A de-brief took place immediately after landing. Still in flying kit, their hair sticky with dried sweat, and their uniforms crumpled and smelling none too fresh, they collected in the staff dining room of the inn that served as their Mess. This dining room in the cellar had been converted for use as a briefing room, with a blackboard and map of southern England and northern France pinned to the wall.
Ernst noted that he wasn’t the only one with unsteady hands as they lit up cigarettes and struck self-consciously casual poses. (Fischer wasn’t one for protocol. He let them stand about leaning against the tables or slouching against the wall.) Only when he caught sight of Kreisel, however, did Ernst start to relax a bit. He pulled out a chair and sank down into it.
“You all right?” Dieter asked at once, giving him a piercing look.
“A bit sore, that’s all,” Ernst admitted, burying the shame of running away deeper in his own mind and heart.
Dieter nodded and sat down next him. Gradually most of the others sat down, too; only a few remained standing at the back, leaning against the wall. The new CO, Major Henning, came in with the Intelligence Officer. The pilots came to a sloppy approximation of attention – more a halfhearted hint that they remembered something about owing respect to their CO.
Henning frowned, but then waved them back “at ease” and, leaning on the podium at the front of the room, announced: “The casualties from this morning’s raid are in: 18 aircraft, 12 of them fighters. For the afternoon raid, the numbers aren’t complete, but it looks like we lost between 30 and 40 aircraft, 11 fighters. As you know, Feldwebel Schüster had to bail out over England, and the Gruppe lost two other aircraft and pilots.”
“Where did they all come from, Herr Gruppenkommandeur?” one of the pilots asked in obvious amazement.
Henning shrugged, but before he could answer, one of the new pilots whom Ernst didn’t know suggested, “Maybe the Americans are helping the Tommies secretly. Everyone knows they aren’t really neutral!”
“Or they got reinforced from their colonies,” someone else suggested.
Henning cut the discussion short. “After a week of focusing exclusively on London, the British guessed what our target was and concentrated their defences around their capital, denuding the rest of the country. The largest formations were directly over the capital itself – probably as much to calm the civilian population as to attack us. After all, the mood in London must be very explosive, and the RAF will have wanted to show that they still had some fight left. I’d say they threw everything they had at us today – and if Galland, Mölders and Wick are as good as they claim to be, we’ll have eliminated a good deal more than just 23 fighters.”
That brought a satisfied murmur from the collected pilots. “Keep in mind that we saw the worst of the fighting, because we were to the bombers. The two Geschwader on free sweeps will have been in a position to attack rather than be attacked. I feel confident we won today’s engagement, and the desperation with which the Tommies pressed home their attacks suggests they are at the end of their strength – and know it. They are fighting with their backs to the wall and fighting very hard. You have to respect them for it. They are worthy opponents, but I’d say they are very nearly finished. Now, the bar is open.”
The pilots responded to Henning’s little speech – and the early opening of the bar – with a cheer.
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