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"
Part One was published earlier and can be found here.
13th September 1940
The pilots hadn’t gotten too much more drunk than they did on any given night, so hangovers weren’t too severe the next morning when they showed up for the dawn patrol, but Porter still tried to poke fun at anyone he could, as he usually did. None of his former friends played his game, though, they just gave him the cold shoulder.
The patrol was uneventful, but when the squadron landed they were rushed straight into a briefing in Biggin’s underground briefing hall.
Three squadrons were based on the airfield, 92 and 72, equipped with Spitsteams and part of 141, flying Brummells which had been converted to night fighters after their poor showing at the beginning of the war. They packed into the cold, damp, bare concrete room along with 66 Squadron - the last squadron in the Biggin Hill sector, who were based at Gravesend, but had flown in for the briefing - and shivered with the contrast in temperature with the Indian summer, which was keeping the skies over England clear and allowing the British pilots so little relief.
‘Ten-shun!’ The NCO standing watch by the door at the side of the briefing room called the pilots to attention as Wing Commander Brice strode in.
The NCO’s order was crisp and sharp, but the response most definitely wasn’t, the pilots weary after a long summer of fighting and not really into the whole discipline thing anyway.
The only one who made any kind of effort was Chastity, but that was because she’d been brought up in a military family with her mother a regimental sergeant major and her father a combat medic. As a child, while her mother was walking her to the army base school, she’d once asked (a little too loudly) why she had saluted an officer half her age who was stumbling about in the early morning, drunkenly making his way back from a night out. Her mother had answered equally loudly. ‘You salute the rank, not the man. He might be the most useless berk who ever lived, but for some reason he holds a commission and that is from the King. He is the one who has to make sure he is worthy of that.’ Chastity had glanced back at the man and had seen him stop, head down. He’d taken a deep breath then straightened his back and made a supreme effort to walk in a straight line. Her mother’s grunt had puzzled her at the time, but the incident had stuck in her mind and years later she had realised that the grunt had been one of satisfaction and it was just one of her mother’s many ways of teaching without teaching. It was a technique she had used until the day she’d died - her parents’ regiment had been part of the British Exploration Force sent to France in the early days of the war and they had both been killed in the retreat on Dunkirk, while Chastity had been fighting in the skies above them.
‘Sit, please.’ Brice called out as he walked down the aisle to the front of the room. He barely waited for everyone to settle down before beginning to speak. ‘Right then, we’re finally taking it to the Boche today. The bigwigs at Whitehall have finally realised that they really should do something about that little invasion fleet waiting over the Channel and have decided to send over the bombers.’
He nodded to an orderly, standing by at the free-standing map board and he threw back the blanket covering it to reveal a large map showing the south coast of England and the north coast of France. Red ribbons were pinned on it to show the routes that five different raids would be taking from the various air bases in southern England to five enemy-held ports, four in France and one in Belgium.
‘In a couple of hours, every Nelson and Splendid we’ve got is being sent across to attack the five ports that show the biggest concentrations of enemy vessels - Ostend, Dunkirk, Calais, Boulogne, and Le Havre. We have been assigned to escort the raid going to Calais. 72 and 92 will be going up for top cover, while 141 and 66 will be providing close coverage.’
There were groans at that from the pilots of 66 Squadron. Close coverage meant flying in formation with the bombers, which was alright for the Brummells of 141 because they were slower and were ideal for the more static role with the heavy cannons in their turrets, but 66 Squadron’s Spitsteams would suffer horribly from being tied down and be more vulnerable because of it.
Brice ignored them; it wasn’t the first time the squadrons under his command had been called to do something they weren’t suited to and it wouldn’t be the last. He did, however, nod at Squadron Leader Sanders, who had put his hand up.
‘Won’t we be spread a bit thin, sir? I’m down to seven aircraft. 72 have, what, eight? Nine? Jim?’
He searched out Squadron Leader James McLeod, the commander of 72 squadron, who laughed and shook his head. ‘Try five!’
‘I’ve got nine available, maybe one more if the fitters pull off a miracle,’ called out Aviator Lieutenant Tunstall, the temporary commander of 66 Squadron after the previous commander had been killed the day before.
