'The Walrus and the Mosquito'
By Phineas Redux
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 Transport Auxiliary, and the highly secret SOE, Special Operations Executive,—take a Walrus to find a Mosquito.
Warning:— There is some light swearing in this tale.
"—no, the night after tomorrow."
"Oh, alright, so what d'we do today, then?"
"Go to the 'Fancy Parrot' at opening time, in just about three-quarters of an hour, an' drink ourselves insensible on ration-strength beer?"
"A fine thought, a very nice plan, in fact, but sadly lacking one simple ingredient."
"That being-what? Like no hops in the beer? Which is what the bloody stuff tastes like—an' nary a chance of getting drunk, no matter how much you put down."
"No, no, simpler than that—I'm low on dosh at the moment; I ain't got but a nicker, one bob, and two florins t'my name till payday. What about you, blondie?"
"Don't call me that, lady; let's see, a quid, a ten-bob note, a two-bob bit, half a crown, a ha'penny, and two farthings. Well, riches."
"But not riches enough fer a day's binge, sad t'say—"
"Jesus, gim'me a chance t'get t'the bloody door."
Claire jumped across the few yards to the entrance of the Nissen hut and wrenched open the door, revealing a down-at-heel squaddie of indeterminate age.
"Quit with the bloody barrage; wha'd'ya want?"
"Flying Officers Mathews an', er, Parker?"
"Yeah, yeah, what the f-ck is it?"
"Special orders, from Wing-Commander Bartlett. You've both t'report pronto t'the Briefing-room. An' tell 'em t'bloody well not waste time hangin' about—his words, ma'am."
"Sh-t. OK, great, thanks, now clear off."
Claire shut the door on the departing private and turned to her heartmate sitting at the table further along the narrow hut.
"Well, well, Bartlett needs us quicker than Nuvolari can run across the track and jump in his car—as usual."
"Why Nuvolari runs t' get in his car at the start of a race?"
"No, why Bartlett needs us?"
A lengthy pause ensued, Claire standing by the table, biting her lower lip; Gabrielle sitting, looking up and frowning questioningly.
"Well? Well what?"
"Are we goin', then? Or are we ignoring the Wing-Commander's orders, an swannin' off t'the 'Fancy Parrot' anyway?"
"Urrh, suppose we better stroll over an' brighten his day, I expect. He'll only get overheated otherwise. Where's my cap?"
"Jeez, how should I know—it's your cap."
"Great, just great, a lady finds herself in a conundrum an' all her ever-lovin' better half can do is quibble."
"I never quibble, darlin'. Over there, on the radio table."
"Your cap, dearest."
"Oh, so it is. Wonderful, love ya, babe. Come on, let's get a move on, Bartlett'll be turnin' puce as we speak."
The briefing-room of Little Lanning airfield, Norfolk, England, on this fresh bright Tuesday in early March 1944, was situated in a long single-storey bungalow near the Observation Tower, though more or less empty at this time of the morning; the only occupant being the officer in charge of the airfield, Wing-Commander Bartlett. He was in his early thirties, with short greyish hair and long sharp features; his light blue eyes glinting intensely, seeming to pierce anyone he looked at.
"Ah, finally, thought that squaddie had gone t'Norwich on your trail. Right, cluster round the map-table here, if you please."
"What's up, sir?" Claire always being first to jump in where angels would have better sense.
"Give me but half a second, Mathews, an' I shouldn't wonder but I might tell you."
"Humph. So, the long an' the short of it is this—there's been a cock-up on the photo-reconnaissance front. We sent a camera-recce Mosquito over Holland an' Northern Germany last evenin', an' it didn't return. We sent another very early this mornin', which found it, crash-landed on a Dutch sandbank north-east of the island of Texel—which presents us with a problem. You can ask questions, now."
"Y'want us t'rescue the crew, sir?" Claire raised an eyebrow, they all three knowing there were specialised squadrons whose only activity was in this area.
"Well, not altogether." Bartlett, became a little hesitant. "That of course, if it is found t'be feasible; but your actual aim is to recover the camera, or at least it's roll of film. That's all—the camera film, at all costs. Take a Walrus, get over there as fast as y'can, do the business, and come back with said object. Got that?"
"Bearings, compass directions, target position, sir?" Gabrielle always thought of the important points of any mission.
"All here, in these documents; grab 'em, an' study 'em on your way across to where the Walrus's parked. I've already had it fueled-up, an' what-not."
"When d'we go, sir?" Claire once more surrendering to her inquisitive nature.
"Just as soon as you both can pull your flying-boots on, an' climb into the Walrus. That is t'say—why haven't you both already gone?"
"On our way, sir."
"Well, don't stand there gibberin', get on with it. Time's runnin' out, before the bloody Jerry E-boats find the bloody Mosquito for themselves."
The northern sea-coast of Holland was notoriously made up of a series of sandbanks and shoals stretching remarkably far out to sea; making up the Frisian Islands bordering the shallow tidal Wadden Sea. Some were always just under the surface; some appeared at every low tide; and some, like the major islands including Texel, barely sat above water, bleak and barren. From many there was no sign of the distant Dutch coast at all; and the whole area was infamous for counter-currents, mist, and long-lasting fog. If an aircraft had the unfortunate fate to crash on any of the banks there was every possibility it would remain unobserved, certainly for hours if not days. But this was wartime; Germany had invaded Holland; and the coast was patrolled by infinite numbers of E-boats; fast motor-torpedo boats far more powerful and quicker than the opposing Allied MTB's.
