'The Stirling Swing'
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 top secret SOE, Special Operations Executive,—visit a distant bomber airfield where they train Special (Secret) Duties pilots in the wildly dangerous art of taming a Stirling bomber.
Note:— All the incidents described actually happened; I having taken them from published accounts of eye-witness reports at the time. See Notes at end.
Warning:— There is extensive swearing in this tale; a certain word, beginning with f-, being used rather frequently—just sayin'.
Gabrielle Parker sat in her element, in the pilot's seat of the vast Stirling bomber S for Sara, crossing the Norfolk coast at a height of two thousand feet and descending rapidly. By her side sat her co-pilot, Claire Mathews; both ATA officers, and also highly secret members of SOE (Special Operations Executive). They, along with their six man crew, being in a state of elation at the success of their latest sortie over France.
"Tea an' crumpets awaitin' us, Ricky." Gabrielle being humorous, unlike her usual self. "Little Lanning, just a few miles off now."
"Wait'll we get there, lady." Claire being ever cautious. "Jackson, how's things lookin' back there?"
Edward Jackson, all 23 years of him, sat crunched up in the rear gun-turret feeling, as all rear gun-turret operators in the Royal Air Force always did, frozen to the bone and at cross-purposes with everyone in authority, rank notwithstanding.
"F-ckin' freezin', if you must know." He taking liberties from long association with his leaders; he having served in S for Sara for all of two months. "Took the clear-view panel out, didn't I? Fer a clearer view, as it happens. An' what's the result? Not a f-ckin' Jerry fighter from horizon t'horizon fer the whole show, dammit."
"Oh dear, we are sorry the patrons haven't been provided with all publicised acts on offer." Gabrielle letting her true sharp-edged sarcastic nature run free. "No Fockers fer ya? No Messerschmitts, either? Dam' me eyes, not even a bloody Ju88, t'give you a laugh, an' some much-needed target practice? Oh, I am sorry. Please collect your returned fare at the box office on your way out, sir. Better luck next time, I hope."
"Well, a gal's got'ta have her fun somewhere's, ain't she?" Gabrielle taking no note whatever of her co-pilot. "Ben, swivel round an' see if you can see anythin' outgoin' in our direction from the base, will ya?"
Ben Morgan, mid upper gunner, sat in his powered turret just abaft the wing-roots of the plane, with a clear view all round; his twin Browning .303 machine guns getting in the way of his elbows as usual, while his rickety wobbling seat didn't make him feel safe either.
"All clear, ma'am." He having swiveled round to look ahead. "Nuthin' visible from the direction o'the base; the runway should be in sight any minute now, hopefully. The port wing roundel needs re-painting, by the by, the blue's nearly all rubbed off. Wha—"
Before he could finish his report there were a few seconds of crackling interference, then complete silence.
"What? Ben, report in, will ya?" Gabrielle raising her eyebrows, behind her flying-helmet and face-mask. "Ben? D'ya read me? Come in?"
"Jackson, everythin' OK with you?" Gabrielle trying a different tack.
"Alex, anythin' showin' on your circuits, or switches?" Gabrielle going for the heavy brigade, Alexander Gordon, flight engineer.
"Did you say somethin', Ricky?" Gabrielle glancing across at her partner, whose expression was also hidden by her mask and helmet. "Ricky?"
Claire, seeing her pilot's concern, but hearing nothing, made hand gestures of dubious preciseness or meaning. Gabrielle switched off her intercom, released the catch on her face-mask, and confronted her partner in the old-fashioned way.
"Ricky, what in hell'r you tryin' t'say?" She watched as her co-pilot began undoing her own mask. "OK, hear me now? What's happened, isn't your intercom workin'?"
"Nah, an' I don't think anyone else's is, either." Claire began struggling with the complex of straps and belts holding her in her seat. "Shall I go back an' see what's up?"
"Do that; if someone's flicked a switch up by accident, I'll have their balls fried fer supper." Gabrielle's renowned meanness coming to the fore unrestrained at this highly delicate point in the flight. "Jest tell 'em all that as you pass by along the waist, will you?"
"Sure thing, dear; don't get all het up, you have a plane t'fly, an' land pretty quickly, as it happens."
"Get movin', gal."
"On my way, see ya in a bit."
Just behind the cockpit, a couple of metal steps down, the engineer and navigator sat on opposite sides of the waist; Alex already unmasked and peering at the bank of switches and dials on the wall at his station.
"See anythin', Alex?"
"Yeah, ma'am." He leaned closer to the switches, eyeing one in particular which showed a small red light above it. "7C accumulator shows as a short; I was just about t'go back an' look at it."
"I'll come with ya." Claire making her way further along the tight waist corridor. "Why'd it take out the whole intercom system?"
"Probably a runnin' short, ma'am." Alex being well used to the complex, not to say exotic, electric circuits twisting their way all through the Stirling. "One goes, sometimes they all tend t'down tools in sympathy."
"Huh, lot'ta good that does, come on."
Another few paces took them past the wireless operator's table where Ernest Willoughby, with only 6 weeks experience, communicated with the outside world.
"Will, we might need'ta send an emergency message sometime soon, keep in contact with the tower, OK?"
Stumbling down the waist walkway another few paces brought them to the wing-spar which needed careful slithering past, then came a closed door which, on sliding open sideways, revealed the real mid-waist of the aircraft. Immediately in front of the two was the small set of steps leading up to the mid upper gun turret, which could be seen protruding slightly down below the plane's ceiling. Side-stepping this obstruction left a straight run to the rear, past the entry door on the port side to the back of the rear gun turret. But, near at hand on the starboard wall, sat a large metal cabinet which, when opened by Alex, revealed a bank of switches, circuits and flickering lights which would have dismayed a power-station electrician.
"God, there's several showin' red lights." Claire, overwhelmed by the intricate circuitry.
"Many o'them always shows that way, ma'am; not all green fer go, y'know." Alex, now in his element. "Let's see; this one, nah; this-nah; here, nah, that ain't it; ah, this is-nah, it ain't, either. Wait a minute, here we are; this's it, ma'am."
"Y'sure about that, Alex?" Claire no way assured.
"—'course, ma'am, plain as daylight." Alex, bluffing like fury with a straight face. "Accumulator 7C, down there, ma'am; that red box on the starboard bulkhead, where smoke an' flames is exiting like Blackpool Tower. F-ck me,—FIRE!"
"No need'ta shout, Alex, I'd sort'a noticed." Claire glancing around for what she most wanted at that moment. "Gim'me a jiff t'get this bloody extinguisher, back here. Aah, sh-t, that hurt; right, stand back, gim'me room."
Pressing the plunger Claire soon had the fugitive electric-box under control, it finally giving up the ghost in a shower of sparks, and lungfuls of acrid choking smoke.
"That got it." Claire heaved a sigh and stepped back, dropping the extinguished extinguisher on the floor. "What a f-ckin' mess. So, the intercom, Alex?"
Alex pushed past to take a gander at the damage, then turned back to his pilot with a glum face.
"F-cked, ma'am. Entirely f-cked, as if there were no tomorrow." He gave his expert judgement like the Harbinger of Doom. "7C's the main intercom accumulator, y'see. Connects t'7A, then 6B, an' after that the four coupled inter-connects, on 5B. All f-cked t'buggery, ma'am."
"So what ye're tellin' me is, no intercom throughout the whole ship, Alex?"
"That's the thing in a nutshell, ma'am."
"Yeah, ma'am, jest that, an' no mistake."
"Down on the ground, pretty easy—several hours work in the hangar." Alex shook his head again. "Up here, no chance; can't do b-ggery with it in this here state, ma'am. Sorry."
"F-ck it." Claire repeating herself because she couoldn't do anything else.
"Yeah, jest so, ma'am." Alex doing the same; then adding the killer punch. "—er, there's somethin' else, ma'am, I think you ough'ta know."
"Oh God, what?" Claire realising when she was in the presence of bad news.
"6B accumulator, ma'am."
"What about it?" Claire feeling a chill running down her back, under her sheepskin jacket.
"6B's all f-cked up, as we saw, ma'am—but apart from the coupled intercom inter-connects, it also powers the undercart, ma'am."
There were several seconds delay before the import of this information percolated to Claire's tired brain.
"What? What! F-ck me."
"Jest so, ma'am, er, jest so."
"What?" Gabrielle, sitting behind her steering-column, tried to wriggle round to face her re-appeared co-pilot as best she could in the constricted space. "You got'ta be kiddin'?"
