'The Barrage Balloon's Prize'
By Phineas Redux
Summary:— This is a military drama set in Great Britain in 1943. Flying Officers Claire 'Ricky' Mathews and Gabrielle Parker—ATA, Air Transport Auxiliary, pilots and members of SOE, Special Operations Executive,—investigate an incident involving an outlying Barrage Balloon unit in the Orkney Islands.
Note:— 'Rheintochter' (Rhinemaidens) ground-to-air missiles, with air-launched variants, were in actual fact under development by Germany; with test firings starting in August 1943.
Disclaimer:— This story and 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.
'Papa Westray? But that's at the top end of Nowhere, Ricky."
"Pretty much, but orders is orders, duckie."
"Ha, orders." Gabrielle sneered with intent, as she sat at the table in their Nissen hut. "I'm beginnin' t'lose faith in Group-Captain Graham. What's he want t'send us there for?"
"You know, as well as me." Ricky snorted disdainfully, from her own rickety chair where she sat beside the blonde love of her life. "All down in that radio message you decoded yesterday. Something happened involving the local Barrage Balloon unit—"
"Barrage Balloons—on Papa Westray?" Gabrielle clearly could not sanction this amazing fact for a second. "What can there possibly be on that small island that'd need protection by a Barrage Balloon unit? Come on, you tell me the answer to that, lady-who-knows-everything."
"Jeez, cool down, won't ya; there's a war on, y'know; for all we know it might be the site of Winnie's summer holiday residence."
"Oh, very funny. Churchill holidaying in the Orkney's; that'll be the dam' day." The blonde pilot was not convinced. "So, how're we gon'na get there? By Lizzie, or Shagbat?"
Ricky leaned back on her chair, a dangerous manoeuvre considering its antiquity, and scratched her chin, long black hair falling to either side of her strong square jaw.
"I been thinkin' about that." Ricky furrowed her brows, as if the question was one of great import. "There is a pretty extensive loch; but it's rather shallow an' doesn't really come up to spec; certainly not for a Walrus. Howsoever, darlin', you'll be delighted t'hear there's a small airstrip, easy t'reach; so we can land the ol' Lysander without any trouble whatsoever."
"You're forgettin' one, possibly significant, fact, light-of-my-life."
"Oh, yeah. Spit it out."
"There's a bloody Barrage Balloon unit on the island." Gabrielle grinned in triumph at this perfect hit. "An' what do Balloon units do, dearest? Why, stap my vittals, they fly enormous great balloons on the end of thick taut steel cables that'd cut the wings off a Lysander like a hot knife through butter—only sayin'."
The black-haired Valkyrie considered this for a while, pursing her lips tightly; then admitted defeat.
"Ye-errss, there is certainly that t'consider." She shrugged dismissively. "Suppose we can think about it if an' when."
"If an' when?" Gabrielle gave a bark of laughter. "Be a bit late considerin' it, when our wings are fluttering t'the ground t'join our shattered bodies in the wreckage of our downed Lizzie. I think what we need, lover, is a better plan than that."
Silence reigned in the interior of the long Nissen hut with its curved corrugated iron roof and walls. Gabrielle fiddled idly with a pencil, while her other half gazed abstractedly at the indentations of the metal ceiling. Then inspiration struck.
"The telephone, or would it be the radio?"
"We send 'em a message." Ricky sat upright on her chair, which groaned in protest at this unaccustomed exercise. "Tell 'em t'pull their socks up, an' pull their bloody balloon, or balloons, down. That'd work."
"Well, it would."
"Yeah, yeah, I suppose." Gabrielle shook her head sadly. "God, Ricky, I don't know who needs a rest in a nice padded cell more; you, or me."
The island at the centre of all this unaccustomed attention, Papa Westray, was small, flat, uninteresting, and generally only inhabited by a tiny group of hardbitten farmers. It lay off the north-east shore of the larger Westray, sixth largest of the Orkney group; well to the north of Scapa Flow. Westray, the main island, normally supporting a population of around 600 persons, whilst sporting all the usual Neolithic and Viking left-overs common to almost all its other sister islands; though now host to double the usual populace, as a result of wartime necessities.
A small but serviceable airstrip had been built on the north-west shore of Papa Westray, allowing a somewhat lesser influx of military personnel who had again virtually taken over the small island, much to the disgust and concern of the locals. These newcomers comprising an army unit; a naval unit of dubious antecedents; and an RAF unit which seemed to be made up mostly of WAAF's. It was, of course, the latter group who operated the bulky silk Balloons, no less than four of which now towered into the sky on the ends of their four thousand five hundred foot-plus cables; for all the world like silver whales basking in the sky.
"G-dd-m, they told us they'd haul the dam' things down well before we got here." Gabrielle was incensed; if there was one thing that riled her it was sloppy planning. "I'll swing wide, over the sea."
"Over Westray, y'mean." Ricky settled lower in her navigator's seat in the separate compartment immediately behind that of her pilot, her voice crackling thinly over the intercom. "Not much sea between. God, I could almost jump across; wonder they didn't just build a bridge—or one of those causeways they're so fixated with down at Scapa."
"Wind's in the right direction—I'll lose height, an' come in over the beach an' slide under the two nearest Balloons."
"Y'bloody well won't, Gabs!" Ricky nearly shouted this into her mouthpiece, sitting up with a jerk. "Y'can't possibly see the dam' cables. Go round again; I'll get on the radio, an' wake the sleepy sh-ts up, dam' 'em."
A few, rather heated, communications later the women were given to understand, by the anonymous operator on Papa Westray, that if they took a sight-seeing tour over Westray for a few minutes action would be taken about the minor matter which had excited them so much. Gabrielle veered-off to follow these inane instructions, swearing volubly and imaginatively the while.
Just under five minutes later,—having overflown the entirety of neighbouring Westray and its points of interest, which numbered exactly zero,—Gabrielle was pleased to see the curved bulk of the last Balloon collapsing onto the ground at the edge of the narrow grass runway. Both women, gazing intently at the general area they were expected to land on, saw to the left of the single runway a large wide patch of burnt ground, black and grassless; perhaps lingering evidence of the incident which had alerted London and finally summoned Gabrielle and Ricky to this barren location. She brought the Lysander in low and slow—which, with a Lizzie, was amazingly slow,—and dropped it onto the grass like a dragonfly landing on a grass stalk. The two women spent some time switching-off and uncoupling themselves from the various cables and wires they had been plugged into. Then with a skill honed through much practice they struggled, in their cumbrous clothing and thick boots, out of the cockpit and main cabin and carefully descended the footholds on the fuselage to jump onto the sweet hard ground beside the vast heavy bulk of the black-painted monoplane. A tall thin Army Lieutenant, obviously their meeting-party in full, stood some few yards off wearing a sheepish expression not quite reaching the level of outright guilt.
"Hallo, er, ladies. I'm Lieutenant Ferguson. Commanding-Officer of the airfield, at the moment." His accent was, of course, educated English. "Little cock-up on the Balloon front, but all's well that ends, er,—as the Bard says, what."
"Thought we'd established hours ago what our arrival time was gon'na be, sir." Ricky was flaming-mad. "Didn't think our welcoming-party would be an attempt to cut our bloody wings off, like as if we were a bloody Messerschmitt."
"Sorry, sorry, couldn't be avoided, y'see." The Lieutenant walked beside them as they crossed to a low white-painted office block with a flat roof and a multiplicty of windows. "Had an alert an hour ago, which petered out. One o' those things, eh? So, you're here t'investigate the, er, Balloon situation, then?"
The three entered a long corridor in the building, with several doors on each side. The officer led them half-way along then opened a door on his right-hand, stepping back to allow the women to pass him. Inside was a normal, impersonal run-of-the-mill army office with filing-cabinets, desks, straight-backed wooden chairs, and the usual aroma of too much floor polish.
"Take seats please, ladies." The young man circled the desk by the window to take up residence behind it. "So, you'll have heard, then, about our little, umm, incident in the night?"
"A comprehensive report was passed our way, sir." Gabrielle, settling herself uncomfortably, took up the kernel of the matter. "We've been given broad permission t'conduct as wide-ranging an investigation as we see fit. If you have questions they should be directed to the Base J Commanding Officer, Squadron-Leader Knelthorpe, sir. You'll find, though, we do have total clearance."
"Oh, ah, yes." Although well aware of this perplexing, and not entirely satisfactory, position the Lieutenant was still prone to a decidedly inquisitive sentiment. "Pity, that. Would sort of like t'be kept informed of what's going on, on my own patch, so to speak. Well, what are you going to do? Need an office for, er, interrogations, an' suchlike?"
"We could do with one, yessir." Ricky carried on, lifting a slightly contemptuous eyebrow meanwhile. "But not t'give anyone the third degree. We'll sort things out, in our own way, sir."
The two women sat, preserving a façade of complete non-compliance with the Lieutenant's wishes that was almost visible in its decisiveness. The officer buckled under the strain.
"Well, come with me, an' I'll show you the office set aside for you. It's just at the end of the corridor; past an equipment store-room, so you'll have lots of privacy. This way."
