Baptism of Fire


Where had the wide-eyed, apple scrumping choir boy of Witchford church gone? What happened to those cider summer days: lying in water meadows: chewing a grass stalk: dreaming into the blue haze, at one with the swooping shadow of the deadly Peregrine, hunting food for its young in the church tower?

Mungo Plover’s foot slipped off the Avro’s fuselage step. He was 19 years old. A pilot on his maiden posting to the Western Front. It was January 1918. He had logged 36 hours training, exceptional for a novice flier but it counted for little in this first taste of air combat.

He staggered, teetering from the adrenalin rush that had deserted him. Mungo ripped off his leather flying helmet and goggles and flung them away. His vision remained blurred from the shock and drunken euphoria of survival. Unlike his proudly named Avro, the ‘Peregrine’; it’s life bleeding away. Arterial engine oil spraying out from the bullet riddled cowling, turning the winter mud into a cloying slurry. But for Mungo’s fierce death like grip on the edge of the open cockpit, it would have sucked him down into hell. He felt shame. The callous eye of the hand painted falcon’s head followed his feeble efforts and mocked his earlier arrogance. The symbol no longer infused courage but reminded him of his abject failure to match up to the raptor’s reputation as the deadliest hunter in the skies.

Mungo gasped trying to still the dizziness and rising nausea. His head was crowded out with fearful memories. Blinding, choking, smoking oil. Ripping holes that appeared without warning all around him. Flapping, tearing wing fabric. Broken spars and snapping wires. His precious Peregrine falling apart. Mungo’s killing machine transformed in seconds into a heavy unresponsive carcass. A plummeting death trap. His arms ached from the fight with the manic joystick. Somehow he found his airfield.

Three Avros had taken off at dawn – six brothers in arms – into the bitter cold hoar frost and fog, swooping up into the bright sunlit heights; full of bravado. Thirty minutes later Mungo’s was alone, his smoking Peregrine in its death throes. He avoided the clawing airfield’s perimeter trees, landing on the brown joke for a grass strip, slewing sharply. The left hand under-carriage cracked and collapsed.

Mungo shot a quick look at Tom his navigator, immediately regretting it. There was a body but no head. Reeling away from the smoking twin seat aircraft he was barely able to move his deadened feet: freezing cold and sweating at the same time. Nothing seemed to be working. Every part of him was trembling, trapped within his heavy flying coat. Mungo’s frozen flying garb was holding him upright. He sicked up bile and fell forward into blackness.

Witchford was a stranger’s memory, it was no longer Mungo’s: an innocent baptised by the inferno of war. He had used 30 minutes of his 18 hour life expectancy, of a Royal Flying Air Corp pilot’s life.