Summary:— This is an Uberfic set in England in 1942. Zena Mathews, a young New Zealand woman working as a pilot in the British Air Transport Auxiliary, is given a dangerous mission over enemy-occupied Europe; accompanied by her new navigator, Gabrielle Parker.
Disclaimer:— MCA/Universal/RenPics own all copyrights to everything related to ‘ Xena: Warrior Princess ' and I have no rights to them.
“But it's 6.30pm. I got a date with a corn-beef sandwich at the NAAFI, sir!” Zena Mathews frowned as she looked at the Flight-Lieutenant. “I'm just in from bringing a Spitfire up from the factory.”
“Well, now you have a date with Squadron Leader Braithwaite.” The officer was unmoved; perhaps he knew those sandwiches and thought he was doing the tall dark-haired woman a favour. “And he gets nervous if he has to wait more than an hour and a half. Cut along. Room 18B. Turn left at the Admin building, and it's the sixth on the left.”
Zena set off along the concrete-surfaced road, carrying her flying-helmet in her left hand. Her leather sheepskin-lined waist-length jacket, while comfortable at 14,000 feet, was hot and heavy at ground level; especially on a cloudless June afternoon in 1942. Her heavy boots and slacks didn't help either. The airfield was located in the flat plains, more accurately named fens, of central Lincolnshire and was the base for a fighter squadron. Zena had already ferried, in her capacity as a pilot in the Air Transport Auxiliary, several Spitfires and a couple of Lockheed Hudsons from various locations to the airfield over the last three weeks. She was beginning to be fed up with the now routine journeys and dreamed of some more interesting work coming her way as quickly as possible.
Room 18B turned out, of course, to be a large Nissen hut. Its perfectly bland and featureless flat brick frontage with two windows and a central door, coupled with the ubiquitous curved corrugated iron roof coming right down to ground-level on either side, made it absolutely indistinguishable from every other of the thousands of its sisters scattered over the fields of Britain. Zena grabbed the round door-knob and pushed heartily.
Inside, surprisingly, most of the windows had their curtains drawn; so there was a kind of twilight in the long room. Two wobbly-looking tables; a frame stand with a blackboard resting on it, showing a chalked map outline; a few scattered chairs; and three men and a woman, were the total complement of the hut. Zena only recognised one; Squadron Leader Gerald Braithwaite, a relatively approachable 28 year old with a restrained polite manner but easy sense of humour. The woman was not tall, with short blonde hair, and green eyes. She seemed to have quite a breezy manner, though she remained silent. She was also dressed much as Zena, in the general accoutrements of a female pilot of the ATA. The other two men looked to Zena like Government Air Ministry bigwigs.
“Ah, Flying-Officer Mathews.” Braithwaite obviously felt that getting down to brass tacks was the order of the day. “May I introduce Wing Commander Ericson and Group Captain Graham. And this is Flying-Officer Parker. We're all here because we have a little, er, business which we think you are suited to be part of. If we all take seats; these chairs will do nicely, just bring them forward in front of the blackboard, please. Fine. I'll let Wing Commander Ericson fill us in on the details.”
Ericson stepped forward and picked up a short wooden pointer resting on the ledge below the blackboard. For some reason Zena had the feeling he was in his proper element. She caught herself wondering if he had been a schoolteacher before the war. Zena was seated at the end of the row of chairs, with the others to her right, starting with Squadron Leader Braithwaite.
“First, I had better apologise for this sudden irruption into your routine, Flying-Officer Mathews.” Ericson contrived the skeleton of a smile, but only that. “However, duty calls. What we are faced with at the moment, I have to admit, is a problem—a damned difficult problem. Forgive me for seeming to begin a lecture, but I need to place the facts before you as succinctly as possible.
