Thursday, March 8, 2012
Charlie Briggs, Chapter 8 by Roisterer
A good time was had by all, especially me. Worse was that I was woken in the middle of the night when two of my roommates arrived. I had a throbbing head when I got up before dawn for the next mission. I had to keep quiet as my colleagues were sleeping, so I had still not been introduced. Worse, my uniform stank, so I had to get into the second one.
We started up, and I actually got light headed as we reached altitude. I checked my oxygen setting, but there were no problems. Then I realised that I was still slightly drunk from the night before. I tried to concentrate extra hard. I was distracted by a dreadful smell from beside me. At least Officer Hughes looked apologetic behind his mask. At last I began to wonder why he was called Beaner.
He made me take over on the way back again, but this time he did the landing.
No sooner had we made it to the NAAFI than there was a big noise and commotion outside. George put down his utensils, and slowly got up.
"What's going on, sir?" I asked.
"What do you think," he said irritably, "it's a raid drill, that's what."
We made our way to the door. "Where's your station?"
I must have looked blank, as he rolled his eyes. "Never mind, lad, follow me."
He marched off beside the building, and went round the back. We approached a half-buried hut: the air raid shelter. I noticed a lot of people running in different directions, with a lot of shouting by the NCOs, but they completely ignored us.
There was a bit of a scrum at the entrance, and Officer Hughes held me back as one or two senior men went in first. Then we went in. It was a tightly packed space, with just a couple of light bulbs.
I noticed Stan opposite. I hadn't seen him since we arrived. We started a nervous conversation. George just started a cigarette, and chatted to some of his fellow. After five minutes or so, the all-clear sounded. Stan and I were near the entrance, so we were out first. I waited for my boss.
On the way back to the NAAFI, he leaned closer to me. "Make sure you know how to get there, even in the dark. We might be under fire next time."
Duly chastened, I followed him inside to resume our meal.
Halfway through a bite, he asked, "What happened to the uniform you wore last night?"
"Still covered with beer, sir, I'll get on to it."
"No, no, get one of the enlisted men to do it - you're an officer now. Better yet, I'll send someone round to your room to deal with it."
Life was looking up.
The days followed in much the same way. It turned out Stan was one of my roommates, but he was on fighters, and mostly worked a different shift.
On our fourth trip, the skipper told me to take over for the second photo run.
"Just keep her level and steady, nothing to it," he said.
That was the longest six minutes of my life so far. I think I sweated out all the beer from the night before. They had mostly given up firing from below, and there wasn't much turbulence, so it went all right. At the end George turned round to look at Taffer, and started to grin.
Time passed. My eighteenth birthday came and went, which prompted another beer shower. I started to grow a moustache, not very successfully.
Then one evening when we came back I could tell something was wrong in the mess. I waited for someone to say something.
Wordlessly, they passed round small glasses of booze. I could tell it was gin from the smell. I was handed a glass at the end of the line.
"Drawers has bought it," said a Flight Lieutenant.
Everyone raised their glasses, and then chimed in, "To Drawers." Then they drained their glasses. I remembered a small man with light brown hair. What was his his real name? Joiner or something. Then they were talking about his wife and children. Lord, this made me sombre. I knew we weren't just here for fun.
It was uneventful for another few weeks, and then all hell broke loose.
First thing I knew, there was an air raid around sunset. I'd been getting forty winks, but I was glad Officer Hughes had shown me to the shelter. I'd made a point of memorising the way, and this time I could keep between the buildings to get there. Other men were running every direction.
There were a few officers in the shelter, but no sign of Stan. He must be up there somewhere, poor so-and-so. Several thuds reverberated through the ground, and caused the corrugated iron to wobble. The lights cast shadows on anxious faces. I heard the sound of our own guns, and felt the lighter, faster repetitive shudders. Then it was silence for a few minutes.
I wanted to go out, but one of the other officers pulled me back. "Leave it to those who know what they're doing, lad."
After another while, a corporal opened the door, and we all filed out.
