By Simon Brading
With volume 5 of the Misfit Squadron series, "The Maltese Defence" now published, work is already well under way on volume 6, "Tales from the Second Great War" which is a collection of short stories.
In the first of the stories (spoiler free!) we find out more about a character who was introduced in Volume 2, The Russian Resistance.
Exclusively on the Sea Lion Press Magazine, Simon Brading is serialising his latest story: "England Expects: September 1940"
15th September 1940
The next day dawned much the same as the previous one, with nothing on radar, and Chastity considered asking whether she could take Steward and Easton up again.
Something told her not to, though, and at just after eleven her gut feeling was proven right as both Spitsteam squadrons at Biggin Hill were given the order to scramble.
Thanks to the reinforcements and a few pilots coming back from a couple of days of much needed rest, the two squadrons were able to put just over twenty aircraft in the air.
As soon as they were up, the voice of the controller at Biggin filled their ears over the general frequency. ‘Tennis and Gannic Squadrons, this is Sapper. Incoming enemy raid, estimated two hundred and fifty plus aircraft. Heading one zero zero and make angels twenty-five, over.’
‘Gannic Squadron, this is Red One. You heard the man, coming around left now.’
Lieutenant Jones’ call over the squadron frequency was not part of the normal protocol for such a simple manoeuvre and Chastity frowned; he was afraid that the new pilots wouldn’t react to him just turning and there would be collisions, but there were other ways of making sure there were no mishaps than as good as announcing that he had no confidence in them, like simply turning slower.
Chastity still kept an eye on Steward and Easton, on either side of her as yellow flight, as she turned onto the new heading; just because she disagreed with how he’d done it, didn’t mean she didn’t share his trepidation. Jones had left her with both of the girls, rather than split them up and put one each on the wing of someone experienced, like he’d done with the two male newbies, and as far as Chastity was concerned that was just more evidence of the prejudices that were rife in the squadron and the RAC in general.
She forced her frustrations out of her mind as best she could to concentrate on the job at hand; she was going to be hard enough pressed to get through the fight herself, let alone try to get her two charges through it and didn’t need the distraction.
Even though she’d said everything she’d needed to say on the ground already, she switched to yellow flight’s comm channel to say it again; her voice and the simple act of running through what she expected of them would focus their thoughts and stop them from thinking about how many ways they could die in the next half an hour. Her words died in her throat when she saw the enemy raid, though.
She’d heard Sapper call out the number of incoming aircraft but not really processed it until now. Two hundred and fifty aircraft comprised by far the largest single raid that had ever come across the Channel and it was already well over England, an endless line of enemy fighters and bombers, which, she saw, would only narrowly miss Biggin because it was heading straight for London.
‘Say again, Yellow One?’
‘What? Oh, nothing, Three.’ Chastity had no idea what she’d muttered under her breath, but it was probably something she’d learned from her mother and wouldn’t bear repeating.
The Biggin Spitsteams were climbing as hard as they could, but Chastity could already see that they wouldn’t reach the raid before they were over London. Some fighters already had, though, and smoke trails showed where some of the large Prussian machines had already fallen, burning. She slotted lenses in place over her goggles to try to make out who they were and what was happening, but they were much too far away still.
‘Gannic Leader to Sapper. Come in please.’
‘Sapper here, Gannic Leader. Go ahead.’
‘We’re not going to get to these blighters before they’ve unloaded. Why the hell didn’t you send us up earlier? Over.’
There were a few seconds of silence as the controller at Biggin Hill, probably in shock at Jones’ bad manners and blatant breach of radio protocol, tried to decide what to say.
‘Raid initially presented as one hundred plus aircraft, Gannic Leader. You were scrambled as soon as revised estimates came in.’
‘That’s not bloody good enough, Sapper!’
‘Understood, Gannic Leader. Try to do your best even so, there’s a good chap.’
There was a chiding note to the Biggin controller’s dry reply that made Chastity grin widely and she suspected that Jones’ hopes of being promoted and confirmed as commander of 92 Squadron hadn’t been helped by the short exchange. He hadn’t demonstrated anything in the way of leadership since he took over, so she wouldn’t be sorry if he didn’t get the squadron.
