It was the day of the royal garden party and the Wing Commander was there, with knobs on. But in the sky were a couple of flying fools intent uponJ. N. HARRIS March 19 1955
It was the day of the royal garden party and the Wing Commander was there, with knobs on. But in the sky were a couple of flying fools intent uponJ. N. HARRIS March 19 1955
WE HAD BEEN night-flying the night before: flogging around the circuit in our Handley-Page Harrows, old high-winged, underpowered monoplanes with a fixed undercarriage and a built-in head wind. We had practiced landings and instrument flying and had finished up at 0200 hours by having a lecture on gentlemanliness from our commanding officer, Wing Commander C. C. Proctor, AFC. The Wing Commander said it had come to his ears that certain officers had removed their jackets in the cinema in Norwich, and had sat there in their shirtsleeves like plumbers’ apprentices. This sort of conduct, if continued, would quickly undermine the Service. In order to combat it, he had persuaded the Station Commander to cancel all supper nights for a month, and henceforth we would dress for dinner every night of the week until the sentence had expired.
“I’m glad the CO doesn’t know I sleep without pyjama bottoms,” Reggie Gresham had said as we trailed away from the hangar, bound for the mess and our night-flying breakfast, which was eaten by custom before going to bed. “Just think—we’ll be dressing for dinner through all the hot weather.” It was a gloomy thought, so we immediately turned to other things.
“I say, Hank,” Reggie said. “We don’t play cricket, so we’ll have all tomorrow off. Why don’t we push oil along the coast to that little pub—the Pelican, isn’t it? We can walk along the cliffs, swim, and try the local brew. We can forget about Proctor and dress regulations and the whole boiling issue.”
That was how we came to be lying in a cliffside meadow on the Norfolk coast on a brilliant June morning in 1938, an English boy a year or two out of school and a Canadian who had traveled by cattle boat to the Old Country to get into the RAF; and at that moment we tasted utter content, because the whole world had come to a glorious stop, and you could peer through the long grass and watch baby seals at play on the sand bars. Behind us, birds were singing in a wood and a crooked blue pillar of smoke was rising from the Pelican’s chimney.
The only other sound was the lazy drone of a small airplane which was pushing along the coast toward Cromer, dragging a long banner which bore the single word CODOMALT.
“They gave it to me when I was a kid,” Reggie said. “That looks like an Avro 504K. It was a great aircraft during the Boer War.”
“Hey, listen,” I said, “the guy’s in trouble.” Sure enough he was. There were ominous poppings, then an angry spurt of black smoke from the little aircraft, then suddenly it was silent, the engine completely dead.
As we watched, the banner floated loose from the aircraft and fluttered earthward. One glance at the Avro told us that it was in the hands of a skilled and experienced pilot. It went into a series of crisp S-turns, just off the coast, until it had descended to about 400 feet, when it turned in without hesitation and headed for the field next to ours.
“Come on,” Reggie shouted, “we may have to pull the pilot out of the wreck.” The shadow of the little plane flitted over us as we ran, but there was to be no wreckage, for the Avro came to a halt about twenty yards from the back door of the Pelican. As we reached it we found the pilot already standing up in the cockpit, his goggles pushed up, his helmet loosened, and a cigarette in his mouth. He stepped out in the grand manner, and surveyed us with a lofty and only slightly condescending smile.
He was something over six feet, large and shaggy. His moustache had the right casual, wind-blown air, like a hedgerow where you might find wild flowers and birds’ nests. He wore an ancient sports jacket with leather cuffs and elbows, and round his neck he had flung a muffler.
“Ah there, chaps,” he said airily. “Would you happen to know what time they open around here?”
We told him half-past ten, not without letting a hint of awe creep into our voices. He glanced at his watch.
“Right on time, what?” he said. “What do you say we stroll in and have one? My bloody engine cut right over the coast—pot blew off. I was lucky to spot this jolly little pub, what?”
We strolled into the Pelican, past the open mouth of Jos. Simons, propr., licensed to sell beer, wine and spirits for consumption on the premises, and the old pilot found a telephone in the corner of the bar, strategically placed so that Jos. Simons, propr., could hear everything that was said over it. After some delay he got through to the owner of the Avro and made his report.
“Fothergill-Barbour heah,” he said. “I’ve had to lob down. “I’m at a pub called the Pelican. Yes. Oh, of course, the bannah. Yes, I had to cut it loose. Fraid it’s in the drink. Well, no mattah. I shall wait here until sent for. Cheerio.”
