Mobilization was claimed to have been achieved by September 1. The French invasion of Germany was to begin on September 7 in the direction of Saarbrucken by the Second Army Group, commanded by General Andre Pretelat.
Suippes was ideally placed, some hundred miles behind the proposed zone of combat. In order to cover the invading army from the air, there would be time to gain altitude and get in formation. One groupe would be able to patrol in position for some two hours before being relieved by the other groupe, and so on, to provide continuous coverage. Little was known concerning the opposition they might face once the army crossed the German border.
Colonel Muret had, most of the time, expected to be on the defensive. However, the present operation, which was offensive, was expected to be minor. He couldn’t really plan anything on his own, and would only be executing orders that he received.
A respectable force of eleven French divisions, amounting to some 130,000 troops jumped off with support of artillery and, most significant, a number of the heavy Char B tanks. However, the advance was slow, limited mostly by infantry on the march, as in the previous war. Moreover, there were signs of a lack of commitment on the French part. General Gamelin had announced that he would not fight ‘another Verdun’, the horrid battle of attrition of the last war. His deputy, General Alphonse Georges, had announced that he would resign if ordered to lead an invasion of Germany. Which seemed to be exactly what had been promised to the Poles, now in the process of being defeated. It seemed an indefensible statement to Viv, all the more so because Georges was the French general that Oxenby liked best, and in whom he had the most confidence. What could the other generals be like?
Altogether, it looked suspiciously as if the French were delaying until the offensive could be called off on the grounds that it was ‘too late to help the Poles.’ She couldn’t ask Colonel Muret the obvious questions about his superiors, but she found out from Barbara, by way of Madame Muret, that he had no confidence in them. However, there was no question of giving up, no matter what the high command did.
The German border villages were taken without much fighting, although there were reports that a whole platoon had been held up by a single machine gun. A temporary halt was called on the 12th, after an advance of five miles. Even an infantry advance, at the rate of a mile a day, could hardly be called a breakneck charge.
Along with everyone else, Viv assumed that, even though the vast bulk of the German army was in the east, there would be some sort of counter-attack. In accordance, observation planes from the army co-operation squadrons were constantly in the air over Saarbrucken and environs, looking for troop movements. It was on the 12th that one of them was shot down, apparently by an ME 109. That was significant.
The reports from Poland indicated lots of activity by medium bombers, stuka dive bombers, and ME 110 twin engine heavy fighters. Viv suggested to the colonel that the Polish air force was considered to be so weak that the 109s hadn’t been needed. He responded, “Ah, then, they may be opposite us.”
Since they had to respond to the downing of their aircraft, they escorted the next one with a flight of nine fighters from Viv’s groupe. To her consternation, the colonel insisted on flying, saying that he had only had the one vertigo attack in a long time. His wife could do nothing.
To Viv, it seemed that he was trying to make up for all the shameful French failures by setting an admittedly foolish example. He did insist that Viv lead the attack with the front ‘vic’ while he led one of the rear ones. He had, at least, accepted her suggestion that Jean Marie fly on his wing.
As they crossed the Moselle in mid-morning, they saw the observation plane proceeding slowly over the scattered elements of the French divisions. Unfortunately, since the observation plane had to fly low in order to see anything, they couldn’t be very much higher and still give it protection. She at least spread out the formation so that they wouldn’t all have to look at the same angle into the sun. That should, at least, give them some warning.
Viv had her vic of three weaving irregularly, following her lead, and that was what saved her and one of her followers. The violence and speed of the attack went well beyond anything she had experienced in Spain. She was pretty sure that the 109s outnumbered them, and, in the confused dogfight, she could only watch her tail and fight for survival. She did, however, try to keep altitude, knowing that the rest of the hornet’s nest would drift downward. After, probably thirty seconds, she found herself isolated with one other aircraft, a 109.
Thankful for her practice with the Spitfire, Viv did all the same things. The 109 seemed to be of much the same caliber as the Spitfire, but the pilot was a bit more aggressive than Mark Danbury had been. He kept shooting when he didn’t have a good line, and Viv had only to turn away from the shots passing to her side. There was again no chance of getting behind him, but he tried to get closer than Danbury had. That was her chance!
Coming out of one turn, in which Viv had suddenly side-slipped, her opponent was only a plane’s length behind her, but too high to hit her. Viv cut the throttle pushed the stick down, and then up. Her opponent also cut his throttle, but his greater speed took him right in front of her guns. She knew that she had to hit his engine with her pea-shooters, and she kept firing until she almost drove her propeller into his tail. She was rewarded with a trail of gray smoke from the 109.
Immediately turning and checking to see that no one was on her own tail, Viv climbed and followed the 109. He was certainly no threat, still trailing smoke and flying straight at reduced speed. She could have finished the job, but, for some reason, hesitated. They were well over French territory at this time, and she wondered if the other pilot would bale out. Just then, she saw that his propeller was wind-milling. He probably could have glided down to a crash landing in a field, but the canopy opened, the 109 flipped over, and he dropped out. As his parachute opened, Viv only then remembered the rest of her groupe. However, there was, as far as she could see, not another plane in the sky.
