They were nearing the bomb site and Freddie quickly scrambled into position, swapping his post as Nose Gunner to take up his duties of Navigator Bombardier. He had to squeeze himself like a circus contortionist into the narrow seat in the glass nose of the plane. Three of his comrades remained in pent-up alertness at their guns and Walter the pilot’s voice crackled in their earpieces telling them all to be ready for heavy flack and ground-fire – as if they needed reminding.
The boom-boom of the artillery was already deafening and had almost drowned out the drone of the aircraft’s twin engines. Flickering lights danced through the cockpit’s glass shield and the crew’s faces were intermittently lit, their boyish features distorted and ravaged and making them appear as ugly as ghouls.
Freddie lowered his eye to the bomb’s range finder. Thick cloud drifted below and for a moment there was nothing but blackness. Then the cloud formation raced by at over two hundred miles an hour and Freddie could clearly see the twisting shape of the river that would guide them to the docks. He radioed over his course alterations to Walter and the plane briefly banked and then corrected as Walter altered the aircraft’s pitch accordingly.
Now the flak had intensified and the arc lights below sought them out, the white beams soaring and searching for their prey. The ground guns began to pound and their deep deathly sounds joined the awful cacophony. The most dangerous moments of the mission had begun.
Behind him Willy, the rear gunner, screamed obscenities as a single prop enemy fighter screeched towards them, its machine guns unrelenting as it got closer and closer. Willy returned fire and for eternal seconds the two guns barked savagely at each other until suddenly the enemy plane veered off sharply and then roared away into the black sky.
Through his viewfinder Freddie could clearly see the docks and buildings below, half of them ablaze with thick smoke spiralling heavenwards in the intense heat. It was a scene from Dante’s Inferno, a scene from hell, and their mission was to add to it.
“Does it not bother you?” Claudia had asked him. “Knowing that you kill and maim all those people?”
They had picnicked by the lake on the last day of his last leave. The weather had been perfect with clear blue skies, a warm sun and a gentle breeze blowing across the water. Freddie had sat cross legged with his arm around her slim waist as Claudia leaned against him. When he didn’t answer immediately, she tilted slightly away so she could see his face more clearly. He had started to grow a moustache and she wasn’t sure if she liked it or not. His facial bristles were pale like his hair and his eyelashes. She knew he had grown the moustache to try to look older than his twenty years.
They had known each other all their lives, attending the same schools, growing up with the same friends. He was the only man she had ever loved and all she desired was to spend the rest of her life with him, to have children together and grow comfortably into their old ages. They had been engaged for a year and Claudia wanted to set the date for their wedding, but Freddie was reluctant. He said it would better to wait until after the war, until life went back to normal and they could plan for the future. But how long would that be? The war could go on for years and years.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I shouldn’t ask you a thing like that.”
“No,” he replied, kissing her forehead. “It’s all right. I just . . . I just try not to think about it, I suppose. It’s just my job, the thing I must do. If I think about it, then I could go mad.”
“Sorry,” she said again, wrapping her arms around him and leaning her head back on his shoulder.
“Two minutes,” Freddie shouted into the radio.
He was fully alert now, his muscles tight and his breath shallow. All that existed was the slowly moving panorama below. The plane inched ever forward, the target coming inexorably within his bombsight. Even the tumultuous noise and mayhem all around had somehow been obliterated from his consciousness.
“Steady . . .,” he said softly. “Steady . . .” Then loudly, “Away!” and he depressed the lever and dropped their dreadful cargo. He watched as the bombs rained down beneath them, getting smaller and smaller until becoming little mushrooms of intense light as they did their work.
Within seconds Walter had turned and climbed, gaining altitude at two hundred and fifty miles an hour, reaching five thousand feet and heading away from the Thames towards the channel and onwards to Berlin and home.
Steven Elvy has had a varied working life as a film librarian, a cook, a barman, a labourer, a plastics-recycler, a salesman and a recruitment consultant. He grew up in North London then lived in East Sussex, The Midlands and The Lake District and now in a village in the Ribble Valley in Lancashire. Always passionate about art and literature, he has published four novels. He has been married ‘a few times’.