"There they are."
Gabrielle, doing her famous interpretation of a navigator, leaned forward to point ahead through the main windscreen. "Just on the horizon, that thin dark broken line—good job it's about low water at the minute."
Claire had her hands full controlling the Walrus; the giant single Pegasus engine, pointed backwards in the pusher position, had a tendency to take over the biplane if allowed, so the pilot always had to keep a firm grip on things.
"Where's the supposed location of this dam' Mosquito? Where's Texel; bound t'be a Jerry presence around there?"
"Mosquito, about three more miles further on this course. Still five miles off the Dutch coast, though. Texel's about seven miles west from here."
"Umph, low water, y'say, Gab?"
"Will it be dry sand there, then? Or will the water still be deep enough for us t'land without wheels?"
"God knows—wait an' see."
Another four minutes flying found the ungainly Walrus soaring over a widespread area of sandbanks, glistening in the sun at low tide.
"God, it goes on for miles."
"Well, it's the Frisian Islands, and the edge of the Wadden Sea; which is really not much more than a vast never-ending waterlogged swamp."
"Oh, that's just perfect."
"Hey, look, there it is, as clear as daylight." Gabrielle pointed through the main windscreen with her gloved hand again. "Dead on target, if I say so myself. A wonder the Jerries haven't found it yet; it's not exactly hiding on that stretch of sand."
"Looks as if the crew found a dry bank, above the tide. It'll have t'be a wheels-down landing after all." Claire leaned forward to get a better view. "Any sign of the crew, by the way?"
Half a minute went by as Claire gently banked the biplane over their target and Gabrielle peered intently down.
"Nah, no sign of life." Gabrielle sat back. "But the Mossie looks to be in fair condition; a fine belly-landing by the looks of it. No apparent structural damage, apart from twisted prop blades."
"Well, suppose we better get down there, sharpish, an' see what's what. Wheels down, after all. Got your screwdriver, Gab?"
"Oh, I'm gon'na be the patsy who gets the dirty work, eh?"
"Privileges o'command, youngster. Quit complaining an' look after your fuel-gauges, we're goin' in."
As usual the remarkably sprightly Walrus made easy work of landing on the somewhat uneven ridged sandbank, though providing the women with a shaky rumbling half minute as it did so. After climbing down from the cockpit Gabrielle was first to take a deep breath of the local atmosphere.
"Huh, smells of old seaweed an' dead fish."
"Wha'd'ya expect, pure ozone ready-filtered for the tourists?"
"An' it's bloody cold, too; this bloody light breeze feels like its coming straight from the Arctic."
"Dam' hard t'please t'day, aren't ya? So, give a yell an' see if anybody pops out t'welcome us t'the party."
Nevertheless Gabrielle struggled for a few seconds taking off her gloves, then whistled sharply as only she could. The sound whined across the more or less flat sandbank, and through Claire's eardrums, to be lost in the vast open spaces extending away in every direction.
The Mosquito lay four-square on the sand, some twenty yards from where Claire had brought the Shagbat to a halt. Crossing the intervening stretch of uneven sand caused no problems, the women quickly reaching the side of the beached plane.
"Hell, looks much bigger, standing by its hulk like this."
"Optical illusion, or somethin'." Claire sniffed mirthlessly. "Climb up on the wing an' take a dekko in the cockpit. See if ya can see anythin'."
With a helping hand from her lover Gabrielle clambered up over the curved front edge of the wing and delicately made her way, on hands and knees, to the main upper fuselage. She had started inboard from the engine, so had no need to negotiate past the bent propeller blades. The cockpit was of the bubble type, several glass panels set within an all-encompassing metal frame; so it was easy to lean over and gaze directly into the interior.
"Nothing here, Ricky." Gabrielle glanced down at her partner, standing on the sand below. "No bodies, no blood, no real sign of disturbance, or being hit by Jerry fire."
"Doesn't seem t'be any flak damage either, from what I can see." Claire glanced at the nose of the plane, then down towards the tail. "Maybe they had engine trouble, or somethin'."
"Well, whatever; I suppose you want me to get in an' find the bloody camera film, then?"
"No need, ducks; it's in a box on the outer skin of the Mossie." Claire sniggered condescendingly, half-recalling a detail she had heard somewhere about reconnaissance cameras on planes in general. "There should be a lid or flap on the side of the plane, down near the underside, just under the port wing root on the fuselage—."
"No it ain't, baby; not on a Mossie." Gabrielle, standing on the wing inboard of the port engine, allowed herself a moment of superiority by sucking her teeth in an annoying manner she had. "I read the Mossie's handbook on the way here; the camera's inside the plane, lens pointing out through a hole cut in the underside of the plane near the navigator's seat,—only sayin'."
