by John Llewelyn Rhys (1911-1940)
WHEN the Old Man came into the ante-room the young officers began to rise in their chairs, but he waved them back with an impatient gesture. It was warm and comfortable in there and the tenor of idle chatter continued. One could hear the crackle of a newspaper page and the sound of bidding from the four who were playing a Chinese game in the corner, their minds apparently intent on the little walls of white blocks on the table before them. ‘ Beneath the Wing-Commander’s arm were a number of files. On the outside of the files was a map. Robert recognised its shape and his heart kicked inside him. And now every pilot in the squadron was watching the senior officer, . watching him without movement of head, watching him while seeming to read, watching’ him while crying ‘Three Characters.’ The Old Man nodded, first at one, then another, and finally at Robert. Silently they rose to their feet, leaving their circles of friends, their reading, their Chinese game, and filed into ‘the neighboring room. The Wing-Commander stood by the grand piano waiting for them to gather about him. 1 IE looked suddenly older, Robert thoughts Now his hair, shone with grey, new lines emphasised the hardness of his features. But his voice was unchanged, harsh, imperious. ‘Gentlemen, the show’s tomorrow.’ He paused and looked ‘slowly at the circle of pilots. . . ‘The target, you know. Here’s the latest from Intelligence and a few other little details I want you to know.’ ? Robert heard his instructions and memorised them, with an ease born of practice, but the words seemed meaningless rattling like hail on the roof of his mind.
But they were all old hands, and no naive youngsters among them wanted to make themselves heard. ‘Well … good luck! I know you’ll put up a good show.’ His voice was suddenly shy. ‘I wish they’d let me come with you.’ They went back to the ante-room, went on talking, reading, playing the Chinese game. Robert sat down by a friend.
‘If anything,’ Robert’s voice was quiet as be flipped the pages of a magazine, ‘if anything were . .] . to slip up . .; . tomorrow, would you attend to the odd detail?’
‘Of course, old boy.’
‘Tough enough.’ It was almost day as Robert walked over to Flights with the Squadron Leader, and cold, with the half light lying dead on the roofs of the camouflaged hangars and the wind sock napping drearily on its pole.
Mechanics were beginning to start up the motors which clattered protestingly to life, back-firing and shuddering on their bearers.
‘Looks like a good day, sir?’
The leader of the raid looked up, then kicked his heel into the turf.
‘Yes; hope this frost holds off. I hope to hunt next week.’
When Robert got to his machine only the starboard engine had been started. Impatiently he watched -the efforts of the crews. If only they’d get that engine running, he thought, if only they’d get it running. He, went up to the fitter, ‘You haven’t over-doped?’ ‘
No, Sir. She’ll go now.’ Still she refused to start. He climbed up the ladder into the cock.
‘Got your throttle setting right?’
‘Yes, sir,’ said the corporal, ‘she’ll start in a minute.’ The second pilot was inside, busy at the navigator’s table. ‘All set?’ Robert asked.
‘Bombs, petrol, and everything hunkey-dorey, sir,’ the sergeant answered.
If only they’d start that engine, he thought. If only they’d get it going and we could take off. At last the motor roared to life, and be climbed into his seat, ran up the engines, pulled up the ladder and waved away the chocks. As he waited on the aerodrome, his airscrews throwing long flickering shadows, he kicked the heavy rudder violently from side to side. Where were the others? Where were the others? They would be late off the ground and there would be a row. Then he glanced at his watch, and found to his surprise that it was five minutes to his zero hour. And now the other machines were taxiing towards him, huge, heavily laden monoplanes, grim against the dawn, moving fast over the close cut turf, beating down dean thick lines through the white frost. He glanced down at the controls, felt the various cocks, checked the cylinder head temperatures, the hydraulic and brake pressures. Then, when all was ready, he pushed open the throttles, the noise increasing till it filled the long, narrow compartment, beating mercilessly upon his ears, drowning the screams of the hydraulic gear. She was heavy with full petrol and a belly full of bombs, but as he felt her becoming airborne he brought the wheel gently back and she bumped up into the air. From time to tune Robert switched on his microphone and spoke to each gunner in his turret. They were alert and cheerful, and behind him the second pilot worked at his check navigation. Sometimes they saw fishing boats whose crews waved frantically, and minesweepers busy in their deadly task, and once a convoy with destroyers like sheep dogs on its flanks. The weather was fine, with high lumps of cumulus, and they began to climb. In a little while the second pilot came forward and held up eight fingers, Robert nodded. Eight minutes. He felt cold inside, his teeth were shattering, he wished they were in the thick or It, and grinned at his companion. The target came into view, a smudge on the horizon. The leader began to give his orders over the radio, and they started a big circle so as to attack from out of the sun. As they came up the sky filled with anti-aircraft fire. The second pilot had switched on his microphone and Robert could hear him jeering at the enemy gunners, for the shooting was poor, though some of the bursts were un comfortably close. They came over the target and released their bombs. Robert watched the sky unceasingly for enemy fighters, wondering if any aircraft were lurking in its glare waiting for the anti-aircraft to cease before diving to the attack. The second pilot was busy with the camera recording the hits far below, whistling as he worked. A burst of Archies off the port wing tip made the machine rock violently. Soon they were out of range of the ground guns, and Robert saw one of the other machines break formation ‘and rock its wings. He spoke to the gunners. ‘Keep your eyes skinned. There’s a fighter about somewhere.’ Then he saw it, a lone enemy machine, a single seater fighter with square wing tips. It came up quite slowly, lazily, lying on to the tail of one of the bombers. It was so simple a manoeuvre that it might have been a pupil on his circuit at a flying training school. As it turned off, short jabs of black smoke jerked themselves from the back cockpit to the bomber. The fighter turned slowly on to its side. First smoke, then flames poured from its engine, splashing down the fuselage. In the bright sunshine, against the blue sea, the machine fell slowly, twisting, turning, diving.
