By Phineas Redux
Summary:— This story is set in Occupied France 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,—experience a little difficulty over, and in, France.
Disclaimer:— All characters are © 2019 to the author.
Warning:— There is some light swearing in this tale.
The trouble with flying a Lysander over enemy occupied France at night, intent on landing in a small field with little light and fewer position markers, is that accidents are always only just around the next corner—
"Jee-sus, haul up. Haul up."
"Can't, too close. Watch out."
The band of unexpected trees, looking to the two airwomen like the outskirts of the Black Forest, swept out of the darkness with no warning whatever. Gabrielle had thought she was landing in the middle of the four tiny light markers set in place by the unseen Resistance members, but something had gone horribly wrong.
The Lysander had unfortunately already touched down and rolled across the short grass of the field, losing too much speed for an emergency take-off again; though its nose was still high in the air which probably saved the crew from serious injury as it hit the unexpected tree barrier at around 20 miles an hour. There was a horrible ripping sound as the port undercart gave up the ghost, just as the starboard wing was shorn-off by a solid branch. The propeller, meanwhile, made whining noises before each blade folded up as if made of soft putty. A few more bumps and rumbles and the remains of the aircraft came to a halt amongst the undergrowth, engine steaming like a railway locomotive, excruciating noises emanating from the body of the Lysander as various parts made known their disfavour of being torn to shreds—then relative silence.
"You,—you OK, back there?"
"Yeah, only just though, Gabs." Claire shuffled around in the rear section of the crew compartment, more or less out of sight of her pilot. "Unstrap yourself quick, doll; let's get out'ta this, pronto."
"Right with you, babe."
Less than a minute later Claire and Gabrielle stood on the edge of the small field on the outskirts of the line of trees, examining their aircraft.
"Done, comprehensively broken t'bits." Gabrielle, as pilot, giving her expert opinion.
"Yeah, even you'd find it rather difficult flyin' it out'ta here, now; what with only one wheel, one wing, an' an engine which I'm pretty sure is simply scrap metal." Claire, when in the mood, waxing pessimistic in the extreme.
"Major Walter Fischer."
The man himself stood behind his desk resplendent in his greyish Wehrmacht uniform. Around 5 foot 10 inches in height, with a lanky though muscular and fit frame, he assumed all the dignity and discipline of the Nazi officer as shown in the British daily newspapers.
After having been summarily rounded up by the squad of German soldiers who had been suspiciously on hand in the field where their plane had crashed, Claire and Gabrielle had endured a ride in the back of a large lorry lasting nearly half an hour. They had finally rolled up before a medium sized country house, in its own estate, where they had been herded into the presence of what both women assumed was their captor.
"Claire Mathews, ATA, 65734."
"Gabrielle Parker, ATA, 62921."
"Ah, is that so?"
To his left in the small office an Oberleutnant sat at his own desk, forms and papers spread before him. He nodded to Major Fischer, having taken down the details supplied by the prisoners.
"Just so, indeed." Fischer continued standing, regarding the women with cold grey eyes which gave nothing away, but which didn't offer much in the way of sympathy, either. "That's one way of saying spy, I suppose."
"We ain't spies. Major." Claire jumped on this quickly. "We're in the proper uniform, and have given you the necessary information as per the Geneva Convention."
"Yes, yes, indeed you have." He sat down slowly, adjusting his hard wooden chair as he did so. "Now all we need to discover is why you attempted to land in that field, who you expected to meet there, and what the purpose of your, ah, clandestine trip is for. Feel free to start with any of those questions."
"Cambridge." Gabrielle came out with this comment with a positive tone.
"Cambridge?" Fischer batting the question back over the net with finesse.
"University." Gabrielle wasn't to be beaten so easily. "Your accent. You must have spent some time in England, and that's a Cambridge University accent; anybody can tell."
"Well, well." Fischer seemed pleased at this stab on Gabrielle's part. "As it happens you are quite right. I spent two years there just before the outbreak of the war. Now, perhaps you can supply me with equal information on your reasons for being here, now?"
"Oh, just taking a night-time sortie, fer fresh air, y'know." Claire bringing her renowned habit of humour at just the wrong moment to bear. "Our kite's engine gave out, an' we pranged t'earth. The usual thing, ya know."
