'The Yellow 3 Ace'
By Phineas Redux
Summary:— This story is set in Great Britain in 1944. Flying Officers Claire 'Ricky' Mathews and Gabrielle Parker—lovers, members of ATA, Air Transport Auxiliary, and the highly secret SOE, Special Operations Executive,—are tasked with shooting down or capturing a German air ace.
Warning:— There is some strong swearing in this tale.
"What? Fifteen? My God."
Claire, rather less ruffled by the news than her blonde partner, took it more stoically. They were standing in Wing Commander Bartlett's office on the airfield of Little Lanning, Norfolk, just having been informed of a top secret bit of war news.
"He must have a sharp eye, an' good reflexes, t'have amassed that number of kills." She pursed her lips in thought as she considered the facts Bartlett had just confided to them. "So, his score's ten fighters, and at least five bombers over the last six months. Some guy."
"I didn't think they still had pilots of that, umm, calibre, sir." Gabrielle was still non-plussed by the facts.
"Oh, generally speaking we're holding our own; at least against the Jerry fighter opposition." Bartlett nodded sadly, as he sat behind his desk; a folder containing the irrefutable facts before him. "But, as in any area of life, amongst the general dross as you might say there is always an, er, unexpected gem to be found. This chap is that gem."
"Batting for the wrong side though, sir."
"Yes, quite, Parker."
"We sure the same guy's responsible for all these hits, sir?"
"Yes, Mathews, multiple sightings on a variety of occasions—by other pilots in the defending squadrons." Bartlett looked glum. "The same chap to a certainty, I'm afraid."
"Well, the sooner we stop the b-st-rd the better, eh, sir?" Claire raised her chin determinedly. "What's the plan?"
This rather overcast and dreary Wednesday of mid-March 1944, had seen the squadron of mainly Lancaster bombers of the small Norfolk airfield grounded till the ensuing night; Claire and Gabrielle's special ops' Stirling being the only example of its breed on station. Meanwhile Wing Commander Bartlett had summoned his duo of female ATA/SOE pilots for this special mission. He now commenced to give a short lecture supplying details.
"The plane in question is a Focke Wulf One-Ninety." Bartlett shuffled through a mass of individual papers on his desk. "What Mark it is we're not quite certain—they upgrade those Fockes' so often it makes your eyes water. Anyway, this particular example is attached to Jagdgeschwader 3; which operates in the north-eastern France zone."
"We have its personal number, sir?"
"Yes, Parker, it's Three—Yellow Three we call it, because of the colour of its numbers on the fuselage, and also for his yellow engine cowling and propeller-boss. Flashy sort'a character, apparently." The Wing Commander peered at a particular sheet of information before raising his gaze to the pilots once more. "He's also been annoying the South Coast over the last three months—strafing ships, coastal instillations, small towns and villages—he thinks nothing of strafing a village High Street without warning—a right b-st-rd."
"Oh-Ho, that kind of a Nazi, eh?"
"Dam' straight, Mathews." Bartlett, usually the most reserved of people, sneered contemptuously. "On a couple of occasions he's been seen to wait for a belly-landed Spitfire pilot to clamber out of his plane, then come over at low level and strafe the poor blighter. Three known casualties that way so far."
"Yes, umm, quite, Parker." Bartlett shook his head at the cruel perfidiousness of the enemy. "Dam' Krauts; some of 'em a real bad lot; of which this present specimen takes the biscuit."
"What's the plan, sir?"
"Yes, exactly, Parker—the plan." Bartlett took a deep breath, sighed softly, and came to the nitty-gritty. "You'll both be flying Spitfires; they've just been flown in by ATA pilots earlier, as you no doubt already know. Well, they're yours for the next few days—we've given this operation a week, y'see; starting t'day. Two local fighter squadrons are loaning a few aircraft each as well; Spits and Hurricanes. He's apparently moved his scene of operations further north, towards Norfolk, in the last two weeks, it seems. The idea is for a couple of planes to act as decoys, while the majority of the force keep an eye out at higher altitude. If the target appears and tries anything funny with the decoys our boys swoop down out of the sun and catch him with his pants at half-mast. That's the idea, anyway."
Claire and Gabrielle looked at each other, considering this information—then Gabrielle asked the obvious question.
"Two decoys, sir? I take it—?"
"Yep, you've both drawn the short straw." Bartlett had the decency to look slightly embarrassed. "Just keep a sharp eye out, and if you're attacked try not to stay in his sights too long at any one time. Dismissed."
"Try not t'stay in his sights—Ha."
"Well, it's good advice."
"Don't be dam' silly." Gabrielle was having none of this sloppy thinking. "Judging from his previous, if we get in'ta his sights at all we can kiss our next visit t'the NAAFI—or anywhere else, for that matter—goodbye."
They were walking across the concrete apron towards the main runway where their two Spitfires awaited them, at just after eleven ack emma that same day.
"Don't worry, I'll have your tail." Claire clapped her gloved hand on her paramour's shoulder. "If any naughty Nazi comes along tryin' anything funny, I'll see the b-st-rd off, dear."
However Luck was not on their side; it being not till the coming Friday that anything interesting happened in their combined, and very miscellaneous, flight.