The room was the same width as the one they had just vacated, but Ricky and Gabrielle were pleased to see it was considerably longer; perhaps twice so. There were no less than three double-windows, with small glass panes, each side of which opened outwards like doors. The ceiling simply consisted of the rafters holding up the roof, itself made of thin timber planks; while the accessories in the office were a mirror-image of those in the Lieutenant's room.
"And the place has a lock on the corridor-door." Ricky noted this aspect as she fiddled with the key placed in the inside keyhole. "At least we can have some sort of security."
"Better put that in your pocket." Gabrielle nodded happily, while continuing to survey their new official premises. "Just don't lose it; we don't wan'na have t'break an' enter our own office, y'know. Make us look silly in front of the Lieutenant, that would."
Taking no notice of this rejoinder Gabrielle walked up and down the office, taking careful stock of everything therein, as was her habit. She often told Ricky it gave her a sense of place and atmosphere in any new house or room she visited; Ricky, wisely, kept her opinion of this quaint enterprise to herself.
This unusually bright sunny morning of Wednesday, 15th September 1943, was still only the day after they had received warning of the necessity for investigating the curious events at the military airstrip, and only two days after those original events themselves; so no time had been lost in getting to grips with the situation. Ricky had a bulky leather briefcase with her, and this she proceeded to throw unceremoniously on the top of the large desk by the central window.
"Well, all our worldly goods are in here, Gabs. So, where d'we begin?"
"At the beginnin', I'd think; wha'd'you say, ducks?"
"Idiot, is what I say." Ricky snorted; but without rancour, being well used to the recklessly undisciplined bohemian attitude of her lover. "D'we really need'ta go through all these dam' documents again? Surely you've extracted as much as they're ever likely t'tell us? I know I have."
"Yeah, I think we should just get on an' start talkin' to those concerned." Gabrielle nodded her approval, but also headed her heartmate's next move off by quickly sliding round the near edge of the desk and planting herself comfortably in the seat wating there; her back to the window. "Well, this is nice; I like this set-up."
"Huh, glad ya think ya deserve it." Ricky made a low rumbling noise in her throat once more, slightly baring white teeth; whilst prowling across to the window to glare out at the passing scene, like a grizzly bear in a zoo growing impatient for the appearance of the day's luncheon-menu. "Hmm, look at this. A flat expanse of fields disappearing into the distance, with no discernible features of interest. A short grass runway; with our Lizzie at one end and an Anson at the other, both seemingly abandoned to their own devices. Two hangars; one small two-storied conning-tower; two office blocks; six Nissen huts; three Matador trucks an' four Tilly's; a wind-vane; and, yep, there they are, four bloody Barrage Balloon units—with associated trucks an' machinery. Not to mention a variety of uniformed personnel sloping about all over the place, all tryin' t'look as if they actually had somewhere t'go. Papa Westray airfield; or, as I like t'call it—the bloody ends of the bloody earth!"
Gabrielle meanwhile, letting this irate diatribe wash over her unregarded, had opened the briefcase and taken out a handful of the documents contained therein. Those in a selection of thin green cardboard covers being of most interest.
"Right, woman, come'n get t'work." The blonde leader nodded at the straight-backed wooden chair on the other side of her newly-requisitioned desk. "That looks comfy. OK, who's first? Or should we go an' view the remains, before startin'?"
Ricky seated herself, with a bad grace and a pout; shrugged her still flying-jacket covered shoulders; and peered at the mass of variously coloured documents and files spread over the desk-top.
"God, the WD likes its brochures t'be eye-catchin'." She shook her head disapprovingly. "You'd think they had more important activities t'occupy their minds, than the colour of the bloody paperwork they throw around in every dam' direction. I mean, look; red, pink, green in two shades, blue, grey, an' white. Why?"
"Who cares." Gabrielle took the utilitarian view of these things. "Each subject or topic has to be differentiated from the others; I suppose that's the way the War Department sees it. Anyway, the general report on the Jerry plane they brought down here three days ago. Here it is, though there's some curiously hazy details about exactly what it was."
"Yeah, I noticed, reading the report yesterday." Ricky leaned forward, focussing on the matter in hand now. "Why they chose t'call the thing a 'Harpy', I don't know. Some kind'a new fighter they haven't come across yet, maybe?"
"Hmmf." Gabrielle scrutinised the contents of a page she held in her hand. "The Balloon units here are seemingly almost all manned, if you'll pardon such a coarse expression, by WAAF's. A four-unit group; overall command Lieutenant Balfour, but he's on sick leave an' they haven't sent a replacement. Second-in-command Sergeant Chevely, but he broke his leg jumping off a winch truck in a hurry a fortnight ago; so, that leaves temporary command with Flight-Officer Helen Crawford. She was involved in the, er, incident, and helped to contribute to an' write most of the reports on the affair."
"Mmrf, looks like our first action'll be t'hunt her down, an' get her first-hand views." Ricky rose, fiddling with the zipper on her thick jacket. "This dam' thing's stickin' again. Y'know how difficult I find closin' these things, when they go wrong. Dam' nuisance. Wait a mo,—OK; right, shall we head on out, then?"
"Huh, why not? Y'sound like John Wayne, when you come over all authorative; did you know that?" Gabrielle could be cutting, in the face of bossiness; though she grinned all the same. "She'll be engaged with one of the units, I expect."
Ricky had made it to the corridor door first; now she opened it wide and waved a hand to direct her partner's exit.
"Madam. I hope you will return soon; your custom much appreciated."
"Fool. Mind you, that'll probably be what you end up doin', after the war. Commissionare at a second-rate Ladies Fashions Emporium."
"Nasty, an' undeserved, I assure ya, ducks." The black-haired warrior grinned evilly. "I'll get ya back; I don't know how yet, but I will. Meanwhile, worry about it."
The Balloon units were spread out across the airfield perimeter, some distance from the runway. Each individual Balloon was accompanied by its own convoy of trucks; first being the winch-truck, with its easily recognisable metal Farraday cage enclosing the winch motor and operator's seat on the open bed of the truck immediately behind the driver's cabin, behind which again was placed the rolled up bulk of the actual grey silk Balloon when not in use. Second came the truck towing the flat open-sided gas-tank trailer, with its load of long bright-red hydrogen cylinders; and third the truck with the general equipment associated with the raising and tethering of the flying balloon. Every Balloon had its own anchor-point, a heavy iron ring-pulley set upright in the centre of a wide concrete base; these being accompanied by long rolled-up steel cables. There were other, more esoteric, pieces of equipment also; the arcane uses of which were only known and understood by the expert gangs of women who, in the main, generally crewed the units.
When newly inflated the Balloon was usually tethered by a central cable leading to the steel pulley-block ring embedded in its concrete base on the ground. In a wide circle around this were other concrete beddings where tethering ropes attached to the sides of the Balloon all round its perimeter were fastened. When ready to release, the holding cable underneath was extended and the several side ropes released and held by groups of WAAF's, who pulled and tugged to keep the Balloon in place while the winch truck released the cable at the correct speed; the steel cable being led horizontally over the grass from the winch to the central pulley-block. The cable-end opening into twelve separate thinner cables which were firmly coupled to the waist of the Balloon at evenly-spaced attachment points all round the beast. This part, for the WAAF's, was the most delicate and sometimes dangerous of maneouvres, before releasing their hand-held ropes to let the Balloon rise freely into the air. Its general flying height being around the 3,000ft-5,000ft mark.
The winch operator, another WAAF, sat on the flat bed of the winch truck, inside her metal Farraday cage at all times while the Balloon was aloft. She needing this safety aspect because of the possibility of whip-back from broken cables, but especially to guard against immense static electric charges which could be diffused down the steel cable from the Balloon,—in almost any state of the weather, even sunny calm conditions—into the body of the winch truck. To this effect, when exiting the Farraday cage after the Balloon had been successfully brought back to the ground and deflated, no-one approached the truck closely and the operator opened the cage's door with heavily gloved hands—she also wearing thick rubber boots—and then made a clean jump from the back of the truck to the ground, making sure she did not touch any part of the truck and the ground at the same time. This operation being necessary in face of the well-known, but unseen, danger of a huge static charge having possibly built up unbeknownst to the operator.
When Ricky and Gabrielle approached the nearest Balloon unit, on the western side of the airfield, they found this was the last Balloon to have been deflated for their arrival. Its massive bulk now lay sadly shrunken in an untidy pile of grey silk, covered in various rope handles and attachments over its surface. A group of around eight WAAF's were scurrying around gripping various ropes and shouting orders to each other. Over to the visitors' right-hand the winch truck sat in solitary glory, its cable now a motionless steel snake coiling across the grass from the Balloon to the truck. The two women veered towards the truck, but immediately a tall brunette woman, in the usual WAAF dark-blue overalls, sprang in front of them with a raised cautionary hand.
"Steady on, ladies. Don't go near the truck yet." The woman turned and raised her left arm to point. "Bentham's just about t'jump off the thing. I wouldn't shake her hand either, for a while anyway; static electricity's a dam' pain, in every sense o'the term."
