Bill Todd -- Two Aviators
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 Chapter 16


The next project was the machine gun armament for the Walrii. There was yet another contract and more money for the Southampton works of Supermarine. The main contribution in return was the person of Henry Harper and certain raw materials and tools from the works.

     There had to be the heavy aluminum disk to fit the hole, bearings to allow it to turn smoothly, gears to turn it, and a series of controls to link the disk to a lever in the cockpit. The guns, with their magazines, had to be mounted, together with a device to raise and lower them, this time linked to a second lever in front of the co-pilot. There then had to be a remote trigger in the cockpit linked to the guns. These last two linkages had to be unaffected by the swiveling of the disk, and the control for the rotation of the guns had to be very fine at the beginning, becoming coarser as greater adjustments had to be made.

     It took only three days and nights to complete the job on a new Walrus just out of the works. Harper sketched and designed the various components almost continuously. Since Ian had started as a shipyard worker, he could make almost anything out of almost anything. Viv had grown up with wrenches and aircraft fittings. There was only fitful sleeping on mats beside the Walrus, and Olivia kept the food and drink coming.

     It amused Viv that Harper’s speech became increasingly like that of Ian, betraying his Glaswegian beginnings. By the end, she felt almost as if she were in a machine shop on the banks of the Clyde.

     When it came to flying and testing, Viv was too sleepy to trust herself, but Ozzie, fresh and full of energy, did the piloting. Viv, in the co-pilot’s seat, pulled herself together enough to riddle the target. Ozzie was very pleased, but Viv, knowing from the personnel involved that there would be no problems, nodded off.

     Henry Harper bid them good-bye from his office couch as the others headed for the hotel. It was then mid-morning, and Barbara arranged for them not to be disturbed.

     The next day, they were greeted at Bridport by Liz, who had already set up and furnished a tent for Ian and Olivia. It was quite luxurious as tents went, but Viv was amused by the look on Olivia’s face when she saw it. However, she badly wanted to get out of circulation and be with Ian. The price seemed to be worth it.

     Ian, as a soldier, was used to much worse, but he and Viv worked out ways of making things easier for Olivia. They agreed that it was probably not a good idea for her to have coffee, or much to drink in the evening. It was unclear whether she would be willing to stick her rear end out of the tent at night and let go into a bucket.

     There was still a lot of work to be done in refitting the other Walrii, but the components were being sent out by lorry, together with a couple of mechanics from the works to help Ian. It would be a little easier with each refit, and the group could start training with the machine guns almost immediately. In his spare time, Ian wanted to learn to fly.            

     In the flying training, it was widely believed by the young refugees that Viv was more demanding than Liz, and more likely to hand out anything short of physical abuse. Indeed, there were times when even that seemed possible.

     Viv taught instrument flying almost from the beginning, Without quite putting a hood over the head of the young person in the seat beside her, she would insist that he move his eyes continually from one gauge to another, all the time reminding him that he might often have to fly five or more hours in that fashion in a snow storm. It might have taken much of the fun out of flying for many of her young charges. However, the learners, having little else to do in England, were highly motivated.

     It was different with Sheila. She learned so quickly as to need no prodding. Viv suspected that it wasn’t a great idea to show favoritism to one student, but she did it anyway. Sheila was the first one to loop the aircraft, and then to do a reverse loop starting with a dive, then upside down, and then up again. Viv had actually done the ‘bunt’ in Spain, in the course of bagging her Bf109c. It was hardly likely to be useful in their envisaged anti-sub operations, but it certainly increased Shelia’s confidence, not to mention her prestige within the group.

     Sheila’s brother, Mickey, was the next best, and, when they gave them all eye tests, it turned out that the brother and sister had remarkable vision. On the same test, Albert turned out to be quite near-sighted. His glasses had also been lost in his flight from the Nazis. That could be remedied, but Liz gave him the job of servicing the cannons in action. That was actually quite a demanding one.

     Aft of the pilots, rectangular gaps had been cut in the sides of the fuselage, with the ammunition belts for the outside-mounted cannons running inside to the magazines. A seat had been bolted between them, and Albert, strapped into it, was the first to try. He had to reach to the belts, making sure that they ran smoothly to the guns when they were being fired. Since this might be done while the aircraft was performing violent evasive maneuvers, it required skill and coolness. Near-sightedness was, if anything, an advantage.

      Apart from piloting, the other critical position was that of the observer. It had been obvious from the beginning that the U-boat had to be seen before it detected the Walrus.

     There was no ideal observation position on the Walrus. The pilot and co-pilot could see ahead, and to the sides, but not to the rear or straight down. The forward cockpit would have been good, but it was now taken up by the machine guns. There was, however, a small forward hatch a bit above the water line that could be accessed by a small person crawling under the guns. When slid open, the slipstream coming in made it unpleasant, but it was bearable at low speeds. The after cockpit provided a good view to the sides and rear, and the observer who stuck his or her head over the side could look straight down.

     At that point, Ivan sent around a retired navy warrant officer, who had spent years as an observer on Fleet Air Arm seaplanes and Swordfish. Adressing the group, Mr. Hobson said, “All of you probably think that you already know how to observe. You don’t. I wouldn’t give tuppence for the chances of any of you spotting anything of importance in the ocean below you.”

The techniques that he taught were actually a revelation to Viv, who was used only to spotting other aircraft. The whole seascape had to be covered systematically, both with and without binoculars, and each sweep had to be made with only a slight alteration of angle. It was an exhausting process that couldn’t be executed while piloting the aircraft. Viv and Liz immediately decided to have two observers on each aircraft to complement and relieve one another.

