'The Four Islands Run'
By Phineas Redux
Summary:— This is a military drama set in Great Britain in 1943. Flying Officer Gabrielle Parker—ATA pilot and member of SOE, Special Operations Executive,—finds herself doing a tour of the Northern Atlantic.
Disclaimer:— All characters are copyright ©2017 to the author. All characters in this story are fictional, and any resemblance to real persons living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Warning:— There is some light swearing in this tale.
"When'll Flying Officer Mathews be back, sir?"
"Well, she's just a few days into her three week course on four-engined planes, down in Lincolnshire." Group Captain Morgan shrugged without much interest, consulting the diary standing on his desk. "Where are we at the moment; ah, right, Thursday, 9th September, 1943. So you'll have a couple of weeks yet before your partnership resumes. Meanwhile, the backroom boys in London have come up with a whizzo jape for you."
"I was afraid of that, sir."
"Come along, Parker, show some enthusiasm, for goodness sake." Morgan had never been renowned for his social skills. "As easy as pie, actually. Not much more than a simple taxi-run, from, er, here, to, umm, there; if you catch my drift."
"Please God it's not what I think it is. Got the details an' plans with you, sir?"
"Certainly; come on, we'll sit round this table an' sort things out." Morgan looked around for a chair in the long narrow Nissen hut, part of Base J, Scapa Flow, Orkney Isles, grabbed the only example to hand and stepped to the battered table with it. "See you've already got your chair—right, this is what it's all about."
"This is one of Group Captain Graham's efforts, isn't it, sir?"
"Yes, in its original form. If that makes it any the more palatable for you."
"Uurrth. So, what's the set-up, sir? Though I've got a horrible feeling I already know."
Gabrielle's tone was gloomy in the extreme, for a number of reasons. Firstly, she had temporarily lost her partner, Claire 'Ricky' Mathews; this loss being exacerbated by the fact they were deeply in love; though hiding their situation from all around, for obvious reasons. Secondly, a recent mission together had ended in something of a debacle for all concerned; it, too, having been the brainchild of the shadowy head of the sub-department of SOE which, for their sins, employed both women. And thirdly, though quite happy with her own capability, she didn't look forward to going on a new mission alone; or, at least, without Ricky alongside her.
"It's the Four Islands Tour."
"Oh God, I knew it. Must I, sir?"
"Yes, you must. Orders."
"So, as you clearly have already surmised, this is the usual monthly clean-up for SOE Base on Shetland." Morgan had all the facts at his fingertips, being well acquainted with the situation through personal experience; his own seat of operations being the very same Shetland HQ. "We've got a mite o'equipment ready for you to transport to Shetland. There you drop it all off; are given a few more items, and maybe pick up an operative to take along with you to the Faroe Islands. On arrival there you deliver your cargo and say goodbye to the agent, if any; then you pick up the usual mix of cargo and documents to be delivered to Iceland, as normal. From there the next day, after seeing the plane maintained and re-fuelled, you return along the same route again. End of journey. Like I said, easy as pie."
"Damned circuitous, if I may say, sir." Gabrielle was not in the mood for bucking-up.
"Well, it has to be, hasn't it?" Morgan didn't like having to explain his orders, being a native of the old school as far as discipline went; but he had learnt, while flitting in and out the dubious dark corners of SOE operations, to allow the operatives thereof more leeway than normal. "Can't possibly reach Iceland straight-off, can you? Not without piloting a dam' Lancaster, or Stirling, or the like. Which, of course, would just be silly, eh? A straight run there bein' well outside the range of your Lysander, what."
Gabrielle forebore to answer, except by a silent frown and shrug of her shoulders.
"Right, that's all, flying-officer." Morgan began collecting his plans and documents, leaving a bundle on the table for Gabrielle. "You've got your own plans, notes, and maps, for the operation here. They'll see you through. Your navigator will be flight-sergeant Cooper, David Buckham Cooper. He's a good man; perhaps a trifle enthusiastic and full of his own opinions, but you'll soon sort yourselves out, I'm sure. Well, goodbye. I have to catch a lift on an Anson heading back to Shetland in an hour."
"Jeez. What a dam' awful way t'spend two days. What can I do in Iceland? More or less by myself, too. Dam' all, I bet." Gabrielle sat at the table, an hour later, sipping a cup of strong tea and frowning over the maps spread out before her unhappy green eyes. "Orkney-Shetland-Faroes-Iceland, bloody Iceland. Jeez, I'm goin' t'bed."
The next day showed the delightful weather conditions for which Orkney was renowned—low grey overcast, lightly interspersed with rattling showers of cold rain. The sun being noticeable by its entire absence from the field of play, as usual. In the large hangar, near the concrete slipway leading to the freezing grey waters of Scapa Flow itself, sat Gabrielle's official mode of transport for the coming odyssey, a Westland Lysander; painted black all over, except for RAF markings. With a range of 600 miles, it could accomplish the first two steps of the proposed island circuit well enough; the last third step, from the Faroes to Iceland, at just under 500 miles also being within the Lysander's range—just, if the weather held. For a plane which only carried a crew of two, with a third squeezed in uncomfortably if required, the Lysander presented something of a gigantic appearance. Its high monoplane gull-wings seemed to spread out over the startled spectator, like a hawk about to dive on its prey. Its main undercarriage, a wheel on each side attached to angled sponsons rooted in the lower fuselage, with a small accompanying tail-wheel, were themselves faired over; making them look even bulkier and heavier than they actually were. The huge nose-mounted three-bladed Bristol Mercury XX radial engine also contributed its sixpenny-worth to the weighty appearance of the machine. The short body of the fuselage, with a seemingly slightly over-sized tailplane, not helping matters stylistically.
