. 1942 .
Flight Lieutenant Walker propped his feet up on his bunk and closed his eyes. It had been a hard day yesterday…yesterday? What had happened yesterday? They had flown a mission accompanying a flight of bombers. The Lufftwaffe had met them over France and there had been a dogfight…but it hadn't lasted long. The Spitfires they flew did not have the range of the bombers and they had to turn back, letting the 'big friends' run the gauntlet alone.
Now their squadron was even more stunted, in the last few months they'd lost five men and ten machines, now they had only sixteen men and fifteen fighters, three were scheduled to arrive today...He'd downed a Me 109 himself, yesterday.
It was late afternoon, almost evening, and the shadows were very long. What had happened before yesterday? The memories were vague and dark. Roger looked back on the past two years with awe bordering on incredulity. He had turned seventeen and a half in April of 1939. War or not, he had always dreamed of enlisting in the Royal Air Force. His father had signed for him, still asking on the way to the office if he wouldn't really prefer the Navy. Roger was adamant. And he became a cadet that day.
So, on the fifteenth of April, 1939, Roger joined the RAF. They seemed quite delighted to have him and two days later, Roger became an officer cadet. More poking and prodding came and the RAF declared him fit. He narrowly missed losing a few teeth and heard horror stories afterwards from fellow birdmen, describing the hammers and chisels used to remove their molars, which were big enough to knock the wolf teeth out of a horse.
Roger and his group were quartered in London in a stripped down hotel and were put in the charge of a sergeant who seemed determined to see them dead before they ever reached the skies over England. For several weeks, they were marched for miles, no not marched, run, like racehorses, through the streets of London. They became experts at ground exercises and grew muscles like steel bands.
During this time, they learned navigation, Morse code, radio navigation, shot off every conceivable kind of weapon, from browning machine guns to a .45 handgun, and did hard manual labor installing culverts when the RAF had run out of things for them to do. But this was rare, every man was needed and before they knew it, they were rushed to Windsor to begin basic flight training.
Roger had learned to fly when he was fifteen, so he was bumped out of basic and shipped to Cornwall and installed in a Miles Mohawk, a drop winged monoplane with about twice the horsepower of the planes he had learned in. He was convinced the instructors were doing their dead level best to murder him before he was any use at all. Roger really was a natural at flying, though his instructor had declared him 'hopeless', but Roger had seen too much of the world to be intimidated by the sight of his screaming, purple faced instructor in the rear view mirror. Most of them weren't like that, Roger knew, he just happened to get one. He didn't really mind, it made life interesting.
After learning to fly, he learned how to come out of a dive, how to skid and sideslip, how to turn tightly, how to dive and how to climb. They clapped him in a simulator, meant to teach him instrument flight, and sent it spinning and diving, half expecting him to lose him nerve. He disappointed them, though many didn't.
It was a proud day in August when Roger received his wings and was promoted to Pilot Officer.
"I never doubted you, Walker," he was informed by his instructor.
Roger tried not to smile.
He was trained merchandise now, no longer the lowest form of life and after a week of leave in which his mother never let him out of her sight, he was sent to RAF Station Gravesend, a rather untidy agglomeration of hangars and huts, offices, barrack blocks and messes beside an airfield.
He was given a Spitfire.
Spitfires. Lovely things, those; fast, maneuverable and small, even compared to most of the RAF's fighters, dwarfed by the great beasts the United States sent over later in the war. Roger found it mildly uncomfortable for his six feet two inches, but he had too much fun to mind. He felt he had graduated from an Austen to a Rolls Royce. 1,470 horsepower and a top speed of 378 miles per hour, about two hundred miles per hour faster than anything he had ever flown.
When he took his spitfire up for the first time, he felt even worse for those poor, creatures called humans that crawled about on the surface of the earth. He took her from five hundred feet to thirty five thousand, he flew under a bridge, performed countless victory rolls and found the powerful rolls Royce engine stalled nearing an angle perpendicular with the earth.
When he landed, he was thoroughly trounced by his commanding officer.
"That's an expensive machine," The Group Captain had shouted, "Not a toy. You playing the fool up there won't help anyone!"
"Sir, yes sir!" Roger replied smartly, saluting and mentally congratulating himself for flying under the bridge when no one was watching.
