"HERE THEY COME!" Shouted one of the watchers on the 918th Control Tower, and every pair of binoculars that had been searching the sky for the returning bombers turned to look in the direction he was pointing.
One of those searchers was Major General Wiley Crowe, a tall, distinguished looking senior officer in his mid-fifties, with steel-gray hair, deep-set brown eyes, and a distinctively square jaw. Crowe was Commander of the 1st Bombardment Wing, VIII Bomber Command, 8th Air Force, and the 918th was one of the Groups in his Wing.
Crowe had come up from his headquarters at Wycombe Abbey (code name 'Pinetree'), a former exclusive girls' school about forty miles southwest of the Base, to await news of the day's mission: the destruction of one of Germany's secret flying bomb test sites in Northern France.
For months, reports had been coming out of Germany about a new Nazi secret weapon: a pilotless flying bomb with a one-ton warhead, capable of reaching London, and designed to indiscriminately fall from the sky causing untold destruction wherever it hit. The Germans were calling it the 'V-1', or 'Vergeltung' (Retribution) Bomb, as it was being built in response to the Allied bombing of Germany.
The Allies had queried all their Intelligence sources and sent agents to search for more information about this new secret weapon, but had come up with very little. However their research scientists, or 'boffins' as they were called, put their heads together and developed their 'best guess' on what the design of the engine and guidance system for such a weapon would look like. They finally caught a break when a report came in about a machine parts factory near Laon, France, that had recently begun machining precision parts for a new secret gyro steering system.
Such a steering system had been a key element of the 'boffins' theoretical design, so earlier in the year, the 918th had been sent to destroy the factory. They had succeeded, setting the Germans' program back, they were told, by four to six months. But it had been a very costly success for the 918th Bomb Group's commander, Brigadier General Frank Savage; on that mission, he had lost five B-17s and their crews .... and Major Jack Temple, a classmate of his from 'The Point' and a good friend for over fifteen years.
But, in hindsight, it seemed Intelligence had been a little optimistic in their damage estimate, because now, barely three months later, new reports had come in that the Germans had only been delayed by only a few weeks and were now test firing these flying bombs. Allied agents were sent to investigate, and had discovered what appeared to be one of these rumored test sites near Lübeck, Germany. Some viewed the site as a probably decoy, to divert Allied bombers from the real targets, but the site appeared genuine, and an agent had given his life to locate it, so it had been decided to take the chance that it was the real thing. Today the 918th had been sent to destroy it.
In the distance the watchers could just make out a cluster of tiny black specks, flying low and all strung out. Then suddenly, the Control Tower radio came alive, "Tightrope Leader to Archbury Tower. Tightrope Leader to Archbury Tower. How do you read? Over."
"Tightrope Leader. This is Archbury Tower. I read you five-by-five. Over."
"Archbury. We are northeast of the field and five minutes out. Request landing instructions. Over"
"Tightrope Leader. You are cleared to land on runway 9-0. I say again, runway 9-0. Visibility is clear and unlimited. Wind is from the south at 2 miles per hour. Over."
"Roger, Tower. Runway 9-0. Visibility unlimited and wind is from the south. Leader out."
The tower operator went outside to the railing and called down to those waiting below, "They're coming in."
Immediately dozens of support and emergency vehicles started their engines and sped toward the runway and parking areas so as to be waiting as the planes landed - fire trucks, just in case; trucks to take the tired crews to interrogation and mission debriefing; crew chiefs and maintainers, to recover 'their' airplanes from crews who keep bringing them back all shot up, if they brought them back at all; and ambulances and medical corpsmen to start treatment on the wounded and take away the dead.
At the head of the straggling formation was General Savage, 'Tightrope Leader'. As they neared the field, one-by-one, they peeled off for their approach, many - including the 'Piccadilly Lily', Savage's plane - firing a red flare into the air as they landed, indicating they had wounded on board.