"No, I don't know, and it doesn't look as if I'm going to find out anytime soon, either." Fischer sighed deeply, turning to his Oberleutnant again. "Kramer, ring Major Strasser; see if he's free and ask if we can send him two, er, persons of interest."
"What's this?" Gabrielle always open to new experiences.
"Major Strasser?" Fischer looked at the brunette with a raised eyebrow. "He resides some twenty miles away. You won't like him; he being not so nice as I—no, no, definitely not. Are you sure you do not wish to, ahh, unburden yourselves in any meaningful way?"
"We've said all we need t'say, Major." Claire making their disinterest in making his day quite plain. "So, where's the nearest Stalag Luft?"
"Oh, dear; oh, dear." Fischer sighed once more, with even more feeling. "Kramer, ring for another lorry and squad; these ladies are going to meet Major Strasser."
The trouble with the German Opel Blitz 3-ton lorry was its extreme discomfort for those riding in its open-bed rear section. They were protected by a canvas awning cover over the roof and sides, but this was simply held in position by rope ties on widely spaced metal struts allowing winds and breezes to easily infiltrate the interior. Allied, if the expression can be forgiven in this context, to the near total absence of any viable suspension the innocent passenger usually rued, within the first five miles, the day they entered the vehicle—it taking Gabrielle precisely two and a half, and she wasn't having any backchat from the three German soldiers seated beside herself and Claire, either.
"This is f-ckin' awful."
"Listen, buster, I'll bloody sprechen as much as I bloody well like, an' you can go an' diddle yourself, see."
"Gabs, these goons don't understand English." Claire always felt acting fast and acting first, so catching the early worm, was a fine philosophy, and now she was intent on putting such into action. "Your boots still warm an' comfy? You go fer the guy on your left, I'll take the laddie with the Schmeisser, don't think he has any idea of how t'use it, anyway. Then I'll take out the bozo on your right, he's too young t'put up a fight. The rear cover's open, an' there ain't anybody following us on the road. Jump out as quick as you can an' we'll head in'ta the woods all round here, right?"
"Good job they didn't find the point twenty-five automatics in our sheepskin boots, when they frisked us a while back." Claire smiled grimly. "In fact, forget the forest; we'll jump out, swing up in'ta the cab, dispose of the two guys there, an' then drive off ourselves."
"It's a plan, let's do it, babe." Gabrielle always short and to the point when it most mattered.
Surprise—that wonderful ingredient so useful in all the best attacks; and the three German soldiers sitting in the confines of the truck were indeed surprised by the next events in their lives. Having bored the men with their constant talking, nicht sprechen appearing to be a foreign tongue to the prisoners, the recipients of all this chatter were wondering how long this journey was going to continue before they could return to their warm barracks. Then they found out—longer than they supposed.
War is dirty, war is dangerous, war is immutable, war is where you can very easily, and shockingly quickly, get very dead indeed. Claire bent down as if to rub her weary leg; in fact she slid her hand down between her skin and the warm sheepskin lining of her right boot to the hidden interior pocket where a Walther Model 9 six-shot .25 automatic lay concealed—a brainwave of their SOE commander Group-Captain Graham himself. As Gabrielle unostentatiously followed suit it could be imagined,—by those with a Classical education, anyway,—that Nemesis herself was overlooking the truck doing a spot of overtime in aid of a good cause.
Feeling that the age-old proverb that War is War and the best man wins had a lot going for it, Claire pulled the automatic out and up, shoved the barrel into the side of the machine-gun carrying soldier beside her and pulled the trigger. There was a soft pop and the man jerked where he sat on the uncomfortable bare wooden bench. His hands relaxed on his weapon and he slid slowly sideways away from his attacker.
Meanwhile Gabrielle had been equally active. She pointed her own weapon at the soldier on her left, shooting once. He jerked in place, looked astonished, put a hand on his jacket then glanced over at the woman who had shot him. Seemingly not much injured he began scrambling for his own pistol in his belt; Gabrielle then took the only course open to her, she shot him twice more. This time he stared straight into Gabrielle's eyes with a look of absolute disbelief, before keeling over to collapse on the wooden floor of the truck.
