In the Eye of the Storm
Written by Rade Meech-Tatić (adapted from the memoirs of my grandfather R. C. Meech)
On the night of June 5th, 1944, I was following a navigation exercise off the coast of Bournemouth. I was flying on instruments, finding my way by little red beacons which represented specific locations on the coast. Beyond these glimmers lay England, shrouded in the solemn shadows of the blackout. The air was oppressively still, and I was acutely aware of my solitude. The first beacon glimmered to my right. I eased the throttle towards me, pulling my craft into a gentle climb. The muffled blackness of the starless sky enveloped me like a mantle. The second beacon flickered, further away this time. Consulting my chart in the half-light of the control panel, I banked Northwest. The low thud-thud of my propeller bore steadily into the vast, changeless sky.
Then, so faint as to be mistaken for the glare of my taillights in the windshield, I noticed way off in the distance a flicker of bluish-white light. Rubbing my eyes, I peered out into the gloom. Another flicker, closer this time, then a third. I stared, admittedly quite mesmerized. Then the lights spread out a little, sideways and vertically - then suddenly faster, multiplying like a kaleidoscope and drawing me ever closer to a yawning, dazzling opening. A tingling of apprehension ran down my spine. Before I could process what was happening, the sky exploded into a hundred shards of light, hurtling towards me with the speed of banished angels.
And at once, they were upon me - above me, below me and on either side of me. I was in the eye of the storm. The screws on my compass rattled furiously with the drone of hundreds of propellers. Just beyond either wingtip, I could now see the shadowy, lumbering bulks of countless gliders and aircraft, rocketing Southeast with unwavering purpose. The winds howled, shredded by our combined speed. My heart thudded in the thrum of each passing engine. I steeled my shaking hands on the controls, straining mind and body to maintain my current altitude and direction while the celestial horde roared past my ears. Each passing taillight melded into an unceasing blur, watering my eyes beneath my visor. On my gloved wrist, the seconds quivered by anguishingly slowly…
I broke through. An overwhelming silence slammed into every fibre of my being and I sank into the cold leather seat. I was flooded with relief. Only then did the meaning of what had happened catch up with me. We all knew the invasion of France was imminent, and the more I thought about it, it seemed as though I must have been swept up in part of the airborne invasion force. Tonight was the night. I swivelled and craned my neck, gazing with awe across the Channel to where those brave souls had vanished into the night. My eyes glistened with tears. ‘God help us,’ I whispered. I stared into the blackness, trembling at the weight of the moment.
I began to marvel at how I had found myself in this extraordinary situation. The secrecy surrounding the invasion of the Continent was of the highest possible order. Consequently, it was conceivable that the commanding officer of my RAF station had been completely unaware that the invasion was starting that night. Or, I realised unsettlingly, he had been so advised but had also been made aware that we could not afford to deviate from usual patterns of activity at the station. One of these situations must have existed or I would never have been cleared to take off directly into the path of a several hundred-strong formation.
My dwindling fuel gauge told me I could not afford to further contemplate the matter. I glanced at my course, hand hovering over the throttle. I scoured the starboard window for the next beacon’s supposed location. My hand froze, then slowly drew away. Not the faintest glimmer disturbed the starless sky. Trapped in the swarm of lights and engines, I must have maintained my prior course for miles beyond the beacon. My heart pounded. Below me lay a vast, indistinguishable blackness of land or sea, beckoning my lonely craft into its churning depths. I was lost.