M I C HAEL S M AL L, W RITER MONDAY, 7 FEBRUARY 2011
BRIEFED FOR BERLIN
From the end of the runway he heard the throb of the motors of the Lancaster squadron reverberating from their dispersals out of the night. Mechanically, he did all the right things: engine checked, flaps down, joystick, rudders and elevators free. If only the pain would ease, just to lose it in forgetfulness. In moments of weakness, he regretted not making out an application to join the Shiny Bum Brigade, pushing a pen at the Defence Department in Melbourne. Away to port, a steady, green light pierced the darkness and Freddie 2 rolled onto the runway. Did an opiate exist for his kind of pain? The M.O. could offer only caffeine tablets . . . the padre a mug of cocoa, or at debriefing a tot of rum and free-issue cigarettes . . . the officers’ mess bacon and eggs before a mission . . . and the village pub just beyond the barbed-wire fence of the drome’s perimeter pints of bitter beer, ale ginger or pale, or, in his case, an occasional half of shandy. The marshal gives the thumbs-up and is left behind in a bluish grey curl of smoke. The runway lights slip beneath his wings, his words mere murmurs: wheels up, flaps up, throttle back. Deafening, the noise of the four engines, as he settles himself on the parachute goffering his seat, unlike the comforts of the American Liberator that his crew had flown over Sicily, with its armrests, knee rests, footrests. Lucky blighters, these ‘buddies’, breezing in with healthy tans and loose-limbed swagger in leather jackets and flying boots, chewing endless cuds of gum, bearing gifts of nylon stockings, candy, Hershey bars with a ‘Hi!’ and boyish grin and ‘I’m Wayne’ or Shane or Duane with money to burn. Little wonder the Yankee boys were proving popular with Australian lasses back home.
Giving a shiver, he vigorously rubbed his hands over his knees to restore warmth and circulation, the woollen gloves practically useless. The Lancaster was fabric-covered, vulnerable, cold. Dear God, end this pain. Through the mizzle of his mind, he heard the crystal clarity of her voice: ‘When it’s all over, Don, we’ll be married; and we’ll have children, and they’ll be free. That’s what you’re fighting for, isn’t it? And we’ll find our own sweet nook in sun-blessed Australia and there will be peace after the pain.’ ‘Visibility’s good,’ said the navigator. ‘Bit of cloud drift. Not like last month. What a cock-up that was!’ Last month? Seemed an eternity ago. Fog hung over the Bristol Channel. A gunnery instructor had invited himself along to keep up the hours for his flying log. Then, strange thing, the man had panicked, couldn’t see for streams of fog. There was some banging in the back of the plane. ‘What in thunder’s going on there?’ he asked. ‘The instructor’s going berserk with the fire-axe, skipper? Stark mad he is!’ ‘What! Well, poke him one! Fingers, fists, boot below the belt, do what you have to! If restraint is no-go, shoot him!’ He’d fixed on the beam of light, flew down it and, thank God, made out the end of the runway, with barely five hundred yards to spare. Was there no end to this torment? A short reprieve possibly, for after twenty-eight missions, only two shy of completing his tour, he was savouring two weeks’ leave, the prospect of silk sheets and blankets and long sleeps uninterrupted at a civilized hour and meeting his father’s people at Elders Croft, buried in seclusion half-way between Glamis and Culloden. He’d miss the camaraderie of his seven-man crew, of course, strangers who had come to depend on one another for their lives. Three weeks in ground school, practising overshoots and landings, dual and solo flying on two engines and one, one flap or two, night approach in the flightless Link trainer, parading in the drill hangar and
miles of square-bashing, airmen at last prepared for that moment of reckoning. He remembered when the chief ground-instructor said, ‘Right, chaps, crew up! Come on now, let’s get cracking! Sort yourselves out!’ he found himself approached by mainly fellow-Australians in their royal blue uniforms, either grinning and winking and warmly offering their services or quieter types, more earnest or apprehensive, trying to reassure him – and perhaps themselves - that they had got through training. ‘If yer lookin’ for a good Aussie B.A., sarge, then I’m yer man.’ He offered his hand. ‘Indeed I am. Don Cameron. Good to have you aboard.’ Perce Prosser’s easy-going approach would temper his own stiffness of manner in those early days. Quickly settled in, the Aussie contingent soon roused the indignation of some superior officers for their sloppy civvies, the raffish angle of their slouch hats, the scruffy condition of their working denims etc. Nonetheless, by no means a sprog crew, his own men quickly gained respect as seasoned survivors, though all too often new chums were drafted. At first he suspected they saw through his Presbyterian scruples, a wowser with the snobbish voice of an ABC wireless announcer, who rarely used their commonplace expletive ‘bloody’. Until they observed that he knew a trick or two with the stick and would bring them down safely if anyone could. Make one bad boob, though, and you bought it. The boys had pulled through by a mixture of damn good luck and competence, but the danger now was dropping one’s guard with the bravura of false confidence, a front against fear and despair; or a ‘she’ll be right’ attitude, casualness born of fatigue. He would endeavour, Cameron, not to give way to temper. Come under fire, though, your nerves burn off quick as a tinder-dry forest floor. Regularly suffering from blocked sinuses himself, he carried an inhaler in his battledress pocket and occasionally withdrew to the rest bed when his hands were bone-white stiff from wrestling the gremlins playing havoc with his instruments.
