Spectral Shadows - Robert Westall


Yes, I do fly in bombers. What’s it like, bombing Germany? Do you really want to know? OK, brace yourself.

Two more pints, please, George.

Well, I expect you’ve been bombed by Jerry yourself. Plenty of bomb damage around. And there’s you, sitting down in your shelter, behind your steel plate and three feet of earth, near wetting yourself and hoping the next bomb hasn’t got your number on it. Well, being in a bomber’s a bit like that, only the nasty bangs are coming up at you, instead of down.

But that’s where any similarity stops. You see, a Wimpey – a Wellington bomber to you – isn’t made of steel. It’s made of cloth, stretched over a few aluminium tubes; a bit like a tent. If you try hard enough, and sometimes even when you’re not trying, you can put your finger straight through the cloth and waggle it in the slipstream outside. So when a shell bursts near you, you can see the shell-­splinters going right through your fuselage, like a horizontal shower of rain, and out the other side. I suppose I’m lucky, being the wireless operator; I’ve got two big radio sets to duck behind. Though by the time you’ve ducked, it’s too late anyway.

And suppose you, down in your shelter, were sitting on about two tons of TNT just waiting for an excuse to blow up. And about a thousand gallons of petrol, in leaky tins that stink the place out, so you never dare light up a fag, however much you need one. And your air-­raid shelter’s in a bloody express lift that keeps going up and down without warning, so there’s always a smell of spew about the place, even when your skipper’s not taking violent evasive action. And you can’t breathe properly without a dirty great mask over your face; and when you’ve got a head cold it’s so bloody freezing you have to keep taking off your mask to knock an icicle off your nose.

No, it’s not much like what you see on the movies.

And I think wireless ops have the worst job – because I am one. You can’t see a thing that’s going on, being sat right in the middle of the crate. There’s bits of celluloid windows in the side, but they’re brown with oil and smoke from the engines – they’re never cleaned, not like the windscreen and gun-­turrets. My oppo, the navigator, even he’s got a little astrodome over his head. It’s supposed to be for taking directions from the stars – doesn’t that sound romantic? – but if he’s ever reduced to navigating that way, we’re really in trouble. He just uses it for being nosy, so he can add his two-­pennyworth on the intercom.

Because it’s the intercom that keeps us sane. You see, in a bomber, the only thing you can hear is the noise of the engines; it blots out even the racket of bursting flak. And you get so used to it, it gets to seem like silence – unless one of the engines starts to pack up, then you notice fast enough. But otherwise, when you’re over target, you can see bomb-­bursts and shell-­bursts and flak-­trails and even another crate buy it, and it’s just like a silent movie, especially with your ears muffled up inside your helmet. But there’s always the good old intercom, and all the lads yakking down it and even cracking mad jokes and laughing till the skipper shuts them up, like a teacher with a rowdy class. And it makes you feel not alone. And a good skipper keeps asking you every few minutes if you’re OK, and that helps too.

My job’s all listening, not looking. I have my eyes shut most of the time; might as well be blind. That’s an idea, isn’t it; blind wireless ops – save the fit men for the army? Anyway, as I said, my job’s listening. I’ve got two radio sets: RT and WT. WT’s for long-­distance; Morse code only. It gives us directions from the top brass, like old Butcher Harris sitting on his arse at High Wycombe. And the only thing he’ll tell you is to pack up and come home, ’cause the cloud’s too thick to see the target, or maybe Fatty Goering’s not at home that night ’cause he’s sleeping at his aunty’s. Now that’s a little signal not to miss; if you do, you’ll find yourself doing a solo raid on Berlin. Oh, I know that