A Sequel to Soldier of the Empire Chapter One
The main street of Petty Bowling hardly seemed big enough to accommodate the half Troop, even when spread out in tactical formation. At the entrance to the village a wooden bench was occupied by a dirty looking woman about thirty years old, wearing a pinafore and a headscarf. She was gently rocking a pram with her left hand, the other holding a pinched fag end from which she dragging out the last few draws.
On the opposite side of the road next to a wall was a stone block with steps up the side. Its utility might not have been instantly clear to the urban reared soldiers, although shire boys like Henry had often seen them used by upper class ladies of the old school, mounting their horses side-saddle before riding to the hunt. Except that at the top of this one was an additional wooden block, six inches thick, apparently intended to give a little extra height to the user. In fact it was about at the right level to let an average sized man stand on it and peer over the top of the wall.
Henry lifted the block, very cautiously, surprised to find how light it was. Nestled inside the hollowed out centre was a mark seven anti-personnel pressure operated mine. Anybody who decided to use the mounting block as a vantage point would keep on going, straight to heaven. The resulting waist high blast of fragments off the top of the solid stone would be devastatingly effective against any troops within thirty or forty feet.
"You're a careful one aren't you, Captain Winfield?"
Henry stared at the grubby baby minder. Her accent sounded completely wrong, even to his tin ear. More like Girton than Gravesend. He walked over to the pram and lifted the top blanket. Inside, held level by clips, was a fine bouncing Thompson sub-machine gun, with a fat tum of a fifty round drum. Her yellow stained fingers had reached in through a hole in the back of the pram, to rest lightly on the pistol grip and trigger.
"That's interesting," Henry snapped. "A Tommy gun. My battalion of three hundred parachute trained Commandos has managed to acquire exactly seven of those. They're the only sub-machine guns we've ever seen, except for the odd times the Germans help out our military education by killing us with their Schmeissers. But, by God, at least our housewives aren't lacking in military supplies. That's a great comfort."
The woman smiled -- faintly. "I'm Patrol Leader Braddock of Home Guard auxiliary unit 202. Our priorities are higher than yours, Captain. Show me the left side of your chest, please."
The Troop watched with surprise and wry amusement as their Officer Commanding unbuttoned his para jacket and khaki flannel shirt and held them open. The woman's hand felt cold as it slipped in underneath the warmth of Henry's shirt and across the large patch of scar tissue underneath his left nipple. "How old were you when that happened, and what caused it?"
"I was three. I pulled over a pot of boiling water from the hob plate in the fireplace." Henry didn't think he was telling her something she didn't already know.
"Stupidity," he muttered surly.
"We have to be sure of your identity."
"I'm not talking about that. I'm talking about a woman who dresses up as a village housewife when she's never scrubbed a door step or turned a butter churn in her life. I'll give you a tip; German officers and NCO's are experts at picking out genuine workers. They wouldn't even have to look at your hands -- one touch is enough to give you away."
"If I touch one, he won't be in a condition to know the difference -- come on".
This time the tone of her voice had the unmistakable tone of confidence of one of nature's aristocratic whippers-in, of dogs and slow witted peasants. Even pushing the battered old pram she seemed to exude a kind of haughtiness. As he followed her along the street and past the crumbling cottages, a not inconsiderable amount of Henry's attention was distracted by the elegant dimensions of the hips and buttocks hidden underneath the unbecoming pinafore.
The post office was located next to the 'Horse and Trumpet', an inn with a thatched roof and an alarming inclination to overhang the street. Presumably the result of old age, although it clearly wouldn't need much of an explosion to bring the whole edifice down, thus effectively blocking access to the other half of the hamlet. Inside the dirt streaked window of the post office was a hanging coil of yellow fly paper carrying a burden of winged corpses left over from the summer, and a scrawled notice saying: "NO CHOCOLATES OR RAZOR BLADES LEFT IN STOCK. BLAME HITLER, NOT THE PROPRIETOR."
Standing in the doorway was the only other visible citizen of Petty Bowling, a small lean faced middle aged man smoking a big pipe. His suit was of ancient tweed, the leather patches on the coat elbows worn to a shiny patina. Whatever its vintage, it probably post-dated his black leather shoes, which had the sort of deep shine that only geological layers of spit rubbed polish could achieve. A large gold wristwatch and the sweet smell of the tobacco in the air helped confirm the initial impression of long held wealth.
"Good evening, Captain. I'm Chief Petty Officer Crampton. Pleased to meet you."
Chief Petty Officer! That was a naval rank equivalent to a sergeant, or thereabouts. Absolute balls! Another piece of bloody nonsense!
Henry opened his mouth to give a blistering retort. Crampton's held a glint of puckish humour. Henry snapped his fingers as something flickered in his mind, a recent memory of a book he'd read.
"Not E.E. Crampton, the writer?"
"The same, at your service."
