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Hornet Flightby Ken Follett
A man with a wooden leg walked along a hospital corridor.
He was a short, vigorous type with an athletic build, thirty years old, dressed in a plain charcoal gray suit and black toe-capped shoes. He walked briskly, but you could tell he was lame by the slight irregularity in his step: tap-tap, tap-tap. His face was fixed in a grim expression, as if he were suppressing some profound emotion.
He reached the end of the corridor and stopped at the nurse's desk. "Flight Lieutenant Hoare?" he said.
The nurse looked up from a register. She was a pretty girl with black hair, and she spoke with the soft accent of County Cork. "You'll be a relation, I'm thinking," she said with a friendly smile.
Her charm had no effect. "Brother," said the visitor. "Which bed?"
"Last on the left."
He turned on his heel and strode along the aisle to the end of the ward. In a chair beside the bed, a figure in a brown dressing gown sat with his back to the room, looking out of the window, smoking.
The visitor hesitated. "Bart?"
The man in the chair stood up and turned around. There was a bandage on his head and his left arm was in a sling, but he was smiling. He was younger and taller than the visitor. "Hello, Digby."
Digby put his arms around his brother and hugged him hard. "I thought you were dead," he said.
Then he began to cry.
"I was flying a Whitley," Bart said. The Armstrong Whitworth Whitley was a cumbersome long-tailed bomber that flew in an odd nose-down attitude. In the spring of 1941, Bomber Command had a hundred of them, out of a total strength of about seven hundred aircraft. "A Messerschmitt fired on us and we took several hits," Bartcontinued. "But he must have been running out of fuel, because he peeled off without finishing us. I thought it was my lucky day. Then we started to lose altitude. The Messerschmitt must have damaged both engines. We chucked out everything that wasn't bolted down, to reduce our weight, but it was no good, and I realized we'd have to ditch in the North Sea."
Digby sat on the edge of the hospital bed, dry-eyed now, watching his brother's face, seeing the thousand-yard-stare as Bart remembered.
"I told the crew to jettison the rear hatch then get into ditching position, braced against the bulkhead." The Whitley had a crew of five, Digby recalled. "When we reached zero altitude I heaved back on the stick and opened the throttles, but the aircraft refused to level out, and we hit the water with a terrific smash. I was knocked out."
They were step brothers, eight years apart. Digby's mother had died when he was thirteen, and his father had married a widow with a boy of her own. From the start, Digby had looked after his little brother, protecting him from bullies and helping him with his schoolwork. They had both been mad about airplanes, and dreamed of being pilots. Digby lost his right leg in a motorcycle accident, studied engineering, and went into aircraft design; but Bart lived the dream.
"When I came to, I could smell smoke. The aircraft was floating and the starboard wing was on fire. The night was dark as the grave, but I could see by the light of the flames. I crawled along the fuselage and found the dinghy pack. I bunged it through the hatch and jumped. Jesus, that water was cold."
His voice was low and calm, but he took hard pulls on his cigarette, drawing the smoke deep into his lungs and blowing it out between tight-pursed lips in a long jet. "I was wearing a life jacket and I came to the surface like a cork. There was quite a swell, and I was going up and down like a tart's knickers. Luckily, the dinghy pack was in front of my nose. I pulled the string and it inflated itself, but I couldn't get in. I didn't have the strength to heave myself out of the water. I couldn't understand it-didn't realize I had a dislocated shoulder and a broken wrist and three cracked ribs and all that. So I just stayed there, holding on, freezing to death."
There had been a time, Digby recalled, when he thought Bart had been the lucky one.
"Eventually Jones and Croft appeared. They'd held on to the tail until it went down. Neither could swim, but their Mae Wests saved them, and they managed to scramble into the dinghy and pull me in." He lit a fresh cigarette. "I never saw Pickering. I don't know what happened to him, but I assume he's at the bottom of the sea."
He fell silent. There was one crew member unaccounted for, Digby realized. After a pause, he said, "What about the fifth man?"
"John Rowley, the bomb-aimer, was alive. We heard him call out. I was in a bit of a daze, but Jones and Croft tried to row toward the voice." He shook his head in a gesture of hopelessness. "You can't imagine how difficult it was. The swell must have been three or four feet, the flames were dying down so we couldn't see much, and the wind was howling like a bloody banshee. Jones yelled, and he's got a strong voice. Rowley would shout back, then the dinghy would go up one side of a wave and down the other and spin around at the same time, and when he called out again his voice seemed to come from a completely different direction. I don't know how long it went on. Rowley kept shouting, but his voice became weaker as the cold got to him." Bart's face stiffened. "He started to sound a bit pathetic, calling to God and his mother and that sort of rot. Eventually he went quiet."