Ricky and Gabrielle turned their attention to the steel-mesh cage sitting behind the driver's cabin. The side opened and the form of a crouching woman in ubiquitous dark-blue overalls appeared. Moving with some care she closed the door of the cage, paused a moment on the edge of the flat-bed, then spread her arms and took a deliberately long jump away from the truck, leaving a wide space between it and herself as she landed on the ground with a thump. She straightened, brushed a heavily-gloved hand through her hair, adjusted her cap, and plodded grinning towards the small group of interested spectators to her athletic endeavours—stopping short, however, some ten feet from them.
"Everything went well, Miss Crawford. No static discharge, an' the cable unwound smoothly." She started to divest herself of her unwieldy gloves. "The Balloon didn't tug or strain, either."
"Good, I'd like you t'meet the officers who've been detailed to investigate that, er, little incident the other day." Flight-Officer Crawford nodded happily. "They're gon'na want t'talk with everyone concerned. But first you'd better take-off those bloody boots, an' get yourself sorted out. See you in the office in fifteen, OK?"
The WAAF turned and walked off while the Flight-Officer examined her guests with some interest.
"Hello, I'm, as y'might already have guessed, Flight-Officer Helen Crawford." She moved forward to shake both womens' hands. "In charge of this affair, for the time being. We'll go over t'my office, where we can have some comfort. That's it, the white-painted single-storey building to the side of those couple of Nissens'. Sorry about the Balloons' bein' up when you arrived; we're, er, experiencing a certain amount o'security issues at the moment."
"So we gathered." Ricky's reply was in no way a sneer; but it wasn't friendly, either. Barrage Balloons not being the pilot's friend at any time. "Looks like there there may well be things goin' on here, over an' above the usual. Don't mind me askin', Gabrielle an' I have full clearance."
By this time they had reached the office building and Miss Crawford led them into the corridor within. Opening the door of the second on the left she waved them into the usual small, rather untidy, office.
"Sorry about the wooden-backed chairs, but there never seems anything else available." She herself sat in another Spartan chair behind her desk by the single window. "Full clearance, y'said outside? From whom, I wonder? It bein' an important point, y'know."
"Here, Miss Crawford." Gabrielle delved in the battered leather briefcase she had been carrying; drawing out a handful of documents, two of which she passed across the desk. "One from Officer-Commanding, Base J, Orkney; the other from Group-Captain Graham, in charge of 'Personnel Movements, Military', Room 23D, SOE. He's our boss, an' for God's sake don't mention SOE in your next reports, under any circumstances."
"Just a security issue, y'understand." Ricky put her little in here, making a point of not smiling in the least.
"Hurrmph." Crawford twisted her lips and frowned grimly, whilst leaning her elbows on the desk. "Seems t'be an overabundance of dam' security issues around these parts lately. An' more t'come, no doubt."
She scrutinised the documents closely, before handing them back to Gabrielle with a nod. Then she leaned back in her chair and considered the two women before her with a great deal of interest; her chestnut–brown eyes pools of quiet thoughtfulness.
"Well, t'cut t'the chase, three days ago, at night around three a.m., an enemy object came flyin' over these parts an' tangled itself with two of our Balloons." She pouted her lips slightly in thought, then continued. "I was asleep but, for reasons I won't go into, we had all four Balloons up flying at four thousand feet. The women on duty all stated there was a sudden rushing whining sound, gradually growing closer from the east; then the sound of contact with two of the Balloons. The DPL's on both broke-off—"
"What're they?" Gabrielle already had a notebook out and was filling its first page.
"DPL's? Double Parachute Links." Miss Crawford paused while Gabrielle wrote. "It's a system whereby, when a plane's wing hits the cable it—the cable—breaks-off above and below the impact point. A parachute drogue at each end of the steel cable section opens and the drag exerted on the plane's wing, caught up by the cable, usually rips it off. That's how Barrage Balloons generally fell aircraft."
"Ah, not the Balloon itself, as many people think?" Gabrielle continued taking down notes, pretending to more innocence in the matter than she'd actually had for years.
"No, the Balloon's simply there to hold the cable upright in the air." Crawford obviously now felt the educational lecture was over. "So, on the night of Sunday-Monday three days ago we had a contact. But it wasn't the usual kind of a contact. With those we usually hear the plane approaching; then the crash as it hits the cable; then the mess as the Parachute Links break free and the Balloon begins to automatically deflate. Then, generally, the row as the plane crashes; usually somewhere too dam' close for comfort."
Feeling it was time to lighten the atmosphere a trifle, and bring a sense of humour to the occasion, Ricky assayed a little joke.
"Not forgettin' the survivin' crew parachutin' down on your heads; I suppose?"
"Hah! It has been known." Crawford twisted her mouth, in a clear attempt at a smile. "This time there was none of that, however. There was, as I've said, an approachin' whine; then the crash of the cables; the first Balloon t'be hit jerked its cable so strongly it broke the central ground-pulley free; makin' the winch-truck rock on its chassis so violently, when it took the full vertical strain of the cable, it nearly overturned. Gave the WAAF inside the cage a helluva fright, an' a few bruises."
"Must'a been a big plane." Ricky raised her eyebrows in wonder.
"Or something goin' terrifically fast." Crawford lowered her gaze to a file lying open on her desk. "In actual fact it was the latter. It wasn't a plane, of any description. From what we've been able to make out, from the wreckage, it's some kind of a missile."
Ricky and Gabrielle looked at each other with raised eyebrows—none of this was in the reports sent to them from London by radio. Gabrielle began writing industriously, as if against a time-restraint.
"Wreckage? Where?" Ricky took up the major point under discussion. "I didn't see anything out'ta the ordinary when we landed, except for that wide patch of burnt ground just off the runway."
It was the turn of the WAAF Flight-Officer to regard her questioner with some concern.
"That was one of our Balloons crashing. When the thing hit the second Balloon there was a lot of shrapnel flyin' everywhere, accordin' to the crew-women on duty. The Balloon took fire and went up, as you'd expect, in a ball of flame—finally coming down on the flat ground off the runway. Not much left but burnt grass; hydrogen'll do that. The thing was goin' so fast that, even though the two Balloon cables did for it, it still managed to fly on some mile or so before hittin' the ground." She shuffled the papers on her desk. "The majority of the thing came down in one piece, landing in a bog to the north of here. We have the site well cordoned-off now."
"Ha, wonderful things these dam' bogs." Gabrielle looked up to give her opinion of the matter. "They're everywhere on these islands; I'd imagine they'd be a good soft landing for a crashing plane, or whatever."
"Hmm, there's pro's and con's as far as that's concerned." Crawford's expression was less than enthusiastic. "This thing has a warhead weighing around three hundred pounds, according to Sergeant MacConnel. As yet unexploded."
"Ah. Ah, yes." Ricky considered this appalling piece of new information. "Why are we never told about these minor snippets, before we arrive at places like this?"
"That's war, and the War Derpartment, for you." Crawford shrugged knowingly. "Good job we happen t'have Sergeant MacConnel with us. He was just transferred up here from London two weeks ago. Used to be part of a Bomb Disposal squad there."
"Oh, decided t'seek new, quieter, horizons, eh?" Gabrielle muttered this low under her breath, but both listeners heard.
"No, the rest of his team were killed when a massive bomb fifteen feet underground, in Pimlico, decided not to play ball." Crawford's expression was bleak. "It must'a been ticklish. MacConnel was the only survivor. Even the WD could see the sense in transferring him after that, I suppose."
"Sorry." Gabrielle's voice held a sad intonation.
"Well, it's good for us." Crawford sat straighter behind her desk, shaking her head. "He knows what's what when it comes t'bombs. He happened to be in the team that found the wreckage, and it took him no time at all t'get a report back to me describing the whole hideous monstrosity. We'd waited till daylight, of course, to search for and finally locate the crash-site. MacConnel secured the whole region, then set-to tryin' t'make the dam' thing safe; we not havin' a tame Bomb Disposal squad of our own up here in Orkney, y'know."
"Did he succeed?" Ricky could hardly bring the words forth, looking at the pale WAAF officer the while.
"To a certain extent. As far as he could tell, anyway." Crawford shifted uncomfortably in her chair. "But that brings us to—"
There came a knock on the office door at this point and, at Miss Crawford's loud request, the WAAF Ricky and Gabrielle had earlier seen jumping from the winch truck entered.
"Ah, Bentham, take a seat beside these ladies; we've got some talkin' t'do." Crawford indicated the new arrival with a raised hand. "This is Sergeant Jane Bentham; she's one of the crew-women involved in the night affair, and its aftermath. She's got a story t'tell I'm sure you'll both be very interested in hearing."
"It was nearly three am." Flight-Sergeant Bentham, wearing her uniform slacks and a dark blue weaist-length jerkin, shuffled uncomfortably on her plain straight-backed wooden chair. "I'd just come on duty an hour earlier, when the crew changed over. All four Balloons were up, at four thousand feet, because—"
Flight-Officer Crawford sat up and gazed meaningly at the sergeant, who didn't fail to note the fact.
"—ah, because, er, well, because." Bentham wriggled in embarrasment. "So, we were all settling into the watch as usual; sorting the equipment out on the gas trucks and winch trucks, and seeing the cables were taut and firm on the centre pulley-rings and that the Balloons weren't swaying in the breeze too much. There was also some trouble with the searchlight unit; as well as the anti-aircraft gun and their range-finder—the telephone communications were shorting out at intervals—"
"It was an electrical battery problem, sorted now." Crawford interjected this news with a raised brow.