A month later, his world had changed. Germany had invaded Poland and war was declared. His squadron flew to France and even then, there was little excitement except for flying under the Eiffel tower and once accompanying the Prime Minister a flight across the channel. But they were soon in action. It was grueling work, harder than they imagined.
Despite every effort the British and French were being pushed back and at last, their ranks were split. French and British alike had aimed for Dunkirk and for many grueling days, ships of every size had taken them off, back to England. Roger on the other hand had been invisible above the clouds, protecting the soldiers from attack from the air. Later, when he was going into a pub in London, he had been attacked by a gang of drunken soldiers wondering where he'd been when they were in danger.
That was two years ago, though it seemed more like two lifetimes. Years of hard, grueling work with sometimes as much as half the day spent in the air. Hitler had planned to invade England, but he knew and Goring knew that the RAF had to be crushed first; the Luftwaffe had to have air superiority. Goring, the commander in chief of the Luftwaffe, planned to crush the RAF by bombing their airfields and factories and battling them in the air with his fighters. It had nearly succeeded. Even though the kill ratio of the RAF was higher than that of the Luftwaffe, Germany seemed to be able to replace the lost planes and men effortlessly, while England could not.
At last, the Germans had given up on trying to crush the air force and they had turned their sights to factories…and the civilians themselves. On September 7, 1940, they bombed London and a frantic battle for Britain had commenced. It had lasted and lasted. They were worn thin and they all wondered how much longer they could hold on. Then Germany turned to invade Russia and the bombing had almost stopped. Now Roger flew escort missions with bombing groups.
Roger swung off his bunk and went outside, life was good. They were getting a break today, and many of the men were asleep, or playing cards in the mess hall. Roger didn't feel like doing anything. It was a nice feeling, not having to do anything. He leaned his back against the concrete wall of the building and looked over the airfield. A robin chirped from a lonely tree next to the crossing runways and a single De Havilland Mosquito reconnaissance plane roared overhead.
The fifteen spitfires left of their squadron were lined neatly next to the runway. Beyond them was a squadron of hurricanes. Another squadron of hurricanes was on the other side of the runway and a squadron of spitfires was beyond them. Roger's own spitfire DW-H was under the shadow of the lonely tree.
It was a graceful creature, about thirty feet long with a wingspan of thirty-six feet, scrolled over with brown and olive camouflage. It looked transformed. Yesterday, he had brought it down as full of holes as a sieve and now it looked nearly the same as it had when he had first met it. The ground crew could work magic, he thought, they'd probably been out all night, rearming, refueling, patching holes, washing windscreens and doing every other odd job that comes of fixing such a complicated machine as a spitfire. Every pilot owed his life to the men in the ground crew.
There were two runways at Gravesend, crossing at the barracks block. Most of the airfields in England were like that, three runways crossing like a giant, sloppy 'A'. Bulldozers had attacked big green fields and in a few short months, they were leveled off and parked with spitfires… Quite suddenly, the early morning stillness was ruptured by the wailing of sirens. For a spit second, Roger was frozen in place and an overwhelming dread crept over him like a consuming animal. They hadn't had a scramble for months!
Someone ran by. The ground crew appeared from nowhere and swarmed over the airplanes, Roger spun on his heel and dashed back into the barracks, grabbing life jacket, parachute and flying helmet. He had become an expert at donning his gear while running for his spitfire, but he always did have to stop to climb into his parachute.
"Hullo old man."
Roger glanced over to see his commanding officer, Group Captain Rawlings wrestling himself into his own parachute.
"Where are they, Sir?" Roger asked.
"Big flight coming over the channel, seem to be heading for eleventh group. They've got the better of us this time." He pulled the straps over his shoulders and ran for his plane.
The powerful Rolls Royce engines of the fighters were erupting to life everywhere. Dark, acrid smoke spouted from the rows of exhaust pipes on their cowlings and the lonely tree tossed and writhed in the draft coming from the whirling propellers. The ground crew looked blown as if in a gale, their clothes flapping in the breeze. The sound was deep and deafening, rumbling in the ground and climbing up the legs like a massive earthquake. Two spitfires were already taxing onto the runway.
Roger was running again and clambered up on the wing of his airplane. The mechanic helped shove him into the cockpit, then closed the half door peculiar to spitfires. He was strapped in, could barely move, trapped.
