PERCY JOHN BUTTERWORTH was born in a Midlands city exactly eighteen years ago. Percy John inherited considerable Lancashire guile and logic from his mother, and the Midlands calm and unreasoning love of dumb beasts from his father. In his physical frame he somehow co-ordinated all the misshapen features of both. His face was crudely egg-shaped and his ginger-colored hair seemed to have been glued on in tufts. His eyes were a watery post-card blue, lightly set in eyelet sockets and eaved with heavy curved eyebrows which produced a countenance of bewitching credulity. But Percy John was an expert of sorts. With his father it was whippets. With Percy John it was pigeons.
The war was a shock to Percy John. You could read the papers, but all you read was bad. On this particular Saturday morning the newspapers were blazing with the announcement of the sinking of the aircraft-carrier Sagacious. That was bad, but the blow suffered when he learned that his mother had disposed of his loft of homing pigeons was the final thud that settled the fate of a German battleship which at that time had not been launched.
“A man wanted them,” his mother explained coldly. “A government man, an’ so I sold 'em. People complaining all up and down the street about the dirt anyway.”
‘‘But—but what are they going to do with them? Did they take Chesty and Pongo?”
‘‘Took the lot! I don’t know the names you give ’em. I just gave the man the book what ’as the band numbers in it.”
‘‘But didn’t he say what they wanted them for, Mam?” Percy John persisted.
‘‘Something about the Air Force ... I don’t know. It carn’t be that they feed the airmen on pigeons, can it? Anyway if you want to know you’d better go and arsk them yourself,” Mrs. Butterworth replied, charging up the alley.
And Percy John did !
The ways of war are strange and mysterious as Percy John discovered after he began his quest.
The pigeon business had some influence and he next found himself in a baggy blue uniform at the R.A.F. School of Signals.
‘‘What about having a go at air gunnery and wireless?” the Personnel Officer at Halton asked. “I think you’d like that.”
‘‘Well, I was . . . er . . . thinking about pigeons,” Percy John began.
‘‘Pigeons? . . . Oh, of course! Well, you get quite a lot of it at Grantham, you know. It’s part of the gunnery practice.”
Butterworth struggled with a constricted epiglottis. ‘‘Pigeons, Sir? You shoot pigeons?”
‘‘Of course! Develops the eye and trains the reflexes. They set up a mobile Thompson-Nash turret and you fire at pigeons . . . that is clay pigeons. Rather good sport, what?”
Percy John’s stomach wabbled back into place and he gasped like a grampus when he realized that so far Pongo and Chesty were still off the casualty lists. He made another clutch at the soggy straws of hope.
“Couldn’t I take care of the pigeons, Sir? I rather like pigeons. I used to have a loft of my own. That’s why I came here to join up.”
The Group Captain was supposed to dig up some Air Gunner material somewhere, and this bloke Butterworth was hardly co-operating.
“But don’t you see, Butterworth,” he explained, “if you pass as a Gunner-Radioman, you will have charge of the pigeons. That is, the two you carry with you ... in case . . . well, in case you are shot ... er, that is forced down at sea. You take two carrier pigeons. You release the pigeons with a distress message and they return to your area depot and your position is known fairly quick. You see, we need chaps like you who know how to handle pigeons,” the Group Captain was saying.
“But what about Pongo and Chesty?” Percy John inserted into the minutes.
“Pongo and Chesty?” the Group Captain spluttered. “Are those pals of yours?”
“Well, yes Sir. In a way, Sir. They were my two best homing pigeons,” explained Percy John with earnestness. “They took second and fifth in the last big race. Chesty has a rippled white collar . . . band No. 19896. Pongo’s a liver-brown, Sir, band No. 28674. A government man came and took them away.”
The Group Captain shoved his silver-tinged hair back with long knobby-knuckled fingers, his slateblue eyes staring at Butterworth.
