By Phineas Redux
Summary:— This story is set in 1943. Flying Officers Claire 'Ricky' Mathews and Gabrielle Parker—lovers, members of ATA, Air Transport Auxiliary, and the top secret SOE, Special Operations Executive,—pick the short straw.
Disclaimer:— All characters are ©2020 to the author.
Warning:— There is some light swearing in this tale.
The trouble with 23 year old Charles 'Charlie' Gibbings was his name and unchosen career; in 1941 he had been summarily enjoined to sign-up for the duration, against pain of death; being picked, like a winkle from its shell, out of comfortable minor clerical quarters in the offices of a failing fortnightly magazine in Grainger's Lane off Fleet Street, London; having done so, against his better judgement, he had been inducted, again against his will, into the RAF, who had instantly assigned him to the tail-gunner's position in a Whitley bomber; this for ever after saddling him with the unwonted moniker 'Tail-end Charlie' Charlie. For a person of Charles' sensitive nature this rankled, though there was nothing to be done about the business except take it like a man and get on with the dam' war; the end of which, for Charles, couldn't come quickly enough.
By 1943 he had progressed to Lancaster bombers, with hiccups; he having been, for a brief unhappy period for all concerned, the rear-gunner in a Boulton Paul Defiant, up to the point he accidentally shot the tail rudder off one and he and his pilot had to bail out over England, landing in a bog. He then put in for a transfer to heavy bombers; a request gratefully accepted by his relieved Wing-Commander.
And so, one balmy morning of May 1943, he found himself on the tarmac at Little Lanning airfield, Norfolk, looking with envy, and some despair, at the line-up of Lancasters over on the western dispersal points while, a few yards behind him sat that out-dated behemoth of the aviation world a Stirling bomber; its nose aimed regally at the clouds in a manner obviously meant to put potential crew members in their place.
He stood some way off from the aircraft itself; no-one with any sense standing under or even too close to a Stirling if they valued their health, not to say lives; this aircraft type being notorious for having tendencies of a murderous nature if not kept a careful eye on. Fresh from taking a gander at his soon-to-be fighting position, ie, the tail gun turret, he was less than pleased. Although, due to the Stirling's quaint structure, his turret presently resided almost at boot level on the tarmac and showed its teeth in the way of four, count them, four Browning .303 machine-guns, he had still found an irritating quibble to harass his commanding officers with.
"What? Ya talkin' t'me?"
"Yes, ma'am." Charles raising an elegant eyebrow; he having been somewhat debonair, not to say raffish, in private life. "I've just been round this beast, and the rear gun turret is lacking in an important piece of equipment, if I may bring this to your attention."
Claire Mathews, pilot-officer, member of ATA and the ultra-secret SOE, gave the young man a scathing glance.
"First, don't call me ma'am, it annoys me." She turned to face the callow youth from her greater height. "Miss Mathews'll do fine. What's wrong with the gun turret? An' this Stirling's a mainstream bomber, not a beast. It'll be taking us over enemy territory later t'day, an' bringing us back, so treat it with politeness, if ya don't mind. So, the turret?"
Somewhat taken aback by this chilly response Charles took a few moments to reconsider his complaint.
"Well, er, it was just to say there appears to be a piece of the perspex window missing, right in front of where I'll be sitting."
"The clear-view panel, yes." Claire well up on this problem from long experience. "Our last rear gunner took it out to help him see at night. Reflections an' such, y'know. The clear-view panel not giving as clear a view, especially at night, as one would hope. Many other rear gunners do the same—live with it, an' dress warmly's my advice. Anything else?"
"A-ah, no, ma'—er, Miss Mathews."
"Right, let's get to it; my co-pilot'll be developing gout of the butt, waitin' for us to climb aboard. Up ya go, sonnie."
With which request Charles, soundly put in his place, entered the rear door of the mighty bomber for the first time.
"What's he like?"
Gabrielle Parker, member of the same Units as her partner and secret lover Claire, sat in the right-hand seat in the Stirling cockpit staring at the sky, which was all you could see from a Stirling's cockpit whilst on the ground; it sticking it's nose in the air with a magnificent indifference to the niceties of take-off or landing.
"He'll do." Claire settling herself in the pilot's seat, struggling with the wealth of buckles and straps, not to mention the radio connection wires. "God, the dam' war'll be over by the time I'm fixed."
"You say that every time we fly, dearest."
"Hah, well it ain't none the less true for that, baby."
At present they were talking on their mask intercoms set to privacy, meaning only between themselves; they often finding it useful to discuss matters head to head only, as it were, during each mission.
"Like his perch in the tail, does he?" Gabrielle asking this asinine question before she could stop herself.
For answer Claire merely gave her loved partner a gloomy glance, her exact expression invisible behind her face-mask and flying-helmet.
Ten minutes later they were airborne over the North Sea, heading for that unmeasured area where it became the Channel—on the other side of which the Nazis held sway overall, more or less.
Hardly had they come within sight of the Dutch coast on the far horizon, though, than their peace and tranquility was impolitely shattered by the appearance of one of those enemy wolves of the air, a Messerschmitt 110 fighter-bomber.
"Christ a'mighty." Claire putting the Stirling into a wide dive to port.
"Where is he?"
"Jeez, I'm busy—you look." Claire with other things taking up her attention.
