A Wing and a Prayer
Isle of Arran, Scotland October 5th 1944
Margaret MacLaren, or ‘Mags’ as she was more generally known, heard the erratic engine noise a few seconds before her husband, Andy, as they patched up a wire fence on the far edge of their lower field. The field sat on the base of a sweeping hill and looked straight out over the Clyde Estuary and towards the mainland of Western Scotland, where they had a good view of aircraft taking off from the air base at Prestwick. Mags stopped uncoiling the galvanised wire to look up in the direction of Prestwick to see a twin engined aircraft, with the markings of the American 8th Air Force, struggling to gain height on take off as it tried to climb over the estuary. Her husband Andy stopped wrestling with a stubborn fencepost to stare at the troubled ’plane as one of the engines coughed and spluttered and the ’plane crabbed dangerously to one side, the pilot clearly having major problems keeping it in the air.
They watched helplessly, thinking they were about to witness another casualty of the war, right here on their home soil, and began to imagine what the crew were going through at this point as this didn’t look good for them. Did they have the skill required to get out of this situation? Did they have any chance at all? And of course, the saddest of all - do they have family back home?
Andy leant on one of the posts as he gazed at the crippled aircraft and muttered,
Mags never answered, but slowly shook her head and continued to stare at the aircraft waiting for it to plunge into the cold water, not so very far below them, now, and getting dangerously closer.
There would be no question of any of them being able to bale out at such a low height.
Mags started to think about their bomber pilot son, Jim, and the predicaments he must have been in, daily, and felt another level of tension and sorrow as she never before thought that these ’planes could have problems like this in good weather. In her mind, it was dangerous enough that people would shoot at you as you flew over, but had never actually considered the possibility of anyone crashing like this before they even got to Germany. Mechanical failure was never thought about as she always presumed the ’plane’s airworthiness could be taken for granted. This new situation simply highlighted the poor odds for survival even more, and she wondered just what kind of a chance or how lucky, could Jim ever have been, flying for the RAF.
Just as Mags began to dwell on the possibilities of this having happened to Jim too, the dying engine of the aircraft suddenly picked up with a puff of black smoke and they watched as the ’plane started to gain height and the pilot made a sharp turn as if heading back to the air base. They watched as he banked steeply towards the mainland again, and then they saw him do a complete circuit and start to descend safely back to base. Mags sighed slightly and said,
“That was close.”
Andy turned to Mags and replied,
“Ground crew will be for the bloody high jump, now, I imagine.”
Mags smiled at the relief of seeing the ’plane manage to get home safely and replied,
“You don’t think about that, though, do you?”
“How do you mean?” replied Andy.
“Well, you know, it’s dangerous enough flying in a war zone, but I guess you don’t think about how dangerous it is, just to get up there in the first place.”
Andy scowled slightly as he looked over towards Prestwick and said,
“Aye – too damn dangerous, if you ask me. We’re not meant to fly otherwise we would have been born with bloody wings!”
Mags laughed briefly before remembering their son, Jim and how he used to try and convince his father about the physics of powered flight and how it all worked. Andy, of course, was never convinced, developing an early scepticism for flying without ever having been near an aircraft, never mind actually been up in one!
“I wonder if Jim ever experienced trouble like that?”
She said and she dropped the coil of wire she had been holding up since she heard the ’plane take off and took her gloves off, tossing them casually to the ground. Andy stood back, away from the fence post.
“Do you think it was maybe an accident that killed him?”
she asked, not really expecting an alternative answer other than a reassuring positive from Andy. Andy however was much more pessimistic and was keen to try and ensure that Mags was prepared, emotionally, for any news of Jim.
“I don’t know, love, to be perfectly frank. But what I do know is that if anyone could handle a situation like that, it was our lad. They said he was one of the best, and - you know, Jim – the first sign of trouble and he and the crew would bugger off and leave the ’plane to it’s fate!”
Mags laughed again, as she recalled the way Jim always said that the crew and him were always more valuable than any aircraft, and would place themselves on the order of priority accordingly! She recalled a story Jim had told them just after he qualified as a pilot, about their financially obsessed squadron commander telling them about the value of the ’planes they were flying and how they should be treated with utmost respect. She recalled how Jim had told them of the squadron commanders reaction when Jim replied,
“If it can get us home, we’ll bring it back, but the first sign of trouble, and me and the lads will give the controls to ‘George’, piss off and walk back!”
‘George’ was the nickname the crews gave to the automatic pilot.
Mags sat down on one of the rocks beside the fence and said,
“I keep expecting one of these things to come crashing down on us again, like those American bombers did. We seem so vulnerable to that, here.”
Andy came and sat next to her, at the same time opening a large metal box which held sandwiches and a large flask of tea.
