Jeremy’s War: Chapter 30 “The Master Plan “
Posted on March 31, 2008
A huge log fire blazed up the chimney.
Shadows played around the room, eerily giving life to the ancient oil paintings.
Portraits. Nearly all of them.
Four thoughtful men relaxed around the fire.
Some of them wore their high ranking uniforms unbuttoned casually, especially around the waistline.
A fifth man, rather younger, stood awkwardly behind the chair of one of them, wishing he too could sit down. He fumbled from time to time with a writing pad and pen.
An ancient butler hid in the shadows, his face expressionless, his heart sorely troubled.
The man with the potbelly held his glass up, and enjoyed the rich color of the brandy. He swilled it absently around the huge glass, and reflected on its excellent quality. After a truly superb meal of Salmon with lots of trimmings, he enjoyed nothing better than a good brandy. Courvoisier. Exquisite. There was nothing better than a good brandy. Except, perhaps, a good snooze in front of the fire.
The bear-like man with the bushy eyebrows, the huge nose, and the small forehead, coughed noisily, and wiped his facial edifice slowly and meticulously. It was a prolonged task. His tiny eyes darted around suspiciously, and the ancient butler, from his discreet vantage point, kept a cautious eye on him. For he knew only too well that the man had no patience. No patience at all…
At military school, many decades ago, the bear-like man had earned the nickname ‘Grizzly’. It was an indication not only of the man’s ferocious appearance. It was also a clue to his slow, meticulous, unstoppable ascent through the ranks, and through every military problem hurled at him. He merely lumbered forward, ignoring the pain. He expected others to do like-wise. It never occurred to him that men are different.
The third man was altogether different. He was lean and hungry looking, with a dramatic scar running from the corner of his left eye down to his bottom jaw, and then along to his chin. He had earned the scar in a military encounter thirty years earlier. It had embittered him at the time. However, as he had discovered, it had not damaged his career in the slightest, giving him a hard fought image with a distinctly swashbuckling flavor. The nick-name ‘Old Scar-face’ had soon pleased him. He had learned to act the part, always exhorting his men to greater sacrifice, although he himself had stayed well away from action almost since that day. He was a most cunning man, whose face could instantly assume what ever expression he thought most expeditious at the time. Expeditious – to him. He was a shrewd judge of other men, and had combined his gifts to advance his career to the very top.
The fourth man was Colonel Raymond Lawrence Rimmell.
He was the lowest ranking of the four senior officers, and his enjoyment of the excellent meal was marred by his troubled mind. He was also finding the conference hard work. Hard work indeed.
The General’s aide shifted his weight casually from one foot to the other, wishing they could get on with it.
He studied the rhythmic rise and fall of his chief’s potbelly, and knew the man was close to falling asleep. Given a chance, the man would lapse into a snooze, and then he could discreetly retire to a chair in the corner.
Colonel Rimmell gathered his thoughts, and decided to have one more go at the thorny issue of the parachute question. He knew it would be frowned on, but, what the hell… He cleared his throat, and thought he detected a slight tremor travel quickly through the general’s frame.
“General, on the issue of wearing parachutes, I spoke with Major Baxter today, and, once again, I must report the same feedback, namely that the men earnestly seek the use of parachutes… ” He glanced at Scar-face, who had moved suddenly. Rimmell hurried on quickly, before the inevitable interruption stopped him. He decided to try and be tactful.
“… I believe myself of course, that you have a very important point when you express the reservations you do. Obviously, the possession of a parachute could indeed impair a pilot’s nerve when in difficulties… ” Rimmell saw Scar-face study the reaction of the General, and knew his time was strictly limited. The moment the general showed the first sign of irritation, Scar-face, true to form, would take his cue and launch a diatribe against the wearing of parachutes…
“…but nonetheless, there is a solid body of opinion amongst the officers in the field… ” He placed as much emphasis on the ‘officers in the field’ as he dared.
“… that the issue of parachutes would be more than compensated for by the saving of experienced pilots who find themselves trapped in hopelessly blazing aircraft. Although doubtless there would be some abuse – and this would have to be dealt with very severely – it is felt that the advantages would be rather greater. Major Baxter, whom you all know as a very fine airman, tells me he knows personally of twenty-three cases, were an RFC pilot could have been saved to fight another day. Instead, all men were lost, either due to in flight fire, or due to smashing into the ground in uncontrollable aircraft. Major Baxter… ”
The General’s face had remained impassive throughout, but now he seemed to give a slight start, and a look of annoyance passed across his features. His aide groaned inwardly, and shifted his weight again.
