Night flight from Lincolnshire to Nuremberg
It was black, really black. He couldn’t see his hand six inches in front of his face. The dials of the control panel were such a dim red that they would only render up information if squinted at. Years ago and on the other side of the world Mullins had learned photography while in school. The profound blackness of the cockpit reminded him of the darkroom; the barely visible red dials of the safe light.
They hadn’t taught incredible, horrible teeth aching cold at school though and if they had Mullins would have left; they simply didn’t do cold in Molong N.S.W, not cold like this. Back home cold was sitting around a fire, probably in shorts and a singlet. Here, a tray of photo chemicals (if you were crazy enough to have such a thing) would freeze solid, into a poisonous ice block probably in under minute.
Mullins pushed the control yoke ten degrees forward into a shallow dive, stomped the port rudder pedal. The Lancaster went into a shallow dive and veered left. In a moment he would reverse the sequence, and in this way the huge bomber would maintain a gentle corkscrew motion as it followed a straight course across Belgium towards Nuremberg. The corkscrew was a manoeuvre that he had been assured would confuse the enemy night fighters that stalked the night, their pilots apparently gifted with the ability to see in the dark. Mullins doubted that the manoeuvre accomplished anything other than giving him something to do with his hands that would keep him awake, other than the ongoing terror of night-fighters of course. At any instant, completely without warning, his whole comparatively peaceful world of the plane and the night, could dissolve without warning into blood and fire. In a worst case scenario an attack might detonate the bomb load without warning and, in an instant, he and his crew would simply cease to exist.
Or, and it was not the first time the thought had occurred to him, that eventuality might actually be quite far from the worst, travelling along at eighteen thousand feet above the earth in a fragile tube of aluminium, magnesium, perspex and several thousand gallons of aviation fuel and explosives left the door wide open to many possibilities far worse than instantaneous death. One could crash into the ground have most of your bones broken so you couldn’t run, and be cooked alive by burning fuel. One could be very damaged in some sort of nasty encounter, but not die, and live for months under the care of the Nazi Army doctors – who had no love of terrorfliegers. Possibly worse even than that, one could parachute into a burning city during a raid and probably be pushed into the flames alive by the angry citizenry.
The plane droned on forcing its blunt nose ever deeper into the freezing black air. Mullins kept corkscrewing even though he knew in his heart that if a night fighter was sleazing up behind them, they were almost undoubtedly quite fucked, and indeed they had probably entered that state when their wheels had left the tarmac at Warley Fen back behind them in the relative quiet of England. In point of fact, there was no exact point when “not too bad” had degenerated into “fucked” but if he tried hard enough, fighting his way through the clinging spiderweb layers of memory, it had probably been during a lunch discussion on world events at school.
It was brutally hot in the playground; too hot to move, certainly too hot to run, so they’ taken to congregating in the stairwell of the brick building and talking, and back then, there’d been nothing else to talk of. War was coming! There was no exact point where he’d decided to sign up, it was more of a foregone conclusion. He was moved inexorably in the current which he could not fight away from the life he had been sure of, out to sea, far from the sunny beach, out into the cold open embrace of the ocean, to drown.
LOUD! over the intercom, a scream. Wordless, conveying no information except utter terror and pain. The big plane lurched as Mullins’ body spasmed at the controls. In shock and instant sympathy.
The was a procedure for even this, especially this. He pushed the throttles hard forward and simultaneously forced the nose down into a dive, while stomping hard on the starboard rudder pedal; but all the time thinking that he should have seen the flash of tracer, either from the fighter or from the return fire from whichever of the crew had screamed a warning, and from the sound – either died or been mortally wounded. And, as for everything, there was a procedure for this too. He had to shout to make himself heard over the pandemonium caused by recent events. He tried to sound calm but even as he heard his own words he knew that he didn’t do a very good job of it.
”All right you lot, shut the fuck up! Sound off one at a time if you’re O.K.”