With a flurry of skidding flying-boots Gabrielle slid off the edge of the wing and landed in a heap at her pilot's own booted feet. She struggled to a standing position with as much presence of mind as she could haul together at short notice, said something the RAF censor would blue-pencil in an instant, and heaved a disgruntled sigh.
"On the underside—the underside which at present is buried in four feet of sand. How d'you suggest we get at that, then; from the outside—you being the Captain, an' all?"
"Don't ya dare mutiny, lady; I got worries enough without that, too."
Claire put a gloved hand up to scratch as much of her forehead as her flying-cap would allow. Finding this impossible she tried to scratch her chin instead, but found the straps of her helmet hindered this also. Giving up she took refuge by following in her navigator's footsteps.
"B-gg-r, Dam', an' Blast it all t'Hell."
A short pause ensued, the only sound that of the gulls wheeling in the air and the soft susurrus of the water at the edge of the sand not far off.
"Right, you'll hav'ta go in after all. Get your tools t'gether, we better make it snappy; we've been here far too long already, fer my peace of mind."
"OK, where's the entrance door, again? On the other side, ain't it?"
"Yeah, starboard, on the fuselage side, just under the cockpit. Leads straight into the cockpit, via the floor."
They moved out from the hulk of the plane, skirted the half-buried nose, and stood at the opposite side of the aircraft. Gabrielle knelt and put her shoulder to the curved featureless door.
"Dammit, nothin'. Here, gim'me a hand, girl."
Together they heaved against the resisting entrance, putting all their weight into the attempt till finally there was a screech of rending metal and the door fell away inside the hull, taking Gabrielle with it—all that could be seen of her being her well-padded flying-suited rear. Another explosion of unofficial and very descriptive language echoed in the interior before she regained her legs for the umpteenth time.
"F-ck this for a bloody laughing matter."
"Well, y're inside, at least. Can y'make your way through to the main fuselage?"
"God, gim'me a chance. Lem'me see. I'll hav'ta climb up into the cockpit, then maybe get through t'the rear from there. Gim'me a moment."
There followed some scraping and rasping of metal; some thumps and bangs; some further salty language not proper to a lady; then a hollow echoing cry from somewhere in the interior, sounding for all the world like a lost Banshee.
"Made it, I think. Can ya hear me, out there?"
"Yeah. What is it? Found the camera?"
"I had'ta get through behind the pilot's seat, then down in'ta the guts of the beast." Gabrielle's voice sounded as if coming from miles away. "There's a space, or hole, or place, between the girders an' spars down here—just behind the navigator's seat. I've found the top of a metal tube, with a lens-cap, I think,—must be the camera fitting, can't be anythin' else."
"A Mossie expert, are ya, ducks?"
"F-ck you, Ricky. Awwch, cut my bloody finger. Sh-t, sh-t, sh-t."
Claire took a couple of steps back, for safety's sake, trying to look entirely innocent the while—probably best to leave her navigator to her own devices for a while.
Another series of bangs and thumps echoed from the interior of the downed Mosquito, Gabrielle obviously going at her job whole-heartedly—probably fueled by increasing anger. Then there was a quiet pause followed by the dulcet tones of Claire's best pal, exuding general delight and self-appreciation.
"Done it. Bloody well done it. Got the camera magazine. Hey, Ricky, can you hear me?"
"Yeah. Come on back, then. Time's a'wasting."
More unidentifiable noises sounded hollowly inside the body of the plane; there was a final clatter of bits and pieces being kicked unceremoniously out of the way, and Gabrielle reappeared, gasping for breath and clutching a flat-sided round grey metal container. An instant later she stood on the sand beside her pilot once more.
"Well, here it bloody is. D'you want it?"
"Why the hell should I want it? Keep the dam' thing in your hot little hands, dearie, I've got a Shagbat t'fly."
"Fool, come on, let's get the hell out—"
Ziiir, Ziiir, Whuumph, Whuumph, Whuumph.
The sand all round the women flew into the air as invisible cannon shells sprayed the whole area, many hitting the frame of the Mosquito with explosive force amid the rending squeals of broken metal and wood, now reduced to shrapnel.
"Jesus, the f-cking Krauts've arrived. I knew it, I dam' well knew it. Get down, Gabs, down here by the fuselage; they're on the other side, at the moment."
"Where the f-ck did they come from? I never heard anythin'."
As if in answer the throaty roar of diesel engines powering up came to them across the intervening sand, as the fusillade began again.
"Keep yer head down, it's a bloody E-boat."
Lying prone in the sand, up against the fuselage, the women could actually feel the 20mm cannon shells hitting the Mosquito all along its length.
"Not bloody well taking any chances, are they?"
There was another pause in the bombardment, then it picked up once more, making the women press into the sand as if wishing to bury themselves in its protecting mass. But this time the crash and explosions of the cannon shells came from further off, not against the undefended Mosquito.
"F-ck it, they're firing at the Shagbat. Oh God, look at it."
Claire, in her anxiety, had raised her head for a better view, closely followed by Gabrielle's enquiring face.
By the time each had focused on their aircraft there wasn't much left to see. The E-boat's fusillade, aimed by expert gunners, had reduced the biplane to a smoking mangled wreck, barely recognisable as an aircraft at all.
