February 13, 1945. 2205 Hours
To Squadron Leader Mick Simpson, when back at Initial Training School in Brisbane, squadron leaders had seemed, well, sort of older blokes. Yesterday had been his 22nd birthday. He scanned hard ahead, there, the dim orange glow of the instrument dials, beyond them, through the windshield of the Mosquito Bomber, only night.
The monstrous groan of the bomber’s twin engines was muffled a degree by the snug fit of the leather flying helmet. Through its internal headphones the navigator’s voice now crackled. Though seated practically side-by-side, without the intercom they’d have needed some kind of sign language to communicate. The time the intercom had failed, they’d invented the beginnings of a brand-new one.
‘How much longer t’go, y’reckon, Skip?’
Mick was startled for a moment. Sutton must be having a lend of him. Mick smiled under his oxygen mask. ‘You’re the Nav, Ken. You tell me.’
‘Nah, I mean the war… Whaddya reckon?’
Mick paused. And squinted ahead into the darkness. ‘Can’t be long now, Ken. …Not if we’re running out of cities left to bomb…’
There’d been so many. Berlin, Hamburg, Nuremburg, Stuttgart, Munich, other names already hazy in his mind. From the reconnaissance photos taken the morning after raids, some could hardly be called cities anymore. More like where a city had been. Tonight, a new one.
What was the name?
It had never happened to him before – it had been announced in the Briefing Room as always – but tonight it failed him. What’d they call this, a ‘mental blank’? Now feeling quite absurd, he didn’t want to own up about it to Sutton by asking him. What was it again? Dusseldorf? No, they’d already done that. And it was a shorter name too. One thing he did remember was they’d never been to it before. In fact, he’d never heard of it before the briefing map was unveiled. He knew where they were alright, far East of Germany. Now it was all just tracks and timings and compass bearings. So many cities. So many targets.
Cripes, he’d heard this could happen, the first symptom of what the Squadron Medical Officer termed ‘Operational Tiredness’. Indeed, the M.O. had quietly conceded, sometimes the brain had a handy knack for blotting out what it didn’t want to remember. In any case, being labeled as ‘operationally tired’ led to one thing only. ‘L.M.F.’ The official stamp of ‘Lack of Moral Fibre’. Nothing personal, only public disgrace, removal of rank, and dishonourable discharge from flying duties. Janitor, once a member of the Elite…
Mick had been asked to join The Pathfinders by its founder. Bennett was an Australian. The Brits had disapproved of him initially. Until it sank in that each night his force was delivering the one thing their entire night-bombing campaign had so sorely lacked since the beginning of the war.
‘Ten seconds to flare drop, skip.’ Their second-last of the trip. ‘Five, four, three, two, one… Flares away.’ In their wake, they would burn red, then yellow, a sign-post in the night sky for the aircraft that narrowly followed. ‘Steer 180 degrees magnetic on my mark. …Stand by. …Mark.’
Smoothly, Mick banked the Mosquito onto the new course, and straightened. Tonight, he was the ‘Finder’. Pilot of the lead aircraft of the Pathfinder group. At minute intervals after him would come the Illuminators, then the Markers, all dropping their flare clusters to illuminate the target area and mark the aiming point for the near 800 Lancaster and Halifax bombers of the main raiding force close behind, the so-called ‘bomber stream’. All Sutton had to do was get the 800 in the right piece of sky after a thousand miles in the middle of the night.
Mick switched on the intercom again. ‘Time?’
‘Twenty-two-zero-nine. Six minutes to target.’
Sutton had a head for figures, you might say. He’d been studying Mathematics when he joined up, about the same time as Mick, though in Sydney. Their paths till that point had been similar, they’d both played for their First 15 and First 11. Ken, like Mick, had enlisted as soon as they’d take him, Mick on his 18th birthday. The day he’d traded Medicine for the Empire Air Training Scheme.
Tonight was a ‘bomber’s night’ – no moon, high cloud cover, hardly a star. With little for his eyes to do in the pitch, his mind wandered.
As it did so often, his mother’s face came to him, her eyes, her tears the afternoon he’d come home in the dark blue uniform for the first time, that first Leave. It felt like a past life now, the training school at Sandgate, going to the beach every afternoon. Then on to Archerfield, and Tiger Moths, then Avro Ansons at Amberley, where he got his ‘wings’. He’d been sea-sick the whole way to Canada, advanced training there, on the convoy to England only sick with fear: The U-boats had sunk five ships on that terrible crossing. The sight of the men in the burning water was one he’d determined to summon when necessary.
He remembered Ivy Sholto. He’d lost his virginity to her the same day he arrived in Bournemouth, the ‘waiting room’ for the Commonwealth boys of the Scheme. Yes, the English girls were a different breed to the ones back home, that is, in not requiring marriage first. With the husbands, sweethearts, brothers they’d already lost, the bombing they’d suffered, they clearly viewed life as too short to wait. At least, that’s the explanation Ivy had offered, a view Mick had long since formed for himself.
Even now he could recall his first ‘Op’, and vividly. Flying the old Wellington, Mick and his first crew had been stunned to find themselves bombing Cologne one night while still only in training. They had assumed it, initially, some form of gross administrative error. But no, Air Chief Marshal ‘Bomber’ Harris picked all the targets, and on that night had felt the need to make up the numbers. They nearly hadn’t made it back at all – The first flak Mick had ever seen, it was murderous, not to mention the scrape with the German night-fighter on the way home. He’d pulled off the landing somehow, the aircraft riddled with holes. Standing on the tarmac looking at them all, the crew had to admit it had been some bloody good flying on Mick’s part. The navigator, a young Australian by the name of Sutton, piped up with a request to stick with Mick when he went to his first proper squadron, a sentiment not only echoed by the rest of the crew but on the spot.