Gabrielle clicked the switch on her face-mask as she sat in the cockpit of the Spitfire, bowling along at around 250mph at 7 thousand feet the following Friday morning. To her port side the calm but grey and cold North Sea swept across to the far horizon; while on her starboard side the intersecting fields of Norfolk lay before her like a huge colourful quilt. Some fifty feet to her port side the sleek silhouette of her companion Spitfire, commanded by Claire, slid along in tandem with her.
"We wait an' see." The radio signal from the other Spitfire sounded tinny and far away in Gabrielle's ears. "Maybe it'll be third time lucky, t'day."
The two Spitfires veered slightly, aiming a trifle inland, so that in another five minutes they had left the coast behind and had the sweeping fields of Norfolk spread before them in every direction.
"The railway lines are very obvious from here, Ricky."
"Yeah, show up splendidly." Claire's voice still seemed to echo from a far distance over the radio. "Which makes it easy for Jerry t'use 'em as sighting lines an' directional aids."
"Pity, that." Gabrielle leaned to the side of her cramped cockpit and stared at another point of interest far below. "What's that road; the one that comes over the horizon, an' just keeps goin', straight as a rod?"
"Saw it on the map, when we were preparin' for this sortie. Think it's a Roman road—modernised, o'course, but the route, straight as a die, is still the same."
"Jeez, two thousand years, give or take a century; makes you think."
The women had little time to appreciate this historical landmark, however.
"Plover Base to Eagles One and Two, over."
"Eagle One receiving, over." Gabrielle flicked her radio switch and tensed in her seat, looking out to port and starboard.
"Reports in that Yellow Three is attacking Saxthorpe; repeat attacking Saxthorpe. Report two minutes ago. Intercept and engage, over."
"Roger, out." Gabrielle clicked her radio switch back. "Ricky, got that?"
"Yeah, Saxthorpe; got it on my map, if we change course three degrees west we'll be on track."
Saxthorpe was a small village in rural Norfolk of no significance at all to the war effort, barring the tilling of the local fields. But it did have a long straight High Street, lined with shops and large Georgian villas. It was this unprotected target that the Focke Wulf had picked for it's morning entertainment. By the time Claire and Gabrielle arrived it was pretty obvious that the Luftwaffe pilot had already had his fun and hurriedly thereafter departed, leaving a swathe of devastation behind.
"Gawd, one house on fire, an' a car in flames in the middle of the street." Gabrielle flew her Spitfire along the length of the devastated thoroughfare at around 1500 feet. "And smoke from various other houses and shops, too. He really went t'town on the place."
"See the street cobblestones? Shot t'shit; doesn't seem t'have had any thought of picking his target—just strafed the whole place indiscriminately."
"Seems so." Gabrielle pointed the nose of her aircraft skywards. "OK, where the hell is he now, then?"
"Probably half-way across the Channel, headin' back t'base—for a well-earned plate of rotwurst, in his opinion, no doubt."
"Not if I f-ckin' catch him first; let's go, Ricky, follow me."
They were soon out over the wide expanse of the North Sea once more and, having climbed to ten thousand feet on a clear bright morning, they had the dark line of the Norfolk coast behind whilst in front stretched the low grey indeterminate coast of Holland and Belgium.
"We can't head on over enemy territory. That ain't on our agenda, Gabs."
"Dam'." Gabrielle eased off her throttle and veered slightly north, leaving the hazy coast on her starboard side. "Can't see any sign of bandits—you, Ricky?"
"Nah, all clear. Let's head home. We've lost our escort, anyway; someone'll be havin' kittens back at base if we don't report soon."
The grey flat cold North Sea glinted below them as they turned for home; the low friendly coast slid across in front of them; —and then all hell broke loose.
A burst of gunfire whipped past Gabrielle's line of sight twenty yards in front of her cockpit; there was a shuddering tremor as more bullets snapped viciously through the extreme tip of her port wingtip; then the high-pitched nervous yelp of her companion came over the radio.
"Bandits, bloody loads o'the b-gg-rs. Eight o'clock high. Break, break, break."
The wings of the two planes jerked high and in seconds the duo had split apart, heading in opposite directions. Immediately both pilots found their attention focussed entirely on the difficult task of staying alive as it became apparent they had bumped into a flight of Junkers Ju88's, six in all.
"Sh-t, oh sh-t, oh sh-t."
Gabrielle brought her Spitfire round on the tightest curve she had ever attempted. The plane responded magnificently but, on holding her new course, she found at least two Ju88's still on her tail. She felt the fuselage quivering sickeningly again, as if being shaken by a giant hand, as further bullets found their targets in the area around her tail; then she felt a couple of painful thumps in her back as several bullets hit the armoured back of her seat.
"Bullets, no cannon—that's some relief."