He tossed the receiver onto the hook deftly and casually—I later broke two receivers before I perfected the trick —and strolled over to the bar.
“What’s wrong with three pints of bittah, chaps?” he asked. “I can see you’re in the Service, lucky devils. There’s really something unmistakable. Where are you stationed?”
The beer was pulled, and we stammered out answers to his questions, managing to ask a few ourselves, in a respectful way. To a young pilot he was an overwhelming figure. His whole bearing spoke of thousands of hours at the controls, a lifetime well spent in the air. Then, too, he had grown old gracefully. His thirty-four years rested lightly on his shoulders and there was a charming modesty in the way he recited his most outré adventure.
HIS NAME, he said, was Fothergill-Barbour, but we were bidden to call him Bunjy. He had entered the Royal Air Force about the dawn of history, in 1922, after failing to gain entrance to each of the learned professions in turn, and also after a disastrous period as a junior in a bank. He had done a medium service commission in the RAF—ten years —and had suffered superannuation at 29. But those years had been glorious ones: Egypt, Iraq, Aden and India; a hill-climbing trial on motorcycles up the main stairs of a mess; Verey pistol duels in anterooms; keeping two sheep penned in the bedroom of an unpopular adjutant while he was on leave; and half a dozen epic yarns about flying around the Mediterranean.
In latter years Bunjy had fallen on evil days; he had even worked as a salesman for three weeks. Once he had a job as instructor to a flying club, but the chairman claimed that Bunjy was showing too much zeal in giving ground instruction to his wife, and Bunjy had had to leave. He had flown with an air circus, taking people for five-shilling rides, had been an airline pilot to the Isle of Man and had finally descended to towing advertising banners over fairs and bathing beaches.
But, for all of that, Bunjy was a grand old pilot, with over seven thousand flying hours in his log books.
We had just finished our lunch of bread and cheese and pickled onions when Bunjy asked us who our CO was. We told him.
“No!” he shouted. “I say, you’re pulling my leg! Not Proctor. My God, old Porky Proctor a squadron leader! I can’t believe it.”
“No, not a squadron leader,” Reggie said. “He’s a bloody great wing commander.”
Bunjy moaned. “Not Porky! But of course—he had influence. Otherwise he’d never have passed the exam for a permanent commission. I know that, because he was copying off old Warner-Gould’s paper, and W.-G. finished out of the money, whereas Porky got a non-specialist PC out of it. I copied off Warner-Gould’s papers myself—he was a regular brain box; he’s a test pilot with Hawker’s now—and I only got thirty marks. So you can see there was something fishy about the whole business.”
We agreed that indeed there was, and were convinced that Proctor’s wife was related to the examining officer.
“Tell me about old Porky,” Bunjy demanded. “What sort of a CO is he? I’ll bet he’s a stickler.”
We glanced at each other briefly; after all, Proctor was our CO, and whatever we said about him at home was one thing, but talking outside the family circle was quite another.
“Plenty of guts, bit of a martinet,” was as far as I would go, and I saw Bunjy stiffen; I caught a pained look. He understood. He wasn’t really in the family any longer. He was almost one with those quaint old gentlemen in their forties who sometimes stopped us to tell us about their flying days in Sopwith Camels, and asked us what sort of bus we flew. We ordered more beer, and somehow Bunjy’s acceptance of our reticence made it all right to open out a little more.
“Proctor is a little stiff on dress regulations and all that,” Reggie said. “When we went to armament camp we were told that we wouldn’t have to dress for dinner, but old Progs added, ‘Howeveh, I hope all my officahs will pack a boiled shirt and a dinner jacket in their luggage—just so we can “eat clean” once in a while.’ Dinner jackets at an armament camp—like wearing a white tie at a cannibal feast.”
“It sounds like Porky,” Bunjy said. “The little brute has a simply morbid knowledge of KR. He was our adj at Bicester some years ago when he did something to me that I can never forget. He really blighted my life in a sense. I went on leave to the Channel Islands. Five hours on the train, all night on the boat. I found my way to the beach, a bit tuckered out after the journey, and I thought I was in ruddy paradise. Popsies, glamorous popsies of all shapes and sizes, all over the beach, and hardly a man under eighty on the island. A redhead, lovely thing, edged over close and opened conversation right away. She was staying at my hotel with a deaf aunt who went to bed every night at nine. Golly! At which precise moment I saw the old bloke from the hotel—the porter, you know—tiptoeing across the sand so as not to get any in his patent leather shoes. ‘Mr. Fothergill-Barbour,’ he says, ‘there’s a telegram for you, and it says OHMS so I thought it was important.’ It was. I’ll give you three guesses what it said.”
