9. Danger mounts, and the might of the Royal Air Force confronts the Empire’s nemesis - Book Four - Fog on the Clyde by A.J. Hall
Flying-Officer Percy Arbuthnot was uncomfortably aware that behind his back the men referred to him as “Prune”. “The Prune” was used on the rare occasions when they chose to be formal.
In the long watches of the night he frequently and miserably meditated on how his life might have been different if he had not had the misfortune to be born with one uncle a Air-Vice-Marshal, another a Rear-Admiral, and had his own father not perished in the mud of Flanders six months before he himself drew breath.
God had meant him for a meteorologist. Occasionally he allowed himself to believe that he might have made a good one.
A good civilian meteorologist.
He had never asked to be an officer in the RAF; never asked to have that particular weight of guilt and obligation hanging over him. Certainly never asked to have the command of a base entrusted to him, with all that that entailed.
True; one weather station in the wilds of Wester Ross was hardly a critical element in the nation’s airborne defence network: it was, Flying-Officer Arbuthnot often thought bitterly, almost tailor-made as a Services oubliette for officers of modest talent and glittering family connections. He was sure the men - who would not have ended up here had they, too, been among the shining ornaments of the Service - knew that just as well as he did.
The entire complement of aircraft on the station consisted of a superannuated and heavily cannibalised Hawker Hart Trainer. That was probably just as well; the field at the head of the sea-loch was the only place for miles around which was flat enough to support an airstrip, and even that wasn’t very extensive. Principally they used the ‘plane for photographing intricate cloud formations, wave heights and storm spray patterns, and to give off-shore spotter support to the Coastguard services located along the Minch and Cape Wrath shores. When winter came in earnest the ‘plane would also be pressed into service by this isolated, closed community for tasks such as locating missing sheep, and dropping bundles of hay, and parcels of medicines and the like to farmsteads cut off by snow in the high glens.
Had it just been the flying, and the collection of technical weather statistics to correlate and analyse, Arbuthnot would have found his lot in life a happy one. Had he only been the junior weather officer on a large aerodrome, with his allocated specialism filling all his days, that would have answered everything that he wanted out of life.
It was command - the permanent haunting sense that he was bound to have overlooked something of crucial importance, and the omission would inevitably come to light with horrific consequences which would be All His Fault - that made his days a sick misery and his nights broken and full of bad dreams.
As a concrete example, what was he supposed to do with this situation?
He cleared his throat - that was safe, at least - and looked across at Cullinan. He aimed for a suitably impressive bark, but suspected it came over as more as a bronchial cough. Nevertheless, he ploughed onwards.
“Yes? I take it you’ve chosen to bring your little friend into my office for a reason?”
He jerked his head somewhere in the general direction of Douggie McLaggan. Arbuthnot was uncomfortably aware just how far he fell short of that omniscience which he had been told since kindergarten was both the birthright and the duty of a British officer, but nevertheless he knew in what category to place McLaggan.
Cullinan stood his ground a precise metre-and-a-half on the far side of Arbuthnot’s desk. His face was wooden.
“Sir,” he said. “Douggie found himself early this morning on the Ramsay Estate.”
Arbuthnot took a second or so to appreciate the quintessentially British nature of that particular nomenclature. The last of the Ramsays had expired ingloriously at Lucknow, and the line of distant cousins who had succeeded them had been extinguished somewhere between White’s, Tattersalls and Rorke’s Drift. The creditors had sold to a succession of mushroom industrialists of greater or lesser permanence, the most recent of whom - an American - had taken possession little before Arbuthnot himself had come on station. But, for all that, the fragmented sporting preserves to the North and West of the ‘drome were, immemorially, “the Ramsay Estate”.
“Oh?” he said coldly. “Doubtless in the development of his fishmongery business? Or perhaps his - ah - promotion of the spirit trade?”
It was an even bet in these parts that the locals were up to their necks in salmon-poaching or illicit distilling. It was almost insulting for McLaggan and Cullinan to give him that exaggeratedly innocent look, almost as if they assumed he knew - or was capable of understanding - nothing about the area.
“It just so happened. Sir.” Cullinan said, a wounded tone in his voice. “But he thought you ought to know about the airship. And the warbirds. Up by the house. That he just happened upon. When he was there.”
Unexpectedly Arbuthnot found himself on his feet, leaning over his desk, all of his weight resting - who knew how they had come there? - upon his knuckles.
McLaggan nodded. “He has the right of it, sir. A Zeppelin - or near enough- and six fighter planes around her. On the lawns below the West Terrace, where they say her old Ladyship - God rest her! - still walks looking for her son coming home from the Indies -“
This sort of thing had never been something he could handle. He cleared his throat. Truly, it had only been a reflex, but it seemed to have an effect he had never experienced before.
“Sorry, sir,” McLaggan said hurriedly. “But I served in Flanders, and I’d not want to see those days come again, if there were aught I could do to stop it. And it seemed to me that if you weren’t after knowing what was up there, then maybe you should. Sir.”
Arbuthnot cursed under his breath. Someone - the remote, hypothetical someone who in Arbuthnot’s dreams ran this crazy base and regularly saved the British Empire with unflurried omniscience - might have known what to do about this emergency. That concentration of fire-power on a remote and private estate might have an innocent explanation, but he had no time to waste if it didn’t. What to do? Call for help? Wet, but at least practical. And Arbuthnot hardly had pride to lose.
“Cullinan!” he said sharply. “Priority dispatch! To HQ, at once!”
