'Midnight Run By Anson'
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,—have to go on an urgent secret flight.
Note:— Wherever Air Chief Marshal Harris actually was during the night in question, for the purposes of my story he was onboard Claire and Gabrielle's Anson.
Warning:— There is some light swearing in this tale.
"Jeez, wha' time's it? Go an' see, Gabs, will ya; there's my beauty."
Gabrielle, so unscrupulously enlisted as temporary general dogsbody, growled something against King's Regulations and leaned over to grab the alarm clock on the bedside table; the two women, as usual, having pushed their single bunks together, in the solitude of their private Nissen Hut, to take advantage of whatever chances of togetherness were offered the lovers.
"Graah, it's, aah, Jeez, only eleven-thirty."
"Who's makin' all the racket, at this time o'night?"
"How should I know?"
"Well, don't lie there dithering, go an' see."
Muttering something else fruity but to the point Gabrielle rose from her bunk and wrapped herself, being wholly naked otherwise, in her Army regulation overcoat; tightening the belt round her waist with a vicious tug. The sleeping quarters were closed-off from the main part of the curved-roof Nissen by a wide curtain, which she drew aside with a sharp jerk, proceeding to slope along the hut to the door in the far brick wall; the side walls, apart from the rear, being simply the curving corrugated iron roof doing several jobs at once—it being wartime and all, and everyone having to muck in and do their bit.
"Wha's it? Wha' ya want? Don't ya know the bloody time?"
She and Claire had only returned late that afternoon from a long run over Germany in a Lysander hence their early night, and Gabrielle at least was still feeling the strain of the last few hours.
"Message from Wing Commander Bryson," The uniformed herald was one of those indeterminate squadie's who generally ran around the airfield all day carrying messages from one officer to another; themselves being altogether impersonal and anonymous. "says, get yersel's out'ta yer digs pronto, an' report t'the briefing-room as soon's ya like. Message ends. Got'ta reply?"
Which the young squady did; disappearing into the black night like a wraith on a mission.
"Who was it?"
Claire had only just managed to haul herself out of her bunk and don some form of clothing,—trousers, shirt amd short leather jacket with zip-front.
"Message from Bryson, we're needed in the briefing-room, as soon's you can find your feet, ducks.
"Jeez, what the hell next?"
"No, it can't wait, Mathews." Wing Commander Keith Bryson, all 27 years of him, was full of wrath, for many reasons—not the least being the War. "Sergeant Harringey's toolin' up an Anson over on the north dispersal points as we speak; an' you two are it."
"What's the story, sir?" Gabrielle pin-pointing the heart of the matter in few words.
"You both know RAF Hornchurch, near Romford?"
"Good, you're goin' there tonight." Bryson paused to consult a sheet of dingy grey WD issue letter paper on his desk. "You'll pick up three VIP's, and two subalterns. From Hornchurch you'll fly south-east till you're outside the Inner Defence Ring for London then fly south-west, stayin' inland over the Downs most of the way, till you reach your destination, Plymouth. Don't be tempted to fly over the Channel for comfort or to escape the inland anti-aircraft defences—don't want you setting-off the coastal Chain Home radar, do we? That wouldn't be nice, especially for you."
"Stop sayin' that, for God's sake. Any questions?"
"Who're the bods we're takin' for a ride, sir?" Claire feeling rather more brave than usual.
"Information not necessary to the positive outcome of the mission." Bryson snapped this through clenched teeth, eyeing the women coldly. "And if you think you recognise any of 'em, for God's sake don't address 'em by name, or ask for autographs. Got that?"
"Oh, God. Go away."
The main problem with all Avro Ansons were the long windows which did service as walls holding the roof of the passenger cabin in place. These windows, reaching from cockpit to nearly the tail, were separated by such thin partition struts that the plane looked as if the whole of the cabin on each side had glass instead of solid walls; hence the problem, heating. No matter how high you set the interior heating system there was no way you could ever effect any real level of comfort when in flight; it was cold, and it stayed cold, come what might. Claire and Gabrielle were now experiencing this phenomena in full as they flew over Southern England.
