There had been time to think. He was just along for the ride. He was riding Douglass’s wing, throttled back at 25,000 feet so as not to outrun the bomber stream of B-17Es at 23,000 feet. Douglass had the responsibility for the flock of sheep. All Canidy had to do was maintain his position relative to Doug.
The first thing he thought was that this was where he really belonged. He was a pilot, and a good one, a combat-experienced pilot. And also an aeronautical engineer. He knew what he was doing here. He should have fought this war as a pilot.
But other thoughts intruded. Experience was relative to somebody else’s experience. Relatively speaking, he was an old-timer in the intelligence business, not because he’d done so much, but because hardly anybody else had done anything at all. The Americans, as the British were so fond of pointing out whenever they found the opportunity, were virgins in the intelligence business.
There had been a cartoon one time on the bulletin board at MIT in Cambridge: “Last Weak I Cudn’t Even Spell ’Enginnear’ And Now I Are One.” There should be one on his corkboard in his office, he thought: “Last Year, I Didn’t Even Know What An Action Officer Was, But Look At Me Now!”
And I am now possessed of knowledge, he thought, that would scare the shit out of those guys in the bombers. They have been told so often—by people who believe what they are saying—that the “box” tactic (which provided a theoretically impenetrable fire zone of .50 caliber machine-gun fire) is going to keep them safe from harm that they tend to believe it.
They question what they are told, of course. They’re smart enough to figure out—or have learned from experience—that German fighters will get past the fighter escort and then penetrate the box. But they hope that the fighter escorts will grow more skilled and the .50 caliber fire zones will be refined so that things will get better, not worse, and that all they will really have to worry about is flak.
I know that the Germans have flight-tested fighter aircraft propelled not by airscrews but by jets of hot air. I know that these aircraft will fly two or three hundred miles per hour faster than our fighters, which means the Germans will be able to just about ignore our fighter escorts. And I know that the best aerial gunner in the world isn’t going to be able to hit a small fighter approaching at closing speeds over 800 mph.
And I know that unless we can stop the Germans from getting their jet fighters operational, there is going to be an unbelievable blood bath up here.
It is for that reason that I can intellectually, if not emotionally, justify sending Eric Fulmar into Germany. If we can find out from the guy he’s bringing out what the Germans need to build their jet engines, maybe we can bomb their factories out of existence before they can start turning out engines. In the cold, emotionless logic of my profession, that justifies dispatching an agent, even running the risk that if he is caught, the Sicherheitsdienst will begin his interrogation by peeling the skin from his wang, before they get down to serious business.
“Dawn Patrol Leader,” Douglass’s voice came over the air-to-air. “Dawn Patrol Two. We just crossed the German border.”
Under the black rubber oxygen mask that covered the lower half of his face, Canidy smiled. What seemed like a very long time ago, when he and Doug had been assigned to fly patrols at first light looking for Japanese bombers on their way to attack Chungking, they had, feeling very clever about it, chosen “Dawn Patrol” as their air-to-air identity. Errol Flynn had recently played a heroic fighter pilot in a movie with that name.
“If you see Eric, wave,” Canidy said to his microphone. He immediately thought, Now, that wasn’t too smart, was it?
“No shit?” Douglass replied. This time Canidy didn’t reply.
Five minutes later, Douglass came on the air again.
“Blue Group Leader. We have what looks like two squadrons of ME-109s at ten o’clock. Baker and Charley flights, hold your positions. Able will engage. Able, follow me.”
Canidy looked for the German fighters, and found them, maybe twenty-five black specks in a nose-down attitude, obviously intending to strike the bomber stream from behind and above.
The Germans preferred to attack from above, preferably from above and to the rear, but from above. Diving at the P-38Fs on their way to the bomber stream beneath would give the Messerschmidts a considerable advantage. With the American fighters between the B-17s and the Germans, the B-17 gunners would have their fields of fire restricted unless they wanted to run the risk of hitting the P-38Fs. And with just a little bit of luck, machine gun and cannon fire directed at the P-38Fs might strike one of the bombers beyond them.
Canidy waited until Douglass was out of the way, then tested his guns (he had tested them over the English channel, but it was better to test them again than to find himself nose up against a Messerschmidt with a bad solenoid and no guns) and then pushed the nose up and to the left and stayed on Douglass’s wing.