Charlie, in his rear turret, opening up on a passing shadow which was the only glimpse he got of their attacker.
Terry Barlow, in the upper turret, giving of his best; he having the clearest and longest look at the enemy plane as it passed by.
Harry Goodfellow, in the nose turret, opening up with his toys so as not to feel left out—he seeing nothing of any target.
"You're losing too much height." Gabrielle quite sure of this important point, paling as she spoke, staring at the approaching waves. "Buck up—higher—higher!"
But Claire, using all her strength, brought the nose of the mighty plane up and levelled off for a brief moment before taking another, level, veer to starboard.
"God, I see him!" Gabrielle staring out her side window intently. "A One-Ten. He's coming in at a slant."
Claire and Gabrielle, and the other crew members heard and felt the outcome of these unwanted attentions; the frame of the bomber quivering to the many hits as machine-gun bullets, and at least two cannon shells hit the body of the plane.
"Fire, in the main circuit panel!"
This from Jimmy Kinnaird, flight engineer.
"Jee-sus, what next?" Gabrielle preparing to release her safety harness and go back to offer assistance.
"Can you test the undercart deploying switch, pilot?" Jimmy having scrutinised the remnants of the circuit-breakers in the panel midway along the body of the plane, and not happy with the results.
"Why? I ain't landin' in the bloody briny." Claire waxing sarcastic under pressure. "At least I dam' well hope not!"
"Do it, ma'am. Do it."
Taking note of the serious note in the flight engineer's voice, even over the intercom, Claire flicked the relevant switch—and instantly everyone on board was made aware of serious consequences arising from their late meeting with the best Goring could throw at them.
"Nothing." Gabrielle, sitting back in her seat, putting into words everyone's realisation of the situation. "None of the undercart motors are operating. We ain't got no undercarriage."
"F-ck it, f-ck it!" Claire taking time to give the problem her finest attention. "Where are we, Gabs? An' has that f-ckin' Nazi gone, or what?"
"We're five miles off the South Foreland, just nor-east of Dover."
"Number Three engine's dying on us." Gabrielle staring out her window at the slowing propeller and the haze of oil or fuel or both exiting the cooling vents. "That's it, she's gone."
"No sign of the bandit." Terry, from his vantage point giving the good news, a trifle too late. "He's broken-off the attack."
"Number four's trailing something." Gabrielle gazing at the outer starboard engine grimly. "Oil—no, it's fuel. Jimmy, what're the fuel gauges showing for the starboard engines?"
On the ball in seconds, he having extinguished the fire in the systems panel, Jimmy came back with bad news.
"Failing across the board—goin' down like a swimmer with a lead Mae-West."
"G-d'd-mit!" Claire finding herself in the worst possible position for a bomber pilot. "That's it! OK, listen up, everyone. We're gon'na have t'bale out—all of us. I can glide this heap back over the coast, probably around four thousand feet. When I say Go!, don't dam' well hesitate, jump—this jalopy'll lose height like a fallin' rock. Right, here we are—on my mark—"
"Wait—wait." Gabrielle leaning over to reach her lover. "Lem'me unhitch your harness an' cables an' what-not. Right, you're free; go for it, lady."
"Thanks gal. OK, everyone, we're over the green fields of Ol' Blighty, this's it—hit the silk!"
The great thing about Stirling bombers, at this point in the ongoing conflict, was their availability. Having been taken off front-line bombing duties, as a result of Lancasters surpassing them across the board, there were many in reserve awaiting new duties. This had come in the manner of being seconded to Special Duties squadrons; which was a roundabout way of saying Secret Duties—the position in which Claire and Gabrielle were now embroiled. So, having pranged one Stirling another was ready on the taxing runway at Little Lanning, Norfolk, the very next day, curtesy of a female ATA ferry pilot.
"Oh, Chr-st, here we go again."
"Buck-up, partner," Gabrielle trying to instill positivity where it clearly wasn't wanted. "Another day, another Stirling, new parachutes, another bunch o'Nazi's to obliterate—what's not to like in that?"
"God, woman, you're losing what little sense y'ever had."
"Oh, come on; the sun's shining—not a common point in itself; we're bombed up with two-thousand pounders, and have a nice easy target t'pound t'rubble over in France." Gabrielle obviously benefitting from the two huge mugs of coffee she had recently imbibed during breakfast. "Let's get in, and get going. What's her name and number, again?"
"D for David." Claire replying morosely as she punted her partner's rear up the short ladder just forward of the tailplane. "How's it goin', Charlie?"
"Wish we didn't have to go on a daylight raid, Miss Mathews." Charlie determined to find the dust on the picture-frame. "Bound t'be harassed by bandits; stands t'reason."
"Quit grumbling, young 'un." Terry Barlow, just behind him, having nothing to do with this idle talk. "At least you've the best chance of balin' out, if needed. You just open your rear door an' climb back into the plane an' bale out the emergency hatch or rear door here, or reverse your turret an' fall out in'ta empty space as nice as ninepence. Look at the rest of us—about as much chance of baling out accordin' t'Hoyle as a hamster up to its oxters in a bowl o'porage; remember yesterday, what a fiasco that was—all of us tumbling out higglety-pigglety, as and when we could, like a bunch of puppets. Take Jimmy, who'll be bomb-aiming like bloody Nora at the height of our sortie. What chance has he of baling out? None, takin' in'ta account he's lying prostate in a space hardly larger than a sardine-can, an' the nearest emergency hatch as far away as Africa fer all the chance he'll ever have of makin' use of it."