But she had no time to consider the fact the majority of Ju88's were only armed with machine-guns, for those presently swooping round their prey were experienced and determined. Gabrielle swung her plane round to starboard in another body-numbing curve, wingtip high, engine screaming with the effort—but not quickly enough. Another shudder ran through the frame of the struggling aircraft as further bursts of fire found their target. A horrible series of anguished metallic screams came from the airframe behind her as more bullets lashed the fuselage. Suddenly there was what seemed to Gabrielle a minor explosion in the cockpit, which immediately filled with grey dust and flying bits of torn equipment as several bullets found their last resting places far too close to her body. Then she heard what she most feared—the spluttering agonised whine of a Rolls-Royce Merlin V12 engine in acute distress. The whole plane began to rock, as if caught up in a vicious torrent, while her seat bucked beneath her like a bronco of a particularly spiteful nature. For an instant she felt the juddering tremor as yet more enemy fire found its mark, then her windscreen exploded into dust, enveloping her in a thick fog of shattered perspex and flying fragments of shrapnel. She recognised the evil harsh roar of an engine completely unchecked; the controls, both foot and hand, no longer responding in any way; and she saw the far too close patchwork of fields below as the Spitfire's nose slid away to point earthwards for the last time.
"Uugh, Aaarth, Haarph."
With the last of her strength Gabrielle ripped her radio lines and seat-belt away; found she didn't need to slide the canopy back as it simply didn't exist anymore, a vicious rush of air whipping across her masked face as she pulled herself up out of her seat and hauled her body into the full blast of the airstream outside. Then, without really giving thought to the process, she dragged her boots out of the cockpit, put her left hand on the ripcord of her back-parachute, and threw herself away to starboard of the hurtling plane. There came an instant of cold gale-like roaring in her ears, then she pulled the cord and started praying for all she was worth.
The great thing about a face-full of raw Norfolk earth was it smelt, and indeed tasted, so beautifully rich and alive. Gabrielle lay quietly in the grass appreciating this new experience to the full—for she had a mouthful of pure Norfolk to help her. Finally, spitting this mess out in a very unlady-like manner she achingly rolled over on her back to stare at the blue sky above—but this delightful prospect was not allowed to last for long. A short, but elongated, silhouette appeared in her line of sight; Gabrielle was aware of a small frame in a red skirt and grey pullover, with long bare legs; then the high squeaky voice of a young girl rent the air in an imperious manner.
"Hey, mister, you OK?" From her tone the girl seemed wonderfully self-possessed. "Farmer Buckleigh ain't gon'na like yer fer this, y'know. You've torn up a fair swathe o'his best cornfield. That bloody Spitfire slid across most o'this field, y'know, before it blew up. Gawd, what a bloody great bang—wonderful. You hurt? Any wounds? Miss Anstruther has been givin' us Girl Guides First Aid, y'know. I can bandage a broken arm, y'know. You got a broken arm, mister?"
Gabrielle, thus addressed, struggled to a sitting position, felt her arms and legs, then passed a hand over her ribs under her heavy flying-jacket. Feeling only general aches and pains she optimistically surmised that her female helper's hopes were unfounded, and reached out a gloved hand.
"Here, gim'me a hand, I'm all over bruises. Where the hell am I?"
The girl did as requested, gripping Gabrielle in a surprisingly powerful clasp.
"Hey, you're not a man—you're a girl. Why's that?"
Faced with this unanswerable question, Gabrielle considered it for a second then simply shrugged, smacking her hands against her padded leggings. Then she noticed her immediate surroundings for the first time. She was standing on the corner of a corn-field, close to a small copse of tall trees. On the grass all round were broken small branches and leafy twigs; whilst right beside her the soft ground was raw with scattered soil where she had obviously finally come to earth herself. Her parachute, she now realised, was hanging over her head in torn fragments in the high branches of the elm tree now towering above her. Some hundred yards to her left a plume of smoke rose quietly into the air, marking the last resting-place of her Spitfire.
"Jeez, I made it."
"Hey, lady, you the pilot of that Spit?"
"Yeah, what of it, gal?"
"Oh, nuthin'." The girl could read this survivor like a book. "Made a right mess o'those dam' Jerries up there, didn't ya? Don't think I heard you fire a single shot."
"I had other things on my mind, dear." Gabrielle shuffled round, feeling slightly wobbly, surveying the large field in which they both stood. "So, where's this, then?"
"Buckleigh Farm, I'm Sara—"
"Of course you are, dear; what else could you be called."
"Nuthin', carry on."
"Well, I live in Carswell village, just half a mile north o'here; but I come t'play with the Buckleigh kids a lot. They've gone t'tell their dad what you've done t'his cornfield." Sara paused for a moment, obviously lost in the beautiful prospect of listening to Farmer Buckleigh's thoughts on downed Spitfire pilots, then unwillingly brought herself back to the present. "They'll all be here in a minute. You sure your arm ain't broken? Maybe a leg? Miss Anstruther says she's never seen someone's ribs bandaged quite the way I did it last week."
"I have no doubt she was right, too." Gabrielle took a deep breath of fresh air, just thankful she still could. "No, I ain't broken in any way; just got a vile temper, that's all. Dam' Ju88's; where the hell'd they come from, anyway?"
The girl, now showing herself to be rather tall for her age, probably eleven Gabrielle thought, smirked happily.
"Tommy Buckleigh said they were Dorniers, but I said all along they were Ju88's; anyone could see that." She smirked ostentatiously again. "Wait till I tell him, won't he be mad."
Further discussion of Sara's knowledge of enemy aircraft was however cut short, thankfully Gabrielle thought to herself, as a group of figures appeared round a distant hedge-line.
