'A Stroll In France'
By Phineas Redux
Summary:— This story is set in Great Britain in 1943. Flying Officers Claire 'Ricky' Mathews and Gabrielle Parker—lovers, pilots, and members of ATA, Air Transport Auxiliary, and the highly secret SOE, Special Operations Executive,—are given a mission to eliminate an enemy General.
Disclaimer:— All characters are © 2019 to the author.
Warning:— There is some light swearing in this tale.
The Nissen hut at Little Lanning airfield, Norfolk,—private residence for Claire 'Ricky' Mathews and Gabrielle Parker, both Flying-Officers and members of SOE, Special Operations Executive,—was now operating on this afternoon of late March, 1944, almost at full capacity. Apart from the two lawful residents another two officers were present, all seated round the square table in the centre of the long curved-roof hut. The door was locked, the curtains drawn over the two windows, and maps spread out on the table-top. Major Whateley was holding forth while his companion, Lieutenant Craig, kept a disciplined silence.
"So, as you see, the distance between Beauvais and Compiegne is only thirty-three miles." He raised his head to pin each of his listeners with a beady sharp eye. "Somewhere around forty minutes for the whole journey. But he's going to stop at Clermont to pick up some other officials, then continue to Beauvais. That's the section of his route we want you two to intercept and cause him, er, some inconvenience with your Mosquito."
"Doesn't give us much time, sir." Gabrielle had been examining the map also. "Clermont to Beauvais? What's that-twenty minutes at best; maybe just quarter of an hour. How can we be expected to intercept a moving car within that time-frame?"
Major Whateley was up for this, facts at his fingertips.
"Our French Resistance friends have this all in hand." He allowed himself a tight smile. "Someone on the inside, close to the action, you might say. Their schedule can be relied on."
"But you say this journey General von Bauer will take is set for four days from now?" Claire expressed her own reservations. "And even then it may be on any one of three consecutive days thereafter. We have t'stooge around over the Channel waiting for the word t'go, for three days? Hardly seems likely, sir. Any dam' number of Focke-Wulf's will cotton onto us within ten minutes."
Major Whateley sat back on his chair, putting his forearm on the table while he regarded the women.
"We at SOE have been taking note of both your, ah, missions over the last few months." He nodded to himself. "And very pleased we've been. Though it's a little, hum, unusual to have women in the position you both occupy, we're very happy with the results. This particular mission needs sharp eyes, sharp intellect, and a capability to act quickly under pressure. You both fit the bill."
Claire and Gabrielle exchanged glances, neither knowing what to say to this unwished for encomium.
"And, anyway, over the next three days, starting this afternoon, you'll be practicing." He fairly glowed with good humour as he regarded the somewhat downcast faces of his agents. "Take your Mossie up, and head for King's Lynn. The distance from there to Norwich is approximately the same as Beauvais to Compiegne; and if you focus on the distance between King's Lynn and Castle Acre that'll fit in with the Beauvais to Clermont route nicely. There'll be a large dark-red sedan tootling along that route at a set time this afternoon; you'll see all the facts in these files here. He's going to make re-runs all day, up and down. Three days of tailing a red Austin from King's Lynn to Castle Acre and Norwich should put you both in fine fettle for picking out General von Bauer's Mercedes somewhere between Compiegne and Beauvais. After that training you stooge around over the Channel, keeping low and out of harm's way from ten ack-emma to four pip-emma, awaiting the go-code. Right, dismissed."
The cockpit of a Mosquito was hardly designed for two pilots, though it operated as such. The pilot was well enough situated, but the navigator was squeezed up against the frame of the aircraft like a large sardine in a small can—on an uncomfortable tilting chair-seat that was more tilt than chair. Gabrielle, having drawn the short straw, was making her feelings known.
"Dam' silly thing. We've as much chance of pullin' this raid off as,—as,—well, hardly any, in fact."
"At least we know every inch of the road from King's Lynn to Norwich; that must be a plus?"
