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 SOE, Special Operations Executive,—take a documentary film crew on a bombing mission over Germany.
Disclaimer:— This story, and all characters therein, are copyright © 2019 to the author.
Warning:— There is some light swearing in this tale.
'To Plover Team, from Red Hawk.Message begins— Plover team to undertake mission as required by Station Commander, 18th March, 1944. This has been cleared with all necessary SOE officials. Plover will provide all needed requirements for successful accomplishment of mission. Message ends— Red Hawk. PMM, SH, Ldn, Flr3, Rm 32.'
"Blunt, as usual, terse, and tells us bugger all." Gabrielle screwed her lips into a tight line. "Wha'd'ya think ol' Captain Graham means?"
"Dammed if I know; dammed if I care." Claire shrugged, shaking her head repeatedly in a somewhat nervous manner she had only recently taken to exhibiting. "Judging by the missions he's sent us on in the past it'll be hellish, dammed illogical, an' may very well endanger our lives for every bloody minute of its course. God, how I bloody well wish I could go back in time an' not bloody sign that SOE paper Graham hoodwinked us in'ta accepting."
"Me too, sis." Gabrielle nodded in her turn, she also having had just about enough of their hairy exploits in favour of the highly secret Special Operations Executive. "Well, the bloody war's still on, we're in uniform, Captain Graham an' the bloody SOE have us definitively by our collective balls, so we'll just have to buckle down an' take it, like heroes."
"Heroes, ha." Claire laughed with no humour in her tone. "I tell ya, gal, I'm scared shitless every time I go up in a plane these days—wondering if I'll ever make it back t'base in one piece."
"Makes two of us, darlin'. Come here."
But Claire soon found out what. Gabrielle, they being in the quiet privacy of their own Nissen hut on the Little Lanning airfield in Norfolk, took her compatriot firmly by the elbows, pulled her close, and kissed her lover on the lips with power, meaning, and determination.
"How d'ya feel now, lover?"
"Better; yeah, better, I got'ta admit." Claire stood looking down at her partner, smiling broadly. "Got'ta say, y'always know the way t'bring me out'ta a black mood, an' no mistake. Thanks."
"Oh, just part of the service." Gabrielle grinned, gently releasing the taller woman. "So, I suppose we better head on over to the briefing-room an' find out just what Graham's pulled out the bag for us this time."
"Yeah, OK." Claire sighed deeply as they headed for the door of the long hut with its curved corrugated steel roof. "Something God-awful, no doubt."
"So, there you have it." Group Captain Henry Traille had been a History teacher in a southern England preparatory school for boys before the war, and had brought with him to his new career a certain haughtiness and cold authoritarianism. "One boffin from the Ministry of Information,—he's in charge,—four chaps from AFPU, and one cameraman from the Crown Film Unit. Each, apparently, operating their own, various, cameras."
A silence descended on the long briefing-room in the one-storey building on the edge of the airfield where the pilots and crew were instructed on their nightly missions; at present the two women and the Captain being the only ones present there. Then Claire found her voice.
"A film crew, sir? Filming us on a real mission over Germany? Inside a Stirling, fully bombed-up? An' likely to attract flak, at least; never mind enemy night-fighters?" Her tone reflected the level of suitability she thought this idea merited. "Is that lawful? Who in authority allowed this, sir? It's,—it's, so dangerous; for everybody. I got'ta consider my crew, y'understand, sir. D'they realise our Stirling, like all the other Stirling's these days, is off front-line duties; that we're conductin' a Special Duties operation here, now."
"Precisely, Miss Mathews." Captain Traille was far ahead of the game, simpering quietly as was his wont when seriously in the right on any argument. "Due note was taken of same, by all concerned. Resulting in your being taken off your original set plan—bombs, an' a target, an' all that. Your task now is, newsreel photography, at all costs; absolutely imperative to the morale boosting needs of the Nation, an' all that sort'a crap. The final conclusion having been, apparently, what could be more Special Duties than this affair?"
"Bit of a mixed bag, ain't they, sir?" Gabrielle couldn't resist putting in her tuppence-worth, as it occurred to her; going off at another tack. "The Min of Info, the British Army Film and Photographic Unit, and the Crown Film Unit—everybody sporting an official camera, in fact."
"I've been had up to the Ministry of Info itself in the last few days over this, as it happens, in Senate House down in London." Traille looked somewhat peeved at such an intrusion into his till then private military career. "Had all sorts of scientific wallahs, Ministery men, an' some dam' shady characters from some secret sub-division of who-knows-what dodgy behind-the-scenes Department, bending my ears.—"
Claire and Gabrielle, standing by the long table on which large aerial photos were usually laid out, shuffled their feet and looked a trifle shifty in their turn; they knowing full well Traille, probably unknowingly, referred to the SOE.