However it still had its good points, which SOE found delightfully helpful. It had a stalling speed of 65 mph, which meant a good pilot could almost make it appear to hover in the air if the occasion offered; while it only needed a ridiculously short take-off or landing run; staggering into the air in not more than four or five of it's own plane-lengths, at a pinch. These little aptitudes of course enraptured themselves to SOE instantly; especially its being able to drop into, and climb out of, absurdly small fields all over occupied France; not to mention the rest of Europe and Scandinavia.
Standing under the shadow of the wide wing was her navigator, looking every day of eighteen. He was tallish, perhaps five foot nine inches; sported a shock of black hair; and a wide open grin which nailed him as an easy-going kind of a chap. He was attired similarly to Gabrielle, as was necessary, in thick padded leather trousers; a sheepskin-lined leather flying-jacket, and a pair of thick leather gloves. His flying-cap giving his head the usual round appearance.
"Hi, you'll be Dave Cooper?"
"Yes, ma'am." Cooper gave a cursory, but polite salute.
"Dump the discipline, I don't like it." Gabrielle, for all her short reply, grinned at her crewman. "Had much experience on these?"
"About five hours, over the last two months."
"Huh, par for the course." Gabrielle took a look at the undercarriage, examining the glass lenses of the lights let into the front fairing of each wheel, along with the barrels of the single machine-guns placed there. "Can you fire a Browning machine-gun?"
"Yes, I can do that, at least." Cooper visibly relaxed as he stood beside his pilot. "And I'm a good navigator, not to blow my own trumpet."
"Thank God for that." Gabrielle laughed in her turn. "Flyin' over the wastes of the North Atlantic y'often begin t'wonder if you're losing all sense of direction, with nothin' but dam cold grey water everywhere y'look. Always glad t'reach my destination. Come on, we better climb up these dam' footholds an' sort ourselves out inside the bloody thing."
Cooper clambered into the surprisingly spacious glass-covered mid-section, where there was room to sit comfortably with the interior fuselage sides not pressing against each shoulder; while at the rear of the glass-walled cabin the Browning machine-gun sat ready for use, when the glass windshield covering it was slid back over the rear fuselage. Gabrielle climbed up and into her pilot's seat, the high slightly curved separate wings—only joined across the top of the crew compartment by two pair of steel tubes—above and behind her shoulders blocking out all view to her rear; though she had, because of a wide split where the slightly forward-angled gull-wings met the top fuselage, and the fact she sat above the engine casing, a perfect open view directly upwards and forwards. The only thing separating her from the compartment behind, where Cooper now sat, was the back of her seat. The whole set-up gave a, primarily, misleading aura of tightness and claustrophobia; whereas there was plenty of room, for the two official crewmembers, at least. Hanging under the fuselage between the wheels, was a long curved and rounded metal container much like a stubby torpedo; a large cargo container, also painted matt black.
The plane was hauled out from its hangar on the edge of Scapa Flow by a small toylike tractor, onto the single concrete runway at the rear of the line of hangars nominally serving the flying-boats. Across the calm rain-flecked water the two great hills of Hoy dominated the view in that direction. North and south the panoply of the Royal Navy lay spread out, for all the world like one of those panoramic illustratiuons so often found in pre-war magazines featuring the very same scene. An RAF aircraftman with a green flag giving her the signal Gabrielle opened up the engine and taxied to the centre of the runway. This was relatively short, though still adequate for a Blenheim, Mosquito, or even a Stirling bomber to use; she, however, would need considerably less room. The Lysander's engine took on the high note of an angry sewing-machine; there was a burst of spray and dust from its wheels; then, in an astoundingly short run, it rushed along the runway, nosed into the air, and climbed, apparently effortlessly, into the grey sky.
Gabrielle made the small course adjustments necessary to miss Kirkwall and aim directly for the Shetland Isles, then clicked on her internal radio.
"How's it going? What's our range an' position?"
"All well." Cooper's voice sounded tinnily over the intercom. "Distance to Shetland, one hundred and two miles; journey time, thirty-six minutes; time of arrival, eleven forty-three am."
"OK, we're on our way. Keep a look-out for bandits."
"Sure thing, boss."
The only real downside to flying a Lysander was its poor defence capability; two Browning dorsal-mounted .303 machine-guns operated by the navigator, and similar single guns in the fairings of each undercarriage wheel. These might at first sight seem adequate, but were in fact no protection at all against a Focke Wulf 190 or Messerschmitt 109 with their vicious multiple cannon, firing nasty 20mm explosive shells.
Gabrielle finished trimming the plane, to take note of both crew, then sat back to contemplate her position. Having overflown the isle of Rousay, and the further outlying islands of the Orkney group, they were now taking a north-easterly course for the Shetlands; leaving Fair Isle somewhere over to starboard about halfway on their journey. The point about reaching Shetland, and its remote coastline north of Lerwick, was that the SOE (Special Operations Executive) main base was located there; from where clandestine journeys to and from Norway were undertaken.
She levelled off at a height of 8,000ft, giving good all-round visibility yet allowing of a quick descent to sea-level if harassed by German fighters; the Shetlands being just within the range of either Focke Wulf's or Messerschmitt's.
"Course correction, two degrees north-east."
"What're the chances of meeting an, er, bandit, ma'am?"
"Not much, really." Gabrielle adjusted the mouthpiece of her flying-cap, clicking the switch on the intercom. "They tend to fly in groups; two's, or more commonly three's. But recently, with our improved defence capability here, they've sort'a fallen off somewhat."
"Glad t'hear it."
"Yeah, but don't get cocky, they could still dart out'ta an empty sky before you know it." Gabrielle snorted in disgust at the possibility. "If we get caught up in a pack of Jerry fighters, there's gon'na have'ta be some fancy flying t'escape."
"We've got four Brownings, ma'am."
"An' they'll have cannon." Gabrielle shook her head disconsolately. "Cannon'd tear this plane apart in the twinkling of an eye, with their explosive shells; probably with only a handful o'hit's. If one does appear I'll go down t'sea level an' try an' slide under his grasp. Can you swim?"
