[continued; part 2 of 2]
Dickson fixes his mouthpiece and calls up his crew: “Hullo, Mac. Gone to sleep yet?”
MacPherson (serious and pained): “No, I’ve no’.”
Dickson: “Hullo, operator. Set working?”
Lee: “Well, it seems to be all here.”
Dickson: “Hullo, second pilot, ready to do some oil pumping?” Willett: “That’s what a second pilot’s for.”
Dickson: “Well, that’s all right. Freihausen, here we come.”
“F for Freddie” is now flying steadily through the moonlight. She looks like a cigar on string above billows of cotton wool.
The world is asleep. Millions are in their soft beds and dreaming of their own ambitions. No gun sounds, no searchlight stabs the sky.
In the patches of the clouds the rivers are dirty tinsel and the earth flat grey. “F for Freddie” hums on, hums death. No one will know what passes through the minds of men at such time. But we can guess.
MacPherson—d’you remember the time you made your first flight over Germany, when you were a sprog (R.A.F. for greenhorn). There was that crazy squadron leader who took the new bunch of pilots out. He called the trip “giving the boys a spot of oshy-posh,” and it turned out to be a mad follow-me-leader chase through the balloon barrage of Emden, playing tag with the hedges of North Germany, flaunting flak, nose-thumbing the Hun. It made subsequent raids seem almost dull.
Or that time, Lee, when you were ordered to go drop little bags of tea on Holland .... little bags of tea on Holland. What a war!
Or the time you pressed the button, Mac, and the first of the Back Room Boy’s Beautiful New Bombs screamed down and burst like a flower below. You must have gotten pretty good to be given the honour of a job like that.
Luckily, we know what Harrison, the New Zealander, is thinking. He has a fad and the R.A.F. humours his fad. He fights best if they allow him to smuggle a couple of empty beer bottles aboard. Then, when he gets over a nice, sleeping German town he heaves them out. As they fall they make a noise like a screaming bomb, and this is apt to disturb the rest of the populace below. Which makes Harrison very, very happy.
Squadron Leader Dickson is thinking one thing only. Although he is only 27, he is a wise old bird of war. He knows that the Germans work their anti-aircraft defences on a simple principle. They put up cones of searchlights over the target only when they are sure that British raiders have found what they are looking for. Then 50 white fingers creep the sky, and the pool of death they make is horrid with flak.
Dickson knows that it is suicide to step in. But he knows, too, that guns have to stop firing some time He hovers around in the cool dark while the Nazis get their gun barrels hot, then, when they stop for a minute, he slips
in, bombs, slips away again. That is the problem on his mind. It’s all a matter of timing.
Suddenly Dickson breaks his reverie. He pulls the mouthpiece of his “inter-com.” across: “Hey, Mac, where are we now, as if you’d know?”
Mac is dutifully indignant, as usual: “I ken fine where we are. We’re approaching Karlsruhe . . . famous for its breweries, you know.”
Dickson grins: “O.K. Let’s go down and smell its breath.”
“F for Freddie” drops her nose as he pushes the stick forward and disappears through the clouds.
Follow “F for Freddie” down through the clouds. Below the land is dark, with a shimmer of moonlight patches here and there and some pale wandering water.
In the clouds we were alone. Now the trip becomes urgent. Eyes search. The temperature of the sortie is raised.
Squadron Leader Dickson, talking to the whole crew through the “inter-com.”: “Let me know if you see anything.”
Silence from the crew. Steady hum from “F for Freddie.” Suddenly Harrison, the rear gunner, says: “Searchlights and flak to the starboard quarter.”
Dickson: “So there is. Gentlemen, the natives appear hostile.”
Now Mac gets busy. His pencil, his squares shuttle like warp and woof and soon he looks up and says: “The target’s about 50 miles up the river. I suggest we make a sweep and approach it down river. We’ll see the canal better.”
Dickson puts “F for Freddie’s” nose down and the great plane swings to the left in a wide, graceful sweep. In a second it is a spot on the horizon.