In the perspex blister, with the clearest vision, Perce Prosser would have a good sick on every flight. A Queenslander from Innisfail, he was a regular fartologist and not self-conscious about it either, much to the disgust of those downwind, namely the flight engineer and Cameron, who felt more sorry than irritated whenever Prosser crawled back, as he frequently did, from the padded door where he lay in the nose to the Elsan chemical toilet. But the wiry bomb-aimer made light of it; in fact, had a cheery disposition and an endearing lop-sided grin. Not once did he call ‘Dummy run!’ for he never overshot the target area. With an unerring eye, he was perpetually squinting during a sortie and was susceptible to a piratical tic over his left eye at their run-in to target. Spud Selby was a mere stripling of eighteen. Cameron would always remember his panic when Freddie 2’s wings caught fire. Flashes of intense violet neon glowed all along the leading edges of their craft. Without more ado, he blurted, in some disbelief, ‘Blimey, we’ve been struck by lightning!’ ‘Relax, Spud,’ he replied. ‘Welcome to St Elmo’s Fire.’ ‘What the deuce is that, skip?’ ‘Death-fires, some call them. More realistically, an electrical phenomenon caused by particular weather conditions. Didn’t the met man gen you up on these rare synoptic situations?’ In spite of his inexperience, Spud was savvy about his duties and would often stand in the astrodome getting readings for his sextant and infra-red photographs of targets the crew had just mopped up. Highly adaptable too in plotting a fresh route when the red ribbon on the briefing map was giving them a spot of bother. So Cameron had no worries about homing. As lax as a sprung rivet about RAF discipline was Max Leggatt-Johnson, their Canadian mid-gunner, who had trained on heavy bombers in Waco, Texas. Twice stood down for being the worse for wear owing to his personal demon, the grog, he begged the M.O. that such behaviour was an aberration and swore that he would go on the wagon. With tins of sickly rich condensed milk, if you believed him! Perhaps he had heard about his predecessor, Del Burnside, biffed when his turret was
peppered with tracer bullets. One day, he might realize his dream of going on the drift like his gramps on those wide-open prairies, a scrub bull perhaps, not being crated up in a sure-fire death-trap for six or seven hours at a stretch. A bit of a prankster was Jimmy Steer, the wireless operator, who, somehow jinking discovery, led their raids on the fuel stores of other huts in the barracks, mainly broken-off bits of wooden furniture, as supplies of coke for their stoves had run out. A die-hard smoker of roll-your-own St Julien tobacco, he traded his sweet ration and fresh socks for packets of Player’s Navy Cut or Senior Service, ‘brands saved from burning’, he joked, which he would set aside as stake for rounds of pontoon. Ever sidling up to you, whingeing he was ‘flat’ or ‘a bit short’, he would cadge razor blades for his ginger stubble and soap from the Canadian boys for his latest popsy. Whenever a mission was scrubbed, he would (in his parlance) ‘buggarize about the billiard halls’. Cameron barely knew his flight engineer, Guy Gurney, except that he hailed from Biggin Hill in Kent, the base of RAF Fighter Command, whose squadrons of singleseater Hurricanes and Spitfires were largely responsible for the defence of London. They had flown on maybe half a dozen missions together. Besides, Gurney was one of those reserved, unassuming Englishmen that one seldom noticed in the canteen, officers’ mess or even sitting alone on the settle in the oak-beamed snug of their local, his pewter mug gleaming in the blazing fire. Close by the black oak chimneypiece, he would gaze at the flares flickering from logs banked up on the firedog, from time to time stirring showers of sparks with the poker. He seemed so coolly selfcontained, did