He felt his hands sweating inside his gloves, and knew that it was a manifestation of fear.
The attacking Messerschmidts split into two groups, one to continue the attack on the bomber stream, the other to engage the American fighters. The tactic had obviously been planned.
The P-38Fs had not been able to gain much speed from the time they left their original position to rise to the attack, but the Germans were running with their needles on the DO NOT EXCEED red line, and the closing speed was greater than Canidy expected. He was sure that his three-second burst had missed the Messerschmidt he had aimed at.
Turning outside of Douglass, he felt the world grow red, and then almost black, as the centrifugal forces of the turn drained the blood from his head.
The twin 1,325-horsepower Allison engines, with their throttles shoved forward to FULL EMERGENCY MILITARY POWER indent, were screaming. Full Emergency Military Power was hell on fuel consumption and cut deeply into the operational life of engines, but the extra power, when needed, was worth the cost. When they came out of the 360-degree turn, they were running a little faster than the Messerschmidts. They gained on them slowly and followed them through the bomber stream.
The tracers from the bombers’ guns seemed to fill the sky; there was a real possibility that he would be hit, and that prospect was frightening. But the fear was overcome by what Canidy, very privately, thought of as the animal urge to kill. Man—because he fancied himself civilized—liked to pretend he entered combat reluctantly. And he prepared for combat reluctantly. But once he was in it, he was far less removed from the savage than he liked to believe. He wallowed in the prospect of killing the enemy.
The pair of Messerschmidts he and Douglass were chasing pulled out of their dives. To be sure of a killing burst from his battery of eight .50 caliber Brownings (the mark, Canidy thought approvingly, of the experienced fighter pilot; “don’t shoot until you can see the whites of their eyes”), Douglass, who had crept ever closer to the German before him, was taken by surprise. His P-38F could not respond in time, and he had lost his opportunity to fire.
Canidy was two hundred yards behind him. Without thinking of what he was doing, he moved the nose of his P-38F from the Messerschmidt he had been following to the one that had gotten away from Doug. The plane vibrated for a moment from the recoil of eight heavy machine guns, and then he aimed at the first plane, this time firing a three-second burst.
He saw his tracer stream move from just in front of the Messerschmidt to the engine cowling, and then to the left wing. There was a hint of orange, and then the wing tank exploded.
Canidy pulled up abruptly and looked around for the other fighter. He couldn’t find it for a moment, and then he saw it, smoke pouring from its engine nacelle as it spun toward the cloud cover below. He looked for a parachute but didn’t see one.
And then Douglass was on his wing.
“Two more,” Douglass’s voice came over the air-to-air. “How the hell are we going to explain that?”
“That’ll make seventeen for you, won’t it, Colonel?” Canidy replied.
“Bullshit!” Douglass said, and then switched frequencies. “Blue Group Able, this is Blue Group Leader. Form on me in Position A.”
The P-38Fs scattered all over the sky began to turn and to resume their original protective positions over the B-17 stream.
Canidy reached inside his sheepskin jacket, and then inside his uniform jacket and came out with a MAP, US ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS: GERMANY.
It wasn’t an aerial navigation chart, but rather one intended for use by ground troops. It could also be used by a pilot who intended to navigate by flying close enough to the ground and following roads and rivers. Canidy had taken it with him to the final briefing, and copied onto it the course the bomber stream would fly. Once they had joined the bomber stream, over a known location, it was not difficult to plot from that position and time where the head of the bomber stream would be at a given time.
It wasn’t precise, but Canidy had had experience in China navigating with a lot less. He looked at his watch, and then scrawled some arithmetic computations on the map. He put a check mark on the map. The way he had it figured, the lead aircraft of the bomber stream was now passing over a relatively unpopulated area of Germany, southeast of Dortmund. He made some more marks on the map, and then touched his air-to-air microphone switch.
“Dawn Patrol Two,” he called.
“Go ahead,” Douglass replied a moment later.
“There’s something I want to see,” Canidy said.
“I say again, I’m going to have a look at something I want to see,” Canidy said. “I’ll be back in about two zero minutes.”
“Dick, are you all right?” Douglass asked, the concern in his voice clear even over the clipped tones of the radio.
“Affirmative,” Canidy said.
“Permission to leave the formation is denied,” Douglass said.
Canidy ignored him. He dropped the nose of the P-38F and headed east.