Thursday, 12 May 2016

Chapter Eight. The departure from the mountains.

We lifted again an hour later. Assaults should be launched at dawn, the rawest platoon commander knew that without looking in his field service pocketbook - but we could not fly at night, nor easily survive a night in the open outside the monastery. So our flight in was planned for just after noon, when the turbulence in the valley would be at its lowest ebb, and we would have a few hours for the approach and assault before night fell. And we would have the luxury of overwhelming force. The monks and caravaneers would have nothing more than cutlasses and a few matchlocks, if our information was correct; we would have modern magazine rifles, Mills bombs, Hales rifle grenades and Lewis guns. Ten years previously the Younghusband expedition had shown the monk-warriors of Tibet how little their holiness and martial arts would avail against conical bullets; the battles outside Lhasa had been little more than slaughters. I hoped that the lesson had spread to the colleagues of the Light of Sar; whatever their petty venality, even if they had been bribed into the Kaiser’s service, I had no wish to scatter them in the snow at the summit of the Tolong La.

With a section of Gurkhas packed into the fuselage of each ‘plane, I had been given the gunner’s seat in the very nose of my aircraft. The pilot behind me had a little windshield to crouch behind; I had no such shelter save the Lewis gun on its pintle mount in front of me. The scarf over my mouth and nose had started to freeze almost immediately, and now formed a stiff shield like the bevor of a knight in armour; it pushed against the lenses of my goggles when I shifted position.

But beyond the ice-rimmed glass lenses the mountains were spectacular, and I began to see at last why so many flyers seemed to walk everywhere they went with their heads turned upwards - the wind whipped streamers of ice from every crest and summit, and the rock seemed coal-black where it broke through the unmarked snow.
Behind us - I could just see between the bulk of the cockpit and the engine on the wing beside it - the other three ‘planes swayed and surged in a rough line behind us. And ahead --

We stooped down on the monastery out of the grey sky, in what felt to me, hunched in the nose of the lead ‘plane, like a helpless plummet. I gripped the base of the pintle mount as hard as I could - a gust caught us under the tail, flicking the nose down further still until the pilot caught us. Between us and the grey buildings of the monastery, nothing but broken ground, boulders fallen from the sides of the valley, streaks of snow in the lee of each one. But on the other side, what looked like a frozen lake. The pilot’s clenched fist pounded on my shoulder, and when I turned he jabbed a mittened hand down in its direction - the monastery slipped beneath us as we headed towards the lake, which looked to be almost a mile further off. Far enough, through the snow, possibly under fire. My comfortable assumptions about our superior arms suddenly seemed less tenable, and the cold hollow feeling that seized me was not entirely the fault of the freezing air; I recognised the narrowing focus of my mind, and the sudden dryness of my mouth, from a score of attacks and patrols over the last two years. I took a firmer grip on the Lewis gun mount.

Without the luxury of a reconnaissance (or even Khan and his rock-dropping), we knew that the landing in the Tolong La would be dicey. In fact it was utter chaos. As we levelled out and skimmed low over the lake, I braced myself as far back in my seat as I could - we were coming in nose-high, but not too high, for if the tail-skid touched first disaster would follow - and we hit with a tremendous thump that sent us into the air again in an eruption of snow as though a mortar had gone off. We staggered and seemed to drop a wingtip, then levelled again just in time for our second landing, the frames creaking and protesting around me and the surface ahead a mere indistinct blur under haze and blowing ice. The ground battered at us as we touched down again and I was flung from one side to the other apparently out of control, our overload cargo giving us far too much momentum to stop easily. Only with the rocks at the lake edge far too close did we finally rumble to a halt, one half of the undercarriage already sunk in a drift of softer snow and the wingtip almost brushing the surface of the ice and the engines died and left only the wind and creaking snow in our ears.

The pilot - Major Khan himself, leading his dragoons into battle as he should - was leaning back in his cockpit when I turned to look at him, what I could see of his face and the set of his shoulders betraying utter exhaustion. I levered myself out of the gunner’s seat, blood returning to my cramped feet and legs, and floundered my way through the snow to the fuselage door to let the troops out on the scent.

I paused after swinging the door back to watch the others come in to land on our traces. Khan had stirred himself to stand up in his seat now, leaning against the edge of the upper wing as he stared back past the tailplane along the furrows left by our landing gear. The other three had watched us land, trailing round in a great loop overhead as we went in; now the second aircraft tipped its wings left and right and began its own approach.

