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,—are given the task of photographing an important enemy position.
Warning:— There is some strong swearing in this story.
As navigator, Ricky had been given the odious task of photographer-in-chief for this mission; and it was not, she had early found, by any means a bed of roses. The fact she and Gabrielle were flying a Heinkel He 115 dual-engine monoplane seaplane, a small aircraft but one which they were, of course, unused to didn't help matters. A special bay, a metal box really with a hinged lid, had been fitted on the port outer flank of the fuselage just behind the forward quasi-cockpit with which these aircraft were fitted. By leaning forward in her seat in the extremely cramped single main cockpit Gabrielle could look out across the top of the glassed-in forward cockpit, and see the black square bulk of the camera unit just a couple of feet away on her port side; situated wherein, facing down through a wide glass screen, was a powerful camera rigged to take a series of large frames on monochrome film roll. The crew operating the camera also had no way of seeing whether the lens was aligned correctly for the target area, which left a lot to be desired; something that both Ricky and Gabrielle, neither having any experience in the photography line, were considerably put out about. But arguing with Group-Captain Graham, when he had one of his bees in his bonnet, was worse than useless, as they had found out to their chagrin when they had earlier put this point in a series of radio messages to their HQ in London. Graham's reply being all either woman had expected.
"Dammit, anyone can take a photo; it's all automated, anyway. All you need do is fly over the target, acting like Lords of the Manor in your dam' Heinkel; flick a switch; wait while the camera automatically—have I said this before?—takes a series of photos; then fly home. I'm giving the job to you purely as an easy ride; and was expecting, I have to say, rather more enthusiasm about the mission than I have received. Mission goes ahead. Out."
"No pleasing some." As Gabrielle had pertinently pointed out, before venomously throwing a dart at the board pinned up on the inside of the front door of their Nissen hut, and missing by three feet.
"How high d'we need t'fly?" Gabrielle, speaking through her mouthpiece intercom on this cold freezing morning of Tuesday 26th October 1943, was crouched over the Heinkel's angled steering-grip in the tiny confines of her cockpit gazing intently through the windscreen; though they were still over the North Sea with nothing but waves visible in every direction. "Should be crossing the Norwegian coast in less than five minutes."
On the equally cramped navigator's swivel-seat further along to the rear of the elongated glass-canopied crew compartment, though without internal access, Ricky was awash in maps, charts, and large pieces of paper covered in esoteric mathematical calculations.
"Yeah, that correlates with my findings." Ricky nodded absently, her mind elsewhere. "Wassat? Height? Lem'me see, the highest peak anywhere in Norway's about eight thousand feet; the majority of the really high mountains come in at an average six to seven and a half thousand feet; those around our target area are in the region of five to six and a half thousand feet. So, if ya stick to around ten thousand y'should be OK."
"Remember, you're the one who said it, baby."
"Right, steady up, lady; I can see high ground coming up on the horizon."
"Must be Langevag." Ricky consulted her notes and nodded affirmatively. "There's lots of islands and channels thereabouts. We'll hit the Borgundfjorden first; then, after a while, the Bomlafjorden. They're preliminary t'the much longer Hardangerfjord; it's the southern branch of that, the Sorfjorden, we're after: that's where our target area, Odda, lies—right at the southernmost tip, amongst a whole lot o' bloody mountains. But just stick t'the compass course I gave ya, an' ignore all the stuff below on the ground an' sea—it's too complicated t'explain."
"Take your word for it, lover." Gabrielle did indeed glance at her compass heading, but was reassured by its clear accuracy. "Right, gaining height to ten thousand; though I don't think we'll really need it. By the way, Ricky, what does 'höhenanzeige' mean, just askin'?"
"God, what am I, a Jerry dictionary?" Nevertheless the harassed navigator frowned over the problem. "er, I think—an' this is only a guess, mind—it probably means somethin' t'do with height. Altitude or somethin'. Say, are ya lookin' at the altimeter up there?"
"Well," Caught in the act the pilot could only fall back on the truth. "a dial which I fervently hope is said indicator, anyway. It's goin' up as we speak; though not by much. Hope that's a good sign."
"Yeah, better to be relatively near the ground, even if it is mountains." Ricky nodded to herself; approving her pilot's perspicacity. "Those dam' Focke Wulf's an' Messerschmitt's can pretty near reach the bloody stratosphere. How high can we make, if we need to?"
"Seventeen thousand's our top notch in this near antique crate, darling; an' that's pushing things." Gabrielle grunted, without much sign of humour. "Like you say, if we meet Jerry we go down, not up, for safety."
In a very few minutes they were flying over a mixed series of islands, lakes, winding fjords and channels; all surrounded by massive plateaus or individual mountains of varying heights and extent. A few villages and small towns could be seen, now and then, huddling on the coastal stretches of the varied fjords; but nothing in the way of large cities, the terrain being entirely unsuitable. Neither was the Heinkel bothered by anti-aircraft fire from anyone; the batteries probably being so far separated, and recognising only a common species of aircraft of their own, liberally plastered with large black and white crosses and menacing swastikas, that they simply took the easy course and let it fly on unhampered.
"Smooth ride so far."
"Wait'll we reach the target; then you'll change your tune." Ricky grunted mirthlessly, shuffling in her seat. "A fancy chemical plant at Odda; bound t'have an enormous anti-aircraft defence. Maybe dedicated fighters, too. Could get hairy."
"Cheer me up, why don't'cha." Gabrielle smiled mirthlessly in her lonely cockpit. "Look down there. That must be the plateau between Hardangerfjord, an' its offshoot Sorfjorden. Shouldn't be long till we have to change course to head south along the fjord. Odda's right at the far end, right?"
"Yep, sits on a sort'a strand of low ground between the end of the fjord an' a large separate lake south of it." Ricky had spent hours poring over her maps. "The fjord's in a deep valley; high mountain ridges on either side. It'd be too dicey flying low along the water. We wouldn't have a fair view of the general terrain, anyway, like that. Need lots of height, for a good set of wide-angle photos."
