Friday, 13 May 2016

Chapter Seven. The air dragoons.

The hangar was a tremendous barn of a place, brick-walled and tin-roofed - much more solid and permanent seeming than the Bessoneau hangars I’d seen in France, which were simply tents with ideas above their station. This was more like a stable, and the wooden shacks built for storage along the inside of its walls had a loose-box feel to them. But no horse had ever needed stabling on this immense scale. In the plains I would have wondered whether it had once held elephants, in the days - not so very long ago, after all - when the heavy guns of the Raj had been pulled to the battlefield by a bull elephant each, with twenty yoke of oxen standing by to take up the traces when the shelling got too heavy and too close. Elephants were still in use across India, of course, and even in England I had seen pictures in the Press of the Sheffield ironworks that had mobilised a pair from the town Zoo to haul castings from the foundry to the lathe halls. 

But heavy artillery was towed by tractor now; and here with the mountains overshadowing us and walling off half the sky, pregnant with a burden of snow clouds and pent-up freezing air like a dammed river, no sane army would have considered elephants as a weapon of war. They had given way to the building’s new occupant.

Its wings stretched almost across the width of the hangar. Every ‘plane I had seen before had had a sort of toylike quality - a little bamboo and wire, some stretched fabric and a tiny motor, the sort of thing a child might build and fling up into the air in the garden for a brief and jerking flight before it ran down and fluttered to earth. This was solid, a steam locomotive by comparison - if the idea wasn’t absurd I’d have thought it made of metal rather than wood and cloth. The nose of it was blunt and rounded like the bow of a tugboat, with a Lewis gun mounted above it. The two engines, braced between the deep, strongly cambered wings, were plough oxen compared to the flimsy aero engines I had seen in the past, a heavy engine-block gleaming between two swept-back exhaust manifolds, and the airscrews looked a clear eight feet wide. The struts separating the upper and lower wings had a sort of tapered edge to the rear, so they were teardrop-shaped in cross section rather than round, but they looked as big as pit props. Aft of the cockpit, which nestled in the lee of its angled windscreen, was another Lewis gun cocked up to the rear, and under it the humped back of the fuselage stretched and tapered to a sturdy-looking tail fin, bearing the RFC roundel in bold colours which stood out against the dark grey-brown of the rest of the ‘plane’s skin - and the same roundel, surmounted with a bold swastika, the broken-armed cross that serves as a Hindu good-luck charm, was beneath the rim of the cockpit.

“This isn’t, strictly speaking, an English ‘plane, you see,” Khan added. “Not any more. Have a closer look.”

I was no aviator, and I’d barely come within a hundred yards of a ‘plane before - except for the occasional raider which had flown low, roaring and smoking, over my head in France - but I followed his gesture and stepped closer to the darkly gleaming body of the craft.

“Take a sniff, sir.”

I was startled, but did as I was bid. Petrol and mineral oil, grease, dust from the hangar…

“No dope, you see. When she and her sisters came over from England their skins were Irish linen, coated in dope - a sort of chemical varnish that smells of pear drops. Every hangar in England and France reeks of the stuff, for you have to keep re-proofing them if you don’t want the linen to rot. 

“We stripped them down to their frames as soon as we got our hands on them. And now - look at them. That’s a native varnish coating the new skin - half a dozen different resins and gums and a few other secrets that the old fellows who boil it up won’t tell anyone but a blood relative. And the skin itself isn’t linen any more - that’s Bengal silk. The varnish stops it from rotting and gives it a little more stretch, and it’s far lighter than the old stuff.”

He knocked a pair of clips loose and swung open a framed panel in the side of the fuselage.
“And look at this too,” he said, his speech quickening and his accent starting to blur the edges of his words. “The main structural members - these frames here - are still ash wood, but we stripped out all the stringers between them and replaced them with laminates. And the same on the wings, and on the wing struts, and even the airscrews. That’s not just wood there, it’s layers of maple and horn and sinew, glued together. Not built here of course - that’s cow horn, and no man in Bengal would work with it for fear of losing caste. These parts were built for us up in the Punjab. By bowyers.” He brought out the antique word with a certain pride. “What you’re seeing here is a Mongol horse-archer’s composite bow, built the way it’s been built for a thousand years -”  ‘thousand’ slipped into ‘t’ousand’ and there was a slurred drag to ‘years’ as his accent got the better of him - “but in the shape of an aeroplane.”

