The fog rolled up from the channel, fleeing from the sun still far over the horizon. The moist chill increased the frequency of expletives emitted by the minions busying around the Lancasters at the edge of the airfield in the twilight of dawn. Soon the fog grew heavy and only the voices indicate the direction of activity.
The door on a rough wooden hut burst open, banging loudly against the wall before falling off its hinges. There were immediate shouts from the fog to “put out that four king light!“. Against the dimming lights inside the hut, loomed the silhouette of Wing Commander Graham Readfearn, DFC, DSO, MMC, WSMW, JANC, etc. Even through the fog, the voices around the airfield were suddenly hushed.
“Wing” Readfearn, who insisted that his name be pronounced Read-fear‘n, took two quick steps down the rickety stairs in front of the door, a sip from the teacup in his right hand and flung the dregs of tea into the fog. A tannin-speckled Corporal emerged and was handed the empty cup along with the symbolic recognition of “Good Chap“.
Readfearn, still elevated by 3 steps above the ground, looked smilingly around while holding a sandwich “soldier”, the upper end of which had been dipped in the yolk of a soft-boiled egg. There was a rustle under the hut and out darted a jet-black Labrador which sat at the base of the steps, looking hungrily up at the sandwich, its gaze steady and transfixed.
The Squadron mascot, recently promoted from Sergeant directly to Flying Officer; Richard Soul. When Readfearn first arrived at the Sqn, he objected to the dog being called “Nigger” so the base personnel agreed on a new name, receiving written approval from senior staff and Readfearn. “F/O R. Soul” is often heard, appended to the greeting “Wing Commander Readfearn“, as though the two were actually inseparable companions.
After failing to engage the dog’s interest in anything other than the bread for 5 seconds, Readfearn tossed the yolky treat towards Soul, almost losing grip of the cherished metal lunchbox tucked under his elbow. The box had been given to him by a close friend at University College because Readfearn had appreciated the images of strong muscular men and muscular women painted on the box. Although the box was clearly marked for storing Cheese, Cucumber, Celery and Pickles (CCCP), the young man later discovered that he could also use it to carry other foods for his lunch during his busy day.
That day was to be a special day for the young Wing Commander. He’d been secretly briefed on a special mission to strike at the heart of the enemy; to carpet-bomb the laboratory of the enemy’s new, but clearly insane chief scientist; and to use whatever means available to make sure that the enemy could not reply. Readfearn was up for the challenge even though he’d not previously been acquainted with that particular strategy; the name explained what was to be done.
For weeks he prepared, locating and shipping special munitions, mostly in the dark of night and having the ground crews volunteer their spare time to adapt the munitions to the Lancaster’s bomb bays. The bombers had also stripped most of the defensive guns leaving only the tail and the front turret with any guns and ammunition, so that each aircraft could carry half a ton more of special munitions to the target. All those involved had been sworn to secrecy. He brought in additional aircraft to deliver all the munitions that he’d stockpiled. Readfearn was determined to deliver a decisive blow and he was not one for half-measures.
That would be Readfearn’s day. He took two more quick steps down the stairs, pausing again on the final one to ensure that all could be inspired by his elegant confidence. Then strode masterfully into the ankle-deep mud that others had avoided by going off the side of the stairs.
Dawn had grown to a glimmer, even through the heavy fog. Mission preparation continued by the practiced crews, with frequent calls to the Sqn mascot as the pace of activity increased. The sun would, it was said, drive the fog away shortly as there wasn’t any stirring of wind to assist takeoff.
Assistance would have been appreciated as the Lanc’s had been loaded to “plus 10” under Readfearn’s orders; 10% more weight than the maximum allowed takeoff weight specified by those useless boffins calling themselves engineers. He needed all the munitions that the aircraft and his hope could carry. Crews had spent most of the night removing guns and loading the special munitions into the bomb bays.
Unlike most days when the W/C would remain at the base to ensure that all was right, Readfearn would lead by example in piloting at the front of G for George Squadron; or as Readfearn preferred to call it: “G for Guardian“. His aircraft would be the first to wreak havoc on the enemy. It was the day that he would write his name indelibly in the book of history.
Sputtering at first, the Merlin engines on the Lancasters were coaxed into a thrumming chorus of nearly a hundred, warming up for a very tricky takeoff, to be ready as soon as the fog lifted enough to make out the runway. Aircrews stood afield, away from the din of the engines, perhaps hoping that today, the fog would not lift and an ugly fate would be deferred.
