'Hammond's Knoll Fort'
By Phineas Redux
Summary:— This story is set in Great Britain in 1943. Flying Officers Claire 'Ricky' Mathews and Gabrielle Parker—secret lovers, pilots, and members of ATA, Air Transport Auxiliary, and the highly secret SOE, Special Operations Executive,—visit an off-shore defence fort.
Copyright:— All characters are copyright ©2020 to the author.
Warning:— There is some light swearing in this tale.
". . . part of a wider plan, Operation Copernicus to be exact." Group-Captain Graham, sitting in his poky office in Somerset House on the banks of the Thames, shrugged his shoulders non-commitally; he never liking to part with information. "Itself part of a much wider, more significant, operation we're planning for the future; but you don't need to know about that."
Flying-Officers Claire 'Ricky' Mathews and her constant companion, partner, and secret lover, Gabrielle Parker sat on the only other chairs, rickety things clearly saved from an abandoned work-house, considering the points of the latest plan to come their way from the fertile imagination of both Captain Graham and the secret, not to say sleazy, organisation he was partially responsible for fronting—the Special Operations Executive. Over the now lengthening period of time they had followed his orders both women had come to realise that Graham, never stable at best, had for some time been creating ever more esoteric, and dangerous, operations for them. This latest showing all the signs of yet another suicide mission, if not handled properly.
"Lets get this straight, sir," Gabrielle striving to grasp the essentials; always the salient maneouvre with Graham's half-baked plans, she had early found. "This present Operation Janus, a subset of Operation Copernicus, means Claire and I going out to the Hammond's Knoll sea-fort, off the Norfolk coast, and helping to send fake radio messages to the German High Command, making them think various Bomber Command offensives are in the offing, when it's all a pile of shi—er, nonsense? That right, sir?"
"Pretty much, Parker." Graham nodded, with what passed with him for a smile. "We've got the help of some BBC boffins who have concocted a series of messages which, I'm told, are certain to throw the cat among the pigeons as far as hoodwinking Jerry is concerned."
"When d'we go, sir?" Claire grimly facing the unavoidable with a brave mien.
"Two days from today, ladies."
"What was that, Parker, didn't quite catch it?"
"Yessir, just yessir, is all."
"That's what I thought you said." Graham puffing his cheeks out with a frown. "Right, ladies, carry on."
The Hammond's Knoll sandbank lay some way offshore from Norfolk, a little east of the larger Haisborough Sands sandbank. The Hammond's Knoll was approximately 6 miles in length, lying mostly underwater even at low tide; the depth at each end was around 6 fathoms, while in the centre the water was only 3 fathoms deep. On this central ridge of sand the Government, harassed by War necessity, had found the funds to establish a Maunsell Fort. Now, two days after their conference with their superior, if not in intellect, officer, Claire and Gabrielle stood on the deck of the small requisitioned trawler, HMT Clemmond, observing the seat of their operations over the coming few weeks.
"This is all because we had the bad luck t'lose a bloody Stirling, on Graham's watch, ain't it?" Gabrielle snarling under her breath as only she could when riled beyond endurance. "That's what's behind this mission."
"Don't be so defeatist, fer God's sake." Claire sniffing censoriously, having suffered enough under her partner's cloud of enmity to the higher ranks for two whole days, not really interested but changing the subject anyway. "Get a bloody grip, woman. So, what's a Maunsell Fort?"
"Named after the designer." Gabrielle, carefully triggered by her all-knowing lover, couldn't help but respond with everything she had boned-up on the subject, which was a lot. "There's quite a few round the Thames estuary, nowadays. Meant to worry Jerry E-boats an' suchlike; though mostly used as radio bases an' anti-aircraft gun emplacements, actually. Four flanking towers on this one—three flak towers with what look like Bofors ack-ack guns on each; the tower to our left's sporting something big in the heavy artillery line, don't quite know what; the larger central tower, the one with the gigantic radio mast, will be the accommodation block, as well; lots'a separate smaller radio an' radar aerials on the roof, I must say."
"Whole caboodle looks sort'a spindly." Claire casting a critical eye on the massive structure now sitting only a few hundred yards off the trawler's port beam. "Stands dam' high in the air, on those long steel legs; the superstructures' look kind'a heavy for them. Ungainly—ungainly's the word I was after; don't yer think, ducks?"
"It'll be alright, at least for the duration, dear." Gabrielle smiling encouragingly at her companion. "Ready to get in the jolly boat?"
