'Sara's Odyssey'

By Phineas Redux

—OOO—

Summary:— This story is set in Great Britain in 1944. Flying Officers Claire 'Ricky' Mathews and Gabrielle Parker—lovers, pilots, and members of ATA, Air Trtansport Auxiliary, and the highly secret SOE, Special Operations Executive,—make a series of bombing runs over France and Germany.

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 encyclopedic multi-volume 'The Second Great War', edited by Sir John Hammerton, Amalgamated Press, vol.7. As an addendum, female military personnel were never part of the crews of Bomber Command on active duty during bombing raids.

Warning:— There is some light swearing in this tale.

—O—

Scheduled to be out of action for a fortnight, due to necessary repairs, the reality of war conditions caught up with Stirling S for Sara promptly. A mysterious communication to the Squadron-Leader of Little Lanning airfield in Norfolk, from a secret SOE eyrie in Somerset House, London; closely followed by another such from no less Olympian heights than the War Office itself, shifted every other worthy ramshackle wreck out of the line, placing the Stirling at the forefront of Repairs in record time.

And as a result of this timely intervention the vast bomber was returned to flying status in an almost outrageously short interval, being wheeled out onto the concrete runway just under seven days after its first battered arrival. Of course, this meant frenzied work for the aircrew, comprising — pilot, Gabrielle Parker; co-pilot, Claire 'Ricky' Mathews; radio-operator, flying-officer Sheila Laytone; dorsal gunner, flight-sergeant Charles Downeley; bomb-aimer, flight-sergeant Tom Hawkins; navigator, flight-sergeant Mike Browne; flight-engineer, flight-sergeant George Carswell; and, finally, rear-gunner, flight-sergeant Graham Knight.

The most significant change to the body of the aircraft was the fitting of a new rear gun turret; the earlier one having been comprehensively reduced to minute pieces of shrapnel, along with its unfortunate occupant, by Jerry anti-aircraft fire. Unbeknownst to this group of disparate crew-members their aircraft was about to be launched on a series of night-time raids over Germany which, in their comprehensive determination to reduce several large cities, including Berlin, to dust, would go down in history, for all the wrong reasons—but, headed by that cold-blooded psyc-ruthless leader of men, Air Commodore 'Bomber' Harris, all else fell by the wayside.

His general plan, to sweep aside most of the population of these cities by the simple ploy of saturation-bombing the hell out of them, was more or less his brainchild, and he meant to see it was carried out to the nth degree. The fact that he was losing heavy bombers by the bucket-load to remarkably accurate and strong German anti-aircraft fire and excellent night-fighters, was of no consequence to him—let the bombing continue, at all costs, was his mantra; hence the presence of several female aircrew on many of these raids; a subject closely guarded from the public, Harris himself pretending to know nothing of such actions.

And so Claire Mathews and Gabrielle Parker found themselves standing, once again, on the cold windy concrete of the Little Lanning main runway, gazing at their newly re-conditioned aircraft.

"Well, well, who'd a'thought it?" Gabrielle sighed deeply, as she stood under the shadow of the high nose. "Looks pretty, don't she."

Claire, by her side, was less enthusiastic; her mind running on the pragmatic details of the situation.

"Yeah, the mechanics did a fine job." She nodded, though shrugging her shoulders slightly. "Didn't think she'd ever be in a flying condition again. Not after the damage she took."

"It's amazing what can be done." Gabrielle was far more fervent being, in fact, quite excited at the prospect of returning to heavy-duty, er, duty. "Come an' take a gander at the new rear turret."

Standing by the low tail, with the great single fin towering high above, the women surveyed the perspex-fronted turret immediately under the tail.

"Looks more like a glasshouse than a glasshouse."

"Yeah, it does, don't it." Gabrielle nodded, having come to much the same conclusion separately. "The old one was a Nash and Thomson; this's a Boulton and Paul."

"Great chunk o'glass,—er, perspex I mean, missing, though." Claire pointed a gloved hand between the two rows of guns. "There, in the middle. Must make it sort'a parky for the gunner."

"Immph, I'm told most rear-gunners take bits o'the glazing out of almost every turret they use. Supposed t'help 'em see Jerry at night." Gabrielle shrugged her shoulders, rear-gunners' notoriously being a species on their own. "Seems the designers have simply surrendered on that, an' made it part o'the design. Anyway, four .50 Brownings, not t'be sniffed at, eh?"

"I should say so."

At this point the stocky frame of Sergeant Gallacher ambled up, having come from the row of low concrete-walled and earth-covered bunkers to the right of the runway which normally stored the ordnance for the heavy bombers using the airfield. He was short, thick-bodied, had closely-cropped grey hair, and the attitude of a Visigoth towards anything and everything Jerry oriented—he in his time having been both blown up in a house in the Blitz, and sunk on a ship in the north Atlantic: his primary purpose in his chosen career now being to get his own back, with knobs on.

"Hallo, ladies, the lads did a fine job on your Stirling, didn't they."

"Sure did, Gallacher." Gabrielle nodded enthusiastically. "All mod cons, an' everything. She'll probably fly better'n ever, eh?"

"No doubt about that, ma'am." Gallacher here paused to look back over his shoulder. "Ah, here they come. Well, ladies, I'll need t'get on; that Lanc over there needs bombing up for tonight's show. Not that it'll take so long as usual, mind you, not this time."

Claire and Gabrielle noticed his musing glance back to where a little grey-coloured tractor, like a child's toy, was pulling a long line of flatbed open four-wheel trolleys. It was driven by an ATS girl, in tunic and trousers with a flat cap on her curly hair, while behind another three ATS girls sat nonchalantly astride the low rounded cargo on several of the trucks; these being bombs of several types and sizes.

As the tractor passed on the left of the little group, standing now under the high tilted nose of the Stirling, it stopped while the driver engaged Sergeant Gallacher in conversation. While she did so Claire and Gabrielle let their eyes stray along the low trucks, examining the quality and size of the various bombs. What took their interest particularly being the third in line, significantly not having its individual ATS rider.

"Sergeant Gallacher," Gabrielle was first to broach the subject, as she and her black-haired companion gazed in awe at the giant dark-grey cylinder. "What in hell is that?"

"That, ma'am? It's a twelve-thousand pounder, ma'am."

"Come off it, there ain't no such thing."

"There is now, ma'am."

"What the hell does it do?"

The sergeant looked disconcerted for a moment.

"Goes orf with a very big bang, ma'am."

"Oh, very funny."

"Why ain't it got a pointy nose?" Claire thought fit to interject here, scratching her chin in amazement at the sight. "And where's its tail-fin?"

"Ain't got 'em, ma'am."

The bomb, in fact, appeared to have three individual cylindrical sections, each bolted together in a row. The front end was slightly rounded while the rear, where the tailfin ought to be, was simply the flat end of the last cylinder. Coming in at about eleven feet in length and three feet diameter, it exuded an imposing sense of weight, power, and menace.

