Authors: Jerrard Tickell
© Jerrard Tickell 2013
Jerrard Tickell has asserted his rights under the Copyright, Design and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.
First published in 1956 by Allan Wingate
This edition published in 2013 by Endeavour Press Ltd
SIR JOHN FALSTAFF
Table of Contents
A THOUSAND YEARS
It was appropriate for many reasons to start the journey from Baker Street.
The morning was grey with the promise of rain and that promise was soon fulfilled. Before we had passed Hendon, the wind-screen wipers were moving rhythmically and our swift wheels were flinging back little hissing arcs of water off the tarmac road that led to the north. As we drew further and further away from London, as gardens became fields, the rain diminished. I had set out hoping humbly to pick up the faint echoes of the thoughts of those men and women who had sought the same destination in war which I now sought in peace. Theirs had been the knowledge that their eyes might well be looking their last on the English scene. There was a vast volume of heavy traffic on the road and the physical problem of driving in safety along this wet and crowded highway denied me sensibility to the past. This part of the journey therefore was unrewarding. It continued to be so until we reached the village of Tempsford on the Great North Road.
There we stopped to enquire at an inn the whereabouts of the aerodrome. It was a mile or so away, down a narrow, winding road, across the railway gates and straight on. We couldn't miss it. The landlord looked at us curiously. No good going to the aerodrome nowadays for it was deserted. Used to be busy enough during the war - especially of
a night - but now it was deserted.
We turned along the winding road to the right. It ran between flat fields of beet and kale, the puddled earth gleaming fitfully in watery sunshine. Here, in this quiet expanse, it was at last possible to sense the thoughts of those to whom it had been the end of their English journey. The railway gates were closed and there was a long wait. My ears were so used to the sound of the car's engine that I had ceased to hear it. But when it was turned off, the silence became apparent. I walked to the gates and looked up and down the line. No train was in sight. The sound of footsteps on the road, the eddies of the wind, the dripping of the rain from the black branches of trees, all these sounds had been heard and far more acutely realised by others who had waited at this gate. I have the honour of knowing some of those who came back
and they have all told me this: that the imminence of mortal danger sharpened the perception of simple things. In many of their accounts, the topography of Tempsford is inaccurate. The name "Gibraltar Farm" is constant. But, in every account, the sense and the sounds of Tempsford are tangible from the growth of its long history. What difference does a thousand years make?
Such a place,
what is just a pattern of fields or hills, is the scene of momentous events. For many generations, it may lay quiet, but once again it is back in the heart of history. That is what had come about after the marsh had been drained and an airfield laid out in its place, where the Ivel flows into the Great Ouse. Here the Roman Road, ‘the great white way’, passes from
on the Thames through the village to reach Godmanchester and Ermine Street. When the Romans went, the Danes came. One of the most formidable fortifications of these Viking conquerors was constructed at Tempsford.
. But in the high summer of the year 916, five centuries after the Romans had gone as an occupying power, it was precisely here that the enemy was daunted. Edward the Elder, son of Alfred, launched a two-headed campaign with his sister Aethelflaeda to rid the land of the upstart Danes. To assist, a great English force came on and stormed the strongpoint, the
, at this place in Tempsford. It was a deadly battle and Guthrum II, Danish king of East Anglia, was slain in its defence. Following this mighty conflict, Edward had only to win the ultimate victory of the battle of Malden and the Danish hold in the country was to be loosened. A thousand years is little time to impose true occupation. As I waited for the train to pass, the Gannocks, ancient Viking earthworks breaking the flatness of the sodden kale, sure symbols that in the soil of Tempsford lay the record of the Romans’ triumph over a terror-dealing enemy.
The train surged past with a rush and a gush of blown steam. The gates opened. We drove over the bumpy tracks and very soon came to the desolate levels of the ai
rfield. I was reminded at once of the opening sequences in the film
. But there was a difference. In that film, the disused airfield had been plain for all to see. Here in the drained marsh with its screen of woodland and farms, Nissen huts, hangars and runways merged into the landscape, unnaturally replacing farm buildings on this fertile land. We drove around the perimeter, crossing the end of the main runway, a broad concrete ribbon, bare, potholed and puddled, no longer worth hiding. We squelched along a muddy track towards a dilapidated house. Slates were gone from the roof and the blind windows of the upper floor were draped with wet sacking. I got out and immediately sank ankle-deep in mud. There was a heavy, sweet smell in the air, a smell that made me wrinkle my nose in distaste.