Claire had found it somewhat difficult separating her victim from his Schmeisser, the strap getting in her way as if it were alive and contentious. Seeing the third guard almost had his pistol in his hand she stuck a boot out, kicking him in the pelvis. It didn't have much effect, but held him back those vital few seconds as Gabrielle swung round and put two bullets in him; one in his chest, to no very great effect, the other in his left temple, to much greater effect. A red spot appeared to the side of his forehead, his eyes became fixed and unseeing, and he slumped back against the side of the truck.
"Nice, very nice. Get your head down, doll."
Claire, now fully in command of the machine-gun stooped to her knees in the small central passageway between the longitudinal benches, aimed the weapon at the canvas cover concealing the thin partition and small window between the rear and the driving cab, then let loose with a long burst.
The truck, presently negotiating a section of the road which wound interminably between thick stands of trees, was only going at around fifteen miles an hour. The cover Claire was aiming at twitched with the contact of the stream of bullets; the splintering of glass could be heard; then there was a grinding noise from the engine accompanied by the truck veering sideways off the road, coming to a slow safe stop as the front wheels encountered a gentle incline; then silence enveloped the scene, apart from various cracks and twangs from the hot engine.
"Jeez, we did it. We bloody did it."
"Seems so, darlin'." Claire leaned over to hold the shoulder of her lover in the confined space. "Well, now we both know War is bloody War, if nothing else."
"Yeah, sh-t, yeah." Gabrielle looking around at the devastation with wide-open eyes. "God, three o'them, Jeez."
"And the two in the cab, I fancy." Claire rising to her feet again. "Come on, let's go an' see, quick."
The encroaching forest—for full-grown forest it certainly was—at least provided an excellent hiding-place for unwanted bodies; of which the women had five on their hands, Claire's machine-gun burst having done for the occupants of the cab and no mistake. Now, on this cool April night of 1944, they were some few miles further on their way along the narrow twisting road heading, they fervently hoped, north for the Channel coast.
"Major Fischer will be peeved." Gabrielle, sitting behind the driving-wheel, recovering her spirits by the second.
"Not as much as the nasty Major Strasser, I expect." Claire curling a disdainful lip. "We're well out'ta it, I fancy. Sure we're headin; north, babe?"
"How should I know; ain't got a compass, have I?" Gabrielle snorting contemptuously. "You should be glad this wreck still goes, first off, the amount o'bullets you sprayed this cab with,—ain't seen so much blood in all my days, no I haven't. There's still patches all over the place, as well as shards o'glass spread across this seat stickin' in my backside, from the rear window you shot t'sh-t."
"Omelettes an' eggs, darlin'."
The driving cab was still more or less intact, as Claire's burst of machine-gun fire had been aimed downwards from her position in the truck's rear; the truck bed being set relatively high in regard to the cab. As a result the main windscreen remained in one piece, having escaped the hail of bullets: not so the two soldiers there, who had been comprehensively riddled to full effect.
"Where are we, exactly?" Gabrielle's search for information being never-ending.
"Well, as far as that goes, hang on a mo." Claire scratched her chin musingly, then grasped the top button on her uniform jacket, under her sheepskin jerkin, and pulled it off after a short struggle. "Gim'me a minute."
"Ah, the tiny compass inside the false button?" Gabrielle realising what was up. "Never thought we'd ever be in a position t'need such."
"Well, there ya are." Claire nodded knowingly. "Wonderful what the camouflage bods get up to. Anyway, we're still headin' more or less north. Better take the next turnin' west, whenever it appears, the coast bein' thataway, y'see."
"And what exactly do we do when we get there?"
"Ah, there's the rub, darlin'." Claire nodding to herself, confronting the point of most moment to the duo. "Yes, indeed."
"Is this jalopy marked?"
"Nazi insignia, y'know."
"Oh, ah, no more'n usual, I think."
"Which is how much, precisely?"
"Jeez, full'a questions, ain't ya?" Claire turned to look squarely at her driver. "What? Ya wan'na stop the truck, whiles I gets out an' examines its paintwork on all sides? What's the gripe?"
Gabrielle hunched forward over the large driving-wheel, a mean look on her face, lips compressed together.
"Just wondering whether we'll pass muster with any Jerry patrol or road block we may meet. Happy?"