Alas, the fog lifted in a few seconds, leaving a light-blue, clear sky glowing above.
Readfearn grasped his mettle and commanded “Follow me chaps!” as he began trotting towards the lead aircraft. From the massed flight crews could be heard the chorus for the mascot’s attendance: F/O R. Soul! Repeated ever more loudly until it could be heard above the idling Merlins.
But the dog did not show. So the aircrews hurried the way to their respective aircraft; some still questioning the wisdom of painting bullseyes on their bomber.
As the last of his own aircrew was still struggling up the ladder, Readfearn revved the engines and signalled the ground crew to remove the wheelchocks from the wheels so that he could roll to the end of the runway for takeoff. Cognisant of Readfearn’s lack of actual mission experience, the Sergeant of the ground crew signalled at Readfearn as the first chock was removed by showing one finger; and then a second, in a “victory” sign to indicate that the Lancaster was ready to roll.
“Wing” recognized that as a good omen. Victory indeed.
Readfearn remembered from his training that while the air was cold and dense, it’d make it easier to take off at lower speed, but the engines would have to work harder to push against the dense air. At the start of the runway, he applied the brakes and throttled up the engines to maximum, releasing the brakes only as the first beads of sweat began to run down his face. With only a few hundred feet left and with still not enough air under the wings, he pushed for emergency power.
The main gear’s tyres ran off the end of the sealed runway and brushed the top of the stubble as the Lancaster lurched forward until it plunged out of view over the edge of the cliff. The straining engines could still be heard as the Lancaster appeared once again into view a mile away, barely 30 feet above the water, but slowly gaining altitude.
Base radio crackled into life: “Guardian to base. Guardian to base. Take off just like that, chaps. Over.“. Not another aircraft moved.
Radio: “Guardian to base. Respond“.
Radio: “Guardian to base. Respond“.
Radio: “Guardian to base. Respond“.
The Lancaster in the distance turned awkwardly around and started heading back to the airfield.
Radio: “Guardian to base. If you don’t respond, I’ll have you all court martialed and shot. … Over.”
Radio operator responds: “Base to George. Sir, you ordered radio silence until over the target. Over.”
Silence on the radio. The Lancaster passed overhead, still only a few hundred feet above, then turned back again towards the sea.
A white light on the tower ordered the next aircraft to commence take off. Human CO2 emissions from the airfield were abated until that Lancaster appeared again above the sea.
One airman on the ground took out a notebook and started furiously writing as banknotes and coins were waved at him by his crewmates. In the sky above, Readfearn signalled those who made it into the air to join his formation. After nearly 15 minutes, there were no more Lancasters at the airfield except one that appeared to have had an engine blow up, as there seemed to be casualties writhing on the ground.
Readfearn instructed his navigator, Pilot Officer “Blinky” Brayle, to plot the course to the first way-point where they would meet their “pathfinder” Mosquito at 10,000 feet. Brayle set the autopilot as the Wing Commander opened his lunchbox, mentally rationing its contents.
As the first light of the day blindingly entered the front of the cockpit, Readfearn caught his reflection on the inside of the box’s tin lid and, for a moment, regretted leaving his shaving kit by his bunk as he would no doubt have quite a growth upon his return to base. He was of no mind to appear unkempt in the newsreels; even after 10 hours of flying.
The Lancaster was still climbing with its heavy load as it entered a thick layer of clouds above the continent. Annoyed by the dazzling sun, Readfearn closed his lunchbox and stuffed it into a convenient gap amongst the instruments. He adjusted the flying altitude to that of the clouds. The first officer looked at Readfearn questioningly who responded “The enemy won’t see us in this“.
“Nor will anybody else” was mumbled too softly to be heard by the pilot, who’d already re-immersed himself in his lunchbox.
An hour later, the navigator tapped Readfearn on the knee “We’re 10 minutes from waypoint by dead reckon. No ground features visible through cloud“. It hadn’t been since his University College days that Readfearn’s knee had been tapped so after a few moments of distraction, swimming through fond memories, he responded on the tannoy “Righto. Climbing to rendezvous altitude. Keep your eyes peeled for pathfinder, everybody.”