"Yeah." Claire sniffed again. "Boat, ha. Dam' thing looks like it'd sink in a strong wind on the Serpentine, never mind out here."
"Give over, woman; are you a soldier of His Majesty, or a worm? Come on, follow me; lem'me take your hand if you're scared; Mother'll look after you."
The main structure of the Fort, happily for Claire at least, had all the interior fittings and atmosphere of a ship; corridors, cabins, and saloons—all equipped with door-sills that had to be stepped over whenever leaving or entering any cabin or corridor. The man in charge met them in his cabin after they had successfully made the short voyage from HMT Clemmond to the Fort and clambered up the numerous metal staircases to the trapdoor offering entrance to the main superstructure.
"Good morning, Captain Browne." Gabrielle taking charge of the social introductions. "Glad to be here, ready for duty an' everything."
"Glad t'hear it, ladies." Captain Browne stood some five feet seven in height, seemed to be in his late forties, and was just beginning to run to some little excess avoirdupois. His hair was black and grey, receding rapidly, giving him an intellectual appearance which may have been well earned. "Lieutenant Wilkes'll be here shortly, to give you some instructions on what's required, and show you the general lay-out of the Fort. Be seeing you both at dinner, then."
With this parting shot he slipped round Gabrielle's back, exiting the office before either woman had realised such a desertion was in the offing.
"Well, short an' sweet." Gabrielle looked round the room with a raised eyebrow. "At least there's a coupl'a chairs we can use till this mythical Lieutenant appears."
"Doesn't seem t'want t'greet us with open hands, or anything." Claire being as suspicious as her personality allowed, which was a lot. "Wonder why? We know this whole affair's top secret, an' everything, but what's t'stop Browne from being polite, at least?"
"Just the general curmudgeonly nature of being an officer, is all, I expect." Gabrielle having long since lost any early virginal belief in or respect for the officer class in the British Army as a whole. "Some of these Sandhurst types make like they own the world, I've found. And most have only been on a short few-months' wartime course; but obviously long enough to bring out the worst in them."
"Dear me," Claire turned to her lover and partner with an interested expression. "Y'know ya asked, a while back, t'let you know when y'were bucklin' under the strain an' bein' mean an' nasty about all those in range? Well, lover, you're doin' it now,—sorry."
Declining to honour this sarcastic remark with any reply Gabrielle instead took a tour of the room cum office, looking for she knew not what, but it was something to do. Before she could think of anything positive to soothe her feelings the door opened again and the promised Lieutenant appeared. Tall, mid-twenties, around Claire's height, he had sandy hair, a long jaw, keen brown eyes and a refined, but not offensively so, accent.
"Hallo, ladies. I'm Lieutenant Gordon Wilkes, sort of second in command here." He came over to sit precariously on the edge of the only desk in the room, peering at his guests with narrowed eyes. "Sorry to look at you like a hungry hawk, but I broke my spectacles this morning, and my batman's still in the process of giving them first-aid. So, how do you like the first glance at our happy ship?"
"A very, er, strange billet." Claire being forthright. "Sort of a ship, you could say, yeah. Wonder why it ain't manned by the Navy,-just a thought."
"Ah, a good question, nonetheless." Wilkes seemed pleased with the chance to provide the answer. "It's—you will hardly believe this, ladies, but it's the God's honest truth—it's because the place, this Fort, ain't moving; because it hasn't any motive power, and can't go anywhere. This, after deep and cogitative discussion somewhere in the bowels of both the War Office, the Admiralty, and Churchill's bunker under Whitehall—you know, the secret one everyone knows about—was finally declared to be land-based, if you can believe such, and ipso facto must come under the Army's responsibility."
"Jee-sus." From Gabrielle, who could believe every word.
"Crumbs." From Claire, who had long since ceased to register disbelief at the curious thinking of the British High Command, in all its facets.
"So, ah, what do you think of the idea of sending naughty radio messages to Jerry's top brass, with intent?"
The women looked at each other before either answered; it being Claire who finally, er, manned the conversational breach.
"From Auntie, y'mean?" She curled a derisive lip. "Won't it be difficult to make the German's believe you're the BBC?"
"Oh no, we're not trying to imitate dear old Auntie, no." Wilkes poo-pooed this idea with a chuckle. "What we are doing is attempting to jolly the Jerries into believing they're intercepting bona-fide military messages—from Allied High Command to lesser entities, y'know."
"How so?" Gabrielle being in the dark.
