Authors: Margaret Mayhew
About the Book
There were seven in the crew â seven very young and very inexperienced airmen who, nearly every night, flew their heavily-laden Lancaster bomber into the exploding skies over enemy Germany.
On almost their first flight Piers, the navigator, managed to get them lost and Van, the pilot, nearly crashed the plane on landing. Charlie, the rear gunner, who was only seventeen but who had lied about his age, spent his time reading poetry and trying not to spew his guts out on every flight. They were from mixed backgrounds and nationalities but somehow, heroically, they welded together into a courageous fighting unit, helping each other and desperately hoping they would survive their thirty bombing raids.
And on the ground were the women who waited. Assistant Section Officer Catherine Herbert, in love with Van but already committed to another man. And Peggy, the little waitress who found herself being ardently wooed by the aristocratic Piers. There was Ruth, the land-girl, falling in love in spite of herself. And Charlie's young and pretty widowed mother, living right on the edge of the airfield, praying every night that her son would come back.
For Mary and Keith
And in memory of Jack
I am greatly indebted to the late Squadron Leader Jack Currie, DFC, the author and Lancaster bomber pilot, for all his kind and generous help and advice.
Also, to my editor, Diane Pearson, for her invaluable encouragement and guidance. And to my husband, Philip Kaplan, for his constant support.
Finally, to the very young crews of World War Two Bomber Command whose courage and self-sacrifice in the cause of our freedom remain an inspiration to us all.
A lancaster bomber required a crew of seven men: pilot, navigator, bomb aimer, flight engineer, wireless operator, mid-upper gunner and rear gunner.
During the Second World War, the average age of a crew was twenty-four and, at the height of RAF Bomber Command's strategic offensive against Germany, their chance of surviving a tour of thirty operations only one in three. By the end of the war 55,573 men in aircrews had died and the casualty rate in Bomber Command was the heaviest of any British Service.
In the words of Winston Churchill:
They never flinched or failed. It is to their devotion that in no small measure we owe our victory. Let us give them our salute.
This novel tells the story of seven such men. And their women.
THEY WERE LOST.
Again. Christ only knew where Piers had got them to this time, because he sure as hell didn't. Even if the whole damn countryside hadn't been covered in cloud, he wouldn't have known without some obvious landmark. The crazy jumble of fields and woods and villages all looked the same to him â when you could see it at all, which wasn't often.
Jesus, the weather they had over here! Cloud, rain, fog, sleet, snow, more rain, and still more rain, and still more cloud. And it was supposed to be spring. Bad enough on the ground. Up here, bloody murder.
By now they should have landed safely back at base, be stripping off their flying gear, lighting up, cracking jokes, acting the confident, close-knit crew â the jolly old comrades they were supposed to have become. Instead, they were still wandering hopelessly about the skies. Van peered downwards, trying to see something â
About fifteen minutes ago, when there'd been a gap in the clouds, he'd caught sight of the sea, which meant they were very likely heading in the general direction of Holland. Any moment now some Jerry fighter was probably going to appear and make it the end of a perfect day. The end of everything.
He flicked the mike switch on his mask and tried to keep the worry and irritation out of his voice. âPilot to navigator. What's our position, please?'
âI'm frightfully sorry, skipper. I'm not absolutely sure. Can you possibly hang on a moment?'
God help us, he thought. We're lost and Piers is
sorry. At the moment, all we're doing is stooging around in broad daylight. When we stop playing games and have to go and drop bombs on the enemy in the dark, the Jerries won't need to waste shells bringing us down, we'll do the job ourselves.
He could sense his flight engineer's seething impatience beside him. Jock must be cursing his luck at being assigned to them â which Van had a strong suspicion had been done in the hopes of improving their performance. Tough deal, Jock! Top of his course and stuck with a Yank pilot who had yet to show he could make a halfway decent landing, a navigator who didn't seem to know north from south, an Aussie bomb aimer who'd flunked the new bomb sight exam, a mid-upper gunner who evidently couldn't hit a rat in a barrel, a wireless operator older than God and a kid rear gunner who read poetry. When some guy had told him in friendly fashion over a beer in the Mess that they were odds-on favourites to be the first crew to get the chop on ops, if not before, he hadn't been a bit surprised.
Nothing from Piers. What the hell was he doing back there? It wasn't that difficult, for Christ's sake. He was about to press the mike switch again when the clouds suddenly parted and he saw Lincoln Cathedral down below the Lancaster's port wing, its three big towers sticking up cheerily from the city hilltop: a landmark he knew and was learning to love the hard way. Not even Piers could get lost â they were only twenty miles from base.
Now it could be
turn to screw up. He brought
the Lancaster bomber down steadily, praying he'd manage a passable landing this time and not give them all something else to worry about. The runway lay ahead, a mile-long, straight concrete scar across that mishmash of English fields. All he had to do was get her down onto it in one piece. All twenty-five tons of her.
At a thousand feet, Flying Control gave him permission to join the circuit downwind.
âUndercart down, please, engineer.'
Jock acknowledged curtly. âUndercart down.' His hand reached for the lever. After a few seconds the green lights came on. âAnd locked.'
He made all his landing checks and turned cross wind.