"—the end result being I've been given more or less no choice in the matter." Traille looked the women over grimly. "Seems, from what the back-room wallahs let slip, you two are knee-deep in these, what, secret missions, yourselves? Well, not what I would have thought women should be allowed to engage in, but there's a war on, so I must accept these curious by-ways of military activity, I suppose. Just don't make a bloody mess of the whole thing, that'll reflect back badly on the squadron, not to mention the dam' Min of Info, if you at all can."
The night, as all night's generally were in north Norfolk, was dark as Hell itself on a night when even the demonic power had been cut-off. Little Lanning airfield, being miles from any large conurbation, sat in its own pool of deep obscurity; the few lights necessary for the operation of the airfield and the safe movement of the mighty bombers thereon only serving, as some wordy poet had himself long ago once noted, to make the all-surrounding darkness more visible still.
The operation this evening was aimed at Stuttgart in Germany; never a popular target because of its strategic importance and therefore its heavy local flak batteries and night-fighter defences. The Lancaster bombers at Little Lanning, although twenty in number, were just a minor fraction of the three wave bomber wing which was due to head for the large city; comprising some 400 bombers in total—Air Commodore 'Bomber' Harris, in charge of Bomber Command, having recently made it known in no uncertain terms that he personally preferred, and ordered, these operations to be carried out on the big scale, no questions asked.
Claire, designated pilot for the night's entertainment, was in the tight waist of the huge Stirling bomber, S for Sara, the only specimen of its type mustered on the airfield, talking to the group of photographers uncomfortably congregated there. Some sort of plan had been figured out as to how they would employ their time whilst operating their cameras during the course of the mission, and Claire was adamant they knew these facts precisely and stuck to them.
"Listen up, people," Her voice echoing in the long cluttered smelly waist of the plane. "There are seven crew on board tonight; with you six that makes a number I don't want t'either mention or think about. Y'know where your stations for filming will be as the night progresses. I'd like t'say you're safely placed in positions that're secure, but that'd be a lie—nowhere's safe in a Stirling, or any other bomber, come to that. If the flak hits us there'll be shrapnel flying everywhere, so just duck under your steel helmets an' pray. If Jerry scores a direct hit the chances are none of us'll know anythin' about it, so don't worry overmuch on that score. If the engines get hit, or somethin' happens that seems terminal, don't hesitate t'bale out. You've already experienced the entry door,—it can easily be used for the opposite thing too, y'know. And there are a couple of escape hatches in the waist jest awaitin' your pleasure, too. Just jump, count to three, quickly, an' pull the cord—the rest'll be up t'Providence, or somethin'. OK, got that?"
Three of the cameramen were in army uniforms, the AFPU, all sergeants; the others were in civilian clothes. The Man from the Ministry had earlier tried to come the overbearing officer in charge when he climbed aboard the plane, but Gabrielle had quickly put him in his place.
"What did you say your name was? Leonard Cecil Paladyne, Second Secretary, Documentary Dept., at the Min of Info? Well, here you're just another Bill Bloggs, Private; we—the crew,—are in charge; particularly myself and Flying-Officer Mathews. We give the orders and you, all of you, follow them—if not you'll be court-martialled when we get back t'Blighty; keep that in mind."
"Mr Paladyne your, ahem, mixed group all have cameras; let's see 'em, I wan'na know if they're gon'na be too cumbersome t'haul around in the plane, especially up in the cockpit." Claire these days having a very well developed sense of personal safety. "What are they, then?"
"The cameras I, and Mr Johnson there, have are Newman and Sinclair thirty-five millimetres; the others use De Vry Standards, which are slightly smaller and handier." Paladyne, unhappy at being reduced so effortlessly to the ranks, nevertheless set out the details willingly enough. "These boxes we've brought along are for the extra film cartridges and for storing the used film."
"Right," Claire nodded, talking with cold determination. "The Newman an' Sinclairs are too heavy an' cumbersome to use in the cockpit, they stay in the waist. The De Vry's can be used in the cockpit, but only when I or my co-pilot, Flying-Officer Parker, say so. When we tell ya t'get the Hell out'ta it, ya get the Hell out'ta it, or I'll bloody shoot ya; got that?"
And now they were over Germany, at a height of 12,000 feet, one of the last planes in the third wave of four hundred bombers headed for Stuttgart.
Alone by themselves in the cockpit for a few minutes, Gabrielle set the intercom switch on her face-mask to only transmit between the two of them and let fly with her thoughts on the situation.
"Bloody newsreel clowns." She being disgusted with the extra worry and trouble. "Why'n Hell they picked us I don't know."
"One o'these dirty jobs someone has t'do." Claire made a disgruntled noise in her throat. "An' we were the one's given the short straw, is all. Jest have'ta make the best o'it."
"Suppose we could look on the bright side, lover." Gabrielle obviously in a particularly foul mood this evening. "We might take multiple shrapnel hits from ack-ack; that'd settle their hash, back in the waist, there."
"Goodness gracious, dear; whatever happened to all that milk o'Human Kindness for which ye're famous across three counties."