"Yeah, ye're right, doll, sorry." Claire took it on the chin, then grinned to alleviate her earlier sarcasm. "Stop the crate, an' I'll take a tour o'the premises an' report back. OK?"
"Works fer me, lady,—love ya."
"Nuthin' on the rear board." Claire was reporting back from her swift run round the vehicle now parked at the side of the road in the still deserted forest. "Nuthin' on the off-side, but a black cross on the near-side. Nuthin' on the bonnet, but a register number on the near-side door. A metal military badge on the front bumper, and another fixed t'the radiator. That's the lot."
"Hmm, better'n nothing, I suppose."
Claire had by this time clambered back into the cab and sat watching with a frown as Gabrielle put the truck in gear and cautiously moved off once more.
"What's the problem?"
"Oh, just we're gals, not Jerry soldiers." Gabrielle glancing at her companion with a shrug. "The truck won't give any reason fer us t'be stopped; but us bein' women—well, how many women does the Wehrmacht employ t'drive trucks along sensitive roads at night?"
"Ahhmm, needs thinkin' over, certainly." Claire seeing the difficulty with all due clarity. "You speak the lingo, at all?"
"If you mean French, only a few words. German, the same. You?"
"No French, a few phrases in Jerry, but not many."
A short pause accompanied the truck as it wended its way through the forest, the road winding first to the left, then right seemingly without rhyme or reason. Then Gabrielle took up the gist of the conversation again.
"I was going to suggest leaving the truck somewhere an' stealing a civvy car; but I think that'd just be counter-productive." She frowned as she stared at the road ahead. "Probably bigger chance of bein' stopped in a civvy car, than this truck."
"Yeah, we're in this truck now, best t'stick with it t'the merry end."
"Y'got your pencil handy, ducks?"
"Pencil? Nah, left it in the wrecked Lizzie. Had'ta get out rather quick, y'remember?"
"I still got mine." Gabrielle smirked with intent. "Open the flap of my jerkin, it's in my left top jacket pocket."
Claire shuffled around doing as ordered, and a few seconds later sat back with the treasure in her hand.
"Got it. So, gon'na write your memoirs, or what?"
"Fool. Pull the little rubber on the end off, there's a map on silk hidden in the hollow interior, as you should know."
"Crikey, you're right. Forgot about that. You're brilliant, as well as bein' beautiful, lover."
"Why, thanks. So, where are we. An' where're we goin'?"
A third pause, Time enjoying this break from routine, then—
"We're still in Picardy, somewhere north of Amiens but south of Béthune. So another fifty odd kilometres till we hit the coast, som'mers between Abbeville an' Le Touquet. There's a small village called Ponches-Estruval, not over ten kilometres further on." Claire studied the fine writing on the thin map with the help of a flashlight discovered in the glove-compartment. "Seems there's a small airfield there. Nuthin' big. Worth a chance."
"We gon'na steal a Ju-88 or a Focke-Wulf 190, eh?"
"If dam' necessary, yeah."
The little French village was indeed just that—a small village. The airfield lying some two kilometres to the west, though its position was made manifest in the encircling darkness of night only because a Focke Wulf 190 chose the moment that the women arrived on the outskirts of the tiny community to roar overhead and land on the as yet unseen runway.
"So, that's where it is, over there a'ways." Claire sounding mean as a whole flock of vultures.
"Got'ta plan, have ya?" Gabrielle keeping track of reality. "Because I haven't."
"I always have plans, dearie." Claire being conceited because it was too good a chance to miss. "Just a case of my sorting through them, like goin' through the telephone directory, till I find the right one fer the occasion, that's all."
"Oh, har-de-har, I'm sure."
Claire knew, through having consulted her watch a few minutes before they reached the great metropolis of Ponches-Estruval, it was just after 3.00am. The night was still dark, and would remain so for several more hours which suited their present predicament perfectly. A side road appearing on their left which, with German efficiency, was signposted for the airfield Gabrielle turned the heavy lorry down it and proceeded to shorten the distance between the two Valkyries and their unsuspecting prey at a safe and unsuspicious 20 KPH.
