'H M S Halcyon's Voyage'
By Phineas Redux
Summary:— This story is set in Great Britain in 1943. Flying Officers Claire 'Ricky' Mathews and Gabrielle Parker—lovers, pilots, and members of ATA, Air Transport Auxiliary, and the highly secret SOE, Special Operations Executive,—take a sea voyage in order to sink a U-boat.
Warning:— There is some light swearing in this tale.
HMS Halcyon, née SS 'Meg Dods', did in no way live up to its elegantly suggestive name. Originally built in 1912, it was a Clyde Coast turbine-steamer of some 800 tons. Its, now old, turbines gave it a top speed of 11 knots flat out. To say, though, it was in any way capable of projecting an aggressive stance towards the forces of Nazism would be to exaggerate its capabilities to the nth degree. It was, let us be truthful, entirely useless; both as a Navy vessel, and as a passenger steamer—having been saved from an imminent voyage to the scrapyard by the arrival of armed world conflict. As a logical consequence of which two months later it had become part of His Majesty's Navy; no-one could quite tell why, but there you are.
As another perfectly natural step in its juddering career, like so many other worn-out hulks, it had found its way to the windswept wastes that were Scapa Flow; for those not in the know, a wide bay situated at the top end of nowhere, otherwise known as the Orkney Islands. Here, after mooring at a small jetty in the harbour at Stromness, it had wasted away the last years of its life; having been instantly forgotten about by all concerned. This was in January, 1940; in October, 1943, someone, sharper than their immediate pencil-pushing companions, had recollected the old hulk and put its name forward as a floating blockship in one of the narrow channels leading into the Flow from the wild expanses of the North Sea and Atlantic. Even here, though, it was fated to fail miserably. Hardly had a fortnight gone by and the engines, probably unnecessarily, been refurbished,—as far as they could be, which wasn't very far—when the dread secretive hand of SOE reached out from the dark alleys of London to grasp it in their power. Instantly it became as if it had never existed; not a bad outcome, when you realise it continued to sit at its Stromness jetty unmoving and in full view of passers-by—but SOE has that effect both on things, and people.
SOE, down in the metropolis, had for some time been fielding grumbles from the War Office about the unhealthy presence of U-boats in the Western Approaches; the Southern Approaches; and the Northern Approaches. Having little influence on the former two, but as it happened, a great deal in the Northern area, it had finally decided to show its teeth, and demonstrate to the mandarins at the W.O. what they, the SOE, were capable of. So came to fruition the famed 'Halcyon' plan; in later years to be talked of in hushed revered tones, in smoking rooms of clubs the length and breadth of Pall Mall.
No-one to this day knows exactly where, or by whom, the great concept was first mooted. Some say one thing, and others something else; but the majority of opinion favoured that scintillating mind going under the alias of Group-Captain Albert Graham, as the onlie begetter of the act of genius so titled. And so we reach the day of judgement, Friday 15th October, 1943, and the start of the whole affair.
"What? What? What?" Gabrielle Parker was astounded, shocked, and pissed-off, in equal measure. "You have got'ta be bloody joking."
"Never more serious." Claire Mathews, Ricky to her friends, strengthened and backed-up in body and soul by the printed word, shook her head confidently. "Just decoded this message for ya, from the High Grand Panjandrum himself—"
"As you say, bloody Graham." Claire carefully avoided meeting the cold gaze of her lover as she looked down at the sheet of paper in her hand. "It reads as follows—Top Secret. PMM, Room 27. To Skylark—that's you—"
"I know who I am."
"Sorry, —from Big Red—"
"Will ya, for God's sake, stop bloody interrupting?"
"Sorry, do proceed. I'm all ears."
"Ha! —Instructions as follows, HMS Halcyon to be prepared with depth charges and aircraft catapult. To proceed into the Northern Approaches in search of U-boat wolf-pack, and there to destroy at will as many enemy boats as possible. Team K—that's—"
"Us, again. Yes, I know, do get on with it."
"I'm tryin', if ya'd only bloody let me." Claire glanced at her loved better half impatiently. "Right,—where was I, ah yes,—HMS Halcyon to be prepared as 'Q' ship; Team K's Walrus to carry depth charges and engage enemy at will and as required by circumstances. End message. Big Red. Well, there ya are."
Far from sputtering in rage and rending the atmosphere in the long narrow Nissen hut with foul expletives, an act of which she was perfectly capable, Gabrielle instead chose to take a long walk from one end of the hut to the other, before turning wrathfully to her waiting companion.
"I have never heard, in all my puff, of such a hare-brained scheme. Never, just never." She ran a hand through her short brunette locks, shaking her head unbelievingly. "So, from your message just now,—and that other report we received yesterday—it seems we have to take a Walrus on a clapped-out passenger steamer into the wastes of the Northern Atlantic; an' then wait patiently, on the rollin' billows—and, baby, y'can be sure they dam' well will be rollin',—until some U-boat, with a blind man as Captain, mistakes us for a real Navy ship an' tries t'torpedo us? Madness. Just madness. Madness."
"The boat'll be rebuilt as a 'Q' ship."
"How is that possible?" Gabrielle was not in the mood for taking prisoners. "How could it possibly be a 'Q' ship, with a bloody great catapult and Walrus standin' proud on its bow deck? 'Q' ships are supposed t'decoy unsuspecting Nazi's into thinking they're something entirely innocuous, like a fishing-boat, or broken-down un-armed cargo ship. How does a Walrus fit into that conception?"
"I admit there appear, at first glance, t'be some, er, slight difficulties involved; but all we can do is follow orders, Gabs." Claire shook her head, and then hunched her shoulders for good measure. "We're in uniform, y'know. Follow orders, or it's a visit t'the glasshouse—or, in the SOE's case, probably something far more permanent an' unrecorded. Anyway, it's not as if we haven't done anything similar before. Remember that last time we depth-charged a U-boat harassing a convoy?"
"Correct me if I'm wrong, dear heart, but as I recall we didn't hit anything that time—by a margin of something like quarter of a mile?"
A long slow silence descended on the shadows within the Nissen hut, as both parties mulled over the plan sent up from the masterminds in their bunker deep below the pavements of London. Finally Gabrielle faced the facts and tried to find some sanity amongst the folly.
"So, what is this about, really?" She glanced at the message now lying on the plain wooden table by Claire's hand. "Is this all because of a single U-boat; or is there a known pack out there; or is Graham merely trying t'find work for idle hands t'do?"
Claire sat gloomily on a straight-backed wooden chair, resting her chin in her hands, elbows on the table.
"Judging from yesterday's report, and the further message today, there was a pack of maybe five U-boats somewhere around 200 miles west of the Orkneys." She picked up the sheet of paper containing the gist of the message in question. "It attacked an incoming convoy from America, an' sank five boats. Then, a week later, another convoy suffered four losses, all big cargo ships. And a few days afterwards, a single ship heading in from America was sunk. Therefore, Group-Captain Graham's energetic response to the crisis—"
"Have us swan out into the vast ocean, an' hunt down the offender like Captain Ahab after the white whale?" Gabrielle was not impressed.
Another pregnant pause ensued, while both parties considered the facts in the case. The end result being that neither was very much impressed.
"What about sauntering over t' Stromness, an' passing a critical eye over the old hulk?"
"Seems like a plan, baby." Claire showed her agreement by peremptorily casting the message aside and rising to her feet. "Who's drivin' the Tilly?"
"I am, sister; I didn't scrape the side of that Matador last week, did I?"
"Accident, pure accident, dam' it."
The SS 'Meg Dods', in its fair youth, had been one of the jolliest fastest pleasure cruisers voyaging up and down the Clyde, and sometimes to further destinations still. It was 202 feet in length; 22 feet in the beam; its main deck sitting some 18 feet above the waterline. The bow was enormously long, as was the case with most of its sister steamers; this facilitating the use of a forward saloon, on top of which could be placed numerous benches for the comfort of the sight-seeing passengers. The high bridge was enclosed, clad with teak boards, and had a wide series of windows, with an open wing on either side. It had two propellers powered by two fuel-oil turbine engines, now sadly out of date. In its heyday, now long past, its two funnels had been pale green with mustard-yellow tops. The hull had originally been black, with white superstructure; but all this had been overlaid, at some now relatively distant point in its new career, by a coat of warship-grey which gave it a curiously flat silhouette. It exuded an air of genteel decay, flaking somewhat at the edges, which spoke of holiday resorts out of season, and empty pleasure piers closed till the next summer.