Crampton looked mildly surprised at being known, although his fame as an author and barrister was widespread. He specialised in short stories which explored the odder intricacies of English law. He also found time to be a regular contributor to Punch, a crusader against the existing divorce and tax laws laws, the member of parliament for Oxford University and a Freeman of the Brotherhood of the Thames. Crampton's love of legalistic minutiae was only matched by his love of the river and the sprit-sailed Thames barges he sailed at every opportunity. Hence he was indeed a petty officer in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve. The only other thing Henry could remember about him was a small but very important item: Crampton's last collection of stories had been prefaced by an introduction written by one of the author's oldest friends, a discredited political hack called Winston Spencer Churchill.
Patrol leader Braddock snorted with amusement. "You've obviously had a good literary education, Captain Winfield."
"Not really. It's just that I never had the sort of schooling which enables me to enjoy mess nights with a clear conscience. While the well bred are throwing food around and breaking the furniture, I go off and read a book. It stops me getting ideas above my station."
The woman stared at Henry as if she had come down to dinner to find the estate's pigman sitting at the head of the high table. "I think we're straying from the point a little," Crampton said gently. "Captain, behind the inn there is a skittles alley. Inside are sacks of straw and blankets for your men, rations, and a petrol stove. Can they settle in and organise a scratch meal for themselves? I'm afraid all our arrangements are rather extemporised at present."
"Before we worry about anything else, can I remind you that I've got troops without even a pistol to their names? If Hitler attacks this place tonight, whatever it is, we couldn't do a damn thing to help defend it. Or have we been flown here to put up the tents for a garden party?"
"I'm sure Patrol Leader Braddock can fix your men up with whatever they need. She has a particularly well stocked armoury."
Henry called Cunliffe-Brown over and tried to explain the unlikely situation. "If these people have got weapons then draw what we need as soon as possible, get settled in and organise a guard roster -- officers to take a turn as guard commanders. And for God's sake, see if there's any spare ammunition so we can try to get some zeroing done. At least there's no shortage of space for range work."
Patrol-Leader Braddock seemed upset. "My unit is responsible for the security of this area and no firing of any kind will be allowed."
"Very well," Henry answered grumpily. "Then if you're in charge of security I'd better warn you that some of my men speak German amongst themselves. Tell your guards so they don't get trigger happy."
Crampton blanched. "German? Why do they speak German?"
"Probably because they're ex-German citizens. I've got five of them, all Jewish. Got the makings of the best bloody soldiers you'll ever see."
Crampton and Braddock appeared to be suffering from simultaneous attacks of chronic bowel gas. "We can't possibly have people like that here," the woman gasped, clearly horrified. "The risks would be intolerable. Whatever possessed you to bring them?"
"Because nobody told me I had to consider any security implications when asking for volunteers," Henry explained patiently. "I was simply given a free hand to pick men I thought would be the best in a fight. Every one of those Jewish soldiers has relatives who've been tortured and murdered by brown shirted thugs. They're like the Polish fighter pilots in the RAF who do the real damage to the Luftwaffe. They don't piss around dog fighting, they get up close, shoot a Jerry in the back, then sod off quick."
Henry nodded towards his troops. "Incidentally, you see that tall Corporal over there? His name is Cantrell and I have every reason to believe he was, and may still be, a senior officer of the Irish Republican Army."
"Oh, marvellous!" the Patrol Leader snapped. "And whose side are you on?" Henry didn't bother to answer.
Crampton sucked loudly on his pipe, then spoke again. "Captain, would you trust these men to keep their mouths shut under all circumstances."
"No. I don't think any of them would willingly help the Germans. But I wouldn't trust any of those Jews as far as I could throw them in connection with information which might be useful to the Zionist movement. As for Cantrell, apart from any Dublin connection he's got, the Irish and the Yanks stick together like turds to a blanket. For a hundred dollars and place of honour in the Saint Patrick's day parade he'd probably spill everything he knew to the New York Sanitation Department, let alone Washington."
Cunliffe-Brown blinked, possibly shocked by Henry's bluntness. Crampton turned to him. "Carry on, please, Lieutenant. The Patrol Leader will give you every assistance. Come with me, Captain."
Henry walked beside him, past a gravel bordered chapel towards the narrow estuary. Small wavelets kicked up by the wind lapped against the piles of a sagging wooden jetty tottering on barnacle encrusted piles. Crampton paused beside it. "Why did you bring the Irishman, Captain Winfield?"
"He's an expert on guerrilla war. More than that, his expertise was gained on the irregular's side of the fence. Despite what the 'Seven Pillars of Wisdom' would have you believe, it's not the sort of warfare we know much about."
"Hmm. Well, you'll realise you've landed me with quite a security headache?"
"Bollocks." Henry was tired, and suddenly cold in the breeze blowing off the dirty looking water. "We're here to do a job which requires parachute troops. If any of my lot get captured they'll tell the Germans no more than any other men under Gestapo interrogation, which means, eventually, everything. So would the most patriotic Englishman: a red hot poker up your arse tends to loosen your faith, along with everything else. On that score it doesn't matter who you drop into the lion's den."
Crampton nodded. "Suppose there are survivors? Survivors with important and highly secret information who return to England to tell stories about what they've seen?
