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SOLDIER OF THE EMPIRE - CHAPTER VI

By

Alan Burnham


Where there had been bone chilling cold there was now sweat and urgency. Henry and Reech were working against time to finish laying out the landing lights for the gliders.

In fact there were three separate sets of lights to be prepared. The first set were the three red ones to mark the line of the downwind wall. Henry unscrewed the glass shields in the front of the lamps and inserted a piece of red cellophane in each before placing it on top of the wall. As the lamps came out of the kitbags they were handled with great care because of the electrical flex connecting them together. After each had been set up it was covered with a thick army sock.

Two of the Russian girls were watching their every action intently. "Get them sweeping the strip, Reech." Henry ordered. "Make sure they tell us if they find any potholes or soft patches."

His faith in their reliability was not high. One of them was the well built red head who had been on the receiving end of the cane, Natalya, a lass probably still eager to inflict as much damage on mankind in revenge as she could. The other, Laryssa, was she of the sulky expression, which hadn't changed either. The youngest of the three and spoilt rotten from childhood, at a guess.

"Yes, sir. I've explained it to them carefully."

The girls had been brought along to help drive the cows into the next field. Now they were walking back towards the farm, heads lowered and buffeted by wind gusts as they searched for any dangers or obstructions hidden in the dark field. He might have ordered the other girl, Anna, to help them, but it had seemed better to let her and the Countess continue to give Parrish whatever comfort they could.

Jennings was still standing guard over the Germans in the barn, though it hardly mattered now. All the Huns were blindfolded and had their hands tied behind their backs. More to the point, they were standing on a plank which was precariously balanced across two oat bins, with loops of silk cut from the old Luftwaffe parachute tied around their necks in running bowlines and secured to an overhead beam. If anybody or anything upset their particular apple cart the whole bunch would end up treading air. Please be to God that nobody would think of looking for them before tomorrow morning's muster parade.

That was presumably dependent as to whether any of them were supposed to be on duty between now and then. Senior NCO's with their high level technical qualifications were usually free of the closer supervision inflicted on the rank and file and were unlikely to be bed checked. Of course there might be some kind of all ranks curfew for security reasons but, on the evidence of his eyes so far, German servicemen in France seemed to be in about as much danger from the local population as they would be in the Black Forest. If the standard of discipline in the Luftwaffe was anything like the RAF's the airfield would be run like a holiday camp anyway.

The two soldiers erected more red warning lights in front of the sheep pens. Then they began the task of setting out the main landing strip. This was to consist of four lights in the form of the Greek letter gamma, or so the RAF glider pilots had asked for. After Henry had requested a translation, not being a classical scholar, it transpired that they were talking about an upside down capital L. In effect, a hundred yard strip marked out with three lights: top, middle and bottom, with a fourth light set off at a right angle to the top upwind lamp.

At each location a long meat skewer was pushed into the turf and a lamp was fitted at the top, standing clear of the highest tussocks of grass and weeds. Then a circle of the rag covered chicken wire originally used for their hides was set up around each of the lamps, re-bent to leave a forty five degree gap open facing downwind. The lights would thus only be visible in the direction the gliders were supposed to be coming from. Finally, they pegged each shield down hard with more meat skewers driven deep into the ground to prevent the shields being dislodged by the wind.

After finishing the job of setting out the lights Henry returned to the milking shed, walking backwards as he unreeled more flex behind him. Under cover in the shed he took a block of wood out of his pocket with two nails set in it. Taking the ends of the flex, already taped together and stripped of insulation he then twisted the exposed wires around the nails. On the block was a crude switch made of a bent strip of copper mostly covered with insulating tape. He pressed the switch down onto the nails and on the wooden block a small testing bulb shone in his cupped hands like a tiny star of hope amongst the surrounding darkness. Since the landing lights were set up in a series circuit all of them must therefore be working.

Henry put a wooden wedge between strip and nails, held securely in place by two strong rubber bands around the block and pressing down on the makeshift switch. Then he went back down the field again, going to each lamp to remove the socks and put them carefully back in the kitbag.

The two girls finished another downwind sweep as he uncovered the wall danger lights. It was then 2048 according to his watch, and radio contact was supposed to be made at 2115. It was close timing, but he was satisfied now that they could land the Hotspurs safely, provided this blessed partial hiatus in the stormy weather would only last a little longer.

"Right, back up to the farm."

He stretched his arms out and the girls moved out on either side of him for a final check of the springy turf. Good grazing land they had in these parts. Not as good as the Welland valley of course, but not bad.

Reech had moved back into the milking shed, where he was using a faint glimmer of muffled torchlight to examine the contents of two well padded aluminium boxes.

"Both sets seem OK, sir."

"By God, I hope one of them at least is working properly. I still find it hard to believe they can do what they're supposed to. OK, once the first glider lands go over to Mr Cunliffe-Brown and explain what's happened. Use the girls to help you carry our kitbags over and stow them in the glider. In the meantime take the girls back to the barn. Anything you can find out from them about the situation in Carnoules and at the aerodrome I want to know. Get that fat German down and stick a knife in his arse. Let the other prisoners hear him scream. Even if none of them speak French worth a damn it'll put them in the right frame of mind for when our German speakers get here and put the hard word on them."

"I'm sorry, sir, I can't torture a prisoner."

"What!"

Henry couldn't believe his ears. In all his service he'd never heard of a single instance of any soldier ever questioning an order. In the regular British Army the only acceptable excuse for disobedience was being both dead and buried. On the other hand you didn't find many sappers in the regular Army who were theology students. Damn it all though, he couldn't allow anybody to back chat him. But of all the times and places to start bellowing like a parade ground sergeant-major this was the worst imaginable.

"I'll happily cut the bastard's balls off for you. Just say the word."

The tone of the voice was bitter, the accent American. Both of the soldiers gaped at Natalya in astonishment, accompanied as far as Henry was concerned by relief that he now had an excuse to change the subject without losing face.

"I thought you upper class Russians were totally Frenchified. It never crossed my mind any of you'd be interested in learning English."

"You call me French again, buddy, and I'll kick you where I kicked that other creep. Maybe my aunt and these other broads are half assed French but my parents figured back in the twenties that the whole of Europe was going communist. Like you said, most of the old Czarists only knew one foreign language, French, so my folks migrated to Montreal. But they were smart enough to know that in North America you speak English to get ahead. They sent me to a protestant school in the west end, then to McGill University. I'm a Canadian."

"Damn your eyes, why didn't you say so before now?"

"I guess I was so surprised at first I kept on thinking in French, like I have been for months. And then I decided I'd keep my trap shut until I was sure you guys really were Limeys."

"What the frigging hell are you doing here anyway?"

"Making one hell of a mistake. Ever since I was a kid I've been told about how lousy communism is, and how we had to fight it wherever we could. My father thinks Hitler is a real hero. He says he's the only guy in Europe who can knock Stalin off his perch. When the Germans started rolling in, I figured there was no percentage in trying to get away in the middle of a shooting match. There wasn't one person I spoke to in Paris who thought the English could last one more month on their own. They advised me to sit tight while the peace treaties were signed, and then I could get a ship home from Le Havre as soon as the war was over.

"What was more, I didn't really want to go, not then. I wanted to see the Germans clean out all the communist scum that has poisoned France for years." Her voice trembled, on the verge of despair. "Shit, I didn't know anything about anything."

Then she took control of herself. "I used to think that Charlie Chaplin film, 'The Great Dictator', was funny. Funny! I never even want to think about any kind of stinking dictatorship again. God, I want to get out of here!"

Henry spoke softly:

"This is a state above the law,
Where the state exists for the state alone.
Here is neither evil nor good in life,
Except as the needs of the state condone."

"Is that Kipling as well, sir?" Reech asked. "It doesn't sound quite familiar."

"Never mind. Hey, just a minute, Natalya, did those Germans know you were a Canadian?"

"Yes, they knew. Why, what difference did it make?"

"What difference! What bloody difference! Reech, go and sort out what intelligence you can get from this girl and the other one. I'll keep Natalya here. But first of all you will deliver a message from me to those Germans if any of them can speak French well enough to understand it and pass it on to his mates. You will tell them they have been arrested in the act of raping a British subject. Therefore they are not prisoners of war and they have no claim for protection under the Geneva Convention. I'm going to hang them by authority of my King's Commission for the criminals they are and I'm going to leave one of them alive to explain to the Luftwaffe why I did so. The man who gives me the best information about KGr 100 is going to be the lucky survivor."

Henry could hear the vehement anger in his own voice at the mere thought of a bunch of filthy German arseholes having the brass necked nerve to knowingly lay a finger on a British woman. By Christ, they'd get the same lesson the Indians got after the Mutiny -- the bayonet and the fire! Reech knew better than to argue this point. He went off with the other girl as Henry took a deep breath to calm himself and carefully picked up the radio. Natalya watched with well justified amazement as he buckled a harness around his chest that suspended a fifteen pound metal box from his chest.

"What is that?"

"If it works it'll be a kind of electronic magic."

Magic would certainly be the right word if it worked. In Henry's experience the only reliable wireless transmissions were the ones that came out of the BBC's towers at Alexander Palace and Rugby. It was an absolute fact that the Army radio sets were usually nowhere near as useful as flags or heliographs were. True, the S-phone had worked wonderfully well in rehearsals, which was probably an excellent guarantee that when it was switched on now nothing at all would happen. Despite being so small it owed nothing to the transistors used in the computers but had five valves inside it, the same kind of valves used in normal wireless sets, only smaller. The unconventional part of the design was the narrow beam it transmitted from the box at 0.2 watts. Only two S-phones existed in the world, both in this barn, prototypes rushed out of a secret electronics workshop in England by direct pressure exerted by Crampton via Ten Downing Street. S-Phone

"What are you guys intending to do?" Natalya asked.

Henry thought about trying to explain how they were going to kill a lot of Germans and then get back into gliders and sit and wait for a plane to swoop down and pluck them out of this field. He thought Natalya would have no trouble grasping the first half of the concept and lots of trouble indeed in understanding the second part.

"You'll have to wait and see. You'll see a lot of things you won't understand and I don't have the time to explain now. Do any of the other girls speak English?"

"No, just me."

"Which of you can drive?"

"We all can, of course."

"It must be nice to be rich," Henry said sourly. "Right, your aunt promised us that you'd help us in return for a trip back to England. Will you help?"

"Sure. What do you want us to do?"

"I intend to use that car the Germans came in to evacuate any wounded I may have. When we leave get a double mattress out of the farm and lash it to the car's roof. Cut whatever cords you need from that parachute canopy in the barn. Explain to the girls they can stand on the running boards to steady any casualties on the mattress. Tell them you're all to wait here until the shooting starts, then you'll drive up along the V road as far as the bridle path turnoff above the chateau and to wait there. There'll be a strip of white canopy tied across the road by the turnoff so you can't miss it. And I want strips of parachute canopy tied to the front and back of the car in an X shape so we can identify it in the dark."

"OK, so we wait for you up there?"

"Yes. Drive up to the white marker, turn the car around and wait. You'd best leave the Countess here with my rear party."

Suddenly, without the slightest expectation of it happening, he found tears springing from his eyes and shuffled out further into the darkness, hoping the girl couldn't see him wiping his face with the back of his hand or hear him sniffing.

"What's the matter?"

"17, Back of 19, Gallow Top Road, Gavan. It was the home address of the man who got shot. I always thought it was an odd one. Probably one of those miner's terraced houses, one tap and a toilet in the yard shared between two families. Poor bastards, to bring up a son in a shit hole like that and lose him in a shitty war in such a stupid, shitty way."

Natalya said nothing, probably not understanding what he was talking about and Henry moved clear of the milking shed, took out his prismatic compass and checked that the clamp on the outer ring was still tight. Confident it was still correctly set he aligned the compass to the north and held it in position as he shuffled around until his chest was pointing in the same direction as the white guidance line on the opened compass cover.

The sky was clearing fast, the strengthening moonlight showing up the walls on the other side of the paddock and the rolling contours of the hills stood out clearly. Away to the north a faint droning noise indicated a powerful engine being revved up, almost certainly a Heinkel's twelve cylinder Jumo. If KGr 100 were getting ready to fly out on a raid . . .

Henry shrugged - it was out of his control now, and in the hands of the Almighty. He knelt down in the mud and bowed his head as he prayed aloud:

"God of our fathers, known of old,
Lord of our far-flung battle-line,
Beneath whose awful hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine -
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget - lest we forget!"

Then he stood up and pressed a switch on the side of the box on his chest. Henry tried to imagine a beam of radio signals streaming forward along the compass bearing he was facing, spreading out like shot gun pellets the further they went. If he could look along that beam with superhuman vision he would be able to see the Albatross just above his visible horizon thirty five miles away as it flew in a tight orbit high over the white capped waves of the Golfe De Saint Malo. And if a miracle happened he should be able to talk to it. Abandoning useless speculation he put on the earphones. At least there was a comforting crackle of static in them. He thumbed the pressel switch on top of the mouth mike.

"Quorn, Fernie. Report my signals, over."

"Fernie, Quorn. Loud and clear. Over."

His heart jumped with relief. The narrow beam signal was as good as they said it would be as long as both transmitters were aligned. Just like talking on a telephone, with the users able to hear each other's voices and -- just as importantly -- able to recognise them. No wonder Braddock's resistance organisation wanted S-phones for espionage purposes, especially with the added advantage that no ground station could eavesdrop in on the tight beam. But none of these advantages would have been of any use if the Albatross wasn't being kept in exactly the right position by the non-human navigator aboard the aircraft.

Henry wondered wildly for one second if anybody had told H.G. Wells about the invention of these computers yet -- his alien invaders had finally arrived but they weren't Martians and the one thing computers would certainly never suffer from were any kind of bugs or viruses.

"Quorn, Fernie. Weary Whitehall warriors work with woeful wanton waste. Over."

It had been a nice gesture for the planners to remember his Leicestershire origins by using famous hunting packs as call signs. Some compensation for the totally uninspiring name they'd assigned to the attack on KGr100 -- operation "GOATHERD".

"Fernie, Quorn. Weekes war weapons' week wants willing workers wholesale. I daresay neither of us is a German. Report your situation."

"Quorn, Fernie. Hot scent, hot scent. Over." Henry squinted down at a luminous dial of the barometer mounted on top of the wireless box and spoke very slowly.

"Barometric reading is niner, niner, seven. Wind blowing from Nuts Nuts Edward, strength twenty knots gusting to twenty five. Red lights mark low wall on downwind side of field and obstruction forty yards west of strip. Ground rises in gentle slope one hundred and thirty yards upwind of cross leg. Over."

"Fernie, Quorn. We will inform pilots. Any problems? Over."

Henry hesitated. It would take a long time to explain everything which had happened at the farmhouse and none of it made any essential difference to the operation. There was one thing the controller needed to know though.

"Quorn, Fernie. We need to hail two taxis. Over."

It had been arranged that each glider would carry its own retrieval kit and two spare Bombay snatch aircraft were supposed to be flying on the operation in case the lead Bombay had any mechanical problems. It was looking as if he was going to need a double lift to get everybody out now -- and for that he needed two gliders down safely.

"Fernie, Quorn. Why? Over."

A good question -- a very good question. Should he tell the Controller he'd met some nice looking girls who were looking for a free trip to England? Not unless he wanted to make the people up there think he'd either gone mad or got drunk. Do it first and argue about it later was the only way to handle this situation.

"Quorn, Fernie. We have Jerry prisoners with technical knowledge I want to get out even if everything else goes wrong. Over."

A moment's silence as the controller digested the unwelcome news that Germans had been encountered even before the landing party had reached French soil.

"Fernie, Quorn. Do you intend to carry out Goatherd as planned? Over"

"Quorn, Fernie. I confirm, Goatherd is to continue as planned. The prisoners are a small group of Luftwaffe NCO's who were visiting the farm. They have not raised any alarm and I think it unlikely that anybody will come looking for them tonight. Over."

"Fernie, Quorn Understood. Operation to continue as planned, two taxis now hailed and meters running. Please confirm. Over."

"Quorn, Fernie. Confirm, confirm. Out."

Henry felt somebody moving near him and jerked up his carbine, aiming at Anna. She stopped dead still, her face chalk white in the moonlight as he eased one of the earphones off his ear. Natalya appeared, whispering to the other girl, then speaking to Henry.

"I'm sorry, but your soldier has died."

"Yeah. OK, tell Anna to go back and take the Countess to the barn and talk to Reech. He's the soldier who speaks French."

Natalya spoke in French, Anna nodded her head and walked away, trying to pick her steps between the deeper pools of mud.

"What's your name?"

"Captain Winfield, Royal Engineers."

"Engineers? I thought you were soldiers."

Henry gritted his teeth: "Natalya, the best soldiers in every army are the engineers. The rest are just there to make up the numbers."

Natalya shook her head to indicate her lack of understanding -- or interest.

"Listen, Captain, I've figured it out that you're either here to shoot up the airfield, or the chateau, or both. I want to know if you're going into the chateau."

"Why do you care?"

"My fiancÚ is being held a prisoner in there, that's why."

"Hmm . . ." Henry was at a loss for words. Then he decided that he didn't have enough time to waste to be sympathetic and no way of lying which wouldn't soon be exposed. "Well, it's my job to make sure as many people as possible in that chateau get killed tonight. And I won't be in a position to do any picking or choosing. I'm fighting for the survival of my country. Everything else comes second -- sorry."

"Aww, it's OK, as long as you get us out of here. Peter was a pompous stuffed shirt anyway. It's just that I thought he might be useful to me."

Henry was rocked back on his heels. "That's all I need, a silly young girl distraught with grief at the loss of a loved one."

"Listen, Captain, ever since I was a kid, all I've ever wanted to be is film star, right there in Hollywood. I've been down to California and what I did to get my face on the screen would shake you out of your socks -- tonight was nothing compared to what went on at some of the parties out on Mulholland Drive -- you've no idea!"

"Oh, you've no idea how much I've no idea," Henry admitted sadly. "So what went wrong?"

"The lousy bastards, after all that, they tell me my tits and my ass are too big. But they didn't say anything until after they'd sampled the merchandise like crazy, then fobbed me of with nothing but a producer's gate-chit for an extras' line up.

"So the real reason I came over here was to try my luck in the French film industry, since I speak the language. But the bosses here were even more of a clique than in California. Then I met Peter and I thought he might do the trick for me if I married him. Even Hedda Hopper couldn't ignore a real life Empress working on a set."

"Whoa, what are you talking about?"

Natalya talked slowly and patiently. "Peter is the only son of Grand Duke Kyril, the senior male survivor of the Romanov family. Kyril proclaimed himself Emperor of all the Russias in front of two thousand ex-Czarist officers here in Paris. So the claim passed to Peter when his father died, and when he marries his wife becomes the Czarina."

"But it doesn't mean anything nowadays, all that Imperial Russian stuff. The Czars were finished with over twenty years ago."

"Who cares about that? The British Royal family were finished in America a hundred and fifty years ago but I guess Princess Elizabeth could walk into any studio and get a starring role if she wanted one. Royalty means publicity in the States, and publicity is what you need to get the big roles."

Henry scratched his chin whilst trying to think clearly. Was this crazy bitch infecting him with her infantile lunacies, or was he missing something important here? One Russian Duke or Czar, or whatever, who cared? But a lot of the tacit support for Hitler in America came from people who believed that Hitler was only really dangerous to communists. Yet here was a man claiming to be the Czar of Russia, which was about as anti-communist as you could get, but Hitler was apparently prepared to hand him over to Stalin to help keep the oil and wheat flowing into Germany from the Soviet Union. So if this Duke Peter could tell his story in America it might do Britain a lot of good, especially with a young and good looking wife beside him, maybe even a potential film star. And if she wasn't an American, Canadian was probably the next best thing as far as the Yank newspapers are concerned . . .

Why they might even make a film about it, about the glamorous young couple rescued from the clutches of the evil Nazis by British commandoes -- Von Stroheim directing and playing the big shot Nazi lusting after the helpless Natalya, played by herself, and perhaps Erroll Flynn as the hero, Captain Henry Winfield . . .

"Fernie, Quorn. Cast off. Over." The controller's voice in his earphones recalled him to reality.

"Quorn, Fernie. Cast off. Over."

Henry checked his watch's minute hand, then stared into the sky, trying to see something when he knew he couldn't.

"There's no way you'll land an airplane anywhere near here," Natalya snapped angrily.

Henry hoped he knew better. There should be an aeroplane about twenty miles to the south, now freed of its towed burden as the glider it had just released began its ten thousand feet descent, a glider being directed towards this very field by an elaborate web of radio signals controlled by a collection of exotic crystals working faster than a thousand human mathematicians could. A web woven in the ether far beyond any mortal sight or hearing, anchored to a faraway stone tower overlooking the great wooden figurehead of HMS Britannia and the grey Channel waters which were England's last line of defence.

"Charmed magic casements
Opening on the foam
Of perilous seas
In Faery lands forlorn."

Natalya's face swung towards him: "What? What was that?"

Henry shrugged. "Sorry -- thinking aloud." He re-checked his watch, the sweep hand moving as slowly as dripping glue. Round and round it trudged, each revolution apparently taking an eon.

"Fernie, Quorn. Expose."

"Quorn, Fernie. Exposing now."

He pressed the switch to close the circuit and once again the test light glowed reassuringly.

They continued to wait in an agony of impatience, the seconds dragging by in stretched out drops of eternity. Henry spoke aloud: "Come on, you fuckwits." Then he hastily checked his wireless pressel switch wasn't set to transmit. When he looked up again the Hotspur was whistling in over the bottom wall like a gut shot swan.

Natalya grabbed Henry's arm with so much strength it seemed to be in danger of being dislocated. Henry wondered dully what one and half tons of smashed up plywood would look like. The double noses were rearing up like a horse refusing a fence, air screaming eerily through the extended air brakes as the pilot fought to lose speed. The glider suddenly seemed to lose interest in the conflict with gravity and slumped heavily on the grass, Natalya gasping in alarm as they heard a harsh clattering sound. Fortunately for Henry's peace of mind he was aware this was a normal sound when the glider's twin under-fuselage wheels touched the ground. Then Natalya said something which sounded wonderfully obscene in whatever language she was using and the Hotspur was wallowing to a halt at the end of the strip.

Henry happily pressed the transmit switch: "Fernie, Quorn. One cub gone to ground. Out."

"You said it was a plane! You said we could fly out! That fucking thing is no use to us! It's got no motors". For the first time it suddenly occurred to Henry that perhaps Natalya still had some of the kitchen cutlery handy.

"We are flying out in that, but after we've done our job. You'll have to trust me and see how we do it. Now shut up and let me get on with things."

Men were jumping out of the twin fuselages as if the glider was on fire. With well practiced skill they attached a rope yoke to the Hotspur's tail units and hauled together on a tow line, dragging the empty glider back down the landing area.

"Fernie, Quorn. Cast off. Over."

"Quorn, Fernie. Cast off. Out."

Henry lowered his microphone: "Natalya, there's a woman in amongst the men who are going to land in the next glider. Her name is Julie. I want you to tell her what you've told me about your fiancÚ, she might be interested."

"You send women out with your Army?"

"She's an unusual woman. Her name's Julie. Tell her everything you've told me."

More time flowing like tar in sunlight. The first glider was back off the strip now, as far back against the field wall as it could be pushed. Vague movements were just visible around it as the aluminium snatch poles were unfastened from their exterior carrying positions underneath the centre sections of the glider, between the fuselages and the rudders. But they couldn't be erected until the other gliders were down. Right now his force was totally off balance, one foot on the ground, another in the air, unable to move, unable to leave, everything in a state of total confusion apart from the rehearsed landing routine. Oh God, let's get organised here, and quickly!

"Fernie, Quorn. Expose now, over."

"Quorn, Fernie. Exposing now, out." Henry pressed his switch and stared upwards.

His heart jumped into his mouth as the second Hotspur emerged out of the moon gloom night too high and well to the right of the strip. Henry yelped in outrage as the black shape hung in the air whilst seemingly heading straight for the milking shed.

"Down!" Henry grabbed Natalya and pulled her down as he fell on his back, the weight of his radio pressing down on his chest, Natalya's head somewhere around his waist. The plywood and spruce hulls heading towards them finally began rattling as the wheels eventually hit the grass, the noise getting louder and louder. There was a tremendous bang and something cart wheeled across the milking shed then fluttered down into the field a few yards away. Henry recognised it as one of the Hotspur's wingtips. It sounded as if a giant match box was being crunched up behind the shed, culminating in one final ominous crash.

"Shit and shankers!"

Henry pushed Natalya off him, scrambled to his feet and ran around the shed. A trail of plywood and fabric led to the Hotspur. It had lost about six feet off the port wingtip in the collision with the milking shed, spun around in a complete circle and come to rest with its tail a few yards short of the farmhouse. Wooden formers were visible at the bottom of each fuselage like skeletal bones appearing in a decaying bodies of stranded whales, signs of further damage sustained in the crash. The port emergency hatch opened and the pilot hoisted himself out, sliding to the ground and leaning against the nose of the Hotspur.

"Good evening, Captain. Did you spot today's deliberate mistake?" The RAF pilot was white faced with shock, holding one knee high as though it pained him to put any weight on it.

Henry bit back the futile swear words he was boiling to lash out at the over educated ponce with. Nothing was going to put the Hotspur back together again. "What went wrong?"

"I think it was a loose wire in the radio receiver. I kept getting intermittent bursts of static whilst I was listening to the controller. It was just about bearable until the last minute or so, when it got so bad I couldn't hear a thing. By the time I saw the lights it was too late to get completely back on track."

"OK then, an act of God."

Somebody inside the glider was chopping away at the jammed door frame with the hatchet every glider carried for just such a situation.

"Have you removed the transponder?"

The pilot reached underneath his wool lined Irvine jacket and showed Henry the small bakelite box which held the transponder. There was nothing really secret about it except the fact that the gliders were fitted with them. With the transponder removed the only electronic device left on the glider was a standard RAF TR 9 transceiver and the Germans were welcome to it, especially this particularly useless specimen.

"Captain, there's a girl here!" The pilot's eyes in the moonlight looked like something out of nigger minstrel show.

"They must have heard the Air Force had arrived," Henry said sourly. "Natalya, help him over to the barn and then come back immediately."

He revolved around with his compass held up and then called the controller again: "Quorn, Fernie. Second cub is lame. Cub has been put down. We still have a hot scent. Over."

"Fernie, Quorn. We are orbiting for final cast off. Are we clear for cast off. Over"

"Quorn, Fernie. Cast off now, cast off now, over"

"Fernie, Quorn. Casting off, over."

"Quorn, Fernie. Casting off, roger. I anticipate being fifteen minutes late in leaving this location. Over."

"Fernie, Quorn. Fifteen minutes delay to ETD. Roger. Out."

By now the chopping noises had stopped. Three figures appeared from the direction of the wrecked glider. Henry challenged them: "Ham!".

"Jam."

Two of the arrivals were his men. Heppenstall was a skinny little Birmingham tyke who looked like an overloaded greyhound underneath his bike and the weight of the extra ammunition pouches around his neck -- Heap was a young giant who spoke with an odd accent, public school out of Broad Yorkshire. His father owned an engineering factory in Bradford.

Between the laden carthorses was an elegant filly. Julie was wearing a short fur coat over a dark blue frock and carrying a large handbag, not an article usually seen in battle. Still, knowing her, it was no doubt loaded with lethal odds and ends. There was certainly no hint of nervousness about the woman: she was walking around like a duchess who had just stepped off the Blue train from the Riveria. She was equally nerveless in hauling up her frock, squatting down and pissing into the grass. The three men stood around in deep respect at the confirmation of her true status. Only a genuine member of the English aristocracy had such total contempt for what any inferior members of the human race thought of them. Still, it was perhaps an unfortunate time for Natalya to appear, staring at the scene with eyes almost as wide as the pilots had been.

"Uh, Julie, this is Natalya."

"Who? What?"

Being an officer and a gentleman Henry helped Julie to her feet from her squatting position. He vaguely wondered if Joan of Arc had gone into battle without her panties -- well, of course she must have, she was French.

"Corporal, what's the condition of the gun on that glider?"

"Seems undamaged, sir. Shall I start unloading it?"

"No, I've got another little job for you and Heppenstall. Open the first aid boxes on both gliders and take out all the morphine syringes. Take then to Reech. He's in the barn. Every German has to have a full syringe injected into him and to remain tied up as well."

"Germans, sir?"

"Yes, that's right, Corporal, Germans. You must have seen them on the newsreels from time to time. We've got a fine collection of them in the barn and I want them put to sleep and moved close to the gliders. But they are not to be injected or moved until they've been questioned by our German speakers. Have you got the gist of that order, the general nub of it, or shall I repeat it?"

"No, sir, I've got it. Collect the morphine, give it to Reech, not to be given to the Germans until they've been questioned."

Henry felt ashamed of his earlier sarcasm: "Because of changed circumstances there'll be some delay moving off whilst I hold an orders group in the barn. You won't need to hear it as your role with Heppenstall as flank guard party is unchanged. While I'm talking I'll want the both of you in the upstairs rooms of the farm house, on guard, front and back. Incidentally, there's some French women wandering around the place, I know about them. Tell Reech I want all the women in the barn for the orders group as well. Everybody has to know what's happening."

"Yes, sir."

"Captain! What the hell is going on here -- Germans, French women! Have you organised a brass band as well?"

There was no doubt about it, even the usually unflappable Patrol Leader Braddock was showing signs of emotional turmoil.

"Oh, and Corporal Heap. I'm sorry to have to tell you that Corporal Parrish has been shot and killed. His body is in the kitchen of the farmhouse. If you have time after collecting the morphine, please move it over near to the gliders. If we possibly can we'll take him home for burial."

Heap and Heppenstall were both visibly shocked: "Yes, sir."

"Captain! A man shot! How did that happen?"

"It was a woman -- the farmer's wife -- like in the three blind mice." Henry took a deep breath and wondered if he was getting hysterical himself.

"Not one of my women, of course. They're actually more Russian than French, except for Natalya here, who's a Canadian. A sort of Russian-French-Canadian. Natalya, this is Julie Braddock. She's also a British officer. Julie, this is Natalya. Natalya is -- is --." He was stuck for words to describe Natalya's status until he suddenly remembered a helpful song line from the Mikado.

"Natalya is the Czarina of all the Russias -- elect."

"She's what?"

"Well, that's she says. I have to dash now but why don't you ladies have a chat? You must have lots you can find to talk about."

Probably, Henry thought, in later years, in the unlikely event I have any, I shall probably spend a lot of time regretting that I missed out this conversation. That's one of the drawbacks of trying to cope with more nasty kickbacks than a one armed farrier in the horse fly season.

"Fernie, Quorn. Expose. Over."

"Quorn, Fernie. Exposing. Out."

Thankfully the third landing was as smooth as the first one, although the noise from the wheels still seemed loud enough to have every German sentry for miles around putting his fingers in his ears. Still, he now had two Hotspurs down safe and sound and already his men were putting up the snatch poles and laying out the nylon lassoes. And just to prove that things were finally back under control Sergeant McCaughan appeared out of the darkness, a more welcome appearance than any genie out of a bottle.

"Sergeant, a job for you. Take four men including Private Cordery into the barn. Inside you'll find Jennings standing guard over four German NCO's. Their hands are already tied. Lash their feet then secure the bowlines round their neck to their feet. I want them totally immobilised. There's an old parachute canopy in there, rip it up and wrap up each jerry so he can't see anything. Bring them out to the side of the milking shed and let Cordery interrogate them. If you'd like to drop each of them a couple of times on the way out I won't complain. Cordery?"

"Sir."

Cordery was one of his German Jews, a dark young man who had apparently had ambitions as a Cologne schoolboy to be a cantor at the local synagogue, the one his family had prayed at for generations. Now there were no synagogues in Cologne, nor any members of Cordery's family. At least he knew what had happened to his father, because he had seen a gang of brownshirts take turns at kicking him in the testicles until he'd died. The British Army pay book Cordery carried was a forgery, intended to protect him if taken a prisoner of war. It was also a waste of paper because Cordery had no intention of ever becoming a German prisoner. The only thing Cordery feared about death was that it might deprive him of a chance of killing a German first.

"Cordery, I want any details these prisoners know about the guard posts around the chateau. I don't care what you do to get the information. Just make sure you gag each one enough to stop any screams. When you've finished with them, Reece has some morphine. A full syringe in each one, then leave them close to the gliders, triple lashed and watched at all times. One of the glider pilots is injured, he can do the job."

"Yes, sir."

For a few hectic minutes Henry worked off some of his tension extracting the luggage carrier and the gun from the wrecked glider through the extra large cargo doors fitted to the fuselage. One door had the glider's ramp set against it, next to a flat aluminium plate with rollers underneath it which allowed the plate and the lashed gun on top of it to be pushed out sideways and down the ramp under the control of a belaying tackle. After the gun had been untied from the plate the working party carried the ramp around the glider to the other fuselage and extracted the small baggage cart in the same way.

Lines were unlashed, the guiding handle lowered and the button on it pressed. The battery powered cart rolled forward smoothly, following the man guiding it like a faithful dog on a leash. Drag lines were stretched out and tied to a protruding eye bolt at the muzzle of the Smith gun where it was normally hooked onto an ammunition limber.

In Home Guard use any ordinary civilian car could tow the limber and the gun into action and Henry had considered using his captured car as a towing vehicle. He had decided he wasn't prepared to risk the extra noise though, so the gun would have to be man handled.

The last job was to collect all the bikes from the gliders. Those men who didn't need theirs straightaway stacked and tied the folded frames on top of the baggage carts. Henry checked his own bike to make sure the correct ordnance stores were lashed to the frame and then unfolded the wheels and tightened up the various wing nuts. The only real problem with the airborne pattern bicycle was that it was easy to forget one of these nuts and have the thing fold up underneath you when it was mounted. airborne bike picture

The frantic preparations suddenly began to slow down as the men finished their work. They seemed to have no doubts about the situation, each running around silently in their canvas gym shoes and blackened faces like terriers chasing rats. The sooner he got them on their way the better. But there was no point in starting off half cocked, everybody had to be put into the picture. At least it still seemed peaceful, until a owl screeched nearby.

An owl, with all this commotion around? Henry grabbed his carbine in panic. Then he saw a figure bent over a white bundle where the noise had come from. It had been a man screeching in agony through a gag, not an owl. He moved towards Cordery and the smell of excrement. One or more of the Germans had obviously fouled themselves during their questioning. And, thought Henry, if I was a German with a Jew holding a knife at my balls, I'd shit myself as well.

"I have some information, sir." Cordery said carefully. He looked up from his handiwork. Henry couldn't recognise the face under the knife, not with the blood pouring out of the eye socket. "There is an armoured vehicle of some kind which is usually parked during the dark hours near where the road and the path above the chateau come together. There is also a guardroom in the stables at the back of the chateau. These men do not seem to know anything else. I think they are technicians who do not do guard duties. I have two more still to question."

"No, we don't have time."

Henry scratched his backside, thinking about the prisoner. Given his own choice he would have left them all dangling from the barn eaves but they were really too valuable for that. Who was going to guard them whilst his unit was away though? An old woman and an injured RAF pilot were all he could spare. Full of morphine and tied up, the Germans should be secure but this one certainly wasn't going to rest easy, not after Cordery had finished with him. What's more he recognised him now as the Stabsfeldwebel with the observer's badge, one of the right sort if his medals were any guide. No, no way was he going to leave this Bavarian bastard with one chance in a hundred of getting loose along his line of retreat.

Cordery watched silently as Henry carefully fired a round from his silenced carbine into the heart of the mutilated prisoner. The impact of the bullet sounded like an axe hitting a wooden block. Some of Henry's men nearby stood stock still, apparently shocked at what had happened.

"The Germans will not like it when they find this," Cordery said, apparently without much interest. "I do not think they expect such things from the British."

Henry took something from one of his pockets and dropped it onto the body. "That's a Royal Norfolk regimental cap badge, Cordery. The Waffen SS shot a hundred unarmed prisoners from that regiment near Dunkirk on the 27th May. I was going to leave it somewhere around tonight anyway, just to show the Huns that other people can play those games as well. Now put these beauties to sleep and staked out by the wall behind the gliders. If they get loose, we're all liable to get the same treatment this one did."

"Yes, sir.

The interior of the barn was rapidly filling up as Sergeant McCaughan rounded up the soldiers. Henry went in last, trying to find a way through the gloom to the centre of the shed without stepping on anybody's feet.

"Mr Cunliffe-Brown?"

"Sir."

"There's a half track parked thirty yards south of the bridge on the village side of the river. It's got a twenty millimetre flak gun on the back and is ideally located to cover the bridge. I'd expect there's a guard in that gun position at night as well as one or more sentries on the bridge itself. That means it's absolutely imperative you make as little noise as possible whilst capturing the bridge, otherwise that flak gun will tear you apart. I suggest that once you've got the bridge you move up to the half track using the dead ground provided by the river bank and kill the sentry with your De Lisle. Then dispose of the crew. They sleep in a bivvy next to the half track. Wire the gun and the engine with plastic explosive and blow it when you blow the bridge. I don't want that half track left mobile because I think it might just able to ford the river.

"Yes, sir."

"Remember the sequence. The RAF start dropping bombs on the aerodrome. The flak guns around the aerodrome are certain to open up and cover the noise of gunfire from the chateau. The sixth bomber is going to drop its load close to the village, but not close enough to cause French casualties. You blow when those bombs explode and the hope is that the Jerries in the village will assume the bridge was hit by a bomb. Of course they'll see the explosions at the chateau but I'm hoping it'll take them a while before they realise they're watching a ground attack and not a bombing attack. All clear?"

"Yes, sir."

"Everybody, two things we've just learned. There's a guardroom in the stables at the back of the chateau -- worst yet, there's supposed to be some kind of an armoured vehicle posted on guard at the bridle path junction after dark. Is that understood?

Voices around the shed muttered quiet assent.

"For those of you who haven't heard yet, Corporal Parrish was unfortunately killed a short while ago. Private Jennings is transferred from the gun crew to the grenadier group to fill the gap. Jennings?"

"Understood, sir."

"RAF pilots, all three of you here?"

"Yes, Captain."

"OK, your injured man and the Countess guard the prisoners. Please don't ask me how a Commando unit has ended up with a Countess in its order of battle. Nobody gets that story from me from now on without buying me a pint of beer first."

A ripple of laughter ran around the barn.

"The spare Smith gun and twenty bombs and charges will be left at the gate, but off the road. Two of my men will move down the road a quarter of a mile in the opposite direction to my party. They will put out tyre spikes on the road and attempt to kill as silently as possible anybody who comes along. If something gets past them and there's still no shooting, stay put. Only when the shooting starts will you move the gun to a firing position on the road and use it to defend this locality. Is that clear?"

"Yes, Captain."

"If you feel you have to fire, no matter which direction the enemy is coming from, put out a bomb on each flank first. That'll confuse them and one of the advantages of the Smith Gun is that it can be spun around like a top. If you're firing towards the direction of Carnoules, listen very carefully for the enemy shouting back: 'Stop firing, you stupid fuckers!'".

Another snigger of nervous laughter ran around the barn: "Understood, Captain."

"Right, Patrol Leader Braddock. This so called Czar of all the Russias, currently believed incarcerated in the chateau. Do we want him, or don't we?"

The woman's voice was clear and strong. "We want him very badly indeed. His propaganda value in America could be crucial."

Henry was rather surprised to have his judgement endorsed so strongly. Perhaps he had the making of a politician in him after all -- a disturbing thought.

"Right, well there's little enough I can do about it. I'm going to try to gain entrance through the back door of the chateau a few minutes before the action starts. Just myself and Cordery, my German speaker. He already has a Luftwaffe uniform and I can wear my battle gear, which is similar to the German airborne issue. Fortunately, German parachute troops are part of the Luftwaffe, not the German army, so I can wear a side cap taken from our prisoners. I think we can also risk carrying one of the De Lisle carbines, which only an expert would spot as being built on a Lee-Enfield action. Perhaps we can bluff or fight our way in to grab the Duke before all hell breaks loose."

"Quite good for the spur of the moment, Captain. May I suggest it might work better if I came with you and demanded that the Germans hand the Duke over to us at the guard room." Mrs Braddock sounded as if she was going shopping at Harrods.

"What?"

"I speak German and French as well as I do English. I also happen to have a rather well forged identification disc in my handbag which claims I'm a field agent of Section Four of the Reichssicherheithauptamt, the Reich Security Office. I brought it along on the off chance it might come in handy. I shall say that the Gestapo has been investigating a plot to rescue the Grand Duke and to take him to Britain."

Henry was beginning to feel he was outmatched. "You're going to tell them somebody wants to rescue the Duke?"

"That's right. I shall say that some senior NCO's of KGr 100 were unwittingly seduced by female terrorists into helping the plotters. I will then go on to say that Luftflotte III headquarters in Paris provided me with a platoon of Luftwaffe paratroopers to detain those Luftwaffe personnel mixed up in the plot until the investigation is completed, and also in case of armed resistance by the terrorists. I shall produce the pay books carried by your prisoners as proof of their arrest for questioning. I shall then say that the chateau is under observation by terrorists, which is why I've come to the guard room at night with my prisoner and an escort."

"What prisoner?"

"The Grand Duke's fiancÚ. She is going to help me persuade him to confess the details of the plot to the Gestapo."

"You want me to go into that place -- forget it!" The American accent of Natalya's voice seemed exaggerated by the emotion it held.

"No help, no flight," Julie said curtly. "Do you still want me to forget it?"

"The Captain promised us a flight without saying anything about a deal like this!"

Henry intervened. "In this matter I do as the lady wants. So will you. Look on it as just another audition."

Natalya remained silent as Henry continued speaking: "I want to make it clear to all of you that this rescue attempt is completely secondary to achieving our main objective, the destruction of the chateau. If the rescue party is still inside the guard room when the shooting starts, then that's our bad luck. Cordery, are you willing to volunteer to come inside the guard room with us?"

"Sir, always I wish to kill Germans, but I do not do it to save Russians. That is stupid."

"You heard the Patrol Leader. This is to help us to get the Americans to help us. In three weeks' time the Americans vote for their next President. What we do tonight might get Roosevelt more support and more votes. That's the only reason I would consider doing it myself."

Julie spoke up sharply: "I wonder whether there is any logic in your being part of the rescue attempt, Captain. Your lack of German is likely to make you more of an hindrance than a help."

"I regard it as my duty to be part of it, Patrol Leader."

"I understand what you are thinking of now, sir," Cordery said eagerly. "America is very strong. America is strong enough to kill many, many Germans. I will come with you."

"Thank you." Henry held his watch up near his eyes to glance at the phosphorescent hands. "OK, we've got around ninety minutes before the RAF bombers arrive, so it's time we moved off. I've only got one more thing to say. The aircrews in that chateau have killed a lot of our women and kids and they're getting set to kill a lot more."

Henry paused for a second before finishing.

"Right, let's go and mallet the bastards."

On to Chapter 7

 

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