After this interchange there descended a quiet pause in the Mosquito's cockpit as the plane continued its wide circling flight just off the English coast of the Channel. This being the third and last day General von Bauer was supposed to be taking his jaunt between Beauvais and Compiegne; the two previous days having been wash-outs. The weather, considering the time of year, was clement with a pale blue sky and calm sea as the plane stooged around at two thousand feet; this being thought to be a safe height vis-à-vis German radar or lonely Focke Wulf's looking for some action. Then things began to go downhill.
"Jesus, where'd he come from?"
Clairte put the twin-engined fighter into a low dive, aware of the already close sea surface.
"What's the damage?"
"Part of his salvo went right through the starboard wing." Gabrielle peered through her side-window. "Holes an' tears in the wing, an' at least two hits on the engine nacelle—how're the dial-readings looking?"
"Alright, so far. Where is he? Focke, or Messerschmitt?"
"Don't know." Gabrielle took another glance at the damaged wing. "Judging by the size of those hits on the wing an' engine, though, I'd guess probably a Messerschmitt."
For the second time Claire hurled the Mosquito across the sky like a child's toy in a valiant attempt to evade their attacker.
"More damage t'the starboard wing." Gabrielle passed this informatioin on with a wry grunt. "Hits on the trailing edge and close to the wing-tip. Something's streaming out a rent in the fabric near the tip, a thin gassy cloud. No, belay that, it's just dust from the interior of the wing, stopped now."
"Now I'm angry." Claire set her teeth, frowning out her windscreen around and above. "Two can play at this game. Where is the blighter? Ah, got him—port ten o'clock high, coming in for another strafe. Hang on, gal."
Under her ministrations the medium fighter-bomber gave of its best. Having multiple cannon in its nose on its own account Claire felt no worry in engaging the enemy, knowing they were on at least equal terms. A very tight horizontal turn; followed by a steep climb then another short dive to starboard and suddenly the enemy was in the act of crossing her bow from port to starboard on a downward dive of its own.
"Fooled the b-st-rd." Claire was almost ecstatic, finger hovering over the firing button, awaiting the perfect moment. "Take that, ya ape."
Her own four nose-mounted .303 machine-guns let rip with their characteristic howl. A mist of smoke veered away from the Mosquito's nose as the guns blasted away, then the target had disappeared from view.
"Bring her round, to port—port." Gabrielle was hunched in her seat gazing through the windscreen with vicious intent. "Wait a mo—there he is, by God,—you hit him, he's going down. Look at that. Spiralling now, with smoke trailing behind his tailplane. There's a parachute, an' it's opened. Whoopee, look at the splash the plane made. Yippee, one more Kraut for prison camp in sunny Scotland, ha-ha."
Claire circled the position of the wreck, though there was already no further sign of the plane itself. But the small grey rubber dinghy of the pilot could just be made out on the grey sea.
"Was it a Focke, or a Messerschmitt, after all?" Claire shaking her head to clear her wits. "I didn't have enough time to recognise it."
"Don't know, never got a long enough sighting to tell. Look," Gabrielle keeping a close eye on unfolding events. "There's a small boat heading towards him at a rate of knots; probably one of our MTB's. Well, scratch one Jerry from the war effort."
"How's the starboard wing doin'?" Claire now anxious about their own aircraft. "What's the damage?"
Gabrielle took some time to glance along the starboard wing, accessing the damage; which at first glance seemed pretty heavy.
"Cannon holes starting just outboard of the engine nacelle all the way to the tip." She giving her report in a sharp anxious tone herself. "Fabric torn apart in several areas, but doesn't seem to be ripping further. A hefty lump out the aileron near the wingtip, and a couple of jagged holes in the engine nacelle—but no smoke, flame, or escaping fuel or oil far as I can see."
"Could'a been worse, I suppose." Claire sitting back in her seat with a low sigh of relief. "D'ya think we're still stable enough t'carry on with the flight, an' the operation?"
Gabrielle gazed out her side-window for a few seconds before replying to this leading question.
"Yeah, I'd say yeah." She turned to look at Claire though, like herself, there was nothing much to see except for a flying-helmet, goggles, and an all-encompassing face-mask. "Nothing vital seems to have been hit. The engine's carrying on as per operating instructions, and the fuel tanks are still in one piece, apparently. Yeah, we can keep going, lassie."
