Colin had just come abreast of one of the hangars, and his attention was torn away from his thoughts by shouting from inside. An instant later, one of the small doors cut into the hangar entrance crashed open. A long sheet of light spilt onto the grass – a dangerous violation of the blackout. A man ran out. He didn’t see Colin, just sprinted towards the cluster of brick buildings in the darkness beyond. Excited voices came from inside the hangar. Colin slipped inside, closing the door behind him to blacken the field again.
A crowd stood just under the nose of one of the Hurricanes and as Colin entered he heard someone shouting, “Don’t touch him! Don’t try to move him! Get back! Give him air!!” An airman lay flat on his back on the concrete floor. Blood oozed from nose and mouth, and he moaned and twitched horribly.
“What happened?” Colin asked one of the men standing about in a low voice.
“Sanders was working on the engine of that Hurricane, and he missed his footing somehow and fell off. Chiefy thinks he might have broken his back.”
Colin let his eyes sweep across the faces of the men crowded around. There wasn’t one that didn’t look exhausted and shocked. After all, it wasn’t just the pilots who were under horrible pressure now. A couple of the younger men were ghostly white. One, particularly, seemed to be shaking.
The Station Medical Officer pushed his way in through the crowd. He knelt beside the injured man, talked to him too softly to be heard, and then ordered a stretcher. In five minutes, the injured airman had been lifted carefully in accordance with the MO’s instructions and taken out of the hangar. But the men left behind were still stunned.
“What are you all standing about for?” Flight Sergeant Rowe demanded gruffly. “We’ve got work to do!”
Some of the men started to drift back to their work, but the young man who had attracted Colin’s attention earlier remained where he was, as if paralysed.
“Tufnel! Get on with it. I’ll finish for Sanders.” Already the ageing Flight Sergeant was hauling himself up onto the wing of the Hurricane from which the accident had occurred, but the LAC he’d addressed didn’t move. “Tufnel!” the Flight Sergeant called again sharply.
The young man seemed frozen to the concrete. Colin went over to him. “Are you all right?”
“I saw him fall. He fell off right before my eyes,” the young rigger admitted, staring at the place on the floor where his comrade had lain moaning just minutes earlier.
“Tufnel! We have work to do! This crate has to be serviceable tomorrow!”
“I heard something snap as he hit the concrete,” the airman said to Colin, ignoring the Chief, still staring. “Just a soft snap– but I could hear it perfectly. Just snap. Then he was moaning and couldn’t move.”
Colin put his hand on the man’s upper arm gently, tentatively. The rigger didn’t even seem to notice.
“If his back’s broken, he’ll never walk again,” the airman was saying in an awed voice. “He—”
Flight Sergeant Rowe suddenly loomed up beside Colin, took hold of the LAC by the front of his overalls, and started shaking him violently. He shouted into his face. “I gave you an order! We’ve got work to do! Get on with it!”
“What do youmean, ‘get on with it?’” the young man shouted back in hysterical rage at his superior. “Pete was crippled right before my eyes and all you care about is a damned crate! Don’t you give a damn about us?”
The Sergeant hit the airman so fast that neither his victim nor Colin saw the blow coming. The rigger doubled over, clutching his belly, and Colin protested in a high-pitched, outraged voice. “You can’t do that, Flight Sergeant! You have no right to—”
“Then report me, sir! Tell the CO! But let me get these crates patched up first – or this squadron won’t be at strength tomorrow!”
Colin stood in the middle of the vast hangar, and you could have heard a pin drop. He might have the law on his side, but Colin was not sure at that moment if Squadron Leader Jones – or Station Commmander Boret – would back him up. The country was about to be invaded, and the only thing that might possibly prevent that were these “crates.” Maybe the Flight Sergeant was right? Maybe he could get away with hitting his men.
Colin wasn’t naïve. It wasn’t that long ago that it had been standard practice to flog men for minor infractions of discipline in the Navy. The RAF had a much better reputation, but in times like these it was hard to know for sure what would be condoned. Colin felt he had no choice but to retreat.
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