Mick’s first impression of the Lancaster squadron was of his first squadron leader. Stapleton, a Brit, was an excellent pilot, one of the very best in fact. Unfortunately, he wasn’t a very good leader, and took an instant dislike to Mick. One of the chief bees in Stapleton’s bonnet was the informality of Australian aircrew, as exemplified by Mick letting even the Ground Staff call him ‘Simmo’: An Officer holding the King’s Commission?! Disgraceful!
‘Pilot Officer Simmo?’ Mick had suggested, just to see the Pom’s face turn purple. Stapleton was absolutely livid about it. Right up until the night he got the chop. On the Nuremberg raid.
Very quickly, Mick had learnt not to think of destruction they were causing beneath them every night, finding no need to recall the men in the burning water, instead focusing on nothing but the safety of his crew, getting his bombs on target and the job done. He’d done well with the squadron. Very well. They’d promoted him to Flying Officer, he’d finished his tour of 30 ops, and was just about to volunteer for another when Air Vice-Marshal Bennett came to visit, offering Mick a place with the Pathfinders as a Flight Lieutenant, also the unique distinction of the group, a second pair of gold wings beneath his original. He could even bring Sutton with him, indeed, Bennett hoped he would.
After a few months with the group, Mick was promoted to Squadron Leader, winning the Distinguished Flying Cross on one mission, albeit an honour hardly exceptional amongst the Pathfinders: Their Kiwi Wing Commander had two. It was the New Zealander who had identified Sutton’s unearthly accuracy as a navigator, in tandem with Mick’s as a pilot, and awarded them the group’s coveted ‘Finder’ position.
‘What are y’going to do when y’get home, Ken?’
Plainly, Sutton had already considered the prospect.
‘The three Bs, Skip.’
‘Bondi. Birds. V.B.’
‘All at once?’
‘Too right, son.’
‘I just might join you.’
Sutton’s tone sharpened slightly. ‘Bomb doors open. 60 seconds to target.’
Mick now saw the searchlight beams coming on directly ahead, and multiplying, a city down there, just as the flak bursts began. As each one crept closer, there was nothing for it but to ignore them, and blinker out everything but the job at hand. Back flying the Lancaster, he’d been responsible for the survival of his crew of six. Now, as the Finder, call it 5600, 800 bombers behind him, seven men in each. If he didn’t get it right tonight, all 5600 would have to come back tomorrow night, when the German flak gunners would be not only ready and waiting but hot on revenge. How many crews would die tonight? Some already had, without doubt, prey to German night-fighters. More would die tomorrow.
Not if Mick could help it. Luckily he had the right tool for the job: The Mosquito was a fantastic aircraft. Aptly named ‘The Wooden Wonder’, it was fast, manoeuvrable, dependable, also a beauty to behold. No defensive armament on the Pathfinder version. No need.
Mick knew, at this moment, Sutton would be glued to the screen of his H2S radar set. On its cathode ray tube, the features of a city would now be forming. Suddenly, in Mick’s headphones, Sutton’s voice cut through clear and resolute.
‘Yep… That’s it, there’s the river. God, there’s the bloody rail yards, we’re bang on the aiming point.’ He thumbed the flare release switch. ‘Bomb gone!’
‘Twenty-two fifteen Hours.’
‘Spot on, Skip.’
‘Let’s go, Ken.’
Mick banked them hard in a diving turn to the right, engines howling on full power, G-forces squeezing them through 90 degrees. The dive assumed German flak gunners had their altitude now, gave them maximum speed out of the target area and, crucially, out of the way of the oncoming bomber stream – It could only be guessed how many crews had been lost to bombs falling from above. Finally, at 400 miles per hour on the dial, Mick straightened, and flattened them out.
Sutton unclipped his straps, shifted up out of his seat, and craned back to the target area. He saw their own flare cluster falling, burning red. Then yellow. Then, in clockwork succession, the flares of the Illuminators, ‘pink pansies’ they were called, a moment later those of the Markers in brilliant blue. Strange, but to Sutton the flare clusters always seemed like giant Christmas trees floating down. He surveyed them carefully, as he did every time, not for their beauty, but to make dead sure the bomber stream bombed accurately onto them. Though receding, the structures of the city were now visible. Bathed in multi-coloured light, he could make out church spires. Clock towers. The river again, even streets now. German tracer shells had risen up to chase them as they fled – a few had shot past the Mosquito – but then switched back to the direction they’d flown in. There!
The bomber force bomb-load impacting!
In Mick’s headphones, Sutton seemed more than usually impressed by what he saw.
Concentrating only forward, Mick dug deep. No. It was no good. Try as he might, he still couldn’t think of the name. With Sutton preoccupied, he judged this the best moment to ask.
‘What was it again, Ken?’
Sutton’s focus was still glued firmly aft. His voice returned distractedly through the headphones. ‘…Eh?’
‘The name of the city.’
Sutton watched it disappearing on the horizon. Under a rising veil of red.
* * *
To read another short story by Justin, click HERE