It had been dicey over the Big City. The flak had been murderous on the run-in and the radar predicted, master searchlights seemed to have had an unnerving accuracy that night. You could tell the masters because of their bluish tinge and the way the other searchlights clumped around them. But at least one of the few perks of being a Pathfinder crew was that you were ahead of the main stream, where the night fighters congregated, plying their deadly trade.
They had done a good job of marking the target, or as well as you could when it was obscured by cloud, but Berlin was the Big City and the wide boulevards and waterways stood out quite nicely on the H2S radar. They were a Visual Backer-up crew and checked the accuracy of the Blind Markers and Blind Backer-ups. Marking was by the “Musical Wanganui” for targets obscured by 8/10th clouds, a mixture of sky markers and ground markers. And now they were nearly home while the stragglers of the main force were still crossing the Dutch coast. This crew of seven men, a small band of brothers had nearly completed their 35th Op. Pathfinder crews had to complete forty-five ops rather than the normal thirty, for the privilege of wearing that little, gold pathfinder badge on the left breast pocket, under the aircrew brevets. They were the part of the squadron’s elder statesmen, respected and very, very damned lucky to still be alive. The oldest of them was twenty-four.
Micky had plotted a good course between the flak concentrations of Bremen and Hannover, but they had run into a spot of bother off the Dutch coast. Empty of their bombs and just over half of their fuel, they could normally fly above the 88mm flak guns, but they were fired on by a 150mm, probably a flak ship. It caused some consternation and blew a “bloody big hole, big enough to fall through” as reported by the mid-upped gunner, but there were no casualties, just the damage to the H2S radar pod and the Elsan chemical lavatory. There was other damage they couldn’t see.
The wireless operator or signaller had his little office behind the navigator. It was where the aircraft’s heating unit came out, so he was always rather warm, while the gunners and the bomb aimer in the nose were always too cold. He bent down and tickled the crops of the two homing pigeons and gave them some biscuit crumbs. The Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) Control Unit Type 90 10LB/91 was located on the fuselage to his left, but he had no way of knowing that a small fragment from the 150mm flak shell had severed the wire from the IFF’s control unit to the transmitter, located under the fuselage aft of the bomb bay.
They saw no other aircraft crossing the North Sea and the Lancaster began to lose height as it approached the Norfolk coast and their home base of RAF Wyton. Eventually the overcast wrapped the aircraft in a cold, wet embrace as it crossed the Wash. The crew began to relax, thinking of the post-op interrogation and the tea heavily laced with rum. They hoped the cloud base wasn’t too low. The wireless operator confirmed the IFF was switched on and stretched to ease his cramped muscles.
The burst of cannon fire was a zero deflection shot from directly astern. Twenty millimetre cannon shells screamed through the aircraft interior, exploding on cross members and solid fittings in the aircraft. The rear gunner was killed instantly. The mid upper gunner’s right leg was blown off and an exploding Hispano cannon shell killed the wireless operator and the navigator. The flight engineer looked in stupefied bemusement at the blood spattering the inside of the shattered canopy.
“Can’t hold her chaps. Get out!”
In the nose the bomb aimer fumbled for his parachute, clipped it on and wrenched the belly hatch open. He dangled his feet in the slipstream, sensing the aircraft was turning onto its back and diving towards the sea. He jumped, tumbled along the fuselage underside, breaking his right arm on the tail wheel. Despite the pain he snatched frantically at the parachute’s D-ring and it started to deploy, but not enough. Even soft mud is as hard as concrete to a body travelling at nearly two-hundred miles-per-hour. He was killed instantly. A fishing boat found his corpse the next day, the crew attracted by the fluttering of the parachute. Of the other six crew and the aircraft there was no sign. The Wash’s mud had swallowed them like sperm whale swallows krill. It was just not cost effective to spend time looking for them. The bomb aimer was buried at the Church of St Peter, close to his home base of RAF Wyton.