He did himself no favours with his next order, either.
‘Bugger this for a lark, I want some height before I take on these blighters. Gannic Flight will turn to one four zero on my mark. Mark.’
Chastity made the course correction with the other two flights, but inside she was seething; it would mean not intercepting the raid as it got to London, but rather coming up behind it and catching it after it had turned for home. If 92 were on their own that would make sound tactical sense, especially with the new pilots, because it would allow them to confront them without a height disadvantage, but they weren’t on their own and the delay in reinforcing the rest of the RAC aircraft would only cost the lives of British pilots. It was the wrong move and it was typical of someone who had been one of Porter’s closest friends.
Thankfully, Biggin were listening in to the squadron comms and were almost as quick as Chastity to condemn Jones’ action.
‘Gannic Leader, Sapper here. Raid is on bearing zero nine zero, suggest you turn to intercept, over.’
The controller’s words and tone of voice might have been placid, but there was an implied threat in them that was chilling; if Jones disobeyed the “suggestion” a court martial would be sure to follow with at least a charge of disobeying an order, but possibly one of cowardice in the face of the enemy. Not to mention that he would be ostracised by most of the country if his refusal to defend London were made public. It went without saying, though, that, whatever he did in the next few seconds, whether he came to his senses and did what everybody knew was the right thing or not, his aspirations had gone down in flames.
This time he made no announcement of his intention to turn, but everyone was expecting the move and there were no accidents.
The first of the bombers had long ago dropped their loads and turned for home when 92 Squadron finally reached twenty-five thousand feet and they were the ones that Jones led them to attack. He made no more radio calls, but just angled his flight to intercept the lead bombers. Chastity sniffed at him in disdain and continued climbing with Easton and Steward while she surveyed the enemy formation, looking for a target. The bombers had spread out a bit after turning and she soon spotted a group of forty or fifty HO111’s, slightly separated from the rest, apparently without a fighter escort.
‘Alright, girls, stick close, like three cogs in the same machine. Pick your targets, don’t waste ammo, and for Victoria’s sake don’t collide with anything.’
Chastity took them in and began making fast sweeping runs at the bombers, each one at a sight angle so as to reduce the very real possibility of collision she’d mentioned. She didn’t press her Spitsteam quite as hard as she usually did, so as to give her wingmates a chance to keep up with her, and was pleasantly surprised when they not only did, but also managed to get in a few solid shots of their own.
It was almost easy, the Spitsteams moving at such speed that the return fire from the bombers seemed unable to touch them, and four of the large machines dropped from the sky with catastrophic damage.
It couldn’t last, though, and everything changed when the escort arrived.
Chastity saw them first - a flight of MU9’s racing to the aid of their slower comrades. They were already too close to avoid or climb above, so there were only a few choices of what to do and she ran through the options in an instant.
Easton and Sanders had acquitted themselves well, much better than she’d expected, but they weren’t ready to face the experienced fighter pilots, so fighting was out of the question. As was just turning and running; that would be abandoning the other RAC pilots and make her as no better than Jones. The last option, then, was the only one and it was also the best as far as she and the war in the sky were concerned.
‘Heads up, girls, we’ve got enemy fighters at ten o’clock. We’re going to ignore them for now, though, and do a couple more passes on the one-elevens before getting the hell out and back to Biggin, understood?’
There was a nervous hesitation to the two women’s acknowledgements when they came that was completely understandable, but there was no time to reassure them as Chastity dived back into the bomber formation, closely followed by the MU’s. She pushed her Spitsteam much harder than before, trusting that fear and adrenaline would spur on her wingmates and help them to keep up with her. She spun around and over bombers, pulled maximum rate turns behind them and squeezing off shot after shot, always with an eye to the enemy fighters, making sure that there was always at least one of the large machines between her flight and them.
She kept going as long as she dared, but the Prussians were getting closer and her wingmates were looking ragged, their formation getting more and more loose with each parting second and their shots, when they came, going wider and wider. She herself was also running low on ammunition, so she decided it was time to call it a day.
‘Yellow flight, on my mark, invert and dive.’