"God's Speed!" The mechanic shouted over the howl of the Merlin engine, then jumped off the wing and disappeared from view. He reappeared again beyond the wing tip, the chocks in his hands. He waved once and Roger waved back.
Three agonizing seconds went by while two more spitfires taxied onto the runway, then Roger was signaled forward. He released the breaks and pulled out the throttle. The sound of the Merlin changed to a deep hum and the spitfire rocked forward over the uneven ground.
He turned on the runway, then pulled the throttle out all the way. The spitfire roared forward, skimming over the tarmac. There was a dreadful vibration as the landing gear bumped and skidded over imperfections in the runway, then suddenly a feeling of freedom. He was airborne.
He reached down and flipped the lever that pulled the landing gear up, then eased back the throttle. The airstrip dropped below him, and the control tower slanted at a dizzying angle as he banked to starboard, falling into formation behind two other spitfires. The last hurricane on the base was just lifting off the ground. Roger glanced at his clock, pretty good showing, three squadrons airborne just four minutes after the alarm.
It took five minutes to climb twenty thousand feet, Roger slid his canopy closed, pulled on his oxygen mask and hooked up the flexible rubber tube to the oxygen supply. He was now sealed into a tiny space, hardly bigger than himself. If he was shot down, the probability of getting out was very slim because he was so tall. The instruments in the dark panel quivered and vibrated and he saw the whirling propeller of the spitfire immediately behind him in his rear view mirror.
He glanced over at the spitfire in formation beside him, DW-J. There was a movement behind the canopy as the pilot gave an 'OK' sign. Roger grinned and returned it. That was Flying Officer Balder, he was tall, lanky with a marvelous sense of humor. He always brought his dog aloft with him. He rather reminded Roger of a benevolent beanpole.
Group Captain Rawlings' voice crackled into his head set, giving their coordinates. The formation altered course two degrees.
London suddenly spread out below them, vast, brownish and geometric, almost like a smooth rock that had been finely chiseled into weird and fantastic shapes. The Themes divided it like a listless, sliver snake, coiling its way to the channel. Scattered over the city were barrage balloons, faint and silvery, seeming to hover over the scene, though in reality they were anchored down with thick steel cables designed to slice through the wings of low flying bombers.
The formation roared on. A bridge passed under them and for a moment, Roger thought he saw a car passing over it, but the image was covered by his port wing in a second. He wondered how London had remained intact. So far, London had been bombed and bombed again, night after night for the last half of 1940 and most of 1941.
They were in east London, docks and shipping cruised below them, tiny, like bath toys, only smaller, each little ship giving off its one microscopic puff of steam. They could see the channel, like a moat, the only thing dividing England from the axis powers. It was only twenty-one miles at the narrowest point, but Britain commanded the waters and Germany could not pass over with any sort of armada without being decimated in the process.
London was left behind and patchwork fields stretched out below them, dim in the failing light. The formation roared on, the sun low on the horizon behind them. Roger glanced out of the cockpit again and saw another city, microscopic compared to London. Canterbury, he thought.
The horizon curves ever so slightly at twenty thousand feet, making the world feel somehow smaller. It was misty that evening, though visibility was high. Quite suddenly, as if from nowhere, a dark foreboding line appeared over the channel. A mass, black and misty, like a giant, throbbing, murky galaxy with several smaller specs hovering about it. Enemy bombers, probably about four hundred of them; coming on in dark, rolling waves. Above them were the fighters, six hundred more of them.
Distantly, distinct German voices buzzed in Roger's headset.
That was one of those oddities of war, Roger thought, that they all used the same radio wavelength.
More orders from the Group Captain crackled in Roger's headset and the entire formation climbed a thousand feet. Thirty seconds more and they were over the enemy.
"Come on boys, follow me," Roger called to his flight and peeled away from the formation. His wingman, Balder followed him and Roger saw the tapered wings and white belly of his spitfire, the blue, white and red roundels staring at him. Dead silence reined in his headset. Roger's flight was made up of three airplanes, his and two others. They would work together as a group to shoot down enemy aircraft, taking their orders from Roger, the most senior officer among them.
