THE ALERT room didn’t appear particularly alert. It was long and low and had all the characteristics of a disused rabbit warren. The lights were dim and the battered tin stove smoked.
“If Grimes hadn’t been so cocky about Beaufighters being better than Hurricanes, it wouldn’t have happened,” Morse, the Skipper of Red Flight, grumbled from behind the goggles that shielded his eyes.
“Well, they are better, aren’t they?” demanded old Jackson, the Air Intelligence Officer. “I mean to say, you chaps have two engines. Now in the last war, we were flying Bristol Fighters ...”
Young Splinter Dingley took it up from there. Splinter was young enough to appreciate Jackson. The other war still retained a certain aura of individual crusade, whereas night-flying with No. 112 R.C.A.F. was too cut and dried.
“It’s like this, Jackson,” Splinter began. “Just before you came, Squadron Leader Grimes was awarded the D.S.O. There was a blow-out of some sort at a pub in Peterborough and Grimes made a bet with Brannix of No. 86. They’re a Hurricane crowd.”
Old Jackson nodded and folded his fingers over his belt buckle. He was a pudgy old gaffer who persisted in wearing a gorblimey cap, even though he had a face that could only have flattered a Beefeater’s bonnet. Beneath his fuzzy observer’s wing were three drab campaign ribbons earned a quarter of a century before.
Pip, Squeak and Wilfred, the Canadian Beaufighter boys had dubbed them.
“Anyway,” Splinter went on, “old Grimes made a goofy bet before he bowed out that night. He put our Moocher up as a monthly prize for the outfit that wrapped up the most Jerries every month.”
“The Moocher?” Old Jackson pursed his lips and frowned thoughtfully at the battered stove.
“Also before your time here,” young Dingley explained. “The Moocher was our furlough service bus. A real slick bit of equipment. Used to be a Trans-Dominion Airlines courtesy car that took passengers from the Royal Tudor in Toronto out to the airport. Grimes pinched it one night and tooled it all the way to Halifax and somehow got it aboard a transport. Now 86 has it because they nudged us out last month on the Jerry kills, and look like doing it again. If we get a forty-eighter or a spot of leave now we have to go out to the station in one of those poisonous service lorries.”
“Hardly dignified, considering everything,” old Jackson pronounced. “Beaufighters ought to be better—two engines.”
“What does that have to do with it?” Flight Lieutenant Morse ranted again. “The Control girls seem to shove all the trade the Hurricane way.”
“Are those W.A.A.F. girls allowed to wear silk stockings?” Dean Warburton, the third member of Red Flight, enquired, sitting up suddenly. Warburton was lolling back with his feet high on the back of a chair. He was a tall devil with a mat of crisp curly hair which topped off a long aristocratic face. He too wore black glasses to contract the pupils of his eyes before night-flying.
Morse studied Warburton’s enquiry for a minute and then ignored it. “You’re the Intelligence bloke in this mob,” he thundered at Jackson, “Why don’t you do something about getting us some work upstairs instead of bending everyone’s ear with your yarns about the other war? You Pip, Squeak and Wilfred guys!”
“But I don’t quite see—” old Jackson began again, tugging at his face fungus.
“Over at No. 86,” Morse blundered on, “they have Intelligence birds who are gay young blades. Screwballs, maybe; but anyway they manage to grab the inside track with the W.A.A.F.’s over at the radio-locator station. What’s the answer?” “They probably have the straight on this accessories business,” broke in Warburton. “Stockings and stuff. Looks like that’s your cue, Jackson.” “If that’s what you’re dealing me in for, it sounds a bit out of my line,” Jackson muttered with a gloomy grimace. “Still, perhaps I can manage it. I’d like to see you chaps get that transport back.”
FROM a loud-speaker on the wall the crisp chatter of battle reports was coming in. There was a Hurricane flight upstairs somewhere demanding a bit of business from the Control operators.
“Ginger patrol to Salisbury,” a young English Flight Lieutenant was reporting. “Come on, Gladys. All we need is a couple more.”
Morse almost choked as he pointed up at the speaker: “He means our Moocher. Those guys must have sisters in the W.A.A.F.!”