"Well, on the occasion in question our friends in Europe managed to cunningly lose their group code-books, within easy reach of Jerry Security—Gestapo, y'know." Wilkes' expression took on that of a religious zealot enraptured by possibility alone. "Books which contained British military codes for Army, Navy, and RAF Commands. So the Jerries' think they've had a blinding bit of good luck on their own account. Himmler is dancing in glee, so we're led to believe,—ha-ha."
In the silence which followed this admission the women could hear the waves slapping outside against the iron legs of the fort. Then, this time, it was Gabrielle who shouldered the responsibility of continuing the conversation.
"So we,—I mean, are there actors or,—in fact, are we going to pretend to be commentators in a radio studio, or what?"
"No, no, nothing like that." Wilkes shook his head firmly, slapping his calf in high good humour. "The messages are all in Morse code, sent in day-code. We send at particular times, on particular frequencies, for particular lengths of time, attempting to clothe each message in a particular atmosphere of deep military jargon."
"A very particular set-up, all-in-all?" Gabrielle being sarcastic because she dam' well felt the situation demanded it.
"—er, yes, I suppose." Wilkes looked somewhat crest-fallen, but then bucked-up once more. "Gives it an air of authority, of authenticity, y'know. We've only been transmitting for just over a week, so far—but from what news has filtered back to us, we're making something of a success of the thing, apparently."
While the Lieutenant had been speaking Claire had been brooding, and now came forth with the sum of her cogitations.
"Are we, Gabrielle an' I, going to have to learn all about radio valves, an' accumulators, an' that sort'a thing?"
"Well, to a certain extent." Wilkes frowned over this question, waving an arm in dismissal. "Not that we want you to study to be expert technicians, or anything like that. But a certain amount of knowledge of the, er, innards of the beast will always come in useful, y'know. These radio transmitters being likely to break-down at the drop of a hat; often for the slightest thing, like a bust valve, or similar. The sort of thing that, if you were in the know, would be child's play to fix."
"Oh." From a dubious Gabrielle.
"Ah." From a similarly doubtful Claire.
The next morning saw the beginnings of the ladies' troubles; first presented in the form of Sergeant Andrew Langford, their meeting taking place in the forward saloon; it having portholes on two sides thereby allowing a faint echo of the real world outside to percolate the interior of the Fort.
"Glad t'see you both, ma'am."
Langford obviously conscientiously applying the WD memo 1672, subs. para. 13a, 'All women officers, when in numbers, to be addressed in the singular at all times by lower ranks.'
"What's the drill for the day, Sergeant?" Claire coming out fighting from the start.
"First off, ma'am, we goes ter Tech 9." He standing aside, ushering his charges towards the door with a low movement of his hand and arm. "That being where Aspidistra-6 lives. Give yer both an idea o'the innards o'the devilish device, while everything's quiet, eh?"
"Har." Gabrielle still being more than somewhat dubious of the whole concern.
The room in question turned out to be an ordinary cubicle or cabin, maybe slightly longer than most; filled with a group of tables and a huge machine, running along the centre of the floor, faced with valves, switches, flashing lights, and subordinate machinery of unknown use, accompanied by other secondary machines lining the walls.
"Nah, jes' walls, ma'am." Sergeant Langford pursing his lips in reply to Gabrielle's query about the walls being called bulwarks. "We ain't in the Navy here; solidly land-based as it were; take no note o'the fact we're five mile off-shore, thirty feet above the ocean on steel stilts with land hardly visible on the horizon—an Army camp, ma'am, true, tested, an' certified as sich."
The radio-transmitter itself was another thing altogether; the ladies' never having had the interest or need to delve into the bowels of any ordinary radio that might have come their way in a purely private ownership manner of speaking.
"This ain't what yer buy's in shops, ter listen t'ITMA or whatever." Langford laying it on the line for the newcomers. "On the contrary, this's the top o'the tree, mechanically speakin'. This 'ere bein' a modified Aspidistra machine, ASPI-6 t'be exact; but with modifications enlarging the range a great deal. As y'can see, ladies, it's rather bulky an' large."
"Dam' near fills the whole room." Gabrielle impressed by the size if nothing else.
"How many are there, on the Fort?" Claire seeking dry facts.
"Only one, this 'ere." Langford nodding sagely, as if he knew the secrets of the Universe. "Right, first-off, this here is the main body o'the beast, as it were; we here presently standin' in Caisson A o'the Fort."
"What?" Gabrielle already further at sea than ever.
"The Fort structure itself, ma'am." Langford showing estimable patience. "This central block we're in is Caisson A; the other four blocks, sited round the main structure, are Caisson's B ter E."
