Robert Bozdech had a horrible, sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach as the twin-engine warplane began its shallow dive toward earth. But for once it wasn't fear of being pounced on by one of the enemy's deadly Messerschmitt 109s that so unsettled him. In the thick fog that had blown across the landscape, they were all but invisible to any marauding German fighters.
No. It was fear of the guns that lurked below that held him in its viselike grip.
"The fog is down so thick, Pierre!" he yelled across at his fellow airman. "It is foolhardy"
"And if we return with no photos, we will be a laughingstock," Pierre Duval, the aircraft's French pilot, cut in. "Keep your eyes peeled!"
It had been a fine morning when the French Air Force's twin-engine Potez 63 fighter-bomber had taken to the dawn skies. Stationed at the aerodrome at Saint-Dizier, Pierre and Robert had been tasked with flying a reconnaissance mission over the German front, from where the massed ranks of enemy armor menaced the supposedly impregnable defenses of the French Maginot Line.
It was the winter of 19391940 and Germany and France were locked in the so-called phony war. But there was nothing very phony about it from Robert's perspective, when flying a French aircraft that was a hundred kilometers per hour slower than the nimble German fighters that stalked the skies above them. As he hunched over his twin machine guns in the rear gunner's seat, he couldn't help but notice how thick the fog had become. It was condensing in thick rivulets that cascaded down the Plexiglas turret.
Both a spirited maverick and a man of real principle, Robert had refused to bow to the jackboot of Nazi oppression as its forces had invaded his native Czechoslovakia several months before. He had escaped and made his way to France, and after a short stint in the French Foreign Legion had returned to what he had learned well in the Czech Air Force, serving as a turret gunner on a hunter-bomber aircraft. But what he hadn't quite bargained for was the difference in temperament between himself and some of the more flamboyant French aircrew.
Lacking little in terms of sheer guts and bravery, the Czech airmen tended to be a levelheaded and a solid bunch. By contrast, Pierre Duval, the aircraft's pilot and captain, had a tendency to be impetuous and unpredictable, as today's mission was about to prove. Sure, it was a brave move to dive headlong into the fog directly above the German lines in the hope that Robert might be able to grab a few reconnaissance photos, but it was also a distinctly suicidal one.
No sooner had the aircraft begun to emerge from the lower reaches of the fogits outer edges trailing tendrils of water vapor like wisps of smokethan the air was rent by the pounding percussions of antiaircraft fire. The German gunners had heard them coming and were poised to strike. The aircraft was too low to be targeted by flak, but all around them the air was laced with the angry red trails of murderous tracer fire.
Their controlled descent through the mist was over in a matter of seconds. In spite of Pierre's desperate maneuvers, the German gunners quickly found their mark. Rounds ripped through the thin fuselage and shattered the Plexiglas cockpit. As smoke and fire bloomed from the port engine, Robert sensed that they were going down. They were barely two hundred feet above the snowbound earth when he saw the port propeller die completely and felt the enemy fire tearing into their starboard engine.
Robert braced himself for the impact of a crash landing or worse. The hard, frozen ground was rushing up to meet them, a wide expanse of glistening snow lit here and there a fiery red by the tracer fire. Barely minutes after they'd first been hit, the belly of the aircraft impacted with a terrible tearing of metal. The stricken warplane lifted once, settled again with an ear-piercing screech, and plowed toward a patch of dark woodland.
Excerpted from The Dog Who Could Fly by Damien Lewis. Copyright © 2014 by Damien Lewis. Excerpted by permission of Atria/Emily Bestler Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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