The Piccadilly Lily, flying on three engines and her fuselage riddle with flak and bullet holes, touched down first and taxied toward the parking area. As Savage reached his hardstand, swung his tail around, and shut down his engines, General Crowe's staff car drove up and stopped at the edge of the parking apron. A minute or two later, the Lily's nose hatch opened, and General Savage swung down. He stood there for a moment, stretching to ease the tight muscles in his back and shoulders, then walked back to the rear of the plane to watch as corpsmen placed Jack Ballard, a wounded gunner, on a stretcher and loaded him into the ambulance that would take him to the hospital.
The rest of the crew had also deplaned and watched as one of their own was driven away, then they climbed into the waiting crew truck and drove off. Alone now, Savage looked down the line of hardstands to watch the last plane in his Group taxi in and shut down his engines. All down, he thought, at least all those who made it. Savage removed his hat and ran his fingers vigorously through his hair. Then he put his hat back on, squared it, and walked over to the waiting Crowe.
Savage was six foot tall and well built with broad shoulders and narrow hips. He was a handsome man with light brown hair and piercing blue eyes, and at thirty-seven, young for a General Officer. He was also one of the most experienced Group Commanders in VIII Bomber Command. When he had taken command of the 918th, it had not had a good reputation and been considered a 'hard luck' outfit; now it was one of the best Groups in 8th Air Force .... and because it WAS one of the best, Savage often caught the worst missions, as he had today.
Crowe returned his salute, and asked, "How'd it go, Frank?"
"We were suckered, Wiley!" he replied, the stress of the mission clearly visible in the lines written on his face. He was tired and bristling with anger.
"It WAS a decoy. .... The Metz factory all over again, except this time it didn't take three missions to figure it out. We saw launch ramps, a control bunker and a fortified hangar, just like in the reconnaissance photos, but it was all just wood and plaster ... It was a setup. They were waiting for us, Wiley."
"What do you mean 'waiting for you'?"
"Well, maybe not us specifically. But they must have purposely leaked that location, then waited for whoever took the bait. The site was ringed with heavy anti-aircraft emplacements, the flak so dense you could almost walk on it; and the fighters came up in force all the way in and out. If we hadn't had those extended-range P-47s for escort, I don't know if any of us would have made it back. As it is, we were shot to pieces. I must have lost at least a third of my Group ... and for what!?"
"I'm sorry, Frank." Crowe replied. "It was the best information we had. It was a risk, we knew that. But if there had been any chance, even the remotest possibility, that the information was correct, and we could cripple or significantly delay this flying bomb program, we had to take it .... no matter the cost."
"That's what they said the last time," Savage replied bitterly. "when Jack Temple, and a lot of other good men, died taking out that gyroscope factory, but here we are again."
At that moment, a jeep drove up and Major Harvey Stovall, Savage's Adjutant and right hand man, got out. Stovall, forty-nine, glasses and balding, was old for a major. He was a re-tread from the First War who had kept his Reserve commission, and when the US had entered the war, he'd been recalled. He had left a successful law practice to take on the most important 'client' he'd ever had: the 918th Bomb Group.
"Welcome back, General."
"Thank you, Major. What was the count?"
"I counted thirteen, sir. But Air Sea Rescue just notified us they picked up Captain Simon and his crew after they ditched in the Channel, and two of the stragglers, Canon and McGuiness, landed at RAF Colburn, just west of Margate."
"Sixteen crews back out of twenty-one, Wiley!" Savage said, his voice raised. "Fifty men gone and six badly needed B-17s. This is the second time I've wasted good men and planes with nothing to show for it." Shaking his head, he said vehemently. "There won't be a third."
Crowe said nothing, but turning to Stovall, asked calmly, "Major, would you see if you can get me a copy of the strike photos?"
"Of course, sir." Stovall knew he was being 'sent out of the room', so to speak, so the two generals could speak their minds without an audience.
As soon as Stovall had left, Crowe turned back to Savage.
"I can count, General. Those were MY men, and MY planes, too. Must I remind you, AGAIN," Crow said irritably. "that we are in a war where, at the moment, we are the underdogs, and sacrifices sometimes have to be made."