"Nah, Alex's sure as peanuts, darlin'." Claire reseating herself and beginning the task of tightening a multitude of straps and belts once more. "No intercom throughout the whole circuit and, when y'try'n lower the undercart, he says maybe one leg'll extend, but the other's pretty sure t'stick. Probab'ly 'cause of one or other retractor motors havin' burned-out, curtesy o'the accumulator goin' west, y'see."
"Funny, that's what I said, too."
Gabrielle considered the matter for a few seconds, as her partner got herself sorted out, then she came to a decision.
"Stop that, Ricky. I want you t'act as messenger through the plane, from now on."
"Just undo what ye've done-up, is all; don't make such a contrariness of it, lady." Gabrielle unfeeling in the extreme. "First,—are y'ready?-right, first, tell Ben t'watch out for the base, OK."
"Yeah, I got it. What else?"
"When he sees the runway you go back t'the flare tubes, grab a flare pistol an' also start t'drop flares. One o'the side portholes'll do for the pistol, OK?"
"Sure thing. What're the colours o'the day, again?"
"Two greens an' a white." Gabrielle always being on the button with this kind of detail. "Then start firing reds like there's no tomorrow, OK?"
"Got'cha, ma'am; will do."
"On the way back there, tell Will t'wake up the Tower an' tell 'em we may be makin' a belly landin'. Tell the others, as well. Oh, bang on the back of the rear turret an' let Jackson know what the hell's goin' on. In fact, tell him t'come on back in'ta the waist, ready for an emergency exit. Got that?"
"Yip, say, what if the Tower tells us t'stooge around fer hours, burnin' off fuel?"
"We're at the end of our sortie, gal; not much fuel left. Wait, lem'me check." Gabrielle bent down to peer at the fuel gauges on the control panel tapping, as was the usual custom, each on its glass face, just for luck. "What? F-ck, two of 'em's fallen t'the empty level. F-ck it."
"Two of 'em?" Claire, unbelieving at the turn matters were rapidly taking.
Gabrielle tapped the offending gauges once more.
"Yep, two, at rock bloody bottom." She sat back in her seat, glancing at Claire. "Well, that answers your question; this run-in we're on now is gon'na be our only run-in. Better warn everyone about that, too. An' tell Will t'let the Tower know, as well. Got that, babe?"
"Yeah, what a f-ckin' foul-up." Claire let out a sigh as she turned to the steps leading down from the cockpit. "See ya around, gal. —Gabs?"
"Take care now; don't, y'know, wan'na lose ya."
"I knows it, lover; don't worry, tea an' rum in the briefing-room later, lover."
"Yeah, OK, see ya."
The two-storey control tower at Little Lanning RAF station had a wide view to the horizon, being set amongst flat fields running out in every direction; the only problems being lines of trees apparently strategically placed here and there to most effectively endanger the aircraft leaving or arriving; the wide, tall-windowed room being staffed by a group of WAAF's. This afternoon Squadron-Leader Terence Armstrong was up there, overseeing his whole domain of Lancaster bombers; Claire and Gabrielle's Stirling being the only one of its type residing there. On the flat roof above the first storey, eagle-eyed observers with large binoculars were on constant duty scanning the skies.
"Sir," The WAAF sergeant on the radio put her arm up to signal for the Squadron-Leader's attention. "S for Sara, six miles out, radio's she's suffered a multiple electrical burn-out. Whole intercom gone, fuel nearly empty, and the undercarriage likely to partially stick up, sir."
"F-ck me." Squadron-Leader Armstrong knew when he was faced with a full-on emergency. "Call out the fire engines, clear the perimeter, halt all flights out-going an' incoming, raise the emergency siren warning."
At this juncture an aircraftsman came racing in from the outside balcony.
"Red lights in the sky, approaching from the south-east, sir; plane in trouble comin' in for an emergency landing."
"Everybody on Alert." Armstrong giving the order in a cool contained tone. "All personnel to Action Stations."
Claire was still occupied in the waist giving Ed Jackson, after he had emerged from the rear turret, some quick updates on the emergency baling-out procedures, while Alex went about, up and down, peering at various gauges, switches, and banks of circuit-breakers. Then a shout came from Charles Harringey, at his navigator's desk.
"Hey, down there, pilot says she's about t'lower the undercart."
"F-ck, Alex, you take the port wing-root, I'll take the starboard." Claire clambered forward again, tripping over various unidentifiable small pieces of equipment littering the metal floor. "Let's try'n see if we can figure out which leg sticks, if either does, right?"
A minute later the waist was filled with an eerie echoing whine, as the retractor motors for the two-stage undercarriage retrieval system began operations. These were well-known to be underpowered, and not really up to their assigned task; burning out on many occasions, leaving an undercarriage leg partially extended or retracted. The only course then left to the crew being to attempt manual lowering by twirling a handle on a rotating circular metal plate for each individual undercarriage leg.
"If we need t'use manual power t'lower the undercart, what does that entail, Alex?" Claire knowing as she spoke the answer wasn't going to be encouraging.
"These handles here, on each side o'the waist, ma'am." Alex pointed them out, an unnecessary gesture at best. "Gen'rally takes around one thousand turns to fully extend the undercart; so I'm told, ma'am."
"Jee-sus." Claire, as expected, wasn't impressed. "That'll take, what, ten minutes, at least?"
"Oh, fully that, ma'am." Alex accepting this further blow of Fate like a Stoic.
A relative silence descended in the waist, the retractor motors having stopped,—
"The port undercart went down fully, I'm sure, ma'am."
Claire, on the other hand, was dubious of her starboard undercarriage's position.
"I'm not sure." She was still bent nearly double, listening to the noises coming from under the starboard wing-root, as far as she could judge. "It might have; then again, I fancy it didn't—not all the way, anyway. I think."
Then came another cry from Harringey, relaying messages from a harassed Gabrielle.
"Hey, pilot sez the port cart's down an' locked; but the starboard's reading red on her switch."
"Go forward, an' check your instruments at your panel, Alex." Claire taking control of the unfolding drama. "Then hotfoot it back here with the good news, go."
Less than a minute later the flight engineer returned, crouched low; and Claire knew as he came through the sliding door, now held open by a piece of metal, the news was bad.
"Starboard undercart's only extended halfway." Alex had checked all his appropriate gauges and switches. "The upper retractor motor's definitely burned out, an' the lower retractor motor's just refusing t'do anything, probably shorted-out."
"So, it's the manual handle, then." Claire nodded, turning to glance back down the waist. "Hey, Ed, get up here quick. You go back t'your position, Alex, I'll get Ed t'help with the manual wheel-handle. Tell Gabs, on your way."
"Ed, we're gon'na unwind the dam' starboard undercart by manual power." She looked the young man straight in the eye. "We need'ta land pretty much pronto, as it is, so speeds the order of the day, got that?"
"Yeah, ma'am, I kin do it. Shall I—"
"I'll take first whack, you stand back an' try'n monitor what's goin' on, right?"
With this admonition Claire took hold of the short wooden handle, like something on a clothes-wringer, and started rotating it as fast as she could. Surprisingly there was much less resistance than she expected, the handle circling round at a fair rate of knots; but, she knew, it was still going to take an awfully long time to complete.
In the Control Tower an atmosphere of tightly restrained tension reigned overall; Squadron-Leader Armstrong standing by the east windows, keeping a sharp eye on the unfolding events—though the Stirling was still invisible to the naked eye.
"Message from S for Sara, sir." The WAAF radio operator on her toes. "Starboard undercarriage only half extended, lowering further by manual power. Fuel nearly exhausted; going round from present position in a wide circle; can only attempt one run-in. If undercarriage not extended and locked will come in for a belly-landing on the grass."
"Right, Henderson, clear everything from runway 2, including vehicles on the grass perimeter." His voice showed no sign of the internal pressure he was feeling. "Send 'em all to the west end; and tell 'em to get ready for what might be a really nasty prang. Get the fire hoses on the wings as fast as possible, after the landing, got that?"
"Right. Well, let's see what happens now, eh?"
In the cockpit, feeling a great deal out of the loop, Gabrielle could now see the distant runway, on the far edge of the horizon. She had, however, decided to make a wide sweeping circle as the only available way to give Claire in the waist the extra time needed to lower the intransigent starboard undercarriage by hand.