"Can't you get it t'go any higher?" Claire was grumbling to her navigator for the umpteenth time in the last half hour. "I'm bloody freezin'; an' what'll the VIP's think, when we pick 'em up at Hornchurch?"
"Ain't my fault." Gabrielle was indifferent, being quite cosy in her sheepskin-lined flying gear. "They'll just have to take it as it is, is all. You sure you're flying on the course I gave ya five minutes ago?"
"Of course I am, gal." Claire never liking her aptitude criticised at the best of times. "I can follow a compass heading, can't I?"
"Yeah, yeah, take it easy. We're inside the London Inner Defence Line now, dearest."
"Well, let's hope Bryson told 'em the glad tidings of our presence." Claire shook her head comprehensively. "Don't fancy bein' shot out'ta the sky by our own forces."
As if someone on high, some latter-day Greek God or Goddess, had been listening in to their conversation life suddenly became interesting for the two women in their monoplane. The sky lit up all round their aircraft; which was then pinned like a butterfly in one of the several searchlight beams which jerked and jiggled across the sky all round.
"F-ckin' hell. I'm blinded."
"Keep your shirt on, ducks, they're friendly—at least I fervently hope so." Claire calming her passenger like a good captain.
As suddenly as the beams had appeared they suddenly winked out, like candles on a birthday cake, then the sky returned to its all-enveloping darkness again.
"Jeez, now I really can't see a dam' thing." Gabrielle brushed her eyes with the back of her heavy glove, but with no real result. "It'll take me ten minutes t'get my night-sight back."
"We're only about ten minutes away from Hornchurch, as it is." Claire grasping the hub of the matter. "That's why they took a quick shufti at us; just checking we were who we were supposed t'be."
In wartime landing an aircraft at night often encompassed some very dramatic preparations—up to and including the hugely expensive, in petrol, F.I.D.O.: but when they reached the airspace over their destination Claire found the runway helpfully lit by double rows of what appeared to be surplus railway lanterns along both sides, making landing a dawdle, more or less.
As the small monoplane came to rest some three-quarters of the way along the runway a dark form materialised out of the gloom, carefully stopping well short of the still rotating propellors, and waved officiously at the cockpit.
"What does he want?"
"Tell ya what, lady, I'll open my window an' ask him; how's that sound?"
"Fool." Gabrielle, rebuffed, bowed her head over her notebooks again, taking no further interest in her companion's activities.
"Don't exit your plane." The man, as he shouted back, could now vaguely be seen to be an Air Force officer of some description. "The VIP's are comin' out now; be here in a jiffy. Bit of a change in personnel; one VIP and three subalterns listed as passengers."
"Just drive the bus, don't worry yourselves about the passengers, there's nice." The officer cutting-off Claire's question before it could be fully formed. "Ah, here they are now; just lem'me get the door."
"What's he doin'?" Gabrielle anxious, as ever, to know what was going on around her.
"Just goin' to open the fuselage door an' see the VIP's an' assorted hangers-on come aboard comfortably."
As Claire spoke two small Tilly's rolled up to park near the port wing of the Anson. Another minute saw four men, all in RAF uniforms, come together on the concrete runway before clambering in the plane, which rocked on its bearings as they affected its centre of gravity.
"Don't forget to recalibrate before you take-off, Ricky."
"I ain't an idiot, dear, thanks very much."
"Only sayin'." Gabrielle, savagely rebuffed twice in one flight, fell to muttering unfathomably under her breath, helped in this by her face-mask.
"Right, we're ready, take her away, lads." This spoken by one of the young lieutenants who were acting as dogsbodys to the elite, sitting further down the narrow passenger cabin.
Ignoring his lack of recognition of her sex, Claire merely nodded behind the protection of her own face-mask and flying-helmet before settling to the task of turning the Anson to face the other direction—then she gunned the engines and set the aircraft free to race down the runway, and a few seconds later they were airborne on their way to the distant destination.