[photo captioned: “THE CREW ENTERS THE BOMBER”]
Mac is now flat on the floor, crouching over his bomb sight; he just looks busy. He calls out: “I can see the canal! As plain as my face!”
Dickson: “All right, I’ll turn around and we’ll check up again. Any sign of life?”
Harrison, the rear-gunner: “Not a thing, skip.”
Dickson is talking almost to himself: “I wonder where Andy is? He was to light us in.”
He swings “F for Freddie” round again in another wide circle.
Suddenly Harrison shouts: ‘"There they go! There go the incendiaries!” Look out of the ’plane, down on the black forest below. A fire bursts out. It burns busily, like a patch of dry grass caught by the sun. Here comes the flak. The guns are opening up and the shells come up like light-balls thrown hard at the end of an elastic string.
Harrison: “He’s right on the target. I can see the siding.”
Dickson (calmly): “I’m going in a glide. Stand by, everybody.”'
Harrison (eagerly): “Can we strafe the flak, skipper?”
Dickson: “Yes. Let go the thousand-pounder last, Mac. O.K. Bomb-doors open.”
He pushes the bomb-lever forward.
Watch Mac’s face as “F for Freddie” goes into a steep dive and the
[photo captioned: “INTERIOR OF THE FLARE-PATH CARAVAN FROM WHICH THE AIRCRAFT ARE SIGNALLED INTO THE AIR”]
thunder of the engines rises to a whine. Watch Mac’s face. It is almost impossible that a boy could be so calm. “Right a bit. Left a bit. Steady at that,” he calls.
The ground is much nearer now. The river flashes by below. The engines are up to a thuttering whine, and the flat bumps of the flak make rhythmic counter-point to the noise. Mac’s thumb is on the button. He holds a bulb like an electric bell in his hand. At the moment when the whine can go no higher he stabs his thumb down viciously.
Quick. Look down. One. Two. Three. Four. FIVE. That’s the big one. Four big bangs and a blast like paradise lost. It lights up the rear turret, where Harrison is grinning. He begins to swivel his guns, blazing away savagely.
Mac gets up, his job done: “I got a bull’s eye with that last one,” he calls.
Dickson’s face doesn’t twitch a muscle as he answers gently: “Bag of nuts or a cigar, Mac?”
Mac: “I’ll have just a sandwich, I think, sir.”
The flak gets worse. Look down and see the balls of fire thrown up at fantastic angles. They start so slowly, creeping up, then gain terrific speed and fly past the bomber with a great WOOOFF.
Dickson: “You’d better send the target bombed signal, operator.”
Look down. New bursts of tracer shells are travelling fast. Nearer. Nearer. Even sitting there in the cinema, there are warm gusts of death in your nostrils.
Suddenly “F for Freddie” lurches and rocks to a great crash. The stick is pulled forward, out of Dickson’s hand. The crew sprawl.
The engines roar as the bomber dips. Dickson looks grim as he grabs the stick and even tries to pull back to an even course. For a long second nothing happens. Then “F for Freddie” recovers.
[photo captioned: “INSTRUCTIONS TO TAKE OFF”]
Dickson: “Hold on, everybody. It’s all right . . . Anybody hurt?”
Mac: “The radio operator’s copped it.”
Mac: “No. I don’t think so. In the leg.”
Dickson gets out of his seat, saying to Willett, the second pilot: “Take her over will you? She seems to be all right. Make height, but don’t flog her.”
He passes behind Willett and moves back to the rear compartment. Lee, the radio man, is lying out flat. His face is sweaty with shock. Dickson kneels down and helps Mac to fix a tourniquet on the boy’s leg. Harrison, the rear-gunner, has come forward and is fiddling with the radio set. He says over his shoulder: “I can’t get nothing on the set, sir. It’s gone dead.”
Lee tries to struggle up: “Let me try, sir.” But Dickson pushes him back on the stretcher. “No, no. You stay where you are We’ll manage without it.”
(Lee was hit once, flying over Germany. That was in his early days, before he had done his first spell of operational flying. Then they grounded him, for the R.A.F. will not let any man fly longer than a certain number of hours without a rest. However fit he may feel he has reached the point, says the R.A.F., when he is liable to crack. All flying crews who have passed this point are grounded and given some months as instructors, which makes them quite disgusted with life. Lee has now passed his second spell of operations and is grounded again.)