Automatically, Roger flipped the safety off his machine guns. A Junkers Ju 188 suddenly appeared in his gun sight and he squeezed the trigger on the stick. The Spitfire vibrated like crockery in an earthquake and Roger clenched his teeth to keep them from shaking loose. Glowing tracer bullets from his eight browning machine guns flashed through the evening air, converging on one of the Junkers' engines.
The next moment, Roger flashed passed the bomber, hardly knowing whether he downed it or not. He zoomed past another bomber, only getting one burst in, but that bomber suddenly dove like a stone and spiraled downwards. The pilot must have been killed.
Suddenly the silence was ruptured by two different German voices requesting fighters. Over the racket, Roger heard Balder's voice, slow and drawling, "DW-H, old chap, sir, you have a one-oh-nine on your tail."
Roger glanced behind him and saw a Me 109 diving after him. The leading edges of the wings suddenly erupted into red flashes and the next moment Roger felt a horrible jarring as the bullets slammed into the tail of his Spitfire. Ever after, Roger always remembered the Me 109 had a yellow spinner.
Roger threw the Spitfire into a tight turn, contrails streaming from his wingtips. The Me 109 tried to outturn him, but Spitfires are slightly faster and much more maneuverable and Roger congratulated himself when the Me 109 suddenly appeared in his gun sight. Roger squeezed off a long burst and the Me 109 spiraled downward, smoke billowing from the engine.
Roger pulled his Spitfire out of the dive and started to climb.
"Go it, old chap," Roger murmured, patting the instrument panel, then glanced around himself. It was something pilots always had to do. Sometimes they looked around so much, they developed painful neck conditions. Roger himself wore a silk scarf to keep his neck from getting chaffed. It was Susan's scarf, a dark green. Titty had offered him her pink one, but he'd gallantly turned her down.
A Me 109, white and black crosses glowing in the drab gray paint scheme, was diving on him. It was a graceful sort of airplane, but somehow sinister. Roger threw the spitfire in a tight turn, the Me 109 appearing in his gun sight. It was déjà vu.
This Me 109, however, was smarter than the last and immediately nosed into a dive. Roger dove after him, but as the angle of the dive grew steeper, he brought the spitfire level again. The spitfire's Merlin engine stalled if the dive became too steep, where the Me 109's engine did not.
Two minutes later, the Me 109 was back behind him.
"This chap never gives up!" Roger muttered as he performed a series of tight looping turns in an attempt to throw the attacker off. Twice, at the ends of his turns, Roger had his sights on the Me 109 and fired a burst, but both times, the Me 109 managed to dive, then came up behind again. Roger turned again, trying desperately to get the enemy in his sight.
"Heil Hitler!" a guttural German voice came in Roger's headset.
"God save the King!" Roger replied promptly.
Then a rending crash shook the Spitfire and the nose and whirling propeller jerked heavenward, straight towards the sun. Roger gasped, frozen for a moment by the force of the impact, then glanced back. The tail of the spitfire seemed to be entirely missing. There was only empty space, a bit of collapsed metal and trailing wires. To the right, whirling away was the smashed disembodied tail, and beyond it was the Me 109, the nose crushed beyond recognition, gliding away for a crash landing in some farmers' field.
The mauled Spitfire spun wildly out of control, the heavens and the earth vying for the view in the windshield.
Roger jerked at his seat belt and disentangled himself from it. Fumbling, he pulled the oxygen tube out of the cockpit wall. The canopy refused to budge, then it shot back. A blast of icy, cold air filled the cockpit and Roger was pulling himself out, whishing he was smaller and not such a tight fit in the tiny cockpit. He felt terribly cramped and for one awful moment, he knew he wasn't going to get out. The ground crewmen always had to lift him out after a mission. Then the powerful slipstream caught him, he was somersaulting into thin air. The leading edge of the wing breezed past, a hair's breath away. For a moment, he looked down a gleaming gun barrel, then he was dropping towards earth.
He was moving a dizzying speed, the wind squealing by, unbearably cold. His hands were turning blue and he was thankful for the oxygen mask and goggles that still covered his face against the cold. The outskirts of Canterbury whirled below him, he saw the roofs of houses, a wide road and large front lawns. The air was agonizingly hard to breathe. He thought of opening his parachute, but he knew if he did, he would probably suffocate in the rarified air. For a moment, upside down, he thought he saw the spires of a Cathedral.