"Huh, must'a fallen out the bomb-bay a coupl'a weeks ago, along with the bombs, that night we tried for the umpteenth time t'erase Munich from the map o'Europe."
"Bandit, at seven o'clock, comin' in fast." The upper dorsal gunner showing he, at least, was still awake.
Flinging a four-engined Stirling bomber around the sky, in a reckless attempt to evade the attentions of a nifty Messerschmitt 109 hardly ever succeeded,—though, flying light, the sturdy surprisingly maneouverable machine could well hold its own. The bomber also, of course, relying on its guns, those firing them, and the general circumstances of each particular stand-off. It being darkest night helped immensely, not all night-fighters having reliable radar. Generally such a fighter might have one single run to get the target in its sights, come close enough to ensure a good chance of success, then spray its cannon-fire over a three or four second opening. After which it had overflown the bomber and had to show some pretty fine flying on its own part to come round and latch onto the target once again. Of course some German aces could do this; but tonight was S for Sara's lucky night; several sparkling lines of tracer, shooting off to port of the unusually sprightly bomber, under Claire's determined care, and the fighter had passed and disappeared. An anxious wait of half-a-minute or so, and the crew realised it wasn't coming back.
"Did we take any hits?" Gabrielle already on the intercom, asking for information.
A babel of voices ensued, levelling out to the general opinion that Jerry was irresponsibly shockingly awful at range-finding this evening and consequently the Stirling hadn't even suffered chipped paintwork.
Then a second conversation struck up as the camera groups started discussing between themselves what they had managed to record on film of this first, dramatic encounter.
"Hey, you lot, shut up an' get the Hell off the air." Gabrielle at her most commanding. "The intercom's for aircrew; if you boffins wan'na talk amongst yourselves, stay off the intercom."
A deathly silence ensued, allowing Gabrielle and Claire to focus on the view through the forward windscreen out to the horizon; now delicately illuminated by a patchy line of flickering white light, both on the ground and in the air apparently around the same height the bomber was flying at.
"The first two waves have lit-up Stuttgart nicely." Claire's satisfaction easily noted even through the tinny intercom.
"An' Jerry's lightin' up the sky with bloody flak, in our honour; mighty nice o' them." Gabrielle, waxing sarcastic, as she often did when frightened out of her wits. "Here it comes. Bomb-aimer, y'there yet? How's that bloody camera y've got doin'?"
"—'course I'm bloody here, where the f-ck else'd I be." Flight-sergeant Hamilton, whose main job was wireless operator, showing away with all his renowned joi-de-vivre; now lying flat on his stomach in the bomb-aimer's glass-fronted position well under and forward of the cockpit, the front-turret floor only inches above his head. "F-ckin' cameras; can just about work the dam' thing. Feel dam' silly, nonetheless, takin' snapshots, instead o'rainin' hell an' damnation on Jerry's well-deservin' bloody head."
"Wan'na warn the other camera guys, Gabs?"
"Suppose I must." The co-pilot still not in a giving mood. "Listen up, Paladyne, tell your boys we're about t'hit the target. Everything's well alight, downstairs; Jerry's woken up, as a result, an' is presently tryin' t'turn the whole o'the air over Stuttgart in'ta little pieces o'red-hot shrapnel, all aimed at us in particular. If' ye're still up for it, now's the time t'start filming, laddie."
"Roger, understood, ma'am."
"Ha,—well, just remember, if anything happens that makes y'think openin' the exit door in the rear an' takin' t'your chutes is a good idea, don't mind me,—don't wait for confirmation, just jump, got that?"
"—er, yes, ma'am. Roger that, umm.—"
Back on their private two-way intercom again—
"These amateurs, never happy at the idea o'havin' t'hit the silk; eh, Ricky?"
"Let's jest hope we get as much of a chance as they might, t'do the same."
"Yeah, there's that. There's, as y'say lover, certainly that."
The photographers had been told earlier in no uncertain terms that, apart from one camera using the navigator's clear perspex astro-dome on the top of the aircraft just to the rear of the cockpit, they must stay aft of the wireless operator's position in the waist; several small porthole window-apertures on either side there, just fore and aft of the upper gun turret, giving them reasonable coverage for their filming. Paladyne, before entering the aircraft, had expressed a wish that some sort of extra window ought to have beeen provided for filming straight down through the floor of the bomber. This suggestion having been met with some of the saltiest language he had ever been exposed to, especially coming from a short snarky blonde with glittering green eyes, he had hastily shelved the proposal, in extremis.
"The f-ckin' idiot not seemingly aware the whole o'the keel's taken up with the long bomb-bay,—f-ckin' idiot." As Gabrielle, jigging about in a rage on the tarmac later, just before the flight, concisely expressed her feelings to Claire.
Now, after the flypast of the Messerschmitt 109, the photographers were busy retailing their experiences; being especially anxious to learn what the cameraman in the astro-dome had managed to catch.
"Simon, how'd you do?" Paladyne being first off the mark. "Get anything useful?"
