
The Flight Sergeant glanced over at him and shook his head. “No, sir.”
“But where are the rest of your aircraft?” “There aren’t any more, sir.”
“Just what I said, sir. We only have three Blenheims left, and more than half the crews are dead or wounded.”
Priestman was speechless. No wonder the ground crews were looking sombre.
A Wing Commander was coming towards him. Robin saluted. “Priestman, 579 Squadron.”
“You’re alone? You’re all that’s left?” The Wing Commander asked in horror.
“No, sir. I got separated during a dogfight and then lost. It was pure luck that I landed here.”
“But where is the rest of your squadron?”
“I don’t know, sir,” Priestman admitted, feeling foolish.
The Wing Commander gazed at him numbly. His eyeswere bloodshot and he had a three-day beard. “Well, let’s try to find them,” he suggested at last and, taking charge of Priestman from the Flight Sergeant, led him into a tent which apparently served as an Ops Room. There were maps of Northern France hanging on the walls, a telephone manned by a corporal, filing cabinets and a couple of camp beds. The clerks managed to raise AHQ, and learned that 579 Squadron was refuelling at Pontavertand preparing to return to England. Priestman had been presumed killed, along with two other missing pilots. They didn’t have the names of who was missing, but Priestman wasn’t worried, thinking no doubt they’d turn up just as he had. AHQ asked if Priestman could get himself to Pontavert?
The Wing Commander agreed to give him a map and some instructions. “Keep clear of Reims,” he warned. “The Ack-Ack there is trigger-happy.” Priestman thanked him. They shook hands, and Priestman started back towards his Hurricane. He could see the ground crew refuelling it from four-gallon drums. The sound of aircraft engines made him look up automatically. Two bombers were coming in quite low. Priestman followed them with his eyes as they swung around and lined up to land. They didn’t look like Blenheims; maybe a French bomber type?
A voice from across the field was screaming, “Get down! Get down!” The voice was far away, and so rather faint and half carried away by the wind. Priestman looked over, baffled. He noticed that the erks who had been refuelling his Hurricane were running for the edge of the field, the petrol drums abandoned beside his Hurricane. “Get down!” someone shouted again, and at last he located the Flight Sergeant standing near one of the Blenheims and apparently waving at him.
The bombers must be hostile. Priestman looked back at them, anxious to make a correct identification. He saw the bomb-bays open and bombs start to drop. It was like a film. And then he was face down in the dirt and the earth was leaping and shaking under him. Dust got in his eyes and debris rained down on him. The explosions came one after another. One was higher pitched than the others and followed by a wave of suffocating heat, drenched in the smell of aviation fuel. Priestman glanced up in time to see his Hurricane collapse inwards in a ball of flame. They must have landed a direct hit, he registered in amazement. And then the bombers were directly overhead, and instinctively he crossed his arms over his head and lay flat on his stomach with his eyes pressed closed.
As suddenly as it had started, it was over. The humming of the unsynchronised engines gradually grew fainter, leaving the humming of the bees in their place. Slowly, Priestman uncrossed his arms, and lifted his head. The air was full of stagnant dust, just hanging above the ground. His Hurricane was a wreck, slowly burning itself out. He pushed himself to his feet and walked over to it. The erks and the Flight Sergeant also converged on the wreck and stood staring at it. “Sorry to waste your petrol,” Priestman remarked at length.
“Not to worry. The Blenheims are already fuelled up.” Priestman glanced around at the three Blenheims. They were untouched. In fact, his Hurricane appeared to be the only casualty of the raid – and, of course, the field, which was now even more torn up.
Priestman returned to the Ops tent and reported what had just happened. It was decided that 579 Squadron shouldn’t wait for him any longer. They would return to England and he was to take ground transport to Seclin aerodrome, where 85 Squadron was based. 579 Squadron would meet up with him there in two days’ time, as it had been decided to rotate 85 out and bring 579 in to replace them.