"That's another thing that gets me, darlin'." Gabrielle twisted her lips into something resembling a sneer. "Here we are, in the middle of a world war; crap flying in every direction, so to speak; and what kind'a camera do we have t'use t'spy on the dam' Krauts? A bloody Zeiss, that's what. What happened to our homegrown cameras? Or even Yankee ones? Where're they, eh?"
Ricky tried to shrug her shoulders, but found the heavy thick sheepskin jacket she wore defeated her aim.
"Requisitioned for other purposes, no doubt." She made a derisive face, though Gabrielle never saw it. "We're not the only people in dire need of a good camera at the moment, y'know."
Krak! Krak! Krak!
Three black puffs of smoke blossomed in front of the aircraft, about three hundred feet below them; the blast rocking the plane a few seconds later. Gabrielle twisted her steering-wheel in an iron grip, bringing the Heinkel back on the level.
"Bloody Hell, where'd they come from?"
Ricky leaned over, peering down through her side-window, but to no avail.
"Can't see a dam' thing." She sat back, fingering the radio-switch on her face-mask to connect with her pilot. "Must'a been an isolated gun position, somewhere. What the f-ck did they do that for? I don't think—I don't think,—no, they ain't gon'na shoot again. Drama over, thank God."
"Huh. That's worryin'; at least t'me." Gabrielle snorted contemptuously, shivering in her isolated position in the front of the plane. "What did they wan'na go an' unleash Sturm und Drang on us like that for? I mean, is there somethin' wrong with our identification markings, or what?"
"Ha. This dam' war's obviously been goin' on too long. You're beginnin' t'think in German."
"That'll be the day, baby." Gabrielle's voice, over the crackly intercom, sounded faraway and tinny. "But, all the same, what made 'em fire? If it's so obvious, that means every other dam' Nazi who comes across us'll have a go too, don't it?"
"Don't let it worry ya, darlin'." Ricky hurried to pour calming oil on her pilot's concerns. "Probably some young soldier, still wet behind the ears an' gettin' his aircraft recognition silhouettes mixed up. His sergeant's likely bawlin' him out as we speak."
"God, hope so."
Only the day before, the two women had made their first acquaintance with the enemy machine; but not on the protected waters of Scapa Flow, their normal field of operations.
"Too dangerous to bring a Heinkel He 115, with full Nazi markings, into the Flow." Group-Captain Graham, for once showing some sign of common-sense, had been adamant in his coded radio message. "Some bright spark would certainly try to shoot the bloody thing out'ta the sky—bound t'happen, no matter how strong an' pointed our warnings were. No, we'll have it transported, under Hurricane protection, believe it or not, to Lunna Ness, Shetland—the SOE HQ as, of course, you know. You can fly your Walrus up there and change over for the outward flight. It's a pretty small straightforward machine, so I'm informed; shouldn't take experts like you two more'n a few minutes to familiarise yourselves with it. Just, ha-ha, don't get caught flying over Norway in it. Even though you'll be wearing ordinary ATA uniforms, I'm sure the Nazis'll take offence and probably give you short shrift, as a result."
"How many runs are we gon'na make, when we reach the target area?"
"One, I should bloody well hope." Ricky registered her opinion in a deep growl; which, over the weak intercom, came through to Gabrielle's ears as a tinny echo. "One, we catch the Krauts with their pants round their ankles. Two, an' we get our asses shot at something awful. Three runs, an' I'm pretty sure y'can book your bed in the local Stalag Luft; always supposing your parachute opens properly, of course. And also supposin' they don't just stand us up against a brick wall an', y'know, start blastin'."
"Jeez, you're in a positive frame of mind t'day." Gabrielle scowled, though her tight-fitting flying-helmet hid most of it; registering her concern by nearly wrenching the intercom switch off her face-mask as she replied. "Get up on the wrong side o'the bed this mornin', did we?"
Before Ricky could reply to this the snow-covered plateau beneath the Heinkel's wings fell away suddenly to reveal the fjord beyond. The dark and gloomy sea-channel formed a deep valley, lined by high mountain ridges on either side. The Heinkel had come on it some halfway along its length, so now they would need to change course to reach their target.
"OK, this is it, darlin'." Ricky glanced at her chart, then out the side-window. "Best o'luck, an' the course is easy—bear t'starboard, an' follow that dam' fjord as far south as it goes. What's our altitude?"
"Nine thousand, three hundred. There's some patchy overcast cloud above us, around eleven, twelve thousand."
"Climb t'the full ten." Ricky glanced around, through her side windscreens. "Yeah, that should give us the height we need for the widest possible camera images. This camera we're haulin' has a fifty centimetre lens, so I'm told. That should give some sharp frames on the film spool. When we reach Odda remember t'keep the town on our port side. We want the western fjord coastal land between the town an' the rise of the mountainside; that's where the chemical factory spreads itself out. We only got one chance, remember."
"Jeez, so much rememberin'." Gabrielle spoke derisively, from her position far forward. "We're high enough, now; why shouldn't we come round for a second run, if we need'ta?"
Ricky had been absorbed in opening the safety cover of the camera-switch; which had been placed in her compartment beside her radio equipment, to take some of the strain from the pilot. Now she depressed her intercom switch, and snorted at Gabrielle's question.
"Because it'd be suicidal, baby." She clapped her gloved hands together, to gain some warmth in the chilly navigator's position. "They've got a small airfield not far away, usefully stocked with a particularly striking type of wild-flower, very much in bloom at the moment—Focke Wulf 190's, is I believe their scientific name. They don't have a nice scent, lover."
Although the Sorfjorden was long of its kind, the Heinkel's 170-180mph speed made short work of the intervening distance between their arrival point and the target, close by the small settlement of Odda at the end of the fjord.