"What're its air characteristics, then?"

"F-ckin' awful, ma'am. Drops like a brick, whirls an' rolls in the fall, an' veers sideways like a tyro on a bike." Gallacher spat comprehensively on the concrete. "Dam' lucky if yer come within half a mile o'yer target, on droppin' the f-ckin' thing, ma'am."

"Optimum height for release?" Gabrielle could clearly see where this was going.

"At least eight thousand, ma'am; to be safe. If yer drop it any lower it'll blow you out'ta the sky when it goes orf."

"Christ, don't envy the aircrew who have t'fly that over Germany." But being the woman she was Gabrielle couldn't resist her next query. "Who's that gon'na be, by the way?"

"Accordin' t'the schedule Group-Captain Thomson gave me an hour ago, ma'am, that'd be the Lanc over there, S for Sara, an' you."

"Oh sh-t."

—O—

Intrigued, indeed almost mesmerised, by the thought of their coming night raid, Claire and Gabrielle had hauled up beside the Lancaster bomber, on the other side of the runway from their Stirling. It was Gabrielle who first remarked on the obvious.

"S for Sara? Same as our Stirling. Strange."

"Just one o'those coincidences, I expect." Claire growled low, not exactly taken with the way of things. "Bags I the pilot's seat, Gab. You can enjoy yourself bein' flight engineer, co-pilot, an' general dogsbody."

"Huh. Thanks a lot." Gabrielle shook her head as they both watched the ATS girls busy under the open bomb-bay doors. "Looks like they have everything in hand."

"Should bloody well hope so; a bloody big thing like that." Claire's tone was still one of disbelief. "Twelve thousand pounds; Jeesus."

"Didn't think they could make a bomb that big—amazing."

"I've just noticed, the bomb-doors are different." Claire took a step or two closer, under the body of the aircraft. "Yeah, look, they're sort'a bulging more than usual."

Seeing their interest Sergeant Gallacher had re-appeared at their side.

"Wouldn't come any closer ladies, if y'please." He took a glance back to gauge the distance between the group and the bomb. "It's detonators are, umm, sort'a delicate. But the gals, there, know how t'handle the beast. Special trainin', y'see. All very secret; this bein' the first time ever they'll have been put t'use, y'know; the bomb, I mean."

"We're gon'na be the first fools t'chance our necks with the dam' thing, then?" Gabrielle was less than pleased at this piece of news.

"Nah, another group are takin' one over France this evening, earlier than you." Gallacher nodded with satisfaction, well-knowing what the bomb was capable of. "Can't say where, secret an' all; shouldn't be sayin' as much as this. But a lot'ta Jerries are gon'na get very sore heads, later on this evening—those that survive, o'course."

"Suppose we better get over t'the Briefing-room an' hear what Squadron-Leader Evans has t'say about our own raid, I suppose." Claire squeezed her lips together unhappily. "Come on."

"Yeah, suppose so." Gabrielle fell into step at her companion's side. "Looks like you're gon'na need t'fly with kid gloves tonight, lover."

"Dam' right there." The black-haired pilot sniffed austerely. "Hope the dam' thing has the politeness t'wait till we drop it, before it goes off, that's all."

"What if we get attacked by a Jerry fighter?"

"Gabs, how often have I told ya your reading 'The Ancient Mariner' that time, a month ago, when y'were half-sea's over was a mistake? All ya ever talk about now is dam' albatros's."

"Huh."

—O—

Würzburg lay equidistant between Frankfurt and Nürnburg. As Squadron-Leader Evans, in his evaluation of the night's target to the assembled crews made plain, there were no really big industrial or military targets anywhere near the city; their target being the city itself. This as part of Air Commodore Harris's overall plan to bomb the hell out of the German population and so break their spirit. This cold enunciation of the position elicited a wave of restrained groaning in the assembled audience; not in words so much as a quiet ululation of dislike. It was, typically, Gabrielle who stood up and voiced the general opinion.

"Sir, does that mean we're just gon'na kill civilians, nothin' more?"

"That, essentially, is so, Flying-Officer Parker." Evans kept his voice entirely neutral and calm, though making plain his opposition to any criticism on the matter. "This is an aspect of the general Main Plan—the Berlin Plan—of Air-Commodore Harris; we bomb Berlin, and associated cities, in the hope the German population see sense and surrender all the quicker: or, at least, show less enthusiasm to continue their opposition to the British and American forces as the months proceed. War is dirty; an' war, as many of you realise, or are presently in the process of finding out, is nasty and Hellish. We, the Allied Forces, have simply reached that turning-point where actions that are now deemed necessary must be carried out; for the good of the country, and the Allies generally. Any more questions, no? Good, Dismiss."

The Lancaster, with the same code-name as their Stirling, had now transported Claire, Gabrielle, and their crew over France and into the even more hostile Germany itself. They were presently flying over a heavily populated region, with many large cities, so they were expecting some powerful opposition, both from enemy anti-aircraft fire, and night-fighters. The Lancaster was flying in a group made up of seven more of its sisters; these carrying a more usual, but still heavy, bomb-load than Sara—several 1,000pounders each; the idea being to drop the lot on the general centre of the city of Wurzburg, without note being taken of any nearby civilian areas or buildings.

Sara brought up the rear of this group; it having been decided the majority of the Lancasters should soften up the confines of the city first, then be well out of the danger area when Sara ambled over with its mighty Blockbuster. Squadron-Leader Evans, after the general lecture to the assembled crews, and having been coached by a boffin earlier that day, had taken Claire and Gabrielle aside to instruct them in the finer points of dropping a 12,000pounder so-called cookie.

"It's got three detonators in the nose, ladies." He took his hat off and brushed a hand through his thick grey hair, looking intently at the women meanwhile. "It has a cargo of six t'seven thousand pounds of Amatol, while the casing makes up the rest of the weight. These detonators, in fact the bomb as a working whole, have had some teething troubles, but we're told these are more or less fixed now.—"

"What kind of troubles, sir?" Claire never felt at ease with unknown quantities.

"Well, apparently the bombs tended to go-off for no reason at all, both in the plane and out." Evans puffed his cheeks as he shrugged resignedly. "To do with the detonators, as I said; but I'm assured they're alright now, mostly. Your dropping height'll be eight thousand; for God's sake don't attempt t'drop the dam' thing any lower; it's blast-wave'll catch up with you, if so; an' I can tell you now, if that occurs you won't survive. There won't even be time t'bale out; you'll be reduced to scrap in the air."

"God Almighty."

"Just so, but there we are." Evans shook his head sorrowfully. "Another group's heading over to Limoges, t'drop another of these beauties on the Rhone-Gnome works there—God alone knows what the effect'll be. That'll happen about two hours before you reach your own target. Well, good luck."