“F for Freddie” flies on—alone.
THE MEN WHO TAKE CHARGE
When “F for Freddie” goes into a glide to bomb its objective it is Mac, lying flat, who takes charge. For those vital seconds he is the skipper of
[photo captioned: “‘F FOR FREDDIE’ TAKES OFF FOR GERMANY”]
the plane. The captain’s job is to keep the plane on an even keel, ignoring searchlights and flak, until Mac has pressed the button.
The R.A.F. is the only air force in the world with this system. In the German, Russian, and American forces the skipper of a bomber is the navigator. The pilot rarely has rank above sergeant. All responsibility rests with the navigator.
But the R.A.F. believes that the man who flies the bomber should be the leader. It is his skill, his courage, his leadership that brings the bomber back safe.
After that perilous moment when he has held the bomber still while the bomb-aimer guides him he takes violent “evasive action,” doubling, twisting like a moth, touching treetop and throwing his great machine about the sky as though it were a Spitfire in an effort to get shot of the ground defences and night-fighters.
(Note, too, that the R.A.F. bomber-pilots are confident that the planes they fly are a match in single combat for the Hun night-fighter.)
The difficulties of evasive action are made manifold because, unlike the Luftwaffe, the R.A.F. does NOT jettison its bombs.
The voice of the second pilot can be heard over the “inter-com.” It sounds urgent: “I say, skipper, here a moment, will you?”
As Dickson comes forward Willett is pointing with his thumb at the instrument panel.
[photo captioned: “THE FLARE-PATH CARAVAN AND SEARCHLIGHTS FROM WHICH THE AIRCRAFT ARE SIGNALLED INTO THE AIR”]
“Oil-pressure dropping on the port motor. And I can’t make height.”
“All right. I’ll take over. Go and look after the operator.”
Mac has finished his sandwich. He always eats after dropping bombs. It is a habit. Now he is back at the navigator’s table. He calls out: “I got a sight, skipper. We’re about half-way to Harwich.”
Willett is back now, sitting beside Dickson, who calls back: “Fine, if I can keep her from losing much more height then Bob’s your uncle. Mac, don’t forget our balloons. And how’s our invalid?”
Mac looks down at Lee. The boy’s eyes are screwed up. The numbness is wearing off already and you can see his leg is beginning to give him gyp. Mac calls back: “I’ll no forget—and he’s fine, but feeling awfu’ cold. It’s the shock, I expect. I had the same when I fell off my bike.”
“F for Freddie” is just passing over the coast. The even grey shimmer of the sea below, empty, lonely, gives place to a dark bustle of land and life. Little rivers flow, towns cluster, woods march.
After that long suspense, with engine faltering and a boy white with pain, everything you see below seems to be going at double quick time, like Charlie Chaplin in an old silent comedy.
Dickson, looking down over the side: “That, gentlemen, is good old England . . . And I must say I’m damn glad to see it.”
Mac will have none of it. His Scottish soul despises these easy rejoicings. In a voice like the knocking on the gate in “Macbeth” he says: “But do you see what I see, skipper?”
Dickson: “And what do you see, my Scottish friend?”
Mac: “Fog, skipper. Dirty, yellow, stinking fog!” The good land below is vanishing in evil wreaths.
Back at Millerton airfield the fog is already a fuzz on the ground. After the hum and roar of “F for Freddie,” the quiet is like a catch in the breath. In the operations room officers sit quietly, forgetting to light their pipes.
In front of them on a table there is a white chart, showing Millerton and Freihausen. From Millerton there stretch out half a dozen strings, leading to fat-headed pins marked “A for Apple,” “C for Charlie,” and so on. The pins mark the latest radioed positions of the planes.
The operations officer brings a slip of paper to the group captain’s desk: “Interrupted message from ‘F for Freddie,’ sir. He cut off after ‘objective reached’.”
The group captain gets up and walks across to the chart: “How is it going?”