Savage was a long-time friend, and almost like a younger brother to Crowe, but, friend or not, he was dangerously close to insubordination.
"I'm sorry, sir..... " Savage said apologetically. Then taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly, "I'm not angry at you, Wiley. I know we had to go for it, but it just doesn't seem like we're getting anywhere."
"OK, OK..... Look, Frank, there's some things I'd like to discuss with you. Why don't you come down to London tonight and have dinner with me at my hotel? Then we can talk."
"I'd like to, Wiley, but I don't have the time...."
"Make the time, General. .... Do I have to 'order' you to have dinner with me, Frank?
"No, of course not."
"Good. I'm at the Grammacy Hotel, near Hyde Park, suite 36. Say, about eight o'clock?"
"All right, Wiley. Eight o'clock."
Savage watched Crowe drove off, then turned back to his plane to see Master Sergeant Nero, his line chief, on a maintenance stand with his head buried in the Lily's left outboard engine.
"How's she look, Nero?"
Nero came down off the stand, wiping his greasy hands on a dirty rag, and saluted. "No good, General. She's blown. If I had another engine, I'd replace it, but ..."
"OK. Don't worry about the Lily. Concentrate on the ones you CAN repair first."
"Yes, sir." Nero said, continuing to wipe his hands. "I don't know what shape the rest are in yet, General. My boys are checking 'em out now. I'll get you a status report later today."
"OK. I have to go down to London this evening, so if I'm not in my office, leave it with Major Cobb." (Major Joe Cobb was Savage's 'Air Exec", Deputy Commander for Air Operations)
Just as Savage was about to flag down a passing truck for a lift back to his office, Major Stovall returned in his jeep.
"Strike photos aren't back yet, General."
"That's alright, Major. General Crowe didn't really want them. I'm sure you recognized the reason for his request. I'm having dinner with him tonight at his hotel in London. I'll clear the air with him then. It's at eight, so have Ross check out a car."
Climbing into Stovall's jeep, "Take me to the hospital, will you, Harvey. I need to find out what the 'butcher's bill' is for today."
When they entered the hospital, it was chaos. The 'Hospital' was nothing more than a number of large joined-together Quonset Huts, and gurneys were backed up in the halls and out into the receiving area. Doctors and nurses were performing triage on the wounded where they were, determining the order and priority of treatment.
"Come to see your handiwork, General?" said an angry voice behind him.
Savage spun around to see Doc Kaiser, his white coat covered in blood, his face pinched in anger. He started to vent again, then suddenly stopped and rubbed a tired hand over his face.
"I'm sorry, General." he said. "I didn't mean that. It's just bad right now ... very bad."
"It's alright, Doc." Savage said, knowing just how Kaiser felt. "Forget it."
"It's going to be some time before we can bring some order to this mess, sir. I'll get you a casualty report when I can."
Kaiser had barely finished speaking when they heard an urgent call, "Doctor! Doctor! I can't stop the bleeding!" Without a word, Kaiser turned and ran toward the sound of the voice.
Savage watched for a moment, then said, "Come on, Major. We're just in the way here."
Back in the office, Savage shut his door, threw his hat on the desk, and began to remove his flight gear. When he had finished, he made an half-hearted effort to review the correspondence on his desk. Then he stood, and stared blankly out the window behind his desk. It was bad enough to take this kind of a beating on a target that had some meaning, but to lose all these men for a decoy ... He was mad as hell, and had no one he could blame but himself. He was in command.
In the outer office, Stovall knew Savage's moods, knew he was in there punishing himself, so he left him alone to let him try to make peace with himself. After a while, he knocked on the door.
"Yes. Come in, Harvey."
"It's getting late, sir. You've just enough time to clean up and change to make your dinner with General Crowe. I've sent Sergeant Ross for the car."
"OK. Thanks, Harvey.
Savage's clerk and part-time driver, Sergeant Ernie Ross, a short, stocky twenty-year-old kid from Los Angeles, dropped him off at the Grammacy Hotel a little before eight with instructions to return for Savage around eleven. Checking at the Front Desk for General Crowe in Suite 36, he was informed he wanted the third floor, and was pointed toward the elevator.
