Summary:— This is an Uberfic set in Great Britain in 1943. Zena Mathews and Gabrielle Parker, both pilots and members of SOE—Special Operations Executive, find themselves transporting a Colonel Warden from the North Atlantic to Southern England.
Warning:— There is a certain amount of swearing in this story. Anyone offended by such should not read on.
Disclaimer:— MCA/Universal/RenPics own all copyrights to everything related to ‘ Xena: Warrior Princess ' and I have no rights to them.
“Yep. Looks like you're goin' t'be busy for a while, Gabrielle.”
“But they want us to fly out into the North Atlantic, somewhere West of nowhere, and rendezvous with a battleship.” The blonde woman furrowed her brow as she pored over the de-coded telegraph message. “All these co-ordinates and directions. It looks like a timetable from ‘ Bradshaw's Railway Guide '. You sure you de-coded it all properly?”
“Course I did.” Zena's tone suggested that criticism of her capabilities was impolite. “I'm an expert. I've got the code off perfectly in my head, now. Those directions are all kosher. Take my word for it.”
“Humph!” Gabrielle still seemed reluctant. “But, a Sunderland! Where in hell are we to get a Sunderland from? They don't grow on trees, y'know.”
It was January, 1943. The low islands surrounding Scapa Flow were covered in blankets of snow; while the towering heights of neighbouring Hoy looked like part of the Rockies, with their crevices and ravines outlined dramatically by snow and bare rock. The wide sheet of water, with its many Navy vessels, shimmered cold and dark grey; the surface lightly disturbed and rippled by a cold wind.
The latest information, via coded telegrams, from their commander in London had provided the material for the present argument between the women. Zena Mathews and Gabrielle Parker were both former pilots in the Air Transport Auxiliary; before they had been transferred to a little known sub-office of the secret Special Operations Executive. Group Captain Graham, from his eyrie in Somerset House, supplied their orders and equipment; and Scapa Flow supplied their base. It was all very unconventional, and absolutely hush-hush. A major part of the present discussion was that these orders definitively asserted that a flying-boat of the said type was to be used, and no other. The point being that only Gabrielle was passed and certificated to fly such planes.
“It's in paragraph four, here.” Zena consulted her hand-written translation. “Sunderland DAO-17. Will be ferried to Scapa, Jan 12. That's today.”
“Ferried?” Gabrielle raised an eyebrow. “That generally means the ATA. Maybe we'll know the pilot? Wonder if it'll be ‘ Dinksy ' Johnson? That man's insane, y'know, Zena.”
“Don't tell me, Gabs.” The New Zealander grunted sarcastically. “When you fly a Hampden bomber through the towers, and under the walkway, of Tower Bridge, you have to be insane.”
“Well, if it is, they must have let him out of jug early.” Gabrielle's expression reflected her own opinion of such a decision. “That man is a danger to the War effort.”
“We can't do anything till the plane arrives.” Zena had started thinking ahead which, as Gabrielle often said musingly, was her forte. “Let's go down to the NAAFI canteen. We can sit an' have a cup of tea and a sandwich, till the Sunderland turns up.”
“That's a plan; let's do it!”
The great beauty of the Scapa Flow NAAFI canteen was that it was a wide long solidly built one–storied hut. With plenty of space inside; a lovely warm atmosphere, supplied by no less than three wood-burning stoves; and a long row of windows which looked directly out on that patch of the Flow directly beside the slipway for sea-planes and flying-boats. The women could simply stroll outside to immediately be beside the hangars and anchorages of their planes.
Just over a month previously both women had been involved in an incident which had left them both wounded. Not seriously; but enough to keep them from flying for a while. Zena had quickly recovered from her slight arm-wound; but Gabrielle had taken a little longer to get over being hit in the ribs by a ricocheting bullet. She still sported a rather nasty looking scar; though the M.O. had now passed each woman for further duty.
Another reason for their enforced stay on dry land was that their Supermarine Walrus, after inspection by the mechanics, had been declared un-airworthy and condemned for scrap. It had, in fact, been shot up from stem to stern so badly the Chief Mechanic had openly wondered how the women had managed to fly the heap of broken struts, bullet-shredded fuselage, and buckled fittings home at all.
As it was still only around 9.30am they both decided to have something to eat at a table by one of the windows. The official hour for breakfast had gone by, so they were the only occupants of the long room. The female staff had, nonetheless, two bowls, two steaming plates and a pot of tea sitting on their table in record time. It was a traditional British breakfast and it bemused Zena somewhat, she not being used to such.
“Oatmeal porridge.” Gabrielle, on the other hand, was an old hand at scoffing British nosh. “Sprinkled with salt. You don't put sugar on it. That'd make it dessert, not breakfast.”
“Oh, really.” Zena cast an unsatisfied, dubious glance at the food expert; then transferred her attention from the bowl to the plate. “And this? It looks ghastly.”
“Black pudding, sliced.”
“What is black pudding?”
“Blood sausage, Zena.” Gabrielle proudly showed off her local knowledge. “It's made of—you know—blood. Pig's blood.”
“ Jee-suuus! And this sticky lump, Gabrielle?” Zena raised her top lip in disgust. “It's oozing—something!”
“That's fried bread, Zena.”
“Yeah.” Once again Gabrielle's grasp of the facts was up to par. “You put a large amount of dripping; that's beef-fat, Zena, into a frying pan. Then you put a thick slice of doughy white bread in when the fat's sizzling. The bread absorbs the fat like a paper-towel, and is fried till it turns brown and a little crackly. Then it's put hot on the plate, and you dig in!”
“And the fat content, if I may ask?” Zena continued, examining her plate with a cold eye.
“Oh, it's certainly fattening; no doubt about that.” Gabrielle had to admit the obvious, but she was prepared with a good get-out clause. “But, hell, what's exercise for, lady. After a breakfast like this I bet it'd only take you about three or four days to run the blubber off!”
Zena gave the contents of her plate one last glance of contempt; put her fork down; and poured a cup of tea. For the next couple of minutes she glared determinedly out the window, as the distressing sounds of Gabrielle dealing whole-heartedly with her own breakfast echoed through the room.
“Oh loob, Weeema.” Gabrielle's mouth was still full, but she didn't give a da—care. “Ith thar a Vuneraanth?”
“What? Gods Gabrielle, you're so messy. Don't you know what manner—”
“A—a Sunderland.” The blonde devourer had finally demolished her food. “A Sunderland landing, out on the Flow.”
A Short Sunderland is a huge aircraft; and Zena, who had never been close-up to one before, was duly impressed. It was around 85 feet long; 35 feet high; with a wingspan well over 100 feet. It had four Bristol Pegasus radial engines. This particular example, judging by the insignia and numbers on its fuselage, had been filched from an RAF squadron known to be based in Oban. Zena wondered what the Squadron-Leader there had thought of the situation.
“Damn big plane.” Zena turned to her friend, standing on the edge of the slipway beside her. “Sure you can fly this monster, Gabs?”
“Har-har-har, lady.” Gabrielle was having none of it. “I can fly it just fine. I got the certificate to prove it, too. Piece of cake.”
The pilot had made no attempt to draw up near to the concrete slipway. Instead the plane was lying a hundred yards out on the water, its bow firmly tied to a buoy. In a minute a small launch which had sped out to meet the aircraft returned with the pilot and navigator, both women.
