Bill Todd -- Two Aviators
Table of Contents  Last Chapter  Next Chapter  Home Page
 Chapter 14


By late August, the canons had been installed in two Walrii, and they had found what amounted to a training base on a cow pasture near the small town of Bridport. The cows had kept the grass short, and the bumpy take-offs and landings didn’t bother a Walrus.  

     Viv and Liz practiced for hours shooting up an old wooden barge moored a mile off the coast. The AP ammunition from the 37mm cannon didn’t set the barge on fire, and the shells only shattered some wood. A simulated AA gun had been set up on the barge, and, behind it, a rough framework represented a conning tower. No one looking at the barge would have guessed that it had anything to do with a U-boat.

     Some German Jewish refugees had been established nearby in tents and various sorts of improvised housing. The families with children, the invalids, and the oldest people had been provided more comfortable housing elsewhere, and an odd mix had been sent to Bridport. There were some eighty young people, aged fifteen and up, who had escaped Germany on their own, and over a hundred older people, mostly in their forties, fifties, and sixties. These last were meant to constitute the core of the community. The people in charge seemed to assume that the older residents would look after the teen-agers, even though they weren’t related by blood.

     They were all living on charity, some from organized agencies and some from individual donations. They wanted to work, and, although some were highly educated, they were willing to work at almost anything. Ivan was quick to appreciate the situation, and planned on providing some employment.

     Viv was herself happy to live in a tent, as was Liz. Barbara was not a tent person, so, in addition to their suite of rooms in Southampton, she and Ivan took lodgings in Dorchester. Ivan could then take the train to Portland, to see to the ship, and to Bridport to visit his daughters and their establishment.

     The young refugees were quick learners, and Viv and Liz, because of their own upbringing, could instruct them in all aspects of aircraft maintenance. Among the refugees there were two particularly keen boys, Mickey and Albert, who liked to sit in the co-pilot’s seat when Viv or Liz was flying. Viv suspected that part of the attraction was to Liz, and, to a lesser extent, to herself. But they also loved flying.

     Also going up in the planes was Sheila, Mickey’s seventeen year old sister. Tall and dark, with wild untamed hair, she was the star of the refugee soccer games on the pasture. The boys held her in awe, and Viv quickly marked her out. If any girl was best fitted to emulate Viv herself, Sheila was the girl.

     In the air, one thing then led to another. Sheila was allowed to take the controls for a few minutes at a time, and needed very little instruction. The Walrus was, after all, an easy plane to fly. They then did some banking and climbing, and, within a week, Sheila was ready for her first landing.

     Viv had borrowed a control column from another aircraft, so that they both had controls. As it turned out, it wasn’t needed. The landing was a little bumpy. But hardly out of the ordinary. The following take-off was easy. Viv had only to nod when it was time to lift. The others followed Sheila’s example more slowly, but Viv was convinced that they would have a corps of pilots before very long.

    On Ivan’s next visit, Viv said to him, “We have right here a couple of dozen potential recruits. They want to fly, and they’d be delighted to shoot at Nazis.”

“Well, naturally. They’re Jews, and they want to fight back.”

“I understand that, certainly. I was also happy to shoot Nazis, but not really because I felt Jewish. If I am Jewish.”

“According to the tradition, I’m Jewish because of my mother and maternal grandmother, but it isn’t so clear with you and Liz. I think your mother had Jewish blood, but I’m not sure. If that makes any difference.”

“I guess it doesn’t to me. But, whatever their ideology, some of these kids could make good gunners, maybe even pilots.”

 “How old are they?”

“I think the youngest are fifteen. But some are nineteen or so.”

“We’re all civilians, so we don’t have to adhere to military regulations concerning minimum ages, and so on.”

Viv rejoined, “Weren’t you a civilian fighter pilot in the first war, Ivan.”

“Certainly. I shot down two Germans when I was employed by Eye-Eye. That was before there was a Russian air force. Right now, there are civilian fighter pilots being hired by the Chinese against the Japanese. Moreover, the people we’d be hiring aren’t either British or American citizens. There’s no one to object.”

“Sooner or later, someone will be killed.”

“Men who build bridges are killed all the time. The pay has to compensate for the risk.”

It all made a certain sort of sense to Viv.

     After returning from London and his talk with the Second Sea Lord, Ivan said, “Admiral Little seemed quite pleased and amused to see me. He knew all about our activities in Portland, and said that he had expected me to turn up when I needed a crew. We then settled on quite a few things.”

 First and foremost, the ship would be bought by the Royal Navy as an ‘auxiliary transport’ for carrying naval stores. It would have an English captain and crew, but Ivan would supply and command the air component. That part would be kept secret until the war broke out. In the meantime, landings would be practiced on the carrier, or on one of the fleet aircraft carriers out of sight of land. A blind eye would be turned to the fact that some of the pilots would be foreign civilians, and no questions would be asked as to their identities. Ivan told Viv, “We won’t have any control as to where the ship goes. But, in any case, they’re in a better position to put it where it can do the most good. Once in the air, we’ll be in control, but we’ll cooperate with the captain. He’ll be aware of our tactics, and I don’t think that will be any problem.”