At eight sharp, Savage knocked on Crowe's door, and as he took off his trench coat, the door opened.
"Frank! Right on time. Come in. Come in." Crowe said. As Savage entered, "Can I fix you a drink? Whiskey and water, isn't it?"
Tossing his coat and hat on a chair, "Yes, Thanks."
"Look, Wiley." Savage said as Crow handed him his drink. "About this afternoon. I was out of line. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to take my frustration out on you."
"Forget it, Frank. I have. We all have bad days, and you've had more than your share lately."
"Seems like it." Savage said as he took a sip of his drink and sat down. Waiting for Crowe to fix his own drink and join him, he looked around. It was a comfortable sitting room with over-stuffed furniture, a dining area, fireplace, and French doors opening out onto, he assumed, but couldn't tell with the blackout curtains drawn, a wide balcony.
"Nice digs, Wiley." Savage said as Crowe sat down. "When did you move up to London? Bit of a drive to Pinetree, isn't it? "
"I only stay here when I have to be in London for a day or two. It's leased by Eighth Air Force, and kept for visiting VIPs. At the moment, I'm the only occupant. It's a nice change every now and then; my quarters at Pinetree are a little Spartan, as you well know."
Taking another sip of his drink, Savage asked, "What was so important you wanted to talk about that you dragged me down to London?"
Crowe hesitated a moment, judging the best way of approaching a subject he knew Savage would not like.
"Frank, do you remember why the Old Man sent you down to take over the 918th?"
The 'Old Man' was Lieutenant General Patrick Pritchard, Commander of VIII Bomber Command, 8th Air Force and headquartered at Bushy Park, London (code name 'Widewing'). He was Wiley Crowe's ... and Savage's ... boss.
"Of course. The 918th couldn't answer a Field Order, and he sent me down to fix it."
"And you did, even though it was a step back for you, a General in a Colonel's billet. You turned it around, and now it's one of the best."
"Where are you going with this, Wiley?" Savage asked guardedly.
"Frank, it's been over six months since you turned the Group around, yet you're still there. Pritchard has left you alone so far because he wants YOU to make the decision when it's time to leave. But he's getting impatient, Frank. He wants you back at Bushy Park, and he's not going to wait much longer."
"Oh, come on, Wiley....." Savage didn't want to listen to this. He got up and walked over to the fireplace and stood staring into the empty firebox where in another month or two there'd be a roaring fire.
"No, Frank. Let me finish. If you don't make the break soon, he's going to do it for you, and you may not like where he assigns you."
"Why are you bringing this up again now, Wiley?" Savage said irritably. It seemed like every few months, Wiley was pressing him to stop flying and go back to Headquarters. "What's the sudden rush?"
"Because", Crowe said, exhaling the breath he had been holding. "I've just been offered a DCAS position on Hap Arnold's staff." Four Star General Henry 'Hap' Arnold was Commanding General of all Army Air Forces. Deputy Chief of Air Staff was a 'plum' assignment that any officer would give his first born to get.
Savage was stunned; he hadn't seen that coming. He turned back away from the fireplace and just stared at Crowe. "Are you going to take it?" he asked. It was a great opportunity for Crowe, the culmination of an almost thirty year career. But it would also mean his friend would be leaving England.
"I don't know. I have some time before I have to give them an answer. I've been thinking about it."
"It's a great opportunity." Savage was conflicted. He didn't want Wiley to go, but..... "It could mean another star."
"You know," Crowe smiled and, surprising even himself, said, "I'm not sure that's really that important to me anymore.... "
"I don't want to leave the ETO (European Theater of Operations), be out of the 'action' and really stuck behind a desk. At least here, as Commander of a Wing, I can get out every now and then, visit the Groups, and occasionally 'sneak' a ride-along on a low-risk milk-run." (A General officer at Crowe's level of command would be prohibited from going on a mission where he could be shot down and possibly captured. He knew too much. But some risked it anyway.)