“Hey, Mary—Eleanor.” Gabrielle was first to dart forward and grasp their hands in a powerful shake. “Ain't seen either of you for months. How're you doin'?”
“I ain't so bad, Gabrielle.” The taller woman, fair-haired and sporting a broad grin nodded to Zena and turned to grasp her hand too. “Can't complain. I spent three weeks last year ferrying old condemned planes to the scrap yard. Nearly crashed three times!”
“Hi, Zena.” The shorter, auburn-haired woman greeted both Zena and Gabrielle rather shyly; though she had known them for most of the last year. It was just her way. “Don't listen to Eleanor; she likes to dramatise. I, on the other hand, am now an expert in flying Seafires. I've landed several on aircraft-carriers—”
“She has, too.” Eleanor broke in smiling.
“—but don't tell anyone, for God's sake.” Mary grimaced, and cast an anxious glance round the slipway. “It's so goddam hush-hush I sometimes wake-up in the morning, having forgotten what it was I was doing the day before. True!”
“Come on.” Zena laughingly took Mary's arm and led the women back towards the NAAFI canteen, with Gabrielle on Eleanor's left. “What you two need is a pot of coffee, and some cherry-cake.”
“Cherry-cake?” Eleanor sucked air through her teeth in a very un-ladylike manner. “What I wouldn't do for a slab of cherry-cake, with a thick layer of butter and double cream on top, is anybody's business!”
“Well.” Gabrielle considered the matter as they approached the door of the NAAFI. “We ain't got the butter; margarine is the best we can offer. And we don't have the cream. Nobody's seen cream in Scapa Flow for about two years, I reckon. But we do have the cherry-cake. And it's amazing what your imagination can do, if you really try. Come on. Don't let Zena get first dibs though, or there'll only be crumbs left for us!”
“Hey! That ain't nice!”
The next day was overcast, chilly (but then, when was it ever not chilly at Scapa Flow), with a slight drizzle. It was also the day Zena and Gabrielle had to fly out to their Northern Atlantic rendezvous, come what may. The two other air-women who had delivered the Sunderland had already, early that morning, disappeared with a beaten-up old Supermarine Stranraer on their way to Oban, From there, if they could not find another aircraft to ferry south, they would find seats on a train back to London. Zena and Gabrielle, meanwhile, had taken over command of the Sunderland.
The term ‘ command ' was appropriate, too. Gabrielle was pilot, and so in overall control of the craft. Zena was her full co-pilot, though having precisely no experience on this type. Several other crew, all male, had been temporarily detached from their ordinary duties at the base to accompany the women on the plane. It was wonderful, as Zena told Gabrielle later, what a telegraphed order signed by a General could do in the way of motivation. There was a front gun-turret operator; a rear gun-turret operator; a radio operator; two men to operate the single Browning machine-guns on either flank of the fuselage; and two extra men who would act as ammunition carriers and re-loaders, if needed: meanwhile the actual jobs for these two would become clear, orders said, on arrival at their Atlantic rendezvous. So, as the vast machine taxied slowly across the broken surface of the Flow, it boasted a total of nine crew; seven of whom had never flown in a Sunderland before.
“DAO-17. Western channel take-off. Awaiting launch. Ready.”
Gabrielle's voice was clipped and harsh as she spoke on the radio; entirely unlike her normal tone.
“ Base HQ. All clear. Launch running up. Steer to centre lane. Await. ”
Gabrielle quickly asked for confirmation of readiness from each of the crew in turn, and their staccato ‘ roger's ' or ‘ OK's ' sounded like sharp interference on the internal radio system. Gabrielle headed into the centre of a long swathe of empty water. On either side the low silhouettes of the surrounding islands could be seen, though some were completely masked by grey sheets of rain. As they turned Zena saw, in the far distance over the relatively calm but rain-spattered water, the outlines of a line of moored destroyers; then the flying-boat was pointing into the wind, ready for take-off. There came a short calm intermission, when nothing at all seemed to be happening. Gabrielle quietly leaned forward, composedly tapping the glass face of a dial on the instrument panel.
“What are we waiti—”
“ Base HQ. Launch ready. Channel clear. Cleared for take-off. Good Luck. Out. ”
“DAO-17. All clear. Launch in sight. Taking-off. Out.”
Gabrielle grasped the throttle levers and gently pushed them forward. Instantly the roar of the four Pegasus engines beat louder against Zena's ears. Glancing out her side-window she saw the propeller of the nearest engine whizzing round in a blur. It was set just a trifle back from the cockpit, and seemed close enough to touch, if she had opened her window and leaned out. The plane wallowed, as Sunderlands always did, while it ran through the short waves on the build up to take-off speed; then came a faster, more rackety vibrating, as it ran over the tops of the waves.
The throbbing of the engines, now nearly flat out; the uncomfortable thumping as the waves beat against the hull; and the feeling of advancing speed, all gave Zena a feeling of approaching danger. And just as this thought made itself clear in her mind; and the plane began a curious jerking motion, as if something was holding it back from taking-off, she saw a power launch coming in from her port side obviously determined on zooming right across the path of the speeding flying-boat.
“ Jee-sus, Gabrielle! ” Zena wondered how her dry throat allowed her to shout at all. “There's a bloody boat coming right across our bow, from port. Look-out!”
Gabrielle was hunched over her wheel and throttle levers, but still gave the now clearly visible launch only a cursory glance.
“It's OK, Zena.” She snapped the words out tersely, still concentrating. “It's meant to be there. It's gon'na help us take-off. Watch!”
As Zena sat she felt the flying-boat begin to make curious sideways jerks. Looking across at her pilot she saw Gabrielle was using her foot pedals to gently operate first the port then starboard flaps; thus making the plane yaw slightly from side to side. The feeling this set up inside the plane was anything but comfortable, and Zena realised she had no idea what Gabrielle was up to; and still the speeding launch came closer, about two hundred yards ahead now.
Just as Zena began to think she would throw up the launch cut across their path only eighty yards in front of the speeding flying-boat. Zena noted the waves of its wake running across their path, at right-angles to the ordinary waves of the choppy sea surface. Then by a miracle, the launch had safely passed on the starboard side; there was a series of thumping jerks and crashes as the flying-boat bounded, with some grinding crashes and bangs, over the launch's wake; then the Sunderland seemed to jump into the air and all vibration stopped as they smoothly gained height over the wide waters of the Flow. They were airborne.
“God Almighty!” Zena wasn't ashamed to sound frightened; after all, she thought, she damned well was! “What the hell was that all about? I've never been so scared in all my life. What're ya doin', Gabrielle?”
“Just taking-off, Zena.” Gabrielle pulled the wheel back a little, as she climbed effortlessly into the grey clouds.
“But, that speeding launch? What was he thinking?”
“The launch did just what I wanted it to do.” Gabrielle glanced at her co-pilot with a sneaky grin. “If you ever go for your certificate on these crates, Zena, you'll need to get used to that sort of thing. Sunderlands are notoriously difficult to get off the water on take-off. The hull tends to stick to the water surface; so to free it you have to yaw the plane from side to side; then a launch can also be driven at right-angles over our path, to create a wake with waves that are at right-angles to our bow. The plane jerks and shudders and kind'a jumps over these artificial waves and it breaks the water's hold on the hull—and we take-off. See?”
“ Jee-sus! ”
The door leading down into the fuselage compartments was closed; their radio-transmitters had been switched off; and the plane was flying level at four thousand feet in clear air, with a bright sun above them. Zena had produced a couple of typed documents from the briefcase she had brought with her.
