Henry was having a more peaceful life in enemy occupied France than he'd managed to have in England for the last few days. Which wasn't really that odd, come to think about it. If the Germans had learnt about his arrival he would have been dead by now. The only other alternative was that his scouting party had landed undetected and that was what had happened.
When daylight had finally filtered through a low layer of grey bellied clouds it revealed a scene of bucolic peacefulness. The Chateau of Valbourges was partly obscured by a surrounding belt of closely clustered willows though its ornate turrets soared high above the mournfully hanging branches. The superb setting of the building between the lightly wooded slopes of the small valley was testimony to the eternal vision of Gilles Montaigne: courtier, treasurer, rogue and master builder. Grey toned walls dividing the small fields around the chateau accentuated the gloriously natural marriage of handcrafted stone and landscape. The only jarring note was the flag hoisted at first light from the tallest tower above the trees. It displayed an eagle which looked virtually identical to the RAF's emblem, except that this one was perched on a swastika. The question as to whether the Luftwaffe was occupying the chateau had been very quickly answered.
Both the bridle path and the chemin vicinal were as expected, the V road sealed with asphalt and about five paces wide, low walls and shallow ditches on either side, whilst the entrance to the bridle path was barred by a small wooden gate suspended from a large tree trunk swivelling on a post by what looked like a mortice and tenon joint. The stump of the trunk extended well out to the side of the post, a convenient counterweight to the gate.
To the front of the observation position the ground sloped gently to a long spinney of beech trees five hundred yards away, where a colony of rooks squabbled in the bare branches. Behind the spinney and hidden by the trees was the main departmental road between Lamballe and Dinan. Strange looking black and white cows, spotted like Dalmatians, stood in bored groups in the intervening small fields.
Another indication to Henry that he was on foreign soil was the blue stoned bridge over the small and sluggish river on his left flank where the main road came into their sight again. Or, more correctly, it was the ugly shape of the half track parked close to the bridge on the far side on the Arguenon. Especially so because the barrel of the 20mm light flak gun mounted on the firing pedestal above the tracks was pointing in the general direction of the British soldiers' observation position. Henry and his companion, Private Reech, were both greatly relieved to see that the men around the fighting vehicle seemed to have no more urgent interests than washing themselves in canvas buckets and drinking from mugs clenched in both hands, shoulders hunched against the dawn cold.
The half track was thirty yards south of the bridge, sand bags built up around it to the mudguards, side shields lowered to facilitate all round traverse of the gun. A thoroughly nasty piece of work, equally useful for anti-aircraft or ground defence, with an effective range of a thousand yards and able to spit out a hundred and fifty high explosive rounds every minute. The bridge party would have their hands full dealing with that . . .
One of the gun crew had now dived into the mist wreathed river, swimming back and forth across it with frenetic energy. "Strength through joy," Henry whispered derisively. A tarpaulin was stretched from the top of the back wall of sandbags to the ground. Two men were rolling up blankets at the side of the shelter and securing them to back packs.
A little beyond the gun position the cottages of Carnoules were sending up smoke from their chimmneys, smoke immediately pulled into a surly jig with a blustery but uncertain wind. Henry had been astonished by the clarity of detail through the lenses of the Zeiss binoculars Crampton had presented him with as a good luck gesture. Even from this distance he could see the curious French rural style of interlocking ridge slates at the apex of many of the roofs. It was cheaper than cutting triangular ridge-pieces, although far more likely to let in rain. Not that the French pheasantry would care about that; from his experience they'd rather lose an entire generation of children to pneumonia than spend a franc they didn't have to. It would take a damned clever occupying army to get out of France with any money left in their pockets. The French robbed their allies blind so God alone knew what they'd do to their enemies.
A sudden disquieting thought was that if Henry's German made binoculars were so good there would be other glasses down there which would work just as well in reverse. Without moving anything except his head, and that slowly, he checked again on both sides of the observation position, fervently hoping it still looked as innocuous as it had before being occupied.
In the pre-dawn darkness, working by touch, the soldiers had each removed three pieces of coiled chicken wire mesh from inside their kit bags, each piece adorned with scraps of brown and green cloth. Ground sheets were put down first, then the blackened parachute canopies, then the pieces of chicken wire, reshaped by hand from circles to wider semi-circles and pegged down with meat skewers. Placed in a row, the three pieces of the wire made a tunnel big enough for a man to lie inside. At first light the hides were swiftly given an additional and more subtle decoration of grasses and crowberry plants before being occupied.