“Return this unit immediately,” I suggested.
“Got it in one,” Bunjy said. “That little blighter Proctor had recalled me. So I returned to the pub, packed, and pushed off on the next packet. I arrived at the station at 5 a.m., and I went to see Porky sharp at 9, wanting to know where war had broken out.
“'Oh, what cheer, Bunjy,’ he said. ‘Did you know you’d forgotten to sign the flight flying return before you went on leave, and what’s more you didn’t turn in your parachute?’
“I was struck dumb. I couldn’t believe it. Some paralyzing force kept me from murdering the little beast on the spot, and before I could go back on leave they bunged me off on a parachute course. For all I know that redhead may have died from utter frustration.”
While we were ruminating on this ancient crime there was a scuffling noise at the door, and some sweating local youths appeared, dragging a heavy wet object behind them.
“I say,” Bunjy said. “These excellent chaps have rescued my banner from the deep. Good oh, chaps, you must all have one on the firm.”
We all had more than one. We sang, and Mr. Simons forgot about the afternoon closing time, except that he shut and locked the front door. In the end we dragged Bunjy’s Codomalt banner out to a hut by the green, where the village cricket nets were stored, then helped Bunjy put tarpaulins over the little Avro before we departed. We also invited Bunjy to dinner at the mess for the following evening—it was to be a guest night, one of those occasions which end up in games of jousting, hurdle racing over the furniture and songs ranging from the troopship leaving Bombay to the good ship Venus.
Bunjy was greatly moved by our invitation; there was a catch in his voice as he accepted. He would, he said, have his dinner jacket and what not sent up in the truck that came to collect the Avro, and he would stop overnight at the Pelican. A night in the mess would be, for him, like a return visit to paradise.
WE WERE late getting back to the station, and we walked right into a hive buzzing with rumor. There was to be an exercise, a highly secret affair involving all the aircraft of our squadron. George Jamieson, one of the S Flight pilots, took Reggie and me on one side to fill us in.
“We take off at 1430 hours,” he said. “That is, the first aircraft is off at 1430, and the others follow at intervals of exactly five minutes. So we set course, five minutes apart, and fly up to Greenwich, turning over the Royal Observatory.
“And at this point in the proceedings,” George continued, “old Sid Hughes asks what the longitude of Greenwich is. So Proctor has him in afterwards and appoints him to inspect the airmen’s night-flying breakfasts for the next month.”
“Poor old Sid,” I said. “But what were these proceedings, anyway? When did all this happen?”
“Why, at the meeting, of course. Where did you chaps get to, anyway? The Wingco sent a notice round to everybody this morning; all crews to meet at 1400 hours in the B Flight crew room. You chaps had left the mess—my God, they were phoning all over to try and get you.”
“We were supposed to have the day off,” I said, “you know that; it was on DROs. They can’t lay a finger on us.”
“No?” George said. “Proctor’s only remark was that certain officers showed an unholy haste to get away from the squadron at every opportunity. But anyway, that’s neither here nor there. The fact is, old boy, we’re all going to aviate tomorrow, and no one knows what it’s all about.”
“Well, go ahead and tell us,” I demanded.
“Right,” Jamieson said. “We turn at Greenwich and fly to Leatherhead, in Surrey. Then we turn for Edgware, in Middlesex. There’s a map reference there that’s our turning point. From there we go east to Romford, and then back to Greenwich. Simple, eh? Then —now here’s the funny part—we go round the same course twice more. Right round London three times. And we don’t do anything. We don’t drop any practice bombs, we don’t take any pictures, we don’t make any runs over the camera obscura. But what we have to do is fly absolutely straight on all those courses—we mustn’t be off track at any point, we must turn directly over our turning points, and we must maintain our five-minute intervals. It’s weird, old boy, absolutely uncanny.”