"What do they do, if anything?" Claire responding to the unasked question echoing through the room.
"Caissons' B an' C house the power amplifiers an' modulators." The sergeant nodding knowingly at this point, as if giving out information of the highest esoteric value. "Dam' powerful machines, in their own right—provide all the power ter allow the transmitter, above our heads, ter cover most o'France an' parts o'Germany itself. Caisson D houses, as you probably noticed coming aboard, some subsidiary radio an' radar equipment, of a highly secret natur', ladies. Caisson E houses, as yer couldn't possibly have missed on yer way aboard, the heavy three-seventy-five inch gun; with a flurry o'smaller Bofors guns positioned on all the other Caissons' at strategic places."
"Are we gon'na have to sit in here, operating this thing?" Gabrielle pin-pointing a serious issue. "Dam' warm already, an' we've only been here five minutes."
"Yeah, the valves, an' things, do work up a terrific heat." Langford acknowledging the obvious. "You wouldn't believe the lengths we have to go to, when the transmitters, an' especially the modulators an' power amplifiers, heats up after some hours' use. Can get rather tricky, if a close eye ain't kept on the dials."
"Who does that?" Gabrielle again seeing herself in a dangerous situation not of her own choosing.
"Oh, the back-room bods covers all those technical issues, ma'am; have no fear there; though, o'course, almost every dam' room or cabin here is a back-room by definition." Langford smiling comfortably, not put out in the least. "You'll be operating the thing from the Relay Room, two deck—er, I mean, two floors down. Got a set-up there with a Mark Four No.10 machine; still big, but nothing like Aspidistra here. It's all inter-connected an' what-not—everything working-off something else in a complex manner that only three men on the Fort knows exactly how, ma'am."
"Well, that cheers me up, no end." Claire making free with a mighty untruth in lieu of anything more sensible.
"When d'we start operating?" Gabrielle still chasing after the facts in the case.
"First messages go out at twenty-fifteen pip-emma." Langford fiddling with some curious glass valves on a nearby table. "Just time fer me t'instruct you on how to change valves, when needed; and which valve is which, such bein' important, y'know."
"Oh, God." Claire not at all sure she was going to gain any clarity from the upcoming lessons.
"Judy-Judy." Gabrielle no better off, mentally.
After two hours learning all about what made Aspidistra tick both Claire and Gabrielle were happy to take time off to relax before their late evening to midnight session transmitting messages by Morse code. Finally, at just on twenty-hundred pip-emma, they sat in the stuffy small Relay Room, the mass of the modified No.10 machine taking up the whole of the wall to their right while they sat in front of two transmitting machines linked to Morse keys. There were only two portholes and the door, steel and firmly closed, held no comfort in letting a free flow of air circulate. As they made themselves as comfortable as was possible, which wasn't much, this door opened to reveal Lieutenant Wilkes, grasping several files of documents.
"Ah, ladies, right on cue, eh?" He sat at an extra chair and placed the files on the small table-shelf in front of both women. "These are the documents you'll be sending over the air tonight. I'll explain the set-up; most of the messages are quite short, three or four paragraphs, meant to sound as if various HQ's and subsidiary station's are conversing between each other. They range over all the Forces, Air, Sea, and Land; which accounts for the difference in length, structure, and content of each message."
"Do we send them all at once?" Gabrielle wrinkling her brow in concentration, as she shuffled through the loose sheets allocated to her.
"No, you'll see the time-table necessary on the first sheet in the file." Wilkes pointed at Claire's. "The messages are to be sent in an interspersed manner—some Army, then Navy, then Air Force, then somewhat higgledy-piggledy—but with certain lengths of time between each. Thus making it seem that the sending station, you, are listening to and replying to other stations, y'see."
"Very crafty." Claire on the ball, nodding wisely. "Does it work? Did you say you'd heard these messages were being taken at face value by the Krauts?"
"Some, anyway." Wilkes shrugged non-commitally. "At least there's been no sign they're on to us, anyway. Which is a bonus."
"How long do you think you can keep this up?" Claire being picky, as by nature. "I mean, Jerry'll finally snap his fingers an' go 'Hold on?', won't he?"
"Oh, bound to, in the end." Wilkes recognizing the certain outcome. "But let's hope that ain't fer weeks, meb'be a month or so. Even that length of time'll allow us t'tie them in knots, plan-wise, over an appreciable area of Occupied Europe. So, go to it, ladies. This lot, going by the time-table of sending, should take you till just after midnight to complete. Must go now, I'm looking after the dam' modulators an' PA's; dam' messy business when they all heat up together past their red lines. Have fun."