"I've got this Schmeisser, an' two spare magazine clips, and my Walther Nine like you." Claire began unburdening herself of her chosen plan as they rolled along the smooth tarmac. "The airfield's small; probably only have a light squad on guard at the main gate. We shoot them with the point twenty-fives. If there's any opposition from whatever guardhouse inmates there may be I use the Schmeisser on 'em. We run the truck along the runway till we find a suitable crate, take possession, an' fly it out'ta this dump just as fast as you can make it happen, Gab."
"Oh, I'm gon'na be the pilot, am I?"
"I've got the machine-pistol." Claire looking at the purely utilitarian aspect of the situation. "I'll shoot anyone who tries t'stop us, while you show off your perfect flying skills—easy."
However, in the event this drastic almost piratical plan wasn't needed.
"Jeez, there's a traffic jam of trucks at the main gate, waiting to go in." Gabrielle slowing down even further at this unexpected sight a few hundred yards ahead along the road.
"Quick, run up behind the last in the row." Claire seeing their chance in an instant. "With luck no-one'll notice an' we can just roll in'ta the airfield like honoured guests. Go on, speed up."
The Opel Blitz truck came to a halt a couple of feet behind the last in line of the bona fide German convoy. This itself being another Blitz truck, both Claire and Gabrielle began to think they might really have a good chance of success. As the row of vehicles moved slowly forward the women saw there was only a single guard at the gate, with a small guardhouse a few yards to the side. He was also simply waving the trucks through without showing any special interest in any one of them. Hunching down in the dark cab as they passed him Gabrielle drove the truck through and onto the purlieus of the airfield with no accompanying shouts of warning from anyone—they had succeeded.
"Where to from here?"
"To the right, over that way, along that lane." Claire pointed, as the convoy turned left and left them behind. "Quick again, before anyone notices what we're up to. It leads right to the runway. What's that parked at the side of the grass over there?"
"A Fiesler Storch."
"Yippee, just what we want."
It took only another half minute before the truck was parked at the edge of the grass and abandoned. Another twenty seconds was expended in the women racing over to the aircraft sitting on the edge of the concrete runway. Claire found the cabin door was unlocked and she and Gabrielle piled in. Gabrielle took the single pilot's seat, while Claire entered the glass-sided rear section, their seats being back-to-back.
"Oh, lovely." Claire twisted to tap Gabrielle on the back. "I've got a beautiful machine-gun here, looks like a Seven point Nine, big drum of ammo, too. Hurry up an get this crate goin'; I can shoot anyone who tries anythin' funny in the meantime."
The Argus 10 engine, with its two-bladed propeller, sprang into life under Gabrielle's gentle nursing with a rattling biiir like a sewing-machine on overdrive. She swung it into alignment with the runway, gave it the gas and within another half minute they were airborne—back, all three, in their natural element.
The problem always associated with flying a Fiesler Storch at low altitude at night, when you don't really have any experience in its peccadilloes, is the danger quotient involved—in this case, pretty high.
"Jee-sus, black as pitch outside." Claire peering through her glass covered rear section. "How about you, babe?"
"Goin' by the altimeter, is all." Gabrielle, stuck in the tight pilot's seat, shoulders hunched against each side and legs squeezed together, was gripping the control stick, a long vertical metal bar standing upright between her legs, with excess strength. "We're at about one hundred and fifty. Don't wan'na go lower 'cause of trees an' dam' pylons."
"Not forgettin' church towers an' steeples." Claire trying to inject a note of humor. "Big on such round these parts, so I believe."
"Can it, lover."
The whining rattle of the small engine soon softened in their ears to little more than background sound; then Claire brought a concern up, raising her voice to shout even louder to her pilot a foot or so behind her back; the intercom, if there was one, not being operational.
"Think they'll send a Focke, or somethin', after us? Shoot us out'ta the sky like a hawk grabbin' a pigeon?"
"God, you're in a miserable mood tonight." Gabrielle shaking her head unseen. "We've got a plane, we're free, we're headin' home. What more d'you dam' want, woman?"
"An' stop sayin' sorry all the time. It's getting on my nerves."
"Sor—er, OK, darlin'."
But no pursuit had apparently as yet been initiated, the sky remaining free of all other aircraft as the small plane flew on northwards.
"They've either sent the pursuit in the wrong direction, or couldn't be bothered."
"Or they haven't yet discovered their loss." Gabrielle taking time off to take the intelligent outlook.
