On the thirtieth day of January, Nineteen Sixty-Five, as Big Ben struck 0945, the coffin of Sir Winston Churchill left Westminister Hall aboard a gun carriage on its journey to Saint Paul’s cathedral, where the funeral service was to be held.
Thousands of people had lined the streets to watch its passage, Archibald Stephenson among them.
To his surprise, Stephenson was also one of those who hurriedly wiped away a tear at the sight.
He hadn’t known Churchill very well, having met him only a few times, and he certainly didn’t see eye to eye with him on every issue, but he was rather fond of the man all the same.
“He has good instincts,” Birkhead had said to Stephenson once, shortly after the war. “The sort of man who knows the right compromises to make, which is really something for quite so public a figure.”
“He has quite a way with words, too,” Birkhead added, though Stephenson had always suspected the Nobel Laureate in Literature of plucking the expression “Iron Curtain” from a conversation with his own mentor. (Birkhead would be present at the service at St. Paul’s, Stephenson knew – a rare departure of the old man from his country estate, where by his own admission he was “hiding” from what he saw their beloved England becoming.)
“I don’t think there will ever be another like him,” Birkhead had said with dismay after hearing about Churchill’s death, which seemed to take with it more than the life of a single man. Stephenson had the sense that a world was passing with him. They’d watched it dying for a long time, but it was now breathing its last gasps.
The day after Churchill was laid to rest in the Oxfordshire parish churchyard of Bladon, Stephenson got in his MG saloon and drove onto the A30, bound for Land’s End.
Stephenson had learned early on that the Guardians did not get together and decide the fate of everyone and everything in Britain, let alone the world. Rather, they were all men with a certain level of position and influence, sharing certain broad values and goals they all actively advanced. They met in secret where they could speak their minds to trusted ears in a way they could not in public, the better to further such purposes. It was not the only such group of its kind, and many of its members belonged to more than one such group, but Stephenson regarded it as particularly significant nonetheless, for what it represented, and he believed, its share of the deepest thinkers among the nation’s elite.
They would be meeting again at a mansion in southwestern Cornwall, near the sea. Several of their number would be staying at the mansion itself, but Stephenson planned to sleep at a cottage in the area owned by his wife’s family, which had some connections to the county. (Maud, of course, didn’t accompany him. No one’s wife, mistress, lover, friend, crony, hanger-on did. The meeting was members-only.)
En route Stephenson admired the countryside on either side of the highway. He’d been born and raised in the city, and had his whole life there. He’d probably never fit into the role of country gentleman so snugly as Birkhead on his estate, or MacDougal in his castle in Inverness. Still, he appreciated the charms of the farms and villages he passed, all the more so as he got older and the England he’d been born and raised in became a distant memory, unknown to his children’s generation, who would lament it only at a remove.
It was just such charm which drew Stephenson to the roadside restaurant where he stopped for a bite to eat, a converted seventeenth century coaching house. Inside he spotted MacDougal, whom he hadn’t expected to see until he got to the conference.
They agreed to have lunch together. MacDougal, more familiar with this place than himself, had a brief word with the maître d. He nodded and promptly showed them a cozy private room at the back, all dark wood tables, soft leather chairs and custom prints, all very much to Stephenson’s liking.
“Congratulations on your promotion, Wing Commander MacDougal,” Stephenson said over his plate of wild venison loin.
“Yes,” MacDougal said as he sipped at his glass of Argentinean Malbec. “Thank you.” He didn’t sound happy, his long, lean face seeming even longer and leaner than usual, the lines deeper than he remembered. His deepened tan from his recent time in the Far East was probably making them appear more pronounced, but the years had had their effect nonetheless.
Somehow, though, Stephenson didn’t think that was the entirety of it, or even the heart of it.
“I wish the circumstances were different,” MacDougal allowed.
“What do you mean?” Stephenson asked.
“You remember the withdrawal of my squadron last month? From Tengah?”
Stephenson’s professional concerns these days had mostly to do with making sense of the situation in Moscow now after Khrushchev’s ouster. Still, the situation in Southeast Asia was a matter of general knowledge. President Sukarno of Indonesia had set himself up as a leader of that “Nonaligned Movement” along with Nasser and Nehru and Tito and Nkrumah. Just as Nasser nationalized the canal and Nehru attacked the Portuguese enclaves along his coast for no better reason than that he could, Sukarno was throwing his weight around in his region. After the revolution, he’d fought and won an air war against the Netherlands to take over Dutch New Guinea, and since turned his eyes west. His current bugbear was the Federation of Malaysia, which he fancied a “neocolonial” plot.
