'The Swan Lane Bunker'
by Phineas Redux
Summary:— This story is set in Great Britain in 1943. Flying Officers Claire 'Ricky' Mathews and Gabrielle Parker—lovers, pilots, and members of ATA, Air Transport Auxiliary, and the highly secret SOE, Special Operations Executive,—are made aware of pending operations, and their part therein.
Disclaimer:— All characters are copyright ©2020 to the author. All characters in this story are fictional, and any resemblance to real persons living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Caution:— There is some light swearing in this story.
"Man from the Ministry's here, ma'am."
Claire Mathews, ATA officer and member of the ultra-secret SOE, having opened the door of her, and her partner Gabrielle Parker's, private Nissen hut on the RAF base at Little Lanning, Norfolk, gazed unlovingly on the squaddie standing before her.
"Ministry? What Ministry? An' why?"
"Dun'no." The RAF private knowing his place. "Requests both yer presences in the briefing-room soon as yer like—his words, ma'am."
By this time, intrigued by the unfolding situation and her lover's querulous tone, Gabrielle had joined her heartmate.
"Some jerk from some Ministry throwin' his weight around." Claire smiling coldly at her companion. "Obviously thinks he's the Head Panjandrum of all he surveys. Where'd ya say this pric—bozo was, laddie?"
Seeing that his supposedly run of the mill journey was now suffering a sea-change into something far from rich but certainly strange the squaddie frowned, stepped back a couple of paces, and started stuttering.
"—er, briefing-room, ma'am."
"How'd he get there?" Gabrielle entering the interrogation with a beady eye on the youth, as if he were Dr Crippen redivivus.
"Jes' got there, ma'am." The private by now glancing around for either support or a quick escape route. "Eddie Gray, on the Main-gate, tol' me he barged in, drivin' a fancy Armstrong-Siddeley sedan, waved a card in Eddie's face an' swanned through in'ta camp like a good 'un."
"What'd Eddie do about that?" Gabrielle pretty sure of the answer.
"Only jes' stopped his squad from openin' fire on him, a'fore telephonin' HQ sharp as a whippet, ma'am."
"Resultin' in—?" Claire raising an interested eyebrow.
"He got through, straight-off, ter Wing-Commander Briesley, an' tol' him what was what, ma'am."
"And what did Wing-Commander Briesley say was what for the Orders of the Day?" Claire grinning like a well-fed cougar.
"Well, ma'am, Eddie was a trifle hazy there—but something along the lines o'seein' t'the ingrate good an' proper, pardon my langwidge, ladies."
"No, no, that's fine." Claire nodding happily at the level of common-sense shown by those in charge of the airfield. "You just trot back t'the briefing-room an', if he's still compos mentis an' not in the slammer already, tell this mandarin he can either sing for his supper, beg for pennies on the street-corner, or come over here his'self—only he had better dam' well have a dam' good reason behind him, or I'll shoot him for trespass, treason, an' intimidation of His Majesty's Officers. Got that?"
Struck dumb, the squaddie never having confronted two such Valkyries in real life before, he merely nodded and turned to retrace his path at a fair rate of knots.
"Well, wonder what's in the wind?" Gabrielle closing the door as they went back into their private Nissen lair. "Briesley won't take kindly t'his base bein' invaded by preposterous stuck-up jack-a-napes from any Ministry whatever, y'know."
"Yeah," Claire of much the same mind as they re-took their chairs at the table, picking up their coffee-mugs again. "Most of these Ministry characters seem t'think they own the world, an' require bowin' an' scrapin' to as if they was Royalty."
Hardly had this remark passed her lips than the green telephone by her elbow went-off in it's own personal manner.
"Oh-Oh," Gabrielle raising her eyebrows expectantly. "the hot-line."
"Hallo-yeah-yeah." Claire speaking coldly into the mouthpiece. "Iz'zat so? Yeah-yeah-OK."
A pause ensued, Claire merely frowning darkly at her cup. Finally, Gabrielle couldn't stand the strain any longer.
"So?" Claire, still deep in her personal thoughts. "So what?"
"What?" Gabrielle attempting clarity, and missing wildly.
"What?" Claire, coming to herself, a little at sea.
"Jeez, who was on the phone? An' what'd they say?"
"Oh, that." Claire fully aware of her surroundings once again. "That was Wing-Commander Briesley; just lettin' us know a visitor has arrived wishing our presence so he can inaugurate us in'ta some Secret, with a capital S. Briesley apparently being in the know already, himself."
