July 1940

 

A RAGGED northeasterly wind swept across the Weald of Kent, tearing the low ceiling of nimbus cloud into vaporous shreds. Below, a bank of canopied trees marked the camouflaged hangars of Number 362 Fighter Squadron, the buildings’ covering flapping like wet sails in the unseasonable July wind. Unobtrusively, the sound of its approach muted by the raging of the weather, a lone Spitfire dropped out of the murk above the waterlogged landscape, which was suffering the aftereffects of weeks of unexpected summer rain. With its engine throttled back, it circled once, shaking off excess height, and then drew in to the ground, coming to rest near a low building that had once been a farmhouse before war demanded its service as an Officers’ Mess and Squadron Office. As if out of nowhere, a small group of mechanics emerged to take charge of the machine while the pilot, after a brief investigatory glance about the aerodrome, leaped to the ground and set off toward the building.

The man was tall, well built, and his upright, soldierly bearing made him appear taller still. The fur collar of his flying jacket was turned up against the wind, but he made short work of his helmet and goggles, pulling them off deftly to reveal a strong, handsome face and the salt-and-pepper hair of a man on the cusp of middle age. When he fumbled open his collar preparatory to entering the office, the twin ribbons of the DSO and DFC on the lapel of his uniform jacket declared him to be an officer of long and distinguished service.

 

 

FROM HIS position atop an upended chock inside the biggest and least dilapidated of the makeshift hangars, Jimmy Dupont took in all of this. He watched dispassionately, the stub of a cigarette smoldering between his fingers, and blew out a slow cloud of smoke as the man disappeared into the building.

On the next chock, his long legs crossed and his jacket draped over his shoulders like a prince’s cape, sat Filip Prendecki, his hazel eyes fixed on the place where the newcomer had disappeared.

“Is that him, do you think?” he asked. There were tells in his voice, lingering jagged edges of the strong Polish accent he had arrived with, but he and Dupont had served together for almost a year already. Long exposure to Dupont’s Texan drawl had taken care of most of what the rowdy Englishmen of 43 Squadron, his previous posting, had left behind.

When Dupont was irritable, the drawl emerged in force, and at this moment he was very irritable indeed. “I’d bet money on it,” he said wryly. “That’ll be him: Squadron Leader Riley, come to sort us out.” He spat onto the grass and glanced over at his companion. “You think he’ll sort us out, Fil?”

Beside him, Prendecki’s soft face threatened a smile. “Not a chance.” He crept his hand across the space between the chocks and found the pocket of Dupont’s jacket, slipped it inside, and emerged again with the crumpled remains of a pack of cigarettes. “I’d bet money on that, if I had any.”

Dupont laughed. There was something about Prendecki’s smiles that made it impossible not to respond, and Dupont, though often called surly, was as vulnerable as anyone to them. Perhaps more so.

“Guess we’ll find out.” In his other pocket was his lighter, the heavy silver one his father had given him when he graduated high school. He pulled it out now and flicked it open, proffering it in Prendecki’s direction. “You want a light with that, genius, or are you gonna eat it?”

Prendecki, grinning around the end of the unlit cigarette, threw him a wink and leaned in.

 

 

SQUADRON LEADER Jeff Riley was far from new to airfields, but he was new to this one. New, too, to his rank, or at least to the name of it, for he had ended the Great War as Major Riley of the newborn RAF before it was decided that Army terminology was no longer good enough. It still felt uncomfortable, not yet broken in, like the new uniform belt that still squeaked when he moved and the flying boots yet to soften around his calves. When he entered the Squadron Office to announce himself, it tasted wrong in his mouth, but it couldn’t be helped. Things changed. That was why he was here, assembling on a muddy airfield in deepest Kent instead of going about his commercial flying business with professional civility.

“Riley, Jeffrey O’Shea.” He set his gloves and cap down on the desk and fixed his gaze on the man behind it. “Squadron Leader, reporting.”

The recording officer was tall and yellow-haired, about Jeff’s age, with a patch strung across his right eye at a jaunty angle. He wore the pips of a flight lieutenant on his shoulder and he grinned at Jeff’s introduction. “Oh, I know very well who you are, sir. We’ve been expecting you. Welcome to three-six-two!” The man spoke too quickly for Jeff’s comfort, his accent fruity and extravagant. “Big Irishman, indeed.”