"Come on, come on, time's a'wasting." Claire having had as much of this cheery conversation as she felt needful. "Some of us has a job t'do, if ya don't mind!"
Twenty-five minutes later D for David was flying at a height of 7,000 feet over Picardie in northern France, heading for St Quentin.
Claire answering her co-pilot's request for information on the necessity of bombing this particular quiet rural town in the French countryside.
"Oh, well, at least it's short of the Kammhuber Line—that's something."
"There're still Freya forward radar stations nipping at our heels, lady."
"Yeah, there's that." Gabrielle frowning horribly behind her face-mask. "Wouldn't be at all sur—"
"Bandit! Comin' in at seven o'clock!"
This report, coming over the intercom in the worried, indeed frightened, tones of the rear gunner, jerked everyone into frantic activity. Terry Barlow swung his power-operated upper turret through a three-quarter circle, his gun-barrels only just stopping short of aiming directly at the Stirling's massive tailplane. Harry Goodfellow, in the front turret, could only prime his guns and gaze intently round, looking for any chance to use his guns on the attacker. Charlie, in his rear turret, suddenly found the whole world revolved around him and no-one else.
"Jesus f-ck a'mighty!"
Charlie hunched his shoulders in the confined space as the rear of the aircraft reverberated to hits from the enemy plane's cannon. Seeing the approaching aircraft clearly, veering in from his peripheral vision, Charlie waited for what he sincerely hoped was the optimum moment before himself opening fire.
"G-d'd-mit, he's gone under, t'port."
"There he is!" Gabrielle having a grandstand view of the fast-moving fighter. "He's climbing for another run-in. Terry, he's your's!"
Terry, faced with the necessity of reversing his turret through almost 200 degrees, started swearing like a trooper but to no avail; by the time he had swung into a suitable position the attacker was long gone, but not before off-loading another broadside of cannon-fire on the virtually undefended bomber.
"God a'mighty, is no-one gon'na give return fire?" Gabrielle at the end of her tether, through strained nerves. "Shoot! Someone, for God's sake!"
As the enemy plane came through on its exit run after this second attack Charlie finally caught it in his sights. This time, throwing technical instruction to the winds, he opened fire promiscuously with hardly any attempt at fine aiming, watching his streams of tracer rip across the sky in lines of white fire—but well behind the disappearing German fighter.
"Any luck?" Gabrielle hoping for the best.
"Nah, missed the b-gger, by f-ckin' miles."
"Shit an' misery!" Claire, trying to keep the mighty bomber on an even keel, having now had quite enough. "Right, I'm gon'na start evasive action; hold on'ta whatever ya can, boys, here we go."
A Stirling bomber was quite athletic when the need arose; being able to pull off some really quite amazing stunts under pressure—but it was still an unwieldy four-engined bomber whose bomb-load hindered the more esoteric limits of its capabilities—in short, the attacking fighter came in for a third run with hardly any trouble in sighting its target once again.
"He's bloody comin' back—right up my bloody arse!"
Charlie, faced with imminent death, did the only thing he could—he aimed his quadruple guns as straight as he could and pressed the firing button with a short but intense prayer.
"What's up?" Gabrielle, seeing Claire was still busy trying to make the bomber stand on its tail, asking for information in something only barely less than a scream.
"Wait a mo'—he's dam' well comin' right back." Charlie under pressure in his own little world. "Ain't he ever givin' up?"
"F-ck it—F-ck it! Captain? Pilot? Anyone bloody one!"
"What the f-ck's wrong, Charlie?" Gabrielle now shouting into her intercom.
"My starboard guns, both of 'em—they've gone up the bloody spout!" Charlie's voice, over the intercom, sounding as frightened as he obviously was in reality. "That last broadside from Fritz—I think he's cut my ammo lines."
"F-ck it!" Gabrielle thinking at full speed. "Terry! Ya got any sight of the b-gger?"
"Nah—nuthin'; can't see the f-cker anywhere."
There was a silent pause, so loud it almost hurt the ears.
"Harry? Where the hell are you?"
"Sorry—no, can't see him at all out here." Harry's voice as excited and scared as everyone else's. "Figure he's broken off?"
"F-ckin' hope so." Terry twisting from side to side in his upper turret, taking in the full 360 degree circle like a frightened rabbit.
"Charlie?" Gabrielle searching for any news. "Ricky, fer God's sake keep us on an even keel, now. I think he's gone."
"F-ck me, of course I'm not sure—just do it, I think we'll be OK."
"You say so, baby, you say so." Claire, sweating like a pig, taking her partner's advice and bringing the huge plane back onto an even keel and more or less straight course. "Is he still about, anyone?"
Jimmy Kinnaird, from his flight engineer's position in the waist, came on the line with bad news.