"Shit, that's our escape route gone for a Burton."
"Y'don't say, Gabs."
There was a third pause, then the roar of the engines came again in the clear fresh salt-laden air. Peering cautiously round the shattered nose of the Mosquito, the women saw the long sleek powerful silhouette of the E-boat running some fifty yards offshore, on the Wadden Sea side of the narrow sandbank now host to two wrecked aircraft. Then the boat hove-to and the raucous sound of a loudhailer came to their ears.
"Du bist unsere gefangenen. Kommen sie mit den händen in die luft".
"Oh God, they've got us bang t'rights. Wha'd'we do?"
"Looks like we only have one bloody option—surrender, like he says."
Gabrielle put her hand out to grab Claire's shoulder in a tight grip.
"What's the odds they'll fire anyway?"
"Well, yes, there's that, certainly." Claire sighed softly. "Suppose we have t'hope there's a real human being in command of that bloody boat; an' not a dam' dyed-in-the-wool Nazi. We ain't got any other choice, ducks."
Steeling themselves for the next ensuing minutes of their lives—which both knew might well be conclusive, one way or the other—Claire stood up, with Gabrielle by her side, and moved out on the flat sand away from the protection of the devastated smoking shell of the Mossie. Another silence ensued; the sleek hull of the grey E-boat remaining stationary in the water—then the loud-hailer broke into life again.
"Kommen sie vorwärts, auf das wasser."
The women walked slowly to the water's edge, till it was lapping quietly at their boots, standing facing the boat with their hands in the air.
"Wer bist du?"
"Christ, what's that?"
"They wan'na know who we are." Claire shrugged under her flying-jacket. "Us bein' women seems t'have put them off somewhat."
"What d'we do?"
"Tell 'em who we are, Gabs. At least, the ATA part of it, no need t'go further into our history—what they don't know won't hurt 'em, eh?"
"We're ATA. Air Transport Auxiliary. Civilian women pilots. Hope t'Chr-st he takes that at face value." The last whispered low under Claire's breath so only Gabrielle heard it.
"Wir schicken ein beiboot, um sie abzuholen. Du bist jetzt unsere gefangenen."
"F-ck knows, Gabs. Let 'em get on with it, as long as it ain't shooting us."
They both watched, with a great deal of relief, as a lone seaman appeared on the deck of the E-boat, dragged a rubber dinghy from somewhere and, after setting it in the water climbed in and began paddling towards his prisoners.
"Oh God, Stalag Luft What-Not for us, Ricky, it seems."
"Don't be so depressing, anythin' might happen, still."
"Glad you think so, wish I had your confidence."
In dismal gloom they watched as the small round dinghy made its way closer across the short waves; the grey outline of the vicious-looking E-boat negating any thought of some kind of defensive action on the women's part—20mm cannon shells at close quarters being something not to be ignored.
Then the heavens opened up.
The water all round the E-boat turned into giant fountains of grey-white water so solid they looked as if made from concrete—soaring some fifty feet in the air before spreading out and falling to earth again with an enormous roar. Claire and Gabrielle had to run back up the bulk of the low sandbank to avoid the rushing incoming waves powered by the explosion of the bombs. Looking up hurriedly in the air both women saw the heavy shape of a four-engined Sunderland flying-boat in the act of doing what it was best at—sinking Jerry navy ships, submarines and, when it offered, E-boats.
Gasping for breath Claire and Gabrielle stopped at the highest point of the sandbank and looked back. The sea was still turgid with thrashing currents and whirlpools of displaced water. All that could now be seen of the E-boat was a single short length of mast, sticking out of the heaving water at an angle. Of the sailor and his dinghy there was no sign whatever. There didn't seem to be any other evidence of life around the sunken wreck of the E-boat either, as the victorious Sunderland roared over on its second pass, investigating what damage it had done.
Apparently happy, the plane curved round and headed off into the blue skies to westwards, leaving the trail of destruction on and around the sandbank to take care of itself. The women heaved sighs, sitting on the sand to recover their spirits, or what remained of them.
"What a sh-tty day it's been."
"Yeah, got'ta agree there, Gabs."
Half an hour had passed, all around having settled back into the long silence which had prevailed in the area for centuries, before the advent of the concerted war efforts of two countries.
"Well, what's t'do?" Gabrielle had been sitting on the dry sand morosely contemplating the three wrecks now in view. "Our Shagbat's a pile o'garbage; the Mossie's no better now; and that E-boat's gone, except for the top of its mast. Wha'd'we do?"
"Sing a happy song, an' wait fer Christmas?"
"Wha—what? Have you lost your wits?"
"Nah, just bein' funny. Raising morale, an' all that crap."
"Well, you're failing miserably—think o'something else, quick, 'cos I'm gettin' cold here."
The tall dark New Zealand pilot wriggled her shoulders and twisted round to take a good look at her partner, leaning forward with arms wrapped round her knees.
"The great thing, o'course, is we're still alive. Not a minor point, that, in the circumstances."
"So, what d'ya want t'happen, then?"