It was the smoke that hit me first, then the noise. I couldn't see or hear a thing. Gradually I saw men running in between the billows. Then it was time to help. One of the other officers got me to carry a stretcher to the medical centre. The poor lad on it was covered in blood, and almost still. I tried not to look at him, but concentrated on giving him a gentle ride. I recognised Taffer and the Wirral moving some equipment in the opposite direction. I hoped our crate was all right; I'd grown quite attached to the old girl.
Then it was out with the shovels to patch up the runway. This didn't require any great skill, so I helped out as much as I could, following the sergeant's directions. After a while, I heard engines, and wondered if it was another raid, but it was our own aircraft. We risked a small light to allow them to land. One, two, three, four, they came in one behind the other. We'd mended the smaller holes just in time.
Stan was in one of the aircraft. I gave him a big slap on the back when he got out.
"Sorry, we missed them. We were off over the desert, and they went out over the sea. I heard it was the jerries."
That was a new one. There was a lot of disturbing talk in the mess. I was also a little upset.
"Why were we in the shelter? Couldn't we have helped the men hit back?"
A quiet voice spoke behind me. "The RAF has put a lot of time and effort into training you, and they don't want you killed on the ground. The best thing you can do is a good job in what you're trained for."
It was Officer Hughes. Once again, I had put my foot in it. I resolved to keep a lower profile from now on.
Everything speeded up after that. One day we were about to set off, but got turned back. Men started to move, despite the early hour. We were pulling out. I had an hour to collect up my stuff. I helped Taffer and the Wirral load some of their spare equipment on a truck, and then we loaded up our stuff and flew the crate back to Tobruk. We abandoned Benghazi.
It didn't stop there. Sometimes I get asked if I was at Tobruk, and I was, but not during the siege. After only a couple of weeks we pulled back to Sidi Barrani, on the Egyptian side of the border. About the same time, I heard rumours that we had had to abandon Greece.
This was a big concern to me. Eventually we had received some post from home. I was overjoyed to get several letters from the parents. The letters had finally caught up with me. I noticed ruefully that the first one had been to Canada and back. I tried to read them in order. Things seemed to be holding up at home - the bombing had dropped off considerably, and they were all in one piece. I didn't read anything about Eve, but I was sure that her letters would be arriving soon.
No, what worried me most was that my Dad mentioned that Joe would be in my neck of the woods. To me that meant that he would be heading either to Greece or North Africa. As we were in full retreat in both theatres, I was wondering how Joe was doing. He'd got away with it in Dunkirk, but I wasn't sure his luck would hold.
They told me that it's only your time when the bullet's got your name on it, but I was worried about those ones that said "To whom it may concern."
There were a lot more toasts to fallen comrades. Biter Barker - I'd discovered that was his nickname - led some of them. We toasted Smiler, then Bumly, then Windy. It was getting to be a long list. Some new recruits turned up, and they knew even less that I did.
It turned to summer, and got much hotter, especially during the afternoons. It was the change from altitude and temperature that was hard to take. Plus we were always flying over different areas now. Anything from Derna to Tobruk.
We weren't told where we were going until the evening before, and sometimes not until the morning. I wondered that the powers that be were so unsure of their plans. Then it occurred to me that they wouldn't want to say much to the chaps flying over enemy territory, who might end up as POWs. That's why I never knew when or where the fighters were going.
There was a push in June, I found out, then another in July, but both came to nothing.
One day I came into the mess, and there was a different feeling in the air. It wasn't like somebody had died, more like good news.
"What's happened?" I asked Officer Hughes when he arrived.
"Hitler's invaded Russia, we've won the war!" he exclaimed.
We hadn't, of course, but there was a new sense of purpose now we had Uncle Joe on our side. The Wirral couldn't stop talking about it as we were waiting for the next mission.
Then one day it all changed. It was around the end of August, and we were again having a look at Tobruk in the early hours. We turned round for another run, and must have got a bit too close. A fighter sprung up at us. Normally I wouldn't worry, but he got off a burst at his ceiling, and the bullets traveled further and sprinkled us like a fountain. I saw the wing take some damage, and heard something behind me. I turned to look, but then the nose went forward. I glanced over at Beaner, but he had let go of the stick, and was wincing in pain. The starboard engine made a bad noise, and gave up. We were going down.