Guy, as if forever enveloped in a greatcoat shovelling snow from the runway. In the grey uniform of the RAF, he was clean-cut, sporting no moustache favoured by the officers, and quietly spoken without the brittle, artificial accent of the more pretentious adjutants imitating Noel Coward. Then one night on their long roundabout return flight via Bremen down the Skagerrak, Guy was at first mystified, then awe-struck by what seemed like a curtain of rods or shafts of vertical light hanging across the horizon, a greenish glow that elided into an onion dome or a giant teardrop of magenta that reminded Cameron of a darkening clot of blood staining the northern sky. The skipper sensed Guy looking askance at him for some time, then reaching for a
notebook in the pocket of his battledress blouse and dashing off a few lines. ‘The Aurora Borealis,’ Cameron explained. ‘God moves in mysterious ways.’ Guy remained speechless, thoroughly rapt in this strange vision, far more surreal than the flamboyant sunsets couched in indigos and burnished gold that he must have marvelled at from the ridge of the North Downs. ‘Perhaps when this show’s over,’ Cameron added, ‘you might like to dip into SaintExupery.’ ‘Thank you,’ he said. ‘I shan’t forget.’ ‘Wind, Sand and Stars.’ A few seconds elapsed before he murmured something odd. ‘O bard?’ the skipper mouthed, quite frankly confused. ‘What fellowship hath light with darkness?’ he said, and jotted down a few words, passing them across with the grimmest of smiles: ‘Aubade for the Apocalypse’. And winked. The rear gunner, Tommy Hobson, was a ladies’ man. Whenever he was screened, he could be found playing at sight a joanna in the local - or any pub for that matter such favourites as Vera Lynn’s ‘We’ll Meet Again’ and ‘The White Cliffs of Dover’. And he’d lead the singing of a poignant rendition of ‘Waltzing Matilda’, an obscene parody of ‘Lily Marlene’ and ‘Bless ‘em All’, and a boozy, boisterous ‘Roll Out The Barrel’, conducted with a tankard of slopping beer. Whenever he opened his kitbag, the first thing you glimpsed was Betty Grable’s legs. Nevertheless, he could glide gracefully round the dance floor to ‘Stardust’ with the village post-mistress with surprising decorum. On his two-day leave, he would shoot off to London, executing his evolutions at the palmy Lyons corner house on the Strand, where he’d ‘sweet talk the sheilas’, many of whom would be dancing as couples.
So when would his own luck run out? Hadn’t Bomber Command suffered a casualty rate of seventy per cent of its fleet? The Air Chief Marshal himself, ‘Bomber’ Harris - or more frequently nowadays, albeit in muted tones, ‘Butcher’ Harris - declared that stepping up the raids on the German capital would facilitate the Soviet offensive on the Oder. The Battle of Berlin would cost the Allies between four and five hundred aircraft, he claimed, but would cost Germany the war. Until four days ago, Cameron had assumed the flight commander would give the crew a couple of cushy ops as per usual, so Perce Prosser, Tommy Hobson and himself could round off their quota - a leaflet raid over Occupied France or some piddling mission to Milan. ‘Dead cert, Don,’ said Perce. ‘Ninety-nine times out of ten.’ ‘We haven’t crossed the Rubicon yet,’ Cameron said. ‘Besides, how many boys make it to thirty missions?’ ‘Hundreds,’ Hobson jumped in. ‘Fair crack o’ the whip. I don’t intend to have my ashes scattered to the four winds or end up cold collation in a meat wagon. I mean to make it through this flaming war, come hell or high water.’ ‘I hope you’re right, Tommy, but the odds are now down to four to one against.’ ‘Bloody hell!’ ‘Can’t you swing it with the flight commander, skip?’ said Perce. ‘He owes us a tin medal or two.’ Hobson spat on the ground. ‘Don’t be a bloody drongo, cobber!’ ‘Look ‘ere, I’ve a mind to clock you one, yer whingeing skite!’ ‘Oh yeah? Tommy Rollocks! Youse and who else?’