Normally there was no real partition or bulkhead separating cockpit from passenger compartment in an Avro Anson; just a few thin angled metal struts, but this particular member of its breed was slightly different.
"Glad this's a Transport Command plane, Ricky."
"Oh, how so, doll?"
The plane had gained height, Gabrielle having just given her pilot compass directions for their journey's eventual end. Now she was settling herself in the co-pilot's seat, shuffling her shoulders in her heavy sheepskin jacket.
"This new bulkhead, behind us, gives us privacy." Gabrielle glanced to her side where, by craning her neck, she could just see the central door in said partition. "Not like in ordinary Ansons', where the passengers have an open view of their pilots through a few metal struts."
"Yeah, at least now we can speak together on our intercom without the passengers knowing what's going on."
"Who are they, by'n by?" Gabrielle always one for identifying the unknown.
"The biggest bod of the lot, nearly, dearie." Claire took time from studying her instruments, to reply. "Keep yer voice down, by the way; even if we have the intercom we still don't want 'em t'catch a word; they have a telephone system back in the cabin that's connected t'our intercom. You'll see that red light flash, just above the compass; flick the switch beside it an' they come on the intercom."
"Fancy; so, who are they, then? Did you recognise any of them as they came aboard?" Gabrielle also being one who never gave up till the last gasp. "I didn't; too dark, an' I was too busy."
"Gods, right, if ya wan'na strain your neck t'look through that dinky little round porthole in the bulkhead door, the one at the back on the port side; the stocky grey-haired buster, is Harris, Bomber Harris; y'know him now, lover?"
"Yeah, thought you'd recognise 'im."
A quiet pause ensued, as Gabrielle came to grips with her new position; finally getting her mind round the facts in the case.
"Harris—Bomber Harris? Head of Bomber Command? Jee-sus."
Claire here opened the fuel feed cocks a trifle, engines responding by deeper growls and increased revolutions; the speed increasing proportionately.
"Got the course for Plymouth?"
"Yeah, let's see—OK, turn one-five-zero, an' try'n stay on this course for the next twenty-five minutes."
"God, you are a one, Ricky."
The only trouble with the tight little compartment in the Anson, vis-a-vis passengers and crew, was the inevitability of each associating with the other; an option which the passengers took up almost immediately. The red light near the compass began doing its thing and Gabrielle helpfully flicked the required switch.
"What? What? We're bloody flying a plane here, mate."
"Here, I say, discipline, an' all that."
"Listen, laddie," Gabrielle had hunched round to glare through the small window connecting the tight cockpit with the similarly tight passenger compartment. The young man now visible standing on the other side of the bulkhead, telephone to ear, was recognisable as a lieutenant; so, unimpressed, she took appropriate steps. "In flight the pilot's in charge—an' who's flying this piece o'junk as we speak, I asks? My partner here, is who"
"—er," Faced with the fact there was no answer to this, and that he had just recognised the sex of his plane's pilot, via her tone of voice, the youth fell to stuttering for a moment. "—er, ah, that is to say, Air Chi—er, your passenger asks if you can't fly the plane a little more smoothly. Its bucketing about a trifle, and he's trying to read some documents."
Gabrielle and Claire looked meaningfully at each other for a couple of seconds before Claire joined the fray, on the intercom.
"Look, lieutenant, this isn't a Handley-Page H.P. Forty-Two; it's a small, very much so, Avro Anson," Now well into her lecture Claire took a few seconds to glance at her instruments again before continuing the young man's education. "as you have probably worked out for yourself by now. We're bucketing about because external forces, beyond the control of anybody, make it so. Tell your passenger to settle in for the duration, an' just put up with it—we''ll be landing at Plymouth in about an hour or so, anyway."
"Ah, er, yes, quite; thank you."
"Dam' passengers complaining about the bumpy road."
"Yeah," Claire switched off the inter-communicating telephone, to converse on the intercom in privacy again with her navigator. "think they'd have more sense; a little buffeting about, that wouldn't hurt a Pekinese, an' they grumble about throwing up their dinners,—I don't know."
