This story is based on a single piece of pure speculation. Suppose the transistor had been invented in the United Kingdom in 1937, instead of in the United States in 1947?
There are no particular reasons why it could not have been. Semi-conductors had been used in "cat's whisker" radios since the 1920's. And once transistors were available it would have been quickly recognised that digital computers could now be built. Construction of the world's first digital computer in fact began in 1938 at Iowa State University. Of course, it had to use vacuum tubes and was extremely primitive. Shortly afterwards came ENIAC, incorporating 18,000 hot and unreliable tubes. Providing less computing power than a modern wrist watch it weighed 30 tons, occupied 1,500 square feet and dimmed the lights of the building when it was switched on. A transistorised equivalent would have fitted inside a wardrobe. Transistors were everything tubes weren't -- they were small, reliable, cheap, with a meagre appetite for electricity. Transistor reference
We know that well before the war began the British government was straining every nerve to crack the German 'ENIGMA' codes. It's likely that transistorised computers would have been developed as quickly as humanly possible with virtually unlimited financial support. And in Alan Turing the British had the one thing money couldn't buy -- genius. In fact it was the British who built the first true computer in 1948 at Manchester University, the first computer which held a program stored in its memory and which could be re-programmed without needing to be re-wired. Manchester computer reference
Apart from the imaginary scientific developments, all other historical facts at the beginning of the story are correct. Kampfgruppe 100 certainly existed. This Luftwaffe pathfinder unit led the attacks which crucified Coventry and almost ripped the heart out of London. KGr 100 reference
As a matter of historical interest, the very first action ever planned by British Special Operations Executive was an attack on KGr 100, operation 'Savanna'. The attack was cancelled because the RAF refused to take part, on the grounds that the assassins would be wearing civilian clothes so that delivering them by military aircraft would be against the rules of war! Which was a polite way of telling SOE to stop even thinking about having any say in how RAF aircraft were to be used.
Unlikely as it sounds, the glider 'snatch' technique described was in fact used operationally in Burma to retrieve wounded soldiers from Chindit columns. John Masters gives a fine description of the technique in his fascinating autobiography: "The Road Past Mandalay". Lord Mountbatten of Burma is also on record as making a very shrewd comment on the technique the first time he saw it demonstrated: "Jesus bloody Christ!"
The beauty of the Luftwaffe's X-Gerat bombing system was that it enabled a last minute check on the bomber's actual ground speed and so enabled very great accuracy in estimating the correct moment to release its load. The accuracy of the system was roughly 100 yards at 200 miles, which was near enough to hit a large individual factory when the ballistics of individual bombs and the different wind gradients were factored in. X-Gerat was certainly the most accurate method of night bombing yet devised by any air force up to that time. In comparison the RAF staff officers were convinced that British bomber crews could achieve pin-point accuracy at night using traditional star sighting techniques with a sextant. Not for another year would they realise that only ten percent of Bomber Command crews were dropping their bombs within five miles of any given target.
As far as the story itself is concerned, all characters are fictional, bar one senior Luftwaffe officer. However, I did have great difficulty with the character of 'E.E. Crampton'. I needed to create a well known person in British political and academic circles with quite remarkable powers of imagination and insight. Since any such fictionist character would have been totally unbelievable, I was forced to borrow one from real life. There was indeed a Member of Parliament for Oxford University in 1940, and he was indeed a Petty Officer in the Naval Reserve. As for his imagination -- well, if you've never read Mr A.P. Herbert or his collection of Misleading Cases, you have a treat in store.
But still, this is only a whimsy of fiction, merely a re-arranged war game with some new pieces set out on the patterns of history. A handful of scientists, a few pieces of silicon and a young officer of ferocious ability. Arrayed against them are the armed forces of Nazi Germany, the best soldiers to conquer Europe since the fall of Rome. The game begins with a pawn being moved, a sacrificial pawn in a desperate defence . . .
Captain Henry Arthur Winfield, Royal Engineers, was cramped and cold and bewildered. A soldier on active service was expected to suffer discomfort without complaining and any man in uniform who didn't anticipate being continually buggered about was either a one day recruit or a general. But at least you usually had some idea of where you were going and why. All he knew right now was that he was flying south to carry out some duties of extreme importance. Henry sincerely hoped he wasn't going to be expected to repeat his previous most outstanding performance.