Climbing to 10,000 ft put the Lancaster in brilliant sunshine about 1000 above the top of clouds, but the sun was above the horizon. It was a smoother ride but also quite a bit colder. Looking around, Readfearn could not see any other aircraft of his Squadron or Wing. He assumed that they were hiding in the clouds to avoid detection.
He passed the waypoint by their reckoning, a little ahead of schedule though still unable to check their position due to the clouds below. Readfearn concluded that the pathfinder must be delayed so decided to fly large figure-8’s, crossing over the waypoint.
He gazed increasing at his map and, having run out of patience and convinced by his competence, decided that he could find the target by himself. But first, he had to signal his wing that they would be continuing to the target without a pathfinder and in spite of what looked like low cloud cover all the way to the Urals.
For the first time ever, Readfearn broke radio silence: “Guardian Leader to Guardian 2. Breaking radio silence. Over.”
“Guardian Leader to Guardian 2. Over.”
“Guardian Leader to Guardian 2. Over.”
He tried the other radio: “Guardian Leader to Guardian 2. Breaking radio silence. Come in 2. Over.”
Finally a response. “This is George 2. Over.”
Readfearn: “What took you so long and why are you on base radio band? Over.”
A pause. Then “Other radio removed to let us carry more payload. Over.”
Readfearn: “Good thinking. I can’t see you. Are you in the clouds below? Over.”
“Indeed we are. We can see your contrails to the … … slightly to the North of us when we pop our head above the clouds, Sir. … It’s a rough ride with all this load. Over.”
Readfearn: “I’m turning East now. Follow me and keep your heads down. Over.”
“Roger. Wilco. Out.”
Readfearn: “What the hell was that! We’re British, man!”
“Sorry Sir. Righto. Will comply with your instructions. Out. R. Soul”
Readfearn snapped back: “Is the Flying Officer with you?”
There was a longer pause.
“He is indeed Sir. He has to get flying hours to receive rations. Over.”
Readfearn sounded annoyed when he replied: “We’ll talk about this back at base. Turning one one zero now. Over and out.”
Blinky dialled the course for Readfearn on the autopilot. The aircraft could be heard to strain under the load but it was holding together. Once they’d levelled out, the crew breathed again. Flying in a straight line for an hour is usually an act of suicide in a war zone but they hadn’t had even a glimpse of enemy aircraft since taking off.
Readfearn took that as another omen. The gods were on his side.
In the thrum and din of the engines, the Wing Commander again consulted his lunchbox for strength while studying his map so that he could immediately recognize landmarks, should there be a break in cloud cover. Readfearn’s eyes begin to droop into a doze until he’s startled by a tap on his shoulder by the flight engineer Sergeant Prtzlyknyzwzyc, known to his friends as “Pretzel” because his first name is unpronounceable. Pretzel had been seconded from the Polish auxiliary airforce for his technical skills as the British had run out of Scotsman willing to fly on missions with only a 30% average survival rate on any mission.
Readfearn was startled and fumbled with his lunchbox, almost dropping it. “What is it, Sergeant Prz Prtz … Sergeant!?” he screamed.
“Sir, we are running low on fuel. We won’t make it back to base if we keep, as you English say, keep faffing about, flying in a big circle.”
Readfearn was astonished by the Pole’s insolence. Taken aghast it took him the best part of a minute to respond: “You’re the flight engineer, not the navigator. You don’t know anything about navigation. That’s Blinky’s job.”
Pretzel replied “I have a Masters degree in Astrophysics but even without that I know that the sun moves at 15 degrees per hour across the sky so if the sun’s relative direction changes at a different rate, I know that we’re not flying in a straight line.”
Readfearn: “Blah. Blah Blah. Just another useless boffin. Get back to your station, Sergeant!”
Pretzel retreated and was grateful for having had the wisdom to tell nobody that his middle name was Henryk. Readfearn contemplated the prospect of failure. Clearly, that could not be the case as all the omens had been favourable.
“Blinky!” blurted out Readfearn; “Up here!“.
Brayle crawled up from the bombardier position and shouted “Yes Sir!?“.
Readfearn: “Blinky. Is it possible that we’ve been flying in a circle?”
Brayle paused and replied: “No Sir. All out instruments were checked before takeoff. Even had the chaps on the ground swing the compass yesterday. There’d have to be a lump of iron or steel right up against the magnetic compass to take it out of whack.”
Readfearn raised his right hand to halt Brayle’s exposition. “Thank you, Blinky! Dismissed.”