“Then you didn’t come here to . . . er . . . join up? You came to find a couple of pigeons?”
“Well, no. Not exactly, Sir. I’m quite willing to fight the Nazis . . . if . . . well, about Chesty and Pongo, Sir?”
The Personnel Officer paced off three lengths of the office. He repeated over and over in his mind the fact that the strangest people make good Air Gunners. Choir boys, shoe clerks, ex-jockeys they had.
Aircraftman Butterworth bore none of these qualifications. All he possessed was a one-sided and unreasoning loyalty to a pair of pigeons. Still, he reflected, the Air Force needed gunners. The Fleet Air Arm was screaming for gunners. They had plenty of pigeons in the Fleet Air Arm.
“We’ve got a war on, Butterworth,” he began again. “It’s a ruddy tough war, and you’re in it, whether you like it or not. We’re not winning this war as yet and it may be a long time before we do. How’d you like to help us win it?”
“Me, Sir?” gargled Percy John.
“I want you to do me a special favor, Butterworth. I want you to go in for a Gunner-Radioman. I want you to put in for Fleet Air Arm posting. Whatderyersay?”
The gods twanged a string and Percy John’s uncertainty recoiled against the demon of his fear and he answered, “Yes, Sir. I’ll do my best. Never mind about the pigeons, Sir.”
“No. I’ll take those band numbers, Butterworth. I’ll see what I can do for you. Is it a deal?” the Group Captain asked, shoving out his hand. Percy John took it, then saluted and backed off, feeling that he had agreed to lie down in front of a train.
AIRCRAFTMAN BUTTERWORTH advanced through the chairs of Mars with no particular distinction, but he advanced. He learned to pound out Morse and to pack a parachute. He blasted at clay pigeons and learned the sequence of action in the Vickers-K and Lewis guns. At Leuchars they gave him air time with a Navy rating pilot who was getting experience off a ground catapult until Percy John felt that he was slowly being jerked to a jelly. At an R.A.F. Fleet Air Arm station, traditionally named H.M.S. Mandrake, he gained further appreciation of Fleet Air Arm horrors with a stolid South African who spent weeks learning how to get a Fairey Seafox down on a whitewashed outline of an aircraft-carrier after Percy John had dropped the required number of dummy bombs on most of the local cabbage patches.
Only the Personnel Group Captain at Halton remembered him once he had passed on to other stations.
Air Gunner Percy John Butterworth was officially delivered aboard H.M.S. Indubitable and placed on the strength of No. 22 Torpedo-Bomber squadron. He sported his Air Gunner’s badge and wore the Air Force blue with some degree of familiarity, but he still moved uncertainly like a wanderer in search of something illogical.
“Which of you men is Air Gunner Butterworth?” the Senior Air Officer demanded, following a cursory deck inspection.
Percy John stepped forward one pace—and quaked.
“Oh ! So you’re the pigeon bloke,” the Senior Air Officer crackled from beneath his peaked cap. “Well, we’re sorry to disappoint you, but we have only very ordinary homing pigeons here. Is that clear?”
It wasn’t, but Percy John sifted words through his clenched teeth and stepped back.
“We have no one aboard listed as . . . er . . . Chesty and,” the S.A.O. consulted a sheaf of message forms again and frowned, “Chesty and Pongo. I hope you won’t mind the . . .”
“Perhaps if you knew the band numbers, Sir,” popped out of Percy John before he could stopper the flow of suggestion.
“Silence!” cannonaded a barrel-chested Chief Petty Officer.
Percy John wilted and heard no more.
“. . . this is an aircraft-carrier, not a ruddy pet shop,” the S.A.O. was saying. “We are under orders to join the North Atlantic patrol of the Second Battle Squadron and we expect action. That’s all . . . Dismiss!”
Percy John semaphored through the formality of saluting again and managed to stumble over his kit bag. The others fluttered away and charged for the superstructure companionways as though they had been born aboard aircraft-carriers. .