"Glad ya think so, doll; oh, well."
Then, almost before they had gotten their breath back from the exciting battle, the radio sprang to life.
"Cockburn to Wintergreen-Cockburn to Wintergreen. The fence has been repaired—I repeat, the fence has been repaired. That is all."
"Oh, God, here we go." Gabrielle sucked a mighty breath into her lungs, glancing across at her pilot the while.
"Yeah, so, it's on?" Claire turned to look at the small figure crouched on the seat by her side, then nodded. "Right, Clermont here we come. Directions, navigator?"
"Turn 182 east, descend to one thousand five hundred feet." Gabrielle had it all written out on her notepad resting on her sheepskin-lined trouser knee. "Steady speed of two hundred and eighty miles an hour. She's all yours, baby."
"Thanks ever so."
"The great thing about this part of Picardy, lady, is how lovely and flat it is." Gabrielle giving of her best as the Mosquito flew along at around three hundred feet. "Low rolling hills that're not much more than mounds. Wide open fields, and far horizons. Just the terrain to spot a refugee Jerry General and blast his Mercedes to fragments."
"Feelin' a little itchy this mornin', ain't ya, lover?" Claire sparing a quick glance for her navigator. "Miss yer breakfast, or what?"
"Haurrh. So, what're we looking for, particularly?"
"You said it, gal—a Merc, probably a black sedan, flyin' little swastikas on its front wheel-trims an' just lookin' as military as all get-out."
"Very funny." Gabrielle returned to examining the landscape as it flitted past below. "We're so low the old crate seems to be doing four hundred miles an hour."
"That'd be the day." Claire made a growling sound behind her face-mask. "Any sign of bandits? Or anti-aircraft batteries, or just Nazis en masse?"
Gabrielle shook her head disdainfully, knowing full well her pilot was simply gibbering for the fun of the thing.
"Nothing, lady, nothing. Relax." She consulted the map unrolled on her knee for the umpteenth time. "Swing north in thirty seconds—wait for it—wait—now. Great, we're on course for the road just west of Bresles; should make contact within the next two minutes. Lookout for a Mercedes' going flat out, starboard to port."
In point of fact within minutes they found themselves flying over a far-reaching forest, stretching from horizon to horizon, with no sign of a major road anywhere.
"What the f-ck's this, Gab?"
"—umm, er, wait a mo—ah, got it, it's the Hez-Froidmont forest."
"Is it, indeed,—and what the f-ck's it doin' here?"
"It's always been here, it's a dam' forest, lady." Gabrielle was incensed at this criticism. "Don't complain t'me; we're just a trifle east of where we ought'a be, that's all. Turn twenty west—or, in fact, don't. Keep going as you are; we're bound to find the main road eventually, then we just need'ta follow it west towards Bresles, then Beauvais."
"And by the time we pass over where General von Bauer should have been, he'll be safely tucked up in bed enjoying a fine night's sleep?"
"Oh, come on, madam; stop p-ssing on Life, will you?" Gabrielle wasn't in the mood to take this kind of reproach without instant retaliation. "At least we're here, in more or less the right place. Look, there's the road—what did I say? Happy?"
Deigning not to give this carping question any answer Claire turned the Mosquito west as ordered and began following the white line across the landscape; which was still a mass of trees all round.
"Didn't know there were so many dam' trees in the world." Claire coming back to her usual calm. "An' ya say this's just a small affair, this forest?"
"Yeah, nuthin' to it." Gabrielle was still studying her map resting on her knee in the cramped cockpit. "From what I can make out—God, my knee's vibrating like one of those drills workers bore holes in the road with—it's about four or five miles long and maybe three broad. Should come to its edge anytime now."
As she spoke the ground opened up into a maze of green fields, the road continuing now in open country.
"I see a town ahead." Claire peered through her windscreen. "Yeah, a small town, just on the edge of the trees."
