There had been a time, Digby recalled, when he thought Bart had been the lucky one.
"Eventually Jones and Croft appeared. They'd held on to the tail until it went down. Neither could swim, but their Mae Wests saved them, and they managed to scramble into the dinghy and pull me in." He lit a fresh cigarette. "I never saw Pickering. I don't know what happened to him, but I assume he's at the bottom of the sea."
He fell silent. There was one crew member unaccounted for, Digby realized. After a pause, he said, "What about the fifth man?"
"John Rowley, the bomb-aimer, was alive. We heard him call out. I was in a bit of a daze, but Jones and Croft tried to row toward the voice." He shook his head in a gesture of hopelessness. "You can't imagine how difficult it was. The swell must have been three or four feet, the flames were dying down so we couldn't see much, and the wind was howling like a bloody banshee. Jones yelled, and he's got a strong voice. Rowley would shout back, then the dinghy would go up one side of a wave and down the other and spin around at the same time, and when he called out again his voice seemed to come from a completely different direction. I don't know how long it went on. Rowley kept shouting, but his voice became weaker as the cold got to him." Bart's face stiffened. "He started to sound a bit pathetic, calling to God and his mother and that sort of rot. Eventually he went quiet."
Digby found he was holding his breath, as if the mere sound of breathing would be an intrusion on such a dreadful memory.
"We were found soon after dawn, by a destroyer on U-boat patrol. They dropped a cutter and hauled us in." Bart looked out of the window, blind to the green Hertfordshire landscape, seeing a different scene, far away. "Bloody lucky, really," he said.
They sat in silence for a while, then Bart said, "Was the raid a success? No one will tell me how many came home."
"Disastrous," Digby said.
"What about my squadron?"
"Sergeant Jenkins and his crew got back safely." Digby drew a slip of paper from his pocket. "So did Pilot Officer Arasaratnam. Where's he from?"
"And Sergeant Riley's aircraft took a hit but made it back."
"Luck of the Irish," said Bart. "What about the rest?"
Digby just shook his head.
"But there were six aircraft from my squadron on that raid!" Bart protested.
"I know. As well as you, two more were shot down. No apparent survivors."
"So Creighton-Smith is dead. And Billy Shaw. And...Oh, God." He turned away.
Bart's mood changed from despair to anger. "It's not enough to be sorry," he said. "We're being sent out there to die!"
"For Christ's sake, Digby, you're part of the bloody government."
"I work for the Prime Minister, yes." Churchill liked to bring people from private industry into the government and Digby, a successful aircraft designer before the war, was one of his troubleshooters.
"Then this is your fault as much as anyone's. You shouldn't be wasting your time visiting the sick. Get the hell out of here and do something about it."
"I am doing something," Digby said calmly. "I've been given the task of finding out why this is happening. We lost fifty percent of the aircraft on that raid."
"Bloody treachery at the top, I suspect. Or some fool air marshal boasting in his club about tomorrow's raid, and a Nazi barman taking notes behind the beer pumps."
"That's one possibility."
Bart sighed. "I'm sorry, Diggers," he said, using a childhood nickname. "It's not your fault, I'm just blowing my top."
Reprinted from Hornet's Flight by Ken Follett by permission of Dutton, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 2002, Ken Follett. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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