Her fuel gauges were useless, all now reading empty. The light over the undercarriage switches read one green, one red. A light over the main intercom switch now glowed red, too; far past the event. And, to top things off, the heating had packed up as well. Alex coming forward to give her the glad tidings only a minute before.
"Fully expect the dam' plane t'fall t'bits in the air, all round our butt's—like a bloody Buster Keaton movie." Her thoughts mirroring the situation, she told herself, pretty much as was. "Hope t'God Ricky's got a strong right-arm, back there. Hey, Charles, tell Claire we're comin' round for the one an' only run-in t'the base, startin',—wait for it,—startin',—now."
"Pilot sez we're on our approach run now, ma'am."
"F-ck it." Claire, still whirling the handle like a dervish. "OK, I got that. Jeez, Ed, take over from me, OK?"
"Yeah, right, ma'am, I've on it."
A quick run through the open sliding door, past the wireless operator; squeeze past the navigator and flight engineer; then up the two metal steps to the cockpit, one hand on the armoured back of Gabrielle's pilot's seat.
"How's it goin', young 'un?"
"All t'Hell in a handbasket, far as I can see, lover."
"Har, we ain't done yet; not with you at the wheel." Claire being a master of confidence building in trying circumstances. "We're working on the starboard undercart; it's comin' down fairly well. Any chance y'can give us some extra time, a few minutes, or what?"
Gabrielle ran her eyes over the instrument panel, taking note of the readings on the multiplicity of dials, as well as the position of the various switches, not forgetting to read the compass at her left knee, and the artificial horizon.
"I've throttled back t'something approachin' stalling speed." Gabrielle's voice was tense with strain. "Far as I can judge the engines have been runnin' on fumes for the last five minutes. No chance of a run-round. This is it, baby. Maybe you better get back t'Ed an' tell him t'spin that dam' undercart handle faster?"
Claire nodded quietly, peering at the view through the windscreen; the runway, now in clear view, far too close for comfort.
"What's yer plans for landin', baby?"
"We're settin' down on the grass." Gabrielle glanced swiftly at her partner. "No messin' about, straight down on the green stuff, then I'm through the escape hatch over my head like an Olympic high-jump athlete. You make sure an' do the same through the waist roof escape hatches, doll."
"Sure thing. Right, better get back t'my job; best o' luck, lover."
"You too, Ricky."
Another Observer came in the Control Tower's first-floor room from the outside balcony, having descended the exterior iron steps from the flat roof.
"S for Sara in clear view, sir." The young aircraftsman was faltering with excitement. "Starboard undercart leg only half down, sir. Nose up, nearly stalling by the look of it. Doesn't look as if she's gon'na make a wheeled landing, bellying in instead."
"Henderson, what's the state of things?"
"All rescue services and fire-fighting units at the west end of Runway Two, sir." A telephone clamped to his left ear as he spoke, Flying-officer Henderson tersely relaying what was coming through to him. "Both grass verges clear of obstructions. Fire trucks ready as required, sir."
"Let's hope they ain't." Armstrong turned to the WAAF on the radio. "Any news?"
"Wireless operator says things are all cocked up, sir." Though young, she was by now well versed in sudden dramatic incidents out of the blue. "Fuel levels unknown, flying on Hope alone, he says. Interior communication by shouting at each other, sir. Everything electrical packing up in sequence the nearer they come to the runway, he says. Doesn't know if his wireless'll last the course."
"Stirling electrics living down t'their reputation, apparently, sir." Henderson on the ball.
"Yes, quite." Armstrong shaking his head at the simple truth of this statement. "Are the ambulances on stand-by?"
"All four, sir. They're out there now, waitin'."
The moment of truth was now at hand. In the cockpit Gabrielle lined her charge's nose up on the grass verge to port of the concrete runway; hoping that way there would be less chance of sparks starting fires. In the waist Will was hunched over his wireless, relaying events as he saw them unfold around him. Charles was simply hanging onto the edge of his desk, waiting to relay Gabrielle's needs by shouting them down the cramped waist. Alex stood, half crouched, by his banks of switches and dials, trying to see something positive in the now numerous red lights on his board, or the switches which, when flicked up or down, failed to do anything at all. Bob Davis, from the front turret, was now in the waist, strategically placed near one of the two roof emergency hatches; while Ed Jackson stood beside Claire as she continued whirling the small wooden handle of the starboard manual retracting unit.
"F-ck it, are we gettin' any bloody where?" Claire now losing patience, as well as a great deal of confidence.
"No way o' tellin', ma'am." Ed shook his head, with a glum look. "Not till Miss Parker reads the undercart light as locked, is all. Keep goin', ma'am."
"Ha, easy fer ya t'say that." Claire was by now panting with the effort. "Seem t'have been at this fer half an hour, at least. How near the runway are we?"
"Charlie, how near t'landin' are we?"
A pause while the navigator relayed the message; then came the reply, barely discernible in the general background noise always to be heard in a four-engined heavy bomber.
"About half a mile. Miss Parker sez, stop with the wheel, an' brace fer impact."
"F-ck that." Claire twisted round, facing to the rear now, to use her other arm; only barely aware of the young man by her side, as sweat dripped in her eyes. "Ed, get up front of the wing-root, an' brace fer the crash."
"I'm stayin' here, ma'am." Eds voice deep with determination. "You'll need another hand, yet."
"Right, Ed, right. Jeez, will this thing never stop turnin'?"
"Listen up," Alex's loud tones echoing in the narrow space. "Most'a the accumulators have packed up an' gone west. We're operatin' on residual sparks, an' hot wires alone, now. Will, how's your wireless?"
"Goddam it, nuthin' but atmospherics an' hiss." Will snarled in anger. "Nuthin' comin' in, or goin' out. Tell Miss Parker."
In the cockpit, when Alex popped his head in to give the glad tidings, Gabrielle took it on the chin.
"OK, get back an' brace in position, Charles." She doggedly leaned forward, watching the approach of the edge of the runway, now large in her windscreen.
A moment later Charles struggled up the metal steps to the cockpit again.
"Clai—I mean Miss Mathews, sez the wheel's stopped turnin', at f-ckin' long last." He relaying exactly what he had heard. "She sez, is the starboard undercart showin' locked?"
Gabrielle looked at the undercarriage switches, with their little bulbs above. The port shone green, the starboard still remained neutral, not on. She tapped it a couple of times, but without result.
"Undercart light not showin' locked. Tell her that, Charles, then get everyone t'brace, we're goin' for a grass-slide in the next thirty seconds."
Informed of the critical situation Claire found she could only shake her head; being far too emotionally exhausted to really react at the moment. She left the now stationary retractor handle, turning to make her way forward to the leading edge of the wing-root, where the other crew were already sitting with their backs to the curved metal casing.
"This is it, boys." She found a last grin from somewhere. "When we're down, don't all try'n squeeze through the escape hatches at once. Y'taken the astrodome perspex off, Ben?"
"Yeah, ma'am." He smiled in his turn though his face, as much as could be seen under his flying-helmet, was pale. "Clear run out, when needed."
"OK, well, let's wait an' see what Gabrielle has in store fer us."
A second Observer piled into the Control Tower room at a rate of knots.
"Aircraft on the approach run, sir." He was again far too young for this sort of drama, but had determined features. "Both undercart legs seem t'be down, but there's no tellin', sir; especially with a bloody Stirling."
The truth of this was well-known to one and all; though primarily a Lancaster airfield several had experience with the earlier designed giant bombers, and knew their reputation for cussedness without warning on many counts. Armstrong stood by the east windows watching the silhouette of the approaching aircraft slowly growing larger and larger, till it seemed to take up the whole horizon in front of his eyes; the roar of its engines sounding like many thunderstorms rolled into one.
"Here she comes, sir, this's it."
Gabrielle took one last look at the light above the starboard undercarriage switch, which remained stolidly unlit; then she returned her gaze to the view ahead through her windscreen. It seemed strange, being in the cockpit alone at such a dramatic moment, but she knew Claire was busy looking after the needs of the other crew in the waist.
"Haven't the faintest if the starboard wheel's down an' locked, or not." She thought these things to herself, in a curiously calm manner as disaster approached at breakneck speed. "Ricky'll have seen everyone back there's braced an' ready t'bale out. Hope t'God I bring this f-ckin' crate down gently. Escape hatch above my head, thank the Lord. What d'I do? Pull the catch on the forward edge, an' clamber out. Should be able t'just slide down the outside t'the ground, shouldn't be far. Ricky, an' the others, will take the hatches in the roof—maybe the rear entrance door, if it opens. Not much fuel left, engines been flying on the distant memory o'such for the last ten minutes, at least. Engines the only bloody things still workin' properly in this bloody crate. Jee-sus, here we go."
