Poetry: Tactics of the Air Battle | clivejames.com
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Tactics of the Air Battle

(In this fantasy, one of the many young aircrew buried in the American cemetery outside Cambridge grows old in his home state, and writes to me.)

No sudden death was quite as quick as when
The enemy came from the front dead straight,
The closing speed six hundred plus, and then
In just one second, from the wings and snout
He sprayed the shells that ripped your flight deck open
And left an aimless wreck, which went straight down,
The waist and turret gunners jumping ship
If they were lucky. In a flank attack
Sometimes the rudder was shot off,
The flight crew keeping just enough control
To turn for England. But with two or more
Engines shut down and leaking so much fuel?
Forget it. Like unpacked smoke-puffs
Lone parachutes continued to appear
For miles on end. Imagine the mad violence
And then the slow admission of junk status
As their hulking power symbol fell apart.
Boys falling from the cold air, looking up,
Saw the undoing of their citadels.
You might ask why, then, the Krauts didn’t win.
The answer is, they ran out of trained flyers.
Our fighters cut theirs down at such a rate
Luftwaffe pilots rated Ace if they
Could land: forget about an actual fight.
Only old hands could even get that near.
The younger ones were heading for the wall
Their first trip out. The Mustangs ate them up:
The Mustangs and the Thunderbolts. P-47s
Could go downhill like dump-trucks and come back
Uphill like seagulls. None of the German planes
Could mix it with a Lightning. Their night-fighters
Stayed in the game because the British bombers
Were unprotected. Finally, of course,
Even the night-fighters went up by day,
With all their radar aerials still on them,
Cutting their speed. It was a turkey shoot:
A Ju-88 would last ten minutes.
The jets and rocket planes would certainly
Have made a difference, but they were too few
And far too late to count. I saw one once,
I mean a jet, the 262. It went
Across our nose as fast as you could blink
And rippled as it launched its bunch of missiles
At someone on the far side of the box
From us. Someone I didn’t know, thank Christ,
Was all gone in a flash. If that had happened
Ten times in one raid we’d have had to stop,
And send our bombs to Germany by mail.
But all we saw was nothing but the future
Just getting started, and we came home safe.
I got to die of old age, just like you.
Believe me, son, you didn’t miss a thing.