Still hard to believe this was for real: that down there a whole lot of folks were hell-bent on killing them. Nothing personal. It was all the same to them which British bomber they shot down, which crew they got. Nothing personal about the bombs they were going to drop on them, either.
Theyâd been wallowing along bumpily in the wake turbulence of an aircraft when a sudden shoot of flame appeared ahead, streaming earthwards like a cometâs tail. He saw black twin-fins spiralling. A Lane.
Jesus Christ, seven guys in there.
It was for real, all right.
He pressed his mike switch. Make it very cool and calm. Matter-of-fact. The tough skipper. âLane going down on fire on the starboard bow. Log it, will you, navigator?â
âRoger.â Piers sounded shocked.
Van strained his eyes but couldnât see any parachutes. The comet was plunging fast, down and down and down, until it exploded far below in a big orange ball. Seven guys with no chance.
They started their run-in, weaving through the flak bursts. Shell shrapnel rattled on the fuselage and the stink of explosive clogged his nostrils. K-King was rocking and shaking violently; he gripped the control wheel harder. Nothing, he thought, prepared you for this, for flying straight into hell. Nobody could give you a clue what it was like to have to serve yourself up on a platter to the Jerries. Piersâ mike clicked on, giving him a small course alteration, and he swung the wheel and touched the rudders, acknowledging. The Lane headed straight for the target.
The flak was exploding all around them like some crazy Fourth of July party that had got way out of hand. Searchlight beams dazzled his eyes, wrecking his night vision. He flew the bomber as straight and level as he could and forced himself to concentrate on Stewâs instructions: to blot out everything else, including his own terror. Do exactly as Stew was telling him in his ears.
âLeft, left. SteadyÂ .Â .Â .Â Left, leftÂ .Â .Â .Â Holy shit! Dummy run. Sorry, skip. Have to go round again.â
Christ almighty, Stew had screwed up, goddamn him! Theyâd gone over the target without dropping a single bomb, and now they had to go round and fly through all the fucking flak again. He made a wide circle, teeth gritted, eyes peeled for other Lanes, and began a second run. This time the flak was even worse; they were probably the main target of every Hunbattery within range. He was almost beyond fear now. Almost calm. âGet rid of them this time, Stew.â
âLeft, leftÂ .Â .Â .Â steady, steady, steadyÂ .Â .Â .Â Bombs gone, skip! Bomb doors closed.â
K-King, released from the heavy load of bombs, bobbed upwards, buoyant as a cork. Van closed the bomb doors and turned her hard to port, diving away from hell. They headed home to England.
Piers was dog-tired but he couldnât sleep. The noise of the engines was still ringing in his ears, but that wasnât what was keeping him awake. It was the thought that heâd messed things up so badly on the way back. Everything had gone absolutely fine until after they had crossed the English coast. Then somehow it had gone all wrong, and the G-box lattice lines that should have guided them straight to Beningby had led them miles away. Actually,
had, of course. He must have misread the signals. Made a complete hash of it all yet again. In the end, the skipper had had to put down at another airfield and ask where they were. The chaps there had thought it was frightfully funny. The others had been really decent about it, considering they were all pretty wacked and should have been home ages before.
Bert had clapped him on the shoulder. âPut it this way, mate, weâre just bloody glad to be back at all.â
God, that was true enough. He hadnât seen the flak or the searchlights, or any of it, closeted away behind his blackout curtain, but the Lane had been thrown about all