Summary: The eighth in my on-going 'Mathews & Parker' series. Zena Mathews and Gabrielle Parker are requisitioned into going on a submarine patrol, complete with depth charges.
Disclaimer: MCA/Universal/RenPics own all copyrights to everything related to Xena: Warrior Princess ' and I have no rights to them.
This is the 8th Story of the 'Mathews & Parker' series.
1. Anything To Anywhere
2. An Aerial Taxi
3. The Shetland Bus
4. A Brush With The Enemy
5. The Long Trip
6. A Rainy Sunday
7. The Ring Of Brodgar
Note:— Female pilots were never officially allowed to take part in front-line attack operations. But, working for SOE, Zena & Gabrielle are given more leeway.
Warning:— There is some light swearing in this story.
ERRATA:— In the earlier story in this series, ‘A Rainy Sunday’, for all instances of Professor Anderson, read instead Professor MacDonald.
“God, Zena, isn’t that something the front-line wallahs, the RAF squadrons, should be doing?”
“It seems the RAF round these parts are short-handed at the moment. And Group Captain Graham has decided we’re front-line personnel for the duration of this little jaunt. So, here we go. Ever dropped a depth charge before?”
“Zena, do I look like someone who’s dropped a depth charge before?”
“It looks like we’re both gon’na start tomorrow.” Zena tilted one shoulder in a half-shrug. “I wonder how easy it is to drop a depth charge from a Walrus?”
“Say, don’t we need to go on a training course? An’ pass proficiency tests, an’ so on?”
“You remember what Group Captain Graham told us about attacking the enemy?” Zena grinned at the recollection. “He said ‘aim your gun at Jerry, press the red button, and blast the bugger out’ta the sky!’. Well, we’ll just have to do the same, except with depth charges.”
“That’s another thing.” Gabrielle had an opinion on this too. “They’ll play merry hell with our aerodynamics, especially if we meet a Jerry fighter. How much do those damned things weigh?”
Zena carried on reading the newly de-coded message which had arrived via their private short-wave radio-receiver an hour ago. This piece of equipment had been installed only two days previously, at which time Gabrielle had remarked to Zena that their Nissen hut now resembled a studio at Alexandra Palace; where the main HQ and transmitters for the BBC were located. It was a sunny Monday morning in March at Scapa Flow, and they were in the throes of getting used to the new Supermarine Walrus which had been delivered for their exclusive use five days before. Being members of the British top secret organisation known as SOE—Special Operations Executive, they were operating outside the ordinary military disciplines. Zena and Gabrielle were a specialised team working as part of a specialised group where the only people whom they took orders from were high-level officers or Government politicians. Though asking the women to help the RAF escort a convoy of merchant ships into harbour from the North Atlantic, while carrying depth charges which they might well have to use, was certainly pushing the limits of their remit. Gabrielle thought so, anyway.
“Read the message again.” Gabrielle pointed imperiously at the sheet of paper her companion had scribbled over with coded hieroglyphics. “Just so I get a clear idea of what’s wanted.”
Zena smoothed the crumpled paper and leaned over it, frowning with concentration.
“CRM 114. Som. Ho. Jt Tech Brd. P. M. M. Rm. 23D. Captain Graham to Unit B. Sc. Fl. Provide patrol/search capability 12/03/1943 Northern Approaches, convoy RD 189. Position Latitude 59° 15minutes N, Longitude 10° 15minutes W. Equip. MK7 Depth charges. Provide cover to Hebrides. Attack enemy if suitable. G.”
Gabrielle had been leaning with her elbows on the table listening to this, and now chipped in with a few questions.
“What does CRM 114 mean? What’s Jay-Tee Tech Bird? Who’re Unit B? An’ what does ‘if suitable’ mean?”
“Anything else worrying you, darling?” But when her opposite number merely bared her teeth in a silent snarl Zena thought it best to explain. “Well, CRM 114 is the dinky little machine down in London that automatically encodes all these messages we receive. Remember Group Captain Graham told us he thought the Americans were trying to pinch it. The Joint Technical Board is just a false front for the SOE; something to hide behind. Unit B is us, dear, us. An’ finally ‘if suitable’ means Graham expects us to scout around the convoy, pinpoint any nasty Nazi U-boat slinkin’ around, and blow the damned thing out of the water at our earliest convenience!”
“Oh, that simple, eh!” Gabrielle made a very impolite noise through pursed lips, and frowned deeply. “I don’t know that I’m entirely happy about that, y’know Zena.”
“How come? What’s eatin’ ya?”
“Well, it’s the idea of blowing up a submarine.” Gabrielle looked over at her friend with a serious tone in her voice. “I mean, how many crew does a U-boat have? Forty? Fifty? More? Wouldn’t that just make us mass murderers?”
“Umph.” The New Zealander shuffled her bits of paper together, then faced Gabrielle solemnly. “There’s two ways of lookin’ at that, I think. First you’re right, dropping a bomb on a sub an’ sinkin’ it would cause a lot of casualties. And there’s no getting away from the fact that we would have been responsible. But secondly, there’s the outlook that those guys weren’t themselves snow-white innocents; which is the aspect I think is worryin’ you most, Gabrielle. Those U-boats will have already been responsible, themselves, for the loss of hundreds or even thousands of tons of Allied Merchant shipping; and scores or hundreds of the men who crewed them. They’re ruthless hunters who sink their prey without mercy whenever they sight it. That’s what they’ll be tryin’ t’do, slinkin’ round the convoy we go to meet tomorrow. If we don’t stop them in their tracks, they’ll kill scores of sailors on the ships in the convoy. So, y’see, ya got’ta weigh one viewpoint against the other.”
“Put that way, I feel sort’a easier. Thanks Zena.” Gabrielle sat back and favoured her companion with a thin smile. “OK. I won’t be happy about it; but I’ll do it.”
