The following story contains depictions of violent combat and death as well as painful familial loss. Please read with this caution in mind!
After adjusting the propeller pitch back from coarse she took a moment to glance over her primary flight instrumentation. Everything looked jolly good from the aircraft’s point of view. Outside her framework canopy the late afternoon was brewing up a nasty mid-Atlantic gale. Some monstrous waves seemed to be trying to reach up and grab her from the grey sky to dash her against the mad water of the surface. Feeling the lump of fear in her throat she focused on getting herself settled down.
“Nothing’ll ever match the thrill o’ your first catapult launch,” Sheppard had told her in his thick Scots brogue. Not imagining it could ever come to that, Viv had merely nodded from her perch atop a parachute which itself was perched atop the thin metal pilot’s seat of a Mk.I Hawker Hurricane fighter plane. She had been getting a quick check out on the interceptor from Sheppard, its would-be pilot. The airplane was at the time sitting atop the spidery structure of a catapult optimistically stuck on the bow of the S.S. Linden, an otherwise standard cargo ship tucked halfway back in the port side column of a merchant vessel convoy returning to Halifax, Nova Scotia from Londonderry, Ireland.
On the inbound trip the ships had brought desperately needed supplies across the wild North Atlantic to Great Britain, but on this journey back to North America they were travelling under ballast, largely empty but for water-filled holds intended to keep them stable in the constant heavy weather. On the inbound journey, they'd lost sixteen of their number.
Everyone knew the war was going badly. These Atlantic convoys were being hunted down and decimated by the German U-boats lurking under the waves in “Wolfpacks” created to maximize the Nazi submarines’ destructive efficiency. The Royal and Royal Canadian Navies were sorely ill-equipped and still desperately undermanned despite Herculean shipbuilding and training efforts. The infernal submarines were enjoying what their crews called “The Happy Time”. Seemingly uncountable numbers of civilian cargo ships manned by thousands of civilian merchant sailors were being lost on an almost daily basis in the effort to run a lifeline across the ocean between a slowly starving Britain and a frantically struggling Canada.
Since the fall of France over a year ago the nations of the British Commonwealth had been struggling essentially alone against the apparently unstoppable onslaught of Hitler’s Nazi Germany. In the deserts of North Africa, on the rocky hills of Crete, amid the watery valleys of the North Atlantic and the skies of Western Europe, even in the far reaches of the Indian Ocean, the forces of democracy were slowly, gradually fading.
Vivian had known all this when she volunteered her already competent flying skills to the Air Transport Auxiliary, the ATA. With this organization she had been tasked to ferry badly needed warplanes directly from the factories to the airfields for collection by the combat units. In this way scarce combat pilots could be freed from marginally less vital aircraft transit work and focus on the actual fighting. Flying Officer Vivian Carmichael never expected to find herself in actual combat as the Royal Air Force forbid women to engage the enemy. Though she’d flown numerous single-seater fighters like Hurricanes, Spitfires and Lend-Lease American Tomahawks none of them had ever been armed, let alone loaded down with ammunition.
Now she found herself behind the control stick of a fully loaded and primed Hurricane fighter hurtling alone through space over a thousand miles from Ireland and two thousand miles from Canada. She was trying to catch and shoot down a huge four-engine FW200 Condor German long-range reconnaissance bomber sent out to find and follow her convoy. The shadowing plane would keep track of the convoy and radio its position to the circling, waiting U-boats.
The Hurricane she was flying had an at best 600 mile range. She was already burning through fuel at close to emergency power in order to claw her way up through the sky to the altitude and speed of the high-flying Condor. And the S.S. Linden, her Catapult-Armed Merchantman or CAMship, didn’t have a landing deck; it wasn’t an aircraft carrier. There were far too few aircraft carriers available to the Royal Navy to waste them on such mundane duty as convoy protection.
After completing her task, successfully or not, Flying Officer Carmichael’s only hope of survival was to have enough fuel to get back to the convoy if she could find it and attempt the frequently unsuccessful exercise of ditching the aircraft in the ocean, getting out of the tight cockpit before the plane sank like a brick and then being rescued by one of the convoy's ships before she either froze to death or drowned. Her task was practically a suicide mission to protect the convoy of forty-two cargo ships and three little naval escort vessels frantically trying to thwart the enemy submarines!
