'A Spot of Gardening'
By Phineas Redux
Summary:— This story is set in Great Britain in 1944. 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,—lay sea-mines along the enemy coast.
Note:— In British World War II military parlance 'gardening' meant sea-mine laying, dropped from aircraft. 'Vegetables' were the mines themselves.
Disclaimer:— All characters are © 2019 to the author.
Warning:— There is some light swearing in this tale.
"Dam'. Listen to this."
"Yeah, go ahead."
Claire Mathews was standing by the left window of their shared Nissen hut on Little Lanning airfield in north Norfolk on this bright and breezy morning of June 1944, gazing out at the various aircraft parked at their dispersal points around the runway. Gabrielle, on the other hand sat at the desk in the rear of the hut hunched over the short-wave radio which kept them in touch with their SOE, Special Operations Executive, overlords in London.
"Special message to Plover team. From PMM, Somerset House, London." Gabrielle read the message she had just decoded in a surly growl. "No present activities pressing. Plover to liase with Station Commandant for next three days on gardening detail. Message ends. Sh-t."
"Gardening?" This request brought Claire back from the edges of daydreaming with a start. "F-ckin' gardening? What the hell's Group-Captain Graham up to now? We don't do mine-layin'. Not part of our remit."
"Seems like we've just been dragooned, lady." Gabrielle taking the realistic path.
"F-ckin' hell." Claire was not impressed. "I'm goin' over t'the Briefing-room, see if I can't catch dam' Squadron-Leader Brackley. See what he has t'say about this. Dam' mines be dammed. Come on, get yer jacket on, an' yer cap."
"Yes, ma'am, right away, ma'am." Gabrielle buckling under the iron heel of authority. "Right behind you; well, pick the pace up, gal?"
"You're both sharp." Squadron-Leader Simon Brackley, in charge of the airfield even though he was not yet 30, stood regarding the two uniformed women with a friendly smile; he well knowing their dark and secret, not to say underhand, going's-on with the secret operations Department which dare not speak its name. "Only got the message from, er, your superiors myself an hour since. So, you've been added to my gardening detail? That's nice, and just in the nick of time, too. We lost a Lancaster and a Wellington yesterday, cruising along the Netherland coast dropping some vegetables. You'll both do very well as replacements. Your Stirling's capable of handling sea-mines, obviously?"
"Yessir." Gabrielle finding authority too much for her for the second time in half an hour. "Can take six fifteen-hundred pounders at a time."
"Well, that'll do nicely." Brackley showing away far more cheerful than the women themselves felt. "Nothing really to laying sea-mines along the enemy coast. You know the drill, come in long and low, drop the b-gg-ers at three second intervals, cruise on a fair way without changing course to stymie enemy observers, then head for home. Nothing to it."
"How many aircraft lost over the last, oh, month, sir?" Claire deciding to play the officer at his own game; she raising an innocent eyebrow which didn't fool Brackley for a second. "Just interested, sir."
"Har." He paused to eye the tall New Zealander perceptively, if not actually coldly. "Well, if you must know, fourteen. Two Wellingtons, another Stirling, ten Lancasters, and a B-Twenty-Five."
"A Mitchell?" Gabrielle's voice showed her astonishment at this curious information. "That's a new way to do it."
"Didn't really work as well as projected, I'm afraid,—no." Brackley, on his part, sounding morose. "Shot down by machine-gun fire from the ground when he overflew the Belgian coast after his first bomb run offshore."
"We're not really au fait with droppin' mines, sir." Claire covering all likely escape routes. "No trainin' that way."
"You've both dropped bombs from great heights?"
"—er, yessir." Gabrielle knowing full well when they were beaten.
"You'll do. Much the same, really, only at much lower altitude." Brackley beamed at this unexpected chance to cover some of his losses. "Next detail three pip-emma. The ground-crew should be bombing up your Stirling as we speak. Good luck, ladies."
"Iirph." From Claire.
"Uumm." From Gabrielle.
"Two hundred feet. Is that low enough?" Gabrielle spoke into her face-mask intercom with little enthusiam.
"Nah, take us lower; one hundred an' twenty'll be fine." Claire herself sounding less than happy. "Got'ta be sure about the dam' vegetables."
Their Stirling, S for Sara, was presently cruising along the Channel coast just off the Netherlands shoreline close to Rotterdam. They had 6 large mines aboard, the intention being to annoy the Germans' busy sea routes in the vicinity.
Gabrielle gently edged the giant aircraft lower; it always being safer to treat the Stirling with kid gloves at the best of times.
"The altimeter's no dam' good, at all. Too low." Gabrielle voiced her opinion of this mechanical dereliction of duty with contempt. "Have t'rely on line of sight."
"Just be careful." Claire well aware of her personal comfort, not to say life expectancy. "Not too low."
