The steady drone of the Lancaster’s four engines drowned out all other sound. Not that there was anything else to hear. The crew were unusually tense and quiet in the dark cockpit. The end of this trip would mark our 30th operation and the end of our first tour. Only two other squadrons had made it this far and one of these never returned from their last raid. The other was back at base tonight, ready to fly the following evening.
There were seven of us in total. As rear-gunner, I was at the back in the most exposed part of the aircraft. I could never tell if it was the cold or the fear that caused my teeth to chatter. Above and behind me, Rog, our mid-upper gunner, was humming tunelessly under his breath. I wanted to tell him to shut-up but I knew it was his way of dealing with his nerves. Will, our navigator, worked in a curtained off compartment so that his light would not reveal our position to the enemy. Charlie, our pilot and squadron leader, and Bob, our flight engineer, sat up front. Beneath them Norm, at twenty-four the old man of the group, and our front gunner and bomb-aimer, lay on his stomach, waiting to guide our cargo home.
We were a tightknit crew. Our approach was simple. We each knew what we had to do and we did it. All of our lives depended on it. We were a brotherhood. We worked and played together. We worked hard and played harder.
“Bogey on your right, John!” Rog’s voice broke the silence.
“Christ, where’d he come from?” I saw the bursts of white light and heard the rattle of gunfire at exactly the same time as Rog spoke.
We were hit before I could even return fire.
There was a searing blast of simultaneous light, heat and pain and then I was floating in a vast, black space. The last thing I heard was the high pitched whine of a falling aircraft intensifying into a metallic scream just before everything was covered with a blanket of silence.
I am flying. Soaring above myself. Leaving my lifeless body floating face down in the water. The cold, cold water. Six pale faces watch me go. Pale, haunted faces with dark, pleading eyes, bobbing in the cold, cold water. Watching me soar and fly. Dark eyes willing me up and onward.
I am small. I am light. I am weightless.
Home, I must get home.
Fly, I must fly.
To fly home is all I know and all I am.
Water beneath. Sky above. Home ahead.
But behind, what is behind? Black billowing smoke. Fear, pain and cold.
Light, heat, pain. Vast, black space.
Death. Death is behind.
Home is ahead. I must get home.
This time it is more important than ever. Dark eyes, pale faces.
Day and night I fly. My feathers are slick and heavy with oil. I am buffeted by wind and rain. I swerve, soar and dive to escape hawks, falcons and gunfire. Day and night I fly.
I am over land now. I have lost track of time and space. I am exhausted. I must get home.
The coop ahead! I am home. I glide gently inside. I lower my head and preen. I rest.
There is a bustle of activity. Running about. Raised voices. Gentle hands remove me from the coop. Examine me. Tend my wounds. Remove my tag. I am home. My job is done.
Charles sat in the rescue plane, wrapped in blankets and looked at the faces of his crew. They were all alive. Cold, shocked, battered, bruised and dehydrated but alive. All alive except John, that was. He had taken a direct hit and was dead before they hit the water. He had never stood a chance. Charles looked at the cold still figure under the blanket at the back of the plane.
“How did you find us?” he asked one of the rescue team.
“The pigeon, mate. The bloody pigeon!”
Charles shook his head. “I can’t believe it. We only released her in desperation when there seemed to be nothing else we could do. Never honestly thought…”
“Her owner rang it in the minute she got home. Base worked out your position from the time the plane ditched and her arrival, taking into account wind speed and direction and her likely flight speed, given her injuries and the oil on her feathers. Took the rescue team just fifteen minutes to find you.”
“Even still, no-one knows how she made it, poor little thing. Half-dead she was. Somethin’ powerful was driving her. Somethin’ I doubt anyone will ever understand.”
“You’re probably right, we’ll never know how she did it, but thank god she did.”
It was as if my life had just begun that night in the cold and dark over the North Sea. I couldn’t remember a single thing from before my ordeal. I was long since recovered now of course, enjoying an extended period of rest in the coop. Until today that was. Right now I had no idea what was going on. George, my owner had bathed me this morning and now he was standing outside the coop with a group of strangers. They were all staring at me. Reaching in to pat me and stroke me. It was slightly annoying. I flapped my wings and ruffled my feathers, pecking at their fingers.
“Steady on! Steady on!” one of the men laughed. I recognised his voice, his laugh. Come to think of it, they were all very familiar. I had seen them all somewhere before. Heard their voices, their laughter, somewhere before. A memory came to me. A memory of six pale faces with dark eyes staring up at me, getting smaller and smaller as I flew higher and higher. That was it. But no, it was something else, the reason that I knew them. Something more, something much, much more…