Today is the 18 th June. Tonight will be, if our weather-forecasters are on top of their game, a clear and starry night. Over on the outskirts of the airfield, in Hangar D to be precise, is a fully fuelled and armed Lockheed Hudson. In a few hours you Miss Mathews, along with Miss Parker, will be flying it over enemy-occupied France.—”
“Excuse me, Wing Commander,” Zena was startled by this sudden change to her evening's amusements. “I ain't—I mean I am not trained for active service. I'm not allowed to fly armed aircraft, sir.”
The RAF officer merely stuck his chin out in a determined manner, and waved a hand dismissively.
“For the duration of this mission you are permitted to attack; shoot at; injure or destroy, any enemy who gets in your way. That's an order. As for arms training—you get the enemy in your sights; push the red button; and try your damndest to blast the bugger out of the sky. Any more questions? Good, I'll get on, then. By the way, you have an accent I haven't come across before. Australian?”
“New Zealand, sir.”
“Ah, well.” Ericson turned to the blackboard, the polite niceties done with. “Here is a rather amateurish sketch of the general area you'll be heading for. You'll have the necessary maps when you fly, of course. I may say that we had someone else entirely lined up for this little assignment, but matters of an unavoidable nature intervened.—”
Zena hadn't spoken, but her raised eyebrow had caught the Wing Commander's attention.
“He was shot down two days ago.” Ericson paused to contemplate what was obviously not a happy memory. “Bad show all round. The idiot shouldn't have been allowed to fly; but he did; and, of course, met three Messerschmitt's for his trouble. End result, baled out over the Channel; broke his leg; fished out of the briny by one of our MTB's; now in hospital: damned bad show!
Anyway, the task in hand. You, Flying-Officer Mathews, will be the pilot. Flying-Officer Parker is going to be your right-hand man, and also operate the dorsal gun-turret. The crate's fully armed with two nose machine-guns and two more in the turret. The whole trip, if everything goes to plan, will be about four hours there and back. Take-off to be 1.30 ack-emma.
Now, here's the bones of the affair. You'll be flying out empty, just you and Miss Parker. The destination is a wide flat field in France near the coast, a smidgen south of the Belgium/France border. When you land there'll be a reception committee of some Resistance people. They have a man and a young woman, both Belgian. It is imperative they be safely transported to our shores as quickly as possible. So don't waste time in idle chat with the natives; get ‘em on board and take-off immediately, even if some fool's caught their tie in the door. We want you to fly low, but not too low. The original johnny we had lined up was an expert in low-flying. He could have flown a Hudson at head height all the way there and back. However we've given you, Miss Mathews, a little more lee-way. You mustn't fly higher than 150 feet, at any point in the outward or return journeys. We'd prefer, if you can see it possible, to keep below one hundred feet. What are your flying abilities in that area, by the way. Just curious, it won't have any effect on tonight's plans.”
Zena did the only thing she could in the circumstances, she shrugged somewhat indecisively.
“Well, sir.” She bit her lower lip in thought. “I once had to do an aborted landing in a Lancaster. Skimmed the edge of the landing strip; flew between a stand of oak trees, with branches rising on either side of my wing-tips; then had to keep that low for two miles while I tried to gain height. One of the engines had conked out with the strain, and a second was mis-firing. Took me about seven minutes, flying about thirty feet above the ground, to wheel back and bring her down on the strip again. I nearly crap—I mean, it was a close run thing. That's my experience in low-flying, sir.”
The Wing Commander nodded understandingly, then turned to the map again.
“Hmm. Well, anything's better than nothing. Though I have to warn you the terrain in the locale you'll be landing in is rather arboreal in nature, I'm afraid. Let's hope you don't find yourself re-living that experience. Now, to get on. I'll just give a bare outline of the route, and a sketch of the probable hot-spots for anti-aircraft guns or German night-fighters. So—”
“What d'ya think about this then, Gabrielle?”
Zena and her new partner, Gabrielle Parker, were standing in front of the main door of Hangar D. It was well past midnight and they would soon be climbing aboard the plane parked inside to start their night-flight. The hangar was illuminated by several oil lamps, though the level of light was not high. The bulk of the small aircraft within was more silhouetted than seen.