Cameron could still picture Perce Prosser’s glum face when the latter broke the news.
‘You wouldn’t believe it, Don, but we’re going up again.’ ‘Dicing tonight? Surely not. Names up on the battle order?’ ‘Too right. Main briefing at four, tea at six, take-off seven or thereabouts, kipping down finally at bloomin’ three in the morning!’
Clouds of cigarette smoke wreathed the ceiling of the briefing room. Whenever Cameron caught himself looking around for familiar faces, he stopped. Too late this time. Dave Perry was missing . . . Warren Catchpole . . . Duncan Newton . . . ‘Quiet, chaps!’ The squadron commander hopped up onto the dais: ‘Your target tonight is the Big City.’ Grave looks were exchanged across the trail of smoke; some fleeting gestures of resignation. ‘Berlin.’ And consulted his clip board. ‘Captains, check your crew have escape aids. Now, men, don’t forget to empty your pockets before departure. Right you are, check your watches. The time is . . .’ And of all people, Roger Lywood was missing. Some character, old Rog. Good pilot too, poor devil.
His heart skipped a beat when, all kitted up by the crew bus, Cameron heard a message from the Tannoy echoing across the airfield: ‘Owing to heavy fog, the first
kites are due to take off at 23:00 hours.’ News that was greeted by a few groans from amongst the crews. Then a gradual easing of tension, many chaps lighting up, others untying the tapes of their Mae West, whistling absent-mindedly ‘As Time Goes By’ or ‘Over the Rainbow’. Jimmy Steer was already shuffling the cards. ‘Cripes, skip, do yer reckon we’ll get up?’ asked Spud, pacing up and down, gasper in hand. ‘Oh we’ll get up all right. Whether we get the chop is another matter.’ He wasn’t much comfort. He’d failed the poor bloke already.
At first, in those impatient, restless moments of waiting for the ground crew to bomb up with a 4,000-pound cookie, three 1000-pounders and four canisters of incendiaries, he had declined to urinate on Freddie 2’s tail-wheels for luck, in spite of his crew’s high-spirited urging to join them for a Jimmy Riddle, but he did pat the skin of his craft with some show of gratitude, even a warm rush of affection. ‘Happy landings!’ said Eric, the chattiest of their ground crew, but more subdued since he was the duty electrician obliged to disconnect the bombs of one Lanc that had the previous day run up the back of another Lanc bogged, breaking the neck of the trainee pilot who had only just mastered circuits and bumps. Stationed by the end of the runway, the fire tender and ambulance boys could only get three of them out. ‘Wish I was coming with you!’ he muttered, with little conviction, watching his fellow erks knocking away the chocks holding the wheels steady. ‘Good luck, boys!’ the group captain had fare-welled at briefing. ‘Make sure you get right over the target tonight!’ What was all this talk of luck? Surely, his faith was enough. Round his neck he wore a crucifix, whereas, say, Hobson flaunted a girl’s silk stocking or a WAAF’s lavender-
scented hanky, probably the teary-eyed girl who waited at table in the officers’ mess. But his faith had already been sorely tested. The commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill!’ had cauterized his mind in many sleepless nights even before he had enlisted. And again from the Book of Exodus, the stinging verse: ‘He that smiteth a man, so he die, shall be surely put to death.’ But hadn’t Mr. Churchill given warning that Britain had to stand up to the odious Nazi dictator or sink into the abyss of a new dark age? And still he had nagging doubts. Why should he be spared? You were forever running the gauntlet of hazard: flying blind in 10/10 cloud - instrument flying, so-called straining to make out exhaust pipes glowing orange, fearful that your nose would fly up the tail of your unseen squadron leader, particularly at turning-points to avoid the hot targets of Hamburg or the Frisian Islands; or you trembled and rocked in the slipstream of another invisible Leviathan ghosting close by; or your instruments iced up and your frail bird plummeted as swiftly and naturally as a can of incendiaries. Or when your rear-gunner came through on the inter-com: ‘Jeez, aircraft high on starboard quarter, skip.’ ‘Watch him, rear-gunner. Are you sure it’s not another Lanc? ‘I’ve got my sights trained on him. Messerschmitt 110, four cannon.’ ‘Right, rear-gunner.’ Cameron dipped wing for Leggatt-Johnson, who would be swinging his turret round. ‘Have you picked him up, mid-gunner?’ ‘Yeah, skip. Go corkscrew starboard . . . Another corkscrew to the left.’ He threw Freddie 2 into steep corkscrew turns. ‘Is he within range, rear-gunner? No answer but what sounded like flames crackling in the distance. ‘Rear-gunner, can your hear me?’ he almost roared. ‘Sorry, skip. Er, yes, I can make out his goggles.’
