L.M.F. Chapter 1

Chapter 1
Mission 23: Stuttgart
March 20, 1944

Del shoved the stick forward and to the left, even before Bobby had finished shouting “Corkscrew port, go!” in the intercom. Fighter, four o’clock, and Del was flipping his Lancaster bomber over on its back and diving off into the night.

Del pulled up and levelled off, but he had barely glanced at the compass before he heard Bobby again. “Still there,” Bobby said, his voice controlled at first but going up at the end. Del heard gunfire through the intercom while Bobby spoke. Bobby was the tail gunner, with the massive turret and four machine guns. “On our six. Corkscrew port, go!” Del pushed the stick and the great bomber turned over again.

They levelled off. Five seconds of silence on the intercom. Del’s heart almost stopped when Bobby shouted “Our six, go, go,” and Del pulled the stick in the opposite direction. The plane was spinning on its wingtip, straining to tighten its turn, degree by excruciating degree.

“Fanny, he’s gonna be on our eleven, get ready,” Del warned, trying to sound calm and in control, but barely able to draw enough air to shout into his mic. Suddenly he pushed the stick to the other side, the plane righted itself like a boat finding its balance on the water, and Del could see the flashes of Fanny’s gun turret at the front of the plane.

“Got him!” Fanny screamed. “He was there, he was there!”

Del strained but couldn’t see the fighter in the gloom. “You sure?”

“I saw chunks come off his tail!”

“Okay, Fanny. Look for him.” Gunners always thought they hit their targets. In the moonless night over Germany, there was no way to know unless the fighter miraculously burst into flame in front of you. Del knew it was important to play along, though, to make the gunners feel appreciated; he knew Fanny had fired his guns exactly twice, in four or five hundred hours of flying. “Great shot, too.”

“I got him, Skip.”

“I know.” Del scanned the sky. At this point, if the fighter had turned and was coming to find them again, they’d never see him in time. On the other hand, if Fanny really had hit him, maybe he would leave them alone and look for less vigilant prey. Suddenly, Del remembered something. “Neil, you mark the contact?” Neil Etherington was their navigator, and would—supposedly—be able to mark on his map where they had encountered the fighter.

“—my fucking pencil,” came Etherington’s reply on the intercom.

“Just mark it down.”

“Rota’ll never believe it anyway.” That was Billy, another gunner. He claimed a kill a few missions ago and the intelligence officer, Captain Rota, had refused to log it.

Del felt a tap on his shoulder, and turned to look at Gord, his flight engineer. Gord didn’t speak, but he pointed out the windshield where Fanny had fired, pointed to Del, and gave him a thumbs-up. Del nodded and turned back to his control panel.

They flew along for a few minutes, Del fighting the tension in his arms, trying to stay loose and comfortable on the controls. They still had two hours to go. He wondered if he had left the main bomber stream, or if he was still with them; there was no way of knowing, depending, as they did, on the black secrecy of the sky to protect them. Soon after they crossed the English Channel, the bombers lost contact with their radio beacons, and each crew was left with only their instruments and their wits to guide them to the target and back.

Without warning, Bobby shouted again, and Del pulled into yet another corkscrew. He could faintly hear Etherington swearing into the intercom, having accidentally keyed his mic.

Del’s mind drifted back to when he had first met Neil Etherington—Thick Etherington. Although they had both come from Canada, they didn’t meet until they arrived in Liverpool after their long trip across the Atlantic. When they started their final training course, Del and his flight engineer, Gord, were already a pair. As flight engineer, Gord would be the next best thing to a co-pilot to Del—Lancaster bombers had no room for a real co-pilot. Del was relieved that he already knew Gord; there was no doubt that they would crew together.

As the course went on, they talked quietly for hours in the evening about which of their fellow trainees they wanted in their crew. Everyone knew the navigator was the most important crew member after the pilot, and against all odds there were two navigators named Etherington on their course. Sharp Etherington was born to be a soldier; Thick Etherington left his cap behind in lecture rooms, dropped his plate in the mess, and in one famous incident had spilled a pint of bitter over an officer at the pub.

Gord thought Sharp Etherington was the better navigator, but Del saw something in Thick Etherington. He always had the answer first when the instructors put the navigators through their paces. He had a way with angles and numbers, never hesitating before giving a bearing, and he was never fazed by the curves that the instructors threw. Del was satisfied that Thick Etherington was the best dead reckoning navigator in the RCAF, and he overruled Gord. Since then, Etherington’s flawless navigation had kept them safe more than once—this mission would make it twenty-three times, so far.

