'S for Sara'
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,—find themselves in a sticky situation while flying a Stirling bomber.
Warning:— There is some light swearing in this tale.
"Any sign of it?"
"How long now?"
"It's been forty minutes since the last kite returned." The WAAF sergeant, leaning over the wide map table in the operations-room of the Command Centre deep below the London pavements, turned to face the RAF Squadron Leader. "Probably run out of fuel, by this time—wherever she is."
"Could she have made it back over the Channel?"
"All signs are no, sir." The uniformed brunette glanced across at the larger-scale map spread vertically across the nearby wall. "All the coastal Observation Posts along the requisite flight-path report no sightings of the plane. She hasn't come back to England, sir. Either still over in Europe, or ditched somewhere in the Channel or North Sea."
"Oh, God dam' it." The RAF officer blew his cheeks out in a deep sigh of unhappiness. "Well, looks as if I'll have to get on the blower an' tell Air Chief Marshal Harris the bad news. He isn't, I don't think, going to be happy about it."
Group-Captain Graham, the source of all knowledge regarding SOE activities in his Somerset House eyrie,—although to the two women in the Stirling's cockpit he was viewed in a slightly lesser light—had, himself, to suffer the interference of various brass-hats and political big-wigs who exercised a certain amount of influence over his more dubious plans and strategies. Not the least among these hindrances to his having a quiet usefully creative day was the Head of Bomber Command, Air Chief Marshal Arthur Harris—universally known in the British newspapers as 'Bomber' Harris, not for good reasons.
A week previously Graham's green telephone, always a source of annoyance, had rung imperiously; brooking no action but to answer its summons immediately. The subsequent exchange of views—it could hardly be called a conversation—resulted in Graham, much against his will, he having a very pretty expedition to an outlying fjord in Norway all ready for his prize group in Orkney, scrapping all due plans and instead sending a message to Scapa Flow for the women concerned to gather together whatever scratch crew they could find; swear these to secrecy on pain of being shot one cold dark morning in the Tower of London; and then partake of the plan which had been wished on his shoulders by the obviously partially, if not wholly, cracked Air Marshal.
"A whole crew?" Gabrielle was non-plussed, to put it politely. "An entire Stirling crew, from here? We're in Orkney y'know, sis. There's only us; no-one else. An' it takes—how many?"
"For a Stirling? Seven."
"Sh-t." The blonde half of their partnership heaved a sigh and shrugged her shoulders, inside the heavy sheepskin flying-jacket, for good measure. "An' we'll have t'use S for Sara, too. You know what that means?"
"Yeah, yeah, I know. Just out of a major refit, an' as yet not been passed as airworthy—we'll just need'ta take the chance."
"Sergeant MacQuarie's gon'na be an unhappy member of the Aircraft-fitter's Association." Gabrielle loved harping on the downside—well, after all, it was so much fun. "Sara hasn't flown for, how long?—yeah, over three weeks. Probably bust a tyre on take-off; y'know how huge those Stirling tyres are. Or lose an engine, without warnin'; or develop a cough in it's bronchial tubes, that'll reduce our speed t'that of an arthritic snail. Or simply fold up her undercart an' belly-down on the tarmac when she sees us both making like we're thinking of climbin' aboard with intent—or, or,—somethin'."
Sitting at the rickety table in the Nissen hut which was their Orkney HQ and home from home, waiting for the small stove to perform its duty after their recent arrival back from a run to Kirkwall, Claire regarded her other half with a mixture of interest and despair.
"That's one o'the things that draws me t'you so much, dear." The black-haired New Zealander smiled lovingly. "Always so full o'the joys o'Life, an' tendency t'keep lookin' on the bright side, no matter what."
"But sir, this is hardly practicable."
Group-Captain Graham never felt at ease when called into the supreme presence of the high mandarins of Government; even less so that of the very top ranking officers of the military—and hardly anyone, today, was as high as the individual sitting composedly behind his desk at the Air Ministry. Acting Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, in person.
At the best of times the great man's cold stare had been known to reduce men of nearly as high a rank to quivering jellies; and Graham allied himself wholeheartedly with their feelings. When the Chief Marshal registered an idea, usually immediately followed by a plan and requirement to carry it out without delay, there was no stopping him. It was hinted, in quiet safe corners, only two men could stand up to the iceberg of rationality and logic which was 'Bomber' Harris; and they were, in order of importance, Churchill and the King—no-one else mattered.
The fact was also well-known in secret political and military circles that Harris; a great proponent of the new system, had almost single-handedly pushed through the concept of 'area bombing' of the German towns and cities—a policy more or less reviled by everyone concerned; except the Chief Marshal, whose personal dogma it was, against all critics.
"Nonsense, Group-Captain, you simply have not grasped the entirely utilitarian nature of the action." Harris looked over his desk with jutting jaw at his visitor; being well-used to having to push his plans into the limelight and hold them there against all opposition. "Two Air Groups will take on Hamburg; a third will splatter Frankfurt all over the neighbouring countryside; while the fourth, which includes your single—I repeat, single—unit, will make a valiant attempt to wipe most of the important bits of central Munich, and any other of its suburbs which get in the way, entirely off the map altogether. A very pretty plan indeed; even if I say so myself; and bound, of course, to cause a gnashing of teeth and a loud wailing in Berchtesgaden: what more could an Air Force chappie want, I ask you. Not forgetting the German people—who have no-one to blame but themselves—perhaps finally seeing sense and recognising H. for the salivating maniac he is. Eh? Eh?"