"—and everything seemed settled for a quiet night from there." Jane shrugged at the memory. "It was, too, for a short time. Then, just after three o' clock, the eastern Balloon crew came on the blower with the news they could hear something in the air.—"
"What?" Ricky looked across with some interest, at the young woman.
"—a sort of faint roaring noise." Jane continued, frowning in concentration. "Like a far distant storm, the gal on the other end of the phone stated. The ack-ack range-finder butted in then, sayin' they could hear it as well. I asked them to get a range and direction on it, and about a minute later they phoned t'say it was travelling too fast to keep track of but seemed to be coming in our direction, at an estimated altitude of around fifteen hundred feet."
"How did things go from there?" Gabrielle was now as attentive as her companion.
"I sent a WAAF to rouse Flight-Officer Crawford, and tried to get the range-finder to come up with some more exact info." Jane glanced round the table at her listeners. "They couldn't; they said they'd temporarily lost it because of its speed. When I asked what they thought this was, they came back with a silly number I laughed at—"
"Which was?" Ricky sat back, focussing her whole attention on the story the girl was telling.
"Something like five hundred plus mph." Jane shrugged apologetically. "I said instead of fairy tales I'd like a reasonable forecast of its speed, whatever it was. They replied, almost instantly, that their estimated speed was correct—which, of course, was just silly."
"You can see her point." Here Crawford came to the defence of her crew-woman. "Nothing can go that fast—at least so we had formerly been led to believe by our technical wallahs."
"Then what?" Gabrielle considered the girl sitting by her side.
"Things began t'get rather hairy from then on." Jane wriggled her shoulders again, obviously not liking to linger on what had occurred those few days earlier. "I heard the noise too, eventually. And the crew on the other Balloons began to report they could hear it as well. Finally, in only a matter of seconds, it became obvious something was heading our way, at a low altitude, and very fast, while it continued to make this peculiar roaring noise. I can tell you, I felt the hairs on the back of my neck rising, and a cold chill going down my spine."
"I don't doubt it." Gabrielle nodded in sympathy.
"Then all Hell broke loose." Jane shook her head, clearly still hardly believing what had happened. "The roaring noise suddenly increased to deafening proportions—and then the Balloons were hit."
"Bit of a crisis, I imagine?" Ricky was deliberately underplaying her reaction, in order not to make the girl any more nervous than she was.
"You can say that again, ma'am." Jane nodded in agreement. "There was no warning; just the awful roar in the air; then both Balloons that were hit seemed to take the blow at exactly the same time—the thing was going that fast. We heard a clang as the body of the aerial thing hit Balloon One, then the crash as it hit Balloon Two much harder. Balloon One's cable had simply been sliced through, not allowing the DPL to deploy. The Balloon just sailed away into the ether, never to be seen again.—"
"Hrrmph!" Ricky could well picture the scene.
"—but the contact had made the unidentified flying object, if I can call it that, veer slightly so making its contact with Balloon Two's cable all the harder." Jane now nodded as the details came back to her. "It must have hit the second cable at a wider angle than the first; for the DPL deployed correctly this time. There was an awful howling noise; sounds like an explosion going-off; shrapnel zipping through the air everywhere—a small piece bounced off my tin-hat—then a whining sound as the roaring noise changed down in tone. This disappeared into the darkness, heading north, then we were left with the bloody Balloon, which had caught fire from the shrapnel. I don't know if you've ever seen a Barrage Balloon on fire, ladies?"
"Nor me, either." Gabrielle shook her head.
"Flight-Officer Crawford had just come up at this point." Jane looked across the desk at her superior officer. "Perhaps you would carry on, ma'am?"
"I'd heard the row as I was jumping into my trousers and other kit." Crawford gazed at Ricky and Gabrielle with a determined expression. "I ran out onto the runway towards the nearest, Bentham's, Balloon; and I heard the god-awful ruckus goin' on. Next thing, the whole airfield was lit up like as if it was midday, in an orange glow like a brilliant sun. Balloon Two had gone up, big-time. Because they're filled with goddam hydrogen it takes only the merest spark—sometimes only a microscopic static charge—to set the bloody stuff off; and when it goes, it goes without restraint or curb. You've probably seen the cinema film of the Hindenburg going up?—"
Both Ricky and Gabrielle nodded wordlessly.
"Well, it was just like that, only in bright dazzling full-colour." Crawford looked at her visitors surmisingly. "Hydrogen's a peculiar gas, y'know. We're taught about it at the training establishment down at Cardington. It can burn almost invisibly sometimes; at others it has a deep orange colour, because of the mixture of hydrogen to surrounding oxygen in the atmosphere, and the material of the container it's nominally in. That was what it was like, a few days ago; The silk of the Balloon, and the air, made the fire a deep orange. The heat was also tremendous. Hydrogen burns at an awfully high temperature; but because it only has about one-fourteenth the density of air it tends to escape upwards very rapidly. This is hindered by the make-up of the Balloon usually, however. So the dam' thing more often than not swirls around in the air, losing altitude randomly, as the body of the Balloon stops the gas from escaping cleanly. So, by the time it hits the ground wherever it has decided to park itself, the thing still has enough gas inside to become a roaring inferno; and, like I said, the temperature is immense, when you're close to it. Just Hell, in fact."
"Everyone, quite rightly, was running in all directions tryin' to escape the dam' thing as it came down." Jane interposed here again. "You couldn't foresee what it was gon'na do, not bein' restrained by its main cable anymore. But eventually it fell, in a roaring ball of flame, to the side of the runway where you can still see the burnt grass an' ground."
"At the end no-one was caught, or burnt, by it, thankfully." Crawford pursed her lips in an expression of vast relief. "Then, while we were all running around like headless chickens the anti-aircraft gun, at the north end of the runway, burst into life, firing like there was no tomorrow, and life became seriously hazardous—more so, even, than before."
All this time Gabrielle had been taking down these details in a large notebook resting on her knee, while Ricky sat listening avidly to the unfolding drama. Now Ricky thought it time to ask several questions which seemed important to her.
"So it wasn't a Jerry airplane, then?" She ran a hand through her long black hair. "You, Flight-Officer Crawford, and Sergeant Bentham too, both seem t'think it was a missile. What kind of a missile? Something launched from a plane, maybe? An' how big could you estimate this thing t'have been?"
"We don't need to estimate, Flying-Officer Mathews." Crawford was sure of herself on this matter. "I've seen it personally, and Sergeant MacConnel measured it precisely. It's about twenty feet, maybe a trifle more, in length; about two feet in diameter; and has an overall, er, wingspan of around nine feet."
"Wingspan?" Gabrielle glanced up at this. "It had wings? So it is a sort of airplane?"
"No, nothing like." Crawford shook her head decisively. "It's been battered and broken up in crash-landing, but it's still in enough of one piece to show the general details and form. It's made up of two cylinders, with several small fins projecting all round at the rear, also halfway along, and near the tip. It seems to have two engines, one at the rear and another at the head, exhausting through pipes set between the highest row of fins. A dam' strange lookin' object, all round."
"And Sergeant MacConnel seems t'think it's a bomb, too." Ricky wanted clarity on this aspect, seeing she and Gabrielle were going to have to visit it shortly.
"He's certain." Crawford nodded. "Not at the tip, as you'd expect, but set back on the main body of the front cylinder. There seems to be an engine at the extreme tip of the thing, firing backwards, of course. Altogether an extremely complex unit, I'd say. Maybe too complex."
"And the bomb?" Ricky insisted in a quiet tone.
"Well, MacConnel made short shrift, after finding the dam' thing, of recognising the explosive element; if I may refer to it as such." Crawford, in her anxiety to cover the details, now sounded almost like a lecturer. "A pressure trigger in the nose, and a mass of explosive in the front cylinder, behind the engine there. He says he's disarmed the front impact trigger; but is still unsure whether there's any other form of trigger device inside. So, when you go there, I'd stand well back, if I were you."
"Hmm, well, as t'that, what I and Flying-Officer Mathews want is a vehicle to run us out to the crash site." Gabrielle returned to the pages of her notebook. "We need to examine the, umm, object as soon as possible."
"Well, well, there's plenty of Tillys sitting about doing nothing." Flight-Officer Crawford continued looking glum, as she and her companion rose. "Take one of those. Sergeant Bentham'll give you a set of keys. You need a guide, to show the way?"
"We have maps." Gabrielle nodded, as they all walked over to the office door. "And you've explained where the site is; so we should find it OK. There's only one main road, with a few offshoots, on the island, anyway. Thank you."
The Tilly ran smoothly, or as smoothly as an unsurfaced road would allow, as they headed north.
"If this dam' track ain't tarmac'd, I don't suppose any other farmtrack round here is either." Ricky grunted as she fought the wide wheel of the small pick-up. "Feel as if we've slid back in history—about two hundred years. God, the Romans could'a made a better job o'this road."
There was a pause while Ricky wrestled with the Tilly as it bumped over the hard dry ruts; the subsequent joggling making conversation nearly impossible.