Jeff’s brows pulled together and he sighed tightly. He could tell that this fellow might easily be riding his last nerve by the end of the week. “I’m from Belfast,” he said, and the RO beamed and nodded as if he had no idea what that connoted. Probably he hadn’t, but possibly he was being deliberately obtuse. Jeff could quickly become overly suspicious on this particular subject.

“Bernet,” he said and held out his hand for Jeff to shake. “Bit of an old warhorse, as you can see”—he gestured at the eye patch—“but one doesn’t need two eyes to keep track of who’s here and who isn’t. Usually.” He spread open the squadron log one-handed and filled in Jeff’s name in a meticulous copperplate cursive. “For the record, Squadron Leader, hardly anybody is here yet, but I’m told they’re on their way.”

The slide in Bernet’s voice from affected airiness to competent efficiency was palpable, and it served to ease the sinking feeling in Jeff’s gut at least a little.

“Yes,” Jeff said. “Raymond told me it was an entirely new squadron—I know they’ve put together several, given the circumstances. I’m going to have a full complement, though, I hope?”

Bernet nodded, one finger moving down the list of names in the logbook as he scanned it. “If we get everyone we’re supposed to be getting, then yes. The ground crew is mostly intact, but you’re only the fourth officer to arrive so far, sir, other than me.”

“The fourth?” Despite the windchill, it was warm in the little room where the RO’s desk and other accoutrements had been installed; the big brick fireplace led Jeff to suspect that it had once been a kitchen. He shrugged out of his heavy leather jacket and draped it over one arm. “Who’re the other three?”

Bernet cleared his throat delicately. “I can get you their dossiers, if you like. But, sir, the wing commander asked me specifically to tell you he’d written an, uh, explanatory letter about this squadron. I was to make sure you got it. It might explain some things.”

The sinking feeling was back. Jeff frowned. “A letter—?” That was just like Raymond, to hold back information until Jeff was already in too deep to climb back out again. “Well, where is it?”

“On the mantelpiece in your room,” Bernet said promptly. “Which is the second door on the left, just down here.” He indicated with one arm outstretched. “We’ve got Dupont, Prendecki, and Smith so far, sir. Would you like their dossiers?”

There was going to be enough paperwork already without more files to go through. Jeff sighed. “No—thanks, RO. I’ll go and get settled in first, see what Raymond has to say, and then if I want them, I’ll come back and get them. That sound okay to you?”

Bernet shrugged and nodded. “As you like, sir. You’re the boss.”

Which was perfectly true. Jeff nodded smartly, retrieved his discarded flying gear, and set off in the direction of his room.

 

 

THE LETTER stood out immediately as the only remotely personal item in the room. Otherwise the place was sparsely furnished and free of ornament: bed, wardrobe, washstand, mirror. The CO couldn’t be expected to function without a desk, but Jeff supposed his must have been set up in another part of the building, there being definitively no space for anything else in here.

With a heavy sigh, Jeff deposited his kit bag and outside clothes on the bed and reached for the envelope in its place on the mantel. “Home sweet bloody home,” he muttered as he tore it open. “What the hell have you done to me this time, Raymond?”

The contents of the letter were brief, handwritten in Raymond’s long-familiar upright script. As usual there was no formality to it—Raymond had rejected due ceremony when he was a colonel in the RFC, and it seemed he had no more respect for the office of wing commander. Not, at least, when it concerned Jeff, long a favorite of his.

 

Hello Jeffrey,

I assume that, as you are reading this, you’ve found your way to the airfield. Given the weather we’ve been having lately, I think this is an excellent start to what may well prove a taxing assignment.

Now, don’t look at me like that! And don’t pretend you aren’t, either. We know each other far too well to dissemble, and that’s exactly why I’m giving this job to you and not to some twenty-five-year-old kid fresh out of Cranwell; I know you can handle it.

I imagine you’re starting to worry. I suppose I’d better tell you what it is I want you to handle. As you undoubtedly know, there’s always been something of an issue in the Service with officers, often brilliant fighters and flyers, who do not take kindly to discipline. You know exactly the type I mean. The ass on the ground is often the ace in the air, and so on, and it’s no use trying to keep them off flying duties; it only makes them worse. These are the fellows we’re discussing here, and the fact is the higher-ups are sick of having them pop up like unexpected flies in the custard, giving their new COs headaches.