"What I want, madam—an' it better happen in the next ten minutes, or I'm gon'na lose my temper—is that HMS Nelson hoves in sight over the horizon, a squadron of Lancasters and Spitfires fills the sky as protection, an' Lord High an' Mighty Churchill himself leans over the battleship's side to offer us a helping hand aboard. Is that too much t'ask, lady?"
Claire, not being any kind of a fool, kept a discreet, not to say politic, silence. So now there were two kinds of silence wrapping the sandbank and its immediate surroundings in an aura of gloom and despondency.
Quarter of an hour later the outside world once more barged, uninvited, into their private space. Gabrielle had been looking out to sea, and was first with the glad tidings, rising to her feet as she made her discovery public.
"Boats, to the west. I can see two white lines, moving fast."
Claire leapt to her feet by the blonde woman's side, an arm on her shoulder.
"Yeah, I see 'em. Looks like another coupl'a MTB's. Hope they're ours, this time. They're comin' from the right direction, anyway."
Then this bright spot in her day was sadly tempered by an advancing dark cloud as Gabrielle took a glance over her shoulder.
"Oh sh-t, somethin's coming up from the Wadden Sea direction; the other side of the sandbank—the same side as the E-boat there. See it, over there on the horizon?"
"F-ck. That is another E-boat." Claire swiftly glanced from east to west and back. "Hope these boats out t'sea are our MTB's—if they're more E-boats we're b-gg-red for real this time."
Even though separated by a barrier of shallow sandbanks, not allowing close contact, the approaching and opposing boats obviously had expert lookouts of their own. After some further seconds the single boat on the Wadden Sea curved round and started firing its cannon over the heads of the castaways. Dropping to the sand again Claire and Gabrielle watched as sheets of water were cast up as the shells landed in front of the approaching North Sea boats.
"Well, that answers that question—those boats t'westward are our MTB's."
"Let's hope they scare Fritz off, then." Gabrielle sneezed as sand got up her nose. "Though he looks as if he's holding on t'avenge his late friend."
"F-cking idiot, those MTB's'll blow him out'ta the water given half a chance." Claire was not in a forgiving mood. "Just let 'em get a little closer an' they'll have him."
What followed was like something out of a Hollywood cowboy film, only between MTB's rather than opposing forces of lawmen and outlaws. With the line of sandbanks forming a boundary over which neither side could pass the three boats curved and spun in circles over the waves, trying for an advantage as they fired cannon at each other. The nature of the moving targets, and the fact they could come no closer than five hundred yards, meant most of the shots landed in the sea; but finally the German commander realised he was on a hiding to nothing, being wholly over-matched by the two British boats—at least, in these circumstances. With a last broadside, which again failed to hit any target, the E-boat curved gracefully round and headed for the inshore horizon, leaving the British MTB's in control of the battlefield.
"Jeesus, that was frightening."
Gabrielle shook the sand out of her hair as they both stood up, watching the approaching triumphant victors.
"The Sunderland must'a radioed they'd seen us down here."
"Yeah, thank goodness." Gabrielle heaved a sigh of relief as they reached the water's edge once more. "Look, someone's lowering another dinghy—hope we get t'ride in this one."
"Lieutenant Crawford, ladies; heard all about you two. Bit of Douglas Fairbanks action goin' on between you both, eh?"
"Yeah, right." Claire didn't strongly approve of this description, but kept her feelings to herself.
They were standing in the small cabin of one of the MTB's; a low table and bench seats being the order of the day. Though the women were just relieved to be anywhere on British territory, after their day's adventures.
"Well, I'll leave you to it. We should be home in Lowestoft in about an hour or so."
Gabrielle nodded gratefully as the young man climbed back up the steep ladder again to the unseen deck, shutting the hatch behind him. She then put the leather satchel she had been grasping tightly, now containing the rescued film canister, on the table and sat wearily beside her lover.
"I wish this was a Hollywood movie, rather than merely some recce film." Gabrielle held Claire's arm in a soft grip. "Wonder what's on it? Something worth all the dam' trouble we've been through, I sincerely hope."
"Just pictures of some Lancaster raid on a city somewhere, I suppose." Claire took the pragmatic outlook. "Nothin' t'get excited about, anyway. Just the usual demands o'war, an' all that."
"You've got it? Spiffing, dam' fine show." Wing-Commander Bartlett was clearly overjoyed at the dual climax to the day—the recovery of the film, and the return of the two women pilots; though there were negative aspects. "Dam' shame y'lost the bloody Shagbat, but obviously couldn't be helped. And the dam' Mossie's gone belly-up, too. No sign of the crew, y'say?"
"Not a hair, sir." Gabrielle took up the necessity of explanation. "Cockpit empty, no flak damage, no visible damage to the plane, apart from the undercart bein' up when they came down—until that dam' E-boat appeared, anyway. Probably engine trouble; though what happened to the crew beats me."
"Were they picked up by one of our air-sea rescue squadrons, sir?"
"If they were, Mathews, no-one's seen fit to spread the glad tidings yet." Bartlett curled a sarcastic lip. "Though, of course, there's no telling what these air-sea rescue bods might get up to, before reporting a safe rescue—maybe taken the rescued blighters on a binge t'the Ritz, or somewhere. They might stroll in, in a couple of days, as innocent as two babies."