The grass suddenly swept up to completely envelope her viewpoint. The horizon became the grass fleeing past ahead of her windscreen; then there was the slightest of bumps, followed by another as the undercarriage touched ground again—then a smooth run as the plane swept across the soft grass, running in a straight line on both undercarriage legs and wheels. Gabrielle kept her hands tightly gripped on the steering-column in front of her, finding that the usual movements she generally employed when ordinarily landing on the concrete runway seemed to still be working in the present circumstances. She felt the impetus of the giant aircraft slowing down, not daring to apply any braking, just letting it lose speed at its own pace; then throttled back, hardly realising all four engines had given up the ghost around ten seconds after first touch-down. Then the aircraft rolled to a stop amidst the deepest quietest silence Gabrielle had ever heard. They had arrived safely, against all the odds. The first thought running through her still dazed brain being—
"Better not take the roof hatch, don't wan'na drop twenty-two feet t'the ground, even grass. Ricky, how's things back there? Hit the rear door, an' let's get the hell out'ta this dam' crate. Come on, gal, move that ass?"
"Sara's down, sir." Someone spoke in the silence enfolding the Control Tower room. "Legs stayed up, perfect landing. Engines cut out rather sharply, I thought, but nice landing."
"Yes, Henderson." Armstrong nodded, relief flooding through him at last. "A very nice landing indeed—for a Stirling."
The few hangars on RAF Little Lanning airfield were occupied by other assets, and a great deal of machinery involved in keeping the squadron of heavy bombers going. So S for Sara, showing not much sign of her close call with Nemesis, sat at a dispersal point on the outskirts of the airfield, more or less on her own, except for a bare cornfield over a fence some ten yards behind her giant rear fin. The morning after their virtually delirious landing Claire and Gabrielle stood on the concrete run-off runway looking their aircraft over, with the help of Chief-mechanic Arnold Holroyd. They hadn't entered the craft, where a team of electricians had squeeezed themselves into nearly every nook and cranny inside the great plane, searching for short-circuits, burnt-out wiring, ditto accumulators and batteries, not to mention the multitude of shorted wires leading to and from almost every available circuit in the whole airframe.
"Can't unnerstan' how ye ever got the dam' thing down, leddies." Holroyd being from the Scottish Lowlands. "Dam' near every circuit in the plane's gone bust. The only things still operational, as far as me boys can make out, is the fire extinguishers in the port wing, an' the main compass in the waist. Everything else, gone fer a burton, leddies."
"How long'll it take t'get her airworthy again?" Gabrielle raising a dubious eyebrow. "Not that we're in anythin' of a hurry, y'understand?"
"Hmm, well," Holroyd glanced up and down the length of the aircraft, as if measuring its capability by eye alone. "Near everything electrical all f-cked t'glory; an' it bein' a b-st-rd o' a Stirling the whiles, thataway; weel, let's see—mmm, yeah, I'd say, conseervatively, not less than two weeks, meb'be longer."
"What?" Claire turning on the shorter man with a frown. "Y'must be joking? We can't hang about the airfield fer two weeks, twiddlin' our thumbs, Squadron-Leader Armstrong'd be sure t'notice, an' probably put us on latrine cleanin' duty, or somethin' equally necessary t'the War effort."
"Like painting those little white stones that line the roads and paths around the main gate and the office buildings everywhere." Gabrielle putting in her two-pence worth, because she couldn't resist.
Further discussion of their probable future occupations was cut short by the arrival of a small Tilly, from which emerged an aircraftsman on a mission.
"Ladies, message from Squadron-Leader Armstrong, can he see you both in the briefing-room as soon as you like. Sez fer you both t'take this here Tilly an' make your appearance fairly snappy, if you don't mind. His words, ladies. Keys in the vehicle, I'll walk back."
"Did one of us mention the name Nemesis out loud, t'day?" Gabrielle being her usual sulky self as Claire climbed into the driving-seat beside her, twisting her long legs under the instrument panel. "Take it away, lady. Seventy miles an hour all the way, an' don't forget not to go above the white line on the embankments."
"Little Lanning don't come within a thousand miles of bloody Brooklands, so ya can keep yer shirt on, baby." Claire grumbling by nature bound, as was her wont.
The briefing-room was empty, apart from the two women and the man in charge of the whole squadron. Armstrong had been sitting at the map table, studying the aerial photos from a sortie his Lancasters had undertaken two nights since over Bremen, but he rose when the women appeared.
"Ah, yes, right." He, still only thirty-two himself, always being rather embarassed in front of these two women, whom he knew perfectly well were deeply involved in SOE secret activities. "Chief-mechanic Holroyd tells me Sara's out of commission for a lengthy period; electrics all shot t'b-ggery, apparently. Strange things, Stirlings; do pretty well as bombers, light to medium, anyway—but you just can't trust their electrics, or secondary motors. Dam' lucky you got the starboard leg down manually,—good job all round."
"Yeah, thanks, sir."
"Well, to business." He skittered a photo out of reach on the table with a fingertip then looked at a sheet of paper in front of him. "Been onto Group-Captain Graham, in London—"
"Oh, yes, sir?" Claire looking daggers at the RAF officer, as much as was possible at least without committing actual mutiny.
"Between us we figured out a plan for your temporary futures, at least till Sara's back under starter's orders." Armstrong pretending not to notice the icy atmosphere developing within the briefing-room as he spoke. "He's quite happy, in a way. Seems he's had an idea of sending you to the wilds of Lincolnshire for a while; to act as Conversion officers for a couple of new Stirling crews. They've previously, I find, been on Wellingtons, so they need some solid conversion lessons. The railway warrants'll be arriving tomorrow, an' you can take the afternoon train from Norwich t'Boston, Lincs; you'll need t'change there. Journey shouldn't take more'n a couple of hours, I imagine. Dismissed."
"The Fens o' Lincolnshire have a dam' lot t'answer for."
This caustic remark was drawn from an altogether fed-up ATA/SOE pilot in the last throes of despair, Gabrielle having endured a railway journey on a slow stopping train from Norfolk to the small, nearly non-existent village of Waterbourne Minor in Lincolnshire: the fact that no-one in the history of local geography had ever pin-pointed the supposed site of Waterbourne Major on the map, being neither here nor there. Needing to change at Boston, she and an equally despondent Claire had endured a wait of over an hour on the drafty platform there.
"So, this's Waterbourne Minor, eh?" Gabrielle firing off another broadside, her butt still aching from the less than well-sprung railway-carriage benches she had sat on over the last four hours. "Four bloody hours. Four! For such a short journey that ought'a, by rights, have taken fifty minutes, if that."
"Wartime be dammed." Gabrielle's natural fighting spirit coming to the fore. "An' where're the dam' porters in this deadbeat establishment; we got cases t'carry. An', ditto, where the dam's the Tilly they told us'd be awaiting our arrival? I don't see the dam' thing anywhere; d'you, dearest?"
As if hearing her plaintive call for succor from afar, a nondescript aircraftsman appeared at the platform gate, sporting a cheery grin.
"Leading-aircraftsman Len Cooper, ladies." He appeared to be all of 18—if that, indeed. "Got official business hereabouts, ma'am, so you can take the Tilly yourselves. I've left a local map on the driving-seat, with Castle Barford RAF station marked, y'can't miss it. Can I help with those cases? The Tilly's just out in the lane, here."
Five minutes later, with Gabrielle at the wheel, in a far better frame of mind, they were bowling along the country lanes at something nearing suicidal speed; Claire noticed.
"Jee-sus, gal, slow down, fer God's sake."
"Oh, if you insist."
Claire's request may well have been divine intervention because, two minutes later at a junction with an even narrower lane, a giant Matador truck came round the blind bend at a rate of knots, only just managing to brake to a halt within two inches of the Tilly's front bumper.
"Easy, Ricky, no bones broken."
"If ye'd still been speedin' like a demented owl there would'a been, lady."
"Give over." Gabrielle remaining calm in the face of adversity. "Hey, guys? Yeah, yeah, nearly a prang, but not quite, get over it. Where's bloody Castle Barford RAF base?"
