By Simon Brading
With volume 5 of the Misfit Squadron series, "The Maltese Defence" on the verge of being 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"
12th September 1940
From ten thousand feet there was a truly lovely view of the white cliffs, shining in the bright sunlight, and Chastity took a split second to appreciate it, her eidetic memory storing it away for later perusal, as she approached the apex of the loop her Spitsteam was describing and hung inverted in the sky. It wasn’t just the landscape she took in in that brief moment, though, but the entirety of the battle going on above the busy port nestled in a break in the cliffs.
92 Squadron had been sent up to intercept a sizeable Prussian raid, on its way to bomb Dover, and while a Harridan squadron, she forgot which one, was doing its best to take care of the forty or fifty Hoffman HO111’s, the Spits had been left to scrap with the MU9’s. As usual.
As the battle had progressed, she had somehow become separated from the rest of her squadron and found herself fighting for her life against two pairs of Fleas. The two pairs had competed for firing position on her, getting in each other’s way, and in the chaos she had managed to get in a few of shots, shooting down one and forcing another away, evening the odds slightly, but the last two were proving to be quite tenacious and, try as she might, she couldn’t get them off her tail.
She craned her neck to look back around the loop as far as she could. Just creeping into view above the armour plate at the rear of the cockpit were the enemy fighters. The wingman was still tucked in right behind his leader, despite the dizzying ride she had taken them on, and she didn’t really need to see the red noses of their machines to know that they were veterans of more than just the battle over Britain. However, it wasn’t just their skill that was making her life difficult, but also the fact that they were flying the “F” variant of the MU9, which had come into production only recently. It had improved aerodynamics, a more powerful spring, and, instead of having its cannon in its wings, they had been fitted into the nose along with two machine guns and fired through the propeller. It all combined to make them far more deadly than the “E” variants the British were used to facing and her ageing Spitsteam was definitely outclassed.
All was not lost, though, and she wasn’t going to have to try to disengage yet, because she still had a few tricks up her flightsuit sleeve - like the knowledge that the MU9F had a slightly higher stalling speed than the Mark I Spitsteam.
That was why she’d led the Fleas on a very long and very basic loop - she’d been forcing them to slow down and was hoping that they’d be too greedy for the kill to notice what was happening until it was too late.
She kept her eyes fixed on the aircraft of the leader, knowing it would have to come soon, otherwise the loop would be done and they’d be able to fire on her.
It was minimal, a minute twitch as first the leader’s machine, then the wingman’s, expressed its displeasure and discomfort at its pilot’s handling, but to Chastity it was as obvious as if they had sent up an emergency flare.
The pilots finally realised what was happening and deployed flaps, but it was too late; Chastity was already moving. She snapped the Spitsteam onto its wing and let the nose drop below the horizon to pick up speed, even as she pulled the stick back into her lap.
The enemy machines opened fire but it was a desperate move and the shots missed by, almost literally, a mile as they stalled and completely lost control of their aircraft.
As the Spitsteam accelerated, the G forces piled on, but Chastity screamed her defiance at the approaching darkness and didn’t allow it anywhere near her.
The enemy aircraft were picking up speed as they dropped from the sky and would soon regain enough speed for their wings to bite once more, but they had run out of time and, before the two falling rocks could become aircraft again, Chastity found the dot of her reflector sight squarely over the wingman. She pressed the button on the stick, putting a two-second burst into him and was treated to the spectacle of the starboard side wing folding up and smashing the cockpit before the aircraft spun away. The leader wandered into her sights next, but he had recovered somewhat and was diving away desperately. She was only able to give him a half second burst before she could no longer keep the red dot over him, though, and she rolled the Spitsteam onto its back again, keeping the stick in her lap, and followed...
‘...him down to the sea. He must have been damaged or hurt, though, because he barely manoeuvred once we were there and a couple more shots put him straight in.’
The intelligence officer, Aviator Lieutenant Barbara Yarrow, made a note on the pad of paper on the table in front of her, before looking up again. ‘Anyone around to see?’
‘We were still in sight of the cliffs, so the Observer Troop must have seen us. There were also plenty of boats around if they didn’t.’
‘I’ll get on to the Troop and see what they have to say, although things got quite busy over Dover and they might have missed it. And where was Porter in all of this?’
‘He had spring trouble right after we took off.’