Graham, at this juncture, tried to repress the strong notion that if he wanted to confront a maniac he need hardly go all the way to Germany to do so.
"But, sir, four bomber streams? Four?"
"Simply an extension of accepted and well-tried methods, Group-Captain." Harris was not to be put off by such feeble mutterings in the ranks. "In such streams, as you well know, we have several flights or squadrons of machines following each other in a tight formation, led by Pathfinders, at slightly differing height levels. This disrupts the German air defences and their fighters, who simply cannot cope with such numbers, and allows a far greater percentage of our chaps to reach their target areas; and, most importantly, return safely."
"Yes sir, I see that, but—"
"Sending several raids over at more or less the same time, to differing targets with differing bomber streams, will knock the heart out of Jerry more surely than—well, almost anything that I can think of, Group-Captain." Harris, recognised a rout when he saw one, and followed up his victory with a sop to the officer's feelings. "And, anyway, all I require from you and your SOE laddies, or ladies shouldn't I say?, is one single Stirling—which I well know is taking a vacation up there in Orkney—to drop 'Window' with. What, I ask you, could be more innocuous or innocent than that?"
"Why not allocate my crew to Hamburg, sir?" Graham may have thrown in the towel of argument, but he was still not senseless to the safety of those under his own command; and he never liked the name of the secret organisation to which he belonged being openly bandied about. "It's far more within their range—and, if I may make the point, safer for my, er, professional female aircrew. Munich's right on the southern border of Germany. My crew'll have to be in the van of the raid, sir. Flying over most of Germany to reach their target. That puts them right at the spear-point of danger, in my view, sir."
"Huumph, well, everybody has to take risks in this conflict at one time or another, Group-Captain." Acting Air Chief Marshal Harris was having none of it; and, anyway, he had an appointment in less than twenty minutes with another group of officers dealing with further Bomber Command tactics. "Sorry, but those positions have already been filled. Your crew must just take pot-luck; and, like everyone else, hope for the best. Right, that's settled then. Cheerio, go to it; and good luck."
"What is it?"
This from a dubious, not to say wholly sceptical, blonde ATA pilot; as she and Claire stood on the concrete of the single runway behind the aircraft sheds on the shore of Scapa Flow.
"It's, ah; it's, uum—"
"Y'don't know, do you. Great."
"Sergeant MacQuarrie! Over here, please." Claire knew when to grasp at straws, shouting across to the short square form of the Glaswegian chief-mechanic who was standing at the rear wheel of the mighty giant that was the Stirling bomber. "We, er, need an update on the, er, cargo we'll be carryin' on this comin' raid. Can ya explain to Gabrielle, in short words mind, just what's involved?"
"Aye, ma'am, I kin dae that sure enuff." The redoubtable sergeant, a native of Glasgow, Scotland, glanced around to see if they were alone at the moment on this cold and stiffly breezy afternoon. Before anything else he clapped his gloved hands together for warmth; a gesture which was virtually automatic behaviour for anyone long domiciled on the Orkney Mainland. "Weel ye see, leddies, it's a new concep', figured out by the boffins down in Lunnon, t'give the Bosche a black eye, an' cock a hoop at 'em, forebye—an' mighty fine it works, too."
"Hmm, nice, but a few details would be good." Claire raised her eyebrow questioningly.
"Och aye, nuthin simpler." Sergeant MacQuarrie was never happier than when explaining the exotic nature of his work to amateurs; though not having had much chance of such recently, due to present circumstances. "Jerry, y'see, confronts our boys—an' lassies, too, mind; though I hae ma doot's as to just how many wimmen actilly fly on active missions; yoursel's not includ'it, o'course—with verra efficient radar an' fighters."
"Sergeant MacQuarrie, will you for goodness sake just tell us what the dam' 'Window' is." Gabrielle's famously short temper had been brought, gibbering, to the fore by this perceived shilly-shallying; she now nearly dancing from one foot to the other, in her standard-issue sheepskin padded flying-boots, as if on a hot tin roof. "I wan'na know; I just wan'na know."
"Ah, it's the 'Window' is it, by Gawd." MacQuarrie nodded wisely, as if discussing a well-known friend. "Naithin, curiously, could be simpler in operation than 'Window'. Here, I'll open one o'these spare packets, an' show ye both; jest come ower t'this trolley, if ye waal."
The women, wondering if they were ever to be honoured with the so-wished for information, dutifully followed their mentor away from the belly of the huge machine; it never being a good thing to stand idly for any period of time underneath a Stirling bomber, if you valued your life; but there was also a Matador truck parked further forward below the beast just in case, as was entirely possible, the undercarriage decided to give up the ghost and collapse for no discernible reason. Today however the loading was going to be something different from the usual heavy bombs; and carried instead within the interior fuselage, to be launched manually by a crew-member.
"Here we are, leddies." MacQuarie assumed his most officious mechanic-lecturing tone. "What ye see afore ye are small circular tubes, or bundles if ye will, or packets even, sealed in paper with a short cord hangin' from the ends o'each. Ye can hold each single packet comfortably in the hand, it not bein' heavy, at all. Now what it is, is a container carryin' a load o'short paper strips—narrow, only a couple of inches wide; and thin as notepaper, but long. Their length, in fact, is mathematically calculated t'bugger Jerry radar jest fine. Somethin' t'do with wavelengths, so I've bin informed. One sides the original black paper, while's the other's coated with a thin facin' o'polished aluminium foil. They're launched from inside the plane; through a tube leading out of the fuselage half-way along, jest past the dorsal turret; and, fer verra good reasons, have t'be so launched michty careful by a person o'consequence an' brains."