The spitfire was below him already, pulled by its own weight and the whirling propeller. Tailless, the whole fuselage was revolving crazily, driven by the torque of the engine.
As breathing became easier and the altitude lower, Roger reached out and fumbled with the ripcord on his parachute. His hands were so cold he couldn't get a grip of the D ring. He jabbed at it, somehow got a finger through, then pulled. The parachute ballooned above him, there was a sudden, painful jerk as his headlong dash to join the earth was stopped and he found himself floating downwards, rocking slowly back and forth like a dying top.
Somehow, he managed to push his numbed hands into the pockets of his coat, but already, the air was growing warmer. He was now only about a five thousand feet above the ground.
A moment later, far below him, the spitfire crashed in the road, the last of the gasoline exploding in a ball of flame, bright in the gathering darkness. Roger watched transfixed as ammunition began to explode, shooting stray bullets into the air. The fighter was hardly recognizable now, it looked like nothing more than a blotch of furious flames on the quiet Canterbury street.
Five minutes more, Roger thought, and he'd be down there.
In about four more minutes, Roger was about a hundred feet above the ground and closing fast. A huge oak tree that was beginning to take up part of the road loomed below him, the spring leaves rustling a mere matter of feet below him.
He drifted away from it and saw the chimney of a timber frame Elizabethan house cruising towards him. He pulled desperately at the guidelines of his parachute, but for a moment he was sure he would collide with it, then the wind veered and he was moving away. Another wing of the house was approaching with alarming velocity, this time, despite everything, he hit it head on. He tried to fend off with his feet, but the force of impact was very like falling off a galloping horse.
For a brief moment, he found himself staring through diamond window panes at a horrified looking person, then he was sliding down the whitewashed wall. Quite suddenly, his downward motion ceased.
He pushed away from the house and turned himself around. The ground wavered at him from about fifteen feet down and looking up, he saw that the edge of his parachute had caught on a lightning rod projecting from the roof.
He hung there for a moment, staring up at the dusky sky, wondering how he had ever managed to have such a day, especially ending it by zooming through an obstacle course at the end of a parachute, then being hung from a lightning rod like a coat on a hook.
There was a rending sound from above him and he saw the lightning rod begin to travel through the silk parachute. Foot by foot, the ground came closer, then all at once, there was one last angry tare and he was on his feet on the ground. A very lovely place to be indeed.
"Dear England, am I glad to see you!" Roger leaned down and kissed the grass, then unfastened the straps of his parachute and let it fall to the ground. He bunched the shredded silk back into the pack as best he could, then straightened up and looked around. Distantly, beyond a row of houses, he could see the sparkling water of a canal, lined with brilliant red flowers. A little to his left, a block away, was the raging fire and column of smoke from his spitfire.
Above, the sky was black and droning with bombers, cruising along at twenty thousand feet. Dusk was falling fast and the sky was crisscrossed with contrails, exhaust vapors and smoke, spiraling down like corkscrews. As he watched, bombs dropped like black hail to explode in rolling thunder only a mile or so away at the east end of Canterbury. Dark smoke was already billowing from the east. The ground trembled under his feet.
Roger stooped, hoisted his parachute to his shoulder and turned…then stopped short, his mouth open in surprise.
Not five feet away from him, a tiny old lady stood- stooped and white haired- but aiming a musket very steadily at him.
It was a muzzle-loading flintlock. The brass muzzle, stained by powder burns, glowed in the fire from his spitfire. He could see the old brass ramrod just under the barrel and he half wondered if it was really loaded. The ancient stock was smooth and golden, polished by years of love and wear- truly a masterpiece.
"Don't make another move, young man, or I'll blast you!" the old lady snapped. "Are you a Jerry?"
"No ma'am," Roger replied, "I've just been up trying to protect you from them. I'm RAF."
"Did you get shot down?" the old lady asked, the barrel of the musket dropping a few inches.
"Yes, well, no, not strictly," Roger said, "I was in a collision."
"Well, you must come inside and have a cup of tea!" the old lady exclaimed, pointing the musket at the ground, "Grandpa would be delighted to see you!"