"I'm no expert, but counter intelligence is surely only a matter of manpower. With just a few suspects you should be able to watch them all the time, even if it takes a hundred field police dressed in civilian clothes to do the job. You might even get some interesting leads. I don't know about the IRA or the Yanks, but I've got a notion the Soviets are further into us than anybody suspects. I reckon there's one committed communist in every twenty of the twats that come out of a university." Henry laughed harshly. "Except maybe those that come out of Russian universities."
"And Oxford and Cambridge, of course. I judge from your conversational tenor that you never graced either of those establishments?"
"You are perfectly correct in that assumption. As for the political purity of the public schoolboys' post puberty pleasure palaces, I hope you're equally correct."
There was a pause while Crampton took out his pipe and looked at as if it had just materialised in his mouth. "Captain, when you were given your commission after finishing your time at the Army's Apprentice School, you went through the same training as all regular Army engineers do. You read the mechanical science tripos at Cambridge -- Christ's College, in your case. Because sapper undergraduates only get two years study instead of the normal three years it's very unusual for Royal Engineer students to gain a three part honours degree. There was only one officer in your year who achieved it. We both know who that officer was, don't we? So why are you lying to me?"
Henry shrugged. "Even the War Office can't spend forever reorganising itself from the chaos of Dunkirk. When they finally realise they've let the Commandos take a trained engineer officer I'll be posted back to the RE's. I don't want that, I want to help run the war. The only chance we have against the Germans' massive military superiority is fight them like Apaches, with quick raids against key targets. The bastards not only have a lot more men than us, their training and equipment is far better."
"And you think you have a talent for such warfare?"
"Well, there's clearly no other bugger in the British Army who knows what he's doing."
Crampton fell silent while he pondered on this latest example of Winfield tact. Henry took the opportunity to examine the scene. On the other side of the narrow river were the reeds marking the edge of Potton island. Moored up amongst them was a wooden vessel about seventy foot long with a stumpy mast. It was no surprise to Henry to recognise her as a Thames barge. Barge pictures
"The last of the breed," Crampton said lovingly. "The 'Lady of the Lea,' only nine years old and almost certainly the last wooden spritsail barge ever to be built. We're using her as a floating barracks, store room and workshop while we play our little games in this lonely spot. Do you see the red trim just visible underneath all that horrible green paint? She normally earns her living carrying explosives -- so she has scuttles fore and aft which allow her to be sunk very quickly if necessary."
Henry nodded, not very interested. "Talking of explosive ladies, who is that lunatic woman with the panzer pram?"
"Mrs Braddock is a member of Home Guard Auxiliary Unit 202. Although described as Home Guard units the auxiliaries are in fact responsible for organising and arming the underground cells of the British resistance movement. They have hideouts all over the country, with weapons and supplies laid up against the day the Germans invade."
"It's pointless having a resistance movement in a country this small unless it contributes to the main battle while it's actually being fought," Henry explained, trying to keep his patience. "Once the Germans have won that, everything else is irrelevant. A group of guerrillas sitting in the marshes won't make any difference at all to the final conquest of Britain."
Crampton appeared unconcerned: "I daresay you're right. The reason the auxiliaries are here is because we need to temporarily guard this area without drawing attention to it. Those damned high flying Junkers 86's range all over southern England with their cameras. If we'd surrounded the place with regular troops and armoured cars we might as well have sent Luftwaffe intelligence a map with a ring drawn around Petty Bowling." Junkers 86 reference
"Brilliant tactics -- except it would be easier all round if you put your secret establishment on the west coast of Scotland, well away from all the bombers or reconnaissance planes, and then surrounded it with troops."
Crampton fiddled with his pipe and a small horn-handled knife, scraping carbon out of the bowl: "The geographical argument is sound enough. The snag is that I'm administrating a most secret research section under the direct control of the Prime Minister. What we're developing are devices with revolutionary implications. Which means that Winston wants us as close to London as possible, so he can keep us right under his thumb. He might have to leave the Middle East to Wavell, he might not be able to lead the Home Fleet out of Scapa Flow on the bridge of the leading battleship, but, by God, he makes sure we're not going to be under anybody's control but his."
Henry tried to come to terms with what Crampton was saying. This was a man who spoke with trained precision, not some witless bullshitter. This was something big, something important, and Captain Henry Winfield was miraculously close enough to find out about it.
"Does that odd twin fuselage Hotspur we saw a few minutes ago have anything to do with what you're talking about?"
"Yes, it certainly does. So do you, Captain. In fact you're the reason we're all here. I'll take you over and show you."
Crampton carefully knocked the ash out of his pipe and dropped the briar into his jacket pocket. Then he bent down to undo the rope holding a small rowing boat to the jetty. Standing inside the small boat, he held it against one of the piles while Henry clambered into it. Once seated in the stern he watched Crampton use the oars with casual grace to pull towards the barge. But all his attention was focused on Crampton's last enigmatic remark.
"You don't mean that suggestion I put in about snatching gliders off the ground, do you?"