"Ye-es." The navigator's voice, even over the intercom, sounded unenthusiastic. "What're the chances of survival; in the sea, I mean?"
"If we don't get into our life-rafts, pronto? About half an hour tops. That water down there's g-dd-m freezing, y'know—liquid ice, virtually." Gabrielle grunted once more. "Let's hope it doesn't come to that. Right, let's keep radio silence from now till Shetland, OK?"
"Something over to port, about four o'clock at five thousand feet."
"Got it." Gabrielle leaned over to peer through the windscreen at the distant blur. "A long way off, below us; maybe three miles, good observing."
"Is it Jerry?"
"Can't say, too far. Just a blurry silhouette." Gabrielle sat straighter. "We're in the sun's eye, to starboard, so hopefully they won't spot us. We'll keep on as we are. Lem'me know if he heads in our direction."
Another five minutes flying, with only the smooth carpet of grey empty water below stretching away on both sides to the far horizon, and Cooper could report again.
"Lost sight of the bogie." He sounded relieved, as well he might. "Nothing in sight anywhere."
"Good, that's the way I like my flights t'be." Gabrielle allowed herself a tight grin. "Boring and uneventful. As y'go along, Cooper, you'll learn a flight can never be too uneventful."
When they finally reached Shetland their route lay out to sea, leaving the islands on their port side. The capital, Lerwick, was located on the large central island of the group; but this was not their destination. This lay some way further north, on a lesser peninsula, where the remote SOE base was located on the coast. Its main occupation was as headquarters for the running of a secret transport operation between Shetland and Norway known as the 'Shetland Bus'; being organised with small fishing boats. They also had a secondary line in passing on various agents of one sort or another; and, of course, grey unnamed officials and officers who had documents to pass to other secret destinations. The airfield at Lunna Ness was actually nothing more than a long grass-covered field, one side of which ran down to the low pebbly beach; Lysanders being almost the only aircraft capable of landing or taking-off from there.
Cooper was less than impressed when, by devious tortuous maneouvres, Gabrielle brought the high-winged monoplane over the remarkably thin neck of the high rocky peninsula which was their destination.
"Jesus, ma'am, y'can't land there. It ain't possible."
"Ha, you'd think not, wouldn't you." Gabrielle growled low, though with a dogged note. "Don't worry, I've been here several times, for one reason or another. Just hold on to something solid, very tightly, an' watch an expert at work."
It was in a situation like this the flying qualities of the Lysander came into their own. It had a low stalling speed of about 65mph; which meant, in the right hands, it could slow to almost hover for a few seconds, if required; and its normal landing run was absurdly short. Bringing all her knowledge of these perquisites of her craft to bear Gabrielle pointed her plane into the wind, fortuitously blowing in the right direction for once; slowed down till Cooper thought his last moments were upon him; then dropped the plane onto the grass and ran it along for what seemed only a few feet before, applying the wheel-brakes unmercifully, she brought the heavy machine to a perfect halt.
"How's that? Easy as jumpin' in a bath." Gabrielle unstrapped her helmet, dragged it off her head, and sat back in relief. "God, be glad of a cuppa tea. OK, let's see what they've got waitin' for us."
The base, which was perhaps giving it too official a title, consisted of a small Victorian country house, commandeered for the duration, a group of anonymous wooden outbuildings, concrete observation posts, and a number of the ubiquitous Nissen huts.
"God, ma'am, these bloody Nissen's grow like toadstools, every-bloody-where."
"An' are just about as deleterious t'your health, too." Gabrielle snorted at her own joke, as they made their way across the short turf towards the nearest of these buildings. "If my experience is average, they're full o'draughts; keep you awake all night, if it's raining, because of the tin roofs; an' heatin' the dam' things is a bitch. OK, here we are. Sergeant Hopkins, how nice t'see you again. Cold improved?"
"Sniff, no it ain't, ma'am; but I thanks yer fer askin'." He was tall, round-shouldered, and clearly a native of the Black Country. "New navigator?"
"Yep, flight-sergeant Cooper. Y'want him t'sign the book?"
"—'course, ma'am. 'as to, 'asn't 'e." The gloomy sergeant ran his less than clean sleeve over his nose once more, failing to hide the further hearty sniff which accompanied this action. "Come along, Sergeant, there's some paperwork needs fillin' in; if you wan'na stay here without gettin' shot at short notice. This way."
While Cooper was otherwise engaged Gabrielle strode off, heading for the small two-storied house on the rising ground above the sea-inlet washing the near shore. Lunna House, dating from 1660, stood sentry over the narrow neck which joined the peninsula of Lunna Ness to the Mainland of Shetland, with wide stretches of water visible close-to on either hand. Here, in a small protected and cosy bay, was the perfect headquarters for the special operation known as the 'Shetland Bus'—wherein small fishing craft pottered across the North Sea to Norway, delivering agents and equipment to the resistance movements there. A dangerous game to play with the German fighter defence and military, but which worked nonetheless with fair success. It was also the base for other clandestine operations on behalf of SOE, which had its less than pristine fingers in many dubious pies. An ongoing forwarding of information and agents between several bases was a major part of this procedure, and it was in this regard that Gabrielle, and her Lysander, were now engaged.
Although of two-storeys, with a steep grey slate roof, the house was no extensive country palace. It had around fifteen or so rooms, and was set on rising ground above the nearby beaches where the sea lapped the pebbly shores of the peninsula's thin neck. It was remote from Lerwick; which meant it was remote from almost all other human habitation in the region. In such circumstances the SOE could train their agents and carry out their fishing-boat voyages under complete secrecy.
When Gabrielle reached the front door she paused to look back; from this position she had a clear view west and south-east, showing the sea on both sides of the narrow neck of land—the house being situated virtually midway between either shore. She turned again and entered through the open door, leading into a long hall where another sergeant sat by a desk full of documents.