The Beaufighter night fighter came out of the clouds in a gentle climbing spiral. The radar operator in the aircraft’s rear compartment sat back from the rubber hood of the radar display, which was now two lines of electronic, green grass.
“It’s gone off the plot. Did you get it?”
“And you can confirm a positive identification?”
“Twin tail. It was a Dornier 217.”
“The return on the AI radar was quite big for a Dornier.”
“Sector control confirmed no IFF. It was a Dornier.”
“OK, Skipper. You’re the boss.”
She immediately knew as soon as the car pulled up outside and the two officers got out in their No1 Best Blues. It was OC Operations Wing and the Padre and Mary Waldrum felt her heart lurch. They were very kind and understanding, promising that they would make sure she got the support she needed. They told her he was still classified as missing so there was always hope. But she knew and she knew they did as well and she was glad when they had gone and she could weep freely.
The next few weeks passed in a blur of numbed pain and grief. There were so many practicalities to deal with and SSAFA helped with advice. The worst part was that as soon as she had been notified the clock was ticking and the Defence Infrastructure Organisation would expect her to vacate the Service families’ accommodation within 28 days. The SSAFA rep told her there was the option of evicting her to force the local council to house her, but Mary knew that a Service widow was well down the pecking order for housing. There were far more deserving cases like Iranian asylum seekers, or returning Jihadists like the ones who in all probability had murdered her husband. She had her pride, her job in Norwich and £40,000 in savings for a down payment on a house. They auctioned all of Finn’s personal items and car to the squadron members and she was presented a cheque for £9,500.
When Mary finally drove away from Marham in her little car with Ben, the Border collie puppy but no children she was driving away from her old life. The sense of bitterness swept over her like an Atlantic comber. At least her new house, small as it was, she could call her own, but it would never be full of happy childish laughter and the chaos of small children, Finn’s children that she would never bear.
Over a year later, after an exhausting Christmas spent with her parents, Mary decided she needed a break, a rest from the world. She wanted solitude in the country and a place to walk Ben, who was no longer a puppy. Why Finn had decided on a Border collie was totally beyond her. He needed so much exercise and craved walks whatever the weather, but at least it kept both of them fit. Secretly she rather resented the dog that seemed to be perpetually waiting for his master to come home. Mary felt like a canine babysitter. She went on the internet and booked a fortnight in a holiday cottage, at a place called Wolferton on the edge of the Sandringham estate and less that half-a-mile from the sea. It was not far from Kings Lynn and a fair distance from Norwich, so her work wouldn’t bother her. It was a cold, blustery January with a succession of northerly winds howling in from across the Wash, but Ben didn’t seem to care. A walk was a walk whatever the weather.
Mary explored the local area and would walk in the woods in the Sandringham estate in the morning, do a trip and then return for Ben’s afternoon walk along the flood defense bank. Beyond it was a strip of dunes and course grass, a few trees and then the seemingly endless mud flats criss-crossed by creeks. On the third day of her holiday, Anne was walking along the bank while Ben charged on ahead, then charged back to her as if to say, come on. Hurry up. Mary paused to look out at the distant sea and pull up her sock that had doubled over in her walking boot. As she looked out to the north-east she saw the figure of a man walking slowly and scanning the ground. When she came to think about it, she had seen him the previous afternoon and perhaps on her first day’s walk.
For some unfathomable reason she watched him and as he looked back towards the bank, she waved. He gave a little half wave back, then walked slowly through the dunes towards her.
“Good afternoon, ma’am.” He said rather formally, but with a shy smile.
“Hello,” she replied smiling at him, “I think I saw you yesterday. It’s very cold, isn’t it?”
“Not really. I’m used to it.”
“I hope you don’t think I’m nosey, but you seem to be looking for something.”
“An aeroplane,” he said, as though this was the most natural thing in the world.
She looked at him curiously. He was quite short and probably in his twenties, although he looked older. He was really quite handsome with a shock of hair on the top of his head, but short below. A classic short back and sides. He was dressed in overalls, the legs of which were liberally coated in mud. He was well spoken but Mary detected a slight, northern accent.