The young RAF driver, leaning out his offside window, told her-using some remarkably salty language in the doing so. Five minutes later the women were two miles further on their way, Gabrielle now driving more circumspectly. Then, on a straight length of the lane, a wide iron double entrance-gate with long stone parapets made its appearance on the left hand side.
"Hey, lookee here." Claire always being one to eyeball any tourist sites in the locality of wherever she happened to be. "Long straight drive; must be some big-wig's hangout. Yeah, look; a bloody big mansion, with a tower. Hey, is that Castle Barford, d'ye think?"
"How'd I know." Gabrielle keeping her eye on the road, like a good driver. "Suppose so, maybe the airfield's not far off itself?"
"Dam' hope so, my butt's freezin' here."
"Oh, poor gal. Oh, look the airfield main gate; home sweet home, dear."
Squadron-Leader Eric Templeton, though only 27, ran a tight ship at RAF Castle Barford, even though few had heard of the place, and fewer still had ever actually managed to find it. His idea of perfection encompasing strictly following the Rule-book on every issue, allied to a healthy dose of discipline, just to keep the cogs running smoothly; his squadron being equipped with four-engined Handley Page Halifaxs. Everyone hated his guts, of course.
The appearance of two pilots of the female species, had struck him as incongruous at best; in very bad taste, at worst. But memos, on the dreaded thin cheaply made War Department yellow paper, using typewriters apparently a hundred years old and showing it, extolling the womens' virtues and telling him in no uncertain terms they had carte blanche, and dam' his eyes, gave him no choice but to accept the turn of events—though he refused to do so with a good grace. At the moment he sat behind his office desk, with the two unwanted guests standing before him.
"Memos from the WD; memo from some office in Somerset House, stamped SOE (Secret); and a letter from my Wing-Commander instructing me to offer all available resources to your efforts, and the new crews who've just recently arrived." He looked ready to snarl, like a tiger with toothache. "All activities of both them and you two to be kept under the tightest wraps, on pain of the Tower of London. Dammit, what in Hell's going on, may I ask?"
Claire, observing his demeanour, classified his personality instantly.
"All we can say, sir, is that we're meant to act as Conversion officers; switching the old Wellington crews to Stirlings." She shrugged, rather more nonchalantly than Templeton obviously liked.
"Why not to Halifaxes, is what I'd like to know?" He not giving up his dug-in heels without a fight. "Stirlings are out-dated; they've been taken off front-line duties for the last few months, to my certain knowledge. In the way of bombs they can hardly handle anything larger than a mere two-hundred and fifty pound firecracker; what possible use is it training crews on how to fly such—such rust-buckets?"
Nothing could have been more likely to pinch the ladies' nerves than this contumely; they both, in private, criticising the Stirling wholesale and without restraint themselves, but in public never liking to hear their steeds rundown by ignorant bystanders. Gabrielle was first to retaliate in defence of her beloved aircraft.
"Maybe so, sir, but as you know—now—Claire and I are affiliated with the SOE; which is dam' secret—maybe the most secret of all. And Stirlings, though no longer on front-line bombing missions, are being used for other, er, useful purposes, sir. Those old Wellington crews are gon'na come in mighty useful t'the war effort, once they've completed their conversion training."
Knowing when he was beaten Templeton growled something unintelligible, stamped their identification and warrant cards, and ushered his guests on their way with a gesture of his hand towards the office door. Two minutes later the women were walking down the gravel path towards the Nissen hut they had been allocated all to themselves on the western edge of the airfield.
"Don't like him."
"Makes two of us, doll." Claire growling under her breath, like a volcano burping. "Oh well, here we are; another bloody draughty Nissen home-from-home. Exactly like livin' in a sardine can. Wish I could'a met bloody Nissen; I'd have given him a piece of my mind, an' no bloody mistake."
"A cuppa tea'll set you right, dear." Gabrielle opening the door with the key provided. "Well, well, looks just like our own home, back at Little Lanning. All mod cons—the SOE radio, on the table at the back, there. Two bunks, another table, chairs; that'll be the toilet at the rear; and a nice little sink with cupboards and a small gas ring. What more could you wish for, lover?"
The squadron, much against its will, had recently been enhanced, though not in some people's eyes, by the arrival of H for Harry, one of three scheduled Stirling bombers. It sat at a dispersal point—almost, in fact, in quarantine—on the other side of the airfield from Claire and Gabrielle's Nissen hut, though only five minute's walk away. The other two examples were meant to arrive that day; one sometime later in the morning, and the last in the afternoon: the two old Wellington crews already having arrived three days previously. The next morning after their arrival the ladies, wishing to get things going quickly, had already given them an hour's lecture on the type after commandeering the briefing-room for the morning. Now they were out on the airfield on the dispersal runway, standing beside the bulk of the huge bomber while Claire held forth on its strong points; she, intelligently, leaving its lesser lights to some later occasion.
"Yeah, the nose does sit up in the air rather much." One of the crew-members having brought this up, Claire was on top of the subject. "Twenty-two feet, to be exact; but don't worry, it ain't as terrifying as it may look at first sight. Anyway, bein' under here gives us a great chance t'look at the bomb-bay. You'll see it takes up most of the length of the underside; that's because it's forty-one feet long."
"Jeez, could fit a fair few blockbusters in that, miss."
"No, Edwards," Claire knocked this idea on the head instantly. "forty-one feet long, but divided internally by longitudinal girder-dividers into three separate cells. Each of which is only nineteen inches wide; so the largest piece of ordnance we can carry is a two thousand-pounder, I'm afraid."
"It has a wonderful range, all the same." Gabrielle adding to the conversation in her usual forthright manner. "Not that you'll be taking one to its full potential, thataway; five hundred miles out, then back, will be about the extent you'll travel in one. France, Netherlands, Belgium, maybe parts of western Germany, that sort of area."
Claire here moved onto another, far more delicate, subject.
"You'll have taken note of the undercart, lads?"
A chorus of remarks deafened the two women as the assembled crew-men made their thoughts known.
"Dam' silly lookin' things." One young man stated, with a ferocious sneer. "They're in two separate pieces, an' the bloody tyres are taller than me."
"Dam' spindly lookin', miss." Another, more polite, crewman shook his head dubiously. "How does the leg retract, miss?"
"In the cockpit it's straightforward enough." Claire still striving to keep things simple, and not scary. "Just flick a coupl'a switches in the usual manner. For the legs themselves, they each have two retractor motors; the lower section, with the wheel, comes up first—into the outer casing y'see halfway up the main leg. Then that whole section again retracts into the wing nacelle, leaving only a small part of the wheel visible below."
"How is it, taxiing an' taking-off, ma'am?" From yet another crewman, anxious to learn the danger areas, if any—little did he know, as yet.
"Well," Claire here paused to gaze at her class of young men; they all standing in the shade of the Stirling. "Yes, well. To be truthful that's where things might well begin t'get jest a trifle dicey, if ya don't keep your eyes open an' your mind on what your're doin' at all times. Gabrielle?"
"Gettin' airborne in one of these things is not quite the easy lark you might think." Gabrielle's green eyes travelled over the group of attentive men, then flicked across to the underside of the huge machine. "It has, er, certain tendencies, shall we say; the most important of which, from your point of view, is its love of veering to starboard when you open the throttles on the four engines to start your take-off run."
"How's-zat, ma'am?" This from Tom Edwards again.
"If you open all four throttles together, starting your take-off run," Gabrielle here speaking from personal experience, and still feeling a faint echo of the physical shock associated with the event. "an equal and opposite reaction pushes down on the starboard undercarriage, pulling the airplane over to starboard. To counteract this you have to push the starboard throttles full open smoothly, while holding the port ones at half-throttle for the first twenty seconds or so, till the tail comes up and the tail-rudder comes into play."
"You're sayin' it'll ground-spin, ma'am?"
"As much as, yeah." Gabrielle nodded, then came out with the facts she and Claire had been wondering how to broach for the whole morning. "But what generally happens is that, on starting its swivel to starboard an extortionate amount of strain is put on the long undercarriage legs. The oleo legs usually give up and collapse; either bringing one or other wing down on the ground, or both—making the crate belly-flop on the concrete, or the grass verge."
"Somethin' you've all got t'keep a strict watch out fer." Claire speaking with an intense note in her voice. "You'd be amazed how bloody often that happens; especially, don''t take this personal now, with inexperienced crew."
