KELSMEATH, 1940

Book III of the World War Two Series
Fiction: war/adventure/historical romance


 

The story opens in the present, at an anniversary of the Battle of Britain. Daniel Lamb, veteran ace pilot for the Royal Air Force, now ninety and handicapped, is being driven to the celebration to receive an award as one of the last of ‘the Few.’ On the way, the passing panorama triggers memories of that summer of war and love.

Most of the book takes place in 1940, when twenty year-old Daniel is stationed at RAF Kelsmeath as a front-line Spitfire pilot and invasion is expected any day. Rosalind Ainsworth, a young woman he’s known since they were children and who is becoming a romantic infatuation, contrives to get transferred to a hospital near him. They try to make their relationship work, but she falls for one of Daniel’s squadron, a braggart and, some believe, a coward.

Daily battles in the air against the Luftwaffe’s best are mixed with more intimate conflicts on the ground, until summer’s end, when Germany gives up on invasion and Daniel’s luck in the air runs out.

 

Battle of Britain Facts

After the defeat of France, Hitler ordered his generals to plan the invasion of Britain, Operation Sealion. The objective was to land 160,000 soldiers on south-east England. Within a few weeks the Germans had assembled a large armada of vessels, including 2,000 barges in German, Belgian and French harbors.

Hitler’s Directive 17 ordered: “In order to establish the conditions necessary for the final conquest of England ... the German air force is to overcome the British air force with all means at its disposal and as soon as possible.”

At this time the Luftwaffe had 2,670 aircraft stationed in France, Belgium, Holland and Norway. The RAF had a mere 600. But the British had the advantage of fighting closer to their airfields – German fighters only had enough fuel to stay over England for about half an hour.

In the summer of 1940, an RAF fighter pilot’s average life expectancy was so short that many died before they had even unpacked their kit bags.

 

Sample chapter: © David Andrew Westwood 2008, all rights reserved. No part of this text may be reproduced without written permission from the author.

Chapter 16 : 1940

Feniston Halt station was, as usual, almost deserted of passengers and railway staff. A few hampers of farm produce destined for London were stacked under the ornate eaves of the waiting room next to a Careless Talk Costs Lives poster, and the stationmaster or some assistant pruned the flowers at the far end of the southbound platform. There were thumps in the distance from another Luftwaffe incursion, and on the horizon a pall of oily smoke slowly climbed the humid air and flattened out at a few hundred feet.  

Daniel watched from a bench. A bus from the late twenties, a cream and blue excursion charabanc, apparently exhumed from some moribund seaside resort, crunched across the gravel forecourt in a cloud of exhaust. A large—bosomed woman wearing a cap and armband dismounted and yelled something in a voice like a factory whistle, and a swarm of thirty or so children, ranging from tot to teenage, straggled from the bus and onto the northbound platform. They puddled there, looking bewildered.

Though the children were differently dressed — some seemed like townies in school uniforms, others as if they’d just stepped out of a muddy farmyard — Daniel noticed that they all had something in common: each clutched a suitcase and a gas mask case, and each wore a label safety-pinned to a lapel or collar.

When the train arrived some ten or so minutes later, a mixed passenger and goods local pulled by an elderly engine painted apple green, all eyes turned to watch it wheeze to a halt. Its guard stepped down to the platform, impatiently clutching his flag and whistle.

Daniel’s heart started to race at the thought of seeing Roz again. Now was his chance, finally, of claiming her as his own.

“Come on now, get in line!” the loud woman called at the top of her voice, “Stay away from the rails! You!” she pointed to a little girl in a threadbare maroon coat with a boy of about six, “Hold his hand!”

Instead the girl went up to the woman and whispered something.

“I can’t help that!” yelled the woman. “He should have gone when he had the chance. You stay here where I can keep an eye on you.”

The boy in question began to cry. A dark stain started to spread on the front of his flannel trousers.

Rosalind, who had stepped off the train and was gathering her luggage on the platform, witnessed this exchange. Leaving her packages where they were, she pushed her way through the confusion of bodies to confront the woman, their faces inches apart.

“Who do you think you are?” Rosalind demanded, incensed. “They’re just children, for God’s sake.”