"This bloody plane's not all that much faster than one of our Shagbat's, y'know."
"Well, you're the pilot." Ricky focussed on the natural reply to this grumble. "Put your foot down; or push the wheel forrard; or,—or, whatever y'do t'make this Nazi heap o'scrap go faster."
"I can't, that's what I'm tryin' t'tell you—if you'd only listen." Gabrielle rolled her green eyes despairingly. "This rattlin' garbage-can's only capable of, what?—a hundred and eighty odd. God, that's about as slow as an old Sopwith Camel."
"Ha. Doesn't say much for our poor ol' Shagbat, then."
"You can laugh; wait till a Focke Wulf starts biting at our tail."
"Don't tempt the Fates, darlin'." Ricky hunched her shoulders and settled lower in her seat. "That's just the sort'a defeatist talk that'll catch their attention."
"Good Grief. Just my luck. A Pagan for a navigator."
"Hrrph. Look, time t'wake up. That's the end of the loch ahead—an' there's Odda, that straggle of huts." Ricky was peering with a penetrating gaze through her side windscreen. "An' there, by God, is the chemical plant. D'ya see it? Just to the right, on the low ground past the settlement."
"Got it." Gabrielle glanced at her instruments and sat more firmly in her seat. "You on top of the camera switch?"
"Yeah. You bring the plane right over the plant, in a long straight flight-path, an' I'll set the camera running."
"God, it looks dark down there." Gabrielle glanced through her side-window. "Damn high mountains along both sides of the fjord. Don't think I'd like t'fly through at ground level."
"Yeah, not much room for comfort. An' the bloody great metal floats on this thing make it manoeuvre like a baskin' whale, as well." Ricky was busy staring down through her own window, gauging the correct point to start her camera. "We need this height t'grab a good wide view o'things, anyway. Wait for it—wait for—now!"
She flicked the red switch into the up position; immediately above it a small green light came on, and the operation was truly underway.
"Is it working?"
"As far as I can tell." Ricky nodded, twisting in her seat impatiently. "But this light only tells me the camera motor's going; though whether the lens is open, or the camera actually takin' photos, there's no way o'knowin'. Just hav'ta hope for the best."
"God, all this way; all this trouble an' danger, an' we won't know if we've been successful till we reach Shetland again—Jeez."
"Yep, Captain Graham sends us on some doozies, doesn't he?"
The plane flew on over the small settlement of Odda, sitting on a strand of flat ground at the end of the fjord; high mountains rising nearly vertically on either side, the valley only a kilometre or so wide. As Gabrielle had surmised, if they had flown the Heinkel at near ground level their chances of flying through the narrow confines would have been doubtful at best.
"Can't see the village; we've overflown the target area now." Gabrielle swiftly glanced through both side-windows as she kept the small plane level in the somewhat turbulent air close to the mountainous landscape below. "How's the camera holdin' up?"
"Just switched it off." Ricky leaned back from performing this operation, and heaved a long sigh. "Phew, can't say I'm sorry that's over."
"So, we ain't gon'na attempt another run—or go lower?"
"Dam' right we ain't." Ricky's strong views on this matter came to the fore. "An' if you do it'll be without me, babe. Just let me know, so I can push my canopy back, grab my 'chute, an' bid ya a fond farewell."
A few minutes later they had left the danger zone far behind, heading now more or less due south, trying to put as much distance between them and the scene of their clandestine photography as possible before changing direction to reach the Norwegian coast and open sea again.
"See anyone followin'?"
Gabrielle's voice was weak and faint, over the intercom, but Ricky shuffled around in her tight little compartment, some eight feet or so to the pilot's rear, searching the sky vigilantly through each of her side-windows.
"Nah, no-one on our tail; yet, anyway." Ricky, for all her bravado, sighed quietly in relief. "They must'a just thought we were a kosher Luftwaffe unit, bombin' along on some sort'a official business."
"Let's hope it stays that way till we reach the sea." Gabrielle, as usual, was concentrating on the safety features of the operation. "Those Hurricanes that're waitin' out there t'escort us home can't come too soon for me."
For perhaps another minute all was quiet in the elongated crew compartment, as both women went about their duties; Gabrielle keeping the machine on a steady southerly course; their heading directly west for Hardangerfjord having been rejected at the planning stage as too dangerous. The intention now being to eventually hit the more southerly Boknafjord and head west from there. Then disaster struck out of the blue.
Hrrkk!, Hrrkk!, Hrraarkk!
"Jesus! What the f-ck's that?"
From her position towards the rear of the fuselage crew compartment Ricky had a clear view of both engines; and it took only an instant to see the ragged puffs of smoke issuing from the nacelle of the port power unit.
"Port's gone belly-up." Gabrielle's voice was staccato and imbued with tension. "Fuel consumption gone t'Hell; revs gone through the floor; oil levels dropping like a bloody stone. Jeez, the automatic extinguishers might come on in a minute."
"Are we gon'—"
"We're gon'na have'ta land somewhere; an' I mean right now." Gabrielle's tone had taken on the hard clear tone of authority; necessitated by imminent danger. "Where are we, exactly?"
"We left Saudafjord behind some time ago; good job too, bound t'be a Nazi presence there, with boats, or even bloody planes." Ricky was studying her map with intense concentration. "We're just over-flyin' those big islands at the mouth of Sandsfjord; that's the main Boknafjord just comin' up now. Lot's a'islands dotted all over the place, as y'can see; but not much Jerry naval presence, I don't think. If we come down somewhere there—not too close t'any o'the islands—we might have time t'repair the engine an' get away again."
"Jeez, OK." Gabrielle's reply was short and to the point, as she wrestled with the now unstable aircraft. "Hope t'Hell there ain't any bloody E-boats waitin' for us down there."