They were, in fact, so close to the coast somewhere south of Le Touquet that the reason why they had not been pursued by any bears, in the form of Focke Wulf's or Messerschmitts', suddenly became clear.
"Jee-sus God." Gabrielle flung the plane sideways, to port, using all her strength; twisting in her seat with the strain.
"F-ck me, they're shootin' at us."
"Sort'a realised that, ya daft scunner." Gabrielle, thrown all ways at once, dredging up some colourful remembered imprecations from their time in the Orkney Islands. "Hang on, it's gon'na be bumpy for a while."
Gabrielle, finding it impossible to go any lower than they already were, put the nose up and began to climb, all the time still weaving from side to side in a zig-zag pattern.
"They must be firin' those cannon almost horizontal, dammit."
"Group Captain Graham's always tellin' us German anti-aircraft fire's too dam' good t'be believable. Think he's dam' right. Ker-rist."
This further grouping of shells came so close the women saw the fiery explosions to starboard, just at their altitude. The Fiesler vibrating as pieces of shrapnel hit the body of the plane.
"Jay-sus, somethin' just sliced through the side of my boot." Claire's voice going high in response.
"Are you hit?"
"Gim'me a minute." Claire tried to bend down in the confined space to press a hand against the side of her boot. "Can't ya stop flingin' this wreck about, the way ya are?"
"No, not unless you want to meet your Maker, in several pieces."
A few seconds hurried examination confirmed that, though the side of her sheepskin lined boot had indeed been sliced open, her leg remained unharmed.
"All clear, I'm fine, ducks."
"Well, I'm not. We're not out'ta this yet."
Gabrielle continued to fling the plane around the sky, like a child with a toy, trying all the time to gain height and escape the area where the guns were placed.
This salvo was, thankfully, far behind and to starboard, giving the women some respite.
"Think we've flown past the anti-aircraft unit; left 'em behind." Claire peering sideways through her windows to no avail. "Dam', still can't see a bloody thing."
"We're still alive an' up here." Gabrielle pin-pointing the salient fact. "That's a result, babe."
There was enough ambient light in the sky, from a Moon peering coyly from behind a surrounding negligee of small clouds, to show the moment when they reached the coast proper and flew on over the flat calm sea.
"Channel down below, dear."
"An' ain't I just chuffed as all get-out for it." Claire sighing deeply as she gazed at the silvery carpet far below. "Five more minutes an' we'll be back in dear ol' Blighty."
However, peeved at this disrespectful hubris for all the effort they had put in on behalf of the troubled lovers, the Fates here stepped in to administer some much needed chastisement for the erring air-women.
"We're almost halfway across, already." Claire shouting this good news over her shoulder to the back of her brave pilot. "God, wait a minute, there's a ship—no, two ships down there."
"About quarter a mile to starboard, see 'em?" Claire pressing her face against the glass for a better view. "One pretty big one, long an' slim—probably a destroyer. The other's smaller, but probably Naval, all the same. Can ya get this crate any higher—or maybe lower? I think they're British."
"So, what?" Gabrielle so engrossed with her flying she had no time to think straight. "Isn't that what we want?"
"This's a bloody Storch, gal." Claire making the facts of Life known. "With black crosses an' everythin'. Including a swastika on the tailplane, now I think about it. You know what they're gon'na do, don't ya?"
But it was too late for recriminations.
"Take her down, t'sea level." Claire almost screaming this command back to her pilot. "It's our only chance."
In response Gabrielle pulled back on her stick, sending the nose of the Fiesler high into the sky.
"Jee-sus, woman, what're ya doin'?"
"We need height, lots of it, t'maneouvre." Gabrielle narrowing her eyes in concentration as she flicked a glance at the instruments in front of her. "I'm taking her right over the ships, a hundred feet or so above their funnels. They won't be able to range us with their big guns—Bofors probably."
Claire, listening to these ravings of an unhinged soul and knowing there wasn't a damn thing she could do about it, shivered in her seat.
"But what about their bloody machine-guns?" She almost whimpered as she tossed this question in the air. "They'll bloody riddle us as we go over."
"No they won't—maybe; if we take 'em by surprise. Hold on."
The small plane flew across the silvery waves, like a martin over a field. Then the machine-guns on the larger ship opened up; the smaller vessel keeping its silence because it couldn't get a clear shot of the plane as it flew so close over its partner.