Wonderingly, Roger followed her around the house. The massive oak tree, half in the road and half in the front lawn towered above them into the sky. The lacy top was fresh with pale spring green.
"Just step inside," the old lady said, opening the front door of the house, "And do wipe your feet."
Roger found himself in a Persian carpeted hallway, a stair just to the right. He followed the old lady through a door to the left and found himself in a room. More Persian carpets were on the floor and a mounted lion snarled at him from near the wall. It seemed to be entirely decorated by artifacts from the Far East, India, Pakistan, Iraq, China…A jade Buda reposed on a marble table, there were tapestries on the walls, brightly painted pottery and many colored glassware.
In the center of the room in an ancient wicker wheel chair, sat an old man. His face was as brown and creased as a walnut and a wispy white mustache perched on his lip. On his head was a cylindrical red cap with a tassel. Despite his great age, his eyes twinkled from under his heavy eyebrows and he looked up at Roger with obvious delight.
"A chap from the RFC!" he exclaimed.
"RAF actually," Roger said, "It hasn't been the Royal Flyng Corps for more than twenty years."
"Beg your pardon, old chap," The man said, "One does get behind the times these days, pleased to meet you, anyway, Colonel William Dawson at your service!"
"Flight Lieutenant Roger Walker at yours, sir," Roger said, shaking the outstretched hand.
"Do you fly spitfires or hurricanes?" Colonel Dawson asked.
"Spitfires," Roger replied smiling.
"Excellent!" Colonel Dawson said, smiling, "I remember when the Sopwith Camel was the cutting edge."
"Did you fight in the Great War, sir?" Roger asked.
"Oh no, I had retired by then," the Colonel replied, "I-"
But his words were cut off by a terrific explosion, no, not an explosion, but a loud, deep 'wumph!' The house shook and the pictures rattled on the walls.
"I think they're getting closer," Roger remarked, as a vase tottered at the edge of a table, then fell to the floor, breaking into a million pieces. "I'd say that was a quarter of a mile away," he added.
"I say! By Jove!" the Colonel exclaimed, "they're bombing Canterbury! Of all the beastly cheek! Canterbury hasn't been bombed since 1918!"
"Well they're at it today," Roger explained, "Didn't you hear the sirens?"
"Oh, we did," Mrs. Dawson replied, "But we thought it was far enough away. The bombs never land here you know."
"You do have an air raid shelter?" Roger asked.
"Oh yes," Mrs. Dawson said, "My grandson put it in at the beginning. It's been rusting in the garden."
"I suggest we go out there at once. The bombers are heading this way and it will get a bit hairy in here if we stay much longer," Roger said, taking hold of Col. Dawson's wheelchair and wheeling him towards the door, "Is there anyone else in the house?"
"No, just us," Mrs. Dawson said, trotting after them, "My granddaughter's gone into Town."
"Have you got gas masks?" Roger asked, maneuvering the wheelchair out of the door and across the hallway.
"They're in the shelter," Mrs. Dawson said. "We hardly ever stay in it. It's damp and dreadful and all over with spiders." She shivered expressively.
It was a bit of a trick getting the chair down the front steps. They were made of white marble with a marble balustrade and defiantly weren't original to the house. Roger lowered chair one step at a time, Mrs. Dawson standing at the bottom, looking concerned and the Colonel holding on for dear life.
"Oh do be careful!" Mrs. Dawson said, still holding the musket.
The chair slipped and Roger jammed a foot in the wheel and hung off the back grimly.
"Woops!" the Colonial said, "Almost out that time, eh wot?"
"Quite," Roger muttered, the chair bounced down the next step like a wild thing. The Colonel looked at his wife intently, "What is it your people say, 'ye haw'? Or some such thing?"
"I believe it's something like that," Mrs. Dawson said, distractedly, "do be careful!"
The chair, pulled by that incontestable force, gravity, lurched down the last step and came to a rest, squeaking ominously.
"I haven't had so much fun for years," the Colonel said, laughing.
"How do you normally get out?" Roger asked.
"My grandson put in a ramp in the back."
"Oh," Roger said, grinning.