Chastity headed straight for the largest clump of bombers. She opened fire at extreme range and was pleased to see tracers racing past her on either side as her wingmates followed suit. She kept her finger on the button as she danced on her rudder pedals, weaving back and forth, sowing as much chaos as she could, until her guns clicked on empty. She wasn’t finished there, though, and she aimed her nose straight at the leader. She held the collision course until she could see the panicked face of the pilot and pulled up at the last second, passing over the huge tail of the bomber with only feet to spare as the machine dived away, belatedly trying to avoid a collision that was never going to come.
She shouted into the comms, waited a heartbeat, then rolled her Spitsteam onto its back and pulled the stick into her lap, sending her aircraft flashing between two more of the enemy machines.
The G forces piled on and she screamed to keep the blood from rushing out of her brain and rendering her unconscious. The pressure soon came off though as she eased the stick back to neutral to let the Spitsteam fall almost vertically and she spared the time to glance to either side, where Easton and Sanders should be. Her stomach churned when she found only found Easton and she clicked on her radio as she craned her neck to look behind, hoping that Sanders had just been forced to roll to the other side or something. ‘Yellow Three, where are you?’
There was no reply, though, and she sighed, but then put the girl out of her mind; she still had to get herself and Easton home safely. Puzzlingly, though, when she searched for pursuers she found none; the fighters had stayed with the bombers.
A quick glance at the familiar scenery below told her where she was and she pulled out of the dive slightly and headed directly for Biggin.
‘Hang on a tick, would you, Arrowsmith? I want a word.’
Chastity looked back at Barbara Yarrow in surprise. She and Easton had just made their reports and had already gotten up to go when the intelligence officer had called her back.
‘Yes, ma’am.’ Chastity turned to Easton. ‘Go ahead, I’ll catch up.’
The thin waif nodded and smiled, but her complexion, even whiter than usual, and the twitch at the corner of her mouth betrayed how much having to go up to face so many enemy aircraft on her first ever combat sortie had affected her.
She watched the girl go on unsteady legs, and only when she had stepped out into the sunshine did she turn back to Yarrow.
‘It’s Sanders isn’t it?’ she asked quietly.
Yarrow nodded. ‘I didn’t want to say anything in front of Easton.’ She glanced down at her notes. ‘Her Spitsteam went down just outside of Sidcup with her still inside.’
‘I thought... I’d hoped she...’ Chastity sighed. ‘Never mind.’
‘I’m sorry, but didn’t think I should be the one to tell Easton.’
‘You’re right, it should be me. Thank you, ma’am. I’ll do it tonight, after flying.’ She nodded then turned to go, leaving unsaid what they both mentally added in their minds anyway - if she survives.
She turned back after only a couple of steps, though. ‘You know, I don’t think I hit that share actually.’
Chastity had bagged two bombers outright and had shared one each with her pilots. Renouncing her claim on one of the shares would give it entirely to Sanders. It was an empty gesture which would do nothing to bring the girl back, but it might go some way to consoling her parents, knowing that their daughter had done her damnedest and taken some of the enemy with her.
Yarrow nodded and made a note. ‘Good show, Arrowsmith.’
Chastity hurried over to the NAACI van and took her meal from the volunteer - potatoes and cabbage again, with a sorry looking carrot and tinned meat - then went to find Easton. The girl was sitting on the floor, on her own away from the few other survivors of the morning’s flight, leaning against the side of the dispersal hut with her plate in her lap and a tin cup of water on the grass next to her.
Chastity sat down next to her and began eating, stuffing the unappetising food into her mouth and swallowing it as quickly as she could, not because she was hungry, but so as not to taste it as much. Thankfully, though, rations were a bit short at the moment and there wasn’t much of it to eat. The girl was only picking at her food and she nudged her.
‘You’ve got to eat. If you don’t you might pass out in the cockpit; pure oxygen and hunger don’t mix well, believe me.’
It was a lie, but the poor quality of the food would give her something else to think about, aside from her own mortality. She also looked as undernourished as a Dickens orphan.
‘You know, you did quite well...’ Chastity began.
‘Arrowsmith!’ The bellow came from the door of the dispersal hut, only a few yards away, cutting her off. Apparently, the duty NCO hadn’t seen her around the corner and had taken his annoyance out on the eardrums of everyone within fifty yards.