A steady, well-modulated feminine voice answered the Hurricane Skipper: “Attention Ginger patrol. Salisbury to Ginger. Three bandits . . . Angels seven, approaching Felixstowe. Area 13-9 . . . Area 13-9 . . . Over to you!”
The Hurricane Skipper answered back with gloating in his voice: “Ginger to Salisbury . . . Bandits three . . . Angels seven. Thank you, Gladys. Are you receiving me? . . . Over!”
“Signal clear . . . about nineish . . . Take it, Ginger patrol.”
Morse picked at an imaginary wisp of straw between his teeth. “Those guys have the luck of a wart hog. They’ve been out of their area for forty minutes, skidding about at eleven thousand. Now they get three sitters coming in at seven thousand. All they have to do is stick their noses down arid press the button.”
“Whammo! There goes our furlough bus for another month,” Splinter Dingley prattled.
The sergeant gunners looked up expectantly from across the room for another juicy bit from Warburton. They were expressionless figures and seemed all to be turned out of the same mold, wearing the same oil-stained trousers and the same short flying boots. All semblance of personality and character was blotted out by the owlish black glasses that shielded their eyes.
Old Jackson looked up accusingly at the loud speaker. “That’s what’s wrong with this war,” he exploded with a grotesque attempt at posturing. “Blasted mess is too—too organized. Everything’s done to a formula. It’s got to where a lot of long-legged girls run the show from a switchboard. Where’s there any chance for any individuality— like in the last war?”
“Here he goes again!” moaned Morse.
“By George! You should have seen our Major Murdock and how he got his D.S.O. He chased a Hun triplane down The Street of the Three Pebbles wearing nothing more than his pyjamas and a silk hat. He got the Hun and piled him up on some church steps. I don’t know where he got the silk hat,” Jackson related and then sat down.
“Standard equipment in those days,” Warburton chimed in. “Silk hats and maternity jackets.”
“I’ll bet they did have fun in the last war,” young Dingley agreed.
“No individuality in this go,” old Jackson grumbled. “All done by a lot of girls at a switchboard. Good lord! You even have parachutes if it gets too stiff ! A war run by a lot of girls!”
The loud-speaker agreed, with another rasp of its vibrator plates: “Ginger patrol to Salisbury. Ginger to Salisbury. Attacked two Dorniers. One in flames over Harwich. One probable—scuttled off in the murk. Will you confirm with Observer Corps please? . . . Over!”
“Salisbury to Ginger patrol. One Dornier confirmed. Area 13-9 . . . 13-9. Return to base and pancake . . . Over.”
“Ginger patrol. Ginger to Salisbury. Give us fifteen minutes more, please. Wish to—”
“Sorry. Return to base. Ginger patrol, pancake. Over.”
“Righto! Ginger to Salisbury. Patrol returning, and will old Morsie of 112 be hopping !”
The Control operator chided the Flight Lieutenant for irrelevant wordage and Morse stood wide-legged before the loud-speaker and blazed: “Why, you pawnbroker’s striker, you! Picking on old Dorniers. Tumbleweeds! We get nothing but Focke-Wulfs!”
He spun on his heel and charged at the Intelligence officer.
“Look here, Jackson. How about rustling us some business? There’s only one night to go, you know.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” the pudgy bloke said, pulling his tunic down. “I can’t put Dorniers up there, you know. The devils have to come over, and those Hurry-up chaps can’t get them all!”
He hesitated outside the gleam of the lamp and peered over at the gunners. He squinted at them, one by one, and waddled out, muttering something indistinguishable.
Morse paced the length of the Nisson hut. His ear was cocked for the loud-speaker but his mind weighed the remaining time brackets of the competition. He felt the ignominy of having to use a service lorry when they could have luxuriated triumphantly in their own airline bus. On the surface it was ridiculous, but he argued with himself that there had to be some standards and he as Skipper of Red Flight had done very little to improve their score. Whether it was D.F.C.’s, Huns, or lorries, one simply had to have a goal.
Warburton studied him pensively and then suddenly erupted with: “I wonder what size silk stockings a long-legged girl wears.”
The gunners took interest again and grinned.