"Jeez, it was you told me to go lower." Gabrielle, exasperated at the two-faced nature of some dearly loved ones'. "OK, OK, one hundred and twenty, near as I can make it."
"How near's near?"
"Oh, twenty or thirty, up or down, I suppose."
"Well, like to see you do any better, lady."
"Thought our mines'd be like those y'see floating in the sea." Gabrielle, apropos of nothing, seemingly. "Y'know, round, with spikes everywhere; but these we have onboard are like elongated oil-drums. Why's that?"
"Work on a different principle, ducks." Claire having boned up on the subject previously, "Those round ones are contact mines; the ship has t'hit the projecting spikes. The one's we have fall to the bottom of the sea, then wait till magnetic detectors inside register a ship passing overhead or fairly close by—then they go off automatically."
"Jeesus, ma'am, ain't we a wee bit low?" Tony Ralston supposed navigator, but on this mission, with little to occupy him, taking up his part-time hobby of bomb-aimer, lying flat in the Stirling's nose; well under the pilots' feet, and close up to the boots of the front gunner in his turret just over the bomb-aimer's head.
"We may get lower still, maybe, so quit complainin'." Claire taking no prisoners. "Listen up, everybody, we're nearly on the Dutch coast so watch out for bandits."
"There'll probably be a deal of ground-fire too, so keep an eye on that as well." Gabrielle putting her tuppence-worth in because she didn't see why anyone else should be happy when she wasn't. "Tony, when Claire gives you the nudge we're over the target area don't waste time, an' remember the three-second rule."
"Aye, aye, ma'am."
The late afternoon light was bright and sunny with no cloud cover. The low Dutch coast was well in sight on the starboard quarter and everyone in the bomber was now on their mettle.
"With any luck it'll be a swift in-and-out operation, then cut for home." Claire trying to boost the crews' morale at the last hurdle. "Shouldn't take us more'n two minutes from start to finish."
"If any raiders don't get us." George Simpkins, in the dorsal turret, living up to his morose character.
"Or the ack-ack." From Bill Hutcheson in the rear turret, never a happy camper at the best of times.
"Or some half-blind Jerry soldier with a Schmeisser on the ground; we're gon'na have t'cruise over part of the coast, y'know—at the end of the run." Patrick O'Connor, flight engineer, doing his bit to drag everyone's spirits into the cellar, too.
"Will everyone get off the bloody intercom." Claire pulling rank at this critical moment. "What a bunch of old wives', Jeez. Right, here we go."
Bang, Craak, Swaaang, Craak.
Puffs of black smoke appeared in the air all round the advancing aircraft, the pressure waves vibrating through the body of the plane.
"F-ck, the ack-ack's found us."
"Gunners, if y'see the guns let 'em have it hot an' wild." Claire sitting up in her seat and beginning to sweat.
"Aye, aye, ma'am."
"Dam' straight, ma'am."
"I'm on it."
The bomber, some 120 or so feet above the waves with bomb doors wide, came in just offshore from the low-lying coast. Their destination wasn't the port of Rotterdam itself, nor the immediate area of the river delta opening onto the North Sea, but a little way to the west, where the busy shipping lanes lay. The only problem being any mine-laying aircraft would by necessity have to overfly part of a heavily protected low peninsula at the end of its run. Ordinary ack-ack units lay inland, aiming for high-flying aircraft; but these other guns were 88's and levelled for much lower flying enemy aircraft; this explaining the accurate ack-ack fire now following the Stirling's flight-path far too closely.
"We're on course." Tony, in the bomb-aimer's supine position in the nose, was gazing through his various instruments with fixed attention. "Keep her comin', ma'am. That's it, that's it—and gone—and gone,—and gone—and gone—and gone—and gone. That's it, all gone. Don't change course, ma'am fer a while—I'll give you the nod."
Craak, Craak, Craak, Whaang.
This time the frame of the Stirling shook to actual hits, on the starboard wing and rear under-belly.
"Now, ma'am, head fer home, quick as yer like."
"Can't we have fighter cover, sir?" Gabrielle, alongside Claire in the Briefing-room at Little Lanning, had a bone to pick with Squadron Leader Brackley.
"No, you can't." Brackley knocking this irresponsible idea on its head with immediate effect. "These missions are far too quick—too short, d'you see,—to require cover of that sort. Fighters having more useful things to do."
"But we got our butts kicked good and proper, sir, this last run." Claire coming in with her complaint. "Those dam' ack-ack guns in that coastal area are dam' good. Sara had her starboard wing peppered good and proper, like someone had taken a shotgun to her. Not t'mention other sharpnel doin' nasty things to her under-belly. Knocked out the control wiring on the port bomb-bay, sir. If we go again we can only take four mines now."
"Four, perfectly adequate." Brackley brushing such a minor criticism aside like a small fly on a cucumber sandwich. "Next mine-laying mission tomorrow mornin', ten-fifteen ack-emma. Good luck."