Viv took another quick look around the critical instruments before strapping the canvas oxygen mask over her face and opening the airflow. She was climbing fast into rarefied air, up where the Germans lingered. The smell of the canvas was a welcome exchange for the various oils, varnishes, fuel exhaust and lingering hint of vomit present in the cockpit. Like all CAMship Hurricanes this one was well-used. The mask was made for a slab-faced man of course. Her heart-shaped face with high cheekbones allowed oxygen to hiss away at the sides when she moved her head.
Just in front of Carmichael on the other side of the aircraft’s firewall 1,090 Horsepower of Rolls Royce Merlin engine roared violent defiance at the emptiness beyond her fragile airframe. Had someone fired a pistol beside Viv's ear she would have barely heard it over the gargantuan howling of the Hurricane’s power plant.
The throttle was shoved right up hard against the thin strand of wire that warned her away from pushing the engine into emergency power range, where she was pretty much guaranteed of burning out her fuel and her piston rings within five minutes. The flyboys all told her that they never went there, even in the heat of a raging dogfight. Still, at full standard throttle she watched the lines marking the fuel levels drop visibly as the fighter strained through the lowering light for height and speed. Where was that damned shadow plane?
With a moment to spare Vivian considered how it was that a small, quiet Manitoba farm girl found herself in this wildly unique circumstance. In the mid-nineteen thirties and in her own mid-teens Viv had become besotted with the stories of the heroic aviatrixes of the period. There had been so many boundaries to push with a small cadre of very brave, adventurous women constantly in the news. The likes of Amelia Earhart and especially the indomitable, apparently indestructible Beryl Markham, first human being to fly solo across the Atlantic from Britain to North America, swooped through Viv’s fantasies, occupied her dreams and dominated her waking attention.
There was a small airfield near Gimli, Manitoba, close to the Carmichael family farm. Vivian’s grandfather in particular had been spoilingly indulgent with her dreams of living in the air. It was the middle of the Great Depression, the family was as poor as most, but Poppy found some long hidden savings. Together with the maintenance and odd jobs work she’d talked her way into around the airfield, Viv gradually built up the flying hours she needed to solo. Receiving her pilot’s license was her all time proudest moment, far surpassing any school matriculation. Poppy was there to beam at her joy and bear-hug her like the giant of a man he was.
But then the war came in 1939. Viv volunteered her rare skills, taking her to England and the aircraft factories. Half a year later unexpected sad news from home found her hopping a cargo ship bound for home on compassionate leave. Poppy’s giant heart had failed him in his efforts to work a now severely understaffed farm, and Viv was going home to bid him farewell and support her parents in their grief.
As a sort of double insurance she’d been assigned to the CAMship when the billeting officer learned she flew fighter aircraft. With pilot shortages the Linden carried only the one Royal Air Force pilot, Sheppard, to fly its Hurricane fighter off in an emergency. If anything happened to him before he was needed, the enemy could have its way with the convoy. Sheppard had given Viv the check out on the idiosyncrasies of the catapult-roosting aircraft with his tongue firmly crammed into his cheek. He couldn’t begin to imagine this cute little Colonial cowgirl blazing off into a stormy, wave-tossed duel to chase down the Hun.
And then he broke his left arm rushing on deck when the alarm was sounded. The throttle controls being on the left side of the cockpit, one could just barely manage the plane with a broken right arm, but a broken left arm… So here was Flying Officer Vivian Carmichael, painfully young ATA pilot on compassionate leave, at least a thousand miles from landfall with maybe three hundred miles worth of fuel left in her wings, closing in on the last reported location of a German attacker!
At twenty-two thousand feet Viv finally broke through the stormbound cumulus into the bright light of an almost full moon. The battering and shuddering of her aircraft decreased dramatically in the calm air above the storm yet below the jet stream. Her thick wings grabbed the thin air and she seemed to almost pop upwards like a suddenly released Jack in the Box. From her sudden height advantage Viv glanced left and right. There to starboard and racing along on almost the same course, the distinct moon shadow of the four-engine bomber surfed along atop the cloud base beneath her. Instantly she looked up and gasped into her oxygen mask. Perhaps three hundred feet above her was the unmistakable swastika on the tail fin of the FW-200. The Nazi symbol was black, but Viv received the strong impression in the moonlight that the glinting tail and fuselage of the German plane were in a dark tan colour with some sort of darker mottling spread along its length.
Realizing her own grey-green painted wings would be hard to make out against the grey-black of the night clouds beneath, Viv immediately understood her temporary advantage. Suddenly, recalling endless nights in Officers’ Messes listening with breathless concentration to the stories of the flyboys trying to impress her, Viv reached down beside her knees and charged the eight .303 machine guns, four per wing, which she’d lugged this far up into the sky. Some of those young combat pilots were dead now but they were with her all the same, their tales providing support and advice in this dire moment.