"I'm dealin' with a coupl'a small fires here. Nuthin' ter worry about—but the gal's shot full'a holes—God, those cannon shells make a f-ckin' mess. Charlie's right; the starboard ammo feed system's been shot t'b-ggery—his starboard guns are out'ta action fer the rest of the show. And I'm gettin' readin's here, on my dials, that seem t'suggest the port inner an' outer fuel tank's are leaking like sieves. From my calculations I don't think, if we carry on t'the target, we'll have enough fuel t'make it back t'the coast, never mind Blighty."
Another pause bore harshly down on the entire crew's ears; then Claire came back to the present.
"F-ck it!" her voice full of anger, nervous tension, and disgust. "OK, we're cuttin' short our spree. I'm gon'na dump the bombs, an' head back right now. We're goin' home, lads."
"F-ckin' glorious." From Charlie, in his battered nest under the tailplane. "What a f-ckin' life!"
The next day, being free from flying for the aircrew, Charlie spent his free time in the Goat and Compass, one of the three Pubs in the village of Little Lanning, Norfolk. The village easily withstanding this overstock because, as an ancient East Anglian hamlet, it could take the strain—especially now there were three Air Force bases nearby, one of them American; not to mention two large Army camps lying somewhere in the misty offing, on the outskirts of the parish.
The present pub's premises were slightly higher in tone than the other two, drawing a nicer crowd as a result. Before the war it had relied on out of town travelers and car excursionists for its main trade; but now, with petrol rationing, many vehicles having long since been requisitioned for military purposes; and, of course, the blackout, this trade had dried up like a wadi in the Sudan in High Summer: the numerous military and Air Force bases now surrounding the village having taken over the proud duty of keeping the drinking den open for its stated purpose.
Charlie, being a flight-sergeant, was hardly loaded with cash—the Royal Air Force never having been under the impression they actually needed to pay their officers or privates a living wage. So, this afternoon, Charlie was soaking up as many half pints of the locally brewed bitter as he felt he could safely manage without being brought up on a charge on returning to base; at present he being well into his fourth.
John Wyler, publican for the past thirty-two years, came along on the other side of the oak framed bar to pass the time of day.
"Nice bit o'bitter that, Fogson's; had it in the cellar these fifty year an' more."
"Yeah, it surely goes down smooth." Charlie acknowledging the truth of the matter. "Gim'me a minute an' I'm not sure but another wouldn't do, well enough."
"Hah! I likes ter see a good drinking man." The publican grinning widely, like a shark in the Caribbean Sea. "Bitter's the thing; won't do ye the slightest bit o'harm, but'll set ye up no-end, if taken judiciously. My pa always sayin' a man can stand ten pints of an' evenin', without feeling' no ill-effects, if his constitution's in order—at least, till the following morning', anyway, ha-ha!"
Mulling this over, as the publican wandered off to other climes, Charlie wondered whether he hadn't already had enough; then his thought processes were interrupted by the arrival of several other Air Force inmates—Claire, Gabrielle, and a young man in the uniform, like Charlie himself, of a flight-sergeant.
"Hi'ya, Charlie, can we join ya?" Claire striking up a companionable tone from the start. "This here's Keith Hubbard, our new flight-engineer; he'll be flying with us on our next sortie, tomorrow. Keith, Charlie Gibbings—Charlie, Keith Hubbard."
A mutual shaking of hands, followed by the same movement of heads as the new arrivals refused Charlie's offer to stand a round, they happy to pay for their own beverages, settled the preliminary bout of mutual friendship, as the party moved over to a side bench against the wall where a large table took up the duty of corralling their drinks in comfort.
"So, how'd you like Norfolk, Keith?" Charlie pretty certain he knew the answer already.
"Well," Keith looking a little embarrassed. "it ain't the East End, that's for sure. Don't think I've ever seen so many bloody trees in my life, a'fore. Where'd they all come from?"
"Hah!" Gabrielle taking up the task of initiating the youth into the facts of life. "They came from God knows where; but they generally grow, now, wherever an RAF airfield wants to catapult its aircraft in'ta the air. Little Lannings's surrounded by the dam' things."
"Yeah," Claire putting in her tuppence-worth. "there was a kerfuffle, some months since, about officially cuttin' down a lot'ta the dam' things, all across the country; but local civic authorities pretty quickly put the kibosh on that."
"That's right." Gabrielle as gloomy over this result as her partner. "Even the WD couldn't do anything about it, in the end—imagine that!"
A silence reigned as the quartet mused over the curious thinking of the civil population in regard to aircraft in general, and the RAF in particular; then Gabrielle kick-started the conversation once more, after a deep draught of her pint of mild.
"Aah, that hit the spot." She licking her lips in delight. "So, Charlie, how's bein' a tail-gunner suiting you?"
Prodded on his sore spot so unexpectedly, Charlie reacted with deep feeling.
"Tail gunner? It's a ploy on the part of the Air Marshal t'get rid of unsuitable elements in the ranks—an' he quite obviously rates me as such, that's for sure."
"Ha! What brings ya t'that assumption?" Claire genuinely interested in her aircrew's view of life in a Stirling bomber.
"What brings me to it, ma'am?" Charlie looking as sad as a rabbit having its lettuce leaf taken away. "I'm just fed up bein' constantly shot at by the bloody Boche, is all. They've, the Boche that is, done so when I was in Whitleys'; in Boulton Paul Defiants', an' now in bloody Stirlings'; an' I'm gettin' fed up with it, is what I'm sayin'."