In the echoing vastness of No.1 Hangar the new Walrus sat on the concrete; the rubber of its undercarriage wheels curiously black in their newness. The only other aircraft present was a Lysander near the rear wall, looking bulky, heavily over-powered, yet frail all at the same time; and as if it had far too many windows. Out in the open expanse of the floor Sergeant MacQuarie and his team huddled round several massive objects, tools and winches of various sizes scattered round their feet. The small entrance-door in the main hangar door was protected by Aircraftman-mechanic Reginald Leeson who had been issued, unusually, with a sidearm. When Zena and Gabrielle strode up he insisted, under the exasperated harangues of both women, on seeing their identity cards and security passes. Thankfully they were used to keeping these handy items in their shirt-pockets, so didn’t need to return to their Nissen hut to get them. Finally they were allowed entry to the enormous hangar, and crossed the length of what seemed like a concreted football pitch to reach the bunch of mechanics at the far end.
As the women came up the men stepped aside, to reveal four large cylinder-like bombs on low trolleys. Each had a circular casing around five feet in length, including a flat nose; and were maybe two feet in diameter; with the rear sporting bomb fins inside an exterior metal ring-casing. They were painted a curious tone of light blue/grey, and looked absolutely evil.
“Jesus! Is that them?”
Gabrielle made a move to step closer, but Sergeant MacQuarie held his arm out to stop her.
“Don’t get too close. We don’t want any accidents, at this stage.” He smiled, however, to take the edge off his words. “We’re doin’ something technical with a delicate instrument in their bellies. I wouldn’t want you to jog Alf’s elbow.”
Gabrielle, followed closely by Zena, slowly walked all round the short trolley bearing the first two depth charges; then turned to the sergeant again.
“God! They look dangerous.” She shook her head, blonde hair shimmering in the overhead lights. “How much do they weigh?”
“Lem’me see.” Sergeant MacQuarie flipped over several pages on a clip-board of documents before he found the relevant details. “Ah, here we are. Mark VII depth charge, 450lbs each.”
“How much?” Gabrielle was appalled. “Each? That’ll be the best part of 1,000lbs in total, for two. We can’t carry that weight on a Walrus. The wings’ll fall off!”
“Nah.” The sergeant was up to this challenge. He returned to his notes. “The technical specifications here say the plane’ll easily take them up. It’ll be all the heavier, of course, so you’ll need a much longer take-off run.”
“But Zena,” Gabrielle turned to her companion with a groan. “450lbs hanging under each wing! We’ll never be able to out-manoeuvre a Jerry fighter. Hell! We’ll be lucky to be able to fly any distance at all!”
The tall New Zealander heaved a sigh on her own account. It wasn’t a pretty outlook by any means, but there wasn’t much choice.
“We’ll be OK.” She put a hand on the shoulder of her slighter friend. “We’ll manage. And, of course, there’s the fact that we’ll be back to normal on the return flight.”
“What if we don’t see a U-boat, an’ don’t drop the bombs?” Gabrielle considered an unappealing situation which had just occurred to her. “What then?”
Zena was going to say something but was interrupted by Sergeant MacQuarie, who shook his head firmly at the two women.
“Ladies, you go out with two depth charges, an’ you come back without them.” He glanced from one pilot to the other, with a determined expression. “I don’t care if you drop them on a U-boat, one of our own destroyers, or the Mersey ferry. What you do not do with them is fly back here to Scapa Flow and attempt to land; either on water or dry land!”
Zena and Gabrielle exchanged looks, which they then directed in unison back at the sergeant.
“MacQuarie. What kind’a explosive is in those things?” Zena spoke softly, but with intense feeling.
“Torpex. A new mixture.” He glanced over, warily, at the sleek metal containers nearby. “Fifty per cent more effective than Amatol!”
“What?” Gabrielle lost control once more; after all, it was her butt in the firing line. “How mu—how much is in each charge? Oh God, do I want to know?”
“Well, each charge has a solid 150lb weight in the nose to help it sink quickly.” The Sergeant had all the appalling details to hand. “So the charge is 300lbs of Torpex in each.”
“Good God!” Even Zena was lost for words.
“Ah, but there’s more.” Once launched on an Odyssey of explanation MacQuarie obviously found it difficult to stop. “What we’re working on at the moment is the pressure triggers.”
“Pressure triggers?” Gabrielle stepped forward and took the sergeant by his lapel. “Why does that send a shiver down my spine?”
“As well it might, Miss Gabrielle.” MacQuarie shook his head, as if denying all personal concern in the matter. “They fire a charge which ignites the main explosive. We can set them to explode at various depths; though it’s a tricky business, an’ they often take it into their heads to fire prematurely. Sometimes just by the bombs being released from their racks; sometimes immediately on hitting the water surface; an’ sometimes when you fly too high, an’ the air-pressure affects their delicate tension. And of course, being armed and set before take-off; if you return and try to land with one the jolting will as often as not blow it then!”
“Jeesus!” Gabrielle was finally lost for words.
“So, it’s a case of we drop them on a U-boat, or we pick a nice empty piece of ocean and kill a few small mackerel with a very big explosion?” Zena was first to regain her composure.
“That’s the be-all and end-all of the matter, ladies.” MacQuarie nodded sagely. “If you want a rule of thumb I’d say—take them out; drop the damned things anywhere you want; but under no circumstances whatsoever fly high, or come back and land with them!”
“Oh, that’s just great. That’s just great.” Gabrielle, unable to register the facts any more, had fallen back on repeating herself. “Fly high, you say. Define ‘fly high’?”
The sergeant scratched his chin; walked over to the three other mechanics; held a softly spoken conference, in which the mechanics involved looked over at the women with pitying expressions; then returned to the waiting victims of circumstance.
“Flying above 5,000ft would probably be a bad thing.” He glanced back at his mechanic confreres, then at his female audience again with renewed confidence. “Yep. Flying over 5,000ft would definitely set them off. Don’t do it.”
