High in the upper atmosphere the Mosquito flew… like a slingshot launched from England towards the heart of Germany. These airplanes flew alone and were immune to the dangers of the wartime night skies. The anti aircraft guns and the night fighters could not reach them because they flew so high. Even the radars could not track them because they were made of wood. This one was angling towards Bremen leading his flock of a hundred heavy bombers to lay waste one of the centers of German wartime industry.
He was the ‘pathfinder’ and only at this height of thirty thousand feet could he use the newly invented electronic gear to find Bremen in the dark. He would then lay his brightly burning multi coloured markers on it. All the heavy Lancaster bombers had to do was look for these ‘christmas tree’coloured lights and pound them.
It was 1942, the plan , worked out by the brightest brains of the Royal Air force was going well. Each night raid into Germany was leaving “the Nazis yelping” as reported by the intelligence service .
Flying officers Alan McCartney and Peter Hill sat side by side in the cramped cockpit of the Mosquito. Tonight the moonlight had transformed the upper sky into a floodlit arena. The plane sped along, its dark shadow being flicked from cloud to cloud far below.
Bremen was still ten minutes away.
“ Like dancing naked in the moonlight eh?” Alan said
“And no one to see us, shame ain’t it” Peter smiled.
“The heavies must be in that muck” Alan said pointing to the thick cloud below.
“ I pity these bomber lads boss…dunno what I’d hate more, getting tossed around and flyin’ blind in cloud or being butt naked in full view of every gun”
“Thank you lord for this beauty” Alan grinned.
Earlier that day the two of them had been out for brunch. Only in wartime could a true blue aristocrat and a cockney lad from London’s East End share the confines of a fighter plane and a table at a tony restaurant with girls from the secretary pool. Nothing like facing the constant threat of a fiery death together to dispense with class barriers .
Peter’s wide friendly mouth was pursed in a whistle, the opening bars of ‘Tiger rag’ over and over again.
It was all worked out before, a cue for Alan to speak
“Ours really is the cushiest job of the war. We fly at night, out of sight and out of reach..of anybody. We’re back for breakfast. Sleep in the best billets in the mess reserved for us, game of tennis in the evening then off again …three times a week.”
These girls were only new to the fighter command. After three years of war they were used to men bragging about their heroism. Alan and Peter had realized that the reverse approach worked better.
Peter’s cockney nicely offset Alan’s upper class diction.
“Luv the way you speak, guv. He can make the bleedin’ mess menu sound like Shakespeare. It’s not all a breeze girls , he never mentions the tin can we carry on the long flight.”
“Right, or the fact that you carry and use two!” Alan quipped.
“Anyway, we have all the time in the world to take you ladies to the Milroy in London for the week end, is what my mate is tryin’ to tell you…innit? Alan”
The huge German Freya radar antenna swung ponderously sniffing the air around it for a hundred miles. It stopped in the direction of England, swung back and stopped again.
In the dimly lit Air defence center , a controller raised a hand “ First contact sir”
And so the night battle began, three groups of men using every device that science could invent began to grope around the blackness like knife fighters in a sewer.
The German officer on duty was a natural .A radar intercept officer’s job required instinct and Colonel Fischer’s were honed like a hound. He knew the pathfinder Mosquito was just minutes ahead of the bomber stream…to get him was to make the rest blind.
The timing had to be just right. Tonight he judged it to perfection.
“ Wait for it” he said watching the blips slide across the radar screen. “ wait…..now!”
That was the signal to launch Rheinhart 1, the specialty on tonight’s menu.
“ See anyone else?” Alan asked. Peter swiveled his head to do a cursory sweep. “ Nuthin’ bossie”
‘ Your biggest enemy is solitude, boys’ their squadron commander use to say before every trip.
“ Twenty more of these flights and we’re through…end of tour, push papers in the command office and shiny new gongs apiece. You’ll look dapper in a gong, guv”
Alan sighed “ Yup girls love medals my friend”
Bremen was just five minutes away.
“Arm the marker bombs” Alan told Peter.
Often they did their entire mission without a glimpse of any other aircraft.
But tonight they were not alone.
A specially equipped German Junkers-88 night fighter was tailing them. It had a newly developed supercharger that could make it leap higher up to these altitudes that the Mosquitoes thought only they inhabited. Its call sign was Rheinhart 1.
Fischer sipped his coffee without tasting it. He watched the two blips on the radar screen representing his nightfighter and the bomber stream rushing towards each other at a combined speed of six hundred miles per hour. He couldn’t see the Mosquito but he knew it would be there just ahead of the bombers. He waited till the blips almost overlapped.