The whole group of half a dozen experts were huddled together, or as much so as the tight waist of the Stirling allowed, eager to hear each other's achievements. Simon Carter being the one with the most difficult job; his Newman and Sinclair camera having to be poised on an ungainly tripod, lens pointed at a steep angle through the curved perspex dome, it having barely quarter of a circle's rotation available to it.
"Think I caught something, maybe tracer lines; don't think I saw Jerry though."
"Good enough." Paladyne was by now wholly in a world of his own, where reality had little substance. "We'll be over Stuttgart in a few seconds; what I want you all to do is try to capture the flak bursts in the air around the other planes, or any that come relatively close to us,—it should make for great newsreel back in the cinemas. They generally burst in black puffs of smoke, but there should be an initial flash you can see; should be interesting."
The cockpit of a Stirling was quite roomy, all things considered; at least for its type, that being a four-engined bomber. Just behind the pilot and co-pilot, down a couple of metal steps, the navigator and flight engineer had their spots on either side of the waist whilst further back the wireless operator had his little bay. Having slithered uncomfortably under the cockpit floor, into a long restricted space approached by squeezing down another two or three steps just past the navigator's position, the wireless operator or navigator moonlighted as bomb-aimer. Not to mention the front gunner, ensconced in his power-operated turret immediately above the prone form of the bomb-aimer and only a couple of feet beyond the pilots. Altogether a cosy little group, one would have thought, if it weren't so obviously wartime.
The escape opportunities in time of need from the Stirling in flight, as Gabrielle had been so particular in informing her passengers, were actually rather extensive, if difficult to reach and use, than might have been expected. The main entrance-door in the plane towards the rear just in front of the tailplane, of course. There was another entry-exit hatch in the nose immediately behind the bomb-aimer's prone position under the cockpit area, but this was extremely difficult of access in an airborne emergency. An escape hatch in the roof of the cockpit immediately over the pilot's head offered some comfort to the pilots whilst two more, in the floor to front and rear of the central waist section, offered a modicum of hope to those in the immediate vicinity; but that was the sum total of escape points available. The truth being that if the photographers felt the plane was in difficulties and they wished to escape, their opportunities to do so and eventual chances of succeeding were very low, not to say impossible.
And now, with the imminent overflight of Stuttgart and its heavy defences, things were definitely going to become hairer still for all concerned.
"Blue light—blue light t'starboard." The upper dorsal gunner, in his usual state of general fright mixed with bowel-moving fear, was first to report this nasty development. "Comin' our dam' way."
"Sh-t." Claire turned her car-like steering-wheel to port, pushing with her feet hard on the rudder pedals at the same time.
"Main searchlight, guides the other, white ones, t'their target." Gabrielle repeating this message over the intercom for the benefit of the camera operators, now busily aiming their machines through every available port-hole. "Let's hope we don't get coned."
"Always thinkin' on the bright side, dearie." Claire's tone slightly sarcastic, as she continued wrestling with the controls. "Jest sit back an' enjoy the ride, gal, it's gon'na be fun."
With its short wingspan and low wing incidence the Stirling could actually be handled with great delicacy and extreme maneouverability, if given the right circumstances; and now, without the usual bomb load to weigh them down, was that time. Claire sent the plane into a corkscrew dive, alternating anti-clockwise unexpectedly, which lost them two thousand feet of altitude but also lost the probing searchlights too; though their new altitude of just under ten thousand feet was in itself dangerously, almost suicidally, low.
"Ricky, be a dear, try'n hit the stars again. I don't like daisy-cutting." Gabrielle's voice at its most imploring. "People are beginnin' t'look at us, down there, an' they ain't wavin' with jollity, dear. An' I think I just saw a Barrage Balloon pass by on my side"
Nevertheless Claire, hauling her stick back bravely, managed to regain nearly all the lost height just as they reached the environs of the heavily bombed city—which is when all Hell really broke loose.
"I can't believe we're goin' into this bloody inferno without any bombs; not even propaganda leaflets, or even bloody Window." Gabrielle complaining to the Elements. "Bloody newsreel cameras? Bloody cameras? Jeez."
The reasons for her lack of enthusiasm were instantly visible to those in the Stirling. Searchlight beams strobing the skies all round; black flashes from flak exploding far too close; scything streamers of tracer bullets which looked astonishingly pretty cutting across the night sky like fireworks, but would tear you apart if they hit you; and the whole frame of the aircraft rocking and shivering underfoot as the shockwaves from flak, and the pilot's defensive maneouvres, made the plane jerk about like a mad bull in a field.
S for Sara was in the third and last bomber wave; the other members, being Lancasters flying at a much greater height, around 18,000 feet. So Claire also had to contend with trying to guess where the falling lines of bombs would cut across her flight-path, and try not to fly the Stirling right into the descending munitions.
"What're they droppin' t'night, gen'rally speakin?"
Gabrielle instantly understood her partner's thought processes, nodding in sympathy.