"Ah, here's Farmer Buckleigh; he's nice, you'll like him. Sure y'ain't got any broken bones? I can tear strips off your shirt for bandages, y'know. Miss Anstruther showed—"
"No thanks, I'm fine. What I can do with is a nice hot cuppa tea. Can Farmer Buckleigh run t'that, Sara?"
"Oh yes, just follow me; they'll be more interested in that wreck, anyway. Farmer Buckleigh'll get Government compensation, y'know." Sara was now cheerfully in full command of the situation. "Come on, lem'me introduce you to Farmer Buckleigh, then we can go t'the farm an' Mrs Buckleigh'll set you right with a cuppa. This way. Hey, Mr Buckleigh, this's a girl, she's the one who was piloting that Spit. See the mess she's made o'your cornfield?"
The briefing-room at Little Lanning airfield held only three; Claire, Gabrielle, and Wing Commander Bartlett. The time was just after five o'clock that same afternoon, and a discussion of recent events was in full swing; Gabrielle having a bone to pick.
"So you came through the whole thing unscathed?"
"Yeah." Claire had the foresight to look embarrassed, as they all sat at the map-table. "Like you, I veered away when the Ju88's attacked; then, before they could fasten on me, our high altitude escort finally re-appeared an' came t'my rescue."
"So, not a scratch?" Gabrielle was still focussed on this important personal issue.
"Not so much as a single bruise?"
Giving up this fruitless interrogation the battered blonde pilot moved to another tack.
"What happened t'the dam' Krauts? How many'd you knock out?"
"—er, none, didn't get a chance—too busy runnin' fer cover, an' prayin'."
"Herph. What was the score, then?"
"I've got the report here, Parker." Wing Commander Bartlett shuffled a couple of pages on the table before him. "Let's see, one Hun Ju88 damaged, but flew off; one Hurricane damaged, but broke away and landed safely. That's the whole score, I'm afraid."
"Jeez, bit of a damp squib, that." Gabrielle suddenly realised where she was. "Only sayin', sir, as it were."
That same evening after a long soak in a hot bath, courtesy of the Ablutions hut, Gabrielle lay on her bed in their shared private Nissen hut undergoing a gentle massage by Claire—who was applying arnica like there was no tomorrow; her patient finally noticing.
"Ricky, what in hell'r you doin' t'me—it hurts."
"Sorry baby. Just givin', er, medical aid, y'know."
"Well, stop doin' it so enthusiastically; ease off, will ya?"
Taking this hint Claire let her hand slide gently across her lovers' bruised ribs, like a snowflake falling on a calm winter's morning.
"Ahh, that's better. God, I hurt all over."
"You should, bruises everywhere; what in hell happened?"
This was too good an opportunity for a show of bravado to let pass, Gabrielle leaping at it with glee.
"Well, for a start I got shot t'sh-t in my cockpit." The memory still rankled, and it showed in her aggrieved tone. "Those dam' Jerries shot my cockpit to shrapnel all round me, dam' it. So, o'course, I bloody baled out; not a moment too soon either, lem'me tell you."
"Gods, that must'a been, er, terrifying?"
"You can say that again, lady." Gabrielle heaved a sigh, remembering the scene—or, indeed, not doing so. "To tell the truth, I can't remember anything after struggling out'ta the cockpit. One moment I was sitting on the cockpit edge, bein' blown all ways by the airflow, the next I was lyin' in a field, with half of it in my mouth—feelin' like I'd been beaten all over by Thor's Hammer."
Claire quietly commenced rubbing ointment into Gabrielle's left ribs, which were developing a really fine spread of bruising.
"Tangled in your parachute, were ya?"
"Nah, left most of it high in the branches of a bloody great elm tree." The wounded pilot groaned again at the memory. "Suppose it broke my fall; must'a crashed right through it, from top to bottom. Think I fell the last twenty feet or so just by myself, minus the remnants of my parachute."
"Then I was found by a young Girl Guide whose only intention an' hope was to swathe me in bandages at the earliest opportunity." Gabrielle unwisely gave a short grunt of laughter, instantly regretting it. "Aowch, Jeez. Anyway, here I am, as fit as a fiddle, an' as good as gold."
"Wha'd'ya mean, Haar?"
"Just that, babe." Claire had been present when the Station doctor had given his latest patient the once over. "Y'heard what Doc Rankine said—never seen such a spread o'bruisin' in his life; dammed amazin' there's no broken bones; y'must have the luck o'the Devil, an' so on."
"Man's a idiot."
"Well, he's also got the capacity t'take you off flyin' duties for the next week, which he has done."
"Don't swear, dear, it ain't ladylike."
"Who? Doc Rankine, or me?"
"Him, of course."
"Oh well, that's alright, then." Claire finished her nurses' duties with a flourish of arnica coated fingers which made her patient groan again, then sat back. "Well, that's you arnicaed up t'your armpits—God, smell it?"
Gabrielle stirred on her bed, still lying face down without her shirt. Then she turned her head to glance at her lover.
"Too true I smell it. Couldn't you have gotten something else, less powerful?"
"Arnica's arnica, baby; it was either that, or wrap you like a mummy in hot kaolin cloth poultices for the duration."
A peaceful calm descended on the Nissen hut, Gabrielle lying quietly, breathing gently; Claire sitting on her chair, regarding her lover with half-closed blue eyes.