"Or you might get a postcard in a couple of months, from Stalag Luft Thirteen, sir, asking for Red Cross parcels to above address."
"Har, yes, there's that, certainly." Bartlett placed a fatherly hand on the film canister lying on his desk and smiled at the two women again. "Thanks for this, at any rate. Right, I think I can safely say you have both fairly earned a week's leave, starting from tomorrow. Dismiss, an' have fun."
"What about our scheduled trip over Krautland, t'bomb hell out'ta the Nazi hordes for the umpteenth time? Was scheduled for tonight, y'know."
"Some other poor saps've been given the short straw, don't worry." Claire made a contemptuous noise between parted lips as she steered the Austin Tilly they had commandeered from the airfield round a huge horse-drawn farm wagon. "Gods, look'it that. Must've been built in the 1890's, an' still goin' strong.—takes up the whole dam' lane."
"Hope you're in as good shape, at that age, old girl."
"Darlin', if it weren't fer the fact I'm drivin' this here heap o'scrap, I'd have somethin' t'say about that line." Claire sniffed disdainfully. "So, where's this dam' village you were so hot we should spend a week's recreation at. We're in the middle of the wilds as it is, already—an' if there's anywhere wilder than the north of Norfolk, I've never been there yet."
"Rudley Thorpe? It's just a couple more miles, accordin' t'my map—an' you know how good a navigator I am, don't'cher, my lovely?"
"That's what's worryin' me—ouch, that hurt."
"Serves you right." Gabrielle could be unforgiving when pushed to it. "Helen Gardner told me the Inn there, the 'Hollow Tree', is superb. Should be fun."
But the small van's driver wasn't to be pacified so easily.
"Aren't the far-famed Norfolk Broads hereabouts? Hope t'hell you haven't hired a bloody yacht, an' expect me t'accompany you, sailin' across inland puddles fer the whole week. If so lem'me tell ya, babe, I got other pleasures in mind, that's all."
Faced with this incredible degree of lack of geographical knowledge Gabrielle had only one recourse, and she took it gleefully.
"Hah. Bein' a mere New Zealander y'wouldn't know, dear." The blonde milking her command of the situation for all it was worth. "The Broads are down in the south of the county—inland from Great Yarmouth, an' east of Norwich; nowhere near us at present, in fact. Rudley Thorpe is just a quiet village in the middle of flat farmland, surrounded by old mills, dykes,—deep drainage ditches to you—and ancient Roman ruins."
"What? The Romans set up shop round hereaways? I'll be dammed."
"You know the Romans, poked their noses everywhere they weren't wanted." Gabrielle snorted in her turn. "Supposed to be some fine old ruined villas in the district; we might spend an educational afternoon visitin' one or the other—wha'd'ya say, ducks?"
"Oh, very well; but it's not what I'd a'chosen, given first dibs."
The village of Rudley Thorpe, though enjoying a resplendent nomenclature, was in fact not much more than a mere hamlet. Two rows of single-storied cottages, interspersed by a couple of Georgian two-storied villas and a church at the end of the road, constituted more or less the whole community. The Inn, the 'Hollow Tree', sat at the other end of the village from the church; which may have been planning, but was more likely simply chance.
The Inn did, however, date from the mid-eighteenth century, being an actual old coaching Inn. In the hands of its present day owners it had built up a high reputation in the wider local region for good food and comfortable rooms, so was remarkably well patronised—at least it had been been up till the outbreak of war. Now, it was merely ambling along, awaiting better times.
Their room, low-ceilinged, though heavily raftered, and square in format was on the first floor looking out to the rear of the ancient building, onto the still extant yard where stage-coaches had once rumbled in filled with weary passengers. On the far side of the yard a row of old stables now, after a few lean decades, busily full of four-footed inmates again,—curtesy of the present hostilities and tight fuel rationing—paid tribute to this nearly forgotten era. Gabrielle was ecstatic; the whole atmosphere of the quaint, history-exuding, edifice fulfilling all her deeply-felt romantic desires. Claire, on the other hand, immediately came up against problems.
The noise of the tall New Zealander's head coming into contact with a stray ceiling rafter rang through the room, giving her blonde companion instant insight into the cause of the kerfuffle taking place behind her back.
"Good God, woman, haven't you got sense enough t'bow down—t'lower your head a little? This ain't a Palace ballroom, y'know."
Gabrielle could be, and frequently was Claire often opined, less than comforting when the necessity for such arose in their dual lifestyle. On this occasion a curl of the lip, followed by a sad shake of her blonde head comprised the entire measure of her concern. After which fulsome acknowledgement of the tragic event Gabrielle turned once more to unpacking her kitbag.
"How much have ya got in that thing, anyway?" Claire tried to focus on her partner's shortcomings, in order to offset the ache in her head. "Jeez, I think you've got every movable piece of clothing ya own in there. We are going back t'Little Lanning in a week, y'know."
"Yeah, yeah, but I need a change of clothing, all the same." Gabrielle sniffed dismissively. "I get so fed up wearing RAF fatigues every dam' day, don't you? So I thought a skirt or two, along with all the trimmings—blouses, wool jumpers, stockings, shoes with heels, etc, wouldn't go astray—just to keep my morale up, dear."
