The entire room was packed- row upon row of brown and beige uniforms sat in columns on ordered benches, the paling light of a lazy summer evening seeped in through a squalid window in the centre of the side wall. The room buzzed with low level chatter, and the insistent hum of a Handley Halifax rung out across the airfield.
“You nervous?” Vinnie asked, his solid six foot frame sat crouched on the bench as he began rubbing the palms of his hands over the front of his legs, a nervous habit acquired back in junior school.
I shook my head determinedly. He gave a shrug and began smoothing down his already combed back hair, being the proud man that he is. His brown flight jacket clenched tightly to his body and every time he turned, the three striped insignia on his shoulder was flashed at us, proudly displaying his flying officer status. His hands were rough but capable, and his neatly groomed moustache sat solemnly on his upper lip, giving my friend an appearance that was way beyond his eighteen years.
I found myself running through my own, less perfect, slightly messier hair, as I began to think about the reason we had been gathered to this meeting in the first place. The clock on the wall read close to six ‘o’clock, and I could feel an atmosphere of impatience begin to arise and unsettle us all. We were
surrounded by men of nearly every rank- 3rd officers, flight lieutenants and even a couple of squadron leaders, all packed closely together and eager to exit crowded room. I was only aware of there being several of us air gunners, or 'Tail- end Charlies' as we're known, and I noticed that the few of us were reserved and slightly apprehensive, but we have more reason than anyone else here to be. It had been made very clear to us upon our arrival and throughout our training that we, after entering conflict, were expected to live little more than two weeks. The thought did more than cross my mind- it trampled through it like a collection of unruly Panzer tanks, and I could feel my chest tighten with every breath I drew.
“How’d you think Viv’s taking it?” Vinnie inquired, running another hand through his dark hair, his shoulders sinking a little further.
"She’s got to be better than this morning” I smiled, though exasperated. The message of the briefing this morning had rippled through the barracks, and both Vinnie and I were approached by a severely irritated and rather furious looking Viv whilst leaving the mess hut. It’s common knowledge around the airbase that Viv, whilst being limited to the ATA, was a highly skilled, technical pilot who could rival the best of men, but she seemed to take great personal offence to the gender exclusivity of the RAF. She ranted and raved at us, without pausing for breath, for at least ten minutes before we trailed off to our morning duties, and know doubt she surpassed the patience of her ATA colleagues before they saw midday.
The door was pushed open and an unnerving silence settled heavily on the room. Every head turned to stare at the man that had just graced through the doorway, and every mouth closed in respect. The man was, presumably, Air Marshal Rodgers- the very man who had rounded us up together in this room. His broadshoulderswere decorated with an assortment of stripes and colours in the forms of insignias, and his brown flight jacket was worn with majesty and pride. Tucked under his right arm was a collection of papers, and he unloaded them all steadily onto a desk that was placed at the front of the room. He leant against the edge of the table, folding his strong arms as he studied every face in the room with his dark eyes.
"Gentlemen" His voice stirred, a deep, throaty voice that bounced through the room and was enough to make the most confident of men cower and shrink. "I shall feed you no illusions- this is a briefing"
Just those words sent a hushed whisper around the room, although no one dared speak up.
"You have been called-each one of you- because of your demonstratedcapability that shone in previous drills and training. The RAF, as I'm sure you're all aware, has suffered at the hands of the luftwaffe, and so it is time to make the Jerrys pay the price" another whisper of excitement flooded through the room, and I managed to catch Vinnie's unsettled expression.
"Gentlemen of 77 squadron, you,along with several other divisions up and down the country, have been called up to partake in the Bomber Command mission; a highly secretive operationdevised by the government and your superiors. Any breach of the secrecy codes or any word of this to anybody outside of this room, and you shall be made toleave the RAF in disgrace, with no recognition for your efforts.
There shall be an equal division- half of you shall taking Hadley Halifax's and the other half shall take the Lancasters. Youwill be under the leadership of Squadron Leaders Michaels and White,with each pilotbeing accompanied by a navigator and, of course, a tail-end Charlie." Air Marshal Rodgers eyed up hiscrew once more,"Gentlemen, I have here in my hand,"he wavedapiece of crumpled paper that was clenched in his fingers "our target for tonight."