That evening, in their private Nissen hut on the edge of the base, Claire and Gabrielle passed the time exchanging views on their latest mission.
"Y'know, sometimes I think we just ain't appreciated, y'know." Gabrielle, lying supine on her bunk gazing at the curved bare steel ceiling. "Here we are, personnel expertly trained in all sorts of under-handed ways of hinderin' the Hun, and what happens? We're put on bloody gardening duty. It's a dam' shame."
"Well, we're still at the pointed end of the War, ducks." Claire shrugging her shoulders, sitting on the edge of her partner's bunk gazing down at the unhappy brunette. "Y'can tell, by the number of holes in Sara's wings."
"All we can do, I suppose, is try'n work out some sort of plan that'll maybe keep us a little more than averagely safe through the whole bloody exercise."
"Oh yeah, Claire?" Gabrielle shifting her gaze from the ceiling to the face of her lover. "And what'd that amount to? What've we got against us at the moment? Sara, full'a holes and now with a dicky bomb-bay. Our gunners unable to give adequate covering fire, try as they might. Jerry ack-ack that's impossibly accurate. And us having to fly a long straight course, close to all sorts of enemy defensive units, without deviation—even after dropping the vegetables. It's a suicide mission is what it is. I think what we should take with us, tomorrow, is a German dictionary apiece; so we can communicate more easily with our captors; supposing we're still alive at the end of the day to be bloody captured."
"Oh, come on, lady." Claire going into emergency bucking-up mode. "You know what you need?"
"A long well-meant meaningful kiss, is what, dearest. Shall I?"
"Oh, I suppose. Can you make it two?"
"Lover, I might even reach t'three. C'mere."
"Where're we headed this bright an' breezy mornin', then?"
Gabrielle had been engaged in checking the Stirling while Claire went to the briefing-room for orders about their next sortie. Claire having now returned with the bad news to the concrete slip-runway where S for Sara was parked her co-pilot was not amused.
"That bloody area's covered in ack-ack units and heavy 88's, and E-boats in the bay with cannon." Gabrielle stared at her partner unbelievingly. "What is it? Does bloody Group Captain Graham want to get rid of us, or what? Because he's going about it the right way."
"Stop bein' so blue, will ya." Claire heaved a sigh as they climbed up the ladder into the interior of the huge bomber. "How's the bomb-bay, t'day?"
"Still crocked." Gabrielle remained gloomy as she slid herself into the co-pilot's seat, tying various webbing-straps, oxygen lines, radio links and such-like about her person. "Sergeant Peterson says it'll need a major refit to get the port section back in action."
"So, only four today, eh?" Claire struggled in her seat, one of the webbing-straps having caught on some lever or switch on the left side of the cabin wall near her waist. "Dam', dam', dam'."
"Mines? Yeah, four." Gabrielle grasping the only aspect of the problem with a good side. "Suppose it'll be all the quicker, in the laying of 'em."
"Probably not so much that it'll matter a dam'." Claire taking the low road to perdition.
"Huh, there's a happy thought." Gabrielle sniffing sarcastically behind her face-mask and clicking on her intercom. "Everyone on board, who's comin' aboard?"
"If they ain't we're leavin' without 'em, is all." Claire being masterful in trying circumstances. "Right, powering up Number One—"
Ten minutes later the ungainly bomber had taken flight and was climbing to a suitable height for the long run across southern England to the Channel and Le Havre. Not wanting, or being allowed, to fly over the immensely defended sky above London or its immediate environs, Gabrielle set a course first for Southend-on-Sea, then Hastings; from whence they would merely have the open reaches of the Channel to contend with.
Just after passing over Southend-on-Sea, and crossing the Thames Estuary with its scores of Naval and Merchant Navy ships scattered across the silver gleaming surface, Gabrielle got down to business.
"Listen up, everyone, report in—rear gunner?"
"Safe an' sound, ma'am." Bill Hutcheson fiddling with the grips of his four Browning machine-guns. "Nice clear view fer miles."
"Uumph, dorsal turret?"
"All ship-shape, ma'am." George Simpkins sitting in his powered turret staring up into the blue sky above. "No sign of bandits yet."
"Haar, flight engineer?"
"Everything runnin' smoothly so far, ma'am." Patrick O'Connor sat in his cubby-hole in the waist staring at rows of dials with a suspicious eye, as you always had to in a Stirling. "So far."
"Hmmph, front gunner?"
"Lovely view o'the Fleet down there, ma'am." Colin Trevor always showing his easy-going nature, no matter what. "Dam' good thing we ain't a Dornier."
"The pilot wishes t'make it known t'all an' sundry aboard this bus she's doin' a great job, with very little in the way of congratulation fer all her efforts."
"I'll take that as a yes, ma'am." Gabrielle long used to her partner's jaded outlook on almost everything. "Right, let's get to it—change course three degrees to starboard, then go on till you trip over Le Havre."
