The two young men stood in front of the adjutant’s desk with orders to report to No. 606, but (typical RAF) no one had told the squadron adjutant to expect them. Mickey looked frantically through the stacks of paper in his various “in” and “out” and “to do” boxes, but nothing yielded the slightest information.
Obviously, they needed more pilots. They had lost five over Dunkirk and so far only one replacement had arrived, but still these two young men didn’t seem at all suitable, and Mickey was certain the CO wasn’t going to like them. For a start, one was Canadian, of all things, with a hideous accent, and the other spoke with a broad West Country accent that suggested he had never been to a proper school in his life. Furthermore, both were Sergeants, and 606 had never had Sergeant Pilots until two days ago, when the RAF had sent them a certain Sergeant MacLeod.
The CO had had a fit about that, and Mickey agreed with him. He didn’t think much of the idea of Sergeant Pilots generally. How could a squadron develop strong bonds between pilots if they lived in different messes? But at least MacLeod was regular RAF, with almost ten years’ service. These boys were Voluntary Reserve (VR), and the Squadron had been spared these “weekend fliers” up to now.
“I really can’t find anything at all,” he said helplessly to the two young men opposite him. “You’re sure your orders were for 606? Not 607? Or 602?”
“No, it says right here, 606.” The Canadian handed over his own copy of the orders.
“Oh, dear,” Mickey ran his hand through his thinning hair.
“Well, let me call the Sergeant’s mess and see about some accommodation for you.” He reached for the phone.
“Where’s the CO?” the Canadian asked brashly.
“He happens to be on a patrol, guarding a channel convoy,” Mickey told the impudent young man in what he hoped was a sufficiently severe tone. He really disliked these colonials, he thought to himself, and this young man was too tall, broad and tanned by half. The other pilot was more to his taste; he looked and acted like a respectful young man, with reddish hair and a freckled face. “Why don’t you go get settled in at the Sergeant’s Mess and report back to me in an hour? Maybe the CO will be back by then.” Mickey dismissed them.
The Sergeant Pilots heaved their kitbags over their shoulders and went back out into the bright sunshine. “Not exactly an enthusiastic welcome,” the Canadian grumbled, clearly disappointed.
“No,” the other Sergeant replied simply. He wasn’t one for unnecessary words. He’d grown up in an isolated cottage on the moors.
The Canadian held out his hand. “Name’s Harvey Green. From Kingstown, Ontario. My Dad owns a gas station there. How about you?”
“George – but everyone calls me Ginger – Bowles. From Devon. M’Dad’s a carpenter.” That was putting it nicely. Mostly he just did odd jobs and repairs for people. But he was good with carpentry if anyone gave him a chance. He could thatch too, and tile. He’d do just about anything to try to make ends meet.
Ginger was feeling very homesick at the moment. He would much rather have been heading home to his Dad’s cottage than joining yet another unit. It seemed that since he’d been called up, he’d been thrown in with one bunch of young men after another. Ginger was tired of it all. He wished he could go home for a few days with his Dad, just the two of them, his Dad smoking his pipe and, Bessie, their dog, at his feet.
Ginger couldn’t remember his mother. She’d died when he was three or four. A couple of faded photos of her adorned the mantelpiece, and his Dad kept her wedding dress in a cardboard box in the cupboard still. And that was all. It had always been just his Dad and him, and now he’d gone and left his Dad alone.
It wasn’t fair, really, but his Dad had urged him to go. “Take the chance while you’ve got it,” his Dad had said. The posters and adverts had been so inviting: “Join the RAFVR! Learn to Fly!” It sounded so wonderful. Flying was wonderful. But not the rest of it. Now they’d given him no leave between training and posting him to a squadron.
The Canadian was talking again in his loud, grating voice. “Devon, huh? I heard that’s real pretty. Hope I have time go there sometime. We get some leave, don’t we?”
“Theoretically,” Ginger answered. He hadn’t seen any in what seemed like an eternity. They started walking towards the Sergeants’ Mess. Tangmere was an old station with the buildings built of dark brick and covered with ivy. The tall windows had white frames and everything had the comfortable feeling of a university – or at least what Ginger supposed a University was like, never having been to one himself.
It certainly sat in a peaceful location, surrounded by broad, flat fields of hay out of which a stone church tower rose. Somewhere just beyond the fields, invisible and yet intangibly present, was the sea. That was the only thing Ginger didn’t like about Tangmere so far, that it was so near to the sea. He hated the sea, and his worst nightmare was to be out upon it – in a small boat or, worse still, crashing into it with an aircraft. The thought alone sent a shiver down his spine.
The sound of aircraft engines drew both pilots’ attention towards the sky. At first they couldn’t find the aircraft, but then they did, two. The pair was coming in low with the sun behind them. The Sergeant Pilots paused to watch them come into the circuit and land. Green shielded his eyes with his hand to see better.
There wasn’t much to see. From head on, the body of a Hurricane was narrow and the wings razor thin. Furthermore, these two were approaching at a terrific pace. Of course, Hurricanes were fast, but…. “Aren’t they going too fast to land?” Green asked.
Bowles had been thinking that, too. The next thing they knew, the lead Messerschmitt was spewing cannon and machine-gun fire at a Hurricane on the far side of the airfield.
“Hit the deck!” someone screamed from behind them, and Green dived for the ground. Ginger was a fraction slower. He saw the Hurricane leap into the air and fall back to the ground in three pieces, the back completely broken. The Messerschmitts thundered overhead, their cannon finding a second Hurricane. Then, as suddenly as they had come, they were gone. Not one of the AA-guns had fired.
Green got to his feet first, dusting off his trousers and tunic and gazing after the Messerschmitts that were climbing gently as they rapidly grew smaller.
Ginger was slower, shaken to the marrow of his bones. First, he’d failed to recognise the enemy when it was flying straight at him, and second, with just a three-second burst, they had utterly destroyed a Hurricane. True, it had been a sitting duck, but the sheer, awesome power of the cannon left him a little dazed. The next time they fired, it might be at him.
“Jeeze! Do they do that a lot?” Green wanted to know, beating his cap against the side of his leg to get the dust off it. Ginger had no idea, but he was very, very frightened.
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