"Jee-sus!" Gabrielle hardly impressed. "Just like him; but this's ridiculous, who's this tinpot dictator in the briefing-room then?"
"Only way t'find out's to obey Briesley's call, an' hit the briefing-room quick as lightning."
Gabrielle, usually so polite to those around her it hurt, had a deeply hidden mean streak which on occasion could be triggered in all its glory—this being one of those moments.
"Dam' it all; an' it's just past brekker, too—haven't had a chance t'even begin digesting same, Ricky?"
"Is that my fault?" Claire grabbing her uniform cap as she rose. "Come on, let's not dilly-dally—only make Briesley's hair go white quicker than it already is.
"We have a bunker in Swan Lane."
Wing-Commander Briesley sat behind the long map-table in the briefing-room staring intently at the two women opposite; he displaying all his well-known tendency towards the dramatic.
"Oh, really, sir?" Claire Mathews, not in the frame of mind for dramatics this morning.
Briesley pursed his lips, aware his audience was less than enthusiastic.
"For why, sir?" Gabrielle sat by her secret lover's side, just as little interested in the underworld doings of the RAF, WD, or whatever other devious Department was involved. "A bunker? How, er, nic-, er interesting."
Pushed to this limit of indifference Briesley, as by nature bound, came out fighting.
"Perhaps not so well set-up and important as Churchill's secret affair under Whitehall, I admit; the one everyone and their grandmother knows about; but of some importance to the ongoing War effort—if either of you are at all still interested in that area of the World's doings?"
The women sat back on their uncomfortable straight-backed chairs, mentally examining the theme of their commanding officer's conversation from all angles; then Claire rallied to the front once again.
"Something going on there we should know about, sir?"
"It's an entirely RAF show, so we already know all about it, ladies." Briesley happy to have managed to slip this in under his opponents' guard. "In fact, not even Major Rankin, of the Seventeenth Regiment, knows about it—something I want to continue indefinitely. So, no Idle Talk, if you please!"
Both Claire and Gabrielle, having caught the use of initials in this last remark, responded together.
"Nuthin' ter talk about, sir." Gabrielle sounding as mean as she felt.
"What Bunker, sir?" Claire tending towards the more offensive, as her New Zealand temperament dictated. "Under Swan Lane, sir? Give over."
Briesley, having already half-suspected this level of disregard, sighed heavily, glanced at the peeling grey ceiling, and sat forward again, ready for the fray.
"I think, perhaps, after all, it's just as well Mr Langmore here, from the War Office, has come down to visit us this morning,—."
As he spoke Claire and Gabrielle turned their attention to the thin middle-height middle-aged man in a curiously neutral grey suit sitting beside Briesley. A Ministry man in every iota of his impersonal being, without a doubt.
"Mr Langmore—Pilot Officer Claire Mathews and ditto Gabrielle Parker. Both ATA officers, and SOE—"
"Sir!" Claire appalled by this seeming indiscretion.
"Sir!" Gabrielle no less taken aback.
"He already knows, ladies." Briesley shrugging his shoulders, unconcerned. "He had to know, in fact; dependent on the new role Mr Langmore's here to acquaint you both with."
Claire was first to react to this statement, dubious as it was from start to finish.
"Role? What role, sir?" She raising a pointedly suspicious eyebrow.
"I can answer that question, ladies, if I may." Mr Langmore's tone that of a long experienced mathematics teacher at a Public School. "We at the WO have for some time past been incubating certain, aah, plans and stratagems of an International nature. Now, from this point on, ladies, everything I tell you both is strictly secret with a capital S; not to be discussed with anyone whatever, at any time whatever, anywhere whatever. Do you both understand that concept and disposition?"
"—er, yes, sir." Claire answering in the only way left open.
"Yes-sir." Gabrielle much more succinct.
"Right. Well, to specifics," Langmore sitting straight and almost glaring at the women. "—we're preparing for the initial assault—invasion, actually,—of France in the early part of next year. Comments?"
Staggered by this tidbit of information both women could only sit back on their chairs, glancing dumbfounded at each other.
"Yes, thought it might take you that way." Langmore smiling coldly. "Nonetheless, that is what is in the wind—a full military attack on France within nine months. And for that we are expanding operations in all directions; air, sea, and land forces all being enlarged, grouped together, liaising with America, and generally sorting ourselves out. To which end, in about another week you two will be under orders from the bunker in Swan Lane, in Norwich."
"Are we moving in—leaving Little Lanning?" Gabrielle unhappy at the thought.