I had not realised what the landing would look like from outside. From my perch in the gunner’s seat I had seen nothing of what happened behind my ‘plane; watching the second aircraft land, it looked like a steam ship’s boiler had burst. The tiny fragile structure of wings and engines was dwarfed by a mountainous plume boiling up behind it, an instant ice storm thrown up by the wash from its airscrews and the wake behind its tail. That was why the others had circled; not cynically watching to see whether we would crash, but waiting for this tremendous upheaval to be blown clear by the wind or fall back to earth.

The ‘plane, of course, was landing into the wind, so the snow and ice it threw up blew directly away from us, and the wind whipped it up into fantastic spires and sheets before it fell back again. The landing run - more of a skid - wasn’t as smooth as ours, and the ‘plane slewed suddenly to the left as it hit a patch of softer snow, before jarring to a halt fifty yards from us, shuddering as its airscrews slowed and stopped. The hatch in its flank popped open and a clump of stocky khaki figures tumbled out, carbines in hand. Two of them doubled round to the nose and dismounted the ‘plane’s Lewis gun, and joined the others as they waded towards us through the drifting snow.

The third ‘plane landed without incident, but the fourth, halfway through its landing run, dug a wingtip into the snow and jerked itself up onto its nose with the tail cocked at a ludicrous angle, like a child’s seesaw, in a great smother of snow and snapping of spars. We hurried over as fast as we could - it had come to rest fairly close by - and we were not far from the skewed wreck when it groaned and swung its tail reluctantly back down to the ice. The engines were steaming as they boiled away the snow that stuck to their casings, and the pilot’s face was half-covered with powdered snow through which blood from a broken nose was rapidly seeping. He was pawing vaguely at his mouth and nose with a mittened hand, and one of the other pilots clambered into the cockpit to help him. In front, the gunner’s position was crushed in on one side - fortunately this ‘plane had flown without a gunner.

The troops in the rear were, of course, uninjured and unworried, and climbed out exchanging muttered hissing jokes in Gurkhali, presumably at the pilot’s expense - they must have been tumbled into a heap when the ‘plane tipped up, but none of them seemed in the least concerned.

Up on the ridge above the frozen lake, the snow was not as deep, just an inch of powder over a hard layer of frozen pack, and we moved well, strung out in a loose skirmish line. We formed a shallow V, with two of the Lewis guns, the subedar and myself right behind the tip - the other two guns were one on each flank, at the ends of the wings, and the platoon havildar and Khan and a couple of riflemen bringing up the rear.

Still eight hundred yards away from the monastery, moving fast up a gentle slope as the walls of the valley narrowed in towards us, we heard the first bullets - the reports of their firing were lost in the wind, but we heard the whish as they flew over our heads, and one or two struck the snow well in front of us. The Gurkhas didn’t even falter - I checked back over my shoulder, and Khan was keeping up, a carbine in hand, the shock of the landing not obviously affecting him. Or at least not yet.

Six hundred yards and I realised that the ground ahead of me was dipping - white on white, with no shadows and the whirling snow to confuse us, we only noticed as we stumbled downwards into a hollow of dead ground. The subedar halted and took a knee, glaring ahead through tinted goggles for a better idea of the land, and then punched out a series of quick hand signals that sent our left flank plowtering forward through suddenly-deeper snow, while the rest of the platoon stayed still. The line of little bundled figures slowed as they climbed out of the dead ground again, and then halted, kneeling at the top of the rise while the subedar brought his right flank up to join them.

As we came out of the dead ground the monastery was suddenly shockingly close, not more than two hundred yards away, and from under its eaves a stutter of fire greeted us. This was no scatter of random fire - this was concerted musketry and the snow burst up in florets around us. No more insouciance from the Gurkhas - the subedar jerked out a series of commands and brought the Lewis guns into action, while one of the riflemen accompanying Khan floundered up to join us and started fiddling with a Hales rifle grenade, mounting it to the muzzle of the full-size rifle that he carried.

The first Hales bomb burst well short, kicking up snow under the walls of the monastery, but the second hit squarely on the roof and blew a cloud of tiles and dust into the air. The rifle grenadiers were not trying to hit the embrasures under the eaves - no doubt the monastery’s walls were feet thick - but to bring down the roof on top of them and drive the monastery’s defenders out with secondary fragmentation. Five more blasts, and the Lewis gunners were all four in action now, pelting the embrasures with streams of fire. The defenders’ fire was slackening now and I could see trickles of smoke rising from the shattered roof - Khan’s Lewis guns were firing a mixture of ball and incendiary rounds and the roof timbers, exposed by the blast of the Hales bombs, had caught light.