"That's exactly what I do mean," Crampton confirmed, smiling. "How did you get such an outlandish notion?"
Henry shrugged. "It was pretty simple. The Army and the RAF have had a scheme for years for picking up despatch bags from the ground. The troops put up bamboo poles with a loop of rope hanging between them and the Lysander or whatever it is comes in flying low with a hook hanging underneath it. The hook grabs the rope, the bag is whisked off into the air and the aircraft observer pulls it in.
"When I saw the gliders at Ringway it crossed my mind that it might be possible to use the same technique to pull a glider off the ground with a powered aircraft. The problem was the damage that the initial jerk would do to the glider. Anyway, I made some enquiries and I found out that the Americans have started making ropes out of a new synthetic material called nylon. The stuff can stretch quite a way without breaking, so it seemed likely it would help to absorb that initial shock. I did some quick calculations which seemed to suggest the idea was worth experimenting with and sent it in to the War Office. I never heard anymore about it, so I thought it had got stuck in a pigeon hole."
"The pigeon hole it ended up in was mine. I have a special need for a Commando raid at a target which is too far from the coast to be reached from the sea. Nor did I relish the thought of using paratroopers who could not possibly reach home afterwards. It also happened that your suggestion tied in rather nicely with some ideas my section was already working on. So we decided to try the concept out. I'm happy to tell you that your calculations were correct."
Henry was staring at the deck of the barge. Just forward of the huge tiller with the barge's name engraved on it were two gun positions, port and starboard, each with a double Oerlikon mounting. There seemed to be similar mountings in the bows -- eight 20mm cannon to protect one wooden barge when entire convoys of merchant ships didn't have as much firepower! And a trickle of water was coming from an exhaust pipe above the waterline, proving that not only did the Lady of the Lea have an engine but that it was also warmed up and ready for instant use.
A hard faced young man in a rollneck pullover standing near the starboard lee board dropped a line to the dinghy and then lowered a ladder of wooden slats secured together with ropes. Henry managed to haul himself up it without falling into the river while Crampton stepped on the deck without even bothering to take the pipe from his mouth.
Henry looked around with interest. Gun crews manned every gun position, constantly scanning their arcs of responsibility with unblinking care. Fore and aft was a lookout with huge binoculars on stands in front of each of them, continually swivelling the lenses across the ground and the sky. Henry also noted the axes lying ready by each of the mooring ropes. It would take some pretty quick work to get a boarding party onto this worthless looking vessel.
"Let's go for a walk, shall we?"
Henry followed Crampton to the gangplank on the other side of the barge. It joined onto a series of forty four gallon drums floating on their sides in the shallow water, supporting a walkway of twin planks which took them to the shore. Running alongside the planks were a row of metal stakes carrying a field telephone cable. At the end of the walkway a muddy path had been cut through the reeds, which were replaced by brambles and patches of open grass as the path led the two men onto drier ground, the telephone cable still following the same course beside them.
From ahead the sound of a small engine was starting to overlay the noise of the wind. Then Crampton and Henry walked over a slight rise in the ground onto the edge of a clear stretch of grassland some sixty yards wide and stretching out about three hundred yards in front of them. In the middle of the strip were two slender poles and at the other end was the Hotspur, its twin noses facing them.
Over on the left was a tangle of small trees and bushes which seemed to have been dragged together from different parts of the improvised landing ground. Only at very close range was it possible to see that the debris had been artistically arranged above an improvised pill box made of sandbags concreted together. Henry was suddenly aware of the gun muzzles pointing out from underneath the camouflage of broken branches. Next to the pillbox was a small shed with a metal dish about two foot across mounted above its roof.
"An extremely narrow beam high frequency radio transmitter," Crampton told him, pointing to the dish.
Henry wondered what he was supposed to say. "I'm a mechanical engineer, not an electrical one."
He was momentarily distracted when he noticed where the beat of the engine was coming from. A little tracked machine was parked underneath a flysheet close to the path. It was about six feet long with a seat on it and had obviously been used to haul the debris clear of the strip. A power take off mounted on the small caterpillar tractor was driving an electric generator.
Closer examination revealed that the tractor had a six horsepower Sturmey-Archer engine and the maker's name plate said 'MODEL MG 2 -- RANSOMES, SYMES & JEFFERIES, NORWICH.'
"I've never seen one of these before," Henry commented.
"They're used by market gardeners for ploughing, I believe. Also in Holland, because they can be ferried across the drainage dykes in small boats. But we do have more important things to discuss."
Henry noted that the cable from the generator led to the shed and then walked with Crampton to the two poles in the landing strip. They were apparently made of aluminium, of sections joined together to make an overall height of fifteen feet, and set forty feet apart. Each pole stood on a H-section stand and was secured by three ropes lashed to it about two thirds of the way up and tightly stretched out to pegs driven deep into the grass. At the top of each pole was two half rings. Running through the inner rings were the loops of light rope used to lift up the lasso of the towing rope and hold it in place with breaking cord. On each of the outer lifting ropes was a battery lamp lifted up to the same height as the top of the lasso.