They had chosen, on this fine sunny afternoon of their first day of leave, to go for a quiet stroll in the vicinity—into the open country, in fact. Or at least, as Gabrielle knowingly pointed out, those places and fields and woods which weren't the sites of military emplacements, camps, or simply cordoned-off with large white signs giving dire warning to anyone stupid enough to trespass on WD property.
After they had changed their direction, along the winding country lanes just outside the village, for the second time because of these signs,—the first accompanied by some very nasty barbed wire—Claire let fly in opinionated outrage.
"Barbed wire! And silly signs in every direction from the bloody WD telling us t'watch our step—ain't there anywhere we can go around here without bein' ordered about at second-hand?"
"There is a war on, lover." Gabrielle immediately felt this was not a viable answer, it only serving to bring coals to Newcastle and, at the same time, pour petrol on the fire. "OK, OK, don't blow your top, girl. Easy, easy. Let's try over this stile, and the path across the field here, must lead somewhere—one of these public rights-of-way, I think; must go somewhere interesting, I assume."
Ignoring the heavily sarcastic mumbled rejoinder that she assumed too much, Gabrielle led the way across a field of short grass, towards a small wood or copse, of mainly beech and ash trees. The surrounding terrain was of low rolling slopes, fields stretching away in every direction, interspersed with other small clumps of trees; as a result of which the horizon all round was remarkably close. Claire, being in a miserable mood already, noticed this with gloom-laden satisfaction.
"We come out fer a good look at the jolly old English scenery and what d'we find? Half a field running up to the skyline a hundred yards off; an' the very same in every direction." She stopped in her tracks to sniff with intent. "What can we see of the landscape hereabouts, Gabs? Bloody nothing, that's what—let's go back t'the Inn an' drown our sorrows in Ration beer."
"Give over, darling," Gabrielle cast a smile of encouragement over her shoulder as she progressed unflappably towards the group of trees now only twenty yards away across the field. "Who knows, there might be a Roman ruin in these trees."
Claire's answer, and she was preparing a doozy, was cut short by a curious noise filtering into their hearing, as from far away; a faint intermittent buzzing rasping noise, barely coming within earshot; but the women both stopped in a single stride and leant their heads back to look up into the blue sky.
"Yeah, Hispanos', without a doubt, I think—one of ours." Claire nodded, keeping her eyes on the high heavens. "Look, there. Vapour trails."
"I see 'em." Gabrielle placed her left hand on Claire's arm as they both became intrigued by the fight going on high overhead. "Hear that? Machine-guns, Brownings. See the vapour trail to the right, two engines—I think it's a Mosquito."
"Yeah, y're right, darlin'."
The clear blue sky was the perfect backdrop for the extending white lines which now proceeded to scratch themselves across the firmament in wide curving lines, and sharp tight bends, as each fighter strove to catch the enemy in their gunsights.
"See the wide turning circles of the trail on the left?" Claire had a hand up shading her eyes from the sun. "An' d'ya hear that? MG cannon, fer certain."
"Focke Wulf 190?"
"Yep, sure dam' is."
The aircraft were operating too high to make out detail, only the white vapour trails told of the continuing struggle for dominance in the deadly match.
"Probably around ten, maybe twelve thousand feet."
"Yeah." Gabrielle nodded, focussing on the encounter with every iota of her being. "Who's gon'na win, d'you suppose? The Mosquito's more heavily armed, but a trifle less manoeuvrable."
"The Focke can't turn sharply enough t'easily draw a bead on the Mossie." Claire shook her head, staring upwards with intense interest. "Dammit, I feel as if I should be up there doin' something t'help."
"Nothing we can do today but watch." Gabrielle had been keeping her gaze on the heavier vapour trail and now suddenly gave an anguished yell. "Jeesus, it's falling sideways—the Mossie's been hit—it's coming down. Oh, God."
As they watched, entranced into immobility by the events over their heads, one of the vapour trails swung wide across the bare sky, creating a wavering line away from the centre of the earlier fray. It curved across a wide angle of sky, clearly falling lower as it did so. The second vapour trail, from the suspected Focke Wulf, had vanished from sight, as had the German fighter itself. Then the women saw the outline of the British fighter plainly for the first time as it came ever lower, clearly out of control.
"It is a Mosquito. Why don't they bloody bail out?"
"Maybe earlier, but they're a dam sight too low now." Gabrielle spoke from experience, still focussing on the now easily observable body of the twin-engined fighter as it lazily fell out of the sky in twisting spirals. "Christ, don't look as if they have control at all—they're gon'na crash for sure."
"Gabs, start runnin'—head for those trees over there; it's gon'na hit this bloody field."
Instantly recognising the truth of her partner's remark Gabrielle, without wasting time replying, started running as ordered. In what seemed a never-ending rush they found themselves amongst the trees in a bare twenty strides or so. From the relative, very relative, safety of the copse they then turned breathlessly to watch the final seconds of the mighty fighter.