“ Rheinhart 1 break now!” Fischer ordered.
In the Junkers the pilot Capt. Brandt yanked back the control stick and rammed open the supercharger. Veering on the edge of a stall the plane was kicked up another eight thousand feet and spotted the Mosquito almost immediately.
The squadron anniversary party would be in full swing. The old room would be smelling of roast duck, schnapps and cigars. Smells that seeped deep into the oak paneling and joined memories of other dinners in happier times. To miss out on that fare after three years of wartime rationing was terrible luck.
“Cant be spared, Brandt….only you hotshots can fly the secret plane” his CO had said . Brandt detected the envy. Even the CO had not been trained to fly the special planes.
He’d missed the party tonight but the sight of the Mosquito in his gun sight made up for it.
All warrior rituals are steeped in primitive vocabulary.
Brandt reported his sighting of the target to Fischer with the words “ Hammer head ! hammer head!”
There was a sudden roaring sound followed by a thump that jarred their spines. The controls were wrenched from Alan’s hands. The windscreen was smashed and glass from the instrument panel billowed out in a cloud. The engines were screaming a couple of octaves higher.
Out of control the Mosquito dived sharply. Only then they saw their predator, it’s wings shone in the moonlight as it turned to find them for a second attack. The mosquito had no guns to fight back with. The designers had kept it as light as possible to fly higher. Alan tried to dive towards the banks of cloud to hide in. But like a dark wolf pelting downhill the matt black Junkers dove unto them. They saw pinpricks of lights on it’s nose and in a steady hose flaming ball like objects slammed into their wooden wings.
“Christ! She’s falling apart!” Peter yelled.
Alan smiled grimly “ Ok bail out…quickly …I have to hold her or none of us will get out”
The left engine was now coughing blue flame and spitting orange sparks. He saw Peter hesitate.
“ Get out or I’m going to jump and leave the plane to you….get out …GO!”
Peter climbed out then and was plucked away by the air stream. Alan saw the white canopy of his parachute far below. They were still over land, he might be made prisoner but at least he’d be safe, he thought.
Brandt looked up and could see every detail of the Mosquito. The two planes roared through the sky like that till in the classic maneuver of the nightfighter, Brandt pulled back the control stick. The Junkers nose seemed to touch the Mosquito’s belly. He pressed the gun button and raked it from nose to tail. The two twenty mm cannons fitted in the Junker’s nose fired at a rate of 520 rounds per minute. In the first burst he held the button down for only five seconds and in that hellish instant 90 shells arced towards the Mosquito. 30 struck the plane. Any more than 20 hits were considered lethal. He turned back for a second run and did it again.
A red light was on in the cockpit. He’d had his half hour of fun and now the supercharger was spent. He turned away from the stricken Mosquito. It was finished anyway. Brandt wondered if the High command would let him add that to his tally, they were so damn keen to keep the special supercharger secret.
The first sharp pang Alan had felt had by now become a dull wet ache. Shrapnel from the first explosion had entered his back. Life had drained out of his lower limbs. There was no way he could have climbed out of that cockpit. The plane of its own accord had stopped its wild dive and was descending in wide circles and heading out to sea. The Mosquito met the waves in a grey splash and was sucked under. Alan had thankfully blacked out long before.
Small terraced houses and dark chimneys formed the back drop to newly made white washed huts and corrugated rooftops. Bletchely was the home of British counter intelligence. A small town on the track from Cambridge now held more secrets than the Tower of London ever had.
The Air marshal’s leathery face was immobile as he paced up and down the room. His anxiety was infectious. He’d passed his pack of cigarettes around and they’d all lit up. Napoleon he’d read had used this simple device to become popular with his fellows. He squinted through the fog of tobacco, rheumy eyes examining the counter intelligence team.
“ So gentlemen the Air force is not getting themselves in a twist over the loss of a few planes. But in the last few nights we’ve lost every Mosquito we sent. If the Mosquitoes can’t lead the bombers to the target, well frankly that’s the end of a meaningful bombing campaign. Now, Churchill the crafty bugger, is using every trick to convince the Yanks to send their air force over. But if the yanks pick up that we’re doubtful of our own bombing….they’re not going to jump in. And without them…honestly….who knows about the war.”
He let that sink in. A lot of people assumed that after the Battle of Britain the Royal Air Force was unbeatable. Fact was Britain was running short of planes and pilots, way too short.
