By Phineas Redux
Summary:— This story is set in Great Britain in 1944. Flying Officers Claire 'Ricky' Mathews and Gabrielle Parker—pilots, lovers, and members of ATA, Air Transport Auxiliary, and the highly secret SOE, Special Operations Executive,—are made aware of dark movements and ominous plans in the ongoing British War effort.
Note:— The events recounted here are based, in a general way, on Bomber Command's 'Battle of Berlin' bombing campaign of late 1943-early 1944, which also included other targets. Technical data and figures are taken from the Wiki source on the 'Battle for Berlin' RAF Operations' page, and also 'The Second Great War', edited by Sir John Hammerton, Amalgamated Press, vol. 7.
Warning:— There is some light swearing in this tale.
Scapa Flow's pet Stirling bomber, 'S for Sara', had bidden its home port goodbye for the last time. Two female ATA pilots, also members of the ultra-secret SOE, had flown the aircraft down to an out of the way airfield just on the outskirts of London, from where an official car had transported them to a bleak set of offices in the dark meandering corridors of the huge block on the banks of the Thames known as Somerset House. Here Group-Captain Graham held sway over a particularly little known sub-section of the SOE; which took part in only those activities of the most secret and dark nature; one's which, at a pinch, could be more or less denied outright; and where absolutely no records were kept. At present he had some news, and new orders, for two of his best agents—though wild horses would not have made him admit this fact publicly. And so, on this bleak chilly slightly drizzly late morning of Tuesday, 18 January 1944, Claire 'Ricky' Mathews and Gabrielle Parker stood uncomfortably on the carpet of his private office, overlooking the grey cold Thames, awaiting his pleasure.
"I have a Plan, ladies."
Having been at the epicentre of far too many of their little-regarded superior officer's strategies over the last few months, this news did little if anything to lift their spirits. His words being met with a stony, if not actually downright mutinous, silence Graham bravely ploughed on.
"You've both done sterling work, up in the Flow." He nodded in a satisfied manner. "But things are, er, hotting up in the European campaign. Things have, er, been happening; operations have been, umm, initiated and, er, carried out—more or less successfully. More or less—"
The rather reserved tone in which he made this last remark did not escape the ears of his listeners; who both, probably rightly, detected the aftermath of a certain level of unwonted failure in said plans; but they remained silent, like the Sphinx.
"As a result, as of, er," He brushed his uniform jacket sleeve aside to reveal the watch on his left wrist. "eleven-thirty-two ack-emma, today, you have both been transferred to Little Lanning airfield, Norfolk; along with your Stirling, of course. I have great plans for you two."
At this point Gabrielle, always more outspoken than her rather more reserved New Zealand companion, piped up.
"Plans, sir; like Pathfinding for the bombers?"
"Rather more interactive even than that, I'm afraid." Graham shook his head sadly, then suddenly remembered his manners for the first time during the already five minute long interview. "But, where are my manners—please take seats; these are only ordinary straight-backed chairs, but there we are."
He himself retired to the far side of his small desk—his entire office was hardly larger than a country house's boot cupboard—where a leather-upholstered chair awaited his nether regions.
"You won't have heard much about it; at least I sincerely hope not, but over the last few months Bomber Command have been engaged in knocking seven bells out of Jerry—to be specific, Berlin."
"Any luck, sir?" Claire raised an interested eyebrow.
"Well, t'tell the truth, no." Graham's natural hangdog look became even more canine; in fact he seemed almost on the verge of tears. "On the night of the seventh of January we sent an SOE aircraft over, hitching a lift part way alongside a Bomber Command raid on Krefeld and Duisborg. I had high hopes of their mission; but unfortunately they were shot down; all lost, ten agents in all. Not a good night."
Finding nothing acceptable to reply to this news the women kept silent once more. After a moment Graham pulled himself together and began declaiming again.
"This whole thing—the night raids on Berlin—is more or less the brainchild of that ap—er, Air Chief Marshal Harris." He spoke this name in a tone of contempt which told his listeners all they needed to know about his opinion of the renowned Chief of the Bomber section of the RAF. "Seems to think that flattening an' laying waste to vast sections of German cities—particularly Berlin—are just the thing that'll make Jerry fold up an' give in. Doubt it, myself, but what can one do?"
"So," The Group-Captain continued, disregarding the women opposite. "we've been commanded, from on high—that's Harris, and his, umm, powerful cronies, t'you an' I—to bring our gaily-beribboned selves, an' every serviceable aircraft we can lay our hands on, and join the party, or else."
"Just so, Miss Parker." Graham merely nodded. "Crude, but pinpoint accuracy. So what it amounts to is, in about two days from now you'll both be piloting your Stirling as a participating unit in several bombing raids over Germany, scheduled for the coming few weeks. Not all at the same target; but you can plan on seeing quite a lot of Berlin from on high, if the weather's clear, that is."
"Another barren airfield; another Nissen hut; another Tilly; ano—"
"Give it a rest, ducks." Gabrielle grabbed her canvas kitbag from the ground, where it had been unceremoniously flung by their transport driver, and looked around her at the less than interesting environs of the small airfield they had arrived at, in Norfolk. "If this is Little Lanning, God knows what Big Lanning looks like. Flat as a pancake. Just a few trees in the distance; but that's as many more trees as we ever got t'see in bloody Orkney, mind you."
"Who cares about the dam' trees." Claire was peeved, after their long journey by road to this country spot on the east coast of England; their Stirling having been brought along the day before by another female ATA pilot. "The Wash's just over there, northwards, ain't it?"
"Expect so." Gabrielle was uninterested, having spotted their own private Tilly van. "Come on, I'll drive. Which hut is it? You've got Graham's notes."
"Hut C3." Claire snorted contemptuously, as she meekly followed her lover towards the small vehicle. "Well, here we go again."
Inside the hut, which was of the usual Nissen design, wholly similar to thousands of its sisters presently scattered across the British Isles, and many farther flung outposts, they found the expected basic utilitarian furnishings. A table of indeterminate age; two low camp-beds; three straight-backed chairs; a sink and small stove at the rear of the curved-roof interior, where one corner was taken up with a brick-built khazi all their own, even sporting a door with an interior lock; and a second table set back in the shadows on which was sitting the radio equipment so beloved of SOE. They were, indeed, home again.
"Well, at least we won't be bothered by dam' Navy ships out on the Flow honking their sirens at all hours of the night." Gabrielle dearly loving her down-time.
As if a particularly mischievous God—probably Loki, in this case—had been eavesdropping, a dull rumble in the air resolved itself into a multi-engined plane roaring directly over the base at low level. For several seconds neither woman could hear herself think, never mind keep up a conversation; dust descended from the curved corrugated iron roof; and the air trembled; then all was quiet again.
"Hell's-teeth, what was that?"
Both made a bee-line for the door and gazed into the light blue sky. They were just in time to see a four-engined bomber with a particularly large tail-plane disappearing in the far distance. Claire, a mine of information on these topics, fingered the culprit without a second thought.