The prim and proper sixty-year-old woman gave Chastity a shrewd look, but said nothing and just made another note on her pad. ‘Anything else to report? Did you see anyone bag anything?’
Chastity shook her head. ‘No, I was too busy and far away from the main scrap to see much.’
‘Very well.’ Yarrow capped her pen and stood. ‘That will be all, then. Thank you, Arrowsmith.’
‘Thank you, ma’am.’
Chastity waited for the officer to precede her from 92 Squadron’s dispersal hut before going out into the sunshine.
She shaded her eyes to gaze around the airfield. Despite having been the focus of so many enemy raids and being one of the busiest air bases in England, Biggin Hill was extremely calm and picturesque, on top of a hill and surrounded by trees and fields, with a sleepy village right next to it. The only real sign of urgency to the day was the fitters swarming over the lines of parked aircraft like ants, continuing their eternal fight to turn them around before the enemy came back.
As one of the most junior pilots, she was the last to give her report and the other pilots were already out with their tea and snacks. A few were lazing around in deck chairs or sitting on the grass, but most were in a group, perched on the few tattered sofas and armchairs that looked like they had been rescued from a bombed-out house. She wandered over to the mess van parked between the dispersal hut and the line of aircraft, got a cup of tea and a plate of biscuits from the NAACI volunteer, then came back and made her way over to where the only other female pilot in the squadron, Roberta Collingwood, was sitting on the grass, leaning back on her elbows with her face tilted to the sun. There were still too many men in the armed forces who thought that a woman didn’t belong on the battlefield and a lot of them seemed to be in the squadron, so the two of them stuck together, as much out of solidarity as friendship, and consoled each other every time a man who’d been in the RAC less time than them was promoted past them.
‘Berty.’ Chastity nodded at the woman then sat down next to her.
Collingwood squinted at her through heavily lidded eyes. ‘Chas.’
Chastity offered her plate. ‘Biscuit?’
‘Ta.’ Collingwood pushed herself upright and took one of the Bourbons, her favourites, that Chastity had gotten specifically for her. She had dark hair, almost the same shade as Chastity’s, but it was there that all similarity ended. While Chastity could only charitably be described as good-looking, Roberta Collingwood was stunning, with a perfect complexion and lips that Chastity had heard one of her boyfriends describe as “succulent”. Unfortunately, that just meant that she was treated even worse by many of the pilots than Chastity herself was, because she refused to return any of their clumsy, and usually drunk, advances.
They munched on the biscuits in silence for a minute or so, watching the pilots around them. A few had sensibly fallen asleep, getting whatever rest they could, but the group on the sofas were laughing and talking loudly. Aviator Lieutenant William Porter, Chastity’s leader, was among them and as always was the loudest.
Chastity swallowed her mouthful and washed it down with tea, then looked away from the distasteful sight of Porter holding court.
‘Did you hear?’ Collingwood said excitedly. ‘The Misfits met a raid over the Midlands yesterday evening and bagged themselves twenty-seven.’
Chastity grunted, curling her lip disdainfully. She was sick and tired of hearing about the successes of the so-called Misfit Squadron. ‘That’s absurd! They only have eight fighters, there’s no way they shot down that many. The numbers are being inflated for morale, trust me.’
Collingwood shrugged, her enthusiasm not at all dimmed. ‘Even if they only got half that, it’s more than everyone in our squadron put together.’
‘I got three...’ Chastity mumbled under her breath.
‘Never mind. It’s easy for them; they have the King behind them, all the spares they need, custom flightsuits, while what are we flying?’
‘Spits!’ Collingwood grinned. ‘Bloody marvellous Supranaval Spitsteams!’
‘Clapped out Mark Ones!’
‘It could be worse; we could still be flying the Brummells.’
Chastity shuddered at the thought of the machines the squadron had been formed to fly. The Brummell Aggressor had been designed at a time when the bigwigs in the RAC, every single one of whom had fought in the First Great War, had been convinced that, if war came, then they would be defending Britain against massed formations of unescorted enemy airships. They were heavily armoured and had a turret in the middle of the fuselage, but were underpowered, heavy, and extremely slow. They had been shot down in droves in France when they had come up against the modern fighters of Die Fliegertruppe. Thankfully, though, 92 Squadron had been one of the first to convert to Spitsteams, just before they had been sent over the channel. Unfortunately, they were still flying those same Spitsteams, with hundreds of hours on them, whereas most other squadrons had the more recent Mark Two versions of the Spitsteam and Harridan and the Misfits were flying custom designed and hand-crafted aircraft.