"Suppose we—G-dd-m—suppose we'll reach the crash site before the bloody axle gives up the ghost?" Ricky leant forward, breathing deeply as she gripped the jerking wheel.
After a particularly bad bump, during which Gabrielle's cap disappeared into the rear of the van, the air turned blue for several seconds from the reactions of both occupiers.
"Well, at least it ain't far." Gabrielle regained her breath, glanced back into the truck, thought better of searching for her lost headgear, and concentrated on the matter in hand. "Just over a mile, in fact. Then there's a lesser track, if anythin' can be lesser than what we're on now. Just past a place called Clestrain."
"Huh, same name as the area near Base J?"
"Yup." Gabrielle nodded wisely. "Lot's of generic names in the Orkneys. Gets sort'a confusing, sometimes. Oh-Oh, watch it, baby—here comes a Matador. What're we gon'na do?"
The question was not an idle one; AEC Matador artillery tractors or lorries, to give them their official title, were twenty feet long, seven feet wide, had tyres which were all of four feet high; the cabin towered well above head height, and the whole machine weighed over seven tons, unloaded. On a narrow, unsurfaced track with nowhere to pull over it presented a major problem; not least because, in a crisis, it could crush the approaching Tilly as if it were a tank going over an ant.
"Oh, sh-t." Ricky applied the brakes, bringing the van to a halt. "Who's gon'na back down from this?"
The two women watched the vast mass of the truck roar closer, till it filled their entire front view. It finally came to a halt with its heavy bumper and deeply-ridged front wheels a mere five feet away from the diminutive van. A uniformed soldier leaned out the window of the high cab to engage in a little good-humoured persiflage.
"Hoi, what're y'doin', driving about the roads in a toy car? Move over, there's nice."
"Does a Flying-Officer outrank a Private?" Gabrielle sounded less than convinced herself, as her black-haired companion leaned out the Tilly's side-window. "Be nice, like he says, for God's sake."
"You come from the crash site? We're goin' there to examine the thing." Ricky, as much as she could, imparted a note of discipline and capability into her voice. "We're the official investigators; who's in charge back there?"
"Ah well, as to that." The soldier, faced with some sort of higher rank, decided to retreat and fight another day. "Can't say anythin' about that, ma'am. Look, there's a field-gate twenty yards back. Why don't yer reverse into it; that'll give me room t'pass on. How's that?"
"Oh, b-gg-r." Ricky was frustrated, but could see the sense of the suggestion. "OK, give me a minute. Jesus, what a dam' day. Will ya look back and guide me, Gabs? Don't want a wheel goin' in the ditch."
"There ain't any ditch, but I get you're meanin'."
Gabrielle swivelled round in her seat, looking through the open back of the canvas-covered van and out the doorless rear. With a few sharp but clear directions she managed to help Ricky reverse, as requested, till they sat on the grass at the side of the road, leaving just enough room for the giant truck to go on its way.
"Thanks, leddies. Bye."
This parting remark came from the sky as the shadow of the massive machine passed the van, not allowing either Ricky nor Gabrielle time to reply in kind. A moment later the truck had vanished in the distance.
Back on the road Ricky had turned morose again.
"How far now?"
"Can't be more'n half a mile." Gabrielle wisely didn't refer to the recent incident. "Look, there's the off-turning to Clestrain farm. And, yeah, there's a couple of trucks in the distance—think we've made it, sister."
"Not bloody well before time." Ricky refused to be so easily cheered. "Here's the end o'the road; and the supposed track's only a piddlin' footpath, if that. Jeez."
"Well, at least we're here." Gabrielle took the utilitarian view, as Ricky dragged on the handbrake and they both clambered out. "Well, seems t'be a hive of activity—an' there, by God, it is. Jeesus!"
There were more soldiers and uniformed personnel, as well as a variety of vehicles, scattered about the crash site than either Ricky or Gabrielle had expected. Two other Tillys; another Matador, towering over every other vehicle present; and, to one side, a large red agricultural tractor with a group of women in the green jerseys and fawn riding breeches of the Women's Land Army. Altogether it made up what could reasonably be described as a large crowd. Thankfully there seemed to be a Lieutenant in charge, who now crossed to greet the new arrivals.
"Hallo, I've been told to expect you." He was tall, a couple of inches over Ricky, fair-haired, thin faced, exuding an air of eagerness to get the job done. "Lieutenant Brian Aldridge; this here's the remains, if you want to examine it? Better warn you Sergeant MacConnel is certain there's still some kind of triggering device as yet undiscovered within the body of the beast. But take a gander yourselves. I wouldn't go any closer than this at present, though. Twenty yards seems a fair safety margin; but still, if it goes up I expect we'll go along with it."
"There's a happy thought." Gabrielle was unimpressed, but turned her attention to the debris and wreckage lying at the head of a wide deep muddy scar of a trench that was some forty yards in length. "Seems t'have come down almost level."
"Yes, if it'd only had wheels and the ground had been smoother it'd have made a perfect landing." The Lieutenant suppressed a short laugh. "Sergeant MacConnel's been examining it, like a new-born babe, since he found the dam' thing. Hey, Sarn't."
On arrival at the group of officers Sergeant MacConnel turned out to be a Glaswegian of uncompromising earthiness. Just taller than Gabrielle, with short black hair, a square jaw, and a determined countenance which clearly stated hit me and I'll knock you into the end of next week.
"Yes ma'am, found it early in the mornin' just after the search had begun." He nodded as he recited the history of the occurrence. "With my, er, past experience I pretty soon figured it as a bloody flying bomb—"
"Flying bomb? That's a bit rich, ain't it?" Ricky was by no means convinced. "What's t'stop it bein' a conventional bomb?"
"Ah, there's a variety o'points, ma'am." Sergeant MacConnel was in no way put out. "Firstly, its earlier observed flight-path t'begin with; second, there's its fins. You'll see, on examination, it has what I believe could be called a plethora o'sich. Then you'll note its unconventional construction. Two engines, no less. One at the rear, as is only t'be expected; but another in the bows o'the weapon. Very unusual, that. Never seen sich before. Notice the exhaust outlets halfway along the forrard part of the fuselage; not t'mention another set o'fins. You see, ma'am?"
"Yeah, I see. Dam' strange lookin' device."
"Too right, ma'am." MacConnel was now in his element. "From what I've discovered I'd say it's actually in two distinct parts; the rear has the main engine—an' should, I'm thinkin', have broken away soon after launch—"
"But it's still here?" Gabrielle could see a church in daylight as well as the next person. "How d'you explain that, sergeant?"
"A ball's-up, ma'am. A plain honest t'God ball's-up; as you'd expect from bloody Jerry. Gettin' way above himself these days, Jerry is, ma'am. Anyways, although it may not be apparent t'untrained eyes there's a bloody cargo o'explosives in the forrard section, just behind the engine. I've neutralised the contact-trigger in the nose; but there's bound t'be somethin' in the body somewhere that'll be a second trigger—so I'm goin' awfu canny, as y'might expect. Probably around three hundred, maybe three hundred and fifty, pounds of explosive."
"What sort'a bang'll it make, if it goes off?" Gabrielle contemplated the important matter to hand.
"Well, ma'am." MacConnel surveyed his listeners with a professional air, decided they could stand the truth, so opened up. "If she blows she'll take out everything within a circumference o'two hundred yards. There won't be so much as a teaspoonful left o'any o'us, that's fer sure. Nor of any o'these here motors; just a few bent nuts an' bolts. She's a big lady, an' if she goes she's gon'na take the whole vicinity with her."
After this single terse reply Ricky stood silently gazing at the twisted metal which contained such terrifying destructive power.
"Dam' good job it came down here, then; an' not on some occupied area."
"But where did it come from?" Gabrielle shifted her feet uncomfortably, gazing from one to the other of her companions.
"A plane, ma'am." Sergeant MacConnel seemed convinced of this point. "From its size, an' likely fuel capacity, I'd say it couldn't fly more'n ten t'fifteen miles at best. Must'a been a plane launch."
"Hummph." Ricky regarded the sergeant, the wreckage across the field, and the group of soldiers standing around. "Well, what are we gon'na do about it? Can you defuse it, sergeant?"
"I can try, ma'am." MacConnel seemed more interested in the problem than any danger connected to the attempt. "Got my tools, an' a coupl'a volunteers. I'll need t'open up the main fuselage, find the explosive, then go from there. Might take some few hours."
"And if it goes off while you're workin' on it?" Gabrielle didn't like to think about this, but the thought seemed uppermost in everyone's mind.
"If so, ma'am, I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if they heard the bang down in Kirkwall." MacConnel shrugged his shoulders. "Anyways, there won't be any necessity for funerals for anyone within about quarter a mile o'the bloody thing—nothin' left, as I said before, y'see."
With this comprehensive ejaculation Gabrielle nodded and stepped back to let the sergeant return to his work.
Lieutenant Aldridge had gone across to talk to the group of Land Army women, standing by their tractor; so Ricky and Gabrielle walked a short distance over the rough ground to a point away from the majority of the spectators.
"Dam' strange set-up, don't y'think?" Ricky contemplated the sergeant as he once more stood by the main wreckage, bending over the fuselage of the monster bomb. "That guy's got guts, I'll give him that."
