Jake West slumped into the chair feeling the back of it sag and almost break. It was his own personal sign of combat fatigue. He sought the same chair and slumped into it each time. Everyday that it did not collapse validated his own psyche – “not done yet.” And the occupants of the hut from his fellow pilots, the orderlies, and batmen had it waiting for him after each flight.
His mind drifted in a haze of fatigue to his memories of that day in 1940. In the reek of smouldering ruins his aunt’s arm rose above her dead body and the bodies of her children. The white bones of her fingers grasping upwards from the burnt flesh and clothes of her arm. He shook his head clearing the onslaught of imagery that was returning more and more often to his mind.
Fighter pilots in their second year of combat were rare in January of 1942 for a variety of reasons. In Britain it was usually because they were dead or increasingly a prisoner of war.
He was tired after his third scramble of the day. His last Lucky Strike hung from his mouth. He could not remember whether it was next Tuesday or Wednesday until he could skip out to the embassy in Grosvenor Square. His dwindling stock of goodwill would produce a carton or two. He muttered as he leaned forward toward Dickey’s lighter.
“I’m getting old. We used to do five, six, seven shows a day.”
It was a shocking American nasal accent emanating from under a Royal Air Force flight lieutenants hat. But West used the very British “shows” for the mad dash for altitude above the inbound Luftwaffe bombers and the resulting dance of death. Nobody in the dank shack reeking of wet coal smoke with its dirt considered West anything but British.
Not many Americans had defied the Neutrality Act and crossed the Atlantic to fly for the RAF in the Battle of Britain. Only one had come on leave from the US Air Forces to move his English aunts and cousins from London to the Nebraska homestead of the American branch of the family. Only one had seen them killed in an early raid on London and gone AWOL to join the RAF.
It was now early January 1942. Fifteen months after he had pointed his first Hawker Hurricane at a German bomber stream. He was the second longest serving pilot in the squadron with seven kills earned mostly after the Germans had switched to night bombing. They were hard small action kills.
The Squadron Leader’s batman, Holloway, pushed in the door of the hut with a tray containing a teapot and mugs. It was half cold from the walk across the sod field in the drizzle, but it and the faint heat from the coal stove warded off the South English winter.
“You were bit worn when you arrived, chum.”
West was twenty-nine. Old for an RAF fighter pilot. He was also in a foreign country at war unable to return home. The Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor hung over him and his status in the RAF. General Lee, the US military attache at the embassy in London, had returned to Washington, D.C. and Lee’s return to the London embassy now after Pearl Harbor was unlikely. It had been Lee’s intervention with Washington at the request of the RAF in early 1941 that had halted the extradition attempts to send West back to face court martial in the US. He heard the door of the shack swing open as he smiled back at Dickey.
“Listen chum, anytime you want to try it, just say so.”
West turned toward the door and saw his Squadron Leader, Wiliston, ushering in a tall stooped form in an American Air Force uniform. He was wearing a light colonel’s silver oak leaves, but West had known him as a major. He was vaguely aware of the men around him rising for the visitor. At this point in the war Wiliston had dispensed with military formality within the unit, but a US colonel was just enough of an unknown to touch upon the British sense of automatic politeness. West looked away and inhaled deeply on his cigarette.
The long awaited day of reckoning. Why did cockpits and rooms always become still in anticipation of chaos? Jake focused on an oil stain in the faded blue wool of his uniform. It was a fighter pilot’s technique honed to an ace’s razor edge – the ability to focus on the enemy in his gunsights while around him fire and death reached for his plane.
He had no idea how long Wiliston brown shoes had stood just inside his peripheral vision before he looked up. The other old man in the unit at twenty-six, Wiliston wore a quizzical expression. He always managed to look the perfect RAF pilot with his thin tan face below short blond hair whipped back from a severe part.
“West, how am I to provide our guest with military courtesy with you in a chair?”
The orderly most responsible for its operation, chose that moment to load coal into the stove. It sent a cloud of smoke into the room. West threw his cigarette into the fire and stared back leaning in the chair with a creak.
“Suh, did he tell you he was here to arrest me? I am not British enough to stand for the man that sent the G-men into my parents house threatening to take the farm.”
“Oh, I see …”
Wiliston suddenly realized the two men were behaving in the irrational way he had observed Americans conducted private matters in public. A slight blush rose in his face and the deferential and pleasant Etonian personality turned to stone.
“Colonel, I think you might have mentioned if we needed a private meeting.”