"Incoming. Ten o'clock—lone bandit." George jerking to life in a split second.
Rat-a-Tat, Rat-a-Tat, Rat-a-Tat.
As his heavy Brownings opened fire the good aim of their attacker also made itself felt.
Gabrielle saw, for a split second, a shape whine past the starboard wingtip of the bomber, then it had disappeared below out of sight.
"What the f-ck was that?" She being totally unprepared for enemy action over central Kent.
"A bloody Hurricane." George having had the best view of the attacker. "I saw its f-ckin' roundels—a bloody Hurricane."
"Action stations, everybody." Claire taking the only course open to her. "If he continues the attack treat him like a Jerry—shoot his f-ckin' butt out'ta the sky."
An anxious minute passed by, as the Stirling flew on its way. When nothing further happened Gabrielle began to relax a trifle.
"Must'a realised his mistake, an' b-ggered-off." She continued scanning the view from her side-window with a jaundiced eye. "Probably hopin' we didn't get his identification. Talkin' of which, did anyone?"
"Nah." From Bill in the rear turret. "Didn't see a f-ckin' thing."
"Nope, ma'am." Colin in his front turret also out of the running.
"I saw him, an' returned fire, o'course." George's bittterness made itself felt even over the tinny intercom. "But everything happened so fast, an' he was just a blur anyway, I didn't see details. Jest a f-ckin' Hurricane."
"Some o'those pilots they're sendin' up these days are so young they're still wet behind the ears, y'know." Claire putting in her penny's-worth. "Bet ya he couldn't tell the difference between a Ju-Eighty-Eight an' a Flying Fortress."
"Well, lady, he certainly can't tell the g-ddam difference between a Ju-Eighty-Eight an' a Stirling." Gabrielle's spiteful tone clear to all aboard the aircraft. "He only hit us with a few bullets fairly well outboard on the starboard wing, I fancy. No real damage—Pat, how're the engines lookin'?"
"All secure, runnin' at optimum levels, ma'am." Pat bent forward over his dials, taking note of the readings. "No apparent damage; at least, not yet."
"I so wish I knew who he was, that's all." Gabrielle harbouring grudges like a good 'un.
The rest of the flight over southern England passed-off routinely, with no more scares; then the coast and the dark grey sea and whitecaps of the Channel hove into view—but the calm didn't last long.
"Bandits. Wolf-pack at ten o'clock—four o' them." George in the dorsal turret performing his assigned duties with a will once more. "Look-out."
It was a well-known tactic of the Luftwaffe to send fighters into battle in small groups, thereby increasing the fire-power while at the same time theoretically protecting each other. That this did not, in real life, work out quite as planned was all down to the generally superior power and flexibility of Hurricanes and Spitfires, as a rule. Claire was, therefore, not unduly overawed by the present odds.
"If a bloody Sunderland can knock out two Ju's at once, so can we." As she spoke she put the Stirling into a shallow curve to port, losing height slightly thus giving all her guns as wide a view of the attackers as possible. "Go to it , boys."
Nothing loth, and having two Ju's in sight close together, George in his dorsal turret opened up with his two Brownings like a kid at a fair with a pop-gun aiming at coconuts.
"Take that, ya b-st-rds." George not standing on ceremony.
The foremost bandit flew down to be lost to sight under the nose of the bomber, while its companion returned fire as it slid past level with the Stirling and across its nose—which was probably what contributed to its demise. George in his dorsal turret with his two Brownings, and Colin in his nose turret with another two both caught the Junkers in a raking cross-fire. Gabrielle saw the tracers from both turrets lancing across the intervening space to make contact with the enemy. Its wing disappearing in a cloud of debris and smoke as it was strafed across the wing and port engine then its nose crew compartment and distictive underbelly weapons pod. Sparks and flashes of fire among the trailing smoke reflected the marksmanship of both Stirling gunners, then the Ju-88 peeled-off to fall away to starboard clearly in a terminal state. But there were still three of its brothers left in the ongoing fight.
"Got him-got him-lovely." Bill Hutcheson in his rear turret using his four Brownings to best effect. "Right up his arse, ha-ha."
For a brief instant Gabrielle caught a glinmpse of a dark shadow crossing her face as the second Junkers flew on above the Stirling, then a line of tracer fire cut across her forward vision right in front of the bomber's path.
As Claire banked the aircraft once again Gabrielle saw one of their attackers veering to port some two hundred yards ahead of the Stirling, a line of tracer already hurrying from the vicinity of their front turret towards the enemy plane. As was usually the case in these circumstances the line of fire appeared much too short, scything a line far to the rear of the fleeing machine; then the tracers seemed to catch up with the banking German fighter, the body of the plane disappearing in a trailing cloud of sparks debris and thick greyish smoke. At which moment the Stirling's bank took the enemy out of sight, Gabrielle sitting back raking the sky for the others still out there, circling with evil intent.