“Come lad,” a pleasant paternal voice said behind him, “ye’ll no be gettin’ anywhere standin’ here like yer hobnails are rusted to the deck.” “Yes, Sir! . . . No, Sir!” said Percy John, gushing like a soggy petard.
“Ah’m yer pilot, lad. Flight Lieutenant Fraser,” the Scot explained, grabbing Butterworth by the shoulder. “Ye seem a little flustered, lad.”
Fraser was tall and would have looked handsome in a Seaforth philabeg. His R.A.F. kit seemed to have been borrowed hurriedly. He had a distinct bow to his legs, his face was thin and pinched, and he might have been twenty-four or forty.
“Yes, Sir. You see, I’d hardly expected all this,” Percy John said, glancing along the length of the teak flight deck.
“Aye. This war is full o’ disappointments, lad. Ah wanted tae be a Spitfire pilot-, an’ here Ah am, a’luggin’ a blasted great torpedo about!”
Percy John liked Flight Lieutenant Fraser from the start. They at least had something in common. He poured out his soul there before the blast screen. Fraser nodded compassionately.
“Well, ye mustn’t take the Senior Air Officer too serious,” he advised. “He agrees he knows a wee bit about pigeons,” muttered Fraser, standing off and getting a better view of what he had drawn in this lottery of men and machines. In the first dip he’d plucked a Swordfish instead of a Spitfire. Now he’d been saddled with a flustered gunner who loved pigeons and probably knew nothing about extracting a bulged cartridge.
“Ah admire yer loyalty, lad,” he added, “but ye’d be better off makin’ certain of yer stoppages. By the time ye’ll be puttin’ yer hopes on a pigeon, there’s little hope left.”
“You don’t know Chesty and Pongo, Sir,” Percy John said proudly.
“Aye! But Ah hope ye never have tae touch one while yer actin’ as gunner fer me, lad. But come, we’ll go below an’ get ye settled.”
THE Indubitable churned out of the harbor of Scapa Flow late the next afternoon. She twanged and jangled with steely expectancy, her signal panel scraunching and flicking off coded orders. The cruisers ahead were grim and overbearing, like big brothers of a fighting family; anxious to show their power, but self-conscious of the might of the battleships Barham, Warspite, Valiant and Malaya that were picking up their milk-streaked wakes and churning them into even wider roadsteads of broiling froth.
The destroyers were saucy and flippant. They zipped in and out with the abandon of lean shelties, and took up the patrol sublime in their belief they alone were responsible for the security and safety of the squadron. Overhead boomed the deep-bellied Sunderlands, wide-winged and alive with importance and throbbing tonal quality.
“You’d think they’d spotted her, the way they chuck their weight about,” the Flight Deck Officer was saying from the starboard director tower. “Ruddy little Walrus amphibian managed to clear the Tremendous before she went down. Someone will get gonged for getting her off the catapult. Damn fine job of work, that.”
“They say she’s making a break for it above the Faroes,” the Gunnery Officer added. “It is the Raeder, isn’t it?”
“Rather! First salvo at twenty-three thousand took the Tremendous’ steering gear away, and from then on she couldn’t keep the convoy together. Beastly luck, that!”
Below, Flight Lieutenant Fraser was going over enemy silhouettes and cutaway diagrams with Percy John in the lecture room.
“Ye’ll see from this chart,” Fraser was saying, “she’s a big one. Ye’ll tell her mainly by her single funnel with the catapults aft. She’s verra compact an’ ye’ll notice too how her main turrets are planted close to the fore and aft range-finder platforms . . . as compared now with the lengths of the Queen Elizabeth, here. There’s not much to hit, lad. Yon black portion is heavy armor.”
Percy John stared at the skeleton drawing of the Raeder with as much awe as he might produce were he inspecting the internal arrangements of some prehistoric mammoth.
“Would one of our torpedoes stop her, Sir?” he asked faintly.