"We've got both beds pushed t'gether; what say I come in beside ya an', umm, just lie beside ya for the evenin'?"
Gabrielle appeared to consider the merits of this request, then made her decision.
"Thought you'd never ask, dear." The blonde attempted to make room, then thought better of this foolish move. "How are you on holdin' me tight—but not too dam' tight—an' making me feel safe an' loved?"
"Pretty good, babe, pretty good—if I say so myself. Want me t'try?"
"Oh, OK; come on in, but on your own head be it, lover."
"Too true, my love, too true."
The following week, on a sprightly Monday morning, after being given the all clear by the station doctor, Gabrielle came out on the concrete apron to clamber into her new Spitfire; Claire standing by her side.
"Here we go again." Gabrielle paused beside the sleek form of the fighter, gazing at it ruminatively. "So, still no luck in catchin' this raider so far? Includin' you an', how many has it been, three new temporary partners over the last week?"
"Nope, an' yeah. None of us had so much as a smell o'the b-gg-r; though, as ya know full well, he's still been shootin' up the local Anglian scenery like a good 'un. None o'the temps had anythin' like your expertise, o'course, ducks."
"Hmm, smarm, I like it." The blonde pilot eyed her lover from beneath the shadow of an arched eyebrow—difficult in flying-helmet and goggles, but Gabrielle brought it off. "Say, Ricky, what is it we're supposed t'do about this dam' Kraut sharpshooter again?"
The dark-haired New Zealander was up for this.
"Kick his butt good an' hard." She curled an expressive lip at the thought. "Shoot the b-st-rd out'ta the sky, an' watch his plane fall t'earth like a flaming candle."
Gabrielle considered this for a moment.
"An' what if he crash-lands, an' walks away in one piece? The people on the ground capture him, and take him off to a prison camp for the duration, eh?"
"Suppose so." Claire showed a certain discontent at this likelihood. "If they don't just lynch the b-st-rd out'ta hand—accidentally like, y'know. Nobody from the surrounding squadrons'll be offering t'stand him a cosy dinner either, like they usually do. Not for this particular cold-blooded Nazi."
"Ya sound like Bartlett, dear."
"Do I? Dam'."
However, being an ace fighter-pilot is always much more of a team effort than might be supposed by the uninitiated. Just as a great goal-scorer in soccer, who triumphantly boots the ball into the net to the acclaim of the crowd, has to receive the ball from someone; so an ace pilot has to have fighters backing him up—his squadron, in fact. An ace never operates alone. Which makes it all the harder for the defending forces, who have to take account of the whole scenario, instead of simply concentrating on one lone wolf.
So it was on this particular morning when Claire and Gabrielle had soared to their pre-arranged scouting height of seven thousand feet over the wilds of Norfolk. Knowing eight or ten other friendly fighters were keeping tabs on them, from around fifteen thousand feet, was all very well, but each woman knew perfectly well an expert could catch them in his sights and rake them from stem to stern before help could arrive. So their first objective was in keeping a good look-out at all times.
"Where are those other fighters—Hurricanes, ain't they?." Gabrielle muttered into her radio face-mask; twisting uncomfortably in her Spitfire's cockpit, trying to crane her head up to view the blue expanse above. "Can't see 'em anywhere."
"That's the whole idea, lady." Claire's voice came thin and crackly over the airwaves. "Nobody's meant to see 'em, at that height—fifteen thousand, I've been told. All the more of a surprise for Jerry when he zooms in at ten thousand, y'see; or so the general thinking goes, Bartlett informed me."
The two Spitfires stoodged around the bare blue sky over the flat green fields of Norfolk for another ten minutes before the blonde easily bored part of the duo reached her limit of patience.
"OK, that's it, where the dam' is he?"
"Jeez, we've only been up twenty minutes."
"Long enough for a feast an' a Roman orgy." Gabrielle's ire shot through the radio waves like a tornado. "I'm getting bored up here, all on my lonesome."
"What about me, ain't' I here too?"
"Well yeah, I suppose."
Before this repartee could descend further into personalities the subject of their concern suddenly made his unheralded appearance. A scintillating stream of tracer bullets and cannon fire shot past Gabrielle's port wingtip, apparently missing by inches only. A second later the dark silhouette of a fast-moving monoplane with a bright yellow nose darted between the two Spitfires, veering tightly to starboard and disappearing as fast as it had appeared.
Both Spitfires sliced away, wingtips high as they sought to change course quickly escaping the vicinity of the surprise attack. Claire chose to point her nose in the air, gaining height from which she might better engage the enemy; Gabrielle, on her part, descended almost to hedge-top level, aiming to make it difficult for the Jerry plane to follow and carry out another strafing attack on her—she weaving across the open sky meanwhile as she sought to further evade the attacking plane's intentions.
Claire levelled off around ten thousand feet, turning her fighter's nose to head over the dark green fields below rather than the grey flat cold North Sea close by. A quick recce through her windscreen showed no sign of the enemy plane, but she carefully kept a zig-zag course just in case. There was still no sign of the arrival of the decoys' guardians from on high.
"Where the f-ck is he? An' where the f-ck are they?"
