Kit took his battle dress from the wardrobe and checked the pockets to be sure there was nothing in them that might be of use to German intelligence — just in case they had to bail out. He removed some coins and a letter from his father but left the stuffed baby Zebra “Zach” in the lower right pocket. Zach had brought them luck so far; now was no time to remove him.
Just after quarter past six, they joined a stream of other aircrew making their way down to the dining room. The smell of frying bacon and roasting coffee seeped up the stairs in the opposite direction. After the hearty “ops breakfast,” they climbed aboard one of the crew buses that were lined up on the gravel drive in front of the officer’s mess. It dropped them at the brick building housing the operations and briefing rooms. Scores of sergeants likewise converged on the building, most riding on bicycles that they stowed in the racks standing out front. The two groups intermingled as they clomped up the stairs to the briefing room in a disorganised mob. All wore shiny whistles dangling from the collars of their battle dress tunics that swayed as they mounted the stairs. Inside, they spread out to sit at rows of wooden tables.
Although seats were not assigned, all the pilots occupied habitual spots. This being Moran’s sixth operational briefing as skipper, he already had his “usual” place: the far-right end of the second table. Navigators, bomb aimers and flight engineers sat with their captains. Peal sat immediately to Moran’s left, MacDonald and Babcock further along. There was a separate briefing for wireless operators and gunners.
Punctually at 0700, the adjutant called for attention, and the assembled crews got to their feet as the base, station, and squadron commanders entered. The station commander opened with a welcome and some general information. Then Fauquier took over and, after signalling that the crews could smoke, asked the adjutant to open the curtain that covered the map behind the briefing platform.
On the map a line of yarn stretched to the point where Germany, France and Switzerland met. Here the track split into two before converging and then returning to the UK on a course parallel to the outward journey. Moran leaned forward to try to see the target better. It couldn’t be a rocket launch site that far away, and the nearest city was Basel in neutral Switzerland — not a likely target. It didn’t make any sense. He noted the same perplexity all around him.
Fauquier let them speculate for a moment longer before opening his remarks with the astonishing announcement: “The US army is preparing to cross the Rhine. They expect to have a bridgehead on the east bank by the end of this month.” His pointer tapped the map near a pin marking the position of the Ninth Army on the west bank of the Rhine. “It is imperative that their pontoon bridges not be washed away by abrupt flooding. The Germans therefore have every reason to trigger such floods, and the capability to do so by opening the Kembs Barrage located here,” his pointer tapped their target. “We have been ordered to carry out a pre-emptive strike against the barrage. Thereafter, the Americans can advance without risk to their pontoons, regardless of the exact date for their crossing.”
A rustle of movement greeted this announcement. Not only did this now make sense, but it was also exciting to think that the Allies were on the brink of crossing the Rhine.
“We will be using Tallboys and will attack in two groups. Seven Lancasters flown by Fawke, Philpott, Iveson, Sayers, Gingles, Watts and Castagnola will fly directly to the target, approaching from the West, and will bomb from 6,000 feet with bombs set to detonate on impact. The remaining six aircraft, Forrester, Howard, Moran, Cockshott, and Sanders led by myself, will fly the dogleg shown here,” he pointed to the strings marking their planned route, “using Tallboys set with 30 minute delay fuses. We will bomb from 600 feet.”
Moran’s heart missed a beat. That was madness! It was sheer suicide! At six hundred feet they would be too high to slip unseen below German radar or blend in with the surrounding landscape, yet they’d be so low that the German gunners would have a hard time missing them. Jerry would have a field day.
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