"Are you sayin' one of us'll have t'crouch in the cold main fuselage, an' bung bundles o'waste paper out'ta the Stirling while we're over our target an' bein' attacked by most of the air defence of Germany?" Gabrielle was appalled, and let it be known. "Jee-sus Cher-riist!"
"Ach no, it is'na quite as bad as—"
"Lem'me see." The blonde virago was in full flight now. "Jesus, look at this, Ricky. Bits o'paper, just like I said; an' there isn't even anythin' written on 'em—they're not even bloody propaganda pamphlets. This is a bloody suicide flight. Group-Captain Graham's finally lost his marbles altogether. I could see it comin' months ago. Didn't I tell y'so, Ricky? Bloody months ago."
"Calm down, girl, will ya." Claire turned to the Sergeant with a determined tone. "MacQuarrie, get down t'brass tacks will ya; an' make it snappy, please. Gabrielle's goin' bananas here; an' I'm not sure I won't be joinin' her pretty shortly. What does this bloody 'Window' stuff actually do; an' why is it so dam' important we have t'risk life an' limb t'deliver it in this cockamamy way?"
Seeing the women were indeed truly worried about the purpose and mysterious nature of the strange material MacQuarrie dropped all pretence at living up to his Glaswegian roots, and became instead a fully trained and knowledgeable RAF mechanic.
"German radar works on a known wavelength, ladies." He now sounding surprisingly like a lecturer at a London Technical Institute. "These pieces of metal foil coated paper have been scientifically calculated as to width, length, thickness; and most importantly, of texture—black paper on one side, bright aluminium foil on the other. Their one purpose is to disrupt the waves of the Jerry radar; and they do so by their length being exactly half that of Jerries' radar wavelength. The black side stops reflections from both sides, which wouldn't be so effective. Thrown out of a plane at height they make the German radar screens show a mass, a snowstorm, of readings, all false; thereby effectively obscuring the appearance on the scene of the true bomber stream—so thereby making the radar useless for the German air defences to radio enemy bearings to their airborne fighters. Makes the approaching British bombers more or less invisible to the Jerry air defences, y'see."
"An' the bonny thing o'it is, leddies," MacQuarrie, feeling the strain of civilisation, had reverted to type. "y'don't need tae be exactly ower the target at all. Na, na; in fac' ye drop the stuff immediate ye enter the area o'the Kammhuber Line—y'know, the German long-range air defence control sectors equipped with radar, searchlights, an' night fighters. We've knocked that concep' pretty much on the head, as it is, with these here bomber streams that go out these days; but it's still there, an' needs t'be neutralised by way o'this 'Window' defence. Mark my words, leddies, it'll work jest bonny against the Jerry defences an' fighters—they simply wul'na know whic wa' t'turn, at all."
"An' we get t'deliver the bloody stuff? What d'we do, afterwards? Just askin'."
"Ye dump the 'Window' along a line o'maybe twa hunner an' eighty miles, as ye pass ower the Boche an' final come up wi' yer target." MacQuarrie had all the details to hand. "Ye'll be followin' yer ain Pathfinder aircraft in'course; which'll be the ane tasked wi' droppin' the pinpoint target flares; wi' the main body o'bombers theirsel' normally hard on yer ain heels, way ower y're heeds. It has t'be launched packet by packet, at exactly timed one minute intervals. Did ye no get a note, on yeller paper, signifyin' all these details?"
"Well, yes." Gabrielle had the courtesy to look embarrassed. "But I threw it on my bed, as not bein' important."
"Och, it's important, richt enuff, leddies." MacQuarrie looked serious. "The bundles hae t'be launched at exactly one minute intervals—nae longer, nae lesser. Ane minute exactly. It allows them the greater chance o'cockin' up Jerry radar t'the best advantage, y'see. Ane minute intervals, precisely; I'd suggest a verra good stopwatch. Here, I've one t'hand in my little office in Hangar One. If ye promise t'bring it back in ane piece, an' still tickin', I'll let ye boro' it."
"Thanks, Sergeant." Gabrielle nodded, with a smile. "Looks like I need'ta take better notice of sortie details in future."
"Should dam' hope so." Claire here interjected her tuppence-worth, with a sarcastic grin. "Guess who's flying the plane; an' who's gon'na freeze their butt off throwin' the 'Window' out'ta the belly o'the beast?"
"Serves ya right. Read your notes better, next time. Let it be a lesson t'ya, dearie."
Just under a week previously Nissen Hut KL35 had become the centre of all interest for a motley group of WAAF members and ATA pilots; this being the place Claire and Gabrielle called home on the straggling purlieus of Base J, Scapa Flow, Orkney. However, on this late afternoon, one day after receiving Group-Captain Graham's orders for the forthcoming raid, they had made it into an interview centre for all available aircrew and pilots. And right from the start they had faced an unusual situation.
"I'm glad Squadron Leader Andrews let us have free range over his personnel."
"Yeah, SOE has that effect; even on Squadron Leaders." Claire stood in the centre of the long room, by the large deal table now surrounded by all the available three chairs which graced the hut's furnishings. "But, like ya said, it's strange; no male aircrew on offer—all otherwise engaged, Only female ATA pilots an' a mess o'WAAF's. Well, better see if the first's arrived yet."
"I can see her comin' along the path now."
The succeeding interviews took up the womens' whole afternoon and part of the evening, and by the time they had sifted through the candidates, scrubbing one or two here and there, they had finally managed to put together a group capable of crewing the Stirling on its coming sortie.