Inside the Lancaster Claire was struggling with the heavy aircraft, it never being a bed of roses to fly one of these heavy bombers, especially when nearly fully bombed-up. Gabrielle had spent the journey making notes and checking the switches and dial readings to do with all the multifarious technicalities associated with the complex machine in which they now sat; while the rest of the crew were in their usual state of barely controlled nervous tension—the prospect of being blown out of the sky by anti-aircraft fire at any moment, or shot to sh-t by a passing Messerschmitt's cannon, not helping their nerves at all.

"What's gon'na happen when we drop the bomb?" Claire was in a wanting to know, but scared to hear the answer, kind of mood.

"We'll rocket skywards like a Guy Fawkes firework, lady." Gabrielle sniffed grimly, consulting her notebooks. "I told Braddock, in C for Charlie, we were gon'na go to twelve thousand for our bomb-run. Better safe than sorry, like you said."

"Too dam' right, sis." Claire had given her co-pilot, and the navigator, strict orders on this subject before the crew had boarded the plane earlier. "And I'll veer to port at the same time; take us away from the city limits all the faster. Are ya sure we'll have enough time t'escape the blast?"

"God, how should I know?" Gabrielle frowned darkly, entirely unseen under her face-mask. "Don't know anything about the bloody bomb, do I? Except we've been told it's gon'na go-off with one mighty big bang. Define bigness, if you wan'na know how powerful it might be."

"Define bigness, huh,—idiot."

—O—

Finally their target was in sight; or as much so as light cloud cover, a widespread pall of dark smoke interspersed with bright flashes, and the multitude of black spots from intense anti-aircraft fire peppering the sky ahead of S for Sara, could allow of the target being seen at all: the forward wave of Lancasters happily knocking hell out of the defenceless population with their 1,000pounders. The German defences, contrariwise, were engaged in getting their own back with a tornado of rather well-aimed flak; while S for Sara was approaching this vision of Armageddon from a slightly higher level than the main flight of Lancasters. Nobody on board was happy.

"Bit late in the day to criticise things, Ricky, I know; but all the same, why are we intent on flattening the entire city without grace or favour?" Gabrielle's tone held a distinct sense of distaste as she spoke.

With other things on her mind at this moment the pilot still spared a few seconds to reply.

"Bit late is right, ducks." Claire flashed a quick glance sideways at her companion. "It's War, that's why; this War; an' the opposition have proved themselves your actual Demons from the deepest darkest depths o'Tartarus, Hades, an' Hell itself combined, as ya very well know. An', like Evans says, it's reached that point where knockin' them flat an' stompin' on 'em regardless is the only way left o'winnin' this dam' conflict fast; that's all. Come on, stick with those readings; what're the engine temperature dials tellin' ya?"

"Everything's hunky-dory; all within limits—Jeesus."

Wurzburg's defences, suddenly aware there was a high-flying straggler approaching the already knocked-about city, here swivelled their guns and set about swatting this new distraction from the sky. A series of black clouds, accompanied by huge explosions and the thud of pressure waves against the hull of the Lancaster, showed how accurate the anti-aircraft fire already was. The bomber rocked sideways and back on its bearings; giving the occupants the curious impression they were at sea in a particularly dirty storm.

"F-ck me, that was close." Claire shook her head to clear her vision, then eased sideways on her steering-column, changing direction a fraction. "Bomb-aimer, ya ready down there?"

"—'course I'm bloody ready." Flight-Sergeant Tom Hawkins, veteran of twelve previous flights, snorted contemptuously as he lay flat on his stomach, trying to align his bomb-sight readings with what he saw approaching in his line of view ahead. "Two degrees t'port, if you don't mind, ma'am."

"What's the dropping-point?"

"Supposedly the city-centre." Claire growled in her throat, straining with her control column. "But if the Lancs' have obscured the area with their eggs, then just drop it anywhere within the confines o'the city, were my orders. It's gon'na make a helluva mess wherever it lands, anyway; that's for sure."

"Just hope we're all far enough away when it goes off, that's all."

"Hell, can't go any faster than we're goin' already, Gabs." Claire shook her head scornfully. "Just close your eyes an' hope for the best. If it comes t'the worst, you dive out the hatch just behind ya, if y'can make it in time. I'll go for the main hatch. Got that? An' just let's hope the natives are friendly, when we hit the ground; but I wouldn't bet on it."

"Sh-t."

—O—

The surrounding sky seemed like a field of black roses as the majority of the German anti-aircraft fire drew ever closer to its high-flying target, Claire struggling to keep the plane on an even keel in the storm-lashed atmosphere. Tom lay with his eye glued to the eyepiece of his bombsight.

"Twelve thousand, keep it level, ma'am."

"Jeez."

"Twelve thousand, on course, on course—half a degree t'port. Good, good. Steady, steady.'

At this point a particularly well-aimed burst of anti-aircraft fire ripped the sky apart less than forty yards on the starboard side of the rocking plane. The effect of the series of blasts threw the plane, and those inside, around like toy dolls.

"Chr-st Almighty." Gabrielle shook her right arm, feeling with her left gloved hand if her wrist was injured. "That bloody hurt."

"Dead on target, right on target. Can't see the ground, ma'am." Tom's voice continued in a cool restrained tone, as if he were reading the cricket results on the BBC radio. "Everything's obscured by black smoke an' flame, not t'mention the bloody flak. Can't see the centre o'the town at all."

More anti-aircraft fire encircled the plane now, sending shock-waves through the body of the bomber as if it were a submarine being attacked with depth charges. Inside Claire and Gabrielle could hear all sorts of cracks, bangs, and terrifying screams of metal under extreme pressure, or actually breaking apart. From somewhere in the central passageway of the hull there seemed to be drifting tendrils of smoke coming from some unknown source.

"Are we on fire back there?" Gabrielle twisted in her seat, then threw her intercom switch. "Hey, Helen, what's goin' on back there? Fire?"

"Nah, just shrapnel passin' through." Helen's tone was far more shrill and scared sounding than the bomb-aimer's. "We're gettin' punctured like a bloody colander, all through the plane."

"Nothin' serious, then?"

"Not yet, anyway."

A particularly well-aimed burst of anti-aircraft fire detonated right ahead of the plane, obscuring Claire's view with a solid wall of black smoke. Then the blast and shrapnel hit the plane. The windscreen in front of Claire turned opaque, having suffered several hits from small pieces of metal. Her side-window burst completely, disappearing in an instant, leaving a black rectangle through which came a howling gale. The plane shuddered in anguish again as parts of its frame felt the impact of the rest of the shrapnel, then they were through.

"You OK, Tom?" Claire called through her intercom, with some concern. "Y'there?"