Five months before Henry had been attached to the staff of the Commander Royal Engineers, Third Division, British Expeditionary Force. In that capacity he had probably done more damage to an army than any other junior office in history. Unfortunately it had all been inflicted on his own side. Henry's principal contribution so far towards the downfall of Hitler had been to lead a squad of gun-cotton laden sappers through a mass of British military equipment abandoned outside Dunkirk, charged with the duty of destroying as much of it as possible. His piece-de-resistance had been the thorough wrecking of eighteen 3.7 inch anti-aircraft guns, the pride of the Royal Artillery, each one worth the unbelievable sum of five thousand pounds.
It had been a bitter experience, for he was a man with one consuming passion in life, and that passion was weapons. Why this should be was a great puzzle to Henry. In his heart of hearts he considered himself much more of a weakling than a born warrior: in fact he'd never willingly become involved in any fight that he could avoid. None the less he was a military engineer whose great interest in life was in the most minute details of any and every man made artifact for waging war, from bayonets to aircraft carriers. Like George Bernard Shaw he believed that mankind's heart and soul was lavished on its weapons. It was a philosophical viewpoint which certainly seemed true as far as the Germans were concerned and Henry had tremendous professional respect for German engineering and military skills.
The Whitley he was riding in skittered through an air pocket, falling and then rising again in the turbulent currents. The interior of the obsolescent bomber was packed tight with bodies encumbered with clumsy 37 pattern webbing, all sitting in great discomfort on the fuselage floor, feet jammed against the opposite side of the narrow crawlway. Ten men, including himself, part of a half Troop of Number Two Commando, detached for extra-regimental duties under Captain Winfield. Which made it all about as confusing and annoying as anybody could need.
In the first place the Commandos had been established three months ago, in July 1940, as a token of Churchill's determination to raid newly conquered France. Since no such raiding units then existed the Commandos had been hastily formed from volunteers detached on sufferance from their regiments or corps. To be detached from a parent unit once might be considered rather glamorous; to be ordered away from the only unit in the Army that Henry wanted to serve in was a disaster. In the first place Number Two Commando was the only military unit in the entire British Empire which was parachute trained. At the Prime Minister's insistence the War Office had been obliged to create the Central Landing School at Ringway aerodrome near Manchester.
This homespun answer to Goering's Fallschirmjagers consisted of three hundred novice paratroopers, a handful of RAF instructors and five 'elephant arse' Whitleys, so called because of the extemporised jumping hatch cut in the bottom of each aeroplane's fuselage. This was a lousy modification to a mediocre paratroop carrier, resulting in a growing list of broken noses and facial injuries caused by men hitting the opposite rim of the hatch as they jumped. Since the RAF had little interest in airborne forces no quick improvements in jumping technique seemed likely to be developed. Whitley reference
Which was just one of the many reasons why Henry was flabbergasted at finding himself being flown to his destination. Film stars like Ronald Coleman or Clark Gable might live in a world where travel was simply a matter of packing a bag and stepping on an aeroplane, but it wasn't the way the Army or the Air Force worked. Until he'd arrived at Ringway Henry had never even seen the inside of an aircraft, nor had he ever met anybody else who had. A bunch of squaddies had as about as much chance of travelling to a new posting by air as they had of being billeted in the Savoy on arrival.
Just as astonishing was the fact he had been allowed to handpick the men he was to take with him. The single strongest factor against the formation of the Commando units had been the determination of line battalions to fight tooth and nail against releasing their best soldiers to some crackpot special purpose force. For a Commando unit, in turn, to willingly offer up its own best men to a mere captain must have taken some awesome pressure from above. Whatever the hell was going on that at least was a chance of lifetime. Their improvised volunteering system of recruitment was sending Two Commando the oddest and perhaps the best drafts ever received by any British Army unit. Some of the strangest newcomers were a group of continental Jews, an alarmingly high proportion of whom spoke German as their mother tongue.
It had seemed unlikely that these Hebrews could be turned into soldiers - until the Commandos realised the ferocious eagerness and intelligence these new recruits showed in all their efforts. Henry had included several of them on his 'most wanted' list, plus a couple of the razor slashed Gorbals' laddies, McCaughan, the jockey sized sergeant from Skye with the accent of an angel . . . and Cantrell.
Corporal Cantrell, six feet and one inch of slim Dublin jauntiness had his knees almost drawn up against his face as he slowly chewed an haversack ration sandwich, apparently unbothered by the Whitley's unpleasant motion. Rumour had it that on November 21st, 1920, he'd been a fifteen year old member of the Dublin Brigade's Special Action Squad, on that quiet Sunday morning when the IRA carried out their brilliant coup of murdering eleven British intelligence officers whilst they still lay abed.
Which was why Henry had selected the Irishman. He knew about guerrilla warfare from the other side of the fence, as the weaker force. It was a skill the British were going to have to learn now. In any case it was hard to pass over a man who had been sentenced to death by the British in the Dublin Four Courts for being a member of the IRA and reprieved by the Anglo-Irish Treaty, only to be wounded almost to death in the very same courtroom building by a shell fired by the army of the Irish Free State from an 18 pounder battery willingly donated to their cause by Mr Winston Churchill. After an experience like that Cantrell's decision to join the British army seemed almost natural. "And the Irish move to the sound of the guns, like salmon to the sea." Kipling had the right of it, as usual.
There was a disturbance at the forward end of the plane as one of the passengers got to his feet, stared forward into the cockpit, then sank down again, to shout something in his neighbour's ear. The message was slowly relayed up the reverberating tunnel from man to man.
"Lieutenant Cunliffe-Brown's complaints, sir, and he says he can see London."
Well, it sounded like that, only the soldier next to Henry was Private Rosedale, a Geordie who virtually needed an interpreter to communicate with anyone not born on Tyneside. Fortunately he'd earned his living as a journalist in Durham before joining up, so he'd only ever had to worry about writing English and not speaking it. As for Cunliffe-Brown it was conceivable that he might seriously frame a message with the word "compliments" in it. The man seemed to have acquired most of his social upbringing from reading the 'Boy's Own Annual'.
Take another officer the Adjutant had said, that's the order from above. At least Henry hadn't robbed the Commando there because Cunliffe-Brown had only finished his basic parachute training a few days before and had not yet been allotted to a Troop, or more to the point, to a Troop Sergeant to wet nurse him. He was one of the 'hostilities only' officers now arriving, wartime volunteers. Skinny and rather awkward in his movements, deeply tanned, his family farmers in East Africa, no previous military experience or background. Anyway, even an East African at five thousand feet on a cloudy day should recognise London when he saw it. The Whitley had been flying south-east for the whole trip, so the speed and distance figures were about right for London as their destination.
It wouldn't have been necessary to guess if the aircrew had bothered to mention the plane's destination, but the stupid ponces apparently thought it was beneath their dignity to talk to army brown jobs. Ever since the Battle of Britain had begun to die down every officer in light blue uniform seemed to have become convinced that the survival of the country was due to his own efforts alone. Henry was well aware of his own ignorance about what the RAF had really achieved in the last four months of daylight dogfights. The only passing comment he'd allowed himself was that, if after the war, the Air Ministry claims for Luftwaffe losses proved even half way accurate, he'd eat his boots, studs and all.
Since he'd made his offer while being entertained as a guest in the Air Force mess at Ringway it had been received in frigid silence. Impelled by an often dangerous character trait of argumentative logic, Henry had then inquired if the ground crews at Manston aerodrome had finally been persuaded to come out of their air raid shelters, now that winter was coming in?
Very few people knew about that episode, and how the gallant lads in blue had mutinied at a front line fighter station and gone underground for nearly two weeks, only emerging at night to scavenge for food. Not only did Henry know the details, he took great pleasure in quoting them chapter and verse, until a Squadron Leader on the verge of apoplexy threatened to have him arrested for defeatism. It was also made clear that Captain Winfield was unlikely to be invited into that mess again.
Henry idly wished that he'd been able to look down from the aircraft as it passed over the small and thickly hedged fields of the East Midlands. His home would have been down there, somewhere near to the Whitley's flight path. A crumbling farm workers tithe cottage, full of kids and smells and a few battered pieces of furniture. Henry was the eldest of seven, all bright, the offspring of a ploughman who could quote more scripture from memory than the vicar had ever known. A man who spent his days walking the furrows but who loved to spend his evenings delving just as deeply and as thoroughly into a good book.
The memories of his family were driven from Henry's mind as the Whitley began to wallow downwards, the engines throttled back, with a horrible sensation of half flying and half falling just before the aircraft's wheels hit the ground. Several of the passengers seemed far more relieved to be back on terra firma than they normally did after descending under opened silk canopies. When Henry dropped out of the hatch under the aircraft he was surprised to find grass underneath his feet instead of hard standing.
Parked very close to the Whitleys were two Bedford three ton lorries, canvas covers lashed down tightly from cabs to backboards. A stalwart military police sergeant with a face burnt leathery by many years of overseas service was standing by the hatch. He threw Henry a fierce salute and bent down to help him pull his bulky kitbag from underneath the fuselage. Then the MP instinctively stamped his feet in a double shuffle, resettling the lead weights inside the bottoms of his razor creased trousers, so the baggy material resumed the correct 'plus fours' shape over the polished web anklets they were tucked into.
Henry looked around. It was a small airfield, about a thousand yards long in an east-west direction and much less across. A railway embankment ran at right angles slap across the eastern end. There were two small and very old-fashioned hangars on the south side of the field, probably dating back to the '14 -'18 war, and a kind of clubhouse near to them. The absence of concrete runways and barrack blocks made it almost certain that this was a private flying club's field pressed into emergency service. The only sign of life was a Spitfire parked outside one of the hangars with a group of erks around it staring at the Whitleys as they landed. Not surprisingly either, because it was almost certainly the first time that heavy bombers had been landed on this half-arsed apology for an aerodrome. Surely this wasn't London? At least the sky was considerably clearer than it usually was over the Pennines, with only some mares' tails streaking the crisp blue autumn sky. Henry was quite certain he could smell ozone on the light southerly wind.
"Where are we?" he asked.
The MP looked puzzled. "Beg your pardon, sir?"
"Where are we? What's the name of this aerodrome?"
"This is Rochford, sir, just outside Southend."
Southend, the stuff that music hall songs were made of, the near legendary playground for yer genuine Cockney sparrer'. As far as Henry could remember it was twenty or thirty miles east of the outer London suburbs, on the northern side of the Thames Estuary.
A second Whitley bumped down, rolling to a quick stop as the lush grass slowed its wheels. The third and final aircraft in the flight seemed to be coming in rather too low towards the embankment as the pilot sought to adjust for the cross wind. At precisely the most awkward moment a small locomotive towing half a dozen goods wagons appeared on top of the embankment as the Whitley flew overhead, fate happily preventing an accident but arranging for the Whitley's undercarriage to flick through the smoke lifting up from the locomotive's funnel. Henry smiled in relief at the near miss and also in some delight at the thought of the consequent correspondence between the Southern Railway Company and the RAF. Whether the war was won or lost it was certain that in years to come there would be a huge file buried somewhere in the dusty archives of the Air Ministry dealing with the near collision of a train and one of his Majesty's aircraft on the seventh of October, 1940, at Rochford in the county of . . . well, wherever they were.
What a pity the Germans and the British couldn't let their paper pushers fight the war out on their own with claims, counter-claims, forms and rubber stamps. The British would probably win hands down, not that it mattered, because in a Europe dominated by bureaucrats the French would rule supreme.
Henry saw the third Whitley safely down. Thirty trained Commandos, available for whatever needed to be done. Visible on the Bedfords was the yellow and black portcullis insignia of 1st London Division. Divisional transport, laid on for a scruffy little half Troop, at a time when most front line anti-invasion forces had nothing but commandeered London buses for transport. Who the devil was pulling so many strings, and why?
Henry's heart sank as deeply as it had risen, down to a black bitter pit. There was only one explanation which made sense. They were going to be used to protect some Very Important Person, a Praetorian guard for somebody the nation couldn't afford to lose in case of invasion or an attempted assassination attempt by fifth columnists. Maybe even Churchill himself.
And there was cause for mixed feelings: if there was a man whom Henry admired unto love, it was Winston Churchill. Listening to him delivering his defiant speeches on the wireless was enough to set any man's blood on fire. But when that lisping voice had finished plucking down the finest fruits of the English language since Shakespeare then rationality set in, and Henry could see Churchill's overwhelming pride and stubbornness for what they were, a recipe to lead the British Empire into disaster after disaster. Far from guarding the Prime Minister, it might be a lot better for everybody to give the Germans every chance of shooting him.
"Sir, I've got special orders for your movement. Verbal orders."
Henry realised that he'd been staring at the MP sergeant without seeing him, a day dreaming trait which was all to common to him.
"What are they?"
The sergeant seemed disconcerted again. Henry could guess why. It was his own accent, the harsh, nasal and unlovely dialect of the East Midlands, where the entrenched Saxon tones had never fully adapted to the alien language bought in by the last lot of invaders in 1066. In many regiments and corps an officer who sounded like Henry would have had a very difficult time of it from both their men and in the officers' mess. Fortunately a great deal of social allowance was made for the Royal Engineers, that most plebeian of all military arms.
"Sir, I've been ordered to ask you to make sure all members of your unit travel in the back of the lorries with all the tarpaulins laced up securely. Nobody is supposed to look out during the journey."
Well, that had to be some sort of security notion. Number Two Commando soldiers were the most distinctively dressed troops in the country. Their cropped helmets and knee length body overalls were straight copies of German paratroop equipment captured in Holland, copied because nobody in the War Office between the wars had given the slightest thought to preparing parachute forces.
Henry found that Sergeant McCaughan had quietly arrived at his side, ready to organise matters at the nod of a head. Another regular, he was twenty and thus a year younger than Henry, both of them holding ranks which they had only been able to reach so early because of wartime expansion. Not that either of them felt out of their depth. Each had joined up at fourteen years of age, McCaughan as a boy soldier and Henry as an entrant at the Beachley Army School for Apprenticed Tradesmen. In their own and each other's estimation they were both old sweats, with matching mutual respect.
There were a few smiles from the men as Henry clambered onto the nearest lorry, smiles which broadened as he almost fell on his backside when the vehicle jerked forward. It was normal practice for officers to ride in vehicle cabs, leaving the rest of the passengers with the customary freedom to sing cheerfully obscene songs and wolf whistle any halfway decent looking girls they saw. In truth, many officers would have considered the notion of riding in the back of a lorry with their troops as a prelude to Bolshevik rebellion. Their feelings would have been further outraged by being addressed by a mere corporal who never even asked permission to speak.
"Would you have any idea what's in the wind, sir?" Cantrell asked cheerfully.
"We've been sent for in a hurry, and the only thing special about us is that we're paratroopers. So you can draw your own conclusions."
"Well, sir, if you were to guess?"
"If I were to guess, corporal, I'd guess we're going to drop into Dublin, looking like Germans, so that Mr De Valera will get a big fright and invite the British back into Eire to protect it. If so, I'll suggest we land on top of the biggest brewery in Ireland and fight it out to the last barrel of Guinness."
There was a rush of laughter along the wooden benches, as Cantrell grinned easily. "Ah, Captain Winfield, sir, you have the mind for thinking up the worst places to hit people. A great asset you would have been to the organisation in the old days."
"Don't get your thirst up yet, Corporal. It's just possible I may be wrong. Is there anybody here who knows these parts?"
Private Owens put up his hand hesitantly. He was the only Londoner in the lorry. Like many of the commandos, including Henry, he was short and stocky, though spared Henry's overabundance of freckles: "I came up this way to Burnham-On-Crouch once, sir, working on a Pickford's van. Nothing but flat fields and miles and miles of mud, what they call the Maplin Sands, only I didn't see much sand around."
Henry shrugged. "OK, now you all know as much as I do. I suppose we'll just have to wait and see."
The lorry suddenly slowed down, and then waddled slowly over a series of bumps; possibly a planked bridge. As it speeded up again afterwards the Bedford started to sway from side to side almost as disconcertingly as the Whitley had done, without even the advantage of fresh air to counteract any resulting nausea. There were too many Woodbines being smoked underneath the laced up canvas for any further hint of ozone to be detectable. But Henry hoped they were still near the sea, wondering if the Bedford was perhaps driving along some twisting road on the edge of a beach, or threading through the cobbled streets of a little fishing port where the sign of the Admiral Benbow creaked in the wind outside a mullion windowed inn.
He had a very active imagination, probably too much to have a satisfied life either as a regular soldier or as a civilian engineer. His father might have been right about his son's acceptance of the King's Shilling. "You're a damned fool, our Henry. Anybody in this day and age who goes sowing, soldiering or sailing wants his head read. Get yourself an office job in a nice warm factory and start saving for a decent house of your own. There's enough silly bastards in the world wearing uniforms already." Which was exactly the same advice as every other survivor of the great war gave to their sons: "Never again, never!"
But how did you tell a kid anything? Most of them had to find the hard way to be convinced. Before the May blitzkrieg Henry had thought of war almost purely as an intellectual and physical challenge. Looking back at the wholesale death and suffering, the crying child between its machine-gunned parents, the wanton destruction of a beautiful country, the useless butchery of helpless soldiers on the sands of Dunkirk, he knew now that it was the result of ultimate stupidity, not reason. It was perhaps almost possible to excuse Chamberlain and the British people for the betrayal of Munich. Anybody who wasn't insane should fear war. But if the allies had only shown their teeth years before, when Hitler had made his first aggressive move, into the Rhineland! If a real fear of a stalemated war had existed on both sides, not just one, negotiations might have achieved something.
Henry was still deep in thought about the past mistakes which had brought Britain to the very doorstep of hell when the lorry shuddered to a halt. Cab doors clattered open, the lacing on the rear canvas panels was loosened from outside. "Out you get, gents."
If Rochford had been flat this terrain was straightforwardly bleak. Large irregular meadows of tussocky grass, water shining in the early afternoon sun along the channels which bisected the countryside, with a rime of thick black mud visible on the nearest ones. A pair of curlews mewed at each other as they sideslipped overhead in a strengthening wind. The only sign of civilisation immediately visible was the third class metalled road the lorries had come along, so narrow that it seemed to vanish like a pantomime backdrop into the clumps of reeds growing in the ditches on each side of it. Only where they were parked did the road suddenly broaden out for a short distance, providing just enough room for the convoy of clumsy Bedfords to make three point turns and retire in biblical order, he that was last becoming first.
Looking around, Henry first saw an old stone windmill, blades removed and the building apparently long deserted. Huddled around the base of it were some slate roofed cottages, perhaps ten or fifteen of them, the nearest about two hundred yards away. Long strands of green moss seemed to be so well established on some of the walls that the sodden ground looked to be digesting them. Lieutenant Cunliffe-Brown appeared alongside the road`s edge, his face white and pinched.
"I'd be happy to offer some advice, sir, if only I could think of anything useful to say. I`m feeling a bit lost at the moment."
"And the cold too, hey, Eric?"
"Just a smidgeon. I think it's the scenery more than the actual temperature."
"You have a point. Boris Karloff would be at home here. What the hell are we supposed to be doing in this hovel? I'll see if I can get some sense out of that MP Sergeant."
"Shall I fall the men in?"
Henry sucked his teeth thoughtfully as he saw the Military Police NCO marching ponderously in their direction. "No, start sorting them out into sections, so they know whose face fits where in the tactical set up. Sergeant McCaughan and the corporals can pick and chose who goes where - they know who's mates with whom."
The MP saluted with full regimental panache again, the hand travelling the longest way and the shortest way down. After Henry had returned the salute, he was offered a brown OHMS envelope with a seal on all corners, together with a receipt book. "These are your orders, sir. Could you please sign for them?"
Henry checked the over stamped number on the envelope against the one in the receipt book very carefully before signing. He'd long ago learnt that the most important man in any Army unit was the ORQMS. The Orderly Room Quartermaster Sergeant was the warrant officer responsible for all the paperwork, a man who could help or hinder you at every turn. And wherever they were bound for, it certainly wasn`t beyond the reach of the Army`s strangling bureaucracy.
"Right, Sergeant, I'd appreciate a look at your map before you go -- unless you've had orders to the contrary."
"No sir, I'm sure you're welcome to look. It's grid reference 44568783. I was told to debus you there and leave you."
Henry took the offered ordnance survey map and found the grid reference. It was close to a peninsula about eight miles wide, south of the river Crouch and due north of the wide mouth of the Thames as it ran into the sea. The peninsula was composed of three islands, separated from the mainland and each other by tributaries of the Crouch flowing from north to south. The outer island of Foulness was by far the largest of the group, merging into the huge expanse of the Maplin Sands. Nestled against Foulness' south-eastern flank was Potton island, two miles long and a mile wide, and Havengore, a third of the size of Potton.
On the mainland opposite the middle of Potton island a tiny and isolated hamlet was marked. The only thing of any note about it was the conventional map symbol for a windmill. According to the map, this hamlet was called 'Petty Bowling'. The grid reference the sergeant had supplied was half a mile to the west of Petty Bowling, on the only road going into the habitation. Henry decided it might be better thought of as the only way out of the place. There was nothing shown on the far side of Petty Bowling, no bridge, no ford. Just the cottages, the river, and the apparently deserted island on the other side of the river.
