In March The Spectator Book Club launched its inaugural short story competition in association with Barclays Wealth. The topic was invisibility, and it seemed to appeal. We received over 500 stories, most of an excellent standard. Our judging panel comprised Mark Amory, Clare Asquith, Peter Hoskin, David Blackburn and Ravi Bulchandani from Barclays Wealth. After much heated debate, five finalists were selected: Jonathan Wynne Evans, Matthew Faulkener, K.G. Barrett, Max Dunbar and Henry Kolotas. You can read the panel’s comments on the finalists’ stories at Spectator.co.uk. All our panellists were agreed, though, that Jonathan Wynne Evans’s ‘Black Box’ should be the winner.
Drifting curtains of fenland rain obscured everything from 20 yards so that, pedalling round the perimeter, the only indications of intense activity were waves of clatter from each dispersal as ground crews completed the arming of the Lancasters. Met had given it clear by 2100, only an hour away. Looked like we might yet have a quiet night in the Mason’s Arms.
The first discernible form as I rolled up to our kite was Connor’s stumpy figure, a Russian-doll silhouette, back to the weather with cloud of pipe-smoke visible even through the gloom. Hearing the whirr of my bike, he turned quickly. Quick was not Connor’s usual thing. Looked as if he was awaiting me.
‘Come and have a dekko. The boffins have nobbled us. Bastards.’
He grunted affirmatively. I parked my bike against the fire extinguisher stand and climbed up into the belly of the beast; so much easier unencumbered by flying gear. The familiar smell of dope and hydraulic oil clenched my stomach in automatic reaction. I made my way forward. Sure enough, there it was, the box, returning my gaze with black inscrutable shine, devoid of all exterior feature save a switch with a warning light. A bowel-chilling stream of panic quickly flooded by hot anger. This was my crew. This was my kite. We had been through months of training; endless flogging around wickedly dangerous Welsh mountains on night sorties. Having survived that, unlike three crews on the station with us, we had forged a comradeship and skill through 16 night sorties over enemy territory. So far, so much endless grinding fear, but not a scratch. And now we had been fingered. Bastards ... bloody bastards.
I slid to the ground. The other boys were getting down from a three-tonner from the Motor Pool. As the driver ground the gears, reversing back to the perimeter, they assembled in the shelter of the starboard wing. I looked at the enquiring faces.
‘Yes, chaps, it’s there. Our number came up. We shall just have to make the best of it.’
‘Bugger that, Skipper! You make what you like of it. You know the form damn well. Just tell us this. How many crews do you know that had this fucking thing appear who came back from the next sortie?’ Ellis, the bomb-aimer, was, at 20, nearly my age and twice as articulate. He went on, ‘When they briefed us back in January you know what the line was. It makes the kites invisible to enemy radar. That was nine sorties ago, and the box has gone out seven times and the sods carrying it were a goner each time. I for one can accept Jerry trying to kill me, but I’m buggered if I’ll let our own people do it, even if it is working for everyone else.’
‘What are you saying, Ellis?’
Ellis’s Welsh lilt, almost unheard usually, was becoming pronounced, his white skin flushed under the ginger crop.
‘What we need is to be creative. To steer a course, look you, between the flak coming from the front and the shit coming up behind...’ He paused, and the others shuffled uneasily, ‘So, the order is, switch the thing on when you pass over the enemy coast and off again when you come back. If you come back. But who has to know if we switch it on and off every couple of minutes?’
They all brightened, looked at me, waiting. Well, it was a creative thought all right.
‘If we all agree to keep mum, of course!’ he added.
Of course. I braced myself and decided. We would do it.
But Met had made a balls, so we spent the night in the Mason’s and I lost five bob playing skittles with a farm labourer whose girlfriend’s attractions almost made me forget the excitements.
0550 hrs two nights later, the Dutch coast slid below Z-Zulu. The rough pewter of the North Sea fading into the mist ahead. The madness of the flak bursts was behind, now only the howl of the slipstream through the shattered Perspex and our indomitable Merlins. Steve was dead, hanging in his straps from the dickey, his rich dirty laugh already an echo. My goggles were smashed, blood iron in my mouth. With the RT out and Connor barely conscious over his chart, David the WO was not in sight, probably gone back with first aid to the gunners. Ellis was trapped in his compartment by the jammed hatch.
I leaned back hard to grasp the box and throw the switch. Then settled into the cold misery of the crossing, steering 310, the last bearing Connor had given for Grimsby. If the cart hydraulics still worked and we stayed airborne, we might make it.
We did, with a couple of archangels holding the wings; as we touched down, one of the engine casings fell right off, taking fuel lines with it. As the blood wagon moved off with Steve, I retched a thin stream of bile and acid on to the concrete. The others lit cigarettes. Nobody spoke.