"God, what a sad sight."
"Carried its last passenger complement, that's for sure; or I ain't an old gunner's daughter."
"Har, d'you know what a gunner's daughter really is, lady?"
"Er, not really; but it sounds good." Gabrielle professed to be disinterested, as they both stood on the harbour-front at Stromness examining the abandoned ship. "Look, not a sign o'life anywhere. An' where, may I ask, is the bloody catapult?"
This last question was raised by the all too absent nature of the apparatus under discussion. Foredeck, with long windowed saloon; two-deck bridge and superstructure of cabins; and to the rear, the aftdeck, also with long fully windowed saloon. But of an aircraft catapult there was no sign.
"Um, fair point."
As they deliberated over this a shadow appeared inside the bridge, as of someone moving about. There was not much of him to see, from the waist up, but what there was sported the uniform of a naval captain. Two seconds later both women had made it across the somewhat delicate single-plank gangway connecting the ship to the quay and stood on the main deck; the superstructure a foot or two across the roofed passage-way. A little further forward was an invitingly open door; seconds later they stood in the enclosed bridge, having entered unrequested after knocking in form only. There were, in fact, three men present; one captain; one first lieutenant; and one warrant officer.
The captain eyed his unexpected guests up and down, then raised a quizzical eyebrow, though there was a faint twinkle in his eye.
"Hullo, how pleasant to have guests." He was in his early thirties, with black hair and a cultured soft accent. "I see by your uniforms you're flying-officers. That, coupled with my earlier briefing, would lead me, remarkably, to suppose you are pilots. Women, eh? Strange bed-fellows we have t'accept in times of war; if you'll pardon the expression, what? Any identification?"
After perusing the documents in question, along with Group-Captain Graham's radio message, the officer handed them back, satisfied.
"Captain John Maltravers, at your service." He turned to the other men with a gesture. "First Lieutenant Charles Archer, and Warrant Officer Kenneth Sanders. I expect you'll be wondering where your aircraft catapult is?"
"It crossed our minds t'ask, sir."
"Well, we intend t'take the old girl out for a voyage round to Kirkwall tomorrow," Captain Maltravers glanced at Warrant Officer Sanders, obviously doing duty as navigator and wheelsman. "by way of South Ronaldsay. Then after work to instal the said catapult at Kirkwall, along with a nice-sized naval gun and, er, other appurtenances, we can head off out onto the wide Sargasso Sea by way of Eynhallow Sound. Good, eh?"
Gabrielle was somewhat non-plussed by the man's attitude; wondering exactly how much was front, and how much foundation.
"You do know what we're being ordered t'do, sir?"
"I know exactly what our orders are, young lady." There had come a cold harsh note in his voice. "And I mean to see they are carried out to the letter. You'll both be part of the crew, my crew, when we head off t'pastures new; and I keep a tight ship, just so you know."
"Er, yes sir." Claire frowned darkly, but let the chilliness of this remark pass; after all, what else could she do. "So, er, when d'we really join the ship, then?"
"Another week should see us right." Captain Maltravers nodded and smiled, rather coldly. "Isn't that so, Archer?"
"Yessir, completion eight days from today."
"Well, there y'are." Maltravers nodded again, then turned to the rear of the bridge where the door to the chart-room stood. "Hope t'see you both in Kirkwall on, when is it, Archer?"
"Wednesday, seventh October, sir. Departure time ten-fifteen ack-emma."
"What a damned fraud." Gabrielle was incandescent with rage, as they both sat in the Tilly ten minutes later. "Who the hell does he think he is?"
"The ship's Captain, I fancy, dear."
"Oh, very funny." Gabrielle didn't feel like being caressed with a tender hand. "I know what he is. He's—"
The fact Claire had never, herself, heard some of the expressions which now filled the air was no surprise; she long knowing that her petite brunette lover had many skills, including in the grammatical line. But one great thing about swearing volubly and at length is the cheering calming feeling it brings in its wake; that sensation of a job well done, combined with a brighter happier outlook on the miserable world surrounding us. Gabrielle sighed, replete, and settled back in the driver's seat with folded arms accompanied by only a light scowl.
"Huh, a week t'fill." The brunette dynamo began to whistle tunelessly through gritted lips. "What'll we do till then? And as t'the Walrus, I bet they take 'K' for—for—what does K rhyme with?"
"Ricky, you need treatment." Gabrielle snorted coldly. "Anyway, that broken down bag o'loose rivets an' splintered struts. I bet it falls out'ta the sky immediately the bloody catapult launches the dam' thing. How's about we get Harris an' Cauldwell t'do a practice run off the ship, before leaving Kirkwall? Just t'see, y'know."
"Darlin', I know y'don't like either of those bozo's; but hoping they dump themselves in the briny, amongst the splintered wreckage of 'K' for—for—whatever, is taking distaste a little far, don't ya think?"
Back in the centre of operations of their small off-shoot of SOE—as well as being a comfortable and more secluded variation on the typical barrack-room—the ladies settled once more into the warmth and privacy of their own personal Nissen hut.
"Y'know, not enough is said in favour of these semi-derelict old hovels, Ricky."
"Oh yes? that's news; an' faint praise." The black-haired warrior snorted, as she divested herself of her sheepskin flying-jacket. "Thought y'despised the place?"
"Urr, not really." Gabrielle was ready to give approval where it was due; or perhaps she was just in a sloppy sentimental mood, for no good reason. "Somebody should make a statue t'old Nissen, whoever he was—I'm takin' it for granted he was a he, an' not some unworthily forgotten she—an' ring his praises t'the world. What a guy; what an invention; what a, er, house. Is a Nissen hut a house, Ricky? Or would it be proper t'just go on callin' it a hut? I don't think it's a hut, too bloody big; must be a house. Wha'd'you think?"
"I think it's nearly midday, an' what we both need is a visit t'the NAAFi. They're servin' cullen skink, followed by haggis, neeps, an' bashed tatties, t'day."
"Yippee, I love cullen skink." Gabrielle's attention having being so subtly drawn to the most important thing in life, food, she jumped from her chair renewed in body and soul. "Here, put your light uniform jacket on; it's in the wardrobe. I brushed it just last night; got'ta have you lookin' your best, y'know."
"God, it ain't a wedding we're goin' to." Claire however, opened the wardrobe and took out the object in question. "Yeah, does look pretty fair, thanks doll."
"One does one's best to help Modom keep up appearances."
The upper-class English accent Gabrielle essayed was so convincing Claire, laughing, nearly dropped her jacket on the dusty floor; only saving it by an athletic twist and grab.
"Come on, lover, lets go before the skink cools off." The New Zealander paused on her way to the door to glance at the petite brunette. "Does one deserve a kiss before leaving, or not. Only askin'."
Gabrielle stepped up to her tall dark-haired partner and, with expertise and no sense of wasted time, made quite clear that one did indeed deserve.
The weather had not changed for the better eight days later, or at all in fact, as the women stood on the quayside at Kirkwall Harbour, inspecting the finished product of the shipbuilders' skills. A fully armed and now war-ready HMS 'Halcyon' having risen gloriously from the ashes of the erstwhile SS 'Meg Dods' of esteemed memory. The long bow with its saloon, ahead of the high Bridge, had undergone some intensive changes. While the saloon partially remained, a large single-mounted 4.7 inch quick-firing Mark IX naval gun had appeared in position on the roof of the last forlorn third, just ahead of the Bridge. The rest of the original long saloon, where it had formerly stretched its length along the bow deck, had been brutally torn asunder and thrown to the four winds; in its place rising the anything but majestic bulk of the standard Navy-issue hydraulic aircraft catapult, accompanied to one side by the open-work spindly arm of a twenty-five foot crane. The remaining remnants of the saloon now acting as informal ammunition and equipment shed. These catapults at their best could never be called things of beauty, though certainly efficient; inexorably reminding many pilots who saw them for the first time of the Eiffel Tower. There was an under-level of steel girders in a roughly rectangular long skeletal shape, above which lay the rail on which the aircraft sat. The whole enterprise was fastened at its centre to a swivel point, to turn the long catapult outboard when needed; otherwise it sat pointing the length of the bow deck, the usual position for firing-off the aircraft of the moment. To the rear of the rail lay the sledge onto which the aircraft was locked. When the switch was thrown the pressurised hydraulic cylinders along the length of the rail were released, and the aircraft pushed along the rail at great speed. At the end the sled stopped with a jerk and the aircraft was thrown off into the air at, one fervently hoped, flying speed. It generally worked.