The thing was that the person who’d made that noise was definitely not O.K., in fact the person who had made that noise was probably already dead.
“Bomb-Aimer, O.K Skipper” Mitchy sounded quite startled by definitely alive.
“Mid-Upper Gunner Ok” “Radio-operator alright sur.” Both spoke at the same time, their voices garbling over the circuit, but both somehow remaining recognisable.
“Navigator – it wasn’t me Skipper, I’m alright” Pruett sounded aggrieved, probably shocked into making a mistake in his sums. Silence; well aside from the all – encompassing roar of the engines.
“Co-pilot, I’m fine too.” It’d have been funny if it wasn’t strict procedure. Staples was sitting next to him , their opposing biceps inches apart. Surely if Staples had been the source of that scream he would have known? Would have heard it above the engines? On the other hand, perhaps not. He twisted his head as far as it would go to the right without dragging his oxygen mask off his face. Staples had turned toward him too, his masked and goggled face was practically invisible in the gloom, misshapen, insectoid, faint red reflections from the instrument panel adding to an aura of evil. Mullins knew was reflected in his own shape.
The crew was not complete, ”Cookie?”
“Rear Gunner? Did anyone hear Cookie sound off?” ”No Skip; No.” A series of denials and “Mid upper skip. I’ll check on him if you like.”
“Thanks, Les- I know your arse hurts but I’d be happier knowing you were keeping a look-out. Pruett, you’re closest – go and check on Cookie.”
“OK Skip” he didn’t sound happy about it, but he’d be less likely to have an attack of the vapours than Les. Silence, if the roaring and rattling could be called silence.
“Les? Did you see any thing outside that might’ve done it?” That was Staples, pulling rank to chat on the intercom; Mullins said nothing.
J-Jane quivered as she passed through a small patch of turbulence and Mullins felt the airframe flex slightly under his feet.
It was Pruett’s voice and the lack of solid information contained in it was irritating. Given the situation, doubly so.
Mullins, “Fucking What?” Blended with input from everyone else that sound like the arrival of a fox at a duck farm.
“Sorry skipper, I’m up the back, just at the turret, I’m plugged into the port here. I wish I had a fucking light, It’s horrible!”
Mullins was terrified, and judging by the noise, so was everyone else.
“Sal! No lights! Are you fucking mad? You want to attract every Night fighter in Belgium?”
“No Skip – but it’s Cookie. The doors to the turret were open, and he was half out and I think the back of his neck is missing.”
“It’s been shot out?”
“No, the turret looks fine. It’s just; I put my hand – his head…” Pruett made a wet noise in the back of his throat.
Mullins jumped slightly as he remembered that he was not weaving the plane in the sky, felt the plane quiver in sympathy, resettled himself on his profoundly uncomfortable seat, and stomped the port rudder pedal into a comparatively brisk left turn and pulled the control column back into something of a climb. In the excitement it seemed they’d lost nearly five hundred feet of altitude and that was dangerous. The bomber stream they’re part of had an assigned altitude of eighteen thousand feet and altering height and course massively increased the chance of colliding with one of the seven – hundred and-fifty other planes on the same mission. Mullins squinted furtively out the panels of the cockpit bubble and saw nothing except a few faint stars; it seemed that the high grey haze of cloud was clearing. That was good, it meant that they could not be silhouetted on it by searchlights. His mind went back to the minute of the mission with something like relief:
“Navigator, time to target!”
Nothing. “He hasn’t come back yet Skipper, people usually bump into me on the way past.”
That was Les.
“You poor thing. I’ll tell you what, if you’d like to stretch your legs, you can pop back there and tell him to get back to work” Mullins said this with the air of bestowing a great favour.
”Right away mate.” Les didn’t sound thrilled about his new mission and his Australian twang reflected it.
“Don’t call me mate.”
Silence. Apparently “right away” had meant just that.
“He’s not here Skipper.” There was no preamble; it was Les’ voice.
“Whattaya mean? Pruett isn’t there? Could he have fallen out?”