Morse interrupted his pacing: “Just what is this?” he demanded.
“Well, I mean to say, most of these radio-locator wenches at Control are a bit on the lanky side, aren’t they? I asked a girl in a tea shop the other day about it, but she just slapped my face,” Warburton rambled on with little personal enthusiasm.
Morse threatened to explode but Warburton explained: “I only asked her if she wore silk—and what size?”
“You haven’t stopped a splinter lately, have you?” Morse enquired solicitously. “A bit of flak somewhere?”
“You wouldn’t understand. Anyway, it’s up to my brother Monty now. In Montreal.”
The gunners in the shadows rustled and assumed their bored expressions. It was obvious that Warburton was off on another of his pointless discussions. They got up, moved about flexing their arms and legs while they went into the possibility of getting off the ground that night.
THE DOOR opened and a sleepy-eyed corporal came in and saluted. “They want Sergeant Bull over at the Adjutant’s Office, sir.”
“Bull? What’s the flap now?”
“I wouldn’t know, sir.”
“Don’t tell me leave is starting again,” Splinter Dingley suggested cheerfully.
“Don’t keep him long,” warned Morse.
“They’ve probably been censoring the letters again. I’m always putting my foot in it,” Bull commented with a smirk from the doorway.
“If it’s leave,” Splinter called, “have ’em hold it off for a day or two. We’ve still to get the Moocher back.”
The sergeant gunner waved uncertainly from the doorway.
“I think they’re giving Bull a transfer,” Morse explained with a worried look. “No sooner do we get a chap lined up so that he’s some use to us, than they take him away again.”
They sat and chivvied the subject for several minutes and came to the decision that gunners aboard Beaufighters were not getting the best of the deal. They were gunners, it was agreed, only in that they loaded the fixed guns for the pilot. Actually they were only radio operators. They had no guns of their own.
The loud-speaker broke up this academic discussion with: “Red Flight . . . At Readiness!”
That came from the squadron Intelligence room. Old Jackson had evidently flushed up something. The speaker cranged and cleared its throat again and added: “At Super-Readiness! Red Flight . . . at Super-Readiness!”
“That’s us!” thundered Morse grabbing for his equipment. “On your way, boys!”
The two remaining gunners were ready first. They twisted the air cocks of their Mae Wests, gave them a couple of puffs to make certain the valves were clear and listened to the air wheeze out. As they clumped toward the door the loudspeaker added: “Formation of Focke-Wulfs sitting over the channel off Margate. Bandits waiting for squadron of American Fortresses on their way back from Amiens . . . Red Flight at Super-Readiness!”
“Good old Amiens!” cackled Warburton. “I remember somewhere there in 1743 we captured the standard of the Black Musketeers of France. I think we were mercenaries then.”
“What the heck are we now?” Morse grumbled, pushing him toward the door. “Besides, that was the First Dragoon Guards and it all happened at Dettingen.”
“Good lord! We must be older than Jackson!”
“Where the devil is Bull?” young Dingley cried suddenly.
“Don’t worry! He’ll be out at the dispersal bay. Shove off!” barked Morse. “Remember, we’re Gibbon patrol tonight.”
“I’ll be a monkey’s uncle!” Warburton announced.
They raced out to the dispersal area with the wail of Tannoy speakers joining the snarl of starting motors. Dim figures darted about and flashed through the shadows of a Hollis fuel lorry. A Flight-Sergeant bellowed orders against the tympany of the night.
The glowering Beaufighters huddled in their bays, great animals restrained in their stanchions. Below their bellies, shovel-shaped doors hung like armored udders. Pilots and gunners scrambled up the rungs bolted to the inside of the doors, disappeared and slammed the panels after them.
Young Dingley, sconced with a massive service helmet, sat peering through a side window of his cockpit. He called down to the Flight-Sergeant and enquired about Bull.
“He’s coming now, sir.”
“Good ! Rush him along, will you?”
Splinter turned down the cockpit lights, adjusted his Sutton straps and made certain his harness safety-pin was in position. He listened while Morse talked it over with Control and reported: “Red Flight 1 . . . Gibbon patrol to Salisbury. Ready to take off . . . Over to you.”