Dark smoke was rolling towards them from the east. A bomber in flames spiraled down and crashed a few blocks away, exploding into a huge fireball. They could almost see the shock wave coming. It struck the spire on the house across the street, toppling it into the road; the oak tree shivered and showered green acorns and quite suddenly, every window in the Dawson's house exploded and broken glass rained down on them, sparkling like stars. A spitfire, white belly oddly ghostlike in the smoke, roared overhead, then climbed and was swallowed in the dark haze.
Roger glanced around the garden, then caught sight of the shelter. It emerged from the ground like a giant corrugated steel culvert. Flowers were planted in the mound above it. Mrs. Dawson opened the wooden door and disappeared down into it.
"Now," the Colonel said, "If you will give me your hand, young man, I shall descend!"
Roger gave him his hand and the old man stood, somewhat shakily, but tall. He thought it best to descend stern first into the shelter, one step at a time. At last he reached the bottom and sat on a bunk, just as more acorns form the oak tree pounded the roof of the shelter like hail.
Roger came next, closing the door behind himself and shutting out the light. He fumbled at the ceiling; accidently turned the fan on, then found the single light bulb. A moment later, they were all bathed in the wan light.
Roger turned and sat in the bunk opposite the Dawsons next to the musket. The ground was now shaking as if a giant were stamping towards them and they could hear the explosions of the bombs. The whoop of fire truck sirens sounded from down the road, mingled with the incessant droning roar of aircraft engines.
"Reminds me of Afghanistan!" the colonel shouted over the noise.
"You were in Afghanistan?" Roger called back.
"I was in the 25th Calvary regiment!" the colonel hollered. "From 1878 to 1880, it was the second war! I was thirty three!"
There was a muffled boom from next door.
"Sounds just like the artillery at Asmai Heights!" the colonel's eyes were getting dreamy, "Lost my old horse, Ajax there!"…more booming echoed around them… "fine dappled gray,"…his words were drowned… "Those were the good old days!"
"Reminds me of Manassas!" Mrs. Dawson added…. "Could hear the final barrage the Confederates gave the blue bellies from twenty miles away!"… "Did my heart good!"
Roger stared at them wide eyed, just how old were these people?
"Manassas?" Roger asked, "That was the American Civil War, wasn't it?"
"1861," Mrs. Dawson said. "I was just a girl and Mr. Dawson came over as an observer. After the war was over, we married and came here. I couldn't abide staying in Virginia under those foul Yankees." She said bitterly, "That was well before airplanes were ever invented."
"That was well before a lot of things were invented." Roger pointed out.
He glanced at the musket next to him, "Is that from the American Civil War?"
"No, that's the grandfather of the rifles of the Civil War," Mrs. Dawson said, "by those days the cutting edge was breech-loading percussion cap. My grandfather carried this one in the Revolution."
"My grandfather was at the battle of Yorktown," Mr. Dawson said. "He surrendered to one of General Washington's aides. He never talked about it."
They sat in silence when the noise grew too great to talk. The shelter was shaking and Roger found himself swallowing hard. Through all this in the past, he had been in the sky, fighting back. Now he sat here underground, helpless, waiting for the direct hit that could kill them. He looked at the Dawson's, they were perfectly calm, Mr. Dawson was reading the paper, Mrs. Dawson was knitting. There were thousands more like them in shelters across the country, in railway tunnels, in their front lawns in the country, watching the flames over London, a sight last seen in 1666.
And they weren't giving up, they would go calmly on with their lives, sort through the rubble of their houses and walk to the buildings where they worked. Doggedly, they would rebuild, only waiting for it to be knocked down again. The fire fighters risked their lives daily to fight the colossal fires that raged through blocks of London. UXB squads would work against time to dismantle time bombs before they killed hundreds more. And the air raid wardens patrolled the streets, snatching lighted cigarettes out of people's mouths and berating others for letting even a crack of light show through a window.
Churchill, on speaking of the fighter pilots that fought the bombers every night, had said, "Never have so many owed so much to so few."
But Roger thought otherwise, without these wonderful people of England, he doubted he would have the will to climb into his spitfire every day. He was not fighting for himself, he was fighting for them, for his brothers and his sisters, his sister in law, his mother, his father and everyone else like them. Roger had been in the sky the last two years and he had never known what they had gone through. Now he knew. He could not let them down.
Peggy Blackett trotted up the steps to the house she shared with her sister. It had been a hard day. She was a nurse, and nurses were badly needed in London. The number of victims she had to treat increased everyday what with the fires and collapsing houses. The work was exhausting.
