It’s not much to look at; a stubby collection of sheet steel and plywood. A resonant tube on its ass pushes it along at nearly four hundred miles an hour. In its nose, a spinning propellor winds a counter down. Between them sits two thousand pounds of explosives. When the counter reaches zero, the ungainly bird will dive sharply down, engine silenced, and then the explosives will do the rest.
Der Führer wants it to be called the “may beetle”, even though they didn’t deploy until June. The scientists who built it called them “cherry stones”. The launch teams lovingly refer to it as their “crow”. The English civilians who are its intended victims, hearing the distinctive fifty-Hertz tone of its pulse jet engine, know it as the “buzz bomb”. But to the R.A.F., the V-1 has become the “doodlebug”.
This particular doodlebug is one of nearly a hundred that the Germans will send towards the south of England today. It comes in over the Channel at about two thousand feet, on the low side. If nothing stops it, it will probably drop short of London - in Greenwich or Croydon or Dartford. It might land in a field, or a street, or a block of flats. It might kill dozens or harm not a single soul in the least. If nothing stops it.
Someone’s sure as hell gonna try, though. They come up as a pack of six: Spitfire XIVs of No. 91 Squad out of West Malling, set right in the bugger’s path and forewarned by spotters on the coast. They float a thousand feet higher while the buzz bomb, and a pair of companions, pass below. Then, three and three, they pinwheel to drop from above, picking up speed their propellors wouldn’t normally reach to match the doodlebug’s.
You can’t shoot the bomb from behind. It’s a pretty easy target but you’ll be too close; that blast debris will take the front end right off your plane just as sure as if you’d been hit by anti-aircraft fire. Some crews - the Tempest Vs out of Newchurch, for example - try to time a shot from the side, so the blast is already moving away from you when it happens. Safer, but tricky timing; you only get a split-second to make it or fail.
These West Malling Spitfires, though, they prefer a different tactic. The first trio catches up with the three ugly bombs, coming down right above them. Then, shift over one side or the other and before you lose too much airspeed and start falling behind, bring your own wing down right on top of the bomb’s. Just a few seconds is all it takes to disrupt the airflow; the bomb’s wing tilts away and then the whole thing flips and goes down.
“Tipping the doodlebug,” that’s what they call it. It’s not foolproof, of course. Numbers one and two each drop in gracefully enough and dispatch their bugs, but number three’s dive was too steep and he falls in behind the V-1 too low, too slow; the thick trail from its pulse engine washes over his cockpit window. Ahead, Maidstone suddenly becomes visible through the summer haze, right in the remaining bomb’s path.
If its counter drops in the next few minutes, it could splash right in the town center. Right now they’re over wide open fields; a minute from now they don’t dare knock it down. It has to go now. Number three has a fine cannon shot, if he wants to take it. Should he take it? There is chaotic back and forth on the radio for a moment before a voice, higher but clearer than the rest, chimes in: “Don’t worry, I’ve got it.”
It’s number Six. The second trio of Spitfires made their dive one minute behind the first set, as backups. Six is coming down right on mark, right alongside the bomb’s right side, but there’s no time for the delicate line-up and gentle air-foil trick. With a sharp wiggle of the stick, Six smacks its own left wing directly onto the bomb’s right: a distinct swat, a slap of the metal glove that sends the doodlebug reeling hard.
Too hard: the bomb flips over on its right and its left wing catches the Spitfire’s striking wing as it goes over. There’s a puff of torn metal as both aircraft lose bits of alloyed aluminum and steel. Then the buzz bomb is down and out; seconds later it is a spectacular but harmless fireball on the English countryside. Six’s Spitfire has lost aileron control on the one side, however. Its stick has gone syrupy.
The squad wheels around for their return to West Malling. Six refuses to mayday, adamant that it’s nowhere that grim, but it’s a struggle to line up on the runway. The Spitfire is rudder-twitchy on its best days; the bent aileron wants the plane to roll left and the nose keeps pushing off. The tail sways this way and that as the plane comes down on the runway too fast and too hard.
The screech of wheels down, then the plane makes one last hard push to the left. It’s too much hold back; off the flightline and into the grass the Spitfire careens. But it’s down and now it needs a bounce and jounce to come to a halt. Not even a fire - but you wouldn’t know it from the number of emergency crew that rush to the plane’s side. The first responders to arrive are in a near panic for the pilot’s well-being.
The cockpit glass pushes back. Worried field personnel clamber onto the wings. “I’m fine, fellas,” the pilot reassures them. Then, a head shake - maybe to clear thoughts, or just to get her hair out of her eyes. She waves away all the helpful hands trying to reach for her. “It’s okay. I can get out of my own plane, you know.” She does accept a helpful hand as she slides over the wing down to the ground, out of politeness not need.
Charlie Banks, chief of airfield operations, is there looking worried. “The plane is fine, Charlie,” she reassures him. “And so am I.” Charlie wrings his hands: “It’s not about the Spit, or about your Royal Highness’ self, though I’m glad for both.” He pauses, and suddenly Elizabeth Windsor, heiress presumptive of the United Kingdom, knows what’s wrong: “I’m pinched, aren’t I? Somehow Father found out...?” She sighs. “Bugger.”
For consideration: an idea that's been kicking around for a while in my head, shaken loose by HWRNMNBSOL's return to daily writing