Part of the salvo hit on the port side of the Storch; the plane shuddering as multiple bullets hit the underside of the port wing, port undercarriage, and the tailplane. Once again Claire coming in for the full brunt of the fusillade.
"Christ A'mighty. Bullets eveywhere—think I'm hit."
"Oh, God, where?"
"Wait a minute—yeah, there's blood seeping through my left trouser leg; think I took one in the thigh, or a close shave, anyway."
"Well, too much, baby." Claire examined her hand close up in the dark cabin. "Nah, it ain't as bad as that. Think it's a flesh wound; bleeding some, but not bucket-loads. I'll do till we land this crate in Blighty. Are we past those m-ther-f-ckers, yet?"
"Yeah, yeah—they're way behind us now." Gabrielle's voice, even in the noisy cabin, was high and excited; though beginning to sound harsh with all the shouting they had to do. "Think I can see cliffs ahead, another two miles or so. Not long now. F-ckin' Hell."
"Christ, the Chain Home Low radar must'a cottoned on t'us. Christ." Claire, impotent yet again in her narrow cabin, sat and fumed at the unfairness of Life, and this night in particular. "That's all we bloody well need."
Yet again Gabrielle's expertise at throwing an aircraft around the sky at a dangerously low level was brought into play. They were so close to their friendly coast she couldn't fly any lower or they would hit the advancing cliffs head on. Neither could she gain height for that would put them at the mercy of the serried groups of anti-aircraft guns slung out along the English coast for miles in every direction.
"We just got'ta hope, darlin'; we just got'ta hope."
This salvo was so close the plane shook as if having been picked up by a giant hand and shaken in anger. Cracks and groans could be heard by the women from all over the plane as its frame buckled under the strain—then things began to happen.
"The port undercart's gone." Claire, peering through her window, saw this with stunning clarity.
At the same time the Storch stopped behaving itself under Gabrielle's ministrations and started wheeling to starboard on its own account, losing height the while.
"I think part of the tailplane's gone." Gabrielle struggling with her steering column as if it were alive and fighting back. "Wait, wait—yeah, hear that? The engine's gon'na pack up in about thirty seconds. We're nearly there—we're nearly there. Wait—"
The line of cliffs suddenly appeared out of the surrounding greyish light of Dawn without warning. Before Claire could fully register the horrifying fact that they were hardly more than twenty feet above the razor sharp edge of the cliffs the sea had disappeared to be replaced by dark solidity.
"Can't keep her up anymore." Gabrielle recognising reality when it slapped her in the face at close quarters. "Hang onto something, Ricky,—I can't see anythin', dammit—wait a minute—there, there—we're goin' down there."
"First we prang a Lizzie, not our fault; but that of the evil treacherous Nazis,—then we prang a Storch, again not our fault, but that of our alleged bloody country-men,—an' women, for all I know; who'd all, anyway, bloody open up on a sick seagull given half a chance, dammit."
Claire, free of the wrecked Fiesler, stood on the short grass some way back from the nearby cliffs watching a small truck coming across the open ground towards them, giving free vent to her feelings.
"Well, look on the bright side—you're shot t'sh-t, but still standin'." Gabrielle, by her lover's side, sighed deeply. "Could'a been worse."
"Don't exaggerate, gal." Claire wasn't in the mood for self-pity. "A scratch on my leg where the shrapnel cut my boot, an' another scrape on my thigh where a bullet gouged a line across my skin, that's all. Plenty o'blood, but signifyin' nuthin', all the same."
"Glad you think so, but the first thing you're doin', when these bozos arrive an' take us t'their unit, is visit the Medic an' get those wounds seen to; an' that's an order, so don't say nay, lassie."
However, things were not going to be quite so cut and dried, as the women soon found out.
The truck came to a halt some twenty feet away, the rear gate fell down and six soldiers jumped out. At the same time the driving cab doors opened to divulge two officers in the uniforms of an army unit—a Captain and a Lieutenant. The officers waved instructions and Claire and Gabrielle found themselves surrounded, rifles pointing at their chests from every possible angle. The Lieutenant opened the conversation.
"Sprichst du Englisch? Halten Sie Ihre Hände von Ihren Seiten fern. Lass deine Waffen fallen, wenn du welche hast."