"Mostly Small Bomb Containers, holdin' God knows how many four-pound incendaries each." She had always had a fixation on appreciating the fine detail of the work the bomber squadron at Little Lanning carried out. "Rounded out with five hundred pounders. I think the first wave sent Jerry presents of four thousand pounders. T'start the party off on the right footing, y'understand."
"Jeez, that accounts fer all the bloody smoke an' flame down there." Claire glanced down through her side-window. "Looks like Hell on the ground. I thin—"
"Bomb stream descending, straight ahead." This from a nearly berserk front gunner. "Change course, change bloody cou—"
Claire twisted her wheel and trod on her rudder pedals furiously, letting her breath out in a long sustained groan of effort. For a moment longer Gabrielle saw nothing through her windscreen then, like a special effect in some drama film, a falling line of small dark silhouettes fell in a long curving stream, just to starboard of her line of sight—then the plane had turned and the tumbling bombs, from some unseen Lancaster far above, had passed on their merry way to pulverise whatever parts of Stuttgart were still standing in the widespread destruction laid out below.
"That was f-ckin' close." Gabrielle put a hand to her forehead as if to wipe away sweat, though her leather helmet and radio mask hindered that. "Nearly hoist by our own petard, by a more-or-less friendly bloody Lanc? Sh-t, what a way t'go."
In the Stirling's waist, on the other hand, Paladyne and his mates were ecstatic; their cameras whirring like toy racing cars.
"Wonderful, bloody wonderful." Paladyne himself was operating the second Newman and Sinclair, holding it hunched against his shoulder, aimed out one of the round portholes. "G-dd-m, that film can nearly broke my ankle. Carter? Carter, what did you get? Good stuff?"
"I got that stream o'bloody bombs. Fallin' t'our right-hand—just bloody missed us, but I got a lovely tracking shot of it."
"Bravo, good man." Paladyne was in Paradise. "Hopkins, how'd you do?"
"Lovely shots of those dam' searchlights, flickering all across the dark sky." Hopkins voice, too, was full of enthusiasm. "Especially when they came close those couple of times."
"Right, make sure you all change magazines for fresh film." Paladyne still managing to keep abreast of the important necessities. "And make sure you put the used cans away safely; that's some good stuff we've got, already."
"Wow, Stuttgart's all lit up. Blimey." Simon Carter, in his front row position in the dorsal perspex astro-dome could see forward clearly. "Jee-sus, lights an' fires, an' dark clouds o'smoke all over the place. Jee-sus, those fires. Hopkins,—Hopkins? Get me another couple of mags, I need t'cover this real good."
"You others keep your lenses aimed out the side portholes." Paladyne taking command of his photographers like an Admiral at sea. "We're gon'na be right over the thick of it in another minute or two. Just remember, there won't be any extra runs. This is a one-time opportunity, so everyone make the most of every bloody second."
Up in the Stirling's cockpit Gabrielle and Claire had been joined by Jack Thompson, with his small camera. He was keeping a safe distance to the rear, hunched against the closed door leading to the waist while aiming his camera forward between the two pilots, straight out the main windscreen. Because the cockpit was in almost total darkness the exterior showed up like a film in a movie theatre; and what was running now revealed a tragic and dangerous scene.
Over the last few months both American and British bomber squadrons had tried their best to erase various districts of the great city of Stuttgart. Early attempts had met with such bad weather and good defensive work from the German defences that heavy casualties amongst the bombers had resulted. But gradually the squadrons had gotten themselves together, sorted out most of their problems, and set-to the main event with a vengeance. By now, early March 1944, the city centre had virtually ceased to exist, along with a number of the districts on the outskirts. What was going forward now was a determined assault to further destroy what had already been destroyed; this in the way of making sure the message got across to all those concerned—meaning the citizens of Stuttgart,—and that the lesson was learned properly. In progress now, as Claire and Gabrielle's Stirling approached the devastation, was a conflagration like a thousand giant furnaces torn open and roaring in anger.
In certain areas in and immediately surrounding the city centre vast fires like liquid lakes raged in orange and crimson fury. In other areas mighty white clouds of smoke wafted across the landscape like thick fog. In yet other nearby stretches these had each coalesced into mighty rolling vapors mixed with red flares of unchecked fire, like the vapours of Hell itself. As the Stirling crossed the last few hundred yards of airspace and finally found itself immediately above, at twelve thousand feet, the immense blaze covering the central district of the city the sight was almost unbelievable in its extremity.
"God Almighty, look'it that." From Gabrielle, wholly mesmerised by the scene unfolding under the aircraft and to each side far below.
"Christ, never seen the like." Claire, taking a swift glance out her side-window. "Jeez, the old tub's bucking like a bronco—the air's raging like a bloody storm, even at this height."
"Watch out for the bomb streams from the Lancs in our group." Gabrielle still managing to keep sight of the immediate danger. "They're at eighteen thousand feet, six thousand above us, and some way ahead."