"Hi'ya, Sergeant Anstruther, how's life in the heart of the metropolis?"
"Ha, very funny, ma'am." Anstruther was an old hand at repartee. "As much social life hereabouts as them as inhabits Highgate Cemetery has; less, in fact. So, you're 'ere agin?"
"Seems so, yep." Gabrielle laughed easily, as she glanced around. "Where's the Boss today, if it ain't a national military secret?"
"It is a national military secret, as yer very well knows, ma'am." The sergeant affected to be shocked by this question. "Why, I'm astonished yer have the brass neck t'even ask. 'e's gone t'Lerwick t'talk shop with a gang of his friends. If yer want any further info, I'll 'ave ter shoot yer."
"No, no, Sarge, I'm easy." Gabrielle sniggered as she leaned over his shoulder, trying to catch a glimpse of whatever document he was busy filling-in. "No need t'drag your Smith an' Wesson breech-loader in'ta the daylight. Probably wouldn't fire, anyway. Last time anyone used it was most likely at the Battle of Omdurman. What's this? Haven't seen a form that glorious shade of green before."
Anstruther groaned melodramatically; ostentatiously turned the offending document face-down; and gave the inquisitive blonde a melancholy look.
"Lieutenant Bairnes 'as been awaitin' yer arrival fer the past hour, comin' out'ta his office upstairs every twenty minutes t'bellow down fer the latest news." Anstruther cocked an ear as the sound of a door opening somewhere above their heads echoed clearly in the high hall. "Oo-er, think this is 'im, agin."
"Anstruther, where the hell's that damn pilot? Jesus, Joseph, and all his holy children, how long does it take an RAF chap t'walk three hundred yards?"
"I'm here, sir."
"Oh God, is that—I'm mean, Flying-officer, er, er,—"
"God, I know, woman. D'you think I'm senile, or what. Come up, then; time's a'wasting."
"Happy as a lark, as usual." Gabrielle leaned over to whisper this to the sergeant with a smile, then she straightened and headed for the stairs. "Coming, sir."
Lieutenant Bairnes' office was in one of the front rooms, on the left side of the house. So, from its first floor position, it gloried in a panoramic view of the stretches of sea on either side of the peninsula. This fortunate circumstance allowing the always inquisitive officer to keep a sharp eye on all movements into and out of the small harbour on the west shore; as well as the long seashore field which acted as their private landing-strip.
The room's walls were painted a white which, over the years, had deteriorated to a soft grey; the tall sash window needed washing; and the only substantial pieces of furniture were a big desk, a tall filing-cabinet, and a long oak table pushed against the rear wall to the right of the door. Such was Bairnes' centre of business.
"Take a chair, Parker." Bairnes waved cursorily at one of the only two such items in the room, both ricketty and hard-seated. "You got a navigator with you? Of course you have, silly question; how'd you ever have located us, otherwise, eh?"
"—er, yessir." Gabrielle always found the slightly peppery, and definitely eccentric, man a little difficult to handle. "Sergeant Cooper, he's new. He's just signin' the usual affidavits, an' seein' the lads unload the equipment container without breakin' the machine. Should be here shortly."
"Good, good." Bairnes meanwhile had been shuffling through some files and bundles of loose documents on the desk before him. "Well, it's the usual routine stuff. Documents, files, a few pieces of, er, equipment—"
"No explosives, sir?" Gabrielle interrupted on an important point. "Y'know it's been decided we can't carry explosives on these flights; too dangerous."
"Yes, yes, I know that." Bairnes shook his head with a characteristic nervous twitch. "Wasn't it myself who originally brought the topic up? Never fear, you'll be quite safe this trip. You will, however, have a passenger on your Faroes leg. The usual, er, business of taking him from, umm, here to, ha-ha, there."
"Don't ask questions." The lieutenant jumped in to cut short this unwanted inquiry. "All hush-hush; top-secret; a wink's as good as a nod, an' all that. Remember Kipling."
"—'Them that ask no questions isn't told a lie. Watch the wall my darling while the Gentlemen go by.' " Bairnes allowed himself one of his infrequent wintery smiles. "Very apposite, what. Yes, just so. Anyway, to business—Oh God, what now?"
This last ejaculation was brought forth by the hearty rat-a-tat which sounded on the outside of the office door. There was a pause, while both Gabrielle and Bairnes awaited the outcome, then another repeated thundering echoed on the thick panels of the old door.
"God Almighty, come in, for God's sake. Don't knock the whole bloody house down."
Encouraged by this cheery welcome the door opened to reveal Sergeant Cooper, looking somewhat wary.
"Come in, come in, man; an' sit down there beside Parker." Bairnes returned to shuffling his documents, more to calm his nerves than anything else. "So, you're Cooper, eh?"
"Yessir, I was—"
"No doubt—right, what I want is a quick turn-around; time's precious, an' the faster you leave here, the faster you'll arrive at the Faroes." He regarded the two aircrew with a raised eyebrow. "Though, of course, why anyone in their right mind would ever want to arrive at the Faroes, military duties excepted, escapes me, eh, eh?"
Faced with a question which had no reasonable answer Gabrielle fell back on pursing her lips and shrugging her shoulders in a wholly neutral manner; while Cooper remained wholly inactive, pretending he had turned into a life-sized wooden image of himself.
"The chappie who'll be accompanying you will be referred to as 'Alfred'." Bairnes picked up several of the bulky files on his desk; thrust them impartially into a battered leather briefcase; snapped the straps closed; and locked it with a key he brought forth from his jacket pocket, to which he immediately returned it on accomplishing this necessary action. "You remember the procedure for making passengers feel at home on these flights, Parker?"
"Don't talk t'the passenger, sir." Gabrielle had this catechism at her fingertips. "If he talks, keep the conversation short. Don't encourage chatter, an' don't try to grill him. Silence is golden, sir."