"No, you'll still be flying, ostensibly as RAF personnel, from here." Langmore shaking his head. "No change there, though you will use the bunker weekly on certain days; only your mentor Group Captain Graham, from some sub-division of SOE, will be acting in line with the necessities of War as seen by the bods in the bunker from now on. Your, er, activities being changed rather comprehensively, in fact."
This brought out all Claire's suspicious nature, as by Honour bound.
"Changed, in what way, sir?"
"Primarily, you'll be flying Lysanders' into France with agents, lots of them." Langmore consulting a file on the table in front of him. "Also, at a later date, nearer the invasion, you'll both be re-trained on Stirlings to haul gliders laden with paratroopers on the actual day of, and for weeks after, the invasion. To the dropping zones all across the Front Line, y'know."
"Jee-sus!" Claire, otherwise incoherent.
"My God!" Gabrielle equally flabbergasted.
"So, the next item on your schedule for today is a visit to the bunker itself." Langmore now fully in command of the interview. "You won't have heard of its existence up to now—in fact, I'm sure of that; we having been ever so secret about it, from every conceivable direction. I'll hand you back to Squadron-Leader Briesley for the details, ladies. Thank you."
"Squadron-Leader Thompkins is there at the moment." Briesley picking up a flimsy sheet of WD issue paper which he passed to Claire. "Here—the codeword for the day; the password for the week, and the secret recognition sign for the month: harumph, whole thing reminds me of an old Buster Keaton movie I saw in my cherished youth—but, no matter! Number twenty-five Swan Lane—looks like the entrance to an Ironmonger's store. You say James Arbuthnut Golightly to Mrs Cairnes, the woman behind the counter, and she presses a button to open the door to the stairs leading down, or something analogous. Got that? By the way, when you've both memorised the contents of that flimsy kindly pass it back so I can burn the dam' thing."
"What? Now, sir?" Claire caught short by this request.
"Yes, now, Flying-Officer. You too, Flying-Officer Parker. Come along, time's precious."
"Oh, God, yessir."
"Oh, alri—I mean, yessir."
Swan Lane, in the centre of Norwich, was as unprepossessing as its name suggested. Of no great length, it tended to the decrepit as by Nature bound; there being only some small mechanics' workshops and a handful of failing businesses along its length; these buildings, of themselves, tending to the tenemental slum in architectural terms—most having been built in the middle of the last century and not touched since. Peeling sun-blistered paint, flaking brickwork, granite setts still surfacing the narrow roadway, and a curious aroma of old rotting vegetation hanging in the air. Hardly surprisingly, when Claire and Gabrielle drove along the confined twisting Lane in their RAF Tilly van in search of their mysterious destination, they found themselves almost the only persons in sight.
"One woman pushing a pram; one old man having trouble, over there, lighting his pipe, and a mangy cat." Claire, having climbed out their vehicle, gazed at the local scenery with distaste. "Come on, where'n hell's number twenty-five?"
"Here, Ricky; right by your left hand." Gabrielle on top of the navigational elements of the affair. "You remember the code what-not's?"
Inside the dusty confines of the supposed shop there wasn't much to see. The interior being long and narrow; a dusty dirty wall on the right, while the left side was taken up with a low counter, vintage 1845, behind which resided a bank of wooden drawers with labels and the cicerone of the establishment—a lady no longer in her youth who looked a fairish adversary to the Medusa herself.
"Mrs Cairnes?" Claire stepping in where Angels—
"Who wants ter know?" The shopkeeper giving her latest customers a less than welcoming glare. "Rent's paid t'the end o'the month, water's paid fer the year, Gas an' Electric's paid fer six month; wha' yer want? Come ter buy something, 'ave yer?"
Fed up with the niceties Gabrielle launched herself into the fray.
"James Arbuthnut Golightly! The rhubarb is looking good, this year."
A pause ensued, Mrs Cairnes taking in the physical presence of the two women with the look of a hungry eagle spotting a rabbit at close quarters. Finally, she replied.
"Yeah, but the watercress's poor, in the stream. Gabardine!"
"Topcoat." Claire not to be outdone in sparring with code-words.
"Yuu-ur!" Mrs Cairnes, defeated, let them pass. "Along at the end, there; go through the curtain, open the door, press the button, an' the lift'll take yer down. OK?"
The bunker itself, once one was inside it and staring around at the bare concrete walls, was larger and yet more characterless than imagined.
"Looks like Baker Street Underground station." Gabrielle reacting to first impressions, just as a man in an RAF uniform strode up to meet the new visitors. "Ah, hallo, sir."
