(Setting: An Operational Training Unit following a fatal accident: Early August 1940)
Kennel was waiting for him as he slipped to the ground. “The
police have already found him.” Priestman just looked at Kennel, not daring to
form the question. “Flew straight in at an estimated 300 miles an hour.”
“I wasn’t flying 300 miles an hour.”
“Maybe not but Acting Pilot Officer Taylor apparently was.
Come back up to my office with me.” As they started across the field, the other
trainee pilots clustered around. They all looked shocked and shaken. Kennel
sent them away. “Stand down. There’ll be no more flying today – or lectures.”
“Is there any hope, sir?” One of the youngsters asked.
“No. He’s been found dead.” Kennel led Priestman into his
office. The Adjutant handed a glass of scotch to him.
Priestman took it and sipped at the golden liquid unhappily.
He didn’t know what to say.
“There will be an enquiry, of course. The Met was wrong. I
shouldn’t have opened the airfield. You should have returned sooner. God knows
what Acting Pilot Officer Taylor should have done – but it wasn’t to fly into a
mountain at 300 mph.” He paused, sighed. “I’ll write to the next-of-kin. Can
you give me all the details you have on Taylor?” This latter was addressed to
the adjutant, who nodded. “Anything you can add?” Kennel asked Priestman.
“He was…” Priestman searched for words to describe a young
man he had known barely a week. “… insecure. He kept trying to cover it up with
“Do you think he’d drunk too much last night?”
“Very likely. I wasn’t with them, but they crashed in late
“We’d better talk to one or two of the others about that.”
“What does it matter now? You’re not going to put that in
the letter to his next-of-kin,” Priestman added a little alarmed.
“No, but it might help with the enquiry.”
Priestman had already forgotten about that, but he supposed
this would be the death knell to his career. He’d barely survived the last
enquiry. They were bound to throw him out now. God help him, he’d be drafted
into the Army!
His expression of foreboding was so explicit that it moved
Kennel to remark, “Look, Priestman, there’s no need to look as though you
expect to be hanged. We all bear a share of the blame, but things like this
happen in training all the time. Flying is dangerous. Flying Spitfires is very
dangerous. Give a bunch of teenage boys an extremely fast, powerful aircraft,
and the instinct of half of them is to crash it one way or another. It doesn’t
help that the Hun is killing, on average, three to four of our pilots every
day. Fighter Command needs trained replacements, and it needs them sooner
rather than later. If we close down every time conditions aren’t ideal, we’ll
either not deliver enough pilots soon enough or we’ll deliver untrained pilots
to the operational units – and the Huns will have even more of a field day
shooting them out of the sky.”
“That’s over a hundred pilots a month,” Priestman remarked
slowly, as he registered what Kennel had just said.
“And half again that many hospitalised,” Kennel added.
“You’re telling me Fighter Command casualties last month
were roughly 150 pilots?” Priestman wanted confirmation. “That’s more than six
“Yes, it is.”
“At that rate, it doesn’t matter how many of them we shoot
down. Fighter Command will cease to exist by the end of the year.”
Kennel only shrugged in acknowledgement. They stood there in
silence, and now they could hear rain pelting against the windows and the wind
howling as a full gale tore down from the Irish Sea. They were all thinking the
same thing: the Germans hadn’t even started their main assault yet.
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