"That's Bresles, for sure." Gabrielle, after a quick glance on her own account, returned to her map. "Take a couple of degrees to starboard for a while, till we're past the town; then coast back to the road again. It's a clear run to Beauvais from here; Bauer must be somewhere on this stretch right now,—I'll keep a lookout. Do you think he's travelling alone, or with an escort?"
"Who knows." Claire did some industrious banking of their aircraft, then brought it back to an even keel. "Back on the road; right, where is the b-st-rd?"
"We've only got about five miles, before Beauvais." Gabrielle having the figures at her finger-tips. "So he better be somewhere dam' close, or our outing'll have been in vain."
"Not on my account, baby." Claire was now in full war-mode, an evil light sparkling in her dark-blue eyes. "If we can't find the General, someone else down there's gon'na cop a salvo or two of cannon shells, so help me."
They were now flying at two hundred miles an hour at two hundred feet, though it seemed much faster because of their close proximity to the ground now flashing past below.
"Hey, look, there's a vehicle on the road, dead ahead." Gabrielle sat up straight, or as much so as the tight cockpit allowed. "Yeah, something. No, wait a minute, it's coming towards us. F-ck, it's going the wrong way."
"It's a bloody lorry, gal." Claire made this identification as the vehicle and plane approached each other at a combined speed of around 250 miles an hour. "Not our target; keep a look-out ahead, Bauer's still out there, somewhere."
"Glad you think so,"
The flat fields spread out across the landscape in every direction; the only hazard to flying so low being the telegraph poles running at the road's edge, but these were so low, relatively speaking, they were no danger to the aircraft.
"Hang on, there's something else on the road, see it?"
"Yeah, got it." Gabrielle remained silent for a few seconds as she made sure of the faint black dot on the white road. "Yep, it's a car, and it's going away from us, in the right direction. Come on, get closer, so we can see if it's a dam' Merc or not."
"Gim'me a chance." Claire allowed herself a smile, hidden behind her face-mask of course, at the enthusiasm of her loved co-pilot. "Here we go, yeah, it's—"
"—a Merc, yippee. Well, shoot the b-gg-er, Ricky."
Forbearing to answer this idiot request, Claire concentrated on aligning the Mosquito with the road, so that they bore down on the unsuspecting car from behind.
"It's a Merc; it's a bloody lovely black Merc." Gabrielle allowing herself to become just a trifle unhinged with excitement.
"Let's hope it's not simply the Bresles' bank manager." Claire still trying to keep a foot in reality. "Tough if it is, 'cause, baby, I'm gon'na mess up his day, right now."
The Mosquito came up behind the vehicle, which was travelling at a sedate 40 miles an hour or so, then Claire pushed her firing-button and her banked array of cannon let rip.
The aircraft's four 20mm cannon—placed close together in its nose though lower down and further back, almost immediately below the cockpit, than the actually nose-mounted machine-guns,—gave a concentrated body of fire which was implacable in its intensity and tight focus. As Gabrielle watched enthralled the lines of white tracer converged in visible lines as the shells flew forward heading for their target. Suddenly a row of sparkling explosions appeared on the road surface some forty feet to the rear of the moving vehicle. The road disappeared in a rising cloud of grey smoke as the line of fire ran along the road towards the car like a live thing. Seconds later the car itself was hidden in a spreading cloud of smoke as it was coverd by the cannon-fire all round it. The shells continued to hit the road, now ahead of the target, the line of fire ripping the road surface apart with ruthless power. Then Claire had passed over the Mercedes and raised the Mosquito's nose in the air as she climbed away.
"Nice strafe, lady." Gabrielle nodded in satisfaction. "Now, come round and give him it again."
Nothing loth Claire had already banked the plane in a curving circle over the green fields. Within moments the road and the cloud of smoke now rising in the air was visible again.
"Can't see him." Claire peered like a hawk through her windscreen. "Where is he? Ah, there; right laddie, here's some more of the same. See how ya like this."
She brought the Mosquito round, but was still coming in from the side so had a proportionately smaller target and time to sight him. Nevertheless, she waited till the road was as open as it was ever going to be at this angle, then pushed the firing-button again.