“Okay. I’m used to taking orders, and Liz won’t rebel.”

     A week later, the cruiser Southampton arrived at Portsmouth. The ancient port the sailors called ‘Pompey’ was only a short train ride from Southampton, and there was a delegation from the ship’s ‘home city’ there to meet her. Viv and Liz were allowed into a special area on the dock for the relatives of officers, and were there as the lines were thrown and drawn taut. The deck was lined with sailors in the uniforms that always struck Viv as funny, reminding her of the sailor suits worn by little boys. Remarking on this to Liz, the other replied, “I’ve been told that those three stripes on their tunics are for Nelson’s three great victories.”

“Aren’t American sailor suits the same?”

“Our navy probably copied the uniforms without knowing what the three stripes meant.”

They couldn’t see David until they looked to an upper deck, but he showed no signs of seeing them. However, it was quite a festive event, and the men, released in groups came happily down the gangplanks.

     It was David who ultimately surprised them, coming up and hugging Liz from the back. Viv had partly forgotten how nice David could be, and what fun he was in a quiet way. Liz seemed happier than Viv could recall, and obviously wanted to be alone with David. Viv said the right things and slipped away to the train station.

     Back in their hotel room, Viv noticed some papers in Liz’ handwriting that she had left out on the bureau. From phrases such as, ‘thus it follows that’, she gathered that Liz had been proving something. But the symbolism was completely beyond Viv. Later, in the lobby with Ivan, she asked, “How can Liz, who seems one of us in so many ways, do such extraordinary mathematical things?”

“Well, I’m used to Eye-Eye. He’s also a regular guy with ordinary problems and concerns. He just produces ideas at a phenomenal rate when he’s in a certain mood.”

“Did Einstein ever worry about paying the rent and getting his clothes to the laundry?”

“I bet he did before he had people to do those things for him.”

“Liz shows every sign of doing all sorts of wifely things.”

“Certainly. The mathematical production may slacken for a little bit, but it’ll come back.”

“Is she the only young woman in the world with these abilities?”

“No. There are lots. Even in Russia. But only a few like Madame Curie are widely recognized. Sooner or later, I’ll make sure that Liz gets her due.”

     Not long afterwards, Liz, somewhat disarrayed and full of giggles, arrived in the lobby. David had apparently gone upstairs. Coming up to Viv, now alone, she whispered, “We’re midway in our second honeymoon.”

When asked, she explained, “We got on a funny old railway coach with no corridor and entirely separate compartments.”

“Were you alone in one?”

“There were a lot of people wanting to get on, but we were first and David held the door handle so the others couldn’t get in. A couple of men laughed and went away, but there was a furious old lady who banged on the window with her umbrella. David just smiled and held on til the train started and left her on the platform.”

That was exactly the sort of thing Viv liked about David, and things had obviously proceeded from there. Liz added, “It took about half an hour to get to Southampton, and we got back into our clothes just in time.”

“When do you continue?”

“David will be down for tea with the others before we go up to the room.”

      The RN didn’t ordinarily fly Walrus aircraft from carriers, but, since they were better adapted than the Fairey ‘Stringbag’ torpedo bombers for anti-submarine work, it was deemed advisable to fit a few Walrii with tail hooks and practice landing them on carriers. It happened that David Randolph was the Fleet Air Arm pilot with the most experience of seaplanes and amphibians, and he was chosen to test the procedure.

     Since HMS Courageous was at Portsmouth, ready for sea, she went out some thirty miles beyond the Isle of Wight. A Walrus at the Supermarine works had its tail hook next to the wheel assembly, and, piloted by Lt. Randolph, it took off from Southampton Water. Viv Bolsky was in the co-pilot’s seat.

     The Courageous was a strange looking ship. A converted battle cruiser, she had a flight deck which didn’t extend nearly to the bow, but it was long enough for the relatively low performance aircraft that she flew. David, explaining the signals to be given by the landing officer, handed over the control column to Viv. Since they had only one, he wouldn’t be able to take over in an emergency.

     The ship was steaming directly into the wind, which made it easier than landing in the cross-winds Viv was used to. The Walrus was slow and steady, approaching the carrier with a relative speed of little over forty miles an hour, and Viv found it easy. She heard and felt the tail hook catch, and they only rolled a hundred feet or so before stopping.

     David’s own torpedo squadron was not one of the two on the ship, but he knew many of the pilots, and they were invited to lunch. In the ship’s wardroom, the question was raised whether Viv was the first woman to land on a ship. One Swordfish pilot said, “Probably so. Most women would be too sagacious consider doing such a thing.”

Viv replied, “My stepmother is always telling me not to do most of the things I do.”

“Did she also disapprove of your shooting down German aircraft in Spain?”

“She hasn’t been informed of that, but would consider it most unladylike. She advises young ladies to make sure that they lose to men in tennis, and other sports.”

The young pilots had many ideas as to what was, and was not, ladylike. Since alcohol was permitted on British ships, the discussion was quite animated.