The next morning dawned overcast and gloomy; which exactly mirrored the feelings of the two women sitting in the Walrus’s cockpit. They were fully fuelled, with the underside of each wing sporting the squat bulk of a depth charge hanging on the newly fitted bomb-racks. The plane was sitting out on a slightly choppy Channel 5, in the widest part of Scapa Flow; though there were plenty of moored warships all round still. This point was exercising Gabrielle’s mind somewhat as she shuffled her charts in the co-pilot/navigator’s seat.
“Right Zena, Remember we need at least 400 yards more take-off distance.” They had already gone over these details several times, but Gabrielle wanted re-assurance. “And watch out for all these damned warships. Why the Navy has to clog this bay with their boats, I don’t know. Makes taking-off damned difficult. Watch out for that cruiser off to starboard; steer clear of that pocket-battleship over towards Hoy; and for goodness sake don’t go careering through Destroyer Alley! How many are moored there today?”
“Jeez! Ain’t they got a war to go to?” The navigator shook her head critically. “And don’t forget with those damned depth charges we’ll fly like a church with wings. Probably take about half an hour to climb to 1,000ft. So don’t take-off in the direction of Hoy, mind that!”
“Good God! Gabs, give me a break.” Zena finally lost patience, as she moved the throttle lever forward and the great Pegasus engine above their heads roared louder. “Lem’me just fly the bloody thing. I know what I’m doin’. OK, we got a clear run. That cruiser’s well out of the way; y’can forget the destroyers; an’ I’m heading towards the Sound, away from Hoy. Right, here we go.”
The mighty engine roared, a touch of flaps brought the nose round to the required direction; there was a short pause, then a white wake appeared behind the ungainly craft as it set off across the water. Usually it would need around five hundred yards to clamber into the air; but on this occasion it stuck to the water surface like a limpet. 400 yards came and went, as did 500 yards; by the time 600 yards was passing under the flying-boat’s hull a crowd of interested spectators had lined the rails of the nearby cruiser, watching the fun. Though if they had realised what was attached to each of the Walrus’s wings they would probably have been seeking shelter below decks.
700 yards appeared on the horizon, then flashed under the hull and still the plane stuck to its imitation of one of Betty Carstairs’ speedboats. At 800 yards a stream of signal flags ran up the hoist of the pocket-battleship, and a signal lamp began anxiously flashing Morse Code at the stubbornly waterborne Walrus. At 900 yards Scapa Flow was rapidly running out of Scapa Flow, while the plane continued to make a pretty wake in the water. At 1,000 yards the battleship, the cruiser, and four destroyers all sent up red flares and started hooting their sirens in disbelief and distress. Several more red flares burst into the sky from land-based observation points. At last, at 1,100yards, with only 300 yards of water left before the plane would have had to be re-classified as a motor-truck, the hull parted company with the water, the white wake ceased, and the plane lumbered into the air complaining in every rivet. The bottom of the curved hull passed over the shoreline at a height of seven feet; and it was only after another hair-raising three minutes for those unsuspecting passers-by on the ground below, who had to duck for their lives, that the aircraft finally reached a relatively safe 50ft. Thirty seconds later it flew dangerously low over the roofs of Stromness, leaving several broken windows in its thunderous wake; then, a minute later, left the Orkney mainland and Scapa Flow behind and was over open water, though still only at a height of 60ft or so; every rivet, spar, and bolted steel frame groaning in agony.
“S’easy.” Zena seemed pleased. “Didn’t think it’d be as simple as that!”
Gabrielle was still crouched low, head between her knees, on her seventeenth prayer.
“2,500ft. Think I’ll take it up to 3,500.” Zena peered at her altimeter nonchalantly.
“You damn well won’t, lady.” Gabrielle, on the other hand, had other ideas. “We’re staying where we are. Don’t you recall what MacQuarie said? 5,000ft’s our limit, an’ we’re goin’ nowhere near that, if I have any say in the matter.”
Zena made a face, but bowed to her navigator’s wishes. Got’ta keep the help happy, she thought to herself. Instead she leaned forward and peered inquisitively through her window at the starboard wing and its cargo.
“Those things are a funny colour, aren’t they Gabs.”
“Colour? What does the colour matter?” Gabrielle held to the pragmatic view. “It’s what’s inside the damn things that matters. Bloody Torpex! Y’know that other story MacQuarie told us about the plane that released a depth charge, only for it to bounce off the water like a rubber ball, come back up underneath the plane and explode. Everybody dead!”
“Gabs, this is not a happy subject y’seem to have gotten onto.” Zena gave her impression of a slightly disapproving schoolmistress. “How about charting a course for the convoy, an’ lettin’ me know sharpish, eh? As it is, at the moment we’re heading for Iceland.”
A few minutes passed in companionable silence, broken only by the somewhat increased groaning of the airframe as it coped with 900lbs more weight to carry. Zena had been experimenting delicately with her controls, and had soon realised the extra weight did indeed hamper the plane’s flying ability. Turns were sluggish; climbing took an eternity; any attempt to veer to port or starboard resulted in horrifying noises coming from the wingframes and a tendency for the aircraft to sink seawards with startling determination. Zena soon found simply flying level was the best policy.
“Gabs, when we meet the convoy—what was its name again?”
“RD 189. Why?”
“Well, we’re supposed to be scouts, keeping an eye out for U-boats.” Zena sounded pessimistic. “But this tub’ll have difficulty just turning in a circle. We’ll never be able to gallop up an’ down round the convoy, with these charges under our wings.”
“You’ll have to think of something, gal.” Gabrielle sniggered softly for the first time that morning, as she finished her calculations. “We’re doin’ around 200mph. Those ships, when we find ‘em, will be pushing themselves to reach 25mph, or knots, or whatever they use. OK. Here’s your course, bear West 163 degrees. That should bring us up with the convoy in one hour and six minutes.”
Zena veered to port gently but the aircraft noticed and, with its screwed-up aerodynamics, took this as an invitation to lose height rapidly towards the sea-surface. There followed an anxious minute while Zena struggled to impose her will on the machine, then order was restored as they settled on the new course.