"Tell ya what, gal." Claire peering ahead with gimlet eyes. "You do the watchin'; I'll do the flyin', OK?"
Jack meanwhile, crouched in the dark behind them to the rear of the cockpit and utterly forgotten by both pilots, was filming like a crazed thing. What he was recording was so outside his normal experience that the reality of the sights spreading out below to either side had not touched his consciousness yet—he was simply filming in a daze. A daze, however, in which he was in control of every aspect of his applied expertise; he tracking his hand-held camera from side to side, now filming out the port side windows, now the starboard, now straight ahead through the main windscreen. And what he was capturing was brutal, unsympathetic, cold, unregarding horror.
The city was so large, the fires so widespread, the ruins now visible so utterly razed to the ground, the clouds of smoke stretching across various areas so thick and yet so opaquely transparent to fires raging underneath them, that Jack could only relate the ongoing ghastly panorama to a vision of Hell in all its glory.
Back in the waist his compeers were under the same strain.
"I'm gettin' some wide shots of the further out districts." Carter, in his astro-dome, doing his best with his constricted view. "Jeez, the light's bright, no need t'worry about the film not responding t'the light levels."
"Wonderful view out t'port." Johnson sounded as if he were in ecstasy. "Everything lit just right, gettin' some great stuff here. Y'can see the ruins like a smashed toy landscape a kid's run riot over—beautiful!"
"I can see the exact centre of the city." Hopkins, leaned against the side of the plane, holding his camera with both gloved hands, aiming the lens down to starboard taking in the whole sight opening to his view as the Stirling passed across the volcanically tumultuous destruction taking place far below. "Lovely shots of the ruins; buildings in all states, roofs off, sides blown away, just a shell left, an' some with only a single wall standin',—glorious, an' I'm gettin' it all."
"This is like nothing I've ever filmed before." Paladyne too was jumping about in excitement. "Wonderful-wonderful. Look at that field of raw fire out to port, must be three, no five streets across. And that area where the fires are burnin' like furnaces under the clouds o'smoke—must be the width of three football pitches at least. God, this's historic stuff we're gettin', boys. Make sure your magazines are properly fitted, don't want t'miss any of this—it's sublime, that's what it bloody is. Never seen the like before. This coverage'll make us all famous, mark my words."
And down below, twelve thousand feet below, the centre and much more besides of Stuttgart burned itself into extinction—along with several hundred citizens who had found themselves in the wrong place at decidely the wrong time.
"Jeez, there's one dead ahead." Gabrielle's voice squeaking in fear at the sight. "A whole stream o'bombs, big one's. Haul t'port, quick."
"Where? Where? I don't see 'em."
"Jee-sus, woman, right in front of you; three hundred—no, two hundred yards now." Gabrielle's voice finally hitting the highest register ever known in musical history. "Turn! Dam' turn, for God's Sake."
Claire made visual contact at the last second, her unbelieving eyes verifying her co-pilot's accuracy. A long line of dark shapes fell down from above the Stirling, veering and wobbling obscenely as they fell—obviously not small incendiary cannisters, but true-blue 500 pounder bombs, any one of which, making even the slightest contact with the aircraft, would spell instant disaster. Claire hauled her stick round, jamming her booted feet on the rudder pedals at the same time, hoping for the best.
Intent on the horrifying sight unfolding right in front of her transfixed gaze Gabrielle simply watched, physically paralysed, as the twinkling stream of bombs came ever closer to the Stirling until finally she turned her head to watch the seemingly unending line of bombs falling past to starboard, so close she thought she might touch one if she put a gloved hand out her side-window—then they were past, and the danger was over.
"I think,—I think, when we get back t'base, Ricky, I'm gon'na have'ta change my underwear."
"Did the guy in the front, the bomb-aimer, get that?" Paladyne frowning darkly as he wondered whether the amateur camera-man, for what else could the bomb-aimer be, had managed to catch the falling stream of bombs in his lens. "If he has I'll bloody buy him a pint when we get back. It'll make a great dramatic climax-point in the edited film, so it will."
"There's a lovely fire goin' on down below t'port here, Paladyne." Johnson was having the time of his life, scenarios and panoramas of raging fire and rolling smoke clouds spreading in every direction he could cover from his position. "Must be at least three hundred yards square—tons o'buildings goin' up like as if they was made of dry paper—just bloody brilliant. Hey, Hopkins, throw me another magazine, this one's nearly finished."
"There's quite a good view of—Jee-sus Chr-st." Carter had hardly started his own description before other matters drew his attention.
The anti-aircraft fire, so unexpected after a relatively quite period in this direction, hit the crew and passengers of the Stirling with greater shock than usual—especially as the first salvo was close enough to send shrapnel through the body and wings of the bomber in every direction.
"Chr-st, I got that." Carter coming back to life, reveling in the present. "A lovely air-burst right outside this dome. Hoi, Johnson, by the way, this ain't no time t'drag on my leg; give over, I'm tryin' t'film here."