"Boeing B-17. A Flying Fortress; the Yanks are here, somewhere close."
The Squadron-Leader's office, in a long low whitewashed building with wide windows, was Spartan in its furnishings. Desk, table strewn with maps and documents, three chairs, four filing-cabinets, and a tall wooden multi-armed coat-and-hatrack by the door. The Squadron-Leader himself, Charles Copthorne, stood by his desk, looking for all the world like a young schoolboy just out of Public School—which, tragically, was more or less the situation. He was 27 years old, and had already seen 11 of his bomber crews disappear into the night never to return. So his general attitude now leaned somewhat heavily towards the cynical and world-weary.
"Heard from Group-Captain Graham all about you two." His voice was clipped to a fine edge of neutrality. "Or, at least, as much as he was willing to part with; which was very little, in fact. Anyhow, I understand you have both had experience on four-engined planes, and bombers, so here you are."
"What's our role going to be then, sir?" Gabrielle, nothing loth, jumped in where several angels would have paused to hold a mutual conference on the ins-and-outs of such an action.
"Hrrph, you can describe yourselves as bona-fide bomber crew from now till Air Chief Marshal Harris gets t'hear what you're doing, an' probably has a fit in consequence. But as no-one's going to openly break the news to him, letting him find out in his own time, if ever, we'll just corral your services to drop as much ordnance on Jerry as we possibly can in the next few months. All night-time work by the way, y'know."
"What's it been like so far, sir?" Claire thought she might as well back up her partner; in for a penny, in for a pound.
"God-awful, is the answer." Copthorne shook his head, sighing deeply. "We've been at it since around November of last year; and the overall results don't bear thinkin' about."
"Heavy casualties, sir?"
"You can dam' well say that again, ma'am." Copthorne gazed at the women, then decided to come clean; they shortly going to risk their own necks in the same way. "Harris's idea was that we drop our bombs more or less indiscriminately on German cities; bomb the civilians t'Hell an' back, y'know. Leave not one brick sittin' on another, sort'a thing."
"How well'd that work?" Gabrielle could pretty well tell what the answer was going to be as she spoke.
"As you're both aircrew now I'll give you some secret information which is not for further transmission—got that?"
"Right, the lay o'the land's like this." The Squadron-Leader pondered for a few seconds, then started speaking. "Since the night of the 18th November last, up to the 14th of this month, January 1944, we at Bomber Command have lost a total of approximately three hundred and twenty-three aircraft; mostly Lancasters, Halifaxes, and Mosquitos. 2nd December, a month ago, was a total f-ckin' balls-up; forty planes gone AWOL. But, on the other hand, we managed to knock Berlin's railway system into a cocked-hat."
"Chr-st, sir, how can we help?" Gabrielle was taken aback at the breadth of this news; glancing at her partner in horror. "Pathfinder, 'Window' dropping; Special Ops?"
"Straight down the middle of the road bomb-dropping." Copthorne didn't mince words. "We're so much in need of extra bombers, from any source, you've drawn the short straw. We have another Berlin raid scheduled for the 20th; in which you'll be participating with your Stirling. Your plane can be loaded here, at Little Lanning. My squadron of Lancasters are based here; so your Stirling'll fit in nicely. However, I must warn you both there is every chance you'll be shot down in your own right. Casualties have been, er, excessive over the last few months; I don't think even Harris can keep things up much longer at this rate. But, as it is, you're needed right now so I suggest you go and get settled in, then meet with Group-Captain James, who'll fill you in on the technicalities of bombing-up a Stirling. Goodbye, for the present."
"I was a corporal, till Thursday o'last week, ma'am." Flight-Sergeant Henry Crawford looked glum, as if already regretting his swift advance in rank. "Navigator."
"When we go up tonight, ma'am, it'll be the first time I've ever flew-flown, before." Flight-Sergeant George Andrews was equally lacking in enthusiasm. "Flight engineer."
Claire and Gabrielle, on the verge of their first night-time raid over Germany, were standing on the concrete runway in pale weak afternoon sunshine meeting their crew.
"Six flights, ma'am. Lancs'." Flight-Sergeant James Barclay a dour Somerset man with a thick accent, added his distaste for his present job to the general tone. "Rear-gunner."
"Four flights, ma'am. Halifaxes." Flight-Sergeant,—all aircrew were by default of this rank—Charles Downeley, gazed at his pilots with an air of slight, but unspoken, distaste at their sex. "Dorsal-gunner."
"Twelve runs, ma'am. Halifaxes an' Lancs'." Flight-Sergeant Tom Hawkins, to the inexperienced eye only just, if that, over the age of sixteen, essayed the weak reflection of a grin. "Just gettin' used t'the whole caper, ma'am. Though we only bloody just made it home from the last raid, a week gone. Half our tail-plane left behind in Germany. Oh, bomb-aimer, ma'am."
"Only delivery runs, ma'am." Flying-Officer Sheila Laytone, a blonde of around twenty-two, smiled bravely. "ATA pilot, ma'am. Experience flying Spits, Hurri's, Anson's, Lancaster's and Halifaxes. Radio-operator."
"Four flights, ma'am." Flight-Sergeant David Rackham, a bank clerk in his previous life, shrugged unconcernedly as if the situation was just another problem in military life to overcome as best you could. "All Lancs. Front-gunner."
The thought occurred to both Claire and Gabrielle that Bomber Command were indeed scrambling around for anything remotely resembling aircrew at this point; even throwing their long-held antipathy to females going on active duty out the window for the time being.
"Well, to put you all in the picture Flying-Officer Parker here, and I myself, have had, er, wide experience in a number of aircraft, including heavy bombers." Claire instilled a note of determined authority into her voice; making a statement of her capability at the outset. "Including Stirlings, with our own baby, which you see awaiting your presence over there on the taxi runway. Any o'you ever been up in a Stirling before?"
The prolonged silence following this question provided all the answer necessary.
"Urrph, well, you'll find it not much different from a Lanc; except more noisy, more uncomfortable, less powerful; not able to climb as high, but rather more likely to survive major damage, an' a dam' sight more manoeuvrable." Claire glanced at the group of white faces, all now even paler than a few minutes ago. "I believe in makin' things plain from the outset; flying a Stirling ain't ever a bed o'roses, but I'm sure you'll all battle through. Right, let's get over there an' meet S for Sara."
The evening of 20th January 1944, though hardly past four in the afternoon, was drawing in darkly. The trees clustering dangerously close to the far end of the main runway were already black silhouettes, while an almost electric blue lit up the sky in the west. Soon it would be total night.
On the single taxiing runway, and the near end of the main runway, as fine a group of Lancasters as could be wished for sat in line astern waiting their turn to take-off. The squadron was going in three waves, the first of which had already left. Claire and Gabrielle's Stirling sat halfway down the line of the second wave, on the main runway. All her engines were running smoothly and this, allied with the roar of the other aircraft, made the environs of the airfield reverberate with the noise; sending a squadron of Lancasters away on a bombing run never being a quiet or secretive maneouvre; half the surrounding countryside knowing perfectly well exactly what was in the wind.
