The sound of aircraft approaching drew his attention. None of Tangmere’s squadrons had scrambled yet this morning, but by the sound of the engines, these were clearly Hurricanes. At last he located the two Hurricanes flying nicely in tandem and watched them set down decorously on the grass. Precise ATA flying, not fighter-pilot bunk. They might be his two new replacement Hurricanes, he decided, and went over to take a look at them.
As he arrived beside the nearest Hurri, the pilot was climbing stiffly out of the cockpit while the chocks were put in place. He was evidently a rather elderly gentleman and seemed to be a trifle unsteady as he climbed out onto the wing. What is the country coming to, Robin thought to himself, when we have to enlist tottering old veterans to ferry our front-line Service aircraft about? “Do you need a hand, sir?” he asked politely.
The man turned around and Robin caught his breath. The ATA pilot was wearing an eye-patch, and the empty sleeve of his tunic was pinned beneath his DFC, DSO and AFC. He smiled, but then backed down the wing saying, “Thank you, young man, but I can manage well enough.”
Robin was still trying to work out how a man flew a Hurricane with one arm, but the old man was all but laughing at him. “And you thought you were the cat’s pyjamas, didn’t you? Now you must live with the knowledge that even an old wreck like me can dodder about in your precious kites. Fly Spitfires, too. No trouble at all – provided I don’t get bounced by the Hun.”
“I’m sorry, sir. I didn’t mean to be patronising.”
“Don’t let it bother you, young man. They don’t call us Aged and Tattered Airmen because we’re spry young things. Note: I think ‘Always Terrified Airmen’ might describe us better. I tried to deliver to Hornchurch yesterday and nearly went for six. It seems Jerry had just scrammed off and there were these UXB bombs all over the place. Which was bad enough, but before my feet even touched the turf, the Chiefy tore a strip off for parking in the wrong place. It seems I was in everyone’s way. I do hope you want these aircraft?”
“Yes, I do. Very much.” Their eyes met, and Robin knew he had been understood. The older man dropped his remaining hand on his shoulder. “Don’t worry about the crates. We’ll see that you get them.”
“You commanded a squadron in the last war.” It wasn’t a question.
He smiled sadly. “I did.”
“Then you know.”
He nodded. “I know. I know it’s not the kites, it’s the boys.”
“They just sent me a lad with less than 20 hours on Hurricanes!” Robin gave vent to his exasperation.
“There’s nothing magic about 20 hours,” the Squadron Leader from the last war remarked. “Sometimes they came with less than 10 hours. I know, our crates were simpler, no retractable undercarriage and whatnot, but the air still froze our blood when it spilled out and the charred lumps of former aviators litter the Ardennes.” He paused, looking hard at Robin. “You can’t stop it. No matter how hard you try, you can’t protect them. They are in God’s hands – and the Hun’s. He will take to Him those He loves most. The rest of us are left to get old and stiff and useless.”
“You certainly aren’t useless,” Robin hastened to assure the veteran.”
He only sighed and shook his head again. “Not quite yet, perhaps, but soon.”
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