Sanders grunted. ‘So, that’s twenty-one, maybe twenty-two, and the four Brummells. It’s not nearly enough! The Fleas have got hundreds of fighters along that coast!’
Brice nodded. ‘Normally, I would agree with you, but we are going to be reinforced by a squadron from another sector, bringing us up to something like thirty fighters.’
‘How? How are they spare?’ Sanders frowned. ‘Five raids, thirty or forty fighters to cover each... The last reports say we don’t have a hundred and fifty fighters to put up in the air, let alone two hundred or more, unless we commit the reserves, which would be suicide.’
Brice smiled wryly. ‘We don’t have to cover all five raids, though, just three of them. For some reason, it has been decided that Misfit Squadron will be covering both the groups heading to Ostend and Dunkirk on their own while everybody else takes care of the rest.’
Disbelieving silence greeted Brice’s revelation and he took advantage of it to bring the briefing to a rapid conclusion.
‘Ensuring the survival of the bombers is the primary mission here. If the enemy fighters break off for home you are not to pursue, you are to stay with the bombers and protect them until they are all the way home.’ He glanced down at the chronograph on his wrist. ‘Takeoff is in two hours at twelve fifteen hours and the rendezvous is at twenty-five thousand feet over Maidstone. Dismissed.’
The rendezvous points for four of the five raids heading across the Channel were in the skies over Kent and there were more aircraft in the sky than Chastity had seen since the flypast of Trafalgar Square she’d taken part in for Empire Day in 1938. However, she, and most of the pilots, only had eyes for a single small group of them - the multi-coloured machines of Misfit Squadron.
Despite the fact that they had been fighting over Britain for months and before that over France, just as she had, it was the first time she was actually seeing the famous aircraft. She had actually been convinced at one point at the beginning of the summer that they didn’t actually exist, that they were just an invention of the British Press or Whitehall’s all-powerful propaganda machine, but there they were, just ten miles away, as clear as day through her excellent RAC lenses.
There were eight of them, four large twin-springed machines and four smaller single-springed ones. Thanks to the press she knew the names of all of them and had read about the unbelievable things that they had been credited with. The identities of the pilots had been kept out of the newspapers, though, but that an ineffectual measure to say the least; the RAC grapevine had provided that information weeks ago and most of the Corps had heard within hours when a new pilot, Gwen Stone, had been chosen to join the squadron and pilot Wasp, which had been languishing in a hangar since the death of her pilot. With their rumoured spy network, the Prussians had more than likely found out who they were as well and the British public were probably the only ones not in the know.
She took in the lines of the eight machines. They were superb, each and every one of them not only a masterpiece of design, expertly adapted to warfare, but managing to express the individuality of their pilots at the same time.
‘Lovely sight, aren’t they, Blue Four?’
Chastity glanced across at Collingwood. ‘The machines are lovely, yes, Blue Three, but I don’t think much of their formation; it’s a bit bloody sloppy.’
Collingwood laughed. ‘Nothing’s ever good enough for you is it, Chas?’
‘Some things are... My flying, for example.’ Chastity grinned as Collingwood glanced back at her and crossed her eyes.
‘And what do you think of the big one with the bombers?’
‘The big one?’
Chastity frowned, she had been so absorbed with the small fighters that she hadn’t even seen Dreadnought, the Misfit gun platform, which the RAC rumour machine had placed on the mission.
It wasn’t hard to spot.
‘Bloody hell, what is that paint job?’
‘I know that!’ Chastity rolled her eyes. ‘It was a rhetorical question. What I really meant was - what kind of psychopath would paint their machine like that?’
The machine was a massive six-engined beast, which easily dwarfed the four-engined Splendids and twin-engined Nelsons it was holding formation with. It was also eye-achingly painted in a camouflage pattern which had originally been used on ships in the First Great War - intended to confuse the enemy and make it difficult for them to estimate the range to a ship, its speed, or even which way it was moving. She had to admit, despite how awful it looked, it was actually quite effective on the aircraft. It was almost as big as a ship anyway.