The Stirling was equipped with a large bomb capacity, having three rows of bomb bays running across the whole width of the plane and for about forty feet along its length, all opening simultaneously. While they had walked, earlier, across the concrete runway towards the great machine Claire had given her crew a short running commentary.
"Don't worry about the way it sticks its nose up in the air, there's a grand view from the cockpit; once y'get used to it." She kept a tone of light banter in her voice, not wanting to scare them just before they entered the plane with serious intent for the first time. "The wheels are bloody gigantic, I give ya that; taller'n me, but they do their job. An' don't worry about the curious undercart; I know the separate fairing, above the wheels, but well below the engine nacelle, makes it look like a badly built child's toy, but they work smoothly, an' hold the ol' crate up alright."
Flight Sergeant Crawford, having a close-up view of the mighty leviathan, now only thirty feet away, looked glummer than ever.
"Our range's two thousand miles." Claire continued the lecture, hoping to make the crew happier with a few facts under their belts. "Top speed, we'll be doin' around two hundred most o'the time. Bomb capacity, fully loaded, is eight tons; but we're only carrying six one-thousand pounders on tonight's raid. As you heard at the briefing our target's an aircraft engine factory on the outskirts of Berlin."
"Ma'am, you said earlier the Stirling wasn't as powerful as a Lanc?" Flight Sergeant Barclay was obviously a man who liked to know exactly where he stood.
"Yeah." Gabrielle, here, put in her technical know-how; shrugging lightly as if the sweeping differences between the capabilities of the two types were of little moment. "Less powerful engines; lighter frame; an' a wingspan of only ninety-nine feet, with thin wings. Means we can't make the height that Lancs' can reach; or go nearly as fast; but, as Flying-Officer Mathews said earlier, we can take a sight more damage. Don't let me put you all off, though; we'll get there an' back alright, no worries."
The muted silence manifested by the crew members after this remark didn't bode well about the general feeling regarding their chances of the night's survival; then they had reached the huge plane and walked under its dominating shadow.
"We're at fifteen thousand, two hundred." Gabrielle cast a quick glance over the many dials on the control-panel. "Two hundred and ten mph. Glad t'see those Lanc's are keeping up with us."
"Har-Har." Claire growled at this weak joke. "Chicken-feed fer them, as ya well know. They can reach well over twenty-thousand, if they want, while we're scraping our ceiling right now."
The operation was a couple of hours into its flight, and dark night surrounded the small wing of bombers now flying deep into the heart of enemy territory. The seven Lancasters accompanying the solitary Stirling were loaded with a mass of two-hundred-and-fifty pounder bombs; while the Stirling was bearing up under the strain of carrying six one-thousand pound bombs—designed to create maximum damage over a wide area. The eight planes were now on the way to carpet-bomb a single aero-engine factory—carpet-bomb in the sense of flattening the factory to dust, while leaving everything surrounding the target's immediate perimeter untouched—theoretically.
For this sort of precise operation the bomb-aimer's expertise was, of course, paramount; and the Stirling's representative of this profession was already in his cubby-hole, lying flat in the nose of the bomber, the little rounded window giving him a wide panorama of, at the moment, nothing but darkness.
"How far ahead's the Mosquito Pathfinder?"
"Fifteen miles, I reckon." Claire, in her co-pilot's seat, studied a bunch of loose notes on her lap; her heavily gloved hands scrabbling rather ineffectually amongst them. "Jeez, it's bloody cold up here. Yeah, fifteen miles; he should've made a nice bright bonfire for us by the time we reach the target."
"Let's hope so; a bit murky out, tonight."
"Stop complainin', Gab; you've got cat's-eyes, as I well know."
"How far to target now, Harry?" Claire, now on the intercom, turned her attention to the important matter in hand. "An' how long?"
There was a pause while Harry Crawford, in his narrow cubby-hole just behind the cockpit, went quickly through his navigational figures.
"I make it just on twenty-five miles to target—now, ma'am." His voice came tinnily, as if from a thousand miles distant through the intercom. "About seven minutes."
Claire sat upright in her seat and glanced at her pilot, as the crew settled in for the final approach. Then things began to hot up.
"Flak, up ahead." Front-gunner David Rackham joined the conversation, an excited edge to his voice. "Can see it plain as daylight—about two thousand feet above our flight-level at the moment, but dead ahead nearly—slightly off to port."
"Right everyone, this is it." Gabrielle cut in, her tone strong firm and commanding. "Everyone to action stations. Gunners, check your weapons; an' everybody keep a sharp look-out for bandits."
"Five miles, an' closing." Harry gave the first of his updates as the planes flew on. "Target dead ahead, on the nose."
"Just by way o'askin'," Claire switched her intercom to connect only with Gabrielle. "How does this carpet-bombing lark work, when the bomb-aimer hasn't a hope o'seein' the bloody target?"
"His bomb-sight's locked into the main compass, and the long-range directional beacons from Blighty." Gabrielle, as always, had the technicalities at her now somewhat blue fingertips. "If we stay directly on course—as we bloody well will be, 'cos I'm not doin' this twice—he just needs t'wait till the in-coming co-ordinates on his receiver match the targets' precisely on the map, at which point he presses the button—easy."
"Glad ya think so."
"Navigator,—are the Lancs' well ahead now?"
"Yes, ma'am." Harry, no doubt beginning to feel harassed, shot this back in a steely tone. "All seven are about five miles ahead of us. By the time we reach the target it'll be nicely flattened, an' lit up."
"We hope." Claire, ever gloomy at these moments, spoke low—again only to her cohort in the cockpit.
"Explosions—low, but dead ahead." David reported again, from his ringside seat in the front-gunner's position.
"The Lancs' have started the ball rollin'." Claire sat even more tensely than before. "Watch out for bandits, everyone. Remember, if we're attacked the plan's t'go right ahead straight for the target. So there won't be any side-slippin' or what-not till we've dropped our cookies."
No-one spoke in answer to this, and everything remained quiet—or, at least, as quiet as could be expected, which wasn't much. The interior of a Stirling, hot on the scent of its foe, was never a grotto of silence. The engines, for one—or four—saw to this. Then there were the ordinary strains and tensions of the struts, load-bearing girders, and general tweaks and twists inherent on the frame of the airplane being under great stress. It was, to put it mildly, a noisy environment.
'Bang, Bang, Bang.'
The whole plane shook from stem to stern, Gabrielle clutching her wheel with iron strength to overcome the atmospheric blasts of the near-miss flak. But there was no respite—another string of explosions burst on the starboard side, much closer and nearer their flying-level.
'Bang, Bang, Bang.'
Then, before anyone could so much as swear, the whole outside of the bomber, and its interior, was lit up as if it had suddenly gone from deepest midnight to the brilliance of a Mediterranean midday.
"Oh God, searchlights."
