Copyright 2017 Justin Sheedy
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Cover designs: Justin Sheedy
Greater love hath no man than this,
that a man lay down his life for his friends.
‘I’m here, darlin’…’
‘Yes, m’darlin’. Just waitin’ for y’t’join me.’
‘Me too, Mah. It just hurts so bad us bein’ apart, that’s all.’
‘I had t’let y’go, darlin’. I had t’leave you. You know that, don’t you.’
‘Yes, Mah. I know…’
‘But we’ll be together again real soon, baby… Like two peas in a pod. Just like we once were, my baby. Like we always should’ve been. …It’ll be that way again. Very soon now.’
Colin Stone felt the shoulder of his ragged leather flying jacket being throttled just as madly as the alarm bell was being rung. Suddenly eyes-wide-open, he saw the Royal Air Force dispersals hut all around him gone its usual five sorts of ape-shit: chess board pieces flung left, chockas ashtray butts flung right, the blokes all arms and legs and flying boots all up and headed for the door like mad bastards. First to it and through it, the Skipper – Squadron Leader Quinn like bloody magic first as always, close behind him another Aussie – Steve Maddox like a hunchback stick insect at full steam, the rest of the blokes, Poms mainly, now a one-way tangle of yellow Mae Wests and pistol holsters and then young Christie went arse over tip. Stone scooped him up under the arm of his fleeced flying jacket – ‘COME on, son’ – the Sydney boy now lifted to his feet, his spirit too by the hint of a smile that never left Stone’s leathery face – that touch of madness in his right eye, and through the hut door they were.
Out onto the grass of the airfield, the English spring morning frosty but clear, out ahead of them their aircraft like readied warhorses with wings: In olive and blue-grey camouflage paint, RAF roundels red-white-and-blue, their Hawker Typhoons’ clear perspex ‘teardrop’ canopies were slid back and open, each fighter-bomber’s giant propeller already blading, each engine now exploding to life.
Bolting full-tilt out towards them ten young men on whose heels Stone and Christie were now hot.
Two years earlier
April 19, 1942
The salt wind blew hard on Stone’s face as he scanned out over the Mediterranean Sea – ‘the Med’, the Yank sailors called it, their aircraft carrier churning through it at 30 knots in the dying day.
Stone had been tipped off the bent copper was coming to kill him. A sergeant of the Victoria Police. Best-organised criminal gang in Australia and this bloke ran St. Kilda. He ran it all: Protection rackets, dog race-fixing, the prize-fights too. And prostitutes he paid in heroin.
Stone had been stripping the odd stolen car for his boss at the garage. Shifting the parts for a share of the profits. Things’d been sweet too, up until the day the copper marched in demanding protection money. The day he came back to collect it Stone flattened him. Then tossed him out on the St. Kilda street for all to see. A week later Stone got the tip-off. The king-pin sergeant’s black eye was the talk of St. Kilda and he was coming for Stone. Hearing the knock at the boarding house door, Stone opened it and blew the bastard’s brains out, walked over the body, down the steps, and away. The Royal Australian Air Force recruiting office had been the second open door on the St. Kilda highstreet, Stone sidled in, signed up. What the fuck else was he gunna do?
He got the letter from the garage the night before he sailed out Sydney Heads: They’d buried the copper, also the investigation, so the word went; the bloke had been just too bloody bent, the St. Kilda station didn’t wanna know and a lotta locals were breathing easy for the first time in yonks. Anyhows Stone had since put a lot of miles behind him now between him and the mean streets of St. Kilda: marching up and down the square at the RAAF ‘Empire Air Training Scheme’ initial training school in Melbourne, then the convoy ship to Canada, there, learning to fly. First on Tiger Moth bi-planes, then the more modern Harvards, then getting his ‘wings’. And what’s done was done and right now Colin Stone was two-up on the police sergeant: still alive, for one.
And a ‘Sergeant-Pilot’.
A sergeant-pilot holding on pretty damn tight on the flight-deck of the aircraft carrier USS Wasp, all 15-thousand tons of her steaming east through the Med, on either side into the distance, no less than seven ‘destroyer’ warships that Stone could see and three much larger ones called ‘cruisers’ or ‘battle-cruisers’ or something: Force W, according to a Yank sailor, in the pre-dawn darkness of the previous morning they’d slipped through the Straits of Gibraltar, Algeria now somewhere out to starboard. Destination, Malta.
The island they were calling the most bombed place on Earth.
April 20, 1942. 0400 Hours
Stone had never felt more at home, anywhere, than he did in the cockpit of a Spitfire. Which, he shrugged to himself, was hardly saying much considering he’d never called any place home… But he had to admit, in a Spitfire he felt good. It made him feel, for the first time in his 21 years, like the master of something. Sure, back in St. Kilda he’d been good with engines, called a pool-shark and pulled the tarts. But flying, flying a Spit, was something special. Made him feel a bit special. Funny thing was his Brit flying instructor up in Scotland had seemed to agree…
‘Well,’ the flying officer’s face pained, ‘I’m bound to venture you’ll never be one of the chaps, Sergeant, yet as to your flying of this kite, well, to be bluntly honest you could teach me a thing or two.’ The bloke had actually smiled. ‘Best of luck, old boy. You’ll need it.’
Stone had squinted at the instructor’s written final report on him: Though altogether short on military discipline, a young man of outstanding mechanical bent, also unparalleled physical coordination. Flying Ability Rating: Exceptional. Stone read the words a few times and was still scratching his head…
Then came his posting to 603 Squadron, Royal Air Force, its pilots mainly Brits and mainly officers, whose way of talking had Stone scratching his head red raw. So he’d kept to himself mostly, and anyway Pommy officers didn’t like to mix with sergeants. Though they’d started to acknowledge Stone’s presence in the room once they saw him fly. Then the squadron boarded the Wasp at Glasgow, and here he was…
The Spit’s cockpit like a glove all around him, seeing the take-off flag go up, Stone pressed the starter button, up front the Spit’s propeller now blading, exhaust pipe stubs flaming, Merlin engine now roaring sweetly. Peering out the starboard quarter of his just-polished cockpit canopy, even in this dimmest first gloom of dawn he saw the US Navy sailors lining the rails of the carrier’s towering superstructure: all in white sailor’s caps and dark coats, to a man, waving, cheering. Then saw his take-off flag drop.
High up on the bridge of the Wasp, Captain Greg V. Greaves Jnr of the US Navy watched the Spitfire surge forward down the flight-deck, and lift up and away off the Wasp’s bow, then the next Spitfire, the next, and the next… As he watched them go, the cheering of his sailors somehow cutting through the massed booming of the Spits, Greaves thought back to his ‘captain’s address’ to the 47 British pilots the previous night…
‘You guys are the relief of Malta,’ he’d begun. ‘Operation Calendar. Be seated, gentlemen…’ Once they’d settled, Greaves wasted no time.
‘Malta, gentlemen… Smack bang in the middle of the Med. To the north, Sicily. Where-from fly the fighters and bombers of the German Luftwaffe and Italian Regia Aeronautica. To the south, North Africa. Where your guys are up against the Germans and Italians right now being led by their German General Rommel. The ‘Desert Fox’ they call him and does he ever deserve the title; as a military commander, he’s so damn good about all we can do to try an’ stop him is cut off his supplies. That’s where Malta comes in…
‘From Malta your Royal Air Force and Royal Navy have been sending Rommel’s supply ships from Sicily to the bottom of the Med. That’s why the Germans and Italians are bombing the sweet bejesus out of Malta along with our supply convoys to it so your airforce and navy cairn’t operate and the people of Malta starve. Which they are, gentlemen. Just last week your King awarded the people of Malta a little thing called the George Cross. The George Cross, gentlemen, your British Empire’s highest award for civilian gallantry: First time I know a whole damn country’s been given a medal. And they deserve it but you cairn’t eat medals. That’s where you guys come in…
‘Tomorrow at O-400 Hours you will fly your Spits off the Wasp then 600 miles east over the Med to Malta. From-where you will stop the Germans and Italians from bombing and starving Malta through the new air-superiority you and your Spits will bring to the Island. As a result you will forbid the planned Italian invasion of the Island, allowing your Malta-based bombers and submarines to keep sending Rommel’s supplies to the bottom of the Med. As a result we might just stop him winning against us in North Africa… Anyhow at O-400 I’ll turn us into the wind so you get off quick. Fly your eastward heading, skirt the tip of Tunisia and there’s Malta in front – 600 miles with external fuel tanks on your Spits you’ll just make it. When you do, get down quick. Get refuelled and readied. For any eventuality. That is all.’
Now, as Captain Greaves saw the last of the Spits zoom down his flight-deck and off his carrier, he reflected how, the night before, he had almost let himself say it to them. How he had almost, almost let himself tell 47 Spitfire pilots bound for Malta what US Navy Intelligence had just told him: namely, that the Germans knew they were coming.
Though he’d not as yet flown into combat, Stone had flown a few different ‘marks’ of Spitfires in training and knew the Spit Vc was a fast bastard and finger-light to control. ‘Like a ballerina with guns’ was the impression he’d once offered a curious flight mechanic – though Stone conceded to himself that he had not and never expected to handle a ballerina. The Spit Vc he flew today, however, with a wedge-shaped external fuel tank tacked on underneath her, felt sluggish. 90 gallons of extra fuel for the long trip, at least after near two hours now it was emptying, the Spit feeling lighter with every passing minute.
In the brightening pre-sunrise light over the Med, just faintly visible out to the right had been the dusty blur of Tunisia – where the Germans were. Then out left though closer and clearly visible a few thousand feet below had been the island of Pantelleria – where the Italians were. Stone had been surprised no anti-aircraft fire came up from it. No German fighters from the right, no German or Italian fighters from the left horizon – where lay Sicily. They had radar, the Germans and Italians… A massed flight of 47 Spitfires, Stone reckoned, must surely this moment be showing up on German and Italian radar screens. Stone had good eyesight, he knew that much, and scanned the clear morning sky: up back left, back left, out left, forward left, straight up, straight ahead then same routine right.
Yet now he could see the twin islands of Malta down ahead, on the horizon the sun just about to rise. Ahead level, the C.O. didn’t transmit over the radio; no way, that would have brought enemy fighters down onto them dead cert. The C.O. waggled his wings, the signal for Stone and 45 other Spits to lower revs and follow him down.
In pretty slick formation with a four-Spit ‘section’ now, Stone curved into a shallow-diving left, the Spitfire he most closely shadowed seeming to ‘show off’ its lovely lines in the turn: tail fins like two swept-back petals, slim fuselage thickening forward to wings like outstretched knife blades left and right. At just a few hundred feet up now, he could see they were coming in over a harbour with a stone breakwater and old-fashioned fort all a honeycomb colour in the first light of morning. But now for a nice landing: Reduce engine revs. Flaps down. Check speed. Speed good. Wheels down. Down and locked. Curving in to final approach to runway. Canopy slid back, now open and locked. Unclip oxygen mask. Breathe. Goggles up for better vision and lower, lower over the runway now, lower, lower, throttle fully off…
And with that Stone put the Spit down real sweet and it was a bumpy aerodrome too, along which he now slowed, and taxied, following the Spits ahead of him off to the right.
Halting his Spit as directed by a ground crew bod in only shorts and boots, Stone put the brakes on, switches off, unclipped and climbed out, down off the wing-root and onto the hard ground of Malta. Pulling off his leather flying helmet, except for some sort of domed building on the horizon, the place was flat as far as he could see with broken rock and rubble as if swept back from every open space. And everywhere large pieces of ripped and ruined aircraft.
Suddenly Stone noticed the C.O. a short way off, a few 603 Squadron pilots standing round their squadron leader, many a stretch after the long flight, more pilots on approach across the dusty field from their now-parked Spits.
‘A damn good show, is what I call it,’ hailed the C.O. ‘A damn good show all of you making it the way you did. Call me a bally nightclub dancer if I’m not proud of you for once so mark this moment, gentlemen.’ Stone found himself smiling, also that he was facing east; the sun just rising and fast breaking the horizon. He had to admit, the C.O. was right; they had done well: a carrier take-off for which the Spit was never designed then 600 miles over ocean with enemy territory on either side and all getting in, all down in one piece, as intended, mission accomplished. And the squadron leader hadn’t quite finished: ‘Chaps, I know it’s only half past six in the morning but the drinks are on me.’ Squinting into the sun, now risen, Stone heard the air-raid siren. Then another winding up. Then saw the black dots either side of the sun. Then more, each getting larger, smaller dots falling.
And the first twin-engined bomber whipped low overhead out of the sun, and more and more, now a whistling, the booming, then shattering blasts.
Stone opened his eyes.
Wherever he was, it was dark.
Lying flat on his back, he felt his limbs with his hands – he seemed to be wearing only underwear. Though his body felt cool, his face felt hot, in his nostrils the smell of musty rock.
Peering down towards his feet, to one side was a strip yellowish light; a door narrowly ajar. A moment later movement past the gap.
‘Eh…’ he managed. Then let go louder. ‘EH!’ Which hurt.
After a moment, the door creaked, the gap widening. Then further, a silhouette shuffling in, towards and alongside him. A match struck, making him squint. He smelt the sharp sulphur of its flare, and heard a crackling from somewhere back past his right ear.
‘Awfully sorry, old chap,’ said a voice. ‘’Fraid your candle burnt down. That one was near its end. We’re running low on them, y’see. Yet here’s a nice new one – there we are – if y’don’t mind the end of an old one, that is.’
‘Thanks,’ breathed Stone. In the brightening light of the flame, he could now make out a spectacled face above him. It seemed to be smiling.
‘My name’s Hailey. Richard. I’m a doctor. If I may ask, old chap, do you know who you are?’
‘…Stone’s the name. …What am I doin’ ’ere? What’s wrong with me?’
‘Oh, not frightfully much, thank heavens, but you are a bit knocked about. You were in a raid, old chap. A German one. But you’re alright. And quite safe here.’
‘Quite a way underground, as it happens. Some sort of old catacomb system, I do believe. Actually, I suspect very old – hewn out of solid rock, it is. Though in the current situation it’s a hospital; safest down here what with all the bombing upstairs. And not a bad hospital as far as they go, except they’re so frightfully short of everything…’
Stone saw he was facing up at a low, arched ceiling of hacked-out rock, though a pretty even job of it. He angled his face towards the man again.
‘Am I injured?’
‘Just moderately, but yes, dear chap… You sustained blast burns. To your face and neck mainly – from the radiant heat flash of exploding bombs.’
Stone swallowed. ‘What’s all that mean?’
‘You’ve been singed.’
‘Yes, your face and neck should be a bit tender for the next week, I expect. They’ll settle down, rest assured, though you may have, well… a bit a tan. For a bit.’
‘Nothing too much to worry about. Though of course I’m not a surgeon; just a humble GP. I’m just passing through, y’see,’ Hailey peered to the hewn rock close above him, ‘at least I hope…’ then back down to Stone. ‘In any case you’ve lost your eyebrows for the moment, and when you’re back on your feet I think you’d do well with a trip to the barber they have here.’ Hailey smiled. ‘On the house, naturally.’
‘What about the other blokes?’ Stone released. ‘Blokes I flew in with…’
‘Oh, don’t you worry about them for the moment… You just rest, old chap. That’s what you need… And a haircut. Make a fresh start.’
Stone managed a look to his left. There were other cot-beds in the shadowy space. They were empty.
Hailey dug deep to keep a smile in his voice. ‘You’re Australian, aren’t you.’
‘Splendid. Anything I can get you?
Hailey’s smile strengthened. ‘Seems you’re on the mend already. One coming up. Oh, though I do hope you don’t take milk and sugar…’
‘There aren’t any.’
‘Short back and sides, please, mate.’
The RAF barber winced in the mirror. ‘Think best we shave it all off, guv.’
‘Reckon so,’ breathed Stone.
With that the aircraftman reached for his clippers and went to work, as he did, most of Stone’s hair falling off in burn-frizzed clumps. The doctor had said his face and neck might seem ‘tanned’. They were. Like leather. And he was bruised all over.
Half the blokes in 603 Squadron had been killed in the raid. ‘Bought it’, as the Brits put it. The C.O. included. Plus more from the two other squadrons who’d just flown in off the Wasp either killed or seriously injured. Of the 47 just-landed Spitfires, 40 had been blown to pieces. One thing was dead cert, Stone reckoned: the Germans didn’t muck around.
Beneath the barber’s apron, he now wore the ‘hot weather’ RAF uniform he’d just been issued: a sand-coloured short-sleeve shirt of heavy cotton and baggy knee-length shorts, also long socks and what they called ‘desert boots’ of brown suede. On his new hairless dome he’d wear his dark blue RAAF ‘forage’ cap. That or risk a fine from an officer, if there were any left.
As he watched his head become shaved, Stone was struck with a memory of the last time he’d seen it look like that: at the ‘boys’ home’ in country Victoria. Where one night in his first week the ‘top dog’ boy had tried to rape him. Only Stone clocked the cunt with an iron door-stop and woke him up again flushing his head down the toilet, after which night there was a new top dog.
Gawd, the view in the mirror was awful. Stone knew he was no matinee idol. He knew he was nothing. So had always tried to look as best he could, since old enough to work combing brylcreem through his hair twice a day, washing off the garage grease and scrubbing up sharp on Saturday nights. As of now he could wear a paper bag.
Finished and brushing Stone off, ‘There we are, guv,’ smiled the young Brit in the mirror, ‘all done.’ Drawing the apron off Stone, once again the Brit registered the ‘pilot’s wings’ patch above the Aussie’s shirt pocket.
Stone only saw what looked back at him from the mirror. ‘That,’ he began slowly, ‘is the worst haircut I ever saw.’
The barber nodded. ‘It’s a shocker, sir.’
Stone looked up. ‘Thanks,’ he breathed.
‘Do come again, sir.’
As for officers, it turned out 603 Squadron had at least one left: on the flight in from the Wasp a flight lieutenant, now Acting Squadron Leader Guy Templeton. Stone did his best to march into the bloke’s office, a battered airfield hut surrounded by sandbags, stand at attention and salute. With a degree of pain he then removed his forage cap to under-arm position.
‘Sergeant Stone reporting as ordered, sir.’
A sinewy Brit with tight fuzzy hair, Templeton looked up from his trestle table desk. His penetrating stare eased a bit.
‘Good grief, Sergeant, you are a sight…’
‘Alive, aren’t I?’
Templeton sat back in his chair. ‘Yes. And Australian… I’ve flown with a few Aussies in my time. Good chaps…’ He looked down to his desk. ‘If only they were still alive…’
Stone saw the diagonal purple-on-white striped ribbon the bloke wore beneath his wings patch. The ribbon of the Distinguished Flying Cross, Stone knew that much. Also that any bloke with the DFC had seen action. Likely tons of it.
Templeton read from a file. ‘The report on your flying is good, Sergeant, I don’t mind telling you.’ But now looked squarely back up at Stone. ‘Yet dismal regarding your sense of military discipline. …Not uncommon in you Australians, and a trait that works wonders in its place. But that place isn’t HERE, Sergeant… Here we need chaps with discipline. Particularly in the air: Until some spare parts can be shipped in, I make it we have seven serviceable Spits on the Island. SEVEN, Sergeant. To stave off 10, 20, 50 times that many Jerry fighters and bombers. And that’s the good news…’
Templeton lit a half-smoked cigarette. Inhaled. Exhaled.
‘For the moment we’re to stave Jerry not off the Maltese population but off our airfields and Navy. And that’s direct from the top; in the current scarcity of our resources, every bomb dropped on the Maltese is a Spitfire and its pilot, a Wellington bomber or Royal Navy submarine not bombed so still in action. IF they remain so, we may just pull through this, and so keep hammering Rommel’s supply ships to North Africa. If we cannot, Rommel will win. In turn we’ll lose the Suez Canal, all our oil from the Middle East and so the war. Do I make myself perfectly clear, Sergeant?’
‘Well that’s something. 603 Squadron has two Spits serviceable and barely enough petrol to get airborne. I’ll be taking you up as my wingman over the next few days. Until then I want you to mend up. In any case there’s nothing for you to fly.’
He wrote on a piece of paper and pushed it across the desk. ‘Here’s a place you can get a beer in the main town, shambles though it is. Just for heaven’s sake know where the nearest air-raid shelter is at all times. You’re no good to me dead, Sergeant. No good at all.’
The main town was a half bombed-out city called Valetta, and at night a bloke had to watch where he stepped on its rubbled streets; the only light source in the whole place seeming the searchlight beams that wavered up into the sky.
On the outside, the joint that Templeton had recommended seemed just a hole in a wall, a high one of hewn rock slabs, on the inside the rock a creamy white colour in the light of none-too-many lanterns. There was a dark wooden counter attended by an aged local gent in an apron, a few tables and stools at which sat RAF sergeants and airmen mainly, a few sailors, and though his bottle of beer was barely cold Stone was glad for it.
In one corner a musical duo was playing a piano accordion and a ukulele-type instrument though teardrop in shape. Stone thought they were good too, dropping a few coins in the hat when passed round. Their sound reminded him of men playing music in Carlton, an inner-Melbourne suburb known for its Italian cafés, that is, until the war came and they were boarded up. And just like that music had been, the tunes here were sorta happy and sad at the same time. Music that made y’wanna smile a bit, but it sounded like memory: like happy times a long time ago. Or had by someone else.
