FICTION

No Part Too Small

Spitfire pilots pack a lot of living into a very few minutes . . . and, as Helen very nearly found out, a lot of dying too

KEITH EDGAR May 1 1944
FICTION

No Part Too Small

Spitfire pilots pack a lot of living into a very few minutes . . . and, as Helen very nearly found out, a lot of dying too

KEITH EDGAR May 1 1944

No Part Too Small

KEITH EDGAR

FLIGHT SERGEANT Helen Hampden, clerk-ops, RAF, walked briskly into the underground control room of the Fighter Command, D Sector, saluted the controller, Squadron Leader Blake, nodded to her staff of 10 girls, and took her place at the huge table with its detailed grid map of the sector.

She removed her cap, took the phone from the girl she was relieving and slipped the headpiece over her black curls. A quick glance at the map showed no hostile aircraft in the district and only an occasional friendly craft on patrol.

Helen’s warm brown eyes roved about the huge room, found every detail in order. Her staff of girls ranged around the table listening to their phones, plotting aircraft with their croupierlike sticks as info came in from Radar.

Squadron Leader Blake, tall, grey-haired and hardfaced, leaned over the rail of the balcony and stared thoughtfully down at the table map, puffing slowly on a blackened briar. His staff of clerks, ranged on either side of him, were busy with the station routine.

A phlegmatic man, the controller. But then one had to be on this job. Key defense man in tiie district, his was the responsibility of knocking down raiding bombers, of keeping the skies of England swept clean He must be cold, calculating, ready to sacrifice men and plant« if need be, yet retain the confidence and respect of the flights under his command. A bit of excitement or anxiety in his voice at a crucial moment could easily break the morale of a squadron of hardfighting, trigger-nerved Spit pilots; and a calm order or bit of casual advice in a tense moment might buck up and bring home a lost or wounded man.

Bluke was all of this. He knew every man in his command, knew his abilities to a hair, and had his complete confidence.

Helen watched sudden activity develop over the map. The Berlin Express was getting under way. Squadron after squadron of huge Lancasters, pregnant with block busters, was moving out on diverging courses to keep a rendezvous with death over Nazi Europe. She watched them being plotted across the map and leave the shores of England.

Billy would be there. Billy, her studious, schoolboyish brother, sitting at Ills navigator’s table behind the pilot, using his maps and instruments to guide his ship, riding on the wings of destiny to smash and batter the Hun—while Roger played pinochle and drank more than was good for him.

Helen bit her lip. Roger, the blond Canuck she had married such a short time ago, and quarrelled with so often. Roger, the dashing Spitfire pilot who had swept her off her feet and completely stolen her heart. Roger, who seemed content to remain on a cushy home defense job while her brother, night after night, dared the hell of flak and searchlights and the cannon fire of night fighters to flatten the war economy of the enemy.

She eased the headset into a more comfortable position on her dark head and stifled a sob. They were quarrelling too much. Or rather she was quarrelling too much, for Roger just kissed her and laughed tolerantly.

“Shucks, Honey, Billy’s a good kid and he’s doing a

swell job; but we don’t always loaf, you know. And a Spit pilot packs a lot of living into a very few minutes and a lot of dying, too.”

“But, Roger! Actually, you’ve got one of the softest jobs. You’re too good a flier to go to waste at a time like this. Why don’t you ask for a transfer to bombers? After all, you did train for bombers originally, before you changed to fighters.”

“Nuts!” Roger had grinned and pulled her to him for a lusty kiss. “Flying one of those truck horses is too much like being a bus driver for me. Same old route, night after night, right on schedule, just as if you were running a passenger and freight service. Sure, Sweetheart, those boys have all the guts in the world but I like flying Spits. That’s what I’m best at and that’s where I’ll stay.”

This had, unreasonably enough, enraged Helen. “Oh! You think that Billy is just a bus conductor, do you? Shame on you! While you’re wrapped up in your unimportant little job he’s out there doing a dashed good piece of work—and a dashed tough piece of work, too!”

“Honey!” Indignation had sharpened Roger’s voice. “Of course your brother is doing a swell job! We all know that. But on the other hand I’m no sissy, either. We came in darn handy during the blitz!”

“But, Roger, the blitz is over! And you could do so much more on a bomber. My job isn’t very important, but, then, I’m a girl. If I were a man I’d want tobe right in where the work is toughest.”