"OK, lads, follow me past the port undercart." Gabrielle moving to her left, trying to take her class's minds off the subject. "We won't go under; safety issues y'see, jest make our way along t'the rear entrance door. You'll see it's set pretty far back, just in front of the tailplane. What we—"
She was interrupted at this point in her lecture, the group of men now crowding round the women as they all stood some five yards off to the side of the giant machine, by a rending metallic screech as something major gave way somewhere. Gabrielle instantly knew what was happening, as did Claire.
"Run, everybody, run, off t'the side here." Gabrielle ushering the astonished men past her to safety well away from the plane.
"Hey, Edwards," Claire keeping her sharp blue eyes open. "Get yer butt away from that, over here, now. Run, man, run."
In seconds the whole group had placed around another twenty yards between themselves and the great bomber. The grinding noises of unseen metal components under greater stresses than they could take continued, then a cloud of dust and flying shrapnel exploded by the starboard undercarriage leg and, in almost slow-motion, the undercariage there fell apart, bringing the starboard wing down. As it hit the concrete with a crunch the port undercarriage leg, unbearably strained, followed suit; pieces of metal flying in all directions, the men and women diving to the ground, hands over their heads. In another instant there was a huge thump, followed by a series of splintering noises, then comparative silence. Seconds later, when everyone dragged themselves back to their feet, they saw the once proud Stirling laying on the concrete on its belly, with both wings torn and splintered, port wing partially separated from the body of the aircraft, engine propeller blades bent and buckled; the whole thing obviously extremely badly, probably terminally, damaged.
"What the f-ck happened, ma'am?" Edwards being first to regain his senses, as a light dust cloud enveloped the shocked group.
"Oh, f-ck an' b-gg-ry." Gabrielle for once speechless, and not a little embarrassed.
"One o'the bloody undercart legs collapsed, spontaneously." Claire admitting the facts, reluctantly. "Did we say, it has a tendency t'do that, off its own bat, fer no accountable reason? Well, it bloody does."
"F-ck," Someone else spoke up, voice quavering at the thought which had just occurred to him. "We was all bloody dam' near standin' right under the f-ckin' thing, not thirty f-ckin' seconds ago. We might'a all been squashed, like Shippam's f-ckin' meat paste, by now. F-ck me."
"Not a good start, eh, Ricky."
The women stood, an hour later, on the grass some way off from the scene of the drama. The downed Stirling, downed in every possible sense of the term, lay surrounded by fire engines, various trucks, a horde of miscellaneous personnel, and an angry Squadron-Leader, breathing fumes and fire.
"Nah. Templeton ain't happy, either." Claire noting the obvious. "This's gon'na take some mighty good explaining away."
As they watched the unfolding, it couldn't be called rescue, operation, an aircraftsman riding a bike came whizzing along the dispersal-point concrete approach, stopping beside the irate Squadron-Leader and obviously passing a message. Templeton immediately swung round to gaze into the air in a westerly direction. Impelled by curiosity Claire and Gabrielle did the same, hoping Templeton wouldn't notice their presence. Gabrielle was first to react.
"Oh, f-ck. The second Stirling, coming in." She turned to her partner, putting a hand on her arm. "What d'we do now?"
"Hope the bloody thing lands properly, o'course. What else." Claire taking a stoic attitude, in place of anything better.
Standing impotently on the grass verge, watching the approaching leviathan, the women did some pretty solid wishing on a star as the plane came in on the main runway. But everything didn't go quite to plan with this aircraft, either. Though piloted by one of the more experienced ATA female pilots, the Stirling still managed to act the prima donna role for which the type had gained an unhappy reputation.
"F-ck me, she's comin' in fast." Gabrielle paling as she watched the approaching aircraft lining-up for the runway.
"They all do." Claire being philosophical.
"But not that bloody fast." Gabrielle out-Diogenesing the man himself. "The pilot's almost certain t'check engines far too early, too high off the runway. She's gon'na bounce—hard."
Gabrielle's worst-case scenario did indeed come to pass. The Stirling, as all bombers of its type normally did, came in for a relatively fast landing; the ATA pilot, good but not brilliant, checked her engines around two feet off the concrete, which for any other heavy bomber would have been fine, but for a Stirling was just asking for trouble. The aircraft visibly immediately lost all interest in flying, coming straight down to hit the runway like a sack of coal off the back of a lorry, bounced all of ten feet back skywards, came back down, bounced again, this time a mere five feet, then hit the concrete for the third and last time, running down the runway in a peculiar manner, wobbling slightly from side to side as the twin tail-wheels oscillated like Billy-be-damned. Then to everyone's relief came to a halt, slightly askew on the runway, without exhibiting any greater disastrous outcome.
"Thank Goodness for that." Gabrielle so relieved she could hardly speak. "Never seen such a f-ckin awful landin' in all my puff."
An aircraftsman, as if by magic appeared at their sides.
"Message from Squadron-Leader Templeton; his office, now, if you both please."
"Oh, f-ck." From Gabrielle.
"Jeez." From her partner in crime. "Well, Templeton can't say he ain't got anything o'interest t'talk about."
In the course of the present war there were several places scattered around the globe which might truthfully be called an ante-room to Hell; but the small overly neat office in the single storey building on Castle Barford RAF station, at this particular moment, easily took the biscuit. Its inmate and cicerone sitting behind his desk, looking dangerously unhinged, as he contemplated the mess part of his beloved base had suffered.
"F-ckin' Stirlings." He not wishing to waste words, and yet make his inner feelings perfectly apparent to his visitors.
"Can it, Mathews." He not in a mood to take prisoners. "What in hell's goin' on? I'd just like t'know, for my peace of mind?"
"Parker, please, if you don't mind, I was talking." He no whit less imperious to the blonde half of his troubles. "You bring a bloody put-out-to-grass Stirling bomber—ha, bomber, I ask you! Where was I, oh yes; onto my patch of Lincolnshire, an' the first thing it does is make a dam' good try to flatten, completely, sixteen personnel."
"—er, eighteen, sir, counting Gabrielle an' I."
"—was I counting you two, Mathews? No, I bloody well wasn't. And why not; because you're not going to be polluting my base any longer than I can tolerate. I've been on the blower to the WD in London, and expect an answer promptly. Perhaps you both might usefully fill your remaining time here by packin' your bags, eh?"
Templeton paused, to examine several sheets of paper on his desk.
"Do you know what these are, ladies?"
"Crash reports, sir." Claire having seen several such in her career.
"Just so." Templeton frowned even more darkly. "Crash reports, on my airfield. We don't have crashes here, ladies, to put you in the picture; not with Halifaxes, we don't. I think we—"
Before he could continue the telephone beside his right elbow rang, in that tinny tinkling manner that all Government phones seemed to assume, just to annoy.
"Yes? Who? Oh, right. Yes, sir. Yes, sir. The bloody thing pancaked on the concrete, like an exhausted pensioner, what the hell am I supposed t'do about it. Yes, sir, a bloody time-served Stirling; thought they'd all lost their airworthy licences six months ago. Yes, sir, the bloke from the WD made that perfectly clear. Yes, sir, Group-Captain Graham did send a memo, dam' tersely worded, if I may say so. Yes, sir, I know what the bloody SOE are up to—or, rather, I don't, which is the whole point of the thing, I take it. What? What? What? Oh, b-gg-r it. Yes, sir, and the same to you, too; hope your wife's keepin' better. G'bye. Oh, f-ck it t'hell an' back; an' then bloody back, again. F-ck."
By this time Claire and Gabrielle both knew better than to interject so much as a single word.
"Do you know who that was?" Templeton looking for all the world like a Spanish Inquisitor drooling over his latest pair of Protestant visitors. "My commander, Wing-Commander Harrison, to be exact. Sadly, he seems to be of the opinion your work here is of some worth to the war effort; God knows why. So, kindly b-gg-r off, if you please,—and do try to keep your noses clean for the foreseeable future, if it's not too much trouble,—go."
Outside on the perfectly maintained gravel path, walking away from the scene of their near execution, Claire and Gabrielle heaved synchronised sighs of relief.
"F-ck me, that was a close shave." Gabrielle shaking her head at her near miss.
"Bloody right." Claire echoing her partner. "Well, hope t'God the other two Stirlings play ball for the duration. If anythin' happens t'either one, ol' Templeton'll definitely explode, like a four-thousand pounder."