"Hallo,—Squadron-Leader Thompkins, Head of this section." His voice deep and rumbling, he being around thirty years of age. "You'll be the ladies from Little Lanning? Glad to meet you; come on into my office, and I'll let you in on the details of our little operation. This way."
The main room they had entered, after exiting the lift, was long and slightly curved; its length filled by 6 desks occupied by two male and two female clerks—so that, after leaving the lift behind, they lost sight of it as they came up to a brick wall with two doors, Thompkins' opening the right-hand door and waving his guests in ahead of him.
The office was bare, cool, and stoical in furnishing. Bare brick floor, bare concrete ceiling, bare brick walls; one desk, three plain wooden chairs, a single metal filing cabinet, and a strange low hum emanating from a metal grille vent in the far wall. Thompkins, slipping behind his desk, waved the women to the other chairs.
"Lets take this from the beginning, shall we?" He smiling rather coldly. "You're both here because of your connections with S.O.E.—"
"We don't talk about that—in public, sir." Claire snapping the Squadron-Leader off before he got any further. "Highly secret, and all that, sir."
Thompkins sat silently, gazing at his visitors with an icy stare.
"I have had orders, permission, to engage in discussing the situation." He sat back as he continued, feeling himself on more comfortable ground. "From a Group-Captain Graham, in Somerset House, London; he filled me in on your backgrounds, somewhat against his better judgement, I felt; but, there you are. Anyway, your S.O.E. experiences are a basis for what we here, at Planning, Design, and Preparation, are working on."
Claire and Gabrielle looked at each other, wondering where the conversation was headed.
"What would that be, sir?" Claire raising an eyebrow, hoping she looked intelligent as she did so.
Having reached the crux of the matter, Jackson suddenly became defensive in the extreme. He flipped a switch on the intercom on his desk, speaking sharply.
"Miss Knowles? No calls, till I say so, OK?"
"Right, that's that out of the way." He settling back again, seemingly happier. "So, our work here, at PDP. What it is, is we're working on the—ah, the, uum; well, to come to the point—we're planning the invasion of Europe— France, to be exact."
This piece of information, gigantic as it undoubtedly was, failed to catch the women off-guard as a result of their earlier acquaintance with Mr Langmore.
"Are you indeed?" Gabrielle regarding the officer with some doubt. "That'll take a hell-uvva lot more planning and personnel than you have in this shelter, sir. It'd involve all the Military Departments in the whole country, as well as the Commonwealth, and America. You telling us they're all involved, sir? From this bunker, in Norwich?"
Jackson seemed prepared for such an almost derogatory outlook.
"To some extent, yes." He nodding in agreement. "Everyone's in it, that's certain. You can take that for granted. What we here are involved in particularly is, admittedly, a small segment of the whole—RAF operations dealing with the primary preparations for the actual invasion. Sending agents and equipment over to France, mainly. That's where your experience is exactly what we require."
Claire and Gabrielle again, having been pre-briefed, now understood precisely why they were there; not that either was happy about it.
"Special Ops, to France?" Claire responding to a subject she, and her partner, knew a great deal about. "We've done a lot of such in the recent past, right up to today, sir. Are you saying that from now on we'll be more than ever focused on this area?"
"Well, yes, is the short answer." Thompkins shuffling a few sheets of paper he pulled from a thin file in front of him. "Preparing for a vast invasion, across a huge area, takes an enormous amount of groundwork. Our small portion deals with sending agents into France, along with a variety of associated equipment. Much as you have been doing, as you say; but in a much more specific manner, from now on."
Gabrielle here took up the argument.
"So you are saying we'll be far busier, sir? And will all this take place from Little Lanning?"
"Yes, and yes." Thompkins giving another chilly smile as he found the ground under his feet becoming far solider again. "Particular agents, particular equipment, and numerous sorties over a far wider extended dropping-zone. France, Belgium, Holland; perhaps even Italy—or Norway, where I'm told you already have much experience?! Good! Good! So, my main interest here is putting you both in the picture; letting you know what's going on; giving you the reasons behind what you will clearly see as an upturn in your sorties, both in numbers and type."
The women contemplated this news for a significant amount of time, having a lot to digest.
"When does it all kick-off, sir?" Gabrielle coming to the point with efficient determination.
"And will we be working with a larger group, sir?" Claire thinking about another point of interest. "It'll surely be far more difficult to keep overall secrecy, as it all goes forward?"