"Yeah, we f-ckin' do, idiots." Claire starting as she meant to continue. "You can stick the rest of your questions where it don't shine, too. Captain, me and my mate here, are on special operations for the RAF. T'verify what I'm sayin' all ya got'ta do is ring a few numbers on the blower, we've memorized 'em, an' everything'll be tickety-boo. And don't give me any bullsh-t about discipline an' officers—we're on a whole different level, as you'll soon find out. Right, the numbers, got a notepad? An' make it snappy, people in high places are waitin' on tenterhooks for our return."
If Gabrielle could have interjected a word amongst this tirade she could pretty certainly have explained to her irate partner what the consequences of her invective driven outburst would be—and she was right in her surmise. Ten minutes after Claire had stopped speaking both women found themselves in a cold bare cement-floored unwindowed room in a nearby large coastal battery with one bare lightbulb in the ceiling, a firmly locked steel door, and only themselves for company—a cursory examination by a medical orderly having ended in Claire's leg being swathed in bandages, then their being left to their own devices. Six hours later they were finally let out into the custody of another group of soldiers who actually had been well informed as to whom they were. The parting between Claire, Gabrielle and their first captors being less than ecstatic—to be truthful not a word was spoken on either side—and then the women were bumping down a chalk-surfaced track in the back of yet another truck on their way to real freedom.
"Humph, doesn't cover half of it, Gabs."
The Nissen hut on Little Lanning RAF base, Norfolk, where the ladies had their headquarters, was rather crowded the next afternoon. The two tenants of same stood by the central table while two Lieutenants and a WAAF sergeant took up most of the rest of the available space. Also beside the ladies stood their own personal Nemesis, if not quite arch-enemy, Group Captain Graham; head of PMM, Personnel Movements, Military; a small highly secret sub-department of SOE, Special Operations Executive—than which there was nothing more secret in the whole of Military Command.
"Well, so let's get this thing straight, shall we?" Graham living up to his harsh cold unforgiving nature like a good 'un. "Whole thing a complete cock-up from start to finish, eh? Why'd you crash the Lysander, Parker? Dam' expensive pieces of equipment, y'know."
"Because the Resistance members who were supposed to be there, weren't, sir." Gabrielle keeping her facts close to her chest.
"It was a Wehrmacht set-up." Gabrielle looking meaner than a hungry coyote. "They must'a infiltrated the Resistance cell, sir. The whole thing, us landing in the field, was a trick. They set the landing lights so's we would run right in amongst a thicket of trees."
"They meant t'get the equipment we were carryin', as well as us, all the time, sir." Claire backing her partner to the hilt. "Whole thing ready an' waitin',—an' we fell for it hook line an' sinker."
"Dammed bad show. Oh, not your fault, ladies, I don't apportion blame to you at all." Graham having noticed the rising furnaces of anger in both women, and knowing what was good for him. "Good show, you both making your way back home, all the same."
"Thank you, sir."
"Hmm, don't suppose we can use that particular Resistance cell again." He was already musing on the complications involved in the affair, making plans to sidestep any positive aspects the Nazi opposition may have thought they had gained by the fiasco. "Well, better get back t'Somerset House. The War waitin' for no man, y'know—or, er, woman, come t'that;—er, goodbye, then. I'll be sending another set of orders in a week or so, when you, Mathews, have recovered from your, er, slight wounds. Goodbye, goodbye."
"Christ, has he gone? An' taken his Myrmidons along, too?"
Claire was feeling disgusted with Life in general and some persons in particular.
"Yep, that's his sedan going off now." Gabrielle turned from the window and examined her partner. "Your forehead's glazed o'er with a black stormy frown, not t'quote Shakespeare. What about a nice mug of cocoa, laced with a hefty dose of Caribbean cream?"
Claire, in her turn, looked at the calm gentle face of the woman in all the world she loved above anything else, and smiled in her turn.
"If by Caribbean cream you mean black rum, then mine's one finger of cocoa to two fingers of rum, doll."
"You got it, lover, you got it."
"Mmm, thanks. Love ya, babe."
"That's funny, I love you to pieces, too. Who'd have thought it?"
Another 'Mathews and Parker' story will arrive shortly.