The flight continued peacefuly for the next few minutes; the only diversions being the odd searchlight beam, like a sword slicing through black velvet, cutting the night as the plane flew on.
"They all, down there, seem t'know we're here well enough." Gabrielle sniffing officiously as she glanced out her side-window.
"Yeah well, better'n them not knowing who we are."
"Hah, there's that."
The trouble with a Focke Wulf 190 was its two wing-mounted 20mm cannon could blast an Avro Anson into a cloud of shrapnel and broken components without really trying—always supposing the Luftwaffe pilot was expert enough to hold his prey in his sights for an appropriate number of seconds. A few minutes after Claire and Gabrielle's last conversation this is exactly what a stray member of its breed attempted—out of a dark midnight-black sky.
Claire, caught unawares, threw the Anson into a tight curve to port, diving sharply at the same time.
"D'ya see it? Any damage?"
Gabrielle, though, had other things on her mind.
"Nah, if we'd been hit we'd dam' know about it. Didn't see it, neither. Climb—climb, for God's sake!"
Far off to port a searchlight cut high into the dark night, a wand of blinding white light separating the darkness all round it. Standing vertical for a second it began what was clearly a directed search across the parameters of the sky nearby; then it was joined by another, the twin beams wavering around like magical swords grasped by invisible Gods. Then, in the sky frightfully close to the Anson's still weaving flight, a burst of anti-aircraft fire rent the darkness, the explosions' flashes making the pilots' eyes sting, they were so close.
"God Almighty! Are the fools trying t'shoot us down?" Gabrielle hunched in her seat, body pressed against the bulwark to keep herself steady as Claire once more thrust the complaining Anson into maneouvers it had never been designed to withstand.
The effects of another burst of anti-aircraft fire, again too close for comfort, vibrated through the frame of the aircraft as Claire swung it into a steep dive to starboard—all sorts of loose items flying about the cockpit as if powered by supernatural forces.
"Christ! Don't do that again, the bloody wings'll fall off." Gabrielle focusing on a technical detail she felt to be of some import. "Where is he? See him anywhere? Christ!—wish those dam' fools on the ground'd stop using us for target practice."
Claire, greatly daring,—or because she had run out of defensive tactics—brought the Anson back onto an even keel, though flying in something of a wide arc aimed inland now.
"It's black as Satan's underwear out there, ducks; there's nothing t'see. At least he ain't shot at us again. Hold on, I'm gon'na try another dive t'port, meb'be a thousand feet—"
"—hope we've got that much t'spare." Gabrielle, under the stress, allowing herself to gibber.
"—then come back up, headin' t'port again. I'll try'n get this old bird to it's maximum height." Claire taking deep breaths behind her face-mask. "Y'know those Focke's lose efficiency at high altitudes."
"Aiming for the stars, are you?" Gabrielle still not quite compos mentis.
Thankfully those in the passenger compartment had earlier all buckled themselves into their seatbelts—Bomber Harris himself giving the order—"Better safe than sorry; don't want one of you young subalterns crashing out through a window if anything crops up—an Anson being, by the looks of the thing, a very easy plane to get thrown out of. All strapped in? Good!"
Gabrielle unbuckled herself to some extent, to lean over and take a glance through the small porthole in the cockpit door.
"All well, back there." She shuffled herself into a comfortable position once more, tightening several straps again. "Nobody injured, by the look of it. How long till the destination?"
"Another twenty minutes." Claire taking this time from the clock on the dashboard. "Let's hope it's a peaceful twenty minutes."
But Gabrielle had a morose answer to this naïve hope.
"There's no such thing, in Wartime, as a peaceful minute." Her expression behind her facemask was hidden from view, but was probably gloomy. "If you ain't being shot at, bombed at, generally threatened by something awful and enemy oriented, then you can only think sad thoughts about how much better every bloody second you go through would be if there wasn't a dam' war going on all round you. Just saying, as it were."