Far below, now almost on a level with the field crops, Gabrielle was having her own problems. She was flying low, which created its own difficulties. Prime amongst which was the impossibility of weaving or zig-zagging; such being suicidal at dangerously low altitude, the ground being uneven with hillocks, slopes, and small hills and ridges everywhere—not to mention the presence of trees in all possible groupings—single, lines, copse, or wood. The thought her attacker might even now be on her tail preparing to shoot her out of the sky made the blonde pilot sweat uncontrollably.
"Jee-suus, Jee-suus, what a bloody day." She eased off on her speed a trifle, though trying to keep her machine's nose up, glancing from side to side rapidly in search of her foe. "Ricky? Ricky? Are you there? Can you see the b-st-rd? I can't. An' where the flying f-ck are those dam' Hurri's?"
As if to answer her question a series of quick-moving shadows passed over her cockpit. Looking up she caught the shape of the last plane in the group, flying a thousand feet above her—a Hurricane.
"Rover Leader to Eagle One do you read me, over?"
"Yeah, I'm gettin' you loud an' clear." Gabrielle took this opportunity to let off some steam. "Where the Hell were you? Jerry bloody near shot both our heads off."
"Sorry, didn't see him till he was attacking you." The Hurricane leader, even over the tinny radio waves, seemed less than involved. "Sent half my group t'chase the b-st-rd, but don't think they'll catch him; we have orders not to pursue him over the Channel, y'know."
"Where's my partner?"
"Oh, she's well out of it, flyin' around up in the clouds at about ten thousand." The escort pilot sounded even more relaxed about the situation. "She's safe, no-one up there but her, y'know. All's well that ends well, don't-cher-know."
"And f-ck you too, mate."
The battered duo were finally safely ensconced back in their Nissen hut on the airfield at Little Lanning later that afternoon, but neither were in the best of moods.
"Those Hurri' nincompoops couldn't catch a three-legged asthmatic mouse in the middle of an empty ballroom." Gabrielle was on fire regarding the capabilities of their supposed escorts, having found a neat line of bullet-holes in her port wing on landing. "About as much use as a —"
"Now, now, calm yourself, dear; remember those posters we saw once at Kirkwall post-office up in Orkney?"
"What did they say again, they were red posters as I recall; oh yes,—'Keep Calm and Car—"
"Ricky, I think I'm just about t'take great pleasure in throttling you—do shut up."
A quiet aura descended on the interior of the hut, almost audibly echoing from the long curved tin roof. Though it was neither a peaceful nor calm nor relaxed silence, but one imbued with tense strain and bubbling undercurrents of anger.
"Don't think I don't feel just like you, Gab." Claire hunched her shoulders, while they sat at the table over mugs of steaming cocoa. "I nearly got shot t'sh-t too, y'know."
"Well, it just means we do the same again, tomorrow."
"What did Bartlett say about the escort, again?"
This was a point on which Gabrielle could discourse for hours, and she took the opportunity gladly.
"He's dumping the Hurri's, an' ordering up another squadron of Spitfires." She actually smiled as she recalled this good news. "At least we'll have an escort equal to us, at last—and he says they have orders to fly at ten thousand, instead of fifteen—that was far too high to be of any use, as today's f-ckin' farrago proved."
"So, roll on tomorrow, eh?"
"Jay-suus; come t'bed, Ricky,—I need some tender lovin' care—do you?"
"Dam' straight, lover,—race ya to it."
The day dawned sunny with an unbroken blue sky, the weather for the season being rather easy-going than otherwise. Once more the two Spitfires, Gabrielle's having been cursorily patched-up in the meantime, sat on the concrete taxi-ing runway ready for the two pilots—neither of whom exactly exuded sweetness and light.
"Another f-cking day, another f-cking debacle in the wide blue yonder, I expect."
"Jeez, Gab, for Chr-st's sake get with the positive waves—all this dam' negativity's gettin' me down."
"What the hell'r you talking about, woman?"
"Just get in the dam Spit, gal."
"Oh, OK, if you insist."
The sky, at eight thousand feet over the flat expanse of Norfolk, seemed entirely empty; but neither Claire nor Gabrielle was naïve enough to take this at face value. Anything, from a Ju-88 through various Dorniers, to the fast Messerschmitt's and ferocious Focke-Wulf's might appear as if by magic at any moment; so a sharp lookout was the order of the day. The womens' escort, though hopefully in place, was as usual most apparent by its invisibility.
"Where are they, then?"
"They're up there, don't fret."
"I wan'na fret, Ricky." Gabrielle still harboured an uncompromisingly morose outlook on the day's charted activities. "It's what keeps me so happy an' confident."
"Well, I can't see the dam' Spits, but I just hope they're actually up there, anyway."
They were flying somewhat to the south of their course of the previous day; this bringing them more over the central part of the county, where the villages and towns were more frequent; these having proved the more popular grazing patches of the sought-after Jerry raider. With a strengthened escort, flying at a lower level, the women also felt a little happier, but only a little.
They had been flying for nearly quarter of an hour when the first reports came over the airwaves from Little Lanning.
"Base Grey to Eagles One and Two, over."
"Reading you loud an' clear."
"Yeah, loud an' clear, over."
"Base Grey to Eagles One and Two, report in that Yellow Three has been sighted attacking village of Colston Minor, five miles south of Wymondham. Proceed and engage, over and out."