“The conversation,” her husband had drawled coldly, “is changed.” And that had been that.

HELEN SHRUGGED. What could she say to convince him? Was their brand-new marriage going to be short-lived just because her husband liked an easy life?

Long night dragged imperceptibly around the clock. The girls yawned and chatted desultorily. Controller Blake leaned over the balcony rail and puffed on his pipe.

Then — out on the mist-shrouded Kentish coast, at a Radar listening post, the operator picked up the far-off drone of westbound aircraft flying high.

Another listener picked up the signal seconds later and the complicated machinery of defense swung smoothly into action. Warning messages snapped into the filter room, to be instantly sorted and collated.

Helen, brooding at her post, jerked erect as her phone crackled into life.

“Attack alarm. Attack alarm. Bandits approaching, height twenty-five thousand. Bandits approaching, height twenty-five thousand. Eleven planes. Eleven planes. Course 280. Course 280. Grid H-nine. Grid H-nine.”

She picked up one of the triangular blocks used to indicate hostile aircraft, inserted a card marked “11 planes” and below it another marked “25,000” and placed the block on the “H-nine” grid of the map.

Helen could feel tension tighten on the room. The girls stiffened and listened to their phones alertly. She glanced up at the balcony. Squadron Leader Blake, sucking impassively on his pipe, had not shifted. His narrowed eyes studied the map.

“Bandits changing course to 290. Bandits changing

course to 290. Speed 240. Speed 240. Grid Eye-ten. Grid Eye-ten.”

She shifted the indicator across the map. The controller cleared his throat and knocked out his pipe. The enemy had crossed the coastline. Where were they heading?

At strategic spots in Kent searchlights flicked on, probing the sky to identify the type of aircraft.

“Bandits changing course to 305. Bandits changing course to 305. Grid Jay-eleven. Grid Jay-eleven.”

The controller picked up his phone and snapped, “Butterfly Squadron scramble. Butterfly Squadron scramble.”

Helen moved the indicator again. Well, Roger would have to leave his precious pinochle game now. He led A-flight in the Butterfly Squadron. She could just see him, jumping at the sound of the loudspeaker in the mess, grabbing his helmet and running with the others to the ships parked in the dispersal pits. Mechanics would be warming them up and making a last lightning check of the guns and engines.

“Butterfly Squadron scramble. Butterfly Squadron scramble.”

Helen shifted her earphone so she could hear the rasp of the intercom.

“Butterfly to control. Butterfly to control. Squadron air-borne. Squadron air-borne. Over.”

Roger would be hurling his Spitfire up into the dark void, cursing the Jerries for breaking up his precious game.

“Butterfly leader. Butterfly leader. Eleven bandits. Eleven bandits. Height twenty-five thousand. Height twenty-five thousand. Go to thirty thousand. Go to thirty thousand. Your course is one-twenty. Your course is one-twenty. I’ll plot you in a moment. I’ll plot you in a moment. Over.”

“Butterfly to control. Butterfly to control. We’re on our way. We’re on our way. Over.”

Blake dropped his phone into the cradle, got up and started down the stairs.

Roger would be adjusting his oxygen mask, climbing steeply into the stars, intent upon his job, checking instruments, keeping tabs on his flight, and clawing for precious altitude.

HELEN’S phone crackled again and she pressed it to her ear. “Bandits identified. Bandits identified. Ju88’s. Ju88’s. Course 305. Course 305. Grid Kayeleven. Grid Kay-eleven.”

She reached out with her croupier’s stick and moved the indicator to another grid. The controller had come down the stairs and picked up the white phone with its long cord. He moved over to stand beside her.

Helen nodded at the indicator. “Radar says they’re Junkers 88’s, sir.”

Spitfire pilots pack a lot of living into a very few minutes . . . and, as Helen very nearly found out, a lot of dying too

Blake merely lifted one eyebrow and studied the map. Helen was wondering if Billy would be on his way back yet. The Jerries were deadly little threeseater intruder night fighters, who came over to lie in wait for returning bombers. The bombers, winging home from a long raid, their crews exhausted and relaxed, thinking they were safe at last, would be cold turkey for the cannon of the marauders.

“Bandits changing course to 270. Bandits changing course to 270. Grid Jay-ten. Grid Jay-ten.”