It was then that a
man came out of the rickety door of the house and approached us. He was wearing gum boots and an apron. With some suspicion, he asked us our reason for being stood on his land.
"Is this Gibraltar Farm?"
"Yes. This is Gibraltar Farm."
I told him
the purpose of our being there and the name of the man who had sent us. He made us welcome at once and said that he would be pleased to show us what there was to see. Not that there was much left now, not after all these years. I couldn’t help remark on the smell that lingered as now it had grown to become over-powering. Without offence or hesitation, he replied.
"Yes. That's right. It's blood. I've been killing pigs this morning. Twelve of them. I've got fourteen more to do after dinner."
Although he was an old man, his back seemed unusually straight. He had been a Lancer, a regular soldier in the 17th, in the days when lancers rode horses. "You can't put a martingale on one of them tanks," he said with a grin. "And the sort of lark that went on here? Never heard of it, not in all my service." He showed us the mildewed, cobwebbed remnants of the lark that used to go on there. The out-buildings still had their original walls and mouldering thatch. Within these walls, buildings within buildings, sound sturdy rooms had been constructed. Shelves ran along the sides; electric cables were still looped over the rafters. "They used to store their parachutes on them shelves," he said, "and up there were the electric heaters." He showed us the changing rooms, the rooms where men and women had submitted to the final search, the final check, the final turning out of pockets, the final scrutiny of documents before they were driven out to the aircraft that waited in the shadow of the rising moon. Here in these broken racks they used to keep weapons. Here in this alcove were Continental clothes and shoes and hats and the like; other corners homed forged papers; radio transmitting sets, and lethal tablets.
"I suppose they were all right for what they were built for," he said in disgust, "but they're no damn good as piggeries."
Occasionally, only now and then, strangers came to the airfield. He could always tell who was who from what they came to look at. Some just drove slowly along the runway and stopped at the Control Tower and licked their fingers and held them up to the wind. Those ones were the old R.A.F. officers. The others came to Gibraltar Farm itself and stood around, remembering, not asking any questions because they didn't have to. They knew. He'd recognised one of them, a woman, from pictures he'd seen in the papers. Funny, a woman getting up to that sort of a lark.
She was dead now. Executed by the Germans. Hadn't done her no good, coming to Gibraltar Farm.
We exited out of these buildings within buildings. The rain was coming down and the wind flung the smell of blood into our nostrils. We drove out to the perimeter and looked back. In those days as now in this rainy noon, there had been the appearance of the unhurried life of farming. Only on moonlit nights had things moved. Only on moonlit nights had aircraft slid out of transformed hangars and taken shadowy, anonymous men and women on board to cast them out into a hostile sky. Only on moonlit nights had Tempsford become itself once again after a thousand years. From this rainy, windy, blood-scented field had the battle been transported to the countries of Europe in Hitler's power.
"SET EUROPE ABLAZE"
It was on an inappropriate day that the Royal Naval Air Force and the Royal Flying Corps were amalgamated to become the Royal Air Force. The date chosen was April 1st, 1918, and the fledgling arm, self-conscious to a degree of its sky-blue uniform, was the object of much ribaldry in the older Service messes. One of the least distinguished formations of the April Fools was Number 138 Squadron.
The Squadron came into numerical being a mere six weeks before the Armistice in 1918. "Light Blue" was still in short supply and the men who reported to Chingford for duty with the new Squadron turned up characterised by the sea boots, sweaters or khaki puttees of their ancient loyalty. The purpose of the Squadron was to carry out Fighter Reconnaissance and it was in process of mobilising when the last shot of the war was fired. The weeks that followed were instinct with boredom and frustration. To the relief of its members, the Squadron was disbanded on February 1st, 1919. In the bare sixteen weeks of its existence, it had never taken to the air. It had had no chance of winning either reputation or glory. Its brief record of inactive service had become a dusty file in the archives of Whitehall. There it slumbered for nearly a quarter of a century.
At the beginning of the Second World War, it is doubtful whether any old members of the Squadron even gave their old unit a thought. There was no reason for them to do so. Even if they had, they would have been disappointed. Among all the major expansion of the R.A.F., there was no sign of the resuscitation of 138 Squadron. Cheated
out of the rewards of fame by the all too faithful passing of time in 1918, it seemed as if the Squadron was not even going to figure in the new war against the old enemy.