This time the cannon shells, single white spots whipping out ahead of the aircraft in curving lines, hit the near open green field first, sending a swathe of dust and dirt into the sky as the shells exploded with brilliant white flashes. Then the shells reached the road and, under Claire's expert guidance, ran along to hit on and all round the now stationary car once again. She had only a second and a half to strafe the vehicle, then her shells sprayed across the opposite field, explosions tearing gouges in the soft earth before she relaxed her pressure on the firing-button, bringing the Mosquito's nose up once more.
After swiftly banking and turning again, Claire brought the Mosquito in from the opposite direction, heading straight down the length of the road.
"He's tipped nose down in the ditch." Gabrielle's voice was imbued with glee. "Dust and dirt and smoke nearly hiding it. You must'a hit him, for sure. Gon'na finish the job?"
"Too true, lady."
Claire pressed the firing-button again.
—and this time the cannon shells traced a converging line straight along the white breadth of the road. Sharp brilliant flashes ripped over the tarmac surface, heading for the disabled vehicle; then the car disappeared in a cloud of scintillating explosions and clouds of smoke as the full force of Claire's salvo hit home all round the wreck: Both Claire and Gabrielle watching entranced as pieces of shrapnel and wreckage flew into the air as the Mosquito passed over the rolling clouds of smoke where their target lay.
Still intent on determining if they had carried out their orders to the maximum of their capability Claire brought her plane round again; coming in from the west side of the road this time. Her next salvo,—
—again starting ahead of her target, sent lines of white explosions across the fields on either hand, then converged on the road to once more slice through and around the black sedan at the side of the tarmac. Her shells continued past the vehicle, ripping gouges in the surface again; as well as stray shells landing in the fields on each side in rippling splashes of fire and clouds of dusty earth. Then the cannon fell silent.
"Out of ammo."
"Go round, and see what's left."
Claire's final run over the shattered road and wrecked vehicle came in straight down the length of the road, giving a fine view of the immediate area of the attack. The road surface for some two hundred yards had been ripped apart by the fusillade of cannon shells. The fields on each side showed pits in exact lines spread across their surfaces; many still smoking, disturbed earth flung all round each crater. The Mercedes car, laying at the side of the road, nose slightly down in a shallow ditch, was obviously totally wrecked, with visible rips in its sedan roof and engine bonnet; smoke rising from the passenger compartment, from internal fires. As the aircraft whipped across the scene Gabrielle caught a brief glimpse of a shape in the low grass by the vehicle which must have been a body; then they had passed over the area, Claire bringing the aircraft's nose up once again.
"Any sign of survivors?"
"Just one body, by the grass verge." Gabrielle passing on her sighting. "No sign of anyone else. If there is they're probably still in the car; shot to sh-t, I'd imagine."
"I'd call that a success. What about you?"
"Sure thing; you couldn't have made a bigger mess of his car if you'd stayed another half hour." Gabrielle giving praise where it was due. "Dam' nice shooting."
"Thanks. But remember, we only have the machine-guns now, if we meet any Jerries on the way back."
"They'll do, gal, they'll do." Gabrielle was unconcerned, still high on the excitement of the present moment.
"Let's hope so. Right, gim'me a course for home, lady."
"Right on it, lover, right on it."
"We'll hit the Channel between St Martin and Le Treport to the east." Gabrielle had been studying her notes and map industriously as they flew more or less northwest. "Flat ground all the way, not a mountain in sight. You wan'na lift us any higher?"
"What are we? Four hundred feet? That'll do nicely." Claire was concentrating on handling the aircraft at such a low level. "Ya know the bloody altimeter's actin' up? We're so low it can't read accurately; it's sayin' six hundred, an' we certainly ain't that high. I'm goin' by sightin' alone."
"Well, just so's you don't go too low."
However, what both tired women hoped would be a relatively quiet return home was sadly forestalled a couple of minutes later.
Claire banked steeply to port, though not daring to bring her starboard wing-tip too high for fear of diving straight into the green fields flashing by below at far too close a distance already.
"Are we hit?"
Gabrielle crouched forward, glancing from left to right, trying to see any further damage to the wings or engines.
