THE Operations Commander put down the stereoscope through which he had been studying a batch of aerial photographs and stared absently through the scuttle, crinkling his eyes against the hard Mediterranean winter sunlight.
‘We’d better bring the Squadron Commanders in on this,’ he said. ' Let ‘em talk it over with their pilots and observers. Don’t you think so, sir?’
‘I suppose so,’ agreed the Captain of the aircraft carrier rather reluctantly. ‘I’m all for keeping an operation like this absolutely secret as long as possible, but there comes a time —’ He walked over to an ash tray and scraped out the ash in the bowl of his pipe.
‘They’ll have to fit spare petrol tanks and all that,’ observed the Flying Commander. ‘They’ll know there’s something in the wind and there isn’t very long for them to get down to the details. The Swordfish must go without air gunners —just the pilot and observer. ‘
‘Get ‘em along now,’ said the Captain. He picked up a pair of dividers and bent over the chart again.
So it came about that late in the afternoon the brazen laconic voice of the loud-speaker echoed abruptly through the hangar: —
‘Pilots and observers of X and Y Squadrons report in operations room.’ The voice repeated the summons and was silent.
A pilot who was sitting in the cockpit of his Albacore fiddling with the mechanism of a new-pattern windscreen, rose to his feet and looked round the hangar. The lift at the far end was down, and the sunlight that flooded the shaft dimmed the electric lights, making all the vast intervening space translucent and shadowy. The ranks of Fulmars, Swordfish, and Albacores with their folded wings resembled, as he looked down on them, shoals of gigantic fish resting on the bottom of a tank.
‘Hullo,’ said the voice of his observer. A red-haired boy in overalls appeared from under a wing, with a screwdriver in his hand.
‘Did you get that?’ The pilot climbed down from the cockpit and they stood facing each other.
‘Yes, I got it.’ He handed the screwdriver to an air mechanic who was lying on his back under the wing. ‘D’you suppose it’s a stunt?’
‘It might be.’ The pilot spoke in an indifferent tone. They were both careful not to betray even to each other any trace of excitement. It was in the tradition of the Fleet Air Arm: understatement; impassivity; unemotional acceptance of all that came their way. ‘We may as well blow along, I suppose.’
They walked aft along the hangar between the rows of machines, past mechanics absorbed in their tasks; here and there a pilot or an observer who had chosen to spend the dogwatches playing in his cockpit climbed down from his machine and followed them. They gathered on the platform of the after lift, a dozen of them altogether. ‘What do you suppose —’ began one of them, when the lift started and the loud jangling of the bell cut his words short.
They stood silent and reflective during the short ascent to the flight deck, and when they reached it, under a blue sky with thin cirrus like feathers blown across it, the little group walked towards the streamlined elliptical structure at the edge which combined bridge and funnel, signal platform, control and operations rooms, and was known as ‘the island. ‘
A fresh breeze was blowing off the land, and round them lay the anchored units of the fleet in harbor; a destroyer was coming in from seaward flying her pendants. Beyond the curve of the far end of the flight deck were a distant row of date palms and a lighthouse very white in the sunshine.
As the lift reached the level of the flight deck each pilot glanced automatically towards the wind vane at the masthead, calculating the force and direction of the wind, and then looked along the seven hundred feet of the deck, from arrester wire to arrester wire lying across it. However experienced he might be, no pilot ever stepped on to that broad expanse of level steel without subconsciously measuring the point of the last landing on it — without selecting an arrester wire, waiting for the moment when the hook under the plane caught it and then passed to the point a hundred feet farther on where the energy of the machine’s descent was expended against the yielding drag of the wire, and the plane came to rest.
‘I bet a bob I know what it is,’ said an observer, withdrawing his hands from his pockets as they neared the island. ‘It’s what I always said we ought to do.’
A few incurious eyes turned towards him.
‘Maybe Winston got to hear about it,’ retorted one of the pilots. The others laughed.
They trooped into the operations room, where the remainder were already assembled. A large-scale chart of an Italian harbor and a batch of aerial photographs lay on the desk. The Captain leaned against it, giving a nod and a smile to each young man as he entered. He himself, until given the command of this carrier, had had very little experience of the Fleet Air Arm. He had come to realize that this new development of naval strategy, with its enormous powers of reconnaissance and fighter protection, of offense by torpedo and bombing, had reached its present state of being in the Navy’s midst almost without the Navy’s being aware of its existence. Out here it was different: it was an integral part of the Fleet. But in the rest of the Navy, among the battleship and cruiser people at home, the destroyers and submarines, the mine sweepers and convoy escorts, the aircraft carrier was still a vague outline, as unfamiliar in detail and function as the giant panda was, until a few years ago, to naturalists.
