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The Flare Path: Horatian Ode

Endless bears, deadly dice, purple prose

B-17: Queen of the Skies is a solitaire board wargame that talked its way past the RPS platform police with help from this VASSAL module and this emulator. The star of my current game is a Liberator called Infinite Horace II. Crewed by Tim ‘Stonewall’ Stone and nine FP readers (JFS - nose turret gunner, Eightball - bombardier, phuzz - navigator, JB - co-pilot, bsplines - engineer/top turret gunner, unacom - radio operator/waist gunner, Lord Byte - ball turret gunner, Rorschach617 Snowskeeper - waist gunner, Shiloh - tail turret gunner) this is the story of Horace's eighth and ninth missions.

I am riding in the back of a German truck that's barreling down a long straight road. On the right-hand side of the road, at roughly half-mile intervals, are picturesque windmills like the ones that dot the countryside around RAF Tivetshall in Norfolk. The sails of the windmills are turning and when I look up at them I realise they aren't actually sails. Striped with exhaust stains and studded with bullet holes, they're actually the wings of B-24 bombers. Without warning the 'sails' of the windmill ahead catch fire. I can feel the heat on my face as we approach. Sensing there are people trapped inside the burning mill, I hammer on the cab roof, urging the driver to stop. He ignores me. Furious, I hammer harder. I'm still thumping and kicking when I awake breathless amongst sweat-sodden bedclothes.

The trip to Budapest on June 1 was unusually quiet. Having burbled briefly over the Italian coast our ten Brownings didn't speak again until the Hungarian capital was in sight. Four Me 109s wearing the fat white crosses of the RHAF made their move in zone 6. Snowskeeper was hit in the first pass and this time his flak vest didn't save him. While Eightball was expertly unburdening Horace over the target - a heavily cratered airfield on the banks of the Danube - unacom was squeezing morphine tartrate into the twitching arm of his fellow waist gunner and mouthing a silent prayer.

We also lost the top turret in the Me 109 attack. Engineer bsplines took to his disabled Martin 250CE when Fw 190s met us at the Yugoslavian border on the way home, but had to content himself with spotting rather than swatting. Less intense than usual, Horace's emissions still managed to fireball one bandit and persuade another to beat a hasty retreat. JFS was the immolator and back at base he described his second victim's distinctive paintjob. Apparently the doomed Focke-Wulf had a large cartoon crocodile emblazoned on its side. The knowledge that Horace may have downed a LW ace during combat mission number eight made Snowskeeper's departure slightly easier to bear. Our waistgunner made it home, but his injuries mean he won't be gunning for us, or anyone else, for a long time.

Haplo, Snowskeeper's replacement, is a wheel waterer. One of three survivors of a B-24 that ditched in a minefield off Trieste in April, he insists on pissing on Horace's nosewheel “for good luck” before clambering aboard for mission number nine. A fourteen-zone round-trip with a well-defended Greek dockyard - Piraeus - at its midpoint, I'll take all the extra luck I can get today.

Following the coast as far as Otranto, the heel of the Italian boot, we're soon flying over unfamiliar territory. Corfu impersonates an isthmus as we approach. It's busy detaching itself from the mainland when bsplines, alert in his top turret, announces that we've got company. Carelessly straying into the contrail zone, an Fw 190 high above us has given itself away.

Suddenly the P-47s that had seemed so numerous in zones two and three are nowhere to be seen. Suddenly our position at the top of the formation doesn't feel quite so propitious. The shipyard clatter of angry fifties begins. The stench of cordite permeates the flight deck. A Focke-Wulf plunges past Horace's port wingtip its gun muzzles streaming smoke. He's so close I can see the scuffed paint around his cockpit rim and feel him through the yoke.

The next descender aborts its attack after its armoured windscreen is crazed by a slug from our tail guns. Darting tracer from Horace's nose and top turret entangle a third bandit but this one gets through, savaging our nose as he passes.

This is the attack that kills phuzz, our navigator, and wounds bomb aimer Eightball.

By the time those five Focke-Wulfs finally clear off, Horace is a veritable colander. In addition to his broken nose, he's sustained damage to his cockpit, top turret, bomb bay, port wing, starboard wing, radio room, waist and tail.  Getting no response from Shiloh, I send Haplo to investigate.

He returns with bad news.

It's a summer night several lifetimes ago. After the first of many convivial evenings at the Crook & Shears in Little Tivet, all ten of us are ambling back to base down pitch-black lanes heavy with hedgerow scents.

Well, we're attempting to.

Shiloh's “infallible sense of direction” having led us into two dead-ends, the professional navigator - phuzz - has taken over as pathfinder. He's out in front, using the ribbon of stars overhead as his map, when suddenly he lets out a muffled cry followed, a second later, by a sentence destined to become one of the crew's most cherished catchphrases:

"I think I just tripped over a fox”

The B-24 to our left sheds an engine and, out of control, begins to spiral earthward sprinkling canopies as it goes. I glance across at JB. His mantle of calm is as bulletproof as the slabs of armour plate behind our seats. Amazing.

Their ammo spent, their havoc wrought, the Fw 190s eventually return to their roosts. For half an hour our aerial armada has the sky to itself. Holed formations close up. Cripples drop back or turn for home. We're about 100 miles away from our objective when a static-smudged message from Lord Byte in the ball turret, narrows eyes and tightens trigger fingers again.

“Three, no, four bandits closing, 10.30 low”.

Where are those damn escorts?

Canopy glints morph into yellow-nosed Me 109s. We hold our own during the first two attacks, Haplo scarifying the flank of one bear-baiter, Lord Byte tearing chunks out of the wing of another. It's the third pass that leaves Horace's heavily patched port wing sheathed in incandescent flame.

Decisions don't come much easier. I've seen fuel fires gnaw through the wing spars of enough B-24s to know that Horace doesn't stand a chance. No dive is going to snuff out that inferno. We have seconds rather than minutes to get out.

Eight people drop from the belly of Liberator no. 450443 before its slow swan dive becomes a terminal tumble, but only seven reach the ground safely. I suspect Eightball's parachute was damaged by the same fusilade of cannon shells that smashed his left arm. Moments after I touch terra firma a Karabiner 98k muzzle is pressed into the small of my back. JB, JFS, bsplines, Haplo, and Lord Byte are welcomed to Greece in a similar fashion. Only unacom whose chute ends up on the opposite side of the valley is destined to spend the rest of the war choreographing convoy ambushes rather than stewing in Stalag Luft IV.

*       *       *

This way to the foxer

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About the Author

Tim Stone