The first message, Gabrielle's primary contribution to the war effort in this particular cloak and dagger arena, went out at precisely 8.17pm. Being in day-code it was simply a stream of seemingly unrelated letters in four digit units. The sheets of instructions accompanying the separate messages, all stamped in dark red ink SECRET GRADE A, gave only the minimalist of clarification about each message. Which Service it seemingly was sourced by; what time it should be transmitted; and which other messages related to this one in particular and when they should be transmitted. There were often, going by this time-table, many periods of ten to twenty minutes where no messages were to be sent at all; these quiet periods obviously meant to fool the German listeners into believing in the validity of the whole.
"What does it say?" Claire buckling under her inner gossip.
"How should I know?" Gabrielle hunched over her Morse key, clicking away like a mad typewriter. "Leave me alone, I'm busy here. It's just code mumbo-jumbo; though I expec' there's method buried in it somewhere—t'throw the Jerries' off."
"Yeah, s'pose you're right."
Rather than an easy time, both ladies soon found they were working up a sweat; over the ever-increasing strain, and by reason of the increasing heat from the warming, if not already too hot to touch, valves in the innards of the No.10 machine and its ancillaries filling the small room. After half an hour, during which both Claire and Gabrielle began to understand the enormity of the task facing them for the rest of the evening, it was Claire who first began to crumble under the strain.
"Good job Sergeant Langford brought that bloody box of assorted valves, on the table over there." Claire giving the object an unfriendly nod. "Judgin' from this bloody heat I bet some o'the valves'll start bustin', soon as not."
"What was it he said, about pourin' water on the hot parts?"
"Don't, is what he said." Claire answering in a firm tone. "Not unless we want t'blow the whole gimcrack place up around our ears. If one blows, we'll hear it like a dam' grenade goin' off."
"Ah, but," Gabrielle pausing in her Morse sending for a few seconds. "look at this dam' machine? Granted, it's a sort of framework structure; you can pull out various sections on runners—but the thing is, finding the particular valve. Can you tell the difference between a blown valve, an' one that ain't? An' this's only the No.10, what about Aspidistra, two floors up? If a valve goes there will we hear it? Is someone on duty in her room, lookin' after her?"
"Don't know, ducks; here, give over for a while, I got a long Navy message t'transmit in thirty seconds. God, it'll take at least ten minutes, too. My wrist's gon'na break under the strain well before any dam' valve busts itself, I'm sure."
"Oh, I just remembered; see this device here, near my left elbow, with the row of three green bulbs?"
"What about it, Gabs?"
"Sergeant Langford told me, you bein' somewhere else at the time, it was the main breaker circuit to an' from Aspidistra, upstairs." Gabrielle nodding sagely, as if she knew the secrets of Time itself. "We can switch it off, Aspidistra I mean, ourselves; or, if all the three green lights turn red that means She's automatically shut herself down—which, in course, means at least one busted valve; an' if nothing happens t'make the reds go green within ten minutes we, lady, will have t'hotfoot it upstairs an' start scrabbling around in Aspidistra's bowels ourselves, looking for a busted valve or short-circuited relay switch; if either of us can tell the difference between a live valve an' a dead one of either, that is."
"God, it's gon'na be a long dam' evenin'."
The next morning, or early afternoon to be precise, Lieutenant Wilkes took the women on a tour of the whole Fort, all five Caissons and their particular contributions to the whole concern. Their tour of Caissons B and C were general rather than precise; fast as opposed to slow and careful: this as a result of their both containing a multiplicity of heavy machinery dealing with vast amounts of electric power. This in turn creating enormous amounts of ambient heat which had to be dealt with via a mass of electric fans of industrial size and scope, as well as circulating water which, when heated, acted as internal central heating beyond the actual necessity required. In short, both Caissons were like tropical plant houses, heated nearly beyond human limits.
Walking over the connecting cross-walk between Caissons' to D actually supplying much needed relief; even if, looking down through the wire-grid gratings they were traversing, they had a perfect view of the boiling sea surface thirty to forty feet below. Caisson D, as was perfectly obvious to anyone within a mile's range, housed a multiplicity of radio and radar instillations; the till now secret nature of which was now carefully described to the women; though under pain of the Tower, if made Public in any way later. Time spent here was also limited; this time because of the threading cables coming across from the other Caissons, wending their way into the lower Accumulator Room where they were separated and run through further machines which actually sent the final signals up the various machines' circuitry and associated wire-mesh mast transmitter.