“Red 3 calling,” Splinter broke in. “Just a minute—I need a gunner.”
They waited a few seconds and Splinter saw the Flight-Sergeant hurrying someone toward the belly hatch. The gunner disappeared and Splinter felt the hatch close with a clang.
“Red 3 to Red 1 ... All clear. Ready, Red 1,” he spoke into his flap mike.
Operations was chattering a new sheaf of data and then gave a course. Splinter Dingley scribbled it on his thigh pad and listened again. Aft, his gunner was setting out his stall, banging the navigation table down, plugging in his headphone jack and oxygen supply.
“All clear here, sir!” the gunner reported over the intercom.
“Right! Thought you were missing the bus. What happened?”
“Nothing much, sir,” the voice from the compartment aft responded.
“Good! Batten down for take-off!”
MORSE ran his Beaufighter out and turned her around at the end of the flare path. The others followed, rumbling and creaking over the packed runway. From the control lorry hatch they got the green light triggered from an Aldis lamp and listened while Morse checked his signal strength.
Together they thundered away into the sable night.
A gentle right-hand turn at one thousand feet put them dead on their course. They slipped into open formation, snapped off their navigation lights and headed for the coast.
Splinter Dingley revelled in his post off the starboard wing of his flight leader. He’d been with No. 112 for seven weeks now. They’d worked him in carefully and the effort had produced a true reward. Splinter was temperamentally suited for twin-engine machines and he had a touch for engine synchronization that is not always acquired, even by the best; but even more important was the fact that Splinter Dingley was a natural night-flying pilot.
Sergeant Bull swore he had cat’s eyes.
“Gibbon patrol to Salisbury,” Morse began again. “Gibbon to Salisbury. Angels twelve over B-area 19-6 . . . Over to you.”
The voice from the Control room tucked away in Salcey Forest responded with: “Salisbury to Gibbon patrol . . . Ten-plus bandits patrolling north-east of Le Havre . . . Angels fourteen . . . Over.”
Splinter listened intently while Morse responded and repeated the information. The youngster grinned at the bank of glowing instruments and hoped they’d get some trade this time. The gunners would be marking the position on their charts and, by rights, Bull should be moving forward to check the ammunition drums fitted to the four cannon tucked away under the pilot’s cockpit.
Two deep lines apexed a frown above Splinter’s nose. His tongue felt thick and seemed to stick to the roof of his mouth. He sensed for the first time that the normal routine aboard the night-fighter was skewwhiff. Bull was not reporting through; the old bustling efficiency was missing. Instead, there was a cringing let-down in the schedule. The silence and inaction were as apparent as an offpitch propeller.
“What about it, Bull?” Splinter blustered over the intercom.
“Yes, sir. What is it?” the voice came back.
“Don’t I get a report tonight? What about the plumbing?”
There was no answer and Splinter twisted in his seat to look over the low bulkhead that separated his seat from the radio-navigation compartment. Bull was huddled up over the navigation table, an indistinct figure in his helmet, Mae West and tunic from which gleamed his rank stripes. The adjustable light brought out certain unfamiliar details. Bull should have been wearing a flying jacket; it would be getting cold any minute now. Splinter wondered if he was feeling all right. Checking his position in the formation, again he listened while the engines took on the new decibel note which always came when they were over the waters of the Channel.
“Hey! Come up here, Bull. Are you all right?” he enquired.
Splinter checked Warburton’s position and watched Morse’s wing tip until the gunner appeared around the bulkhead. There was plenty of flak ahead and the young pilot realized they were heading into action of some sort. Morse’s voice trumpeted over the set again and Splinter noticed the leader was wagging his wings as an alert signal: “Keep buttoned up, you guys,” Morse added stiffly. “There’s our assignment up front.”
Splinter was waiting for Bull tq report when Warburton chimed in with: “That’s more than flak, Skipper. That’s our leave bus. All we have to do is—”
“Bull!” yelled Splinter. “What about it? I want a report on my guns!”
“It’s not Bull, Splinter,” a voice answered from behind his shoulder. “Bull was busy, so I borrowed his tunic and came on in his place.”