"There he is-there he is—leave him t'me." Bill in his rear turret obviously having his eye on another of the circling attackers. "Nah-nah—dam', couldn't quite get him, dam'mit."
Claire brought the massive plane out of its latest banking maneouvre to fly straight, cautiously, once again.
"No ma'am, all clear here." From Bill.
"Nuthin' out here, anymore." Colin peering all round through his front turret.
"No sign o' them from here, either." George, in his dorsal turret, spinning round to get the best scanning view of the sky.
"There was a trail o'smoke, an' I saw one hit the sea two minutes ago." Bill giving the good news to all and sundry. "Went in nose first, lovely splash. Can still see the trailing smoke in the sky just over where he hit the briny."
"That other one was smokin' well, too." George keen to join in the hurrahs. "Must'a been another hit fer sure."
"We'll call it one down, an' one possible." Claire taking control of the festivities with a capable hand. "Jest t'be sure, y'know. Y'all know how picky Captain Armstrong in the briefing-room is about hits an' possibles."
"Oh, well. One, at least—that's something." Colin waxing philosophical.
"Right, let's get back on track." Gabrielle feeling everyone had absorbed just about as much self-congratulatory joy as was good for them. "Come round to One Seven Two, Claire. Le Havre, an' the dropping zone in the bay in six minutes, everyone."
"Okey-dokey." From Claire, grinning broadly behind her all-encompassing face-mask.
Le Havre lay on the west-facing coast of a deep bay, with the Seine estuary just on its southern border. The whole area was awash with Wehrmacht activity of all sorts; military posts, Brigade headquarters, military camps, vehicle stations, airfields and, on the coast itself, ports where E-boats had their secretive bases. Because Le Havre was a busy and important port, and the entrance to the Seine, there was a heavy defensive element alongside numerous E-boats fitted with 20mm cannon; armament not to be sniffed at by a low-flying Stirling bomber.
Although Claire was flying well out in the wide bay, comfortably off the enemy coast, the port and its buildings could be seen with clarity from their height; which meant the distant, but still deadly, ack-ack 88's could also see, and probably smell the intruding aircraft. Within one minute of Claire arriving on site and declaring they were now in the dropping zone for the mines, a line of black puffs materialised in the air off to port, the pressure impacts rocking the frame of the aircraft.
"Sh-t, they're startin' early."
"Had a lot of practice, lady, from all the boys who've been over droppin' their vegetables earlier." Gabrielle hitting the salient point in one.
"Right, lads, keep yer peepers open." Gabrielle letting the crew know what was in the immediate offing. ""We're gon'na do one run, out here just where ships need to congregate before entering the port or the Seine estuary. The water ain't deep, so the mines'll be in their element, to coin a phrase. We're coming in from the west, heading towards the coast and Le Havre, so Claire'll need t'do some fancy banking if we don't want to find ourselves flying over Havre's town centre."
"Would that be bad, ma'am?" From Bill in his rear turret, always one to know the worst.
"Very bad, Bill." Claire growling low. "Ack-ack every-bloody-where. If we accidentally overfly the town there ain't much chance of us comin' out unscathed on the other side, t'be blunt."
"Well, with all due respect, ma'am," George, in his dorsal turret, saying it like it was. "don't do it, then; we wouldn't like it."
"Colin, you in the bomb-aimer's cubby-hole, yet?" Gabrielle seeking news from the man who was going to guide and release the five mines aboard the aircraft.
No reply, just faint tinny static.
"He's just gettin' in'ta place," Claire giving the glad tidings. "I can feel him moving under the floor, vibrations through my boots. "Colin, are you there?"
"Yeah-yeah. God, gim'me a chance. Jee-sus, like bein' in a bloody sardine can, it is. Wait, lem'me get sorted out. Right-right, ma'am; all present and correct. Gim'me the nod when we're comin' in for the run, an' I'll take over."
"Right, two degrees to port, Claire." Gabrielle leaned over, consulting a map unfolded on her knee. "I'll tell you when we reach the start of the drop-zone."
"OK-OK, headed-up an' flyin' straight.—"
Craak, Craak, Craak, Craak.
"Jeez, they're gettin' closer." Claire shuffling in her seat, feeling the thumps on the skin of the Stirling through her left arm as the pressure waves hit the plane.
"Keep straight, lady." Gabrielle eyeing her map and the scene dead ahead through the front windscreen at the same time. "Nearly-nearly—get ready, bomb-aimer. Nearly-near—now!"
Lying prone on his stomach in the tight confines of the bomb-aimer's position in the extreme forward end of the nose, under the front-gunner's turret and well below the pilots' compartment, Colin grasped the bomb-sight with one hand while looking through the clear glass of his windscreen. Watching the readings on his sight, he waited till the agreed position had been reached then pressed the bomb-release with his left hand.