Two German searchlights had locked on to the plane, lighting it in the sky like a butterfly on a pin. Having once found their target these searchlights, guided by intricate computing devices, almost never lost contact—until the plane had flown out of range, if it was so lucky. Right now the flak units, seeing their target clearly, had opened up with re-newed confidence, and much better accuracy. Suddenly, in the space of a few seconds, the Stirling was surrounded by a spreading sea of black explosions, above, below, and to each side—the furthest never more than three hundred yards distant; the nearest seemingly within a hand's-breadth. Inside, life became difficult.
"How long to target?" Gabrielle's voice had taken on the tone of a screeching owl.
"Two—two minutes." Harry was now under real pressure, a fragment of shrapnel having punched its way through the outer skin of the Stirling just above his head, narrowly missing him.
"Target dead ahead." Flight-Sergeant Hawkins, in the bomb-aimer's nose position, was trying to watch his bomb-sight readings and stare ahead through his window at the same time. "Right on line."
"Open bomb-doors, Claire." Gabrielle glanced at her companion as she gave this order.
"Right, bomb-doors open."
"Switching to automatic sighting, ma'am." Hawkins, spread out flat, grasped the box-like sight in a gloved hand as if it were the treasure of the Indies.
"Within one minute of target, ma'am." Harry gave the last of his updates.
"It's all yours, Tom." Gabrielle gave the order with a sigh of relief; then hunched over her steering-wheel as the bomber shook with the concussion of a spread of flak outside, but far too near. "Jeesus. That was close. Drop 'em when you're good an' ready, Tom."
As she spoke the searchlights, having done sterling service for their German flak unit counter-parts, now finally lost contact, and the Stirling was swamped in pitch blackness once more. But not before a parting salute of flak honed in on the plane for the last time.
'Bang, Bang, Bang.'
The small side window on Claire's right side evaporated in a mist of fragments; tearing crashes filled the cockpit, and could also be heard from further back in the plane's fuselage, as shrapnel tore through the body of the aircraft from several directions; some pieces whining eeerily as they ricochetted.
"Christ, anybody hit?" Claire felt her own body and legs, to the best of her ability over her heavy clothing, then looked across at Gabrielle.
"Nah, I'm OK." Gabrielle gasped in relief. "What about the others. Anybody hurt back there. Chr-st, we're on the bloody target—get ready for the uplift when the cookies go."
"What's gon'na happen?"
"Losin' six thousand pounds weight?" Gabrielle snorted loudly, as she took a firmer grip on the wheel. "The crate'll hurtle upwards like a bloody Olympic high-jumper. But as we're more or less already at a Stirling's top ceiling, we'll probably lose airworthiness an' go into a stall. So hold tight."
The bomb-aimer didn't need to inform anyone when he threw the switch to drop the bombs; the plane rearing as if hit underneath by an angry Titan, soaring heaven-wards with howling engines. Inside, the screams of over-stressed frames and fabric sounded like lost souls in Hell; then came a sudden semi-silence, before the nose went over to starboard and the Stirling began a sideways dive.
"Don't talk—lem'me grab this crate—aargh."
For what seemed to Claire like a slow-moving hour, but was really only a few seconds, Gabrielle hunched over her wheel with straining muscles, before finally getting the plane back under control and bringing the nose onto an even keel once more.
"Ker-rist, I don't wan'na do that again." Gabrielle heaved a groan of relief. "Harry, course for home, an' make it snappy. Ricky, see anythin'? Did we hit the target?"
"Can't say, just blackness out there—we've overflown the area now." Claire sat back, taking up an earlier topic. "Anyone hurt back there? Did that last lot o'flak hit anythin' vital?"
"Harry? Harry? Where's my course?" Gabrielle, intent on reaching base as quickly as possible, was gazing at her instruments like a hungry bear in pursuit of its dinner. "Come on, man, wake-up back there, for Chr-st's sake."
For the first time Sheila came on the intercom.
"Yeah, it's a bloody mess back here." Her voice sounded even more distant than normal. "I'm back in the rear o'the plane. Sergeant Barclay's gone, along with most of the rear turret.—"
"Wha'd'ya mean, gone?" This from a perplexed Claire.
"He's dead—or, at least, what little's left of him here's dead." Sheila's voice had a curious, ominous calm about it. "You can kiss the turret goodbye, as well; I'm standin' in a bloody hurricane here. But that's not all—Sergeant Crawford's dead, too. A whole fusillade o'shrapnel seems t'have blasted through the port side, right by him. Peppered like a duck, an' just as dead."
"The Flight-Engineer, George, is also out of it." Sheila's voice was now thin with tension. "Right leg shot full o'Jerry ironmongery—bleedin' like a pig. I'm workin' on stoppin' the flow right now—could do with some help, mind you."
Claire unbuckled her various cables and straps, heaving herself out of her seat.
"Right, I'm goin' back to lend a hand, Gabs." She glanced at her companion, each exchanging a look of wonder at current events. "See what can be done; keep the ol' crate goin'. I'd rather like t'get home in one piece, myself."
"Too right, babe, too right."
The next afternoon Claire, alongside an equally distraught Gabrielle, examined the extensively damaged S for Sara, where it had been parked on the concrete of the taxiing runway.
"Jeesus, most of the rear turret's history—just a hole left."
"Yeah." Claire nodded as they stood beside the tail structure of the mighty bomber. "Dam' lucky the tail didn't get wiped out, too."
"Let's go round t'the port side."
Here they found even more damage, to wing as well as fuselage.
"Christ, look at that."
Gabrielle stared in horror at the patchwork of tears and holes which now made up a large section of the plane's port side, just aft of the cockpit. It was terrifyingly clear why their navigator, Sergeant Crawford, had bought his exit ticket from the play of Life so comprehensively.
"Looks like a bloody sieve." Gabrielle shook her head in disbelief. "Bloody flak."
"That ain't the end of it, either; look-ee there."
Claire pointed with her right hand across at the wide sweep of the port wing high overhead, as the bomber's nose stuck characteristically far in the air.
"God, y'can see the internal structure for about five feet there." Gabrielle, as pilot on the fateful night, just past, was appalled. "An' look at the rest of the underside of the wing; holes an' rips everywhere."
"Afternoon ma'am, come t'see the damage?" Sergeant Rouse, head mechanic, appeared round the huge bulk of the port undercarriage wheel. "Pretty much of a mess, I'm afraid."
"Is she, er,—is she-airworthy?" Claire thought she already knew the answer, but it had to be asked.
"Hell, no." Rouse shook his head decisively. "Take-off in this state; she'll fall out'ta the sky five feet past the end o'the runway. God alone knows how y'both managed t'bring the old girl back at all—theoretically, accordin' t'all the manuals, she can't possibly fly in this condition. No, she's gon'na have t'sit in dock, in Hangar One, for repairs over, aahm, two weeks certain."
"As long as that?" Gabrielle looked even sadder at the prospect.