"The secrecy aspect is a thing, certainly." Jackson nodding to himself. "Certainly an important angle. You will find, all in all, that secrecy around this area expands its borders rather widely. Something you'll both just have to get used to. As to the start of Ops; well, I was thinking about a week from now the equipment and, er, agents will begin to flow. It'll mean a lot more sorties over to France, using both Stirlings and Lysanders, as circumstances dictate."
"Ah." From Claire, feeling the weight of the Ages descending on her shoulders.
"Uum." Gabrielle, hardly more impressed.
"So, lets get down to the nitty-gritty, shall we?" Jackson passing documents across his desk. "If you take a look at these they'll clarify some details. First, as you see, there's—"
Forty-five minutes later, having been put in the picture to a clearer, greater, extent by the information contained in the top secret files provided by Squadron-Leader Thompkins the women found themselves in command of some of the most sensitive activities at present going forward in the War. Thompkins, on his part, looking for all the world as if the revelation of this information had taken the effect he had expected.
"Well, now you're both up to the mark on the general details, we'll take a spin round the bunker, shall we?"
"This bunker, sir?" Gabrielle caught a little off-guard.
"Yes, the room you saw outside is only a small proportion of the whole." Thompkins seeming delighted to spring this surprise on his visitors as well. "There are six more chambers or halls, and two further exit-entrances. We run a big show here, y'know."
Half an hour after this Claire and Gabrielle found themselves back in Thompkins' office, having been taken round one of the largest underground complexes either woman had ever imagined never mind actually experienced.
"The place's as big as a palace, sir." Claire, for one, mightily impressed.
"Yes, seems so, doesn't it." Thompkins almost visibly preening at this approval. "Six large rooms; eighty-five personnel; enough radio equipment to sink a cruiser; and radio-telephone connection to much of the rest of the country, including far-flung units on land and sea—not to mention in the air. Yes, a pretty complex set-up; and now you two are part of it, as well."
Claire and Gabrielle stared at each other, like that man in the poem standing on a mountain-top in Darien looking at the Pacific—and with just about as much amazement.
The Nissen hut on the RAF base at Little Lanning, Norfolk, which provided all the attributes of a private residence with none of the associated comforts for the two airwomen was a hive of activity that evening as Claire and Gabrielle sat at their main table gazing at a whole mass of plans and detailed surveys of the bunker in Swan Lane—all highly Top Secret.
"When does Thompkins want these back?"
"Friday at the latest." Claire taking up this theme. "If not, the redcaps'll be at our door in regiments, apparently."
"Huurph!" Gabrielle no whit impressed. "It's Wednesday today—so-oo, we got three days, max?"
"Technically, yeah. What's the problem?"
"Oh, no problem; only, we're gon'na have'ta do some major studying here." Gabrielle frowning over this distressing addition to her daily grind. "Plans, personnel, equipment, communications; it's a large organisation all round. They really mean to go places, don't they?"
"And take us along for the ride" Claire not losing sight of their sudden inclusion in the personnel department. "We havin' been sort'a press-ganged, as ya might say."
"There's that." Gabrielle acknowledging this point. "Looks like we'll be making a great many more sorties over the Channel from now on. Makes you wonder if that won't increase our chances of eventually being shot down?"
"Our little run down t'Swan Lane endin' up givin' you the heebie-jeebies, gal?"
Irked in so blatant a manner by her lover Gabrielle came back fighting from this comment.
"Nothing of the sort, lady." She sneering lovingly. "The more chances I'm given t'give Jerry a bloody nose the happier I'll be—as you well know. Anyway, we'll just have to change direction, as it were. Take our future sorties from a different angle; we now knowing what the long-range destination is."
"Yeah, see what ya mean." Claire nodding in agreement.
"Though I got'ta say, invading France, and most of the rest of Europe for that matter, ain't just a jog before breakfast." Gabrielle taking the wide view. "We're gon'na be working amongst a whole lot'ta new friends from now on—not just Yanks, either."
Claire shuffled the sheets of paper around on the table-top, while considering this aspect of their dual futures.
"Can you see us piloting one of those giant Yank Flying Fortress's', for instance?"
Gabrielle was up for this, however.
"Couldn't be any more difficult than a Sunderland, I bet."
"Glad ya think so, ducks."
The next day found the ladies back at Swan Lane, this time under the tutelage of WAAF warrant officer Lorna Barnes who apparently knew all the intimate details associated with the secret complex.