“See what I mean, Zena?” Gabrielle shook her head mournfully, though nonetheless pleased to get the last word in. “Aerodynamics like a drunken bishop. Told you so!”
RD 189, when the women found it out in the wastes of the North Atlantic, turned out to be a rag-tag-and-bobtail sort of enterprise. There were thirty-one ships scattered over sixteen square miles of sea. Their Navy escort consisted of three corvettes, and two destroyers; hopelessly few, in the circumstances. The merchant ships were travelling at an extraordinarily slow average speed. This being the result of the fastest in the convoy having to hold themselves in check to match the meandering slowness of the oldest and slowest vessels there; in order to keep together under the watchful eye of the Navy.
This had been all very well out in the deep Atlantic, but now they had reached the edge of the continental shelf and were again in range of the U-boat packs. There had recently been an unusual conjunction of bad luck, both for the convoys and the RAF, at this moment in time. The RAF had lost several submarine-killing Sunderlands; just when a number of convoys had reached the end of their voyages in the Northern Approaches. The result being that for convoy RD 189 the only aerial protection they would receive was under the wings of the solitary Walrus.
“Well, this ain’t great.” Gabrielle was first to voice both their worries, as they flew over the leading destroyer. “We’ll never keep tabs on this bunch.”
She slid her side window open, reached out with a flare-gun and pulled the trigger; sending a green flare soaring away from the plane. This was the agreed recognition signal, it being thought unwise to use the radio for fear of U-boats intercepting the transmissions.
Within seconds a lamp on the destroyer sent out a flickering series of dots and dashes which Gabrielle observed keenly, with her head against the glass of her now closed window.
“I think he said ‘Hello. Glad to see you. Happy hunting’. That’s nice.”
“Huumph!” Zena was less positive. “First find your U-boat.”
“Zena, what does a U-boat look like underwater, from this height?”
“Damned if I know, Gabs.” The pilot spared the time to glance at her companion. “A long dark shape like a whale, I suppose. What else can it look like?”
The distance between the first ship in the convoy and the last, trailing behind, was about four miles. But the bulk of the vessels were spread out from side to side on another four mile front, which gave a large area of occupied sea. The two destroyers tended to stay on either side of the many ships, while the three corvettes raced in and out amongst the throng; chivvying the tardier vessels along, and trying to keep the rest in a tight group.
The Walrus’s job was to fly around the outskirts of the convoy, seeking any sign of underwater activity closing with the outlying vessels. This was not an easy task for a number of reasons. The sky was overcast; the sea showing a dull cold grey; the surface was choppy with innumerable whitecaps racing along, making the chance of spotting a periscope almost impossible. Zena could not control the heavily-laden plane precisely enough to attempt the usual sweeps and swoops. And she had to stay relatively high, around 2,000ft, to offset the tendency of the Walrus to descend unexpectedly with nearly every change of course she made.
“How are we supposed to see U-boats under the surface in weather like this?” Gabrielle complained for the fourth time in half an hour. She was suffering strain, leaning against the side of the cockpit; face pressed firmly against the side-window. “I can only see straight ahead, or a little to port, before the wings get in the way. This is hopeless.”
“I think the usual procedure is for the corvettes or destroyers to sight the U-boats first.” Zena eased her control-wheel slightly, thankfully with no ill effect. “They send up flares, turn sharply to cross its course, and start dumping their own depth charges on it. We fly over, an’ if we sight it too do the same.”
“What depth are our two charges set to explode at, Zena?”
“Well, MacQuarie had a confabulation with his mechanics about that.” The dark-haired pilot shrugged vaguely. “In the end he decided to set them for thirty feet. The idea was our primary targets were meant to be U-boats on the surface, and he told me the depth charge really has to explode within fifteen feet of a submarine in order to definitely sink it—thirty feet maximum.”
“What happens if any U-boat we, or the Navy, sight is say at sixty feet or so?” Gabrielle frowned at Zena. “Won’t our charges at least, go off harmlessly well above that level without damaging the target?”
“I expect so.” The New Zealander agreed somewhat disconsolately. “But what can we do? The charges have been pre-set, we just got’ta take what we’re given. Anyway, we’ll have done our duty in dropping the damn things on a legitimate target, instead of a shoal of fish on the way home.”
“Oh, that bucks me up no end, Zena.”
“Just keep your eyes peeled on the sea, darling.” The New Zealander went for gentle irony. “I’m having so much trouble steering this tub I can’t watch out myself.”
Zena had been flying along the extended front of the convoy, but now she carefully veered to starboard and began a run along the far side of the massive group of ships. There was still a light but solid overcast around 5,000ft; the sea remained dark grey, with scattered lines of whitecaps; the wind was steady at 10mph from the West-North-West; and the sky was heavy with the smoke from 35 vessels, hanging in an artificial cloud a couple of hundred feet above the convoy ships.
“I don’t know about us sighting any U-boats, Zena,” Gabrielle aired a gloomy thought which she had been nurturing for five minutes past. “But the U-boats would have t’be blind not to see that cloud of smoke. It must be visible for fifteen miles or so.”
“Yeah, you got a point.” The pilot shuffled round to glance out her side window. “Think I’ll take us down to 1,000ft, an’ damn the consequences. We’re doin’ no good where we are.”
Having tested the flying qualities of the heavily over-burdened plane during the last hour, Zena now managed to turn to starboard and lose height slowly without any outrageous antics occurring in response. Within two minutes they were at their new height, the sea seemingly virtually just below their feet. The Pegasus engine was working away valiantly, though Zena knew it was drinking fuel at a horrifyingly faster rate than usual.
“I figure we have about 1 hour 40 minutes more time here.” She examined the fuel gauges carefully, even going so far as to wipe the glass of one with her oily glove. “Then we got’ta break off an’ head for home.”
“The water down there’s such a dark grey an’ the whitecaps are running so closely together, I can’t see either a periscope wake or any underwater shape.” Gabrielle had been leaning her head against her side window, gazing intently down. “I think we’re gon’na have to rely on the Navy to pinpoint anything. Zena, like you said. If necessary should I drop the charges together, or singly?”
