Ernst’s mechanic was tightening his straps for him, but across the airfield the CO was already swinging into position for take-off. Ernst was late. He’d felt such an urgent need to relieve himself before take-off that he was the last one into his cockpit. The others were bouncing and swaying across the field from their respective dispersal points, all converging on the head of the runway.
“Everything’s fine, fine!” Ernst waved the mechanic aside irritably, cutting the checks short. He could identify Christian’s aircraft trundling over the uneven ground to get into position, while the CO was already rolling down the runway with his wingman just a couple lengths behind. Ernst hauled the hinged canopy down and clipped it shut. He waved the chocks away and bounced off to get into position for take-off.
The CO and his wingman were already in the air, and they tucked up their wheels as they started to climb. The second pair of planes raced along the grass as the next pair swung into position.
Ernst tried to hurry up, but the Me109 was a bitch on the ground. He had to swing the nose back and forth to see around it, and the narrow undercarriage felt particularly unstable as this grass field was quite uneven. Adding to his discomfort was the low sun that slanted right into his eyes. He squinted into it as yet another pair of fighters took to the air.
At last Ernst was in position. He looked anxiously to Christian on his right. Christian’s Messerschmitt danced about like a high-strung horse anxious to gallop away. Ernst saw Christian turn his head in his direction expectantly, and Ernst gave him a thumbs up to indicate he was ready.
At once Christian’s Messerschmitt was away, racing straight across the field, the slipstream from the propeller bending back the grass in its wake. Ernst eased off his own brakes and his aircraft rolled forward. His vision blurred as the Messerschmitt gained speed rapidly and shook itself more and more, until at last it was airborne. The rattling and shaking faded into a heady sense of lightness.
They formed up and the CO called their course: 140. Ernst checked his compass briefly, but mostly he just followed Christian as he swung onto the new heading. They were ordered up to 10,000 metres, taking part in a “reconnaissance in force” sweep of the Channel. The Gruppe climbed steeply.
As Ernst followed along, he was thinking about a heated discussion they’d had in the Mess the night before. The Führer had made a generous peace offer to the British. He had suggested that two great nations, one the pre-eminent sea power and the other the pre-eminent land power, should share the world between them. The Führer suggested that if Britain gave Germany a free hand on the Continent, Britain could retain all her colonies.
The Führer clearly wanted peace with Britain, and Ernst had been rather excited about the idea. He wasn’t really all that confident about going into battle and would be just as happy flying in a peacetime Luftwaffe. That seemed the best of all worlds, being paid to fly wonderful aircraft without being shot at by anyone.
But most of the other pilots had been angry, saying the peace offer would rob them of the chance to eradicate the RAF. Particularly the younger pilots complained that a “premature” peace would rob them of the chance to become aces.
There were lots of clouds about, Ernst noted from habit – towering pillars of cumulus. It was getting cold in the cockpit. The CO called out a course change and the whole Staffel swept about in a graceful curve, still straining for altitude. Ernst concentrated on keeping in formation, his eyes darting from his instrument panel to Christian on his starboard bow. Why was he feeling nervous? This was just another routine sweep, his fourth since joining the squadron. It ought to be child’s play by now. But his head was killing him, and he couldn’t seem to focus or concentrate. No matter what he started to do, he got distracted.
When his eyes fell closed and he had to shake himself awake, something clicked in his memory and he wondered if he was suffering from oxygen deprivation. He glanced at the altimeter. They had passed through 6,000 metres. Ernst pressed the mask more closely to his mouth and drew deep breaths, but it was no good. The mask must be defective.
Ernst started to panic. He had to dive. He had to get back down where he could breathe. He couldn’t just dive. He had to tell someone. The CO. In his mounting panic, he just barely managed to find the radio switch and croak out, “Herr Hauptmann! Geuke, here! My oxygen isn’t working!”
“All right, Geuke. Return to 1,000 metres and see if you can sort it out. If not, return to base.”
Without thinking Ernst shoved the nose down and turned away at the same time. He didn’t register that by doing that he was flying away from the rest of the Gruppe.
Only slowly did he come to his senses. He remembered that he was supposed to see if he could repair the oxygen supply in flight. He dutifully checked the tube leading from the oxygen tank. It was hanging loose. It wasn’t plugged in at all! Broken? No, just not plugged in. He’d been in such of a hurry to take off, he’d waved his fitter aside before he was finished with the drill.
Ernst was overwhelmed by shame. It was bad enough to have forgotten something, but he’d not only shouted about his problem over the R/T, he’d also absented himself from the flight. And now, at last, he realised what he’d done when he’d peeled away while diving. This was terrible! Rather than simply flying along with the Staffel at a lower level, he was now miles away from them. It would be almost impossible to find them again. But if he returned to base, they would accuse him of just running away. Ernst swung his Messerschmitt about again and tried to remember the last course they had been on. He thought it was 110, and he climbed back to 8000 metres.
Rather than finding the Gruppe, he found only increasing cloud. The sky was thick with the stuff, and it blocked his vision almost everywhere he looked. Ernst changed his course several times, but he found nothing but more cloud. Now a sheet of low cloud was creeping inland below him.
Afraid of getting lost entirely, Ernst abandoned all hope of finding the Gruppe and dived below the cloud cover. He found the coastline and followed it eastward, expecting to find a landmark he recognised. After flying almost ten minutes, he decided that he must have turned the wrong way. He reversed and flew along the coast in the opposite direction for fifteen minutes. He could find nothing he recognised.
The cloud continued to increase and sink. Ernst descended to 500 metres to keep below it, but mist started forming on his windscreen as he flew just beneath the dense, dark clouds. The wind had picked up as well. The little, delicate Messerschmitt was buffeted about harshly, and the engine strained against the headwinds. Abruptly, rain started pelting him. It smashed so hard against his canopy, that it overwhelmed the feeble efforts of the windscreen wiper. He could only see out of the side windows, but these too were streaming rain and steaming up.
Ernst tried to beat back his mounting panic. He started flying very carefully in an increasing square looking for a landmark, but as his fuel gauge steadily recorded his diminishing fuel reserves his hopes faded. He resigned himself to the coming crash, yet he knew that the crash investigation would reveal that he’d made one mistake after another. He’d be washed out. They’d never let him fly again. And they were right. He didn’t deserve to fly. He was worthless.
When the engine finally cut out, it was almost a relief. The agony of trying was over. He had only one task left: putting the Messerschmitt down with as much skill as he had. Or should he just smash it and himself into the earth at a speed that would put them both out of their misery? Ernst thought about it, but his survival instinct was still stronger than his despair.
The countryside was open and there were plenty of pastures. There were hedges and stone walls, too. You don’t want to go into a stone wall at 100 km an hour! Or trees, either. No, over there. He banked a little, gliding towards a field cut in two by a little stream. Ernst spiralled down towards the outer edge of his chosen field so he could see around the long snout of the Emil. He was so low the cattle were galloping away in terror. He eased the throttle back, straightened, pulled the nose up and applied more flap. Whop! With a horrible crash she was on the ground, slithering along on her belly, and Ernst was flung against the instrument panel so violently that he was knocked out.
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