Viv found the pilots to be a mixed lot. Some were quite good, and Jean Marie was, indeed, the best. She extended him to his limit in practice dog fights, but was careful not to humiliate him. He knew that she was better, but the others wouldn’t have known if he hadn’t told them so.
Most of the pilots got disoriented when flying upside down, and Viv worked on that. A pilot flying upside down could dive more quickly, and she thought that such a tactic might get some of them out of a tight spot. It would certainly be a mistake to try to outclimb a 109, and it would also be useless to try to turn inside one. A lot of German pilots might let go an opponent who dove out of the fight so that they could seek better game at altitude. Such was all that Viv could really hope for.
The command structure was a bit tricky. In the RAF and most other air forces, the squadron was the basic combat unit. In the Armee de l’Air, an Escadre de chasse, or fighter squadron, was a larger unit comprised of two groupes. Colonel Muret was in command of the squadron, but, at the moment, there was a commander of only the first of the two component groups. Viv quickly became the unofficial ‘instructor’ for the whole squadron, and, for all practical purposes, the commander of the second group.
Colonel Muret, an ace in the last war, had some health problems, and was also quite frank in admitting that he no longer had the reflexes to be an effective combat pilot. At coffee in the lounge, he said to Viv, “In any case, I couldn’t give them the kind of intense training and sense of danger that you provide.”
“I do try not to undermine their confidence.”
“You give them hope of being what you are. I hope it’ll be enough to make up for the inferiority of the aircraft.”
“I’m afraid it won’t. A lot of the German pilots were also in Spain, and I’m sure that their training is also rigorous. But we might specialize in ground attack, particularly when there aren’t enemy fighters in the air.”
“I hope that there’s a lot of ground attack on both sides in the coming war. For one thing, we probably have a better chance of shooting down their aircraft with light anti-aircraft guns than with our fighters.”
“In Spain, the Luftwaffe’s favorite tactic was to strafe our fighter fields, often at dawn. It was quite successful, and I’m pretty sure that they’ll keep doing it. I haven’t noticed any AA guns around here.”
“There aren’t any, but I’m doing my best to get them.”
Just then, Ivan appeared, got his coffee, and sat down with them. Looking over the field and its rows of fighters, he remarked, “The trouble with the Hawk, like most other contemporary fighters, is that they’re converted biplanes. The designers simply took away the upper wing and enlarged the lower one. They got an extra fifty miles an hour in top speed and felt vindicated.”
The colonel replied, “It’s an unfortunate human tendency to modify and improve what one has, as opposed to starting over again.”
“Until quite recently, the only ones who didn’t are Reg and Willy.”
Viv replied, “A Hawk flies much better at two fifty than three hundred. That is, at biplane speed.”
“Is there any way of taking advantage of that fact?”
“The faster fighter’s greatest advantage is in an initial dive out of the sun. It attacks, and is then gone before the others can react. In a big confused dogfight, the advantage is lessened. Except that the faster fighters can disengage and attack again from advantage.”
Colonel Muret, as usual, responded hopefully, “I’m trying to get a reserve landing field well in the rear, outside the area in which we can be surprised on the ground. Then, we’ll attack with the whole squadron at times and places of our own choosing.”
Ivan agreed, adding, “From what I can gather, these Hawks, with about an 800 mile range, will have about double that of a 109. So, you might be able to tempt them deep into France, where they’ll be short on fuel. Then, they won’t be able to go full out and use their speed advantage.”
The others agreed on that tactic, but it wasn’t clear whether the French high command would be patient enough to allow it.
Having finished flying for the day, Viv returned to the house, where she found Liz doing her fingernails. That was an odd situation of another kind. It had long been decided, mainly by Ivan, that Liz wouldn’t fly the Hawks. Any hot airplane was dangerous, and there was no point in risking Liz for no purpose. She would be a translator. However, Colonel Muret didn’t need a translator. So Liz wound up translating between Viv and the pilots, most often Jean Marie. Moreover, she seemed on the point of starting up an affair with him.
It was a subject of continuing conversation between the sisters, and Liz volunteered, “Nothing much has happened so far, but I discovered with David that I do like, not only sex, but the games that seem to go with it.”
“You’re certainly in the right country for that, and, in the circumstances, David could hardly blame you. But, what about disease?”
“I know. It’s not called the French Disease for nothing. But I’ve studied the matter, and it seems to be preventable.”
“You’re not falling in love with Jean Marie, are you?”