Claire and Gabrielle felt now was the right moment to ask about another aspect of the Fort.
"Bofors Guns?" Claire looking with envy at the weapons visible on every Caissons' roof.
"Yes, just so." Wilkes smiling broadly for the first time that day. "Stole 'em—er, requisitioned 'em from a corvette under repairs in Yarmouth; don't seem t'have discovered their loss, as yet; thank the stars."
"What about the big one, on the seaward side?" Gabrielle raising her eyebrows at the relatively gigantic weapon. "Bloody big! Won't it crush the Caisson, when it fires?"
"Ha, you might imagine so, but tests have proved the jolly ol' Fort's up to the strain." Wilkes chuckling out loud in the snapping cold wind now blowing in from the North Sea. "Generally, in practice, we can reach eight rounds a minute, ten if really pushed."
"What does it defend against?" Claire a hotbed of interest. "Ships? Aircraft? Submarines?"
Wilkes shuffled his cap from side to side, considering this enquiry.
"Well, all the above, in fact. She's—the gun, I mean—she's got a fair inclination and rotational capability, so can be aimed at most anything in the air or at sea level; longest range, about nine miles—anything closer, we can easily shoot out'ta the water."
There was a pause while the two ladies, now chilled to the bone, considered these facts.
"Well, that's nice t'know." Gabrielle realising, as she spoke, her reply was hardly up to snuff. "Dam' cold round these parts, ain't it? I'm freezin' t'death here, an' we've only been out on deck for ten minutes or so."
"The North Sea's a hard task-mistress, to be sure." Wilkes taking a deep breath of the surrounding ozone as he replied; as if standing on Skegness Sands on a fine Summer's day, dodging dancing fishermen. "You'll both get used to it before you know it. Well, got'ta go now; see you around. When's your next tour of duty?"
"This comin' midnight to four ack-emma tomorrow mornin'." Claire virtually snarling the unwanted news. "Gab an' I're thinkin' of gettin' some shut-eye in the interim."
"Good idea. Well, g'bye. You can find your own way over the cross-walks t'Caisson A, I presume?"
"Yeah, no trouble." From Claire, with airy grace.
"Uummph." From a substantially less impressed Gabrielle.
Three days later, early afternoon, they were sitting in their cabin hunched over the latest set of typescripts for their coming evening broadcast. All had gone well so far; they were beginning to fit into the complex routine of the Fort, and their broadcasts seemed to be going smoothly, though there was as yet little return by way of how the Germans were handling their supposed goldmine of info. Then the phone on the desk, half buried under loose sheets of paper marked Top Secret, rang imperiously.
"Ya gon'na answer that dam' thing, or whatever, lover?"
"God, Ricky, why always me?" But Gabrielle nonetheless did her duty, picking up the receiver. "Relay Room sub-office, what can—what? What? What? Shit! Shit! Shit! OK."
There was a pause after she had replaced the offending receiver.
"Stop sayin' that, yer needles' stuck. OK, out with the gen—"
"That was Lieutenant Wilkes—says the Chain Home Radar's just reported a bloody Wing o'aircraft headed in our direction, from you know where."
"Oh, yeah? So, did he say what their target was?"
Gabrielle stared gloomily at her compadre.
"Well, if it isn't Little-Worpling-by-the-Sea, population twenty-seven; one Norman church, four Pubs, one three-way cross-roads, an' seven houses; then it must, Lieutenant Wilkes says, be us."
Another pause made its unwelcome presence felt across the board.
"Yeah, that about covers it."
"Shit, the Emergency signal; we're under attack!"
"Didn't I just say that was the general supposition, all things taken in'ta account?"
"Wrap it, sis. Ya got yer gun?"
"Somewhere, haven't seen it for, oh, three days."
"God, so much for military training an' preparation. Come on, then."
"Where're we goin'?"
"To our action stations, o'course."
"Oh, glad you know where that is, 'cos I sure as hell don't."
Exiting their cabin at high speed Claire skidded to a halt in the narrow corridor.
"God, yeah, where do we go? What's our action station, then?"
"Shit an' hell, I've just finished tellin' you I don't know."
"This isn't helping, darlin'."
But Claire was up for this crisis under pressure.
"The Relay Room, we'll go ter the Relay Room." She pushed Gabrielle ahead of her as they started along the corridor again. "After all, it is the dam' centre of communication for the whole dam' Fort—well, more or less."