Again the Squadron was a slow starter. It was not reformed until nearly two years of the war had passed and, as in its sea-boots and puttee days, there was no publicity attached to its activities. This time it was for a very different reason. The Squadron was deliberately shrou
ded in a thick black-out curtain of security. From under this safe darkness, the Squadron established a reputation for itself that spread like flames in the lands and languages of all occupied Europe and in the minds of men. In the shadow of its wings lay the hope of salvation for its friends and the foretaste of defeat for its enemies. Even at the end of the war, when that defeat had become a grisly fact, no corner of the safety curtain was lifted. The story of the Squadron could not be told.
138 was the first of the Moon Squadrons.
August 10th 1940 was a significant date, for it was then that the seed of 138 Squadron stirred in the womb of time. Its period of gestation was to be curiously human-like. A glance at the amusement columns of the evening papers on that day is met by the harmonious reflection of apparent peace.
We do not know what the weather was like on that day, for no report or forecast appeared. We do know that Arthur Young and his Swingtette enlivened the Forces Programme of the B.B.C. By characteristic and paradoxical choice, one of the most popular shows in London was
and the walls of the Coliseum echoed and re-echoed to the swinging Tyrolean chorus. A more poignant echo of the last and almost forgotten "war to end wars,"
was on at the Palace and, careless of what the night might bring,
was performed in the Open Air Theatre of the Regent's Park. Then,
were showing in the cinemas; "Run Rabbit Run" on the lips of errand boys; strange uniforms in the streets, and strange songs in the cafes of Soho. With an eye to the future, the maternity hospital for the wives of officers at Fulmer Chase announced that it had decided to increase its accommodation.
But there were other and more sombre items in the paper. There was a description of the burned-out carcase of a German bomber brought down by the Home Guard in South London, a mile or two away from where theatre audiences were
fatefully singing. “Adieu, mein kleine Garde-Offizier.” In Kent, His Majesty King George VI bade a more solemn goodbye to his Irish and Welsh Guards who, during the previous night in North West England, had been met by the incendiary bombs of enemy raiders.
Far away from home, the R.A.F. was not idle. British bombers made the long and dangerous flight to Milan and Turin to bomb Italian aircraft factories. Other flights attacked the great aluminium works at Bad Rheinfelden and the chemical works at Waldshut near the German-Swiss frontier. Even further away, Addis Ababa had its first raid of the war when R.A.F. machines swooped out of the sky to score direct hits on four hangars and set fire to petrol supplies. It seemed as though Goliath was limbering up for the death-lock while David made one or two sighting shots with pebbles in his sling.
At 1 a.m. on that day, August 20th, 1940, all German wireless stations in Berlin went off the air. This was just about the moment when No. 1419 Flight, Royal Air Force, was formed at North Weald, in Middlesex. Had our enemies known of this deadly aircraft’s birth and purpose, this radio silence might well have been wrongly construed as a mark of respect, if not of affection of their soldiers. This new-born fighter was to grow to lusty strength, to change its name to 138 Squadron whose duty it was secretly to penetrate, poison, and disrupt Hitler's innermost vitals.
The broad canvas of the autumn of 1940 was painted in sombre colours. Poland had long since been crushed but a stream of indomitable men still flowed away from the rubble of Warsaw to make nightmare journeys to England and to re-enter the fight. The final evacuatio
n of Norway had been announced, yet hardy and resolute Norwegians still found their way across the North Sea to land on remote British beaches. Belgium and the Low Countries had been overrun. France had surrendered unconditionally and the might of the Germany Army stood on the menacing shore of the narrow seas. It is recorded that the late Field-Marshal Goring gazed from the inner safety of an air raid shelter at the misty blur of England, faint on the horizon, and made fearful threats of the wrath to come. The continent of Europe, stunned and dazed by the speed and magnitude of defeat, was held within an ever-hardening hoop of steel. Within that hoop, a handful of uncaged British soldiers wandered hungrily and separately towards the Pyrenees, the inhospitable doors of most of their late French allies shut in their faces. A few got home. A few Frenchmen, their nostrils soured by the
, began to undertake the same back-breaking journey; others seemed to follow. But these things seemed relatively unimportant to our enemies for they were the minutiae of war. Glutted with conquest, it was reasonable enough for Hitler to set the duration of the Third Reich at a minimum of a thousand years. The Prime Minister of England had other ideas.