"One gone-one, two, three, two gone-one, two, three, three gone-one, two, three, four gone—that's it, hold on line-hold on line-keep going-keep going–keep going—right, peel-off. Peel-off, get us the f-ck out'ta here."
Reacting to her bomb-aimer's heartfelt wishes Claire brought the huge bomber round in a banking turn—not an easy task at a height of just under 200 feet, judged by sight because the altimeter was useless at so low an altitude; then things began to become really hairy.
The bomber rocked on its bearings as a salvo of cannon-fire hit it fair and square along the flanks of its underbelly.
"E-boats, two right underneath us." Bill gasping for breath as he swivelled his turret and lowered his four Browning machine-guns as low as their trajectory would allow. "Can you bank a little steeper, ma'am?"
Craak, Craak, Thummpp, Thummp, Craak, Craak.
More cannon hits, mostly again in the underbelly, the now empty bomb-bay; the plane rocking and groaning like a leviathan in agony.
Brrrtt, Brrrtt, Brrrtt, Brrrtt, Brrrtt.
Bill's guns, the only ones with line of sight, sprayed their deadly tracer down towards the sea surface in a valiant attempt to oppose the far heavier German cannon-fire, while Claire kept the Stirling in a long curving bank as long as she thought safe, before levelling-off and raising the nose to escape the E-boats lethal fire by climbing high.
Craak, Craak, Craak, Craak, Craak.
Another, and final, salvo of shells burst harmlessly in the air to starboard, then they seemed to have outrun the range of the boats below.
"That's it-that's it." Claire gasping for breath herself, after the physical strain and effort of flying the bomber at its limits. "Pat, report any damage. Gunners, anyone hit—any casualties?"
"No ma'am, I'm fine." From Colin, now busy unwinding himself from the various wires and cables of his equipment and starting to squirm backwards out of the cramped bomb-aimer's position.
"All clear here, ma'am." George still keeping a wary eye on the blue sky above his head in the dorsal turret.
"No problems, ma'am." Bill snug as a bug in his rear turret.
"You OK, Gabrielle?"
"Thanks for askin', lady; yeah, I'm fine." Gabrielle grinnning under her face-mask. "Dam' glad that's over; hey, you're sweating, I can see your forehead—like you're in a bloody Turkish bath."
"Figure I've got a dam' good excuse, too." Claire sighing deeply as she began to relax. "What a f-ckin' mornin'."
"The bomb-bay doors won't close." Pat, at his instruments in the waist, reporting the bad news as he studied the dial readings. "Starboard outer's losing revs, and the number one fuel tank in the starboard wing ain't flowing. It's either empty, or blocked."
Brrtt, Brrrtt, Brrrtt.
"Just testing, ma'am," Bill sounding less than happy in the rear turret. "my two left-hand Brownings ain't firing—the ammo-feed's not workin'. My right-hand ones' are OK, though."
"Electric circuits to the ammo-feeds' are showin' red, ma'am." Pat giving the latest news. "on the port side. Wait, I've got a red on the starboard side too, now."
"Pat, try a test fire again." Gabrielle shifting in her seat with an unseen frown.
A short silent pause.
"Jee-sus, now none o'the bloody things are workin'." Pat's voice sounded, even over the thin tinny intercom, full of disgust. "Reportin' all four Brownings out'ta commission back here, ma'am."
"F-ck, that's all we need." Claire digesting this news as she flew the Stirling on its return over the Channel. "A good fifty percent of our fighting power down the drain."
"Hope we don't run into any more Ju Eighty-Eights." Gabrielle letting her thoughts run free before she could stop herself.
"Ma'am, the undercarriage circuits have all four just started reading red across the board." Pat staring at his dials in disbelief. "If it's really so, the undercarts' just gone up the spout."
"F-ck me, not the bloody undercart." Claire's worst nightmare coming true around her.
"Jee-sus." Gabrielle thought for a few seconds of the trials and tribulations inherent in landing a Stirling with a dicky, if not broken, undercarriage. "Not a hope of a bloody soft landing. Better t'go in for a grass belly-landing, than trust the wheels on the concrete."
"Yeah, I'm with ya there, lady." Claire nodding in agreement at this sensible plan. "Although I'm thinkin' it might be safer still if you-all took t'the silk, over Blighty. Jest t'be safe, y'unnerstand."
"What, everyone?" Gabrielle turning as much as she could to stare at her pilot. "Me too? You too, come t'that?"
"Well, the crew certainly." Claire glanced at her secret lover with wide open eyes. "If ya want you can stay, an' watch me perform a perfect belly-landin'? Only if ya feel like it, o'course?"
"I feel like it, lady, I feel like it." Gabrielle never giving the question a moment's thought. "Right, everyone, prepare to bail-out when we hit the green fields o'Old England. Gunners, out'ta you're turrets an' get set in the waist."