Everywhere we looked there were little knots of officers discussing the exercise, each knot working on a different theory or rumor. One popular theory was that Count Ciano and Herr von Ribbentrop were visiting the Greenwich Observatory, and the government wanted to impress them by having a never-ending stream of bombers flying overhead. Another theory was that the C-in-C Bomber Command had a bet with some army wallah about how accurately his aircraft could fly. Someone else said it was for training aircraft spotters, while still another man had a wild idea that they were testing a new device: some radio gadget that could shoot radio waves into the air and make them bounce back off aircraft, so that you could predict the approach of enemy planes, even in cloud. This excursion into the realm of science fiction was very properly laughed to scorn.
“I’m not at all satisfied with any explanation I’ve heard yet,” Reggie said. “Who’s leading us? Wing Commander Proctor in person?”
“No,” Peter Creevy, our squadron adjutant, told us. “Progs won’t even be here tomorrow. Squadron Leader Reardon will lead the attack.”
“Oh, indeed?” Reggie said. “Progs wouldn’t invent something like this just to amuse us while he’s away. No, no, my friend. In Proctor’s little egocentric universe, nothing exists except in relation to himself. There’s more in this than meets the eye. Where is our good commanding officer going tomorrow, anyway?”
“I don’t know,” the adjutant lied. “Except that he’s flying up to Hendon in the morning with the PA to the AOC.”
“Indeed and indeed,” Reggie said. “And with hordes of hungry pilots looking for flying hours around here, why does Progs have to be flown by the Air Officer Commanding’s own personal assistant?”
“Don’t ask me,” the adjutant said. “But any fool—even you—can guess that it must be some pretty high-level stuff. Now don’t try to pump me any more, because you jolly well won’t get. anywhere. By the way, did you know that Progs wishes to see you two gentle-men at nine? He will deal with you before he goes.”
“Oh, oh,” I said, as Creevy walked away. “Our liberty is about to be curtailed. What do you make of it?”
“High-level stuff,” Reggie said. “High-level stuff was the expression used. The question is, how high? Bomber Command? They wouldn’t go to Hendon if it was Bomber Command. Air Ministry? I somehow doubt it. Dammit, I must know.”
ON THE following morning Reggie and I, after twenty minutes’ heel-cooling, were admitted into Wing Commander Proctor’s office. He wished us a good morning.
Then he noted that on the previous day we could not be found when we were wanted. Oh, of course he knew that we had the day off; however, most of the officers had stayed around the station, either playing in or watching the squadron sports, but he had no wish to compel anyone to do so. However, this desire to get up early after night flying and disappear somewhere not only showed a lack of interest in the squadron but had also caused trouble for Wing Commander Proctor. Naturally there could be no question of punishment because (a) there had been no offense and (b) it was not in the powers of a commanding officer to punish one of his officers. No indeed. So when he asked us to take on, jointly, the duties of orderly officer for the next three week ends, we would understand that it was only an attempt to familiarize us with service customs to a greater extent, and perhaps to increase our keenness for voluntary participation in squadron affairs. There being nothing further to say—no objection, of course? —he bade us good morning once more, and glanced out the window at the Westland Wallace which had just landed and was taxiing over to the watch office; it was, we knew, the AOC’s plane, which had come to fly our CO to Hendon, for some purpose that remained hidden from our eyes.
We saluted smartly, about turned, and marched out.
Three week ends—in summer.
“A more humane Mikado never did in Japan exist,” Reggie said. “Did you see the cold sadistic gleam in his eye? He enjoyed that. Hank, old chap, I’ve got to know where Progs is going. This is now a matter of personal pride.”
We told the boys about our unjust sentence, which caused much joy. “Now we won’t have to have a sweepstake for three weeks,” somebody said happily. Usually we put half a crown each in a pool, then drew lots; the loser took all the money and also became orderly officer for the week end. Unless he was appointed orderly officer for disciplinary reasons, he could then bribe some impoverished brother officer to take on the job by giving him the money from the pool.
“Sympathetic lot of brutes, aren’t you?” Reggie said. “I say, has anybody plotted out the courses for this afternoon’s festivities? Oh, thanks, Harper—not very neat, but at least you can tell where we’re going.”
Reggie took the map which Harper held out to him and studied it intently for some minutes.
“What’s the matter, Gresham? Afraid you’ll get lost in the smoke?” somebody said.
“No, old boy; this is an anthropological study of the species proctorus egregious, or three-striped nuisance. Hold on—what’s this? Lowry, if you’ve finished the Daily Telegraph crossword can I see it for a minute?”