“I thought something was up 3 weeks ago, when I was taken off ferrying duties an' given a course in operating a Boulton & Paul gun-turret.” The blonde girl smiled broadly. “Not the sort'a thing I expected to be doing when I joined the ATA.”
“Yeah, it's strange they're using women as crew.” Zena frowned as she idly scraped a boot heel on the rough concrete runway under her feet. “I've tried to make sense of the logic; but I fancy there ain't any.”
“You any good with a Hudson?” Gabrielle glanced at the tall woman by her side. “Just asking. You aren't really goin' to fly at telegraph-pole height are you?”
“Hell, no.” Zena laughed, putting a comforting hand on her partner's shoulder. “Wouldn't know how. I'll try and keep to about 150 feet or so; but I ain't making any promises we won't be higher most'a the time. You any good at map-reading? Just asking. Don't wanna end up in Czechoslovakia!”
“Har-har.” Gabrielle snorted in outraged dignity. “I was the best navigator in my class, I'll let you know. I'll get you there an' back, don't worry. Of course, there were only five others in the class!”
The tail rose from the concrete smoothly, followed moments later by the two main wheels as the plane climbed away from the airfield into the night sky. Both women felt the thump as the hydraulics raised the wheels into their bays, and the covers closed on them. Zena gripped the joystick firmly as she carefully brought the aircraft round on the course given over the intercom by Gabrielle, sitting in the navigator's seat behind Zena.
Normally the plane would have a four-man crew. Pilot, co-pilot/bomb-aimer, navigator, wireless operator/gunner. Its capacious cabin, almost like that of a small commercial airliner, had room for about six passengers. Now, however, in the dark night, emptiness and shadows were the only inmates.
But there was a lot of noise. The two engines roared with energy, while the whole frame rocked and quivered; straining every nut and bolt. All sorts of extraneous noises could be heard in the cabin and pilot's seat as the plane settled into the long flight.
“Kind'a sounds like the old crate's about t'break up!” Gabrielle raised her voice as she came forward to stand behind Zena's seat.
“Yeah, these Hudson's always set up a racket.” Zena nodded happily. “They like t'let ya know they're working for a living. Don't worry, nothing bad'll happen. Come on, take the co-pilot's seat.”
“Hey, we're over the sea already.” Gabrielle was leaning to glance out the side window. “I see the moonlight glinting on the surface.”
“That's just the Wash.” Zena checked her altimeter and compass heading. “We'll cut across the edge of Norfolk in about one minute; then it'll be the real North Sea from then on.”
Gabrielle's carefully calculated course would take them over the coast of Holland; then a change in direction to cross part of Belgium, till they finally reached the border with France. At this point Gabrielle would have to be pin-point accurate, in order to find the landing strip: which was in fact only a large field, bordered on one side by a straggling wood. Not by any means a safe landing zone; even less so at night.
“OK, I'm goin' back to my little table an' my sums.” Gabrielle grinned widely at the dark shadowy form beside her. “I'll give you the course changes over the intercom.”
“Right.” Zena nodded, as the lithe shape of her navigator climbed out of the seat and disappeared into the cabin. “Ya got a gun? Fully loaded? You'll have to get out to contact the Resistance people and get our passengers inside. You'll need some protection.”
“Yeah, I'm packing enough guns t'make Calamity Jane envious.” Came the shouted reply from the plane's dark interior. “A Colt .32; a Smith & Wesson .38; an' a Webley .45 Service revolver. Want one?”
“Ha! Ya gonna finish this war all by yourself! OK, gim'me the Colt. I'll put it in my pocket, an' give ya back-up out the side-window if any nasty Nazi's pop outta the bushes. You any good with a revolver?”
There was a pause, then the reply came floating back to Zena amongst a myriad of airframe creaks and groans.