"Yeah, I'm OK. But my forrard windscreen's blown out; a bloody hurricane's hittin' me right in the bloody face."

"Keep on target, Tom." Claire focussed on the main concern, shuffling in her seat to find a more comfortable position—a lost cause in the circumstances.

"Yeah, yeah. OK, half a degree t'starboard, ma'am. Steady, steady, wait fer it, wait fer it. Come on, come on; lem'me see yer, lem'me see. Nearly, nearly—bomb gone."

There was actually no need for this last remark; for as soon as the weight of the 12,000 pound bomb left the aircraft it soared heavenwards as if trying to breach the atmosphere and enter space itself. All four engines roared in agony, and the structure of the aircraft let out the most sustained and noisy series of agonised screams yet. Everyone found themselves pushed back in their seats, as Claire veered the Lancaster to port and opened up the throttles to their fullest extent. The crew seemed, for a moment, to have had their breath sucked from their chests; then, gasping, they drew in lungfuls of air once again.

"How long till detonation, Gab?"

"Twelve seconds. Ano—"

Kaarrooom.

"Aarr, I'm blinded." This from Graham Knighte in the rear turret, who would have had the best seat in the house for the actual ground detonation. "It's bloody gone-off—"

"It's f-ckin' detonated prematurely. F-ck it." Gabrielle barely had time for this obsolescent remark before the full effect of Armageddon caught up with the unfortunate bomber.

The plane shuddered as if a Leviathan had picked it up in one hand and shaken it and its contents in anger. For an instant a blinding white light enveloped the plane, causing everyone with a window to the outside to blink in pain. Then the full blast struck and the plane screamed in the last throes of agony, trembling and convulsing so powerfully that if anyone had been standing up they would have been seriously injured.

"Port, arh,—Number One engine's cut out." Gabrielle discovered this by a quick backward glance at the range of dials on the plane's side just behind her right shoulder. "Automatic extinguisher's gone–off, too. Oil pressures down, fuel gauge, outer port, increasing—Christ, I think it's leaking. What's the speed?"

"Losing speed." Claire gripped her steering-wheel convulsively, looking grimly at her control panel. "I'm gon'na lose some height. Someone gim'me a course for home, pronto. Is the engine on fire?"

"Nah, it's out now." Gabrielle leaned forward to glance past Claire, then sat back. "Everyone OK? Report in,—Sheila?

"Yeah, OK."

"Charles?"

"OK."

"George?"

"Just about, ma'am."

"Mike?"

"Hell, yeah."

"Tom?"

"Knocked about like a spud in a sack, but OK."

"Graham?"

Silence.

"Graham?"

More silence, except for crackling on the intercom, and the eerie feeling of everyone waiting expectantly for the reply.

"Graham? Graham?" Gabrielle set her teeth and took a deep breath. "Helen, get back there an' see what shape Graham's in. If he doesn't reply, wind the rear turret round by hand if ya have to an' open the hatch."

"OK, ma'am."

All that could be heard in the cockpit now was the harsh sound of the wind punching its way through Claire's broken side-window, and a few random cracks and bangs as the sorely battered plane levelled-off and began its return home—the anti-aircraft fire having ceased as they flew out of range. Neither Claire nor Gabrielle spoke, as they waited for Helen's report.

"Miss Parker, Miss Parker?"

"Yeah, what?"

"Can you come back here, please."

"What? D'you need help with something? How's Graham?"

"Just come back here, ma'am. Quickly, please."

"Oh sh-t." Gabrielle glanced at Claire; who looked back wordlessly—their expressions unreadable behind their face-masks. "Right, I'm goin' back, Ricky; look after the shop till I return, eh?"

"Sure thing, babe."

Uncoupling her intercom, oxygen line, and safety harness—never easy in flight in a Lancaster—she struggled out of her tight seat and slipped to the floor just behind the cockpit. Passing the radio and navigation positions she clambered along the cramped interior, ducking under the hammock-like canvas seat where the dorsal gunner sat, and over the main wing strut passing through the centre of the plane. Then it was a simple struggle to the far rear turret. Here she found Helen crouching by the open hatch in the back of the turret.

Conversation was by no means easy, because the missing centre-section of perspex in the front of the turret, between the four guns, made the turret a reverberating tin can of noise as the atmosphere howled in a frenzy through the small cramped interior, and now the rear of the plane itself. Most of the turret's interior was at this point, however, hidden by the dark bulk of its motionless occupant. The black leather of his flying-jacketed back obscuring everything else.

"He's dead, ma'am."

"What?"

Gabrielle crawled up to the hatch, Helen scrabbling aside to give her room. A quick glance, and a rudimentary examination proved the reality of the radio-operator's report, the rear gunner was indeed dead, cheeks and closed eyelids white behind his face-mask.

"What was it, flak?"

"No sign of blood, or any wound that I could see, ma'am."

"Jeesus, Jeesus, Jeesus."

Gabrielle sat back to consider the situation, shaking her head the while.

"No blood, no wound, we can see, anyway." Gabrielle went over the relevant facts. "That just leaves—what? Blast?"

"Must be, ma'am. Nothing else." Helen spoke low and quietly. "No sign of flak having hit the turret, to any great extent."

"The blast from that f-ckin' bomb goin'-off prematurely killed him? Jeesus." Gabrielle considered the position for another few seconds, then brought her mind to bear on what was needed next. "Right, close the hatch again, Helen, then get back t'your position. Nothing else we can do for him at this point. I'm headin' back t'the cockpit; can you take care o'things here?"

"Yeah, I'll be fine, ma'am."

"Right, let's get goin' then."

"What's the gen, Ricky?" Back in the cockpit Gabrielle shuffled into her seat, bending forward to connect all those necessary lines, cables, and intercom wires again. "Graham, in the rear turret's, gone for a Burton; blast, I think."

"Sh-t."

"How's the dicky engine?"

"Dead, conked out just after y'left." Claire snorted irritably into her face-mask. "Looks like we'll need'ta stay low all the way home. Let's hope any stray Focke's miss us."

"Dam' straight." Gabrielle turned uncomfortably to inspect the various dials on the plane's side behind her back. "Jeez, the port outer's still leaking fuel, a little bit. I've turned off the valves, what more can I do?"

"Nuthin', babe, just nuthin'." Claire growled again, taking a firmer grip on the circular hand-grip of the steering-wheel. "Unless ya wan'na settle in'ta some serious prayin'?"

"Hurph."

—O—

"What a bloody cock-up."

Claire sat in the Briefing-room back at Little Lanning, they having landed an hour earlier, in the black darkness of the night. Beside her Gabrielle sat too, though the other crew had been allowed to go off to their individual bunks. Squadron-Leader Evans also sat beside the women, considering their preliminary report of the tragedy.