"Probably longer, ma'am. Take a look at the port undercart, ladies." Sergeant Rouse gave a sweeping gesture, as of a major-domo at a music-hall presenting his latest star. "See the main strut, above the wheel casing? Shot t'hell, as y'can easily see. An' the rubber o'the wheel itself is torn to fragments; only just on this side of a blow-out. I'm gon'na get her dragged, careful-like, into Hangar One slow and steady. How she stood up t'landing last night, I'll never understand; this port wheel an' undercart should've collapsed like a drunk man in the gutter for sure—can't understand it. Well, goodbye, ladies, got a lot'ta work t'do on this ol' crate."
With this cheery refrain ringing in their ears the worthy sergeant walked off to attend to other matters, leaving the two ATA pilots under the shadow of the wounded bomber.
"Looks like we're b-gg-red for a ride for the forseeable future." Claire sighed heavily. "An' we lost half our aircrew, dammit."
"We didn't lose 'em." Gabrielle was more pragmatic about the matter. "Jerry flak did for 'em. Howsomever, I have a plan."
"Oh God." Claire turned slowly to regard her companion, as they walked along the taxiing runway towards the main group of low airfield buildings. "An' what, if I may enquire, could that be?"
"We've got a radio all of our own, back at the Nissen." Gabrielle could be as machiavelian as Machiavelli himself, when required. "We know Group-Captain Graham's number. We ring the ol' darlin' up, shed crocodile tears, express our undyin' wish t'serve King an' Country, an' ask him t'supply another plane, posthaste, or faster, if possible."
"Great Balls o'Fire, y'know what that'll mean, don't ya?"
"Yeah, something nasty, over in Europe." Gabrielle could also, as Shakespeare had once opined about someone, see a church in daylight as well as most. "At dead o'night, in a Lysander, with only a turnip field t'land an' take-off in, while Jerry shoots our butts off. Wha'd'ya think, babe?"
"Oh God, bring it on, I suppose."
In the Briefing Room, which was in fact a single low bungalow with its two rooms knocked into one, a few desultory aircrew were standing about in small groups holding conversations on past events. Over by the long table, used for maps and photographs of various target areas, Group-Captain Lanier stood puzzling over a set of newly arrived photos.
"Hi'ya, Captain Lanier, any news on last night's little hoo-ha?" Claire was always ready to look Destiny in the face. "The Stahnsdorf Daimler-Benz factory, south o'Berlin."
"Look for yourselves, ladies." Captain Lanier was an old school officer, now with slightly greying hair and a straight stance, echo of many hours on the parade ground, though generally liked by all who met him. "Just came over from the Photo boys a few minutes ago."
The women came across to the table and gazed down at the spread of large, twenty inch by sixteen inch, photos. Gabrielle shuffled through them with little liking.
"Nothing but white, sir."
"Yes, low cloud cover over the entire target area, I'm afraid." He ran a hand through his hair. "That goes for the whole of Berlin, too; everything covered an' obscured by low cloud. Afraid we just won't be able to assess the damage you, an' everyone else on other operations in the area, may have caused yesterday. One of those things, ladies; just have t'hope for better luck next time."
"Cause damage, sir?" Claire was incensed at this unhappy ending to what had been, for her and her lover, a very dramatic operation. "We had six one-thousand pounders on board, sir. Must have blown a hole nearly through t'China, wherever the Hell they landed. Cause damage; I should dam' well think they bloody did."
"Well, you'll just have to accept that, because we' don't have enough Recce units to send another one, at a later date, t'try for better images." Captain Lanier shrugged, turning to an NCO who had arrived with another thick brown paper envelope. "Other things t'do, ladies,-goodbye. I suppose if you visit Squadron-Leader Copthorne, he'll be able t're-assign you to other duties."
"To Group-Captain Graham, Room 21, Somerset House, London. Stirling S for Sara temporarily out of commission due to repairs. Request other bomber asap. Unit Plover, Little Lanning, Norfolk."
"Short, to the point, an' just that perfect tone of insubordination that'll be sure t'get his goat." Claire was in a satirical mood, an hour later in their quiet Nissen hut. "Sure ya don't wan'na add anythin'? Like how are his bunions gettin' on, or somethin'?"
"Idiot." Gabrielle was having none of it, as she chewed on her regulation yellow WD pencil. "Gives all the info he needs, in as few words as possible—just the way he likes it. All we do now is sit back an' wait t'see if he assigns us one o'those spankin' new Lancasters, or whatever."
"It's the whatever that worries me, doll."
Forty minutes later Claire's worst fears were realised. The return message from Somerset House was less than pleasing to the women.
"S for Sara pranged? Bad show. Stirlings don't grow on trees. All Lancasters already assigned; no Halifaxes available; Sending Lysander over from Hampton, by ATA pilot. Instructions to follow, tonight. Out. Graham."
"Well, at least we have another plane." Gabrielle tried hard to look on the bright side. "When it arrives, that is. Wonder if we'll know the ATA pilot?"
"Who the dam' cares?" Claire was operating under a cloud of gloom. "A Lizzie? You were right, turnip fields in Normandy, at dead o'night. Jeesus."
Darkness surrounded the Lysander as it flew over the northern reaches of France; its crew desperately hoping they didn't encounter a Jerry night-fighter, or accurate flak or, as Gabrielle cogently remarked just as they crossed the coast of France, a handily placed Barrage Balloon.
"Gab," Claire spoke through the intercom from her single cockpit to her navigator far back in the body of the plane's long glassed-over crew compartment. "kindly try'n be more positive, if ya don't mind. I'm flyin' at one hundred an' sixty feet here, an' by the seat o'my pants."
"Sorry." Gabrielle returned to her maps and dividers. "Dam', dropped my pencil; wait'll I get another—right. Well?"
"I thought you wanted a course update, is all."
"Well, I don't." Claire's voice, even through the tinny intercom, sounded pissed-off. "I know perfectly well where I am—somewhere over Picardy; what more d'ya want."
"Ha-Ha, very funny."
Their mission, which they had grudgingly accepted, having no other choice—not wanting to make acquaintance with a stone wall, and a firing squad, at early dawn in the Tower—was to take a container of supplies to a group of French Resistance fighters in the wilds of Picardy, pick up a member of said group and bring him back to Blighty with them. It was the evening—well, darkest night actually—of the day after their new Lysander had been placed in their hot little hands and Group-Captain Graham had unleashed the latest of his charmingly unhinged plots on their unwilling shoulders.
Their destination, if not the cold broken turnip field of legend, was a small meadow on the edge of a spreading group of copses going by the general name of Bouteaux Woods. Graham's instructions had highlighted the necessity to land in said meadow and not the adjoining woods—a patronising request which had got Claire's back up instantly; resulting in a detailed genealogical study of the Group-Captain's ancestors significant for the fact that apparently many of these ancients had never been in the usually required marriagable positions needed for legal purposes, according to Claire. Gabrielle was, once more, impressed with her soul-mate's breadth of knowledge of the lesser known by-ways of English vituperation.