"God, it's nearly bed-time." Gabrielle yawned copiously and loudly, as if wishing to emphasise her point. "So, who're we left with, in the end?"
"Got 'em all here." Claire, in her chair by the table, shuffled through a handful of hand-written notes. "Right, first there's ATA pilot Alice Darnley; she's conscripted as my co-pilot—in your absence on essential war-work."
"Very funny." Gabrielle made a demeaning noise with pursed lips. "I'll be freezing my butt dumping those dam' bits o'paper, thanks awfully."
"Then comes," Claire continued, disregarding her companion's complaints with regal disdain. "Aircraftwoman Diana Morgan. She'll be, er, manning the front turret; bein' as she's a first class shot, with certificates t'prove such. There's also Leading Aircraftwoman Gladys Lerrington, on tail turret; and ditto ATA officer Hilda Carter as navigator/radio operator. Followed, finally, by WAAF Sergeant Joyce Haining, on dorsal turret. Got 'em?"
"Yip. Any o'these ladies ever flown before?"
"The ATA members, o'course; but the WAAF's, only, apparently, on a few training flights of no moment." Claire shook her head doubtfully. "Nothing in the form of active service for the latter; which, o'course, is only t'be expected."
"I thought WAAF's weren't allowed to fly; ain't that so?"
"Lover-gal, y'may not have noticed, but there's a war on." Claire liked her little quip, at the close of the day. "Needs must when that ars-h-le Adolf drives. Whether or not they're legally required never t'get their pretty feet off the ground, on this occasion they're dam' well flying over Germany at night in a Stirling bomber, an' no-one'd better ask unnecessary questions afterwards—or Group-Captain Graham'll know the reason why."
"There's that." Gabrielle nodded understandingly. "There's definitely that."
Cold was the worst enemy. The Stirling was supposed to have heating equipment, especially for the cockpit, but imagining that this would really be effective was a mug's game, as everyone who flew a Stirling came to realise after their first three flights. The interior of a Stirling, at height, was something similar to Captain Scott's camp in Antartica—cold, really cold. It was for precisely these circumstances that all flying-crews were admonished by the Air Ministry directives to wrap up well on missions. To which purpose the aircrew were supplied with thick leather boots lined with sheepskin, so heavy they felt like divers' boots. Also heavily padded leather trousers, again using sheepskin. And finally a short waist-length leather flying-jacket lined with sheepskin; under which the individual concerned could wear as many woolen jumpers as they might viably manage. As an addendum there were also leather gloves of a thickness of sheepskin padding that made all but the most elementary of finger movements impossible. Such was a flying crews' clothing.
But did all of this do any good, when at twelve thousand feet on a dark night at eleven o'clock?
"Bloody Nora!" Gabrielle couldn't stand it any longer, her feelings sizzling all the way down the intercom from her position in the waist of the plane to Claire in her cockpit. "Another hour o'this an' every part o'me that matters'll be frozen solid."
"Give over, gal." Claire snorted bluntly, glancing over at her temporary co-pilot. "Alice, Gabs feelin' the cold, did ya hear?"
"Yeah, an' she ain't alone." Alice Darnley, an experienced pilot herself, knew all about cold. "Reminds me o'the time I was flying up by Vancouver—"
"Yeah, yeah, tell me later." The black-haired pilot swiftly cut short this attempt at launching into reminiscences of an adventurous girlhood. "Say Gabs, why don'cha take a stroll along the waist for some exercise? Maybe say hello t'the tail gunner, or the gal up top? Show 'em somebody still cares about the poor souls."
"They get paid by the fortnight, like everybody else, don't they." Gabrielle, cold and friendless, was unforgiving. "Who cares. Oh, alright. Signin' off, t'go an' gossip with the crew. See you later."
The fittings of the long fuselage were, as in virtually every other type of RAF plane, scattered about all over the place; making it an exercise in restraint and safety for anyone carefully negotiating the cluttered shadowy tunnel. There were wires everywhere; cables sweeping at head height along both sides of the ribbed fuselage walls; the floor was not of a level for more than three feet in either direction, necessitating the struggling crewman or woman to keep an eye on their feet at all times. Curious un-named cable-runs led in an assortment of directions under the roof of the fuselage, and there were all sorts of objects plugged in, screwed down, fixed with bolts, or just left lying coiling along all over the shop on the metal floor. Curiously the long tight metal assault course that was the interior of a Stirling bomber didn't smell of oil and fuel over-much; though these were certainly present. No, what the inside of a Stirling generally smelt of was perfume; deep rich strong perfume; the kind that is included in only the strongest of disinfectants, which indeed was the present case—because the delightful, but definitely over-powering, aroma emanated from the Elsan toilet.
This utilitarian, and absolutely essential, item was located in a corner just past the dorsal turret installation. Screwed lightly to the floor it consisted of nothing much more than a two-foot tall circular enamelled bucket with a lid. In the bottom was a thick black paste made up of nasty chemical soup mingled with the aforementioned scent. There was a small curtain for privacy, but the crew tried to avoid this means of ease if they possibly could. Sitting on it when the pilot had to take determined evasive action generally led to the claimant of the throne being thrown across the width of the cluttered fuselage, with the contents of the container going in the same direction, to the same destination; the unavoidable colliding and intermingling of both being inevitable. Having once been covered in the contents of a well-used Elsan, complete with harsh corroding sticky disinfectant, the victim generally made it their life's intent never to let the incident recur. On her way past the article in question, heading towards the tail-gunner's position, Gabrielle pondered on whether the crew being all-female this trip was a good thing, or not.