Faced with this level of depression Claire took the safe course of not attempting anything in the line of a soothing reply; knowing full well if she did Gabrielle would probably take it the wrong way, bigtime.
Ten minutes later a line of searchlights, to starboard, lit the blackness all round; looking for all the world like streetlights along a straight road.
"That's the signal from the Outer Defence Line round Plymouth." Gabrielle, again on top of her game after her melancholy outburst. "About eight minutes and we'll be over the airfield. Turn two degrees to starboard, ducks."
The small RAF airfield on the outskirts of Plymouth which had been designated as their destination showed its runway as two lines of wavering light, two parallel series of individual petrol fires by the look of them, illuminating where the runway was.
"God! Looks like they're usin' FIDO t'light us in—must know a real high bigwig's aboard."
Claire only glad she could actually see the runway clearly for once, instead of by the few weak lights used on regular bomber airfields at night: the landing of a large bomber in darkness, as Claire well knew, being more an expression of Lady Luck's good favour than any scientific assistance.
The Anson bounced once, just to show it was still in one piece, then taxied to a halt at the end of the flickering lines of fire. Two minutes later, as the ladies went through their landing routine, these disappeared leaving the aircraft in total darkness once more.
"Look, car headlights, coming up from behind us." Gabrielle glancing out her side-window. "The reception party for our VIP's."
"Huh! They can have 'em, I'm sure; fuel pumps switched-off?"
"Right, let's get ourselves out'ta this flimsy excuse for an aircraft, so's we can find the nearest NAAFI. If anyone tries t'tell us we have t'return immediately, well-I'll have something t'say, is all."
"With you there, baby; all the way. Char before all else, or we resign and someone else can take this dam' Anson back to Hornchurch—if anyone here can find the place, that is.
"Ha-ha. Come on, I've got a thirst like an elephant that's just crossed the Sahara."
"Right behind you, Ricky, right at your back."
The thing about Bomber Harris, Head of Bomber Command, was that he was supposed to be entirely in the dark about various details associated with the smooth running of his operation; viv-a-vis women pilots on active missions: this latter officially being a definite no-no across the board. So, instead of swanning into the public NAAFI and taking a seat beside the tired pilots, he commanded they appear in a small office in a one-storey hut nearby, where he presently reigned in solitary and private grandeur. Wondering what the fuss was about, and having imbibed as much RAF tea as they both thought medically wise, they accepted the summons with gloomy mien.
"Wonder what he wants?" Gabrielle giving her suspicious mind free rein.
"Knock on the door an' get inside, so's we can find out—remember t'salute, like he was someone important."
"Oh, very funny; where does your sense of humor stop, lady?"
Inside, the poky office showed itself to be simply another anonymous example of its kind—filing cabinets, small desk, waste-paper bin, wooden-backed chairs, tall wooden multi-armed hat and coat stand by the entrance, and a long row of windows presently concealed behind thick blackout curtains. Harris sat behind the desk, a Captain by his side; both partaking of tea and sandwiches.
"Hallo, ladies, park yourselves on whatever you can find, that's right." Almost uniquely in anyone's experience Harris seemed in a good mood. "Didn't realise we had a female crew till almost halfway through our flight. That was a sprightly bit of business you pulled off, when that dam' Jerry tried it on."
"Thank you, sir." Claire raising her eyebrows in wonder at this unexpected compliment. "Was worried you all might have been, er, thrown about a bit."
"We were—oh, yes; quite an experience, but not one I'd like to go through often." Harris studied the women with his cold grey eyes, much like a shop-butcher contemplating a side of beef. "Know about you, both. Been following your careers with, uum, interest mixed with anxiety and curiousity. Done very well, the two of you, so far—barring a sad habit of pranging aircraft like they were sticks of Brighton rock."
Claire and Gabrielle, tried to look entirely innocent of any misdemeanour—not an easy attitude for either to keep up for long.
"Anyway, just thought I'd let you know your work isn't going unnoticed. Thank you, ladies."