There was a nerve-tingling whine overhead, the roar of a single engine still working at full stretch; then a swift shadow passed over their heads followed by what seemed a storm-sized roar as the plane hit the ground sixty yards away and proceeded to cut a trail across the short grass away from the paralysed spectators, its progress throwing an impenetrable cloud of decimated brown earth and grass into the air in its wake, obscuring all sight of the sliding plane from view; then the awful noise came to a sudden end and all was ominously quiet again. Meanwhile, over the field lay a thick brown swirling wall of fog made up of earth dust, making it impossible to see what the outcome of the crash had been. As the first streamers of this artificial mist reached them on the faint breeze the women became aware of a smell of pulverised earth, fuel oil, and hot metal.
"Come on, let's get over there an' see what shape they're in."
Gabrielle followed on the heels of her partner as they once more ran out into the sunshine in the open field, as the fog of disturbed earth fell quietly to the ground. Then Gabrielle became aware of another danger.
"Jeez, the Focke's comin' down, too. Look, up there—Chr-st, it's nearly on top of us,—hit the dirt."
Claire threw herself to the ground beside her lover, fingers digging into the soft earth as if to gain strength and safety from it, then there was another swish of air and a loud screeching whine as the Focke Wulf cut through the air a mere forty or so feet above their heads. A fleeting shadow again passed over the recumbent women, the whine faded away in the distance, then came the ghastly sound of tearing metal and broken branches as the enemy fighter ploughed nose first into the thick stand of tall trees on the far side of the wide field. A second's silence prevailed, then there was a soft whumph followed by a roaring noise as the wreckage caught fire and began burning fiercely, a cloud of nasty-smelling black smoke rising and spreading, in its turn, over the field.
"Come on, Gabs, nothing we can do for the Jerry pilot; let's see what state the Mossie boys are in."
Following the line of torn earth cutting across the surface of the wide field they soon came to the wreckage of the Mosquito. It had, by some miracle, achieved a classic belly-landing. Apart from bent propeller-blades and the fact it was belly-down in the field there didn't seem much wrong with the frame of the aircraft—apart from some very nasty holes and tears showing where the German fighter's cannon shells had taken effect. The cockpit cover was up and the pilot and navigator were already standing on the ground, at a safe distance, contemplating both their own and the distant German's wrecks. The pilot, rather short and sporting a heavily-oiled face, turned as the women came up, nodding calmly as they stood by his side.
"Ah, ladies, sorry to prang m'plane so close; couldn't help it, in fact—trials an' bloody tribulations of war, an' all that. May I introduce Dougie Carmichael, my navigator—grand chap, y'know."
"Are you alright?" Gabrielle looked at the two men intently, wondering if her knowledge of first-aid was going to be called for. "Didn't catch your name."
"Oh, sorry, Flight-Lieutenant John Moresby." The pilot essayed a weak, but still game, grin. "The dam' Jerry got the better of us, I'm afraid. One of my cannon mis-fired an', well, that was it. Doesn't look as if he made it, I'm afraid."
"Nah, he very definitely didn't make it." Claire nodded, as they all four contemplated the now roaring fire amongst the former copse of trees in the distance. "You must have scored some hits all the same, before your guns packed up."
"Yes, seems that way." Moresby heaved a deep sigh, shuffled his sheepskin-lined boots to renew the blood flow in his feet, then looked around with interest; seemingly not much put out by his near death experience. "So, this is jolly old Norfolk, eh? I look to you ladies to help and succour needy pilots; any idea where civilisation is, around here? Suppose Dougie an' I had better report back to HQ pronto, before they start sending out telegrams to the next-of-kin too soon, eh? Which way? This way? Ah, right, if you both lead, Dougie an' I will limp bravely along behind you. Carry on."
"Some dam' leave this's turned out t'be."
Gabrielle, safely ensconced once more in their comfy room at the 'Hollow Tree', gave vent to her feelings in gloomy resignation.
"Could'a been worse." Claire, bootless though still retaining her socks, lay at length on the wide double-bed which took up most of the floor space in the room. "Moresby an' Dougie might have come down nose-first, right in front of our horrified eyes; an' the dam Jerry might'a made his escape undamaged. That would've been a right kettle o'fish."
"Umm, well, glad it didn't happen like that."
Gabrielle finished taking off her brown Army-issue scratchy cotton shirt, folded it neatly and placed it on top of her trousers and undergarments on the flat lid of the huge wooden chest sitting on the floorboards at the bottom of the bed. Then, in a state reminiscent of Eve for all the requisite reasons, she approached the side of the bed so recently appropriated by her companion, partner, and lover.
"Well, darling, you know the right's my favourite side." Gabrielle stood, entirely and unembarrassedly nude, smiling gently at the half-clothed woman lying at full stretch before her. "So, what's t'do? Do you move over to your own side of the bed? Or do I have to climb in over you?"
There was no audible response, but the glint in Claire's blue eyes gave all the answer Gabrielle could have expected.
"Oh, well; here we go, then."
And she leant forward and climbed onto the bed, putting a hand on her lover's chest as she did so, legs smoothly sliding over the body below her. But she never made it to the other side of the bed; Claire's strong arms grasping Gabrielle's flanks and drawing her close in a robust but gentle embrace which was entirely satisfactory to both.
Another 'Mathews and Parker' story will arrive shortly.