“So, what's it all about, Zena?”
“As far as I can see, judging from what little these messages actually tell us, we're goin' to intercept the Nelson class battleship HMS Harvey; somewhere out in the North Atlantic.” Zena pondered over the forms, as she had done since receiving them just over twenty-four hours ago. “It gives co-ordinates and position cross-references. And all it says, in addition, is that we are going to pick up a Colonel Warden and his entourage. We then fly them to Oban; from there to Greenock; and the next day, that'll be tomorrow, to Hull on the East Coast: then our job is done. Someone else takes charge of him from there.”
“Some kind'a bigwig, I suppose.” Gabrielle glanced at her friend. “These Government-wallahs are everywhere; an' they all want to be treated like Princes. So, how big's a Nelson class battleship, Zena. Could we miss it?”
Zena allowed herself to relax enough to laugh for the first time since take-off. After all, the worst seemed to be over.
“Shouldn't think even you could miss it, lady.” Zena shook her head in mock despair. “For a start, if my memory serves me, it has a long foredeck with three triple gun-turrets; the centre one higher than the others; while the conning-tower, funnels, radio-mast and suchlike are all squeezed up at the rear-end of the main deck.”
“Sounds a queer fish.” Gabrielle herself now sounded even more curious. “Where's it coming from? America, I suppose. I expect this big-wig's going back to London with all sorts of diplomatic presents from Roosevelt.”
“Yeah, maybe another fifty destroyers on Lend Lease.” Zena grunted mirthlessly. “Have ya ever seen any of that first lot the Yanks gave us on Lend Lease?”
“Ha, I know.” Gabrielle nodded in sympathy. “All of them dating from the early years of the Great War. Don't think any were built later than 1915 or so. About as much real use as going to war in leaky sardine-cans!”
“What can you expect for free gifts, Gabs.”
“Humph!” The grumpy pilot suddenly thought of something much more aligned to their own present circumstances. “Hey, Zena. What about Jerry fighters? Any chance of them intercepting us on the way out, or back?”
For the last few minutes Zena had been crouched uncomfortably over a spread-out chart. It showed only plain blue, being a representation of nothing but North Atlantic ocean; but there were plenty of course lines marked out in coloured pencil and ink by Zena. She was nothing if not efficient in these things.
“Nah.” She spoke confidently. “We're well into the Atlantic now. There's nothing the Germans have with the range to get us. We're safe.”
“Thank God for that.” Gabrielle breathed out a sigh of relief. “I wasn't looking forward to another set-to with machine-guns. Once was enough.”
“Me too.” Zena leaned over to put her gloved hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. “Don't worry, I won't let that happen again. Relax. Say! You won't be hungry, after that awful breakfast you had, but I'm famished. There's some ham sandwiches in a hamper back in the lower deck, I think. See ya later.”
“Always your stomach, Zena.” The blonde pilot shook her head despondently at the disappearing rear-end of her co-pilot. “What'll you be like when you're forty-five?”
“As svelte as Greta Garbo, dearie.” The New Zealand twang seemed curiously distorted by the echo in the fuselage compartment. “ You'll be jealous, of course.”
“Ha! Wait'll you come back, lady.” Gabrielle laughed easily and gently. “I'll have an answer for you, don't worry.”
They had been flying for a little over an hour and a half when Zena began to get restless. Something was playing on her mind.
“Gabrielle, we've been flying into nowhere more'n an hour now.” The dark-haired woman glanced out her side-window again. “So, what range did you say this palace-on-wings has?”
“Don't sound so scared, Zena.” The pilot's chuckle was rich and soft. “I'll take care of you. Seventeen hundred miles. And we have four drums of extra fuel in the body of the plane connected to the fuel lines. That'll give us, erm, two thousand two hundred miles. That enough, ma'am?”
“Hummph! It'll do, I suppose.” Zena allowed herself a little pout. “Why didn't ya tell me about the extra fuel?”
“Ha, you'd only have bent my ear, over the last peaceful hour, about all the possible dangers; that's all.” Gabrielle glanced at her co-pilot. “See, I know you.”
Zena forbore to reply.
Half an hour later Zena looked up from her charts; sucked the point of her pencil thoughtfully; and shuffled in her seat to reach a spot she desperately wanted to scratch.
“We should be closing in on the battleship in about 15 minutes, Gabs.” She continued twisting in her seat. The only result being one of her charts falling at her feet. “Damn, can't reach it.”
“What the hell are you up to, lady?”
“I've got an itch, real bad.”
“Ha!” Gabrielle shrugged dispassionately. “Too bad. I ain't goin' to scratch it for you, that's for sure.”
Just as this disgraceful badinage was showing signs of developing into an outright fiasco the radio burst into life with a loud crackle. It had been turned back on long since, but still made both women jump with its strident unexpectedness.
“ Charlie Base to DAO-17. Over. Sending wildbirds. Over. Make contact. ”
Gabrielle sat and looked at the radio speaker on the dashboard. Zena looked at the attached microphone on its long cord. Then they both looked at each other.
“Expecting visitors are you, dearest?” Zena chose to be off-hand. “Why didn't you say so. I could have had the cucumber sandwiches ready.”
“I don't know—”. Gabrielle peered at the radio; then at the empty ocean out the window; then back at Zena. “Who can it be? Is it Jerry? What do they want?”
Zena had suddenly leaned down and was scrabbling at her feet, trying to recover the chart and the telegraph message with its details.
“Half a minute.” The co-pilot got herself back into order and settled back in her seat, the telegraph in her hand. “It says here—I think it says here—yes, it says here—”
“God, Zena, pull yourself together!” Gabrielle couldn't stand people dithering. “What? What? What does it say there?”
“Charlie Base.” Zena took a deep breath and pulled herself together, as ordered. “That's the code-name for HMS Harvey. And wildbirds are—are—it's here somewhere, I saw it—are Hurricanes. Jesus, where'd they come from?”
“This is gettin' to be a very strange situation altogether, Zena.”
“ Charlie Base to DAO-17. Make contact. Wildbirds active. Repeat, make contact. Over. ”
Gabrielle took a firmer hold on her control-wheel and jiggled her goggles on her forehead. Now was the time for all decisive commanders to take decisive command; and Gabrielle knew how to pass the buc—devolve decision taking into the hands of the lower management echelons, when necessary.
“Well, don't just sit there, Zena.” The pilot assumed the requisite tone of command. “You're the navigator. You deal with radio messages. Go to it. And—be nice!”
Grabbing the microphone in a tight grip—Zena had a vision of Gabrielle's neck—the navigator shuffled in her seat; glanced at her chart and telegraph message for inspiration; cleared her throat; avoided Gabrielle's sarcastic stare; and started talking.
“DAO-17 to Charlie Base. Received message. Arrival about— Jee-suus! What the hell!”
Zena had broken off as no less than three Hurricanes blasted past on the Sunderland's port side; at a range that would have allowed the pilots to shake hands with the women, if either woman had been mad enough to put a hand out a window. One Hurricane roared under the Sunderland's port wing, while the two others whizzed over it. They had come from the port rear-side so were now racing away ahead of the startled women.
Zirr! Zirr! Zirr! Zirr! Zirr! Zirr!
From the Sunderland's nose gun-turret came the awful tearing noise of the Browning guns letting rip.