“Nah, sister. I couldn't hit a barn if you set me ten feet in front of it, with a Tommy-gun!”
“ Aaargh! ”
This cry was dragged from Gabrielle's suddenly dry throat by a passing shadow outside the plane. She had come to lean on the back of Zena's seat again, and was idly chatting as they passed over the low flatlands of Holland.
Suddenly, without warning, a solid dark shape flashed towards them from the encircling darkness; passed the plane on the right side, apparently within ten feet of the wing-tip: then was gone, as swiftly as it had appeared.
“What in Hell was that?” Gabrielle rose from behind the seat again, from where she had instinctively ducked for protection.
“A church spire. I think it must'a been a church spire.” Zena was as shaken as her companion.
“ Jesus! Are you flying that low?”
“About 160 feet, like we were ordered.” Zena tried to sound peeved, but her voice merely trembled with shock, like Gabrielle's. “Must'a been one of those village churches with a damned tall spire.”
“ Jesus, Joseph, and Mary! I'm goin' back to my navigatin'. I'll try and give you some new directions to miss any further towns or villages.” Gabrielle turned back to the dim interior. “If any more o'those things happen along—don't tell me. Ignorance is bliss, Zena!”
“Where are we?”
Zena wondered if her question could have been phrased better, but then sniggered quietly to herself. The answer, however, was prompt and snappy. Gods, Gabrielle didn't like being messed with.
“Oh, we passed over Hawaii five minutes ago; we'll be landing at Honolulu in a jiffy!” The navigator's tone dripped venom. “Where the hell d'you think we are? Somewhere over Holland, that's where!”
“Only asking, ma'am.” Zena grinned in the darkness. Somehow, she liked niggling the blonde girl. “So when do I ditch this crate? Much further?”
“We came in south of The Hague.” Gabrielle obviously thought her pilot deserved a complete geographical update, for her insolence. “Over all those islands and marshlands. We should hit the Holland/Belgium border in a coupla minutes—I'll let you know. Then we dodge quietly between Bruges and Ghent; without waking anyone up, hopefully. After that we change course and fly due South till we hit the Belgium/France border. —”
“Hell, there'll be a lot'a angry Customs officers swearing in our trail, Gabrielle!”
“Hah!” Gabrielle gave this witticism the contempt it deserved. “At the French border we turn due West, and land at our target area somewhere South of Lille. That's the plan.”
There was a pause of a couple of minutes. Zena was concentrating on keeping the Hudson at a respectable height; having decided that flying at tree-top level was a danger too far. Her height of choice now being about 200 feet. Gabrielle was crouched over the tiny desk in her cubicle, peering at her maps under the feeble light of a small bulb, and scribbling calculations.
“We've just entered Belgium, Zena.” Gabrielle's voice sounded far away and somewhat tinny on the weak intercom. “Turn South-West 10 degrees—now! We should shave past Ghent, on our left side, by about 6 miles or so.”
“How long till France?”
“About another twenty-five minutes, maybe a little longer.” Gabrielle put her pencil down and eased her cramped shoulders in a comfortable stretch. “In about fifteen minutes I'm gonna tell you to alter course directly West, so be ready.”
“I was born ready, Gabrielle, bring it on!”
“Oh God! Pray Heaven I get outta this alive.” The navigator groaned in anguish. “When we get back I'm gonna resign, put my feet up, an' take to knitting for a living! You, lady, can do what you like. I'll probably read about the crash in the morning papers!”
“Turn three degrees North—now!” Gabrielle shouted through the intercom. “That's good. We're nearly there. Lille's about eight miles North of us at the moment. When I say ‘ Go ' begin to throttle back and lose height. Don't worry about trees, or the terrain—everything's under control. The Resistance people ought to have illuminated the field directly in front of you with flares. Landing should be a piece of cake.”
As all Zena could see through her windscreen was absolute darkness, except for the propellers spinning on either side, she had her own ideas about the worth of a piece of cake. She leaned forward, peering ahead for the first glimpse of anything like a light on the ground ahead.
