Life came to a jarring halt for Arthur Edward Ratigan at approximately 0550 on Tuesday, 17 Apr. 1945. It was a fight to hold the Shady Lady on course that night. Her pilot was battling an unresponsive rudder movement on the big Lancaster bomber, finding the aileron controls were also severely restricted. Usually Shady was quite boring in the air; she had no foibles, unlike other women Ratigan could name, and what’s more, she always did as she was told. The Avro Lancaster B1 was a bomber pilot’s dream. Nothing to anticipate, nothing to need constant correction, simply easy to fly once you knew the mechanics of it. Not tonight, though. Tonight she was a damsel in distress.
A stray Junkers 88 night fighter had caught them on the way back from a successful raid on Dresden. Neither of the two gunners had spotted her until it was too late. She had come at them from a blind spot slightly below and behind, bullets ripping through the underbelly of the bomber, cannon shells exploding inside. The Lanc went into a steep dive, the cabin full of smoke and flames, the side windows blown out. For a few heart-stopping moments, it looked like they wouldn’t make it home at all, and it took all Ratigan’s flying ability and that of his flight engineer, John Ashley, to bring her out of the hazardous dive, managing to level off at 500 feet. The dark brooding waters of the North Sea below were far too close for anybody’s liking, but of the enemy fighter there was no sign.
“Probably saw the dive and thought we were done for,” Ashley commented. “Couldn’t miss the light show. He’ll be back at base before long, downing a beer and boasting about it, the lucky son of a bitch.”
Ratigan had sent Ashley off to check the damage after that. The cabin lights were flashing on and off, and the wingtip lights were on. Holes were ripped into the fuselage, and God only knew what the undercarriage looked like. Their wireless operator, Bernie Finch, had dealt with the flames, which turned out to be signal cartridges that had been hit by a cannon shell. There had been a wonderful but very unappreciated firework display of all colors before he had finally put on several pairs of gloves, picked up the still-burning cartridges, and thrown them through the now windowless side of the cabin.
Ashley quickly opened the fuse panel, taking out what fuses he could and smashing others he couldn’t remove that were still giving trouble. That effectively killed the flashing lights. The elevator control had taken a direct hit, and the chains to the ailerons had formed a tangled loop, which severely restricted the movement. “Jack, the rudder-control lines are severed!” Ratigan could hear the worry in his flight engineer’s voice. “The aileron controls are messed up too. I’ve tried to release the chains, but it’s not looking good.” Ashley’s concern was not misplaced. Damage like that could mean the difference between life and death on landing. If they managed to get home at all.
“There’s not much you can do that won’t make the situation worse, Johnny, so don’t waste your time,” Ratigan told him more calmly than he felt. “We’ll manage, even if she is as awkward and unresponsive as a pregnant sow!” But, true to his word, Ratigan figured out that with careful flying, it was a matter of decreasing power to lose height, increasing to climb, opening up the starboard engines to turn to port, and the opposite to turn starboard. Not a great solution, but it would have to do. Make do and mend, he thought sourly.
“Hey, guys, we’re cool!” Ratigan’s voice over their intercom was reassuringly brash. “We made it this far. We can make it home. None of us is dead yet!”
Ashley had spared him a glance, which all too easily saw through the front he was putting up. Ratigan had been a volunteer in the RAF almost from day one. He had been born in Wales and held dual nationality; his cousins still lived in some grandiose Welsh country house. Thus had he been moved by a sense of patriotism to return to his roots and join up long before Pearl Harbor had rammed home to his American cousins that the war was actually on their doorstep. By some miracle he had survived right through the war; he had seen plenty of comrades die in combat, but somehow he endured. It was considered lucky to be in his crew, although plenty of his crewmen had died. Somehow any plane Ratigan flew always returned.
Ratigan was bravado itself, a real “Jack the Lad” with a wicked sense of humor. He would seemingly chat up anything that breathed—as John had pointed out on more than one occasion—flouting convention and flying in the face of his colleagues’ as well as his superiors’ displeasure. Yet Jack was, quite simply, so charismatic and charming, he seemed to get away with murder. His matinee-idol good looks made him the epitome of “tall, dark, and handsome,” and his blue eyes and ready grin usually won over the most stubborn opponent. He would never, even in the face of surprisingly bad odds, let his irrepressible optimism waver. At least, not in front of his crew, he wouldn’t. If John Ashley knew differently, he kept it to himself.