"Hi, can y'hear me? Anyone home?" She crouched down low, banging on the armour-plated back of the revolving turret with a gloved fist. "Can I interest madam in our new line o'home utensils? Guaranteed t'make housework a joy an' a pleasure forever?"
"Who the bloody Hell's that? F-ck off!"
"Hoi. That ain't any way t'talk t'the co-pilot." Gabrielle sniggered gleefully. "I only wanted t'take your mind off work for a bit, while we had a nice gossip. How're y'doin'? Cold, is it?"
This, as she well knew, was waving a red rag at a bull; the rear turret was always freezing cold, as the gunner usually had a piece of the turret glazing removed—this to help visual recognition of enemy fighters and to take better aim at them in the pitch dark, helping them rotate the guns nore quickly. So a rear gunner spent almost all their flight simply shivering with cold; wondering if, on arrival back at base after an eight or ten hour flight, they would ever be able to feel their fingers and toes again.
Gabrielle smiled as she listened to the comprehensive, and extended, reply her question had elicited from Gladys. The WAAF aircraftwoman had been up on a few short training flights before, but nothing in the way of the present excursion. The fact she had taken a course in gun turrets in order to act as instructor to the influx of new male flight-sergeants coming into the squadrons passing through Scapa Flow had been the main influence for her present exile to the further reaches of the noisy cold aircraft; Diana Morgan, dam' her, having bagged the front turret.
"Ha, very educational, Gladys." Gabrielle hadn't had so much fun since last she'd hidden Claire's cap badge and watched her resulting protracted hunt through the Nissen for it. "We'll be crossin' the coast in a short while. When y'test your guns just don't fire 'em at the bloody Pathfinder, before it takes position ahead o'us, OK? See ya."
As she stumbled back along the confined and disordered fuselage Gabrielle smiled broadly; at least she'd woken the WAAF up and concentrated the poor girl's mind on something.
The fuselage was, in fact, quite wide and high enough for Gabrielle, and most taller aircrew, to stand upright. In the centre of this section of the walkway was a short four-step ladder leading to a small higher level floored with wire mesh; this being the upper gun turret. Above the ladder, on either side, were two rectangular flat metal cases; these being the ammunition boxes. In the centre, against the back of the floor space where the gunner stood, was what looked like a metal fuel can, which was what it was, for the powered turret operation. When the gunner was in full swing, firing at the enemy, this whole area became a maelstrom of used cartridge cases flying in all directions, to the detriment of any passing crewmember. All Gabrielle could see of the gunner were her lower legs and boots, so she reached up and tapped the leather side of the nearest of these.
"How's it goin', Joyce?"
"Who's—oh, it's you." This rather disparaging recognition, Gabrielle thought mournfully, came from the young sparky WAAF sergeant, as she shuffled round to peer down between her legs at the passing visitor below. "It's bloody cold up here; it's bloody boring, there ain't anythin' t'do; there're freezin' draughts blowin' in from every direction in this cobbled-together glass dome; an' its bloody impossible t'see a dam' thing outside in this stygian darkness. How the hell am I supposed t'shoot at any f-ckin' Jerry, when there isn't the faintest chance o'me knowin' where the b-st-rd is?"
"Just pull the triggers, an' hope for the best." Gabrielle instantly felt, as she spoke these asinine words, that perhaps they left a lot to be desired—Joyce certainly thought so.
"Is that meant t'be a bloody joke, ma'am?" She was certainly riled beyond endurance, and the mission was still only one hour old. "I could get my butt shot off by a Jerry twenty-millimetre cannon shell at any time, with no way o'knowin' where it came from; an' the only advice I get is t'pull the bloody triggers an' hope for the best? Some bloody way t'run a dam' war, this is. If I'd known it was gon'na be like this, I'd a'joined the bloody Navy back when the chance was offered."
Regaining her seat, actually simply a cleared space along the wire-mesh floored central section of the fuselage, Gabrielle glumly considered her late odyssey as being something in the way of a mistake—better to leave the various crew-members alone in their own personal miseries, than stir feelings up un-necessarily. Beside her Veronica Tinsley, a young WAAF aircraftwoman, was sitting on the floor surrounded by numerous cardboard boxes containing the long circular 'Window' cartridges. She had been a late addition to the crew when Claire and Gabrielle had realised that, however the available members were mustered, Gabrielle was really going to need some assistance in her job as main 'Window' chucker-outer; Veronica being the result.
"How y'doin' with those dam' packets o'toilet paper, Ronnie?"
"They're packed so tightly, ma'am, I've broken two finger-nails already." The young woman smiled broadly, taking the sting of idiocy out of her remark. "An' my fingers are freezin', havin' t'work without gloves. Look, y'can see they're turnin' blue. How'll I ever be able t'open another tin o'bully-beef, with no nails?"
"Ha, look on it as a positive result." Gabrielle grinned, as she shuffled into a more comfortable position, and plugged the line of her face-mask intercom back into the trailing wire and socket which had been laid along for her own and Veronica's use. "Suppose I better report t'the captain again. Yo, Ricky?"
"Is that any way t'talk t'the pilot?" Claire's voice was thin and tinny with distance and the weak power of the connection. "It'll be a bloody miracle if I ever get anyone t'call me ma'am, an' salute every time they talk t'me. Wha'd'ya want; thought I'd gotten rid of ya fer the duration, ducks."