"We've just got the report from the Mosquito Pathfinder that was trailing you, to film the bomb drop." Evens looked at a couple of sheets of paper on the table before him. "Apparently the bomb burst at approximately five thousand feet. If you had dropped it from the usual height of eight thousand, instead of twelve thousand where you actually were, you'd have been blown t'smithereens. Dam' lucky t'escape as it was."

"I know, sir." Claire sounded tired beyond understanding.

"And Knighte, sir?" Gabrielle looked up from the half-empty cup of tea in front of her.

"As you surmised, you were still so close to the explosion the bloody blast came right through his open turret an', well, did for him."

"Sh-t."

"Just so, just so."

"What happened, sir, by the way?" Claire raised her head to look squarely at the officer. "I mean, the damage the bomb did to Wurzburg."

"None, apparently; or, at least, very little if any." Evans consulted another page of the report in front of him. "After you dropped the bloody thing the Pathfinder behind you reports it side-slipped wildly, turnin' over an' over the while; absolutely hopeless aerodynamics, y'know. By the time it went off it had veered well outside the city perimeter and blew up over open country something like half a mile or so to the south-west. An' goin' off at five thousand, as it did, I'm sure not even a tile from a farm roof was damaged. Whole thing a complete bloody washout, in fact."

"Are we gon'na have t'take any more of those bloody blockbusters on a raid, sir?" Claire frowned darkly, wondering about this likelihood.

"No, no." Evans shook his head conclusively. "We're off-loading further use of the dam' things on another squadron. Seem t'be still some, er, loose ends t'clear up before it's really useable yet, apparently. No, we go back t'ordinary ordnance from now on, thank God."

"Too right, sir; too right." Gabrielle nodded in agreement. "Oh, well."

"Yes, quite."

—O—

Three days later, 15th February 1944, found them back in relative safety with their original plane, the Stirling, under their control once more. Claire and Gabrielle again stood on the concrete of Little Lanning main runway contemplating the newly re-conditioned bomber.

"I've never liked the way it sticks its bloody nose in the air." Gabrielle was in one of those unforgiving morning moods.

"I ain't too keen on the fact y'can't see the bloody runway when y'come in'ta land." Claire sniffed self-righteously. "And it has a tendency t'drop like a brick out'ta the sky when ya ease off the throttle approaching a landing."

"It's a b-st-rd t'take-off in, too—veering t'the right an' ground-looping at the drop of a hat."

"Yep, an' with those short wings it can hardly fly higher than a kid's toy kite." Claire settled her flat cap more comfortably on her long dark hair. "An' those dam' long legs mean the undercarriage collapses whenever y'jerk the plane too sharply sideways, turning on the ground."

"Fuel consumption's a b-gg-r; an' bomb capacity leaves a lot—hey, does this mean we won't be able t'take any more o'those damnable big blockbusters?"

"Well, two thousand pounders; they'll be our top line, in this."

"Two thousand pounders?" Gabrielle's tone took on the inflection of a philosopher at Cambridge examining a particularly stubborn moral problem. "How many'd that be, we could manage? A fair handful, I suppose."

"Yeah, that certainly."

"Hmmhumm."

Gabrielle here paused in her lucubrations to scratch her chin thoughtfully; then she turned to her companion, they both standing under the shadow of the high nose at this point.

"What about the dam' rear turret?"

"Oh, that's bin' settled, no worries."

"What'd Sergeant Gallacher say when y'came down on him with your orders thataway?"

"Nuthin' out'ta the ordinary—'Ho, is that what y'd be wantin', ma'am. Yer's, yer's, well, leave it with me, an' we'll see what can be done about it.' That was the gist of the conversation, Gabs."

"Hum."

"Wan'na look?"

"Suppose so, you lead the way, dear."

At the rear of the plane, it being a tail-dragger, the turret was well within comfortable viewing range. The four .50 Browning machine-guns; two barrels on each side, one slightly above the other, presented an image of great power. The change in the structure of the turret was instantly apparent when Gabrielle walked up to peer at the details.

"So, the space between the guns, right in front of the gunner, has had its perspex window put back in place."

"Yep, no more freezing t'death on every raid."

"No more being able t'easily see an approaching Jerry night-fighter."

"There's that, certainly." Claire was open to the facts, but had an unanswerable argument. "But what'd ya rather have—a live rear-gunner with restricted visibility, or a dead gunner—like we've had on our last two raids? Y'know we're beginning t'be looked on, in the rest o'the squadron, as distant relatives of Jonah? Y'know that, right?"

The short blonde ATA/SOE member was up for this complaint.

"Bunch o'idiots." She sneered with meaning, shuffling her shoulders in an ecstasy of contempt. "Look at all the other planes that've come home in the last couple of months sans significant numbers of their crews. Those that've had the luck t'come back at all, that is."

"Yeah, there's that."

"What does Richards say about bein' the new tail-gunner for us, then?"

"Oh, Keith's fine." Claire shrugged non-committedly. "He's young, an' lookin' for adventure.—"

"Little does he realise he's dam' well found it."

"Come on, Gabs, let's see a little positive thinkin' for a change." Claire growled low, glancing at her companion as they walked back across the concrete apron. "Keep the side up; morale boostin', an' all that."

"God, if you say so."

"Good, good."

—O—

That same night had been picked for the next assault on the moral, not to mention physical, well-being of the citizens of Berlin. The military forces stationed there being of merely secondary importance to Air Commodore Harris, by this time. The idea, detailed by Squadron Leader Evans in the briefing-room, was simply to off-load as much ordnance on the general environs of the city as possible, with as little casualties to the RAF units involved as could be managed. He was not hopeful on this score, though not saying anything to his assembled air-crew. The three squadrons involved operated Lancasters, so Claire and Gabrielle, in Stirling S for Sara, had been given the unhappy task of Pathfinder; leading the rest of the bombing force, though at a much lower altitude, and lighting up the immediate target with a multitude of incendiaries and flares. The problems associated with this course of action had, however, not escaped Gabrielle's keen intellect; and, as they flew ever further across the badlands of Germany, and ever closer to Berlin, she let rip in no uncertain manner to her pilot.

"Our bomb-bays're stocked t'the gills with incendiaries, Ricky. Twenty-four Small Bomb Containers, with one hundred and fifty incendiaries in each." Gabrielle's voice sounding distant and crackly over the intercom, now switched so only they spoke to each other. "One well-placed cannon-shell from a Focke Wulf an' we're history; one bright flash an' we're gone."

"Bit late in the bloody war t'start thinkin' that way, ain't it?"

"We haven't actually had t'cold-bloodedly kill Jerry before, lady." Gabrielle bit to the heart of her objection. "To go out an' kill people personally. I don't like it."

"Air Commodore Harris'd have somethin' t'say about that attitude."