She gave the indicator a shove with her stick. They were swinging around to wait for their prey. Helen looked up at the clock. The Berlin Express was due back in about 20 minutes. Would Billy be missing? Of course not. He always came back. But the marauders had to be cleaned out first. She glanced up at Blake.

The controller was weighing the phone in his hand, narrowed eyes studying the map. Then he raised the phone and drawled, “Control to Butterfly. Control to Butterfly. Your quarry is a squadron of 88’s. Your quarry is a squadron of 88’s. Flying course 270. Flying course 270. You’ll find them at Eye-seven. You’ll find them at Eye-seven. Over.”

“Butterfly to control. Butterfly to control. Proceeding to Eye-seven. Proceeding to Eye-seven. Height thirty thousand. Height thirty thousand. Speed three-sixty. Speed three-sixty. Over.”

Helen’s phone rasped. “Bandits on course 270. Bandits on course 270. Grid Jay-nine. Grid Jaynine.” She gave the indicator a shove and glanced at the clock again. Dawn was close at hand, and Billy’s squadron would be nearing the Channel.

The enemy was cruising leisurely along to intercept the returning bombers in the early grey light when vision was bad and tired eyes would be searching downward for familiar landmarks.

“Bandits on course 270. Bandits on course 270. Grid Jay-eight. Grid Jay-eight.” She prodded the indicator across another grid with her stick.

Hurry, Roger! Hurry!

Blake drawled into the phone, “Control to Butterfly. Control to Butterfly. Can you see them? Can you see them? Over.”

“Butterfly to control. Butterfly to control. I can’t see them. I can’t see them Over.”

The controller lowered the phone and narrowed his eyes on the map.

“Bandits on course 270. Bandits on course 270. Grid Jay-seven. Grid Jay-seven.”

Helen’s heart began to hammer. The Berlin Express would be crossing the Channel, booming home. If the Spits didn’t get the Jerries first there would be a debacle, and young Billy—

Hurry, Roger, hurry!

Blake raised the phone again and flicked a switch. “Control to Bulldog. Control to Bulldog. Over.”

He listened a moment for the bomber squadron to answer, then called again. “Control to Bulldog. Control to Bulldog. Over.”

Back rasped the reply in a tired singsong, “Bulldog to control. Bulldog to control. B for Bertie. B for Bertie. Over.”

“Control to Bertie. Control to Bertie. Bandits waiting for you on grid Eye-seven. Bandits waiting for you on grid Eye-seven. Change course and go to Base Five. Change course and go to Base Five.”

“Bulldog to control. Bulldog to control. Can’t make it, old sock. Our petrol’s about done and I’m afraid we’ve shot off all our ammo potting at Focke-Wulf’s the whole blasted night. That makes it a bit sticky, what?”

“Control to Bulldog. Control to Bulldog. Quite all right,‘Bombs.’ We’ll clear them out for you. Come on in. Come on in.”

The controller frowned and flicked the switch back again. “Butterfly leader. Butterfly leader. Can you see them? Can you see them? Over.”

“Butterfly to control. Butterfly to control. We’re

on grid Eve-seven. We’re on grid Eye-seven. I can’t see them. I can’t see them. Over.”

Blake lowered the phone and rubbed his jaw. “Bandits flying course 270. Bandits flying course 270. Grid Jay-six. Grid Jay-six.”

Helen reached out with her stick to move the indicator—then gasped with horror

Her indicator was on the WRONG GRID!

She had been plotting on the Eye-grid instead of “Jay,” and the controller had sent the Spit to the wrong spot!

Why—oh why hadn’t the girl who was supposed to cross-check her plots caught the error? Had she also been dozing on the job?

Too late to worry about that now—and no use trying to share the blame with someone else. Stewing about her own petty affairs had made her absentminded enough to create a fatal mess.

SHE HASTILY moved the indicator to the correct grid and looked up at the controller. He gave her a short hard glance and drew a deep hreath. Then he gripped the edge of the table, raised the phone and said casually, “Control to Butterfly. Control to Butterfly. Sorry, you’ll find the bandits at Jay-five. You’ll find the bandits at Jay-five. Go down after them. Go down after them. Over.”

Helen bit her lip. A tail chase.

Gone were the advantages of height and choice of position. Now it would be touch and go. Nine Spits against 11 Jerries with both fixed and movable guns. Eleven Ju88’s looking for trouble.