"I didn't, you fool." Johnson not standing for this calumny under any conditions. "I'm engaged on matters of import t'the War effort myself, if ya hadn't already realised."
"Oh, yeah?" Carter took his finger off his camera button for a few seconds as he bent to feel down his leg, then light dawned. "Jee-sus, blood—I'm hit, I'm bloody hit. What do I do?"
Fully up to this emergency, but swearing all the same at lost filming time, Paladyne put down his camera and struggled down the waist to grab the errant astro-dome camera-man round the waist.
"Come on, lad, let's get you down here, an' see what's what."
What's what turned out, after a dimly lit examination, to be a long slicing cut on Carter's upper thigh. Not too deep, but deep enough to allow of some dramatic bleeding. But here too Paladyne showed unknown heights to his capabilities. Having located the position of the first-aid box as one of the first things he had done on entering the aircraft, it was only seconds before he had applied copious amounts of antiseptic cream and slapped a dressing over the wound, tied in place with wide white tape.
"There, that'll see you through till we get back." Paladyne helped Carter back to his feet. "Perhaps you'd better sit on this box for a while, shock often does funny things to people. Sit there an' I'll get you a mug of tea from the vacuum flask where the food's kept, back down the waist—gim'me a mo."
"If you were a Yank you'd get a dam' medal for that, Simon." Johnson having a go at bringing humour into the nerve-ridden atmosphere.
"Ha, but he ain't, so he won't." Hopkins, on the other hand, mistaking his companion's purpose completely, and wrecking the tone of the discussion entirely.
"F-ckin' idiots, the both o'ya." Carter letting off steam because, as the wounded person amongst them, he dam' well could.
"Here y'are, laddie." Paladyne reappearing at just the right moment. "Get that mug o' mud down you; it'll do you the world of good. Now, if you don't mind, the rest of us'll just get back t'work."
Taking this heavy hint Johnson and Hopkins turned to take care of their cameras once again; they, on looking out the ports, being astonished to find they were still over the raging inferno which had been Stuttgart.
"Jesus, is the pilot circling, or what?" Hopkins in particular not caring for this enforced presence over the danger area.
"Nah," Johnson showing off his geographical knowledge while he could. "Stutt's a bloody large city, miles o'it, in every direction. We can't still be over the centre, though, probably some outlying district or other."
"If that's right the whole city must be in flames." Carter joining in the conversation to take his mind off his troubles.
"Chr-st." This from Hopkins who had started filming again. "Roaring fires, clouds of smoke so thick they look solid, and ruins everywhere. And when I say ruins, I mean buildings reduced to rubble, or just a single broken wall. There's nothing left down there in one piece—and what there is, scattered around, is burning like a bloody furnace out of control. Jee-sus, you gettin' this, Johnson? Paladyne?"
"Yeah,—yeah." Which was all Paladyne could muster by way of describing what he now observed out his port-hole window.
"God, it must be Hell down there." Johnson was just beginning to realise the actual extent and power of the destruction going on so far below, but in some ways so close. "Jee-sus."
"How long're we goin' t'be over this hell-hole?" Gabrielle finally getting worried by their continuing proximity to the horror going on far below. "Is there no bloody end to it?"
"Big city, Stuttgart." Claire making as inane a comment as she had ever done in her life. "Lots of area t'bomb t'glory—and ain't the boys in the Lancs just tryin' that very thing, too."
"Bomb-stream to port, another four hundred yards away t'starboard." Gabrielle keeping a wary eye out on just about everything. "We must have caught up with the bomber group, an' they haven't run out'ta munitions, yet."
Claire eased the giant aircraft gently to port, which brought them back on a course to revisit the centre of the city they had just left.
"God, woman, we're goin' back over, again." Gabrielle noticing this idiot maneouvre in a milli-second, and not liking it. "What in Hell're you doin'?"
"Can't be helped, there's a bloody wall o'bombs streamin' down ahead on our original course." Claire growling under the strain. "What d'ya want, we should just fly on an' get pulverised by our own five-hundred pounders? Talk sense."
The smoke clouds drifting across the crushed city centre had now formed such dense masses, and had risen so high they were now a hazard to the Stirling flying at 12,000 feet. As Claire hit one of these sheets of dust and smoke they lost all visibility for a few seconds, while a curious gritty harsh smell amd even taste infiltrated the interior of the aircraft.
"God, I can smell it. Oh, God." Gabrielle shocked by the closeness to the disaster going on down below this unexpected feeling gave her.
"It's only smoke, relax." Claire, engrossed with flying the ungainly aircraft, was not so aware on a personal level. "Look, we're coming over the centre, again."
"Oh, God Almighty." Gabrielle, looking down through her side window, gazed on a sight she had never envisaged, never mind seen, before. "Now I know what Hell looks like."