[photos captioned: “REAR GUNNER”; “THE WIRELESS OPERATOR”]
Sergeant (pointing to the pins on the map): “C and R well on the way back, sir. Several others have bombed the target.”
Group Captain: “Good! You’d better mark ‘F for Freddie’ over the target.”
The wing commander—the fellow with the drawl and the strong chin who gave the briefing instructions—joins the group captain. His face looks grave when he sees the message: “H’m. . . . Not so good, sir. Radio failure.”
Group Captain, abruptly: “I hope so.”
Both men know there is nothing they can do but wait. And that is a job that grows harder as the morning hours mount.
Neither man is cut out for such a job. If you care to examine their real-life careers it is possible to see why. The group captain led the first raid on Sylt, collected a D.S.O. in the air before they grounded him. The wing commander, for all his curly hair and gentle voice, is a real killer. He was the man who helped to form what General Smuts called last week “that puny force, the South African Air Force.” He left it 1,500 strong; this year will see the 50,000 passed.
[photos captioned: “THE SECOND PILOT AWAITS HIS TURN TO TAKE OVER IF REQUIRED”; “THE ‘SKIPPER’ OF ‘F FOR FREDDIE’ INTENT ON HIS CONTROLS AS HE APPROACHES HIS OBJECTIVE”]
For that he wears the O.B.E. His D.S.O. came quickly. He led the famous raid on Venice. On the way home he flew between the house-tops of Padua.
Lee, who was with him as his radio operator, says that when he was shovelling leaflets out he could see the streets, but no houses, the bomber was so low. On his return the wing commander included this great phrase in his report: “I was able to take plenty of tree cover. . .
He can go on a raid with less than half an hour’s sleep under his belt, and throw Wellingtons about the sky as though they were shuttlecocks. This he does for pure pleasure ; he calls it “going on a beat-up.”
The two men sit and suck their pipes. Occasionally they look at the table chart. They can see from the pins and threads that “F for Freddie” is getting isolated. By now half the bombers have landed and the rest are close behind.
Officer: “Nothing from “F for Freddie,” yet, sir.”
Group Captain: “H’m yes. . . . He’s getting a bit late. How’s the weather holding out?”
RECORD FOR SPEED
An officer goes across to the switch, calls: “Hullo, flare path. Control calling. How is the weather, please? Over.”
A nasal voice: “. . . thickening. Visibility down to 500 yards. Over.”
Group Captain: “I was afraid of that.”
Notice the officer who walked across to the switch. Millions will recognise such burly, good-tempered features. This is racing motorist John Cobb, who holds the world’s land speed record at 368 m.p.h.
[photo captioned: “BOMBER ON ITS WAY TO GERMANY”]
Suddenly the group captain says: “Telephone all observer points and warn all airfields to be ready to illuminate if a Wellington comes over.” He picks up his cap and leaves for the flare path with the wing commander. Something is better than nothing.
“Hell’s bells!” says the wing commander. “Look at that muck. I hope Dickson gets a move on.”
Group Captain: “Of course . . . he may have engine trouble. Wait! Is that an aircraft? . . . Listen.”
There is a moment’s dead silence.
[photos captioned: “BOMB RELEASE”; “THE TARGET”]
It is broken by an open door and an aircraftman who stumbles out into the murk, bawling cheerfully: “Bless ’em all. . . .”
Wing commander, fiercely: “Shut up, you bog rat, and stand still!”
Silence again, strain your ears and catch the faintest hum . . . that sound in the night that comes after (sometimes before) the sirens go, that sound that brings other sounds. It is the same.
Group captain and wing commander come to life. “It’s one all right. It must be ‘F for Freddie’! I’ll go up to the flare path.”
Switch back to “F for Freddie.”
Outside, no sign of life; no difference between sky and ground. The men sit silent; they are waiting, too. They wait for the minute when they reach their home ground. That is the crisis in their young lives.
Dickson picks up his mouth microphone: “Pay attention, everybody. We are over the airfield, but I can see practically nothing. The port engine is very rough. We could make a bit of height and we could bale out. Or we could have a stab at landing. What do you say?”