“Butterfly to control. Butterfly to control. Proceeding to Jay-five.

Proceeding to Jay-five. Going downstairs. Going downstairs.

Speed four-twenty. Speed fourtwenty. Over.”

Her phone crackled. “Bandits

flying course 270. Randits flying course 270. Speed 300. Speed 300. Grid .lav-five. Grid Jay-five.”

She prodded the indicator with her stick again. They were picking up speed to be ready for the kill. The Berlin Express would be nearing the coast. Helen stifled a sob.

Hurry, Roger, Hurry!

A movement from one of the other girls caught her eye. She had placed an indicator signifying friendly craft on a grid just off the coast. The bombers -nearing sanctuary, feeling safe.

Hurry, Roger! Hurry!

The bandits were relentlessly moving to intercept the bombers, warming their guns, gunning their engines at full throttle, preparing to take revenge for the raids over Germany.

Helen glanced down at the controller’s hand, gripping the table so tightly that his knuckles and fingers were white.

But his voice drawled as casually as ever.

“Gontrol to Butterfly. Control to Butterfly. Can you see them? Can you see them? Over.”

“Butterfly to control. Butterfly to control. Down to twenty-six thousand. Down to twenty-six thousand. I can’t see them. I can’t see them. Over.”

Continued on page 28

No Part Too Small

Continued from page 17

Rlake lowered the phone and stared at the map. Helen could hear him grit his teeth.

Then the intercom crackled, “Tallyho! Tallyho!”

Rlake relaxed, dropped his phone in the cradle and wiped perspiration from his hrow.

Helen shoved her headset back off her ears and stared at the intercom speaker. The Spits would he screaming in, Merlins thundering and guns crackling. The bandits would be pulling into a tight turn, closing into defensive formation to give their tail gunners a clear sweep. The speaker crackled. “Bingo! Got him!”

“Sonofagun! Missed! Woops! Got him!”

“Watch your tail, Jimmy!”

“Hey, Roger! Watch out below!” Helen clenched her fists. Then Roger’s voice, excited, tense, “You would, eh? Take that, smartypants! Bingo!”

The Ju88’s would be swinging around to give their front cannon a crack at the Spits which had blasted through their formation in a shallow dive. The survivors of the first attack would close up together at the top of their climbing turn and try to jump the Spits before they could pull out.

Controller Blake pulled out his pipe and proceeded to load it from an oilskin pouch.

One of the girls reached out with her stick and moved the indicator again. The returning bombers were over the coast.

Helen held her breath for an agonizing moment. The Spits would be swinging back for another attack, counting on their superior manoeuvrability and speed to level the disadvantage of the enemy’s numbers and firepower.

Then the intercom: “Hey! Jimmy! Jimmy! Gawd—they got him!” “Eyes right, Reggie!” “I see him!” “Bingo!” “Bingo!”

Squadron Leader Blake applied a match to his pipe and puffed slowly. He shoved his hands into his pockets and stared at the map. The returning bombers were well inland now. Spit and Ju88 were milling about, jockeying for position, each trying to turn inside the others’ formation, lashing out in short deadly bursts from their cannon —a game of chess played at lightning speed with life and death as the stakes.

THE INTERCOM snapped and crackled as the seconds dragged on. Blake frowned, removed his pipe, shook it, cleared his throat and shoved the pipe back between his teeth.

“Hey! Roger! Roll out! Roger! They get you?”

No answer.

Helen shoved her fist into her mouth and bit bit hard.

She had killed Roger killed him just as surely as if she had wielded the gun herself! Her brief moment of carelessness had cost a terrible price.

Blake put his hand on her shoulder and gave it a squeeze.

Helen straightened up and drew a deep breath. After all, she was a soldier. Buck up, my girl. Roger would want her to play it out like a trooper.

She reached for her stick and waited, forcing back the tears.

The terse comment over the intercom scored off friend and foe alike. Three Ju88’s downand three Spits. “Ringo!”

“Bob! Behind you!”

“I see him!”

“Woops! No you don’t! How do you like this?”

“Okay, Joe, I got him!”

Silence.

Squadron Leader Blake picked up the phone and drawled, “Butterfly leader. Butterfly leader. Control to Butterfly. Control to Butterfly. Over.”

