Monday, February 27, 2012
So there was I, ready in my flight jacket, waiting just outside one of the huts in the dark. A couple of shapes resolved themselves into crewmen, and approached. Both were carrying large amounts of equipment.
The first one started in a broad Welsh accent. "You must be APO Briggs. I'm Evans, the photographer, and this is Stone, my assistant, er... Sir."
I didn't have time to strike up a conversation, when Officer Hughes turned up. "Ah, gunner, I see you've met Taffer and the Wirral. Give them a hand, won't you."
So I tried my best to carry some equipment over to the plane, a modified Beaufighter. I'd never flown one before, but I was planning to watch and learn. George sat in the pilots seat, and waved me in next to him. I checked the maps, and he marked where we were headed. "Tripoli, same as always. I know where we're going, but I need you to follow and give directions."
He started her up, one engine at a time. I'd never been in a twin-engined plane, so this was also something new. Fortunately I'd been well drilled on the cross checking procedure.
"You know how to use oxygen?"
This had been part of my training. I showed him the dial and set it correctly, but didn't turn it on.
"Good man. Can't have you passing out halfway."
And with that we were off. There was plenty to do at takeoff, even if it was only watching the pilot, and then we started to climb. It was still dark, and my mind started to wander.
George tapped my arm, and made to put on his mask. I followed suit. I looked round, and the other two had done the same.
The sky lightened behind us, and threw the ground in front into silhouette. I could just about make out some mountain features, which showed we were over land. I was trying to follow on the map, identifying hill and mountain tops.
"Tripoli coming up at two o'clock, skipper," I said. George smiled at me indulgently, as far as I could tell from behind his mask. He turned her slowly to head over the city.
The light grew, and I could make out roads below, and then collections of building. I'd never flown this height before, and I couldn't make out any vehicles.
"Let's have a look at the docks," said George, as we turned again. There was sudden activity behind, and I turned to see Taffer and Wirral getting the photographic equipment together. They had the camera locked into a set of struts. All of a sudden, a gust of air caught me, and I realised that they had opened a hole in the bottom of the fuselage.
I turned to check on the map, but suddenly the plane jumped slightly, and loud noises started just below us. Somebody was firing at us!
I must have looked bad, but George just said "they're only saying hello. Don't worry, they haven't a chance of hitting us up here."
I was wondering if that were true of the Regia Aeronautica. The explosions did cause the aircraft to shudder, and I flinched involuntarily, which the pilot noticed.
"First taste of live fire, eh? Never mind, it's all pointless." He turned around, took off his oxygen for a moment, and bellowed, "How's it going, Taffer?"
I couldn't see what sign the photographer used, but George was unimpressed. We went on for a couple of minutes over the sea, then turned and headed back over the city.
The guns had mostly given up, and we had a smoother ride this time. We went back over the desert, then turned again for another run. I'd have loved to have been able to drop something on those AA crews, but we didn't carry any spare weight.
This time we headed out to sea and kept going. All too soon we lost sight of land. Around the same time I started to feel freezing - I'd been sweating while we were under fire, and was not drenched in rapidly cooling perspiration.
Navigation was a lot more difficult over the ocean. I had to keep track of our bearing and air speed. The wind was a lot stronger up here than at ground level, and tended to be from the west, so we were going to get home quicker.
George broke in, "all right, time for my nap. She's all yours." Without further ado, he let me have the control, and settled back in his seat.
I was scared out of my wits for a minute, and looked around at the others. They were grinning from ear to ear, so I supposed this was George's way of trying me out. I didn't see his eyes ever open, but I was sure he was watching me.
I had to navigate and fly, but all too soon we hit the coast again. I followed it eastward, and found a reasonably large city. I was almost certain that was Benghazi, and our airfield was only a few miles ahead. I circled and dropped altitude.
There was a stirring in the seat beside me. "Almost home," observed George, "you can take her in."
I'd never landed such a large aircraft before, but I remembered to subtract the airfield altitude, and circled for landing. There were no other aircraft taking off, and I put her down with only one or two bumps.
I taxied into the parking area, but realised that I didn't know how to turn off both engines. George reached out and did it.
"You can turn off your oxygen now." Blast, I hadn't noticed.
"Not bad," he said as he unhooked himself. "He'll do," he said to the others, getting out "See you in the NAAFI, and then the mess later," he said once we were in the open air.
I was glowing with pride as I helped the others unload. Taffer didn't let me touch the camera. "Priceless," he said.
I tried to talk to his assistant. "Why do they call you the Wirral?"
"That's where I'm from."
"I'm sorry, but I've never heard of the place."
"It's across the Mersey from Liverpool."
"You don't sound much like George Formby."
This wasn't going well, but Taffer helped me out. "Nice work, sir, the landing I mean."
"Tidy piece of work today. We'll get these developed PDQ and find our what we've got, see."
"Great. Will I see you later?"
"Oh no, sir, I expect you'll be wanting to see Officer Hughes in the Officers' mess, won't you?"
And that was it. The divide came down. Officers and men. I was on one side, and they were on the other.
I was exhausted when I got back. Yes, it was bunks here too, but at least we had a room for four. I hadn't yet met any of my fellows. I felt like I could sleep for a day. I lay down and closed my eyes. Then opened them again and discovered that two hours had passed. What was I, some sort of granddad?
Groggily I pulled on my uniform and headed for the NAAFI. Officer Hughes was already at a table with the other officers, and indicated a chair for me at the end. I was in.
He was subdued during the meal, but sat back for a smoke and became more approachable.
"Well done, gunner," he said. So that was my new nickname. "Want one?" he pushed the packet my way.
"Thank you, sir," I said, taking one. He held out a light for me. I'd not smoked much before, but I managed not to cough. I was feeling like one of the big boys.
George leaned closer. "We need to keep an eye on what Benny's up to, see if he gets any Jerry help. We do pretty much the same thing every day, but we vary the trip out and home to keep them on their toes." He stubbed out the fag, and got up. "See you in the mess in a couple of hours. I'll introduce you to the other officers." I was almost walking on air back to my bunk.
I made my way to the mess in the evening. This time the guard smiled as he saluted, and opened the door for me...
And I got drenched in beer as soon as I stepped in. The perpetrators were beside me. A cheer broke out. All of a sudden George was there with a towel, and said loudly, "Chaps, I present... "Gunner" Briggs."
The Hunter and the Hunted completed novel
A Slice of Life short story (horror)