"This's your office, ladies." Lorna opening the door to a relatively large wide room. "Let's see—two desks, four chairs, three file cabinets, a fan in the ceiling, air vent in the wall, there; and five telephones. The phones, by the way, are colour-coded; the black is an outside line, just press One first; the green is scrambled, for all those really intimate conversations you need to have day by day; the brown takes you directly to Little Lanning—yes, there's no escape; and the yellow goes to the WD in London, from where you can be directed to any other military HQ."
"What about the red?" Gabrielle pinpointing the elephant in the room with verve and dash.
"Ah, the red." Lorna regarding the item under discussion with something like temerity. "That's an incoming line—doesn't let you make outgoings. It comes direct from the War bunker under Whitehall. Winnie's city pad, you know."
Gabrielle looked across at Claire, who returned the compliment, both in silence. Gabrielle finally breaking the Gordian Knot.
"Winnie?" She raising her eyebrows in astonishment. "—er, how often would we be likely to take calls on that line? Just out'ta interest, you know?"
Lorna gave this question serious attention, frowning over it before replying.
"On average, about three times a week," She nodding competently over this fact of life. "maybe more—he, Winston, having a deep personal interest in every dam' detail of the War across the board. It's usually his secretary who calls, by the way; Winston, now and again, sure, but not often in person."
"Well, that's something to think about." Gabrielle giving a soft sigh. "Nothing like waiting, of a day, for the PM to ring-up an' raise Cain over something."
"Don't worry," Lorna giving her students a wide grin. "he's usually in a good mood. So, if you're both happy, I'll leave you to it. My office's at the end of corridor D; my name's on the door. See ya."
Five minutes later, with the door firmly closed, Gabrielle and Claire sat at their respective desks contemplating their new direction in Life.
"Give me a rundown on exactly what we're doing here?"
Claire gazed at her partner, considering this question with little of the certainty shown by Lorna.
"We're meant to be here every Tuesday, taking calls from various Department's about the agents being educated for the upcoming sorties in France and elsewhere." She shrugged, noncommittally. "Then there's the methods of getting the agents over enemy territory—Lysanders, Stirlings, whatever. An', finally, when the whole thing blows up, taking parachute troops over France—gliders an' tugs, an' so forth."
"Sounds like we'll be dam' busy." Gabrielle taking the pragmatic outlook. "There'll be lots of Departments pulling on our coat-tails to get the icing on the cake before anyone else."
Claire was up for this, however.
"Just as well we'll be here, on the other end of their phone-calls, then." She grinning at the prospect like a werewolf in the night. "I'll enjoy puttin' them right."
"Don't I know it, lover." Gabrielle accepting the obvious. "But what about what we want? I mean, we have needs—vis-à-vis the sorties we'll be making—that need answers. Where do we go to get answers, ducks?"
"Well, we're well stocked with phones, seems t'me; what d'you think, my lady-gay?"
"Har!" Gabrielle seeing where her lover was going. "In that case, bags I the yellow phone first—I got things t'ask the WD, and now I've got the chance, I'm gon'na take it and have fun."
"Jeez, sorry for whoever ya link-up with, gal."
"What was that, dear?" Gabrielle busy ringing a number on her phone.
"Nuthin', carry on, lady." Claire well-knowing where safety lay.
The morning didn't go to plan—at least, as far as the two lady's expected; Gabrielle most of all.
"This dam' yellow phone's a menace, lover." She having spent half an hour trying to make contact with a particular sub-department of the RAF. "I've been onto the War Department-the Home Office-the RAF HQ-and some unidentified Department in Whitehall who were very stroppy that I had their phone-number at all, never mind my questions. And I still haven't contacted Office P, Equipment and Supplies, RAF; if it exists at all."
Claire herself, meanwhile, had been suffering under much the same dark cloud.
"Know what ya mean." She shaking her head in company with her partner. "I've been on this black phone for the last fifteen minutes, trying to contact the Algrove Glider School in Hampshire, and in doing so I've been put through to seven different locations, none within fifty miles of where I want."
"Seems t'me the bods are gon'na take longer organising this invasion than they may think." Gabrielle letting her cat-like nature come to the fore.
"Maybe it'll all get smoother with experience." Claire clutching at straws.
The women gazed somewhat distractedly at their collection of telephones.
"Which one was that?" Gabrielle searching for clarity.
"Green, I think."
Gabrielle dutifully picked up the aforesaid coloured receiver, but without success.
"Try the brown, then."
Gabrielle replaced one receiver in order to pick-up another.
"No, dead again."
"That ain't no help."
"God! It's the red!" Gabrielle nearly struck dumb. "Wha'd'we do?"