Now the stupid old bugger had woken up again…
Scar-face, watching the general like a hawk, chose his moment exactly right. He rounded on Rimmell, and launched his broadside.
“Really, Colonel Rimmell! I must interrupt you there. We have talked this subject over in detail now several times. Major-General Sir Henderson is seriously opposed to such an idea. General Groves quite rightly is of the view that smashed aircraft generally fall with such velocity that there would hardly be time to think about the parachute. I for one heartily endorse this view! ”
Scar-face finished his last comment with an obsequious nod in the direction of the man with the potbelly. This worthy allowed a faint smile to cross his features, which instantly disappeared. He settled himself more comfortably…
Rimmell groaned inwardly. How he hated that servile sod! He wished, not for the first time, that whoever had given him that scar had aimed a little better, and chopped the bastard’s head off… He debated pressing on, but the ferocious look from Scar-face made him hesitate. He looked to the bear-like man for support, but found none. The small eyes under the bushy eyebrows regarded him only with reproach, as if he were making an unworthy suggestion. Rimmell sighed, and lapsed into silence.
A few minutes passed. The bear-like man made an imperious gesture, and had his glass refilled instantly. Rimmell wished somebody else would speak. Nobody did. Flames flickered up locally, and died away as suddenly, without achieving anything. Elsewhere a fountain of sparks would burst out, and be sucked up the chimney.
The underlying logs were incandescent now, and slowly losing their shapes, settling on a red and white bed of pure heat.
At length, Rimmell could stand it no longer. He drank deeply of his brandy, and launched forth on a different tack.
“We haven’t quite decided how to deal with the Flying Circus problem. We know the Jastas are organizing into bigger and bigger units. They appear to be willing to denude considerable areas of scout planes, in return for the ability to launch massed attacks when they do strike.
We have to admit that they have been very successful. Our losses… ”
He paused. There was no need to pursue that tack. The dismal figures spoke for themselves. At times he marveled that they still had any aircraft left.
“… speak for themselves. Now. Major Baxter is being troubled severely by the Blue Albatros outfit. We don’t know who their leader is, but apparently, like Richthofen, he is of aristocratic stock, and his men regard him highly… ”
The man with the potbelly stirred, and appeared to nod approval. An aristocrat! Yes, well, of course!
Rimmell paused to see if the general was going to say anything, and then carried on.
“Certainly, he has transformed the Jasta’s fortunes. They have changed from a defensive style to a remarkably offensive campaign. Their scores have been multiplying, and Baxter is losing an increasing amount of men and machines to them. We know who they are, of course, by their unique color scheme. All aircraft are mostly blue, with green used for different features. Thus, one aircraft will have a green rudder. Another, green ailerons. Yet another, green interplane struts. And so on. Only the leader wears an all blue livery… ”
The General’s aide wondered why on earth Rimmell wouldn’t just shut up. The man never stopped…
“McAllister’s squadron has been hit even harder than Baxter’s. I’ve been there several times, and… ”
The bear-like man had suddenly come alive at the mention of the name of McAllister. He looked across at Scar-face.
Rimmell, noticing the movement, trailed off, wondering.
It was Scar-face who spoke, with unaccustomed warmth.
“Ah yes, McAllister! Good man that, don’t you think? ”
Rimmell, surprised, frowned thoughtfully. “Yes, of course. A little formal with his men perhaps. I seem to remember being there on one occasion when he appeared to be struggling a little to retain the respect of his men… ” Scar-face waved away the comment smilingly.
“Watch that man, Colonel Rimmell! A good man, I can assure you! Excellent stock. Pedigree background! I know his father well. He will go far, mark my words! ”
The man with the potbelly approved of what he heard. A good background.
You couldn’t beat fine breeding…
Rimmell nodded politely to Scar-face, and wondered about McAllister. Strange fellow. Didn’t seem to be hitting it off at all well with his men. What was the name of that chap he had wanted court-martialled? Armstrong. Yes. That was it. Armstrong. Major Baxter, on the contrary, thought the world of Armstrong. Rated him very highly indeed.
Funny business. Why did Scar-face rate McAllister so highly?
He coughed, and continued.
