At exactly 11.40, II/JG23 took off to meet the bombers as they came out. Ernst was immeasurably glad to be flying again, and happy to be with Dieter. Leading a Rotte for the first time in his career, however, filled him with pride. He was meticulous about keeping station and all radio protocol, because he didn’t want anyone to think he had forgotten anything while in hospital. In fact, he was so busy watching Dieter and not looking farther forward, that Dieter saw them first.
“Holy Mother of God, what’s happened to them?” Dieter had caught sight of the bombers they were supposed to bring home; there didn’t seem anywhere near enough of them. There should have been close to 30 bombers in the formation, but Ernst could only count 15. 50% shot down? It couldn’t be. Still, he looked nervously over his shoulder and about the sky. Spitfires. There had to be Spitfires out there after all.
As they swung in over the bombers to assume their close escort role, they had another shock. Most of these bombers were shot up in some way. There were holes in the wings, fuselages or tails of seemingly all of them. Some of the cockpits had shattered glass. Admittedly, none were damaged enough to be lagging, but—
“Möller, take your Schwarm and go and look for lame ducks. There must be more than a dozen bombers back there who can’t keep formation!” Fischer’s voice sounded as tense as Ernst felt.
Dieter at once increased speed and veered off. Ernst was caught a little by surprise and lost station for a bit, but rapidly caught up. He searched the sky again, particularly up-sun.
“Two o’clock low – two friends in trouble!” “Achtung! Indianer!”
Dieter led them in a curving power dive to get behind the two Hurricanes (thank God they were only Hurricanes, Ernst thought), which were intent on attacking the crippled bombers. Dieter’s bounce was perfect, but the Hurricanes sensed it just in time and broke away in opposite directions. “Ernst, see the bombers home!” Dieter ordered, as he pivoted on a wingtip to race after one of the Hurricanes with his wingman beside him.
Ernst settled his Rotte above and behind the two bombers, which were flying with nearly touching wingtips – like two school children holding hands for comfort, Ernst thought. He had to fly at full flaps not to over-take the bombers, but at least they had a stiff tailwind that was sweeping them out of England.
Ernst was drenched in sweat by the time they crossed over the French coast and he could relax a bit. To fly with the damaged bombers, he’d kept his Rotte at only 3,000 metres, and it was hot in the cockpit at that altitude – not to mention being a sitting duck for Spitfires. Why had everyone said it was so easy? Ernst didn’t think it looked any better than when he’d been wounded. Maybe even worse.
Ernst let the wounded bombers land first, while he and Kreisel (that was his wingman) circuited around, then followed them down onto the concrete runway. What a luxury! On concrete, even the Emil acted like a lady on landing. Ernst was flagged over to the side of the field, next to one of the bombers he had just escorted, and gratefully flung the hood open. He unplugged and removed his helmet. Then he scrambled out of the cockpit and down the wing. As he came around his own tail, the ambulance went alongside the nearest bombr, and he held back a bit as the aircrew of the bomber gently let one of their number down into the waiting arms of the medics. Only after the ambulance had raced away with wailing siren did Ernst risk approaching. He was not alone. Feldwebel Kreisel followed him, and from around the field, ground crew and staff were pressing around the airmen who had just landed.
“There were Spitfires all over the sky!” an Oberfeldwebel with pilot’s badge declared furiously. “All over the place! They came at us as soon as we crossed the coast – tore right into the escort, and in two minutes our fighters were cavorting around with them rather than covering us. The next lot hit us halfway to London!”
“We didn’t have one God-damned Messerschmitt with us when we finally crossed the Thames!” his navigator put in.
“But there shouldn’t have been any Spitfires left,” a member of the ground staff protested.
“Like hell! There were hundreds of them! More than I’ve ever seen at one time before! All just sitting up there over London waiting for us! They were waiting there like a pack of wolves. Fucking, shitty Spitfires!”
“There were so many of them they had to line up to take turns shooting at us!”
“That can’t be,” a staff officer protested again, but the aircrew would have none of it.
“Take a good look at the carcass of our crate! What do you think made all those holes in it? Imagination? I’m telling you, the Tommies had at least 500 Spitfires up there today!”
Ernst had heard enough. They were slated to fly close escort on the second raid, which was due to take off in just 70 minutes. He felt the familiar urge to urinate.
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