It was Gabrielle’s responsibility as Bomb-aimer to take charge of this aspect. She knew it would be a snap decision when it came. They would be flying directly over a small shape under the sea’s surface at a speed of 200mph. She would probably have about three seconds to prepare, and less than one second to drop the charges at the right moment. The chances of her being able to direct them anywhere close to a U-boat were astronomically small, as both women realised. At the moment they were flying parallel with, but about a quarter of a mile away from, the edge of the convoy.
“If ya get a chance drop both at once.” Zena spoke with certainty. “You won’t get a secon—”
“Jesus! A torpedo!” Gabrielle turned to her pilot, then swiftly back to the window again. “A torpedo wake. Just to our port side, heading right for that freighter over there.”
“A red flare. Quick, a red flare, Gabs.”
Gabrielle leaned down to the locker at her feet; dragged the wide-barrelled gun out; grabbed a red flare from the container, and pushed it into place. She sat up, slide her window open to extend her arm out into the freezing airflow, and fired the weapon. A bright red streamer of smoke fled away from the plane in a curving arc. Zena meanwhile was gazing through the windscreen all round.
“See any Navy boats near, Gabs?” She turned the control-wheel gently. “I’m coming round to port. We better find that damned U-boat pronto.”
“The destroyers are away in the distance, Zena.” The blonde navigator also looked out through the glass screen. “There’s a corvette about half a mile to starboard on the edge of the convoy, coming our way.”
“Break radio silence.” Zena made the only possible decision in the circumstances. “It’s channel 134.5, right? Tell ‘em what’s happened, the rough position, an’ that we’re searching for the bastard.”
“Seagull to Apollo, over. Torpedo wake, reading 163.8 degrees. Heading for freighter with blue funnel. Will adopt search pattern. Seagull to Apollo. Torpedo wake, reading—”
The Walrus came round lumberingly but steadily and for the first time Zena saw the ugly white line, crossing the rows of whitecaps at an angle, which had caught Gabrielle’s attention. It seemed a curiously thin unthreatening thing, running away into the distance. Then, after a few more seconds, Zena saw there was indeed some kind of a starting point; or at least, a place where the white wake was no longer visible.
“I think we’re coming up on the sub.” Zena’s voice reached a higher note than usual. “Watch out for any shadow under the water. See? There. Just there. Keep an eye—”
“Got it!” Gabrielle’s whole body jerked nervously. “Come to port three degrees.”
Zena put the plane into a smooth glide which became the arc of a circle, then down below she too saw the astonishingly sharp outline of a slim narrow object apparently barely under the surface.
“Where’s the corvette?” Zena straightened the plane’s path, coming up from directly behind the now almost invisible target.
“Still about quarter of a mile away.” Gabrielle leaned forward to flick the red cover off the firing-switch. She dragged her right glove off and placed her fingers over the revealed button. “We got a good path, Zena. God, this may be our only chance. Wait, I think the shadow’s fading; he’s diving. Take me right over, an’ I’ll drop both charges together. He’s turning to starboard, Zena, follow him! Follow him!”
The Walrus came onto a straight run, about 300ft above the surface. Zena was now relying solely on Gabrielle’s orders. The pilot had too much to do just keeping the plane flying to observe anything else.
“Another degree to starboard, Zena. Another. That’s it. We’re right on track.” Gabrielle spoke in a curiously controlled voice, now without any nervous tinge at all. “Keep her steady. That’s great. I’m losing him. He’s disappearing. God, I’ve lost contact. Keep going. Keep going. There he is. Bombs gone!”
The Walrus gave a screech of agony, as the wing-airframes re-acted to the sudden loss of 900lbs in weight; the plane leaped upwards as if shot from a cannon; and both women were pushed firmly against the backs of their armoured seats. The plane, barely under Zena’s control now, soared skywards like a lark at break of day arising.
“OK! OK! I got it.” Zena, after thirty seconds of real effort, had brought the plane back under control. “What happened? Did—”
From somewhere under and behind them came the thump of a muffled explosion. This was quickly overborne again by the roar of the Pegasus engine above their heads, but it had registered with both women.
“Was that only one explosion?” Gabrielle squirmed in her seat, trying to see behind them. “Where are we now? Can you turn back?”
“God, we’re at 3,500ft. That was some rush!” Zena drew a deep breath as she gazed at her instruments. “OK, I’ll bring her round. Where’s that corvette?”
“There!” Gabrielle let out a cry. “I can see a big circle of white water. No sign of the U-boat, though. The corvette’s nearly over the position. Look, she’s fired a group of charges.”
Down below, as Zena and Gabrielle watched from their viewpoint high above, a further series of circles of white water appeared on the disturbed surface. They were grouped closely, in a tight pattern; leaving the sea boiling like water in a pot.
Gabrielle was pointing across the pilot’s face, out through the windscreen. Far away to starboard, as Zena followed the direction of Gabrielle’s hand, she saw a plume of thick smoke lit at its base by flickering tongues of fire.
“The bastard got that freighter.” Gabrielle spoke in awed tones, a catch in her throat. “Oh God! Is there anything we can do?”
“We can circle overhead and drop that emergency rubber dinghy we have.” Zena shook her head sadly as she continued watching the dark smoke rising into the air in the distance. “There ain’t anything else we can do.”
“Can’t we land, to help them?” Gabrielle knew as she uttered this request it was hopeless. “We got’ta do something, surely?”
“We can’t land, Gabs. You know that well enough.” Zena’s voice was hard and uncompromising. “We couldn’t take more than three or four on board, anyway. And we can’t risk the Walrus, those are official orders; there may be other U-boats down there. We’ll have to leave it to the Navy, and the other ships in the convoy. We got another 30 minutes flying time here; we can do some more spotting for a while. Then we have t’go home.”
The corvette had dropped another series of depth charges, turning the sea some three hundred yards further on into a frothing maelstrom. A destroyer had come up at a racing-horse’s pace and now joined in, throwing two groups of charges from its stern. Soon the sea was nothing but seething white water, like the rapids in a fast-flowing mountain river. Zena continued circling overhead.
“I only think one of our charges actually went off, Zena.” Gabrielle tried unobtrusively to wipe her cheek with a dirty glove, but her companion saw her action.
“Don’t cry, Gabs.” Zena released her left hand from the control-wheel and gripped Gabrielle’s arm. “We did our best. There’s nothing else to be done.”
“Oh, I’m alright.” Gabrielle nonetheless sniffed, before nodding her head. “I know. I know. But it’s just the thought of those crewmen on that freighter. Did the Navy boys get the U-boat?”
“I don’t know.” Zena swung the now responsive plane around and flew over the scene again. The corvette was off to port; the destroyer was racing along to starboard, as if chasing something; the sea had settled down again, with lines of whitecaps scurrying across the surface; and there was no sign of any oil or debris to show that the target had been hit. “Doesn’t look like it; but I may be wrong.”
Zena turned the Walrus once more and headed for the plume of black smoke a mile away that showed the last resting place of the freighter. The Walrus had a rubber dinghy in a fuselage compartment located under one wing, which could be automatically released from the cockpit.
“Get ready to release the dinghy, Gabs.” Zena frowned with concentration. “It ain’t much, but it might help some poor survivor. I’ll fly round the smoke, an’ any patches of burning fuel. Be ready to release the dinghy when you see a clear area of sea, but as near the ship as you can.”
“Got it. Right.” Gabrielle turned to the airframe under the side-window beside her shoulder and opened a small cover, inside which was the lever for the dinghy. “OK, I see the smoke. God, it’s damn thick an’ black.”
“Fuel-oil, Gabs. Anyone caught in it won’t stand a chance.”
“God! OK. Oh God, there’s a field of fire all across the surface. I can’t see the ship at all.” Gabrielle’s voice trembled with horror. “Look, there’s an open patch coming up. Steady. OK, dinghy gone.”
Zena flew the Walrus through a flurry of black smoke, then climbed again towards the white overcast. Neither woman looked back, there was nothing further they could do; and there might be other U-boats, or perhaps the same one, still lurking in wait round the convoy.
“We got 20 minutes flying time here now, then we go.” Zena sounded tired and weary. “That’s all we can do. Home to Scapa Flow.”
“Yeah. Home.” Gabrielle glanced at her friend, then went back to searching the surface of the dark sea beneath. “Never thought I’d like the sound of Scapa Flow so much. Bear to port, Zena, I think we should head along the Western side of the convoy. I’ve got the flare-gun loaded, an’ I’ll radio anything we see to the ships. Not much, but better than nothing I suppose.”
“Well, next time let’s hope MacQuarie gives us depth charges which actually work.” Zena managed a grunt, which came nothing near a laugh. “One out of two’s a 50% failure rate, y’know.”
“Zena, I don’t want there to be a next time.” Gabrielle spoke feelingly, as she turned to the dark-haired woman by her side. “I hope to God the RAF’s back on the job when we return. I don’t want to do this again.”
“Me neither, baby, me neither.”
“OK. Come round three degrees. We’re on the port side of the convoy now.” A harder tone, underlain by immense tiredness, now sounded in Gabrielle’s voice. “That’s it. You could come down to a thousand feet again, too. I know what I’m looking for now.”
“God, what a week.” Gabrielle lay on her bunk on the morning after the convoy detail. She was still mentally exhausted by the effort involved. “I don’t want to go through that again.”
“Know what you mean.” Zena was sitting on a chair, leaning down trying to pull a fleece-lined flying-boot on. “God. I knew it was a mistake to put those thick socks on. Now I can’t get my bloody boots on. Aarh!”
“There you go, Zena, you made it.” Gabrielle sniggered as she glanced over at her friend. “It’s dogged as does it, y’know. So what are we gon’na do today?”
After their dramatic flight the day before the women had spent the afternoon writing reports and being interrogated by several Army and Naval officers about the U-boat they had been engaged in hunting. There was also the business of the depth charge they dropped which failed to go off, this also having been observed by the nearby corvette. Finally they had made it back to their beds late in the evening, where they both crashed out for the night; the next day being free for them to do as they wished.
“I was thinkin’ of visitin’ Prof MacDonald again.”
“Won’t he be fed up with the sight of us?” Gabrielle always looked at things from the other person’s point of view. “How many times have we been there in the last ten days?”
“Oh, fiddle-faddle! He won’t mind.” Zena, on the other hand, set herself a goal and went for it. “Come on, get your boots on.”
There followed a hunt for Gabrielle’s left boot, which seemed to have vanished; only for it to turn up under Zena’s bed. Then the blonde one had to find a clean shirt, not an easy task considering the free-and-easy way they both lived in the Nissen hut. Finally she allowed she was probably ready, much to Zena’s relief.
“Say, are we taking the chakram with us?” Gabrielle gave a nervous glance at the tall cupboard where it resided in a tin box.
“We got’ta, or the Prof won’t have anything to examine, will he.” Zena raised her eyebrows with an expression of scorn. “But what I really wanted to find out from him is where the hell this Amphipo place is. Remember, we couldn’t find it on those naval sea-charts?”
“Yeah, yeah, there’s that.” Gabrielle nodded her head wisely, though this didn’t fool her companion. “We were probably looking in the wrong place. He’ll find it right off, an’ make us look like idiots.”
Zena gave a quick appraising glance at the short blonde woman by her side, but forbore to give the reply which was running in her mind.
Gabrielle opened the cupboard, which was really an Army issue wardrobe, and opened the lid of the box sitting on the floor inside. The chakram was wrapped in an old yellow silk scarf of Gabrielle’s. This bundle she carefully lifted out and gave into the waiting hands of Zena. Another two minutes and they were on their way out of the Nissen hut.