Stone lit a cigarette, and let his eyes adjust to the bar’s dim interior.
He hadn’t expected she’d care to keep looking at him, even in the low light, what with his shaved head and roughed-up face. But she did. Stone guessed she just couldn’t help staring at his sorry-lookin’ head…
From just a few tables away, her eyes seemed black in colour. And sad. When, after a bit, she was still looking at him, he winked at her, causing her face to brighten, and now hold his stare. She had black hair and sort of ‘caramel’ skin like a St. Kilda green grocer’s daughter who’d once seemed sweet on Stone – till her Italian father locked her up out the back of the shop. This one seemed a bit older though, and was a bit of alright. Taking a cigarette from the pack in his chest pocket, Stone gestured with the pack as if she might like one too. At which the girl was sitting at his table in a heartbeat. And he lit one for her.
‘Grazzi… You saw that I was looking at you, yes?’ she said on her first exhale.
He grinned. ‘Only ’cause I was gawkin’ at you, miss.’
Her face pivoted slightly. ‘Please to forgive… What is “gor-kihn”?’
Stone ashed his own cigarette. ‘Lookin’ in a way that’d cause your father grave concern.’
‘My father he will not have the concern.’ Before Stone could ask why not, ‘Your eyes,’ she said, ‘at them I was looking. Now I see they are grey. I like them. They are good eyes. Yes.’
Stone had been with one or two prostitutes in his time. And now gave this young lady the enquiring ‘look’…
‘No,’ she exhaled once again, though just above a whisper, ‘there will be no charge,’ and put out her hand, which Stone took, and out of the bar she led him and away.
Back at her tiny garret, Stone looked on as she lit a candle, after which she stripped off real quick.
Then attacked his private part like she was hungry.
At first light, she said she hoped he’d come back.
Crossing a shattered town square on his way to the RAF truck stop for the five or so miles back to the airfield, the sun wasn’t up yet when Stone saw a long line of locals, adults mainly but many children, each one clutching the handle of some sort of kitchen pot, saucepan or lidded billy. The line went for a city block before Stone reached the head of it, where a nun in a white habit stood over a steaming metal urn, by the look of it just delivered off a mule and cart. As Stone passed the nun, he saw she was spooning out what looked like porridge into each person’s vessel, each one then shuffling on their way.
Reaching a trio of rock slab arches, Stone saw he was drawing up on the truck stop, the RAF sign for it at a decided lean. Standing by this, as he checked his watch he heard the sound of children playing and yelling down a nearby alley. The more he listened out, he caught they were singing. Looking up and about him again now, he saw a garbage bin a short way off, and the little girl straining up over its filthy lip and reaching into it. Picking about inside it as best she could given she was no bigger than the bin, she dropped back down on two bare feet, already eating what she’d managed to pick.
Stone had done it himself as a very small child and was on head-shaking, hand-waving approach to the little girl when the singing spilt out of the alley, as did the children, as one running past the little girl and whipping her away with them, in her dirty white dress already laughing along with them, and gone.
At first Stone thought some joker must be pulling his leg…
It was all a bit crumbling but he simply could not believe where the RAF had put him up: in his own room in some long-ago nobleman’s residence called the ‘Xara Palace’, a place perched on the hundred-or-so-foot-high corner edge of a castle-walled town called Mdina – built in ‘the Meddy-evil Era’, said one bloke. The ‘terrace’ where the pilots were brought their meals even had a view: and a bird’s eye one of the patchwork fields covering the mile or so between high Mdina and Takali, where lay the airfield, beyond, a church steeple marking just about every village, domes too and glimpses of the blue Mediterranean. But what beat all about the terrace was the singing that came from the kitchen as they waited for their meals…
‘What the fuck’s that?’ Stone angled towards the din.
‘Just Giovanni,’ shrugged a British pilot across the bench. ‘I-tie P.O.W.’
‘Italian prisoner of war, chum. Good bloke. Good cook; what he does with bully beef is amazing…’
‘Bully beef’, Stone well knew from its rotten reputation, was the military ‘field issue’ version of good old corned beef, something Stone had been grateful for every time he’d had it since he could remember. Bully beef, unfortunately, was corned beef canned in Brazil during the last war and which, frankly, smelt like piss. On a good day. Stone’s best guess was that they made it ‘off’ so that it could keep indefinitely without ever going off any further. As a result of it not being able to, Stone gathered that, with no supplies getting in and little if any refrigeration available here on Malta, bully beef was served breakfast, lunch and dinner.
His plate was placed in front of him by the Italian cook. Though no longer singing. Only smiling.
To Stone it looked like rice mixed through with bully beef though finely chopped, also finely chopped onions and green herbs. The steam rising off it took him back to Lygon Street in Carlton: to the smell coming out of all those ‘little Italy’ restaurants of something he’d never actually tasted…
‘Iz rizot-toh,’ beamed the Italian.
‘Iz good. You try.’
And it WAS good.
VERY good. Just a bit peppery and lemony too.
In the lantern light of his room, Stone unclipped and tilted open the pistol’s six-bullet chamber cylinder, checked it was loaded, spun the cylinder, clipped it shut. With its long barrel, cylinder, ring guard, hammer and handle grip, it was a hefty old thing, the Webley & Scott .455 revolver. He’d never fired it, nobody had in training; each new pilot just issued with one before embarkation from Australia. Though Stone well remembered the last time he’d fired a pistol and would right now give anything for a nice little automatic – like the little beauty he’d had to chuck down the sewer grate on highstreet St. Kilda. Still, the old Webley was what he had right now and as a weapon it’d worry a rhino. Standing up from his cot, he inserted it into one of the deep pockets of his baggy shorts, dowsed the lantern, opened and went out the door very quietly indeed.
Giovanni Sala had for more than one year now been on Malta. Since North Africa against the Australian 6th Division…
How well he recalled the so very long line of Italian soldiers of which he had been one: at Bardia, the line as if without end. The Australians had called them ‘the gentlemen’. 36-thousand gentlemen – This even the Italians had found funny. Also a thing of wonder; everywhere was la contraddizione: to the horizon ahead, also behind, the column of great-coated Italians, on either side of them the rocky desert freezing cold. Unarmed had been the 36-thousand, si, yet each thousand in rock-hurling distance of their captor: the single, rifle-slung Australian soldier who tramped along beside each thousand. All that could have come to pass and yet had not! And why? Because the 36-thousand Italians in that line had marched to war, seen it, and now knew it something fit for Germans.
But what was that? In his darkened room, Giovanni, near sleep now, heard a noise. Or thought he had… Then heard it again. Si, he now was certain of it. A noise coming from his kitchen. If another rat, he would find it, corner it, and this time slam it with the back of a frying pan.
Rising from his cot with but a single creak, when steadied on two feet he listened out again: now only silence.
Treading barefoot towards the half-open door, reaching it he held his breath. And peered in to the darkened kitchen.
No sound, nothing moved, yet this Giovanni expected; if the rat was there, it would have heard him, and stilled itself, now listening, smelling out for him, waiting for Giovanni’s next move.
He took one step inside, then another – he now would use the rat’s stillness against it; within arm’s reach on his right hung the black cast-iron frying pan – a heavy one – it would need to be.
Giovanni’s next act he knew the rat would hear, yet the sounds it would ever hear were now numbered. Lifting its thick handle of its hook, he drew the pan towards him, raised it high, and listened hard. Nothing. This he also expected; the rat would this instant be tensed, its muscles coiled, readied to run, run for its life. Which Giovanni was about to end. He took one further step, mere feet ahead the food locker, there, underneath, the rat would be, having chewed up through the wood of the locker while Giovanni had lain on his bed – so as to get inside the locker and feast while Giovanni slept.
To his left now, Giovanni saw the wooden spoon upon the bench, and knew how he would outsmart the rat: clasping the spoon now, he would toss it ahead, beyond the food locker, where the spoon’s clatter on the far floor of the kitchen would send the rat into its explosion of movement – away from the clatter, out from under the locker, towards Giovanni on the flat, slate kitchen floor upon which Giovanni would slam down the pan. He now drew the wooden spoon towards him, and back behind him, in the next instant to toss it ahead, and bring off his so clever plan.
When he heard the metallic click by his right ear. And felt the cold metal on his cheek, just below his right eye.
‘Don’t – Move,’ said the voice.
Giovanni smelt the oil of the pistol, its muzzle pressing gently on his taught skin. ‘I not move,’ he whispered. ‘Not I…’
‘Smart man,’ whispered the voice.
‘Si. Giovanni plenty smart.’
‘…You’re up late, old fella.’
‘Si, Signor. And so, I believe, are you.’
‘Put the pan down. On the floor. Spoon too.’
‘That’s good. That’s real good,’ said the voice. ‘Reckon we’re gunna get along great mates. Aren’t we.’
‘Si, Signor. Di great mates.’ Giovanni felt the round, open muzzle of the pistol press just a fraction harder against his cheekbone as the man’s next words came.
‘You – No – Tell. Okay?’
‘No-no, Signor, I no tell… I am friend to you. Iz di truth. …I no want the war… I have ristorante – in Italia. On the Lago di Como. This it iz what I want… Iz not Bellagio but across the water but iz very nice… A Dongo. Where are my wife. And di childrens. …O-kay, Signor?’
‘Si. Iz okay. But, Signor, pliz to forgive: I do not understand… If you are hungry, Giovanni, he feed you… Why for you not ask me?’
‘I’m not hungry.’
‘Then… pliz to tell, Signor, what iz it that you want? Pliz to tell… Tell Giovanni.’
Giovanni felt the pressure of the pistol’s muzzle lessen just slightly on his cheekbone. And heard the soft metal click of its firing hammer being carefully released – and fitting into its firing pin socket inside the weapon.
Stone saluted. Removed his cap. ‘Sergeant Stone reporting, sir.’
Templeton’s focus remained firmly on the paperwork of his desk. ‘You wanted to see me, Sergeant?’
‘Yes, I do, sir. I’d like to get in to Valetta today, sir.’
‘Don’t see why not… Still nothing for you to fly here.’ Templeton now looked up at Stone. ‘Soon though.’ Then back down to a sheet of paper. ‘We’re low on petrol but it’ll get you away from the airfield: We’re overdue for a raid and it’s not like Jerry to be unpunctual. There’s a Jeep outside. One of the erks’ll drive you in.’
‘Don’t thank me, Sergeant,’ hummed Templeton. ‘You chaps are rare as hen’s teeth on Malta. You’re no good to me dead is all. Dismissed.’
Stone replaced his cap, saluted, about-faced, marched to the door.
Templeton spoke again as he reached it. ‘A girl?’
Stone halted. ‘…Security, sir.’
Templeton quelled a grin. ‘Quite. Carry on, Sergeant.’
Out on the airfield the morning was warm. And clear. Stone rounded the corner of a half-smashed hangar under repair.
‘Right,’ he released to an ‘Erk’ as Templeton termed them – ‘white collar’ RAF slang for any ‘blue collar’ RAF member, this one a Spitfire mechanic. ‘I need y’t’drive me into town, mate. C.O.’s okayed it.’
The early-middle-aged Brit took a final drag of his smoke, squashed it out under dusty boot, and eyed the Australian a tad warily. ‘…Aye-aye, Sarge.’
‘I’ll drive,’ said Stone.
‘…Very good, Sarge.’
Barely managing to keep up with the striding Aussie on the way to the Jeep, the Brit spoke up as they went. ‘Ever driven one o’these jobs before then, Sarge?’
‘Mind, she’s a left-hand drive. Not like back ’orme…’
‘Suits me,’ said Stone.
With that he was behind the wheel of the open-top four-wheel drive and firing her up, the Brit in his seat just as they tore away, as they flew through the airfield perimeter gate the RAF mechanic open-mouthed at the way the Aussie whipped up through the gears.
‘Where y’from in England?’ pitched Stone over the Jeep’s howl down the dusty main road, dry-looking fields on either side bordered everywhere by low rock walls.
‘What’s it like?’
‘Well, Sarge, I thought it a shit-hole till I landed ’ere. Worst posting in the RAF.’ The Brit squeezed every muscle tight as the Aussie shifted down through a sweeping left curve then back up into a straight. ‘Done a bit of drivin’ afore now, haveya, Sarge?’
‘Just a bit. Used t’fix cars…’
‘So y’didn’t used t’be a Grand Prix driver then, did ya, Sarge?’
Stone shifted down a gear. Then another.
The corporal breathed out with relief, the herby air of Malta sharp in his nostrils.
Stone was letting the Jeep coast now, just coast along as he focused into the distance ahead…
On the dots: dots in the deep blue morning sky high left of the Valetta skyline a few miles ahead. Just dots but a swarm of them. And just visibly moving from left to right: towards the city – from the north…
The corporal now also saw them. And heard Valetta’s air-raid sirens winding up ahead as the Jeep slowed. ‘Standard procedure now, Sarge,’ the Brit began firmly, ‘is w’pull off the road and get away from the Jeep; first thing a Stuka’ll go for on a road out here, see, is road traffic lark us.’ He turned to Stone. ‘The Stuka, Sarge, if y’dorn’t know, that’s their bleedin’ dive bomber and a Jeep kicking up dust out here’ll stand out like dog’s balls.’ He looked ahead again. ‘Believe me, Sarge, I’ve been in Malta a while now and right now this is the safest place t’be: middle a’bleedin’ norwhere. So long as we stop kicking up dust an’ get away from the Jeep till the raid passes on.’
Stone shifted down to first gear, slowed them, stopped them. The handbrake squeaked.
‘Then you’ll be alright here,’ he said to the Brit. ‘But I’m goin’ on.’
‘It’s your life, Sarge,’ released the corporal already up and out beside the idling Jeep.
‘Yeah, it is,’ said Stone, revved the engine once and tore off.
Watching him go, the Jeep becoming a dot itself down the long, winding road to Valetta, the Brit said it aloud…
‘Bleedin’ – BARMY.’
Already Stone felt at one with the Jeep: a cast-iron matchbox, it was sluggish left and right but its heavy-treaded wheels gave it decent grip on the gravelly road and it was fast. But now he saw explosions in the city not a mile ahead, the swarm directly above it now, still going left to right, and the pounding, pounding thunder hit his ears, giant smoke plumes rising. He shifted the Jeep down to first, slowing as the explosions just kept on bursting, right across the city, high above it to Stone the dots just visible now as twin-engined bomber aircraft – there had to be 50 of the bastards – as far as he could make out now level with the far right-hand limits of Valetta. The explosions were trailing off, it seemed, but the city ahead was lost in smoke risen thousands of feet, the bombers keeping on, no sound from them; either too high to hear or lost under the rising and falling wail of the air-raid sirens.
Straight up now Stone saw more dots, four of them – heading as one in a direct line for the bombers – four Spitfires from airfield, he guessed, and now coasted the Jeep to try and see them better, just specks at the height they were and moving at a hell of a rate of knots… Way distant now, the bomber swarm seemed to be turning, turning left as one: out over the sea beyond Valetta – away from the incoming Spits.
Just smoke and wailing sirens ahead, the swarm and its pursuers near gone from sight, Stone revved the Jeep’s engine, and gunned it towards smoking Valetta.
Dust still falling in the deserted town square, also rising from ancient buildings newly collapsed, Stone wrenched the handbrake of the Jeep.
The ‘all-clear’ was sounding: the air-raid sirens’ wail no longer rising and falling but a steady tone meaning the raid had passed. And though he knew the drone was supposed to be reassuring, it felt to Stone like a dog dying of wounds and never dying. Gone, the clear blue sky of the day, only filthy smoke swirling above, Stone’s eyes stung from dust. He splashed some water on them from a can on the back of the Jeep, let them clear, and the sirens finally wound down.
As his eyes did clear, he heard rubble shifting, then voices, and people started filtering out of holes in walls. As their number grew, then swelled, some picking their way over rubble in his direction, Stone saw something that near bowled him over.
Some of them were smiling. One even at Stone.
As a mule and cart somehow managed its way onto the edge of the square, an arm-banded soul hefting an urn down off the cart, a line of Maltese already forming up before it with saucepans and billies, Stone knew that if anybody had ever deserved medal, it was these people.
He knocked on the door of the garret.
Heard its bolt draw back, the door narrowly opening, in the gap the face of the young woman in black. On recognising Stone’s face, her eyes widened, as did the gap in the door.
‘It is you,’ she breathed.
‘Yeah it is,’ he replied softly.
‘To come in, you would like?’
‘Nah, miss,’ he said, reached deep into one of his baggy trouser pockets, drew out the brown paper package tied with string, and handed it to her.
‘What is?’ she released, her eyes now as if seeking permission to open it.
‘It’s for you. Open,’ he nodded.
Pulling the string bow and very carefully drawing back a fold of the package, she saw its granular contents, in her slender hands and up her arms the package now feeling most wonderfully heavy.
Rice! She would now eat for maybe two weeks! Every day! And not even being hungry after each time. Maybe three weeks, yes, if she stayed a bit hungry…
She looked up at Stone, a tear now in one eye. ‘Sinjur, I love you,’ her voice seared.
‘Nah, y’don’t,’ he smiled. Replaced his cap. Turned and walked away.
He had another delivery to make.
At the triple arches, in sight of the garbage bin where days previously he’d seen the little girl, Stone heard no children singing. He’d checked the alleyway out of which the child’s friends had streamed and whipped her away laughing. He’d looked around for half an hour. Nothing. Only brand-new smoking bomb craters in the ground at every turn.
Touching the second paper package in his pocket, he was just about to wander back to the Jeep when came the noise…
From down a rubbled street. Children laughing and screaming, and by the sound of it headed his way.
Stone strode towards the noise, passing a British soldier, now with a clear view down the narrow street: high rock slab buildings on either side, a swirl of dirty white dress amongst children kicking a ball. He smiled.
When the whole street flashed silver, thunder smacking Stone’s ears and whole body, smoke and dust whooshing fast up the street between its building sides, enveloping him. His eyes stinging, Stone saw nothing, only heard the British voice close behind him: ‘You alright, Sarge?! Sarge, where ARE ya?!’ Stone felt a hand on his back, then on one shoulder, by the other an almighty hacking cough. ‘…One o’them delaired-action bustards!’
Stone’s vision returning slightly, painfully, the smoke around him lifted a tad though still a thick cloud down the street ahead. Ash and dust in his mouth, he spat hard to clear it.
When, from ahead, he caught footsteps on rubble. And out of the cloud something staggered.
The little girl.
Her dirty white dress red with blood down one side. One arm blown off above the elbow, she kept on staggering, the closer she got to Stone the clearer he saw the look in her eyes, a look as if searching, desperately seeking as they darted this way and that. Until her eyes caught Stone’s. And fixed on them. In hers, a mute plea. Until they rolled upwards in their sockets, she was still, and fell limp to one side onto the rubble.
Dr Richard Hailey offered Stone a cigarette.
Lit it for him, took one himself, and lit up also.
‘Well,’ Hailey began with an encouraging smile. ‘Our bronzed Aussie. Good to see the old hair growing back a bit.’ From across his airfield hut desk, he appraised Stone’s facial skin. And winked. ‘Though still bronzed.’
‘Yes, the C.O. wants me to have a bit of a chat with you. And I do want you to speak your mind with me, Sergeant.’
The bloke’s last comment was lost on Stone: ‘I was goin’ to,’ he shrugged.
‘Yes. Yes, quite.’
‘…A bit of a chat, sir.’
‘Yes, Sergeant. A bit of a chat. To see whether you feel ready for flying ops. You’ve had it tough, haven’t you…’
Stone shifted in his chair. ‘…Just got off to a bad start, is all.’
‘Alas, old chap, that’s Malta.’
For a sec Stone’d thought the bloke meant St. Kilda. ‘Doc, I’m just waiting for your mob to give me somethin’ t’fly.’
‘Indeed. Well, old chap, there’s something for you. …Are you ready for it?’
‘Yeah.’ Stone thought of the little girl. ‘Yeah I’m ready…’
For a Spitfire pilot, there was no higher level of alert and Stone was on it.
Called ‘Standby’, it meant standing by not just close by the aircraft but strapped into the cockpit, lined up on the airfield, leather helmet on, engine warmed and ready for take-off at a moment’s notice.
Though warm at ground level, at combat altitude it’d be freezing cold, Stone having copied the other pilots’ odd mix of hot weather shirts and shorts with hefty flying gloves and fleeced flying boots. He’d then strapped on his parachute harness, dangling behind him the parachute ‘pack’ on which he sat in the cockpit, over the whole lot the yellow ‘Mae West’ in case he had to bail out over the sea. The erk had then strapped Stone in to the Spit, gave its bullet-proof windscreen a final polish, wished him good luck and stepped down and away.
And like that Stone now waited. No sound in his ears; the Spit’s radio switched off so German and Italian listening stations in Sicily would pick up nothing when the four Spits were ordered to ‘scramble’, term for emergency take-off. And you did NOT talk over the radio once airborne, to do so being suicide, your radio signals directing Messerschmitt Bf109 fighters onto you like sharks onto blood. Anyway the radio didn’t work; rat-shit and no spares for it, said the erk. No radio, their signal to scramble would be the green ‘Very light’ flare shooting skyward from the ops hut out over the airfield.