"Bloody Harris's off his rocker, as any ordinary person could tell after ten minutes conversation with the—"

Craak, Craak, Craak,

The burst of anti-aircraft fire, though unseen in the darkness was, like most of the German defensive set-up these days, remarkably accurate, rocking the Stirling from stem to stern. Gabrielle was shaken in her seat, dropping a pencil at her booted feet, never to be seen again.

"Sh-t, I've only got one left." She fiddled with her facemask, testing the oxygen line; then flicked the intercom switch again. "Co-pilot t'everybody, sit tight an' watch out for night-fighters. We're low, well within their range. They could strike from any direction, including from behind. Keith, keep a sharp eye out back there."

"Yeah, ma'am."

Keith Richards, twenty-one and on his first assignment to a squadron, felt that all the dreams he had enjoyed throughout his youth and training were now coming to fruition; but for the first time he was beginning to wonder, in his tight cold perspex encircled rear-turret, whether reality wasn't rather dirtier, more uncomfortable, less filled with a sense of bravura, much smellier, and a dam' sight more dangerous than any of his dreams had ever been.

"Our target's simply the centre of Berlin, this time round, Ricky."

"I know. I listened t'Evans' briefing earlier, too."

"Just makin' sure we're on the same wavelength." Gabrielle snorted, returning to some approximation of her lighter-hearted self. "Wouldn't want t'find Sheila directing us one way, an' you dead set on bombing Potsdam, or bloody Magdeburg, instead."

"Idiot."

Sheila Laytone, nominally radio-operator, had been dragooned into the double role of navigator by necessity. As a mere Pathfinder the thinking was the plane should have as small and concentrated a crew as possible. Hence Sheila's double duties. The flight engineer had been dispensed with entirely, leaving only the gunners and the experienced bomb-aimer, Tom Hawkins. The long fuselage bomb-bays of the Stirling had been crammed with a multitude of SBC's holding the small but deadly incendiary bombs shortly to be disturbing every Berliner's night-time slumbers.

"What's the plan, again?"

"We come right in, down the length of Unter den Linden, spraying incendiaries like confetti." Claire had these details well to hand. "Then we drop coloured flares as we sweep south down Wilhelmstrasse, tryin' t'pinpoint the bloody Reich Chancellery itself with nice red lights; after which we turn west an' head for home at a rate of knots, leavin' our heroic RAF brothers t'knock Merry Hell out'ta Berlin for the umpteenth time, an' so give Air Commodore Harris pleasant dreams for another night."

"God."

"Yeah, right."

"How much ordnance have these Lancs' on board tonight?" The fine detail of any such situation always intriguing the blonde co-pilot. "I mean, three squadrons?"

"I should think, oh, around two an' a half thousand tons, or so."

There was a short pause whilst this appalling information penetrated to Gabrielle's seat of understanding.

"Jee-sus."

"Yeah, well, there it is."

"Won't be much left of the Unter den Linden, I'd think, after that-all falls on it's head—or anyone idiot enough t'be walkin' around down there."

"If the Lancs' hold their course an', for once in a blue moon, actually drop their eggs in the right place," Claire gripped the steering-wheel more tightly. "there'll certainly be fewer shops, hotels, an' Government offices in the mornin', that's for sure."

"Christ. Lem'me see; yeah, another six minutes an' we'll be there." Gabrielle scratched mystical marks in her notebook with her stubby pencil, then glanced over at her companion. "Surprised no Jerry night-fighters have shown up yet—Oh God."

This was precisely the kind of remark which bomber crews tried to avoid at all costs; the usual outcome being well-known to be the instant appearance of the very danger inferred. Tonight was no different. Hardly had Gabrielle realised the scope of her awful faux pas when the rattling screech of cannon-shells hitting the frame of the Stirling vibrated throughout the aircraft.

"Bandit to port, nine o'clock high." Charles Downeley, in the high dorsal turret followed this news report with a sustained blast from his twin machine-guns that deafened the whole crew. "It's a Focke."

"—certainly is.' Gabrielle made this remark in a tone of absolute certainty, before returning to her navigational sums. "We still got three minutes till the target area; keep on this heading. That right, Sheila?"

"Yeah, ma'am; two an' a half minutes now; come one degree to port,—that's it."

Claire, meanwhile, had thought about sliding the plane to starboard, only just restraining this intelligent reaction.

"Sh-t, he'll be sure t'get us again on his return run—Oh, b-llocks."

From various points on the distant unseen ground at least four searchlights sprang into life; their straight solid-looking beams slicing high into the sky, weaving about in eerie sweeps as they tried to locate their target.

"For God's sake don't let one o'them catch us—the other's'll lock on too, an' we'll be cooked for sure." Gabrielle suddenly discovering she had reserves of fear she had never before realised.

"Jeesus, what can I do, if one catches us?" Claire snarled with barely restrained fury. "I ain't a magician."

Snaang, Snaang, Snaang.

Another burst of fire from the still invisible night-fighter hit the Stirling; this time seeming to be concentrated on the outer starboard wing. Return fire from the bomber's dorsal turret, rear-turret, and front turret filled the body of the plane with a noise like Hell breaking its boundaries.

"Anybody hit the b-st-rd?" Gabrielle pressed her intercom earphone close to her head, straining for the answer.

"Don't think so." From Downeley.

"Nah, dammit." From Keith Richards in his uncomfortable rear turret.

"Hit the c-nt? Never even saw the bloody swine." This from Morgan White, in the front turret.

"Hang on." Claire followed this imperative by pulling her wheel tight to starboard, swinging the Stirling steeply away from its set heading.

A rolling tirade of salty language accompanied this warning and unexpected maneouvre, as everyone tried not to be thrown around like rag dolls inside the tight confines of the plane. A scything hiss, audible on the port side for a few seconds, marked the line of cannon-shells only barely missing their target as the Focke Wulf passed on its third run.

Claire was about to resume her original course when she again banked the plane steeply; trying with all her strength and wile to avoid the seemingly solid bar of blindingly white light as a searchlight beam flitted by to port, apparently near enough to almost take the paint off the port wing.

"God, that was close. Think we're OK now, though."

"Y'sure, Claire?"

"F-ckin' Hell, o'course I'm not sure."

"Sorry, sorry.'

The embarrassed blonde co-pilot bent industriously over her notes, then straightened in her seat as Sheila's voice crackled over the intercom.

"We're there, Under den Linden straight ahead, ma'am."

Gabrielle clicked her intercom switch again. "Bomb-aimer, ready? Let it all go when you're sure."

"Righty-ho, ma'am."

Tom Hawkins, now a seasoned veteran of thirteen flights, lay on his stomach in his position under the floor of the front turret—a wide curved glass window giving him a view of the terrain ahead and below the Stirling. The whole of Berlin was, of course, under strict blackout so there was not much to distinguish on the unseen ground—which, of course, was the whole raison d'être for the Pathfinder Stirling's presence; its cargo of incendiaries and red lights meant to light up the whole region for the approaching Lancasters to see their target all the more clearly. The Stirling had arrived on strict dead-reckoning; but there was enough faintly visible on the ground to assure the bomber's crew they had made an exact landfall.

