|French Resistance fighter's false identity card WWII|
Opening chapter from my WWII historical fiction in progress. Memorial Day seemed like a good day to post this draft of chapter one.
iley Straight flexed his gloved fingers on the controls of his B-17. His breath quickened, condensation trickling around the edges of his flight mask, then freezing. He glanced from the instrument panel of his Flying Fortress, then out the cockpit window.
“Approaching target.” The steady, good-humored voice of Riley’s navigator, 2/Lt. Charles Dudley, came through the interphone.
“Here comes the wrath o’ God, Jerry,” said Riley through the interphone so all his crew could hear.
“Maybe this’ll be a milk run after all.” Riley heard Freddy Ferguson his copilot’s voice crackling in the interphone in his headset.
He glanced at his copilot. “Fred, you’re new at this?”
The RAF only flew their bombing missions at night. But not the American Army Air Corps. Riley leaned forward, peering left and right out the cockpit windows. He had to admit, the view was better by day.
Far below, bordered by hedgerows, lay fields of wheat, rolling meadows, and pastures with specks of white—sheep or were they French beef cattle? At this altitude it was too hard to tell. His Fort chattered through a turbulent cloud hillock, then broke clear again.
The aerial tidiness of the pastoral scene below—it was part of the allure of flight for Riley. He swallowed hard, doing his best to ignore the clutching at his insides. Part of the allure and the curse. If only there had been some way to get the scenery and the thrill of flying, but without the dizzying nausea that always went with it. No amount of self-berating had solved it. If he couldn’t be rid of it, at least he’d become expert at hiding it—so he hoped.
“Rollout!” the squadron orderly had barked at 0430 that morning. “All pilots, briefing in twenty. Maximum effort!”
Twenty minutes later, Riley’s squadron leader had given the order: “Mr. Straight, you’re flying tail-end Charlie.” It seemed like forever ago. But here he was flying, “Coffin corner,” as flyers called it. Last bomber in the formation, the one the Luftwaffe went after first.
“Keep it tight, Mr. Straight,” bomb group commander Mills had said into the radio just after takeoff.
Riley never forgot his first time in the pilot’s seat, flying in tight formation, sitting left seat, his hands on the controls. The other B-17s were so close, he felt he could reach out and touch their wings. And some of the other pilots in the squadron were still teenagers. Unlike so many, he’d lived to turn twenty, leave his teens behind him; his birthday was just last week. Flying in tight formation and all it took was a split second of distraction, a slight deviation in course or speed.
Flying so close—Riley felt the inexorable compulsion to get clear. At speeds of 310 miles per hour, it demanded nerves of steel to fly tight. Scattered formation, just what the Luftwaffe was waiting for, and German fighters would dive in like wolves on straggling caribou.
Hence, his group commander’s reminder that morning: “Keep it tight, Mr. Straight.”
Another bank of cloud passed underneath, gray and heavy. Riley held steady as his Fort lurched in the turbulence. Visibility restored, the rural scene far below gave way to a drab industrial landscape, stark concrete blocks with gaping chimneys belching smoke heavenward. Their target, a French automobile factory, now a German munitions factory. And heavily guarded with antiaircraft guns—German guns.
“Milk run?” Riley raised an eyebrow at his copilot.
Glancing from the instrument panel out the window, Riley watched the first antiaircraft batteries springing to life. Bursts of white flame erupted far below. But there was no exploding sound, not audible above the rumble of four Wright R1820-97 air-cooled 1,380 horsepower engines. He didn’t know why, but rehearsing his bomber’s powerplant specifications calmed him, reassured him.
He braced himself. It was coming. When he could hear the Flak explode above his engines, it meant trouble.
“German 88s,” he murmured. Riley knew the damage Hitler’s high-velocity, antiaircraft cannons could inflict on his fortress. Twenty-pound shells fired in rapid succession, calibrated with German precision for their flying altitude, didn’t even have to make a direct hit to cripple a Flying Fortress.
Riley gripped the half-round steering control of his Fort till his fingers hurt. Bursting in grim black clouds on all sides of the squadron, Flak could send deadly shards of shrapnel ripping into the fuselage, wings, fuel and oxygen lines of his bomber—and through the flesh and bone of his crew. He had counted over one hundred holes in his plane after his last mission. In spite of their Flak vests, his tail gunner and flight engineer had both been strafed by molten shrapnel from the 88s. By the time his bombardier had released their load, and his navigator had calibrated their return course, the two men were bleeding profusely from their wounds. When Riley finally landed his crippled Fort on the runway and taxied to a halt, his tail gunner and flight engineer had bled out. They were dead.
That was last week’s mission. Because he and part of his crew had survived, here they were again over France, but with a new tail gunner and flight engineer, the latter just promoted from ground maintenance.
“Two minutes to target,” drawled Riley’s navigator, Charles Dudley. Charles was from West Virginia, born and reared. For his perpetual grin, the squadron called him Chuckles for short. Even his voice through the interphone, engines roaring, Flak exploding, sounded like he was grinning, on the verge of a good chuckle.
“Keep it tight,” Riley told himself. He knew that any change in altitude or speed at this instant and 6,000 pounds of high explosives would entirely miss the factory, destroying, instead, the nearby village.