Stone had never fired a Spit’s guns in anger. Goggles up on the forehead of his leather flying helmet, he had been waiting in the Spit cockpit since dim first light.
Waiting for the green flare.
Deep beneath Valetta, cable-linked as his radar set was to radar stations out on the coast, the RAF signals corporal could only assume the set was on the blink. And it had just been serviced! ‘On the top line’ it was, so had said the technician…
In the darkened bunker, as the corporal peered into the green glow of the circular radar screen, what it displayed today was, well, rubbish: Nothing remotely resembling the green blip clusters he was looking for: the radar ‘returns’ from enemy aircraft coming in over the sea from Sicily. Today’s first ‘returns’ were just a mess, the like of which the corporal had never seen on the screen nor in the manual; just a luminous green cloud on the upper part of the screen. No, the set must be on the blink. Nothing else for it: Report it to the guv…
‘Sir,’ he called to one side, though keeping his eyes on the screen, ‘best you have a look at this…’
The flight lieutenant had been a signals corporal himself once: back in what they were now calling the Battle of Britain. Two years ago now, these days he was considered a radar ‘boffin’. He leaned in close, and took a good, long look. His face aglow before the screen, he tweaked a dial. Then another. What he saw was a bright green blur, a luminous mass covering the whole top of the radar screen. And just, just perceptibly edging down it. Edging south. Towards Malta. From the north. From Sicily.
He swiped up the telephone receiver. ‘Ops Room. Immediate…’
Stone heard the thump, and out left of his Spit saw the green burning flare rocket up into the late-morning sky, as it climbed trailing an arc of pure white smoke, slowing as it reached the top of its arc, even slower over the top, as if reluctant to fall.
Stone pressed his cockpit starter button and ahead past the Spit’s windscreen gunsight saw the propeller blades turn, and turn, the Spit’s V12 Merlin engine now catching, its rich roar and vibration making the Spitfire come alive all round Stone making him feel right at home; he was good with engines – always had been – and now pulled his goggles down.
Cockpit canopy still slid-back and open, he gave the two-handed signal to his ground crew to pull the Spit’s wheel chocks away, as he did, seeing the bicycle racing in from the left to somewhere down in front. Peering forward out of the open cockpit Stone saw the erk drop the bike at a run, climb up on the wing-root of Templeton’s Spit three in front, lean in to the cockpit a moment, then step back down off the wing-root and away. Gawd, the dust blown back by the prop-wash of three revving Spits, a piece of paper whipping up into the air from Templeton’s cockpit and flying on up, over and back past Stone’s like a leaf in gale. And Templeton’s Spit surged forward, Red 2 and 3 in short order behind him, Stone now centering in his cockpit, driving his own throttle steadily forward, his seat pressing hard into his back as he put on speed down the strip.
Narrowly airborne, he put his wheels up, pulled his cockpit canopy forward and shut and, climbing with the others, he could already see the ocean. Into a gentle left bank with the three Spits ahead of him, from the maximum revs he needed to keep up with them and their three-quarter-maximum climb rate he could see Templeton was going for altitude but also for maximum distance as they climbed, on the compass… north – not east as Stone had seen the Spits fly over on his way to Valetta… That day Templeton had them way high already on course for the bombers. Today he was covering ground, or rather, sea; looking down Stone saw they’d just left honeycomb Malta behind, and were now out over blue ocean.
Stone’s position in the 4-Spit formation, Templeton had informed him as they geared-up, was ‘Tail-end Charlie’. Since first arriving in the UK, Stone had become aware of the term. In Bomber Command it meant the poor bastard in a bomber’s ‘rear gunner’ position: poor bastard as he was the first thing rear-attacking German fighters took out before blasting everybody else. In Fighter Command the position was about as popular, meaning the one fighter in any section of four who weaved about at the back watching everybody else’s arse with no one watching his. As a result, ‘Tail-end Charlies’ were well-known to just vanish.
As they climbed – and climbed – the clear sky became deeper and deeper blue. Only 60 miles over the Med to Sicily, they were headed straight for it, Stone reckoned, the line of its coast verging on visible ahead he could swear. They’d passed up through 20-thousand feet and not ten minutes since take-off; the Spitfire Mark V was a honey: 350 miles per hour and rising as Templeton levelled them out, though now throttling them back a bit, and steadying.
As Tail-end Charlie, Stone kept the three other Spits in sight below and ahead of him as he snaked his own smoothly left and right, scanning the sky ahead, left, right, above and behind him all the time. The sun now high above, he strained his focus for specks out in the blue, for glints of light that could only be sunlight reflections off enemy aircraft. While the Spits down ahead searched for enemy bombers, he searched for fighters, and likely the Germans’ latest: the Messerschmitt Bf109F which, though he’d only ever seen it in training photographs, somehow reminded Stone of a bloke from St. Kilda who was slender and ugly and didn’t care ’cause he was a hit-man.
But then Stone saw what he wasn’t looking for…
About five miles ahead on the right. A dark haze which, even as Stone looked, was growing. Darkening. Darkening into a haze of black dots. Black dots thickening. Into aircraft. Twin-engined aircraft. Bombers. And more than Stone could count so quick but maybe a hundred twin-engined bombers heading in formation in the opposite direction – heading south – now passing about a mile off out to the right and maybe a thousand feet below.
Ahead Stone saw Templeton’s wingspan rolling right, Red 2 and 3 rolling with him into a right-hand banking curve, Stone rolling, following suit behind them, g-forces pressing, pressing him firmly down into his seat as his cockpit compass wound the whole way through 180 degrees.
Straightening out of the turn, levelling, steadying, Templeton with Red 2 and 3 ahead and below, Stone could see they were drawing up on the rear right-hand edge of the bomber mass: at about 1000 yards and closing fast, a cluster of a dozen bombers – from his memory of air recognition silhouette cards, German Ju88s with their determined, tough-looking lines. Stone scanned up and behind him on both sides, rear upwards again.
No sign at all of the Messerschmitts he expected to be there and diving down on Red Section from behind right now.
Looking forward again, in the distance down ahead he could see Malta. Its twin islands surely approaching on the blue Med.
Again he scanned up and behind left and right. Nothing.
And ahead once again at the bombers. Which right now he knew would be opening their bomb-bay doors.
A fucking mass of bombers. Against which four Spitfires could do fuck-all.
No, sweet fuck-all against the whole lot, but Stone was sure-as-shit gunna do something about some of them. And if there was something or a hundred things he hadn’t thought of, there was no time to think of it now; a lot of Maltese people down there were about to die and Stone was fucked if he was gunna sit here as a Tail-end Charlie and do nothing about it.
He knew his duty. Tail-end Charlie. But made his decision.
No radio to Red Section. Stuff it. They’d see him do it… And he did it now, rolling his Spit upside-down, jamming his throttle full forward and pulling into a dive, speeding up into it, tearing BELOW the three Spits ahead, his own machine coming alive as he did. Rolling upright again, Red Section passing above and behind, Stone was now right where he intended to be: down below the level of the bombers. Pulling level out of the dive, he was now passing underneath the Ju88s and DO IT NOW pulled back on his stick, whipping straight up like a dart not a hundred yards in FRONT of the bombers which, he could see in his rearwards loop back over the top of them, were peeling off left and right, breaking formation and SCATTERING.
Pulling the whole way back through his loop upside-down into a dive he rolled upright once more. When out to his left he saw a Ju88 on the run far right of the bomber mass. Reefing his Spit into a powerful left bank Stone headed straight for the loner.
500 yards, close the distance, close the distance, 400 yards, good. He’s banking right, back north, back towards Sicily, bank WITH him. 300 yards, olive-green camouflaged upsides, white-outlined black crosses on his wings. 200 yards, dropping his bombs over the sea, keep banking with him, bright golden flashing from the back of his cockpit canopy: his rear gunner firing. Tracers whipping past! 100 yards, get the gunsight ahead of him, just ahead of him and ‘COP THIS.’
Stone thumbed the firing button on his control column grip, felt his twin cannons and machine guns thundering in his wings, his own tracers streaming out ahead, a stream slightly in front of the bomber’s nose then IMPACTING all down its ‘glass-house’ cockpit canopy now splattered red from inside.
As the bomber rolled slowly to the right and onto its back Stone saw the sky blue of its undersides, German black crosses real clear now on its wings, and into a death dive towards the dark blue Med it went.
Pulling out of his attack, Stone levelled, took a breath, banked up and back round towards the south.
Ahead, the sky was empty. Not an aircraft to be seen.
Only black smoke rising up from the islands of Malta.
As he touched down on the dust of Takali airfield, Stone considered some numbers…
Given the Ju88’s standard crew, he’d just killed four men. Added to the bent copper that made five. Even as he slowed the Spit down the airfield, Stone knew he could’ve just killed a hundred and it wouldna made up for the little girl; she was still dead, wasn’t she. All there’d be was a hundred less Germans. Still, just like with the copper, it was a matter of taking them out before they took him out, he’d just taken out four more and was still breathing.
Further slowing the Spit, turning left off the strip, taxiing to park it, it settled down upon Stone that he’d just been in air combat for the first time and hadn’t been scared. Not for a moment. Too busy tryin’ to win a brand-new game where second prize was death. Nah. There’d been no time to be scared. Had there.
Cockpit canopy open, he was waved in and brought to a halt by a ground crew member, Stone engaging the Spit’s ground brakes, another erk chocking its wheels. Engine still turning, he pulled off his leather flying helmet, sat back a moment, pulled the ‘Slow Running Cut-out’ knob, the engine now slowing, blading, stopping.
It was reaching forward to the Spit’s electro ‘Master Switch’ that he projectile-vomited onto the instrument panel.
As did several points around the cockpit.
At the ancient RAF age of 25, Guy Templeton had lived a few lives already. A couple solely at his baptism: the Battle of Britain two years previous. This he had begun as a pilot officer, by its end promoted to flying officer, then flew the Channel sweeps across to France in ’41 when they made him flight lieutenant. And gave him the DFC. In part as he was a good pilot and decent chap – he hoped – but chiefly, he well knew, as so many other good pilots and decent chaps had got the chop: despite their personal fortitude, bravery and skill, blown away as their luck ran out. Some not quite blown away hung on still. Burnt. ‘Survivors’ that no smashing girl or child in the street would ever pass without wincing. Templeton didn’t rightly know how his own luck held out but he was still flying. Still fighting, at 25 now squadron leader, recently ‘confirmed’. Yes, he had lived a few lives already. Yet in all of them, Guy never remembered feeling as torn as he did right now: between what he’d like to say, and what his position of command now demanded he did say.
To this bloody Aussie…
‘YOU should be court-martialled,’ said Guy.
He’d like to have said: ‘That was the gutsiest piece of flying I’ve ever seen and I’ve seen a few…’
Standing at attention before him, Stone remained silent.
‘Your DUTY,’ Guy seethed, ‘was to protect Red Section as Tail-end Charlie.’
He’d like to have said: ‘It’s an out-moded, frankly suicidal RAF formation – from now on we’re copying the Germans’ “finger-four” where everyone watches everyone else’s arse while watching out for the enemy.’
He sat back slightly, peered out a broken window of the hut. ‘The Ju88 you claim. Anti-aircraft crews on the coast confirm it as crashed into the sea.’
He’d like to have said: ‘According to the erks who re-armed your Spit you downed it with the barest minimum of ammunition which we’re short on – please tell every chap in 603 Squadron how it’s done.’
He focused up on Stone once more. ‘You should be court-martialled yet won’t be for reasons which will all-too-soon become apparent.’
He’d like to have said: ‘You obviously have balls of steel, Stone, and you’ll need them; the USS Wasp is making another run, we’re about to have 64 new Spitfires fly in off her deck and this time we’ll get them down and straight back up at incoming Germans.’
Instead he said, ‘If there’d been 109s there I could have lost you and right now I need you alive, Sergeant.’
Stone cleared his throat. ‘Yessir.’
‘You’re no good to me dead. Dismissed.’
To Lela, he was different from the others…
Such fine looking young men, all of them, and with bodies like young gods. Still, in their hearts simply young men eager to be young: to let loose their so virgin masculinity, to do what they had been born to do. Their ‘wings’ patches clearly visible in the dim café, it was easy for Lela to see the pilots and these she chose. To fly their aircraft, she well knew, there was no other way for them to be except of high intelligence, and with this type of young man she stood the best chance of being treated well.
On occasion, the ecstasy into which this one or that one sent her took her away: to somewhere better than this bombed and starving hell. To a place where she too existed purely to be young. The Australian sent her there – Santa Marija did he – yet gave her something more…
This Sergeant Colin Stone – ‘Stoney’, as he preferred – there was a simplicity, an honesty about his presence that made Lela feel safe. In a world of no safety. What he gave her, she felt when he was with her, was himself. Which, she sensed with a strange certainty, was all he had. Had ever had. Just himself.
Until the previous year, Lela had had her parents. And their bakery together. Which Lela had hoped she would long front. Serving their neighbourhood their daily bread. Their pastizzi. Now it was gone. Even if it had not been bombed, there now was no flour with which to bake. And even if there was, no money with which to buy it.
He began to look younger to her as his hair grew back properly – it was dark brown, a slight wave, and he combed it with brylcreem. His face was not beautiful like some of the others she had known. It was, however, to Lela, a face she found hard to take her eyes from.
And each time he left her tiny home, he left her with dreams. Good dreams. Until each new dawn brought back with it the destruction, the hunger. After so long of which, thanks to Stoney’s visits and such food as he was able to bring, Lela was not putting on weight, not quite, but putting at least some flesh back upon her bones.
Up on his bridge of the USS Wasp, Captain Greg V. Greaves Jnr scanned out over the morning-grey ocean rolling past, out to port and not half a mile aft the British aircraft carrier HMS Eagle on parallel course. On its own bridge superstructure the Eagle’s Morse lamp was flashing – signalling – feet away from Greaves a young American sailor scribing intently on pad beside a junior officer with binoculars trained on the lamp. Into the mid to far distance on the white-capped Mediterranean, warships of all types and sizes headed parallel with the Wasp and Eagle. Force W. ‘Take Two’, Greaves added under his breath. And on this day of all days when this US Navy captain wished to God he was in the bright blue Pacific. Against the Japanese…
Just off the east coast of Australia, the ‘Battle of the Coral Sea’ they were already calling it over the wireless and glowingly, first reports indicating the Jap fleet had just been stopped from invading Port Moresby in New Guinea and so from capturing the whole South Pacific. A battle between aircraft carriers it had been and the first ever: though never seeing each other, each fleet sending carrier-borne aircraft to blast the other fleet with torpedoes and bombs. History had just been made. Over the past four days. Over the past four days while Greaves had been leading Force W down from Scapa Flow in the North Atlantic!
After the disastrous failure of his ‘Operation Calendar’, British Prime Minister Churchill had put it to President Roosevelt that the Wasp might have a ‘second sting in her tail’…
Though certain he was not alone in wishing Churchill had stuck to his early career as a journalist, Greaves was a fighting captain of the US Navy and would follow his ‘take two’ orders. Hopefully this time he wouldn’t be launching a bunch of fine young pilots like lambs to the slaughter: At first light tomorrow morning he would turn the Wasp and Eagle into the wind and launch their 64 Spitfires which, when they got to Malta, would this time land, be refuelled and take-off immediately before the Krauts could bomb the shit out of them. Operation Bowery this one was called. If the Brits pulled it off, this time the shit would fly the other way.
Greaves looked down the deck of his carrier, on top of which his pugnacious little Wildcat fighters were now limbering up, as underneath it right now would be his share of the 64 Spitfires. Looking out at the HMS Eagle again, and at the supporting cruisers and destroyers of his task-force, Greaves was reminded as always that he was a sailor at heart…
He saw something beautiful in the big ships; something noble. Something greater than the politicians whose wars they fought. He would never dare tell another soul but in the big ships Greaves saw what good men ought to be building. To Greg Greaves they were living things. But most of all they were BIG. Big like the Statue of Liberty.
Though now he caught it again: In the dull, overcast light of this verging-on-foul day, through the spray mist cloaking his task-force he saw HMS Eagle’s Morse lamp still flashing. Suddenly in his mind an eager young cadet back at the Naval Academy, Greaves decoded the Royal Navy ship’s dots and dashes into letters as they came.
WILL TRADE GIN FOR ICECREAM. STOP. STRAWBERRY. STOP. WE KNOW YOU HAVE IT.
The people of Malta would sure appreciate some right now, brooded Greaves.
SURRENDER IT NOW. STOP. IF NOT OUR INTENTION IS TO BOARD YOU.
Captain Greg V. Greaves Jnr of the United States Navy couldn’t help it…
Those screwball Brits made him smile.
A flock of new pilots had just arrived. Via submarine, joked one. Now billeted at the Xara Palace, Stone was buggered if he knew what for; what were they gunna fly, kites? The terrace was standing room only for breakfast and going by the singing from Giovanni’s kitchen he’d never been happier. Just that it didn’t make sense: 603 Squadron, also 601 and a few other units, so the word went, had just been brought up to full strength in terms of pilots. Which made no sense at all unless…
Stone peered across the dining bench to Dr Hailey. ‘When y’reckon we’re gettin’ some more Spits then, Doc?’
Hailey blew the steam off his tea. ‘My thoughts precisely, Sergeant Stone.’ The doctor’s eyes narrowed slightly over the top of his spectacles. ‘Sooner than later, I’d wager.’
‘What, via submarine?’
‘Same delivery method as last time, I’d expect.’
Stone looked out to the airfield. ‘Shit,’ he released. ‘Last time didn’t go too well…’
Then through the clear morning air came the sirens. First from out at the airfield, then from within the old fortress city on the edge of which the terrace was perched. And to Stone a bloody horrible din it was as a whole hoard of sirens rose together, and rose and rose, the first to a peak then falling, the rest in overlapping agonies behind it. The first siren began to rise again as Stone saw the pale grey smoke puffs of the airfield anti-aircraft guns opening fire, their pounding now hitting his ears, then the black puffs of their air-exploding shells a few thousand feet up to the north. When through the black puffs shot shapes that Stone would know anywhere, so distinctive was the gull-winged silhouette of the German Ju87 ‘Stuka’ dive-bomber, about 20 of the single-engined monsters heading left to right towards the airfield, the lead of their number rolling upside-down and pulling into a howling dive. Behind it, the massed drone of the formation turned to massed screams as each Stuka rolled and dived straight down, released its bomb, pulling lingeringly out of its dive and away as each bomb impacted, the airfield already a rage of thunder and black smoke.
‘Stone! Stone!! COME ON!’ pleaded Doc Hailey as he tore at Stone’s arm, ‘to the shelters, man!! Come ON, Colin!’
As the pilots abandoned the terrace for the stairwell exit sign-posted SHELTERS, Stone spun to the doctor and said right in his face, ‘SEE ya later!’, broke away from his grip and bolted down the stairwell Hailey knew headed down and out for the fields below the terrace – where lay the road which led nowhere but to the airfield.
Amidst the thunder still roaring from Takali, the sirens all around still blaring, Hailey realised he was not the only one still remaining on the terrace: As, below, the Jeep with Stone in it tore away down the road to Takali, Hailey found himself gripping the terrace’s balcony railing with three others.
‘Chap’s mad!’ loosed an English pilot officer.
‘Barmy,’ swore a sergeant-pilot.
‘Si,’ nodded Giovanni, ‘of this I am certain…’
The Italian smiled.
At the airfield, Stone saw one Spitfire smashed in pieces over a wide area, and at least one piece of pilot – an ear, the other three Spits just pillars of black smoke at three points into the distance down the strip. He noticed the ragged soul who stood beside him as the RAF bod who’d hopped out of the Jeep the day halfway to Valetta. Wisely, as it turned out. One Corporal Pike.
‘The C.O.?’ Stone sided to him.
‘He got out. He’s alright. …The others…’ The Spitfire mechanic shook his head.
‘Thought I might get one up,’ breathed Stone, the pillars of black smoke now drifting west.
‘At least y’tried, Sarge.’
‘The Stukas,’ fumed Stone. ‘Why the fuck didn’t radar pick ’em up?! Give us some bloody warning… It was all too bloody quick…’
‘Sometimes they fly in under it, Sarge: wave-top height all the way from Sicily – old Jerry trick, that one. Y’just have to be a red-hot pilot to do it, is all, an’ that’s what they are. Bastards race in over St. Paul’s Bay then climb to attack height an’ Fanny’s y’bombed-out aunt.’
Again Stone squinted at the scene all around him. Everywhere smoking wreckage. Giant bloody potholes instead of runway. And slowly shook his head. ‘…WHAT’S the fucken point?’
‘Dorn’t you worry, Sarge,’ said Pike. ‘We’ll fill in the holes. Just on the quiet, a little bird’s told me tomorrow’s what you’ve got t’worry about. ’Ave it all nice an’ flat for you, we will. By morning. Smooth as a baby’s bum.’
That night, Stone went to bed early.
Though he had charged towards it just bursting with hope, hope born of action, of taking action, of doing something instead of bloody nothing like everybody else, at the airfield he met darkness. The darkness of his sorry fucken excuse for a life. The old dark that just wouldn’t leave him. No matter how hard he tried to chase it away. No matter how he tried to DO something to make a change…
Lying back on his cot in the dim lantern light of his room he wasn’t getting anywhere near sleep anyway when there came a soft knock at his door. ‘Yeah?’ he released.