"You got it." Bairnes nodded, as if satisfied with this. "Keep that in mind yourself, Cooper. Here's your cargo, Parker. Delivery to Captain Montague, in the Faroes, as per usual. Don't forget to get the chits signed in triplicate; these things matter, especially to the chaps in their bunkers in Whitehall. Right, Alfred'll be waiting out on the strip. Good luck, an' make it snappy coming back—we don't want a three-day stop-over, like last time; dicky engine or no. Goodbye, an' close the door; this whole dam' place is a Tartarus for draughts."
On the green field which gloried in the title of local airstrip the ground crew, well trained in this sort of thing, had already emptied and re-loaded the curved sausage-shaped cargo container between the planes slightly splayed legs. Standing a few yards off, eyeing the activity with a jaundiced and somewhat concerned glance, stood a mediocre grey individual in a grey coat, trousers, and hat. On seeing the approach of his chauffeur and navigator he seemed even less happy than before.
"You are the pilot, eh?" In speaking he revealed a grating voice wrapped in a deep Norwegian accent. "I hope this journey is going to—"
"Climb up here, sir; just using these foot-holds there, sir; that's right." Cooper, at least, knew how to grab the initiative. ""Hang on tight as you go, sir, an' just squeeze into the forward part of the main cabin—no, no, to your left, sir; behind the pilot's seat. That's the thing, sir; I'll just climb in beside you."
Grumbling under his breath the man clambered up the side of the plane and, with some difficulty, managed to insert himself into the main cabin, squeezed out of the navigators' way as much as was possible. Gabrielle meanwhile, with practiced agility took only a few seconds to reach her cockpit and climb in. Securing the glass roof over her head she settled into place, ready to carry out the normal pre-flight checks. She was happy, at least, to be spared the effort of conversing personally with the passenger, who did not have an intercom.
She revved the engine, turned into the wind, took a glance all around, increased the revs as she let off the wheel-brakes, and shot along the grass parallel to the white waves breaking on the shore a few yards to their right. Cooper fiddled with his intercom; the passenger grabbed a couple of nearby projections on the cabin's side, knuckles white with fear; and Gabrielle, whistling a jaunty tune between tight lips hauled the big black plane into the air in a matter of thirty yards or so, to buzz comfortably out over the grey sea in a rapid ascent.
"Ho-di-ho, here we go again." She levelled out, glanced at her compass, adjusted the trim on the plane, fine-tuned the fuel mixture, and shuffled comfortably in her seat. "How long till the Faroes, Coop?"
"Two hundred and twenty-eight miles, ma'am." The navigator had these interesting statistics ready to hand. "About one hour and thirty-five minutes."
"That'll do for me." Gabrielle studied the dials on the panel in front of her, settling in to flying the plane with the least amount of physical effort. "Keep our friend happy, now. But if he starts to give you the history of his life, or complain, just shut him up pronto, right?"
"Yes, ma'am. God, it's dam' cold."
"It's always cold in a plane, Coop; that's our reward for offering our services t'the nation in time o'war. Right, I'm takin' the old girl t'eight thousand feet; it'll be even colder there, wait an' see."
The only bright side to flying from Shetland to the Faroes was the fact they were, to a great extent, out of range of most German fighters. Not entirely so, there being some never-say-die Nazis who insisted on buckling extra fuel tanks to their planes and being heroes; but these were rare, becoming even rarer as the war progressed. As Gabrielle knew from experience the chances of being molested by a Jerry fighter in this area were few and far between.
"Alfred's askin' where the toilet is, ma'am." Cooper's voice, even over the crackly intercom, sounded mirthful. "Think your take-off was too much for his nerves, not to mention his—"
"Ha, tell him he can go in his trousers—which won't be very nice for you, Coop; I shouldn't encourage it—maybe an empty beer bottle, if ya have such t'hand, or say he'll be in the Faroes in just over an hour." Gabrielle allowed herself a short laugh, having long become inured to the apprehensions of her passengers. "It'll give him something t'take his mind off the rest of the trip, eh; an' save us listenin' t'his complaints about how bad life is in jolly ol' Blighty compared t'the paradise that is Norway."
Grey sea; grey cold sea; sea as flat as a billiard table, but the wrong colour; sea so cold if you had to survive in it for more than half an hour without a raft survival was not on the cards; sea that stretched from horizon to horizon without break or change; except for the matt patches of water slightly more wave-ridden than the surrounding areas; sea, in fact, that gave all the appearance of stretching across and beyond all horizons, to encircle the entire world—which, of course, was actually the case; but seemingly without the relief, at all, of any hope of safe dry land in the offing; a flat, neutral panorama of nothingness as far as the eye could see which, if for any reason you became its victim, could be, and too often was, wholly without mercy or compassion; the North Atlantic ocean.
Gabrielle's state of innocent relaxation was shown to be hopelessly misplaced some ten minutes later.
"Contact, contact on starboard beam." Cooper's voice cracked with excitement. "Maybe a mile off, comin' up fast. It's-it's—God, it's a bloody Dornier."
"Oh, shit." Gabrielle increased revs and pointed the nose of the Lysander towards the distant grey waves. "This's no time to hang around, an' be a hero. Let's get our butts out'ta here. A Dornier twenty-four, I suppose?"
"G-dd-m. They have cannons." Gabrielle said something richly descriptive, but wholly impolite. "Can't mess with one of those. Tell Alfred t'hold onto his hat; we're headin' for the jolly briny, post-haste."
The trouble with trying to outrun a Dornier 24 was that it had almost the same speed as the Lysander; was remarkably maneuverable for a high-winged three engined flying-boat with a raised twin tailplane; and had a great deal more fire-power. Let it get too close and they were doomed.
"I've lost sight of it. I'm going t'the guns."