‘Here they come!’ said the second pilot; and Robert saw that the sky seemed to be filled with fighters. They broke up and began to attack. Robert watched two circling him from the front. As they turned the flank his rear-gunner switched on his microphone and Robert could hear him swearing. Tracer from the enemy streamed overhead, curved in a graceful trajectory, and dropped out of sight. Then the gunner was silent Robert heard the rattle of his guns and his voice, jubilant ‘Got him, sir.’
‘Good. Keep you eyes skinned. Be patient,’ Robert said. Now a twin-engined aircraft came up on the beam, accompanied by one of the smaller fighters, which attacked from the rear. A burst of fire shattered the roof over the second pilot’s head. The front gunner coolly brought his guns to bear. The twin was an ugly brute, the first Robert had seen with extended stabilisers on the tail. He was frightened now. His mouth dry, his hands wet inside the silk lining of his gloves. Attack after attack came up, filled the air with tracer, turned lazily away. The middle gunner brought down another fighter before he was hit in the leg. Robert sent the second – pilot back- in his place. One burst of machine-gun fire shattered half the instrument panel, sent a shower of broken glass over his knees. Darkness filled his eyes, but in his mind he could still see the face of the enemy gunner, red and foolishly grim, as he fired from the rear cockpit of the fighter. The wheel went limp in his hands, the strain of months of war, the nag of responsibility, lifted from his consciousness… Then his vision cleared, and he – pulled the aircraft level. To his surprise the fighters had vanished, and at his side was the Squadron Leader’s machine, which he thought he had seen go down. He began to sing, thumping his hands on the wheel. They were separated from the others and flew in tight formation, the Squadron Leader turning his head from time to time and grinning and doing a thumbs up. They lost height till they were just above the sea, their patterned shadows sliding effortlessly over mile after mile of water desolation. On crossing the coast their senior officer altered course for base. They flew at a few hundred feet over the sleepy countryside, their shadows now vaulting hedge and haystack. As he looked, first to the north at the black rich earth of the fens, marshalled by dykes, then south to the loveliness of Suffolk, each feature of the country fitted into its place in his mind, each town he knew, each stretch of river. How familiar, he thought. How well I know it all. Truly, England is my village. Soon the little lake, shaped like an elephant’s trunk, appeared and they dived low over the hangars, then broke away, dropped their wheels, and came to land. There were no other machines about and the camp seemed strangely deserted. A little later they walked into the mess. It was warm and comfort able in there and the words and phrases of the many conversations jumbled themselves into a haze of sound. At the table by the fire there was an empty chair at the Chinese game. When Robert saw the other players he stopped in his stride. There was Nails, who got his on the first show, and Dick, who went down in flames, and Thistle, his second pilot and Badger, who was lost in the North Sea in December. ‘Come on’ Badger said. ‘We’re waiting for you.’ ‘But I thought …’ Robert said. ‘I thought …’ A VOICE from a distance interrupted him. A woman’s voice. There were no women in the room. Then the room and the men in it were gone. Robert was lying in a bed,, in a long, dim chamber With other beds up and down its length. The face of the woman whose voice he had heard was looking at him. . It was an *frg»foh face, plain and pleasant, framed severely in a familiar headdress. ‘What was it you thought?’ the nurse was saying to him. ‘You’re all right, you know. Home in England. The second pilot brought you in.’ Robert stirred fretfully in the bed, but the pain made him lie still again. The nurse put a hand to his bandaged head to quiet him. He closed his eyes and thought of the room he had left just a moment ago. He tried to will himself back into it, to be with Badger and the others. It bad seemed so hospitable’ there, so farm, so safe, so full of friends, so free of pain. He couldn’t reach it. Almost . . . Almost . . . Not quite. He couldn’t What h~d happened to him — that he had been there with them, the brave, admired dead, and come away and couldn’t get back to them again? In pain and bewilderment be thought: ‘I wish I knew— I— wish— I knew
From The Mail (Adelaide) 22 February 1941