A man with a wooden leg walked along a hospital corridor.
He was a short, vigorous type with an athletic build, thirty years old, dressed in a plain charcoal gray suit and black toe-capped shoes. He walked briskly, but you could tell he was lame by the slight irregularity in his step:
He reached the end of the corridor and stopped at the nurse’s desk.
“Flight Lieutenant Hoare?” he said.
The nurse looked up from a register. She was a pretty girl with black hair, and she spoke with the soft accent of County Cork. “You’ll be a relation, I’m thinking,” she said with a friendly smile.
Her charm had no effect. “Brother,” said the visitor. “Which bed?”
“Last on the left.”
He turned on his heel and strode along the aisle to the end of the ward.
In a chair beside the bed, a figure in a brown dressing gown sat with his back to the room, looking out of the window, smoking.
The visitor hesitated. “Bart?”
The man in the chair stood up and turned around. There was a bandage on his head and his left arm was in a sling, but he was smiling. He was younger and taller than the visitor. “Hello, Digby.”
Digby put his arms around his brother and hugged him hard. “I thought you were dead,” he said.
Then he began to cry.
“I was flying a Whitley,” Bart said. The Armstrong Whitworth Whitley was a cumbersome long-tailed bomber that flew in an odd nose-down attitude. In the spring of 1941, Bomber Command had a hundred of them, out of a total strength of about seven hundred aircraft. “A Messerschmitt fired on us and we took several hits,” Bart continued. “But he must have been running out of fuel, because he peeled off without finishing us. I thought it was my lucky day. Then we started to lose altitude. The Messerschmitt must have damaged both engines. We chucked out everything that wasn’t bolted down, to reduce our weight, but it was no good, and I realized we’d have to ditch in the North Sea.”
Digby sat on the edge of the hospital bed, dry-eyed now, watching his brother’s face, seeing the thousand- yard-stare as Bart remembered.
“I told the crew to jettison the rear hatch then get into ditching position, braced against the bulkhead.” The Whitley had a crew of five, Digby recalled. “When we reached zero altitude I heaved back on the stick and opened the throttles, but the aircraft refused to level out, and we hit the water with a terrific smash. I was knocked out.”
They were step brothers, eight years apart. Digby’s mother had died when he was thirteen, and his father had married a widow with a boy of her own. From the start, Digby had looked after his little brother, protecting him from bullies and helping him with his schoolwork. They had both been mad about airplanes, and dreamed of being pilots. Digby lost his right leg in a motorcycle accident, studied engineering, and went into aircraft design; but Bart lived the dream.
“When I came to, I could smell smoke. The aircraft was floating and the starboard wing was on fire. The night was dark as the grave, but I could see by the light of the flames. I crawled along the fuselage and found the dinghy pack. I bunged it through the hatch and jumped. Jesus, that water was cold.”
His voice was low and calm, but he took hard pulls on his cigarette, drawing the smoke deep into his lungs and blowing it out between tight-pursed lips in a long jet. “I was wearing a life jacket and I came to the surface like a cork. There was quite a swell, and I was going up and down like a tart’s knickers. Luckily, the dinghy pack was in front of my nose. I pulled the string and it inflated itself, but I couldn’t get in. I didn’t have the strength to heave myself out of the water. I couldn’t understand it-didn’t realize I had a dislocated shoulder and a broken wrist and three cracked ribs and all that. So I just stayed there, holding on, freezing to death.”
There had been a time, Digby recalled, when he thought Bart had been the lucky one.
“Eventually Jones and Croft appeared. They’d held on to the tail until it went down. Neither could swim, but their Mae Wests saved them, and they managed to scramble into the dinghy and pull me in.” He lit a fresh cigarette. “I never saw Pickering. I don’t know what happened to him, but I assume he’s at the bottom of the sea.”
He fell silent. There was one crew member unaccounted for, Digby realized. After a pause, he said, “What about the fifth man?”
“John Rowley, the bomb-aimer, was alive. We heard him call out. I was in a bit of a daze, but Jones and Croft tried to row toward the voice.” He shook his head in a gesture of hopelessness. “You can’t imagine how difficult it was. The swell must have been three or four feet, the flames were dying down so we couldn’t see much, and the wind was howling like a bloody banshee. Jones yelled, and he’s got a strong voice. Rowley would shout back, then the dinghy would go up one side of a wave and down the other and spin around at the same time, and when he called out again his voice seemed to come from a completely different direction. I don’t know how long it went on. Rowley kept shouting, but his voice became weaker as the cold got to him.” Bart’s face stiffened. “He started to sound a bit pathetic, calling to God and his mother and that sort of rot. Eventually he went quiet.”
Digby found he was holding his breath, as if the mere sound of breathing would be an intrusion on such a dreadful memory.
“We were found soon after dawn, by a destroyer on U-boat patrol. They dropped a cutter and hauled us in.” Bart looked out of the window, blind to the green Hertfordshire landscape, seeing a different scene, far away. “Bloody lucky, really,” he said.
They sat in silence for a while, then Bart said, “Was the raid a success? No one will tell me how many came home.”
“Disastrous,” Digby said.
“What about my squadron?”
“Sergeant Jenkins and his crew got back safely.” Digby drew a slip of paper from his pocket. “So did Pilot Officer Arasaratnam. Where’s he from?”
“And Sergeant Riley’s aircraft took a hit but made it back.”
“Luck of the Irish,” said Bart. “What about the rest?”
Digby just shook his head.
“But there were six aircraft from my squadron on that raid!” Bart protested.
“I know. As well as you, two more were shot down. No apparent survivors.”
“So Creighton-Smith is dead. And Billy Shaw. And. . Oh, God.” He turned away.
Bart’s mood changed from despair to anger. “It’s not enough to be sorry,” he said. “We’re being sent out there to die!”
“For Christ’s sake, Digby, you’re part of the bloody government.”
“I work for the Prime Minister, yes.” Churchill liked to bring people from private industry into the government and Digby, a successful aircraft designer before the war, was one of his troubleshooters.
“Then this is your fault as much as anyone’s. You shouldn’t be wasting your time visiting the sick. Get the hell out of here and do something about it.”