Two minutes later the women found themselves kicked back out into the enfolding darkness, only the whitewashed stones along the edges of the many paths allowing them to find their way.
"God, that was a one, an' no mistake." Gabrielle speaking as she thought.
"Yeah, wasn't it."
"Thought ol' Bomber didn't like ladies going on missions?"
"He don't; down on such like a ton of nutty slack, gen'rally."
"So, why now—"
"Some things ya just got'ta ignore, take no notice of, pretend it jes' ain't happening—there bein' a bloody War on, an' all. Get me?"
The NAAFI on any RAF base could hardly be called an institution where you could go for some prime private contemplation—that not being its raison d'etre at all; quite the opposite, in fact. The particular member of its species located on RAF Laxton on the outskirts of Plymouth was typical of its kind; a long bare room, lines of windows on both sides, a short counter at one end behind which the volunteer ladies served hungry aircraftsmen and women with food and drink, as long as the latter was tea, coffee, or cocoa. At the moment, having returned somewhat shell-shocked from their meeting with Air Chief Marshal Harris, Claire and Gabrielle were sitting quietly at a table to the rear of the noisy room; there being a full house this evening, late as it was. But their relative privacy did not last long; within a minute a young Aircraftsman, with a Captain in tow, approached their table with intent shining in his eyes.
"Ma'am," Using the formal dual title where more than one was concerned. "I've orders to ask you to take Captain Hanningly as a passenger on your return flight. It's been cleared with the, er, Higher Authorities. OK, ma'am?"
"Have we much say in the matter?" Claire being short, because she felt like it.
"—er, no, not really, ma'am; orders bein', er, what they are, ma'am."
"OK, no worry, thanks, g'bye. So, Captain Hanningly, what can we do for you,—sir?"
The Captain now showed himself as a tall, lean young and athletic-bodied 25 year old or so with thick already greying hair, narrow features, and a look of being the friend of the whole world, if allowed.
"Have t'be in the Smoke pronto, no time wasted, quick as I like, pick my feet up, an' don't waste bloody time." He grinning like a University undergraduate the while; which he possibly had been not so long ago. "Sorry t'interrupt your, ah, privacy, but duty calls—there not being any other mode of transport, of the winged variety, till morning. I promise to be nice and quiet and not be bossy or anything."
Claire might have reacted ornery, because that was her innate nature, but Gabrielle took the Captain's words at face value, jumping in before her partner could get off anything derogatory by way of reply.
"Sure thing, Captain, we'll be pleased; it never being really much fun flying by ourselves, y'know."
"Speak for yourself, dea—, er, Miss Parker." Claire miffed beyond endurance by this light-hearted quip.
"Miss Mathews has an inflamed toe, Captain." Gabrielle making it up as she went along. "Medical officer, back at Little Lanning, says its insipient gout, would you believe."
"Sorry, too much information?" Gabrielle tried to look discomfited, but failed. "Suppose the Anson'll be re-fuelled by now; shall we go?"
Because of the acres of glass on an Anson the crew, not to mention passengers, were eternally cold; the heating being pretty much useless, never keeping up with the constant call to arms. Because of its relatively small size it was also bucketed about in the airstream like a feather in the wind; the twin Armstrong Siddeley Cheetah air-cooled engines also making the airframe vibrate from stem to stern without check. No, there was never a peaceful moment onboard an Anson going anywhere in a hurry; or, indeed, just airborne in the general nature of things. Captain Hanningly, and his associated attache-case, finding this out within five minutes of the aircraft taking-off on its return to Hornchurch.
"The poor old Captain's taking a beating back there." Gabrielle speaking through the intercom, having twisted herself like a contortionist to peek through the small porthole in the cabin door. "He's just had to unbuckle his safety-belt to retrieve his case; it going walkies half a minute ago."
"As long as the dam' thing doesn't go walkies through one of the dam' windows." Claire absorbed in the technicalities of controlling the energetic aircraft. "God, this thing flies like a greyhound on the track after the hare."