“Take it,” Lowry said. “It’s a real stinker today.”
Reggie lounged back in an armchair and opened the paper to the Court Circular, which he read with minute care.
“I knew it!” he said triumphantly, but once again refused to explain himself, even when he was down on the floor and subjected to the Indian rope burn. Later, however, he took me on one side.
“Good God, Hank,” he said, “I’ve run onto something really big. Here look—see? On the run from Leatherhead to Edgware we run straight along the Thames where it turns north. Now look—see?—we pass right over Hampton Court. Right? Now look at the Court Circular. Royal Garden Party at Hampton Court Palace. What could be simpler?”
“I don’t get it,” I said.
“Oh, you are a dull clod,” Reggie said. “Here’s the answer. Proctor is invited to a royal garden party, at Hampton Court. So he’ll be strutting around in uniform among all the beautiful ladies and gentlemen, talking about ‘My squadron’ and ‘My officers’ and ‘My Aunt Fanny’s abscess’ all afternoon, until it’d make you sick. So just to give him a better conversational gambit, he sends us out, one after the other, to fly over the party. Every time he’s talking to some duchess, he can glance up and remark, ‘Oh, by the by, that’s one of my aircraft now.’ What’s more, he’ll have to line up and shake hands with the hostess. He can wait till one of the kites goes over, then time it so he’s talking to HM exactly five minutes later, so lie can shoot the same line to her. It’s the biggest line-shoot in the history of the service. I’m not even sure it’s legal.”
“Okay,” I said, “where does this get us to? We can’t very well drop a practice bomb on him.”
“No,” Reggie said. “No indeed. We could drop propaganda leaflets, the way they did in Spain though. Proctor is a big stinker! No tea for Proctor!”
“It’s a nice thought,” I said, and left him deep in meditation, while I went to check up on my aircraft.
When I returned to the hangar Reggie had disappeared. Nobody knew where he had gone.
“He came busting in,” Harper said, “crowing like a rooster, and started phoning. Then he borrowed my car and drove off. He didn’t go out past the guard room, he drove down that lane by the bomb dump, where you can get out to the coast road through the hole in the fence. If he forgets to come back for this trip he won’t just end up as orderly officer—he’ll be blown from the muzzle of Browning.”
I WAS puzzled, although I suppose I should have twigged it right away. However, I had other things to think of. I noticed, by the flight authorization book, that Reggie was the last to take off, immediately following me, so I was quite relieved when I saw his aircraft turn to follow mine when I was taxiing out for the start of the exercise.
The trip was a very simple one-a scandalous waste of fuel for the small amount of training it afforded, in fact. Nevertheless it was fun. It was a glorious June day, just like the previous one, except that there were some fleecy strato-cumulus clouds about 1,500 feet, like tufts of frosting on a lemon meringue pie. I found my way to Greenwich, turned, and went round the circuit twice as arranged.
On the third run, however, things were different. The unforeseen occurred. The clouds had dropped a little lower, and I had butted through one or two of them, being in and out in fifteen or twenty seconds each time. But just as I reached Greenwich I pushed into another, which was quite a different matter. First of all, it was turbulent in there, black and turbulent. We were buffeted about like a badminton bird, and I saw ice forming quite heavily on the wings. Next the air speed indicator froze over, because in those days nobody had thought of putting an electric heater on it.
I was just turning onto my course for Leather head, and what with the buffeting and all, I guess I must have got off it by a fairly good piece. Anyway, when I came out of the cloud I found I was south of Leatherhead, so I turned and put on more boost in order to get back in line.
That was when I saw Reggie.
He had passed me, because he had flown under the cloud. He was flying quite low, and even as I watched I saw something fall from his aircraft and stream out behind. I was mystified and I watched entranced, until with holy joy I realized the truth. The thing that had fallen out was a banner, and on the banner there was one simple word: CODOMALT.
“Bunjy’s banner!” I said, in awe, and all became clear in a twinkling.
I followed Reggie up that stretch of the Thames, descending rapidly to gain speed, and as we went I watched the ancient palace of Hampton Court come into view, with its green lawns and barbered hedges. On the lawns were many people, women in summery dresses appearing to predominate. I passed over quite low, just behind and above Reggie, and I saw the faces of the garden party guests turned upward to watch us. Then we were past, and some unseen power began to drag the banner back into the machine.