Digby found he was holding his breath, as if the mere sound of breathing would be an intrusion on such a dreadful memory.
"We were found soon after dawn, by a destroyer on U-boat patrol. They dropped a cutter and hauled us in." Bart looked out of the window, blind to the green Hertfordshire landscape, seeing a different scene, far away. "Bloody lucky, really," he said.
They sat in silence for a while, then Bart said, "Was the raid a success? No one will tell me how many came home."
"Disastrous," Digby said.
"What about my squadron?"
"Sergeant Jenkins and his crew got back safely." Digby drew a slip of paper from his pocket. "So did Pilot Officer Arasaratnam. Where's he from?"
"And Sergeant Riley's aircraft took a hit but made it back."
"Luck of the Irish," said Bart. "What about the rest?"
Digby just shook his head.
"But there were six aircraft from my squadron on that raid!" Bart protested.
"I know. As well as you, two more were shot down. No apparent survivors."
"So Creighton-Smith is dead. And Billy Shaw. And...Oh, God." He turned away.
Bart's mood changed from despair to anger. "It's not enough to be sorry," he said. "We're being sent out there to die!"
"For Christ's sake, Digby, you're part of the bloody government."
"I work for the Prime Minister, yes." Churchill liked to bring people from private industry into the government and Digby, a successful aircraft designer before the war, was one of his troubleshooters.
"Then this is your fault as much as anyone's. You shouldn't be wasting your time visiting the sick. Get the hell out of here and do something about it."
"I am doing something," Digby said calmly. "I've been given the task of finding out why this is happening. We lost fifty percent of the aircraft on that raid."
"Bloody treachery at the top, I suspect. Or some fool air marshal boasting in his club about tomorrow's raid, and a Nazi barman taking notes behind the beer pumps."
"That's one possibility."
Bart sighed. "I'm sorry, Diggers," he said, using a childhood nickname. "It's not your fault, I'm just blowing my top."
"Seriously, have you any idea why so many are being shot down? You've flown more than a dozen missions. What's your hunch?"
Bart looked thoughtful. "I wasn't just sounding off about spies. When we get to Germany, they're ready for us. They know we're coming."
"What makes you say that?"
"Their fighters are in the air, waiting for us. You know how difficult it is for defensive forces to time that right. The fighter squadron has to be scrambled at just the right moment; they must navigate from their airfield to the area where they think we might be, then they have to climb above our ceiling, and when they've done all that they have to find us in the moonlight. The whole process takes so much time that we should be able to drop our ordnance and get clear before they catch us. But it isn't happening that way."
Digby nodded. Bart's experience matched that of other pilots he had questioned. He was about to say so when Bart looked up and smiled over Digby's shoulder. Digby turned to see a Negro in the uniform of a squadron leader. Like Bart, he was young for his rank, and Digby guessed he had received the automatic promotions that came with combat experience-flight lieutenant after twelve sorties, squadron leader after fifteen.
Bart said, "Hello, Charles."
"You had us all worried, Bartlett. How are you?" The newcomer's accent was Caribbean overlaid with an Oxbridge drawl.
"I may live, they say."
With a fingertip, Charles touched the back of Bart's hand where it emerged from his sling. It was a curiously affectionate gesture, Digby thought. "I'm jolly glad to hear it," Charles said.
"Charles, meet my brother Digby. Digby, this is Charles Ford. We were together at Trinity until we left to join the air force."
"It was the only way to avoid taking our exams," Charles said, shaking Digby's hand.
Bart said, "How are the Africans treating you?"
Charles smiled and explained to Digby, "There's a squadron of Rhodesians at our airfield. First class flyers, but they find it difficult to deal with an officer of my color. We call them the Africans, which seems to irritate them slightly. I can't think why."
Digby said, "Obviously you're not letting it get you down."
"I believe that with patience and improved education we may eventually be able to civilize such people, primitive though they seem now." Charles looked away, and Digby caught a glimpse of the anger beneath his good humor.
"I was just asking Bart why he thinks we're losing so many bombers," Digby said. "What's your opinion?"
"I wasn't on this raid," Charles said. "By all accounts, I was lucky to miss it. But other recent operations have been pretty bad. I get the feeling the Luftwaffe can follow us through cloud. Might they have some kind of equipment on board that enables them to locate us even when we're not visible?"
Digby shook his head. "Every crashed enemy aircraft is minutely examined, and we've never seen anything like what you're talking about. We're working hard to invent that kind of device, and I'm sure the enemy are, too, but we're a long way from success, and we're pretty sure they're well behind us. I don't think that's it."