"Still," Crowe went on, "it would be nice to be in on the planning end for a change, to know what's going on and why. To see the 'Big Picture'."
Savage could see that Crowe was unconsciously using him as a sounding board, bouncing the pro's and con's off him. He knew Crowe didn't want to give up his Wing, any more than he wanted to give up his Group.
"And," Crowe added brightly, "It would allow me to spend time with my daughter."
"Aren't Kathy and the kids still in Hawaii?" Savage asked surprised.
"No. Matt McConnell, my son-in-law, sent them back to the States on the first available ship after 'Pearl' was bombed. He's at sea with Halsey's Task Force; XO (Executive Officer) on a destroyer. He didn't want to leave them alone in case the Japs paid another visit. They're staying at my house in DC, in Arlington Heights near Fort Meyer."
Crowe seemed lost in thought for a moment, not saying anything, so Savage broke the silence, "Nice house as I remember."
"Yes." Crowe said softly, almost to himself. "Martha and I were very happy there." He smiled remembering for a moment, then more somber, continued. "Kathy and I haven't been very close since her mother died, Frank. She's never come right out and said anything, but I think she blames me for not being there when Martha passed."
Now it was Crowe who stared into the empty fireplace. "I've never seen my grandchildren, you know that? They were both born in Hawaii; they'd be about five and six, now. ... I'd like to do some 'fence-mending' with her, Frank, and get to know the kids."
Changing the subject, Savage asked, "Who would take over the Wing?"
Crowe straightened. "Haven't you figured that out yet?" he said turning to face Savage. "That's why we're having this discussion, Frank. I want you to take it. I know Pritchard would go for it, and you'd get your second star."
Savage delayed a minute before he spoke. "I appreciate the offer, Wiley; I do. But I'm happy where I am. There's still a lot to be done."
"You've been very lucky, Frank. But it can't last. You've come back bloody three times since you've been down there, and twice you very nearly didn't come back at all. After the Hamburg mission, and you almost died, Doc Kaiser said you had 'more lives than a cat', but he also warned that you're getting older, your reflexes aren't as quick, and you don't heal as fast. It was his opinion that you should stop flying altogether, but he wouldn't go so far as to ground you."
"Well, that was nice of him." Savage said sarcastically.
"Yes! It was! You should listen to him. You keep flying, and one of these missions you WON'T come back.... and you just might take nine other men with you. Do you ever think of that?"
"Of course, I do. Every time I go up." Savage said heatedly. Then taking a deep breath and calming down, he said, "Look, I know what you're saying, Wiley. But the time isn't right. The Group isn't ready yet."
"The time will never be right for you, Frank. They'll always be some reason why the time isn't right."
"I know you don't like to hear it, but you're NOT expendable. It's the sorry truth, but right now, pilots and crews are expendable; good leaders are not. We NEED good leaders, Frank!"
"In my opinion, General Crowe, the 918th STILL needs a good leader, and from what you just said, it has one .... and I can't lead from behind a desk." Savage said stubbornly. He was getting tired of having to defend himself.
"Yes it does, but any competent 'bird colonel' with a little command experience and some common sense can lead this Group now. YOU did that. But if you keeping going the way you are, sooner or later, you're going to end up in a Luft Stalag somewhere .... or dead, and then you won't be of any use to anyone, least of all yourself.
IT WAS INEVITABLE, Frank. From the day you took command, you had to know that at some point you'd have to move on, and hand the 918th over to another Commander. Don't you think it would be better to leave on your own terms?"
Savage said nothing. He just stood there swirling the dregs in his glass, wishing Crowe would leave it alone. He didn't want to deal with this now.
Crowe saw that Savage was no longer listening, so he said, "OK, Frank. I've said my piece. But just think about it, will you? That's all I'm asking. It won't affect my decision one way or the other, but think about what's really best for you ... and the 918th."
Savage knew that his friend was right, and merely voicing what deep inside he knew himself, but just couldn't bring himself to accept ... at least not yet.