For once in his life Cullinan ripped up a smart salute.
“Sir!” Then a pause, a head placed enquiringly on one side. “Dispatch to say what, sir?”
With a sick sense of his own inadequacy Arbuthnot realised he had no idea whatsoever.
“To say - of course to say - ” he wavered.
And then - miracle unlooked for - Gresford burst into the office.
“Seven unidentified moving objects spotted on the -” he recognised McLaggan the civilian, and - mindful of the Official Secrets Acts - came to an abrupt and belatedly decorous pause.
“That is: on the - ah - on the Thing, sir.”
McLaggan looked studiously into the middle distance.
“I’ve often thought for a man in your position the radar apparatus must be fine and convenient, sir.”
Gresford’s eyes had the intentness of a pleading spaniel. Together with the spaniel’s hope and trust that nothing would truly hurt it. Something outside Arbuthnot had taken control of his voice, though.
Gresford swallowed. “A - um - big one- or, or course, a near one and - um - six not so big ones. Or six big ones further away.”
Arbuthnot ground his teeth. The radar gadget might be a little temperamental at times - and very definitely on the Top Secret list (though not top secret enough for the locals not to know all about it, evidently; they’d probably incorporated it into the local poaching network somehow or other) - but the men ought to have a little better sense at interpreting it. And this was something he’d worked on. He knew he had. At least; he’d tried.
“Get my plane ready,” he snapped. “I’m going up to take a closer look.”
Gresford, too, seemed belatedly to have learned the art of the smart salute. He and Cullinan exchanged a glance, and Cullinan ducked out of his office.
“Vector?” Arbuthnot snapped at Gresford, unrolling the large scale map of the Scottish Highlands across his desk. Gresford reached for the parallel rules, and extended a line down from the centre of the Ramsey Estate south and east.
Arbuthnot gulped. There were many things that could lie on that line, but indisputably one that did.
Balmoral. Where the King, the Queen and the princesses were at this very moment enjoying an unseasonable holiday.
And - Arbuthnot cast his eye over that map - between here and Royal Deeside there was very little else by way of defence for them, if they were indeed the enemy objective.
The time for hesitation - for debate - was over.
He shrugged into his flying jacket and left his office at a dead run towards the hanger through which was being pushed the superannuated Hawker Hart trainer in which it was his bounden duty to stop six fighter plans and a Zeppelin.
Cullinan, white-faced, met him where the crew were wheeling back the hangar doors.
“All power’s down to the base, Sir!” he reported. “And our comms lines are out. Oh, and Ferguson’s gone AWOL. And it looks like he’s taken the codes for the day with him.”
Arbuthnot barely spared him a glance. “Use your initiative, man. Get off the base, find yourself anything that can take a message - telephone, ham radio equipment, bloody carrier pigeon if it gets right down to it. But get the message through to HQ. There’s a bloody revolution happening, and it’s happening here, and it’s happening now. And they’d better get themselves off their fat arses and do something about it, hadn’t they? So tell them that.”
Cullinan’s hand went up in a salute.
Once aloft in the cool serenity of the azure skies (there was a truly nasty complex of fronts coming in, a deep depression forming 600 miles out over the Atlantic; the faintest fern-traces of cirrus clouds in the West were heralding its arrival, but somehow Arbuthnot doubted he’d be around see the storm break) he found himself with leisure to think once more. It occurred to him rather vividly that perhaps thinking was an overrated pastime. There was so much time, suddenly; time, and geometry, and the pattern of the snowy Highlands unfolding below, touched like cathedral angels with the gilding of the sun’s low rays.
The group of dark specks ahead was unmistakable. Arbuthnot found himself surprised that he had caught up with them so quickly, given the limping speed of the Hawker Hart. He pulled himself up mentally. Of course; even this superannuated crate could out-fly the airship, and the escorts would be constrained by the speed of the slowest member of the group.
He activated his cockpit microphone, tuned to the general calling frequency. He did not expect them to state their name and business, even when asked to do so in the name of the Royal Air Force, but the rules decreed that he demanded it.
He did so, his voice sounding unnaturally clear in his own ears, as though he were listening to it on the wireless.
The group swept onwards, apparently oblivious.
He repeated his demand.
There was, of course, only one thing to do next.
“Acknowledge my signal! Otherwise I shall have no option but to open fire!”
He had expected a split second’s grace before they reacted, but they must have been in communication already on some shielded channel. The last syllable was still on his lips as the six fighter planes swarmed, suddenly, upwards and at him from all angles, like a wasps-nest poked with a stick. He pressed his finger on the firing button and held it down, while manoeuvring the gallant Hawker through desperate, doomed angles she would hardly have dreamt of attempting in her pristine youth a decade or more ago in a last effort to avoid the inexorable triumph of fate.
Arbuthnot never saw the plane which swatted him from the sky. It acknowledged the success of the kill to its fellow hunters with a waggle of its wings, and, as pre-arranged, dropped behind the convoy to ensure that the little RAF base at the head of the sea loch had no further surprises to spring on them. HE shells, dropped from height, should amply account for anything that the base might have left in its locker.
And so it might, had everyone not unaccountably overlooked the unidentified ‘plane which had been ghosting across the hillsides since before dawn.
Like his victim, the enemy went down in blazing wreckage on the hillside. Oblivious, the remaining five warbirds and the deadly cargo they escorted swept onwards towards Balmoral.
It was then not quite eleven o’clock in the morning.