“ God Almighty! What next?” Gabrielle fiddled with the radio-switch on her mask. “Cease firing, you idiot! Cease firing! Don't fire, you f- - -ing fool!”
The gun-turret fell silent; its steaming gun-barrels visibly exuding embarrassment.
Both women, as if possessed by a forewarning, gazed at the canvas grille of the radio. They didn't have long to wait.
“ Charlie Base to DAO-17. Stop firing. Friendlies. Repeat friendlies. Have you lost your mind? Friendly Wildbirds. Repeat friendly Wildbirds. Cease firing. Come round on course 127 magnetic. Charlie Base 11 miles distant. Repeat 11 miles distant. Swiss Cottage accompanying. Repeat Swiss Cottage accompanying. Over. ”
“I bet there's a moral in this, Gabrielle.” Zena was, to put it bluntly, stunned.
“Swiss Cottage. Swiss Cottage.” Gabrielle, on the other hand, was scorching with rage. She, after all, was in command and would certainly have to explain matters to someone high in authority at a later date. “I've heard that before. You mentioned it last night, when you were going over the instructions. It's in that telegraph, somewhere. Find it, please.”
Zena kept a politic silence as she scanned the detailed instructions for the umpteenth time. And found what they wanted.
“Yeah, Swiss Cottage.” She frowned at the scrawled words in her hand-writing. “It's—a ship-code. I'll need'ta consult the blue-book, Gabrielle. You've got it.”
The blue-book was a top-secret code-book, supplied to them by the SOE, containing the month's codes for a variety of ships in the Royal Navy. Gabrielle leaned down to open a locker at her knee, and extracted the familiar volume.
“Thanks.” Zena opened it and began flicking through the pages. “H—L—P—here it is—S. Er, er, er,— Oh, My God! ”
Gabrielle sat back from vainly scanning the horizon. It looked as if the Hurricanes had decided the better part of valour was to stay as far away from the Sunderland as they could get.
“God, what now?”
“Swiss Cottage, Gabrielle.” Zena's tone was hushed-respectful-in fact, frightened. “Swiss Cottage is HMS Redoubtable!”
“HMS Redoubtable?” Gabrielle looked at her partner, dumbfounded. “Zena, HMS Redoubtable is an aircraft-carrier!”
“I see them.” Zena had been scouring the horizon with narrowed eyes for the last five minutes, while a tense unhappy silence pervaded the cockpit. “Two ships, three degrees to port. A bloody big battleship, and a bloody big aircraft-carrier!”
In another minute Gabrielle had eased the wheel a touch; veered to port; and brought the Sunderland's head round. The two ships, three thousand feet below, still seemed gigantic. Both vessels were still and immobile in the water; obviously awaiting the arrival of the Sunderland. Of the escort of Hurricanes nothing could be seen.
“Tell ‘em I'm landing to starboard of the battleship, Zena.” Gabrielle consulted her gauges, and glanced at her co-pilot. “Let's make up for a bad start, and show them how to really land a Sunderland!”
Ten minutes later the flying-boat was bouncing and scraping over the rather choppy water. The waves, out there in the ocean, weren't particularly high, but they were widely spaced. This meant the plane's hull tended to crash across them in great shuddering thumps. But finally they came to a standstill, some one hundred and fifty yards from the starboard side of the battleship. The aircraft-carrier towered into the sky some quarter of a mile away. And already two launches were on their way from the grey side of the vast fighting-ship, heading towards the flying-boat.
“Doesn't look as if we're gon'na be invited on board for tea and cocktails, Zena.” Gabrielle glanced at her friend, with a green gleam of humour in her eye. “D'you suppose it was something we said?”
“Ha! Damn right, sister.” Zena affected to wipe her brow. “Didn't wan'na meet the Captain, anyway. Figure he'd only have harped on about Hurricanes, and the appropriate etiquette.”
“So, it looks like it's gon'na be the old land—pickup—get-the-hell-out'ta-here routine, then?” Gabrielle switched on her internal radio again. “Listen everybody. And yeah, that does mean you in the front gun-turret, too. Two launches approaching from port, with gifts, sugar and spice, wine from the vineyards of Spain, and someone secret as our passenger. No-one asks him anything. No-one engages him in conversation. No-one asks him how the war's going. No-one starts discussing with him what chance Everton have in the final. Everyone stays stum. Got it?”
There was a series of crackly replies as the crew reported their disinclination to notice the passenger's presence; then Gabrielle leaned back and turned to examine the activities of her co-pilot. These, while Gabrielle had been otherwise engaged, were curious and somewhat startling. First Zena had been idly watching the front launch as it approached over the choppy sea. Then she had glanced through the open communicating door of the flight deck to the upper cabin, to see if the two crew-men there were on their way to the lower deck to open the side-door in the fuselage. Then she had returned to her idle spectating role; a moment later she stiffened and sat straight in her seat. She had glanced twice at Gabrielle, but not said anything. Zena had then taken a really good look at the approaching launch. After which, as Gabrielle had concluded her motivational speech to the crew, Zena had leaned down to drag a pair of binoculars from the small locker at her feet. These she raised to her eyes and examined the distant launch again with what could only, to Gabrielle's interested gaze, be called fervour. Then Zena turned to her commander, a curious expression on her face.
“Gabrielle, how would ya like to take a gander at that launch?” Zena spoke with a faraway tone, as if not crediting her own eyes. “The one in the lead. Take a good look. Here, take the glasses.”
“OK, Zena. What am I looking for? Peeling paint, or unpolished shoes, or what?”
Gabrielle adjusted the lenses; brought the required object into view, which wasn't easy with both vessels rocking in the swell; then focussed on the launch.
“So, what have we got?” She was relaxed and rather inclined to see the funny side of things now. “A standard Navy launch. Bouncing about like a leaf in the wind. Seems quite crowded, about six people on board. At least one's sporting a rather elegant uniform. There's a bulky fat man standing, holding on to the edge of the saloon window. Heavily built. Doesn't look like a sailor. Balding,—God, these binoculars are good—no neck to speak of. Rounded fattish face. Looks like a bulldog. Oh, My God! ”
“It's Winston, Gabrielle. It's Winston.”
“God! It is. It is. It's Winston!”
Mr Churchill leapt from the bow of the launch to the flying-boat's open door sill with the easy simplicity of someone who was far more athletic than he at first appeared. A moment later he was in the relative comfort of the plane's lower cabin, where several temporary seats had been fixed. It was certainly not home; but it was somewhere to stay for a few hours. The man in the fancy uniform, now recognisable as no less than a Rear-Admiral, followed at his heels. Completing the group was a tall man in civilian clothes and a bowler hat, and a couple of dubious looking characters who were probably the heavy mob protecting the great man. It was, in fact, an entourage.
One of the extra two crewmen, now revealed as cabin staff, banged the outer door closed; turned to clamber up the short ladder to the upper deck; made his way to the cockpit door, which was still open; gave Zena a thumbs-up, and reported.
“Mr Churchill aboard and comfortable, ma'am.” He was a young Londoner, and looked a trifle unsure of his next move. “What do we do with him now, ma'am?”
Gabrielle looked at Zena. Zena looked at Gabrielle. It was Gabrielle who had the brainwave.
“Keep him happy. Yeah, keep him happy.” The blonde pilot looked intently at Zena, as if to forestall any argument. “Give him what he wants, when he wants it. Don't mention Hurricanes under any circumstances. And don't forget to keep saluting that Rear-Admiral. That's what Rear-Admirals are for. Kind'a ceremonial, y'know. Go. Go!”