This operation was not carried out by the pilot or other crew-member, but by a team of sailors under the eye of a Navy lieutenant; the aircraft's crew being mere participating spectators of the event. Gabrielle, for she was the pilot for the first expected run, would have to have all her wits about her, though. The mighty Bristol Pegasus radial engine, pointing backwards above and behind the cockpit and beneath the top wing, would be firing at full power before launch; this necessitating the pilot to have a strong hand on the steering-wheel. This being necessary because the plane would certainly try to side-slip into the sea immediately on launch, the pilot needing to apply right rudder and lift immediately on launching in order to forestall this quaint tendency. The fact they would be taking-off from the relatively low freeboard of an old Clyde passenger steamer, instead of a larger Navy ship, didn't help matters. Being launched from a hydraulic catapult was never simply beer and skittles, by any means—as many had found to their cost in years gone by. So now both Claire and Gabrielle looked on this remarkable modern innovation with a jaundiced eye; not least because they knew they might be using the system several times over the next few weeks at sea.
"Oh God, well, I suppose we better go aboard an' report to his Grand High Majesty." Claire was not in a good mood, one of her two breakfast eggs having earlier proved, on trial, to be less than edible. "Come on."
Gabrielle followed her lover up the wide strong gangway which had been substituted for the original bedraggled affair. Aboard, they were met by Warrant Officer Sanders who had apparently been awaiting their arrival.
"Hello, ladies." He touched his cap-rim respectfully. "Captain Maltravers thought it'd be a good idea if you were shown to your quarters immediately. He's rather busy at the moment, what with imminent casting-off an' all. This way."
Sanders made little fuss about showing them their cabin, ushering them along a corridor on the lower deck and pointing out the door in question.
"Single cabin, upper an' lower bunks, room for a small table and a couple of chairs." He explained the lay-out while standing in the corridor, holding the door open. "One porthole, closed; an', if you go by my opinion, let it stay that way. Half a ton of Atlantic, hissing through like a gigantic fireman's hose when y'least expect it ain't somethin' t'hanker after. No ship's duties for you, so you're more or less on your own. Small wash-basin in the corner, there. Ablutions down the corridor, door with red nameplate; all locks fully functional. Meals in the ward-room, in the main superstructure up top. Luncheon at one pip-emma; don't be late, the Old Man don't like people bein' late. G'bye."
The women had brought along most of their worldly goods in a couple of canvas Army kit-bags, long rounded things which tied at the end with a cord. They were amazingly capacious and had been put to full use by the experienced ladies. Now they both gratefully threw these heavy objects on the floor and themselves sat, Claire on a straight-backed chair by the table and Gabrielle on the edge of the mattress of the lower bunk.
"Well, most important things first, bags I the top bunk, so there." Gabrielle grinned impishly at her companion, as if expecting opposition to this act of forestallment.
"Really? Oh well, if that's what ya want." Claire affected surprise, with a lifted eyebrow. "Should'a thought you'd have preferred the lower, but there's no accountin' for taste. Just means I'll be able t'fall into bed at a moment's notice, without needin' t'scale Mount Everest."
"Did you notice, as we came aboard?"
"Notice what?" Claire looked at the brunette, shifting comfortably on the lower bed. "The catapult, y'mean?"
"No, the Shagbat sittin' on it."
"Oh, yes. What about it?"
"It ain't 'K', for Kattle."
"Ain't it, I didn't notice." Claire pouted her lips. "I suppose that's a good omen, anyway."
"It's 'M', for Moira. I noticed." Gabrielle nodded wisely. "At least we know it won't fall apart, first time off the end of the catapult."
"Huh, come on girl, let's get ourselves sorted out. It'll take us t'lunch-time, an' I don't wan'na miss my grub, especially t'day. Here's your bag, catch."
The passage through Eynhallow Sound was uneventful, after which the rolling surge of the deep Atlantic caught the long thin ship in its grasp. The surface was almost calm this morning, so the bow cut through the deep green sea with a thin white wave either side of its sharp straight prow. Claire and Gabrielle came out on deck and spent some considerable time examining the general make-up of the complicated catapult; then climbed its girders to board the Walrus to make sure everything was working there. Although the lower wings showed the bomb-racks where depth-charges would later be fixed, these were at the moment empty. The Browning .303 machine-guns in waist and nose were in order and fully armed, and all controls in the cockpit seemed operational. Finally Gabrielle athletically climbed up past the bulk of the engine casing to clamber atop the top wing, where she examined the central fixing for the winch-cable which would haul them back onto the ship after landing on the sea nearby after each sortie. Everything seemingly in order, they spent the rest of the day going over their planned method for dealing with any unwary U-boat they might be lucky enough to surprise. Finally dinner-time arrived at 7.00pm when they ventured out from their cabin to head to the ward-room for the second time that day.
This was a long room on the port side of the central superstructure. It had apparently been rebuilt from a first-class saloon catering to the comforts of the original sightseeing passengers, and sported a line of square windows along its port side. A wide table took up the centre of the room, while a door at the aft end gave entrance to the corridor from the kitchen, or galley, from whence sailors acting as servants brought the various segments of the meal. Around the table were other sailors, in white jackets, taking the place of butler and servants again to hand round the plates and serve the diners.
These exalted persons were all the officers and warrant-officers, resplendent in their uniforms; the wrists of their jackets showing wide bands of either straight or wavy white lines depending on whether the recipient was in the proper Navy or the Royal Navy Reserve. This evening there were around nine men in total, of various ranks, Claire and Gabrielle being the only women. Both wore their ATA dark blue slacks and uniform jackets, with shoulder badges. Captain Maltravers sat at the head of the table, as the servants began handing round tureens of some kind of hot steaming soup.
"Ah, mulligatawny, my favourite." He beamed happily on the assembled group. "Well, as this is the first real meal of our voyage I suppose I'd better say a few words. This is an unusual patrol we're heading out on. And it's also an unusual ship we're crewing. An old Clyde steamer, I'm told; well, it takes all sorts, I'm sure. The engines aren't quite up to regular Navy standards, I don't mind admitting, but they'll do. A rather fine catapult's been placed forward, y'll have all already noticed, along with its occupant, a Walrus I believe. A nice handy 4.7 incher comfortably installed on the foredeck, above the remains of the bow saloon. And right at the stern, a depth-charge unit. Yes, we're as prepared as we possibly could be. Talking of the Walrus, perhaps this is a good point to introduce the crew of said bird. Flying-officers Mathews and Parker; both sturdy members of the Air Transport Auxilliary, as you see—sent here on special deployment from, er, other duties. So, let's dig in, before everything gets cold; carry on."
A murmur of general conversation arose all round as the meal got under way. Gabrielle sat to Claire's right-hand, both being placed halfway down the window side of the table. To Claire's left sat a Sub-Lieutenant, while to Gabrielle's right sat a Warrant-Officer she had not yet met.
"Hello, I'm Third-Lieutenant Hopkins, Graham Hopkins." The man was tall, fair-haired, square-faced and had an open relaxed attitude which gained Claire's approval immediately. "I'm in the Reserve, as you've no doubt noticed from these curled lines on my cuffs; the Wavy Navy, y'know."
"Just as good as the Regular Navy." Claire grinned back, liking the man's frank openness. "We're all in it together, after all. Has this crew come in a group from some other boat, d'ya know?"
"No, we've all been dragged in from various dark holes; I was in command of a signalling station on the flat featureless expanse of grass n'heather masquerading as Graemsay, in the middle of the Western Approaches to the Flow; one of those small white concrete towers y'see everywhere around Scapa." He laughed easily. "Rather cramped, but our quarters were comfortable enough; once you got used t'the drafts an' chill of a Nissen hut."
"God, don't talk t'me about bloody Nissens'." Claire chuckled softly. "Been livin' in one for the best part of a year."
"What d'you think of the old boat then?" Gabrielle, meanwhile, was making contact with her neighbour. "Bit past it, by the looks of things."