“An aeroplane. What kind of plane?” she asked.
“A Lancaster. It went down here in 1944 and it’s still buried somewhere in the mud with its crew. Well, most of them. They found one who tried to bail out but was killed because his chute didn’t open.”
“That’s awful. Why didn’t they recover it, or at least the bodies?”
“It was quite common then. Lincolnshire has several crash sites where the bodies are still in what’s left of aeroplanes that buried themselves.”
“Why do you want to find it? Are you going to dig for pieces?”
“Goodness no. It’s a war grave. I just think the crew should be reunited with their kith and kin.”
Or the first time Mary realised that Ben was sitting about a hundred yards away just watching them, “That’s Ben, my dog. He doesn’t like strangers.”
The man turned round, “Nice dog. I had a dog once but he died.” He seemed genuinely saddened by this.
“I’m sorry. How often do you come out here?”
“Whenever I can. It’s a bit of an obsession with me, ever since I went to the Pathfinder museum near Huntingdon and read about the loss of the aircraft and its crew.”
“I must be getting back. Ben will be hungry. Well, good luck with your search. I’ll probably see you again some time.”
“Probably. Goodbye ma’am.”
He watched her leave and collect the dog, then went back down to the dunes and his lonely search.
The following day it started to rain just before lunchtime and this continued for the rest of the day. Mary decided to go to Kings Lynn and found it to be rather an unlovely town full of addicts and Eastern Europeans. She returned early and fired up the wood burner and read a book in the cosy heat while the rain lashed against the windows. Even Ben seemed reluctant to venture out for his afternoon walk by the sea, for which she was profoundly grateful. They both had an early night, the collie curled up at her feet.
The next day brought a bright, cold sunshine and after the ritual morning walk around Sandringham, Mary headed towards Hunstanton. It was a rather nice little town that sloped down towards the sea, with a large expanse of grass in front on the hotel and quirky little shops. She had lunch sitting outside a café, which was sheltered from the wind and quite pleasant in the sunshine. Afterwards she drove up the Norfolk coast, marvelling at the area’s unspoiled loneliness and harsh beauty. They arrived back at Wolferton in time for Ben’s afternoon constitutional. As they crossed the River Babingley, Mary watched a marsh harrier swooping down in pursuit of the smaller waders and seabirds over the salt marshes. Safety in numbers, like a bomber stream… Where had that come from?
Along the top of the bank she let Ben go and do his usual seemingly aimless running to and fro. The sun was a golden stain on the distant clouds away to the south west, throwing the starkness of the bare trees into harsh relief. She looked out to sea and gave a start. Surely not?
He looked up and saw her and gave a little wave. May goodness, thought Mary, now that’s dedication. She suddenly shivered as if someone had walked on her grave and rather unkindly pondered if he was suffering from some kind of autism. There was almost something sinister about such a single-minded dedication to an event that happened over seventy years ago. She watched him walk across the mud and then the dunes, looking down to be sure of his footing. Once again Ben retreated to a safe distance and sat down.
“Hello,” she said when he came up to the bank, Have you had any luck?”
“Nothing specific, but I reckon I’m getting close.”
“You must be really dedicated to put in all this time and effort into finding it… Them.”
“It’s like a duty to me.”
Mary suddenly thought about her husband and wondered if anybody had gone to the same time and effort to look for him. She very much doubted it and a wave of grief suddenly swept over her. He must have caught it and looked at her sadly.
“I can see you’re troubled. I’m sorry,” he said, so quietly she could barely hear his voice above the wind and the birds on the mud flats, “The pain will go, I promise you.”
She was shaken and looked up at his earnest face, “Do you mind if I ask you what your name is?”
“No. I’m Cliff. How do you do.”
She thought this was rather a formal manner of greeting, “Well, Cliff. I’m Mary.”