It had been one of life's better moments, a chance to relax with a feeling of tremendous satisfaction. The trip over from England had totally convinced Henry about the effectiveness of Crampton's computers. The start had certainly been odd, with the two aircraft being used in the parachute drop standing side by side on St Eval airfield. It had seemed incredible that both had been built by the same manufacturer and within a few years of each other. The de Havilland Dragon was the sort of aircraft Henry had grown up with, a biplane with lots of bracing wires and struts, a fixed undercarriage and hand carved wooden props on the two engines. The pilot sat in the extreme nose, where he completely filled up all the available space in a cockpit which was more Perspex than anything else. It was a design which was starting to look old, if not antique, but the Dragon was no joke. With its light build it could operate out of any small field and still carry six passengers plus baggage for five hundred miles at a hundred miles an hour whilst only consuming a few gallons of fuel on the trip. Dragon picture
The aeroplane beside the Dragon was a big a contrast as could be imagined, looking as if it had flown in from some kind of science fiction future. It was sleek as a shark, as smooth as oiled silk. Four engines like giant bullets emerged from the forty five foot wide wings, each engine fitted with a three bladed constant speed propeller. The contours of the fuselage flowed in pure unspoilt lines from the sharp nose and over the retractable undercarriage to the twin finned rudder at the rear. Or at least the lines had been unspoilt. Now the aircraft had an unsightly blister on top of its fuselage and one below it, just aft of the wheel wells, both blisters housing short wave transponder radio aerials on rotating Frazer-Nash mounts.
The reasons why a de Havilland Albatros had been selected to carry the world's first flying computer were three fold. Its performance, with its four 525 HP Gipsy engines giving it a range of over three thousand miles with a thousand pounds of payload. The interior space provided by a cabin which could seat twenty two passengers on shorter journeys. And finally because of the ease of installing the external aerials in an aircraft made of plywood. For despite its futuristic appearance the Albatross was still made in the traditional de Havilland way, of wood and glue. Albatross picture
Inside, on the one occasion Henry had found time to take a look, the Albatross seemed even more like a cross between a rocket ship and mad scientist's laboratory. The looming bulk of the computer was mounted in the centre line of the now seat less cabin, with a wooden table extending aft from it, the top of the table littered with electronic equipment. The beefy faced civilian scientist had led the way up the sloping floor, trying to explain the set up.
"Those two seats up front are for the chaps supervising the transponder aerials. They mainly have the job of picking up the transponders in the first instance. Once the beams have detected the transponder transmitters they should stay locked onto them no matter what happens. As far as you're concerned the really interesting things happen here, at the computer operator's position and the controller's position. This is the computer operator's perch."
A folding canvas stool had been lashed with tightly knotted cords alongside the table. Where the occupant sat he faced a black crackle coated box with a glass screen and lots of adjusting knobs underneath the screen.
"There's a cathode ray tube in there, as in a television set."
Henry was fascinated and excited: "Is this what a television set looks like? I've never seen one before."
Bill Joyce -- Beefy's name -- seemed amused. "I suppose you could say it looks something like a television set but the picture on the screen is nothing like you would have seen transmitted from Crystal Palace before the war."
Bill had leaned forward and thrown a switch. Immediately the screen shone with life. A series of words in white showed up against a grey background. "How about that then Henry? No need to warm up the tubes on this set because it hasn't got any. Everything here is transistorised. Incredible isn't it?"
"Well -- if you say so."
Henry had looked into the screen and read the displayed message: "LOAD PROGRAMME? FREE FLIGHT=FF WIND DRIVEN=WD ENTER="
"Is it asking us to do something?"
"It's offering us a choice, Henry. We call it a menu. We can either load the free flight programme or the wind driven programme. We'll start off with the free flight one. Go ahead and tell it."
"Look down on the bench. You see that metal panel that looks like a keyboard?"
There was a rectangular metal panel which had lots of hollow squares painted on it in bright red paint, with equally bright yellow numbers and letters inside the boxes as if it was the keyboard of a typewriter. But it was obvious that they weren't keys, just unyielding metal.
"Pick up that piece of bakelite that looks like a pencil. Mind the cord."
Henry had examined the strip of bakelite curiously. From one end protruded a tip of bare metal like a pen nib and on the other end was a length of braided cable , just like the cable on a telephone handset, only this was connected to the keyboard box.
"That's called a stylus. If you touch any of the squares it makes an electrical connection through the keyboard and the number or letter shows up on the screen. Go ahead, press the F key twice."
Gingerly, Henry had done as he was told, tapping the stylus on the F square and staring into the screen. Each time he touched the metal the letter 'F' appeared.
"Well, it works, but what happens now?"
"Down on the right hand side there's a square marked 'ENTER'. Touch it."
As soon as Henry had done so all the words disappeared and other ones appeared: "'RUN FF PROGRAMME? Y/N'"
"All you have to do now is to touch the Y square to say yes."