"Maybe, as far as passenger work's concerned." The Warrant-Officer nodded knowingly. "Everything showin' its age, certainly; but there's life in her yet. These steamers were built t'last, and have a reserve of power you'd be surprised at. Warrant-Officer Jenkins, by the way, John Jenkins."
"Gabrielle Parker; this here's my partner-in-toil Claire Mathews." Gabrielle smiled at the grey-haired stocky man. "Is that a Glasgow accent?"
"Yes, born in the Gorbals many years ago; an' lived there ever since."
"I'm a little uneducated as far as insignia go." Gabrielle glanced at the badges on Jenkins' sleeve. "Are you an engineer?"
"Well spotted." He nodded in return. "And do duty as armourer, too. I'll be looking after the depth-charge unit at the stern, and arming your Walrus with said objects, when required. Suppose we'll be seeing a lot of each other."
"Yeah, looks that way."
The rest of the meal passed off comfortably, then the servants cleared the table and withdrew leaving the officers in privacy. This was when they could let themselves go and discuss the more secret aspects of their combined business. Captain Maltravers, twiddling a tumbler of innocent water like a wineglass of port, was the first to break the ice.
"So, here we all are." He gazed round with a warm smile. "Lieutenant Archer's informed me we have just passed Sule Skerry and Sule Stack two miles on our port bow; so now the only thing between us and Newfoundland is open water."
"And a dam' lot of it too, sir." This from Lieutenant Hopkins, with a grin.
"Exactly." The Captain nodded. "Let's hope it stays as calm and smooth as it is now for our whole trip. Anybody have any questions about the situation?"
"Wondering how long we'll be out, sir?" This from Warrant-Officer Jenkins. "Food supplies; depth-charges; use of the Walrus, an' so on."
"It's basically set at a round three week patrol." Maltravers was obviously in full command of the details. "We've a plentiful supply of food and water; our armoury is fully-stocked; and the Walrus, well, that's somewhat hard to quantify. I give the pilots here, Miss Mathews and Miss Parker, full marks for efficiency and professional capability; but there remain the chances of mechanical failure; being shot down by the enemy; or simply ditching in the sea and not being able to recover the aircraft. All these things add up to a hazy element insofar as the aircraft operation goes."
"With the depth-charge unit you have on the aft deck, sir, and the gun for'rard you could still operate perfectly well, as a kind of corvette." Claire put this in for what it was worth.
"Yes, that's true." Maltravers agreed with all this, but remained doubtful. "It means a large area of uncertainty, all the same. And, of course, it depends on how many U-boats we come in contact with."
"Is it known there's a full U-boat pack operating in the area, sir?" Gabrielle found this topic of great personal interest. "We'd need to form our plans accordingly, if so."
"No, from the latest information supplied to me it seems there might have been a pack on the first attack; but since then it's dispersed, and the following attacks have been by either single, or at most two, U-boats."
There was a low mutter of conversation round the table, as everyone discused the finer points of this news.
"If the pack's broken up, sir, is there any real need for this rather intricate exercise of ours?" This from a Second-Lieutenant on the opposite side of the table from the two ATA officers.
"Well, in answer to that I have to give you all some hitherto secret information." Maltravers glanced around the table, where all eyes were on him. "Since the last convoy, when a single ship was sunk, the authorities have organised a further two large convoys. They'll be crossing from Newfoundland, and will be of around fifty vessels each. The first will arrive in the area we're now heading for in about two days; the second is scheduled for about a month later, when another Navy ship, or two, will be in attendance. Our job is to see the first convoy makes its way through the danger zone unscathed; or, at least, mostly so."
"Will there be time for us to have flying exercises, sir, to let us get accustomed to the situation?" Claire glanced up the table to the Captain, with a slight frown. "We'll need some time in the air, to sort things out."
"Not so much exercises, as real action, I'm afraid." Maltravers smiled back, with a light gesture of his right hand. "We'll need your eyes in the sky almost immediately; from tomorrow morning, in fact. I intend to use you to patrol in a wide semi-circle ahead of the ship, spotting for U-boats—either on the surface or submerged. You'll be armed with two depth-charges at all times, so if you see the Hun y'can engage at once, and the best of luck."
A hearty clapping of hands and a low cheer swept the table at this, and Claire and Gabrielle found themselves, rather embarrassingly, the apparent belles of the ball for a short time.
Back in their cabin after the meal had broken up Gabrielle, as she sat at the small table, was first to consider the pro's and con's of their new position.
"Maltravers seems t'have the whole thing pretty much sewn up to his satisfaction." She ran a hand through her short brunette locks. "Just leaves you an' me, sister, t'come up with the goods."
"Yep, looks that way." Claire sat on the edge of the lower bunk, leaning her arms on her thighs. "Suppose we better hope our luck at knocking Jerry on the head with a depth-charge has improved since the last time we tried."
"Hrrph, should bloody hope so." Gabrielle giggled lightly. "Anyway, not t'change the subject but see here? I've got this little radio we brought with us t'finally work. Plugged it into the ship's electric system; see the socket on the wall there?"
"I can see the cable y'connected it with, ducks. Dam' nearly fell over it when I came in the cabin; y'might have warned me."
"Sorry, but at least we'll be able t'listen to Fletcher Henderson and his orchestra; an' maybe dance together cheek to cheek, now and again. Just t'take the strain away, y'know. D'you think dancin' cheek t'cheek'll take the tension away, darlin'?"
"Don't know about you, partner, but it'll sure work for me."
The tensest period before taking-off via a catapult was not actually sitting waiting in the vibrating cockpit with the engine already roaring behind them, but climbing the steel struts of the catapult itself in order to reach and enter their plane. At this point the heavy complex framework of the catapult, with its coldly evil-looking cylinders and tubes, tended to unsettle the strongest of minds. But once in the cockpit, surrounded by well-known equipment and the need to follow a comprehensive series of pre-flight routines, they both settled back more or less comfortably.
Under each of the lower wings, firmly locked in their racks, hung a depth-charge. They were of the standard Mk7 variety, but with long casings and fins at the rear protected by a circular collar. To all intents and purposes very much like standard bombs, these examples weighed in at 450lbs each, with just under 300lbs of that being Torpex explosive.
Up in their cockpit, while Gabrielle busied herself with checks, Claire had time to ponder on the meaning of life.
"Remind me of the in's an' out's of these depth-charges, will ya?"
"The Mark Seven's?" The brunette was always a mine of information on technical matters, much more so than her companion. "They weigh a bloody enormous amount; God alone knows how the wings stand it. Around three hundred pounds of g-dd-m Torpex—an explosive you do not want close acquaintance with, doll. They have a tendency t'be somewhat delicately balanced; in early trials they used t'go off just because of the vibration of being launched from a catapult. Their other trick was blowing-up immediately on release from the aircraft, because of their pressure-triggers, y'see—unstable at certain heights. So we got'ta fly low, under five thousand feet; Hell, what am I sayin', under two thousand t'be absolutely safe. How's that grab you?"
"Yep, me too."
Another pause ensued while they both finished their checks; then Gabrielle glanced out her window at the sailors on the deck, seemingly an astonishingly long way below.
"Uh-oh, there's the ready signal." She settled herself in the pilot's seat, keeping her eye on the activity below. "Better clear for action. Brakes off; sled open; hydraulics engaged; ready to fire."
Here Gabrielle gave Claire a quick smile of encouragement; settled herself more firmly in her seat; grasped the steering column with white knuckles under her flying-gloves; and nodded sharply to the waiting sailor on the deck.
Without further warning there was a hiss, an enormous giant seemed to grab both women, forcing them back in their seats, there came a sense of gathering speed allied to an unwelcome rising sick sensation in the lower belly, then the end of the catapult rail disappeared, Gabrielle dragged the steering column over, the nose rose while Claire caught a glimpse of lines of rolling white-capped waves speeding away underneath them at far too close a range, then they were heading up into the sky, their first launch successfully accomplished.
"Good God. That's f-cking frightening."
"Ain't it just." Gabrielle's voice seemed perfectly relaxed and calm as she took firm control of the aircraft. "Soon be at fifteen-hundred feet. Don't wan'na go any higher—d'you wan'na go any higher, darlin'?"
"Bloody Hell, no."
"Right, the empty wastes of the North Atlantic Approaches, here we come."