Taken aback, the woman stammered, “I’m … I’m in charge of them and I’ll do whatever I think fit.” Then, visibly collecting herself, she added, “And just who are you, may I ask?”

“I’m Staff Nurse at Feniston House Hospital. And I’m reporting you. You’re obviously the wrong person for this task.”

“Well, I—”

“I’ll have you prosecuted under Section Twelve, and you’ll spend the duration on munitions work.”

A brief look of fear entered the woman’s eyes. Mention of munitions was calculated to frighten the older woman, who would remember the illnesses suffered by female ammunition workers in the Great War. Their hair went red and fell out, and they died of obscure and nasty cancers.

It seemed to work. The woman paled, turned away and in a slightly quieter voice said, “Children? Children! Onto the train, please. Sit anywhere you can find a seat.”

Rosalind carried her things to Daniel and thrust them into his waiting arms.

“’Section Twelve?’” he asked.

She snorted. “And I promoted myself to Staff.”

They walked off together in silence.

“I thought you'd be pleased to see me.” Rosalind faced Daniel across the roof of his car. The train huffed off behind the tiny station.

Daniel smiled. “Of course I am, Roz. Just surprised, that’s all.” He placed her belongings carefully on the brown back seat, next to his raincoat, Winsor and Newton paintbox and precious block of Arches watercolor paper — there wouldn’t be any more of that for a while. “Surprised you would want to be transferred here, nearer the—”

“Bombing? Leicester gets bombed too, you know. All sorts of factories.” She sat in the car as Daniel held the door open.

“Hitler must want to deprive Britain of shoes, then,” Daniel got in, leaned over and pecked her on the cheek.

Was that too avuncular, he wondered? It had only been a couple of months since they’d seen each other, but war months seemed three times longer than ordinary, and he was unsure of what to do. On their home turf at Christmas — her family always came to his for Christmas dinner — their relationship had been a comfortable extension of what it had always been, as long as they could remember — mutual fondness, and the facile banter that comes from many shared memories in familiar, safe surroundings.

But the war was changing them, as he presumed it did everyone. She had blossomed, Daniel noted, and looked more mature in her nurse’s uniform. Her hair was pulled into an efficient bun, and he wanted more than anything else at that moment to kiss her smooth, exposed neck. How was he supposed to put their relationship on a more intimate footing?

“You look so … dashing,” she said. Their eyes met. “Quite the glory boy. Saving us all from the Savage Hun. Tell me — do you still wear one of those silk scarves?”

“Well, yes,” he said, “We all do, out of necessity. You have to look around so much your collar chafes your neck otherwise. We tuck the scarf inside, you see.”

He decided against the King Edward frequented by the squadron, and drove to the Green Man, a pub a short way down the lane which, though it was before licensing hours might provide a slim sandwich or two while they waited for a gin.

They said nothing until they were seated in the pub garden that sloped down to the river. The sound of Begin the Beguine came from a radio inside. It was hard to believe, among the tea roses and their attentive bees, the smell of recently mown grass, that there was a war on. Mayflies skittered along the surface of the water, and a couple of geese lurked in the violet shadows of a willow. The smell of stock and honeysuckle was in every breath. Monet, Daniel thought. If only I had the day free to paint.

“I start tomorrow at seven,” Rosalind said suddenly, not looking at him. “Have you seen Feniston House?”

“Only from above. I knew they were making it a hospital. Why here, though?”

“I was told because it’s on the main road between London and Dover. Both cities are expecting heavy bombing.” And they’re expecting a lot of burn cases, she added silently to herself, since that’s the most common injury with airmen.

On an impulse, Daniel grasped one of her hands, and her gray eyes — really quite impressively large, he thought — swung around and locked on his.

“It’s just … not safe,” he said earnestly. “I’m worried about you. The House shares the wood with the aerodrome, and … who knows?”

She shrugged. “Who knows anything these days, Danny? It’s all a bit of a gamble, isn’t it? Besides, I won’t be on my own. I’m here with my friend Doris.”

