A Brief Peace – By Bomber
The twin Bristol Pegasus engines of the Wellington howled as Captain Arthur ‘Archie’ Turnbull threw the aircraft into a series of high banked turns. He didn’t like daylight raids, even short sorties like this one. Bomber Command had assured all of the squadrons that there were no enemy aircraft operational in their target area. “No mention of bloody anti aircraft guns though,” he thought wryly.
A barrage of shells exploded in the sky ahead of him, tell-tale puffs of smoke hanging in the still air, slowly drifting like black jellyfish on a turning tide. Ahead, Archie could see the silver line of the sun reflecting on the surface of the English Channel. He leveled the wings and pushed the throttles forward to coax the old crate to her top speed of just over two hundred knots.
“Hello, chaps. Sorry about the bumpy ride. Buggers were a bit sharp today. Every one alright?”
One by one, Archie’s five crewmates acknowledged his call on the intercom.
“Jolly good. Can you get us home quickly, Snowy old boy? We’re a little low on juice.”
David ‘Snowy’ White and Archie went way back. They had become the best of friends when David’s family had moved into the little terraced house next to the Turnbulls in 1930. Both of the boys were just twelve years old. David was the eldest of three children and was always on the lookout for adventure. His younger brother, Reggie, wore callipers on his legs due to a bout of polio five years previously and was therefore no use to David as far as scrumping for apples or making camps in the woods was concerned. As for David’s younger sister, Maisie, well she was just a girl.
At the outbreak of the war, the two friends had immediately volunteered for service in the RAF. They had been sent to different training establishments, Archie being selected for pilot training, thanks in part to his grammar school education. Snowy was trained as ground crew with the promise of more to come.
Initially, Archie was stationed at RAF Tangmere in West Sussex where he flew Lysanders dropping Special Operations Executive agents into occupied France to assist The Resistance. Just over a year later, he was transferred to Seething in Norfolk where he took command of his Type 416 Wellington Bomber ‘M for Mother’. As Archie strode out to his new aircraft on that first bright spring afternoon, he saw a familiar figure leaning against the fuselage. Snowy pulled the cigarette from his mouth as he saw his new captain approaching.
“What ho, Turnbull old boy! Took your time getting here, didn’t you?”
“Snowy, old chap. Bloody good to see you.”
The voice on his intercom brought Archie back to the present. “We’re a way South of our plan, Captain. Don’t want to turn North just yet. Danger of running into outward traffic. I would suggest that we stay on our current course until we’re over Blighty, then we’ll set a new course on home ground. Should be back on the ground in forty minutes. Is that OK?”
“Yes I reckon that’ll be good. Okay, chaps, we’re coming up on the Channel. To your stations. Be ready.”
Archie felt the slightest shudder through the control column as the four gunners let off a few rounds to be sure that the Wellington’s defenses were working correctly. He did a quick systems check. All the gauges looked good. At a shade over eleven thousand feet he was almost at the Wellington’s ceiling. From here he would cross the Channel in a gradual descent, which would push the old girl to above her maximum speed. It also kept them above enemy fighters’ top speed for as long as possible. The compromise was that the crews were sitting ducks if they had to bail out.
“Hello, Archie, I’ve got company back here.”
The voice belonged to rear gunner George ‘Harvey’ Nicholls, a small but fiercely proud Welshman for whom Archie had a very soft spot. The smallest member of his crew, Harvey would stand by and defend his captain with the tenacity and loyalty of a terrier. On more than one occasion, Archie had physically carried Harvey out of The Rose and Crown to prevent him from thumping someone who he thought had verbally attacked Archie or one of his crew.
“How many, Harvey?”
“Three, directly astern, high… No wait, five, six. Christ, they’re all over us. Look like ME one-oh-nines.”
Harvey opened fire with both of his Browning .303 machine guns, spraying the sky with hot metal. He saw one of the attacking aircraft peel away with smoke belching from its engine cowling. Within seconds, the five remaining Mescherschmitt fighters were all around the lumbering Wellington like a pride of lions stalking their prey. The first one dived in for the attack, spitting fire from its cannons. The nose and waist gunners on the Wellington returned fire. The Mescherschmitt banked away steeply, exposing its pale grey belly to the gunners in the ungainly bomber. The port side waist gunner saw a line of small holes appear across its wings as his aim proved true. Still the fighters wheeled in. Archie thought of an injured whale being attacked by a shoal of hungry sharks.