‘They’re probably not even very good pilots, but just rich kids who’ve paid for their commissions.’
‘Gwen Stone isn’t.’
Chastity sniffed dismissively. ‘Nobody knows much about her. Even if she’s not from a rich family she’ll probably end up having some family connection or other, like being the War Minister’s niece. You mark my words.’
A fresh burst of laughter drew their attention back to the group and they looked over to see that Porter was now standing in the middle of it, speaking so loudly that his words easily carried to them.
‘You know, I was almost a Misfit.’
‘No!’ The men around him were mesmerised by whatever story he was telling and the answer was chorused by all of them.
‘I was! The Abbess came to see me one day and she said to me... you know what she said?’
‘She said: Rupert, I want you.’
There was crude laughter from the group and Chastity and Collingwood exchanged a distasteful look.
‘I kid you not! She said: Rupert I want you.’
‘And what did you say to her?’
‘I said: not now love, dinner’s in half an hour.’
There was more laughter and Chastity growled and pushed herself to her feet.
Collingwood looked up at her in alarm. ‘What are you doing?’
‘I’m going to put a stop to this.’
‘I thought you didn’t like the Misfits?’
‘I don’t, but I dislike Porter and everything he stands for even more.’
Chastity stomped over towards them, her heavy flying boots not making nearly as impressive sound on the grass as she would have liked. She came to a halt on the outside of the circle, facing Porter, who was still telling of his supposed encounter with the leader of the Misfits.
‘She’s screwing up that sour puss of hers and I can tell she wants me, but I’m not going to just give it up, am I?’
The laughter from the pilots was cruder than ever as Porter approached the climax of his story.
‘So I...’ Porter frowned and stopped when he caught sight of Chastity.
‘What the hell do you want, Arrowsmith?’
Any doubts about what she intended to do disappeared completely when he sneered, his eyes going slowly up and down her body.
‘I was just wondering what happened today?’
‘I told you - I was having problems with my spring and had to return to base.’
‘You know how these old springs get, Sergeant.’
He waved at her dismissively, pulling rank in an effort to shut her up, and turned away to resume his story, but she’d had enough and wasn’t going to let him get away with his dishonesty anymore.
‘That’s funny, because your fitters swapped your spring out for a brand new one last night. But, then again, a new spring slips just like an old one with hundreds of hours of flight time, doesn’t it, Sir?’
For the first time, the faces of the men around Porter showed something other than amusement and derision and there was some uncomfortable shuffling and quite a few uncertain looks shot at Porter.
The man glanced around his group of cronies and frowned when he saw their expressions. He stalked over to her and stood as close as he could, looming above her, using his six foot frame in an attempt to make her feel small and helpless. Chastity had plenty of experience dealing with bullies, though, and was very familiar with the tactics they used, so she was able to keep her expression impassive while he spoke down at her.
‘Now, look here, Chastity. I know living up to that name of yours has you frustrated, but you don’t have to take it out on me.’ He put his hand on her arm and smiled down at her. ‘I would be more than willing to let you take those frustrations out on me another way, though...’
Chastity looked up at him. He was certainly handsome, in that floppy-haired, public schoolboy way and his boasting probably worked on many of the women he tried to work his charm on, especially when he was in uniform. She could see through it all, though, right to his rotten core.
She smiled back at him and batted her eyelids, then brought her knee up sharply.
‘I would have punched him, sir, but if I’d hurt him badly enough to ground him he would’ve just got what he wanted. He might be uncomfortable for a while, but he doesn’t need them to fly.’
Chastity stood at attention in front of the base commander’s desk. She was trying to stare at a point on the wall above the man’s head, like she’d been taught, but her eyes kept being drawn to a smudge on the light green paint a couple of feet to the side. Someone had written something in pencil then not rubbed it out properly and the mark which had been left looked uncannily like an enemy fighter hovering several thousand feet above, waiting to pounce. It was far more disconcerting than the frown on the officer’s face and she wondered if he knew that and had left it there deliberately.
