Earlier I talked about Air Chief Marshal Lord Dowding's critical role in the Battle of Britain. I argued that he has been under-appreciated. Part of the reason for that -- although he was brilliant and conscientious -- he lacked charisma. He did not have the kind of personality that enable him to connect readily with his young pilots.
In this excerpt from "Where Eagles Never Flew," Squadron Leader "Robin" Priestman, commanding a frontline Hurricane squadron at the height of the Battle of Britain has been caught on camera kissing a famous socialite -- and he doesn't think it is going to go down well with the C-in-C of Fighter Command...
The telephone rang in the dispersal, and everyone tensed. The orderly clerk emerged. “Sir,” he addressed Robin respectfully, “it’s the AOC.”
Robin dropped his head in his hands, then shoved them through his hair and dragged himself out of the deck chair onto his feet. As he disappeared into the dispersal, all the others watched him go.
“They wouldn’t really cashier him for something like this, would they?”
“Rather depends on what they think of him generally, I suppose. Stuffy strikes me as the type to take a very dim view of scandal. I’d say he’s going to get a packet.”
“On the other hand, experienced Squadron Leaders don’t grow on trees.”
Robin swallowed before picking up the receiver, which had been laid beside the phone on the orderly’s desk. In a tone of complete resignation, he reported, “Priestman.”
“Park. Would you like to give me your version of what happened?”
“I was told there were some reporters in my office who wanted to interview me, and that the Station Commander had already approved the interview. As I came through the door, Virginia threw herself at me and the photographer started snapping shots. I disengaged as soon as I could and got behind the desk. I did not drink a drop of the champagne, and I pushed off rather abruptly when the klaxon went.”
There was a moment of silence, and then Park remarked, “You called her Virginia just now. Do you know her well?”
“We went out a few times before the war, when I was flying in air shows, and once or twice this past winter.”
“I see. And what does your fiancée have to say about the whole thing?”
“I – haven’t – talked – to – her – yet.” Robin admitted feeling ill.
“Well, I hope for your sake – and the sake of your squadron – that she’s sensible and doesn’t make too much of this. Boret reported that you were sitting behind your desk and very correct for the part of the interview he witnessed. He praised your answers, and I quite agree that the Times article – without photo – is really quite good. I particularly liked what you said about Hurricanes, and you fielded the question about claims deftly. Your Adjutant, incidentally, gave the same version of events as you, but I have to tell you that the C-in-C is not amused. He feels it lends credence to those who portray all fighter pilots as frivolous and irresponsible. He also remarked that it wasn’t the first time you’ve been impulsive and undisciplined.”
Robin ruffled his hair with his free hand, but there was nothing he could say to that. He sighed. Park continued. “I think it will all blow over very quickly. There are more important things on our plates at the moment, to say the least. Nevertheless, I would appreciate it, if you would try to keep a low profile for a bit; would you?”
“I didn’t ask for the interview, sir.”
“I understand. Boret said you were clearly annoyed by it all. He was afraid you might be too blunt about just how difficult things are at the moment.” There was a pause, and then Park added in a notably more friendly tone, “The PM was rather pleased, actually.”
“The Prime Minister saw it?!” Robin couldn’t grasp his misfortune. It had only appeared in the local Portsmouth papers, after all.
“He has a large staff that sifts through the papers, looking for anything that might be of interest to him. He rang me up about 30 minutes ago and growled at me that things couldn’t be as bad as I was making them out to be if my front-line squadron leaders had time for champagne and socialites.” Park paused and then added with obvious amusement, “He was tickled pink.”
Robin could hear Park’s amusement, but it didn’t make him feel much better. Churchill might be amused, but Dowding and Emily held his future in their hands – and he was afraid that Emily was going to react more like “Stuffy” Dowding than the amiable Churchill.
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