By twos and threes more pilots and observers were coming in from anteroom and cabins in obedience to the summons of the loud-speaker relayed through the ship. The Captain, watching their carefully impassive faces, was suddenly aware that already the Navy was producing a new type of naval officer for duty in its aircraft: not so much the seaairman as the air-seaman. Already their eyes were different — more remote in the steadiness of their regard — from the eyes of men who see the horizon from the bridge level of a ship. And this ‘poker face,’ this unemotional exterior, was not a pose as much as a sheath, a protection to the nervous system adopted by young men who live perpetually in ways of untried hazard. The last pilot entered, closing the door behind him.
‘There’s an operation shortly taking place,’ said the Captain. ‘It’s the biggest thing we’ve taken on yet. We — we rather want it to be a success. I’ve sent for you to give you the outline of the scheme. You can go into the details then among yourselves. The Operations Commander will do the talking.’ He nodded at the latter, who stood by the desk balancing the magnifying glass in his fingers.
‘Go ahead,’ said the Captain. ‘Give ‘em the low-down!’
Half-a-dozen lieutenants sat in the pilots’ room. Some, already in their flying kit, were smoking cigarettes, others were adjusting parachute harness or pulling on their fleece-lined flying boots.
Through each open scuttle the circle of sky was paling in the dawn. ‘By this time tomorrow,’ said one of them, standing staring through the open disk, ‘Musso’s battle fleet ought to be looking like a dog’s breakfast.’ His young face, framed by the high collar, assumed a prophetic solemnity.
‘I wish we were going off now,’ grumbled another, jerking at the straps of his lifesaving waistcoat, ‘instead of footling about on reconnaissance all day. There’s no denying that of all cumbersome garments this darned Mae West takes a lot of beating.'
His neighbor extinguished the stub of his cigarette. ‘There’s not much to choose between a Mae West and a parachute in sheer nuisance value; but if you ever do need them you need them badly.’
The Squadron Commander moved heavily towards the door, carrying his gloves and flying helmet.
‘Well, boys, up she goes!’ He turned in the door and surveyed his flock. ‘I shan’t wait for you to form on me once I’ve flown off. Act independently and go straight off to your sectors. Maintain reconnaissance patrols for two hours and return to the ship. And after lunch get your heads down and sleep.’
They followed him out on to the flight deck in succession, pulling on their flying helmets as they stepped out into the slip stream of air rushing past the island. The last one paused in the doorway for a moment. His machine had not yet come up from the hangar, and he stood in the shelter of the lobby watching the wireless masts along the port side of the deck sink slowly to a horizontal position.
The ship had turned into the wind, and he observed the slow, ponderous pitch of the flight deck against the gray line of the horizon, measuring it in his mind. Not too bad, he thought to himself. The flight-deck officer went past, leaning against the rush of the wind. ‘All set, Weathered?’ he shouted. He added something else, but his voice was drowned by the roar of the Albacores’ engines warming through. The leader had been wheeled into the take-off position, and the pilot and observer were climbing into their cockpits.
‘All set.’ For some reason Tommy Weathered felt a queer desire to stay a moment longer where he was, a spectator of the gray expanse of flight deck shining with the night dew, of the Albacores with outstretched wings and whirling air screws, the screen of destroyers beyond, the curve of foam at their bows giving the only indication from that height that they were traveling through the water. He had a curious disinclination to step out into the rush of wind streaming past the open doorway — not jitters because he was about to fly off, but resembling the momentary reluctance to plunge into cold water that the hardiest bather experiences. It was a sort of staleness . . . ‘Come on,’ he observed aloud to himself, ‘this won’t bath the baby!’ and stepped out under a cloudy sky already tinged with saffron to the eastward, into the torrent of air that swept the flight deck.
A voice behind him shouted, ‘Happy landing, sir.’ He raised a gloved hand without looking back.