“Well, Major Baxter has come up with a plan to tackle the Blue Albatros brigade. What he wants to do is combine his SE5’s with McAllister’s, and then tag on Matherson’s team of Sopwith Pups. That should produce a formation of over thirty aircraft.
He then wants to send up three aircraft as bait. The idea… ” He was warming to his theme now, and was incapable of keeping the enthusiasm out of his eyes and voice. Scar-face regarded him coolly and calculatingly, whereas the bear-like man scowled darkly.
“…the idea being as follows: firstly, the bait flies over to the German side, and swans up and down. Secondly, the main formation climbs as high as they can, but stays well out of sight. A single two seater machine positions itself half way between the bait and the main formation. If… ”
He stressed the ‘if’.
“If… the enemy spot the single machine as well, it will not deter them from attacking in force. At that stage, the bait continues to swan up and down, pretending it is unaware of the threat. However, they signal to the single -intermediary- machine by a pre-arranged code. One machine will appear to leave the formation carelessly, and lose height. This will act as a signal to the intermediary aircraft, which will in turn signal to the main formation, which is standing by just out of sight. ”
The man with the potbelly seemed very immobile. His aide’s hopes rose again.
“All the bait has to do is hang on for a few hectic minutes. In the confusion of battle, the main formation has a sporting chance of sneaking down and swatting the blighters! Like that! ” He smacked a fist expressively into the palm of his hand, and upset his glass over his trousers with his elbow.
“Oh, damn! ”
In the resultant confusion, the ancient butler moved forward quickly to repair the damage, and the man with the potbelly seemed to start suddenly. Scar-face, appraising the situation quickly, decided to sum up the plan quickly for the benefit of the general.
He ended by remarking: “Seems a good plan to me. What do you think? ” This to the bear-like man. The latter licked his lips thoughtfully, and the small eyes studied Rimmell thoughtfully from beneath his small, receding forehead.
Rimmell wondered, not for the first time, how this man who said so little, had ever risen to such exalted rank.
What thoughts brooded behind those small eyes?
The bear-like man nodded slowly: “It’s a good plan, provided… ” He scowled, and looked suspiciously at Rimmell, “…provided it is executed with utter determination. ” He smiled suddenly. A weird expression, Rimmell decided. The bear-like wagging finger only added to the incongruous picture: “And no parachutes! ”
The bear-like man laughed, and Scar-face joined in heartily. The man with the potbelly laughed more quietly.
Rimmell knew he had the go ahead. Major Baxter would be at least partially pleased…
It was getting late. Colonel Rimmell stood up, and made his farewells. The other men remained seated. Scar-face had a last instruction for the Colonel. “Give McAllister my best regards, will you, Rimmell? We were at the same school, you know “, he added knowingly. He could have added, more to the point, that they belonged to the same secret society as well, but refrained from doing so. Rimmell was not a member, nor would he ever be. “And watch McAllister, Rimmell. A good man, you’ll see… We might consider him for promotion soon, eh? ” Rimmell, surprised, started to mutter something inconsequential, thinking to himself: “McAllister? Ready for a step up? “.
But he was interrupted by a voice from the chair nearest the fire. It was a resoundingly clear voice, that had not been heard for several hours.
“I don’t think so. Not yet, anyway! ” The general’s face appeared around the high sides of the comfortable chair, and he winked boyishly at Rimmell, who stared in disbelief. The old boy was not that fast asleep!
Scar-face carefully ensured that not a trace of irritation showed on his face, and showed all his teeth in his best smile. His thoughts however, were substantially different.
The bear-like man showed no emotion at all.
The ancient butler showed the visitor out, and bid Colonel Rimmell goodnight. Then he shut the door quietly, and made his way slowly up the stairs, back to his post in the shadows.
He thought -as he often did- of his grandson, fighting the war in the sky in the French cause. Poor little Charles. He was such a beautiful boy when he was little.
And now? Risking life and limb every day. A hardened soldier. The ancient butler shook his head. He was proud of the Nungesser name, and proud of the fame his grandson had brought the family. Still…
The old man paused wearily at the top of the stairs, and thought of the loving little boy who had played on his knee, and demanded to be bounced up and down.
He had only wanted to grow up and ride horses in the cavalry. Now… Now he rode horses in the sky.
And killed people. Routinely.
The old man sighed.
He missed the little boy, who was lost, and gone, forever.