"Almost" Part 33: Book 3, Part 4

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Chapter 99

The siren jolted Tom from sleep. His body twisted on his little cot. His brain was scalded with exhaustion. He flew ten, twelve, fourteen hours a day. He closed his eyes at night, and saw his trembling windshield, felt the shaking of his seat as he opened fire, jerked his head involuntarily as his bullets chewed bits of metal off Nazi aeroplanes. When he slept, he dreamt of flying. It felt as if he had closed his eyes for only a few minutes when the siren started up again. Sometimes, he dreamt of the siren, and even in his sleep, he was afraid that the siren was really going off, and he was losing precious minutes of altitude and interception.

Tom was one of three thousand fighter pilots. Modern warfare had come down to such tiny numbers. Three thousand knights of the air who threw themselves into the sky as a shield against the oncoming German air force, the Luftwaffe.

For the first time in his life, Tom knew complete rage. He had been afraid for so many years that it was a blessed relief to have something tangible and evil to shoot at. He had joined the Royal Air Force in November, 1938, the day after his conversation with Gunther about radar. He met a few of his former students, who wondered what had taken him so long. He contacted a secret tribe he had always dreamed of; men his own age who knew that there was going to be war, and ignored or found amusing the endless antics of the appeasers. Tom was utterly humbled by their courage. They had all read reports about the hopelessness and doom of modern aerial combat. They knew nothing of the existence of radar, but they were unafraid. Tom met two young men who had been present at his great debate at Oxford in 1933, who had voted for the resolution to refrain from fighting for King and Country. One of them was abashed and shamefaced. The other just laughed and said: “Oh, but I’m still not fighting for King and Country. At the time, King and Country were appeasers. Still are. And I still refuse to fight for them. Now, I fight for myself. I am just sad that I shall be saving them as well.”

They were mostly children of the lower middle classes – very few came from England’s elite schools.

There were some refugees from the Continent. By far the most skilled pilots were the Poles. They had a careless sort of courage which allowed them to perform maneuvers which took Tom’s breath away. They did ‘victory rolls’ when returning from combat – one roll for each German plane shot down, which none of the British pilots had the stomach for. To do a victory roll when you didn’t know what sort of structural damage your aeroplane had sustained in combat..? Ugh!

But they were the highest-scoring pilots. Some of the British were good – Lock, Bader, Lacey, Lane – but more than eighty percent of the pilots had never even shot at an enemy plane. This was partly luck – finding enemy planes in the endless blue was very, very hard. And even if you found them, they were so easy to lose again. It happened all the time. One moment, the sky was full of planes; the next, it was empty, and you had to go home alone.

The battle was hard. Very hard. You flew far more than you fought. But the RAF had some significant tactical advantages. They had more fuel for fighting – the Messerschmidt BF109 fighters could only spend half an hour over England before having to turn back to France. The Spitfires had a tighter turning radius than the 109s, and so could get into a kind of ‘spiral’ turning war with the German fighters, inching closer to a good firing position with every loop...

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