A black cloud of exploding Flak erupted with a roar at nine o’clock. Riley felt and heard it rattling against the fuselage of his Fort. The muscles in his abdomen tightened. He hated Flak. It was so random, exploding and sending molten shrapnel scattering throughout the bomb group. You couldn’t shoot back at Flak. It just seemed to erupt out of nowhere. He knew how it worked: German antiaircraft gunners on the ground calculated the squadron’s altitude and speed, then calibrated their 88s and let fly. Evasive action, irregular alterations in course, was all any pilot could do. But flying 310 miles an hour in tight formation with a squadron of B-17s meant evasive action had to be coordinated precisely—or else.
Another burst of black smoke, his B-17 lurching with the explosive impact; more molten shrapnel pummeled Riley’s bomber. Germans were good at trigonometry. Their calculations were getting better.
“That was close!” yelled the chin gunner.
“Danged Flak, tore off my headset!” shouted the tail gunner in the interphone.
“Tore off whose head?” The new flight engineer’s voice sounded near panic.
“Hardy-har. Not my head,” said the tail gunner. “My headset.”
Riley heard Freddy his copilot checking with each member of the crew. “Waste gunners? Ball turret gunner? Bombardier?” If they didn’t respond, they’d either been hit by Flak or their oxygen line had been severed. Or it could be something as simple as condensation freezing and clogging the line. Either way, without oxygen at this altitude, a man would pass out in minutes, and his 0.50 caliber Browning machine gun would be silent when the Luftwaffe closed in for the kill.
All ten crewmen reported in. No one had been hit—this time.
“Eyes peeled.” Speaking to all his crew by interphone, Riley forced his voice to be steady, confident, unafraid sounding. “Guns ready.”
He knew that every man, from tail gunner to chin gunner, was already scouring the sky for German fighters, finger on the trigger, ready for action. The fighters would come, sooner or later, usually sooner. If only they could deliver their bomb load first.
Riley glanced at the altimeter: 20,000 feet, bombing range. More black clouds of exploding Flak. More clattering and rending of shrapnel against the aluminum fuselage of his Fort.
“Approaching target.” From the navigation table, Chuckles voice was pleasant and steady, then he added, as he often did, “‘How they are destroyed in a moment, swept away utterly by terrors.’”
Riley gripped the steering controls as another burst of Flak made the bomber shutter. He hoped Chuckles’ Bible verse was for the Jerries and not for them. More Flak.
Forget the Flak, concentrate, he told himself. There was no dodging Flak. And B-17s could take more beating than any other aircraft in the Army Air Corps. Riley knew he had one job, keep his bomber on course, precise course. Begin his bombing run too early and he exposed his Fort and crew to more Flak; begin too late and they’d miss their target. Three-and-a-half tons of high explosive could land on the nearby village.
The thought of killing innocent women and children, grandmothers and grandfathers—the Nazi brutes did it intentionally every day—but it was something about this air war Riley hated even more than the Germans.
“Bearing one-four-seven degrees.”
“Roger that, bombardier,” replied Riley in the interphone.
Nothing else mattered. Every target they hit slowed the German advance. Every bomber the Germans downed slowed the Allied advance.
“Thirty seconds to target.”
“Roger that, bombardier.” Riley was determined to hit their target. It troubled him that some of the workers in that factory might be conscripted labor, local French pressed against their will into building the German war machine. Some he’d heard were French Resistance saboteurs working in those factories—men and women—doing their bit to frustrate German manufacturing.
“O God, not at this target,” he murmured.
Suddenly, Flak burst red at ten o’clock and a dense black cloud engulfed the cockpit windows. Blinded for an instant, Riley felt the shrapnel tearing at his Fort, and fourteen tons of airplane and armament lurching with the force of the explosion.
“I’m sorry, Sir.” It was the voice of the more taciturn of his two waist gunners. “I’m hit, Sir.”
“We’ll get you patched up.” Riley tried to sound more confident than he felt.
“Number two engine’s in flames!” shouted the flight engineer. “Cut fuel selector!”
Riley flipped the number two engine fuel selector switch to the off position. He flipped it again. No response.
“She’s still burning!” yelled the flight engineer.
Fire would spread. Riley knew if they didn’t drop their bomb load they would go down in an apocalyptic inferno.
“We’re nearly over the target.” Ralph Coleman his bombardier knew the same. “Ten seconds.”
“Level.” Ralph’s voice came steady and ominous through the interphone.
“Roger, that.” Fighting with the controls, Riley did his best to feather his three good engines to compensate for the lost one. He studied his instrument panel: altitude, speed—any deviation would throw off the gyro of his bombardier’s Norden Bombsight—and they’d miss their target and do collateral damage to civilian population. Hold steady, and he knew that Ralph could drop their bombs into a pickle barrel from this altitude. If the pilot held her steady. Wrestling with the controls, Riley clenched his teeth till his jaw hurt. His injured Fort had a maniacal mind of its own.
Suddenly, the antiaircraft 88s fell silent, no firing flares from antiaircraft guns, no erupting clouds of Flak, no strafing shrapnel—it could only mean one thing.
Fighters. Germans weren’t about to shoot down their own fighter planes with their own antiaircraft cannons. German fighters—they’d dive in for the kill any second.
With the numbing realization, as the bomb bay opened, Riley felt a blast of freezing air rending its way through the cockpit. He glanced back at his bombardier; Ralph’s eyes were steady on his bombsites.
War in the Wasteland set in WWI. Give me your comments and thoughts on the excerpt. Follow progress at bondbooks.net and subscribe to my blog to get more sneak previews of The Resistance [working title].