Splinter wrenched around as though he had been jabbed with a Commando dirk. Beside him stood old Jackson. Old Jackson, a caricature of an airman in a helmet several sizes too small that carried a set of earphones as big as custard pots. He beamed pleadingly over the chin piece
“What the deuce are you doing here?” Splinter finally bawled.
“I came along as radio operator— and I thought I could help out from the rear turret,” old Jackson mumbled as he stared about. “I did so want to go on patrol again, but I clean forgot about the guns—that we didn’t carry a gunner’s turret on this kite.”
“Where’s Bull?” demanded Splinter.
“He was busy signing some papers and having a medical. He’s getting a commission and going back to Canada to train for a pilot. He had to have an examination for his embarkation papers; so I saw my chance, picked up his tunic and helmet and that way got by the Flight-Sergeant. But now I remember there’s no gun turret for me.”
“Never mind that. Can you load the guns? That’s the gunner’s job aboard this bus.”
“No—I’m afraid not. I’ve never had the opportunity. Still, if there’s anything else ...”
“Well, there isn’t. There are four guns below and they carry ammo drums that have to be changed when they’re empty. That means we can stay in action about three minutes at the most.”
“I’m sorry, but we’ll have to do the best we can,” old Jackson encouraged with a faint smile. “After all, three minutes is something, you know. If I hadn’t come you’d have had to remain on the ground. Bull wouldn’t have been available for some time.”
There was no argument to that, so Splinter sent him back to the dorsal hatch and ordered him to keep a stiff watch on their tail.
“Three minutes,” grumbled Splinter, “and we need at least four Jerries.”
Morse was giving them their orders again as the three Beaufighters nosed down slightly and pumped after the business up ahead: “Trundle in, Gibbon patrol,” he snapped. “We’ll get the Moocher back yet! Ten-plus, they said. Looks more like dozens to me.”
Splinter swallowed hard and thumbed the safety collar off the gun-button on his wheel. He reached forward, twisted the knob of the reflector sight, set it for a wing-span of about forty feet and dimmed it slightly. A stile of searchlight beams unfolded from below and began waving its elements back and forth. The Channel was as clear as a design embossed on bright pewter. Splinter could see the boats and piers. He wondered about Dieppe and what would happen if he force-landed therewith “Canada” embroidered on his sleeve. The searchlight blades crisscrossed as if to hone their edges.
Morse was raging again: “Just our blasted luck!” he yelled.
Splinter squinted and tried to make it all out. There was plenty of tracer and strings of sparkling pingpong balls bouncing into the sky. There were splintered streaks that snapped off at right angles, lobbed into lazy trajectories and spluttered off into nothing.
“What’s wrong, Skipper?” Warburton enquired.
“Don’t you see? They’re Yank Fortresses nailing down our Focke-Wulfs. Look at them! They’re having a picnic!”
“We’d better stay away then. Those Fortress guys may go gun-crazy if they have any luck. They’ll take a smack at anything !”
“Nothing doing! I’m having a whirl at it. We’ll never get a chance like this again. We can always slither through a searchlight, show our markings and yell, ‘Shinny on your own side!’ They’ll understand that line.”
FLIGHT LIEUTENANT Morse took them in and sought a Focke-Wulf. He rammed boldly through a searchlight blade to show his night-fighter markings and then yelled into his flap-mike: “Three Beaufighters here. Three Canucks, you guys. Don’t waste any on us!” He hoped the Americans were tuned in to their Control wave-length.
Splinter was figuring all the way in. He had one pan available in each gun. That meant that he might be able to stay in the action several minutes if he conserved his bursts —and had a lot of luck. Figures danced before him and he suddenly realized that it was well past midnight; that it was already Saturday, and by the time they’d be in the air again a new month would have begun. They had to get at least four Jerries on this show to nudge the Hurricane crowd out.
He wondered if Morse realized that too. He called Red 1 and explained.
“Don’t I know it?” Morse replied. “Four tonight—or nothing. Let’s go!”
