The Guns of September
The pact was signed on the 23rd of August. The Nazis and the Soviets. Hitler and Stalin. Poland would be crunched between the two. Liz was now at Portsmouth, seeing David off. His squadron had been transferred to the Courageous, and, as the lines were cast off, it did occur to Liz that, while his previous carrier was almost identical, a move from one ship to another could easily be the difference between life and death. As the ship was towed out, the shapely and speedy hull of the battle cruiser was still evident beneath the flight deck. She hoped that they had left lots of armor on that hull when they did the conversion.
Returning to Southampton and the Supermarine works, she came upon Henry Harper and Ozzie having tea. Sitting down with them, she asked, “Are we ready?”
Harper replied, “We can put a full complement of twenty Walrii on the carrier, and we’ve got spares. More are being produced all the time.”
Ozzie added, “They’ve all got the new propellers, and they’ve all been tested.”
The original four-bladed propellers had consisted of two two-bladed ones glued together at right angles. The new, more sophisticated, ones could be feathered, thus getting rid of the strange noises which occurred when the Walrus was put into a glide. Not a big thing, but it might make a difference. When no one could think of anything else, they shook hands and, quite sincerely, wished one another the best of luck.
The next news to come across wasn’t in the papers, but in the form of a leak from a Japanese diplomat in Paris via William Bullitt, General Oxenby, and Ivan. Gossip travelled fast, and, within two days, Ivan was telling Liz, “The Japs have suffered a major and humiliating defeat at the hands of the Soviets in Mongolia. They’re also pissed that their supposed allies, the Germans, have just signed a treaty with their Russian enemies.”
“That’s so far away. Does it affect us?”
“It means that the Russians don’t have to worry about the east and can concentrate everything on their western border. It might eventually be bad news for the Germans, but it isn’t going to have any immediate effect.”
“Okay. So we mobilize, if that’s the word.”
“I supply ten sonar Walrii, and you do ten cannon ones. How many does that leave you?”
“I consider that we’ve got fifteen crews up to standard. So that leaves a nucleus at Bridport.”
“And we need that to keep the program going. I hope and believe that the English will mirror what we’re doing on a larger scale. But we’ve worked out the techniques, and they’ll have to copy us.”
“That’s what I’ve assumed. We’ll start with the ten best crews, including ourselves. There isn’t much difference between the ninth, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth, but we can have rotation later on.”
“You and I will have to continue to do some training, but we need those quick kills at the beginning.”
“We can take off and land on the carrier tomorrow, or anytime.”
“Tomorrow will be good.”
That night, there was one last thing that had to be settled. It had been discovered that there was one refugee boy whose eyesight and perceptual acuity was at least the equal of Sheila’s. He had been going up in the, Walrii, identifying all sorts of boats and vessels at great distances, and there was no doubt about it. However, Hans was an orphan who claimed to be fourteen, and looked younger. Most of their people were a bit under eighteen, but this was a child.
The twenty millimeter cannon carried by a U-boat was a powerful weapon, and it had to be assumed that the gunners were well trained and practiced. There was really no safe place on a Walrus. The engine would have stopped a shot, but this one was suspended well above the fuselage, just below the upper wing.
The safest thing would be to lie flat, and, in Liz’ Walrus they had cut out a small window in the bow, just below the machine guns, for an observer. It was very cramped and uncomfortable, but Hans was small. The guns made a deafening racket right overhead, but the observer could wear ear plugs. In any case, his job would already have been done by the time that the guns fired. Needless to say, Hans was keen to go.
By any ordinary standards, it was unfair to take advantage of a child. Liz felt, moreover, that it would be unfair to try to load some of the responsibility on to the other adults.
In announcing her decision, Liz said that she would be taking Hans as her forward observer in her aircraft with Sheila and the others. She didn’t say any more than that, and no one else said anything. She simply didn’t know whether Henry, Rick, and Laura approved or not.
Liz’ most pressing fear was that Hans would be killed in some other aircraft while she survived. However, if the German gunner shot well enough to put shells in their fuselage, the chances were that none of them would survive.