Zena placed their cargo in one of the built-in containers in the rear of their Austin truck, then they both climbed into the cab. Gabrielle sat comfortably behind the wheel and started the ignition, looking over her shoulder, through the open back of the cab and the canvas covered pick-up rear. A few expert twists of the steering-wheel, a determined stamp on the accelerator, and they were away. The Naval base straggled over a wide area of the shoreline, with various workshops, hangars, barracks, offices, and miscellaneous buildings of indeterminate use. All these being connected by winding lanes and roads along which there was a constant stream of Naval and Army traffic; generally wide heavy trucks with massive tyres and engines. But finally they reached the main entrance and set off along the highway towards their destination.
“D’you really think we’re personally connected with the women we saw in those visions the other day?” Gabrielle was driving, but could always find time to gossip. “I mean, why us?”
“We might be descendants of theirs.” Zena shrugged as she contemplated the question. “They might be our infinitely-great grandmothers. What about that?”
“It’s an answer.” Gabrielle seemed only partially convinced, though. “That would dispose of the idea of re-incarnation. Y’know, what you said when it first happened.”
“That’s true.” Zena nodded in agreement. “I was never very convinced about that theory, anyway. I mean, re-incarnation. Who’d be silly enough to believe that?”
“Lots of people, gal, lots of people.” Gabrielle allowed herself a broad grin. She loved putting one over on her friend. “Just ‘cause you don’t believe a thing, doesn’t mean it can’t happen. Look at that Mayo Composite aircraft we saw on the newsreels the other week. Remember, you told me that when you first heard of it five years ago you never thought it’d fly; but it did. A ‘Maia’ flying-boat, with a ‘Mercury’ sea-plane on top of it. Har-Har!”
“So, I was wrong.” The tall New Zealander huffed in embarrassment. “Anyone could’ve made the same mistake. Hell, what’s the similarity between a Mayo Composite aircraft and our chakram, anyway? Watch the road, there’s a deep ditch along this stretch.”
“I got eyes, I see it.” Gabrielle grinned as she carefully steered the truck along the narrow road. “Don’t worry, Mother’s here to look after you. Hey! Stop that! I’ll crash!”
Zena had brought the relevant sea-charts, in a rolled-up bundle, and Prof MacDonald took the women to his library on their arrival to examine the Navy maps.
“Here’s your problem, ladies.” He pointed at the wavy lines of the Grecian sea-coast as outlined on the sheet spread across the wide desk. “Being a coastal and sea chart mostly interested in water depths and shoals and coast-lines, these don’t give much attention to the interior of a country; especially small towns of no real import. And, anyway, ‘Amphipo’ isn’t a true place-name. It’s a part of a name, the prefix; and I think I have an idea what is actually meant. Look here.”
He brought over from another table a wide red-cloth covered volume. Opening this it proved to be an atlas, with multi-coloured maps.
“Let’s see now.” He turned the pages with delicate fingers. “Here we are, Greece. Now, what we want is a place called Amphipolis. Perhaps you’d both like to take a look?”
He stepped back to let the women lean over the outspread pages, with the map of Greece in greens, browns, and yellows. It was of a large enough scale to include many small towns and villages.
“You’ll have to give us a clue, Prof.” Zena laughed as she glanced at the old man. “Greece seems to be full of towns an’ cities, from one end to the other.”
“Ah yes.” He smiled in his turn. “It is a rather large map. Try Macedonia, near the coast.”
The women peered at the map for a few seconds more, then Zena gave a triumphant cry.
“Got it.” She stabbed a long finger on the paper, grinning across at Gabrielle. “Here it is. Just inland from this bay. Above those three long peninsulas.”
“So, what’s the significance of this place, Prof?” Gabrielle leaned forward to get a clear view of the map. “Seems like an ordinary town. Are you sure it’s what we want?”
“Yes.” Prof MacDonald nodded composedly. “That’s the one place of any importance with that prefix. It has an ancient history; invasions, battles, destructions, that sort of thing; but today it’s simply a backwater of no real consequence.”
Zena and Gabrielle pored over the map, staring at the small dot and name that represented possibly a clue to the origin of the chakram. Gabrielle put a finger on the map and glanced at her friend.
“Looks like the best option, eh Zena?” She twisted her shoulders, as if getting comfortable. “We could take a cruise there after the war’s finished. If you like, that is?”
“Oh yes! I like. And if nothing else we can always soak up the sun.” Zena grinned back at the blonde woman. “That’d be good.”
“Huh! Here we are trying to clear up a mystery, an’ all you think about is your tan.” Gabrielle shook her head. “I have to work with this woman every day, Prof MacDonald. Can you imagine?”
“Ha-Ha! Quite reminds me of the Museum.” Prof MacDonald smiled as he made for the door of the library. “There were some very curious characters roaming the corridors of that place, I can tell you. What with Wallis Budge on one hand and Flinders Petrie on the other, you never felt entirely safe all day. I remember once having to intervene to prevent actual fisticuffs breaking out between them! Well, I’ll leave you to study the map. Lunch in forty minutes in the kitchen. I’ve prepared a special vegetable pie which should just be cooking to a turn. Must go and see.”
With this he closed the door behind him, leaving the women alone to discuss their plans.
“So, what do we do, Zena?” Gabrielle followed her companion as they left the atlas on its table, to sit in armchairs near the window. “It’ll be years before we can go to Greece. Do we just keep the chakram safe till then, or what?”
“That seems the only thing we can do.”
They both looked at the green canvas satchel, lying on a straight-backed chair in the corner, which held the object in question. Neither woman had gone out of her way to handle the chakram over the last week. Memories were too fresh to hazard that experiment often; even though it seemed the metal ring no longer had the capability to create the hallucinations it had earlier imposed on them. Better safe than sorry, was their on-going motto now.