He straightened his tunic and tugged again at the belt which seemed determined to sag down to one side.

“Even the shape is different. We’ve given her longer wings for better lift at high altitudes, and faired in the cockpit and the struts to reduce drag. We couldn’t do much for the engines, so they’re pretty much as Rolls-Royce built them. Maybe in twenty years’ time we’ll be building Indian engines to match our Indian birds; for now, we’re keeping these ones as well tuned as we can. The mountings are home-grown, though - Indian steel. And those Lewis guns were built in the Dum-Dum Arsenal, as it happens.”

“A lot of work for a bomber,” I commented.

“Ah yes. But look under the wings. No bomb racks.”

He was right - I couldn’t understand how I’d missed that.

“And that hump in the fuselage wasn’t there before - “ he pointed at a rounded ridge running down the length of the aircraft’s back. “Get in, Colonel. Please. We built her and her sisters with smaller men than you in mind, but I think you should find there’s room.”

There was - barely. Inside the fuselage a narrow wooden grating served as a floor to keep my feet off the frames and stringers and the silk skin below them, and the hump provided a little extra headroom - but my back was still bent double like a miner’s. Strung along the sides I found a couple of handropes which served to keep my balance lest I pitch over and crash through the side. I shuffled along towards the nose of the ‘plane and craned around to see Khan’s head behind me against the lighted square of the hatch. 

“A tight fit, sir. But we could fit twelve men in light order in here at a push.” It didn’t seem credible; they would have to be packed like sardines in a tin. “This ‘plane and the three others could move a platoon, and they have done, several times, on exercises around the foothills here. A platoon of a completely new kind of fighting man - not a simple infantryman, not an airman, for he won’t actually fight in the air, but an airborne trooper, a sort of aerial dragoon. In Europe it would be useless - it’s a war of divisions and army corps, and a single platoon would be swallowed up - but out here in the mountains there’s still a lot you can do with a small body of hard men, arriving without warning and without use of the roads and passes. The moral impact, you see, of the enemy realising suddenly that he is safe nowhere. By this time next year, if London and Delhi give us the airframes, we’ll be moving a company in a single lift.”

He withdrew his head and I shuffled painfully back down towards the hatch and unfolded myself through it on to the hangar floor. 

“You should come and meet them, actually. I understand from Lurgan Sahib that you may be joining them on a little journey.”

Khan’s ‘aerial dragoons’ were, as he had said, small men. I am no taller than the average Englishman, but not a man of them came higher than my shoulder. They had clearly just come back from the gallery range - the familiar scent of smoke and oil hung in the air of their barrack room, and a couple of them were still pulling their barrels through. Their high-pitched chatter died away sharply as we walked into the room and their subedar, emerging suddenly from his little cubby at the end of the building, called them to attention in a single bark in which no words - English or Gurkhali - were readily discernible.

“Three Platoon, D Company, Second/Second Gurkhas,” Khan remarked casually. “Carry on, Subedar.”

The subedar  - there didn’t seem to be a white officer in charge - pulled himself even more upright, and stalked down the centre of the room between the two lines of charpoys. 

“Platoon commander Subedar Karanbahadur Gurung, colonel sahib,” he choked out in a sort of subdued parade-ground bark. “This is One Section command Naik Lal Gurung. This is Three Section command Havildar Thaman Gurung. This is Two Section acting command Lance Naik Kul Gurung. Four Section command Naik Tej Gurung. This is platoon havildar Lalbahadur Gurung.” Broad faces, narrow faces, eyes tightened by the weather or still open with youth… forty individuals, just as different from each other as any platoon of Highlanders I had had under my command, but, just as the Jocks were, all indefinably but unmistakably made from the same unyielding raw material.

Khan put in: “And this is Colonel Sahib Hannay.”

“That could be confusing, sahib,” the subedar replied. “We will probably call you Gurung to keep things simple.” 