     After a week of practice, Mr. Hobson chose the observers. The training then continued, and, on flights over the channel, rewards were given to the observers who first spotted various small craft. In order to emphasize the importance of observation, they gave rewards only for that. This also served to increase the prestige of the observers, who might otherwise have been snubbed by the pilots.

     In the middle of this process, Ivan returned with seven more Walrii, all cannon armed and fitted with the new machine guns. He said to Viv, “At this stage, the sonar Walrii are going to the navy. When war breaks out, their personnel will help me operate them.”

“It sounds as if you’re going to fly them and land on top of U-boats.”

“I may be too old to be a fighter pilot, but I’ve never stopped flying.”

“Okay, I guess we’ll all be bunking down on the HMS Bolsky.”

     Ivan had, all along, been meeting with the students. Predictably, he was most struck by Sheila. He later remarked to Viv, “Given the chance, she’d do what you did in Spain. Fortunately, the mission we have in mind isn’t so dangerous.”

“We still expect to be shot at, but I’m pretty sure that Sheila, with three rapid fire guns, can defeat a German with one slower one.”

“Are you going to make her your co-pilot?”

“Either with Liz or myself. We’ll have to let her fly most of the time to keep her happy, but, when it comes to action, we’ll need her gunnery.”

“Is Sheila as good as you?”

“Perhaps not with the fixed cannons. But, with the flexible machine guns, she’s better.”

“Is that because you can’t sight directly along them?”

“Yes. Judging the changing angle takes a particular skill that not many people would have.”    

By the time that Ivan left, there was an implicit agreement that he, Viv, and Liz would all fly off the carrier.

      As the weather worsened and the winds picked up, there were a good many bad landings and a couple of crashes. After one, a Walrus came to rest upside down in the meadow. However, with its sturdy construction and swarms of bracing wires, the aircraft were almost indestructible.

     After his next visit, Ivan took Viv, Liz, Olivia, and Ian out to dinner at a country inn some five miles distant. The food wasn’t very original, or even well prepared, but it was edible. They had some lager, didn’t talk about flying, and were quite relaxed by the time that the bill came. Opening his wallet, Ivan found only five pounds in it.

Viv asked, “How much did you have?”

“Over twenty five pounds, well over a hundred dollars.”

After working out various possibilities, only one remained. Liz asked, “Where was your wallet while we were flying?”

“I hung my jacket in the shed, and the wallet was in it.”


“There’s nothing for it. If we did what we’d have to do to get the money back, we’d destroy the morale of the group. Knowing that these kids have been living hand-to-mouth, I shouldn’t have left it there that long.”

Viv, hoping that it wasn’t Sheila, said, “The group may well have had to steal identity cards and money to get out of Germany. It’s bad, but we’ve got much more important things to concern us.”

Liz said, “The rule books say that you’re supposed to force an embarrassing confrontation when children steal, but I just don’t want to.”

It was then that Ian said, “In Glasgow, anything left around will disappear pretty quickly. We also nicked things all over Spain, usually from people we thought to be rich or Fascist.”

Ivan laughed, but Olivia looked quite pained. No one seemed to notice but Viv, and she wondered if this were one of those class differences that Olivia had talked about. With amusement, she wondered idly if Olivia would start stealing odds and ends from shops.

Ivan replied, “I bet it was impulsive on the part of one kid. He or she happened to be alone in the shack, saw the coat on the hook, looked around, and acted. It was a nice touch to leave enough for us to manage on.”

Viv, relieved, pointed out, “We’ve now got five beginning aircrews. They’re a long way from being trained, but they can take off, fly in formation, attack a target, and land in a short runway.”

“We’ve got, probably six months or so.”

     At about this time, in early December, Liz pointed out to Viv, “Among the two hundred or so people in this camp, we’ve got quite a peculiar mixture.”

Viv had been aware of the lack of children, and the gap between the teen-agers and the remaining middle-aged population. She replied,

“The older people seem very Jewish, and the teen-agers hardly Jewish at all.”

“The older people are doing everything they can to carry on Jewish traditions and customs. We’ve also got some visionaries who’re very excited about establishing a new Jewish state in Palestine.”

“I wasn’t aware of that. But I hardly see the older people. None of them seem to be the parents of our students.”

Liz replied, “Our kids are orphans. Either because their parents are dead or never likely to turn up. So they’re survivors.”

“You know, that’s a bit like us. We might as well have been living in tents. There was no mother, and Ivan wasn’t anything like a regular father.”

“We also didn’t get regular schooling, but a whole bunch of thrown-together arrangements.”

Viv, imagining herself back in the hard-scrabble days, said, “There were times when I might have stolen things I thought we needed for our so-called house. In fact, I do recall making off with things from the fruit stands.”

“So did I. I’ve also noticed that Ivan’s money isn’t being spent on any kind of conspicuous consumption.”

“I bet it’s been carefully hidden somewhere for use in an emergency.”

     Things got a little more intense when the older residents began to celebrate Hannukah. The teen-agers knew that they were Jews, and had nothing against it. However, having no families of their own, they were disinclined to join older people who were relative strangers in celebrating things they hardly understood. As Sheila said to Viv, “We’re happy to do our share of the work around the camp when we’re not flying, but these celebrations seem pretty useless to us.”

“I think the older people are trying to keep Jewish culture alive.”

“It seems to me that being Jewish is something that’s likely to get you killed, or at least badly treated. It’s better not to advertize it.”

There wasn’t much to say to that.

Bill Todd -- Two Aviators
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