606 Squadron had only been airborne a few minutes when Bridges broke in over the RT. “Redcap Squadron, the bandits appear to be targeting London.”
Priestman acknowledged and then returned to straining his eyes as he searched the sky ahead of him; his gaze swept back and forth as he tried to penetrate the haze. At first, he couldn’t believe what he gradually started to see. Dark specks that could only be aircraft were so plentiful that they dappled the entire sky – like a swarm of gnats or mosquitoes in the tropics. Mosquitoes in neat formation. Robin thought he’d seen a lot in the last few months, but this sight stunned him. Then his pilots saw them.
“Oh my God!”
“Would you look at that!”
“There are thousands of them!”
“Crikey – it’s worse than Piccadilly Circus at rush hour!”
Although they knew that 602 and 17 had to be out here somewhere – and dozens of other RAF squadrons as well – they couldn’t see them anywhere. 607 was below and on the right because they’d been vectored this way simultaneously as a team, but visually no one in 606 could see any other RAF squadron. It made them feel far more out-numbered than they actually were.
Ginger couldn’t help himself. After several days with only brief nausea, he found this sight so terrifying that it hit his stomach as the first sorties had. He just barely managed to unclip his oxygen mask and grab his paper bag before he lost his lunch into it. Oh, God, he prayed mutely. Oh, God, help me. Through his earphones came the unperturbed voice of the CO. “Redcap Blue Leader, can you deal with those 109s peeling off towards us?”
“Piece of cake, Skipper,” came the sarcastic reply from Woody. Very sarcastic, actually: there were at least 40 enemy fighters some 2000 feet above them, sliding into their attack. Ringwood had a total of four aircraft under his command.
The remaining two sections were flying straight for another swarm of 109s that was wheeling around to face them. “Redcap Yellow Leader, take your section down against the 110s.”
Ginger flinched inwardly as he realised that meant him – and he hadn’t even seen the aircraft the skipper was talking about. About 2000 feet below them was a formation of 110s flying low cover over the bombers another 2-3,000 feet below them. Ginger tasted vomit in his mouth again, and for a horrible second thought he was going to be sick right into the oxygen mask, but he managed to swallow it down and reply, “Roger, Redcap Leader.”
He glanced over his shoulders, first right towards Green and Reynolds and then left towards Tolkien. Then he dipped his left wing and started sliding down towards the designated targets, blocking out all other thoughts and sounds.
The Me110 was faster than a Hurricane at these altitudes, but fortunately these particular aircraft were tied to the slower bombers below them. In a shallow dive, Ginger’s section slowly overtook them. A sudden flurry of tracer fire from the aft-guns of the 110s indicated the RAF had been sighted by their quarry, and at once the 110s abandoned their flying formation to form a defensive circle.
Ginger concluded that they must have practised this manoeuvre often because they performed it to perfection, but it was purely defensive in nature and posed no threat.
Ginger pushed the stick forward, slipped under the “circus,” and then came up again in the middle to start circling in the opposite direction, raking one enemy after another. Tolkien was still with him, while Green and Reynolds swooped about like a couple of happy swallows, taking pot-shots at targets of opportunity.
It was impossible to record individual hits, but in what seemed like a very short time, several of the enemy aircraft started smoking and lagging. The port engine of one burst into brilliant flame and a moment later the wing dropped off entirely, leaving the fuselage to keel over and then plunge downwards with a plume of smoke marking its rapid descent.
Instantly, Green plunged through the gap left by the downed fighter, firing at the plane that had been ahead of it at very close range before diving away. This surprised aircraft took violent evasive action by breaking hard to the right, causing the entire defensive circle to break apart. It was now “every man for himself.”
Ginger tried to fasten on one of the diving 110s, but this was spewing smoke from both engines – not from damage, but from asking the maximum from them – and it soon pulled away from him. As it dived shallowly, turning gently, however, Ginger caught sight of the earth below. With horror he realised they were over London. Below him was a landscape of concrete and brick: row after row of housing crowded against the narrow streets, their back gardens pressed together.
Ginger had been raised in the country. He’d only passed through London once or twice, and he had never before been so conscious of seeing nothing but housing stretching into the haze. There must be thousands of people living down there – thousands! He couldn’t calculate it, just sense it like one does the force of a gale that nearly knocks you off your feet. He was terrified by the sight of so much humanity crushed together.
Further away, the sun glistened silver on the lazy curves of the Thames, and Ginger could make out cranes, warehouses and ships lying alongside quays. There were huge oil tanks squatting beside the river and a gas works, and around these, little puffs of smoke marked the ack-ack. An instant later, huge black clouds erupted into the air.
Ginger shoved the throttle through the wire and kicked his rudder pedal hard, racing across the city to try to intercept the bombers, which were sedately dumping their loads of high explosive on the dockyards.
These bombers appeared to have come this far completely unmolested, because they still flew in neat formation. As Ginger closed, the lead section of three aircraft climbed up and away from their target. The next rows sank down towards the oil-tanks for their bomb run.
Ginger could see it all too well: the bombs tumbling out of the bellies of the bombers, the eruptions of smoke and dust running across the city in tight little patterns. He saw houses crumbling and collapsing before they were obscured by the debris flung into the air. Then, with a flash of light that blinded him for a second followed by a pressure wave that yanked the Hurricane temporarily out of his control. The gas works went up in flames.
Ginger just managed to swing wide of the inferno shooting upwards. Deaf to the protesting howl of his Hurricane, he charged after the bombers. Still in formation, they lifted a wing contemptuously at the destruction they had caused and turned for home.
“I’ll get you!” Ginger screamed after them, as he flew straight through the smoke and debris that had been flung thousands of feet into the air by the explosion. “Bastards!” He sensed more than thought that such an explosion would have levelled blocks of housing, crushing people in their humble cellars, shattering even prepared shelters.
For all the fighting he had seen in the last months, for all the fear and strain, the injuries and deaths in the squadron, it wasn’t until this moment that Ginger hated the enemy. He hated them with a searing, blinding fury that made him deaf to Tolkien’s shouts. “Yellow One! Break! Break!” He did not hear the warning nor even feel the cannon shells hammering into his Hurricane. For him it was all part of the same madness.
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