‘I appreciate the thoughtfulness, Aviator Sergeant, but I’m afraid it will do nothing to help your case.’
‘My case, sir?’ She blinked and looked at the commander for the first time. After the open belligerence she had encountered among the rest of the men of the squadron she was somewhat surprised to see sympathy and something akin to regret blossom in his expression and her best “authority confronting face” slipped slightly, although, when she thought about it, she thought she knew why.
Wing Commander Reginald Brice, like many of the old guard who filled the higher ranks of the RAC, had been a pilot during the Great War and, as such, he had flown alongside many women. It seemed he didn’t share the same prejudices as the younger men. Those men had grown up in the long years of peace, during which women had been encouraged to stay at home and raise children to replace a generation who had been almost entirely lost in the trenches.
However, that didn’t mean he didn’t know that point of view existed.
‘Even though there were,’ he gave her a look full of meaning, ‘extenuating circumstances you still struck an officer and there is nothing I can do to prevent your court martial.’
Brice held up a hand to stop her. ‘However, I need all the good pilots I can get right now, especially with the wastrels I’ve been stuck with. So, until things quiet down a bit and there’s time to get together a tribunal, you are still flying, but you’re confined to quarters while off duty.’ He smiled wryly. ‘Which is a bit of a shame, especially today of all days; the squadron has been invited to a shindig on Misfit Squadron’s base.’
Chastity hid her relief at not having to go to a party thrown by the Misfits. She couldn’t think of anything she’d want less than to attend something which was obviously just a bone being thrown by the “elite” squadron to the other squadrons of the RAC.
She didn’t express her opinion, but instead just concentrated on the fact that she could keep flying.
‘Thank you, sir.’
‘I’m just doing what I can for the good of the country, Arrowsmith.’ Brice sighed. ‘You had a bloody good record up till now and more kills than most, outside of the Misfits. I’ll do my best to put in a good word for you, but you’d better do something pretty damn spectacular over the next few days if you want the board to look favourably on you.’
‘I’ll give it my best shot, sir.’
‘I’m sure you will.’ Brice gave her a nod, then looked down at the mess of paperwork on his desk.
Chastity turned to go, but then hesitated. Continuing a conversation after being dismissed wasn’t done, but she just had to know. ‘And Aviator Lieutenant Porter, sir?’
Brice looked up at her, his face thunderous. ‘Porter will get what’s coming to him, don’t you worry.’
92 Squadron were sent up twice more that day to intercept small raids heading for Folkestone and Portsmouth. After the morning’s events, Chastity was extremely relieved to find that the order of battle on the blackboard in the dispersal hut had been changed and she had been placed on Roberta Collingwood’s wing as number four of blue flight.
The two women were the same rank, but Collingwood had joined the RAC one month before her. Even though Charity had been moved up a class at basic training because of her military background and they had graduated at the same time, that initial month meant everything as far as seniority was concerned. So, despite the fact that they both knew that Chastity was by far the better pilot, Collingwood had to be element leader.
In the meantime, Porter had been put on the wing of Squadron Leader Sanders, the squadron commander, probably so that Sanders could keep an eye on him.
Porter had been called to Brice’s office immediately after Chastity. The people working in the room outside his office had tried their hardest to listen in, but the conversation within had taken place so quietly that they had been unable to hear a word. They just reported that, when he left after more than a quarter of an hour, he was as white as a sheet. Funnily enough, after that he had no more problems with his spring.
The squadron was stood down at six and the pilots rushed off to pretty themselves up to go to the party on the Misfit base in Kent. Chastity still wasn’t at all fussed about missing the party itself, but she really would have liked to get a look at their aircraft and found that she was quite upset about the missed opportunity. It was a small consolation when she found out that Porter wasn’t going either - he too had been confined to the base, but whether he was up on charges or not, nobody knew, and he wasn’t saying.
Collingwood saw her long face and paused in doing her makeup - as the only two women they were the only occupants in the large eight-person room in the barracks.
‘Buck up, Chas, I’ll smuggle you back a bottle of wine or something. I’ve heard they have a fully stocked cellar on their base.’
‘Don’t bother.’ Chastity shook her head. ‘I’m not much of a drinker.’
‘Alright then, I’ll smuggle you back one of their machines.’
Chastity huffed in amusement. ‘Now, that I wouldn’t say no to!’