Daniel felt as if he should say something profound at this point, and in response his mind promptly went blank. All he could think of was the word “plan,” and that they didn’t have one. “Well,” he said, finally, “At least we’ll be able to see each other.” He leaned closer to elaborate, but the barmaid chose this moment to amble over, tying her apron. Their hands separated.

“Good afternoon,” she said to Daniel, with a cold little professional smile. “What would you like?”

When she had left, Daniel’s eyes followed her retreating figure, then became distracted by some movement to the left of the building. A small figure by the hedge. The publican’s child? He pulled his attention back to their table.

“Roz … I'm really over the moon to see you. Since we were together last, something in me,” he waved his hand, vaguely, “Changed. Grew bigger, I mean.” Now he was afraid she’d laugh. “Oh damn.”

She smiled. “I know, Danny. It’s all so intense, isn’t it? But I don’t know what’s going to happen any more.” She blew a vertical stream of cigarette smoke from a moue of her lips. “I can only take things as they come.”

Daniel felt out of his depth. Women always seemed to be able to remain articulate in these awkward situations.

“That’s—”

Two Hurricanes flew over, low, towards Kelsmeath, and the peace of the afternoon was shattered. The very colors of the garden seemed to have been suddenly tinged with gray as if a cloud had slid above. The geese took to the air, honking indignantly.

“I have to be back in an hour,” he said. “There’s bound to be sorties later.”

They paid the barmaid for their cheese and pickle sandwiches, and ate them as they drove the half-mile to the hospital.

Feniston House was relatively small for nineteenth century gentry. Two stories, warm peach stone with a portico of four Ionic columns. Despite being neo-Grecian in style it was also very English, and struck Daniel as representative of a naïve and optimistic age. He pulled up in the front, then got out and retrieved Rosalind’s things. Then he held out a small white card.

“Here. It’s the squadron’s main number. Phone calls are frowned upon, of course, but if you need—”

“Yes. Thanks, Danny. You’re very sweet. Come and see me. I’m off Mondays, I think, but not this first one. Training and all that.”

She kissed him on the lips, briefly. Something about her taste ended a dormancy in Daniel, and he was overcome by a mixture of desire, love and a certainty that the universe had somehow singled them out as special. They had been touched by destiny, it was supremely obvious. As he drove off, dazed, he felt in his very bones the future unrolling for them, a future that in spite of the bellicose ranting from Europe would come to pass, and they would be together, happy and in love, until natural causes parted them long hence.

On his way back to the aerodrome Daniel passed the Green Man again, and this time got a look at the figure in the lane outside. It was a child, a boy of about eleven or twelve, half hidden by an overgrown Queen Anne’s Lace spreading out of the hedge. He was wearing gray short trousers to his scabbed knees and a matching blazer with red piping. The breast pocket had some kind of school badge, and to one lapel was attached a tan label.

*  *  *

Back at Kelsmeath the pilots were nervously awaiting their evening’s instructions, garnered from the new radar, radio direction finding and Observer Corps. reports, distilled, compared and telephoned in on special lines. The weather was turning bad, eight-tenths cloud, visibility pisspoor.

“Ah, here’s Lammy,” said Reynolds. “I say — I hear you’re the ‘Lamb’s of Leicester’ Lamb — is that right?”

Daniel nodded, uncomfortable with this conversational gambit. He grabbed an old copy of the Daily Express and slumped into a creaky white—painted wicker chair, trying earnestly to read an article titled, “Mr. Sensible says —— stay away from the windows.”

“What’s fresh today, then?” Reynolds continued, encouraged. “Mutton?”

There were chuckles among the group.

“Perhaps you can get us some better grub here. Does your dad deliver to these parts?”

Luckily Gill was shuffling through the limited section of records in the rack next to the donated phonograph. He picked one and placed it on the turntable.

The sun has got his hat on
Hip-hip-hip hooray
The sun has got his hat on and
He’s coming out today…

This always got an affectionate groan, and though they were all on the verge of hating the song, its silliness relieved the tension. They cheerfully sang along, and the effect was akin to the music hall gags the pilots regularly trotted out, even though they knew the punchlines:

— My dog’s got no nose.
— No nose? How does he smell?
— Bloody awful.