"This is silly. You can't talk to a box."
None the less, Henry had touched the Y square with the tip of the stylus and then jerked back with a shock as a pair of large film reels next to the television set had started turning without any warning.
"It's OK, it's loading the programme now," David had said. "We're using old film stock with holes cut in it instead of paper tape because it's much tougher and reliable. We wouldn't like to have to leave you on the other side of the Channel just because a piece of paper broke and got jammed in the reader."
"Yeah, OK. But what did that stuff about free flight mean?"
"Come over to the controller's position and I'll explain."
Bill moved down to the end of the bench. Underneath a perspex cover was the French National map 0516 of North East Brittany which Henry had done his planning from.
"What we've done is to prepare two different programmes because we have two different sets of circumstances to deal with. When we drop you it's going to be with what we call a free flight programme because it doesn't matter a lot to you which way the wind is blowing, not as long as we drop you in the right place. But if we're landing a glider it has -- as far as possible -- to land into the prevailing wind. That's a wind driven programme."
"Look, here's your drop zone. As a controller I'd look at the map and select the route which kept the Dragon's flight path as far as possible from any occupied areas. I'd pick the point where I want to arrive on the map, whatever waypoints and new courses I want, and where I want to move off the map again. And I use a ruler, a protractor and a crayon to mark those places and courses on the map. For simplicity's sake, let's imagine a straight line across the map, a line that directly crosses your drop zone."
Bill had made the line, putting a cross on each end of it and one more over the chosen drop zone. Then he opened a drawer underneath the bench and took out a brown envelope from a pile inside. On it was printed 'FF'. Bill tore it open and pulled out a small white printed pad.
"This is a proforma made up for the free flight program. The controller's job is to write down all the necessary map co-ordinates and courses he wants inserted into the program running on the computer. Then he tears off the top copy and gives it to the computer operator while he keeps a carbon copy. Both people have a separate circuit through their earphones and microphones so they can talk without being disturbed. As the operator enters the data from the proforma pad he reads back each figure to the controller who's double checking the map co-ordinates again. Only then is the programme allowed to run. The essential point is that since it's a free flight programme the controller can pick and chose whichever path he wants the aircraft under his control to follow to get to wherever he wants it to go."
"Er -- OK. But why do you keep the pads in envelopes?"
"They're made of special paper which turns brown and completely unreadable after about ten minutes' exposure to light. If the Albatross ends up at the bottom of the Channel we don't want any pieces of paper left floating on the surface that might give any useful clues away." Bill shook the envelope and a half crown fell out of it. He showed Henry the big coin. "A sinker -- just the right shape and size but a bit expensive. Still, maybe if the Jerries get one of these envelopes in their hands they'll maybe think its some kind of a betting slip."
Henry nodded: "Alright, so what happens with the wind driven programme?"
"It's a little more complicated than the free flight one. For example, instead of a drop zone for parachutists or bombs we talk about an arrival point, and we have to be very careful in letting the computer know what height we want our target to be at when it reaches the arrival point. It would be embarrassing if we tried to land a glider when it was still thirty feet up in the air. But the main difference is that we need to tell the computer not only the arrival point but also what the prevailing wind conditions are. Which isn't hard to work out, not for us."
"Once we've locked onto the transponder at the Naval College we'll know what our position is all the time and so we'll be able to compare our track with what it should be with the forecast winds. Once we've got that data we can refine our forecasts down into what we call 'present-time' knowledge. We'll know exactly how strong the wind is and what direction it's blowing from. Put that into the computer with the co-ordinates of the arrival point and it'll come back with the release point co-ordinates and recommended alltitude for the towing aircraft to cast off the gliders."
"Yes, simple. And what happens if your magic box wants you to fly the Hotspurs in directly above a town that's got a battery of German flak guns stationed in it?"
Bill shrugged his shoulders: "I'm afraid we've already got far too much programming code to validate in a hurry to worry about that sort of possibility."
"Well, just as long as you care."
Mr Joyce wasn't amused. "Look underneath the bench."
Henry did, to see all the space there filled with what looked like a squashed in miniature barrage balloon. He prodded the swollen silver grey material and Bill had squawked in anger.
"Don't go weakening that. There's a hundred pounds of explosive underneath that lot with barometric switches inside the gas bag holding the firing circuit open. Before we take off the safety switches are closed from a panel that's only accessible by the ground crew. One or two bullet holes in the bag or a single bad tear and the whole plane gets blown into splinters. Not to mention the fact that everybody on board is going to be padlocked into a lead filled harness so there's no chance of staying afloat. Things could easily go just as wrong for us civilians as they could for you military types."
Henry had smiled and -- a most unusual gesture for him -- had touched Bill on the shoulder. "Don't worry, mate, I think we're both running on our own wind driven programmes."
"I'm not windy," Bill had answered sturdily.
"Aren't you? Well, I am."
But for all the forebodings the trip had, at first anyway, seemed almost boring. As far as Henry could tell nobody had fired a single shot at the Dragon. Not that he'd expected much flak anyway. Even the Germans didn't have enough searchlights or anti-aircraft guns to line more than a tiny fraction of the French coastline. Most of their defences they did have would be in the Channel ports, where the invasion barges were supposed to be still waiting their chance to bring the Wehrmacht to England and where the RAF bombers were still trying to sink them in the harbours.
Things were certainly quiet enough in Brittany, with enough uncovered windows on the ground to suggest that many of the rural dwellers of France regarded the war as over and won and the blackout regulations as no longer of any importance. Whether or not the farm near their drop zone was showing any lights was a question that Henry hadn't had time to ask. The navigator had been crouched over the transponder with a spare set of headphones on, listening to the computer controller in the Albatross giving directions to the Dragon's pilot. When the controller called "go!" over the radio link the navigator chopped his hand down and it was time to jump.
In fact leaving the Dragon was hardly a matter of jumping. Compared to the evil old Whitley it was like stepping off a tram. The passenger door was already removed so it was simply a case of diving out headfirst through the small hatchway.
Not that Henry had been much comforted by such advantages. When he struggled out into the black night with the sparks from the throttled back engine flying around him and his kitbag lashed to his chest he was acutely aware of how much empty space there was below him. Then he had no more time to worry, spreadeagling himself on the rushing wind and waiting for life or death as the parachute strop unfurled from the Dragon, then tightened at full length and snapped open the seals on his pack.
A gasp of relief came from Henry's chest as the harness tugged at his body. Working swiftly he jerked open the quick release buckle holding the kitbag to him whilst holding the line at the top of the bag with his left hand. Letting the line slip quickly through the gloved fingers of both hands he lowered the kitbag below him until the line had entirely run out of the long canvas pocket on the side of his left trouser leg and was hanging free from the knot secured to his harness. The suspended weight immediately began to dampen down the slight oscillation of his body underneath the canopy.
Reaching up he gripped the risers, deliberately refraining from looking upwards. If the parachute hadn't deployed properly, too bad, because he had neither a spare chute nor time to use one. In any case nothing could break the fleeting magic of this moment. Henry hated parachuting until the moment the chute opened -- after that, he loved it. Admittedly, ninety nine per cent of this reaction was due to relief at finding himself underneath an opened canopy but the split second transition from noise, roaring wind and desperate athletics to the utter tranquillity of gliding out of the sky like a bird was totally unlike anything else in his experience.
On this occasion he had perhaps five seconds to look around before landing. He could see high ground ahead of him in the starlight, although he had no idea of which side of the valley he was facing. Then he seemed to bounce back up into the sky as the kitbag hit the ground, removing some of the load on the canopy and causing it to flare. His rate of descent abruptly checked, Henry had taken the impact of his own landing along the side of his right leg and across his back, the billowing black canopy continuing to drag him through the grass. Rolling over on his stomach, he jerked on the bottom risers. Something with a mixture between cream and clay smeared itself across his face, a substance with an hard outer crust and a foul smell inside. "Shit!" Henry had snarled involuntarily, dragging his sleeve across his face to try and remove some of the clinging patches of the fresh cowpat.
After that inauspicious start things had gone better. He'd bundled up his parachute, followed the line from the harness to the kitbag and inspected it closely. There was no doubt at all that the three layers of coiled wire mesh inside the bag had proved an excellent stiffener and shock absorber, supplementing the rubber and paper padding in the bottom of the kitbag.
Henry had undone the draw cord at the top, taken out a De Lisle carbine, then a leather strap with a clip hook at each end. He stowed the parachute and gloves in the kitbag. Two extra carrying strops had been sewn onto it. Henry attached the strap to them and slung the kitbag onto his back. It was hardly an ideal portering arrangement but the wire mesh greatly helped by preventing the canvas sack from sagging under the weight of the radio set and bicycle lamps inside it.
The last thing he did before moving off was to unbutton his leather jerkin and remove two small snow shoes from inside it. At least that was what they looked like. Homemade contraptions utilising a long green sapling for the outer curve, reinforced with cross-pieces and twine. On the bottom of each one was a layer of rubber, cut off square at the front so he could crawl if necessary while still wearing them.
Henry secured the crude overshoes over the rubber plimsolls he was already wearing. He wasn't keen to make the Huns a free present of his tactical methods, especially the advance arrival of a scouting unit. By using the shoes he hoped to minimise any tracks they left behind. As the pads extended out an inch or so around the sides of his shoes they made walking more difficult and more tiring but he still believed them to be worth using. As a precaution the securing lines over his feet used a combination of transport knots and a highwayman's hitch, so one tug sufficed to release the fastenings if fast movement suddenly became necessary.
Henry padded along for thirty paces, stopped, and clicked his fingers once. An answering double click came from his left. He moved towards it, weapon ready. A crouching figure stood upright. "Jennings, zur. I think that be Corporal Parrish over yonder."
"You must be an owl," Henry whispered. "You see anybody else around?"
"No zur. But I can smell something what's rank bad."
"That's me. Let's go. You'd better lead, you can see better."
Jennings moved surprisingly quickly across the field, Henry close behind, his sweaty palms clutching the carbine. It was a pity that the auxiliaries had only been able to provide them with two of the very special weapons.
Lance Corporal Parrish was sprawled on the ground, apparently trying to hide behind his kitbag with his fighting knife still in his hand. "Watch yoursen!" he whispered urgently. "There's a fucken bull here, awfa' mad!" A snort from a black mass in the gloom confirmed his alarm. Henry circled the animal to the right, keeping his carbine aimed at the lowered head threatening to charge, while Jennings helped the Corporal to his feet. Then the Cornishman chuckled.
"Why zur, tis no bull, but a cow. The beast's head be stuck in some way."
Moving closer Henry saw that a short piece of rope was tied from one of the animal's horns to a fore ankle. He could only assume it was some kind of local method for persuading the animals to eat more by keeping their heads down close to the grass, thus fattening more quickly. Typical Frog cruelty to animals, although it did have a funny side. Three intrepid Commandoes ready to fight to the death against one frightened cow!
The Lance Corporal still seemed unsteady on his feet. "Banged ma head against the doorway as I went out, sir," he explained. "Then the bloody kitbag line got wrapt around ma legs whist I was trying to get ma wits back. When I landed, I knocked all the wind out of ma'self. Then I saw that bastard cow an' thought I was due for a richt meltin'."
Henry had checked Parrish's head as well as he could in the darkness. Like the rest of them the Lance Corporal was wearing a circular rubber and canvas helmet which was normally only used for training jumps. As an independent commander for the first time Henry was able to indulge in some of his personal whims, one of the first of which had been to been to discard steel helmets. As far as he was concerned they were anachronistic encumbrances from the days of trench warfare. Admittedly, the flat topped training helmets looked distinctly odd, like something out of a Flash Gordon comic strip, but they also meant the wearers could be quickly identified as friendly troops in poor visibility. Now it seemed he might have made his first mistake. Parrish certainly had some blood on his scalp, although it was impossible to judge whether the injuries were superficial or not.
"Dinna fret, sir. I'll be fine, bye and bye."
That was probably true. Parrish was a youthful veteran of Barlinnie, the toughest prison in Scotland, a young man as hard and battered as a piece of Glasgow tramline. There were already enough scars on his body for any three normal men. It was also typical of Henry's unit that his scouting unit contained a respectable bank clerk, a potential bank robber and a boy whose only ambition was to become a clergyman as soon as the war was over.
The group moved off again, Henry bringing up the rear and Parrish in the middle. If the Corporal collapsed somebody had to be behind him to make sure he wasn't left behind.
A little surprisingly, Reech, the best signaller and worst parachutist of them all had made a perfect descent. He was standing with his kitbag on the ground beside him as if waiting for the next bus. "Piece of cake, sir," he had said smugly.
Having collected his tiny command together Henry had orientated himself with his compass. Looking around, the only thing he could say for certain was that they were standing in a field underneath a heavily clouded sky. Since he had to assume that he was close to the correct position all he needed to do was keep walking to the east to the top of the ridge line and then turn right. Simple enough navigation, provided they didn't have to dodge anybody.
"Check your L-tablets," Henry ordered.
Each of them pulled on the string around their necks. Instead of identity discs they each had a small disc hanging on the string with a spring loaded dispenser inside. When pressed, each disc popped out a pill containing a lethal dose of potassium of cyanide.
"If you have to use them don't hesitate, or you'll suffer a lot and help the Jerries a lot as well" Henry enjoined them. "Go to your God like a soldier, not a mutilated animal from the abattoir. The only time the Germans talk about mercy is when they're begging for it."
With Reech as last man now and Jennings leading they set off, slipping and sliding a little on the grass tussocks because of the rubber pads underfoot. The discovery of a small road after two hundred yards travel seemed to confirm their position was very close to what had been intended. The road was in the right place, of the right width, and aligned in the right direction as the V road on their briefing maps. It also had a kilometre post shining palely on the grass verge. Henry had clustered his men around him for shelter while he flicked on his torch inside his cupped hand for a split second. Then he'd grunted in astonishment and awe. For the kilometre post had read 'CARNOULES -- 7 KILOMETRES'.
This was the third night parachute descent Henry had made into open country, both of the previous ones during training in England. The first time he'd landed eleven miles from the selected drop zone. The second time, in perfect weather conditions, he had been dropped over two miles away. What he had now was absolute proof that this time, on a pitch black night, the computer guided Dragon had landed him within a stone's throw of his planned drop zone. It was a pity there was no time to hang about trying to understand all the revolutionary implications of what had just happened. Instead, Henry led his men across the road and upwards towards the ridgeline.
Twice on the upward climb they stopped, the first time because of the throbbing noise of de-synchronized aero engines coming towards them. The aircraft, presumably one of KGr 100's, passed overhead in the darkness without being seen. Whatever it was doing it seemed to be in a minority because only one more aircraft had been heard subsequently, apparently landing. A second stop had been caused by Parrish's difficulty in continuing. It was obvious that he was finding it hard to shake off the effects of the blow on his head. The NCO's doggedness was unaffected though. It took some forceful persuasion before he allowed Henry to carry his kitbag for him. After a five minute halt they moved off again, Henry still cursing himself for being so hasty in discarding their steel helmets.
It was fortunate that once the high ground had been reached it was a short and fairly easy stage to the first observation position. Henry had told Jennings to let Parrish sleep if he could, and if he did, to leave him undisturbed as long as possible. Bedded down underneath his hide he was in as comfortable a position as they could provide for him. Henry had given his final instructions very quietly. "If Corporal Parrish starts making a dangerous amount of noise because he's in a coma, you are to silence him by whatever means are necessary. You will not be held responsible if such action results in further injury or death to him. You understand my orders?"
"OK, then. Remember, I must know if that farmhouse is occupied, and if it is, how many people live there. And anything else you can tell me about the landing area would be much appreciated. If all three of the gliders crack up on this side of the Channel it'll be the end of the line for us."
"I intend to start moving back to this position as soon as it gets dark tonight." Henry rubbed his hand against the bare ribbed rocks which marked the observation post's position. "I'll throw a stone against these rocks to let you know I'm around, then click my fingers once. Two double clicks is the correct response."
"Aye, zur. Good luck."
"And to you, Jennings. You may have a boring day but tomorrow night will make up for it."
"Don't ee worry 'bout that, Cap'n. I bought my knitting with me to pass the time, like."
Henry shook his head in bewilderment. "Your knitting!"
"Aye," Jennings answered calmly. "Making myself a balaclava, I be. A body could catch their death of cold in this line of business."
"Fine, you can make me one while you're at it. But you'd better be careful of the size, my head's bigger than it looks. Come on Reech, let's go."
Once dawn's first light had confirmed that their observation post was in the correct position and properly camouflaged, Henry and Reech had taken it in turns to sleep while the other maintained a watch. Henry had taken the first shift, jotting down notes on any traffic he could see.
Although the trees in front made it impossible to observe the road between the bridge and the turnoff to the chateau he could overlook the roof of the chateau and see about a hundred yards of the driveway. Usually, whenever a vehicle passed his line of sight leaving the chateau it showed itself again soon afterwards crossing the river bridge, either stopping then at one of the German billets in the village or going on to the airfield.
That the village had been largely taken over by the Luftwaffe was beyond doubt. Although Henry could only see about one third of Carnoules that was more than enough to confirm that the Huns had got their feet well and truly under the table. An odds and ends collection of motorbikes and covered vans were parked in a row, with typical Teutonic tact, next to a small statue of a First World War French soldier holding a flag to his lips. Beyond them were two Luftwaffe buses and a mobile field kitchen. As the light grew stronger groups of men in blue-grey uniform appeared on the streets, interspersed with civilians in ones or twos, many of the civilians apparently elderly.
Neither nationality appeared to take a great deal of notice of the other except for a group of school children who seemed continually fascinated by the Germans' equipment, especially their weapons. Henry found it easy to deduce the latter fact because of his own experience. One of the privileges granted to Commando troops was to be billeted in civilian homes instead of barracks, so he had some idea of what was going on in Carnoules. But what comparison could there be between a householder who billeted a soldier for patriotism and six shillings and four-pence per diem and one who had to accept a foreign invader on pain of eviction?
The answer, apparently, was that there wasn't much difference at all. At the end of the high street nearest the river three large square concrete tanks were surrounded by early rising women slapping and pounding their laundry into a state of cleanliness. Nearly all the shirts being hung up to dry were grey and definitely German service issue, as were the matching socks and underwear. Whatever proprieties were being observed on the streets none of the women seemed to have any qualms about washing their dirty linen in public, as it were. The new European order was obviously alive and well and thriving in Carnoules.
"Cunts!" Henry snarled, carefully keeping his hand over the rubber speaking tube which connected him to the other hide. A faint droning noise came out of it at regular intervals as Reech snored. Henry had to look through his binoculars again before he could believe he was watching French women acting as dhobi-wallahs for the Huns only a few weeks after many of their own men had been killed by these same soldiers.
And yet, and yet. For a start, this wasn't France, it was Brittany, a hangout of Celtic leftovers. Not so much a case of being conquered as seeing the old conquerors conquered. And who down there could believe in even the possibility of defeating Hitler's Germany? The game was over, the winner had collected everything on the table, so what sense was there in trying to pretend otherwise? A lot was going to have to happen before any sizable percentage of the occupied populations would be ready to even consider fighting against the Germans.
Henry's train of thought was broken into by the sight of the first traffic of the morning along the V road. It consisted of one very old push bike being slowly wheeled up the slope by a thin man of indeterminate age wearing a knee length smock made of brown material, a dilapidated trilby hat on his head and a old sack tied around his shoulders. The man's movements were slow and economical of effort, the rhythm of a farm worker dragging his tiring body through a lifetime of toil. Henry had joined the Army as a boy precisely because of the fact that he'd been bought up amongst such people. If he got shot today it was still worth it to have dodged the muck and boredom of the farmyard.
Watching the passing traffic did get rather more interesting after that. Some light German military lorries in the village, a motorcycle and sidecar apparently running a shuttle service between the chateau and the airfield, several civilian cars with Wehrmacht plates. Henry twice saw a small fighting patrol carrying Schmeissers walking along the far bank of the river, which seemed to delineate part of the airfield security boundary. Close observation of their route revealed splashes of whitewash on tree trunks and white rags tied to bushes to help the patrols find their way at night without flashing torches about.
No doubt about the the old Jerry, he was a soldier to his fingertips, imaginative, painstaking, a foe with scarcely a flaw in his metal. If the pricks could translate just one tenth of their military skill into political common sense they'd be no stopping them.
Three times during Henry's watch a large green and grey Heinkel 111 with a row of aerials on its back lifted up above the village, wheels retracting and the unit badge of a Viking ship visible next to the glazed nose section. When one of the Heinkels passed directly overhead Henry squirmed down into the folds of parachute silk, then froze as still as a mouse underneath an hovering hawk. In his mind he knew how unlikely it was that anybody up there could see the hide but his body refused to believe it. Of course the aircraft simply flew on to do its airworthiness checks, or whatever it was about, with no sign of interest in his area.
Still, Henry was glad he'd been able to palm off the camera supplied by Air Intelligence to Reech. Since his family had never been able to afford even a box brownie his excuse that he understood nothing about the mysteries of focusing and light exposure was both sincere and unshakeable.
Henry also carefully considered the bridge, though he saw no reason to modify the plan he had already drawn up to damage it. Without time or opportunity to drill into the structure to place charges in the approved manner it was going to have to be a case of the bridge party using brute force to attack the structure. Each man would be carrying a pack filled with explosive and kapok. The packs would be tied together on the end of a length of rope, lowered into the water and allowed to drift alongside the central pillar under one of the haunches of the bridge. A grapnel tied onto the rope and secured to the bridge parapet would hold the packs in the correct position while the safety fuse on the detonating cord was lit. The blast would punch upwards through the intrados and extrados layers of brickwork forming the arch and displace the spandrel so that the line of thrust following the arch was sharply turned, thus collapsing the road surface. At least that was what his MEXE chart said should happen.
When Reech awoke Henry was glad to hand over the observation duties to him. He cleaned his teeth with a rag and some salt, pissed into an old rubber hot water bottle, said a short prayer, wrapped himself in the filthy parachute panels and closed his eyes.
It was a good sleep, completely undisturbed, save for nostalgic boyhood odours of wet bracken and damp earth and the soothing sound of raindrops pattering against leaves. When he opened his eyes the sound and smells stayed with him. Showers of rain blown by a raw north wind were slapping against the hillside. What had been a fairly calm and clear day had worsened considerably whilst he slept. Now he could understand why so many of the village cottages presented blank walls to the north. That had to be the direction from which the prevailing winds blew, off the sea. Cold water began to drip through the camouflage netting above him and seep into his clothes.
Henry's G 1098 issue watch showed it was ten minutes past four. Which meant only another two hours to full darkness, although it seemed more likely to be only half an hour with the sullen stratocumulus clouds hanging overhead like a decaying shroud. He slipped a glacier mint into his mouth and sucked on it as he peered through a patch of long grass shaking in the wind gusts. In his judgement, limited though it was, the conditions seemed bad but not yet unflyable. Not that there was much point in worrying about the Hotspurs. They would either arrive or they wouldn't. All his landing party could do was to make sure they were ready and hope for the best.
Henry picked up the speaking tube and whistled gently down it. "Reech."
"Anything interesting happen?"
"Two things, sir. A damned great Mercedes with a pennant flying went down the drive to the chateau at 1322. Departed at 1503, but didn't cross the bridge. I assume it turned right on the main road and went to Dinan. I had no chance to see who was inside."
"Just some staff officer cadging a few free drinks, I daresay. What else?"
"Well, I've only seen a couple of horse drawn wagons going down this road in front of us, and a few men on pushbikes, but there was a car at 1256, coming from Carnoules. A civilian car -- one of those long Citroen 15's with the big double V badge on the radiator. It had some bullet holes in the bodywork but old ones, patched up. There were three Jerries inside it, senior NCO's by their uniforms, and all looking very happy and relaxed. I'd guess the car is a piece of loot picked up by the local sergeants' mess sometime during the summer campaign and used for a runabout. They were out on pleasure, not military duties, I'm sure of that."
Henry as an regular officer and Reech as a 'hostilities only' private both knew the same basic facts about service life; whoever else in a unit might be suffering hardships the last ones to feel the pinch would be the warrant officers and sergeants. They'd been at the game too long. Likewise, if there were any creature comforts going it was a sure bet that the old sweats would have them all organised for their own benefit long before their officers had even heard about them. As for the Citroen, practically every car owner in Paris had fled west or south during the great retreat, many of them being strafed by the Huns and abandoning their vehicles by the side of the road. And if anybody had the tools and expertise to fix up almost any kind of machinery it would be Luftwaffe ground crew.
"You think the Jerries were off on a spree somewhere?"
"It's a bit hard to be sure, sir. They came back past us at 1605, just before you woke up. I mean, I couldn't swear to anything, but I didn't get the impression they were drunk. Just a lot more relaxed even than they were before."
Henry scratched at his stubby chin. "Reech, you were studying to do God's work before this war started. Show me your insight into your fellow human beings. You saw them go out and you saw them come back. What do you think they might have been doing to make their trip worthwhile?"
Reech coughed apologetically. "Well, sir, in my experience any group of men with that sort of expectation and then relaxed happiness are either going out fishing or fornicating -- and I didn't see any fishing rods."
"That's interesting. If they followed the road to the next village on the map it would have been a round trip of about nine miles. They could gave done that in the car with no rush and still had plenty of time to indulge themselves. Let's both hope they went straight past the farm. I'd hate to discover that it's been turned into a Hun knocking shop."
"Better say amen, Reech. We may need the help of a higher authority than I can invoke."
The day died swiftly, grey light ebbing out of the grey sky. Henry took out his handkerchief, soaked the khaki material in a trickle of rainwater, then carefully wiped off the burnt cork and remains of cow dung from his face. There was nothing he could do about the rest of his body which looked as if it had been rolling in a pile of carbon papers. The hastily applied dye on the silk canopy was coming off on everything it touched.
Out of his shirt pocket he produced a small metal mirror, a tube of shavex and the cutthroat razor he'd bought at the start of the war as a precaution of his own against a shortfall in the supply of life's necessities. If need be he wouldn't have to buy another razor blade until about 1950, by which time the Germans might be ready to sign an armistice. After a long drawn out and thoroughly enjoyable shave Henry carefully unwrapped a stub of burnt cork and re-camouflaged his face. Then he put his hand into the kitbag and produced a water bottle filled with cold tea, a packet of hard tack biscuits and a tin of bully beef. It would probably take all of Crampton's fancy computers to work out how many tons of those particular foodstuffs the British army had in store -- certainly enough for this war and probably the next one as well.
Still, you couldn't complain. Here he was, rested, shaved, fed and knowing precisely where he was and what he was supposed to be doing, none of which conditions usually applied to the poor bloody infantry in the front line. If he couldn't do any good under these conditions then Henry Winfield would have to be a damned bad leader. The light had thickened into murk and mist, nightfall was upon them, and his luck was waiting, good or bad.
Henry picked up the speaking tube. "OK, Reech, as Mr Kipling might say, we're a little in front o' Christmas time and just behind the rains. Time to start moving."