"You're thinking of a night snatch? I never thought the RAF would ever consider trying that, not even in bright moonlight."
"We're giving them some very special help," Crampton answered, displaying a slight smile. "And your idea of using a Swordfish works well. As you suggested we've attached a twenty foot hooked rod to the torpedo carrying truss and then hold it up underneath the fuselage with the regular tail hook mechanism. When the pilot's ready to make a pickup he just pulls a toggle and the hook drops down. Mind you, we've had to attach a fifty pound chunk of ballast to get it hanging straight down through the airflow."
Henry nodded: "Well, it was clear that it was going to be best to use a naval aircraft which was already stressed for the shock of carrier landings. And I found a pilot to talk to who'd flown a Stringbag on attachment to the navy and he swore they were brilliant aircraft to handle at low speed flying. Is the engine able to pull off a loaded glider without any problems?"
"Oh, yes. Bags of acceleration. From a standing start to a hundred miles an hour in about seven seconds. I haven't tried it myself but I'm told it's quite an experience. At least we've had no casualties so far. The Swordfish has just gone off to to have a radio altimeter fitted for the first night snatch trials." Swordfish reference
"Fine, but your glider pilot must be either a very clever or a very stupid man. I saw him fly into this strip from the other side of the village and it seemed a miracle to me that he was able to judge his height and distance so well."
Crampton's smile grew wider. "Let us step into this shed, Captain, and I shall show you something very remarkable indeed."
At first glance the interior of the shed suggested nothing of overwhelming interest. There was a roughly poured concrete floor underfoot, two men in their twenties wearing civilian clothes underneath white lab coats, trestle tables with various sorts of electrical equipment. The scientists, if that's what they were, just nodded as Crampton and Henry came in. They were bent in deep concentration over a teleprinter machine which suddenly broke into action and printed a line or two at great speed. One of the men swore angrily.
"What bloody idiot put that figure in for signal velocity reduction through the antenna?"
Crampton appeared slightly offended. He fiddled with his pipe while Henry stared at the teleprinter with his jaw hanging open. He had to be going crazy because after printing the first line of text he was certain the teleprinter had printed the second line backwards without bothering with a carriage return.
"God almighty, can the signaller at the other end of the line really type in reverse order? I've never heard of anybody being able to do that."
Crampton hesitated, apparently seeking the right words. "That's our big secret, Henry. The teleprinter operator on the Lady of the Lee isn't a human being."
"Oh yes?" Henry scratched the back of his head. "Have we started enlisting Martians then? They'll just about fit in nicely with the mob I've already got."
"I'm being quite serious, Henry. Have you ever heard of a man called Charles Babbage? He died about seventy years ago."
Henry nodded. "The name rings a bell. He tried to build some kind of weird calculating machine, didn't he?"
"That's correct. He called it an analytical machine. The idea was to carry out calculations using gears and levers. Unfortunately the idea was ahead of its time. No craftsmen could build the mechanism to the level of accuracy required. But there was nothing wrong with the concept. It is possible in principle to design a machine which can carry out calculations. Some of our bright boys have been thinking for a long time about trying to do what Babbage tried, only using electricity instead of mechanical gears."
Crampton picked up a folding canvas chair, opened it and motioned Henry to sit down. "Captain, all I'm talking about is using numbers. Just like counting on your fingers. The thing is, with electricity, we need to use some kind of switches to do our counting. You've got ten fingers, but a switch has only got two states. It can be either switched on or switched off. So because of your fingers you count in tens, the decimal system. Whereas the machine counts in twos, the binary system. You've heard of that?"
Henry nodded: "I understand the concept. Your first number is either a one or a zero, then you move to the left with each positive number doubling in value; 2, 4, 8, and so on."
"Yes, that's it, though I'm no mathematician myself. But what the maths people tell me is that for a long time they've had a pretty clear idea of how an electronic arithmetical device could be built. They knew in theory how to build the circuits for an electrical calculator. The problem was that those circuits would have needed many thousands of vacuum valves. Nobody was prepared to sink a fortune into building something which would have been lucky to run for five minutes at a time before blowing a valve."
"And something happened to change things?"
"Yes, three years ago a strange discovery was made by a million to one chance. The discovery was that certain types of material could be used to build a device which could amplify signals, a device which could do the same job as a valve in a circuit.
"Imagine a fire brigade hose operating at extremely high pressure with a big brass valve set in the middle of the hose: now imagine a garden hose coupled up to that big valve and that whenever water comes down the garden hose it pushes the valve open. Every time the weak little garden tap is turned on it sends a fierce jet of water shooting out of the big hose. Turn off the garden tap and the big hose stops flowing.
"That's what this newly discovered device could do with electronic signals. It was like the valve in the fire hose: it could take a weak current like a radio signal and amplify it to a speaker so it can be heard. It transfers control signals from a low resistance circuit to a high resistance circuit -- a transferable resistor, otherwise known as a transistor."
Henry tried to make a sensible response: "So what's the advantage of these transistor things over a vacuum valve?"