Sukarno backed his words with actions, launching his country on a policy of low-intensity warfare against the new country. Naturally Britain and its allies sent troops, planes and ships to check him, a deployment which had turned into a skirmish war against the Indonesians that threatened to become more than a skirmish war.
Last October the Air Force sent MacDougal’s bomber squadron to RAF station Tengah on Singapore. It ordered the squadron out of there just two months later, relocating it to Akrotiri on Cyprus.
No official explanation of the decision was ever offered.
“There was an incident, one of our own making to be frank,” MacDougal said. “The deployment of the bombers didn’t quite have the desired effect, and Whitehall decided to up the pressure. The plan called for us to stage a series of penetrations into Indonesian airspace over Sumatra.”
Stephenson knew that Royal Air Force aircraft had crossed into Indonesian airspace, just as Army patrols extended several miles over the border into Indonesian territory, but he hadn’t heard about anything like this. It seemed like the Indonesians were supposed to take the penetrations as preparation for strikes on their territory –potentially nuclear strikes.
This was not a small gambit.
“I see,” Stephenson said after taking it all in. “Go on.”
His friend did so. As Squadron Leader, the Vulcan MacDougal piloted himself was to make the first of those flights.
A short way over the border his plane was intercepted by an Indonesian Air Force MiG-21. They did their best to evade it, but the little delta-winged fighter got into a position to fire its missiles, and one of them must have hit because one of their turbojets went out.
MacDougal had to fight just to keep them aloft, but more planes were coming their way. Just short of friendly airspace, he saw a twin-engined, swept-winged plane closing in on them from behind, a MiG-19.
MacDougal knew the firepower that plane packed, a trio of thirty-millimeter cannons that could put out forty pounds of high explosive shells in a one-second burst. He didn’t like their odds of surviving that, and up ahead he saw another delta-winged jet coming their way. Taking it for another of the ’21s he thought they were finished, but then he realized it was one of their own – a Gloster Javelin, coming to their rescue. He saw a flash on its wing, then the MiG chasing them fireballed and tumbled out of the sky, struck down by the air-to-air missile the Javelin launched.
They were back in Malaysian airspace seconds after he saw the fireball, and as far as he could tell the other Indonesian jets didn’t cross into it after them, giving up the chase. The only plane that continued with them was that Javelin, escorting them back to their landing in Tengah.
“And that was the end of it,” MacDougal said. “As we were told, the shoot-down of a nuclear bomber over Indonesian territory would be a very grave humiliation for Her Majesty’s Government – as if they had not thought of this before sending us out there. So they halted operations, and pulled us out of Tengah. Hence our removal to Cyprus, five thousand miles away from the fighting, a whole bloody continent away from the action.
“Of course, Whitehall kept it quiet, very quiet.”
MacDougal had already been slated for promotion, and the incident didn’t affect that. On the contrary, he was applauded for his success in bringing the damaged bomber back to base in one piece.
Still, he wasn’t happy about it. There was a very great deal at stake there, MacDougal said, not only Britain’s sacred honor and the fate of its Empire, but control of the East. Between the regional designs of Indonesia and North Vietnam, and the domestic agitations in virtually every country in the region, it was easy to picture the Communists absorbing the southern littoral of Asia into a contiguous empire extending from the Arctic to the Timor Sea, putting it into a position to dominate passage between the Indian and Pacific Oceans and threaten Australia and New Zealand.
“Back in Suez, we could at least point to the stab in the back by the Americans. We don’t have that excuse this time. They’ve just plain lost their nerve,” MacDougal said of the Cabinet, the Government, the whole British political and military establishment. “They can’t even stand up to Sukarno, or Ho Chi Minh. How will they stand up to the Soviets, or Mao Zedong?”
Stephenson reminded him of the limits of British power in this new world, but MacDougal reminded him that they could have done more, much more, but just didn’t have the will. They’d lost confidence, and they’d shied away from the actions that could have rejuvenated them as a people.
When their leaders thought of war, they fantasized about push-button conflicts, waged with machines. Even such aircraft as they built now were largely automatic, the pilot not a knight of the air such as those who had won the Battle of Britain, but another button-pusher inside a vast complex of electronics and technicians. And that was only until such time as he could be replaced, as they now hoped to replace him. “The bomber’s day is finished,” the scientists said, and their government contracted out for American Polaris missiles – trusting the provision of the delivery systems for their ultimate weapons, their last line of defense, to another country. A kindred country, perhaps, but another country all the same, and one that had repeatedly shown it didn’t always have Britain’s best interests at heart.
Of course, that was part of what brought them to Cornwall in the first place, figuring out how to manage it all. Still, there was reason to worry events would overwhelm even the best of them. After all these years Stephenson had learned to accept that possibility, much as he worked to avert it. Looking at MacDougal now, though, he wondered if his friend ever had.