‘Here!’ Chastity called out, leaning forwards and waving at the man.
He turned and scowled at her. ‘Squadron Leader Brice wants you. Sharpish!’
‘Thank you, Corporal.’
Chastity groaned and got to her feet. She contemplated taking her food with her, but rejected the idea; she didn’t think she’d be able to keep the food down on the bumpy ride to the main buildings. Throwing it away was out of the question, though, so she held the plate out to Easton. ‘Here, get this down you as well.’
The girl took it, but Chastity didn’t wait to see if she ate it or not, she just jogged over to the open-topped autocar that was always standing by to ferry the staff around.
Brice was in his office, pacing up and down while he shouted into a radio receiver as his secretary cringed beside the wall, frantically making notes, trying to keep up with his rant. He broke off as soon as Chastity appeared in the open doorway, though, telling whoever was on the other end that he would call them back.
‘Come in, Arrowsmith!’ He jerked his thumb at the receiver. ‘That new War Minister is a real berk, isn’t he?’
‘I wouldn’t know, sir.’
‘Trust me, he is.’ Brice stalked over to his desk and sat down. He looked up at her and took a deep breath to calm his nerves. ‘Well, there’s no good way to say this, so here goes. We’ve just got confirmation that Jones bought it this morning. That leaves 92 with just new recruits and three sergeant pilots - you Thomson and Anderson and you’re senior. So, until we get another squadron commander posted, which will probably be tomorrow, maybe the day after, you’ve got the squadron.’
Chastity opened her mouth to protest, but he just shook his head. ‘That’s final, Arrowsmith and I’m sure you’ll do fine. Oh, and two more pilots arrived while you were up, so you’re back up to eight.’
‘Do I have some time to take them up, sir?’
‘I don’t see why...’
Brice broke off when the radio squawked and he watched as his secretary picked up the receiver.
‘Commander’s office.’ The man listened briefly then put the receiver back and looked at Brice. ‘92 and 72 to five minute readiness, sir.’
Brice shrugged at Chastity. ‘Sorry, Arrowsmith, looks like they’re going to have to take their chances without your tutelage. Good luck.’
‘Thank you, sir.’
Chastity barely waited until she was out of the door before breaking into a run.
She arrived back at dispersal just as the scramble order came in and leapt out of the autocar and straight into her Spitsteam. She shrugged into her glidewings and life vest and did up her straps as she was taxiing to the end of the airstrip, then, as soon as everyone was in the air and on the heading Sapper had given them, putting the black smoke of a still-burning London behind them, she called out the order of battle and formed her aircraft up. As squadron commander, she took the lead as Red One and assigned Thomson to lead Blue flight, leaving him to sort out his own pilots. She put one of the new pilots, whose names she didn’t know, on her wing and told Easton to take the second element with the second new pilot on her wing - Easton’s single combat mission wasn’t much experience, but it was more than the other two had.
The incoming enemy raid was even bigger than the previous massive one, numbering an unbelievable and extremely daunting four hundred and fifty aircraft and the British had thrown everything they had into the air to respond. The Biggin squadrons found more than a hundred aircraft already aloft in the skies over Kent, cruising towards the enemy, including not only the Misfits, but the Royal Guard Squadron as well.
It was impressive, with more British fighters in the skies at the same time than there had been since the start of the war, but Chastity couldn’t help but wonder just how many were being flown by men and women with little or no experience, like her own pilots. She was also more than a little concerned about the fact that, if the elite Royal Guard, the last bastion of defence for the Royal Family, had been committed to the fight, then Whitehall was likely expecting this to be Britain’s last stand and, if the day’s battle was lost, then the RAC would have very little left to stop the invasion fleet they’d failed to destroy only two days before.
Chastity had only just led her aircraft into formation with another couple of Spitsteam squadrons when the radio crackled and someone cleared their throat in her ears. She frowned, wondering who would possibly have such poor radio discipline and yet be transmitting on the general frequency - she hoped nothing had happened to the usual controller; they couldn’t afford any chaos that day of all days.