For their first patrol it had been decided they should take the aircraft some thirty miles ahead of the ship then fly in a curve, going backwards and forwards; all the time making their way closer again to the ship. On completion of the patrol they would land as near the ship as possible, wait for its approach, then be winched by crane back on board. All perfectly in line with the ordinary Navy way in such circumstances.
The flight away from the grey slim ship, with its trailing band of oily black smoke, seemed to those in the Walrus like the last farewell to a loved friend. Ahead, through the windscreen, lay the barren emptiness of the ocean; this, from their high viewpoint, seemingly emptier and more waste than could be imagined. Gabrielle was busy just keeping control of the Walrus, its single Pegasus radial engine tending to pull the plane sideways if left to itself. Claire lowered her head and concentrated on her maps and notebooks, trying to keep a clear track of their position. Both, meanwhile attempting to find time amongst all this to actually look down at the grey lines of waves and white-caps in the hope of spotting a stray U-boat silly enough to be running on the surface.
"It's not ridiculous by any means, y'know, to find a U-boat on the surface." Gabrielle felt impelled to offer this fact some twenty minutes into their flight, when all sight of the old steamer behind them had long disappeared, even if they had been able to look backwards. "From what I garnered from an engineer officer at dinner yesterday they have to run on the surface to travel faster, charge their batteries, and use less fuel. Not to mention replenishing with fresh air."
"Yeah, well, the chance of seeing one in this vast nothingness is pretty slim." Claire looked across at her pilot with a gloomy expression. "I mean, what chance have we really of seeing a bloody U-boat? They're generally painted a dull grey, ain't they? Look down there; what's the colour of the sea? Yep, right. An' can you see more than six inches below the surface? No, neither can I. The only time we'll have any idea of where a U-boat is, is when it fires its dam' torpedoes."
"Well, that's what we're here for, dear heart." Gabrielle had obviously decided to take the positive view. "That's what our depth-charges are for. Just think of the joy you'll experience when you press the release button an' watch as a depth-charge bounces off the U-boat's foredeck."
"Humph, some chance." Claire preferred the morose outlook. "And talking of the bloody things, don't forget if we return with 'em unused they'll have to be dumped in the briny before landing. You heard Warrant-Officer Jenkins just before we clambered up the catapult; if we try t'land back at the ship with them Captain Maltravers'll keelhaul us without a trial."
"Yeah, I know."
Another hiatus in converse made itself felt as both women carried on with work at hand. Even such a straightforward task as plotting a course to and fro, then back to the ship took intense concentration; while Gabrielle's role as pilot was no sinecure, the physical wear and tear on her arm muscles being not inconsiderable. It was nearly an hour later, and they had started the long sweeps across the target zone when the next incident occurred.
"Hey, Gabs, I saw something; down there, a little t'starboard." Claire had sat up straight in her seat and pressed her head against the side window. "A white splash; a line of white spray. Might have been a periscope; in fact I'm bloody sure, it was a periscope wake—go lower."
"Lem'me bring the nose round." Gabrielle could tell by her partner's tone she was in earnest. "Right, here we go. Whereabouts? Oh, over there, right."
The plane lost height surprisingly quickly till they were cruising at around five hundred feet over the long lines of white-edged waves. These white-caps, in fact, making it difficult to spot something of more or less the same nature.
"Are you sure?"
"Yeah, it wasn't a wave." The New Zealander shook her head, leaning against the glass of her window, eyes intent on the surface. "Hey, look, there—d'ya see? There."
For an instant a line of white spray did appear on the grey broken surface, though looking much more like a short column of smoke than a line cutting through the water. Then a dark heavy streamlined silhouette made itself visible some way under the surface just where the spray had been observed by Claire.
"It's a whale, Ricky, a whale,—see the shape, under the water, there?"
"God. God Almighty." Claire leaned back, shaking her head in mixed disgust and amazement. "Would ya dam' well believe it."
Gabrielle took the Walrus back up in a low climb, glancing at her companion with a sly grin.
"Good job we didn't depth-charge it; that'd a been a bit of a mess."
"Don't, Gabs, don't."
"Only sayin',—often wondered what whale meat tastes like; we could'a landed, an' found out."
"Jeesus. Will ya fer Chr-st's sake just fly the bloody plane—grrr."
"We're nearly home—that's the Halcyon in the distance, now."
"So, next step—dump the dam' depth-charges, eh?"
"S'right, doll. Picked a nice spot yet?"
While Gabrielle flew the Walrus Claire, as co-pilot cum navigator and bomb-aimer, had the task of pressing the bomb release button—which was actually a couple of small switches on the dashboard in front of Gabrielle, but to Claire's side. The idea being that the pilot manoeuvred the plane over the target while the bomb-aimer, naturally, threw the switches at the appropriate moment. A task not by any means as easy as it sounds. The fact they were at the moment simply dispensing with now unwanted armament didn't really make it any easier, because of the necessity for the plane to be well out of the way when the charges went-off. It was, therefore, still a fraught delicate task requiring some concentration.
"Well, better not do it too near the old steamer, I suppose." Gabrielle gazed through the windscreen, searching for a suitable spot on the surface of the grey sea. "Just about here'll be as good as anywhere, I fancy. Ready?—go for it."
"What height are we?"
"A smidgin under twelve hundred."
"OK. Turn east, paralleling the ship; then just fly straight. OK—OK—OK, ready, ready,—Now."
With this Claire leaned forward, deftly flicked the two red-tipped switches together, then was thrown back in her seat as the sudden loss of the combined weight of the depth-charges let the plane soar upwards in a steep climb. It was not out of control, as Gabrielle had been expecting just this reaction; but she certainly had to hang onto the steering-column and exert all her strength, all the same. Finally the Walrus eased off and came back on a level path, much to the relief of both women.
"Any sign of action, down below?" Gabrielle was still too engaged with her controls and keeping the plane steady to take notice of anything outside. "Lem'me know if y'see the big splashes."
There ensued a rather lengthy wait while the plane flew in a wide circle to allow them to view the drop zone, with the steamer visible some four miles to their east. Finally, after it was all too obvious nothing was going to happen, Gabrielle took up the strains of critical opinion.
"Goddam it. Are y'tellin' me both the bloody things were duds? Both?"
"Looks that way, yeah." Claire snorted in disgust and shook her head. "Four and a half bloody hours huntin' U-boats; an' all the time, if we'd found one, we might as well have thrown Christmas crackers at 'em. Goddam."
"Simply one of those things, apparently." This from Captain Maltravers, standing on the bridge forty minutes later with the two airwomen by his side. "The Armourer tells me there's always a fair chance of duds in these circumstances. The pressure-triggers on the charges are, it seems, delicate flighty things. Shouldn't worry overmuch; probably won't happen again. I told the Armourer to take special care with the dam' things next time. That'll be tomorrow, by the way. So, you're both off-duty till then."
Back in their cabin a certain amount of frustration, if not downright vindictiveness, echoed in the small space as both women let off steam; but finally calm returned, almost.
"I'm aching in every limb; I'm tired as hell; an' all I've got t'look forward to is the same silly mess tomorrow." Gabrielle was unimpressed. "I wan'na go home."
"With ya there, babe." Claire sat on the edge of her bunk swinging her legs, while hunched over and cupping her chin in her hands. "But what can we do? Nothin', that's what."
"An' tomorrow's when we meet the incoming convoy." Gabrielle, sitting by the table, growled impotently. "Fine spectacle of ourselves we'll make, if we drop charges on a target an' dam' all happens—in front of fifty Yankee cargo an' Navy ships."
This point had already gained Claire's attention, when it had first been mooted up on the bridge; and she was still full of curiosity on the subject.
"I was sort'a wonderin' why we'd been thrown out t'sea in a beat-up old wreck, without any kind'a accompaniment—corvettes, y'know, or destroyers; Hell, cruisers, why not. But nothing, just us. How many American Navy ships did Maltravers say would be accompanying the convoy?"
"Three corvettes and two destroyers." As usual Gabrielle had taken special note of all the details being bandied about, especially by the Captain. "The destroyers, apparently, have catapult aircraft of their own—one of them has two, would you believe, so Maltravers whispered in my ear when you were otherwise engaged tryin' t'work out how the binnacle operated."