The young man shot a worried look at Zena, then departed to his unexpected duties.
“I bet those instructions'll be a lot of help to him.” Zena shook her head, and shuffled her charts. “I suppose you'll be wanting a course for Oban, ma'am?”
“Button your lip an' do your duty, co-pilot.” Gabrielle assumed as much of an official tone as she was capable of. “We've got the Big Man on board and I mean to—to—to,—Oh God, Zena. What are we gon'na do? It's Winston. Why couldn't he have picked someone else's plane?”
“Probably because we're the only plane capable of transporting him within five hundred miles.” Zena shrugged her shoulders, and settled more firmly in her seat. “OK. From now on we got'ta be careful, very careful. I've got the Oban course ready—198 degrees for, lem'me see, three hundred and eighty miles. How's take-off looking?”
Gabrielle leaned forward to look out the windscreen and down to the launches. Both boats had pulled away from the vicinity of the flying-boat, heading back to the battleship. The waves were low; widely spread, and gentle. The wind also was light, from the North-West. All four Pegasus engines seemed to be operating sweetly. Gabrielle pushed the throttle-levers forward and revved the engines. Treading gently on the foot-lever she lowered the flaps a fraction; revved the engines higher; glanced to both sides; then throttled fully open and let the huge plane gain forward momentum. In thirty seconds the Sunderland was racing across the surface, leaving a wide white wake behind it. The take-off, unlike that earlier, was so smooth Zena had to glance out her window to make sure they had actually left the sea below them. Then the vast machine climbed into the cloudy sky like a gull on the wing.
“Nicely done, Gabrielle, nicely done.”
They had been flying for half an hour with no problems when Zena made a round of the crew by internal radio, to see how they were holding up. All had answered except for the two cabin crew, who could be expected to have their hands full with the officials. About ten minutes afterwards there was the sound of movement in the upper deck cabin behind the cockpit, then came a discreet knock on the door which opened to reveal one of the cabin crew.
“Rear-Admiral Garrow, ladies.”
He disappeared, and in another moment the close-cropped head of an officer stood in the quite wide space behind the two seats. He was not wearing a cap, so neither Zena nor Gabrielle tried to salute.
“Thought I'd say hello, ladies.” He was surprisingly young for his rank. Maybe early forties. And had quite an easy grin. “Bit of a mess all round, gettin' everyone aboard at short notice. But, er, the Colonel needs to be down South by tomorrow.
“We were–surprised—at our passenger, sir.” Zena tried to camouflage her inquisitive tone under the cloak of an explanation. “We were expecting a Colonel Warden. A real Colonel Warden, sir. The code name ‘ Colonel Warden ' isn't in our code-book, sir.”
“Colonel Warden isn't in anyone's code-book, madam.” The Rear-Admiral gave both women a sharp gimlet look. “Let's keep it that way, eh!”
The women exchanged glances. Zena wondering what the etiquette for keeping a Rear-Admiral happy was. Gabrielle wondering when the painful subject of Hurricanes would come up. Thankfully the officer had other things on his mind.
“Our, er, passenger asked if I could convey his wish to come forward to visit you both. In situ, as it were.” The Rear-Admiral looked from one to the other, obviously expecting an affirmative. “He won't be any bother, I assure you. Knows his way around these sort of crates as if he owned the damn things. Which, of course, he pretty well does, eh!”
“Er, er, we'd be honoured to have him visit, sir.” Gabrielle regained the use of her vocal chords, and tried not to stutter. “Does he want to come up now? We're easy at the moment, sir.”
“Excellent.” The officer turned, to step back to the cockpit door. “Won't be five minutes.”
There was a silence after his exit that could have been cut with a knife; then Gabrielle took up the burden of command again.
“What do we do?”
“Keep saying sir.” Zena hunched up in her seat, trying to fold her charts into some sort of respectable order. There were several pencils and pens littering the cockpit floor in the immediate vicinity of their feet, but she couldn't do anything about them now. “Nod your head at everything he says, an' don't get into a long discussion or, God forbid, an argument. And, for God's sake, don't mention the War!”
“Don't ment—are you mad, Zena?”
Gabrielle only had time to cast a single agonised glance at her gibbering co-pilot, then all chance of further private conversation was gone. Winston had arrived amongst them.
“It is not-aarrm-the usual consequence of a pilot that their-aar-passengers should visit on such easy terms of social–ah-acquaintance.” Winston had a broad, almost childishly eager, smile for both women. “But I always find—aaaarmm—that on board an aircraft such as the present I enjoy a—huumph—direct meeting with the members of the crew.”
“We're glad to have you on board, er, sir.” Gabrielle glanced from her instruments to the bulky figure standing so close his hand, clasping the edge of her seat, brushed her arm. “Everything's going well. We should be in Oban in another two hours or so.”
“That is very good.” The great man nodded, quite at home as he glanced at the instruments then through the windscreen. “And how are the-aaamm-Pegasus engines running? I believe they are the same type which you were accustomed to on—aarmph—your old Walrus?”
Both Zena and Gabrielle couldn't stop the glance of surprise that flickered between them. Winston saw it too, and gave one of his throaty rumbling laughs.
“Haaa! You see! I am up to the mark, am I not.” He seemed pleased at the result his remark had made. “It would not be very—aauuum—intelligent for a—uuum—Prime Minister to be in the dark about the important issues, would it?”
“It's, er, very kind of you to take the trouble, sir.” Zena tried to think of something halfway sensible to say. “We hope your flight will be comfortable. We're sorry there are such Spartan fittings down in the cabin. The seats are rather uncomfortable, I think.”
Winston closed his lips. A small frown showed he was thinking, or remembering. Then he looked squarely into Zena's face.
“New Zealand. I know that accent. I have friends who are from New Zealand.” Then he turned to Gabrielle. “Never fear about the conditions. I am used to worse—aaah—much worse. I knew it was a good idea to form the Air Transport Auxiliary, and to open it to—aaarr—women of your capacity.”
“Thank you, sir.” Gabrielle was taking Zena up on her order to say ‘sir' as much as possible. It couldn't hurt.
“Even if my transport takes it—aaamm—upon itself to shoot all my carefully hoarded Hurricanes out of the—uumm—sky.” Winston allowed his smile to broaden into a short grin. Then he pouted in that way so familiar to millions of Britons. “But—aaarrm—perhaps it would have been worse if you—huuumph—had not fired at all, eh!”
“We were—a little too enthusiastic, sir.” Gabrielle felt her face reddening. “I ought to—”
“Enthusiastic!” Winston gave one of his hearty grunts, which echoed in the confines of the cockpit. “I would be glad ladies, if—aarrmph—a damn sight more of my military forces were as, er, enthusiastic as you. It would help the war effort no end. I have every confidence in you both. Well, I must get back to my berth downstairs. It would not—huuumph—do to keep you both from your duties. Thank you for this—uuurm—most enjoyable conversation.”
With this last remark he turned, with a short gesture of his right hand which was so familiar to both women, went to the rear door and carefully descended the few steps from the cockpit to the upper cabin. Another hand grasped the edge of the connecting-door and closed it quietly: Winston's visit was over.