“Got it! I see a double row of lights, just off to the left.” Zena gripped the wheel and made a slight adjustment in direction. “That's us, now. Throttling back and putting her nose down. Better hang on, Gabrielle, it might be bumpy—don't know how many mole-hills there are in that field.”
The twin lines of flares seemed to widen and open out on either side as she brought the plane down. Suddenly they were running past on each side with amazing swiftness. Zena glanced at her gauges and saw she was steady at landing speed; levelled the plane as much as she could; flipped the switch to bring down the landing wheels, and heaved a sigh of relief when she felt the throbbing vibration as they slid out and locked in place. In what seemed only seconds the plane touched ground with a heavy bump, and immediately bounced into the air again. Zena throttled back, and put the flaps down a little more; then the plane was rolling steadily between the two rows of flares. Another twenty seconds and it came to a halt. They had arrived in enemy-occupied France
Gabrielle tumbled along the interior of the plane; tripped over something on the floor and nearly fell on her face; swore fluently and with precision; then grabbed the lock of the door and pushed it open. There was only a drop of a foot or so and she was standing on enemy territory, with a pistol in both hands.
For a terrifying moment there didn't seem to be any visible activity; except for the rows of flares burning rather too brightly, it seemed to Gabrielle. Then a shadow materialised out of the dark and gave a low whistle.
“ Birmingham! Birmingham! We are the Resistance. OK? You are the British?”
The man having given the correct code-word Gabrielle lowered the pistol in her right hand and replaced it in her pocket as she stepped towards the speaker.
“Yeah, that's us. You got the, er, passengers?”
There was a sudden bustle and a whole group appeared out of the gloom. Gabrielle couldn't count how many, but in the encircling dark it seemed pretty much like a football crowd. Two of these were unceremoniously thrust towards her; a young man and an equally young woman; though to Gabrielle they were only vague outlines.
“These are the people.” The French Resistance fighter spoke in Gabrielle's ear. “They must get away quickly. It is dangerous for us here. Go, now!”
As Gabrielle pushed the two figures through the plane's door, she glanced back; but all sign of any human presence had once again disappeared. Then she was slamming the door closed and hustling the two refugees to their seats.
“We're ready here, Zena.” She shouted without restraint, as she stumbled back to her own navigator's seat. “Get us the Hell outta here!”
The engines roared into full life; there was a period of jolting and bumping as Zena turned the plane round; then a snarling bellow as she revved the engines, and rolled across the field once more. To Gabrielle's relief there were no problems, and it seemed only moments before the thumping ceased; the whine and jolt of the wheels going up vibrated through the plane; then came only an eerie smoothness as they rose into the sky once more. They had made it.
Priing! Sceech! Twaang! Heeeaang!
At this precise moment, just as Gabrielle was congratulating herself, a salvo of bullets blasted through the left side of the plane's cabin; thankfully missing everyone, and anything important. Gabrielle struggled forward to Zena at the nearest to a run she could manage.
“ Jesus! We're being shot at.” Gabrielle leaned over to put her mouth to Zena's ear so she could hear. “Cabin's just been shot fulla holes. I'll get back to the gun-turret.”
“I think it must'a been Jerry soldiers on the ground, Gabrielle.” Zena looked back at her navigator anxiously. “But that's a good idea about the turret. How're the passengers?”
“They'll do, no injuries. They're strapped into their seats now. OK! I'm goin' back to the turret. See ya later!”
“Good Luck, girl.”
Their home route was to fly a little further West, thereby missing the city of Lille, then turn North. This would give the Hudson a straight run over Belgium, well to the West of Bruges, before finally reaching the coast and the North Sea once more. Then it was simply a question of flying directly North; before turning West again to reach the Lincolnshire fens, safety, and the airfield once more. At least, that was the plan.
Phwit! Phwit! Phwit! Phwit! Phwit!