"Slim chance." Gabrielle made a rude noise. "Reporting on the crew; Joyce's happy as a lark in her upper turret; can't wait for action, so she tells me—"
"Hah, that'll be the day." The black-haired pilot of the bomber knew perfectly well when she was having her leg pulled.
"—an' Gladys is snug as a bug in a rug, back in the rear turret; never better, she told me."
"Give over with the fables, dear." Claire's derisive snort was audible to both women crouched in the waist. "Bet they both bent y'r ear with some o'the fruitiest language you've heard since our last visit t'Billingsgate. So, have you an' Veronica got that dam stuff sorted out yet?"
Gabrielle glanced across at her assistant, who was still tearing cardboard boxes asunder and extracting the long three-inch wide cylinders of thinner cardboard which contained the strips of metal foil treated black paper. She had quite a pile scattered at her feet by this time.
"Yeah, we're ready whenever y'want." Gabrielle looked to her side, where the circular metal tube with its cap stuck up, coming through the wire-mesh casing of the floor like some kind of water-pipe. "All I need'ta do is open this dam' pipe an' let rip. Hey, Ricky, did you know this bloody pipe goes straight through the floor o'the plane, into the roof of the open bomb-bay? Every time I take the lid off it a blast of air blows in like a bloody hurricane. I'm beginnin' t'wonder if the dam' cylinders o'paper'll actually fall out through it."
"Let's dam' well hope so; or we've come all this way for nuthin'." The pilot's tone was grating and unkind. "An' if that happens, I shall be an unhappy member of the ATA, just so ya all know. What I say, an' who I say it too, all the bloody way back t'bloody Blighty, won't bear thinkin' about."
"If we make it back, at all." Veronica unwisely let her thoughts take audible form, though in almost a whisper.
"What's that?" Claire was renowned throughout Base J, Orkney, for the sharpest ears that had ever passed the aural test in the local military medical unit. "Did someone say somethin'; or was it jest static on the wire?"
"Just static, dear; fly the plane, for God's sake. The workers here need'ta buckle down an' get ready." Gabrielle snorted derisively at this pathetic response from her loved better half. "When d'we cross the Jerry coast, an' come up with the Kammhuber Line?"
"Hilda says we'll be crossing the German coast in five minutes." Claire's voice had become stronger in the listening women's ears. "Then it'll be another twenty miles before the Line swings inta action against us. But Hilda's also on top o'the Gee navigation system; so we'll have a pretty accurate course most o'the way into West an' Central Germany."
"It won't take us t'Stuttgart, though."
"Nah, too far." Claire acknowledged this unhappy fact. "But we still got our maps, an' dead reckoning; so we'll be fine. Leave it t'me, Alice here, an' Hilda, ducks. You just make sure you play with your coloured paper properly. Got yer stopwatch?"
"Yeah, Ronnie's looking after the timing. OK, signin' off."
S for Sara wasn't actually going to overfly Munich—the true destination of the fourth bomber wave—at all; its destination being in reality some way west in the direction of another great city; to wit, Stuttgart. A main point associated with the dropping of 'Window', apart from its primary purpose of obscuring details of incoming bombers from the Germans, was in fact to create the effect of a massive bomber stream heading inexorably, like an army of Titans or Juggernauts, towards a particular goal. Only the goal, as apparently highlighted by the approaching mass of false 'Window' readings, would be a dummy target; making the German air defences react in a particular area, while the real group of attacking Allied bombers would suddenly appear somewhere else farther off, well beyond the now distracted German fighters' necessary reaction time. Although its primary aim was still being used in advance of a true stream of bombers; simply to swamp the German radar, making it impossible for them to pick real individual targets for their fighter defence.
Which wasn't to say Claire and Gabrielle were going to have an easy ride. Stuttgart would be as heavily defended as Munich; with enormous numbers of anti-aircraft weapons precisely aligned to fire together at specifically pin-pointed aerial targets. A Pathfinder Wellington was also part of the hoax two-plane flight; heading for Stuttgart ahead of the 'Window' plane to drop flares over strategic parts of the city exactly as if momentarily expecting the usual wave of massed bombers to roll in on its tail. With S for Sara coming in behind, busily dropping 'Window' strips, it would look, to the German air defence radar, exactly as if a real bomber wave was approaching.
Indeed, there was another Pathfinder and 'Window' duo flying ahead of the fourth bomber stream towards Munich, timed to hit their target some fifteen minutes after Claire and Gabrielle had reached Stuttgart. The hope being the German fighters would congregate over Stuttgart first, and so be unavailable for the real Munich raid.
The only trouble was this tactic couldn't be left to the last moment, near the destination; the operation would need to begin well before, just after Claire and Gabrielle had entered German air space; creating the effect, for German radar, of a mass of bombers heading specifically for Stuttgart. So Gabrielle, once started on her work, would need to keep it up for almost an hour, if not longer; and chronometrical accuracy was necessary throughout, for the treated strips of paper worked best against the enemy radar if dropped at short but regular intervals. Both Gabrielle and Veronica would need to concentrate all the way to Stuttgart, if the mission was to be successful.
Hilda, the navigator, came on the intercom speaking in a cold precise tone.
"We're just reaching the Kammhuber Line about—about—now." Her voice still sounded weak and thin, but quite clear. "OK, ma'am, start dropping the 'Window'; and keep it up all the rest o'the way. Out."