The door opened gently, through it, the light of a candle in the ancient corridor.
‘Signor,’ came a hushed voice. ‘Is Giovanni. I have for you brought some food. You did not eat questa sera. Is no good. And I have brought limoncello…’
‘What’s that?’ Stone said to the ceiling.
‘Is beautiful liqueur drink. Limoncello. Made from di lemons. Sono Italiano. I have secret supply, yes?’
Stone breathed out heavily. ‘Couldn’t touch a thing, mate.’ Hands behind his neck on the pillow, he raised his head slightly. ‘Giovanni…’
‘Thanks, mate.’ And let his head back to the pillow once again.
‘Signor Stone, you cause me to worry…’
‘Perhaps you would like to talk, my friend.’
‘…Can’t rightly see what good it’ll do.’
‘But that, my friend, is the so strange thing: Sometimes, to talk, it just does do the good.’
JESUS, was it ever a beautiful sight to see finger-fours of Spits power in at full throttle dead low overhead. Then another four, then another, and another and on it went!
Their sound was rich and vibrant, their shape slim and deadly, the Spits of each finger-four as if glued together in the air and right overhead and they just kept on coming! A dawn fly-in of 60-odd Spits – off the Wasp again and a Royal Navy carrier too, half landing here at Takali, half at another field called Luqa said an erk. And they weren’t coming in slow and orderly like Stone’s lot off the Wasp, NO, this time they were coming in flat-out, Stone watching as each Spit of each four gone overhead peeled off and up into a zoom climb to shed the speed, throttle off and wheels down by the top of the climb, Spits now line-astern banking round back in to final approach, flaps down, lining up and touching down on a smoothed-out strip exactly as Corporal Pike had promised.
Fully kitted-up in flying gear, Stone stood with a group of pilots looking on as each Spit reaching the end of the strip was met by an erk on a motorcycle, another erk climbing up onto the taxiing Spit’s wing and directing the pilot forward with hand signals; the pilot of each nose-high Spit now blind ahead. Taxiing forward, left, right, whatever, each erk ensured his specifically numbered Spit tailed its correspondingly numbered motorcycle to a rock-walled pen where the Spit was halted, its engine dousing, whole bunches of erks then turning each Spit around and pushing him back into the pen for refuelling – and arming.
At the squadron briefing just an hour previous, Templeton, through his facial bandages, had informed Stone as to the precise number of the incoming Spitfire to which he would this day be assigned. By this number painted on its fuselage, Stone now headed towards it between taxiing motorcycles and other Spits. Reaching it he could see Pike and other ground crew unfastening its long-range fuel tank – empty from its hollow clang off the Spit’s belly it was kicked off to one side – other ground crew pouring fresh fuel from cans into a funnel atop the Spit’s long engine cowling. The just-landed pilot climbing out of the cockpit, Stone helped him down off the wing-root onto the dusty ground, no words between them as the bloke unfastened his parachute harness then hefted the thing up onto the wing for Stone and helped him into it. Clipped up, a single pat to his back, Stone was up past the wing-root and cockpitted.
Templeton had assigned Stone to Spitfire Number 2.
Templeton as 603 Squadron’s C.O. so in Number 1 Spit, Number 2 made Stone his ‘wingman’. This day however, Templeton had pronounced, he wouldn’t be requiring one: When the enemy swarmed in to attack, as they surely would, the moment they were sighted Stone was to go hell-for-leather at them. And those had been Templeton’s words. Plus a few more…
Today I want us to show them that they will never attack MY airfield EVER again. Not in daylight anyway. Break them up, Stone. Do it spectacularly. So that these new chaps see it unmistakably. So the enemy see it and panic. Then I’ll lead 603 Squadron right into them and we’ll massacre them.
Out left and right of his cockpit Stone saw erks loading belts of thick 20mm cannon shells into the top of each of his wings, others scurrying out from underneath having loaded their machine gun bullet canisters. Ahead the sun had just risen, but then out forward right came a flash of dazzling green – the flare that said SCRAMBLE. Left and right the armourer erks were madly screwing down their cannon wing cover-plates, one whipping down off Stone’s wing, the other already in ‘directing’ position, legs dangling over the wing’s leading edge. Forward left, the Spit’s crew chief was twirling his index finger in the air for Stone to fire the Spit up, which he did, out left and out right other Spits having just done the same. Stone gave the two-handed signal for ‘wheel chocks away’ and the erk on the wing was hand-directing him forward.
With a nudge to the throttle they were moving, Stone following the erk’s signal for a gentle left-hand turn. Out forward left by its painted ‘1’ was Templeton’s Spit on whose tail Stone was now taxiing, in his cockpit rear-view mirror a long line of Spits forming up behind. The erk’s hand signals now said ‘straighten’, also ‘get a bloody move on’ and with a touch more throttle they were bumping down the taxi-path towards the beginning of the strip.
Reaching it, Stone saw Templeton right-turning and straightening onto it, from the erk a final forward-right signal to Stone then a quick-smart salute and he hopped off, Templeton already kicking up clouds of dust as he powered away, as did Stone right behind him.
Heading south towards Malta, at the controls of his Ju88, Oberstleutnant Lothar Deitrich saw that the morning was indeed a fine one – one of good, clear visibility for accurate bombing over the island surely approaching on the ocean down ahead…
His bomb-aimer, in his position just feet ahead of Deitrich in the framed perspex nose of the twin-engined bomber, would at this moment be making his final calculations. On such a crystal morning as this, the Spitfires just-landed at Takali and Luqa airfields – after flying a heroic 600 miles off their carriers – would be obliterated once again. Though out to the right Deitrich saw sullen weather closing in from the west, out left the sun was blinding gold in the clear blue eastern sky, to the rear, as usual, Deitrich’s mighty, mighty bomber formation, its fighter support of Bf109s a shadowing swarm in the heavens.
Directly ahead, the first thing that struck Deitrich about the British fighters that had just come into vision was their sheer number, a sight he had not witnessed since his own worst days in the Battle of Britain. Yet the British fighters at this moment over Malta and coming head-on were behaving differently indeed to how Deitrich so well remembered them over Britain: At a few thousand feet above the level of his bombers, the oncoming British fighters were not diving to attack like the berserkers he remembered; just coming on straight and level – as if biding their time. What for, he could not see…
He never did, only the white-hot tracers that ripped left to right through his bomber cockpit – from out of the sun – Deitrich’s left forearm and right hand not only torn off his flight controls but off his body and thrown out through the now shattered starboard side of his bomber cockpit.
The last thing that ever struck Deitrich was how lightning fast the lone Spitfire whipped left to right over the glass-house of his Ju88 in the direction of his shot-off limbs.
Somewhere around the middle of the bomber mass, Ju88 rear gunner Flieger Kristian Lutz pulled back on the breech levers of his twin Mauser MG81 machine guns, now cocked and ready to fire. He had never before used them, not in the air, and if he had to now it would take all his aiming skill not to hit friendly aircraft, so thick in the sky were the bombers all around him.
In his rear-facing gun position Kristian heard his pilot’s alert in his headphones – enemy fighters oncoming – just as their tracers shot overhead to the rear, blade-shaped wings flashing over – a glimpse of RAF roundels red-white-and-blue – then more overhead, then more, in a blink gone behind. Out left and right now, and above, Kristian saw Ju88s in formation near and far trailing lines of black smoke all lengthening out into the distance way behind, the very nearest craft on the right sprouting flames, one out left now fully on fire, its cockpit a rage of burning figures. Bombers were peeling off, one crashing sideways into another with a blinding flash of an explosion that shook the cockpit of Kristian’s own craft.
But then Kristian saw the Messerschmitt fighters coming down from behind like sharks. Bf109s! THEY would save the bombers; already were they on the tails of the RAF fighters now curving back in from behind for another attack. As these grew larger, and larger, Kristian picked out and focused hard on one of them, as on it came lining it up in his own machine gun sights. Nearer, so very surely nearer, as the Spitfire scythed in Kristian squeezed the triggers of his twin Mausers, their breech levers now rocketing back and forth, his own tracers now spitting out behind. The sight of this, the sound, the urgent vibration of his own guns seared him with hope – just as the shattering crash came from behind him, the bomber’s navigator thrown bodily against the back of the cockpit beside Kristian. The dead navigator’s eyes were wide open, his torso smashed open red, the Spitfire that had just done this to him whipping close overhead and gone behind, another flashing overhead forward.
As black shapes dropped like stones just outside the cockpit – jettisoned bombs falling from above – Kristian heard the crash of one of them but not the explosion which vapourised his eardrums along with every other part of him.
As Stone curved powerfully away, checking nothing on his tail, no bullet holes as yet in his wings, what he saw all around him was a sight for sore eyes: 60-odd Spits had fairly ripped into the German lot; after his opening side-on attack then the head-on one he’d just pulled off, as Stone looked round for another target he could see Ju88s gone down and going down left, right an’ bloody centre. The ocean just short of Malta was white with’em. That and ditched bomb-loads, by the look of it. Even a few clapped-out old Hurricanes’d got stuck in an’ had a go – a veteran lot from an airfield called Hal Far and due for retirement. But not today, mate, not today.
Yet now Stone saw his next target: a 109 fast closing in on the tail of a Spit closing in on a fleeing bomber: a Ju88 banking in a medium-steep dive to the north – back to Sicily. As the bomber straightened, a stream of black pellets fell out of it towards the sea – ditching his bombs to pick up speed; he was flying on one engine, the blades of the other dead still. The Spit lining up behind the bomber had to fire any second now but looked to Stone a new pilot: taking careful aim and on the very verge of pressing his guns button he WASN’T looking in his rear-vision mirror! If he did he’d see the Messerschmitt about to make his first combat his last, the Messerschmitt on which Stone was fast closing, a lightning check in his own mirror, all clear.
As it grew larger in his gunsight, Stone saw the angular green and brown camouflage of the 109’s upper fuselage and wings, on each a bold white-outlined black cross. Now, inside the rectangular perspex of the 109’s cockpit canopy, he saw the German pilot’s leather helmet, as Stone thumbed his guns button the German’s face looking up into his rear-vision mirror, Stone’s tracers streaming just beneath the Messerschmitt as it snapped into a climb and went up like a lift. Stone pulled upwards behind it, his vision greying towards blackout with the sudden g-forces that turned his body heavier than lead.
The 109 could out-climb anything, Spitfire included, the bloke’d seen Stone in the nick and now Stone would LOSE the bastard.
Except Stone saw in his windscreen as his vision neared black that the bastard was still IN his windscreen, halfway up it and off his gunsight but still there. And Stone knew it: The German pilot had pulled up too suddenly, too steeply, Stone’s climb behind him now near straight up, the 109 ahead of him bleeding speed instead of climbing away and right now handing Stone this final moment in which to edge back on his stick, edge the gunsight over him and SHOOT. Stone’s tracers now streaming, his Spitfire stalled off the climb as the Messerschmitt blasted into fiery pieces.
Falling like a leaf for long moments, Stone wrangled the Spit’s seaward tumble back into a buffeting dive, then a smoother one, smoother, now real smooth into the very gentlest of pull-outs, until flying straight and level once again. The moment he was, burning wreckage fell past so close he hadta jink to avoid it until, in clear sky once more, to the north he saw a Ju88’s trail of black smoke arcing downwards towards the sea.
And the new-boy Spitfire he had just saved flying past back south.
It did a victory roll.
TO READ THE FULL NOVEL OF NO GREATER LOVE BY JUSTIN SHEEDY,
To abandoned child, Colin Stone, World War Two grants an escape from the mean streets of St. Kilda. A natural warrior, his talents qualify him to join an elite group of young men. The shining ones. Who fly Spitfires against Nazi tyranny. Rising with them, from the top Colin Stone looks down on a world that has doomed his first true friends.
Bringing to vivid life true Australian war history and events, “No Greater Love” is a saga in the classic mold, featuring the drama, beauty, heroism and horror of one young man’s war journey through stunning Malta, Egypt and North Africa, Sicily, England and Europe. It is a portrait of the once-in-a-lifetime characters the war places on his path, of the tragic, wholesale waste of war, on occasion even the profound humanity of his enemy, and of his evolving perception of his world for what it is.
Though standing on its own as a ripping and also highly emotional read, “No Greater Love” is the third and final chapter of Justin Sheedy’s now widely and warmly cherished World War Two novel trilogy begun with “Nor the Years Condemn” and “Ghosts of the Empire”. Continuing and now concluding their portrait of shining young men destined never to grow old, “No Greater Love” is the full and rich story of Part 1’s reader-favourite character, Aussie rough diamond Colin Stone (‘Stoney’). It is the story of his war, of his loyalty and devotion to his friends, of his enduring love for the mother who abandoned him, and his dreams of being held by her once again.
Mick didn’t make the slender bi-plane turn; he simply did turn. The Tiger Moth needed only the slightest touch on its controls, and it obeyed Mick’s touch instantly, precisely. With its wooden joystick handle between his right thumb and forefinger, Mick guided the yellow craft through the narrow gap between two cumulus clouds in the early morning sun. Fluffy gold and whiteness whipping past as he flew between them, he came out the other side – into infinite open space.
In the clear silvery blue ahead of him now he saw a ‘thermal’: a column of hot air rising – becoming visible as it hit higher, cooler air and turned to cloud. A giant pillar of white in the sky, he skirted closely round it, feeling for long moments like a race car on some vast showground corner. He grinned at the notion; he’d never driven a car…
Mick felt beyond comfortable in the cockpit seat, way beyond: With the gravitational forces of the curving bank through which he flew, he felt pressed down so sweetly, so reassuringly in his seat and within the aircraft. He felt he wanted to curve, and curve, and curve, a slight shudder in the airframe now and then, but that only kept things fun.
Collossal in the western distance, a cumulus massif beamed back the eastern light of morning as brilliantly as if beaming its own. Mick straightened towards it.
He wasn’t alone, a voice still so very pleasantly in his ears. It had never left him…
Spare a thought, Michael… Spare a thought for the countless millions. Who’ll only ever either in their wildest dreams or in the next world get to do what you are about to.
In the front bar of the Lewisham Hotel, Pat O’Regan sat waiting for his son. He did every Friday afternoon, after knock-off from the railyards. Payable dues of the young blokes to stay back and sweep up, Mick’d be along any minute now.
Pat looked forward to this moment every week. He’d always got along with his eldest of seven, but since their mother had died a few years back, the lad had become a real good mate to his old dad: pretty much always cheerful, never complaining when times were hard, getting the tea on for the littlies when Mrs Plunket from next door got rotten too early…
No error, Pat was proud of his eldest. A few blokes said young Mick was wasted at the yards; should be at the University. Yeah. Right where Pat couldn’t afford to send him: A man with a stable job through the Depression, as Foreman of Carpentry at the Everleigh Carriage Workshops Pat O’Regan had the respect of his street, also seven mouths to feed. Without the pay packet Mick brought in they’d go barefoot. So instead of Engineering, or some such discipline befitting his brains – the uni just a few bloody blocks away, it fairly stung Pat and daily – the lad would have to be content with Foreman of Carpentry, with a bit of luck, when his old man retired. And Mick had never whinged about that prospect neither.
Still, Friday night was usually a happy one at the O’Regan place; father and eldest brought home fish and chips – mainly chips. Then the littlies’d clear up and all eight of them would sit together by the wireless. The wireless that a week ago had declared War.
Pat hadn’t touched his beer. Just this morning he’d heard the news from Harry in Payroll: Mick had requested the New South Wales Government Railways release chit he needed to go and sign up. For the bloody Air Force. Pat had seen it coming: Mick had long said rail was a technology of the past, aviation the way of the future. Probably on the money too – lad usually was – but all Pat saw in aviation was his son’s way to War. And all while he could stay safely and honourably at home: Essential Personnel: The Railways would be integral to the local ‘war effort’, also Mick’s ticket to a nice, steady future. A plodding sort of future, perhaps, but better than no bloody future at all…
Most of Pat’s memories of France had faded in the years since 1918…
Once he’d thought it’d never stop, his waking bolt upright every morning about 3 to the sight of Jacko Morgan standing there with his arms freshly blown off – the uncomprehending look on his face. Yet it stopped. About a decade after Pat got home. So too, though Pat never imagined the thunder of the artillery bombardments would fade in his ears, it had. Albeit having left him partially deaf, in one ear nigh on completely.
Though one memory stayed with Pat. A vision clear as yesterday. Not one of his time in the trenches, but of the first night he’d ever headed toward them: the long line of blokes in front of him, and behind, the twin glass disks of their gas-masks reflecting the green parachute flares that floated in the sky up ahead. The men said nothing, just tramped steadily, mutely onwards in the green-illuminated fog, passing here and there some poor bastard without his mask – one running around mad, screaming like a pig getting butchered alive.
Only reason Pat had ever made Foreman, or so he had always assumed these long years since, was that so many lads from the yards had joined up on that day back in 1914. So often since had he passed their names carved in stone in the parks of Lewisham, Stanmore, Newtown, Redfern, Waterloo: names that once belonged to faces, workmates. Friends…
Jacko had lived in Camperdown. The figure in white marble had stood in Camperdown Park since 1920: Slouch-hatted. Sided rifle. Looking straight ahead, upright and fit. Not standing there with its arms off. Eyes turning to horrified agony… The moment in time clawed Pat anew as the rabbitoh man’s donkey and cart clattered past the open doorway of the pub.
Yet up the pub step from the street now climbed a black-haired figure – work boots, overalls, slightly frayed jacket, his usual smile: the one that made the whole front bar want to smile also, these blokes with the seats outta their pants. That look in those green eyes of his as if sly to something really quite promising on the cards y’haven’t heard of yet but y’soon will…
Mick didn’t speak. He took off his cap, brushed a stray wood shaving off it, and sat at the bar by his dad. The publican edged the new arrival a just-drawn middy of beer across the counter, also without a word.
Pat, too, only sipped his beer. Until his son was 21, the New South Wales Government Railways release chit needed his old man’s signature, didn’t it. Lad was only turning 20 next month, wasn’t he…
The whole front bar heard Pat’s whisper to his son. It was Pat’s ears, they all knew: Sometimes Pat didn’t think you could hear him.
‘No. Fucken. Way.’
As the twin-engined Avro Anson climbed over the endless brown patchwork of Narromine, Leading Aircraftman Michael O’Regan 217831 pressed his nose up against his passenger seat window, and peered down. He thought of a Sunday afternoon that already seemed long ago.
It had been the first time Mick had ever seen his father shed tears, first time ever. He hadn’t cried exactly, but as he’d signed the chit at the kitchen table the tears had clean rolled down his face. Sure, the old boy’d bucked up after a few beers but his face stayed hard. The swaying factor for Pat O’Regan had been what his son wasn’t signing up for…
This is for the Air Force, right? Well that’s something; better than the bloody Infantry… Now those bastards can’t getcha, see. No fucken trenches for any son o’mine... Swimmin’ in mud thick with pieces of other blokes no bloody thankyou… An’ no poison bloody gas attacks up in the air… You bloody-well stay UP there, Michael… Don’t EVER come down.
Through the window of the Anson, Mick scanned out to the horizon. What did they farm out here? he wondered. Dust? Narromine… At least he was back in New South Wales, finally. Until the Royal Australian Air Force had called him up towards the end of 1940, to Mick O’Regan, ‘all round the world for sixpence’ was something that happened to other people. People with a spare sixpence…
At his ‘initial interview’ back at the start of that year – for what they were calling the ‘Empire Air Training Scheme’ – the two air force officers on the selection panel down at Woolloomooloo had spoken briefly but definitely about a spot for Mick in ‘Ground Crew’, given all Mick’s carpentry work with the Railways since the age of 14. In truth Mick had felt a bit preoccupied as the younger officer wrote, smoked and stamped in files one-handed being minus an arm. The older officer was the chummy type, said ‘Ground Crew’ like he’d missed his own true calling though to Mick his smile looked plastered on. There’d been a civilian on the panel too: a balding, spectacled gent who never took his eyes off Mick, never a word, there’d hardly been time; Mick was only in there a few minutes and they called ‘Next’.
So, a whole nine months later, the first surprise off the rank was Mick’s call-up letter ordering him to report to Initial Training School not for Ground Crew but for Air Crew. Surprise Number 2: not to the new depot at Bradfield Park on Sydney’s North Shore – standard for New South Wales blokes – but to one at some place called Sandgate near Brisbane, enclosed in the call-up letter the most expensive railway ticket Mick had ever held.
And so had begun his experience of the Australian Military: three months of being screamed at by RAAF Drill Sergeants, marching up and down the square – ‘Sarh!’, obstacle course bashing in the Brisbane heat and what felt like an Olympic marathon every other day, the result of which was that Mick ended up fitter than he’d ever been – not that in his life so far he’d ever had the time for so much exercise.
The academic side of Initial Training had been a bloody nightmare to begin with, until it began to sink in with a few of Sandgate’s RAAF teaching staff that, having had to leave high school in 2nd Year, Aircraftman 2nd Class O’Regan had only ever brushed with basic Mathematics, forget uni-level Physics… Once this had registered properly for some of these RAAF teachers, they proceeded by expressing the fundamentals of their subjects for what they were to Mick: a foreign language being absorbed. Indeed, one teaching Flight Lieutenant not only noted O’Regan’s progress from that point on as remarkable, but also a rise in the marks of his whole Trigonometry class.