But all was not to be so simple.
"Starboard outer's gone belly-up, ma'am." Pat, in his waist compartment, covering the appropriate dials with a cynical eye.
"I sort'a noticed, thanks." Claire leaned forward to look past Gabrielle through the side window at the irresponsible engine. "Feathering, what's the fuel situation?"
"All tanks in the starboard wing are reading closed or empty." Pat glanced across the row of dials with their needles all at low. "Those hits from the ack-ack must'a knocked the livin' sh-t out'ta the electrics, or the tanks, or bloody both."
"Ma'am, port inner's trailing a white gas; think it might be fuel." George, in his dorsal turret, being perfectly placed to observe such.
"Port inner's revs are coasting downhill, ma'am." Pat's voice gaining in treble register as all his dials died around him. "The f-ckin' plane's fallin' apart as we speak."
"Emergency-emergency-all crew leave your stations, get kitted-up with your parachutes in the waist, an' prepare to abandon ship." Claire sitting up straight, glancing from side to side at her decrepid engines as she took control of the deteriorating situation. "Where are we, Gabrielle? Where's the best place t'hit the silk?"
"That's Camber Sands immediately below, right now." Gabrielle had been consulting her map and glancing out her side-window to confirm her position. "Kent. If you can keep Sara airborne for another two minutes we'll be over Romney Marsh—all flat as a pancake, and soft earth and flat fields, very few trees or coppices."
"What're the engine readings now, Pat?" Claire needing every iota of information she could get.
"Starboard outer's gone, port inner's workin' on fumes only—it'll go any second, definitely in the next three or four minutes." Pat's eyes raced over the dials and lights on his banks of instruments. "Several of the circuit-breakers are red already. Sara's dyin' by the second. I can guarantee another two minutes; everything after that'll be in the hands o'the Gods, ma'am."
"Gabrielle, get unhooked, make sure your parachute's sorted, an' get back in the waist."
"I ain't leaving you, lady."
"You dam' well are." Claire taking no insubordination at this critical point. "Don't worry, I'll be right behind ya. Go."
With a last glance at her lover Gabrielle bent to the task of unhooking the lines of her oxygen, radio link, and webbing safety-harness, before crouching to slide behind Claire's seat to hunch down through the doorway leading to the waist of the aircraft.
"Pat, abandon everything, get back in the waste an' prepare to hit the silk." Claire glanced out the side windows at the engines on both wings, squinted down towards the ground, showing a patchwork of green fields in a flat landscape, then made up her mind; turning uncomfortably to shout back into the bomber's waist. "OK, we're over Romney Marsh; looks fine, I'm gon'na wait till you're all clear then point Sara's nose down in a shallow dive an' jump fer it myself. OK, abandon ship now, that's an order—go for it."
Gabrielle crouched in the waist as first Bill, closely followed by George and Colin, sat on the edge of the escape hatch in the floor, then each disappeared out. Pat held back a moment, staring at his co-pilot with raised eyebrows.
"This is it, Pat. Go—just go; everything'll be alright."
He sat on the hatch edge, gave Gabrielle one more look, then jumped down and out. As Gabrielle herself prepared to follow she sat for a moment looking forward to the cockpit where she saw the partial silhouette of her lover watching her. Just at the same time the plane took on a slightly nose-down attitude as Claire scrambled out of her seat and stumbled back to join her waiting partner.
"Told ya t'go hours ago." Claire seating herself beside Gabrielle and putting a gloved hand on her shoulder. "Y'never do what I want when I want, do yer. Love yer, ducks. Go—Go—I'm right behind ya."
With a short intake of breath Gabrielle leaned forward using her hands to pull herself into the open space of the hatch; then she let go and fell away out of the aircraft into the scything wind beyond.
The great thing about Romney Marsh was the soft and tender nature of the earth. Being an actual marsh, only lately reclaimed from a swamp, it had a smooth gentle softness underfoot exactly tailored to a group of air-crew falling out of the sky to embrace its tender caress as they hit the ground. Gabrielle and Claire were the last in the air, arms hanging onto their parachute lines as if nothing else mattered, though neither woman had any clear idea of how to use the lines as directional aids. What they could see, however, was the vast panorama of the Marsh rolling away in every direction seemingly to the horizon; all flat, virtually no trees, only a patchwork of small fields mostly covered in short grass. They could also see and witness the last remaining seconds of their old companion S for Sara's existence.
The Stirling had started in a shallow dive, as Claire intended; but now this had rapidly increased till the bomber was virtually nose-down, heading for one of the fields about a mile and a half further on from where the various parachutes were gently wafting to earth. Gripped as if by an iron hand Gabrielle and Claire watched as the plane fell to earth, finally disappearing beyond one of the few slight ridges of relatively higher ground in the vicinity. A plume of smoke shortly rose in the air rapidly accompanied by an enormous thump—Sara had flown her last sortie.