Lieutenant Colonel Jenkins was a tall man with a stoop. His new American uniform, so different from the stained and patched British kit, appeared completely out of place in a combat unit. Particularly at a time when the average Englishman was limited to one new shirt a year. He wore military regulation wire glasses and a face crinkled as if in constant study with an odd shock of red hair visible from the under his hat.
Jenkins saw West’s drawn face and the loose hanging uniform on the thin frame. He was past ready to move on, but he could not be the one that relieved West of his anxiety. The flight returned to its seats and Dickey pulled out his heavy service revolver to polish with his scarf. Wiliston saw the scarf moving deliberately across the blue gun metal.
“By God, Dickey, put that away …”
The door to the hut had swung decisively open and a ramrod straight American brigadier strode inside. As he began to unbutton his service raincoat, there was the sound of West’s chair flying across the room and cracking against the far wall. At full attention West held a back handed British salute.
Brigadier General James A. Harlan was the newly appointed liaison to the RAF outside the US Air Force change of command reporting directly to the Chief of Staff in Washington, DC. He was charged with accelerating the Army Air Force’s strategic bomber campaign from Britain onto the continent. As the raincoat came off an American master sergeant appeared to shake and dry it. Harlan’s WW I ribbons, including a British Military Cross, brought the entire room to its feet. He snapped a quick salute at West and moved forward.
“West, you rascal, we had to come to you! Sorry it is so late.”
Harlan turned to the entire section.
“Sorry to all of you. But I promise, we are coming now and with all we’ve got.”
West’s face was relaxed as he pumped the hand of his old commanding officer. He had no idea what was happening, but Harlan was not going to arrest him. The phone rang.
The flight was out the door with West in the lead running for their fighter planes.
Harlan walked out into the drizzle with Wiliston beside him to watch the flight take off for the Germans. The slim form ran past the ground crew, then leaped up the wing and side of the idling Hurricane. The plane swung into takeoff position before the last member of the flight scrambled up into his fighter. West’s Hurricane tarried on the field for a few seconds, then led the four plane flight off the grass field over the trees vanishing into the low cloud cover.
“Suh, with all due respect if you are going to take any action against the Flight Lef-tenant I am going to have to call higher authority.”
Harlan’s face flushed red.
Jenkins stooped through the door into the rain.
“By God Jenkins, if you brought up that old business about West after I specifically addressed how to resolve it, you you are going back to the States in a row boat.”
“Not a word, Sir.”
Wiliston had not survived and excelled at Eton without political skills. He turned to Harlan.
“Very good, Suh.”
Harlan smiled, but Wiliston looked him directly in the eye.
“He and I are the only ones left from 1940. Now if you’ll excuse me Suh, I’ll head over to operations. They will be back in an hour or so and if it is not too much trouble I shall be present for your interview with the Flight Lef-tenant.”
The little un-English outburst might get him in trouble, but he owed that to West. Wiliston smiled to himself as he crossed the field with his batman scrambling after him through the mud. Americans were annoying, but the directness had its advantages. Harlan stared after him as the form faded into the mist and smiled at the back of the young Englishman.
“Jenkins, these Limeys are real killers in wartime. I was over the Somme with them in 1918. The only thing more dangerous is a Highlander.”
Jenkin’s eyebrow rose and Harlan realized for the first time Jenkins had no idea what had just happened. Harlan remembered how long it had taken in the last war to understand the British. Jenkins had a reputation as a quick study of people. All of the young fresh faced Americans would have to learn quickly.
A fireplug of a man in the blue uniform of an RAF enlisted men ran across the field toward the doorway where General Harlan lingered. He wore a leather vest with big pockets over his uniform that sprouted a wrench, a heavy screwdriver, and some wire. There was a strong smell of oil and aviation fuel.
“General, Suh, Flight Lef-tenant West asked me to take you to his quarters. He has some real coffee he asked me to brew for you.”
Harlan studied the first British enlisted man he had spoken to in twenty years. Short, maybe five foot six with a face somehow obviously not in its original configuration. The nose had been broken, perhaps more than once and one of the ears had a slight cauliflower.
Harlan returned the salute.
“Tell me your name and rank.”
“Sergeant Mason, Suh.”
Harlan ducked into the doorway grateful for an invitation out of what he now realized was a leaking hovel.
“Jenkins, we’ve got a savior here going to take us to coffee. Sergeant Johnson let me have that overcoat.”
The Rolls-Royce Merlin engine roared in front of West as he eased back the throttle from a full boost at takeoff to a steady straining climb. At seven thousand feet he broke through the cloud cover into sunshine, pulled back on the throttle while his head swiveled, then pushed it forward again as the three other planes joined him above the clouds.