Del’s mind snapped back to the present, feeling like he had been roused from a deep sleep by a sudden noise that was now gone. He waited expectantly, but there was nothing; it was still dark, and the bomber thundered on. Was the fighter still there? God, had Bobby said something and he had missed it? Gord was looking at him curiously.

“Where is it, Bobby,” Del said over the intercom, trying to sound his usual controlled self.

“I still can’t see him,” Bobby replied immediately. “Honest, Skip. I can’t find him.”

“Okay,” Del answered, slipping back into command. “Neil, give me that heading again.”

“Thought you’d never ask,” Thick Etherington answered. “One-oh-niner, and don’t spare the horses, eh?”

Del wondered how long his mind had been wandering. It was not normal for him, even when they made the nine-hour trip to Berlin. He had to pull himself together. “All right,” he said in his calm, confident captain’s voice, a voice that was harder to find each time. “Billy, can you see him?”

“No, Skipper.” Billy manned the mid-upper turret, in the middle of the great beast’s back. “I think he was low on us.”

“Yeah,” Bobby cut in, before Del could reply. “Both times, he was trying to swing in low.”

“Okay, good job,” Del answered quickly. “Keep your eyes open.”The intercom was silent again for a few minutes, or hours.

“One of ours down, low and two o’clock.”That was Fanny, up in the bomber’s nose. Etherington was supposed to log that sort of thing, but Del craned around to try to see it. There it was, a tiny, ragged smear of flame, now far below them. Poor bastards.

Perched on the seat beside him, Gord looked over. “Drop a quarter?” he shouted, without using the intercom. This always cheered Del up. “Just a nickel—I’ll find it later,” Del bellowed back, and Gord grinned, reassured. Del settled back in his seat with a smile.

 

* * *

Gord and Del had met on the second day of their three-week cruise across the Atlantic—that’s what they called it, a cruise. They found themselves the only passengers who had made it to breakfast, the other forty men on the transport having succumbed to seasickness. Del sat alone in the cavernous mess hall the first morning—it was large enough for thirty men. Del tried to eat quietly so the clatter of his utensils on the tin plate wouldn’t echo in the vast, empty space.

He watched another man enter the hall and move down the food line. Four cooks and two customers. The other man surveyed the hall, tray in hand. Then he laughed and strode over, and Del couldn’t help grinning.

“Gord Adams,” he said, sticking his hand out. Del shook it. “Del Aucoin.”

They ate their breakfast together, and the ship’s crew, having nothing better to do, waited on them hand and foot.

After breakfast, they wandered around, exploring the deck. “It’s so hard,” Gord commented, “to find a cruise line with adequate shuffleboard equipment.”

“What line do you normally take?”

“Kensington Princess Express Whatsit, usually. Booked solid this time of year, though.”

“Such a drab little ship, this.” Del pointed at the anti-aircraft gun bolted to the deck. “Look at this Bofors. Not what you’d call a la mode.”

“Not when the eighty-eight is the style this year. Honestly, I’ve a good mind to complain to the purser. I say!” Gord had spotted a crew member.

“Swabbie! Get me the Times. I need to know how Luton Town fared in the Cup.”

“Is this a Cup weekend?” Del asked quietly.

“No idea. Is Luton Town a team?”

In the mess at lunchtime, they had already fallen into a routine. “I say, are these the same beans as last night?” Del asked, having picked up the “I say” from Gord already.

“They’re the soddin’ beans. Eat ’em,” replied the cook.

“Delano, please calm down,” Gord cut in. “If you harass the staff, we’ll never get to sit at the captain’s table.”

“Quite. Do you know if there’re any seats open at captain’s table tonight?”

“You’ve got yer beans. Move along,” the cook replied. It was all Del could do to contain his laughter.

Every morning they watched the sun rise between the tall hulls of destroyers chugging along in front of their steamer. The other ships had been the only scenery since they had boarded in Halifax, where Del walked up the gangway and saw Halifax harbour from above the water level for the first time. Dozens, maybe hundreds, of ships sat high up on the calm, flat water, pale sunlight dancing between the grim steel hulls.

As they crossed the ocean, there was bright sun and strong wind in the morning, and cool, calm cloud in the evening. Leaning on the railing, wrapped tightly in his wool coat, Del felt happier than he had ever been, talking with Gord about the war, their training experiences, their schooling—they would both have been in university already if the war had not come along.

During the day, they delighted in visiting the berths in the bowels of the ship, where seasick passengers gasped and groaned desperately with every swell. Del and Gord tried to lead cheerful sing-alongs, to keep up the spirits of the men.

“Knees Up Mother Brown,” Del suggested earnestly, skidding slightly in a slippery mess on the deck.