Oban appeared in the early afternoon. They had steered a rather complex course, aided by Zena's navigation, which took them over the northern edge of the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides; down the greater part of the Minch; across the northern edge of the Isle of Skye; down the Sound of Raasaay and the Inner Sound; across the southern part of Skye, with the high Cuillins rising into the sky on their starboard side; then gaining height to fly over the mountains of western Scotland on an almost directly southern course till the open waters of Loch Linnhe spread out before them, with Oban nestled on the coast on the far side. Oban, as Zena remarked, with its peculiar circular hilltop folly that so resembled a smaller Roman Coliseum.
Although Oban was a beautiful place, it was for them merely a fuelling stop. The enclosed waters of the Loch gave Gabrielle no trouble; her landing being text-book in its perfection. A small tug brought them alongside the old freighter which served as a Navy fuel-depot. Long canvas pipes were unwound and fitted to the taps on the underside of the wing; and fuelling commenced, while the engines were still hot; though they had been switched off for safety reasons. Mr Churchill made no move to make himself publicly known, and word came from the Rear-Admiral that Zena or Gabrielle stepping ashore for a stroll would not be necessary. An hour later Gabrielle revved her engines, and took the Sunderland out into the main channel. Five minutes more and the green and rocky panorama of the Scottish hills once again flashed underneath the speeding aircraft as it headed on south; this time for the Firth of Clyde and its over-night resting place at Greenock.
“Nae. Nae. There's nae chance at aw' o' ye gangin' ashore, leddies.” The middle-aged grey-haired man shook his head firmly. “Yee'll be stayin' aboard the machine, I'm thinkin'. Sure an' there'll be a pretty warm nook for yer heeds in that fancy shiiip.”
His Scottish accent was so strong Zena had given up trying to understand. Gabrielle herself could only vaguely catch the drift of what he was saying. They could not argue or ignore him, however, because he wore the uniform of a Navy Captain; and so out-ranked them. Apparently, although Mr Churchill and his entourage had been quickly taken ashore and whisked away to a secret overnight destination, the Sunderland was too important to be left abandoned. Zena and Gabrielle, as the officers, would need to see to its safety through the hours of darkness; till Winston arrived back in the morning for the next leg of his journey south. Even their own crew had been dispersed to barracks ashore.
“Weel, it's eight o' the clock now. I must be gangin' on my way. G'nicht t' ye both.”
The Captain looked at his watch and turned to the Sunderland's hull door. Outside, his launch waited to transport him back to dry ground and a warm bed after his duty was done. His duty having been to inform Zena and Gabrielle they were required to stay on the flying-boat all night, for security reasons. A last wave; a roar as the launch's engine sputtered into life; then the diminishing whine as it disappeared across the wide bay towards Greenock. The ladies were on their own, on the gently bobbing flying-boat. Neither was ecstatic about it.
“There's a small kitchen, what the jolly tars call a galley, in the rear of the lower deck, Zena.” Gabrielle decided to make the best of a bad job. “If we take the cushions off those seats, an' get the blankets out the storage cupboards on the upper deck, we could make our beds up there; more space. How d'you fancy beans an' bacon an' coffee?”
“You see to the beans. I'll only burn ‘em.” Zena heaved a sigh, as she looked around the dim interior of the lower deck. “I'll heat the coffee. I know, we can pretend we're in the Ritz. Won't that be just spiffing!”
“That sarcastic tone'll get you nowhere, lady.” Gabrielle viewed the situation rationally. “Bacon n'beans in ten minutes. Coffee whenever you choose. Jump to it, Zena. Hungry pilot here!”
Where the lights of the large port town of Greenock usually glittered over the calm waters of the Firth there was instead an empty void; the blackout was in full force. Every light, without exception, was closely guarded behind thick black curtains; or simply not lit at all. This especially included all street lights. Even cars had, at night, dim hooded bulbs that were as much use for seeing the road ahead as a blind tortoise. There were no riding lights on the multitude of ships anchored at various points across the wide waters of the river Clyde. As Zena and Gabrielle sat later that evening, dangling their feet over the sill of the open hull door, they existed in the centre of a stygian darkness. Neither smoked cigarettes, so even that diminutive light was denied them. Gabrielle had thought about a small torch, but Zena had knocked that on the head. The ships and flying-boats were closely guarded and held to account by naval launches which did the rounds all night. But at least they could chat for a while, before heading to their makeshift beds on the upper deck. And it was a clear night, with an astonishing number of stars visible, because of the widespread blackout.
“I can see the Plough, and the Trapezium.” Gabrielle was staring intently into the sky where she sat in the cool evening; touching shoulders with Zena beside her. “An' that's the Pole Star. See it?”
“Yeah, stars. Wonderful.” Zena was unimpressed. She was separated from any hope of a real bed, and feeling the loss. “I think you'll find they're everywhere. Pity we can't see the town. It'd at least be something to stare at.”
“Are you a city gal, then?” Gabrielle was content. She had enjoyed the bacon and beans, and even Zena's coffee had been palatable. “Figured you for the outdoor pioneer-type. You know, riding a horse over those New Zealand mountains, chasing lost sheep and whatnot.”
Zena groaned at this ludicrous image. She had tried for months to make her friend understand that sheep were less visible there than most British people thought. It was those new refrigerator-ships, with their frozen cargoes of meat that had done the damage, she well knew.
“Gabrielle, you do not trip over sheep every twenty yards in New Zealand. How many times do I have to explain. It's a myth.” The dark-haired woman smiled in the darkness. “You'll have to come over and visit sometime, an' see for yourself. I'd like that; you visiting; it'd be fun.”
“Well, I was thinking of starting up a small freight air company, after the war.” Gabrielle's voice was quiet, as she mused on her future plans. “So maybe I could visit, at that. We'll see.”
“What got you into flying, in the first place?” Zena looked at the small form of her friend. “It ain't something every genteel, nice girl wants t'do, after all.”
“Ha, if Pops heard you say that he'd laugh like a hyena.” Gabrielle grinned at the recollection. “He's managing a factory down in South England at the moment. Well, he owns it and a couple of others, to be truthful. We've always had pots of money; an' I somehow just fell into flying by accident. One day I was driving my Morris along a country lane; passed a grass airfield with a couple of Gypsy Moths on it; next day I was up in one. Silly really.”
“It got ya here.” Zena remained silent a moment, then continued. “I'm glad of that. I wouldn't have met you otherwise. Friends ain't so numerous you can afford to pass one up; that's my motto.”
“Zena, that's sweet.” Gabrielle put a hand on the New Zealand woman's arm. “An' you're my best friend, too. God, doesn't that sound cheesy when you say it out loud? Hope I don't disappoint your expectations.”
“Oh, you'll do.” Zena affected a lofty air. Then she changed the subject. “What'd ya think of all this undercover SOE business we seem t'have got mixed up in? Bit different from ferrying planes for the ATA.”
There was a short silence, broken only by the coughing rasp of a small engine as a Navy launch passed somewhere in the dark distance. The only other sound was the creak of the cable which attached the flying-boat to a buoy.
“Yeah, the SOE. Everyone keeps telling us that any operation we've just risked our lives to complete never actually happened.” Gabrielle sounded a little miffed-unhappy-displeased-in fact, fed up with it all. “When this war's over, an' my grandchildren ask me ‘ what did you do in the war, granny? '—do you know what I'll have to tell ‘em? Nothing, darlings, your dear old granny did nothing in the war! Ha!”
“Don't take it to heart, Gab.” Zena's voice sounded warm and relaxed. “Just think, in another six months we'll probably be back ferrying Hudsons an' Ansons from one grass airfield to another. That'll be something to tell the kids. Think of them running up an' down in the street with their pals, shouting out ‘ Ma can fly, Ma can fly!—well, sort of! ”
“Ha!” Gabrielle leaned over and lightly punched the arm of the dark silhouette beside her. “I'm a better pilot than you, any day, ducks. An' before you can have kids you got'ta be married. Well, usually. An' there ain't anyone in sight yet, I can tell you that Zena. Well, not of the requir—say, auumph, ain't it time you were in bed? Remember, it's late an' we got Winston to think about. You close the door, an' I'll see to the blankets upstairs. An' mind all the windows are curtained; the blackout, y'know. Hurry up!”
“Yes, ma'am. Anyone'd think we were married t'each other.” Zena heaved a sigh, ignoring the clatter as Gabrielle tripped at these words on her way up to the upper deck. “I'll just lock the kitchen door, in case tramps break in and steal our breakfast. And I won't forget to put the cat out. Shall I—oh, she's gone!”
“Zena, move your ass! It's chilly up here.”
“Yes, ma'am. Coming.”
“That's what it says in the telegraph instructions.” The dark-haired navigator spoke testily. The argument had been continuing for ten minutes. “Fly south-east, towards Hull, until further orders. That's all!”
Mr Churchill and his entourage had returned early that morning. Everyone else had scrambled aboard in the fullness of time, and the Sunderland had been re-fuelled once more. A naval launch had escorted the idling flying-boat to the centre of the required channel in the wide, and extremely busy, waters of the Firth of Clyde. And a few minutes later, again with the hair-raising help of a launch, they were airborne again on the last leg of their epic journey. The only question being, where were they headed?
“Hull is on the river Humber.” Gabrielle seemed to be re-calling long-forgotten geography lessons. “What does Winston want to go there for?”
“It's a hive of industry now, Gab.” Zena grasped the salient fact of the matter. “Big factories churning out all kinds of war material. Probably lot'sa local bigwigs and councillors who need to be oiled up an' fawned over, y'know. A bit like me tryin' t'get you out'ta bed most mornings.”
“Ho-ho! I'm laughing. Well, I suppose that must be it.” The blonde pilot was not very much appeased. “It ain't a very wide river, if I remember. And it'll probably be packed with shipping. Where I'll find space to land this monster, I don't know.”
Their primary course would eventually take them over the Southern Uplands which, in contradiction to their name, actually ran across the country just north of the border between Scotland and England; being, in fact, nowhere near southern England at all. Then it would simply be a straight run south-east till they reached Hull. But the women's thoughts were quickly interrupted by an intervention from another sphere; the radio.
“ DAO-17. Wildbirds approaching from south-west. DAO-17. Wildbirds on way. Escort. Over. ”
“Goddam.” Zena grabbed the radio microphone hastily. “DAO-17. Message received and understood. Repeat, message understood. Out.”
“Listen up, everyone.” Gabrielle had switched on her intercom radio. “We're about to get an escort of Hurricanes, coming up from the south-west. No firing. No firing. Is that understood?”
Several crackly replies came, clarifying that none of the gun-turrets or other machine-guns would be so impolite as to shoot at the Hurricanes this time. Both women had hardly breathed a sigh of relief when there was a buzz outside and no less than four fighters hove into view, arranging themselves two on the port and two on the starboard wings of the Sunderland.
“I should feel happy; but it just makes me far more nervous, Zena.” Gabrielle shook her head as she gave the planes the once over. “Before, by ourselves, we were just a lone speck in the sky nobody was interested in. Now, we're a target!”
Before Zena could offer words of consolation; if, in fact that was ever her intention, the rear cabin door clicked open to admit a visitor.
“A fine morning ladies.” Rear-Admiral Garrow shut the cabin door and walked up to the front of the relatively spacious flight-deck. He was again in full regalia. “Blue sky, few clouds, low wind. Oh, and I see our escort has arrived. Good show. Perfect flying conditions, eh?”
“They would be, if we knew where we were going, sir.” Zena took up the argument the two women had been engaged with. “Hull's easy, sir, but where to after that? The instructions we have stop short there.”
“That's why I'm here now, ladies.” The officer took a couple of folded documents from one of his capacious pockets and handed them to Zena. “Hull was only ever a decoy; we were never going there at all! These papers will give the last leg of our journey for you to follow.”
Zena had unfolded the instruction-sheet and supplementary map and was already poring over them.
“The Wash, sir?” She carried on reading. “Snettisham Beach. Never heard of it. But the directions are accurate. I can have Gabrielle put us down on a silver sixpence right near the beach, sir.”
“Glad to hear it.” The Rear-Admiral nodded contentedly. “Well, must get back to our Important Person. eh. See you later.”
The door clicked shut behind the resplendent figure, and the women were alone once more.
“We'll be flying almost directly over our old airfield, Zena.” Gabrielle looked on the bright side. “Remember the Hudson, an' that night-flight to France?”
“Don't I just!” Zena was concentrating on the new directions, and scribbling on her unfolded chart. “Right, head south-east 173 degrees. At our present height an' speed we'll hit the Wash in—two hours an' ten minutes.”
“Right. Lincolnshire, here we come.”
“Norfolk actually, Gabrielle.” The navigator liked to be precise about these things. “Look. It's marked on this large-scale map here, along with the directions. South shore of the Wash; Snettisham beach.”
They, the Sunderland and its accompanying four Hurricanes, had been flying for nearly two hours and were now somewhere over Lincolnshire. The large flying-boat, under Gabrielle's control, was cruising at something near its maximum speed of around 200mph; whilst the escorting fighters had been restricting their high spirits, being capable of around 340mph when required. It was Zena, being the navigator after all, who first spotted their destination breaking the horizon.
“Is there a fly in my eye, or is that the Wash dead ahead?” She liked to pretend her navigation skills were more accident than design. “Well, ain't that grand!”
“Yeah, you got us here.” Gabrielle played along, with a smile. “Probably another lucky guess. So, where's the exact location we need'ta land. The bay looks—well, like a bay. No features.”
“Change course two degrees to starboard.” Zena read from her tattered notebook, where she had scribbled a multitude of calculations, not all correct by any means. “The far shore of the bay has several long beaches. The one we want is about a mile and a half long, made of white sand. There's just dunes otherwise, up and down the coast. Three minutes on this course should bring us right on top of it.”
“OK. What about our passengers?” Gabrielle's mind was busy working on all aspects of the flight. “They'll need to be told to get ready.”
“Half a mo.” Zena switched on the internal intercom on her helmet mouthpiece. “Co-pilot to waist-gunner. Go tell the two cabin staff we're nearly there. Tell ‘em to get the passengers ready for landing and disembarkation. OK?”
“ Port waist-gunner. Got'cha. Landing. Tell cabin crew. OK. Out. ”
“So, what kind'a landing are ya gon'na give us this time?” Zena grinned broadly. “Bit of a dodgy take-off yesterday, with that launch an' all. Then a coupl'a average ones. So, what's next?”
Gabrielle grunted sarcastically. She knew what she was doing. The Sunderland was a four-engined monster that tended to waddle at times, but she had its number down pat now.