"Yeah, but if that thing buzzed past my nose one night I'd be pissed off about it, too; no wonder they called it a Harpy, suits the dam' thing." Gabrielle took a long look around the site, and the assembled military personnel; indicating the surrounding area with a wave of her arm.. "Soldiers, coupl'a RAF types; the Lieutenant; an' those Land Army girls. Tractors, Matadors, Tillys, an' someone's brought a big motorbike, over there. Quite a crowd. So, what's the next step? Anythin' here give you any ideas?"
"Ideas? About what?"
"Jeez, about what the Hell's goin' on, dearest. Do wake up."
"Huh! Don't look at me as if I have all the answers." Ricky sneered gently, with a slightly raised eyebrow. "Nuthin'. That's the full extent of my comprehension of events so far—nuthin'."
Back at their office on the airfield the women sat down to consider their next moves. They had stayed at the crash site for another hour but, there not seeming anything going forward necessitating their presence, they had taken themselves off to find some privacy. Gabrielle placed her now battered cap, newly dragged from the maelstrom of rubbish in the rear of their Tilly, on the desk and contemplated her partner with a beady eye.
"Harpies, or some kind'a Jerry flyin' bomb, buzzin' around the dark skies of Papa Westray; direct from Uncle Adolf; what does it all mean?"
"Why don't ya ask me t'explain the Theory of Relativity, while you're at it?" Ricky was in a sarcastic frame of mind. "I have no suggestions t'make about the whole affair. It's a mystery."
"Darling, John Dickson Carr's novel 'The Judas Window' is a mystery; but he had a final explanation for it, all the same." Gabrielle was taking no prisoners. "This, what we're involved in now, is a enigma."
"An. You said a—y'should'a said an."
"What? What? Are we talking about the same thing, or what? Shall I start again?"
A silence reigned undisturbed for a minute or two, as both women went over the details of the present scenario.
"Well, all we can hope for is to keep as tight a lid on whatever happens as possible." Gabrielle gave her partner the benefit of her lucubrations. "Try'n make everyone here on the island leave the dodgy details out'ta their official reports. We can pull rank an' official status for that, if need be. As it is, when the faintest sniff of Jerry producin' a secret weapon like this seems t'be, makes its way back t'bloody Group-Captain Graham in Somerset House he'll go bonkers for sure."
"Yeah, y'ain't wrong there, lady." Ricky nodded ruefully. "It's all too much like one o'those silly stories you were reading a month or two ago, in those American comic magazines y'filched from that Yankee airman."
"They were Science-Fiction stories; goin' by the magazine titles, anyway." Gabrielle happily admitted her complicity in the crime aforementioned. "Made great reading, mind you. H G Wells for the present times, y'know. You read 'em too, darling—don't try'n deny it, I saw you."
"Yeah, yeah, alright." Ricky sniffed coldly. "Graham'll definitely think our report smacks of madness, if we don't get any concrete results from examing the debris out on that dam' bog."
"Well, I think—"
A sharp rap on the door quickly followed by the entrance of Flight-Officer Crawford sealed Gabrielle's lips for the present. Both women turned to look at their visitor, who seemed somewhat flustered.
"Hello, sorry to barge in, but I was wondering how you'd gotten on." Crawford stood by the edge of the desk, staring at Ricky in particular. "I've been gettin' my ears assaulted by various telephone calls since you left for the crash site. From HQ in Kirkwall, for starters; but also, unbelievably, from the dam' War Department in London. How they got a whiff of the whole thing, I don't know—but some highly placed Major was whimpering down the wire about just what the details might be. I fobbed him off for the present; but I expect he'll be back on the blower pretty quickly. Any ideas about what I should tell him; or anyone else?"
Ricky sat up straight on her chair behind the desk and fixed the Flight-Officer coldly with her dark blue eyes.
"Right, first thing—we, that is, myself an' Flying-Officer Parker here, are in charge. In charge of everything—every aspect of this farce. That means no-one's to be told anything about anything, without our express authority. Got that?"
"Remember it. It may mean the difference between your being court-martialled, or not." Ricky leaned forward. "As far as we can ascertain what's happened here is the undue arrival of a new, unknown, type of Jerry bomb. How it got here; what accompanied its arrival; the, er, nature of the events immediately following its arrival;your involvement, that is; they are all top-secret, to be discussed with no-one. That's no-one, whatever their rank or authority. Follow me, Flight-Officer?"
"It doesn't matter who asks you," Gabrielle here entered the discussion, with as firm a tone as her partner. "whether they're sergeants, or Air Commodores; you keep your mouth shut on everything that happened out of the ordinary, unless they have just the best authorities you've ever seen, got that?. Only then can y'can talk about the bomb, an' all the physical details of its arrival, crash, and present position—but on no account should you launch out into gossip with anyone else; nothin' of that is to be reported to anyone lacking the strictest authority, for any reason—that is absolutely verboten, understand?"
Crawford stood undecided in point of fact, switching her gaze from one to the other of her unexpected visitors, clearly in two minds about the whole thing.
"You seem to be taking on rather a high degree of responsibility." She frowned worriedly. "Are you authorised—"
"We're authorised up to our eyeballs, Flight-Officer." Gabrielle reached into the top draw of the desk and produced their documents again. "Here, see the top sheet? The one from 'Personnel Movements, Military'? That's your actual top-brass, in London. The only higher authority is Churchill, an' I wouldn't put it past him t'be already cognisant of the general lay of the land surrounding these events. Satisfied? What we say goes, lady. It's as simple as that."
"T'put your mind at rest, Flight-Officer Crawford, let me be precise." Ricky stood, to make level eye contact with the officer. "We say what goes; an' what goes is t'forget the thing from the sky, generally speakin'. As far as your reports—or the reports of anyone else on the base—go, we're clamping down tight on that—our orders comin' straight from the top. When you've written your report—an' everyone else involved has done the same,—they'll come to us, Flying-Officer Parker an' I. We'll read 'em; authorise 'em; then send 'em on their way to the War Department. That's how it pans out—got that?"
Crawford nodded unhappily, then shrugged her shoulders.
"If that's the way you want it, that's how it'll be, I suppose." She looked once again from Ricky to Gabrielle. "This whole farrago's like nothing else I've ever encountered. I hardly know which way to turn, that's for sure."
"The way y'turn, lady, is the way we tell you to." Gabrielle tried to soften her words by the gentle tone she used. "Everything normal, y'can talk about t'your heart's content—everything not normal, meanin' this flyin'-bomb thingy, clam up about the whole shebang; an' make sure everyone else does, too. Make that your text for the coming weeks, OK?"
The door closed behind a very confused and clearly unhappy Flight-Officer, as Gabrielle and Ricky sat back at their desk.
"Well, what d'ya make of events at the moment, doll?"
"I think everything might well go t'Hell in a hand-barrow, ducks." Gabrielle sketched her view with clarity. "If the lid stays on this kettle o' fish for any appreciable time, I'll be surprised. Too many people involved, y'know. All these soldiers an' WAAF's an' whatnot; bound t'gossip informally, y'know. Somethin'll slip out eventually, I bet."
"Let's just hope that by the time it does it'll be so exaggerated an' unlikely that no-one'll believe it for a second." Ricky eased her shoulders, as she looked at her partner. "Stranger things have happened in this war already."
"But not many."
"Well, enough for people who come across unsubstantiated details t'take it all with a pinch o'salt." Ricky shuffled the assorted papers on the desk absent-mindedly. "Meanwhile—"
The ringing telephone on the desk interrupted her train of thought, as Gabrielle reached over to take the receiver off the cradle.
Ricky could only hear a muffled buzz as the person at the other end of the line broke into speech, followed by Gabrielle's reply.
"What? Bloody Hell, OK. Yeah, I got it. OK. Yeah, OK. We'll be there in a jiffy. Just keep the security border wide an' tight. OK, OK. G'bye."
Ricky raised an enquiring eyebrow as the blonde replaced the telephone.
"Yes, do share."
"Gim'me a chance, lover." Gabrielle smiled across at her interrogator. "Lieutenant Ferguson's just received a message by motorcycle courier, from the crash site."
"Oh, yeah. What's happened now?"
"Sergeant MacConnel's succeeded in disarming the bomb." Gabrielle showed white teeth in a wide grin. "Lieutenant Aldridge says everythin' in the garden's lovely, now; an' would we like to come an' view the mortal, now safe, remains?"
"Oh Hell, another run over that dammed track in the Tilly." Ricky attempted a weary sigh which didn't fool her partner for an instant. "You drive this time, I couldn't stand it twice in one day."
"God, whatever keeps you happy, mistress-of-my-heart. Come on, then."
The borrowed Tilly seemed to have a tighter suspension than their own vehicle back on the Mainland. The result being they were subjected to a series of bumps and thumps as the small pick-up clattered over the rough track. Ricky especially, because of her larger physique, found the journey in the confines of the driving-cab extremely uncomfortable. Not that Gabrielle drove at any great speed; such a thing being completely outside the bounds of credibility, taking into account the capacity of both the van and the supposed road it was navigating. From the airfield to the crash site in the north of the tiny island was, thankfully, only a matter of one mile and a few extra hundred yards. The bomb itself lay in a peaty field on the rising ground close to the slopes of a small hill, some one hundred and fifty feet in height; though it was really more of an undulation in the level ground than an actual hill as such. But it was enough of an obstacle to mean the end of all attempts at an ongoing road; the only further highway, after the end of the road, being a light track hardly visible to the naked eye among the knee-high grass and heather.