By the end of Initial Training Mick assumed he’d just about had his quota of surprises. Only to find he had not.
The great big ugly moment at the end of Initial Training was called ‘Categorisation’. Here Mick sat down before his ‘aircrew selection board’, who promptly advised he’d be going on to Elementary Flying Training School.
For training as a Pilot.
And not to the one at Sydney’s Mascot either, but to ‘3EFTS’ at Essendon outside Melbourne, where, promoted to Leading Aircraftman, or ‘LAC’, Mick learnt to fly.
For a carpenter like Mick, the De Havilland Tiger Moth was a work of art. And no error. The woodwork of the thing! Mag-nificent. Canadian Spruce, a really first-class ply-wood and a lovely job of gluing and lamination… But the wooden frame of the upper and lower wings and tail was what really got him; what a structure: so many pieces so finely curved and fitted together – Seemed almost a shame to cover the whole thing with linen that, painted with coats of dope, dried tight like a drum.
Flying in it, Mick enjoyed every minute in the open cockpit bi-plane, first with an instructor in the rear cockpit, then flying ‘solo’. For Mick, the whole flying experience came as one of the most pleasant surprises he’d ever had: It looked harder than it was. A bloke had to keep his wits about him alright but after just a few goes Mick really didn’t want to come down – his dad might crack a smile. Though he loved landing it, bringing the Moth in for a long, curving approach and touch-down as that only meant he could take her back up again!
Mick so enjoyed his months at Essendon that as for the blokes who struggled and got ‘scrubbed’ off the course, well, that was just too bad; aviation was the way of the future, that future was going to be his, some blokes just weren’t made for flying. He was. His instructor wrote in the comments section of his final report on Mick that LAC O’Regan’s flying displayed one flaw: A tendency to fly the aeroplane instinctively instead of as instructed, a tendency typical of so-called ‘natural’ pilots. The report concluded, however, with a phrase that Mick had to query: The instructor assured him it was in fact high praise and meant ‘enviable coordinated control of stick and rudder’. The phrase was A very nice pair of hands.
Yet all that was behind him now; Mick was finished with Tiger Moths, at least, for the foreseeable future: Ahead of him lay the next phase of his training, and an entirely different sort of aircraft. As, below, the browns of Narromine became countless only to recede in a filthy haze, Mick drew back from the window of the Anson, and peered at the young face in the passenger seat beside his own – one of the blokes they’d just picked up at Narromine. As with the other faces on board that Mick had glimpsed, it was unmistakably glum…
Six passengers now on board the Anson including Mick, en route from Essendon the aircraft had first landed at Wagga – where everybody had so dearly hoped to be posted as that’s where you became a fighter pilot. Yet they were only stopping there to pick up and refuel; their destination, Number 1 Bombing and Gunnery School (1BAGS), Evans Head, Far North Coast of New South Wales – precisely where everybody had hoped never to be posted: At Evans Head these young men who’d wanted to be fighter pilots would train to fly in bombers and not even as pilots but as bomb-aimers and air gunners. In time, so the word went, most of them would end up with British Royal Air Force Bomber Command flying twin-engined Wellingtons or even Blenheims out of England over enemy-occupied France and Germany. Where their chance of completing the required ‘tour’ of 30 operations would be one in three.
Mick had gathered, since his second week of Initial Training back in Brisbane, that the vast majority of blokes went to Bomber Command and so, most likely, would he. From the precise moment, however, when he learnt of his own worse-than-even chance of survival with Bomber Command, Mick saw no other option but to go hell-for-leather for an alternate path. He saw no good reason he should be dead by 22, nor that his family should go under, which they more than likely would without him. Consequently he’d settled on a plan. And it was working. All-round-the-world-for-sixpence but it was working.
His plan was stay alive.
To stay alive, stay home.
To stay home, become a Flying Instructor; instructors stayed in Australia.
Elementary Flying Training, if you survived being ‘scrubbed’, ended with your ‘Pilot Ability Rating’. It went Below Average, Average, Above Average, any one of which could see you on overseas operational aircrew duty, as a pilot if you were lucky – so to speak. To become an Instructor, you needed something better. You needed no less than the highest rating there was…
Having been an apprentice, then journeyman carpenter with the New South Wales Government Railways, Mick O’Regan understood hard work. He understood dogged application, also practice-makes-perfect but, above all, as a carpenter he understood physical precision. At the very moment he heard ‘1-in-3’, Mick knew these things he understood were all he had to keep him alive.
And so from that moment worked his balls off.
At the end of Initial Training, he took none of the ‘inter-course leave’ he was then entitled to, nor any of the free weekends permitted during the Elementary Flying Training course that followed, not even any leave at the end of that. Instead he took a five-mile run every morning, a vacant stretcher bed at the Essendon barracks plus all the textbooks and extra tuition he could scrounge from whatever RAAF teaching staff he could corner. These types, for the most part, were only too happy to help him with their pet subjects: Applied Mathematics, Navigation, Aeronautical Physics, Morse Code, Radio-Telephony, Aircraft Engine Theory and more. He even stole a few extra flying hours on the Moth though these, truth be told, had felt to Mick like pure reward for hard work.
Just a few days ago he had flown long and low over the farm fields of Essendon feeling three-quarters stoked, one quarter on edge: on edge as he’d always imagined ‘butterflies in the stomach’ to be a thing only girls got. But he’d had them and in direct response to what he’d just been told: LAC O’Regan, M., 217831 would being going on to 1BAGS Evans Head. As a Trainee Instructor. His awarded Pilot Ability Rating?
Exceptional. The highest rating there was.
He had worked like his life depended on it. Which it had.
Mick O’Regan would now stay home, stay alive. And keep his family fed.
It had been a bad line when Mick had put the call through to Sydney to break the good news and his dear old dad had to keep breaking off to blow his nose.
Just a bit of a sniffle, son… Mick knew the old boy was teary again. Just a bit of a sniffle… Though this time with tears of joy.
On final approach to Evans Head, Mick had sensed the mood of the Anson’s human cargo lifting a degree as they looked down and saw their new posting was not only right by the beach but one that seemed to go on forever. Over the final hours of the flight, the earth below them had changed: To the inland horizon all was now lush green, far to the north a range of mountains dominated by the most striking solitary peak.
After landing, Mick stowed his gear in the arched iron ‘Nissen’ hut where he’d be barracked for the next six months – ugly looking things, Mick thought, and one after the other after the other. He was then administratively processed at Personnel – a large khaki tent he heard referred to as ‘The Circus’, after which he was directed to stand at attention on a hot asphalt parade ground with newly arrived LACs. One poor bloke fainted during the sweltering hour it took before the final of about thirty new arrivals could be processed and take his place on parade. With an ‘At-ten-SHUN!’ from a Drill Sergeant, the base Commanding Officer then appeared, stepped onto a wooden box before them and began his address: a brittle-faced Wing Commander around his late-20s, pilot’s wings on his tunic. His voice was brittle too…
‘Here you will be trained as the bomber crews of the near future. If you at all wish to see that near future, do precisely as your instructors instruct you – starting now. That is all.’
The parade dismissed, Mick walked to the hangars and closely round one of the aircraft he’d now be piloting, one of a long line of them stretching to the far end of this air base by the sea.
The Bombing and Gunnery School flew Fairey Battles, a large, slow, single-engined ‘light bomber’. About twice the size of the Tiger Moth, no wood and canvas here, the aircraft before which Mick stood was a long, all-metal, low-winged monoplane seating a crew of three – pilot, bomb-aimer, gunner. Mick had caught the word on the Fairey Battle – everybody had: They’d been obsolescent at the outbreak of war and were now relegated to ‘Training Purposes Only’ – possibly as the British Royal Air Force crews flying them over German lines in the opening hours of the war had been so smartly massacred. She was a nice enough aeroplane to fly, so went the word. Just not against the Enemy.
Hearing the drone, Mick looked up as, in a ‘V’-shaped formation at a few hundred feet, three Battles lumbered slowly, slowly overhead. He watched them go, then looked back earthwards, and considered this craft that for so many just like him had been a deathtrap… There’d been a turn-up for the books just a year ago, of course, when the ‘Battle of Britain’ had seen the German bombers and fighters beaten back by the newer RAF types, Spitfires and Hurricanes. ‘Spits’ and ‘Hurries’, Mick conceded, the latest fighter aircraft that every man and his dog wanted to fly but which he’d never see now – not unless they sent a few out to Australia for training purposes.
But that was the plan, he reminded himself: He wasn’t headed away anywhere. Only training and sending other blokes. As for his own chance at survival now, he’d earnt it fair and bloody square. There’d be risks ahead of him, no error – grave risks. Except no further north than Northern New South Wales, where, as far as Mick O’Regan was concerned, he had his work cut out for him: He not only had to learn to fly this piece of junk before which he now stood but well enough to train other blokes to fly it. So as maybe to stay alive long enough for their chance at One in Three.
Wing Commander John Hurst took the next of the many personnel files in his In tray, centred it on his desk, and opened it. He considered the small photograph neatly glued to its allotted place on the first page, the standard head-shot, perfectly aligned within the rectangular box top right of the form like all the others.
Yes. O’Regan. Irish good looks, and something decent between his ears, apparently: Basic academic education. Carpenter by trade. Rated Exceptional.
One of the lucky ones…
The file notes on O’Regan, M., however, betrayed his remarkable achievement as the result of anything but luck: The report that followed him from 3EFTS noted him as a phenomenally hard worker, according to one instructor there, one of the hardest they’d ever seen… In any case, he was indeed now one of a fortunate few: lined up for an honourable and effective war service here in Evans Head. Instructing.
But how to keep him here? simmered Hurst. How to anchor him right here as a first-rate instructor? Who might just aid Hurst in his singular task here at 1BAGS: that of keeping people alive.
Hurst had requested his current posting as Commanding Officer at Evans Head… Somewhat taken aback by how readily his request had been granted, he discovered soon after his arrival at 1BAGS that the CO into whose shoes he was stepping had been most royally shafted: Evidently his superiors at RAAF Central Area Headquarters in Sydney had installed the chap at 1BAGS then directed him to lower its trainee fatality rate ‘or else’. Hurst was a ‘short service’ commissioned officer – for the Duration, as it were. Yet even he was aware of the reputation of the upper echelons of the ‘permanent’ RAAF – the ‘desk-flyers’ of Point Piper – as a bunch of ruthless bastards. Still, initially Hurst had assumed it a bad joke when he heard that his predecessor, having been deemed after six months to have failed in his task, had been demoted from Wing Commander back to Squadron Leader and shipped off to England to fly combat operations for RAF Bomber Command – presumeably, with some of the poor sods whose CO he’d been at Evans Head. At least, the ones who’d survived six months of an aircraft loss rate of about one every other week.
Hurst’s enquiries as to what measures his predecessor had taken to address this fatality rate had produced a recurring theme: ‘Motivational parade addresses’. Checking the dates of these, Hurst found that, in the chap’s final month as CO, the loss rate of Fairey Battles had actually increased, with no fewer than three lost in one dreadful week… According to the files, one had crashed on landing, one had dived into a sugar-cane field – straight down from high altitude at a staggering rate of knots, according to the Volunteer Defence personnel who’d witnessed it: Evidently from such remains as they found – at the bottom of a brand-new 50-foot crater – the pilot and two crew members of the aircraft had been indistinguishable from each other. The third aircraft had simply gone ‘Missing’.
As things stood, and with a one-way ticket to Bomber Command the likely price of his own failure, Hurst could see one possible path to his own salvation and one only: Do anything in his power to keep the very best young flying instructors staying well and truly put at Evans Head; in doing so he would lift flying standards and maybe, just maybe, turn things around.
How many of them had Hurst seen seduced away already by the Holy Grail? Fighter Pilot. The prize posting. Apparently irresistible to them. Glory itself.
Lemmings, the lot of them.
Hurst looked at the file photograph again.
Leading Aircraftman O’Regan.
How to keep him here?
Answer: Start paying a working class boy more money than he’s known before. Promote him quicker than normal: Sergeant even before graduation, the sooner the better. Come October, pin his Wings on him, commission him Pilot Officer. More money. In six months or so, promote him again, make him Flying Officer. But keep him there. Keep him beneath the radar. Keep him at Evans Head.
Hurst considered the photograph once more. He said it aloud, though very quietly: ‘Stay the grey man, Michael …For God’s sake stay the grey man.’
Hurst closed the file, passed it to his Out tray, and reached for the next. As he did so, an image came to him, and not for the first time over the past days and nights: an image in his mind just like a photograph every time. Each time in sharper focus, and with more and more horrible detail…
His very own mental picture of the pilot and two crew members of the high-speed crash – indistinguishable from each other in death… Arms, legs, even eyes all interchangeable this way and that. All caked in the alluvial mud of the sugar-cane field that, from fifty feet underground, hadn’t seen the light of day in a thousand years.
In his month so far of command at Evans Head, Hurst had spoken to quite a few new trainee aircrew – at the local town pub was best; where they were off-duty, relaxed and speaking freely. As he’d chatted with them, Hurst discovered something he hadn’t expected: One problem it seemed he wouldn’t be having to deal with as base commander was that of ‘Morale’; it was high. Very high. They were all intelligent young chaps, the ones he’d spoken to, some exceedingly so. And they all seemed quite aware of the fatalities of previous months – even joking about 1BAGS being a ‘crash-course’. So much laughter in them. So many smiles. So primed for duty. To a man.
When speaking with them, though, Hurst found he couldn’t stop bringing to mind his mental picture of the three young airmen all smashed, all meshed together in the mud. And even as the ghastly scene haunted him, something else was beginning to: None of these young chaps, not one that Hurst had spoken to so far, seemed to harbour the remotest thought that such a fate was ever going to befall him personally.
Oh, it could happen, alright – They weren’t stupid… It’s just that it was going to happen to someone else.
Never to them.
Directly above the town of Evans Head, Mick flew nor-nor-east, the Pacific Ocean out to starboard, forward through the windshield of the Battle’s enclosed canopy a line of beach curving for miles ahead. He scanned to port, a late afternoon glint off the Richmond River, inland a patchwork of thick bush scrub and sugar-cane fields, then rolling green ridges to the horizon. He peered forward again, and rechecked the instrument panel dials: altitude 1000 feet, speed 200 mph – just shy of the Battle’s max.
The town now passed beneath. The base closely down ahead in Mick’s vision, its hangars and huts disappeared below, passing out to port its four separate airstrips in their geometric criss-cross pattern.
Every single thing he could see – which a few months back he’d have called a road, a river, a mountain – was now just an aid to navigation, every landmark a cherished indicator of position, and so of safety: Prominent in the far distance ahead was the coastal hump of Lennox Head, in the extreme distance the mountaintop headland of some place called Byron Bay. Squinting hard, he thought he could just make out the white lighthouse on its summit. To the north-west stretched the awesome Border Ranges far up the coast, there the unmistakable peak of Mount Warning. But straight ahead now and steadily approaching was the ‘Target’ for the afternoon’s exercise.
The riverside village of Ballina.
Mick had flown this training mission many times over the past few months. Today, in the Battle’s long single-file cockpit behind him sat a new trainee bomb-aimer, behind him a new air gunner, this pair’s first go at it.
Since he’d first flown the aircraft back in May – and ‘solo’ from the first – the best thing Mick could find to say about the Fairey Battle was that it was stable. Indeed, it must have provided the most beautifully stable target for nimble, state-of-the-art German Luftwaffe fighters at the beginning of the war. Yes, the Battle had the same Rolls-Royce Merlin V12 engine as the new Spitfires and Hurricanes. But it was too long, wide, big and heavy even with the Merlin’s 1030 horsepower to be anything else than ‘stable’ for its crew of three and 1000-pound bomb-load. No error, the pilots of the German Messerschmitt Bf109s, with their top speed of close to 400 mph, must have been delighted with the Fairey Battle.
In the ear-cup headphones of Mick’s leather flying helmet, the Battle gunner’s voice now crackled, the young bloke doing his level best not to sound deeply worried.
‘Bandit at 7 o’clock high. Bandit at 7 o’clock high. About a mile and coming in fast. Stand by for evasive manoeuvres. …Stand by.’
Mick just sighed; the new bloke wouldn’t hear it over the Battle’s riotous noise. Evasive manoeuvres? As pilot of the bomber, Mick was not about to do anything except follow Standing Orders – any deviation from which could get him ‘scrubbed’: removed from the Trainee Instructor Program – and Standing Orders were to fly dead steady, straight and level on approach to target regardless of attack from ground or air. On the wages Mick was now sending home, he’d happily fly straight and level to bloody Brisbane: They’d just made him Sergeant. He spoke into the intercom now, evenly but firmly.
‘Just concentrate on y’bandit. Remember. It’s deflection shooting: He’ll approach and go past real quick. When you open fire, don’t aim at him, aim a tad above him till he’s real close, as he’s passing aim just ahead of him. Wait, I repeat, wait till he’s in range, then call “Guns”. Follow procedure, son, you’ll do just fine.’
Ballina was close ahead now, just across the river that flowed left to right and out through the twin stone breakwater to the ocean. The bomb-aimer transmitted on cue…
‘Five seconds to target. Stand by. Steady…’
The gunner’s voice was now urgent in the headphones.
‘Guns – guns – guns – guns – guns!’
Mick saw, heard the yellow Wirraway flash past left – Christ, he’d been close – the single engine fighter-trainer now in a shallow dive ahead port, already banking inland and fast back around to the south. Just as the bomb-aimer’s voice crackled again.
‘Brisbane-ho,’ said Mick.
‘What’s that, Sarge?’ came the bomb-aimer.
‘Nothing. Hang on. An’ I mean hang on.’
Mick banked them into the tightest, steepest starboard diving bank the Battle had in it short of popping rivets: Through nor-east on the compass, east, ocean scrolling in front, sou-east, Mick flattened out a mere 50 feet above the beach, and tore them southwards directly down it. Free of Standing Orders now, at this height the Wirraway couldn’t quite as easily dummy-shoot them to pieces on their way home.
A few moments into their flight down the beach, the bomb-aimer was in Mick’s headphones once again, still recovering, by the sound of it, from the violent g-forces of the turn.
‘Shortest… shortest course home, Sarge… just a bit inland. Over the scrub.’
Mick took his time responding. ‘What colour are we painted, Airman?’
‘What colour is sand, Airman?’ No reply, Mick let the pause extend. ‘What am I doing, Airman?’
‘Using initiative when permissable, Sarge.’
‘You’ll go far, son.’
Breaking surf on their left, scrub to their right, Mick sped them long and low down the curve of shadowy sand.
Mick had been warned.
‘Under no circumstances whatever make a sound until invited to speak. Chest out like a rock. And try not to breathe.’
This had been the advice of the Warrant Officer who’d issued the Summons. Bolton was a career man in early middle-age. Portly and tough, word had it he was a decent enough type.
‘…Number 1 Service Dress and may God have mercy on your soul. If you believe in one, I’d advise you to pray on the way over. You have precisely three minutes.’
‘The CO?’ Mick craned as he fumbled with a shoelace. ‘Did they say what for?!’
The man’s instant volume was shattering. ‘WHAT – FOR, SIR!!!’
Mick jogged to the Headquarters Nissen hut, pausing to pat down his uniform on the step outside. Only the third time he’d worn it since Initial Training, No.1 Service Dress – also called ‘Best Blues’ – meant a dark blue belted gabardine tunic and trousers, matching forage cap, sky blue collared shirt with black tie and highly polished black shoes. It still felt strange; the first proper ‘suit’ he’d ever worn. Brushing one shoe on the back of a trouser leg, he palmed sweat off his brow, readjusted the cap, entered the hut, reported and was then instructed by a Flying Officer, a Flight Lieutenant, then a Squadron Leader in rapid succession as to precisely what he would now do.
As ordered, he waited for the word, entered the enclosed office at the far end of the hut, quickly and silently closed the door behind him, marched two paces forward, halted at the prescribed spot before the trestle table serving as the CO’s desk, saluted, removed his cap to the under-arm position, and remained at attention.
‘Sir. Sergeant O’Regan reporting.’
The Wing Commander let him remain that way. Sat back. And appraised. When Hurst finally spoke, his voice was low and unhurried.
‘Michael… My job, while this war lasts, is to turn out bomber crews to go away and fight it. Your job is to help me turn out as many as possible. Needless to say, the war won’t last forever: It can’t; Hitler’s just taken on Russia. Ever read any Tolstoy?’
Hurst grinned mildly. ‘Neither have I.’ It promptly faded. ‘But you and I don’t have to read War and Peace to know that Hitler will lose in Russia just as Napoleon did. For the simple reason that there’s just too many Russians and the winter’s too long and too cold. It’ll take a few years, certainly, but he’ll lose against them in the end. As Australians, our job is to help the Brits to help the Russians win in as few years as possible. If the Americans ever come in, we’ll be helping them instead – all the better, all the quicker, War Over.’ He stopped to light a cigarette. ‘Play your cards right until it is, Michael, and you could return to civilian life as an airline pilot.’ Hurst blew a cloud of smoke, his eyes narrowing at Mick. ‘For Australian National Airways… Can you imagine that? More money than you’ve ever dreamt of and everything else that goes with it… Hell, you could even fly for that Qantas Empire mob – if they’re still in business by then…’ He ashed the cigarette, then looked up intently at Mick. ‘New South Wales Government Railways carpenter to Qantas pilot.’ He smiled. ‘Some career jump, eh?’