The controller called him from the ground, then vectored him at 17,000 feet southeast – “Angels 17”. Over the coast the clouds cleared and France was visible in the haze across the Channel. Dickey slid in behind West on his right wing and they began weaving with the second two planes slightly above and behind them. Every twenty seconds, West yawed onto a slightly new heading twisting in his seat looking for bandits. The sun was behind him, if low in the January sky. It was cold in the cockpit and the normal smell of the Hurricane, that particular mix of wood, cloth, metal, oil, and petrol, barely registered as his head swiveled constantly.
The controller called, then vectored him slightly south and reported the bogeys at 14,000 feet fleeing hard for the Channel and France. The British had won the Battle of Britain in large measure because of the vision of one man – Air Chief Marshal Dowding. Dowding had installed radar up and down the British coast, then connected those stations to a fighter command center. The command center viewed the whole battle from Scotland to Cornwall. Then it calculated which planes to commit, when, and where. It allowed the relatively small RAF to rise to meet the more numerous Germans only when necessary. And more often than not with an operational advantage in fuel and ammunition. “Top Hat” Control had dispatched the four Hurricanes after three German JU-88 bombers trying to sneak past West’s base at RAF Hawkinge.
West’s swiveling eye caught a flash in the sun. He pushed the plane into a hard roll.
“Blue flight break, break, coming from the sun.”
The Hurricane IIC with its heavy 20 millimeter cannons rolled into a dive faster than the older Hurricanes, but West checked the dive and broke back into the Germans. He wanted them at this altitude where the Hurricane could out turn even the latest Messerschmitt 109E. It was certainly pointless to try and outdive the fuel injected German.
The roll had changed the angle to the sun and he saw both 109s with deep red noses spitting the winking flash of their cannons as they roared past him. The Hurricane had wobbled just enough in the roll and unexpected turn back into the Messerschmitts to avoid the cannon. He stomped on the rudder and touched the ailerons to pull the plane around in a second hard banking turn. Below him he could see the bombers fleeing below across the Channel. For whatever reason the controller had not reported the top cover gunning to finish off the Hurricanes.
“Blue three and four, get those bombers.”
It was a pointless order. The other two Hurricanes were either shot down or already on their way. With his head craning hard he could see the first 109 had taken the bait and was turning back hard to engage. West pushed the throttle past the restricting gate into boost and the Hurricane powered inside the Messerschmidt’s turn. His electric gun sight was almost on the grey and green mottled plane when peripherally he saw a flash of red. It was the second Messerschmitt moving on to Dickey’s tail below him.
West fired his cannons at the 109 in front knowing they were still behind his target, but hoping to send him winging away over the Channel. The overtaxed engine fought the loss of speed from the third wild turn. Then he rolled hard again into a dive.
“Blue two, blue two, break port.”
It was going to be close. Flight Officer Dickey was 20 years old and a six month veteran. The kind of pilot who had made it through his first few shows and could dream of living at least to spring. A typical middle-class Cardiff upbringing as the son of a shopkeeper, Dickey had flown on West’s wing many times. But somehow in the violent maneuvers, maybe the turn back into the diving 109s, he had lost West’s wing.
Dickey had kicked the plane over as soon as he heard West’s call and the Hurricane I moved inside the following 109 for a second. West could see the German’s cannon shells flashing past just outside Dickey’s right wingtip.
“Blue two, blue two, hard port, hard port.”
It was a conversational voice into the radio. West had learned long ago that the squadron had enough trouble understanding his accent in the officers mess. With a Hurricane on boost about to blow its engine only a clear strong voice got through over the R/T. It also masked the fear.
He had been slow onto the first German. Wasting time calling out to the other two Hurricanes about bombers when death caught them out of the sun. It was a just a hesitation, but you never recovered time in a dogfight with the Luftwaffe. He might be a second late for his wingman.
Dickey held the turn and West’s mind had somehow seen the geometry of the twisting dive. He squeezed the cannon button and 109 flew directly into the deflection shot. The shells ripped half the wing off the German and he spun out of his turn into a smoking flutter towards the Channel.
West pulled the throttle back into the normal range as Dickey arrived on his wing.
“Top Hat Control, Badger Blue one and two returning to base.”
The other two Hurricanes were not in sight. There was no point in cluttering up the frequency or giving the Germans any clues calling for the rest of the flight. The two Hurricanes began weaving and the two heads began their metronome swivelling altering course every half minute.
“Badger Blue one, Top Hat Control.”
“Top Hat Control, Badger Blue one.”
“Badger Blue one, Blue three and four home safely.”
