The aircraft hurtled through the night sky, staying low to minimise the risk of radar detection. Jack Bishop closed his eyes and mumbled his mission orders to himself, hoping it would take his mind and stomach away from the turbulence. He had never flown in a Lysander before, in fact it was only the third time he had flown at all, and despite the choppy and almost vomit inducing journey, was still his preferred method of insertion. Not that he welcomed the risk of a fiery flak orientated death, but it would be quicker than the alternative method of a failed parachute drop. He knew the flyboy in the cockpit from one six one squadron would get him where he needed to be, but after that; he was on his own.
It had only been eight weeks since his recruitment into Churchill’s new Secret Army or S.O. E, as most of the brass at Baker Street called it. They gave him two choices, use his special skills to serve his country as an operative behind enemy lines and probably get killed or spend the next ten years in prison. Now he was wondering if it was too late to change his mind. Since being recruited, he had spent an enormous amount of time being carted around in army trucks to various manor houses and airfields in England and Scotland. He was never even told where he was going or what he would be doing. Two weeks of intensive commando training, one week of parachute training, another two weeks of radio and Morse code training, alongside using allied and enemy weaponry. Which he enjoyed, despite his disapproval of firearms. Bishop preferred solving problems the old-fashioned way, with his fists.
Now he speeds a few hundred feet above the English Channel, hoping he will remember it all when he lands in occupied territory. Not to mention the fact the only French he could speak was please and thank you in his East London accent.
A bark from the cockpit roused Bishop from his reverie, “Five minutes until we reach the landing zone! Better get yourself ready!”
He looked down at his feet and retied his boot laces, pulling them tight, then buttoned up his coarse woollen overcoat, skipping the button which contained his “L-pill” in case of capture. The thought of it made him shudder. Bishop could remember the crooked smile that crept across Colonel Macmillan’s face as he handed him the pill. He knew the colonel hated him; He was always against the unconventional way they recruited him. The man made it more than clear he had no time for a criminal who spent his evenings cracking the safes of local banks and businesses while London was under blackout conditions.
The French coast was now in sight. The pilot began his descent. Bishop removed a photo from his breast pocket and pressed it to his lips as he looked out of the side window, wondering where they would land and who would be waiting for him. Buildings and tree lines became larger as the aircraft circled and continued to drop in altitude. The pilot turned his head and barked toward his passenger again. “Brace yourself! This one could get rough!”
Bishop held on to the undersides of his seat to brace for the landing, his knuckles turning white. The impact threw him forward a little, but not as much as he had expected as the landing gear made contact for the first time. The aircraft bounced a few metres back into the air, then made contact for a second time with less resistance. Third time lucky. The landing gear gripped the ground, sending a rumble through the entire vehicle. The pilot taxied for a few seconds before engaging the brake. He kept the propeller spinning, keen to get back in the air.
“Out you get chap! End of the line! Good luck!”
Bishop nodded and slid back a section of the top canopy and pulled himself through, dangling his legs over the passenger side of the cockpit. He gripped the wing, lowered himself down onto the small ladder attached to the side and dropped to the ground. As soon as his boots had hit with the mud; the pilot released the brake, taking the engine from a contented purr to a savage roar starting a run for take-off. Bishop, startled by the sudden noise and movement, threw himself clear and into the dirt. By the time he recovered and picked himself up, the Lysander was just a speck on the horizon.
“Bloody charming!” Bishop shouted to the empty field and the long-departed pilot.
Suddenly aware that shouting curses out loud whilst in occupied territory was not the best idea, Bishop crouched low and sprinted a few hundred metres to take cover in some undergrowth around a row of trees next to a nearby road. He remained still, taking in the night’s silence. It took a while for his eyes to adjust to the darkness, but it didn’t seem like there was anyone around. He recited the scant briefing notes in his head.
“Infiltrate via aircraft landing. Meet with resistance contact, codename Flintlock at the drop site. Flintlock to provide further mission details on contact.”
Still crouching under cover, Bishop’s senses prickled to the sound of a vehicle in the distance. The sound of the engine was getting louder. Too loud in fact for just one vehicle. There was a rumbling in the ground. Then he heard it. Accompanying the drone of an engine was the squeak and clank-rattle of metal tracks. This was not Flintlock coming to meet him. Bishop lowered himself further into the mud and grass, crawling elbow over elbow to a position that took him a little deeper into the undergrowth. He covered himself well but still had a view of the road.
His heart pounded as he watched the lead vehicle pull over to the side of the road. A muddy gloss-black Opel saloon, sporting small triangular swastika flags on either side of the bonnet. The cause of the tremors followed the car. A menacing looking half-track or “Hanomag” as the Germans called it, rolled into Bishop’s view. A beast of armoured engineering painted in an urban camouflage, equipped with a deadly forward-facing machine gun turret set above the driver’s cab. A single soldier could cut an entire squad of men to ribbons in a matter of seconds from this vantage.
As soon as the half-track came to a stop, five infantrymen, all armed with MP40 sub-machine guns piled out, leaving one soldier in the turret. He trained the weapon and a small searchlight along the row of trees and fauna in Bishops direction, who winced and held his breath as the bright yellow light spread over his position. He waited to hear the calls of alert, but none came, and the spotlight scanned over a new position. The driver remained behind the wheel and watched his countrymen load their weapons and wait for instruction.