The CO’s smile had died. ‘Just don’t fuck it up. Dismissed.’
Though the water was warm, the cool of the morning air was bracing on Mick’s chest and arms. He darted under the rolling sanctuary of another wave, into the green water before it broke. When surfaced, he saw the mists of dawn were starting to burn off with the rising sun, the grey sky turning surely to blue, and so the ocean. He faced back to the shore, caught a final breaker in, springing to his feet in the bubbling shallows, a first warmth of sunlight on his back.
Jogging up the sand towards a bank where the scrub extended inland, Mick saw he still had the whole beach to himself, its pale yellow brightening out of the early morning gloom. Before dawn, as with most mornings since May, he’d run a few miles up the beach from its south end: He wasn’t about to lose the physical fitness he’d gained and kept since Initial Training – no fear, build on it if anything; a highly satisfying novelty in his life to date. Reaching the base of the sand ridge, he picked up his towel, mopped his face and hair, blinking to clear his eyes of salt water, and turned back around to the surf. To the south, the village and airfield fortifications were barely visible from this far up the beach, and still it seemed to curve forever north.
High above the surf line was a bird: Soaring, then halting on the morning breeze, white head, its wings and body deep rust red-brown. It now hovered, perfectly still in mid-air, then dropped like a stone to the receding tide, hooking up over the sand, some kind of prey in its talons – maybe one of the tiny soldier crabs Mick had seen on his jog up the beach. The bird zoomed to altitude again with its prize and, with the slightest movement from its vast wingspan, headed back towards the south.
Mick followed its flight towards the distant fortifications, until a mere speck, and his vision held it no longer. Yet there he saw another speck. Way down the beach, low to the sand, and tracing the line of the shore.
A speck that grew.
Mick squinted to focus.
It was: He saw its wingspan now. Then the cylindrical form of its fuselage, his ears catching just the slightest hint of its sound: already the unmistakable threat of full throttle. It seemed to touch the sand… Had it landed on the beach?! No, it was still coming: very fast, and now very, very low. It was a fighter, a Wirraway! Mick could make it out quite clearly now as in the subtlest of curves it bore toward him – 300 yards, 200, 100 and OVER, Mick ducking under its throaty radial whoosh. Spinning around he saw its yellow upsides as it climbed away, somehow silent. Then its wingspan slow-rolled left and, as if falling off the climb, it entered a diving curve inland, gathering speed in the descent and was gone, inland over the scrub.
Facing the sand bank, Mick strained to peer over it, his eyes searching for a moment. Nothing. And no further sound. Only insects, birds of morning, the surf at his back… He blew out a breath. Waited a moment longer. Still nothing. Gone…
He bent down to pick up his watch off his sweater, fastened the wrist buckle, scooped up the sweater and towel, and straightened. Right, now for the run back: Looking at his watch, he made it just under thirty minutes until Reveille Parade.
When it came again: the Wirraway, mere feet atop the bank, every yellow metal rivet visible and heading towards him. Some instinct dropped Mick to the sand as directly overhead the fighter roared, already fast and low over the surf and skimming the wave-tops out to sea.
As he watched it become a speck again on the blue horizon, Mick got to his feet. No denying it: He wouldn’t half mind a go in one…
Fat chance, he said to himself; after so many accidents, the base only had one left.
One Wirraway. One Wirraway pilot. Mick found him easily.
Pilot Officer Tony Curran, ‘wings’ patch on his left chest, was a fully fledged Instructor.
‘We can talk in there if you like,’ he said, motioning to the gap in the giant sliding door of the hangar outside which they stood. ‘Done your “Decomp” yet?’
‘I’m down for it,’ Mick replied, ‘but, no, not yet.’
‘No time like the present,’ breezed Curran. ‘I’ll sign you in.’
The Decompression Chamber was a large orb-shaped iron cabinet inside this hangar. With internal bench seating for four, the chamber was connected by thick rubber hoses to a separate vacuum unit about as big as the chamber itself. At points around the chamber were thick double-glass portals through which ‘observers’ could peer in.
A few days previously, the blackboard of the classroom hut in which Mick had found himself had stated: Symptoms of Hypoxia.
LIGHTHEADED SENSATION. DIZZINESS. REDUCED VISION. EUPHORIA.
The instructor had put his chalk down, turned to the class and explained.
Hypo – ‘Under’. Oxia – ‘Oxygen’. Hypoxia – Lack of Oxygen to the Brain. Flying at high altitudes, he went on, the higher you climbed, the ‘thinner’ the air became, containing less and less of the oxygen necessary for human respiration. Flying in an aircraft without an oxygen mask on and functioning correctly, the listed ‘symptoms’ started at 10-thousand feet, beginning with the ‘Lightheaded Sensation’. By the time ‘Euphoria’ had been achieved, you’d clean missed the quick 3 minutes available to get the hell back down from that height into thicker air. Blissfully unable to do anything about it, you’d soon be dead from lack of oxygen to the brain, or dead from having ploughed a crater into someone’s farm – Yes, a few had been ploughed already, the man said… A ‘breather’ spot in a ‘decomp’ session – with oxygen breathing apparatus strapped on – was the only way you’d ever get to see what Hypoxia would do to you. Such a session would educate you to recognise the initial symptoms so that, if your oxygen should fail at altitude, you would realise it and could start fighting for your life before you stopped caring. Indeed, before you started enjoying your last experience on earth.
Mick now sat inside the chamber with Curran and two ‘breathers’, these two blokes oxygen-connected like they would be in the cockpit. From outside, the chamber’s circular door was heaved shut. Its iron wheel handle spun, there was a series of hefty clicks, they’d be going up to 30-thousand feet simulated. With only the progressively thinning air to inhale, Mick and Curran would be observed by the breathers and also from outside the chamber. During the exercise, Mick and Curran would perform a simple prescribed task: writing notes to each other without speaking, and combing one’s hair whilst waiting for each written reply from the other. Everybody took a turn as a breather, Mick’s would come later in the day, at such time as the effects of unconsciousness had fully worn off and the MO – the base Medical Officer – had granted a clean bill of health.
Via a bakelite intercom speaker the chamber occupants were informed there would be a short delay while the diesel-powered vacuum unit warmed up. Curran angled to Mick.
‘Had your little chat with Hurst yet?’
‘Yes I have,’ Mick replied. ‘Seems this instructing caper’s a good wicket…’
‘Yes, I dare say it would be,’ returned Curran. ‘If y’don’t mind passing up a Supermarine Spitfire…’
The oxygen-masked pair said nothing. Curran continued.
‘Ah… I gather our dear leader omitted to mention to you that our coveted “Exceptional” rating not only qualifies us for our unique position as instructors but also for our pick of the plum flying duties.’
‘No he didn’t mention that,’ Mick answered.
‘Well he wouldn’t, would he,’ said Curran. ‘Our dear leader wants to keep his good instructors and all power to him, I say. But he’s not keeping this one, sonny Jim.’
‘You’re not gunna stick around?’
Curran grinned, shook his head. ‘One Spitfire, please… I’m off to Old Blighty after this posting or I’ll damn-well strafe Central HQ.’
‘Well,’ Mick returned the grin, ‘nice work strafing me this morning anyway.’
‘That’s something you’ll learn,’ said Curran.
A voice came through the intercom speaker. ‘Time, gentlemen. Silence from now on, please. Exercise begins.’ The chamber now hummed.
Mick took the small notepad and pencil he’d been issued and wrote the first message. He tore off the sheet and handed it to Curran.
‘INSTRUCTING FOR ME I THINK.’
Curran read it, wrote, and handed a sheet back.
‘GOOD 4 U. TRAIN THE BLOKES WHO’LL WIN THE WAR. WITH .’
Mick wrote again while Curran diligently combed. He handed the note over, thinking of his family as he did, and of all the money he could bring in for them as an airline pilot: ‘SPOT ON. THO SPITS WILL BE DREAM FOR U.’ He then combed away, noticing the breathers looking on as he took the next slip of paper from Curran.
‘THAT’S WHAT THEY SAY. CAN HEAR OUR AIR BEING SUCKED OUT.’
Mick scribbled again. Thinking of his younger brothers and sisters. With his Qantas paypacket, they could finish school. Cripes, they could go to university! From where he’d been barred for lack of cash. Now they’d be able to go.
He handed over the note. ‘HOW HIGH WE B?’ And started combing.
The flourish with which Curran’s reply was then scribbled and delivered gave Mick a grin. He read it.
‘PASSING NOTES IN CLASS ON TOP EVEREST.’
Now he dashed off his own. What a brilliant feeling it was: His brothers would grow up out of the fucken Yards. Bank Manager. Lawyer. Doctor! They would never want again. He finished the note.
‘TOP OF THE WORLD.’
Handing it over, Mick realised with a start he’d forgotten to begin combing his hair. Locating the comb, he had almost recommenced when arrived Curran’s reply.
‘ME FALL OFF MOUNTAIN INTO TIBET.’
Mick chuckled, his next message flowing.
‘PULL RIP CORD!’
He felt relaxed. His siblings would thrive, bring their success back home, and his old dad would retire happy, and in comfort. Curran passed his reply, patting various points of his chest with the other hand as he did.
Mick scribbled, handed over.
‘U FORGET PCHUTE ?’
Curran was trying not to laugh. He passed a slip.
Mick’s pencil waltzed. ‘LEND ME YA WIRRAWAY WEEL FORGET IT.’ His blood coursed just so agreeably in his veins, the fact he’d now misplaced the comb entirely no longer mattering as Curran passed his next reply.
‘DEEL. CAN U STILL RAED THIS?’
Mick was smiling widely now as he scribbled large: ‘NO.’ Note in hand, he held it out to Curran.
Who squinted to try and read it. Then squinted harder. Snatched the note. Held it close to his face, then closer, his face melting to a giggle.
With a smile Mick couldn’t wipe off now if he’d tried, he peered at Curran and said it aloud: ‘What?!’ Or thought he had…
Curran’s giggles grew. …And grew.
Mick became steadily infected, absolutely no idea what was so funny, but something between them had become very definitely hilarious, and was getting worse.
They never saw the breathers’ slightly worried sideways glance at each other over their oxygen masks, for their laughter now fed on itself. Intensified. And broke them down.
The last thing of which Mick was aware was his view from the floor: Laughing insanely, looking up at the boy with brow very seriously furrowed in vain attempts at pressing a comb into a notepad and combing his hair with a pencil.
Mick couldn’t see a thing. Ahead through the Battle’s windscreen, only darkness. Below the windscreen, the dim orange glow of the Battle’s instrument panel dials, and he kept these on absolute minimum brightness setting so as to maximise his eyes’ ‘night vision’ – for what precious little use it served…
Nobody liked night flying. But it would be the chief activity of Mick’s trainee bomb-aimer and air gunner once they got to England: Evidently RAF Bomber Command had deduced from its first operations of the war that if it flew any more daylight ones it would promptly cease to exist. So ‘night bombing’ became the policy; flying at night, enemy fighters couldn’t see you with the naked eye, nor, except with the aid of searchlights, could German anti-aircraft gunners on the ground. Of course, it also meant that Bomber Command couldn’t see what it was bombing… But the RAF had to be working on that, guessed Mick. Right now he flew ‘blind’ – ‘on instruments’, as it was more pleasantly termed, piloting the Battle through the darkness according to the numbers, dials and indicators illuminated before him in dim orange: altitude, compass heading, airspeed, artificial horizon, time, and others. As he did so the bomb-aimer would be looking through a small perspex window in the floor of the aircraft – for Mainstreet, Ballina. In fact, for Ballina, full stop; the town in full military blackout.
Just the previous week the whole of 1BAGS had been to see a film screened in the Masonic Hall of Evans Head: Target for Tonight, it had been called. Made by the ‘RAF Film Unit’, Mick had found it a highly entertaining flick. So had everybody else – There’d been the most appreciative applause and indeed howls of laughter as, up on the silver screen, German model trains were bombed and blown up with uncanny accuracy.
Mick flicked his intercom switch: ‘Pilot to bomb-aimer. You’re getting close to time… I need a heading.’ After long seconds, none was forthcoming. ‘Bomb-aimer, are you awake?’ Mick heard the click of the boy’s face-mask microphone switching on, followed by a voice whose tone was solid, definite.
‘Skipper, I’m sorry; I haven’t the faintest idea.’
Mick took a moment. ‘Down ahead left. See the bend in the river?’
‘Look, there’s moonlight on it. On it now.’
‘Check against your map.’
The boy’s tone came back an entirely different sort of definite…
‘Bomb-aimer to pilot, turn to course 80 degrees, eight-zero magnetic, on my mark. 3. 2. 1. Mark.’
Mick banked the aircraft briefly right – until his compass dial read 80, levelled, and used the intercom once more: ‘Well done.’ And though he expected the boy’s next transmission might sound full of relief, it didn’t…
‘Bomb doors open…’
It sounded professional.
The Pioneer Hotel had never known it so good. The single pub in a peacetime village of 500 swelled to 2500 since the establishment of 1BAGS the previous year, Mick had chosen it as the spot for a drink with his training charges after Saturday evening stand-down as, being LACs, neither was permitted entry to the 1BAGS Sergeants’ Mess. Indeed, if the Evans Head pub had ever observed the Six O’Clock Closing law it certainly didn’t now, the town’s Police Sergeant turning a blind eye. This was apparent to Mick as the copper had just bought a round of drinks. The place was filled with all types: off-duty airmen and officers, soldiers, locals including Volunteer Defence men, sugar-cane workers and gents over the age for military service.
Max Finney was 18. Doing well in his training as a rear gunner as far as Mick was concerned, like everyone Mick had spoken to in the past four months at 1BAGS Finney had dearly hoped to become a pilot. With a shock of blonde hair, he was a little bloke – a lot of them were, Mick had observed since Initial Training – and sounded quite unlike anyone Mick had ever spoken to in his life: sort of English…
‘Y’know,’ Finney smiled, ‘though shit-scared I plucked up the courage to go and see the CO regarding my unexpected lot and the chap said he agreed with me – He actually apologised.’ The young airman shrugged. ‘Said the matter was closed however; I was filling a quota.’
Finney had entered Initial Training in Melbourne straight from school, somewhere called ‘Scotch’, where he’d been Captain of his First XI, the war having deferred his long-planned entry to Medicine. A nice fellow too, Mick thought: a ready smile, hard-working, and he looked you in the eye whenever he spoke – Make a good doctor.
If Finney was a bright one, Roger Doherty was what Mick called a ‘brain’. In his early 20s, under neatly brylcreemed locks the intensity of his face made him seem much older. At the outbreak of war he’d been at university studying ‘Pure Mathematics’. As his instructor, Mick had seen his file: He’d been no less than Dux of Sydney’s Riverview College. Though Doherty had no tickets on himself. What he did have was a knack for making some of the maths concepts which Mick still struggled with seem suddenly easy to grasp and employ. Funny thing, but Doherty said exactly the same thing about the way Mick explained flying concepts to them.
Doherty raised his beer glass slightly to Mick. ‘Thanks.’
‘For instructing us both so well. Getting bombs on target can seem nigh on impossible in broad daylight but the way you fly us through the exercises… How can I put this? You’re methodical and challenging at the same time. Which pushes us two knuckle-heads to do better than we might. You’d be a good teacher.’
Finney nodded. ‘And no error.’
Mick chuckled: He hadn’t expected such a response to his instruction of them. No way. In fact he hadn’t known what to expect from the first two ‘rich kids’ he’d ever met. ‘No worries,’ he smiled back at them. The fact was he was only too glad to be doing the best he possibly could for them; they were bonzer blokes.
Bonzer blokes with a one-in-three chance of survival.
23-thousand feet. The Wirraway’s ‘service ceiling’.
Tony Curran skimmed them just above a layer of Cirrocumulus, Curran in control from the rear seat, Mick in front. The sensation of relative speed over this carpet of white, scaly cloud was, for Mick, nothing short of awesome. 600 Horsepower. The mid-morning blue above him was deeper than he’d ever seen – he’d never been nearly this high – and there behind them flew the vapour trail: a ribbon of fluffy white tracing their every rise and fall and curve in the sky. Nor had he known sunlight like this before, high bleached and brilliant on the instruments and levers all around him. Well used to butterflies in his stomach by now, they fluttered like mad despite the serious business of the morning’s exercise: ‘Oxygen Trial’.
With the earth a whopping four miles below, Mick recalled the classroom blackboard.
LIGHTHEADED SENSATION. DIZZINESS. REDUCED VISION. EUPHORIA.
Right now he was feeling no small amount of concern that he felt decidedly ‘Euphoric’ – from the sheer thrill of the moment or from oxygen deprivation, he couldn’t rightly tell which.
‘How we doing?’ came Curran’s voice through the intercom.
‘Fine, I think, sir,’ Mick returned, doing his utmost to sound merely business-like.
‘How’s the oxygen mask feel?’
Mick couldn’t help it. He was feeling too happy. ‘Like a big fat leather thing on my face, sir.’ He heard Curran chuckling in the headphones.
‘Just remember to breathe through it, that’s all. Okay. You have control. …She’s all yours.’
This Mick had not expected.
‘You’re only young once, Mick.’ The voice was smiling. ‘Go ahead. You have control.’
In its forward cockpit, Mick clasped the stick of the ‘dual control’ Wirraway in his right hand, the throttle in his left, placed a boot in each rudder stirrup, and responded as per procedure.
‘I have control.’
‘How do you feel now?’ put Curran.
‘Scared shitless, sir.’
‘Good. Oh, and Mick…’
‘There’s one thing you’ve forgotten.’
Mick’s heart near seized.
‘…Enjoy it. You’re doing fine.’
‘Right. Maintain this altitude precisely, curve us round in a wide banking port turn full circle. Let’s have some fun looking at the vapour trail.’
Mick flew quite serenely into the curve.
When it rained on the Far North Coast of New South Wales, it bucketed.
Hence Mick’s ‘Passing-Out’ Parade was held inside one of the largest hangars hurriedly cleared and cleaned, its corrugated iron structure throwing the sound of the ceremonial marching band into the oddest metallic reverberations. In three ‘Flights’ of twelve, Mick’s course filed in best blues, shouldered rifles and peaked caps for the first time past the Union Jack, the Royal Australian Air Force Flag, the Australian Flag and the CO as bells, whistles, brass and drums bounced and clattered round the walls. Until finally the band threw in the towel…
‘Pilot Officer Michael O’Regan.’
Barely catching it under the roaring deluge on the hangar roof, Mick marched forward, stopped at attention before the CO, saluted. Hurst pinned Mick’s ‘wings’ to the left chest of his tunic, shook his hand, instead of Sergeant’s stripes on Mick’s tunic forearms a thin white band on each cuff.
‘Congratulations, Pilot Officer,’ smiled Hurst.
‘Thank you, sir.’
‘Finest new instructor we’ve seen in some time.’
‘Second to Curran, I’m sure, sir,’ Mick grinned.
‘Oh, eminently so.’ Hurst grinned back. ‘Glad to have you with us, Michael.’
Mick stepped back. Saluted. About-faced. And the next name was called.
A dark grey blanket of cloud had drawn halfway back across the sky to reveal a sunset washed supremely clear by the rain. The graduation party now stood outside on the wet asphalt apron, the band playing Pack Up Your Troubles from just inside the hangar door.
As Mick chatted in a clutch of graduates, there came a call from over his shoulder.
‘Hey Pilot Officer O’Regan sir!’
He turned to see Max Finney and Rog Doherty trudging towards him across the apron in full flying kit: leather helmets, boots, yellow ‘Mae West’ life-jackets, miscellaneous gear and their usual smiles. As they arrived they saluted him. Mick returned the salute, though a little off balance: ‘Sir’, no longer ‘Sarge’.
‘Congratulations, sir.’ They each shook his hand.
‘Thanks, guys,’ he smiled. ‘I hear you’ve a bit of a trip this evening.’
‘It’s the biggie,’ winced Doherty.
Mick had seen the roster: Tonight was one of their final tests, and their toughest of the course so far: a long-range night flight – 300 miles north over the Border Ranges and into Queensland, ‘target’, the coastal town of Bundaberg.
‘Don’t worry, Rog,’ said Mick. ‘Pilot Officer Curran flying you?’
‘That he is.’
Mick looked down the apron to the Avro Anson in which they’d be flying away short minutes from now, a leather helmeted figure in its cockpit window. Mick raised an arm, a gloved hand in the window motioning back. Mick faced Doherty again. ‘Look, Tony Curran’s an excellent pilot. Best there is. You’ll be fine, son.’
Finney smiled. ‘Sure we will.’
‘As for your gunner here,’ Mick grim-faced, ‘well, he couldn’t hit a barn door but that’s beside the point.’
The three of them laughed as one, the Anson’s engines starting up.
‘You just be free this time tomorrow, sir,’ strained Finney over the noise. ‘We’ll have a few beers for this most illogical promotion of yours.’
