Bill Todd -- Two Aviators
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 Chapter 31

An Attack

On the fifteenth of September, HMS Frog put in to Plymouth to refuel. Liz quickly called Lady Mary, and was told of Viv’s victory, and of her effective expulsion from France. It had worked out just as Ivan had planned, but, instead of getting Viv back, she would shortly be in Boston. The other news was more mixed.

     On the second day of war the RAF had sent an unescorted bomber force to raid the German warships in Wilhelmshaven Roads in daylight. Not surprisingly, five of the Wellingtons had been shot down, including the one piloted by her brother-in-law, Robert. However, Mary had just been notified that he had crash-landed in the water, unhurt, and was now a German prisoner. It was too bad that he was to be a prisoner for the duration, perhaps a long time, but it was highly likely that it was saving his life. Mary summed up, “The Swiss Red Cross sees to it that prisoners of war are well treated. The whole thing may teach Robert some discipline. There have been prisoners who have written books, and he has had a reasonable education. He might do the same.”

That was certainly one way of looking at it, and Liz could hardly object. Ivan then got a chance to speak to Mary, and finished smiling. He then had a conversation with the Second Sea Lord, and was even happier. He said, “We’ve convinced them of our methods, and there are more merchant ship conversions and Walrii on the way.”

     They were underway with full tanks on the next night, and were headed for the area south of Ireland. The dawn search didn’t turn up anything, not did any searches later that day. However, that evening, the radio picked up a terse announcement that HMS Courageous had been torpedoed and sunk. It said that the majority of the ship’s complement had been rescued. Liz was sitting with Ivan and her own Walrus crew at the time. She began to speak in what seemed to herself to be a quavering voice, but which might have come out all right, “Most of the people killed would be the ones trapped in the engine rooms and the lower parts of the ship. The air crews up above should be all right.”

Ivan voiced agreement in a low voice, and no one else said anything. They might be refugees with deaths in their families, but they still didn’t know what to say in these circumstances. Sheila looked upset, but only shook her head violently, her hair flying in all directions. Ivan then said, “I’m afraid we won’t know for sure until we get back.”

Liz agreed. It would take time to sort out the survivors.

     The next morning, it was all routine. They had a light, very early breakfast, but took food and drink with them for later. They then proceeded to the forward end of the hangar deck, with the leading edge of the flight deck just above them. The Walrii were lined up with Ivan’s already on the catapult. As they got aboard, Hans bounded up like a rabbit, and Liz again wondered how old he really was. They all got belted in, and, when the engine started, it quickly settled into a reassuring dull roar. Up ahead, Ivan opened his throttle, and the catapult erupted in what was a minor explosion. The Walrus hardly dipped at all as it cleared the bow, and was then climbing, the flame at its exhausts clearly visible in the night.

     Liz revved their engine and rolled forward until the wheels hit the chocks laid out by the crew. Letting it idle, she checked everything, and then opened the throttle. That was the signal for the catapult, something she never enjoyed. However, she quickly had control of the Walrus and climbed after Ivan, knowing that he would slow to allow her to catch him. They then climbed steadily, their wing tips a plane’s length apart, until they reached six thousand feet.

     There seemed to be some clouds higher up, making it a fairly dark night, but they had been having brilliant sunrises. Liz, concentrating on keeping position with Ivan, didn’t try to look at the black ocean below. However, she knew that the others were already searching despite the odds of seeing anything.

     The other pairs of Walrii would be airborne by now, scattered over a considerable area, but, as agreed, they were themselves flying southeast by east. It was just Ivan’s guess as to the location of the U-boat that had sunk David’s carrier. Liz, herself, wasn’t in a revengeful mood. She wanted to get a sub, but didn’t much care if it was the same one.

     Ivan was patient as they flew slowly with minimum power and noise. Dawn broke, and then the sun poked up to their left, just on the horizon. Ivan continued until it was very bright before having Ian stand up in the co-pilot’s seat and signal to Liz. She turned to align her tail exactly with the sun, cut the engine, feathered the propeller, and put the Walrus into a glide. Ivan moved out a quarter mile on her left, slightly behind her, and did the same.

     Some pilots would never stop their engines entirely in the air, for fear of not being able to start them again. But Liz and Ivan had confidence. And, anyway, they could land on the water. On the plus side, they could easily glide ten miles from their present position without making a sound.

     The first sound was that of Hans shouting. He saw a wake off to the side and gave the angle and approximate distance. Sheila undid her belt and jumped up, looking over the glass with binoculars, her hair flying in the slipstream. It was definitely a submarine, and they knew that there were no English ones anywhere in the area. Sheila estimated the distance at three miles. Liz couldn’t see anything, but banked and turned right about forty five degrees. She was sure that Ivan would see and follow.

     Hans was shouting back, and Sheila, now seated, had her glasses on the sub. It was decision time for Liz.

     First off, they were well out of the sun from the sub’s point of view. A man looking aft from the sub, which was moving away from them, would find it difficult to look in their direction, and it might be hard to distinguish a small object like a Walrus, but he might still manage.