"Huh! Dam' silly way to keep a compass." The dark-haired one attempted to look unconcerned. "So, that means there might be, let's see, us, two Yanks, and an extra Yank. That's, er,—"
"Four, darlin', four. For God's sake don't hurt your brain. I love you too much."
"Well, first things first, darlin' of my heart." Gabrielle rose to go over to the small table under the porthole. "Lets get this radio tuned up. Fletcher Henderson's broadcasting in about ten minutes. God, I feel like a good drink. Pity the ship only has raw rum aboard; stronger than the fuel we put in the Pegasus, too."
Sitting comfortably on the edge of her bunk Claire watched these preparations with interest.
"Tough luck. Shall I go along t'the galley an' make some cocoa?"
"Later." The brunette one knew what was important in life. "Right now I wan'na swing t'the rhythm; d'you wan'na swing t'the rhythm, gorgeous?"
This was the sort of question which hardly needed an answer. But Claire was up for it all the same.
"D'ya know, little one, I think I could manage t'swing my hips around somewhat. You'd have'ta help, of course. Yeah, that's the station, an' there the guy is. OK, gal, let's swing."
Another morning, another cargo of depth charges; although the latest couple had been given a stringent overhaul and examination by Warrant-Officer Jenkins and his team. As Claire and Gabrielle flew in their Walrus once more over the flat empty wastes of the North Atlantic they at least had the definitive assessment of the armourer ringing in their ears.
"Don't worry about those bloody bombs this trip, ladies. I've changed the triggers on both of 'em; an' I can safely guarantee any f-cking Jerry y'drop 'em on this time will have a dam' sore head as a result, an' no mistake."
They had been flying for some two hours more or less directly west from the old steamer now doing duty as a naval craft. This was the day they were supposed to meet the incoming convoy, escorted by the handful of American navy ships and planes. These latter having given Gabrielle some worrying moments over the last hours.
"D'you really think the charges'll go off this time?" Gabrielle, grimly holding the steering-column, was looking morosely out the windscreen. "And as to these supposed Yankee aircraft, d'you think they'll be able t'tell us from a Jerry plane? I mean, I don't wan'na be shot at by friendly forces, y'know."
Claire, as usual, was crouched in the small movable seat beside the pilot; cramped up against the right side of the cockpit trying to keep track of her navigation sums and maps.
"Yeah, I'm sure the dam' things'll go off alright." She made an inarticulate noise in her throat. "Dam' better, anyway, or I'll have words with somebody. Yankee planes? Don't worry, girl; they know what they're doin'. An' anyway, if they shoot at us; well, that gives us carte blanche t'shoot right back at 'em. An' don't think for a moment I wouldn't."
This remark, delivered in a bright breezy tone, only gave the brunette pilot even more to worry about, as she tried to unravel the knotted question of returning fire on a friendly power in time of war. The possible outcome, especially considering Claire's temper, hardly bore thinking about; so, finally, Gabrielle gave it up as a bad job and returned to trying to pinpoint the convoy, wherever the hell it was.
"Where the bloody hell is it?"
"What? The convoy? Somewhere out there, dear; we just can't quite see it, at the moment." Claire liking her little joke of a morning. "Bound t'be somewhere about now; after all, as far as I've calculated, the meeting-point is right underneath us as we speak, chum."
"Huh. Well, either the Yanks have taken the wrong turning; or you've lost the ability t'navigate a model boat across a pond." Gabrielle paused to snigger at this choice. "Heh, wonder which it is?"
"Darling, I could easily go off you, y'know." Claire's quiet loving tone, however, betrayed her. "Y'ain't the only brunette bombshell in the world, after all."
"No, but I'm the only one you love with all your soul, dear." Gabrielle pinpointed the heart of the matter. "Which, I have t'say, is reciprocated on my part, if not more so, so there."
Stuck in the confined space of the Walrus cockpit the situation was by no means a kissing one; but they made up for this by punching gloved fists together and grinning at each other, which seemed to make up for a lot.
"Hey, what's that on the horizon—ten o'clockish?"
"Can't see anythin'." Gabrielle craned her neck, looking purposefully through her side-window. "Nuthin' there; just a few clouds."
"No, right down on the sea." Claire snorted, with a shake of her head. "A boat, or boats. See the smoke trails?"
"Oh, ah, yeah, yes." Gabrielle tried to sound nonchalant. "Yip, looks like a flock o'ships, right enough. So, where's the mighty American Air Task Force? Can't see a dam' plane anywhere. We're alone up here, darlin'."
Claire settled back in her uncomfortable seat, after her scintillating act of observation. She took a quick glance ahead and through her own side-window; following this by leaning her head back to gaze intently through the all but completely glass roof of the Shagbat's cockpit. But nothing in the way of friendly Air Force units caught her eye.
"Huh. Must all be asleep. Or playin' poker in their canteen."
Gabrielle turned the biplane gently in the direction of the smudges of smoke on the sharply defined horizon; fiddling, meanwhile, with the switches that controlled the fuel mixture to the single powerful Pegasus engine above and behind them.
"I'd suggest goin' over an' buzzin' the leadin' ships." She turned her head towards her navigator. "But we're supposed t'keep up radio silence at all costs, aren't we? I'm scared they'd open up on us with pom-poms, or somethin' equally nasty."
"Yeah, probably right." Claire nodded, then struggled up to fold back her apology of a seat. "How's about I rescue the signal-lamp from the dross in the bow, an' try morsing 'em?"
"Worth a stab, go ahead." The pilot mused on this action for a few seconds, while her navigator swore foully as she tried to bend her large frame through the low arch to the bow and the forward gun-position. "D'you wan'na use the open gun-position? Or just come back here an' signal through the windscreen?"
"Back here, o'course." Claire's gruff reply sounded hollow as she disappeared from the pilot's sight. "I don't intend puttin' myself out more'n necessary, thank you very much,—Ouch. There ain't dam' room here t'swing yer arm, never mind a dam' cat."
After a somewhat distressing minute, during which the plane's pilot learned some entirely new and highly illustrative terms of endearment, Claire returned burdened with the heavy metal lamp.
"OK, sis, I'm ready. So, what's the password?"
"Password?" Gabrielle looked entirely non-plussed. "What password? Do we need a password t'contact the Yanks? First I heard o'it."
"Jeesus." Claire growled in despair, cuddling the lamp with its large round lens and operating handle on her lap. "There's got'ta be a password. We can't just open up without warnin' an' ask 'em how Roosevelt's doin', y'know. They'll be bound t'take offence."
The pilot scanned her instruments; took time out to make some minor adjustments on the various wheels and levers festooned on the side of the cockpit by her left arm; then finally, with a forlorn sigh, faced the problem.
"Nobody ever said anythin' t'me about bloody passwords." Gabrielle affected a tone of resentment at the low intelligence of others. "Not bloody Captain Graham; not bloody Captain Maltravers; not bloody any-bloody-body. Are y'quite sure we need a bloody password, Ricky?"
The harassed navigator glanced sadly at her pilot; arranged the heavy lamp more comfortably; and heaved a sigh.
"We're in the middle of a War, darlin', in case y'haven't yet noticed." Her voice was tinged with a gentle vibrato, all the same, which took all the sting out of her words. "If we try'n contact the Yanks anonymously they'll only take it as a great excuse t'practice with every anti-aircraft gun they own. What we need is a dam' passwo—wait a mo',—wait a mo'. Hold on there; didn't ol' Maltravers say somethin' this mornin' about the convoy bein' under Royal Navy regulations, when we make contact?"
"I, er, believe he did mutter somethin' like that, at brekker this mornin'. Or it might have been on some entirely different topic; I can't remember, I was butterin' an' marmaladin' my toast at the time."
"I can well believe it, darlin'." Claire made a defamatory noise, then bowed low to scuffle around at her feet where several log-books lay haphazardly in their usual positions. "If so, about bein' under RN command, I mean, that'll also mean they have the up t'date RN daily code-book."
"Oh, I see. Why didn't I think o'that?"
For a fraction of a dangerous second it looked as if Claire, caught up in the thrill of the moment, was actually going to tell her hair-trigger tempered partner the answer to this question. But the moment passed safely and the danger was allayed.
"Here we are, knew I threw it in when we clambered aboard." The navigator sniffed repulsively and buckled down to finding the page with the day's code. "Got it, here it is—'Black Bottom'."