“Not them, lad. All there’s left for us to shoot at is this short portion for’ard or this little bit aft. We’ll not worry about that. We’ll try to get their Arados. See yon catapults? They have four Arados aboard her, lad. Two for you and two for me,” gloated Flight Lieutenant Fraser.
“Ay lad. Ruddy old seaplanes . . . for spottin’. We’ll spot ’em!”
“But our torpedo, Sir. What about the torpedo?”
Fraser steadied a wince and turned away. He sensed that young Butterworth had all the confidence and the feeling of Eternity that is reserved to Youth. To Percy John it seemed a simple matter to plant a 1,000-pound torpedo into the few available feet of a racing battleship. He couldn’t know, even though the diagrammed illustration showed them, that there were seven anti-aircraft gun turrets along the port and starboard sides of the Raeder. Those 4-point-ls and 3-point-5s on high-angle Flak mountings could hurl almost a ton of metal death at them during the few seconds it took to complete a torp-attack from the desired level. But how easy it looked and sounded in the weekly picture magazines !
“We’ll get rid of the torp, lad,” Mangus Fraser said finally. “But wait until we get a sight on the ruddy Arados . . . We can whip them, lad.”
And with that Flight Lieutenant Fraser headed for the Gun Room.
Percy John stared at the silhouette again and caught it all. The difference in their years was bridged in a flash. His immature intellect galloped a few startled paces and caught up with the fearful imagination of his pilot.
“I don’t think Mister Fraser likes torpedo-bombing,” he muttered. “I think he’d sooner fight . . . a bit higher up. Still, if we had Chesty and Pongo it wouldn’t be too bad.”
SEVENTEEN hours out of Scapa Flow contact was made with the German raider squadron. The Yeoman of Signals was pasty of complexion and his beard seemed to have been needled in from a harsh bobbin. He shuttled back and forth with leg-weary staggers. From the elbow of the Skipper jutted a Barr and Stroud telescope with all the belligerency of an antitank gun.
The Indubitable was lathering up for her task now and maintaining station as long as possible with the cruisers and capital ships. Her escort destroyer moved in again as the signal panel began to scraunch in sadistic chorus with the chain hoists of the lifts. The Skipper peered up from the hood of his Vitabuoy wind jacket and said, “Fancy a direct hit from twenty-three thousand. Struth !”
The mysterious program of action was bewildering to most of the flying personnel, who felt helpless amid this harsh efficiency of bridge and deck. They could only stand by while the Fairey Swordfish and Fulmar fighters were brought up on the lifts and run into the shelter of the low screens. They could only keep repeating in their minds the details and data of the course the Senior Air Officer had given them in the operations cabin.
“Ah hear she got the Tremendous,” Flight Lieutenant Fraser muttered at Percy John while they waited for their Swordfish’s wings to be opened and locked. “She went down last night, trying to shield a convoy.”
“Will there be a battle, Sir?”
“Ay. An’ we’re supposed to stop her . . . somehow!”
Fraser turned and glanced at the scarlet war head of the fifteen-hundred-pound torpedo that hung from the cradle between the wheels of his torpedobomber.
“Yon detonator in that blasted thing is enough to blow a man’s leg off.”
“But ... it can’t do any harm to us, can it, Sir?” “Not unless a slug gets through the nose casing before we get rid of it. In that case, lad ...” Fraser closed his bristle-fringed eyes and turned to the Artificer who was holding an engine logbook for him to initial. The 800 h.p. Pegasus engines were wigwagging through the initial jerks of opening up; the signal panel was scraunching again and the Fulmars were being dragged clear to give a take-off lane for the bombers. Armament Artificers loaded with Lewis drums were handing up the pans of .303 to the gunners. Instrument chaps had fuselage panels open giving the Marconi sets a last check, and grinning deck hands were chalking ribald messages on the torps.