They were flying too low, and too fast, for flak to be any hindrance; but the dread of night-fighters, equipped with radar, was an ever-present anxiety. In such an emergency it had been agreed that neither Gabrielle with her two .303 Lewis guns, nor Claire with her two fixed .303 Brownings, would try to engage the enemy; the same being a waste of time, and only likely to alert their adversary by the gun-flashes. Claire would simply rely on her expertise to outrun the Jerry fighter in the dark at low level, radar notwithstanding.
As the cockpit and crew compartment were more or less an all-in-one unit, heavily glassed over, they tried to keep internal lights to a minimum. Claire, in the cockpit, sat in relative darkness; while Gabrielle, back in her separate section as navigator, made do with a pencil-thin beam from a shaded small torch on her tight little desk. This situation was not by any means easy for either; Claire peering myopically at her instruments, and Gabrielle at her dimly seen workings on the notepad before her.
Time passed; the mighty Bristol Mercury radial engine roared like an angry bull; and the general noises associated with a small airplane creaked and groaned inside the airframe. Eventually, after a last examination of her maths, Gabrielle clicked the switch on her mouthpiece and communicated the glad tidings to her pilot.
"Nearly there, Ricky." Gabrielle made a grunting noise, preparatory to announcing the Good News hot from Ghent—or, at least, her own hopefully correct notebook. "Another two minutes. We're right on course. So you should see the ground lights any time now. Remember, don't over-fly; they won't hang about for a second run."
"Fool, as if I didn't know that." Claire growled low in her throat, leaning forward to stare through her windscreen. "—er, er, yeah, got 'em. Dead ahead. Right, losing height an' speed. Hope t'God they've lit the right section—don't wan'na pile in'ta a bloody hedge."
"Don't think they go in for hedges much, in France." Gabrielle, as usual, was au fait with unhelpful, and presently unwanted, facts. "Ditches bein' the order o'the day, I believe."
"Christ, girl, if ya can't be helpful, keep stum, why don't ya."
The Resistance group were using the normal precedure in such conditions; two people at one end of the field with a dim light each, spaced wide apart, and two more further down the field. This, hopefully, giving the approaching pilot enough of a general idea of the landing zone to drop in safely. Claire placed the nose of the plane directly between the two nearing lights, eased off on the throttle, and began a short glide down. The light wasn't enough to show the ground, so she had to judge when she thought it appropriate to ease off speed altogether and let the plane fall gently onto the grass. Taking her cue, Claire throttled down entirely, letting the plane fall gracefully. She had expected the ground to be somewhere around ten feet below, but had slightly misjudged this. There was an awful pause, while the plane continued falling, then the sudden bounce and thump as the wheels hit the ground a full five feet lower than Claire had thought likely. But the plane ran on unhindered and in a moment she brought it to a stop in what appeared to be an enormously wide flattish meadow with well-nibbled short grass.
Gabrielle opened the canopy above her head and climbed down the short attached ladder to the ground. In her hand she held the metal key to open the cargo-pod hung, like a torpedo, between the heavy streamlined wheels; but before she could duck under the fuselage a dark figure materialised at her elbow.
"Yeah, what?" Gabrielle peered into the gloom, trying to see details, but only being aware her companion was a young man. "What is it? We only got a coupla minutes, ya know."
"He is not present; not here."
"Who isn't here?" Gabrielle was hopping from well-booted foot to well-booted foot in nervous anxiety. "Listen buster, standin' around on the ground in Occupied France is not one of my favourite hobbies. I got no intention of makin' the acquaintance of the Nazis, at the end of a Schmiesser. D'ya wan'na unload this cargo, or not?"
"Madam, your passenger, the officer who is to return to England with you—he has not arrived."
Gabrielle stood motionless for a second, frozen by this news, then let rip.
"F-ckin' Nora, what the hell kind'a group are you?" She waved a gloved hand around at the encroaching darkness. "We ain't gon'na sit on the bloody grass an' have a nice picnic, while we wait for the idiot t'appear. He ain't here, fine; we dis-embark this junk you need, an' we're bloody off. He can make his own way to the coast, an' swim the bloody Channel, for all I care. We ain't bloody waitin'."
"Madam, madam," The Franchman seemed about to break into tears. "We are all most, er, sorry, but it is necessary that he goes with you tonight. His information, you understand. We must wait."
"Christ, haven't you heard a thing o'what I just said?" Gabrielle glanced up at the Lysander's cockpit, where Claire was now leaning out her open side-window listening. "God, we're on a tight schedule; an' the bloody Krauts may not be far away. We can't wait; we got'ta get out'ta here fast. Come on, the pod's ready, get your men to unload the stuff, pronto; we've wasted far too much time already."
"What the hell's goin' on down there?"
"Nuthin', Ricky, nuthin'." Gabrielle was on her knees underneath the plane, opening the casing of the cargo-pod, so couldn't see just how irate her pilot might be. She tried to speak in not too loud a voice, sound carrying far in the night-time. "We're unloading, but there may be a problem with our passenger."
"Well, make it not a problem, an' don't hang about in the doin' so."
"Yes, ma'am, three bags full, ma'am."
"Nuthin', just tryin' t'get these men here t'work faster." Gabrielle, panting with effort, knew when to prevaricate. "Ricky, can you wait a while; for our passenger, I mean? He's, apparently, gon'na be a trifle late."
"F-ckin' Jee-sus Christ." The phrases now emanating from the high cockpit seemed fit to light the dark all round with a glaring crimson glow. "Wait? Bloody wait? Are ya out'ta your mind? Are they out'ta their minds? No, wait, they probably are; what am I thinkin'. Gabrielle, get your butt back up here, right now; we're bloody leavin'. These Resistance clots can look after their own problems."
A scurrying group of shadows had been darting, meanwhile, under the wheels of the high-winged plane, grabbing various boxes and parcels, and as swiftly melting back into the darkness from whence they had come. In a surprisingly short time the first part of the operation was safely completed; now they needed only the unknown passenger to climb up into the crew compartment alongside Gabrielle. But this, clearly, was not going to happen.
"What now?" Claire, in her high cockpit, felt out of the flow; seeing only various shadowy forms flitting about on the ground beneath her. "Gabri—"
"I'm here, I'm here." Gabrielle had climbed halfway up the ladder and now stood a few feet to the rear of the cockpit and Claire's unhappy leather-covered head. "The French lads want us to wait for their lost guest. He has important info which, they say, must reach England tonight—affect the whole course of the War, an' all that crap. I don't know what t'think."
Claire sat in silence, trying to assess this news; the smooth running of their whole operation hinging on a fast landing, quick unloading, and as fast a take-off back to safety. Hanging about, like a taxi waiting for its passenger, was simply not an option—or was it?
"Jesus, Jesus, Jesus." The dark-haired pilot finally came to a decision. "If I switch off the bloody engine there's no guarantee it'll bloody start again, y'realise that, Gab?"
"An' what're we gon'na do meanwhile?" Claire shifted uncomfortably, straining to look back at her navigator. "They got any ideas?"
"The guy in charge, he's about eighteen I think, says there's a house nearby where we can set up shop for a short time. He thinks our passenger may turn up in an hour or so."