Archie felt his aircraft give a lurch to starboard seconds before he heard Snowy on the intercom. “Archie, we’re hit! Starboard engine’s on fire.”
“Roger, Snowy. I can see Blighty now. Reckon we’ll be okay.”
“Good thing, Captain. I don’t fancy joining the goldfish club just yet.”
Almost as if sensing that the Wellington was fatally injured, the German fighters broke off their attack and headed for home. Archie breathed a sigh of relief. All he needed to do now was nurse the old crate to dry land. He had abandoned the idea of getting her back to their airfield. Instead he would put her down on the nearest strip.
“Come on now, old girl. Just a couple more miles.” With gritted teeth Archie hung on to the shaking yoke. He could see the strip ahead of him. He was too high, way too high. Any lower though and he wouldn’t have enough room for maneuver. The stricken starboard engine was forcing the Wellington to try to turn constantly to the right, its wing hanging low.
With a sudden lurch the wings leveled and the plane dropped. Instantly Archie knew that the port side engine had cut. Instinctively he checked his gauges. It was pointless. The fuel gauges had been reading empty for some time now. Archie assumed that somewhere they had been damaged by enemy fire. He pulled hard back on the yoke, trying desperately to convert their forward motion into lift. Directly ahead of them was a small cluster of cottages and just beyond them the familiar red brick shape of a village school.
“A school!” Archie’s brain was shouting the words to him. “A bloody school!”
With all of his strength, he pulled back on the yoke again, willing the dying plane to stay in the air. Just a few seconds more. Begging. Pleading.
The children in the playground stopped their games. Innocent faces turned to watch as the lifeless hulk of the Wellington hurtled towards them. Archie felt sure he could see their wide eyes, their open mouths speechless with the shock of what they were witnessing. Afterwards he would swear that he had heard their screams.
M for Mother’s tail hit the chimney stack on the apex of the school building’s roof, sending heavy masonry crashing into the yard below, a few broken fragments ricocheting from the ground through windows. Little George Nicholls, still sitting in his rear gun turret was killed instantly as the perspex bubble broke apart. The black plane slewed sideways briefly before its portside wingtip dug into the ploughed earth of the field just beyond the school grounds. As his beloved aeroplane cart wheeled across the ground, Archie was thrown out through the side window.
The explosion brought Archie to his senses. As he tried to run towards the crumpled shell of the Wellington, the doped fabric skin started to burn. His leg buckled beneath him as the shattered bones gave way. Determinedly, he dragged his useless leg behind him as he headed for the aircraft. Inside the fuselage, Archie found his old pal Snowy lying prone over his broken navigator’s table, trapped by the splintered wood. As he grabbed the back of Snowy’s flying jacket, a ball of flame engulfed them both. Archie watched with horrified amazement as the skin on the back of his right hand started to bubble and peel back to expose vivid red flesh. With all of the strength that he could muster, Archie pulled Snowy backwards. He closed his eyes against the heat as he dragged his dearest friend through the inferno that had once been their fortress. As they exited the aircraft, a red mist descended over Archie’s vision as his eyelids burned and fused together.
The early morning sun bathed the white chalk cliffs in a soft yellow light. High above the lush green carpet of grass, a small flock of swallows wheeled and dived as they gorged themselves on airborne insects.
Archie could feel the gentle warmth of the sun on his face. It was good to be outside in the fresh morning air. His mind wandered to his childhood, which seemed to him several lifetimes ago. He recalled games that he had played with friends in fields like these. Running around with arms stretched out to the sides, pretending to be aeroplanes. They would run until their legs ached and their chests begged for breath. They would tumble laughing into the long grass and then lie watching the clouds drift by overhead. Then wait and watch for images to appear. If you looked for long enough, you would see a picture in every cloud. Each boy would try to spot a picture before the others.
“That looks like a rabbit.”
“Where?” came the reply.
“There on the left. Do you see its ears sticking up?”
“Oh yes! I see now.”
“I can’t see it!” Invariably it was Charlie, the smallest boy, who was last to see the image. Charlie was Archie’s younger brother by nearly a year and a half. Sometimes Archie thought that he was a pain to have hanging around, but he would never let anyone know. Nor would he allow anyone to hurt the little fellow. The boys would fall in a heap on the poor unsuspecting child, playfully punching him and calling him names. Archie missed those days of carefree innocence. He worried about Charlie. He was out there somewhere, still fighting. He breathed in deeply, savoring the scent of the wild meadow flowers mingled with the early morning dew. He sighed.