The subedar grunted and slipped a little way down the slope beside me - a bullet had torn into his arm and blood was soaking into the snow beside him, but he looked more irritated than anything else, and yelled out a couple of commands to the rifle grenadiers and gunners before rolling onto his back and gesturing at one of his flank sections with his good arm. Smoke poured from under the walls of the monastery - the grenadiers were putting down chemical smoke to screen the assault - and behind it half of the platoon rose and ran forwards in the crouching sprint that every trench soldier recognises. Crash of more grenades from under the walls as the assaulters bombed their way in, and a whistle blast called the rest of us forward through the acrid smoke and into the monastery.

We pushed in through an iron-bound door at the foot of the wall - the snow, piled high around the monastery’s other sides, was shallow here, and it seemed that we had made our approach from the downwind side. The monastery’s inhabitants had not taken any defensive steps; a competent defender would have barricaded the door, and any other opening on the ground floor, but as far as I could tell the door had not even been bolted. Slit windows covered by thick shutters let in very little light, and the blast of the bombs - and the rising wind - had blown out most of the fat-lamps on the walls, so we moved almost in darkness down the too-narrow corridors. Most of the Gurkhas had slung their carbines once inside the monastery, and held kukris or clubs or grenades in their fists instead. Khan and I had revolvers out; the subedar too, left-handed with his right arm thrust into the breast of his jacket and bloodied to the shoulder below a field dressing. Twice, as we pressed on, there was yelling from in front, followed by the stunning blast of a Mills bomb; three times, the yelling died away to be replaced by the butcher-noise of hand-to-hand fighting. Two wounded Gurkhas were passed back along the corridors to the havildar’s station near the entry point, to join two more who had been winged during the final dash to the walls; none dead yet as far as I could tell.

We cleared the stinking little cells in which the monks slept and ate, the cellars in which their grain and butter was stored; we herded back prisoners, robes tattered, wide-eyed and deafened or shocked by the attack, and pushed them into one of the larger cellars, and put a couple of men on the door. A couple of the monastery’s servants attempted defiance; one of the naiks put them down with two quick blows from a carbine butt. A section went up a little winding staircase into the upper gallery, roof shattered and snow whirling in, and retrieved the bodies of the defenders; not monks, definitely not, in European alpinist’s clothing, and with either the dark skin and curling hair of Bengalis or the fair skin of Europeans, and Mauser ‘98 rifles and scattered brass cartridge cases lying beside them. The remains of the Shield Order, tracked to its end at last; the documents in their pockets would no doubt have much of interest.

Squatting in the centre of the monastery’s courtyard, the temple building looked like a castle’s keep; but no one fired on us as we dashed in by twos. The outer monastery had been a squalid warren of a place, with some corridors barely more than shoulder-wide - the temple was built on a grander scale, with its walls deep-carved with gods and demons, painted and gilded, and its beamed ceilings fifteen clear feet high. The stink was as strong here, but different - rancid butter, gunsmoke and unwashed humanity in the outer buildings; incense, burning herbs and woodsmoke here, with a metallic undertone like an overheated petrol engine or the ozone stink of a dynamo arcing. Some of the Gurkhas unslung carbines and held them at the hip as we advanced; Khan checked his revolver’s load, flicked it closed, open, checked it again.

A line of three ante-chambers, all empty, and we left open the great ceiling-high double doors connecting each to the next, light from the outdoors pouring down with the wind and snow, steps down from each one to the next so that the third must have been ten feet below ground level; behind the last, we could hear a murmur of voices. The subedar, his face tight against the pain of his wound, motioned four men forwards - looking around at the rest, I realised that we must have taken more casualties than I had thought; barely twenty were left from the forty-odd who had landed. The doors swung back and grey winter light streamed into the temple’s inner sanctum and bleached out the greasy light of the lamps strung from its ceiling in smoky clusters.

A domed room, unadorned, walls plastered and stained, stinking of fat-smoke; a cluster of robed monks on the uneven rock floor; by the walls, a few Europeans, warmly-clad and armed. In the centre of the floor, another; bare-headed and bald, eyes covered by goggles, he turned his head to us as we came in, the light reflecting back from the lenses over his eyes - and then he lowered his head, turned away - and flickered out and was suddenly gone.

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