"Nah, not that I can see." She glanced out her side-window, eyes raking the sky. "That was a Ju88, I caught a glimpse. Hey, wait a min—, there's another bloody one. Jee-sus, another—three of the f-ckers. A f-ckin' wolf-pack."
"I'm takin' her down, hang on."
"Down?" Gabrielle was nearly shocked into silence. "We're already down; the only thing between us and the f-ckin' ground, right now, is dam' all."
"Sit tight, baby."
One great aspect of the Mosquito medium fighter-bomber was its spectacular manoeuvrability; a good pilot being able to fling it about the sky like a child's toy—Claire was a good pilot.
"Jee-sus Chr-st, I'm gon'na throw-up."
The intense forces inherent in these tight turns were making their presence felt to the passenger, who wasn't happy.
A few seconds later Claire levelled-off, a hundred feet closer to terra firma than Gabrielle at least felt was entirely necessary. But for all her flying expertise one of the enemy pilots was equally so.
"We're hit." Gabrielle had felt the vibration through the aircraft frame as multiple hits took effect. "Somewhere back in the waist or tail, I think."
Claire again banked her aircraft, this time to starboard, keeping a sharp eye out her forward windscreen in hopes of sighting at least one of the attacking planes in her gunsight. A moment later she was rewarded by a fleeting silhouette ranging across at an angle from starboard to port. Hardly thinking about the sequence involved she pressed the firing-button and the nose machine-guns opened up in unison, four closely-packed lines of tracer shooting ahead to align with the distant target.
At first the wavering lines of tracer seemed headed much too far to the rear of the Ju88, then they seemed to be flickering in an untidy burst well above the plane, then again too far forward and below the Ju88. Finally it appeared to the crew of the Mosquito that the final burst of their guns did make contact with the distant plane; dancing splashes of smoke becoming visible, hiding the Ju88's port wing for a few seconds; then the plane had disappeared from view, and the last of the Mosquito's burst of machine-gun fire could be seen flailing away in the distance into the depths of the blue sky, before the tracer lines stopped.
"F-ck me, out of bloody ammo."
"Out'ta g-dd-m ammo, gal."
"Sh-t, wha'd'we do now?"
"Run fer cover, lady, like scared rabbits."
"Oh, wonderful. Well, get a move on, one's coming in for another strafe."
"Gim'me a chance."
Of course, the only avenue of escape left was to drop even lower, hoping the attacking aircraft would hold-off pursuing at such dangerous altitudes. Claire levelled the Mosquito up, flying over the never-ending swathe of green fields below—the surrounding landscape, thankfully, still being as flat as a pancake—at very nearly roadside hedge level. Gabrielle actually closed her eyes in disbelief for a few seconds, before regaining control of her emotions and opening them again to stare at the ground whipping across her field of vision at an unbelievable proximity and pace.
By, it seemed, almost divine intervention there were no lines of telegraph poles or electricity pylons in the vicinity; nor, even, any church towers or spires, a special French countryside affectation which had become the bane of British low-flying aircraft. Gabrielle peered out her window, industriously searching for any further sign of their attackers; but the skies, as far as she could tell, were suspiciously clear.
"Can't see 'em. D'you see 'em?"
"No, I f-ckin' don't." Claire responding with all the venom she felt. "I'm engaged in keepin' us both alive, at the moment. Gim'me peace."
Having escaped the attentions of the predatory pack of Ju88's, the damaged Mosquito's ongoing wish to reach Blighty in more or less one piece was doomed to meet even more troubles along the way. The surrounding countryside, meanwhile, remained entirely flat in every direction, living up to the very definition of a plain; which probably saved both the womens' lives.
"Chr-st, Barrage Balloons, dead ahead,—a whole wide string o'them." Gabrielle's voice rising in cadence with each word, reaching a pinnacle of the tenor tone never before attained by human vocal chords. "Do something,—I mean, climb, bloody climb."
Claire had recognised the danger at more or less the same instant as her partner, but managed to keep a rather tighter grip on her emotions.
"Too late. Steady."