"Keep it up, she says; easy for her." Gabrielle shifted round splaying her legs wide, in their thick sheepskin trousers and boots, for comfort; and reaching across to uncap the ejection tube. "OK, gim'me the first bundle, an' make an exact note. Start your watch immediately I drop it in the tube; got that?"
"Yeah, sure." Veronica had a pile of ready cardboard cylinders scattered all round, in easy reach. "Remember, y'hold the tube with one hand; rip away the ring-pull, with its long cord, an' throw it away; then drop the open cylinder in the tube."
"Listen lady," Gabrielle's tone was less than polite, as she held her gloved hand out. "I been practicing this for ages, I know what the hell t'do; gim'me."
Up in the Stirling's roomy cockpit Claire and Alice were debating where, ahead of them, the leading Wellington might be supposed to be. As both planes were flying at the same height on the same course this was a subject of some moment.
"Hilda?" Claire spoke over the intercom to the navigator in her cubicle to the rear of the cockpit. "Can y'tell where F for Freddie is?"
"Yeah, I got him spotted; he's fitted with a transponder whose signal I can pick up with my sender/receiver." Hilda seemed to be well on top of her work. "Half a mile directly ahead, slightly to port; approximately, that is."
"Do for me, lady." Claire heaved a sigh of relief; the task of wondering, from minute to minute, where their companion in the dark night might be was made easier by the onboard transponder system. "OK, all we have t'do now is hope we have an easy ride all the way across Germany; but I shouldn't bet on it, if I were you. Listen up, everybody, we're in hostile territory now; a fighter; a searchlight; a random blast o'anti-aircraft fire; or all three, could hit us anytime. All gunners keep your eyes peeled, and don't hesitate t'shoot if you get a clear pointer on some likely target. You've all got loads o'spare crates of ammo, so don't be shy about tryin' t'shoot Jerry's balls off given the remotest chance!"
On Veronica's snapped command Gabrielle ripped the ring-cord away and let the opened cardboard cylinder slip down the metal pipe, before closing the lid again. On hitting the open air the loose metal strips inside would fall free and begin their work of confusing the German anti-aircraft units.
"Careful on the timing."
"Yeah, I got it." Veronica, under pressure, replied in a harsh growl. "Fifty-five, fifty, forty, better prepare the next, thirty,—"
"I know what I'm doin', give over." Gabrielle herself wasn't feeling exactly relaxed. "Make sure y'time the minute precisely; it matters, so I've been told by experts."
"Jeesus, ma'am, how many more times are y'goin' t'tell me?" Veronica, though young, knew when she was being pushed too hard. "OK, OK, Now."
The next opened cardboard tube fell away invisibly through the metal pipe and Gabrielle sat back, another already in her hand, waiting for the next timing point.
"Good God, this is a dam' sight harder than I realised." She took a deep breath, glancing around the shadowy interior of the fuselage. "Sorry if I tore your ear off. Christ, it's dam' cold; I see what you mean about your hands; mine are nearly sky-blue already. I think I might be in the runnin' for frostbite."
"Tell me about it. OK, OK, Now."
The steady thrumming of the four massive Hercules II radial engines had long ago reduced in everyone's ears to the slightest of background sound. In the cockpit both women were concentrating on their instruments, making sure none strayed from the approved flight-levels, and that all equipment was operating properly. A full-time job for each pilot, so the sudden interruption was wholly unexpected—as such things always are in wartime.
"There's somethin' on the rad—"
Hilda's voice, from her cubby-hole behind the cockpit, sounded tinnily over the intercom; then all Hell let loose.
Rat-a-tat! Rat-a-tat! Rat-a-tat! Whaang! Whaang!
The entire starboard side of the Stirling—from mid-section to cockpit—erupted in a mess of flying shrapnel and sparks of slicing metal, as a fusillade of gunfire ripped through the plane. Instantly came the throbbing screech of return fire from the Stirling, but only from the front and rear turrets. Claire thought, for a second, about taking evasive action but in the next instant decided against it.
"Look out, everyone. Return fire as y'can; don't hold back. Alice, make sure the engine readings aren't affected. Gabs, how're ya doin'?"
Before she could take any further defensive measures another stream of bullets from the unseen attacker once more ripped through the plane. This time they ran from the far rear of the mighty bomber right along the centre-line of the fuselage, to the cockpit and beyond; the enemy night-fighter obviously having come in from above and behind the heavy bomber. For Claire it seemed as if she was in the middle of a volcanic eruption; for the attack consisted of the usual mix of bullets and cannon-shells; probably from a Focke Wulf. The air all round the pilot seemed to have become choked with flying debris, dust, and some sort of sticky mess that had splashed everywhere.
"Gabs? Gabs? Hell, Gabs, say somethin'. Alice, get back there an' see what the hell's happened. Alice? Al—"
Taking her eyes off the instruments and steering-wheel in front of her for the briefest of moments, Claire took a glance to her right. Her new co-pilot was slumped in her seat, unconscious; though there was no obvious wound or blood visible. How she herself had escaped the carnage, Claire found herself thinking, was anybody's guess.
"Oh Jeesus." Then the only thought of any importance came back into her shocked brain; while the intercom at least still seemed to be operational. "Gabs? D'ya hear me, Gabs? Oh God."
Claire sat in her seat, shocked immobile by the sudden tragic outcome of the operation. Then the surrounding sounds of the aircraft made their way back into her consciousness; at least the engines were still running properly and the plane appeared stable in flight. But she was trapped in her seat, being the only pilot. Whatever was going on back in the body of the aircraft, she couldn't tell, and had no means of finding out, at least for herself—but, perhaps, the other crew-women?
