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Illingworth House: Chance Child - Part One: 87 - Aerial Warfare

..."Once we're upstairs," he continued, "we fight as one unit, a squadron. No fancy braveries or what have you. We watch each other's tails and keep tuned in all the time to what I say. We're each other's eyes and ears up there. Remember that. That way and with a bit of Lady Luck, we survive. So, having given you those few words of wisdom, let me welcome you to your new squadron. The sergeant will show you to your rooms, now if you'll excuse me, I must go."...

Squadron Leader John Illingworth welcomes another intake of pilots to the grim realities of aerial combat.

John Waddington-Feather continues his gripping story concerning the turbulent lives of a Yorkshire mill-owning family.

To read earlier chapters please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/illingworth_house/

One day, there'd been a terrible sortie. Four of John's men were missing and he himself had seen two of them go. Helpless to act, he had seen German Fokkers come out of the sun behind his comrades' planes and blast them out of the sky. No comforting parachute came streaming from their cockpits and, horrified, he had watched their stricken planes' final plunge earthwards, vomiting flames and smoke, spiralling out of control.

He limped back to the mess, exhausted, with the rest of his squadron, his flying helmet dangling loosely from one hand. The other held a lit cigarette, which he drew on heavily. They all walked with the roll of sailors after a long voyage, swaying ungainly from side to side, their shoulders hunched, dragging their feet.

One of them held a swab to his forehead where a splinter from his canopy, shattered by a shell from a German fighter, had penetrated his helmet. Before they reached the mess, he peeled off from the group and made his way to the medical room to have his injury dealt with. They waved wearily to him then continued to the mess and their beds.

Outside the mess an empty bus was parked. The new draft had arrived and were inside waiting nervously to meet their new commander. After a short briefing they had to be in action with the others, even before the rest of the squadron had had chance to meet them and get to know them properly. John told those with him to snatch a bite and some sleep, then he went in to meet the new draft before grabbing some sleep himself.

As he entered the briefing room, the orderly sergeant called the draft to attention. John gestured wearily for them to stand at ease, before glancing round to look at them more closely. They were the same boyish lot, all except for one who was grinning broadly and coming to greet him with hand outstretched. It was Pilot Officer Sydney Goldstein, of the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve.

John took his hand and slapped him on the back, surprise mingled with pleasure, but surprise of a different kind registered on Sydney's when he saw the change in his friend, and looked into his pale, tired face, grimy with sweat and engine smoke. They had a few words together then the conversation around them petered out as John climbed onto the dais.

The names of the squadron were slotted into a board on the wall, next to the flying map of the area. He told the newcomers to be seated, then went to the board and extracted the names of the pilots killed that day, handing them to the sergeant. Neither spoke a word, though the sergeant glanced at them briefly before putting them in his pocket. Then John turned to the new arrivals.

"Good afternoon, gentlemen - or is it evening?" he began wanting to get the briefing over with as soon as possible. "I'm Squadron Leader John Illingworth, your new boss. We're a pretty friendly bunch here and I hope you'll soon settle in, the quicker the better. That way we get to know each other, for once you're up there, "and here he nodded at the sky through the window," we stick to each other like the proverbial shit to a blanket, only it's not so proverbial once you're in action. Jerry'll put your laundry bill up by leaps and bounds. That's for sure."

He paused to let them laugh, but he himself kept a straight face. "Once we're upstairs," he continued, "we fight as one unit, a squadron. No fancy braveries or what have you. We watch each other's tails and keep tuned in all the time to what I say. We're each other's eyes and ears up there. Remember that. That way and with a bit of Lady Luck, we survive. So, having given you those few words of wisdom, let me welcome you to your new squadron. The sergeant will show you to your rooms, now if you'll excuse me, I must go."

Before he left, he told the orderly sergeant to collect the belongings and clean out the rooms of the pilots whose names he had removed from the board. The rest listened in silence. What he said wasn't lost on them. "There'll be two new names in there tomorrow," he said, nodding at the board. "We've just come off a sortie and we're on twenty four hours stand-down till Jerry comes back, for as sure as hell he will. We all need some sleep, yourselves included, so bed down as soon as you can. When we're operational again, two of you will be in the thick of it tomorrow with myself and the rest of the squadron. Be ready at first light tomorrow, gentlemen. I'll brief you more fully then."

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