“Is everything alright?” The gentle voice snapped him from his daydream. The same voice that woke him from his nightmares. The voice that calmed him, reassured him. A hand reached out and touched his face. One of the hands that had mopped the sweat from his fevered brow. The hands that held him. The hands that cared.
“Are there clouds in the sky?”
“No, it’s absolutely clear.”
“The lads will be busy again today.” His voice cracked slightly. The thought of being left behind as his comrades took to the skies to meet the enemy was almost unbearable.
“Do you miss it? The flying I mean. Do you want to be back up there?”
“Hell, yes. I couldn’t bear to be told that I won’t fly again. As soon as these bandages come off I’ll be pushing to get back up there.”
SRN Victoria Jenkins looked at the airman lying on the blanket next to her. She could feel a lump of emotion building in her throat. She hadn’t meant to fall in love with him. Such things were frowned upon in the hospital. His courage had touched her, how he managed to stay positive despite his burns – injuries that he sustained as his stricken Wellington bomber had cart wheeled across a ploughed field whilst attempting an emergency landing. There were reports of how he had desperately fought to keep height to try to avoid the village school. He had been thrown clear of the wreckage on impact but had dragged himself back without regard to his shattered leg to try to rescue his crew. As if in a living nightmare, the pain had been so intense that he had been unable to feel it. He hadn’t realized that he was actually on fire until a bystander had thrown him to the ground and rolled him over and over. At that point, he had passed out, unconsciousness arriving as a blessed release from the torture of watching his crew burn to an untimely death. Some said he should be awarded a medal for his courage. Archie, however, maintained that he had just been doing his job. He had lost two of his closest friends in the crash and didn’t see the need for accolades.
He was just twenty three years old, only two years Victoria’s senior, and yet he spoke with the authority and wisdom of a man twice his age. She longed to look into his eyes and tell him how she felt. She prayed every night that when the bandages were removed his sight would be regained. She knew that the broken bones would mend, but what of the mental scars? She had asked if he could remember what had happened. The far away sound of his voice had warned her not to press him. She had left quietly after he had flown into a rage. Later that night, she had returned to the sounds of him sobbing. Without a word, she had held him to her and rocked him gently until sleep came to him again. She knew then that her love for him knew no bounds. She didn’t care how long it would take for him to recover. She would wait for him. She would stand by him.
“Oh, Archie, how I hate this damned war. How I wish it were over.”
“I know, my darling. One day it will be. Soon, they say. Until then we must keep strong.”
“When it is all over, do you think that we could… Well, what I mean is should we…”
With his unbandaged hand, Archie felt for Victoria’s face. He felt the wet trace of the tear that ran down her soft cheek. She closed her eyes as he felt every feature. He traced the outline of her lips. He felt her high cheekbones. Gently, so gently he touched her eyes. Her hair. Victoria leaned in towards him and kissed him, softly at first and then with more urgency. As they kissed, Archie’s hand ran down her tight neck to the open top buttons of her blue tunic. He paused.
Victoria pulled away from kissing him and nuzzled his ear. “Don’t be shy,” she whispered.
Archie’s hand slipped inside her clothes, feeling her soft inviting body. He began to tremble. He hadn’t been this close to a woman for over a year, since before the crash. His body cried out for him to continue. Sensing his nervousness, Victoria unbuttoned herself a little more and guided his hand to her. To feel his touch at last made her feel alive. Carefully, she raised herself so that she was above him on the coarse blanket. She reached down to his belt and unbuckled it. Without speaking, they both knew that what was to follow would be the ultimate declaration of their love. Victoria took him into her as she had dreamed she would. Their bonding was complete and exquisite.
As they lay next to each other, Victoria rested her head on Archie’s broad chest. She listened to his heart beat, still fast from the excitement. Archie heard the single engined aircraft a moment before she did. It was a long way off, and from what he could tell quite high. Probably an early morning reconnaissance aircraft on its way back from a mission. Victoria heard it a second later. Shifting her head slightly, she scanned the sky to try to spot it as it moved ever closer.
The note of the aircraft’s engine changed as it started to descend. Archie listened intently to it. There was something wrong, something different about the sound. He wondered at first if maybe it was in trouble. Then, with a flash of realization, he knew what it was. Instinctively, he pulled Victoria closer to him. She smiled.
“I love you, Captain Turnbull.”
“I love you too. Don’t you ever forget that.”
The earth flew up in two parallel lines as the shells from the Mescherschmitt’s cannons tore into the soft earth.
The bodies of the two young lovers lay entwined, twisted and broken.