A hard slam of a door shifted Bishop’s attention back to the Opel. A tall, thin officer, wearing the black uniform of the SS and a heavy leather overcoat moved around to the front of the car, shouting orders at the soldiers without hesitation. As the soldiers fanned out, the officer pulled a Luger from his belt and began a search of his own.
Bishops heart was pounding hard. He knew he needed to conceal himself better but froze to the spot with terror. He daren’t open his mouth to breathe for fear of the vapour giving away his position. Was the mission blown? Flintlock could have been captured and tortured him into giving away the meeting point. Bishop racked his racing brain to grab hold of a shred of his training. Then, the memory of Macmillan’s mocking grin changed panic into fury. Grabbing two fists full of mud, he smeared it across his face, neck and hands to cover as much bare skin as possible. Bishop knew what he needed to do, but it would not be easy.
The soldiers and the Gestapo officer spread out in a wide pattern. They moved with complete and methodical caution, kicking and slashing the butts of their weapons at every shrub and patch of long grass. This was the best chance Bishop would get, but he needed to do something about the gunner on the half-track first. He eased himself up onto his elbows, keeping a constant eye on the man in the half-track and reached out with one hand to grab a pile of stones. Pushing himself just a little higher, he threw the entire handful as far and high as he could. The gunner swivelled on the machine gun to face the sound. This was his chance. Bishop went into a crouched sprint toward the other side of the road, praying the gunner and the others would not look in his direction. When he reached the other side, he threw himself back into the dirt. He raised his chin to peek through the long grass, checking for signs of alert. To his relief, no one had noticed.
A rustle to the right. He was sure all the soldiers had converged on the sound of his distraction. The driver!
He had walked around the back of the half-track to stretch his legs and wandered toward Bishop’s new refuge. He was close. Bishop could smell the smoke from his cigarette. He daren’t look up as the German he moved closer still. The sound of boots on wet grass stopped just inches away from Bishop’s position. After a few seconds of excruciating silence, Bishop could hear liquid hitting the dirt next to him. As splashes hit his coat and hands he realised, The bastard’s pissing!
He had to fight down the urge to jump up and punch the man in the face. The anger was making his body shake, and he knew it could only be a matter of seconds before the soldier spotted him.
His fists and jaw clenched as he poised to attack, raising himself from the mud a few centimetres at a time to keep the advantage of surprise. Bishop froze as heard a zip closing, then footsteps moving away. He dropped back down onto his chest and let out a long, quivering breath into the grass. Once the footsteps had become faint enough, Bishop picked himself back up onto his elbows and wiped his hands on the grass. He waited for his moment to make a break for it. Once he was certain he was in the clear, he leapt to his feet and a started a sprint so fast he almost fell over himself. For at least the first one hundred metres he was running with his eyes closed, willing the soldiers not to see him and cut him down with a spray of machine gun fire. Two hundred metres, still sprinting he allowed his eyes to open but daren’t glance back, his lungs and leg muscles already burning. Three hundred metres, four hundred metres. “Come on, just a little further!”
At five hundred metres, Bishop threw himself over a dry-stone wall that stretched across the field for some distance, landing in a deep and filthy puddle. He tried to catch his breath quietly, but the coughing and retching proved too difficult to restrain.
Collapsed there in the mud, breathing deep, numb to the chill of the water seeping through the knees of his trousers, he listened to the shouting and the sounds of engines starting in the distance. Shaking off the disbelief that he had made it to safety, Bishop peered over the top of the crumbling wall.
The patrol was leaving at last. He sat with his back against the wall until he was sure the coast was clear. He took another quick glance, stood up and patted at the mud stains on his shirt and trousers. There was already a hole in one of his boots that been letting in water from the puddle. Looking around at the stretch of dark, empty fields, he noticed a group of buildings not too far away on the horizon. The escape had been draining, but he mustered all his remaining energy and started a final sprint toward his hopeful salvation.
It took a few minutes to reach his destination, his legs buckling from exhaustion dropping his body back into the soft mud. Bishop had spent every reserve of strength getting there. He felt tears well in his eyes to find them abandoned. He checked each of the deserted farm buildings with caution, hoping to find somewhere he could rest with a modicum of safety. The farmhouse itself had been half blown to pieces, most likely by an artillery shell or aerial bombardment. There were still pieces of splintered furniture and scorched brick scattered around the courtyard. The twisted corrugated remains of what may have been the pig sheds protruded from the ground like medieval archers’ stakes. The barn had seen much better days but was intact enough. There were a few parts of the roof missing, but once Bishop had got the heavy doors open, he found a dry and somewhat comfortable spot to sit and rest. He fought off sleep for as long as he could, fearing that the patrol would circle back and catch him off guard. His mind was a whirlwind of anger and questions. He needed to contact Flintlock, to find out what the hell had gone wrong or make it back to England. Somehow.
A storm had had started outside. Bishop sat in the corner of the barn gripping his knees to his chest for warmth. The adrenaline was wearing off. Finally, his brain and body unable to hold out any longer, he slipped into a restless sleep.