The Spit leader’s voice snapped back. “Butterfly to control. Butterfly to control. They’re on the run, sir. They’re on the run, sir. Shall we chase them? Shall we chase them? Over.” “Control to Butterfly. Control to Butterfly. How’s your petrol? How’s your petrol? Over.”

“Butterfly to control. Butterfly to control. Twelve minutes petrol. Twelve minutes petrol. Over.”

“Control to Butterfly. Control to Butterfly. Come on home. Come on home. What’s the score? What’s the score? Over.”

“Butterfly to control. Butterfly to control. Four bandits down. Four bandits down. We lost Joyce, Smithers and Collins. We lost Joyce, Smithers and Collins. Over.”

Helen gasped and looked appealingly at the controller.

He nodded and said casually, “Control to Butterfly. Control to Butterfly. Didn’t Hampden go down? Didn’t Hampden go down? Over.”

“Butterfly to control. Butterfly to control. Roger’s still with us. Roger’s still with us. Copped a packet, but

PUT VICTORY FIRST... BUY

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seems all right. Copped a packet but seems all right. Over.”

“Control to Butterfly. Control to Butterfly. Good show: thanks a lot. Good show: thanks a lot.” Blake dropped the phone into its cradle and stared at the map.

It was incredible that the action had lasted only three minutes.

Through a haze Helen watched the Berlin Express being plotted safely back to its various home airports, squadron after squadron rolling home— safe.

The Spits had savi?d Billy.

Roger was alive—wounded, hut alive. She brushed a tear from her eye and swept the indicator reading “11 planes” off the table.

The red light flicked. Blake picked up the phone.

“Hampden to control. Hampden to control. One of my wheels is jammed. One of my wheels is jammed. Over.”

Helen almost screamed. She bit her lip. Roger! Be careful! A Spitfire was a plane that not one pilot in 20 could land on one wheel and live to talk about it.

Rlake rubbed his jaw.

“Control to Roger. Control to Roger. Roll over on your back and try the gear. Roll over on your back and try the gear. Over.”

“Hampden to control. Hampden to control. Right wheel still jammed. Right wheel still jammed. Left wheel won’t retract. Left wheel won’t retract. Over.”

Blake looked at Helen and shook

Continued on page 30

Continued from page 28

his head imperceptibly. Roger’s Spitfire must have stopped a cannon shell that had put his landing gear out of commission. And he couldn’t even get the other wheel up to make a belly landing.

Well, it was up to the controller to decide whether he should go out over the coast and bail out or try to land his ship on one wheel. Should he lose the ship and save the man? Or take a chance on saving both the ship and the man—and perhaps lose both?

The controller drawled into the phone, “Control to Roger. Control to Roger. How badly are you hit? How badly are you hit? Over.”

“Hampden to control. Hampden to control. Copped it in the right shoulder and left thigh. Copped it in the right shoulder and left thigh. Getting woozy. Getting woozy. I’m sure I can land her, sir. I’m sure I can land her, sir. Shall I try? Shall I try? Over.”

Helen gripped her stick until her fingers ached. Roger had to get to a hospital, quickly. How much blood had he lost?

Blake shifted the phone and said casually, “Control to Hampden. Conrol to Hampden. Come on in. Come on in.” He set down the phone and made a motion to his clerk up on the balcony. The clerk nodded and picked up another phone. The crash wagon and ambulance would be waiting.

BLAKE relit his pipe, glanced at Helen, and between puffs drawled, “Steady, Flight.”

Helen stood straight and stiff, waiting.

One by one the seconds ticked slowly

off.

The red light blinked.

Blake picked up the phone.

“Control to Butterfly. Control to Butterfly. Over.”

“Butterfly to control. Squadron all down, sir. Hampden came in okay on one wheel. Nice bit of flying. The ambulance has taken him to the dressing station. That is all.”

Helen sagged with a tired sigh. She wiped clammy hands on her skirt and glanced at the map. There was no other activity in the sector.

Squadron Leader Blake cleared his throat and drawled, “Well, Flight, I dare say you’d like to dash over to the dressing station. You may dismiss.” Helen looked up eagerly.

Then she shook her head.

“Thank you, sir. But I’d rather finish my shift. Roger—my husband would expect me to, sir.”

The controller looked vaguely surprised, then nodded.

“Righto! Flight.”

He removed his pipe and peered suspiciously into the bowl, cleared his throat, shoved the briar back between his teeth and started back up the gallery stairs.