"Blaming your tools again, are we, lover?"
"Ha-ha." Claire sniffing superciliously behind her all-encompassing face-mask. "Just get on with figuring out our route, navigator."
Two minutes later Gabrielle dutifully passed across her scribbled course-plan.
"What in hell's this?" Claire peering down at the wrinkled badly written piece of paper. "Looks like a drunken spider's route to the local Pig an' Whistle. What is this?"
Gabrielle sighed ruefully, a navigator's job being never done.
"If we stay on this present course we'll fly right through the Outer Defence Line for Plymouth—and they won't like that." She warming to her task of explaining the unexplainable. "If we steer out over the Channel we will, as you very well know, lover, kick-off the Home Chain Radar, which would be a catastrophe for all concerned. If we take what you might think the easy middle course, we'll hit the London Defence Wide Ring, which would mean our instant annihilation. So this course here, what I have just sweated blood over figuring out, is the only one that'll get us safely, and still in one piece and alive, back to Hornchurch. Have I made my point, lady?"
For the next five minutes the chill in the cabin could not all be put down to the general atmospheric cold.
A searchlight, springing to life without warning, as they all did, pinned the Anson in the centre of its beam. Everything outside the cabin became suddenly brilliantly white; the illumination searing through the interior of the aircraft like a wildfire, instantly blinding both pilots.
Holding the plane for several seconds, caught dead to rights in the vertical slash of intense light, the searchlight then switched-off as quickly as it had made its maiden appearance, leaving the air-women pulling up their goggles to rub their scorched eyes.
"Chr-st-a'Mighty, where'n hell'd that come from?"
"We're just slipping by Southampton." Gabrielle on top of her navigator's duties. "Must'a been an over-zealous AA unit down there—at least they recognised us as friendly."
"Huh! Think my eyes're permanently damaged." Claire unwillingly replacing her goggles. "Take a decco back there, again; see if our passenger's survived, as well, will ya?"
Grumbling mightily, but following orders, Gabrielle unhitched her safety harness, her intercom cord, her oxygen line, and a wide buckled belt she had yet to discover the need for. Finally freed, she slid round in the tight space to lean over and peer through the little port in the door separating the cabin from the passenger compartment. After a quick glimpse, she leaned nearer the glass window to take a clearer view of what their passenger was, or was not, up to. Then she turned to Claire, making signals for her to release her face-mask for some informal discussion, over the noise of the engines.
"Something's not right."
"He ain't looking too good."
"I don't like the look of the Captain; he's looking funny."
Gabrielle laboriously settled herself back in her seat, buckled up whatever came to hand, and flicked on her face-mask intercom.
"Can you hear me now?"
"Yeah, sure, don't shout."
"Gods!" Gabrielle nearly at the end of a short and badly frayed tether. "Captain Hanningly's slumped over in his seat; nearly face-down on the deck. He ain't looking anywhere near in good nick."
Considering this worrying news from the Front Claire came to the only viable decision.
"Get back there, ducks, an' see what the hell he's up to, will ya? There's a dear."
Muttering a string of juicy expletives which, if writtten in a letter would certainly have drawn the attention of the censor's blue pencil, and a sharp warning, Gabrielle once more struggled to divest herself of all her safety and utility appliances. Struggling to her feet, enclosed in wool-lined heavy boots which did nothing to ease her passage in the tight confines of the cabin, she finally reached the door and pushed it open. Bidding her pilot a fond farewell Claire never heard Gabrielle stumbled backwards into the passenger compartment.
Two minutes later she had returned to the cabin, laboriously gone through all the earlier routine, only in reverse, and settled back beside Claire once more.
The Anson quivered in flight as this remark percolated Claire's consciousness.
"Will you, for God's sake, stop saying What?" Gabrielle laying down the rules of the game. "He is no longer in the land of the living."
Claire paused for a few seconds, biting her lip unseen.
"Are ya sure? How?"
"I took an Auxilliary First-Aid course some while back." Gabrielle relating her professional standing vis-à-vis the living and the dead. "That man back there has filled in his last Football Pool, is all. Looks like a heart attack."