We trudged past the Ops nissen hut. ‘Pilot Officer, just step in here, will you. You others cut along. Sergeant, get that arm over the MO. Debriefing for this crew is delayed to 0800.’ The CO shut the door on the suddenly wide-awake faces, then moved over to the window in the dusty office, looking out for a moment on the cherry blossom hanging in the gathering light.
‘I heard about your engineer. Bad show.’ His Yorkshire brogue hung in the dusty air giving way to a lengthy silence. Then he looked round, ‘I’ll be straight with you. Haven’t time or wish to bugger about. Your disobedience to orders was spotted the moment it started. You chaps obviously didn’t know that the signal that bloody thing puts out is monitored by our radar. Might have been better if you had, but it’s classified. Bloody stupid. Cashiering is the least you and your boys should expect.’ He let his words settle on to the piles of khaki folders on his desk. ‘I’ve spoken to Wing, and they’re hopping. But so far we can’t see that your stunt caused extra losses. Lucky for you, I can tell you. What have you got to say?’
‘Nothing much, sir, except that if a suicide mission’s needed they should ask for volunteers, and I can’t in any case see why the bloody thing has to be flown in a seven-man aircraft. It’s throwing lives away. Why not send a Mozzy?’ I hesitated. He waited. ‘I assume it works by jamming the enemy radar but that the box shows up for them in a big way?’
He turned back to the cherries, looking uncomfortable.
‘Well, your point about the aircraft type has already been taken up by Wing, in strong terms. But the answer for the moment is no can do. Volunteering’s a good notion, but we need too many of the damn things in the air, so it was ruled out. You’re right about the effect, of course. Word is that we shall have something else soon. But for the moment we have to amuse Jerry with what we’ve been sent. Now I’m doing nothing further on this, but you’re to tell your crew that on the next trip the switch stays switched on. That’s flat, and we’ll take a very dim view of any more guardo moves. Your chaps will not be asked about this at debriefing. Tell them to keep their mouths shut about the whole matter. That’s all.’
That was over 60 years ago, but I can still feel that sensation I had of approaching death as he dismissed me. The odd thing was that all fear, which had been the wall-paper of my days and nights since I joined ops, suddenly left me. And when I briefed the boys I could see from their reactions that it was the same for them. There was no rebellion, just a quiet fatalism. That night we had a hell of a party.
Fear only returned when, in the small hours, four days later, the black box was switched on as the formation passed over Leiden at 16,000 on its way to drop 500 tons of high explosive and incendiaries on Düsseldorf. When the flak barrage started soon after it was, to our relief, mostly laid well below us. Nobb y reported one flamer from the tail, but the main formation was ahead of us. About ten minutes from the target the flak stopped and we knew that Jerry would now be vectoring his night-fighters on to us. Once they had nailed us they would be able to see the whole formation, so we knew that we could expect plenty of admirers to converge on our bearing. Our eyes were skinned, but in the event we didn’t see one of them, because the fellow who got us rose from the black below and from aft in the Lancaster’s blind spot. Hanging from his props, he raked us at close range, four feet from our nose to the tail, killing my new 17-year-old engineer and everyone aft of him instantly, five men in one burst. The tail plane went and, without the elevator, the nose lurched down and the Merlins started to scream as we headed towards the pastures of Holland.
Ellis and I got out of the front hatch, and I did not see him again until 1947. My boots came off when the chute opened, so I landed in my socks close to a canal in a field of cows, one of whom proceeded to eat the silk of the chute, foiling my attempt to bury it as training suggested. I made my way gingerly to the only building I could see, and thus started a memorable fortnight which culminated in my being plucked with two other chaps out of a dinghy by a Navy submarine. Three months later I was in Burma.
Ellis was not so lucky. He too was cared for by the Resistance, but the cell he was with had been infiltrated, as had many others, with the result that he got picked up by the SS at a rendezvous to which he had been sent. He was beaten up, and told he would be shot as he was in civilian clothes. In the event, minus some teeth, he finished the war in a POW camp in Poland which was liberated by the Russian advance. He walked to Berlin with the invading Russians, from where he was repatriated. He said that the walk to Berlin was the worst part of the whole experience.
A few months before he died, we met on Remembrance Day in the leafy square of a small Dutch town. Ellis was sporting tweed breeches, was voluble and humorous as ever, but he was slow on his stockinged legs, and his hands trembled. We stood before the five neat graves as the town band played. Neither of us could find words. A squadron of ghosts and memories flew among the brass notes from the band. Ellis stepped forward and shakily, deliberately, laid three tulips at the base of each.
Soon after Z-Zulu was shot down, the RAF started to use the replacement device, Windows, masses of strips of tin-foil dropped at high altitude ahead of the formation, which drifted down and jammed the enemy radar.
Technology had taken its sacrifice and moved on. And the 200 aircrew who died carrying the black box are now as invisible as the planes they died to protect, a speck in the receding desert of pain that was Hitler’s war.
© Jonathan Wynne Evans 2009