Then, nearly together and only some twenty yards apart, the ladies themselves hit the waiting earth.
"You OK, lover?"
"Yeah, I'm fine." Claire finished unravelling herself from the parachute lines and stood tall beside her partner. "You?"
"No problems. Did you see Sara go down, over there?"
"Yeah, fancy she won't be comin' back from that landing."
"Look, here come George an' Pat. Everything alright, lads?"
"We're fine, ma'am." George took up the reins of reporting the news as the two men arrived beside the women. "We left Colin seeing to Bill, about quarter a mile to the east; think Bill's only gone an' broke his ankle."
"Oh, well, tough, but could have been much worse." Gabrielle taking it all in her stride. "Oh-oh, is this the Home Guard arrving? For God's sake don't any o'you go for your guns, or they'll shoot us for sure."
A small lane, a very narrow example of its ilk, ran alongside the small open field to the crashed air-crew's right. Now a small open-backed lorry pulled up, from which exited around ten soldiers and an officer of the aforesaid Home Guard, all equipped with .303 rifles. It took only seconds for them to clamber over the gate at the edge of the field and trot across to the waiting parachutists.
"Captain Cailley, Home Guard." The officer stood beside Claire, eyeing her from head to foot. "Saw the whole thing from HQ a mile away. Looks like you were all damned lucky. So, sir, what—Good God—er, I mean—gracious. And you, too—"
"It's OK, sir, Special Ops, an' that sort'a thing." Claire on top of the situation as to the manor born. "Best not enquire into too many details, eh? So, where's the nearest NAAFI? Oh, by the way, one of my crew's slightly crocked over in the next field, any chance of your lads giving a helping hand?"
"No trouble at all, ma'am." Captain Cailley taking the unusual situation in hand with stoical calm. "Better get you all back to HQ sharpish, I expect. This way to the lorry, if you please. No, after you, please."
"Well, what a day." Gabrielle lay on her share of the pushed together bunkbeds that evening in the private Nissen hut that served as their home and HQ on Little Lanning airfield, Norfolk. "Back home, at least."
"But without Sara." Claire, standing by the central deal table mixing two mugs of cocoa, and a little something extra from a dark bottle. "Nothing left of her but tiny pieces of shrapnel, scattered over a wide area."
"Bet Group-Captain Graham, in Somerset House, already knows all about it—and we haven't yet sent him a report."
"Huumph, no doubt." Calire stepped over and leaned down to hand her lover her cup. "Get some of this inside you, nice an' hot, an' loaded fer bear, so don't gulp it."
"I suppose this means the end of our gardening interval, with any luck?" Claire musing on this topic as she sat on the edge of the bunk close to Gabrielle. "For once I'm hoping Captain Graham's got some new mad plan comin' to fruition as we speak. Anything's better than dropping those dam'med vegetables so close t'the Hun they can't do other than shoot us down like sittin' ducks."
"What say we knock back our nightcaps, lover, then lock the door an' settle down to enjoying the night—if you get my meaning, lady?"
"Ah, Gabrielle, we speak the same language, I'm glad to say—"
"F-ck, the short-wave." Gabrielle sitting up, leaning on her elbow and staring into the gloom which engulfed the rear of the long hut. "It would wake up just now."
"I'll get it, lover, stay where ya are. Back in a jiffy."
True to her word Claire sat at the desk at the back of the hut listening to the Morse code, taking down the message with a swiftness born of long habit. Two minutes to decode it and she returned to her waiting partner.
"Get a load of this, Gabs." Claire sat down again, one hand grasping that of her lover, the other holding the sheet of notepaper as she read from it. "Message from PMM, Room 27d, Somerset House, London. From Panther, to Plover, Wrecked Stirling very bad news, have requisitioned Mosquito arrive tomorrow eleven-thirty ack-emma. Sortie to France tomorrow afternoon, details to follow ditto. Out, Panther. F-ck it."
"Yeah, f-ck it." Gabrielle sighing heavily where she lay. "Ain't we gon'na get any relief, at all. That dam'med man. I could throttle him very easily, y'know, given half a chance."
"Fancy you'd have t'wait your turn in a very long line, dear." Claire swallowed the last of her supercharged cocao, put the mug down on the floor by the low bunk and contemplated her lover with a raised eyebrow. "You were talkin' about relief, a few seconds ago. I know some very fancy methods of gaining relief, y'know. New Zealand ways, secret, only known to the honoured few."
"And you're one of the honoured, eh?" Gabrielle's brown eyes twinkling with interest.
"Mmm, ya could say so—wan'na find out?"
"I wouldn't say no, lover."
"Make room then, you're taking up the whole dam' bed, lady of my heart."
Another 'Mathews and Parker' story will arrive shortly.