‘My shout, mate,’ returned Mick. ‘Our usual table at 6.’
Finney sided Doherty an exasperated look. ‘Oh dear oh dear,’ he proclaimed, raising his voice a notch higher for the closest graduates: ‘We say 18-hundred Hours, not 6 o-bloody-clock… Will somebody please scrub this new officer? There’s been a most dreadful mistake…’
Mick laughed with the crowd, though persisted above it: ‘Correction, Leading Aircraftman: Your shout.’ More laughter.
As he watched the pair head happily away, Mick considered the night that lay ahead of them: For a long-range flight like this there’d be a trainee navigator aboard with Rog and Max acting as his observers and vitally so; whoever the nav was he would need all the help he could get from whatever visual and radio fixes they could scrape for him, each a speck of gold in getting them to such a distant target in the dark: an introduction to the desperate crew teamwork of the long night flights with Bomber Command that they were headed towards.
He now saw them climb up into the Anson, and its escape hatch pull shut. A bastard of an exercise, but it was supposed to be. They’d pass it, be back for a few more like it then one last flight with Mick and they’d graduate with wings, albeit single ones.
The Anson revved up full for a moment, then throttled back, ground crew pulling its wheel-chocks away. Nudging forward in the early evening light, it began a confidently quick taxi – unmistakably Tony Curran at the controls – turning away from the graduation crowd and on towards the south end of the field.
As he watched it go, Mick said it to himself: One in Three.
He thought too much of them for that…
They’d get back from Bundaberg. Some time tomorrow. Yet if they passed their final few flights, which they would, they’d end up flying to towns in Germany from which they would almost certainly not come back.
From the far south end of the field, he could hear the Anson. It was turning about, straightening, and now put on power. Though seeming stationary at this distance, it’d be moving now, getting faster, steadily building to lift-off speed.
He could scrub them. Rog and Max. He could. It’d shock the hell out of them. Scrubbed. Finished with flying forever. Depress the hell out of both of them too. But they’d get over that… And in just a few years’ time be Roger Doherty, Professor of Mathematics, Max Finney, revered family doctor.
The Anson was growing larger now, engines blaring, though taking its time to lift off – heavy with its load of fuel for the long trip – but there it went: wheels off the ground – ‘unstuck’ was the term – just a few feet in the air, coming on fast now, 300 yards. Louder, closer, wheels retracting, 200 yards, and still Curran hardly lifted – Christ that boy had balls. Wheels up, a few extra feet of lift, his wingspan tilted subtly right.
Mick still had one more flight with Rog and Max. He was still their primary instructor. And now an officer. He could make sure they lived.
To a man, the graduation party ducked as the Anson howled directly over them, all eyes following as it powered away, lifting further now to the north horizon, Mount Warning out to the left. As it headed away in the evening light from the west, its wingspan waggled…
Left – right – left – right.
‘Cheeky bastard,’ smiled Mick.
At 0900 Hours the following day, Mick was showing two new LACs over the Battle’s cockpit positions and flight controls – ‘the taps’ as they were referred to – when Warrant Officer Bolton appeared by the wing.
‘Pilot Officer O’Regan to the CO, please.’
From the wing-root, Mick saluted down to Bolton, ‘Sir,’ turned to the LACs, ‘You blokes strap in, memorize y’taps, close your eyes and identify them by feel. When I come back I’ll test you.’ He jumped down onto grass and strode away with Bolton.
‘Begging your pardon, sir,’ Bolton said as they walked rather quickly along, ‘but you’re not supposed to address me as “sir” anymore; you’re my superior officer now. As I’m a Warrant Officer, the correct form of address is “Mr Bolton”. Now I call you “sir”. And you’re not supposed to salute me either; I salute you and you return it. But, as you’re not wearing your forage cap, sir, I can’t salute you, can I: When I salute you I’m not saluting you personally, I’m saluting the crown of the King on your cap. …Just in case you’ve missed it, sir, the crown on the Royal Australian Air Force wings patch now on your cap, which you’re not wearing, though you should be, even when attired in coveralls. Sir.’ Bolton shook his head as they went, chuckling. ‘Jesus, son, haven’t you learnt anything yet?’
Mick grinned. ‘Mister Bolton. I’ll thank you to dispense with that crudely informal tone or I’ll put you on Report.’
‘That’s more like it, sir,’ smiled Bolton, a brand-new spring in his step.
‘And thanks,’ returned Mick. ‘Number 1 Service Dress for the CO?’
‘No, I’d say not but get your cap on; he’s rather too pressed for time today. Best of luck, sir.’
As the Warrant Officer veered off to some other business, Mick wondered the reason for the man’s parting wish.
Mick marched, halted, saluted, removed cap, struck attention.
‘Sir. Pilot Officer O’Regan reporting.’
‘Stand easy, Michael,’ said Hurst. ‘In fact, you’d better have a seat.’
Mick pulled one up, sat. Hurst continued.
‘Curran is overdue.’
Mick swallowed. ‘How long overdue, sir?’
‘Over an hour. It’s no huge cause for alarm as yet…’ Hurst consulted a slip of paper before him. ‘…Made Bundaberg last night, dummy bombing mission spot-on, landed at the base there, stayed over. 0600 Hours this morning they took off again, all according to the flight plan.’ He consulted a separate slip of paper. ‘After which they made their scheduled radio check-in. But not the next one. And there’ve been no sightings since then, or radar contacts for that matter. If you ask me it sounds like young Finney’s radio set has gone on the blink.’ He aligned the papers to one side, peered up at Mick. ‘It happens.’
Mick hadn’t flown the Bundaberg run, though had landed at the next nearest base outside Brisbane many times… ‘Any word from Amberley, sir?’
‘Nothing. But they may very well have landed at a smaller field, indeed, in a field… You’re a city boy, aren’t you.’
‘Well, the thing is they could at this very moment be walking to the nearest town whose post office or police station will contain the single telephone for miles. It’s happened in the past: One crew forced down took half a day to get to the nearest town on foot, where they were finally rescued in the pub… So, once again, no huge cause for alarm.’ Hurst paused. ‘As yet… It is, indeed, pardon the pun, up in the air. But Curran’s one of the best pilots 1BAGS has ever had and the young nav’s supposed to be right out of the top drawer – What’s his name again?’
‘I never met him, sir…’ Mick sat forward slightly. ‘If they’re still airborne, sir, how much longer does their fuel give them?’
Hurst separated the papers, ran his finger down one, tapped it, checked his watch. ‘Till a few minutes ago…’ He looked up at Mick again. ‘So there it is: They’re overdue. But that’s not why I offered you the seat.’
‘No. Not in itself… The thing is, Michael, this week Number 2 Service Flying Training School at Wagga were filling their part of an RAF Fighter Command quota for new pilots to continue training, as per usual, at Advanced Flying Units in either Canada or the United Kingdom. But one of the Wagga pilots set to go was killed the other day, and, no surprise, young Curran here jumped at the vacancy. They accepted him. Thus he was due to sail, his number down with a pre-embarkation lot in Sydney: security quarantine before boarding one of the convoys out of the Harbour – Obviously things don’t get any more secret… The point is, Michael, Tony Curran was due to fly down to Sydney,’ Hurst consulted his watch again, ‘well… about now. But Tony’s not here, is he… I signed off on the form saying we’d be sending someone. No Tony. And I still have to send someone. And that someone, as it’s a Fighter Command quota being filled, has to have experience on Wirraways. Which, Michael, is what you’ve got. Wagga will ask. And I can’t say you don’t; it’s on your file.’ Hurst opened one on the desk before him, read briefly. ‘Five hours’ experience. With your “exceptional” rating, Wagga will read five hundred. And so will Fighter Command. So there you go. Literally, I’m afraid.’ He closed the file, looked squarely at Mick.
What Hurst saw was a young man sitting very still, torso poised upright on his chair, eyes fixed as if contemplating some spot ahead of him on the floor: aside from blinking eyelids, a statue. The expression on his face was strange indeed, as if mid the shock of disbelief from a powerful slap, yet a shock already melting away, something steeling in his eyes. Acceptance? Or was this simply how a young man looked in the moment he saw his whole future no longer necessarily stretching out in front of him?
Naught but regret in his voice, Hurst spoke again.
‘I told you not to fuck it up. Didn’t I.’
He watched O’Regan’s eyes now lift to meet his own. O’Regan didn’t speak in reply, didn’t nod. His eyes, however, said, ‘Yes… You did.’
Mick was thinking about his family. It was quite simple really… Now he would keep them fed by staying alive against an enemy. And the money he could send them would increase with his rise through the commissioned ranks that had, a moment ago, become his firm ambition. They said promotion came faster on operational service, didn’t they. Then so be it. Going to RAF Fighter Command now, unless the Flying Ability Rating in his file was complete bullshit, they’d give him a Spitfire. Which he would almost certainly fly well. Well enough to keep himself alive by killing some poor bastard German each time he flew it.
‘It’s out of my hands, Michael,’ said Hurst. ‘Look, Curran, Finney, Doherty and what’s-his-name could walk in the door any minute now. But until they do, you’d better get packed.’ He checked his watch a final time. ‘You’ve got ten minutes; the Anson for Sydney’s fuelling now.’ He paused a moment. ‘Michael, I’d like to say how profoundly sorry I will be to lose you, but I’d better just say “dismissed”; you’re in a rush, my friend.’
Mick stood, donned his cap, came to attention, saluted. The return salute never came: Hurst had moved to stand, leant forward across his desk, arm outstretched. They shook hands.
Mick exited. Hurst closed his file. And passed it to the Out tray.
Warrant Officer Bolton said he’d already organised an eagle-eye lookout for any sign of the overdue party: an incoming aircraft, an army truck, a commandeered automobile on approach, a radio signal, phone-call, anything. In the meantime he’d organised the two LACs Mick had been instructing to pack the Pilot Officer’s gear – and immaculate, like, or he’d wring their stupid necks.
In the heat of rapid departure, Mick buttoned his shirt, fumbled with his neck-tie in the locker mirror, buttoned his service tunic half expecting Doherty and Finney really just might walk in the door. But they didn’t. Forage cap on, a bead of sweat ran down the side of his face just as the LACs dropped a large tin trunk on the floor with a bang.
‘What the fuck is this?!’ released Mick.
‘Officer’s trunk, sir,’ replied one of the LACs. ‘Standard issue, sir.’ The LAC unclipped and opened the lid, revealing what looked like camping gear.
Bolton stepped in. ‘You could well end up in North Africa, sir. If you do you’ll be grateful for this lot.’ The LAC clipped it shut again, and shot away with the other to a final task. The instant they were busy again, Bolton spoke quietly to Mick. ‘Begging sir’s pardon but it’s not the form to swear in front of the Other Ranks… A word of advice, sir: They’ve just commissioned you with the status of an officer and a gentleman; best start conducting yourself like one.’
Mick nodded. ‘Thank you, Mr Bolton. I’ll do m’best.’
‘I know y’will, son.’
‘No word from Curran?’
The LACs brought over Mick’s duffle bag. ‘All set then, sir,’ puffed one.
‘Thank you, Airman.’ Mick turned back to Bolton. ‘But you’ll send word to me in Sydney…’
‘’Fraid not, sir: You’ll be in quarantine at Bradfield Park. Lock-down, sir: no signals in or out afore you board ship.’
Mick paused a moment, looked to the open doorway of the hut, then turned back to them. ‘Right then. Let’s go.’ He leant down to the duffle bag, Bolton interceding, slinging it over his own shoulder, the LACs each taking a handle of the trunk. As they passed through the hut doorway, the Anson’s engines coughed to life a short distance ahead across the grass. Mick peered left and right as they filed out to it: No aircraft on approach, no truck or car, no ragged foursome crossing the field. Just green grass and a clear blue morning sky.
The noise of the Anson fully swamped them as they drew up to its wing, prop-wash buffeting, only hand signals now possible. A flight-kitted Sergeant appearing in the open hatchway of the craft’s rear fuselage, Bolton heaved Mick’s duffle bag up to the man, then directed the LACs to pass up the trunk, the Sergeant then disappearing inside the aircraft. Mick took a last look back, and out across the field: nothing. He faced Bolton and the LACs: They were smiling at him, saluted as one, he returned it. In the sea of noise, Bolton mouthed it: Good luck. Mick nodded, turned back to the hatchway, climbed up into it, Bolton leaning in, pulling the hatch shut from outside.
Inside, Mick looked forward towards the cockpit: Evidently the Sergeant was the pilot, Mick the lone passenger. Making his way forward, as the pilot noticed him Mick motioned to the co-pilot’s seat, the pilot shrugged. Mick got seated, strapped himself in, the pilot indicating to a leather flying helmet for Mick. Removing his cap, he pulled the helmet on, plugged in its radio cord, in its headphones now the sound of the pilot radioing the 1BAGS control tower for take-off clearance. Instantly received, the pilot hand-signalled, ground crew pulling the wheel chocks away, and he edged the twin throttles forward. After a few moments taxiing they were pointed north along the field, he drove the throttles full forward and they were accelerating down it. Faster. Faster, the tail lifting, nose of the aircraft lowering, the heavy scrub of the airfield perimeter ahead now visible through the windshield – and getting closer. At full throttle, to Mick it seemed the aircraft would shake itself apart any second, and still the main wheels hadn’t come unstuck. He eyed the pilot sideways as the perimeter tree-line drew closer, then peered ahead again – Christ, they’d hit the trees – just as the wheels left the ground, and everything became smooth.
‘Undercarriage,’ came an alarmingly neutral voice in Mick’s headphones. He obeyed the order very smartly indeed and pulled the lever labelled UNDERCARRIAGE full up, his eyes on the instrument panel’s undercarriage indicator lights: 3 green – all down, 1 red – 1 up, 3 red – all up just as the tree-tops flashed under. Mick swore if the wheels hadn’t retracted in that instant they’d have ripped off branches. The beach and ocean out to the right, the pilot still kept it flat and low – a student of Tony Curran, clearly. Jesus, where the HELL was Curran? As the pilot wrenched them into a broad curving climb inland, Mick was pressed very firmly down in his seat. Reefing out of the turn, levelling, straightening to the south, ahead settled blue ocean, beaches, green coastal plains and rolling hills to the southern horizon, the sun beaming hot into the cockpit.
For the next two hours, the pilot said not another word.
TO READ THE FULL NOVEL OF GHOSTS OF THE EMPIRE BY JUSTIN SHEEDY,
As the storm of World War II breaks, Mick O’Regan is a peaceful Sydney working-class boy. Yet he and the shining youth of his generation are cursed to enter a world of high-speed life and death. Like first-time Aussie backpackers they cross the planet to save the British Empire, their job on arrival the most dangerous of the War: flying for Royal Air Force Bomber Command.
Based on a true Australian war story only now being brought to life by author Justin Sheedy’s vivid historical fictions, “Ghosts of the Empire” is also a story of young people living life to the full while they can – in a blacked-out world where dance partners, sex and death flow in equal abundance.
Though standing on its own as the white-knuckle excitement saga that it is, “Ghosts of the Empire” is the much-anticipated sequel to “Nor the Years Condemn”, Sheedy’s highly acclaimed story of shining young men destined never to grow old. ‘Ghosts’, it is said, are the spirits of those who die violently, tragically, or when ripped from life too young. “Ghosts of the Empire” is their story.
‘They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.’
From ‘For the Fallen’ by Laurence Binyon, 1914
Northern France, June 1944
The young Australian skimmed his Typhoon fighter-bomber over the forest top, 350 miles per hour, ten feet off the trees. The grey gloom of first light was enough to spy the German tanks within the clearing dead ahead. He remembered the words of his instructor…
Lift her a touch, flatten, coax her, nurse her, boy. Make the aircraft do exactly what you want her to. Nose her down a touch now, aim. Perfect.
He squeezed the trigger on the throttle grip – rockets away – eight white smoke trails flew out ahead and down, down, down…
ON target! Bloody FIREWORKS!!
Pulling up and over them, the young pilot then pressed the control column forward, dropping the fighter-bomber down again to speed away.
Keep it low, keep it LOW, son. The higher you are, the better target you offer to anyone who didn’t die. Use the trees as cover – Stay below their tops and LIVE.
A calm began to flow in the twenty-year-old’s veins. Still fast and low, he beamed behind his goggles. He’d done it: The weeks, the months, the past two years leading up to this moment, he’d done as he was told the whole way and he’d done well. Bloody well. The Typhoon was renowned as a bitch to master and he’d done it.
Then he saw it. The anti-aircraft vehicle, just ahead left, its tracer fire spitting at him – too close to nose down and fire back. He remembered his training once more…
Quick bank left towards it – make him change his aim – now he’s flashing under. Full throttle, keep it together, keep it together, keep the nose flat, Jesus don’t climb with the extra power… Jink right again to put him off, ready for damage if he hits you – can’t bail out under 1000 feet – look for a field to crash land in, pistol ready…
As the young Australian drew his next breath, he knew it was his last.
Too close… He was waiting till I was too close…
The anti-aircraft gunner stayed right with him, fired all the way through the slick manoeuvre. Cannon shells thundered down the fuselage, through the wings, fuel tanks exploding, the Typhoon now a trajectory of separate parts tumbling down into the forest.
A torso was later taken down from a tree.
Tin dog-tags dangled from one of the lower branches.
University of Sydney, 1939
An unseasonally hot day for September, the interior of the St. John’s College chapel wasn’t its usual sanctuary of cool, a full house today and getting muggier as the hour wore on. Daniel Quinn felt drowsy his mind wandering back to the words of the Prime Minister. It seemed a rare soul who hadn’t been round the wireless the night before: Menzies’ big announcement… Germany had just invaded Poland, Britain had declared war on Germany.
…as a result, Australia is also at war…
Of the Mass, Quinn hadn’t registered much. He brooded on a screeching little thug with a stupid moustache. On his rise. And rise. ‘A flash in the pan,’ most people had said. The last one was supposed to have been ‘The War to End All Wars’. As of last night, Quinn reflected, it needed a new name.
His thoughts turned to Mr Reiser. The dear and aged friend of Quinn’s father had never seen anything laughable about Herr Hitler. Together Quinn and the old man had followed the events of the past few years, discussing each as it happened: Germany re-arming, the move into Austria, Munich seemed the end of it, but then they took Czechoslovakia only last March. Mr Reiser had friends there, in Austria too. He’d lost contact with most of them, indeed, the enquiries he’d made at the Austrian Embassy in Neutral Bay were still pending.
Quinn’s stare had settled on the priest’s green vestments, his eyes now lifting to the Gothic arches and multi-colours of the chapel’s stained-glass windows – The heat of the afternoon outside seemed to be straining in through them. It’d be murder at rugby practice.
He felt a nudge in his right arm from McCarthy: The priest was giving the Blessing to the capacity congregation, Father Gorman clearly in good spirits this day – numbers swelled by quite a few blokes Quinn didn’t even know were Catholic. They were on the closing prayers, Quinn’s mouth forming the words automatically.
Holy Michael, the Archangel, defend us in battle: Be our safeguard against the wickedness and snares of the devil. Cast into hell Satan and all the evil spirits, who wander through the world seeking the ruin of souls.
In the slow shuffle down the aisle, it struck Quinn that Saint Michael was the Patron Saint of Germany.
Outside the chapel, Quinn waited near the front of the crowd as the pile of cases was sorted through. Mostly from school days just a year or two behind, with so many of them identical, it might take some minutes.
Tim McCarthy jostled a few places behind him. Yep, there was Quinn – as if by magic, always at the front… Still, Tim admired and respected Daniel Quinn. A lot of people did, and small wonder: He was a nice bloke, successful without being up himself and toughs skulked in doorways when they saw him coming… Tim would never forget his early days at high school, never: First Form, and those long, hot first few months of it when he’d been bullied. Badly. Lynch and McCann. Just as he’d never forget the day, the bell having tolled for that hour of it he most dreaded, lunchtime, when a boy he hardly even knew stopped to talk to him in the hallway. In full view of everyone. Tim was just getting over his initial surprise – the boy was good to talk to, said his name was Quinn, they even had a laugh, Tim’s first in months, for a moment he felt human again – when he caught sight of Lynch coming down the hall. Still a way off as yet but on his daily, inexorable approach. Mustn’t look at him. Mustn’t look at him: the chief reason he’d got smacked last time, Lynch had sworn…
Even now McCarthy didn’t know how or why he’d lifted his eyes to meet Lynch’s oncoming stare that day. Only that he had, that his eyes met Lynch’s, but only for an instant – Lynch’s stare sided, sided to Quinn’s right back at him. And halfway down the crowded hall, Lynch took a left. After which the ear-boxing sessions fell right off, from Lynch anyway. He and McCann used to work as a pair. No longer. McCann tried it on again with Tim a week later, as it turned out, for the last time. The story went around: Strange, no one had imagined Quinn a scrapper… Let alone a hard hitter… But McCann didn’t come back to school for a week.
No, Tim would never forget.
As one bloke in front then another hooked up their cases and departed, he clambered a few steps forward.
‘So, Daniel, joining up then?’
Quinn saw McCarthy, peering over his shoulder for the sight of his own gear.
‘Oh, hi, mate.’ Though Quinn had only known him slightly at school, he’d become pretty decent friends with McCarthy since First Year Law, though Quinn envied his academic medals. ‘…In time, I s’pose.’ He kept one eye on the pile. ‘How about you?’