Denis O’Mara, the red-haired observer, was in the last machine out of the hangar to reach the flight deck, and was just in time to see the leader go roaring along it and soar into the sky. He looked round for Tommy Weathered, his pilot. His chief preoccupation was to avoid betraying his conviction that Tommy was the finest fellow in the entire Navy, whether employed on the surface, under the sea, or in the air. He copied his pilot’s reluctant, inscrutable smile, his laconic speech; he even discarded the ring his mother gave him on his nineteenth birthday because Tommy’s hard, mechanical hands were ringless. He had more confidence in his pilot than in anyone else alive, and he had two secret, incommunicable fears: that in a dogfight or a bombing attack Tommy would be killed and he left alive; and that sooner or later Tommy would get fed up with him and reject him for some other observer. Of all this flummery Weathered was sublimely unaware.
A second and a third machine took off. O’Mara adjusted his earphones, opened his case of navigating instruments, and clamped it beside the chart.
Tommy’s head and shoulders appeared; he climbed stiffly into the cockpit, cumbered with his kit, buckled his parachute to the harness, and strapped himself into position. Speech between them was impossible until he connected up with their intercommunication telephone, which he appeared in no hurry to do.
He opened the throttle a little; the roar of the engine grew louder. Two more machines went off. They taxied into position; Denis could see Tommy’s head turned a little, watching for the signal. He had the same breathless feeling he always experienced behind the starting gate at the hunt steeplechase in Cloonay, County Antrim; yet at that moment the glens of Antrim seemed very far away.
‘All right, Denis?’ Tommy had connected the earphones. They could talk.
‘What’s the course?’
He gave it.
‘Hold on to your teeth.’ It was the invariable warning, connected intimately with a kick in the mouth from one of the O’Mara hunters in Denis’s boyhood.
The signal came: the flight deck flowed under them faster and faster. The island shot past on their starboard hand. He had a glimpse of the Commander on the flying control platform; he waved and disappeared. With an imperceptible jolt the machine tilted upward slightly and began to climb.
Tommy Weathered glanced at the altimeter and thence to the clock. He was beginning to be faintly bored with this reconnaissance patrol. In his sector nothing much was likely to be sighted and nothing had been sighted; the sea was just a ruffled disk of platinum which they searched through glasses; and then they climbed through a mizzling cloud ceiling and, far above it, looked down upon an arctic panorama fissured with little dark streaks that were the sea beneath. Again he glanced at the altimeter. Twelve thousand. That was the height he liked best; it gave him a feeling of complete detachment from everything — it was like rushing through a glorious Nirvana without beginning and without end, while beneath them cloud mountains were catching the first rays of the morning sun, turning from rose to gold. Another quarter of an hour and they would turn back.
A little voice spoke in his earphone — a buzzing mumble. It was Denis talking. In moments of excitement a faint brogue crept into his speech.
‘There’s something just climbed out of the cloud behind us. He’s a long way off. I think it’s a Caproni 133.’
‘Hold on to your teeth, then.’ The machine went down in a steep dive and banked. They were back in the cloud again, flying blind.
‘How far was he?’
‘He’d be seven or eight miles.’
Up they went again in dizzy spirals. Weathered adjusted his gun sight — a hundred yards’ range.
‘We’ll come out of the cloud again in a minute. Keep your eyes skinned.’ He moved the firing button on the stick to the ready and kept his thumb on it.
They were back in the sunlight and there was the Caproni, almost filling the sight. Weathered opened the throttle as the enemy rear-gunner opened fire, tracers streaming past their fuselage.
He held his fire a moment longer and then pressed down his thumb. It was, he reflected, like playing a hose on a dragonfly. The rear-gunner seemed to crumple up and vanish; bits of fuselage, of wings and air screw, flew out into space and vanished. The Caproni went down in a vertical nose dive, spinning like a leaf, and plunged into the clouds; she too vanished, leaving a trail of black smoke that dissolved into nothingness. They followed her down and saw the burning wreckage strike the water five thousand feet below.
‘Pretty to watch,’ observed O’Mara, trying desperately to keep his voice unconcerned.
‘And so to lunch. That was a sitter. A pure fluke. Give me a course back to the ship. Denis, you disreputable Irish jockey, we’re going to have some fun tonight.’
‘I wouldn’t wonder. There’s a cruiser bearing 130 degrees. One of ours. I can’t see who it is — she’s too far off.’
‘We might give her the position of that Caproni in case —’
The engine gave a series of loud coughs followed by two explosive backfires, and stopped. Weathered looked at the petrol gauge. It was half full.
He juggled with the throttle, with the pitch of the air screw, and dropped his left hand helplessly.
‘I didn’t think he’d hit us. But he must have. Anyhow the engine’s packed up. Petrol pump, probably. Oh, blast! Sit tight, Denis, I’ll have to come down. Where’s that cruiser? . . . Right, I’ve got her.’
It flashed through O’Mara’s mind that they’d miss the stunt tonight. He did a rapid calculation as the Albacore planed down towards the sea, and decided they were a hundred and thirty miles from the carrier. They hadn’t a hope of getting to her in time to fly off tonight with the raiding squadrons.
‘I don’t know if that cruiser’s seen us.’ The pilot’s voice interrupted his thoughts. ‘Better make an SOS on the bearing.’
He rattled the sending key, watching the water coming towards them.
This was his first forced landing on the sea. It seemed to be rushing up at them, a tilted floor of shifting waves that was somehow inconceivable as a landing ground. He fell no fear: only a blind trust in Tommy and a sick disappointment.. He continued to signal, waggling the key automatically: ‘SOS’ . . . ‘SOS’ . . .
The Albacore pancaked on a wave that splayed great sheets of water on either side like the wings of a flying fish. She scuttered along on her tail in clouds of spray and became stationary, rocking on the waves. It was a classic forced landing. Oh, marvelous Tommy! The slightest miscalculation, an infinitesimal error of judgment, would have plunged the Albacore into a swell and drowned them both.
‘Wizard!’ He ejaculated aloud and was surprised. ‘ Witharth?’ He put his hand to his mouth in perplexity, exploring with his tongue. ‘ Blasth! ‘
Tommy had cast, off his strapping and was scrambling out of the cockpit, shedding his parachute harness as he came. He gazed down at his observer.
‘What’s up? Are you hurt, Denis? We’ve got to get the dinghy out. This cab won’t float forever.’
O’Mara was groveling about the floor of the cockpit.
‘Teef,’ he muttered indistinctly. ‘Fell out when we bumped.’ Tommy laughed, balancing on the wing beside him like a tightrope walker.
‘Why didn’t you hold on to them? Didn’t I tell you to? Sorry if I forgot.’ He was tearing at the toggle that ripped open the fabric over the dinghy stowage. ‘Never mind your ruddy teeth. Get out of that harness.’
O’Mara obeyed. He had found the elusive teeth and restored them to their normal position. Ho climbed out along the tail. Tommy was already in the rubber dinghy. It had drifted aft and he was holding on by the Albacore’s rudder. O’Mara wormed his way along to him, and slipped into the dinghy beside his pilot, who was looking rather white.
‘I can’t see the cruiser. How far off was she when we hit the ditch?’
‘About fourteen miles.’
‘Think she got our SOS?’
‘Yes. She ought to be here in half an hour. Shall we paddle the dinghy to meet her? She’s bound to have seen us.’
‘’Fraid I’ve got to stop here,’ said Tommy.
‘Hand’s jammed in the hinge of the rudder.’
O’Mara looked up and saw that Tommy was held by the wrist as in a vise. He struggled with the controls unavailingly as they rose and fell in the waves. ‘It won’t budge.*
‘No. It’s jammed.’
Anguish of heart sickened O’Mara. ‘Smashed the bone?’
‘I don’t think so,’
A swell lifted them helpless towards the sky.
‘It’s all right as long as the old cab floats,’ observed Tommy. ‘But if she gets it into her head she’s a submarine and does a crash dive I shall miss the stunt tonight.’
‘We’ll miss it anyhow,’ said O’Mara miserably.
‘No fear. Get the cruiser to fly us to the carrier in her Walrus — ouch!’
O’Mara remembered a story he had once read about a man pinned by the hand in a slowly flooding mine. The man had a friend with him who amputated it rather crudely with a jackknife. . . . Distant gunfire came to them across the water and turned their heads towards the sound.
Puffs of smoke appeared in the sky to the southward: puffs of smoke and three bomber planes circling warily below the clouds. Again a swell lifted them. This time they saw the distant cruiser. She was heading towards them, firing at the bombers as she came.
One of the bombers banked and climbed into a cloud.
‘That damned Caproni had sighted her and gave his dirty friends the tip,’ muttered Weathered, ‘before we shot him down.’ He put his free arm over the tail to support his weight, staring up at the cloud that concealed the bomber. ‘We weren’t quick enough.’
‘Does it hurt awfully?’ asked O’Mara, indifferent now whether his voice betrayed his agony of mind.
‘Not so as you’d notice. ... I thought as much —here he comes! I guessed he’d seen us.’
The bomber was diving steeply at them out of the cloud. The Albacore rocked on the waves that washed over them; the sea sparkled in the morning sunlight. It was a fair world: sun, sky, drifting clouds, ‘all sweet. things, brother’ . . . and that murderous hornet screaming down at them in a low power dive. Perhaps, reflected Weathered, they would miss the stunt after all. He laughed.
‘Hold on to your teeth, Denis. We’re going to be machine-gunned.’
‘Holy Mother of God,’ said Denis.
The compass platform high up on the island of the aircraft carrier was spacious enough to enable the Captain to walk ten paces in any direction. He chose to walk athwartships, ten paces to port — that gave him a view of the whole length of the flight deck; then turn, and a glance forward to the horizon over the anti-aircraft turrets, and the supporting cruisers in the middle distance. It had taken him some time to accustom himself to an aircraft carrier’s bows, presented to him at that elevation rather like the end of a gigantic billiard table that ended in a downward-sloping curve. Ten paces to starboard and a quick glance through the windows gave him a view of the screening destroyers and the horizon again; then another turn and the whole thing over again — a measured, thoughtful pacing to and fro.
He was prepared to lose aircraft in the night’s operations that lay ahead of them; but to lose an Albacore and one of his best pilots during a routine daylight reconnaissance saddened and exasperated him. He glanced at his watch and halted in his promenade beside the Flying Commander, who was bending over the chart table.
‘No hope now, I suppose?’ he said.
‘I’m afraid not, sir. The last we heard was her reporting she was about to engage an enemy plane here.’ He put his finger on the chart. ‘Probably a Caproni 133. I can’t see Weathered being seen off by a Caproni, somehow; but there it is.’
‘The others were all back to time,’ pursued the Captain, as if thinking aloud.
‘Yes, they’re all right, sir. I told them to have a meal and get their heads down.’
The chief yeoman of signals interposed a signal pad between them and stood breathing heavily with suppressed excitement. ‘Cipher message, sir, from Melpomene.’
Have picked up Lieutenant Weathered and Sub-Lieutenant O’Mara from forced landing of Albacore in Lat. 38° 20', Long. 20°. They are unhurt and appear to think tonight’s operation doomed to failure unless they take part. Am flying them over to you in my Walrus. Bombing attack by three Savoias beaten off with loss of one enemy plane. Albacore sunk. Pilot reports having shot down one Caproni 133.
‘I thought as much,’ grinned the Flying Commander. ‘Trust Master Thomas Weathered to find his way back.’
The Captain restrained an impulse to slap his commander on the back. Not in the best traditions of the Fleet Air Arm. He permit ted himself an inaudible ‘Thank God!’ and turned again to the chart.
‘ Melpomene’s a hundred and thirty miles from us. . . . What’s the time of origin?’ He glanced at the signal. ‘We ought to sight that Walrus any minute. How’s the wind for flying on?’
The Flying Commander looked through the window at the jet of steam at the end of the flight deck.
‘Steady as you go, sir, for wind. I’ll raise the arrester wires and have the deck landing party standing by.’ He disappeared down the ladder to the Control Room.
A buzzer sounded and the officer of the watch bent to the voice pipe connecting the lookouts with the compass platform. ‘Friendly aircraft bearing Greenthree-O, sir! Angle of sight fifteen,’ announced a voice, speaking with a broad Lancashire accent.
‘There they are,’ said the Captain, and added under his breath: ‘Can you beat it?’
No one heard him: anyhow, no one answered. Perhaps the question was unanswerable.
The squadron commanders had reported and gone from the compass platform. The fighter escort had flown off and were in formation against the stars; the bombers had gone too and were circling preparatory to setting course for their objective. The Captain stepped out on to the control platform to watch the Swordfish with their torpedoes take off in the moonlight. He counted them as they went roaring down the flight deck in succession. For the life of him he couldn’t help feeling rather like an old hen watching a foster brood of ducklings pass to their appointed element.