With this short message Cooper informed Gabrielle he was breaking intercom contact to struggle to the back of the cabin where the two synchronised Browning machine-guns sat. He had to slide the section of the glass canopy covering them back over the rear of the fuselage, thereby opening the cabin to the cold howling wind outside, for the gun barrels to be swept up and aimed on their gun-ring; and, of course the tailplane was always an obstruction to clear fire, but this was the best the Lysander could do. There were single Browning machine-guns embedded in each of the undercarriage wheel casings, operated by the pilot; but these needed the plane to be flying directly at its target to be any use—and if there was one thing Gabrielle had no intention of doing it was taking on the Dornier 24 nose to nose. What she wanted was to escape at all costs—even if ignominiously.
"F-ck, f-ck, f-ck. Just when I was gettin' comfortable." She concentrated on the rapidly approaching grey sea, preparing to level out as near the unpromising surface as possible. "Ricky, where are ya when I need you?"
She was still at four thousand feet when Cooper opened up with his two guns. The sound swept forward, through the open cabin, to reach Gabrielle's ears as a loud booming thunder. The navigator, from necessity, could only fire in short bursts and it was impossible for the pilot to tell exactly what was happening. No sound of return fire from the enemy aircraft came to her yet, which was some consolation. So intent on the business at hand was she that all thought of the passenger had vanished from her mind.
Gabrielle, taking a decision, pointed the nose even more vertically towards the all too quickly nearing sea, revving the engine a touch more—they couldn't reach the surface quickly enough for her. This was attested to a few seconds later when a line of vicious white tracer zipped past her starboard window, apparently only twenty feet or so away.
She veered the plane away to port, though keeping in the dive, hoping to avoid her attacker that way. If the Dornier wanted to use its dorsally-mounted cannon she knew the pilot would need to bring his plane more or less alongside her own; something she hoped he would find impossible in her present dive. But all dives have to end somewhere; and Gabrielle, not wanting hers to end by nosing straight into the freezing sea, finally pulled up to level out around 1500 feet above the choppy waves.
Almost as soon as she had accomplished this Cooper opened up once more; his guns spitting fire at whatever target he could see. Gabrielle held her course for as long as she felt prudent, then angled away to starboard and slightly down towards the sea again. Her navigator let fly with one final burst, then fell silent. Without intercom contact, or being able to take time to scan the horizon herself Gabrielle had to decide on the spur of the moment what to do. She turned the aircraft to port, levelled off at around 900 feet and began a series of zig-zags, each leg of differing lengths. No more incoming fire from the enemy appeared, to shake her already delicately balanced nerves. Then the intercom crackled into life once more.
"Ma'am, can you hear me? I'm on the gunnery intercom; can you hear me?"
"Yeah, go ahead." Gabrielle flicked the switch on her mouthpiece. "Where's the son-uv'a-b-tch?"
"Gone—he's gone." Cooper's voice sounded stretched to breaking point. "I shot off a few bursts, an' came pretty near, I think. Made him sit up an' take notice, anyway. He followed us down most of the way, then veered off to starboard. I can't see anything in any direction—I think he may have called it a day."
"Let's hope so." Gabrielle gave the matter some thought, gritting her teeth meanwhile. "OK, you stay there at the guns. I'll keep goin' at this altitude for another ten minutes, doin' zig-zags. By that time we ough'ta know if we've lost the g-dd-m b-st-rd or not."
"Jeesus, what a bloody day."
The Faroes, when they finally appeared directly ahead through Gabrielle's windscreen, were their usual craggy rocky dark and gloomy selves. They emanated, so the blonde had often informed Ricky, an air of having pissed on the Vikings with regal disdain, and were even now still perfectly willing to piss on anyone else who annoyed them—these unfortunates being, Gabrielle morosely certified, absolutely any visitor whatsoever. This attitude could most easily be understood when it became obvious to the approaching tourist that the Faroes supplied the original cold and rock-bound coast so beloved of the lesser poets and adventure writers. The cliffs were all-encompassing, steep and high; every island in the group sported its competitor for the highest nastiest mountain in the group; and every lesser island, of which there were far too many, simply craggy jagged mountains in their own right. Every town and village seemed to be set at the far gloomy head of a winding cliff-edged fjord, and the only airfield on the islands was no different.
"Coop, y'there? Coop?"
"Yes, ma'am. Alfred's just been airsick."
"Dam' shame. Well, he's gon'na have a much more definite reason for that in a few minutes." Gabrielle's modicum of the milk of human kindness was by this time running low. "I'm gon'na skirt the north coast of the island of Sandoy, just comin' up on our port side. Then I'll leave Streymoy over to starboard—"
"Not landing at Torshavn, ma'am?"
"There ain't nowhere t'land there; unless ya wan'na land on a field o'rocks an' boulders, then fall off the edge of a cliff."
"So, like I was sayin', I'll leave all the miscellaneous islands over to port, then head for Vagar." Gabrielle allowed a hint of humour to enter her voice. "That's where the only airfield is located, courtesy of the British Army. There's only one problem."
"Oh God, tell me, ma'am." Cooper had used up all his allowance of fear some time ago. "What is it?"
"The airfield's built in a rather nasty place." Gabrielle herself felt a cold shiver running down her spine. "At the far end of a fjord which has a high mountain island guarding the approach; with other huge mountains and cliffs, mostly along the northern shore of the fjord; it lies on high ground behind and above the small village of Sorvagur; on a narrow spit backed by a wide long inland loch. Not to put too fine a point on it, it's a b-tch to approach and land at. So you might wan'na get ready for some fancy flyin'; though the Lysander's a good plane, an' should come through OK, I hope. Right, here we go."
A bare handful of minutes later Gabrielle sighted the first of her natural signposts, pointing to the hidden airfield.
"Mykines coming up dead ahead, Coop."
"What's that? Jeesus!"