Percy John felt hungry for the first time since he had been aboard this floating madhouse. He tightened the belt of his coverall and made another adjustment on his Irvin parachute harness. He fumbled with the instep straps of his flying boots, then stood erect again and tried the fit of his helmet. C.P.O.s were barking advice to him. Deck officers were giving him warnings and deck ratings pleaded with him to make sure “Mister Fraser got one ’ome!”
Butterworth answered each in turn, saluting and clicking his heels to all and sundry. He sensed that everything aboard an aircraft-carrier somehow scraunched. The lifts scraunched, the inertia starters scraunched, the retractable radio masts scraunched, the signal panel scraunched and the gun mountings scraunched when the Armament men tested them. The whole business, made Percy John’s saliva glands give off a fluid that tasted like battery acid.
His fear was rising now. He was watching Flight Lieut. Fraser, who stood on the wing root collecting the “Ready” signals from the other pilots of his section. Butterworth’s fear was reaching its highest possible pitch, because he knew now that Fraser was wishing he was a Spitfire pilot. He swallowed hard and tried to remember what the code letters were for, “We are carrying out a forced landing.” He stuck his foot into the wing stirrup and somehow managed to clamber up into the rear cockpit. The prop rammed a blast of slip stream back at him that nearly tore his helmet off.
“All gear aboard, Butterworth?” Fraser asked with clarity through the communication phones.
“I think so, Sir. I checked her below before she was brought on the deck.”
A round jovial face appeared suddenly over the outer rim of the gun mounting, “ ’Ere’s yer poultry, Butterworth! Wiv the compliments of the Senior Air Officer,” yelled the loft attendant, shoving over a small oblong wicker basket. “An’ ’ere’s yer chubes and message forms. Sign ’ere!”
The loft man leaned over and hooked the basket inside the fuselage well aft of the gun mounting. Percy John glanced over the equipment sheet and signed for two pigeons, two message tubes and a pad of tissue sheets. He glanced at the band numbers, but they in no way coincided with 19896 or 28674 ... a double set of digits he remembered as well as he recalled his own name. He wondered if the Group Captain at Halton still had those numbers.
The Flight Deck Officer was clear of the palisade now, taking over with his official flutter of semaphore discs. He got the nod from the S.A.O. who was grinning from the bridge, and the open palm signal of “Ready” from Fraser. The F.D.O. raised one semaphore directly over his head and the deck ratings scrambled clear, dragging wheel chocks, and darted for the base of the superstructure.
The escorting destroyer Spittlegate closed in with a furrow of Norwegian sea froth at her bow. The crash crew in their asbestos suits huddled near the pom-pom platform, opening and closing their metal cutters in Mephistophelian anticipation. The Flight Deck Officer in greatcoat and storm helmet stood wide-legged and directed an “Action” finger at the cinema port under the bridge. That would get film evidence of any infraction of take-off rules.
“Those Fulmar fighter chaps have the life,” muttered Fraser, watching his temperature. “All they have to worry about is popping off at blasted old Arados. Ah’d love to get an Arado!”
THE steam-jet wind direction indicator was bathing a damp patch on the deck. The helmsman brought the Indubitable around and the feather of vapor was swept down, sending 800 horsepower and half a ton of high explosive thundering down the deck.
There was a dull hollow emptiness inside Percy John’s frame as the Swordfish hung suspended over the death area below the deck lip, and he drew in his belly until Fraser eased back on the stick and curled her into the clear.
They filled their safety belts again, and Butterworth watched the second torpedo-bomber of their section crawl down the deck and then suddenly slam over into a savage climbing turn.
Fraser sensed that that was Chick Ransome. Chick was the son of a preacher and was making up for all the rigid nonconformist history of his father. Chick was slight and frail, but as game as a bantam cock.
