The phone rang behind him. The WAAF clerk answered, “606 Squadron.” The WAAF sprang to her feet. “Yes, sir! He’s right here, sir. One moment, sir!” She covered the speaker and “whispered” in a loud voice to Allars, “Squadron Leader Allars, sir. It’s Air Vice Marshal Park, sir! He wants to speak with you, sir!”
Allars stamped over to the phone and took it. “Allars here.”
“Park. I’ve just had word that Squadron Leader Jones has been found dead. Apparently his parachute failed – or was shot up. In any case, it didn’t open.” There was a pause.
Allars felt compelled to say dutifully. “I’m very sorry to hear that sir.” Was he? Not at all. He’d long thought Jones wasn’t up to the mark.
“Doug, I’d like an honest answer from you.”
“Of course, sir,” Allars answered, although he was alerted by the use of his first name that this was a special request.
“Wait ‘till you hear the question, Doug.”
“First, is your remaining Flight Lieutenant up to the task of taking command of the squadron?”
Allars didn’t even have to think about that one. “Under no circumstances. If anyone had asked me, I wouldn’t have made him a flight commander. He’s an irresponsible, self-satisfied whelp, who thinks that just because his father inherited a coal fortune the whole world ought to dance to his tune. I’m not saying he can’t fly, but he certainly can’t command the respect of men—if you want my honest opinion, Keith.”
“I asked for it. All right, then, is the rest of the squadron a write-off or not?”
Allars hadn’t been prepared for that. It was a dangerous question. “There are still ten other pilots, Keith, and as I said, Tommy can fly well enough. Also, I’ve been told we’ll be back up to twelve aircraft by tomorrow.”
“That’s not what I asked, Doug. The question is: should I pull 606 out of the front line?”
“Pull them out? But we’ve only just had a rest. I mean, other squadrons have been in it longer. I think we can cope.”
To Park on the other end of the line, Allars sounded quite stunned by the possibility, as if it had never occurred to him. But he didn’t sound really confident about their capabilities, either. Park was silent for a moment , unsettled, and then became more explicit. “There are other squadrons that are just plain tired and need a rest, but, when I visited 606 on the 16th, I had the feeling the issue was morale more than exhaustion. The problem is this: almost every squadron we’ve rotated in from the north has been slaughtered within two to three days of arrival in 11 Group – often with hardly anything to show for it. The squadrons that have been here longer have much higher kill-to-loss ratios and have consistently lost fewer pilots. If I pull 606 out, the chances are that the replacement squadron will get badly mauled – maybe lose six or seven pilots – before the week is out. Now tell me if you think 606 needs to be pulled out.”
“In that case, definitely not. There is some good material here.”
“You think a new CO could turn them around?” Park asked explicitly.
“The right CO could.”
“I hope your right, Doug.”
“So do I, Keith – if not, I’m going to have several young men’s lives on my conscience, aren’t I?”
“If you don’t already, Doug, you’re a lucky man.”