"Well, they're about one hundred times smaller, they use very little electricity, they're quite easy to make, they're very rugged and, best of all, they're very reliable. By a stroke of luck the team that developed them had one member who immediately realised their potential for building calculating machines. Even then the government could see that a war with Hitler was looming and if such calculating machines could be built in secrecy they might be a God send to us. So the only transistors produced were reserved for use in electronic calculators -- or computers, which is a more accurate term. If you only knew the amount of money and man hours which has been sunk into developing them! We could have built another battleship with the cash and still had change left over. But I think it will turn out to be a good bargain."
"And you're in charge of all this?"
Crampton waved his hands depreciatingly: "Not in any technical way. But since I've been MP for Oxford University for several years and I have friends in both political and scientific circles, I've been asked to look into ways of using these computers to help the war effort."
"More ways? What have they done for us so far?"
"Well, as I indicated, it's taken a while to develop all the ideas necessary to make them useful. We do have several of them working very well now, all engaged on most secret work. The decision has been made that from now on we'll concentrate on building the simplest and smallest type of computer, a model which can be used in all kinds of situations and can be produced in some numbers. I suppose you might call it a model T computer. Anyway we have one of the first of these portable thinking machines on board the Lady of the Lee."
Crampton looked towards the men at the teleprinter. "Bill, perhaps you could say a word?"
One of the scientists nodded. He had bright blue eyes set in a beefy face, looking more like a farmer than anything else. "Well, you have to understand that an electronic computer is a kind of idiot savant. It can do simple sums very quickly but it hasn't got any kind of intelligence. It has to have a list of instructions to follow for everything it does. We call that a programme, a computer programme. Actually, it's really an advantage because we can get a computer to do different jobs by giving it different programmes to work to. But all that would be useless if we had to keep typing every instruction in turn into the computer. It has to have a memory of its own where the instructions are stored so it can keep going back quickly for them."
Henry pursed his lips: "A memory -- that sounds pretty far fetched."
"Not really. To a computer, everything is just numbers. So all we need is a lot of pigeon holes each with its own number so the computer can find it, and each pigeon hole with a number in it waiting to worked on. Because the numbers are all binary code we could get by with using lots and lots of switches -- some switched on and some switched off. It's easier though to have lots of tiny magnets and to call them switched on or off depending on which way the magnetic polarity if flowing in them."
Henry shook his head. "I'm already starting to lose my grip on this," he confessed.
"It's not desirable you should understand much about the mechanics of it," Bill said. "But at least you can be told that each line of instructions in the programme has an identifying number. By sending that number to the computer it prints out the line on this teletype and I can see if it's correct. If I want to alter it I type it out again and the paper tape punch on the side of the machine makes a copy of whatever I type. When I'm sure that what I've typed has no errors I send it to the computer using the paper tape and the tape reader. The old line is wiped from its memory and the new one put in."
"So you just keep on doing that until you get your instructions right?"
Bill smiled ruefully. "'Just' is not a word we use very often about programming. More often than not it drives you crazy because of the gremlins. They're the tiny little mistakes that somehow creep into every programme when they're being written and seem to take a devil of a lot of time to eradicate. But that's the general idea. When I'm satisfied my programme is working properly I print out a copy on the teleprinter for my reference and a copy on the paper tape. Then, if I want to use that programme again, I can load it all back into the computer using the tape reader without having to retype it."
"How long does it take to do a sum with one of these gadgets?"
"The computer we're using here does about five thousand arithmetical operations every second."
"Every second! That's impossible!" Henry was dumbfounded. Nothing could possibly work so fast. The others were obviously enjoying his shock.
"No, that's right," Bill confirmed grinning. "You'll find out."
Henry shook his head to show his disbelief: "If you say so. What are you teaching it to do now?"
Crampton stood up, walked to the wall of the shed and pulled down a map showing southern England and the French coast. "Henry, the Battle of Britain is effectively over. It's been a draw, which means we've survived. But now a new kind of war is beginning, one which is unlike any war ever fought before. It's being fought with weapons which are as weak and unsubstantial as a puff of wind, but deadlier than an invading army. The transmitting dish above this shed uses one half of a watt of electricity. Several such transmitters could destroy a city every night -- British cities.
"The reason why I say that is because the Germans have now switched to night bombing -- the blitz which is smashing London. There's not much we can do to stop them, they come over as they please and our fighters and our ack ack guns can't see the bombers to stop them. Fortunately, that works both ways. The Luftwaffe crews aren't concentrating their attacks because they're having trouble finding their targets. The Luftwaffe has never shown much interest in night flying before, their crews aren't trained for it. And, of course, there are a lot of raw crews who are replacements for casualties lost in the recent air battles. So while London is getting a pounding, the bombs are being scattered over the city in a pretty haphazard way, thank God. The sheer size of the place is our biggest help."
Henry nodded. "Can I smoke?"
"Yes, go ahead if you like."
Henry took out his cigarette case and lit a Churchman's while Crampton tapped the map with his pipe. "We know that the Germans are now setting up a series of narrow beam radio transmitters along the French coast to guide their bombers to specific targets in the UK. A main beam will be transmitted from Cherbourg and laid across the desired target area -- Whitehall, for example. A series of other beams from the French coast will cut this beam at right angles. By utilising these beams to operate a very clever guidance system which calculates true ground speed the German crews expect to be able to drop their bombs with an average accuracy of one hundred yards."
"Hell's bells!" Henry stared at Crampton with horror. "They'll tear us to pieces. Over half our imports are coming through the docks at Liverpool -- destroy those wharves and we'll starve. What happens if they launch huge raids on vital industrial areas like Derby and Coventry? There's only two factories in the whole country making Rolls Royce aero engines. Knock them out and we won't have any more fighters."
"Oh, it's got to be stopped, at any cost," Crampton agreed. "We have a few tricks of our own which might jam their beams. Whether they'll work or not we don't know. But what has us really terrified is the operating concept behind the use of this device -- X Gerat, or X apparatus, in English. To get the best from the system the Germans have formed an elite squadron of the top forty bomber crews in the entire Luftwafe. These men are ex-airline pilots from Lufthansa and aircrew who served with the Condor Legion in Spain. They are without doubt the finest bomber unit in the world. Their job is to use X Gerat to spearhead the Luftwaffe's night attacks as lamplighters, dropping flares and incendiaries to show the rest of the bombers where to drop their loads."
Crampton took a leather pouch out of his pocket and began to stuff some of his sweet smelling tobacco into his pipe. "You see, it's not just a question of which side can outwit the other with radio beams and jamming. It's the question of having this elite unit in business as attack leaders. They're so good that even without any radio aids they might still be able to mark their targets on clear nights. Naturally, we'll do everything we can to spoil their fun with X Gerat. But life would be a great deal easier if this unit, this Kampfgruppe 100, were to be forcibly retired from the war. And as soon as maybe. Those are my instructions from the Prime Minister."
Crampton put a match to the pipe, then swished the stick through the air to put out the flame. "We know a lot about KGr 100. I won't tell you how we know and you won't ask me and we'll both pretend you're so stupid you can't work out we're using our computers to break some of the German codes. We know that the aircrew of KGr 100 are billeted in a certain chateau in Brittany. We know that in a few days time they are having an informal party to mark their operational debut as lamplighters. We know that Field Marshall Sperrle of Luftflotte III will be there as guest of honour and we know that some young ladies of uncertain morals will also be travelling from Paris for the party. What we haven't quite worked out yet is how best to kill the lot of them."
"This is quite a yarn," Henry commented, deeply interested. "Go on, please."
"Well, we're developing our own bombing system. There's a device which both we and the Germans have, though we believe we're slightly more advanced. It's called radio location. Radio signals are sent out and bounce back off aircraft, and by watching the returning pulses on a cathode tube we can tell roughly where the aircraft are. It was one of the reasons we didn't lose the Battle of Britain. We could see the raids coming from far enough away to scramble our fighters in time. The problem was that it was often hard to tell the difference between our fighters and the incoming German aircraft."
Crampton went over to a blackboard and picked up a chalk. "Radio waves go out, hit the target, bounce back. What we did was to fit a device called a transponder to our aircraft. A transponder is a radio transmitter which automatically sends out a signal when it itself picks up a specially coded signal. So by sending out correctly coded radio waves the radiolocation station would get an unmistakable identification of a friendly aircraft because the amplified transponder response was like a diamond illuminated by a torch in a dark cellar. The system is known as 'IFF, identification friend or foe.'
"Given time we can build enough radiolocation sets to hunt down the night bombers. We can also develop radiolocation techniques to guide our own bombers against German cities. But time is what we don't have and it's not a city I have to destroy, but just one building -- the chateau that the crews of KGr 100 are living in."
Crampton made a rough sketch of a castle turret, then drew a dotted line high above it. "The radio horizon, that's our problem, Henry. Very short wave radio signals travel in a straight line. They can't bend over the horizon, no more than you can look around a corner. To pick up VHF signals from a transmitting station in England an aircraft over the chateau would need to be flying at an altitude of at least nine thousand feet."
"And that's a long way down to hit one particular building."
Crampton nodded. "That's right. And since we can't bring Brittany any closer to the computer we've decided to take a computer to Brittany. Or, at least, as close as we dare too. We're mounting a computer inside an aircraft and flying it over the Channel. But we can't let the aircraft cross the French coast in case it crashes and the computer falls into enemy hands."
A piece of cloth wiped the blackboard clean and then Crampton drew a line down the centre of it. "This is the French coast. Our computer equipped aircraft is flying in circles seven thousand feet above the Channel, about thirty miles out to sea. Before it can do anything useful it has to know exactly where it is. Now suppose there was a transponder at a fixed location. The aircraft could aim a very narrow beam of radio signals at it, just like a searchlight. And when the searchlight was pointing directly at the transponder it would generate a return signal which would show exactly far away it is. The range is provided by the same principle as in radiolocation, by measuring the speed of the return of a radio signal. So the computer would know the distance to the transponder and its bearing. From that information and from the known location of the transponder the computer could continually work out its position to within a few yards."