"Ah." Claire finding no more acceptable answer at short notice.
"Ma'am," Charlie taking the opportunity while it offered. "why don't you countersign my application for transfer t'the Pay Corps? I wrote it this afternoon, in my billet. It'd get me out'ta bloody aircraft, an' into a place I'd enjoy, and what harm'd it do, I asks?"
"Charlie?" From a soft-voiced Gabrielle; a danger sign if only Charlie had realised.
"There's a war on, y'know. You're not the only one bein' shot at, these days." Gabrielle looking across the table, withering the flight sergeant with a green-eyed glare. "Every man in your aircrew has been, too, during all our previous missions. Claire here an' I have also been shot at promiscuously on various occasions we won't go into. It ain't a happy situation t'be in, I admit; but when push comes t'shove, you just got'ta put up with it for the duration; hopin' all the time, for future blue skies, if you get my drift. Bein' selfish won't help your companions, you, or the War effort."
Having been the victim of such all-encompassing irritation Charlie took refuge by burying his nose in his flagon of beer—always a good idea in moments of tension.
After a minute's pause Claire took up the burden of continuing the discussion.
"You've had some interesting experiences; so what d'you think about Stirling's, in general?"
It was now Charlie's necessity to stop and think.
"Well, they're larger than the earlier aircraft I've previously flown in." Charlie shrugging his shoulders as he spoke. "What I mean is, there's a larger airframe t'absorb the punishment in a Stirling. If a Whitley met a Focke Wulf one-ninety, for instance, it'd be pulverized. If a Defiant met almost any enemy aircraft, in daylight, it'd lose. At least a Stirling is big enough t'put up a defence, and hopefully survive. So, I suppose I should look on that as an improvement."
"Unless you get transferred to a Lancaster." Gabrielle cutting in with this helpful glance into a possible future. "I hear great things of Lanc's."
Charlie had a tremendous repulse towards this suggestion.
"I don't want a bigger plane—I want safety." Charlie here giving a perfect impression of a sad red setter. "From my point of view—up in the air in a tail-gun position, danger everywhere; down on the ground, in the Pay Corps, all-encompassing safety."
Here Claire came back, still somewhat bemused by Charlie's stance.
"This thing about safety—you have a great impulse towards the easy life, don't ya? Don't ya wan'na contribute t'the War effort at all? You're in the bloody RAF; so, just do what's wanted of you, like everyone else—and stop thinking about where you'd rather be: everyone in the whole country's doin' the same thing, wantin' the bloody war t'end without them stoppin' a bullet in the process. It ain't just you, you know."
"I ain't a coward, if that's what everyone thinks." Charlie becoming defensive against all-comers. "I'll do my duty the same as anyone; I just won't be happy doin' it, is all."
"Gawd!" From Gabrielle.
"Uumph." From Claire, slightly disappointed.
"The next round's on me." From Keith, showing exemplary aplomb in how to disarm a delicate situation. "Now, as t'the latest big result from Tottenham Hotspur, against Sheffield Wednesday three days ago! Well, there's just got'ta have been dirty work at the crossroads, don't you think?"
And then the discussion really got nasty, as everyone weighed in with their disparate thoughts on wartime football and its shady corners.
The Stirling's next mission the following night was one of the more troublesome one's; transporting equipment and material, as part of Secret Ops, to a drop-zone in Belgium, somewhere near Charleroi. The problem being the Germans' had an industrial complex comprising several major factories in the vicinity and, as a result, a wide-ranging anti-aircraft umbrella surrounding the area; not to mention it was within the Kammhuber Line, so the defences had a quick and sure technical surveillance system tracking any aerial intruder turning up where it shouldn't.
"OK, everybody, report in." Gabrielle, as co-pilot, assuming her first duty as they swept over the English Channel at around 12,000 feet. "Harry, you fine?"
Harry Goodfellow, in his nose turret, was just beginning to feel his toes freezing, so was a trifle short.
"Yeah, but my toes ain't."
"Ha!" Gabrielle being an old hand at this. "Terry? How're you doing."
Terry Barlow, upper turret, was in the course of revolving his powered residence through a 360 degree circle.
"Hellish dark, and smells of cheese up here." He quoting from a novel he had recently enjoyed in his spare time. "Yeah, I'm OK."
"Thanks." Gabrielle moving through her rota like a dose of fruit salts. "Keith?"
Keith Hubbard, flight engineer, was sitting in his tight cubby-hole, eyes fixed on a bank of flickering lights and dials which took up all his attention.
"All well, everything's goin' swimmingly at the moment."
"Good." Gabrielle ticking-off his name on her list. "Charlie?"
"What? Oh, yeah." Charlie, in his hated tail turret, concerned with something else as he replied. "Ma'am, can I test my guns? Just tha—"
"No!" Gabrielle absolutely certain about this request. "No! Don't fire a single bullet, or I'll have yer guts fried in butter fer supper when we get back. You hearing me?"
"God!" Gabrielle losing the little residue of her temper. "Do not question direct orders, flight-sergeant."
"Charlie, can it." Gabrielle beginning to snarl. "Just look out for bandits, but don't dam' well shoot till you get the word from me. Roger that, rear-gunner?"
"Ben?" Gabrielle returning to the last name on her list.
Ben Jamieson, radio operator and navigator, sat more or less opposite Keith but in a much tighter cubby-hole slouched over a tiny desk lit by a small bulb.
"OK, we're on course, by the way."
"Glad t'hear it." Gabrielle relieved at reaching the end of her list, switched her intercom to her and Claire only. "Ricky?"
"Yeah, hear ya, babe."
"What about Charlie, back in the rear turret?" Gabrielle trying to put her thoughts into relevant words. "He's been unhappy, sure; but now he's beginning to go a step too far. I begin to understand why he's been rejected by earlier squadrons; he ain't the nicest pea in the pod."
"Certainly more self-centred than most I've met." Claire nodding, in the few seconds she managed to take from piloting the giant bomber. "Why? Ya thinkin' of putting in a transfer request for him, after all,? I wouldn't oppose that; general morale of the rest of the crew, and all that, ya know."
Gabrielle shuffled in her seat, tied to it as she was by safety-belt, intercom cord, and oxygen lines; shaking her head, covered as it was by flying-helmet and face-mask, in reply.
"Hum, probably, now you bring the subject up. Got'ta keep the crew happy; and I have a feeling Charlie, as time goes on, is going to be more of a source of discord than anything more positive. We'll see when we get back t'base, OK?"
"Yeah, fine by me." Claire still concentrating on keeping the temperamental aircraft on a level course. "I'm switching back to general, OK?"
"Yeah, fine." Gabrielle hunching over her notes and maps as she plotted their course so far, as provided by their navigator. "Ben? You got an update on our course?"
"Yeah, ma'am, we're near—"
The aeroplane shivered as if hit by a giant fist, rocking on its bearings as the cannon shells penetrated the frame; some passing through, others exploding in various parts of the interior.
"Jesus, cannon!" Gabrielle letting her maps slip to the deck while she frantically gazed out the various windows looking for any sign of their attacker. "Where is he? Come in, anyone who's seen the sun'na-a-b-tch."
"I saw it's cannon flash as it went over, above me." Terry, in his high viewpoint, bringing this unwanted news. "It flew t'starboard, I think—keep a lookout."
"I see it, I see it! He's firin' again!" Charlie coming face to face with Nemesis for the first time in his flying career. "Jee-sus Chr-st! He's comin' straight in! Right at me."
His entire firepower, four .303 Brownings, opened up together spitting a lethal swathe of bullets across the dark sky; but, as often happened, with no direct result, the enemy moving too fast for the gunner to get a steady or even accurate bead on his prey. Then the enemy fighter, still unidentified, retaliated with its enormously more powerful firepower.
This latest arc of cannon-shells mostly missed, apart from the last few rounds which hit the tail of the Stirling, tearing bits of the outer skin off the starboard tailplane, as well as substantial chunks from the vertical rudder itself. One round hitting the rudder so close to Charlie's turret fragments, either of the shell itself or pieces of shrapnel from the rudder, penetrated the turret's perspex screening like a hot knife through butter.
"I nearly got the swine, that time!" Charlie shouting as he aimed, swiveling his turret round to keep a bead on the fast-moving enemy.
"I got him! I think I got a hit!" Charlie's voice almost hitting a tenor high in his excitement. "I must'a hit him; I saw sparks an' fire, an' things."
"Keep a lookout, everyone." Gabrielle making sure the rest of the crew stayed focused. "I know it's pitch black out there but, any chance or suspicion whatever, let rip. How're ya doing, Ricky?"
"Not too hot." Claire responding between gasps for breath, always hard to come by under a face-mask in a crisis. "The crate's shivering like it's got the ague or a tertiary fever. Keith! Keith! How're the fuel tanks doin'?
"The starboard outer tank's sprung a leak." Keith reacting to the quivering needles on his multitudinous dials on the panel in front of him. "Nothing too serious, at the moment. How's your tailplane feelin', captain? I'm gettin' some queer readouts from the cable dials."
Claire sat back and pushed the steering–wheel tentatively from side to side, feeling the aircraft's response as she did so.
"All seems well, Keith."
"Try the rudder; try sideslipping."
Taking her flight engineer at his word Claire pressed down with her booted foot on the port pedal, feeling the plane incline somewhat sluggishly to starboard; then she pressed the starboard pedal; immediately, again, feeling a hesitation in response.
"Fuck it! I'm only gettin' about thirty per cent movement."
"Thought so." Keith's voice tinnily sharp over the intercom. "The rudder's shot t'shit, mostly."
"Chr-st! he's come back!" Gabrielle jerking nervously in her seat, out of sheer fright. "Did ya hear that? I heard hits back in the waist."
"Fire!" Ben, in a position to know, reacting to the new threat. "I'm on it; gim'me a mo'."
Even in the flight deck Gabrielle, at least, became suddenly aware of the difference in atmosphere.
"Jeez, I can smell it! I can smell the fire. I'm goin' back t'lend a hand, Ricky; those fire extinguishers are only ever any use if ya have more'n one goin' at the same time. See ya!"
A minute later found her in the waist fighting a particularly nasty fire on the port side, where a junction box seemed to have taken most of the impact of the original cannon shell. Another minute's hot work with a couple of small extinguishers saw Gabrielle and Ben on top of the immediate risk.