Not a flicker, not a move on any face in the room. The subedar’s expression was as immobile as a mask. I had heard exactly the same joke from the Jocks in my first battalion, except half of them had been called “Mackay” - it gave me a feeling that I had fallen into the right sort of company.

But our party had much ground to make up. Volkoff had clearly not been at the monastery six weeks before - the A.D.O. and his party, to say nothing of the pundits, could not have missed him. The last caravan to go through before Younger’s ill-fated salt traders had left barely two weeks ago. And no one moved fast through the Tolong La.

But, as Khan explained, unrolling a map disturbingly rich in white spaces and question-marked elevations, even by air our journey to the distant monastery would neither be an easy nor a quick one.

“For a start,” he said, “we have no idea whether or not there is enough flat ground nearby to the monastery on which to land. And if we land we will need more room in which to take off again or we will be stuck there until spring - as we will be if we catch a wingtip or tuck in a wheel on landing. However, that is unlikely to be our main obstacle, since it’s very uncertain we can fly high enough to get over the pass on the way, and certainly we won’t be able to do so while carrying enough fuel to get there - let alone get back.”

This sounded grim. I was afire to catch “Captain John” and his cohorts - the looming arcs of pass and ridge reminded me too bitterly of my failure at the St. Eusebius - and Khan was not improving my hopes of recouping the ground I had lost with Calloway’s death.

“But I think we can make it work,” he continued, and grinned unexpectedly. Indian aristocrats weren’t supposed to grin like that.

We bent our heads again over the map.

“The problem isn’t the distance over the ground - it’s the height of the ridges we have to cross, and the effective operational ceiling of the ‘planes. We can’t simply fly up the Tolong La itself - the valley is too narrow as you get near the gut of the pass, the wind would carry us into the sides. We’ll have to fly up this valley here, to the east, which means we are then crossing over these two ridgelines to reach the Tolong La itself where it widens out again, around the monastery. And we don’t really even have a clear idea of how high the ridges are. The surveyors noted spot heights, and the summits of the passes, but the ridges between one valley and the next are pretty much ignored. Still, we have some elevation sketches that allow us to make reasonable guesses.”

This did not sound like a hopeful prospect.

“This is going to take several days. From these elevations” - he pulled out a sheaf of pencil sketches which persisted in trying to roll themselves up again if left unattended, and weighted them down with various engine parts (we had commandeered one of the fitters’ benches) - “from these elevations, we should be able to push one of our ‘planes with a light load over the first of these ridges. But it would barely have enough fuel to land on the other side - it certainly couldn’t push all the way from here, over both ridgelines, to the monastery. Or rather it could, but it would have to be stripped right down - certainly couldn’t carry any passengers or cargo. We could fly over the  monastery and have a look, but that’s all.”

The plan, as we evolved it on that oil-stained bench, reminded me of the accounts I had read in the press of Captain Scott’s bid for the South Pole before the war, with its painful preliminaries of depot-laying and route-finding followed by the final assault on the Pole itself - or for that matter of the building-up of shell dumps and pavĂ© roads before a big push on the Front - and I hoped that our own project might have a happier outcome. I was aghast at first when Khan spoke of the journey taking days. I had envisaged a few hours’ flying at most. But if Volkoff, as it seemed, had dived into the Tolong La just before the snows closed it, he was still at least a week away from his goal. We had, for the first time in this infernal chase, time to spare.

Like Scott, we would need to lay our depots with care. The first push would use eight sorties - two from each ‘plane - to shuttle fuel and the heavier weapons and ammunition up our wider approach glen, and over the first ridge to what seemed to be a flat area of hard, wind-packed snow where a landing should be possible with care - we christened this Cache Valley. We would carry forward food and tents to Cache Valley as well, so that any forced landing would not be fatal to the stranded crew - there was every chance that they would be able to march out on snowshoes, or to stay where they were in relative safety until a relief party could march to reach them overland and bring them out.  All of this would have to be preceded by a single-’plane reconnaissance of Cache Valley, to check that the landing ground was still in existence, first by flying low over it to inspect it by eye, then by checking the hardness of the snow by “the proven method in mountain aviation; we will drop a rock on it”. 