"Diana, how're ya doin' in the front turret? See anythin'?"
"Gladys, are ya there?"
No reply from the rear turret.
"Joyce, what's happenin' up top?"
Nothing came from the dorsal turret.
"Hilda, where are we? Didn't ya see that dam' swine comin' in?"
Silence from the navigator's cubicle.
"Veronica, forget the stopwatch an' the dam' 'Window', how's Gabs? An' how're you, too?"
Only static, as if echoing from thousands of miles away, on the intercom.
"Gabs? Gabs? Gabs? Oh, Jeesus."
Then, before Claire could correlate what was happening, the enemy fighter came in for its third run, now unopposed by any defensive fire. A racing straggle of bullets and shells streamed through the fuselage starting from just forward of the wing-roots and heading to the cockpit, though stopping just short. Then, once again, there was the nearest thing to silence in the still flying Stirling. In the cockpit several of the windows had suffered bullet-holes, allowing a howling wind to tear around the battered interior. Next to the still unconscious Alice, Claire sat transifixed for a moment, then set to banking the great bomber to starboard, hopefully out of the line of fire of the invisible attacker. Whatever was going on in the interior of the plane she would just have to wait for a sign of activity back there; she herself being imprisoned in her pilot's, thankfully armoured, seat as it was. From elsewhere in the plane Claire could still hear no other sound of human activity. The plane now appearing to be entirely undefended.
Meanwhile, the Stirling—engines still thankfully running smoothly and with no sign of any great damage to its airframe—flew along unhindered by any further attacking night-fighters—all of whom in the immediate sector seemed otherwise engaged. At which point Alice, coming dazedly back to life, gave a series of groans, twisted in her seat and began to fiddle with her face-mask.
"Hoy. Hey. Alice? Are ya OK?" Claire glanced across to her now awake and moving co-pilot. "Thought you'd been hit?"
"What?" Alice, after shaking her head somewhat groggily, picked up her notebook and continued copying down the engine heat readings, in a slightly shaky manner. "Nah, helluva mess here, but nuthin' hit me, God be praised. You OK, Ma'am?"
"Yeah, I'm fine; but I don't know about the rest o'the crew. The intercom seems t'have gone belly-up. D'ya think you could get back an' recce the plane? See what everyone's up to?"
"—er, yeah, sure." Claire shook her head again, encased in its tight flying-helmet and face-mask. "I'll do that."
"Hoi, anyone home?" Gabrielle's voice, from her position back in the fuselage, came through faintly. "Can y'hear me, Ricky? Gods, this bloody intercom's on its last legs. I'm here, and bloody glad t'be finished with this dam' 'Window'. Ronnie here says she never wants t'come on another trip like this ever again, by the way. Don't know if that's a compliment, or not. I don't think anyone's been hit by that bloody Focke that tried t''make a colander out'ta us. You two OK up there?"
"Yeah, all well here—jest some new air-conditioning holes in the windows is all." Claire keeping it light-hearted. "Y'alright, Gabs. yourself? An' Ronnie?"
"I'm alright; so's Ronnie." Gabrielle's voice sounded exhausted even through the crackly intercom. "So's Joyce up top; just had a few words with her; she's unhappy at not gettin' t'fire at Jerry at all. So's Gladys, in the rear turret. I went an' enquired after her health a moment ago; so she dam' well told me—not holdin' back a thing. How's Diana in the front turret?"
"I'm fine." The lady-like accent of a Roedean gal sounded over the intercom, also making light of the situation. "If I'd known it was gon'na be so dammed boring all the way there an' back on this mission, I'd a'brought my knitting."
"There y'are, Ricky, everyone's happy; ain't that just great?"
"Dam' right it's great, sister, dam' right." Claire sat back, sighing in relief; because what had happened over the last half hour or so of the raid was so intense and clear in her memory she was shivering inside her flying-suit. "Gabs, when we get back t'the ol' Nissen hut, remind me t'pour us both double rum-an'-cocoa's; after tonight's little hoo-hah I at least can't do without it, OK?"
"Yeah, sure." Gabrielle chuckled gently, knowing her companion's ways to a tee. "So, what—"
"Tell ya later, ducks. Any chance of a mug o'coffee, from the vacuum flask? If it's survived tonight's doings?"
"Yeah, I got it right here." Gabrielle prepared to stumble along the fuselage to the container where the food and drink and tin mugs were safely stowed. "Want milk with it. We only got that tinned concentrated syrupy muck, y'know."
"God, no, I'll have it straight; dark, and strong, thanks."
"Just like you, in fact?"
"She's back, sir."
"Who's back? From where?"
"S for Sara, sir; popped up on South-Eastern Chain Home radar twenty-five minutes ago."
"That can't be right. Sara must have run out of fuel half an hour ago. Anyway, all the rest of the fourth bomber stream, and the lone Pathfinder that accompanied Sara, came back all of two hours ago."
"Message just in from Squadron Leader Maybury, station commander, says S for Sara landed at RAF Cheversfield, Lincs, a quarter of an hour ago, sir. Only light to medium fighter damage, no casualties, operation carried out successfully."
"I want details, and written reports on my desk within two hours; got that Sergeant?"
"Can't be done sir. That aircraft,—so I was given to understand earlier from un-named sources—and the whole crew, are covered by Group Captain Graham and his SOE operations. All Top Secret. Not a hope of getting any details at all, sir; ever."
"Damnation. Damn that bloody man Graham."
The next 'Mathews and Parker' story will arrive shortly.