It wasn’t a controller who came on, though, but she still recognised the voice and unconsciously sat up straighter in her seat as the King began to speak in his familiar, hesitant fashion.
‘Hello, brave pilots of the RAC. I am speaking to you from the eleven group control room at Uxbridge, where I will remain throughout this fateful day so that I can be as close to you as possible during this most difficult of times.’
The King paused and Chastity could almost hear him preparing himself to continue; he had famously fought with a speech impediment since a very early age and still had difficulty speaking in public.
‘I could easily make a long-winded speech saying that England expects every man and woman to do his duty, or that this will be your finest hour, but I won’t; I will save those platitudes for the people and for after the day’s work is done because you already know what is at stake and you are well equipped to face the threat that is coming. What I will say, though, is that the thoughts and the hopes of an entire nation are with you. Take our strength, make it your own and come home victorious. Good speed and happy hunting. Out.’
There were a few moments of silence after the King finished his speech, but then Sapper came on, speaking urgently. Chastity found it hard to follow his orders; she was so used to the national anthem being played after the King spoke on the wireless that she had been taken by surprise when it hadn’t, but she quickly got the gist of what he was saying.
Apparently, the raid had split up to form three columns. About a hundred fighters, including Gannic Squadron and Badger Squadron - the Misfits - were detailed to intercept the biggest one, which was arriving first, while the rest of the fighters, including the few squadrons that were still climbing hard to join them, were assigned to the other two.
Chastity turned onto the new heading that Sapper provided and accelerated with the rest of the British aircraft, more determined than ever to do her utmost to head off the bombers before they reached their apparent destination - London.
A flash of sunlight off a canopy caught her attention and she glanced to her left in time to see the colourful aircraft of Misfit Squadron climbing away at an astonishing rate, which the Spitsteams couldn’t hope to match, but still staying level with the rest of the fighters.
‘Those are some machines...’
Chastity scowled. ‘Maintain radio discipline, please, Red Three.’
She was thinking the same thing as Easton, even as she told her off, though, and she smiled sadly as she remembered Collingwood joking about stealing one of the aircraft for her. She could have done with one of them just about then and probably would have handled it better than most of the pilots whose hands they were in.
She put such thoughts out of her mind quickly; she already had too many doubts about her wingmate and the rest of her flight and didn’t want to go into battle doubting the Misfits as well. Speaking of which...
‘Red Two, what’s your name?’
‘Excuse me, Leader?’
‘Your name. I didn’t get a chance to find out on the ground.’
‘Fletcher, ma’am, Johnny Fletcher.’
Chastity laughed. ‘That’s a good sign.’
‘My surname’s Arrowsmith.’
The young man on her wing chuckled, which was also a good sign; it meant that he wasn’t as nervous as she’d feared. She glanced at him and found him smiling in her direction. She returned his smile, but quickly turned away again; he had piercing blue eyes and wisps of curly blonde hair poking out from under his helmet and looked even younger than Easton and she hated to think how quickly he had been rushed into combat “readiness”.
‘Stick to me like glue, Two. Feel free to take shots at whatever you can, but don’t get distracted and don’t stray. Understood?’
The enemy raid came inexorably closer, the aircraft appeared to cover the entire sky - more than a hundred and fifty aircraft, bobbing up and down in the air currents, the fighters criss-crossing through and over the more stately bombers. Chastity could make out the individual enemy machines now and she tried to see if there were any unescorted bombers she could single out as she had that morning. There were none, though; attacking a raid which still held its formation was a much different prospect than attacking one which had already carried out its run and been broken apart by enemy action. She angled 92 squadron towards one of the flanks of the raid anyway, thinking that her pilots would have a better chance if she could keep them on the outskirts of the fight and have the threat coming from only one side.
Chastity took a deep breath and wriggled in her seat, making sure she was comfortable, then gave each of her straps a tug and scanned her instruments one last time. As she flipped off the safety catch on her weapons she had a thought. ‘Safety catches off, please, Gannic Squadron.’
She sighed when there were a couple of sheepish acknowledgements; it wasn’t as if the pilots wouldn’t notice as soon as they tried to fire, but it would distract them for a couple of seconds, which might well mean their deaths.
‘For what we are about to receive...’