‘All Charlie aircraft, come to heading one one oh, sixty miles to target.’ Chastity put the Misfits out of her mind as the leader of the bomber formation going to Calais, codenamed “Charlie” for the raid, called his charges to order. She followed the rest of the Spitsteams as they turned onto the heading and powered out over the Channel, forging ahead to intercept any enemy fighters that appeared, before they got to the bombers.
Chastity threw her helmet onto her bed and shoved the palms of her hands into her eyes, desperately fighting to not break down into tears. She lost and her legs gave out beneath her, sending her crumpling to the floor.
She didn’t know who had screamed out the warning, but it had come far too late.
More than 70 Prussian fighters had been waiting for them twenty miles from the coast, loitering out of sight, high in the sky at their service ceiling, and the Spitsteams flying top cover hadn’t been able to react in time when they swooped, guns blazing.
Seven of the twelve British fighters were destroyed immediately, among them, she found out later, those of Sanders and Porter. However, by the time the survivors turned to fight, they found that the enemy had just passed them by and were already diving on the bomber formation.
The Spitsteams in close support had more warning and were able to accelerate towards the threat, but the Fleas just ignored them and went after the larger aircraft and the Brummells. All four of the Brummells fell in just that first pass, as did three of the Scott Splendids, which the Calais raid was composed of. Half a dozen more dropped out of the formation, unable to maintain their height or keep up, and began a long turn for home.
Chastity had broken away from Collingwood during the attack, making it harder for them to be targeted, but she fell back in onto her wing as they dived after the Prussians.
Collingwood glanced across at her and grinned. ‘Any damage, Blue Four?’
‘None, Three, you?’
‘I’ve got a couple of lovely holes in my right wing, but that’s it.’
‘Nothing stopping us getting our own back, then, is there Berty?’
‘Nothing, Chas. Let’s see how many you can get today!’
In not coming back around to finish off the Spitsteams the Fleas had handed the height advantage to the RAC, and the remaining fighters were able to pay them back in kind. However, with far fewer machines, their attack was far less effective and only two of the Prussian fighters were forced away, one of which was able to limp back in the direction of the French coast. The advantage had been spent, though, and the two groups of Spitsteams joined up to try to repel the marauders.
The fighter squadrons of the RAC had been outnumbered in the skies above England all summer, so it was a situation they were used to, and they were able to take down another eight enemy fighters, two of them by Chastity, for only one more loss. However, the Prussians didn’t seem to care; they remained single-minded in their persecution of the bombers and one after another of the Splendids were knocked from the sky.
In the end, only five of the bombers were able to drop their loads on the French port.
The Prussians broke off immediately after the bombers turned for home, letting them go as if they didn’t care about them, and Squadron Leader McLeod, in command of the fighters, ordered the Spitsteams not to follow.
It had been a very small and very dejected group of fighters who returned to Biggin Hill, but the final victim of the raid hadn’t yet been claimed.
Collingwood’s right wheel strut, damaged in the initial attack without her knowledge, had given way on landing and her wing had dug into the ground at almost a hundred miles an hour. The Spitsteam had rolled over and over, tearing itself apart.
Chastity looked over at the bed next to hers through tear-filled eyes. Most pilots carried a few personal items with them wherever they went, to remind them of home, or family, or a sweetheart, and Roberta had more than most. Outside of the squadron, where she’d been forced to be professional and cool towards the male pilots so as to be respected, she had been an extrovert, who had brightened every room she’d ever been in. She had been well-liked by both sexes and had picked up admirers, mostly male, but not exclusively, wherever she went, all of whom had seemed to want to outdo the last with the lavishness of their gifts: the white silk nightshirt draped over the metal headboard was the gift of a French pilot from when 92 Squadron had been over in France; a Navy officer she’d met at a dance hall when they’d been on leave in London had given her the carved wooden model of Dragonfly that stood on the bedside table; the elegant woven copper and gold wire carriage clock next to it had come from royalty, or so she claimed. There were many more keepsakes like them, tucked inside a box in the storage room, and one of their favourite ways of passing the time during the long hours between flights had been to discuss the various merits or otherwise of the men who had become besotted with her, trying to pick which of her suitors she should accept.
Her company had been the only thing that had made life in the squadron, surrounded by bigots and with a coward on her wing, bearable.
And now she was gone.