Pilot Officer Malcomb Wortley screamed off next. Wortley was a simple soul, beloved by every rating aboard the Indubitable. There was no side or flutter about young Wortley. He flew her straight off and gained his altitude carefully and then sat upstairs until Fraser and Ransome moved into position. Then he turned around and asked his gunner to repeat their patrol orders.
The three Swordfish circled the carrier once and got the final “Away” signal from the jack staff. Fraser glanced over again and saw a covey of Fulmars hammering down the black guide line and sweeping off the lip and into the sky to protect them.
The course was almost due north. The Raeder was racing for the sanctuary of some Norwegian fiord. The Fulmars were well above them now and cruising in wide S-turns keen on the scent of the German raider. They disappeared like midges through several piles of cover - producing cumulus clouds heaped like stacks of sugar doughnuts.
It was young Wortley who spotted her first. The Fulmars had curved away too far to the east and the Raeder was screwing into a gossamer design of surface mist.
“Isn’t that her, Fraser?” young Wortley enquired over his flap-mike. “Ahead there, about two o’clock through that hole shaped like Rutlandshire.”
Fraser gasped, and reached in for the torpedo release.
“Looks more like Lanarkshire to me,” protested the Scot, “but Ah see what ye mean, Malcomb. Ay, that’s her. Where’s the Fulmars?”
“Rutlandshire,” persisted Wortley. Then the world was suddenly framed off in angular chunks with tracer lines forming the outlines. There was a dull but penetrating explosive thud that seemed to hammer with a rubber mallet on the side of their fuselage. They twisted and saw Ransome blown clear of his craft and flung like a pudgy rag doll from a tangle of wreckage that had been his Swordfish. He seemed to have been forked out with a trident of scarlet flame jabbed from somewhere below the torp.
The rubbery blow raged into a savage bellow of metallic fury that made them draw their lips back over their teeth. The chance in a thousand had happened and it had happened to Chick Ransome who had never worried about torps and scarlet war heads.
Fraser turned and stared at Butterworth. Percy John stared back at him. Neither said a word. The tangle of dural and wing panels dropped out of sight through the cloud banks.
“Damn it, man,” raged Fraser over his shoulder. “Did ye not see that Arado?”
A German biplane with stubby floats came down out of nowhere, blasting at them with her fixed Parabellums. Fraser, bellowing Highland oaths, whanged the Swordfish up at her and tried to get his Aldis sight on the seaplane as she pulled out of her dive. There was a crackle of gunfire from Wortley’s rear pit that rang cupronickel off the Jerry’s floats, and Fraser’s machine fell off into a stall-slip and slithered into a cloud bank.
IN AS many seconds as it takes to tell the sky was clear of planes. Fraser stared about, picked up a flap-mike and reported back to the Indubitable of his contact. Then he called Wortley and tried to re-form.
“I didn’t see him in time, Sir,” wailed Percy John over Fraser’s shoulder.
“Ay, lad. That’s the law of compensation. Ransome saw him an’ probably tried to head him off. You’re still here an’ Ransome’s . . . well, lad, there’s Arados in these clouds somewhere.”
“But what about the battleship, Sir? It’s below, you know.”
“We’ll take care of him later, lad. I want that Arado !”
Fraser called in his flap-mike again and tried to contact Wortley. He called the Fulmars and received a gargled report that they were engaging Messerschmitt 110s at eleven thousand. Fraser beamed with a new and wholesome joy.
“Come ye, lad,” he bellowed at Percy John again. “We’re to get us an Arado !”
“I think Mister Wortley went down after the Raeder, Sir.”
“Ay, an’ we’re goin’ upstairs, lad !”
The Swordfish with her heavy torpedo struggled to get through the cloud bank. Fraser was ignoring the Raeder entirely in his effort to get revenge on the Jerry seaplanes. They slipped into the clear once and spotted a Messerschmitt 110 fluttering down minus a wing. Then Fraser screamed like a top-pitch drone of a bagpipe and whanged the Swordfish across the sky as he spotted an Arado.