Adam Grey, their navigator, at least had the GEE equipment still operational. He was behind his curtain after collecting his maps that had been blown halfway through the plane by the wind from the broken windows. The GEE used an oscilloscope that glowed bright green, measuring radio signals to pinpoint their position. Unless Adam worked behind a curtain, those same windows would let that light be seen like a beacon by enemy aircraft. Carefully hidden, he got back to work as fast as he could, tuning into the signals and directing Jack back to the Norfolk coast and their home base with his usual precision. He had an uncanny knack for navigation, considering he had fewer missions under his belt than the rest. He was barely twenty, their newest crewmember, and Ratigan tended to think of him more as a son than a friend.
Each member of the seven-man crew that night knew his job backward. Each of them had complete faith in their pilot, and he, in turn, had complete trust in them, but they all knew the odds were not in their favor. They were in no doubt that their survival was going to be nothing short of a miracle. At least they had discharged the contents of the bomb bay and there were no bombs trapped in it, something that had done for more than one crew forced to land a crippled plane.
They were hours overdue, probably the last home. The main runway would hopefully be clear. Bernie looked down from his perch, knowing that at least one of them would need the ambulance. Davie Glover, the bomb aimer, was alive but unconscious, having been bashed around and having cracked his head during the attack. John had placed him along the floor of the plane, out of the way. Bernie hoped he stayed out cold. At least then he wouldn’t feel anything if things went badly for them on landing.
Charlie Cahill, the mid-upper gunner, wiped blood out of his eyes from a cut across his brow and kept scanning the skies above. Tommy Malone, the rear gunner, kept his vigilance up, watching the sky behind them. Having missed its approach, they had both taken the Junkers’ attack personally and were bound and determined not to miss any others while quietly praying they wouldn’t have any more trouble. Each fervently hoped they were still too low for anything to see them. The plane was painfully slow in the air and would be a sitting duck if spotted.
As they had approached the coastline, Jack had ordered them to bail. “Right, guys, time to go! I’ll take her in by myself.”
“Can’t do that, sir,” John replied, prepared for a fight.
“What?” Jack glowered at him, expecting to hear about more damage.
“Davie is unconscious, so he isn’t going anywhere. Charlie used his parachute to smother the fire. Someone has to stay with you to fly her in, and if we can’t all go, the lads don’t want to abandon ship.”
“Charlie can use Davie’s parachute or be the one to stay and help me. The rest of you go, get out now, while you still have the chance!”
“Well, I’m staying to help you,” John said, “but the lads have already decided anyway. They’re not going.”
Ratigan fumed at the insubordination, but he wasn’t fooling anybody. He was silently and profoundly proud of their loyalty, even if it might get them all killed.
“Fine! No pressure, then,” he said gruffly.
“Fly us home, sir,” John said firmly.
By thetime a line of light appeared in the horizon behind them, they were coming in over the Norfolk coast. John flashed out an SOS message on the downward identification lights, and as dawn broke, they were on the final approach. As they closed on their destination, Bernie radioed in, letting the airfield know the situation. Within sight of the field, as if the damaged controls were not enough, the wheels refused to come down. Given the extent of the damage, it was no surprise.
“Use the hand pump near Bernie’s position!” Jack instructed.
John jumped for the hydraulic hand pump on the left hand side of the wireless operator’s position. It was made for just such an emergency, but now there was nothing but a hole in the side of the fuselage where the pump should have been. Bernie was vaguely surprised that he was still in one piece, but he did not allow himself to dwell on this piece of good luck. They would all be in a much worse situation if the undercarriage wasn’t down by the time the bomber needed to land. John racked his brain.
“The compressed-air system?” Charlie shouted. He and John exchanged a look. In theory, the compressed air could blow all the oil out of the hydraulic system and hopefully lower the wheels. They both heaved sighs of relief as it worked and the wheels dropped, but that wasn’t the end of their problems.
“Damn! Starboard tire is shredded!” John informed his pilot.
“I love a challenge!” Ratigan quipped, busy compensating for the expected drag. “Crash positions! Now!” he bellowed as he juggled the plane into position.
The misty field was covered in dew, giving it a silvered look in the early morning light. Mist hung in the distance as the station’s commander stood scanning the skies, his sheepskin jacket pulled tight against the spring chill. Beside him, other pilots and crewmen stood anxiously awaiting the last crew’s return. They all had friends on board and knew it was touch and go. The Observer Corps had picked up John’s flashed SOS as the Shady Lady had crossed the coastline and promptly telephoned the local airfields to find out who was missing a plane. Downham Market had immediately sprung into action to receive the crew they had thought lost moments before Bernie’s call had come through. Now they could all hear the engines as they droned in the still air, everybody turning to scan the sky above the headquarters building.