“Roger, Top Hat Control.”
It was a feature of flying over southern England. You fought for an hour, landed for tea, fought for an hour, landed for lunch, fought for an hour, landed for tea. Not really fighting. Despite the newsreels it was impossible to sweep all the Germans in their flights of four and six planes. Most of the time they saw Germans fleeing over the Channel or 109s too high for the Hurricanes.
He dropped into the cloud cover and broke through at a thousand feet with the airfield just slightly west of his instrument flying. Once inside the pattern he signaled Dickey to land first. As he dropped back he saw a row of holes in the fuselage of Dickey’s Hurricane, the older Hurricane I version that carried eight .303 machine guns but no cannons.
“Blue two, you’ve got some cannon holes in your fuselage just forward of the tail.”
“Roger, Blue one.”
“Blue two, you could take her up and bail out.”
West watched the younger pilot turn out of the pattern and land on the grass field.
“Stupid middle-class histrionics.”
West smiled at himself and pulled the Hurricane onto a pad near Dickey’s plane. Undoubtedly Wiliston was rubbing off on him. The younger pilot was standing in the light drizzle running his hand across the three holes in the fuselage. West pushed the greenhouse canopy back and slouched out of the plane onto the wet pavement with a thud.
“Don’t worry Dickey, those cannon shells usually don’t go off just from the cloth. Pass right thru.”
The Hurricane was Britain’s second front line fighter. Even West’s later version with twenty millimeters and the ones in the Western Desert with forty millimeter cannons were in the autumn of the Hurricane’s operational career. It was a hybrid from between the two wars. A World War II monoplane still built partially of Great War wood and canvas that stretched from the metal bracings and armor around the pilot’s back all the way to the tail.
“Bloody hell, bit of a bother to get them patched up?”
West put his arm around his wingman and lead him off towards the dispersal hut.
“Not at all. Now, if you were in a Spit you’d probably be grounded a few days and able to hit London.”
“If I was in a Spitfire, I wouldn’t have been hit.”
“If we had known they were in the sun above us – that is the lesson Flying Officer Dickey.”
A green distinctly American shaped sedan with a white star on the door approached them. Harlan jumped out of the car and the two pilots saluted.
“Gentlemen, gentlemen, very glad to see you back! Let us drive you in.”
“Thank you, Suh.”
“Squadron Leader Wiliston was kind enough to lend Sergeant Mason to drive.”
West settled into the back seat next to Harlan and glanced wonderingly at Mason seated on the wrong side of the car for Britain. It was a huge backseat where even in his Irvin Jacket, the British shearling lined leather flying jacket, he could lounge comfortably.
“Mason, you sure you know what you’re doing?”
Dickey opened the driver’s door.
“Pardon me Mason, by God, is the steering wheel on the wrong side?”
Mason like a properly trained British non-commissioned officer stared vacantly directly ahead. Harlan smiled.
“At least it’s not a country road. Mason seems able to negotiate a runway from that side.”
West enjoyed listening to Harlan ramble on in the car. It was clear he was excited to be with two fighter pilots just out of the cockpit. It was bringing him back to their age remembering the smell of cordite and a plane spinning and looping under his control.
But West was thinking of the hesitation on the first 109. It was not just a sign of being tired, it was actually being so tired he could not overcome the sign. He reached for his uniform pocket, but he was out of cigarettes.
Harlan pulled two packs of cigarettes from his overcoat and handed one to each of the pilots.
“Hard to come by?”
“Americans can be, Suh.”
“So, General Lee told me.”
The car pulled in front of the operations building and Harlan bounced out of the door before the redoubtable Mason could adjust to his disorientation on the wrong side of the car and open it. And before West could ask what else the two general officers had discussed involving him.
“After your debrief, come over to Squadron Leader Wiliston’s office.”
“Thank you for the cigarettes, Suh, smashing tobacco. He won’t be long, we just need to report another Jerry for him.”
Harlan’s eyebrow raised as he returned Dickey’s salute and watched the two young men vanish into the drab wartime building with its peeling roof. The wild-eyed pilot from Nebraska who could fly anything and told everyone about it. Now, he did not mention he had just killed a Kraut.
“Sergeant Mason, can you drive me over to Wiliston’s office?”
Mason eyed the big sedan.
“Well Suh, beggin’ yu pardon, Suh, it is just a short walk, Suh.”
Harlan remembered that tone from 1918. It would be easier to walk than to wrangle the British non-com back into the wrong side of the car.
“Lead on Mason, I’ll release you back to your duties on arrival. Sergeant Johnson should be done with Colonel Jenkins.”