The signalman wig-wagged him, and he turned up the throttle, feeling the plane begin to move.
He touched his pocket automatically, whispering, ‘Love you, Dolly,’ under his breath. Everyone had his little rituals, those last few moments before takeoff. For Jerry MacKenzie, it was his wife’s face and his lucky stone that usually settled the worms in his belly. She’d found it in a rocky hill on the Isle of Lewis, where they’d spent their brief honeymoon—a rough sapphire, she said, very rare.
‘Like you,’ he’d said, and kissed her.
No need for worms just the now, but it wasn’t a ritual if you only did it sometimes, was it? And even if it wasn’t going to be combat today, he’d need to be paying attention.
He went up in slow circles, getting the feel of the new plane, sniffing to get her scent. He wished they’d let him fly Dolly II, her seat stained with his sweat, the familiar dent in the console where he’d slammed his fist in exultation at a kill—but they’d already modified this one with the wing cameras and the latest thing in night sights. It didn’t do to get attached to the planes, anyway; they were almost as fragile as the men flying them, though the parts could be reused.
No matter; he’d sneaked out to the hangar the evening before and done a quick rag doll on the nose to make it his. He’d know Dolly III well enough by the time they went into Poland.
He dived, pulled up sharp, and did Dutch rolls for a bit, wig-wagging through the cloud layer, then complete rolls and Immelmanns, all the while reciting Malan’s Rules to focus his mind and keep from getting airsick.
The Rules were posted in every RAF barracks now: the Ten Commandments, the fliers called them—and not as a joke.
TEN OF MY RULES FOR AIR FIGHTING, the poster said in bold black type. Jerry knew them by heart.
‘Wait until you see the whites of his eyes,’ he chanted under his breath. ‘Fire short bursts of one to two seconds only when your sights are definitely “ON.” ’ He glanced at his sights, suffering a moment’s disorientation. The camera wizard had relocated them. Shite.
‘Whilst shooting, think of nothing else, brace the whole of your body: have both hands on the stick: concentrate on your ring sight.’ Well, away to f**k, then. The buttons that operated the camera weren’t on the stick; they were on a box connected to a wire that ran out the window; the box itself was strapped to his knee. He’d be bloody looking out the window anyway, not using sights—unless things went wrong and he had to use the guns. In which case …
‘Always keep a sharp lookout. “Keep your finger out.” ’ Aye, right, that one was still good.
‘Height gives you the initiative.’ Not in this case. He’d be flying low, under the radar, and not be looking for a fight. Always the chance one might find him, though. If any German craft found him flying solo in Poland, his best chance was likely to head straight for the sun and fall in. That thought made him smile.
‘Always turn and face the attack.’ He snorted and flexed his bad knee, which ached with the cold. Aye, if you saw it coming in time.
‘Make your decisions promptly. It is better to act quickly even though your tactics are not the best.’ He’d learnt that one fast. His body often was moving before his brain had even notified his consciousness that he’d seen something. Nothing to see just now, nor did he expect to, but he kept looking by reflex.
‘Never fly straight and level for more than thirty seconds in the combat area.’ Definitely out. Straight and level was just what he was going to have to do. And slowly.
‘When diving to attack, always leave a proportion of your formation above to act as a top guard.’ Irrelevant; he wouldn’t have a formation—and that was a thought that gave him the cold grue. He’d be completely alone, no help coming if he got into bother.
‘INITIATIVE, AGGRESSION, AIR DISCIPLINE, and TEAM WORK are words that MEAN something in Air Fighting.’ Yeah, they did. What meant something in reconnaissance? Stealth, Speed, and Bloody Good Luck, more like. He took a deep breath, and dived, shouting the last of the Ten Commandments so it echoed in his Perspex shell.
‘Go in quickly—Punch hard—GET OUT!’
Rubbernecking, they called it, but Jerry usually ended a day’s flying feeling as though he’d been cast in concrete from the shoulder blades up. He bent his head forward now, ferociously massaging the base of his skull to ease the growing ache. He’d been practising since dawn, and it was nearly teatime. Ball bearings, set, for the use of pilots, one, he thought. Ought to add that to the standard equipment list. He shook his head like a wet dog, hunched his shoulders, groaning, then resumed the sector-by-sector scan of the sky around him that every pilot did religiously, three hundred and sixty degrees, every moment in the air. All the live ones, anyway.
Dolly’d given him a white silk scarf as a parting present. He didn’t know how she’d managed the money for it and she wouldn’t let him ask, just settled it round his neck inside his flight jacket. Somebody’d told her the Spitfire pilots all wore them, to save the constant collar chafing, and she meant him to have one. It felt nice, he’d admit that. Made him think of her touch when she’d put it on him. He pushed the thought hastily aside; the last thing he could afford to do was start thinking about his wife, if he ever hoped to get back to her. And he did mean to get back to her.
Where was that bugger? Had he given up?
No, he’d not; a dark spot popped out from behind a bank of cloud just over his left shoulder and dived for his tail. Jerry turned, a hard, high spiral, up and into the same clouds, the other after him like stink on shite. They played at dodgem for a few moments, in and out of the drifting clouds—he had the advantage in altitude, could play the coming-out-of-the-sun trick, if there was any sun, but it was autumn in Northumberland and there hadn’t been any sun in days …
Gone. He heard the buzzing of the other plane, faintly, for a moment—or thought he had. Hard to tell above the dull roar of his own engine. Gone, though; he wasn’t where Jerry’d expected him to be.
‘Oh, like that, is it?’ He kept on looking, ten degrees of sky every second; it was the only way to be sure you didn’t miss any—A glimpse of something dark, and his heart jerked along with his hand. Up and away. It was gone then, the black speck, but he went on climbing, slowly now, looking. Wouldn’t do to get too low, and he wanted to keep the altitude …