She slightly adjusted her course to align the climbing Hurricane with the German Condor. It was fast for a big plane, only twenty miles per hour slower than her fighter at this altitude, but she was far, far more maneuverable. The agile Hurricane could literally fly rings around a Messerschmitt or even a Spitfire. The range closed fast now. She recalled a young man named Hillary, later horribly burned when his fighter caught fire, explaining to her the principles of deflection shooting, leading ahead of the target so that your bullets arrived where the target was going rather than where it had been.
Another adjustment of the Hurricane’s pitch put the gunsight pip ahead of the two engines on the bomber’s port wing. “Take out the engines on these big buggers, the fuselage can absorb more damage than your guns can deliver in the single second you’ll have.” That had been a handsome blond named Dawkins who was dead now.
Gripping the ring at the top of the control column, Viv released the gun safety switch, breathed deliberately and counted out the quarter-seconds. The gunsight pip hit her chosen spot. Wide-eyed she pressed the red fire button, surprising herself with the force of shaking that the aircraft encountered when its eight guns roared. The climb and speed indicators sank as the force of all that discharge arrested the aircraft’s progress.
She flashed past the Condor climbing above it and some twenty yards to its port side. At the same instant Viv felt the ripple effect and saw the metallic flashes as machine gun rounds ripped right through her starboard wing. She’d missed the bomber but a quick and alert gunner on the German plane had fired back in the second or so she was exposed. She’d been hit.
Her eyes hovered over the starboard fuel gauge to see the stomach-turning drop in level as her precious petrol flowed out through the holes in the right side wing. With a dry, painful gulp she reached down to shut the starboard fuel cock. All Vivian had left was the contents of her left wing, but there was no question of not trying to finish the job. She leveled out the fighter then banked to look for the Condor. To her lower right she just caught a glimpse of the monster’s tail as it scooted into a high cloud stack looming up from the lake-like upper surface of the storm.
Looking at her round counters Viv saw that she still had plenty of ammunition. She also had the height and speed advantage. She bit into her lower lip. What would the enemy do in the cumulonimbus bank? He really couldn’t fight it out with her; he’d already had an extremely lucky shot but couldn’t count on another. He’d try to evade but where? With little time to decide Viv reasoned quickly. She decided to bet on reverse psychology. He would continue straight, thinking his pursuer (he’d never imagine a woman) would bank either to the left or the right in hopes of surprising him. He might descend into the storm below but she could do nothing about that. Vivian pushed the throttle all the way forward, breaking through the warning wire strand and committing the engine to emergency power.
She continued on straight through the darkness of the thunderhead. At the instant she emerged into clear air the big airplane was right there in front of her. Pure instinct possessed her and Viv squeezed the trigger, again feeling the entire airframe buck and shudder. Flashes and sparks on the Condor’s right horizontal tailplane were almost immediately joined by black smoke and bright flames spewing from its right inner engine. A chunk of cowling peeled off to flash luridly over her canopy, just missing her fin. The control column between her legs shook wildly as Viv emptied her guns into the enemy.
The damaged horizontal tail disintegrated and left the Condor’s fuselage, spinning away into the night. From the starboard wing both power plants now spit furious flames like a dragon in agony. She watched mesmerized as the out-of-control bomber flipped over and inverted before plunging into the cloud tops, a brighter flash of fire signaling the end.
A moment of silence, then bile rushed into Viv’s throat. She swallowed it hard, avoiding messing the inside of her oxygen mask but explaining to her that lingering vomit smell in the cockpit. There were human beings, several of them, inside that aircraft! She’d done her job and probably saved the convoy, but to do her job she’d taken lives.
Hearing the desperate scream of the engine at emergency power she reduced throttle and readjusted the propeller pitch. She stared at the empty night understanding that for the rest of her life, whatever that entailed, she would have to live with the fact that she’d caused death. Behind her goggles tears pooled above her lower eyelids. Removing her right gauntlet she reached up under the rim of the goggles and wiped away the salty liquid.
With the Merlin humming almost contentedly she took a look at her port fuel gauge. It showed almost empty, maybe ten minutes of power left at this throttle level. Viv looked up at the stars above in the soft, welcoming moonlight. She had no idea how to find her convoy. She thought of Poppy and his monumental hugs. She blinked at the lonely universe around her.
With thanks to Randy Wayne Jellison-Knock for editorial support!
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