The crowd round the beast had thinned out somewhat when the women finally arrived. Most of the Army soldiers had disappeared, leaving only the RAF Matador, one solitary Tilly, and the Land Army girls' tractor; which was now being slowly maneouvred into position close to the body of the crashed weapon. Lieutenant Aldridge was on hand to meet the investigators on their return.
"Hallo again, ladies." He wavered a hand near the edge of his cap in a cursory salute. "Sergeant MacConnel's done wonders."
"So we hear." Ricky stopped to luxuriate in a long stretch that eased her cramped muscles deliciously. "What's the situation now. What's the tractor up to?"
"Sergeant MacConnel took the innards o' the beast to bits as if he were working on a kid's Meccano set." Lieutenant Aldridge had obviously been mightily impressed. "Had it apart in no time. Then he fiddled with its vital organs, as you might say, for a while; finally sauntering over with a silvery metal wireless valve-like thing in his hand, grinning like a kid who's just been told the family's going to Blackpool for their summer holidays. 'That's it, sir.' He said. 'She won't do no harm now.' What a man. I'm putting him up for a medal, y'know. Damn well deserves it, too."
"That's great, I'll second you on that, Lieutenant." Gabrielle nodded in agreement as they all walked over the uneven ground. "So, it's all gone pretty easily, then?"
"More or less." Aldridge nodded happily. "The Land Girls, by the way, are going to drag it nearer the road. Sarn't MacConnel says it's quite safe; as long as we don't bump the forrard section too much. Three hundred and fifty pounds of explosives is still three hundred and fifty pounds of explosives, he says."
"Can't gainsay him on that." Ricky's tone was satirical, as they came up on the scene. "Ho! Those girls surely know how t'handle a tractor. Watch-out, Gabs."
The red-painted machine; a Massey-Harris 101 Senior, going by the emblazoned name on the side of the engine fairing, was one of the larger models of its kind. The body rose to nearly head-height; while the driver's seat, placed immediately between the giant deeply-grooved rear wheels with their wide top mudguards, allowed the operator to sit high above the spectators. The powerful engine roared as she increased or decreased revs, giving the thing the look of a Juggernaut rolling across the landscape. The other girls in attendance had expertly tied the now separated forward section of the bomb to the tractor's rear end with cables and long connecting-rods. The driver, a lanky blonde-haired twenty-year old with a set jaw and determined expression, heaved the tractor into motion and headed almost straight for the small group watching—they being in direct line with the nearby road. As the tractor gently hauled the bomb, now bereft of most of its curious projecting fins, across the uneven ground there were some nerve-jangling grindings and squeaks of metal scraping over loose stones. Everyone stepped aside to a safe distance—from the tractor, anyway, if not its still probably highly dangerous cargo.
"Is the other part—the aft end—OK too?" Gabrielle was still focussed on the important matters to hand.
"So I believe." Aldridge nodded, as the tractor ground to a halt by the roadside with its cargo. "Just a big engine, with fuel tank, so Sarn't MacConnel tells me. Nothing to worry about there. The fuel's long gone, y'see."
"Seems t'have been a mighty strange example of its breed." Xena cast a critical eye over the long battered fuselage of the remaining part of the bomb. "A dam' queer flying system, if ya ask me. All those dam' fins stickin' out everywhere—an' two engines? What were they thinkin'?"
"Don't ask me to try'n understand the way a Nazi thinks, ma'am." Aldridge snorted contemptuously. "A wholly aberrant outlook on society, that's clear to anyone of intelligence. They must'a thought they were onto something good; but obviously not. One up to us, I'd say; takin' everything together."
"Well, it took out two Barrage Balloons." Gabrielle always liked to quantify the physical facts. "Not counting all the anti-aircraft shells fired at it. What does a Barrage Balloon cost, anyway?"
"Haven't the faintest." Ricky shrugged her shoulders, as the trio stood by the edge of the shallow trench where the remains of the beast lay dormant before them. "Should think the cost of the gas t'fill 'em would be greater than the Balloon itself."
While Lieutenant Aldridge oversaw the uncoupling of the tractor from its strange cargo by the roadside Gabrielle had wandered back to the scene of the crash where the rear portion of the missile still lay, forlorn and buckled into strange shapes. Suddenly she bent down to examine a piece of the curved fuselage near one of the many fin-roots.
"Hey, Ricky, over here."
When her tall black-haired partner approached, stumbling over the tussocky heather, Gabrielle was kneeling by the side of the intruder's remains pulling some intervening long grass stalks away from the side of the wreckage.
"Look, see here?" The blonde pilot pointed at some stencilled words on the fuselage, now badly faded and partially erased. "Wha'd'ya think they say? Can't make 'em out myself."
"An' ya think I can?" Ricky sighed sadly. "If only I could impress ya, dearest, but I ain't a linguist. English is my native tongue, with some knowledge of the American dialect—but that's the extent of my capacity. If ya look a little more carefully y'll see it's German."
"Jeez, I knew that, woman, I ain't stupid." Gabrielle rose to her full height, dusting the dirt from her trouser-knees. "Only hoped you'd be able t'cast some light on it, that's all."
"Sorry t'disappoint my revered fans, darlin'. Well, let's try the Lieutenant; y'never know, he might speak the lingo."
"What makes you say that?" Gabrielle was dubious, eyeing her companion doubtfully.
"I feel it in my bones—trust me." Ricky turned to the road and let fly with a loud shout. "Lieutenant Aldridge! Over here, please."
The lanky young man came over the intervening twenty yards of uneven heathery ground as if born to the terrain, a wide grin of triumph creasing his features meanwhile.
"Damn glad we managed t'pull the dammed thing's teeth." He paused by the womens' side. "If it had gone off Sergeant MacConnel assures me the debris would'a easily bounced off people's heads on the airfield down the road. The Land Girls' have got the hang of it now; they'll soon have the mortal remains hauled onto an open-backed Matador, that should be arriving any minute, an' taken t'the airfield for preliminary evaluation. So, what can I do for you?"
"See those letters on the side o'the thing? Just there." Gabrielle pointed out the place of interest, just behind one of the fin-roots.
The Lieutenant crouched by the side of the broken machine, hitched his cap high on his forehead, and leant forward to peer closely at the faint words. Finally, after a minute's consideration, he placed his hands on his knees and pushed himself upright again.
"Well spotted, ma'am." He nodded as if in full possession of the relevant facts; then smiled ruefully at his waiting audience. "Not that I can read German—which, of course, is what that is,—but from what I can make out—it being pretty badly knocked about, y'know—I think there's a short Mark number there, with a word before it. Not much left t'read, but I think it says Rheintochter. But don't quote me on that,—I wouldn't put a heavy bet on it, not yet anyway."
"Rheintochter?" Ricky raised a dark eyebrow. "Rheinmaiden! Well, well."
"Name rings a faint bell." Gabrielle mused silently, brow furrowed in thought.
Ricky groaned soulfully, at this lack of musical knowledge.
"Who? What's he, whoever he is, got t'do with anything? Ouch!" Gabrielle bent to scratch the lower part of her left leg just below the knee where she was sure some evil little bug in the heather had attacked her, even through her standard-issue WD trousers.
"That opera. By wa'sis'name, y'know."
"Gods, er, Wagner, that's it." Ricky grinned in triumph. "German composer. Damn long operas; you-know-who loves 'em."
"Who?" Gabrielle stood tall and straight once again. "God, woman, wish y'd stop talkin' in riddles. Who?"
"Oh, him." The blonde nodded sagely, wiping a stray lock from her brow. "Why couldn't you just say so. Anyway, what's that got t'do with our present soggy predicament? You do realise the water in this boggy heather-ridden landscape has finally penetrated my boots, an' you are now lookin' at an officially fully pissed-off member of His Majesty's Forces. So, what next?"
"Well, I'm sure I don't know, darlin'." They were alone once more; Lieutenant Aldridge having wandered away again on a mission of his own, and the nearest Land Army girl or soldier being some thirty yards off. "Let me see, what would be most important t'the War effort right now? We steppin' up t'the Front Line an' doin' our duty by winnin' the War single-handedly, or findin' you a nice dry warm pair o'socks, then puttin' ya t'bed with a mug o'hot cocoa? You tell me."
"No need t'be so dam' snarky about it." Gabrielle lowered the corners of her mouth in mock gloom as they walked back to the broken track which gloried in the name of local road. "How the hell are they gon'na get a dam huge Matador up this trail, anyway? Those other two that were here earlier stayed on the road over there, remember? The ground's obviously too soft in this area."
"Y'know these army blokes, an answer for everything." Ricky snorted, wholly unmoved by the likely predicaments of the unsuspecting Army team. "I'd like t'see a Matador up to its axles in bog, though; gim'me a laugh."
"Y're a hard woman." Gabrielle shook her head as they finally rejoined the road, for what that was worth. "No sense o', what is it?—oh yes, empathy."