‘Well, bloody well have a squirt at him, for god’s sake! Or he’ll be firing at us!’ ‘Right-ho, skip.’ Orange sparks splattered about the hunter’s nose. In a flame of fire, the fighter keeled screaming onto its spine and melted away with a sick yawing whine into a shroud of stratus below. ‘You hit the ball right out of the park, digger!’ yelled Max. ‘What a bloody great bang!’ ‘Good show, Tommy!’ Cameron said, a mixture of sheer relief and barely repressed sarcasm, dabbing the sweat from the grime round his oxygen mask. ‘Lucky you didn’t see his eyes.’ ‘Huh, yeah.’ ‘Otherwise we would’ve gone for a Burton, sport,’ said the phlegmatic Jimmy Steer. ‘Or,’ broke in the normally reticent Guy, ‘you might have recognized your own brother.’ But when would his luck run out? He remembered when he and the six members of his crew were flying in Palestine. It was night. The British boys had put a runway down in the middle of the desert. They’d been told that when they took off at night, two parallel lines of lights were set down for them and they had to fly between them because they were on the edge of the runway. That was all you could see; everything was blacked out. They were told over and over again that if they swung off the runway on take-off, then they had to close throttles, lift up the undercart and do a belly-landing. It was their only hope of survival, especially in Palestine, where sand dunes, deep ravines and high hills of sand hemmed the runway. The Liberator was thundering down the flare path when the right engine lost power and they were flung violently to starboard. All the cockpit lights went out. The right motor started to pick up some power, but already they were in the desert. He knew
what he had to do: close the throttles and attempt a belly-landing. Then suddenly his orders were changed: ‘Go on!’ He heard that order as clearly as he heard his own voice. Not once since then had he doubted that God had spoken to him. ‘Hold the throttles open!’ he had yelled at his flight engineer. The plane lurched across the desert, then hit something and was thrown thirty feet into the air. He struggled to hold the aircraft in the air, but down they banged again and lurched on. V Victor III was straining to get airborne, he felt; it was a kind of shiver between desert and air. So he gave the order – at great risk, he knew – ‘Undercarriage up!’ There was a sickening, squashing movement. He punched the instrument panel and the lights kicked back on. Sixty miles per hour in an aircraft that the manufacturers claimed required seventy-five miles per hour to get off the ground – and he was in the air! Unbeknown to them, they flew up the main street of the camp, the officers’ mess standing at right angles at the far end. The officers heard them coming and ran like blazes. His propeller blades cut into the tin roof. When they returned many hours later, one of the ground crew opened the door and yelled, ‘Is this V Victor III, sir?’ ‘Yes,’ he said, a tremble in his scarcely audible voice. ‘I beat up the field, I’m afraid.’ ‘Dear God,’ the crewman answered. ‘You shouldn’t be here, sir.’ What sort of affirmation was that! God had indeed been dear to them. For the high jump, no doubt, but no longer crestfallen, he was ordered to report to the C.O., who demanded a written explanation. Why had he disobeyed orders? At eleven o’clock next morning the C.O. sent for him. ‘I’ve traced your track across the desert, Cameron. That wasn’t difficult.’ He paused to knock the dead shags of Nigger Head from his pipe. ‘In your report you spoke of two bumps. The first bump was when you struck a sand hill and were thrown into the air. The second bump was when you hit the desert again.’ Once more he paused, pursed his lips, gave off a searching stare. ‘In between were three steamrollers and about a hundred barrels of tar.’