Once all this had been achieved, we would bring forward our platoon of Gurkha aerial dragoons to Cache Valley, in ‘planes otherwise stripped down to the bare minimum weight and fuel. They would land at Cache Valley, refuel and load up, and take off for the leap over the second ridge into the Tolong La. 

Where, of course, we would be landing blind. If there was nowhere broad enough in the valley of the Tolong La to land, could we claw our way back over the second ridge and return to Cache Valley? “If we dumped the heavy cargo, and the reserve fuel… oh, yes, I think so. Probably, anyway,” Khan said. “Depends on the wind really - the air over these ridges can be rather brutal. If not, we can always fly back down the Tolong La as far as we can get before it narrows, and look for somewhere else to land - we’ll have the range, and there’s bound to be enough room to get down somewhere in the pass. Even if we can’t take off again.”

In the teeth of Younger’s apoplectic objections, I ordered a caravan put together, with a company of mountain-trained infantry attached, to set off and push as far into the Tolong La as it could go, dumping supplies at intervals. If we ended up in a forced landing somewhere down the valley, it would be useful to know that our rescue force had already set off. And there was always a chance that they could make it all the way to the monastery - and either relieve us if we had succeeded, or take the monastery if we had failed. I put their officer - a piratical-looking Borderer - in the picture the evening before he left, and made no bones about the chances of success for our aerial move. He would be two or three days behind Volkoff, and with any luck he would be able to force the monks to put him on the man’s trail again. 

Wherever he was going. The more I thought about it, the less sense this plan made - and the bigger seemed to bulk the objections that had first come to mind in Zurich, as we pored over the deciphered message in the Haertland Mathieu offices. Why, if you wanted to move a man from Zurich to Moscow or Petrograd, would you try to do it first via Turkey and then via India? Why plan to take him a thousand miles out of his way and then, when that failed, drag him halfway round the world by ship and then across a thousand miles of British territory - when surely a neutral passport and a berth on a tramp steamer from Sweden or Norway would serve as well? Norway was a playground for secret agents from all sides, and Russian customs hardly made a hermetic seal around the country… certainly not for an experienced revolutionary with a veteran German intelligence officer as his handler! What on earth were the Germans playing at? If they had taken Volkoff north, he would have been home in Russia in a couple of weeks. Now here we were, months after the Light of Sar had burned to death in Constantinople and O’Hara died in that chilly room in Whitby, and Volkoff was further from Moscow than he had been when he started. 

Khan and his pilots were caballing over loading plans and takeoff runs and likely wind speeds, and I kept returning to the question like a hound trying to chew the last scraps of meat from a bone. Had we misjudged their plan after all? Originally, of course, O’Hara had assumed that the Shield Order meant to raise a rebellion in India. Then he had fallen in with the Light of Sar, on his journey west, and learned (while in the guise of the Indian renegade Rao) that Russia was the target.

Had the Light of Sar lied? 

Surely he had not seen through O’Hara’s disguise; O’Hara would have been killed on the spot were that the case. Or, more likely, O’Hara would have survived the Light of Sar’s attempt to kill him and counter-attacked. Sly though the monk was, O’Hara was one of the old man’s picked hands, and such were not easily deceived; unlikely that any novice would be able to hoodwink such a tiercel. 

No, O’Hara had not been deliberately fed a false story to take back to British ears. But perhaps the Light of Sar had lied out of general principle. O’Hara had rated him as cunning and clever; it was odd, when you thought about it, for such a man, engaged on a secret errand, to spill his story to a recent acquaintance on the road. Very odd.

Or perhaps the Light of Sar had simply been misinformed. Go to Constantinople and meet the Russian there. Perhaps the German plan had been to let the Light of Sar make his entire journey under a false apprehension, and be told in Constantinople we apologise for misinforming you, we have no need for you to take this man into Russia; actually, what we require of you is this…

That made sense as well. Why tell a garrulous foreign monk your secrets if you didn’t have to? What he didn’t know he couldn’t betray.

But, then, what was the real reason? What would the German secret service do with an exiled Russian revolutionary except smuggle him into Russia? 