Liz spent the evening in the cottage with the others, making final plans. Rick, Laura, and Olivia would remain to supervise the camp and the training. Ian was to be Ivan’s gunner, and would be given a ride in one of the Walrii, as would Henry. Olivia wasn’t happy about the separation, but she had just had some good news. “My brother, Robert, has been transferred from his Fairey Battle squadron to a Wellington one.”
That was good because the obsolete Battles stood almost no chance in action. The Wellington, by contrast, was a modern twin-engined bomber, now much more stable than the prototype that had snap-rolled Mutt Summers.
The next morning, they loaded everything they would need aboard the Walrii. Hans was, in theory, the rear observer, but, since he preferred the forward position, Henry was given a ride in the rear.
Liz suddenly succumbed to the dramatic. They were going off to war! All ten Walrii were started up at once without any hitches, and they moved, bumping over the rough ground to the end of the relatively smooth runway. Liz swung a little wider than usual and stopped to allow the others to get into a single, evenly-spaced line. If they then took off in that fashion, the spectacle would be an impressive one.
With everything set she opened the throttle all the way. The engine screamed, the new propeller functioning perfectly in coarse pitch, but they hardly moved. That is, they only twisted a little to the left because the wheel on that side had gotten into a deep rut.
The Walrus, with its load, weighed over seven thousand pounds. They all got out and summoned the crews from the next few aircraft. Someone had a rope, which they put around the lower wing on the left side. In what looked like half of a tug-of-war with a couple of dozen people pulling, Liz got back in and revved the engine. The Walrus came out of the rut, and, as the tuggers dove out of the way, she got the aircraft to the runway. It took a while to get everyone reorganized, and they then took off as convenient. Once in the air, Liz, humiliated but laughing, got them organized into a formation. She was thankful that there had been no outsiders, not even Ivan, there to see.
The Channel had more shipping than Liz had ever seen in it. Knowing that war might break out any day, everyone was trying to get safely to a home port. They flew over an ocean liner, with what looked like the German flag, which was steaming at high speed, most likely headed for Hamburg. Hans was compulsively calling back sighting reports from all directions in his squeaky highly accented voice until they told him to stop. Liz, once again, wondered at the wisdom of including him in the crew. However, just then, he practically screamed a U-boat sighting. Sheila looked in the direction indicated, and reported,
“Two submarines going right along, as casually as you please. They’re being followed by an English destroyer.”
It took Liz a moment to find what was a bizarre sight. After all, it was still peacetime. German subs had every right to motor down the channel. And a British destroyer had every right to follow them. What would happen if one or the others, or all simultaneously, got word of the opening of hostilities?
It next occurred to Liz that this was a wonderful opportunity to show everyone exactly what U-boats looked like at sea. She sent a radio message to the others, and then led them in a big slow circle around the submarines. Among other things, they got a good view of the AA guns facing aft from a slightly raised part of the conning towers.
After the distraction, it took some intense calculation to figure out where they were, and what course they should take. Liz was better than Sheila at that, so they traded seats to allow her to use the little pull-out chart table.
The Bolsky carrier, now HMS Frog, was where it was supposed to be. Since the RN personnel would all be watching it was no time for foolishness. In fact, Liz took vicarious pride in Sheila’s perfect landing. All the pilots had practiced landing on the carrier, and their performance belied the unseen ugliness of the take-off at Bridport. Ivan, standing next to Captain William Hardy RN, looked quite pleased. He didn’t seem at all like the man hitting golf balls into the woods and the lake back home.
The last war had been an August one. This was a September one. The onslaught rolled into Poland from three directions, and, by nightfall, the Germans claimed to have destroyed the Polish Air Force. As they listened to the radio in the wardroom, Ivan said, “That’s quite possible. The Polish P-11 fighters are re-configured biplanes from the last decade. Instead of eliminating the upper wing, they eliminated the lower one. The results are even worse, and they have trouble breaking two hundred at most altitudes.”
Despite the British and French threats, war wasn’t declared for two days, on the morning of the third. Then, a mere few hours later, there was word that the British passenger liner,Athenia,had been torpedoed, and was sinking. Everyone agreed that that was quick work indeed.