A couple of months ago, we began a sort of register, as it were, of those officers we believed to fall into this category: loose cannons, but strong ones. Things started off quiet, and these troublemakers were easier to manage then, but Intelligence has suspected something big brewing with the Luftwaffe for a while. Now that they’ve stepped up their game in the Channel, we think it highly unlikely that it’ll stop there. They’re going to move in, and soon, and we want plenty of airmen ready with the welcome mat. Moreover, we want to make sure we’ve got all our flies where we can see them, in a place where they’ll be useful instead of distracting.

I can tell you’ve got the face on again, Jeffrey. You think you know what I’m about to say; well, then, let me say it. We have decided to collect together these officers, based upon this register, and send them, as an experiment, to a special squadron, hoping they’ll at least be able to knock a few spots off Jerry before they kill themselves in some fit of adrenaline-fueled idiocy. Madmen do well in total war. We think that kind of war in the air is coming.

The squadron in question will be, as you have no doubt figured out, number 362. In light of your long and varied experience, military and otherwise, we have put you in command of it. Yes, I was largely to blame for the appointment, and I, personally, have no doubt that you will be fully up to the task. Your officers will be reporting to you immediately.

 

Jeff let the letter drop for a moment, the paper caught between his fingers as he struggled to take deep, calming breaths and restrain himself from heading straight back to the Squadron Office to get Raymond on the telephone and offer him a piece of his mind. This… this lunatic squadron, and Raymond had put him in charge of it? Jeff was forty and had returned to the RAF after the phony war began to heat up, only out of love and as a favor. Evidently it did not intend to do him any favors in return.

There was more of the letter to go. Jeff sighed and lifted it again.

 

A word of advice, Jeff. Don’t be quick to judge. Give them plenty of rope and they’ll probably hang a few bandits with it, even if things get a little tangled up for you in the process. I know you, and I know you’re a very gifted disentangler. Just be patient. Give it—and them—a try before you dismiss this as a bad job.

You should be at full strength within a fortnight or so. If I recall correctly, you should find your three flight lieutenants ready to greet you when you arrive—Dupont, Smith, Prendecki. They’re good lads—queer, but they’ll do you proud if you let them.

Dupont comes to us from Texas, but he was a copper in New York, I believe—somewhere that made him nice and angry, at any rate. He taught himself to fly at his own expense before the war, then came over here and joined up the first chance he got. He and Prendecki have served together since the start, and they’re thick as thieves.

Prendecki’s problem is an overabundance of energy, not to mention limbs. He barely fits in the cockpit of a Spitfire, but he’s damn well determined not to let anyone shove him out of things. We tried to put him on bombers, and he just started doing unlogged solo flights on the Spits in the night, looking for things to shoot. He’s Polish, as you’ve probably guessed, and those fellows are good—I suppose because things are already so personal for them. But he needs to be watched like a hawk. Dupont will do that for you, provided you don’t rub him up the wrong way. If you do, he’s liable to encourage his mate to greater and greater heights of lunacy just out of spite, and because Dupont has no handbrake himself once he gets going.

Smith is a different sort of bird. He’s a little older, midthirties, and his passport says he’s British. He’s lived here ten years or so, but he was educated in some New England prep school and he sounds like it. Actually, I think the greater part of him is Russian. He’s something of an eccentric, but that isn’t really the problem. He’s an excellent gunman, but he seems to have the most unfortunate knack for breaking things. His flying is most unorthodox, horrible to watch, but he’s got his own set of theories and won’t be prised off them, despite the trail of broken aeroplanes he left behind him at the flying school. Once up in the air, he’s a marvel—he was extremely popular at the Coastal squadron he’s been serving with, and he inspires cult-like devotion in the men he leads—but you have to get him up there first, and most COs’ nerves wouldn’t take watching him.

So that’s your little rundown. The rest of them you’ll have to tease out on your own when they come through. You ought to have all the WAAF girls you need, and there’s a Hurricane squadron sharing the base with you, too. If you pop over there, you might meet a familiar face.

That’s all for now. I’ll try to let you have some more machines shortly—I have an idea you’ll need them.

Best of luck,

Raymond—Wing Commander, if you’re interested.

 

Jeff blew out a long sigh through his teeth and sank onto the bed as if his legs could no longer support him. “What the hell have I got myself into?” he demanded weakly, addressing the blank wall. “I’m going to be as gray as a goose by the time this assignment’s over with, aren’t I?”

The wall wisely kept its peace, and Jeff found that he could not blame it.