"Keep filming—keep filming, get all you can, boys; this is great stuff." Paladyne was now experiencing his own sensory overload, as the spectacular destruction still ongoing below swept into view again. "Hopkins, focus on the west side, where those banks of smoke are—the fires are outlining them wonderfully. Johnson, keep you're lens on those fires to your right, where that whole street's goin' up like a river of fire. Excellent material, it'll look splendid on the theatre screen in the newsreels."
The waist of the Stirling, in the dim light of a few small bulbs, was itself like some scene from a trip to the depths of Hell. Vague shapes moved around, seeming rather to re-arrange the enfolding deep shadows around them than bring light to the bomber's interior. Pieces of cast-off equipment, long forgotten, slid across the metal-mesh floor surfaces as booted feet kicked them aside unseeingly. Every now and again flickering bluish sparks or flashing lights wavered for a few seconds as some cable or junction short-circuited briefly. The whole plane was still bouncing and rocking as if in the clutches of an angry Greek God, the men having to make sure they were clutching something solid with every step they took, or risk being flung the length of the aircraft. All around the atmosphere had taken on a heavy thick metallic taste of air long past its sell-by date, allied with a peculiar smell made up of that curious sweet scented aroma when Bakelite burns; and another greater scent, almost a perfume, oddly out of place in the present circumstances and situation—those involved not being aware the Elsan toilet bucket near the rear of the waist, had long since been tumbled over by the plane's acrobatics and had spilled its contents, two inches depth of a rich black scented nasty disinfectant paste, all over the floor of the Stirling. But the men had other, more important, things on their minds.
"Oh, lovely. Wonderful!" Johnson suddenly went into ecstasies as he leaned low filming out one of the port windows in the waist. "A whole stream of bombs, big b-gg-rs, splashing in a line all along the roads down there. What a sight, lovely vast balls of fire. Great!"
"There's a waste-land of rubble down there, right now." Hopkins putting in his penny-worth. "Whole squares an' avenues of houses, bombed t'all f-ckery—nuthin' left but piles of rubble, or the odd broken wall towering in the air above all the surrounding debris. It's absolutely gorgeous!"
"I'm gettin' great solid clouds of smoke, silhouetted by the fires behind 'em, towerin' in the air, even higher than we're flyin' at the moment." Carter in his astro-dome, coming up trumps himself. "It's like something from a bloody Cecil B DeMille epic, f-ck it."
"Jeez, I'm tellin' you guys, this's some of the best documentary footage ever taken in the whole bloody war, lads." Paladyne in ecstasy at this, certainly the highest pinnacle of his filming career. "This'll all go down great back home, boys. The best documentary propaganda footage of all time. Jee-sus, look at those fields of fire sweeping across the whole cityscape down there. It's,-it's,-it's Homeric, so it is!"
Claire and Gabrielle had just walked out of the briefing-room back at Little Lanning airfield in Norfolk, after the de-briefing for the overnight raid. Their Stirling sat at a dispersal point on the outskirts of the airfield, slightly battered but being attended to by the ground-crew after its epic flight. The cameramen had all dispersed, making their way back to London by van car or lorry; clutching their boxes of film magazines to their chests as if holding the treasures of the Indies, their contents solid gold; which in a sense, to the photographers, they were. The two women were discussing their late passengers.
"D'you think Paladyne, an' his cronies, quite got the tone o'the thing, at all?" Claire musing on life as they wended their way along the white-stone edged paths back to their private Nissen hut.
"The, er, the tragedy—an' the, umm, horror, you mean?" Gabrielle's voice was still shaking, the whole thing reliving itself in her memory, exactly like a film. "No, I dam' well don't. Paladyne was nearly quivering in ecstasy—as if he'd just filmed a particularly good romance movie, instead of what he actually did film. Didn't seem t'effect him at all, in the right way, anyway."
"Yeah, that's the impression I got, too." Claire opened the Nissen hut door, stepping back to let Gabrielle enter first. "All the camera-men seem t'have been so involved in the physical act of filming they didn't appear to have any personal reaction t'the whole dam' thing, at all."
Gabrielle threw her cap on the table and turned, in the privacy of the hut, to grasp Claire round the waist for a tight hug.
"Jee-sus, it was horrible." She leaned her cheek against the warm chest of her lover. "All that fire, an' destruction, an' the people who must'a been down there, too. It's just so awful."
"War, baby, war."
"And all bloody Paladyne could think of was how wonderful—his own word, Ricky,—the whole ghastly thing would look on the theatre screens." Gabrielle sighed, from her heart. "Doesn't he have any compassion, at all?"
"Well, I don't know." Claire suddenly came up with perhaps the best answer to the present situation. "How's about I kiss you, babe? Kiss you so hard all you'll be able t'think about for the next few hours is how wonderful Love is? How's about that, lover?"
Faced with this perfect answer to all her worries Gabrielle commenced to show the tall dark-haired woman holding her in such a tight grip that her words had not fallen on deaf ears.
"Mmmm-Mmmm. That's nice, is there any more?"
"Oh, yeah, babe, oh, yeah."
Another 'Mathews and Parker' story will arrive shortly.