They shook hands rather awkwardly and she was stuck at just how cold his hand was, “You should dress a little more warmly if you’re going to spend all day out on the mud flats.”
“I really don’t notice, honestly.”
Mary felt a sudden urge to get away and light the wood burner, lock and bolt the doors and hunker down with Ben, like fugitives from reality, “Well, Cliff. I need to get back and give Ben his supper. I hope you find what you’re looking for.”
“Righto, Mary. Probably see you again.”
Part of her hoped not, “Goodbye, Cliff.”
Ben whined when she came up to him, “Let’s go and get warm, Ben.”
They finished their walk on the circuit back to the cottage and before climbing across the stile she looked back to the bank. It was getting really dark out to the north-east and Cliff had gone.
The next day was bright and sunny, the daylight seemed to lift the gloomy melancholy of the marshes and mud flats. This was a day for travelling further afield. It was cold but the easterly wind seemed cleansing somehow. Even the birds seemed to delight in the bright morning, the wintery sun turning the creeks and pools into molten silver.
“Ben,” Mary said earnestly to the dog, “I have a hankering to go to Cambridge, because I’ve never been there before.” The collie put its paw on her knee, as if in agreement. He didn’t care where he went as long as it was with his human Mum.
Mary knew that she needed to head south, but she took the wrong turn on the Kings Lynn bypass and ended up on the A47 instead of the A10. She wasn’t too bothered because she could cut east towards Ely and Cambridge. Near Huntingdon she saw a red sign that said RAF Wyton and under it a brown sign annotated: The Pathfinder Collection.
Something clicked in her mind: It’s a bit of an obsession with me, ever since I went to the Pathfinder museum near Huntingdon and read about the loss of the aircraft and its crew. Not knowing why, Mary took the first exit at the roundabout towards RAF Wyton. She parked at the guardroom and went in, waiting for various contractors to be issued with passes. Finally she spoke to the corporal behind the glass screen.
“I wonder if it would be possible to view the Pathfinder Museum.”
“Have you made an appointment, Ma’am? You need to be security checked before you’re allowed on the base.”
“No, I’m afraid that I haven’t,” Suddenly she remembered her dependent’s pass from RAF Marham, the one she had never handed back when she left, “I’ve got a dependent’s pass.”
The corporal scrutinised it, “I’ll tell you what, you may be in luck. There’s a trip going round later this morning and you can tag onto that. The whole thing takes about three hours. It should begin about 10:30 so I’ll issue you with a vehicle pass and you can park in the Spar shop car park.
“He showed her a map on the back of pass, “That’s the shop. You walk about halfway down this road and the museum is in the old Catholic church on the right. You’ll see the others waiting for the guide outside.”
Mary thanked him and once through the barrier parked up in the shop car park. She looked at her watch and took Ben for a couple of circuits of some nearby playing fields, before leaving him in the well-ventilated car with his soft toy and rug.
“Don’t worry, Ben. I’ll be back as soon as I know what it is I’m supposed to find,” the collie whined and put his head down, looking at her with beseeching eyes.
She found the church easily enough with about fifteen people waiting outside. They were presently joined by a junior officer who must have been acting as a guide as a secondary duty and he led them inside the building. He may have been young, but he was certainly enthusiastic about the museum and very knowledgeable. The first part of the tour concerned the history of RAF Wyton from RFC Station to the present day, home of the Joint Forces Intelligence Group. The second part of the tour concerned the history of photographic reconnaissance and included classic images of the Ruhr dams, the V-weapons sites and post raid photo damage wreaked on German cities. The final part was the history of Bomber Command’s pathfinder force and its pioneering commander Donald Bennett.
