An excerpt from David Hill's Flight Path, a YA novel about 18-year-old Jack who wanted to escape boring little New Zealand – but soon finds that flying in a Lancaster bomber to attack Hitler's forces brings terror as well as excitement.
In the Ops Room, men yawned, rubbed eyes bleary with tiredness and red where oxygen masks had chafed. There was laughing, hand-shaking, back-slapping. Julian patted his crew’s shoulders, saying ‘Wizard show, chaps, what-ho?’
Two aircraft were missing: Q Queen and T Tare. Stefan and Julian described the Lancaster exploding as they approached their target, then plummeting down in flames.
‘Parachutes?’ asked the Intelligence Officer. Pilot and co-pilot shook their heads.
‘We’ll keep our fingers crossed,’ the officer said. ‘The other one may have landed at a different base.’
The room had gone quiet. The glow Jack had felt when they landed seemed out of place now. One, maybe two planes lost on his first mission. Fourteen young blokes were probably dead. What would it be like if it was familiar faces or even chums being killed?
It could have been me, he thought, over and over. It could so easily have been me.
They ate bacon and eggs, then stumbled to their rooms and sagged into bed. Jack ached from neck to knee. His fingers and toes stung from the slow return of warmth.
In the other bunks, Stefan, Julian and Reg all breathed steadily. As the Polish co-pilot slipped under the blankets, he’d muttered, ‘Nazi bastards. Soon we smash you again!’
Just moments later, it seemed, Jack came gasping awake. Orange explosions and whipping lines of flak were all around him. Engines thundered in his ears. F Fox plunged downwards, flames tearing from it. He tried to scream; couldn’t move his lips.
He lay there, feeling the sweat dry on him. What was it like back at the target? he wondered. How many Germans had died? You didn’t think of a target as including people, somehow. You thought of it just as a place.
Stefan was right, though. They’d keep smashing those bastards. They had to.
They slept until early afternoon. When Jack finally wrenched himself out of another dream, where searchlights held their bomber trapped, no matter how much it plunged and veered, Julian lay on his bed smoking, while Stefan and Reg were gone.
An hour later, they sat outside their hut, still yawning. Across the grass, ground crews were riveting a replacement tail fin onto the damaged Lancaster; otherwise the day was peaceful. And cooler: a bank of clouds was crawling up from the east. They’d been late for lunch, and the cooks said no, they couldn’t rustle up extra grub whenever people wanted it. Other crews were there, too, looking angry. Bluey called: ‘So we go out and bloody get shot at while you sit around on your fat bloody bums?’ The cooks glared. Julian rested a hand on the radio operator’s shoulder. ‘We’ll go into the village, chaps; get something there.’
They had to be back on base by 1800 hours. ‘Reckon we’ll be going out again tonight, skip?’ Reg asked. Their pilot stroked his moustache, nodded towards the cloud-bank. ‘Could be raining on the bad boys.’ Rain meant low cloud, and low cloud meant it was hard to find the target. Jack couldn’t decide if he felt relieved or disappointed.
There was no news of the two missing crews. If they’d survived and been captured, it might take weeks, even months, for the information to reach England, coming through the neutral nations of Sweden or Switzerland.
Jack pictured the blazing bomber plunging down as they began their bombing run. Could anyone have parachuted from that? And even if they landed alive, they may have been seized and shot by the SS. Hitler’s black-uniformed thugs were getting more vicious as the war turned against them. Please, he heard himself wishing, please don’t let that happen to me.
Reproduced with permission from Flight Path by David Hill.
Text © David Hill, 2017.
By David Hill
Published by Penguin Random House NZ