It was Easton’s voice again, but this time she used the general channel for her irreverent breach of radio discipline instead of just the flight one. Chastity didn’t pull her up on it, though, and neither did anyone else; they were all too fixed on the incoming machines.
After the long approach, during which the two forces had seemed to creep towards each other, it felt like the last few miles were closed in a rush. Chastity fixed on the target she’d chosen as it loomed large in her windscreen - the lead bomber of a large flight - and opened fire at extreme range, trusting in her steady hand and the British workmanship of the Whiting machine guns and Anglo-Helvetia cannon to send the bullets exactly where she wanted them. The bulbous glass cockpit of the HO111 disintegrated, as did the bodies of the men within it, but she barely noticed because she was already moving on to her next victim.
Chastity usually lost herself when she was fighting. She became so focused on what she was doing - her eyes darting this way and that, her mind calculating trajectories, her hands and feet obeying orders that were barely given - that there was barely any room for anything else. She became one with her aircraft almost, became like it even; emotionless and cold, with only one purpose - vanquishing the enemy.
For some reason this fight was different, though. Whether it was the squadron in her care, or because the stakes were so high, she found she just couldn’t achieve that extreme level of concentration where the world beyond her immediate influence faded to nothing, and things leaked in to distract her.
She saw Blue Four disappear in a cloud of steam, fire, and black smoke as he failed to pull up in time and collided with an HO111.
She saw the Misfits appear out of nowhere and blast a gigantic hole through the middle of the bomber formation, sending the enemy into a panic which completely destroyed any cohesion they might still have, perfectly carrying out a manoeuvre that would have caused most pilots to crash, or at least clip something on their way past.
She saw the engine of an FU88 explode, sending the out of control machine careening into another. The tangled mess spun over and over as it fell out of the sky, so wildly that she doubted any of the crew would be able to get out.
She watched, amazed, as the Misfit aircraft, Wasp, chopped a bomber in two by jettisoning a spare spring at it.
She heard Easton scream in agony, before being suddenly cut off.
She saw new fires bloom in a city which was already burning.
She didn’t notice when she lost Fletcher.
She did however see two of the Misfit aircraft get shot down and each time she spared a brief moment to hope that the pilots were alright; she had seen enough of the way they flew and fought in just that one battle to know that her feelings towards them had been unjustified. She now knew their worth, knew that the stories about them hadn’t been exaggerated. More than anything, though, she knew that the British would need them if they were to survive the war.
When she finally ran out of ammunition she merely told whoever was still alive that she was breaking off and flew back to Biggin.
She said nothing to her fitters, who immediately began rearming and rewinding her aircraft, but just went and sat against the side wall of the dispersal hut and stared at the sky, where smoke and vapour trails still lingered.
Everything had been done that could have been done, nothing had been held back, she was sure of that. Desperately young men and women, who had no right to have been in combat, who should have been starting at university, or learning a craft, or beginning a career, had fought valiantly and many of them, too many, had died. And those experienced pilots like her had done what they had done every day over the long, hot, clear-skied summer - they had unflinchingly gone up to face overwhelming odds, knowing that their survival, the survival of the kingdom, and perhaps the survival of freedom itself, depended on them.
They had done their best. Each and every one of them. She didn’t know whether it would be good enough in the end, whether it would be enough to save Britain from the vast forces that were arrayed against them, but it didn’t really matter; the pilots, all of them, would keep fighting no matter what.
She took a deep breath and dropped her eyes to look through the perimeter fence at the houses of the nearby village. Many of those homes had been hit by bombs when the Fleas had been plastering Biggin, but when they had turned their ire on London the villagers had rebuilt and come back stronger and more determined.
The RAC would do the same if given half the chance.
She smiled. She had gone around the side of the hut to be alone, but there was no need; there were no tears for her to hide. Not today.
She struggled wearily to her feet and made her way into the hut to give her report to Yarrow - it would be a while before her aircraft would be ready for her to go back up and she thought she might as well use the time constructively.
Simon Brading is the author of the Misfit Squadron series: The Battle over Britain, The Russian Resistance, A Misfit Midwinter, The Lion and The Baron, and The Maltese Defence, available from Sea Lion Press.