Percy John reacted to the twanging of plucked strings that was going on inside him and leaped into the fray with a zest he had never before experienced. Fraser bellowed his war cry again as he saw Percy John place a Grantham bead on the Arado and carefully direct three short bursts into her. The seaplane rolled over, gushed flame from her engine cowling and threw a float clean over her top wing.
Percy John sat down, and caught himself blubbering. He shoved his goggles up to drain out the tears that had collected at the bottom of the rubber pads. He sat there gripping the sides while the Scot doll-danced the Swordfish after an Arado that was hammering for a hole in a cloud.
Percy John stared over once, caught the scarf of greasy smoke that had been left by the Jerry he had potted, and sniffed again. He turned and stuck his head under the deck dome to protect his eyes while he cleared his goggles, and waited for the end. Fraser was still chasing Arados and slinging front-gun lead all over the sky.
Butterworth’s eyes gradually became adjusted to the changes of light that were flicking on and off under the deck and he suddenly remembered the pigeons. He realized that they must be getting a terrible beating in all this madness.
“Poor little creatures,” he blubbered. “You’ll be knocked to pieces in here. Keep your wings closed tight or you’ll rip all your coverts out against the bars. Here . . . I’ll hold on to you for a few minutes.”
Suddenly the insanity going on about him no longer impaled him with fear and terror. He unhooked the wicker basket and drew it toward him and held it so that the wailing slip stream would not knife through the wicker frame. Flight Lieut. Fraser was still chasing Arados and taking no notice of the German battleship below which was now hammering bracketing shots at them and hanging necklaces of jet against the snowy breast of the sky.
HAD FRASER forgotten all about the Sagacious and the Tremendous? Percy John’s mind ricochetted back to that Saturday morning months ago when he had seen the black headlines and had discovered the tragedy of his pigeons. That brought him to Chesty and Pongo again, and he repeated the registration numbers and wondered if they still carried his old bands.
He raised the basket from his lap gently to peer through the bars and let out a low cry of recognition. There could be no mistake about it. A liverbrown and a blue with a rippled neck band. And a small tag inside with: “With the compliments of the Senior Air Officer,” block-lettered on it. Different numbers, but Chesty and Pongo just the same!
“Chesty! . . . Pongo!” Percy John cried. He set his teeth and stared in again and caught the unmistakable markings of Chesty’s upper mandible and the delicate sepia hue of Pongo’s primaries. All those points were registered with the Pigeon Fanciers’ Association. He was certain of it now and . . . Chesty was poking his ripple-streaked beak through the bars. Good old Chesty !
Percy John stared about again and a spasm of tempestuous realization constricted his shoulder muscles. It was like a story, and yet . . , The Senior Air Officer had bawled him out, and yet . . . This was something he had always wanted to live . . . The realization that he really had friends . . . The Senior Air Officer . . . The sensation of being something in this great drama, this adventure. Chesty and Pongo !
Butterworth’s clothes suddenly fitted, his shoes took a comforting grip about his insteps. He tucked the basket under his arm and stood up.
“Mister Fraser! Mister Fraser!” he yelled. “We can do it now! We can do it. We’ve got Chesty and Pongo! Chesty and Pongo! My homers. You can take a chance now, Sir! They’ll get in safe if we have a forced landing, Sir!”
Fraser edged around against the binding of his Sutton seat belt and peered at Butterworth and then at the upper corner of the basket.
“She’s down there, Sir. The Raeder! We can take a chance on her. We’ve got Chesty and Pongy . . . They were in the first five ... in the big race I told you about.”
Fraser gargled into a welter of unintelligible dialect and then added, “Five hundred miles they’ll have to fly if we go down, lad !”
“But they can do it, Sir. Chesty did five hundred in less than eight hours, Sir.”
“With a good wind, eh, lad?” “Light breeze, Sir,” admitted Percy John. “But we can take a chance, can’t we, Sir?”