“Y’know, Zena, I had a dream last night.” Gabrielle leant forward, a hand resting on one thigh. “I can’t remember the details, or whether there was a story-line to it. But one scene sticks in my memory. I was standing in an open glade in a forest; I was dressed strangely, in some way that seemed unusual to me; there were horses nearby; and I was talking to someone who I think was you. That’s all. What d’you make of that?”
“Huurgh! What I make of that, darling, is that we’d better go through to the kitchen and see how near Prof MacDonald is to burning that pie of his.”
“Have you thought of actually using the chakram, Zena?”
They had returned to their Nissen hut in the naval camp on the shores of Scapa Flow. Earlier after a good lunch, the vegetable pie turning out to be a tasty masterpiece (Gabrielle taking two helpings), Professor MacDonald had spent some time examining the metal ring. After half an hour consulting texts and illustrations from several books in his library he had been able to give the women some more information. As Zena and Gabrielle had seen from the photos he showed them, the style and engraving on the object definitely dated it to around 250-300BC, in Hellenic Greece. The metal itself was a fine steel of high grade, which would still take a sharp edge if sharpened carefully with a piece of ironstone or granite. He explained how it was used as an attacking weapon and, in the right hands, could inflict serious wounds. He also made it clear that, in being thrown at an enemy, the chakram did not return to the thrower like a boomerang. Once thrown in battle it would be lost for good, so warriors using these weapons were usually supplied with half a dozen or so; as additions to their main weapon of spear or sword. The subject dropped after this; the women spending the rest of the afternoon comfortably talking to the Professor and, after he had gone about his own work again, engrossing themselves for an hour or so longer in the many volumes of his extensive library; before they made their farewells to the old man and returned to camp.
It was now early evening, and the sun filtered weakly through the partially open windows of the long narrow hut. They had the oil-stove lit and were lying comfortably on their individual beds. It had been a long day and a certain aura of lackadaisical ease was settling in, but Zena nonetheless addressed herself to the question propounded by her blonde friend.
“Why would I wan’na do that?” Zena grunted, in her approximation of a laugh. “D’ya want me to take it up in the Walrus, open a side-window, and throw it at a Junkers Ju88, or whatever? Lot’ta good that’ll do!”
”Nah! I mean taking it out to a field that’s kind’a private, where no-one’ll see us, an’ practicing with it.” Gabrielle shuffled position in order to face Zena, on the other side of the hut. “Y’know, throwing it at a tree, or something. See how good you are.”
“I don’t think there’s anything t’gain from that, girl.” Zena seemed unconvinced. “I’d probably cut my hand throwing it. It’d have to be sharpened before we could do that sort’a thing. Then again, I’d probably hit you on the head, before any tree. Why? Is it important?”
“Well, I was thinkin’—”
“I’ve told ya about that before gal, but ya never listen!”
“Zena, belt up!” The blonde raconteur expressed disdainful scorn at this personal jibe. “No, what I mean is—there’s something about that weapon that’s tied to both of us. But I think it affects you in particular, Zena, for some reason. So I just believe that getting to know how the damned thing works wouldn’t be bad in the long run.”
The dark-haired New Zealander mused over this for a minute. It had its good points; but then again it had its bad points. There were things to say in favour of that course of action; but again there were things to say against it. One might see one’s way clearly to accepting the given premise; but much could be said in opposition to any such foolhardy action. One migh—one mi—zzzzzz.
“Ouch! Whassat?” Zena woke with a start; as one would after being poked ruthlessly in the ribs with a broom-handle. “Gaah! I wasn’t dozing. I wasn’t!”
“You damn well were, lady.” Gabrielle took no prisoners, as she retreated out of range of retaliation. “Here I am tryin’ to extend the frontiers of scientific knowledge; an’ all you can do is doze off. I mean, what harm could come to you? Not much really, I don’t suppose. Maybe a zap or two—but, hell, you’ve been there before. An’ I’ll be watchin’, at a safe distance, takin’ notes. Think of the benefits to mankind, if we make a great discovery or, er, whatever. Zena why are you getting out’ta bed? Zena, why are you lookin’ at me like that? Zena, what are you holding that tube of Dr. Saltzer’s Soothing Skin Cream, a banana, and a rubber glove for?”
“Gabrielle darling,” Zena grinned widely and evilly. “In just about ten seconds you’re going to know the answers to all three questions.”
Then she leapt, like a tiger on its prey.
1. Wallah. An Indian word indicating a person involved in some kind of activity.
2. A Type VIIC U-boat would have between 44-52 crew.
3. Mark 7 depth charge. I have given precise details of the actual weapon as dropped from aircraft such as the Sunderland and Walrus. The dangerous nature of the weapons also reflects real incidents.
4. Betty Carstairs. Marion Barbara 'Joe' Carstairs (1900–1993) was a wealthy British power boat racer known for her speed and her eccentric lifestyle. She usually dressed as a man, had tattooed arms, and loved machines, adventure and speed. Openly lesbian, she had numerous affairs with women, including Dolly Wilde, Oscar Wilde's niece; and a string of actresses, most notably Tallulah Bankhead and Marlene Dietrich. See Wiki.
5. Convoy RD 189 is fictitious but the details of how convoys, and their Naval escorts, operated are true to life.
6. The problems associated with stopping to rescue survivors, by either other merchant or naval ships or RAF planes, are also correct.
7. Short Mayo Composite aircraft. This unlikely partnering of a large flying boat and a four-engined seaplane actually flew before the war. It was an experimental attempt to fly mail across long distances of ocean but, though highly dramatic in action, failed to last.
8. Sir Ernest Alfred Thompson Wallis Budge. 27 July 1857 – 23 November 1934. A noted English Egyptologist. Keeper of the Department of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities at the British Museum.
William Matthew Flinders Petrie. 3 June 1853 – 28 July 1942. Another noted English Egyptologist. He was Edwards Professor of Egyptian Archaeology and Philology at University College London.
Both men clashed over their opposing views of the origins of the Ancient Egyptians religious beliefs.
TO BE CONTINUED IN THE NEXT STORY IN THE ‘Mathews & Parker’ SERIES
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