The tension in the room was almost palpable. "OK, Wiley." Savage said, trying to lighten the mood. "It's been a long day, and I'm starving, so if it'll get me to that dinner you promised any sooner, I'll think about it."
"I mean it, Wiley." Savage said more serious. "Really. I'll give it some thought."
"That's all I'm asking."
Checking his watch, Crowe said, "It's only eight-thirty, and our reservation is for nine. But I think we can get a table. It's usually pretty slow this early; the English are late eaters ..... Just let me get my coat.
As they exited the elevator, Savage noticed a senior RAF officer standing in the center of the lobby, and on his arm was the most stunning woman Savage had ever seen. He couldn't take his eyes off her. She was dressed conservatively, but fashionably, in a very becoming navy-blue two-piece, knee-length suit with a cream blouse ... neither of which did anything to conceal her shapely figure and long graceful legs.
She was about his age, he thought, maybe a little younger, probably mid-thirties; and tall, only a little shorter than himself. Her hair was a lustrous wavy auburn, worn down and loose, framing a flawlessly beautiful face. She wore very little makeup. She didn't need it; her complexion was perfect.
But it was her lively green eyes that seemed to sparkle with laughter and her smile that caught and held his attention.
Crowe followed his gaze and said, "That's Air Vice Marshal Sir Phillip Markham, my liaison with RAF Bomber Command.
"Who's the girl?" Savage asked.
"I don't know." Crowe replied, noting that Savage continued to stare. "Let's find out?"
Before Savage could object, Crowe walked over to the couple with Savage trailing behind.
"Phillip." Crowe began. "Nice to see you. Are you staying at the Grammacy, too?"
"Good heavens, Wiley Crowe.... Yes, I maintain a suite here for when I'm in London."
The Air Vice Marshal - the equivalent of an American two-star Major General - was a distinguished looking officer of average height and build, piercing blue eyes, a ruddy complexion, and white hair with a neatly trimmed British brush mustache. On his well-tailored uniform, Savage noted several rows of very respectable medal ribbons. One campaign ribbon that caught his eye was the Star Campaign Medal ribbon with the gold-colored 'Battle of Britain' Rosette, a medal just recently created and awarded to participants of the famous air battle. Surely, he hadn't flown in the Battle of Britain, he thought. Granted the man appeared very fit, but he had to be sixty if he was a day.
Savage's inspection of the Air Marshal was interrupted as he heard Crowe say, "I'd like you to meet one of my Group Commanders ... General Frank Savage. It was his Group, the 918th, that led the Hannover raid a few weeks ago."
"Yes, of course. General Savage. Very pleased to meet you." Sir Phillip said offering his hand. "Good show, that! Read your report; couldn't put it down. Well done, sir. Very well done!"
Shaking his hand, Savage replied politely, "Thank you, sir. It's a pleasure to meet you."
"Sir Phillip, please." Then turning to the girl Savage couldn't take his eyes from, "Let me introduce my beautiful companion.... Gentlemen, this is my daughter-in-law, Anne Markham, widow of my late son, Robert. He was killed at Dunkirk."
"My dear, this is Major General Wiley Crowe, Commander of VIII Bomber Command's First Bombardment Wing..."
"Very pleased to meet you, General." she said offering her hand.
Briefly taking her hand, Crowe replied smiling, "I assure you, the pleasure is mine."
"And Brigadier General Frank Savage." Sir Phillip continued.
Anne again offered her hand, "Pleased to meet you as well, General Savage."
Savage took her hand, and holding it a little longer than was customary, said "Please accept my condolences on your loss, Mrs. Markham ... and please, call me 'Frank'."
"Then you must call me 'Anne'." She replied with a bright smile as Savage finally released her hand.
For a moment their eyes met, and held, until Crowe said, "We were just heading into dinner...."
"Yes." Savage interjected before Crowe could say anything further. "Won't you both join us? ... That is, of course, if you have no other plans."