“Ah well, we've downed all the Arados that came up; we might as well try the torp, eh lad?”
“You’ll try, Sir? You’ll take a chance?”
“The Senior Air Officer didn’t put them birds in yer basket fer nothin’. The man’s a student of human nature. Hang on, lad !”
THE LOGGY Swordfish shuddered up with a dirge of twangy flying wires and a floundering Fulmar fighter fluttered past dragging a curled boa of flame. Fraser screamed at it and rammed his rudder pedal over hard. Percy John hung on, replaced the pigeon basket and crouched ready with his gun. The Ack-Ack guns of the Raeder flamed jets of saffron and the shells screamed past them as the torpedo-bomber started down. The raider swung hard against a port rudder and tried to escape. The Swordfish bounced off a buttress of explosive blast and almost went over on her back.
“Chesty and Pongo,” breathed Percy John, and prayed for a plane target.
Fraser forced the big biplane back into her attack glide and reached forward for the release. An Arado slammed at them from a tight angle and Percy John with his rear gun managed to spread a packet for them to slam into. The German seaplane continued on and then exploded in mid-air when a Fulmar fighter javelined in from somewhere behind Fraser’s tail.
Percy John glanced round. The layout below was increasing in size and detail and spreading out across the frame of the centre-section struts. The Jerry gunners were slamming it at them over open sights now and an outer wing strut went away with the plunk of a giant banjo string. The Swordfish jerked and tried to get her head as an aileron ripped away, leaving a snag tooth of duralumin and a flutter of doped fabric.
The angle was right now as Fraser tortured the Swordfish into the required dive.
“There’s not much to hit,” Fraser was saying, “just a bit aft of the rear gun turret.”
The fear of the torpedo was gone now. What of it if the detonator was powerful enough to blow a man’s leg off? What of it if a slug caught it? It was only eighteen inches across the nose. They hadn't much to hit either!
Fraser huddled down lower against the specks of flame that pecked from a forward pom-pom platform and then drew the Swordfish out trim on the streamlined stack of the Raeder. She was trying to turn again and he prayed he had judged his angle correctly. He closed his eyes, laced in his vitals again and yanked back on the cradle release.
As they clambered on up through the tornado of metal and tracer the Swordfish leaped with the release of the projectile and Percy John caught himself by the heels as the violent jerk almost threw him clear. The torpedo-bomber went into a steep climbing turn, her wing tip pivoting through the smoke trailing to leeward from the Raeder. They charged through the acrid screen and came out into the clear. Percy John looked back and saw a chalk line being drawn across the rollers by some invisible hand and heading dead for the stern of the battleship.
He scrambled around and bellowed at Fraser, who was fighting the Swordfish to get her on an even keel again. Below, a tremendous geyser of greenish-white spumed up and fell across the aft deck of the Raeder and appeared to be trying to gain a throttle hold on the superstructure with gigantic icy paws.
The sound came next; an earsplitting boom of metallic stridency that punched a bolster of air pressure at the tail of the Swordfish and rammed her forward until she threatened to buckle in the middle and bucket into a dive.
The blow had been delivered and the Raeder had been stopped. She had been halted and it was but a matter of hours before the heavy cruisers could come up and deliver the coup de grace.
“They’re all right, Sir. They’re safe!” Percy John ranted, over Fraser’s shoulder.
“Damn!” the Scot swore. “I was certain we hauled her clean!”
“We did, Sir. Smack in the screws ... in the stern. I meant Chesty and Pongo. They’re all right. Both of them !”
“Ay. The Senior Air Officer will be very glad to know that, lad. He’s been givin’ his personal attention to those two for several weeks now. Ah knew what was expected of us when ye told me he’d put them aboard.”
“And we didn’t need them after all. But it was nice to know they were aboard, eh Sir?”
“Verra nice, lad. Verra nice,” Fraser admitted.