Splinter spotted something dark and ominous with a big radial engine cowling: “Watch out for our tail, Jackson!” he called over the intercom. He swung over after a Focke-Wulf that was charging into a Fortress. The glare from exhaust ports and the reflected sheen from the searchlight broadswords plated the sides of the contesting machines and brought out the recognition details. Splinter sat and took the pressure, quaking deep in his heart for fear he’d pile into something not so distinct. Another searchlight slashed between him and his target and for a minute he lost it. He curled over, his prop-tips screaming, and shot out into the full glare of a 190 that was banking sharply at him.
“Hang on to your medals, Jackson,” he called, and pressed the button.
The heavy calibre guns raged in the gallery below. Four streaks of metallic blasphemy shot across the sky and buried their fangs in the fuselage of the Focke-Wulf. The German fighter zoomed as though she had been gaffed. Splinter levelled off, moved into position below and behind and waited for the stall. The Nazi fighter writhed in agony, gushed two serpents of flame from the wing root and fell off.
Splinter banked gently, his eyes still glued on the doomed Focke-Wulf, and watched her spin. He S-turned twice and timed his final bank so his nose would be on the fighter when she showed the top of her cockpit.
“Red 2 to Red 1,” Warburton was calling across the night sky. “Red 2 to 1 . . . Credit us with one . . . but Consequences . . . Consequences, Red 1.”
There was a second to think. That meant Warburton had knocked one down somewhere—but the Consequences business indicated he was clearing off with a wounded crew-member. It could be Warburton himself, or Wells, his gunner. The cockpit top young Splinter had been waiting for appeared. He let fly with a burst that cut the tumbling Focke-Wulf in two.
“Red 3 to Red 1 . . . Red 3 to Red 1,” he reported as he cleared. “One bandit down . . . One bandit down . . . a flamer!”
Still no answer from Morse. Splinter hoped the Skipper was all right. There was plenty of wreckage in the air.
“You all right, Jackson?” he enquired.
“Righto, Splinter. How’re we doing?”
“Warburton got one but he’s clearing off. Either he or Wells has stopped something. I can’t raise Morse . . . Hello! Justa minute.” “Red 1 to Red 3 . . . Red 1 to Red 3,” Morse finally came through. “Keep after them, Splinter. We have three now. I poleaxed one but I spent all I had on the swine. Hang on somehow. We need another.”
Splinter frowned again while he tooled the black Beaufighter through the melee and shot across a stepped-up echelon of American bombers. That meant Morse had expended his ammunition and was through.
Another Focke-Wulf shot through a silver picket and flashed his markings. The gunners aboard the Fortresses tried to get at him but they were out of range now. Splinter looked around and sensed the last Nazi fighter was chucking it.
“It’s a chance,” he admitted, and tore after it. “Watch my tail, Jackson. I’m going after that one.” “How’re we doing, Splinter?”
“We need one more. Here’s hoping!”
The Focke-Wulf appeared again against the tumbling blaze of a failing plane. Splinter sucked in his breath, stiffened with the pressure and brought his nose dead on.
“I’ve got to get him with what I have left, and I can’t have much. I gave the other guy two long bursts,” he recalled.
The heavy Beaufighter was on the fleeing Focke-Wulf in a few seconds. Splinter caught him almost cold and pressed the button. The guns started to rage and then suddenly clunked off impotently. Splinter swore profoundly.
“What’s the matter?” Jackson enquired from behind the pilot’s seat.
“I told you to stay and watch our tail!” Splinter roared. “We’re all done. No more ammunition. Why the devil can’t you reload for me?”
He saw the Focke-Wulf swing around just under him as if making up his mind to return to the fray.
“You can still get him,” Jackson suggested, tugging at his mustache thoughtfully. “You have two engines you know.”
“Two engines? What’s that got to do with it? We haven’t any ammo in the guns!”
“All right! Give it to him with one of your engines,” old Jackson advised with a crafty leer. “You’ll still have another—to get home.”
“I don’t get—” Young Splinter halted as the impact of the suggestion went home with the smack of a breech block: “But—but I might louse it up. And you haven’t a parachute!”
“You won’t louse it up. You musn’t think that way,” old Jackson reprimanded. “You’re sure of getting back—if you do a clean job. We’ve got to get another, haven’t we?”