"Keep her steady, ma'am." Tom's voice rose a few octaves to a higher register as nerves and tension took over. "Right on line with the Unter, very nice. Steady, steady, keep her straight, for God's sake; that's right, easy, easy, easy,—bombs gone."

Because the bomber's cargo on this mission consisted of relatively light incendiaries, let loose in a streaming flow, there was no sudden jerk and uplift as the plane soared free from the usually heavy bomb load. Instead the Stirling continued on a more or less even straight course. Their height was thirteen thousand feet; just high enough to make the German anti-aircraft fire that much less successful, but low enough to be certain of hitting their target with precision. Their height also meant, of course, that they overflew the area where their bombs hit, only the rear gunner having any kind of view of the success or otherwise of their run.

"See anythin', Keith?" Gabrielle listened intently for his report; it meaning the success or failure of their first run. She didn't want Claire to make a second run over the area, where the anti-aircraft fire and searchlights would by then be ready for their return.

"Nothing; no, wait a bit. Yeah, white flashes every bloody where—in a long straight line." Keith's voice, like the other crew-members in a crisis, rose to a higher register. "Jesus. Fire everywhere, an' there go the red lights—God, it's like a firework display. God, the fires are spreading out in a wide band all along the, what is it?, strasse. Fire everywhere. Jesus ma'am, you've set the whole o'bloody Berlin on fire. Chr-st."

"Ricky, I think that's the Brandenburg Gate dead ahead." Gabrielle had been keeping a close eye out through their forward cockpit window. "Veer t'port—now; that's the Wilhelmstrasse down there. Keep dropping those incendiaries, Tom."

"Yeah, ma'am; they're flowing like wine out'ta a bottle, nice an' smooth—red lights, too."

"I reckon that's the Chancellery down there, at last." Gabrielle spoke sharply into her intercom. "Are we on it's ass? How're the incendiaries doin', Tom?"

"Centre-alignment, ma'am, straight down the line; all gone, all gone."

"Red flares, an' searing white flames all over the shop down on the ground, ma'am." Keith reported from his prime vantage point in the rear turret, voice again high with excitement. "God, I can see bits o'broken buildings silhouetted all over the place—things are getting burned t'a cinder down there. Jeez."

"Job done, eh?"

"Looks like it, Ricky." Behind her tight face-mask Gabrielle heaved a dual sigh of relief, mixed with horror, at what they had just done. "OK, get us the Hell out'ta here, lady. Give us the new course, Sheila, anytime you like."

"Yes, ma'am; swing three degrees t'starboard, then keep goin' straight till you hit Nelson's Column."

"Ha, thanks."

—O—

"All in all I think last night's sortie was highly successful." Squadron-Leader Evans stood by the wide table in the Briefing-room at Little Lanning, gazing with what almost amounted to glee at the large black and white photographs spread out across the flat surface. "Yes, the Lancs' seem to have pretty much flattened most of the centre of Berlin, by the look of it. And the Chancellery seems to have taken a walloping itself, I'm glad t'say. A lot of it down to you ladies, and your crew. Well done."

It was early evening of the 16th February, and Claire and Gabrielle had just risen from their slumbers through the day after the previous night raid. Neither was feeling particularly ecstatic or delighted; rather listless and washed-out in fact. So their examination of the photographic results of their trip to Berlin was less than keen.

"Jeez, Hella'va lot o'ruined buildings." Gabrielle was first to give an opinion. "Can't see a bloody roof anywhere. God, what a mess."

"Yes, delightful, isn't it."

Both women paused, to gaze at their superior with, if not a wild surmise, at least mild interest. Was Evans losing it at last, or was this just a passing throe?

"What about civilians?" Claire focussed on this aspect of reality. "Must'a been heavy casualties?"

"Expect so; difficult to quantify at short notice." Evens nodded, shrugging nonchalantly. "Not a particularly residential part of the city, mind you. An' what with shelters, an' all, probably far fewer than one would desire, I'm afraid."

Gabrielle glanced at Claire; but both forbore to answer this statement, being well aware of discipline and their place in the ranks.

"What's next on the agenda, sir?" Claire took up, instead, the down to earth necessities. "Sara's been pretty well shot-up again; need a few days for repairs, or her bloody wings'll fall off at the end of the runway on the next take-off."

"Oh, that'll all be put right in a trice." Evans spoke with absolute certainty, knowing his ground crews' capacities to the nth degree. "Next raid's marked in for the nineteenth; we're sending one thousand Halifaxes an' Lancs' t'flatten Leipzig. Then, on the twentieth, a massed group of the Yanks are gon'na do their best t'knock seven bells out'ta most of Germany generally. We, at Bomber Command, have the joyous task of awakening Stuttgart to their social shortcomings, vis-à-vis being on the wrong side—you'll be joining that lot, so take a couple of days leave, an' relax."

"Thank you, sir."

"Yeah, thanks, sir."

—O—

The 'Pig and Whistle', at Ovington, had the benefit of being not too far away from Little Lanning, while still retaining the atmosphere of a typical English village country pub. Its beginnings lay somewhere in the middle of the eighteenth century, and it still kept the arched entrance to a wide square yard surrounded by high balconies leading to the customers' rooms; for all the world looking like something straight out of Dickens. It had been easy, in these war-restricted and rationed times, for Claire and Gabrielle to take a large single room and enjoy some peace and quiet at last.

"Whee, lovely soft linen sheets—Paradise."

Gabrielle lay on the wide softly-mattressed bed, squirming around in luxurious content; though she had, with decent decorum, first removed her heavy Army issue boots; now wriggling her toes only encased in itchy wool socks, Army issue grey for the use of.

"Make the most of it, doll, we only got two days, then it's back t'the grind."

"Stop being a wet blanket, Ricky." Gabrielle wasn't having any of this defeatist talk. "We can do almost anything, nearly everything in fact, in that time. Spend all our time here, making exquisite love without pause, for starters."

"Have you been reading poetry again? I've told ya before about the effect that always has on you."

"Silly."

The prime order of their first free morning was to commandeer two bicycles; not an easy task in wartime when such were worth their weight in gold, but success crowned Gabrielle's devious intrigues within the hour. Norfolk being what it was—flatter than Holland—there was no prospect of attaining high ground to view the far horizon; but at least they could explore the country lanes, finally deciding on a pleasantly private mossy nook to sit amongst the grasses and low bushes on the side of a gently inclined meandering grassy dell cut by a shallow tinkling stream. Here they paused to rest, drink from canteens, and eat their beef sandwiches.

"Too much mustard."

"What?"