She banked the Mosquito to port, so sharply she actually saw there was hardly any clear air between the port wing-tip and its shadow flashing acrosss the grass field below—inches, rather than feet. Then she brought the plane level again, to find she was now cruising to port away from the invisible string of steel Balloon cables at a height of something below fifty feet.
"Jee-sus, climb—climb; there's a row of trees coming up,—climb."
Anxious to save herself, never mind her loved partner, Claire yanked the column back between her legs, the ominous dark line of unwanted vegetation disappearing to be replaced by brilliant blue sky—then they were soaring free and safe once more in the open empty air.
"Jee-sus God A'mighty, that was bloody close." Gabrielle could only sigh from the depths of her chest. "Are we still alive? God knows how."
"My superlative flyin', doll, is what. God."
Whatever the Balloons had been protecting seemed to have some significance to the local Nazis because, hardly before the shocked pilots had recovered from their initial fright, there was a blast of anti-aircraft fire from several points on the ground; scintillatingly white tracers rising up in curving streams all headed inexorably for the Mosquito.
Gabrielle had no time to say a word before Claire had again thrown the plane across the sky in a banking turn, trying to find a path through the many individual lines of approaching bullets and shells. Just as it appeared she might have found their salvation disaster struck.
The Mosquito shuddered through its whole frame, before beginning to coast gently down to starboard—both women aboard noticed.
"Chr-st, keep her up, for God's sake."
"Aarrh." Claire intent on trying to pull the control column out of its foundations in her escape attempts.
Finally the plane regained an even keel, but not without a great deal of strain on Claire's part, and a suspicious disinclination on the aircraft's part to follow further orders.
"I think the tail-plane's been hit." Claire managing to gasp this between set teeth. "She's not responding t'rudder control properly."
"There's a white cloud whipping back from the starboard engine nacelle—fuel, I think." Gabrielle adding to the list of disaster. "Look, the starboard engine's fuel pressure dial's falling like a pilot without a parachute."
"How far is the coast?"
"From here, maybe two miles, not more." Gabrielle took a second to consult the map on her knee. "Yeah, two miles, but I can't see it. At this height—if you can call it height at all—we won't know till we surf over the waves; which is about as much height as we'll be left with, lady."
"This crate's got about five minute's flyin' time left in her, lover." Claire, after glancing at her instrument panel and testing her rudder pedals again, acknowledged reality. "Better take your boots off an' try'n remember if ya can swim, or not."
"Will we have time to use the dinghy in the wing-root?"
"I'll do my best, if we don't simply nose-dive." Claire baring her teeth behind her face-mask in concentration. "One good thing—we're so low, an' I think the coast here's just bare low beaches,—we'll almost certainly be able to belly-flop successfully on the water."
"Try'n make it nearer the Blighty coast than the French, if you don't mind." Gabrielle making her preferences clearly known from the start. "Me having something of a thing that way, y'know."
"Do my best, gal, do my best. Chri-st a'mighty, we're over the bloody sea! Where'n hell'd that come from?"
"Told you it was lurking somewhere around these parts, didn't I?" Gabrielle allowing herself a gentle smirk, unnoticed behind her own face-mask. "Ain't I just the perfect navigator?"
The Mosquito, under what little control Claire still retained, did indeed belly-flop in the regulation manner, as dictated by standing orders in all the best instructional manuals; though the roaring of the water as the fighter slid across the surface of the calm sea seemed unnecessarily louder than landing a Sunderland flying-boat, which they both had experience of accomplishing. Finally it sat on the waves, rocking gently and showing no sign of peremptorily sinking; though both Claire and Gabrielle lost no further time in abandoning ship, clambering into the small dinghy rescued from its cubby-hole in the fuselage just behind the wing-root. Within a couple of minutes they had managed to paddle some way from the wreck, which thereafter remained stubbornly floating as if to embarrass the two women.
"Thank God you made it nearly to shore—is that Hastings, over there a'ways?"
"Nah," Claire glanced over Gabrielle's shoulder at the distant English shore some two or three miles away. "More likely Eastbourne, I fancy. Look, there's a fast boat coming out in our direction; wan'na send up one of those flares?"
