Bridges reached for his tea and glanced at the clock. He’d had the watch since 5 am and was to be relieved and have a spot of lunch. But the raid had now moved in straight over the Isle of Wight. They’d scrambled both 606 and 607 to try to catch it before it could reach Portsmouth or the Supermarine works. The squawking of the RT transmissions was coming in poorly, and they were reporting cloud rather than the enemy. Something was wrong with the interception.
A telephone was ringing, interfering with Bridges’ ability to hear the R/T. “Where are the bastards supposed to be?” the CO of 607 was demanding in a clearly annoyed tone.
Bridges reached for his microphone to reply, “Black Cow Leader, they were last reported at Angels 27, bearing—”
“Sir! That was the Observer Corps!” Robinson interrupted – and it was unheard of for anyone to interrupt a controller when he was talking to an airborne squadron. The W/O didn’t give his superior the chance to tick him off. “The Huns are flying due east!”
“East!?” Bridges repeated. Then he realised what it meant: they were coming for Tangmere.
“Can you repeat that, Beetle?” the R/T crackled. “What’s the bearing?”
For once, something else was more important than the squadrons in the air. Bridges released the transmit button and called across the room to the airman clerk on the siren. “Sound the Air Raid Warning!” Then he grabbed the telephone to 17 Squadron. “Scramble!”
“But, sir—” the clerk on the other end started.
“Robinson! Get 602 in the air!” Bridges leaned over the railing and called down to the WAAF at the table. “Panic bowlers, everyone.” Only then did he press the button on the R/T again. “Black Cow Leader, this is Beetle. Bandits have—” The transmission was disrupted by a large explosion that shook the earth and knocked the lights out.
Lettice had just managed to run through the Main Gate, still in the dust of the lorry, when the first stick threw her face-down onto the tarmac. A Staffel of Ju88s in tight formation hung directly over the airfield. Explosions erupted across the field in rapid succession, flinging dust and debris into the air. Lettice closed her eyes and clung to the earth for what seemed like ages. When there seemed to be a lull, she lifted her head to see where she might run.
What she saw was the lorry with the WAAF almost upside down, with the cab on fire. A white hand was sticking out between the tarp and the side of the lorry, struggling to release the tarp. The tarp was moving, too, as the girls inside tried to escape.
Lettice dragged herself up and ran towards the lorry.
“Get down, you stupid girl! They’re still coming in!” a male voice shouted at her from the slit trench over to the right.
Lettice turned and screamed back. “There are girls trapped in that lorry! For God’s sake, help me, you bastards!” Then she continued running towards the lorry. Gasping for breath and streaming tears, she barely reached the lorry before – as predicted – the second Staffel started their bomb run.
The earth shook, and detonations came from all sides. Lettice tried to tear the tarpaulin free, but she was too weak. All she did was rip her long fingernails. She could hear someone sobbing beyond the canvas and carefully kept her look averted from the cab, where Liz Hadley and the driver lay crushed. How much petrol was in that engine?
Suddenly four airman joined Lettice. Rather trying to open the tarpaulin, they sought to push the lorry off its roof and over onto one side. Shouting “Two-Six!” they heaved together and the lorry rolled enough to enable the WAAF inside to start crawling out the back.
Several girls, however, were groaning and sobbing in a heap. Corporal Winters tried to help them, but her left arm dangled uselessly at her side. Two of the airmen climbed into the lorry to help pull the injured out, and Lettice glanced once more toward the cab, but there was nothing anyone could do for Liz.
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