The Spitfires, being already in the general area and having the advantage of their great speed, made contact with the village within less than five minutes of receiving the message. Which prompt reporting probably accounted for the amazing fact that on arrival they swept into an ongoing skirmish, though one-sided—the Focke-Wulf still being engaged in strafing the hell out of the tiny community with its machine-guns and cannon. Claire and Gabrielle could see the effects of this from three miles away, viewing the sheets of flame and clouds of smoke rising from the location of the hapless village.
They roared over the rooftops at five hundred feet and immediately fell in with their prey. The yellow-nosed Focke Wulf had just finished what was probably meant to be its last strafing run, having apparently just reduced the village pub to a shattered ruin. As the Jerry pilot climbed for altitude, after shooting-up several other houses as the icing on his cake, he came nose to nose with Claire coming in from the north-west.
Having had just those fleeting few seconds necessary for appraisal and quick thinking Claire opened up with her cannon at point-blank range as the two planes headed towards each other at more or less the same height. The yellow ace instantly engaged his opponent with cannon, but not having been able to judge height and range competently, the stream of bullets passed harmlessly under Claire's plane. She however had a sharp eye and pinpoint accuracy, her first and only burst of fire raking the Focke Wulf across its starboard wing and then along the length of its fuselage behind the cockpit right to its tail, which seemed to disintegrate into dust before her eyes.
Gabrielle, having come up slightly to port of her companion, managed to get off a short burst which caught the passing enemy fighter under its belly, sending sparks and shrapnel flying in a vicious spray, then she too was past.
When both pilots had gained sufficient height to level-off and turn back for the next round in the fray they found this unnecessary—the Focke Wulf was trailing a cloud of smoke as it coasted in at low level, obviously aiming to crash-land along the very main street which it had just a few seconds earlier been shooting-up. As the women watched the plane levelled, then seemingly in slow motion glided along the line of the wide village street till it hit the ground in a blinding cloud of dark dust, sliding along past the wrecked smoking houses till it finally came to rest just outside the village in what had become a country lane; this passing the entrance to the grounds of the local church which also lay a few score of yards beyond the end of the village's main street.
"Gab, I think we better land there, too. Right now; that pasture field with low hedges opposite the church is easily big enough t'take us both."
"Why'd you wan'na do that?"
"Look, down there in the street; there's a crowd gatherin', an' I think they're arming themselves an' I don't think they're in a good mood."
"Oh sh-t, you think they've got ideas of massacring him?"
"Too right, baby; come on, you drop down first, I'll follow ya." Claire had taken note of the situation as she flew past at low level, accompanied by her companion. "He's finished up well outside the village; if we hurry we can cross into the lane an' get between him an' the villagers, before they do anythin' silly. Come on, let's get down there."
Although spread out around a mere small village the local fields were all surprisingly long, wide, and flat—giving more than enough room for a couple of small fighters like the Spitfires to land. The lane on the outskirts, where the Yellow 3 ace had ended up, was also wide with low hedges, so the two Spitfires found no problem in coming in from the east, side-slipping gently, and making near perfect landings on the short cropped grass of the field in question.
This dramatic finale to the village's day had the result of halting the bunch of angry citizens in their tracks; not least because the two fighter planes, now sitting close to the hedge bordering the lane, presented a terrifying sight with their still spinning propellers; a sight which had the wished-for effect on the group of enraged villagers.
Claire cut her engine, waited till the prop stopped spinning, then clambered out to walk up to Gabrielle's plane which was at the head of the duo. Here they considered the group of villagers, still some thirty yards off.
"Well, they look good and angry."
"Yeah, Gab, an' at least three have shotguns. Let's get over into the lane." Claire eyed the group carefully as the women clambered over the field-gate near them into the lane. "Whatever ya do, don't draw your revolver; that might just start the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral all over again—I think these people are in that kind'a mood."
"Bloody great. What're you goin' t'do, then?"
"Oh, I get t'be the patsy, do I?"
"Come off it, gal; go an' talk t'that big heavily-built chap in the tweeds standing in front of the mob." Gabrielle had also been taking note of the individuals in the fast approaching group. "He looks as if he's the temporary leader, an' also as if he might have some level o'common-sense; but don't quote me on that last."
The mob of incensed villagers stopped some ten yards distant along the dusty lane; the two Spitfires steaming gently in the field behind the women, and further back in the distance along the lane a trail of dirty smoke rising from the position of the crashed Jerry fighter. The man in the tweed suit, leading the villagers, was first to speak; his voice having an assured depth of tone which revealed a sense of authority.
"Dam' fine show there, chaps." He seemed to be in the early fifties, with a round red face. "Good God, you're women; didn't notice at first, in those flying-suits. Well, I'll be dammed—I mean, bit of a surprise, what. So, what about Jerry back there behind you? Want us t'go and apprehend the dammed blighter—know what we'll do with him, too."
"Thank you, sir, but that won't be necessary."
Claire spoke in the deepest tone she could command, meaning to impress with her own capacity to achieve an air, at least, of authority in a dicey situation. Though she took the precaution of gently, but not threateningly, laying her left hand on the top of her holstered .45 revolver—the villagers taking note, and as a result quickly becoming visibly quieter and less willing to implement their hastily propounded plans. Claire took the opportunity to smile and pass-off present events as a mere every-day occurrence.