"Black Bottom, sure as eggs is eggs." Claire refuted criticism unceremoniously. "Suppose the brasshats in Whitehall want the Yanks t'feel welcome an' at home—as much as y'can be, that is, in the middle o'the dam' Atlantic."
"Oh well, I'm only flyin' this heap o'scrap." Gabrielle raised her nose regally in the air. "You're the Lady with the Lamp, he-he. So go to it. Go on, I wan'na see how the Yanks react t'bein' hallooed with Black Bottom, of all things. How could anyone ever come up with a monicker like that, anyways?"
"It's the name of an old American dance, gal." Claire pursed her lips in a knowing smile of triumph at this piece of knowledge. "Y'know, like the Charleston, or the Lindy Hop, an' suchlike."
Disdaining to continue the pointless argument Claire instead sat forward; opened the side-window at her right elbow, and balanced the signal lamp carefully on the frame-edge. Taking one more glance at the Day-Code page, she hunched down behind the lamp making sure the lens was pointed at the leading ship—which was still not much more than a faint silhouette on the horizon, and might have been anything from a corvette, destroyer, oil-tanker, to a Liberty Ship—and started flashing out morse.
Both Gabrielle and Claire were competent at using morse code; but Claire was, much to her partner's chagrin, most competent. The message she now directed at the target in the hazy distance was relatively short—consisting simply of their call-sign, M for Moira, the day-code, and a short request to the ship to identify itself—and took only a few seconds to transmit; then she sat back, putting a gloved hand to her brow above her lowered goggles shielding her eyes as she gazed towards the horizon waiting for the answer.
In short order a remarkably bright spark of light started flashing far away in reply. Its message too was to the point, Claire muttering each word as she decoded it.
"Roger Black Bottom. Roger M for Moira. USS Danvers, DD-809 receiving. Please state mission terms. How far HMS Halcyon? Over."
"Not chatty, are they?" Gabbrielle turned the bow of the Shagbat slightly, bringing them more into line to intercept the approaching convoy; now any danger of an angry reception seemed to have been obviated. "Suppose Halcyon's about twenty miles behind us at the moment."
"I knew that, darlin'." Claire affected a superior attitude as she fiddled with the lamp. "I am the dam' navigator, after all. OK, let's give 'em the good news."
"Oh-Oh, we finally got company—look." Gabrielle nodded over to port as they flew over the first ship of the large spread-out convoy. "A bi-plane. Never seen that type before; wonder what it is."
"Who cares." Claire was more pragmatic. "It's got Yankee markings, that's all we need worry about. Just a single float under the hull, with out-riggers. Doesn't look very seaworthy, never mind airworthy. Bet it flies like a concrete block."
"Hah, y'know your worst feature lady; you're too outspoken." Gabrielle sniggered inside her flying-helmet. "Better not let the Yanks hear y'spoutin' things like that t'their faces. Oh look, they're wavin'. Go on, then."
"Listen miss, if ya think I'm gon'na waste my time wavin' like a gal at a party, think again." Claire carried on muttering below her breath; but faced with the obvious good intentions of the distant aircrew she finally relented, with a bad grace.
"There, that's nice." Gabrielle grinned, wholly unnoticed behind her face-mask. "Was that so hard? What's next, then?"
"Well, they seem t'have everything under control here." Claire had been examining the sky above the mass of ships now lying spread-out beneath them. "Look, there's another o'those curious biplanes, over t'starboard. I feel like a wallflower at a Ball. Suppose we should bid 'em a fond farewell, an' scoot for home. Bet Captain Maltravers'll be in ecstasies when he hears the good news."
"Jesus, God, Joseph, an' Mary."
"What? What's up? I don't see anythin'."
Claire squirmed in her tight seat, trying to spot whatever object had caught her pilot's attention.
"Down there, t'port. See it now?" Gabrielle inclined her head towards her navigator's side of the cockpit. "That dark shape on the surface—or just below it, I should say. A U-boat. At least, a sub, for sure."
"God, y're right. Bloody Hell. An' it's only, what, five miles away from the dam' convoy." Claire had now pin-pointed the grey outline under the water; the identification of which was beyond doubt. "Got'ta be a U-boat; can't be anythin' else. Right, I'm sendin' out a red flare or two—that should catch the convoy leaders' attention—"
"Then drop a smoke flare, quick."
"—yeah, for sure." Claire started hunting around in the tight cockpit, lifting the lid of a small container at her feet. "OK, smoke flares, red flares, flare-gun; right."
She opened the side-window by her elbow; stretched out her arm with the gun, and fired the first of the red flares. Then she leaned forward to flick the cover off a red switch on the panel in front of her.
"Arming depth-charges." She paused to glance at her pilot. "From now on we're live an' kickin', sister. Oh God."
"What? What? Jesus, answer me."
"We've just overflown our original target, right?" Xena's tone was unbelieving. "See, over there, about a mile away from the first sighting? Another."
"What? Where? It can't be; Jesus." Gabrielle leant forward, staring out the windscreen intently. "Josephine, it is. More flares—more reds, quick, baby."
"I'm on it, gim'me a chance."
A few seconds later another couple of bright crimson flares lit up the sky over the Shagbat as it flew at around 1800 feet over the grey sea. Gabrielle had turned the plane to once more head towards the convoy; but only in order to align her craft for the first attack run.
"Look, Ricky, two o'those Yank planes, comin' up fast. F-ck the lamp, get on the radio an' warn 'em. Frequency'll be our usual one. The subs won't hear, underwater."
Within less than a minute the location and description of the two enemy subs had been passed to the approaching American Seagulls. Because of their interconnecting flight-paths Gabrielle's Shagbat, at this moment flew directly between the two American planes; each about six hundred yards on either side of her—she heading, momentarily, straight back towards the first ships of the scattered convoy. It was at this juncture that Claire once more came up trumps in the observer line.
"Oh, God Almighty. Over t'your port side, Gabs, another U-boat. See the outline beneath the surface? There, see?"
"Got it. Jesus, Admiral Doenitz seems t'have sent his entire bloody fleet. More red flares, Claire. And t'Hell with radio silence—get on the blower an' warn the Danvers, an' those other planes, there's a goddam Pack waitin' directly ahead o'them."
Claire had hardly finished her first radio message—which was received with some consternation by the American destroyer—when the cockpit trembled to a passing shock-wave which made the loose debris in the cabin clatter and clang about.
"Was'sat?" Gabrielle twisted in her seat to look back over her shoulder. "Gods, a huge mountain o'white water. One o'the Yanks has started without us—dam'."
"Get a bead on the one underneath us, at the moment." Claire was leaning sideways staring intently through her side-window. "We're just about at optimum height; maybe glide in a coupl'a hundred lower? I've got my finger on the button. I'll drop one first; then we can estimate the result, an' come round for another before they have time t'dive t'any depth. Steady, steady."
Gabrielle, with gritted teeth and steely nerves, guided the unwieldy Shagbat on an almost straight flight-path; the shadow of the plane preceding them across the surface of the white-capped grey sea. Reaching the desired height she levelled out and gently ran the plane towards the silhouette just visible beneath the waves. Suddenly it was right beneath her bow; then disappeared under the plane; Claire gave a grunt, and flicked up the starboard-side red switch. Immediately there was a terrific jolt; the whole frame of the plane seemed to flex its body and contract again, accompanied by a multitude of ghastly cracks and grinding noises as various parts of the structure came under unexpected strain. The plane also lifted its starboard wings and took a violent swing to port; the Pegasus engine roaring with the pressure sustained on its workings.
Gabrielle was nearly caught off-guard. She had been expecting this result; but it was way more than she had bargained for this time. Leaning forward she gripped the wheel with taut muscles and used all her strength to regain control. Finally she pulled the machine on an even keel, nose pointing away from their target's position. To counter this she banked steeply to port again, just in time for the women to see a giant mountain of pure white water over a hundred feet high rise into the sky. She banked a little more to avoid flying directly over this evidence of the depth-charge's power.
"Gawd. Well, that one went off, an' no mistake." Claire was still shuffling around, trying to get a sighting of the water surface and the position of their prey for the second run. "Nice flyin', Gabs."
"Nice shootin', dear."
Just as Gabrielle banked the plane once more yet another great explosion of water appeared again, way over to starboard.