The seaplane coasted down, nearing the surface at a speed which brought Ricky's heart into her mouth. The port engine was now coughing like an asthmatic cow, trailing a white mist behind it; the propeller unmoving after Gabrielle had wisely feathered it: they flying now with the sole help of the starboard engine.
At what seemed to Ricky the very last instant available Gabrielle brought the nose of the plane level; managed to stop the port wing from dropping; then settled the aircraft on the relatively smooth surface with no more than the usual amount of thumping banging and sheets of spray. She eased the plane along over the short waves, then cut the power; resulting in an eerie silence engulphing the craft as it sat rocking gently.
As a result of the planes' enormous metal floats, allied to the long strong spars which attached them to the main airframe, the seaplane sat high above the water on a level keel; which was a great help to the embattled women.
"Looks like we're around half a mile from the nearest island." Gabrielle sat back to examine her new surroundings. "God, looks like mainland in every direction—but I take it it's mostly a load'a islands; that right?"
"Yeah." Ricky was busy sliding back the glass canopy over her head; taking great gulps of the fresh salty air as the temperature instantly dropped in her compartment. "They've all got names; but we came down in too much of a hurry for me t'actually identify 'em precisely. Anyway, looks as if we have this stretch o'the fjord to ourselves, for the moment. What d'ya want me t'do?"
"You should find a small tool-box in the dinghy-stowage space in the port wing root, just an arm's-length outside your compartment. It's used for general odds and ends, too." Gabrielle then disconnected the intercom plug and slid back the canopy over her head, twisting in her seat to watch Ricky struggling out of her tight navigator's compartment a long way behind her. "There should be enough spanners and wrenches an' screwdrivers an' things for y'to have a go at seein' what's wrong with the bloody engine. I have a suspicion it's just a blocked fuel-line, near one of the cylinders. It might be obvious which one when y'have a look-see. Go to it—I'll keep the joint warm for you, baby."
After finding the requisite tools and grabbing as many as she thought useful and stuffing them in various of her large flying-suit pockets Ricky closed the flap of the large stowage-hold, the rescue dinghy in a tightly rolled up cover taking up most of the room therein, turning the clip tightly to make sure it didn't flip open in flight; then stood upright on the back of the airplane. She discovered, to her surprise, she was remarkably high above the surface, the water seeming a great way beneath her.
"Jeesus, we're nearly in the clouds here. Y'sure y'actually landed, Gabs? We ain't still gliding at three thousand feet, are we?"
"Idiot, get on with it; this ain't Scarborough Bay on Bank Holiday." By this time Gabrielle had fully slid back the canopy over her head and raised herself to stare across at the broken engine, and its hopeful saviour; smirking with intent the while. "Hey, lady, before you start perhaps y'better take this chance t'unload the camera film?"
"Jeez, ain't I got enough on my plate already?"
"Don't whine, it's demeaning." Gabrielle could be cold when required. "Look, here's the camera-container key. It fits in a slot on top o'the box. If you come over beside me here an' lean forward you'll reach it OK. Look, I'll grab your arm, just t'be on the safe side. The top of the case flips sideways, then y'simply pull the film canister up vertically—got that?"
Ricky carefully moved across the flat central wing-section to stand by her pilot's compartment; Gabrielle grabbed her right arm, and Ricky prudently—very very prudently—leaned forward till she could use the small key on the black case bolted to the outside of the fuselage some foot and a half forward of her present precarious position. All was as Gabrielle had described and within a minute Ricky had the canister under her arm and the camera's box closed once more.
"Suppose y'want me t'hang on t'this thing? Too easy for you just t'take it off me, eh? Yeah, thought so."
Ricky half walked half slid along the wet metal of the wing section, leaned over the navigator's compartment and dumped the circular canister on the empty seat; then turned again to the important part of her business.
The engines of the Heinkel were part of the inner main-frame section encompassing the fuselage and crew compartment. From the engines outwards the leading edges of the wings angled back to the tips; the trailing edges remaining straight from fuselage to wingtip. The engines partially protruded above the top of the wing in their rounded nacelles, necessitating the erstwhile mechanic to clamber onto the rounded hump as if riding a horse and slipping forwards towards the propellers and cylinders themselves.
"Try undoing that metal panel; see, just behind that row of small flaps projecting from the cowling—cooling gills, I think they're called." The blonde pilot added her three-farthings-worth of help to the stew. "That one especially, with all the black oil coating the wing behind it. God, it's made a right mess of my plane."
"Your plane?" Ricky was balanced precariously on the rounded body of the engine, and in no mood for light-hearted repartee. "That's rich. Just lem'me get on with it; I know what I'm doin'. This curved plate here, y'mean?—just behind the cowling? Is there anythin' helpful under it? It'll take a while t'undo these screws, if so."
"I think it's the maintenance-access for the engine. Y'll need t'get in there, if y'wan'na do any good." Gabrielle relayed the bad news helpfully. "The fuel lines, y'know."
"Y'might wan'na think about speedin' things along, too." Gabrielle judiciously sank lower in her seat as she spoke. "Those Hurricanes out over the North Sea only have a twenty minute window to wait for us, y'know. They can't stooge around forever, waitin' for us to show up. If we don't make it they'll swan off back home; an' then where'll we be? How'll that pan out? On our own; in a swastika an' black cross-encrusted Heinkel; tryin' t'make it back over British territory? An' nobody else knows about us, either; keep that in mind. I think—"
"Shut-up. Just, y'know, shut-up."
An icy silence prevailed over the next few minutes; Gabrielle sitting back in her seat keeping a beady eye out in all directions; still doubtful of the presence of German E-boats. While Ricky, gloves off and a rigid grin of effort contorting her features, struggled with the unfamiliar engine, muttering to herself the while.
"Jeez, what a day. Nuthin' ever bloody goes t'plan; are we both jinxed, or what? Yeah, o'course we are; look'it that Orkney thing a week or so ago. Dam' drama, just at the worst possible moment. What the Hell's this? Lem'me get it disconnected—there. Gabrielle, what's this?"