His flight engineer, still in a state of shock, had approached him quietly. ‘Thanks for turning a blind eye to the flight order book, Don,’ he mumbled. ‘I’d forgotten to strap myself in. Just can’t believe my own stupidity. If you hadn’t plunged on, I would have been hurled through the cockpit window.’ Lord, I believe. Help me in my moments of grave doubt. I have lived with killing. I am a killer with blood on my hands. Already before his first sortie as sergeant-pilot, he had divined the bitter sediment leeching from the darkest recesses of his soul. Who dared publicly acknowledge the enemy within? But you were reminded every time you took to the skies. Just as the western sun cast shadows, your own reflection as a man of war was thrown back at you by the clouds through a veil of water vapour. The top brass might loftily but obliquely refer to the combatants’ moral fibre, when they were concerned about morale and in particular a fear that was palpable that could suddenly consume all reason, all show of calm. All those who engaged the enemy, hardened servicemen or raw volunteers, even Tommy Hobson, hard-grained humbug that he was, were afraid of showing cowardice before their mates, in fact any weakness, or receiving three feathers for the cowardly act of not joining up. But weren’t they all living on borrowed time? What were those sobering words that Thomas Gray had written in his elegy? ‘The paths of glory lead but to the grave.’ Seldom braids, brevets and brocades. Who would wish to be a brevet wife?
From down below, the massive belt of searchlights from the German batteries stabbed the skies. Fingers of deadly light shooting up caught the aircraft in their glare, groping the cockpit, fastened on the fuselage, the wing, then lost it, swatting away at black shadows. Sightless too, his eyes peered into the darkness ahead, then back at his panel of instruments. His sweetheart’s letter had been handed to him on the way to the briefing hut.
Dear Don, I’m very, very sorry, truly I am. You too knew it could never be, didn’t you, deep down? We are too young. What future could we possibly enjoy after all the horror of these last few years? To be truthful, I can stand the strain no longer, all this uncertainty, the continual expectation of the dreaded telegram: ‘Your fiancé has been killed in action.’ I don’t want to become the pawn of some indifferent fate. But who knows? We may meet again one day, when it’s all over. No longer on the steps of Flinders Street station, evidently. When it’s all over. What was that song she used to sing? ‘Let the love that was once a flame Remain an ember.’ No embers here, just the burnt-out ashes of his love. Perhaps this was what Hell was like! No fire or brimstone, no searing heat, no sense of divorce from all who mattered. Just a bottomless pit, God’s desertion, pain without end.
His Lancaster, Freddie 2, rode the skies as smooth as you would expect from a RollsRoyce Merlin engine. To gain the altitude of twenty thousand feet, though, could usually take from the Lincolnshire coast as far as Hamburg, one hundred and twenty-five miles north-west of Berlin. The colder the air, the steadier the ascent. From time to time over Germany he milked off the flap to give Freddie 2 a brief boost to climb through thin cloud. All of a sudden, when you breasted the reef of clouds, surfing the susurrus beneath the deep violet blue of heaven’s arc, you were held in thrall by a seamless eternity of spangled stars; then a deep draught of peace everlasting that surely lies along the margins of Hell. Was this infinite,brilliant space the nearest he’d ever come to the face of God? Winging light-years from any war-zone, as if floating, unsullied by the daily churn of the muddiest atrocities. Now he could afford to leave the mike switch off, switch on the automatic pilot for four or five minutes on half-power and sneak a puff on a cigarette.
No, no, he couldn’t deceive himself. Even here the drone of his squadron, no longer in tight formation but more dispersed, the black sleekness of his familiar Lancasters, took on a more sinister shadow: relentless machines of pitiless calculation. ‘T. is down there, skipper,’ called the bomb-aimer, waiting, watching intently for the fix. Snapping out of his daze, he was becoming aware of the target ahead, red indicator flares cascading like circus plumes into concentric circles on sawdust. ‘OK, I see them.’ Half a mile further, the pathfinders unleashed two bunches of yellow flares that tumbled into one another over the fevered city. Then his eyes fell on the factory illumined in green. ‘Pathfinders bang on time, skip,’ said the navigator, checking his Omega. ‘Two minutes before zero hour.’ ‘Cripes, skip, it’s lit up like Piccadilly Circus over there.’ The dismay in Prosser’s voice was all too apparent. ‘Nav to skipper.’ ‘Come in, nav.’ ‘Berlin lies thirty miles distant. Can you make out that bright glow on the horizon?’ ‘Thanks, nav. Pity about the light show. Gunners, keep your eyes peeled for nightfighters.’