"A bloody hour?" Claire could hardly take in this appalling news. "Chr-st, why don't we just ask the local Maire to buy a house for us, an' put in for French citizenship, while we're about it?"
With a groan Claire finally accepted the situation and switched-off the engine. The resulting silence was even more frightening than the previous muted roar. Everyone stood still, listening intently, but nothing came to their ears. Claire climbed out her cockpit, clambered down the footholds on the side of the fuselage, placed her weight carefully in the foothold on the port undercarriage leg, and jumped lithely to the ground.
"Right, where's this mythical hotel we're supposed to spend the ensuing night in? An' it better not be too bloody far away, either."
The house, in fact, turned out to be a full-bodied chateau; complete with wide curving drive and turrets at each corner of the mansard roof. It was not only big, in the dark of night it appeared gigantic.
"Bloody Hell." Claire stopped in her tracks, walking along the grass verge of the gravelled drive. "This's the sort o'place the Nazis' just love takin' over for their own purposes. These guys ain't leadin' us in'ta a trap, are they, Gab?"
"How the f-ck should I know." Gabrielle was glancing suspiciously from side to side herself, obviously no happier than her companion. "I'm not used t'French Resistance hospitality. Maybe they lay this kind'a welcome on for everyone."
Instead of heading straight for the main door, under its columned portico, the young Frenchman led them round the side. Rows of windows, on several levels, rose above their heads as they traversed the flank of the building; then they came to the rear quarters, cobbled underfoot with an ordinary door leading into what must have been the kitchen and servants' quarters. There was only a tiny fragment of light in the long high-ceilinged room, from a small torch. Beside the table in the centre of the room stood a tall woman in a dark cloak.
"Henri, you have to get these guests out and away as soon as possible—the Boche are coming."
"I received a phone-call from a—friend, some half an hour ago. A unit of officers and their men, probably thirty, maybe forty, are to arrive in about an hour, maybe now less. Jacques arrived ten minutes ago. He is in the Drawing-room."
"What's happening?" Claire knew trouble when it hit her in the eye with a blockbuster right hook. "What about the bloody Boche, Henri?"
"Our plans must be changed, rather quickly." Henri, now shown in the dim light to be hardly more than a student, had turned pale and was casting his eyes around in nervous confusion. "Your passenger, Jacques, is here; so you can take him with you as planned. A section of Jerries have decided to descend on us; commandeer the chateau for their own purposes, you see. We have been expecting such an action for some time; bad that it happens now. Perhaps it will be best if you return to your aircraft and, er, make your departure without, er, hanging about, as you English say, no?"
"Bloody Chr-st in a Golden Heaven." Gabrielle, taking all this in with a furrowed brow, was not amused. "This is gettin' far too close t'that Buster Keaton movie we saw a week ago, Claire. Y'know, the one where the gang o'cops chase him every which way. I'm beginnin' t'realise just how he felt."
A rectangle of light suddenly appeared as the lady of the house opened a door; beyond which seemed to be a long dim corridor leading who knows where.
"Come, I will introduce you to our guest. You must hurry in taking him with you, his information is of the utmost importance to the Allies, ladies."
After what seemed an eternity of walking deeper and ever deeper into the bowels of the ancient chateau, Claire and Gabrielle were more than grateful when another door revealed a large room comfortably furnished with sofas and deep leather armchairs, all covered in cheery flowered chintz. In one of these chairs a lightly-built man sat in a tight bundle, obviously their erstwhile passenger. He was clutching a small briefcase as if his life depended on it—which was almost certainly true.
"Ladies, this is Jacques." The lady seemed to be the owner of the whole establishment, judging by the submissive, almost servile, attitude taken towards her by those in her circle. "He is ready to leave momentarily, and I think you should do so too, now. Please, any farewells will only waste time; you must leave at once."
The man stood up, to his full height of what seemed five foot nothing, clutched his satchel ever more closely to his trenchcoat-covered body, and stared at his rescuers with more of suspicion than relief.
"God, here we go again." Gabrielle sighed deeply, then came to grips with the situation. "OK, madam; very glad t'have met you, I'm sure,—goodbye. Jacques, can you understand me?"
"—er, yes, ma'am, I speak English—"
"Brilliant." Gabrielle took on the mantle of authority. "Here's the rules—we tell you what t'do an' when, an' you do, or else. No arguments, or we leave you sittin' in a ditch, no questions asked. We're gon'na bundle you onto a tight little plane, where you'll be squeezed like a coupl'a orange pips—no complainin', or I'll hit you over the head with a spanner, got that?"
"An' in no time at all, afterwards, you'll find yourself in jolly ol' England, enjoying your first cup of really good tea." Gabrielle parted her lips in what might have been meant for an encouraging smile, but which failed entirely in its purpose. "Otherwise you keep stum all the way. Right, follow me an' my partner; an' remember, if you get lost you get lost—me an' my pilot ain't gon'na waste so much as thirty seconds searching for your sorry ass, OK? Don't answer, that was entirely rhetorical; come on. Goodbye, lady."
The group making its stealthy way back round the side of the chateau comprised Henri in the lead, accompanied by three of his brother Resistance fighters; then Claire, Gabrielle, and their passenger, bringing up the rear. But their forward progress came to a halt almost immediately, just as they reached the front façade of the huge building, and the sweeping gravel drive. Two more shadows materialised out of the dark and button-holed their leader with anxious nervousness.
"Boche. Already entered the main gate, now approaching along the drive—will be here in an instant only. We must break off into the woods, and get back to the plane another route. Quickly and silently."
There was a pause while the vague forms all round the women did invisible things, mostly accompanied by strange metallic clicks. Claire and Gabrielle realised the Resistance fighters were bringing their weapons into play.
"Gab, got your gun?"
"O'course I got my gun." Gabrielle was off-hand in her reply. "I never go anywhere in Occupied France without my trusty .38, you know that. What about your .45?"
"Sittin' on my hip, ready an' waitin'." Claire's voice held that quiet, impersonal tone which boded no-good for anyone getting in her way. "I think we may—Chr-st, lights, down the drive."
"It's Jerry, they're coming." Gabrielle grabbed her partner's arm, dragging her unceremoniously sideways away from the rearing shadow of the house. "Come on, let's head for the hills. Where's that dam' Jacques—oh, here you are—right, keep close."
They were only halfway across the wide lawn separating the chateau from the line of woods when they were illuminated by a series of bright lights like searchlights; the beams of the approaching German vehicles. Instantly it was apparent they had been seen, and their import recognised. Several of the headlights came to a screeching halt, showering gravel everywhere, followed by loud shouts from German officers instructing their troops—towards what purpose was all too clear.
"Come on, run; they'll start shootin' in a jiffy."
Claire's command was rather after the fact, as she found herself in the rear of the line of people making a dash for the cover of the trees.
'Ziiirr, Ziirrr, Ziiirrr.'
The stuttering snarl of several MP40 semi-automatic guns broke the silence of the night, and tufts of grass and clods of earth ripping out of the ground on either side of the running group attested to the aim of the German soldiers. Thankfully they had already almost crossed the intervening open lawn, reaching the cover of the trees in a few more seconds.