"B-gg-red if I know. Looks like the hot tap for a bath."
"Bloody wonderful, thanks awfully. We've been shot down by Focke Wulfs. We've been shot down by Messerschmitts. We've been—hallo, what's this? Dam' strange lookin' thing. Can't possibly be doin' anythin' useful; wonder if I ought'a put it back? Suppose so, more dam' work. Jeez, all this f-cking oil everywhere. G-dd-m, lost the dam' thing."
"Ricky, what was that, that just fell overboard? Y'haven't—"
"Nuthin' important, just a spare screw. Hope t'God she didn't see what it really was. Now then, this looks interestin'. This's gettin' t'the heart o'the matter; a section o'rubberised piping. Lem'me unscrew this nut; G-dd-m tight, dammit. Ah, there she goes. Yup, clogged with gunk. Gabs, I found it; this lines full'a shi—I mean it's clogged up somethin' awful."
"Well, don't just lie there catchin' some rays, unclog the bloody thing—time's a'wastin', y'know."
"Jeesus, y'd think we were married. How d'I unclog this? It's only about an inch wide, an' around two bloody feet long. Will this screwdriver slip in? Yeah, but doesn't do any bloody good. What else have I got that'd work? Oh dam', nuthin'. Sh-t! Gabs, how d'I—"
"Blow through it. Good Grief, d'I have'ta oversee everythin'? Uncouple the other end; take the opposite bolt off, an' blow through the pipe—that's how everyone else does it. God, it's not as if it's hard, or anythin'."
There was a pause, while Ricky struggled to prevent herself sliding to one side off the rounded and extremely oily engine casing. Having recovered her balance at the last possible moment she gripped the rounded hump of the engine tighter between her thighs and returned to cursing the world and all engines therein.
"I'm goin' off that woman, I am. Bloody blow through it, ha. As if she was a bloody engine expert. Last time she worked on the Pegasus on our Walrus she forgot t'replace one o'the cylinder tappet heads, an' the thing nearly blew up the next time Sergeant MacQuarrie tested it. Still think he harbours deep suspicions. Oowch."
"What? Somethin' wrong, dear?"
"Nah, just caught my thumb between the casing an' the—the—oh Hell, somethin' hard an' unforgivin'. God, its bleeding; that's all I need. Right, blow through it, she orders. Chr-st, d'I have to? Gabs—"
"Get a move on, Ricky. That's right, put one end in your mouth an' blow. An', for God's sake, don't suck. There's a time for blowin', an' there's a time for sucking—this ain't the time t'suck, lady—got that?"
"God, sounds just like that time, two nights ago, in bed. Wish she'd—oh, oh, what's goin' on now? Aargh, gunk everywhere; all over my flying-suit trousers. Jeez, that'll never come out in the wash. Gabs, it's all over my bloody trousers; what a horrible g-dd-m mess."
"Y'finally cleared it? Great. Now fix it back in place—an' make dam' sure y'refit all the dam' screws an' nuts an' bolts. I don't wan'na hear about anythin' bein' left over, got that, lady? An' get a shift on, fer God's sake."
Growling furiously under her breath, the ragged fingered mechanic lowered her head to the access panel, its curved wide-open lid hovering dangerously above her head, and buckled down to it. Finally, with one last hard twist, that made her hand slip off the oily spanner and scrape her knuckles on the inside of the engine casing, she sat up. Putting the tool back in one of the pockets of her now hopelessly dirtied flying-suit, she gently closed the hatch, refixed its retaining screws, and banged on the plate with her bunched hand to test its secureness; heaving a sigh of hard-earned relief.
"That's it, Gabs, all sorted. Y'can fire up the engine again, now. God, what am I sayin'? Hey, nix on that! Y'hear me? Don't switch on, for God's sake! I got'ta get off the bloody thing, first."
Thankfully, the Heinkel's pilot had common-sense enough to realise the problems associated with turning on a high-powered radial engine while the mechanic was still, so to speak, in situ. Ricky made it back to the crew compartment and tumbled into her navigator's seat with all the relief Columbus must have felt when America hove over the horizon; brushing the film canister unceremoniously aside in the process.
"Jeesus, don't ask me t'do that again." Ricky switched her face-mask intercom back on to report to her superior. "Y'can fire the bloody thing up now. Just go canny with it, at first, OK?"
Making an inarticulate and incomprehensible reply to this entreaty Gabrielle flicked a couple of switches, tapped defiantly on the face of a dial she fondly hoped showed the oil-pressure, and flicked the engine on-switch. There was a grinding of something curiously like gears sheering themselves flat; this changed to an intermittent rumble somewhere within the port engine nacelle, which eventually became a full-throated roar as the propeller began to turn. A waft of combined smoke, oil, and God-knows-what burst out the rear of the cowling in a blast of black smoke; then the engine caught smoothly as the oily fog dispersed, and the engine was running strongly and steadily again. Knowing a good chance when it offered, Gabrielle swiftly switched on the starboard engine, and in a few seconds she felt the plane respond as she turned the tail rudder to align the machine with the longest stretch of open water she could see.
"Nicely done, darling." The blonde pilot almost cackled through the intercom, overcome with a level of relief which sent her slightly doolally for a few seconds. "OK, hang on, this heap o'crap is now functioning once more. If passengers would kindly buckle-up, an' refrain from smokin' the while, we shall now take-off. Here we go—cross your fingers."
Ensconced on her loose-fitted swivel seat Ricky actually closed her eyes tightly, coming as close to praying as she had ever done in her life as the plane bucked and bumped its way over the water. The sound of the engines increased in depth and power as Gabrielle let them have a richer mixture; then the plane shuddered heavily once or twice before suddenly becoming quiet and smooth as they became airborne. They were up in the air once again.
"Oh, Thank Gawd for that." And Ricky meant every word.