Brayle didn’t even bother to look at the gift horse’s head let alone try to look at its teeth. He slid rapidly back into his isolated position and pretended to reconnect his headset intercom.
Readfearn looked around and slid his lunchbox between his left leg and the side of his seat. “What’s that at 3 o’clock, number one?” enquired Readfearn, leant forward and waited for the first officer to turn his head, before using his glove to wipe off the red chips of paint around the opening in the instrument panel.
“Probably just ice crystals, sir” said the first officer, returning his gaze to the front.
“What?” asked Readfearn.
“The stuff you saw at 3 o’clock.”
“Yes I thought so too… just getting a second opinion. Don’t want to be caught in an ambush.”
The cockpit returned to the silence that one only experiences amidst 4000 horsepower being produced by internal combustion engines. Readfearn was facing a personal disaster if he could not pull a rabbit out of the hat. Had he misread the omens? Readfearn stewed and he began to sweat in the sub-zero cockpit.
The intercom crackled and Blinky’s voice announced “Looks like a small break in the clouds at 30 degrees off starboard; about 10 miles.”
Could that be where the gods had meant Readfearn to go? There was nothing to lose. He disengaged the autopilot and clumsily banked the aircraft to the left, before realizing that starboard was on the other side.
A hole in the clouds came into view through his cockpit window and Readfearn steered straight for it, losing altitude and gaining speed at the same time. The first officer reached for the throttles but Readfearn pushed his hands away. “We’re flying through that hole, having a look and then bouncing back above the cloud.”
The first officer knew that if he did not counter Readfearn’s controls at the bottom of the dive, that the heavily laden Lancaster would rip itself to pieces, trying to reverse the dive so harshly. Airspeed passed 250 knots as Readfearn missed the hole by half a mile.
Readfearn pushed the nose down further, trying to get a view of the landscape but the clouds were still thick. Airspeed 260 and they popped out from under the clouds. Readfearn levelled out, looked around, closed his eyes, trying to hold the view in his head, and then pulled back on the stick, trying to make the aircraft climb.
But it was very hard to pull back more than a little. “What’s wrong, number one? Why won’t she climb?”
“Too much airspeed, Sir. Vortices from the flaperons interfering with the elevators” grunted the first officer, leaning against his stick to stop it from being pulled back too sharply. Readfearn was concentrating too hard on the images in his mind to complain about the gibberish being spewed by another useless boffin.
Airspeed 180 and back on top of the clouds, Readfearn took stock. What recognizable landmarks could he have seen? Any alternate targets? He’d spent the nights not just supervising the minute detail of the physical preparation of the mission, but also the days memorizing aerial reconnaissance photographs, pinning them to a wall-sized map of the target area so that he should be able to locate himself at a glance from a single point of reference. Every castle, every train station, every church spire. They were all burned into his mind.
He rifled through the photographs in his mind, trying to match up any of them with any features that he’d just seen. There were on three; a castle on a rock, a church and a river’s signature meander.
It hit him like a flash; he knew that castle next to the river. He checked the map and there it was; the town of Mönchhausen, with its castle, next to the river. Striking at Mönchhausen would be harder blow to the enemy than the laboratories of a single scientist. The Lord of Mönchhausen was effectively the leader of the enemy, guiding its tactics, its policies and war-time research. His factories churned out devastating weapons; both old and new. Weapons against which there was ultimately; no defence.
It was indeed going to be Readfearn’s day. The day he would personally turn the tide of war. It’d have been a perfect day had he brought his shaving kit.
But he still had to make haste to gather the wing for the bombing run. He turned to the radio, realizing that the enemy might be listening, so he had to quickly form up his bombers to deliver their load.
He pressed the transmit button: “Guardian Leader to Guardian 2. Breaking radio silence. Come in 2. Over.”
There was silence.
Again: “Guardian Leader to Guardian 2. Breaking radio silence. Come in 2. Over.”
“George 2. Over”
“Standby for instructions. Guardian Leader to Henry Leader, Over.”
Again: “Guardian Leader to Henry Leader, Over.”
“Henry Leader, Over.”
“Standby for instructions. Guardian Leader to India Leader, Over.”
“India Leader, Over.”