"Yeah, bloody big mountain, rising straight out'ta the sea." Gabrielle levelled the plane and began to descend ever nearer the sea surface. "Right, things are gon'na happen fast from here on in. I fly straight at that dam' lump o'rock; veer to starboard at the last moment; then you'll find yourself at the mouth of the fjord, with a bloody great cliff on the port side an' a jagged viciously sharp-toothed vertical cliff-island far too close on the starboard; Tindhólmur, I think it's called, on my chart. The village of Sorvagur'll be right ahead at the end of the short fjord, with rising ground immediately behind. That's where the airstrip's located."
"Yeah, you ain't wrong." Gabrielle's voice echoed this feeling. "So I jerk the plane up, like climbing a steep flight of stairs; then immediately drop its nose and glide in to land as quickly as I bloody well can. It'll mean hoicking on the wheel-brakes like there's no tomorrow; which is probably accurate, 'cause there's a long wide loch right behind the end of the runway. If you know any short prayers, with lots of meaning, now's the time."
The mountain-isle of Mykines loomed ever closer till it filled Gabrielle's windscreen; she waited to the very last second, glancing at the line of cliffs and rising ground passing on her starboard side; then dipped the starboard wing and veered steeply round. As if by magic the mouth of a fjord opened up before her. It was by no means wide, but had immense high steep cliffs guarding it, especially on the far too close port side; with the vertical cliffs of Tindhólmur biting sharply into the air on her starboard. It was barely half a mile in length, and immediately the small group of huts making up the settlement of Sorvagur came into view, with a steep grassy slope rising high directly behind it. Gabrielle raised the nose, revved the engine, and gripped the steering-column tightly. The roofs of the settlement slid past below. The grassy slope filled the view ahead like a solid green cliff, then the skyline appeared, and Gabrielle hauled back on the power, put the nose down and gasped with relief as a narrow concrete runway slid into view underneath her. The wheels touched, squealed as they gripped the concrete, then the plane ran forward. But all was not yet over—Gabrielle saw, directly ahead, more rising ground with a sliver of cold grey water beyond, and knew she had only a limited length to work in. She jammed on the brakes and held on to keep them biting; the wheels squealed even more, the plane juddered and shook, then forward momentum decreased and the plane finally came to a halt with about twenty-five feet of runway in hand.
"OK, Coop, we're here. How'd ya like the Faroes, then?"
"Shit, I won't need t'worry anymore about goin' t'Hell." Cooper's voice shook with emotion. "Now I know exactly what Hell looks like—this is it."
Another ubiquitous Nissen hut, cold, draughty, uncomfortable and, when inhabited by more than three people, absolutely unbearable. This one was an office, with two non-commissioned officers, a lieutenant, a captain, and two ATA secretaries.
"Messenger from Lunna House, sir." Gabrielle always liked to open these proceedings on a formal note. "Sorry we're a trifle late; bandit buzzed us around half-way, sir."
Captain Montague, sitting at one of the three desks, raised his eyes to glance at the two heavily clothed aircrew and one grey anonymous individual, raised an eyebrow on seeing Gabrielle, then sniffed in a neutral key.
"Hmm, nasty; glad y'obviously lost the b-gg-r. See you've got the old briefcase." Montague shook his head in distaste. "Can't anyone make the Boss buy a new one?"
"It's the joy of Lieutenant Bairnes' life, sir." Gabrielle allowed herself a short grin. "Couldn't break his heart, sir."
"Ha, I bet. Well, what's in it this month?"
"Don't know, sir." This was a routine which Gabrielle went through each time she and Ricky had arrived at this remote settlement. "Locked, y'know. Believe you have one o'the only other two keys, sir."
"Yes, yes, to be sure. Oh well, better give me the bloody thing then; suppose I'll have t'see what's needed. I've got a surprise for you, Flying-officer Parker."
"Oh God, sir, I don't like surprises."
"Huh, no doubt, an' I can't say I blame you. But the exigencies of war, y'know." Montague snorted gloomily. "Make strange bedfellows of us all, if you'll pardon the expression."
"Er, yes, er, sir."
Montague dumped the briefcase at his feet without ceremony, then raised his head to study the three figures before him.
"You'll be 'Alfred', then?"
"Sir, I must–"
"No doubt—Sarn't Jameson, take this, er, fellow to the de-briefing room, pronto."
"Yessir. This way, sir. Just follow me; that's right, sir."
The door closed behind the two men and the hut became a trifling more livable in, which wasn't saying much.
"Who's your companion? Can't say I've seen him before, Parker."
"Sergeant Cooper, sir." Gabrielle well knew this was all just a game for the Captain; something he did to break the monotony of existence on the bare island. "He's signed all the usual forms an' chits—even that new buff-coloured one, Lieutenant Bairnes wouldn't let him leave the House till he'd scrawled his moniker on it."
"Ah yes, the buff-coloured one." Montague sighed happily, as if on a pheasant shoot with a pair just brought to his feet by a trusted old retriever. "Those are wonderful things; sign not only your life away, but your entire social existence and future from now till the crack of doom. Magnificent things; quite the masterpiece of the Whitehall mandarins. You signed one yet, Parker?"
"God no, sir."
"Oh? Oh well, time yet. So, to business." He raised a hand and weakly directed the aircrew's attention to the far end of the long hut. "Those two figures in mufti are your passengers for Iceland. They may be military; they may not; they may be spies; they may not; they may be persons of import; and they may not. What's your interest in both or either, Parker?"
"Not a damn thing, sir." Gabrielle was, again, going through a well-worn routine; the Captain having a very strange sense of humour and of how to impart the point that pilots shouldn't be inquisitive. "I don't care who they are; where they've come from or are going; or what they're up to in their devious lives. Just passengers for Iceland, sir."
"That's the spirit, Parker." Montague nodded in approval. "Dammed if I don't put you forward for a place in the Secret Service that's being mooted round the dark corridors of Whitehall, after the war. If y'get a curious-looking buff envelope sometime after the conflict, you'll know what it's about, then."
Cooper, listening to all this back and forth chit-chat, reminiscent of a comedy routine at the Hammersmith Empire, now thought it prudent to lever his penny-worth into the conversation.