""The Yanks are still havin' fun." Claire grunted softly, her attention wholly taken up with scanning the surface below them. "There it is. I got it. Bank starboard a coupl'a degrees. We're too low, far too low for a safe drop. Oh Hell,—I'm gon'na let 'er go anyway, Gabs,—the only chance we'll have. When it goes, let the ol' Shagbat jump wherever she wants—just keep the gal's nose up, OK?"
"Yeah—I hope. All yours, babe."
The water immediately below them was still churning and boiling from the force of the earlier gigantic depth-charge explosion; but Gabrielle could still see the long slim grey outline of the undersea boat lurking below the surface. In fact, she thought after a few seconds, wasn't that part of the actual bow sticking out the water—with its trade-mark angled cable-cutting blade in evidence? Then Claire dropped the second and last depth-charge.
The Shagbat, obviously taking umbrage at this uncalled-for straining of its framework, rose this time to starboard; engine racing wildly; wings and fuselage shrieking in distress at the violence of the release from the huge weight of the depth-charge. Only barely attending to Claire's request, in managing to keep the plane's nose pointing up at the blue sky, and not down at the angry grey sea, Gabrielle had no other chance to observe the result of Claire's bomb-aiming skills. They couldn't even wait for the appearance of the wall of water this time, as they were heading upwards at an acute angle some way off to starboard of the dropping site. But suddenly the air all round quivered to an almighty pressure wave, as the depth-charge went off, throwing another mountain of North Atlantic real estate high into the air.
The Shagbat growled with pain; the unearthly screams of metallic joints taking more stress than they were ever designed to suffer, and the straining of wooden struts near breaking point echoing throughout its whole interior; the fuselage rocked wildly, bouncing the crew around like puppets; then it all setttled down once more; both women heaving identical sighs of relief together.
"Take her round again; let's see what happened."
Gabrielle obediently turned the biplane, its mighty Pegasus engine roaring like a pack of lions in hot pursuit of their breakfast. And when the cradle of their efforts swept back into view it provided a surprise for both women.
"Holy Balls o'Fire." Gabrielle was first to jump in with a response. "It's on the surface. By God, we brought it t'the surface. Look'it that."
Surrounded by a still boiling sea, now covered in a large and expanding oil-slick, the low deck of the evil-looking boat, only just visible above the waves, sat on the disturbed surface, the conning-tower rising like a cliff above. There was a forward gun on the exposed deck, but no-one manning it. Most of the activity seemed to be taking place around and near the conning-tower, where a group of figures could be seen working desperately at something.
"I think they're abandoning ship, Gabs." Claire pressed her forehead close to the side-window, intent on observing the minutest detail. "They ain't gon'na fire back at us. Look's like they're deploying a liferaft. Don't suppose we should strafe 'em, then?"
"Hell, no." Gabrielle's repy came instantly. "What'd y'wan'na do that for? No, leave 'em be; the Yanks are comin' up fast—see, the destroyer's only half a mile away now. They'll pick 'em all up."
"Those other Yanks, in their dinky seaplanes, are still stoogin' around over there." The black-haired navigator raised her eyes to inspect the scene across the choppy cold sea. "Doesn't look as if they had the same luck—no, wait a minute, yeah, see that debris on the surface? Jeez, looks like they sunk one, too."
"Can't see any sign of the boat itself, or survivors, though." Gabrielle had also switched her attention to the distant prospect. "Don't look as if their U-boat managed t'surface. That other Yank ship's comin' up fast over there, too. If there's any survivors, they'll pick 'em up. Well, looks like we did a good job, for once, between us—the Yanks, an' us, I mean."
"Yeah, makes a change, I got'ta admit." Claire pursed her lips beneath her face-mask, still only half-believing the success of their actions. "We're running low on fuel, by the way; suppose I better send the Yanks a goodbye message, an' we can head back t'the ol' Halcyon."
"Make it so, navigator."
"Huh, very regal."
On approaching HMS Halcyon just over an hour later it was a great relief to both women—particularly Gabrielle—not to suffer the agonising embarassment of off-loading another pair of dud depth-charges. Instead, the sea being relatively tranquil for the mid-Atlantic, she brought the stubby seaplane down as close to the ship as she thought wise; which was far too close, in her navigator's querulous opinion a few seconds after the deed was done.
"God, Gabs, why didn't ya just throw caution t'the bloody winds, an' land us right on the aft-deck? Any bloody closer, an' y'would'a succeeded."
"Quit whinin', gal; Mother knows best." Gabrielle was not for taking notice of mere passengers' complaints. "OK, slide the roof-panel back, climb out, an' get up on the top wing; the boys over there're champin' at the bit waitin' t'lower the hoistin'-cable. Go on, don't hang about. Look how much effort I spared you, bringin' the ol' Shagbat down nearly underneath the bloody crane itself—what more can a pilot do for her crew, I ask you?"
"Well, actin' with some sense o'sanity, springs t'mind."
But this carping quip went unheard by the cheerful pilot of the craft; Claire already standing on the lower wing above the cockpit, preparatory to using the rather basic hand and foothold spikes to climb one of the main engine-support spars. From there she could clamber dangerously over the front projection of the backward facing engine nacelle, trying not to burn her hands, even through her thick gloves, on the hot metal, and from there struggle over the slightly over-hanging leading edge of the top wing. Stopping grumbling to concentrate on her efforts Claire finally made it to the top wing; but the danger here was not over, but only just starting. The hugely powerful Pegasus radial engine was still revving at full-power. The blades a near-invisible circle of shimmering possible death to the unwary. It was true the mass of the engine, and the exposed cylinders, was under the level of the top wing; but the top circle of the revolving propeller arced above the wing, to about Claire's knee-height. One unwary slip and she would find herself sliding down the slightly inclined surface towards what was effectively a huge slicing saw. Claire, of course, had no intention of letting this happen; so began the work of opening, with infinite care and attention, the slot on the top-wing where the ring for the hoist-cable was secured.
The cable came down from the shipboard crane; those aboard watching carefully to see it didn't foul the revolving propeller; Claire half crouched, one arm and hand down holding onto the ringbolt on the wing; the other raised ready to grab the cable hook at the first opportunity. As always, even in a relatively calm sea, the plane rocked up and down in what always seemed to the nervous navigator a wholly unnecessary manner; but finally the cable came within her reach and, with a swiftness and accuracy born of experience, she grabbed the end and brought it down to the fastening bolt on the wing, where she secured it in one fluid motion.
At this point an observer on the ship gave Gabrielle the pre-arranged signal and the pilot killed the engine; allowing an unexpectedly eerie silence to hang over the scene. Claire stood tall, holding the vertical cable tightly, while the crane did its duty. Within three minutes the Shagbat had been hoisted atop the low freeboard of the erstwhile pleasure steamer and settled once more on its cradle on the catapult. Claire released the cable from its fastening on the wing, and proceeded to clamber back down to the far firmer footing of the main fuselage and the lower wing. Gabrielle hoisted herself through the open glass sliding-panel, of which most of the cockpit roof consisted, to join her companion as they made their careful way together off the plane and catapult down to the solid comfort of the main deck.
"Terra-bloody-Firma, at last."
Gabrielle laughed quietly as she made her way, at Claire's obviously relieved side, along the deck towards the main superstructure.
"Yeah, ain't it just?" The brunette pilot swung her flying-cap in one hand while with the other she tried to bring some sense of order to her short ruffled hair. "Cap'n Maltravers'll be pleased, anyway."
"Bully fer him." Claire curled a less than satisfied lip. "Bet I can tell ya exactly what'll he say. Very good, very good; now, let's hope we have as much luck for the rest of the operation; just another four days, ladies. It's only barely midday yet, by the way; any chance o'you having time for another sortie, d'y suppose? Not an order, y'realise; no, no, just askin', as it were."
"Haargh. If he does, ducks, he'll dam' well find out just how those other captains felt, at the bloody Nore Mutiny." The pseudo-mutineer slapped her flying-cap against her sheepskin-padded flying-suited thigh with so much spirit she let out a yelp of pain nonetheless.
"Har, dis-satisfaction in the ranks?" Claire grinned lop-sidedly at her irate companion. "Don't the Military have rules an' regulations about that sort'a thing? Probably come down on us like a ton o'bricks."
"Huh, let 'em try; that's all I say, lover; let 'em dam' well try, an' see where it get's 'em."
Another 'Mathews and Parker' story will follow shortly.