Meanwhile, the pilots had gathered around the damaged machine. They seemed to be in animated conversation, pointing this way and that, gesturing with their hands as they inspected the damage to the crate. A man limping badly and walking with a cane went out to them. They converged on him like a school of ravenous fish attacking a victim. Eventually they calmed down, however, and started towards the dispersal hut in a large group.
One of them noticed Ainsworth. “What have we here?” he asked in astonishment, halting. He was a slender young man with a snobby accent. They all stopped, but then one of them came forward with an outstretched hand. “I gather you’re a replacement pilot for 606?”
Ainsworth caught sight of the two-and-half stripes just in time and saluted. “Yes, sir. Ainsworth, sir. Alan Ainsworth.”
“Straight from an OTU, I gather.”
“Don’t tell me the bad news just yet; let’s get in out of the sun first.” The CO led them all into the dispersal hut, where the windows were open, allowing for a bit of a cross breeze. He tossed his flight jacket into a chair, but the others were hanging their jackets onto hooks.
“Ring for tea, would you, Woody?” the Squadron Leader suggested, while the others collapsed into the chairs.
The CO introduced them to Alan one at a time, but except for the big New Zealander they called Kiwi, Ainsworth was sure he wouldn’t be able to put names to faces for a while.
“Could we have some more sandwiches, Skipper? These ones have got ants all over them.”
“All right, who was the bright sod who left them on the floor?”
“Does it matter?”
“Why doesn’t the Salvation Army bring us a hot meal like they do the erks?”
“It would just get cold.”
“You’re off your form today, Skipper, by about 50 yards. If you don’t smarten up, it will take us forever to make 100.”
“We’re much nicer at the The Ship, believe me,” one of the pilots told Ainsworth.
Two mess stewards arrived with hot tea and sandwiches and were greeted enthusiastically. The pilots gathered around with their mugs. Ainsworth didn’t have one, but a slight, fair-haired pilot noticed, and took a clean mug from a locker and handed it to him. A moment later silence had settled over them, as they were all eating with concentration and an almost tangible urgency.
The telephone went. The eruption of swearing was truly vile – not just rude but vehement. The clerk was absent for some reason, so the CO grabbed the receiver himself, still chewing. He managed a mere, “MMM.”
The others waited absolutely still, staring at him. He gestured with his hand for them to relax and they audibly unwound, starting to eat and drink more calmly. The CO was nodding. “Um hum. Um hum. OK. Thanks, Bridges.”
“Hornchurch was hit while 54 was still on the ground. They lost a whole section – though not the pilots, it seems – and Biggin Hill was struck again. Second time today. They also gave Debden, North Weald and Croyden a pasting. It seems Jerry is concentrating on the airfields around London. 12 Group was asked to patrol London and the 11 Group ‘dromes while the squadrons refuelled, but they failed to show up in time.”
“Typical 12 Group,” a man with a posh accent commented.
“Leigh-Mallory thinks his squadrons are more effective if they are flown in wings of multiple squadrons,” the CO explained.
“Well, I like that idea. It would be a nice change not to be outnumbered ten-to-one!”
“We never are out-numbered by that many, Woody,” the CO countered in a low, serious voice. “And the odds are identical whether we deploy in big wings or individual squadrons. The difference is at best psychological, and frankly I much prefer things the way they are.”
“Why?” the New Zealander asked bluntly, and by the nodding around the dispersal, Ainsworth had the impression they all wanted to know.
“Because large gaggles just get in each other’s way. Look at the 109s. We generally have somewhere over thirty or even sixty of the buggers up there when we attack, but when it comes down to it, we only fight with about a score. The others never get a chance.”
“Maybe, but frankly, once – just once – I’d like to face them on equal terms.”
The telephone and klaxon seemed to go off at the same time, and they were gone even before the returned clerk could shout “scramble” at them.
Ainsworth was left standing. He went to the door of the dispersal and gazed after them, feeling more confused than ever. Shouldn’t he be with them? But they hadn’t given him an aircraft or a flight or anything. Maybe there weren’t any extra aircraft? There had to be, because the damaged crate had been rolled into the one remaining hangar, but its pilot was clambering into the cockpit of another. From the scattered chaos of the scramble, the Hurricanes started to collect at the head of the field into a rough line. Their engines took on a more purposeful purring and the tails twitched nervously. Then they rolled forward, slowly gathering speed, until the tails came up. They bounced, leapt, floated.
How he wished he were with them!
Ainsworth watched them start to wheel around, their wheels folding up under them, and noted it was a very loose formation they were flying, not at all what he’d been taught. Why didn’t they tighten up more? It looked sloppy. Were they that tired? A disturbing thought. They were climbing up through the thin layer of low cloud. He watched until the last speck was gone, and then he looked around the forlorn dispersal again.
In less than an hour they were back. All of them. This time they trickled into the dispersal separately, depending on how far away their blast pen happened to be. “Fucking little cowards!”
“I don’t know. I sure as hell wouldn’t want to have a bloody bomb clamped under the belly of my Hurri!”
“They used to send Stukas to do that kind of thing.”
“Ah, those were the days! Stuka Parties, we called them. They were great fun. Got 15 of them the day they bombed us here, you know.”
“Fifteen!? You alone?”
“Of course not, Idiot! The Tangmere Squadrons combined. A bit confused, actually, not at all clear who got what exactly, but there were wrecks littered all over the countryside. Those were the days….”
“And now they bugger up their best fighter with a ruddy great bomb.”
“Bloody unfair, that. If they come in unmolested they bomb their targets, but if they see us, they just jettison the sodding bomb and take us on like equals.”
“Did they put the RDF out or not?” The question was from the CO, who had just come in.
“Don’t know, Skipper.”
The CO reached for the phone and jangled it. “Bridges? Did they succeed?” A long pause. The CO hung up. “They got them. RDF is down again.”
“Bugger! Now we’re blind again!”
“The whole chain again?”
“Truleigh, Pevensy and Rye.”
“Jerry’s getting too bloody clever. Whatever happened to good old days when he attacked Convoys, Coastal Command and the Royal Navy?”
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