The Wing Commander was as obliging about ground trans- port as he had been about the map and the fuel. One of his dead pilots had left behind a battered old Renault; if Priestman could drive it, he could have it. The Wing Commander then carefully showed him the best route to follow to get to Seclin by road. “The French army is moving up reinforcements along these main arteries, and with the increasing number of refugees coming the other way, you’ll never get through. You’re much better off taking the side roads, skirting major cities as much as possible.”
Priestman was provided with three extra canisters of petrol, bread, cans of bully beef, tea-bags and 200 francs in cash. As a last thought, the Wing Commander also gave him a pistol. “I hope you know how to use it. There have been repeated warnings about parachutists landing behind our lines. They use any number of disguises, so trust no one.”
Priestman nodded, but the gun felt very heavy and awkward. He was a reasonably good shot, but he’d never pointed a handgun at anything except a target before – not even a clay pigeon. There was something much more brutal – criminal almost – about pointing a pistol at someone than pointing one aircraft at another.
It was early afternoon by the time Priestman set off, and it was very hot. He put his flight-jacket, parachute, Mae West and helmet into the boot of the car with the food and the extra petrol. He turned onto the road leading past the airfield and found himself at once in the midst of a slow-moving trek of civilian traffic. There were cars, lorries, tractors, horse-carts, bicycles, and people on foot. Everyone was caked in dust, and a cloud of dust hung over the road. Priestman found that the people moved out of his way if he honked, so at first he made quite good progress. After an hour or so, however, he started to fall asleep at the wheel. He would wake up just as he started to swerve one way or the other. He decided he would have to stop and sleep. Just half an hour, he told himself. To avoid jamming the road, he turned off into a field and parked the car under a line of large chestnut trees beside an irrigation ditch. He locked the car from the inside and fell instantly asleep.
Priestman woke with a sense of both terror and confusion. Something was roaring overhead, people were screaming, and a horse galloped past dragging a man tangled in the reins of the harness. Branches rained down onto the top of the car. Jesus Christ, the Germans were strafing the road!
Priestman flung open the door and rolled out of the car into the ditch. There was about a foot of water in it, and his right foot was instantly soaked, but he didn’t notice it at the time. Looking up, he could see two Me109s wheeling around and coming back for a second run. The bloody bastards! There wasn’t a legitimate target for miles.
The roar of engines low overhead, the chatter of machine guns, the screams of refugees and horses, the branches cracking and falling, repeated themselves. Twice. Then apparently the Messerschmitts ran out of ammo or lost interest, because they flew away.
Shaken and shaking, Priestman pulled himself up out of the ditch. His uniform, which his batman had gone to so much trouble to clean and press just last night, was now filthy. Priest- man tried to brush off the worst dirt, but then gave up. He went to the Renault and looked it over. Except for a dent or two from the falling branches, it appeared undamaged.
Then he turned with dread to look at the road beyond it. Along the length of it, the refugees were picking themselves up, dusting themselves off, and checking their own vehicles. But here and there were crumpled bundles that did not move, or only barely moved. The hysterical screaming of a woman drew his attention to the right, and he saw a woman on her knees before a lifeless bundle. An older woman was trying to calm her. Priestman approached, planning to offer transport to the next hospital, but the child’s head had been blown open and half torn away by the impact. He retreated. A little farther away, however, a man was rocking back and forth clutching his shattered shin, his face screwed up with pain. Robin went to him and tapped his shoulder. “Monsieur. J’ai une Auto.”
In the end, Priestman loaded no less than six of the injured into the little Renault and set off. Later he could not explain how they communicated. His French was spotty at best, and the refugees spoke a dialect that was far removed from the language of school French masters. Furthermore, they were all in shock, and Robin himself was not far removed from it. Somehow, they got to a town, and a gendarme on a bicycle led Priestman to a hospital. But the hospital was completely over-run with patients already. Dazed and bleeding civilians sat or lay like a carpet across the reception area.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish