Henry was surprised to find that they all managed to get past the chateau gates without being shot at. There must be other Germans in the vicinity and some bright sod should have realised by now that the bridle path was an obvious line of retreat. At any event he had Jennings leading the way with his keen eyes and Julie stretching out her legs as she tried to match her paces with the trolley she was steering at its top speed. Cordery was lying on top of it, apparently still unconscious, while the overfed young man trotting alongside was panting already. The Duke didn't seem to be fit enough to be a runaway Romanov. Henry giggled and then quickly stopped when he realised McCaughan was looking at him oddly. He also realised he was still carrying Julie's coat in his hand -- fortunately the ideal excuse was at hand by dropping the fur across the wounded man. Unless he stopped behaving like an hysterical schoolboy the next irrational act might be harder to explain away.
Another thunderous roll of explosions came over the flickering ridge line interspersed with the rattle of flak guns raking the sky. If those stupid bastards in the bombers had listened to him they would have been using ordnance which would have killed a lot of the flak crews and smashed up KGR 100's aircraft far better as well. Still, if the computer guidance worked as well for them as it had for him they should still do plenty of damage. A Wellington fitted with a transponder was the pathfinder, working under the control of the Albatross. At regular intervals it was supposed to drop a container holding 80 four pound incendiary bombs onto the hangars while relays of Wellingtons laid sticks of 500 pound bombs on top of each blossoming patch of twinkling fires.
Whatever happened at the airfield, this had been a victory, a tremendous victory, even if none of the Commandos ever got home. And it was computers which had made it possible. A computer had broken the Luftwaffe codes to provide the intelligence needed to mount the assault: a computer had landed his scouting party at exactly the right place and the right time in the dark of night: it was the computer which had steered the attack group gliders in like a champion darts player pegging a bull's eye. A lot of hard thinking would be needed to even begin to sort out the implications of what had happened. Warfare was about to go through a change at least as radical as that caused by the introduction of the internal combustion engine.
Henry's own thoughts were abruptly broken into by a bullet slamming past. The two men that were left with him took cover on the sides of the bridle path as more rifle shots were fired from near the chateau gates, about a hundred yards back down the tree lined avenue.
"Two inch, HE!" Henry yelled.
Sergeant McCaughan set the mortar up in the middle of the path while Henry began a mad minute with his Tommy gun, firing rapidly on semi-automatic to draw the enemy fire while he hid as much of his body as possible behind a large tree trunk. More rifle shots replied, obviously aimed at his muzzle flashes, and quickly gaining in accuracy.
The mortar snapped back as Sergeant McCaughan dropped three bombs into the muzzle in a fast rhythm and each one landed near the gates. The explosions sent shock waves sweeping up the avenue towards them in flurries of dry leaves falling from the trees. A two inch mortar had no sights, no way of judging its elevation except by feel and eye, so McCaughan's aim had been pretty good.
They jumped to their feet and raced off towards the end of the avenue. No shots followed them and the pursuit seemed checked, at least for the moment.
It had been dangerous work to use a mortar in a confined space like this; if one of the bombs had hit an overhead branch the whole rearguard could share the same fate as Siddons, killed by their own weapon. But mortar fire and smoke screens were the only means at his disposal to keep the Germans hanging back. And when it came to creating smoke the wood pile was too inviting to pass up. Henry still had one of his incendiary bombs and he was going to use it, even if he didn't have the time to make a proper booby trap.
Out of his escape pack he took a half gallon tin that was filled with his usual mixture of petrol, acid and soap. Next he produced a roll of slow burning fuse with a rubber contraceptive sheath stuffed full of cotton wool at one end. Henry slashed off three foot of the cord, took a deep breath and slipped the sheath and cotton wool packing clear of the blasting cap crimped onto the end of the fuse. Then he fumbled around in his pack to lift out a bakelite soap dish, both halves taped together in a way that also held two small magnets against the side of the dish. He gently pushed the blasting cap through a hole in the top of the dish into the plastic explosive inside. The magnets clattered against the petrol tin as he clamped the soap dish on it.
Sergeant McCaughan whispered urgently at Henry's side. "Sir, I think there's a vehicle back there, coming towards us."
"Then we'd better stop it, because if it manages to follow us onto the road we're stuffed. Get into an ambush position behind the next wall."
Henry stripped some rounds out of a Thompson magazine, throwing handfuls of the stubby brass cylinders into the wood pile. Then he lit the fuse of his home made special and started running again. No shots were being fired from the avenue but over the blood pounding in his ears he could hear an engine note getting louder as it got closer. In fact, and he twisted his head from side to side trying to confirm it, he thought he could hear two engines, one behind him and one somewhere higher up the slope. Well, he knew the one behind him was certainly German manned, so that was the one to worry about. If the vehicle coming down from the path from the V road was also an enemy one they were finished, it was as simple as that.
As soon as he reached the wall the remnants of his party spread out along it, staring back towards the trees at the dimmed headlights which had appeared in the avenue. Whatever kind of vehicle was behind those lights it was moving at a fair speed. Henry had a feeling the only sort of driver who would be moving that confidently in this sort of situation would be one sitting behind armour plate. Perhaps another Adler. Anyway, the possibility of pursuit by armoured vehicles was one which crossed his mind often enough during his planning. Which was why Rosedale was carrying the Lee-Enfield now instead of Jennings.
Henry opened Sergeant McCaughan's pack and took out an object which looked like a baked bean can cut in half and mounted on a short metal stand terminating in the same two and a half diameter disc that was used to convert Mills bombs into rifle grenades. He carefully inserted the disc into the cup discharger on the rifle muzzle and eased out a safety pin from underneath the flat nosed warhead.
"Our secret weapon, Sergeant."
Henry was scarcely exaggerating. As far as he knew, this was the first time the 'Grenade, Rifle, No 68/AT' had been used in action. It was a very unusual weapon. The drum at the top contained a powerful explosive and behind that was a gaine and a detonator set off by a firing pin on a spring loaded slug of metal. The impact of the grenade on the target drove the slug forward against the spring's resistance and detonated the grenade. All that was straightforward enough. The odd thing about the 68 grenade was what it didn't have. A large section of the explosive underneath the top of the grenade had been removed and replaced with an empty cone of metal. The reason dated back to the 1880's, when the so called 'Monroe' effect in high explosives had been discovered, that recessed explosives made deeper holes than a plain face to face connection between any hard material and an explosive charge.
Faced with the powerful threat of German tanks, British designers had rushed into production the world's first anti-tank grenade using the Monroe or 'hollow charge' effect, although nobody seemed to be quite sure how it worked. What was known was that the cone somehow focused the high temperature gases from the explosion of the 68 grenade enough to burn a small hole through two inches of armour and spray the interior of a tank with the molten metal. If those sort of test results could be duplicated in the field then panzer crews were going to find life a lot more difficult in the future. So interested had Henry become in having a chance to try out the 68 that he would have even have been slightly sorry to have discovered he was only being chased by a soft skinned vehicle. 68 grenade
As it turned out, he wasn't disappointed. The headlights were scarcely past the woodpile when the incendariary exploded, a white-red ball of light sending out a shower of flaming lumps with comet tails that started twenty different ground fires. But Henry had seen and identified the armoured car in the time it had taken the commander in the turret to slam down the hatch.
Having once closely examined a car of the same type with tremendous admiration, Henry was quite capable of recognising a Panhard 178 when he saw one. Nor was he surprised that it was wearing German markings: given the chance, he would have been delighted to take as many as possible of the French built vehicles into British service. The 178 was an excellent armoured car with its four wheel drive, 105 horsepower rear mounted engine and 25 millimetre high velocity cannon. But what was interesting about this one was a large white letter G painted on the front. Henry had already met the users of that identification before. Indeed, it was engraved on his memory as the tactical sign of General Guderian's XIX Panzer Corps -- the troops who had spearheaded the dash to the Channel and cut the Allied armies in half. Which meant that this was an Army vehicle which had sprung up from somewhere, not a Luftwaffe one. He sincerely hoped there weren't any others nearby.
The Panhard had stopped for a moment after the initial detonation of the petrol bomb. When it realised it was in no danger from the ring of fires it surged forward again. As it came closer it seemed to merge into the ground contours until only the turret and the upper half of the hull stood out against the flames behind. Blue-grey clad figures appeared on the edge of the lit up area, then the Luftwaffe men emerging from the avenue dropped into cover as the bullets Henry had left in the woodpile began to cook off inside the huge bonfire.
The armoured car immediately halted again about thirty yards in front of the Commandos and its turret swung around, apparently under the impression it was being attacked from behind. Rosedale rested his rifle on the top of the wall, squinted down the sights and fired the 68 grenade. It hit the front glacis plate of the armoured car, detonating in a vivid yellow flash as though a giant electric welding torch had briefly touched the steel. Then the screams began inside the vehicle.
The engine revved and the Panhard shot backwards at twenty miles an hour, demonstrating the value of a back seat driver who also faced backwards with a second set of controls. As the vehicle roared away the turret hatch flew open again and a shadowy figure leapt out in a cloud of smoke and sparks like a stage genie. Sergeant McCaughan knocked the man down with two aimed rounds of Thompson fire before Henry had even lifted his own weapon up. The Panhard slewed to the left and vanished from sight into a dip in the ground, trailing a red halo above it.
"Excuse me, but would any of you fine gentlemen be interested in a taxi ride home now that you've had your fun shooting the natives?"
Henry spun around and saw somebody crouched down on one knee a few paces behind them, white teeth revealed in a grin on his darkened face. The accent was unmistakable.
"Christ, I never thought I'd be so glad to see an Irishman," Sergeant McCaughan said with profound relief.
They ran back another hundred yards to where the Citroen had appeared, Cantrell jogging alongside with gentle squelching sounds coming from his canvas shoes. His clothes were soaked. Jennings and the three girls were lifting Cordery onto the mattress on top of the car. Henry stopped in surprise at the sight of them.
"Natalya -- I'd forgotten about you. How'd you get back here?"
Her voice was as sharp as honed steel: "I got here by running away as soon as all the shooting started down there, and the only reason I've stopped running now is because I aim to go the rest of the way in the car."
Henry turned to Corporal Cantrell: "Where's Lieutenant Cunliffe-Brown?"
"He's dead, sir, and Reech," Cantrell said. "But we blew the bridge and smashed up that half track. Would you be wanting to hear about it?"
"There's no time now, Corporal. Patrol Leader, I'll get you on your way in the car. Take the girls and the Duke. You'd better have Jennings with you as well, to make sure Cordery doesn't fall off. I'm going to follow up in the Adler if I can get it running."
"Very well, Captain. Good luck." The Citroen bounced off slowly up towards the road, the Commandos running along behind and then giving the car a push to get it through a patch of mud and out onto the V road. It swung round sharply to the left with Jennings on the running board having to bend far forward over Cordery to prevent him slipping off the mattress. Then he quickly waved his hand at them before the Citroen disappeared into the darkness.
Rosedale had already claimed the keys of the Adler. Henry blessed his luck in having an experienced driver with him, especially a strongly built driver to handle the clumsy Adler. Henry opened one of the side doors, grabbed the cold hands of the radio operator he'd shot and dragged the body out to drop on the road. The engine turned over, fired and stopped. Rosedale tried once more, keeping the self starter churning until the engine caught again. This time it kept running.
"Get this tarpaulin off."
His men slashed at the securing ropes with their knives, pulling away the cover from the antenna hoops over the open top of the armoured compartment. Henry ran over to the bank, removed the cloth marker strip and opened the cigar box lid. Pushing two fingers down in front of the clothes peg he held the wooden wedge in place as he moved the box back to tauten the wire. Once the right tension was achieved he drove an anchoring spike at the back of the box into the grass. After that he gently closed the lid again to prevent any moisture shorting out the electrical system prematurely. Finally, he held the trip wire steady between his thumb and forefinger as he threw over an arming switch at the back of the box, completing the firing circuit except for the tiny gap between the connectors on the jaws of the clothes peg. Once they sprang together it would be fry up time.
Henry took his fingers away from the trip wire as if he was withdrawing them from underneath a sleeping King Cobra. Every pulse of blood through his head felt like a train rushing through a tunnel. For some reason he suddenly realised his feet had been hurting him for a long time. Not that he had any hesitation about hobbling away from the booby trap on them as quickly as he could. Perhaps he'd been closer to that burning motorbike than he'd thought.
It was a tight squeeze inside the scout car. Not that anybody was going to complain. An engine and armour plate provided a better means of escape than push bikes.
The slits of illumination from the headlights seemed to grow brighter as they drove into the denser darkness of the valley floor, a darkness spreading upwards as the sliver of moon sank towards the horizon. Henry felt an impression of exhilarating speed, although they were probably doing no more than thirty miles an hour. But any distance between them and the Germans was very welcome. Henry pulled Cantrell down out of the wind.
"What happened at the bridge?"
"Well, we found a sentry there, just like you said, sir, and we killed him with the silenced rifle. There was some kind of a barrier further up the road with a tiny sort of a lamp hanging from it, but nobody seemed to hear anything. So we let down the charges under the bridge and wired them up. Then the Lieutenant said we should be thinking about knocking out the gun. The sentry had a couple of those potato masher grenades on him, so I wrapped some plastic explosive around both of them and pushed in some loose gravel from the side of the road for luck. Then myself and the Lieutenant decided to work our way along the dead ground by the river bank to get at the halftrack.
"We'd got about halfway there when the shooting suddenly started over this way. So we jumped up and ran forward and threw the grenades into the sleeping bivvies before the crew was properly awake. When they went off they started a fire -- from the way of it I'd say there was a petrol stove that went up. We saw the sentry come running over and we shot him. So everything went alright until then, save for the fire. You'll be understanding the place was lit up like O'Connell Street on a Saturday night."
"Anyway we got out one of those soap dish devices of yours with the magnets and put it under the breech of the gun. Then we stuffed in a handful of plastic around it. The Lieutenant lit the fuse and we started running back to the river. Then a Jerry machine gun opened up from the road. It knocked the legs from under the Lieutenant. And then the bridge blew up. I'd guess Reech saw some soldiers coming down from that barrier and decided he had to set off the charges."
The Irishman paused before speaking again.
"Sir, there was no way I could pull the Lieutenant to the river bank before the charge under the gun exploded. And even if I could I'd never be able to swim over the river with him. And even and betimes all that, I was sitting out there for all to see in the light of the fire -- so once that fellow behind the Spandau got over the shock of the bridge blowing up he'd soon have his sights on me. Taking it all in all, I decided to jump down behind the river bank while I still could. As soon as I hit the water that Spandau was working overtime again and I was wishing I'd taken De Valera's advice and stayed at home in the Republic. Then the charge on the half track went off.
"Sure, and twas a beautiful sight, sir. The gun barrel landed twenty feet away from the half track. But that machine gunner must have used up the rest of the belt in one burst after that, and most of the shit landed around the Lieutenant. He just about got cut to pieces, sir, I'm sorry to tell you."
"What about Reech?"
"Ah, the pity of it. I was swimming back over the river and the Jerries must have guessed what was happening because the bullets were hitting the water like hail. And then Reech started up with the Tommy gun. Clever he was too, sir, a couple of shots from here, then from somewhere else, teasing the machine gun like a fellow showing a red rag to a bull. Well, I got to the other bank and started climbing up it -- and wouldn't you know it, just then a Jerry flare went off overhead. I was only a few yards from some trees then, so I up and ran behind one of them and looked back.
"Sir, the truth of it is that Reech should be getting the VC, for he'd gone out into the water and there was an old log floating in the water there. I'm sure he thought in the darkness it was me and he'd gone to pull me out. But when the flare went up he was in a terrible way of things. He stood quite still and he might have got away with it for the machine gun was a fair way off. But what happened was that there was a Jerry patrol running up on the other side of the water and one of them spotted Reech. Then they all opened up on him and the bullets were kicking up spray all around him. He cut loose with the Tommy and then he got knocked down. The Jerries kept on shooting at the same place and putting up more flares. I'm thinking they were as mistaken as Reech about that log because they hammered it until it floated away."
"Did you see Reech come up again?"
"Never a sign of him, sir. The weight of his equipment must have kept him down under the surface. He's surely drowned even if the bullets didn't kill him outright. I had no chance to take a closer look, not with flares going up all the time and those fellows on the other side of the river shooting off a month's supply of ammunition every five minutes. So I sneaked away through the trees, got my bike out from where we'd hidden them and rode away on it as fast as I could. When I found the girls waiting by the bridle path I told them I was coming down here on foot and they were to follow me with the car in case you needed it."
Henry nodded: "Alright, Corporal. You'll have to write all this down when we get back."
"Sure and if we back from this, sir, I'll be happy to write as much as James Joyce ever has."
The Adler coasted to a halt underneath a tree with white cloth tied to one of the branches. Henry reached up and untied his marker.
"Sergeant, give the recall signal for the flank party."
While Henry was tightening the booby trap trip wire across the road and then arming the fougasse mine Sergeant McCaughan fitted a white painted magazine to the Lee-Enfield, stepped out into the middle of the road and fired across the valley, again and again, working the bolt with fluid skill. A green tracer flew high into the darkness, followed by two red ones, then the same sequence again.
As soon as the Sergeant was on board again the heavy scout car began moving, following the faint glimmers its shielded headlights cast on the grass verge. Henry prayed for just a few more minutes without a major cockup. Just a few minutes and God would see the fastest embarkation and takeoffs in human history. He wrenched open the restraining strap on his water bottle, pulled it out and twisted the cork out of the neck. The feel of the water inside his mouth was the most wonderful thing in his life, all he wanted to do for ever more was to just keep on drinking the metal tainted fluid:
You'll do your work on water,
An' you'll lick the bloomin' boots of 'im that's got it."
Then Henry almost dropped the bottle as a huge black shape roared low overhead with lights flashing at wingtips and tail. The Wellington swept on over the farm, its navigation lights still going on and off.
"Stop the car," Henry snapped. "S-phone, please, Sergeant."
Henry had an arc pre-drawn on his map talc which showed him the compass bearing he needed to face the Albatross. While he pulled on the radio straps a brilliant red light flared up behind them on the ridge. Somebody had just stumbled over the trip wire by the bridal path junction. The burning woodpile and the sharp fate of the Panhard must have checked the Huns for a few minutes. If half a dozen of them were on fire now they might take even longer to get moving again. He aligned himself on the estimated compass bearing.
"Fernie, this is Quorn. Sunray on set. Over."
"Quorn, Fernie. What is your situation? Over."
"Fernie, Quorn. One mile from snatch area on V road. Jerry's treading on my tail. Over."
"Quorn, Fernie. We have information that an armoured reconnaissance battalion on exercise near Rennes has been ordered to deal with British forces in your area. The unit commander's ETA at Carnoules suggests that you may expect him at snatch area in about figures ten minutes. I say again, enemy ETA snatch area figures Toc Edward Nuts minutes. Over."
"Shit!" That explained where the Panhard had come from.
"Quorn, Fernie. Proper radio procedure, please. I have more information for you. Over."
Henry unconsciously scratched his right buttock as his mind raced. Although he'd been told nothing officially about the British code-breaking activities it was logical that for the last day or so a lot of effort would have been spent in locating and listening into radio channels used by German units in Brittany. It was also clear that the presence of a reconnaissance battalion so close to the chateau had only recently been discovered from the signals traffic or he would have been told earlier.
Or, at least, he should have been. Of all the Hun units the one he most feared was an armoured recce battalion. Its lavish equipment of armoured cars and motor cycle troops gave it a better mix of mobility, firepower and communications than anything else in the enemy order of battle.
So, somewhere in England a listening post had picked up orders to this reconnaissance battalion. Presumably the code had already been broken by a computer, or more likely, some German HQ had issued the orders in clear language because of the urgency of the situation.
At any event the message had been overheard and passed to the Albatross and the airborne controller had then sent the Wellington down the valley flashing its lights to let the Commandos know he wanted to speak to them urgently.
"Fernie, Quorn, send. Over."
"Quorn, Fernie. I have one spare marker aircraft and four loaded bombers that I have kept back from the attack on the airfield. They're at your disposal. Over."
Thank God for that! The controller was an RAF squadron leader but he seemed to have some understanding of the problems of the men on the ground. And because of his common sense Henry still had one card left to play. But it was a strictly limited card. The problem was that the guidance programmes loaded into the controller's computer could only allow very limited offsets from the original planned routes.
"Fernie, Quorn. Can you use marker aircraft over my back stop picket's position? Over."
That saved messing around with grid references. Corporal Heap's expected position was already marked on the controller's map.
"Quorn, Fernie. Affirmative -- we can cover that. Over."
"Fernie, Quorn. Mark and bomb my back stop's position in figures ten minutes. Confirm. Over."
"Quorn, Fernie. Mark and bomb your picket's position in figures ten minutes. Confirmed. Be advised that first snatch will be in figures eighteen minutes. Is that a roger? Over."
Henry slapped his knuckles against the steel plating of the car. The controller didn't know the Commandos had some captured transport -- he was still working on the original timings. But who could say what extra problems were going to crop up? In any case it was better to stick with a plan that everybody understood than a better plan nobody understood.
"Fernie, Quorn. Roger that. Carry on. Over."
"Quorn, Fernie. Out."
Henry pulled off the S-phone headset: "Straight to the farm, Rosedale, and don't spare the horses. There's an armoured recce battalion coming towards us but the brylcream boys are going to bomb the road to hold them up."
"Turned out nice again then, sir," Sergeant McCaughan shouted back ironically.
"Yeah, the things you see when you're cleaning windows!"
McCaughan laughed. Odd that, Henry thought, he wouldn't have believed that George Formby's kind of humour would have been popular with a dour Scotsman. Still, this was no time to be fussy, any kind of a joke was better than none. The wind in their faces and the roaring of the engine were the finest feelings he'd ever had in his life, probably because they were going to be the last feelings in his life. They were babes in the wood, deer in an aroused jungle, helpless prey fleeing from killers emerging behind every tree. The white tape which marked the gateway to the farm loomed out of the deepening darkness
"Stop here, Rosedale."
All of them stared down the road in the direction from which Heap and Heppenstall should be coming on their bikes as fast as they could pedal the wheels. It was impossible to hear anything over the noise of the idling engine. Henry bent forward to tell Rosedale to switch it off. Before he could open his mouth the landscape in front of them was lit up by a sheet of lightning which sprang from the ground up, separating out into a shower of falling fire. Somebody had just bumped into an incendiary booby trap, one that Heap must have set.
Something moving incredible fast appeared in front of them, something which skidded to a halt and then apparently disappeared from their dazzled eyes. Cantrell and McCaughan had their guns up. Henry suddenly realised what was happening and bawled out the password: "Ham! Ham!"
A figure scrambled out of the ditch and picked up the bicycle which had been dropped on the road. Out of the gloom came another man, a big one wobbling on his too-small airborne issue bike. Corporal Heap stared up at Henry in reproach as he stopped alongside the scout car.
"You frightened the hell out of us when we saw this Jerry wagon, sir."
"We saw the recall signal and came back. We set a fougasse trap and an incendiary one on the way back but somehow the fougasse hasn't worked. I'd no idea the Jerries were so close behind until that incendiary went off just now."
"Fucking hell!" McCaughan cursed, pointing towards the burning hedgerow.
In the firelight a lumbering great armoured car was suddenly visible about four hundred yards away, at the far end of the field next to the one the Hotspurs were in. Henry felt black despair at the speed with which the Germans were closing in on him.
"Alright, you two ride to the gliders. Tell the Patrol Leader that we have strong enemy forces coming up this road but it is going to be bombed very soon. My main concern is that an armoured car has bypassed the fire and is in the field next to her. I am going down the road with the scout car to fire on the enemy car from the flank and to distract it from crossing the field towards the glider. You understand?"
"Yes, sir." Heap answered.
"You will tell the patrol leader to take the Citroen to the road wall directly opposite the glider and to wait there for us. Remind her the snatch planes will drop a blue flare to the south three minutes before each snatch. If we're not there when the flare goes down for the second snatch she's to drive to the glider and get aboard. Is that understood too?"
"OK, off you go. Rosedale, down the road about three hundred yards and then do a three point turn."
The Adler lurched forward again while Henry ran his hands over the MG 34 on the pintle mount in the centre of the scout car. Two 'saddle-drum' magazines were mounted on either side of the receiver. In situations when it was awkward to have a loose belt of ammunition dangling from a belt fed weapon the drum magazines were provided, typical German ingenuity ensuring that rounds were fed alternatively into the gun from either drum, thus keeping the weight of the magazines in balance. Together, they held seventy five rounds. Henry whipped the bolt back and then let it fly forward to chamber a round. The safety catch was on the left hand side of the pistol grip and easily released.
Cantrell tapped Henry's arm and pointed back towards Carnoules. Brilliant lights were coming over the ridge, doubtless unmasked headlights being used to look for any signs of further booby traps in front of the moving vehicles. Whoever was leading them was clearly willing to take great risks to catch up with the Commandos.
"Here, sir?" Rosedale called.
"Yes, here. Corporal Cantrell, use your torch to guide us back. And if you put us in the ditch, Rosedale, I'll never forgive you."
The Adler's squeaking brakes slowed the heavy vehicle to a halt. Cantrell leapt out and stood on the edge of the ditch waving his torch with his fingers almost hiding the light, Rosedale grunted with the strain of hauling on the heavy steering wheel as he reversed. Henry stared over the top of the thick hedgerow, trying to see some sign of the German armoured vehicle. Flames were still visible where the incendiary trap had gone off further down the road and an engine over there was roaring at high pitch as though it was trying to drag something out of the way. The problem was that from this position the enemy in the field were no longer in line with the dwindling fire and couldn't be seen.
The leading pair of lights on the ridge suddenly blinked out and the pair behind vanished from sight almost as quickly. The sound of the explosion came rolling down the hill. That was his final booby trap, set off far sooner than he had expected by the berserker courage of the Germans in hot chase. With some luck the mine should have blocked the road with the wreckage of the vehicle that had triggered it off, which would hold Jerry for a few minutes longer. Although it seemed increasingly likely that he was going to have to die here -- which was a pity. He'd had his heart set on seeing Korda's latest film, 'The Thief Of Baghdad' before he got killed. The special effects were supposed to be fantastic.
Anyway it was time to see if he could get any response from the field. He pointed the Spandau loosely over the hedge and pressed the trigger. A single shot went off and the gun stopped. Henry said "Cunt". He'd forgotten the MG 34 had a rocking trigger. Squeezing it at the top fired a single shot. It had to be pressed at the bottom to fire bursts. He began tapping out searching bursts of three or four rounds, moving the Spandau's muzzle around to provoke some response.
A voice bellowed a challenge in German somewhere to his right. He swivelled the gun round and fired a longer burst in that direction. An answering burst of machine gun fire lashed overhead. Henry aimed at the muzzle flash and fired a short burst at it. The other gunner was just as quick on the trigger -- the hedgerow quivered as if a strong gust of wind had hit it, bullets clanged like the blows of a blacksmith's hammer against the Adler's armour. Rosedale swung back onto the road and drove thirty yards before stopping. The German gunner was still chopping away at the hedgerow with random bursts. Then he stopped, probably in surprise as the countryside around began to be lit up.
Hurtling down out of the sky were three hundred and twenty chunks of magnesium, each weighing four pounds, and as each one hit the ground it began to burn with a intense white light at over a thousand degrees fahrenheit. The aiming point was about half a mile from where the Adler was now, but the incendiaries had the ballistic qualities of a house brick and many of them fell wide. None more so than the one which landed in the field only a few yards from the German armoured car and the dismounted infantry walking beside it.
"Smoke grenades!" Henry shouted.
This time he kept his finger on the trigger in one continuous burst as he swept the Spandau's muzzle back and forth over the illuminated target. The German foot soldiers fell, either hit or seeking cover as sparks flew from the side of the armoured car. It was the latest model heavy armoured car of the German Army, a 231 8-rad. Which meant that it had eight wheels, all powered and all steered, and with a cross country performance comparable to a tank. It also had the same armament as a light tank. 231 8-rad
The flicker of sparks around the muzzle of the car's 20 millimetre cannon and the crunching impact against the Adler were simultaneous. A small round hole rimmed with red hot metal appeared next to Henry and the man standing beside him fell down. McCaughan's voice screamed in fear.
"Grenade! The fucker's dropped a smoke grenade! Get out!"
Henry instantly realised that Cantrell was the casualty and that a live phosphorus grenade had fallen into the bottom of the Adler. McCaughan already had the side door open and was scrambling out while Rosedale leapt up over the front lip of the crew section, took one step over the bonnet and jumped off. Henry didn't bother waiting for the door either. He rolled over the side but fell awkwardly on top of the road, wrenching his knee in a wave of pure pain. Hardly able to move, he rolled over and over underneath the scout car, to bump into another body.
A thumping noise came from overhead as the smoke grenade exploded and a cascade of burning fragments fell all around the vehicle, each piece throwing out streamers of smoke. White phosphorous, the same stuff as he'd fired into the chateau, and Henry almost gibbered with fear at the thought of getting any of the hellish stuff on him. The scout car rocked on its springs as another armour piercing round from the eight wheeler hit it. Now he couldn't see anything because of the enveloping smoke, but his nose told him that at least one of the Adler's tyres was on fire.
"Fuck my luck," the man next to Henry snarled -- McCaughan.
"Get your webbing off -- crawl forward with it!"
Holding his breath in the spreading smoke, Henry unbuckled his webbing, shrugged himself out of the harness and started wriggling forward with his hands on the two ammunition packs, using them on the road like a charlady scrubbing steps with a big brush. As soon as he had enough room he stood upright. The smoke made the air unbreathable and the stench of burning rubber was overlaid now with a worse smell of burning flesh. Somebody moved beside him, he reached out and caught hold of a fold of tunic, then a hand. The other man -- McCaughan, it must be -- began dragging Henry with him as they staggered forward. The pain in his knee was so bad he wondered if it was because of the injury or because some phosphorous was burning through it.
The ground started vibrating and Henry thought a tank was coming towards them until he realised the tremors were from a stick of five hundred pound bombs exploding nearby. Merciful, blessed gaps appeared in the smoke curtain. Henry let out the pressure in his lungs in a great bellow of exhaled air. A machine gun's rounds were slashing over their heads, the gunner's point of aim lost in the smoke. More bombs were coming down, so close he could hear one of them whistling before there was the flash of the explosion and the clouds of smoke twitched in the shock wave passing through the air. Above the horizon a blue flare had sprung into existence.
"Your feet, your feet!"
McCaughan was slashing at his shoe laces with his fighting knife. Both of his thin gym shoes were smouldering around the edge of the soles. Henry pulled the thin blade from his own scabbard and cut away his own shoes, one of them actually catching fire from the embedded phosphorous as he pulled it off. The enemy machine gunner fired another burst, lower this time, but just behind them. A Thompson gun nearby fired a short burst with its distinctive throaty sound.
They saw him jump up from the hedgerow. He was holding the Tommy gun in one hand and bare chested. His tunic was gone and his shirt was wrapped around his left arm.
"Got some of yon fucking phosphorous shit on me, so I wrapped ma shirt over it and put it in t' ditch water."
"Run like fucking long dogs -- get back to the gliders!" Henry bellowed.
He began trying to run himself, though it turned out to be more like a frantic series of hops. He tripped and fell over, to be scooped up in arms that seemed built of overlapping hawsers. Rosedale dropped him over his shoulder as if he were a sack of coal. Henry vaguely wondered how a journalist had ever acquired such a physique. The Spandau fired again and this time Henry heard the bullets ricocheting off the tarmac. That meant the armoured car must have come a lot closer to the hedgerow, close enough for the gunner to fire down and over it. An engine began bellowing, presumably because the driver of the eight wheeler was trying to get over the steeply banked hedgerow. His chances of crossing it were about evens in Henry's opinion.
But at least the gunner had stopped firing now, probably being too busy hanging on. Henry could understand how he was feeling because being carried on the back of a running man was a rough ride too -- not to mention Rosedale's body odour problem. Although that was something you probably shouldn't think about when a man was going through agony to save your life.
Another pattern of bombs came crashing down, but further away, flickering through the darkness like summer lightning. If the rest of the Jerry recce battalion were under that lot it should take them a while to get reorganised. There was the roar of an approaching aero engine, a huge bat flittered overhead, the engine bellowed out in full power, and then a set of red, green and white lights was lifting up into the sky, slowly, for a second, then at a tremendous speed. A trail of wildly aimed tracer bullets drifted up from the next field and the glider pilot instantly turned off his wing and tail lights now they were no longer needed to help the snatch pilot line up on his target. Henry yelped with joy -- joy which immediately curdled into fear as the engine of the armoured eight wheeler rose on a note of triumph, its gearboxes whining with eagerness for the kill. A pair of dimmed headlights appeared on the road a hundred yards behind them, a pair of yellow slitted eyes that spelt death.
A refined female voice called out from a distance, but not so far away that the words could not be clearly heard: "Drop flat, you dumb cunts!"
Something about the command induced instant obedience. Rosedale, McCaughan and Henry sprawled themselves on top of the road, there was a sound like a meteorite hitting the ground at cosmic velocity and chunks of stone came skittering across the tarmac towards them, followed by a rolling curtain of dust and falling rubble of all sizes. Something hit Henry's arm like a kick from a coalminer's boot and the miner's butty jumped on his back, three times. When he finally dared to lift up his head he saw that a gap had appeared in the dry wall.
