Priestman couldn’t sleep. He was exhausted beyond all measure, but everything seemed to keep him awake – the dampness of the earth, the roughness of his parachute pack under his head, the snoring or uneasy stirring of his companions, the distant bark of navy guns. It should have been reassuring that the Navy was there, he supposed, but the rest of that quote from Henry V kept going through his head, too: “Dishonour not your mothers; now attest that those whom you called fathers did beget you.”
Wasn’t it odd that Shakespeare, 400 years ago, could write something that fitted so perfectly? Nearly all the pilots had fathers who had been here in France last time around, and they had fought it out four years. It was barely two weeks since the German offensive had begun – and it was very nearly over. If Calais fell, they were all trapped.
The thought of being a German prisoner made Robin shudder. Such a grim, humourless people! And the arrogance of them! That was really the worst of it: the way they would gloat and lord it over you.
The sky was lightening to the east already. God! It couldn’t be. He needed his sleep! Please let me sleep! God ignored him, as he so often did. The birds were waking. From the airfield came the sound of someone whistling.
Robin wanted to scream or cry. He was exhausted. He couldn’t take any more. Not without a good night’s sleep. A Hurricane engine coughed into life as the fitters started to warm them up. Around him the others started to sit up. Most looked as if they had slept as little as he had. They straggled back down towards the field, found their way into the mess tent, and fell heavily upon the benches lining the somewhat precarious trestle tables.
Two hours later they were scrambled to intercept bombers attacking the British in Calais. Priestman could sense he was in trouble from the start. At take-off, his Hurricane hit a small hole and bounced. He over-reacted, pulling back on the stick much too soon. He didn’t have enough speed. The Hurricane fell back to earth and he was running out of grass. When he did get airborne, he barely cleared the trees.
The adrenaline pumping from the near miss, he had to throttle forward to catch up with the others as they swung west towards Calais, the sun behind them bright and blinding. It was obvious that they were going to get bounced. But ahead, a gaggle of ugly Stukas was peeling off and going down to drop their loads on the ruins of Calais – because that was all that was left of the city. The buildings the Stukas were hammering had long since turned into heaps of rubble. Still, guns were being fired out of that rubble, and with a twinge of pride Robin realised that there were British troops down there in that wasteland, and they were flinging defiance back at the overwhelming might of Germany.
They were so small, so weak, their arms so inadequate for the task facing them, and their situation was patently hopeless. In fact, the town had apparently already fallen to the Germans. The ugly swastika flag fluttered over the major buildings, but the Union Jack cracked defiantly from the ancient medieval fortress.
Robin hated Stukas more than any other aircraft. They were ugly, vicious planes without any kind of natural grace. They had bent wings and massive, fixed undercarriages like the extended claws of an attacking eagle. They had been designed to intimidate without majesty, and were even equipped with sirens whose sole purpose was to increase the noise, and so the terror, they created as they dived. They symbolised in his mind all that was most objectionable about the Nazis – the brutality, the brashness, the bragging. Robin was determined to get one – and confident, too.
Bringing one down was not the problem. The Hurricane could fly circles around a Stuka, and Priestman, Ibbotsholm, Stillwell and Bennett all brought one down on their first pass. Robin’s mistake was that he wanted more. As soon as he’d finished off one Stuka, Priestman spiralled up the sky to get enough altitude for a new attack. He kept watching the Stukas, afraid they would get away before he could attack again. He was not watching his tail or the sun.
The canon hits from behind took him completely by surprise. He reacted as he had taught himself over the last ten days, with a flick quarter-roll and a tight turn. It worked, the Me109 overshot him, and Robin straightened out and turned inland. He’d made a second mistake: he’d forgotten the wingman.
The minute he straightened out, machine guns and cannon raked along the side of the Hurricane. He felt as if it had been wrenched violently out of his hands as it spun out of control. Still shaken by the suddenness of the dual attack and the terrifying sensation of losing control of the Hurricane, Priestman was close to panic as he tried to pull out of the spin.
The pedals and stick were dead.
His brain registered what had happened. His tail and/or the control cables had been shot away. He had no control of the aircraft and the Hurricane plunged down, spinning so fast the earth was only a whirling blur.
He struggled to get clear of the aircraft, tearing off his helmet to free himself of oxygen and R/T, but the centrifugal force pinned him in the seat. The hood jammed. He battered his hands bloody trying to free it. At the very last minute it broke free, and with the super-human strength of panic he flung himself over the side of the cockpit. But he was far too close to the ground. His ‘chute didn’t have time to open properly.
He crashed into a steep sloping railway siding and tumbled down to the bottom lifelessly.
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