"Yeah, If Lieutenant Wilkes decides it's time for a May-day, we'll be right in place t'help him out."
"Good Grief, what a woman, but I still loves yer ter pieces."
"Thanks, lover; snog later, action now."
The Relay Room had a line of windows; well, really portholes, along one wall which gave those in the Room some idea of what was going on outside. And what was so taking place sounded, at least, like pandemonium. Gabrielle was already sitting by the main control panel, flicking switches, turning Bakelite knobs of various sizes and colours, observing the readings on numerous dials, and waiting for the banks of valves to warm up enough for the machine to be able to operate. Claire had gone over to one of the portholes to take a look outside.
"Men running along the connecting ramp to Caisson B." She raised her eyebrows in concentration. "Or is it D, can't tell from this angle."
"The sub-control's nearly warm enough t'operate." Gabrielle bringing her partner back to the realities. "OK, green across the board, an' everything's humming like a wasp factory—come on, there's a war on, y'know. I'm switching into Main Central; if someone's had the sense t'switch it to emergency power, anyway."
With all the ancillary equipment packing every spare inch of the room thing's were indeed hotting up. The banks of accumulators, amplifiers, and just the amount of valves, some extraordinarily large, fixed in open steel racks and glowing virtually white-hot, all contributed to the women leaving the room door wide open, along with three of the portholes, no matter the danger.
"I got it."
Claire sat at her own station, some three feet along from Gabrielle, picking up the red telephone.
"Yeah, Lieutenant Wilkes—yeah, got that,-right,-right away."
"Wilkes says the enemy is definitely homing in on us, about three minutes till contact." Claire shook her head as she settled her earphones in place. "Says to power up MIDAS an' let rip, soon as we can."
Hammond's Knoll wasn't just a Radio Station; it was also one of the main units in the Chain Home Radar link across the Southern Coast of England. To this end it had a variety of either operational or near operational radar systems specifically designed to give the Hun a headache. One of the up and coming, but not yet fully approved, of these was MIDAS, aimed at intercepting and blanking-out incoming Luftwaffe radar and radio systems. It had been one of Lieutenant Wilkes' main concerns in his work on the Fort, though never before having been fully tested in combat.
"Will it work?" Gabrielle unknowingly asking exactly the same question Lieutenant Wilkes was pondering at the same moment on Caisson B.
"Well, let's see." Claire flicked a couple of switches, turned-off one component of her vast array of instruments, switched on another two, then turned to a separate board with a line of switches with small lights above at the moment all glowing red. "Ready t'fire up MIDAS; you on the accumulators?"
"Yeah, switching them over now." Gabrielle leaning over her desk-top to grasp the switches on the board before her. "OK, one, and two, and three, and four. OK?"
Claire flicked all seven of her own switches down, watching as, in turn, they went from red to green.
"OK, MIDAS's operating across the board."
The words were hardly out of her mouth when the roar of aircraft flying over the Fort was clearly heard through the open portholes.
"Jeez, they're here, already." Gabrielle sounding nervous as a cat rounding a corner only to meet a pack of dogs out on a spree. "Wonder what—"
Before she could finish all hell broke loose.
"Bofors lettin' rip." Gabrielle acknowledging the obvious.
"Bloody hell." Claire ducking instinctively as the huge explosions vibrated through the structure of the Fort. "The three-seventy-five inch sure as hell let's ya know it's there."
Then came the worst possible continuation of the attack; the women suddenly felt more than heard the rippling crackling as cannon shells ripped into the outsides of the various Caissons of the Fort, including their own. In an instant they found themselves at the very heart of the attack.
Cannon shells hit the outside of the section they now sat in; the far wall, opposite that with the portholes, bulged in, along with the awful noise of a direct hit, the room filling instantly with disturbed dust, dirt, rust clouds, and small pieces of shrapnel flying everywhere. Claire and Gabrielle, more after the event than before, ducking low under their desks and gasping for breath.
"You alright, Gabs?"
"Yeah, not hit—you?"
"Fine—if ya can call this fine. Bloody hell, anything hit? Are we still operating?"
Gabrielle clambered to her feet, sitting back at her stool.
"Lem'me see—MIDAS's still goin', I think. The secondary systems are out, though. That row of reds, by your left elbow? Is Aspidistra, in Main Central, still goin'?"
Dusting the dirt and debris of the near miss off her uniform Claire sat back in front of the machines under her control, glaring angrily at those switches indicated by her partner.