They had hardly settled to the routine of flight once again before the next problem arose, from a clear and unsuspecting sky. Ricky was hunched over her charts in the confined space of her navigators compartment, while Gabrielle was engaged in trying to scratch an itch at the top of her left leg—a lost cause in a thick flying-suit, while also trying to decide which of two dials, with wildly diverse readings, was the poorly engine's fuel gauge. So the Focke Wulf 190 slipped in close on the Heinkel's port wingtip unnoticed 'til too late.
"Oh God, company."
"Sh-t." Ricky needed only a single glance to realise the seriousness of the situation. "Where the fu,—what's he doin'?"
"He ain't tryin' t'sell tickets to the Annual Krauts' Ball." Gabrielle sniffed imperiously behind her all-encompassing face-mask. "Well, at least he ain't shootin'; not yet, anyway. Do somethin', Ricky."
"D-!" The navigator was struck dumb by this naïve and downright unfair request. "What the Hell can I do? Get out on the wing an' dance the Carioca for him? What? Evade,—you're the bloody pilot. Take evasive action."
"An' get ourselves shot out'ta the sky?" Gabrielle could see the downside. "He's more'n twice as fast as us, an' he's got cannon—you got cannon, dear? Only askin'."
"I've got a dinky little 7.92 machine-gun, that'd probably give him a very nasty scratch, if I was fool enough to fire it." Ricky now proceeded to lose it bigtime, waving her gloved hand angrily at the evil-looking outline floating ominously close on the Heinkel's port side. "G-dd-m you, why'd ya pick on us? Ain't there enough other bloody planes in the sky? Couldn't ya find a Hurricane, or a Spitfire, or even a bloody Gladiator somewhere?"
"—'cos we're here, ducks, just us, nobody else." Gabrielle, listening to this diatribe over the intercom, put her moral tuppence-worth in for good measure. "So, what's the plan. We're still too low t'bale out, y'know."
"He's wavin' at me." Ricky, astonished at this unexpected turn-around, butted unceremoniously into her pilot's musings. "Glad he's so bloody happy. Here, wait a minute, he's veering off. Hey, he's bloody goin' away. Good God, why'd he do that? Yeah, he's really gone. Well, I'll be a Great Auk's grandmother."
"Must'a been your sparkling blue eyes, dear." Gabrielle herself was nearly unhinged with relief. "Prob'ly reminded him of the darlin' wife he's left behind—or somethin'. Anyway, we got the sky to ourselves again. Which way's home?"
The sea was its usual chill grey, with lines of short white-capped waves rolling in a southerly direction. From an altitude of eight thousand feet it presented a uniform vista of unrelieved gloom.
"Rendezvous point." Ricky relayed the bad news in equally downbeat tones. "An', as ya can easily see, no bloody Hurricanes. They've obviously got bored, an' sodded off back to Blighty without us."
"That's useful." The demoralised navigator became sarcastic. "Two years training as an ATA pilot; six months trainin' in the S—er, you know what; an' the result is?—Sh-t. Yep, that's helpful."
At this juncture the blonde pilot, not in any way overflowing with the milk of human kindness, switched her intercom off and growled a few choice phrases which, if overheard by her other half, would certainly have caused consternation and a gnashing of teeth in the ranks. Then she regained control of her feelings.
"Let's look at the situation logically, darlin' of my heart." Gabrielle spoke softly, having switched communications with her crew back on. "Firstly, we have around two hundred and fifty miles of open water to cross t'reach Shetland; which, in this Nazi heap, will take the best part of two hours. Then we have the danger of Jerry fighters intercepting us anywhere along that course; a fair likelihood, in fact. Thirdly, there are our own warships, of various types, swanning around in a miscellaneous an' dangerous manner down there on the water—it is the North Sea, y'know—none of which have the foggiest notion of who we are, except that we're flying a Heinkel 115. Fourthly there's our own Coastal Command, who are perfectly capable of sending a Sunderland along t'blow us out'ta the sky. How does that seem to you?"
From the rear navigator's compartment there issued in reply only a deathly and morose silence. Having made her point Gabrielle returned, empowered, to the task of actually flying the enemy machine. Like all seaplanes the floats under the fuselage brought with them an extraordinary amount of drag, making it anything but easy to fly the plane, and the blonde pilot had her work cut out. The fact that the port engine was still showing signs of reneging on the job not helping matters.
Under Ricky's further instructions Gabrielle eased the nose of the rather heavy-looking airplane round to point in the desired direction, then took an overall sweep of her instrument panel—all those dials and switches she understood the purpose of, at any rate.
"Ricky, port's still playin' up. Revs down; oil-pressure down; fuel consumption up; an' there's a very nasty whitish mist blowin' back from the cylinders." She paused for breath, then noticed another dial. "And, if I'm really lookin' at the speedometer, we're not goin' anywhere near as fast as we should be. I think you ought'a think about loosening your boots; undoing the catches on the dinghy compartment; and goin' over whether y'can really swim, or not."
"Sh-t. Gabs, don't you dare dump this crate in the drink—that's a g-dd-m order. Y'know perfectly well how much I hate gettin' my feet wet." The navigator was incensed at this new twist of Fate. "What's a little mist from a cylinder-head or two? I've seen ya fly and land our Walrus when the engine was blowin' fuel an' oil so black it was like a bloody smokescreen, an' still no harm done."
The overworked and highly worried pilot had the simple answer to this silly statement.
"That was a Pegasus, dear; these engines are—are—well, how d'I know what the Hell type they are? Some bloody Nazi crap, that's all I know. It might soldier on, an' get us t'Shetland in due course; or it might cough its last gasp anytime. Then we'd need'ta land on the ol' briny, an' hope some passing rusty old hulk picks us up before frostbite sets in."
"Huh. It'd be the usual race between the MTB's an' the E-boats, y'mean." Ricky was pragmatic about the situation. "Bet ya a pound the E-boats win? What d'ya think the food's like, in a Stalag?"