Deciding against hearing the song all the way through, and dreading the mawkish “We’ll Meet Again,” to which it was customary to sing the serviceman’s words “whale meat again,” Daniel wandered outside.

He prided himself on his eyesight. As he looked around the busy airfield with its thirty two Spitfires, fourteen Hurricanes — only eleven operational at present — its puppy-nosed Anson odd-job plane, and the mangled frame of the crashed Beaufort off to the eastern perimeter, he noticed a movement over at the wood a hundred yards away.

A small boy in gray school uniform, with scabby knees and a label on his blazer.

“Bugger,” muttered Daniel. With quick, long strides he walked over. He towered over the boy.

“What’s your name, sonny?”

“Geoffrey.”

“Did you follow me here, Geoffrey?”

“Yes, sir.” “You were supposed to have been on the evacuee train, weren’t you?”

Geoffrey looked down at his socks, one up and one down. “Yes, sir.”

“And why aren’t you?”

“Didn’t want to go, sir. Um … don’t like Wales.”

“Well, you can’t stay here, chum. Where are your parents?”

Geoffrey looked vaguely off in the direction of the coast. “Dad got killed in France. Mum doesn’t … do much any more. Lost interest, sort of.”

Daniel nodded, put his arm around the boy’s bony shoulders.

“All right, old chap. Come in for a cup of tea.”

The boy’s face brightened, and he looked avidly at the fighter aircraft, lined up and crawling with ground crew, the antiquated fuel bowsers, the camouflage netting, the ammo boxes spilling their snakes of bullets.

“Then we’ll have to send you back, you know.”

When they walked into the mess, Reynolds looked up. “Oh my Gawd,” he said, “the pilots they’re sending us these days are getting younger and younger.”

Daniel got the boy a cup of tea with three sugars, and a biscuit. Just as they had claimed two old armchairs Reed came in, saw them and came over, very red in the face.

“What’s this, then?” he demanded.

Daniel looked at him evenly. “Evacuee, sir. Missed his train. Wandered over here.”

“Then he can bloody well wander right back. Wait.” He grabbed the “cold” phone — the ordinary phone to the outside, civilian world — and asked the local operator for the number of Feniston Halt station.

Daniel leaned over to Geoffrey, who was nursing his tea primly and continuing to absorb everything around him.

“Have you ever been to Wales?”

Geoffrey looked cornered. “No, sir.”

“It has mountains, you know. Much more interesting than all this flat stuff.”

The boy’s expression turned to resigned and miserable. “Yes, sir.”

“Lamb!” Reed called, cradling the big Bakelite handset, “Train at nineteen-twenty hours. Get him back there for it.”

Daniel stood and looked at his watch. It was already eighteen—fifteen. Geoffrey put down his cup and saucer and stood too.

Chamberlain started to bark and run in circles. Simultaneously the red phone rang and the air raid siren started to wail. People dashed in all directions.

Daniel dragged the boy outside, intending to drive him away immediately. “That one’s my car. I’ll be there in a jiffy.”

From the western edge of the aerodrome came the crump, crump of five hundred pound bombs, and Daniel saw three Heinkel He 111s in a line abreast heading their way.

Pilots ran toward their aircraft, whose positions were fixed in their minds, followed closely by fitters. Spence ran towards him, in front of the bombers, and two holes opened in his chest. He pitched forward onto the ground like a discarded doll. Daniel threw himself into one of the slit trenches.

As his hearing recovered from the concussion of the first pass, Daniel stood and surveyed the damage. They would be back for another go in a minute, he knew. Smoke was everywhere, and the ambulance bell had started up, though he couldn’t see the vehicle. Reed was standing nearby, clutching a crimson hand that seemed to have too few fingers.

“Get them up! Get them up!” he yelled hoarsely. Tears were streaming down his face into his ridiculous mustache.

Daniel’s training took over. He looked for the nearest undamaged fighter and began to run towards it. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Hallis had the same idea. Was there no one else? As he passed another air raid trench he looked down and saw a man in pilot’s uniform crouching, his hands over his head.

He stooped down to grab the man’s shoulders and try to pull him to his feet, but he couldn’t get the leverage he needed. The man turned his head and looked up at him.

“It’s a trap,” Reynolds said, his eyes wide. “There’ll be an escort.”