SPLINTER swallowed a rising argument and saw the Focke-Wulf was starting up after him again. There was a chance, of course, and there was merit in what old Jackson had said. You can get away on one engine, if you wrap it up properly.
“Hang on, Mister Jackson!” young Dingley said with expression.
He nosed her down, swung over into a sharp turn and raged after the single-seater. The Nazi pilot saw him coming and developed a new idea that had the belligerent one beat a mile. You live a long time if you know when to get out.
“You’ve got to time it nicely, you know,” old Jackson cautioned over Splinter’s shoulder. “Just nip his rudder and elevators and he’s left with his trousers down.”
Splinter grinned: “You Pip, Squeak and Wilfred guys and your screwy ideas!”
The Beaufighter went at it full tilt now and Splinter gave her nearly all there was left on the throttle gate. He was on top of the Nazi fighter before he realized it, but a restraining dab on the left rudder pedal held him on course and brought the starboard engine into line.
The night-fighter danced momentarily in the Focke-Wulf’s slipstream and Splinter rammed the throttles up to the last notch. For a long screaming second the two diving planes held a courting dragonfly position and then Splinter risked all with another slight rudder adjustment and waited for one of his own prop blades to lance through and skewer him to the wall of the cockpit.
There was a metallic thump, a flash of splintered light, and something struck the side of the Beaufighter’s flanks with a slam of battered metal. The starboard engine wolfed at the elevator surfaces of the Focke-Wulf and left the snagged ends of gobbled metal gleaming in the exhaust glare.
The Focke-Wulf snapped over on her back.
“Nothing to it,” old Jackson said, as glass from the cockpit hatch showered him. “There he goes in a lovely spin!”
The Beaufighter’s prop staggered a few uncertain revolutions. The starboard engine spat conclusively over the lip of the engine cowling, and quit. Splinter zoomed her up, reached for a lever and set a new adjustment on the fin to take up the extra torque of the port engine. Finally she levelled off, collecting her dignity like a blousy old charwoman who has unexpectedly collided with a buttress of the law.
Splinter took her off, clanking and wabbling.
“You see what I mean,” old Jackson expounded, “when I say things are cushy in this war? I mean to say, you have two engines!”
“You mean to say,” corrected Splinter, “I had two engines. Now if we only have some luck ...”
They put a flare path down for Splinter and old Jackson, half an hour after the others got in. The battered Beaufighter crabbed in with a dithering approach and came to an accordion-pleated landing. A tractor chugged out complainingly and dragged them to a dispersal bay.
“You see. what I mean?” old Jackson kept on saying. “Two engines!”
Morse, the Adjutant, and the Wing Commander were there bundled up in their greatcoats when Jackson and Splinter climbed down. The mechanics were tugging at a great chunk of control surface which had become jammed behind the broken-bladed prop.
“That’s our confirmation on the fourth,” young Splinter began before anyone asked him. “Old Jackson had a glorious idea—and it worked!”
“I’d say it was a slab of Nazi rudder,” the Winco said with studied authority. “You must have slogged into one of them!”
“Glory! That’s what I’ve been reporting, all the way back !” Splinter fumed. “Jackson kidded me into it and I think he ought to get a D.F.C. It was his idea!”
“Just what he needs in front of his Pip, Squeak and Wilfred,” Morse added. “At any rate we’ll let him ride with us when we get the Moocher back.”
“What happened to Warburton?” young Dingley demanded, as he remembered the Consequences report.
“Oh him! He brought Wells back with a chunk of flak in his shoulder. Then he went over to Control to see about their stockings,” Skipper Morse explained with a hopeless pass at nothing.
“Are you starting that too?” old Jackson said, steadying himself on Morse’s shoulder.
“No! It’s a straight line. He’s been working on it for some time with his brother Monty back home. They’ve arrived at last—a couple of dozen pairs of silk stockings.”
“Gone over to Control?” Splinter peeped like a leaky valve.
“Sure! They’re presents for the girls. If we don’t get some Jerry trade after this—well, Warburton ain’t all he’s cracked up to be.”
“I think I like that Warburton chap,” old Jackson said. “What a war!”