“ This is right from the PM, top priority…find out how the Germans are doing it. Lock your selves up in this hut , day and night, if you have to. They’re not supposed to have anything that can fly that high…your own report says that dammit!” he slammed the manila folder on the table.
So hut 8 got into action, decoding German air force signals, activating agents embedded deep in German industry and government. Examine every angle, check every theory was their brief.
Finally Jerico was brought up.
“ Many years back we recruited an agent in Germany. He’s risen to be quite high up in their Air force High command . Close to their chief… Goering himself. His code name is Jerico. We were saving him for something big”.
Activate Jerico was the order.
Wilheim Stoller’s importance lay in that he was Rita Stoller’s kid brother. Rita Stoller was a leading German actress and a model, she was also Reich marshal Goering’s mistress.
“ Take care of little Willy, darling…he’s always been a bit of a loser”
Goering didn’t mind Willy at all, was rather fond of his harmless, eager to please personality. He’d given Willy work at the Air head quarters as a clerk. Willy had done surprisingly well and risen to become a senior aide. He’d proven himself to be a good employee and a dedicated Nazi.
Goering would have been shocked to know that years back little Willy had been a card carrying member of the communist party and an activist at many ‘red’ rallies. When the Nazis came to power ,a massive witch hunt had been launched to wipe out the ‘commies’.
Willy had set fire to his local party records and successfully gone underground. Even today Willy was convinced that workers would rule the world someday. One evening after a couple of cognacs he’d told Goering “My best friend believes that no matter which war it is or who wins or loses, the ultimate price of any war is paid by the working class.”
“What!” Goering roared “ your friend is a bloody red…no patriot speaks that way..he should be shot dead.”
“He was sir, last week in North Africa. They gave him the Knights cross… for exceptional bravery”
“I know what the Knights cross is for” Goering said impatiently. “ Life is about allegiance, Willy. Every man should know where his allegiance lies.”
Wilheim Stoller realized then and there where his lay. He threw in his lot with what he considered the bastion of the working classes…..Russia.
He was recruited by the KGB years back and fed them important information from time to time. His Russian masters ran him under the code name ‘ krolik’ , rabbit in Russian. Then as it happens often in the murky world of international espionage they traded their pet ‘krolik’ in return for a favour from the British. Not that Willy ever knew. He still reported to the Russians and via them to the British. Unknown to him his British keepers had given him a new name—Jerico.
It took time but then the information started trickling in. The Nazi’s had got something alright, it was top secret…they were calling it the ‘pathfinder killer’. Jerico, alias ‘krolik’ fighting on,as he believed, for world communism had delivered. ‘Harlein Harlein’ were the words spoken in hushed tones picked up in German air force head quarters. It was the brainchild of a certain Dr. Otto Kesller. They then re constructed Dr. Otto, all there was to know about him from kindergarten down to the last filling in his teeth. ‘Harlein’ leapt out of their report. It was a comedy club in Hamburg that Dr. Otto wrote skits for in his spare time. Why the hell would a top German scientist name his ultra secret project after a comedy club?
The counter intelligence team was a group of men of varied talents. They were mathematicians, linguists, scientists even crossword puzzle champions. It took them seventy two sleepless hours to crack it. The first letters of ‘ ‘Harlein Harlein’ were HA HA. The Germans had not named the project on a whim.. Even being named after a comedy club fitted in well. It was basically a code for nitrous oxide, commonly called laughing gas.
Dr. Otto had discovered that nitrous oxide injected into an aircraft engine can boost it’s performance by twenty five percent.
“ That bloody simple huh!” the Air marshal kept repeating. He reached for the phone and was connected to the Air force’s engineering department.
The chief of the team was the crossword puzzle champion. He flicked ash untidily around the ash tray.
“ I hope this damn HA HA report is worth it, sir, we heard that Jerico was picked up last night by the Gestapo”.
There was an awkward silence . They all knew that sleeper agents were good for one mission alone…that was their shelf life.
To Dr. Otto Kesller, machinery was always feminine with all the fascination , wiles and vagaries of a woman. A ladies man, he treated all engines the way he treated his women. He could plead, beg, rant, fight, lie and cheat to win them over. But most of all he prized his skill as a ‘humourist’ to get the best out of them. Nothing like a bawdy joke or limerick to turn an engine or lady over he’d say often. Humour developed patience and fortitude, good Saxon virtues both, he believed.
Since he’d started writing skits for the ‘Harlein’ club, his life had changed. He was being invited to parties in places and with people he’d only heard of. Years of tinkering with engines and being a top scientist had never rewarded hi