For a second time the cabin of the small plane was riddled with bullets. But this time they came through the upper curve of the cabin roof, showing they had been fired by another plane. The German night-fighters had found the Hudson.
Gabrielle was well-settled in her gun-turret, both hands on the trigger-grips of the twin Browning machine-guns. She used the power lever and a foot pedal to operate the hydraulic motors which swivelled the turret. Picking her direction, and hoping she was aiming somewhere near where the enemy plane was, she opened up with a short burst. The noise wasn't as loud as she expected, though the flashes from the barrels blinded her for a few seconds. She really had no idea where the German fighter might be.
This was settled for her when a curious crackling sound came from further along the fuselage; then a couple of flashes and metallic whines made her jump as bullets ricocheted off the turret's metalwork. Swivelling the turret in the direction she gauged the firing to have come from Gabrielle let off another burst. Though, again, she had no real idea of whether she had aimed well or not.
As she sat, wondering which direction to aim in next, the sudden whine of a high-powered engine reached her ears. She thought she discerned a shape, merely a blacker darkness in the surrounding stygian gloom, pass over her head on the starboard side. Then it was gone.
With instant reflexes, and a building anger in her heart, Gabrielle turned the turret. The whine of the hydraulic motors sounded loud around her; then she opened up again, with both barrels: this time in single-minded determination. The rattling thunder of the Brownings drove all other sound from her mind as she kept her fingers depressed on the triggers. Then she thought she saw, faintly in the far distance, something that might have been a shower of sparks; but then, again, might not have been.
From that moment on there were no more attacks. Whatever German fighters had been out there had either lost contact; or given up any wish to continue the conflict. Gabrielle stayed in her turret, peering into the darkness with hands clutching the trigger-grips ferociously for the remainder of the trip; only clambering out and returning to the navigator's seat when dawn brightened the sky and she knew they must be nearly home.
“Turn West 30 degrees—now!” Gabrielle put her pencil down on the crumpled map and gasped with relief. “Next stop Lincolnshire, Zena. You should see it in about one minute. How are you doin'? This plane's got more holes than a colander, by the way,—courtesy of the German High Command.”
“Damn the German High Command, and that fat fool Goring!” Zena made this statement with unreserved relish. “It's bacon, eggs, sausages, and ham for me; with two pots of coffee, in about twenty minutes. How about you, Gabrielle?”
“Sounds good.” The navigator suddenly felt enormously tired. “Double helping of sausages for me, Zena; I'm a growing girl, y'know!”
1. ‘Anything to Anywhere'. Unofficial rendering of the Air Transport Auxiliary's motto—‘ Aetheris Avidi '—‘ Eager for the Air '.
2. The Air Transport Auxiliary used civilian pilots, both men and women, to fly aircraft from factories to airfields, transatlantic delivery points, maintenance units, and active-duty squadrons. They also transported personnel on urgent business. There were 166 female pilots in the organisation.
3. Zena, spelt with a ‘Z', was a rare but known women's name in Britain in the early 20 th century.
4. NAAFI. ‘ Navy, Army, and Air Force Institutes ', is an organisation which runs recreational units for the forces; operating clubs, bars, shops, cafe's, etc.
5. Group Captain Graham. A non-speaking part. He is a ‘ ghost character '; he is there, but does and says nothing.
6. Blackboard. This may be more familiar to American readers as a ‘ Chalkboard '.
7. MTB's. Motor Torpedo Boats.
8. ack-emma. AM—the morning hours. Contemporary RAF phonetic alphabet.
9. Lancaster aborted landing. ATA pilots, both men & women, were trained to fly all sorts of aircraft. A pilot could easily fly Spitfires, Wellingtons, Hurricanes, Flying Fortresses, Hudsons, or Lancasters, all in the same week.
10. The Wash. A large sea bay on the Lincolnshire/Norfolk coast of the North Sea. Square in outline.
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