     Amid it all, Viv noticed one young officer who was being ignored, and who looked unhappy. Going over to him, one Lt. James Meadows, she found him more than happy to talk, and, indeed, complain.

 “I’m a submarine officer on exchange as part of a program to help FAA pilots hunt subs. However, they’re a lot of conceited fools, and they won’t listen to me.”

Lt. Meadows was small, seemingly a bit of an intellectual, and Viv could see that he wouldn’t make much impression on the daredevil pilots. Of course, going down in a sub was hardly something for the over-sensitive, but being underground or underwater wasn’t quite the same as conquering the wild blue yonder.

     It occurred to Viv that Liz would have known how to be sympathetic without subscribing to the ‘conceited fool’ theory. She did her best, saying something good about the underwater service. He replied, “I think they just don’t want to be bothered with submarines.”   

When she asked why, he said,

“They think of subs as being always submerged, in which case, there’s nothing an airplane can do to find them, much less sink them.”

“My people think we can attack submarines with our Walrus aircraft. We’re assuming that they’ll be surfaced much of the time.”

“Quite right! We submerge when we have to for training purposes, but no one likes it, and we hold it to a minimum.”

“I don’t think I’d like it.”

 “The air soon gets very bad, and it often gets hot.”

 As he went on, he sounded a little like a petulant housewife complaining about substandard housing. Viv began to see why the others didn’t want to talk with him, but she finally managed to steer him on to more important matters. He said, “The main thing is that, once submerged, one is entirely out of touch with the world above. The radio doesn’t work, and, with unknown currents, navigation becomes difficult. One may even hit a rock in the shallow seas around Britain. In war, it would be easy to stray into a mine field. Worse, one would never know if a destroyer were approaching for a depth charge attack.”

“Can’t you look around with the periscope?”

“Only at shallow depth. Even then, with only a slight roll of the boat, one is either looking at the sky or directly into the water. And one can’t see if aircraft are overhead waiting to pounce.  There’s an almost overpowering urge to come up to see what’s happening.”

“When is a sub most vulnerable to attack?”

“I’d say at dawn. We almost always run on the surface at night, and we need to know what ships, friends or foes, may be present when it gets light. So, even in war-time, we’d stay up until there was some reason to go down. However, no one can look directly into the rising sun.”

Viv was reminded of air combat, and realized that it would be very like having a fighter attack out of the sun. She replied, “So a Walrus coming out of the sun would be almost on top of you before you could react.”

“We might hear it before we could see it.”

But, not, Viv thought, if the Walrus was in a glide.

     The next day, Viv told Ivan about Lt. Meadows, and his advice. Ivan seemed impressed, and added, “We might also be able to do something coming out of the setting sun.”

“Even a sub that’s been submerged all day would want to take advantage of the last daylight to see if there are possible targets to attack at night.”

“One way or another, we’ll have to practice night flying.”

     Ivan managed to expedite things to the extent of getting his ship ready to go out with a skeleton crew for a trial Walrus landing before its being taken over by the Admiralty. David and Viv left this time from Bridport, and flew down over the coast. Seeing a group of ships, David explained how a torpedo attack was executed, adding, “This aircraft is a little different to a Swordfish, but it must weigh about the same as a Swordfish carrying a torpedo.”

Picking out an innocent ship, he flew parallel to it until slightly ahead. He then went into a steep left bank with the wing tip only a few feet above the water as he said, “This is to confuse the AA fire.”

They then zoomed straight for the ship, pretended to release a torpedo, and skimmed over its foredeck. Viv found it quite exhilarating, and replied, “Much the same thing should work for a gun attack on a U-boat.”

     It took a while to discover which of the nearby ships was the Bolsky one, but, having identified it, they circled it twice to make sure.

     David again gave Viv the control column, warning, “There’s a bit more swell this time, and this ship, being smaller, is pitching more.”

The Bolsky ship also wasn’t as fast as the big carrier, so that they approached at a greater relative speed. Viv came in on a straight approach, exactly lined up and losing altitude gradually. She had gotten used to a wheel instead of a stick and felt as if she could control the Walrus within a matter of inches. The object was again to skim the wheels over the wire, catching the hook hanging below the tail. With more movement this time, it took more concentration. After cutting the engine, Viv felt the hook catch just before the wheels hit the deck. However, as they were being slowed dramatically, there was a sudden uncontrollable swerve to the left. She knew immediately that the left tire had gone flat.

     They hit the rail fairly hard with some crunching of metal right below Viv. David gestured as if such things had to be expected, and Viv replied, “The tire must have gone flat as we took off.”

“By the look of that air strip, there might be sharp objects half-buried in the ground.”

“Better to have it go flat here instead of in the take-off run.”

     When Ivan came running up, Viv congratulated him on his foresight in putting railings on the flight deck.

     Some damage was revealed when the Walrus was pulled away from the rail, but it was the sort of aircraft on which bent metal could be pounded back into shape with hammers.


Bill Todd -- Two Aviators
Table of Contents  Last Chapter  Next Chapter  Home Page