They were too far west, just as he’d feared, carried on tailwinds past their destination. Priestman swung gently to the right, looking for a landmark. He knew the countryside well, and didn’t expect to have a problem. Then he heard a dull boom behind him.
He flinched, then wrenched about in the straps trying to see behind him. Red Two and Three were both there, jinking about in the turbulent air nervously. Red Four was nowhere in sight.
“Come in, Red Four!” Silence.
“Red Four, where are you?” Silence.
“Red Three, when did you last see Red Four?”
“When we entered the cloud, Red Leader.”
“Did you see him in your rear-view mirror as we emerged?”
“Ah. No, sir. I was trying not to lose sight of Red Two, sir.” Of course, he was. Very sensible of him.
They were flying at just over 1,000 feet over hilly countryside in an increasing gale. They were being buffeted about, and there was only one place to be with two inexperienced pilots: on the ground. Priestman found a landmark and led the two remaining pilots back to Hawarden. He didn’t let himself think about Taylor. Not yet. Not until he had the others safely on the ground. He circled the field carefully to bring them into the wind for landing.
“Remember the muck. Keep your kites properly trimmed.”
Actually, there was little chance that they’d hash their landing: they hung on his wingtips and let him judge speed and altitude for them. They watched him more than the ground. He could see that. They imitated his every action until they touched down in a vic and rolled across the field. Robin’s crew caught the wingtips and turned the Spitfire around neatly. He cut the engine, unplugged the R/T and oxygen, pulled off his helmet, and just sat there for a moment. Fletcher was already on the wing, shoving back the canopy. “What happened, sir?”
“I don’t know.” That was the worst of it. He didn’t know. They shouldn’t have been up there in these conditions. He should have brought them back sooner. He should have calculated the last course himself, but he might have misjudged the tailwinds, too. They shouldn’t have been up there.
He shoved himself up and out of the cockpit. Kennel was waiting for him as he slipped to the ground. “The police have already found him.”
Priestman just looked at Kennel, not daring to form the question.
“Flew straight in at an estimated 300 miles an hour.”
“I wasn’t flying 300 miles an hour.”
“Maybe not but Acting Pilot Officer Taylor apparently was. Come back up to my office with me.”
As they started across the field, the other trainee pilots clustered around. They all looked shocked and shaken. Kennel sent them away. “Stand down. There’ll be no more flying today – or lectures.”
“Is there any hope, sir?” One of the youngsters asked.
“No. He’s been found dead.”
Kennel led Priestman into his office. The Adjutant handed him a glass of scotch. Priestman took it and sipped at the golden liquid unhappily. He didn’t know what to say.
“There will be an enquiry, of course. The Met was wrong. I shouldn’t have opened the airfield. You should have returned sooner. God knows what Acting Pilot Officer Taylor should have done – but it wasn’t fly into a mountain at 300 mph.” He paused, sighed. “I’ll write to the next-of-kin. Can you give me all the details you have on Taylor?” This latter was addressed to the adjutant, who nodded. “Anything you can add?” Kennel asked Priestman.
“He was…” Priestman searched for words to describe a young man he had known barely a week. “… insecure. He kept trying to cover it up with bravado.”
“Do you think he’d drunk too much last night?”
“Very likely. I wasn’t with them, but they crashed in late enough.”
“We’d better talk to one or two of the others about that.”
“What does it matter now? You’re not going to put that in the letter to his next-of-kin,” Priestman added a little alarmed.
“No, but it might help with the enquiry.”
Priestman had already forgotten about that, but he supposed this would be the death knell to his career. He’d barely survived the last enquiry. They were bound to throw him out now. God help him, he’d be drafted into the Army!
His expression of foreboding was so explicit that it moved Kennel to remark, “Look, Priestman, there’s no need to look as though you expect to be hanged. We all bear a share of the blame, but things like this happen in training all the time. Flying is dangerous. Flying Spitfires is very dangerous. Give a bunch of teenage boys an extremely fast, powerful aircraft, and the instinct of half of them is to crash it one way or another. It doesn’t help that the Hun is killing, on average, three to four of our pilots every day. Fighter Command needs trained replacements, and it needs them sooner rather than later. If we close down every time conditions aren’t ideal, we’ll either not deliver enough pilots soon enough or we’ll deliver untrained pilots to the operational units – and the Huns will have even more of a field day shooting them out of the sky.”
“That’s over a hundred pilots a month,” Priestman remarked slowly, as he registered what Kennel had just said.
“And half again that many hospitalised,” Kennel added.
“You’re telling me Fighter Command casualties last month were roughly 150 pilots?” Priestman wanted confirmation. “That’s roughly six squadrons.”
“Yes, it is.”
“At that rate, it doesn’t matter how many of them we shoot down. Fighter Command will cease to exist by the end of the year.”
Kennel made a gesture of helplessness in acknowledgement.
They stood together in silence. They could hear rain pelting against the windows and the wind howling as a gale tore down from the Irish Sea. They were all thinking the same thing: the Germans hadn’t even started their main assault yet.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish