FICTION

Seven Must Return

Seven men in a bomber —and each had to win a battle from death to keep a promise made to the living

ARCH WHITEHOUSE November 15 1942
FICTION

Seven Must Return

Seven men in a bomber —and each had to win a battle from death to keep a promise made to the living

ARCH WHITEHOUSE November 15 1942

Seven Must Return

FICTION

Seven men in a bomber —and each had to win a battle from death to keep a promise made to the living

ARCH WHITEHOUSE

GREASY NEALE, a Stirling bomber, had left No. 208’s station at Sywell shortly after dark. Her objective was the Siemens works in Berlin. This joy ride produces about six hours of mental anguish or abstract deliberation for the seven men cooped up inside the metal walls of that hideous but very effective piece of equipment.

For half the journey seven men huddle above eight tons of bombs. That works out to one ton apiece and an extra ton for a chap they call George King, who lives in Buckingham Palace.

The sentimentalists are prone to magnify the community spirit or esprit de corps aboard military aircraft. Those with space in periodicals open to them often confuse the individual fighting spirit of men with co-operative devotion to duty.

Aboard Greasy Neale there are eighty-four feet of swaying catwalk between Sergeant Tim Bollinger in the nose turret and the four-gun Browning station in the tail, and just what community of spirit Bollinger can have with Air Gunner MontagueBates is not very clear. As a matter of fact, Tim is quite certain that one of these nights Monty will drop off and let a Heinkel punch its initials in them before Mike Jobbins in the dorsal turret can take defensive action.

Jobbins is no bargain. There’s a bit of Sir Francis Drake in Jobbins. He’s wonky about lawn bowls and spends most of his time, when he should be At Alert, working out new theories of being “on the jack” from backhand play.

Flight Lieutenant Edgar Hammersley is rated as captain of aircraft and there are times when he let's the rest of them know it. The No. Two pilot, Jimmie Kegworth, hopes that one of these nights something unpleasant will happen to Hammersley. That will give Jimmie a chance to bring Greasy Neale home. He figures there’d be a D.F.C. in that effort, at least.

“My job,” Flying Officer Dyce once explained toa WAAFsection leader, “iscomparable to that of a

destroyer flotilla leader. I have my fight-control bridge, I assume full control of the engineering problems, and during an engagement Pm chief gunnery officer. Takes a bit of doing, you know.”

The Air Gunners hope he walks into a prop some dark night.

Dickie Steadman considers himself indispenable too. Steadman is the navigator bombaimer, but don’t let him start telling you how he guided a Wellington across the Alps and bombed Turin. He’ll bend your ear double about a new gadget he’s working on. A line shooter, really.

With this litigious lot aboard Greasy Neale, it is difficult to understand how they complete a mission of any sort. Still, they have logged some tidy shows and somehow—they usually get back.

There must be a reason for it.

STEADMAN took his first fix out of Sywell when they were over Bury St. Edmunds. He got a vector of 174 and crossed the coast at Lowestoft. He jotted down the figures, hunched in tight to his table and pawed nervously with a pair of parallel rulers.

Through a small port he could see two engines and the disc of splintered light swirled in by the prop blades. If the cuff on one of those blades went out, he stood a fair chance of being skewered to the wall behind, like a specimen on a naturalist’s pin. Dickie never gave up fearing that fate, and wondered if Dyce had any critical figures on the possibility of a propeller throwing a blade. He got up, took up his new sextant, pottered past Dyce who was at his panel, and assured himself that Venus was in her appointed position, six degrees south, after taking a sight on Pollux.

He hurried forward again, grabbed his mike and reported position to Hammersley above in the control compartment. The pilot answered and Dickie watched the leading edge of the

wing warp out slightly and again his eye caught the • sheen of the inboard engine prop. He squinted at it, gagged on an acidy tang of fear and tried to forget it in the tabulation of a second set of figures. All this reminded him that when he got back he must obtain that appointment with the Air Commodore so that he could present his theory of rapid position-finding as computed with his new sextant.

He mumbled and recited his examples again, poked his pencil at the fine figures and hoped-he’d get a chance'tonight to work against the present Air Ministry syllabus. If Hammersley took her through on a reasonable course he might get a chance to use both systems and have them to present to the Air Commodore.

The figures were clicking already, but so was that damned prop out there. He glanced at the flailing arms of the great three-bladed airscrew and began computing his chances of being hit. He took the number of revolutions per minute, computed the segment his body occupied outside the arc, which gave him the figures on the chances against one blade. He multiplied it by three and the result was terrifying.

“Whew ! Engine speed 2,900 r.p.m.,” he wheezed. “Eve got to get a check tonight . . . and get back. They might appoint me as an instructor and I won’t have to sit opposite this blasted bayonet machine any longer.”

Dickie Steadman worked up a good case for their returning safely that night . . .

Hammersley considered a set of figures also as he sat behind the big wheel and watched the altimeter needle climb to the big figure six. His computations were in his logbook. They had been multiplying by the week. Another six hours would put him in a favorable spot for his Squadron Leader’s rank.

That brought up prospects of a command. Two hundred operational hours ought to put him over with the Group Captain who had been dropping hints concerning a new squadron in the Group.

“Just you wait, Rayl,” he had assured the girl in the snack bar at the Fountain Hotel in Bletchley, two nights before. “One more Berlin show and they’ll have to give me my S/L.”

The girl considered that while she speared a tiny sausage. Her name was Raylton Blandford and

she wore the uniform of the Auxiliary Territorial Service. Her hair was the color of eighty-year-old sherry and reflected the burnished glow of the candle sconces. She wore the ribbon of the Military Medal on her tunic, a reminder of the night she had taken a lorry through Coventry.

“All that matters,” she added in a voice tuned to a far-off vestry bell, “is that you get back, I can wait for—the other. We can both wait.”

“We’ve waited so long, Rayl,” he pleaded again. “But if I can get that extra bit of braid, Em sure we could manage it, and feel on the safe side.”

“Is there a safe side?” she asked. “You’ll still have to go night after night. This waiting is nothing compared to the hours we wait for you, trip after trip. That's all there seems to be left, the minutes of pain and pleasure, listening for you to rumble in. We sit in the transport yard and try to count the exhaust streaks; but there are so many, and so few come back—sometimes.”

“I suppose it’s ghastly,” he consoled her. “Kegworth and I talk about it sometimes. Queer bloke, Kegworth.”

“Queer? There must be something to a lad who

gets the affection from a dog, as he does. I sit in the dark out there, and wait for you, and Meg huddles near me and waits for Jimmie. Somehow, she knows before I do.”

“Let’s talk about us,” Hammersley parried. “Let’s chance it all. Let’s slip up to town and get a special license, the minute my promotion comes through.”

“You’ve got enough to worry about, being responsible for the others, without worrying about a bride,” she said with a doubtful smile. “Soldiers shouldn’t marry during wartime, Edgar.”

He hunched forward, covered her small sturdy hand with his, and closed his warm fingers. “You’re ’ right, Rayl, but let’s chance it. Let’s go up to town for the week end and get married! The rank will come through.”

“I suppose you should have an objective at both ends of your run,” she agreed, hiding her eyes with her free hand. “I’ll chance it. I’ll see my section leader in the morning.”

His eyes gleamed in anticipation. He whispered: “You’re a brick, Rayl. Don’t worry, I’ll get back.”

Her capitulation was reflected in detail on the

windscreen of the big Stirling while Flight Lieutenant Hammersley guided the machine into the flak that came up from the ack-ack barrages outside Ijrauiden. No curtain of Krupp steel would prevent his getting back tonight.

I’LL HAVE a looksee about before the band strikes up, eh?” Jimmie Kegworth said, slipping out of his seat.

Hammersley turned and stared at his co-pilot as though he wondered how he came to be part of his snug party at the Fountain Hotel.

Jimmie had to hang on going through the bulkhead, for Hammersley was throwing the bus all over the shop now. The flak was stamping great batik designs against the sable canopy about them. “Jelly-belly, eh?” Kegworth called to Steadman. “Don’t know whether we’re over Haarlem or Hong Kong. Might just as well sling a dart at the chart when he jinks her about like this.”

Steadman threw his arms out in a semicircle and scooped his instruments together. A double issue of searchlight forked up from Amsterdam, semaphored back and forth twice, steadied and held the emerald Zuider Zee between the bars of a Victory-V.

Jimmie stopped and studied Dyce’s face. The engineer bloke was jotting manifold pressure data in an engine log.

“How’re we churning?”

“Any luck at all, and we’ll get back all right.”

Kegworth’s face seemed to lengthen. “Good egg ! I’ve got to get back. Meg’s about to whelp.”

The word “whelp” made Dyce wince . . . just as if one motor had cut out.

Sergeant Bollinger, at ease before his radio panel, edged over and grabbed Kegworth’s arm as he moved farther aft to climb through the main spar frame.

“ ‘Ad Meg ’ad ’er pups when you left, sir?” he enquired.

“No. Probably in the morning,” Jimmie explained. He glanced at the panel and wondered if he dared contact Sywell and make sure his setter,

Meg O’Dawn, was being properly tended by Crockett, his batman. “She’ll be all right—I hope.”

He moved on through the spar frame and steadied himself against the rest bunk. He squatted on the edge and patted the pillow gently as though he were soothing Meg. He wondered if Crockett would manage a bit of carpet which would give the pups a place to claw at so they could suckle satisfactorily.

“Hang on, Meg,” he muttered in the half-light of the wing compartment. “I’ll be back, old girl. You just wait for me.”

He closed his eyes and saw her again, a beautiful animal, warm and friendly, bearing her condition with regal dignity. She was all he had now, and he was glad he’d broken the station rule and brought her with him. There was nothing left back at Arle. Jerry had taken care of that when he was bashing Norwich about. That was after No. 208 had bombed Rostock for the second time. Queer Jerry should

have scored such an unexpected revenge. The cottage had crumbled under the blow and there were two new mounds in a churchyard, just down the road.

“Plenty of clean straw, Crockett, old son,” he went on with half-closed eyes. “A sponge down within an hour and a gentle towelling. Never mind my kit. That can wait.”

A spanking crash outside sent Jimmie leaping off the bunk. Greasy Neale was skating all over the sky and Kegworth tripped and went headlong down the companionway, rolled over on his back and lay staring breathless at the escape hatch in the roof.

Frantic voices came over the intercom demanding that someone get that swine.

Kegworth crawled along on his hands and knees until he reached the ladder that went up into Jobbins’ gun turret. He bellowed something and shoved his hand under the seat and grabbed the gunner’s ankle.

“What is it, Jobbins? What’s going on out there?”

The turret swung on greased guides and the gunner leaned over and bellowed through his knees: “I’m all right, sir ! I shoved him off all right. Think we made him stink a bit . . . Yes, he’s wrapping it up.”

“Good ! Ruddy goqd, Jobbins!”

Through the oblorig ports along the fuselage a scarlet glare threw half a dozen magic lantern sunsets on the opposite wall. They remained stationary at the level of the maintenance plank and then moved slowly upward, thinning out to mere slits of crimson, and then disappeared.

A flamer had gone down and Jimmie Kegworth staggered back along the catwalk wondering whether Crockett would manage all right.

GREASY NEALE steadied again and Hammersley listened intently to advice from Steadman: “We’re still on course, Skipper. Osnabrück ahead. Getting considerable drift now. You might bend the vector ten degrees right. One-eight-four.” “Righto! One-eight-four. Gunners report!” Hammersley called, wondering whether Rayl would like a quiet little spot down Kingston-on-Thames way, or whether she’d risk it properly and stay at the Regal Palace in town.

Sergeant Bollinger listened while Jobbins and Montague-Bates reported their concerted attack on the Messerschmitt 110 and quietly cursed his luck that he had to be on the radio panel while all that was going on. It had been in the cards that Sergeant Bollinger would become a wireless air gunner, since all his life he had enjoyed the questionable role of a Jack-of-all-trades. His long expressive hands, needled with coarse black hair, were deft and accomplished. There had been a time when he had fancied himself something of a gentleman cracksman. A Jimmy Valentine, so to speak. He’d practiced many hours, with his fingertips sandpapered almost raw, on the old biscuit tin Messrs. Umpleby and Ormiston, Mercers and Drapers, used for a safe. Unfortunately, he was caught red-handed at this delicate task and promptly sacked by the chief clerk who completely misunderstood his innocent intentions.

After that unfortunate escapade Bollinger foreswore such suspicious experiments and went in for magic and sleight-of-hand, the rudiments of which he had gleaned from a sixpenny brochure purchased one Saturday afternoon when his current hobbies began to pall.

To cut a longish story short, Sergeant Bollinger was to appear the following night on the program of the weekly concert party staged in the N.A.A.F.I. hut, under the glittering billing, The Brilliant Bollinger. For weeks now he had been practicing the opening egg trick, the amazing billiard ball mystery act, his especial and dexterous manipulation of a pack of cards and his finale (pronounced fee-nar-ley) larrup of legerdemain in which he poured a goblet of foaming beer from an old petrol tin into which had previously been sloshed some engine oil, a bottle of ink and a jam jar full of disinfectant.

He’d scrawled his patter and mouthed it night after night when things were a bit slow on the panel. He had made all arrangements to borrow a dress suit through the station padre who knew the vicar in the village. His little table and the spangled length of drapery were all ready and he had diligently polished up a bit of swagger stick for his wand.

“A chap ’as to look into the future,” he had told himself so many times. “When this mess is over, we’ll all be chucked out with a bit of blood money, a thirty-shillin’ serge suit, and left to wonder wot there is left to do in civvie life. There won’t be any jobs, because all the gals will ’ave them. I’m lookin’ arfter meself, I am.”

There was no question about it. The Brilliant Bollinger had to get back tonight.

“You must watch me closely, ladies and gentlemen,” he rehearsed quietly again while the searchlights below attempted to pierce the dural and play a giant spot on this Demon of Delusion. “The quickness of the ’and deceives the h’eye!” Once the hate simmered down, Dyce computed

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his tankage, booked the figures with a professional flourish and then turned | gingerly toward his swinging seat and sat down.

There wouldn’t be much for him to do now they were in the clear. That is, nothing much to do but worry. Already he could see the rubious j glow7 on the horizon, testifying that ; the Wellingtons had arrived on schedule and scattered their targetmarking incendiaries.

Dyce w7as a tall shapeless man w7ho might have been assembled from a lot of spare parts. His face was long and smudged with beard. His pantsbutton eyes were sewm in close together and separated by the receding bridge of a long ecclesiastical nose.

Aboard Greasy Neale Dyce was a drab workman. On the station, and about the mess, he was a swashbuckling figure of raffish splendor and swaggering efficiency. Dyce talked a good war, but once engaged in his appointed tasks over enemy areas he lost much of his bounce and the aura of his studied braggadocio w7as usually filtered into a tallow-fat splutter by the constant apprehenhension that beset him. Dyce presented a splendid example of that brand of courage which steels a man from displaying his inherent timidity, for fear his fellow men will brand him a coward.

He sat floundering in the rip tide of realization that only a few feet away, in the wings, hung three massive bombs, any one of which might suffer premature detonation by a chunk of flak and blow them all to smithereens. The fact that many more, of greater power, hung in the bomb gallery beneath his feet somehow never entered his head.

To Dyce, a safe return meant two things. First, it meant that they had got rid of those damned bombs. Dyce hated bombs. He even distrusted the ammunition in the gun turrets. Explosives were something over which he had no command, no dials, no

switches, no petcocks by which he could influence their actions.

They simply had to get back—all the way back, with empty bomb cells, too. It was a ridiculous rule that bombs were not to be released unless the target was clearly identified. What if there was a bit of indiscriminate bombing? Who cared? The Huns slung the stuff all over the garden when the Spitters got after them. Why take double the chance by bringing the plum puddings back? You could still mess it up if old Hammersley made a squeamish landing.

“I’d put this blasted instrument panel well up front,” he had mooned a dozen times. “Ridiculous, placing it here, not five feet from the wingcell bombs. A man doesn’t have a chance here!”

There was another angle too : “And if 1 had my say, I’d have another set of bomb releases on my panel. How do we know whether Steadman is alive and able to get rid of them when we’re dead over? After he yells, ‘Bomb doors open!’ a devil of a lot can happen.”

There was no sense to his fears and imaginings, but he nurtured them hour by hour, for six long terrordrenched hours. He was never certain of his fate until they were all the way back—with empty bomb cells.

On the other hand, Dyce had his role to play. He was the star turn aboard Greasy Neale and he was egoist enough to sense what was expected of him. He had assumed the mantle of Captain Bobadil and he gloried in his role. They’d all be there, from the Air Commodore down, practically queueing up to be in line and get the full effect of his flippant entrance.

All the way back he would cudgel his brain for a new phrase, a cloakflourishing raffish expression that Cosgrove of the Daily Mail would pilfer to top up his daily report on the Bomber Command.

Already a dozen of his choicest quips had found their way into the most up-to-date glossaries of R.A.F. slanguage, and were being tongued by pin-feathered cadets from John O’Groats to Melbourne.

Of course they had to get back ! It had come to him, as it always did when things seemed particularly mucky. A five-shilling line, this one. Old Dyce had come through again. *

“A main event show,” he decided he would say. “Straddled the toy shop beautifully. Quite a piece of cake, as raids go.”

Oh, there was no doubt about it. They simply had to get back. Old Cosgrove would love that one.

JERRY was planting diversion fires well to the west between Rathenow and Neustadt, hoping he could kid them into unloading their stuff before they reached Berlin. That was an old gag, but Dickie was certain of his new navigation instrument and he was positive of his position within a quarter of a mile. He racked his instruments, slipped his new sheet of symbols and figures into his book of navigation tables and called Hammersley.

“About ten minutes to go, Skipper,”he spoke clearly. “I’ll check drift

again and set out the showcase, eh?”

“This is where they’re holding the party!” Hammersley added over the intercom. “Gunners at the Alert! All stations report!”

The Wellingtons had stirred the gruel to the boiling point by now. Flak was screeching about the sky and the searchlights were piling an illuminated game of pick-up-sticks. The moon was positively wizard and the Stirling shouldered her great mass through the simooms of concussion.

Michael Jobbins maintained his vigil in the dorsal turret. He reported through to Hammersley, watched the rapier blades of the searchlights prod the sable sky and then suddenly slash and cut as if they would trim the uneven edges of the flame curtain being hung by the bombers ahead.

“It’s all very gaudy,” Jobbins commented, “but it don’t compare with our shows. Now like that Guy Fawkes night when I was going through ’Oundsditch. Ours was more even and regular. We don’t dab the blasted searchlights all over the playee, messing up the design, like. Our chaps seem to do it smoother and ‘get on’ with less bother. Like following a good draw at bowls.”

That reflection made Jobbins sit up suddenly. He kicked the traversing pedal and his guns swung around with an oily sigh. He blinked twice, cocked his head to one side to encourage deeper reflection and then suffered the impact of realization that smacked home with the thud of a howitzer buffer.

“Cor!” he gushed like something spurting out of a punctured tin lid. “We can’t do any messing about tonight. I’ve got to get back ! We’re meeting the 4th Armored Division at Kettering tomorrow! The Air Commodore won’t ’arf carry on if I ain’t there!”

He went limp under the awesome po.ssibilities of the station bowls team going to Kettering without him. Jobbins had been honored with the important post of skip on the Air Commodore’s bowls team, the one recreational risk the portly station commander ventured. There were some degenerates who went about mumbling that the Air Commodore would rather win a game of lawn bowls that get into the King’s birthday honors list.

“We’ve got to get back this time,” muttered Sergeant Jobbins. “Ooo-er ! ’Ere’s another one of the blighters!”

His guns swung back, elevated a trifle and Jobbins let a Heinkel nightfighter have it 'smack in the engine cowling.

Aft, beyond the great halberd blade of fin and rudder, MontagueBates took up the offensive also. Monty had four guns in his turret, and he caught the Heinkel just as she reached the dead stall point at the top of her screaming zoom. The distance was perfect and Monty brought her well inside the inner ring of the sight and slapped a six-second burst that pickled her properly.

“What the hell’s going on back there?” raged Hammersley over the intercom.

Dyce, from his action station, took full credit with: “My mob has just

1 snaffled a Heinkel! We’re wizard ! tonight, what?”

‘‘Bomb doors open, Skipper!” | Dickie Steadman reported from the bomb-sight platform. ‘‘Give me a run-up, southeast to northwest, will you?”

‘‘Descending to attack level,” ; answered the pilot. ‘‘Action stations, j Dyce. No messing about now. I’ve j got to get back tonight !”

Jobbins cocked his ear at the j intercom speaker and wondered ' whether they had eighteen-or t wentyi one-foot rinks at Kettering.

‘‘ You’ve got to get back?” Macklin Montagué-Bates queried amid the tangle of the tail turret. ‘‘What about me?”

HAMMERSLEY was slinging her through the bolsters of concussion and the dazzle of balefire like a man possessed. The stub-winged Stirling answered his demands with reckless gaiety and Steadman had to spread his legs and elbows to stay on the pad. The drumfire from below crashed and erupted to mark their course with flame-splashed milestones.

Aft of the fanning rudder, Montague-Bates huddled behind his gun breeches and stared into the graph-streaked night. He was a small chap with delicate features that displayed the pinch of pecunious piety. His eyes flickered like a gutting studio lamp; his shoulders sloped under the bulky Sidcot suit that encumbered his dread-numbed frame. He constantly talked aloud to himself and used theatrical gestures to home his own points.

The turret was tilted high now, for the Stirling was nosing down at the j target area below. Through the open j bomb doors the slip stream wailed ; and sent a storm of dust and loose : instrument covers against the battery of flame floats and reconnaissance flares in the wall racks. Monty hung on to the cross members and wondered how long it would be before the hit, smack in the middle of the devouring ma\V of flame and saw-toothed roofs below. Sergeant Bollinger had left his panel and taken his emergency post in the nose turret and was pouring a double stream into the grouping of gasometers huddled in I the shadows that danced beyond the glare of the incendiaries.

This was the minute Monty dreaded. He felt entirely alone, helpless and trapped in a tangled j environment, remote and apart. 1 There was no one to talk to, no one j to look at, no one who by glance or grimace could let him know what was happening. The intercom speaker offered only a mad unintelligible jumble of cries, curses, commands and confusion; the words and metallic raspings of the speaker vibrators only intensified the realization that he had to get back, this night of all nights.

He consulted his watch and made a quick calculation. Fully three hours had passed and there were three more to go. He figured again and the pile-up of hours only made him gag on his dread.

‘T put it on at 7.30 after the final briefing,” he tongue-lashed himself again. ‘Tf I hadn’t stopped to talk i to that girl outside the N.A.A.F.I. •

hut . . . it wouldn’t have mattered, j I’ve only got about fifty-five hours : left!”

Hammersley brought her around again after the run-up and took the orders from Steadman: “Right,

Skipper! Hold her due southeast now. Three thousand. I’d like to begin where the railway lines come out of the goods yard.”

The pilot stiffened everything and waited until the compass card came around and then levelled her off for the actual attack.

“Right! Right, Skipper. Hold her on . . . steady now . . . there!”

The big Stirling jerked with the release of the load. Steadman, glued to his Wimperis sight, began to count and punch the release buttons in pairs. The bomb gear grumbled and the steadying springs scrawnched as the eggs plunged away. Hammersley fought the big wheel and held her true while Kegworth peered out the side window and tried to determine the results.

Behind them on the fight-control platform Dyce stood anxiously waiting until the wing-cell bombs had cleared. He sucked in his breath and saw the guns of the dorsal turret swinging around.

“Bandits attacking from starboard quarter!” he bellowed into the intercom mike. “Get that swine, Monty !”

“Bombs away!” Steadman bellowed. “Bombs ...”

The chorus of angry explosive roared below as Hammersley tilted her over and shot through the searchlight glare. A rage of machinegun metal slashed and cut through the dural walls of the fuselage and Hammersley let out a choked scream and threw his gloved hands to his face. The big wheel went wild and Kegworth hurled himself across the cockpit and grabbed at it. He gripped it tight, threw one arm across Hammersley’s chest and held him clear.

“Bomb doors closed!” yelled Steadman.

Another glare of scarlet frenzy seared the sky and Dyce cried out: “Another mess-up, Skipper! A proper flamer, that!”

The Stirling slithered into a quaking sideslip while Kegworth bellowed for assistance: “Dyce! Dyce! Give a hand. Hammersley’s stopped a creaser!”

There was a peal of exultation in Kegworth’s voice even though the bomber had slobbered away several hundred feet of important altitude. The co-pilot dragged her out and got her nose level again while Hammersley floundered about trying to clear his Sutton straps and get away from the bank of white-knobbed throttles.

“Stopped a beauty, sir!” assured Sergeant Bollinger as he came back and helped Dyce get Hammersley back to the rest bunk. “E’ll ’ave a narsty ’eadache in the mornin’, but it’s a real ’oliday tap !”

“This one’s worth ten quid,” Dyce was agreeing while he pawed through the first-aid kit. “Some blokes have all the luck. You’ll have to part your hair on the other side for a time. Now hold still and we’ll I have you ready for Nursie by the time we get back.”

“I’ll contact the station, sir. They’ll be all ready for you.”

Kegworth cleared her and called for a position. Jobbins and Montague-Bates were still packing it to the Mess-ups like a couple of demons. There was a distinct spasm of surrender that seemed to stop the bomber dead and Kegworth screamed something from up front. Dyce stood erect, listened and glanced out of a port.

“Tankage!” he yelled. “ ’S truth! That’s me!”

He raced forward and lurched to the engineer’s panel and twisted a small black knurled wheel and snapped in a new series of fuel tanks. Kegworth held her in a glide and methodically brought the two fluttering engines on the port side to a new bellow of triumph.

“Good! Good old Dyce!” he yelled.

“What’s up?” demanded Steadman, comingup the catwalk. “Where’s the Skipper?”

“Gone aft to have his hair fingerwaved. He just stopped a beauty,” said Dyce, delighted with his retort. They could always rely on old Dyce.

“Ooo-er!” bleated Steadman, making his way back to Kegworth. “Well in the clear now, Jimmie. Try it for half an hour on approximately three. That should take us north of the coast flak for a time at least. Sure you’re all right?”

“Don’t worry. I’ll get her back. I’ve got to get back!”

“So have I. I’ve just discovered I can get a fix in about . . . but never mind. I’ll finish up below and then come back and sit with you. Those blasted props out there bother me!”

“Righto! Gunners report please!” Jimmie called, aglow with the importance of his new command.

“All clear 'ere, sir,” Jobbins answered. “We are a-goin’ to get back all right, ain’t we, sir? Me and Monty ’ave driven them off all right, sir.”

“What do you say, Monty?” Jimmie demanded.

“I’m all right, sir. They seem to have bunged off after the others. We’re going to get back all right, aren’t we?” Monty pleaded.

“You can put next week’s pay on Mr. Kegworth,” Jimmie confided over the intercom. “Don’L'worry, lads. I’ve got to get back. It’s something to do about a lady who’s going to have a baby—several babies, in fact.”

Greasy Neale slammed on through the night.

THEY touched in with just over six hours on the engine logs and Kegworth dabbed her down as gently as his enthusiasm and anxiety would permit. He rolled her up to her dispersal area, bellowing out of the slide hatch for Crockett.

Steadman clambered out first, holding his new instrument, and was explaining it to a bewildered Bollinger: “You see, I have this pair of mirrors which, combined with this prism, deflect the light of two particular stars into this telescope, in such a manner that when the images are seen superimposed in the centre of the field of view ...”

“It’s a bit too much for me, sir. I can do things wiv mirrors, like

making a box of cigars disappear— but this sort of thing. By the way, sir, I ’opes you’ll pop in and do the N.A.A.F.I. concert party tomorrow night,” The Brilliant Bollinger said evasively.

Dyce and Jobbins appeared in the doorway, supporting Hammersley. The gunner saw that Steadman had grabbed the Air Commodore’s attention. He hoped he’d get the chance to mention that he was back all right and would be available for the Kettering match.

“Here we are. Safe and sound,” Dyce was saying. “You’ll get at least two weeks in dock with this lot — and then a spot of leave; you lucky dog!”

But Flight Lieutenant Hammersley could only hold his head and curse his luck.

“Don’t worry! Don’t worry,” the Air Commodore said with sympathy, and shoving Steadman and his new sextant to one side, “you can do with

a rest. You’ll have a squadron to worry about after this. Promotion, my boy! Everybody else all right?”

“All right?” Dyce crowed brazenly. “We shed a spot of Britain’s bravest and bluest, sir; but it was a main event show. We straddled the toy shop beautifully! Quite a piece of cake, as raids go.”

“Oh good! Jolly good, that!” the Air Commodore beamed. Then he turned and made a grab for a gunner: “Here! Here you. Where are you off to?”

It was Macklin Montague-Bates, all gear and gasps. Monty turned and fingered with his crotch straps. He glanced at his wrist watch anxiously: “Me, sir? I’ve got to be off. You see, sir, I left my little wireless set on when we left, and it’s a battery model—and there’s only about fiftyfive hours of juice left. You don’t mind, do you, sir? I’ll be back in a minute.”

The Air Commodore just blinked.