"We seem t'have lost our friends." Claire glanced back as they moved deeper into the thick undergrowth.
"Making a stand t'protect our escape, I think." Gabrielle was gasping for breath as they ran. "Jolly decent of 'em."
'Crack! Crack! Crrr, Crrr, Crrr.'
"That's Henri's lot." Claire moved to the front of the trio, patting Gabrielle's shoulder in passing. "Follow me, I think I know the way back t'the Lizzie from here."
"Bloody hope so."
The continuing fire between the Resistance and the newly arrived German unit carried on far to the rear of the fast-moving group wending its way through the encroaching trees and rhododendron bushes; Claire leading the way with what seemed a sure confidence.
"They don't appear t'be following us." Gabrielle took time to offer this assumption, wiping her brow as best she could with her gloved hand. "Henri seems t'be keepin' them static for the moment."
"Won't last." Claire shook her head, brushing a low branch out of Gabrielle's way. "The Jerries out-number Henri's lot by four t'one. We may only have, I don't know, three, four minutes. Keep movin', not far now."
There was almost a disaster when, without any warning, the ground slipped out from under the boots of the fugitives; precipitating them down a steep slope twenty feet or more to another grassy level. Across a long narrow twisting grass path the slope changed into a vertical sandstone wall at least ten feet high, trees and underbrush waiting at the top once more. However, the refugees swiftly noticed it was crumbling in several places from long years of neglect, many stones being missing altogether, parts of the wall having collapsed entirely into the ditch. Taking a moment to catch their breath, after sliding down the first slope on their arses, they scrambled up the further broken slope of loose stones and earth, pushing through the bushes atop till they found themselves under the safety of the tall trees again.
"Still know where you're goin', dearest?"
"O'course, take more'n a lurkin' Ha-Ha t'knock me off my line." Claire was contemptuous, holding out an arm to drag Gabrielle up the last couple of feet of the old abandoned obstruction. "Right, this way; can't be more'n two hundred yards or so."
The black-haired pilot's intuition proved spot-on when, a few seconds later, the undergrowth and thick knee-high grass suddenly stopped and they found themselves back in the wide meadow—the dark bulk of the Lysander sitting proud about thirty yards away.
"Chr-st. Thank Chr-st for that." Gabrielle expressed the emotion of all three as they stumbled over the short grass to the plane. "Nobody else around, thank God."
"Yeah, they're all still havin' a party back at the chateau." Claire wasted no time grabbing the side of the fuselage and planting her boot in the port undercarriage foothold with a determined purpose. "Come on, get Jacques stowed away as quick as ya like—and you too, o'course."
Gabrielle showed their, rather unwilling, passenger how to clamber up the attached ladder and squeeze himself into the far end of the long crew compartment. Gabrielle climbed in herself, shut the canopy, and placed the intercom plug back in her mouthpiece.
"Everybody's aboard who's coming aboard, Captain." Her relief at reaching so far in their escape was now beginning to show in a certain measure of light-headedness. "Y'can up anchor an' set sail anytime y'like, Captain Mathews."
"Fool." Claire was intent on the start-up procedure for the high-winged monoplane which, because of present circumstances, would need to be pared down to, well, nil. "Hang on, I'm gon'na flood the engine an' hope for the best. Take-off, twenty feet, if I can make it."
"Jeez. Jacques, grab that handle, there on your right, stuff your feet up against the side of the fuselage, an' start prayin'." Gabrielle too made herself as solidly part of the compartment as was possible for a soft human body. "Your doughty pilot's gon'na do one of her special extra-short take-off's. Believe me, Jacques, you'll really know what scary means after this."
One of the merits of the Westland Lysander was its well-known capacity to take-off in shorter order than any other known RAF type. On this occasion Claire meant to test this quality to the utmost. She revved the mighty Bristol Mercury radial to the limits of its safety level; nonchalantly surpassed this, letting the gauges register heights they had never before, and would never again, reach; then abandoned all restraint and let the huge engine have its freedom.
There was a mighty roar, like every Demon in Hades screaming for mercy; a series of stuttering bangs split the occupants' eardrums as it back-fired with raging anger; then the engine settled into a raucous, and clearly uncontrolled, colossal thunder, just as Claire let the brakes off.
Both Gabrielle and Jacques were jostled around, as in a too-enthusiastic football crowd; but the tail almost instantly came up; the engine whine settled down as the nose took on a straight run across the flat meadow; then, surprisingly quickly, the nose lifted, the bumping undercarriage fell silent, and all became smooth inside the plane as they soared into the dark starless night. They had made their escape.
"Jeesus, what was it ya said, at the beginning of all this, Gab?"
"I have a plan, is what ya said,—just like that idiot Graham, earlier—don't deny it." Claire, as they both sat at the table in their private Nissen hut hunched over mugs of suitably strengthened cocoa, was unforgiving. "And don't think smarm's gon'na get ya out'ta the hole. 'I have a plan', ya said, then got in contact with bloody Graham. I knew then we were makin' a mistake; I just didn't realise how big a mistake. I should never have let ya send that message t'bloody Graham. We both knew what the outcome would be."
"Oh, come on." Gabrielle could hold her own in these arguments with ease, after long practice. "Graham's our overlord an' master, as you very well know. What happens if we tell him where he gets off? We have a quick, un-scheduled meeting with the architecture of the Tower of London, on a misty rainy morning, with a line of soldiers with rifles twenty feet away, that's what, don't deny it. We're in the bloody SOE, y'know, not the ATS Sunday sock-knitting unit. Take another gulp o'this really beautifully made concoction, if I say so myself."
"Yeah, y'do make a fine cup o'cocoa, I got'ta admit that." The dark-haired woman shook her head in submission; after all, how long could a body hold out against the Siren-like blandishments of the blonde bombshell beside her. "God, dam' Graham; dam' the bloody war; dam' the Nazis; in fact, dam'—"
"Ricky, d'you want a top-up?"
"Yeah, please. Don't take any notice o'little ol' nasty me, I just like shootin' my mouth off occasionally."
"Hell, I know that." Gabrielle sneered lightly, with charm and style as only she could. "Take more'n a sore head from my inamorata t'spoil my day. Love you, babe. Want more whisky? It's the last of that sixteen-year-old stuff. Then bed. Y'want bed, lover? Both pushed t'gether, with lots of blankets and the warmth of lying together in the night. D'you wan'na lie together beside me in the night, darling?"
"God, I love ya, Gabrielle. I just love every single iota of your whole being; an' I feel privileged that you love me; that's all."
"Come on, lady; what is it the old poet says—'This bed thy centre is, these walls, thy sphere.'—reckon I know what he means, now—d'you know what he means, lover?"
"Dam' straight, darling." Claire drained her mug, setting it on the table with a firm thump. "So, bed, eh? You takin' the right-side? Thought so; ah well, suppose I can suffer for the greater good, for once."
The next 'Mathews and Parker' story will arrive shortly.