BOB User Stories: RTB

It’s a sunny August morning and birds are singing in the clear blue sky as the sirens start to wail, shattering the serenity. I jump to my feet, gather my helmet and chute pack and run towards my Spitfire. The ground crew are already bustling around as I strap myself in the cockpit. A minute later I take off, streaking into the sky along with the rest of the squadron, all twelve of us.

In the air the squadron leader leader takes us through the briefing, short and familiar as it is. Intercept, as always. At high altitude, as always. Watch for fighter escorts at ceiling altitude in the sun, as always. Hurry hurry hurry and don’t get killed in the process, as always. For weeks now this has been the drill, so the sight of dozens of German bombers doesn’t even cause a stir of anticipation in me. I knew they would be there, I knew we would be outnumbered again and here we are.
My Green flight stays at altitude to intercept the fighters and the rest dives on the bombers. Tracers streak to and fro, dark plumes of smoke streak elegantly behind stricken aircraft or spiral pleasingly downwards when a wing strut breaks and a bomber whirls crazily to its doom.
Suddenly, always suddenly the escorts arrive. Flashing past us at top speed towards the intercepting Spitfires, I have hardly time to turn after them and take a shot. One turns away, bucking against the controls, sluggishly at these extreme velocities. He is losing speed and I dive after him with throttle at full, seeing my chance. Foolishly I take the bait.

Not five seconds later the tracers fly me by. The so-called out-of-control fighter suddenly rolls away and the hunter, sneaking in from the sun, is upon me. I roll to the left and over as tracers eat into my right wing, pull back on the stick and start a stomach-wrenching backwards dive, trying desperately to out-turn the Messerschmidt. But I am too fast, way too fast and the 109 is following me at optimum turning speed. Tracers chew away, clattering against my rear armor plating. Within seconds he will bring his cannon to bear and then I will be dead. Dead anyway, so I kick in full left rudder and yank the stick to the right at the same time as the cannon barks at me. The Spit starts spinning and the 109 zooms past me, caught by the abrupt loss of speed caused by the spin.

I sure hope he doesn’t catch up with me, as I desperately try to undo the spin. 5.000 ft, 3.000 ft and I am falling like a rock. Finally I manage to stabilize the aircraft at 1.500 ft. The airframe is creaking and wrenching and I can almost count the leaves on the trees. With sputtering engine and uncomfortably sluggish controls I start to limp home. That 109 must have done some significant damage back there.

The air around me has become eerily still as I leave the battle behind me. No chatter comes from my wireless and no answer comes for my request for a landing vector. It is probably damaged by the hits. Surrounded by the irregular drone of the engine I search and find familiar landmarks to guide me home. I’ll make it !
I know that I will meet my fate, somewhere among the clouds above.

Why do I remember that line now? I used to love Yeats, but I haven’t read him in months now, even let his first dying day pass by, bustled over by training and worries.

Those that I fight I do not hate.

I am honestly not sure if I can ever recite that line again and really mean it. Professional detachment only goes so far. At least not further than my last leave in London, walking among the unrecognizable ruins of once-known streets, smelling the stench of burst sewer-pipes and burned things I didn’t want to think about.

Those that I guard I do not love.

Few that I now guard I do know at all, let alone love. Most of them are dead. Killed in France and over the Channel. Killed in the shelter in Coventry. Died of shock and hypothermia in a small slow fishing boat, crawling back to Dover in the dark. Even my squadron comrades seem somewhat faded in the last weeks, so many of them new and unfamiliar, more accustomed to each other in the training classes than to hollow-eyed veterans like me.

I notice the oil temperature’s steady rise. Must have lost the radiator, or at least a lot of glycol. I must be nearing the base by now, so I throttle back and hope for the best. The engine sputters more badly, not liking the decrease in fuel that is keeping it alive. Speed is dropping too. I have not much time left, but am committed to bring this dying bird in. I am way too low to bail out and there is no power to gain sufficient altitude. I try the radio again, but no answer comes, not even static. But I know I will make it.

There come the familiar trees, often cursed for their standing in the way for a landing approach, blessed now, since I would have missed the airfield without them. I turn slowly towards the runway, afraid any sudden movement of the controls will stall me. I get a more-or-less perfect line-up with the runway and pray as I turn the landing-gear switch.

Nothing happens.

So my gear is either tucked away in the wings, or is dangling lethally and unlocked below. I have no way of knowing. No one below is firing signs, so I assume it is all right.

Slowly slowly I nurse the sputtering plane downwards. I do not dare to deploy flaps and my speed is way too high as I am over the runway. I miss it completely, cross the little stream at the far end and ditch in the cornfield behind it. The ground races up and I hit it with a sickening crash, sliding and turning any which way but loose, wrecking the corn, until miraculously the plane stops, smoking in a cloud of dust and I can get out. I made it !
No ground crews are near yet, so far outside the base, and I walk back to the mess, crossing the stream by the little rickety bridge that can just bear one person at a time. As I cross, the other planes of the squadron come in one by one, taxiying to the hangars. They must have overtaken me on the way back, me being so slow.

I come to greet them as they are talking to the ground crews, when I hear one of them ask something with my name in it that I can’t quite understand. But the rest I understand all too well.

Saw him go up in a ball o’flames he did.

Caught a shell from that 109 then?

Must have.

Damn shame that one.

Then they turn towards me and walk past me to the mess. A sinking feeling starts in my stomach, as I start after them and turn past the place where my plane is lying smoking on its belly. But it is not there. The corn is waving unblemished in the warm breeze. Not a whisp of smoke. Not one broken stem.

But I made it.

Just the waving corn. And eleven planes, lined up on the runway.
But I made it.

Such thought, that in it bound, I need no other thing, wound in mind’s wandering.
Why would I remember that line? The sound of the wind rustling through the corn is all that I can hear.

I must have made it. I must have.