He thought again about last night’s sortie, his twenty-ninth. Their Mosquito bombers had buzzed the target area and acted as irritant and distraction for Jerry fighters patrolling Berlin’s air space.
They dropped their bombs at ten thousand feet. ‘A piece o’ piss,’ Jimmy had said. Deceptively so, because on their route back they found themselves battling a fierce headwind, struggling for both speed and safety height. The boozer warning light that the back-room boys had recently come up with showed they were being tracked by enemy radar. Suddenly, there was a brilliant explosion of green, red and golden light, fireballs bursting all around them. ‘We’re copping a pasting, skip,’ said Spud. Cameron could imagine him crouching down in the astrodome, worried sick. ‘With respect, do you think we need more revs?’ Sorry, chum, no soap. ‘Can’t spot any enemy aircraft ahead,’ said Perce Prosser. ‘Or fighter flares.’ ‘No kites up our rear end,’ came Hobson’s blunt reply. Pretty prickly himself, it struck Cameron that they were caught in the throes of Jerry’s latest tactic. ‘Boys, that may’ve been a Scarecrow. A decoy designed to make us believe one of our own Lancs had been blown to smithereens before our very eyes.’ ‘Certainly put the fear of God up me,’ said Max. ‘I could do with a stiff gin and lime.’ ‘Bags of flap ahead,’ said Prosser. ‘Watch out for those jumbo balloons, skip. Looks like a flight of airborne torpedoes.’ ‘A further obstacle,’ added Spud, ‘the ack ack around Kiel and the flak ship in the bay. Coming up in about fifteen minutes.’ Hmm, another thing, thought Cameron. No one knew how to ditch a heavy Lancaster in the drink, let alone the deathly grey face of the North Sea. Come to think of it,
riding the swell in a dinghy wouldn’t be much chop either. He still had forty miles of icy-cold corrugation to cover. Unlike those poor blighters in the Halifax squadron, whose lower-flying bombers had easily been picked off beneath them. In addition, three of their own Lancasters failed to return. ‘Roger. Going in. Flight engineer, synchronise the engines.’ He moved the throttles forward and commenced his run-in. The first black burst of artillery fire exploded towards the arrow formation. Thank God, Freddie 2 was shielded by aircraft on both port and starboard wings! Fifty yards ahead, the tail of the leader, in a blink, alas, poor beggars, disintegrated, mere matchsticks, the fuselage sliding, plunging, careering drunkenly to earth, exploding into flames. Such fear he could taste through his oxygen mask. Neither arms nor legs would budge, straps burning into his shoulders. ‘Hell’s bells! Another Lanc going down, skip. Starboard wing streaming flame. I’ll log it.’ ‘Count how many got out, nav.’ ‘Oh god, I can see only three chutes open, skip.’ ‘Hey, what the blazes!’ yelled Hobson. ‘Jerry’s shooting at them that’s baled out! Bloody cowards! Our boys can’t defend themselves!’ ‘I know, Tommy,’ he said, sensing the bile of irritability rising. ‘Keep your hair on, chum. Just remember what we are inflicting on women and children every damn day.’ ‘But we’ve got to break civilian morale to end this bloody war S.A.P.’