"No!" Anne answered quickly, much to the surprise of Sir Phillip. "We were just going to catch a film, but I've already seen it ... twice. We'd be happy to join you. Wouldn't we, Phillip."
"Apparently so." Sir Phillip replied, exchanging a knowing look and grin with Crowe.
The dinner was excellent, the hotel somehow defying the strict rationing instituted by the Ministry of Food and providing 'luxury' off-ration foodstuffs for those who could afford to dine in the better restaurants.
Sir Phillip and Crowe passed the time discussing work, while Savage and Anne just talked and gazed at each other.
Over the course of the meal, Savage told her his life story: he was a farm boy from Ohio who had joined the Army as soon as he was old enough; obtained an appointment to West Point; transferred to the Army Air Corps after graduation and commissioning; and through various assignments over the years had risen in rank until he eventually ended up in command of the 918th Bomb Group.
That took less than ten minutes, over a pre-dinner glass of wine. Then it was Anne's turn, and over the course of the rest of the meal, he learned she was an American, born and raised in Pennsylvania, although after eight years in England, she had picked up a definite accent and British mannerisms. When she was ten, her parents and an older brother had died in the flu pandemic of 1918, and she had been raised by her aunt, a college professor.
She had met Robert Markham in 1936, as she was finishing her Bachelor's Degree in History from Carnegie Mellon. He had just taken his degree from Oxford and was touring the United States before he was to return home, with war looming, to take a commission in the RAF. It had been a whirlwind romance, and when Robert returned to England, Anne had gone with him as is wife.
Robert had been a natural flyer, easily earning his wings. He flew Hawker Hurricanes, and by 1939, at the start of the 'Phoney War', he was a Squadron Leader assigned to the RAF Advanced Air Striking Force located at various airfields in France from which it could operate against targets in Nazi Germany.
When the Phoney War turned into a shooting one in 1940, Robert and his squadron had flown sorties against German aircraft and positions, and later provided air cover for the evacuation of British units from France's western ports. On one of those sorties, he had been shot down and killed. After she had received the news of his death, and gone through a period of mourning, Anne had decided to remain in England and 'do what she could' for the war effort.
Later, over an after-dinner glass of Port, Anne heard her name and turned to find that Crowe had been speaking to her.
"I'm sorry, Wiley. I'm afraid I wasn't listening."
"I heard what you we're telling Frank earlier .... that you stayed in England to 'do what you could'. I asked, what is it that you do?"
"It's rather boring, actually." she said. "I work for the 'Statistical Research Department' in the Ministry of Economic Warfare..... "
Before she could continue, Sir Phillip interrupted. "Really, my dear. I'm sure General Crowe and General Savage can be trusted ....."
"It's all very 'hush, hush', you see." He continued, leaning in to the table and speaking 'sotto voce' before she could stop him. "Anne works for Special Operations Executive. The 'Statistical Research Department' is just a cover name. They conduct espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance in occupied Europe, primarily France at the moment, and generally disrupt the Germans in any way they can."
"Phillip! I really wish you hadn't done that!" Anne said exasperated.
"It's alright right, Anne." Savage said, also in a low voice. "Sir Phillip hasn't told us anything we didn't already know. Wiley and I are both very familiar with the SOE. In fact, I met some of your people last year in France, a Leftenant Tom Smith and his team ... Sergeant Harris and Corporal Burns, if I remember correctly. They did me a very good turn."
Anne's eyes suddenly widened in recognition, "General Savage, of course! I didn't make the connection. I know Tom very well, and I've read his report on his encounter with you. It seems you had a 'very interesting' time over there."
Savage grinned, " 'Interesting' isn't exactly the word I would have used."
Crowe, who was well aware of the incident, explained to Sir Phillip that the 'interesting time' to which Anne had referred happened the previous Fall when Savage had been shot down over Occupied France, and captured by the Germans.
He was being held at a compound near Rheims, when he had been brazenly snatched from his Wehrmacht captors by a rather nasty Gestapo agent named 'Schmidt', who seemed intent on personally 'interrogating' him. Later, the 'nasty Gestapo agent' revealed himself as Leftenant Tom Smith, an SOE agent who, with two others, had come to rescue a French Maquis leader being held at the same compound. A plane had been waiting, and Savage was back in England by the next morning.