"Too much o'the yellow stuff, darling." Claire had always been a fussy eater. "Must tell 'em next time, at the 'Pig', t'go easy—burnin' my mouth, it is."

"Softy."

"Huh, just let me finish this sandwich, an' I'll show you how soft I am, dearie."

"Oooh."

—O—

The night of the 20th turned out to be one of Stygian darkness. S for Sara, newly returned to active duty in record time as Squadron-Leader Evans had prophesied, had been assigned bombing duties with the main wing of the second group of assorted Lancasters, Halifaxes, and a few other Stirlings; a squadron of Mosquitos doing Pathfinder service on this sortie. Claire and Gabrielle, newly refreshed, found themselves once more in the rattling shaking throbbing noisy interior of their particular bomber, once again flying over enemy territory with evil intent, and a cargo of 2,000pounders.

The group of bombers had set a southerly course over the east of France for most of the journey; before turning east sharply for a quick incursion into Germany and the airspace over Stuttgart. They had been accompanied for the first leg by their own protective squadron of night-fighters; but these had turned for home some time ago—now the massed formation of bombers were on their own, with every eye alert for the enemy.

"Everyone stay observant." Claire was in the co-pilot's seat, squirming anxiously as she relayed orders to the rest of the crew. "Over Germany now; not long till Stuttgart. Remember, when we drop our cargo an' head for home the intent is t'stay in group with the rest of our buddies—extra protection, an' all that jazz. If we get separated, an' have t'run fer home on our own; well, let's just make the best of it, eh?"

"What about bandits, ma'am?" This from Morgan White in the front turret. "Bit difficult, if we fire promiscuously, not t'hit a friend in this miscellaneous lot all round us."

"What can I say." Claire snorted at this question. "Keep your eyes wide; try'n mark your target, if needed; an' just do your best not t'shoot down your mates—we don't wan'na receive thank-you cards next week through the post, from Goering, on our excellent capabilities that-a-way, do we?"

In another couple of minutes their target hove over the horizon. It was not difficult to pinpoint, even in the all-encompassing dark, for it was lit by raging incendiary fires across its whole broad width. So bright, in fact, that the dark black puffs of anti-aircraft fire hanging over the city were silhouetted sharply in the sky.

"Jeesus, look at that." Gabrielle, even engaged with pilot's duties, took a moment to stare ahead. "They're gettin' hard hit tonight."

"War, Gabs, war."

As the plane reached the environs of the city other sights came to the attention of various members of the bomber's crew. At a height of twelve thousand feet the Lancs', and others, were coming over in two separate waves; one lower, at ten thousand feet. Their positions had been carefully aligned beforehand, so the falling bombs from the higher group wouldn't hit the lower bombers as they passed—at least in theory. But now, for those like S for Sara in the higher wave, they could look down on the panorama of a burning city lit as if by multitudes of film-set lights, with the shapes of the lower bombers clear to see far below as they swept across the sky; the earlier first wave of aircraft having clearly done sterling work already.

On the ground lines of streets, burningly etched with white light as the incendiaries roared fiercely, could be followed in their exact courses, as if consulting some sort of illuminated map. Other areas were invisible under what appeared to be ground-hugging grey clouds, but were in fact the smoke from high explosive bombs hitting major targets. In the sky all round and amongst the lines of bombers dark spots of anti-aircraft fire did their best to hit the aircraft and bring them down. There were, of course, no enemy fighters in this area; these would instead be waiting some way to the west, for the bombers' home runs.

As S for Sara swept across this illuminated sketch of Hell the interior of the cockpit, even at twelve thousand feet, lit up as if by interior lights; the glare having become so intense.

"Christ, we've got cookies, but everyone else seems t'have incendiaries."

"Looks that way, don't it, Gabs."

At the height of the bombers' flight over the city the whole landscape below the planes looked exactly like a toy plan laid out on a table and lit by little fireworks. A curious sense of unreality enveloped the watching crew-members, making it all seem a fantastic vision, rather than reality. The whole of Stuttgart seemed to rage and quiver in the throes of sweeping walls of intense white flame, as fires burned out of control across the whole visible extent of the metropolis. Even as Claire gave the final orders to the bombardier in the nose of the Stirling, and he let loose their own contribution to the unfolding tragedy below, there existed a feeling in every one of the bomber's crew that they were participating in some kind of awful mutual nightmare, rather than actively contributing to the horror below, at present all too clear to their dismayed eyes.

"Let's get out'ta here." Claire's voice held a note of thin pale depression, rather than any kind of elation at a job well done. "Let's get the hell home."

—O—

The next day, after the debriefing and consultation in the Briefing-room with Squadron-Leader Evans, the women had returned to their Nissen Hut in a less than happy mood.

"God, did ya see those bloody photos?"

"—'course I did." Gabrielle shut and locked the door behind them, also firmly closing the curtains on the two windows, before dragging out a chair to sit at the bare table in the centre of the hut. "What a hell of a mess. Stuttgart's gone, that's for bloody sure. What was situated there, anyway, of such importance the city had to be wiped off the map so comprehensively?"

"Nuthin'." Claire shook her head, as she too sat. "It was just there; just a target; only done t'let the German citizens know they'd dam' well chosen the wrong Fuhrer t'lead 'em, an' it was all their own sorry fault."

"That's bloody Air Commodore Harris's view of the thing, ain't it?"

"Pretty much."

"Jeesus, sometimes I feel like a common criminal; a murderer, y'know." Gabrielle sat forward, elbows on the table and head in hands, so her next words, softly spoken, were hard to hear. "Am I?"

Claire stood, pulling her chair along with one hand as she came round to sit at her lover's side. A gentle arm on the blonde's shoulders gave instant comfort, as Gabrielle looked into the dark blue eyes of the person she loved most in all the world.

"Don't say things like that, Gab, it saddens me." Claire leaned across and gave her lover a gentle kiss on the cheek. "You're everything t'me; an' one thing you'll never be is a murderer. This whole dam' war's inexcusable, I admit, but as individuals we just got'ta look to our countries' t'defeat that bloody maniac in Germany—an' that means doin' our individual best, too. We ain't murderers; we're just two more saps caught up in something that by rights ought'ta be in Lewis Carrol's 'Alice Through the Looking-Glass', not part of any sane reality. All we can do is our best for King an' Country, then move on afterwards with our own lives. An', for me at least, that means only you, Gabrielle—only you. So don't think less of yourself, for anythin', as long as I'm here t'tell ya otherwise, OK?"

One hand, a little hesitant at first, reached slowly out and was instantly grasped in a strong but loving grip which brooked no rejection. In the hut there reigned a silence; not of harsh emptiness, but of soft all-enveloping Love, as the two women sat by each other's side, as they meant to do for the rest of their lives together.

The End

—O—

The next 'Mathews and Parker' story will arrive shortly.

—OOO—