Flying back to Suippes, she wondered about the colonel and the others. She didn’t feel as if she had abandoned them. There was absolutely nothing she could have done to help them. The other members of her vic were supposed to follow her, but one had been hit immediately. The other wasn’t nearly skilled enough to have stayed with her.
It was still peaceful as Viv landed and taxied up to the headquarters building. The mechanics came running out to help her, but she jumped down before they reached her. Dropping her parachute, she noticed Barbara’s rented car nearby. Immediately afterwards, Barbara herself, and Madame Muret, came out of the building. They had evidently gone there to get news. The news, for the moment, was that no one but Viv had returned.
Viv outlined what had happened without mentioning her own single combat. As she finished, Barbara, with a glad cry, pointed out planes approaching. Viv soon knew better, grabbed both ladies and threw them, with herself, into a slight depression in the ground that was partly filled with loose dirt.. There was no better cover anywhere near them.
After the first pass, Viv’s plane was on fire, as were half a dozen others. The second pass of the 109s did for the remaining ones. On the third pass, they shot up the building, with no significant effect, and, also, Barbara’s car. As they were on the ground in line with the car, one burst came right over them. Barbara made a noise, and Viv saw blood on her arm. Ripping the sleeve of her dress away, Viv saw a relatively minor wound, and decided to let it bleed until they could get a proper bandage. The attack had then ended, and they staggered into the building.
The news came trickling in from the army. So far as they knew, none of the aircraft in the patrol had survived. Barbara reacted, “Since they don’t know that Viv made it, there may be others.”
Madame Muret didn’t look very hopeful, but, then, it came through that three pilots had parachuted and been rescued by the army. Her husband was one of them. Madame Muret almost fainted, and had to be supported, but, then, she smiled. Jean Marie was not one of the three, but he might have come down over German lines. A further message said that the colonel would be sent back by car the next day.
That evening, Barbara didn’t think she could deal with the wives and girl friends. As she said,
“The ones with missing men will be desolated. The others will be happy that the planes have been destroyed, making it impossible for their men to fly.”
“I guess that goes for me, too.”
“I certainly hope so. However did it go with you.”
Viv gave a thumbnail description of the action, ending with, “Wandering around somewhere will be the German aviator I saw parachute.”
“Did you shoot his plane down?”
“Yes. He got over anxious, and made a mistake.”
“You are amazing, Viv. Fortunately, this will come out, and you’ll be famous in a much wider circle. That will give Ivan his excuse to send the gendarmes for you.”
“So he wanted to give me a chance first?”
“I don’t think he could have prevented it.”
At that moment, they were sitting in a little country bistro unknown to the others. Barbara flourished her bandaged arm and said, “At least this makes me feel more a part of things. I hope it leaves a scar.”
She laughed as she spoke, and Viv replied, “None of the rest of us have been hit. I was amused by the extent that you ladies pulled yourselves together after crawling around in the dirt.”
“We barricaded ourselves in the officers’ bathroom and went to work with soap and water. This little thing had already stopped bleeding, and we tore apart a face towel for the covering.”
One of the waiters was then heard, speaking of a German announcement. It had apparently said that the airfield attacks had been in reprisal for French incursions, and that, under no circumstances, would civilians be endangered.
Viv remarked, “I think they’ve also made it clear that the French air force can be wiped out just as quickly as the Polish one.”
“Yes. I wouldn’t be surprised if the French army quickly gives up the little ground it’s taken and retreats to its own borders.”
At noon the next day, the pilots were sitting drinking at tables outside the headquarters building, many half drunk, as workmen cleared away the debris from the attack. The burned out remnants of the aircraft were harder to remove, and, as far as anyone knew or cared, were to be left as reminders. Viv hadn’t joined them, and was poking idly at the unburnt tail of her plane, wondering if anything could be ripped off for a momento.
When the car bearing the colonel arrived, the pilots tried to pull themselves together. He didn’t look happy, and, forthwith, sent them off on a march around the airfield. He then came to Viv, kissed her on both cheeks, and expressed his relief at her survival. He himself had a bandaged arm and said that his Hawk had been shot to pieces before he even knew what was happening. He had caught his arm on something sharp as he was getting out.
The colonel then waved to the car that brought him, and a young man came toward them. He had on a mixed costume, but Viv recognized him from Rechlin as the pilot who had flown Hawks for the Chinese. He was laughing, and said that he would never have imagined that he would be shot down by a Hawk. His English was good, and they discussed the whole combat in detail.
Colonel Muret was visibly more pleased with the young German than with his own men, and sat them down for a beer. They had just finished when another gentleman rushed up, introducing himself as the First Secretary of the American legation in Paris. He said, “Miss Bolsky, an amazing number of people, high and low, of various nationalities, are demanding that you be returned to America immediately. Ambassador Bullitt sent me, in advance of the police, who might want to handcuff you.”
Viv requested only that they pick up Barbara on their way. The colonel seemed to think better of protesting, and the German was obviously amused. The car they were to ride in looked quite luxurious.