Ignoring this defeatist attitude the busy pilot returned to her instruments; though how simply looking at them and worrying would help she didn't know. But her thoughts were diverted into other channels a few seconds later.
"Gabs, there's a ship down there. We're flying nearly directly over it." There was a pause as Ricky peered down through her side windscreen. "Oh God. It's a Navy ship, a destroyer. I think—"
Crump! Crump! Crump!
Black balls of smoke appeared to the Heinkel's port side, on the same level and only some three hundred yards distant.
"Sh-t. They've got our range already." The navigator involuntarily ducked her head for an instant. "Didn't wait t'say hallo, did they?"
"What was that?" This from a harassed pilot veering the plane steeply to starboard and trying desperately to gain height.
"Pom-pom's, maybe." Ricky was being bucketed about in her small compartment. "Anti-aircraft fire, anyway. They don't like us, that's f'sure. Get us out'ta here, Gabs; an' don't hang about."
The plane rose steeply, engines roaring, in a frantic effort to escape the deadly fire. The fuselage shook again as more shells exploded somewhere to their rear, then they seemed to have outrun the destroyer's fire.
"Keep going, Gabs, keep going; don't stop."
Ignoring this agitated cry from her navigator Gabrielle hunched over her steering-wheel, a grim frown of concentration on her features.
"Jeesus, I seem t'be makin' a bloody career of escaping from enemy fire these days. Why in Hell did I join the bloody ATA? Must'a been mad."
A couple of minutes later, with no further following fire, the women felt safe enough for Gabrielle to level out at 12,000 feet and turn for Shetland again. The port engine, however, was still giving her palpitations.
"Ricky, I really don't think we've got much longer up here." She scanned the dials on the panel in front of her once more, searching for some amelioration of the problem; but everything still pointed inexorably towards approaching disaster. "This port engine hasn't got long for this world, I got'ta tell you, or I'm a saggar maker's bottom-knocker."
"What? Have y'finally lost it, gal? Get a grip." Ricky was vacillating between staring out her side-windows searching for ships on the surface far below and aircraft anywhere around them—nationality unimportant, she knowing full well that by this time both sides would certainly fire at the rogue Heinkel. "Are ya really thinkin' o'droppin' us in the drink? Can't ya just—I don't know, stagger on a'ways yet?
"This plane's been wonky ever since we overflew Boknafjord; an' it's been staggering already for the last half-hour." The pilot hunched her shoulders and tightened her lips; things were definitely beginning to look bad all round. "I think we got'ta face the fact this crate ain't gon'na last—Oh, I don't know, another fifty miles, tops. Then it'll be a case of sittin' out on the wings, droppin' our fishin' lines in the green sea an' hopin' for a catch."
Fate however, or was it Nemesis, caught up with the errant aircraft and its crew a bare quarter of an hour afterwards. Gabrielle, from her forward position, was first to detect the latest approaching crisis.
"Ricky, there's a ship coming up fast, almost directly ahead on our course."
"Dam'." There was a pause, then the harassed navigator spoke up irritably over the crackly intercom. "Can't see anythin'."
"Well, I can." Gabrielle nodded to herself, peering ahead through her windscreen. "We're still at twelve thousand, so it ain't easy to recognise somethin' that distant. But—but—yeah, looks like a British ship. Not a military boat; some kind'a merchant ship, I think. Not so big, either."
"Got it now." Ricky rubbed the glass on her goggles free of moisture for a better view. "Christ, it's a bloody coastal tramp. Probably carryin' coal, or wood, or somethin' equally unimportant."
"Ricky, in war everything's important."
"Oh great, a sermon." Sounds of irritable lack of humour crackled over the airwaves to the pilot. "Anyway, no use t'us. Be lucky if they had radio, even. God, look at it—looks as if it was built before the turn o'the century. Forget it, baby."
"Do tramps like that have guns, Ricky?"
"Why're y'askin' such a stupid question?"
"—'cause I just saw a series of flashes from its bow an' stern." There was a silence as the pilot stared down, musing over whether she had actually observed lights. "Could they have been gun-flas—"
Craak! Crak! Craak! Baaang!
The Heinkel gave a sudden jump as an enormous force thrust against the body of the plane from underneath the fuselage. It vibrated in every screw and bolt of its construction, spars and load-bearing ribs screaming in pain through the length and breadth of the aircraft.
Another explosion went off immediately above and to port. Splinters sliced into the frame of the Heinkel from nose to tail. Gazing out her side-window Ricky actually saw a series of small explosions as a handful of pieces of shrapnel peppered the port wing and engine nacelle. The engine, instantly giving up any further pretence of life, emitted a horrible groan followed by a grinding death-gurgle; then proceeded to spray oil and fuel in a fine mist behind it, all over the wing. The machine, at the same instant, keeled over to port and began descending in what Ricky realised was an entirely uncontrolled dive.
Biting her lip to silence herself, Ricky sat back and contemplated their predicament. Gabrielle would have far too much on her hands to listen to scared gurglings from her navigator. Ricky knew both their lives, over the next few seconds, depended entirely on the innate skills of the young blonde pilot. She clenched her teeth tightly, and awaited the outcome.
"Yaargh! Got it, by God!" Gabrielle pulled back on the steering-wheel with all her strength, and a considerable amount over and above—from who knows what reservoir. "That's it, Ricky, back on an even keel, almost; but we're goin' down—I mean, t'the sea, if not directly beneath it. If you know a prayer about savin' life at sea, now's the time, baby."
The Heinkel was no longer falling out of the sky towards the waiting water; but it was hardly doing much else of a positive nature. It continued to descend in a skidding sort of spiral; the port wing refusing to come up to the horizontal, no matter how much effort and persuasion Gabrielle put into it; while the starboard engine, the only one now operating, roared as if trying to break free of its bearings and become a free spirit unhindered by the physical presence of the Heinkel's fuselage.