‘Did the Blitz break ours?’ ‘All the same, we wouldn’t stoop . . . bloody sick and disgusting, I call it.’ Eight bodies, molten metal or shot silk for coffins, drifted downward like autumn leaves, sun-bloodied, their swaying bodies, fragile as clay pigeons, silhouetted against billowing smoke and flames leaping in dragon tongues. The faces of other young airmen flashed through his mind, eighteen year old boys whom he’d held in his arms, charred bodies, whose planes scarred with flak, bits shot off or wings still ablaze had limped back to the drome. Greater love hath no man than this . . . Nonetheless, thought Cameron, it was unimaginably horrible, utterly inconceivable. What on earth had happened to the march of mankind within the space of one generation? No longer were aerial dog-fights the chivalrous jousts they appeared to impressionable kids in the Great War. In a sickening thud of guilt, there flashed before him a newspaper photograph of his idol, Ernst Udet, rejected by the Wehrmacht owing to a lack of height, but as dashing young ace in Richthofen’s ‘Flying Circus’ had shot down sixty-two allied fighters, whilst most of his school chums and the Melbourne press had lauded the derring-do of Andrew King Cowper, who had shot down a mere (a mere!) nineteen of Fritz’s kites over Flanders. Even as a young lad, he had treason in his soul. Suddenly he heard his father’s voice drumming in his ears, throwing his arms round him in the lounge, the first time he could remember, on the night he sailed from Sydney to Perth with eight thousand fully trained aircrew: ‘Son, in the next two or three years you will often be very frightened. There is no shame in that. It is how you face your fear that’s important.’
Slowly, the power ebbed back into his limbs. He felt the mid-gunner’s feet on his shoulders, then remembered the window above him. As captain of the aircraft as well as its pilot, he knew his responsibility was crew first, aircraft next. When he ordered, ‘Head, tail, go!’ they’d have ten seconds to jump clear through that window. Any crewman shot down who survived descent should roll over, bury the chute and get the heck out of there. Otherwise, if not sheltered by a desperately brave Resistance
fighter or farmer daring to show compassion, you’d just as likely be shot by the Gestapo as taken POW. Even a jumpy local could be as randomly savage as a bursting grenade. Chances of escape were slight, but you had to believe. ‘Target ahead, sir!’ said the bomb-aimer. ‘All right. Give your orders!’ ‘Tracking nicely . . . right . . . right . . . steady . . . steady . . . ‘ He froze the joystick within those two parallel lines on the bomb-aimer’s panel. ‘I envy you this one,’ his father had said. ‘At least you know why you’re fighting. We didn’t.’ ‘Bombs away!’ called the bomb-aimer. ‘Bombs gone. Doors closed. Bang on the aiming point, I’d reckon.’ Sixteen thousand pounds of bombs and they’d drop the lot, on the factory it was hoped, but if not . . . He tried not to think of it. But couldn’t help recall the rumour at briefing - Berlin was being defended by boys from Hitler Youth, some as young as fifteen. The earth below burnt. Even the clouds were ringed with fire. ‘But the bush was not consumed.’ How often did words fly into your head unheralded! He grappled for the verse: ‘. . . and behold . . . the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed.’ Hold fast to that! But such a notion was as slippery as drawing up clay on a potter’s wheel. You might smooth and pinch with your thumbs, holding steady the moist sides of the vessel shaping with the heel of your palms, but try as you might you couldn’t quite run your fingers evenly round the lip without squishing the mouth awry. ‘Good one, skip. We foxed ‘em.’
‘Get me back to dear old Blighty, cobber.’ ‘Yeah, and get posted where?’ When the shell clunked the outer port engine, Freddie 2 shuddered with the drag, plumes of black smoke pothering, belching back and over the fuselage, blinding. The horizon jolted a crazy tilt. ‘Take to the brolly, men, we’re slipping into a spin!’ ‘You won’t make a balls of it, skip! We’re with you!’ ‘The inner port’s not responding! Get away now, I’ll hold her steady!’ ‘Hot damn!’ cried Max. ‘Skip, we’re on fire, for god’s sake!’ ‘I’m redded,’ Jimmy choked in ghostly whisper. ‘Get out!’ he coughed, swimming against his lungs. ‘That’s an order . . . I’ll follow you . . . down.’ Now curving deep into its dive, Freddie 2, screaming. Screaming to burst your eardrums. There, there below, through swathes of fleeting fog, careered the Hell he knew, the Hell he sought: flames reaching up to engulf, a barren waste, a grave without hope. The show was over.
Michael Small October 4 – November 13, 2009 P O S T E D B Y MICH A EL A T 02:58 EMAIL THISBLOGTHIS!SHARE TO TWITTERSHARE TO FACEBOOK
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