"Well, that's what it feels like."
"I still think there are spies," Bart said.
"Interesting." Digby stood up. "I have to get back to Whitehall. Thanks for your opinions. It helps to talk to the men at the sharp end." He shook hands with Charles and squeezed Bart's uninjured shoulder. "Sit still and get well."
"They say I'll be flying again in a few weeks."
"I can't say I'm glad."
As Digby turned to go, Charles said, "May I ask you a question?"
"On a raid like this one, the cost to us of replacing lost aircraft must be more than the cost to the enemy of repairing the damage done by our bombs."
"Then..." Charles spread his arms in a sign of incomprehension. "Why do we do it? What's the point of bombing?"
"Yes," Bart said. "I'd like to know that."
"What else can we do?" Digby said. "The Nazis control Europe: Austria, Czechoslovakia, Holland, Belgium, France, Denmark, Norway. Italy is an ally, Spain is sympathetic, Sweden is neutral, and they have a pact with the Soviet Union. We have no military forces on the Continent. We have no other way of fighting back."
Charles nodded. "So we're all you've got."
"Exactly," Digby said. "If the bombing stops, the war is over-and Hitler has won."
The Prime Minister was watching The Maltese Falcon. A private cinema had recently been built in the old kitchens of Admiralty House. It had fifty or sixty plush seats and a red velvet curtain, but it was usually used to show film of bombing raids and to screen propaganda pieces before they were shown to the public.
Late at night, after all the memoranda had been dictated, the cables sent, the reports annotated, and the minutes initialed, when he was too worried and angry and tense to sleep, Churchill would sit in one of the large VIP seats in the front row with a glass of brandy and lose himself in the latest enchantment from Hollywood.
As Digby walked in, Humphrey Bogart was explaining to Mary Astor that when a man's partner is killed he's supposed to do something about it. The air was thick with cigar smoke. Churchill pointed to a seat. Digby sat down and watched the last few minutes of the movie. As the credits appeared over the statuette of a black falcon, Digby told his boss that the Luftwaffe seemed to have advance notice when Bomber Command was coming.
When he had finished, Churchill stared at the screen for a few moments, as if he were waiting to find out who had played Bryan. There were times when he was charming, with an engaging smile and a twinkle in his blue eyes, but tonight he seemed sunk in gloom. At last he said, "What does the RAF think?"
"They blame poor formation flying. In theory, if the bombers fly in close formation, their armament should cover the entire sky, so any enemy fighter that appears should be shot down immediately."
"And what do you say to that?"
"Rubbish. Formation flying has never worked. Some new factor has entered the equation."
"I agree. But what?"
"My brother blames spies."
"All the spies we've caught have been amateurish-but that's why they were caught, of course. It may be that the competent ones have slipped through the net."
"Perhaps the Germans have made a technical breakthrough."
"The Secret Intelligence Service tell me the enemy are far behind us in the development of radar."
"Do you trust their judgment?"
"No." The ceiling lights came on. Churchill was in evening dress. He always looked dapper, but his face was lined with weariness. He took from his waistcoat pocket a folded sheet of flimsy paper. "Here's a clue," he said, and he handed it to Digby.
Digby studied the sheet. It appeared to be a decrypt of a Luftwaffe radio signal, in German and English. It said that the Luftwaffe's new strategy of dark night-fighting-Dunkle Nachtjagd-had scored a great triumph, thanks to the excellent information from Freya. Digby read the message in English then again in German. "Freya" was not a word in either language. "What does this mean?" he said.
"That's what I want you to find out." Churchill stood up and shrugged into his jacket. "Walk back with me," he said. As he left, he called out, "Thank you!"
A voice from the projectionist's booth replied, "My pleasure, sir."
As they passed through the building, two men fell in behind them: Inspector Thompson from Scotland Yard, and Churchill's private bodyguard. They emerged on the parade ground, passed a team operating a barrage balloon, and went through a gate in the barbed-wire fence to the street. London was blacked out, but a crescent moon gave enough light for them to find their way.
They walked side by side a few yards along Horse Guards Parade to Number One, Storey's Gate. A bomb had damaged the rear of Number Ten, Downing Street, the traditional residence of the Prime Minister, so Churchill was living at the nearby annex over the Cabinet War Rooms. The entrance was protected by a bombproof wall. The barrel of a machine gun poked through a hole in the wall.
Digby said, "Good night, sir."
"It can't go on," said Churchill. "At this rate, Bomber Command will be finished by Christmas. I need to know who or what Freya is."
"I'll find out."
"Do so with the utmost dispatch."
"Good night," said the Prime Minister, and he went inside.
Copyright © 2002 by Ken Follett
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