A huge square shape loomed up on the other side of the gap, there was another engine bellowing in full power, a crunch like a locomotive hitting a set of buffers and a pile of loose slates were spread across the grass verge, the white walled wheels of the Hispano Suiza resting on top of them. The car hesitated for a second, then moved forward again, the wreckage of the silver bumper bars rubbing against the tyres in teeth setting squeals until the huge car was completely blocking the small road. One of the RAF glider pilots jumped out, waving the ignition keys in triumph. Other men appeared in the gap in the wall left by the explosion and the passage of the Hispano, men who toppled the reserve Smith gun onto one wheel with a still smoking barrel poking through the gap and aimed up the road.
Henry looked back, to see the 8-rad's headlights at a stand thirty yards away, the commander apparently baffled by the sudden appearance of the huge civilian car directly in his path. Julie's voice snapped out another command.
"Gun crew, fire!"
The Smith Gun coughed, the ten pound bomb zipped over Henry's prone body and exploded almost instantaneously. The entire scene was lit up momentarily by a brilliant flash, fragments zipped through the air. One of the side windows in the Hispano shattered and McCaughan yelped in pain.
"You lovely, lovely, cunning bitch."
Nobody heard Henry's voice. The 8-rad's shape seemed altered, with the turret tilted askew like a dislodged hat and a voice calling out "Helmut! Helmut!" from somewhere inside the vehicle. A rifle shot sounded and a 68 grenade flew through the air, landing wide of the armoured car and exploding in the hedgerow. Not that the miss mattered. Henry was sure that the concussion from the direct hit must have knocked the German crew half senseless. In any case the 8-rad was going nowhere, boxed in by the road walls and the Hispano Suiza
"Move, you morons!"
Another blue parachute flare hanging over the horizon gave even more emphasis to the command. Darling Julie still giving the orders, and not a soul was going to complain -- certainly not Henry. The woman had blown a hole in the wall with the Smith gun, organised the car to go through it to stop the 8-rad in its tracks, then followed up that move by bringing the gun forward to knock shit out of the German vehicle the instant it stopped. Napoleon himself had never handled artillery better. Henry somehow got to his feet, assisted by other hands, astonished to find that both McCaughan and Rosedale were still alive as well, albeit as battered and buggered up as he was himself.
Thankfully the Citroen was waiting to provide transport back to the salvation of the glider. Henry's helpers threw him on his belly across the bonnet. Then the Citroen was screaming in low gear over the field. Henry looked towards the driver's seat. As he'd half expected, Julie's incongruously made up face was behind the windscreen as the men on the running boards hung on to the overloaded car bouncing across the tussocks.
Christ, Boadicea and her chariot weren't in it compared to this mad bitch!
The car slid to a halt by the glider, stopping so sharply Henry slid off the front to go sprawling on the ground. He felt as if he'd never be able to move in his life again. The Citroen bounced on its springs as people jumped out of it and off it to pile into the Hotspur with desperate speed. An eerie mixture of colours was cast over the twin fuselages as the navigation lights were switched on. Henry started dragging himself towards the glider, encouraged by the fingers which had grabbed his right ear and seemed to be trying to pull it off his head.
As he expected, it was his beloved comrade in arms, Julie: "Move, you prick!" she snarled.
He had no breath to argue, nor the opportunity. The lumbering figure of Rosedale grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and literally threw him through a hatchway. Henry tried to protest that he was in the wrong fuselage, he was in the port one instead of the starboard one he'd been assigned to, but it was too late. He dragged himself along the cramped floor on his hands and knees.
Rosedale's voice: "Shut tha fooking hatch, quick. . ."
Everything seemed to balance on a tiny frozen moment of time. Now Henry could hear the roar of the approaching Swordfish, see gaping faces in the faint battery powered lights glowing in the fuselage, Rosedale and McCaughan the only ones still moving as they secured the hatch. Then the whole universe seemed full of noise before it suddenly toppled forward as if they were in a high speed lift going sideways. The lights went out amidst yells and curses as a soft body smelling of French perfume and burnt cordite slid over the top of Henry.
"Fly, you bastard thing, fly!" Henry prayed. It did, the Hotspur was flying, he could feel the sensation of flight through his hands, as though he was on board a speed boat travelling at full power on a choppy sea.
Somebody was whimpering in agony. Somebody else turned on a torch. Rosedale was down on his knees in the centre of the walkway, sobbing with pain and clutching his shirt, now drying out and starting to smoke as the phosphorous fragments underneath began to burn again. Henry's waterbottle was with his abandoned equipment on the road. Nobody else seemed to have a bottle handy either. He wearily shouted his last order of operation "GOATHERD" down the draughty wooden fuselage.
"For God's sake, will somebody please piss on that poor bastard?"