By PJ Stephenson
The pilot gives me a thumbs up. It’s an odd thing to do given the circumstances.
I suppose he wants to show me he’s optimistic he can fly the damaged bomber home. Or maybe he’s thanking me for my concern. Either way, he smiles wearily before turning back to wrestle with the controls.
The cloud has dissipated but the sun is losing altitude and the sea below has turned from green to grey. From a sparkling swimming pool to an open grave.
I am close to him, like a sentry standing guard. My Spitfire’s wing tip is just a few yards from his. I can see every agonized expression on his sweat-streaked face as he strains to keep the nose up.
He knows he’s alone, the last one left. His squadron has long gone. The other members of his crew are dead or dying in the belly of the shattered aircraft. Bullet holes riddle the fuselage and wings. The rudder hangs awkwardly from the tailplane. He feathered the prop on the port engine but it still trails rich black smoke. Perhaps fire still chews at it from beneath.
There are at least twenty miles left until the coast and his one chance for a safe crash landing. It’s too risky to bail out over the sea. He’ll perish from hypothermia within a few hours, waiting for rescuers who will never find him.
What am I expected to do now? What can I do now?
The glassy water glides past beneath us. The sky around is clear and calm. I’m conscious of the tranquillity of the stage on which this brave fellow pilot plays out his last minutes. It makes me aware of my own mortality, my reliance on my own aircraft, and I watch my Spitfire’s airscrew carve a hazy circle in front of the cockpit as the Merlin throbs.
I think of Sandy this morning and the moment his engine seized up. He was hit by the rear gunner of a Heinkel 111. I screamed at him to bail out as the flames licked at the wing root, at the fuselage, at the cockpit.
The memory forces me to bite back tears.
This is crazy. What the hell is happening to me?
I turn my head, pretending to scan the empty sky. I can’t let the bomber pilot see me this way. He’s not going to burn alive like the man I ate breakfast with. But he will probably die in a mangled wreck on the coast. Or in the cold grey waters of the English Channel.
There’s a brief change in noise, in air pressure, as the bomber’s surviving engine coughs then resumes its stable hum.
Images come back to me of Sandy’s face: at the pub last night as he raised his pint glass for another toast; in the mess this morning as he dribbled egg yolk down his chin while finishing a joke; buying me a cup of tea from the NAAFI cart as we waited for the call to scramble. Always with a smile.
Even after the first sortie, even after a Messerschmitt had bounced him out of the sun, that cheeky grin was there again, ringed by the imprint of his oxygen mask.
I can’t stay with the bomber. I can’t watch another pilot die in front of me today. Maybe I’m a coward, but I have to leave him to his own destiny.
It’s almost a relief to see my fuel is low. I need to think of myself, save myself, return to my base.
He’s straining at the controls, grimacing with concentration and exertion. He glances across at me again and I raise my hand in a half-hearted wave that turns into a half-baked salute. He snaps a salute back at me, grinning broadly. Almost like Sandy, he fights his fear with a smile and my admiration for this brave man is unreserved.
I nod a final farewell then bank my Spitfire and turn away.
The bomber’s smoking engine etches black graffiti across the evening sky, with whirls and blooms of macabre, illegible calligraphy tracing his route over the empty sea.
Tears obscure my last view of the Heinkel as it drones on towards its final landing.