More and more aircraft started to call into Control for fixes home. This too was part of his job. Jordy called in, “Beetle, Redcap Yellow Four here. Can you read me?”
Something about the voice, small and tight, alerted Bainbridge. He grabbed the mike. “Reading you loud and clear, Redcap Yellow Four.”
“I’ve been hit. My foot’s all shot up.”
“Do you want to jump or try to land?” Bainbridge asked him. “Land,” came the very tense answer.
It was the pilot’s decision. From here, in his bunker, Bridges could not possibly judge if it was the right one. He could only hope it was and do all he could to assist. He ordered Robinson to take the other calls and concentrated on talking this one pilot home. “Right, then. Do you know where you are?”
“Not to worry. Just keep talking until we can get a fix on you.” As he spoke he signalled to ACW Roberts, and she at once picked up the phone to the D/F room where their own fighters were plotted.
“Jerry must have dumped two hundred bombs on Portsmouth,” Jordy was saying. “The whole city is lost in smoke. My foot is killing me. There’s blood all over the floor now and the rudder pedals are getting slippery.”
Roberts was back and pushed a note to him with the vector for Jordy. “Redcap Yellow Four, vector 065. What’s your altitude?”
“Good. How’s your Hurricane responding?”
Bainbridge was sweating again. He knew what Jordy was going through, but he mustn’t lose sight of the overall picture either. Nervously Bainbridge glanced at the board showing the squadrons’ status. 17 and 43 had already gone from green (in the air) to red (refuelling). If Jerry sent in a quick raid now, they’d be caught with their trousers down.
Bainbridge turned his attention back to Jordy. “You’re doing just fine, Redcap Yellow Four. Coming in very nicely.” Bainbridge reported the wounded pilot to the tower. “What have you got on the circuit?”
“Three aircraft at the moment. How far away is the lame duck?”
Bainbridge checked. “Five miles.”
“We’ll clear the circuit for him when we see him.”
Bainbridge asked Roberts to find out how many planes were back and how many were still missing, and then went back to talking Jordy down.
“All of 17 are down, sir. 43 has lost 3 aircraft, and 606 has lost 2. 602 is still airborne.”
“Find out which pilots are missing,” he ordered. The tower reported sighting Jordy and took over talking him in. Bainbridge glanced at the board. All four Tangmere squadrons were refuelling – vulnerable. There were no plots on the board, but the Hun had sent in low-flying hit-and-run bombers below the RDF in the past. If such a raid hit Tangmere now….
The WAAF handed him a piece of paper with the designations of the missing aircraft. Bainbridge turned to his assistant. “Robinson? Can you spell me for a bit? I need a smoke.”
Bainbridge went out into the bright glare of the afternoon sun. What a glorious day, and he spent it in a dark, windowless bunker! Yet the air smelt of petrol and wherever he looked, bowsers stood beside parked Hurricanes and ground crews clambered over them, rearming, checking oil and tyre pressure, cleaning windscreens.
At last he located it. The Hurricane flying low to the horizon and flying erratically: it sank down, then bounced up again, sank again, the wings wagged, the long snout swung from side to side. The engine roared as the throttle was shoved forward, then all but died only to roar again. The aircraft swooped up and down like a swallow. It banked dangerously as the undercarriage was cranked down. Then righted, but it was coming in too high. Much too high. It dropped down. Bashed onto the ground. Bounced up again. The wing tipped violently. It smashed down again. One of the undercarriage legs gave way. The wing tip went in and the aircraft started to cartwheel. Bainbridge stared in horror, oblivious to the sirens wailing around him. The tip of the wing broke off. The Hurricane flopped back onto its remaining undercarriage leg and screeched to a halt.
Bainbridge could see the pilot drop his head on the control panel and just wait there. The ambulance stopped alongside. Two airmen from the ground crew were on the wings, sliding back the canopy. They pulled off the pilot’s helmet and tossed it aside. They undid his straps, lifted him out of the cockpit, onto the broken wing. His right leg appeared to be soaked in blood, useless. He had blood on his right hand and the right side of his face too – but probably just from touching his wounded leg. The ground crew eased him down the slope of the wing to the waiting stretcher and medics.
Another pilot came around the snout and went over to the stretcher. He talked briefly to Jordy. The stretcher was loaded into the ambulance. When the ambulance had howled off, Priestman came towards Bainbridge.
“Who’s missing?” he asked without preliminaries.
“Sergeant Bowles and Pilot Officer Goldman.”
Robin pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes for a moment. Then took a deep breath. “Right. Better get back to work. Anything on the boards?”
“Not yet. Did you get whatever you were chasing out there?”
“He was billowing black smoke from both engines and skimming the wave-tops so close his propellers were sending up spume. But I ran out of ammo and had to abandon him like that.”
“A probable, then.”
“Damaged. I’ve got to get back to dispersal,” Priestman repeated woodenly and started walking towards the dispersal hut.
Mickey came up beside Bainbridge. “I’ve got a problem,” he muttered miserably.
“There’s a Mr. George Bowles sitting in my office.”
“Who’s George Bowles?” Then something clicked. “Not any relation to Sergeant Bowles?”
“Bowles isn’t back yet.”
“Jesus Christ.” Bainbridge was almost glad to be returning to his dingy, stuffy bunker after all. Anything but face the father of a pilot who had probably just been killed in action.
Mickey had no choice. He sighed and gazed at the airfield, where the activity was gradually slowing down as the refuelling and rearming was completed on one after another aircraft. He searched the sky one last time. But it was hopeless. Bowles and Goldman weren’t going to fly in. The only hope for them now was that they’d bailed out or landed safely somewhere else.
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