"It was pure luck. A case of being at the right place, at the right time." Crowe said, finishing the story. "But Frank's always been lucky."
" 'Luck' is a very important quality for a commander." Sir Phillip said. "Wasn't it Napoleon who said, when told of the virtues of a new General, 'That's all very well, but is the fellow lucky'?"
Everyone laughed, then Savage sobered and said, "Well, I wasn't very lucky today. My target turned out to be a very costly decoy."
Sir Phillip knew exactly what that target was, and quickly turned to Crowe, "A decoy? Damn! I really thought we were onto something this time, Wiley."
"Afraid so. I'll go over the details with you tomorrow." Then checking his watch, "It's getting late. I think we're going to have to call it a night."
"Yes." Anne said. "I have an early morning."
"May I give you a lift somewhere?" Savage asked Anne. "I have a car waiting."
Crowe started to say something, but Anne spoke first. "Thank you, but that won't be necessary. Phillip has graciously offered me a room in his suite for the night."
The elevator stopped at Sir Philip's floor, and as they exited, Savage took Anne aside and said, "I'd very much like to see you again, Anne. Would it be all right if I called?"
"I'd like that." She fumbled in her purse for a moment looking for something to write with, saying, "Let me give you my number." Then paused, and half to herself, said, "What number should I give. I never know anymore where I'll be sleeping." Finally locating a pencil, she looked up to find all three men staring at her with varying expressions.
"What?" she asked. Then thinking about what she had just said, laughed. "Really? I'm not that kind of girl!" she said primly.
"But perhaps I should explain that last bit. ... I share a flat with Mary Clarke, that is, Mary Weeks now, from work. She's just been married to a young Pilot Officer stationed at Biggin Hill, and whenever he can get away, which seems to be fairly often, he comes to visit. When he does, Mary turns the door mat over to let me know I should make other arrangements for the evening. It's a little bothersome, but they're very young, newlyweds, and I can remember what that was like."
"Anyway, I'm rarely in my own bed these days. Fortunately, Phillip maintains a suite here and kindly allows me to sleep over when I can't go home. I don't expect this arrangement will last too much longer, but should it, I suppose I shall have to look for another flat. .... A long explanation for a simple statement. I trust you gentlemen are satisfied, and my honor is intact."
A chorus of voices responded. "Yes, of course. ... Certainly. ... Never thought anything of it."
Turning back to Savage, who barely got his mouth shut in time, Anne said, "I think it might be best if you contacted me at the office." Then quickly jotting her number on a scrap of paper, handed it to Savage. "Just ask for Anne. Mary and I are the only women in the office at the moment."
"Could I give you a call tomorrow?" he asked hesitantly.
"I'll look forward to it ... Now," she said looking at her wrist watch. "I really must get some sleep. Good evening, gentlemen."
Savage watched as she and Sir Phillip walked away down the hall and entered one of the rooms. Crowe had been holding the elevation for him, and grinning broadly said, "My God, Frank. I believe you're smitten with the lady."
"Oh, Wiley. Don't be ridiculous." Savage said as the elevator doors slid shut behind him, then added grinning. "But she is rather spectacular, isn't she."
"And speaking of an early day...." he said glancing at his watch. "My God, it's almost one o'clock. Sergeant Ross .... "
"It's okay, Frank. Shortly after we sat down for dinner, I sent a message out that you'd be spending the evening and to pick you up at eight tomorrow morning. The way you were looking at her when we went in, I knew it was going to be a very late evening ..... It's a good thing, though, she didn't take you up on your offer of a ride."
"Thanks, Wiley." Savage said relieved. "It's a little late to get a room now. Where is it I'm going to stay? Your sofa looked comfortable, but a little short."
Shaking his head and laughing, Crowe said, "It's a TWO bedroom suite, Frank."
Start writing here ...