"Wreaking havoc an' devastation in his wake." Gabrielle facing the gloomy future with the same stoic nature her partner and lover exhibited on these occasions. "Oh, hell, cocoa an' rum, back in the Nissen, dear?"
"Dam' straight, lovely lady." Claire knowing which side her bread was buttered. "More dam' rum than cocoa, mind you."
"Too true, gal, too true."
Over the course of the ensuing week Claire and Gabrielle continued their lectures to the group of airmen. They spent further mornings in the briefing-room, explaining the technicalities and details of operating various functions of the Stirling, two whole complete and operative examples of the type now being present on the airfield, apart from the unseemly wreck of the first, now covered in tarpaulins. And had taken the men, in temporary crews, on several preliminary test flights, with four crew learning the dark art of piloting the aircraft. On these Claire and Gabrielle acted as pilot instructors, pairing the men scheduled to be the new pilots. On the present morning, Friday, they had just broken for lunch; the afternoon being booked for the first solo flights of the new crews. At present the women were strolling towards the NAAFI canteen, looking forward to something substantial to eat, after the two planes had been left to their own concerns at their dispersal points.
The canteen, a low single-storey hut, was set slightly apart from a larger group of office buildings, all placed to the side of the main runway. A series of gravel paths with neat white-painted stone borders led here and there through them, with tightly shorn grass plots between. The whole place looking more like a Public Park than the military base it was supposed to be.
"—yeah, I'll give you that, doll." Gabrielle being in the middle of deciding which of the learner-pilot's to give free rein that afternoon. "Jameson, it is, then. I think he'll do—"
Before she could finish the grass off to their right, a few yards away from an office building, suddenly erupted in a line of rippling splashes, speeding across in a wavering line away from the walking women. As it crossed an empty gravel path short pinnacles of gravel shot into the air, the line of splashes continuing on the other side on the grass there; then it stopped. Immediately afterwards a distant rattling growl could be heard, as of distant machine-guns; then they too fell silent again.
Claire and Gabrielle had initially turned swiftly to look skywards, convinced a German fighter was strafing the airfield, but nothing was to be seen, and the airfield air-raid sirens hadn't gone off, anyway. Then, as if impelled by invisible forces, they turned further to gaze back to where the two Stirlings sat at their dispersal points close to each other. Even at a distance of some five hundred yards the group of aircraftsmen gathering round one plane in particular could easily be seen, as other men ran in from outlying areas nearby.
"Shit, T for Tango's gone an' done something silly." Gabrielle first on the uptake, as she too turned to start running towards the scene of affray.
"F-ck, not again." Claire shaking her head as she kept up with her companion. "Who was in the bloody thing?"
"Nobody." Gabrielle panted as they narrowed the distance. "An' there shouldn't have been any ground-crew messing around inside, either."
"F-ck." Claire relieving her feelings, because there wasn't much else she could usefully do. "Templeton won't like this; not one little bit."
An hour later Claire's intuition was proved correct, in the Squadron-Leader's office once more.
"It did what?"
"There was a short in an electric circuit, sir, an' the rear turret guns accidentally fired." Claire tried to throw sand on the raging fire that was Templeton's temper. "Only a short burst, sir, an' the guns', as required by regulations, were left pointin' skywards. That's why the bullets landed, er, so close t'the office buildings, er, sir."
It was clear that the Squadron-Leader did not think this explanation of much worth.
"Jee-sus, is there any bloody thing in those monsters that actually works properly, may I ask?" He snorted wrathfully, fiddling with a WD issue red pencil, which was obviously rapidly approaching its own breaking-point under the strain he was exerting on it. "The dam' things have started strafing my bloody airfield, on their own dam' account, so you tell me? What the hell sort'a control d'you actually have over those antiquated museum-pieces?"
"It was a wholly unforseeable accident, sir." Gabrielle trying to soothe ruffled feathers in her turn. "Well, perhaps not altogether unforseen, in the strict nature o'the term; but, rare, sir, very rare. These Stirlings having a reputation for being, er, rather tempermental in their electrics, y'know."
"No, I didn't know, young lady," Templeton, probably younger in reality than either woman, banged a hand on his desk. "but I'm rapidly discovering the fact to be true, nonetheless. Do you realise this is the day Sir Sagramore Hamilton-Quare is visiting, from the Home Office? With a flock of other, admittedly lesser, big-wigs hangin' on his coat-tails?"
"—er, yes, sir." Claire attempting to look entirely innocent of guilt, a stance doomed from the start. "We had heard."
"And one of the sights we've put on, to stun him with our all-round brilliance and capability of knockin' Jerry for six into the long grass, is watchin' your newly passed Stirling crews' taking-off in unison?" Templeton paused to imagine the likely results of this action unfolding before the astonished Home Office eyes. "It's gon'na be a disaster, no doubt of it. I don't know what other tragic events those two jinxed machines are going to offload on me, but it won't be pretty, that's for sure. I'll have probably been down-graded to an ordinary aircraftsman, peeling potatoes at Cranwell, by next week. And all because of you two and your bloody Stirlings."
Claire and Gabrielle, playing safe, stood silent hoping the storm would pass without doing much more damage than it already had. Just as Claire was hoping for the best, Templeton's red pencil finally broke with a sharp snap that made both women jump nervously.
"Kindly go out to where those dam' monsters are quarantined; unload every bloody gun on both of 'em; point their noses in an easterly direction; an' when they take-off this afternoon I do not want to see either returning here, for any reason whatsoever. Do I make myself quite clear? They are supposed to be heading for Little Lanning, aren't they?"
"Yes, sir." Gabrielle clutched at this straw, faster than an eagle pouncing on a rabbit. "Once they've both taken-off that's their destination; Claire and I already have our bags packed and the Tilly ready to transport us there by road, sir."
Claire and Gabrielle, later that afternoon and wearing their best uniforms, met Sir Sagramore Hamilton-Quare and his associates—all of whom wore bowler hats accompanied by long black coats, making them seem like an outing of an undertaker's union. To his great honour Squadron-Leader Templeton kept a straight face throughout while performing these introductions; merely passing the women off as subsidiary ATA pilots, not mentioning their true activities at all.
Then the women sped along to where the two Stirlings sat on the main runway, engines idling, waiting to take-off under the control of their fledgling pilots and crews. Seeing everyone was in their places and on top of their new jobs the women then retreated to the edge of the runway, close to their Tilly, ready to beat a retreat from the base the moment the two planes staggered skywards and left the vicinity.
"There's Templeton, and there's Sir Sagramore, on the Control Tower balcony." Gabrielle making good use of her sharp eyesight.
"As close as I want to get t'either, from now on." Claire hunching her shoulders and growling impolitely. "Y'got the Tilly's engine runnin', dear? The quicker we kick the dust of this picnic spot off our shoes the better."
"Don't worry." Gabrielle reaching out to hold her impatient partner's hand. "Five minutes after the planes leave, we'll be gone, too. Look, they're running-up the engines an' taxiing to their take-off positions. Best of luck, boys."
"Yeah, an' don't they just need it." Claire shook her head as she watched the aircraft moving along the runway, one fifty yards behind the other. "How many hours have the pilot's got on Stirlings now, by the by?"
"Around eighteen hours total, close as I can calculate."
"Do buck up, woman, nothing's gon'na happen."
But Gabrielle was wrong, comprehensively.
B for Bravo, the leading aircraft, set off down the runway picking up speed as it went. There was no sign of the dreaded wheel swing as it continued, and in another few seconds it took-off and proceeded to climb, if a trifle hesitantly, into the air. And it was here that disaster became obvious to the multitude of spectators all across the airfield. Slowly, as was always the case, the port undercarriage leg disappeared as it raised itself into the wing nacelle; but on the other side the starboard leg remained stubbornly fully lowered as the plane disappeared into the distance, finally being lost sight of in the bright blue sky.
"Oh, Jee-sus, starboard leg hung-up, f-ck it." Gabrielle being able to see a church by daylight with the best.
"Goddam." Claire fully registering the fact as well. "Hope t'God the port comes back down an' locks when they reach Little Lanning."
But everyone's attention was now on the second Stirling, T for Tango, it of the notorious machine-gunning incident earlier that day. It's electrics had been given as much of a going-over as could be done in the time allowed; but now, as if realising full-well itself there was a tyro pilot at the controls, it exhibited, as it trundled along the runway in hot pursuit of its companion, that most devious of tendencies associated with the type—the Stirling Swing.