Les was breathing quite hard. ”No; the turret is rotated and the doors are closed, but there’s blood everywhere, so much blood. My feet are sticking to the floor, its trying to pull my flying boots off!” Les was breathing rapidly, starting to come ugly gulps.
“Get a fucking grip Les,” cut in Mitchell’s voice. “Its just fucking blood mate. It can’t hurt you.”
Les breathed in, a big gasping whoop of air and Mullins reflected that people like Mitchy were beyond any price.
“Alright for you, fucker, right up the other end, lying on an escape hatch; there’s something back here that kills people! It killed Cookie, then it killed Pruett and now I think it’s after me!”
“Something? What do you mean Something; you daft cunt?”
Les’ scream stopped suddenly, mid-scream. It sounded as if his intercom wire had been pulled out of its socket.
“Fuck. That didn’t sound good.” Mitch’s normal optimism seemed to have been worn thin.
“Fucking Fuck you’re fucking right! I’m fucking closer to it than you you colonial bastard!” As radio operator, Symthe, a welshman was closest to the rear of the plane his station being just forward of the main spar.
“Smythe! Stop stalling and come up to the cockpit, but before you do have a squid at The Nav stuff and see if you can work out where we are; it’s important.”
“I can tell you that Skipper.” It was Mitch. He was very sure of himself.
“Care to enlighten me?” They were functioning less as a crew and more as a collection of disparate individuals.
“We’re more or less on course for the target about ten miles out.”
“You can see it?”
“Hell yes! Massive fire, one set of marker flares still going down. They’re really catching shit! “ It wasn’t really a giggle, not really.
“Correct course to target.” It was an order.
“Fifteen degrees starboard. We’re a bit low too.” Mullins pressed the right rudder pedal, watched the compass rotate. “O.K. I’ve got her.” Mullins watched a one degree course change further starboard, and a river back to Port.
“There’s a dark patch in the middle of the fires- I’ll try to hit that.”
He’d have his work cut out for him; the thermals from the fires beneath were already making “Jane” jump like a crazy horse, the control column was wild in his hands.
“Wait for it, wait for it,” ‘Jane’ rocked so hard that his head banged hardback on his headrest.
The cockpit was flooded with the light of the orange fires of hell beneath them. Something burst into the cockpit, grabbed at him, faintly, over the noise of the engines. The roar of the fire beneath and the incessant concussion of the bombs, he could hear that it was screaming. It was Smythe; he was evidently crazy, he was waving his large service revolver, pointing it down the narrow companionway towards the rear of the plane, firing twice. Through the thick baffle plates of his headphones the shots were muted, subsumed into the generalised roar of the engines, the bombs and the flak barrage that surrounded them. For a single horrible second the cockpit was incandescently bright as a searchlight passed over them.
Smythe fired again and something black, the size of a dog, that looked like a spider, pounced on him, grabbed his hand and bit all his fingers off. The gun fell to the floor, the port wing fuel tank exploded, and the wing folded in onto itself near the root. The fuselage rotated port longitudinally with terrifying rapidity and Mullins was thrown hard against the canopy.
He awoke several thousand feet lower in freefall to discover that his parachute had been irreparably torn on his progress through the canopy. He landed, long seconds later in the burning ruin of an apartment building, and died instantly on impact.Mitchell’s parachute did open but the immense column of heated air from the fires carried him to the border of the main conflagration where he broke an ankle on landing in a back kitchen garden where he was captured by a detachment of middle- agedVolksturm anti aircraft gunners who took it upon themselves to douse him in diesel fuel and ignite him where he lay. He died when one of them took pity on him and cracked his head with a hoe.
Smythe was still inside the ‘Jane’ when she landed in what had once been a municipal park, travelling at some four hundred miles an hour, at the moment of impact he was struggling to access the bomb-aimer’s escape hatch while fighting with the thing, whatever it was, that had eaten his fingers.
(C) Copyright Alex Rieneck 2019 All Rights reserved.