The ship didn’t finally sink until the next day, and the casualties were moderate. However the Athenia carried women and children, and a good many Americans, all trying to escape the war. It looked as if the Battle of the Atlantic was going to be waged without restraint.
They had already worked out their patrol routine. There would be, at dawn, ten widely groups of two aircraft, one a canon Walrus and the other the sonar version. About a half mile apart, both coming out of the sun, the nearest to a sighted U-boat would attack first, the other following it up. If the submarine escaped by submerging, the sonar Walrus would land and track it while the other circled slowly overhead.
Liz had wondered if the search areas should be contiguous, but Ivan had replied, “The probability of a sighting is equal either way, and I don’t want an attack in one place to spoil the chances of another attack on a different sub in a different place. We’re hunters, not trying to hold a line or protect anything, even our ship.”
Ivan and Liz were flying together as a pair, and, on the fifth, they were gliding down through scattered cloud. The sun was only partly obscured, shining through brightly in some places. When they came out of the bottom of the cloud formation, there was a submarine, headed west, three thousand feet down, about a mile distant. It was somewhat to the left of Ivan, and everyone saw it at once. Ivan immediately banked and turned left for the sub, making radio communication unnecessary and, conceivably, compromising. Liz, a little further away, cut in hehind him.
It seemed to take forever, as opposed to some fifty seconds in reality, to cover the distance. Liz was tempted to turn on full power and attack, but she couldn’t with Ivan in front of her. He was more patient, and, in fact, they were now in an area of bright sun. The submarine was behaving normally, and they could see the men on the conning tower with the gun manned and pointing aft, close to their direction.
Ivan and Ian might have been waiting for some movement among the men below, but Ian opened fire at about a hundred and fifty yards. Liz, a couple of hundred yards further back, could see the men go down as Ian continued to concentrate his fire on the area around the gun. As Ivan went low over the sub, she saw the two depth charges drop from his lower wings. They went off very soon after hitting the water, and the U-boat’s entire stern was thrust violently out of the water. As they skimmed over it, there really wasn’t much to shoot at, and Liz held her fire.
By the time they circled back, the bow and stern of the sub were both pointing to the sky, its back obviously broken. There was debris in the light chop kicked up by the moderate breeze, and Hans claimed that there was a man swimming. Ivan, she saw, was coming in for a landing.
There was understandably a good deal of euphoria on the HMS Frog. Ivan was trying to be cool, but it didn’t fool Liz. Ian was saying that it was just like Spain, evidently because it was, again, a matter of machine-gunning. He didn’t seem to care whether it was from a trench or a Walrus.
Once dried off and given warm clothing, the prisoner turned out to be the U-boat’s second watchkeeping officer. He didn’t speak English, but Henry, with his good German, could translate.
Leutnant Dieckmann was quite a serious young man, more like a university graduate than a naval officer. He said, “It was my watch when it began to get light, and I was afraid of exactly what happened. I wanted to submerge and search by periscope, but there was some smoke on the western horizon, and the captain insisted on staying up.”
Liz was reminded of the conversation Viv had reported with the English submarine officer. The upshot was that a periscope search was far inferior to one conducted from the top of a surfaced conning tower. The U-boat captain had evidently felt the same way, and Dieckmann added, “He was an unrestrained glory hound, absolutely determined to score at the first opportunity.”
Most surprising to Liz, there had broken out a widespread argument among the officers and crew, most of whom wanted to get safely below on this occasion. Henry, translating, also indicated to the others his surprise that there could be such dissidence in a German military organization. In any case, the captain won out, and Dieckmann, going off watch, went below. He continued, “I actually had one hand on the ladder when the blow came. The boat broke almost in two just aft of me, and I scrambled up. The men on top all looked dead, and the conning tower was just going under when I jumped. I think I was the only one to survive.”
That surmise was confirmed, and he replied with a smile, “Then, in case my country wins the war, there will be no one to testify against me at a courts-martial.”
Later on, Liz said to Ivan, “I wonder how many U-boat captains will run that risk.”
“Quite a few. The temptation is great. If you’re not trying to look into the sun, it lights up the whole ocean brilliantly. At least, if you’re high enough above the water to see it properly.”