"Aarrph! Smoke everywhere, including my lungs." Gabrielle wiping a gloved hand over her face, or as much of such as she could reach via her loose face-mask and flying-helmet. "That box is b-ggered; what was it, Ben?"
"Dam'med if I know." Ben, out of his depth about this.
"Keith?" Gabrielle replacing her face-mask as preliminary to using the intercom. "God! Where's that intercom plug? Ya see an intercom plug anywhere, Ben?"
"To your right. Just above your head, below the girder with the holes in it."
"Got'cha." Gabrielle staggered over the cluttered coaming underfoot to the place indicated and fiddled around for valuable seconds trying to plug in her face-mask lead. "G-d'd-m! OK, that's it; Keith? What's this junction-box? The red one with the white star on it? Keith? Keith?"
No answer; in fact nothing at all, even background hiss.
"G-d'd-m, it's bust."
Gabrielle turned, in the bucking plane, holding onto whatever came to hand to steady herself, pausing when she realised she was still attached to the faulty electric point then, after releasing herself, heading for the engineer's cubby-hole to tap him on the shoulder. Keith meanwhile, absorbed in the array of dials, switches and lights on the panel before him, jumping like a speared fish at Gabrielle's contact.
"Chr-st! Oh, ma'am?"
"There's a junction-box backaways, red with a white star, what's its function? Or, rather, what was its function?"
Keith gave this request five seconds attention.
"Ah, yeah; it's the transformer relay set for the gyroscope and main compass, back in the tail."
Gabrielle glanced round at Ben, clearing some of the mess left by the fire and cannon-shell strafing.
"Ben, I'll leave you to it. I'm goin' back t'the flight-deck."
Attempting the two metal steps leading-up to the slightly higher flight-deck Gabrielle caught her left boot on the edge of something metal and fell to her knee, banging it sharply on a metal projection.
Then, swearing under her breath and in a great deal of pain, she struggled on her remaining healthy knee back into her seat.
Claire, absorbed in flying the Stirling with many of its primary circuits in a non-functioning state, glanced over at her co-pilot.
"Something up, lady?"
"Jaay-sus! It hurts!" Gabrielle unable to keep the note of real pain from her voice, even over the tinny intercom. "Banged my knee; G-d'd-m, think I may have broken something, or near enough. God! It hurts."
Present circumstances preventing Claire from responding in the manner in which she wished she fell back on taking care of the present moment.
"Rub it some, may help. What goes on, back in the waist? Any news?"
"The gyro's out of commission, as is the main compass." Gabrielle transmitting this news with a combined note of frustration and pain. "How's your compass doing? Reading alright, is it?"
Claire, so queried, glanced down at her left knee where the machine in question resided.
"Now you ask, it seems a trifle off. Reading about ten degrees further west than I know we can possibly be, that's for sure."
"Shit!" Gabrielle trying to rub her injured knee below her thick wool-lined trouser-leg. "How about the general, er, level flight? The gyroscope, y'know?"
"Thanks fer askin'." Claire only now realising something serious was certainly up. "We're sluggish—on turns an' banking. An' I don't like the way I'm havin' t'keep the ol' gal level all the dam' time. She ain't in the mood unless I keep my hands on the wheel all the time; a tendency t'slip t'starboard I can't keep up with otherwise."
"Ricky, we're in the shit." Gabrielle deciding that reality, at this delicate time, took precedence over moral-keeping. "Without gyro and main compass there's no chance of our reaching our target. Dam', we'll be lucky to be able t'find our way back t'the Channel, never mind Blighty an' our base."
Claire paused for a second to absorb this news from the Front.
"F-ck it!—F-ck it!—F-ck it!"
The great thing about map, notepad and pencil is they are not reliant on electricity. This important fact, coupled with taking note of the passing landscape via line of sight, allowing of some degree of navigation without the help of instruments.
"At least it's a starry night." Gabrielle helping as best she could. "We can see the Big Dipper; that counts for something, surely?"
Claire had been thinking furiously in the intervening few seconds.
"We, by which I mean you, can take star sightings, relay 'em t'Ben, who plots a course for home on his chart. That's the way forward. Make it so, co-pilot."
"Oh, muchly thanks, I'm sure." Gabrielle still feeling the thumping pain in her knee and not in a mood for the social politeness's.
"Yeah, who's that?" Gabrielle responding more out of habit than anything else; her attention still focused on her injury.
"Charlie; I'm hit. I'm wounded."
Silence on the flight-deck.
"Wounded? Ya sure?"
"Yeah, ma'am." Charlie quite clear on this important topic. "I just realised, a moment ago, there's blood oozing down my left leg, an' I got a real pain in my left side now—real bad pain. I think I'm hit in the leg an' the left side—don't know how bad; can't move no more'n a sardine in a can back here. The port side o'the turret's shot t'shit, by the way. Shrapnel from a cannon hit on the rudder. The bottom two feet o'the rudder ain't there anymore, by the by—if that's important."
Claire and Gabrielle glanced at each other; each's facial expression being, of course, hidden from view by face-mask and flying-helmet.
"Yeah, yeah, thanks for lettin' us know." Claire responding in a cold level tone, before switching the intercom back to private. "God, what next?"