‘Yep. I’ll see you there.’
‘See me where?’ returned Quinn.
Tim let slip a chuckle. ‘Oh, nothing… Only that the Royal Australian Air Force’ve set up a recruiting desk off the Main Quad… Line goes half way round the cloisters as we speak. You just have to follow this lot. Whaddya reckon?’
‘No, I can’t today. I’ve got practice on.’
‘Yeah, fair enough. …Still,’ McCarthy angled to Quinn, ‘it’s in your best interests…’
‘Well,’ McCarthy turned back to the pile, ‘it’s first in – best dressed, so they say. I mean, now it’s on, every man and his dog’ll want to join the air force and it’s us uni types they’ll want,’ he grinned sideways at Quinn, ‘…plus sportsmen like your illustrious self. As pilots, I mean. But they’re such picky bastards, the thing is to put your name down before the rush. Then at least you’re in the running, and you can always knock ’em back when they give you the chance to. So you may as well.’ He paused. ‘Come to think of it, Daniel, it’s the bloody sports stars like you who’ll do me out of a place!’
‘Not me, mate,’ smiled Quinn.
McCarthy spied his case, pushed forward and grabbed it, turning back to Quinn. ‘I’d better bolt. Do us a favour, break your leg on the way over, will you?’
With that he was gone.
Seeing his own on the diminishing pile, Quinn retrieved it, and set out across the lawn of St John’s towards Missenden Road.
On the short walk to the car, Quinn found himself alone, the opposite direction to the Main Quad, he reflected. Reaching the open-top MG, he slung the case in the passenger seat, and climbed in.
Though he inserted the key into the ignition, he didn’t turn it.
He sat still.
It had begun.
The war Mr Reiser had said would come. Quinn had long known it would, but now it had, it was clear to him that he was not prepared for the naked reality of it: His neck, his chest, the muscles in his arms were tight with fear.
…His whole life, something in history books, something safely, pleasantly in the realm of talk and literature. Now, due to the year of his birth, he’d be going to it. In what capacity? And when?
A solitary thing was certain.
Not this afternoon.
Quinn loosened his necktie, and looked at his watch. If he didn’t get moving now, he’d be late for practice. And you did not keep the Sydney Uni First XV waiting.
Quinn called the coach from a public telephone in the Main Quad, his explanation and apology at the ready. He had to admit, McCarthy had a good point: Putting his name down couldn’t hurt. The groundsman answered, old Clarrie’s gruff manner even gruffer than usual…
Practice had been cancelled. Everybody else had already phoned in. And right flamin’ sick he was of picking up the phone all afternoon. Don’t you young idiots know I’ve got pickets to paint?!
Joining the queue, Quinn could see McCarthy way ahead in the distance, plus half the First XV at various points down the cloister. He felt relieved to be in the line: He’d made his decision, he’d be getting his name down for what it was worth. At the same time, he felt on edge: A long-cherished lesson from his father had been never, ever to follow a crowd. At least he wasn’t smoking, he reassured himself, as, almost to a man, the rest were, a veritable cloud of blue wafting out from under the cloister’s length, out over the Quad. All in shirts, ties and jackets, they seemed to have left school – himself included, Quinn reflected – only to swap one uniform for another.
He caught a voice over their laughter and chatter: A few places ahead, it sounded like Cooney who, rumour had it, had already ‘done it’. Yes, it was Cooney alright…
‘Oh, Air Force, definitely! Even Catholic girls put out for a pair of Wings… ’Course, if a bloke bats for the other team, like young Joyce here, the Navy’s just the job. And what are you doing here, Wilson? Didn’t know you liked girls…’
An hour later down the cloister, round the corner, up some stairs and along a corridor, Quinn reached the Royal Australian Air Force desk. Behind it sat an employee of the university, who handed Quinn a form to complete and sign, prerequisite for an ‘Initial Interview and Physical’. The Air Force had his address now, the man said. They would be in touch.
Quinn liked McCarthy. He had that elevating quality Quinn felt on occasion when a far smarter person spoke to him as if an equal. They sat together on the low sandstone wall of the cloisters, looking across the manicured lawn of the Quad, the late sun on the lilac of the jacaranda tree. A crowd had milled around for a while after signing. Now the pair found themselves alone. The old saying came to Quinn, as it did every year: If the jacaranda’s in bloom and you haven’t started studying, don’t bother.
‘Y’know,’ McCarthy piped up, ‘I never thanked you, Daniel…’
Quinn turned to him. ‘Whatever for?’
McCarthy smiled. ‘You miss out on a lot, don’t ya, mate.’
Quinn now focused acutely on his friend. ‘I’m all ears…’
McCarthy shook his head, sighing. ‘Let’s see then… I suppose you’re unaware of the swooning girls you leave in your wake.’
‘You don’t have their names and addresses, do you?’
‘Ha!’ McCarthy slapped his knee in triumph. ‘That’s your secret! You don’t even notice them.’
‘Is that how it works, is it?’
McCarthy sighed again. ‘Apparently.’
Quinn pondered on the jacaranda tree, the last of the sun on its tops. ‘I s’pose I’ve just been too busy…’ Now with a sideways smirk, ‘Some of us actually have to work for decent marks, you know.’
‘Still,’ McCarthy clasped the handle of his case, ‘it all doesn’t matter for the moment, does it.’
‘How d’you mean?’
‘Well, if we pass the interview thing…’
‘Do you think we will?’ put Quinn.
‘Probably… And if you do, well, do you bother enrolling for 4th Year?’
Quinn remained silent.
McCarthy stood, slinging the case over his shoulder. ‘I mean, what’s the point?’
On his way back to his bicycle, Tim McCarthy beamed.
Sure, he did fine academically – always had. Funny thing though, the girls just didn’t seem to go in for academic medalwinners; they went in for blokes who bolted down sidelines, palmed off the opposition full-back and scored beneath the posts. Yet Tim had never expected anything like the opportunity now before him: The Royal Australian Air Force took in the sports stars for pilot training, certainly. They also took in the academic medalwinners. Finally, here it was for old Tim McCarthy: for once in his life the chance to compete on an even footing with a bloke like Daniel Quinn.
Reaching Manning House, Tim unlocked his bicycle, strapped his case to the rack and, trousers tucked into his socks, clattered off down Manning Road. He coasted right down the middle of it, still smiling; the university campus seemed deserted.
South-East Coast of England
Across the airfield grass, the phone inside the Dispersal Hut pealed. Quinn turned from his deckchair back to the hut window – Just as the Dispersals Corporal practically fell out of it.
The other three pilots were already up and bolting as the alarm bell began to clang, Quinn close behind. Their Spitfires were parked just yards away and Quinn’s ground crew had his engine started before he’d even climbed in, parachute on.
The take-off went smoothly, they did it as one, their training regime already paying off. The refined tones of the English ground controller crackled in their headphones just after wheels-up…
‘Blue Leader, this is Cathedral Control. Are you receiving me? O-ver.’
Maclean took the call.
‘Cathedral Control, Blue Leader. Loud and clear, over.’
‘Blue Leader, this is Cathedral Control. 10-plus unidentified aircraft mid-Channel, south-east of you, heading west for Dover. Your vector, 1-2-0, climb Angels 15. Buster. O-ver.’
The first time Quinn had heard it, ‘Buster’ meant Full Throttle.
Maclean acknowledged: ‘Cathedral Control, Blue Leader. Roger and out. …Blues, stay with me.’
In just over ten minutes, Maclean had them levelling out at 15-thousand, Dover ahead, what must be Canterbury down on the left. It had taken all Quinn’s concentration to maintain close formation, identical power in the climb, engine temp below red-critical whilst on Full Emergency Boost plus his cool. Flattening with Mac, Boost off, revs back slightly, speed rising, he could at last afford a look around.
He saw a beautiful day, blue sky with cumulus puffs scattered everywhere. Like tufts of cotton wool, they flashed closely past now and then as the next message came.
‘Blue Leader, this is Cathedral Control. Are you receiving me? O-ver.’
‘Cathedral Control, Blue Leader. Roger. Over.’
‘Blue Leader, this is Cathedral Control. Your bandits have turned north, currently approaching Manston, now 15 miles north-east of you. O-ver.’
‘Cathedral Control, Blue Leader. Roger. Out. Shit. …Right, Blues. Stay with me.’
Maclean banked them left through the cumulus, throttle on, straightened them north-east towards Manston, and transmitted.
‘Blue Section, Blue Leader. Guns from Safety to Fire. Out.’
Quinn complied. And noticed his gloved fingers were trembling. Here it came… The Enemy. The bastards hell-bent on trying to kill him. Where so many hadn’t, he’d survived this far and here it was, not quite sure what he felt, except, where he’d imagined the moment might blur the senses, it only focused them incredibly.
The ground controller came over the headphones once again.
‘Blue Leader, this is Cathedral Control. Your bandits are Messerschmitt 109s, five miles in front of you. Do keep a sharp look-out… A friendly squadron over Manston will be five thousand above you, currently in contact with bandit top-cover. Good hunting, Blue. Out.’
Only half aware of Maclean calling the friendly squadron way above, Quinn fully registered the reply, Canadians by the sound of it…
‘That’s-a-roger, Blue… We got trade… Busy… Focke-Wulfs…’ The sound of gunfire actually came through the transmission. The voice became fraught. ‘…They’re coverin’ your 109s so for Chrissakes NAIL ’EM.’
Maclean didn’t respond to the Canadian. Only to his Section.
‘Keep your wits, Blues. Out.’
Down ahead through the clouds, Quinn thought he could just make it out: Yes, he was certain, the aerodrome, that was Manston. He looked up through the Spit’s canopy. There! The vapour trails of the Canadians in full combat, or were they smoke trails? Their intermittent calls filled his headphones, some tense, some impossibly calm, gunfire punctuating.
‘I gaht him, skipper. Yessiree, he’s a flamer.’
‘That’s-a-roger, Zak. Good job, good job. That’s a confirmed kill…’
‘Falcon Leader… Fuck, I’M HIT…’
‘Affirmative, buddy, you – are – on – fire… Get out, jump, kid, jump now.’
‘You see a ‘chute, Zak?’
‘That’s a neg, skipper. Falcon 3, break right, Falcon 3, you gaht a bandit on yer Six…’
The four Spitfires flew on, line abreast in a ‘Finger Four’, a formation the RAF had adopted from the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain. As Maclean’s wingman, Quinn held the left outer position, Mac just about 20 feet in on the right, Blue 3 and 4 out past him.
The ground controller once more: ‘Blue Leader, this is Cathedral Control. A friendly squadron will be joining you shortly up from Hawkinge. Will approach from your 5 o’clock position. Your bandits now heading back east. Out.’
Quinn saw the glints of light ahead. The 109s! Half a mile in front between the clouds, specks fleeted left to right about a hundred feet below. Maclean hadn’t missed them.
‘Blue Section, Blue Leader. Tally-ho. Bandits at 1 o’clock. Two o’them. We’ll curve round behind ’em an’ come up under…’
Quinn saw the white cloud puffs speckling with black dead ahead: Flak! – air-bursting explosions from ground anti-aircraft guns, the first he’d ever seen. In the same instant he heard Mac’s voice, loud and urgent in the headphones.
‘MANSTON, CHECK Fire, CHECK Fi…’
Quinn heard the explosion to his right and spun his head to see the last of Mac’s aircraft shatter and fall away. Further right, Blue 3 was losing speed as Quinn howled into his mask. ‘MANSTON, CHECK FIRE, YOU’RE HITTING FRIENDLIES, YOU FUCKING IDIOTS! This is 122 Squadron approaching from your south-west! Blue 3, this is Blue 2. Are you damaged?’
Brooke’s voice returned in steady shock. ‘Blue 2, Blue 3. Affirmative. My gauge says I’m losing fuel, over.’
Smythe confirmed it from the far right. ‘Blue 3, Blue 4. That’s definite, old chap. You’re streaming a long line of it. Must have caught fragments…’
Quinn snatched a final glimpse of the 109s fleeing down to the right. No time to think, he transmitted instead: ‘Blue 3, this is Blue 2. Piss the hell off. You’re a sitting duck for any bandit in the area. Take another hit from anything, you’ll go up like a Roman Candle… Return to base. Buster.’ …Christ, he’s losing fuel. Hornchurch too far. Manston? ‘Blue 3, Blue 2. Make that Hawkinge. Blue 4, cover his tail. OUT.’
Smythe queried: ‘Blue 2, Blue 4… You’ll be a sitting duck alone.’
‘Negative, 4,’ returned Quinn. ‘The Hawkinge squadron’ll be here any minute. You’ll probably pass them on your way down there. Call them for cover. Out.’
‘2… 4, roger and out.’
The two Spits peeled left behind Quinn, carefully inland, and down to the south.
Quinn knew it. The Golden Rule: ‘Alone, head home.’
Above, the Canadian squadron were right now fighting and dying to keep the Focke-Wulfs off his back.
The men in the Messerschmitts had to be killed.
Quinn shoved his throttle full forward to Emergency Boost, the Spitfire responding eagerly. Rolling his wings to the right, he banked her into a gentle curving dive south-east, out to sea. Guide her, son, don’t shove her. She’s a bird. Fly with her or she won’t take you far. Keep the energy up, keep the speed up. Keep the speed UP, Daniel. He knew he’d have to, for the slightest chance at all of catching up the 109s – they’d be running now. And flat out.
Quinn watched the sky, the controls, the dials – everything was happening as it should be: Wings level. Altitude slowly unwinding. Airspeed building. 330, 340, caress it out of her. 350 mph. Good.
Scan ahead. Scan ahead.
Don’t lose your bearings – don’t become disoriented. Check down. Check down. English Coast now behind.
Flatten out. Check the dials again. Indicated Altitude, 14500. Compass, 135 degrees. Engine Temperature nearing the Red. Scan ahead.
Speed dropping, 340, 335. But we’re 10 mph faster than the Messerschmitt at any height. But where are they?! Maybe lost them…
No, Christ, there he is.
A hundred feet above us, three times that away, distance closing very gradually. Check Temp again: Engine about to melt off – only reason we’ve caught him – but we have. Cut you off, you bastard…
There were TWO!
Where’s the other? Look up. Behind left, behind right. In the mirror… Useless. You’d be dead already. Unless he’s coming up under you and just about to fire… The one that kills you is the one you never see. For God’s sake, turn away NOW – the Spit can out-turn anything – you’ll lose your attacker, forget the one ahead, he’s only bait for you, it’s a trap!
But you’re gaining on him…
Coming up and under as Mac said you should. You must destroy him. He still hasn’t seen you – couldn’t have – still flying dead straight and level. Take it easy, take it easy, come up too fast, you’ll end up behind and in his mirror: He’ll see you, shove his stick forward, dive, he’s better than you in a dive… He’ll get away…
Quinn saw the slim belly of the Messerschmitt begin to enter his gun-sight, slightly forward and to either side twin black crosses in shadow beneath its wings. Closer, ever closer, he saw its propeller spinning, now even exhaust trails from its engine.
Quinn shot a lightning glance in his mirror, then above, above back, left and right.
Left hand throttling back slightly, he flexed his right thumb before the gun-button on the joystick handle. At 50 yards, the Messerschmitt’s undersides now clearly visible, within that fuselage and just behind the pilot, his fuel tank. Quinn thumbed the button firmly.
The Spitfire trembled as its twin cannon multi-pounded, all four machine-guns in chattering concert. Quinn struggled to hold all six tracer streams on target as they ripped into it, fragments falling, aluminium skin denting and chopping. Though Quinn was astounded: Through the whole burst, a good three seconds, all that issued from the Messerschmitt was a single puff of white smoke.
Now risen level with its tail and directly behind it, no conscious thought occurred to Quinn, only instinct: Lift a little then drop the nose, rake the cockpit, kill the pilot. Quinn pulled back slightly on the stick…
Just as the Spitfire was buffeted upwards by some thermal more violent than he’d ever known.
Regaining control, flattening out and peering down again, Quinn saw the reason why: The 109 had become a giant blow-torch from its wing-roots back, petrol supply wholly ablaze. The enormous heat that radiated from the sheet of flame had put actual lift under the Spitfire’s wings – Quinn’s heart at near failure: If he hadn’t just pulled up it might have engulfed him.
He watched the 109 lead a long trail of black smoke arcing downwards to the sea. No parachute. He looked ahead to the instrument panel, saw the dials reading as they should, engine okay, also that his gloves were trembling once again. He steadied them, flexed them on the stick grip, on the throttle.
Relief coursed through his veins like rebirth, a euphoria shot with guilt for the involuntary smile now plastering his face – He had survived. Into a cold sweat.
CHRIST, what am I DOING?
Quinn flick-rolled to the left and pulled hard on the stick.
THE SECOND 109! He could still be there behind you and lining up his shot even now! Turn hard, boy, turn hard, you can still out-turn him, don’t dive, keep it flat, he’s better than you in the dive…
Though Quinn squeezed his lower muscles against the g-forces with every ounce of strength he could muster, still his vision darkened. In almost total blackout, he rode the edge of the buffet, the Spit straining, and gritted his teeth for a German cannon shell through his body.
Reefing out of the bank and straightening to the north-west, he scanned all directions through what meagre vision returned.
He saw nothing but the English Coast ahead.
And empty sky.
Way below, the White Cliffs – First time he’d seen them from the air. Beyond them lay the patchwork of Kent, a spectrum of greens rendered all the more vivid by the stark midday sun.
TO READ THE FULL NOVEL OF NOR THE YEARS CONDEMN BY JUSTIN SHEEDY,
At the beginning of World War II, Britain was in the deepest trouble imaginable. 5 minutes flying time away crouched a monster. Alone against it, Britain called out to her Empire. For pilots. From all corners of that Empire, they volunteered. Only the best & brightest were chosen. Australian Daniel Quinn was one of these young men who came to fly against the monster. They had a 1-in-3 chance of survival.
“Nor the Years Condemn” is based on the true story of the young Australians who flew Spitfires against the all-conquering might of Nazi Germany. In their late teens and early-20s, for the job at hand they had to be the ‘shining ones’, rendering the death of so many of them doubly heart-rending for the reader. Daniel Quinn, flanked by the often hilarious young men of his elite ilk, leaves his peacetime life behind to fight tyranny in this portrait of doomed, brilliant youth.
With in-the-cockpit flying sequences that readers have described as ‘cinematic’, “Nor the Years Condemn” is also a story of the mothers cursed to relinquish their wonderful sons to war, of first love, of strategic deception and betrayal, of brotherhood and once-in-a-lifetime friendship on a knife’s edge. It is a story of shining young men destined never to grow old, and of those who do: the survivors ‘condemned by the years’, and to their memory of friends who remain forever young.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Justin Sheedy lives in Sydney where he enjoys in-store signing events for his books, doing radio and press interviews re his writing, also guest author appearances at writers’ festivals around Australia. At such time as his well-received books are picked up by a major publishing company and he becomes indecently wealthy, he will then be able to more fully indulge in his passion for international travel. Until that time he will immerse himself in his (domestic) passions including writing and reading, classic TV & movies, comedy, music, pop culture & aviation, also historical documentaries, Mediterranean cooking, white wine, skiing, mountains and snow. He loves his mum and believes in laughter.
CONNECT ONLINE WITH JUSTIN
Justin would love to hear from you and share your thoughts on his World War II trilogy via his , at his , at the ‘Contact’ page of his blog at JustinSheedy.com or on .
OTHER BOOKS BY
Justin had his first book, , published in 2009. A laugh-out-loud nostalgic portrait of childhood in 1970s Australia, Goodbye Crackernight was so warmly received by Australian readers that it secured Justin a place on the program of the prestigious Byron Bay Writers’ Festival 2010 and is currently orderable through all bookstores and online. (Full book description & reviews in the following pages.) Justin’s second book, , published in 2011, saw him invited to the Gloucester Writers’ Festival 2012, due to popular demand Book 2 in the trilogy, , being published in 2013. Justin’s long-awaited sequel to Goodbye Crackernight was published in 2014, being received with rave reviews as included in the following pages. All Justin’s books are currently available internationally at , in Australia at Dymocks bookstores, Gleebooks, Berkelouw Books and all good bookstores. 2016 saw Justin’s books on display at the London Book Fair, his launch of , seven sell-out book-signings in a year at Australia’s premier bookstore, Dymocks Sydney, and his appearance as a guest author at Queensland’s WriteFest 2016. In 2017 Justin looks forward to appearing as a guest author at the Historical Novel Society Australasia Conference 2017 in Melbourne as well as to his year’s round of book-signings and literary function appearances.
"Empire Boys" is a 3-Part introductory reading sampler to Justin Sheedy's by now highly-acclaimed World War II historical fiction trilogy begun in 2011 with "Nor the Years Condemn", followed by "Ghosts of the Empire" in 2013 and recently completed with "No Greater Love". Sheedy's trilogy brings to vivid life the stunning true saga of the young Australian pilots of World War II who crossed the planet to fly and fight against the forces of Nazi Germany, did so in the most exciting way imaginable and won albeit at tragic cost. Since Book 1, Sheedy's trilogy has been loved by readers of all generations and nationalities across the English-speaking world and now with "Empire Boys", new readers have a free introduction to it.