Meanwhile, the rest of the squadron was straggling in. The Canadian landed with his engine belching black smoke and running very rough, but he climbed down without apparent injury. Allars went over to talk to him.
The Canadian was, as always, very talkative, and gushed at some length about the confused combat. They had gone straight for the Stukas attacking the ships. “Bunches of ships were laying there dead in the water; one had already rolled over on its side, and you could see all these little round things in the water that were the survivors trying to swim to the lifeboats. At least one of the lifeboats had capsized and was rising and falling on the waves like a dead fish. And one of the other ships was down by the bows, the whole front end awash with water, while the stern stuck out of the water so you could see the big propellers and the red paint.”
“Surprised you had time to notice so much,” Allars remarked.
“Damn right! I shouldn’t have let myself get distracted! I got hit from behind while I was looking down. Never even saw what hit me. The engine started making a horrible racket! Soon it was shaking the frame so bad, I thought the whole thing was going to go to pieces. I dove down for the deck. No idea why the Jerry didn’t follow me. I guess he thought I was done for and wanted to hunt something else. I nursed my Hurri back here, sweating the whole way. I wasn’t sure I was going to make it until I felt the grass brush my wheels.”
“No claims, then?”
“Nope.” He shook his head. “Just lucky to be alive, sir.” He grinned as he admitted it, and Allars nodded. The Canadian was going to be all right. They’d all been a bit sceptical at first, but he was a solid, honest lad, who could assess his mistakes without tying himself in knots.
Allars was more concerned about the pilot he approached next: Sergeant Bowles. Although his guns had not been fired, Bowles’ aircraft had some very minor damage to one wing and a few holes in the fuselage far behind the cockpit. Allars professionally judged that an Me109 had tried a deflection shot at too great a range. Probably the German had also been a relatively inexperienced pilot.
Bowles, however, was looking more than a little shaken as he climbed down from his aircraft. Allars caught a whiff of vomit and noticed that one knee of Bowles’ uniform was soiled. Bowles swallowed and looked ashamed. “Sorry, sir.”
“Were you sick?”
“Yes, sir. But I’ll clean it up—”
“No need to do that. The ground crews will see to it – although it is customary to tip them two-and-six for it.”
“Yes, sir,” the pilot answered, but he unconsciously shook his head as if he meant the opposite.
Bowles swallowed again, still looking rather green.
“Don’t worry. Go clean out your mouth and we’ll talk later,” Allars suggested.
Another aircraft was down; it was Debsen, and Allars limped over to meet him. Debsen’s aircraft had not a scratch on it, but its guns had fired. That was odd. The other to “tail-end Charlies” — Green and Bowles — had taken hits for none of their own. How did Debsen escape the bounce, yet find an opportunity to engage?
Even before Allars had a chance to ask him, Debsen started explaining that he’d got a Jerry. He claimed to have chased it half-way back to France — which was why, he said, he was late landing. “Got it in the end, ‘though. I saw it crash into the sea.”
“Jolly good,” Allars praised automatically. “What was it?”
“One of the big fighters, a 110.”
“And you took no hits from the rear gunner?” Allars tried not to sound sceptical.
“He was already dead,” came the quick answer. Too quick. It was as if Debsen didn’t even have to think about it. Most pilots straight out of combat had confused images that only got sorted out as their pulse slowed and they could review what had happened in slow motion.
Allars nodded. “Can you tell me more about the whole engagement? From start to finish.”
“When we arrived over the convoy, the other squadrons were already mixing it with the escort, so we went for the Stukas — but there was a second escort, or maybe the Germans reinforced the escort from the Pas de Calais. Anyway, the 110s came for us, but I saw them coming and turned into them. Then I managed to get on the tail of one of them and followed him until I got him.”
Too glib, Allars noted professionally. Getting on the tail of an Me110 after confronting it head-on was not all that easy to achieve; a pilot who had really managed such a manoeuvre would normally have been eager to describe each move in detail — using both hands to do so. But Allars only asked calmly, “What happened to the rest of the squadron?”
“I don’t know. I suppose they didn’t hear my warning and got hit from behind.” Debsen glanced around the field a little nervously. “Is anyone missing?”
“Two aircraft are still missing,” Allars informed him, watching his reaction carefully. It wasn’t anything you could put your finger on, but Allars thought Debsen looked just a little ashamed. In any case, there were a number of things Allars didn’t like about his story, quite aside from the pilot’s delivery of it. For a start, no one else had mentioned 110s being involved. Secondly, since the engagement had taken place just west of the Pas de Calais, there wasn’t much channel for a German plane to ditch in. Any German pilot with a wounded gunner would make for France and the many nearby airfields there. Worst case, they could ditch in a field. Debsen’s story might have made sense if they’d been fighting in their usual airspace, where the channel was much wider, but not today. It was as if the story had been concocted in advance.
Back in his office, Allars was told that P/O Hughes had broken several ribs crash-landing his Hurricane and had been taken to hospital. It would be weeks before he would be fit to fly and rejoin the squadron. But there was no news of P/O Davis until the next day; it seemed P/O Davis had been forced to abandon his aircraft and bail-out in the Channel. His body was washed ashore near Eastbourne; cause of death: drowning. His life jacket had a puncture and failed to inflate.
Allars, meanwhile, had had time to compare the combat reports filed by the surviving pilots. There was the usual confusion and fragmentation, but they all shared the same outline – except Debsen’s. The others agreed they had been bounced by 109s, not 110s, and no one had heard any sort of warning from Debsen. Allars sought out Bridges in the Controller’s office.
“You were on duty during 606’s sortie yesterday, weren’t you?”
“Yes.” Bridges admitted, already unsettled by the expression of the intelligence officer. Allars’ face was deeply carved by the “phantom” pain he often had in his missing limb. Nor was he a man of frequent smiles, but even so, he looked more grim than usual somehow.
“Mind if I have a seat?” Allars asked. “Sorry. Please.”
Allars took out his pipe and lit up. He shook out the match and dropped it in the ashtray on Bridges’ desk, already filled with matches and cigarette stubs. “Can you remember the bounce?”
“What do you mean?” Bridges asked.
“Well, according to most of the reports, 606 saw the convoy and the attacking Stukas, and saw some dogfighting above and behind it to the east. Jones said they went straight in, but the tail-end Charlies were bounced from behind. Did you hear that on the RT?”
Bridges thought back. “Jones gave the tally-ho, and Hayworth drew attention to the dogfighting to the east. Several pilots reported on the damage to the convoy. Jones cut them off and ordered an attack — saying very clearly: ‘Go for the Stukas – now.’ And then, seemingly, all hell broke loose. MacLeod started cursing in very rude language, I remember. I was rather embarrassed for the WAAFs, you know. He was the one who shouted a warning to Bowles, too – twice. And Green reported – rather loudly – that he’d been hit. Hughes was quite agitated, too.” Bridges fell silent.
“Did you hear anything from Debsen? A warning of any kind?”
Bridges tried to reconstruct the frenzied transmission of the day before in his memory, and then shook his head. “Not that I can recall. Is it important?”
Allars shrugged, pretending to be pre-occupied with his pipe. “Just trying to re-construct what happened. You know what it’s like. The boys can’t remember half of what happened after a bad fright.”
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