"Yeah, I hear ya. What?"
"First thin—aaaoorgh, wait a minute,—Jeez, aaarth! OK, uh, OK. Ricky, first thing, grab that film canister; we ain't suffered all this crap just t'leave the bloody thing t'sink with the plane." Gabrielle's breath was ragged and shallow with effort. "Then when we're down, out on the wing, make sure y'get the dinghy out'ta its stowage fast; we probably won't have much time after landing. Don't prance about, tryin' t'give me a hand; I'll take care o'myself. I think the main spar of the port float support's been shot t'Hell, too—bound t'collapse on landing, so get ready for that. Got that?"
"Yeah, got it. Don't worry. Just keep on top o'the plane. Can't ya bring the bloody nose up a bit more—I feel as if I'm standin' on my head."
"No—no. Urrgh, Goddam!" As Ricky listened via the intercom she distinctly heard Gabrielle's gasps as she fought for breath, against the mighty power of the near-crashing plane. "I'll bring—I'll bring it up just before we land. The starboard engine can't take the strain; plane's too heavy for it. OK, Ricky, here it comes; hang on, an' work fast when we're down. Good Luck."
It had been almost ten minutes now since their contact with the choppy surface of the North Sea; and it had not been a happy or overly polite introduction. The Heinkel, only just by a hair's breadth allowing itself to assume a more or less level stance around thirty feet above the waves, had from there simply fallen out of the sky—whilst still travelling forwards at around seventy miles an hour. The first contact of the floats with the low waves had felt, to the two crew, like crashing a car into a brick wall. From there things had just gotten worse with every passing second. The propeller of the defunct port engine, failing to stand up to the strain, parted company with its shaft and sailed with a fear-inducing whine over the open canopy of the crew compartment, missing the women's heads by a matter of inches. The starboard engine, obviously bewailing the loss of its sister, gave a mighty bang; pieces of casing and nacelle flew in all directions; and that engine gave up, too. The plane coasted, rocking and diving like a drunken man, over the seas for another forty yards when, as Gabrielle had prophesied, the port main float-spar ended its existence in a catastrophic explosion of flying parts; the port wingtip slicing into the waves like a hot knife through butter as it hit the sea.
To the women there seemed to be water everywhere; splashing over them, sweeping in mighty waves across the fuselage and into the crew compartment; and spraying through the air as if a hurricane was in progress. To her relief Ricky found the flap of the dinghy stowage space had broken off and disappeared, which made grabbing the canvas covered roll that contained the dinghy all the easier. She pulled the cord handle and gasped in relief as the rubberised object sprang into life and shape at her waterlogged boots. Sparing a quick glance to make sure Gabrielle was indeed clambering along the main fuselage section towards her, she then pushed the dinghy into the sea and threw the round film canister into it. Gabrielle came up at that moment and Ricky gave her a helping hand, before struggling unceremoniously after her pilot into the semi-safety of the dinghy. Grabbing the short paddle from the bottom of the vessel Ricky made haste to get them as far away from the obviously sinking aircraft as possible. After a minute's hard effort, during which Gabrielle joined in with the second paddle, Ricky stopped to look back. Both women were just in time to see the black swastika on the tailplane disappear as the last remnant of the enemy aircraft sank below the cold waves.
"Jeez, about thirty seconds t'spare, if that."
"Yeah, all o'that." Ricky agreed with this reading of their narrow escape, meanwhile taking deep breaths to try and drag some life-giving air into her hard-pressed lungs. "Jesus, what a day."
"You said it, baby." Gabrielle glanced around, though they were so close to the surface the horizon was far too near for any long range view. "God, nuthin' but bloody waves, an' green sea. Is that f-cking boat anywhere close? I don't wan'na spend bloody hours in this thing. We're bouncing about like balls in a tombola-box. Why can't the bloody sea stay calm? And my feet are dam' cold an' wet; my socks are soaked through already, now I've ditched my boots."
"Well, I'm in the same predicament." Ricky thought it high time to take up her own rightful place in the general disaster. "Cold hands; cold feet, I got rid o'my boots too, y'know; but at least I saved the g-dd-m film canister, like y'ordered. Does that make everything hunky-dory?"
"No, it g-dd-m doesn't." The blonde pilot was adamant on this point. And, as she contemplated the dangers and troubles they had so recently barely survived literally by the skin of their teeth, a deep-seated and thoroughly praiseworthy, at least in her glittering green eyes, rage against the world set in. "Bloody Jerries, why'd they have'ta build chemical factories at the ends o'the bloody earth? Dam' SOE, d'they think we're bloody Goddesses an' immortal, or what? Bloody Group-Captain Graham; I tell you Ricky, I'm gon'na send that b-st-rd the most character defining radio message he's ever had, since last his nanny—whom I personally blame, whoever she was, for most of his pathetic personality an' worthless upbringin'—spanked his butt for being a naughty boy;—I bet he was the school bully, at whatever institution he gained what he laughingly supposes to have been his education."
"It's over there; t'port, maybe half a mile."
"What! What? Have you been listening t'anything I've said, lady?"
"The boat." Ricky curled a derisive lip, and pointed with her now gloveless and cold hand. "The, yep, British coastal tramp steamer—the broken down old rusty well past-it heap o'scrap, that's just single-handedly shot our butts out'ta the sky. Over there, an' approachin' at a rate o'knots. We're saved.'
"Sh-t." The blonde ex-Heinkel pilot now had another, closer, object to vent her feelings on, and made preparations to do just that. "I've got a few interestin' questions t'ask the Captain o'that rustin' hulk, by God I have. That pensioned-off whelk-boat has more fire-power than a bloody Coastal Battery—an' I'm gon'na know the reason why, when we get aboard, or my dam' name ain't Gabrielle Parker."
The next 'Mathews and Parker' story will follow shortly.