“No. I don’t think I do fall in love. Anyhow, what do you think of him?”
“He may become a good enough pilot not to get killed in the short term. But he probably would be if the war goes on a long time.”
“As a person?”
“Disciplined, intelligent, and rational. Probably fairly ordinary. But we can’t communicate much without you. You must know him better.”
“Yes. He actually isn’t much, if at all, less educated than David. But he doesn’t, even in French, have the same veneer of it.”
“Well, Ian also has working class origins. Is it the same?”
“No. Ian gives the feeling of the technical expert, much like the people at Supermarine. They’re all only a level below Ivan and Eye-Eye. Jean Marie was a fisherman, and must know a lot about that, but it sounds odd to talk about an expert commercial fisherman.”
“There must be such a thing, and it’s probably also dangerous and demanding of courage. Are you just being snobbish?”
“I’ve considered that. But it’s also a way of dealing with people. For Jean Marie, nothing is free. It’s always, ‘I’ve got this. Will you trade me for that?’”
“Yeah, I see what you mean. I’ve wondered if he thinks I’m a fool for investing so much time and effort here for no visible reward.”
“I don’t know. Anyhow, I think I’ve outlasted my usefulness here. I’d better get back to the Walrii group.”
“Well, yes. Versatile as Henry and the other people are, they aren’t really fliers.”
The next day, after flying, Viv found herself invited for sherry before dinner by Barbara. It was at a little place in the village that Barbara had discovered, and, by this time, she was a favorite of the owner. There were always preliminaries, but, after a while, Barbara asked, “Are these poor young pilots being led to a slaughter?”
Viv was taken aback. She herself didn’t think of it that way. Least of all, did she think of herself as one who led people to the slaughterhouse. She could only reply,
“The casualties will be high. But isn’t that the way with soldiers and war?”
“Yes. We’re used to that in Virginia. Masses of young men go off, and many don’t come back. But this is so terribly personal.”
“You’ve met some of them?”
“More important, I’ve been with their girl friends, fiancés, and wives.”
“Is that how they feel?”
“In a word, yes. They’d like to get their men out of this, but don’t know how. Is there any way?”
“It wouldn’t be too hard for a pilot to start flying badly enough to get grounded. But he’d never do it. The shame would be too great.”
“I see. So it would come back to the woman to convince him otherwise?”
“I suppose so. It doesn’t seem likely.”
“Meanwhile, you’re teaching them things that might allow them to survive for a few weeks?”
“Do they seem at all fearful to you?”
“I think so. I see it in their expressions and eyes. No one will be the first to admit it, but, if the Germans come in overwhelming force, they might all panic at once.”
Barbara nodded, and Viv wondered if she were thinking of ways to help the women spread panic among their men. Something like that might just save them.
After a brief pause, Barbara started on a different tack. It seemed that Jean Marie had a jealous girl friend, and that his dalliance with Liz was known. Barbara asked, “Is Liz leaving so as to get out of this situation?”
“She’s not actually having an affair with him, but I don’t think she knows about the girl friend.”
“Not a good situation.”
“I am sorry that David isn’t being faithful, and I can imagine that Liz is tempted, but this isn’t the time and place.”
“How did you know about David?”
“Lady Mary never thought that he would be faithful, and some things have come to her notice. She feels very badly about it, and I tried to console her. I think it helps that I’m not actually Liz’ mother, and, so to speak, a wronged party.”
Viv nodded. Barbara would know how to take advantage of anything that helped. However, when she seemed to have nothing more to say, Viv responded, “Anyhow, Liz will shortly be back with Henry and the Walrus group. She’ll be very busy.”
“That always helps. I often think that I’d be better off if I had real work to do.”
It was always hard to reply to something like that. Viv did actually think that Barbara contributed usefully by easing the relations between a whole host of people, always tamping down trouble, as opposed to stirring it up. She came as close as she could to saying it, and that seemed to please Barbara.
When Liz did leave, with only a brief good-bye to Jean Marie, Viv had a job on her own hands. The young man seemed so upset that she had to arrange a day off flying for him. Had he actually managed to fall in love with Liz? Or was it that he felt cheated out of a conquest which he thought he had in his grasp? Viv had the unfortunate feeling that it was more the latter than the former. On the other hand, his girl friend came to Viv to be assured that Liz wasn’t coming back, and was delighted. Rather than feeling slighted because of Jean’s sense of loss, she seemed to think that it served him right. Viv mentally shrugged her shoulders. She didn’t have time for nonsense.