“So what? You want to stay here? Quick! For God’s sake, man, move!”

Daniel gave up and ran on, clambering up the wing of the Spitfire and leaping into its cockpit, followed closely by ground crew. BTFCPPUR, he recited. After what seemed an eternity he was hooked up to oxygen and radio, sliding his canopy shut. He forgot the thumbs up and ran over the chocks before they could be pulled free.

As the two planes trundled over the grass away from the base the bombers were back. Daniel throttled up too fast and lurched to the right, over the unrolled part of the airfield. This was what saved him. Hallis’ plane, to his left, erupted in a yellow and red fireball of high explosive and aviation fuel, and pieces of both pilot and plane spattered onto Daniel’s fuselage and wings in a rose mist. Daniel’s Spitfire rocketed into the air. The torque wrenched the right wing down, and he compensated, pulling the plane’s nose up without taking the time to look if it were safe to do so.

Someone was talking over his radio in an excited voice that made the words impossible to decipher.

Daniel threw his craft sideways and looked down at the retreating bombers, and up into the light cloud cover. Sure enough, the fighter escort.

“109s. Three o’clock high. About ten,” he said for anyone who might be able to hear. His mouthpiece smelled of someone else’s vomit. Pulling back the stick he turned and aimed himself at the descending pack of black silhouettes. With his finger on the firing button, he sighted on one’s blue propeller cone, waited until his flesh crawled with fear of a head—on collision, and squeezed. He saw the Messerchmitt’s canopy explode, then he was past and already turning, so tightly that his eyes blurred.

He was behind the raiders now, and followed as they dove on his airfield to strafe. He picked another and boosted the engine again. His target loosed a stream of machine gun fire on the clusters of buildings, aircraft and running blue figures, then climbed. Daniel was on its tail, and just close enough. Gritting his teeth so hard that he felt one in the front crack, he pumped three long seconds’ worth into the climbing German plane. His explosive bullets grazed its tail and right side, and then pieces seemed to fly off.

Twirling slowly, it first streamed white smoke. Daniel pursued, pumped more into him. The white stream turned black as the engine seized from lack of coolant, and flames began. He still clung on. A huddled mass with legs fell from the cockpit, hit the tail and disappeared below.

Daniel pulled away, looked around urgently. “Reynolds! Where are you?”

Cross—winged bombers were leaving at treetop height now, spread out over three square miles. The fighters were reclaiming altitude, assuming the bombers would have nobody left to concern them. His quick appraisal showed no RAF planes.

“Reynolds!”

Daniel turned again to follow one of the attackers, aware that his ammunition might be low. He chased, and gave the Dornier a solid burst before his guns fell silent. He watched coldly as the enemy plane wound crazily back and forth, suddenly dipping and plowing into the edge of a field and fetching up, smoking, against the hedgerow. He hoped its crew was dead.

He noticed his speed dropping. What was happening? A glance at his gauges showed an oil leak. He must’ve been hit at some point and not realized it. Cursing, he reluctantly turned for home, hoping he would make it so he could grab another plane and bring down more of the bastards.

His engine’s temperature dial was well into the red when he flopped the Spitfire down in a shoddy landing that he would’ve been reprimanded for, had there been anyone left to see.

He jumped down from the wing into what looked like a Bosch painting. Through the smoke he saw bodies and body parts lying everywhere, in and around craters with black edges that were coated with visceral slime. He was almost choked by the reek of burning in the air, much of it with a meaty tang. When he looked back at his plane from the ground, coughing, legs shaking, he saw it was riddled with holes. And he must have pulled his tail up too abruptly on takeoff, because he’d shortened the propeller blades by a couple of inches. They were ragged at the tips.

Reynolds landed nearby, and clambered down from his cockpit looking dazed. Daniel could see no damage at all to his aircraft.

Prosser was trying to drag off a man whose legs were gone from the knees down. Another body lay like a plate from an anatomy text, somehow filleted. Someone’s rationbook blew across the ground. There was no longer a Mess, just a crater surrounded by pieces of splintered wood. Next to it was a car on its side. His car.

A thin, small leg with a gray sock stuck out from underneath.