“OK, I see the beach. Good job the bay's not all that wide.” She was staring out the windscreen intently, judging weather conditions on the surface of the somewhat cold-looking water below. “Grey, a little choppy, a few white-horses, wind is ten miles an hour up here; probably less at sea level. No other boats in sight, except for a coupl'a launches near the north end of the beach. See ‘em? Look, the Hurricanes are peeling off an' going home, too. Can't say I'm sorry! OK, let's take this baby down.”
The massive plane, under the delicate touch of Gabrielle's fingertips, soared across the sky in a wide descending curve which eventually brought its nose directly in line with the distant white beach. A fraction more and the plane veered slightly so that it directly paralleled the sand-dunes. Within a minute the hull of the flying-boat was low enough to cast a flickering shadow on the short waves below. Another moment and the first gentle bump of contact vibrated through the airframe. Another slight skidding bump, then the hull was deep in the water and the wing-pontoons were casting fine showers of white water high in the air. Thirty seconds later the bow of the flying-boat dipped slightly; a wash of white foamy water spread out in front of the plane; and they came to a standstill.
Gabrielle throttled back on the four Bristol Pegasus engines; leaving just enough power to taxi across the more or less calm water towards the distant sloping beach. From the north came the chugging splutter of the approaching launches. Before either Zena or Gabrielle had unfastened their safety-belts the boats arrived beside the hull door, and the women could hear the easy chatter of the cabin crew as they sorted out the routine for the passengers transfer.
“A very nice landing, ladies.” The cabin door, at the far end of the roomy cockpit, had opened once more to reveal the grinning form of Rear-Admiral Garrow. “We're all very much obliged.”
“Glad to be of, er, service to Mr Chur—er, I mean Colonel Warden, sir.” Gabrielle still sat in her seat, the engines idling gently but noisily just outside. “Hope you all had a good journey. We're glad to help.”
The Rear-Admiral looked at both ladies, then glanced around the well-used cockpit. Various pieces of equipment were fastened to hooks and straps on the curving walls. There were anonymous metal boxes, with closed lids, on either side of the wide floor. The two pilots seats were festooned in canvas and straps of varying kinds. And the floor was indiscriminately covered with a light scattering of loose scraps of paper; broken pencils; and crumpled wrappers of several chocolate bars which had given their lives to the sustenance of the needy crew. In short, the cockpit was a mess. Neither woman was house-proud in any obvious way; but they both began to blush.
“Damn fine show. Good, er, piloting altogether.” The young man nodded, as if thankful to have done the necessary in politeness; then turned to business again. “A squad of soldiers have come aboard from the launches. They'll look after the security of the plane for the next few hours. Today, I mean, and most of tomorrow; while you're away. So you can turn the engines off, er, Miss Parker. You're both coming with us.”
“Wassat, sir?” Gabrielle was once more non-plussed. “Don't you want us to take the Sunderland to another base, then? Are we gon'na wait for Mr Ch—Colonel Warden, to take another flight with us?”
The Rear-Admiral gave a short laugh, then came forward to crane his head to look back out the port side-window where Zena still sat.
“Damn, the engines are in the way. Can't see the launch at all.” He stepped back and shrugged his shoulders. “No, Colonel Warden has a destination in mind. Not too far from where we are at the moment. He decided—we decided—he decided, you both merited accompanying us there. He is fully aware of your previous activities—your history—with that, er, Department which shall remain nameless. There is someone he wants you both to meet, who'll be most interested in your work. The first launch must surely be away by now. So come along, show a leg—er sorry, hurry along, that is. Can't keep Colonel Warden waiting, y'know. He starts swearing something awful, if he's kept waiting.”
Exchanging a curious look with her pilot Zena squirmed in her seat in order to release her safety-belt. Gabrielle throttled back all four engines; took a glance to port and starboard; then switched the engines off. There was a tapering whine; the propellers suddenly became distinct as they whirled round; then they too stopped. There followed a deathly silence, except for the now audible lapping of the gentle waves against the plane's hull. Rear-Admiral Garrow stood back to allow the ladies to exit the cockpit into the upper cabin ahead of him.
At the hull door Zena and Gabrielle both saw the first launch, with its valuable cargo of Colonel Warden and most of his entourage, was already well on its way shoreward. The women could also now see a convoy of black saloon cars waiting above the beach, on what must have been some sort of track or lane. The second launch now lay at the hull door awaiting their arrival. This was accomplished with a minimum of exertion and within seconds they were themselves on their way to the sandy beach.
“The rest of the crew will be taken to a billet ashore to spend the night; don't worry about them.”
The Rear-Admiral sat at the stern of the open launch, where a bench crossed the width of the boat. Zena and Gabrielle sat on another bench, just at the back of the semi-enclosed steering area.
“So, where are we goin', sir?” Zena was curious, and focussed the Navy officer with her bright blue eyes. An action he seemed to find disconcerting. “This place seems to be the back of beyond. What is there in Norfolk worth, er, Colonel Warden visiting, if I may ask, sir?”
“ Jesus! ”
“Where's that? What's that?” Zena looked from the Navy man to her blonde companion, who had just exclaimed in such an un-ladylike manner. “An' what's up with you, Gabrielle? Is it some millionaire's pad; who needs oiling with the old soft soap? Sorry, sir.”
“I don't know about his monetary situation.” The Rear-Admiral smiled quietly. “But I can assure you he needs no oiling at all. His heart is fully engaged with the course of the war, as it is.”
“God, Zena. It's Sandringham . Don't you know?” Gabrielle grasped the arm of her friend and stared into her face. “It's the country house where the Royal Family go to relax in private.”
“What! What!” Zena gasped in absolute astonishment, looking from the Navy officer to her friend. “Ya mean –ya mean—”
“Yeah,” Gabrielle hardly knew how she found her voice. “The King will be there. And the Queen, probably.”
“As a matter of fact, ladies, the whole Royal Family is there at the moment.” Rear-Admiral Garrow knew when he was in a position to spring the big one, and this was it. “I mean everyone ! The Queen Mother. The Princess's. The whole sheba—I mean the entire Royal Family. It's just a coincidence they're all together. Doesn't usually occur. But there are matters Win—Colonel Warden has to discuss with the King. So He's certainly there at the moment. And, er, Colonel Warden has made it known he wishes you to meet His Highness. He will be most interested, Colonel Warden tells me. So here we go.”
“God. I'm covered in oil—an' stink like a brewer's dray-horse after a long day.” Zena glanced down at her certainly disreputable attire. “This'll be a first.”
“Don't worry, ladies.” Garrow grinned widely. “You'll be amazed at just how down to earth they all are. Quite human, really. No-one will care about your, er, appearance. After all, there is a war on, y'know.”
“Zena?” Gabrielle seemed pre-occupied with some important personal question; her brow furrowed in deep thought.
“Yeah, what?” Zena had things on her mind too. “What is it?”
“How do we curtsy, when we're wearing flying-jackets an' dirty oily slacks?”
“Great God Almighty!”
Notes:— Rather than a whole fusillade of notes, which might take up several pages, I will just give a short footnote.
HMS Harvey and HMS Redoubtable are both fictional. Wherever Winston Churchill really was in January 1943, for the purpose of my story he was on a battleship in the North Atlantic awaiting the arrival of Zena and Gabrielle in their Sunderland. This is an Uberfic, after all!The air-route of the flying-boat is geographically accurate. As is the Wash; Snettisham beach; and the close proximity of Sandringham. All other details are as accurate as I could make them.
Return to the Academy