"Two passengers, sir?" He gave the grey individuals in question a sour look. "Is there room in the Lysander cabin, sir?"
"Ha, see you really haven't had much experience in those old jalopies." Montague, still firmly stuck to his seat from which he rarely moved during office hours, smiled coldly. "One goes beside the Brownings; one goes in the centre, on the fold-out side seat; and you're shoe-horned into the navigator's position immediately behind the pilot's seat, with barely room to breathe never mind stretch out your arm. That's the way it's done. Don't worry; only, what is it, Parker, five hundred miles t'Iceland?"
"Four hundred and ninety-five, more or less, sir." Gabrielle had these statistics to hand also, as a result of previous runs there. "About three hours flight, sir."
"Just long enough for everyone t'get themselves comfortably settled."
Montague leaned over to retrieve the briefcase at his feet; emptied it messily on his desk, without apparently thinking much of the nature of the documents so revealed; then re-filled it with an apparently random assortment of those other documents lying on his desk. He turned a key in the lock; replaced this key in his pocket, and held the briefcase out to Gabrielle. "Well, that's it again; give my love to Captain Garnock in Reykjavik. They'll have emptied an' re-filled your cargo container by now. So long, see you on your return. Bye."
The last leg of the flight was the longest; the least harassed by enemy aircraft; and the most monotonous. On a bright day all there was to look at was the blue sky and dark grey sea. On a dull day all there was to look at was the dark grey sky and the dark grey sea. On a night-flight everything was black all round; and on a stormy day life was just plain hell in every direction. Flying to Iceland, under any known set of conditions, was always either stultifyingly boring or a sore trial for all concerned; or, of course, both.
"Should I look out for enemy raiders or fighters, ma'am?"
"Huh, y'can look out t'your heart's content; but you'll never see any."
"Out'ta range of virtually anything Jerry has." Gabrielle eased the medicine with a touch of sugar. "Hardly anyone goes to or from Iceland; an' there's nothing of particular interest there, anyway. So, no raiders. How're y'doin' back there?"
"Tight, but just about enough room t'get by." Cooper's voice was distant and tinny over the intercom. "There's no way I can reach the Brownings, by the way, ma'am. An' I don't think the chap in position there has any idea of what t'do with 'em."
"I bet." Gabrielle smiled to herself. "We're too far north for convoys; shouldn't imagine there's much Navy activity hereabouts; so that just leaves the odd fishing boat to relieve the boredom. Pity none of you brought books or magazines."
"Never thought of that. Next time, ma'am."
"Yeah, sure." Gabrielle fiddled with a couple of switches, eyed the gauges in front of her, and glanced from side to side out the windscreen. "Yep, looks like another boring run. An' the great joy of it is, Coop, when we reach Iceland there's nothing of interest there anyway, like I said; just more boredom, then we fly back again the way we came. Isn't life in the RAF spiffing?"
The good point—the only good point,—about the runway at Reykjavik was that it was built on flat ground with no high slopes, cliffs, or mountains in the vicinity. The bad point being it was again built as close to the seashore as was humanly possible. An incoming aircraft flew low over the waters of the bay, shot across the low pebbly foreshore; and touched down, if they were lucky, just twenty yards or so further on. The approach from seawards, however, was this time open and safe, which relieved Gabrielle as much as it did Cooper. So the run-in Gabrielle gave the Lysander was smooth low and straightforward. A bump on touch-down and they ran along the runway to a slow and steady stop; perhaps the easiest and safest landing of the whole operation.
"God Almighty, ma'am!—"
"Yeah, I know, don't tell me,—more bloody Nissen huts." Gabrielle laughed, as the quartet of crew and passengers walked slowly off the runway onto the grass verge towards the assorted line of said buildings. "That dam' man certainly got about, didn't he? OK, it's the one with the green-painted front and the flagpole outside."
The door, when they reached it, was open; so Gabrielle led the way inside without ceremony or knocking.
"Ah, Parker, you're back."
"That I am, sir." Gabrielle pulled off her flying-helmet and ruffled her hair with an ungloved hand. "Nice t'see you, Captain Garnock. I brought a couple of tourists with me."
"So I see." Captain Garnock seemed only minimally interested in her passengers. "Sarn't McDevitt, see these chaps along to Lieutenant Carter; he's waitin' for 'em."
"Yessir. This way, gentlemen."
"You have the usual present for me, I see."
"The briefcase, yessir?" Gabrielle handed over the item in question. "A varied amount of cargo this time, too. Anythin' for me t'take back, sir?"
"Yes, there'll be the ordinary bits and bobs." Garnock unlocked the briefcase, sorted through the files inside with a flick of his fingers, and seemed satisfied. "Well, all you need do now is head along to your hut and take it easy for the evening. You'll be leaving at nine ack-emma, as usual."
"Yessir. What about Sergeant Cooper?"
"Can't billet him in the Nissen you use; so he'll just need to doss down with the other sergeants in Hut Nineteen. You can have Twenty-Three to yourself tonight."
"Thanks, sir. It'll let me get some shut-eye."
"Which, no doubt, you need after another Four Islands Run." Garnock nodded understandingly. "Just the return flight tomorrow, and that should be you free for another month. You'll no doubt be glad of that?"
"Yessir, not something I'd like t'do on a daily basis—nor yet weekly, come to that."
"I can imagine. OK, off you go. You know where the NAAFI hut is?"
"Yessir. G'night, sir."
"Oh God, peace at last." Gabrielle lay full-length on the khaki blankets of the low bed in the Nissen hut she and Ricky were accustomed to using on their stop-overs at the base in Reykjavik. "And all to do again, tomorrow. God, Ricky, wish you were here right now."
She turned on her side, pulled the blanket up to her neck, sighed softly, and went to sleep in seconds.
Another story in the 'Mathews and Parker' series will follow shortly.