According to the map, should he take it into his head to order his men to about face and march back into civilisation, they faced six twisting miles of the road before seeing the lights of Little Wakering looming up out of the marsh mists. And Little Wakering appeared to be about as interesting a place as Petty Bowling. The local tendency for diminutively suggestive place names could hardly be described as misleading.
The Commandos stood clear of the road as the lorries noisily turned around and roared off towards the distant horizon. A few black faced sheep nearby stared at the vehicles with mild interest before resuming their grazing. A couple of Henry's men made two fingered gestures at the MP's retreating backs, though without the zest they would normally have shown in being rude to the hated redcaps.
Henry stared along the road to the village, which still showed no sign of life. He recited, slowly;
All hollow through the wheat?
O that was where they hauled the guns,
That smote King Philip's fleet."
"Sir?", Cunliffe-Brown responded woodenly.
"When I was a boy I won a book at school, the verses of Rudyard Kipling. I read it a lot, and still do. And I presume our presence here has something to do with smiting Herr Hitler. Let's see if the orders throw some light on the subject."
Henry opened the envelope and read the single sheet of paper inside. Then he shrugged his shoulders in disbelief and beckoned Sergeant McCaughan over to join them. "We're to report to the post office in that village over there. That's all it says, before anybody asks any questions. Sergeant, we'll double march to the place to get some fresh air into our lungs. And the first man who asks if we're being posted somewhere is next in line for kitchen duties."
"Yes . . ." The sergeant's eyes suddenly narrowed as he stared up in the air over Henry's shoulder. "What's that, sir?"
Henry turned and looked up. About a quarter of a mile away at an altitude of around a thousand feet was some kind of an aircraft, heading almost directly towards them. There was nothing to be heard from it and as it got closer the silhouette became recognisable as a Hotspur. Two of them had already arrived at Ringway, since the Hotspur was the first British transport glider to go into production. They carried a pilot and seven men and were Britain's answer to the German gliders which were rumoured to have captured the supposedly impregnable Belgium fort of Eban-Emael by landing troops on its upper works.
There was definitely something strange about the way this Hotspur was being flown. The assumed tactical procedure was for a glider to be cast off from its tow plane near to the landing site and then to dive down quickly to dodge enemy fire. This one seemed to be travelling as far as possible for every foot of height lost, keeping to a dead straight line. Nor was there any sign at all of the towing plane -- the Hotspur might as well have appeared out of thin air for all Henry could see. As it got closer he stared at the glider, wondering if he was suffering from double vision.
For a second or two Henry thought he was seeing two gliders wingtip to wingtip in an incredible piece of formation flying. Then he realised the truth, that there were two fuselages side by side, married together by a shared centre section and an extended horizontal tail surface. It was obviously a way of building a large capacity glider as quickly and easily as possible with components already in production.
Together with his men he gaped at the strange aircraft as it passed close by with a faint fluttering noise of disturbed air. Both fuselages were painted dark green and both had cockpit canopies on their nose, one with a head visible inside it, the other canopy apparently painted over for some odd reason.
Henry estimated the twin Hotspur's glide angle at something around fifteen feet across the ground to one foot of height lost. It seemed impossible the pilot could fly such a steady course for so long and still land anywhere near where he wanted to. But if the glider didn't break off quickly it was going to come down dangerously close to the cottages or the river behind them. Henry waited for the Hotspur to nose down into the last piece of flat ground.
It didn't. It flew on undeviating over the rooftops of the village. One thing was for sure, if it didn't hit the water it was certainly going to land just on the other side of the tributary, on Potten island.
"What do you make of that, sir?" Sergeant McCaughan asked.
Henry shrugged. "God knows. Probably the Air Force playing silly buggers as usual. The stupid prats are likely swimming ashore by now." He raised his voice. "Right turn, double march."
The Commandos, Henry in the lead, began doubling towards the mysteries of Petty Bowling, kitbags bouncing on their shoulders. Even running, there was plenty of breath to spare in the half Troop. One man somewhere in the rear began whistling a tune, to have it quickly picked up and sung by his comrades, a tune from the latest and certainly the greatest Hollywood film musical:
The wonderful wonderful Wizard of Oz,
We hear he is a Whiz of a Wiz,
If ever a Wiz there was . . ."
On to Chapter Two