[photo captioned: “FLAK”]
The crew do not hesitate.
Mac: “I’d go in and land, sir.”
Harrison: “Have a crack at it, sir.”
Jones: “Land, sir.”
Willett: “I’m all for landing.”
Lee, lying on his back, shivering a bit under blankets: “Try a landing, sir.”
Dickson smiles, pushed the stick forward: “O.K., chaps. Keep your fingers crossed!”
On the ground the wing commander rushes into Bertram Mills’s Circus, the flare path caravan, takes the hand microphone and stands up on the soap box that pushes his head through the astro hatch.
The flare path officer sticks his nose into the caravan with: “Coming in now, sir.”
Wing Commander: “Right. Put the floodlight on. Quickly!”
Floodlight switches on. It glows smudgily. Disney-like creatures light up the gooseneck flares on either side of the path.
Silence again and frozen figures. Men listening, straining, listening.
“F for Freddie” roars overhead, wheels in a low, perilous circle, tries again. On the ground men stand still, tense. The roar again. Suddenly it lessens, a great moving shape looms, there is the squealing of brakes. Blessed squealing of brakes! For brakes do not bite unless wheels are on the ground.
[photo captioned: “CHECKING PROGRESS ON THE MAP IN THE CONTROL ROOM”]
[photos captioned: “THE NAVIGATOR FINDING POSITION”; “THE WOUNDED WIRELESS OPERATOR”]
“F for Freddie” slows down and stops. Her engines cough into silence. The flare path crew run.
Through the little exit hatch appears the shock head of Mac the navigator: “Go and get an ambulance, will you? The radio operator’s copped it.”
Out pile the crew, like the visiting team leaving the charabanc at a village cricket match. They walk away slowly, as though reaction from great strain, great emotional excitement, were setting in already.
But when they file in to be interrogated by the intelligence officer their talk is like this:—
Dickson: “Hope we haven’t kept you waiting, sir.”
I.O.: “Good lord, no. Come and sit down. Well, how did you get on?”
Mac opens his books and starts to read his piece: “Well, we were over target 23.53. Bombs released 23.58. I’m afraid the first four bombs fell short of the target, but I got a direct hit with the last one—and that was the big one.”
Harrison: “Yes, it was a smasher, right on it.”
Willett, waving his arms: “. . . Caused a hell of a big fire . . . buckets of smoke.
I.O.: “What colour?”
Willett: “Oh, dullish red, with black smoke.”
I.O.: “That sounds like oil all right”
[photos captioned: “STATION COMMANDER LISTENS ANXIOUSLY FOR SOUND OF THE RETURNING ENGINES OF ‘F FOR FREDDIE’”; “THE WING COMMANDER AWAITS NEWS OF ‘F FOR FREDDIE’”]
Dickson: “I’m afraid I didn’t see very much, I was rather busy.’
I.O.: “Well. That seems to be all. Good show. Goodnight.”
The crew of “F for Freddie” saunter out into the operations room.
The intelligence officer lifts the telephone and asks for Bomber Command. “Oh, Intelligence, Millerton, here. To-night’s operations. The objective was reached and heavily bombed. Large fires and explosions were seen. All our aircraft returned. Send you details in the morning. Good-night.”
He leans back, stretches, yawning, grins and says to the operations officer: “Well, old boy. How about some bacon and eggs?”
“F for Freddie” was much loved by the men who flew her and the men who serviced her. She grew old and battle-scarred. Then, one morning, she came back with her landing gear shot away. Dickson made a belly landing, and she skidded into a bomb dump. After that they had to say goodbye to her, and she went back to Vickers. There have been six more “F for Freddies” since. Now “F for Freddie” 7 is in the air; slightly faster, better armoured, able to carry a heavier bomb load, a Mark II Wellington. The same ground crew services her; two of her original crew, MacPherson and Jones, still flying her.
“F for Freddie” flies on.
[photo captioned: “THE CREW OF ‘F FOR FREDDIE’ REPORT TO THE INTELLIGENCE OFFICER ON THEIR RETURN”]
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