The squadron commanders, their youthful faces framed by the leather helmets, had grinned as he gave them their last instructions and wished them luck; for once they had forgotten their masks of professional imperturbability: their eyes were alight with excitement, crinkled with laughter. The senior one said, presumably on behalf of them all, ‘We’ll give ‘em the works, sir,’ and he answered, ‘That’s the stuff!’
One, two, three, four. . . . The last wave went droning up into the night. There was a pause. Two more machines were left on the flight deck, their wings shining in the moonlight. There was a throng of figures round them that suddenly scattered; the fifth machine was wheeled into position, taxied a little way, gathered speed, and lifted its load of devastation towards the stars. The last machine to take off remained motionless. The roar of its engines stopped abruptly. By comparison with the previous uproar the night became curiously still. The wind whistled past the control platform and there was the faint drone of machines circling overhead.
The Flying Commander leaned out over the shield. ‘That’s Weathered,’ he said. ‘Something’s wrong.’
He turned to the microphone whose brazen voice carried the length of the flight deck.
‘What’s the matter?'
Tommy Weathered had climbed out of the cockpit of his machine and was standing, burdened with his equipment, by the left wing tips. A patch of fabric on the lower wing a couple of feet square was flapping in the wind, disclosing a dark gash beneath. He pressed it down with his hand as if trying to staunch a haemorrhage.
‘The matter?’ he echoed, and the wind carried his voice and his despair into oblivion. ‘The matter! Oh, God!’
‘All right, Tommy. Get her below again. Get her back in the hangar. I’ll go and tell the Captain you bumped each other in the darkness. It wasn’t your fault.’
‘Fault! Fault . . . What’s it matter whose fault it was. I’ve got to get this repaired and take off. Give me twenty minutes. Ask the Captain —’ He turned to the crew standing round the machine, white-faced, tense with anxiousness, and galvanized them into a bewildered activity. ‘Come on, get a move on! Don’t stand there as if you were dummies. Get her on to the after lift. Put your hands to it. Smack it about, for the love of God!’
Denis O’Mara, still in his cockpit, was on his feet, white as his pilot, who waved him back into his seat. ‘Stay where you are, Denis. We’ll patch this.’
The machine was turned and rushed aft, the lift bell jangled the warning of their descent, and they were down in the hangar again. The machine came to rest in its vast, untenanted, unfamiliarlooking interior.
‘Air mechanics!’ shouted Weathered. ‘Come on, where are you? Fabric, dope, palm and needle!’
A group of aircraftsmen at the far end broke up and came running towards them.
O’Mara remained in the cockpit. There was nothing he could do, except listen to Tommy persuade the leading rigger that it was possible to make a job of it under three quarters of an hour. He had never heard Tommy swear before.
The leading air mechanic was a Scot, and a gloomy one. ‘I’m no’ saying I willna’ do my best, Mr. Weathered. I’m just saying I canna’ warrk meeracles.’
He bent over the task shaking his head, but plying palm and needle like a man possessed. ‘Will ye no’ stand in my light, Mr. Weathered, and mebbe I’d warrk better if ye didna’ jouk at my elbow.’
A quarter of an hour passed.
Weathered removed his flying helmet and wiped the sweat off his face with his bandaged hand. ‘I’m going to see the Captain,’ he announced to Denis. ‘That patch will dry in another five minutes. Bring her up on to the flight deck and stand by. I’m going on this stunt or under close arrest, one or the other.’
He stuck his chin out and strode off to the lift that carried him up to the compass platform. Except for the faint glow over the chart table and on dials of instruments, the platform was in darkness. He recognized the Captain’s silhouette against the starry sky.
‘Lieutenant Weathered, sir,’ he announced. The Captain lowered a pair of glasses he was looking through and turned towards the voice.
‘Hullo, Weathered,’ he said. ‘You’ve had bad luck, I hear.’
‘No, sir. Good luck. Machine’s repaired. Heady to take off . . . three minutes.’ He stood breathing fast in the darkness.
There was a pause.
‘D’you mean you want to go alone? The attack will be over by the time you get there.’
The Operations Commander loomed up out of the shadows.
‘It might be rather effective, sir,’ he suggested. ‘The defenses would think we’d packed up, and be off their guard, He might bring off a lucky shot.’ He himself had been a bomber pilot and knew something of Weathered’s feelings.