I landed just after Reggie, and taxied onto the tarmac before he had climbed out. Instantly a car drove to the door of Reggie’s aircraft. I went over to investigate.
I found Reggie and Bunjy FothergillBarbour, the old pilot, dragging the Codomalt banner out of the door.
“Lend a hand, chaps,” Reggie said. “We’ve got to get rid of the evidence before the arrival of the assistant provost marshal. Gosh, Hank, it was terrific. As soon as I told him about it, Bunjy insisted on coming along as an unauthorized passenger. I taxied over to the hedge and picked him up, furtively. He even brought his dinner clothes along in a suitcase.”
“What are you going to do with his banner?” I asked.
“Corporal Powell’s going to drive it to the Pelican,” he said. “This was all arranged in advance. Talk about staff work!”
“Oh sure,” I said, “but then what are you going to do after your court-martial?”
“Sell encyclopedias,” Reggie said. “Only there won’t be a court-martial. Don’t you see? Proctor’s hands are tied. Can’t you imagine me asking him to explain to the court just why we were flying over Hampton Court Palace? ‘What, precisely, was the nature of the exercise?’ So he has to explain that it was just a huge line-shoot —unauthorized—-to impress the Queen Mother. It would ruin him. It’s not only a damn poor show, wasting petrol like that, it’s also damn bad manners disturbing a royal garden party. Just imagine if some character from the tank corps came busting in with a bloody great tank.”
When the incriminating banner was disposed of, we headed for the mess for tea.
“Bunjy was indispensable,” Reggie explained. “We had the devil’s own job getting the banner to fly. First we tried swinging the rear turret to one side and crowding it out, but that was no good. So then Bunjy got the idea of opening the under-hatch and tying the banner to the light series bomb carrier—we had already been twice around the circuit before we hit on the scheme. It was also his idea to haul the thing back in by means of the bomb winch. Without his help this beautiful scheme might never have borne fruit.”
THE GUEST night that evening was one of the most joyous we had ever experienced. The story had spread and Reggie was a universal hero. He was christened “the lad who bore midst snow and ice the banner with the strange device—CODOMALT,” and was forced to recite Longfellow’s poem (with variations) from a table in the anteroom. The parlor games in the mess were a trifle rougher than usual, causing one fractured collarbone and numerous contusions and abrasions. Somebody brought in a motor bike so that Bunjy could demonstrate his hill-climbing prowess on the stairs, and somebody else demonstrated a trapeze act on the main chandelier.
In the middle of it all some visitors arrived from Group Headquarters, including Hoskin, the personal assistant to the Air Officer Commanding, who had flown Wing Commander Proctor to Hendon that morning.
“Somebody,” Hoskin told us, “is going to be for the high jump. I flew your good CO back to Group, where we had a late dinner, and then we drove him up here. We wanted to get in on your festivities, but Wing Commander Proctor retired straight to his married quarters. His rage surpassed all measure. In the morning he is going to find the pilot of XF and devour him in small pieces.”
“Why, what happened?” somebody asked.
“As if you chaps aren’t all criminally implicated in it,” Hoskin said. “However, you’re entitled to know. I accompanied Proctor today to a royal garden party. I believe he likes that sort of thing, because he was gay and debonair the whole time. Dashing, you might say. He said he was frightfully sorry to miss the hush-hush exercise you blokes were doing, but after all, an invitation from royalty is a command.”
“What hush-hush exercise?” I demanded.
“Why dammit, weren’t you on it?” Hoskin said. “You were supposed to be testing some hush-hush aircraft spotting device. Some scientific johnny at Cambridge is supposed to have invented it. Probably a complete flop, but it’s supposed to be able to spot aircraft in clouds or at night. Better than sound location, they claim, though. They had one installed at some secret location, and you chaps were given a course to fly over it.”
“Oh,” I said. “Somebody might have made a mistake.”
“Everybody, it seems,” Hoskin said. “Because every bloody aircraft went bang over Hampton Court Palace every time round. Frightful nuisance. Proctor couldn’t understand it. He said somebody must have been using the wrong map reference on the third leg of the trip.”
“Guess who?” Reggie said.