Claire was still having difficulty coming to terms with the changed situation.
"Ya sure? I mean, really sure? He ain't just taking a deep nap, or something?"
Gabrielle, anxious, annoyed, and somewhat surprised herself, was up for this.
"You love me?"
"Of course, stupid question."
"You know how to fly this plane?"
"What does it look like, joy of my heart?"
"Ricky, Captain Hanningly, back there, is as dead as a Dodo."
The Anson's arrival back at Hornchurch was a mixed affair; Claire had sent a radio message ahead, heralding their imminent arrival, with the secondary note that something aboard was not quite, quite. This bringing the reply that their message had been duly noted and a reception party would be on hand when they landed; the rest of the flight took place in, if not entirely a stony, certainly a subdued silence.
Hornchurch not thinking the Anson required FIDO Claire had to make do with a badly lit runway barely visible to the eye. She, however, brought the plane down in exemplary manner; as her experience, of course, dictated. Close by the runway border two Tilly's sat waiting; from one of which emerged a Wing Commander, and from the other an anonymous individual in uniform who's leather bag indicated he was the local Medical Officer. Having switched off the engines Claire opened her side-window and began preliminary discussions with the Authorities.
"Passenger back there, sir, Captain Hanningly; looks like he's expired—meb'be a heart attack."
"God, what the dam' next." The Wing Commander reacting as any professional officer of his rank in time of War would. "OK, get over t'the briefing-room; I'll expect a full report in fifteen minutes. OK, Major Jaspene, let's see what the hell's happened t'the bloke."
The briefing-room was long, sparsely furnished, and cold as the ante-chamber to Hell; Claire and Gabrielle felt right at home.
"This'll look good in our personal files." Gabrielle kicking off the discussion on the required low-spirited track, as they sat on two uncomfortable wooden-backed chairs. "We take a flock of Bigwigs to one place, then return with a lesser member of the species, who kicks the bucket en flight on our watch—Hell!"
"Not our fault." Claire pinpointing the undeniable. "What'd we have t'do with his takin' the one-way route t'ever-lasting glory?"
Further discourse was interrupted by the entrance of the Wing Commader; looking less than happy, though holding the late Captain's attache-case in one hand.
"Well, the Medical Officer says all symptoms do point to a terminal heart attack; probably brought on by shock, or something similar." He pinned both women with a steely eye. "Anything of that nature happen in flight, perhaps?"
Five minutes later, armed with the knowledge of what had occurred in flight, the Wing Commander left again; seemingly happy that everything could be assigned to logical exigencies. Abandoned to their own devices the ladies looked at one another before Gabrielle, in the circumstances, asked the all-important question.
"Which way to the NAAFI, dear?"
Back at their cosy private Nissen Hut on RAF Little Lanning airfield, Norfolk, Claire and Gabrielle settled down to some intensive de-briefing of their own.
"Thank God it wasn't Harris." Claire getting off her chest the important aspect of the tragic tale.
"You can say that again, lover." Gabrielle no less relieved. "If it had been, what then? We'd have taken the responsibility through the rest of the War, not to say the rest of our lives. Thank Goodness it was just Captain Hanningly, whoever the dam' he was."
"Too true." Claire nodding agreement with this wholly reasonable outlook. "Completely anonymous character; probably be forgotten in a week by all concerned."
"Except for the relatives, I suppose." Gabrielle noting, for the record, an interesting side-issue.
"Yeah, well, War does that; can't all be wine an' roses." Claire showing away with her rapidly strengthening cold stoic outlook to Life, the War, and dam' everything. "That bottle o'Scotch; you know, the one Henderson sent down from Kirkwall? We got any left?"
"About a third of the bottle, lover; enough for three or four drinks."
"Hoist it out, darlin' of my whole existence—an' lets splice the mainbrace."
"Right with you, lover; bags I first drink, though."
Another 'Mathews and Parker' story will arrive shortly.