‘No fighter escort, of course,’ murmured the Captain. He had a conviction that he was sending these two boys to their death. In the gloom he saw the gleam of the pilot’s teeth as he smiled — smiling at the absurdity of an escort’s being thought necessary. Or was it at the absurdity of death?
‘All right,’ he said abruptly. Weathered saluted. His bandaged hand showed white as he raised it. ‘Thank you, sir.’
‘How’s that hand, by the way?’ ‘Fine, sir.’
The Captain turned to the sea and commenced to screw his glasses into focus again. No, you couldn’t beat it.
They saw the glow of the fires sixty miles away, and the smoke extinguishing the stars.
Flying in to an attack, with the engine throttled back and the monotony of the long, uneventful journey behind them, some pilots broke into song. Tommy had no music in him, but he had a way of lapsing aloud into verse, recapturing the rhythm of something he had been reading recently: —
‘The wind blew out from Bergen from the dawning to the day,’
he droned contentedly.
‘They ride and run with fifty spears to break and bar my way.’
To some extent it helped him to forget the pain in his wrist.
‘I shall not die alone, alone, but kin to all the powers,
As merry as the ancient sun and fighting like the flowers.’
‘It’s not dying we’ll be at all,’ said Denis. This was his moment for lapsing into the brogue of his glens.
He leaned out to get a bearing of the glow across the bowl of the compass.
‘Who said we would? Gosh, it’s good to be alive!’
‘The hour when death is like a light and blood is like a rose —
You never loved your friends, my friends, as I shall love my foes.’
‘Another degree, maybe, to the northward,’ said Denis. ‘ God in heaven above us, that’s a grand sight! The bombers did their stuff, ali right!’
‘And not a sign of them. They came back five thousand feet over our heads.’
The minutes passed. The dark loom of the land became visible against the moonlit sea. ‘ That, patch on the wing is holding like the grace of God,’ said Denis, ‘and I don’t believe they know we’re coming at all, at all.’
Tommy chuckled, and grimaced with pain, his eye on the altimeter. ‘I’m coming down now. We’ll pass clear of the town and come out over the docks slap on to the inner harbor.’ He eased the stick forward.
‘My loves in deep dim meadows, my ships that rode at ease,
Ruffling the purple plumage of strange and secret seas.’
The flying wires screamed as the speed increased. The altimeter indicator dropped to five thousand feet, to four, to three; houses were visible, white as ivory in the moonlight. They could see the line of the outer harbor and the fires away to the left.
A searchlight leaped towards them, wheeled frantically; others sprang into an unstable lattice of crisscross rays. Guns began to blink. Shells were bursting behind them. Streams of tracer bullets like cascades of fireflies went past the fuselage. Two thousand feet. The water of the inner harbor was shining ahead.
‘There they are!’ yelled Denis. ‘Two of them. Two cruisers.’
‘I’ve got them,’ was the grim answer. ‘The left-hand one.’ The machine banked steeply on to the line of fire and leveled again. Down and down they came, the water rushing past under them, the dark target rushing up towards them, blazing gun flashes. Five hundred feet . . . four hundred . . . three hundred . . .
‘Now!’ said Tommy, and released the torpedo.
The machine jumped and banked to the climb. Denis, flung from side to side of his cockpit, deafened by the roar of the engine, by gunfire and bursting shell, half-blinded by the flashes, was doing his best to see the splash of the torpedo where it hit the water and the trail of bubbles creeping towards the cruiser. To and fro they swung, avoiding searchlights, squirts of tracer, bursts of shells and flaming onions, climbing, climbing, towards the remote and compassionate stars.
A great sheet of crimson and yellow flame shot up into the night; a hot gust of gases like the belch from a volcano swept them on their way.
‘Got her,’ said Denis.
At six thousand feet they headed for the carrier and found her as the stars were paling. They had spoken little on the return journey. Tommy quoted no more poetry, absorbed in the pain in his wrist and hand.
They came down to a flight deck shining with dew in the first hint of dawn. The second arrester wire caught in the tail hook and brought them to a standstill. Tommy switched off the engine and grinned back over his shoulder. His observer was groping about the floor of the cockpit.
‘ Teef,’sounded like the mumbled answer.
The pilot laughed and, releasing his straps, leaned back exhausted. From all sides men were running towards them, waving.
‘Little man,’ he said, ‘you’ve had a busy day.’