“I doubt that will happen again. They’ll never fly from here in fog like that again. That was down to sheer inexperience of the crew that was.”
The war seemed a million miles away from the quiet villages in a place like Arran and Mags and Andy could only listen to the radio reports on the bombing raids being carried out nightly and try and imagine what Jim’s final moments must have been like. From the broadcasts, anyone would be forgiven for thinking that the raids were easy and the dangers non-existant. Mags and Andy knew, though from reading between the lines of Jim’s letters home, that the raids were far from easy and that losses were probably very high. Despite the best efforts of the censors, Jim had developed a subtle code that always got through, to tell them what was happening. He would refer to being ‘loaded’ with the cold quite often, when in fact this meant the ’planes would have full fuel tanks for a trip to Berlin, or further. There would be numerous other strange references which were never picked up, that told Andy and Mags that the job in hand was far from routine or easy. As always, they constantly fretted and worried about Jim’s welfare, as they, unofficially, heard the casualty figures, knowing that they were being told figures that were less than truthful to keep up morale!
They sat in relative silence for a while as they unwrapped sandwich bags and poured the piping hot tea into tin mugs. It was a sunny, clear day, but not too warm, and the steam from their tea lingered above the mugs as they each thought about how their lives would never be the same again since Jim went missing.
He was never far from their thoughts, as each day seemed to bring potent reminders of the dangers and the struggle he would have been involved in. Today’s incident with the faltering
American ’plane being another one of these reminders as they tried to carry on with their simple lives as best they could.
“I wonder if we’ll ever know for sure.” Andy said out of the blue.
“I don’t know,” replied Mags,
“I got the impression from his last letter that his current tour wasn’t too far away. I don’t know what happens next, though, to the survivors – do they just do another?”
“I hope not,” replied Andy.
“Surely they get to finish and come home. What more do they want from young men like him? I’d like to think that if they survive, then they would get rewarded by being sent home for good. They have done ‘their bit’ surely?”
Mags took a sip of her tea and looked over the estuary and said,
“I can’t accept he’s gone. I keep thinking he’ll be home soon. I just have a feeling that he’ll simply turn up at the door one day.”
Andy wasn’t going to affirm that, but wasn’t prepared to sour his wife’s optimism this time as he hoped, more than anything, that she was right, no matter how unlikely it seemed,
“Aye, well, you never know.” He said without any real conviction in his voice.
While Mags and Andy contemplated the dangers of their son’s chosen method of fighting in the war that day, unbeknown to them, earlier in September, Jim MacLaren was taking part in his last mission for the RAF over Darmstadt in southern Germany, and all their lives were about to be changed in a way no-one would have thought possible.
The rest of their lunch time was spent in relative silence as they reflected on the dangers that Jim had signed up for. Then, with a typical detachment, Mags drained her tea and threw the loose leafs from the cup to the side and said,
“Right, come on – we’d better get this finished or else it will be dark before we know it!”
By late afternoon they had their new fence posts in and were heading back to their house in the tractor when the sight of another plane caught Mags’ eye, coming in from the South. Thinking it was another attempt by the American plane to take
off again, she turned away, until she realised it was different . . .smaller . . .and very low.
“Andy!” she shouted, and shook her husband’s arm as it rested on the gear stick.
“Look! That’s a bloody Gerry!”
Andy was daydreaming a bit and got startled by Mags’ urgent tone in her voice.
“Eh? Don’t be daft, it can’t be Gerry, all the way out here . . .Jesus, it bloody well is too!” Andy replied as his dismissal of his wife’s aircraft identification skills quickly changed when he saw the aircraft.
Andy hit the brakes on the tractor and they watched in amazement as the small Messerschmitt 109 fighter plane, complete with black cross and swastika markings, turned sharply after hitting a flock of birds and immediately began quickly descending.
They watched in stunned silence as the plane weaved and dipped, it’s engine coughing and spluttering as it flew almost overhead, and clearly heading for a crash. When it disappeared behind a hill, Mags said,
“Well, I can’t say I’m sorry to see him crash!”
Andy, still startled by the site of the plane, said,
“What the hell is he doing out here? I guess the American plane we saw had been sent up to get him?”
Mags, was by now, scanning the rest of the sky to where she expected the plane to come out from, when there was a distant sound of what could only be an impact of sorts, but without an explosion.
“He’s hit the water!” she said, without too much alarm.
Andy narrowed his eyes as he stared at the point where the plane might have come down and replied,
“I’m not so sure about that.”
Mags turned back in her seat and said,
“Well, either way he’s had it – let’s get back to the house.”
Andy was still glaring out at the small rise in the land where beyond, his top fields lay, before slowly turning around and driving on towards their house.