Monday, September 3, 2012

Behind the Lines

It was a cold January night, the mist rising off the farmlands of the Midlands region in Cambridgeshire, as the passengers stepped off the train at Huntingdon and boarded the 1940 Packard awaiting their arrival.   In the bustle of the terminal no one noticed its passenger windows had been darkened so you could not see in or out.   It wasn’t a long drive, just twenty minutes or so, until they came to the gates of USAAF Station 102.  The guards had been told to expect the car, and they were to ask only for the driver’s credentials, this was now a routine they had repeated several time so they knew not to ask questions.  After this brief formality, the car was allowed to pass on to this bomber base -- where it drove to the far side of the parking ramps to discharge its cargo into a waiting B-24.
Earlier that day, the three members of OSS team had their final briefings and intelligence updates in the London Safe House, and a final meal in the Mess.  Hanging on the walls of the house were pictures of other nameless teams that had spent time preparing themselves for their missions into occupied France or Germany.  As the three enter the dining room for their last good meal before they were flown to the continent, the white-jacketed Mess Steward meets them and shows them to an isolated table in the corner.  The two men and a woman eat quietly, each lost in their own thoughts, and each trained to be careful with their words when around strangers.  As he serves them; there is a melancholy in his mood, for he knows their chance of survival is small indeed.
From the outside this house was indistinguishable from the residences around it.  The doors, the windows, the outside giving no clue as to what it held inside.  It was only when met by a houseman asking your business did this house begin to show its true self.  For if you knew the right response you would be let in, if not the door would shut quickly before you.  Only when you enter do you notice the .45 caliber M1911 Colt he held behind his back as he met you at the door.  You are ushered into a small alcove waiting area while your identification is verified. 
A little after two in the afternoon the three are ready to leave.  Their personal affects are cataloged into the storage room; their clothing neatly packed in their suitcases.  In the confidence of youth they are sure they will be back to retrieve them when this mission is over.  They walk quickly from the house down the 12 steps to a waiting car for the short drive to Kings Cross Station for the train to Huntingdon.  They are escorted by an inconspicuous security detail to insure they are not bothered, and as importantly they do not have an opportunity to transmit any information to anyone else.  Double agents are always a concern for the OSS.
At the plane they don their coveralls and parachutes and climb up the ladder to into the specially modified bomb bay of this reverberating four engine bomber.  They meet their jumpmaster and strap themselves into their positions along the wall of the bomber where the waist gunners would normally be.  This plane is stripped of all non-essential weight, so it has the range and agility to perform this mission.
The airbase is dark and quiet, as the plane rumbles to the end of the taxiway.  The B-17’s of the 482nd Bombardment Group stand as silent sentinels, seemingly asleep as the already dark late afternoon deepens into night.  They won’t be brought to life until this B-24 returns at the end of its mission, if in fact it does, and the light of the sun starts to define the Eastern horizon.  Finally, at the end of the taxiway it turns into the wind of the main runway and a green flare arch’s from the control tower clearing it for takeoff.  The pilot pushes the throttles forward, releases the brakes and the bomber slowly accelerates down the runway.  At 100 knots the pilot pulls back on the yoke and the bird lumbers into the air, not sure yet it really wants to fly.  Speed increases as first the landing gear, then the flaps come up.  The navigator provides the first course heading, altitude and desired airspeed to bring the aircraft to its drop zone on time. 
It will take about three hours to reach their destination, taking a circuitous route to make tracking as difficult as possible and reduce the risk of compromise to the actual drop zone.  Once there they will drop their passengers and take an equally roundabout trip home.  This crew was chosen from the bomber force because of their demonstrated ability to perform, and although this mission was demanding, they were not part of a massive formation going to Germany at 25,000 in the daytime.  For that they were grateful.  The weather promises to be good for this time of year.  There is a solid overcast at 10,000 ft, but a broken deck at 2,500 so they should be able to get under the weather, but still have clouds to mask their presence.
Turning southeast they fly at a moderate altitude, skirting the defenses of London, on the prescribed route to the Channel, leaving England near Hastings the bomber descends and turns north and then east to enter the continent just north of Boulogne-sur-Mer.  For the next three hours they will be flying at the minimum safe altitude heading first east, then south until they reach the outskirts of Marseille where they will turn back towards Paris.  Along the way they will vary their speed, slowing and speeding up, and dropping propaganda leaflets to hopefully confuse the Germans about the actual mission.
At last, they turn towards Brest and the passengers are alerted it will soon be time to leave the cramped discomfort of this warbird.  Slowing once more the aircrew descends to drop altitude straining to see the single marker light that will confirm the drop zone is secure.  Off in the distance is the flashing light with the correct code.  The passengers sit by the jump tube, a special modification to allow them to safely exit the aircraft, and on the signal they slid down the tube one after another until all three were hanging under their canopies.
A few more turns and the aircraft will climb to avoid the costal anti-aircraft fire and head for home.  The work of the OSS team has just begun.

1 comment:

Jeannette said...

How exciting, a story... you sure have a lot of thoughtful words in there leaping out on a near daily basis. Way to go!

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