After that, things only got worse. The days started to blur into one another. They were flying frantically – usually led by MacAllistair rather than Yardly, who had to “keep things together” on the ground, and Robin found himself acting “B” Flight Commander.
They were soon out of spare parts and had to cannibalise Smith’s Hurricane. Bizarrely, 11 Group sent them four replacement Hurricanes and pilots in the midst of this chaos, but the new pilots were so wet behind the ears that Yardly told them to just keep out of everyone’s way. Which left the remaining pilots of 579 flying 4-5 times a day. When they weren’t flying, they generally stretched out in the shade of their Hurricanes and tried to sleep.
Priestman had done just that when an airman crawled under the wing beside him. He opened one eye, and honestly didn’t recognise the ugly little man who was shaking his arm. “You’ve got to eat something, sir,” the AC1 urged.
Priestman sat up, forcing himself to focus. It was a cook from the mess. He was in his forties, with crooked yellow teeth, and he was thrusting a sandwich at Robin. “You ‘aven’t eaten all day, sir. You can’t keep going on an empty stomach.”
“How did you know I haven’t eaten?” Robin asked, taking the thick sandwich from the airman.
“Do you think I can’t keep track of my pilots?” The AC1 asked indignantly. “You ‘aven’t been eating proper for two days, sir. It ain’t good.” The little airman was genuinely upset.
Priestman registered guiltily that he hadn’t given a thought to the ground crews of late. They were getting bombed sporadically, and the possibility of the airfield being over-run by enemy was a constant threat. Furthermore, now that the Lysander and one of the Ansons had been damaged and cannibalised to keep the Hurricanes flying, they might have to rely on the Royal Navy to get home – which hardly seemed very likely. The Royal Navy couldn’t take the whole of the BEF off, after all, so what were the chances that the ground crews of an RAF squadron would get special treatment? Very slight, and they must know that. They must know that in all probability they were going to be prisoners of war within the next few weeks, even days. And this airman was worrying about whether he’d eaten properly?
“What’s your name, Airman?”
“Thank you, Thatcher,” Robin managed between mouthfuls of rather dry bread and beef. It didn’t taste like anything, actually, but the airman was right: he needed it.
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