"Empathy? Never heard of it." The tall warrior stopped to look back down the pathetic apology for a road. "An' speakin' o'the devil, here comes the truck. Look, it's broader than the dam' road, as it is. We'll hav'ta wait till it's come up before we can break for freedom."
Eventually the road was cleared, and the women took their Tilly back along the unmade lane in the direction of the airfield; leaving the Army to cope with the situation around the remains of the bomb as best they might. The last the airwomen saw was the Army men laying out long boards for their heavy truck to negotiate the soft ground over to where the wreckage lay; while the Land Girls, no whit put out by their unusual job, were busy running their powerful tractor backwards and forwards between the poor road and the crashed bomb itself—leaving deep furrows in the muddy boggy ground which would certainly only cause more trouble for the Army Matador. As the soldiers were rigging a large derrick over the mortal remains to facilitate matters, Ricky and Gabrielle made their escape in the borrowed Tilly.
"Good luck to 'em is what I say." Ricky, at the wheel of the bucking pick-up, growled low in her throat. "They're gon'na need it before they're through."
"Think y'can find your way back t'the airfield, lady?"
Ricky cast a sneering glance at her passsenger.
"Considerin' the road has no turn-off's—only the lanes leadin' to a few farms—an' at best is just short of a mile long, I think I can rest easy." Ricky bent over the wide thin steering-wheel, bouncing in her seat. "Dam' thing handles like a whale, mind you."
The road, for want of a better title, was slightly winding; going downhill at a low angle. The island itself was so flat and barren everywhere, that the women could already see in the distance ahead of them the buildings of the airfield with, on their port side, the Holm of Westray; the even smaller, even less significant, offspring islet of Papa Westray; while ahead on their starboard side the northern tip of the main island of Westray itself could be seen across the intervening small stretch of white-capped sea. But, short as it was, their journey still had some surprises in store for the airwomen.
Rrrch! Rr-rrrch! Rrr-rrch!
"Goddam! What the hell's wrong with the bloody engine now?"
For all Ricky's persuasion the engine took no notice; giving up the ghost a few yards further on. There was no farm nearby; only an expanse of empty fields and moor fading away on either side to the flat pebbly beaches bordering each side of the island, which was only around half a mile wide at this point.
"God, I can see our destination as clear as day." Gabrielle's tone held all the wistfulness of hope deferred. "Rather expected I wouldn't need t'tramp there, though. Any hope for the engine?"
"Jeez, gim'me a chance. I ain't a magician." The tall bulky New Zealander was still struggling to ease herself out of the confined driving compartment. "Eeugh! OK, gim'me a minute. But don't get comfy, I may want ya t'get out an' push in a minute."
"Some hope, ducks."
"Oh, sure thing, honey. I rely on you."
Ricky had the bonnet up, obscuring her passenger's view, and was leaning dangerously over the hot radiator of the light pick-up making metallic noises with the spanner she had retrieved from the driving-cab floor, at the foot of the steering-wheel which was its usual home. Gabrielle took the opportunity to sit back and breathe deeply the cool fresh air. She almost thought of dozing, but her mind felt this was too much of a guilty pleasure to allow her to. Instead, idly glancing out her side window, on the left of the compartment, she suddenly sat forward with an intent look in her soft green eyes.
"Ricky, open y'ears. Look, over there."
"What did you say? Speak up." Gabrielle leaned her head out the open side-window. "Ricky, buck up woman, are y'there?"
"Aa-uuch! Dammit, y'made me hit m'head on the dam' bonnet." An irate dark-haired head appeared round the side of the raised bonnet. "Wha'd'ya want, an' it better be bloody good, woman!"
"Ricky look, over to my left." Gabrielle suddenly found it imperative to give exact geographical positions. "That's to your right. Look, t'my left. Can y'see it, on your right, dear? I'm lookin' t'my left. Well, it's as plain as daylight—see it, on your right?"
"Jee-sus, if I knew which bloody direction t'look, I'd bloody look." The gloom-ridden mechanic stood straight, putting both hands to the small of her back to ease a strained muscle there. "What? What the hell is it? Wha'd'ya want now; can't y'see I'm busy?"
"We got company." Gabrielle lowered her voice dramatically, as if anxious not to make their presence felt even at long range. "Over there, t'my left. See, about two fields away, up in the sky low down?"
Ricky, deciding to humour her passenger, pushed her cap back, raised a hand to shield her eyes, and looked in the general direction of Gabrielle's pointing hand.
"Yeah, well, there's something up there, right enough." Ricky allowed the formal fact, without going so far as to embrace the situation. "Seems a little misty over there; funny, considerin' the bright weather. Must be a local thing; meb'be one o'these local gals' Barrage Balloons, up'ta something secret—if such is possible. Anyway, what about it? Sure as hell ain't a dam' Jerry—what's t'hunt on this barren sandbank? An', anyway, if it was, it'd never have gotten through the local air defences; this is still close t'Scapa Flow, y'know."
Gabrielle had been taking an even closer view of the unknown flying object, and now put forward her own opinion.
"See those sort'a twinkling shafts of light, like sunlight reflectin' off metal? Bet it's another o'these bloody flyin'-bombs; I'll stake my ATA pension on it."
"Good Grief, that's some imagination y'got there, baby." Ricky, still trying to bring the distant object into focus but, frustrated by the out-of-season mist partially obscuring it, gave her partner a quick glance instead. "Anyway, it's gone now, see? I'll hunt out an aspirin fer ya, when we return t'Base, shall I?"
Before Gabrielle could think of a suitable answer to this jibe a hooting horn, right next to them, brought the attention of both back to their present circumstances with a snap.
About ten feet from Ricky, on the small road coming up from the airfield, sat a three-ton Army lorry with its rounded bonnet facing her. Though not as large, heavy, or imposing as a Matador it still held the sceptre for impressive size, compared to the lowly light Tilly. The Army sergeant now leaning out the right side-window clearly had no time for the pathetic road user in his way.
"Come on, ladies, can't yer get that wreck out'ta the way. I got orders t' head on north, past yer, an' I'm on a schedule, y'know."
This was Ricky's department by right of choice and experience. She took her eyes from Gabrielle to lock them, in dark blue pools of dislike, on the sergeant and proceeded to savage him.
"Oh yeah, boyo? What about some respect here; we're Flying-Officers, y'know. As far as my short experience goes, that makes us warrant a salute an' some respect in this here Army." She licked her lower lip, and set-to with a vengeance. "I'm havin' some trouble here—if y'have such a thing as a wrench, a screwdriver, an' a length o'thin wire handy, I'd probably be inclined t'say no more about it. So, what?"
Five minutes later the Army truck had squeezed past and gone on its way to the bomb-site, to add its claim to the business of deconstruction going on there. Ricky and Gabrielle were once more seated, uncomfortably as usual, in the Tilly's cab, and the engine had sprung, reluctantly, into life again.
"It's gone, right enough."
"Who? What? Oh, that, umm, flyin' thing?"
"I looked as we got back in." Gabrielle cast a last glance out her window across the fields. "No sign of it; you was right, it's b-gg-red off. Still wonder what the hell it was, mind you; dam' silly time an' place for another Barrage Balloon; maybe something t'do with the secret stuff goin' on around here with these other dodgy military wallahs arsin' about all over the dam' island,—Oh, well. That light mist's gone, too, by the way. Must'a decided t'leave while we were enjoyin' the company o'those Army clowns."
"Exactly." Gabrielle nodded musingly, turning a jade tinted eye on her driver. "Its presence no longer a part of the visible terrain. I think the word I'm searchin' for is vanished, evaporated, dispersed—."
"F-ck me, what a dam'med day."
"So, what's the answer?"
"Why'd ya always look t'me for answers?" Ricky attempted an air of frustration. "What am I? Debrett? Whitaker's bloody Almanac? The Encyclopedia wha'sis'name? Who's dam' Wh—"
"Give over, darlin', you've lost, an' y'know it." Gabrielle, lying comfortably on her bunk in their cosy Nissen hut back in Camp J on Orkney Mainland by the soft and breezy shores of Scapa Flow, was in a thoughtful mood with her arms behind her head as she lay at Queenly ease. "What we got'ta figure out presently is just what Group-Captain Graham' is likely t'make o'this bloody flyin' Jerry bomb; an' whether whatever he does make of it will necessarily include us? What're the chances the first thing he does is look up our phone number?"
"Oh, the war'll be over soon; then we can skip out an' vanish. They'll never find us." Ricky taking what she saw as the pragmatic outlook on the situation. She turned, reaching out to put an arm over Gabrielle's bare chest where they lay comfortably together in the darkness of the night. "After all, the bloody War can't last forever, y'know."
"Har, let's dam' hope not, lover." Gabrielle only now waking up to what her paramour was stealthily up to. "An' just exactly what are those fingers doin', dearest? Only askin'."
"Merely explorin' the landscape, beautiful one." Ricky sniggered, as she leaned closer. "After all, as a navigator, I need t'keep my talents up t'scratch, don't I? Oh, look, there's a little round pond; and what's this?—why, a beautiful little valley; wonder what I'll find there? Think I'll explore—I like explorin'."
Another 'Mathews and Parker' story will arrive shortly.