Hardly able to comprehend the nature of their position herself Claire was reduced to making semaphore signals with her arms apropos signaling her partner to pick the receiver up.
"What? What? Oh, right!" Gabrielle finally getting the message. "Hallo, sir? Who,—me, I'm manning the phones t'day. Oh, I see, Flying-Officer Gabrielle Parker, sir, Ess-Ell-One-One-Seven. Yes, that's us. Who're—er,—Oh, I see. Yes-yes-yes-yes- well, g'by—oh, you're gone."
Claire waited all of thirty seconds, contemplating her loved partner sitting contemplating, in her turn, the now silent red phone.
"Well, invasion starting tomorrow, or what? Winston calling t'make sure we take our cocoa tonight in preparation?"
Gabrielle, obviously still under a certain level of shock, gazed at her companion before replying.
"A Major-General Harrison, called t'tell us Winnie wants a run-down on the glider situation at Algrove tomorrow morning, ten o'clock. Seemed rather abrupt; but then, suppose you get that way in the Whitehall bunker after a while."
Gabrielle regarded her loved better half with less than her normal esteem
"Is that code for something uplifting, or are you just mumbling?"
Claire, used to her partner's attitude under stress, merely made a face and reached for the black phone beside her.
"Been tryin' t'contact Algrove this last half hour. If I can't reach 'em in the next hour I'm dam' well ringin' up Whitehall an' askin' Winston t'start a search of the Western Approaches for 'em. God, they must be somewhere in England, you'd think? Why can't I get through to them?"
Gabrielle, however, had the answer to this.
"You've been going through the ordinary, wrong, channels, is what." She now having a much clearer idea of how the world worked under Swan Lane. "Phoning the WD'll only ever have you kicked from pillar t'post. Use the green phone."
Claire looked at her companion with something of a ingenuous expression.
"What's the green got the black don't?"
"The black's for common or garden conversations," Gabrielle warming to her theory with every second. "The green's scrambled—means it's probably set more accurately. I mean, you phone a number, it'll get you through precisely, in record time—no operators in between, you see. Try it."
Highly dubious of this untested theory Claire nonetheless, having no other recourse, took her lover's advice—ten seconds later she was talking to the Warrant officer on duty at Algrove Glider Training School.
"Jeez! What? Oh, I'm calling from Ess-Ell-One-One-Seven, codeword-Donald's Bane. Right, so, what I want is a complete run-down on the glider situation at your place, snappy as you can, please. What? Well, numbers, pilots and their various levels of competence, any accidents occurring in the last month, costs of fuel and accessories, et cetera. The whole catalogue, in fact. When? This evening, ten pip emma at the latest, or there'll be action taken, OK? OK."
Gabrielle was impressed.
"Whee! Brutal, harsh, dominating, and ruthless. Think I like this side of your character, lover."
The next day, Friday, secure once more in their private Nissen Hut on the RAF base at Little Lanning, Norfolk, Claire and Gabrielle found that they weren't to have a quiet holiday—the bunker back in Swan Lane, Norwich clearly knowing precisely where they lived.
"You're nearer, you get it, lover." Gabrielle not up to the three paces needed to do it herself.
"Huh!" Claire doing as asked, but only because it was Gabrielle. "Hallo. What? Oh, right. Lem'me get a pencil—OK, fire away. Yeah—yeah—iz'zat so, who'd a'known. Yeah, got that—OK, bye."
"That was some mighty fine note-taking, lady." Gabrielle giving praise where due. "Think you broke your stenographer's record there."
"Har-har!" Claire not impressed with this stab at humour. "Like t'see your attempt, is all. So, that was Edwin, at the bunker, tellin' us the Algrove details came through alright, and have been sent on to Whitehall."
"Hope they keep Winston happy for the remainder of the week." Gabrielle sitting at the long table regarding a pile of folders spread out in front of her. "See these, lover? Everything you'd ever want t'know about invading a nearby continent, but hadn't ever thought of asking, before. It's all here—graphs, notes, amounts, equipment, warships, aircraft, army vehicles—"
"Army vehicles? A bit hazy there, ain't we?"
"Tanks, mainly." Gabrielle addressing this complaint. "Dam' hundreds of the things—never knew we had so many different types. Lorries by the thousand; Tilly's by the hundred, then personal equipment. Do you know, they've even taken it all down to toothbrush an' razor an' soap level—and individual metal dishes for eating an' drinking."
"What about guns?" Claire obviously thinking about the main duty of a soldier in the field under fire. "Rifles, Bren guns, pistols, et-cetera?"