“Guardian Leader to all squadron leaders. Target is below us, about 60 miles behind my position. Present heading is one four zero. Follow me out to 80 miles and prepare to commence attack run on course um… um … three two zero. I will remain above the clouds to guide you and the dive to attack through the cloud. Centre of target area is the castle and surrounding factories. Over.”
“George 2. Understood. Out.”
“Henry Leader. Understood. Out.”
“India Leader. Understood. Out.”
The late summer day was pretty much like any other in Mönchhausen; a balmy afternoon under cloudy skies. PoW farmer Pedro Manuel was taking a break in the shade of a tree, watching a prize steer taste the varieties of green and colour on the edge of the paddock. Pedro was glad to be out of the factory and back in the daylight and the farmer’s daughter seemed to enjoy his singing. At times like that, it wasn’t difficult to imagine that there was no war.
A bellow from the steer was the first thing that Pedro heard. The steer was looking up at the clouds and as Pedro looked up, he too heard the sound of a heavy bomber. Pedro felt fairly safe, knowing that bombers would be aiming at the factory in the valley; it was the small fighter-bombers that strafed the farms and people in the fields. Still looking up, he began singing a nursery rhyme to try to calm the steer, as he did back home with his cattle when there was a thunderstorm.
The sound of heavy engines grew louder and increased in pitch. They were definitely heading Pedro’s way. He kept his eyes to the sky but backed under a tree, looking between the leaves. The shape of a 4-engined heavy bomber dropped out of the clouds and Pedro felt a dreadful fear.
“Open bomb bay doors” ordered Readfearn, breaking through the clouds. His line was perfect; anything that fell short of the castle would hit factories and anything that went long would hit factories on the other side.
Readfearn switched to the radio and squealed “Tally Ho Chaps. Follow me in.”
On the intercom Readfearn asked “How are we for target, Blinky?”
“Steady sir, right on line. 30 seconds to release. Hold altitude. … 15 seconds … five. Bombs away”
And the Lancaster, lightened of the load it’d carried so far, bobbed into the air by what seemed like 100 feet. Readfearn heart seemed to leap in unison but he bumped his head on the ceiling of the cockpit before starting the climb back up above the clouds.
Anxious about the success of his bombing run, Readfearn got on the intercom: “Tail end. How did we do?”
“Well it’s hard to say, Sir. Most of it is still falling and looks to have been caught by a wind, blowing into the fields.”
Readfearn wasn’t happy. But there were still another 18 bombers behind him to inflict damage. Surely one of them would score a direct hit.
As quickly as his fear struck, it took flight as Pedro realized that it was just one bomber and not a larger formation. The lone bombers would, in his experience, only be dropping leaflets which at worst, he’d be forced to pick up and hand in, pretending not to have read any.
But this bomber was different. There weren’t thousands of fluttering leaflets. Instead, a variety of dark cylindrical objects were plummeting amidst what looked like large, rectangular sheets of material. As they fell further, he could see that the objects were multi-coloured, but strain as much as he could, his eyes could not recognize this new kind of weapon.
He crouched in terror. He wondered what evil would spring from the devices as they unfurled. Was it some kind of noxious gas?
Pedro didn’t have long to wait for an answer as one of the large rectangular shapes sailed right into the crown of the tree under which he was cowering. Instantly, he curled up but when nothing seemed to happen for a while, he uncovered his head to see a large carpet draped over the tree,
He could not help but laugh; from elation and at the apparent absurdity.
Pedro suddenly knew what to do next. He walked briskly to the steer, put a rope through his nose-ring and together they trotted to a nearby roll of carpet. Pedro peeled back one edge and realized that it was quite shoddy. Not discouraged, they trotted to another and as soon as he touched the pile inside the roll, he felt quality as one only does in the finest hotels and mansions.
It was a large, heavy roll, but Pedro somehow managed to balance it on the steer’s back. The course of the war had turned for Pedro. He would return to the farm with a carpet fit for a king.
Even in the years after the war, Pedro didn’t even try to work out why the British would be bombing enemy territory with carpets. He knew that such things were beyond his comprehension.
The war records remain silent for a long time as to the benefactor of Mönchhausen, the one who delivered comfort to man and beast alike during the depths of a terrible war. To this day, the farmers of Mönchhausen put carpet in their cow sheds in memory of an anonymous Samaritan.
This is a work of fiction. Any characters portrayed are fictitious and any similarity with real people is coincidental; even if amusing. The voices you hear are only in your mind.