Well, Russia was large, after all. Maybe the target was Russia, but not Moscow. Volkoff had spent his time in Siberia like any good revolutionary - for a previous alias, he’d even named himself after one of the great rivers of Siberia. Maybe the plan was to raise not an urban revolt in Moscow or Kiev or Petrograd, but a true rebellion in the backwoods of Siberia. There was space enough, and towns full of exiles - and camps full of Austrian-Hungarian and German prisoners of war who could be armed and led to support them. For that matter, the Tsar himself had had some success raising regiments from the Czechs and Slovaks among the thousands of Austrian army prisoners he held. Was this the plan - to set a fire in the heart of the Tsar’s Asian empire, and raise an army to storm west and tear into the cities and farms of European Russia? Did our asiatische revolutionary see himself not as a new Danton or Robespierre, but a new Genghis or Timur, with the Light of Sar lending him a cloak of holiness for the benefit of the horsemen of the Mongol steppes of Transbaikal?

That would explain their choice of route - perhaps from Constantinople he would have headed across the Caucasus to the Caspian, and from there into the deserts of central Asia. The devil of a journey, but with the Light of Sar as his escort, not impossible… it made sense. We had been guilty of a European focus - the wealth and industry of Russia, its cities and arsenals and factories, were all in European Russia, but at the back of every Russian mind was the indelible race memory of the centuries under the Mongol yoke. Let the word go out that a German-Austrian army had risen up like soldiers from sown dragon’s teeth in the middle of Siberia, and that its outriders were the terrible horsemen of the Khan of the Blue Sky… that would shake Russia from end to end.

I flew into Cache Valley with the third lift. Packed into the fuselage, as far forward as possible, were tin containers of petrol, roped into place and cushioned with kapok pads. Denser cargo - ammunition for the Lewis guns, tentage, and fitters’ tools - were wedged in around the pilot’s seat to keep the centre of gravity forward and stop the tail dragging. I packed myself in with my back against the petrol tins. No way to see out - over the mound of equipment, if I craned my neck round, I could peer up through the cockpit opening past the pilot and glimpse grey sky and moments of sunshine, but nothing of the mountains.
Little enough of the grace of flying of which Peter Pienaar and his friends had spoken. Every piece of mountain gear I could scrounge, I was wearing, and the extra bulk had wedged me into the fuselage as though it had been built around me. The air inside was freezing and stank of petrol, grease and the resinaceous varnish Khan had been so proud of. The takeoff run was long, and as the bomber unstuck and swayed into the air it creaked and groaned like a tall ship - and then staggered round in one circle after another, the light shifting around the inside of the ‘plane as we spiralled up to gain height enough to pass over the first ridge. The linen skin of the fuselage was dimpled  by the airstream over it, and rippled and thumped alarmingly as the airflow detached when we ran into turbulence or a downdraught.
The swaying of the aircraft, and its occasional lurches and drops when it flew into turbulence, was nauseating combined with the machine stink of its inside. I peered up as much as I could at the sky outside and tried to calm my roiling stomach, but with little avail. Fortunately the flight wasn’t long - after our long spiral upwards to gain height over the pass, we had just a short climb, engines screaming to gain the last few feet of height in the thin freezing air as we skimmed over the rim of the valley, the slices of clouded sky replaced for a few heart-stopping instants by rock and ice, far too close - then I could almost feel the pilot exhale with relief as he closed the throttle and set us into the long shallow descent towards landing. 

It was my first ascent in an aeroplane, and I left it pale and ridden with sickness and fatigue, on the great expanse of hard-packed, wind-smoothed snow that spanned the whole width of Cache Valley. Two other bombers were already perched at the downwind end, among a clutter of bundled supplies; the wind was not fierce, by mountain standards, but it was tearing a constant sandstorm of ice crystals from the surface of the snowfield and sending them rushing past us, so that we seemed to be knee-deep in fast-flowing milky water, its streams dividing and flowing around our legs as we stood there. The sky was overcast but almost too bright to look at - for all the cold, we seemed here to be closer to the sun. A line of swaddled figures, bent against the wind, dragged out petrol and oil to tend our engines. The fourth and last of our ‘planes darted into view over the crest of the ridge, its slipstream tearing up a great turmoil of snow and ice behind it, bright in a sudden burst of sunlight.

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