"Y'see those Spitfires up around two thousand feet, just over t'the west, there?" She grinned widely again. "They'll have radioed for help, military help. Everything'll be well under control in about twenty minutes or so. So, fancy y'can all go home. Oh, are there any Home Guards around, sir?"
"Yes, I think this's Sergeant Armstrong with his platoon arriving now."
"Good, they can guard the Jerry wreck till help arrives." Claire cast a penetrating glance over the slowly dispersing mob, Gabrielle now standing calmly by her side. "Everyone can bugg—, er, go home, I think. This road'll be full of military traffic in half an hour or so. Thanks for your assistance."
The tweed-clad man turned and gestured to the people he was leading to retrace their steps; Sergeant Armstrong, a solid determined man in his forties in the uniform of the Home Guard and carrying a .303 rifle, came up and saluted as if such a situation were perfectly normal. He instantly falling-in with Claire's request for him to set up guard posts in the lane either side of the crashed Focke. Another five minutes found the two women in sole command of the dusty lane, the only sound that of their idle Spitfires behind them in the field making cracking and twanging noises as they slowly cooled.
"Glad that went well." Gabrielle sighed with an air of relief as the women walked back along the lane. "Now for the Jerry—Oh look, he's not injured; at least not seriously."
The Focke Wulf had made a straight belly-landing; its wings shredding the low hedges on its way out of the village main street into the lane. Most of its tailplane was missing, and the fuselage behind the cockpit looked as if a herd of buffalo had recently tried to make it their main midday meal. The man by its side, wearing dark flying-kit, stood to attention as the women approached, presenting a straight-armed Nazi salute with chin high and heels together, light blue eyes clear and bright.
"Aufmerksamkeit. Ich gebe auf."
"Oh, really." Claire stopped within two feet of him, staring into his face with uncompromising coldness. "Speak English, do ya?"
The pilot, Yellow 3 in person no doubt about it, at close range showed himself to be hardly out of his teens, perhaps no more than twenty-two at most. What was also clearly apparent was his hostile, assured complacency.
"Ich möchte mich ergeben."
"What's he saying?"
"F-ck knows, Gab." Claire took a step nearer, nearly face-to-face with the young Nazi. "Not a nice specimen, are ya, boyo? Thought you were all supposed t'be Wehrmacht?"
The young man looked into Claire's eyes without wavering for a few seconds, then spat in the dust at their feet, missing her boot by a fraction.
"Not Wehrmacht, then." Claire was now standing on the man's left side; she looking meaner than a coyote that had just lost its supper to a pack of wolves. "Those villagers are all out of sight, Gab, an' the Home Guard are fifty yards away, at least. What say I pull my Colt an' shoot the b-gg-r right now? We can say he pulled his weapon, an' it was all in self-defence. No-one'll argue; least of all these villagers."
"Now, now, lady, let's not descend t'the same level as this piece o'crap." Gabrielle turned to lay a restraining hand on the arm of her paramour. "Not, of course, but that's exactly what he deserves. But still, we're British so we'll just let the Law take its course. What's going to happen to him? POW?"
"That first, no doubt, then a trial for war crimes." Claire nodded with an assured air. "Because of those various townships an' downed pilots he's shot-up, an' all the other victims he's responsible for. They probably won't wait for the end of the war; a fast trial in the Smoke, an' a short trip to the Tower t'meet a firin' squad; an' then, the end."
"Well, I got'ta admit if anybody deserves it, he's the one." Gabrielle shook her head sadly, then turned to the still silent youth. "How old are you, boy? What do your parents think of your murderous attitude? Don't you feel the least bit guilty? Why'd you do it at all?"
The airman gazed at the blonde woman with a supercilious air, then parted his lips in a cold thin smile.
"Ich bin ein Bürger des Großdeutsches Reich. Ich bin ein Kriegsgefangener und fordere, sofort zu einem Offizier zu gehen."
"What's that, Ricky?"
"Think he's not impressed with us." Claire sneered in the face of the German pilot. "Fancy he pines for the gentle embrace of an officer, a male officer, superior to us."
"F-ckin' b-st-rd'll be lucky to get away from this vicinity without any broken bones, if we walk off and leave him here." Gabrielle's ration of Kindness was rapidly expiring, as she regarded their prisoner from under a furrowed brow. "Ah, look, here's an RAF truck coming. Thank God for that."
"What a bloody week it's been."
"Took it out'ta ya, did it, gal?"
"I'll say." Gabrielle lay on her bed, pushed together with her companion's in their quiet secure Nissen hut. "Glad we got that guy, all the same."
"Yeah, he needed catchin', too." Claire, lying close to the woman whom she loved without restraint and without borders, turned to lay her arm over the bare chest of the blonde nymph. "One less Nazi, but how many more t'go?"
"Well, we've done our bit; for the time being, anyway." Gabrielle grinned into the deep blue eyes of her lover. "That allow's us to relax for a while, at least for tonight. Got any ideas how to fill the long dark hours, dear?"
"Think I can come up with something. This do for a starter, baby?"
The next 'Mathews and Parker' story will arrive shortly.