After the formal part of the tour the visitors were allowed to access the archives. Anne wasn’t particularly interested in reconnaissance photographs of destroyed cities, so she went through a number of albums of the crews, the “mug shots” taken at the beginning of their Pathfinder tours. It was an endless catalogue of fresh-faced young men, ever the hopeful, knowing with absolute certainty that whoever got the “chop,” it wouldn’t be them. They were bolstered by that youthful exuberance that believed that life would go on forever. There were multiples of seven, sitting on the grass in front of Lancaster bombers, or standing rather more formally in front of the aircraft. Some of the crews were in battle dress, while some were in flying gear. The saddest thing were the typed post scripts under the photographs:
Lancaster B-Beer, 97 Sqn. Pilot PO Muldoon. a/c Missing night 15/16 November 1943, raid on Krefeld. Believed shot down by a night fighter.
Mary felt her eyes welling up as she looked at those impossibly young faces, full of hope and suppressed fear. Never to be fathers, most couldn’t even drive a car. Gone, like a bonfire’s embers in the wind. It was all too much and she turned over one last page. This crew was sitting on the grass in front of the tail of a Lancaster.
Lancaster O-Orange 7 Sqn. Pilot Fg Offr Ward. a/c missing night 20/21 December 1944, raid on Berlin. Believed shot down by flak off Dutch coast.
Mary skimmed the smiling faces and saw one of the men was petting a little terrier. The dog’s ears were cocked in a pleasing manner and it was obvious the crew felt a great deal of affection for the little dog. She looked at the face of the man holding it and her heart seemed to freeze.
“Oh dear God!”
A man from the guided party looked at her curiously and Mary smiled in embarrassment. She knew that she had to get away from here before she went mad. She was back at her car without even understanding how she got there and Ben was bounding in the back seat, delighted to see her.
“Ben, I think I’m going mad,” she said to the collie as she walked him around the playing fields again. Cambridge was forgotten and she headed back to the Norfolk coast, wondering what the hell she was going to do to make sense of all of this. Back at the cottage she battened down the hatches, lit the fire and prepared a meal for both of them. Mary fell into a restless sleep on the sofa and it grew dark outside and the wind became a low moan through the skeletal trees. It was well after midnight when the stiffness and discomfort woke her again.
“Ben, I need to make sure and you must stay here. I really don’t want to, but I… I’m just not sure. Then we’ll leave this place and go home. I hate it and I’m frightened.
She dressed warmly and the collie looked at her with sad eyes, but showed no sign of wanting to join her. Outside the wind was a chill north-easterly that funnelled the high tide down from the North Sea to the constriction of the Norfolk coast and the Wash. Mary was almost hyperventilating as she went across the wooden footbridge over the river Ingol. The moon was scudding among the clouds as she approached the flood bank, against which the high tide lapped. She turned south along the path and stumbled on a bramble sucker. The small copse of gnarled trees was ahead and this time she climbed over the fence and went down the bank.
He was waiting for her.
“You have played me for a fool!” she shouted above the wind.
Cliff shook his head sadly, “No but I needed your help and more importantly your grief.”
“How long have you been doing this? And why me?”
“Because you understood, even though you don’t realise it. As for how long? I haven’t left this place in seventy years.”
Mary shook her head in frustration, “Why didn’t you tell me you were dead?”
“Because you already knew. You just refused to see it.”
He turned round and she saw six figures materialise behind him. They were wearing WW2 flying clothing, the two gunners in their dirty yellow, electrically heated suits.
“So we can at last be together and move on.”
She was weeping by now, “I meant you no harm, Mary. Because of your loss you helped us.
The figure of the skipper stepped forward, “Thank you, Ma’am. All right fellers, let’s get this show on the road.”
“I promise you, Mary. The pain will go,” Cliff said sadly, “But you’ll never forget.”
And they disappeared, united at last, the tragic band of brothers. Mary wiped the tears from her eyes and headed back to the cottage. Ben was waiting for her, his head on his paws. He had been right. The pain had gone to be replaced with a wistful longing. And Ben knew as well. He was no longer Finn’s dog waiting for him to come home. He was her dog now and he would serve her all his days.
Closure is an American lie used to justify revenge. Healing is getting used to the pain, learning to be damaged.
© Blown Periphery 2019
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file