“There she is, sir!” One of the men pointed, drawing the others’ eyes toward the black dot in the murky distance. Nearby the crews of the fire engine and ambulance climbed on board in readiness, several flight crew piling on board with them. The huge black aircraft lumbered out of the sky, barely clearing the roof of the HQ building as it roared overhead. Its wheels were down, but flack damage to the starboard tire was clearly visible to the watchers below.
The Lancaster skimmed the field. Its remaining wheel touched, screeched, gripped. Abruptly, the whole undercarriage collapsed on the starboard side, causing the plane to crash sideways, smashing the starboard wing into the ground. The resulting spin was too much for the port wheel, which collapsed under the strain, sending the heavy plane into an uncontrollable slide. The ambulance and fire crews had already raced away in pursuit. It hit the outer boundary of the field and skidded into the farmland, propellers of the remaining engines churning up the soft ground. They eventually came to rest, smoke emanating from the crippled engines. As Group Captain Clive Davidson looked on in horror, flames started to engulf the remaining wing.
Three days later
20 Apr. 1945
Pren Redyn House, near Swansea, South Wales
Bronwen Powellsat in front of the radiogram in the sitting room, reading the paper and half listening to Glenn Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade” being broadcast across the airwaves. It was her cousin Jack’s favorite, and it brought him vividly to mind. The doorbell tinkled, and she spared a moment to wonder who would be calling to the farm at this hour of the afternoon before returning her concentration to the paper. A tea tray sat on the small table to her left, the dregs of the tea cooling as she scanned the pages. An article concerning someone she knew very well had caught her eye.
Detective Sergeant Pwl Bevan was cited as having been instrumental in catching someone who had been handling stolen goods, exposing a black market ring in the process. Pwl Bevan was the same age as Bronwen, they had been at school together. She remembered a tall, gangling young man who, even then, had been at pains to make sure his fellow pupils didn’t take advantage of each other. She was musing at whether Pwl’s actions might secure a promotion, something that was long overdue as far as Bronwen was concerned, when a knock at the door heralded the arrival of Griffith, their young butler. He carried a small silver tray in one hand.
“Ma’am?” He walked over and proffered the tray with his usual formal demeanor. His eyes, though, were worried, his voice slightly strained. “I’m sorry, but this has just arrived for you.” He said the words quietly, with sympathy, unwilling to ram home the reality of the thing he now bore.
She paused, looking at the innocuous envelope on the tray. So much potential suffering contained in so insignificant an object. Then she took it, glanced at the sender’s details, swallowed, and said, “Thank you, Griffith. That will be all,” and waited as he withdrew respectfully. She had almost asked him to open it. Almost.
Her heart was banging painfully against her ribs. Her mouth had dried, and her hand trembled as she endeavored to open the telegram with the wooden letter opener Jack had sent her from Canada. She remembered that he had enclosed a picture with the gift, of himself beside the mail plane he flew for the local shipping company. The opener was made of maple, and she had noted the curious way the grain undulated like a wave. Jack….
She ripped at the paper, aware she had let the memory distract her. Jack, her cousin, larger than life and very dear to her. Jack, with his outrageous jokes and anecdotes. She hardened her resolve and opened the telegram before she could change her mind.
“Something wrong, cariad?”
“Hmm?” Ifan Griffith sat down at the table in the kitchen below stairs and sighed heavily. The cook, Mrs. Redfern, eyed him as she rescued a pan from the cooker before the contents boiled over. She drained the vegetables over the sink and set them aside, wiping her hands on her apron and giving him a look that brooked no argument.
“Mr. Griffith, what’s wrong?” He might be young, but he was every inch the respectable butler, commanding deference below stairs in his quiet unassuming way. However, Mrs. Redfern cared about him as if he were her own son. She was the only one of the staff allowed the intimacy of calling him cariad—beloved.“Mrs. Powell just received a telegram,” he said gently.
“Oh Lord!” Mrs. Redfern’s hand flew to her mouth. “Is it…?”
“I don’t know. She waited for me to go before she opened it.” As he spoke, the sitting room bell tinkled, and his stomach lurched. “I think I’m about to find out.”
As he entered the hall, the telephone rang. He rolled his eyes at the timing and went to answer it, hearing the distant voice of Bronwen’s husband, Hugh, on the other end of the tinny line.
“That you, Griffith?”
“Can you tell my wife I’m going to be late home this evening?”
Damn, Ifan thought, why tonight? “Yes sir. May I give her a reason?”
“Business!” he said with a sigh. “What else? I have to speak to a new supplier. I’m taking him to the pub, and I can’t keep him waiting.” And he put the phone down.
“Yes sir.” Ifan glowered at the dead mouthpiece and replaced the phone on the rest. He went over to the sitting room door, tugged down his waistcoat front, paused in order to gather his composure, then knocked twice and went in.