The war would be won in Europe. Somewhere, somehow, sometime, a mighty British Army would have to land on the European shore, engage the enemy in mortal combat, liberate the enslaved and, sustained by the peoples it had freed, blast its way to Berlin. That was the simple, hopeless decision that was taken by the Cabinet in the autumn of 1940. Invasion of our own shores was expected hourly and, while their men stood guard in the fields, housewives prepared pans of boiling fat to tip into the faces of the Wehrmacht. In the cities and towns, the black-out curtains cast their dark shadow not onl
y over the streets but over the spirits of the British. With the advent of autumn, the mood of buoyancy changed. The winter loomed before us and what the winter would bring only God and the
knew. Britain was soon to find out.
In September, 1940, a few days after the formation of No. 1419 Flight, Mr. Winston Churchill spoke these words to France. Wrapped up in them was, perhaps, a hint of the Flight's purpose and duty.
It was to assist not only the French but all conquered, resentful people
into Churchill’s ‘useful action’ that an organisation was secretly borne in London.
A group of men to whom a three-word directive had been given by Winston Churchill met to consider how best to implement it. The directive was
purely and simply SET EUROPE ABLAZE. It is an unlucky paradox that this matter came up for discussion and planning as London itself began to burn. After one or two changes of address, the organisation settled down in a sparsely furnished block of offices in Baker Street. These were to be its headquarters.
The parent name of the organisation-known only to its founders and to a
very few highly placed persons was S.O.E. The initials stood for Special Operations Executive, and as time went on, it bore a number of other names and other addresses. These other names and other addresses were deliberately given with the purpose of concealing the fact of its unity. The Admiralty knew it as one alphabetical series housed in a certain street, the Air Ministry as another in a different street. To its founder and to the Prime Minister it was S.O.E. But to those who came to work in it, it was known as ‘The Firm’.
Broadly speaking, these were the task
s set themselves by ‘The Firm’; to restore belief in the might of Britain and to rekindle faith in victory; to organise the scientific sabotage of industrial plant and of all methods of communication. To ultimately establish routes in and out of occupied Europe.
They were t
o continue to stimulate the faint-hearted and to impose patience on the over ardent, to secretly arm patriots in every occupied country with British weapons and to give instructions in their use. To recruit and train a gigantic Fifth Column (not of traitors but of patriots) which was to be a force which should wait to launch itself by order of the Allied High Command, at the throat of the enemy.
A number of bitter lessons had been learned during the last few fatal weeks. From the doleful history of the Norwegian campaign, one fact stood out above all others. It was that an invading army must look for help and for co-operation from the people of the country it invades. This fact had been abundantly confirmed by events in France, Belgium and Holland. Nazi Germany had made a corner in traitors on whom she had imposed a rigid discipline. The system had worked. Only at the last moment had these traitors shown themselves in their true, baleful light and
1940 Europe represented the triumph of their treachery.
S.O.E. proposed to use the
se same allying techniques, but with the shining difference that her new associates would be those who loved their country and not those who were prepared to betray.
Under the shelter of the opening umbrella of S.O.E., each country that had been dominated by the Ax
is would have its own ‘section’. There would be the French Section, the Dutch, the Norwegian, the Polish and so on. Each of these separate sections would work to a strategic and co-ordinated plan of sabotage and attack. The solitary and disciplined resister, brimming with personal resentment, could readily wreck a year's careful planning by the untimely pressure of a trigger. Therefore, one of the tasks of S.O.E. would be to dissuade such persons from immediate action; it was, so to speak, a task of training and of retraining. Each section proposed to infiltrate its own agents who would seek out patriots, arm them and sustain them until their activities could be fitted into the overall plan. These agents, arrived in their respective countries, would plan and carry out sabotage, wrecking power-houses, armaments factories, telephone exchanges and severing railway lines. They would undertake from the ground the work designed for the bomb from the air. That bomb, no matter how accurately aimed, could be no respecter of persons or nationalities. It killed whatever, wherever it struck, its being proper destination was Germany itself. S.O.E. proposed to render visits of the R.A.F. unnecessary elsewhere than to Hitler's Reich. Many potentially friendly lives would thus be saved. More than any of these in scales of importance were the very fact that British men and women were prepared to come and live amongst them and, if required to do so, to die amongst them, for this would be for the oppressed peoples a sure symbol of Britain's unalterable purpose. One day the British armies would land again. In that day the enemy would find the armed and trained hand of all Europe turned against them and the road back to the Reich sown with death.