"What sort of a fixed point would the transponder be on?"
"Actually, it's going to mounted inside the clock tower of the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth. That'll be about ninety miles away from the computer plane's orbiting position."
Henry shook his head. "I still can't get the picture. What will this transmitting aerial look like and how will it work?"
"The aerial will look exactly like the dish above this building. Only it will be mounted inside a Perspex dome under the aircraft to protect it from the slip stream. The dome will be on a rotating mount and also able to traverse through ninety degrees. Like a dorsal gun turret, able to point towards anything underneath the aircraft. Once the dish has picked up the transponder the computer will keep it locked onto it while moving the dish to counteract any movement the aircraft makes."
"So the radio beam will be like a kind of invisible leash?"
"That's right. The computer sends out a thousand pulses a second through the dish aerial whilst continually tracking the aerial's azimuth and depressed angle so it knows where the transponder is in relation to itself. The time it takes each pulse to return tells it how far away the transponder is. Those different sets of information are integrated by the computer's programme to provide a continual plot of the aircraft's position."
"It's all very clever," Henry agreed. "But I still don't see how it helps you bomb KGr 100."
"That's because you still don't understand how revolutionary these computers are. Not only can it work out where it is, it can work out another aircraft's position at the same time."
Crampton drew a side sketch of an aircraft with a dome underneath it and arrow heads coming out of it. Then he drew a second dome on top of the aircraft and more arrow heads, now pointing in the opposite direction.
"There you are. Another dish inside another dome but operating on a different frequency and mounted on top of the computer plane. This one is also tracking a transponder. The difference is that this second transponder is inside another aircraft or a glider.
"Aircraft A, the computer plane, activates the transponder on aircraft B with its second radio beam, which supplies it with the bearing and range of aircraft B. Since the computer already knows where it is, it can also work out where aircraft B is. All that remains now is for instructions to be passed to B from A. The radio beam between the two aircraft has what is technically known as interlaced pulse modulation. Which means it can carry voice transmissions as well as the ranging signals. So the computer operator on aircraft A simply directs the pilot of aircraft B on the course to fly and tells him when to drop his bombs. Or how to steer his glider to land in the right place."
Henry shrugged helplessly. "I'm still pretty confused. Are you saying this has solved your problem?"
"No. It's only reduced it. On full distance tests our average result has been to drop the bombs within fifty yards of the target. The computer programmes still need a lot of fine tuning. The real crux of the problem is that our system can only guide one aircraft at a time. Suppose we drop one big bomb, and we're lucky enough to land it right in the middle of the chateau. A lot of the Germans will still survive. They'll scuttle into the wine cellars deep below the building or run away from the place in the three or four minutes it takes to get the next bomber lined up for the next bomb run."
"You could do what KGr 100 is going to do. Drop flares and let other aircraft bomb the flares."
Crampton nodded. "Yes, we could, provided there was no clouds or mist to stop them being seen on the only night when we can be sure that all of KGr 100's aircrew will be in their mess. And we still couldn't concentrate the attack enough to be sure of killing everybody. That was about the stage we'd reached in our planning until we read your suggestion about retrieving gliders after a raid. We thought that if a glider was fitted with a transponder it could be guided into a selected landing spot close the chateau. Then a party of Commandos might be able to get into position to rush the building after the bombing attack. Once inside you could shoot any survivors and drop grenades into the wine cellars. A good, general, all round sort of de-lousing operation. Then back to the glider, the computer guides in the snatch plane and away you go back to Blighty."
"And you are prepared to give me an absolute guarantee that you can land a glider at any map reference I give you?"
"There were two pilots in that Hotspur which just landed. The one who flew it for virtually the entire descent was inside a covered cockpit. The computer on the barge was tracking the transponder on the glider through the aerial above us and constantly updated a display showing the course the glider had to steer to compensate for wind drift and the desired rate of sink. A computer operator relayed that information to the pilot. All the pilot had to do was to maintain the ordered course and speed. The second pilot didn't need to touch the controls until the last minute. At night it would have been easy enough to land by eyesight from that position. So, yes, we can guarantee to land you wherever you want."
Henry leaned forward and crushed out his dog end into an Rowntree's coca tin already full of ash. "Then my unit can kill KGr 100 for you, every one of them, provided the RAF are not allowed anywhere near the chateau to cock things up. The problem is that I believe the only possible way to do is to set up a steel trap around the building and to burn the occupants alive. It will be a brutal act of war which will enrage every German in and out of uniform.
"Considering that we may well be forced into signing an armistice with the German government before the spring, are you prepared to pay that political price? And bear in mind that anyone even remotely involved in this operation is likely to end up in a concentration camp once Goering or Himmler is installed in Buckingham Palace."
Crampton suddenly smiled, stood up and walked over to the teletype terminal. Then he clapped his hand down on it in a surprisingly emotional surge of movement: "We're not going to lose the war, Henry, not now! We needed a miracle to save us and God has sent us machines that can make miracles!"