âFlaps twenty, please, Jock.'
He was driving eight thousand horses. Under the thick flying clothes, his body felt clammy with sweat, his muscles rigid. Six lives in his hands, besides his own. He could take advice from the rest of the crew, but he was the guy who had to make the final decisions. And they'd better be the right ones.
Control crackled again in his ears. âYou're clear to land, G-George.'
âThank you. Pilot to crew. Stand by for landing.'
He turned on finals at seven hundred feet, pointing the Lane's nose straight at the runway. The heavy bomber roared over the Lincolnshire farm land, sinking gradually. All tickety-boo, as the RAF said.
The airfield boundary was coming close.
âFull flap, Jock.'
They were over the boundary hedge and the
rubber-streaked runway rushed up at them. Too fast. The Lane's port wheel hit it first â hard and with a loud squeal. She bounced high, lurched, and bounced and lurched again as the starboard wheel crunched down next, the wing dipping horrifyingly close to the ground. There were two more bounces and a thud-thud as her tailwheel slammed down. The nose reared and yawed in front of him. Shit, shit,
They were halfway down the runway before she'd settled and he had full control. He should have given her the gun and gone around again. Wrong decision. Total screw-up. Nobody said anything. Not a word. They were probably too bloody frightened to speak. Or too disgusted, like Jock who was wagging his head slowly from side to side.
At dispersal, when the Merlins had died, Van unfastened his harness, pulled off his helmet and wiped the sweat from his forehead. The others were clattering and clanging about in the metal fuselage behind him, making their way aft. He didn't blame them for being keen to get out. When he joined them outside nobody said anything to him then either. They were huddled in a foot-stamping, arm-swinging group at the edge of the tarmac, faces turned into the teeth of the wind away from him, looking for the crew bus â Jock, Piers, Stew, Harry, Bert and Charlie.
Van fumbled for his cigarettes and lighter. His hands were still shaking, and he had trouble getting flame and cigarette tip together in the lee of his Irvin jacket. When he lifted his head he saw the Bedford coming along, speeding round the peri track towards them, a WAAF driver at the wheel. It had started to rain again.
âReckon he'll kill us all, if Jerry don't first,' the wireless operator, Harry, said in his flat Yorkshire. âWe could have gone off the runway and gone arse over tit, Bert. Blown oop in bloody flames.' He stood by the bar in the Sergeants' Mess, a pint of beer clutched in one large hand, his pipe in the other. He was a big fair-haired man â built like a brick shit-house, Bert always told him affably. The mid-upper gunner, dark and with a wide grin like a monkey, barely reached his shoulder. Side by side, they looked and sounded like a music hall act.
âBe fair, mate, you don't do such a good job twiddlin' the old knobs neither. Blimey, you got that dance music once, remember? I was doin' a quick-quick-slow up in the turret. Let's face it, we're none of us so bloomin' marvellous.'
Harry nodded. âAye, that's true enough. How you got through gunnery school with your eyesight, I'll never know.'
âLuck an' bluff, cock. That's 'ow,' Bert said chirpily.
âAnd what 'appens when you're supposed to shoot down a Jerry fighter for us? I'll tell you what's goin' to 'appen, Bert, you're goin' to miss 'im.'
The gunner grinned. âWe'll 'ave to find Germany first and that's not goin' to be so easy with our nav.'
âAye, we'll end up in Timbuctu, more like. You'd think with all the education he must 'ave 'ad that he could do a better job.' Harry took a swig at his beer. âOh, well. No good worryin', I s'pose. There's nowt we can do about it. Can't change horses in midstream.'
âMid-air, you mean, mate.'
Charlie, the rear gunner, who was even smaller than Bert, sipped his beer, listening to them. With every sip
he tried to hide his shudder at the taste. Everyone in the Mess seemed to be downing pints of the stuff. He watched Harry take another swallow and the level in his mug sink rapidly. It would soon be time for the next round and they'd wonder why he hadn't half-finished his first one yet. He took another desperate gulp. He was still feeling a bit sick from the flight, which didn't help either, and the smoke from Harry's pipe and Bert's cigarette was making things even worse. He'd bought some Woodbines himself, hoping he'd look older if he smoked, but every time he lit up it made him feel dizzy.
He hadn't said anything, but he was just as worried about the skipper. There was a lump on his head where it had hit the turret roof on that dicey landing. He'd thought they'd had it for a moment. Going to do a ground loop and not much chance of him getting out. None at all if the doors behind him went and jammed. The rear turret wasn't the safest place to be. Someone had told him that Tail-End Charlies were the ones most likely to cop it. There were always blokes who liked to put the wind up you. Got a kick out of it most probably.
He hadn't exactly chosen to be a rear gunner. âWith a name like yours,' they'd said to him at gunnery school, âyou haven't got much option, have you lad?' But he was very proud of his AG badge with its one wing, and of his three stripes, and he didn't much mind being all on his own in the tail, being dragged backwards in his fish bowl through the skies. It gave you a lot to look at and a chance to think about things. And sometimes he recited poems to himself. They'd teased him about his book of poetry, of course. It had fallen out of his pocket once and Stew had picked it
up and turned the pages over, as though he couldn't believe his eyes.