"She's goin'; yeah, she's bloody goin'—she's veering." Claire first to notice the slight swing to starboard as the aircraft ran on along the runway.
T for Tango, as if being pushed by a giant unseen hand, swung its high single tail-fin to port into the centre of the concrete runway; the starboard wing swept over the grass verge and, as the port wing swung round to point the plane's nose comprehensively off the runway, the inevitable happened. The long spindly starboard undercarriage assembly, unable to support the immense sideways strain and pressure on its leg, splintered like dry wood and collapsed, bring the wing to the ground with it. The aircraft meanwhile, still under power though its two starboard engines had splintered their propellers, continued to sweep round, almost in a half-circle, before the port undercarriage, now sustaining even more sideways pressures than its late sister, also gave up the ghost and, amid another welter of dust, grass, earth, and bits of mixed undercarriage leg and concrete, disappeared under the aircraft's body as it sank to the ground in an earsplitting cacophony of screeching metal. T for Tango, as if in expiation of its former crimes, had bitten the dust—probably, like H for Harry just a week previously, for good.
Like the soldiers they were, Claire and Gabrielle had stayed to clear up the worst part of the mess. They had made sure the late T for Tango's fledgling crew were all safe; and that, via telephone, B for Bravo, actually living up to its name, had managed to safely lower its port undercarriage leg while the starboard leg remained lowered but also fully locked—thus allowing the sweating pilot to make a perfect landing at Little Lanning: all this under the dark cloud of Squadron-Leader Templeton's glowering visage. Finally, having seen to train warrants for the crew of T for Tango to Little Lanning, Claire and Gabrielle had hurriedly exited Castle Barford RAF airfield; saying a fond farewell neither to its proprietor nor Sir Sagramore; both of whom seemed equally unimpressed by recent events.
"Jee-sus, never been happier t'see the back of anywhere." Gabrielle relaxing in her passenger seat in their borrowed Tilly, heaving a deeply-felt sigh of relief.
"Too true, babe, too true." Claire, driving as badly and as fast as her compatriot had on their arrival, nodded happily. "Wonder how Squadron-Leader Armstrong'll greet the happy return of the long-lost, when we arrive out'ta the blue?"
"Most likely already got the photos and plans laid out on the briefing-room table for our next night-time sortie—probably this very evening."
"Well, can't really call the whole thing a success, when all's said and done." Squadron-Leader Armstrong sat beside the briefing-room table shuffling photos and sheets of instructions. "Your new crew, in B for Bravo, made it alright; after a bit of a fright, mind you. I hear my associate, Squadron-Leader Templeton, ain't too happy with two wrecked Stirlings splattered all over his patch. Hindering his Halifaxes; so he told me over the phone, in between language of impressive fruitiness and expressive width. So, here we are again; you'll be happy to learn that, in your absence, my ground-crews have achieved wonders—re-wiring S for Sara from bow to stern. Whatever goes wrong with her in future, so Chief-mechanic Holroyd opines, it won't be because of the electrics."
"That's nice, sir."
"Yeah, glad t'hear it, sir."
"I've also had word from Group-Captain Graham, in London." Armstrong studied one of the sheets of paper in front of him. "Says that's the run of the balls, Stirlings bein' like that. Anyway, he's arranged to have the crew that's here now assigned to another base, where they're deep in Special Duties, just like you two. So everything seems to be ending fairly well. Got a sortie all worked out for you, as it happens; but not till tomorrow night, so go an' get some rest. If I hear anything about the last week's fiasco from the WD or Home Office, I'll blind 'em so with paperwork they won't be able t'sort it out before the bloody war's over an' we're all safely back in civvy street."
"Dam' good show, sir." Gabrielle waxing nearly feverish with relief. "—er, that is, thanks, sir."
"On your way."
The interior of their Nissen hut, which they had all to themselves on Little Lanning airfield, seemed indeed like home sweet home after their exertions. Gabrielle hurrying to light the single gas-ring and put on a pot of water from the tap over the small sink under one of the side-windows.
"Cocoa and rum, dear? Then a nice long rest with our beds shoved together, an' the windows curtained an' the door firmly locked?"
"Now that, baby, is what I call a plan." Claire threw her jerkin on her low bed and regarded her loved partner with bright eyes. "Forget the cocoa, fill my cup half-way from the bottle. As fer the double-beds, I got me some ideas, thataway, gal."
"Have you, indeed, lover of my life." Gabrielle sniggered quietly as she stood over the pot, turning off the gas tap under it. "No need for this, then. Ideas, eh, what might they be, then, I wonder?"
"Ah, that's fer me t'keep secret, an' fer you t'yell fer joy in the findin' out, my bonnie lassie."
"Hah, bring it on, lover."
The Stirling Swing. —'On and near the ground the Stirling had a number of vices, some serious, others merely annoying. Its tendency to swing on take-off resulted from the almost total blanketing of the fin and rudder by the fuselage between the tailwheels leaving the ground and the tail-up position on take-off. While I was stationed at Stradishall some ten aircraft were written-off or badly damaged as the result of swings. To avoid serious swing it was necessary to anticipate the direction of swing—there was always a swing to the right due to the torque effect of all propellers rotating in the same direction (anti-clockwise), so the starboard throttles were invariably opened fully and the port throttles partially until full rudder control was obtained with the tail fully raised.' —Alex Wood, in 'Stirling in Combat', Jonathan Falconer, Sutton Publishing, 1991, 2006.
'Any take-off and landing in a Stirling required care, the more so if there was any wind from starboard. [On take-off the pilot] is pushing the stick fully forward, to lift the rudder into the slipstream, and pushing the throttles wide open, often diagonally to counteract any swing.'—George Mackie, in 'Stirling in Combat', Jonathan Falconer, Sutton Publishing, 1991, 2006.
'The Stirling was a most demanding aircraft on take-off and landing. If one opened the throttles evenly the swing would put the aircraft off the runway in a few seconds long before it achieved enough speed to give rudder control.'—Murray Peden, in 'Short Stirling; Owner's Workshop Manual', Jonathan Falconer, Haynes Publishing, 2015.
Undercarriage failure, spontaneous.—'on another occasion a kite [Stirling] that had been doing circuits and bumps was back at dispersal, refuelled and left for the night. There must have been a report of an oil leak, because I saw Sergeant Nixon walk across and look at the engines. He completed his inspection and cleared the wing when the starboard undercarriage simply collapsed, missing the Sergeant by inches. I have never seen a man so near being crushed. He was very shaken.'—Wally Leggard, in 'Stirling in Combat', Jonathan Falconer, Sutton Publishing, 1991, 2006.
Electrical wiring and accumulators; guns firing accidentally.—'The Stirling had around 17 miles of wiring plus electric motors by the score. Some of the faults caused by short circuits were unbelievable. Eventually the accumulators had to be disconnected as soon as the aircraft was dispersed, but before this anything could happen. We would go out to dispersal and find one undercarriage leg had collapsed during the time the thing was on its own. Aircraft would try to land with 'one home and one away', with the poor flight-engineer trying to wind the jammed leg down, an exhausting task that could take up to ten minutes with the gearing used. One night, going to start the engines with a mechanic, we were about 200 yards from the aircraft when the rear guns opened up. Fortunately all guns had to be left pointing skywards, so we were alright, but I've never jumped off a bike so quickly in all my life. The electrician had connected up the accumulators ready for a run-up, but the short had taken place after he had left. When working in a hangar the aircraft had to have jacks under, in case a leg started to go up.' —J F Hardman, in 'Stirling in Combat', Jonathan Falconer, Sutton Publishing, 1991, 2006.
Dropping on Landing.—'The Stirling had another noteworthy characteristic—when you did your flare-out and check on landing, she dropped onto the runway like a thirty-ton boulder, there was no float to speak of at all. If you checked [engines] six inches above the runway the result was a beautiful landing. Checked a foot and a half above the runway you arrived very firmly and definitely; and if you were two feet above the runway when you cut the throttles it felt as if the undercarriage were being driven through the wings.'—Murray Peden, in 'Short Stirling; Owner's Workshop Manual', Jonathan Falconer, Haynes Publishing, 2015.
Other Works Consulted.—'Stirling Wings', Jonathan Falconer, Allan Sutton Publishing, 1995. 'The Stirling Bomber', Michael J. F. Bowyer, Faber and Faber, 1980.
The next 'Mathews and Parker' story will arrive shortly.