     Second, the facts. They were now in a much steeper glide, going about a hundred and twenty. ETA ninety seconds. They believed that a sub could crash dive in thirty seconds. If she started the engine, they could probably get up to an average of a hundred and eighty mph. ETA Sixty seconds. But they would almost certainly be spotted if she did that.

     An alternative would be to move right to get into the sun from the sub’s perspective. Depending on the course taken, the ETA would be about two minutes. Liz assigned probabilities and worked the problem. It wasn’t higher mathematics, simply calculation, but she could do that.

     The solution she chose was to move right some five hundred yards closer to the path of the sun. She had plenty of speed in her dive to perform that maneuver, and hoped that Ivan would understand and conform. Even though he was farther away from the sub, there was a chance that he would be spotted first in an area of greater visibility and give the attack away.

     Sheila and Hans were looking for any sort of commotion on the conning tower. There appeared to be a half dozen or so men on top, and they would all have to get down the narrow tube before submerging.

     By the time that Liz completed her maneuver, she still had sixty seconds to go. She still wasn’t directly in the sun, but the angle was much better. Unfortunately, Ivan, now much closer, was not at such a good angle. Liz could hardly blame him for joining the attack, but she had an agonizing feeling as, tightly gripping the wheel, she urged the Walrus on. She might have no engine power, but she used all the power of her body.

     The commotion occurred when they had just about thirty seconds to go. Their estimate of crash-diving time at thirty seconds was derived from British submarines, and it wasn’t likely that the efficiency-mad Germans would be slower. Indeed, they might be even faster.

     Liz immediately un-feathered the propeller blades and gave the engine full throttle. The added speed would make gunnery more difficult and less accurate, but it couldn’t be helped.

     The sub’s decks were awash when they got within effective range, and it was the conning tower itself that was making the wake. Sheila opened fire first, and her twenty might well have been penetrating as Ian had suggested. Liz, with her fixed cannon, had to aim the whole airplane, and it took her a second longer. However, with the mouth of the cannon hardly a foot away, she was sure that she got hits near the top of the tower. However, with the ocean waves and spray, in addition to the turmoil in the water from their gunnery, they were skimming over the submerging sub before they could make an accurate assessment of the damage.

     As they looped back Liz saw Ivan coming in for what looked like a depth charge attack. However, she thought that the sub would now be too deep to be damaged by charges set shallow. Apparently realizing this, he instead cut power and landed. It was time to find out how well the sonar worked in war conditions.

     It did look as if Ivan were on the scent, and, as Liz circled slowly overhead, she sent out a radio message with the position, and asking for help in attacking the sub. At that moment, Hans spotted smoke, perhaps that of a destroyer which had seen their attack.

     Liz knew that U-boats had all sorts of tactics for confusing the hunters, but Ivan seemed to be taxiing at about the underwater speed of a sub. If he could hang on for a half hour, the destroyer could deliver a depth charge attack with at least an even chance of killing the sub. Liz kept wondering how much damage they might have inflicted on the sub, and tried to imagine what it would be like aboard it. Water under pressure would be squirting through holes, and men, in desperation, would be trying to block them. Could they possibly ram a narrow rod with some cloth wound around it through against the pressure, with the hope that the cloth would expand when wet and block the hole? It seemed rather doubtful, and, just then, as if to answer her question, a conning tower broke the surface right in front of Ivan.

     There were soon men near the AA gun, not trying to fire the gun, but apparently trying to patch damage. However, Ian immediately opened fire, either killing the men or driving them back under relative cover. For good measure, he switched his fire to the gun, obviously rendering it inoperative. The whole submarine was now surfaced, making its best speed. It seemed to Liz that, even though Ian wasn’t giving them a chance to patch the holes from the outside, they might pump out the water in the bilges and go down again for some little time.

          Still flying slowly, she came in from the side. The sub was headed into the swells, and, in the troughs, much of its hull was exposed. When Liz opened fire with the cannon, she could see her shots hitting. The high explosive ones tore metal loose, but she calculated that the AP ones would go entirely through the sub and out the other side, deep under water. If they hadn’t been able to stay under after the first attack, they certainly wouldn’t be able to now.

     The next time around, she aimed at the area she took to be the engine rooms. Smoke began to emerge, and the sub noticeably lost speed. Albert was keeping the cannon firing, and he reported that they had enough ammunition for another pass or two. Not only that, Ivan was now taking off across the tops of the swells. He still had his two depth charges, and the sub now presented an easy target.

     As she started to come in again, Hans reported someone on the conning tower waving a large white cloth. As they passed over without firing, they saw that the sub was listing to port. The next time, men were pouring out, climbing down on to the deck. As far as they could see, the Germans had retrieved an inflatable boat from a compartment in the conning tower, and were trying to inflate it. There was no point in hanging around.

     As she flew back to their carrier, Liz found herself thinking about the fate of the Courageous. She certainly hoped that her husband was still alive. But, even more than that, she hoped that he had not died in great pain in horrible circumstances. .

Bill Todd -- Two Aviators
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