(Setting: Jagdgeschader 23 following a particularly bloody air battle with high bomber losses, late August 1940)
“Where were you?”
“I went to see Major Schulz-Heyn.”
“The acting Geschwaderkommandeur of KG 51 – after their previous CO, Dr. Fisser, bought it yesterday. Do you know how many kites they lost yesterday? Ten! Ten aircraft and crew because that arsehole Bartels wanted to run up his own damned score against the RAF. He can’t bloody take it that Galland and Mölders have left him standing!”
Ernst was appalled by the losses, but he still didn’t think Christian should be talking like this about their CO.
“The whole system stinks!” Christian told him before Ernst had decided what to answer. “They only give away medals and promotions for kills.”
Ernst decided it was better not to enter this discussion. He rather suspected Christian might be less contemptuous about rewarding kills if only he had one or two of his own. So, Ernst changed the subject. “The ground crews are saying you’re going to be put before a court martial.”
“Only the ground crews?”
“They heard the CO threaten you after you landed yesterday and were pretty shaken up. Dieter and Busso, however, say they can’t afford to ground you. We’re too short of pilots. They said the CO was just blustering.”
“See. Nothing to worry about.” Christian grinned and shrugged – unconvincingly, Ernst thought.
“They don’t have to ground you to court-martial you, Christian. They could let you fly ops until your trial.”
Christian shrugged. “When I walked into the mess at KG 51, you would have thought I was a Jew. They all stared at me. Not one man nodded in greeting, much less smiled. They just stared at me. It was the coldest reception I’ve ever had in my life. And they were right.”
“No, they weren’t! You did your best! It’s not your fault that so many of them got slaughtered.”
“I didn’t hit a damn thing – again. Not one goddamnned English fighter!”
“You fire too soon, Christian.” Ernst said it softly, wincing even as he spoke, afraid Christian would be mad at him for criticising.
“What was that?”
“You fire too soon, before you’re in range.” Christian considered Ernst for a long moment, his head cocked. “Just when did you notice this?”
Ernst shuffled his feet unhappily and shrugged. “We’ve been flying together for weeks.”
“You could have said something earlier.” Christian sounded annoyed, but not angry.
Ernst took a deep breath and risked looking at him squarely. He answered honestly, “What right have I got to criticise? Most sorties I don’t even fire my guns – just like yesterday. I certainly haven’t hit anything. At least you try. And you scared the Hurricanes away yesterday. They broke in all directions at the sight of your tracer.”
Christian smiled sadly. “Thanks, Ernst.”
“Jein. They broke in all directions and some of our bombers made it home – yesterday. But the Hurricanes will be just as numerous today because I didn’t get any of them. Maybe they’ll get a Junkers today – because I didn’t get any of them yesterday. We can’t beat the RAF by scaring them off. We’ve got to destroy their aircraft and pilots faster than they can be replaced. It’s as simple as that.”
“Then the system of rewarding kills is right after all?” Ernst said it with a little whimsical smile, expecting a heated denial.
But Christian sighed and agreed, “Yes, it’s right after all….”
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