She reached the top step and tripped over a brown paper parcel. It was bulky and light when she picked it up. The door opened and her sister, Nancy, appeared with spatula in one hand. A smell of cooking radiated after her.
"Hullo! Good day?" she asked sweeping Peggy into the house, "I got a letter from John today. He says he's well. He's somewhere in the Atlantic, apparently, but he says he going to be transferred to 'Somewhere in the Mediterranean' in a couple days."
"Cooking something?" Peggy asked tiredly. "How's Nan's cough?"
"Better," Nancy said, "I found a recipe for Roman cheesecake and I thought I'd try it. Difficult with the food shortage and all that, but it doesn't call for sugar, just honey. All the cabbages blew over last night, but they're all right now. What's that?"
"Oh," Peggy looked down, "it's a package for you."
Peggy found herself holding the spatula while Nancy broke the strings on the package. Peggy hung up her coat next to Nancy's salad bowl helmet with the big white 'W', showing that she was an air raid warden. She turned to see Nancy staring perplexedly at a heap of white material that had billowed from the brown paper.
"What is it?" Peggy asked, shocked. She leaned closer, "Why, it's silk!"
Nancy stooped and picked up an envelope that was lost in the folds of the silk. "Hang on, this isn't for me at all, it's addressed to you."
"Me?" Peggy exclaimed, "Why ever?"
"I don't recognize the hand writing," Nancy said, handing her the envelope.
"It looks a little like Susan's," Peggy said, ripping it open.
Yesterday, I joined the Caterpillar Club. I had a marvelous view of the cathedral in Canterbury from my parachute and dropped in to have tea with two old people. Overall it was a very enjoyable experience.
Since I can't use the old parachute again, I thought you might like it, as I remember you like sewing. Take good care of it. I've been sitting on it since last year. Make it into some handkerchiefs or maybe a wedding dress or two if the inclination should seize you.
By the time you receive this letter, I'll have shipped out of England to nobly protect other parts of the empire.
Most truly yours,
Flt. Lt. Roger Walker
. Author's Note .
The fighter pilots of World War Two were remarkable; or maybe just ordinary men in extraordinary situations. The Royal Air Force was formed in 1918 out of the Royal Flying Corps and in 1940, they were holding on by their finger nails. They had some 600 hundred fighters matched against more than 1,200 Nazi fighters, it was and unequal matching, but what the RAF was missing in numbers, they made it up in skill and tenacity. They were fighting over their home and the Germans were not, the difference showed.
The pilots themselves were worn thin. Sometimes they had to 'scramble', or take off, more than once a day. Taking off to fight for your life every day was nerve racking at the least. They would rest between flights in mae wests and parachutes, calm on the outside, but coiled springs inside.
By 1942 the RAF had the rather dire situation in hand. Hitler was no longer threatening the invasion of England and had turned to attack his former ally, Russia. The RAF Bomber command on the other hand, had started bombing targets in Germany. They were giving back what they had gotten. Hitler, in retaliation, picked the prettiest cities in England and nearly leveled them. Canterbury was one of them alone with Bath, York, Exeter and Norwich. This short time of renewed bombing was often referred to as the 'Baedeker Blitz', because somebody in German High command is supposed to have looked in a guidebook of Britain compiled by someone named Baedeker to figure out which were Britain's prettiest cities.
Many pilots during World War Two had to bail out of their planes and parachute to earth. Those who made it safely joined the Caterpillar Club, an informal club named after the silk worm that spun the thread for the parachutes. The rules were strict, only those who used parachutes to jump out of a disabled plane could join, hence eliminating paratroopers. Men like Flight Sergeant Nicholas Alkemade who survived a fall of 18,000 feet out of his Lancaster bomber and Alan Magee who survived falling more than four miles and crashing through the glass roof of a German train station were both unqualified because they did not have parachutes on during their falls.
England and the world owe a great deal not only to the fighter pilots who flew the skies in the Battle of Britain, but the bomber pilots and fighter pilots of every theater. Winston Churchill's words could be applied to them all:
"Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few…"
A/N: I was alerted to the fact that I had an Me 109 turning into an Fw 190, then back again. Hopefully I have remedied the problem.