"Oh, that's all here, right enough." Gabrielle nodding as she consulted several files at once, skimming their contents like an expert. "Everything you said, an' more."
"Yeah, bazookas—why not?"
"Nuthin', carry on."
"Yeah, well, where was I? Ah, yes—there's a great deal of paper and accounting been wasted on detailing parachutes, and their associated users." Gabrielle reading silently from one of the files. "Looks like the majority of the initial invaders, on our side, will be parachutists; which brings us to the part where we become personally involved."
Claire could smell bed eggs with the best, and now was one of those times.
"Gliders, you understand don't fly themselves, not having engines or propellers."
"Which means they have to be hauled aloft and dragged through the air by a tug, a real aeroplane—in this case mostly Stirlings."
"Ah, our old forlorn warhorses bein' given a new lease of life, eh?"
Before Gabrielle could continue her recitation of the great build-up to the prospective invasion their telephone rang once more.
Being closest Gabrielle now took the strain of communicating with the outside world.
"Hallo? Who am I? What d'you mean, who am I? Oh, right, got'cha. This is Department Kay, codeword-Alhambra. Yeah, OK. So, what's up? Yeah-yeah-Jee-sus! OK, got it. How many? You sure? Sorry, yeah-yeah, go on. Right-right-OK, got that, bye-oh, you're gone. Dam' those guys at the bunker don't waste words, do they?"
"They also seem t'be goin' way out'ta their way to keep us wholly unnecessarily up-to-date, seems t'me. So, what?"
"Well, jewel of my life, guess what?"
But Claire was way past guessing games by this time in the morning.
"Ante-up, lady, a'fore I gets mean an' nasty."
"Oo-er," Gabrielle not in the least scared by this wholly obsolete tactic. "Only that the bunker wants us to know that tomorrow, at break of day arising, ten, count them ten, Stirlings will arrive here at Little Lanning, curtesy of ferry pilots from various parts unknown."
"Ten!" Claire astonished against her better judgement.
"Wholly ten, perhaps more, if we're lucky." Gabrielle consulting the notes she had made of the late telephone conversation. "He, Charlie I think it was, wasn't quite sure of the numbers—but ten certainly, for sure, maybe fifteen."
"Jee-sus!" Claire hardly able to contemplate this sudden increase of the bomber type at their small base from one to unlimited, even unknown numbers. "And our secret orders—you've read 'em yourself back at Swan Lane, make it clear we're in charge, at least of the planning, supplying and training aspect. Jeez, we'll be run off our feet. Hey, doll, one more thing—what about the gliders? We'll need, what, around fifteen, maybe twenty? Where're they comin' from?"
Gabrielle had this detail to hand, she having earlier gone through the assorted files with the eye of an eagle.
"They're coming by low-loader, lots of them. Doesn't specify their origins exactly, but mostly Algrove, I'd imagine. They'll have t'be assembled on arrival—wings fixed in place, canopies attached, all internal equipment put onboard; parachutes by the dozen, I'd imagine. God, it'll be a nightmare."
Claire, meanwhile, had been contemplating yet another aspect related to this sudden influx of aircraft and equipment.
"Where're all the crew gon'na stay? Stirlings take seven; fifteen'll mean at least one hundred and five personnel; not to mention the soldiers, the parachutists themselves. How many of them will there be?"
Gabrielle bent her head once again over her assortment of top-secret files, finally coming back to the surface with an answer, if not specifically the absolute one.
"The gliders are called Horsa's; capable of carrying twenty-five to thirty fully armed troops, with all their equipment. God, we're gon'na have to have training ourselves, to handle towing one of those into the air, don't you think?"
"I think—I most definitely think!" Claire making her opinion known across the board. "You already know how much of a diva Stirlings can be—towing an enormous glider close behind it's tail won't increase their flying characteristics, you bet'cha."
Gabrielle thought about this for a few seconds, not liking what she came up with.
"It'll all take-off in the next few days, for sure." She shaking her head over this scenario. "Yeah, I know Stirlings—there's gon'na be several prangs before we're through. Ground loops, undercart failures; God, in-flight catastrophes! I ain't looking forward to the next fortnight, not one bit."
Claire rose from her chair to sit close by her lover, putting a comforting arm round the brunette's shoulders.
"Never fear, dear—Ricky's here for ya, every minute of our combined futures."
Gabrielle turned her head to gaze at her companion.
"Well, that makes it all OK, don't it, lover of my life? What the hell am I complaining about, then?"
Another 'Mathews and Parker' story will arrive shortly.