"Could send somebody back, t'roll the rear turret round an' extricate Charlie through the rear door?" Gabrielle thinking on her feet, metaphorically at least. "Only thing being, we ain't got anyone t'spare."
"An' gettin' the bloody rear turret swiveled round, an' Charlie pulled out'll be like tryin' to pick a cockle out'ta its shell without the help of a pin." Claire putting in her pennyworth here.
"Scratch attendin' t'him, then." Gabrielle rather unfeeling of others' predicaments considering her own, and the aircraft's in general. "So, what's the plan, lady?"
Claire, so primed, jumped at this chance for some quality repartee.
"Oh, I got'ta plan, first I knew about it!"
"Silly, come on, take us home—I bein' pretty sure our sortie's up the Swannee, as it is."
A line of tracer swept across the night sky ahead, clearly seen by the Stirling's pilot and co-pilot, followed by the Stirling's nose turret's response—far too late, of course.
"G-d'd-m! Missed the f-cker." Harry Goodfellow, ensconced in his forward turret, swiveling it sideways like a mad thing in an effort to keep up with the invisible enemy. "Only saw the dam' tracer. He's gone off t'starboard."
The aircraft shivered on its bearings as cannon-shells hit in the waist and across the port wing.
"Everybody keep alert!" Gabrielle rather pointlessly giving the wholly unnecessary order.
The front, upper, and rear turrets opening up in unison, like fireworks on Guy Fawkes' Night.
"Any hits? Anyone?" Gabrielle almost babbling in her anxiety.
"I got him! I got the b-st-rd!" Charlie's voice high with excitement, and something else. "I saw flames—he must'a flown directly in'ta my main burst. I saw a mass o'flames fallin' out'ta the sky. He's down."
"Great stuff!" Gabrielle relieved and excited at the same time. "Well done, Charlie."
"I'm hit again." Charlie's voice quivering even over the tinny intercom. "A shell's taken out the side o'my turret. At least one piece o'shrapnel hit me, on the right side; my face-mask's torn t'bits, I can't see out'ta my right eye, an' my jacket's covered in blood. Can someone get back here, an' try'n get me out'ta this dam' coffin?"
"Right on it, Charlie; hang in there." Gabrielle immediately beginning the lengthy process of uncoupling herself from her seat. "Gim'me five minutes, Ricky; I'll take the First-Aid kit, in the waist, with me. You manage t'keep flying this decrepit antique, in the meantime?"
"Sure enough, sister. Go to it, I'm fine now."
The next day, back at Little Lanning RAF base in north Norfolk, Claire and Gabrielle sat at the table in the Briefing-room which, at four o'clock in the afternoon, was empty of all but themselves. They presently examining three documents on the wide table in front of them.
"God, I didn't get my normal eight hours, y'know, baby."
"What about me?" Claire responding in kind to this injudicious remark. "There's others tryin' t'win the war apart from yourself, y'know."
"Oh, High an' Mighty!" Gabrielle grinning all over her face. "Ouch!"
"Knee still hurt?" Claire instantly becoming the lover instead of the complainer.
"Just now and then; only when I try to do anything at all with it, is all." Gabrielle milking her injury for all it was worth. "Oh, alright. Doc said it was strained, but nothing serious. A couple of days, and a liberal massaging with arnica, and I'll be right as rain."
"Goody." Claire actually completely au fait with her partner's condition, smiling herself. "Now, about dear Charlie Gibbings? Bit of a mix, this."
"You can say that twice, lover." Gabrielle nodding in agreement as she studied the documents in front of her. "Charlie putting in for a transfer t'the Pay Department; Wing Commander Faulkner, our esteemed leader here, commending Charlie's actions, deprecating his wounds—from which Doc, busy man, says he'll recover with some very nice scars to boast about—; and allowing he's going to put Charlie up for an immediate award of the Distinguished Flying Medal."
"Good for Charlie." Claire grinning happily. "Of course, his heart's still set on the Pay Corps, medal or no."
"Yeah, I got that feeling too, when we visited him in hospital an hour ago." Gabrielle smiling at the memory. "He's happy enough at being given a gong, though he's not exactly sure why. But what he said about our divine Stirling? Well!"
"Yeah." Claire nodding again, with another smile. "Never heard such language, except from a Billingsgate fishwife. He's not goin' t'miss us, y'know."
"Funny, I got the same impression." Gabrielle laughing outright. "So, you going to sign his transfer chitty first? Or does that honour go to me?"
"Stand in line, baby; know your place."
"Ha, you'll regret that later tonight, lover. I got some very fancy new moves I wan'na try—an' tonight's the night."
"Oo-er! Here, hand me your pen, mine's gone AWOL."
"God, lovers! You have to pander to their every need, all day long. Here, and don't forget to give it back. I love that pen."
"Sure thing, babe, sure thing."
Three months later, fully recovered, flight-sergeant Charles Gibbings DFM entered Paradise.
"This is the main accounting room, Gibbings." Warrant Officer James Valance giving his latest recruit a guided tour of the Pay Corps premises on the outskirts of Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire. "As you can see you'll be one of thirty clerks here. You'll fit in nicely, I'm sure."
"Oh, I'm sure, sir." Gibbings looking around the well-lit office as if actually standing on the portal of Paradise. "Yes, I'm quite sure."
Another 'Mathews and Parker' story will arrive shortly.