"Why not." Gabrielle dearly loving a firework display, under any conditions. "Won't do any harm."
Group Captain Graham, master of PMM, the wholly secret sub-department of SOE, the entirely secret Special Operations Executive, frowned as he sat with the two female pilots the next afternoon in the briefing-room at Little Lanning RAF airfield in the wilds of Norfolk.
"Pranged another kite, eh?" His tone bearing only a passing relation to the civil. "Couple of weeks ago it came into my head to study your records of air accidents—had to give up, for my own peace of mind, after the total reached double figures."
Claire and Gabrielle, sitting on hard wooden chairs by the side of the long table usually reserved for showing maps and large aerial photographs, retained a politic silence.
"Anyway, to business." Graham looked to the rear of the long room where a film projector had been set up. "OK, Collins, roll 'em."
What showed up, in flickering rocking images on the white screen set-up a few feet in front of the trio of spectators, was the film taken automatically by Claire's Mosquito gun-camera—the film cartridge providentially rescued from the still floating wreck by Gabrielle just before they abandoned the shattered plane for ever.
What it revealed came in three segments, all so shaky it was sometimes difficult to follow the train of unfolding events; but all three watching had much earlier experience in this kind of presentation, so could understand what the film revealed pretty accurately. First came the initial encounter of the attacker who had strafed them while still stooging around in their turning circle over the Channel near the English coast. This showed for the first time the unidentified attacker was in fact a Focke Wulf 190; a fact already known from speaking to the captured pilot. Then came the main event, the strafing of General von Bauer's Mercedes.
"Was that actually the General, sir?" Gabrielle, as usual, not being able to contain her interest. "It was hard for us to tell, at the time."
"No doubt." Graham allowed his attitude to unfold to something like a state of ease. "The bods at Aerial Reconnaisance have already studied the film, and their report is that it was him, yes."
"How were they able to tell, sir." Claire coming in with her own query, because it seemed a little safer to do so. "Hell of a mess at the time, sir; as you can tell from the film. Just dust, tracking lines of tracer, an' splashes of white explosions across everything—road, fields, groups of trees; dam' smoke everywhere. Even on the last run the car was enveloped in smoke an' flame; an' no real sign of anyone, except for one body, that was probably the driver."
"Ah, that's where the boffins come in." Graham nothing loth to allow himself a certain level of boasting. "They can study the film frame by frame; blown-up, too. They managed to identify the vehicle's registration number; at least, most of it. And the small flags, on the engine bonnet and radiator, could be identified in certain frames. So we're sure it was him. As to his physical demise, we don't have exact information on that, but we can be fairly certain to positively certain he is no longer a player in the game, ladies."
"Thank God for that, sir." Gabrielle telling it like it was. "Wouldn't fancy having to go over and try again."
"Nor me, sir." Claire backing up her partner like a good 'un.
"Huumph; thankfully, the possibility doesn't hold." Graham returning to his usual gloomy self. "So you can rest easy on that score. Well, many thanks for a difficult sortie carried out with efficiency and resolve. I'd better be going now; things requiring my attention back in Somerset House, I'm afraid. Goodbye, ladies."
Five minutes later Group Captain Graham, and Collins his myrmidon, had vanished from the briefing-room, leaving Claire and Gabrielle alone; both speechless with astonishment.
"Did,—did Graham actually congratulate us just then, Ricky?"
"Oh, you heard that, too?" Claire apparently just as flabbergasted as her companion. "Yeah, seems he did. Gosh."
"Well, that doesn't happen often." Gabrielle still unable to take in the rare occurrence. "I reckon that rates a quick run back to our Nissen hut, and a mug of hot rum n'cocoa."
"Darlin', that's a splendid idea,—didn't know ya had it in you."
"Fool, come on—Gabrielle'll hold your hand on the way so you don't get lost, dearie."
"Idiot. Make my mug straight rum, thanks—I don't much care for it mulled."
"Oh, if you insist."
"You're welcome, dear."
Another 'Mathews and Parker' story will arrive shortly.