“That’s exactly what this lot needs,” Gord answered. “Lower bunks, with me! Knees up—”

“Bugger off,” a low, tired voice croaked between heaves.

“You know the best cure for seasickness, don’t you?” Gord never tired of asking. “Sit under a tree.”

The joke was a good one, and lasted until they saw Liverpool in the distance.

 

* * *

 

They were nearing the target now. Looking across to Gord’s side of the cockpit, Del could see tiny pink and pale green flares floating amid the pall of smoke, marking their target. Searchlights swept closer and closer, threatening to trap them, and sinister balls of flak floated up towards them. Soon Fanny, the bomb aimer, took over.

Del often wondered what Fanny’s job must be like—flat on his belly, head and shoulders sticking out, only a half-inch of Perspex and twenty thousand feet of night air between him and the burning city below. Once they began the bombing run, a couple of minutes from the target, it became Fanny’s show; Del obeyed orders, and Fanny directed them to the bulls-eye.

As they let go of their load, the plane surged upwards, and Del could almost feel the controls quivering with anticipation as the lighter, freer airplane strained to take them home. Even then, they had to fly straight and level for a full half-minute so that the bomb camera could take a picture. It was the worst half-minute of their lives, every night, constrained to this mindless forward flight—it was like being on a train, slow, straight, inevitable. Del had often wondered how many planes had bought it at that point, all for a picture of some smoke and flames and rubble.

The buzzing in his ears was Fanny. “Skipper, you hear me? Let’s go, let’s go!” Del jolted to his senses. He was moving underwater, everything was foggy. Let’s go, let’s go. The immense, dull throb of the engines. Stuttgart below, what’s left of Stuttgart. Let’s go.

“Skipper, you ready? Head two-niner-one, speed three-oh-oh. Over.”

“Roger.” Del looked down at the control column, between his big leather gauntlets. Pull, he thought. Pull, pull, pull. Give ’er a tug, as old sergeant Muir would have said, good old sergeant Muir, back in Winnipeg. His first flight instructor. Whatever had happened to old Muir?

A blow to the head brought Del around—Gord had slapped the back of his leather helmet good and hard, and Del awoke again to the smell of leather, wool, and sweat, of dope and fuel, and the sharp tang of burnt cordite from Fanny’s guns. When Del turned, Gord’s face was glowing. Gord leaned over and stabbed a gloved finger towards the instrument panel. As Del’s eyes adjusted to the glare, he saw they had turned far beyond the heading of two-ninety-one that Etherington had given him. He concentrated. Set two-nine-one. Let’s go. He pulled the stick almost to his stomach, and the whole cockpit filled with dazzling light.

Del let fly a gruff, angry stream of profanity. He had been asleep at the switch—for how long? a minute? two minutes? an eternity—and now they had been coned, caught in a probing searchlight. Flak was already on its way, up, up, screaming through the thin air to shred their fragile kite. They were coned by a searchlight, their huge slow plane, and soon other searchlights would point at them, and then the anti-aircraft guns would point at them and they were the only plane in the sky. Let’s go, let’s go, why don’t we go?

They were practically on their right wingtip now, and Del swung them over to the left in a steep dive, then back to the right, still diving. Then up, up, shedding speed and twisting away. Still they were in the blue-white light. Del could see seams in the skin of the plane. The light felt solid and hot, as though he were bombarded with tiny sizzling ball-bearings. Del wanted to open his jacket and throw off his helmet. But he was awake, now, and working too hard to be distracted. Left, right, right again, left. Straight ahead for five seconds, then hard left and dive.

It was over. It was dark again. Del could not see his instruments, but no matter. He picked up a little height and jinked left or right every ten seconds to avoid the radar-guided flak. They were okay.

“Broadcast winds, over,” Russ, the radio man, broke in.

“Go,” Etherington answered.

“One, eight, two. . .” Russ droned. Del waited, flying with his hands light and relaxed on the control column. His eyes were quickly adjusting to the darkness, and he could read his instrument panel again. These broadcast winds were part of the routine again; Russ was reading the wind direction and speed that had been radioed to them. Outside the plane, above and behind them, Del could faintly see dull, faint sparks of flak in the distance.

“Okay, Skipper,” Etherington said at last. “Take us out on two, seven, niner. . .”

Del pulled the plane around, headed it home. Del’s gunners searched the sky, knowing they were safe for now. Del adjusted the heading, touched the throttle gently. They were almost there. Three, three and a half hours, and they would be back over England. They were fine, fine. Alone in the sky, they slipped away from the fire and rubble, into the shrouds of the night.