“Well—maybe I could,” Hoskin went on, “on the principle of cui bono? Because all afternoon Proctor was saying to people, ‘I say, I believe that’s one of my aircraft now.’ He even said it to Her Majesty—but I’ll bet he wished he hadn’t. As he was about to shake hands with her, she said, ‘Ah, and what type of squadron do you command, Wing Commander?’ He told her it was a Harrow bomber squadron, and then did his usual act. I believe that is one of my aircraft overhead now, Ma’am.’ I wish you could have seen it. Her Majesty glanced up with great dignity, and watched for some seconds.
“Then she said: ‘Indeed! And does your squadron advertise any other product besides Codomalt?’
“So Proctor looked up. First he turned puce, then graveworm white, and finally he clicked his heels, bowed, and moved on. But he made certain he got the letters of the aircraft. He said that the pilot responsible would be for the very highest rung of the high jump, if not the pole vault.”
Thereafter the hilarity knew no bounds. Bunjy Fothergill-Barbour, the ancient one who had returned from Valhalla, pronounced it the greatest peacetime feat, bar none, in the history of the service. Voices were raised in lusty songs, including the one about an unusually lively ball in Scotland at a place called Kirriemuir. And so it was, until far into the night.
BUT IN THE morning there was a cold dyspeptic feeling of wrath to come. Nevertheless Reggie was a marvel of calmness in the face of impending doom. I was not altogether idle. I went up to the squadron orderly room and did some research; I talked to the adjutant, and I paid a visit to the squadron navigation officer.
Just as I returned, the summons arrived for Reggie.
“Farewell, Reggie,” I said. “But one last word: they won’t talk, but I’m virtually certain that map reference was altered when the orders for the trip were passed to us. In other words, Proctor changed the last leg of that trip so he could show off at the garden party.”
“Thank you,” Reggie said, “though slim, it’s a hope.”
He was gone for an hour and ten minutes, and he returned pale, but still master of the situation.
“This,” he said, “is good-by. Proctor has had the last word—but we scored a smashing moral victory.”
“All right, let’s have it, young Excelsior,” someone demanded.
“Right,” Reggie said. “First I cooled my heels for twenty minutes. Then I was ushered in, and I noted that he was in a cold controlled fury. But he didn’t have his cap on, so I wasn’t under arrest, properly speaking. So he informed me that his squadron had, only the day before, been entrusted with a mission of the utmost secrecy and importance. It was, indeed, a high compliment to the squadron that the job had come to us at all. He was therefore appalled to learn that, during his absence, necessitated by the royal command—nothing less could have dragged him from his squadron at such a time—one of his officers had seen fit to indulge in a practical joke in the worst possible taste. My conduct was certainly, he said, to the prejudice of good order and air force discipline, and it might well be deemed unworthy of an officer and gentleman.
“At this point I cut in to ask, very politely, if I were charged with any offense. He disregarded the interruption, and went on to say that this jape, or jest, or worse, had blackened the name of the squadron, if not of the very Service itself. The public, the vulgar public, might well believe that our aircraft were being hired out to advertisers. And the educated public were even now regarding us with well-bred amusement. To his certain knowledge, no junior officer had ever put up a blacker show since the formation of the Royal Air Force.
“So I interrupted once more. I said: ‘Sir, am I charged with any offense?’ and he gave me a look that would turn your bile sour. No, he said, there would be no charge. Richly merited as the extremest penalties might be, there was still the Service to consider. A court-martial on such a charge would get into the gutter press, and would most certainly be exploited there for its comic and farcical aspects. He could not inflict this on the Service, and so he had chosen a different course. Since I had shown an aptitude for towing banners, he had arranged that I should henceforth tow them, or rather tow targets, for the rest of my natural life. I was posted forthwith, he said, to darkest Scotland, to Kircudbrightshire, in fact, to tow drogues at the armament camp until death shall bring a happy release. Oh well, it might have been the armoured-car company at Haifa.”
“Target towing,” I said. “Reggie, if you worded your appeal properly, you might get him to reduce it to penal servitude.”
“Don’t worry,” he replied lightly. “I shall send you all rude post cards from Scotland, where I shall try to grow old and mellow in a graceful manner. Unless, of course, this Goering chap and his boss, Hitler, see fit to restore me to useful employment in a squadron. If we ever have a war, I may be needed again.”
Sadly we helped him get his clearance chit signed, and sadly we saw him go, but owing to the co-operation of the persons he mentioned, his sentence was not of long duration: what is more, he did find useful employment in a squadron once more—even, in fact, as the commander of one.