"G-dd-m, you're right; they've hit Main Central, we're off the air."
"MIDAS has it's own wire-mesh transmitters, don't it? From what these dials are tellin' me, it's still on the go."
"That's a comfort." Claire recognising the importance of this statement. "Rather have the Hun planes in the dark than just sendin' phony transmissions over Occupied Europe. Not that we are, anymore."
Their conversation was interrupted by the ongoing sound of something terminal happening somewhere outside; heavy vibrations, almost like an earthquake, shaking the entire Relay Room and the women themselves. The metallic grinding, sounding like a metal staircase slowly falling to the ground stair by stair, went on for an astonishingly long time before it ceased, then—
"What? What?" Claire nearly screaming into the red phone again. "Wilkes, yeah, I hear ya. What? Chr-st. OK-OK."
"MIDAS's operating, but I don't think it's doing so at full power." Gabrielle was absorbed in the intricate details of the machines operating all round her station. "From these dial readings, I figure he's only struggling t'about forty per cent operating efficiency. What was that, Ricky?"
"Wilkes, Gabs." Claire sounding as if she was totally exhausted. "Reporting the main transmitter tower, up top, has collapsed. And the connecting ladders between Caissons B, D, and A have fallen in'ta the sea. "We're officially sunk, a wreck. Wilkes very nearly sounded as if he wanted to give the abandon ship order."
"Yeah, that about covers it."
"I don't hear the Hun planes, anymore. D'you, Ricky?"
Both women paused, in the dusty atmosphere of the partially destroyed room, listening intently.
"The anti-aircraft guns' have stopped, too."
"Looks like Jerry's gone home." Gabrielle sighing in relief.
"An' left us a pile o'junk in lieu of our radio equipment." Claire hitting the important point of the late action. "I have a powerful impression our presence on this pile of wreckage ain't needed any longer, lover."
Gabrielle sat back on her stool, wiping some dirt from her face and taking a deep breath.
"Hu-um, figure you may be right, lady. God, what a day."
The Nissen Hut, back at RAF Little Lanning airfield in North Norfolk, seemed to the newly returned flying officers like the Alhambra Palace itself; comfortable chairs, cosy beds, a stove, sink, and gas ring to the rear, along with incorporated bathroom and toilet facilities. The only dark aspect being the desk holding the short-wave radio connecting them with their overlords of SOE in London: but, all the same Claire and Gabrielle were more contented than otherwise to be back.
"Just as well, that attack, y'know, lover." Gabrielle sighing happily as she dumped her kitbag on her bed.
"Why so, darlin'?"
"I was just beginning t'feel the onset of sea-sickness, is all."
"What?" Claire hardly believing her ears. "After you'd been on the Fort for, what, five days already? Some curious form of sea-sickness, that."
"Oh, thanks, for your concern." Gabrielle mimicking a dejected tone she didn't really feel. "Anyway's, here we are again."
"Couldn't have put it better, myself, darlin'." Claire aiming for the high ground of Romance, and very nearly succeeding. "What's this, on the desk? An envelope, thin, pale brown, WD for the use of—addressed to us, from Wing-Commander Elliot, of this parish."
Having watched her soulmate turn the offending missive endlessly over and over in her hands Gabrielle lost the little patience with such things she usually harboured.
"Open the dam' thing, for God's sake."
Seeing the validity of this request Claire did as ordered; though raising her right eyebrow censoriously towards her lover anyway, rightfully feeling you had to keep the lower orders in their place at all times.
"Wing-Commander Elliot is pleased to confirm that Flying Officers Claire Mathews and Gabrielle Parker have been given sole charge of Stirling J for Jay, now sitting on the eastern dispersal off-ramp. First operation Thursday Twenty-First, twenty-two hundred pip-emma. Report to Briefing Room, thirteen hundred pip-emma."
"F-ck, that's tomorrow." Gabrielle sighing again as she lay down on her bunk. "Don't give us much time t'recover, does he?"
"Bloody War, can't finish quick enough fer me."
"You sound in need of bucking-up, dear. Come an' push your bunk alongside mine; then we can help each other to sigh no more, as the poet says. How's about it?"
"It is nearly eleven at night." Claire accepting the realities. "Sounds a good idea t'me. Here, push over a little, gal, I'm nearly fallin' out'ta bed, as it is."
"This better, dear?" Gabrielle shifting sideways and encircling her lover's bare shoulders in her arms.
"It'll do for a start, lady."
Another 'Mathews and Parker' story will arrive shortly.